Third Sons: October 1945
“What?”, Mavis shouts to be heard over the wind whistling by as they drive. Chuck pantomimes eating. Mavis shakes her head. She looks around, reminds herself to tell Chuck how pretty the trees are, once they stop and he can hear her.
“Next time,” Chuck shouts, “I’ll get a car with a radio.”
Mavis thinks, next time, get a car with a roof. And an engine quieter than a tanker truck.
An hour later, Mavis has her moment of quiet. They’re sitting at the counter of a Kresge’s five and dime in Saginaw. “Nice trees,” she says.
“Which ones?”, Chuck asks between bites of his BLT.
“The ones with the leaves,” Mavis says straight-faced. She looks at her cup of coffee. “The ones with needles, too." She wishes she could trade the coffee for a cocktail. “How far is it to your aunt’s place?”
“Half hour,” Chuck replies. “Easy drive.”
“No such thing in that heap,” Mavis says.
“It’s temporary,” says Chuck, “just a couple more days.”
“I heard that one before,” Mavis says.
Chuck finishes his coffee and says, “I told you, we’ll be heading west in style.” He stands, shrugs.
Chuck follows Mavis out of the diner and opens the car’s passenger door. “Remember,” he says as Mavis gets in, “be nice to Aunt Marguerite.”
After Chuck gets in the driver’s seat, Mavis asks him, “You pass right by all your family in Dogbone to come up here and see your aunt?”
“They’ll get over it,” Chuck says. He starts the car and heads west out of Saginaw. The dirt road is rutted in only a few short sections. The slower pace reduces the wind and the engine noise. Mavis takes in the small farms, some well tended, some looking close to abandoned. She notices Chuck’s white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. “Tell me about Aunt Marguerite,” she says.
Chuck keeps his eyes on the road. “We’d come up here ‘bout every summer,” Chuck says finally. “He’d leave us three little ones, my sisters and me, ‘til harvest, some years. Frank and Luke worked the summers selling sandwiches at Ford’s ‘til they were old enough to go on the line.” Chuck stares down the road.
Mavis says, “Sounds like you weren’t happy about it.”
“You ever spent time on a farm?”, Chuck asks.
“You know I’m a city girl,” she replies.
Chuck doesn’t respond. Mavis decides to leave him to his thoughts. She imagines young Chuck making this trip with his father and sisters. A father and sisters Mavis has never met. Aunt Marguerite will be the first of Chuck’s family to make the acquaintance of his new wife. “We should’ve brought her a present,” she says.
Chuck mumbles something that Mavis can’t hear. Then he says clearly, “She always knows.”
As she asks, “Knows what?”, Mavis sees a woman in front of a porch not far off the road. “My letter just said ‘mid-October’,” Chuck says. The woman stands still, a slight smile on her face, as Chuck parks the car beside the house. Chuck gets out and races to open Mavis’s door.
“That’s a first,” Mavis says quietly as Chuck holds out his hand to help her exit the car.
Chuck escorts Mavis around the rear of the car. “Aunt Marguerite,” Chuck says, “may I present my wife, Mavis.”
Aunt Marguerite’s smile widens. “Welcome to the family,” she says to Mavis. “Praise be,” she says to Chuck. “You leave Michigan in stitches, come home an officer and a husband. Your father must be proud. Come in, dear,” she says to Mavis. “It’s a beautiful day but still a bit nippy.” She leads Mavis and Chuck into the farmhouse.
A few minutes later, they’re sitting around a small fireplace. Aunt Marguerite is tending to the tea, Chuck looks pensive, Mavis curious. “As you came down the road,” Aunt Marguerite says as she pours, “you reminded me of your father driving his wagon.” Chuck laughs nervously. Aunt Marguerite continues: “First was Agnes, then Thomas. They both worked at that school of your grandmother’s.”
Chuck asks, “What school?”
“The one over in St. Louis,” Marguerite says.
“That was my mother's school,” Chuck says. “Mae. My grandmother lived in Ontario somewhere.”
“Your mother,” Marguerite repeats. “Of course.”
“She wasn’t there long, was she?”, Chuck asks.
“No,” Marguerite replies. “Not long at all.”
