15 Acres Used Parts
Foreign and Domestic
We Pay Cash for Cars
U Pull — We Pull
Call 313 - JUNK
Depictions of engine blocks and brake drums added a decorative touch to the billboard, as did a cartoon computer with New Computerized Inventory! spelled out in shiners across the monitor screen. The two-hundred-yard-long, eight-foot-high lavender fence was a state “highway beautification” requirement, meant to shield passersby from Smitty’s unattractive wares. Behind the entrance gate, sheds and garages, all sprayed the same lavender hue, crowded around a patch of asphalt turned to mush from thirty years of leaking lubricants and solvents.
It was after closing time and quiet, the parking lot empty but for the employees’ cars and Cheryl Schmidt Olaf’s new kiwi-green Cadillac. Beneath a small sign which read, Office, Wipe Your Feet and Come On In, a door squawked open and Harlis “Guff” McGuffin slipped out onto the porch.
“Hey Killer, come on Killerboy,” he called, softly whistling between his teeth. He went down the stairs, craning into the dank recess below the porch. A shadow moved, shook its chain and stretched.
A hundred yards behind the office, past a wretched landscape of battered American and foreign cars, broken-down trucks and SUVs, three strands of barbed wire marked the limit of Smitty’s empire. Beyond this, a rocky trail wound through scrub cedar on its way to a county road. No one ever had reason to use this remote access—until Shag Clutter discovered it.
At roughly the same moment Guff McGuffin was unchaining Killerboy, Shag was pushing a box of filched parts under the fence. He’d just climbed over after it when he heard the whine of Gomez’s Japanese pickup.
“Que paso,” Gomez hailed, swinging open a rusty door with Tiny’s Discount Salvage and a phone number painted on it. He was a squat, bowlegged individual whose Dallas Cowboys tee shirt didn’t quite hide his navel. He bent over the box of parts, muttering in Spanish.
“Hey bro, where’s the U-joint?”
“Couldn’t pull it. Ever time I tried to get a wrench on it they’d call me on the loudspeaker. You’ll get it tomorrow.”
Gomez raked his stiff, grimy hair and spit sideways. “Man, I needed it now.”
“Well I dang sure ain’t gonna pull it with a flashlight in my mouth,” said Shag. “’Sides, at night they let the dog loose. Cough up, bud,” he said, rubbing blackened thumb and forefinger together, “I got to get back.”
Gomez smiled. “You think they worry boutchoo?”
“They’ll wonder where the hell I am.”
The buyer rooted several damp, dirty bills from his pocket and pressed them into the seller’s hand.
“Keep ’em comin, muchacho, forty more,” said Shag.
“When I get the U-joint.”
“U-joint’s ten by itself. You owe me thirty for what’s already in the box.”
“Tomorrow, gringo. That’s all I got on me.”
As Gomez stooped to lift the crate, Shag grabbed his arm. “Then you might as well get these tomorrow, too,” he said, selecting and tossing several greasy parts out onto the ground, “when you got a little more on you.”
Gomez sniggered. “You don’ trust me, bro?”
“I trust you to screw me ever time my back’s turned.”
“Ooh, that’s a ugly picture.” He hoisted the box, carried it to the truck and dropped it in with a loud thud.
“Dang, be quiet!” said Shag.
“Ain’t nobody here.” Gomez climbed into the cab and slammed the door with equal disregard. “I can put off the U-joint guy til day after tomorrow,” he said, leaning out the window. “After that, forget it, bro.” He started the engine.
Shag transacted his business with Gomez behind the “Classics” lot where the really old stuff was dumped, the venerable ghosts of transportation past: Hudsons, DeSotos, Studebakers, Nash Ramblers, even the stately remains of a Packard. The occasional collector or restoration fanatic would trek to this farthest corner of the yard in search of an ancient door latch or rare taillight lens, but otherwise it was a dead zone. Nonetheless, Shag scanned the horizon for spies. Satisfied he was unobserved, he made his way around a stack of Gremlins—the “mating Gremlins” were a convenient landmark for orienting customers—dug a key out of his jeans and unlocked the trunk of a turquoise Dodge Dart. He folded Gomez’s grimy bills and tucked them into a potato chip can with a little over a thousand dollars already in it.
Guff watched Killerboy bound up an oily lane, whimpering greedily. He was a big unhygienic Doberman/Shepherd mix, and though he may or may not have dissuaded parts thieves, he played merry hell with the rat population, sometimes depositing their headless bodies on the office doormat. Guff yawned, more nervous tic than a sign of fatigue, and refilled the dog’s water bowl before climbing the stairs to the porch. But instead of going back inside, he loitered by the window, watching his boss fiddle with a compact video camera while Cheryl Schmidt-Olaf paced the room in high heels. Even with the air conditioner droning, he could hear everything she said.
“I buy software and computers for y’all, and here they sit! You have any idea how much this stuff cost?” She was a compact, driven woman who ran a little hot all the time. She’d left her realty office early to come in and yell at them.
Guff yawned. He hated any kind of confrontation and tried to think of an excuse to stay outdoors. Norm Olaf was his boss, but Cheryl owned the place—a sticky situation for a guy who liked to keep his hair oiled, his khakis pressed and his nose clean. What to do? Side with Norm? Side with the wife? He always seemed stuck somewhere between them.
