Note from Jake Rivers
This is my sixth semi-annual "invitational". The initial one was based on the Statler Brother's song, "Bed of Rose's". The second used the Marty Robbins El Paso trilogy: "El Paso", "El Paso City", and "Faleena". The third had stories based on the various versions of "Maggie May" or "Maggie Mae". The fourth invitational was based on any Country & Western song and the fifth on songs by Merle Haggard.
The current invitational is based on any song written or performed by Willie Nelson.
I've chosen "I Love You Because" that Willie Nelson, among others, sang. Thanks for reading this fictional story, and know that I appreciate all your votes, comments and feedback.
Trying was useless, and Wade understood that. As a young boy, he'd tried to behave only to have his mama whip him so bad the bruises stayed for a month. By twelve, his attempts to stay away from trouble resulted in broken arms and ribs. Before he was nineteen, he had given up all efforts.
It wasn't long before his so-called friends talked him into a crime spree. For fifteen years, he'd been behind bars more than on the street. Each time he'd tried to turn his life around, something knocked him back down. With his latest boss stomping through the warehouse aisles now, Wade knew nothing had changed.
"Flynn, yer fired. I warned ya ta keep yer hands clean. Git yer stuff outta the locker room'n git ta the office fer yer pay. See if'n I hire me another con agin," the pudgy man yelled. "Yer all worthless. They aughta' put all yer sissy asses in'a room an let ya fu—"
Wade didn't stick around to listen to the rest of the man's tirade. He'd heard the same thing before anyway. The bored redhead sitting in the dingy office figured out his hours, taking her time to write out a check, daring him to complain. Tossing it his direction, she picked up her nail file and turned her back to him.
Check in hand, he walked out.
"God damn this town! There has to be somewhere better than this!"
Eyeing the almost empty gas gauge, Wade decided there was enough to make it to the run-down trailer park across town. He'd cash his paycheck and put some gas in the truck in the morning, then hunt for a new job.
Stale cigarette smoke, old beer, body odor and cooking grease mingled to leave a horrid stench. The rickety screen door sprang back on its rusted hinges as he went inside. A judge berated those in her courtroom on the old TV in the corner. Piles of clothes, clean and dirty, littered the worn carpet and hid the recliner. Torn cushions covered the sagging sofa. This was his reality; what he called home.
"Ain't time ta be home," a raspy voice shouted from the corner.
"Short shift today, Lou," Wade replied, kicking aside an empty pizza box on his way to his room.
There was no reply, nor did Wade expect one. The old man had already gone back to watching his television show. His mother's third husband, Lou had taken him in when there was nowhere else to go. She'd died in a car accident while Wade was in prison, and he had no siblings. It wasn't as if he didn't pay more than his share though, Wade thought as he closed out the noise and stench.
Dozing on the lumpy mattress, the unmistakable rumbling of a train woke him. He waited for the whistle, knowing it would be next. The tracks ran right next to the trailer park, a perfect view from his window.
Today he wanted to pack a bag, run alongside the slow-moving train, and hop into one of the empty cars. Visions of the bums he saw as a kid made him smile. Where would he end up? Would anyone miss him? The desire to leave was so deep, he found himself starting to sit up.
"Ah hell, I can't leave Lou," he muttered, resigned to staying.
The clanking of the wheels was almost hypnotic, and Wade fell asleep before the caboose chugged past his window. A cool breeze floating across his face woke him during the night. His alarm clock showed ten after three, yet Wade swore he heard the television.
"Now he's falling asleep in front of the damn thing? What next?" he whispered into the darkness.
Knowing it wouldn't do any good to wake the old man to get him to move, Wade rolled over and ignored the sounds. It was close to ten before he made his way into the cluttered living room the next morning.
"Lou, you need to get up and have some breakfast. It's time for your pills."
Wade touched the old man's shoulder, recoiling in shock. His skin was gray, mottled, and cold. Feeling for a pulse, he found nothing. The sounds of a morning game show droned on in the background, reminding Wade how he'd heard the TV during the night. Now it was obvious why. After dialing 911, he sat on the filthy sofa and waited.
