Hothouse Gods
by Frederick Barrows
Lone Argonaut

In New Orleans, Jimmy has girl trouble—one he wants to dump, another he can’t get out of his mind. Jimmy has past trouble—bad birth, sketchy upbringing. Jimmy has direction trouble, only certain he’s headed the wrong way. And why not? N‘Orleans isn’t the land of opportunity, more the city of gettin’ by as best you can. Luckily his best friend, who made it clear of town five years earlier, asks Jimmy to collect his old Impala and head west, but first, Jimmy detours into a little show’n’tell with Sarah, the mysterious stripper of his desire. Will Jimmy get the girl and leave town? Should he even try? Does he need any more trouble? For some books, it’s all about the narrative, and Barrows’ offering reads like old school detective noir. A critical eye spans the landscape both inside and out. Of course, Jimmy should leave town, but we don’t want him to just yet. He’s got his hands full and a story to tell before he goes.

 

Chapter One

Golden Buddha Thoroughfare, Part 2

Carl, the night relief man, arrived at the motel around eleven-twenty, apologizing to Jimmy for being late.

“Mother refuses to get the operation,” lamented the older man, unhurriedly punching in. “We’ll both be unhappy until she does.”

Jimmy left in a rush, barely catching the last bus home.

Boarding the RTA, he noticed a cab pulling into the motel’s parking lot. Sarah, a Bourbon Street stripper, was home early. Wednesdays were always slow. She was wearing heels, an impossibly tight, cherry red miniskirt, and hot pink cutoff tanktop.

Jimmy plopped down in his seat, gazing out the window, gawking openly. An old man sitting behind him leaned uncomfortably close. “Yeah, she’s a real numba, ain’t she?”

The guy’s breath stank of beer and cigarettes.

Jimmy shook his head. “You don’t know a damn thing about her.”

The old codger flashed what few teeth remained, his eyes gleaming. “No … but I’d sure like to.”

Jimmy watched Sarah move beneath the motel’s trashy neon sign. Gardenia, You’re Halfway Home.

Jimmy’s mother had been a half-hour away from aborting him before chickening out. He discovered this when he was seven years old, overhearing a phone conversation she’d had with her mother, shortly after his parents had separated. August 1974. Same month Nixon resigned. “In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation.”

Jimmy was relieved to find her thankful for having fled the sympathetic physician’s office that crisp fall day, claiming it would have been the second biggest mistake of her life, narrowly eclipsed by shacking up with Jake Breedlove in the first place.

He chuckled wryly.

Reconnecting with his rootless old man felt long overdue.

Jimmy had purchased a Greyhound ticket earlier in the week, determined to leave New Orleans and head out west, bum off his father in southern New Mexico for a while.

Do anything to break the paralyzing monotony.

Jimmy craned his neck, hoping to get one last glimpse of Sarah, but the bus had already pulled off, the ugly neon staining the night sky, the surrounding buildings washed in darkness.

Danielle was stretched across the bed when Jimmy got home. Dressed only in panties and a loose, Holy Angel’s T-shirt, she looked at him as if she had been expecting someone else.

Things between them hadn’t been going so well lately and, rather than take her posturing as some sort of come-hither peace offering before he left town, Jimmy was immediately suspicious. She was up to something. Had to be.

“How’s it goin’?” he asked, frozen in the doorway.

“Fine,” she replied, shifting her hips, brightly decorated fingernails playing along a raised thigh.

Jimmy knew he was in trouble.

“Trouble sleeping?”

“Not really.”

“Oh.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and removed his shoes.

“So, um, did your mother ever get back to you?” he asked.

Danielle sat up and began rubbing his shoulders. “Yeah.”

“She okay with you staying there?”

“Yeah.”

She kissed the nape of his neck, causing his stomach muscles to tighten.

“Danielle, listen … maybe we shouldn’t…”

“Jimmy.”

He knew she had him. “Yeah?”

“Go wash your feet.”

She had him and there was no way out.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Okay.”

He rose and walked down the hallway, to the bathroom.

No way out at all.

