I’ve been on a dirt road for twenty minutes with no sign of life, who knew Hill Billie’s would be into this. Must beat watching cars rust.
A single-story farm house comes into view, it’s small but elegant. The foundation plantings are perfectly manicured and the white clapboard siding, French windows and red tile roof complete the fairytale look. A barn and several out-buildings stand in the background.
I use the large brass knocker on the front door. It takes several minutes for her to answer.
“You’re early.” Francine said.
Francine is in her mid-forties and looks like I expected. A cotton scarf covers her blonde hair and matches her red button-down flannel shirt, the sleeves are rolled up to her elbows. The shirt is tucked into denim jeans that have seen better days with white socks and bedroom slippers on her feet. She’s clearly annoyed at my early arrival, but something else about her is odd.
I step into the foyer and turn toward the front room. Francine clears her throat. I turn and she points to a small rug with ‘shoes’ printed on it. I take the hint and remove mine.
The French provincial furniture looks old but immaculate and the wood floors are polished to a high shine. Paintings, photographs and a menagerie of small collectables fill the warm brightly lit room. We walk to the kitchen. As we sit, Francine pours two glasses of lemonade from a pitcher in the center of the table.
“Rosie tells me you are interested in learning.” Francine said.
“Do you live here alone?” I said.
“Are you curious or avoiding my question?” Francine said. “This is my parent’s farm, after returning to settle the estate I decided to stay.”
“I see, how long has your family lived here?” I said.
“Let’s start over. Rosie tells me you are interested in learning.” Francine said.
“Rosie said you have some experience?” I said.
“I taught classes on the East Coast for ten years.” Francine said.
“So you have a dungeon or something?” I said.
“Stage props have their uses.” Francine said.
“Rosie told me a story . . .”
“There are stories on the internet, when you are ready we’ll talk again. Good day.” Francine said.
Francine stands and extends her arm toward the front door. A brief thought of salvaging the meeting flashes across my mind but I can tell from her expression it’s a lost cause. I’m being kicked out, politely at the moment.
Ice cold beer, nectar of the gods. My investigative journalism professor taught me when a trail goes cold start at the beginning. Okay, it didn’t go cold, I screwed up. Francine had me ruffled, she wasn’t the yokel I expected. Lifting my mug I watch the streams of tiny bubbles rise through the amber liquid and disappear into the foam. The perfect elixir to make the same happen to an effed up afternoon. My phone rings, perfect.
“I have great news dear, Donald Foster’s wife is divorcing him.
“He’s practically a partner at his father’s firm and I know he took a fancy to you. I was lucky to find your father, but some woman have to overlook certain things for a comfortable lifestyle, and in your position one can’t be too choosy. It would be such a relief. . .”
I stop listening and look at the cute twenty-something redhead that just sat next to me.
“You play?” She said.
“You can finish your call.” She said.
“Mom, I gotta go.” I punch off the call.
“Pool, do you play? The boys are talking some smack and I need a partner. ” She said pointing at two guys standing next to the table.
Every blue-blood home like mine has a billiard table.
“Stakes?” I said.
“Losers buy a round,” She said.
“Let’s go issue a beat down.” I said.
“Tori,” She said extending her hand.
“Cubby.” I said.
We walk to the table. Tori introduces me to her boyfriend Jack, and Andy, a guy they just met. Andy’s t-shirt was applied by an auto paint shop, every muscle is visible. Jet-black hair parted in the middle hangs down his back in a ponytail, tattoos cover his arms and a motorcycle club belt buckle decorates his jeans. My mother would hate this guy. Why did I say Cubby?
The girls win the coin toss and I break. Andy shoots next. And shoots. And shoots. That was embarrassing.
Tori and I buy a round and the four of us get a table. Hopefully I can salvage the day. The convention has become a big topic of discussion around here. When one of them brings it up I can listen in, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for.
Jack spends ten minutes talking about feed corn. I bring it up.
“We do it sometimes.” Jack said.
“How did it start?” I said.
Jack said, “I was a groomsman at a friend’s wedding, he and his best man wanted to prank his new wife. We all spent the night at the hotel where the reception was held. The four of us went to the room when we got the signal and accused the bride of refusing to consummate the marriage. We tied her to the bed still in her dress and left.”
Tori said, “My cheer squad helped the football team with a charity carwash. They duct taped a girl to a lamp post with a sign on her stomach to get customers. It worked so well we all spent the afternoon as human billboards.”
“Tell them about your friends.” Jack said.
“I interrupted an intimate moment. They tied me to a chair with the excuse of some bet they had. I sat there blindfolded for an hour while they had sex upstairs.” Tori said.
“She came over and humped my brains out. After that we decided to try it.” Jack said.
I let the conversation drift to other topics. Tori and Jack have to go leaving me with Andy who hasn’t spoken since the game.
“You live around here or hustling beer on your way through?” I said.
“I’m with No Shame Productions doing the advance work for the convention, hustling beer is just a hobby.” Andy said.
“Chicken fried steak is the blue plate special, I’ll let you hustle me for a meal.” I said.
“I have an early start tomorrow.” Andy said.
“Another time?” I said.
“I’ll be around.” Andy said.
“Still driving that Japanese car Cubby?” Early Ledbetter would say when he saw me in town. At first sight Early was a crotchety old man, but that was just an act, inside was a crotchety old man with a heart. I couldn’t help being fond of him.
I was here once before to ask him about a farm bill he opposed. The place is still overwhelming, more like a presidential palace than a farm house. On my first visit the windows glowed with warm light from the hearth. Today they are dark and cold. Early is dead.
