It had been a long hike and Jake's feet ached. If it hadn't been for Willy's constant banter about Hilda he would have spent most of the fifteen miles complaining, so he was thankful for that.
While the sun set they pitched their tents under the watchful eye of Corporal Ellenbogen.
"You two!" Ellenbogen grunted. "Latrine duty."
Jake turned to see who his partner was going to be in the dismal job of digging the pit and erecting the multi-hole seat over it.
Jake groaned inwardly as their eyes met. Kowalski and Jake had avoided each other since the night out, which Jake was thankful for, assuming that Kowalski was giving him a wide berth in case Jake laid him out again. And Jake was happy to have him think that - knowing that, without the rage he, couldn't go two rounds with a revolving door. Leaving Willy to finish setting up the tent, Jake retrieved the collapsible shovel from his pack and followed Kowalski to the edge of the clearing that Ellenbogen had pointed to.
Kowalski stuck his shovel into the soft ground and looked Jake in the eye. "Okay then, Morgendorffer. What's it gonna be?" he asked.
Jake made an instant decision to tough it out. "You got what was coming, Kowalski. Helen was my date. Groping's bad enough, and she gave you a cold shower for that. But if you think I was gonna stand there and watch you hit her, then you'd better get used to it because its not gonna be the last time someone lays you out."
Kowalski met Jake's stare for a few seconds then looked away.
"So let's forget about it and dig this shitter or we're gonna be here until midnight."
To Jake's relief, they did.
By the time they'd dug the pit, set up the seat, and erected the canvas screen around it Jake was tired and famished. He walked back to where Willy had the tent erected, waiting for "Cooky" to get the dinner ready. He was in the middle of telling Willy about the accommodation that he and Kowalski had reached when he was stopped mid-sentence by a sublime aroma. Turning, he saw Cooky, Buxton Ridge's head cook, stirring a large pot over a low fire, steam rising into the cooling air. Jake's mouth watered and he dragged Willy over to where the evening's meal was being prepared.
"That smells great! What is it?" Jake asked, his taste buds tingling in anticipation.
Cooky looked up from the pot. He recognised Jake as the boy who'd spent last Christmas at Buxton Ridge. Morgan? Morgandorf? Something like that. He cocked a wary eye at Jake. "Kitchen sink stoo. 'S what I call it anyways."
'Kitchen sink? As in 'everything but'?"
No, white bread - 'cause it looks like what's left in the sink after the washin' up. "Yeah Sure."
"Do you suppose I could...?"
"Taste it? Sure. You hungry then? How about your buddy?"
"That smell soooo good! And I could eat a horse," Jake enthused.
"Uh, it ain't spicy is it, Cooky? I reckon you're about the best damn chef in all of creation, but I like m' food plain and simple."
Cooky cocked an eye at Willy.
Jake watched hungrily as Cooky ladled a dollop of stew onto two enamel plates and handed them to him and Willy with a spoon each. Jake held it to his nose and breathed in a hearty lungful of the aroma, then eagerly shovelled a spoonful into his mouth. He closed his eyes as the taste hit and a beatific smile welcomed the angels dancing on his tongue.
Cooky watched, grinning. "You like it? Uh, Morgandoofer is it?"
"Morgendorffer - Jake," Jake replied, eagerly eating the rest of the plateful. "Like it? I don't think I've ever tasted anything so good in my life!"
Cooky snorted. "An how 'bout you, son?" he asked, looking at Willy.
"Well, I dunno - it smells a little spicy t' me..."
Jake grabbed Willy's plate and finished it off in a trice, to Willy's delighted laughter. "Yeah, Willy! That's real spicy - you wouldn't like it at all! Tell you what - you'd better give me yours later too!"
Willy laughed louder. "Well - you done saved me a night o' stomach troubles then, Jake."
Laughing, Jake turned back to Cooky. "I don't suppose you'd...you know...teach me to make it?"
"Teach you? Yeah. Sure!" Cooky's funny bone tingled and he looked around, making sure that no-one was near, and turned back to Jake. "Not now though," he whispered conspiratorially. "It's a family secret. I'm only gonna tell you 'cause you like it so much. Come back after dinner and I'll...impart the wisdom to you!"
"Wow!" Jake said, open-mouthed. "Thanks! I'll be back!" Jake grinned and he and Willy hurried off back to the tent.
Cooky watched Jake walk off. He grinned and chuckled to himself as he bent to pick up the catering-size cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Hungarian Goulash and stash them away before the boys lined up, almost sorry that he'd have to admit that it came out of a can. Why couldn't Morgendorffer have said that about his chicken gumbo or his apple pie?
Once things had been cleared up he walked off to his tent to fetch a packet of cigarettes, unaware that the exchange had been observed by someone who was looking forward to getting even with Cadet Jake Morgendorffer.
Kowalski waited until Cooky was in hearing range, and spoke to his friends.
"I can't believe Morgendorffer, man. He said, 'Thats some damned good cooking for a nigger. Hell - he probably stole the recipe from a white man.'"
Cooky stomped off and Kowalski smiled. "Perfect," he whispered.
George Curtiss "Cooky" Washington had been head cook at Buxton Ridge since just after the war. As an army cook he'd been what he expected to be, a black man in a white man's world, and he'd been called a nigger too often to take it personally any more. No doubt Morgandoof was just another ignorant white kid, and Cooky bore him no malice - what could you expect from a kid whose parents left him at school over Christmas anyway?. The racial prejudice in the army was a damn site less than he'd been used to as a poor kid growing up in Alabama - and it'd taught him a useful trade. When he'd been demobilized at the end of the war Corporal Ellenbogen had offered him the job at the Academy and he'd taken it with pleasure, married, and built a life that a lot of the folks he'd grown up with would have envied. Besides - there were changes happening in America - Doctor King's Freedom Marches, Black Power...he could see that it was going to be a long road, but maybe his kids or his grandkids would grow up with all the opportunities that these pasty white kids like Jake Morgendorfle and his smartass buddy had. Hell, maybe they'd even be able to go to a place like Buxton Ridge where some white guy would be doing the cooking for them! He smiled at the thought of Morgendorter being that white guy, cooking up a mess of kitchen sink stew.
So, he thought, chuckling to himself, Morganfoofer wants kitchen sink stew? Then kitchen sink stew he's gonna get.
The Willys bounced as Vincent left the driveway and turned onto the street perhaps a little too fast. Amanda was silent, lost for words, torn between relief that they were leaving and regret for the rift that she'd precipitated between Vincent and his family.
As they turned left at the end of the street she turned to look at him. His face was set, not betraying any emotion, but tense.
"Vincent, I'm sorry," she said.
Vincent's expression didn't change and he stared straight ahead, but he reached across and took he hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. "I meant what I said." He paused, letting go of her hand to change gears, and continued quietly. "I didn't realise...how goddam bourgeois they...we were...are."
"If you hadn't met me..."
He turned to her and shook his head, then turned back to the road. They slowed as a car in front turned into a driveway. "Being away from them, getting out into the real world - I would have changed anyway. I just hadn't realised...I thought it was them, but it wasn't, was it?"
He was speaking quietly, and she assumed the question was rhetorical and didn't bother answering.
"Sooner or later something would have triggered it. I'm sorry it had to be you." He took her hand again and squeezed.
He sighed. "Yeah." A faint smile lit his face. "Well, we'll just have to get another one."
"Did you really mean that? About a wedding?" She smiled. "Another wedding?"
He turned to her, serious again. "Yeah. Definitely. The sooner the better. In fact...why not now?"
"Now? What...you mean here?"
"No," he laughed, "but..." another pause "...it's Tuesday. What do you say Saturday?"
Amanda stared at him. "You're kidding?"
