Salty was certain that her mother had been totally tanked when the doctor that delivered her asked the name of this brand-new bundle of baby joy. And out of all the precious, cute, and adorable baby names floating around out there, Julia had chosen Salty. The child would be called Salty Jamison. Salty Jamison. That was it. No middle name at all. Not even an ugly one. Just Salty. Salty Jamison.
Who in their right mind ever heard of naming a little girl Salty?
What had possessed Julia to come up with such a weird name?
Had the woman been so pissed at the baby’s father for walking out on them and reenlisting in the navy that she thought it would be funny to call their newborn baby girl Salty?
Some joke, Salty brooded. Mama, on the other hand, had been blessed with a normal name.
On the contrary, Julia’s name reeked of that middle class lack flair and imagination. Julia Joann Jamison. A common name. A run-of-the-mill, blue-collar, got-no-time-for-nonsense name. A jumble of alliteration, but nothing so out of the ordinary that it elicited snickers and taunts from classmates when the roll was called.
And Salty was one hundred percent certain that Julia had never had to endure ridicule and torment from the other children when it came to her name.
Salty’s face burned. She could still hear their wicked little voices and their ratty chorus as they gleeful sang out all over the school yard–Saw-TEE. Saw-TEE. Drop your panties and pee, Saw-tee!
Did they mean her urine was salty or were they commanding her to give an encore performance?
She had been so small and had had to go to the bathroom so badly that one time on the playground. She was sure she could hide behind a bush, squat down and relieve herself, finishing before anyone was the wiser.
But boy, had she been wrong!
It was like those rug rats had radar or something.
And an elephant’s memory for remembering that one incident, that one time when she’d thought she could get away with something. They had tormented her through junior high school, until hormones took over and their interests turned to those of the opposite sex.
God, kids could be such cruel vermin sometimes.
Of all the names out there, why had mama picked that one?
Why, why, why?
She simply hated that name.
Having to be called Salty all her life seemed so unfair, especially when she already had so many strikes against her.
Strike One: Growing up with no father.
Strike Two: Growing up with her mother’s maiden name during an era when that kind of thing was still very taboo, and being a bastard was something akin to being afflicted with leprosy.
Strike Three: Growing up as the only child of ‘the beast.’
It was a wicked nickname for her mother, she knew, but Salty thought the name fit Julia to a tee.
Salty. Salty. Why Salty? Maybe, Julia really had been blitzed at her birth, Salty thought.
God knew Julia had always appeared sloshed or stoned while the little girl was growing up. Those had been bleak and horrible days to endure, but a small child is at the mercy of adults to see that needs are met and care is given. Growing up, Salty had been told by her mom that a little snort was the stylish thing to do.
“One of life’s simple pleasures, kiddo,” Julia would say. “Harmless, really.”
Besides, according to Julia, everybody in the ‘IN’ crowd did coke. At parties. At work. At home. For the edge it gave you. For how invincible it made you feel.
Everyone knew it was just a recreational little something folks did for kicks in those days.
A trifling hobby. Truly no harm in it.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Julia had been fond of saying back then, “and certainly nothing that would really hurt me if I manage it right.”
Maybe that had been Julia’s problem all along.
What Julia had described as a trifling and insignificant pleasure had seemed to consume the woman like cancer, sinking its hungry teeth into the woman, and chomping down and never letting go. So, maybe through the fog and haze of it all back then, Julia had actually thought the name Salty was wonderfully creative and zany. Or even brilliant.
Or maybe ‘salty’ was just the first word that her sluggish mental connectors had sparked on, that her lips could pronounce, or that her sloshed brain cells could spell.
Anyway, Salty figured, her mother had probably thought it was as good a name as any. So, she hung the child with it, just like you hang a stray that takes up with you with a stupid name like Spot or Trixie or Brownie.
Or maybe, Julia had truly named her little girl Salty because having a baby was rubbing salt into deep and bleeding wounds. Not physical wounds that you could see, but wounds all the same.
Hadn’t Salty’s birth been the catalyst for all of Julia’s problems?
How many times had Salty heard that whine?
Hadn’t life been a downhill slide since the day Salty was born?
Salty’s memory of those first few years was a vacuum, but according to the version of the soap opera that passed for the life story of Julia Joann Jamison, according to Julia Joann Jamison, Salty’s birth had been the beginning of all of her subsequent troubles.
Like that first plague in Egypt, her daughter’s birth was the starting point of great misery. It was the “x” that Julia’s mind marked whenever she walked down Pity Lane. It was the one symbol her pill-wasted, boozed-up memory clung to like a drowning man to flotsam floating in a storm-tossed sea.
And Julia never failed to remind the unwanted child that even before the second Salty had gulped her first breath, Julia’s luck had somersaulted southward.
Straight down the chute. Right down the sewer. One big, giant flush down the toilet bowl called Life.
Straight to Hell.
Julia would start to bawl, take another drink, and tell the poor child the same sob story for the umpteenth time. She rarely deviated, and Salty could recite the dirge by heart. The sorry bastard that was Salty’s daddy had not even waited out the nine months before he’d abandoned them, Julia’s mother would wail. According to Julia, when she’d told Salty’s dad they were going to have a baby, he changed. He began looking at her like she had given him the clap or something. Before the month was out, he had high-tailed it out of town, reenlisting, he said, so that he would be able to send Julia and the baby money to live on.
And like a sucker Julia had swallowed his roll of bologna hook, line, and sinker and had let Salty’s daddy walk right out the door without so much as one bean-kiss-my-ass objection.
Julia should have married that man, she would rave drunkenly, BEFORE she let him go off like that. Then at the very least, she could have hit him up for alimony, for child support, for something. Two quarters to rub together would have been more than Julia got out of the guy.
But, she would whine, she had been a lovesick fool.
She had believed he would take care of them. No one would have ever convinced her that the man she loved would have abandoned her without so much as a one-for-the-road good-bye kiss.
