Not bothering to look around for prying eyes because he didn’t give a shit, Junior Garland twisted the top off a tiny whiskey bottle with a small cracking sound and emptied it into his black coffee. He sat across from his only friend (stretching the definition) Bob Lincoln in the back booth of Rita’s Diner, the last stop on Bender Street before it turned into State Route 51 and headed out of what was left of town. They were two of the eight people in the joint, about average for the morning rush since the Bob Evans had opened next to Micky D’s less than four miles down 51. He had parked his pickup in the back next to the dumpster and as out of sight as it could be. He had tied two tarps over the bed covering the cargo in the back which was adequate as long as no one was looking for it. And someone would certainly be soon.
Mary Lou, the long time waitress and, with her husband Gary, owner of the Diner (There was no Rita) came by with the coffee pot.
“Jesus Junior”, she said, seeing the empty beside his cup. “At least don’t advertise..”
Without looking up, Junior covered the bottle with his wide paw and scooped it into his side pocket. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out another. He tipped it toward Mary Lou, “You want a pick me up? I have more.”
“No thanks”, she said, nodding toward the kitchen where Gary worked “Enough booze in the family with that one. I’ll stay out of it.”
“Take him one, then,” said Junior, offering.
“You think he don’t have a bottle in there?”
Junior grinned humorlessly across the table, “See? I can’t even do a good deed.” He snapped the screw top and dumped the liquor into his newly refilled cup.
Bob watched her walk away, especially her slim calves and snugly fit skit. She had kept her figure, he’d give her that. He and “Lou” didn’t interact much though they’d known each other since grade school. There seemed to be a mutual concern that the hunger for each other that had driven their fling so many years before had not been completely sated. It was the summer after graduation when it seemed that everybody was going into the mill down in Brownsville or to Nam. Bob had done both. Two tours, then to the mill where he was a shift foreman. He and Lou’s thing hadn’t lasted long, just a couple of weeks when Gary, her unofficial fiancee even then, was up in Pittsburgh training for a steel mill job that would have been sweet but he ultimately didn’t keep.
With his flat expression, Junior reached for and poured a third shot into his cup.
“Did you sleep at all?”Bob asked him.
“Who has time?” the big guy grumbled, lighting a cigarette with hands that trembled slightly.
“My question is how did you get those tanks into your truck?”
Junior shrugged, staring blankly into the black of his coffee where a tiny gray ash floated. “Just picked them up and pushed”, he said as if they weighed thirty pounds and not 300.
All that Bobby knew for sure was that sometime overnight, Junior had stolen two welders and three acetylene tanks from the railroad. He didn’t need them; couldn’t use them, but they were there to be had. You’d have to be a mook not to take something that was there for you. At least that was the thought process of an over muscled hopped-up sometime thief. Thing was, Junior had a good job in Brownsville, but he also had a need to stay ahead of “them”. All them that were waiting for him to go broke, lose his job, be weak in any way. He had had enough weakness when one season of college ball ensured he’d never follow so many of his friends and teammates to the jungle. Months in a walker, then on crutches left him gimpy, angry, and vengeful. Maybe overseas he could have proven himself to himself and wouldn’ have to pull off dangerous hair-brained schemes that always were just short of blowing up and taking him and everybody around him down.
The central concern at the moment was that Junior’s latest haul had come from the railroad. How he’d managed to break into the storage car was a story that Bob didn’t even want to know. And most of the remaining populace of dwindling Fort Rocaceau-an over named coal patch town roughly twenty miles upstream from Pittsburgh-worked for or had some connection to the railroad. They had already had the uncomfortable conversation about why Bob couldn’t store them for him.
Sometime during the caper, Junior had gotten it in his mind that since Bob wasn’t a townie, had fifty acres and a couple of outbuildings down Hanging Rock Parkway he could stash them there till the heat died down. Who would ever know? But Bob knew, once that stuff settled onto a spot at his place-his wife’s family’s actually-Junior, once down off his larcenous high, would forget about it. And once he was straight he’d never be able to move them. Plus, Bob’s pain-in-the dick brother in law was retired railroad and could not be counted on not to be snooping around looking for old shit of his old man’s which was still in the outbuildings.