Vincent grinned back. "No. Look - at first I wanted a big wedding, the whole family thing, you know, the public declaration of love and commitment. But what happened...back there...made me realise that Coyote was absolutely right - except for one thing."
"Legality? But that's just...convention. I mean if you take away the religious significance."
"Is it?" he said, looking at her again. "How did you feel when Mom almost called Wind a bastard?"
"I was going to..." she stopped, realising that telling him that she was about to leave - and would have if he hadn't come back early - would mean that she'd have to answer difficult questions about what had been said. And as much as she despised his mother, telling Vincent about what she'd done stood too big a chance of hurting him, so it was going to stay her secret. "It hurt. You're right." She flushed with anger at the memory but, luckily, he didn't ask what it was she was going to do.
"Yeah. Me too. If we get legally married in Vegas we'll protect them. Quick, easy, no problems. So what do you think?"
Amanda stared at him as he concentrated on the road. "I think I love you Mister Lane."
He grinned. "Then let's get married, Mrs Lane."
Three days later they drove down Las Vegas Boulevard, Amanda goggling at the spectacular casinos and hotels. But when Vincent turned into the parking lot of Caesar's Palace she turned to him. "Now come on - this is crazy. This is Caesar's Palace! There's no way we can stay here!"
"Relax," he grinned. "These places are cheap. The casinos subsidise the rooms. Most of the people who come here wind up playing the tables and that's where they make their money. You'll see."
They parked underground and took the elevator up to the foyer. As Amanda looked around she realised that it wasn't so much opulent as ostentatious - ornate and expensive, but tasteless and gaudy. The mock-Roman effect was more a Cecil B DeMille Rome than something that Romulus and Remus's descendents might have recognised. Still, the detail and decoration were impressive. And she realised a little guiltily that she couldn't help feeling a thrill at being part of such a classically cheesy scenario - the quickie wedding in Vegas. She smiled at the thought and waited while Vincent went up to the desk to see about getting a room for the night, watching the people, many of them probably desperados, she thought, hoping for that lucky number to raise them from desperation to riches. I wonder how often it really happens, she thought. Banners advertising the current show were hung from the faux-Roman pillars, photographs of stars and the rich and famous.
Wind was gurgling happily at all the colour and movement, and Amanda was about to say something to him when a scuffle across the floor attracted her attention.
"Watch where you're going you old fool!"
She turned to see an old woman go sprawling as a plaid-suited man in his 20s stormed off, ignoring her, the expression on his face suggesting that Lady Luck hadn't smiled on him. The old woman's handbag and glasses went flying, the handbag's contents spilling out across the carpet.
Amanda ran across to her and knelt down, holding Wind in one arm and gently helping the old lady to sit up with the other. She reached out to snatch the glasses from under the feet of people hurrying by, missing them by a second as they shattered with a crunch under the heel of a pair of highly-polished wingtips. Amanda glared up at the retreating legs and turned back quickly to support the woman..
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"My glasses - my things..." the old woman said, her thin hand reaching out to where her belongings had spilled.
Amanda handed her the frame of what had been, until a minute ago, her glasses. "I'm afraid these aren't going to do you any good. Don't worry - I'll get the other things. Can you stand up?"
"I think so, if you can help me up," the woman said, getting shakily to her feet with Amanda's help. As soon as Amanda let her go, she staggered, and Amanda put an arm around her again.
"Here - let's get you to a seat," she said, helping to steer her to a black leather couch a dozen paces away.
"But my things..." the woman said, increasingly distressed.
"I'll get them. You help her to sit down."
Amanda looked up to see a middle-aged man with dark wavy hair wearing well-cut casual clothes picking up the handbag and starting to fetch the spilled contents. She helped the woman to the chair and sat down next to her, seeing that the old lady was badly shaken and beginning to cry.
"I'm so sorry. It all happened so quickly - I..."
"It's okay," Amanda said soothingly, holding her hand. "The important thing is that you're alright. Nothing broken? Not badly hurt?"
"Only my pride," she said, smiling through her tears.
"Can you see without your glasses?"
"Well enough, thank you Dear. I have a spare pair in my room. Things are a might fuzzy but I can see to get around."
"Well at least that's something. People can be such pigs!"
"I'm afraid so. But others," she said, looking at Amanda, "are very kind."
"Here you go," said the dark-haired man, handing her her handbag. "Everything seems okay, but I don't think this'll ever be the same again." He smiled, holding out a lipstick that had been trodden on. "Maybe this'll teach you to be more careful! Las Vegas is no place for pretty young ladies like you to running around and tripping over themselves!"
The old lady laughed, reaching into her handbag for a handkerchief. "It's been a long time since anyone's called me pretty. Say - don't I know you, young man?"
Amanda looked up and grinned at the man, who winked at her.
"Nah, I've just got one of those faces. People think they recognise me all the time, but I don't know any of them."
"Well thank you so much. I'm so grateful to you. Are you both here for the show?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm looking forward to it," he said.
"I'm here to get married," added Amanda. "My hu...my fiancee's over there getting us a room now."
"Oh dear!" The woman looked at Wind, and caught a blurry glance from the man. "I mean I don't think he's going to have any luck. The whole town's booked out for the show," she said, wiping her eyes.
Amanda's face fell. "Oh no," she said. "We've driven three days and we..." Wind started fussing and Amanda rocked and shushed him, not noticing the exchange of glances between the dark-haired man and the woman.
"I'm sorry, he's probably hungry." Amanda said, glancing over at the desk to see Vincent speaking despondently to the clerk, nodding in resignation.
"Well, I'll leave you folks to it then," the dark-haired man said, turning his head round to glance at Vincent. "Are you sure you're alright, little lady?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, thank you, I'm fine. Thanks to you two," she replied.
He picked up the woman's hand and kissed the back of it. "See you later, beautiful," he said, smiling at them both and walking off leaving the woman giggling like a thirteen year old.
Amanda stifled a laugh as Vincent turned and, spotting Amanda, walked over to them. None of them noticed the dark-haired man circle around behind them, walk over to the desk where he had a brief word to the clerk, and disappear into the crowd.
"This is my fiancee, Vincent," Amanda said, winking at Vincent as he in response to his reaction to the word.
"Hello, Dear! Your fiancee was very kind to me. I fell and she helped me up. You're very lucky."
"Yeah, she's something alright," he said. "I'm lucky that way, but I'm afraid we won't be staying here tonight. There's a big show on and the whole town's booked solid."
"Oh dear, I was afraid of that," the old woman said. "We were just talking about that. Everyone's here for the show. What are you going to do?"
"Well, I guess we could try Henderson or Boulder City, but..."
"Excuse me, Sir."
Vincent turned to see the desk clerk behind him.
"It seems I was mistaken," he said politely. "We do have a room. If you'd like to come and register I'll have the bell boy help you up with your luggage."
"Oh, that's great! Thanks!" Vincent said. "Come on, let's go then."
"Are you sure there's nothing you need?" Amanda asked the old lady.
"I'm fine, thank you, Dear. You run along now," she said, slowly getting up and standing steadily. "I'm fine. Congratulations on your marriage."
"Thank you," Amanda said, smiling and hurrying to catch up with Vincent.
"So, ya wanna learn how to make Kitchen Sink Stoo, eh?" Cooky had spent the last two hours preparing for this and he was going to enjoy it. He played up the Delta dialect to make himself sound more exotic.
"Yeah! That was soooo good. I hope it's not too complicated." said Jake, patting his distended stomach.
"Listen, Morgendorffer, ya don't make a masterpiece in a minute. Sure, I can whip it up pretty quick when I needs to, but I been doin' it since I was at my Daddy's knee. These things take time."
"Oh - yeah. Sorry," Jake said looking abashed.
