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Authors: Melissa DeCarlo

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BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
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he good news is the pawnbroker didn't call the cops. The bad news comes in two installments. First, I still have no idea whether or not Nick's guitar strap is actually worth a
because I made the dumb mistake of nodding when asked if the strap belonged to me. It took the broker about two seconds to figure out that I don't know jack about guitars, which made me having the strap seem more than a little suspicious. The second piece of bad news is that my grandmother's jewelry is all
total crap
—his words not mine. The pawnbroker went on to explain—quite emphatically—that he didn't buy stolen goods or total crap. I quickly refuted the latter, pointing out that he does, in fact, sell total crap because not only was there an Incredible Hulk cookie jar displayed in the window, but on a nearby table I noticed a boxed set of Lawrence Welk DVDs. Sadly, the broker didn't think that was nearly as funny as I did.

So here I am back out on the street, still in possession of my grandmother's total crap jewelry and a collector's-item-near-mint-condition-brown-leather-guitar-strap-signed-by-Jimmy-Page-and-Jeff-Beck.
It's not easy coming to grips with the fact that I've just been thrown out of someplace called Ye Olde Pawn Shoppe. I swear, if this shit were happening to anybody else I would be totally laughing my ass off.

I take a couple of deep breaths, shake off this most recent humiliation and come up with an alternate plan. As Queeg likes to say, there's more than one way to skin a cat. I rode right past a bank on my way to the pawnshop. As a matter of fact, I fell and deposited a bit of elbow skin on a curb near there. Unfortunately, the bank is near the crest of an impressive hill and there's no way I'm going to get up there on a bike. So I pull the bike close to the building, behind a sagging baby swing, and then pop my head inside the pawnshop and tell the broker I'm leaving it parked outside for a few minutes. Before he can open his mouth to argue, I sling the pillowcase-bundle over my shoulder and hurry away.

Even though the day isn't overly warm, I'm sweating by the time I reach my destination. When I open the door of the First National Bank of Greater Gandy—the name of which can't help but make me imagine, with a shudder, the existence of a Lesser Gandy—the air-conditioned air feels like heaven. I tell the woman at the main desk why I'm here, then I grab a cherry Tootsie Pop from the big bowl on the side table and settle down on the sofa to wait. Mere seconds after I put the candy in my mouth, a woman comes over to get me, so I rewrap my pop and slide it into my pocket as I follow her to a glass-walled office.

A man stands when I enter, smoothing down his tie over his shirtfront. The sign on his desk says,
Gordon Penny
, a perfect name for the man. Penny because he's a banker, of course, and Gordon because he looks like the name Gordon sounds, no sharp angles, just soft doughy curves arcing one into the other.

He looks me up and down, his gaze registering my damp shirt and the pink pillowcase in my hand. When he takes my hand in
a limp, moist grip, he twists his wrist to where his hand is underneath and mine on top. For a crazy second I think he's going to kiss my hand, but instead he just pumps it up and down. Mr. Penny must think he's being gentlemanly, but it feels more like he thinks I'm a dog.

We sit facing each other across his desk. Mr. Penny's shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows, the folded cuffs cutting deeply into his forearm flesh. His tie is loosened, top shirt button mercifully open, but the buttons around his middle are working overtime.

It's only three o'clock, but it's already been a long day, so I get straight to the point. “I've inherited some property in Gandy, but my car has broken down and I'm a little short on cash. I'm here to see about getting a loan.”

“Using the property as collateral?”

“Exactly. Can that be arranged?”

“You betcha. We just need the paperwork from the probate hearing.”

“That could be a problem.”

“There'll be a copy on file at the courthouse.”

I explain my situation, playing down the three-month wait, and of course not mentioning any claims pending against the estate. Mr. Penny asks who's handling the probate, and I tell him.

He leans back, his chair groaning in protest. “Well, I need to have me a chat with old Charlie first. But he's off on a fishing trip as I recall.”

I nod.

