"What are you supposed to do, when the whole world is against you? Do you tell the world to go away?"
"No, you take yourself away from the world."
"But you're supposed to change things, so they go your way, shouldn't you?"
"It doesn't seem to be working that way."
"So, what are you gonna do about it?"
"I'm going to make a splash, something big, enormous, outstanding, and so stupendously noticeable that the world takes notice. I want them to see what they've done to me, so they won't keep doing it to others."
"And just how do you plan to do that?"
"That's what I'm trying to decide."
As Gail Fisher drove along the scenic highway, she was not giving much attention to the few remaining wildflowers blooming in wide green spaces between the lanes of traffic. Instead, she was having a conversation with herself. Actually, she was arguing, tilting her head from one side to the other as if she were two people, working on a very serious concern, looking for a solution. She'd had some angry thoughts recently, but was just today, finally able to speak about them, and she was saying them out loud, very loud, occasionally almost a scream.
There was no one else in the car to hear her, so she could say anything she liked and no one would care. She could curse, complain, and in general be rather nasty about the things she had been thinking.
"Gail, you're a goddamn coward."
"Yes I am, and it's all her fault."
"Who are we talking about here?"
"Her. You know. Her. The bitch. The all powerful Melissa Fisher is who. She likes to think she is the best thing since sliced bread to the independently owned real estate brokerages in the whole city. I am so sick of hearing that. Independently Owned Real Estate Brokerage, like it's a title granted by the Queen, a Duchess of Something, or General Somebody."
"Ah, so you mean your mother, huh?"
"Of course, I mean my mother. She was never there for me. She had her fancy, schmancy career to take up her time."
"Hey! You benefited from that career. You had good clothes, you had piano lessons, you went to some very, very expensive summer camps and you had lots of vacations, to lots of fun places."
"Good clothes? Well, ex-cu-u-use me. A closet full of the latest styles doesn't substitute for a warm body to listen when a little girl gets home from school and walks into an empty house. Piano lessons, great, yeah. That's really great. She didn't even come to the recitals. Summer camp was just an excuse to get rid of me. Vacations? Don't make me laugh about those vacations. They were sales meetings and Becky went with us to babysit me, so the nymphomaniac would have an excuse to use two hotel rooms."
"Now, wait a minute. Maybe some of what you say is true. Even though Becky is your cousin, and a few years older than you are, you did have fun with her. It was better than staying home, while your mother was out of town. And the house wasn't empty when you got home. Tincha was there."
"Yeah, right, Tincha was there, but goddammit Hortense Ramos wasn't my mother. And why the hell was this woman not my mother? Because MY MOTHER WAS GONE to some after—work something with all those men she thought were more important than me. Or maybe she stopped for a drink with someone from the office. Yeah right, and how many of those men were actually customers, anyway? Or maybe she was going to dinner with some out—of—town client, getting a contract written faster than her competition could. At least that's the excuse she used. Or maybe she was just going shopping for a few minutes before coming home."
"So, what's wrong with that, huh? You're just pissed because you didn't get to go with her. Children do not go to business meetings."
"Yeah right, they were business meetings." The sarcastic tone of voice was unmistakable inside the closed quiet of vehicle. "Give me a break. I'm not stupid. If they were really business meetings why couldn't she do those things in the day time and come home after work, instead of not getting there until I was already in bed, for God's sake?"
Gail Fisher was in her early twenties. She was very unhappy with her life, and had made plans to do something about it. She'd spent hours putting her complaints on paper, very special paper, neon yellow paper, paper so glaringly bright it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. She bought a whole ream and wrote letters, crossed out parts she didn't like, and then rewrote them. Putting each letter into a plain white envelope, she wrote the person's name and address clearly on the front. However, only her name with no other information showed in the space for the return address. She had written letters to every important person in her life, her father, mother, best friend — well, make that her former best friend — a stupid man she was once married to, and the man who had asked her to marry him at least four times in the last few months. She also had letters, on her special yellow paper, to her boss and her lecherous landlord. However, she hadn't mailed any of the letters.
