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Twelve Pack Trip


Charlie Hudson

“Yes, well I understand,” Paula said as politely as she mentally cursed in decidedly offensive language. “Shit!” escaped when she forcefully replaced the receiver.

“No luck?” Clyde, her office mate, could hardly have kept from overhearing her plea to the mechanic to try another parts supplier.

“It’s practically three o’clock and I’m supposed to be on the road at noon tomorrow,” she snapped. “This whatsit, this fuel doohickey can’t be repaired and no one in town has one. Even if I pay for overnight shipping, they probably can’t find one and get it here before Wednesday and then it’s two or three hours to make the repair.”

Paula flicked her hand at her computer screen. “I already checked the airlines and besides costing me a fortune for last minute reservations, they don’t have a seat available.”

Clyde thumbed to a colorful poster behind his desk. “And it’s Founders’ Day Chili Cook-off as well as Thanksgiving so there are no rental cars.”

Paula rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “I’m on a waiting list at all three places,” she moaned. “A waiting list for a rental car for God’s sake.” She reached for the telephone again. “I’ll have to call Mother and tell her I may not make it.”

“Uh, you did say your mamma was in El Paso, didn’t you?” Clyde looked tentative, shoving his over-large, brown rimmed glasses into place on a nose that dominated his thin, pointy-chinned face.

“Yes and I’ve missed the last two Thanksgivings with her. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Look, I don’t know if you’re interested, but my wife has family in El Paso and it so happens her cousin, Buzz, is driving over tomorrow. He’ll be going by himself and wouldn’t mind the company.”

Oh, great! That’s what she needed; to be cooped up in a car with some guy she’d never met for ten hours or however long it took. Jesus, what a week it was turning out to be!

Clyde coughed self-consciously behind a closed fist. “We don’t see Buzz all that much because he’s over in Granbury, but he’s an okay guy. I, uh, I called him at lunchtime to make sure he was still going. It’s not really out of his way to pick you up. Said it wouldn’t be any trouble. If you want to, I mean.”

Paula chewed her bottom lip. She planned Thanksgiving in El Paso because her mother and Bob, the truly nice guy she finally met and married, were scheduled to fly to Hawaii the first of December and wouldn’t be home until late spring. Paula had promised her sister, Lillian, she’d come back east to Williamsburg for Christmas and stay an extra week with the children to let her and her husband take a ski trip. Damn!

“I’d loan you my car, but it’s not the most reliable and Jean’s isn’t a whole lot better.”

Paula took a quick break from irritated self-pity. Clyde was just trying to help. Everyone knew he kept a can of oil and extra water in his decrepit Buick Skylark to make sure he could manage his ten mile daily commute.

“Buzz is an okay guy,” he repeated. “He wouldn’t get fresh or anything like that.”

Paula sighed. “I tell you what. Give me his number and I’ll check with the rental companies again before I call him.”

By seven o’clock Paula wondered if she was caught in a vortex of cosmic misfortune. She gave up on logical alternative arrangements and telephoned Buzz who sounded pleasant enough. He apologized unnecessarily because he wouldn’t be able to pick her up until late afternoon. Oh hell, maybe she could sleep for the whole trip and pretend she was on a bus. She alerted her mother that she wouldn’t be in until after midnight, but yes she would be fully functional for the party she was having for Bob’s office staff and some of the neighbors Wednesday night.

She finished packing, prepared the apartment for her short absence and sat in front of the television with a glass of white wine, not particularly interested in the television re-run. It was simply noise and motion to keep away lonely silence. The apartment was small and functional, recently well-built; neutral without quite crossing into blandness. Paula chose it for proximity to campus, not for charm, just as she’d rented a furnished place rather than expend effort to select furnishings she would leave behind next summer. Her agreement with the college was to replace an absent professor for two semesters. While the faculty and people she’d met were cordial for the most part, she kept relationships on little more than a professional level. The town, the job, the surroundings were convenient havens as she tried to regain her balance from a marriage that she watched dissolve around her.

It wasn’t that she hated Dallas or felt Texas too far removed from the east coast. Those were unkind accusations Malcolm tossed out to avoid admitting the truth. Three different cities in five years, each move made to elevate him up his corporate ladder. His refusal to understand she couldn’t waltz in and out of academic settings culminated in an acerbic dismissal of English Literature as a field of study. If she’d majored in something useful, something mobile, she wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.

What happened to the courtship stage when he found her love of books and literary knowledge charming? Probably the same thing that happened to change her pride in his corporate political astuteness to an awareness that her ability to present well in social settings was a part of his plan.

Paula sipped her wine and tried, as she had done before, to pinpoint when she realized how carefully crafted Malcolm’s plan had been. Had he committed it to paper, as he would a multi-million dollar project? Little success points noted, critical paths highlighted. Must identify power within the company, must identify if competitor company has better deal; must quickly become indispensable to boss, unless determine boss is out of favor with other power players, then must shift alliance smoothly. Find wife who dresses smartly; pretty, but doesn’t have to be gorgeous, wouldn’t want to be threat to bosses’ wives. Preferably intelligent, but not in the business world; wouldn’t want to be threat to own career. Have one child unless two children looked better. Wait, no children was acceptable these days and would be less stressful on a high energy executive who was willing to work eighty hour weeks and fly coast-to-coast with no notice for important meetings. Be the go-to guy as long as it was for someone who could benefit him. That was more or less Malcolm’s plan, but if he had written it out, he would have found a way to make it sound less cold. Why had it taken her six years to see that, in all likelihood, she had never been more to him than another item on a grand checklist?