"Okay then. Now listen up good. Ya takes ya some ham hocks and some chicken livers and ya boil 'em danged near ta death, then yo put in a few handfuls of shrimp and crawdad butts..."
"Crawdad butts? Where do you get crawdad butts from?"
"Ain't my problem, Morgendorffer. You wants t' make it, you works out where t' git it. Now - once them crawdad butts are in there ya gotta be quick. Y' tosses in a few handfuls of okra and then...you listenin' hard, cause this here's the secret?"
"Yeah - I am!" replied Jake, drinking in every word.
"Okay then. You takes some cayenne pepper - 'bout a half a cupful, and y' adds it real quick. Then, while that's boilin', y' chops up about a cupful 'a chillies - you know them tiny little ones..."
Jake nodded. He'd never heard of cayenne pepper, but he knew only too well what chillies were - Mad Dog used to put them in his chilli con carne and it made Jake's eyes water to be in the house when it was cooking. He knew that the smaller the chillies were the hotter they were, and he started to feel uncomfortable.
"...y' chops 'em up real fine and you tosses 'em in and stirs it real good. Now you waits until all that okra's rendered down real thick and then y' adds jist the tiniest dash o' hot sauce. Y' gotta use Durkee's 'Red Hot' Sauce or 'Louisiana'-brand hot sauce if y' can get 'em. Not too much, mind! If it don't work out right y' can be sure it's 'cause y' messed up the hot sauce - y' gotta git that jes' right!"
"Uh, won't all that chilli...I mean it didn't taste like it had any chilli..."
"Well 'course it didn't, Morgendorffer! Damn, boy, you real dumb - you know that? That's what the cayenne pepper's for! All them things, they jes' cancel each other out! Your buddy, that smartass kid - he jes' real sensitive. Y' gotta have a little bitta bight to it or it ain't no good at all - s'why y' gotta be real careful with the hot sauce. You understan'?"
"Wow! Yeah! I get it!"
"You sure? 'Cause lotsa white folks jes' don't understsan'. But I can tell as how you're a lot smarter'n most 'un 'em. I reckon as with a bit a' practice you're gonna be able to make this jes fine!" Lawsy me, Cooky - y'all shoulda bin a actor 'stead o' a cook, he thought in dialect, biting his tongue to stop himself from laughing.
"Really? Thanks! So that's it?"
"Yeah. Tha's it."
Jake reached out and shook Cooky's hand. "Thanks, Cooky! This is something I'm going to remember all my life! I'm going to get it perfect, just like you do, if it's the last thing I do!"
It well may be, son, it well may be. I just hope you aren't stupid enough to try it out on other people.
"Your bags, Sir?"
"It's okay - they're still in the car. We didn't want to bring them in until we'd checked."
"I'll show you to your room then, Sir, then I'll come and bring your luggage in from the car for you."
"Wow - great service!" said Vincent. "Sure. Thanks."
The bellhop led them to the elevators inserted a key into a lock below the button panel. Amanda glanced at Vincent, who shrugged his shoulders. A set of elevator doors opened immediately. When they were in the elevator doors closed and they felt the familiar slight weight increase as it started upwards. Vincent noticed that there sixteen floors and he watched the numbers climb on the floor indicator - 14, 15, 16 - and then the display blanked while the car kept moving what felt like another two floors before the doors opened.
They stepped out - not into a hallway, but directly into a room. From the mezzanine level where the elevator stopped, a wide flight of marble stairs led down to a sunken living area with curved sofas upholstered in what looked like zebra hide. A polished black granite coffee table held a huge vase of exotic flowers and, beyond them, floor to ceiling windows looked out across Las Vegas to the Nevada desert beyond.
"Whoa," Vincent exclaimed, grinning at the bellhop, "wrong floor, man! But this is amazing! Could we take a look around do you suppose?"
"This is the suite I was told to show you to, Mister Lane," he answered.
"But you...there's no way we..." Vincent stuttered as Amanda stepped out onto the polished marble floor, looking around, her eyes drawn to the paintings on the wall.
"Vincent," she whispered, "these are...originals..." Patting Wind gently she slowly walked up to one, her eyes bulging.
Vincent stepped out after her and turned to see her staring at what could only be a Picasso. He turned back to the bellhop, who had stepped out of the elevator. "Look, man, they've confused us with someone else, but do you think we could stay here for a minute while you go and sort it out for us? My wife's an artist and she'd love to look at the paintings."
"And the...ooooohhhh no! Rodin!" she said, skipping over to a statue that overlooked the living area.
"Certainly Mister Lane. I'll go and confirm with the desk. Why not give me your car keys? If I'm right, I'll go and fetch your luggage and bring it up. If there's a mistake I'll come back and show you to the proper room."
Vincent reached into his pocket and tossed him the keys. "Thanks, man. Red Willys wagon."
"Thank you, Sir. I won't be long."
The bellhop got back into the elevator while Amanda and Vincent slowly walked around the suite. While Amanda looked at artworks that would have done a small museum proud, Vincent checked out the furniture and the view, hoping that Amanda wouldn't noticed that the upholstery was real zebra hide.
A chime behind them signalled the return of the elevator and rhey turned to see the bellhop taking their luggage off a trolley. "Here are your car keys, and these," he said, handing him two small keys, "are the room and keys to the private elevator. There are phones in every room including the bathroom. Twenty-four hour room service is complimentary..."
'Whoa - hold it!" Vincent interrupted. "This is crazy! I mean even if it wasn't a mistake there's no way we could afford it!"
"I anticipated your concern, Mister Lane, so I double-checked with the desk. The management regrets that you were turned away when you first enquired and offers you this suite by way of apology for two nights at the standard Deluxe Room rate of $25 per night. If that's acceptable to you, the suite is yours."
Vincent glanced at Amanda. Her eyes said "please take it" and...other things. Vincent turned back to the bellhop. "Look, man, I have no idea what this is about but I'm not crazy. You're sure, right?"
"Yes, Mister Lane. I'm certain."
"Then we're here for two nights. Uh, just for the sake of curiosity, how much does this room normally go for?"
"Normally, Sir? Well, it depends. It's usually reserved for VIPs. In casinos that means high rollers - people who can be relied on to bet thousands of dollars a night - sometimes more. The casino offers them the use of these suites free of charge. For - pardon the term , ordinary guests - people the casino doesn't know, it would cost in the vicinity of eight hundred dollars a night."
When he could speak again Vincent said "I still think there's been a terrible mistake. I've never gambled and I don't intend to. Even if I did the most you'd get out of me would be five dollars. But...okay. You're absolutely sure I'm not going to find a nasty surprise waiting for me..."
"Vincent. Shut up. It's happened. Take it."
Amanda's expression was irresistible and, bowing to the inevitable, Vincent smiled and handed the bellhop a dollar, which he took with dignity and a friendly smile. As he left, Amanda put her arms around him, being careful not to squash Wind, who was gurgling happily. "I want to find out what those knobs on the bathtub are," she said.
Jake tolerated the three days of camp by focussing on two things: he had only four weeks to go until graduation and this weekend he was going to take Helen to her senior prom. Getting the recipe for kitchen sink stew from Cooky was a bonus.
Now that Hilda had accepted his proposal Willy talked incessantly about his plans. And though Jake enjoyed listening to him and sharing his contentment, it wasn't without an accompanying regret. Sometimes at night he'd concentrate on picturing Amanda's face, and he cried silently the first time he realised that tiny details were fading. But they never faded completely.
"Army's a fine life for a guy like me, Jakey. Not fancy, mind, but regular."
"How about 'Nam, Willy?" Jake had asked the first night under canvas.
Willy had been silent for a long time before he answered.
