Keeping Them Happy Ch. 8

You will find a link to the next chapter at the end of this one. To return to Chapter 1, where Mason first meets Officer Borst, click here, which also will take you to a list of links to any other chapter.

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When he played back the tape on his telephone answering machine he heard his mother’s voice, tentative, afraid of one of those modern recording devices.

“Uh… This is your mother, Mason. Uh… Oh… Are you there, Mason?… Call me if you get a chance. Please. Uh… Goodbye.” There was another pause before she hung up. What was she thinking during that final moment? Whether to criticize him for some new slight; waiting to see if he was really there and would pick up the phone; listening for some clue that the machine had gotten the message right, because if it were a human instead of a machine she would have insisted that her message be repeated back to her.

She was 74 years old, a widow who had given her husband, Mason’s father, a heart attack more than thirty years earlier, when Mason was just becoming a teenager. She had cried at first, which surprised Mason because he had never heard her say a word about him that was not critical. When Francis Prewitt had come home from the hospital after two weeks and had been ordered by his doctor to stay in bed, his wife had immediately begun complaining about the extra work it required of her, delivering the meals, making sure he took his medication and “having to clean up around him,” as though he were a messy ashtray in a hotel lobby. She had wanted to make Mason’s father appreciate her. He died a week later when he got up to make a cup of coffee for himself.

“Hello, mother, This is Mason. You called?”

“Oh. You must have got my message, huh?” She had something in her mouth. “I’m just finishing my lunch. Green beans, a piece of toast and some of these miniature tacos. They’re frozen. I can’t remember the name of them. Just a second. I’m gonna get the box.” The phone clunked down on the table before he had a chance to respond. It didn’t matter. She was always reading food labels to him over the phone.

She came back on the line and read the brand name to him. “Have you ever had those? They’re real good.” Everything she ate was “real good.”

“Why did you call me mother? Do you need something?”

“Oh. Am I only supposed to call my son when I need something? I just wanted to see how you are. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

“I’m going to fix dinner here.”

“Ohhh”, she whined. “I thought you might manage to come up here.” It was a full day’s drive each way. “I could get one of those turkey loafs and a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin was always your favorite.” He couldn’t remember ever finding any of her pies tasty, pumpkin or otherwise. Years earlier, before he left home for marriage and college, she had still made her own pies. All he could remember was something she called “minced meat”, which contained no meat and did not taste good. Now all her pies were store-bought and frozen. “I suppose you’ll be having someone over,” she said.

“I’ll probably invite the kids over and a girl that I know.”

“Oh? What’s the big mystery? Is she anybody I know?”

“No. You haven’t met her.” His tone suggested that he was not going to provide any opportunity for that.

“What’s her name?”

“Gail. Her name’s Gail.”

“I suppose she’s somebody you met at school.” It was a question and a criticism wrapped together.

“No.” His irritation increased.

“Well, it would be nice to meet her some time.”

He thought she would want to tell Gail how inattentive her son is, how he shuts you out of his life, how he’s too weak to resist your meddling in his life by any means except simply avoiding you.

Out of a sense of obligation he asked, “What are you going to do for Thanksgiving?” He felt the scowl shaping his face, but he could not avoid asking the question.

“Oh, it’s no big deal when you get to be my age. Ruth and Jack have invited me to go out to dinner with them, like we did last year. We went to one of those buffets. It was real good.”

He let her continue with her comments and questions, her poorly disguised rebukes, her implied judgments until she ran out of things to say. When he needed to make any response he kept it to one or two words: yes, no, that’s good, I see, don’t know. With years of practice, he had mastered that method. He knew she was about finished when she said, “Oh, there was something else I wanted to tell you.” There was always something else that she had trouble remembering. Did she want him to think she was becoming enfeebled or that he had made her forget by his abbreviated treatment of her? He never hurried her, but he could never force himself to talk to her as though she were any ordinary adult. He expected that when she died he would feel both shame and relief. Now he felt only anxiety and a strong desire to end the call.