He chuckles. “That man doesn't fish to live, he lives to fish.”

“Is that right?”

“You betcha. I bought him a T-shirt for Christmas last year that says
Women love me. Fish fear me
.” Mr. Penny is smiling, but
his narrowed eyes belie his friendliness. “This wouldn't happen to be Matilda Thayer's place we're talking about?”

“It is,” I say.

“That's a mighty nice little house.” Still leaning back, Mr. Penny laces his hands behind his head, props a foot up on an open drawer and begins to rock back and forth. As he continues to talk, the screams of metal fatigue grow stronger. “I took piano lessons from Miss Thayer.”

I nod along, still waiting for him to get to a point of some kind.

“Can't say as I ever had a knack for it. It was mostly so I'd have a chance to see Genie once in a while.”

“My mother.”

“You betcha.”

He studies me, chewing on his lip, continuing to rock his chair. Squeak, squawk, squeak, squawk. The credenza behind his chair looks solid and just far enough away to cause a head injury the day that chair gives way. Instead of buying T-shirts for his friends, Mr. Penny would be wise to invest in a helmet.

“You don't really favor your momma,” he tells me. “Maybe a little around the edges.”

Ugh. I don't know where my edges are exactly, but I do know that I don't want this man looking at any part of my body.

“Genie was a looker, all right. That blond hair, those big green eyes . . .” He sighs and licks his lips with his thick tongue. “She had a spark, like she was special. Know what I mean?”

He pauses, brows raised. He's looking for an answer to that question, but he's out of luck. I'm still back at
. My mother was a redhead.

“Running around with that camera,” he continues. “Acting like she was the next . . . I dunno. Who's a famous lady photographer?”

It takes me a minute to realize that he's waiting for an answer to this one, too.

“Diane Arbus?” I say. “Annie Leibovitz?”

“Never heard of 'em.” He frowns as if this were my fault. “And there was her music, of course.”

“Music?” I wonder if he's about to ask me to name some famous musicians. In fact, I'm so busy compiling a mental list of musicians that a man like Gordon Penny would recognize, that I almost miss what he says next.

“Hell, you've heard her play the piano.”

I work at keeping my face neutral. I never saw my mother so much as touch a piano.

“She was such a big deal with her music scholarship to somewheres back east.” He pauses to heave a deep sigh, pink flesh winking from between the straining buttons on his shirt. “I'm sure you know the whole story . . .”

“Sure.” I shrug, struggling to seem casual. “But I'm interested in your opinion.”

My mother never went to college. Or so she claimed.

“My opinion . . .” He smiles again, his eyes narrowing unpleasantly. “Is that your mother was too big for her britches. She paraded around this town, carrying on, laughing . . .” He shakes his head as if laughing were a bad thing. “And then bang. One day she was gone.”

I wait, hoping he'll say more. There are all sorts of ways to be

“When she first left, everybody thought she'd just gone on back up to school. But then she stayed away that Christmas and again that next summer . . .”

He pauses here, and I watch him watching me. I'm trying to hide my confusion, but I can't imagine that I'm successful. I knew my mother's point-blank refusal to discuss her past was strange,
but I'd always chalked it up to a garden-variety unhappy childhood. It had never occurred to me that there was anything actually mysterious about her silence.

“Eventually people started asking questions, but her momma wasn't talking, and nobody else had a clue. That last summer Genie had been all hot and heavy with Trip, but even he claimed ignorance. No surprise there.” He lifts a lip in a little sneer at the word
, so I suspect that it's a nickname for some good-looking boy. I furthermore suspect that good-looking is something Gordon Penny was not.

“This is a small town, Miss Wallace, a hard place to keep a secret. I nosed around about your momma, believe you me.” He leans forward and looks me straight in the eyes for perhaps the first time. “But I never sniffed a whiff of whatever happened.”

I feel a chill at the cruel pleasure I see in Gordon Penny's eyes.

“A few years back I heard that Genie passed. I am deeply sorry for your loss.” He doesn't look sorry.

