“I Love You.”

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The next day, after they left the lawyer, JJ and Lila sat in the Camaro. An agreement had been reached, the lawyer paid, hands shaken, and Tess had embraced Lila long and hard, whispering something into her ear. When they broke the embrace, Tess was crying a little and Lila took her head in both hands and kissed her forehead. JJ and Cody, standing to the side both noticed but were too male, egos still on high alert from the question of ranch ownership, to make eye contact and acknowledge the crazy mysteries of women and their ways.

“We need to address what happened with Tess.”

“Listen, I’m sorry.”

“You’re always sorry, that’s the problem. But you’re never wrong.”

“I’m not even sure we had sex…”

“There you go again. Wiggling out.”

“I’m going back to AA.”

“…”

“Lila?”

“She told me something you said to her. When you were drunk.”

JJ reached back with his memory. There was too much gray between renting the ridiculous Camaro and meeting the mountain dude in the park (was that even real?). He really couldn’t remember if they had sex or not, and honestly wasn’t even attracted to Tess. Except, maybe… Those tight jeans. She filled them real nicely. And when she walked? Like two pistons…

“Do you want to know what she said?”

“I’m not sure.”

“She said that you told her, no matter what happened with you two, that you’d always love someone else.”

JJ sat quietly, staring straight out the window. They were parallel parked along a main street and cars whooshed by. The minivan in front of them had stickers denoting the members of the family, five Star Wars figures all in a row, two big and three little, holding light sabers. JJ waited for the caustic righteousness that usually came along with seeing self-congratulatory car stickers (Fuck you and your precious family! I hope they turn to the dark side!). But nothing came.

“I wonder,” JJ said. “I wonder who I was talking about.”

“Can you say it?”

“Say what?”

“Can you say that you love me?”

“…”

“Say it.”

“I guess I love you.”

“You guess?”

There was this blockage, a boulder stuck in a round tunnel. Water shot through around the irregular edges, but there was a great liquid force gathering behind the rock, urgent and pent up, that needed to flow. Should he sledge off a piece of the boulder and see what happens? Maybe that restrained force would tumble the boulder right down the tunnel and out the other end.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know.”

“That’s it?”

“If we’re going to try this for real. If we’re going into this together, then we need to know what’s at stake. No more playing.”

JJ took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Now drive us to the airport so we can get back to our lives.”

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Rent to Own

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Tess and Cody in the parking lot of the Marriott.

“You need to watch the other side,” Cody said. “There’s like six doors.”

“We just need to watch that car there,” Tess said. “He’s going nowhere without that.”

“He can walk. We’ve seen him do that.”

“Yes, he can walk.” But, she didn’t move.

“So,” Cody said. “I guess I’ll watch the other side. Keep an eye on your phone.”

“Wait. I’ve been thinking. We can just talk to him…”

“Now’s not the time to go all soft. We have to get him before he goes home or wherever.”

They stood outside the pickup truck, at the edge of the parking lot, facing the JJ’s rental Camaro and the hotel beyond. There was the whoosh of cars on the highway and the approaching dusk. Cody and Tess just looked at each other.

“What if we just let him go?”

“You mean, he just goes home and owns our ranch? How’s that okay with you?”

“We can’t storm the hotel!”

“No one’s storming the hotel. He has to come out eventually. He has to return that car to wherever he got it,” Cody said.

“We just can’t stay here watching. You look like a mad dirty redneck. Someone will call the cops.”

“Well fuck you, then. Why don’t you go inside and see if you can roust him from the lobby or something.”

Tess was staring at the entrance. “No need,” she said. “Here he comes.”

A woman, followed by a sheepish JJ, was making right for them.

“Here THEY come,” Cody said.

“I don’t know the whole story,” Lila said before she even reached them. “But we’re going to figure this out right here, right now.”

“Your boy there bought our land with a promise to sell it back,” Cody said. “And then he changed his mind.”

“I was tricked by her,” JJ said, pointing at Tess.

