Chapter 1

Copyright© 2015 by Bill Offutt

Seth Williams sat at the small front table by the dirty window making wet rings on the Formica with his beer glass. "Want a refill?" the tired waitress asked, shoving her pencil into her stiff hair and pushing her face into what she thought of as a smile. He handed her his foam-flecked little glass and looked out at the passing traffic. It had started to snow again; the headlight beams filled with fast-moving flakes.

Ought to go home, he decided, before it gets worse. He sniffed and thought, what for, as he felt his pockets for the handkerchief he did not have. When he looked away he could hear the cars' tires sizzle though the snow as he used a paper napkin and then stuffed it in his pocket.

"May," he called, "bring me a bowl of chili and some saltines, will you please?"

Roscoe Turner edged around the pay phone, slipped his finger in the coin-return slot out of long habit, sat down next to Seth on the leatherette bench and plunked his bottle of Pabst and nearly empty glass on the unsteady table. "Hey, Bud," he said, "you still looking for work?" He poured out what little was left of his beer and shook the bottle to get the last bit of foam.

"No, uh uh, signed up with Jimbo's crew. He got that big high school contract y'know. I'm running a backhoe for him, doing footings."

"OK, good, that's real good," the big man said, raising his empty bottle as the waitress arrived with the steaming chili and refilled beer glass. She took some crackers from her pocket and went off to fetch another Blue Ribbon. "You seen your kids lately?" asked Roscoe after wiping his mouth with the back of his tattooed hand.

"Last Sunday, took 'em out to cut a Christmas tree, out toward Damascus. Good time, real good." He sniffed and nodded, dredging up a small smile.

"Damn," his friend said, "pretty rough, getting a tree you won't even see decorated."

"I might," Bud said, stirring his dark red chili, looking for meat. "Might."

"Thought she didn't let you in the house no more."

"Yeah, well, if I show up with presents for the kids, she might." He tasted his chili and sucked in air, wincing as it burned his tongue. "Think she will." He wondered how he could buy some presents since he was almost flat broke again, would be until pay day and then again two days later.

"She might kick your ass right off your own front porch too," Roscoe filled his glass to the brim and then stuck his forefinger in it to kill the head. "Or call the cops." He grinned and lifted a bushy eyebrow.

Bud nodded, sniffed and crushed one packet of saltines onto his steaming chili.

"None a'my business, Bud, but are you getting any?"

Seth Williams smiled and licked his lips, dipping his spoon into the maroon bowl of beans and pushing the pulverized cracker pieces down into it. He tore open the other package with his teeth, snorted deep in his throat and shook his head. "Not much."

"How you stand in this damn draft?" Roscoe asked, leaning back and crossing his ankles, hands linked on his belly.

"Guess they might get me," Bud said.

"Shit. They ain't drafting fathers, are they?"

"Might just join up. Did you know my paw was in the Army, first war, good old 29th Division?"

"How's he doing?" Roscoe asked, taking a cracker from Bud's cellophane pack. "Ain't been out there for months."

"They're thinking about moving to Florida, talking about it at least. Can you believe it?" He wiped his lips on a paper napkin.

"Sure, my uncle Tommy went down there, down to Marathon, bought a place, yellow and pink, sent me pictures in a Christmas card. Got a boat and everything, big straw hat, sunburned nose, short pants."

"He like it?"

Roscoe chuckled deep in his chest. "Came back here two years later and bought a new house, Wheaton, Aspen Hill, out that way, split level. Shit, he won't even talk about Florida, but I think he didn't lose nothing, and he even got his old job back. Running a Lays potato chip route out toward the Patuxent; Ashton, Burtonsville, the sticks." He downed most of his beer and licked his lips. "Think he's writng policy too, but I didn't ask. He's got himself a two-tone Buick with a whole bunch a'port holes."

"You still chasing that Gloria?" Bud asked, swallowing highly seasoned chili and feeling the red pepper burn in his throat and clear his sinuses. He drank half his beer in one gulp.

"Oh yes, yes indeed, you bet," Roscoe pulled a cork-tipped cigarette from his pocket. He flicked open his Zippo and lit it. "She keeps talking about wedding bells too." He snapped the lighter closed and smiled at the Petty girl painted on its side.

