An unmarked and otherwise dull, metal office building took up space on a dust caked county road. The very normal office building had been set up quaintly, featuring a neat and tidy desk almost smack dab in the entryway. There was a framed snapshot of a freckle-faced and gap-toothed youth planted firmly in the corner of the desk. The photo was turned in such a way that both the incoming patrons and the occupant of the desk could always see the smiling eleven year old. A clay vase was positioned directly adjacent to the photograph, and boasted a bright shade of lime green. Nestled within this vase were an equally bright assortment of faux petunias.
The vase was not a fancy, high dollar specimen picked up at any old boutique. No, this was a one of a kind creation, crafted in an arts class by the same freckle-faced, gap-toothed girl in the photo. The bold, white letters painted on the front side of this vase all but gave away the relationship between the child and the desk’s occupant, one oval shaped “O” betwixt a pair of crooked “M’s.” The vase leaked a bit from a large crack that ran from just under the rim through the “O” and down to the base. Hence the artificial nature of the decorative flowers. This flaw also played a part in the B+ grade the craftsperson received. Nevertheless, the “MOM” in question proudly displayed the piece for all to see.
MIZZ Janine Daniels, as she was prone to stylize herself, was a lovely lady who wore the type of glasses that non-bespectacled viewers could see clearly through up until the point that the gaze was lowered a bit. She had long, faded crimson hair that was always wound in a tight bun. When people walked into the very normal office building, they were greeted with a very personal “How do you do?” in the sweetest of voices with just a hint of twang. Yes, she was a picturesque person to usher in the patrons, each and every day. Well, almost every day.
Fortunately, that on this particular day, the freckle-faced, gap-toothed, novice vase maker was dealing with the early stages of the common cold. Not so fortunate for the child, mind you, but more so because the picturesque person who occupied the quaint little desk in the foyer of the very normal office building was taking a personal day – the day that the aforementioned very normal office building exploded.
The vase, surprisingly enough, survived without a scratch. Well, aside from a large crack that went down from top to bottom. Said vase, all things considered, was probably worth more than a B+.
Rick Bell approached a tall hill near Bakersfield, Texas rapidly. As rapidly as a twenty-year-old Dodge 12-valve could take him, that is. That was about 60 mph, even if the speed limit was 70 or 80. If he found himself on Toll Road 130 for some reason, which was famous for saving you 40 minutes from Seguin to Waco by charging you six bucks to go 85, the old goat with a five speed was going 60 mph. Although, you would have thought it was 65, if you went by what the broken speedometer indicated.
Though a resident of the area, Rick never quite got a handle of the official, technical region names. He still wasn’t sure is he was in the Hill country or not, despite his years out here. The cedars were gone, traded for another annoying shrub. Mesquite was everywhere. But, there were the occasional stretches of great hills and valleys, so it was understandable for the confusion. The hill that was nothing more than an ant mound earlier painted a more defined shape on the horizon’s canvas.
From I-10, the formation of upraised earth and rocks could have been the inspiration for every middle school volcano; large at the base, narrowing toward the top. Where all those projects that were secretly made by some kid’s parent were hollow at the top and filled with vinegar and baking soda, Rick was certain that this one was surely solid and in no danger of erupting any time soon. The steep looking sides and the flat nature of the peak had Rick thinking that he may have some climbing in his future.
His tracking device hadn’t directly indicated that this particular formation was where he was headed, but his gut told him otherwise. There were no dings, beeps, or robotic voices telling him that he was nearing his destination, only the occasional ear twitch whenever a subtle change in direction was detected. The old-style Dodge trucks featured a slightly cramped back seat, and his was currently occupied by a mammoth of a dog.
Long, black wiry hair had tints of gray around the muzzle and golden yellow highlights throughout. She was an old thing, quite older than the truck, but still youthful and relentless when it came to tracking. When she got onto the scent of her target, she would pursue it to the world’s end…if she felt like it. During the early parts of the hunt, when they were on the road, she usually just sprawled out in the backseat. If Rick got too far off the trail, she would give a low but mildly menacing snarl for correction and would then usually resume napping.
Morgan offered Rick one of these navigational cues, as he whizzed by the exit north that would lead him to the hill. He had slowed down a bit but neglected to downshift in hopes that he was not going visit the mound. Never one to argue with his guide, the situation looked as if he would have to take the next exit and circle back.
Rick stopped at the dilapidated gas station at the junction of the highway and the paved farm road. He was running low on fuel and always made a point to grab extra water before an excursion. Getting out, he gave a good stretch. The trip had taken only about an hour and a half away his house, but the drive had been uncomfortable. The front end of his truck, namely the suspension components, had needed work for quite some time. Even as the truck felt as if it would fall apart if he hit a bump the wrong way, he still managed put off the tedious maintenance.
