"Somethin' we said in 'Nam," he explained. "Somebody screwed up-or cracked up-we said he'd gone south."
"And you never screwed up?"
"Not enough to get myself or anybody else killed. That was all we wanted: to get out alive."
Joe grunted. "Some life you came back to, huh?"
"Yeah," Dan said, "some life."
Joe lapsed into silence, and Dan offered nothing else.
Vietnam was not a subject Dan willingly talked about.
If anyone wanted to know and they pressed it, he might tell them hesitantly about the Snake Handlers and their exploits, the childlike bar girls of Saigon and the jungle snipers he'd been trained to hunt and kill, but never could he utter a word about two things: the village and the dirty silver rain.
The sun rose higher and the morning grew old. It was a slow day for tickets. Near ten-thirty a man in a white panel truck stopped at Death Valley and the call went up for two men who had experience in house-painting. Jimmy Staggs and Curtis Nowell got a ticket, and after they left in the panel truck everybody else settled down to waiting again.
Dan felt the brutal heat sapping him. He had to go sit in his truck for a while to get out of the sun. A couple of the younger bucks had brought baseball gloves and a ball, and they peeled off their wet shirts and pitched some as Dan and the older men watched. The guy with the hand-lettered sign around his neck was sitting on the curb, looking expectantly in the direction from which the ticket givers would be coming like God's emissaries. Dan wanted to go over and tell him to take that sign off, that he shouldn't beg, but he decided against it. You did what you had to do to get by.
Again the young man reminded Dan of someone else.
Farrow was the name. It was the color of the hair and the boyish face, Dan thought. Farrow, the kid from Boston.
Well, they'd all been kids back in those days, hadn't they?
But thinking about Farrow stirred up old, deep pain, and Dan shunted the haunting images aside.
Dan had been born in Shreveport on the fifth of May in 1950. His father, who had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps but who liked to be called "Major" by his fellow workers at the Pepsi bottling plant, had departed this life in 1973 by route of a revolver bullet to the roof of the mouth.
Dan's mother, never in the best of health, had gone to south Florida to live with an older sister. Dan understood she had part interest in a flower shop and was doing all right. His sister, Kathy, older than he by three years, lived in Taos, New Mexico, where she made copper-and-turquoise jewelry. Of the two of them, Kathy had been the rebel against the major's rigid love-it-or-leave-it patriotism. She'd escaped just past her seventeenth birthday, jumping into a van with a band of folksingers-"scum of the earth," the major had called them-and hitting the road to the golden West. Dan, the good @had finished high school, kept his hair cut short, had become a carpenter's apprentice, and had been driven by his father to the Marine recruiting center to do his duty as a "good American."
And now Dan was waiting, in the city of his birth, for a ticket in the hot stillness of Death Valley.
Around eleven-thirty another panel truck pulled up. Dan was always amazed at how quickly everybody could move when the day was passing and tickets were in short supply.
Like hungry animals the men jostled for position around the panel truck. Dan was among them. This time the call was for four laborers to patch and tar a warehouse's roof. Joe Yates got a ticket, but Dan was left behind when the panel truck drove away.
As twelve noon passed, some of the men began leaving.
Experience taught that if you hadn't gotten a ticket by noon, you'd struck out. There was always tomorrow. Rain or shine, Death Valley and its citizens would be here. As one o'clock approached, Dan got into his pickup, started the The Good Son engine, and drove through the charred-meat smoke for home.
He lived in a small apartment complex about six miles from Death Valley, but on the same side of town. Near his apartment stood a combination gas station and grocery store, and Dan stopped to go inside and check the store's bulletin board. On it he'd placed an ad that said "Carpenter Needs Work, Reasonable Rates" with his telephone number duplicated on little tags to be torn off by potential customers. He wanted to make sure all the tags weren't gone; they were not. He spent a few minutes talking to Leon, the store's clerk, and asked again if Mr. Khasab, the SaudiArabian man who owned the store, needed any help.
As usual, Leon said Mr. Khasab had Dan's application on file.
The apartment building was made of tawny-colored bricks, and on these blistering days the little rooms held heat like closed fists.
Dan got out of his truck, his back sopping wet, and opened his mailbox with his key. He was running an ad in the Jobs Wanted section of the classifieds this week, with his phone number and address, and he was hoping for any response. Inside the mailbox were two envelopes. The first, addressed to "Occupant," was from a city councilman running for reelection. The second had his full name on it-Mr. Daniel Lewis Lambert-and its return address was the First Commercial Bank of Shreveport.
"Confidential Information" was typed across the envelope in the lower left corner. Dan didn't like the looks of that. He tore open the envelope, unfolded the crisp white sheet of paper within, and read it.
It was from the bank's loan department. He'd already assumed as much, though this stiff formality was not Mr.