Mavis tries to make sense of what Chuck and his aunt are saying. Chuck hasn’t told her much about his mother Mae. Just that she died young.
Marguerite turns to Mavis. “So tell me,” she asks, “how did you and my nephew meet?”
“Chuck was on leave in San Francisco,” Mavis replies. “I was working for a trucking company. A mutual friend introduced us. We hit it off right away.” She smiles at Chuck.
“Are from San Francisco originally?”, Aunt Marguerite asks.
Mavis sits up. “I was raised here in Michigan,” she replies. “In Hamtramck. After the war broke out, I got a job offer in California.” She looks Aunt Marguerite in the eye and smiles her warmest.
“Is your family still in Hamtramck?”, Marguerite asks.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mavis answers. “They’re not too far from Chuck’s folks, I understand.”
Marguerite smiles at Mavis. “Will you be seeing them before you head west?”, she asks.
Mavis’s smile dims. “No,” she replies, “duty calls.” She smiles at Chuck, who tenses up even more.
“Tight schedule,” Chuck says to his aunt, “but we have a special parcel to deliver first.” Chuck stands up suddenly, nearly knocking his chair over backwards. He dashes out the farmhouse door. Mavis and Marguerite are left stunned. First Marguerite then Mavis go to the door, which Chuck has left open. They see Chuck rummaging in the trunk of the car, mumbling curses.
After several minutes of shuffling through the trunk’s contents, Chuck returns to the farmhouse carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Mavis is as curious as Aunt Marguerite about the box Chuck’s holding. “I tracked this down in San Francisco,” Chuck says as he holds it up.
Chuck gives the box to his aunt, who holds it in both hands, turning it this way and that. “She’s a relative of my friend,” Chuck explains. “The woman I got it from,” he continues as his aunt sits and places the box in her lap. “Said she knew my grandmother, and your brother.”
Aunt Marguerite continues to examine the box. “She knew Alice and Joe?”, she asks.
“I guess Joe was sweet on her sister,” Chuck replies.
“She was Mary’s sister?”, Marguerite asks in a soft voice.
Chuck smiles at Mavis. “Go ahead and open it,” he says like a kid at Christmas.
Aunt Marguerite fumbles with the box, then she hands it to Mavis, who removes the top and holds it open for her. Marguerite reaches inside. She lets out a small gasp as she removes from the box a folded bundle of linen. “So soft,” she says. Chuck smiles, winks at Mavis.
Marguerite holds the folded linen in both hands, enjoying its softness. Chuck can’t contain himself. “It’s a tablecloth,” he nearly shouts.
“A tablecloth?”, Mavis asks. She thinks of a dozen questions she’d like to ask Chuck about Aunt Marguerite’s present but decides to wait.
“With animals,” Chuck adds. “Along the edge.” He attempts to point out one of the tablecloth’s marching menagerie, but none are visible.
Mavis holds out her hands, inviting Marguerite to hand her the tablecloth, which she does. Mavis unfolds it slowly, marveling at its feel. As she unfolds the satiny fabric, Mavis glimpses the line of brightly colored animals marching along the edge of the broad cloth. She gasps.
Without a word, Mavis places the tablecloth back in Aunt Marguerite’s hands with the embroidered animals facing up. Now Marguerite gasps.
“Aren’t they something?”, Chuck asks.
Marguerite runs her right hand lightly along the parade of animals scampering along the cloth edge. “They look real enough to fly away,” she says.
“Beautiful,” says Mavis. She asks Chuck, “Where did you say you picked this up?”
Chuck tries to wave away Mavis’s question as he takes in the look of wonder on his aunt’s face. “Did Gianni give this to you?”, Mavis asks.
The question wipes the smile off Chuck’s face. “Gianni doesn’t know anything about this,” he says. “His aunt gave it to me. For Marguerite.”
“Gianni’s got an aunt?”, Mavis asks, genuinely surprised.
“A great aunt,” Chuck replies, “Veronica. Nica, they call her. What a character. She ran the family store on Second Street about by herself,” Chuck continues. “Bartoli’s.”
Marguerite perks up. “Mary Bartoli?”, she asks.