Jimmy undressed and took a quick shower, trying to focus on the moment rather than the future. He knew it would probably be the last time. It had to be. He couldn’t imagine coming back. Fate all but screamed that his destiny lay westward. His compulsion to leave the city, the crappy motel job, the mystery that was Sarah, all of it, was simply too strong. He had little—nothing, actually—going on. He just had to hold out until payday. Survive the weekend and collect his check Sunday afternoon. Then he’d be free. Really free. He had one last chance to stretch his legs. Maturity and the obligations of adulthood would crush him by thirty. He had six more years to get it wrong, six more years to make something of his sorry self. No ties. No children. Close calls didn’t count.

His initial realization that he and Danielle were doomed came after their visit to the clinic a year-and-a-half back. At the time, he’d felt guilty because of his reaction to the cost of the procedure, more than the actual act itself.

In the beginning, she’d gotten a lot of crap for dating a “white boy.” The fact that she was light-skinned didn’t help matters. More than once her younger brother, Rodney, an All-State power forward for the Cohen Green Hornets, had threatened to trash Jimmy if he continued seeing Danielle. “Give a decent brother a chance,” he’d say. “You got no college, no future, anyhow. I go me a brother lined up at Georgia Tech who wants a shot. Danielle, she’s too good for you. C’mon, man. Don’t make me beat her out of your system.”

Jimmy had seen Rodney play against his old high school team. No doubt about it, the guy had game.

When Jimmy moved in with Danielle, he was certain the place would be firebombed. He never really understood what she saw in him. Maybe he was just some tool to get back at her parents, or a shocking ploy to spark the interest of another.

Whatever the original intent, for either of them, they had both fallen into a perfect state of complacence, going through the motions of shared bills, boredom, and birth control.

One last time, he reasoned, hoping to elevate the moment to a loftier height than it deserved.

The entire time he was inside her, he had difficulty getting the promise of the bus ticket out of his mind. Danielle—legs scissored tightly around the small of his back—seemed lost in a parallel sexual domain. They were worlds apart, each masturbating the other, trying to influence the moment with an emotional synergy that simply was not there.

Jimmy had to conjure images of other women to reach orgasm. He felt cheap doing this, heelish. There was no telling what Danielle was thinking. There was the Montel Williams poster hanging on the inside of the closet door to consider, however. Danielle had received the poster from a friend, who claimed Montel’s new daytime talk show was going to be bigger than Donahue’s. The door seemed conveniently ajar whenever they had sex. The image of Montel, suave and cool, arms folded, smiling confidently, really bugged Jimmy.

You think too much, James Archibald Breedlove. Way too much.

Danielle was in the shower when the phone rang. Jimmy didn’t want to answer it. He lay in darkness, forearm draped across his brow, hoping the person would get the hint. Just leave him alone.

After the seventh ring, he sighed and jerked the receiver from its cradle.

“Yeah?” he asked, sounding more disoriented than he actually was.

“The time is now, Breedlove.”

“What?” Jimmy sat up. “Who is this?”

“Sonofabitch,” exclaimed the voice on the other end. “What, I catch you sleeping?”

“Jeff?”

“Who the hell else?”

“Goddamn. How you doin’?”

“Doin’ great. Which is why I’m calling you.”

“What’s up?”

“The time is now, Breedlove. Go west, young man! Go west!”

Jimmy scanned the last place he had seen the bus ticket. It wasn’t there. “West?”

“I need you out here with me, J-Man. Me and you. Need you to get Skyburn from Granny’s house. Bring it out to me.”

“Sure … Hell, yes…” Jimmy leaned over the side of the bed, searching. He was certain he could get a refund.

“Told you I’d call one day. No fair warning. The time is now, J-Man. Right now. Retrieve my ride and get your sorry ass out here.”

“Uh, yeah … So what the hell are you doing?”

“Music,” Jeff replied. “Managing a rock band, Vegetative State. Hey, my time’s almost up. I’m at a convenience store, on the way home from a shitty gig. Tell you all about it when you get here. Quick, take down this address.”

Jimmy found a pen and jotted down the information. “Pismo? As in Pismo Beach, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons?”

“The very same. Trust me. It’ll be more than worth the trip. See you in a few days. You are good to go, right?”

“Yeah, definitely,” promised Jimmy. “Hell, yes. As a matter of fact, I—”

“Okay, see you—”

The line went dead.