Her eyes strayed to legal papers where she dropped them on the coffee table three nights prior. Viewed objectively, they were standard documents; pieces of paper cataloging agreements by the parties, dryly detailing termination of a marriage like millions of others every year.

Paula’s wine glass was empty. Shit, she was the one who’d dragged it into the open and finally uttered divorce. Malcolm with his hurt surprise in the culminating messy confrontation, with his multitude of excuses as to why children weren’t a good idea yet, how of course he understood her career was important and other lies expertly practiced. Surely she could see he was the primary breadwinner and be willing to take somewhat of a back seat to his needs. Somewhat, her ass.

She felt her eyes moisten and wondered why she’d thought official proclamation would provide an end to a lingering sense of failure that settled on her like an unwelcome wart. Where was closure, her satisfaction in having stood her ground? Mostly, where was the sense of liberation she’d expected?

Thank God she would have a few days to spend with her mother. How nice it would be to go to a mall for shopping and a leisurely lunch. She needed to be with someone who knew her; someone she didn’t hold at a safe distance, afraid to become friendly enough to let emotional wounds show. Oh, she’d been careful not to seem snobby and had instead smilingly refused overtures with sincerity as she cited intensive research that she should, in fact, be working on. Except her attempts to do so melted into a quagmire of listlessness as if every fragment of energy was devoted to appearing normal. By the time she finished with students and deftly interacted with Clyde all day, she felt incapable of absorbing more than a page of two of reference books she’d brought from Dallas. Her nights and weekends turned into repetitious cycles of procrastination, uninspired meals and sleeping late punctuated by minor domestic tasks. If she were assessing another woman, she would sagely whisper Depression, don’t you think?, but of course it couldn’t possibly be.

Paula nearly bit her lip as the label flashed electric sign-like in her head. Ridiculous. Leaving Malcolm had been the right thing to do even if her sister tried to dissuade her. Her mother had tactfully offered a long distance shoulder and no opinion one way or the other now that she thought of it.

Paula stood abruptly and shook her head sharply. She would rinse her glass, lock the offending papers in a drawer and by God, right after Thanksgiving give her research the attention it required. Publication of Medieval Women Mystics and Their Influence on Modern Feminism by Dr. Paula Deering, was a goal that would occupy her until well into late spring.

The next day was busy with a constant stream of student questions or administrative notes and a last minute update on her forlorn Vovlo, doomed to spend Thanksgiving locked in a repair shop bay. Served it right for breaking down at an inconvenient time.

Clyde stayed past his planned three p.m., apparently wanting to make a personal introduction to Buzz, who arrived at a quarter to four o’clock.

Paula was checking her briefcase to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything when she heard Clyde say something. He was up from his desk shaking the hand of a man only an inch taller, but broader through the shoulders. He was dressed in blue jeans, a dark green flannel shirt and predictable cowboy boots. His were saddle tan and looked broken in.

“Nice to meet you,” Buzz said as Clyde went through abbreviated formalities. Buzz, Jean’s cousin, Paula, the professor taking Miriam’s place.

“I appreciate your help,” Paula said graciously. She hadn’t formed much of a mental picture during their one conversation, but he was perhaps a bit stouter than she’d imagined. Not pudgy, more like a man who worked out occasionally rather than relentlessly like Malcolm had. Not the sort of man who would know his way around a handball court. His short, dark red hair showed first stages of a receding hairline and there was nothing remarkable about his roundish face. A faint scar of what had probably been a hair lip barely puckered his upper lip and freckles were liberally sprinkled on a slightly stubbed nose. Warm milk chocolate eyes, though, with thick, curly lashes that never seemed to come naturally to women. A sincere smile of teeth that had evidently not been under the care of an orthodontist. Actually kind of cute crooked. No tobacco stained yellowed fingers or smoke scent to his clothes.

“Not a problem. I checked the address you gave me and it’s only about three or four miles from my folks’ place. That all you taking?” He pointed to the single, soft-sided gray suitcase leaning against the leg of her desk.

She reached for it. “It’s only a few days.”

“Here, I got it.” Buzz lifted it easily, ignoring the pullout handle to use the wheels. “I parked in your spot like you mentioned so if you’re ready we can go ahead.”

Paula nodded, hung her black leather briefcase on one shoulder, her leather purse on the other and draped a burgundy wool jacket across her forearm. She’d worn a pair of deep rose wrinkle-resistant slacks, a pale pink cashmere round-neck sweater and comfortable burgundy flats rather than her usual suit and pumps. A chocker string of pearls and earrings of course lest someone think she was going too casual.

Clyde walked them outside and ambled away with a wave as Buzz opened the passenger door of a monster-size Sports Utility Vehicle. Her Volvo wouldn’t quite fit into the rear, but would look insubstantial alongside it. Thank God there was a running board so she didn’t look too awkward climbing in. Well, at least she wasn’t making the trip in a pickup with a gun rack. In fact, the vehicle seemed to have been recently cleaned. A garage door control was clipped to the driver’s side visor and an aluminum travel coffee mug was in one of the center console cup holders.

“You find the seat controls?” Buzz swung into the vehicle and pointed to a red cooler sitting behind them within easy reach. A white plastic garbage bag was folded neatly on the floorboard. “It’s not quite a twelve-pack trip and I threw in a couple of bottles of water, too.”