“Why, oh why didn’t I marry him first? God, I was such a stupid, stupid fool. I never should have told him I was pregnant. I never should have let on. I should have made him marry me first. Then, after the ink had dried on the marriage license, and the ring was securely on my finger, I could have let it slip that I might be pregnant.
Oh, if I’d had any inkling he’d run out on me like he did, I would have made sure we were legally hitched!
Hell, I’da lied through my teeth about carrying you if I knew he’d take it like that! I could have gotten an abortion, for chrissake! I was such a fool, such a crazy, young fool!
I honestly believed he’d stand by me and do the right thing! That he might even be happy about starting a family. Sweet Mary! What a sucker! What a sap! That’s me alright,” Mama would howl. “I got SUCKER stamped across my back and WELCOME tattooed right across my forehead!
Nothing but a doormat who lets my man walk all over me, then boogie right on out the door as footloose and fancy-free as a jail bird pardoned by the governor!
Blast it all!
I am just too kind-hearted for my own good! Believing his lies! Buying his load of crap!
And I was as green as they come, back then. Believed there really was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And he was a charmer, your daddy.
God, what a hunk of good-looking man your daddy was, Salty. All he had to do was smile and give me that blue-eyed ‘come-on babe’ look of his, and I melted like an ice cream cone in the Fourth of July sun. And not only was he a looker. No, sir. Not only could your daddy turn heads faster than a blue streak, but he was a stud under the sheets, too. No false advertising in those jockey shorts of his.
I’ll always give him that. He was wonderful.
My word! I get the hots just thinking about us. Back then, we sizzled for one another – bacon and hot grease. And your daddy was a carnival of fun, he was. Till I got knocked up!
I was three weeks late, and what did I do?
Stupid fuck that I was, I couldn’t wait to tell him. Couldn’t plan, couldn’t see any further in front of me than the nose on my face. No. Not me. Not little Miss Head-in-the-Clouds-and-Pie-in-the-Sky-Daddy’s-gonna-sing-his-sweet-lay-a-pretty-little-lullaby. Huh!
I had to blurt out that we were going to have a baby! Threw that news in his lap like a handful of crap. I thought he would be o.k. with it. Thought he’d be happy. And for that first couple of weeks, at least, he seemed to be.”
It was at this point in her story that mama would look at her little girl like she smelled skunk stink, curling her lips in disgust.
“Then, he kinda got distant. Got real quiet. Didn’t wanna tussle under the sheets no more.
I guess I’d started showing a bit by then. He’d just lie in bed and stare at my baby bump. Then, he’d look at me kinda strange, like I was growing a third head or something, roll over, and go to sleep. A week or so later, he was gone.
Just like that, he left. Re-upped,” Mama wailed. “Hopped a ship to who knows where, and I never heard from him, again. Outta my life like buckshot. I just know he found some other floozy. Out of my arms and into the arms of some gal, living it up in a tropical paradise, somewhere!
As happy with his new whore as we used to be.”
But in reality, Julia never found out what happened to her boyfriend after he’d left her high and dry. She never knew for certain whether or not he re-enlisted. He simply vanished from her life.
And as for those checks he had promised to send, well, Julia would repeat over and over, that they were ‘about as plentiful as flying pigs on the Christmas Eve.’
Abandoned and alone, with no job or education, Julia soon lost the apartment she and her lover had shared. She was tossed out into the streets within a matter of weeks. Penniless and pregnant, the expectant mother had no other option but to return home. Once at home, the brutal lessons that Julia should have learned were quickly tossed aside and forgotten. She had the baby. It was a healthy girl, and in Julia’s mind, nothing had really changed. Life was for whooping it up and sowing your wild oats before the Grim Reaper said it was harvest time.
Instead of sobering up and accepting the responsibility of raising her daughter, Julia fell right back into her old ways, hitting the bars every night in her relentless search for Mr. Right. She longed to find a man to settle down with her and build a family. She wanted to start over and to embrace the great American dream. She wanted the house, the car, and the security of a husband’s weekly paycheck.
She wanted it all. Or at least, she thought she did.
But, her quest to find it always took her to the wrong places. Bars, night clubs, and dives were the spots where she felt most comfortable. There, she found people just like herself – unstable. Men who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hold a job. Needy guys who, just like Julia, tried to wash their troubles away in a river of booze and hazy forgetfulness.
She was already heavily into drinking and drugs by that time, and most of the men marked Julia as ‘desperate’ the minute they laid eyes on her. She wasn’t the skankiest broad in the joint, but she was no looker either. She had that haunted, hunted, needy look in her eyes that most men spot and avoid like the plague. Still, some men went for her, like some folks drop a nickel in the offering plate for charity.
Even in her youth, Julia could never be described as beautiful, but she had long legs, and her body, a little plump after Salty’s birth, had developed a few, rather pleasing, curves in the hips and thighs. She was skimpy in the boob department, though, too flat for most guys who liked their women voluptuously top heavy and hung like a washboard with two pendulous melons.
But for those who weren’t as choosy, Julia would do in a pinch.
Her face was long, her chin receding.
At her best, she could only be described as plain, but she wouldn’t stop a clock in the dim, smoky light of most bars.
She wore her hair long to cover her face, and most nights it was clean.
But the one thing that Julia had going for her, the one part of her that could lower the zipper of many heterosexual males was the fact that she had a jinney with a revolving door like Grand Central Station, and she would willingly offer any man, anywhere, free rides to heaven.
In fact, she had a reputation, in those baser circles, of bending over backward to make her flavor-of-the-night happy. And for most, the prospect of a steamy night in the sack was something they never shied away from. Any man with even the smallest scrap of imagination could turn off the lights and dream that Julia was the hottest Delta Queen who ever hit town.
One-night stands were not a problem. Julia had plenty of those. It was the long-term relationship that seemed to elude her. And back then, Julia’s optimism exceeded her common sense. She was of the opinion that the odds were in her favor and that if she stepped up to bat enough times, some day, she’d surely hit a home run.
