October 7th, 1974. 10:50 PM
Whenever I get a chance to meet up with old friends, they always ask me to regale them with choice bits from my experiences on the road. In the midst of these tales, be they funny, sad, harrowing or romantic, at least one person will always chime in about how their job doesn’t provide them with the twists and turns of mine -- how each of their days is almost exactly like the last, and unfortunately, just like the next will inevitably be. It’s at these times I have to remind myself that I am rather fortunate, for I never know (and for that matter, can’t even guess) what each day will bring me.
I have to admit, though, the situation I was in right then surprised even me. A few moments before I was nursing a banged-up head and black eye, lying on a hotel bed, watching a television show that wasn’t very interesting. Then, such a short time later, I was standing in complete darkness, and in my arms was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever laid eyes on.
Yes, being a traveling salesman did have certain advantages over, say, accounting.
I knew that perfect moment couldn’t last forever, but still, I wish it had lasted at least a little longer than it had. After the thunder died down and our eyes adjusted to the light, Celia pushed herself away from me.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding slightly embarrassed. “I just got a little startled for a moment.”
“No need to apologize,” I replied. And I’d meant it.
We stood in a rather awkward silence for a few moments waiting for the lights to come back on, but it soon became clear that our lack of conversation was doing very little to fix the problem.
I noticed through the slats of the Venetian blinds that whatever the electrical malfunction was that had left us in darkness had had no effect on the hamburger joint across the street. I pointed this out to my guest.
“What do you say we head over there,” I said, grabbing her coat. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” After I helped her on with her coat, I fumbled around a bit for my umbrella, which fortunately I had taken from Shirley’s trunk before I left the garage. With my case in one hand, and the umbrella in the other, Celia had to walk very close to me to keep from getting wet. Rain has so many more advantages than just watering crops.
October 7th, 1974. 11:00 PM
The first thing I noticed about the inside of the burger joint was the greenish tint emitted by the fluorescent lighting. It certainly wasn’t the most flattering way to display my beads, especially the Swarovski crystals. But if a lady is going to come out in the middle of the night, and in a thunderstorm, to buy beads for a last minute gift, I was sure the slight change in hue of a aqua baroque pendant wouldn’t be all that off putting to her.
Besides, the promise of making a couple of bucks from an impromptu sales meeting really wasn’t what was holding my interest at the time.
When our coffee arrived, Celia clasped her hands tightly around the ceramic mug to warm them.
“So,” I said, making small talk as I placed my display case on the table and opened it. “Are you from around here?”
“Yes, yes,” she replied, not appearing too excited about it.
“And what do you do?”
“I work down at the…” she was pointing off towards the parking lot and beyond, and decided to take a sip of her coffee just as she told me where she worked, so I didn’t quite catch it.
“Well, then.” I finished opening the case, and stood back so she could get a better view of the inside. “So you’re interested in buying some beads, huh? Well I think you’ll find we have quite an assortment here.”
She stood to look down into the case, and poked around the various compartments with her finger. It didn’t take too long before I noticed an expression of disappointment cross her face. It was a look that the “guy” in me just wanted to make go away. I wanted her to smile, and I wanted to be responsible for it. But as I opened my mouth to speak, I realized I didn’t have a plan for doing so.
“Is this all you have?” the look went beyond disappointment, it was downright sad. I wanted to say, no, I’ve more samples back in my motel room, but since that wasn’t the truth, I held my tongue.
“I’m sorry, yeah. Couldn’t find anything you liked?”
“Well,” she said as she sat back down, “you do have lots of pretty beads, but as I said, my niece is a teenager, going through one of those teenager phases, and I was just hoping for something a little more offbeat, different. Are you sure you don’t have anything else? Maybe back in your room? Perhaps in your car?”
“No, sorry,” I said. “This is pretty much it. Are you sure there’s nothing you like?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find something,” she said, a little happiness seemed to return to her face. “And besides, I’d hate to drag you out on a night like this, with the rain and all, and you not even make a sale.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I was quick to respond. “I had nothing else to do.”
She stood once more, hoping she may have missed something the first time. She picked out two faux pearls and three clasps. As you can imagine, that was a rather odd choice. Just what was it she was thinking of making, anyway? But I was in no position to question her, and besides, even if she isn’t a beautiful, sultry woman, the customer is still always right.