When he hung up, he left his office and walked two blocks to the student union building where he got a cup of coffee and sat near some male Arab students with ruthless smiles and darting eyes. With no Saudi women on campus, they were always prowling for American girls who might be impressed by foreign manliness. Mason sipped his coffee and wondered how they treated their mothers.


On Thanksgiving Mason fixed a turkey. He had never tried to cook anything as big as this great naked bird, but he read a cookbook and discovered that it was not complicated. He also made a wild rice stuffing with chestnuts. Gail made a fresh spinach salad. Mason’s children, whom he had tried to get to stay for dinner, visited for about an hour while the bird was cooking and were not as impressed with Mason’s efforts as he had hoped they would be. He gave Elizabeth a glass of wine but told the younger Richard that he’d have to settle for a soft drink. They said that they were going to have dinner with their grandparents, Jane’s parents.

Although Gail had met the children before, she was awkward with them, Elizabeth because she was old enough to behave in some ways like an adult, Richard because he was male, and both of them because their presence reminded Gail that Mason’s age exceeded her own by several years. The children, for their part, were friendly toward Gail, having previously gotten accustomed to Terri, Mason’s second wife, who had been even younger than Gail when Mason had married her.

George was not present. Mason had asked him to stay, but he said he didn’t think he could stand the expressed sentiment of a family Thanksgiving. He had rented a cabin at the beach for the weekend. Although Gail was never overtly hostile toward George, he had told Mason that Gail didn’t like him. Mason said he had never seen indications of that, but George said he had asked her.

“No kidding? What’d she say?”

“She said she liked me.”

“OK. Then why don’t you accept that?”

“It was the way she said it. I could tell.”

Gail had, in fact, said some things privately to Mason that had caused him to believe that George sometimes made her uncomfortable. She also had asked Mason several times to tell her how much longer before George moved out of Mason’s house, where he still kept a room. And a few times she had declined to come to his house while George was there, instead suggesting that Mason come to her condominium where they “could have more privacy.”

So on Thanksgiving, after Mason’s children had left them alone, they prepared to enjoy a traditional turkey dinner such as Mason had not eaten in several years. It was his treat, and he insisted that Gail do nothing, although he did consent to letting her prepare her salad. After she had finished doing that she sat at the table with a cup of coffee and watched Mason deliver the place settings, the turkey, the mashed yams, and the wine glasses and bottle. Fearing that the great bird would overwhelm them at the table and emphasize their solitude, Mason carved it on a kitchen counter and brought only a platter of meat and dressing to the table. He poured wine into each of their glasses before finally sitting down himself. He immediately proposed a toast.

“To us and all other good things.”

“To us,” she repeated.

While they ate, she described for him what Thanksgiving had been like at her childhood home, just the three of them – mother and father and her. Her mother would work happily for hours in the kitchen while her father watched football on TV. When she got married and had to satisfy two sets of parents the holidays suffered, she said, becoming more like a discipline. “There was a kind of urgency. They weren’t as much fun anymore.”

Gail mentioned her mother’s turkey dressing. It differed significantly from Mason’s, causing him to wonder if that meant his wasn’t as good. As he tasted it he thought it needed a little salt, and the sage was stronger than he had anticipated. He set aside his concerns, concluding that the dressing was acceptable. He imagined that he could even taste a little of the courage and effort that he had put into making it.

“So, what did you all do for Thanksgiving?” She had momentarily lapsed into Texas dialect.

“When?” He wasn’t sure whether she meant before he met her or while he was married to either of his two wives or even earlier, when he lived with his parents, a time that was so unmemorable he wasn’t sure any longer what they had done.

“You know, when you lived at home with your folks.”

“Ah, yes.” He hesitated. “The usual, I guess. Sort of like this.” He waved his arm over the table, indicating everything on it. “Isn’t this what everybody does?”

“But what was it like?”

