Right Behind You
excerpt from story #3
I hit the door of the fifth convenience store in the last hour. This was getting old.
The place was grimy, smelling of old food, stale coffee, and sweat. Even the radio blaring the newest Roy Orbison from behind the counter did nothing to bring up the atmosphere. I stood in line behind three other people, gave up trying to see behind the counter over their heads. Tucking my hands into the pockets of my worn bomber jacket, I eyed the curvy bottle of Coca-cola in the man’s hand in the front of the line. I remembered when you had to go to a soda jerk for one of those. Glancing around the small, dim room, I sighed. Those places were cleaner, too.
The line moved as an older woman in a baggy dress took her brown bag of whatever rot-gut they sold here and shuffled off into the night. My eyes followed her even as I took a step closer to the counter and my increasingly futile goal. She looked both ways before stepping off the front walk of the corner store and furtively went left around the building. She might be good for a quick pick-me-up if I fed her, I thought. If I caught her before she’d gotten too far into that bottle, anyway.
Someone else walking past the store cut off my view of her, and I turned away. I was next.
I could now see the array of cigarettes behind the clerk around the woman in front of me, now that the man in the ten-gallon had left. I saw the characteristic white pack with the red bullseye on it and hope sprang up in my chest. There was a chance. At this point, I considered buying them whether they were filtered or not and just ripping the ends off.
The lady in front of me took her package from the counter and shuffled towards the door. I thought I heard a slight sniffle and smelled the salt of tears, but it was none of my business. Not tonight.
I glanced at the pimply kid behind the counter who looked like all early-night service workers these days: bored to tears and counting the minutes til clock off. “Lucky Strike, no filter,” I said firmly, trying to keep the sound of my exasperation out of my voice.
“Lemme check,” he squeaked, turning.
Both my hands crossed fingers where they rested on the counter, and I leaned forward on them, letting my head go slack for a minute. I needed a cigarette and a snack in the worst way right now.
There was a rustle of a paper bag near the door, which I foolishly ignored. There were only two heartbeats in the store right now, and I didn’t give a damn about either of them.
The kid turned around with an empty carton in hand. “I might have another one in the back,” he said. “I haven’t had time to put the new shipment away. Want me to look?”
I lifted my head, giving him my winningest smile through the loose strands of my sandy blonde hair. “Please. I got all night,” I added without a hint of the sarcasm I fully meant.
And that was my mistake. Actually, my first mistake had been to come back to Texas in the first place. I don’t care if it was the 60’s now. Some of the people I knew were still alive and breathing.
“Lily?” came an incredulous, middle-aged voice as the clerk headed into the back.
I tried to ignore the lady as if that wasn’t my name. (Actually, it hadn’t been for the last eight years, but I wasn’t fond of this decade’s moniker.) I half turned away, pretending to look at a display of Clark’s Teaberry and Blackjack, while I glanced at the nearest reflective surface, trying to catch a glimpse of the person calling my name.
The sudden exclamation of “Bulldog!” brought a reaction I couldn’t control.
I heard the bag of groceries hit the floor and turned when a hand touched the faded image on the back of my jacket.
The woman was in her forties and looked every year of it. Her once rich brunette hair was cut fashionably suburban, but starting to grey at the edges. Her eyes were the same greeny-brown, now dilating as she took in my ageless face. “Lorraine,” I whispered, not even aware I’d spoken.
Fighting back a tear in her eye, she snapped to attention, giving me a sharp salute that looked out of place in her brown plaid dress with the little paisley scarf at her throat. “First Lieutenant Lorraine Fontaine, reporting for duty, Captain!”
I sank back against the counter, knowing there was no way out of this now. “At ease,” I breathed, trying not to tear up or laugh at the joke we’d perpetrated back when we hadn’t been considered military.
Lorraine started nattering immediately, the same old chatterbox, twenty years be-damned. “Where have you been? What happened? We thought you dead and here you are not looking a day!” she spouted. It sounded like it was all one breath.