"I don't think so deep as you, Jakey, I know. I don't much care about politics. T' be honest I'm not sure as I could point out Viet Nam to y' on a map. But Pa always said that y' gotta clean out the stables if y' wanna ride the horse. I guess what he meant was that if y' take the pay, y' do the job, right?"
"Yeah," Jake had said, feeling deep conflict over loyalty to his friend and revulsion that he'd consider participating in what Jake was coming to know was a deeply unjust war. "I guess so," he added, loyalty winning out.
"Anyways, I talked t' Hilda about it an' she's fine. Kinda likes the idea of movin' round t' where they post me. She's never done much travellin'. Ma's not so happy about it o' course. I think she'd like me t' stay and mind the farm. But Peter's talkin' about moving back in an' Ma's real keen on that. I hope he does. It'd make me real happy to know that Ma's got folks there with her." He turned over and looked at Jake. "Ma's lookin' forward a heap t' meetin' ya at the wedding."
"I'm looking forward to meeting her too, Willy," Jake had replied honestly.
* * *
Cooky prepared an early breakfast on the morning of the hike back to Buxton Ridge.
Growing up as an only child Jake had always hated the shared latrines that they set up at camp, so he'd avoided using them as long as he could. But immediately after breakfast it became obvious that he wasn't going to be able to wait any longer and, sighing in resignation, he made his way to the canvas enclosure that he and Kowalski had erected three days ago. The ashes of the cooling fires were spread on the pit daily, but they never really masked the smell.
As he trudged towards the latrine he didn't notice the surreptitious glances of half the cadets, nor that two of them dashed in before him. Five minutes later Jake came out and walked over to wash his hands at the tank. The two cadets who had gone in before him came out, looked to their left and shrugged their shoulders at Kowalski, who had been watching from inside a tent on the eastern side of the latrine. He crawled out and strode past the two, glaring at them, and into the latrine.
Thirty seconds later there was a yell, and the canvas screen around the latrine came crashing down. From underneath the collapsed screen came a string of invective and Jake turned to see the entire camp making for the source of the commotion. He hurried over to help the other two lift the remains of the screen off to reveal Kowalski, sitting in the pit and scrabbling to get out, the three-hole wooden seat broken in two along a clean line between the second and third holes.
Years from that day, new cadets would stare wide-eyed at at the story, and beg to be told again of the day that Kowalski (who, it was rumoured, had had serious anatomical problems) fell in the pit.
"But why didn't y' fall in y'self, Jakie?" Willy asked. "That seat'd been sawed nearly right through."
"You're kidding?" Jake said. "You actually sit on it? I thought everyone sort of...hovered...like I do. Don't you get splinters?"
Wind screamed with delight as Amanda bounced him up and down, in and out of the frothy, bubbling water, watched by a grinning Vincent who was lying back letting the jets of air streaming out of the nozzles behind him massage his back. "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" he mused.
"Peeling grapes for the feast, I hope," she replied, handing Wind to him and ducking her head under the water. A couple of seconds later she came up and brushed her streaming hair back off her face with her hands. Vincent reached out and took her hand, pulling her over towards him, She lay next to him, her face flushed with the heat of he water as Wind kicked his legs and laughed.
"It could have been like this...well, maybe not at $800 a night, but...you know...the hot tub, the peeled grapes..." He looked around at the room and back at her face, her pale hair stuck to her shoulders with the water. "All I had to do was to become President of Lane Automotive Finishes."
But you'd have had to do it without me, she thought. "Is it what you want?"
"No," he answered immediately. "God! I can't think of anything more boring."
"But all this..." she looked around.
"I've got all I want," he said gently, staring into her eyes as their lips met.
Half an hour later they climbed out of the tub, enjoying the sensation of standing naked before the floor to ceiling windows looking down on the town below and the lengthening mid-afternoon shadows of the reddening desert beyond.
"I guess I'd better go down and organise the wedding," Vincent said as he towelled off. "I hear it takes all of ten minutes so there shouldn't be too much of a wait."
"I might go and take a look around."
Amanda dressed herself and Wind after Vincent had left. As she buttoned his top she was seized by an irresistible urge that seemed to come out of nowhere. She picked him up and walked over to the zebra skin-upholstered seat next to the coffee table (not real zebra skin, she thought, still, an incredibly good imitation...) and, picking up the telephone, dialled a familiar number, her heart pounding, fighting the urge to hang up as the line clicked and buzzed.
"The number you have dialled is not available or has been disconnected. Please check the number and try again..."
The colour drained from her face and she slowly put the receiver down, staring blankly into space.
"Ma ma ma ma ma," gurgled Wind.
She walked slowly over to him and picked him up as if in a dream, drifted across to the elevator and pressed the button. The door opened a minute later and she got in and pressed the button for the lobby. Stepping out, the people walking by and milling around barely registered, but the movement and bustle were distracting, taking her mind off it. The number you have dialled is not available or has been disconnected...
She looked around, wondering where Vincent had gone, and walked aimlessly, bouncing Wind gently. After perhaps ten minutes of random wandering with no sight of Vincent she sat down on a sofa in a bar, where it was quieter and people were talking quietly or sitting at the bar nursing drinks. The number you have dialled...
A tear dropped from her eye.
"You look as if you could use this."
She looked up to see the man who had picked up the old woman's purse. He put a scotch glass down in front of her, full to the brim with ice cubes and pale golden liquid., identical to one he held in his hand.
Amanda wiped an embarrassed hand across her cheek. "Thanks," she said, sniffing and smiling at him, "but I can't - I'm pregnant."
He cocked an eyebrow in an expression that was both comical and charming at the same time. "It's iced tea."
She looked down at the glass, picked it up, and took a hesitant sip, then a longer one. "It's delicious! Thank you!" She smiled.
"That's more like it," he said. "Okay, so it's none of my business, but what's a young lady like you doing crying on her wedding day? Do you mind?" He said, indicating the seat next to her.
"Oh, no - please..." she said as he sat down. She lifted the glass to her lips again, enjoying the coolness of the lemon tea and peering into the glass. "It's a long story," she said quietly. "It's...my parents. I wanted to call them but I couldn't get through..."
He nodded, as if to say "go on."
He had the kind of open and honest face that made her relax. "I...sort of..." she looked at Wind.
"Can I guess?" he asked gently. "Not married, baby on the way, parents couldn't accept it. My guess is that you ran away."
She stared at him. "How did you...?"
"It's not all that hard to figure out. I'm Italian and my parents were strict about that kind of thing too. Roman Catholic?"
"It figures. Not Italian though?"
"Ah. Same thing," he said, winking at her.
Amanda couldn't help smiling.
"He's cute," said the man, looking at Wind. "May I...?" He reached out for him and Amanda passed him over.
"His name's Wind."
"Nice!" he said, bouncing Wind up and down and making faces at him to Wind's delight. "My friends call me Dino," he said, smiling at her.
"Amanda, Amanda Lane - or at least I will be."
"So when's the wedding?"
"I don't know. Vincent's arranging it now. I guess it's too late for today, so I'm hoping tomorrow."
"You found somewhere to stay then?"
"Somewhere?" She laughed. "You wouldn't believe! It was the most incredible thing! We were..."
"Is this meshugganah goy bothering you, Madam? I'd be happy to call security and have him thrown out," came a voice from behind her.
She turned to see a short black man with close-cropped curly hair grinning at her.
"Don't you pay any attention to the Rabbi, here," Dino said to her, "You go and find yourself a nice Jewish girl. This one's taken...and not by me! Amanda, this is my buddy, Sam. Sam, Amanda."
Sam walked around in front of her, took her hand and kissed it. "Delighted, my dear."
Amanda laughed. "The pleasure's all mine, Sam."
