I thought it would be fun to share the start of a novella I’m working on – it’ll go through some changes before I’m done, so I don’t feel to fussed about sharing what I’ve got in the first chapter…hope you all enjoy it – may it take you somewhere good:
You won’t find Sweets, California on any map printed after 1968. You won’t find it on Google, or any other browser, and you will rarely find reference to it in any histories, deeds, titles, or tax codes. For all intents and purposes, Sweets, California vanished from the rest of the world on December 1, 1968 after a year of tumultuous cultural changes that reverberated through the subsequent decades like aftershocks from “the big one”. But not for Sweets. Oh no. Not in Sweets or for its 312 residents. For them, it is still 1968.
The dusty Chevy pickup truck was headed south on highway 395, high desert surrounded by the ridges of the Sierra Nevada mountains in all directions… not much to keep the mind busy except the occasional trucker passing. Most of the traffic (such as it was) was headed north to the Death Valley National Park. Of course, if it were a Friday, you’d have seen a ton of traffic south and then east to Las Vegas, but it was a tepid Tuesday and nothing much was going on. Cash, whose real name was Victor Graham – but everyone called him Cash on account of his passing similarity to the singer Johnny Cash (which he played up by wearing black all the time) was bored and driving to Los Angeles “the back way” in order to see a specialist about his cancer.
His appointment wasn’t until Wednesday, so he thought it would be nice to change up the scenery a bit, and instead of taking 5 down to LA, and sitting in lunchtime traffic – he’d take his time and mosey down behind all that. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone was waiting for him at either end of the journey, not anyone who knew or cared for him personally at any rate.
And it was about two years since his pit mix, Jenny, passed away. So Cash was footloose and fancy free as they say, except for the cancer, which was his only constant companion these days. His mind was wandering all over, and his driving was pretty much on “auto pilot” when he felt like he hit a bump and realized that the passenger rear tire must’ve blown. Checking all the mirrors and wrenching his neck to look in the blind spot – he pulled his Chevy over to the shoulder, and felt the truck limping to a halt with a certain amount of dread. It had been a while since he had had a flat, but he had one, and at this moment he couldn’t recall if he’d replaced the damn spare or not. He dreaded getting out to look, so he sat there a few minutes and wished he still smoked, because this would be a good time for one.
He pulled open the glove compartment, where he kept his old flip-top cell phone and pulled it out. Dead. Guess it would’ve helped to keep it charged, although out here there wasn’t likely to be a cell signal anyway. Cash snorted and made a mental note to either charge the damn thing or cancel the cell service.
He noticed that there was no traffic heading either direction as far as the eye could see now, and thought briefly about how long he could last sitting out there without water. Oh, he had a couple of bottles, but that was all – so maybe a few hours before the heat got to him. And boy, it sure was hot. The heat waves blurred his vision out at the far reaches, but up close all he could see was black top and the dull brown soft shoulder which lead out to brown desert and eventually to the dry golden brown mountains.
Glancing at the dash, he noted he had about a half tank of gas, so he could keep the AC going on and off for a little while anyway. He turned the motor off and decided to rummage around and see if he had a spare and maybe some flares. Surely someone driving by would stop to help or at least call it in to the Highway Patrol.
Checking once more for any traffic and seeing nothing, Cash opened his door, and walked around to the rear of the truck to survey the damage. Somehow the tire looked like it had stripped and bunched so that some of the rim was clean and the rest of the tire was jammed up under the wheel housing. Looking under the chassis, he sighed – nope, no spare. Shaking his head, he dropped the tailgate and climbed in to the bed so he could dig around in the tool box for some flares and the jack. At least that way, he would be more noticeable and could maybe flag someone down.
He had worked up a pretty good sweat and uttered some words that had gotten dusty from non-use and sounded ridiculous even to him, getting the jack set and the ruined tire off. He wiped the wet grime from his forehead and thought again about how much he’d like a cigarette. After all, it’s not like smoking would kill him – nope he had cancer in his liver and prostate, two areas he kept in pristine working order as far as he knew. He chuckled out loud at himself and decided to go back and sit in the cab with the a/c on and drink one of his bottles of water. No sense in getting dehydrated after being out here for only an hour or so.
Climbing into the cab, he turned on the truck enjoying the blast of cold air and thankful that he had had that serviced recently. He happened to glance at the clock on the dash and wasn’t too sure what had happened, because it said it was 9:47 – which was what it said a while ago when he pulled over and it had to be later than that because the sun had moved considerably and was pretty much straight overhead right now. He shook his head and pounded on the dash as if hitting it might make the clock suddenly jump to the correct time.