Norm didn’t look up from his camera until Cheryl spotted a layer of smoking tar in the coffee maker. When she stepped into the restroom to rinse out the pot, he leered sideways at plump, fresh-faced Dorna. At twenty-seven, Dorna was two years younger than a daughter by his first marriage.
“I’ve been trying, Miz Olaf,” said Dorna when Cheryl returned, drying her hands on a paper towel, “real hard.”
“I know you have honey, it’s mostly the guys I’m upset with. But things are just out of control.”
Norm grunted. He was a heavy, sluggish man with a drinker’s hooded eyes and purplish complexion. He kept rewinding the camera and watching something in the view finder.
“Traffic’s up,” Cheryl continued, “but sales are down. That just doesn’t make sense. And half the time y’all don’t seem to know what we’ve got and what we don’t.”
Dorna batted her eyes.
“With computers, you have to put stuff in to get anything out. There’s new cars that need moving up front and junk sitting here that should’ve been hauled to the compactor years ago.” As much to herself she added, “Daddy’d die the way this place has gone.”
“Smitty’s been dead two years,” muttered Norm as the camera whirred.
“You know what I mean,” said Cheryl. “I mean, if he was still alive he’d—” She looked hopelessly from her husband to Dorna, who had found a stapler to play with. Now that they both had toys, neither of them would pay any attention. “Where’d Guff run off to?” she said irritably. “Guff!”
Hearing his name, he pushed open the door and sheepishly stepped inside. “I was letting Killerboy loose. Getting dark.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and went obediently to his desk. He sat down, cleared his throat and squared his H.J. “Guff” McGuffin nameplate with his H.J. “Guff” McGuffin pen-and-pencil set.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Cheryl began anew. “I want every car in this yard inventoried and a parts sheet checked off for every car.” Guff, at least, dutifully nodded. “The software’ll print out the parts sheets, you don’t have to even think.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Dorna. “I did one the other day.”
“Then you know what to do. I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but if we just get started, I figure we can be finished by the end of the month.” Guff nodded again.
“Waste a time—”
“If y’all need extra help,” Cheryl said, her voice rising sharply above her husband’s, “hire some. I’d rather pay now and get it done than let everything drag on forever.”
“We got extra help,” said Norm.
She gave him a look of surprise. Then she understood. “You don’t mean that red-haired thing. Slag? Slug?”
“Shag,” offered Guff.
She grimaced as if tasting the word and spitting it out. “Shag. Is that the best we can do? I never even see him! Know how many times I’ve actually laid eyes on him since he started here?” Norm rewound the camera and held it up to his eye. “Maybe four, and I’m being generous.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Cheryl,” Guff said quickly, with a glance at Norm and then at Dorna, “but do you think it’s a good idea to train a new bunch here at the end of summer? I mean, this is a busy time for us.”
“Lord, I know it’s a busy time, I was born in this business, Harlis. That’s the whole point.” She searched the blank faces before her for any sign that she was getting through. It didn’t look promising. “Shag,” she uttered dispiritedly. “What kind of a name is that ?”
After dealing a few stolen parts to the competition, Shag liked to go play goody-goody with the management.
After dealing a few stolen parts to the competition, Shag liked to go play goody-goody with the management. It was behavior learned early in childhood, by the time he was five or six, in fact, when he would steal change from his stepmother’s purse and then do something especially cute to cover his tracks, like crawl into her lap for a kiss. “I shore love you, mammaw,” he would gurgle. “Ain’t you the ticket,” she’d reply, wondering. He was on his way to the office when he saw Killerboy slink out of a tool shed and trot towards the porch. The dog had never done more than glare at him, but Shag feared and loathed any kind of guard dog. Long experience had taught him to be wary. He hurried around to the back door and charged in.
“Anything y’all need before I call it a day?” he announced to dead silence. Every eye turned on him.
“Hell, can’t you knock?” said Norm.
Shag looked befuddled. He’d been employed at Smitty’s three months—no one had ever said anything about knocking.
Cheryl beamed with disdain. “Well, what do you know! Shag, isn’t it? This is a rare treat. What’ve you been up to, Shag?”
Dang! He’d always managed to avoid the woman by checking for her car before he broke cover. Fear of the dog had prevented him from scoping out the parking lot. “Oh…” he mumbled with visible discomfort, “nothin, I guess.” No one smiled. “I got them brake drums off that Fairlane, Mr. McGuffin,” he put in quickly, as if this were crucial, life-saving news.
When Guff managed only a weak nod, Shag backed towards the door. “If there ain’t nothin else—”
“But you haven’t told us about your day,” Cheryl said caustically.
“Ma’am? My day?”
“Aw leave him alone,” said Norm. “You can go, Clutter. Git.”
But the woman’s eyes held him like tongs.
“What’s the first thing you do when you get up?” she said, unpleasantly. “Just for example.”
Shag pictured the toilet.
“He pulls parts,” Norm intervened, shifting noisily in his chair. “He pulls parts and brings them to the office and then goes and pulls some more. What the hell do you want him to say?”