But instead, she always struck out.
Like a lost stray, she would follow any smiling male home.
She could not count the number of times she had found herself in a stranger’s bed, not knowing where she was, much less the name of the man she had slept with the night before. She would awaken in a strange room. Her sleep-crusted eyelids would slowly open, like heavy doors on rusted hinges. Nothing looked familiar or smelled like home. Her tongue would feel fuzzy, her mouth dry. Her breath would be horrendous. Her mood worse.
Her body would resist all movement, like sludge chilled by winter’s cold.
She would lay with her head on the pillow, motionless for several minutes, breathing shallowly, hesitant to rise from the dead, for dead was what she felt like. She would stay absolutely still, feeling nothing but the dull ache behind her eyes, fearful of rousing the dragon that slept deep inside her skullcap.
Inches from her face, on a pillow of his own, would lay a thick, weathered neck, hairy and pocked with craters of acne scars and huge blackheads. Sometimes, her nose would be tickled with the overly strong and, at that godforsaken hour of the morning, sickeningly sweet smell of cologne. At other times, her nose curled with the pungent odors of sweat and the sour, unwashed odors of dirty flesh.
Sometimes hers. Sometimes his.
It was only then that she jumped from the bed, frantically searching for a bathroom, a window, a wastebasket. Any place to puke.
How often had she pulled on her jeans, searched the stranger’s wallet for cab fare, and sat on the stoop of some rundown shack waiting for a ride back to her mother’s house? If none came, she’d wander about the town until the fog in her brain cleared a little, and she got her bearings, and then she walked home.
Back then, Julia never lost hope of finding a husband.
But the years began to follow one another in the slow parade of numbers that marked the passing of time. They stacked up in front of her like flapjacks in an all-you-can-eat pancake house. Julia began to despair as her youthful dreams withered and died. And now she had a child. How could she ever hope to snag a Mr. Sweet Dreams with a snot-nosed brat in tow?
“Who wants a cow and a calf, when the pasture’s full of nice, young heifers,” her mother would tell the young child, bitterly staring at her over the latest glass of liquor she was nursing.
Salty had ruined everything, Julia would drunkenly rant.
Pregnancy had ravaged her figure, she would lament, causing her to gain extra pounds that she would never lose. Not to mention the stretch marks that now lined her abdomen like Norfolk and Southern railroad tracks along the Mid-Atlantic. Having a kid had made her skin bad, caused her hair to fall out, and might she remind the small girl, the fits of depression after childbirth that Julia had had to endure had been a bitch.
Salty had sucked all the calcium from Julia’s teeth, and now rotting husks and snags, they all threatened to fall out at a moment’s notice. Her gums were swollen and painful. Julia was a wreck, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and there was no one to blame but Salty.
It was all her daughter’s fault.
Everything good and bright in her life had turned to dung once Salty came into the picture.
But had it?
Salty was now seventeen, a drop-out who, with the help of a fake I.D., passed herself off for twenty-one.
No man thought twice about buying her drinks or bedding her down.
Yes, thought Salty, Mama had had almost two decades to pull herself out of her addictions, to get her act together, to grow up and show some Christian raisin’, as Granny would have called it. It was high time Julia started acting her age. Way past high time.
Salty envisioned her mama, sitting on that filthy couch in Granny’s house. On the walls were the fading pictures of mama as a young girl with that clean-scrubbed face that was bright-eyed, shiny, and new. There had once been promise; there had once been hope. The cheaply framed photos hung there on Granny’s walls, dusty and slightly off-kilter, a testament to what might have been. Beneath those two-dimensional shining eyes of a youthful Julia sat the pickled remains, the mature woman – the monster she’d morphed into.
How small her mother looked sitting beneath those photos. A shriveled shell of her former self. A briny ogre who would eat you up if you ventured too close.
Day in and day out, her mother sat there, an inert besotted lump, staring at the photographs, dreaming, fantasizing, boozing, and snoozing beneath those watchful, unblinking eyes. The few times Salty had tried to take them down to clean them or, heaven forbid, paint the walls with a fresh coat of paint, her mother had thrown such an awful tantrum that Salty left them and the smoky walls alone. She no longer even bothered to straighten the frames, having grown used to their off-kilter angles, Salty preferred them that way, slightly askew and tilted. A little off-center just like Julia. A fine tribute befitting the monstrosity that Salty called Mama.
Julia had once considered herself alright looking, not a ravishing glamor gal, but a fine catch for any man with cash in his wallet and loving on his mind. She’d had dozens of suitors in her day, hadn’t she? But Salty wasn’t so sure that her mother’s stories were nothing more than wishful thinking.
Panting dogs ready to hump a bitch in heat was quite a different story from meaningful relationships with life partners. And Salty knew that Mama’s chances at finding a good man who would love her and look after her were about as good as Salty’s chances were of becoming a brain surgeon.
Mama had no common sense when it came to men. Salty knew her mother melted in front of anything male. Good-looking or scrawny, clean or filthy, it didn’t matter to Julia. She had no honor when it came to men. Her scruples, her morals, whatever you wanted to label them, were lower than low.
Less than zero.
And what man in his right mind would give Mama the time of day now?
There may have been a time when the woman had a waistline, but not since Salty could remember. Salty had noticed their stares, heard their passing snickers and cruel remarks. Looking at Julia from behind gave one the impression of fat cells gone wild, of cellulite on steroids, of a bulldozer blade in bursting spandex.
Why had Julia heaped blame on Salty for everything bad? Wasn’t beer and booze fattening? Didn’t lack of exercise turn rock bodies into globby lumps of lard? Salty often wondered about this when she looked at her mother’s swollen belly and stick-thin arms and legs. Didn’t a poor diet contribute to bad skin and thin, lackluster hair? Couldn’t the fact that mama would rather drink her meals than eat nutritious food be the cause of some of her health problems? And what about hygiene? Why couldn’t Julia just get up off that couch and bathe regularly?
