About Me

My photo
Family and Friends is my everyday journal. Captain's Log is where I pontificate on religion and politics.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Apple of Success


The Apple of Success

By

Patrick Prescott

KINDLE EDITION

PUBLISHED BY:

* * * * *

P.M. Prescott Enterprises

Albuquerque, New Mexico on Kindle


The Apple of Success

Copyright © 2015 by P.M. Prescott Enterprises

Kindle Edition License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

*

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Table of Contents







# # # # #


# # # # #



Zachary Duncan



“The boy is pure energy in motion,” Rhonda let out a huff, “he won’t sit down and be quiet for more than ten seconds. I’m at my wits end.”

“It’s not that much longer until schools out,” Dropping my daughter off at school before heading for the office. She was talking about Patrick Smith.

“I know,” she sighed. “This time of year all the kids get antsy, but he’s impossible.”

Pulling up to the curb she took out her wheeled cart with all the papers graded over the evening and was on her way.

In my office I looked at the picture of Shonda holding Rhonda in her arms with me behind them. We’ve been proud of her since she was born. Always smart as a whip and kept us on our toes. Talk about hell on wheels, she drove us crazy with constant questions and speaking her mind to anyone she came in contact with. And talk about being a bundle of energy. The most curious child in history and into everything. If it was quiet for three seconds we went looking.

Three year olds can also embarrass their parents in many ways. Once when I met Peter Weller at the local diner we chatted and he went back to his table. I mumbled under my breath, “What an idiot.”

A week later Shonda and I were walking her around Fillery park when Peter came up to say hello. Rhonda blurted out, “My Daddy thinks you’re an idiot.”

Fortunately he had a sense of humor and laughed, “Sometimes I am.”

I’ve been waiting for her to get married and experience a little payback for her raising, but maybe Patrick Smith is part of the deal too.  Still I hate seeing her wither away in a small town with little prospect of a decent husband and letting her incredible mind go to waste teaching second graders.

Looking over the prospectus, it was ready. Much better than I could have prepared after being an accountant for forty years and keeping an eye on the town’s budget for the last twenty. Rhonda prepared the prospectus over Christmas break. It was a long shot sending it to a national bank instead of a state bank, but 1% less interest on a billion dollars would be worth it if they approved our application. Should they turn us down we go our regular bank and haven’t really lost anything.

Picking up the packet I went to the post office then drove around town. Rugby, North Dakota has only one claim to fame. We’re the geological center of North America. From the top of Canada to the Panama Canal, From the Atlantic to the Pacific we’re dead center. There’s a stone marker to inform the few visitors who come through of our distinction.

With sadness I saw streets riddled with pot holes from salt and cinder used to fight ice over the winter. The aging sewage and water treatment plants were on their last legs. All the police cruisers were being held together by baling wire and duct tape. It was difficult to hire police or fire fighters and even harder to keep them.

On main street three store fronts were boarded up and the buildings condemned. Transients get off trains and slip in them. Without heat they invariably light fires to keep warm and the fire department has been called out numerous times. Fortunately no one’s been hurt, yet.

We either need to tear them down or renovate. Demolition would ruin our historical Main Street, and who will buy the land to build new? Renovation costs big bucks and right now no one would open up a business in them?

Ben Johnson announced at the last city council meeting he’s closing down the leather factory. Twenty jobs leaving in a small town hurts. Twenty families packing up and moving, and twenty apartments or houses sitting vacant. Things are starting to snowball and without this loan Rugby will be in dire straits. A loan of this size is our only option.

Shonda and I have lived here all our lives and will die here, but Rhonda doesn’t need to suffer our fate. She has so much life yet to live. It’s time for her to leave the nest and scares her mother and me to death.

We raised her to be a good Christian, to love the Lord, and become an adult without smoking, drinking, doing drugs and premarital sex. I was proud to dance with her at the “purity ball” her senior year in high school.

Growing up there wasn’t much she could get into we didn’t hear about, but college was out of our control. She wasn’t far away and on a number of weekends she’d call and I’d dive over and bring her home so she could eat some decent food, do laundry and get sleep. She would tell us about her latest boyfriend, but never brought one home.

 When she graduated and came home we were relieved she hadn’t changed. A car was the touchy spot. She never stopped begging me to give her one, but partial tuition, room and board cost an arm and a leg. I couldn’t add buying a car, insurance, gas and maintenance too.

 If she could survive the temptations of college there’s a good chance she’ll find a good Christian husband in a city where she has more of a chance to find him and get on with her life.

Unfortunately someone she dated in college moved into town. He stalked her after she ended it and moved on to someone else. The only reason Glenn Quackenbush hired him at Bremer Bank was because I moved the town’s money to Gate City Bank in Minot ten years ago when I discovered discrepancies in the accounts he wouldn’t explain. Being mayor creates enemies.

Young women in college on their own for the first time in their lives sometimes make the wrong choices. This one has come back to haunt her. She can’t go out with friends in the evenings and is uncomfortable in church because he joined it and is always there. So far he hasn’t done anything other than be annoying and the police chief has him under surveillance, but he’s another reason for her to leave.

Surprisingly the bank agreed to send someone to inspect the town before deciding on the loan. Over dinner I let my girls know. They were pleased and went with me to the council meeting to tell the whole town.

Seven years earlier the Environmental Protection Agency sent out inspectors and informed us in writing of all the improvements that needed to be made or there would be sanctions. Now for the first time there’s hope on the faces of those in the room.

Rhonda ran a slide show while I went over what changes and renovations would come from the loan. In a series of charts and grafts I let Rhonda explain the economic impact and how it was all going to be accomplished without raising taxes.

Shonda went to bed while Rhonda and I drank a glass of wine. It’s hard to see her drinking beer or wine, but she’s a grown woman and this way she’s not over at Crooks Lounge getting hit on by every loser in town.

“Daddy,” she said. “After you’re done with the presentation would you do me a favor…?”



Rhonda Duncan



Daddy dropped me off and I knew he was sending the prospectus. We worked hard because without this loan the town was doomed. Somehow I knew that wouldn’t happen. The bank would approve the loan and all would work out. I was even hoping in a few years there would be enough money to replace my 1930’s era school with a modern one.

My classroom barely gets over sixty degrees in winter and there’s only open windows and box fans in fall and spring to mitigate the heat. You can wear layers of clothing to keep warm in winter, but when its ninety degrees I’m yelling over the fans.

What a dream to have a classroom with refrigerated air conditioning, and warm during the winter with a smart board connected to my computer. Maybe the dream will come true.

Perhaps with the new construction a handsome man will come along and sweep me off my feet, or maybe not. I was destined to leave the state for better prospects elsewhere when I graduated high school. College only delayed it. But not before Rugby gets new life from this loan.

Every time I get discouraged about my classroom and ten rambunctious students I take a drive about ten miles east of town to a small wooden building with windows boarded up. A “one room schoolhouse” not many left in the country. Then I ask myself, “How would you like to teach K-12 in that?”

It took five minutes after class started to send Patrick to time out for ten minutes of relief. He’s only acting out because he craves attention. Most likely not getting much at home where he has two older sisters and a younger brother. I’ve tried all year to be understanding, but the other students need attention too. I talked with him and he behaved himself. The other students were little darlings and I thought the day would be a good one, then Jennifer Small wet her pants leaving a puddle on the hard wood floor.

Daddy and I stopped to get a few items at the food mart on the way home. As we walked down the aisles everyone smiled at us.

“Good to see you Miss Duncan,” they would say and then, “Mr. Mayor.”

I’ve known almost everyone in town my whole life. If not from school then church. In the last two years I’ve been teaching their children or grandchildren. In small towns teachers get a certain amount of respect. Being the mayor’s daughter gave me a little more.

The one person in town I try to avoid walked in giving me his creepy smile. He’s the main reason I don’t go anywhere in town without Mom or Daddy. No matter what or where or when he’s always lurking. As usual I ignored him.

After dinner I drove Mom to dance class. Daddy always frowns when I ask for the keys. He’s left alone for a few hours and gets to watch what he wants on TV, but has to act like it’s a bother.

Across the street from the dance studio, there he was watching my every move. Get a life, asshole!

Daddy came home excited a few days later. U.S. Security Bank and Trust agreed to send someone to hear our proposal. We went to the town council and they were just as happy. A few voiced concerns that the town didn’t have the proper entertainment for a businessman of this caliber. This gave me an idea and later that night I told it to Daddy.

During church my stalker sang a solo. Supposedly it was about God wanting sinners to notice him, but the meaning was very clear. I’ll never go back to church as long as he’s there.





Terrence Austin Sr.



A town Rugby’s size is too small for a major national bank to consider for an urban loan, but the application they submitted showed collateral over ten times the amount requested. Normally members of the city council would come to Denver, but the mayor insisted someone from the bank travel to them. I didn’t really have to make the trip. I could have told Mayor Duncan it was Denver or nothing. Out of curiosity I agreed. My gut felt like there was more to this trip than money.

The last leg of the journey was in a Cessna single engine landing at a crop dusting runway. There was a decent hotel with free Wi-Fi and a restaurant with a decent T-bone.

In the generic room it couldn’t get any worse than the ride in an ancient airplane. It’s time to retire and let Junior do this.

I used to be the CEO of U.S. Security Bank and Trust! There was a company 747 and I could travel anywhere in the world on a whim even during the Cold War to Red China and the Soviet Union. Then Glenda came down with cancer.

Knowing we were in the fight of our lives, I stepped down and Gunter Atwater moved from COO to CEO. He graciously let me take over the Denver office where I would have more time to be with family.

Six years, countless surgeries and rounds of chemo until mercifully Glenda succumbed. Her suffering was so bad I wanted to take her to a state where she could end it with dignity. But she fought to the bitter end.

Work kept me sane through the whole ordeal. I could have retired after the funeral, but what would I do all alone in a ten bedroom mansion on twenty acres of manicured grounds? 

My son was a department head and took over whenever I need time out of the office. I’ve been hoping he would settle down and start a family. No luck so far.

In the morning a delegation of the town council met me in the lobby, introductions were made and we went out in the courtyard. The chairman thought this would be better than a boardroom, and we could smoke. Not a bad idea. I might start the practice too.

After the usual pleasantries they began their pitch for a billion dollars. I looked over the prospectus and the results of test drilling. When their natural gas reserves were developed the royalties would be more than enough to cover the loan.

A million things could keep drilling from happening, but the three men and one woman making up the council radiated determination.

Mayor Duncan gave an impassioned plea. “The EPA has ordered us to make these improvements,” he said, “but won’t lend any aid to pay for them. We’ve gone to the legislature for the past five years and our pleas have been ignored.”

Governments are great at giving mandates, but never think about the costs or want to cover them. That’s how banks come in and make money.

 “They’ve given us ten years to finish all these improvements. We haven’t even started them. If they place sanctions on us for non-compliance,” he pleaded, “we’ll have to close schools, lay off half our police and fire fighters. Many of our citizens without jobs will be forced to move somewhere else. The town will die.”

I sympathized. I really did, but the same sad tale can be said about thousands of other small towns from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “I can tell you right now,” I laid it on the line. “Your collateral is royalties from natural gas. SB&T will expect you to start tapping into those reserves in order to make the scheduled payments. That won’t be easy if there’s opposition from conservation groups tying you up with impact studies and law suits.”

The mayor smiled, “After the test drilling the council approved letting Phillips Petroleum begin extracting. By this time next month three sites will be functioning with five more up and running in six months.”

If a judge imposed a temporary injunction against the town between now and then we could pull the plug. “You’ve given me a lot to think about on the trip home. After the loan committee votes I’ll personally give Mayor Duncan our answer.”

 Alone in the courtyard while finishing a fine Dominican cigar a young lady wrapped in a shawl came up with a boom box. She turned it on and attempted the dance of seven veils.

She was pretty, shapely hips with a narrow waist and when the veil parted displayed abundant cleavage. They had no idea how much she reminded me Glenda. If only Junior would settle down with someone like her.

I couldn’t help but smile. This was their attempt to sweeten the deal. They’ve seen too many movies and must think all business is done this way. It wasn’t necessary as I already decided to approve the loan.

“Let me guess,” I gave her a warm smile. “Third grade teacher right out of college and you teach belly dancing to the ladies around here to help them lose weight?”

She stopped, wrapped back up staring at me with piercing green eyes under strawberry blonde hair. “Second grade, how’d you know?”

“Educated guess,” I winked and she blushed. “Tell the boys you talked me into it.”

She smiled nearly stopping my heart. So much beauty wasted out in the boondocks.

Getting up I said, “Next time they ask you to do something this degrading tell them to go to hell. Better yet,” handing her my card, “call me and I’ll find you employment where the town fathers won’t treat you this way.”

She took my card, “You have it all wrong. They didn’t ask me to do this. I suggested it. Daddy told me how important the loan is and I’d hate to see the town fall apart.”

“What’s your name?”

“Rhonda,” she said.

“Your Daddy the mayor?”

Head nodding, “Yes.”

“Tell him he raised a fine daughter I’d be proud to introduce to my son.” Getting up and gathering all my papers and things, “I’d appreciate it if the plane could be ready in thirty minutes.”



Rhonda



After the dance and he was so gracious I felt a little silly. I thought it’d be fun and after all the old man would never see me again. I didn’t count on him being the spitting image of Kenny Rogers with distinguished silver hair and beard. His eyes were kind.

I was planning on putting in applications to a number of cities over the summer, but it was nice to know there was someone of importance in Denver to use as a reference. I put sweats over my dancing outfit and went to my car through the lobby. He was there, but this time instead of giving me his forlorn pleading look he was angry, looking at me with disdain. Somehow he watched my dance and wasn’t happy. Up to now he’s only been a nuisance, now I’m sacred.

* * *

After talking the offer over with Mom and Daddy I called Janelle. Her mom and mine were in the labor room together. She was born thirty minutes before me and we’ve been like twins all our lives.

We roomed together in college. Before going to sleep we told each other everything.

There was always a stack of notes in my mail box left at the desk from guys wanting to study or go out. I never went on a date before coming to college. Maybe I was a little sheltered coming from a small town with a strict Methodist upbringing, but on my own there was a freedom I’d never known before.

We both dated a number of guys sometimes on double dates. A few of the guys after three or four dates tried to get handsy and I was forceful in letting them know I was staying pure.

Chemistry class my junior year Darius Dudley was my lab partner. He was a little older and one of the students fresh out of the air force base in town. I was lost trying to figure out chemical reactions. We studied in the library most of the semester. It didn’t matter what time of day or what we were doing, he always smelled like he just got out of the shower.

We went out on a few dates where he was a perfect gentleman treating me to dinner, a movie and content with a good night kiss. He was a really good kisser. Then we started skipping dinner and movie spending time in his car at a park not far from campus. A few hours of sharing a reefer, talking and kissing led to me not minding him touching a little more intimately. I even enjoyed it.

After a  few times parking I was willing to let him touch me under my clothes and soon my resolve to save myself for marriage gave way in a moment of passion. The pain woke me to the reality of what I lost giving in to the weed, his touch and soothing words. I broke my purity vow. Now I would never be virgin on my wedding night.

“Please stop,” I said. He kept moving until finished. It felt like forever. I was crying and he tried to sooth me, but I wasn’t crying over the pain. I’ve never felt guilt like this before. I left the car and ran home never more ashamed in my life.

Janelle was sleeping when I got to the room. She woke and comforted me over a moment of weakness.

“We all sin,” she said. “Jesus forgives and makes all things new.”

“I know,” I said sniffing and rubbing my nose with tissue. “What will I tell my husband?”

Stroking my hair, “That you’re human and make mistakes.”

Somehow the words didn’t help that much.

The semester was nearly over and other than working together on our final lab assignment I never went out with him again. He tried repeatedly to apologize, even proposed marriage, but as nice as he was I didn’t love him.

Senior year, if the weather allowed, I spent the weekends back home writing journals, making out lesson plans and a million other things. Daddy racked up a lot of miles that year and needed to buy a new car by summer.

With a regular class load in the evenings letting me do pre-student teaching in the fall and student teaching in the spring there wasn’t time for a social life.

Darius was always somewhere I could see him. Never too close and he didn’t try to speak or bother me other than to give me a forlorn look. He wants to get back together in the worst way, but all I want to do is forget that awful night and seeing him just brings it back.

Janelle found love with an officer on base. It was sickening hearing her come back telling me how wonderful her first time was. She felt no guilt about not waiting since they were getting married and he would be her one and only. It was like rubbing salt into an open wound, but I rejoiced with her.

She spent most of our senior year planning the wedding and I helped during the holiday breaks. I was maid of honor and had a lot of fun planning her bachelorette party. It was sad when they left on their honeymoon and knew we would not see that much of each other anymore. We swore to call each other at least once a week the rest of our lives and never lose touch.

* * *

“It’s not Saturday,” Janelle answered the phone. I could hear her youngest banging on something in the background.

“I’ve had an offer to leave Rugby and move to Denver. Daddy wants me to go.”

“The banker?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s he like?”

“A very kind elderly gentleman. He’s offered to find me a job.”

“It would sound fishy,” she said. “Except your Dad wouldn’t be in favor of it if he thought the man would be a danger. Still, what’s in it for him?”

I couldn’t help adding, “He mentioned his son.”

“There must be something wrong with sonny if daddy plays matchmaker”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” I said. “But it does get me out of Rugby.”

“And away from Dudley.”

“The one reason why I’m willing to leave now instead of later.”

“What about your students?”

That was the first thing Mom asked when Daddy encouraged me to leave. I have a feeling I’ll be answering this question a lot. “Denise agreed to combine my class with hers for the last few weeks and told me it wouldn’t be a problem. It gives her twenty students and she said I’d better get used to having thirty-five or forty.”

“Then go for it Rhonda.”

Suddenly I was fearful, “Daddy wants me to find a husband. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.”

She laughed, “You find the right man, and you’ll be more than ready.”



Darius Dudley



Walking out of office, TGIF. Fridge empty headed for Gryphon Liquors. Trunk full of brew, a bottle of Jim Beam. Ready for weekend. Beer’s for quenching thirst, Jim Beam for football.

 Leevers on the way back for other stuff, bitch there with Daddy. Moved here get Rhonda back. Sooner or later stay in sight she know love her and love back. Working at bank for fast food wages. No man worth spit in this town, she come ‘round.

Mustered out Air Force at Minot. Six years wasting time at guard shack or walking perimeter. Any police force take me only having pass shooting test. Stay Air Force if wanted that.

Rugby bad place. Nothin but hick farmers. Grow up New Orleans it rough, but have life. Dull here. Crooke’s lounge have skanks. Not waste time. Want Rhonda.

After muster out use GI Bill to get degree at Minot State. Not have to move away. Majored in business administration. Had to take English, history and chemistry. Security handles munitions and explosives ‘bout chemistry, had leg up.

Rhonda Duncan lab partner. Damn that girl nice. Stationed in four different parts of country. Nailed lots of skirts, but Rhonda grade A certified F-O-X.

Told her where from and bases stationed. She told me ‘bout Rugby where father mayor. First night at library I knew gal keeper. She pretty, hot body and smart.

Plenty ladies over the years: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. Equal opportunity romancer till Rhonda. Never wanted woman so much. Think marriage. Heard guys talk, she virgin. Need sweet talk and patience.

Born again, remain pure for marriage virgins, need seducing. Cut teeth on goody two shoes in high school. Number of fools give up. I’m not a fool. No good thing when I see it. Women have strong sense of smell learned in Air Force to wash face and hands with Ivory soap before meet with them.

Study few days build to dates with good night kiss and finally alone time in car. Gals like her freeze at first touch to tits and game over. They take a little weed, soft touch to back of neck, hot breath near ears and best advice from movie Bull Durham: “Long, slow, wet, deep, soft kisses that last three days.”

Month of late nights only toking and kissing finally tits. What a rack! Should’ve gone slower after getting to third base, but way she responded went for home run. Too long since woo virgin. Forgot dry humping few times before big score. Big mistake.

She start crying and blathering ‘bout ruinin for marriage. Told her loved her and marry her; even meant it. She out door and gone before zip pants.

 Still friendly in class, but over. Wouldn’t listen to thing I say and other guys ready step in if got too close. I’m not toy be used and throw away!

Followed whenever could. From safe distance acting cool. Bitch ignore me.

She return home and start teachin. Move there hoping realize I love her with all my heart. Luck with me. Opening at only bank.

Year livin in town. No man here for her but me, and she still act like I dog shit. Sing in choir at church, stand six foot six with long beard sticking out like sore thumb. She friendly with everyone but me. Daddy have cops stop me ten times and search apartment twice. They find microgram of weed I’m toast. Haven’t touched stuff since moving here. They’re not planting evidence yet.

Had enough of bitch and hick town. Know I’m on mayor bad side. Don’t want skanks. I want Rhonda.

 Gave it one more shot to get her back. Talk choir director let me sing solo during special music. Work two Saturdays with old crone organist get just right. On stage I say, “Imagine the Holy Ghost all around us talking to lost sinners. Words come from Him.” Sang Turn Around Look at Me.



 There is someone

Walking behind you

Turn around, look at me

And there’s someone

Watching your footsteps

Turn around, look at me



Oh, I’ve waited

But I’ll wait forever

For you to come to me



Look at someone

Who really loves you

Yes, who loves you

Turn around, look at me



Bitch left before finish and not look back. Choir director fired next day and pastor told me not come back. Expect be fired.



* * *

Everyone know ‘bout prospectus. Bank manager pissed town bypassing Bremer for better rates. 

Quackenbush call me in office. “I want you to go over to the Cobblestone Inn. I don’t know how Duncan did it, but someone from United States Security, Bank and Trust arrived in town last night and they’re going over the proposal today. I want you to see if this guy is seriously considering their offer.”

Gave me credit card to rent room. At desk heard meeting in courtyard. Got room on second floor. Hear every word. Done deal after five minutes. Wrote down notes for Duck in Tree.

About to leave weird music started up. Rhonda doing a belly dance. Damn she hot and showing off for old fart?  I wanted to yell, “Why you do this?”

Guy was cool. Didn’t paw her. Give her card saying get her job.

I’m insulted; love her and am invisible. If she give me one look we’re outahere. Get a job in big city bank blink of an eye. She teach and life would be sweet.

Instead she show off for old fart so town get loan! Mayor nothin but a pimp. In lobby saw the bitch and want to strangle her. Know where she go. Follow get her back. Not have Daddy bother me there. Ready give up on bitch. Seeing her coming on to old man must be desperate. Denver find way get her love me. She choose fat old fart over me I’ll kill her. Easier to do it there.



Senior



Rhonda was in the plane with a suitcase and laptop. I was a little surprised, but welcomed her presence. “Taking me up on my offer?”

Nodding again and giving me a sly smile, “Daddy encouraged me.” She blushed, “I know you were being kind about your son, but the thought of getting a teaching position someplace other than here would be nice.”

I sympathized and said, “I couldn’t wait to leave Sweetwater, Texas, and it’s a lot warmer than Rugby.”

She gave a small smirk and shrugged, “I wouldn’t know. The farthest I’ve been from home was four years at Minot State and it’s only sixty-five miles away.”

“When did you graduate?” If we’re going to be together for the flight I might as well get to know her. Maybe she’ll make a good loan officer at the bank.

“Two years ago,” she said. “There’s always a teaching position in Rugby.”

I couldn’t help it, “What about your students?”

This made her glum, “I really didn’t want to leave before schools out. But after your kind offer I decided it’s now or never. Daddy also pointed out there weren’t many marriage prospects in a town when all the men who aren’t married are too old or too drunk.”

This made me laugh. “No childhood sweetheart?”

Shaking her head, “It would be like dating a brother.”

Coming from a small town I understood. “You didn’t find someone at college?”

She shrugged, “I dated a few guys on campus, but they were only interested in a good time.”

“And you’re not a good time girl,” I said with a smile.

She nodded.

The plane landed and before I unbuckled my seatbelt the pilot gave me a mean look. “I don’t care about the loan, there are plenty of other banks.” He looked over at Rhonda and back at me. “Her Daddy is expecting a call when she gets to Denver and if she doesn’t call or she says you harmed her in any way they won’t be able to identify you with dental records.” He gave me another menacing glare, “Ya got that?”

“I do, and if I were you I’d say the same,” Getting out, “Rest assured and tell Mayor Duncan I’ll treat Rhonda as if she was my daughter and see no harm comes to her.”

“Hank,” Rhonda said hitting him on the arm. “If I thought Mr. Austin was a danger I wouldn’t be here, and I can take care of myself.” She pecked him on the cheek, “Tell Mom and Daddy I love them.”

She purchased her airline ticket before leaving Rugby and even reserved a hotel room. I would have graciously given her a lift in the company Lear jet, but she was wise not to accept hospitality from a stranger.

In the terminal I told her, “Fax a résumé to human resources.” Writing the number down on the card I gave her earlier. “Schools won’t be hiring until July or August. We’re always in need of a good teller which can help you until then.”

She started to hand the card back, “I’m not coming to get a job at your bank. I’m a teacher.”

“Consider this as something to tide you over until then,” I placated her. Even then after she learns how much the rent costs, like most teachers, she’ll need a second job.

“You sure you don’t want to fix me up with your son?” She winked to let me know it was a tease.

Now was my turn to be sad. “You would make a fine wife for my son, but he’s one of those good time guys.”

Scowling, “That’s not a good thing to say about your own blood.”

I started to walk away. “He’s treats all the pretty young girls are his harem.” I left her staring at the card with a curious expression.

For the last ten years Junior’s bedded every non-married secretary, teller or loan officer he could. He never stayed with one longer than three months no matter how good looking. It’s time he settled down and did his duty to the family name. Maybe she’s the one, but I felt duty bound to warn her.

Once comfortable and in the air I called Zachary Duncan. “I want you to know I’ll see Rhonda gets a good school.”

“That’s the last thing I want,” Zach said. “You know that prospectus?”

A little puzzled, “Yes.”

“She’s the one who prepared it.”

This was interesting if true. She musts be good at numbers.

He went on, “Rhonda started doing tax returns for clients at 15, and has done the town’s budget since she came home from college. I want you to hire her and see she rises to the top.”

A proud father, but I wasn’t too sure about getting in the middle. He’s right about one thing if she’s the one who prepared the prospectus then she has brains and talent, why waste it on the classroom? “I assume she doesn’t know about this.”

“Hell no.” He paused, “If that’s alright with you.”

“It is,” I said. “You’re a father who only wants what’s best for his daughter. I understand completely.”

“There is,” he went on, “a little problem. Rhonda has a stalker. His name is Darius Dudley: black, six foot four. He has a job at Bremer bank, but will follow her down there and most likely try to find employment at SB&T.”

Beautiful women always have creeps hanging around. I chased two away from my daughter before she married. “I’ll make sure he’s not hired.”

Zach surprised me, “If you do that he’ll get a job at another bank somewhere close to yours. If he applies send him to a branch as far away as possible.”

Smart man. “I’ll make sure they never meet and security will keep an eye on him.”

Maybe having her working closely with Terry she could be the one to settle him down. For some strange reason I harbor hope for my son with this girl. Fate or Kismet it could work.



Rhonda



Suddenly it was lonely in the terminal waiting to board a big jet. Getting in Hank’s little plane was the first time I’ve ever flown. A cute steward helped me put my carryon in an overhead bin. I sat next to an elderly woman who snored the short time we were in the air. I watched the ground move under us. The squares and circles showing farms then I read a paperback purchased in the airport. Getting off the plane I was in a different world. What have I gotten myself into?

Looking at the card again:

Terrence Austin Sr.

Municipal Loans

U. S. Security Bank and Trust

Denver, Colorado

On the back: Terrence Austin, Jr. Human Resources, Fax # 1-303-555-8591

Should I fax my résumé or try to eke out four months on my savings?

Daddy put enough money in my account to buy a used car in good condition, and he’ll add it to his insurance. I socked away most of my salary over two years and it should get me into an apartment, but will it be enough if I don’t get a teaching position?

After calling Mom and Daddy to ease their fears, I rented a car and drove to the hotel not far from the airport. In the lobby I grabbed an apartment finder and after scanning felt it was cheaper to stay in the hotel. I’ll be back home in six months. Maybe this was a mistake?

I watched a little TV while brushing out my hair. A bunch of kids started running up and down the hall. Once they left for the pool it quieted down. I knew not to try and go to sleep before they got back.

Down in the lobby the teachers were sitting in the couches by the fireplace. They didn’t mind me joining them and I enjoyed a nice chat with four brave souls from Salida taking the students on a tour of the Capitol building and other sites.

James Patterson was a nice looking man a foot taller than me and smelling of CK ONE. I love the light lemony smell. He gave me his email and Facebook address. The other teachers were women my mother’s age and extolled his praises.

A few of the female students traipsed through the lobby heading to the elevator most covered in towels. One young lady looked much older than 13 and didn’t cover up. 

James politely looked the other way as she paraded her youthful body. The girl was a little disappointed he was missing the show. It made me appreciate how much self-control it took for him not to stare when I was.

Martha Plunk one of the other teachers kidded him. “Lucy is going to make your life hell when we get home.”

He blushed, “I guess she’ll drop her pencil and bend over to pick it up six or seven times a class instead of the usual two or three.”

We all laughed.

Wanda Bergstom practically yelled, “You know she’s telling everyone you’re gay.”

“I expected it,” he said. “I look and she cries sexual harassment. I don’t look and I’m gay.”

Gail Smith added, “That’s the last thing Lucy would do, she wants your attention, just don’t ever be alone with her.”

I couldn’t help adding my two cents, “You should be more concerned about the girls in class who feel they’re being neglected because all the attention is going to her.”

“Yeah,” Wanda said, “When you get back have the girls do a pencil drop competition with all the male teachers as judges.” She projected her voice so everyone within a city block could hear.

This scared him, “It’s a good thing they’re making so much noise none of them heard you.”

“Afraid of getting into trouble again with Evelyn?” Gail teased.

I couldn’t help but ask, “Whose Evelyn and what kind of trouble?”

James turned a little red. “Evelyn is our principal.”

“Don’t stop now, tell her about superlatives.” Wanda prodded.

Looking a little sheepish. “I was covering superlatives and there was a list of words. I went down the list with each student in turn. I would say something like ‘How big or tall is the building?’ and the student would say ‘It’s the tallest building in Denver.’”

“I get the idea,” I said waiting for the punch line.

“Well without thinking,” he said. “I mean I knew not to conjugate the verbs ‘lie and lay.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“When it came Lucy’s turn the word was mountains.”

I cackled. He was still embarrassed about it, but having seen the student in question it was a really loaded question. The others laughed with me.

“Needless to say, after a ten minute lecture from Evelyn,” he added. “I’m never doing superlatives again.”

This made us laugh even more.

 Changing the subject he asked, “What are second graders like?”

“Cute and cuddly,” I said, “Until they puke all over the floor.”

Martha chimed in, “Ours are out of the cuddly stage and yours may not spew as much.”

More kids started going back to the rooms and they left to keep them from tearing the place apart. Four teachers to corral thirty kids at this age, they must be nuts.

I was reading when there was a knock on my door. Wonder who that could be? Main reason why I dabbed on Victoria Secret’s Heavenly before putting on jogging pants and a Steelers Jersey.

James was there with a smirk, “Join me for a drink?”

“I could use one.” We both drank a Coors and he told me about growing up in Wichita, Kansas. He played basketball for Colorado State in Pueblo and this was his third year in Salida.

“Why would you choose to live in a small town after growing up in a city?”

“It was the only job I could find after graduating,” he said. “I’ve put in applications all around Denver.”

“Have you tried other parts of the country?”

“Not interested, I love Colorado,” he said extolling its virtues, “Skiing in winter, fishing, hunting, hiking,” then adding, “No tornados, ice storms, dust storms and pot’s legal.”

I could tell from his look he wanted to go up my room share a joint and see what would happen and the thought was tempting. For the first time I felt the stirrings of desire, it was too soon, but after tomorrow I might never see him again. I nearly invited him in after a good night kiss that felt like being plugged into a wall socket.

* * *

Jim was herding the last of the students onto the bus as I sat down for breakfast. He waved before boarding. I gave him my anonymous Facebook page. I only allow people who I know as friends to keep Dudley from being a pest.

After some toast a cup of yogurt and hot tea I went to the pool area. In my one piece bathing suit I swam for a bit and soaked in the hot tub until the bubbles stopped, then swam and soaked again.

It felt good to relax without any cares, no parents to plan my day or lessons to prepare or papers to grade. I dozed for a bit on the recliners until my tummy started rumbling. The silence put me in a melancholy mood. Am I guilty about not feeling guilty for leaving my students? I couldn’t help but think about what I should be doing every time I looked at a clock or my watch.

Dressed in jogging shoes, jeans, t-shirt and wind breaker I drove to a Denny’s for lunch and started looking for a car. Daddy gave me ten thousand dollars and said, “This should buy you a used car not too old and maybe still under warranty so you won’t have to worry about repairs.”

I bought a brand new bright red car. A thousand down and four hundred a month. I’ll use the rest for payments until I get a job. I was tempted by a four year old Camaro; it needed new tires and the seats were worn, but even worse the previous owner smoked. When I found out how much it was to insure a new car I had second thoughts, but the new car smell told me it was worth it.