“What else is going to breakdown”, he thought with a snort. “Beside me, I guess I’m pretty broken too.” For some reason this made him think of Jenny, his little gray wiggle butt dog. Jenny had been abandoned at a job site he worked at and then she got hit by a car. Her little body was on the side of the road and she lifted her head and made eye contact with him. That’s all it took to win his heart, he got her to a Vet and brought her home and she was his and he was hers for the next ten years. Life just hadn’t been the same since she passed, and ironically she died of cancer.
“At least I know Jenny’ll be there waiting for me wherever I wind up after this cancer thing is done with me.” He was talking out loud like he used to talk with Jenny to work things out, it always seemed easier when he heard it spoken and she always seemed to understand what he was talking about, whether it was a particular bill or a crappy supervisor or whatever the flavor of problem was then. He’d talk it over with her and come up with a plan and things would move along.
He realized that his comment meant that deep down he knew he was losing this particular battle, and seeing the specialist was probably only going to prolong the inevitable. And here he was, in the middle of nowhere, with a flat and no spare, one bottle of water left now and – shit – he forgot to bring his meds with him. Great.
As he was berating himself for the idiot he felt like, he caught some movement in his peripheral vision and looked up. He had not really looked at the land that the soft shoulder edged, and he could swear that in the heat waves he could see a red car of some kind coming from out of nothing in the desert and heading straight towards him.
He rubbed his eyes and squinted out the passenger window and could still only barely make out the red movement and he strained to think what else it might be – because no wildlife he could think of would be that color cherry red. He glanced again at the dash clock and it was still 9:47 according to the dash board. Shaking his head, he figured he’d get out and take a look.
Getting out of the car, he realized that it was getting close to sunset. How long was he sitting there thinking about Jenny and how much he missed her? He thought he would feel woozy if he was dehydrated or having issues with missing his meds, like he did last week when he forgot his midday pills. But he felt okay, just curious about the car that was driving toward him kicking up dust and looking like something out of an old movie. Unless he was losing it big time, he’d swear this was a cherry red Buick Skylark headed his way, chrome grill and rounded hood, it was still too far to see if the black soft top was up or down.
“Must be a car collector or maybe a show nearby” he thought. And he started waving to get the driver’s attention, because surely whoever was driving would be able to help or get help or call help.
Cash stood there squinting as the car got closer and closer and finally he could see it was indeed a Buick Skylark, in pristine condition, driven by – a pimply faced teen.
“Need some help, Mister?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” Cash answered, not sure what to make of the polite kid who looked so earnestly at him, “Can I borrow your cell phone to call for a tow?”
“Sorry sir, I don’t have one of those” the kid looked like he was about to ask a question but then gave a tiny shrug and continued, “ – but I can give you a lift back to the Sweets Garage, and someone can come tow your truck, if that would be okay?”
“That’d be great” Cash said heading to the passenger side of the Buick. He noted the young man looking with some interest at his truck, and explained that he hadn’t replaced the spare and so he was stuck. “My name’s Victor Graham, but my friends call me Cash” he stuck out his hand.
The youth shook his hand and grinned. “You DO look a lot like Johnny Cash, sir. Nice to meet you! My name’s Gerald, Gerald Castle – my friends call me Gerry. I hope I’m not being rude, sir, but how long were you waiting by the side of the road? ” He turned the key and the Buick roared into life and they slowly turned and headed back across the flats.
“Only a few hours. It was weird, though, this road is usually pretty busy, but today after my tire blew, nothing came by. Nothing at all.”
The boy sighed and shook his head. “Nothing” he repeated and there was an odd note to it. Cash noted the wistful aspect of the kid, and chalked it up to adolescent wanderlust. Then his mind moved on to how much it was going to cost him to get the truck towed, fixed and him on his way to LA. He was so preoccupied, he didn’t really register the transition from desert flatland to asphalt and a tidy but tiny town. It startled him.
The Buick rolled up to the Sweets Garage and Gerry called out to the mechanic on duty “Hello! Mr. Hendry! Gotta a customer!” then as if realizing he’d been rude, he made a face and said to Cash “er, Sorry about that… I shouldn’t have shouted over you.”
“No harm done,” Cash said a bit perplexed by the level of courtesy this kid displayed. He hadn’t seen that much attention to politeness in decades.
An old guy in oil stained coveralls, came walking out using a rag to clean a tool – and looked them both over.
“Hi Mr. Hendry, this gentleman’s truck broke down over by the highway and I gave him a lift here.” Gerry offered brightly.
Wiping his hand on his coveralls, self-consciously Mr. Hendry offered a hand to Cash.
Cash shook it and said “Nice to meet you, Victor Graham’s m’name, friends call me Cash”.
Mr. Hendry grinned, and said to Gerry, “The girls in town are gonna swoon!” Then back to Cash “Yes sir, how can I help you – need a tow?”
“That’d be great, or a spare that’ll last me to Los Angeles, I have an appointment there tomorrow.”
For a moment both Gerry and Mr. Hendry’s faces seem to cloud over a bit, but they recovered quickly and Mr. Hendry offered to go tow the truck into the garage, and see about a tire.
“Why don’t you take Mr. Graham over to Miz Watson’s Diner, he must be starved waiting on help out on the highway. Point me in the direction of the truck and I can probably find it – how many trucks can there be sitting all alone out there, right?”
“Call me Cash, and yeah, that’d be great, I am starving. Here’s the key to the truck.” He tossed it to Mr. Hendry and turned to Gerry “Lead on, I’ll treat you to something for your help.”
“Wow thanks Mr. ummm, Cash…that’d be great.”
On the way across the street, which seemed to be the main drag, Cash caught sight of small and shy brindle dog. Making little kissy noises, he called it over and tentatively at first, and then enthusiastically, the little pittie mix came to him and her whole back end wagged in pleasure at being petted.
“Whose dog?” he asked Gerry.
Gerry who looked surprised to see the dog, just said “Dunno, sir” and stood awkwardly waiting.
“No collar. Ya think she’s a stray?”
“Must be, sir, I know everyone’s pets here and she’s new.” The way the boy said ‘new’ made Cash look up at him but he couldn’t figure out the odd expression.
“Well” Cash said, “if she’s still out here after I am done eating, I think I might just have to adopt her. She reminds me of my old dog Jenny.”
Miz Watson’s Diner was a warm and inviting little place on the main drag of Sweets, and clearly a local favorite. As Gerry ushered Cash into the place several folks uttered greetings to the boy and then there was a stunned silence as they laid eyes on Cash. Gerry puffed up considerably as he introduced Mr. Graham to the room.
“Friends call me Cash” Graham added, which was met with some flirtatious giggling and shy smiles from the females in the room. Each of the men, in turn, rose to shake hands with him, and while he enjoyed the convivial atmosphere, it baffled him greatly.
Miz Watson herself came out of the kitchen to meet Cash, and upon hearing about the stray dog, quickly got a bowl out for some water to put out for the little pittie – that action along with her ample figure and angelic face, shot a cupid’s arrow straight into Cash’s heart. He was smitten. If ever he had cause to regret having cancer – Miz Watson definitely was it. He immediately set about talking himself out of his feelings – what could he offer her? He was dying and he knew it. Best not to even entertain the thought of how life might be with the heavenly Miz Watson.
“What’ll it be gentlemen?” she addressed both Cash and Gerry as they got seated. She pointed to the blackboard prominently hung in over the check out counter “Today’s specials are on the board. Dessert and beverages are always included – so save room.”
After carefully perusing the blackboard, Cash decided he’d try the liver and onions, something he’d never make for himself although it was his favorite dish – and hard to find in most restaurants these days. Gerry settled for a root beer float mentioning that his Mom would probably expect him to eat dinner soon, and he needed to save room. That caused most of the room to chuckle since the boy had already demolished two baskets of corn bread and honey butter – which Miz Watson kept refilling with uncanny timing.
Cash was nursing the sweet tea he’d ordered, mostly because it was the best he’d had in forever, reminding him of the sweet tea he’d had once while working in the Houston area. Miz Watson came out with a pitcher of it and said “You know you get as many refills as you’d like, right Cash?”
She chuckled warmly as she topped off his glass. And again, he had to stifle thoughts of a future with this woman. She fussed around all of the tables, bussing and clearing and chatting with everyone, and then disappeared again into the kitchen.
When she returned it was with a large platter with a mountain of mashed potatoes which had a lake of brown gravy inset and breaded fried liver, smothered in bacon and onions. The aroma alone was enough to set several tummies rumbling, and Cash’s was the loudest of the group. As she set it down in front of Cash and he grinned up at her appreciatively, she asked if there was anything else he needed with his meal and he simply shook his head and tucked in. Even Gerry was grinning as Cash dug his way through the great mound of food. A bit of movement caught his attention and he saw Miz Watson taking a bowl of some liver and bacon, minus the onions, out to the little dog who still waited for Cash outside the diner.
The liver was done to perfection, it was melt in your mouth delicious and made him think that this woman was just about as perfect a cook and woman, as he was ever going to meet – and he felt a surge of gratitude for his flat tire. While he knew life was going to be cut short, he was appreciative of this bit of serendipity, probably more so because of his cancer. Which had him thinking again, about the lack of meds and yet he was feeling pretty darned good.
He must’ve made a slight frown because Miz Watson was there at his elbow asking if all was to his liking.
He couldn’t help but smile at her as he declared it to be the best meal he’d ever eaten.
“Well I hope you still have room for dessert” she smiled back at him.
“Yes Ma’am, Miz Watson, I believe I do!” he answered back.
“Eleanor” she answered, “Call me Eleanor, or Ellie – since you insist on being called ‘Cash’”.
To be continued…