Jimmy placed the receiver back in its cradle and stared at the hastily scrawled address. Jeff, his best friend from high school, had made good on his promise and actually called. Jimmy couldn’t believe it.

Pismo Beach … “Really shoulda taken that turn at Albuquerque.”

“You say something, baby?” Danielle called from the bathroom.

“No,” Jimmy said. “Must have been Montel.”

“What?”

“Nothing!” Jimmy extended his leg, nudging the closet door shut.

Thursday night was chaotic. Jimmy was stuck on the graveyard shift because Carl ate some bad chili and was chained to a toilet.

Sarah entered the motel office around half-past two to pay her rent.

Jimmy, on the phone with a kid in room 119, said, “Corner bar. Bathroom. Buck a piece,” and hung up.

“Tough night, Mister Breedlove?” she asked, setting her purse on the counter.

Jimmy sniffled and shrugged indifferently. She was wearing a black tanktop, no discernible bra, and faded cutoff shorts. Her dark hair was pulled back, knotted in a tight bun. The majority of her makeup looked to have come off swiftly, perhaps during the cab ride home from the club.

Jimmy had no doubt she was most beautiful creature on the entire planet.

“Guess what, Jimmy,” she announced, digging through her purse. “This really cute guy invited me to go to San Francisco with him! Can you believe it? Frisco! I think he’s a movie producer, or a director. Either way, isn’t that awesome?”

“Great,” he replied, nodding. “That’s fantastic…”

“There you go again,” Sarah said, shaking her head.

“What?” he blurted, too defensively.

“You’re checking me out, sizing me up like I’m some piece of meat on display.”

Well, are you? he wondered, determined to see her dance, at least once, before leaving the city.

“Tell me, Jimmy, when’s the last time you got laid?” she asked, producing a pair of twenties.

“Last night,” he boasted, taking her money and popping open the register with a practiced flick of the wrist.

“So,” she said, chewing her lower lip, “I’ve got to know, did she get off?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Sorry. Didn’t ask.”

“Well, you must have known.”

Jimmy stared at her. “You been drinking?”

Sarah laughed and shook her head. “You can always tell, Jimmy.”

“Yeah, well—”

A gunshot sounded.

“Christ! What was that?” she gasped, jumping back.

Jimmy shook his head. “Sounded like—”

A second shot. Moments later, a young man scampered over the sagging fence bordering the property’s back lot, near the Dumpster.

“Lock the door,” Jimmy said, reaching for the phone.

Sarah twisted the bolt shut on the glass door and then retreated behind the counter, near the recently polished golden Buddha statue.

“Damn…” Jimmy squinted. “I think he’s been shot.”

“Does he have a gun?”

Jimmy couldn’t tell.

The guy had been hit in the abdomen. He looked to be sixteen, seventeen at most. Receiver pressed to his ear, index finger crooked on the 9, Jimmy made eye contact with him. He could have been a high school band drum major, or a ROTC tough capable of a hundred, perfect form pushups in less than five minutes. Not tonight, though. His eyes were bloodshot, petrified.

Jimmy blinked and the kid was gone, stumbling across Tulane Avenue, a car honking at him as he crossed the road. The driver probably wouldn’t notice the blood staining his tires until the weekend, hosing down the polluted whitewalls, pondering his next investment opportunity.

Jimmy placed the receiver down and exhaled. Sarah moved over and touched his shoulder, causing him to jerk away.

“Oh, God,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

She looked as if she was about to cry and he wanted to hug her, to show her how tough, sensitive, and manly he was, but he couldn’t. They just looked at one another and said nothing.

A siren screamed to life and a vagrant began banging on the office door, demanding to know what time it was.

Jeff’s grandmother was out back, working her garden, when Jimmy approached the house. Jeff had lived with her, on and off, since his mom took off to parts unknown with some drug dealing biker when Jimmy and Jeff were in their last year of high school. Jeff’s father had died of cancer, passed away on Jeff’s ninth birthday.

At first, Jimmy didn’t recognize the woman. Flabby flesh hung from her arms. Battered, wide-brimmed hat eclipsed the noonday sun. Sunspots dotting the back of her neck, all stooped over, jabbing the earth with a rusty spade—he had no memory of her looking like this, as if she had aged twenty years since his last visit.

