Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Two

The last time someone from Rae's past recognized her was in Branson, Missouri, a place whose reputation fascinated her because of her passion for country music. But that was not the reason we were there.

We'd already put down a deposit on the place in Sacramento where we were presently staying. The house, a three-bedroom stucco Mediterranean with a rose garden, was a major departure from our usual living arrangements in motels, furnished apartments, and the the occasional mobile home park. Rae liked to browse the classified ads in The New York Review of Books. This one caught her attention immediately. We were at the Mount Rose Crest motel in Sparks, Nevada, enjoying off-season rates on a two-room combo with a Pullman kitchen. "Listen to this," she called from the bed. "'Hist. prof going on sabbatical will rent 3-br home in Oak Park section Sacramento. Near campus amenities, good neighborhood. Nine-month lease or even trade for lodgings in so. France.' Does Sacramento fit our profile."

I was in the kitchen, working at my laptop while waiting for coffee to percolate. "Does it ever," I said at the same time wondering who in the south of France would want to trade for life in Sacramento.

We placed a call to the number in the ad. The next day we were in Sacramento, being shown the house by Hist. Prof's wife, a worried looking woman with the deep tan and strong hands of a serious gardener. On or way through the large, old-fashioned kitchen with tiled flooring, Rae nudged me to make sure I saw what appeared to be an antique model gas rage with curved legs, a milky porcelain finish, and black trim. While we were being led out to the garden, Rae whispered, "It would be an experience to live somewhere like this for nine months."

Like a professor and his wife, I thought, but did not speak to it. "We're not budgeted for what they're asking," I reminded her, saying this without reproof, only with regret. The house was solid and comfortable and it was getting to me, too.

Rae nodded. "I have something in mind," she said. With a burst of chatter about her willingness to tend the garden and save the expense of a gardener, Rae got eighty dollars a month knocked off the rent, but that was not her something in mind. After leaving a five-hundred-dollar cash deposit, we treated ourselves to a first-rate Chinese dinner at Fat Frank's and were on our way to Branson the same night.

In Branson, we focused on Rae's prospect by car, the on foot, getting the touristy clamorousness of the city, spending the better part of an afternoon locating what we were after, just off the main thoroughfare, and near one of the many mobile home parks in the southern fringe by the river. We both agreed on the potential and how we would proceed to exploit it.

On our way back to the car, Rae stiffened. "Jesus, not him," she muttered, pulling me into the doorway of a cheap jewelry and souvenir shop, her arm around my waist, her head burrowed into me. It was a good move on her part, but it wasn't fast enough.

I should tell you now that Rae's real name, the one on her birth certificate and in the family bible is Audrey Rae. From the way she tells it, a number of men she didn't like, in and out of her family, called her Audrey or Audrey Rae. No one before me, the way she tells it, called her Rae. She tells me it suits her that I call her Rae. I know how this response from her makes me feel. So does she. We won't go into her last name right now because there isn't much time and because it gets a bit complicated. When we started together, she used the surname Dean, which is probably correct as those things go. About a year ago, she began using my name as well, when she wanted to give the impression we were married. Rae Dean Camden. When I tell her I like the sound of that, she asks me to just leave it alone.

"Of all the damned luck," she hissed as we pretended to be absorbed in a window filled with country music tourist gegaws.

I was aware of a presence behind us, radiating the scent of Lilac Vegetal aftershave. Reflected in the store window I made out a gaunt, sharp-faced man with the pent-up anger of someone who'd seen too many plans fail and too many things get beyond his grasp. "Audrey Rae?" His husky voice had the soft wheedle of a host in a girlie bar.

Rae's hand dug into my arm.

"I thought it was you, Audrey Rae." The man moved near enough to be touching her shoulder. "Isn't no one else could have that look about her." He smiled and closed his eyes for a moment, as though raking in a huge pot. "Every time I see you I'm put in mind of pure maple syrup running down a stack of hotcakes." He was aware of my presence but his focus was all on her. "It's been some time, Audrey Rae. How's things going for you?"

"I'm all right, Troy."

"Oh, I can see that. You always were all right. I'm wondering how things are going."

"I'm married now, Troy." She gave my arm a tug. "This is my husband, Mitch."

"Mitch, huh? " His eyes held her close. "How come you got no ring? Mitch, he didn't give you a wedding ring?"

"It's at the jeweler's getting the stones cleaned."

Troy sucked air between his teeth. "Fancy way of saying it was in pawn?" He made exaggerated nods of sympathy. "Not comfortable having to put the nest egg in pawn, is it?"

I began to see what was coming. First came the sting of dread, then the grasp to myself to overcome it so I could do what had to be done.

Troy took a step back, for the first time acknowledging my presence. "I see how things are going, Mitch. Audrey Rae and I, we go back some." He winked. "No need to keep it all to yourself now, is there Mitch? Plenty for both of us, right?"

There was no way to let Troy's double entendre slide. The punch I threw landed much higher than I expected, catching Troy on the juncture of the nose and forehead, surprising him with its inaccuracy, driving him back a bit, but not doing him any damage. I felt excruciating pain throughout my wrist and forearm. Troy recovered in a moment, set me up with a combination to the stomach and where I'd meant to land my punch on him--the jaw. I was down on my haunches, gasping for breath.

"What I meant," Mr. Troy, the misunderstood nice guy said, extending a hand to me, "was that obviously we're in Branson for the same purpose and we could maybe join forces. Get that wedding ring out of hock a little easier."

"Mitch is a mechanic," Rae said in a burst of exasperation. "He just got his master certificate from Toyota. It authorizes him to do overhauls and warranty maintenance. You got a Toyota, Mitch could maybe tune it for you. We're here to celebrate."

Troy yanked me forth to my feet. I was too intent on getting my breath back for any nuances of observation, but in retrospect my impression is of Troy admiring Rae's story, but doing so with an edge of cynicism. "So you fix Toyotas, huh, Mitch?"

I managed a nod.

"Mitch thinks, Rae said, linking her arm through mine," that Toyotas are the future. You don't hardly see American cars from the Nineties on the street and there's still Toyotas from those days all over."

Troy watched us speculatively, reminding me ot a time at a gas station zoo ad nature show in Kingman, Arizona, when the owner dropped several goldfish into a tank with a snapping turtle. "You should be damned happy you got something like the Toyota to carry your faith, Mitch, cause you can't hit worth shit."

Later at the motel, Rae daubed witch hazel on my jaw and checked me for broken teeth. Sitting on the side of the bed next to me, she took my hands in hers with great solemnity when she completed her inspection. "You shouldn't go swinging at my exes," she said.

"Because I can't hit worth shit?"

"No," she said, "because you could get killed."

We abandoned our plans for Branson, stopping briefly in Springfield and then over the border into Coffeyville, Kansas, to make up for the missed opportunity. (Reading this over, Rae did not wat me to mention Coffeyville, lest this fall into the wrong hands and someone make a connection, but I was so taken with the humor and imagination of it that, as you see, it remains.)

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

oh boy. what did you call it? "the sting of dread", huh?
That sounds about right.