He watched as they lowered the wooden casket into the ground a few days later. The pastor nodded and mumbled his sympathies before escaping into a blue mini-van. Any other time, Wade would have chuckled at how the man went out of his way not to touch him. Today, he just didn't care.
Slamming the door of the old pick-up, the words bubbled up in his chest. The last thing that had held him to this judgmental town was gone. Pulling out of the cemetery, Wade grinned for the first time in years.
It took less than a week to tie things up after his stepfather's death. The few items that weren't trash went under the topper of his old truck. Inside one of the storage containers, he'd hidden the lock-box that held the small amount of money he'd saved over the years. The total wasn't much, but it was a start.
Wade left the next morning, following the road to an unknown destination. He just knew that for the first time in years, he felt alive.
"Mr. Flynn," the dark-haired woman standing in the doorway said.
Holding his fingers up to get her attention, Wade stood.
"Follow me this way, please."
They stopped at a small office where she pointed to an empty seat, then slid behind the desk and sat down.
"My name is Suzanne Harwood. I'll be your new parole officer, Mr. Flynn."
Hearing those words coming from this woman somehow embarrassed Wade. The long list of misdemeanors and other offenses projected the image of a hardened criminal. He'd been on the wrong path for years, and deep inside he knew it.
Only half listening to her speech on the rules for reporting in, he tried to visualize a life without all the crap in his past being an issue.
"Do you have any questions, Mr. Flynn?"
"Where's the local employment agency?"
He watched as she scrawled something on his paperwork before replying. "I've already set up an interview for you at one of the local factories. They're looking for second-shift help, a straight forty-hour week."
"Thanks, appreciate it," he replied.
"It's just something I do, Mr. Flynn. I'll expect a report within two days on how the interview went. Here's the form, you can drop it off up front once you've completed it. Is there anything else?"
Shaking his head, Wade took the papers and stood. As with all his parole officers lately, he felt as if he left her office dirty when he walked out. He hated it and longed to know what it was to be clean.
His back ached and his feet burned. It was his third day at his new job and Wade hated it. The building didn't have air conditioning, and all the machines put out an exorbitant amount of heat. Yanking the lever to keep the production belt moving along, he felt the pull on his muscles and winced.
Sweat poured off his face and ran down his neck, saturating his collar. Even though he'd guzzled a bottle of water during his last break, his mouth was still parched.
Glaring at the over-weight shift manager as he tossed orders around from his glassed-in office, Wade wished he could just walk away. Already his past was out all over the factory, despite the promise of confidentiality on their employment forms.
"Boss wants ta see ya. I heard he's been missing his girl."
The voice came from his right, an unspoken challenge in it that Wade knew well. Reigning in his temper, he took off the heavy protective gloves and turned.
"Hope ya like em big."
Three steps took him within inches of the sneering co-worker. Wade didn't say a word, but he didn't have to. His fierce glare wiped the look from the man's face. Waiting until the bully moved back, Wade smiled at him and went to see the manager, knowing the outcome even before he got there.
The quaint town of Boden wasn't any better than the one he'd left. But it was as far as his old truck had taken him before it gave out.
Knocking on the rusty door, Wade shook his head at the piece of cardboard taped in the middle of it. The word manager printed in black marker was faded and stained from what he assumed was years of hanging there.
"Yep, bout time ya got yer ass up here, now git it inside."
Stepping inside the stuffy office, Wade felt his stomach lurch. Foul body odor and nauseating cigar smoke assaulted him and almost choked off his air. Years behind bars taught him how to project a blank look, and he called on that skill now.
"Yer not keepin' up, boy. All them machines down there need men runnin' em, not wimmen. Ya bin a wommen a time er two, eh girlie?"
"Sir, I'm working hard, but I've had to learn how to run the equipment on my own," Wade replied.
"Whatcha sayin' girlie? We ain't done takin' time ta teach ya'?"
"I understand everyone is busy."
"We don't gotta be busy. That's why we gots ya girlies fer," the boss said.