“She didn’t do any magic on you,” Cody said. “You were into it.”

“I was drunk! She was all over me.”

“Enough,” Cody said. “This fuckin guy got himself into this.” He looked at Lila. “How are you gonna get him out?”

Lila looked at the rail thin, angular and angry Cody. She looked at this Tess with her country girl jeans and big boobs. She could feel the pull to judge and dismiss them as some conniving rednecks from the hills. But the main thing that came to her was they were just so young. Young and just going from thing to thing, impulse to impulse, trying to get to a place that was always receding even as they approached it. Family ranches and banks and foreclosures. What the hell? And then dumb ass JJ stumbles (literally) into some harebrained scheme they hatched. She could feel their desperation and admired the effort, even while seeing they were doomed. Cody and Tess weren’t soft, but they weren’t criminals, either. They were naïve, not yet beaten into resignation.

“Jason here is going to sell the ranch back to you,” she said.

“What!” JJ said. “No fucking way!”

“Shut up,” Lila said.

“How the fuck are we s’posed to pay for it,” Cody asked. “That was the whole point of all this!”

“You shut up, too,” Lila said. “Whatever your bullshit plan was, it’s done.”

“Then how?”

Quiet. Then Tess said, “I heard of something called rent-to-own. You pay a little bit at a time and it’s like installments.”

“Jesus,” Cody said. “That won’t work. I won’t rent what’s really mine.”

“What’s really mine, you mean,” JJ said. “I wouldn’t trust them to pay.”

But Lila looked at Tess, whose eyes were turned down after making her suggestion. “Rent-to-own,” Lila said and Tess’s eyes rose to meet her’s. “That sounds about right.”

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The Surprises Never Cease

 

 

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JJ sat across from the hotel manager, explaining how he needed his stuff, especially certain bank documents. Quickly. Like now. No, he didn’t have identification because Tess and Cody took it. No, he hadn’t meant to leave his stuff behind but he was overtaken by events. No, he wasn’t aware of the hotel’s policy…

“Please. Please. I have to get my stuff and get out of here. Like now. I’m trying to remain calm. I’m trying not to yell. But, I have to get out now!”

“There’s the $200 cleaning and storage fee. That’s what I’m trying to…”

“But my wallet’s been stolen. That’s what I’m trying to tell you…I just need the papers, the bank papers.”

“Sir, the fee?”

JJ threw himself back in the chair, his head back, eyes bulging. He was rising to storm out when he heard Lila from the doorway.”

“How much?”

And there she was, leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, and JJ realized that he had been expecting her all along. Two surging streams, one of joy and one of sadness, flooded the hollow of his chest. She was here! He needed her. Why did he need her so badly?

“What kept you?”

Lila sighed. “How much to get this ungrateful drunk’s stuff?”

“$200.”

“Lila…” But what was JJ going to say? Allow me? Behind all this was the knowledge that Tess and Cody would be here at any moment. In fact, they could be pulling into the parking lot right now.

“JJ, don’t speak,” she said and counted out ten 20’s from her purse.

“It’ll just be a moment,” the manager said and left the room.

Quiet in the office, the drone of cable news coming from the lobby. The fucking election.

“Listen, Lila….”

“Not right now,” she said. “We can big picture it later. It’s not a good time for processing. Let’s just decide what to do right now.”

“I’m glad you said that because we need to get out of here like, immediately.”

Lila sighed.

“Someone’s after me,” JJ said. “Two people, actually.”

“No more running,” she said. She slammed her palm down on the manager’s desk. “No more!”

There it was, the boiling point reached. Lila was slow to get there, but then the green light flashed from her eyes and everyone better look the fuck out.

“Lila…”

“No more,” she said. “We’re going to fix it right here at this hotel. Then we’re going to make it right with those people. We’ll go down the line until it’s all fixed then go home. That’s it.”

“It’s not that simple.”