She had lived in Jefferson a long time, at least as long as Jimmy had been alive. Her house was one of many that sprung up on reclaimed farmland after the Second World War, where present day South Claiborne gave way to Jefferson Highway. He couldn’t believe how old she looked. He had spent nights in her house, but had never really considered her age, or aging at all for that matter. Looking at her now made him feel uncomfortable, like he was treading on sacred ground, as if she were an attentive spirit that refused to let her precious plot of earth go untended.

The bus had dropped him off a little over a half-mile away. With the heat, the walk seemed longer. He was trim, but sorely out of shape. Sedentary employment was a patient crippler.

The car was parked out front, covered in dust. Perhaps Jimmy had expected too much. If the vintage Chevy drove, he would be happy.

He approached the sagging fence separating the driveway from the back of the house and called out to the woman. It took three hollers before she finally responded.

“In the box,” she replied, gesturing indeterminately. “Keys are in the mailbox!”

Jimmy frowned. The woman was completely obsessed with her garden. He could have been anybody, some convict passing by, or a pitiless predator. The woman had soil to till. Nothing else mattered.

The keys were in the box. Jimmy hoped there was gas in the tank.

Jimmy’s grandfather had taught him how to drive. Rumbling through the vastness of southern New Mexico, little Jimmy would hold onto the enormous steering wheel of the battered ’56 Ford as if an enraged bull was bucking beneath him. Gramps had a grand old time, swilling whiskey, singing bawdy tunes, crying, “Floor it, Jimbo! Floor it!” Jimmy ran into a cactus one time and the old prospector slammed his head against the dashboard, busted his skull wide open. Jimmy had never seen so much blood. Gramps lost his license a short while after that; lost all mobility, ultimately.

Jimmy slid behind the wheel of the Impala. According to Jeff, Skyburn, as he’d affectionately dubbed the candy apple red behemoth, was completely retooled. It got decent highway mileage, had beautiful guts and eight cylinders ready to roar. More power than Jimmy needed. While stoplights had a way of making all cars equal, out on the straightaways—the spillway and six-mile stretch leading to Slidell—there was more than ample opportunity to unleash the beast lurking beneath the hood, to take the machine beyond its breaking point. Recklessly melt its pistons to the core.

Arriving home, Jimmy threw the car into neutral and coasted in front of Danielle’s apartment. He didn’t recognize the metallic blue Grand Marquis parked in the driveway and had only a passing familiarity with the thumping beat pounding from behind the shotgun duplex’s antiquated walls.

Danielle had the day off. She’d planned to go visit a relative’s grave, have lunch with her cousin.

Right…

Jimmy shook his head. He still hadn’t found the bus ticket. He was counting on that money to help finance his trip. The house was shaking on its foundation, the music throbbing monotonously. Jimmy ground his teeth together and gripped the steering wheel tightly.

A pigeon fluttered overhead, expelling the residue of its daily variety on the Grand Marquis’s shiny windshield.

That was meant for me, pragmatically considered Jimmy.

He felt a funny tickle in his stomach. Somehow it all made sense. She was taking necessary precautions. It was so clear, wonderfully so.

He shifted into drive and tore down Helena, barely acknowledging the stop sign as he pushed toward Carrolton.

Carl didn’t show up at the motel until a quarter-past midnight.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “My cat’s rheumatism was acting up and I had to take her to this vet out in Violet.”

“They got vets working this late?” asked Jimmy.

“On-demand animal homeopathy is very big business.”

“Oh.”

Carl turned and began counting the register. “I sure hope she’s all right.” He expelled a heavy sigh. “That damn leg just refuses to heal.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied, escaping to the other side of the counter.

“You leaving?” Carl asked, looking up from the drawer.

“Already gone,” Jimmy said, making a farewell gesture as the door closed behind him.

Danielle had decided to sleep at her aunt’s place, or so she claimed, and Jimmy didn’t feel like going home to an empty house.

