Paul McNary sat in a booth at Jamie Burgers talking to the manager Brenda Carter. He stopped by to see her every weekday after he got off work. At that time of day, after the lunch crowd and before the supper crowd, they usually had the dining area to themselves. This particular day she had brought up the subject of them breaking it off because Brenda’s daughter disapproved of him. Brenda did this once or twice a month, and he would have to cajole her out of the idea.
She seemed on the verge of agreeing to go out with him that weekend, when he caught sight of the only customer in the room, a flat-chested young woman in a tank top and leggings, coming toward them. Her long, drab hair parted in the middle framed her face. His first wife, an ad executive, wore her hair that way, in what he thought was an effort to look folksy. The affectation always irritated him, as did this girl interrupting what was obviously an intense, personal conversation.
“Hello. Sorry to bother you. My name is Lauren Withers, and I’ll be teaching English at Upton Community College starting next month.”
Lauren looked at Paul as she spoke, but Brenda answered. “That’s wonderful. Where are you from, honey?” Just an excuse to end our discussion, thought Paul.
“Really? Gosh, UCC is lucky to have somebody like you on the faculty. How can I help you?”
“I know this is a long shot, but I’m having trouble finding a place to live. I was wondering, would you know of any nice apartments for rent around here? The ones the college told me about were pretty sketchy. I even talked to a realtor, and she couldn’t show me anything nice, either.”
“We’ve been lucky in recent years with economic development.” Paul shifted into his businessman/local booster voice to participate in the conversation and steer Lauren back to her hamburger and fries. “Unfortunately, housing construction hasn’t kept up with job growth. You might find something farther away, maybe in Maryville or Knoxville.”
“That’s a long way to go for a job that doesn’t pay much.” Lauren looked dejected.
“It sure is. You shouldn’t have to go all that way. Paul, what about that mobile home parked at your place?”
She’s playing the mother hen to this girl to keep from talking to me about us, he thought. “What about it?”
“It’s in good condition, isn’t it? You’ve kept the utilities hooked up and all? You let people stay there sometimes?”
“I doubt this lady would care to live in a trailer.”
“Oh, come on.” Then to Lauren. “It’s not a little camper type thing, it’s huge, as big as an apartment. A tenant on the farm used to live there but moved out.” Then back to Paul, “Why not collect rent on it?”
“It’s not convenient to stores and all. Not that close to UCC, either. I’m sure this lady could do better.”
“You just told her to go to Maryville. Your trailer is a lot closer to UCC than that. And I’m sure she has a car, right Laura? Did I get that right, is it Laura?”
“Lauren. Yes, I have a car. I don’t mind driving a little distance to shop.”
“I’m Brenda, by the way, Lauren. And this is Paul. Paul, why don’t you let her look at it at least?”
She knew how to get her way with him. Agreeing to show Lauren the trailer, he drove the Lexus to his place with Lauren following in an old VW Golf. He would have to come back tomorrow to close the deal on a date for the weekend.
They passed farmhouses on the way, each at least half a mile from its neighbor. The trailer and his house, less than a hundred yards apart, sat close to the county road running through his farm. At the trailer Lauren said, “The countryside here is so beautiful. I love it.”
“I thought you might find the population too sparse here after New York.”
“Not at all. And the air here is so clean. God, this trailer is huge.”
“Yeah, it’s 12 by 60. They make bigger ones, but this one has three bedrooms and lots of space.” Renting the trailer to her wouldn’t be so bad and would please Brenda. After Lauren inspected the inside and said she liked it, they agreed on a rent.
Walking back to their cars she said, “So you’re a farmer, huh?”
“No. My late dad was. These days I rent out my fields to neighbors. I manage the Mol-Rite plant. You pass it on the highway on the way to UCC.”
“So, wow, you own a factory.”
“No, I manage it for a company in North Carolina.”
“Well, still, you’re a big shot.”
“For around here, I guess.”
They talked a few more minutes, then she went back to her motel, and he went on to his house.
