A few posts ago, I gave you not one, but two chapters from a longer story called "Two Ships." Some of you requested more. So for the next few weeks, I'll be posting a chapter at a time, on or about Monday. That's all you need to know, except for the fact that the narrator is not me. This is a work of fiction. Hope you like it.
Thanks for your time.
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The closest I'd ever gotten to Iowa before 1996 was during a cross-country trip I'd made, by bus, in the early 1980s. I'd stayed overnight in a grand old hotel in Chicago, Illinois, which housed a bar with a jazz band, before traveling on toward California.
I'm a tad shaky on geography, so I tend to tag any state north of the Mason-Dixon Line that's also between New York and freakin' Nevada as part of the boring (to me, anyway) “Midwest,” so that includes Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio, Nebraska, Montana, etc.! So to me, Iowa is one of those. And frankly, I probably never would have gone there without a damned good reason.
Well, thanks to the fact that my friend Kelly had a two-pack-per-day cigarette habit while she was alive, I ended up with a "damned good reason." Kelly, who was roughly my age (39, like Jack Benny, ha-freakin'-ha), had been smoking since she was eleven or twelve, and by the time she got around to writing to me, to tell me exactly where she'd ended up after disappearing from New England in the early 1980s, my ex-girlfriend and lifelong buddy was dying from lung cancer and emphysema. It was a toss-up as to which one was going to kill her first.
After canceling everything pressing that I was able to in my own hectic life, and postponing the rest, I'd borrowed my kid sister Julie's Corvette and driven out to Iowa to see Kelly. I got there a couple of days after New Year's Day.
My intention was to offer Kelly a place to stay back in Connecticut, with me, but it was obvious when I arrived that she wasn't going anywhere... anywhere on this plane of existence, anyway. She was already in the hospital.
I only had a couple of weeks with her before she died. Her ex-husband, John, the guy she'd spent the last several years roaming the country with -- long story there, and one I won't bore you with -- handled the funeral arrangements. Thankfully, there were no kids involved, so it was just him, his friends and family (Kelly didn't have many at all), and a very uncomfortable me at the wakes and funeral service. John wasn't a bad guy, just an admittedly poor husband, so he saw to it that I only felt moderately out of place until my final respects were paid and I could zoom out of there, which I did fairly late in the afternoon.
Those last few days, I hadn't slept very much, so I didn't even make it to the state line before I needed to stop for a good night's sleep.
My original expectation had been to stay with Kelly at her apartment, but by the time I got to Iowa, she had no apartment. She was already a permanent resident of the small hospital in which she died. So for me, it was a motel, paid for night by night. That ate up my so-called traveling money pretty well.
Now I was faced with a small supply of $20 traveler's checks that I was counting on to buy me enough food and gasoline to get me back to Connecticut. So, I wondered, what should it be on that first night? Food and cheap lodgings? No food, and cheap lodgings?
Maybe I could find a 24-hour Denny's with a large parking lot. That way, I could fill my stomach and sleep in Julie's 'vette, regardless of the fact that tonight was the first really cold night since I'd gotten to Iowa. Did Iowa even have the Denny's chain, I wondered? One way to find out...
I never did find a Denny's, but sometime well after midnight I did find a truck stop (with a restaurant attached) that was, naturally, open all night. It had a diner-style counter and a few booths.
Typically, I did something stupid before I entered the restaurant itself. I pumped a few dollars into the cigarette machine and grabbed a pack of Winston Lights. I say “stupid” not because of the fact that smoking is, admittedly, a dumb habit, or even the consideration that it had just killed a close friend of mine. Nope, I'm referring to the fact that I've been an on-again, off-again smoker for years -- I'll smoke for a year or two or three, then quit for six months, then start up again for a year and quit for two, and so on -- and right now I was, supposedly, a non-smoker.
Well, I guess that designation would change as soon as I lit one up, right?
It was also stupid that I chose that very moment to buy a pack. I couldn't afford it. Not that anyone really can, in the long run.
I sat at the counter. The waitress, whose name tag read “Denise,” plopped down a one-sided, photocopied, laminated breakfast menu and asked me if I wanted coffee. “Please,” I replied. “Make it a double... and leave the bottle.” She laughed politely and walked away.
From my right, I heard a giggle. I glanced over to see an attractive, thirtyish-looking woman with long dark hair, parted on the left, with a few stray bangs falling haphazardly across her forehead at an angle. She was clothed in the way that I suppose people mean when they say “smartly dressed.” That is, she sure didn't look like she belonged in a truck stop. She was too well-dressed for that. Nothing at all provocative, though. I mean, I'd read stories about truck stop hookers, but this lady certainly wasn't dressed in “that” way.
Besides, do they even have hookers in Iowa? Doubtful. Maybe they fly 'em in from New York or Las Vegas for business conventions, and such?
She wore a long, dark brown skirt with a matching jacket, and a cream-colored, ruffled blouse. On the counter stool to her left she'd draped a tan coat. Its hood and collar were trimmed with some kind of off-white fur, or faux fur.