Veering onto the interstate, he headed toward the river, willfully taking a longer way around. He hadn’t been downtown in a while. He had stayed out of the nightlife since his late teens, when a would-be robber had shot a friend of his outside Jackson Square. Jimmy was around the corner at the time, taking a leak in Pirate’s Alley. That could have been me was the thought that resonated. His friend no longer lived in New Orleans, but the bullet was still in him, nestled in his lower back like some spiteful part of the city that refused to heal.

The Quarter was great when Jimmy was younger, a wild place of strange faces and wide-eyed malcontents raging like crazy, burning with hyperactive excitement. He was poor but didn’t care as long as the action didn’t stop. Now he had fallen into comfortable state of poverty. Being perpetually broke provided an excuse to not venture beyond the safe comforts of home. Maybe things had gotten worse. Maybe the shooting of a friend (he couldn’t even recall the guy’s name) had triggered something deep inside his gut, tripped the appropriate defense mechanism, and made him want to duck for cover at the first sign of trouble.

“No way am I gonna let life pass me by.” Jeff lived it. He hitchhiked to California because his license was suspended and he refused to wait a whole year to break free of “The Island,” as he called New Orleans. Jeff always had a plan. “I’m going to send for you, J-Man,” he promised. “Mark my words.”

Jimmy was convinced things had finally turned around.

He exited the interstate at Tchopitoulas and motored toward Canal.

The lost bus ticket still frustrated him, though. The last time he had seen the ticket it had been on the nightstand, next to his side of the bed. It drove him crazy pondering the possibilities of what might have happened to it. Eighty-two bucks. He figured he’d get back most of that, minus the return fee. Regardless, anything extra would help his cause. Gas alone was going to eat up most of his savings. To cut corners, he could sleep in the car, pull into rest areas along the way, use the facilities, and buy lots of cheap bread and generic brand peanut butter spread from local supermarkets. Hell, if Jeff hitched two thousand-odd miles, the least Jimmy could do was rough it in the Impala.

No more excuses. Move or settle.

“I don’t want to die having never lived.”

Those were Jeff’s words. That was one of the last things he had said to Jimmy before vanishing on the road to California. Jimmy had wanted to go with him at the time, but he had to report to the phone bank he was working at for five. He watched his closest friend disappear with a battered brown satchel slung over his shoulder and knew, indisputably, that it was the right idea.

Just go. Stretch. Pass the uncertain years as uncertainly as you’re able. Live wholly, crazily, until the burdens of age, relationships, and hourly servitude at whatever job you’re working at by necessity, not choice, weigh you down. Embrace what you fear most. Do it now. A second opportunity might not come again.

Jimmy rang up over thirteen hundred in sales that night. He quit three weeks later.

The time to move was five years ago.

Jimmy had dead-ended his way through eight or so jobs since high school. He had washed dishes, planted grass, and hauled dirt. He had self-consciously peddled newspaper subscriptions door to door and briefly managed an all-night Laundromat. He had carried bags for faceless well-to-dos at a fancy hotel on Canal Street that had recently closed.

He had embraced the exact opposite of Jeff’s mantra; had died a hundred petty deaths and lived to tell about each one.

Come tomorrow, he had no intention of returning. He was finally going to catch up with Jeff’s words, change the entire direction of his existence. It sure beat loafing off his father out in New Mexico, exploring the Salinas Pueblo Missions, or beating around the complex webwork of ancient Anasazi ruins.

This is my time, assertively thought Jimmy, my time and no one else’s.

At the corner of Conti and Bourbon, he saw Sarah. Clutching herself, as if cold, she was wearing a pullover, tight fitting black dress and old pair of sneakers. She looked as if she’d been crying.

Jimmy pulled the car up to the curb and rolled down the passenger side window. “You okay?”

Upon noticing him, she turned away, brushing tears from her cheeks.

Jimmy felt a queer tickle in his belly. What the hell was he doing? Who the hell was he to show up, just like that, without warning, demanding answers from a person he hardly knew?

Who the hell did he think he was?

A cab pulled behind the Impala. The driver flashed the car’s headlights and honked its horn.

Jimmy frowned.

“Hang on,” he hollered, throwing the car into drive and pulling around the corner.

“Asshole!” yelled the cabby, roaring past, tailpipe from his creaky Edsel farting noisily as he went.

