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Fiction #339
(published July 19, 2007)
The Duke's Black Bag
by Tom Sheehan
Just pronounced ex-Navy and having breakfast in a small diner in Idaho, road dust claiming him as much as it did his old Ford convertible gracing the parking lot like an abused antique, he met Maybelle Hustings slinging homemade hash, the air full of morning's riches. She was tall, neat in her apron for a hash house waitress, wore her hair pinned back severely yet evoking promise in its loosing. Corded movements in her neck, supple and graceful but fully pronounced as a woman's, brought him early hungers, caught him leaning in the booth. Their eyes locked, gave out announcements, were decoded, and then, so as not to embarrass the other, were allowed to wander. Initial signals had been made, and illustrated; acceptance, of some order, duly noted.

Between the two the attractions were limitless, yet were essentially bound up in her needing to get out of the one-horse town and his, being as horny as three full months at sea, each of them airing their own broadcast.

"Breakfast can do that to some of us," he remembered a wise old shipmate saying, about shore leave in general and women in particular, "but only if you're lucky."

Drake Ulban Kincaid (Duke to all), 42, looked like a bag of razor blades, tough as a bag of nails and for almost ten years running had been the Navy middleweight boxing champ. His face was a series of acute edges and angles, and he could be the model for a bronze bust on a foyer table, any table in any foyer. The boxing leavings were permanent but worn badge-like, and lifted his eyes. All first impressions made him, at once, serious and of keen interest. He came to Idaho's foothills from twenty-seven years in Uncle's Navy hardly trusting anybody who didn't pack it up as he did himself (like comrades in deck-hidden gun mounts, knowing each other's sweat, arm strengths, their attention to detail, their own page of saltiness). Men pass the test or they don't; women might ride the fence.

All he wanted was a big wad of money in his hands, to lay it out on a motel bed, count it, sleep on it. Shore leaves about the world had created certain hungers. The motel money dream had been the one most insistently repeated. More often than not, tide reaches and changes setting up his thoughts, rapacious reading of favored Patrick O'Brian novels done for the day, he dreamed of finding a gold mine in the mountains of Idaho or Utah or Montana, not being too particular where: or perhaps, all things of the dream world at extension, of taking a lot of money from a bank.

He had declared those wishes to a few of his last shipmates before parting from Uncle's Navy. Leaving a ship was about the saddest thing he had ever known, and though he had done it almost a dozen times, the feeling still rang true. It was the saddest thing, he agreed, because the marks left were indelible on a man; most men would carry them a long time; the lucky man would carry them forever; any time the tide changed, salt stung an open eye, the wind shifted out of the northeast, a boat bobbled its fenders against a dock, the marks would be known again, old marks in a new setting.

And all along he knew what the chances were of finding gold in Idaho or Montana or Utah.

Dropping the menu at his table in a window booth, Maybelle said outright, as part of her introduction (along with already assuring two buttons were open on her blouse), "I'm Maybelle and I bet you got a story or two. Guys in here know you, at least what you're like. I can tell. They noticed you when you walked into the place, sized things up. I see three or four of them by the window pegging you right off the bat just after you parked your car. Like how they thought they might have been, way back. You know, when they had it all together, not like now." She punched the last comment with a gesture of futility. "They know the swagger, the instincts in your tote bag. I saw the signs myself, you coming across the parking lot after you tossed a travel bag from the back seat into the trunk of your car. The strut's personal, like your name's on it. Says you've been around, know things, places." She looked about, dropped an empty hand in a peremptory salute, and said, "More'n this."

Her whole life had been swept up in quick changes since she had left home; behind the barn with Ricky Sims, him shooting his mouth off later about his 14-year-old blow job, her father packed off to jail for two months for beating the crap out of Ricky and then his father, her mother on a continual crying jag about her own failures as a mother, the trucker who drove her the first 155 miles out of town and dropped her at a motel, paid for her room for two nights, went home to his own daughters too long ignored.

A hundred jobs she'd had coming here to this diner, long hauls and short hauls and no cemented romances. When she saw him get out of his old car, the tingle began, the old tingle, the good stuff rearing its head. Where it started out she never knew, but it would seep a while, crawl around on its belly, touch here and there, and then leap for the core of feeling. More than once since he had come into the diner she swore she had touched herself in secret, with a phantom hand, like some amputees have a phantom pain. All of it brought a flicker of a smile to her face.

Her more'n this gesture he loved, the idea of loneliness that went with it, so innocent, so open. A sense of grace filtered through her movements. Not in a long time had he been so impressed.

"You always go at it this early in the day? Is it trade talk, making me sociable and easy, digging for a tip? Take it from me, you don't have to do much of anything for a tip. You dress this place up from the git-go. Ought to pay you for that. Put your name up in lights. Drag every boy in here from miles around. Empty the hills. Cowboys and glow boys and weed whackers, they'd all come."