It wasn’t as if Salty had tied the woman down to the sofa. Julia had lived on that ratty thing for so long that her daughter often wondered if her mother hadn’t grown roots to it. If she didn’t have to get up once in awhile to relieve herself, Salty had often thought, Julia probably would fuse into that old couch.
Julia’s hair was thin and greasy-looking. She always smelled like she hadn’t showered in a month, reeking of alcohol and sweat, and she had a cloud around her full of those nasty feminine odors when private places were not washed. It was a fuming stew of unpleasant rankness that turned Salty’s stomach.
The woman’s teeth were velvety from lack of brushing and poked up from her swollen, purple gums in broken snags and misshapen stumps, like sharp pieces of tobacco-stained potsherds.
Am I responsible for all these faults, too?
To Salty, the crapper called Life had spewed just as much filth on her own shitty excuse for existence as it had her mom’s. Salty’s boat had come in long ago. It was exactly the same as Julia’s – a reeking garbage barge from New York City.
She didn’t know much about her mom’s younger years, but as Salty mulled it over, once the fire of remembrance kindled and she began storing things in her own memory chest, there had not been many happy times that the young girl could think back upon and remember fondly. Salty’s stroll down Memory Lane was more like a harrowing roller coaster ride down Nightmare Alley. No, she didn’t know much about the Julia’s younger years, but as far as Salty believed, her own memory chest was more like a Pandora’s Box.
So, maybe her name was appropriate, after all. There clearly hadn’t been much sweetness in Salty’s short life. It had been hard for both Salty and Julia. More brine than sugar. That was certainly true, and Salty had been the child no one seemed to want.
When Salty and her mom went to live at Julia’s mother, Granny was less than thrilled. The old lady slow-boiled when Julia dumped the little girl off on her to light out with another of the endless string of losers she always seemed to fall for. Julia was nothing but white trash, Granny would seethe. Where had she gone wrong? Julia had not been raised to act as she did.
And now it seemed that the sins of her daughter were destined to haunt Granny herself.
“Hurmph,” the old lady would snort disgustingly, glaring down at the tiny little girl who looked up at her with clear, innocent eyes.
The old woman tried to hold her temper, but her frustrations with her daughter spilled over onto her grandchild like hot water from a boiling pot.
“Both you and your mama are worthless burdens,” Granny yelled. “Why the good Lord seen fit to yoke the two of you misfits around my neck is beyond me! I just don’t know what I done to deserve the both of you, but it musta been something powerful awful, ‘cause He sure seems bound and determined to bust the daylights outta me for it!
When I think of what your no-good mama is doing just now! Augh! It’s disgusting! She ain’t got the morals of two hamsters screwin’ in a fish tank!”
But Granny was between a rock and a hard place. Julia and the child were her kin.
“Git in here, and let me wash your grubby face. Julia don’t seem to have the mothering skills of a dawg!
Lettin’ you run ‘round this house dirtier than the bottom of a chicken coop! It’s disgraceful! Her dear ole’ daddy ‘ud be rollin’ over in his grave if he saw his Julia today! If I had a lick of sense, I’d toss the both of you out like yesterday’s trash. If I had one lick of good sense, that is. Now, git in here, and let me fix you a hot meal. That little tummy of yours has to be empty. I’m sure that no-count mama of yours ain’t seen fit to fix you so much as a crumb all day!”
In spite of all her grumbling and complaining, the old woman just couldn’t turn her back on them. It just wasn’t the Christian thing to do.
The old lady would cluck her tongue and say, “I d’clare to my soul. ‘At gal ain’t got the good sense the Lord give ‘er to git outta’ a thunderstorm. Running off with the first hound ‘at sniffs her scent. She ain’t never gonna change! And you! My stars! Why look at you!
I’ll be a horse’s pah-toot if you ain’t cut from the same cloth! I declare to my soul, you’re gonna end up just like ‘er! I kin see it in your eyes. A whore and a whore’s spawn, if I ever saw ‘em! ‘N livin’ under my roof.
Whut in tarnation am I gonna do?”
Granny’s angry glare would focus on the little girl standing in front of her.
“Trash! Both of you! And carrying my blood! The very idea! Your mama t’weren’t raised as such, but you are another story! Ain’t even got your daddy’s name to call your own. A shame and disgrace! That’s exactly what I call you! ‘At Julia, bringing her sinful seed to this house for me to tend to and take care of as my own to raise. Lord, Lord! I don’t know where I went wrong. No, I surely don’t. As much as I try, I just can’t figure where I went wrong.
I tried to raise her right!
Her other brothers and sisters turned out fine. But not Julia. She is a bad seed, that one. All’s I can figure is your mama got some kinda rotten spot in her heart. Yep, that’s bound to be why Julia’s such a problem child. And look what she done brought me. An itty bitty version of herself. Her own little piglet straight from the hog’s wallow.
Look at you standing there with that hand so prissy on your hip.
Ain’t a dime’s worth a difference between the two of you. Ain’t worth two shiny cents. Neither one of you. Like mama, like daughter. The apple don’t fall far from the tree. You just remember that.
Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! That’s what your mama is! Sorry, sorry, sorry!
And I don’t mean she’s ashamed of what she does. No, sir! Julia ain’t got that much class. She’s just sorry in the way she acts, that girl is! Sorry as gully dirt!
You can’t help being just like her, and I know you didn’t ask to be brung into this world. But I do declare if you ain’t two peas from the same pod, the both of you. Now git outta’ my sight ‘fore good sense comes over me, and I tell ’em you ain’t none of mine and turn you over to the poor house! Go on, outside! Scat! Get out from under my apron strings, and go play outside!
Derned, if I didn’t spend my whole life tending to one ingrate, and got her growed up and outta’ my house, only to have her come back on me like a fungus and tie me down with her bastard offspring.
Lord, what a burden! Give me strength!
