A Novel

Chapter 6: The Main Chance

Same day, still. Blondie emerged from the kitchen with Connie's Caesar salad, just as Connie and Floyd were leaving the lounge. Connie almost skipped towards the reception desk, where Art Newman handed her a room key. Floyd dawdled behind, backpack slung across his shoulder.

The lunch waitresses had begun to arrive. Blondie returned to the reception desk. She looked at her wristwatch. She said to Art, "Weren't you supposed to be here an hour ago?"

"Couldn't get my car started and the landlord wanted the rent so I had to walk to the bank and then back to my house and then here."

Blondie disliked him. He was unreliable. He was duplicitous. She wanted to fire him, but Durney had some reason for keeping him on. She stared contemptuously at him, "I'll be in the office."

In the office—door closed, door locked—she opened a package of cotton balls. She opened a bottle of Cutex. She opened a new bottle Revlon nail polish: Fantasy Winter Rose. But first the current color had to go. She enjoyed rubbing away old nail polish; it felt like a fresh start in life. Acetone fumes deepened the transport.

She rubbed away at the old nail polish. A stanchion-and-bracket book shelf broke. Ledger books tumbled loudly off the broken shelves, and a tall stack of paperwork spilled across the floor. The noise startled her. She turned to look; she accidentally knocked over the bottle of Cutex. Papers from the broken shelf—invoices, purchase orders, guest receipts, bank statements, payroll slips—covered half the floor. Several sheets slid under a louvered closet door.

She hated that closet door because the louvers were fake. Something about those goddamned fake louvers.

Unsettled, she cursed her bad luck. She began cleaning the mess, first by sopping up the spilled Cutex with a towel, and then by sorting through the books and papers that had fallen from the jerry-built-and-broken bookshelf.

About half an hour later, while sitting at her desk sifting through the papers, she saw, through the office window, a notchback sedan enter the parking lot. It stopped under the port-cochère outside the lobby. She glanced at her watch: Ora Thomas and Riley Simmons—two of Durney's guns. Unlike Art, they were always right on schedule. They'd be looking for Connie.

The trouble that stupid girl caused. Several years ago, Durney her to marry. That had been Blondie's idea. Unfortunately, the husband proved unequal to the task of wife taming, and Connie was out whoring again before they had even reached the wooden anniversary.

Whoring around these parts could get a girl into a lot of trouble. Connie was oblivious to its existence. (It = trouble.) Once a day, Durney sent somebody out looking for her, to make sure she wasn't getting herself into any kind of trouble that she couldn't claw her way out of. Oh, that stupid girl could claw her way into every kind of trouble, and usually claw her way out. Claw, claw, claw. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Claw. Blondie didn't like it. Blondie worried the girl would be the ruin of her father. The ruin of her father would be—well, it didn't bear thinking about.

Anyway, once a day, Durney sent somebody out to look after Connie. This inglorious job usually fell to Ora Thomas and Riley Simmons.

Ora and Riley would be entering the lobby in just moments. Blondie did not go out to receive them. She disliked the idea of waiting for them, or waiting on them. They all worked for Durney, sure, and for the same purpose. But they were also all competing for Durney's favor. That's just how it was.

Ora and Riley would not question Art; they'd ask for Blondie, and Art would direct them to the office, rather than call her to the reception desk. Sneaky, rat-like Art Newman somehow knew that what they wanted to ask her couldn't be asked in the lobby, and certainly not in front of him. Nobody could sniff out trouble faster than Art, and nobody was better at simultaneously pretending to be innocent of its existence.

She unlocked the door and sat back down behind her desk.

Two silhouettes on the privacy glass window of the office door, and then a knock. She lit a cigarette. She called out, "It's open."

Ora Thomas: about 45, and handsome. He had thin brown hair, severely parted and pomaded, probably with Groom & Clean, or Vitalis—some such hair product his grandfather would have taught him to use. Grandfather, because Ora was a born bastard. His mother dumped him on her parents when he was still an infant. Nobody even knew the father's identity; nobody even knew what one would look like.

Of all Durney's strong-arms, Ora was the most fastidious—he wore a necktie even in the humid August heat. Round, steel-framed glasses gave him a hard, intellectual appearance. He tended to let Riley handle muscle work, which added to the impression that Ora was the more intelligent of the two. Even so, Blondie had once seen Ora work somebody over in ways that left no doubt of his physical strength, or of his glad brutal willingness to use it.