"You're as smooth as I thought you were," she answered, "and a peck of trouble with it, I bet."

But with that one line from him, she was suddenly more upright, two inches taller beside the booth, it seemed. Her morning, she was thinking, hadn't started that brightly. Now, a pellet of sweat walked easily on her forehead. A small vein ran its bluish scar-like run across one temple telling him part of a story. The brows and lashes were dark, lightly massed, yet ran their routes with a quick slimness, a neatness. If she stood other than nude in front of a morning mirror, he didn't want to know, preferring his own picture show, and found, above eggs and bacon, above morning grease, a thin sheet of new air carrying her signatures, all of them.

The tie-back of her hair promised again a softness once let go, him thinking it was a perfect matting for a pillow. It matched an elegant ankle bracelet looking much out of place in the a.m. diner. The bracelet was pure gold, he knew; probably from some long-hidden lode of riches a far mountain might have yielded. It was one of the first things he noticed in the whole room, that most intimate promise a woman deals with daily, that thin, delicate letter opener of sorts, that bearer of ultimate secrets. He wondered how long it would be before he could look sideways at the bracelet, measuring, looking for an inscription. Perhaps it would say, "Welcome aboard, captain."

With that thought, the jumble of arms and legs, the early motions of a morning erection came and went, as if an electrical plug had been pulled from a socket. Yet she was not a stray, not at all, having a carriage, using it, lessons accrued in its employment. He could tell that she was alert to everything going on around her, the early morning talk, the cigarette coughs, the rough faces talking of their rough evenings, the long eyes coming out of long nights, nights breaking loose in the morning in occasional repetition. An early stain worked on her pink shirt by her left underarm. In the midst of the morning hash crowd, eggs and bacon floating their grease in layers of air, like pages in a book or a menu, one breast rode its early titillation behind a damp spot on the shirt. Duke knew the code, waited to reciprocate.

He liked her eyes first, even before her hips sent messages walking away from the opening coffee pour. The pink dress rode her the way silk rides its prisoners, the hips engaged. He thought about two ships on the tide change, might have been in Honolulu or Singapore or somewhere in the Leyte Gulf, with a hawser swinging between them, tempo, music, a beat; man becomes electra, and then his woman whenever she comes from landside. When she came back with his plate of home-made hash and two-over light, he gave her the twenty-seven-year eye from his shore leaves.

"Women know you too," she said in rejoinder, exploring his eyes, his assessment, owning up to her own portions. "At least I do, and there's a blond in the corner booth thinks you're a smooth hunk." Looking back over her shoulder, she added, "Told her I'd let you know, just in case, but I think you call your own shots, don't you?"

"What's your take on it?" Duke said, putting a hand on the corner of the table so she could lean against his hand if she wanted to.

She did, the message running right up his arm.

"What time you get off?" he said, seeing the smoke float across the green of her eyes, more stories being told.

"I'm done now if you want. Nothing holding me, not even two day's work coming to me. Where you headed?" She didn't know why she had asked, it sounding as distinct as an invitation.

He thought about his last ship, leaving Mahoney and DePalma and Moxley in the gun mount. The slow taste of all the years was in his mouth. He gave her the whole salvo, all barrels at once. "I'm going to find a gold mine in Idaho or Montana, or maybe rob a bank. I haven't made up my mind yet."

"They both sound exciting, but I like 14 carat stuff, if I have a choice." She leaned over, tapped a finger on her ankle bracelet. Her breasts gave promise the way she bent over.

When she walked past the blond's booth, the blond said, "What'd he say? Is he jake or joke? I won't quit easy." Her hands were pressed on the table, as if deliverance was hers.

"He's taking me with him," the waitress said, a sudden hitch in her strut, and an approximately measured caesura pointing out the balance of her message. "Says he's going to find gold in the hills, or rob a bank. You want my job, you got it. Tell Marvin behind the counter." She pulled her apron off and dropped it on the counter, looking at a small mustached man standing there in his starchy white apron, his eyes still sleepy, his cheeks puffy, saying, "I quit, Marvin. I told you it'd be fast," and looking over her shoulder added, "and his breakfast is on me. Take it out of my pay. Blondie over here might take my job if you talk to her like a sheriff. She likes her men hard, too. Same as me."