The manager returned with a box. JJ looked in, cringed at the ¾ empty bottle of 100 proof Smirnoff, but located the folder from the bank. He showed her the folder.

“What’s that?”

“I own these people’s ranch. I bought it at an auction.”

“How?”

“And they’re coming to get it back from me.”

Of all the dumbass things JJ could have potentially done to cause two people to pursue him, Lila was not expecting something like this.

“The surprises never cease,” she said. She looked at JJ and the hotel manager, at the cardboard box with JJ’s clothes, leftover Smirnoff, and bank documents, at the little sterile office and the lobby beyond. She laughed and knew that she was forever eternally fucked.

She still loved him, even after all this.

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The Next Right Thing

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Lila was in the hotel room, lying on the bed, shoes still on, jacket on, ready to move. She didn’t trust the new front desk clerk to call her but she couldn’t sit in the lobby anymore. The endless drone of cable news. Trump, Hillary and the talking heads. Trump’s supporters, angry and dishonest, Hillary’s supporters optimistic and dishonest. All, Lila thought, missing the point. You just do the next right thing in life. You just do it the best you can and then move on to the next right thing. Mistakes, bad things, they happen. Just do what’s in front of you, then do the next thing. What’s so hard about that?

But what if the next thing is the same old thing? And the same old thing again?

Lila dozed and thought of JJ. She saw him in weird vivid flashes: silhouetted against a campfire, pacing. Ranting about how stupid and dishonest people were. She saw him sitting and reading in a chair, laughing suddenly at something in the book. “What’s funny,” she would ask but she knew how he would answer. “Nothing.” Parts of him, parts of most men, never grow past 15 years old, closed off for good. She felt the feelings of the early days, excitement and rebellion, them against the world. Them against old people who had no clue. He made her question her parents for the first time in her life and that felt wrong but exciting.

The phone rang.

She came to, a little groggy, and picked up the receiver.

“Hello.”

“He just came in.” The desk clerk.

“Where is he?”

“He’s talking to the manager.”

“I’m coming down,” she said and hung up.

She went to the door, but caught herself in the mirror as she went past. She paused and looked. Disheveled, rumpled, tired. Lila did a finger comb and a hair patting thing. Then her eyes twinkled and she laughed. She had come across the country to rescue JJ from this latest escapade. He had been on a drunken binge, had probably blacked out, sleeping who knows where, and had left his stuff behind in this hotel. And she was concerned with how her hair looked.

One of the things she loved about JJ, maybe THE thing she loved, was that he always brought home the absurdity of it all.

She laughed again and went out the door.

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Radio Nowhere

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Driving through the Rockies. The grandeur of endless sky and brooding mountains, unmovable and implacable, sometimes inspiring and sometimes daunting depending on mood, light, and clouds. JJ, alternately hopeful and defeated, turned on the satellite radio of his rental Camaro. Radio nowhere. A news station talked of the coming election he had barely noticed during the past months. Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. Life was obviously getting more bizarre, not less, outside JJ’s world. He sped along mountain roads, an unwitting landowner, fleeing from would-be modern day marauders. By God, they would not get his land!

 

“…the furor over remarks caught on tape about groping women…”

“Hillary would be wise to let him have the rope to hang himself.”

“You mean, stay silent? Whether she likes it or not, she’s got to speak on issues that concern women. Unwanted groping, I would say, is a concern to most women.”

“Agreed, but the message has to be a broad message. She doesn’t want to get down in the mud with him. That’s where he lives…”

“You said it, not me…”

“But seriously, it’s an opportunity to widen the conversation about women’s rights, women’s progress…”

 

JJ changed the station. Classic Vinyl, channel 26. Gimme Shelter. He used to get high with Lila and lip sync Mick and tease her into doing the woman’s soul part, which she hated. The Stones. Their best songs were the best. The problem was, there weren’t a lot of best songs. Gimme Shelter, Shine a Light, Let it Bleed, Tumbling Dice. Maybe a few others. But then you had Start Me Up, It’s Only Rock and Roll, Shattered. Arena rock Stones. Mick Jagger in a football jersey prancing about like some androgynous placekicker doing a parody of Mick Jagger. Lila loved the Stones and would defend them until the end. Even the Harlem Shuffle Stones. Lila always got too close to things, couldn’t see the big picture. She countered that he was too negative, that he ran out of steam on things because he overthought and stayed aloof. He didn’t get close enough, go all the way in. She had a point. But, he thought was right about the Stones. Great for a little while. Then just famous.