Jarrett's style. It took him only a few seconds to read the paragraph under the Dear Mr. Lambert, and when he'd finished he felt as if he'd just taken a punch to the heart.
... valued loan customer, however ... action as we see proper at this time ... due to your past erratic record of payment and current delinquency ... surrender the keys, registration, and appropriate papers ... 1990 Chevrolet pickup truck, color metallic mist, engine serial number ... 2 "Oh my God," Dan whispered.
... immediate repossession ...
Dan blinked, dazed in the white glare of the scorching Tickin,q sun.
They were taking his truck away from him.
When he pushed through the revolving door into the First Commercial Bank at ten minutes before two, Dan was wearing his best clothes: a short-sleeve white shirt, a tie with pale blue stripes, and dark gray slacks. He'd removed his baseball cap and combed his hair, and on his feet were black shoes instead of the workman's boots. He'd expected the usual cold job of full-blast air-conditioning, but the bank's interior wasn't much cooler than the street. The air-conditioning had conked out, the tellers sweating in their booths.
Dan walked to the elevator, his fresh shirt already soaked. In his right hand was the envelope, and in the envelope was the letter of repossession.
He was terrified.
The loan department was on the second floor. Before he went through the solemn oak door, Dan stopped at a water fountain to take another aspirin. His hands had started trembling. The time of reckoning had arrived.
The signature on the letter was not that of Robert "Bud" Jarrett.
A man named Emory Blanchard had siped it.
Beneath Blanchard's signature was a title: Manager. Two months ago Bud Jarrett had been the loan department's manager. As much as he could, Dan steeled himself for whatever lay ahead, and he opened the door and walked through.
In the reception area was a sofa, a grouping of chairs, and a magazine rack. The Secretary, whose name was Mrs. Faye Duvall, was on the telephone at her desk, a computer's screen glowing blue before her. She was forty-nine, grayhaired, fit, and tanned, and Dan had talked to her enough to know she played tennis every Saturday at Lakeside Park.
She had taken off the jacket of her peach-hued suit and draped it over the back of her chair, and a fan aimed directly at her whirred atop a filing cabinet.
Dan saw that the closed door behind her no longer had Mr.
Jarrett's name on it. On the door was embossed MR. E.
BLANCHARD. "One minute," Mrs. Duvall said to Dan, and returned to her phone conversation. It was something to do with refinancing. Dan waited, standing before her desk. The window's blinds had been closed to seal out the sun, but the heat was stifling even with the fan in motion. At last Mrs.
Duvall said good-bye and hung up the phone, and she smiled at Dan but he could see the edginess in it. She knew, of course; she'd typed the letter.
"'Afternoon," she said. "Hot enough for you?"
"I've known worse."
"We need a good rain, is what we need. Rain would take the sufferin' out of that sky."
"Mr. Jarrett," Dan said. "What happened to him?"
She leaned back in her chair and frowned, the corners of her mouth crinkling. "Well, it was sudden, that's for sure. They called him upstairs a week ago Monday, he cleaned out his desk on Tuesday, and he was gone. They brought in this new fella, a real hard charger." She angled her head toward Blanchard's door. "I just couldn't believe it myself. Bud was here eight years; I figured he'd stay till he retired."
"Why'd they let him go?"
"I can't say." The inflection of her voice, however, told Dan she was well aware of the reasons. "What I hear is, Mr.
Blanchard was a real fireball at a bank in Baton Rouge.
Turned their loan department around in a year." She shrugged.
"Bud was the nicest fella you'd ever hope to meet.
But maybe he was too nice."
"He sure helped me out a lot." Dan held up the letter. "I got this today."
is Ticking "Oh. Yes." Her eyes became a little flinty, and she sat up straighter. The time for personal conversation was over.
"Did you follow the instructions?"
"I'd like to see Mr. Blanchard," Dan said. "Maybe I can work something' out."
"Well, he's not here right now." She glanced at a small clock on her desk, "I don't expect him back for another hour."
"Go ahead and sit down, then. We're not exactly crowded at the minute." Dan took a seat, and Mrs. Duvall returned to her task on the computer screen. After a few moments, during which Dan was lost in his thoughts about how he was going to plead his case, Mrs. Duvall cleared her throat and said, "I'm sorry about this. Do you have enough money to make one payment?"
"No." He'd gone through his apartment like a whirlwind in search of cash, but all he'd been able to come up with was thirty-eight dollars and sixty-two cents.
"Any friends you could borrow it from?"
He shook his head. This was his problem, and he wasn'ting to ag anybody else into it.
"Don't you have a steady job yet?"
"No. Not that, either."
Mrs. Duvall was silent, working on the keyboard. Dan put the letter in his pocket, laced his fingers together, and waited. He didn't have to be told that he was up Shit Creek without a paddle and that his boat had just sprung a leak.