Paula crinkled her eyes. “It’s not a what?”

Buzz grinned. “A twelve-pack trip. Haven’t you heard that yet?” He reversed out of the parking space and joined the trickle of traffic leaving campus.

“We’re headed to West Texas. Distance is measured by six packs – you know, about a beer an hour. El Paso’s more like a sixteen beer trip for two people, but I didn’t figure you were a heavy drinker and I’ve cut back from my younger days. I thought a twelve-pack would be plenty.”

“Oh, I see.” Paula wondered briefly if his explanation was as straightforward as he sounded or if he was testing her Virginia gullibility.

“I wasn’t sure what you liked. I brought Shiner Bock and Armadillo Ale,” he continued. “They’ll be changing the law pretty soon, so most of us who grew up this way figure we ought to take it advantage of it while we can.” He snapped his fingers. “Damn, I didn’t think that you might not like beer. Being a literary type, you might prefer wine.”

“Uh no, I drink beer.” Paula hesitated. “A literary type? Is that what I am?”

Buzz chuckled and slowed to allow a car to turn left in front of him. They were at the edge of town. “Clyde said you taught Lit, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. Didn’t he tell you I own a bookstore?”

Paula didn’t want to admit she’d been so upset about her car that she would have forgotten if he had told her. “I’m not sure he mentioned it. I haven’t visited Granbury yet.”

“Nice little town, pretty lake, lot of Texas history and they did a good job on restoring the town square. Victorian, if that’s your style.”

“I’m Medieval, Middle English, although since I’m filling in for Dr. Perry, it’s Shakespeare and forward.” Paula didn’t want to sound elitist. She’d wanted to leave Dallas immediately after she’d filed for divorce and took the first thing offered. At least it was college level and Lillian was certain a position would be open at William and Mary for next fall. Being an alumni wasn’t as important as still being on excellent terms with the head of the department.

Buzz nodded. “Shakespeare’s about as far back as anyone around here goes and that’s the school kids. I keep a small classics section, but carry mostly contemporary. A decent regional collection though with monthly book signings,” he added.

“How nice you do that.” Paula appraised him more closely without staring hard. Bookstore owner would not have been her first guess. Oh all right, she might not have guessed it at all.

“You okay with jazz?’ Buzz stretched his hand out to the silent stereo. “I’ve got sounds tracks from the PBS special, Jazz. I don’t know if you saw it.”

“No, but I heard it was very well done,” Paula said quickly, refusing to show surprise that Country and Western hadn’t been pouring from the radio.

They both fell quiet when Miles Davis surrounded them from speakers Paula couldn’t see. He was one of the few jazz musicians she could identify because he was one of her mother’s favorites. She was more Rhythm and Blues herself with an occasional taste for standard classical symphonies and concertos.

When they cleared the town limits, Buzz’s hand snaked under the top of the cooler and pulled two cans out as flakes of ice dropped onto the padded armrest portion of the center console. Paula took the cans, popped the tops, gave one to Buzz, and drew tissues from the box mounted to the front of the console. She wiped the leather with one tissue and wrapped the other around the can she held. It would be too awkward to put it back and it was after five o’clock somewhere.

“Here’s to a Happy Thanksgiving,” Buzz said and changed lanes quickly as a silver 700 series BMW sped out of sight. It was the same kind Malcolm drove.

Unlike what it would be on Wednesday, a steady flow of vehicles thinned, the ever-present long-haul trucks rumbling by sporadically. Overcast skies with no real threat of precipitation stole from what little light was left before sunset.

Paula sipped her beer, uncertain as to protocol for the drive. Sunlight would soon disappear and she had a tiny clip-on book light that would allow her to read without disturbing Buzz, but would that make it seem too chauffer-like? Should she make polite conversation? Asking personal questions wouldn’t be appropriate. First, she wasn’t particularly interested and second, he might ask some in exchange. They were hardly likely to strike up a relationship, but it wasn’t exactly a short trip either. Was Buzz talkative or was his initial offering merely to establish a polite foundation?

A twelve pack trip. Another Texas mannerism. Even in Dallas, a city with at least cosmopolitan ingredients, men delighted in wearing expensive cowboy boots with designer suits and SUVs like the one she was riding in were far more visible at social functions than sleek limousines. Women favored pouffed, sprayed hair that she thought fell out of favor in the 1960s and liberally dangled diamonds for special events. While most stopped short of garish, understated elegance was not embraced by those who could afford glitz.

She stared out the window, suddenly realizing the almost endless stream of holiday parties she’d attended on Malcolm’s arm were not a part of her schedule this year. She had one reception on her calendar before she flew to Williamsburg. Despite her dislike for business-based social outings, it felt odd to be alone as former friends, well acquaintances to be honest, moved into high gear of issuing invitations and meeting with caterers. And of course one had to make allowances for protracted clothes shopping sprees complete with wine-laced luncheons.

“It’s your parents you’re going to visit?” Buzz’s voice slipped through her musings.

“Uh yes, my mother and her husband. My step-father,” she faltered. “I mean, my father died in an accident when I was young and she only remarried a few years ago. I don’t remember much about my father and it was my mother, my sister, Lillian who’s two years older, and me when I was growing up. Bob’s a good man, but I’m too old to get a new parent. It’s hard to really think of him in those terms. Thank God he didn’t come with a string of family I’d have to learn. I have enough trouble keeping my nephew and niece’s birthdays straight.”