“Mary was her sister,” Chuck tells his aunt. “Veronica. Nica, they call her. She said to make sure you got this.” Chuck sits back, smiles.
Mavis looks from smiling Chuck to his startled Aunt Marguerite and back again. Marguerite stares in awe at the linen’s colorful embroidery. Mavis gives Chuck a long look, wondering about the parts of the story he’s not sharing. “Mary, poor dear,” Marguerite says. “And her son.”
“Nica didn’t mention her having a son,” Chuck says. “Only that she died young, and this was one of her last pieces. Nice needlework, eh?”
“That poor boy,” Marguerite says quietly as she continues to admire the embroidery. “Your father brought Mary and Jay here. From Ontario.” Marguerite looks at Chuck. “Deuce was younger than you are now, forever arriving with strays in tow.”
Chuck stares back with a wan smile. Mavis asks Marguerite, “What kind of strays?”
“Young girls, mostly,” Marguerite replies, “an orphan, a teacher, and a tomboy. What a crew!” Mavis looks confused. “Deuce always said they found him,” Marguerite says, “youngsters abandoned, one way or another.”
“Huh,” says Chuck.
Mavis marvels at Chuck’s total lack of interest in Aunt Marguerite’s story about his father. “What was Deuce doing in Ontario?”, she asks.
Aunt Marguerite looks out the farmhouse window. “Deuce was a vagabond back then,” she says. “Him and his teams. Too much like his uncle.”
“The same uncle who knew Mary Bartoli?”, Mavis asks. “What became of them?”
Marguerite shakes her head. “Deuce knows the story,” she says. “Ask him.” Marguerite looks at her sister Alice’s grandson.
Chuck smiles insincerely. “I sure will,” he says, “next time I see him.”
Marguerite smiles at Mavis as if to say, “Fat chance.” Mavis concurs with a nod. Marguerite says to Chuck, “This is beautiful. Thank you.”
“She sure could sew,” Chuck says, “whoever she was.” He looks at Mavis, who looks back with a slight frown.
Marguerite stands with effort. “Come help me with dinner,” Marguerite says to Mavis. As she toddles toward the kitchen, she says to Chuck, “You should stop in St. Louis.”
Chuck replies, “Too far out of the way.”
Marguerite stops, turns toward him, and says, “It’s just down the road. The St. Louis in Michigan.”
They’ve been driving for an hour, the night so dark the headlights barely make a dent. Chuck breaks the silence: “Okay, what’d I do wrong?”
“Did I say anything?”, Mavis asks.
“Exactly,” Chuck says. “You’re never quiet this long unless you’re royally ticked off or--” He hesitates. Mavis waits. “You know,” Chuck squirms. Mavis keeps waiting. “Screwing,” Chuck says finally.
“I don’t talk when we screw?”, Mavis smiles.
“You grunt a little,” Chuck replies. Mavis mocks protest. “A nice grunt,” Chuck adds, “a really sexy grunt.”
“Tell it goodbye,” Mavis says. Now Chuck mock protests. “What was your big hurry back at your aunt’s farm?”, Mavis asks. “You were ready to leave halfway through dinner.”
“I spent summers on my aunt’s farm when I was a kid,” Chuck says as he drives. “My sisters and me. Never worked so damn hard in my life. I swore I’d never spend time on a farm again.” He smiles at Mavis. “Besides, we really do need to be in Chicago early.”
Mavis looks at the bit of road the headlights are able to illuminate. “I like your aunt,” she says, then adds, “It better have a radio.”
An hours later, they’re approaching Lansing from the north. Mavis is wrapped in two woolen blankets. “I can’t feel my cheeks,” she says. Chuck is steering the car with his elbows; his gloveless hands are shoved up either sleeve. A sign flashes by. Chuck slams on the brakes. He reverses back to the sign, which has fallen and is propped up by two large rocks. Chuck and Mavis squint to make out the faded words.
Through the brush, Mavis makes out a dim row of low mounds. “Looks like an elephant burial ground,” she says.
Chuck looks back and laughs. “Been to a lot of elephant graveyards, eh?”, he laughs.
“Besides the one we spent our honeymoon in?”, Mavis replies.