Never being in a big city before, it was scarier than driving from Minot to Rugby with four inches of ice on the road and no chains. Cars were whizzing by me in all directions. It was like my new car was a magnet for others to try and hit. I got lost a few times trying to make it back to the hotel.

In the lounge reading the novel and sipping on a mojito, the herd of elephants came rushing through. Jim, Wanda, Martha and Gail waved at me as they followed looking frazzled. It didn’t take long for the kids to start splashing in the pool and Jim joined me while the other three sat vigil in the lobby.

“Root Beer,” Jim told the bartender. This caught me by surprise. Raising an eyebrow he explained,  “Can’t have alcohol within eyesight of the kids.”

Makes sense.

“Tell me what you did today,” he said. “I need to take my mind off of teenagers for a few minutes.”

It was nice to brag a little, “I bought a car.”

Downing his drink he grabbed my hand and said, “Well, don’t just sit there, show it to me.” He looked it over approvingly. “It suits you.”

Not too sure about it, but I let him drive me to a steak house and treat me to dinner. I was comfortable being with him. I asked him about the Broncos and he waxed eloquent about Peyton Manning. “That’s why I really want a job in Denver or at least Colorado Springs. Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies and Avalanche sports heaven!”

In my car outside the hotel we shared a joint. It was ten times more potent that what I smoked in college. Dudley got me started, but Janelle and I toked with some friends a few times on weekends. I like how it makes me feel. Legalizing pot has upped the game.

He went to do the head count for curfew while I went to my room. I was wanting to hear that knock. Looking forward to it with all my heart. For a fleeting second I wondered if this was a sin since we wouldn’t be married. Did it matter now I’m not a virgin? I wanted him even for only one night.

Janelle’s words came to mind, “When the right man comes along you’ll know.”



James Patterson



I set the alarm on my watch to be in my room before getting the kids up for breakfast. The last thing on my mind for this trip was finding someone this beautiful, sexy, and felt the same about me. It was like we’ve known each other all our lives. I made a mental note to buy more condoms when I got home. The ones at the hotel were expensive.

It was three years since Lori and I broke up. She found a nursing job in Dallas close to home and I wanted to stay in Colorado. Salida doesn’t have a lot of single women my age. The trip was a way to get out of my small house over a weekend even if it meant riding herd on students.

Rhonda didn’t want to let go and it took all my will power to pull away. “Schools out in four weeks; I’d like to spend some time with you over the summer.”

Hugging me and making it difficult to go out the door I almost took her back to bed. She said breathlessly, “I’ll have an apartment by then and you could stay with me.”

It was an hour before roll call and I thought it was safe. Everyone was waiting in the hall with big grins on their faces. Lucy yelled, “Mr. Patterson is definitely not gay.”

I was sure to be called into Evelyn’s office. The thoughts of facing charges for moral turpitude flashed through my mind. It was worth it.

The old biddies shushed the kids asking a million questions after we boarded the bus. Lucy wouldn’t be quiet, “Mr. Patterson are you going to be in Salida next year?”

“As far as I know, Miss Garcia,” I said loud enough for all to hear. “I will.”

John Russo piped up, “You going to marry that lady and will she be teaching with you?”

“John,” Martha frowned at him. “That’s none of your business.”

“And besides,” I added. “She teaches second grade.”

The boys moaned.

 Closing the doors and making sure everyone was seated, I started the bus. It would be a long drive to town and my now very lonely house. Marriage was definitely on my mind, but would she want to move to Salida, not much different than Rugby or can I get a job in Colorado Springs or Denver. I wouldn’t mind Aurora. Boulder would be even better. The Holy Grail would be Estes Park.

Dumping my stuff in the living room I crashed on the bed. With stomach growling I browned some hamburger, dumped dried onions and barbecue sauce on it for sloppy joes. I was out of bell peppers and didn’t feel like going to the market. I ate chips and salsa and finished with an ice cream sandwich. I was about to put the pan in the dishwasher when the phone rang.

“Hi,” a familiar voice said making my heart skip a beat. “I just got a phone and you were the second person I called.”

“I’m hurt,” I said. “Who’s more important than me?”

“Daddy,” she laughed.

We talked for an hour and we both agreed three weeks was too long. “I’ll drive up next Friday if you want. Will you have an apartment by then?”

“Not sure,” she said. “How about the following weekend?”

A little disappointed, but still eager, “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”



Rhonda



The bus pulled out and I felt an ache in my heart. Nothing prepared me for James. He was gone and I missed him. I didn’t know my body could feel such joy and my heart so much pain. With all my heart I knew he was the one and we would spend our lives together.

There were too many intangibles right now, but marriage was on both our minds. There was a smile on my face and a spring in my step when I went to the mall. I bought a nice business suit for job interviews and some accessories then a cell phone.

Sitting in the food court munching Teriyaki shrimp and pineapple over fried rice I called Daddy. He was happy I got a phone and can keep in touch, but upset about a new car. He can afford the difference in insurance.

“You’ll need most of your money for rent,” he scolded. I didn’t tell him about James or he would be out on the next flight to drag me home. Even if getting a husband was his main reason for pushing me to leave.

Talking to James made me smile and hearing what the students said made me laugh. It felt good to hear his voice and I couldn’t wait to see him again.

“What’s Denver like?” Janelle said when I called her. I could hear her two year old crying in the background and knew we couldn’t talk long.

I laughed, “Big.”

“Yes I know,” she said and I could imagine her eyes rolling. “And Albuquerque is half the size of Denver. Give yourself time and if you don’t get run over too many times it gets easier.”

I couldn’t contain myself, “I met someone.”

“Tell me it’s not the banker’s son.” The crying stopped she must be either feeding him or changing his diaper.

“Oh no,” I said. “Some students from Salida were here on a field trip and I met a guy named James who teaches 7th grade English.”

“Well, give me the particulars,” she demanded.

 “He’s six foot six, blonde hair with gorgeous blue eyes and very handsome.”

“You sound smitten,” then she gasped, “Tell me you didn’t sleep with him.”

Giggling, “He was amazing.”

“Oh Rhonda, I’m so happy for you. God answered our prayers.”

Mention of God made me cringe just a bit, but if it was His will we get married I felt no guilt.

Janelle was curious, “Why would you leave Rugby and move to a town just as small for a guy?”

I loved being able to shove her words back at her, “Why would you travel all over the country just for a guy.”

We both said, “Depends on the guy,” then giggled. It felt good to be able to tell someone about the changes in my life.

* * *



I submitted my résumé with my cell phone number and enjoyed the evening around the pool and a couple of mojitos at the bar. A couple of guys offered to buy me a drink, but they weren’t James.

Monday morning Mr. Austin Sr. texted me:

Patricia Blackwell is the best apartment finder in the city. I’ve told her to expect your call. Good hunting.

An hour later she drove me to a one bedroom condo in a fashionable part of town in her Mercedes. When I saw her ivory colored silk business suit, diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that were worth more than a house. Maybe I should go into real estate?

 “The owner is out of the country and won’t be back for six months,” she said on the drive. “He’s willing to sublet it furnished until then for a very reasonable price.”

“And how much is your fee?” I asked.

She waved her hand in dismissal, “There is no way you could afford me. I’m doing Terrence a favor,” she held up her hands seeing me turn red. “Now don’t be upset. I was best friends with his wife and he’s still grieving her loss. He’s taken a liking to you. Accept his generosity and there’s no strings attached.”

Just the one with his son dangling from it. The price was better than most efficiency’s in the apartment flier so I wrote her a check for first and last month’s rent.

“You might want to switch banks,” she winked at me. “The owner has a moving crew to put most of his artwork and other items in storage. They won’t be here until Friday and you won’t be able to move in until Saturday, is that acceptable?”

“Yes,” I said. Another four days of maid service and lounging by the pool is fine by me.

While reading at the pool my phone rang. A female voice informed me I had an appointment with human resources at ten thirty in the morning. I thanked her for the call and smiled; life was good.

 A few more mojitos, declining offers of free drinks and I was back in bed. It felt so empty without James.

My new navy blue linin business suit with white polyester blouse, 3 inch blue pumps, and fake pearl necklace bought at Penny’s looked good on me. I spent an hour applying mascara, eyeliner, foundation, rouge and light red lipstick. The night before, I splurged with a manicure and pedicure to look as perfect as possible. A small dab of newly purchased White Diamonds and I was armed for battle.

Mr. Austin Jr. walked through the office as I waited an hour after the scheduled appointment. I recognized him because he looked a lot like his father only with dark black hair and trim beard.

The nameplate on the receptionist’s desk read Jennifer. She was either on the computer or phone and seemed busy unless she was playing Candy Crush. Which was what I was doing on my cell phone.

An elderly woman with grey hair in a bun finally came out. “Sorry about the delay,” she said. “I’ve looked over your résumé and application. We don’t have any openings at this time, but will call you when one becomes available.”

I left in shock. Maybe I took this job for granted and expected too much. I needed something even at Walmart or I wouldn’t be able to keep the condo and make payments on the car. Time to get real and put in applications at the schools.

The next three days were spent jumping through hoops with the Denver Public Schools, and six nearby towns. They all required twenty dollars for a background check with the application. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.

Getting a Colorado license would take passing a competency exam which wasn’t cheap and passing a class in Colorado history which also wasn’t cheap.

Two nights I stayed in my room and cried, afraid to sit at the bar as I might be tempted to accept a free drink.

James encouraged me to stick with it saying Denver is desperate for elementary teachers, “You can substitute the first semester and most likely get a long term contract which isn’t much less than regular salary. If a full time position opens up before school starts the principal will get a waiver until you pass the test and finish the history class.”

I felt better after we talked and ached for him to be here this weekend, but it wasn’t the right time.



James



In the teacher’s lounge everyone wished me well and wanted me to show pictures. I took three of her at the bar when she wasn’t looking and two of us together. All the women said we made a fine looking couple and the guys said I was a lucky dog.

After school I went out with my buddies for a beer and even they wanted to know when the wedding was going to be. “Hey, she’s on the hook, but I haven’t reeled her in yet.”

Jake laughed, “You’re the one that’s hooked and on your way to the altar whether you know it or not.”

We talked for an hour every night. She told me about finding an apartment and would move in over the weekend. I offered to come up and help, but she wanted to be settled in first. She sent me emails and we chatted on Facebook so she was constantly on my mind.

Evelyn called me in on my prep period. “The whole town knows you met someone on the field trip, but I need to know if you’re coming back.”

She must have been quite a looker back in the day, now it was hard to tell what she really looked like under a ton of makeup trying to hide wrinkles. Giving my stock answer, “I want to coach basketball otherwise I’m staying here.”

She raised an eyebrow, “And your girlfriend?”

“Girlfriend or no, I’m not leaving except as a coach.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the golf course with the buddies; they all knew I was called into the office.

At the first tee box Lyman joked, “If we measured the golf hole and Evelyn’s which do you think would be wider?”

Jake laughed and said, “Evelyn’s.”

“Thanks ahellofalot,” I said. “Not exactly the image I want in my head right now.”

Imitating James Mason, “Well you need something to quench your ardor, old boy,” he said, the show off. “Since your golf game has gone to crap.”



Senior



The loan committee accepted my recommendation. Not one of them would question my assessment. Junior followed me into my office. He would never disagree in front of the others.

“You sure about this loan?”

Putting my feet on the desk, “its small time, but we can’t lose.

Choosing the couch instead of chair, “A onetime deal or are you wanting SB&T to waste resources on small towns?”

I chuckled, “You never know, Junior. A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Shrugging, “I get your point.”

A few days later I called Bertha in HR. She’s worked there for over thirty years and the only unmarried woman Junior hasn’t bedded in the building. She told me about how they treated Rhonda. I told her about a certain Darius Dudley. Then I called Junior’s secretary and told her he’s expected for Sunday dinner.

I didn’t invite Rhonda down here to be treated shabbily. Junior needs to have more respect for employees and my wishes. He doesn’t have to marry her. I would never insist he do something like that, but if he wants to send a message to me it shouldn’t come at the expense of another person.

Later that night after dinner and kissing the grandkids goodnight I felt lonely. It was the first time since Glenda passed I yearned for someone to share a bed. A silly belly dance in the middle of nowhere seems to have helped me return to the living.

I’m not interested in her that way and Junior needs to be married and doing his duty to the family name. Time for a “Come to Jesus” meeting.



Rhonda



The condo was rather bare. Everything on the walls was gone except for a flat screen TV. In the living room the sofa and love seat were still there, but two recliners were missing. An entertainment center was under the TV and that was empty.

In the bedroom was an empty walk-in closet, a king size bed and chest of drawers with a mirror. The linen closet held three sets of sheets for the bed that were well worn, but no towels or wash cloths.

The medicine cabinet was empty in the bathroom with a sunken bathtub in a corner with jets. A curtain made it possible to take a shower.

The kitchen had an island and a few pots and pans. The cupboard was filled with plates, cups, glasses and saucers in stoneware with white bottom and light blue top. I looked and there was some silver ware and other cooking utensils even some dishwashing and washer soap. The top cupboards were bare so I didn’t bother with the bottom ones. The refrigerator was a stainless steel side-by-side, also empty. Guess I need to buy some groceries.

After putting my stuff away I curled up on the bed with a pillow to my stomach. I hate cramps. A short nap and it was off to the closest grocery store.

A large orange tabby cat was waiting at the door when I was opening it with one hand holding a paper sack. It darted in as soon as the door was open. Putting the groceries on the table I went back for the rest. Sheets, pillows, towels and washcloths are expensive!

In the kitchen the cat was yowling quite indignantly. On a table by the back door, she was staring at me next to an empty bowl and a water bowl with a 2 liter bottle about half full. I went over and petted her. She wasn’t too sure at first, but finally started purring. Walking away she pawed at me, “Meow.”

“You want food?”

She jumped down and pawed at a cabinet door. Inside there were cans of cat food with a note. In excellent handwriting it read: I knew Spicy would point you to her food. She does her business outdoors so you won’t need to keep a litter box. Jared.

We always kept our cats indoors. Owls, coyotes and wolves love them as snacks. Guess they don’t have predators like that around here.

I opened a can of seafood chunks and spooned it into the food bowl. She jumped up and attacked it like she was starving. I petted her some more and started putting my food away.

Watching TV, Jared was kind enough to have satellite. I started watching a murder mystery on Hallmark Movies. Spicy joined me at the other end of the sofa and sat licking her face before curling up in a ball and going to sleep.

I soaked in the tub under an aromatic bubble bath for an hour. All I thought about was James and how much I wanted him. Friday seemed like an eternity away.

Spicy woke me at six in the morning, nose to cold nose and loud purr. Groggily I got up and let him out the back door.

I turned the stove on to heat water in my new kettle and pulled out a tea cup with saucer. The doorbell rang. Going into the bedroom to grab my robe I opened the door to see Spicy with claws on the door frame.

She jumped down and slowly walked inside. “Do come in, your majesty,” I said. She jumped on the table just as the kettle started whistling. I moved it off the burner and took out another can of food, chicken this time.

Bobbing English breakfast tea in the cup until sufficiently dark, then adding lemon juice I took a sip. The perfect start to a new day, but on a Sunday it was way too early.

The sun was up and warm without being too hot. I went out for a jog through the neighborhood. It was quiet and I found a park with a running path only two blocks away. After a quick shower I dressed and went to a Methodist church. The choir was good, and the preacher was middle-aged medium height with brown hair slicked back and a dimple in his chin. After services we shook hands and he greeted me pleasantly.

“It’s nice to have you here,” he said. “Have you recently moved here?”

“Yes,” I answered then adding, “Last week.”

“Where are you from?”

“North Dakota.”

“Really,” he smiled. “I was born and raised in Bismarck. What part?”

“Rugby,” I said. The last thing I expected was to meet a preacher from my home state.

“I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard it’s a nice town.”

I left disappointed; no one my age. From what I’ve researched this is the largest Methodist church in the city. Daddy wants me to find a husband and church would be a logical place to find someone, but even in a big city like this there’s not many single men my age.

Not feeling like cooking I went to an Olive Garden. Big cities do have a lot of nice places to eat. Spicy met me at the door rubbing against my legs. I talked to Mom and Daddy then James which made me very lonely. Janelle was busy with hubby and couldn’t talk.

I finished the novel and watched TV while working a soduku book. I’ve never been totally alone like this before and as it got dark memories of all the suspense and horror movies crept into my head causing my heart to race. Spicy jumped up on the bed and rubbed against me purring. All the bad thoughts vanished.

“Your clock is too early,” I fussed while getting up to let Spicy out. Setting the kettle to boil I went to the front door just as she was about to jump. “Meow,” she said walking in.

I noticed a couple of men in suits getting into their cars heading off to work across the street. An hour later five teenagers were standing waiting for their school bus, followed an hour later by six middle school kids and then ten elementary. Lots of kids in the neighborhood; not all from the condos.

Jogging around the park listening to Linda Ronstadt the phone rang. I pressed the answer button on the ear phones it was Mr. Austin Jr.

“Hello Miss Duncan, hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”

I stopped, and between pants said, “Just out for a jog. Mind if I catch my breath?” My heart was beating fast not just from the exercise.

“Not at all,” he said.

Pulling the speaker away until my breathing was normal. “Not used to this altitude,” I apologized.

“You’ll get used to it in no time,” he assured me. “I was calling to see if you can come in for another interview at two this afternoon.”

Trying to stay calm, “Yes I can.”

“Good,” he said. “See you then.”

After a nice soak in the tub, I put on the pencil skirt from my suit and a light blue sheer blouse over a white camisole. Brushing my hair, dabbing perfume and applying makeup I was once again business fashionable.

“Nice to meet you, Miss Duncan,” he said as I sat across from his imposing dark wooden desk. He smelled nice, but I couldn’t place the scent. I guess it would be out of a mall’s price range. “My father speaks of you quite highly.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I replied. “He’s a kind man.”

“Yes he is.”

I knew there was a “but” coming.

“However U.S. Savings Bank and Trust doesn’t hire temporary workers. I take it you plan on teaching when a position comes open?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Unfortunately bank hours and school hours are the same. If I offered you a job as a teller I’ll have to find a replacement just when you’re proficient.”

This for some reason made me very angry. They brushed me off last week, why make me come back just to do it again. I felt my face flush and was about to leave.

“We do have,” he added, “an opening in our loan officer training program.

I waited dreading his next words.

“Normally,” he continued, “we look for those with college degrees in business management or accounting, but all that is really required is a bachelor’s degree.”

He didn’t have to say it. If I accepted the position my teaching career was over. “When do you need an answer?”

He smiled and the resemblance to his father was even more pronounced. He was a very good looking man. “Report in the morning at 8 O’clock.”

“Thank you,” I said rising out of my seat.

We shook hands and I left. This was a horrible decision. I loved teaching. It was rewarding and fulfilling. I sat in the parking lot with the windows down and cried. I would talk to Mom and Daddy then James. They would encourage me to take the job. It would be more money and a respectable career. I would take it for the same reasons, but it wouldn’t be the same without the smiling faces of students.



Terrence Austin Jr.



Looking down through my office window I watched her sit and cry. When father told me to hire her I refused; “We have enough turn over with tellers as it is.”

Bertha, the old biddy, most likely told him about letting Rhonda stew for an hour and being turned away. He ordered me to Sunday dinner. Since mother died there’s not been much reason to go. Father and I talk enough at work and that leaves Sherry and her husband with three boys for dinner companions.

Harold is a mechanic at an auto dealership barely making a living and father lets them live with him. My sister seems happy and I doubt father would let him abuse or cheat on her. There was the usual pot roast with potatoes, carrots, onions and water chestnuts to give it some crunch. Harold always covers his meat with steak sauce smelling up the room. The three brats only played with their food, but Sherry gave them a look holding them in check when they were about to start throwing some of it. She ate quietly as Dad, Harold and I discussed the Broncos’ prospects for the coming year and lamented how the Rockies’ season was going so far. About the only thing we have in common.

In Dad’s study over a snifter of brandy he said, “I want you to hire Miss Duncan. If she leaves for a teaching position we won’t have lost much, but she would make a fine teller or loan officer.”

Having seen her briefly a few days earlier she was definitely eye candy and that made customers happy while waiting in line or at the window. “Thinking of making her your mistress?” Something had to explain his interest in the woman.

“No,” he said with a pained expression. He still misses Mom and was always faithful to her. “You’re thirty-five and it’s time to start a family. She would make an excellent wife.”

This came out of the blue, he never pressured me before about getting married. “With three grandchildren, what does it matter if I have any or not?”

“I love the grandkids, but they’re not Austins. The family name needs to go on.”

His thinking was a little antiquated, but at least I know why he’s so interested in her. She looks a lot like Mom in her younger pictures. He’s given me ten years to get over a broken relationship and now it’s time to move on.

Mom was fighting cancer so instead of going to Harvard or Stanford I chose University of Denver. Senior year I met a beautiful woman with a pleasant personality, fantastic body and wonderful lover. I was going to take Marilyn home for Thanksgiving and planned on asking her to marry me after graduation.

When I went to pick her up I was met by an effeminate man and two Martha Stewart clones. The man said, “Marilyn can’t leave this weekend, we have to get her ready for the Miss Denver pageant in three weeks. If she goes home with you it will take most of that time to get the extra weight off.”

I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. “She’s never mentioned any pageants when we made plans.”

The man rolled his eyes. “When she wins this one she’s in the Miss Colorado pageant,” he said as if I was an idiot. “And we have sunk a lot of money into getting her ready.”

Martha number one said, “Now is not the time for her to get distracted.”

Marilyn came out with puffy eyes and a red nose. “I’m sorry Terry, but they’re right. I need to concentrate on the competition.”

Brushing past the beauty police I took her in my arms, “Are you sure this is what you want?”

Nodding her head, “This is my life’s dream and my last chance.”

Understandable. “Where’s the competition? I want to support you in this.”

Martha number two huffed, “She can’t get distracted with a boyfriend. This has to end.”

“I’m sorry,” Marilyn said. “I’ve put too much time and energy into this to throw it all away now.”

The words were like an ice pick in my ears. How could someone who said they loved me and I loved in return flip a switch and end it so suddenly? Maybe finding this out now was better than after we’re married.  I swore never to hurt like this again.

I’ve always found beauty pageants boring and stupid, but I went to Miss Denver. A lot of parading around in different costumes with plastered on smiles. Marilyn stood out a little because she was brunette when most were blondes. I knew she looked fabulous in a swimsuit, but they were forced to stand, then do a quarter step until completely back to front. She is very thin with a small chest and when she was sideways from the audience almost disappeared.

There were a couple of frat brothers behind me making snide comments from time to time. Usually about who would be best in bed, so far they hadn’t said anything about Marilyn.

When she was sideways one of them said, “If she stuck her tongue out you’d think she was a zipper.”

I turned around and glared at both of them making sure I would recognize them at a later date.

“What are you looking at?” The fatter of the two said.

I turned back around knowing who I would never let be hired by SB&T.

During the talent part Marilyn had a pleasant singing voice while playing a piano. Didn’t know she could do either one. I realized that after three months and great weekend shacked ups I knew almost nothing about her: where she was from, her major or minor, what she wanted to be after graduation. I didn’t think that was necessary since she was going to be my wife, and the mother of my children.

When it came time to name the winner I picked her to be in the top three. There were two other girls that filled out a bathing suit better and good singers. Marilyn won.

At the Miss Colorado pageant she came in second runner up. All her life striving to make it to the Miss America pageant and fell short. For this she gave up our happiness?

A week later she called and wanted to get back together. I was sleeping with the Amber who was first runner up for Miss Denver. I could hear her crying when I told her I was seeing someone else and made sure a week later she saw us together hugging and kissing.

Amber filled out a swim suit and then some, but there was little between the ears. For out dates I told her to expect me an hour and a half earlier than needed so she would be ready. I won’t tolerate a woman making me wait.

I thought about taking her home to meet Mom and Dad, but Mom was deteriorating and she really wasn’t the one for me. When Mom died I was distraught and tried to confide in Amber about my loss.

She showed little sympathy when asked if we could just sit close and talk instead of going out for dinner and dancing, she said, “I don’t want to think about bad things.”

“I don’t feel like going out,” I told her.

She huffed and pouted, “You’re no fun anymore. I bought a dress yesterday to show off at the club.”

Anger took over and I snapped, “Wave at the first man who drives by and let him take you dancing.” Never saw her again and decided I would never be hurt or let down by a woman again.

Working on my MBA, A number of women caught my eye. I slept with most and dropped them as soon as they hinted at leaving something in the bathroom or wanting a drawer for a change of clothes.

Working at SB&T there were willing young girls thinking they could sleep their way into the Austin mansion. They were pleasurable distractions. I didn’t pursue any of them, they came on to me and I availed myself to what was offered.

Two of them claimed they were pregnant, but since I’m careful about using condoms the paternity tests were always negative. Father fussed at me after a sexual harassment claim. She was paid off though she came on to me. I stopped dating anyone from work. My reputation as an office Casanova was just gossip.

Looking at Dad. He may be right, but I’ll be damned if he’s going to hand pick my wife. “I’ll give her the usual battery of tests and if she shows proficiency offer her a position as loan officer. If I hired her as a teller she’d be gone in two months. She’ll have to decide teaching or banking, she can’t have both.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “But from what her father told me she might be a candidate for the fast track program.”

Shaking my head, “What father doesn’t think his child is the best and brightest?”

Now looking down on the crying woman I felt like Satan offering Eve the apple. It’s a sad day when giving a person a job makes you feel remorse.



Rhonda



Spicy met me at the door and knew instantly something was wrong. Rubbing against my leg begging to be picked up; she was purring louder than usual. Stroking under her neck and seeing the pleasure it gave her I felt better. Kissing her on the top of her head, “What would I do without you?” Getting and into cutoffs and t-shirt made me feel human.

I called Daddy. “I’ve been offered entry into the bank’s loan officer training.”

“Great news,” he said.

“But it means I can’t teach.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ronnie, when do you have to decide?”

Whispering afraid to say it too loudly, “In the morning.”

 Daddy pointed out, “If teaching is all you really wanted you’d still be here.”

A little exasperated, “You were the one who encouraged me to leave to find a husband and I pretty much thought I could teach anywhere.”

“Yes you can,” then he hit the nail on the head as usual, “But can you live on the salary there or even here?”

“Not on my own,” I admitted. “I was only able to build up a decent savings the last few years because I was living at home. Denver’s entry-level salary is not much better than Rugby’s and you can’t believe what the rent is like.”

Laying down his next card, “And if you became a loan officer?”

This is the hard part to admit, “I would make more money, but it’s not as emotionally rewarding.”

“You can’t eat emotions, Ronnie.” Daddy’s words sounded harsh, but unfortunately true.

I couldn’t help but cry again and it spilled over into my voice, “I know, Daddy, but this is tearing my heart out.”

Mom was on the other line and spoke up, “Of course it does, dear, but you may find this job just as rewarding after all you’ll be helping people financially.”

“It’s not the same,” was all I could say. “There’s more to life than making money.”

“Yes there is,” she said, “Like finding a husband and starting a family which is the reason you left. Family is the most important part of your life, darling and this can make it possible.”

It hurt to say it, “I know, Momma.”

After hanging up with them I called James.

Blurting out, “I was offered a job at a bank here in town.”

“Fantastic,” he said. “So why the cry in your voice?”

“I have to give them an answer in the morning and I won’t be able to teach.”

He was quiet for a few seconds, “You’ve decided and it hurts, doesn’t it.”

“Yes,” I choked out.

“You have time, Rhonda. Go ahead and start the program. If you don’t like it by that time school will be ready to start and you already have your applications in.”

I hadn’t thought of this, still… “But I won’t be able to take the Colorado history class before then.”

“Cross that bridge when you come to it,” he said.

Easy for him to say. “I guess you’re right.”

“Damn right!” he said making me laugh, which felt good after all the tears. “I’ll be there in a couple of days and we can talk about it after recovering from romance sessions.”

Teasing him a bit, “Is that what you call it.”

I told Janelle and she was happy for me, “Don’t pass it up.”

First Daddy, then James and now her, “But what about the kids?”

She said, “Screw the kids, you went there to make a better life and you’re doing it.”

“Wow, why don’t you slap me while you’re at it.” Rather blunt, but maybe the cold shower I needed to end the pity party.

“The cord doesn’t reach that far,” she said and we both giggled. “You’re the smartest person I know, so start thinking with your head instead of your heart. This is what’s best. Go for it.”

With Spicy curled up by my side I couldn’t sleep. Rubbing her neck she purred for a while then pulled away. “Desert me in my time of need,” I accused. She closed her eyes and went to sleep. Wish it was that easy.

The faces of all my students flashed before me in a never-ending slide show. Sitting in an office crunching numbers wouldn’t be the same. I helped Daddy with his accounting firm enough while growing up to know that.

What Janelle said made me re-evaluate. All my life church prepared me to be a wife and mother. Mom was the perfect example. She cooked and cleaned and waited on Daddy and me from getting up in the morning until bedtime. She was totally dependent on Daddy. Everything was in his name, she never learned to drive so she was stuck in the house without either him or me taking her to church or shopping.

I swore I’d never be like that; even telling Daddy when I was fifteen I’d help in the office, but only if he taught me to drive. I expected him to refuse and tell me to be more like my mother, but he hugged me and said, “Good. I want you to be independent.”

He expected me to go to college. I thought it was to find a husband. Mom was disappointed when I graduated without a ring on my finger. There were more offers of marriage than I could count, but they all wanted someone like Mom and I’m not going to be content basking in the glow of my husband’s glory. I knew her tears at Janelle’s wedding were for me.

Daddy was proud when I started teaching. He didn’t start encouraging me to leave Rugby until the prospectus was done. He kept telling me there wasn’t anyone who would be a suitable husband and it was time to start a family. Even he was pushing me into marriage and motherhood.

Thinking about it, I really didn’t want to be a mother. I knew what society and the church expected from me. Mom and Daddy want grandchildren and they think because that made them happy it will for me too. But I was enjoying my independence.

Then there’s James. Would he make me happy?” I never knew sex could be so good, but that doesn’t mean I want to get pregnant and saddled down with a child. I fell in love with him at first sight and look forward to seeing him again in a few days. My body craves him, but I still don’t want to be tied down to a house, husband and children like Mom.

Is teaching my way of enjoying children without becoming a mother and raising them? Would taking the job at the bank make me more independent?

The alarm sounded. Do I get up and get ready or go back to sleep? Not having much sleep staying in bed sounded pretty darn good.

Getting through the program wouldn’t be a problem. The plus side would be I could afford to stay here until the owner came back and then could find a place of my own.

James could get a job here and we could move in together making things even easier and maybe after a year or two of working in the bank I could go back to teaching. He was right: this wasn’t necessarily permanent.

In business armor and war paint I left to betray my heart. Jennifer directed me to a room with a polished walnut table and chairs with paintings on all four walls of mountain scenes. After what Mr. Austin Sr. said at the airport I wondered if she was one of the son’s harem.

There was a stack of papers and a pen. I filled in the blanks on the information form then took a personality test. After that was a math test getting progressively harder from algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. In school I went up to Algebra II so the trig and calculus I could only guess at the answers. The last test was over micro and macroeconomics finishing with statistics.

I handed the papers to the receptionist and was given an hour for lunch. I really wanted a couch to take a nap.

Jennifer mentioned a restaurant two floors down with reasonable prices. Twenty dollars for a Cobb salad and six dollars for iced tea; is what they consider reasonable?

Back in the room staring at a painting of a wooden cabin next to a stream with towering snow covered mountains it made the room less sterile and had a calming effect.  Mr. Austin Jr. came in after a few minutes.

“I’m pleased you decided to join our team,” he said while shaking my hand.

I didn’t know what to say so I nodded.

Taking a couple of papers from a folder, “Just went over your scores.” Looking at my résumé, “You have a major in English, minors in history and early childhood education yet your math and economic scores were very high.”

I nodded again. He didn’t ask a question.

“Did you take any advanced courses not on your college transcript?”

“No,” I said then added. “My father is an accountant and the mayor of my home town. I’ve helped him during tax time and with the annual budget since I was fifteen.” Adding, “It was his way of keeping me out of mischief.”

Looking at me for the first time since shaking my hand. “He taught you well. Most MBA’s don’t score this high in the econ/stat test.”

Taking out a booklet, “This explains our Executive FastTrack Training Program. It begins on Monday in Atlanta and lasts six weeks.”

ATLANTA! Why would I want to go to Atlanta?

Taking out another folder, “This has your plane tickets, hotel reservation and meal vouchers. You will be given an expense account card upon arrival with an allowance of fifty dollars a day. Any transportation outside the hotel will be at your own expense. Any questions?”

Where’s the nearest exit? Deciding to be a trooper, “What will the classes be like?”

 He stayed very matter of fact, “The classes are from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. You will need the evenings to rest and get ready for the next day. This is an extensive, exhausting and competitive program. Only one in four graduate.”

“What happens if I don’t measure up?”

He smiled, “I believe you will do just fine,” nodding his head, “but if for some reason you, to use your words, ‘you don’t measure up’ there will be a position here in Denver as a loan officer.”

“What if I’m fine with being a loan officer and we skip this executive thing?”

