Kermit T. Cavanaugh would rather have had a dozen root canals than admit he was anything like his Disappearing Dad but the facts were indisputable, or at least obvious to anyone with a halfway discerning eye. Like John, K.T. insisted that his Main Street office be functional and user friendly at the same time. Like John, the Coyote always gave his clients full value for their money, never mind that reaming the opposition was one of his delights.
True, the differences between them were stark. John had long since outgrown the desire for vengeance of any sort while his son lived for it. On that issue, they were as far apart as the positive and negative poles on a car battery. John had more money than Scrooge McDuck but was not really attached to material things while K.T. danced on the edge of financial disaster yet dreamed of out-Trumping Trump.
Lanie Delaney had that much figured out from the beginning. What she’d learned since…
“Done, babe?” Karen’s melodic voice wafted down the hall and through the doorway, tickling Lanie’s ear as she paused to towel sweat away after her workout.
“Cool down and shower is all. Ten minutes.”
“Got it.” Karen Odela smiled, returning to the kitchen. Supper for two, precisely at 6:00 p.m. Comfort ritual, anchor point, oh yeah. She had the table set and was serving up the braised chicken cacciatore when Lanie popped in and sat down.
“Mm-mwah! My favorite!” She smiled big at the brown haired, brown eyed chefette. Yes, chefette. Both women took care to remain politically correct in public. In their Oak Street home it was a different matter. So, “chefette.”
“You say that about everything I cook, sweetheart.”
“Because it’s twoo! Evwything you cook is my favowite!”
Karen blushed with pleasure. Praise for her work as a counselor at Pert High School was rare if not nonexistent. It was nice to get recharged when she was off duty. Especially after a day like today.
“Tough one?” Oops. Swallow first, then talk.
“Irritating. Do you realize how left-wing the school system has gotten? And just how overall ridiculous?”
“No.” At age 32, Lanie had been out of college for more than a decade. Even when she had been in school, studying anatomy and working out had held her focus. Political awareness had come later, after her parents were killed in a car wreck that was, in their daughter’s firm opinion, no accident.
“They’ve added new classes to the curriculum for this year. Called us all in for orientation prior to school startup after Labor Day. Or I should say, called us all in for indoctrination. New class number one is titled, you’re not going to believe this, White Privilege of John Cavanaugh.”
“What?” Lanie froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. “They’re badmouthing old John?”
“Saying he’d never have made his millions if he hadn’t been white.”
“Yikes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it Cavanaugh money that built the gym?”
“And funded the various schollarships for excellence in English, hard sciences, and fine arts?”
“One hundred percent.”
“And wasn’t the current baseball field originally a Cavanaugh land donation?”
“See, love, I knew it would get to you eventually.”
“Um.” They finished the entrée in silence. Up from the table first, Karen turned the burner on low-medium under the skillet and announced, “Cherries jubilee for dessert.”
“Yum. So what are you going to do about it?”
Karen already had the skillet on low heat. How had she managed that? She lit the booze, gesturing toward the flames. “For starters, that.”
What? Oh. “You burned your job?”
“Torched it.” She didn’t look at her partner. Kept her eyes on the flames. Almost always, the two of them sat down and discussed big moves like this one. They weren’t dead broke or anything. Probably had enough to remain solvent for three, possibly four months. But after that, unless Karen had new money coming in, they’d be dependent on Lanie’s salary. The contract bonus for making Kermit Cavanaugh’s legal difficulties go away had already been spent. What was Lanie going to say? Or feel? Oh my, what had she done? Butterflies trembled her belly. Sweat poured from her agitated armpits. She felt like she was going to choke.
“Proud of you, love.”
Huh? Lanie was out of her chair, around the table, wrapping her powerful arms around her lover with the tenderness only Lanie Delany could show, the greatest comfort Karen Odela had ever known. Karen’s tension left her body in a great rush, flushing adrenaline but unable to dry already-wetarmpits.
“You’re not upset that I quit my job?”
“Upset?” The blonde bombshell laughed softly. “Karen, I’m as proud of you as I could possibly be. It only took you four and a half years of hanging out with me to tell your swamp monster employers to take their B.S. and stuff it. No wonder we’re having cherries jubilee for dessert. This is something to celebrate.”
“Ack! They’re ready!” She broke from the embrace, a sudden whirlwind of activity. Ice cream in decorative glasses from the freezer, flambéed cherries poured over the tops, two awesome concoctions ready to devour.