Git outta my clean kitchen, ‘fore I tear into your ‘tater patch and plow the livin’ daylights outta’ you. Tracking in mud all over my clean floor! Go outside with the rest of the critters! Now git ‘fore I git my broom and wail the tar outta’ you!”
Those were not happy memories, either, Salty thought.
If mama was the ‘beast,’ then Granny must have been the son of Lucifer – in drag. She was a gruff, crusty old biddy who never smiled. Wearing a constant frown like the world had constipated her, she tormented her granddaughter.
While Salty couldn’t say she loved her, she gave the old woman this much: she had sheltered, fed, and clothed the little girl, even if she’d done it begrudgingly. Thank goodness for that. You wouldn’t go hungry at Granny’s. You just had to put up with a truckload of misery to stay full.
But I made it, Salty brooded. Yeah, in spite of everything, I’ve made it this far, Salty thought.
The dull ache nudged closer to her consciousness. Salty massaged the back of her neck for relief.
She would never figure it all out. But here she sat in this smelly, old truck, her own butt flattening and threatening to spread out like mama’s, pondering conundrums and unsolvable mysteries that would only wind up giving her a bad headache.
But wouldn’t it be nice, her brain refusing to let itself sink further into darker memories, had nudged her thoughts, here again, to have a real name.
A normal name.
She only knew that Salty was something you called old seamen and worn-out codgers who hung around the docks once their sea legs were nothing more than arthritic bows and knots of pain, and their seafaring days were over.
A word that described the crystals you coated your food with to give it a unique flavor. Well, too much flavor, anyway.
An adjective, for chrissake!
She’d always wished she had been given a truly beautiful name, or, at least, a pretty nickname. Anyone who’d ever met her, after first getting past the fact that it was not a joke but her true name, had never bothered to call her anything else.
Maybe, she thought, it would be a good idea to give myself a nickname. Something really cool. Something that sets me apart from the crowd. But with a real name like Salty, who needed a nickname to set you apart?
Nicknames. Real names.
Thinking in circles, again, she mused.
The dull ache at the base of her head was beginning to feel more pronounced.
Gotta get off these goat paths and dirt roads that lead to nowhere, she thought. I should focus on somebody else besides myself, for awhile. The image of Runt Brecker floated through her mind. Of all the people she knew, Runt Brecker truly matched his nickname. Four older brothers, all over six feet tall, and Runt, barely touching five, on a good day – his wearing cowboy boots.
The ones with the lifts.
Runt, whose given name was Dean, had been her old boyfriend. The one she’d had before Jackie. They had dated for almost six weeks.
A little runt, and not that good looking, she now began to ponder, but a helluva lot more fun than Jackie was turning out to be. Jackie Gerhardt was her latest boyfriend, and Salty was already wondering how soon it would be before he would become her ‘Ex.’
She gave him her poutiest stare, but he didn’t seem to notice she was even in the same universe. He had been sitting there on that damn picnic table like an immovable statue, forever. Mooning over spilled milk, thought Salty, trying to mop it up and squeeze it back into the pitcher after it had wept itself empty and ran out all over everything. Who in their right mind would drink the stuff after that, even if you could?
“Jaaackiiieeee,” she called, a touch of nasal whine in her voice.
Jackie ignored her. In his own world, as usual. It was hopeless.
“Come on, babe. Can’t we blow this dump?”
Jackie continued to ignore her. They would be stuck in this godforsaken rest stop until the spirit moved him, or barring that, until a bolt of lightning, or some other astral sign, blasted his skinny little butt off its perch.
Salty held that thought. Pow! A bolt from the sky, and in its place, the charred black imprint of Jackie’s ass. Gross!
Salty gave up and turned her attention to the folks around her. Bored out of her skull, at least ‘people watching’ would help her pass the time. There seemed to be a steady stream coming and going at the rest stop.
This place made a nice pit stop – somewhere for a coffee break, a wake-up stretch, or a chance to empty a full bladder. Folks swarmed here like flies to a lidless garbage can. And just like flies, these specimens came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The variety of people and the unpredictability of human behavior, Salty mused, were limitless. You never knew what you’d see when you watched folks closely. That was what she liked about ‘people watching.’
She immediately spotted an elderly gentleman who got out of his beat-up, old sedan, about six cars down. Pocked-marked face, button-up plaid shirt, a pattern popular thirty years ago, short sleeves, knobby elbows and thin skin, complete with dark discolorations and blotchy bruises on his hands and forearms.
Salty continued her inventory of the old geezer. Khaki shorts, arthritic knees, bony ankles, and what in the world? Did her eyes deceive her? The most colorful pair of beaded ladies’ sandals adorning those big, buniony feet with thick, overgrown, Pawpaw toenails.
Unpainted, thank goodness.
What a hoot!
She snickered to herself as she adjusted one of the many rings that pierced her eyebrows, and let the ball in her tongue tap against the enamel of her teeth.
People are such freaks, she mused. Incredible.
She settled back into the truck seat, leaving the windows down and the door wide open. The open door would tax the battery a little, she knew, because the courtesy light would remain on, but the breeze was too good to block off.
Her eyes followed the old man as he shuffled toward the bathroom. She couldn’t help herself. She had to see if he would indeed enter the men’s and not the women’s.
What would the poor slob in the stall beside Sandals think when he glanced down as he took a dump and saw those lovely shod hooves?
Still chuckling at this image, she decided to pay more attention to her surroundings. She might spot another oddity. At the very least, it would occupy her until Jackie decided to unglue his sexy buns from that picnic table.
Her attention was drawn to the woman in the rusting Chevy parked beside her. Looking down into the sedan, Salty could see a washed-out house dress covering a fleshy female form. The woman sitting in the car looked as worn and as faded as her dress. Her skin was pale, her eyes tired. Her face was wrinkled, and several chins jiggled beneath her fleshy neck.
Definitely not a spring chicken, thought Salty, as she eyed the gray roots evident in the thinning, tussled mop of dark, dyed hair.
The woman’s ear was fused to a cell phone.