He scowled, “SB&T tries to place all applicants in a position that best serves the needs of the corporation. From your scores you would best serve in an executive capacity, but of course you still have the option to wait for the school year to start and hopefully find a job with DPS.”

My heart skipped a beat. This was take it or leave it.

Smiling for the first time, and he did have a nice smile. “You will be competing with men and women with a minimum of ten years’ experience and more advanced degrees. SB&T is spending a considerable amount of money for this training and we wouldn’t do that if we thought you were not up to the task.”

A red flag went up, “Did your father have something to do with this?”

He chuckled, “Yes and no.”

Folding my arms I waited for an explanation.

“I confess you were sent away last week for the reasons I told you yesterday. My father told me to reconsider and that’s why I gave you the option of working for us or teaching. I planned on sending you to our three-day training for new loan officers and placing you in an office here or possibly Aurora.”

Basically what I expected.

He continued, “But when I saw your test scores and shared them with Father we both agreed you would be excellent top executive material and that is why you are being offered this chance. Most of the loan officers in the country would die for this opportunity.”

Still not satisfied, “I’m not being given preferential treatment.”

He was back to his business face, “Of course you are. This program is designed to fast track women and minorities into top management to stay in compliance with the EEOC.”

This was sobering. “All I ever wanted to be was a teacher.”

“Miss Duncan,” he said bluntly. “Your talents are wasted on second graders.” Waiting for that to sink in, “Any more questions?”

I had plenty, but none that he could help me with. “No.”

He extended his hand again, “Welcome to the United States Savings Bank and Trust family.”

* * *

“What do I do with you while I’m gone?” Spicy was waiting at the door.

Still rubbing my leg, “Meow.” She knew I was going to desert her and was going to make me feel guilty.

 An older lady lived next door and we said hello a few times, “Maybe she could keep track of you.”

Spicy went to the couch and curled up starting to purr. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Pressing the bell, the door opened, and the grey-haired lady smiled at me. “Nice of you to drop by,” she said letting me in the house.

The living room was blinding. It was all white: carpet, couch, chair, curtains, bare walls, balustrade to the stairs leading downstairs. “Would you like some tea?”

“That would be nice,” I said, closing my eyes and seeing spots.

The lady returned with a glass of iced tea, dreadfully sweet. “I’m Erma Duper,” she said.

“Glad to finally meet you, Ms. Duper, I’m Rhonda Duncan.”

“Yes I know,” the lady said. “Pat Blackwell told me all about you before I gave approval for subletting Jared’s condo.”

A little shocked, but I didn’t know what the rules were for a place like this. Deciding to get to the point. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”

“Really,” she looked surprised.

“I’m going to be away for some time and don’t know what to do with Spicy.”

Shaking her head, “Heading back to North Dakota this soon?”

“No,” I said a little defensively. “I’m leaving for training that lasts six weeks.”

Her eyes perked up, “Terrence got you into the fast track program, well good for you.”

This was actually upsetting, “How would you know about this?” A total stranger shouldn’t know this much about me or what I’m doing.

“I’m on the bank’s board, dear,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ve been fussing at him for some time to get one of our female loan officers placed in the program.”

That explained some things. “About Spicy…”

“No problem, dear,” she said. “We’re old friends and she stays with me more than she does Jared. Maybe this time I’ll keep her for good.”

Worried now, “Oh no,” I said. “I’ve grown quite fond of her and would like to have her back.”

She patted my hand, “Good to know. Cats are a good judge of character and she took to you right away. The last person Jared let stay there Spicy didn’t like at all.” She noticed I finished off the tea. “Want some more?”

“No thank you anyway,” I said. “Only Spicy needs to stay with you starting tomorrow. I’m going to be leaving my car with a friend and I fly out on Sunday.”

This surprised her, “A friend from college?” she asked.

“Yes,” I lied. She didn’t need to know everything about me.

“No problem, dear. Leave her outside when you go and she’ll be ringing my door wanting in.”



James

Two weeks were an eternity. All I could think about was Rhonda.

“Don’t come up until Saturday morning,” she said last night. “I have a surprise for you.”

After hearing something like that how could I possibly get a good night sleep?

The last bell rang, I graded some papers waiting for the busses to leave before heading out. One more lonely night and tomorrow I’m on my way to Denver and nobody better get in my way. Is it possible to drive a hundred and eighty miles up and down mountains in an hour?

After a few beers with my buds at The Lounge where they kept kidding me about my coming trip I headed home to an empty bed. Rhonda’s car was parked in the driveway. That’s why she didn’t want me driving up last night.

Entering my small clapboard house I could smell something cooking and scratchy music started playing. From the kitchen doorway a leg stuck out covered in a gold sheer fabric with a curled up slipper moving out of view and back. Next a hand came out undulating like a cobra about to strike. Slowly shoulders and hips emerged moving up and down. I sat in my recliner and enjoyed the show as she finally emerged face covered in a veil. What great muscle dexterity!

As the dance speeded up she started losing first slippers, then harem pants, then her top leaving only the veil. I could come home to this every night.

* * *

Trying to catch my breath, “My wildest dream came true.”

She lifted up resting her head on my shoulder. “What a tame imagination you have.”

I snorted, “Baby that wasn’t tame.” Her stomach growled. “Did I work up an appetite?”

Kissing me on the mouth and playing long enough to be ready for the second inning she pulled away. “I was waiting for two hours after school let out, what do you think?”

“Believe me if I knew you were waiting I’d have been here before the first bus left the lot.”

“Then it wouldn’t have been a surprise,” she winked.

Dinner was in the oven and smelled delicious. Getting a beer for both of us out of the fridge it was full of food. “Do you think I need to eat better?”

She was wearing an apron, not one of mine since I don’t have any. “No,” she said. “I have to leave Sunday and will be gone for six weeks. I didn’t want my food to go to waste so I brought it here.”

A thought came to mind, “Well, as a return favor I’ll serve you breakfast in bed.”

Kissing me on the cheek, “Sounds great.”

I set the table and she pulled out a potato casserole with garlic, onions and hunks of ham, letting it cool down while boiling corn on the cob and green beans.

She told me about the tests and training in Atlanta. This was a real downer as I was looking forward to a whole summer of love.

She went on about having the lady next door keep Spicy, and would I mind leaving her car here and driving her to Denver to catch the flight.

Naturally I agreed to everything. I couldn’t help but move behind her and play a little, making her jump when I moved the cold bottle under her apron.

She swatted at me with a smile, “Don’t start something you don’t want me to finish,” pouring her bottle on me cooling things down just a bit.

We ate until stuffed. “I haven’t had a meal that good in years,” I said and it was true. No matter how good the restaurant nothing’s better than home cooking. This was the life.

Lori and I lived together for two years, but we were never this comfortable. It’s like Rhonda and I have known each other all our lives. This was as close to heaven as it gets on God’s green earth.

Spreading out two sleeping bags on the living room carpet she gave me a wicked smile, “Now how are you going to serve me breakfast in bed if we sleep on the floor?”

She knew about the twin bed in the other room and was teasing. “You’ll just have to wait until morning to find out.”

Getting in and zipping up it felt good to feel her next to me. Nose to nose and mouth to mouth we kissed until overtaken by oblivion. The next thing I know an ice cube jumps in the bag cuddling up to me.

“It gets cold here in the morning,” she shivered.

“Sure does,” I said rubbing her back and snuggling.

She went back to sleep. I turned on the oven and spread bacon over a rack sliding it in after the pre-heat buzzer sounded. Warming up my cast iron griddle I mixed up the flap jack mix and cracked six eggs. In a jiffy bacon, well-buttered flap jacks and scrambled eggs were ready. I took out a square four foot piece of plywood off the back porch and placed it on the floor beside Snoring Rhonda. I must have tuckered her out.

Filling two plates with food, orange juice (hers not mine), and maple syrup (mine - I like the real stuff). Gently I woke her.

Sitting cross-legged we broke our fast sharing a few long passionate kisses between bites. I would have left the dishes stacked up until later, but she insisted they get done right away. Then we showered until all the hot water turned ice cold.

She put on a T-shirt and Capri pants. I donned basketball shorts and tank top. We sat on the couch with her head on my shoulder; we can’t get enough of each other and that makes me love her with all my heart.

It was hard not to compare, but Lori couldn’t stand to be close afterwards. She also didn’t like me touching her at other times. I prefer the cuddly type.

Around noon we were napping, kind of recharging our batteries, when the door opened and Lyman said, “Saw your truck still here and wondered what happened.”

The car should have tipped them off I wasn’t alone. Jake pushed by him and said, “Well at least introduce us?”

Melvin came in once Lyman got out of the way. “Guys, this is Rhonda,” I said. “And Rhonda,” I pointed from one to the other, “this is Jake, Melvin and Lyman.

“Melvin said, “Your picture doesn’t do you justice.”

Covering her chest with her arms she said, “Nice to meet you. James has told me all about you.”

I gave the guys a look and used my head to point towards the door hoping they’d get the hint we wanted to be alone. They didn’t take it.

Melvin said, “We usually eat lunch at Momma D’s with our wives on Saturdays why don’t you join us?”

I was about to decline their invitation when she said, “I’d love to, let me brush my hair and we’ll meet you there.”

They smiled at us and I gave them a look that should have turned them to stone which they laughed off.

“We don’t have to go,” I said hoping she’d agree.

“I’d love to meet your friends while I’m here.” Hugging me and whispering in my ear, “We still have the evening and a long night.”

Joining the guys and their wives, we ordered and the women played 20 questions, not letting the men say much.

Word got out my girlfriend was in town and a number of the teachers and students with their parents decided to dine in. We could barely take a bite without someone coming up congratulating me and wanting to be introduced.

Rhonda ate it up like candy. She was gracious and friendly talking to the women like they’ve known each other for years. Most of the men just gawked until their wives moved them away.

Evelyn came by and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I swear sparks flew from both their eyes and tangled like the showdown with Harry Potter and Voldemort in The Goblet of Fire. “Nice to meet you,” they both said and Voldemort left.

“I’m ready to go back,” Rhonda said after that. My buddies and their wives didn’t argue.

In the car she said, “I was thinking about putting an application in here, but after meeting her I won’t.”

“Good,” I said, “Because this is only temporary.”

She touched my knee and started moving her hand up and down again. I was tempted to break the sound barrier getting home, but being in traction isn’t as much fun as being in one piece and enjoying the rest of our time together.

Five o’clock Sunday morning came way too soon. With a heavy heart we drove towards Colorado Springs and up to Denver. I love my 4X4 heavy duty pickup with a bench seat letting her sit next to me so I could put my arm around her as we drove and stroke her long red hair. Letting her leave was tough. I already proposed and promised her the sun, moon and stars. Even willing to move to Rugby so she could be with her family.

Putting her fingers to my lips, “Wait until I get back.”



Darius



Pulled U-Haul trailer and finally get to Denver. Found a place to stay. All my bread was in an envelope. Won’t last long. If Rhonda gets a job at SB&T, I’ll get one too. Most likely pay better than Bremer.

Motel advertise weekly and monthly rates. In lobby curry smell nearly gag, old crone come out barely speak English. Pay for the month.

Dust on everything. About get to sleep when music start blaring. Bangers wearin’ bandanas in t-shirts and pants hanging off butts. Sluts showin’ big boobs, lotsa tattoos. Glad I took trailer back or gone in the morning. Not much to do about car.

.38 under pillow stuffed ears with cotton. Muffled sound, but walls vibrating. 3:35 woke it quiet. Old car still there. Something on window. Went out, note: Hombre, tonight bring a keg of beer. Es un buen idea. Took Spanish in college.

Main branch SB&T I was trying to find a parking space when I saw Rhonda walking out. Calculate odds. She looked upset. Circling the lot she was in a red car crying. I wanted to go over and comfort. Now’s my chance. Maybe she take me back. She drove off. Followed her home.

Nice part of town and driving new car. Old man her sugar daddy.  I don’t like that.

Filled out application and told to wait for a call. Drove by Rhonda’s condo. Car not there. What she crying ‘bout? Old man bang her and drop her? I’ll kill both.

Beer ain’t cheap, but better than being ripped off or murdered in sleep. Pop trunk start party. Livin’ with Hispanics in barracks get by if they talk slow.

Hector, Jose, Armando and Jorje ex-marines. Orlando, Geraldo and Manuel ex-army. Victor, Roberto and Arturo in prison for burglary, no military, but family. No sluts tonight. Guess they’re working.

Air Force parking sticker and decal on back window main reason car’s intact. “We thought about it, esse,” Hector, leader said after finishing off a beer and goin’ back for more, “but you were military even if in the pussy branch.”

Beer gone by midnight and they brought out tequila. Test to see if Air Force can match Marines and Army drink for drink. Done this before.

Hector and I were staggering by sunrise. Put his arm round me, “You’re alright, hombre; even if you’re a gringo and were a cop.”

Phone rang, a woman’s irritating voice told me about an interview in four hours. Take piss and shower. The puta was snoring. Payment for a keg on Friday, four bottles of rum Saturday and twenty sirloin steaks last night. She’s a good looker and made me feel like a king. First woman in years. I saw Rhonda the whole time. I need her bad.

Hector run whores. Maybe deals in coke and heroin. Other guys are muscle. He offered a job, but was cool when I turned him down. Told him I’m a banker. Could see wheels turning and why he gave me his sexiest whore.

Raquel stretched showing a fine body except tattoos on arms and gold dollar bill sign above crotch. She made a face. “Think you the guy in Pulp Fiction?”

In mirror saw how good look in black suit, white shirt and black tie. Nice be compared John Travolta. “Job interview.”

Waiting in HR heard secretaries gossiping. A pretty blonde said, “That new girl we tested last week left today for Atlanta.”

“Senior fast tracked her?” Fat brunette seem surprised.

A fine looking black gal huffed, “She must really be something in bed.”

The gave each other a look without saying nothin, blonde added, “That the one from the middle of nowhere he made Junior hire?”

They’re talking ‘bout Rhonda. Damn, I move here and she’s in Atlanta.

Brunette nodded, “She’ll be mentored by Junior when she washes out. She needs our prayers.”

That felt better; she’s coming back.

“Hell, why doesn’t Senior make her his mistress and be done with it?” Black gal said.

Brunette laughed, “He don’t want her. She’s for Junior.”

Blonde started to leave, “She can have him. He’s lousy in the sack.”

Other two say, “Ain’t that the truth.”

How pathetic if daddy needs to fix him up?

Took bullshit tests and old biddy interview me seem impressed. Training class start Monday. Month before paycheck. Envelope getting thin after booze and steaks.

* * *

Pulled over five blocks from bank. Cop read me my rights without explanation. Fucked on background check if booked.

Slept in room without windows or mirror for an hour. Best way pass time. Experience both sides.  Hispanic guy come in with folder.

“I’m detective Martinez.”

Pissed off, but know keep cool. Find out what they have on you. Haveta speak business style. “Why am I here?”

Ignoring question he read, “Darius Dudley. Six years security in the Air Force, BA degree Minot State in business administration. Two years working at Bremer Bank in Rugby, North Dakota.” He dropped the file. “What brings you to Denver?”

“Looking for a better job.” The truth.

Door opened and whore from last night come in. Think for second, Rosa. Hector’s girl. “How was Raquel last night? Dynamite isn’t she?”

“Had better,” I said.

She smile, “Like Rhonda Duncan?”

How does she know ‘bout her? “Rhonda who?”

Martinez said, “Like all stalkers you’ve got shit for brains.”

Defensive, “I’m not stalking anyone.”

Rosa countered, “And you’ve never heard of Rhonda Duncan when she was your lab partner at Minot State, valedictorian of your graduating class and the mayor’s daughter in Rugby, North Dakota where you worked at Bremer Bank.”

Knew better than to talk. Worse getting caught in a lie. “I know her, so what?”

Martinez said, “So her Daddy knew you quit your job and would move here to harass her.”

Decided to keep mouth shut. Shoulda done it earlier.

He pulled out a picture of me driving by Rhonda’s. Slapping a paper down on the table. “He also took out a restraining order. We know you applied for a job at SB&T, but the head of their HR has been informed of your problem and if hired you’ll be working very far away from the main office.”

Fuck, how am I gonna get her to love me now!

He went on, “This is your one and only warning to stay away from her or you’ll regret it.”

Enough of this shit, “If you don’t have anything to charge me with, I’m out of here.”

Started to stand up, “Sit down,” Rosa ordered.

Before I could say anything Martinez said, “You’ve been consorting with known criminals and any bank would be very interested in knowing about this concerning any and all prospective employees.”

I yelled. “Okay, I’ll leave town.”

The puta laughed, “Not what we want.”

No I’m really fucked, “You want me to snitch?”

“That military training does work after all,” Martinez said.

Attitude bug me. “Hector knows I was a cop in the Air Force.”

Rosa said, “He also knows you’re getting a job in a bank and needs someone to launder money.

Looked at the bitch, “You’re trying to get me killed.”

Martinez laughed, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer stalker.”

Had enough, “Fuck you!”

Rosa shot back, “Raquel told me that little pecker of yours wasn’t worth the effort.”

Door opened and captain walk in. “Rosa that’s rude.”

Got back up, “Bye, assholes.”

“Darius Dudley,” captain barked. “You’re going undercover whether you like it or not so sit down.”

“Fuck you too,” Started to walk, Martinez shoved me onto the seat.

Captain hovered. “Son, you can do this the easy way or the hard way, your choice.”

I glared at him.

“You can get the job with SB&T at full salary and benefits and become a temporary employee of the Denver Police Department at half salary.”

Got my attention with extra salary, but no good if you’re dead.

 “Or,” he went on, “I’ll contact a friend of mine in the Air Force and they will reinstate you to active duty at which time you’ll be temporarily assigned to the DPD for undercover work. As I said, you will do this like it or not. Which is it, the easy or the hard?”

“Motherfucker!”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Giving me a hard look. “Ever call me that again and I’ll make sure you’re walking a fence twelve hours a day in Alaska.”

Martinez glared at me. “If you do anything to expose Rosa you’re plant food.”

Rosa molded her shapely body next me arm in mine. “Sorry about what I said earlier. Actually Raquel called you ‘Cojones Grande.’”

The captain laughed, “Well, Great Balls of Fire let’s get the paper work filled out.”



Senior



“Your son may be too late,” Erma said. “I think Rhonda has a boyfriend.”

This was worrisome. I pushed Terry into hiring her with the idea of them getting together. She told me there wasn’t a boyfriend. It’s only been two weeks! “Have you seen someone with her?”

“No,” Erma said. “But she’s leaving her car with a friend. When I asked if it was a friend from college she said yes, but she’s not a good liar.”

Maybe it’s for the best. As a teacher, teller or loan officer she would be a good wife, but how was I to know her test scores would be that high. Putting her in the program we earn brownie points with EEOC. If she passes the program after a few years of mentoring she’ll be sent to another city.

“Thanks for letting me know,” I said and after a few words hung up.

Dialing another number. “Harry would you come to my office for a few minutes?”

Head of security came in, “Anything on the Dudley guy?”

“Yes,” he said. “Got a picture of him driving by Rhonda’s condo. How he found her this fast is beyond me.”

I was a little upset. “What else?”

“He moved into a seedy motel that fortunately for us is a party hangout for a local gang. DPD has an undercover cop in with them.”

“How is that fortunate for us?”

He went on without answering. “I took a restraining order out on Dudley in your name and he was picked up right after being hired.”

Nodding, “That should scare the shit out of him and Bertha knows where to place him?”

“Yes,” Harry said. “DPD has hired Dudley to go undercover with this gang. They’re into prostitution, crack, cocaine and heroin. Word is they’re looking for someone to launder money. This should keep the asshole busy and if he still bothers Miss Duncan one slip of the tongue and he disappears.”

Okay that’s why it’s fortunate for us. “Good man. Now I have something else for you to check on.”

Thirty minutes later Harry called. “That was easy,” he said. “Seems the day Miss Duncan came to town students from Salida stayed at her hotel and she met a teacher chaperoning them and they hit it off. Her phone records indicate they’ve talked almost every day since. A certain Momma D who owns a restaurant in Salida says everyone is expecting a wedding soon.”

Shit, even if she can’t marry Terry, this complicates her becoming a top executive and we’re spending a fortune on her training. “What can you tell me about the boyfriend?”

Harry looked at different notes, “James Patterson, age 28 from Wichita Falls, Kansas. Attended CSU-Pueblo. Played on the basketball team, full scholarship so no outstanding student loans, but is paying off a substantial hospital bill from a knee surgery four years ago. It’ll take another six years to pay it off. Currently teaching 7th grade English, but has applications in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo looking for a coaching position.”

“Any chance DPS will hire him?”

Harry was guessing now, “Most likely. They’re always needing middle school English teachers since no one in their right mind would teach it, and they also need coaches.”

“Thanks Harry.”

Thinking it over. Maybe it won’t be a problem. After a few years mentoring here when she’s transferred the guy can always find a teaching and coaching position wherever she’s relocated. Unless once they get married she quits to go back to teaching. Right now she’s financially desperate what will she do when that’s not the case? Damn, a man wouldn’t leave a top salaried job. He would follow the money. WOMEN!



# # # # #


# # # # #



Rhonda



First class was a much nicer way to travel than coach. Bigger seats, decent meal, free booze, and the attendant helped me forget about James. I was the only woman in first class. The other passengers were older, fat, bald, and if they weren’t drinking talking on the built in phones or working on laptops.

Charles, the attendant, was very attentive and found the time to suggest meeting for a drink around midnight. He knew where I was staying which made me a little wary.

Four limousines were waiting at the airport. My limo sat six comfortably. Everyone was wearing different colognes or perfumes. It was like walking through the fragrance section of Macy’s or Dillard’s.

Winston Howard began the introductions as the limo sped away. He was in his early forties with a hint of grey on the side of his slick black hair with a strawberry birthmark on his left cheek.

“I’m from Philadelphia,” he began. “Been working for SB&T fifteen years, rising up from teller to loan officer to office manager.

Elizabeth Horton was in her mid-thirties with crow’s feet around her eyes, wearing her brown hair in a severe bun with bright red lipstick. She has the sourest face I’ve ever seen.

“I’m from Indianapolis and have worked with SB&T for ten years as a secretary.

Roxanne Patel was wearing her black hair under a head scarf with light tan skin. We’re about the same age. In an English accent she said, “I’m originally from Pakistan. I graduated from Yale with an MBA and am here due to high test scores.”

Jamal Basheer was a dark-skinned African American with a bald head and thin well-muscled build. “I’m from Dallas where I ran track at SMU. After getting my business degree I went to work for SB&T and have been there for five years as a loan officer. I was completely caught off guard when I was told they were sending me here.”

Alex McCaa was a mountain of a man with green eyes, a face full of freckles, bright red hair and well-groomed beard. He sat sideways on the end of the seats to give the other two guys a little more room. “I’m from Oklahoma City and am one quarter Cherokee, though telling people that usually puts a puzzled look on their faces.” He paused, “I’ve worked at SB&T for eight years.”

They all smirked when I mentioned being an elementary teacher who was only looking to get a part-time job over the summer. It was obvious they thought I was sleeping my way to the top. The men couldn’t keep their eyes off me.

Settling into my room, at least I didn’t have to share it; I phoned Janelle. She was the only one who I could confide in the most. Maybe some of her psychobabble would help. “I landed in a snake pit,” I said after describing my limo mates.

“Hey girl,” she said. “You can eat them for lunch. The two older ones would already be top management if they had what it takes, but if you get on their good side they can give you some tips, but be wary of being set up for a fall.”

“Easier said than done,” I snapped back.

 “Doesn’t sound like the football player and Mr. Cherokee will last long.” Kind of obvious but then she added, “They may try to hit on you or if they strike out, tarnish your reputation by saying they slept with you.”

“They all think I’m sleeping with the boss,” I confided.

 “That’s what they all think about young and pretty women rising up the ladder,” she said. “They won’t take you seriously until it’s too late, just keep an eye on the other whiz kid.”

Down in the dining room I found my name plate and sat at the round table. The other five from the limo were there as well. Dinner was served. It was excellent and I forced myself not to eat too much or I wouldn’t be able to fit into any of my clothes in six weeks. While sipping on unsweetened iced tea the head table brought us to order.

Rising from the middle of the table a man of average height, portly with ruddy complexion and grey male pattern baldness said, “I’m Gunter Atwater and will oversee this training.” Chairman of the board for SB&T. I did some research on the plane.

 “I’m sure each table introduced yourselves in the limos.” There was dead silence. “Only one of you will be here at the end of six weeks.” I thought there would be some murmuring, but the room stayed quiet. He went on. “For the first three weeks your training will be academic and half of you will not get the required scores to continue. The last three weeks will be pragmatic with real world experiences. Again only one of those from each group will graduate.”

A tall woman with blonde hair, tanned skin with perfect makeup wearing a white evening gown with modest bosom and waspish waist looked down at Gunter. Displaying a perfect smile “Lighten up, Gunny, they’ve just arrived” she said in a mellow voice. Turning to look at us. “I’m Emilia Atwater, the chief advisor.”

No need for an introduction. Super model since 16, her face was on countless magazines until she starred in a number of movies before marrying Gunter Atwater. Currently spokesperson for SB&T. She’s in all the commercials and advertisements.

The men and women on one side of the table stood while she introduced them and then those on the other side of the table. “Your advisor will mentor all in your group and try to help everyone succeed to their fullest potential. They will be in contact with me every evening to evaluate all participants’ progress.”

Euphemisms, they’re judges and decide who stays and who goes.

 “But all that starts in the morning. Tonight is time to mingle and get to know one another.” The lights dimmed and a partition was removed revealing a dance band. “Sorry if you don’t know ballroom dancing, but modern dance music is too loud for polite conversation. Now mingle.”

Roxanne was dressed in a red and gold sari. Not ideal for dancing. She excused herself saying, “I’m not permitted to dance with anyone other than a husband.”

The music started and Alex beat Winston and Jamal in asking me to dance. We were the first to start dancing, but others followed. For someone twice my width and a foot taller he was a good dancer. I wore a black cotton blouse and broomstick skirt with low heel boots, knowing from the itinerary this was a dance. Towards the end of the waltz he twirled me letting the skirt fly, but not too high up.

Nearly back to our table, “Would you honor me with this dance?” It was the man who was our table’s advisor, George Marcotte. We were the same height. He had wild curly brown hair that stuck out on the sides and outweighed me by a hundred pounds. I couldn’t refuse.

His hand barely reached my back with his protruding belly, though he was surprisingly light on his feet for the fox trot. I was really glad when the music ended and he left just as Winston came up and without a word took me into his arms. The band played another waltz. Then Jamal for a cha cha. I’m glad Mom insisted I take piano and dancing lessons from Mrs. Jamar instead of playing soccer.

Thinking all my required dances were over I sat down easing my tired feet and taking a sip of tea. “May I have this dance?”

On the floor Mr. Atwater said, “I’ve noticed you’re an accomplished dancer.”

“Thank you.” What the hell does he want?

He shocked me with his next words. “Why do you want to give up teaching?”

“To have a better life,” I said realizing it’s the first time admitting it.

“An admirable ambition. All those in the room have it too.”

“Yes I know,” I said, not thinking of anything else to say.

“You’re unlike them in one way,” he said, getting my attention.

“And what is that?”

“You still have a soul.” We stopped dancing and he looked at me, “If you want to keep it leave tonight because when you finish this training you won’t.”

Sitting at an empty table. The dance floor was full and my table mates were mixing. Looking at the head table, Mrs. Atwater was staring daggers at me.

George asked me for another dance beating four others wanting a chance. “What did Gunter say to you?”

“Why do you ask?” None of your business, asshole!

I could barely hear his answer he spoke so low, “Gunter has never danced at these training sessions. Emelia is curious.”

I could feel his sweaty hand on my back making my skin crawl. “He told me to go home or I would lose my soul.”

He relaxed and our movements were smoother. “He’s right.”

This made me angry, “I’ve never run away from a challenge before and I’m not about to start, so stop with the head games. I’m not quitting before I even get started.” I left abruptly and went up to my room.

Soaking in the bathtub with jasmine scented bath oil the thought came: Here’s my chance to go back and be a loan officer or go back to the classroom. James and I could get married and live happily ever after.

I was sorely tempted and changed my mind about staying or going back every ten seconds. I would decide to leave, then get mad about what Gunter said and the way everyone was smirking at me thinking I was sleeping my way to the top. Finally the determination I felt on the dance floor won the argument.

* * *

The classes started. The advisors each taught a class that we attended on a rotating basis. They all taught using the Socratic Method. When leaving the dance I spotted leaving the stack of the next day’s reading assignments. I grabbed it and after deciding to see this through spent four hours preparing for the classes.

George was the instructor for our first class and I was his first victim. He was surprised I knew the answer to every question. When he went after other prey Roxanne was the only other one who was prepared for class.

In the evenings after dinner study groups formed, not necessarily from limo mates. Roxanne and I paired. No one else wanted to join us and there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to study with. There were romantic pairing between some of the others. I was left alone because Gunter danced with me and they thought there was something going on with us. I heard in passing someone refer to Roxanne as the ice princess.

I talked with Janelle on Saturdays and James on Sundays. They both encouraged me to work hard and be one of the few to graduate. Janelle has always supported me, but James would benefit more by me failing. If I returned home to be either a loan officer or teacher it would be easier for us to get married and make a life. On the executive track that might not be possible.

The thought wasn’t really fair to James. He loves me and wants what’s best for me. Has taking these classes where everything is focused on the bottom line filtered into all my thoughts?



Emilia



First day of the new executive training class. In five years it’s never produced a decent candidate for the top brass. It’s all a dog and pony show for the EEOC. Keeping the bureaucrats happy is cheaper than the alternative.

Gunter shows up for the first night and then goes back to New York while I’m stuck as the head judge over a bunch of middling wannabes.

After the dinner and speeches the band started playing. It’s usually our cue to leave, but tonight Gunter went down and asked a good looking woman to dance. My heart starts beating double time and my mind raced. I’m not as young as I used to be. Am I losing my looks? Is he bored with me and looking for a replacement? What is it about this girl that’s drawn his attention?

I motioned to George. A puny little man not capable of doing much which is why he’s here.

“May I help you?” he said sweating more than usual.

“Find out what Gunter said to her.”

He knew who I was talking about, “Yes, ma’am.”

The whole room took note of Gunter dancing and started smirking. I’m sitting alone at the head table everyone looking between me and the redhead. The music stopped and the girl said a few things I couldn’t quite hear, but from the tone and facial expression she’s pissed. She left leaving a number of disappointed men having to choose another dance partner.

George came back, “Gunter told her to leave or she would lose her soul.”

Speaking softly, “And what did she say?”

“That she’s never backed down from a challenge and to stop with the head games.”

“You may go.” Thinking about this little scene. She’s the one from Denver. Terrence must have said something to Gunter about her and he didn’t tell me. What are they up to?

In our suite Gunter was already asleep. I phoned Terrence. It’s been three years since we last spoke and no time like the present.

He answered knowing why I called, “What’d you think of my girl?” They’re conspiring against me.

“You trying to replace me with some hooker you picked up in the middle of nowhere?”

There was anger in his voice. “Don’t ever speak about Rhonda like that again.”

He still controls twenty percent of the stock and hasn’t cashed in many of his stock options. Semi-retired, he’s not out of the game completely.

“What’s she to you?” I asked.

“A very bright and charming young woman who I think will go far.” He paused, “Did you look over her test scores?”

I looked over the backgrounds of all the applicants. “Her scores were impressive, but with no experience she’ll be eaten alive the first week.”

“No,” he said. “She’ll be your star pupil and will stir things up for the whole company.”

He’s either getting senile or up to something. He didn’t rise to the top of SB&T and stay there without an agenda. I need to figure it out. Come to think of it, she does look a lot like Glenda.

It was worth a stab in the dark, “Planning on marrying her and coming back to New York?”

Cryptically he said, “Not me.”

Aha moment, “Picking a wife for Junior?”

“Goodnight, Emilia.” He hung up.

* * *

Over breakfast I asked Gunter, “Why did you warn Rhonda Duncan away?”

“She’s a sweet innocent girl and I wanted to give her a chance to stay that way,” he said then took a bite of toast. “I take it she’s still here?”

“As far as I know, she is.”

He grunted, “Keep an eye on her and let me know how she does.”

“You expect me to be fair and impartial after embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

He laughed and I nearly poured hot tea in his lap. “How many women have I danced with since we’ve been married and you’re jealous of this one?”

This was different. “You’ve never danced with anyone here before.”

He shrugged, “Because there was never anyone worth dancing with before.”

This got my attention. “What do you and Terrence have in mind?”

He sighed, “I’ll reach required retirement age in ten years. I need to groom a replacement.”

Two and two finally made sense. “Senior’s grooming Junior to replace you and is arranging his marriage.”

Smiling he said, “See, you have nothing to fear and everything to gain.”

Puzzled I said, “How do I gain?”

“She’s your replacement.”

He retires so do I; sounds good. She’s attractive enough and with her test scores most likely bright enough too. A good possibility. Getting up and sitting on his lap I kissed him on the forehead. “You could have said something to me.”

“What, and miss making you jealous?”