I clear my throat and manage an uncomfortable, “Thank you.”

“Ms. Wallace, may I ask you a personal question?”

I hesitate before nodding. I can't imagine wanting to tell this man anything personal.

“How old are you?”

What is it with these people and my age? “Thirty.”

“Any older brothers or sisters?”

I shake my head.

“Well, I'll be. I guess I was wrong. All this time I thought she'd gone and got herself in trouble.” He curls his thick fingers in air quotes around
in trouble

The age question is making sense now, but unfortunately I have to disappoint all the fine citizens of Gandy who want me to be the solution to the mystery of my mother's disappearance.
My mother was twenty-five when I arrived, a product of one of her many doomed, short-term relationships. And though I never really knew him, the identity of my father is well established. He was, depending on how much my mother was drinking when asked, either a
bartender with a sensitive soul
, a
redneck asshole who took advantage
, or my personal favorite,
M. Y. O. Fuckin' B. Now bring me my cigarettes.

Mr. Penny is still looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to give him some clue as to why she left. I compare the girl he described with the woman I grew up with, and I feel a prickle of anxiety. She wasn't pregnant with me, but that doesn't mean she wasn't in trouble. There's more than one kind of

I clear my throat and say, “About that loan . . .”

He shakes his head. “You don't legally own that property.”


“We might could arrange a signature loan, depending on your credit rating of course.” He can't resist a quick glance at the pillowcase under my chair.

I don't have to reply; he knows checking my credit rating isn't going to improve this situation.

“Have you got anything else to use for collateral?” he asks.

“My car, maybe.”

“Some payroll-loan places offer auto title loans. You give them the title, they loan you some money. Of course, the amount depends on what your car is worth.”

My car title is in a file cabinet in Queeg's trailer with all my other too-important-to-be-accidentally-thrown-away paperwork.

“How about a guitar strap?”

“Excuse me?”

I dig in the pillowcase at my feet, pull out Nick's strap and then set it on Mr. Penny's desk.

“It's a collector's-item-near-mint-condition-brown-leather-guitar-strap-signed-by-Jimmy-Page-and-Jeff-Beck.”

Under the fluorescent lights the sweat-stains on the leather look especially grim, each amoeba-shaped spot outlined in a darker brown. The ink of the signatures looks purple and cheap. Gordon Penny leans forward to look at the strap lying across his desk, but he's careful not to touch it. After a few seconds he looks back up at me with a question in his eyes. I'm not sure what the question is, so I start answering all the ones I can think of.

“Jimmy Page was the guitarist for Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck was . . . is . . . well, he's a famous musician, too. It's near mint condition . . .” I'm watching the banker's eyes to see if anything I'm saying is having an effect, but so far it doesn't seem like it is.

“How much is this worth?” he asks.

“A bundle,” I reply.

“Maybe you should try a pawn shop.”

Well, shit. I sigh and then put on my most winsome smile. “Couldn't you bend the rules for the daughter of an old friend?”

He shakes his head. “I'm sorry, Ms. Wallace.”

Apparently, the smile works better with clean hair.

He stands, and so I stand and shake his extended hand, again the good dog. Woof.

As I'm stuffing the strap back in my bag, he says, “Once you get that paperwork on the house, you come on back here, all right?”

“You betcha,” I reply.

He fishes a business card out of a little brass tray on his desk, and then makes a show of writing a phone number on the back. “I'm truly sorry about the loan, but I might be interested in buying your grandmother's house once it's on the market. If you'd like to get in touch, here's my personal number . . .”

I can't say for sure that he's hitting on me, maybe he really just
wants to buy a house, but I find myself fighting to keep revulsion off of my face as I lift the card from his fingers and tuck it in my pocket. I turn to leave, but before I can make my escape Gordon Penny clears his throat, saying, “And, Ms. Wallace, just so you'll know . . .”

I look back. “Yes?”