Earlier in the day, he thought he was going to get a good night’s rest this Friday. As he had pulled into his driveway, he noted that he would have a good weekend to catch up on his chores. The old farmhouse that he called home was, like his truck, in need of some TLC. Three bedrooms and a bath were more than enough space for him, but the trick was keeping it up to par.
Late fall, he usually took the break from the heat to go under the home and winterize the exposed pipes and clear out varmints. The saddle barn and stalls needed cleaning and restocking with hay. And he had just picked up a load of high quality oak that he would need to split for the fireplace. And with close to 1000 acres, there was probably some pasture stewardship he had let slip during the dog days of the previous summer.
He had made his list while he rustled up some leftovers. He moved around stacks of papers from the top of his dining table/work desk and fixed a glass of chocolate milk. Just as he was about to dig in, his phone rang and buzzed as it vibrated on the table.
Janine Daniels shot words at him 90 miles a minute, her normal pattern of speech when flustered. “Rick, it’s just terrible. Explosions. I didn’t even know office buildings could explode. Well, I did. I just never thought our little old building would be one of them. Have you ever seen an exploded office building, Rick?”
He had. The office building in question was his office building as well.
“Oh, I know you have, Rick. You were there afterwards. I just, well, I just never.”
“It’s all gonna work out, Mrs. Daniels.”
“Oh, thank you Rick, I know it. And it’s MIZZ Daniels.”
Rick was worried where the conversation was headed. He had thought they might ask him, but nearly two weeks had gone by and he had heard nothing. Janine Daniels occupied the front desk to the building but was also the director of operations. She was a very strict advocate of work/life balance, so the Friday evening call past working hours had to be emergency business.
“Rick, I hate to have to ask you to do this, but–”
“I will start tonight.” He cut her off before she could even ask.
Mizz Daniels gave a sigh of relief. “You know I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t so crucial.” There was an extensive briefing over the phone, and after it was all said and done, his dinner had become cold and his chocolate milk warm. Foregoing reheating everything a second time, he loaded up what he needed and made a point to grab something on the way.
The store attendant greeted Rick with a smile, as he set a few bottles of water up alongside a three pack of mini tacos from the self-serve heating bin. She was an older woman; grey had almost drowned out the chestnut hair that hung down to her shoulders. She had a cart dolly with an oxygen bottle strapped to it that ran up through a hose to her nose.
As he paid for his refreshments, he told her to keep the change and walked back outside. The pump had kicked off, and he returned the nozzle. He hopped in and turned the ignition, only to receive the death click. Tapping his forehead to the wheel, he tried the key again. The telltale click click click click indicated that somehow his battery or alternator had given out. Walking back into the store, he asked the attendant for a jump.
She eyed him carefully. “Not on my car. It’s new.”
He looked at her, more of a stare than a casual glance. This was Texas. Usually, folks hear the death click and seemingly pop out of nowhere and say, “You need a jump there, Bucko?” It was uncanny; most Texans lived for it. He remembered a story a friend had once told him about Vermont. A buddy had a flat while visiting the state and walked to the gas station, running into two older gentlemen driving down. He told them about the flat, and all they offered in return was “Yep. That’ll happen.” They then commenced to drive on their way, leaving his friend to continue his trek on foot.
He snapped back to reality, as the attendant broke the silence. “Farmers usually stop by throughout the day; you could probably get one of them to jump you.” He eyed her for a moment and pondered about asking for his change back from the water. But he wasn’t from Vermont, so he smiled and offered thanks as walking out.
He did not have the time to wait. The sun was still high enough, but farmers ran on their own time. Who knew when one of them would show up. He did not like to be idle. And it did not look all that far to the hill. He got into his truck, released the brake and shifted out of gear. The old goat rolled back into the caliche parking lot and skid on the white rocks and gravel as he hit the parking brake. He grabbed his pack, loaded up the water, and snatched his old denim jacket from the toolbox.
As he opened the back half-door, Rick carefully woke up the dog. Morgan was ornery when she was awake, but she was downright hellfire when surprised. Affronted that she had been stirred, she reluctantly hopped out. Stretching out her massive self, she gave a hearty yawn. On all fours, she came up to his chest, and her snout almost reached his chin. Her curly and wiry hair of a wolfhound was mixed with the muscular frame of the athletic mastiffs. Her muzzle and head were boxy, not like the squished faces of bulldogs but then again not slender like other sight hounds. She glared at him coolly as her eyes flickered like blue embers.
“You wanna find the trail?” he asked her. He learned it was best not to back down when she was sassy. Eyeing him additionally, she shook the dust off and began walking toward the hill.
The jaunt took about an hour and a few fences may have been crossed, but they had arrived at the base. The easiest trail to get there took them on the eastern face of the hill. To Rick’s minor relief, this part of the mound had a much more forgiving and gradual slope. Nevertheless, it was still going to be a hike. Putting on his jacket and readjusting his pack, he looked up. “All right girl, let’s get on with it.”