The heat weighed on him. Mrs. Duvall got up from her chair and angled the fan a little so some of the breeze came Dan's way. She asked if he wanted a cold drink from the machine down the hall, but he said he was fine.
"I tell you, this damn heat in here is somethingjawfW!" she said as she backed the cursor up to correct a mistake.
"Air-conditionin' busted first thing this mornin', can you believe it?"
"It's bad, all right."
"Listen, Mr. Lambert." She looked at him, and he winced inside because he could see pity in her expression. "I've gotta tell you that Mr. Blanchard doesn't go for hard-luck stories. If you could make up for one payment, that might help a whole lot."
"I can't," Dan said. "No work's been comin' in. But if I lose my truck, there's no way I can get to a job if somebody calls me. That truck. . . it's the only thing I've got left."
"Do you know anythin' about guns?"
"Guns," she repeated. "Mr. Blanchard loves to go huntin', and he collects guns. If you know anythin' about guns, you might get him talkin' about 'em before you make your pitch."
Dan smiled faintly. The last gun he'd had anything to do with was an M-16. "Thank you," he said. "I'll remember that."
An hour crept past. Dan paged through all the magazines, looking up whenever the door to the hallway opened, but it was only to admit other loan customers who came and went.
He was aware of the clock on Mrs. Duvall's desk ticking. His nerves were beginning to fray. At three-fifteen he stood up to go get a drink of water from the fountain, and that was when the door opened and two men entered the office.
"Hello, Mr. Blanchard!" Mrs. Duvall said cheerfully, cueing Dan that the boss had arrived.
"Faye, get me Perry Griffin on the phone, please." Emory Blanchard carried the jacket of his rit blue I seersucker suit over his right arm. He wore a white shirt and a yellow tie with little blue dots on it. There were sweat stains at his armpits. He was a heavyset, fleshy man, his face ruddy and gleaming with moisture. Dan figured he was in his midthirties, at least ten years younger than Bud Jarrett. Blanchard had close-cropped brown hair that was receding in front, and his square and chunky face coupled with powerful shoulders made Dan think the man might've played college football before the beers had overtaken his belly. He wore silver-wire-rimmed glasses and he was chewing gum.
The second man had likewise stripped off the coat of his tan-colored suit, and he had curly blond hair going gray on the sides. "Step on in here, Jerome," Blanchard raid as he headed for his office, "and let's do us a little badness."
"Uh ... Mr. Blanchard?" Mrs. Duvall had the telephone to her ear. She glanced at Dan and then back to Blanchard, who had paused with one hand on the doorknob. "Mr.
Lambert's been waitin' to see you."
Dan stepped forward. "Dan Lambert. I need to talk to you, please."
The force of Blanchard's full pze was a sturdy thing. His eyes were steely blue, and they provided the first chill Dan had felt all day. In three seconds Blanchard had taken Dan in from shoetips to the crown of his head. 14 I'm sorry?" fris eyebrows rose.
"Repossession," Mrs. Duvall explained. "Chevrolet pickup truck"
"Right!" Blanchard snapped his fingers. "Got it now.
Your letter went out yesterday, I recall."
"Yes sir, I've got it here with me. That's what I need to talk to you about."
Blanchard frowned, if s teeth had found a fly in his as his chewing gum. "I believe the instructions in that letter were clear, weren't they' "They were, yeah. But can I just have two minutes of your time?"
"Mr. Griffin's on the line," the secretary announced.
"Two minutes," Dan said. Don't beg, he thought. But he couldn't help it; the truck was his freedom, and if it was taken from him, he'd have nothing. "Then I'll be gone, I swear.'s "I'm a busy man."
"YeS sir, I know you are. But could you just please hear me outr' The chilly blue eyes remained impassive, and Dan feared it was all over. But then Blanchard ghed ansi d dd resipedly, "All right, sit down and I'll get to you.
Faye, pipe al' Perry into my office, will you? "Yes sir."
Dan settled into his chair again as Blanchard and the other man went into the inner office. When the door had firmly closed, Mrs.
Duvall said quietly, "He's in a good mood. You might be able to get somewhere with him."
"We'll see." His heart felt like a bagful of twisting worms.
He took a long, deep breath. There was pain in his skull, but he could tough it out. After a few minutes had passed, Dan heard Blanchard laugh behind the door; it was a hearty, gut-felt laugh, the kind of laugh a man makes when he's got money in his pockets and a steak in his belly. Dan waited, his hands gripped together and sweat leaking from his pores.
It was half an hour later when the door opened again.
Jerome emerged. He looked happy, and Dan figured their business had been successful. He closed the door behind him. "See ya later on, Faye," he told Mrs. Duvall, and she said, "You take care, now."
Jerome left, and Dan continued to wait with tension pawing his nerves.
A buzzer went off on Mrs. Duvall's desk, and Dan almost jumped out of his chair. She pressed a button. "Yes sir?"