He shrugged and smiled apologetically. “I don’t know. Probably just like any other dinner at home. My mother wasn’t a very good cook. And she and my father didn’t exactly enjoy each other’s company. So it was probably just generic, the usual holiday stuff everybody does.” He took a sip of his wine, trying to decide if he needed to say more. He added, “I mean it was probably just food, that’s all.”

He had never told her much about his childhood, although she had probed previously for some common bonds in their memories of that period. But she was still young, so he presumed her family memories were still a key element of her self-perception. He had moved out of his parents’ home as soon as he had graduated from high school, purposely selecting a university that was far enough away to limit weekend visits from his parents, who didn’t seem that interested anyway. It was for him an escape. Now in middle age he didn’t regret his childhood – he just didn’t consider it worth recalling.

Gail reached across the table and put her hand in his. He was so surprised by the gesture and the timing that for a moment he stared at their two hands resting together.

She removed her hand and changed the subject. She told him anecdotes about her job, humorous episodes from the past week about mechanics who were surprised to encounter a woman whose work included selling car parts. She seemed to enjoy the distraction she presented, but she expressed no malice toward the workers and explained how one older mechanic talked to her like her grandfather who lived in Indianapolis and was a fan of the Indianapolis Five Hundred race.

Mason poured more wine and cleared the dishes into the dishwasher. When he had finished and sat down again she told him, “This has been really nice.” Outside it suddenly began to rain very hard.

“Look at the hail,” he said. The rain was liberally mixed with ice pellets the size of rice grains. Mason and Gail watched together as the ice rattled off the window glass and piled up in the corners, where it quickly began to melt.

“It’s going to be a cold winter,” she said.

He led her into the living room, which was furnished with two sofas and a color TV that a client who couldn’t get his cash fee together had given Mason in lieu of money. His second wife had taken all the other furniture, including a davenport that consisted of about six pieces that all fit together into something approximating the size of a giant bed. He didn’t use the room much, so the mismatched sofas and a TV picture with a perpetual green cast didn’t offend his sense of taste enough to cause him to buy replacements.

He brought in wood from the carport and soon had a brisk blaze sparking in the fireplace. The wood was cedar, a bartered load from another client, and the sweet aroma engulfed them like incense. The flickering orange light of the flames supplemented the fading daylight and then gradually replaced it entirely. The movement that the fire imposed on the still room, the rain streaks on the windows that obscured the outside world, all contributed to a sense of fluid transition, a flowing from life’s customary superficial state into something deeper. Mason and Gail talked quietly. sometimes pausing for several minutes between comments, the only other sound being the crackle of the fire. The wood in the fireplace shifted as it burned down. Mason poked at it indifferently.

“What are you thinking?” Gail asked after a particularly long break in conversation.

He had not been thinking so much as feeling. He was distracted by disappointment that there was a persistent hint of something denied – he wasn’t sure what it was. He recognized that some things would always be beyond his reach, things he would never be able to possess. He had conditioned himself to respond to even the possibility of betrayal, by himself, by others, it didn’t make any difference.

“Nothing,” he answered. “Just relaxing.”

She snuggled up to him and he kissed her with sudden passion, needing to possess her. His hands quickly undressed her and they made love on the floor in front of the dwindling fire. They were strong and urgent, as always. It was finished in a few minutes. He brought a blanket in from the bedroom and they slept there beside each other until dawn’s light and a chill in the room awoke them. Mason’s back was stiff.

Although Gail had taken off the Friday after Thanksgiving and wanted Mason to go Christmas shopping with her, he begged off. He planned to spend the day in his office drafting civil complaints in several cases in which the usual threatening letters had failed to produce results for his clients. School was not in session, so he could hope for relatively few distractions. He noticed, as he entered his building, climbed the stairs and walked down the hallway that there were other faculty members in attendance, comfortably dressed in jeans and sweaters for the occasion.

He knew of no one else on the faculty who maintained as much outside activity as he did. He wondered why they were there on a free day. It could only be because they needed the place, the familiarity, and they had no other life. He had no close friends on the faculty; he knew very few of them well enough to address by their first names. He found it inconsistent that the majority of them maintained a demeanor of arrogance while leading what he regarded as conspicuously lazy lives.

