James propped his phone to his ear, while his other hand twisted against the steering wheel of his rusted 1975 Ford F250—old blue.
“Hey, it’s Hagan. I’m probably avoiding you, so do whatcha gotta do and leave me a message.”
He took the phone from his ear and clenched it in his fist. The urge to throw it out the window tore through him, but he paused and closed his eyes while he controlled his breathing. “Damn it, Hagan.”
In most respects, he was a simple man. He ate Spaghetti O’s straight from the can and couldn’t wait to do the Sunday crossword, even if he’d never finished one. He liked old Jimmy Cagney movies and loved to build things. He may have liked the simple things, but he was not without complexity. For those who knew him best, he was a kind and loyal friend. For others, he was a worthless criminal—a murderer.
He glanced at his watch, then looked back to the empty parking lot of the Cotton Grove Cemetery. Waiting for his daughter, being angry with her, was easier than ruminating in scattered memories and poor decisions. He also didn’t want to face it alone. In one last desperate attempt to gain his daughter’s favor, he called home.
James shifted in his seat at the brusque tone of his father’s voice. “Hey, Pop. You’re back early.”
“Mags had a conniption, so I left her scraggy ol’ butt at the hotel and came home.”
“You should bite your tongue. She’s a good woman.”
“Maybe on Sunday, but the rest of the week she’s a pit bull disguised as a nice old gal who knows how to make a mean apple tart. That tart’s a ruse, I tell ya, and once she gets you in her clutches its goodbye tart, hello nag.”
James pinched at the bridge of his nose. “And you’re just a ball of sunshine, aren’t you?”
“Whaddya want, anyway?”
“Is Hagan home? We’re supposed to meet at the cemetery, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“Nobody’s here but me. Doesn’t look like her bed’s been slept in. You live here too. Didn’t you see her?”
“Not since yesterday. I assumed she woke up before I did and made her bed.”
Pop let out his James-is-a-dumbass laugh. “You don’t know your kid well enough. She only makes her bed on Sunday, and since it’s Monday . . . there ya go.”
“So what? Does that mean she didn’t come home last night?”
“She’s twenty-two. Maybe she found a fella to shack up with for the night. You know, test the thread count . . . sample the percale . . . do the horizontal mambo. . . ”
“Pop!” James pounded a fist on the steering wheel. “I get it. Do you know her schedule?”
“Yeah, I actually pay attention to her.”
He swallowed the aftertaste of the truth. “I’m trying. I am.” He took off his hat and ran his calloused hand over his shaved scalp. “She’s stubborn.”
“Just like her dad.” Pop softened his tone.
“Look, Son, Hagan’s been stuck with me for the last decade. I taught her to be suspicious. Maybe that ain’t right, but in my experience, it’s good to be cautious. There are a whole lotta snakes out there.”
“Yeah.” James looked over the patchwork of headstones in the distance.
“Her boss’s name is Peter over at the bookstore. He’s somewhat of a fruit, but Hagan likes him. Give him a call, maybe he knows where our girl is.”
“And son, give Ingrid my best.”
James closed his eyes, the stir of emotion stealing his words. He sniffed, sat taller, and slipped his phone into his pocket. His wife, Ingrid, had purchased a cemetery plot long before she knew she was going to die—even longer before she knew James. It was the one thing she’d owned free and clear, and the only thing his crime hadn’t taken away.
He eased out of the truck and unfolded the map his daughter had made of the cemetery the night before. Ingrid’s final resting place was in the far corner, near a crooked pine tree Hagan had called Mr. Whispy. He took one-step after the next, pangs of regret stirring his insides. A beam of summer sun broke through the trees. Her gravestone shined like a beacon amongst the thick shade. Even in death, she knew how to stand out. He took a deep breath as her name became visible: INGRID MARIE PERRY.
He stared for several minutes, his eyes locked to those letters and her date of death. It was real. He knelt and brushed away the pieces of fallen cotton; he sensed her restless energy all around him, could nearly smell the clean citrus scent of her favorite shampoo. Eleven years without his wife; eleven years riddled with guilt; eleven years taken with no one to blame but himself.
From his prison walls, he used to silently speak to her, offering his apologies and regrets. He couldn’t wait for the chance to speak those words aloud, words he thought would come easy, but he should’ve known better—words never came easy for him. He slipped off his short brimmed fedora and stood with his head bowed.
With each intake of the fragrant air, he fought the urge to break down. His love for his wife was as intense as it had been in life. She was the one person that accepted his faults and encouraged him to be better. When she’d become sick, he would’ve torn down The Great Wall if it meant she’d get well. And after months of tests and more tests, the money ran out. What else was he supposed to do?
He sighed, the sound of her voice filling his mind. No excuses, James. A man takes his lumps without complaint.
So many things he wanted to say, things he had practiced in his mind. But in the end, they meant nothing. He placed his hand on the cool surface of the stone. “Je t’aime, Pigeon.”
He sniffed back his anguish, slipped on his hat, and rose to his feet. He stopped halfway to the parking lot and fought the urge to turn around. Instead, he glanced up the vast trees and the billowing cotton, then with a forced expression of strength, he wandered back to his truck. He was James Perry. Ex con. Murderer. He needed to be tough, but when he opened the truck’s door, a swell of emotion rushed through the hardened man, bringing him to his knees. Years of suppression caught up with him and he wasn’t sure he could take Hagan’s condemnation too. He knew he should’ve headed over to The Purple Penguin Bookstore, but he couldn’t. Instead, he drove straight to trouble—straight for The Tavern Saloon.