The first month after she rented the trailer, Lauren stuck the rent check inside the storm door in the back of his house. On October 1st, however, she came knocking early in the evening. She wore light makeup and a pants suit, her hair in a bun. Although still skinny and with a plain face, she looked better.
After handing Paul the rent check she said, “Do you have any openings at your factory? One of my students needs a job.”
“We have low employee turnover, so no, not right now. There are other places around here. If I hear of anything elsewhere, I’ll let you know.”
Brenda said, “Your girlfriend is traveling with a rough crowd.” He had stopped by after he got off work, as usual. Brenda had stopped talking about breaking up.
“Who’s my girlfriend?” A lot of women worked at the Mol-Rite plant, and he assumed she was kidding him about one of them.
“That English teacher in your trailer.”
“Why's she my girlfriend? I only rented to her because of you. Anyway, who’s the rough crowd?”
“She stops by here sometimes for supper. A couple of times, like last night, she was in here with that Cody Jaye.”
“Is that Kyle Jaye’s boy?”
“Jeez. If he’s anything like his old man, he’ll wreck my trailer.”
“I thought you’d want to know.”
“Thanks, I do. Anyway, you want to go someplace Saturday night?”
“I’d like to, but that new assistant manager isn’t working out. I’ll have to close here Saturday.”
“OK. Another time.” He left, worried about Lauren’s boyfriend and frustrated at Brenda working Saturday night.
“Hey, Paul, quick question.” Sharon Kitzmiller, Mol-Rite’s director of human resources, had called him on the office intercom.
“Did you want me to try to place an individual named Cody Jaye?”
“Hell no. Did he say I did?”
“Not him. A woman came in this morning and put in a job application for him. She said she’s a friend of yours and implied you had an interest in giving this guy a job.”
“What was her name?”
“Yeah, she’s the girl renting that trailer at my place. She mentioned she was trying to find a job for a friend of hers, but I told her we’re not hiring.”
“I told her the same thing. I told her I’d file his application in case we had an opening. The usual thing I tell applicants. Since she dropped your name, though, I wanted to check with you.”
“You done good. Thanks. You can file that application like you would any other. No special treatment.”
Driving home that evening, he saw Lauren’s VW Golf parked at the trailer and pulled in beside it. In his mind he’d prepared a no-nonsense speech about dropping his name at Mol-Rite’s HR office. A man answering the door caught him off guard. Probably in his twenties, taller, heavier, and more muscular than Paul, he stood in his sock feet, a faded blue T-shirt, and baggy jeans falling off his hips. He had a shaved head and a week’s growth of beard, and his neck and arms bore tattoos.
“Yeah?” He sounded defiant, threatening.
“Who the hell are you?”
Paul recovered his composure and started to reply in his own threatening tone when he heard Lauren say, “Who is it, Cody?”
Cody looked back toward the end of the trailer where the bathroom and bedrooms were located, then looked back at Paul with a scowl. “Some guy.”
Lauren came to the door. “Hi, Paul.”
“Hi. I understand you came by the plant today.”
“Oh, yeah. I hope it was all right.”
“I’m afraid my HR person understood you to say I wanted her to give Cody a job. That wasn’t what we discussed.”
“What the fuck he’s talking about?” Cody glared at Lauren.
“I thought you might like to have a regular job—”
“I never asked you to go lookin’ for me a job. What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Paul tried to guess his chances in a fight with the younger man, who had clinched his fists as if to slug Lauren. Fortunately, Lauren managed to calm her boyfriend, wheedling and whining, and apologizing until Cody took out his phone.
“What are you doing, Cody?” She sounded concerned.
“I’m calling Drew to pick me up.”
“Why? I can drive you anyplace you need to go.”
“I don’t need you to drive me anyplace, bitch.”
“Take it easy, boy.” Paul spoke with anger. Lauren had asked for trouble inviting Cody into her home, but Cody’s abuse made Paul want to defend her.
“Who the hell you think you’re talkin’ to?”
“Cody, put up your phone. I’m driving you wherever you need to go.” She spoke to Cody with authority now, like a teacher. Then, softer, “It’s OK, Paul. I’ll drive Cody. You can go. It’ll be all right.”