“Your mother and I were never friends.”


here's a nice shady spot on the sidewalk outside the bank. When I sit on the curb, the Tootsie Pop stick gives me a little jab in the ribs. I pull it out of my pocket, but it seems I didn't wrap it thoroughly enough; it sticks to the inside of my jean's pocket, pulling it out as well. I pick off the worst of the lint and then, because I'm starting to feel sick again, I put the still-fuzzy sucker in my mouth. Speaking of suck, man oh man, this day sucks. I mean, things usually suck, but today takes the suck-cake. It wins a gold medal at the Suck Olympics.

I pull out my phone to check the time; Queeg will be home from his doctor's appointment, finished with lunch, and probably watching a game show, or rereading one of his Louis L'Amour books. I don't want to call, but it's time.

Queeg got on the subject of quantum mechanics once, and told me about Schrödinger—the guy who said that if you poisoned a cat while it was in a box, the cat wasn't alive or dead until you opened the box and looked inside. At the time, I thought that was funny as hell. I mean, even if the cat was very quiet—which
it wouldn't be, by the way—within a couple days you'd know for sure if it were dead, especially if the box was outside and it was summer. Queeg tried to explain that Schrödinger's whole point was to prove that some other dude's theory was flawed, but I was laughing too hard to listen.

But, the thing is, I get it now. While I hold my undialed phone in my hand, Queeg is still just fine. But once I call him, he's going to tell me what the doctor said, or more likely he'll lie to me about what the doctor said and that's going to be even worse.

I dial his number. When he picks up, his voice sounds hoarse, as if he's been asleep.

“Were you taking a nap?” I ask. Queeg never naps.

He coughs. “Of course not.” I think he's lying and that scares me.

“What did the doctor say?”

“Nothing interesting.”

“I don't care if it's interesting. I want to hear it anyway.”

He sighs. “They scheduled a biopsy.”

“Another one? When is it?” Last year Queeg had a prostate biopsy, and I thought I'd never hear the end of it.

“Thursday. And it's a different body part, thank God.”

“Which part?” I ask.

“Mattie, it's no big deal.”

He's not exactly lying, but he's getting close. “It's your lungs, right? You're getting a lung biopsy.”

He sighs a nonanswer that is answer enough.

“Oh, Queeg . . .” I lean forward and rest my head on my knees. Just saying the words
lung biopsy
made me feel sick.

“I'm fine. Don't worry about me.”

As if.

“Getting old stinks,” he tells me. “But I guess it's better than the alternative.”

“You guess?” The thought of Queeg with a needle in his lung is terrible. The thought of him dying is unbearable.

Queeg is quiet for a second, and I think I hear a metal
. Like the sound of a cigarette lighter.

I swipe at a tear that's poised on my lashes. “You're not
, are you?”

“Nope,” he says, pausing long enough that I'm certain he's taking a drag. “So, how are things going out there?”

And here it is. The empty slot in this scene just big enough for me to tuck in all my problems, and then ask him to send me some money.

“I met a Lawrence Welk fan,” I say.

“I like Lawrence Welk.”

“Don't remind me.”

I hear him chuckle, and that makes me smile.

“And I've been talking with some people about Mom,” I tell him.

“Really?” He sounds surprised and pleased. He always wants to talk about my mother. I always refuse.

“Not on purpose.”

“Ah . . .”

“She was different when she was younger.”

“Sure she was. People change.”

“No, this seems like more than that.”

“In what way?”

“Nothing. Never mind,” I say, adding, “We'll talk about her later,” which isn't true and we both know it. I understand that my mother is always there, her heart beating beneath all of our conversations. But understanding something isn't the same thing as accepting it.

“And when will
be?” Queeg has long since caught on to this dodge.

“I don't know,” I reply. “But don't hold your breath.”

There's an awkward pause. I'm wishing I hadn't told a man who might have lung cancer,
don't hold your breath
, and I think Queeg is wondering if he needs to remind me that
will someday be too late. As usual, neither one of us says what we're thinking. Instead Queeg asks me how the visit with Tilda's attorney went.