Riley "Alabama" Simmons, on the other hand: older, uglier, and dumber; slower to think, quicker to act, and more blunt—but far less imaginative—in his use of force. He enjoyed any opportunity to brandish his gun, or any other weapon that made him feel like a real gangster. That was Blondie's take, anyway. She actually sympathized with his penchant for showmanship—she herself inclined that way, and she could not entirely understand people who didn't yearn for a little more glamor in their lives. But the pursuit of glamor did not go well with age—she was reminded of that every time she looked in the goddamned mirror—and she thought it gave Riley an oafish quality, ill suited to his work. A barrel house bum, she thought. Probably the reason Durney gave him the demeaning job of chaperoning Connie. Why Durney gave Ora the same was less clear—it seemed to Blondie like a waste of Ora's talents.

Blondie intensely disliked Ora; Riley she merely found contemptible.

Ora, courteous, said, "Afternoon Blondie."

She reciprocated the courtesy, but with reserve, "Ora, Riley," nodding to each in turn.

Ora looked past her: broken shelves and the chaos of ledger books and paperwork on the floor.

Riley, probably following Ora's lead, noticed the same, and asked, "What happened in here?" Then, while sniffing the air like a dog, he added, "And what's that smell?"

Ora, impatient: "What do you think happened Riley? The bookshelf broke. And she spilled a bottle of Cutex—didn't your mother ever use Cutex?"

Riley grunted, "What the hell would you know about mothers?"

Blondie interrupted: "What can I do for you, gentlemen?" Of course she knew perfectly well what they wanted, but she enjoyed making them spell it.

Ora: "We saw Connie's car outside. She in the bar?"

"No. She was in the bar, but she left." She took a long drag off her cigarette. She added, brimming damning innuendo, "With a young man."

Prissy and censorious, Ora rebuked her, "Okay Blondie, we'll let that one slide, but if I were you I'd watch my tongue when talking about Durney's daughter."

She exhaled a lung-full of smoke. "Oh you would, would you? You asked a question; I gave you an answer. You don't like the answers, then don't ask the questions."

"You know damned well Durney doesn't tolerate that kinda talk about Connie, not from anyone, not even you."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of what Durney will or will not tolerate from me. I'll take my own chances."

"See here Blondie, don't make our job any more difficult than it already is, and we'll do the same for you, get it? Connie lands herself in enough trouble, and one day it'll cost Durney more'n he can pay, and then it's gonna cost the rest of us plenty. You know the rules same as us. Someone overhears one of your bitchy comments, maybe that someone gets an idea. Connie could be forced to do something that brings us all down, and that includes you too."

His high-handedness was exhausting her patience. "Come off it Ora. I see through you completely."

"Oh is that so? Well that must be nice for you."

"I wouldn't call it especially nice, no." She knocked an ash from her cigarette into a glass ashtray, and then looked him right in the eye: "You don't like women very much, do you Ora?"

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"I'll let you figure it out yourself."

"I don't like shriveled up old bags like you if that's what you were thinking."

"No, I don't expect you would, would you? Get off your high horse, Ora. I've been around a lot longer than you, and I'll still be around when you're lying dead in a drainage ditch culvert with a bullet in your head, and there's a reason for that."

"You think you're gonna put me there?"

"I think you don't know your friends from your enemies. Be careful."

"Thanks for the advice. Now, if you don't mind, would you please tell me whether Connie left with this fellow?"

"I already told you she did."

"No, you said she left the bar. I want to know if she left the motel altogether, since I don't see but one car out in the parking lot and it's hers."

"No, they got a room. Number seven I think, but you can ask Art if you don't believe me."

"We'll just take a take a look around and make sure everything's jake."

Through the office window she watched them walk toward room 7. They paused outside the door. Riley broke it open with his foot, and they entered with guns drawn. A few minutes later, Ora marched Floyd out of the room at gunpoint and shoved him into the back seat of Riley's car. They left the motel, traveling south.

About five minutes later, Connie runs from the room to her car. She looked like a beat-up whore that doesn't bruise easily. Her car thrashed its way out of the parking lot, turning north onto 26.

Blondie's mind started moving like flashes of light. She started seeing things, remembering things. Things like Floyd's backpack, which he had so jealously guarded all morning long: nobody—not Floyd, not Ora, nor Riley, not Connie—had the backpack when they left the room. There was something haywire about that backpack, something worth seeing, worth having. Get that backpack. Go:

Blondie left the office.

Passing through the lobby, she hears Art say, "What was all that about?"

"Mind your own business Art."

Outside: parking lot wild west town loggia straight to 7:

Wild west time. Fucking uncriminal crime scene. She had seen worse though. Evidence of struggles, both in the bed and on the floor. Blood and ejaculate on the shag carpet. It would be cleaned: the maids were trained to look for it, to look for it in the bedsheets and the bathtubs and the walls and everywhere.

