The Keepsake

by Roy Wilson

My brother Danny and his girlfriend Cheryl left Southern California to go to Florida back when Castro first started the revolution in Cuba against Batista. That was when the United States thought Castro was a good guy.  It seems to me that Danny and Cheryl were always looking for trouble.  This story about them is a fictionalized account of one of their true-life escapades.

The tow truck left a cloud of dirty exhaust hanging in the air as it pulled out of the garage into the already hot morning. Cheryl glanced at the mechanic talking to Danny and decided she didn't like the way he was smirking as he pointed out the damage to the steering and idler arm.  After a few minutes, he wrote something on a clipboard and waved the two of them toward the side door of the garage.

"Look, my brother and I own the Pink Lady Bar next door to the shoe store around the corner.  Why don't y'all just go around there and have a beer while this gets fixed? Won't be no time a'tall. Tell Herman I sentcha."

Danny and Cheryl stood uncomfortably in the garage's dirty office as the grossly fat man wiped his forehead.  The orange rag he used had a smear of grease which left a trail on his damp skin.  His small eyes, looking like wet grapes, never left Cheryl's breasts as he spoke and handed the clipboard to Danny without looking at him.

Cheryl folded her arms across her chest and turned toward Danny, shaking her head imperceptibly. Aware of the look on her face and knowing his own reaction to the suggestion, Danny said, "No, we'll wait here till you get it done." He shifted his stance and continued, "You say the tow bill is a hundred bucks, but you can knock it down to fifty if we let you repair it?"  Danny handed the clipboard back and said, "That's a hell'uva steep price you just gave me."

"Sorry, young feller, but take or leave it.  If you tow it across town it'll cost you another hundred bucks.  Let me fix it and the tow price is only fifty.  I know it's high, but I got to make a livin' too."  He paused, then, with his eyes moving over Cheryl, said, "Unless you got something you wanna trade?"  The fat man stood in front of the large fan in the corner of the office, sweat beading on him, and continued to stare at Cheryl as the conversation died.  Danny shifted from foot to foot and tried to breathe through his mouth, not liking the stink of the man's body.  He felt slightly ill as the oscillating fan clanked as it changed direction and brought him another strong whiff of the man's body odor.

"Okay, fix the goddamn thing.  We don't seem to have much choice."  Under his breath he muttered, "But you're a stinking bastard."  Danny's face was flushed as he turned and grabbed Cheryl's hand, unaware that he was hurting her as they hurried through the door.  They were both glad to be out of the filthy shop.

"Hey bartender, didn't I give you a twenty a few minutes ago?"  The small man spoke in slurred tones and stared with round eyes as he moved his glass in a damp circle.  The Pink Lady Bar and Grill was dark and quiet as Clarence, the only customer, waited somberly for Herman to acknowledge his question.  The light from under the bar on the other side illuminated the rows of bottles and carefully stacked glasses.  It was the only light in the room and it caused the bartender's white shirt to glisten with a blue glow as he methodically cut lemons at the other end of the polished bar.  He appeared to not hear the question because the sound of the knife continued without a pause.  Herman sliced the last of the lemons and dumped the pieces in a covered bowl.  The question, hanging poised in the air, was ignored as he wiped the counter and put away the knife.  It was not that he didn't hear the request, but rather that he hoped the little man sitting near the door would forget it if enough time passed.  Reaching down, he turned on the radio under the bar.  The sounds of country western filled the room and blended with the quiet rattle of the air conditioner.  The only customer lifted his glass to Herman and took another drink.

Stepping into the back room, Herman found the case of empty Chivas Regal bottles.  Using a funnel, he quickly filled them with Scoresby scotch and a little water.  When he was finished, he penciled a small x on the label.  Returning from the store room, Herman felt relieved to see Clarence with his head on his arm, apparently asleep.  Clarence was a regular customer who had come in at noon when the Pink Lady first opened and had been drinking steadily for over two hours.  Herman made sure he was asleep, glanced at the front door, and then picked up the almost full glass of scotch and poured it back into the bottle.