So no, this stuff had to go and go quick and given all the prying eyes around town, it was best to get rid of it a county or two away. So after a couple of calls from the pay phone outside of Rita’s, the plan was to haul them as they set in Junior’s pickup down to Uniontown where an Army buddy of Bob’s would take them off their hands for a decent price. But now, the plan in motion, the big man seemed hesitant.
“What?” asked Bob who was familiar with the ebbs and flows of Junior’s moods ranging as they did from gravel gray to asphalt black.
“How well you know this guy?”, he asked his coffee.
“He’s solid”, Bob replied, trying to will his partner to meet his eyes.
“We get all the way down there and he tries to fuck me, I’ll burn him down”, he rumbled, finally looking up.
Bob made a show of sighing, demonstrating that there was no issue. Junior’s taste for violence was legendary but not many people had, like Bob, been close to it. Had seen it bloom from a small seed, like this short sentence silently nursed by constant brooding, into a conflagration that left people broken and questioning their decisions.
“Did you talk to him?” Bob asked, trying to pull him out of his darkness.
“Yeah, I did.”
“Did he give you a price?”
“Did you like the price?”
Junior shrugged, finding logic bothersome in his current mindset.
“Did you like the price?” Bob repeated
“It’s OK”, he mumbled.
“Cause if you don’t like it, get back on the horn and save us the fucking drive. But you gotta figure out something. You hold onto that shit, the Staties will be knocking at your door within a week.”
“Fuck them too.”
“OK, good. Fuck the Staties.” Sometimes when he used his old Sergeant’s voice he could penetrate Junior’s black fogs. One day he was going to find out who sold this guy crank and would kick his ass. “What do you think, Sheila’s going to come back from Florida and take care of Denise when you go to prison?”
“Fuck her”, he grumbled.
“Who? Denise or Sheila”, asked Bob, confused but not.
“OK, but you go away, something’s gotta happen with Denise. You think about that?”
“Figured she’d live with you and Rose”, he said, back to staring into his cup.
Bob looked at the man’s hands, scarred and broken, healed and rebroken, from a life of hard labor and fighting. Christ, he thought. He’s thought this out. He reached over and popped the big man on his beefy bicep with the side of his fist.
“You better leave behind a good wad of cash, cause two girls in the house will double Rose’s gin budget.”
Junior grinned at that. Bob never liked to talk about his wife’s drinking, something Junior used when he needed to needle a bit. “Girls coming?” he asked.
Since they were toddlers Denise and Janie had been tag-alongs on most of their father’s escapades. That was Bob’s word. What he had liked in the early days was the cover that little girls provided from the suspicions of cops or anyone else. What could these guys be doing with their daughters in tow?
“I brought them with me.” Bob answered.
Where they at?, asked Junior.
“Over the paper store playing the machine.”
“Best get ‘em, then,” said Junior, getting up.
Bob tossed a few dollars on the table and waited to make sure Junior didn’t pocket them, then headed out. He crossed the street and opened the screen door at the paper store.
He looked past the empty soda fountain and rows of comic books toward the back waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim inside. He heard the clack and bong of the machine before he was able to focus and see Denise leaning into the pinball machine. She was as lean and rangy as her old man was thick and stocky.
“Time to go, girls!” he called. Denise spun away from the machine without a second thought about the game in play. She was wearing black jeans, cuffed over black boots and a flannel shirt open over a black jersey. She wore her black hair feathered over her ears and above her collar. Her face hadn’t yet grown into her overbite so she kept her mouth mostly shut giving her the look of the typical sullen teen, at least five years older than she was. Janie, Bob’s daughter was a full head shorter, looked more like a kid, honey colored and freckled like a dust storm with a thick mop of sandy brown hair parted in the middle that cascaded down to her shoulders. She wore bib jeans as so many kids did, and sneakers and bounced rather than walked.
The problem with this caper was that Junior’s truck was a single cab with only a bench seat and a small storage area behind which even if the girls could squeeze into it the sideways sitting would result in double car sickness. It was Denise-the older of the two-who suggested they ride in the bed with the “the goods” she called them.
Bob realized immediately that the camouflage he hoped to gain with the girls would be offset by the riding in the bed of a pickup an hour down the highway. Junior even saw that. He opened the tailgate revealing the half of the bed not full of stolen equipment.
“Crawl in here. There’s another tarp folded for yinz to lay on.”
