With the engine warming up, I took a small hand towel from the glove box and dried off my bald head. Once settled, I pulled my car out onto Baker Street and drove west along the levee, following its contour.
On top of the levee, I drove to the breach and sat enraged for the remainder of the night, periodically turning on my headlights to watch millions of gallons of water pouring through the wrong side. Several times I felt for my gun.
Many hours later, for the first time in weeks, the rain stopped. As dawn broke, I came out of my depressed mental wanderings and started my car for the sixth time that night. I wasn’t simply going to warm up, I was going home. I wanted to see what was left of the kitchen, the living room and my den. I’d be able to collect some insurance money, but it would be for personal possessions. There’s little profit in replacing personal stuff.
On the way to Tenican Heights, I’d visit that bitch Stalworth. On a day like that, I could do my deed without ever being noticed. If I killed all of her chickens too, the entire neighborhood would cheer.
I drove to my storage garage and entered the code. The gate slid back. I pulled the garage door open and dug through a pile of discarded junk, old clothes, a dead lawn mower, an upright piano, one entire row of stacked milk crates filled with what, I couldn’t remember, three bicycles, one each from a different era. A three-speed from the sixties, a ten-speed narrow tire racing bike from the seventies, and an eighteen-speed mountain bike bought in the eighties. All were, except for rotting tires, in perfect condition.
I waded through old IRS boxes, outdated furniture, paintings my ex-wife had left behind, too ugly to look at, but too expensive to throw away. In the very back of the shed, behind an avocado green refrigerator, under a carefully folded waterbed mattress, I found what I was looking for. Getting it out was an entirely different matter. Sweat was rolling down my forehead and I was gasping for breath by the time I dragged the inflatable four-man dinghy out into the driveway.
Before I was going to attempt to find the motor for the little raft, I unfurled and inspected it for rubber rot. It had been years since I’d looked at it. Once I bought the ski boat, I ignored the raft. My ski boat was either grinding its windshield and running lights on the roof of my garage or sitting on the floor under ten feet of water. Either way it was useless.
The little raft I thought I’d never use again was still in reasonable shape. I folded it and wrestled it into the trunk of my car.
The minuscule gas engine was leaning against the opposite wall behind an old kitchen table turned on its side. Compared to pushing and pulling a hundred pounds of loose rubber out from behind all that junk, the engine was easy.
Once I found the fuel tank and some paddles, I slammed the garage door, locked it and drove to the Ecco station next to the levee. It cost me seven dollars, fifty cents at a time to blow up the raft, then another thirteen dollars for gas.
I turned to the station attendant, some punk kid with rings in his nose and tattoos. “Give you five bucks to help me drag this to the top of the levee.”
The kid grinned. “Fifty.”
He laughed. “Have it your way.”
He walked to the office and sat with his girlfriend watching television.
I stood for ten minutes waiting for someone to drive in. At five-thirty in the morning the day after a flood, the likelihood of someone getting gas was slim. I finally walked to the office and opened the door. “I’ll give you ten.”
“Thirty dollars to drag this raft up a twenty foot incline?”
The kid shrugged. “Buck and a half a foot.”
“Twenty and that’s it. Hell freezes over before I give you a penny more.”
The kid’s smirk broke into a wide smile. He held out his hand. “Up front.”
Small patterings of rain snicked my yellow slicker as I pulled the rope of the little engine who knew how many times. I was in a sweat for the second time that day, the first time in a year. Every time I pulled the cord the little engine coughed and sputtered like it wanted to start, but it wouldn’t engage.
I wasn’t giving up. I’d paddle the entire goddamn ten miles to Tenican Heights if that’s what it took. The engine was going to start if I had to pull on the rope until it broke, which was exactly what happened.
It took five minutes of ranting before I calmed enough to come to the one conclusion I’d been trying so hard to ignore. I’d seen grease under the kid’s nails. I recognized the look in his eyes. He had the logical eyes of a mechanic.
I knew how to maneuver a hostile takeover and how to create a tax base to save me from ever paying a penny in taxes. Because they owed me favors, I had a half dozen officials in my pocket. I knew what it would take to build an empire, which I’d done three times in my life, but I knew nothing about paddling a raft in a fast moving river, nor did I know how to replace a pull rope on a cheap Sears and Roebuck motor.
Reluctantly, I removed the little motor and walked it back down the incline of the levee into the Ecco Station.