Inside his office, he shut and locked the door. He had worked for three hours without any break when Bill Penney called. Mason had done a will for Bill Penney, a simple matter, and billed him fifty dollars, a bread and butter case.

“Now, I signed it properly like you explained and I was thinking I’d just put it in the safe deposit box. Is that OK, do you think?”

“Bill, the will has to be available if you die. Can your wife get it out of the safe deposit box?”

“Good point. Yes, she can. She knows where the key is.”

“Then it all sounds OK to me, Bill. Did everything look the way you wanted it?”

“Oh god, yes. First class job.”

“Anything else I can do for you?” He recalled that Bill Penney had already asked him about the safe deposit box when he was in Mason’s office.

“Well now, I got your bill here. And you certainly are reasonable. I must say that. The thing I was wondering – and I hope you don’t take this as an insult or anything like that – I was wondering you’d be interested in anything besides cash. Cash is no problem and I’ll put it in the mail to you today, if that’s what you want. I was just thinking that maybe you could use some Penney logs.”

“Penney logs. Maybe I could. What are they?”

“They’re these artificial logs. Made out of pressed wood particles. Burn better than regular wood for my money. See, I’m the guy who makes them.”

“I thought you made doors and window frames, Bill.”

“I do. But I make so many of those things there’s a lot of wood waste left over. So I bought one of these machines that makes the logs. I call them Penney Logs. They actually sell in stores for about two dollars each. Of course I can go better than that for you. I can give them to you at better than wholesale rate. That would probably be enough logs to last you about a year. You interested? If not, just say so.”

“Sure, Bill. How do I get them?”

“Just stop by the plant. I’ll have one of the boys load you up.”

Mason hung up the phone with a desire to get out of his office before something else happened. He hesitated because he still needed to figure out how he would transport his Penney Logs. His own car, the XKE, had a trunk barely large enough for a suitcase, so he assumed it would not be suitable. He didn’t know anyone with any kind of truck. The biggest vehicle that came to mind was George’s Cadillac. He called home, wondering if George had returned from another overnight event away from Mason’s house. George answered on the third ring.

“How was the beach?” Mason asked.

“Great. There was this girl I met at the drive-in when I went to get some take-out fried chicken. How was yours – the weekend I mean.”

“You should have stuck around. The turkey was really good.”

“Yeah. I know. I’m having some now.” Mason heard him chewing.

“You think we could get a bunch of Penney Logs in your car?”

“Sure. What are they?”

“Man-made firewood substitutes.”

“Ummm. Sounds great. Are they carcinogenic?”

“Probably only if you rub them in an open wound. How about an hour from now? I’ll come back to the house and we’ll go in your car from there.”

George agreed and Mason immediately began to put the papers on his desk back into some order that would make sense to him the next time he had an opportunity to do anything with them. He arrived home in about 45 minutes.

“I didn’t think you’d be home from the beach so early,” Mason told George, who was just slipping the decimated turkey carcass back into the refrigerator.

“I got bored. It was raining so I didn’t even go down on the sand. I watched the waves for awhile out the motel window, but it doesn’t do much for me anymore. The beach, I mean. Remember how it used to be such a big deal to go to the beach, a car load of us with a couple cases of beer. There’s really nothing like that anymore, is there?”

“I suppose there still is if you’re the age we were then.”

“These Penney Logs. With a name like that they can’t be very big, huh?”

“That’s what I figure.”

“Probably get ’em all in the trunk. I emptied it while I was waiting for you.”

When he had arrived home, Mason had noticed in the carport a pile of things George had removed from his car trunk. There were mildewed clothes, a golf bag containing three clubs, a wheel with no tire and a wooden create still partially filled with apples that were beginning to turn to cider. George’s Cadillac, the big Coupe de Ville, was only a couple years old, but George treated it with such indifference that it was aging rapidly. There were a couple dents in the fenders – George couldn’t remember how he had gotten them – and all the ash trays were overflowing. Beer bottles rolled in and out from under the front seat, ignored except for an occasional kick.