Sarah, having sufficiently collected herself, walked to the center of the street, saluting with a middle finger. “You’re the asshole, pal!”

Jimmy nodded appreciatively. “Yeah.”

She walked over to the car and got in on the passenger side. Jimmy smiled but couldn’t bring himself to look at her, anxiously kneading his lower lip.

Drizzling rain fell. People began scrambling for cover, as if convinced a great deluge was imminent.

Neither Jimmy nor Sarah spoke for a few moments and then, matter-of-factly, Sarah commented, “Rain is so sexy.”

Jimmy ceased chewing his lower lip. “What? What did you say?”

They met each other’s gaze at the same, perfectly awkward instant.

He blinked and she smiled. Her face was a wreck; cheeks streaked with blush, lipstick smeared, eyes bloodshot. But beautiful, nonetheless, because it was her, being natural, real, and utterly exposed.

“The rain,” she continued. “There’s just something about it. I don’t know. Probably just water sign bullshit. Not that it matters. I just think—”

“Yeah…” Jimmy nodded. “I know what you mean. About the rain and all. It’s … yeah. It’s pretty cool.”

A guy riding a ten-speed bicycle wiped out a few feet from where the Impala idled. Jimmy and Sarah watched the rider slide helplessly into a metal garbage can.

“Ouch.” Jimmy tried not to laugh.

“God, I hope he’s all right,” Sarah said, stifling a giggle.

The fortunate cyclist sprang to his feet, retrieved his ride, and rapidly pedaled away.

Cracks of thunder preceded a brilliant flash of lightning. For a spectral instant, the entire Quarter lit up, white on black, like a corrupt negative.

“Wow…” whispered Jimmy.

Sarah shifted nearer to him, shockingly close.

“Jimmy…”

“Yeah,” he replied, nearly swallowing the word.

Her breath was on his neck. It smelled of cigarettes, something he couldn’t stand, and maybe a hint of alcohol.

“Jimmy, listen, I’m kind of glad you showed up when you did, ’cause, well, my ride sort of went off and left me.”

Jimmy cocked an eyebrow. “Sort of?”

“Okay, left me, and, well, I was sort of hoping you could give me a lift. I really don’t feel like taking a cab tonight.”

“Sure,” he said. “Any place special?”

“Any place but the motel is fine by me. I mean, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Jimmy studied the rain-soaked street. “Lincoln Beach,” he suggested, surprising himself.

“What?”

He turned and looked at her. “Let’s go to Lincoln Beach.”

She shook her head. “Lincoln Beach? What’s that?”

“It’s … well, it was an amusement park. A place blacks used to go before they desegregated things. It’s old and rundown now, out on the lakefront. I go there sometimes. Good place to get away from everything, think.”

For a moment, Jimmy was convinced she wasn’t buying it, would reject him utterly. Insist he take her to so-and-so’s place, and then tilt her thumb and say, “Hit the road, creep.”

Instead, she pondered for a bit, and then nodded. “Yeah. Sure. Any place is better than here.”

“Right,” Jimmy said, as if struggling with lines from an unfamiliar script. “Yeah. All right.”

They both let out relieved sighs.

She sat back, bounced in the seat, and scanned the machine.

“Nice set of wheels you’ve got here, Jimmy Breedlove. Whose is it?”

“Friend’s,” answered Jimmy, pulling away from the curb. “It belongs to a real good friend of mine.”

“All right,” she said, “let’s go scare up some ghosts at this Lincoln Beach place.”

Jimmy tightened his grip on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead, resolved. “Yeah. Definitely.”

The rain chased them all the way out to Lincoln Beach. By the time Jimmy parked on a side street, just off the levee, the storm had blown over Lake Pontchartrain and was heading toward Slidell.

The passenger side windshield wiper stopped working shortly after they left the Quarter.

Jimmy sighed. “Gotta get that fixed.”

Sarah moved next to him—the better to see out the window. She was too close. He could feel the heat radiating off her body, length of her shiny black hair tickling his forearm.

“You sure are one smooth driver for a guy who doesn’t drive much, Jimmy Breedlove,” she complimented, covering his hand with hers.