The kid grinned. “Now I’ll take that fifty.”
He had me over a barrel. It was something I’d been so happy to do many times in my illustrious career, so I should have understood.
I glared at the kid then pulled out two twenties and a ten.
He pointed. “Put the engine on the bench.”
“I just paid you fifty bucks to get this thing running. The least you could do is put it on the bench.”
The kid turned his back, flipped open his roll-around toolbox, pulled out some wrenches, a screwdriver and a new piece of rope. “Put it up there and I’ll throw in a new rope.”
Exasperated, I grabbed the little motor and flipped it harshly onto the bench.
“Careful. Sears doesn’t open till ten, then who knows how long to order any broken part.”
I glared. “Fix the goddamn motor.”
“It’s an engine.”
“Who gives a flying fuck?”
“A motor is powered with electricity.”
“Well, thank you very much, Einstein. Just fix the fucking thing.”
Within a minute, the kid replaced the rope and pulled it. The engine coughed as before.
While concentrating on the repair, he asked, “How long has it been since you started this thing?”
“Coupla’ years, I guess, maybe three.”
“Carb’s clogged with old fuel.”
The kid pulled out another handful of tools. In a minute he had a carburetor the size of my thumb out and disassembled.
He pointed with his screwdriver. “There it is.”
I wasn’t interested.
The kid opened a penknife and scraped something, then took a thin piece of wire and jammed it into a little brass part. In another minute, he had the engine back together and pulled on the rope.
I broke into a smile when the familiar putt-putt sounded from the exhaust.
The kid grinned, turned the engine off and wiped his tools. “Should get you where you want to go, but soon I’d take it in and have it looked at.”
I wasn’t listening to the little twerp. I was half way out of the station before he finished his sentence. I made a silent vow to call his boss later that very day and get him fired for pocketing the money.
I mounted, then started the motor. I put another toothpick in my mouth and launched the boat. With the little motor putt-putting away, I stepped into the middle of the boat and sat on the wooden crossbar. I grabbed the throttle handle and gave it a twist. The putt-putt sound instantly turned into a leaf blower whine. The little boat reluctantly pulled away from shore.
The current was stronger than I’d realized. The boat was pulled into the middle of the torrent, spinning me around before the motor could correct my course. It would be another mile before I reached the breach. I’d have to be careful running through the gap, but beyond that it would be smooth sailing. Watch out, Stalworth, here I come.
The rain started again. Within minutes the bottom of the raft was an inch deep. To bail, I scooped water with my hands. It would stay afloat, but the freezing water was already too cold for my feet, which were soaked before I got into the boat. I wasn’t about to sit waist deep in muddy ice cubes.
I was so engrossed in bailing, the breach in the levee snuck up on me. Like a vacuum, it sucked me in, tossed me from side to side, pulled my boat under then threw it into the air. For a moment I thought I was going overboard. Maybe I’d get my end-it-all wish after all.
Once through the breach, over the twisting whitewater rapids of the opening, the water spread out and calmed. My little leaf blower engine chugged me down Main Street. I passed the new mini-mart, Molly’s dress shop, Dickerman’s drug, Marysville auto parts and swung around the bend toward fast food row.
What was left of the businesses were under ten feet of water. Product floated out front doors and broken windows to join other floatables. The place was a mess.
I steered my raft past people sitting on roofs and looking out from upper story windows. I wanted out of that disaster as quickly as possible. I wanted to put the devastation behind me and get to my house.
I bailed more and more water the further I floated down the boulevard. Steering got sluggish.
It wasn’t until I piloted down the highway and turned right into Tenican Heights that I realized the boat was loosing air.
If I went through the fifth fairway, I could cut out a number of turns and maybe make it home before the raft sank.
I made it a hundred yards up the fourth fairway. I’d long since given up on not sitting in freezing water.
All I wanted was to get home where I could get warm, get my ski boat and deal with Stalworth.
As much as I tried to keep the nose out of the water, the boat took its final plunge into the drink. The minuscule motor plugged on. It was pushing an airless inner tube when the lawnmower sound that permeated the silence, coughed, sputtered and stopped.
I pulled out the aluminum paddle and tried desperately to hand pull myself down what was supposed to be the fifth fairway. In the distance stood high-and-dry the eyesore, the pain in my ass, that chicken loving Stalworth property and that rag-tag house, and it sat on the only patch of dry land for miles. It galled me when I realized that if I didn’t head for that land I’d be up to my chest in muddy ice water.