Bristling, Cheryl turned to the front window as if the answer lay somewhere outside. But it was too dark now to see anything but her own face and a reflection of the bright room behind her. She watched Norm, Guff and Dorna exchange glances. Believing he was unobserved, the red-haired thing opened the back door and escaped.
Part of Shag’s arrangement was free rent on an RV situated across the parking lot, cattycorner to the office—a motor-less, tire-less wreck, settled in the soft asphalt up to its axles
Part of Shag’s arrangement was free rent on an RV situated across the parking lot, cattycorner to the office—a motor-less, tire-less wreck, settled in the soft asphalt up to its axles. On the plus side, the roof didn’t leak, the high-backed swiveling armchair made a passable bed, and there were some RV conveniences: chem-toilet, tiny plastic shower, miniature refrigerator, all of which worked, after a fashion. Shag had brought his own small black-and-white TV, which plugged into the cigarette lighter.
He’d cracked open the first beer of the night and tuned into a show about real-life Vegas cops pursuing an athletic prostitute across a motel roof, when he heard Cheryl’s Cadillac start up and the entrance gate shudder open. He swiveled his chair to see out a porthole window as the Cadillac’s headlights raked the parking lot. Brake-lights flared, the engine gunned and the gate crawled shut again.
“What do we do, Norm?” asked Guff, yawning.
“What about the inventory? Hiring some help?”
“We got all the help we need.”
“Maybe we should get someone, you know, just temporary, to help Shag. We could probably hire that Gomez guy away from Tiny’s. I don’t think he makes more than twenty bucks a day, he’d probably be tickled pink to—”
Norm rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and mumbled something incoherent. “It’s late,” he said, taking his hands away. “Go home.”
Dorna wasn’t making any move to go, Guff noticed. “I can stay, you know, if you want to talk about this.”
“We ain’t gonna hire nobody, we ain’t gonna fool with no inventory, and we ain’t gonna screw around with no damn computers. There, we talked about it. Now git.”
Guff scooted his chair out, stood up. He had the urge to give his desk a parting tweak, but everything was already perfectly aligned. He finally moved his pencil cup, two inches. He looked from Norm to Dorna, yawned as he wished them a good night, moved the pencil cup back where it was, and crossed the room to the door. He stepped outside. He clomped noisily down the stairs. Then he crept back up onto the porch and lurked by the window.
His breath quickened when Dorna switched on her computer. But all she did was bring up the solitaire game. Norm opened a desk drawer and pulled out a pint of Southern Comfort. Not a word passed between them. Disappointed, Guff crept down the stairs and went quietly to his truck.
A few minutes later, Norm came outside and lit a cigarette. He was dragging on it when Dorna stepped through the doorway.
“You want the porch light on?”
She came to join him beneath the eerie moon glow reflected off Smitty’s billboard. Norm stared up at it, watching what looked like a million bugs whirling in the floodlights.
Dorna said, “Hey.”
He looked down beside him and stroked her cheek with a blunt finger.
“Kiss me, Daddy,” she moaned, pressing plump, scented breasts against his drinker’s stomach.
Because the RV had settled into the ground unevenly, everything inside listed a few degrees. Water streamed out of the kitchen faucet at an angle, a cup of coffee sometimes crawled snail-like across the foldout dinette. Jerked awake by a noise, Shag sat up suddenly and knocked over the beer cans encircling his chair. One after another, they rattled toward the low end of the floor. He’d been asleep several hours, the picture on the TV had gone to snow. He switched it off and adjusted his chair to place him level with the “porthole.” As his eyes slowly accustomed themselves to the dark outside, he made out the shape of Dorna’s red Kia. He wasn’t surprised to see it. He knew she and the boss sometimes stayed late to fool around, and he concluded correctly that Norm had awakened him by opening the security gate to leave. At night, when everything else was quiet, it made a considerable racket. He stretched, kicked off his boots and closed his eyes.
The security gate lurched open again.
Instead of going home, Shag reckoned, squirming for a more comfortable position, Norm must’ve ventured out for food or cigarettes—but it had been an awfully quick trip. A truck door slammed. Footsteps stumbled on the stairs. Someone uttered a half-hearted “Son of a bitch,” but the voice wasn’t Norm’s.
When Guff threw open the office door, Dorna barely acknowledged him.
“What’s goin on here is bad,” he declared, barking his shoulder against the doorframe. En route to his desk, he tangled with a plastic chair but managed to free himself and fall into his own without overturning it. “Bad, bad, bad…”
“I’m kind of busy,” Dorna snipped. She’d hastily opened a spreadsheet and pretended to be engrossed in the computer screen.
“I saw him leave—just now.” Guff gripped the chair arms as if in danger of sliding off onto the floor.
“I have to be leaving pretty soon myself,” Dorna sighed, “if I can ever finish this.” Her varnished nails ticked on the keys.
“I know what’s been going on here,” said Guff.
Dorna poked her nose in the air. “Ee-uugh, I smell alcohol. Have you been drinking Harlis?”
“I’ve watched y’all through the window.”
There was a brief hitch in her typing, enough to let him know he had scored. But Dorna recovered quickly. She giggled.
“You’re a window peeper? That’s kind of kinky.” She pushed away from her desk and, without getting up, rolled her chair over to his—until their knees touched. “Did you like what you saw?”
