Sunday, October 11, 1998
The hell with it, Jason thought as he looked at the misshapen blade that lay still nearly red-hot on the anvil. What I ought to do is just call it a bad job and start over.
Things go like that sometimes. They start bad and just don't get better no matter what you try to do to fix them. Thus it is with many things in life, and thus it is with making knives. This sucker was just going to come out wrong no matter what he did with it. That was something that didn't happen much anymore, as many years as he had been turning out knives in his garage workshop.
The medium-height, medium-build, dark-haired man with the full beard looked at the blade cooling on the anvil realizing that now he'd rather be doing something else on this bright Sunday morning, anyway; winter was coming and there wouldn't be many nice days like this left. This is supposed to be a hobby, he thought as he bent to turn off the valve for the gas feeding the forge. It's supposed to be fun and it isn't this morning.
Decision made, the rest was easy; a few switches thrown and MacRae Knives was closed for the day. He stepped out the garage door and noted that it was going to be a very nice day for October, and that started an idea brewing in his mind as he noticed Vicky Varney coming out her back door a few yards away. "Morning, Vicky," he said in a neighborly fashion.
"Morning, Jason," the heavy-set blonde in blouse and jeans smiled as she headed for her car parked alongside her parents' garage. "Not a bad day, is it?'
"Not bad at all," he smiled at his younger neighbor. "I was just thinking about getting in the Firebird and heading down to the Chicago. Won't be able to do that top-down stuff much longer."
"No," she sighed. "Not that I get a chance to do it much, anyway."
"Well, if you'd like breakfast, come on along for the ride. I'll even buy."
"I think I can manage to take you up on that offer," she grinned, turning in his direction. "I've always thought that was the coolest car."
"I've been happy with it," he replied as he walked from the old unattached garage that he used for the hot metal work to the new one, attached to the house. "Despite the fact that it's a miserable car, if you get right down to it."
"I can't remember you not ever having it," she commented as she headed for him.
"Probably not," he nodded. "You must have been all of three? Four?" He'd bought the bright red '68 Firebird convertible right out of the Army, back in '72, mostly wanting a cool car to pick up chicks. He hadn't been thinking about some other things, like the fact it didn't have power steering and really needed it -- it took the arms of a blacksmith to turn the wheel at low speed, but then, he had them. It was one of the crappiest handling cars he'd ever driven, with a huge 400-cubic-inch V-8 stuffed up in the nose like a head cold; even a mild touch of the brakes at speed with the wheels turned was the recipe for an instant spin. It was a four-handed job with a lot of cussing to get the top up and down; it was down now, and had stayed that way for several years.
He'd discovered all that early on, but after he bought the car. After that first glorious summer he'd mostly left it parked, except for the occasions when he wanted a cool car, which usually involved picking up chicks; occasionally he got called on to drive it in one of the local parades, often with a queen candidate riding on the back deck. That was how he'd met Jody; she'd first let him into her in the back seat not long after.
A couple times when things were tight after they were married, Jody had suggested selling the car, but he'd always put her off -- it was clear it was going to be worth some real money some day if he held onto it. A couple times it had turned into a real fight, but he'd prevailed. Now, Jody was over twenty years gone, Lord knew where, and after considerable care and a mild restoration by Mel Austin out at the Bradford Speedway he'd turned down offers of over $40,000 for a car he'd paid $1200 for.
"Something like that," she smiled. "God, I remember when you took me in it when I was a homecoming queen candidate. I don't even want to think about how long ago that was."
"I remember," he smiled as he opened the door into the garage for her. "You looked mighty good in that gown." She had, too; he really did remember and wasn't just being nice. She hadn't been the most slender girl in the lineup, but her heavy frame had gone well with her big chest, and the low-cut blue gown had exposed a lot of it. She'd been a good-looking girl in high school, and had a huge smile when she was named homecoming queen. That was long ago. He remembered her coming home from college after her first year; her "freshman fifteen" had been more like fifty, and she'd put on even more before she left college. She'd lost some of it when she finally came back to Bradford a couple years ago following her disastrous marriage, but still was on the "downright fat" side of "pleasingly plump."
"Yeah," she sighed. "That was a big deal for me. It may have been the biggest deal I had in high school. And, you know, nobody even mentioned it last night."