She chatted loudly to the person on the other end of the line, oblivious that those around her might hear the private conversation.
“I just can’t believe parents who would let their daughter go off and spend weekends with a boy. Just like that. Can you? I mean, you know what they’re going to do. What are her mother and father thinking? I know. Where’s the parental responsibility in a situation like that? Not to mention, the girl’s. Oh, I agree. Nothing but a whore,” she lamented, honking the horn and waving to the car that had just pulled up across the lot.
“Gotta’ go. Talk to you later. They’ve just driven up,” the lady said, shutting off the cell.
A fresh-faced teenager popped out of the minivan, ponytail waving behind her. She shouted goodbye over her shoulder while slamming the door of the car.
Bouncing across the lot, she made her way toward Salty.
She smiled at the cell lady.
The woman waved in greeting.
“Hi. How are you?” she asked, as the girl took her seat beside her.
The girl stowed her gear into the back seat.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she answered. “How’s Kyle?”
“Same. Moody as ever. But you’ll see when we get home.”
“Thanks for giving me a lift. Since Mom won’t loan me our car, I had no wheels to get here. It’s really a pain too, not being able to see Kyle during the week. I hate it, you know, only hooking up on the weekends, but, at least, I can always count on you to come through and give me a lift to your house to be with him.”
“What’s a mother for?
Besides, you know Kyle,” the lady said. “And it’s my fault, I guess. I know he’s almost thirty, but he’s still such a baby. He wants what he wants when he wants it, just like when he was a little boy.
And I always try to give it to him, you know, make him happy, come hell or high water, as they say. Now, he’s just got it into his head that he can’t live without you. So, here we are. Besides, he goes simply ballistic if I say no.”
She laughed half heartedly.
“He’s constantly harping on the fact that he’s a grown man. But how will he ever get out on his own if he won’t hold a job longer than three weeks?
I sometimes feel like my job is not to be his mother, but to be a magician, you know, and make everything work out just the way he wants. All I have to do is take my magic wand, bend over backward, and pull that rabbit called I-want-it-mama-I-want-it-now right out of my rectum.”
They both laughed.
“We’re going broke, but as long as I can keep a roof over our heads, if he wants you to sleep over on the weekends, then it’s fine by me.”
The car ground to a start, and the two drove off.”
Well, I’ll be . . . Salty mused to herself.
It was amazing, putting all the blame on the girl like that.
It took two to tango. Or in this case, maybe three.
And butt squirting a rabbit in order to answer all of spoiled Kyle’s wishes was not the kind of image she wanted to hold onto. What stinkers those two were – Kyle and his mama.
Better than the movies, she thought and continued to scope out the scenes that drifted in front of the truck’s windshield.
It’s time to get out, time to quit, time to swallow my losses and move on, Jackie thought.
But the images of packing up his few belongings had caused a lump to rise in his throat the size of Texas, and he floundered in his indecision, unable to make a choice, live with it, and never look back.
What would Ian do if I suddenly disappeared?
How would my little boy cope? What kind of stories would Janice tell him about me if I suddenly disappeared? And how can I live if I walked out on the only thing in my life that was ever really good?
And Ian was good.
The best son a father could ask for.
Jackie fingered the photo of his son and absently stared out at the ocean.
The breeze picked up off the water, stirring the palms gently. Their leafy fronds, like waving fingers, provided a shady umbrella.
How long have I been at this rest stop? Couple of hours, maybe? Too long to be idly wasting the afternoon. But it wasn’t time wasted. No, it wasn’t wasted at all. I have to get my mind around this problem, Jackie thought. Make some decision, and live with it.
Easy to say. Harder to do.
If I only had myself to consider, it would be a breeze.
Vanish tomorrow, and be gone forever. Hell, not tomorrow. Tonight. Get me a new identity, and start all over again. Fresh.
Why did I ever let Marty talk me into going out with him for a drink? And what happened after we left the bar?
I wish I could remember, but I was so drunk. That fucking baseball bat! What the hell was that all about? And Marty, lying sprawled out like a dead fish.
Jackie shivered at the recollection. He could feel the heat licking at the nape of his neck.
The cops must be on my tail, by now, and closing in fast. At this rate, the decision is gonna be made for me, Jackie thought.
Six-by-eight cell, steel bunk, single stainless-steel sink, and a lidless crapper. All nicely coated in prison grime and funk.
What would my son think of his father, then? Jackie wondered.
What will they charge me with? What the hell happened that night? Why can’t I remember? How could I have been so stupid?
But Jackie knew.
One name said it all.
Martin Gunner had always been able to talk Jackie into anything. Even as kids.
Marty, with his devil-may-care attitude.
Marty, with that boyish grin that could sink a preacher’s daughter’s resolve. Hell, the preacher’s wife’s too.
Marty, Marty, Marty.
The whole world revolves around me, and I always get my way – Marty.
Jackie had let Marty fast-talk him into going out last Thursday, even though it was in the middle of the work week, and Jackie really needed to get up early because the construction site was an hour away, and the new crew chief was an asshole when it came to workers straggling in late.
But Marty had insisted, and Jackie knew that if peace and quiet were ever to reign again and he was ever going to get a wink of sleep that night, he’d have to go with Marty to the bar for drinks.
That was all.
Two drinks, they were outta’ the place.
Jackie footing the tab. One drink apiece. That was all Jackie had planned on. That was all he could afford. One quick beer apiece, and then adios, amigo. Head back home, and hit the sack. Make it to work on time, and everything would be great.
Marty had agreed to this when the two were standing in Jackie’s cramped apartment. Of course, he had, but that agreement was only binding while the two were at Jackie’s place. The instant they stepped into the bar, for Marty anyway, all bargains, bets, and deals were off.
The bar was just down the street from Jackie’s place.
It was one of the reasons Jackie kept the dump of an apartment he called home.