Guff spluttered something incoherent.
“I care for Norm,” she said, touching his hand with a pretty finger, “I’m not ashamed of that. His wife certainly doesn’t love him.”
“What makes you think—”
“I understand men. I can tell when they need attention.”
“I understand men. I can tell when they need attention.” She gave him a sweet, melting smile. “Sometimes I think you could use a little attention, too, couldn’t you, Harlis.”
He tried, futilely, to put his chair in reverse, but his feet slipped and scuffed on the linoleum.
“That’s not all! It’s other— Everything else.”
“What everything else?” said Dorna.
“Tearing up sales slips.”
She tilted her head, coyly unimpressed.
“Sabotaging the inventory. Altering records to make it look—”
Dorna exhaled. “You do it too, Guff, sweetie.”
“I don’t care, it’s wrong! Norm stealing from Cheryl.” So he can blow it all on you! he wanted to say.
Dorna abruptly left her chair, went to her boss’s desk and helped herself from a pack of cigarettes. She lit one and spat out the smoke.
“A man should have his own money. Norm runs this business, and she treats him like a sack boy at the grocery. He’s our boss, not her.”
“She owns the damn place!” cried Guff.
“If you know what’s good for you, Harlis, you’ll forget about all this and go home. It’s really none of your beeswax.”
“She’s gonna find out.”
Shag heard the raised voices and pricked his ears. Something juicy must be happening. Fully awake now, he got up and cracked open the RV door. After a quick scan for the wretched dog, he trotted barefoot across the parking lot and around to the rear of the office.
“Norm’s taken care of that,” said Dorna, with the authority of one who’s in on a secret.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Shag flattened himself against the wall and inched sideways until he could look through a small window in the backdoor.
“He’ll pin it on Shag.”
The sudden mention of his name made him lurch backwards and almost stumble down the stairs.
Guff looked dubious. “But Norm’s been pocketing thousands.”
“She doesn’t know how much Norm’s paid himself. It doesn’t matter. If she tries to accuse him of anything, he’ll prove Shag did it.”
Shag’s jaw went slack. Prove Shag did what? What were they talking about?
“He’s got videotapes. Of him sneaking parts over the back fence to that hair ball Gomez from Tiny’s.”
The stunned expression on Guff’s face made her cackle.
“He’s even got him hiding the money—” she dropped her cigarette in Norm’s ashtray and hunkered down in imitation of a cartoon Shag clutching his loot, “—looking all around to make sure no one sees him.” Dorna returned to her chair and plopped down, smiling. “You should get him to show them to you, they’re a hoot.”
Shag slid down the wall onto his haunches. The evil in some people! The scum!
Shag slid down the wall onto his haunches. The evil in some people! The scum!
Killerboy snuffled hungrily into view, nose to the ground, hot on some unlucky creature’s trail. When the scent took him into the tool shed, Shag eased himself down the stairs and trotted soundlessly back to the RV, just stifling a cry when his bare foot came down on a screw.
The ease with which Dorna pooh-poohed his accusations confused and infuriated Guff—the way she twisted everything around, acted self-righteous when anyone with any sense would know it wasn’t H.J. “Guff” McGuffin in the wrong here.
“What y’all do,” he said piously, “is a sin.”
“And just what is it we do? Describe it.”
Her complete lack of shame left him dumb.
“You can’t, can you?” said Dorna. “Because you don’t really know.”
She’d gone back to Norm’s desk for more cigarettes and returned with the pack. Now she sat low in her chair, smoking, legs splayed from the knees in the attitude of an impudent teenager. She wore hose, not pantyhose, Guff couldn’t avoid noticing, and there was just the hint of bare flesh swelling above the black nylon.
“Maybe I don’t, maybe I do,” he mumbled feebly.
Sensing where his eyes had become lodged, Dorna saw to it that he got an even better view. “Well, you’ll have to go on imagining, because he can’t, if you get my drift, do anything.”
Guff frowned, through a yawn.
“Shut your mouth!”
“He drinks too much, he chain smokes, he’s got an enlarged heart.”
Smirking, Dorna got up and snubbed her cigarette in the ashtray. “Speaking of drinks—”
Guff slumped forward, his face in his hands. How long had he had this terrible headache? He groaned disconsolately and looked up again, squinting in the harsh office light. Dorna had disappeared.
He felt her elbows come to rest on the back of his chair as a bottle of Southern Comfort wagged before his eyes.
“You go first,” came a voice from behind him. He felt her elbows come to rest on the back of his chair as a bottle of Southern Comfort wagged before his eyes.
Within the shadowy, listing RV, Shag paced and muttered. The bastards! What had he ever done to them? He kept opening the miniature fridge as if he hadn’t polished off the last beer hours ago. Videotapes! That meant Norm had practically encouraged his little sideline for the alibi it provided—the more cash filled the potato chip can, the better it covered his own embezzling scheme. Agitated and not the least bit sleepy, Shag fell into the swivel chair, switched on the TV and flipped the channel selector—snow-snow-snow-snow. The only thing still showing was an infomercial about an amazing “miracle knife.” The TV audience oohed and ahed as if they were witnessing a cure for cancer. Outside Killerboy had cornered a possum.
