Abbott, West Virginia, the town with a funny name, was a funny place to live. Needing somewhere to hang for the winter, I settled there and bought this cedar log cabin. The first owner Stubbs was a coal minter dying of black lung in a hospice.
Abe’s Bar & Grill became my oasis. Along about the third week, my mountain man cuisine had fallen below even cafeteria standards. One evening I botched making gravy and my stomach went on a hunger strike. Fast food wouldn’t cut it, only real sustenance such as a hot, home-cooked meal. Filled with more dread than hope, I got in my Prizm and prowled down the laurel-clad mountain. Mid-way, I braked to avoid nailing a white-tailed buck flouncing into the thickets.
Twice before I’d braved venturing into the nearby coal hamlet of Abbot. Despite a half-dozen hairstyle saloons and video stores, its sole eatery was Abe’s. Take it and like it, I decided parking in a curbside slot. Still daylight out, Abbot’s early birds had yet to flock and break bread. Perfect for a paranoid — no people. Whistling through my teeth, I ducked inside Abe’s, copped a squat, and browsed a xeroxed menu.
My radar flipped on to scan the diner and went nuts. Two booths ahead, this wavy brunette hair showed a few demure ringlets. Caramel brown eyes lifted to the wall clock. I didn’t catch the time. A mite this side of next-door wholesome, she looked familiar. The tall, anemic waitress memorized the brunette’s order. Slitting my eyes, I used this diversion to assess: yep, the brunette was the same one. The waitress stopped at my booth. My hopes were pinned on Number 3: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, and coffee hot and black.
I gazed around interested in who else shunned the crowds. The farrier with an eye patch the next booth over took one chomp out of a celery stalk, then blooped it over his shoulder. The brunette’s order, a low fat cottage cheese and tuna on rye, arrived first on melmac dishes, but I wolfed mine down, skipping the leather britches beans cooked in bacon rind.
I timed paying my tab at the cash register to fold in behind the brunette. A placard under the wicker basket cornucopia of plastic nuts and fruit said, WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO SERVE ANYBODY. I, evidently, measured up to their high standards.
“We’ll be talking at you soon,” the waitress yelled. Nodding, I waved.
The dying sun a red ball split by the horizon, Abbot’s street now swarmed in rawer and colder. Tacking right, the brunette leashed me in that same direction. She bore her coat, plaid and ankle-length, with an upright elegance and the heightening effect flattered her. By now the dinner hour, Pontiacs and Buicks were tethered to the parking meters. Towing was enforced but my Prizm, a half-block away, had to fend for itself. Prowling past Martin’s Food Market, I drank in a look at her in the coppery brightness spilling from its plate windows.
What floored me was her hair, an ebony sculpture. My stride lengthened. She stuttered a half-step in heels and whisked a come-hither glimpse at me. Or was it hysteria? Was I viewed in that candid moment as a Freddie Krueger letch?
In haste, I spoke to break the ice. It was a throwaway line about if she had a kid sister named Michelle. As I took on a hyacinth scent, her silvery laugh connected. As a flirt tactic, I wagered a gal wouldn’t give out her telephone number to a stranger on a dark street. She did and raised me one. A stranger would never call a gal’s telephone number given out on a dark street.
“Well, shucks,” I said. “You saw right through me.”
She laughed that laugh. Her auto, a Z-car Nissan, bore as many gray patches of body putty as my Prizm. We cozied up inside it. Bangles tinkling on her wrist, she slotted in the ignition key, stroked the V6 engine, and coaxed out some much valued heat. Self-introductions went fast. She was Dreema Adkins. I was simply Cartwright.
“I thought I recognized you,” she said.
“Sure, I’ve shopped at Martin’s,” I said. “We’ve even spoken on two occasions.”
Dreema’s efficiency, three blocks away, sat above a music store and an Iranian osteopath’s office. We could go there, if I liked the idea. I did. Within minutes, we parked on a stretch of vacant street. Rock star posters taped on the glass storefront discounted Counting Crows and Sheryl Crow CDs for $11.99. On Napster, the same tunes were once free for the downloading.