The car excelled in the gentle ride it gave to those cushioned in the silent interior. It reminded Mason how rough and loud his own car was, especially now that there seemed to be something wrong with the muffler. George plugged a country-western tape into the deck. The stereo voice of Merle Haggard swirled around them.

Mason had never been to Bill Penney’s plant and was surprised at the size of it. It was about three blocks long and consisted of several buildings and a storage yard. It was entirely surrounded by a metal fence topped with barbed wire. Next to the main gate was a small building marked “Office.” Mason went inside while George continued to listen to the tape.

A practical looking woman with glasses and streaks of gray hair looked up from her ledgers. “Can I help you?”

Mason assumed from her failure to get up from her desk and come to the counter that she did not regard him as a potential customer for a truck-load of doors; he imagined that in his sports shirt and cords he looked like someone about to ask for directions to a place nobody of good standing in the community would ever ask about.

“Is Mr. Penney in?”

“No. He’s not.”

It was his turn again, but she had returned his serve so fast that he flubbed it, “Oh… ah… ummm… I’m Mason Prewitt. Did he say anything about me coming by to pick up some fireplace logs?”

“Oh, Mr. Prewitt. Yes. I’ll prepare the order for you right now.”

She zinged a form into her typewriter, passed her hands over the keys a few times like a magician, and yanked out the finished order. She brought it to the counter and pointed at a line on the form. “Sign here, please.”

He did so, quickly. She scooped up the form and snapped it apart with a sound like a gunshot, holding the pink copy out for him. He put his hand out to take it but had to hesitate awkwardly because she wasn’t letting go.

“Take this to building C,” she told him, a practiced business smile rising on her face. “It’s at the far end of the lot. Just drive your truck all the way down there and get one of the boys there to help you load.” Instructions completed, she let go of the pink copy.

“I haven’t got a truck, just a big car. They’ll fit in that, won’t they?”

Her smile faded away. “A car? Maybe.”

“How big are they?”

“I don’t know. I only work here in the office. I don’t even have a fireplace.”


Satisfied that she had made her point, she added, “The specs on them say they weigh five pounds.” Her smile returned with the delivery of that last bit of information.

“OK. Thanks,” Mason said, not daring to ask anything further. He backed out of the office while she watched him carefully from the counter, probably to make sure that he closed the door properly.

“What’s the word?” George asked.

Mason pointed, “Down there. Building C.” As George backed around and got the big car aimed at Building C, Mason did some mental calculating. “She told me they weigh five pounds. I think that means each Penney Log. I’m getting 65 of them. That works out to 325 pounds, I think.”

“No sweat,” George said.

At Building C, Mason found a boy of about 19 who was wearing a cap with an “STP” emblem and had a tattoo of a skull on his left forearm. Mason handed him the pink sheet. The boy read it over, nodding his head. “OK. Just back your truck right in here.” He indicated a cavernous door into the building.

“We’re going to put them in the car,” Mason said, gesturing toward the Cadillac. George was still sitting inside listening to country-western music, which barely penetrated through the closed windows. He was drinking from a fresh beer he had brought from the house.

The boy looked at the Cadillac. “That?”

“Right. You just want us to back it in here?”

“Man, I don’t think you’re gonna get all those logs in that car.”

“Oh yeah,” Mason said confidently. “It’s a big car.”

The young man shook his head with grave doubt. “Just a minute. Let me get Ray.”

Ray was at least in his sixties, had a gut that was trying desperately to bust buttons and burst out of the restraint of a filthy shirt, and had the walk of a man who knew everything there was to know about anything that went on in building C. “What’s the problem?” he asked with authority.

Speaking in confidential undertones, the boy told an excited story to Ray. He pointed at the pink slip, at Mason and finally at the car. Without comment, Ray took the pink slip from the boy and examined it, then looked at the car and finally to Mason. “Do you know how much that is, total?” He got a big grin on his face, not a good sign.

“Yeah,” Mason answered. “They’re five pounds each, so that should be about 325 pounds. We figured you could just put them in the trunk.”

Ray laughed and the boy, seeing that it was acceptable to laugh at a customer, joined in. Mason stood still, smiling slightly, waiting for them to tell him what he was doing wrong.

“You see,” the old man said, trying to stifle both his laugh and a consumptive cough that it had triggered, “you got 65 packages, not 65 logs. It’s the logs that weight five pounds each and there’s three of the damned things in each package. That works out to just short of a half-ton.” The boy nodded affirmatively. Mason looked at the Cadillac and wondered if it would hold nearly a thousand pounds of Penney Logs.

“That’s not much different than carrying, say, four passengers,” Mason concluded.

“Ray laughed again. “Yeah. Four big passengers.”

“Yeah, they’d have to be pretty big all right,” the boy added, flashing a big idiotic grin.

“You want us to just back the car in here then?”

Ray shook his head in wonder. “Well, sure, if that’s what you want to do. It’s your car. Some of the logs are probably gonna have to go in the back seat. And we won’t be responsible for any damage to the car. I got a witness here who can verify that I warned you.” He nodded toward the boy without turning to look at him.

Mason rapped on the window and George glided it down silently with an electric switch. The music wafted out like a bad odor. “It’s a little bigger load than I thought. You can just back through the big door.”

George grabbed another swallow of beer, glided the window back up without further comment and moved the car as instructed. He finished the beer, rolled the bottle under the seat and stepped out rubbing his hands together, ready to help load. A fork lift rolled up, driven by the boy, who had now turned his “STP” cap around backwards. On the lift was a pallet of packages of Penney Logs. The stack was big enough to hide most of the machine carrying it.

“That’s them, huh?” George asked, a little dubious.

“That’s one pallet of them,” Ray explained to George. “We’ll bring up the other one when we’ve got this one loaded.”

George looked at Mason but didn’t say anything.

The four of them carried the fifteen-pound packages individually to the trunk. It was a big space and it held all of the packages from the first pallet, but the trunk was completely full. And the car had settled to a rakish angle that only a macho car freak might have found desirable. George tried to close the trunk lid, but had to move a couple of the packages before it would latch.

“I guess the rest will go inside,” George said.

Mason was reluctant. “I don’t want to mess up your car, George. We could take these home and come back for a second load.”

“Ah, fuck it,” George concluded. “We can get ’em in the back seat. Why waste gas?”

The Coupe de Ville, described by car aficionados as a hardtop convertible, had only two doors, so George and Mason opened both of them, tipped the front seats forward and brought up the other pallet of Penney Logs. The floor space was not adequate for more than a few packages off the new pallet, so George soon began loading them directly onto the seat. The other three men then followed George’s lead, although Ray shook his head again in disbelief. The velour upholstery, already soiled by random stains of mysterious origin, had begun to cling to the wood particles that scraped off the logs as they were loaded. The entire seat compressed as the stack grew, but the amount on the pallet still looked greater than the space that remained. They pushed some packages back onto the window shelf and then added another row that brushed against the head liner. The last two packages went in the front next to Mason’s feet.

When Mason and George got in the car to drive away, their extra weight settled the Coupe de Ville down as far as the axles would permit. They opened the windows to help expel the chemical odor of the Penney Logs.

From the loading area, Ray was looking at the tires on the Cadillac. They were usually a little low on air pressure, but they now bulged as though they were all on the verge of bursting. He called out a parting caution to George, “Ought to get a little air in those tires.”

“Think so?” George asked from the driver’s seat, willing to consider the possibility at some later time. He put the big car in gear and drove off.

As they departed, dragging the tail pipe in a slight dip in the yard, the old man and the youth stood in the big doorway of building C, for the first time looking worried about what they had helped to do.

When the car encountered its first stop light, George got it completely stopped about halfway into the middle of the intersection. “Lots of momentum with all this extra weight,” he said. “I’ll have to start braking a little sooner. Simple physics, I guess.” A man in a pickup crossing in front of them yelled something, but George didn’t seem to notice. He put a Barbara Mandrell tape in the deck.