“Was that the dog?” Guff sobbed. Dorna was too busy to answer.
They struggled in darkness, on the floor behind Norm’s desk. While H.J. “Guff” McGuffin teetered somewhere between ecstasy and hellfire, the secretary labored above him with workmanlike disinterest.
“But I thought you were in love with Norm,” he said, when Dorna had climbed off to light a cigarette.
“I am. He’s a wonderful, caring man.”
“But you’ve just, we’ve—”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re neat, too,” said his seductress, aiming a stream of smoke at the ceiling.
Their exertions had left them beneath the window, where the reflected glow from Smitty’s billboard dusted the contours of her extravagant body with powdery highlights.
“I explained about Norm’s problem. I think he’d be happy for us.”
Guff doubted that and wondered what he would do if the man suddenly burst into the room. Act nonchalant? Feign indignation? Make a run for the back door and hope Norm didn’t shoot him? He knew he kept a gun in his desk.
He had lost his shirt somewhere, his underpants and khakis were still roped around his ankles. Dorna’s things lay scattered on the floor in silken puddles; dusky purple, soft, luminescent pink, violet. He reached over his knees for his pants. Dorna’s hand stopped him.
“Nobody’s coming,” she purred, “it’s after midnight.” She rolled away from him and stretched towards Norm’s desk, displaying to advantage her magnificent behind. “He’s got plans for you,” she said, handing him the Southern Comfort. “He wants to make you president of Smitty’s.”
Guff sipped the sickly-sweet whiskey and grimaced. All the bouncing around, the shock of what was happening, had made him feel a little green.
“He’s going to— What?”
“He needs to retire. Said he’d practically give you the place, if you wanted it. I mean, he’d probably want some kind of percentage or something.”
“Give Smitty’s to me?” A bubble of whiskey broke and trickled down Guff’s chin.
“If he can only get away from that bitch.”
“Why doesn’t he divorce her?” Guff suggested, alert suddenly and all business.
Dorna pouted. “Cause she’d cut him off without a dime. After all he’s done for Smitty’s, she’d throw him out like a piece of trash.”
“Gosh,” said Guff.
“But Norm, bless his heart, doesn’t care.”
“He’s a good guy, all right.”
“We’ve talked about running away, but he’s afraid if we did Cheryl would blame everything on you.”
It took a beat to sink in.
“Me? On me?”
“If Norm and I eloped, you’d be the only one left to blame.”
“I thought Norm could make it look like Shag did it?”
“Not if we run away. We wouldn’t be here, silly, to pin anything on anybody.” Dorna dragged a pink fingernail up Guff’s fish-white, almost hairless, stomach.
“But the videos— ”
“What really worries me,” Dorna went on, “is Norm’s health. If he should, you know, just drop dead. That could happen, according to the doctors. If it did, you’d be on the hot seat.”
“Now wait just a minute!”
“Oh, she’s vindictive, that woman.” Dorna ground out her cigarette on the floor, as if she were grinding it in the enemy’s face.
A radio talk-show host berated Shag until his eyes fluttered and semi-consciousness returned. He felt drained, as if he’d only just dropped off.
“Sorry, Chuck, I’m assuming that’s not your real name, but that’s okay, hey, we’re not particular about—whatever, but I think you’re nothin but a ... and the only reason I’m gonna use this word instead of the one that really fits is because we’re on the air, a weenie, okay? Is it all right to say ‘weenie’ Sheila? Har-har, our lovely producer is giving us a thumbs up from the control room and, babe, gosh darn it don’t you look gorgeous this morning! What is that you’re wearing? A what? Har-har. So, weenieman…”
Shag slapped at the radio and silenced the braying, super-confident voice. Red numerals flashed 6:30. It was the earliest he’d been awake since starting at Smitty’s—in fact, the first time he’d ever bothered to set the alarm. But the escape plan he had devised before finally going to sleep required drastic measures. Smitty’s opened at eight. Norm never showed up until a few minutes before, Dorna was consistently tardy. McGuffin, however, took a horse’s-ass pride in beating everyone to work. Five days a week, at seven on the dot, Shag was roused by the automatic gate clattering open for his pickup. He’d learned to go back to sleep until Guff returned an hour later to pound on his door.
He drew a cupful of tap water, which tasted like the twenty-year-old styrene tank it came out of, and surveyed the yard through the window over the sink. No time for coffee, no time for breakfast. The plan was to break into the office before Guff arrived and call Gomez. He pulled on his boots, opened the RV door and stepped down.
The shock of seeing Guff’s pickup sent him scrambling in reverse. He hadn’t noticed it before because it wasn’t in his Reserved for H.J. “Guff” McGuffin parking space. How could the horse’s ass already be here?
Back inside, Shag dropped into the reclining chair and pondered this development. McGuffin’s mere presence didn’t necessarily kill the plan—he had asked to use the phone before and they’d let him. He would just tell Guff he needed to call someone. The trick would be privacy. With Guff in the room, he’d have to speak in some sort of code, and he couldn’t count on Gomez to understand. And then there was the time. The clock radio read 6:47—a little more than an hour until Norm and Dorna showed up. He heard the unmistakable squawk of the office door and looked out the porthole. Guff teetered out onto the porch. His eyes were smudged and bleary, his always too-perfect hair was squashed on one side like it had melted onto a flat surface. He put two fingers in his mouth and after several attempts achieved a breathy whistle. A shadow separated from a pile of radiators and Killerboy ambled into view.