Wade just stood there, knowing that nothing he said would be satisfactory. He waited while the sloppy middle-aged man scrounged around in a drawer, an unlit cigar dangling between his lips.
"Take yer sissy ass and git. We don't need no girlies here. Git!"
Knowing better than to argue, Wade walked out, never stopping until he was at his front door. Exhausted from the heat and the two-mile trek, he stripped and stepped into the shower. The cool water helped revive him, as did washing off the filth from the factory. He slipped on a pair of boxers and flopped onto the bed for a nap, not waking until eight the next morning.
After a light breakfast, he showered and then called Suzanne Harwood. She made room in her schedule to see him at two that afternoon, so the call was short. Grabbing a can of beer, he turned on the old television he'd taken from Lou's place and spent the time watching game shows.
"Mr. Flynn, come on back," Suzanne said, recognizing the quiet man waiting for her.
Once in her office, she sat down and pulled a file in front of her.
"Why don't you tell me what happened?"
"There isn't much to say. The guy let me go," he replied, not looking at her as he spoke.
"Did you get paid for the time you were there, Mr. Flynn?"
"I'll speak to them and see that it's mailed to you."
Wade nodded, but he knew from experience that after what happened yesterday, word would be all over town not to hire him. His past never went away, no matter how hard he tried to do right, and Wade was getting tired of it all.
"Those dumb asses at the factory will make sure nobody will talk to me, Mrs. Harwood. They'll spread all sorts of rumors until I won't even be able to buy a loaf of bread."
Suzanne studied the man across from her, frustrated at the limitations the system placed on her. Her instincts told her that all he needed was a break.
"Mr. Flynn," she replied, her voice going softer, "Wade, I'm willing to help you, but you have to talk to me."
"Can you find another job for me?"
"I'll see what I can do for you, but it might take me a day or two."
"I can live with that."
"Let me do some checking and I'll call you with what I find."
"Thanks Mrs. Harwood," he replied.
Deep in thought, Suzanne leaned back in her chair and chewed on the tip of her pencil. Yes, the man had a record. That much was obvious. But had anyone taken the time to look at the person inside and explore the real Wade Flynn? Still going over his file half an hour later, she doubted anyone had done more than the minimum their job required. She decided it was time for that to change.
It took a while to accomplish her goal. Just before five o'clock, Suzanne received the confirmation she'd hoped. After adding a few notes to the paper in front of her, she closed her office and went home.
Television was on, but Wade wasn't watching it. His mind wandered to his meeting that afternoon with his parole officer. Compassion filled her brown eyes, and he'd struggled to keep a nonchalant attitude. It was new for him, finding someone that seemed interested in helping him. However, he wasn't betting anything much would come from it until he had some proof either. Pushing the off button on the remote, he went in to the bathroom to get ready for bed.
A brisk walk helped Wade burn energy again the next morning. The neighborhood was waking, with kids carrying lunch pails on their way to school, anxious parents waving, and the hint of cooking breakfast wafting through the air. It all looked so normal to him, yet he wondered when his life had ever been even close to anything like this.
When he got back to his apartment, he showered and then sat out on the front steps. Too many years of being inside left him with a craving for fresh air.
"You must be the new guy."
Wade turned at the voice that broke into his thoughts, unaware anyone else was around.
"I heard someone new moved in next door again."
"Yes," Wade replied, not giving away any information.
"Don't you work? Oh, I bet you do one of them night shifts," the old man standing there said.
"No, I don't do a night shift."
Before he had a chance to say anything more, Wade's cell phone rang. Picking it up from the step next to him, he flipped it open and spoke into it.
"Wade? This is Suzanne Harwood. Could you stop by in about an hour? I have some information to go over with you."
"That's fine, I can be there. It's a short walk, so that's not a problem."
"What happened to your vehicle?"
"The junk I had stopped running just as I came into town looking for a place to get lunch. It wasn't worth fixing," Wade explained.
"I'll see you in an hour, Wade," she said, then hung up.
Snapping the phone shut, Wade turned to see the man still standing in the same place.
"You're walking all over town?"