A nearby watering hole was just the thing to take the edge off any depression when thoughts of Ian and Janice and the breakup crept in, and the dark clouds gathered over Jackie’s head, and the hopeless thoughts just wouldn’t let him alone. The bar was just the place to go when Jackie was feeling a little low.
The watering hole was not much for ambiance. Jackie patronized the place for relief, not because the place got high marks from the Health Department. Not that that would happen in a million years.
Roaches had been known to skitter across your work boot if you left your foot in one place for too long. It was strictly a blue-collar joint, the kind that reeks with enough second-hand smoke to scorch your windpipes and blacken your lungs.
And that was just at the doorway.
A place where the music was always blasting, and the tune was always Country.
With a capital C.
Not that glossed-over Hollywood garbage with more backup instrumentals and singers than a Broadway musical, but the good stuff – the twangy, drawling, hillbilly lyrics set to a tune that would break the stoniest heart.
Gritty. True to life.
The kind of Country that sounds better and better the drunker you get.
The two entered a packed house.
What is it? Jackie wondered. Some kind of holiday or something?
No, it was still early, and there were no holidays in this calendar month.
He quickly took in the room. Plaid or denim work shirts and blue jeans. These were just the nameless Joes who stopped by to dampen the dust off a workday before heading home to a nagging wife and a litter of squalling brats.
How had they let themselves get so roped in, most wondered sadly, as they nursed their brews and laughed at the course jokes that made the rounds.
Relax, unwind, and then head home.
Grab a quickie with the wife, if they were lucky, and do it all over again tomorrow.
The Great American Dream.
Working class that is, if you were lucky enough to still hold a job.
Not all were dropping by like flies to light and then head out for home, though.
Some had deeper thirsts – die-hard alcoholics, who would gladly hand over their hobnailed livers for just one more drink, who would be there for as long as the change held out in their thin, gray pockets, and the barkeep allowed them to loiter.
Pickled souls seeking oblivion and that blessed state of numbed paralysis.
Most knew it, but would gladly call for another round, another pass of the bottle.
Let the golden rotgut work its magic.
That searing heat would seep slowly into their brain cells, and the sharp-cornered world would eventually turn soft and mellow. Problems were flushed right down the toilet after just a few shots, along with your health, but who the hell cared, if you got just one more drink, just one more glass of high-proof nectar, well that might make all the difference in the world.
And when the time came to answer the Reaper’s call, those die hard drinkers would be the ones screaming the loudest that Fate had screwed them, once again. None of their actions had brought on their calamity. Teflon boys, they were. Nothing they did was ever their fault.
Why had God done this to them?
It was just the kind of ludicrous thinking that passed for sane reasoning.
Marty and Jackie passed by hunched shoulders and rounded backs. Big brawny hands embraced shot glasses and mugs with a light grip. Dirty, scarred sausage-like fingers caressed each mug like it was delicate crystal.
Most seemed reluctant to talk.
“There’s an empty booth over there, pad’ner,” Marty yelled into Jackie’s ear.
Jackie moved to the area where Marty’s finger pointed.
Thankfully, the acoustics were not as good in this corner, and the music was somewhat muffled, dampened enough so that Jackie and Marty could hear themselves talk.
“Man, this place is jumpin’,” Marty said.
“Yeah. Seems to be a hot ticket, tonight,” Jackie yelled.
Jackie’s face wore a menacing scowl.
“Look, Marty, maybe this was a mistake. I really need to be at home getting cleaned up and ready for Friday.
Today’s payday. Janice will be expecting her lion’s share tomorrow afternoon.”
“Come on, Jackie. Loosin’ up. Drinks are on me,” Marty said.
“I ain’t complaining or anything, but it’s been so long since you picked up a tab, I think we were in grade school, weren’t we, Bub? And since when did you suddenly become so flush with cash? Somebody die and forget to strike your name from the will?”
Jackie knew that Marty’s father had disowned his son years ago. It was the one weapon he had on Marty, and it never failed to knock some of the cockiness out of his friend. Any reference to Marty’s father always seemed to put them on even ground.
And the headache that was just beginning to bloom behind Jackie’s eyes from the loud music and stale smoke was just the thing to make Jackie want to twist the knife a little deeper.
Jackie, who wasn’t in the best of moods, hoped his words stung.
“Might say that, Jack, ole boy,” Marty said. “You’re a real comedian, you know that. Anyway, pull that wedgie outta’ your crotch and listen up. I gotta’ plan, ya’ know, a real beaut. ‘N this one’s gonna land us some real dough. Not no penny, nickel, ‘n dime stuff neither. I’m talkin’ a boat load of cash, friend.”
“Whoa, Marty. Wait right there. I told you, I ain’t gonna be sucked into no more of your schemes. You’re flyin’ solo from now on, amigo. I mean it. Count me out.”
Jackie got up to leave.
“Wait a minute, Jackie. Here comes our waitress. Don’t bail out before our little lady here gets a chance to make some really great tips.”
Jackie settled back into the booth.
“Look Marty. It’s me, Jackie. Remember? I know all about your sleazy rip offs of women. Jesus, Marty, most are widows! And old enough to be your grandma!
Hell, your great-grandma! So, don’t be coming to me with your smooth talk about how we can both get rich quick. Besides, even if I wanted to, and I most certainly do not, even if I wanted to, I can’t. Not now. Hell, I don’t even need to be in the same country with anything that has the slightest smell of illegal or shady dealings to it.
Janice is serious about trying to get sole custody of Ian. And she’d welcome any excuse to bust my balls. On top of her, I got Janice’s lawyer crawling up my ass like a bad case of the clap. If either one of those two catches one whiff of anything like what I know you’re proposing, they’ll haul me before the judge so fast, I won’t know what hit me.
And you know the courts, some liberal, bleeding-heart judge will take one look at poor, pitiful Janice and give her everything she asks for. Full custody. Probably even more money each month in child support. And I’m barely scratching by now.
So whatever you’re pitching tonight, the answer is no.
Got that. Big N and fat Zero. NO.”