To look at, Gail was somewhat pretty, in a plain, wholesome way. She was not overweight, but she wasn't one of those skinny girls who could still wear the same size clothes they did when they were fourteen years old and didn't even have hips yet. Truthfully, some men liked her shape, and they would certainly have liked it better if she stood up straight, but she didn't always do that. She slouched as if she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Her hair was light brown, which she thought was mousy but she only looked at her hair from the front in a mirror, Gail did not see the natural gloss of healthy hair and the golden highlights others saw. She kept it cut short in front, framing her face, because if she wore it any longer, it fell into her eyes when she worked. At one time, in her mid—teens, she tried to be a blonde, but let it grow out when she got tired of having to retouch the roots. Her hair was so fine and straight a permanent wave usually turned to frizz so she didn't bother to try artificial curls anymore.
About the only thing Gail really liked about herself, were her eyes. They were a soft brown, wide set, with long dark lashes and she was really pissed that she was beginning to need reading glasses, which hid her best feature. When she looked at herself, she did not see her full wide mouth and generous lips, although she often had half her lower lip caught between her teeth. She seldom smiled, so the faint dimple in her right cheek didn't show very often.
Given all the details of Gail's physical appearance, she was not happy. In her opinion, the most unattractive thing about her was her blushes. A twenty—something year old woman, who had been married before, should not blush. It was about as ridiculous as anything she could think of, but she did not know how to prevent the blood from rushing to her face when someone told an off color joke or said something complimentary to her. The first was so common in today's modern office that it was almost ignored by the majority of her co—workers. The latter, was becoming less frequent, because her attitude toward compliments was to turn them into an insult or to depreciate a favorable remark so quickly that few people gave her a second compliment.
Paying less attention than she should to the road in front of her, Gail saw a man walking along the side of the highway. Without thinking through her actions, she slowed her car and came to a full stop on the shoulder of the highway, a short distance ahead of him. She watched him trot the fifteen to twenty yards, and when he was beside her passenger door she already had the car door unlocked and the window down.
"Do you need a ride?"
"Yeah, I do, if you don't mind, if you're sure. You know, it's not safe for women alone to pick up hitchhikers these days, particularly in this area, but I appreciate it."
When he was inside the car, Gail offered her right hand, "I'm Gail Fisher. Where are you going?"
Giving her hand a decent but quick shake, the man said, "Nice to meet you, Gail Fisher. I'm Howard Pleas, like 'please and thank you' with no 'e' on the end. This is a nice car, or do you call it a truck?"
"Actually, it's a gas hog, like most sport utility vehicles, but to me it's a truck," Gail explained as she pulled back onto the highway.
Other than the furniture in her one—bedroom apartment, which was hers to begin with, the truck was the only thing she walked away from the marriage with, and then only because it wasn't paid for and Ricky said he'd let the truck go back if she didn't take it. He had already damaged her credit and she wasn't going to let him completely ruin it. She had made every one of the last thirty—some odd payments and only had three to go before the monster would be paid for.
"I had car trouble," Howard explained. "I'm going to town to get my brother to come bail me out."
"I don't remember seeing a break down on the road. How far have you walked?"
"Oh, I was off the highway, a little more than three miles back and another couple of miles down inside the brush."
"Goodness, that's five miles."
"Yeah, and my feet know it, too. Boots are not good running shoes."
Gail, herself prepared for some time alone and accustomed to fending for herself, told Howard, "Reach over in that cooler behind you. Get a bottle of water."
Doing as she offered, he turned around and pulled a bottle of water out of the cooler and twisted the cap off, taking a long drink of about a fourth of the bottle before saying, "Whew that hits the spot. I guess I didn't have my head with me when I started walking. I was at least a mile from the truck before I realized I didn't bring anything with me, not even my hat."