Buzz nodded. “Clyde said you were from Virginia originally.”

Paula shifted in the seat that was designed for someone larger. She’d tilted it forward to allow her feet to rest on the thick taupe floor mat. “The Richmond area. My mother worked in the state tourism office. She and Bob met on a cruise.”

“Got it. A Love Boat kind of thing.”

Paula smiled faintly, as much at the accuracy of the characterization as to the cliché quality of their brief romance. A widow and widower meeting on a Caribbean cruise, sharing a dinner table. How many times had Hollywood used that scenario?

“It’s not that Lillian and I weren’t happy for her, it’s just that we always assumed if she remarried, it would be to someone from close by. Maybe Washington, D.C. if not local. It never occurred to us she would leave the area.” Why on earth had she said that? It was true, but not something she routinely disclosed.

“El Paso sure isn’t next door. Have you visited before?”

“Once, not long after they were married. Bob runs one of those defense industry offices that has letters for a name, although I can never remember which one. They have a lovely home and Mother travels with him. More California or in the Pacific than back east. I understand that you’re from El Paso?”

“Pretty much. My dad is retired Army and teaches at the Air Defense School now as a civilian. We were Army brats, but didn’t move around like most of the families. He went off and we stayed put. My mom did the first few moves and got tired of dragging stair-stepped kids to out of the way places, especially overseas. There were four of us; two boys and two girls and dad was never gone for more than a year. I’ve got a bunch of uncles and cousins, so the house was always full of people anyway. After dad retired, my mom got on at one of the high schools as a music teacher. Doesn’t pay much, but she said it was her turn to do something she enjoyed.”

Buzz squeezed the empty beer can and groped behind for the garbage bag. Paula took the can from him, leaned sideways and deposited it in the bag. He’d drained it well and she was startled to realize hers was also empty.

“Let’s do two more and we’ll make a pit stop after that.”

Oh hell, why not? She’d sip the next one and make it last. She repeated her earlier motions and Buzz moved the can to his left hand while steering with his right. Not much steering required without a single curve or hill to be seen. She fleetingly remembered the brown hues of West Texas when she’d flown from Dallas-Fort Worth airport to El Paso. It was as if an artist had divided a canvas from green pine woods and lakes to flattened terrain dominated by mesquite, scrub brush and less water-demanding plant life. She’d not driven the distance, but had seen on the trip ticket prepared by her automobile club that towns would punctuate the landscape with long gaps of darkened emptiness. Empty and dark. A lot like her personal life at the moment.

“Does your mother play an instrument or prefer voice?” Paula didn’t want to think about empty darkness.

She could hear Buzz’s grin, dusk masking sight. “Piano and chorus, pretty typical combination,” he said cheerfully. “And yes, she sings in the church choir. We’re an ordinary family with no skeletons in the closet to speak of. Matter of fact, I’ve got the only divorce among us, although my younger brother’s still single.”

His voice didn’t waver when he said divorce. In fact, she couldn’t detect emotion attached to the word.

“Do you have children?”

“Nope. Roxanne and I were only married two years and she didn’t want to ruin what I admit was a dynamite body. Don’t get me wrong, I think kids are great, but Roxie and I weren’t right for each other and it would have been a mistake. We got married for all the wrong reasons.”

Paula took a sip, her shoulders relaxed against inviting leather. How cavalierly he made those statements.

“Is there a list posted somewhere of right and wrong reasons?” Did that sound as bleak to him as it did inside her head?

Buzz laughed a quick burst, the kind if you’re not certain someone wants a serious answer. “Hey, I’ve got people in all the time buying books from advice gurus. They generate plenty of lists. I played in a band for a while and met Roxie on the road. It wouldn’t be fair to say she was a groupie, but she does love musicians. Turns out that was all we had in common and making it through ordinary daytime stuff was hard on both of us. We split before it got ugly and last I heard, she married a guy in Tulsa.”

Splitting before it got ugly. Not the words she used to describe her break with Malcolm, although they had kept acrimony to a manageable level. She’d been reasonable in her demands and Malcolm had been distracted by a time-consuming project at work. It had been an almost surgical removal with a palatable settlement as anesthetic.

“A band? How did you get from band to bookstore?” These were innocuous questions that could bridge the silence she wanted to avoid. It seemed rude to drop off to sleep too quickly.

“Oh, to the great disappointment of my dad, I was a better trumpet player than athlete. I was in the band all through high school, didn’t want to go to college right away and joined the Army as much to get him off my back as anything.” Buzz glanced toward her although she assumed her features were as softened as his were in dim light. “Long story short, they trained me as an admin clerk and I wound up going to Heidelberg, Germany. It was okay and I played on the weekends with a combo.” The laugh this time was filled with amusement. “I didn’t re-enlist, was still young, had money in my pocket and an old high school buddy who was sure we could be famous. Got to be C &W in this part of the country, but I pick a good guitar, too. We did all right for a while and had a hell of a good time. The big break never came, guys started swapping out and we were always scrapping for gigs. We’d been playing at the Granbury 4th of July celebration and decided to call it quits. Like I said, it’s a nice little town and one of Jean’s uncles owned the bookstore. He needed help, I had nothing better to do and I’ve always liked to read. Nothing overly literary, I admit.”

“Jean, as in Clyde’s wife?” She saw no reason to address the literary remark. Unlike some academicians, she appreciated the value of popular literature. Well, some of it, at least.