Lanie retreated to her chair, sat down laughing, and dug in.
The attack of blahs caught me off guard. I didn’t even realize it was there until Otis had been gone for two days, visiting a Native woman who lived way off on the far side of the Rez. I didn’t resent him having female companionship. Matter of fact, I approved wholeheartedly. When we’d first met, him with his thumb out in the southwestern sun and me picking him up, the man had long since given up on ever again enjoying the delights of a compatible woman, and I don’t mean sex. The main thing? There’d been a light in his eyes when she drove up in her rattletrap 1959 Ford F-150 pickup truck.
It made me wonder if I dared think about opening myself up to somebody again. I mean, think about it. My first and greatest love had died horribly in front of a drunk-driven train. My second lady had run around on me, both when I was off fighting the War and later, then died ugly, taken down by cancer. My third had been a pure and simple gold digger. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Besides, although my new-ID age said I wouldn’t turn fifty-six until January, my true biological age put me closer to ninety-nine. How fair would it be to, say, a forty-five year old woman to hook up with her, knowing deceit had to be my default position?
On the other hand, the lonely-horny little devil on my left shoulder whispered, who in life has a guarantee when it comes to the longevity of any spouse?
“Yeah,” I groused aloud, “that would work real well. “Build a great relationship based on a total lie, then thirty years down the road when she has to spoon feed me my soup, tell her, um, honey, there’s something I sort of neglected to tell you.”
Ah, came the rejoinder, but thirty years from now your driver’s license would say you’re eighty-five and we know a lot of soup-spoon patients in that age bracket, don’t we?
I had learned long ago, never try to debate my personal shoulder-devils. The spike tailed little buggers never run out of arguments.
Besides, deception would not be possible if a relationship went beyond a certain point. Come into my bedroom, pretty girl. Never mind that beyond the ragtag-looking kitchen Otis and I live in quiet splendor, with high end beds, fully equipped bathrooms, several safes of various stripes, all the amenities. Our secret is that we’re well off, see, and you know how making that public would make us targets, especially from, ahem, the IRS and such since technically we’re white men, never mind Otis’s mixed-race heritage. Oh, and by the way, I’m really older than your great grandfather….
Yeah, that would really build a foundation, wouldn’t it? Either the woman would have to rat me out or keep secrets from her own family, her own tribe. Take the load off my shoulders and dump it on hers, here you go, squaw, happy pack-horsing. Still love me? Whaddya mean you can’t stay? Where you going so fast? Is that a tape recorder?
Oh, the Hell with it.
The little shoulder devil was laughing, out of control, lying on his back, heating up my collarbone, kicking his little cloven hooves in the air with unmitigated glee, his spiked rat-tail waving in the air like the furry plume of a cat, minus the plume. He knew he’d won. Saturday night was roaring toward us and there’d be a fair turnout at the tribal casino, starting with the supper crowd. Still quite a few tourists out and about, a number of Native employees–waitresses at the café and a couple of blackjack dealers–with whom he could flirt. As many Rez civilians as possible would be there too, either gambling away their month’s income at the machines or grabbing a cheeseburger in the café. Singles, both drunk and sober, would show up for the dance. I’d been there once, just to observe. It reminded me of a song lyric I’d once heard.
This moment beyond time, this moment beyond time
Standing, staring desperately
Two hundred singles in a crowded room
Is there a woman in there for me?
Couldn’t remember who’d written that song, nor had it been a big hit. Couldn’t even find the lyrics online, so my memory might be off. But I got the gist of it. And another verse, come to think of it.
You sit there at the table
Dark hair with eyes of blue
Two hundred singles in a crowded room
My eyes are only for you
There wouldn’t be many eyes of blue looking back at me tonight unless I got a pretty tourist’s attention. Lots of dark hair, though. With luck, I could eat a light supper, follow it with some peach pie ala mode, and curvy Tania would be my waitress. Or server, I guess they called them these days. Indians to Natives, waitress to servers, and I couldn’t even remember what the switch was from airline stewardess to…? Sometimes it was hard to keep up.
My best maroon shirt was clean and, thank the powers that be, permanent press. No need to go with the Waylon and Willie concept of “cleanest dirty shirt.” Brand new pair of Wranglers, even had to snip the tags off before wearing them. Quick shine and my boots were good to go. Which belt…not the turquoise belt buckle; that would be too Southwest. Ah! The purple-beaded buckle would do just fine. A Lakota design, more Pine Ridge than here, but good enough. If a woman flinched because she thought it clashed with my maroon shirt, she was the wrong gal anyway.