James’s childhood friend, Frank, owned the bar. It was clean and one of the only places where he wasn’t just a lowly ex-con. He was accepted and left alone to stew in silence. He squeezed through a crowd of college kids playing darts near the front door. One of them called after him with some reference to Die Hard and Bruce Willis as he made his way to the bar.
Frank flipped a white towel over his shoulder and placed a cocktail napkin on the mahogany bar while James settled onto a stool. “Jim. Good to see ya, pal. How about an O’Doul’s?”
James hesitated. Rows of liquor taunted him from behind the bar. “Bourbon. Neat.” He knew he shouldn’t, but the words just came out, nearly as delicious as the product itself.
Frank shook off a look he knew far too well and placed a glass dead center on the white cocktail napkin. “You know . . .” He twisted the cap off a bottle of Jim Beam. “Sometimes—”
“Just pour. I’m not lookin’ for advice right now.”
Frank shook his head as he poured. “Me and my advice will be over there if you need anything.”
James picked up his drink and held it to the light before bringing it to his nose. The familiar amber glow and woody corn-like aroma sent heat through his body without having to take one sip. It’d been a long time since he’d drank liquor. He’d stopped by The Tavern every now and then for a beer, mostly “Near Beers” and the like, but never touched the hard stuff. His proclivity for alcohol, whisky in particular, was the root of his former troubles and something he’d sworn to avoid.
“I can’t believe it,” a woman’s voice called out. “Is that Jimmy Perry?”
He placed his drink down and turned to see a busty brunette dressed in skintight clothing. He recognized her immediately. “Tristie Johnson.” He forced a smile, a barely there type of smile.
Her own smile trembled but never faltered. “Thompson,” she corrected.
He knew her name. She’d chased after him since he was three-years old, in one way or another. He’d even received dozens of letters from her while incarcerated, none of which he’d read. His cellmate, Vic, had enjoyed them, so they weren’t entirely in vain. Tristie wasn’t an unattractive woman. If she softened her make-up and teased her hair a bit less, she’d be a pretty gal. Her desperation was what repelled him. Her look, her appearance, all screamed of insecurity. And from what he remembered, she’d always been like that. In high school, the boys had called her Trusty. Apparently, she knew her way around a back seat, and since then she’d been in one bad relationship after another.
She shimmied next to him, her nipples taut against her purple tank top. His body tensed. The smell of her spicy vanilla-like perfume lit his senses and stirred feelings he hadn’t experienced in some time. “Looking good, Jim. I heard you got out.”
“Yeah.” He stared straight ahead, turning his glass of whisky with his thumb and middle finger in slow, even circles. He didn’t want to be rude but subtle hints had usually evaded Tristie.
“How’ve you been?” She arched her back against the bar, accentuating her already accentuated bosom and making James wonder just how she looked without that tank top.
“Not bad. You?” He took a breath, reminding himself it was Trusty Thompson’s boobs he was thinking about.
“I can’t complain.” Her voice was sweet. “How’s that daughter of yours? Hagan, right?”
“She’s good.” He glanced at the TV, feigning interest in the latest Diet Coke commercial.
“We really should get together.” Her smile faded in and out as she looked from James to the TV and back again. “I could make dinner for you sometime. We could talk about old times and celebrate your homecoming. It might be fun.”
He eyed her square in the face. “That’s nice of ya, Tristie, but I’m—”
“Don’t say no . . . not yet, anyway.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a pen with a hot pink poof attached to the end. She smiled as she wrote her number on a cocktail napkin and tucked it in his shirt pocket. “There, right by your heart.” She patted his pocket and smiled. Then she did something he didn’t expect. She lifted her hand to his face and traced the outline of his jaw with her index finger.
“You need a shave, Jimmy.” Her smiled twisted sideways. “But, I always liked a bit of stubble. Call me?”
He hoped his expression would dispel any false hope, but as his eyes found hers, he softened. “Take care of yourself, Tristie.”
She nodded and started for the door, the sound of catcalling college boys grew louder as she elbowed past them.
Frank strolled over and leaned into the bar. “I remember when she chased you around Johnny Butler’s sandbox. Things ain’t changed much . . . except maybe your hair, or should I say lack thereof.”
“And your gut,” James said, finally breaking a smile. “But I wouldn’t use the word lack.”
Frank laughed. “Ready for that O’Doul’s now? I know you don’t want that shit.” He nodded toward the glass of whiskey. “You might think you do, but—”
“Hold on.” James held up his hand and nodded towards the television. “Can you turn it up?”
Frank grabbed the remote and turned up the volume for the local news broadcast.
“Authorities are seeking information on a 2009 black Volkswagen Jetta pulled from the Portneuf Resevoir this afternoon. There has been no word yet from officials if this incident is connected to the rash of stolen vehicles dumped throughout the city. If anyone has any information you are asked to please contact your local police department.”
The camera panned in on the black Jetta, and James held his breath. No license plates. Maybe it wasn’t her car. It was a common model. Then he noticed the decal on the right passenger window—a purple penguin.