Chuck laughs on. He turns the car into a long, dark gravel path heading in the general direction of the mounds. As they approach, low roof lines appear. The mounds resolve into tent-like cabins, barely taller than Chuck himself and no wider than the coupe they’re driving. “Bingo,” says Chuck.
“Where are we?”, Mavis asks.
“Tourist camp,” Chuck replies happily.
“They’re closed,” Mavis says.
Chuck stops the car in front of a cabin. “They never close,” he replies. “In the offseason they run on the honor system.” He rummages in the back. “Have you seen the crowbar?”
“What kind of honor system needs a crowbar?”, Mavis asks.
Chuck finds it, holds it up, smiles. “It’s just to scare away the bats,” he says.
“The place has bats?”, Mavis asks.
Chuck opens the car door. “It’s okay,” he says. “The bats eat most of the bugs.”
“Most?”, Mavis shouts.
Chuck jumps out, races around to the cabin door. It opens with one push. He ducks in, and a minute later ducks back out, coughing. He trots over to the next cabin in the row, tries the door. It’s locked. “Good sign,” he says. He pops the flimsy lock with a flip of the crowbar. The door swings open. Chuck disappears inside, reappears a minute later, trots back to the car, grinning. “A little stuffy,” he says between hacks. “But hardly smells at all,” he adds cheerily. Mavis looks dubious. “I think it’s got a cot,” Chuck adds. “I bumped into something.”
Mavis holds the blankets tighter around her chin. “You get a fire going,” she says, “and I’ll think about it.”
“You got it,” Chuck says. He returns the crowbar to the trunk and takes out a flashlight. He holds it up to Mavis and smiles. Mavis pulls the blankets tighter. Chuck trots back to the squat little cabin and disappears inside. Mavis looks at the spot on the car’s dashboard where the radio would be. She thinks about the cozy hearth in Aunt Marguerite’s farm house. She can smell the fire’s smoke, then sees it wafting in the night air.
For a second Mavis thinks she’s imagining things. Then she tracks the smoke back to the cabin Chuck broke into. “Son of a bitch,” she says. She gathers the two blankets around her, opens the passenger door, and shuffles toward the cabin. She thinks, How did he find this place?
When Mavis opens the cabin door, she expects smoke, dust, and must. Instead she sees Chuck placing a plastic flower in an empty Coke bottle. “Too soon,” he says as he places the bottle vase on folding table. “Not ready.” He meets Mavis just inside the door, picks her up, spins. Chuck twirls Mavis across the small cabin to a rusty iron stove next to a pair of cots pushed together. “No champagne or caviar,” he tells her.
On the cabin’s wood-plank floor, next to the glowing stove, Mavis spots a half bag of beer nuts and a bottle of malt liquor. She hugs Chuck. “You know me so well,” she whispers in Chuck’s ear.
He spins her again, slower now. “I’m just glad you’re talking,” he whispers back.
“So shut me up, why don’t you?”, Mavis says softly. Chuck sets her down on one of the cots. Not long after, he hears Mavis’s little groan.
Morning is just breaking when Mavis wakes from a dream of Aunt Marguerite’s farmhouse, crowded with women, but Marguerite is not in sight. All the women resembled Chuck, except one. She was the prettiest, with raven black hair and almond brown eyes. Mavis thinks, the seamstress.
Chuck is spooned behind Mavis, both on the same narrow cot. Mavis taps him. “You awake?”, she asks. Chuck groans in reply. She taps harder. Chuck groans louder. “When was the last time you saw your family?”, she asks.
Chuck inhales sharply, spoons tighter. “Yesterday,” he says.
“Aunt Marguerite doesn’t count,” Mavis says. “I mean your family family. That you grew up with.”
Chuck yawns. “A year maybe,” he replies.
“Going on three,” Mavis says. Chuck groans and goes back to spooning. “At least you have a family,” Mavis says softly.
“Hmm?”, Chuck asks.
“Nothing,” Mavis says.
“You want a family?”, Chuck asks. “You can have mine.”
“Could I meet them before you give them away?”
