- 13 -
AFTER THE "runaway crew member" contract, Steffi takes a little time off to get Ritzy and Little Bird up and running. She's not a great mechanic, but with the aid of tools from the crummy and manuals from the Public Library, she makes a little headway on the starter motor. Ritzy is parked at Central, by the tracks. This doesn't seem to disturb anyone, maybe because it's close to the jail, which is next door to Central, and folks just don't hang around outside those sad, brightly illuminated walls.
By day, Steffi tinkers with the starter motor under the skylight in Ritzy's "living" room; by night she reads, tucked into her sleeping bag, gloves on: it's a cold winter and the police are okay until you start building fires in your stove. For a reading lamp, she has the jail's sodium vapor lamps.
Once Ritzy's got a new starter motor throw-out spring in place and the motor re-installed and tested, Steffi turns to Little Bird's problems. A new headlamp is easy; the forks less so. She learns disassembly, puzzles over the forks awhile, then grabs them and a hydraulic jack and heads for the smallest gap she can find between two concrete-walled buildings.
It's late when she gets back to the Ritz. Little Bird's gonna be okay, but assembly should wait until morning. Or maybe even later; Face crew and the Wildcats are glomming in Six Rivers and she's running a week behind. She'll drive straight there tomorrow.
Packs herself into the sleeping bag in the "bedroom" above the tall blue truck cab.
Close above her head is the ceiling; cedar one-by-fours. It's a little like sleeping in a tent. She reaches up to touch the ceiling. "Roads go ever on and on ... "
The road she's remembering came down from the hot Georgia Piedmont into the flats and curved along the lake shore to a small boathouse. This building was just big enough to hold a retired gentleman and a cash box; outside stood a soft drink machine, a pay phone, and a mercury-vapor lamp.
Thousands of white moths lay, slaughtered, beneath the lamp.
Alongside the building, at water's edge, stood a long-legged shed, under which lay about fifteen wooden "jon" boats in assorted shades of deep green, with hand-painted yellow numbers. A sign on the shed read:
DAY USE ONLY. FISHING ONLY.
$2 A DAY.
Stephanie pulled up beside the heap of dead moths. The old gentleman, of impressive girth and gruff appearance, tended to intimidate newcomers but was kind to his regulars. He huffed up from his chair, took one and a half steps, and tilted himself against the doorjamb.
Stephanie leaned out the window of her dad's station wagon. "Hey, Mr. Johnson. How have you been, sir?"
"Oh, hey, Little Bit. Ye've growed up! Where's your old man? He arright?"
"Yessir, he's well. I'm here on my lonesome, sir." Steffi didn't want to dwell on her newness in this adult world, but the gent sensed both her reticence and her pride: a first-timer away from the parental eye. An important occasion, to be marked by not commenting.
"You here f'r'a boat?"
"Yessir, and may I ask, I'd like to take Number Eleven, here, over to the point, camp out there for a few days?"
He looked across the water. "Y'dad knows you're here, right?"
"Yessir, and here's our phone number, sir."
"Okay, child, you'c'n do that. Things are slow, that's a fact. Y'kin leave y'car here. There's this fire ring over there, use that, n'a good flat spot, but don't wander off. Bad swamp back there. Check in w'me inna mornins'."
"Oars or paddle?"
"Paddle, thank you, sir."
Number Eleven was a high-sided three-seater, sixteen feet long, square on each end, with a chunk of cinder block for an anchor. It was not much favored by the fishermen, because it tended to catch too much wind; but Stephanie liked it for that; she could get onto the lee end of the lake and sail downwind, putting the paddle in the water behind her to "scull" by.
She rowed over to the point, on the east end of the lake, good for camping because it was to windward and would not have a lot of mosquitoes, and good for her purpose because there was no road access.
She could put up the tent, stretch out, nap, eat, read, go off and paddle around, eat some more, sleep, build a fire, stare into the fire, hum, chase snakes. Read, sleep. Thoroughly explore the forbidden swamp. Alone.
Her own schedule. For, hmm, only the second time in her life. And this time with permission. She lay in the sun, a turtle on a log, soaking up the future.
Come the last night, she left her kerosene lantern on the landing, so as to find her way back, and rowed out to the middle of the lake under a stunningly red sky. Blankets, dinner. Prepared to stay as long as the stars wanted company. Dropped anchor in thirty-three feet of dark green water.
Stephanie ate her beans, read till it was dark, which was quite late out away from the trees, looked about, made her bed in the bottom of Number Eleven, put her feet up on the seat, and watched stars and things come out.
Vega overhead. Jupiter to the south there. Bats flying low over the water, a moment of wings thrumming by in search of whatever moths had been missed by the mercury vapor lamp.
Along about two in the morning, she came to. Felt distinctly Not Alone. She lay still, wondering if maybe a cottonmouth had got in with her, but those have a distinctive smell, a bit like watermelon. And rattlesnakes waft a bit of cucumber. There was a smell, all right, but it was like a wet rug.
Stephanie eased up in the dark and peered over the gunnel.
A beaver, looking for all the world as long as the boat, lay on the still surface, eyes closed. Shiny in the starlight. Dead? She reached out a finger. Poked the wet fur.
Water geysered up and descended on Number Eleven, the blankets, and Stephanie, as the startled beaver slapped tail and sounded. She screamed. Maybe twice, for good measure. Her heart raced for a good while, and she was fairly cold from the drenching by the time she got round to raising the anchor.
Could the beaver have been sleeping out there, hundreds of yards from the shore? Never heard of a beaver doing that. Then again, the beaver had never heard of a girl doing that, either. They had both had a pretty rough moment there. She set to with the paddle.
In the morning, she packed up, paddled around for three more hours, then pulled into the boathouse. Mr. Johnson took possession of Number Eleven. "So, d'ja catch anything?"
With her Baptist upbringing Stephanie felt compelled not to lie outright. "There ... there was a really big one, but it got away."
Steffi must have dozed off, remembering the lake. It's late night or pre-dawn, she's not sure. She's suddenly uneasy. Did she remember to lock the door?
And what's woken her up?
She crunches up on her elbows and looks in the direction of the back doors. They're wide open, and there's a man in silhouette, with the lid of one of the lockers open, rummaging in the interior.
Not a good thing to have happening; that's the locker with, among other things, an axe and a machete in it. She'd better act fast.
Shrugging her shoulders and arms out of the sleeping bag, she reaches under her pillow for her .38. Taking the grips in both hands, with her trigger finger indexed along the frame, she aims it at the shadow. "Get out of there."
The man jumps and the lid bangs shut. He turns and steps toward Steffi.
"Heh," he says. "You wouldn't." What a voice! Smokes too much.
She locks back the hammer with her left thumb and puts her finger on the trigger. "I do flinch. But I don't miss the ten ring very often."
Apparently he's thinking it over. After a long moment, the guy shrugs and turns away, his rumpled trench coat rustling. He eases himself down to the ground through the open doors, and saunters away.
Some poor homeless guy, sure. But there's a line not to be crossed.
Steffi's shaking now, badly, but she's got things to do. She eases the hammer down, puts her beloved Model Ten in its holster, gets up, locks the doors, slides into her pants and house shoes, unlocks the doors, climbs down, locks the doors again from the outside, runs round to the cab, fires up Ritzy, and drives to another part of town. There she parks, runs back round to the 'house,' secures every loose thing for a bumpier drive, runs back to the cab, then heads for the hills.
Not until she reaches open country does she start crying.