Gail nodded, understanding, "That sounds like something I would do. I'm well known for not thinking ahead."
Twisting around to take a good look behind the front seat, Howard observed, "It doesn't look that way to me. Looks like you're pretty well prepared. Are you going camping, or something? You have a box of food, sleeping bag, and ice chest. I think that's one of those small camping stoves and that's a tent back there, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Gail looked at him for just a moment. "It's a dome tent. How'd you know?"
Howard smiled, "I use one just like it, on those few occasions when I can go to the bay for a little fishing. Plus, I noticed your ice chest doesn't have ice in it, so it's one of those 12 volt coolers. Are you meeting someone, Gail? Or are you just out on your own?"
"It's just me." Gail shrugged her shoulders, "When my world starts crumbling around me, I take off."
Howard grinned and jokingly asked, "Now how can a pretty woman like you have a crumbling world?"
"Ha, little you know, Howard." As her tears began forming she stopped talking, clamping her teeth together to prevent herself from saying something stupid.
Howard saw the faint dimple in Gail's cheek and watched her face as the corners of her mouth turned down. He wondered if the same things that got to him, bothered her. Howard Pleas was not particularly happy with his world right now either.
Howard was an ordinary looking man, until you saw his eyes. There was pain there, and it had been there for a long time. Maybe Gail noticed, or maybe she was so wrapped up in her own world she didn't notice the look of pain. Despite his ordinariness, Howard was a dark man. He wore his hair unfashionably short, but longer than a buzz. He had dark thick brows, and despite a morning shave, his dark beard could easily be seen beneath the surface of his tan skin. Only in very good light could you tell his eyes were dark brown; usually they appeared black. His skin tone was dark, not fair. It was not the dark skin of a man who was tanned from working outdoors, nor was it the darker skin of a Latino man, and he did not have Latino features. He was just darker than most. If someone were to become familiar with his lineage, they would have considered him Mediterranean.
However, despite the pain in his eyes, they were his most arresting feature. His eyes were gentle. He could look at a woman or a child and say, without words, "Give me your hand. As long as your hand is in mine, you are safe. I will protect you."
Trapped in a job he disliked, working for a likable person but a poor businessman, Howard was thirty—two years old and felt he had done absolutely nothing with his whole life. He drove an old truck that sat outside the garage at least as much time as it did getting him around town. He lived in an almost bare room above his brother's garage because it was cheaper than renting an apartment, even if he could have found one in the booming town. He gave his sister—in—law money to help pay for the groceries because they, too, were barely making it. Every dollar he could scrape together he put toward his bank loan or bought another cow to add to those he already had — and promised himself, just one more year.
Not tall and gangly like his brother, Howard was compact and muscular. Many people would be surprised to learn how much he weighed, and they would also be surprised to see the weight he could lift, or how fast he could run. His mother used to say that Frank was a giraffe, but Howard was a bear. She said Frank ran away from trouble and Howard looked for it. That just about summed up Howard's current problem: he had stood up on his hind legs, raised his paws, and swatted at someone who was annoying him, and now he was about to pay the price for his loss of self—control.
"Okay," Howard said. "We have at least half an hour before we get to town. You tell me about your world crumbling and I'll tell you about mine."
Gail laughed a not particularly happy sound and said, "Yeah, right. You're a man. You don't want some broad crying on your shoulder about her lousy job, despicable ex—husband, stupid boyfriend, and lecherous landlord, and that's not all the people I'm pissed at. It's just the beginning of the list."
"Hey, I wouldn't ask if I wasn't willing to listen, but I'll go first, if you want. Hell, I ain't proud. But for your information, I don't call women 'broads' either. They are girls, ladies or women. Anything else is disrespectful."
Gail looked at him for a moment, then returned her attention to the road ahead, "You can't be serious?"
"Yes ma'am, I am. My mother was a good woman and if she was to hear me say such a thing, I'd be standing at the kitchen sink having my mouth washed out with soap and I'd be lucky to walk away still able to sit down."