He glared at Cody, then glanced at Lauren. She nodded as if to confirm she was all right.
Throwing one more dirty look at Cody, he said “Good night, then.” In his car he took a minute to collect himself before driving on to his house.
Brenda finally hired an assistant manager to cover weekend nights. They celebrated her first free Saturday night going to a basketball game at the university in Knoxville. Back at Paul’s house after the game, they were watching High Plains Drifter in the living room and making out. A knock came at the front door. As they straightened their clothes, Paul thought about going into the bedroom for his pistol. Since the confrontation at the trailer, he’d expected Cody to come around to start something. Peeking through the curtain of the living room window, however, he saw Lauren on the porch.
When he opened the door, Lauren said, “Hi, Paul. I hope I’m not disturbing you. I saw your car coming in, and since your lights were still on, I thought I’d take a chance. Can I come in?”
He led her into the living room. She looked startled when she saw Brenda sitting on the sofa.
“Oh. Hello, Brenda. I didn’t know Paul had company.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “Have a seat.” He pointed to an easy chair for Lauren and resumed his seat by Brenda on the sofa.
“What can I do for you, Lauren?”
“I just wanted to stop by and apologize for the other week with Cody.”
“No need to apologize. I’d forgotten all about it.” Which was a lie, of course.
“I appreciate you standing up for me. I think Cody would have hit me if you hadn’t been there. I didn’t realize how much anger he had bottled up inside.”
Brenda scoffed. “I would have thought the swastika tattoo on his neck might have given you a clue.”
“Touché. He told me about running with a bunch of skinheads when he was a teenager, and they talked him into it. My god, how he went on about how he regretted it, that wasn’t him, and he was going to have it removed as soon as he got some money. All bullshit, of course. At the time I hadn’t made a lot of friends at the college and wanted to believe I’d made a friend. He seemed intelligent.”
“I’m surprised he’s in school.” Brenda sounded more sympathetic now.
“He isn’t in school. I thought he was when I told Paul that. I wasn’t truthful when I said he was a student of mine, but he did tell me he was taking classes.”
“Maybe with your encouragement he’ll start to school.” Paul knew better but felt sorry for Lauren now.
“Well, that’s the thing, he won’t be going to school or anywhere else. They’ve arrested him, some kind of state police agency. Like the FBI, only from the state.”
“Yeah. I think that was it.”
Paul said, “Arrested for what?”
“It turns out he was hanging around to sell drugs to students. The police had been watching him for a while.”
“When did they arrest him?”
“Last week. I hadn’t seen him since the night you saw him at the trailer. I found out about it because the police talked to me after they arrested him.”
Brenda said, “Do they think you were helping him sell drugs?”
“No. I mean, they may have suspected it, but they had a dog smell my car and the trailer and didn’t find anything.”
“TBI was out here searching my trailer?”
“Yes. It’s all right, though, they didn’t find anything.”
“Be happy for small blessings, Paul.” Brenda patted him on the shoulder.
“So, you’re done with law enforcement so far as you know?”
“They said they might need me to testify at Cody’s trial, but probably not. So, yeah, I’m done with them as far as I know.”
“Good. I’m sorry you’ve been put through this.”
“Thanks. It’s my fault. Like Brenda said, the swastika should have warned me.”
“Well, lesson learned. Would you like a drink?”
“No, thanks. I’ve taken too much of your time. I just wanted to tell you the latest.”
Lauren left, and they went back to watching High Plains Drifter on the TV in the bedroom.
“We’ll enjoy it more that way, won’t we? Just you and me at my place Friday night.” They sat at Jamie Burgers as Brenda explained why she would have Thanksgiving at her daughter Paige’s without Paul.
“Wouldn’t it be better to force the issue with Paige? You and Ben divorced, what, five years ago now? And Ben’s been in prison for four, right?”
“It’s still too early for her. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it is.”
“If you show up on Thanksgiving with me, what’ll she do? Bar you from the house?”
“She’d let us both in, but there’d be a lot of unpleasantness. Didn’t you feel the tension at the 4th of July fireworks?”
