(The book is nearly done and I'm polishing. It will be up by June 5.)
The Sweet Nelly campground was ten or so primitive campsites and one stinking Forest Service privy under pines, aspens, firs, and birches on the shoulder of the mountain up which the trail snaked to Paradox Falls. The trees were sun-dappled and dripping now after the rain. There were three horse trailer parking spots—long and broader than the others--and Jake saw that one was occupied.
“That’s my sweet li’l ole gal!” Jerry said, looking out the window over the kitchen sink. “Hold up here, amigo,” he said to David. “I’ll disembark right here! That’s Marigold, my gal. She stables my horse for me, on account of I’m too stove up to look after him anymore myself.”
Dave slammed on the brakes, and Jake nearly went over backwards in his chair. Ashley cursed and smacked David across the back of the neck.
“Easy there, hoss!” Jerry said, almost tumbling into Jake but managing to cling to the sink and a towel rack. “These ole knees ain’t what they used to be. Sawbones in Fort Collins wants to cut ‘em both out and replace ‘em with titanium. I told him he could do so, but only if he could replace my pecker with the same stuff!”
He roared, opened the door, and ambled down the steps with a grunt. Otis barked and leaped out beside him. As the dog immediately ran off with his nose to the ground, Jerry went shambling off in his white tennis shoes to where a large form in a tan jacket like Jerry’s was sitting beneath the awning of a long, white horse trailer plastered with rodeo, pro-NRA, and anti-government stickers.
Only the long, light-red hair told Jake, standing in the doorway, that the person was a woman. She must have weighed close to two hundred and fifty pounds, and she was wearing Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. She sat in a lawn chair with a large, red plastic Circle K cup resting on one thigh. There was a cover on the cup and a straw sticking up out of the cover.
“Hi, Marigold,” Jerry said, opening his arms as he approached the woman sitting motionless, expressionless, glancing behind him at the motorhome suspiciously, as though she thought it might be filled with government spies. “You been waitin’ long, precious? Did you miss your Jerry?”
If Marigold responded, Jake couldn’t hear what she said above the RV’s rumble. Otis ran up and greeted her warmly while she totally ignored the dog. An old ironing board stood in front of the trailer. On the board was a carton of Old Gold cigarettes, a two-liter bottle of Diet coke, a gallon jug of Canadian Club whiskey, a brick of Velveeta cheese, a box of Wheat Thin crackers, Little Debbies, Dorito chips, and a plastic ice bucket swiped from a motel.
To the right of the horse trailer, which had an air conditioner sticking out of one window near the front, was a large, battered Ford pickup liberally coated in mud. A horse stood nearby, tied to a long rope stretched between two pines. The horse—chestnut colored and sleek, with three white stockings--whinnied, shook its head, and arched its tail as it stared toward Jerry and Marigold.
There was a tarp-covered pile of something nearby. Probably tack.
“Hey, Jerry,” Jake called. “What about your gear?”
Jerry was hugging Marigold, who’d risen from her chair to return the hug, holding the Circle K cup in one hand, an Old Gold in the other. Jerry had to stretch to get his arms around the big woman. Jerry kissed Marigold on the lips and glanced over his shoulder at Jake.
“Haul it out here for me, will you, amigo?” Jerry winced and grabbed his lower back. “Ridin’ in that heap threw my back out o’ whack. My gear, too, if it’s not too much trouble!”
Jake glanced over at Dave.
“Christ!” Dave jerked the gearshift into park.
“It’s your own fault, Clyde Barrow,” Ashley told him, standing behind Jake and staring out at Jerry and Marigold playing kissy-face. “If you wouldn’t have stolen that candy bar to prove you still run with the wolves...”
David walked around the front of the rig to the door. “Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have met Mr. Wonderful,” he told Ashley as he climbed into the rig.
“True,” Ashley said. “How true.” She smiled out the door. “He is rather wonderful, isn’t he?”
Jake and David each took a handle of the ice chest and carried it out of the motorhome. Grunting and cursing, they hauled it over to Jerry and Marigold, and, at Jerry’s direction, set it on the opposite side of the trailer’s door from the makeshift liquor table. Jake thought maybe Jerry was going to introduce him and David to Marigold, but Jerry and the woman merely walked off together, heading in the direction of the horse. Marigold was easily three times Jerry’s size though her head only came up to his chin. She held her Circle K cup in one hand and smoked the cigarette with the other.