I’d need to dye my hair again in another week or two, but for now the roots weren’t really showing. Black as night, just a hint-streak of silver here and there. Very distinguished if I did say so myself, especially after a quick shave and moustache trim.
Man. I was taking as long getting ready as my ex-wife did.
And away we go, after the wild girls yonder….
The living room in their rented home was not large but they’d made it comfortable. A couch small enough to be called a love seat, two recliners upholstered in fabric rather than leather, and John Coltrane on tenor sax, playing low enough to permit reading or conversation. What could be better?
Karen sprawled in her chair, attired in loose fitting sweats, skimming through career change ideas on her laptop. She’d already rejected going back to the public school system, put private counseling on her list of possibilities, and was seriously considering raising llamas. There were obstacles to the latter, the biggest two being the lack of land–six acres would not constitute much of a pasture for a herd of spitting llamas–but maybe alpacas? Alpaca wool, she was reading, made the finest, most comfy socks on planet Earth. The article’s author might be prejudiced. He raised alpacas and probably hoped to sell seed stock to gullible would-be newbie alpaca ranchers.
Lanie sat tailor fashion in her own recliner, her finely toned legs resting against the chair arms as she read the page-turning biography of one John Cavanaugh. A particular passage proved to be the straw that broke the investigative camel’s back. She marked the place with her finger.
“Yeah?” Karen didn’t look up from her computer screen.
“I need your thoughts.”
“Uh-oh.” This time she gave met her partner’s gaze. “Serious, huh?”
“Feels that way.”
“John Cavanaugh. You know part of my pitch to K.T. before he hired me was that I would find his runaway daddy for him.”
“Where others failed, you would succeed. Sounds right to me.” Karen picked up her sun tea mug and took a sip. Most of the ice had melted but it was still good. “But?”
“Well…hon, I’m beginning to doubt I can deliver on that, but more importantly, I’m beginning to doubt I should.”
“Yeah. Wow. If I don’t come through, K. T. will either fire me and we’ll have no income at all, or I’ll have to quit.”
That didn’t make sense. “Why? You have other skills. Bet you could be of major use to Kermit as, let’s see, a paralegal, maybe. Or just plain stirring up business. You did say his business has fallen off since he got all obsessed with chasing down the man who sired him.”
“Huh.” Lanie tapped her bookmark finger, thinking. “I did say that, didn’t I? Bet I could line up people around the county who want to sell. Or need to. As long as I talked to the husbands and not the wives. You’d think I was sexual predator or something, the way a lot of them act.”
“Insecurity hath its identifying marks. If he brings a listing to a Realtor, isn’t that Realtor going to hire him for the closing? And then there are the home inspections. You’ve kept up your certification, right?”
“By the skin of my teeth and the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, yeah. Gotta do some continuing education courses within the next few months or bye-bye cert.”
“You like the Coyote, don’t you?”
Trying to find the right words, Lanie straightened her long legs, stretched mightily, and returned to her cross-legged position. “He’s done some hard things. Maybe even downright evil. And I suspect he’ll do some more.”
“Didn’t answer my question.”
“All right, all right. I wouldn’t want him in our bed.” Both women were switch hitters rather than girls-only lesbians. Give them the right guy, age didn’t matter, or ethnicity, any of that, and they might just invite him over for a night. Or more. Hadn’t happened yet, here in the county, and they’d been here nearly a year and a half now. But it could, especially now that Karen no longer had to watch her back politically with the education system. “There’s no sexual chemistry between us. Zero. What he is…he’s a project, okay?”
“Aw-w-w. About time, eh? You haven’t had a loser to rehabilitate since David Jay.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” Jay had been an experience she didn’t care to repeat. The guy was doing life in federal prison now, one leg crippled from a shootout with law enforcement in Scobey. The pair of thirteen year old girls swore he’d not molested them but it hadn’t mattered since he’d crossed a bunch of lines with them when he left Kentucky.
One of the girls–Penny, was it?–had been pregnant at the time of the shootout. Half a dozen security tapes from convenience stores had identified D. J. as the hillbilly who’d robbed the places at gunpoint, leaving one clerk on the floor with a hole through his liver.
But Karen was right. Lanie really did feel incomplete without a human renovation / rehabilitation project in the works. She just hadn’t realized until this moment that her employer was a project. Sheesh.
“When did you quit being gung ho about finding Cavanaugh, Senior?”