"And this little bundle of Irish-American joy," added Dino, bouncing Wind on his knee, "is Wind."
"You're letting him hold your baby?" Sam said in mock horror. "I wouldn't trust him. Listen - I can call a Mohel, one little snip and, bingo - protection from the papists!"
Dino rolled his eyes, looking at Amanda with a resigned expression. "I can't take him anywhere without having him attack the one true faith!"
Amanda clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter.
"That's better," said Dino, grinning at her. "Sam, this lovely lady's getting married in the chapel tomorrow."
"Well," said Sam, sitting down opposite her, "my heartiest congratulations on choosing someone more appropriate than this Italian..."
"Hey," interjected Dino, "since your parents won't be here, who's going to witness the marriage?"
"Witness?" Amanda asked.
"You need witnesses. The Casino can usually get a couple of staff to do it, but they charge ten bucks a head. If you haven't got anyone organised maybe Sam and me could..."
"Oh! That'd be great! Thank you!" she said, grinning. "You said you work here, Dino - and you, Sam?"
"Yeah, me too," said Sam. "But I'd love to come. Mind you, I always cry at weddings. Well - at Jewish weddings anyway."
"Uh oh," said Sam, holding Wind at arm's length, "I think someone needs a change of diaper."
Amanda blushed and, standing, took Wind from him. "Sorry, Dino. Uh - I don't know when the wedding's going to be."
"It's okay - they post a list on a notice board outside the chapel. We'll check in the morning and if we don't see you beforehand we'll just arrive. Don't you worry."
"Thank you so much," Amanda said quietly. "I didn't expect, uh,"
"I know," Dino said. "Vegas isn't exactly the friendliest place. The way you helped that little old lady yesterday...well, It's a pleasure to meet you, Amanda."
"See you tomorrow," she smiled, and hurried back to the elevator.
When she arrived Vincent was sitting on the sofa and he turned and smiled. "All organised," he said. "Ten fifteen start, out by ten twenty in time for the next one at ten thirty. They don't waste any time." He walked over to where she'd lain Wind down to change his diaper. "We need a couple of witnesses though. The casino can usually get some staff to do it for ten dollars each providing it's not too busy so we'll..."
"Oh," she said, looking up at him. "Get me the diaper bag would you? Anyway, it's okay. You know I told you about that nice man who helped with the old lady? He was in the bar and he bought me an iced tea. He's so sweet. I was telling him about the wedding and his friend, Sam, came and sat with us He said we'd need witnesses and he and Sam offered to come." She smiled as he came back with the diaper bag. "You should have heard them - they were a couple of natural comedians - I was laughing so hard. They must be on the night staff I guess."
"Great! Then I guess we're all set!" Vincent said.
Helen looked at her watch. She had ten minutes to get from the hairdresser's to the dress shop across the other side of town and she couldn't afford to be distracted by the thoughts that had kept her awake half the night. That this was to be the first time her father and Jake were to meet was the least of her problems.
She checked the mirror and pulled out behind a blue Lincoln, immediately realising that she'd made a mistake as it ambled along at twenty. Helen impatiently hugged its bumper, getting more and more agitated as its driver refused to speed up or pull over and let her pass. Finally she turned right into a side street and stepped on the gas. She cut left, paralleling the road she'd left, then left again, hoping that she'd be able to pull out in front of the Lincoln. But, as it usually does at times like these, the universe conspired against her and the Lincoln drove through the intersection just as she got there and pulled back in behind it.
"Damn!" she breathed, hitting the wheel with her fist.
Finally she pulled in out side the dress shop with a screech of tires just as the door closed. Throwing the car door open she ran up and knocked, to see the woman inside turn and, recognising her, walk back and open the door.
"Miss Barksdale - you only just made it!"
* * *
Jake stepped back and looked in the mirror.
If he had anything to thank Mad Dog for it was for having the foresight - or at least the simple desire to screw the system - to have been insured up to the hilt when he died. Still, Jake had been used to living on a shoestring and now that money wasn't a problem he didn't spend it profligately - but he hadn't stinted on the rented tuxedo or the orchid corsage. He straightened the purple velvet bow tie one last time and headed back into the dorm to put his toothbrush and toothpaste away.
"Whoo-ee, Jakey. You're lookin' sharp as a knacker's knife."
Jake grinned at Willy, who was lying back on his bunk. "Gonna be a big night, Willy."
"I surely do hope so, buddy. You have a good time now."
"I mean to, man," he said and, hearing the cab's horn sound outside, strode off.
As the cab pulled up outside Helen's house the cabbie turned to look at Jake in the back seat. "Hey - I remember you! I brought you and your buddy here a while ago? How's he doin'? Has he managed to - you know...?"
Jake reached over and gave him the fare, shaking his head sadly. "I'm sorry to say that it's gone from bad to worse. He really got himself in the shit a couple of days ago at camp."
"Well," the cabbie said, "I hope it comes out for him. He's a lucky guy to have buddies like you."
Jake smiled, and he stepped out of the cab and walked up the path to the Barksdale's front door.
Arthur Barksdale poured himself a scotch and waited for the doorbell to ring. It wasn't so much the constant stream of boys - dogs gathering around bitches on heat - that bothered him. That was inevitable and he'd had a few years to prepare himself for it. But he wanted the girls to end up with decent boyfriends, at least potential husbands, and all of the ones that they - that Rita, to be honest - had brought home had been pissant phonies.
When it came down to it, Arthur thought, taking a sip of Chivas and letting it slide down, he'd prefer it if they'd just come out and say what they were after. At least they wouldn't play those damn games, imagining that he couldn't see through them as if they were plate glass. Pissants.
And now Helen. Soon it'd be Amy. And then just the two if them again. It was a relief when the doorbell rang - his thoughts were getting morbid. Carrying the scotch he walked over to the door and opened it, taking in Helen's date at a glance. Rented tux, lurid purple bow tie, hm - shiny shoes, looks as if he's used to dressing neatly.
"Hi Mister Barksdale. I'm Jake Morgendorffer, Helen's date for the prom."
"Come in, son. She won't be long I expect. Have a seat," Arthur said, showing him in.
Jake thanked him and sat down, trying to seem as relaxed as possible and thinking of the swimming duck - calm on the surface and furious activity underneath.
"Pour you a drink, Jake?"
"Oh, uh, thanks, Mr Barksdale. No - I don't drink."
That's one point, Arthur thought. None of Rita's dates has ever refused.
"So, Jake. What do you do?"
"I'm a cadet at Buxton Ridge, Sir."
"Oh? I'd expect you to wear your dress uniform to something like this, not a rented tuxedo."
"Er, well, Helen's not exactly...let's say military-minded. She didn't say anything to me but I thought she'd prefer this."
Thoughtful. "Mm. That's Helen alright. So what do..."
"Oh wow," Jake interrupted. He stood up, walked over to the credenza, and picked up a model airplane. Turning to Mister Barksdale he said "You build model planes? This is beautiful!"
Arthur stood up and walked over to Jake. Uh oh - here we go. The games start. "Thanks. You like model aircraft?"
"Yeah - well, I used to. But I've never made anything as good as this." He turned it over, admiring the detail.
Let's just see, shall we? "The P38 Lightening. Quite a plane."
Jake looked at him nervously. "Uh, Mr Barksdale, this is a Northrop P61 Black Widow, not the Lockheed Lightening."
"Oh?" Arthur cocked an eyebrow.
"Well, they're superficially similar, I mean they both have twin tail booms but the P61 had a more rounded nose and a bulbous canopy - if you look closely..." He turned to Arthur. "But, uh, if you built this model you must know..."
Arthur smiled. "Just my little joke, Jake. I..." He noticed that Jake was staring past him, his mouth open, and he turned to see what he was looking at.