I didn’t pay my respects at the funeral, Mrs. Ledbetter was surrounded by state dignitaries protecting their campaign contributions like a Secret Service detail. I’m some reporter.
Mrs. Ledbetter answers the door, I expected a servant. She is well into her eighties and looks it, but her graceful mobility is that of a much younger woman. Wearing the traditional grieving widow outfit, black dress with white lace shawl over the shoulders, she invites me into a sitting room and serves sweet tea. I offer my condolences and listen to her recall her husband’s youth and war service. I share a couple of my encounters with Early, then we sit quiet for several minutes while she stares at a collection of framed photographs on a nearby table.
“Are those your children Mrs. Ledbetter?” I said.
“Call me Eleanor. No, I couldn’t have children.”
Eleanor lifts a picture of a woman holding a baby. The clothing and hairstyle suggest the photo was taken in the sixties.
“This is my sister Grace. She passed about ten years ago now.” Eleanor said.
“I’m sorry.” I said.
“She was, different, not interested in marriage, but so wanted a child.” Eleanor said. “Early and I used to play games. Bedroom games.”
Eleanor’s eyes brighten, she cradles the frame like a newborn. “I tied Early to the bed and blindfolded him. Grace was waiting in the hall. Betty was born the following spring.”
“What a beautiful gift.” I said.
“The last time I saw either of them is when this picture was taken. I thought it best to protect the child from scandal.” Eleanor said.
Eleanor gives me a long hug as I leave. I can feel her loneliness.
Back home I’m fixing dinner, well, opening a jar of peanut butter. I take a spoon from the sink and wipe it with the corner of a napkin in the pizza box. A clean corner. I bitched out our maid once for not hanging my clothes in the proper order, how the mighty fall. I put my phone on the charger and go to bed.
Naked and chained she stands on the stage of the main ballroom, a thick gag tied between her teeth. Her mother sips Champaign with ladies from the Opera Society. The auction begins.
“A twenty-five year old virgin with good breading and education. Bidding starts at fifty thousand.”
A paddle goes up in the crowd
“I have Fifty do I hear seventy-five, seventy-five is asked. I have seventy-five do I hear one hundred. I have One hundred thousand from an internet bidder do I hear one twenty-five. I have one twenty-five do I hear one-fifty. One-fifty is asked. Final warning. One twenty-five going once, twice, sold to number seventy-three.”
“Well bought Mr. Foster.”
“Cubby, how’s your convention piece coming?” Buck said.
“Good.” I said.
“Good is not an answer Cubby,” Buck said, “I’m interviewing shop owners is an answer. I researched traffic counts with the Highway Department is an answer. I checked with the Department of Commerce on local tourism is an answer. I want a better answer”
“I was just about to call a shop owner.” I said.
“Get after it Cubby.” Buck said.
Get after it is right, I pick up my desk phone and punch in a number.
“Rosie, could you call your friend again.”
I hold off knocking until the exact top of the hour. Francine opens the door within seconds. She’s wearing a form fitting black dress that shows off her toned body with black nylons and a thick gold chain around her neck. The shop in town doesn’t do hair styling like that. I realize my mouth is open.
“You have made a decision?” Francine said.
“I want to learn.” I said.
“Come with me.” Francine said.
I leave my shoes inside the door and shuffle to catch up. My god, that waist, those hips, those legs, I can’t tell if I’m following or being pulled. We enter a small room with a cot, a square table with a lamp and a wood chair.
“Sit in this chair until I return.” Francine said.
“How long?” I said.
“Until I return.” Francine said.
There is no sound even though the door is open. I shiver. The air isn’t cold, it’s the room. The walls are stark white. The metal cot has a thin mattress covered with a white sheet and a gray blanket neatly tucked in all around with a small white pillow. The small window has no shade or curtain, outside is an empty field. It looks like a cheap motel room, or a well-appointed prison cell.
I like the rest of the house better. When I find Francine she is sitting in a chair reading.
“Is there a problem?” Francine said.
“Yes, I’m waiting.” I said.
She smiles and lays down her book. Rising she takes my hand and leads me back to the room.
“Sit in this chair until I return.” Francine said.
“You said that before.” I said.
“Then you did hear me the first time.” Francine said.
The house is silent again. I squirm in the chair. Am I anxious to start or see her? What am I anxious to start? My stomach flutters like a moth. Is Francine the flame? I can’t stand it.
I find Francine back to her reading. “What the hell?”
“We are impatient.” Francine said.
She takes a length of rope from a drawer. I swallow to put my stomach back in place.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.” Francine said.
I hold my wrists away from my body to make it easier for her. She finishes the knot and takes me to the back door, puts on a pair of muck boots and retrieves an old pair for me, holding each leg to guide my feet into them. She leads me by the arm out the door and to the barn.
“Why didn’t you do as you were told?” Francine said.
“I didn’t see the point.” I said.
Francine wraps her arm around my waist and forces me to bend. My excitement turns to shock as she lands slap after stinging slap on my backside. I struggle but Francine’s grip is steel. When she lets go my cheeks are burning.
“Are you crazy?” I said.
“Spared the rod as a child no doubt.” Francine said.
“My mother never hit me.” I said.
“Given your attitude I’m sure we will compensate.” Francine said.
She gets a longer rope, pulls me to a post and ties me at the waist and chest.
“I’d say stay here until I return, but I don’t see the point. I suggest you use the time to reflect on your first lesson.” Francine said and is gone.
What lesson? A barn owl hoots from a rafter. “Shut up.”
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story continues in Cubby 3