Editor’s note: No bio of this author is available.
Tomorrow’s Not Looking Too Good
by Gary Hoffman
“You’ll get over this, you know.”
“I guess.” Hank paused, while sighing. “I’m just damned tired of gettin’ over things. Why can’t I just have a nice normal life like most folks?”
Jenny laughed. “First of all, we both know what Thoreau said about the majority of just humankind, and majority usually means the normal group. I’m not sure anyone has a normal life. If you didn’t have somethin’ goin’ on in your life, you’d be bored to more than just tears. Maybe waterfalls.”
“Might like to give it a stab.” He poured another shot of bourbon in his glass and sloshed it around for no good reason. He wasn’t mixing it with anything. He put it to his lips, but set it on the table before drinking anything.
“Doubt it,” Jenny said.
The glass was suddenly up and moving. All its’ contents seared their way into his stomach. “Might as well go get this done. Rhonda won’t be any nicer if I wait any longer. In fact, probably the opposite.”
“She really think you and I been messin’ around?”
“That’s only part of it.”
“Usually isn’t just one thing that causes people to split. Any idea what the other things are?”
“At this point, don’t know, don’t care. Most of them just kind’a snuck up on us. When my son was about three… Funny, most of the stories about him always seem to start that way. He’s always about three…”
“Yeah, I might’ve noticed that.”
“Anyway, when he’d do something he really didn’t mean to do, he’d say he didn’t mean to do it onapurpose. Hell of a word really. I don’t think I ever created any of the problems between Rhonda and me onapurpose, but they’re there. I’m just glad we never got officially married. Makes dividing up our stuff a little easier.” He looked at the table like all of the answers to his problems were written there. “The way I make money never appealed to her. We never wanted for much, but it wasn’t steady and sure as hell didn’t have any of them perks people talk about. She kept talkin’ ‘bout a real job.”
“Hank, I can’t speak to all the problems between you and Rhonda, but I think I can about us messin’ around. I’d say a better way to explain you and me is we’ve been messin’ around with the idea of messin’ around. Haven’t you ever thought about it?”
“How long have we known each other, Jenny?”
“Don’t ever remember not knowing you.”
“I don’t ever remember not thinking of messin’ with you at some time or other, at least when we were old enough. It would sure just shoot a friendship all to hell.” He looked into her green eyes, then at his watch. “I better get rollin’. She might have a heart attack if I’m early. Solve the whole problem.”
Jenny laughed, and louder than most folks. She was a large girl, not really fat, just big. She had long brown hair she usually wore in a ponytail and brown eyes that always seemed to be searching for something. Hank felt she could look inside his soul. She ran a small floral and gift shop, specializing in objects most people called arts and crafts. Most of them came from local people.
“Good luck,” she said.
The road to where he and Rhonda shared a house for six plus years turned to dust during dry spells and to mud when it rained everyday for two or three months at a time. It was far enough back few people bothered to drive that way unless it was important. All Rhonda wanted now was to split what they bought together and move away from there. She hated living that far removed from what she called the real world. For him, it was what the real world was all about.
Hank knew this road and all its little side roads like he knew his own name. He grew up out this direction and spent as much time as possible in the woods. He had to pee, so he pulled off onto a side road. He had about as little chance of another vehicle being on the road as he did of meeting a politician who kept his promises.
He did his business and headed for his house.
About half a mile before getting to his driveway, the road curved and ran close to the Kissimmee River. That was just one of the reasons he liked living where he did. Easy access to the river and all the hunting and fishing there. A pick-up was backed up to the front porch as he came to the house. He recognized it immediately as being Zeb Hermid’s rig. Rhonda was carrying a box from the house and loading it in Zeb’s truck.
“What the hell’s he doin’ here?” Hank said as he stepped from his truck.
“Just came to help me move,” Rhonda said. “Figured he’d be finished by now. You’re not only not your usual late, you’re early. I figured he’d be gone by the time you got here.”
“Yeah, and sometimes hell freezes over. Can we get rid of him?”
Zeb came on the porch carrying another box. He put it in the back of the truck and shut the tailgate, all the while keeping a watchful eye on Hank. “I’ll get out ‘a here.”
Neither of them said anything as they watched Zeb drive away. When he was far enough that the sound of his engine couldn’t be heard, Hank said, “Got a new one lined up already, huh?”
“It ain’t like that. He just came out to help me move. He’s a good guy.”
“Most of us are when we’re tryin’ to get in a woman’s pants. Or has he made it already?”
“No more than you and Jenny have, at least according to you.”
“Well, then he hasn’t made it yet.” He picked up a small branch and threw it at a tree. “How am I supposed to know what he hauled away from here?”