I gloss over everything, telling him that I signed papers and should know more in a few days. I don't mention the list of creditors waiting for the first bite, and I don't mention the dogs, and I don't mention the three months. Instead, I tell him that it's so nice here that I'm going to hang around a few days and that everything is just great. As I'm concocting this fairy tale, I can picture him exactly. He's sitting on the edge of his sofa, his hair standing up in tufts, his shirt twisted from his nap, probably a goddamn cigarette between his fingers.
Happily ever after
is what he needs to hear.

Queeg laughs softly, pleased by the story. “Now I'll be the one hitting you up for money,” he says. “I have a feeling my visit today cost a pretty penny, and they haven't even punched a hole in me yet.”

He's playing this off as a joke, but it's not. And he's not really talking about money. Unlike me, he's got health insurance. No, Queeg is giving me a heads-up, reminding me that the time is coming when we'll switch places, he and I. He'll be the one calling me, depending on me for help. Sadly, he's spinning a yarn equally as far-fetched as the one I just told him. I'm pretty sure we both know that he's never going to be able to depend on me.

“We'll jump off that bridge when we come to it,” I say. I keep it light, where it needs to stay.

He shifts the conversation to Min He's hemorrhoids, and I'm grateful for the subject change even if disgusted by the topic. When my phone beeps a call waiting, I don't even look to see who
it is. I just tell Queeg I have another call and to put out his damn cigarette, and then I click over to the other call before he has time to argue or say good-bye.

It's Father Barnes on the phone, and I immediately launch into an exhaustive recounting of my troubles, sparing no painful details except the part about me being pregnant, and the part about me trying to sell things that don't belong to me. I don't even know what I'm hoping to accomplish. Am I looking for a date, or just trying to shake him down for some cash? At this point, it just seems like I should be able to get something from somebody even if it's only sympathy.

Father Barnes “Hmmm”s and “Oh, dear”s at the appropriate moments, and I'm sure I'm golden right up until he ends the call with, “Well, Mattie, the good news is the Lord must have something very special planned for you, or he wouldn't have given you all these difficulties.” Then he invites me to lunch tomorrow, see you at the church at noon, take care, etc., etc. . . . click. Terrific. I guess I got my date, but it doesn't save me from tonight's meal out of my grandmother's pantry.

I shift around and lean back against a parking meter. The sidewalk is warm beneath me; the wind is shuffling the leaves in the trees. I close my eyes and turn my face to the sun. Maybe Father Barnes is on to something. If there really is a God, he does indeed seem to have something special planned for me, and so far it's an extended ass-kicking. For some people God may be a shepherd leadething them beside still waters, but lately he seems a lot more like Mr. Nester, tauntething me with a mound of fake doggy-doo.

At the sound of a car slowing to a stop next to where I'm sitting, I open my eyes and turn my head to see who has come to gawk at my misfortune. It's Luke, the paraplegic paralegal behind the wheel of a silver Accord. I wave, half hoping that he'll drive on so I can get back to my comfortable pity wallow. Yet the other
half—the one that includes my tired legs—hopes that he'll offer me a ride.

Luke lowers his window, and I stand and walk over.

“What's that?” He's looking at the pillowcase in my hand.

“Worthless crap,” I reply.

From his puzzled yet worried expression, I can tell that he's curious as to why I would be carrying around a pink pillowcase full of worthless crap, but can't quite decide if asking would be rude.

I decide to help us both out by changing the subject.

“How did you do that?” I point at what must be Luke's wheelchair, but is now a pile of aluminum rods and wheels in the backseat.

“Years of practice. Need a lift?”

His tie is off and his shirtsleeves are rolled up on his forearms, showing some of the muscles I thought were hiding under his clothes. I smile. I am a sucker for the white-collar type even if I only seem to date the asshole-musician type.

“Got room somewhere for a bike?”

He nods. “The trunk. There's a bungee for the lid.”