“Yeah, my cousin. Anyway, Walt had this great location on the square and quite frankly, was stuck in 1955 from a business view. He still had a rotary dial telephone if you can believe it, didn’t want to talk about a computer and couldn’t understand why he was losing business. He’s a good guy, though, and started letting me make changes. One thing led to another, I tinkered around with on-line courses and some campus work at your place as a matter of fact and finally finished a degree in business. Got to where I realized I really liked the bookstore and Walt was ready to retire. He gave me rock bottom price and I had my fourth anniversary sale in September. Can’t complain. Last year I bought the shop next door and expanded enough to have room for Sunday jam sessions. We crank up about noon, go to five; never know who’ll come around and we usually get a nice crowd. Sort of a bring your own bottle and picnic affair. Clyde can tell you about it. He and Jean come over occasionally.”

Buzz shrugged. “My life in a nutshell.” He lifted his hand as they passed a road sign. “There’s a good truck stop next exit. You want an early dinner or grab some snacks?”

She was feeling the effect of the beer. Her need for the bathroom competed with unexpected hunger. “Whichever you prefer.”

“Then let’s eat. I was tied up with some shipments for next weekend’s rush and didn’t get much lunch.”

He turned into the EZ-on/EZ-off, location with the big rig section, automotive repair shop and promise of hot showers set left of the adjoined food mart and glass-sided restaurant. They hurried through chilled air, not bothering with coats and stepped inside, the smell of hot grease and sizzling steaks a living force in the noisy, brightly light warmth.

The counter was nearly filled and the few open tables were being bussed by waitresses in classic pale gold shirtwaist dresses, comfortable sneakers and smiles that simultaneously broadcast welcome and hope for an easy table with good tippers. A middle-aged woman with Shelly on her name tag nodded them to a booth. She talked Paula into an over-large serving of chicken pot pie and agreed with Buzz that they made a damn fine chicken fried steak. The laden platter of golden crusted meat, mound of mashed potatoes, pools of cream gravy and accompanying pair of biscuits would have fed Paula for three days. Buzz ate appreciatively as nearby overlapping conversations, clanking dishes and shouts of Order Up kept their exchanges to a minimum.

Paula left a generous tip after she lost her argument for the ticket and sought out the bathroom while Buzz paid at the register.

She brushed by hanging coats on hooks and a man speaking earnestly on the telephone as a woman held the door open for her. She looked to be no more than young twenties, with a baby on one hip and a toddler clinging to her other hand. The children mirrored their mother’s frizzed ash-blonde hair and Paula fleetingly wondered if they too had hours to drive to reach their destination.

She paused to stare into the mirror when she washed her hands. She had inherited her paternal grandmother’s deep green eyes and curly mahogany brown hair, although her oval face and slight overbite were replicas of her mother’s. If Malcolm had agreed to children she’d already selected names for, would his blond hair and blue-eyed genes have shown up? She shook her head to clear the thought and squeezed past a rotund woman entering as she recited a recipe to her equally plump companion.

Bodies and vehicle fed, they joined sparse traffic and Paula accepted another cold beer after a faint protest. Buzz assured her he could stay awake if she wanted to drift off. The third beer on top of a too heavy meal and a semi-reclined position should have produced heavy sleep, not nibbling restlessness.

Thanksgiving to be followed by Christmas by New Year’s Eve; a stretch of holidays that for the first time in her life, she faced as not a part of a group. Childhood and adolescence with family and friends; teenaged years of parties and dates; college with sorority highlights; followed by one season with Malcolm before they married. The rhythm was different for married couples than in a swirl of singles. Earlier evenings, more restraint, discussions about children, whispers about those who might no longer be a couple by next year’s festivities. Had the strain between her and Malcolm produced such whispers? Things had hardly been perfect between them during the last holiday round, yet perhaps not defined enough to be outwardly visible. And how quickly the thin veneer of female friendship shattered when word spread. No calls for luncheons, no further suggestions of shopping excursions that she hadn’t particularly enjoyed anyway. Not that she’d really had a chance to make friends in Dallas, nor find an academic niche.

Malcolm had used his salesman tone at first. “I know it’s different here and you preferred Atlanta, but this isn’t some backwater city. Maybe you don’t realize you’re acting aloof.”

He was more abrupt later. “I’m working my ass off, I’m so close to the promotion I can taste it and you have to start up with Lisa Gardner about the validity of romantic love. Christ, it’s a good thing she thought you were talking about Danielle Steele.”

Condescension had been his final thrust. “Paula, this whole attitude is beneath a woman of your intelligence. Every couple has rough patches they go through and if you would just give it more time, we’ll come through this. If you honestly want to call it quits, I’m not going to try and talk you out of it any longer, but I think you’re going to find you’ve made a mistake.”

Paula felt the empty can lifted from her hand, a full, cold one pressed in its place. She shouldn’t. The music changed from trumpet heavy to piano. One more beer and she would definitely sleep.

Lillian’s voice drifted from her memory. “Sweetie, I’m your sister and of course I’ll support whatever you decide, but I don’t understand why you don’t try a little separation instead of a divorce. Malcolm gets awfully involved with his work and it’s possible he just doesn’t realize how that makes you feel. I know it was a disappointment to pack up and move again with no more notice than he gave you. At least you’re closer to Mother. That’s some benefit.”