In an ashtray, on one of the nightstands, a partially-smoked joint. Blondie removed it from the ashtray, and carried it to the bathroom. Give the maids a hand, why not. The bathroom smells like Estée Lauder Beautiful, that little tramp's favorite perfume. Connie must have freshened up in the bathroom before jumping into the sack with Floyd.

Think. Start at the start: whatever happened in this room, Connie entered into it willingly enough.

Blondie flushed the joint down the toilet. Blondie looked in the shower for the backpack. No dice. Blondie inspected the closet next: also was empty. Dresser drawers also empty, except for an old novel, Vengeance Valley. Could be Floyd's. Coud also have been left behind by some guest. Grab it just in case.

Blondie was getting impatient: there aren't that many hiding places in a motel room, and the longer she was gone, the more curious Art would become. She scanned the room once. She scanned the room twice. She checked behind the curtains: nothing. She looked under the bed: bingo! The navy blue JanSport backpack.

Wild west time. Pull it out from under the bed. Its heaviness surprised her because Floyd had carried it so effortlessly. Rush it back to the office—back under the loggia and through the lobby.

Back in the office, door locked, she began examining its contents, one-by-one, carefully laying each object on her desk:

Three rolls of quarters.

A Swiss army knife.

About three hundred dollars in cash.

A small cobalt blue jar.

Two yellow crayons.

A Ziplock sandwich baggie, holding what-appeared-to-be about 5 grams of opium.

And a 1986 edition of the Western Union Directory.

She opened the directory: "Delaney 3123688500 385743" written in yellow crayon on the inside of the front cover. Floyd had also written on about 50 pages of the directory itself, also in yellow crayon. On these pages he seemed to have been recording the names of cities, along with other information, like street names or names of people. He must have used the directory as a kind of diary, writing over the printed pages with yellow crayon. The last entry: "6/87 Wichita Hoover candy". The yellow crayon made it possible to read both the message he himself had written, and the directory information beneath his handwriting. The directory must be important to him, or he would hardly take the trouble to lug it around, when a light-weight notebook would otherwise serve his purpose just as well.

The last entry, "6/87 Wichita Hoover candy", was bookmarked with a a photo-booth snapshot of Floyd, looking much younger, and another man, probably about thirty years old. In the photograph, the two were goofing off and laughing, the older man trying to grab something from Floyd's hand, which Floyd held just beyond the man's reach.

She next picked up the cobalt blue jar. It resembled a jar of Vick's Vapor Rub, except that it lacked a label—only an unmarked piece of cream-colored masking tape stuck to the side. When Blondie opened the jar, she immediately recognized the smell of ether: flashback trigger: tonsills removed when she was in the second grade.

She returned to the Western Union Directory again and wondered about the numbers, 3123688500, written on the inside of the front cover, between the name "Delaney" and the second string of numbers, "385743." That first string of numbers could be a telephone number: (312) 368-8500. The area code was familiar: guest registration forms for travelers out of Chicago. She dialed the number on her office telephone.

After five rings, an answering service picked up, "We're sorry, but the party you are trying to reach is unavailable; if you would like to leave a message, press 'one'; to access the voice-mailbox for this telephone number, press the pound sign."

Blondie hung up her rotary telephone. She went to the front desk, to use the touchtone phone located there. She glanced around for Art. He was and seeing busy in the dining room, setting tables. She redialed the number, and pressed the pound sign, prompting the automated voice to say, "Please enter your passcode." She glanced quickly at the second string of numbers, and entered them: 385743. "You have one new message. To listen to your message, press 'one'."

Press it.

"First new message: Thursday, August twentieth, nine seventeen a.m.", and then the message, a man's voice: "Hey Joe, it's Delaney. Guess you didn't get my previous message. Change of plans. Not sure when you'll be able to get this one, probably not until after you guys arrive in Bureau Junction, which if everything is going as scheduled, should be on the twenty-fifth or the twenty-sixth. I'll be at three-one-two, four-eight-six, oh-nine-oh-three at seven o'clock every night from the twenty-fifth through the thirtieth. If something has gone wrong on your end, leave me a message as usual, with time and number. When you arrive in Bureau Junction, hang close to the motel bar in the evenings. There should be just the one motel, Ranch House. When I receive confirmation that you have arrived, I'll wire you more money, then, as usual, you can call this number back for further instructions. Your contact will be in Elmville, but I'll send further instructions when I get confirmation you are in Bureau Junction."