They were more than a hundred miles into the road dust and the hills promising never to flatten. His attractive looks became a smoothing agent to her excitement at being alone with a man, little but the land their company. In that quick travel they learned what the other liked, in food, entertainment, sex and books, the intrusions that television carried with it into silence, appreciation, deep thought, loneliness when loneliness was wanted. It was, they agreed, a miracle that each one of them liked to read, would spend hours at it when able. At sea it had been a snap, with a ship's library always open. "Two guys with one mule found a gold mine in Montana once. One shot the other, and then he froze to death with his pack full of Twinkies and gold dust. I don't know who wrote it or what the title was, but it had a picture on the cover of the two of them looking down two trails in the mountains."

"Make you think about the gold mine all the time? Where'd the bank come into all of it?"

They were in Pocatello, across the street from a bank with high, wide windows, a few banners stating a special day for new investors. "The high come on," she mouthed, then giggled lightly seeing a quick antipodal scene rush across the back of her mind... Duke with a bag filled with money, walking out the front door, getting in beside her, driving off into the sunset, silence sitting behind them like Buddha, all Pocatello lethargic, still, unperturbed.

The face of the building rose seven or eight floors high, yet still seemed an impenetrable fortress. A vision of one of his battleships came to her, one he had described in such intricate detail that she knew he was missing it, had trouble letting it go. The understanding of such longing in the face of reality was abruptly hers; she'd been home only twice in sixteen years. When she looked up, at the topmost floor, the sun's last reflection gleamed into her eyes off the glass of a large window, and came down like a silent shot. Duke made noise putting coins in the parking meter, the new investor at the first move of money moving.

He came back to her side of the car and said, "You on for the long ride?" His eyes sank right down to where she was having her tingles again; she could absolutely feel them dropping down through her body, abrading all the way but with a smooth touch, an old hand at an old game.

Gawd, he owns me, she thought, closing her knees tightly, holding on to the tingle for a brief minute as it began to fade, losing itself in a quick contraction in her throat, on an unsaid word.

She looked around, both ways on the street, seeing the traffic flow, both car and pedestrian, life at its full level in a slow gear, evening beginning to settle its claims, the sun falling fully behind one hill.

He could tell she was in measurement, looking for her play in his thing, trying to find an answer in herself. At length she said, "I'm still here."

Then he was standing at the back of the car, those deep character lines still vibrant but near-bronzed in his face, marking him the way no man had ever been marked. In the rear view mirror she saw his lips pucker up as if he were going to whistle a salty tune, with a new adventure at hand. He keyed the trunk, pulled out the black bag, closed the trunk, tossed the keys in beside her in the front seat and walked into the bank.

A swell of admiration came upon her; I'll bet he's going to fill the damn bag up with money!

Thirty minutes later he was still in the bank. She tried not to fidget, but fidget she did, all the while saying what was apparent really wasn't apparent, or so she thought. It was an underworld argument, possibly deep in her soul, or on the fringe of a kind of immediate madness. Eventually, minutes more dragging by, she assented voluntarily to what had come across her mind; she would be painted an accessory to robbery, armed robbery most likely, thinking about the bag and what might have been in it. Only once had she touched it in the ride from Marvin's diner, reaching over to get a sweater out of her own bag, shoving his black bag aside, feeling it full of something, never guessing that it mattered what it was. After that, at a gas stop, he put the bag in the trunk.

Here in the middle of somewhere nowhere, evening dropped around her as if it had arms. Yet in the midst of that curried favor she waited for signals, signs, noise, the hallelujah trumpet itself, the call to accounting. Not a single siren's wail was heard. No alarms went off on the bank's outside wall as if a knockout punch had been thrown. No klaxons doing their haughty deed, raising the skin bumps galore, bopping the ears with the wild static of the universe in full throttle. The new investor banners, against the face of the bank and spanning the width of the street, rattled their plastic sounds in a slight breeze. A rope caught on the breeze and tried to whistle a small tune.

A gum wrapper and a used napkin rolled in the gutter aimless as hobos looking for one more haven for the night. She knew where she was, who she was. Barn smells came back to her as thick as yesterday. She saw Ricky Sims' ultimate smile and dismissed it as quickly as it had appeared. A man passing by, looking at her face over the car door, noting the convertible's sexy intrusion in the middle of the city, smiled a message she had seen before. He nearly fell down when she gave him eyes, rolled her tongue across full red lips. It made her wonder how long it would be before Duke took off her underpants, brought everything home. She thought, on a second accounting, she'd save him the trouble.

The tingle came again. Spinning about in the seat, looking back over her shoulder, she saw no police car coming down the street, heard no siren. She tingled again, trying to gauge the impact, the true message. Suddenly she pulled the keys from the ignition block, thought a moment, put them back. She slipped out of the convertible, stood at the open door in contemplation. When she closed the door, she walked across the street and stood against the window of a small delicatessen. Inside and below her belt, where the tingle had been, a slight hunger tantrum evoked its yearning. Rich odors rode on the breeze, while the breeze still worked the ropes of the banners. A few cars passed by, then a bus and a truck spitting a taste of monoxide. Another man passing close by dared look into her eyes for a second, as if he had been there before. He hurried off at her return gaze.

