June 26. 2013, 1930 Hours
Jack was scouting the parking lot for his ride when he spotted C. J.
“What’s for dinner?” she asked as he approached.
Jack decided to dial down his inclination to spar verbally even though he felt like he had been left on the ropes after their morning encounter. “Any dietary restrictions or requests?” he asked as he arrived at the car. C. J. had added a fanny pack to her outfit, Jack presumed she was armed to shop or go Dutch.
“Pretty much an omnivore. We don’t see much red meat at home.”
“I’ve heard Foxy’s Steakhouse has ambiance and we could address your inner carnivore.”
“That could work.”
“How was shopping?”
“Intimidating. The banquet of consumer options; so many stores, so little time.”
“Stay away from Costco,” advised Jack. “Do you need to report your movements or are you ready to go now?”
“I told Mom we were going out to dinner unless you changed your mind.”
C. J. had tossed some chum, a subtle tone in a statement-question from a woman-child. Jack tasted the water, sensing a shift in whatever was going on between them. He felt like he had passed a test but now he didn’t know who was driving the train. “Hey, I’m good to go.”
They climbed into the car.
“I hear you went for a ride.”
“Yeah. I spent the afternoon doing donuts over a fire,” said Jack as he turned the key. “I got to see your dad work. Pretty impressive.”
“He’s been at it a long time. So, Mr. Journalist, how old are you?”
“How old am I?” repeated Jack looking over his shoulder and backing up.
“Yeah. You don’t look too old but you’re already losing your hair.”
“I’m thirty-three going on fifty. You have a boyfriend?”
“Not currently. I’m 24. In case you were wondering.”
“I was wondering. You probably have a couple of years before your hair starts falling out. How are your teeth?”
“Have you always lived on the island?”
Jack pulled onto the Musical Highway and they drove in silence until they arrived at Foxy’s Steakhouse.
“You realize this is an institution in the tanker world,” said C. J.
“I like the concept of institutions anchored by bars. It’s pretty common in the music world.”
The first door they came to opened to the bar portion of the establishment. Jack held it, ushering C. J. in with a hand gesture. He was rewarded with a smile as she brushed past. A swamp cooler hummed and blew cool humidified air down the length of a counter lined with round worn swivel stools. Two occupants sporting doo-rags, nursing beers, twisted, taking in C.J’s arrival, the far viewer having to lean back for the full affect. She slid into a seat leaving a modest space and turned to them.
They nodded and continued to gawk. Jack sat down attempting to own his space. He thought about the two Harleys parked outside and hoped this wasn’t a mistake. Jack felt some relief when he noted movement in what appeared to be the kitchen, then a woman appeared.
“C. J! When did you get in town?” The woman had some miles on her but she was attractive and in her element.
“He’s pulling the duty with Mom. We stopped and saw Don up in Bakersfield then Dad had to go to work.”
“That old coot is still kicking? He was an old man when I was still a virgin. That was a long time ago.”
“Marge, this is Jack,” said C. J. turning to him. “He’s a journalist. He’s interested in the tanker business.”
“We don’t see many ‘journalists’ around here,” said Marge, looking to Jack with an appraising eye.
“Nice to meet you, Marge,” offered Jack hoping he passed muster.
“I think he’s interested in getting in your pants,” said Marge.
“I just do oral sex,” said Jack. “Journalists just talk about it.”
Marge broke a grin. “A cunning linguist. I like it. Are you drinking or just talking?”
“I need a beer: Corona with a lime,” said Jack.
“Make it two,” said C. J. “We’re going to eat as well.”
Marge retreated to a dated cooler and slid its polished metal lid open.
“I didn’t know you were a regular,” said Jack turning to C. J.
“I was four the first time I came here. Dad had one of the tanker contracts at Fox for eight years. It’s a watering hole for airport people.”
Marge dealt two doilies and parked their beer.
“An oasis in the desert,” said Jack reaching for his beer. He poked the lime down the bottle’s throat. “Cheers”.
Bottles clanked and they both took a pull while holding each other’s gaze.
“Any specials?” asked C. J.
“We killed a cow. Cookie has some nice prime rib. Halibut just in from Alaska. I’ll find some menus. You want to eat at the bar?”
“Let’s eat in the restaurant. I want to explore. Put a place to the stories,” said Jack.
“Honey, take another drink. I like the way that bottle looks in your mouth,” said one of the Doo-Rag Duo.
C. J. turned and glared.
“Put a lid on it, Sport. That’s a lady you’re talking to,” said Marge. “The clientele has really gone down-hill around here. Cookie! We have an order to go!” yelled Marge.