"Yeah, my truck gave out," Wade said. "Excuse me; I have an appointment in town."
Wade went inside, unsure about the neighbor he'd just talked to. He seemed harmless enough, but others in his past had too, only to backstab him later.
While rinsing off, Wade realized he was finally adjusting to enjoying a shower instead of rushing. Losing that luxury all too often in prison, he knew he'd never take it for granted again. Making a mental note to do some laundry soon, he pulled on a pair of jeans and the last clean dress shirt. With only two pair of shoes to choose from, he slid the best ones on and called it good.
Suzanne couldn't pick just one thing about Wade Flynn that made him stand out from the other eight men in the waiting area. Ex-cons all had a similar look, she'd discovered over the years. Yet, he had something else.
"Wade, I'm ready for you."
Whispers and chuckles followed Wade as he left the room. He had a good idea what the others were thinking. Suzanne Harwood was the only female parole officer at this location, and took a great deal of ribbing. He'd always respected women, but not all men did.
"Ignore them, Wade. In my position, you get used to it."
Confused as to how she knew what he was thinking, he opened his mouth to speak.
"You clenched your fist," she said, pointing to his side. "Now then, I made several calls yesterday after you left. What do you think about working on a construction site?"
"That's good. I mean, how you noticed that."
"I see many things, probably more than you want me to, Wade."
"No, you just think you do. No one sees what I don't let them," Wade replied.
"You think so? Care to try me on that?"
Tipping his head as he contemplated her questions, parts of his past ran through his mind. He pictured his ex-wife, her long brassy red hair and cheap perfume. She always either had a cigarette or a beer in her hand, Wade remembered. Comparing Suzanne Harwood's classy business suit with Lucy's revealing mini-skirts and tube tops was a joke.
"All right," he said, hoping he didn't regret his decision.
Suzanne stood and stepped from behind her desk. Moving a stack of books from the chair next to Wade, she sat down and faced him.
"Your file gives me the basics of your record, Wade. It's the man here," she said, tapping his chest, "that I see parts of."
Wade wanted to tell her it was all a joke. He needed to hear what she was going to say.
"All those years that your mother physically abused you, she never understood that you just wanted her to love you, to see the good in you. No matter how hard you tried to do the right thing, it backfired on you. Every attempt to turn your life around went wrong. Until this mask covered the real you from the world. Your pain is deep, Wade. It's been eating at you for years, until you don't even know what it's like not to carry it around with you."
"All good guesses, Mrs. Harwood, and they could fit any ex-con."
"You just want a break, don't you Wade? For someone to forget that you have a record, and let you start fresh. Almost like a new life," she said.
He looked into her brown eyes and saw the truth. Suzanne Harwood wasn't guessing. Some uncanny sixth sense gave her the ability to get inside him.
"I've done my time, Mrs. Harwood. Why can't people just let my past go, and give me time to prove I've changed? How do I ever get ahead if no one lets me try?"
"Wade, this job I have lined up for you. I promise they don't care about your past. It's not an issue with them. They won't treat you as a lower-class citizen, nor will they be looking for reasons to fire you."
"How can you know that?" he asked.
"There's a new subdivision going up just north of here. Right now, there are several homes in various stages of completion. First, I talked to Nelson Strassburg, the primary investor. After getting the okay from him, I called Cody Baxter, who's the head contractor for the project. I have firm commitments from both men they'll hire you."
"Construction isn't one of my skills, Mrs. Harwood."
Reaching over and pulling a paper from her desk, she handed it to Wade."I think these are."
Scanning the list took several minutes. "Who would I report to each day?"
"You'll get a worksheet with the basics on it once you start."
"How many others will be doing this? I mean, there must be someone watching me, right?" he asked.
"You'll be on your own. It's up to you to figure out the best routine for getting it all done."
"How far away is it from my apartment? I'll have to see if there's a bus stop close by."
"Check the bottom of the list, Wade," Suzanne said, grinning.
He ran his finger over things like picking up scrap lumber, accumulating extra siding for recycling, hauling sod and numerous other tasks until he stopped at the last item.