Taking off his sunglasses and squinting at the August heat shimmers, Danny swung the Chevrolet into the shopping center's parking lot and looked for a place out of the hot Texas sun.  There wasn't any. Glancing over at Cheryl, asleep in an awkward position, he felt resentment momentarily rise in him as he saw how peaceful she appeared.  It was her fault they were in this predicament.  Why the hell couldn't she at least stay awake and share his misery?  He looked at the gas gauge Just before he turned off the key, regretting the loss of the air conditioner.  There was less than a quarter of a tank left.  Softly, he said, "gawdamnit, Cheryl, wake up."

Cheryl's eyes came open as she licked her lips and rubbed her neck.  "Where are we?"  She asked.

"I turned around and came back after you fell asleep, so we're still in town.  I'll tell you why in a few minutes, but right now it's lunch time.  I'm tired and I'm damned hungry.  What about you?"

"Yeah, I guess so, but what are we going to do about money? Restaurants don't take checks, ya know."  She rolled down the car window and looked around the shopping center as she spoke.  They were parked in front of a variety store.

"Well, if you hadn't run off the road this morning we wouldn't be in this fix.  That fat smart-ass mechanic really ripped us off with that tow charge.  He had me by the balls."

Adjusting the mirror, Cheryl replied, "Did you want me to run over that bunch of chickens?"

"No, I guess not, but it would have been cheaper to pay for a few chickens.  We're almost broke now."  He recognized his anger was misplaced and leaned over to give her a kiss, feeling better when she responded by pushing his head down against her blouse.  He nuzzled her and said, "I'm sorry, honey."

"All right, tell me why we came back to this god-awful town."  Cheryl pulled his hair and kissed him as he straightened up.  Danny ignored the question as he released the seat to get more leg room while reaching for his wallet.  "How much cash do you have left?"  He was counting the currency as he asked the question.  They had started with over five hundred dollars when they left the small Florida town a few days ago, but now there was less than thirty.  The repairs had come to a little over two hundred. Almost twice what it should have.  Cheryl reached into her blouse and from her bra pulled out a small roll of bills.  She lay the money on the seat between them.  Eighteen dollars.  Danny scooped up the money.  "Okay, we can probably find some cheap rings in that variety store.  I think I see a jewelry case through the window.  You want to come in?"

"Yeah, it's probably cooler in there.  You going to buy me a ring?"  There was a quizzical look on her face.

The rings on display had price tags ranging from five to twenty dollars.  Danny bought one of the cheapest and asked the clerk where they could get a hamburger.  Cheryl nudged him as the girl answered in a soft drawl with a hint of a twang.  Outside, Cheryl spoke with the same soft drawl and said, "y'all want'ta talk to me about this ring while we walk over to the McDonald's?"

Danny smiled as he heard the twang in her voice. She had made the words talk and walk sound like the word balk.  There was a distinct pronunciation of the el> sound; She sounded as though she had lived in Texas all her life.  It was a knack she had, first developed when she worked at Disney World a few summers ago.  To Danny's knowledge, she had never been out of the state of Florida, but he knew she had amazed both herself and her customers with the ability to imitate their accents.  They were headed to Los Angeles, that Mecca on the west coast where everyone eventually spends some time, with the hope that the promised job would be as good as it sounded.  Danny's cousin had called a few days ago to tell him of a terrific job available if he could be in California by next week.  Cheryl and Danny had loaded the car and left the next day.  Now, three days later, they were in a small red-dirt town in the northern part of Texas.

Danny reached for the door to McDonald's and asked, "You understand about the ring now?"  Her eyes widened as Cheryl replied, "Well, yeah, but I've never done anything like that before.  It sure sounds scary."  They ordered milk shakes and burgers, talking in low tones.  Finally Cheryl said, "Look, there's a public phone booth back by the restrooms."  Getting up, she continued, "If we're going ahead with this crazy thing, I'm going to need a local telephone number where I can be reached.  I'll get it and see you in at the car."

He started the engine as Cheryl slammed the door and asked her, "Are you sure you can handle your part?  That dirty little bar down at the end of the block is called the Pink Lady, and probably belongs to that son of a bitch and his brother."  As he spoke he wheeled the car out of the parking lot and slowly headed down the street.

"You can get out at the corner, okay? I'll park where I can see you when you come out."  The Chevrolet pulled over and Cheryl stepped out. As she clutched her purse Danny leaned across the seat.  "If you're scared, you can still back out." She took a deep breath and winked at him, saying, "Y'all be ready when I come out."