A trial separation. She’d thought about it. Handsome, suave Malcolm was not unaware of her feeling of displacement. He merely dismissed it as unimportant. All right, if she wasn’t going to be gainfully employed, it was obviously the perfect time to start a family. That would certainly occupy her and they only wanted two children, so the sequencing would work out. Two years between them just like her and Lillian.

“Paula, be reasonable. If I get this promotion, I’ll be doing a lot of traveling for the next year with Gardner and you being pregnant and having a baby would complicate everything. All I’m saying is maybe we should rethink the children thing, at least for now. I mean, once you have a kid, our life changes totally.”

She’d been stunned when he spoke the actual words. Not that she hadn’t begun to wonder. Had he ever really wanted children? Did he not recognize her desire to wait for a while was not remotely the same thing as never wanting a baby?

She stared into cloud covered night as Buzz sped by the exit to a town she didn’t recognize the name of.

“That was a big sigh. You okay?”

She hadn’t heard herself. She thought the wavering regret accompanying the divorce decree was locked wordlessly in her stomach.

She turned her head and tried to smile nonchalantly. “I’m fine,” was what she meant to say.

“My divorce was final this week,” came out instead in a voice she immediately wanted to strengthen.

“Ah.” Two heartbeats of pause. “Not the best way to start the holidays.”

“It’s nothing, really. I’m not sure why I even mentioned it.” There, that was more in control. Paula took a long swallow of beer.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said softly. “Unless you were in an abusive situation, thinking about getting a divorce is one thing. Going through with it is something different. I mean, Roxie and I both figured out we’d be better off quitting, but still, when it’s over, it’s kind of a jolt.”

A jolt. Had that been it? More like a wave, she thought. A wave that began to build as she held the unopened envelop. A wave that broke and swept her feet from under her when she looked at the first page. Over, done, no longer existed. Meeting, courtship, proposal, wedding planning, a memorable ceremony. Hers was not the marriage that should have fallen apart. Had she acted too quickly?

“Yes. Yes, jolt might be a good description.” She drank more beer, her shoulders relaxing. “Malcolm wasn’t a bad person.” She turned to drop the can into the garbage bag and heard the faint scrap of another can being pulled from cracked ice. She took it in the stillness of warmed interior, soulful jazz, a quiet that emanated from a man she could hardly say she knew as they rolled across a flat highway.

“I thought it was so right. It was supposed to be. Everyone agreed we made a great couple. I couldn’t imagine it not lasting and then one day I couldn’t imagine staying.” The words slipped out as she felt her eyes sting and kept her voice low to try and hide a sob she didn’t want to burble into the open.

A tissue appeared at her hand. No platitude, no comment at all. She blew her nose and inhaled a wet breath.

She talked, the cold beer soothing to her throat. They were in a cocoon, wheels against hard pavement, exterior dark broken intermittently by another vehicle’s headlights or a distant glow of single houses set back from the Interstate. Buzz listened without interrupting her chronicle from instant attraction to golden Malcolm to her inexplicably listless freedom.

She held the empty can in one hand, a damp tissue in the other. “I don’t know now. Maybe Lillian was correct. Maybe I gave up too soon.”

Buzz took the can and didn’t reach for the tissue. “ ‘Course, I don’t know the guy, but he sounds like a self-centered horse’s ass that you’re better off without. We’re coming up on an exit. You need a break? It’s a ways yet to El Paso.”

It was his nonchalant juxtaposition of assessing Malcolm and asking if she needed a bathroom break that caused the laugh to break loose.

“Uh yes, stopping would be good,” she said with a giggle. “Look, I’m sorry to dump all that on you. I’m all right, really. Must be the beer.”

He shrugged and increased the volume that he had turned down without her noticing. “Think nothing of it, ma’am.”

The truck stop he swung into was moderately different from where they’d eaten; bright fluorescent lights in the entry way, fewer people inside, most looking tired. She saw only a pair of sneakers and blue jeans in one other cubicle of the tiled ladies room. The other occupant was gone when Paula emerged from the stall and stood at a sink amidst a faint smell of disinfectant mixed with a lingering fog of hairspray.

She found the small tube of toothpaste she carried in her purse, squeezed a dollop on her finger, rubbed it around her teeth and rinsed her mouth with cold tap water. Good Lord, what had she been thinking to carry on the way she had with Buzz? His casual summation of Malcolm had been delightful, not to mention more supportive than he could possibly know, but where was her usual restraint? She washed her hands briskly. If he didn’t ask her another question, she would salvage the situation by sleeping the rest of the way. Then she would say the hell with one-way cost, arrange for a rental car in El Paso and tell Buzz her mother would be taking her back. All that would remain would be to hope he wouldn’t say anything to Clyde about her breech of reticence. She fixed her face to register firm politeness and hurried into the lobby where Buzz waited.

He was softly whistling a tune she wasn’t familiar with and as they buckled into the vehicle again, a genuine sense of fatigue rocked her. “Uh, if you’re okay with it, I think I will close my eyes for a bit.”

Buzz maneuvered from the parking lot, his attention focused on a large Recreational Vehicle towing a small car that was in front of him. “Sure, it’s getting late.”

She tilted the seat and closed her eyes. No comment about her revelations, no indication that she had spilled volumes of her personal self. Was he, too, embarrassed at her purging? He didn’t seem disturbed, so perhaps he simply viewed all women as overly talkative, wearing emotions on their sleeve, so to speak. Definitely not the category she wished to be lumped into, yet better to allow those thoughts than try to clarify her uncharacteristic unburdening. After all, a few more hours and they would arrive. She would express her appreciation for the assistance, convey her lie about the return, perhaps later a thank you note with a check to cover gas and never see him again.