“Huh? Oh. This book.” She held it aloft, hardback, Navy blue dust cover with gold print declaiming the title: Dust and Water, by John Cavanaugh.
“What is it?”
“John Cavanaugh’s autobiography. He published it twenty-three years ago, when he would have been in his mid-seventies. I don’t think he used a ghost writer. The voice sounds really authentic, you know? I’d decided the way to find John in the present was to really study his past, see? Then I found this mentioned online, but no copies anywhere, not even on Amazon. Lucky me, the local library had a copy. Can I read you a couple of passages?”
“Sure.” Karen reached for the remote, turned off the music, and settled in to listen. That was an important part of their success with each other; they truly listened.
“Okay, let’s see…here’s page one, the explanation of the title.
People ask me, “Why Dust and Water?” I tell them I came of age in a cloud of dust during the Great Depression. It’s a wonder I have any lungs left at all. So there’s the dust. When the Japanese clobbered Pearl Harbor and we all went to war I chose the Navy and got more water than I bargained for. I was more than a little nuts after the enemy shot my ship out from under me and there was water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. So there you have it. Dust and water. Which is why you’ll find me in or near the Rocky Mountains these days. Get high enough up in the Rockies and you can get away from too much dust and too much water.
“That sounds like one heck of a clue,” Karen observed.
“It does. From that first paragraph, though, something started eating at me. I started seeing things through John’s eyes. That effect becomes more and more noticeable as I read deeper into the book. He talks about some of the things he had to do to survive during the prewar years. Many of the people he knew in hobo jungles were good but just like with the immigration battle today, enough were bad to make it tough. Some of them were mean as snakes, kill you as soon as look at you if they got the chance, maybe for no more than your shoes if the shoes looked like they still had some wear in them. Showing money, even a dime, could get you killed. Railroad bulls would throw you off the empty freight cars if they could find you, sometimes when the train was moving. Lots of them were vicious, happy to whack you on the head with a billy club or worse. To survive, you had to–here, he lists the skills.”
Turning mean could get you killed, too, unless you were monster big and had a couple of toadies to watch your back. For the plain ordinary man of which I was one starting at age eleven, you had to develop a number of key skills fast or you wouldn’t make it.
1. You had to be good at knowing instantly which men to trust and which men to avoid if at all possible.
2. You never trusted anybody completely unless he was already your brother before you rode the rails.
3. Never start a fight but always finish it even if that meant killing somebody because your reputation made you or broke you.
4. Never go anywhere without a weapon, not to chow or work or behind the bushes to relieve yourself. Especially the latter
5. Everything is a weapon. It doesn’t matter if a guy outweighs you by a hundred pounds and was last year’s heavyweight boxing champion. If you whack his knee with a stick hard enough or nail him in the eye with a rock hard enough he’s going down.
6. Never let anybody sneak up behind you. Not ever. No matter what it takes.
7. Always show willingness to work and willingness to share food if you got it. Nobody worth a monkey’s fart will cut you any slack if you get a rep for being lazy or stingy.
8. Think ahead. If there’s a storm coming and you’ve already got a dry spot staked out where you can defend it you’ll live longer and stay healthier.
9. Let the other men believe you spend your pay fast for what’s needful as most will do but always hold back a little something if you can. It may end up being the difference between life and death.
10. Like I said earlier, don’t ever show money. If you got two dollars, keep fifty cents in your pockets for buying stuff and the other buck and a half tucked in your sock or your shorts or if you don’t have either of those, then wherever. I’ve seen men killed over ten cents.
11. Never rat anybody out to the cops. Don’t matter if you witnessed a kid getting beat to death. Your call if you want to try saving the kid or killing the killer but do it yourself. Getting known as a snitch is a death sentence. Even worse, it’s a stain on your honor.
“How does that strike you?”
Karen tapped her chin, considering. “He’s certainly no English major”
“Agreed. John Cavanaugh had maybe a fifth grade education when he went into the Navy. For the rest of it, he educated himself. Went to school on the G.I. Bill after the war. But just because his education was erratic due to the nature of his times does not mean he’s stupid.”
“No. You know what that passage reminds me of?”
“You, baby. You. Clean up the syntax, especially the way he switches tenses back and forth without seeming to realize it, and he could be Gwyneth Olivia Delaney. Though not as cute, of course.”
“Huh. You think?”
“There’s one more passage I’d like to share.”
“Go for it.”
“Cavanaugh is talking about–well, I’ll let him speak for himself.”