 

Back to the present. Radio off. There were immediate concerns that couldn’t be delayed. Like no wallet and no cash. Like the pursuit of an aggrieved brother and sister who wanted their ranch back. Like…what the hell to do next? First, he had to get his stuff at the hotel. Hopefully they hadn’t thrown it away or given it away or they weren’t owed any more money. The implications of the missing wallet were becoming clearer. “No money, not funny,” he muttered and laughed. Maybe he could make it to town on this tank of gas. Or maybe not.

Had he called Lila from the hotel during his blackout? He thought he had. A vague recollection, her voice muffled and anxious, as if he was buried and she was above ground coaxing him to dig out. But, because of the pressing dirt, he couldn’t even get his arms free to start digging.

 

Radio back on. Underground Garage, channel 21. The Modern Lovers. Roadrunner, roadrunner! A surge of optimism as sunlight danced on the snowfields of the high peaks. JJ turned up the volume. “I’m in love with Massachusetts. I’m in love with the radio on…” Tears came to his eyes, nostalgic and hopeful. Massachusetts seemed a long way away but he figured he would get back there one way or another.

First, to the hotel.

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The Trail is Fresh

Front Desk

“So, you know him?” The Marriott receptionist, Pearl, faced Lila from behind the front desk.

“Yes.”

“Well, he left some stuff behind. We’ll hold it for thirty days then we have to dispose of it.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Travel stuff. Clothes, toiletries.” She paused. “Liquor.”

“When did he leave again?”

“Like I said, it’s hard to say. He checked in five days ago and paid for three nights. We needed the room and went in to clean it and discovered his stuff still in there. It was a bit of a mess, too.”

“What about security cameras?”

“I’m sorry, what is your relationship to him again?”

Lila paused. “I’ve been asking myself that for years. Let’s just say I’m a really good friend.”

“Well, I’ve told you all I can. He owes a cleaning fee which he’ll need to pay in order to get his things back. You’re welcome to wait in our lobby. There’s coffee.”

“I guess I’ll wait, then,” Lila said and turned to the lobby which was trying hard to look like America’s sterile living room, complete with fake fireplace. The endless droning scroll of cable news came from a TV above the mantle. “Can I turn the volume down?”

“I’m sorry, no. Marriott policy states that it should be set at five during daylight hours. It’s funny you should ask, though. Your friend wanted to turn it off, got in an argument with a guest, then went on and on about obese America being force fed junk news. Cheetos News Network, he kept saying. ‘Think for yourself!’ he yelled, and took off right before the manager called the police. I think he was intoxicated.”

“That sounds like him.”

The phone rang. “Excuse me,” the girl said and turned away. Lila went over to one of the sofas. She would just close her eyes for a minute, and gather her thoughts for the next move. It was probable that JJ left a trail of memorable encounters, similar to the “junk news” tirade. She could just canvas the bars and liquor stores like some old gumshoe. Or, she could just wait despite the loud TV. Or, maybe…

Back to the counter. “I’m sorry, are there vacancies?”

“Do you want a room?”

“I need some rest and a home base. Maybe you can call me if he returns.”

“I can do that.” Pearl smiled. “I’m off in an hour but Stephen knows who he is, too. He’ll call you.

“Stephen?”

“Yeah, my replacement.” Pearl looked left and right and leaned closer to Lila.   “You’re friend told him to come out of the closet.” Pearl whispered. “He said that Stephen needed to just open that door wide and come crashing out, knock over some furniture, and make his mark.”