“Come on fella!” he wheezed, descending the steps. Killerboy hesitated. “Come on, now! Come on!” Puffing his cheeks, he reached down for the dog bowl and rattled it. “Come on, fella!” When the dog finally crept within reach, Guff clipped on his chain and stumbled back up to the office.
Cheryl Schmidt-Olaf picked up on the first ring. “Cheryl Schmidt-Olaf!” she announced with maddening, crack-of-dawn enthusiasm. The caller didn’t immediately respond. “Hello, hello, hel—”
“I got to see you—alone.”
“What? Guff? Is that you?”
“I g-got to see you. Don’t tell Norm. Whatever you do, don’t—”
“What is it, Guff?”
“Good Lord, Harlis, he’s in the shower. I have a meeting at the realty. I’ll swing by right af—”
The firmness in his tone was so completely, alarmingly, out of character, Cheryl told him she’d be there as quick as she could.
Guff heaved himself out of his chair and went around the office picking up ashtrays, straightening furniture. He found an empty Southern Comfort bottle under Norm’s desk and another with half an inch of liquor remaining. He unscrewed the cap and poured it down his throat. He gagged violently, bent almost double, hacking through his fingers until his eyes watered. Something about his eyes watering triggered a sob, and then he began to cry.
“I come early ever damn day for four years and no one gives a damn.” He dropped the whiskey bottles into a trash barrel, shattering them. “I pick up after all of ’em, clean up the messes, and no one gives a damn.” He opened the door to a broom closet, reached into a box labeled Rags and pulled out a fresh, sealed pint of Southern Comfort. “Didn’t think I knew where you hid it, didja?” He twisted off the cap, inclined his head, drank, screwed the cap back on, and returned it to the Rags box. “I know lots a stuff you don’t know I know, ha ha!” The Rags box actually did contain a few rags to hide the bottles. Guff threw one of these on the floor and, using his foot, mopped up the liquor that had dribbled out the corners of his mouth. He mopped his way over behind Norm’s desk where a large shiny area on the tile made obvious, at least to Guff’s eyes, the place where he and Dorna had done the deed. A ring of cigarette butts outlined it, there was even a smudge of mascara. He thought briefly, ashamedly, about what had happened. With daylight starting to fill the room it hardly seemed real. He knelt down and touched the mascara, studied the tip of his finger, put it to his nose and inhaled. Smoke, perfume—sex.
He was disappointed to see her looking impeccable as always. She wore a navy skirt and a scarlet blazer with big gold buttons made to look like coins. Having dragged her out so early, he’d anticipated, wished for, something more frazzled.
Cheryl clipped up the stairs in red patent heels, and Guff opened the door. “Okay,” she said, exhaling Doublemint, “I’m here.”
Instead of letting her in, he stepped out and closed the door behind him. He wore an old flaking leather jacket he’d found in the broom closet. “Have to show you something.”
“Can’t we talk right here?” said Cheryl. “I’m going to be late for my meeting at the realty. This was way out of my way.”
Guff shook his head gloomily. “Got to show you.”
“Oh, all right.” But she hesitated on the steps, eyeing him. “You look like you slept in your clothes. Are you okay?”
“No,” said Guff, with rare candidness, “I guess I’m not.” On the way to his pickup, he glanced toward the RV for signs of life. Of course, there were none. Shag, he reassured himself, was still dead to the world.
“What is it?” demanded Cheryl, annoyed. “What do you want to show me? And why are you wearing that jacket? It’s hot as heck out here.”
“Just get in.”
Shag watched the pickup head into the dreary landscape. When it dipped out of sight behind a rank of faded school busses, he threw open the RV door and scuttled across the parking lot to the office. Safely chained, Killerboy could only grumble at him from beneath the stairs. Once inside, he dialed the telephone with trembling fingers.
“Whorehouse,” answered Gomez.
“Got that U-joint,” Shag lied, “but you got to come git it, pronto. Now. And bring enough money to cover that stuff from yesterday.”
Gomez hemmed and hawed. In the background breakfast was frying, a spatula clanked against a skillet.
“There’s another little matter, too, but we can discuss that when you get here.”
“Oh, yeah? What little matter?”
“How much this surprise gonna cost, bro?”
“Free.” Shag smiled. He heard Gomez’s wife holler something in Spanish.
“Chorizo’s ready, I got to go. But, hey—”
“I better like this ‘surprise,’ bro.”
Shag didn’t know if he would like it or not, but he was going to get it, just the same—the honor of delivering him and his potato-chip can to the local Greyhound bus station.
Fifty yards shy of the back fence, deep within the “graveyard,” Guff slowed the truck and cut the engine.
“He’s been embezzling,” he said, staring ahead.
At first she didn’t understand. When it dawned on her that he meant her husband, Cheryl said, “Helping himself out of the till? Or really, really embezzling?”
“Really, really. Going back a year. That’s why we never get around to the inventory. He hasn’t figured out how to make it say what he wants it to.”