"Good, that means she loved you."
"Yes, she certainly did."
"Wish mine had been interested enough to do that. I'd probably be a lot better off. You know what I was doing before I stopped to give you a ride? I was yelling at my mother. I was telling her about all the times she'd failed to be a mother. It wasn't very nice and I was using some not very nice words, too."
"My, my, Miss Gail, you don't mean to tell me you took the Lord's name in vain?" Howard asked the question. But Gail could hear the trace of laughter in his voice.
"Yeah, and it was probably a lot worse than that," Gail said with vehemence. "It wasn't very lady—like and it certainly wasn't very Christian. That's what I meant about having a list of people I'm pissed at."
"Ah, excuse me," Howard asked, "but I think most of the people on that list sounded like men. You wouldn't happen to be a man—hater would you? You know, like one of those women libbers?"
With a genuine laugh that time, Gail admitted, "No, it's probably because I like men too much. Maybe I'm just looking for a substitute father. Mine didn't stick around very long."
"Do you mean he died — or left, like moved away or something?"
"No, he's not dead. He and my mother's sister left town together, how about that one?"
"Ouch, lots of angry women in your family, huh?"
"I don't know that my mother was particularly angry after he left. All I remember about them is that she used to yell at him all the time. And ... she certainly hasn't lacked for male companionship since he left, either. She can find them everywhere, and on pretty short notice too."
"Gail," Howard's voice was serious, more serious than it had been. "That's not a very nice thing to say about your mother."
"It's the truth. My bedroom window was on the front of the house and I watched them drive off in the mornings. Most of them got away before daylight, but a few stayed around for breakfast, or so they thought, which usually just turned out to be a cup of coffee. She didn't stop bringing them home with her, until they started to notice me. I guess she didn't want the competition."
"Yep," Gail nodded. "That's about the way I feel about it, too. I finally wrote her a letter. I haven't found the courage to mail it yet, but I'm working on it. You should read it, be good entertainment."
Gail sorted through half a dozen envelopes in the utility tray between the seats, pulled out one envelope, and handed it to Howard, "Here, read it to me, maybe I'll be willing to change a little of it after I hear it. It's been at least a month since I worked on it. Maybe I'm not as angry as I was then."
Howard lifted the unsealed flap on the envelope and pulled out several handwritten pages of the bright yellow paper and began to read aloud.
Maybe instead of Mother, I should address this letter, Dear Melissa. After all, that's what you said I should call you, about the time I started getting tits. You didn't want any of your "men friends" to know you had a teenage daughter. What did you want them to think, that I was your sister?
I don't know what kind of problem you and Dad had with each other. All I know is that it deprived me of a father. It sure didn't help when every time I asked about him, you said I was better off without the asshole, or another of a number of similar ugly words to describe him.
Maybe when he left with Aunt Theresa and Becky went to live with Grandma and Grandpa, you should have done the same for me. Becky seems to have turned out pretty good, while my life is a mess. In fact, my life is so bad I don't even want to live it anymore.
You must have thought I was a really dumb kid. I may not have fully understood when I was six or seven years old. But it didn't take long to figure out what was happening in your bedroom on those nights when you brought men home with you. Maybe I was just a light sleeper, but I heard the voices walking down the hall. Maybe I should have had a bedroom on the other side of the hall. When they turned the headlights on, after starting their cars at four or five o'clock in the morning, it woke me up. I guess you figured out it wasn't a good plan to bring them home with you when they tried to get into my bedroom after you went to sleep. I will forever thank whoever is responsible for putting a lock on my bedroom door.
I wish I could find that old five—year diary you gave me for Christmas. I had special marks beside the dates when you brought a man home with you. I even wrote their names down, if I ever heard them. I can't remember many of the names any more. I've tried to forget as much as I can. I guess you found it after I moved out. Maybe you can pull it out some day and read a little of it. No, maybe you better not, you would just tell me that I complain too much.