The Pink Lady Bar and Grill was three doors down and featured green painted windows with a faded pink silhouette of a nude in a champagne glass on the front door.  The bar was a narrow storefront wedged between a closed shoe store and an industrial cleaning supply company.  There were dead flies on the window sill.

Cheryl opened the door and let her eyes adjust to the dim interior.  It was cool compared to the street and the thought of a cold beer was a pleasant thought.  The room was quiet as she slowly found her way to a stool about half way down the bar.  The only other person on her side of the bar was asleep. A slow, fitfully interrupted snore gave evidence of the quality of the nap.

"Don't mind Clarence, he'll wake up and go home in about an hour.  Nobody else usually comes in until about four o'clock."  Herman glanced at his watch as he continued, "I guess about another hour."  His narrow little eyes, watery and mean looking, came back to her, staying just below her throat. Cheryl could see the resemblance between Herman and the fat mechanic who had cheated them that morning.  Finally his eyes came up.  "What can I get for you?"

"Just a draft beer, honey. I'm tired from shoppin' and need sumpin' cool before I go home."  The Texas drawl was perfect.

Herman reached for a polished Pilsner glass and slowly drew a draft beer.  Setting it in front of Cheryl, he said, "Happy hour don't start for another hour.  That's a dollar.  Sorry."

"That's all right, sweetie, I really can't stay that long anyway.  My ol' man will beat the tar out of me if I come home late again."  Cheryl placed a five dollar bill on the bar and took off her earrings as she waited for the change.  When Herman returned, she placed the earrings on top of the folded bills and with a twist she pulled the ring off her finger and placed it beside the money.  "I swear, honey, this jewelry really hurts this time o'day."

"I don't know, I never wore nothin' on my ears, and my ring ain't been off since the day I bought it from a drunk in here.  Ya need anything else?"

"No, thanks."  Cheryl winked at him and took a long drink of the beer.  "Nothin' tastes better than cold beer on a hot day."

Herman went back to the end of the bar and changed the station on the radio.  Continuing to sip the beer, Cheryl let her eyes adjust to the darkness.  The beer had a weak taste and she decided it must be a local beer she wasn't familiar with.  After a few moments she said, "Sweetie, do y'all have a ladies room in here?"  The bartender's silent thumb was her only reply.  She followed it without another comment, feeling her stomach pushing against her heart.  She knew she was too excited.  She was close to being sick from the inner pressure.  She just had to remain calm for a few more minutes.

When she returned, she stood beside the stool and drained the beer, picking up her money and the earrings.  "Say, i honey, have you got a flashlight I could use over here?  My ring is missing."

"Yeah, here, but I didn't take it."

"Oh, I'm sure you didn't honey, but please help me look for it."  Cheryl was spreading the contents of her purse on the bar, picking up each item in turn and placing it back in the purse as Herman held the flash for her.  Reaching for the flashlight, she put a bright circle around her feet.  "It isn't a very expensive ring, but it's a keepsake.  It belonged to my husband's mother and he'll really kill me if I've lost it."  Cheryl had a frantic appearance as she dropped to her knees and started patting the floor around her.  "I know I had it on when I came in here."  After a few minutes she stood up beside the bar and twisted her hands.  Finally she turned back to the rear of the room and with a little panic in her voice said, "Maybe I took it to the bathroom."

As she returned she slowly swept the beam of the flashlight across each step until she was back at her seat again.  Wiping a tear from her cheek, she dug in her purse, and putting a catch in her voice said, "Tell you what, here's my phone number.  If someone finds it, please have them call me. I'll give them a three hundred dollar reward.  Oh God, I'm really scared to go home now."  Cheryl was truly scared and her hands trembled as she gathered up her purse.  She sucked in her breath as she watched Herman.  The bartender had not said another word since bringing the flashlight over and she wanted to get away from his staring eyes.  They reminded her of the fat mechanic and his offer to trade.

Clarence mumbled a protest as she hurried past and opened the door behind him, the action causing a stir of heat and dust which brought a protest from the air conditioner.

Herman watched her leave then shrugged and placed the slip of paper in a glass beside the cash register.  Three hundred i bucks huh?  Herman turned on the overhead lights and found the broom in the store room.  Muttering, he spent the next several minutes sweeping around the stool where Cheryl had been seated.