Cheryl frowned, thinking back. “When did you find out?”
“I guess I’ve always known.”
“I can’t speak for her,” he said quickly. “Probably not, she, I—”
“Why tell me now?” asked Cheryl, rolling her window down to toss her gum.
“I couldn’t, I just couldn’t go—” Guff took a deep, sinus-rattling breath and yawned. Then he got the hiccups. He restarted the engine without knowing exactly why, and the pickup began to crawl along a narrow lane toward the back fence.
Shag wasn’t sure how long it would take Gomez to arrive, but he packed frenziedly, stuffing what he could into a plastic garbage bag. Before he yanked the plug and threw it in, the clock radio had read 7:22. Outside, on his aluminum stoop, he gave the RV a last farewell and struck out across Smitty’s blighted acres.
He agonized, briefly, over a perfectly good block of Velveeta, that and a jar of pickles.
He wasn’t used to exercise, much less trying to run with a forty-pound sack on his back, and he began almost immediately to lighten the load. The bulkier clothes went—it was late spring, who needed a winter coat? —along with a half dozen well-thumbed nudie mags, old friends he’d managed to hang onto for years. He agonized, briefly, over a perfectly good block of Velveeta, that and a jar of pickles. With reluctance, he jettisoned the cheese product. A lengthening trail of discards marked his path.
“I guess I sort of suspected it,” said Cheryl. Guff hiccupped, shifted the truck into second. At the barbed-wire fence, he wheeled around and headed back the way they had come.
Shag collapsed against the turquoise Dart, gasping and wheezing. The pickup sounded like it was in the vicinity of the back fence, but the pounding in his head made it difficult to hear. He wrenched the key from his sweat-damp jeans, dropped it, searched the weeds, found it, and with palsied hand finally fitted forty-year-old key into forty-year-old keyhole. It broke off in the lock. From behind the mating Gremlins, Guff’s truck lurched into view. Shag abandoned his garbage bag and dove for cover.
Cheryl thought she had seen something, but decided she hadn’t. At Smitty’s, stuff was always flapping in the breeze: tattered upholstery, rotten headliners, plastic bags drifted in from the highway…
“So, what did you want to show me, Harlis? Does it have to do with Norm?” She consulted her watch impatiently. Back at the real estate office, the meeting was getting underway. She remembered she was supposed to bring donuts.
Guff hiccupped. “Here,” he said finally, easing the truck to a stop.
“Here where, Guff? What?”
“Get out.” He climbed down, leaving his door open, and seemed to be scrutinizing the cars around him. Behind the Dart reposed a pink-and-black Rambler with the trunk cracked open.
“I don’t see anything, Guff?”
Exasperated, Cheryl followed him to the Rambler.
“I’m (hic) so sor(hic)ry,” he blubbered.
“Sorry? Sorry for what, Guff? What on earth’s the matter?”
“We’re all in on it! Even Dorna!” cried Guff. “But it’s your fault!”
“My fault? What’s my fault? You ain’t making sense boy,” said Cheryl, in a pugnacious twang.
“Norm wants to retire, he and Dorna are in love!”
“He’s going to make me president of Smitty’s.”
“President?” With effort, Cheryl stifled a smile. “‘H.J. Guff McGuffin, President.’ Sounds kind of top heavy, don’t you think?”
“Open the trunk to that Rambler. Get in.”
“I’m sorry,” he blubbered, wresting Norm’s gun from inside the jacket. “You’re a n-nice person.”
“You’re outa your friggin mind! I just got this outfit back from the cleaners.”
Guff hiccupped halfway into a nervous yawn and honked like a goose. He fumbled inside the jacket. “I’m sorry,” he blubbered, wresting Norm’s gun from inside the jacket. “You’re a n-nice person.”
“Oh, now I get it,” said Cheryl. “Did Dorna put you up to this?”
But Guff’s eyes were suddenly drawn to something behind her. Cheryl followed his gaze and saw what looked like Vienna sausages peeping out from under the Rambler’s trunk lid. Guff shoved her aside. He flung open the lid to reveal a squirming, wincing Shag.
“Don’t shoot, brother! Oh please, don’t shoot.”
Guff and Cheryl stared open-mouthed.
“I was just, you know, just trying to pull these here speakers for—”
“Get the hell outa there and get your damn hands in the air!”
Guff dragged Shag out of the trunk and threw him onto the ground. “He’s the one!” he cried, sputtering like a lunatic. “He’s the one been stealing everything!”
Cheryl looked from Guff to Shag, and back to Guff. “Lord, now I’m really confused.”
He was sick of solitaire, and it wasn’t much fun playing poker by yourself. There were paperbacks, but Shag wasn’t a reader. Besides, the church lady who brought them (in an Easter basket) had expurgated whole paragraphs with a felt-tipped pen. His only visitor had been his somewhat addled court-appointed attorney. No TV, no radio, no cigarettes. The jail wasn’t even air-conditioned.
Guff, Norm and Dorna had been hauled in, too, the difference being they’d all posted bond and left again. In his cage in the basement of a picturesque, historically-designated nineteenth-century courthouse, prisoner Shag dozed. Footsteps in the corridor awakened him.