Happy Unger and I were chit-chatting the other day, sipping coffee and telling lies down at the café. Don’t recall how it came about but we got to discussing the deplorable state of American literature. “Seems to me,” I said, “there’s more murdering going on in the book world than the real world. Who sells the most books? James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Tami Hoag, Vince Flynn, the list goes on and on and what do they have for plots? Dead people killed violently and the people who are either chased by them or chase them. Even Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum comedies have plenty of murder victims in them, some compacted in junkyards or killed by whoever.”
Now you got to hear a little bit about Happy. He’s not really all that happy. Back in our wild and woolly days we put that name on him like we’d call a four hundred pound fat slob Slim or a seven foot beanpole Shorty. Happy just looked at me with those sad hound dog eyes of his, ears flopping down around he shirt collar like some poor Bassett hound on Valium, and he says, “John, all those books are just being realistic.”
Then he proceeded to fill me in on a few of the murdered folks he’d known personally. Added up to twenty-three. When I thought about it I realized I could beat that number. Death in war combat didn’t count. Only civilian killings although we included cops killed in the line of duty. He made me admit something I’d known since I was a tadpole. Man can be a vile and violent beast. Reminded me of a poem a Navy friend had written three nights before he was killed in action.
I was a little boy when my friend got killed
He was fifty-seven and his name was Bill
A few years later with a Colt .45
My Dad’s buddy and his wife quit being alive
My cousin shot his wife with a .30-06
When she was fixing to leave him with a passel of kids
My brother killed a man with his own .38
After the pistol-drawing feller stole his saddle away
Lee hit the curve on a crossing in the wild
Rolled his car, killed the girl who was carrying his child
Always made me wonder was it a real accident
He’d gone to chase her down with deadly intent
In Wyoming a mother engaged to be wed
Had her fiancé shot dead in the back of his head
My uncle was shot in the back at his place
He hit the pine needles with the front of his face
One man down the road at the pay telephone
Got shot for a dime he refused to loan
A girl I knew well who camped alone at night
Was found dead in her tent an apparent suicide
Or was it really that, man we’ll never know
If you want to hear more I know a hundred or so
And me I’m just a sailor on the south Pacific sea
We humans are killers, take pity on me
The Japanese didn’t kill the poet directly. Oh, they tried right enough but in the end it was the sharks that got him. Don’t know if that counted as taking pity on him or not.
Karen closed her laptop. She was done career-searching for the evening. “Pessimistic fellow.”
“No.” Lanie shook her head in denial. “Not at all. There are other passages where he writes of love, kindness, all the good stuff. He does go light on charity he granted to others–in other words, he seems really uneasy about tooting his own horn and only mentions an anecdote if its crucial to the overall story–but he’s gracious and grateful for every kindness that’s ever been shown him, all through his life. I’d say he’s realistic. And balanced.”
“And dangerous if pursued.”
“There is that. If there aren’t any dead men in his past, I’m a sumo wrestler. Also, he devotes a whole chapter to his detestation of bounty hunters. Makes me wonder about that bounty hunter we saw on the news the other day, the guy who ended up restrained in his own vehicle for law enforcement to find. Anyway, love, here’s my point. Or points, plural. Number one: Few if any people alive today understand this man. What he went through, what he can and will do if he must, both good and bad. Number two: I wouldn’t count on that clue about the mountains. He also has a chapter about Doing the Unexpected. The man’s not senile even now. I’m thinking he’s as sharp as they come. He has to remember writing about the mountains. Yeah, he might be there somewhere, but then again, I’d not care to bet our savings on it. And number three, dammit, I’m starting to really like this guy. He reminds me of my late great grandfather.”
“And you,” Karen pointed out quietly, “except for gender, are the spitting image of Mighty Mickey Delaney, may he rest in peace.”
“I’m like Mickey in the gender part, too. Remember, he was totally smitten with you the moment he met you. He and I have the same exquisite taste in women.”
“And goody for you.” Karen flashed her teeth in a dazzling smile. Not quite a knockout, certainly not in Lanie’s bombshell class, Ms. Odela had a smile that lit up any room she was in. “So, if he were alive and in the game, would Mickey D. try to chase down John Cavanaugh?”
“No. He’d never do that.” Mickey had been a Libertarian decades before there was an official political party by that name. “And I’m thinking I shouldn’t, either. Drilling down deep has gotten me too close to John Cavanaugh. Now I just have to figure out how to break the news to Kermit without getting fired on the spot.”