“Most guys I meet are like roses . . . I avoid the pricks,” she said. “You seem different.”
“Well, shucks,” I said, in kidding way. “You keep seeing right through me.”
The stairs, ironically enough, were carpeted in red. Dreema jiggled the door key. Lemon Pledge hosed over us entering. Mismatched ginger jar lamps emitted a sensuous glow. A dovelike hand deflected me to the red velvet couch before she hung our coats on dowel pegs by the door.
Three rooms: den, kitchen, bedroom, plus a closet bath. Not posh digs but it rang out with possibility. Orphan furnishings looked like J.C. Penny and Pier 1. Dreema’s match lit a pheromone candle. A black lacquer ashtray read, “Compliments of Blackburn’s Auto Court, Luray, Virginia, 1970,” the same souvenir stand as my mom’s Elvis plate. Dreema moved a Tess Gerritsen medical thriller from the couch to the end table.
“Do you like retro soul?” she asked me. “Marvin Gaye, Al Green, The Chi-Lites. I have almost any performer on vinyl.”
“The Temptations?” My tone was hopeful.
“The Temptations, why absolutely. Primo choice.” She slipped their 1971 LP “Sky’s the Limit” from its dust jacket, tilted the black platter between her palms, and blew away any dust. That ritual I’d last witnessed five, maybe seven, no better make that ten years ago.
“You collect vinyl? Please, pinch me.”
Dreema caressed the LP to the stereo’s turntable. The RPM was 33-1/3.
“Not exactly,” she said. Her movement to sit down accentuated a scalloped hip. “They were my mom’s. She died, you see, last January. Ovarian cancer. Taxol couldn’t fight hard enough for her. I inherited the records. Well, sort of. Dad came perilously close to packing them off to my aunt’s church raffle. Shame on you, I scolded him. Shame.”
My sympathy was reflexive. “Apologies for bringing it up.”
Dreema smiled. “It’s okay. Really. No problem.”
At a sweeping glance, I saw the entire Dreema. She wore slip-on red clogs, black hose, a dirt brown skirt a tasteful inch above the knees, and a green Oxford shirt. It was a mix of sedate and girlish I found intoxicating.
A sly crooning segued into the silken ballad. No artist dovetailed tighter harmonies or polished better expressive solos than did the Temptations. I swallowed.
The White Zinfandel was fridge-chilled for our libation.
“Caramel?” She passed the brass finger bowl to me.
I untwisted the waxy wrapper. “Are you from Abbot?”
“Born and bred. I moved in here last January after Mom passed. Dad and my three brothers — Lars, Mac, and Rusty — needed their space and I definitely needed mine. Their big dairy operation is up the valley. My eldest brother Nick is the family cane-raiser. He’s served two sentences in the brig, one for larceny and the other for sexual assault. Sad to say, he’ll never toe the line. I teach a youth group at my church and bag groceries part-time at Martin’s. The exciting stuff of legend, huh? What’s your life story, Cartwright?”
The wine and candy tasted funky. I made a wry face. “Nothing nearly so ambitious. I bought Stubbs’ cabin up by the old fire tower after moving here from Rapidan in Virginia which was getting too congested with people.”
” . . . just my imagination . . .”
“You’re also divorced,” said Dreema.
“Guess how I could tell? You wiped your boots on my doormat. It’s a domestic ritual that wives teach their husbands.”
I laughed a little. “Divorced, you’re for real there, but I was never henpecked. Foot wiping I come by honestly.”
” . . . running away with me . . . “
The fact that my divorce didn’t pique any further curiosity in her just then both puzzled and surprised me. Was she sensitive to how bloodletting my divorce had been? Our conversation followed a different thread.
“Do your parents live in Rapidan?” she asked.
“No. Both are dead. A drunk CPO T-boned them. DOA.”
“I’m sorry. Do you miss them?”
“To be honest, Dreema, being only six at the time, I was too young to have known them. They were good country people. Or so I’ve heard from those who did know them.”
“You’d better ask those people your questions,” she said. “When they die, your parent’s stories will go with them. They say every time an old person dies, a library burns down.”