“Someone to see you, Clutzer,” the young deputy barked. His flattop angled forward like a tilted cap he dared you to knock off.
“Clutter,” Shag corrected. His impulse was to say “Clutter, asshole,” but the deputy was fantastically developed, the type that probably owned a little set of dumbbells just for his fingers. “If it’s that lawyer, tell him to screw hisself,” he said instead.
Without bothering to reply, the deputy unlocked his cell and led him to a dank, windowless room containing only a narrow table, two chairs and a combination TV/VCR. He pointed to one of the chairs then locked the door with a key on a retractable chain. Opening a door on the opposite wall, he said, “You can come in now, Mrs. Olaf.”
“You need anything, just yell,” the deputy told her with a warning glance at the prisoner. He left the room, and Cheryl pulled out the plastic chair across the table from Shag. For a moment she leaned on her elbows, studying him.
“I sure am glad to see you,” said Shag, for no particular reason.
“Really. Why are you so glad to see me?”
“I, well, you know, it’s just—”
“You just naturally say whatever it is you think people want to hear, is that it?”
Shag looked wounded.
She dismissed the question with a wave of her hand and forced a smile. “It doesn’t matter. I’m here because I think we can help each other.”
Shag became suspicious.
The auditors have found forty grand missing and the investigation’s not even a week old.”
“Just hear me out.” Cheryl flattened her hands on the table and studied them. Shag studied at her crisp kelly green blazer, the gold locket-watch ticking urgently on her lapel. After a deep breath she said, “Norm has been embezzling from Smitty’s for over a year. The auditors have found forty grand missing and the investigation’s not even a week old.”
Shag scratched his jaw.
“Norm and Dorna have been having a little after-hours fling for roughly the same period of time.” Cheryl looked up and caught his eye. “Your RV was right across the parking lot. Maybe you already know this.”
To imply that maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, Shag sniffed.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. For now, embezzling is the issue, and Guff has agreed to testify against Norm. We made a deal.”
Shag expressed nothing, silently.
Cheryl glared at the slouching red-haired thing and suppressed the urge to start yelling. She punched the Play button on the VCR.
An unsteady long-shot of the “graveyard.” Shag skulks into view carrying a box of parts, looking this way and that. “Here he comes, right on time.” The phlegmy voiceover belongs to the cameraman, Norm Olaf. He continues, whispering like a TV golf commentator. “Hey, shithead, yoo-hoo, look at the birdie! (muffled laughter).” The camera follows Shag until he disappears behind a heap of scrap. The soundtrack breaks off, hissing.
“That don’t prove—” Shag began, but Cheryl directed his attention back to the screen.
Gomez’s truck skids into the frame. Gomez gets out, shouts something inaudible, spits. The camera zooms in as Shag slides the box under the fence and crawls over after it. They are too far away for the microphone to pick up what’s being said, their exchange drowned out by wind distortion and Norm’s wheezing. Gomez hands over some bills, Shag counts them, twice. Attempting to vault back over the fence, he snags his pants and almost falls down. Norm cracks up—he’s far enough away that he can laugh out loud. The picture wobbles, turns to static, then refocuses on Shag traversing the “graveyard.” He stops, looks high and low, takes out the money⎯ Dorna shrieks, mugs for the camera. The office interior, murky green from insufficient light, jerks and jumps. “Get that thing outa my face!” she cries, covering her eyes and ducking behind her computer screen.
Cheryl hit the Stop button.
Shag stretched his arms. “That it?”
“It’s enough, isn’t it?”
He decided to take a calculated risk. “You ain’t found no money.”
“Don’t have to. Your friend Gomez spilled the beans. Tiny’s fired him, but he isn’t going to jail.” She neglected to add that a budget security firm had almost immediately hired him again. “We cut him a deal, too.”
While Cheryl wondered if he was getting the picture yet, Shag wondered if the potato chip can was still where he’d left it, in the turquoise Dart.
“Want a piece of Doublemint?” Cheryl lifted her purse off the floor and unzipped it.
“You ain’t got a smoke, do you?”
“I’ll get you a pack.”
For once, he was all ears.
“Guff’s my witness,” she said, peeling a stick of gum. “We’ve got an excellent case without him, but I had to have Guff on my side, if for no other reason than to keep him from colluding with the other two. Your buddy Gomez will testify, for what that’s worth. Dorna,” she added sardonically, is standing by her man.”
“I like Luckies,” said Shag.
“Are you on my team?”
“I’m willing to offer you the same deal I’m giving Guff. If you tell me how much you made and where you hid it, I’ll drop the charges. I doubt your little sideline took in forty grand, and anything less means Norm doesn’t have you for an alibi.” Cheryl leaned intimately across the table. “So where’d you hide it?”
Shag scratched, fidgeted, sniffed.
“Where’s the money, Shag?”
His eyes became dolorous, tears almost sprouted. “I swear, Miz Olafs, I ain’t ever stole nothin! Swear to God! They framed me is all, cause I’m not a thief!”
Cheryl slapped the table. “What about the video!”
“It was just that once, I swear! I needed enough to buy me a bus ticket to Cistern to see my old daddy. He ain’t been well.”
“Oh, puh-lease!” Cheryl exclaimed, eyes blazing.