Jimmy couldn’t believe how fast the erection came. He could see her nipples, obvious beneath the tight fabric of her dress, and the thought flashed across his mind: If this is happening, I must be dreaming. And if I am dreaming, I don’t ever want to wake up.

“Come on…” He pulled his hand away and opened the door. “You’re gonna like this place. It’s pretty cool.”

He exited the car and Sarah, smiling, followed him.

They crossed the road and jogged up the levee, clearing the corrugated metal fence and traversing a narrow path that zigzagged through a tight cluster of trees. The park, long abandoned, was overgrown and choked with weeds. Little more than toppled stones and half-demolished buildings remained. It could have been modeled on the remnants of an ancient Roman villa, or the blasted shell of a Carthaginian house. Hannibal could have stood near the fountain that no longer spouted, discussing his planned expedition into Gaul, his wildly implausible intent to cross the Alps. If a person listened closely, he might hear the angry bleat of an elephant being struck by a displeased keeper.

Sarah grabbed hold of Jimmy’s hand and whispered, “This has got to be the creepiest place on earth.”

Jimmy shrugged. “It’s peaceful. What could be better than that?”

They moved across the cracked gray concrete, narrow sliver of moonlight revealing the way. They held hands, fingers interlacing, Sarah applying more pressure than Jimmy did.

“How old did you say this place was?”

“No idea,” Jimmy said, kicking a rock in his path. “It was closed before I moved here. Closed before I was born, probably.”

“What are you, Jimmy? Twenty? Twenty-one?”

He stopped, pulling away. “Come on. Do I look that young?”

She giggled. “It’s not that you look particularly young, it’s just…”

“What?” he all but squeaked.

“Just a wild guess,” she said, shrugging. “Twenty-three?”

He shook his head. “I’m twenty-four.”

Sarah seemed puzzled. “Oh.”

“What?”

“Nothing, you just look … well, I guess you look sort of young for your age.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied, running a hand through his wavy, dark brown hair. “Believe me, you’re not the first.”

Sarah’s eyes widened. “Gosh, I hope not.”

He grinned, too sheepishly. “So, what are you? Twenty-six?”

She smacked his shoulder. “Ass!”

“Ow!”

“I’m two years your junior, old man, and probably in better shape!”

“I’ll give you that.”

Jimmy leapt down onto a trail that snaked out to the pier. Sarah came up from behind and jumped on his back, thrilling him immensely.

“It’s freezing out here,” she said, nibbling his earlobe.

“You’d think … it was wintertime, or something,” he remarked, ably carrying her along the sandbar, out onto the rocks.

“Might as well be.” She hugged him tighter.

“You’re really just twenty-two?” he asked, peering across the water. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. You just … maybe it’s how you carry yourself, or something.”

She slid off his back, reached into her purse, and pulled out a driver’s license. “Here, card me.”

He laughed. “No way.”

“Go on,” she demanded, pushing the card in his face. “Do it!”

“It’s too dark. I can’t.”

“Look!”

He took the card, squinting. “Sarah Rainbird.”

“Let me see yours.”

“What?”

“Come on, it’s only fair.”

“Sure.” Jimmy produced his wallet.

“Got any protection in here?” she inquired, aggressively taking the worn billfold from him and prying it open.

“No,” he admitted, chuckling.

“Girl can’t be too careful these days. You know how it is.”

“I guess not.” He sized up her stats. “Five-feet-four inches tall, one hundred-ten pounds. Did you lie?”

Sarah posed akimbo. “Does it look like I lied?”

Jimmy looked. It did not. “So, uh, where is this place … Ass-cambia…?”

“Escambia,” she corrected. “County in the Florida Panhandle. West Pensacola. Ring a bell?”

“Oh, yeah,” he foggily recalled, nodding.

“As you can see, it expired last month.”

“Yeah, I see that,” he said, staring at her photo. She was one of the few people he had met who actually took a decent driver’s license photo. “Ever going back?”

“Not a chance,” she replied, scanning his card.

“So, Rainbird, what is that?”

“It’s a surname, doofus.”

“No shit. But, what is it, I mean? Native American?”

“Yes and no,” she confusingly answered.

“Huh?”