"A truck?" he asked. The thought was incredible to him as he just stared at the paper.
"Yes, it's a company vehicle."
"You hardly know me, Mrs. Harwood."
"I have faith in you. Don't prove me wrong. Cody said someone would contact you in the next day or so about getting the truck to you. Today is Thursday, and you don't have to start until Monday. Did you have any questions?"
"Is this really part of your job? I mean, none of my other POs ever went this far," he said.
"I see the good in you, Wade. Maybe I did a bit more than my job requires, but is that so bad?" she asked.
Words didn't come out, as Wade tried to find the right thing to say. Nothing fit, so he just stood and reached out his hand. It was a gesture he hadn't made in his other appointments with his parole officer, though she had attempted it in the beginning.
"I won't let you down."
Walking home, Wade saw nothing. He stepped around bicycles and toys and stopped at corners. If the old man living next to him hadn't spoken, he would have gone right past his apartment building.
"Sure is a nice day."
"Um, yes, yes, it is for sure." Wade nodded, and then turned up his sidewalk.
"You look like you had shocking news, boy."
Wade looked at the old man, and smiled. "I got a job."
"I should have known it was something like that. When you starting?"
"Monday, so I'll be hanging around here a few more days."
"Congratulations. A man always feels good about doing an honest day's work."
"Thanks. I agree on that one," Wade replied.
"Well, it's time for the news. I'd better get inside," the old man said.
"My name is Wade, by the way."
Grinning at Wade, his neighbor picked up his rake before speaking. "Call me Johnnie."
"Have a good night, Johnnie," Wade said as he opened the door to his apartment.
Lying in bed that night, with the euphoria of the day still with him, Wade realized he'd had a normal conversation earlier. Though it was short, he hadn't felt defensive with the elderly man this time. Offering his name was something new for him, too. It felt strange, yet it didn't seem wrong at all. Turning over, he pictured Suzanne Harwood and knew her faith in him was going to be a turning point in his life.
Saturday morning Nelson Strassburg dropped off a company vehicle. Even scratched and dinged, the five-year-old Chevy truck caught Wade's attention.
"Wade Flynn, thank you for this opportunity."
"Nelson Strassburg," he said, "glad to have you with us. Either Cody or I will make sure you get the right employment forms for tax purposes this next week. We used Suzanne as your reference, so that's all good. Do you need directions to the site?"
"They're on the paper from Suzanne, and I have an idea where it is. I thought I'd drive that way tomorrow, unless there's a problem with using the truck off-hours for it?"
"Go right ahead, Wade. We'll discuss more of this Monday, but by all means, use it tomorrow. If you need to do any errands, take care of those while you're out too."
"Thank you, Mr. Strassburg."
"Make it Nelson, all right? Sorry I can't stay, but my wife planned a party for our daughter's birthday, and I'm on the way to pick up tables and chairs. See you Monday, Wade."
The two men shook hands, and Nelson got into the car waiting for him at the curb. Keys dangling from his finger, the excitement bubbled over and Wade let out a whoop that echoed through the trees.
"You okay out here?"
"Johnnie, sorry if I disturbed you," Wade said when he saw his neighbor standing on the steps.
"It was time I woke up from my nap anyway. New wheels?"
"This is a company truck, from my new job."
"So you're working for Baxter Builders?" Johnnie asked, pointing to the lettering on the door.
Wade didn't really know who his true employer was, so he just nodded.
"That's a good company. They been around a long time," the old man said.
Wade only half listened as his neighbor talked about a subdivision built twenty years ago by Cody's father. A family business, the man passed it on to his son when he retired, according to Johnnie.
"Yep, a darn good company, boy." Johnnie smiled and went around to his workshop without another word.
Sitting behind the steering wheel, Wade touched all the buttons and knobs. He'd never had anything but old worn-out cars or trucks. Though this wasn't his, just being able to drive it each day was going to be a rare treat for him. After starting it up, he moved it into his assigned parking spot and pulled the keys out. The alarm beeped when he pushed the remote to lock the doors on his way inside his apartment.