Kissing him on the mouth this time, “Time for some fun before heading back to work?”

Gunter’s stock answer, “Just like Jell-O, there’s always room for fun.”

* * *

The top scorers were left. Book smart, now we’ll see who can do something with it. I placed the remaining dozen into three groups. The mentors observed with me. For this part the students are on their own.

All groups were given the task of finding a way to generate twenty percent more profit for SB& T over a five year period. Since the program was started there’s never been a viable proposal. There’s been some interesting ideas, but nothing that SB&T would actually implement.

The first week each person has four days to come up with an idea and supporting arguments. On Friday they decide which idea the group will adopt and prepare to be judged. They have two weeks to prepare their presentation. Final week each day a different group presents. Friday I announce the four winners that merit a six year mentorship.

They all assume the graduates will come from the same group, but I prefer to pick from the best leaders. Not everyone in a winning group is a winner on their own.

Team A:

Muhammed Akim: male, from Detroit, second generation Saudi, ten years with SB&T, lowest of the passing group, ignores all females, friendly only with men.

Roxanne Patel: female, Pakistani, from NYC, new hire, high scores, very timid.

Angela Nguyen: female, third generation Vietnamese, twelve years with SB&T, medium test scores, outgoing personality, but follower not leader.

Charles Dixon III: male, African American, from Savannah, five years SB&T, middle scores, follower not leader.

Akim is the natural leader of the group, but will he work with women and a black? Will Patel overcome her timidity to lead the group?

Group B:

Rockwell (Rocky) Disanti: male, naturalized citizen from Australia, half aborigine, fourteen years with SB&T, top of class academically, well spoken, thinks fast on his feet. Top prospect.

Sivengsky Limory: male, from San Francisco, fourth generation Laotian, Six years SB&T, bottom of class, follower not leader.

Tony Latuiosanoa: male, from San Diego, American Samoan, three years with SB&T bottom of class, follower not leader.

Shakira Gabaldon: female, from Tampa Bay, African America-Cuban, nine years with SB&T, middle of class lots of attitude, could become the leader.

Rocky purposely given the weakest group to see if he can get them to perform.

Team C

Kathy Garcia, female, Hispanic from Phoenix, tall, heavy chested, hour glass figure and pretty face, twelve years with SB&T, top scores, well-spoken and outgoing, ten years with SB&T. My top prospect for replacement now I’ve thought about it.

Rhonda Duncan: female, from Denver, medium height, strawberry blonde, well-proportioned body, mesmerizing face, new hire, top scores, well spoken, outgoing personality. The one Terrence and Gunter think will be my replacement. We’ll see.

Arthur Naranjo: male, Native American, from El Paso, ten years with SB&T, middle scores, few social skills, sarcastic and tends to try and dominate group he’s with.

John Brown, male, African American, from Houston, lower end of test scores, third time at this function finally passed the tests, eight years with SB&T, follower not leader.

Most interesting group. Possible replacement from here.

 The day the group decides on their project is usually pretty loud and on occasion has resulted in threats, insults, and nearly coming to blows. We watched with an eye in the sky like they use in casinos. Group A and B were following the pattern. I posted a security guard in Group A to keep Akim from threatening the women. He’s not going to graduate and will be fired.

Zooming in on team C, Rhonda was moderating the discussion and in a teacherly way was making sure everyone put forward their ideas without sarcasm, or killer statements. If nothing else she’ll be a good moderator in board meetings. The other thing I noticed was her charisma. A lot of politicians and a few CEO’s I’ve met have it. The trait to make total strangers feel instantly like they’re family. Kathy Garcia started dressing slutier and slutier trying to get the most attention. Rhonda didn’t rise to the bait. After a few days Kathy dressed more modestly conceding Rhonda’s leadership.

Having monitored all the groups there were only two ideas being proposed in one form or another. Team A was going with enhancing ways to collect more late fees by changing payment dates in the July backtracking payments from the first of the month to the 28th. This way they could squeeze in 13 payments over a 12 month period without reducing the principle and interest.

Team B was proposing sending lawyers to bankruptcy court on credit cards, auto loans and signature loans. The savings in forcing the debtor into chapter 7 instead of chapter 11 would increase profits. Both were submitted previously and useless.

In team C Naranjo proposed the extra payment a year and Brown went with bankruptcy. Garcia threw in another proposal that’s been tried before, but still not feasible: “Home foreclosures take from two to six years before eviction of borrowers and short sale. We usually encourage the borrower to stay in the house during this time without collecting a dime so the property is not damaged for the short sale.

“Instead residing on the property without compensation we should charge them rent until the house sells at half the mortgage payment. The bank can recover some of the loss from the original mortgage and the rent we charge would be lower than the borrower would pay renting an apartment. If the borrower is unable to pay even half the rent due to unemployment we could offer to accept a one quarter payment, but once they’re employed for six months it would revert to one half. It’s a win-win.”

 Rhonda used a white board to show the extra payment plan would reduce interest quicker and cut years off payments. “This tactic is used by service providers like Cable TV or utilities where principle and interest don’t apply.”

“The bankruptcy plan would cost more in attorney’s fees than would be collected under Chapter 7.” She put the numbers on the board.

With the foreclosure plan she calculated the cost of collections against the reality of the borrowers choosing to live rent free until evicted. “There’s nothing to force the borrowers into paying rent other than good will, and there’s little good will at this point.”

All three were a little miffed about getting shot down so easily. The looks in their eyes showed me they were ready to shred her idea too.

Rhonda unrolled a map of Michigan with lots of circles marked all over it. “These are towns and cities with populations between twenty thousand and a hundred thousand. They are currently being serviced by local or state banks. The towns have few resources to help with capital improvement. They also have too small of a tax base to even talk to the national banks like SB&T.”

“Kind of a no brainer,” Naranjo said.

“Really,” she answered, “There are two hundred and sixty five towns under a 100,000 population in Michigan.” Pointing at the map, “Concentrate on only the ones between forty thousand and a hundred thousand as I propose and the number will be reduced to about 100.

They looked over the map.

“If SB&T were to provide 1 billion in municipal loans to those 100 towns at the prime lending rate plus 2 percent, which is 1 percent less than the state banks are charging, it would increase SB&T’s annual profit by five percent. If SB&T were to provide municipal loans across all fifty states the potential for profit rises exponentially.”

John Brown said, “If this is so profitable why hasn’t it been done?”

She snapped back, “SB&T loaned a billion dollars to Rugby, North Dakota this year. It was a trial balloon, but we have the chance to make corporate realize the potential.”

Kathy spoke, “There’s no way SB&T could cover that many loans in a year or even five years.”

“You’re right,” Rhonda conceded. “This is a ten to twenty year plan for full effect. But in five years it would reap a 10 percent profit in Michigan alone.”

Naranjo asked, “What if the towns default on the loan?”

“No loan will be awarded without sufficient collateral. Rugby had natural gas reserves worth ten times the loan. Other towns all across the country have similar forms of collateral. If we combine our efforts with the extractive industry to open up new fields. The influx of additional revenue from those fields will increase the tax base of the towns and they will need to borrow even more for new development.”

Kathy said, “What if those towns have depleted all their collateral or never had any?”

Quietly Rhonda answered, “They become ghost towns.”

This sold the group. They quickly voted to adopt her proposal and divided up the research for the presentation.

She also sold me, not just on the proposal, but as my replacement. This idea was worth pursuing and she would be the perfect spokesperson to sell it to the country. Terrence is the one who thought up this idea and found someone in North Dakota of all places who would sell it to the board. Did he know about her before he went to Rugby or was it sheer dumb luck?

I called Gunter, “We have a winner.” For the first time he attended the presentations.

After the presentations Gunter critiqued each one. Shooting down the bankruptcy and foreclosure rent proposal more ruthlessly than Rhonda.

After team C’s presentation on small town municipal loans, he saw the one glaring problem. “After the loan is made and spent,” he began. “The oil industry goes bust due to low natural gas prices or the price per barrel of oil drops.” It is a boom or bust industry. “What happens when the town can’t pay?”

Rhonda didn’t flinch, “If the town goes into default the bank agrees to accept only the interest on the loan until the price of gas or oil returns to higher prices and drilling resumes. If that doesn’t happen within a reasonable time we request the town raise taxes or sell municipal bonds.”

He pointed out this would only raise corporate profit by 5%. She countered 5% multiplied by 49 beats the required goal. For the first time something came out of this dog and pony show that would actually help the bottom line.

It was easy to choose Rhonda for graduation. I also liked Kathy Garcia and the way she handled playing second fiddle. Roxanne took over leadership after Akim was sent packing and Rockwell Disanti distinguished himself as well.



Darius

Got a job and loan, had stay at motel. This Hector’s party place Friday night. They love to party and really like drinking my beer and rum. Raquel’s mine on Sunday nights. It’s good to be back in the saddle again, but still see Rhonda the whole time.

Couple of weeks later Hector got suspicious. “Hey esse,” he said. “Why for are you staying here when you have so much dinero for booze?”

“Took out a loan.” He would know if I was lying. “Paid for a month and still have week to find apartment.”

“I’ve got the perfect place,” he said. Rosa told me he owned a number of apartment complexes. Good way to launder money. “Where you working, esse?”

“Castle Rock.”

“Damn, esse,” he said. “They got you way out don’t they?”

“Yeah,” He got that right. “Long drive back and forth.”

“Eduardo’ll give you a good deal.”

Eduardo gave me a slip of paper, “I’ll let the manager know you’re coming.”

Looking at the paper, 6800 Fiddler’s Green Circle in Evergreen. Not too far north of Castle Rock on I-25. “Thanks man, muchos gracias.”

Rosa frowned warning me not to speak Spanish again.

“De nada,” he said. “I’m tired of booze.”

Eduardo pulled out a bag of Presidential Kush. First time tried this shit. Not bad. Didn’t try to overpower with too much THC.

“Thought you were a cop,” Roberto said after getting really mellow.

“That didn’t keep me from weed. All you have to do is drink a gallon of green tea, piss it out, drink another gallon of water before the piss test.” I shrugged, “And besides it’s legal now.”

One bedroom apartment was OK. Small, but livable. Better than dorms in Air Force and college, way better than Rugby.

Party on Fridays keep in touch with Hector. Raquel stay Sunday nights. She say it night off and like me.



James



Getting back from a dreary drive and empty house I was bummed out. What will Rhonda be like after six weeks? As teachers we mesh, but banker and teacher with her making more than me, might not work.

Evelyn stopped by on Tuesday ostensibly to see how finals were going, but it was towards the end of class and after the students left she said, “James you’re a good man with a good heart. Stay away from that woman, she’ll destroy you.”

Not knowing what to say I stood mute until she left. Mind your own business, harpy!

I dutifully drove Rhonda’s car on the weekends to the grocery store and around town to keep it in good running condition. After school let out on the weekdays I was out fishing, hiking and golfing at the nearby towns.

When Rhonda gets back we’ll want to spend as much time together as possible and I should get all the other stuff out of my system. It also kept me from going crazy wanting to be with her and talking only on Sunday afternoons. She always sounded exhausted.

She talked a mile a minute the whole way to her condo telling me how hard the classes were. “The competition, was the easiest part. Everyone there was mired in right brain. They live, work and breathe in the box. I was the only one capable of creative thinking.” 

 Spicy met us at the door ignoring me and rubbing like crazy against her leg with a loud meow. “I missed you too,” she said sitting on the couch petting her as I took in three suitcases. She left with one!

“When did you bring my car up?” she asked.

“Jake and Stephanie drove up yesterday for some shopping and she enjoyed driving a new car.” Going to the fridge I took out two beers. “I bought groceries yesterday and spent the night here since you gave me the key.”

“That’s one less thing I have to do tomorrow,” she said before taking a huge gulp and rubbing the cold bottle across her brow.

“What about a soak in the tub?” I offered.”

“Great minds think alike,” she said putting a very indignant Spicy on the floor with tail swishing back and forth.

In the bedroom she was pulling off her polo shirt and starting on her slacks while I turned on the water. Easing her in the tub and rubbing her neck. “This has been the longest six weeks of my life.”

She closed her eyes in exhaustion, “To me it’s like I left yesterday. It’s all been a blur.”

Pulling away, “I’ll be right back.”

“Bring me another beer will you?”

“Your wish is my command.”

It was dark when we woke, getting dressed we went out to eat. “I have two weeks off before reporting for work,” she said between bites of salad. I’m obligated to work with SB&T for the next six years and have a non-compete clause for another six.”

She told me her starting salary. My eyes bugged out. She laughed and said, “Wish I had a picture of your face.”

“Get out your phone and tell me again.” Then added, “Not bad for banker’s hours.”

Shaking her head, “That’s for tellers, management averages twelve hours a day with only Sundays off.”

“All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl,” I tried to tease, but she didn’t smile.

“They told a joke, but it really isn’t a joke. Want to hear it?”

“Ok,” I said.

“A guy was offered a job that paid two hundred thousand dollars a month. He was naturally pleased, but asked, ‘What kind of health benefits do I get?’

“The employer said, ‘Your health benefit is that you’re paid two hundred thousand dollars a month.’

“The man continued, ‘What kind of retirement will I have?’

“The employer explained, ‘Your retirement is you’re paid two hundred thousand dollars a month.’

“The man was starting to understand, but still asked, ‘How many weeks of vacation will I get?’

“The employer answered, ‘When you make two hundred thousand dollars a month you can’t afford a vacation.’”

I didn’t laugh. For the first time I was worried. I chalked it up to exhaustion when talking on the phone and last night, but she changed.

We took off for fishing at Lake Isabel. It was well stocked with rainbow trout. On the way we stopped for supplies and she bought a fishing license. Setting up camp with a tent, double sleeping bag, Coleman lantern, cook stove and cast iron cook-ware we were ready for some quality time. I brought along a number or poles, reels, hooks, lures and bait.

She was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt under a red wide-brimmed floppy hat and sneakers. Selecting a good pole, closed button reel, she settled on a red and silver lure. “I don’t know about the trout down here, but in North Dakota they like spinners.”

“You’ll just have to find out,” I said heading to the bank.

She made a face at the edge of the water, “You’ve got suckers.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We’ve learned to ignore them. If one comes in on your hook just toss it to the side. We’ll bag and toss in the trash on the way out.”

“Looks like a lot of people just leave them on the ground.”

Shaking my head, “A lot of people are lazy.”

There were a few people on the water in row boats that were for rent at the bait shop, but there wasn’t anyone near us on the shore. We cast and reeled in the spinners a few times before snagging a sucker. An hour later four suckers were stacked up and she caught the first trout. After taking the six incher off the hook she asked, “Keep or throw back?”

“Up to you,” I said. I don’t usually keep until ten inches.”

She threw it back, “Don’t like eating them?” she asked.

“Anything under eight inches is only a few bites and not worth gutting and scaling. Ten inches is when they’re good eating.”

She cast again, “We only caught and released. Trout have too many bones.”

“Not as bad as those suckers,” I said, then asked, “If you don’t like eating ‘em, why fish?”

“It was quality time with Daddy. We would sit and talk around the campfire away from everyone knowing what color panties I was wearing.”

I laughed, “No privacy in small towns.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s why I’m loving Denver.”

I was just curious, “Your Mom go with you on these trips?”

“She came along, but didn’t like fishing and stayed in the camp reading before getting lunch and dinner ready. Daddy fixed breakfast. He loved cooking with a cast iron griddle.”

I let her talk about the six weeks in Atlanta. What the hotel was like, the food, the classes and how hard they were. What it was like to shop for clothes and actually afford some of the nicer ones. The mind games the instructors played on everyone to weed them out and how good it made her feel to be one of the four to graduate.

We ate sandwiches from the cooler for lunch with sodas and resumed our quest for fish. She asked me a few questions about the last week of school and since there wasn’t much to tell spent most of the afternoon enjoying the quiet.

 When the sun set we caught five trout, but only kept two, an eight incher for her and a ten incher for me. I scaled and gutted them before cutting off the heads. She got the skillet warmed up with coconut oil and battered them in corn meal. She already had a can of pork and beans heated.

Bagging all our trash I put it in one of the metal bins. We cuddled around a small campfire as I played my guitar and sang songs. She has a beautiful soft clear voice.

The next day we rented a boat and bobbed in the middle of the lake. We had better luck and caught four ten inches or larger. They were good eating and we spent another night singing songs and cuddling.

That night she didn’t sleep well. The hard ground even with air mattresses was getting to her. We drove back to Denver for a restful night. I took her to a golf course and taught her the basics of the game. She was frustrated swinging either too high or hitting the ground.

“This is a stupid game,” she fumed after every miss.

“This is how bankers woo clients,” I said.

She would swing with renewed determination until saying, “This is a stupid game.”

 She wanted to introduce me to her family. We flew to Minot where we rented a car and she gave me a tour of her alma mater.

Her mother greeted me warmly, but Daddy was a different story. He was courteous, but I could tell he wanted more for his daughter than a basketball coach.

I took her to meet my parents. She and Mom hit it off immediately. Dad gave me a nod of approval as soon as we were through the front door. The fact I sent them dozens of pictures of us together helped.

“You planning on getting married,” Mom asked within the first hour.

Rhonda blushed a bit, “We’re waiting to see how this new job works out.”

* * *

I headed back to Salida. Uncomfortable in her condo when she’s working most of the day. She’d be out of town over the weekend when we talked middle of the week, but the next one was open. Went camping that weekend and hiked back trails nearly getting lost a few times.

I didn’t rush up that Friday night. I didn’t know who I would meet at the door. From talking on the phone the woman who agonized over not being able to be teach was gone. The person I fell in love with was missing. She was cold and distant treating me more like servant than lover. Sunday morning I had enough. I dressed and went into the living room.

“What’s the matter,” she said following me out.

“Tell me what happened to Rhonda?”

Sitting down in the chair I expected tears, but she was cold as ice. “The first night in Atlanta Gunter Atwater told me to leave or I would lose my soul.”

“You stayed.”

“I had the choice of coming back and being with you or going for the gold.”

“You still had a soul,” I said. I felt it when you came back.”

She said, “I lost my soul when I left my students in Rugby, just didn’t realize it.”

She wasn’t that way camping or in Rugby. “What about our trip?”

“That was saying goodbye to you and my old life,” she said. “I’ve started a new one.”

“They’ve destroyed you.” It wasn’t an accusation.

“There wasn’t much to destroy,” she said. “I never wanted to be a mother. Teaching small children was trying to fit into the mold society and church made for me. I realized that wasn’t for me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be. I like what I see in the mirror.”

Getting up and kissing her goodbye, “I don’t.”



Junior



Dad and I both knew she would graduate. Rhonda had more than brains, she had the drive to succeed. The woman who came back was hardly recognizable from the one I saw crying in her car.

I showed her to an office across from mine. “Call me Terry. The only Mr. Austin here is my father.”

She smiled, “Thanks, Terry.”

Going on, “About the only thing you’ll be doing here is putting your purse away,” I said. “Most of the time you’ll be with me. For the first year you’ll be my shadow. You will say and do nothing when we are with clients or in a meeting. If anyone asks your opinion you will support mine to the fullest no matter how hard they, and especially my father try to get another one out of you. The number one rule of survival in the corporate world is loyalty.”

She nodded. “What if I have different ideas?”

“Share them with me afterwards and we’ll discuss it.”

She nodded again. “Understood.”

“A second in command never shows up the commander. Learn it, live it, breathe it.”

She saluted, “Yes, sir.”

“I’m going to the country club. Selena will go over my itinerary with you for this week. After that you keep it.”

“I could join you on the golf course,” she offered.

Shaking my head and giving a stern look. “Not what I suggested.” She gave me a hurt look, but got the message.

Dad and I discussed Rhonda before meeting with the Atwaters. She evidently impressed them in Atlanta.

“Still want me to marry her?” I was only kidding. We both knew she took her boyfriend to meet the parents.

“You never know,” he said. “Long hours together have a way of working magic.”

I can’t believe he’s still on this kick, “And when corporate promotes her what then?”

He smiled, “Things will work out, if you really love each other. They always do.”

“Never knew you were an incurable romantic,” I replied. “Out of place in a banker.”

“Bankers are human too,” he winked.

The Atwaters arrived and were seated. After ordering drinks, “What do you think of our girl?” Dad opened the conversation.

Gunter said, “Surprising she made it through, but you were right about her being very competitive. I tried to warn her, but she took it as a challenge.”

Emelia spoke, “That’s why we’ve decided to transfer her to New York.”

Dad nearly choked on his drink. “What do you mean?”

“Emelia wants to take her under wing since she’s the best female prospect,” Gunter answered.

It didn’t matter to me one way or another, but Dad was a little upset. He really did want her as a daughter-in-law. I spoke in support of him, “The purpose of the program is that the city who finds the prospect keeps him or her for six years.”

Emelia put her hand with six inch nails on mine, “Not to worry, Terry. Roxanne Patel will take her place.” Then looking at Dad, “And coming from Pakistan, I’m sure she’s willing to accept an arranged marriage.”

I was in a good mood until then. I turned crimson before rising and leaving.

Dad stopped me after four steps. “Wash your face and come back. This isn’t over yet.”

A splash of water cooled me down. Stupid to let that bitch get my goat like that!

We ate our meal talking about the weather, how well kept the golf course was, and how to get the government to loosen up on federal banking laws concerning legalized marijuana.

Table cleared and drinking iced tea Emelia apologized. Patting my hand again, “I was just kidding you about the arranged marriage.”

Gunter added, “It’s time Junior left your shadow Terrence. We’re promoting him to the head office.”

Emelia said, “I still want Rhonda as my protégé, but we’ll both be working closely with Junior.”

I was speechless. Dad burst with pride and thanked both of them profusely. Getting my tongue untangled I thanked them too.

Gunter and Emelia followed us back to Dad’s office where the top staff was soon gathered and they made the announcement of my promotion. They discreetly didn’t mention Rhonda, but she was standing by my side and hugged me before anyone else could congratulate me. I liked that hug a lot.



Darius



Work was work. Manager kept her eye on me, but didn’t bug. Homies guys accepted me. Thought might have to duke it out with Geraldo, but Hector shook head and that was that.

Meet with Martinez. “I don’t have anything to report. Rosa could tell you that.”

“I know, that’s about to change,” he said.

“What?”

“Rhonda Duncan is back from Atlanta.”

Heart skipped a beat. Not wise to show. “So what?”

“She’s taken her boyfriend to meet the parents.”

Kick me in the balls! “Good for her.”

“There’s still a restraining order on you. She’ll be in the main office starting Monday. We want you to go to her office and say hi.”

I was planning on it anyway, but this was a set up. “You want me arrested and fired!”

He smirked and I wanted to knock out his yellow teeth. “Yes.”

Really tired of bullshit. “You’re crappy half salary won’t cut it.”

“Hector is opening up pay day loans,” he said. “He’s going to need an accountant.”

Bullshit, “What about the guy doing his books now?”

“According to Rosa he was skimming and is now scattered over three states.”

Why he offered me a job so quick, “He bails me out to have a banker under his thumb.”

“By George you’ve got it.”

Wanted to crush his windpipe.

I’ll see Rhonda even if I get arrested and fired. If only for a minute it will be worth it. If I have to work for gang bangers that would just as soon slice my throat as share toke to see her one more time. I’ll do it.

Secretary hit security button, “Miss Duncan isn’t in her office.”

Brush by and stare at desk. Room empty.

Security handcuffed me and the old man who came to Rugby whispered in my ear, “She’s leaving with my son for New York.”

Rosa bailed me out. Drove to office building not far from SB&T. On tenth floor with view of mountains Hector behind desk in suit. Didn’t recognize him at first and thought guy my attorney.

“Esse, why for you get arrested?”

Lowering head, “I just wanted to see her.”

“Numb nuts has the hots for someone works at the bank.” Rosa said.

Hector angry and thought he punch me or worse, “I give you Raquel,” he said quietly. “My best girl who brings in a thousand dollars a night and you get arrested over another slut?” Look at Rosa, “Pendejo’s muy loco en la cabeza!”

She answer, “Pendejo no dinero.”

Scowling at me, “What am I going to do with you? Not many gringos mi amigos.”

Shrug, hope it go my way.

Martinez say “You one lucky son-of-a-bitch. I need someone to help me with my business.”

Playin stupid, “Won’t pimp.”

Both laughed, “You think I let a stalker around putas?”

Rosa give me soft slaps on both cheeks, “Oh look, you hurt his feelings.”

Pulled away really pissed.

“Fire in his eyes,” Hector say. “Bueno.”

He pulled out an expanding folder. Handing it to me. Dropping accent and speaking perfect English. “I’m opening up TempLo offices around the city. Five will be open within six weeks the others six weeks after them. Putas are wearing out. I’m going to retire them to tellers.”

Act impressed. Pay day loans all over bases where stationed. Talk in business mode, “Lucrative business if not too many skip leaving you with only a worthless check.”

“See Rosa, he thinks like a banker.”

Stay quiet.

Rosa sat on his lap. He squeezed her tits, “I think he’ll be useful.” Kissing him. “I could be the go between from you to him.”

He pushed her off. Cold bloodedly he said, “You’re needed elsewhere.”

Put in place, she walked out of room in huff.

With smile, “Women only good for one thing, remember that.”

“Damn right,” I say.

 “So, Darius, need a job?



Junior



My office overlooked Central Park. A month and I never tired of looking down on the trees, grass and lakes. Still residing in a hotel room while spending weekends looking for a suitable apartment.

First order of business was finding a secretary and getting to know my co-workers. I didn’t have time to think about Rhonda.

Cookie James came to the secretary interview with a ton of attitude and take charge energy, but not much experience. Not wanting to take another execs’ prized secretary or cast off, I didn’t hire in-house. I could tell this caused some waves, but being promoted over the heads of the others on the team I expected it.

Walking through the offices I noticed all the secretaries’ men and women on the whole floor were mostly white. There was one Asian, and three who looked Hispanic, but no African Americans. If I’m going to be heading human resources at the national level there will need to be more diversity in the head office.

I made a statement by hiring African American. When I gave her the good news she hugged me and planted a huge kiss on my cheek with wide ruby lips. It took some time to wipe off the lipstick.

Meeting with the HR team all were men and white. Half were Dad’s age or older and ready for retirement. It was time to shake things up around here.

  After her mentorship Rhonda would make a fine addition to the team, or possibly Miss Patel now mentoring with Dad depending on what Emelia had in store for Rhonda. It would take some time but the minority executive training the corporation started will pay dividends in the next decade.

Jason, my apartment finder showed me a duplex not far from the office. “Because both suites open onto a common area it has to be leased as one unit.”

The location was what I wanted. I could afford it, but what would I do with two extra bedrooms and bath? Living by myself I really don’t need guest rooms. Suddenly a thought came to mind.

Waiting in the lobby for Rhonda she gave me a huge smile and melted my heart. “Long time no see,” she said.

We found a spot out of traffic for a quick chat. “How would you like to have lunch?”

“Sounds wonderful,” she smiled and gave me a peck on the cheek.

“Meet down here at noon and I’ll have a limo take us some place.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said.



Emelia

“This is Stanley Roberts,” I introduced my personal fashion designer to Rhonda. “And this is Regina Del La O,” his partner. “For ten years they’ve created my look and kept me gorgeous to the general public.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Rhonda said as they both came up and gave her a partial hug with air kisses.

Continuing, “I’m placing you in their hands. They will turn you into my replacement as spokesperson for SB&T.”

Moving around and assessing her. “Good cheekbones and skin,” Stanley said.

“Hair will need a lot of work,” Regina added with pursed lips. “She needs to loose ten pounds and the teeth need to be straightened and whitened.”

Rhonda resented the remark about her weight. “There’s nothing wrong with my teeth!” Looking daggers at me, “I thought I was going to have an executive position.”

“You’ll have whatever I say you’ll will,” I said examining her as well.

“No thanks,” she said and started to turn around.

Stanley grabbed her shoulders and said, “Stand still we’re not done yet.”

“Take your hands off me.” Used her teachers’ voice.

Giving her my most intimidating look, Gunter calls it the Disney wicked step-mother stare. “There is a lot to do and little time for you to learn it.”

“I learned I don’t want this job anymore.”

Time to set her straight, “You’re on contract for six years.”

Suddenly she was a trapped rabbit. “I was expecting real work. You can find a thousand girls at the modeling agencies for this.”

“Leave us,” I said very slowly and quietly. Stanley and Regina vanished.

With utmost disdain I said, “You think making a secretary do most of your work, going out on the golf course and getting drunk is real work?”

She started trembling, “No.”

Time to enlighten her, “Standing in a pose for hours while every muscle in your body is screaming and still having a smile on your face is real work.” Rhonda sat taking in what I was saying like a school girl. I went on, “Starving yourself for years to satisfy photographers who want skinnier and skinnier models takes strength and commitment. And you’re right, there are a thousand women like that within six blocks of this building, but none of them have the brains.”

Sitting across from me anger burned out, “I’m tired of traveling all over the world looking spectacular and being at or hosting dinners and banquets. Gunter and I want to retire in a few years and enjoy the rest of our life. He’s picked his successor and I’ve picked you.”

A little calmer she said, “So those six weeks in Atlanta had nothing to do with my intelligence or banking ability. Was my graduating rigged?”

Understanding her doubts it was time to reassure her, “If you weren’t better than all the others you’d be a loan officer or back in the classroom. Regardless of what most of the world believes I’m not here on looks or being able to deliver a speech alone. That’s the easy part.”

Getting up and speaking passionately, “This job requires you to make nice with bankers, businessmen, and politicians. I have to communicate with men who sometimes have very few social skills. All they know is numbers and statistics. The hard part is speaking their language. You are the first woman I’ve found with the looks and personality as well as intelligence to replace me.”

This seemed to settle her down. Stanley and Regina came back and I left her in their hands. I still had meetings with the photographers and marketing.



Rhonda

Back in my room I was slowly accepting my role within the company. Staying in an executive hotel for women I was supposed to find an apartment within a month. Working twelve to sixteen hours days, how exactly was I supposed to do that?

 Emilia convinced me it wasn’t just my looks and that what I was being groomed for was important to the bank, but it wasn’t what I expected. Not that I really knew what to expect.

Soaking under bubbles in a huge circular tub smelling the lavender scent; James was on my mind. I still longed for him. Every day I’ve regretted not going back when I had the chance. At times the gold I won isn’t making me happy.

When I was home Daddy told me he would be an anchor holding me down and to cut him loose. At times like this I regret following his advice. He was much harder to give up than the students and every day I’ve wanted to call him and tell him it was just an act.

I cried for two hours on the phone with Janelle telling her what I did and she cried with me. She was supportive of my decision and I needed that. Mom wouldn’t understand, she liked James and was wishing us well.

In Wichita Falls his father was nice and mother was wonderful. We got along well. They encouraged us to get married. I’m not ready to settle down. I just getting started.

To the church I’m only good for a husband and babies. To the bank I’m only a pretty face and sexy body. Drying off looking at a wall sized mirror, why is this all anyone sees in me?”

Spicy rubbed up against my leg and headed for the bed. I couldn’t leave her behind for an owner who was never there.

In the lobby Terry asked me to lunch. It was good seeing him again. The three weeks working together in Denver were already a distant memory. He called the office and changed the time for lunch from noon to 11:30 and we’d eat at the bistro on the third floor. Find by me.

“I’ve found an apartment. Have you found anything yet?” He said between bites.

Finishing a mouth full of sword fish, “Haven’t had a chance to look.”

“Good, I’ve found a nice one and I’d like you to look it over.”

Red flag shot up, “Why would I want to see an apartment with you?”

“It’s big enough for both of us.”

He’s nice looking, friendly and we worked well together, but I’m a little resistant to him because of his reputation and our fathers wanting to fix us up. “What do you have in mind?”

“That didn’t come out the way I intended,” he backtracked. “It’s too big for one person. There’s plenty of room for another with all the privacy you would want; within walking distance of the office. Come take a look, if you’re not comfortable, say so and I’ll find someone else wanting to live in a place overlooking the park.”

He sold me with walking distance. “Okay I’ll take a look.”

The apartment was on the tenth floor and the building overlooked the park, but the apartment didn’t. The view of the skyline wasn’t bad. There was a large living area and a dining room with kitchen between two suites of rooms. I would have an office, bedroom and bathroom with an outside door and one to close off the rest of the apartment.

“It’s more than I need, but the location is perfect,” he said while showing me around. “I’ll pay for the furniture and you can choose. I’ll even pay for an interior decorator to make the place look nice.”

Before agreeing, “How much is my half of the rent?”

He quoted me a price, it was steep, but within my budget. “Spicy comes with me,” I said.

“No problem.”

“When do we move in?”

“It’ll take a month for a designer to come up with something and another for everything to be ready.” He gave me a sly look, “Think you can rough it at your hotel on the company’s dime for that long?”

“Yeah,” I said with a wink.

He told me about his new offices and duties while I told him about becoming spokesperson in training.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer,” he said.

I understood the quote, “She thinks I’m a rival?”

“Everyone in the whole country knows Gunter danced with you the first night in Atlanta and she was biting nails the whole six weeks.”

Appalled, “I would never get involved with a man like that. He’s old enough to be my grandfather.”

Looking into my eyes, “He’s rich and powerful enough to get whatever and whoever he wants.”