She thought she could have walked off down the street with him. She could walk off in the other direction. In a split second, she could! What the hell, the bank was like any other building, any other barn. It was easy to leave. It was not like a ship; not like leaving a ship. She understood him, understood the differences.

And there he was, coming across the street with the black bag bouncing at his knee. And he was all dressed up in his sailor suit! My God! Her eyes fastened on the cut of man he was, on the stripes that raced up and down his sleeves, at the conglomeration of colored ribbons pinned across his chest, the way the salty, white sailor hat sat across his forehead, cocked in a cocky way. Nothing ever like it. He was elegance and confidence and man galore and she knew what had kept her in place.

Into the back seat he tossed the black bag. She listened for sounds. None came. No klaxon. No sirens. When he turned the key and the engine came to life, she slipped in beside him. The car slid away from the curb, joined traffic, aimed for the distant hills. Again she listened for life to scream out behind them its impossible possibilities. Nothing came. They cruised. The wind came over the windshield as stiff as a sea breeze. He tossed his hat into the back seat and put his arm around her. She snuggled comfortably close, inhaling her own dream. Eventually his hand slipped down into her lap, moved easily on its way, found the triangle, found her tingle. Twice he turned her loose into her own feelings. A trucker, passing by them on a wide stretch of road, blared his diesel horn at such roadway gaiety. Before the third episode on the ride to wherever, she slipped off her underpants without an exchange of words. She touched him lightly. He touched back.

At the Moosehead Motel, cranked tightly against a high cliff rise, they registered. In the room he asked her to go to the office to get some ice for a few drinks while he changed. She went off to the office, smiled easily at the woman behind the counter smiling at her. When she came back, he was out of his uniform but in Navy skivvies and was lying on the double bed on which was spread a million dollars in hundreds, fifties and twenties. The floor was covered with assorted money bands: 100s, 50s, 20s, 10s, the whole floor littered, accountant's mosaics.

"We're going to sleep," he said, and rolled over on his side. She took off her clothes and lay down beside him. At three in the morning they were properly introduced. And then he told her everything.

"I had a hard time with my father. He had no give, none at all. It was always my mother who would cement things, put things back in place after an argument, crazy words bouncing all around us."

He sipped on a drink. "Suddenly, she wasn't really there. She just evaporated. Withered away. She went down to about 80 pounds you could pick up with one hand and move her to a clean bed. We had two beds for her, changed beds for her a couple of times a day. But she just withered. Her arms got so thin I was afraid they'd break on me. Arms wretched as toothpicks. The frailest things I've ever seen in my life. Worse than any newborn on a farm or what you see in films about hunger and famine, like in Africa."

He paused and she knew he was scaling differences in things he had known, had seen. "The only thing she had left was the look in her eyes. It always said, 'I love you, it's been worth it. Keep things neat. I'll be watching.' My father lost it all when she stopped breathing one morning just as the sun came in the window. He couldn't count on her any more. She was the real iron in the family and he knew it. My grandfather tried to plan on college for me. He had a few bucks put aside he said, could take care of me. I didn't want any part of college. So, at 15, things breaking apart for me, for us, just about every day, I left, faked some papers, joined the Navy. It was the best place in the world for me. I found out on one return visit that my grandfather had set up a trust for me that I could tap into when I was 25. Into that bank back there. I just made believe it was not there. Pulled my twenty-seven plus years, but the dream kept coming at me.

"So, here we are. I never have to work if I don't want to. You'll never have to sling hash again. You can write your own ticket, with me or without me. I bring no pressures."

She told him about Ricky Sims, the big mouth on him, the rotten looks she'd get from classmates and their parents, from Ricky himself.

Duke kept rubbing her back where the spinal column made the sexiest groove he could remember. Once he promised, "I'm going to look at that in the daylight, see what it does for you." She laughed and hugged him. He passed his fingers down over the groove again, knew her spine moved in response, felt the bills sticking to her skin and loved the idea.

For her, Ricky was gone forever. Duke's dream was real. One time during the night, after knowing him all over again, head to toe, front to back, she woke with a start when she heard a distant siren. Soon, silence flowing its weight in the room, his breath beside her as steady as a ship's wake, she went back to sleep.

Even with the smell of money filling the room, seeping up under her, making slight noises when she moved on the sheet of it, she marked him forever.

On the small bureau of the Moosehead Motel, the black bag sat empty for the rest of the night.

In the morning they filled it up, left a hundred dollar bill for the maid, along with all the printed money bands.

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