“Yeah, I felt it, but I didn’t let it bother me.”
“Well, it bothered me.”
“I’m sorry, you’re right, I’m sure it was tough on you. Can’t we work through it, though?”
“We will one of these days, but not now.”
So, he ended up alone on Thanksgiving Day but with a nice dinner at Brenda’s the day after.
For this first Christmas since he and Brenda began seeing each other, he’d hoped she would invite him over to Paige’s house for Christmas morning. However, they’d made no progress with Paige since Thanksgiving.
Christmas morning, he ate a late breakfast, then settled in to watch movies and basketball on TV. As he channel surfed a knock came at his front door.
“Hi, neighbor! Merry Christmas! I thought you and Brenda might like some homemade eggnog.” Lauren wore a wool knit hat with matching gloves and a suede coat with a fleece collar. The cold air gave her usually pale skin a healthy glow. She carried a plastic pitcher.
“Come in. Brenda’s not here, but I could do with some seasonal cheer.” He led her into the living room and took her hat and coat.
“I just assumed she’d be here. Well, that just leaves more eggnog for you.”
“Absolutely. Have a seat and I’ll get some glasses.”
When he returned from the kitchen with two glass tumblers, she said, “Is Brenda all right?”
“Sure. She’s spending Christmas morning with her daughter and her daughter’s family.”
“I didn’t know Brenda had a daughter.”
“Yeah, a married daughter, and a couple of grandkids.
“You must have known Brenda a long time.”
“Only a few years. We grew up in different parts of the county. I met her when I moved back here from North Carolina.”
“Gosh, I thought you two had been a couple for years.”
He took a sip from his glass. “Wow! You folks up north put a lot of booze in your eggnog.”
She giggled. “I don’t know about folks up north. I got the recipe online. I put in a little more rum than the recipe called for.”
“It’s good. More alcohol than I usually drink this early in the day, but it is Christmas after all.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
They sipped eggnog in silence until Lauren said, “By the way, I guess we’re done with Cody Jaye for a while.”
“One of the state police detectives told me he’s plea-bargained and going to prison for a few years. I won’t have to testify or anything.”
“Good. Sorry you got mixed up in that.”
“Yeah. I can’t believe he sucked me in that way.”
“Those things happen. Just put it behind you.”
“I was vulnerable. I had a bad break-up back home before I moved down here. Then I had a hard time making friends here. It was my fault, being kind of standoffish, I was so bummed out after Kevin and I broke up.”
“Have you made new friends lately?”
“Yes, it’s getting better. One of the women in the math department heard about Cody and me and approached me at lunch to express her support….” She talked on, drinking eggnog and reminiscing about her parents’ divorce, sad holidays in college, her decision to come to the south for a fresh start. Sometimes she sounded funny, but more often dull. He enjoyed having company, though, and let her rattle on about herself.
After a while he interrupted her. “I’ve got a pot of chili on and I’m going to make cornbread. Would you care for some lunch?”
She smiled. “I’d love it.”
They switched to beer to accompany the chili. Her nervous chatter relaxed him as they sat at the kitchen table. After they cleared the table and moved back to the living room, Lauren said, “Gosh, I’ve been doing all the talking. You must think I’m a ditz.”
“No, you have a way with words. I enjoy listening to you.”
“How come you’ve never been married?”
“Why do you think I’ve never been married?”
“I just assumed. You mean you have been?”
“Your wife died?”
“So far as I know neither of them has died.”
“You’ve been married twice and divorced twice?”
“Yes. You sound scandalized.”
“Just surprised. You seem so stable, and you and Brenda seem such a perfect couple. She’s beautiful and has such a nice figure. You, too, neither of you is fat like most people around here.”
“My doctor scared me into a healthy diet. Brenda just watches what she eats. Don’t tell anybody, but you’ll never see her eating a Jamie Burger. She brings her meals from home.”
“That’s great. What were your wives like? Big, fat Upton girls?”
“They weren’t from here.”
“I guess they didn’t care for Upton.”