"Send Mr. Lambert in," the voice said through the interCOM.
"Good luck," Mrs. Duvall told Dan as he approached the door, and he nodded.
Emory Blanchard's office was at a corner of the building, and had two high windows. The blinds were drawn but shards of sunlight arrowed white and fierce between the slats. Blanchard was sitting behind his desk like a lion in his den, imperial and remote. "Shut the door and have a seat," he said. Dan did, sitting in one of two black leather chairs that faced the desk. Blanchard removed his glasses and wiped the round lenses with a handkerchief. He was still chewing gum. The sweat stains at his armpits had grown; moisture glistened on his cheeks and forehead. "Summertime." He spoke the word like a grunt. "Sure not my favorite season."
"It's been a hot one, all right." Dan glanced around the office, noting how this man had altered it from Bud Jarrett's homey simplicity.
The carpet was a red-and-gold Oriental, and behind Blanchard on oak shelves that still smelled of the sawmill were thick leather-bound books, meticulously arranged tomes that were for display more than for reading.
A stag's head with a four-point rack of antlers was mounted on a wall and beneath it a brass plaque read nm BUCY, nm HERE. Prints of fox hunts were hung on either side of the stopped buck. On the wide, smooth expanse of Blanchard's desk were it=ed photographs of an attractive but handy made-up blond woman and two children, a girl of seven or eight and a boy who looked to be ten. The boy had his fathers cool blue eyes and his regal bearing, the girl was all bows and white lace.
"My kids," Blanchard said.
Blanchard returned the glasses to his face. He picked up the boy's picture and regarded it with admiration. -yance made all-American on his team last year. Got an arm @ Joe Montana. He sure raised a holler when we left Baton Rouge, but he'll do fine."
"I've got a son," Dan said.
"Yessir." Blanchard put the photograph back in its place next to a small Lucite cube that had a little plastic American flag mounted inside it. Written on the cube in red, white, and blue were the words I Supported Desert Storm.
wait about nine more years, you'll see Yance Blanchard it.
brealdn' some passin' records at LSU, I @tee He swiveled his chair around to where a computer a telephone, and the intercom were set up.
He smtched the computer on, pressed a few keys, and black lines of information appeared. "Okay, there's your file," he said. "You a Cajun, Mr. Lambert?"
derin metimes can "Just won '. SO you can't tell who's a Cajun and who's not. Allrighty, let's see what we've got here."
Carpenter, are you? Employed at AA Construction, are you?"
were employed at AA Construction until November of this year."
"The company went bankrupt." He'd told mr. Jarrett about it, of course, and it had gone into his file.
"Construction bidness hit the rocks, that's for sure. You freelancin' now, is that it?"
"I see Jarrett was lattin' you slide some months. Delinquent two payments. See, that's not a good thing. We can let you get by sometimes if you're one payment behind, but two payments is a whole different story."
"Yes sir, I know that, but I ... kind of had an understandin' with Mr. Jarrett."
Even as he said it, Dan knew it was the wrong thing to say.
Blanchard's big shoulders hunched up almost imperceptibly, and he slowly swiveled his chair around from the computer screen to face Dan.
Blanchard wore a tight, strained smile. "See, there's a problem," he said. "There is no Mr. Jarrett at this bank anymore. So any understandin' you might've had with him isn't valid as far as I'm concerned."
Dan's cheeks were stinging. "I didn't mean to be-" "Your record speaks for itself," the other man interrupted. "Can you make at least one payment today.?"
"No sir, I can't. But that's what I wanted to talk to you about.
If I could ... maybe ... pay you fifteen dollars a week until a job comes along. Then I could start makin' the regular payments again.
I've never been so long between jobs before. But I figure things'll pick up again when the weather cools off."
"Uh-huh," Blanchard said. "Mr. Lambert, when you lost your job did you look for any other kind of work?"
"I looked for other jobs, yeah. But I'm a carpenter. That's what I've always done."
"You subscribe to the paper?"
"No." His subscription had been one of the first items to be cut.
"They run classified ads in there every day. Page after page of 'em. All kinds of jobs, just beggin'."
"Not for carpenters. I've looked, plenty of times." He saw Blanchard's gaze fix on his snake tattoo for a few seconds, then veer away with obvious distaste.
"When the goin' gets tough," Blanchard said, "the tough get goin'.
Ever hear that sayin'? If more people lived by it, we wouldn't be headin' for a welfare state."
"I've never been on welfare." The pain flared, like an engine being started, deep in Dan's skull. "Not one day in my life."
Blanchard swiveled to face the computer's screen again.
He gave a grunt. "Vietnam vet, huh? well, that's one point in your favor. I wish you fellas had cleaned house like the boys did over in Iraq."
"It was a different kind of war." Dan swallowed thickly.
He thought he could taste ashes. "A different time."
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