I paddled for the only piece of earth I’d openly sworn I would never set foot on until Barney, Bowman and Whalde owned it. I’d never even look at it until the bulldozers leveled the house, tore up that stupid garden and every damned crowing rooster and flower-digging chicken was eradicated.
There I was seeking refuge on the last place on earth.
The boat gave up any semblance of being the thing it was designed to be as the last of the air bubbled out of a three-inch rent in the rotted fabric. The weight of the motor pulled it under.
I’d been sitting waist deep in the muddiness, but suddenly found myself up to my neck. I let go of the useless paddle.
Although I knew nothing about swimming, I dog paddled toward the shore. Lucky for me, and not a second too late, on my third dip under water, my last try to coherently swim, my foot touched land. I kicked off the ground and breached the murky depths for another breath. Each time I dropped under, I found the ground closer. Each time, my footing got firmer. As my strength gave out, I could stand and breathe at the same time. I’d have to get out of the water quickly or I was going to freeze.
Once my feet found the earth, I pushed fast through the freezing water toward the shore until I stood dripping on solid ground.
I trudged up the path to the front door. My entire body was shaking so much I almost couldn’t knock. It was a recurring nightmare I’d had since the old woman died.
The door opened and there she was. My teeth were chattering. I almost couldn’t talk.
Although I was never on the forefront of any court battles, never had my name or picture in any newspapers, my dream was always the same, Stalworth would recognize me and turn me away at the door and it was always a matter of life and death.
She grabbed my hand, pulled me into the house and over to the fire.
I looked to my left and sitting on the couch was that sleezeball, Billy Marlin. Oh god, nightmare number two. Billy called me boss in public.
“Hi Trunk,” Yamelda said sitting on the far end of the same couch. Nightmare number three. Yamelda, that squealing, tell-all-whore, Keating was there.
“Hello, Harry.” The druggist, William Dickerman was standing by the picture window at the opposite end of the room.
I was so cold I couldn’t respond, nor did I want to.
Stalworth said, “Go in the bathroom and take off these wet clothes. I’ll get you a robe.”
Marlin asked, “How’d you get here, Mr. Tee?”
I could do nothing except shiver.
Stalworth led me to the bathroom door. I stepped in and stripped down to my underwear. Immediately I felt warmer. Through the door, Stalworth handed me a robe. “The tub’ll be full in a minute. Get your body temperature back up before you die on me.”
I took the robe and closed the door.
She hadn’t recognized me. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that someone killed all her chickens? Only a year ago all her windows were broken for the fifth time. Only last month her hanging laundry was ripped from the line and stomped into the ground? She blamed it on neighborhood kids, but the two people responsible were sitting in her house. Billy and that sleaze ball Sundog did the dirty work. I paid them to do it.
That hussy who wrecked my bedroom, got up, walked over to me and whispered. “That’s Harry Trunk.”
“Yes, I know.”
“He’s one of the biggies in this county.”
“Oh really,” I said. “Well, he’s about to go into hypothermia if we don’t get him warmed up.”
Keating smiled. “When Harry lost his shirt a few years back, everyone in the news room cheered. He’s a sleaze from the get-go.”
William dropped his voice to a whisper. “He’s a customer. Kinda snooty, if you ask me.”
“Please,” I said while hanging his clothes over the woodstove. “I don’t want to hear another word.”
Dickerman opened his mouth, then decided against it.
I was warming to my little group of stragglers. I hadn’t had so many house guests at one time in years. The least I could do, considering the circumstances, was treat them as guests.
I turned to William. “As soon as Mr. Trunk is warmed up and dressed, can you take everyone back to dry land?”
In the meantime, I have an extra egg or two in the frig. Anyone like something to eat?”
I was kidding, of course. I had more eggs than I could ever want. Once a week, I took my extra ten dozen eggs to the food bank.
My whole motley group went into the kitchen. I pulled out frying pans and cooking oil.
By the time Trunk sheepishly stepped into the kitchen, I’d fed half my guests.
I wiped my hands on my apron and put one hand out. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. I’m Marylou Stalworth.”
The idiot just stood there like he didn’t know what I was talking about.
I retracted my hand. “Want some eggs and toast? I’m afraid I don’t have anything to go on the toast, shopping day was tomorrow.” I waved him to the empty chair. “How do you like your eggs?”