Chuck growls. The growl turns into a rolling, phlegmy laugh. “They’ll love you,” he says. “They’ll tell you what a good influence you’ve been for me.”
“Thanks for warning me,” Mavis says.
“Thanks for bringin’ up my family,” Chuck replies.
Mavis leans into him. “Your aunt’s nice,” she says.
“Aunt Marguerite’s the only one ever told me about my mother,” Chuck mumbles into the back of Mavis’s neck.
“What about her?”, Mavis asks.
“What about her?”, Chuck echoes.
“What’d she tell you about your mother?”, Mavis clarifies.
“What I already knew,” Chuck says. “She died.”
Mavis wants to ask Chuck why he ignored his aunt’s suggestion to stop by the school his mother taught at in St. Louis. Why the big hurry? He drives hundreds of miles just to deliver a tablecloth to his aunt. He blows right past his father’s place, doesn’t even bother stopping. “I still don’t know what’s the rush,” Mavis says.
Chuck lets out another low groan. “Gotta pick up our ride west,” he says. “Five o’clock.”
“In Chicago,” Mavis says.
“That’s right,” says Chuck. “Drop off that crap wagon outside, drive away in style.” He spoons closer, tighter.
Chuck kisses Mavis behind the ear, cups her breast in his hand. “What about the hurry?”, she coos.
“Chicago’s not goin’ nowhere,” he says.
By mid morning they’re back on the road, heading southwest. Chuck surprised Mavis by finding a roadhouse that served a decent breakfast. Outside Battle Creek, Chuck breaks a long silence: “Michigan’s not a bad place to live.” He looks around. “Gianni says he’s done with it.”
Mavis doesn’t respond, keeps her gaze on the road ahead. Twenty miles later, Chuck continues: “Never took him for the California type.”
“What’s the California type?”, Mavis asks with zero enthusiasm. Now it’s Chuck’s turn to stare down the road blankly. “Loafers?”, she adds. “Spats? Porkpie hats?” She laughs. “Gabardine slacks? Knee-high chaps?”
“Knock it off,” says Chuck, trying hard not to laugh. “You know Gianni’s gonna be checking up on you while I’m overseas,” he says.
Mavis keeps laughing. “Gianni checking up on me,” she says. “Gianni can’t check up on himself. Gio’s busy checking up on his trucks. And whatever.” Mavis gives Chuck a playful push. "You’re worried about your little wifey in the states while you’re traipsing around occupied Japan?”, she asks. “Such a good husband!”
“I know how easily you get bored,” Chuck says.
”Bored like spending eight months in backwoods Georgia?”, Mavis asks. “That kind of bored?”
“Backwoods?”, Chuck objects. “There were sidewalks, in some places, and a Piggly Wiggly.”
“Dry,” Mavis replies. “As in, no liquor allowed.”
“I know what dry--” Mavis cuts Chuck off with a gesture. “We had booze at the base,” Chuck starts, but Mavis cuts him off again. Chuck drives on. “You weren’t complaining when we left California,” Chuck says.
“I didn’t complain when you said we were going back, either” Mavis replies.
“Army said, not me,” Chuck corrects her.
Mavis ignores him. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Spreckle’s,” she says.
Chuck laughs. “Five minutes. That’s how long you’d last at that sugar mill,” he says.
Mavis looks out the car window. “Maybe I’ll learn embroidery,” she says. “Pay a visit to that old lady who gave you the tablecloth for your aunt. Nica, was it?”
Chuck taps the steering wheel as he drives down the two-lane road dotted with farms, woods, and small lakes. “Bring Gio with you,” he says.
“Why Gio?”, Mavis asks. “Why not Gianni?”
“Because Gianni would actually go,” Chuck replies. They drive in silence, Chuck no longer tapping.
Mavis thinks about the lively menagerie that marched along the border of the tablecloth Chuck brought from San Francisco for his great aunt. I was never much with a needle, she thinks as she watches rural Michigan roll past the car window. It’s all done on a machine now, anyway.
A few miles later, Chuck says, “You may want to grab a blanket. The lake’s coming up.”
“What lake?”, Mavis asks.
“THE lake,” Chuck replies.