The Chevrolet glided up beside her as she turned the corner. When it stopped, she got in, feeling the tension flood away.  She laughed, "Okay, now it's your turn.  And if you're scared you can still back out."  There was a grin on her face as she watched Danny glance in the mirror as he pulled away.

Ten minutes later, Danny stood just inside the door of the Pink Lady and swallowed hard as he let his eyes get used to the dim lighting coming from behind the bar. He counted the stools and stopped when he came to number seven.  He could feel the sweat from under his arms run down inside his shirt.  It wasn't all caused by the day's heat.

The small man at the end of the bar near the door was ordering a scotch.  "Hey, Herman, bring me another Chivas Regal, will ya?"  Herman reached behind him and found a bottle with a small x on the label.  "Sure, here you are, Clarence."

As the bartender rang up the sale Danny made his way slowly down the line of stools.  He sat where Cheryl had been seated a little earlier and waited for Herman to wipe the damp spot in front of him.  "What can I getcha?"  Herman was waiting for his order.

"Bring me a bottle of Michelob, okay?"  Danny could feel the wet shirt cling to him, then looking up, he forced a smile as he placed a five on the bar.

"Sorry, cowboy, but I don't have any of that fancy beer. Wanna try something else?"

"Okay, I'll take whatever the local people drink. Just make it cold."  Danny studied the bartender as he turned to the cooler and drew out a brown bottle.  As it was set down in front of him he said, "You don't have a lot of business yet, huh? What time do your prices change?"

"Happy hour was just over.  Sorry." Herman turned away and picked up a towel.  As he glanced toward the door, Herman saw that Clarence was awake again but still sitting with head in hand.  He went back to the other end of the bar.

The beer was warm.  Danny wondered what kind it was as he turned the bottle in his hands.  The label was missing.  Oh well, he thought, here goes.  "Hey, bartender, you got a light?  I think I found something."  He held up a ring and examined it in the dim light.  "You know anybody who might have lost a ring?"   Herman picked up the flashlight and held it as Danny turned the ring in its beam.  They both watched the color change with the movement.  Neither of them spoke.  Moments passed before Danny said, "Hell, it's not a real expensive one."  He flashed Herman a smile.  "Maybe worth about two hundred bucks.  What do you think?" Not waiting for an answer, he quickly slipped it into his pocket as Herman's hand came up and reached for it.  "Thanks for the use of the flash."

Herman turned away without a word and went back to the other end of the bar.  Passing the cash register, he found the slip of paper with the telephone number on it.  He fingered the slip and watched Danny out of the corner of his eye.  Spreading the paper, he saw it was a local number. Three hundred bucks, she said.  Okay, let's find out.  Herman went to the telephone behind the bar. He continued to watch Danny with sidelong glances as he dialed the number.  Three times he heard the ring until there was a soft, "Hello?"

"You the lady that lost the ring?" He spoke in a low voice as he turned his back toward the bar.

"Yes! Did you find it? My husband's not home yet; I can come down right now!"

"You said something about three hundred bucks.  Is that still on?"  he looked back at the bar and saw Danny standing and gathering his change.  The soft voice on the other end came through the receiver, "I'll bring it with me."

"Okay, lady, come on down - and make it cash." Herman saw Danny take a last swallow and swing toward the door.  "Hey, wait a minute."  Herman hurried over to where Danny was standing.  "Say, I'll give you two hundred bucks for that ring you found and save you some trouble."  He spread the money on the bar and waited for an answer.  At last he i said, "Whad'da ya say?"

Moments later, both Herman and Danny had the same feeling of elation. Herman was thinking of the fast hundred dollars he had just made as Danny counted the money.  Slowly, feeling he had to keep from running, Danny picked up the money and said, "Damn, I might be wrong about how much it's worth, but on the other hand, it might be worth less too.  It's a deal."

Pushing the money into his pants pocket he started toward the door. With an outward calm he didn't feel, and an urge to dash coming from his feet, he hurried out.

Going past the small man near the door, Danny heard him say, "That's mighty white of you, Herman.  You're a good ol' boy to help that feller out."

As the door swung closed and Danny disappeared around the corner, the Pink Lady might have slowly closed one eye and smiled when Clarence raised his glass in salute.  "And besides, you serve the best goddamn scotch in town."

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