The delivery of the company truck proved to Wade that the job was real, and not a dream. All along, he'd waited for someone to tell him it was a joke. It gave him the drive he'd lacked for so long. By dinnertime, he'd scrubbed his apartment, done his laundry, and made a grocery list.
Relaxing after a shower, he heard his cell phone ringing from where he'd left it on the kitchen table.
"Yes, hello," he said, not recognizing the feminine voice.
"It's Suzanne Harwood. I just wanted to check with you this weekend and see how you're doing."
"Mrs. Harwood, I'm great."
"Why don't you make it Suzanne when we're not in the office, Wade? You're making me feel every bit of my age," she replied, chuckling.
If any of the inmates housed with Wade over the years saw the way he blushed at that moment, they'd have teased him forever, and he knew it.
"I didn't mean—I was only—if you're sure."
"Yes Wade, I'm positive. Did I mention that one of the houses going up out in that project is mine?"
"Ah, no, I don't remember that you did."
"They've only started, but I'm really excited. However, that isn't why I called. Did you hear from Cody yet?" she asked.
"Mr. Strassburg brought the truck a few hours ago."
"The big man himself, eh? He's one of the good guys, Wade. You'll like both of them."
"He was very kind and helpful. Suzanne, I don't know how to thank you for all of this."
Wade shook his head, overwhelmed by all this one woman was doing for him. He wanted to say more, but the right words still eluded him.
"You'll figure it out. If you need anything, just call me," she replied, her voice sincere.
Still holding his phone long after they'd hung up, Wade wondered what his life would have been like if his mother had been more like Suzanne Harwood. Maybe he imagined it, but he swore there was a bond of sorts between them. She was more than just a parole officer. For the first time ever, he felt as if he had a friend.
The new subdivision project was alive with activity. Wade drove right to it on Monday morning after finding the best route the day before. Only a few of the homes were close to finished, but from them he knew they weren't cheap places. Two and three stories high, three stall garages, pillars, walls of windows, and wrap-around porches made them all mansions to Wade.
Unsure where he needed to be, he looked for the place with the most vehicles and pulled over.
"Wade, good morning," Nelson called out from atop the frame going up there.
"Hello, how are you?"
"I'm ready to see this place take shape. Hey, there's Cody. I'll let him introduce you to the rest of the crew," Nelson said, turning back to the papers in his hands.
"Cody Baxter, it's nice to meet you Wade. Most of the time, you'll be answering to me, although Nelson is a hands-on investor, as you've already discovered."
It took several more minutes but soon Wade had met the men on Cody's construction crew. Each one welcomed him as if he were just another employee. Being accepted and included was new for him, and it put a true smile on his face for the entire day.
His duties weren't difficult to understand or learn, and by the end of the third day, he felt confident in his ability.
"Well, Wade, what do you think?" Cody asked as they walked to their trucks.
"I've never had a job where people treated me as if I was normal. My past has always been an issue," Wade explained.
"Suzanne saw the good in you, Wade. I trust her judgment explicitly. From what you've done so far, she was right."
"I owe her so much."
"Ah, but that's what friends are for," Cody said, patting him on the shoulder. "I'll see you in the morning. Good night, Wade."
Thursday evening, Wade sat on the front steps just taking in the fresh air. Just up the street, several children played tag on the grass, laughing and shouting. He assumed it was the father standing next to a grill on the porch, keeping an eye on both dinner and the kids. They looked like a normal family. At least what he imagined that to be. He envied the man, even guessing at the responsibilities his life must have.
"How's the job?"
Wade turned to see Johnnie coming his way. "It's great, Johnnie."
"Mind if I have a seat? I been in that darned workshop of mine all afternoon. You'd think when I retired I'd been smart enough to relax, but heck, I'm busy all the time."
"I've heard that happens," Wade said, moving over to make room for the old man.
"Nice family down the street. Three kids, momma's a teacher, daddy sells cars, but they always find time for others."
Unsure what to say, Wade waited. He wondered if Johnnie saw him watching the family earlier.