Jack’s tactic, ignore them, wasn’t working and he took a good look at the men: scruffy facial hair, tattoos, wife-beater tee shirts and leather vests: wiry tweekers. His stomach shrank.
A large black gentleman in a tee shirt and apron materialized from the hall to the restaurant. He gripped a baseball bat in his right hand.
“Time to go, boys,” he spoke.
Turning around they realized they had been out flanked.
“I want to finish my beer,” said doo-rag one.
“Take it outside,” said Cookie. “Now.”
They took their time but stood.
“This way,” said Cookie, backing down the hall.
Jack watched their retreat feeling relief. “My compliments to the chef,” he said turning to Marge.
“Damn, I miss the days when the tankers were based here. Then the housing market crashed. There’s whole developments abandoned. Now this meth-head trash shows up out of the desert.”
“Well, tonight we go back in time,” said C. J., reaching across the counter squeezing Marge’s shoulder.
“Back to the future,” smiled Marge.
‘I’m having the prime rib,” said Jack. “Medium rare.”
“Make it two, medium rare, loaded potato and another beer.”
“Why don’t you give me the tour,” said Jack.
People came in small groups and couples as Jack and C. J. cruised the recesses of the restaurant, checking out the artifacts and pictures. They settled into a booth and the food arrived. As they ate they probed with questions and shared bits of personal history building more intimate resumes, feeling for common ground.
“Where do you go from here?” asked C. J.
“Your Dad said I should talk to Walt Darran. You know him?”
“Yeah. Interesting guy: entertaining. His wife was a well-known model in her day.”
“He’s in Chico. I have to decide if it’s worth my time.”
“What would make it worth your time?”
“Insight into why the tanker business just about collapsed and why it’s been such a struggle to revive.”
“Walt’s your man. Have you called him?”
“What, right now?”
“Sure. You’re not going to go up there without calling are you? It’s like seven o’clock. It’s not too late.”
“I think you’re a bad influence.”
“I’ve got his number.” She pulled out her smart phone and called.
“What are you doing?” protested Jack.
C. J. held up her hand, ignoring Jack’s protests.
Jack speared a piece of meat venting his frustration.
“Walter! It’s C. J.” She winked at Jack.
“We’re down in Lancaster. Dad’s back on 48. Are you at home?”
C. J. pushed a piece of potato around her plate and listened.
“Maybe we can get together. I have a new friend, a journalist from The Rolling Stone Magazine. He’s doing a story on the tanker business and would really like to talk to you.” C. J. listened awhile then she grinned and gave Jack a thumbs up.
“Oh I don’t know, the sooner, the better. How about tomorrow?”
Jack dropped his fork and mouthed a silent “What the hell!” Taking charge of his life he got up and went to the men’s room. Just like a woman to take over… started the monologue in his mind as he took care of business, then he put faces on past relationships and found himself mumbling. As he finished up at the sink he decided it was better to pursue women while drinking. Nobody has any expectations and you might get laid.
Back at the table C. J. was coy, sipping beer, looking pleased with herself. This further irritated Jack. He sat down, remained mute, retrieved his beer and worked at looking pissed. C. J. recognized the displeasure but retained a pleasant demeanor.
“Walt said he would be glad to talk to you about the business. He’s on his Cal Fire contract, flying relief out of Chico so he’s home most nights. He’ll be home tomorrow on a day off if you’re interested,” said C. J.
“I don’t want to spend the entire day driving to Chico.”
“If you spring for gas, I’ll fly you up there,” said C. J.
“You’ll fly me up there?” Jack was taken back. He was definitely not in control. “Just like that you’ll fly me there?”
“Sure. What have you got to lose, Mr. Journalist?”
“I saw you climb out of a plane. That doesn’t mean you’re a pilot.”
“That’s pretty lame,” said C. J. throwing down the gauntlet.
“Okay, at least let me digest my dinner and think about it.”
Jack’s mind was lurching between the various possible courses of action and outcomes. He was used to aberrant behaviors, rock stars and musicians running amuck on drugs and alcohol, trashing motel rooms, orgies and rants. How to respond to a woman apparently in possession of all her faculties proposing to fly him to an interview after knowing him for a day and a half? A beautiful creature who swam like a dolphin with legs that went up to make a superb ass, doing more for denim than Levi Strauss could ever have imagined.
C. J. sat quietly while Jack digested and attempted to analyze objectively what he was doing. Was there a story worth pursuing? He had invested the better part of four days of the last two weeks chasing leads. This was a tipping point. Shit or get off the pot. Are we having fun?