“I’ll take these,” she said, sitting down once again. “Yes, that’ll be fine.” And then, opening her purse and taking out a wallet said. “So how much do I owe you?”
“It’s on the house,” I said, wondering why I had. I mean, it wasn’t a big sale, so why not, but I am a salesman, after all, and I doubted that she was going to suddenly fall in love with me because I’d given her less than $5.00 worth of merchandise.
But men’s minds sometimes work that way.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said rather sternly. “After bothering you so late at night, and then you having to come out in the rain and all? Well, I just want you to know how much I appreciate it, so I’m going to pay full price no matter how much you argue with me. I shouldn’t have intruded on you in the first place. And I definitely should have left after I’d noticed your condition.”
“My condition?” I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about; I was feeling pretty good about everything right then. But when she pointed to her eye, indicating the discoloration of mine, I remembered my “condition.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” I said, making the injury seem as insignificant as possible. “Just another link in a recent chain of bad luck.”
Then something strange happened. The look in her eyes changed, and the pleasant smile she’d been presenting evaporated. It was almost as if she’d become a different person -- an actor breaking character.
“Bad luck? What kind of bad luck?” It didn’t seem she was just making small talk, but neither did it sound like genuine concern for my wellbeing.
“Oh, you know,” I was doing my best to sound flippant about the whole thing. “Flat tires, other car problems. Caused a pretty major explosion, may or may not have been beaten up by bikers.”
“How long has this ‘bad luck’ lasted?” She didn’t even crack a smile at the concept of me not knowing whether or not I’d been trampled by a motorcycle gang.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “A couple, three weeks maybe.”
And just as quickly she was her old self again.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe things will start looking up for you. Two or three weeks, you say?”
As I took the pad of purchase orders out of my jacket pocket I thought to myself, either there is something strange about this lady, or this is just a strange lady. I opened the book, took a out pen, and slid both across the table to her. “If you wouldn’t mind, just for record-keeping you understand, could you fill out your name, address, and phone number, and I’ll pencil in the rest as far as items purchased, price, etcetera.”
“Of course,” she said, taking them and scratching out the needed information. Then, when she had finished, she slid them back to me saying, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to call my brother. He said he’d pick me up at the hotel, so I need to tell him where I am.”
I took a look out of the window, at the hotel. The electricity was still out, but that didn’t mean I had any reservations about taking her back to the room…just to make things easier on her brother, of course.
“I’ll be right here,” is what came out of my mouth in lieu of an invitation back to Ed & Lucy’s.
Just as Celia left to go find a payphone, the waitress came to the table and asked if I’d like any more coffee. I held my hand over the top of the mug, indicating I was fine. But as I looked up at her, I noticed on her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose and right between her eyes, the smallest adhesive bandage I’d ever seen. It was so tiny that all I could think about was that whatever injury it was covering had to be smaller, and therefore couldn’t have been big enough to warrant the use of the dressing. It really confused me to the point that I almost asked her what that bandage was all about. But then I realized that not only was it none of my business, but a question like that coming from a guy with a shiner like the one I was currently displaying, would seem even more odd.
I mention this only because with my mind reeling around the concept of that tiny Band-Aid, I had lost track of how much time Celia was away from the table. When she finally returned, I had no idea how long she’d been gone. I was sure it was no more than three or four minutes, but could have been as little as 30 seconds.
“Is everything taken care of?” I asked as soon as she returned, hoping she would tell me she couldn’t get in touch with her brother, and then ask if I wouldn’t mind keeping her company for a while.
“Yes, he’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Good,” I lied.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, taking her wallet from her purse. “How much do I owe you?”
I took the order pad and scribbled a few numbers, tore off the customer copy and handed it to her. She placed a couple of bills on the table.
“Well, it’s been lovely meeting you, Mr. Louviere, and thank you so much again.” She stood and offered her hand to be shaken, and so I stood, too, and while shaking her hand thought, she just made the call, surely we must have at least a few more minutes to spend together before her ride gets here.
This thought was interrupted, then completely squelched, by the light from a pair of headlights that sliced across our booth, and Celia looked outside.
“Oh, that’s my brother,” she said quickly. “I’d better go. It was so nice meeting you.”
After taking only a step or two she dropped her purse and some of the contents spilled across the floor. As she began to bend down to retrieve them, I stopped her.
“Permit me,” I said, being the total gentleman.