Dave scowled after them and then returned to the motorhome for the duffel bag and the rifle, both of which he set atop the ice chest.
Jake turned toward where Jerry and Marigold stood near the horse. Jerry extended his arm straight out from his shoulder and lifted his thump. He looked at Ashley standing in the motorhome’s open door and grinned. “See you around, beautiful!”
Ashley grinned and waved. “Bye, Jerry!”
“Bye, Jerry,” David mocked as he headed for the driver’s side of the cab.
Ashley gazed off toward where Jerry and Marigold were standing and talking near the horse, their backs now facing the RV. Ashley planted a fist on her hip and said to Jake, “Why, that two-bit hussy! She grabbed him right out from under me!”
“She needs an open-handed bitch slap,” Jake said.
Just then he realized he’d been a little jealous of Jerry himself.
Jake and Ashley helped Dave back the motorhome into a horse trailer camping spot about thirty yards from Jerry and Marigold. As the sun sank in the west, and shadows grew long, the air cooling quickly, they set up camp and then built a fire out of dry wood that David and Ash had brought from home. David fired up his stainless steel gas grill, and after they’d had a few more drinks over happy hour, David grilled T-bones.
Jerry and Marigold had been the only other campers at Sweet Nelly until, at dusk, a Jeep load of college-age kids came splashing into the campground and loudly set up camp, including three nylon tents the color of jellybeans, on two spots just north of the Whitfields’ RV. Kicked back in his canvas outdoor easy chair, a glass of bourbon on the rocks in one hand, a cigarette in the other, Jake saw that they were an energetic, good-looking lot.
The fairly new, dark-blue Jeep Wrangler told him they weren’t hard up for money, like he had been at that age. They seemed to have all the latest gear. There were three girls and three boys. One of the girls wore her nearly white hair in dreadlocks. She wore an old, faded red T-shirt with the arms cut off and the bottom cut to expose her flat belly and silver belly button ring. If her stylishly tattered denim shorts had been any shorter, there would have been no point in wearing them.
She was long-limbed and tan, and she walked around with effortless grace, laughing and fooling with the others, all of whom treated her with the deference due a queen. One of the other girls, a brunette, was plump. She appeared to be paired with the beefier guy, who seemed to be taking a lot of shit from the other, better-looking guys.
Good-natured shit, but shit just the same.
“That’s all right, sport,” Jake said under his breath, his thoughts having returned to his phone call from Roger Goldstein now that Jerry had turned out not to be the killer he’d feared, “play your cards right, hold your course, and you’ll get your chance.”
“What’s that, there, F. Scott?” David said, collapsing with a sigh into the chair next to Jake’s.
Jake flushed. “I was just muttering to that chunky guy over there that if he plays his cards right, he might have a shot.” He congratulated himself on the nice recovery.
They were both staring over the fire at the teenagers.
David sipped his bourbon on the rocks. “With the blonde? Not unless he’s well-heeled or well-hung.”
“You never know.”
“Look at her. Look at him.”
“I’m thinking they might be together,” Jake said, reconsidering the group dynamic.
“They might have come together, but trust me, they’re not together. They’re friends. The chunky kid’s either gay or going to art school.”
The art school comment was a dig at Jake’s writing. Jake thought about Roger Goldstein and ground his molars to keep from blurting out how rich he was. Or would be soon, at any rate.
The blonde and the chunky kid were hauling sleeping bags out of the rear of the Jeep. They were talking and laughing. “Shut up!” Jake heard her say in a lilting, throaty voice that grabbed him by the balls.
As she turned away from the Jeep, she glanced over toward where Jake and David were ogling her on the other side of their fire, and she cut her eyes away knowingly, smiling. She walked like a two-year-old filly on long, slender legs as light as the air.
“Honeybunch?” Ashley called from inside the motorhome, leaning out the door.
“Yes, my flower?”
“The salad and the quinoa is done. How’re the steaks doing?”
“They’re done as well, petal. I just turned the grill off.”
“All right, boys—stop ogling the jailbait over there and come fill your plates!”
David glanced at Jake, and snorted. “Your wish is our command, Cookie!”