“So noted,” I said. “When I roll back to Rapidan, you can bet I’ll do just that.”
“I hope so,” she said then quickly, “I’m training to be a medical transcriber. And you?”
” . . . o-o-o . . . “
Again, the question of my gainful employment was at issue. “Last year’s 1040 classified me as a security guard. I try to make bank and keep myself in groceries. At least I’m not in debt and own my own place. That’s good enough for me, believe it or not.”
“You sound ambivalent.”
“I guess it must be, then.”
Dreema sighed. “Go flip the LP, Cartwright.”
“Surely. Nothing ambivalent about doing that.”
“Is your ex from Rapidan?”
“Both of us, born and bred.” The next untruthfulness slid off my tongue with rehearsed ease. “We parted still friends. I mean, who needs more enemies, right?”
“Why the parting of ways at all?”
Was I to admit my infidelities and ruin the moment? On the fly, I half-promised myself then and there to make my stand and do better at my next try. “Irreconcilable differences” was my evasive reply.
“Sorry to open old wounds.”
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” I said.
Dreema sit her wine goblet down on a coaster and switched off one lamp.
” . . . o-o-o . . . “
“Leave that one on,” I said, husky-voiced.
“Because a body without freckles is like a night without stars. I heard that back home.”
“That’s really sweet,” she said, stretching.
The lamp’s gentler flare softened any remaining rough-cut edges as The Temptations dialed my mood ring to red-hot. Her eyes shut and mine open, we kissed.
My senses didn’t flinch, shirk, or short-circuit. My emotions felt natural, unforced, and vivid. Dreema’s green blouse rustled from her skirt, clean as the skis swishing over fresh powder snow. She was at my ear. My hands looped under her blouse and, without inept entanglement, popped her bra clasp.
We broke our embrace. She peered over at me once, her glowy mocha eyes big and moist. That gave me a start. Was this all wrong? She coached me on. Blouse slid off her tan, toned shoulders. She amplified fuller upstairs but then that always fooled me.
The pace had to pick up.
She leaned closer and behind a hand whispered something at my ear. I laughed. The Temptations launched into their next encore, crooning. Curve and dip to her shoulder and breast countered my shift on the red velvet couch to free up space. Instead, she claimed the lead.
Rapt face under tangles of hair, she delved into me, her fingers unhitching my belt. The zipper fell apart in halves.
“I hope you’ll call home.” Hands gathered back her hair. Her breasts lifted in the same motion and when they emerged from shadow, I saw tiny blue veins at the nipples and golden freckles across the heavy cleavage. “Call home soon,” she said. She wiggled her shoulders, the bra straps slipped down her arms.
“Yep,” I said, wondering why she kept harping on it. Her skirt fastened at the side by buttons. My fingers failed until she undid the damn buttons.
“Home is important,” she said. Her thumbs hooked the top of her black hosiery and sidled them down. She paused, expectantly.
“Yep,” I said. For that correct answer, I was awarded a pair of red panties. She took my hand to get me on my feet, her hands sliding down my sides. A hot urgency in them freed my jeans.
“Home is all.” She kissed at my ear.
“Got it,” I said as we stepped into each other.
Her parquet floor was a firm but tacky mattress….
Later, we retrenched on the red velvet couch. She filled a jam jar with Snapple Iced Tea and handed it to me.
“No Gatorade?” I said as a lame quip.
She was the witty one. “Mister Man, this ain’t no Bedroom Olympics. Keep it real.”
I stuffed the smile. “Look, my apologies but I really should go.”
“Oh my gosh, are you parked in a tow-away zone?”
“I think so but, hey, it’s no big sweat.”
“Still, you’d better go rescue your car.”
While Dreema went into the bedroom, I reassembled myself. Re-entering, she was tying the fuzzy tomato red terrycloth robe. Whap! Her bare foot stomped on something.
“Damn, I’d better fumigate for roaches again.”
That remark sort of crushed the male fantasy. I got up from the couch and at the threshold halted to offer some lame, limp comment.
Dreema spread her hand and fingers to mimic a cell phone. “I wouldn’t complain if you hit me on the hip some time soon, Cartwright….”