"You ought to do it," Bud said, drawing another paper napkin from the chrome dispenser on the table.

"Look who's talking? The expert." He blew smoke at the pressed-tin ceiling which had started out white twenty years before but was now a creamy yellow.

"Yeah, but you could learn from my mistakes you know. I messed up; it wasn't Jeanne's fault."

"So you say." He ate another of Bud's saltines, crushing the whole thing in his mouth at once and grinning as his tongue snaked out to get at the crumbs.

"Damn it, Coe, it's the god's honest truth." Bud wiped chili from his lips with his forefinger. "Anyhow, we got married too soon, too damn young. What the crap did I know about being a father?"

"You done your best."

"The hell I did. I was out there screwing around, fast cars and kids' teams, drinking beer and chasing skirts. Never had a decent job 'cept out at Ray's, not really. I wasn't even there when the second one was born. That's what did it, when she found out what I was doing while she was squeezing out another baby." That and her fucking folks, thought Bud. "Shit. Anyhow, my fault, all of it."

Roscoe nodded and finished his beer. "Got be going. She wants me to take her to a movie; something called 'All About Eve.' Just what I need, the Garden of Eden." He smiled and banged Bud on the shoulder.

"Good to see you," Bud said with a wave at his friend's broad back. Roscoe was still wearing his old, leather-sleeved Redskins warm-up jacket even though he couldn't close it across his gut any more.

The waitress dropped a greenish check near his bowl and picked up the empty bottle and glass. He looked at the bill and rummaged in his pockets. Four drafts and chili, $2.50. The price of sin was rising fast. He found two crumpled dollars and smoothed them out on the table edge. "Hey May," he said to the woman sitting near the cash register, "I owe you four bits."

She shook her head, jiggling her netted and peroxided hair and made a thin mouth, her lipstick about gone, her eyes glassy behind harlequin frames, her feet aching. Another no tip.

Bud Williams left the Raw Bar, turned up the collar of his second-hand coat, hurried to the drug store on the corner and bought a pack of Camels with his next-to-last quarter. Then he trudged along the old block of stores with his head bent and hands in his pockets, not even glancing at his reflection in the plate glass windows and hurried down the steps to the bowling alley under the theater. In the filthy men's room, he put his last quarter in the vending machine and bought a packaged Trojan, ignoring the vulgar graffiti on the wall and the smell of Lysol as he took a leak.

Not having his own car was getting to be a real problem, but as Bud often admitted, his former wife needed that buggy more than he did, especially with two little kids, and besides it was just a clapped out 1940 Plymouth that burned a quart of oil with every ten gallons of gas. He had his eye on a pre-war fastback Pontiac that he could get for a hundred down. He could not recall the last time he had a hundred all at one time.

Bud turned up his worn coat collar against the wind-blown snow, wished he had a hat to pull over his ears and hurried into the old Triangle with its mix of houses and stores of various sizes and shapes and tangle of trees and scrubby underbrush, hoping one of the Winsor girls would be home and would be in the mood for some vigorous shacking up.

Bud had not enjoyed a woman since Thanksgiving when he did it in the back seat of a borrowed car with the sister of the man who lent him the Nash for the evening. That joining had been quick and noisy but not very satisfying even with the reclining seats all the way back. He smiled to himself, thinking of the fogged up windows. Poontang, that was what he needed, nothing fancy, no thought involved. Friction and lots of it.

The Winsor girls were something different, sort of a local institution like the Bank of Bethesda or the rescue squad. They had been putting out since they were in junior high school and, as far as anyone could recall, had never said no to man or boy. Bud guessed that half the guys in his high school class had lost their virginity with one or another of the three pudgy, bleached blonde sisters or their rather imposing but round-heeled mother who got five or ten from young sailors, depending on what they wanted, but did the high school boys for two bucks. Slutdom ran in the family and no one had ever seen a Mister Winsor although the girls looked enough alike to have had a single sire.

"Mrs. Winsor, evening," Bud said when it was the mother who answered his knock on the small home's red door, "Margie home?" He tossed away his cigarette butt with a flick of his middle finger.