With an audible sigh, Denise lifted a knee onto the open tailgate and crawled into the void under the tarp wanting to put the grownups literally behind her. By the time Janie followed, she was already on her back, hands intertwined behind her head staring at the canvas. Janie lay beside her, mirroring.
“Who thought this was a good idea?” said Denise.
“It’s fun. Gets me out of the house. I bet we can get them to buy us burgers in Uniontown.”
They lay in silence while the truck bounced out of the parking lot then tried to guess where they were as they picked up speed then slowed at stop signs. There were no traffic lights in Fort Rox anymore. Dull sunlight leaked in around the edges of the tarp and before long they could see. Once the steady hum of the tires announced they were on the highway, Denise flipped onto her side, her hand braced by her elbow holding her head. Like her little shadow, Janie did the same, facing her.
“You know this stuff’s all stolen right?” asked Denise.
“Well, yes-he’s such a fucking asshole. When he didn’t come home last night I knew he was up to no good.”
“Where’d he steal it?”
“Who knows, who cares?”
“Isn’t he afraid he’ll get caught?”
“He’s too dumb to be afraid.”
Dennie!” Janie had never heard a discouraging word from Denise about her father.
“He is! He’s too dumb to be a criminal too. Just fearless and mean. What happens when he gets caught? He’ll be fine-a blockhead like him-but what will happen to me?”
Janie could see tears glinting in her friend’s eyes. She scooched a little closer. “I’ll take care of you,” she said quietly.
Denise smiled down at her. “You’re a midget”, she said, an old taunt. “You can’t take care of yourself”.
With a huff, Janie pushed herself up and then, sitting as straight as the tarp cover would allow, slapped Denise hard on the butt.
“Ow!” the older girl barked. “What was that for?”
“I’m not a midget! You’re just a stringbean.”
Denise was rubbing her backside. “That hurt!.
“Cause you got a skinny butt. A little slap like that wouldn’t hurt my ass”. They were close enough that they could feel each other’s breath. Janie was watching Denise’s mouth closely and smelling the light whiff of the spearmint gum she chewed at the paper store. Then without warning and without even knowing she was going to do it though she’d often thought about the how and when of it, she stretched her neck and pressed her lips to Denise’s first lightly then harder so their teeth clicked. She pulled away testing the waters.
“Why’d you do that?” Asked Denise.
Janie shrugged, which didn’t translate laying down, “Wanted to. You mad?”
“No”, said Denise, which Janie took as permission to do it again. This time the older girl kissed back lightly and opened her mouth slightly to accommodate Janie’s prodding tongue. Denise then felt her friend’s hand trying to jam itself down the back of her jeans blocked by her wide belt.
“What are you doing back there?”
“Just feeling around.”
Without a word, Denise flopped onto her back, undid her belt, and unsnapped her jeans. Then she came back up onto her side facing Janie. “Only my butt”, she directed “Nothing else.” The girl thrust her hand down inside her jeans and panties exploring the angles and contours of Denise’s slim backside. With her hand cupping the bottom of her bottom, Janie kissed her again, hard with an open mouth the way she’d seen in the movies. By the way Denise kissed back, she was pretty sure this wasn’t her first time.
“You get enough?” Denise asked after the long kiss.
“I got some, I don’t know if I’ll ever get enough.”
“Well, I like boys, you know.”
“Just in general.”
“Bracey? He’s a senior-you’re a child. Like me. Plus, He’s stuck up., Only dates cheerleaders.. “
“He’ll date me.”
“Only if you put out-and don’t waste yourself on him.”
“How do you know?”
We little people have our ways, she said squeezing her butt for the last time. .“You giants just wander around, heads in the clouds having no clue” Janie said, slipping her hand out of Denise’s pants.
“But boys, in general.
“Name someone in our class.”
“Paul Riley. He’s cute.”
“Peed his pants on the bus last week.”
“He did not!”
“Did. Pissy Paulie. He’s your beau now? Charming.”
Denise flipped onto her back. “I give up!” she said laughing.
Again, Janie mirrored and flipped onto her back. “Come over tonight?”
“So you can suck my face off?”
“We’ll listen to records too.”
I gotta see what the master criminal is up to. If he crashes for the night, maybe.”
In later years, after the after, given that they were schoolmates and playmates since preschool it might seem that they were paragons of restraint. But no, it just hadn’t occurred to them-the time wasn’t right. Later they would laugh about all their chaste childhood sleepovers as time wasted.