“Just come on in and look around. You see anything special you want or had when I moved in, I’ll make sure you get it.”
There were several seconds of silence as they starred at each other. “Can we talk about this?” Hank said.
“Just be a rehash. I tried lots of times. You either didn’t care or didn’t hear.”
“I do care, Rhonda. Probably more than I ever told you or should have told you.”
“Had a piss-poor way of showin’ it.”
He moved some dirt around with the toe of his boot. “Probably God’s honest truth there.”
“Look, come on in and let’s get this started. Draggin’ it out ain’t gonna make it any easier.”
Hank had built the house during his second marriage. He hit on a deal he worked on for over a year, and he had plenty of money to pay cash for all the materials. Even had enough to build a small barn out back. He and Lucy had raised some animals and a large garden. Most of what they ate, they raised or grew. He thought that might have been one of the better times of his life.
The inside of the house still had all the furniture which had been there when Rhonda moved in with him, but all the pictures and other stuff he used to call crap was gone. It looked yawningly empty.
“I guess everything looks okay to me,” he said.
“Go look at the rest of the rooms.”
He looked around for less than three minutes. The only thing he really checked on was in the kitchen. All his iron skillets were still there, even the deep chicken fryer. That was his favorite, not for chicken, but for fish.
“Where you gonna go?” he said.
“Over around Tampa. Think I’ve got a job lined up over there.”
“Got a place to stay?”
“Not yet. Found a cheapie motel for now.”
“Didn’t know they had such a thing around Tampa.”
“Well, they do. I’m out’ a here, Hank. Want ‘a get to Tampa before dark.”
“Be safe. If you get the urge, let me know how you’re doin’ once in a while.”
“Gonna be a strange urge for me. Sorry, but that’s the truth.”
“Better than a lie.”
Hank sat in one of the Adirondack chairs on the porch. He’d built the chairs from looking at others he had seen and was proud of them. They were still the most comfortable chairs he ever sat in. When they first moved in the house, they bought some of those plastic, stackable chairs. He quickly decided they were a one size fits none. Rhonda sold them at a yard sale she and her sister had in town.
It got quieter than he would have liked for it to when Rhonda’s car was out of sound.
When his cell phone rang, he had no idea of how long he had been sitting there looking out at the woods. “You okay?” Jenny said.
“Guess so,” he said.
“I just saw her car heading out of town. Looked like a lot junk loaded in it.”
“Must have sat here longer than I thought.”
“Not sure things ever get better any more. But they are different.”
“Want some company?”
He paused before answering. “Don’t think so, just yet. I’m trying to run some things through my little mind and sort them out. So far, it hasn’t worked.”
“Well, you know where to find me or how to get ahold of me.”
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Me? Stupid? Thought that might be my new middle name.”
“I’m off of here.” He put his phone on the table beside him. Another drink was sounding good. He remembered seeing some under the kitchen sink, but he didn’t feel like drinking in the house. He got in his truck and headed out. He took back roads so as to avoid going through town. He wasn’t interested in Jen or anyone else seeing him. The only person he was interested in seeing was Jerell, the guy who bartended most afternoons at Hobo’s.
Hobo’s was so much of a country honky-tonk it looked like someone had staged it. The first thing a person noticed when they walked in the door was the lighting. It was provided by beer signs, some that were new and worked well, and others had only parts of them that worked. Some of them advertised beer, like Stag and Falstaff that had both been out of business since Hank was a kid. The smell came next. It was a combination of sweat, urine, beer, and stale cigarette smoke.
Like almost every bar in south Florida, there was a stuffed alligator hanging on the wall, along with a couple of mounted wild boar’s heads, a few deer heads, and several large bass.
The mirror behind the bar was usually dirty enough it was hard to recognize your own face in it, let alone anyone else’s. The silvering on the back was flaking off making the world look like it was passing in strobe lights. But there was one thing that mattered; they had super cold beer and the best hamburgers Hank had ever tasted. Hobo’s menu consisted of two items—a hamburger or a cheeseburger. He did serve those as doubles. You didn’t want any one of those, go somewhere else.
When he walked in, there were two older men sharing a booth near the rear, a younger man throwing darts but not against any competition, and a woman named Maureen, who was well known in this part of the county, sitting at the bar’s far end. Her hair had been attacked and invaded with so many different chemical procedures it looked like a pinkish-red glob of steel wool desperately clinging to the top of her head. Her flowered yellow and red dress was slightly beyond wrinkled.
“Bud, long-neck,” Hank said as he wiped some crumbs from a bar stool. “Better get me a cheeseburger goin’, too. The works.”