Blondie copied the message on a piece of note paper. She put the message in her purse. She wondered whether Floyd had been honest with her about his name—the man on the voicemail addressed himself to somebody named "Joe". Possibly Joe was Floyd's former partner, the man to whom he had alluded earlier that morning. The man on the message, "Delaney", had also referenced "you guys" → confirming that: at least one other person was, or had been, working with Floyd.

Blondie returned to her office. She wondered where Ora and Riley had taken Floyd. Would he ever return for his backpack? She put the money and the telephone directory and the jar and the ziplock back into Floyd's backpack. She again left the office, this time walking around to the side of the motel where she hid Floyd's bag in the hatchback of her Chevette. She had a better hiding place for it at home, in a secret safe her father had built long ago behind a grandfather clock in their dining room.

As she returned to the motel lobby, she thought of her father, and noticed the horse statue: a life-sized, white-painted iron horse standing atop a grassy knoll in the center of a small garden, between the motel's porte-cochère and parking lot. Blondie's father had worked for the motel's previous owner, and he built that statue from a Montgomery Ward mail-order kit.

Durney's father had also worked for the motel. In the summers, Durney would come to work with his father. As children, Blondie and Durney played in that garden. A hinged iron panel that formed part of the horse's belly could be opened with a small key, which her father had given to her. She and Durney hid secret treasures there. Happy memories. Despite all the travelers coming and going, she and Durney felt alone in that little garden. So unselfconscious, they never imagined that what they regarded as secret was open knowledge to any motel guest who cared enough to watch them.

She and Durney grew up together, around that motel, from summer to summer. As he matured, he developed into a tall and lanky adolescent, but he was scrappy and could lick just about anyone in a fight. She liked that about him, his toughness and courage. She fell hard for him at an early age, and that childish crush mellowed slowly into love. Their relationship was like a long courtship. She had seen just about every side of him, and he had many sides, including a dark, brooding one. She never feared him, but she often feared for him, especially when he was besieged by that black depression.

Finally, when they were 17, he declared his feelings for her, and she gave herself to him entirely. Meaning that she let him fuck her. It was the happiest summer of her life. Then the school year began again, and he went to Tiskilwa High School, while she returned to Bureau Junction High School. They saw each other on some weekends, but she knew that he also ran with a faster crowd. In November he came to her home, took her for a drive, and told her that he had accidentally gotten a girl pregnant. Some cheerleader flirt from Elmville he met after a football game. He damned himself for what he called a moment of weakness.

He completely blindsided Blondie with this revelation, but she forgave him immediately, blaming the girl instead. Then he told her that he intended to marry the girl. He claimed that both their parents insisted upon the marriage, though he himself was against the idea. She never entirely forgave him for that: this boy who had impressed her with his toughness, courage, and willfulness was letting himself be bullied into a lifelong commitment to a girl he claimed he didn't even care for.

She clung to a hope that, after the child was born, she and Durney could resume their relationship, even if it would only ever be an illicit one. But the relationship never did resume, at least not on its former terms. Instead she became his friend and his ally—even now she cringed to think how eagerly she had accepted that lowly consolation prize.

But when, a few years later, he told her that his wife was pregnant again, she hated that child, even before it was born, and that child turned out to be Connie. Connie represented to Blondie a worse betrayal than the first child, and confirmed for her what she had refused to admit all along, which was that Durney actually wanted to marry the girl from Elmville, not because she was carrying his child, but because she offered him a mantle of respectability. Durney's wife came from Elmville's country club set, and Durney needed both the cover that her respectability provided, and the valuable social connections she could help him to forge. The second pregnancy shored up a vitally important marriage that had been built upon the shaky foundations of the first.

Blondie still marveled that she could ever have been so stupid, so gullible. How else could a man like Durney, poor white trash just like her, have access to the county sheriff, the mayors, or the county's chambers of commerce? Even at the young age of 17, he had known what he wanted in life, and what sacrifices he would have to make in order to get it. Blondie was one of those sacrifices, and yet she continued to love him, as fiercely as ever. Durney probably knew all along that she would remain loyal to him, and that he could use her too. Somehow that suspicion never diminished her feelings for him. She believed in her heart that he continued to love her, to whatever extent he was even capable of loving another person.

Blondie shook off these memories. Blondie returned to her office. Blondie telephoned Durney: "Durney, it's me. Ora and Riley picked up a kid this afternoon. I'll explain later, but if they haven't let him go yet, then keep hold of him. I have a feeling he's gonna be worth some money."

She hung up the telephone and lit another cigarette.