I just leaned there, looking her over, deciding what I was and wasn’t going to tell her. There was a ring on her finger, a dull gold band that was probably not solid. She looked care worn, and smelled like a cheap floral perfume, cheaper rye whiskey, menthol cigarettes, and ...baloney? I took another breath. No, a child. Damn it all to hell, Lori’d had a kid! The perfume hit me again as she shut up, just watching me take everything in and make whatever decision was percolating. It wasn’t just cheap, now that I thought about it. Yeah, it was a drugstore fragrance, but something like a kid would pick out.
My mind made up, I moved away from the counter and her and the kid coming back with the cigarettes, headed for the freezer case at the back. She saw me aim for the ice cream and muttered a quiet, “Oh dear.”
I looked over the weak selection. There was the usual vanilla and chocolate, Neapolitan. I reached for the pistachio and stopped, spotting a quart of rocky road just behind it. I grabbed that instead.
“That bad?” Lorraine gasped.
I gave her a wan smile as I went back to the register. She remembered our ice cream code. There was a hierarchy of flavours by which we could gauge just how serious, bad or good, a particular conversation was going to be.
The kid looked at me, then Lorraine, not sure what was going on. “H-h-how many you want?” he asked, holding the carton.
“Just give me the whole thing,” I said, slipping him the money for the ice cream and cigarettes. God only knew when I’d find unfiltered again. Taking another deep breath, I smelled the faint scent of whiskey again. “And throw in a bottle of Cutty Sark,” I added, laying out another twenty. What did I care? It’s not like it was my money anyway, and I still had another forty in my pocket.
I grabbed my bag and turned back to Lorraine. “So where are we going?”
She picked up her groceries from the floor while I leaned into the door, standing against it to hold it open for her. “Arthur won’t be home until six,” she mused. “Tommy’s asleep, so my house? I need to get back, anyway. He’s alone. I wouldn’t have left him but I needed bread and milk for tomorrow and this was the only time I could slip out to get it. I’m just a couple blocks.”
I wondered why she was trying so hard to defend her choice. “How old?”
“Ten,” she smiled softly.
I put the ice cream, cigarettes, and whiskey in the saddle bag of my Indian and put her bag in the other. I glanced down from my dark slacks to her frumpy housewife dress. “Can you ride in that?”
She put a fist on her hip. “I may have traded my commission for a white picket fence, but I still know how to ride,” she huffed. Then she tipped her nose up and sniffed disdainfully. “Only now I can do it side-saddle,” she simpered. She held that attitude for a remarkable three seconds before she cracked, making both of us laugh. Everything might be different, but surprisingly little had actually changed.
I threw my leg over the motorcycle and supported it while she got herself situated. She had to tuck in her damned skirts to keep them from getting caught in anything. Once we were set, I revved up and followed her directions.
Her house was a little yellow thing, with aluminium shades over the windows and a tiny carport. She had me pull my bike around the back, into the grass and leave it by the kitchen door. I carried her groceries for her and let her lead me into the sunny little kitchen. She stopped long enough to put them away and my ice cream in the freezer before she gave me the nickel tour.
The house was small. There was a living room only a little larger than the eat-in kitchen, and this was where the smell of menthol cigarettes and rye came from. It had a fancy sideboard with a decanter set filled with that cheap rye whiskey, and a well-used arm-chair facing a decent-sized TV. Hell, it might even be a colour model. There was a small chintz couch at an angle from it, but it clearly saw little use. There were a few toys neatly arranged under the coffee table. I noticed the heavy ashtray on the table next to the armchair had been freshly washed.
There was a short hall by the kitchen which led to the bedrooms and a bath. She didn’t open any of the rooms or turn on the hall light, just told me what the doors were. “The WC is that first door on the right. Our bedroom is across the hall and that’s Tommy’s at the end. We’ll have to keep it down so we don’t wake him. He’s got school tomorrow.”
I nodded, following her back to the kitchen. It was clearly her favourite room. This was the only place that had any sign of her. The half shelf over the stove that was supposed to hold spices sported little nick-knacks and tchotchkes instead, most of them, I noticed, she’d picked up overseas... most of them while with me and the rest of our flight crew.