"Last night?" he said as he got into the Firebird. The right side was within inches of some cabinets, so he'd have to back it out into the driveway before she could get in.
"We had my tenth class reunion up at the Brass Lantern in Hawthorne," she shook her head. "God, I can't believe it's been ten years." She said something else, but he couldn't hear it in the sound of the big V-8 coming to life.
In a few seconds, he'd backed the car out; she hit the button to close the garage door, then came over to the passenger side and got in. "People have changed some, I bet," he grinned.
"Oh, shit," she shook her head. "Everybody's changed. I honest to God can't believe some of it. You remember Jennlynn Swift?"
He frowned as he let up on the clutch. "I think so," he said after a moment. "She's Archie Swift's kid, right?"
"If they claim each other anymore, and after last night, I doubt it," she shook her head. "She'd asked Emily to pick her up at the airport in Hawthorne, since she was going to fly in. Emily and I went over to meet her, and she flew up in this gleaming white Learjet."
"I guess I'd heard she flew her own plane into town the last time she was here years before. Was she flying it for someone?" he asked as he backed out onto the street.
"She owns it," she sighed. "She told us she'd paid cash for it. Over half a million bucks. She was kind of plain and drab in high school, but she stepped out of that plane like she was something off the cover of Cosmopolitan. Just absolutely gorgeous, hot and sexy, looking like a million bucks and she's worth a lot more than that."
"Sounds like she's done well," he nodded. Now that he thought about it a little, he thought he might remember her. Not a bad looking girl, but very serious about her Christianity, and went out of her way to show how serious she was. That wasn't surprising; her father was the pastor of the most right-wing fundamentalist church in town and rarely passed up the chance to express his disapproval of anything and everything.
"Uh, yeah," she said dryly. "While we were having dinner, Emily asked everyone to tell a little about what they'd been doing. Jennlynn said she's an engineer with some company out in Phoenix and runs her air charter business as a sideline. She has a retired general as a chief pilot. Then she said her parents threw her out on her ass in 1990, so to get through Caltech and part time ever since she's worked in Nevada as a licensed prostitute."
"What'd she do?" he smiled, shaking his head. "Say that so it'd get around town and piss off her parents?"
"Probably," Vicky nodded. "Except I don't think she was lying. She says they call her 'Learjet Jenn, the fastest woman in the state of Nevada'. She says she hasn't kept records, but she estimates she's had over a thousand men and has grossed over a million bucks at it. We talked about it some and as far as I can tell she sounds like she knows what she's talking about."
"Maybe we'd better go to Hawthorne for breakfast," Jason grinned. "Maybe even Bolivar. When her dad hears about that it's going to be like a nuke hit the Disciples of the Savior Church."
"If anyone has the guts to tell him," she smiled. "And hell, that isn't even the only thing to come out. You remember Shae Kirkendahl, right?"
"Sure," he smiled. "She'd be hard to forget." A vision of the girl came to mind immediately. Two years running she'd led the girls' basketball team to state championships, the only playoff-determined titles the school had ever won. He'd gone to several of the games, along with much of the rest of the town. Slender and a touch on the plain side, Shae was easily the best girl rebounder in the state and hell on defense -- at least partly because she was six feet, eight inches tall. "So what happened with her?"
"She's filled out a little, and is darn good looking herself," Vicky smiled. "She works as a sports reporter on some cable network out of New York, moonlights as a model and on some kids' TV show." She shook her head and continued, "She had a couple guests with her I didn't recognize, a cute little blonde and her husband. God, I don't believe it."
"After Jennlynn made her announcement, there was dead silence. I mean, everyone was shocked shitless and no one had any idea what to say. So, Emily said something like, 'Did I get everyone at that end of the table?' This little blonde stood up and introduced herself as Dr. Eve McClellan. I'd talked to her earlier in the evening, just in passing, and I just plain drew a blank on her. I thought she and her husband were just Shae's guests. I knew damn well we didn't have anyone named Eve in the class. Emily was drawing a blank too, and said she didn't remember her."
She was silent for a moment. "People do change," he said to fill the void as they slowed for the stop sign at Elm Street. There weren't any elms on the street anymore; Dutch Elm disease had done them in when he'd still been a kid.
"No shit," she shook her head. "So then Eve goes, 'I've probably changed more than anyone, but I'm a lot happier than I could ever have been when I was Denis Riley.'"
"Denis Riley?" Jason replied in absolute amazement. He remembered Denis well; a shy, dorky, awkward boy, the son of the man who had been the General Hardware Retailers plant manager for several years. He remembered a long time ago coming upon a group of boys who were beating on the kid; a yell and some foul language had broken up the fight. Denis had been the worse for wear, and he'd taken the poor battered kid home. The following Monday his dad, Bill Riley, called him into his office. Nothing was said about rescuing Denis, but Bill promoted him from the appliance dock to driving a fork truck. The pay was a little better, and he got to sit down instead of being on his feet all day. There had been a similar incident a year or two later. "He had a sex change operation? Jesus, I wonder what his dad said about that!"
"His folks -- and I should say her folks -- were behind her all the way," she explained. "A bunch of us sat around in the bar afterwards, and she told us the whole story. It turns out she'd started her transition while we were still juniors. She started living full time as a woman the day we graduated, and hasn't used the name 'Denis' since. She had her operation a year later." She sighed and shook her head as he turned onto Main and headed for the west side of town. "I know until last night, I thought a sex change was something pretty sick, but it comes down to the fact that Eve makes a better woman than Denis would ever have made as a man."
"I will be damned," he said, shaking his head. "Denis Riley? That's about the last thing I would have thought."
"Me, too," she sighed. "Damn, it doesn't seem fair."
"What?" he asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.
"I was a popular kid in high school," she sighed unhappily. "Top-ten student, I was looking forward to college, I was going to get on the on-ramp out of this town and do big things. Denis was this little dweeb with barely passing grades, and no one ever figured him for much of anything. Now he's a good-looking, happily married woman with a doctorate and a nice career as a clinical psychologist, and I'm..." she hesitated, loathe to speak the truth before spitting it out. "I'm a fat slob with a lousy job, who divorced a jerk, and can't find anyone to date but other jerks."
There wasn't much he could say in reply, and there was only the sound of the engine and a little wind whistle for a few seconds.
"At least I can say that she worked for what she has," she continued finally. "I just let things happen to me, and look where it got me."
It wasn't the first time he'd heard that sort of message from her, but this one was a lot more bitter than he'd heard before, at least recently. He took his hand off the shift knob and laid it on her leg. "Hey, Vicky," he said gently, but loud enough to be heard over the noise in the convertible. "Someday you'll get your turn. You're just going to have to be ready for it when it happens."
"I know," she shook her head. "But that day better get coming. I'm not a bit closer to it being my turn than I was ten years ago. In fact, I'm further away. I had it pretty good in high school, and Denis didn't. Now it's the other way around."
Bradford's Main Street turns into Taney Road at the city limits; not far beyond is the I-67 overpass. On the far side of the overpass is the huge General Hardware Retailers Distribution Center where Jason had worked since the early '70s. A huge chain-managed twenty-four-hour truck stop sits on the other side of Taney Road. On the near side of the overpass, in a cinder-block building that could be in better shape, is the somewhat over-named Chicago Inn, which dated back the forty years or so to right after the freeway opened. Most of the transient traffic stopped at the truck stop; that included through trucks as well as the many that headed in and out of General Hardware. Most of the locals, however, were of the opinion that the food at the Chicago Inn was better, the prices cheaper, and the place more friendly -- the waitresses there were likely to call you by name and ask about the kids.
It was still a little early for the after-church crowd, but the parking lot of the Chicago was pretty full when Jason and Vicky pulled the Firebird into the back of the lot; he was a little touchy about risking a dent in the classic car. They walked in the back door and past the kitchen, to find the place was a little full. There was a rarely used "Please Wait To Be Seated" sign up at the register, but in a few seconds Liz Austin came up to them. "Hi, Jason, Vicky," she smiled. "Smoking or non-smoking?"
"Smoking, given a choice," Jason said.
"I can do that," the short and chubby brunette smiled, leading them toward a table. "It's starting to thin out a little. Boy, Vicky, wasn't that wild last night about Jennlynn and Denis?"
"No fooling," Vicky shook her head. "I suppose everyone is talking about it this morning, too."
"No kidding," Liz smiled. "Did you stick around to listen to Eve afterwards? I would have liked to but I had to do the morning shift."
"Yeah, it was pretty interesting," Vicky said as they stopped and waited for some people leaving to get past. "I learned a lot."
"So, Jason," Liz smiled. "I suppose Duane is back up in the heart of Yooperland."
"So to speak," Jason smiled as he spoke of his son, now a senior at Northern Michigan University at Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "He's supposed to be making a trip to West Virginia with a gang of kids for a little whitewater kayaking. They cut classes Friday so they could leave Thursday afternoon and come back tonight. It's like 900 miles one way."
"Didn't he get enough of that in the summer?" Liz grinned. "He's a senior, right?"
"Right," Jason said as she led them to a table. "I doubt he's going to stay in the UP a minute longer than necessary, though."
"Well, gee zow, fancy meeting you here," a voice came from the next table.
Jason looked up to see four people he didn't know, apparently just finishing up breakfast. Well, the guys looked familiar, but he couldn't put names to them.
"You know what they say," Vicky grinned. "If you're looking for someone in Bradford, sooner or later they'll show up here. Jason, do you know these kids?"
"You look familiar," Jason smiled. "You were here for the reunion, I bet."
"This is Aaron and Amber Heisler," Vicky said by way of introduction as she pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her purse. "And Scott and Sonja Tyler." Aaron was about Jason's height, sandy haired and thin; Amber was short, with curly brown hair. Scott was taller, solidly built; Sonja, however, was dark skinned, with an exotic face. She's not from around here, he thought, inwardly grinning. "This is Jason MacRae," Vicky continued as she lit a Virginia Slim. "He's my back-door neighbor; I've known him all my life."
"Oh yeah!" Scott brightened, "I remember you from when I worked at General on my summer breaks from college."
"Yeah," Aaron added. "You're the knife and kilt guy, right?"
"Och, laddie," Jason grinned in a fake Scottish sounding accent. "I canna deny tha' reputation."
"Sonja," Scott said by way of explanation, "This guy makes the most beautiful knives you've ever seen. They're real art objects, some of them sell for thousands of dollars. Real collectors' items."
"What kind of knives?" the dark beauty asked.
"Unless you know knives, it's not easy to explain," Jason said, avoiding the accent, which he could turn on and off when he wanted to. "In a broad sense the most popular are more or less hunting knives, but I doubt very many people take them hunting. Second After hunting knives come daggers, Scottish dirks, and throwing knives. Beyond that, whatever happens to strike my fancy or what someone orders. In almost thirty years I've made everything from a broadsword to an ulu."
"How do you make a knife?" Sonja asked, obviously curious.
"The simple answer is that I start with a piece of steel, then cut and pound and grind away everything that doesn't look like a knife," he said. "A lot of that is hot metal work, sheer old fashioned blacksmithery. I'm not really a blacksmith; I wouldn't know what to do with a horseshoe if it bit me on the butt. The handles, the detailing, the engraving, there's a lot of different techniques."
"Is it hard to do?" Scott wondered.
"It's not easy," he shrugged. "It takes skill and practice, the right equipment, and more than a little artistry. I haven't been doing it for thirty years yet, so I'm still learning."
"Jason helped me build a dirk back when I was in high school," Vicky explained. "I mean, he told me what to do, and helped on the hardest spots. It's nothing like as pretty as the things he turns out all the time, but I was proud that I was the one who did it."
"You didn't do bad for a first try," he smiled at Vicky. "Since she's been back, she comes over and helps sometimes when I need an extra set of hands."
"Interesting hobby," Amber smiled, "Or is that what you do for a living?"
"It's a hobby that I make a few bucks doing. Since it's a hobby I can work at it if I feel like it, and if I don't feel like it I don't have to work at it. I was working on a knife before we came over here, but the mood wasn't right, so I quit." He yawned and added, "I've got about five years before I get my thirty and out at General, and then I may try to set the business up a little more formally. Or I may just stay driving a fork truck for a few more years."
"What was Aaron saying about kilts?"
"Och, lassie," he smiled, slipping into the accent again. "'Tis true, I've been known to wear a proper kilt oot an' aboot now and again. Just honoring me heritage, aye."
"Scottish?" Sonja smiled.
"Me mither was a Poffenberger, she was, and me father a MacRae, 'twas," he smiled, and dropped the accent. "There's a little American melting pot involved."
"I've got a little of that myself," the dark-skinned woman smiled. "I was just explaining to Aaron and Amber that I'm a mixture of Mexican, Iraqi Jewish, Japanese, and who knows what. But I grew up in Pontiac with my dad and stepmother, so American is the bottom line."
"German and Scottish seems a little mundane after that," Jason smiled. "You don't live around here now, right?"
"No, we took the on-ramp," Aaron said, using the local slang that described kids who headed down the freeway looking for a future outside Bradford. "Lansing area. We're in Mason, Scott and Sonja are in Okemos."
"There's not many '88s left in town anymore," Vicky shrugged. "Emily, of course. Dayna, when she's in town. Dean Sallows, well, he lives here but he's on the road most of the time, and me, back for two years now. I don't know if you can count Liz; she works here but she and her husband are over by Amherst."
Jason knew all of them, none of them as well as Vicky, of course. Emily had gotten married to her childhood sweetheart Kevin right out of high school and had stayed in Bradford ever since; she was the manager of the Spee-D-Mart, the convenience store downtown. Dean was a truck driver, who along with his brother John was an independent working under contract for General.
Dayna, on the other hand, was considered one of the wilder cards that Bradford had ever dealt -- at least until last night, he smirked to himself. She and her partner Sandy were wandering musicians, playing renaissance faires and anything else they could find; most of the time they lived out of a motor home, but had a small house in Bradford where they came to rest from time to time. The general belief around town was that the two were lesbians, but they'd never said anything to either confirm or deny it. "Thinned out a little," he nodded.
"There's a few more around," Vicky nodded. "Like Diane Gritzmaker up in Hawthorne. It doesn't seem like ten years could have gone by."
"No, it doesn't," they heard Liz say, as she showed up with an armload of coffee, water, and menus. There were a couple more familiar faces right behind her, coming to the next table -- Kevin and Emily Holst. "Sure looks like a second reunion here this morning."
"Sure does," Aaron smiled. "Have you got your head back together yet, Emily?"
"After last night, I'm not sure," the short brunette shook her head. Jason knew from Vicky that it had been mostly she who had organized the reunion; Vicky had helped quite a lot. "After some of the things that came out last night, I'm almost scared to organize another reunion." She let out a sigh and added, "But I can hardly wait to find out what else we learn, either."
"And we had less than half the class there," Vicky nodded. "It makes you wonder what happened with the ones we don't know about."
"They'll have to go some to top Jennlynn and Eve and Dayna," Emily shook her head. "I mean, when I first heard about Eve, it sounded as weird as anything you could imagine, but it makes a lot of sense when you hear her out."
"It strikes me as a pretty gutsy thing to do," Scott agreed. "But it's something you wouldn't do unless you didn't have much choice, either. It sure seemed to work out well for her, though."
"Are they still around?" Aaron asked. "I mean, this is the Chicago, you'd think they'd be showing up here sooner or later."
"No, they headed back," Emily told the group. "We stood around outside and talked for a few minutes after they drove us out of the Brass Lantern. Shae has a game to call this afternoon, so they had a motel lined up in South Bend or someplace. But actually, when you think about it, Jennlynn is a bigger surprise. Think about it -- do you honestly believe the Jennlynn we knew could become a millionaire prostitute who flies her own Learjet?"
"I still can't believe she wasn't pulling our legs to take a slap at her folks," Aaron said.
"Except that she wasn't," Vicky snickered. "Dayna told us on the way back from the airport that it's the truth. She said she and Sandy played a gig in the place where Jennlynn works a few years ago."
"Now that doesn't surprise me," Kevin laughed. "After some of the stories that have gone around about the places the two of them have played, gay bars and like that, why not a Nevada whorehouse? Now, Jennlynn taking a slap at her folks, that I can believe. Her old man deserves it, just on general principles."