I guess motel rooms are a better idea when you have a teenage daughter at home. I hope you had the men pay for the room, because I can't recall that we were exactly rolling in dough when I was young. I know I had good food, but Tincha was a good cook. I know I had decent clothes to wear, but nowhere near the fashionable clothes you wore. Maybe your shopping expeditions should have included me once in a while. You might have delayed a manicure, or an appointment to get your hair done, and taken me for an occasional ice cream cone instead. I would have appreciated it; you will just never know how much.
That's probably why I married Ricky Hennessey, just to get away from home. It didn't take long to discover I didn't love him and it took even less time for me to discover he couldn't keep a job, was verbally and physically abusive, and wouldn't pay the bills. He ruined my credit so badly every apartment complex in town turned down my application when I wanted to move away from him, and to add insult to injury, I discovered he had entertained other women on my salary. However, that's a subject I will discuss with him if I can ever stand to look at him again.
I'm sure it must be painful, to you, that you are getting older and beginning to develop a few wrinkles, but do you really think plastic surgery is the answer? Maybe one drink, instead of six, some good food, and a little exercise would work just as well. However, as you have often told me, I don't have the right to interfere in the way you live your life. So I will honor your instructions. I just hope you will understand that I cannot honor you as my mother.
Gail Fisher—and yes, in the divorce, I requested my maiden name back, not because it is your name, it really isn't, it's my father's. I wanted it back because I could not stand to hear the name Hennessey, ever again.
Howard folded the pages and returned them to the envelope before asking, "Well, do you want to change any of it?"
Gail brushed a couple of tears off her cheek and answered, "Nope, I guess I'll just let it stand. If I started messing with it, I'd probably want to add a lot more and it would just hurt her. I will have done enough of that, by the time she reads it." After a moment of silence, Gail said, "Before you read any of the others, it's your turn."
Howard jerked his head toward Gail, "What do you mean, my turn?"
"I told you my world is crumbling and you said yours was too and you were willing to share if I was. It's your turn. Maybe if I can listen to someone else's problems, mine won't feel quite so bad."
Howard chuckled and said, "You don't have enough time."
Gail smiled, and that time Howard could really see the dimple, "That, my new friend, is where you are wrong. I have the rest of my life. I am on the third day of the rest of my life."
"You weren't serious about that part about not wanting to live?"
Gail nodded, "Maybe you might want to read that part again. I wrote that I don't want to live my life any more. In the past three days, I have quit my job, told my friends I was leaving town, and moved out of my apartment. I hired one of those cheap moving companies and everything I own, except for what's in this truck, is in a storage unit. That means kitchen, most of my clothes, and all of my furniture. I paid six months in advance and I'm going to change my life. If I can't do that, I'll just end it."
Howard looked at the road ahead and said, "Hey, you see that sign? There's a rest stop ahead. I drank that whole bottle of water and I need a pit stop, how about you?"
"Yeah, me too, but I was thinking it was a little farther along."
"Oh, you know this road?"
"Not very well, I've been this way a few times, you know, just going south to a good campground, state park, or somewhere to get away. I do it a few times a year, or as often as I can get away."
"And what do you do on these get—away times, commune with nature?"
"Either that, or sit and feel sorry for myself. My real problem is I can't figure out a way to kill myself and make sure the letters get mailed instead of becoming part of some stupid police investigation or crime scene. I guess I've watched too many crime shows on television. The police would read those letters and start trying to figure out which one of them killed me."
Howard walked into the men's side of the rest stop and stood for a moment. He believed he knew what was wrong; he just didn't know if he could fix it. However, maybe, just maybe, he could find it inside himself to help this person ... and in doing so, maybe he could get a little help, too. He needed to know there were people in the world who still cared. After washing his hands, he was back outside, walking up and down the sidewalk, waiting for Gail.