George drove with all the concern of a man who thought his fate was determined by such random circumstances as the predictions arising from astrological signs, although George did not have an interest in any form of predictability. Without any load, it should have been a twenty minute drive back to the house, and George proceeded as though he intended to make it there in no less time.

“Shit!” George exclaimed so abruptly that Mason thought something had gone wrong with the car. His first fear was a flat tire, since George had passed several service stations without stopping for air, and the spare tire was under about five hundred pounds of Penney Logs in the trunk.

“What’s the matter?”

“We’re out of beer.” He pounded on the steering wheel. “That one I brought along was the last one at the house. I can’t unload three hundred pounds of logs without something to drink.”

“It’s actually closer to a thousand pounds,” Mason said, remembering that George had been listening to his tape deck while Ray had been explaining about weight.

“No kidding? I’m glad to hear that. I was wondering why the Coupe de Ville was having trouble with such a light load.” He turned into a supermarket parking lot, again dragging the tail pipe at the entrance.

“I’ll get it,” Mason said. “You can wait here. Make sure no one tries to take any of our logs.”

“Fuckin’ A,” George said.

The market was the usual airplane hanger style with glaring white florescent lights, the air cooled to a chilly sixty degrees to extend the shelf life of the produce, and unidentifiable music piped in to subdue any hostile instincts in the customers. The place appeared to be nearly empty. Mason wandered around the peripheral aisles until he found the beer. Across the aisle was a girl in a jump suit sorting through flea collars, hair ball ointments, and other pet remedies. Mason routinely looked her over – age about 25, pretty face, probably a good body, but the jump suit made it hard to tell. It looked like a homemade outfit, a combination of an elastic tube top and matching baggy pants, all sewn together into a single garment. She ignored him, adjusted the tube top and crouched down to examine more pet items on a lower shelf. For some reason, Mason imagined she was probably trying to provide for a stray cat she had taken in. He picked up a case of the cheapest beer and turned to leave.

At the same time the girl stood up. Mason paused, intrigued that her top refused to go back up with her. She had tangled one of her shoes in her pants cuff while she had been crouched down. The pull exerted by her rising traveled up the pants leg, transferred with equal force to the tube top, and snapped it down as neatly as a magician pulling a table cloth out from under a full course dinner. Her breasts sprang out unrestrained, full of resiliency.

“Shit!” she said and quickly pulled the whole garment back up, twisting her chest a couple times to get her breasts properly seated again in the elastic. Mason watched with unabashed fascination. She never looked at him, but picked up a flea collar and hurried down the aisle.

He thought about following her, hoping to join her in some consoling conversation at the check stand, but he decided he would only appear to be a pervert. And besides, there was Gail.

Mason waited a discreet time, reading the label on a cottage cheese container, before he took his beer to the front of the store to pay. The girl was not in sight.

“What took you so long?” George asked.

“A girl accidentally exposed herself. I didn’t want to embarrass her by following her out.”

“The one with the tube top? Yeah, I saw her leave.”

Mason confirmed with a nod.

“No shit? I always thought those tube things looked pretty unstable. Suppose she did it on purpose?”

That hadn’t even occurred to Mason. “Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know. I guess women don’t usually do stuff like that, do that?” He sounded disappointed.

It took them about thirty minutes and about half of the case of beer to move all of the Penney Logs from the car into the carport. They were both sweaty and lightly inebriated when they had finished. Mason brought the vacuum out on a long extension cord and got the worst of the residue out of George’s car. There didn’t seem to be any permanent damage except possibly for some smudges on his headliner that would not rub out.

When finished with the vacuum, Mason left it sitting in the driveway and joined George in the two lawn chairs that were left permanently set up under the carport in an area where no cars ever parked because there was no space left. The two of them gazed out upon the driveway, the sailboat on its trailer, and the woodsy, barren yard which accommodated only glimpses of the road and the house across the street. The sky was overcast and the air was cool, but the work and the beer had warmed them up, so they relaxed without jackets.