Morgan replied with a low moan and a nod indicating he needed to start to the top. She circled for a bit before laying down.
Now he found himself glaring at her. “Lazy mutt,” he muttered, though not too loudly and moved upwards and onwards.
Somewhere between half way and three quarters up the hill, Rick rested his hands on his knees and began to inhale fiercely. He thought back to when he was a much younger man, maybe twenty years ago, give or take a year. He was an undersized high school halfback. Then again, everyone else was undersized as well.
Growing up, he was always much more interested in horses, cattle and hunting. Just country life in general. Sports were never really his thing. One day, some of the jocks jumped in his truck and grabbed his favorite ball cap, a red hat with a black bill with the Bad Company Rodeo skull emblazoned on the front, so naturally he felt slighted. He quickly ran down the thieving youths, in cowboy boots and 13MWZs, mind you. The coaching staff had witnessed the whole ordeal and took this quick burst of speed as natural, God-given athletic ability and demanded he come out for the team.
He remembered being in this same resting position when the words came ringing in. A bear paw of a hand popped the ear hole of his helmet. “Good air ain’t down there, Ricky Bell! Off your knees!” The blow from the old square-headed coach may have knocked some sense into him. Doubts about whether or not he really belonged on this field versus the ones he was used to sprouted. Not too long after this, though, he stumbled into his life and never turned back.
When he was in his late twenties and made it back home to see all those boys from his youth, he felt he had made the right choice. The athletic types were way past the glory days and were all fat and bald and felt older than they should have. Fast forward to the present, though, and he wasn’t a shining example of youthful vitality either. His hair line began to recede a bit. And the 13MWZs had changed a few times in the W column.
As he drained a bottle of water and continued upward, he felt the pocket of his shirt vibrate. Ringing loudly in the classic old phone jingle, he glanced at the screen. Incoming Call from Omar. He swiped the phone where the option to ignore was offered.
Omar Valencia was his closest friend, both in relationship and geography. Rick’s old farm was between the burger joint in Ozona and the West Texas Wool and Mohair feed store in Mertzon. His place was surrounded by and contained oil wells, some new and some old. All of which reeked of sulfur and none of which he had mineral rights. That’s how he had been able to get a good deal on such a big place. Omar on the other hand lived in Barnhart, if you called staying in a travel trailer stationed next to a tank battery with bread thieving desert mice living.
Depending on the time of day, Omar usually called for one of two reasons. If it was during regular business hours, it was to get together and “shoot shit” as Omar called it. Sometimes they would just meet up and talk shop. Other times, they would literally “shoot shit.” Dried cow patties made for a cheap alternative to clay pigeons.
If it was, say for instance, Friday evening during twilight or any day that ended with “y,” it was an attempt to set Rick up with the latest woman Omar felt Rick needed in his life. It was downright perplexing; Omar could be getting his oil changed without a thought in the world, when some woman would walk by on the adjacent street. Omar would then commence to drop everything to run down this woman and somehow convince her that she needed to let Rick take her out. “I’m a natural born matchmaker, my friend,” he would say as he stroked the whiskers of his mustache.
Generally, Rick declined these offers and suggested that Omar use his powers on someone else.
“No way Jose; dude, I gotta live through you,” Omar would say. “The wife at home is sometimes sweet but always a pain in my ass. You need that in your life, that away we got common interests to talk about.”
Occasionally, Omar would scheme him into agreeing somehow, but Rick was getting better about smelling the lanolin before the wool got pulled over on him. Rick liked his work, a lifelong career man. Though rarely he pondered about settling down, his lifestyle just wasn’t conducive for a relationship. He didn’t travel around or work hours on end, but it was complicated in its own rights.
He silenced the phone after the call ceased. Omar would have to wait. He was nearly to the top, and the last thing he needed was his phone making every living thing in the area aware of his presence. While the phone was still in his hand, a text came through: Rick my friend, call me back, your gonna wanna hear this. She’s a ten dude?
Omar’s accent and constant noise from his truck speakers, often resulted in bad punctuation from his hands-free device. Oh well, at least he was safe in his endeavors.
He was thoroughly sweaty and desperately wanted to remove the jacket, but the sun was dwindling and soon the temperature would drop. He hated the cold. Almost as much as he hated climbing. Now at the base of table top on the hill, it was about as tall as he figured it was going to be. It was rocky enough that he figured there would be enough to grip on to, he just hoped he didn’t fall.
After a miserable climb, Rick threw his arms over the top of the cap. Pushing one final push with the legs, he leaned his chest onto the surface. Now he was sucking air with everything he had. He tilted his head to get it out of the…was that hay on the edge? Peering around the immediate field of vision, he noticed bundles of hay, twigs, burlap sacks and the like. Primetime nesting material. He quickly ducked down out of sight.
©2018 Ted Dawson Akin
All caught up but wanting more? Stay tuned! Season 2: Promenade is coming January 2019!