It didn’t take long to gather the items and put them back in her purse. But as I stood up I heard laughter from a nearby table. I looked over to see a group of teenagers getting some kind of amusement out of my situation.
“Drop your purse, mister?” a freckled fat kid said, causing his cohorts to howl even louder.
“Cute,” I replied, handing Celia her purse.
I then reached for my umbrella, and after I turned I saw Celia was already out the door and getting into a big, black Lincoln Continental.
She’d left my life as quickly and unexpectedly as she’d entered.
Well, I thought, at least I have her address and phone number. I scanned the table for the purchase order book. It wasn’t there. I then checked my pockets.
A quick look to the floor under the table resulted in no book, but more laughs from the teenagers.
“What happened? Drop your purse again?” Fatty Freckles was really getting on my nerves, and it didn’t help that apparently a beautiful blond had stolen my purchase order book –which had little value to me, so should have had none to anyone else.
I noticed the lights were back on at the hotel. Since my eye was suddenly hurting again, I decided to head back.
On the way out, Fatty Freckles accidentally had his milkshake spilled on his lap by a clumsy bead salesman.
October 8th, 1974. 4:15 PM
Craig, the tow truck driver, had called me at the hotel and said Shirley was back to normal. Since checkout time at Ed & Lucy’s was 11:00 AM, the motel’s proprietor insisted on charging me for another night. I started to plead my case a little, see if some other deal couldn’t be worked out, but I saw in his eyes that this very scenario was one that he sat behind that desk waiting for night after night, year after year. He wasn’t going to budge, so I gave up, paid in full, and walked over to Craig’s Garage.
The unkempt tow truck driver/mechanic was looking even more disheveled today, with a thick patch of grease moving up his forearms. Other areas were just as filthy wherever he had touched his face, hair, or clothing.
“So how’s she doing?” I asked.
“She’s great. I checked her over pretty good. I don’t think you’ll be getting any other problems from her. That’s a mighty fine set of wheels you got there.”
“I appreciate that. So what’s the damage?”
We walked into his office, and as he sat behind his desk he gestured with his hand offering me the other chair.
Over the next several minutes he looked at slips of paper, punched numbers into a huge adding machine, and pulled that lever down. C’chunk. Every time I heard that sound I knew it was costing me more money. So, to put myself at ease, I started a conversation.
“Craig,” I said, leaning forward slightly. “This is a pretty small town, right?”
“Pretty small, yeah.” C’Chunk.
“You probably know most folks around here by name, right?” I was trying to sound casual, but wasn’t quite sure I was succeeding.
“Know their name, address, telephone number, and kin’s birthdays, yeah. Like you said, small town.” C’chunk.
“Do you happen to know a pretty blond girl? Blue eyes, works over…” I pointed in what I thought was the same direction she had the previous night.
Craig looked up at me. He wasn’t being rude, but he was definitely trying to convey that he wanted to settle up the bill, see me on my way, and get back to work.
“Curly hair,” I continued, twirling my index fingers by the sides of my head, as if this visual would help get across the idea of curly hair more than mere words could. “Has a niece?”
“A niece you say?” There was some recognition in Craig’s eyes. “Well, this little lady here has a niece, I know that.”
He picked up a picture frame that sat on his desk and handed it to me. I was suddenly staring at a photograph of a rather portly woman, smiling proudly and holding a rifle across her chest.
“That’s the missus,” Craig said. “And if you want her, you can take her.” Though I found what he said extremely funny, there was no humor in his voice.
“What about cars? You must know all their cars, right?”
Craig just shot a stare at me. C’Chunk.
“A black, late model Lincoln Continental,” I went on, undeterred. “Her brother owns it. He probably lives pretty close to that burger joint near Ed & Lucy’s.”
“If there was a car like that around here, I’d know of it. And I don’t.” C’chunk. “What makes you certain he lives up that ways?”
“Well,” I said, putting two and two together for the first time. “It only took him a minute or so to get there after she called him.”
Unless he had a phone in his car, I thought to myself and laughed.
Then I stopped laughing. For some reason, it suddenly wasn’t funny.
October 8th, 1974. 7:00 PM
I was more than two hours out of whatever town I had been in, and I was cursing the fact that the sun had gone down.
The absence of light made it difficult to study each and every car that passed, hoping to spot a black Lincoln Continental with -- maybe, just maybe -- a blue-eyed blond with curly hair sitting in the passenger seat.
……..to be continued.
© 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd