Monday, May 09, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 1

One of the things I like to do with characters is improvise with them -- put them in different situations and see how they react. It's a holdover from my actor training. One such character is Donny Hollenbeck. Donny is also the main character in my play Can't Live Without You, but the story he's in here has nothing to do with the story in the play. It's more of a writing exercise than anything else.

This is the first chapter of a story I began a long time ago and never finished; hopefully by putting it out here I'll be inspired to wrap it up.

East of Albuquerque - 2000

Donny Hollenbeck crossed the street at an angle, heading for the Gateway Café. It was a little after six in the morning and it was already getting warm. A slow breeze took a small tumbleweed ahead of him down the street until it lodged under the differential of Larry Webster’s GMC.

The cowbell on the door rattled as he pushed through the door. No one else was in the café. He took last night’s Albuquerque Tribune and sat at the counter, shuffling through the paper until he found the stock listings and the crossword. He scanned through the stock market, smiled a little, then went to the puzzle. It was still blank, and he dug a pen out of his Levi’s pocket and started to do it.

Celeste peered through the pass-through. “Morning, Donny,” she called. He nodded and she went back to kneading the biscuit dough. After pushing the tray into the oven, she went out to the front, poured Donny a cup of coffee, leaned back against the icemaker, and lit a Salem. She was a tall, purposeful woman in her mid-sixties. She had owned the café for fifteen years. For the last five on the anniversary of her opening she said that this year would be her last—she was going to sell out to her daughter Eva and move to Tucson—but each year came and went and still she was there every morning kneading the dough. Donny sipped his coffee and inked in 7-Across: P-E-S-T.

“Cheerios and toast?” Celeste asked, although she was sure she knew the answer, and she was already reaching for a cereal bowl and a single serving packet of Cheerios.

“Thanks,” said Donny, not looking up. He could have made this breakfast at home, but he liked coming into the café, and he didn’t have to wash the dishes. Celeste put the bowl, the box, and a pitcher of milk next to Donny’s coffee, topped off his cup, snubbed out her cigarette, and went back into the kitchen to make the toast.

The bell rattled and Larry Webster strode in and took his accustomed seat in the second booth, known in the café as “the trough.” During the week he and his road crew would gather for coffee and cigarettes before going out to the county garage, but on Saturdays Larry came in by himself to have breakfast and read the paper in peace. Celeste poured him some coffee, slid him an ashtray, and brought out Donny’s toast. The oven timer dinged.

Donny finished his breakfast and gave up on the crossword—they got harder as the week went on and Donny had never finished a Friday one. He put the paper back in the pile by the cash register. Someone had left this week’s copy of the Weekly Alibi, the alternative paper from Albuquerque. He glanced at the cover, then put four dollars on the counter. Celeste rang him up. “Keep the change,” he told her.

He crossed the street to Romero Feed and Supply. The main store was still closed, but the office door on the side was open and he let himself in. He checked his delivery list, then went out to the warehouse. Travis was tying down the load of feed sacks. He was nineteen, skinny, and wore the oversized tee shirt and baggy jeans that were the current teen uniform. His hair was cut very short. He nodded at Donny and finished tying down the load. He rarely said anything.

Donny backed the truck out of the warehouse and let Travis close the overhead door. He made a left turn out onto the main street and headed east to the frontage road, out past the abandoned adobe-style Gulf station and the Indian Country Inn, shuttered and overgrown since the winter of 1972, and on to the Interstate 40 interchange. After that, it reverted to the cracked and bubbled macadam remains of Route 66.

The sound of the interstate traffic filtered through the creaks and groans of the stake truck—the steady whine of distant semi tires being the overriding sound. Travis stared ahead, his mouth slightly agape, not registering much. Donny hung his elbow out the window and let the airstream blow up the sleeve of his shirt.

They turned in the long driveway of the Green Pastures “Jesus Is Lord” Sod Farm and dropped off six 100-pound sacks of sheep pellets. Travis untied the bags, lugged them to the back of the truck, and hoisted them onto Donny’s shoulder. The boy struggled with the bags, trying not to let the rough burlap catch on the floorboards, and Donny watched him as he strained to pick them up, the veins popping out on his forearms. Donny offered once to help, but Travis shook his head and said, “Naw, I can get it,” so Donny let him.

They had four more stops, delivering feed, hardware, and four vinyl windows ordered in from Albuquerque. By eleven-thirty the truck was empty, and they headed back to town, once again along old 66. A hundred feet from the road, across the drainage ditch and the barbed wire fence, a McDonald’s semi was parked on the shoulder of the interstate, its giant order of French Fries painted on the side of the trailer looking very appetizing in the shimmering heat waves. Shreds of tire were strewn behind the semi. The driver was nowhere in sight.

Donny turned in his paperwork, checked his Monday schedule, and left Travis sweeping out the truck. He went back across the street to the café, had a tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat toast, an order of fries, and a Diet Coke. He took the copy of the Alibi with him when he left and walked home.