Helen stood at the bottom of the stairs. She was wearing dress of soft mint green that clung to her upper body then suddenly flared at the waist. Its slender spaghetti straps were covered with a short bolero jacket that clasped together low across her neck. The dress fell just short of her ankles where a pair of dyed-to-match heels gave her an inch or two in height, her hair pulled up in a French twist revealing a pair of tiny pearl drop earrings. Delicate copper-coloured ringlets cascaded down her face.
Jake and Arthur stood in stunned silence as Helen's eyes flicked back and forth between them, waiting for a sign of what their first meeting had been like.
Jake slowly walked up to her, his heart beating like a triphammer, holding the corsage in front of him with both hands. As he neared her he discerned a faintly exotic scent - one, he was sure, that never came out of a bottle.
Arthur watched in disbelief, staggered at how beautiful his eldest daughter looked, but still analysing their interaction. Jake's honest and respectful correction had scored him some serious points, and all the indications so far was that this one wasn't like the ones that Rita had brought home (never more than once, he thought). But this would be telling.
Staring wordlessly into her clear brown eyes, Jake slowly raised the corsage. "You're beautiful," he breathed.
God, isn't she? Arthur thought, his own heart beating faster, remembering how Maureen had looked twenty-five years ago. She was beautiful too. He felt a lump come to his throat.
Helen blushed, suddenly feeling the weight of her father's and her...boyfriend's (?)...gaze. She gently reached out and took the corsage and looked down at the perfect white orchid, back to Jake's still-staring eyes, and over to her father. "Dad?" She breathed, holding it out for his inspection.
Arthur gathered himself, and walked slowly over to them. He took the corsage, looked closely, and smiled at Jake. "It's perfect, son." Then, looking back at Helen, he said "And so are you." He opened the clear plastic case that the flower came in and turned to Jake. "May I...?"
Jake tore his gaze away from Helen to see what Arthur was talking about. "Oh - yeah - yes, of course!"
Arthur gently lifted Helen's jacket and pinned the orchid on, then stepped back to look.
Arthur and Jake turned to each other...and smiled. Arthur held out his hand and Jake took it, gripping firmly.
"Look after her, son."
"You can count on it," Jake said quietly.
"Well now, isn't that touching?"
They spun round to see Amy standing next to Maureen, who looked as if she half way between a smile and the desire to scold Amy. Behind them, Rita stood leaning against the door frame, a bored expression on her face.
Amy walked into the room and looked Helen up and down. "Gee. It's amazing what that yearly bath'll do!"
Flicking her gaze back to Jake, who laughed as her mother breathed "Amy!" in horror, she said "You scrub up pretty well too, General Patton. If I was thirty years older I'd go for you myself!"
"If you were thirty years older, Kiddo, you'd be my mother," laughed Jake.
Arthur stared at Amy's return smile, intrigued at the lack of rancour between them. On the few occasions she's spoken to any of Rita's dates she'd carved them up like a Thanksgiving turkey - not that they were sharp enough to realise what she was doing. But there seemed to be genuine affection between this boy and his youngest daughter. Amy was, he thought, if nothing else, a pretty keen judge of character.
Helen had watched the interplay closely and she'd caught a whiff of the details. But it was enough for their first meeting - time to end it. "We'd better go," she said and, taking Jake's hand, led him to the door.
"Uh - 'bye everyone," Jake said lamely as Helen dragged him out.
"Don't be too late!" Maureen called as the door closed.
Arthur stood, staring at the door, thoughts and sensations cascading through him.
"It's okay, Dad. He's a good guy."
His gaze snapped onto Amy.
"I mean it. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer - Helen's gonna to have to look after him most likely - but he's..." she sighed. "...genuine. Isn't he, Rita?"
Rita opened her mouth ready to launch a string of invective when she saw Amy slowly turn towards her with an expression that said one wrong word and your ass is mine.
"Yeah," she mumbled.
"What? I didn't hear you," said Amy.
"He's nice," Rita said, and she spun on her heel and walked off.
Amanda and Vincent stood in the queue outside the chapel behind an older couple who were restless, excited by the prospect of their pending nuptials. A few of their friends were waiting with them, joking and laughing. In a few minutes the previous customers were shot out of the production line and Luke and Norma Jo (as their friends had called them) went in for their turn. Vincent held Wind over his shoulder and he and Amanda smiled nervously at each other, exchanging the odd word. both feeling a little strange.
"I hope your friends turn up," he said.
"I wonder what happens if they don't?"
"I don't know. I guess we lose our money and have to come back. Don't worry. They'll be here. Oh - that reminds me - give me two tens, please."
But Amanda's friends hadn't arrived when their names were called, and they walked into the chapel as Luke and Norma Jo and their friends came out, talking and laughing.
"Witnesses?" asked a bored-looking middle aged woman.
"They're coming," said Amanda, hoping that they were.
"Orright then, honey, go on down the front. I'll set 'm down when they arrive."
They walked up to a low platform on which a short, dapper man in a blue suit and gold-rimmed spectacles stood, smiling at them.
"Howdy there," he looked down at the book in his hand, "Vincent and Amanda. I'm Thomas J Lindquist, licensed by the state o' Nevada to solemnise weddin's and perform funerals. My guess is that you folks ain't here for the funeral today?"
Amanda laughed nervously at his stock joke, and smiled.
"You got witnesses, folks, 'cause if y' ain't you're gonna have to..." He stopped and looked past them, his eyes wide.
Amanda turned to see Dino and Sam smile at her and wave, saying something to the woman who'd met them at the door. Amanda interpreted Mr Lindquist's expression as surprise that one of their witnesses was a black man, and a wave of anger passed over her. "Give him to me," she said to Vincent, taking Wind from him and turning to Dino and Sam, who had sat down in the front row. She handed Wind to Sam. "Thanks," she said, smiling gratefully at them.
Sam took Wind and grinned at her. "Mazel tov, Amanda."
"Congratulations, honey," said Dino. "You'd better get back. I think Vincent's getting nervous."
She grinned back and turned to see Vincent and Mr Lindquist staring open-mouthed, and she shot them both a quick scowl as she turned to rejoin Vincent.
Thomas J Lindquist cleared his throat and Vincent turned back to the front.
"Vincent Lane and Amanda Phillips," he started, glancing past them again. "The documents you have provided to this office of the Nevada Marriage Bureau state that you are both of eighteen years of age or older, that you are of sound mind, and that that there is no other impediment to your marriage. The state of Nevada recognises marriage as the commitment of a man and a woman to each other in a commited relationship..."
Amanda heard a sniffle from behind her, and Sam's voice saying "So moving." She clenched her jaw trying to stifle a laugh.
"...for life. And so I must ask you..." he looked down at his sheet again "...Vincent, do you take Amanda to be your wife in compliance with the laws of the state of Nevada and the regulations and requirements of the Nevada Marriage Bureau?"
"And do you, Amanda, take Vincent to be your husband also in accordance with the laws of the state of Nevada and the regulations and requirements of the Nevada Marriage Bureau?"
Amanda glanced behind her to see Dino withdraw the elbow that he'd used to poke Sam in the ribs, and her eyes sparkled as she turned back to Mr Lindquist. "I...do." She clamped her jaw again and tried to look serious as Wind gurgled happily in Sam's lap.
"Then by the powers vested in me by the Governor of the state of Nevada, it is my honour to declare you both man and wife. Congratulations. Here is your commemorative certificate which you and your...witnesses..." he cast another glance towards Dino and Sam, "...must sign before you leave this chapel in order for your wedding to be officially recorded." He handed Vincent a rolled piece of paper tied with a red ribbon, and Amanda turned, half grinning and half laughing, and kissed Vincent deeply.