“Maybe we should head out?” said C. J.
“How was dinner?”
“Great,” said Jack. “Look C. J., I’m just not used to anybody managing my time.”
“I get it. I’m just throwing possibilities out there. I can just hang around here waiting for Dad to leave or do something a little more interesting, that’s all.”
Jack picked up the check. “I’ll go pay for the damages,” he said as he stood.
“I’m going to the ladies’ room,” said C. J.
“I’ll see you outside.”
Jack paid the bill and thanked Marge for a great meal. She said he should come back soon.
“Give me a nod in that rag you write for,” said Marge as he stepped outside.
As he moved toward the car he noted the wind had calmed. His eyes adjusted slowly. He stopped and turned around expecting to see C. J. emerge and beginning to analyze why he had become so uptight. As he looked at the building he realized there were two motorcycles parked beside it. He had a moment of tingling anticipation before he heard movement behind him and turned.
June 26, 2013, 2120 Hours
C. J. lingered with Marge before leaving Foxy’s. Outside she headed to the car. When she left the lights, and stepped to the gravel parking lot, she saw Jack leaned over the hood of his Corolla by the Doo-Rag Duo and she stopped.
“Why don’t you join us, little lady?” spoke one of them while producing a knife.
“Go back in…!” began Jack before his head was bashed into the hood of the car.
“You go inside I’ll stick him good and we’ll be long gone.”
C. J. didn’t move.
“Come here, little girl, you don’t want your friend hurt, do you?”
C. J. took a tentative step.
“No…!” managed Jack.
“Come on, little girl. We won’t hurt you.”
C. J. took another slow step, then another. Jack squirmed watching her move toward them. After a few steps he realized she had a gun in her hand. The doo-rag duo apparently picked up on the new development at about the same time. They hadn’t paid attention to her hands, reaching behind. Where did that come from, thought Jack through his discomfort.
She said, “You boys brought a knife to a gun fight.”
There was something deeply incongruous about the voice and the image and Jack’s mind was reeling.
“You’re not going to shoot anybody,” said Doo-Rag One, but the casual note had evacuated his voice.
“Let him go.”
“Now why would we do that?”
C. J. took steps backwards and sideways arriving next to the Harleys, pointed the gun at one and pulled the trigger. There was a metallic ring to the pop and a flash.
“You crazy bitch!” screamed Doo Rag One.
“As I see it, you can let him go and the two of you can ride away on the bike that still lives. Or you can keep him and I’ll shoot the other bike and you can wait around until the cops arrive.” C. J. stepped away from the bike. “I could punch a hole in the fuel tank and we could have a barbeque.”
Doo Rag Two shoved Jack’s head into the hood again then stepped away. Jack pushed off the car and moved from the two assailants around the back of the car.
“Any time now,” said C. J. while gesturing with her pistol. Jack arrived at her side.
“Lucky you have the little lady to rescue your ass,” said one of the twins as they walked towards the bikes.
“Drop the knife. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” said Nancy.
The knife wielding doo-rag glared. Nancy put another round into the bike, the knife fell to the ground and both men picked up the pace. The bar door opened and Marge peered out as the second Harley started and the men climbed aboard. The engine revved and they sprayed gravel executing a hasty departure.
Marge stepped out and saw C. J. and Jack huddled together. “Everything okay?”
“I think they had bike trouble,” said Nancy.
“Shall I call AAA?”
“After we leave,” said C. J. “I wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea.”
“You kids drive safe,” said Marge then she ducked back inside.
“Holy shit, who are you, Annie Oakley!?” Jack found his voice.
“I grew up in Honduras. Sometimes you have to convince people you’re serious.”
“Where did the gun come from?”
“I carry it in my fanny pack.”
“I thought you had credit cards in there.”
“A credit card doesn’t buy anything back home. We should probably go to the motel before somebody else shows up and asks questions.”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to dawdle at the crime scene.”
After they settled in the car Jack gripped the wheel for a few moments.
“Thanks,” he said glancing at C. J.
Then he started the car and they drove in silence to the motel. The drive-through Mexican restaurant was like a beacon beneath the Inn of Lancaster sign. Jack turned into the parking lot cruising slowly past a few random vehicles and parked next to the pool.
“Quite the evening out,” said Jack.
“Thanks for dinner,” said C. J. “If you want a ride to Chico tomorrow we have to leave early, six-thirty. I’m in room 212. Knock on my door if we’re on. Remember, you buy the gas.”
To be continued...