“Comin’ up,” Jerell said.
Hank laid a twenty on the bar. His Bud came and so did Maureen.
“Buy a lady a drink?” Her cheap perfume drowned out all the other smells in the place. Rhonda always said it was to cover up her body odor. She made sure one of her breasts pushed against his arm.
“One. One Maureen. No more.”
“Bless you, Hank Stram.”
“I’m not Hank Stram. First of all, he was a football coach. I’ve never even touched a football. Second, he’s dead. Third, my last name is… Oh, hell never mind. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”
Jerell set a beer for Maureen in front of her.
“The lady is sitting down there,” Hank said as he pointed. “Please serve her her drink there.”
Jerell smiled. “Sure thing… coach.” He put his hand up to his mouth as he left. Maureen didn’t wait for an argument. She went after the beer.
After a couple long draws on his Bud, Hank turned to look at the room behind the main bar. It was a dance hall, and anyone who was into country music, country dancing, or just being around other country folks was there on Saturday nights. A small platform about the size of a ping-pong table served as the bandstand. Most Saturdays, a group calling itself Jimmy’s Country Band played there. Jimmy Nelson was the leader. Hank and Jimmy had a long discussion one night about how long it took him to come up with that name for his band. Jimmy said he didn’t want one of those fancy, stupid names many bands were taking today. Hank had to agree he succeeded.
Rhonda had loved this place on Saturday nights. In his mind he saw her on the dance floor wearing one of those dresses that got other men to looking at her. She always said if a woman was showing a lot of boob it was because she wanted men to look. She ate up that kind of attention. Other than Saturday nights, she avoided Hobo’s. She always tried to talk Hank into doing so, too, but it didn’t take. When Hank was pushed, he always pushed back. Cornered was one place he never wanted to be—no matter how trivial or stupid the reason.
All those thoughts led him to Lucy, his second wife. After four years, she left a message with Jenny when she dissolved their union. “Tell him I went to Texas with a guy in a Cadillac.” That was it, end of discussion, end of marriage.
“I’m not even sure she knew his name,” Jenny had told him.
Two years later, Hank filed for a non-contested, spousal-absent divorce and was granted it after five minutes in court. All he could tell the judge was that he thought his soon to be ex-wife was in Texas. The judge decided it was too big a place to go looking. Afterwards Hank and the judge went to Hobo’s for a brew.
He still had his back to the bar when Jerell brought his cheeseburger. As usual, it had enough extra stuff on it to almost qualify as being obscene. He squashed it down to a manageable height. Just as the grease from his first bite was running down his chin, his cell rang. Caller ID showed Jen was calling. He used his cleanest finger to swipe across the screen and answer it.
“Hello to you, too. You okay?”
“Boy is that good news, whatever the hell it is. You at Hobo’s?”
“Yep,” he managed to get out. He chewed a few more times. “How’d you know where I am? Am I that predictable?”
“Pretty much, but I’m actually out in the parking lot looking at the back end of your truck.”
From the rear Hank’s truck was hard to miss. It was a dark blue, but he had wrecked the tailgate when it was down, and he backed into a tree. He got a replacement from the junk yard. The new one was painted what Hank called a Baby-Shit-After-Eating-Peas green. He cogitated on painting it someday and doing several other small chores, but that day was still sometime in the future. He figured after two years, it really didn’t matter.
“If you know I’m here, why’d you ask?”
“Mainly to see if you were ready for company yet.” She paused. “We could use this as an excuse, you know.”
He shook his head. “Just come on in, Jen.”
He continued devouring his burger as she slipped onto the bar stool next to him. She ordered a double bourbon, neat, and told him she was going to pay for her own and not to argue about it. He shrugged and kept chewing.
After a long silence, she said, “Any idea what’s next?”
He was using his second napkin to clean up his face and shirt. “What the hell’s wrong with me, Jen?”
“If you mean why do your relationships always seem to go down the crapper, I got no real answers. I wasn’t there, Hank. That old Indian thing about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins isn’t far from the truth.” She took a sip of bourbon. “Maybe it has something to do with your disappearing every once in a while.”
“I know, I know, you say it’s connected to how you make money, but to be real honest, it scares me, too. I’m constantly checking to see when you get back.” Another sip. “You ever gonna tell me exactly what you do out there?”
“Well, if I was your wife, that would certainly satisfy me. Is there a hand motion here for sarcasm?”
“Can we talk about something else?”
He took a long pull on his beer. “Hell if I know.”
“Ain’t we two somethin’? If that ain’t a good start, I don’t know what is.”