She shook her head, smiling openly. “Rainbird is my way of paying tribute to my mother and her heritage. She was half-Seminole. Not to mention, it made for a good stage name. Anyway, I had it legally changed a few years back.”

“What’d you have it changed from?”

“Whitestone.”

“Whitestone?”

“Yeah.”

Jimmy considered. “Rainbird … Whitestone … You could have hyphenated them. That would have pleased everybody.”

“I wasn’t worried about pleasing everybody.”

“Only yourself?”

“You got it.”

“Man, that’s selfish.”

“Self-preservation is my number one asset.”

“No brothers, sisters?” he asked flipping the card over.

Sarah hesitated, and then replied, “Yeah. Older brother. He manages a grocery store in Fort Walton.”

“Oh, what’s his last name?”

“Dammit, Jimmy.”

“What? Just curious.”

“It’s Johnson.”

Jimmy, clueless. “Johnson?”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “My mother remarried.”

“First go around with Whitestone didn’t work out, eh?”

She shook her head.

“Yeah, my mom’s didn’t either.” Jimmy studied the fine print on the back of her card concerning organ donation.

“Breedlove. That’s not super Anglo.”

Jimmy raised his head. “Actually, it’s quite Anglo, or, um, Hiberno, I guess. The name, however, does have a Native American origin.”

“Explain.”

“You didn’t donate your body to science.”

She snatched the license from him. “Spill your guts, Breedlove. We don’t have all night.”

Jimmy settled on a rock. “My great-grandfather was a surveyor for the federal government back in the late 1800s. His last name was Sheridan and he had been sent out to the Dakotas to check out this area of land that was thought to have these rich mineral deposits, something like that. Anyway, he wound up getting close with the natives. Smoked whatever it was they smoked. Hunted game. Ate with them. I think he even wound up having a kid with one of their women.”

Jimmy rose, grabbed a rock, and pitched it toward the water.

“About a year into his surveying, a group of soldiers showed up and they nearly got into a fight with the tribe’s warriors. But my great-grandfather negotiated a peace treaty between the two sides and brought the soldiers back to the village to eat with the chief. So they had this huge party and everybody got along great and the medicine man goes and renames Great-Gramps Sheridan, and the translation worked out to something like ‘The One Who Breeds the Love,’ or Breedlove for short. At least that’s what my grandfather was told. From that day onward, he was known as Breedlove.

“A year or two later, he gets called back by his superiors and never returned. Apparently, the natives wound up getting slaughtered shortly thereafter, and he felt real guilty about it, thinking his personal connection with the people had accelerated their final showdown with the government. He liked the name the medicine man had given him so much, though, that he kept it. He wound up retiring in New Mexico. Spent his time ranching and bringing the first generation of Breedloves into the world.”

“You still have relatives out west?”

Jimmy nodded. “Yeah, my mom lives in Alaska. She went to stay with my aunt when she took sick. Wound up staying there after she died. That was about, um, three years ago, I guess. My father’s living in New Mexico. Spends most of his time piddling about, you know, wasting time.”

“He retired?”

Jimmy nodded. “He hurt his back flying a few years back, crash landed. Lived near Chandler, Arizona, for a while, and then headed back to New Mexico when his funds ran low. He does okay.”

“I’ve got a great aunt who lives in Arizona.”

“Oh, yeah. Where?”

“Snowflake.”

“No shit. North part of the state, right?”

“Thereabouts, yeah.”

“Pretty area.”

“Uh-huh. Old Catholic woman living in Mormon country. She’s a lush and she’s loaded. At least her family was at one point, made a killing in the silver mines. Anyway, she tries to send me money all the time.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“Yes, there is.”

Jimmy frowned. “What do you mean?”

Sarah produced a folded envelope from her purse. “This is the last letter she sent me. It’s from, like, two months ago. My mother forwarded it to me, and there’s a check inside it.”

Jimmy studied the envelope. “Jeez, what’s the big deal?”

She shook her head. “If I cash the check that’s in here, she’ll know I cashed it and…”

“What?”

“I just don’t want her to know that I took her money.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I still don’t see the problem. I mean if you really feel that bad about it you could always sign the check over to me. I’ll even write the old lady a thank-you note.”

book text © Frederick Barrows

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