"Right," Emily nodded. "Years ago, right before Jason was born -- I mean, our Jason, J.J. -- she came to the door and had me drive her out to the airport. She was just all in tears, even when she got into this little two-seat plane and flew off. All I got out of her was her folks had thrown her out. I never found out why, and I didn't see her again until last night. All I know is you don't mention her name around her folks unless you're looking for a real hellfire-and-brimstone rant."
"No idea," Vicky agreed. "But whatever it was, it had to have been bad. She's still obviously pretty pissed off with them."
"I don't know," Emily nodded, a major confession for someone who was admittedly the class gossip -- and that reason plus still living in Bradford was why she was tacitly agreed by all to be the de facto class president. Whatever her follow-up thought was got lost in the bustle of Liz bringing coffee to their table. Once it had been set out she continued, "But I'll tell you what, I sure wish it were possible to see some of the kids a little more often than we've managed."
"We were just talking about that," Aaron smiled. "Would you be up for coming to a Halloween party at the end of the month? We're talking the Friday night before so we don't mess up the trick or treating for our kids. We were thinking of having some of the people from around the area. I mean the people from around here, but Shelly, the Bakers, a few others."
"Sounds like fun," Emily agreed with a smile. "You mean costumes and the whole bit, right?"
"Well, more or less," Sonja grinned. "These lechers want me to wear my belly-dancer outfit. But Eve sort of got us to thinking it would be the perfect occasion for the guys to come in drag, just so they get a little bit of the view from her side of the fence. Maybe even have a prize for the most realistic."
"I don't know," Emily said dubiously. "We all dissed Denis bad enough in high school; I wouldn't want Eve to think we were still making fun of her. If that's what you're thinking about I don't want any part of it."
"Hadn't crossed my mind," Sonja smiled. "What set it off was she got us to wondering about the other side of the gender line, both ways."
"Me too, a little," Emily admitted. "And it might be a fun way to play with it a little. But Sonja, this is a sensitive area. Most of us hurt Denis pretty bad in one way or another, and I'm as guilty as anyone else. After last night, we can see what happened as a result of it and when you stop and think about it, it's not very pretty. Costumes, fine, but drag, even individually? Shae said she had to twist Eve's arm real bad to get her to come at all last night. I don't want to put her down for it."
"I should have thought about that," Sonja said softly. "After all, I never met Denis; I guess I didn't realize that." She let out a sigh. "Damn it, I should have as dark as I am, and technically Jewish on top of it. I caught a lot of shit in high school, too."
"On the other hand," Emily smiled. "It is a cute idea. It'd be fun to see Kevin in drag. Maybe another year, it'll blow over some. Tell you what. This isn't something that absolutely has to be decided today, is it? I've got Eve's number. How about if I call her up, explain that she got us to thinking, and ask her permission? She seems to have a sense of humor that Denis never had. If she's approached in the right way she might think it's cute."
"And maybe an attempt to understand a little," Aaron added.
"Might work," Scott nodded. "I don't want her to think we're mocking her, either. It was a damn gutsy move to take hold of her life like that, especially knowing that if she'd gotten caught, things would really have been hell on her." He sighed. "And I was enough of a teenage asshole that I'd have been right at the head of the pack."
"I'd like to think I would have been a little more understanding," Emily agreed softly. "Except I probably wouldn't have been. If you like, I'll call, and if she says no or sounds unhappy with the idea, it's no, OK?"
"Can't be any other way," Scott nodded.
"I probably wouldn't be able to get hold of her till tomorrow night," Emily observed. "The decision can wait until then, right?"
"Yeah, no problem," Amber said. "We only cooked this up in the last half hour, anyway."
"I'll let you know as soon as I find out," Emily promised.
"Got a question," Vicky said. "You're talking booze, I suppose?"
"Oh, yeah," Aaron grinned. "It's been a long time since I've been to a really liquid party."
"I had a couple last night," Scott agreed. "But I was driving so I held it down. It's been since college since I've been to a real ripsnorter."
"That's my point," Vicky said. "Ever since I got busted for DUI after I left Augie, I've been real sensitive about it. I don't drink anymore, but I'd be willing to be designated driver for a carload coming back here."
"Good point," Emily nodded. "That might, uh, loosen things up some."
"Shows we're growing up," Scott snickered. "In the good old days it wouldn't have crossed anyone's mind."