A large cloud of silence hovered over them longer than was comfortable..
Jen slid off the stool. “If we’re just gonna sit here and look at each other in that shitty mirror, I’m out’ a here.”
Jerell came over to Hank. “I wasn’t really trying to eavesdrop, but I was kind’a waiting for her to leave. Clay wants to see you.”
Clayton “Clay” Upshaw was the owner of Hobo’s. He was a balding man in his fifties or maybe sixties who always had the stub of a cigar in his mouth. If he could grow a couple inches taller, his weight would catch up with him. He always wore a tie, but it was never tight around his neck.
Hank stepped into his office. “You remember Ray Rawl?” Clay said.
Clay always got right to the point. Never tap danced around what he had to say. “Ole Rawhide, sure,” Hank said.
“Haven’t seen him around here lately, have ya?”
Hank studied a moment. “Come to think of it, no.”
“Well, he bailed out of this part of the country.”
“Yep, and owing me money. I backed him on the kennel deal he put together, and when it went bust, he took off.”
Hank grinned. “Let me guess. You want me to go find him.”
“Damned straight, I do. Now I got a few friends around the country who been on the lookout for him. One of them saw him at a dog track in West Memphis, Arkansas, last night.”
“Just what do you want done with him?”
“I want him back standing in front of me, alive and well. Then I’m gonna make him wish you’d killed him before you brought him here. When he gets well, I’m gonna do it all over again.”
Hank flopped in a chair in front of Clay’s cluttered desk. “What kind’a money we talkin’ about?”
“He owes me twenty-five grand. I’ll give you ten percent, plus expenses.”
“Bullshit. That’s what ten percent is. Bullshit.”
Clay rolled the cigar stub around in his mouth with his tongue. “So just what do you have in mind?”
“Yeah, half. You getting’ hard of hearin’, Clay?”
“I been robbed once. Don’t intend to let it happen again. Twenty percent. That’s my final offer.”
“What? You’re not supposed to go up.”
“Why not. You did.”
“Look, Hank. I know you could use the money, and I want my revenge on this guy. I may even get some of my money back, if he’s got any. Maybe he hit it big at the track. Let’s be reasonable. Thirty percent.”
“A third and you got a deal.”
Clay leaned back in his chair. Hank figured it might go over backwards, but it hit a file cabinet first. After a few seconds, Clay said, “Okay. A third.”
“You drive a hard ass bargain, Hank.”
“Who else you got lined to do this job?”
Clay scowled. “A third, plus expenses. And I want this done ASAP.”
Hank stood and extended his hand across to shake Clay’s. One thing he knew, if Clay shook on a deal, it was a solid deal, and Clay shook.
He rented a car for the trip. His old pick-up just wasn’t trustworthy enough. Once he got to I-10, he headed west just north of New Orleans and took I-55 north. He made sure he stayed within a couple miles of the speed limit. He didn’t want some state trooper finding the sawed-off shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot underneath the driver’s set.
The dog track was easy to find. It was a monstrous structure sitting just to the east of the interstate 55. After two days of watching, Rawhide showed up where Hank figured he would if he was at the track—at the betting windows. Hank stood on a walkway above the betting windows and waited. He knew a gambler wouldn’t be at a dog track and not bet.
When the races were over, Hank followed his prey into the parking lot. As Rawhide was opening the driver’s door, Hank stepped up behind him and grabbed his right arm and pulled it up on his back. “Now put your left arm behind you nice and slow, or I’ll push my knife through your kidney.”
The man obeyed.
“No noise now, Rawhide. Noise will mean trouble.” Hank tied the man’s hands together with a plastic tie.
“What the hell do you want?” Rawhide said.
“Me? Why? Who the hell are you?”
Hank turned the man around, but kept his body against him enough to hold him against the car.
Rawhide looked into Hank’s face. Hank removed the old baseball cap he wore along with the tinted glasses. That was the only disguise he ever tried to use.
“Hank Peterson? So this is what you do when you leave town? Go out and hold up innocent folks?”
“Guess Clay Upshaw might disagree with you. Says you owe him fifty big ones.” Hank opened the car door and pushed Rawhide into the driver’s seat.
Rawhide scoffed. “That’s crap. I owed him fifty at one time, but I already paid him back ten. I just owe him forty. I came up here trying to get the rest.”
Hank thought that extra five thousand was looking real good about now. “Long way to come just to bet on dogs. Might be interpreted as you runnin’.”
“Huh. I knew he’d come after me. Ain’t nowhere to run from that man. I used to work for him, remember. I seen some of the things he done.”
Hank was silent for a few seconds. “Do any good at the track?”