It had been six months since he’d gotten off the interstate in the middle of a February morning and parked in front of the Gateway. He liked the food, and the Help Wanted sign in the window of Romero’s drew his attention. He went across the street, filled out the application, and talked to the owner, Gene Romero. After a ten-minute interview, Gene called in the warehouse manager and had him give Donny a tour of the company. In his office, Gene looked over the application and the Xerox of Donny’s California driver’s license: Donald F. Hollenbeck, DOB 9/16/70, six feet one inch, one hundred and ninety five pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. He called his brother-in-law at the local MVD and read him the license number. It was genuine, and there were no tickets on it. Then, looking out the window and playing a hunch, Gene read him the California license plate on the silver and blue Suburban parked in front of the Gateway. The registration matched the name and address on the driver’s license. He called his cousin who worked at the local state police post. No wants or warrants, and the Social Security number was legit; place of birth, Toledo, Ohio. Finally he called his neighbor’s wife who was the finance clerk at the Chevy dealer in Moriarty. Donny had a good credit record. The only curiosity was that he had bought the Suburban new in October, but there were no liens on it. Gene idly wondered what a guy who paid cash for a $35,000 truck was doing applying for a $10 an hour job driving trucks, but when Donny came back with the warehouse manager, Gene told him to come in at six the next morning.

That afternoon he drove around the town. It was small – maybe ten blocks square with the usual complement of churches, small businesses, and little neighborhoods. Two blocks off the main street he saw a bungalow with a For Rent sign strapped to the chain link fence. He called the number from a gas station and waited ten minutes before the owner, a squat little woman in a Volvo station wagon, showed up. She shook his hand and dug the keys out of her large purse. She explained that it was her parents’ house, but her mother had rheumatoid arthritis and her father had a bad heart, so they were now living in an assisted care place in Rio Rancho. It had two small bedrooms, a living room with a small corner fireplace, a kitchen with appliances, and furniture. The front yard was patchy and weedy with a scruffy cottonwood in one corner, and out back the high weeds hid thousands of goathead burrs, the kind that stuck to your shoes. But inside, the only flaw was a leaky toilet valve that the landlady promised to replace. Donny gave her a deposit and the first month’s rent in traveler’s checks. He unrolled his sleeping bag on the double bed and piled his clothes on the floor. The following Saturday he drove an hour west to Albuquerque, found a Wal-Mart near the interstate, and spent $150 on sheets, towels, some kitchen utensils, and a telephone. He found a 19-inch TV on sale and bought that, too.

The day was now hot. Donny flipped on the swamp cooler, changed into cutoffs and cut the grass. The yard had taken some effort, but most of the weeds were gone and the grass was green again. By the time he finished the house was cool, the moist air feeling good. He took a shower, changed into clean jeans and a white polo shirt, made some macaroni and cheese for an early dinner, and scanned through the Alibi one more time. He left the house around five.

He made it to Albuquerque in time to find a good parking place at the movie theatre, get his popcorn and soda, and get settled in before it got too crowded for the 7:15 show. It was an action movie, so the audience was mostly teenaged boys, either in packs or with dates, but the audience was well behaved nonetheless. When the final credits rolled Donny went with the wave out into the still-hot night air, waited patiently as the traffic slowly moved out, and found his way down Central Avenue. He was not quite ready to drive home yet.

There weren’t a lot of cars in the bar parking lot, so he parked close to the streetlight. The doorman, a large and strongly built young man, checked his ID, and collected the two-dollar cover. Inside it was dark, the walls painted black, broken by the occasional poster. It was too early to be crowded – it wasn’t even ten yet. He looked in the front bar. It was empty except for a couple of women shooting pool. The bartender was watching TV.

The piano bar was busier. There were four or five people sat at the bar talking, and the bartender smiled at him and gave him the draft he requested. The music was smooth jazz, only slightly overpowered by the driving bass from the cavernous dance bar down the hall. Donny sipped his beer and lit a cigarette.

By the time he finished his first beer, the place was picking up. People started coming in, greeting others, shaking hands, hugging. Couples sat together with other couples, laughter could be heard, and the air began to get thick with smoke. Donny went to the bathroom and then strolled past the dance bar where he watched couples gyrating to the pounding beat of Cher. He went back to the piano bar and ordered another draft.

One or two men looked at him appreciatively as he sat down, but Donny didn’t notice them. He was halfway through his drink when the guy next to him asked him to pass the ashtray. He did, and they started chatting, slowly at first; a phrase here, a nodded agreement there about things that meant nothing. Finally Donny leaned back and looked at the fellow he was talking to. He was younger than him, perhaps twenty-three or so, with short hair and an intelligent face. He too was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. He said his name was Chris, and he smoked Marlboro Lights. They talked for about an hour, and then, almost as an afterthought, he asked Donny if he’d like to get out of there. Donny nodded.

He followed the silver Accord to a quiet residential street near the university and parked in front of a small house. They went up the steps and into the darkened living room. A small dim light came on, and then Donny followed him back to the bedroom. Forty minutes later Donny walked back to the Suburban. He started the engine and lit a cigarette. His hard-on was fading, and the light in the house was out now. He punched the button for the classical music station, switched on the headlights, made a slow U-turn at the corner, and headed for the interstate.

Chapter Guide



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