”Calm down, fella. I hear the direction the wind’s blowin’. Janice is one tough cookie, Jackie. You’re right about that. She’s gonna see that she and hers are taken care of, even if the rest of us starve. She was always like that, man, even as a little kid. I’d bet my life on it.
Nothing but selfish her whole life.
And who was it who told you to leave Janice alone in the first place? Me. Remember? I tried to tell you not to get mixed up with her.
Man, you took one look at her that first night you two met at that club, and your radar went up. Had her dead in your sights. I knew you was a goner. Made me sick, the way you panted after her while she played it all cool, you know, like she couldn’t stop struttin’ to give you the time of day.”
“Shut up, Marty.”
“Stuck up, man.
Thought she was too good for you. And what‘d you do. Sniffed her snooty ass like a hound in heat.”
“I said put a lid on it, Marty. That’s enough.”
“No, I won’t. She’s taking you to the cleaners, man.
Talking you into letting her keep your kid.
She’s the one who trapped you, remember. Conveniently forgot her pill, got herself pregnant, and then she demands a wedding ring to make the little bun in the oven legal. And you bought into it, like a sucker born yesterday. Swallowed her story faster than a raw oyster sliding down your gullet.
A little straight thinking would’a solved all your problems, man. Slip a jacket around the little soldier, know what I’m sayin’. Don’t let the spermo outta’ the sack. No bambino. No marriage to Janice. No problemos.”
“Leave Ian outta’ this. He may be the only good thing that ever came from me ‘n Janice.”
“Whatever you say, man, but I’m only speaking the god’s honest truth here, Jack. Janice was nuthin’ from the day you laid eyes on her, man – nuthin’ but trouble, my friend.
She had you wrapped so tight around her pinky finger I’m surprised the damn thing didn’t turn black ‘n fall off. But I will say this for her, Jackie, what Janice loses by trying to shaft you like she has, she more than makes up for when it comes to her body.
Come clean with me, Jackie. This is me, Marty. They’re cosmetically enhanced, ain’t they?
I mean the woman is really out there. No bagging, no sagging. Nature don’t make ‘em like that. Stacked like twin volcanoes. Beautiful tits, Jack. And you always were a pushover when it came to tits.”
“Leave the tits out of this, Marty,” Jack said.
A waitress moved among the tables taking orders. She was poured into jeans, her full, round bottom sashaying from side to side like swinging coconuts. The rhythm of her hips was hypnotizing.
She turned toward their booth.
The first four buttons of her bright, white blouse had been left unbuttoned. Two perfectly rounded mounds pushed out from her chest, both squeezed into a too little bra, and both straining to break free of their confining prisons of lace. Jackie couldn’t help but notice.
Even if they were surgically implanted, like Janice’s had been.
No, Marty was right.
Mother Nature never made ‘em like this.
Stopping at their booth, Jackie’s moved up to her face.
Not soooo nice.
Even in this forgiving dimness, the skin beneath her chin looked loose and baggy, like it had come unglued from the bones. Her eyes were heavily lined with mascara, but the black goop only accentuated the deep crows’ feet, embedding into the creases, and giving them a dirty, gritty look.
Not so nice, at all.
The old gal was in her fifties, if she was a day, probably pushing sixty, and her voice was raspy and deep from too many cigarettes and too much booze.
“What can I do you for tonight, gentlemen?” she asked, and Jackie could imagine the bone-rattling cough from her phlegm-laced lungs that shook the walls of her bedroom each morning when she awoke.
“Two beers,” Jackie said. “Domestic. Nothin’ imported.”
“Yeah,” Marty piped in, “a bowl of nuts and one with pretzels, too.”
She nodded and walked toward the bar.
“Getting’ your money’s worth, huh Marty,” Jackie said.
Marty leaned closer to Jackie.
“Now what I think is this, Jack. . .” Marty began his sales pitch.
Jackie lost interest in Marty’s line early in the evening. It was the same old worn out scam Marty always pitched when he came looking for Jackie’s help.
My help, Jackie thought.
All he wants from me is whatever money I can spare to get him set up in some cheap fleabag hotel room and stock it with booze and condoms. Yep. That’s all. Well, not tonight, old boy. Marty kept pitching his scam. That is all I am to you, ain’t it Marty – just a cash cow. But the silver teat has run dry, and the money’s scarcer than clear water in the desert.
But I been chump enough to come through in the name of friendship many, many times.
Jackie mused silently. Not tonight, though. Not tonight.
Marty could fill him full of liquor to the gills, but Jackie was not letting go of any of his hard earned money.
It just was not gonna happen.
The cash cow was cashed out. The golden goose roasted. Janice was seeing to that.
Jackie sipped his beer.
Somehow, one beer became two, then three, until Jackie lost count. Then, sometime during the night, Marty introduced the hard stuff. The bourbon burned off the beer’s foam from his taste buds, and Jackie let the golden tonic do its work.
Marty was on a roll, still talking nonstop, and Jackie knew it was going to be a very long night. He nursed his double and watched Marty’s mouth move. Marty’s full lips looked like women’s lips, Jackie brooded, watching word after word spout from Marty.
Maybe that was what turned women on to Marty. Marty wasn’t handsome in a rugged way. No, his looks were softer. Prettier.
There must be something erotically satisfying to a woman to be kissed by those ladylike lips, Jackie thought, staring at the fullness of his friend’s mouth as it puckered and relaxed.
Something attracted women to Marty. That much was true.
Jackie had witnessed them falling for Marty’s charms many times. And sleazebag that he was, Marty never lacked for marks to take him up on his seedy scams, either. It almost seemed as if women stood in line to lose their money to the huckster.
All he needs is a little lipstick, Jackie thought, and Marty’s mouth would be perfect.
Jackie slouched a little lower in the booth.
Damn, he thought, I must be drunker than I think I am. Hallucinating. Have to be.
Suddenly, Marty’s mouth looked just like Jackie’s own mother.
I hope you enjoyed this part.
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