From five stools away, I couldn't see her too clearly, but she was pretty. Really pretty. Her eyes looked to me to be some dark color, brown or hazel, perhaps. I didn't spend much time looking at them. Too bold, even for me.
I was able to spot that she wore a wedding ring, with a good-sized diamond engagement ring atop it.
Now, before you make too much of the fact that I checked out her left hand for jewelry, let me oh-so-defensively point out that for me, that's force of habit. I hadn't been planning to make a play for her. If this had been a bar or lounge as opposed to an all-night restaurant, well, yeah, maybe. She was damned good-looking, as I've already said.
I looked back at her face. Usually I compare someone to an actress or other celebrity, for ease in description, but I can honestly say she didn't look like anyone I'd ever seen before, famous or otherwise... but she was gorgeous on her own merits.
She seemed a bit self-conscious, maybe because she'd laughed aloud at what was admittedly a very meager joke, or maybe because she felt I was “checking her out.”
Anyway, I smiled and turned back toward Denise, who had brought me a mug of coffee and an ashtray in case I should decide to open the pack of cigarettes which I'd placed on the counter in front of me.
“Ready to order?” she asked me.
I hadn't even glanced at the menu. I scanned it quickly, asking “How many links in a side of sausage?”
“Three.” I studied the price, and glanced up at her with my eyebrows raised. “They're big links...” she added, smiling playfully.
“For that price, they'd better be hot dogs.” She laughed politely again. I wasn't sure if she found my exhausted attempts at humor actually funny, or if she was shilling for a bigger tip.
I didn't see English Muffins anywhere on the menu. “Do you have English Muffins?” She nodded. “How about Swiss cheese?” She pointed at the misspelled “Swiss Cheese Omlett” on the menu. “Great. Hold the omelet, and place a slice of Swiss cheese on each half of a toasted -- not grilled, please -- English Muffin. Side of sausage, and some matches.”
“Do you want the matches with the sausage, or the English Muffin?”
“Now who's the comedian?” I asked. She smiled, and walked away.
While I waited for my food, I opened the pack of cigarettes and took one out. I hadn't had a cigarette in well over a year, so I no longer carried a lighter. As I impatiently waited for Denise to bring me some matches, the pretty lady a few stools away called out, “You're not really going to light that, are you?”
I turned to her and good-naturedly answered, “Eventually... But I promise not to, until the waitress brings me my matches.” She didn't think that was anywhere near as funny as my “leave the bottle” line, judging from the frown on her face.
A few moments later, when Denise handed me a book of matches, I paused before lighting up, and looked over at the lady. She was facing forward, but watching me out of the corner of her eye. I sighed and placed both the matches and the cigarette beside the pack of Winston Lights. I shot a look her way again, and saw a slight smile from her as she continued drinking her coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or whatever.
I wolfed down my English Muffin and the three fair-sized sausage links in record time. Denise kept refilling my coffee, as well as that of the classy-looking young lady. (Yeah, the refills told me that it was coffee that she was drinking.)
A tall, blonde, beefy-looking guy entered the restaurant, and he gave out with a weird sort of hum when he saw the young lady. He boldly walked up to the counter and sat down on her immediate right. “Hey, baby!” he said, cheerfully.
Denise shot him a dirty look. “Bob... Don't...”
Bob laughed at her. “Aw, quit it, Denise! Just bein' friendly.” He leaned over toward the young woman. “What's yer name, honey?”
She was obviously a little frightened. She wouldn't even look at him, which means she faced me. Well, she was faced in my direction, if not exactly looking at me.
I'm not sure why, but I slid off of my stool and ambled over to the two of them, chuckling cheerfully as I said, “Sorry to ruin your night, pal, but Sue's my wife.”
Bob seemed good-natured enough, and not at all menacing, but who knew? He looked up at me, and then over to where my coffee cup and cigarettes rested five seats away, and said “If she's your wife, why aren't you sittin' next to her?”
Still facing away from Bob, the woman's eyes met mine with an exasperated look, as if to say “Yeah! That was stupid!”
Without missing a beat, I said, “Are you kidding? She hates it when I smoke! Won't even let me light up in my own car!”
Bob laughed and said, “Whoa. Dude, you need to grow a pair!”
I forced a laugh and nodded, then looked at the young lady and said, “You ready to go, Sue?” She stood and picked her coat off of the stool next to hers. I grabbed her bill from the counter, and she followed me back to my seat as I picked up mine (as well as my pack of butts), and walked to the nearby cash register. Denise blinked as I handed her a two-dollar tip.
My new “wife” and I walked toward my car. Hers, a late-model station wagon, was only a few parking spaces to the right of my sister's car.
“Hey, thanks,” said “Sue” quietly, right before veering toward her own vehicle.
I turned to acknowledge her, and noticed that back at the restaurant, Bob was standing in the doorway. “Come here!” I hissed.
Her dark eyes flashed. “What? Excuse me?”
“Get in my car!” I insisted, and before she could protest, I said “Big Bob's watching us, and... Oh, shit! He's coming out here!”
She got panicky in a real hurry. “What? Why?”
“I don't know! Maybe he noticed that my ashtray was spotlessly clean! Get in the car!”
TO BE CONTINUED