“Perfect. Hey, can you open it and let me toss this inside, too?”

He pops the trunk, but not before glancing again at the bulging pillowcase in my hand. But he doesn't ask so I don't have to lie. Excellent.

When we pull up outside the pawnshop, I see an ample, middle-aged woman in regrettably snug spandex shorts closely inspecting my bike, as in searching-for-a-price-tag inspecting. In retrospect, I shouldn't have left the crappy bike parked in the middle of all the pawnshop's crappy sale items.

I walk over to the woman. “Excuse me,” I say, taking the bike by the handlebars.

“Hey!” She straightens up and puts her hands on her generous hips. “What do you think you're doing?”

“I'm taking this home,” I tell her.

“I saw it first!” She follows me, shouting “Stop!” as I wheel the bike to the back of Luke's car. She's taking little tiny steps, each one causing her spandex-covered thighs to make a
zip zip zip
sound. I'm glad the car is close by; I'm a little afraid she's about to start a fire.

“It's not for sale,” I tell her.

“What does that mean?”

“Is English not your native language?”

Luke has popped the trunk and is watching this little brouhaha with an enormous grin on his face. How lucky for him that I am around to provide him with quality entertainment.

“You can't take that without paying for it.”

“Back off, lady,” I say.

The woman grabs the handlebars, forcing me to pry it from her grasp in order to lift the rear wheel and angle the bike into the trunk. The woman is ineffectively pushing at me while I'm struggling to slide the rubber tire over the trunk carpet. Either the drive here, or the ongoing tussle over the bike has caused the jewelry box to slide partially out of its pillowcase. The woman notices this and reaches in to push the pillowcase away from the initialed lid.

“Hey . . .” the woman says, reaching for the box. “This isn't yours . . .”

“The hell it isn't.” I bump her aside, give the bike a final shove, and strap on the bungee cord. “All this shit is mine.”

“Bullhonky,” she says. This woman must be the type of person who, no matter how angry, is not willing to use profanity.

“Fuck off, pork chop,” I reply. I am not that type of person.

I hop in the car, and Luke pulls away. When I look back, she's
still standing in the street, shaking her fist in the air and shouting, “Thief!”

When we're a block away he turns to me, laughing. “What was that all about?”

“I left that bike parked there less than an hour ago. I don't know what in the hell was wrong with that lady.”

“Pork chop?” He's laughing again. “Oh my God.”


Instead of answering he shakes his head, still grinning. “So what'd you find out about your car?” he asks me.

“It's the transmission.”


“Yup.” I slump down in the seat and prop my feet on the dash. “Unless you'd like to loan me a couple grand, it looks like I'll be here awhile, Howdy.”

It's not that I actually expect him to give me any money, but I figure I'd be a fool not to drop the hint. I wait for him to refuse or laugh it off or tell me to get my feet off his dashboard, but he does none of those things.

He just frowns and says, “What's with calling me

“Howdy Doody . . . you know . . . red hair . . . freckles . . . cute smile . . .”

“I guess it's better than calling me a random cut of meat,” he says. “But calling me by my actual name would be even better.”

The smart thing to do here is to apologize and then shut my damn mouth. But when do I ever do the smart thing?

“That's true. You have a good name,” I say. “
Luke Lambert
is an awesome name, in fact.”

He gives me a quick look and then asks, cautiously, “
because . . .”

“It sounds like a Superman villain.”

He laughs. “Good Lord. What is
with you?”

I laugh, too, mostly because I'm relieved that he's laughing. “It's a long list. Right now, I think it's low blood sugar. I'm so hungry . . .”

He offers to feed me, of course. When we get to the order-window of the fast-food deli, Luke looks a little disconcerted when I ask for a foot-long meatball sub, but he repeats my request into the speaker-station without comment. And when we drive up to the next window, he pulls out his wallet and pays the total, and I don't argue. Tacky? Absolutely. But standard operating procedure for someone with a wallet as thin as mine.

BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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