When she came out of the women's side, he walked up to her and said, "I'll make a deal with you."
She looked at him and figured this guy is going to make a suggestion she wasn't particularly interested in and asked, skeptically, "Yeah, what's the deal?"
"You take me back to my truck. It's only a little over ten, maybe fifteen, miles to the turn off and down a county road about two miles. I've got jumper cables in the back of the truck. You can give me a boost to get my battery charged enough to drive into town. In exchange, I'll read all of your letters and mail them, as soon as I know you've done it."
"You are not serious," Gail scoffed, and then changed her tone to question him, "Are you?"
"Sure, why not?" Howard asked, shrugged his shoulders, and then explained, "All I have to do is read the obits in the papers and I'll know when to mail them. Easy."
She held out her hand, to seal the bargain, "You got a deal. Show me how to get back the way we came."
"Just drive to the other side of this rest stop, where the highway goes in the opposite direction, and I'll direct you from there."
Gail wasn't expecting much. After all, Howard said it was just an old adobe building. However, it looked like a very neat old building. It probably had a lot of history, and it might even be interesting to learn some of its history. The ceiling had to be at least twenty feet high.
Although he tried several times, Howard could not start his truck and finally decided the problem must be mechanical, rather than a dead battery. It was so late in the day, he invited Gail to come inside and relax a while and stay to supper, if she liked, and even spend the night, assuring her she could trust him. It was too late for her to try to find and set up her own camp. She would find it easier to do if she waited until the next morning. When Howard got back inside, he asked, "Hey, you want to plug that cooler in to regular electricity, I don't want you to run your battery down, then we'd both be stuck."
"Yeah, that's a good idea. Do you mind if I pop my tent out there?"
"Aw, really, you don't need to do that. Just grab your sleeping bag. There's some old metal cots in the corner ... be better than sleeping on the ground. This is snake country."
"Ugh, snakes," Gail shuddered, "I know most of them are not dangerous, or poisonous, or have teeth, but they are still snakes. I'll take the offer of a bed indoors. What are we doing for supper?"
"Ah, what would you like? What do you usually eat for supper? How do you feel about eating wild animals?" Howard watched her to see what her reaction was to his question.
She raised her eyebrows, curious. "Wild animals, you did say wild animals? I don't know ... you mean like, what? I'm probably okay, as long as it's not snake. I don't care if they do taste like chicken. I'm not interested in eating rattlesnake."
Howard chuckled, "No, not rattlesnake, but I do have venison steaks."
"I can do a steak. Is there a special way to cook it, I mean, does it need to be well done, or something? I'm a city girl. I don't know things like that."
"I can do it, or I can teach you," Howard offered.
"Show me, and tell me what I can do to help. I'm a pretty good cook, despite having a mother who does not know how to boil water."
"Then, who taught you to cook?"
"I don't know, I guess I taught myself. I had a little help from Tincha. She was the housekeeper/maid/babysitter, depending on what Melissa needed her to do. The rest of the time, I just followed the directions, made the mistakes, burned things, forgot to add the salt, and all that stuff. But I usually got it right the second time."
Howard was in the simple corner kitchen. He gave Gail two packages wrapped in freezer paper and told her to open them then showed her how to wrap strips of bacon around each one, securing the ends with a wooden toothpick. "So, you left your job, packed everything, and left town. Is this your try at having a second life?"
"I didn't really think about it like that, maybe I should. But considering my past, I'm not very good at learning lessons."
"How do you figure that? Haven't you left all of that behind?"
"Well yes, I guess I left it behind. I'm not sure I learned any lessons. When my marriage failed, I didn't make a very good choice the second time. If I had learned something, wouldn't I have done better? You need to read the letter about that failure, too."
"Okay, while I put the steaks on, go get the letter."
"Okay," Gail turned to leave the kitchen area and as she walked across the old adobe tile floor, she told Howard, "And the same rule applies, you have to read it out loud to see if there's anything I want to change."