"Not everyone has that kind of life, I know that. Sometimes, those hurting make a friend that helps turn their future brighter. You never know who is going to be there to lend a helping hand, Wade."
"I was never on the outside long enough to make a real friend," Wade replied, focusing on the ground.
"The world has some wonderful people in it, son. It's all a matter of opening your eyes to see who's right in front of you."
"I'm learning, Johnnie," Wade said, looking straight at the elderly man next to him.
Standing, Johnnie smiled. "Yes, you are. It's time for my TV shows now, so I'd better go inside."
"Have a good night, Johnnie. You take care."
Wade watched as the old man made his way across the lawns and into his house before he went into his own apartment. Friends looked out for each other, he thought with a smile. He really was learning what that meant after all these years.
Suzanne showed up at the construction site on Friday.
"Good morning Wade. I had some free time and wanted to check on my house," she said, waving to him as she walked across the cluttered lot.
"Morning, Suzanne. I'm not sure about any of that, but Cody's around here somewhere. Oh, by the way, I got my paycheck in the mail, from the factory. Thanks for taking care of that for me," Wade said when she'd stopped in front of him.
"You're welcome. They knew the law was on my side, and didn't want trouble. I'm sure there'd be discrepancies if there was an investigation into their books."
"Yeah, but still, they listened to you."
She gave him a little smirk and wink before getting serious. "How are things going for you, Wade?"
"I can't believe how fast the week went. The guys here are all great. But you knew that already, didn't you?" he asked.
"The few I've met seem very nice, yes. Nelson and Cody both have excellent standards, and have this knack for finding the best employees. I think Cody picked up those traits from his father."
"I heard he took it over when his father retired. Having a family business to pass along to my son some day..."
"Never give up hope, Wade. You're young enough that it can happen yet," she said, touching his arm when she saw the pain on his face.
"No, I'm already thirty-two. Even if I found someone now, I have nothing, not even a clean name."
"You're a good man, and that's what they'll see. Now then, what do you think about this shack I'm having them build?"
Linking her arm in his as she changed the subject, she walked toward what would soon be her new home. Not for the first time, Wade wondered what it would have been like to have Suzanne for a mother.
It didn't take him long to fall into a routine. Weekends were for catching up on laundry, cleaning his apartment, and going to the grocery store. Evenings Wade often spent on the front steps, with Johnnie joining him many times. If he had to describe his life at that point, Wade would have said it was pleasant.
"You meet any women, son?"
"Where would I do that, Johnnie?"
"I heard on Oprah that lotsa people find mates when they go do their laundry," the old man said, grinning.
"Guess you haven't been to 'Lucy's Laundromat', have you?"
"Well, I drove by it a few times, if that counts."
He laughed and shook his head at the sheepish look Johnnie gave him. "Nope, it's not the same."
"What about the grocery store, then? You could bump your cart into some perty young girl to get her attention."
"First, I'd have to see one there. Maybe you should go with me and check out all the 'perty young girls' that shop there on Saturday," Wade said, grinning.
"Shoot, son, there's got to be some place you go to see women."
"I guess Boden has the wrong generation of ladies, Johnnie."
"Heh, we'll have to work on that. Time for my shows, have a good night son."
"See you, Johnnie."
As he did every other night now, Wade watched the old man go inside his house. He never would have figured that someone like Johnnie would become a friend.
"We need to talk," Cody said, early one Monday afternoon.
"Sure thing, Cody," Wade replied.
Wade tossed the load of scrap siding into the bin and turned. The serious look on Cody's face startled him since his boss always seemed to be smiling.
"You know your record has never been an issue for Nelson or me," Cody said.
"There's some tools missing."
"I might have a record, but I'm not a thief," Wade replied.
"I'm not saying you are, Wade. Until I have proof, everyone's a suspect."
Wade watched his boss walk away, a sick feeling in his stomach. He'd never heard such an accusatory tone in Cody's voice before. It made him jumpy for the rest of the day.
"You okay?" Johnnie asked, tapping on the truck window. "I bet you been sitting there fifteen minutes, son."