“Thanks for you help, George.”

George drank some more beer. “You know, I been thinking. It’s nearly six months since Diane kicked me out. She’s got a job and is going out with guys. And I been going out with different women. I don’t talk to her much anymore, except when I go over to see the kid, but even then we don’t have much to say to each other. Do you think we’ll ever get back together?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Maybe I ought to file for divorce and get it over with. I balled her a couple weeks ago, you know. First time in three or four months. But I think it only happened because she was horny. I was just another one of the guys she goes out with. Know what I mean?”

“If you really want to file, why don’t you come into my office next week and we’ll draw up the papers. But George – be sure. If you guys still feel any attraction for each other, filing for divorce will probably bring that to a nasty end.”

The phone rang. Mason got up and carried his beer into the house with him. It was Gail.

“Where you been? I tried your office but I got the recorder.”

He told her about the logs.

“How come you didn’t just take cash?”

“I got more logs than I could have bought for the cash. And I thought the fire we had last night was really nice. Wouldn’t you like to do that again?” He didn’t mention that he could write off the account as uncollected and reduce his taxable income; and Bill Penney’s company would so the same thing for the logs, at no personal expense to Bill Penney for his personal legal consultation. It wasn’t exactly legal, but everybody did it. At least, Mason told himself that they did.

“What are you doing now?”

“George and I are just sitting in lawn chairs and feeling good about having unloaded all those logs. We’re having a few beers. You want to come over?”

“No,” she said, pausing only a moment to think about it. “I’ve got things I need to do around here.”

“What about tonight? Want to go to a movie or something?”

“No. I’ve got to get some rest, Mason. And I want to do my hair. What are you going to do?”

Now that she had declined his offer he didn’t know. “I’ll probably just be around the house here. I’ve got all these magazines I’ve got to catch up on.” The magazines came to the house in the name of Fred Driscoll, a former client of Mason’s who had never paid his bill and did not know that he had entered subscriptions, as yet unpaid, to four expensive magazines and two mail order music clubs.

“OK. Well, maybe I’ll call you later.”

“That’d be nice,” he said.

“Do you still love me?”

“Why would you ask that? You know my feelings haven’t changed any.”

“I just like to hear it, I guess.”

“OK. I do.”

“Me too. Talk to you later.”

They said goodbye and hung up. He was not accustomed to protracted phone calls, usually using the phone only for business and then terminating the conversation as soon as some decision had been reached, or information imparted, or commitment made. His conversations with Gail seemed to trail off to insignificance, but he tolerated it because he assumed she liked it that way. He picked up his beer and returned to the carport. George hadn’t moved.

“How about I come in at five o’clock Tuesday?” George asked, as if their previous conversation had never been interrupted.

“For what?”

“To file for divorce.”

“Oh sure. That’s fine. Call me just before you come in to make sure I’m there. You know, I think Gail’s pissed at me for some reason, but I’m not sure why. Have I done anything inappropriate?”

“Probably. But would it make any difference if you knew?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

They stared out at the yard without talking, each of them lost in his own thoughts. They finished the beers they were drinking and then, with nothing better to do, pulled a couple more out of the case that they had stationed between their lawn chairs.

“What are you doing tonight?” Mason asked after awhile.

“I don’t know. I was just thinking of getting drunk and trying to get laid. You know, the usual.”

“Sometimes life’s not very complicated, is it?”

“I like to think that I’ve reduced mine to primal urges.”

“Mind if I go with you?”

“That’ll give her something to be pissed about.”

They both laughed. A cat strolled lazily up the driveway. Mason called “kitty, kitty, kitty” in a high sinister voice. The cat stopped twenty feet away, sat down and looked off to the side.

George said, “They really can act defiant sometimes, can’t they. I hate cats.”

He threw a stick at it, almost falling out of his chair in the process. The stick landed ten feet away from the target but the cat ran off anyway.

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