Paula came up from blackness, a voice softly calling her name. Had she knocked her pillow to the floor? The disorientation cleared, cabin warmth and jazz reminding her of where she was. She groggily lifted her hand to Buzz and registered the digital read-out of 1:26. That would be a.m.

“Sorry, but I thought you might want some water or to run a brush through your hair. If the driving directions are correct, we’re about five minutes away.”

Paula took the cold plastic bottle and drank half of it without pausing for breath. “Thanks, I guess I was more tired than I realized.” She shifted around in her seat, smoothing wrinkles from her slacks and fluffing her short cut with her fingers.

A computerized voice alerted Buzz to an upcoming turn. They rolled into the groomed neighborhood that she more-or-less recognized with spacious stucco homes divided by wide yards. The entry light and a light from the great room glimmered from her mother’s single story, Southwestern courtyard home. One side of arched wooden double doors opened as Buzz retrieved her suitcase and briefcase from the back. Myra Deering, no Goodsen, clothed in cobalt blue slacks and matching cowl-neck sweater, dashed outside with a welcoming hug and handshake and an invitation of coffee and cookies. Buzz smilingly declined and again refused Paula’s offer of gas money. He left with a promise to call Friday about return arrangements. Paula didn’t want to play out the lie about her mother until she had a chance to rehearse it a time or two. Or at least warn her mother about the harmless ruse. They entered the house together, arms wrapped around each other’s waists.

The next afternoon Paula felt a butterfly transformation. She slept late, luxuriated in a multi-headed steam shower and slipped into a pair of ivy green leggings with a celadon colored knee-length, brushed cotton long-sleeve tunic edged in ivy stitching. She and her mother shared a late lunch of mushroom-leek quiche and began to prepare for the evening’s party.

The terracotta and pale yellow kitchen was functionally designed for two cooks with a six-foot long island and L-shaped counters topped in reddish-flecked granite. A second refrigerator in the adjoining pantry/laundry room provided extra storage space for hors d’oeuvres. Paula scooped savory chicken salad onto bite-size puff pastry shells while Myra stirred spices into a bowl of boiled shrimp.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” she said after Paula explained about the trip. “For starters, I suspect, Buzz, is that his name?, didn’t think you were strange at all. If he’s divorced too, he probably just assumed you were going through temporary doldrums. And you are.” She smiled and dropped in another spoonful of peppercorns. “Second, leaving Malcolm was the smartest thing you’ve done lately.”

Paula stopped in the middle of filling a pastry and stared. “What? When I was asking for your advice, you seemed very non-committal. You didn’t think I was making a mistake?”

Myra squirted lemon juice through a piece of cheesecloth. “I never wanted you to marry him in the first place, but I didn’t know that you might not change your mind, so I thought it best not to seem too enthusiastic.”

Paula shook her head sharply. “I don’t understand. Do you mean you never liked him? Why didn’t you say anything when we were dating?”

Myra paused and turned to face her. Her eyes were solemn, but a smile played around the corners of her wide mouth. “You were twenty-six and very much taken with him. And for the record, he’s good-looking, from a nice family, was always charming and seemed to have a bright future. What was I not supposed to like?”

Paula cocked her head, puzzled that she had never guessed her mother’s feelings.

Myra pushed aside her task and moved a step closer. “On the surface you two seemed well-matched and even then it was difficult to explain. I just sensed that you had an attraction rather than a true spark. It’s not that there was anything wrong to point to. I had truly hoped you would be happy together, but I can’t say I was shocked when you said you wanted a divorce.” She hesitated. “I’m not explaining it well. The spark business and being happy.”

Paula was not grounded in literature for nothing. “You mean true love? A soul mate? Like the way I’ve seen you and Bob reach over to hold hands when you’re watching television? Or how he spontaneously kisses the back of your neck sometimes when you’re cooking?”

Myra laughed. “Don’t tell me you think we’re too old for that.”

“No, and if I’m being honest, seeing you as a couple is part of why I started really looking at my own marriage. I finally admitted we never had the small, quiet things that last after the honeymoon. There was more to it, of course, but that’s one of the reasons I decided I’d rather be on my own.” Pesky tears threatened again, although poignant, not sad.

Myra closed the distance and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “You made the right choice and one of these days you’re going to find the man you deserve.” Her eyes glinted as she moved back to the bowl of shrimp. “In fact, I might as well tell you about tomorrow.”

Tears were forgotten as suspicion edged out heartwarming admissions. Paula resumed scooping chicken salad. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”

“Yes and since it’s only the three of us, we’re going to some friends for the big meal around one o’clock. Nancy Holloway sings in our church and we’re on a committee together. Her husband works somewhere at Fort Bliss and Bob has met him a couple of times. Anyway, I was trying to decide about whether or not to do all the trimmings and she said we should come over instead. She’s a lot of fun, I’m sure her husband is fine, a retired couple down the block will be there, her youngest daughter with her husband and one of their sons who’s in from Fort Worth.”

Paula didn’t quite groan. “Single, is he? And my age by any chance?”

Myra laughed. “It’s not like a blind date; there will be other people around. He runs a music store I think she said and I believe his name was Ken, Kevin, Keith; something like that. If he turns out to be dreary, I’ll throw myself in between you.”