“I hit a few. Couple of good ones.”
“Got any left?”
“What you thinkin’, Hank.”
“Well, the first thing is that good ole Clay tried to screw me. He offered me a third of twenty-five thousand to come get you, plus expenses. I figured that’d be a little over eight K. If you’re tellin’ me the truth, the better number would be a little over fifteen K.”
“Why would I lie? I know what’s gonna happen if you take me back to him. I might still be alive, but I’ll have a shit life. I don’t know just what you think of Clay Upshaw, but let me tell you, he’s worse. He killed a guy once with a claw hammer.”
Both men paused.
“I got some money, Hank.”
Hank scratched his head. “How much we talkin’ about?”
“I got almost twenty grand. You can have it all. Just tell Clay you couldn’t find me. I must have left this part of the country.”
“Don’t want it all. In fact, I’m not sure I want any. Crap, this is a mess.” Hank hit the roof of the car with his hand. Rawhide jumped.
“My hands are getting’ kind of numb,” Rawhide said. “Think you could untie me?”
Hank did what sounded like a drum roll with both his hands on the roof of the car. “Get out.”
Rawhide wiggled and stood. He turned his back toward Hank. As soon as Hank cut the ties, Rawhide started rubbing his wrists. “Thanks.” They were both silent. “Now what?”
“Get the hell out of here.”
“You goin’ deaf? Get the hell out of here.”
“You don’t want any money?”
“Get out of here before I change my mind.”
Rawhide slid into his car, fired the engine, and sped across the now almost empty parking lot.
After he returned the rental car and got receipts for all his expenses, Hank headed back to Hobo’s to confront Clay. He had a nine mm Glock tucked in the back of his pants and under his shirt that was hanging loose. He decided to drive through town and tell Jen he was back.
She was in the process of displaying some pictures painted by local artists in front of her store. “Well, look what the cat drug in,” she said as he got out of his truck.
“Yeah, good to see you, too.” They hugged.
“Where you headed?”
He explained everything to her—what had happened and what was about to happen.
“So let me get this straight,” she said. “He owes you what twelve, thirteen hundred bucks for expenses?”
“You go out there to collect, he’s not gonna pay you. From the bulge behind you, I’d say you plan on shootin’ him. If that doesn’t work, he shoots you. So choice A is you go to jail for killin’ Clay. Choice B, you end up dead. That about right, too?”
Hank was looking at the sidewalk like he was looking for a hole to crawl in.
“Look, I’ll give you the damned money. Forget this badge of honor shit about being so macho. I’d kind of like to have you around, alive and free.”
“I ain’t gonna take any money from you.”
“See, it’s not the money that’s important. It’s the macho stuff. Sure, Clay tried to screw you over. Walk away. I’ll screw you blind, and you’ll love it. And after a little recuperation time, you’ll be able to walk away.”
They starred silently at each other for several seconds.
“You got a Plan B in mind?” Jen asked.
“Actually, I do. I did a lot of thinkin’ on the drive back from West Memphis. I could sell everything I own here, and you and I could take off down to Mexico. I hear you can live real cheap down there.”
“You and me? Down in Mexico?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“If I been keepin’ score correctly, you’re zero to three in women relationships. Number three sure as hell wasn’t a charm for you. I see nothing on the horizon to convince me number four is gonna be the charm. ”
“Well, correct me if I’m wrong…”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that.”
“…but you’re the one who’s been pushin’ us to get together.”
“Not for the rest of our lives, Hank. I still want to be your friend, no matter what.”
He walked toward his pickup.
“Where you goin’?” she asked.
“Think I’ll go home and think.”
“Good plan. Let me know if I can help.” She paused. “In any way.”
The following evening, Hank porched and settled in one of his favorite chairs. Clay was mad as hell, but he’d paid for the expenses—Clay’s handshake never lied. He got in one sip from a glass of Wild Turkey before Jenny pulled up in front of his house.
“You gonna run me off?”
He chuckled. “Nope. Could use a drinkin’ partner. If I go through this whole bottle, tomorrow’s not lookin’ too good.”
After two glasses each, they were in the house. They had sex. Animalized sex. The second time, they made love. Slow, exploring love. Hank was snoring before she could prod him into another round.
“Guess number three just never works for you.”
She got out of bed, dressed, and went home.
A week later, Hank sold his house for less than market value just so it would be gone. He drove north again to I-10 and headed west. When he got almost to the coast in California, he made a sharp left turn and crossed the border at Tijuana. He bought some cheap tequila and continued driving south into the Baja.
He hadn’t called Jenny all week, and she never heard from him again.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Hoffman