They ate dinner inside the motorhome, dining on rare T-bones, Mexican-spiced quinoa and black beans, a garden salad, and several glasses of California red wine that David had shipped home when he’d traveled out to Glen Ellin for a week-long tea conference last January. The wine had become the bomb all up and down Four Mile Canyon and amongst Ashley’s office mates in CU Alumni Relations. The vineyard had shipped Ashley and David a free case in their appreciation for the recommendations.
“Oh, yeah?” Jake said, studying the understated black-and-white label on the bottle. It was a single heron winging over a single tree of unspecified variety. “Maybe I’ll have to buy a case or two myself. Damn good swill, if you ask me.”
He caught Ashley and David glancing at each other furtively, dubiously out the corners of their eyes. He almost spilled Goldstein’s phone call right then and there. In fact, he’d just lowered his wine glass and was clearing his throat to do just that when he was saved by Ashley saying, “All right, boys—you have to help me with the dishes, and then we’ll go toke like old times around the fire and count the shooting stars!”
“And every time we see one, I get to kiss my rose petal!” David said as he wriggled up out of the dinette.
Drunkenly, Ashley stepped up to him, snaked an arm around his neck, ground her pelvis against his, and kissed him. Jake saw her tongue slither out of her mouth. He could hear their saliva mingling.
“Why don’t you two lovebirds take it outside?” Jake said, wrestling out from behind the table. “I’m the chief bottle washer tonight. Least I can do. Come on, come on—out, out, the two of yas! I know how it’s done!”
Laughing and holding hands like young lovers, David and Ashley headed on out of the motorhome.
Jake burned with jealousy and petty annoyance. While he pumped water out of the hot water heater into the tiny sink, and washed the dishes as well as he could in the cramped quarters, setting them all out on a dishtowel to dry, he considered spilling the Goldstein beans.
He calmed down and reconsidered. Something again told him not to. Changing the dynamic might ruin the trip.
He was their poor stray dog from the old neighborhood. They seemed to need him to remain that way. Unsuccessful. Maybe it made their success, by contrast, all the sweeter. Everyone needed a Jake Gorton in their lives.
He couldn’t blame them. People were people. Fucked up. He’d probably be the same, shameful way if he were in their shoes. In fact, he couldn’t help imagining how it might have been between him and Ashley...if only he’d gotten this movie deal ten years ago.
How would she react once she finally knew he was rich—maybe richer than she and David? Would she see him as more than just an old boyfriend she found sport in making jealous after all these years?
Jake dumped his unfinished glass of wine down the drain, swabbed out the glass, set it on the table, and poured himself a fresh bourbon over ice. He went outside and sat by the fire with his old friends, and soon, despite his inward gloating and resentment, it was like old times again. They sort of regressed to when they’d first started coming out here. Though Ashley and David cuddled in the same chair, they weren’t so much a pair. The three of them were a group. Together.
They laughed and reminisced about the old days, and shared a few bowls of Mary Jane.
No mention was made of Anton Woode and/or the bow and arrow killings.
Jake couldn’t see Jerry and Marigold, because their camp was over on the other side of the motorhome. He could, however, see the glow of their bonfire. The teenagers were milling around their own fire, leaving the camp in small groups of various sizes, or just sitting around talking. Their campfire cast noir-like shadows to and fro.
They didn’t have chairs, so they lounged around on the ground, some in sleeping bags. For the most part they’d quieted down except for brief spurts of bawdy laughter. One was quietly strumming a guitar.
Jake, Ashley, and David had also quieted down. They grew dreamy as they watched the stars above the pine boughs, and sipped their drinks.
A shadow separated itself from the teenagers’ fire. A figure moved toward Jake’s and the Whitfields’ camp. Soon he could see the familiar slender figure though now the blond had a Packers wool cap pulled down over her ears, and mittens on her hands. She still wore the incredibly short denim shorts and midriff bearing T-shirt, however. On her feet were hiking boots and wool socks pulled up nearly to her knees.
“Hello,” she said musically, stopping just beyond the edge of the firelight.
Jake’s heart quickened. She was a coolly spectacular beauty.
“Hello” was all he’d heard her say so far, but he knew she was one of those naturally attractive, worldly young women who said and did the right things without effort whatever the situation. You could fly her to Dubai tonight and she’d wake up in the morning and order menemen for breakfast in fluent Arabic.
“Hello,” David said in his best movie star voice.