Forcing himself to move, Wade jerked the keys out of the ignition and opened the door. Rubbing his temples, he tried to make the headache go away.
"Someone's stealing from Cody."
"And he figures you did it," Johnnie said, making the assumption on his own.
"He didn't blame me, but that doesn't mean I won't have to prove I didn't take anything."
"Why do you say that? They'd need evidence—"
"There was a drill tucked under my seat this afternoon, Johnnie. Someone singled me out to take the fall for the theft."
"I'm guessing you found it, not your boss."
"This guy, Jeremy, smirked when I locked the stupid thing up where it belonged. All week he's been extra cocky, but I just brushed it off. He's only twenty, and has this attitude that the world owes him everything," Wade replied.
"So you think it might be him. Why blame you and not someone else?"
"That's simple. Comments he made today tell me he knows about my record."
Johnnie nodded, seeing the logic in the implication.
"I knew it was too good to last. No matter how hard I try, there's always something that messes up," Wade said, stifling the urge to kick the tree he stood by.
"Then you just got to fix it, son."
"What, you think I should go to Cody and tattle? I don't have any solid proof; just the punk's actions that make my gut churn."
"Follow the same instincts that got you through all those years behind bars."
The connection made sense. Wade took a deep breath and looked at Johnnie. "You're right. I don't have anything to hide, so I'll just do my job. Only I'll keep my eyes open and let the thief do something stupid."
Johnnie clapped Wade on the shoulder. "Always knew you was smart."
"Yeah, look who my friends are," Wade said.
"I'm off to fix some dinner. Relax, son; it'll be all right."
Waiting until Johnnie disappeared through his front door, Wade marveled at the hidden intelligence in the man. It was almost impossible to fathom how different his life would have been if he'd had someone like Johnnie around when he was growing up.
Lightning streaked across the sky, breaking into Wade's thoughts. A cold sheet of rain burst from the clouds before he took a step. Drenched, he laughed as he sprinted toward his door. While the storm raged outside, Wade did just as Johnnie said; he relaxed.
He leaned over the tailgate and grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler in the bed of his truck. Most days Wade joined the rest of the crew at break time, but there was a tension amongst them since Cody mentioned the theft. Several men talked in groups, only to stop when Wade approached. Each time he remained friendly, keeping Johnnie's words in mind.
Recognizing Suzanne's car behind the row of company vehicles, he forced a smile, trying to hide his mood. Suzanne was fast becoming important to him, but he didn't expect her to help him through every problem he had either.
"What's wrong?" she asked after stopping in front of him.
"Nothing, I'm fine," he said.
"You might as well just tell me now, Wade. Else we'll have to play a silly game where I work it out of you eventually anyway."
"Yeah," he replied with a resigned sigh. "When's the last time you talked to Nelson or Cody?"
"I'd say it's been a few days. Why, what's going on?"
"Someone's been taking tools."
Suzanne sat on the bumper and nodded. "I'll assume you're a suspect."
"I have a record, what do you think?"
It took her several minutes to answer. By then, Wade was beginning to wonder if she thought he was guilty.
"I'd say someone here will be in a heap of trouble when they're caught. Wade, I believe in you. I've seen the good in you from the beginning. Hang in there and the truth will come out," she said.
"That's easy for you to say."
"I know, but take a deep breath and don't worry. Come and check out this shack with me instead."
This time his laugh was closer to real. "I can do that. Although I think you need to see a real shack, Suzanne."
She grinned as they walked across the dirt yards before stopping on her own driveway.
"Can you believe the progress, Wade? Another few weeks and Cody said it should be ready for me to move in. This is so exciting for me," she said.
"How are you moving in? Will you hire somebody?" he asked.
"I'll get a local company to move the bigger things like furniture, and then haul the rest myself. It might take me several trips, but oh well."
"Why don't you let me help? I can ask Cody or Nelson if I can use the truck. That would make it a lot easier for you."
"Are you sure? My little car won't hold much, so that would be a big relief," she replied.
"Consider it done. Just let me know when. I'll talk to whichever one I see next."
Tear Jerker /