MONTCRIEF

CHAPTER 1

I was driving Mr. Boo to the carwash in Floydada when I heard on the radio that John Hadley Powers had taken ill in New York City. I pulled over onto the shoulder and hit my blinker lights. I wasn’t expecting the law at eight-twenty in the morning, but I’m just saying.

     There was nobody about but an old-timer in overalls maneuvering an orange two-door Datsun down the highway at access road speed. This bird was white as processed flour with just a clump of white head hair fluttering in the breeze. He waved as he passed, Lubbock-bound. I bent over the dashboard a little frantically.

     I jerked the volume way up only to catch a Northern woman’s voice announce that Peter Buck was in the studio. I was sure that this was not happening and yet it was. John Hadley Powers, the Damon Runyon of the carping essay, was lying on his deathbed in the Big Apple and this newswoman would just as soon talk to a man who’d strummed a little guitar in his life. As if to add to my load, Mr. Boo was already scratching at the plastic grate of his carrier. One of his escapist moods. Mr. Boo was about eighty-two in human years and diabetic. His heart was in fine shape but his kidneys and liver weren’t long for this world. He knew it was time for the carwash and he was expecting that ever-so-gentle cascade of lukewarm water upon the windshield he could wave his paws at and pretend to enjoy like a real human.

     There was nothing I could do about that now. I’d been late leaving the house and this pit stop hadn’t helped. I set the cruise control to sixty-five, a good seven miles faster than my average cruising speed, and drove back into town, hoping those three minutes saved would give me enough time to pass by The Donut Hole before the Lubbock Historical Preservation Society opened its doors at nine.
 

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Darla Meathe was at the office early. That is to say, she’d come earlier than me. I wasn’t even one minute late in the end.

     I felt something was awry and it wasn’t that feeling I often got when sharing physical space with Darla Meathe. Darla had paired our desks so that when I was working, I quickly understood, I would now be facing Darla.

     My worst suspicions were confirmed when I sat down and looked up and there she was. Darla was pretending to work on something, but she wasn’t working, she was looking.

     Doctor Eno must have been out on an errand because today’s Lubbock Avalanche Journal was folded in two on the doctor’s footrest. There was nothing about John Hadley Powers’ illness in there either. I put the paper back and began to pace. With this new office arrangement we had I felt like a hyena circling Darla Meathe.

     Darla said, “Bidal Aquero called.”

     “I’m not working with Bidal anymore,” I said.

     “He didn’t want you.”

     Bidal was tired of hearing about Norman Carl Odam, the Stardust Cowboy, every year at the Lubbock Music Fest, didn’t we all know it. He wanted to put some Mexican singers in there. He wanted us to sneak those Mexicans into our history.

     “I’m just making conversation,” Darla said.

     “In the office I thought it was work we were supposed to be doing.”

     “Do you see this file?”

     “Did you move our desks together like this for a reason?”

     “I thought we could collaborate better this way.”

     “John Hadley Powers is sick.”

     Darla looked at me with tender mercy. It is just a fact that whenever someone is sick women are sad with you.

     “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said. “They didn’t even say anything about it on the radio.”

     Darla professed not to know of John Hadley Powers. I assured her that she had just mislaid the name. The genius of Powers had always been to write things that you yourself might have thought of first. I was sure she knew and yet Darla said, “Well, I never heard of him.”

     “You should have, Darla.”

     “Are you going to tell me what I should or shouldn’t have heard?”

     I guess I just had, hadn’t I? I gave Darla her maple bacon donut and I ate mine and sat there wondering how I’d get my hands on a Daily News in Lubbock without paying double.

     When Doctor Eno finally came back at ten, he didn’t have a new desk position to wonder at. Doctor Eno’s own desk was where it always had been, meaning that Dr. Eno, who occupied a small office of his own behind Darla Meathe’s desk, now faced me too.

     That whole afternoon, whenever I looked up from my work, it was one of those two I found looking back at me. When Uncle Boydad Pruitt came on at four-thirty for the Back Door Hour on WKXP Lubbock, I begged off early.

     As I stood to leave, I noticed something that must have slipped past my hawk-like notice. Darla Meathe was wearing a tangerine women’s suit. She’d been to the beauty parlor too because her hair had been whipped and left to dry like a hard shell sundae, but ginger-colored. Darla was faintly attractive today and I hadn’t even made one comment about it. I’d only complained about desks.

     I said, “If we could maybe figure out a way to make this collaboration work without having to look at each other, Darla, I’m all in.”

     But Darla was on the phone nodding, she and her hairdo. The way they’d done it at the parlor, the harder Darla nodded, the less that hair actually moved.
 

*    *    *
 

That evening I kept NPR on until ten in the hopes that that report of Powers’ sickness would be substantiated by something more newsworthy. A bowl of rotten soup Powers had stumbled upon during one of his many rambles through the forgotten purlieus of the City That Never Sleeps perhaps. A Puerto Rican elbow stew.

     But there was nothing.

     Mr. Boo was sleeping in his cat basket with his four feet up like a cartoon cadaver. His black-gummed rictus was just a little awry so I couldn’t tell if he was having good dreams or bad.

     I fixed myself a vanilla milkshake for dessert and stood at the front window wondering if I’d ever put on any weight. I was way above your national average in height but women called me rangy and I believe they were saying it to spare my feelings. Secretly, I feared I was that undernourished beanpole you saw waiting at the ten-items-or-less counter in the supermarket balanced on the balls of his hips with a basket full of fattening preserved foods that never made him fat. All I was shooting for was an even one sixty, my God-given right. Daddy was hefty, mamma was no antelope either, and I’d been trying too long to fatten up. My hair was no longer as lustrous as it had been when I’d started working for Doctor Eno at the Historical Preservation Society and I would not like to grow thin and bald like a car insurance salesmen before I’d found someone to share my house with.

     Skip Vern was out in his front yard next-door primping his shrubs. I’d never ornamented my yard. I’d contemplated a trampoline, numerous times, but who hasn’t imagined himself jumping freely in the dusk with the blood pounding in his ears at least once in his life?

     I stood there sucking at my shake until the evening started to look a little decrepit and I realized Skip Vern very possibly had an undiagnosed problem. He spent too much time with those bushes of his, while his wife, who made peanut butter cookies that put the Girl Scouts of America to shame, had nothing to do but watch TV inside alone. I booted up the old HP and checked the Daily News Online.

     They say that no news is good news, but I suppose it all depends on how you define news. I saw that when you clicked on John Hadley Powers author thumbnail in the op-ed sidebar, you were now taken to a Creek Flood police brutality article—Frisk First, Ask Questions Later—which one commenter, Edison 447, had described as “leavening with a comic’s lithe touch a dark and ponderous issue of our times. Thank you, Creek!”

     This stopped me deader than a doorstop.

     Creek Flood the weatherman in silver sneakers? Flood who had once paddled a canoe down Toledo Avenue in Lubbock live in eighteen inches of rain water for the Weather Channel? Penning op-eds? I could think about this from any angle I liked. I could spend a week mulling over the myriad scenarios in which Flood might have become attached to Powers’ column and I would not find an explanation I could use. But there he was. Like a vulture wheeling silently over a feast for kings, Flood must have stolen in and claimed this moment of personal tragedy to climb the company rungs.

     I quickly typed: In other words, a cliché-ridden feast for fools! But my comment was number two-hundred twenty-two.

     I’d clipped every one of Powers’ columns over the years, and kept them in Mylar pouches. I sat there re-reading the old lion’s articles for a while in meat counter gloves, savoring the ink smell we no longer got from our digital media. I knew something had to be done, I just wished I knew what.