I couldn’t help it, “Like your father?”

Nodding, “Only a thousand times worse.”

“I see.”

Being forthright with me, “Father saw my mother in you and he wanted only what was best for me so he set things in motion. We still have free will.”

“We have the illusion of free will.” I said. “You’re talking to someone with training in behavior modification. The art of teaching is manipulating the free will of the students to get the appropriate response in the classroom.”

“Then you’re going into this eyes wide open,” he said. “I’m content that we be friends, but am open for more. 

“Would you want me knowing I have no heart?” As hard as I tried to stop them, tears fell down my cheeks.

Tenderly he wiped them with his napkin. “I lost my heart to someone too.”

* * *

Why does looking beautiful have to be so painful? Waxing, plucking, exercising and steaming. By the time the bikini wax was over I would have confessed to anything. The bra I wore for the first photo shoot was designed by the Marquis de Sade. The true horror is knowing it’s a never ending process.

My office was directly across from Emelia’s and on a free day I hired a personal assistant. Emilia told me to hire male, “There’s less drama and fewer tears when you fire them.”

Ronald Upchurch was six foot, blonde, and blue eyed with a dancer’s body and gay. Of all the men I interviewed he was the only one to see I was tired and rubbed my neck. His touch wasn’t threatening.

“Come with me,” I said. In the hall there were ten more waiting for an interview. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” I announced. “The position is filled.”

Going into Emelia’s office, “This is Ron,” I said introducing him to Armand, Emelia’s PA. To Ron I said, “This is Armand, I’ll let him fill you in on the requirements.”

I was in the studio posing for a month. Ten people dressed me, applied make up and with various other models posed from twelve to sixteen hours. It was exhausting.

Junior and I celebrated with Gunter and Emilia when it was done. The next day commercial shoots started. All of them were developed with Emilia in mind and PR scrambled to somehow fit me into the story boards. A few were scrapped and new ones developed. The easy ones were of me and a man buying our first house or car or leaving on a vacation. Mostly it was in front of a green screen.

The new ones showed me teaching second graders and after school driving away in a new car. Another was of a man and child playing in the living room of our new house. Even in these I never said anything it was just moving as directed and smiling.

Middle of October and Emilia finally let me see them. The photos would be in magazines, on billboards, buses, basically all over the place. The commercials would start airing in November.

“When we get back from Europe we’ll start working on the super bowl ad,” Emilia told me. “Ronald suggested it to Reggie and he thinks it’ll be one of the most remembered from the game.”

It was hard not to be snide after seeing me looking like Suzie Homemaker and knowing everyone in the country if not the world will be seeing them. “What next,” I replied. “Peter Pan or Marry Poppins?”

Laughing she said, “If you don’t want that to happen never say it within earshot of Reggie.” She went on, “You’re going back to Rugby and be welcomed by the whole town, like they do on American Idol. There will be scenes at your home with family and a touching reunion with all your former students. While inspecting the construction projects you’ll voice over how this municipal loan saved your home town.”

I couldn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure how I would be received back home. When I went back with James everyone said hi like always, but nothing special. Now all of a sudden I’m this hometown hero? I don’t think so.

It would be perfect for the super bowl after all the silly soda and beer ads. Then it hit, “You’re going forward with our proposal on small urban loans.”

“Yes,” she said. “We’ve named it the Bail out America Plan. Rugby is our launching point.”

My idea was bearing fruit and I wasn’t just a pretty face.

* * *

Deciding on different styles, colors and patterns the decorator showed me after a long day at work my mind was numb. Terry took one look at the options for his rooms, pointed to the one he liked and left. Wish it was that easy for me.

I called Mom and did my best to describe them getting her opinion and then Janelle’s. Mom was noncommittal as usual. It was like pulling teeth to get an opinion out of her. Janelle’s taste and mine were miles apart. I was on my own.

Asking Terry what he preferred for the living area he infuriatingly said, “I’ll leave that up to you.”

Deirdre, supposedly one of the best designers in New York, showed me a western motif with paintings of horses, cowboys, and mountain scenes with rustic furniture. The mountain scenes I liked but the rest was gawd awful!

Another option was ultra-modern with lots of stainless steel and geometric shapes in weird colors. I considered this and thought, “How about a couch and chairs of sharpened nails!” Hell Terry’d most likely brag about decorating with Game of Thrones in mind.

I settled on plush long leather couches opposite each other in light beige with chocolate brown carpet. Tables on both sides of each couch and a coffee table of polished cherry wood. I chose two lamps of black lacquer with mother of pearl Chinese characters meaning “Live, Laugh, Love” with off white shades. His lamps were mahogany with off white shades.   

Deirdre brought around a hundred items of wall décor and after six hours we were both satisfied. On the far wall was a fireplace with mantle of cherry wood and the one western painting we both liked. It was mostly grey sky with patches of purple indicating rain and blue for clear sky. In the left background was a snow covered mountain peak and a row of pine trees stretching to the right. In the fore ground was a lone dead tree with broken branches.

“That’s one of my favorite pieces,” she said. “It’s named Coming Storm and was a real find.”

The colors matched and it fit my mood.

Deirdre’s ideas about my rooms were either too masculine or too weird or little girl so I went to a furniture store and picked out a nice maple four poster bed with dresser and chest of drawers. Out of a catalogue I found a nice office set and ordered it.

Terry came in once it was finished; looked around and pointing to the fire place, “I was planning on mounting a buffalo head there.”

“Over my dead body,” I said rather firmly.

 He laughed and hugged me, “I’m glad you have something on the wall to remind me of home.”

Finished with filming, we settled into a routine of leaving around 8 and walking the thirty minutes to work. Whenever I wasn’t in the studio I stopped by his office and we walked back.

Maria had a meal prepared and waiting unless one of us called and canceled. Once, when the weather was bad, it took over two hours to get to work by taxi so we walked in most weather, but worked at home when snowing or icy.

The one steadfast rule between us was no business in the apartment. We talked about schedules and such on our walks. It made breakfast and dinner pleasant.

* * *

All but the super bowl commercial was done. I’d do the green screen stuff and shoot on location in December.

 “Are you glad that’s over with?” Emilia asked over cosmopolitans in her favorite bar. She was treating me to a special night out. Unlimited drinks and real food.

Taking my first bite of a medium sirloin steak in forever, and savoring the flavor I nodded. Nothing has ever tasted this good. I followed it with strawberry cheesecake.

Two cosmopolitans followed by three glasses of red wine and I was tipsy. Terry carried me into the apartment where I crashed on one of the couches for the night.

You have no idea how hard it is to be eating yogurt and fruit while someone else is scarfing down eggs, bacon, sausage and Danish? Or picking at a salad with a couple of strips of chicken with oil and vinegar while others are stuffing their face with spaghetti and meatballs?

The worst part of the diet was no booze and no sugar. What’s the reason for living if you can’t have a snickers bar?

Worst hangover of my life!

Finally feeling human Saturday afternoon I emerged from my rooms, after a two hour soak in the tub. Going out into the living area in robe and slippers, Terry was sitting on his couch reading one of the twelve newspapers he reads every day.

“When you go on the road with Emelia you’ll need to hold your liquor better than that.” He looked over his paper and winked.

“I usually can,” I whispered. “But that strawberry cheesecake kicked my butt.” We both laughed.



James



A new batch of students, golfing with my buddies Monday and Wednesday afternoons, happy hour at The Lounge every Friday after school. Sundays I cleaned house and watched Football. What a boring existence!

I would give my eye teeth to attend a Broncos game, but most of my income is paying off a hospital bill from college. I interviewed for a teaching/basketball position in Denver and Aurora, but didn’t get the call.

Nights were oppressive. I was content with my life until I met Rhonda. Now I’m lonely. When I close my eyes I see her smiling at me and want to take her in my arms. Memories of her laughing at my silly jokes and us tickling each other keep me from falling asleep.

I long for her and there’s a constant heaviness in my chest. When I go fishing I can see her standing on the bank with me throwing out the spinner and reeling it back in with a ten inch trout flopping on the line. I don’t dare go rock climbing as I would fall from lack of focus.

For Halloween I dressed as a zombie. It’s pretty much how I’ve felt since Rhonda chose a career with money, prestige and the high life over me. Evelyn stopped by my room a dead ringer for the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz complete with green face and wart. Seeing the grey paint on my face with blackened eyes under a grey hoody and ragged pants, “I told you she would break your heart?”

I wasn’t in the mood, “Is this a pep talk?”

“No,” she said. Handing me a note, “I just got off the phone with the principle of Jefferson High School in Denver asking my permission to contact you.”

“They have a position?” My heart skipped a beat.

She smiled, “Henry called me as a curtesy. We were married during the last ice age.”

I opened the folded paper. Henry Perkins and a number. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. “You’ll call begging me to take you back before winter break.”

Grabbing my cell phone, she left and I dialed the number. Leaving lesson plans for three days and I was in my truck on the road to Denver. Pure elation as I drove on the narrow winding road that paralleled the Arkansas River past Cotapaxi and on to Canyon City then Colorado Springs to hit I-25. It reminded me of taking Rhonda to the airport for her flight to Atlanta. Maybe in Denver I’ll find someone who’ll make me forget.

* * *

It’s bad enough seeing Rhonda every time I close my eyes and in my daydreams, but in Denver she was everywhere. Her picture was on the sides of busses, every local channel carried commercials with her in them. The face of U.S. Security Bank and Trust was making a big splash.

Evelyn was right about wanting to beg for my job back by Christmas. I wanted to turn around and get away from the constant reminders before the first day at my new school.

 I was teaching 9th and 10th grade English and coaching freshman girls’ basketball. When I was playing we had a joke: There are three things that should be done only at night. Sex, kick the can and girls’ basketball. Here I am coaching it.

The previous coach was arrested for molesting two of the players. No one showed up. Jazmine Black said, “I’ve talked to the parents and promised them that I will keep a sharp eye on you and you’ll never be alone with any of the girls. That still wasn’t good enough.”

A little pissed off at how this was handled, “You’re the only female coach here and the other teams are still playing. Why are they blaming me for what the other asshole did?”

“They don’t know you,” The dark black woman at around 6 foot said walking away as if that was an end to the matter. “Fine,” I yelled making her stop. “Make me your assistant coach.”

She walked back heavy breasts rising up and down in red T-shirt and blue shorts. “Our budget doesn’t cover an assistant coach.”

I shot back, “It does if there’s not a 9th grade coach.”

She started to say something then stopped. Thinking about it a bit more giving me a chance to appraise her figure out of my peripheral vision. “I’ll announce an open call for 9th grade girls’ basketball. That should turn up some players, no guarantee about quality.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“Not ever being alone with one the girls still applies,” she said turning around and walking away letting me get another good look at her shapely backside.”

“Fine by me,” I yelled. “I have a reputation to protect.”

Girls played their games in the main gym, but worked out in the girl’s gym. Jazmine introduced me to the other coaches before starting practice.

“This is Louis Snyder, the JV coach,” she said.

We shook hands. He was wearing long sleeves trying to hide tattoos.

“Hey I played against you in college,” Reggie Smith the C team coach said shaking my hand. I played for CU.”

I remembered him. My junior year we played Colorado University. The Division I teams played smaller schools to pad their total wins for the year. They beat us 102-70. We were grateful they didn’t run up the score. Reggie was one of the back-ups and played the second half after they were ahead by 26. We were both forwards and he was my nemesis the second half. I was relieved when he came in as the starter was embarrassing me.

“Where are you staying?” he asked.

“At a KOA.”

“I’ve got a fold out couch, we drive to work together and split the rent.”

“Thanks,” I said.

The next day when the girls came out of the locker room; eight were in PE tops and shorts instead of team wear. I motioned for them to join me. All eight were in my 9th grade English classes.

Jazmine came by and thanked the girls for coming out, whispering to me, “Watch yourself, they think you’re cute.”

I resisted the urge to watch her go back to the other side of the gym, but wondered if she thought I was cute too.

The next day the athletic director cornered me in the teacher’s lounge, “James,” he said, “I received calls from most of the girl’s parents on your team and they’re willing to let them play.”

Deciding to be diplomatic, “Please, let them know I appreciate their gesture, but I already have a team.”

He smiled. Never trust an administrator that smiles at you. “You’ve got eight girls that were cut from the team six weeks ago.”

Looking him in the eye, “Yesterday they wanted to play and the other girls didn’t.”

He got a little red in the face. I guess he’s not used to someone standing up to his implied demands. He was about to threaten me, but to his credit didn’t. “It wasn’t their choice,” he reasoned. “The parents have given in, don’t punish the girls over this.”

He was right, dammit, but I didn’t want to hurt the girls who were willing to play either. “Have them come to practice. We’ll settle this with Coach Black.”

He smiled again. Gave me the creeps. “I’ll let them know.”

* * *

From starting with none now there are too many. Jazmine and I settled on twelve, making me only two over the team limit. Two of the girls would be left at home for away games on a rotating basis.

The team forfeited two games during the mess with the previous coach. I let Nancy, the team captain, a five foot guard who could hit three pointers, call the plays for the next two games.

I did my usual coaching stuff like calling time-outs, giving pep talks, and fussing at the refs. Nancy decided who to play and replace. We agreed everyone would play in both halves. 

It was a home game and was played at four in the afternoon. The other teams play thirty minutes after the previous one. The visiting stands were nearly empty. The home stands were a little fuller. The junior varsity and varsity teams watched the first half before getting ready for their games. The other coaches were keeping an eye on me and the parents.

I spent most of the game charting the different plays the girls were familiar with. The walk-ons didn’t have a clue, but that would change. We lost by twelve points to an average team. This made us winless as they lost the first two games of the season.

After the game I waited in the stands with the other coaches to chart their plays and get a feel for the style of play the school uses.

While the C team was warming up a pretty Hispanic news reporter and camera crew arrived. I went outside and watched while Nancy and Tasha were interviewed about playing again after what happened with the other girls. I felt sorry for them having to answer questions like that at this age, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Then the reporter turned to me. I was definitely not comfortable. “Coach Patterson, what’s it like to come in after a scandal and coach these girls?”

It was the question I was expecting, “Everyone at the school is trying to make this season as normal as possible.”

Thinking that would be the end of it. “I have it from a good source that over the summer you dated Rhonda Duncan, the new spokesperson for U.S. Security Bank and Trust. Is this true?”

I wanted to shove the microphone down her pretty little throat. Doing my best Tom Selleck imitation, “You came to do a story on the students. Keep it about them.” Not quite the same without a bushy mustache.

She followed me into the gym trying to get an answer. Jazmine blocked her. “If you’re not here to film the game, please leave.”

I sat down at the edge of the bleachers closest to the inside doors. Jazmine came up, “What was that all about?”

“Henry’s ex-wife just shot me in the back.”

“Care to translate?”

“My former principal in Salida used to be married to Henry, that’s how he got my name.”

Still perplexed, “And what does that have to do with a Monica Mendez going investigative reporter on you?”

“It’s a long story.”

With the C team game getting started she said, “I’ve got plenty of time before varsity’s up.”

Sheepishly I said, “You’ve seen the SB&T ads on TV?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“The woman in them and I were together before school let out last year.”

Jazmine sat down. “She’s from Salida?”

“No,” I said. “Rugby, North Dakota.”

Shaking her head. “How the hell did the two of you meet?”

“She came down to find a job, I came up with a bus load of kids on a field trip. Stayed in the same hotel and sorta clicked.”

“What happened?”

I shrugged, “She found a job and moved to New York.”

Henry joined us. High school principals don’t usually attend the early games. “Did you see Monica Mendez run out of here?”

“Wish my foot was up her ass.” I replied.

Laughing, “That’s the reason I hired you.” As bad as an administrator smiling at you is, laughing is the sound of pure evil.

“Evelyn put you up to this?”

“She knew about our problem and knew with a discreet rumor you would turn the focus off the school.”

Jazmine got up, “Hank you’re a first class son-of-a-bitch, but I think it worked.

I turned my phone off to stop it from ringing every five seconds.

* * *

That night’s newscast mentioned the scandal at Jefferson High School only by saying I was replacing the disgraced coach. It showed me being asked about Rhonda and walking away. At least they could have aired the interview with the girls and my first reply. 

They flashed some pictures of us in Momma D’s. I came out of my chair barely controlling the urge to kick the screen. Next with Rhonda in my arms on the driving range while I was trying to help her swing. Then it switched to some of her photo ads and clips from the commercials.

A spokesperson for SB&T, a woman in a head scarf speaking in an English accent said, “United States Security Bank and Trust is proud of our new advertising campaign and all those involved in making them.”

“What about Rhonda Duncan and James Patterson?” Ms. Mendez asked.

 “The advertisements and commercials all come from corporate headquarters in New York. All questions concerning them and those in them should be directed there.”

My thoughts were on a constant loop remembering Rhonda ever since we parted. I didn’t need a montage to make it even worse. Such a short time together. I never knew so much pain could be endured. Cut off my leg, strip the flesh off my bones with a cat-of-nine-tails. That I could tolerate.

I read a book the rest of the evening not remembering a word. While brooding trying to get some sleep I thought, “Not only does this deflect the school from the scandal, but SB&T gets free air time. Maybe I should send them a bill?”  

In the teacher’s lounge the four teachers there clapped when I went to my mailbox. It was full of messages. Tossed them in the trash. I heard a snide remark and snickers about the one that got away.

In the classroom I tried to stay on topic, but most of the students were raising their hands for the first time. I wasted a day getting that out of their system.



Darius

Working for Hector I don’t have party on Fridays. Raquel collect day’s take and bring to the office not far from our apartment.

Office is in a strip mall and smells of fried food from Chinese restaurant. It makes me want throw up. Never gonna eat Chinese again. Sign over door reads Dudley’s Accounting Services LLC. TempLo is my only client.

Some fool borrows a hundred dollars for two weeks and is supposed repay $120, but he doesn’t have it, so he only pays 20 dollars and does that again and again. Fool pays 20 bucks two weeks for ten years and still owes original hundred. Treadmill economics.

Fools who skip, I go to the Municipal courthouse and file civil action. No need to break kneecaps, let courts do dirty work. Collect around 80%. Only 20% shrinkage on loans is like owning your own printing press.

Saw other guys during basic get sucked dry. Decide to be a banker and make money instead of paying it. I ate in mess hall even though food was awful. It free. Other guys buy flashy sports cars or big trucks. I found a five year old Ford Taurus and it still runs nice.

Now I’m part of the leeches. A big step down from working in real bank, but bread’s better.

Geraldo brings a duffle bag of money every Friday. Count on machine and give receipt. Add it to Templo’s take. Armored car to picks it up cash and deposits it at SB&T.

My cut off TempLo is 10%. Don’t get a dime from Hector and don’t want to. Now I have more money than I know how to spend. Don’t want to think what Hector makes.

Rosa’s breaking in thirty new whores smuggle from Mexico. Don’t meet except at police station.

“You have more than enough to send Hector away for years,” I told Martinez. Spreadsheets showing how much money was laundered through TempLos every week more than enough. Rosa’s testimony on putas gravy.

“None of it ties directly to Hector,” he said. “The only one we could prosecute is Geraldo. He’ll never turn on Hector. You need to get closer to the coke and heroin.”

Looking at Rosa, “No one’s closer to Hector than you.”

Shaking her head, “He won’t let anyone other than his homies near the shit.”

Martinez asked, “Did he use any of the new girls as mules on the way up?”

“Sure he did,” she answered. “But none of them will testify, he’d kill their families.”

Looking over ledger sheets Martinez shook his head, “This is too small. Looks like only prostitution. What he makes on heroin in New Mexico alone would be ten times this.”

“We’ve been over this before,” Rosa said. “None of his homies has the brains to launder that much money.”

Agreed with Martinez, “He has to have accountant, lawyer or banker.”

Martinez smiled, “If you keep doing a good enough job for him maybe he’ll let you in on that part of the action.”

“This is an audition,” said out loud.

Martinez nodded, “Let’s hope so.”

Hector was waiting at office when I got back. I nearly puked. Is he hear to kill me?

“You still driving that piece of shit?” he said.

“It’s paid for” I said, “and it runs.”

He tossed me set of keys. “Your new house and ride,” he smiled.

If I get into his white Lexus I might not come back alive. Heart beating like a jack hammer I tried to be cool. We drove to a house in a middle class neighborhood. Silver BMW X5M in the driveway. Rosa was standing beside it.

Getting inside, “Sweet ride.”

“Always drive a silver or white car,” he said. “Without heavy tenting. They’re invisible. Heavy tenting is a red flag for cops and they gravitate to black, and flashy colors.”

“I know,” I said. “Used to be one.”

Unlocking the front door of a brick house. Paint smell greeted us. Nice living room, three bedrooms, and two baths, kitchen with island, dining room and sunken den plus two car garage.

Hector had his arm ‘round Rosa watching my reaction. “The cars a gift. Payments on the house won’t eat too much of what you’ll make from your new clients.”

That got my attention, “New clients?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Armando and Jorje are opening up TempLo offices. Ten each.”

Maybe this is a trial run on the drug money. I’m betting in deeper. I could easily afford the house now. Twenty new TemPlos I’ll be rollin in bread. Car, neighborhood, house comfortable not flashy.

“I’ll need to move my office closer to home,” I said.

Hector handed me a card, “Arturo owns an office complex not far from here.”

Love the car and house. Raquel moved in. We don’t talk much outside of business. She’s a good cook and doesn’t bug me when want I want to hide in the den and watch TV.

I told Martinez to take me off the payroll. Hector’s monitoring every penny in case I skimmed. Unexplained money could get me killed.

I came here to follow Rhonda. S moved to New York. I’m getting on with life. It’s dangerous, but drivin sweet ride, nice roof over head, thousand dollar whore in bed. First time since Air Force I’m content. With Raquel I no longer see Rhonda.

Sittin’ in recliner, drinking beer and enjoying Thursday Night Football. Creole, my dog, tryin’ to get some beer. First dog ever own. Black Lab, mellow dog. Like over Pit Bull the homies have. A commercial shattered my nice comfortable world. Rhonda’s in the commercial. She looked good enough to eat. She was with a jerk actin like they buyin’ car. Threw bottle into TV.

Raquel ran in, “Madre de Dios,” she say seein’ damage and crossing herself.

Go out back yard with Creole. Start playin’ fetch with tennis balls. Need let off steam not tearin’ up whole house.

Burned out, go inside. Creole drink water bowl dry. Sat on stool front of island in kitchen staring at refrigerator.

“Cabrón,” Hector said. Didn’t know he was here. “Why for you trash such a nice TV?”

Starin’ at the wall, “She was on it.”

Rosa was with him. Raquel called afraid I’d hurt her.

“¿Que es mujer?” Raquel speaks Spanish when ticked off.

Whispering, “Rhonda Duncan.”

Losing his accent, “Who the fuck is Rhonda Duncan?”

Snap back, “The bitch who has a restraining order on me.”

Recognition in Hector’s and Rosa’s eyes.

“She was on TV?” Rosa asked.

“Yeah, in commercial for SB&T.”

“That the first time you see that commercial?” Hector asked.

“Yeah.”

Rosa said, “You been living under a rock? She’s on busses, billboards, and every channel. They’re doing a media blitz. She’s the new face of SB&T replacing Emelia Anton.”

Only a woman would know this shit.

Hector whistle, “You scored with her?”

Lowering head, “One time.”

“Híjole esse,” he said. “She make me a stalker too.”

Rosa elbowed him in the ribs. He laughed and put his arm around her.

I hugged Raquel who was spooked. “Sorry. Don’t worry about cleanin up mess. I do it.”

She kissed me. “You over her?”

“Don’t know.” Thought I was till commercial.

“Let me know,” She slept in the other room.

Replaced TV with one of new curved ones that have really fantastic picture. Six o’clock news Monica Mendes asking a guy about dating Rhonda Duncan. Start to throw bottle at screen again. Raquel stood in front of me naked. “You want her or me?”

Took her to bed. No matter how hard she tried, and she is a pro at this, I was still a limp noodle.

It was a week before I was a man again. Every time I see Rhonda on billboard or TV want to strangle her. Good thing she’s in New York.



Rhonda

Going over the itinerary of my first European trip with Emelia, Ron buzzed. “Austin Sr. from Denver on line two.”

“Good to hear from you Mr. Austin.”

“How’s New York,” he asked.

It was good to hear his voice, he’s always been the kindest man, “There are more people working on just my office floor than live in Rugby.”

“Looking forward to going back?”

My mood crashed, “I don’t like using them this way.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’ll do what every small town in America wants: put them on the map.”

Now I didn’t feel so bad about it, “I guess you’re right.”

“That’s my belly dancer,” he said then added, “I called to let you know your ad campaign has made a big splash in Denver.”

“I’m glad to hear it. We’re hoping it’ll make a big splash all over the country.”

“So do all of us in the SB&T family,” he said. “I’ve e-mailed you some clips from the local news stations. Why don’t you watch them with Emilia? She’s sure to get a kick out of them.”

“Will do,” I said a little confused. “Why would I being making news in Denver? I wasn’t there that long.”

“You’ll find out,” he said.

Hanging up I checked my e-mail and clicked on the attachment. James was being interviewed about taking over for a guy who molested his students. Then the reporter asked him about dating me. Putting my hand over my mouth, “Oh my God!”

He walked away and my heart broke for him. He finally got a job coaching in Denver and he’s blindsided about me.

“He’s a hunk,” Emelia said. “Now I know why you were so reluctant to leave for Atlanta.”

“This could ruin his life,” I said. “And he’s done nothing wrong other than loving me.”

“Nonsense,” she laughed. “Right now he’s a celebrity. All the divorcees in Denver are busy finding his phone number and wanting a date.”

“This could get him fired,” I said really afraid for him.

“Get real,” she said. “The superintendent of the schools will pin a medal on him for getting the media off his back over a sex scandal.”

Terry and I discussed it on the walk home. “I talked to father and it seems the principal of the high school used to be married to the principal in Salida and they set it up to take the heat off.”

Remembering the intense dislike I felt when meeting that harpy I shuddered in the unusually warm November weather. “I did enough damage to him, he doesn’t need anymore.”

I waited till midnight knowing it was ten in Denver and he would be watching the news. I hoped his fifteen minutes of fame were over. Surprised he picked up on the third ring, it was good to hear his voice, “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” he answered. “You had nothing to do with it.”

“I’m glad you found a job in Denver.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Now I need a place to stay bigger than a toilet.”

I gave him a number, “Call this lady, she’s an apartment finder and found the one I was staying in. She’ll fix you up.”

“I can’t afford an apartment finder,” he said. I knew he was going to get all righteous on me and refuse any help I offered.

“Not a problem,” I said. “She’s doing me a favor, and before you refuse please accept my help because you love me, even if I can’t love you back.”

I heard him try to say something, but he was so choked up all he could do was gurgle. Finally he said, “Ok.”

I felt sorry for James, but not enough to drop everything I’m doing and go back to him. Ambition was now in full control of my life.

  * * *

Terry wasn’t kidding about holding my liquor. Our first stop on the trip was London and it was like swimming in booze. I quickly learned to take a few sips and leave the glass on a table. A waiter would come by and it was sip and repeat.

Emilia knew everyone and was effusive introducing me as the new spokesperson for U.S. Savings, Bank and Trust. I was expected to know faces and names and greet them as if they’re a rock star and I’m a groupie. With Emilia constantly by my side doing introductions it was an enjoyable evening.

The next party in Paris was quite different. Their wine was a lot better, but a German banker draped his arm around me smelling of cigar smoke and Schnapps.  He whispered, in accented English, how much he’d like to take me to a private room. I discreetly pulled away, “There are too many other men here who would be upset if I left.”

He tried to maneuver me into a corner where he could grope. I was ready to scratch his face when Emilia came up. “Anton, where have you been all night?” she said sweetly. “Gunter’s been looking for you.” She put her arm in his and led him away.

Within an hour she saved me three times. In our suite I drank a shot of tequila and took a long shower. I never felt so defiled and dirty in my life.

 Emilia was in a robe in the living area waiting for me. “That wasn’t so bad was it?”

No I love being thrown into a shark tank as bait! “What do I do when you’re not there?”

She drank water from a bottle and said, “You have three years to learn the ropes.” Taking another sip, “From the look in your eye with Anton that would be the wrong approach.”

Maybe but he would get the message! “Was I supposed to let him paw me?”

“No,” she said with a certain pain in her eyes. “I purposely didn’t prepare you for this part of the job so you would experience it under my care.”

Taking a deep breath she went on, “I didn’t have a mentor when I started modeling and going to parties. It’s amazing with even small boobs guys still found a way to grope me, and a few picked me up and carried me to a room with the others cheering him on.”

Tears slowly formed in her eyes. I held her hand. “Once I was drugged and gang raped while they taped it and posted on the internet.” She scrunched up her face in pain. “That sex tape is still circulating.”

“Why did you keep going to parties after the first time?”

Draining the last of the water, “The modeling agency required it. I had to be seen by the paparazzi and have my picture splashed over the tabloids. The wilder the party the greater exposure. They didn’t care about what happened to me or the other models we were meat for the grinder.”

Wiping her eyes as she went on, “The casting couch was my choice. Gunter liked my performance and I starred in three of his dreadful movies.”

Curiosity got the better of me, “How did you get him to marry you?”

She sighed, “I kept him happy. He was a gentle lover and the others on the set kept their distance.”

As good a reason as any.

Going on she said, “I was his eye candy at parties stroking his ego. Someone in PR came up with the idea of using me in their promotions and I started being the face of SB&T. That’s when he asked me to marry him. We kind of grew on each other.”

I knew she was never a mother, and since I haven’t felt the need to be one either I asked her, “Why didn’t you have children?”

She started crying. “I wanted to give Gunter a child, but Chlamydia and Gonorrhea did too much damage. We tried in-vitro fertilization, but none of the attempts were successful.”

I hugged and cried with her, “This must be painful to talk about.”

“I’ve never talked about it with anyone other than my doctors, and they didn’t care about how I felt the whole time. I was just what they called ‘a difficult responder.’”

We both started dabbing our eyes and blowing our noses.

She went on, “Gunter wanted to hire a surrogate, but the doctors told him the embryos weren’t viable and it would be a waste of money.” She stroked my hair. “Don’t wait as long as I did to have a child.”

“I’ve never wanted to be a mother,” I confessed.

Drying her eyes for the last time, “Neither did I until it was too late.”

“You could have adopted or used a baby mother.”

She gave a weak smile, “That’s why I love Gunter so much. He refused to have a child with anyone other than me.”





* * *

Groper evasion began the next day. An actor was hired to try and harass me in different ways. He had male pattern baldness, short beard around five foot eight and weighed three hundred pounds. “This man is the King of Paper Clips and the bank stands to make billions if he signs on the dotted line. If you piss him off we’re all in prison or dead,” She said on exercise one.

 He hit on Emilia first and she demonstrated responses. Then my turn. He was instructed not to stop with me. Dirty pool!

It made me think of other responses or ways of dodging or slipping away from his attempts to corner me. At times what the guy said or did made me really angry and I got that look in my eye again.

Emilia would step in and say, “Always keep in mind how you react is a reflection on the bank and the consequences of your actions can be good or bad. Your job is to make sure the outcome is good.”

Over lunch she said, “You’re doing splendidly. I think one or two more sessions and you’ll get the hang of it.”

I was finally able to ask what was on my mind. “What if the King of Paper Clips or Queen of Staples won’t take ‘No’ for an answer and it’s submit or die?”

Finishing her bite, “Our advance team does a thorough psychological profile of all the players we’re doing business with on each trip. Since the same players keep showing up it’s a pretty short list and I know how to handle all of them from experience.”

She took another bite and a sip of white wine. “If we’re going into a country like Paper Clips or Staples where it’s that dangerous I don’t go and you won’t either.” She paused, “The problems come when that type of individual is not in their country, but at a function where we attend. When that happens I have a bodyguard next to me at all times.”

I asked, “What about other times?”

She nodded, “At the last two parties do you remember Lionel Ortega and Faustino Salazar?”

“I remember two men with us, but we were never introduced.”

“They’re on the list as Vice-president of foreign relations and Vice-president of Foreign Investments. Actually they’re former Special Forces and stealth body guards. One of them had his eyes on me the whole time. The other keeps track of Gunter.”

“I didn’t take them for body guards. They dress up nice.”

She smiled. “One of them catch your eye?”

I blushed, “I think the one you called Faustino has a nice ass.”

She winked, “I’ll let him know.”

“No you won’t!”

We giggled and then I asked, “What about travel in the U.S.?”

She sighed, “Same applies, but we can’t do psych evals on everyone you rub shoulders with. Keep your body guard close at all times.”

Something serious came to mind, “They won’t be enough, will they?”

“No,” she said. “It takes an important husband.”

I was quiet for a long time and she was patient with me. We both knew the obvious choice for a husband. Finally I said, “I’m not sure about a marriage of convenience. I want to marry for love.”

“Do you get along with Terry?” She started grilling me.

“Yes,” I conceded.

“Is he handsome?”

Grudgingly, “Yes.”

“Then let nature take its course.”

Afterwards I called Janelle. She asked the same questions and gave the same advice. Did Senior buy her off?



Junior

Working in my home office, I heard Rhonda come in. Going to the living area, “Good to see you back,” Didn’t realize how much I missed her until she returned. She relaxed on the living area couch with feet up, “How was the trip?”

Taking a glass of club soda from me, “Long and exhausting.”

“Emelia texted when you’d be in and I ordered a masseuse. She’ll be here in thirty minutes.”

Shaking her head, “You have one, I’m taking a long soak and getting some sleep.”

No since wasting a massage, so while she was soaking the sixty year old matron gave me a wonderful massage. I set up weekly appointments.

During breakfast Rhonda started telling me about London, Paris, and the other cities. All the sights she saw, the people she met, the clothes she bought.

She kept it up on the walk to the office. It must have been quite an adventure. Even told me about the defense against sexual harassment training.

“Maybe I should offer our female employees the same training since sensitivity training doesn’t work,” I joked.

She didn’t think it was funny. “Maybe you should.”

At the elevators we usually head our separate ways. This time she said, “Want to come up to my office.”

“Gladly,” I said just a little eager.

It was my first time to meet Ron. He asked if I wanted coffee or tea. Sitting across from her desk and sipping on a nice cup of Earl Grey I waited for her to tell me what’s on her mind.

She was uncomfortable and it took her a bit to begin. Finally she summoned the courage. “All the groper evasion training in the world is not enough.”

“I know. Emilia approached me about hiring the actor.”

“I need more protection than a couple of dressed up body guards.”

The unseen hand of my father was at work, “What do you have in mind?”

“The men leave Emilia alone because of Anton and what he would do if they got a little too fresh.”

Not only is the subtle hand of father behind this, but Emilia is guiding her in my direction. Dad wants an Austin grandson. Gunter and Emilia want what’s good for the business. But is this marriage good for Rhonda and me? I don’t know if I should thank them or tell them to stop meddling in our lives.

She looked down afraid to see my reaction. I knew the logical conclusion to the discussion. “We’ve only lived in the same apartment for a few months, but I feel we’ve become good friends.”

 “Yes we have.” Like any man living closely with a beautiful woman I’ve had my fantasies. She’s stunning in a business suit, and drop dead gorgeous in a ball gown or cocktail dress and on the weekends when she’s lounging around in T-shirt and Capri’s drives me crazy. Being a gentleman and not trying to take advantage of the situation has been excruciating. A small glimmer of hope escaped from my fantasies as I waited for her next words.

Taking a deep breath she went on, “If we married and were together on these trips I would have the same kind of security Emilia has with Gunter.”

I wanted this ever since she came back from Atlanta and we worked together in Denver. For the first time I realized I wanted her for more than just to get her in the sack. Father was right, she would be the perfect wife and it’s time to settle down.

Opening negotiations. “You’ve given this a great deal of thought haven’t you?”

Looking me in the eyes now, “Yes.”

The most important bargaining point, “What about children?”

“I’ve never wanted to be a mother. I don’t want to be tied down with pregnancy and motherhood.

This was surprising especially coming from a teacher. This could be a deal breaker. “I want at least a son to carry on the family name.”

Nodding her head, “I know. I’m 26 and the biological clock may not be ticking, but physically it’s best to have a child before 30.” She paused and I waited. This wasn’t easy for her.  “I won’t start a family until we’ve been married at least two years to make sure we want to spend the rest of our lives together.”

“I’m in no hurry,” I said. “Father might be a different story.”

She smiled. “If I become a mother it would be nice to have a son and a daughter.”

“Agreed,” I said. “What about being tied down raising them?”

“Emilia pointed out to me that we have enough money for a wet nurse and governess. Not that I would go that far, but since thinking about this my heart is open to motherhood.”

“Your conditions?” It was her turn.

“No physical or verbal abuse. The first time I fear you I leave.”

A reasonable request. “Have you felt any fear concerning me since we’ve met, worked together and now shared an apartment?”

“No,” she said.

“You won’t after we’re married,” I assured her. Now for the important question, “Do you love me?”

She smirked, the last thing I thought she would do. “After Emilia and I talked about this I reflected on our time here in the apartment. It reminded me of my parents and how they get along. You can feel the love they have for each other by how comfortable they are.”

Not following her drift, “What does that have to do with us?”

Very seriously she said, “You and I are comfortable, we only need to add the passion.”

My heart nearly stopped. This was becoming real. She answered in a roundabout way and I needed to test her a little more. I want a real marriage, not just a convenient one. “What about the guy from Salida?”

She went sad, “There was passion between us, and we might have been happy.” She paused, “When I scorched my heart for the classroom it carried over to him.”

“Is there room in your heart for me?”

Tears formed around her eyes, softly she said, “Yes.”

I wanted to lock the door, rip her clothes off and make love on the couch, but that wouldn’t be professional. “We’ll continue this discussion later tonight.” Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

The rest of the day my heart raced with anticipation and my mind went over dozens of scenarios on how this would play out. Most of them ending badly.

We met in the lobby as usual. She was pretty talked out about Europe so I told her what happened in New York while she was away. Dinner was waiting and we ate quietly only speaking to praise Maria for the wonderful food.

Leaving the table I suggested we change into casual wear like on the weekend and watch a movie together. It was the one scenario where I thought we could relax and proceed from there. Nothing is more deadly to romance than turning sex into an obligation.

Before I left to change I put in an old movie that was a favorite of my mothers. The Turning Point with Jane Fonda and Shirley McClain. Dad once whispered to me after we watched it for the millionth time, “The ultimate chick flick.”

She came out in white Capri’s and a blue peasant top in bare feet. Makeup was off and she was still breathtaking. I sat next to her instead of across, lit a joint, took a puff and handed it to her. “What have you been thinking about since we talked in your office?”

She giggled while blowing out the smoke. The question wasn’t meant to be funny. Weed must get to her quick. “I made out a list of your good qualities and bad.”

I smiled, “Which side was longer?”

She smiled and my heart fluttered. “I’m not telling.”

Finishing off the joint and resting on the arm of the couch I put my arm around her and she relaxed against me. With a remote I dimmed the lights, turned on the TV and started the movie.

The experience lacked popcorn, but she didn’t mind being close and was enjoying the movie. Having seen it a million times I knew exactly when to kiss the back of her neck and nibble on her ear without distraction.

I lowered my arms around her middle and we held hands. About half way through she turned and kissed me. Not lingering or passionate, but our first kiss.

When the movie was over we kissed passionately for what seemed like forever. Coming up for air we went into her room.

I was afraid she would be passive aggressive. Her mind may say yes, but her body could say no. In the morning with her snuggled up to me I was the king of the world.

“You sly old fox,” I said when Dad answered the phone.

“You’re getting married,” he said. I could see him smiling two thousand miles away.

She continued to stay in her rooms, but it was pleasant from time to time when she would join me in mine or ask me into hers



Rhonda

It wasn’t easy to schedule a wedding and honeymoon. Emilia brought in a wedding planner and we settled on a date with all the headaches a wedding with over two thousand guests would entail.

I did a lot of green screen time to make it look like I was in Rugby. My idea was becoming real and I’m not just a pretty face. The company jet flew us to turn it into reality.

Day 1: The entourage landed in Minot where the big hero’s welcome was staged. There were people from a hundred miles around screaming and acting crazy. The president of Minot State presented me with a distinguished alumni award.

The sixty-five mile drive to Rugby was in a limo with a woman around my age across from me filming my reaction. Emilia was the only other one present.

The last ten miles people were lining both sides of the road waving banners with my face and the caption WE LOVE OUR RHONDA on them. I waved through the fogged window. It was ten degrees below zero! There has to be an easier way for a chance at being in a super bowl commercial, people!

SB&T rented every motel room in the town, which still wasn’t enough and some wound up staying in Minot having to commute on the icy road. A snow storm hit that night burying everything in four inches of white.

I wanted to spend the night in my own room, but the film crew was set up for the next day and the house sat empty overnight. Terry and I stayed in the Cobblestone Inn. Strange how giving a belly dance in the courtyard led to this. Mom and Daddy were in the adjoining room we sat and talked until midnight.

 Day 2: Mom put the prepared dinner in the oven to warm-up and they filmed as I helped her set the table. We chatted about what was happening in the town. She asked me questions about New York and what Europe was like. The director was ecstatic.

Terry was never far away, but stayed out of sight.

All of the family around the table, Daddy led us in prayer. After a few bites the camera crew started packing and heading to the high school. Mom started cleaning and I helped her. It felt normal again.

Day 3: I was back in my classroom filled with former students. I couldn’t help but cry as I hugged every one of them. They all grew so big in such a short time. I posed proudly at the artist’s sketch of the new school that would replace this one in a few years.

Then it was to the high school for a pep rally and my prepared speech thanking all of the people there for wishing me well.

Terry thoughtfully gave me hunting ear plugs before going in. The band was playing, cheer leaders doing their routines, and everyone in the stands was waving my banner.

Mrs. Cranston, my 9th grade algebra teacher, now the principal did a commendable job of quieting the crowd, thanking SB&T for filming the commercial here and then said, “Zach Duncan and I went to the prom together. And even after he dumped me for Shonda who I roomed with in college; I’ve voted for him three times.”

There was laughter and applause. When things quieted down. “Rhonda was the brightest pupil I ever had the privilege to teach in the twenty years I taught mathematics. In a way I feel she’s like my own daughter, as does the whole town of Rugby.” Turning to look at me, “We are all so proud of you and your accomplishments.” Turning back around, “Let’s give our favored daughter a warm welcome home.”

The crowd erupted. I could see all my students with their parents in chairs on the floor. Emelia, Mom and Daddy were with me on the stage. She then presented me with a big plastic gold key with a long red ribbon. Daddy helped me get to the podium on wobbly legs.

She said, “I am honored Mayor Duncan gave me the honor of presenting this to you.” The crowd roared again.

Taking the key, “Thank you,” I croaked. Giving it to Daddy who returned to his seat.

There was a hush. My throat was parched and mercifully there was a glass of water. Taking a lady like sip when I wanted to guzzle, “It wasn’t that easy to quiet a room when I was teaching.” Everyone laughed.

“This is overwhelming. I’ve missed every one of you and especially the students. For that I want to say I’m sorry.” A tear fell from my right eye.

Going on, “I have never regretted leaving Rugby because in a sense I never did. I’m here on the phone every week talking to Mom and Daddy. I may not be here in person, but my spirit will always reside here and is watching over all my students. Rugby is a part of me just as I’m a part of Rugby.”

The crowd cheered and many stood. It was exhilarating to feel the love they all shared. It didn’t take long to finish the speech and then go through the gauntlet of important dignitaries from all over the state; even the Lt. Governor.

The camera crew packed up and left for the airport. The flight was scheduled for eight and wanted to beat the next storm. They made it to Minot, but all flights were grounded. We spent the next three days buried in ten feet of snow.

Day 10: “Denver and New York get cold,” Terry said as he entered the house shivering. Taking off his snow covered overcoat. “But they’re nothing like this.” He stayed at the Cobblestone Inn while I moved back home. Mom and Daddy were happier.

Emelia was right behind him. She wasn’t as cold in a full length mink coat. Mom handed her a cup of hot chocolate which she graciously accepted.

“The only thing standing between Rugby and the North Pole is a barbed wire fence,” Mom said. “And today it’s down.” An old joke around here.

Shaking to try and warm up Terry said, “I believe it.”

“The crew get out yet?” I asked.

“This morning. The bus is pulling out as soon as we get an all clear from the state police and that should be within a couple of hours.”

Mom gave him a cup of hot coffee which he drank down. “Ah, that’s what I needed,” he said. Going on, “We’ll most likely have to spend the night in Minot and leave in the morning.”

Mom said, “Might as well make yourself at home. Zach’s in his man cave why don’t you join him?”

 Emelia, Mom and I sat around the table drinking hot chocolate and planning the wedding. The one good thing about being snowed in was having time for this.

On the drive to Minot there were others standing along the side of the road, but they weren’t waving and cheering. They held up signs that read: STOP FRACKING, SB&T IS KILLING RUGBY. WE NEED CLEAN DRINKING WATER.

In shock I realized I wasn’t a hero to everyone.

I got on my phone, “Daddy, is Phillips fracking for the gas?”

“That’s what it takes to get it out,” he said.

I was upset, “They promised when we signed they wouldn’t. It’s in the contract.”

His voice cracked a bit, “Once the projects started is when they started fracking. There was no going back.”

Hanging my head, “And I’m the one leading all the other small towns to their dooms.” Looking at Emelia, “What have I done?”

Coldly she said, “You found a way for the corporation to triple its profits over the next ten years.”

Now I knew what Gunter meant by losing my soul.



James



By Christmas I was in a nice one bedroom apartment. I don’t know what I’ll do when the six month lease is up and I’m out of a job, but it’s nice for now. The team was 3-8. We were only blown out in one game.

There was a break in the weather and I made it back to Salida. Eating Sunday dinner at Momma D’s with my buddies and their wives they gave me a hard time about walking away from the reporter.

Stephanie said, “I never knew you had such a cute butt.”

Before I could respond Evelyn stopped by, “Want your job back?”

“No,” I said. “Came to get the rest of my stuff.”

“Good,” she said. “I can’t rent it out with all that crap in there.”

You have no idea how glad I was not having her as a landlord.

“Let me know when you get tired of city life,” she said walking away.

“What are the golf courses like?” Jake asked.

I threw the idea out, “Why don’t you all come up this summer and find out?”

Stephanie quickly added, “Great idea, we girls can all do some shopping while you guys go out and hit a stupid white ball.”

Melvin was the math teacher, “Motel rooms, travel expenses, food, green fees, and shopping; you trying to bankrupt us?”

Denver’s less than two hundred miles away and they’ll all come up in Lyman’s SUV. A room in an Econo Lodge isn’t that much and it has a free breakfast. Green fees will be a little higher, but not much and it’s up to the husband to control his wife’s spending. “You wanted to know what the golf courses are like, this is the only way to find out.”

We settled on three days in late June. It’s nice to schedule things during the middle of the week in summers instead of the weekends.

* * *

The Broncos made it into the super bowl and all of Colorado went crazy as usual. I made a number of female friends. I purposely didn’t date any teachers from school. Many were willing on the first date, and who am I to turn down such a tempting offer? For some reason one time was all they wanted. I’m sure a girl would be crushed with the wham, bam thank you man routine, but after a shredded heart I didn’t mind.

Jazmine would be the one exception to the rule, but we both knew to keep our relationship cool. In the teacher’s lounge she announced, “Super bowl party at my house. I’m providing the place, bring something to snack on and your own bottle.”

In our box was a folded invitation with her address on it. The married teachers wouldn’t come so she didn’t have to fear a huge crowd.

With vegie tray, fruit tray and six pack of Coors, wearing my Peyton Manning jersey, Broncos coat, ski cap and gloves I knocked on her door. I was met by a man who made me look like a midget.

“Welcome,” he said. “You the new coach?”

“Right,” I said coming in and shedding outer layers. He took my sack of food and drink into the kitchen.

Jazmine came out in black pants and a black sheer see through top showing a low cut black bra. It took effort not to drool.

“See you met Hakim, my brother,” she said.

That’s a load off, “He play for the Nuggets?”

Coming out he said, “Landed wrong junior year in college. Spent a year in a body cast. I’m not messing with that anymore.”

“Don’t blame you,” I sympathized. “I’m still paying for knee surgery.”

Two of Hakim’s friends were in the family room sitting around a large TV. The pre-game garbage was on so the sound was muted. Hakim introduced me to Jamal and Vincent. I was a little uncomfortable being the only white present.

I spent a lot of time with blacks, kind of hard to play b-ball and not rub shoulders with them and we became friends, but only on the court and in the locker room. We never socialized.

The doorbell rang again, Reggie and Louis walked in. Somehow it wasn’t so awkward anymore. Right after the national anthem two friends of Jazmine showed up with Monica Mendes.

The game was put on pause as she introduced Kelly, a white woman with tattoos all over her neck and arms. She was skinny as a rail and looked like a junkie with spaced out eyes under really ratty brown hair. The other was Shakira, a light skinned black with a knock out body and straightened hair down to her shoulders.

Jasmine went on to say, “Kelly and I played together at CU. She’s fallen on hard times and I’m helping her get back on her feet.”

The girl tried to disappear. Louis put his arm around her. “I hit rock bottom a few years ago and Jasmine brought me back.”

Jazmine went on, “Shakira and I played ball together in the WNBA and is now coaching the Tulsa Shock. She’s in town trying to recruit me onto her coaching staff.”

The other guys welcomed her warmly. I congratulated Jazmine.

“Monica,” Jasmine said. “Is here on a preliminary interview as she’s planning a story on both of them.”

I wanted to ignore her, but instead held out my hand, “Nice to meet you under better circumstances.”

She smiled and we shook. Not being on the receiving end of her questions I let my eyes wonder over her nice figure. On TV you only see her pretty face.

Half way through the first quarter I was on my third beer and stuffed with little smokies in barbeque sauce, veggies and dip, not to mention Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing.

Louis and Kelly were huddled up in a corner. Hakim and his buddies were trying to impress Shakira. Jazmine was talking with Monica who was taking notes. Reggie and I were the only ones really watching the game. The only thing everyone paid attention to were the commercials.

I was taking a sip of beer when the logo for SB&T came on. Rhonda was on courthouse steps, “United States Security Bank and Trust is always there to help those in financial need. We are currently helping finance capital improvements in small towns across America.” Pictures of road construction, sewage pipes being put into trenches, schools under repair flashed across the screen. Rhonda was in some of the pictures. Back to Rhonda. “SB&T is helping rebuild the small towns and cities that have always made America great.”

After other commercials, one was mildly funny, the game resumed.

Jazmine went back to discussing things with Monica. Reggie and I continued to watch the game. Nothing was said about Rhonda, but every time I see her rips my heart out. After seven months you’d think I would be over it.

The start of the second quarter SB&T aired another ad. Again with the logo: A male voice said, “Last year when SB&T loaned Rugby, North Dakota a billion dollars to comply with EPA standards we found a treasure. Our world ambassador: Rhonda Duncan.”

A picture of her in her office. In Paris standing next to the President of France. In Rome, with the Pope. A video clip of Rhonda stepping off a plane with people screaming, then in a limo talking about what it was like to come home. There were stills of her at the construction sights and in her school with students.

Voice over: “Rhonda was a second grade teacher who prepared the prospectus for the loan we granted. She spoke for Rugby and convinced SB&T to fund the loan that saved her town. She convinced us that all small towns in America need the same deal. We listened and U.S. Security Bank and Trust is announcing our Bail out America plan.”

Standing behind a podium she said, “I don’t regret leaving Rugby, because I never left. You are always with me.”

Voice over: “SB&T is committed to rebuilding small town America and making the country great again.”

Vincent scoffed, “Little white bitch don’t speak for me in that white bread town. Bank only gonna save the crackers. No way they gonna loan to places mostly black.”

I was off the sofa and took a step before stopping. Reggie was ready to grab me from behind. Turning I said to Jazmine, “Thanks for the party. I need to leave.”

Monica moved in front of me with a voice recorder, “How did seeing your ex-girlfriend in those commercials make you feel?”

I brushed past her, “You’re not my shrink.”

Before I was out the door I heard Jamal say, “He dated that fox?”

Driving home I was angry. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”  After a few blocks and wanting to pound on the steering wheel I pulled over in a deserted parking lot and started walking in circles. Breath was vaporizing in the subzero temperature, but I was working up a sweat under my heavy coat, gloves and ski cap.

It didn’t take long for a cop to spot me. The guy pulled alongside rolling down his window. “It’ just a game buddy, not the end of the world.”

This made me laugh. “You’re right officer.”

“You calmed down now?” he asked.

“I am,” adding, “no need to worry.”

He pulled away and I drove home in a better frame of mind. For the first time the billboard across the street didn’t mean a thing.

Thirty minutes later there was a knock on my door. “Do I have to get a restraining order?”

“I stopped to offer an apology,” Monica said and from her look she meant it.

Being the gentleman I let her in.

“I hope you believe me that wasn’t planned. I didn’t know SB&T would be airing those commercials.

“Who won?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I left not long after you. The game should still be on I’d like to know too.”

I turned on the thirty inch old style TV and she sat on the couch while I got a beer and a Diet Coke. There weren’t any more SB&T ads thankfully. The Broncos lost again. What’s one more broken heart?

Out of the blue she asked, “Would you like to go with me for a story in Walsenburg next weekend?”

“What’s the story about?”

“What happens to a small town that sells its mineral rights to banks?”

Best offer I’ve had in a while to get out of town, “Sure.”



Junior



SB&T had a private box before during and after the Super Bowl. There was a buffet with lots of booze for the top shareholders, board members and those we were trying to impress. All were there to meet Rhonda. I stayed on one side while Faustino was on the other.

She was her usual charismatic self, making everyone feel like they’ve known her all their lives. On the walls were huge screens showing the game with the volume muted. When our commercials came on the volume was raised and we cheered more for Rhonda than Payton Manning.

We stayed a few days relaxing at the mansion in Denver. I promised her I’d teach her to golf. I really don’t have that kind of patience so we flew to Augusta Georgia and hired the top golf pro in the country to give us both lessons.

At the most prestigious and sedate country club in the world people rushed up and wanted to take a selfie with Rhonda and left thinking they were best friends. She has a gift.



Darius



Hector go big time for Super Bowl. Rented banquet room in hotel. Set up four big screen TV’s with surround sound. First class recliners, tables loaded with food, buckets of beer, fully stocked bar with topless bartender. Plus table of weed: reefer, candy, or brownie. Usual betting pool.

Putas topless and in thong make sure we feel like kings. Hotel whores like Raquel workin’ and makin’ Hector a bundle. Puta on each side and others wait for food, booze or pleasure.

Pick Denver 28 to 24. Game close so paying attention. Never gambled in Air Force. Got that out of my system in high school. Gamblers in hock to pay day lenders. No choice today and Hector’s stakes are high.

Content to watch the game while putas rub back or snuggle on arm rest until commercial break. Football games lots of commercials.

About to explode heard when I heard her voice. Know that voice anywhere. Rugby greetin’ Rhonda like a hero. Long Ben now Little Ben and stay that way. Nothin more humiliating not able get it up, but be that way in front of Hector and homies was horrible.

Dead below waist. Make things worse Denver lost and out month’s wages.

Homies laughin’ then ignore. Hector came after game with fat wallet full of winnings. “Esse, you got it bad for that chica.”

Nothin worse than humiliation during game, but confiding in Hector, lowest ever. “I can look at pictures no problem and don’t watch much TV. Thought I was done with her, but something like this boomerang.”

“Bueno she’s in New York or you would be of no use to me.”

Didn’t know what to say. He commiseratin, threatenin or sorry for me?

Taxis waitin, “Pick up something nice for Raquel, she’ll skin you alive for humiliating her tonight.”

Martinez and Rosa rub it in a week later. “The homies,” Rosa said, “think you’re a joke and can’t figure out why Hector keeps you around.”

“Better watch your back around them. They might be wanting your job.”

Rosa shook her head, “They know you’re afraid of them and won’t do something stupid with their money.”

Martinez looked at me, “Hector was betrayed by one of his own and decided not to make that mistake again. He lost face. I don’t know which way he’ll jump. If Raquel does something out of the ordinary call me right away so I can warn Rosa. Find a safe place to hide until I can reach you.”



Rhonda



“I’m glad to be back,” I said relaxing on my couch. “This place feels like home.”

Terry naturally had to be a party pooper, “Enjoy it while you can. “Next week you start a four week tour of 10 states and 50 small towns.”

“Don’t remind me,” I said. “Or I’ll get hives.”

He had to rub it in, “BOA was your idea, remember.”

I took my sneaker off and threw it at him. “My idea was to start in Michigan, not the whole bloody country.”

Terry laughed, “Gunter never thinks small.”

BOA indeed, I thought. An appropriate acronym for squeezing every last dollar out of small towns.

You’d think I was President of the United States running for re-election giving speeches in five cities a day. My voice was raw by the third town and I resorted to motions and writing things down except during the speeches. At night I gargled with salt water and used a spray before and after like opera singers.

We flew to most states, but went to the towns by bus staying at some really horrible hotels.

Week 1: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina.

Week 2:  Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi.

Week 3: Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma.

Week 4: Catch up if delayed and then Nebraska.

I was really hoping we weren’t delayed and Nebraska would be done by Wednesday and home a few days early. No such luck. The trip was three days longer than scheduled.

Faustino Salazar and Lionel Ortega were steadfast in keeping the Classical Politicians at bay (Roman hands), and made sure I never drank anything they didn’t open or drink out of first.

It was all a blur of official greetings, shaking hands, giving hugs, receiving keys to the city or the small red carpets. At night were the banquets with even more hand shaking, hugs and dancing.

I didn’t get to sleep before midnight and we left at five in the morning for the stop along the way.

I had an entourage of five women handpicked by Emilia. Lucinda was another constant companion who accompanied me to the rest room. The rest made sure my laundry was done, saw to it I was dressed appropriately and put on my makeup. There was no way I could have kept up with all that by myself.

 Terry was sorely missed, but he was needed in New York. Emelia went with us the first week and then threw me to the wolves.

The horror of the experience was knowing there was a trip in Texas for four weeks before the wedding with Florida and California after the honeymoon. I didn’t even want to think about the following year.

A week to recuperate in New York, three weeks to finish up wedding plans, second whirlwind tour and finally the big day and then honeymoon. The classroom was becoming more and more appealing every day.



James



The Channel 7 van with tons of equipment picked me up. The cameraman drove and Monica took shotgun. I made do with a back seat that folded up to let equipment in. It rattled on every bump, and there were a lot of bumps.

We made it down by sunrise. It was breathtaking to see the Guadalupe Mountains turn from red to orange to yellow and finally white. We stopped at a diner for breakfast. I offered to treat.

“No need,” Joe Windfield said, “it’s on our expense account.”

From there we drove to three ranches. Each rancher had the same sad tale of their water being polluted and the cattle dying. They all tossed a book of lit matches on a water tank setting it on fire. The stench spoke for itself.

“We get four or five earthquakes a month,” Clayton Moonie, a seventy year old rancher living alone after his wife died of cancer. His children moved away with his grandchildren fearing for their lives. “Before they started fracking we didn’t have an earthquake in fifty years.”

Monica would ask, “Did you give permission for the oil companies to drill on your land?”

They all shook their heads. “A few of the ranchers did and then took the money and ran,” they would all spit on the ground after saying that. “The city was needing money for this, that or the other and took out of loan from the local bank. They used the gas reserves as collateral and the oil companies’ fracked on public land, but it cracks the bedrock and spills over onto private land. Now this place is unlivable.”

Around Pueblo on the way back Monica said, “You’re awfully quiet, what’s the matter?”

“I grew up in Kansas. The cattlemen and oilmen always got along. What happened?”

Joe said, “All the easy oil and gas is gone. They have to drill deeper and deeper to get to it and that means going through hard rock. Fracking is the cheapest and easiest way.”

“But if it kills all the land around it and poisons all the water why do the people stand for it?”

“Farmers and ranchers have a small voice. Most of the population don’t know or don’t care as long as they have heat in their home from natural gas and gasoline in their cars at a price they can afford,” Monica answered. “Without fracking the cost of natural gas and gasoline would go past the squeal point.”

“The squeal point?” That’s a new one on me.

Joe said, “That’s the cost at which people squeal the loudest on the price of gas and start talking about alternative fuel sources.”

Monica picked up, “Like cooking oil instead of diesel; buying an electric or hybrid car, putting photoelectric cells on their roofs or getting a wind generator.

“Okay I get it,” I said.

Joe went on, “Whenever you see gas inch up around three fifty a gallon out here and it nears five dollars in California and New York that’s when people start squealing like a stuck pig. Every other year the oil companies let prices rise to see if they can push the squeal point from four dollars to six or seven.”

I was lost in thought again until the outskirts of Denver. Out of the blue without realizing I was speaking out loud I said, “I can’t believe the woman I loved is helping destroy hundreds of small towns across the country.”

Monica put her hand on my shoulder, “I’m sure she doesn’t know.”

“What she started will kill and destroy countless lives. In a few years Rugby will be uninhabitable and they welcomed her like a rock star.” Monica gave me a hug at the station while Joe took the camera in to be processed. “When will the story air?”

“Sunday night at ten,” she said. “When we have the fewest viewers.” She looked at me, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to join the Sierra Club and any other environmental group I can find.”

“Go for it,” she said handing me a card. “This is the group I belong to. We meet every Tuesday in St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church at seven in the evening.”

I looked at the card: Pure Water Coalition. “I’ll be there.”

After the newscast and later article in the Denver Post, Monica started coming to the games. Jazmine tapped me on the shoulder after the second one. “Fool, ask that woman out on a date. I doubt she’ll be back a third time thinking you’re too stupid to get her drift.”

I sprang for dinner and since she was obviously willing a motel room, but there wasn’t the spark I felt with Rhonda.

“If you compare every woman to Rhonda you’ll die a very lonely man,” I said to myself getting home the next day.

She invited me to the next Pure Water meeting. Connie Brenner the chapter president converted me to the cause in fifteen seconds. After Walsenburg it wasn’t a hard sell.

At a booster club meeting on a Thursday evening, Jazmine brought up the dreaded fundraiser over the summer. I didn’t think much about it. A few car washes, bake sales, when school starts candy sales and the depleted funds will be restored. Being unemployed I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Instead she announced, “Brenda Cates is taking photography and suggested we do a calendar. She’ll take the pictures, the photography teacher will develop them. We can use the production room to print and staple.”

I opened my big fat mouth, “I think it’s a great idea.”

It became very quiet as everyone looked at me. I quickly looked down to make sure my fly wasn’t open, then back up.

“We’re all glad you think this way,” Jazmine gave me an evil smile. “Because it’s unanimous you’ll be the model for the calendar.”

I stepped in it, big time. Clutching at a straw, but I thought it was a good argument, “I’m on short term contract. There’s no guarantee I’ll be back next school year. For all I know I’m headed back to Salida.”

They all laughed. Clete Satepahudal, our six foot four, three hundred pound former linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals and head football coach gave me a playful tap. It nearly sent me back to Wichita. “You’ll be back.” Walking out of the performing arts center I was thinking about stopping at a Walgreens for a neck brace.

The weekend before finals the photography club, athletes, parents, other teachers mostly female showed up for the shoot. They showed me the photos the year book staff took earlier in the year and they only needed me to do the different sports.

It was a little weird standing with only shoulder pads and the butt pads. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be wearing skimpy swim trunks in front of what felt like the whole school? The others were okay, just time consuming changing outfits every thirty minutes.



Rhonda



“You look so beautiful,” Mom said helping me put on the veil before we left our room in the Astoria Hotel. Even on a Saturday traffic was at a snail’s pace, but the wedding planner made allowance for this. We arrived only half an hour late. It gave Mom lots of time to jabber at me about how happy she was and what a wonderful future we’ll have and when she’d be a grandmother. Daddy sat across from us and smiled like the Cheshire Cat.

A large gathering was waiting at Trinity Church. Kind of fitting to have our wedding next to Wall Street and the cemetery where Alexander Hamilton is buried. Paparazzi were flashing photos as we left the limo and headed inside. Everyone was already seated. Both sides of the aisle were full, but only the front pew was for my family and friends.

Janelle and family were there with Mom and Daddy. Janelle was my matron of honor and Sherry, my soon to me sister-in-law was first bridesmaid. Her three daughters were also in the wedding party.

 Note for future reference, never have a man, especially if he’s gay, organize the bachelorette party. I should have never tried to compete with those men in belly dancing. Nearly killed me!

The organ started playing and Daddy walked me down the aisle. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this.

Wedding photos over we stood in line to greet all our guests and then did the ritual putting cake in each other’s mouths and sharing champagne. Terry and I danced to Endless Love. Then I danced with Daddy and Senior followed by a bunch of other guys that became a blur.



Senior

With pleasure I watched Terry get married. Also a real joy to dance with Rhonda at the reception. From all indications they appear to be happy.

In a couple of years Gunter will retire and between his voting shares and mine Terry will take over as CEO. I knew that girl was special the moment I laid eyes on her.

“Time to stop grieving,” I said walking back into the mansion. “You found your son a woman; time to get a bed warmer for your old age.” When you have as much money as I do it’s not hard.

Now a lot of old geezers go the Anna Nicole Smith route, but fake boobs and hair have never impressed me. I didn’t want someone younger than my daughter or my son. I wanted someone I would be comfortable with around ten or fifteen years younger. I don’t want to bury another wife.

I met Glenda at church. Better than a bar. I’m a little old for that kind of thing and there’s no way I’d try to find someone using an executive match maker or online. I found a nice church not far from the office.

You’d be amazed at the number of women in their forties and fifties either divorced or widowed that are very lovely. I introduced myself as Terrence.

Connie was forty-eight, divorced with a son and a daughter, both out of college. Married at eighteen, a mother at nineteen and worked as a nurse helping her husband through college to become a dentist. He was banging his dental assistant for five years when the daughter left for college and wanted a divorce.

She was awarded a nice house, car and alimony for the next few years. But went back to nursing so she wouldn’t lose it all when the alimony stopped. It was wearing on her. I hated seeing how tired she looked faithfully going to church on Sunday morning after working all night.

The only thing I did that made me stick out was drive a black 1963 Chrysler Imperial that Harold fully restored. When asked I bragged I did all the work as a hobby after retiring.

It wasn’t long until I was accepted in the fold and asked Connie out on a date on her night off. Opening the door to the Imperial she said, “I love old cars. Growing up my father drove a ‘69 Plymouth and I loved how roomy it was. Cars nowadays make you feel like a sardine.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off her. With makeup she looked ten years younger. Her figure was filled in from having lived a full live. Her dark brown hair with a few white strands gave her character. The V neck light blue sweater over navy slacks showed a full bosom.

Not knowing which restaurant would be appropriate I asked her to pick. Because it was a Wednesday night she wanted Village Inn for free pie. We had a pleasant meal. The food and service were dreadful, but the pie was passable.

She wanted to know about Glenda and I didn’t have to act about my sadness telling her of the experience. I let her open up about the fool of an ex-husband who would throw this wonderful woman under the bus for a brainless body.

Maybe I’m getting old and impatient, but I didn’t feel like dragging this out. “Connie,” I said at her door. “Since we’ve met you’ve brought me back to life.”

“Good,” she said. “I’ve had the hots for you since the moment I laid eyes on you and told all the other old biddies your mine.” She opened the door and led me to her bedroom. I made a note to visit a doctor and get some chemical help.

First time in years to waking up next to a woman again. No regrets. She fixed breakfast and we spent time just being together.

While she cleaned up I read the paper. On the front page was a story about Walsenburg and the damage fracking has done. Old news, a TV station aired the same thing a week earlier. The companion story was about an environmental group planning on protesting against SB&T today at 9am. The accompanying picture showed a local teacher and black man who would be leading the protestors. They looked familiar.

“I don’t know why I get that piece of trash,” Connie said. “There’s never anything in it.”

That’s when it hit me. I stood up and said, “Goddamn!” How could both of them be doing this?

Connie was shocked, “You’re not a retired newspaper man are you? If so I’m sorry for offending you.”

“Forgive my outburst,” I said kindly and stroked her face. “For the first time in ten years I take off for some time to myself and all hell breaks loose.”

She looked puzzled, “What is it?”

“There’s going to be a protest outside of my bank in thirty minutes and I have to leave.” Kissing her gently, “I wanted to spend the entire day with you, have a romantic dinner and propose marriage. Now I can’t.”

She was shocked again, “Marriage?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why don’t you get dressed and accompany me. I’ll explain everything on the way.”

She looked dazed. I lifted her up, sat her on the bed, picked out a nice outfit. Being a dentist’s wife she did have a presentable wardrobe. “Now get dressed while I make some phone calls.”

I turned on my phone and there were over a hundred messages. Ignoring them I called Sherry she answered on the first ring.

“Daddy where have you been, security was afraid you were kidnapped. We’ve been waiting for a ransom demand.”

Jesus, one night with my phone off and they go crazy. “I’m fine. Tell Victor to pick up a nice lady at this address in the limo.” I had her write down the address. “Her name is Connie Brenner. Make her welcome. I’m sending a jeweler over with a selection of wedding rings, help her pick one out.”

“Oh Daddy, you were with a woman last night! That’s wonderful.”

I knew she would be glad. “I wanted to help with this, but I’m needed at work. Can you get the ball rolling for me, kitten?”

“Of course Daddy,” she gushed. We’re on our way.”

Connie came out looking real nice. I held her close and whispered. “This isn’t what I planned. I’ve got to leave. My driver and daughter are coming to pick you up and take you to my house. My daughter’s name is Sherry and she’s going to help you pick out an engagement ring and start planning the wedding.” I pulled back, “That is of course if you say yes,”

She countered, “What’s going on at the bank?”

I held up the paper. “Some tree huggers are protesting in front of it.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m president of Denver’s chapter of the Pure Water Coalition. Before you got so upset I was going to ask if you wanted to join me in the demonstration.”

I sat down with a thud. “Not in a million years…” I mumbled.

“Is that why you didn’t tell me you’re the bank manager?”

Now I was starting to get pissed, “You knew who I was all along?”

“No. Like I said, I thought you were a very nice man showing some interest in me. I haven’t been with a man in years and thought there was something between us. It wasn’t until you said there was a protest is front of ‘your’ bank did I know who you were. I knew the regional manager and former CEO of SB&T was Terrence Austin Sr. That’s public record.”

I was speechless. Finally I croaked out, “Why didn’t you tell me you were planning this today?”

“I didn’t want to spoil our date with politics. How was I to know you wanted to marry me?”

Victor and Sherry drove up, he must have broken the sound barrier to get here. Connie let them in. “Is she going to be my step-mom?” Sherry came in and hugged first me and then Connie.

“Sherry this is Connie Brenner. Connie this is my daughter, Sherry.”

“Good to meet you,” Connie said.

“There’s been a change of plans,” I said to Sherry. “I want you to drive the Lincoln home. Victor will drive me and Connie to the bank.”

Sherry was bewildered, “What about all that other stuff you wanted me to do?”

“That’s on hold for the time being,” I said looking at Connie. “We need to deal with a pressing concern to both of us, first.”

Sherry took my keys and left.

Connie sat down at the table. “If we have anything to discuss, it’ll be here.”

“With a protest in front of my office I need to be there.”

Shaking her head, “Any negotiations between us happens here, not in your office.”

I gave her round one. “Agreed.” I sat down. “You look beautiful with your hair that way.”

She smiled then frowned, “No sweet talking me. You are forcing small towns to make a deal with the devil in order to survive.”

Got to her for a minute there. “We’re doing no such thing.”

“What about Walsenburg?”

“We didn’t make the loan to Walsenburg. Great Western State Bank made that loan.”

“That was then, now you’re in the game and even more towns are going to be destroyed.”

It was time she faced facts. “Same old story, someone goes to the bank, borrows money and then they whine about not having time to pay it back, or it’s the bank’s fault that the economy went bad, or, or, or. Always the bank’s fault.”

Taking a drink, “If the bank denies the loan then we’re the bad guys because we’re keeping them from paying their bills or buying their car, or, or, or…”

Giving me a stern look, “Do you deny what happened in Rugby, the first town you made one of these loans to, and they’re now having their groundwater, lakes and streams destroyed due to fracking?”

I smiled, irking her a bit. “Not at all. They came to SB&T wanting a better interest rate than what a state bank would offer. They used natural gas reserves as collateral. SB&T agreed to lend them the money and they contracted with an oil company to tap into those reserves in order to pay back the loan. If you watched our commercials on the super bowl you would have seen all the projects being funded by that loan.” I touched her hand, “I like it when you’re worked up like this.” Pulling her hand away.

Getting a little louder she replied, “What good are new sewers and roads if the water ain’t fit to drink and the people die from cancer from all the chemicals leaching out of the soil?”

“Sorry to be blunt, Connie, but that is between the towns and the oil companies.”

“Don’t pass the buck, Terrence. You could approve those loans without collateral.”

Time to educate her. “Banks loan money, they don’t give it away. There has to be a reasonable expectation of return on our investment.”

I looked around the house. “The mortgage company that loaned the money on this house used it as collateral should the owner not make the payments. Why should a town asking for a billion or more dollars not have to provide the same?”

She was bitter, “Those towns get a one-two punch. The EPA orders them to make upgrades, they have to take out loans and then turn to the oil companies to pay for them. The oil companies do more damage polluting the water than the sewage plants. Damned if they don’t, even more damned when they do. You however see the return on your investment.”

I moved behind her and rubbed her shoulders, she tried to brush me off, but I persisted. “You’re under a wrong impression. Banks don’t make towns sell their oil reserves. Every town has alternatives.”

I could feel her relax. “And what are they?”

“1. They could raise taxes and the additional tax base would be collateral. No one wants higher property taxes and sales taxes along with higher water bills, but it would cover the costs.

“2. They could defy the EPA and call their bluff. It would be years before the federal government would get around to doing anything, and they can’t sanction everybody.

“3. They can unincorporate, it has disadvantages, but they avoid sanctions and could possibly get federal aid.

“4. They could ask the state for help and apply for federal grants. Not guarantees, but at least it shows they’re trying.”

Coming around and looking her in the eye, “Selling oil, gas or coal reserves is the easy way, and it comes with a price. But it is their decision, not the banks.”

She nodded acceptance. Taking out her phone she dialed a number. “James, how’re things going?”

Listening a bit. “Great, our voice has been heard. We got what we wanted. Tell everyone to go home. We’ll meet tomorrow at the usual place and debrief.” She hung up.

With a smile on her face, “Still want to marry me?”

I winked, “More than ever, I never won an argument with Glenda.”

“So what do we do now?”

Giving it a little more thought. “I was premature to spring a marriage proposal on you this soon. Think about it for a couple of days.” I could see fear in her eyes. “I’m going to have to do some damage control and it will take up my time.”

“I understand,” she said. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologize. I feel the same way about fracking.” She smiled and it made me feel warm inside. “I’ll pick you up around noon on Saturday and show you my house and family.”

Nodding, “Nice to know what I’m getting into.”

My turn to nod. “You can give me an answer then.”

She kissed me and looked to the bedroom, “How about make up sex?”



Junior



It felt different looking down on the blue ocean after spending five days forty feet under it. The room had floor to ceiling glass windows to watch the reef’s abundant fish and coral. There was even a button we could press to send out food and watch them feast.

The resort possessed an impressive library where we spent many hours enjoying being close while reading for pleasure instead of work. The whole honeymoon was for pleasure and it is found in many ways.

The second week was spent on the surface where we golfed, swam, jogged, worked out and enjoyed each other’s company in all things. We both knew and felt that our love was real and we would be happy together.

The minute the landing gears were up two weeks of freedom were over. Fun while it lasted, but now back to work. We left at 6am making it 2pm in New York. Cookie started filling me in on all that was happening in my office and Rhonda was talking with Ron.

After the mundane stuff and knowing what my schedule would be like for the next month Cookie dropped the bomb. I yelled, “What?”

She said it again. No way Dad’s getting married, much less to a tree hugger!

Rhonda was already off the phone. I guess her schedule won’t be as full. She didn’t look happy. I said, “What’s up?”

“Did you know your father is marrying the Denver president of Clean Water?”

Nodding, “I think you heard my reaction.”

Still angry, “Her vice-president is James Patterson.”

I looked a little blank at the name, the light bulb came on, “You’re ex-boyfriend.”

Getting up and pacing in a circle. “On the way back I have to get off in Denver to smile and make nice to them.”

A little miffed at my secretary, “I’ll call Cookie back and tell her to hold all my appointments. I’m getting off with you. We can stay in the mansion and you can meet your new mother-in-law.”

Cookie wasn’t happy, “I’m going to give that Ron a piece of my mind. If you needed to stop in Denver on the way home, he could have told me and I’d have worked your schedule another way. Now I have to start from scratch.” Ron’s a dead man, he just doesn’t know it yet.

We were mobbed at the airport. How Denver would know we would be stopping is a mystery, but there they were. Rhonda said a few appreciative words, answered a few questions about our honeymoon and gracefully declined to comment on her ex-boyfriend leading a protest against SB&T.

In the limo on the way home she said, “Would it be catty if I said, ‘James who?’”

I held her close, “It wouldn’t have fazed her and made you appear heartless. Exactly what she wanted.”

She looked off in the distance, “No reason to hurt James any more than I already have.”

I retorted, “He’s the one making an idiot of himself, you had nothing to do with that.”

Suddenly she froze. “What’s the matter?”

“Dudley’s in with the protestors.”

Security stopped checking on him after we left for New York, but we knew he was still in Denver running an accounting firm. The restraining order lapsed some time ago and he was far enough away it wouldn’t matter. “We’ll keep an eye on him,” I promised.

* * *

Connie was a very nice lady. She didn’t look anything like Mom, but had her same spirit. Rhonda and she got along immediately, but that’s just Rhonda’s way.

We looked at photos of Connie’s son and daughter. “They’ll be here for the wedding over Labor Day,” she said.

Talking to Dad, “Keeping this one simple?”

He smiled, “At our age we don’t need a big show.”

“Speak for yourself, old man,” Connie said. Dad kissed her.

The first time I saw him kiss a woman other than Mom. It was a little disconcerting, but I’ll have to get used to it.

Sherry took Rhonda and Connie into the parlor while Dad and I went into the den. Harold said he’d change the spark plugs in the limo. Anything to be away from the business.

“How was Fiji?” he started things off.

“Relaxing,” I said. “A few more weeks or months would be nice.”

“Past time for becoming a beach bum,” he said handing me a Scotch on the rocks.

After a gulp, “Cookie’s already filled me in on all that’s waiting when I get back.”

“I want you to start delegating most of your work.” This caught my attention. “Choose your replacement carefully.”

I nodded. He always has a plan. “Grooming me to replace Gunter?”

He looked surprised, “Did you expect anything less?”

I chuckled, “No.”

Rhonda



I went into automatic mode at the airport. It’s getting to be like second skin to flash my smile, look lovely and say inane thing the press eats like candy.

I wasn’t surprised James would be involved with an environmentalist group. His love of fishing, hiking and hunting would make him a natural fit. In a way I’m actually glad he’s getting on with his life. Looking out the window driving past the crowd of Clear Water protestors I saw a black man a foot taller than the others. Darius Dudley raised his hand like a pistol and mimicked firing it. I guess getting married really pissed him off.

Connie is a sweet woman and I’m happy Senior found someone to share his life with. Sitting in the parlor and listening to Sherry and Connie go over wedding details. It reminded me of the honeymoon and how happy we are. I wished the same for them.

Walking into the bank as I passed by a secretary’s desk a picture caught my eye making me do a double take. “What’s this?” I asked the woman who looked like she was mid to late thirties. There was a picture of her daughter in a Jefferson High Basketball uniform dribbling a ball, but that wasn’t what interested me.

Maria, what her nameplate read, handed me the calendar from a stack on her hutch. “This is what the athletic department came up with for a fundraiser.”

The picture on the calendar was of James standing in shirt and tie with his team sitting on the bench as he’s shouting, most likely at the refs. It was the first month on the calendar for the school year starting in August and finishing in July.

I couldn’t help myself from looking at the other pictures.

September James was in tank top and shorts running in the mountains promoting Cross Country.

October he was in shoulder pads and padded under short holding a football, not bad.

November he was kicking a soccer ball.

December wearing a swim suit standing on a diving board for the swim team. I forgot just how hot he was, then admonished myself for thinking that being a married woman.

January he was dribbling a basketball.

February on a wrestling mat.

March on a tennis court.

April acting like he was running with a pole in his hands for track.

May swinging a golf club.

June throwing a pitch off a mound.

July he was standing in front of a white board in the classroom.

Handing it back to Mary. “He’s a handsome man.”

“The calendars are only ten dollars and they’ve been the best fundraiser in the school’s history,” she winked at me, “All the women love December.”

I laughed making heads pop up over cubicles. “Are you selling them?”

“Yes,” she said.

“How many do you have?”

“I started with ten, but I’m down to five and I doubt they’ll last the day.”

Taking out a hundred dollar bill, “I’ll take one. The rest is a donation.”

“Híjole,” the woman put her hand over her mouth. ”You’re the woman who made him famous.”

I smiled, “Tell your daughter I’m glad to help any way I can.”

Terry came down the hall, “We’re waiting on you,” he said.

“Coming dear,” I said then handed him a calendar. “Why don’t you put this up in your office?”

“Are you out of…” he stopped, turned red and handed it back. “I think not.” He got even redder when chuckles came from the cubicles.

Emelia was waiting with a number of PR people to plan a nationwide campaign promoting SB&T as an environmentally friendly bank.

I was to extoll the vast sums of money the bank’s charity gave to environmental groups, and how by providing loans for small towns to clean up aging waste treatment facilities and build new ones we we’re doing our part in making life better all across America.

The director put up story boards with numerous pictures of me in different poses so I would get an idea of my role in them.

One of them was of me meeting leaders from different environmental groups and listening to their concerns and bringing them back to corporate headquarters with a guarantee that we will put pressure on the oil companies to stop fracking. Yeah, now I’m supposed to be the tooth fairy!

“Am I meeting these people here or in New York?” I asked dreading what they would say.”

“Here of course,” Emelia said. “This is where the fire started and where it needs to be put out.”

Why did I buy five copies of his smoking hot calendar when I’m going to be having a meeting with him?

“Here in the office?” I’m pleading now, but no, they had to drive in the knife.

“At the Austin Mansion,” Senior said.



James



Finals over, grades in the computer and truck full of personal stuff I was out of a job, lease and paycheck.

Connie let me move in with her until I could afford another apartment. She was a great cook and we talked about lots of stuff over breakfast and dinner. I was busy during the days either on the golf course, fishing or hiking. I always have money for the important things.

Whenever Monica wasn’t working we spent time together in the living room. I knew Connie wouldn’t mind if we went into my room, but motel rooms are better for intimacy.

I started the process of declaring bankruptcy in January. With no checks over the summer there was no way I could make payments on three credit cards and the hospital.

Without making payments enough was saved for the attorney. For some strange reason, those guys want cash in advance. My biggest worry was not being able to find a decent apartment with a bad credit rating. I own my truck and have liability insurance, but I’m going to be shit out of luck should it break down.

Pure Water decided to protest in front of the downtown U.S. Securities Bank and Trust building. Somehow I volunteered and was voted in as vice-president of PWC. I never saw the train that hit me.

Connie kicked me out of the house the night before the protest, but she did spring for a nice room to share with Monica. It was strange to sleep with someone reporting on our actions.

We hoped for a hundred to join our cause, but only twenty regular members showed up. PWC was a group of white middle class women and a few men like me. I was pleasantly surprised when a black man in polo shirt, khakis and brown dress shoes around my height joined us. “Darius Dudley,” the man introduced himself asking for a protest sign.

“Good to meet you,” I said.

Ten Hispanic men also in polo shirts and khaki’s, but wearing cross trainers asked for signs as well. A little out of place covered with tats, but welcome nonetheless. They introduced themselves, but I was too busy handing them placards to catch them all. Good to know other ethnic groups were involved.

 I made sure all were well covered in sun screen, under hats and there were lots of bottles of water. Chanting “No more fracking,” and “Pure water for all,” we held up our picket signs and pleaded our cause to the good citizens of Colorado.

Around noon, Connie called asking how it was going. I told her fine and how many showed up and Monica was getting lots of footage. She told me to pack up and go home. We planned on being here until at least four, but maybe she was right. I was tired and could tell some of the older women were exhausted.

A black limo was leaving as I got to Connie’s house. She was at the dinner table with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. “Let me guess,” I said. “That was a lawyer telling you you’re ex-husband died of a heart attack and left you a million dollars.”

She frowned, I didn’t mean to do that! “I don’t wish that son-of-a-bitch an easy death and I’m the last person on the planet he’d leave a dime.”

Holding my hands up in surrender, “Okay, why are you so happy?”

“I’m thinking about getting married.”

Sitting down, “Tell me everything so I know before Monica.”

“He’s a very nice man I met at church,” she said.

“Don’t keep me in suspense,” I pleaded. “Who is he? What does he do? When’s the wedding, where are you getting married? And how long has this been going on?” I took a journalism class in high school.

She turned serious. “You’re not going to like him.”

“He’s a serial killer just released from prison and you’ve been corresponding with him for years.”

“Close enough,” she said.

Now I was worried. “Big limo,” I was shocked, “He’s not an oil executive, is he?”

Shaking her head, “Main manager of U.S. Securities Bank and Trust.”

Under my breath, “That explains cutting the demonstration short.” Adding “When were you going to tell me about him?”

She smiled, “I didn’t know until this morning when he saw Monica’s article about the protest.”

A horrible thought struck, “Is he bribing you with marriage to shut us up?”

Walking around the kitchen, something I’d never seen her do, she was really wound up. “We negotiated right here at the table. He explained his position and I explained mine. SB&T will make some changes, but won’t do anything concerning the oil companies.”

He pulled the wool over her eyes, maybe that’s why he proposed. “Big deal, he promises to change so he can spin it his way.”

“I want him to spin it,” she smiled and sat down. “The more SB&T protests they don’t have anything to do with fracking, the more the horror of fracking is sold to the masses. We’ll let him advertise for us by protesting too much.”

I got up and bowed down to her, “I am in the presence of a master.”

She swatted at me, “No need for that.”

A curious mind wanted to know, “So, you getting married or not?”

Her look turned distant, “He’s going to be busy the rest of this week,” she winked, “Can’t imagine why?” We both laughed. “I’m going over to the Austin Mansion next weekend to meet his family.”

Suddenly the bottom fell out of my stomach. Connie could sense my discomfort and touched my shoulder tenderly. I said, “I wish you well, now I need to lie down. I’m tired.”



# # # # #

Fall

# # # # #



James



On the Ides of July, PWC met with the PR team from SB&T as well as Austin Sr., Austin Jr., Emelia Atwater and Rhonda.

The woman in six inch heels, perfectly coiffured hair, and tailor cut business suit was a stranger. Shaking hands we both felt sparks. Her perfume drove me crazy. I wanted to grab her and ravish her on the spot. French perfume with pheromones added to attract men. It works!

The advertising executive displayed story boards of the campaign intended to show PWC and SB&T cooperating to improve the environment. Connie and Emelia started negotiating, the rest of us kept silence. It was clear from the first moment this was between them.

While sparing over a verb here or adverb there, maybe a morning shot or evening shot was being hashed out I couldn’t keep my eyes off Rhonda. She never looked at me. Not even a furtive glance. She was like a spectator at a tennis match swiveling her head from Connie to Emelia and back.

At first I thought it was because she was sitting by her husband and didn’t want to harm their relationship by making eyes at me, but she was in full learning mode. Concentrating on the two women and the men who spoke up from time to time. She’s the next Emelia and is absorbing the nuances of the job.

Austin Jr. would look my way with disdain. His father was much more intimidating. Time came to shake hands again and the spark was still there.

Monica with camera man and others from the media were waiting at the front gate of the Austin Mansion. A podium with microphones was set up. Emelia graciously let Connie speak first.

“The Pure Water Coalition is pleased with today’s discussion concerning the bank’s responsibility in making sure the country’s groundwater is kept pure for now and all generations. We will continue our fight with the other banks both state and federal to make the oil companies stop destroying our environment with the toxic chemicals used in fracking.”

Stepping back Rhonda took over. “U.S. Securities Bank and Trust wants to thank The Pure Water Coalition for bringing this problem to our attention. It would not be in our interest for the homeowners Mrs. Atwater mentioned and the inhabitants of the small towns of America we are now helping to modernize their facilities to be forced to leave because of polluted groundwater.” Maybe the general public will think this means we might lose money.

She stepped back and Terrence Austin Sr. spoke, “U.S. Securities Bank and Trust will begin negotiations with all oil companies currently fracking near the towns and cities we have given municipal loans and will remind them that the contracts they signed with these very towns and cities contained a no-fracking clause at our insistence before we approved the loans.”

In the car on the way home Connie was exhausted. “That woman is hell on wheels.”

“You held your own,” I said.

She brushed it off, “Getting SB&T to the table was what we wanted.” Then said, “Wish I had someone like her as a divorce lawyer, I could have stripped Jerry of everything but his boxers.”

Connie provided a catered meal when we got home. Darius Dudley and the Hispanics were there. I was glad for the male company. I spoke to Darius and Hector while we were picketing. Hector and his friends own TempLos and Darius is their accountant.

I was curious why they would join the protest. Darius said he enjoyed snowboarding and hiking and the earthquakes were making both sports perilous.

Hector said he and his “homies” fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. They know how oil companies destroy lives all over the world. “If this gets the banks to put pressure on them we’re for it.”

 I mingled with the others waiting to hear what went on. Asking Monica, “How much of their bullshit are you going to air?”

She shrugged, “That’s up to the editors, out of my hands.”

Connie cut in, “Wish you were there to see Jimmy and his ex-flame shake hands. Lightning bolts were clearly visible.”

Monica made a face and I put my arms around her, “We only shook hands and never spoke.”

Connie was about to say something else, but thought better of it.

The group sat around and talked about little stuff, all were wondering if I was offered a job at Jefferson High again. Happily I announced I was and this year would be coaching 10th grade girls. “Second year with the same team and they are going to be formidable.”

TV’s were set up so we could watch the four network broadcasts. KHGH on channel 7 used us as the top story. Sheila Schultz said, “Earlier today members of the Pure Water Coalition met with the leadership of U.S. Security Bank and Trust at the home of Terrence Austin Sr. the regional manager of SB&T. Monica Mendes was present and has this to say,”

“Sheila this was a historical meeting between an environmental organization and one of the largest banks in the world working together to stop the horrible practice of hydraulic fracturing or better known as fracking.”

They cut to Connie and when she said, “We will continue our fight with the other banks both state and federal to make the oil companies stop…the toxic chemicals used in fracking.”

They went to Rhonda, “U.S. Securities Bank and Trust wants to thank The Pure Water Coalition for bringing this problem to our attention.”

Finally to Senior, “U.S. Securities Bank and Trust will begin negotiations with all oil companies.”

Sheila Shultz finished by saying, “This sounds like good news for Colorado.”

NBC’s channel 9’s news anchor was briefer, “An environmental group and leaders of SB&T met today to discuss the practice of fracking. It cut to Senior and his statement about negotiations. CBS and Fox didn’t mention it at all.



Darius

Didn’t know Hector and the homies would show up for the protest. They enjoyed walking, chanting slogans, being friendly to bored white housewives. Thought it fun pointing to surveillance cops tryin keep an eye on them. When over we scattered. Not wise to thumb noses in DEA and DPD’s face too much.

First time meet rival. She marry asshole banker for money. Keep doin what I’m doin and plenty bread. Protest bring bitch back and I find way make pay for ruinin Big Ben.

 “What the fuck are you doing protesting against SB&T at the main branch, the airport and outside the Austin manor?” Martinez was pissed.

“Keeping cover,” I said. “You’re the ones who wanted me arrested at the bank to get in with the gang.”

“Bullshit!” nearly hit me landed fist on table. “Austin Sr. made a phone call to the chief and sergeant warned me that if you’re seen within a mile of the newly married Rhonda Austin I’ll be busted to crossing guard and you’ll be in maximum security.”

“The RO expired months ago, Rhonda wasn’t in town for the protest and I’m allowed to assemble peaceably while giving petition for redress of grievances.” Know my rights.

“There’s a new RO specifying you can’t come within five hundred feet of Rhonda Austin.” Slapped it down. “Get your head out of your ass and leave her alone.”

Not fair and had enough, “I haven’t said a word to her in six years. I never sent her presents or notes or phone calls or e-mails. All I’ve ever done is admire from afar. She’s a public figure as spokesperson for SB&T and you can’t arrest everyone who wants to look.”

Martinez sat down speaking softer. “Darius, you’ve got a great life now. Good home, your own business, a woman who loves you even if you’re too stupid to realize it, and as soon as we make our case against Hector and his crew you’ll be free to live your life without us breathing down your neck.”

Making sense, but not mean nothin if bitch don’t pay.

He went on, “She doesn’t want to see you. Do the right thing and stay away whenever she’s in town.”

Felt anger grow from belly to neck and through head, “Too fucking bad.”



Rhonda



I tried to talk Terry into staying or letting me do the PR work in New York, but everything was set and he had work to do. Darius was in the crowd at the press conference. He was outside the distance set by the new RO, but he stands out like a sore thumb. I would feel safer with Terry here. My worst fear was without him the temptation for James would be too great.

Janelle listened as I cried out a ton of conflicting emotions over the phone. I needed her psychobabble badly.

“All we did was touch and I’m weak kneed. I put him behind me and made a life for myself. One touch was bad enough, but the second one makes me want him so badly I’ll give up everything to be with him again. I don’t care if it’s teaching second graders and we live in a mud hut wearing only rags and going through dumpsters for scraps.”

When finally done she said, “You had something special, but passion like that is temporary. Marriage starts with passion and settles into commitment. You left James before the passion burned up and settled into a commitment with Terry without the passion.”

“There’s passion between Terry and me?” I said defensively.

“Good sex isn’t passion,” she scolded. “If there was passion you wouldn’t be conflicted.”

At a total loss, “What should I do?”

For the first time in our lives Janelle didn’t give advice. “Only you can answer that question.”

Thanks ahellofalot!

All alone in the room not interested in TV or reading all I could think about were those handshakes and how much he made me come alive. I tried calling Terry, but it went straight to voicemail. Something forced my body to make another phone call.



James

After everyone left and Connie was resting in her room, the doorbell rang. A messenger handed me a package with my name and address on it without a return address.

“Who is it?” Connie asked from her room.

“Something for me.” I said.

 It wasn’t until after I opened it that it dawned on me I might have made enemies. Did I just expose myself to anthrax or ricin? Maybe I’ve read too many suspense books.

Inside was a hotel keycard and a note in Rhonda’s handwriting. Meet me tomorrow at noon.

Putting the note in my pocket and throwing the envelope away. Drop a piano on me why don’t ya?

Connie came out of her room, “What did you get?”

“Just a note from home,” I said, “Aunt Annie Dove passed away and Mom wants to know if I can come to the funeral.”

“Well are you?” She asked.

“I need to get my classroom ready and I only met her once when I was ten. She’s my mother’s father’s brother’s daughter.”

“Okay,” she said shaking her head.

I’m not all that fast thinking up a lie, Mom called me two days ago about my aunt. In my room I looked at the card and note.



Staring at the ceiling my stomach was doing flip flops and my heart was about to rip my chest open. Just as I was getting over her.

I knew our meeting would be awkward, but she’s married and I’m with someone… then we touched.

I was having a hard enough time exorcising her, why does she want to reopen a wound nearly healed?

Random thoughts drove me crazy for hours:

·         Is this her way of gloating? I don’t know who or what she is now, but from all indications it would still be out of character for her.

·         Does she still love me? Possibly, but there’s no way we could get back together now, we live in different worlds.

·         Do I still love her? I love the Rhonda who died on the plane to Atlanta. 

·         Does she want me back? Not while she’s married, and I’m not sure I want to get back with this Rhonda.

·         Is she’s wanting a boy toy? This would be hard to turn down. Monica is a wonderful lover, but we don’t have the voltage like when I touch Rhonda, even this Rhonda.

My greatest fear is in my hand. An open invitation to reconnect to the love of my life.



To do or not to do? That is the question.

Whether tis nobler to refuse

And ponder forever if there is still love betwixt us.

Or surrender to base curiosity and temptation

To gain the knowledge at great personal peril and pain.



Sometimes the English teacher in me takes over.

* * *

I really wanted the key to be fake and wouldn’t work. Opening the door she was sitting in a chair by the window her face lit up in a smile. My heart melted and I rushed to her locking our lips and limbs in a death embrace.

Soaking in the huge tub it felt good to have her in my arms. Not a word since I came in. They weren’t needed and would only bring us back to a reality we want to keep at bay for as long as possible.

The ice in a bucket of beer was mostly melted, but they were still cold. A tray of snacks was on a table and suddenly we were both dying of thirst and hungry. Everything was perfect until I opened my big fat mouth.

I parked four blocks away in a garage in bright sunlight. Now it was dark and downtown Denver was empty. It was eerie. The parking garage was well lit and there was a working elevator up to the fourth level. On my steering wheel was a note in black marker: You’re not fooling anybody.

Connie was waiting in the living room when I got in.

Handing her the note, “Not very subtle are you.”

“And you’re a damn fool.”

Sitting down, “Yes I am.”

Scowling at me, “You going to throw away what you have with Monica for a one night stand?”

Letting out a sigh, “Depends on the night and who it’s with.”

“Tell that to Monica.”

“She’s talking with a station in Los Angeles.”

That didn’t stop her, “Terrence knows,” Connie said. “By now so does her husband.”

“It’s over between us,” I said. She’s heading back to New York and I’m going back to the basketball court.”

She slapped me hard. I felt blood flowing from the side of my mouth. “Sorry,” she said contritely. “That was more for Jerry than you,” then yelling, “but you’re both assholes.”

There was a box of tissue close by and used one to stop the bleeding.

Heading towards her bedroom, “I’m renting the house to Monica, who by the way is currently writing an article about your affair for the paper and will have a report on the morning broadcast.”

I could barely hear the last words, “It’s up to her to let you stay.”

I moved back to KOA and a log cabin.

Physically, emotionally and every other way I was wiped out. I’ve finally developed a vaccine against Rhonda.

After getting our passion sated instead of leaving we spent time talking. What our plans for the future were, what we wanted out of life. Other than a strong physical bond there was nothing else holding us together, and the glue lost its potency.

The last two times we joined I saw Jazmine in my arms not Rhonda. Why do I attract women on the fast track? I just want to coach basketball. I’m happy with high school girls. The last thing I want is the craziness of the college or pro level.

Hell Rhonda’s a super-model and spokesperson for a national bank. Monica after tomorrow will land a position in Los Angeles which she’s been in talks with for the last month, and Jasmine’s been offered an assistant coaching job in the WNBA. How am I supposed to compete with that?

You’d think after mating like minks I’d be on top of the world. How come I’m so glum? Rolling my sleeping bag on the blue mattress I went back to the truck and drove around. Deciding not to think I turned on the radio. I love the oldies.

First song was Rolling Stone’s (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. “Ain’t that the truth,” I said singing along.

A few songs later was Jim Croce’s Salon and Saloon.



Strange we should meet here

Seeing off our friends

It’s hard to draw the line between

Beginnings and ends

Oh, Mary, Mary, must you go so soon?



We must be a sight to see

Salon and Saloon

I’ll look you up soon

Maybe sing you a tune



 ‘Bout sums it up with all the women in my life right now.

Then a song that was too close to home. Lobo’s There Ain’t No Way.



Oh, the love we made today

It was just a foolish way

To try to bring back yesterday

There ain’t no way



* * *

Finally crashing in the cabin. Phone rings. “You bastard.”

“Took you long enough.” I knew that would piss Monica off even more.

“I followed you the whole way after Connie tipped me off.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then why did you make me walk four blocks in a hundred degree heat!” This came out nearly a screech.

“Since this story will most likely land you that job in LA, thought you should work for it.”

Expecting her to yell some more she started laughing and I joined her. Voice a little softer, “Connie said you moved out.”

“I let her down and thought it was for the best.”

She actually sounded concerned, “You can stay there until I move to LA.”

It was inviting, but I needed a clean break. “I’m fine where I’m at. Schools starting up and I need to focus on that.”

“Not going to happen,” she said. “After the news breaks and you’re a celebrity again you owe me an interview.”

Why I moved out, “No I don’t.”

During pillow talk since we started sleeping together I told her about my first time in high school, about living with Lori, but no matter how hard she tried I never said a word about Rhonda and I’m not going to start now.

Registration and faculty meetings started the new school year. Jasmine was there and greeted me warmly. “I thought you were off to greener pastures?”

“Naw,” she gave a shy smile. “That’s the second time I’ve been offered a job in the WNBA, but I’m not interested.”

I hugged her, “Mind telling me why?”

“I have a nice life here, and a job I can count on. The money’s better in the bigs, but I could be on my ass in six months.”

“See you at practice,” I said heading to my classroom. Maybe things are looking up already.



# # # # #


# # # # #



Rhonda



I felt Terry’s arms around me as he kissed my neck and made my knees weak and it felt so good. Just about to kiss him when the alarm sounded waking me from the pleasant dream. I turned on the TV.

“That bitch!” There was Monica Mendes reporting about James and me in a hotel room. There were pictures of him entering and leaving six hours later. Then of me leaving ten minutes after him. It was on national news and in the paper. For the first time the magnitude of what I did sank in. Oh God! Never feeling so lonely I screamed, “IT’S OVER!”

 Last night when our passion was exhausted we both knew it was a mistake. The spark was burned out.

Even as teachers this couldn’t have lasted more than a year or two. I would have wanted more. To be a principal or into administration perhaps superintendent of a school district. All he wanted to do is coach basketball.

What’s more I realized that I liked what I’m doing. So what if oil companies were fracking. They would find a way to extract the oil or natural gas on their own with the same consequences. SB&T is giving the towns a way to recover from the damage. That’s nothing to be ashamed about. And I loved Terry. On the drive back to the mansion I couldn’t wait to be in his arms again. I would make love with an intensity making me forget James.

Now there was a heart sickening fear. I’ve never known fear like this.

·         Terry’s going to divorce me and kick me out on the street.

·         SB&T will fire me and sue me for all the money I’m costing them.

·         I’ll never get another job like this and there’s no way any school district would hire me.

·         I can’t go home in disgrace after the huge welcome less than a year ago.

·         What are Mom and Daddy thinking?

I called Terry and he was much calmer than expected. He didn’t yell or threaten or call me names, but when I asked if he could forgive me he hung up.

For the first time since I left home I got down on my knees and prayed. “Father, I’m sorry for leaving you out of my life and doing everything on my own. I’ve made a mess and harmed two good men. Forgive me, Heavenly Father and send your Holy Spirit to heal the wounds I inflicted on James and Terry with my selfishness.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and a calmness flooded my whole being.

“Thank you, Lord.”

I resolved to start attending church regularly wherever I am. “I know I need you in my life.”



Junior

Monica Mendes was giving her report on Good Morning America. National picked up the juicy tale of Rhonda and her ex-boyfriend spending time in a hotel room only a week after coming back from our honeymoon.

Headline in the Denver Post read: SB&T and Clear Water in Bed Together. The article mentioned Austin Sr. marrying the president of CWC and Rhonda sleeping with the vice-president.

Never in my life did I want to pick something up and throw it as much as I did right now. “HOW COULD SHE BE SO STUPID?”

The phone rang. Caller ID showed Rhonda.

“Yes.”

She was sniffing, “I’m sorry, I won’t blame you if you want a divorce, but I do love you and I don’t know why I did this, just know I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t say anything for a long time.

“Please,” she continued to plead, “I won’t do it again. I love you with all my heart and will do anything to make it up to you.”

She got to me. “I understand, Rhonda, but sorry won’t clean up this mess.”

“I’m on the next flight to New York and we can figure this out together,” she said.

I remember her pleading with me to stay with her in Denver instead of going home or letting her come back. Now I know why she was so desperate not to be alone. Everyone in the room could feel the chemistry when they touched. It bothered me the whole meeting. I could see him looking at her. I watched to see if would, but she stayed focused.

The ad campaign had to be done in Denver and there was a month of work waiting for me in New York. I didn’t worry when I should have. “No,” I said. “Stay there,” Being head of HR has its drawbacks. “Do your job.”

“I’ll never do it again,” she was sniffing again.

“Then you’ve nothing to worry about finishing up out there,” I waited for her to say something, but all I heard was sniffing. “When you come back we’ll work through this. It will give both of us time to sort things out.”

In a small almost childlike voice, “Do you forgive me?”

I hung up. I know what she was wanting, but it was too soon. I understand, I’m willing to work things out, but she needs to regain my trust.

Dad called when I got to the office. “I’m hiring a sober companion for Rhonda so she’ll never do this again.”

I laughed, a little over the top, but that’s Dad. “She’s not a drunk.”

“That man is like a drug and she’s about to bring down the whole bank.”

“You pay the PR guys big bucks to spin crap like this into chocolate mousse,” I said.

He wasn’t going to let up, “You can’t spin a damaged reputation that easily. We’ve built her up as Snow White and suddenly she’s Maleficent.”

For some reason his metaphor was funny. “It’s not that bad,” I laughed.

He changed his attack, “Why are you defending her? She cheated on you right after your honeymoon.”

The words were like a punch in the gut. Whispering, “I know.”

He backed off. “This must be a shock. I’m sorry, son.”

I said, “Leave her alone. If she meets with him again that’s between us.”

“How much rope are you giving her?”

This wasn’t easy to say, “She’s already wanting forgiveness. Maybe she’s sobered up.”

For the first time I heard disdain in his voice, “I don’t think you’re tough enough to run SB&T.”



Rhonda



The servants took my things to a taxi. I could see Mr. Austin staring at me through the front window. It felt like I betrayed him more than Terry. I’ll never be able to look him in the face again.

Moving into the same hotel where James and I spent six hours turning our passion into ashes. It was my way of giving the finger to Monica Mendes and all the other reporters more interested in other people’s sex lives than delivering the real news.

I talked with Mom and Daddy. They were disappointed but supportive. Mom wanted to come out and help me, but I didn’t want her in this mess. They both told me they loved me and I was welcome back anytime. It meant a lot to me.

Tears streaming down I said, “After what Rugby did for me, I let the whole town down.”

“Nonsense,” Mom said. “We’ve received nothing but support from everyone here since the news broke.”

“Most of them,” Dad added, “think that reporter woman should be tarred and feathered for making accusations without any proof.”

* * *

About to leave for the bank my phone rang.

“Are you settled in?” Mr. Austin asked. His voice was no longer kindly.

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ve rented one of the ballrooms and the PR team is going there. No need to come to the office.”

“I’m sorry sir, I …”

He hung up.

In the ballroom, Greg pulled out the drawings for the photo spread. The story boards for videos were gone. He wasn’t happy.

“Do you have any idea how much of our time and energy just went up in smoke?”

Terrence, Terry, Gunter, Emilia had the right to talk like that to me, this guy didn’t. “No and I don’t care.”

When he started on a tirade about not being professional, I walked out.

He ran after me, “What the hell do you think you’re doing.”

“When you calm down call me and ask nicely or find someone else.”

I called Terry at the office. Cookie told me he was in a meeting. Bullshit. In my room waiting for Greg to come back with his tail between his legs I called Janelle.

“Sweet Jesus, Rhonda. What the hell did you do?”

So much for being supportive.

“I thought I was being discreet.”

She didn’t let up, “You’re married. Why would you cheat?”

Defending myself, “I was following your advice.”

“Don’t deflect this back to me. I purposely gave you no advice.”

Not that easy, “You’re the one who said he wasn’t out of my system yet.”

She was quiet for a while, “So it’s over between you?”

“Yes,” I said, “Am I like Scarlett O’Hara obsessed with one man until finding out you really want the one who’s been there all along only to find out it’s too late and the one you love is fed up and leaves?”

“Wow, that’s one way to sum up a four hour movie,” we giggled.

I needed a good laugh.

“So you’ve decided you love Terry and James is out of the picture.”

“Yes, but…”

“No yes buts,” she said. “Pack up and go to Terry and get this straightened out. Don’t waste a minute on anything else. Tell him and show him how much you love him.”

“What if he says, ‘Frankly my dear Rhonda, I don’t give a damn?’”

“Do you think Scarlett gave up on Rhett after he walked away?”

“It would be out of her character,” I said.

“And it’s not in yours!”

I started crying and couldn’t stop. I’ll have exhaustion wrinkles and baggy eyes from the crying and makeup will fuss, possibly postpone the shoot costing the bank even more money. That set me to crying again.

Greg pounded on the door. In a robe I let him in.

“What the fuck!” he exploded.

I exploded back, “Get out asshole.”

“We have a photo shoot to do and you’re not presentable.”

Something dawned on me, “How many pictures do you have of me before a green screen?”

He answered automatically, “Hundreds.”

“Use them, idiot.”

Not too happy with the way I’ve referred to him, he left in a huff, but at the same time pleased.

After something to eat, a shower and dressing fashionably I went to the bank. I knew Mr. Austin would be in the office. Whether he would see me might be another matter.

He was sitting and looking at me without saying a word as I walked in. Disappointment clearly on his face. The man I admired most after my father and I let him down.

“I’ve faxed this to New York, but felt it fitting I give it to you personally.” Handing him my resignation he glanced at it.

“You can’t resign,” he said flatly. “You’re on contract.”

“I’m not resigning from SB&T. I’m resigning from being spokesperson. I was never a good fit for the position.”

He shook his head, “What about the social obligations?”

I’ve thought this through, “I’ll continue to fulfill them as Terry’s wife and work in any other capacity SB&T considers appropriate.”

Scowling, “You think Terry’s stupid enough to stay married to you after this?”

I don’t blame him for thinking this way, and he may be right. “That’s between me and Terry.”

Waving me away, “I should have left you in North Dakota.”

Suddenly I was on my own. I booked a flight on an airline. Taxi took me to the airport and after going through security found a chair away from everyone trying to be as incognito as possible.

The flight was long and fretful. I didn’t know how Terry would receive me. I thought over and over how to approach him, but none of them eased my mind. Maybe I should find a hotel room and we meet in a neutral place?

In the Taxi I almost gave the driver the name of the hotel I stayed at earlier, but then remembered what I said in Atlanta about never backing down from a fight.

I prayed on the drive from the airport asking for Terry to find it in his heart to forgive me.



Darius



All over the news. Little miss purity nothing but a slut. She went back to washed up basketball player. Maybe work in my favor. Banker drops her and she mine. Make her pay big time for Big Ben.

Raquel’s worried. She try rubbing neck to get me hard. After Super Bowl nothin bring him back.

Insides jumbled when I think about Rhonda. Love her. Hate her. Want kill her. It hurt she won’t come back.

Wait at airport for days. She will take taxi. No more limo or private jet. She mortal now. More I wait more I burned. She spurn me for years. I’m only one who love her. James bangin reporter and bitch back like pig to slop. Now she goin back sugar daddy. Gonna burn her way she burn me.

At drop off. Sweatin ‘bout to melt. Piece in jacket pocket. See her in cab. Guy get bags from trunk and she step out. Now my chance. Start to pull piece. Time to make whore pay.

Somethin hit back of legs, go down; arm around throat. Rhonda walkin in airport don’t know what happened. I’m invisible again. Black out.

Martinez was out of town so didn’t have to hear his temper tantrum. Rosa’s was worse.

“Every time Hector is close to letting you take over his other businesses you pull something stupid like this,” she wasn’t yelling or in my face, but sad. “Do you have any idea how much damage crack and smack does to the black and Hispanic neighborhoods?”

 Stupid bitch. I know. “Grew up New Orleans. Step over junkies walkin school every day. Sleep in bathtub avoid stray bullets. Half graduatin class dead or in prison why I went in Air Force. I fought to stay clean livin in hell hole.” Shut her up. “You have any idea how hard for me be workin with scum I’ve avoided all my life?”

She plead, “Help us get them off the street.”

Shit, don’t see how fruitless. “Yeah, we bust Hector. Orlando or Geraldo takes place. Maybe decide by killing each other and dozen kids killed in beds. Nothin changes on streets. LIVED IT. NOTHING EVER CHANGES.”

Captain came in, “Wow you almost made me feel sorry for a shit for brains stalker harassing a beautiful woman who wants nothing to do with you.”

“Didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

“You violated your restraining order. You’ll get sixty days. That .38 would have bought you a couple of years. Good thing you didn’t take it into the airport or pull it out all the way.”

Rosa paced back and forth “Raquel called me when you left. She saw you put the gun in your pocket. Pray to God word doesn’t get back to Hector.

She right. Kill us all. “Arrest Hector and the homies. Confiscate his money.”

Captain shook head, “For what? Geraldo brings you three bags of cash to mix with the take. You deposit it in an account. The next day it’s electronically transferred to an off shore account where it disappears. Taxes are paid on everything recorded by you so we can’t even get income tax evasion on him.” Walking out, “I’m pulling the plug. The investigation is over.” Showing pity, “You’re on your own.”

Jail’s easier than prison. Boredom’s the worst part. Most of the day I’m sittin in the cell with six guys. Raquel brings me books. Give to “friends” when done. She visit every day keep me up with the office. Money flowin into right accounts, but nightmare when I get back to sort it all out. She told me Rosa disappeared and Hector goin crazy. I told her to take the stack of money on the bottom of the safe. It’s mine not Hectors, and run. First time I see her scared.

  Next day Martinez there. “What happened?” Something’s wrong.

“Rosa’s in witness protection. We raided all the Templos and grabbed what money we could. Hector and his crew are in Brazil.”

Gut froze, “Raquel?”

“When we went to your office she was hanging over the open and empty safe.”

Start gasping for air. Rhonda ruined my and life now others dead. Should have shot bitch at press conference.

Walking out he said, “Enjoy every breath. You don’t have many left.”



Junior



At the office I thought Anton or Emilia would come by to say something. If nothing else to badmouth Rhonda, but they left me alone. My phone was strangely silent and there were no appointments. It was amazing how much work I got done.

Cookie closed the door and sat down at my desk an hour before going home. “You dumping that bitch?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If she comes back I thought about marriage counseling.”

She gave me one of her attitude looks, “I’m not interested in your marriage. You’re head of HR, she just crapped all over the corporation. What you gonna to do about it?”

I shrugged, “PR’s spinning it.”

“Spin is for the public,” she said. “You want to take over in a couple of years, how you gonna do that when the board, stockholders and all the other top execs know she played you for a fool?”

This pissed me off, “When they start seeing the bottom line from all the loans she single handedly started for the corporation they’ll sing her praises if she’s living in an igloo sleeping with a walrus.”

Cackling, “You’ve got a fertile imagination for a stuffed shirt.” She turned serious, “That’s good for her, but still bad for you. It’s your reputation that’s damaged. Bad enough she ran back into the arms of her good looking ex-boyfriend; what’s important is how you handle it.”

She started listing the options as if I hadn’t already thought of them.

A.    “Divorce means you made a mistake, and CEO’s can’t make mistakes.

B.     “Reconcile she’s playing you for a sucker and you look weak; deadly for a CEO.

C.     “Fire her you look decisive.”

Sounded good, but not that easy, “She’s on a contract and there’s not enough proof the affair happened to fire her.”

“What do you mean not enough proof? You see the same broadcast I did?”

Time to enlighten her, “All the broadcast showed was James going in a room and Rhonda leaving a room. It just means both were in the room, but times and dates can be faked. If the pictures showed them going in or leaving together maybe, but then they could have been discussing the campaign against fracking. Legally they’ve done nothing wrong.”

“The whole world knows they were fooling around and you can’t fire her?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s messed up.”

“That’s what human resources faces every day all over the country. The fine line between knowing and proving. It costs millions of dollars in lawsuits even when there is cause for termination. This one we wouldn’t win.”

Still not satisfied, “How can SB&T use her as the spokesperson when everyone in the world knows she played around on you? All of her ads will be jokes and SB&T will be a laughing stock.”

She made a good point. PR was working on spinning, but no matter how good they were with the sheeple, the elite of the financial and political world won’t buy it.

I’ve got to move her out of PR. The contract doesn’t specify which position. Emilia might fight me on this, but Anton will understand. “Make me an appointment with Anton in the morning.”

“Anton and Emelia left on vacation. Word came down to me that this was your mess to clean up.”

“And you waited until now to tell me?” First time I’ve really been angry with her.

She yelled back, “I’ve been out there all day waiting for you to get the guts to tell me to contact them.”

I’m still not happy, “From now on don’t wait on information like this, you cost me time.”

She gave me a look. Sometimes attitude is not a good thing. If she wasn’t a damn good secretary I would have canned her on the spot. “Get me Spencer Levine.”

“Got it boss,” she said getting up.

“Spencer here,” the head of PR said.

“Spence, I want you to replace Rhonda as the face of SB&T. No more ads, promotions or campaigns with her and cancel everything in the works.”

“You’ve got to be joking,” he said a little too snotty for me.

“No joke,” I shot back.

“I can’t possibly do this without Emilia’s approval,” he said.

“You can or clean out your desk,” I’ve had all the attitude I’ll take for one day.

“But it’ll take time to find another model and that’ll set us back six months if not longer. If we pull all the existing ones there’ll be nothing going out for a year.”

Softening my tone, he is a good PR man. “Contact Gillian Jones at the Washington Talent Agency. Tell her you’re interested in Marilyn Murray and have her come in for a photo shoot and screen test.”

In a condescending tone, “Is she going to be your next wife?”

In a controlled voice I told him, “One more word and you’ll be eating through a straw for six months.” I hung up as to not be tempted.

For some perverse reason I kept track of Marilyn over the years. She started modeling clothes for department store catalogs. All they need is a slim body with a pretty face.

A few commercials and music videos mostly with her in the background helped her move to New York. She was signed by WTA five years ago and she’s done two lesser known swimsuit magazines and appeared as an extra wearing a bikini in a number of TV shows and movies. One of a thousand pretty girls who are treated as human manikins.

Never married, but she’s been with directors, producers, photographers and male models. Most needing a trophy on their arm at some kind of event.

In a National Enquirer a front page picture with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie arguing outside a restaurant she was in the background.

Marilyn was gorgeous at 18, now at thirty she’s grown into her beauty. Bouncing from one dead end job to another in the modeling world and she hasn’t given up. I’ve come to admire her and thought twelve years was enough time to forgive.

Emilia was about style and class. Rhonda was new vision and possibilities. Marilyn will be elegance and grace. 

Spencer phoned me the next day, “There’s no problem with replacing Rhonda. She didn’t show up for the shoot yesterday and when I confronted Greg he told me she said to use her green screen shots.”

“What about the new girl,” I asked.

“She’s a different look,” he was upbeat, “after a blonde and red head a brunette will shake things up.”

“Then get on it.”

I picked Marilyn up in a limo and ate at a fashionable restaurant making sure the paparazzi would make us front page news. We didn’t have much to talk about and other than her asking about what it was like to be a banker.

 In my rooms at home she pulled a knot on her floor length evening dress and it fell to the floor. Slowly turning around to let me admire her while pulling down the covers and getting into bed. She was curvier than before, but that made her sexier. I couldn’t help thinking about all the men and most likely women she’s slept with over the years. They treated her like a piece of meat.

For the first time I felt guilty about all the women I used for my pleasure.  I loved her once and now I’m using her as a PR stunt to reassert my manhood and reputation. As much as Rhonda’s betrayal hurt me I couldn’t do this to Marilyn even if the whole world thought I did.

“My housekeeper will wake you in the morning and see you have breakfast before leaving.”

“Don’t walk out on me again,” she said pleading.

Surprised, “I didn’t leave you,”

“You could have waited,” she said.

She was right. If I really loved her I should have waited.

Handing her a robe we sat out in the living area and talked. I told her how much I loved Rhonda and the hurt I’m feeling. In the morning she left a friend.

* * *

Dad called me right after dinner. The table has been lonely since I came back and the apartment was too quiet. “What’s up?”

“Rhonda’s stalker tried to kill her.”

I sat down stunned. “Is she alright?”

“She’s safe and never knew he tried.”

I took a breath not realizing I was holding it. “What happened?”

“Security tackled him before he could get the gun out. She didn’t hear or see a thing as they were behind her.”

It’s hard to be angry with someone when you’re so relieved they’re alive. “How’d they know he had a gun?”

“The undercover cop he was working with alerted airport security. He was waiting at the baggage drop off for the last three days.”

“What’s going to happen to him?” I was halfway hoping they’d release him and I could send some goons to turn him into fertilizer.

Dad wasn’t happy, “If they waited a second more and the gun was out he’d be in federal lock up for twenty years. The best Judge Nash told me he can get is sixty days.”

With me sending some guys to take him out is a passing thought, but Dad might act on it. “I don’t want you doing anything to him.”

He snorted, “I only called to keep you informed of what’s happening here. I wouldn’t lift a finger to help that slut now.”

This made me angry, “She’s my wife, don’t speak about her that way.”

“Guess you’re taking her back.” It was a rebuke.

“Yes I am.”

Her flight was scheduled to land in an hour. It would take another hour or more to get home, if she chose to come here. I paced for a few minutes working out the adrenaline. I thought about trying to be there when she got off the plane, but there wasn’t time. I couldn’t work or read so I watched a movie.

The door opened and Rhonda looked warily inside. I hugged her with all my might. “I forgive you.”

We were both crying not getting enough of just being in each other’s arms. I took her to my room. Afterwards I told her about Dudley.

“He was going to shoot me?” She started trembling.

We held each other close the rest of the night.

Eating breakfast she finally spoke. “I chose you.”

As relieved as I was she wasn’t harmed and I did forgive her, but she wasn’t going to sweet talk her way out of this mess. “Wish you did that before the marriage.”

I expected tears, but she looked into my eyes. “I was wrong.”

Looking as stern as possible, “It’s over now?”

“Yes,” she said. No prevarication, no looking away. She meant it.

Handing her a paper with pictures of me and Marilyn. “I chose you too.”

“I understand and you had every right...”

That wasn’t enough, “I want us to meet with a marriage counselor and rebuild our trust.”

“I’ll do anything you ask,” she lowered her eyes. I was afraid she’d get down on her knees to beg. “I don’t deserve you, but believe me when I say I love you with all my heart.”

Bitterness crept in, “You have a funny way of showing it.”

Now the tears flowed. “I don’t deserve your forgiveness or your love, just know you have mine.”

These weren’t crocodile tears and she wasn’t begging in fear of what I’d do. She was fully prepared for the worst and willing to accept it. She softened my heart?

“The office isn’t expecting you and I’ll cancel all appointments.”



James

A man in business suit was waiting outside the RV in the swing. My first thought was that he’s a bill collector and I should drive away, but I’ve got to sleep sometime.

“Can I help you?”

Extending his hand with card, “Rudy Garcia. Good to meet you Mr. Patterson, I’m from the modeling agency of Hernandez and Garcia.”

“How’d you find me?” I was a little curious since my mail goes to a PO Box.

Smiling he said, “I can assure you it wasn’t easy.”

“What do you want?”

The sun was a little warm and I could see he wanted me to let him in the cabin with an a/c unit. He was out here longer than me so I let him sweat.

“We want you to be one of our models.”

“I’ve already turned down two offers to do porno,” I said and started to walk by him.

“We’re not that kind of agency,” he said.

I kept walking to the cabin.

“You can move into a two bedroom, fully furnished apartment within walking distance of Jefferson Middle School tomorrow.”

A very tempting offer, but I’m not interested in anything other than coaching. Pointing at the cabin, “Don’t care where I live.”

He was sweating when I dove up. Now a cloud was forming over his head. “Why don’t you follow me to Shanahan’s? I’ll treat you to dinner.”

Teachers rarely turn down a free meal, especially at Shanahan’s Steakhouse. “Ok.”

The air conditioning was on full blast and Rudy was visibly relieved. I ordered the prime rib and it was superb.

“One of our models is a junior at your school,” he started his pitch. “She sold the school calendar to my secretary and I’ve been hounded for the past month to sign you.”

Cleaning out the inside of the baked sweet potato I said, “This has nothing to do with Rhonda Austin?”

His face was blank, “Who’s Rhonda Austin?”

Other than getting a great meal I would think this was an elaborate practical joke. “What planet have you been on for the last two weeks?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he was a little miffed.

If I get him too mad he might stiff me for the check. “Last week we were on the front page of the paper and on all the news.”

He explained, “I don’t have time for TV and the only part of the paper I’m interested is the ads with our models.”

“You’re in the modeling business and you don’t know Rhonda Duncan?”

“You said Austin, not Duncan. Of course I know of Rhonda Duncan.”

“Austin is her married name,” I informed him.

“What were you in the papers about?”

I rolled my eyes, “Ask your secretary or your model.”

“I can assure you,” he said beginning his sales pitch, “the only reason we’re interested in you is from the calendar.”

After hot rolls with butter, Caesar salad, prime rib, corn on the cob, sweet potato and waiting for apple pie ala mode. I was willing to hear him out.

The waitress brought out the desert and then pulled out her cell phone, can I take a picture with you?”

She sat next to me and I smiled. “If I was Rhonda I’d ditch the old man and eat you alive.”

Curiosity got the better of him, “What is it with you and Rhonda Duncan?”

I shook my head, “We got caught spending time in a hotel room.”

His look was genuine, “You’re shitting me!”

Before I could answer another waitress wanted a selfie.

“Now I have to sign you,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Sinking my spoon into the pie and ice cream, “I not a flier. I like it down here on terra firma and all I want to do is teach and coach basketball.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “We can schedule all your photo shoots during the evenings and on weekends. You’ll never miss a day in the classroom or your basketball responsibilities.”

Against my better judgement I said, “How much?” I was only interested to see if his offer would be anywhere near what Rhonda’s making.

He wrote down a number per shoot. Well short, but I was impressed. As long as it didn’t interfere with school I could use the money. Who could say no to a nice place to stay, enough money for a new truck, and spending more time in the mountains during the summer.

True to his word I was in a fourth story apartment two blocks from JHS, fully furnished except for entertainment. They paid first and last month’s rent then I was on my own. My stereo, TV and other stuff was in storage. I thought I’d donate them to a needy teacher. With my modeling money there was a spare room yearning to be a man cave.

The photo shoots were much more tedious than the calendar. It took hours for make-up. I started modeling clothes for department store catalogs. It was put on a suit, take a few pictures of me staring into space, then change. Twelve hours on the first Saturday and I was more exhausted than walking eighteen holes and didn’t feel like I did anything but sit around on my butt waiting for them to get the next shot ready.

I dropped out of Clear Water. Something had to give. “Maybe Darius Dudley could take my place,” I told Connie.

“Haven’t you heard,” she answered back.

“Heard what?”

“He died in jail a week ago.

“How does an accountant wind up in jail?”

 “He was Rhonda’s stalker and was given sixty days for threatening her at the airport. I’ve never seen Terrence so relieved.” Somehow I didn’t like the sound of that.

Hard to imagine Darius as a stalker. He seemed nice.

* * *

The first Broncos away game I invited the history department. I was expecting the three other guys in the department to show up. They didn’t and the four single women did. Too bad I’m not Mormon believing in sister wives.

Around half time three made excuses and left. I don’t know why, but Leslie Shoemaker somehow convinced them to leave without hair pulling. She wanted to snuggle and as long as I could see the game it was nice. During commercials I muted the TV and she started asking about the team, how my classes were going, what the photo shoots were like.

We kissed a few times and I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to get into a relationship this soon. Being played like a mouse by a cat, kinda put me off of a relationship right now. Having one with someone at the same school was also a problem. I started thinking of ways to ease her out the door without it going any further.

Not that she wasn’t pretty, she was. Damn good looking in fact, but a million complications came to mind.

A commercial with Rhonda came on. It was the one where she’s with her former students. “What was she like?” Leslie asked.

Here was my opportunity. “This just stopped be fun,” I said pulling away.

“I’m sorry,” she said a look of pure horror on her face. “I was just curious.” Knew she blew it.

“The wound is still an open sore, leave it alone.” She tried to hug me, but I moved away, “I’d like some time to myself now.”

I need to find someone I can text to call me so I can do the “Oh, my God!” routine. Would that work with women since that’s their exit plan?

“See you at school,” she said before I closed the door.

Jazmine sat next to me on the bleachers while watching a pick-up game between my girls and freshmen boys. The boys were behaving themselves, not getting too handsy. She said, “Leslie’s ready to pick out rings.”

“Nothing happened,” I said.

“You getting too good for us common folk?”

I laughed, “No, if she didn’t teach here I’d have had her squealing in no time.”

“Don’t want to crap in your own nest.”

Nodding, “About right.”

Giving me a light tap on the shoulder, “That explains why you would waste time with that reporter and ignore me.”

Holding her hand, “I backed off thinking you were leaving for the WNBA.”

There was a tension between us now and suddenly it was quiet. We both looked at the court and all the students were staring at us. I blushed and Jazmine ducked her head behind me. They started clapping.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

On the way to her car I had a horrible thought, “Do you think Leslie could turn into a stalker?”

Rhonda

I didn’t mind being replaced as the face of SB&T. I really hated being a model. Marilyn was much better, and from all her Miss America training made the perfect spokesperson. One session of groper evasion and she proved more than capable.

“She’s been through the ringer more times than I was,” Emilia said.

I became President of Rural Municipal Loans. It was my idea and the board thought it would be a good way to hide me in plain sight.

We started attending a Methodist church. Ron always made sure there was a church to attend when out of town. Sitting together during the music service and listening to the sermon did more to bring us together that most of our therapy sessions.

Marriage counseling was harder than I expected. Rene´ pulled every emotion possible out of both of us.

I knew I hurt Terry, but never the depth he revealed. It made me love him all the more and despise myself for being selfish and stupid.

After the first session she asked me to stop calling Janelle. “You can listen to my advice or hers, but not both.”

That was a hard one, but I agreed. When I called Janelle she sided with the therapist. I was expecting her to protest. “When you’re done with therapy call me and we’ll talk about things again.”

It did help me know myself and decide not just between James and Terry, but between hiding in the classroom or using my mind and talents to the fullest.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo started copycatting our loans. There are so many small towns across America we couldn’t have serviced them all anyway. Because we were the first to offer these loans the lion’s share was still ours. Many of the smaller banks that relied on these loans were soon in trouble. This started a feeding frenzy with SB&T and the other Nationals buying them up and using them for the small urban loans. If towns default the subsidiary banks get hurt not the big banks.

Terry was promoted to COO and we started going on the trips overseas. Gunter and Emilia stared pulling back and letting us take over. I was there by his side and after the initial European tour where we displayed our love my indiscretion was forgotten.

Rene´ ended our sessions a year after they began. Three trips interrupted a number of them. Rubbing my baby bump in the limo home for the first time since my indiscretion Terry said, “I love you.”

* * *

My parents and Terry’s came to see him voted in as CEO. Senior gave me a hug after bouncing Terrence Duncan Austin on his knee. “All is forgiven,” he said.

Mom, Connie and I were in the living area while the men were in Terry’s study drinking brandy and smoking cigars.

I miss the days when mine were this little,” Connie said as Duncan was running all over the place.

“I never wanted to be a mother,” I confided. “I only agreed to have children for the family name.”

“And now?” Mom asked.

“In the sixth hour of the ten hours of labor I truly regretted it.”

Connie said, “I regretted it after the first contraction, but it’s soon forgotten.”

“Yes it is,” I said. “Now I’m loving being a mother.”

I held my hands out and he came running into them smooching me with drooly lips. “Time someone was in bed.”

He started squirming. Nine months old and he fights that word.

Connie took him from me and we went to his room putting him in the crib. Mom stroked his head and back until he was asleep.

“Wish mine would make me a grandma,” Connie whispered.

Suddenly I had an idea. Mentioning it to Mom and Connie they agreed. It took a bit to find some things in my closet suitable for the occasion then we went to Terry’s study door. I turned on my boom box and opening the door we gave our men a belly dance.

# # # # #

If you enjoyed this story, please post a review on Amazon.com