She pulled out two bowls, and spoons and doled out portions of the rocky road before putting it back and setting two highball glasses next to the now unbagged Cutty. She left it to me to pour. I was generous.
We sat at the little family table. I deliberately chose the chair her husband normally sat in, across from her, and watched her a long moment, taking a pull of the liquor that I didn’t really need. I reached back into my bag and got a pack from my new carton, tearing it open, and, after inhaling the delicious, toasted aroma, began flipping them one by one, all but the last.
Lorraine chuckled as she watched me.
“What?” I asked.
“Every damned time.” I started to reach for my lighter, then noticed there was no ashtray in the kitchen or lingering smell of smoke. I hesitated. “You mind?”
She shook her head, fetching a small one from a drawer. It looked like something you would keep for guests. I offered her a cigarette.
She looked at it, almost hungry for it, then shook her head. “Arthur doesn’t like me to smoke. But you go ahead. I’ll live vicariously,” she grinned.
I lit up, letting the glorious smoke slip into my lungs and release, let it change the taste of my own stale air. I gestured with a finger to the ceiling, indicating the house. “So, this?”
She began with her ice cream, smiling with a mix of shyness and regrets. “Met him after we escaped France,” she said. “He was a machinist; we just... clicked. After they shut the WASPs down and sent the bulk of us home, I joined the WAC for the rest of the war.” She gave me a look of carefully shielded pride, “I actually made First Lieutenant. Arthur and I kept running into each other and eventually he asked me to marry him,... and I did. I left the WAC and became an Army wife.”
“You still fly much?” I asked, finally tasting the ice cream.
She shook her head, “My licence has lapsed. Arthur... we couldn’t afford to keep it up. He got hurt in ‘52 when a part broke off something he was working on and crushed his leg. He got a medical discharge, and we moved here to Corpus Christi. Not as nice as Baton Rouge, but... not bad.”
“And Tommy? He’s ten, you say?”
She nodded, happy. “Yeah, we tried for so long before we got lucky. He’s my lucky star, that boy. He nearly killed me, but they caught the problem in time, by luck, really. Had to cut him out, but I don’t mind the scar.”
I watched her, spooning the ice cream into her mouth. There weren’t as many wrinkles there when she spoke of him. “I’d love to meet him one day,” I said, tasting a marshmallow.
She brightened. “Well, we go to the park every other Saturday. You could meet us there! We’ll have a picnic!”
I set my spoon down and grabbed my whiskey. “About that,” I said, taking a sip.
She froze, watching me as carefully as I had her. I knew Lorraine had grown up in Louisiana, all but breathed superstition and the supernatural. It was one thing to talk about it, read about it, halfway believe it. It was another thing altogether to be confronted by it. But, if anyone could handle the truth, it would be Lorraine. The trouble was knowing which way she’d run with it.
Her eyes narrowed. “This is going to be a whopper, ain’t it?” I nodded once. “Worse than rocky-road and Cutty Sark?”
I shrugged, giving her my famous half smile, “It was all they had.”
She gave a low whistle. “Fuck me twisted.” I smiled. I had always loved her colourful turns of phrase. After a minute of just sitting there, staring at her melting ice cream, she topped off our drinks as if they were iced tea instead of heady alcohol. She raised her glass in a silent salute, waiting as I did the same. We sipped, and she waited on me.
I really didn’t know how to begin.
I sighed. “Have I ever lied to you?” I asked.
She just eyed me, trying to read what had become unreadable, or so I thought. “Once,” she said flatly.
I looked up at her, startled. “When?” I snapped defensively.
Her gaze never wavered as she lifted her glass. “When you told me you were right behind me.”
I gave another small sigh, but smiled ruefully, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Okay, so never.” I lifted my blue eyes to hold her greeny-browns. “Remember that.”
It was easy to remember that night, both what Lorraine had been there for and what came after. It was forgetting it that was hard, and God knows I’ve tried....