“Is Steven … gay?”

“I have no idea,” Pearl said, laughing. She tapped at the keyboard. “Does your friend ever get beat up?”

Lila thought back. Yes, JJ had taken a few punches since she’d known him. However… “He doesn’t really need other people to beat him up,” she said. “He does a pretty good job of hurting himself.”

“Oh, well. I hope you find him, anyway. I need a credit card and an ID for the room. I’ll give you the online rate. $109 for tonight.”

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Switchback

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JJ watched the parking area from the trees.   It reminded him of another time when he watched and decided, back when the cops were looking for him at college. Was that even real, or just something he imagined?

He could just see the top of Cody’s dirt colored pickup truck over the guardrail. He couldn’t see the Camaro at all. He checked his pocket for the key. Still there. He couldn’t see Tess or Cody and hadn’t heard their voices in awhile. He would wait. They were waiting. The flaw in his plan of going over the guardrail and hiding until they departed now became apparent. They could wait in the truck. He was outside. Night would come, it would get cold, and he would be fucked. JJ could always see the first few steps of a plan clearly, but beyond that…

Lila always said that about him. Too impulsive, she would say, never thinks ahead. Destructive to himself and those close by. If only she could see him now.

But JJ always answered that he was flexible and could shift on the fly. It was good not to be tied to any long range plan. This flexibility, this adaptivity, it complemented his destructive side like the beautiful sunsets caused by the ash of a volcano eruption. Just keep moving with fresh hope before the daunting despair sets in. So, after about an hour, he started walking down hill, picking his way through the trees and fallen timber, zigzagging along the path of least resistance. He knew he would come to the road again, lower down, since it switch-backed up to the pass. Just when he thought he should be seeing the road, he heard a tractor trailer grinding up the hill and saw it’s bulk through the trees. A minute later, he reached the guardrail and hopped over. Time to hitch a ride.

He had hitch hiked before and he tried now to exude the vibes and demeanor of a sane person, perhaps in trouble, but not unhinged, someone who good people wanted to help. Hitch hiking, like ringing someone’s doorbell, was dying in an increasingly paranoid and self-centered 21st century America. But, this was Colorado, where things were freer and easier, or so it seemed. Right on, bro, and where ya headed, dude. JJ stuck his thumb out.

It wasn’t long. The first car slowed as it approached, driver peering at him, scanning for weapons or a maniacal expression, then stopped just beyond. JJ trotted over to the passenger door and opened it. Marijuana smoke billowed out. And on cue, the longhaired thirty-something Colorado pseudo hippy leaned over and spoke. “Need a ride, man?”

JJ loved Colorado.

“Yeah, please,” JJ said. “Just up the hill a ways. My car’s up there.”

“Right on.”

He hopped in and the driver pulled back onto the highway.

“Listen,” JJ said. “After the switchback, you’ll see a bright blue sports car in a pullout. I need you to get right alongside it and let me out quick.”

“Is it car trouble?”

“People trouble.”

“Alright man. I don’t wanna get hurt, though.”

“No worries. They only want me and my signature.”
“Right on.”

They slowed and made the switchback, then climbed toward the pullout. As they approached, JJ could see that both cars were there, Cody’s truck parked about 10 yards behind the Camaro. Tess was outside the truck, looking down the hill, over the guardrail. Cody was in the truck. “Ok”, he said. “Pull up quickly next to the Camaro then get outta here.”

“Awright, here we go. Good luck.”

JJ used the key fob button to unlock the Camaro as they pulled alongside. He opened the door and jumped out.

“Power to the people,” the helpful hippy yelled.

JJ heard Tess yell but he was already in the drivers seat and starting the car. He put it in gear and roared off, passing the helpful hippy and roaring uphill. He looked in the mirror and saw the pickup pulling out and passing the hippy too.

2017 Hyper Blue Metallic Camaro vs. ten-year-old dirt-colored pickup truck on curvy mountain roads?

See ya later.

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