"Miss Smyth," said Mr Lindquist, "I'm taking a short break." he said, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket to mop his forehead and walking off through a door behind in the back wall.
"Congratulations, Vincent!" Sam grabbed Vincent's hand and pumped it as they unclinched, then turned to Amanda, holding Wind out to her, and said "I'd like to present you with this fine bouncing baby boy, a gift of the State of Nevada and the Nevada Marriage Bureau, as a souvenir of this wonderful day."
Amanda burst out laughing as she took Wind, while Vincent stared in disbelief.
"Told you," added Dino. "Can't take him anywhere. Congratulations, Vincent, you're a lucky man." He shook Vincent's hand and turned to Amanda. "I'm sorry about my Jewish buddy here," he said, "I hope he didn't bother you."
"Bother me?" Amanda laughed, shaking her head. "You turned it into something to remember. Thank you both!" She said, kissing Dino and Sam on the cheek. "Oh, that reminds me..." She reached into her sleeve and pulled out the two tens that Vincent had given her and handed one to each of them, to Vincent's amazed stare.
"Oh, you didn't have to do that," said Sam, hurriedly stuffing the bill into his pocket. "But since you offered..."
Dino smiled. "Thank you very much. Now - let's sign that certificate and get out of here - Miss Smyth's anxious to get the next ceremony underway." He took the paper from Vincent and walked back to the table that was set up by the entry with a cheap ballpoint pen on a string. He signed and passed the certificate to Sam. Vincent signed next, gurgling incoherently and handing the pen to Amanda.
"Well good luck, folks. I hope we'll see you again before you leave. And thanks again for the privilege," said Dino, and he and Sam walked off towards the bar.
Amanda took Vincent's hand and led him over to the elevator. "How could you?" she said, sounding faintly annoyed. "They were such nice people!"
They drove towards the high school in contemplative silence, Jake still reeling from his 'interview' with Mr Barksdale and Helen worried over how well it had gone. She drove, her mint-green heels on the seat beside her, worrying about the future. She'd come to care deeply for Jake, something she neither expected nor wanted...or did she? She had plans and he probably did too. Even now she wasn't sure she could bring herself to do what she knew she needed to. Could she really break things off? Did she want to? It would be easier on both of them if it was done sooner rather than later.
Just then something white flashed towards the road and suddenly there was a doe, frozen dead-centre in her headlights. She pumped the brakes and threw the wheel to the left, managing to avoid the stunned creature, but before she could swerve back onto the road the car's wheels slipped off into the muddy embankment. She stopped the car, sitting there shaking for a moment or two, her heart thudding over the words she knew Jake was speaking, drowning them out.
Slowly the sounds of the world came back and she heard the car's motor roaring and the noise of a wheel spinning in the mud. Jake leaned across her and turned off the ignition. The roaring stopped and everything went quiet. She turned to look at him, her eyes as wide as the doe's, and opened her mouth to speak - but all that came out was a low wail and, to her horror, she burst into tears.
Jake slid over and put his arms around her, holding her tight while the shock worked its way out in sobs.
Eventually she calmed down and was able to look at him and speak. "Oh God - I'm sorry!"
"It's okay," he said soothingly. "We're alright, that's the important thing. I'll get out and see what's happened."
He pushed the door handle down and the door and it fell open. The car was on a tilt of about twenty degrees and he climbed out carefully to avoid slipping further down the embankment. "Is there a flashlight in the glove compartment?" he asked, and Helen slid over to the passenger side to open the door.
"No. Damn. Hold on - there's a box of matches - will that do?"
"Yeah - it's better then nothing. It's really dark." He reached in and took the matchbox from her and struck one. By its flickering light he could see that the rear wheel had dug itself into the mud up the axle. The front wheel was... "Ow! Dammit!"
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I just let the match burn down too far."
He struck another and carefully made his way around to the front of the car, steadying himself against the slippery mud. A third match showed the the passenger side wheel was only an inch or so deep in the mud, not that that helped. Making his way around to the driver's side he could see that everything was okay, but the rear wheel was only just touching the ground.
"I don't know," he said to Helen, who'd wound down the window. "The back wheel's really dug in. We'll have to try to get it out. I'll get behind and push. You start the motor and, when I say go, drop it into low and accelerate slowly."
"Okay," said Helen, starting the motor.
Jake walked round to the back of the car, realising in order for it to work he'd have to lift nearly two tons of steel a foot off the ground and push it up a twenty degree slope. But, as it so often does, masculine pride overcame common sense and he bent down, gripping the bumper bar and leaning into the back of the car to get maximum purchase.
"Okay - put it into drive and slowly give it some gas."
The transmission clunked as the gears engaged. The motor slowly picked up speed and the car inched forward so, for a second, Jake thought that it was actually going to work. It didn't, of course. As the differential fed power to the wheels the one with least resistance took it all and it started to spin, flinging up a fine spray of pale brown mud.
"TURN IT OFF!" Jake yelled, letting go of the bumper bar and standing up. "Goddamncrapydamnpieceofdamncrap..." he muttered as he walked back round to the driver's window.
"I guess it didn't work," Helen asked, not realising that Jake had been spray-painted since his pants were hidden by the door.
"You could put it that way," Jake grumbled. "Not that it'd make any difference now. I couldn't go like this."
"What do you mean?" Helen asked. Jake stepped back.
Helen groaned. The prom was a lost cause now. Even if they could get the car back on the road Jake was right. But it wasn't the prospect of missing the prom that bothered her. She knew that the prom was supposed to be important. All the kids - all the girls anyway - had been talking about if for six months as if it was the most important thing in their lives. It probably was, Helen had gone with the flow, but it hadn't...moved her, she hadn't shared their excitement. She hadn't been able to feel it the way they did. The dress, the hair, the shoes - it had been all they'd talked about. But while they'd spent their weekends planning things down to the shade of eyeliner, Helen had been going to anti-war rallies. When they'd asked her what she was going to wear she'd had to say that she didn't know. If she'd been honest with herself she'd have added that she didn't really care. Everything had been a last minute rush, and she'd only just managed to pick up the dress in time. She'd had other things on her mind. There had been times when she'd wanted to ask them what the big deal was, when there was so much going on, when they were about to gain their freedom, all they could think about was the prom? But it should have mattered to her, she knew.
Only once, for a brief second or two, had she felt a flicker of understanding...when Jake had turned and looked at her tonight and she'd seen that look on his face...
She sighed inwardly.
In those rare moments when Helen had imagined her first boyfriend he hadn't been anything like Jake. Not that she'd thought about it for a few years. And speaking of things not turning out the way you'd imagined, she thought, there was the stunt driver. I wonder what his name was? If there'd been anything good about that little episode it was that, sometimes, she smiled sardonically at the thought of how Rita would react if she'd known. Rita. Rita was probably all bluster, her quasi-sexual exploits just her way of making sure that there'd be something she was better at than her older sister. Something she'd be more knowledgeable about than her younger sister. Rita was probably still a virgin but she made so much capital out of pointing out to Helen that she was. Helen smiled at the thought of how Rita would react if she knew...
And she remembered Jake looking at her like that again.
There are three kinds of people, she remembered hearing, people who make things happen, people who watch things happen, and people who wonder what happened. Jake was somewhere between the second and third, she thought. Even when he'd flattened Kowalski, it had been, almost, as if it hadn't quite been Jake, as if something else had taken over, leaving Jake firmly planted in the third camp, standing there staring at Kowalski with an expression that said "whoa -what happened?"
But he'd done it, and she'd...liked him for it.
The thing about Jake was that he was...real. There was nothing hidden about him. He seemed...nice...sweet...because that was what he was. And now he was going to feel dreadful because...and if she did what she knew she had to do she was going to feel dreadful too. If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly, she thought, remembering the essay she'd written on Macbeth six months ago, and she made up her mind.