"No," the woman said, screwing up her rouged mouth, "she ain't," waving him in and quickly closing the door against the blowing snow while she held her nylon wrapper together with her other hand, "but Darlene is. She's watching that stupid TV that somebody give her." Her lit cigarette bounced up and down in her carmine lips when she talked, and her left eye stayed squinted against the curling smoke.

"Hey Darlene," Bud said, taking off his surplus pea jacket and sitting down beside the youngest of the blondes on the weak-springed sofa where so many boys had bounced one of the girls over the years. He patted her wide thigh. "What're you watching?"

"Bowling, you nitwit, can't you tell. He's working on a 300 game, that feller, got eight in a row." She pointed at the small, flickering screen with its faintly greenish tint.

"Damn, that's a good picture," Bud said after Darlene removed his hand from her leg.

"It's a Hallicrafters seven-inch, and Donny made it himself, from a kit, put it together." The girl popped her chewing gum loudly. "Solly give me that antenna." All three of the big girls chewed gum almost constantly, even while they were lying under some hard charging young man doing what they did best which was carnal humping.

None of the girls had ever graduated from high school, and Darlene was doing the ninth grade for the second time when she remembered to get out of bed and hie herself down to the big, red-brick school.

"Donny Green, I'll be damned. Didn't know he could wipe his ass without some help."

"That's mean, Bud. Oh he missed; look at that split, seven-ten. What did you come over here for, hm?" She turned her attention to the young man and batted her mascaraed eyelashes out of habit. It looked as if she might have shaved off her eyebrows again and then penciled them on. Somehow her smell reminded Bud of Rinso and his mother's old washing machine.

"A little loving," Bud said, putting his arm about the girl's pink sweatered shoulders and pulling her to him, wishing he had remembered to shave that morning. He noticed that her acne scars were filled with powder as she turned her face away from his attempted kiss and pushed on his chest with her free hand.

"Don't think so, not after what Margie said you done to her." Darlene shrugged free of his arm and smacked away the grasping hand that was reaching for her oversized breast. She stood and brushed potato chip crumbs from her long skirt and then yanked down her fuzzy sweater and tossed back her brassy curls. "I think you'd better be going."

"Aw, come on Darlene, don't be like that."

"You got a rubber?" the girl asked, fists on wide hips, one side higher that the other as she struck a pose in the doorway.

"Sure," said Bud, eagerly, digging in his shirt pocket.

"Well, I hear those things make good water bombs. Why don't you go find out?" With that she hurried from the room, her rounded hips moving rapidly sideways as well as up and down, each rotation ending with a solid thump. "Fluid drive" some young men had labeled that sister-shared and freely-undulating movement.

"They're really mad at you, Bud, all three of 'em. Pissed off." Mrs. Winsor stood in the archway of the dining room, smelling of talcum powder, her pink slip showing beneath her light robe, fuzzy red slippers on her big feet. A long ash dangled from her cigarette.

"I'm sorry," Bud said, shrugging into his coat and licking his chapped lips, aware of his incipient arousal.

"You better apologize to Margie and make it up to her somehow, buy her a present, some earrings, a bracelet, something nice, from Carberts, not dime store, some candy at least, Whitman's, you know. She's out there telling stories 'bout you."

Bud nodded, slid past the woman without touching her and went back out into the cold with her sour smell in his throat. The snow was ending with just a vagrant flake or two, but the sidewalk was covered with an inch or so.

Damn! He kicked at the slush. I've got to get a decent job, Bud said out loud but more or less to himself. This is no way to live.

He was making good money on the backhoe but in two more days that job would end and the footings would be poured. Jimbo knew he couldn't carpenter worth a damn, and he sure wasn't any good laying bricks or cinder blocks. Hodcarrier maybe.

He stuffed his hands deeply in his pockets as he trudged past a bungalow with dangling Christmas lights. Bodywork, he thought, shoot it's about the only skill I have, banging out dents and spray painting fenders. Monday, yeah this Monday, he promised himself, I'm going to hit the shops, every damn one of them 'til I find a job. He headed back toward the bowling alley and its smoky warmth. Might be some woman there he could talk into his unmade bed.

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