Sunday, May 25, 2008



“Forget it...”

Frank focused his attention on the burner, hoping to simply ignore Red until they were back on the ground, but as he reached for the valve to lower the balloon’s flame and begin their descent, Red covered his large hand with her own tiny one and said, “Look...I did eighteen months at the Farm and another year at Shutter Creek, up in Oregon. I know what it’s like, Frank...the shitty job, the halfway house, the asshole parole officer...”

It was the tone of her voice as much as the cool, soft touch of flesh on flesh that caused Frank to hesitate. Turning, he saw again the weariness he’d glimpsed only fleetingly before, as if the aging grifter were finally breaking character, dropping the charade of girlish manipulation and carefree abandon in favor of a truer, though still undoubtedly calculated version of her actual persona. “...that can’t be all you want outta life,” she continued quietly, “just growin’ old and playin’ it safe the rest of your days...”

“Stop it, okay?” Frank snapped, annoyed, uncertain why she was still playing him, what more she could possibly want. “I’m not listenin’ to any more o’ your horseshit.”

But Red continued as if he hadn’t spoken, and Frank couldn’t help but see himself clear in her words, the tiny, cramped shell of his life. “Settlin’ down, settlin’ for table scraps when you could be howlin’ at the moon...”

She was playing him and they both knew he knew it...but, then again, he realized, so were Mitch and Lucia and the parole officers...the whole goddamn shell game, the biggest hustle of all, the one about keeping his nose clean and playing along and sucking it up in hopes of some happily ever after where he’d eventually be a successful, respectable citizen instead of a marginal ex-con, scraping along for the next thirty years until he finally became the government’s problem again, fading away in some cut-rate, piss-stained nursing home, alone.

“C’mon, Frank, admit it,” Red smiled, tracing her fingers along the taut forearm and bicep under the sleeve of the starchy white salesman’s dress shirt. “Out there on the I-10, you an’ me, racing Charlie...when’s the last time you felt your blood just singin’ like you just got laid so good it made you cross-eyed?”

Frank couldn’t answer, couldn’t remember, couldn’t really argue that either hustle was any better or worse, except one stretched on longer before the other shoe finally dropped, and the other might at least be fun while it lasted.

“So how ‘bout it, goose, whaddaya say?” Red said, pressing closer. “You watch my back, I scratch yours?”

“Lady, I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you,” Frank replied, just being honest.
“I’d say that’s plenty,” Red smirked, glancing over the side of the basket to the surrounding desert, still a pretty good throw beneath them. “Besides, if you think about it, I've never once lied to you, Frank.”

The statement was so blatantly ridiculous that Frank could only laugh, prompting Red to clarify, “Okay, so I wasn’t really planning to buy that Mustang, and I gave you a fake name and tricked you at the gas station...which you totally deserved, by the way...but aside from all that, I’ve been completely honest!”

“You’re lying right now!”

“Nuh-uh!” Red insisted, stubborn.

“You lie so much you can’t even remember what you lied about!”

“Name one thing!”

“You said Charlie was your husband...”

Ex-husband!” Red explained, digging in her purse for a crumpled snapshot which, to Frank’s genuine surprise, actually did appear to depict Hombre and Red arm-in-arm, side-by-side in a quickie Las Vegas wedding chapel. “It’s not my fault he was already married! I mean, if anybody ruined Charlie’s life, it was Charlie!”

“Well...” Frank stammered, a little less sure of himself as he continued to gape at the unexpected snapshot, “what about the other guy, that Mercedes dealer from Oregon?”

“I’m not saying I’m a model citizen,” Red shrugged.

“You’re a menace!”

“Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah...hey, if you don’t want the money...”

“Yeah, right,” Frank scoffed, “listen, I may be stupid, but I ain’t dumb enough to think I’m actually ever gonna see one goddamn red...”

The word cent transformed into another gasp of astonishment as Red produced a tight roll of hundreds from her purse, pressing the money into his palm. “I’ll pay you the rest when I get to my brother’s place...he’s been watchin’ my daughter for me...”

“Oh my actually spawned?”
As soon as the words left Frank’s mouth, he saw in Red’s narrowed eyes that she wasn’t lying about the daughter.

“That’s Caitlin,” she said, reaching into her purse for a photo booth snapshot of a somber young girl with fiery hair and a glittering gaze unmistakably her mother’s. “And nothin’ in the world is gonna keep me away from her.”


Post a Comment

<< Home