She opened the car door and stepped out.
"No!" he yelled, "It's mud..."
"Give me the matches. I want to see."
"Helen - get back in the car! Please..."
She snatched the matches from his hand, ignoring the gluggy feeling of the mud between her toes, and lit one. Jake saw her look sadly at the ruin that was his pants. He felt terrrible that her big night was ruined and he tried to think of something comforting to say, but she immediately turned toward the back of the car, dropping the spent match onto the ground.
"Where are we stuck?"
"On the other side, but I wouldn't try to..." He groaned as she made her way along the side of the car, steadying herself with one hand as she slooshed and glugged her way through the slippery mud. At the back of the car she turned down the slope of the embankment and Jake hurried towards her, yelling "Stop! Helen it's..."
As Helen turned downslope and lost the prop of the car to lean against she started slipping. Jake heard a quiet "eep" as he saw her turn momentarily towards him, a look of helplessness in her eyes, and he stood rooted to the spot as she built up speed and, inevitably, lost her balance. She sat down and slid down the short slope to the bottom of the embankment like a child on a toboggan. At the bottom she stopped, motionless, and as Jake carefully glopped his way to the back of the car she turned, just in time to see him lose his footing and follow her, sliding to the bottom where he sat beside her, mud piled up in front of him.
Like Helen, he sat motionless for a couple of seconds and, as the unpleasant wetness seeped through his clothes, an involuntary sound somewhere between a grunt and squeak escaped as he looked down at his legs. Slowly he turned towards Helen, his glance passing over her stockinged legs as the dress, colourless in the pale light of a crescent moon, had ridden up around her calves as she'd slid down the slope, to see her looking at him. Their eyes locked, and, slowly, the corners of their mouths turned up and they burst out laughing.
Jake stood up, the mud sucking at his legs, and reached out his hands to Helen. She took them and, as she stood, looked down at the sorry mess and tried to smoothed the fabric, only succeeding in wiping smears of mud down it.
Remembering the pale green vision that he'd seen standing in front of him half an hour ago, Jake's heart sank, and he said "I'm...really sorry, Helen."
"It's not your fault, Jake," she said softly and, holding each other's hands for balance, they started climbing the few slippery steps back up to where the car lay like a wounded animal.
"I'll see if I can get someone to stop and help," he said. "There's some traffic." He opened the car door for Helen to get in, but she put her hand against it, stopping him.
"I don't want to get in - we should let it dry and try to brush it off." She paused. "And, besides...um, maybe we could just spend some time...talking."
Jake was puzzled. What was there to talk about? But the prospect of spending time with Helen, just the two of them, alone, on a warm, dark, mid-Spring night, was an attractive proposition. "Uh, sure. We could, um, sit on the trunk I guess. We'll have to wash it anyway."
Helen smiled agreement and they edged round to the back of the car. Jake lifted Helen up onto the trunk then turned round and levered himself up to sit beside her. For a minute or two they just sat, Jake waiting for Helen to start and she not sure how to.
"What have you got planned for the vacation? And next year," she asked finally.
Jake thought for a minute. "I don't know," he sighed. "I can't believe that it's graduation and I haven't even thought about it. I was worried about getting drafted, but...I'm the last male in my family so they won't draft me."
"Ah," Helen answered non-committaly. "That's good."
Another minute passed awkwardly. Jake mightn't have been the most perceptive of people but he could see where this was going, and he braced himself as he asked the inevitable question. "How about you?"
"I wasn't sure until a week ago. Now I know."
Jake looked round at her. "Oh. What...?"
"I'm still hoping to get into Berkeley, but I'm going to take a year off first."
Jake hadn't expected that. "What, um, happened to make you decide to do that?"
"I got a letter from a friend."
Jake's heart sank. "Oh. What did he say?"
Damn, this is hurting him already. "She."
"Ah." The pain eased a little.
Helen paused. "It was...it...opened my eyes." She turned to him. "Sorry - I mean it made me realise that there are things I want to...experience...before I commit to more study." She stared straight ahead, her eyes unfocussed. "Her name's Anne. She used to live down the road from me when we were kids. She's a few years older than me, but we were good friends. We still are. She took up with a guy when she was a high school senior and when she graduated they hit the road. She writes every now and then."
"Uh huh," said Jake.
"She lives in San Francisco now," Helen continued. "She's really into the hippie thing, but they do a lot of travelling around, anti-Viet Nam rallies, that sort of thing, but mainly just to see America."
Helen's voice was wistful, and Jake found himself thinking how nice it would be...
"Yeah. Anyway, they went camping with some friends." She turned, suddenly, to Jake. "Have you ever seen a birth? I mean - did you have cats or anything?"
"Cats? No." A look of anger appeared on Jake's face. "I always wanted a cat. But Dad'd never let me have one! 'Only girls have cats!' he said. Jakey could never have cats. Oh no. It was dogs or nothing as far as Mad Dog was...!" He turned to see Helen staring at him with wide eyes. "I just wanted...a cat..." he tailed off.
"Oh. Well, anyway, the girl they went with was pregnant, and she wasn't supposed to have the baby for another week, but it decided to come early. They couldn't get out - the storm blew a tree down across the only road out."
"Wow. What did they do?"
"The only thing they could. Anne had to deliver the baby."
"Was it alright?"
"Yes." She paused. "You should have seen how she wrote about it, Jake." She was speaking quietly, almost whispering. "It just...it was like I was there. It made me shiver. The way she described how it felt when the baby came out and she held it."
Jake found himself lost in the vision, suddenly beginning to sense the possibilities again, and he breathed a sighed "Wow!"
"They weren't married. The mother and father I mean. Kyle - that's Anne's guy - her 'old man' she calls him," she said, smiling. "His name's Kyle Owen Thomas Yeager - everyone's called him 'Coyote' since he was a little kid..."
"Coyo...oh yeah! His initials!" Jake said.
"Uh huh. Anyway, Coyote 'married' them while the baby was being born. The way she told the story, Jake - it made me cry."
"They're just a couple of years older than us, right?"
Helen looked at him. He was looking straight ahead. She wasn't sure how he was reacting. "Yeah. Jake..."
"You're going away, aren't you?"
Amanda put the key into the lock below the elevator buttons, her annoyance level rising.
"How...wha...?" stuttered Vincent. "What do you mean, 'how could I'?"
"I mean just because Sam was black was no reason to be so rude! I didn't think that you cared about that sort of thing!'
"Because he was...black...?" he said. "Do you have any idea who they were?"
"I told you! Dino and Sam! They work here."
The elevator arrived and they stepped out.
"You really don't know who they were, do you?" he said, incredulous. "You have no idea!"
"What does it matter?" she asked, a note of annoyance in her voice as she lay Wind on the bed. "Look - they signed the certificate. Show me!"
He handed the rolled-up certificate to her and she slipped the ribbon off and unrolled it. While she looked for their signature, Vincent noticed an envelope propped up on the counter, with 'Mr. and Mrs. Lane' scrawled across the front. He opened it and pulled out a trio of tickets, just as Amanda found what she was looking for.
Her face went pale.
"Oh my God..." she breathed, sitting down heavily and letting the certificate fall to the floor.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV.
Special thanks: to all our beta readers: Kara Wild, Malevolent Turtle, Bootstrapper, Ahmygoddess1953, and very special thanks to Steven Galloway and Brother Grimace for their invaluable help and support, particulary with the character of George Curtiss "Cooky" Washington.
Quirks: Deref, who typed the words, is an Australian, so he's used Aussie English spellings and grammar conventions. He may also have inadvertently used some Aussie idioms though he's tried to keep in culture.
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