“Both times I was married I lived in Greensboro, where I spent most of my career. I only moved back here three years ago to start up the Mol-Rite plant.”
“It must be great running a factory where they make things. The only thing I’m making is a dissertation.”
“What are you writing it on?”
She launched into a description of her struggles to come up with a dissertation topic, and he zoned out, sipping eggnog and saying the occasional “Uh-huh” or “Is that right?” Her self-absorption allowed him to glance at the game on TV, which kept her monologue from becoming too boring.
Finally, she said, “Gosh, I didn’t notice the time. I better get back home before it gets too dark.”
“You don’t like to drive in the dark?”
“Driving’s all right, but I walked over here.”
“I didn’t realize that. Let me drive you back.”
As they pulled up next to her trailer she said, “Thank you for putting up with me today. This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had.” She leaned toward him and kissed him on the lips.
“It was my pleasure,” he managed to say, feeling awkward as he worried about the sexual harassment training he’d received at work, and missing Brenda.
The evening after Christmas, Paul and Brenda sat in Jamie Burgers. Brenda was filling in for her assistant manager, who she’d given the night off.
“Actually, I spent Christmas Day with the English teacher.”
“Really? How did that come about?”
“She made up a batch of eggnog, for you and me, assuming you’d be at my place. Since you weren’t there, she wound up hanging around for the afternoon.”
“Who’s she kidding about making the eggnog? Everybody just buys it at the store.”
“Well, it sure tasted different from store-bought eggnog. She claimed she got the recipe online. She put extra rum in it. Powerful stuff.”
“Did you get drunk?”
“A little, but she got drunker. That girl can sure talk when she’s been drinking.”
Brenda said, “Hmm.” He’d made it a point to tell her about Christmas Day because people in Upton had a way of knowing things. Better to tell Brenda about it himself.
“Anyway, you’re closing early here on New Year’s Eve, aren’t you? You want to come over to my place, or me over to your place, to ring in the New Year?”
“Sorry. I promised Paige I’d babysit for them, so she and Adam could go to a party.”
“In that case, may I join you at Paige’s house and spend New Year’s Eve with you babysitting the grandkids?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want you to do that.”
“Don’t look so hurt. Jesus, it’s just New Year’s Eve. I wouldn’t be comfortable celebrating with you under the same roof where my grandkids are.”
“If you mean getting it on, I didn’t plan on doing that with your grandkids there. I thought we’d just watch the ball drop in Times Square, or whatever they do on TV.”
“No. Maybe next year.”
Lauren brought the rent check over the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
“I bet you and Brenda are going to blow it out tonight.”
“No, she has to babysit.”
“Really? You want to go to a party?”
“Sounds enticing, but any party you’d go to would be too rich for my blood.”
“Hardly. In New York, maybe, but all I could score here was the Dean of Liberal Arts party. You’d be doing me a favor. I turned down this guy in Romance Languages who asked me to go with him. I told him I was seeing somebody.”
He paused before answering. Going out with Lauren would be like revenge against Brenda for not spending the evening with him. Revenge might feel good, though, and he dreaded being alone again like on Thanksgiving. “OK. What time should I pick you up?”
Whatever difficulty Lauren initially had at UCC, she fit in well now. At the party she commanded the attention of a group in a corner of the living room. Prettier women failed to compete with her wit and personality. She talked about school gossip, life in New York, trying to write a novel, and the news of the day, vivacious in a pretty dress and with makeup.
Elaine Cummings the hostess said, “All right, everybody, get close to the one you love. It’s almost 2019.” They watched Times Square on TV, and at ten seconds to midnight they began the countdown in unison. As soon as they shouted “zero,” Lauren tugged on the sleeve of his blazer, and he bent down to kiss her. He aimed for her cheek, but she turned her head, so they wound up kissing on the mouth.
The crowd had thinned by one o’clock when Paul and Lauren left.
As the car drew near her trailer Lauren said, “Why don’t we go to your place for a drink?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They began kissing on the living room sofa and wound up in the bedroom. He fixed brunch the next day, and they spent the afternoon at his place before he drove her to the trailer.
As soon as he got home from dropping Lauren off, he called Brenda. “Hey, darlin’, how was your New Year’s Eve?”
“Hi, Paul. Nice and quiet. How was yours?” Brenda’s voice gave off no warmth, which worried him.
“Nice. Can I come over and celebrate the New Year with you?”
“No. I’m still at Paige’s.”
“Oh. Maybe later.”
“Yeah. Not today, though.”
“Before I forget it, are we going to the UT basketball game Saturday afternoon?”
“Come by Jamie Burgers tomorrow after work.”
Brenda sat at a table in the Jamie Burgers dining area, wearing regular clothes instead of her uniform. Before he could kiss her, she stood up and said, “Let’s sit in your car.” Like on the phone the previous day, she sounded cold.
Settled into his car, she said, “I need to explain to you about Christmas and yesterday.”
“Nothing to explain. Is there? I know Paige doesn’t like me seeing you. She’ll come around eventually.” He felt relief, having expected to be the one who had to explain about Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It sounded like Brenda didn’t know, or care, about him and Lauren.
“I’m afraid not. Ben is going to be released next month. He needs a job, and I told Paige I’d bring him on here. He’ll live at her place.”
“OK, but what’s that got to do with us?”
“It would be awkward for me to be seeing you while he’s working for me.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Look, somewhere in the back of her head, Paige hopes I’ll get back together with her dad.”
“Let her hope. As time goes by, when she keeps seeing you and me together all the time, she’ll accept me.”
“It’s not that easy. If you had kids of your own, you’d understand. She’d always looked up to her dad so much, then the investigations, the trials, and the appeals went on forever. It was hard on her.”
“It was hard on you, too, wasn’t it? You had to start working here because of Ben’s gambling. Does Paige appreciate that?”
“In a way she does, but she loves her dad and feels like the world is against him. She’s been working on his parole for months and working on me to give him a job when he gets out.”
“OK, you give him a job, and he goes home to Paige when he gets off work here. I won’t come around Jamie Burgers when Ben’s on duty. Shouldn’t bother anybody.”
“Except you also couldn’t come around when I celebrate Christmas with Paige and the kids or go on outings with them.”
“It’ll be tough, but we can work through it. I love you. We’re so good together.” He’d never told her he loved her before.
“Yeah. It’s been great being with you. But I can’t give up my daughter and grandkids. You’re a great guy, you’ll be better off with somebody without my baggage. A college girl.”
“You’re beautiful, you’re smart. There’s nobody like you. Hell, I left two college girls in Greensboro, I know what’s out there.”
“Don’t be silly.” Opening the car door and climbing out as he was starting to speak, she went straight to her car.
He stared at her car as it pulled out of the parking lot. “Not even a fucking kiss,” he said, as he started the Lexus.
“So, how’s it going?” He called Brenda a couple of times a week now. Like the problems he faced in his job, he knew he just had to keep working on his relationship with Brenda, find a solution and implement it.
“Fine. Ben gets out next week.”
“Oh. Are you going to pick him up or something?”
“Paige and Adam are picking him up Tuesday. Paige will bring him to Jamie Burgers Wednesday to start work.”
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“I don’t know. I just want you to know I’m here for you.” Fair question, what could he do for her?
He avoided Lauren. Brenda never found out about the New Year’s sleepover, but he might not be so lucky the next time. If he kept talking to Brenda, he could convince her to stop trying to placate Paige. Gossip about him and Lauren might screw that up.
He feared the temptation of taking up with Lauren while deprived of physical contact with Brenda. Seeing a late-model Mercedes parked at the trailer one evening, therefore, came as a relief. She’s seeing somebody, he thought. Good. No time for me even if I did call her up.
During one of his calls, Brenda surprised him with a question about Lauren. He welcomed that question, which gave him the opportunity to show his disinterest in the woman in the trailer.
“Haven’t seen her lately. I think she has a boyfriend.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“She’s seeing Ben.”
“Is there any other?”
“I thought she was seeing a guy with a Mercedes.”
“Ben’s driving a Mercedes?”
“How can he do that? I thought the government seized all his assets to pay back the people he scammed. He couldn’t buy a Mercedes based on what you pay him. Could he?”
“I suspect Lauren helped him, although I don’t see how she could afford that on a teacher’s salary.”
“How did they get together?”
“When she stops at Jamie Burgers she always comes inside to eat. He was cleaning up the dining area once and struck up a conversation with her. He can charm the pants off you. Or off a girl, anyway. He’s a college grad, he can talk that talk that impresses a girl like Lauren.”
“Cody Jaye impressed her, for Christ’s sake. Is there any guy who wouldn’t impress her? Did you warn her about Ben?”
“I tried to tell her the facts of life.”
“Oh, he’s got her well greased. She’s convinced I told her to steer clear of him because I’m jealous.”
“What does Paige say?”
“She’s convinced Lauren seduced her dad and is up to no good. She asked me to tell you to tell Lauren to quote leave Dad alone unquote.”
“I will talk to Lauren. She’ll listen to me more than she would another woman.”
He’d called Brenda from home after work. After hanging up, he stepped out his front door and looked down the road. The Mercedes sat next to the VW Golf, so he went back inside.
The next day as he drove home from work, he saw Lauren’s car parked alone at the trailer. When she opened the door in response to his knock she said, “Hi, Paul!” then threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. “Come in.”
“Hi, Lauren. How’s it going?”
“Great! I’ve never been so happy.” She sat on a cushioned chair and waved him to the sofa.
“I hear you are friends with Ben Carter now.”
“Friends.” She chuckled. “Yeah.”
“Be careful. He’s slick, and he has hurt a lot of people.”
“Oh, my, god!” She clapped her hands a couple of times and giggled. “You’re jealous, just like Brenda. She should forget about Ben, and you should forget about me.”
He suppressed the urge to yell at her. “Lauren, Brenda’s not jealous of you and Ben, nor am I. She hates that son of a bitch. And you and I are friends, I hope, and I wish you every happiness. But I don’t want to see you get hurt, and Ben Carter will hurt you.”
Standing up and coming to Paul she leaned over and hugged him. “Oh, come on, big guy. I told you, you and Brenda are the perfect couple. Forget about me.”
He took hold of each of her arms and pushed her away. “Listen, Brenda and I are fine, but you’re going to get screwed bigtime by Ben Carter. I don’t know how he’ll do it, but he’s going to screw you.”
“Stop it! You don’t even know him. He’s a brilliant guy who had a gambling problem. He kicked it and is on the way to getting his life back on track. With no help from Brenda, I might add, who’s trying to break his spirit working in that damn hamburger stand.”
“OK. I gave you the best advice I could. Just please watch out.”
As Paul shopped at Taylor’s Supermarket in Upton a few weeks later, a woman with two kids followed him in the canned vegetables aisle. When he heard her say “Paul” in a commanding voice, he turned to face her.
“Hello, Paige. Nice to see you again.”
“I know you’re still talking to Mom, even though you shouldn’t be. I don’t know if she told you, but I asked her to tell you to tell that girl in your trailer to leave Dad alone.” Paige’s three-year-old girl sat in the shopping cart and the five-year-old boy held on to his mother’s coattail.
“Yeah, she did mention your concerns about your dad. And I told my tenant she would be better off not seeing Ben. But I’m only her landlord, I can’t run her life.”
“Yeah, right. I’m sure you’re pleased that bitch had Dad arrested.”
“Is that the way you talk in front of your children?”
Paige clamped her jaw and pursed her lips, blushing, tearing up. She was silent for a few seconds. “They’ll be as upset as I am when they’re old enough to understand what’s been done to their grandfather.” She pushed her cart passed his and proceeded down the aisle.
Arriving home after dark, he called Brenda and left voicemail. He was in bed watching TV when she returned his call.
“I heard about Ben,” he said.
“Already? From who?”
“I’m surprised she called you about it.”
“She didn’t. We ran into each other at Taylor’s. What happened with Lauren and Ben?”
“He stole her debit card and managed to draw out a couple of thousand before she knew it was missing. She reported the unauthorized withdrawals to the bank. They had his picture on surveillance cameras at the ATM. His parole officer wasn’t amused. A couple of sheriff’s deputies arrested Ben at Paige’s house last night.”
“Man, that’s tough. Did the kids see it?”
“I can see why Paige is upset, but how can she blame Lauren for Ben’s stealing her debit card?”
“As the deputies hauled him off, Ben was telling Paige that Lauren loaned him the card and knew he was taking the money.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s impossible to believe. That’s classic Ben, blame the victim, throw her under the bus. Lauren’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but no way would she have loaned him her card, then reported him for using it. He’s a master at slipping plastic out of a woman’s purse, and I speak from personal experience.”
“I guess this would be a bad time to ask you out.”
“Want to go to a baseball game Wednesday night?”
Ben was big news because of the many clients he had defrauded throughout the region. News of his parole had received a small mention in the newspaper, but his being accused of another crime earned him frontpage and broadcast coverage.
The state returned him to prison to await trial on this latest charge. Investigators for the district attorney found out Ben used the money to gamble at the casino in Cherokee, violating the no gambling provision of his probation.
One night in May, Paul and Brenda sat in his living room. True Grit (the Jeff Bridges version) played on the TV, although they paid no attention to it. They’d just stood up on Paul’s suggestion of “Let’s go to the bedroom” when a knock came at the door.
He peeked through the window and saw the English teacher on the porch. Opening the front door, he said, “Hi, Lauren.”
“Hi, Paul. Can I come in?”
The three of them stood in the living room.
“I wanted to let you know, I’m moving at the end of the month.”
“OK. If you would, just lock the trailer when you leave, and leave the key behind my storm door if I’m not here. How’s it going?”
“It’s getting better. I’m moving back to New York. I have a job lined up at Hostos Community College in New York. In the Bronx, actually.”
Brenda said, “Tired of UCC, I guess.”
“Not really. They told me they won’t renew my contract. They gave me a bullshit reason, but Elaine Cummings told me the publicity about Ben and me reflected on the college.”
“That’s unfair.” Brenda sounded indignant. “You were the victim.”
“Well, that was what people thought at first. As time went on, though, people faulted me for dating Ben. I didn’t appreciate before how badly he’d hurt people around here. They were mad that he was out of prison in the first place, and then mad at me for dating him. Social media has been vicious. I deserve it. I owe you both an apology.”
“Oh, no, honey.” Brenda put her arm around Lauren’s shoulder. “You don’t owe us anything. Does she, Paul?”
“Yes, I do. You both warned me about Ben. I am so fucking stupid.”
Paul said, “Were you able to get any of the money back?”
“The bank credited my account for the money he took out with the debit card. I’m still liable for the Mercedes. My dad’s an attorney, and he’s trying to work out something with the finance company. Is Paige mad at me? If I’d known he was the one who used my card, I would have given him a chance to pay it back.”
Brenda said, “If Paige sees you, she’ll scratch your eyes out, but so what? He broke his parole himself. You did me a favor. He was a pain in the ass to work with. I had to watch him like a hawk around the cash register.”
“I guess Paige is OK with you and Paul being together now? That’s good.”
“No, she’s pouting because I’m seeing Paul again. She doesn’t want me around my grandkids.”
“God, that’s my fault.”
“No, it’s not. Ben was going to scam somebody, if not you, then somebody else. If she can’t see her dad’s no good by now, I give up. Don’t worry about it. Paige will call me again when she finds out how hard it is to find babysitters, and how much they cost.”
“I hope so.”
“I know so. Get back to New York and forget about this place. And be more careful about the men you take up with.” Brenda hugged Lauren, who hugged her in return and then hugged Paul.
Lauren smiled. “That’s the good part. Kevin, the guy I was with before I moved down here, finally got a divorce. He’s sorry he didn’t get it before, and I’m going to move back in with him.”
Brenda said, “Yeah. That’s good, honey.”
They walked her to the door and watched the VW Golf drive back down the road.
“I don’t know, Brenda, about that guy Kevin.”
“You know,” she said.