Paula giggled at the idea. Oh, who cared? She’d spent too many nights and weekends alone in her apartment. It was the beginning of the holidays and the odds were there would be someone interesting to talk to. Best of all, what had erupted into throbbing doubt about Malcolm was receding into a mild ache that would become nothing more than a tender spot on her psyche given a bit more time.

“That takes care of the shrimp,” Myra said, covered the bowl with plastic wrap and hauled it to the main refrigerator. “You finish those and we’ll start on the dining room table. I ordered a lovely centerpiece and haven’t showed it to you yet.”

The party was more animated than Paula expected and she spent much of the evening discussing Marie of France with a diminutive sixty year-old librarian. The next morning was a leisurely breakfast of fresh orange juice, robust Sumatran coffee and freshly baked apple-cinnamon muffins.

Paula set aside the velour lounging suit she’d planned for being around the house and took out a mid-calf, burnt orange straight skirt with a slit up the back. She topped it with a V-neck, wool blend russet sweater and a thick serpentine gold chain. A pair of mahogany leather, square-toed flats completed the ensemble; the color palette of a bouquet of autumn flowers.

She took charge of the basket Myra assembled containing a tin of parmesan cheese straws and bottles of wine from Bob’s collection. He kept them laughing on the short drive to a similar neighborhood and Paula snuggled inside a holiday feeling she’d been afraid would elude her. Bob parked his silver Lexus on the street, every driveway in sight choked with SUVs rather than sedans.

The house was two-storied, gleaming white stucco with red door, shutters and tile for accent. Cacti and other heat resistant plants were artfully laid out among boulders and in hefty clay pots on the graveled front lawn. Bob rang the bell and a woman wearing an iridescent blue caftan and a pair of hammered silver hoop earrings flung the door open to the sound of laughing voices.

“Bob, Myra, welcome and come on it. Oh, you must be Paula.” She had dark red, short-shagged hair and a throaty voice that clashed with her round, freckled face and stubbed nose. She took the basket and led them from the high ceiling foyer into a tiled living room that wasn’t far removed from the kitchen judging form nearby aromas.

A woman in late stages of pregnancy sat in a rocking chair, talking with a sliver-haired woman perched on the end of the sofa. Three men clustered near an archway; the tallest gesturing as he spoke. Nancy made quick introductions to the women; Annette, their youngest, and Sophia, a neighbor.

On to the trio with “Myra and Bob, you know George, but this is Mike, Annette’s husband and Phil, Sophia’s husband. Paula, the daughter in for the weekend.” It was all done breathily with the usual head nods and handshakes.

Nancy looked over her should and smiled. “There’s Keith, our oldest son.”

“Buzz?” Paula wondered if her mouth was open and Myra looked puzzled until she put it together.

Nancy flicked her hand. “That silly nickname one of his uncles gave him. I refuse to call him that.”

Buzz grinned sheepishly, four open bottles of Armadillo Ale clutched in his hands.

“What a coincidence,” Myra said with a laugh. “I didn’t catch your last name the other night.”

“I guess I never did really, either,” Paula said, trying to regain her balance. Damn.

“Grab one of those, Bob. Buzz can get himself another one,” George commanded and Paula could imagine the military man Buzz had described.

“Oh my goodness, this was the woman you mentioned?” Nancy tapped her fingers to her forehead. “Of course, a college professor from Stephenville. Well, what do you know?”

“Uh, could I get you ladies something to drink?” Buzz didn’t quite stammer and the color of his face was a shade or two from blush.

“Wine for you, Mother? I’ll give you a hand,” Paula said and stepped forward. Her mother must have misunderstood. Bookstore, not music store and yes, Granbury was close Fort Worth. Buzz, Jean’s cousin, is how Clyde had referred to him and in Paula’s distress over car and divorce papers she hadn’t noticed the oversight of a last name.

“Another Bloody Mary for me,” Nancy said as Buzz indicated the kitchen was beyond the dining room.

“Look, I had no idea until this morning,” he said quickly when they were alone. White wine in a chilling sleeve, a bottle of red wine, a glass pitcher of Bloody Marys, bottles of Coke and Sprite were on the end of the counter with glasses; an ice chest on the hardwood floor. “Mom just said something about people from church coming over and I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. This morning she made a comment about Myra’s daughter Paula, being a literature professor and it fell into place.”

He motioned to the white wine bottle as he filled a tall glass with Bloody Mary.

Paula focused on pouring two glasses. How was she supposed to handle this? What if he’d made some offhand comment about her weepy behavior? This was not the way she’d envisioned the day unfolding.

Myra and Nancy breezed in before she could come to a logical conclusion.

Nancy plucked her glass from Buzz’ hand. “Well, this is certainly a hoot. So I guess you two got to know each other pretty well on that long drive.”

Buzz took a beer from the ice chest, twisted the cap off and grinned at Paula, his eyes merrily conspiratorial without a trace of derision or pity. “Not exactly. We mostly discussed books. Turns out Paula is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes novels when she’s not reading medieval works.”

Paula lifted her glass to him in salute of his quick gallantry. “Absolutely,” she said lightly, allowing her previous embarrassment to slough off like dried skin. Her mother was right. Buzz already had opportunity if he had wanted to portray her as foolish or flighty. “Although I might make you listen to my thoughts on Julia of Norwich during the ride back. I’m behind on a publication I want to have ready this spring.”

Buzz tipped the lip of his bottle to her glass. “No problem. It’s almost a twelve-pack trip. You can talk about whatever you want to.”

The End