The car tops a hill and Mavis is presented with a blue-gray expanse extending to the western horizon. “Big lake,” Mavis says. Chuck laughs. “Okay, I’m impressed,” Mavis says flatly. “Oooh, look at all that water. My my.” Chuck stops laughing. “How long to Chicago?”, Mavis asks.
“Three four hours,” Chuck replies, “depending on how long we stop for lunch. There’s a roadhouse some miles ahead. Prob’ly won’t poison us.”
Mavis straightens in her seat. “How do you know these places so well?”, she asks. Chuck just drives. Mavis looks at him, then at the road. The answer comes to Mavis without Chuck having to say a word. Driving for Gio. “How long did you work for him?”, she asks. Chuck drives on.
Chuck is tempted to ask Mavis the same question. More accurately, how long did “Nora” work for Gio? He decides to focus on finding lunch.
Mavis is happy to let her question go unanswered. Those days were over, they both agreed. The Bartoli boys went one way, we went another. Mavis admonishes herself immediately. It’s never that simple with Gio and Gianni. Those two never let a good thing go. Squeeze every nickel.
Mavis knows she and Chuck are still on the Bartoli payroll, as far as Gio and Gianni are concerned. Always will be. She looks over at Chuck. “I could stay here,” Mavis says, “while you’re overseas.”
“You are staying here,” Chuck answers.
“I mean here,” Mavis says, “in Michigan.”
“Why would you want to do that?”, Chuck asks. Mavis doesn’t answer. “I thought you hate It here,” Chuck adds.
“It’s not so bad,” Mavis says.
“Did you forget what it’s like around here in the winter?”, Chuck asks.
“I could look after your Aunt Marguerite,” Mavis says.
Chuck coughs. “She might have something to say about that,” he says when he catches his breath. “Aunt Marguerite is what you might call independent.”
That makes two of us, Mavis thinks. “I think we got on alright,” she says. “Marguerite might like company on that farm.”
Chuck looks at her. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Chuck says, still looking at Mavis.
“Watch the road,” she says.
“Mavis living on a farm,” Chuck laughs. Two of the car’s tires are on the gravel before Chuck takes his eyes off Mavis and looks back at the road.
“Okay,” Mavis says, “California.” Now Mavis looks at Chuck. Why are you keeping me away from your folks?, she thinks. Never had a family of my own, can’t even marry into one. “Califuckinfornia,” Mavis says under her breath.
“C’mon,” says Chuck, “you like it out there.”
“Yeah,” she says, “maybe a little too much.”
“I’m gonna talk to Gianni,” Chuck says.
Mavis waits for him to continue. When he doesn’t, Mavis asks, “About what?”
“You know,” he replies.
“I don’t,” Mavis says flatly. “Tell me.” As Chuck starts to answer, she interrupts. “It better not be to look after me while you’re gone.”
“Why not?”, Chuck asks. Before Mavis can answer, he interrupts. “It better not be because you can look after yourself better than he can.”
“I goddamn can,” Mavis snaps back.
“You can until Gio shows up,” Chuck says. “And you better not say you can handle Gio because nobody can.”
“Including Gianni,” Mavis replies. “I’ll hole up in Santa Maria until you ship home. They’ll forget about me soon enough.”
Chuck hrumphs. “You know better,” he says lowly. “The Bartoli boys never leave money on the table. And to them, we’re both legal tender.”
The car slows. “Hungry?”, Chuck asks Mavis as he pulls the car into a small dirt patch in front of a diner.
“Thirsty,” Mavis replies. “Very, very thirsty.”
By the time Chuck and Mavis leave the diner, it’s nearly two in the afternoon. Mavis is no longer thirsty following three whiskey sours. Chuck’s mood has been improved by a couple of boilermakers to wash down his grisly hamburger. They’ll never make Chicago on time. So what?
Dump this tank and hop on a train to the coast, thinks Chuck. To hell with Gianni and his Hudson. He starts the car, looks over at Mavis. “Chicago’s five hours away,” he says, “I’ll make it in three.” He puts the car in gear, fishtails back onto the highway. Mavis smiles.
Six hours later, Chuck and Mavis are dining in a steakhouse on Dearborn Street. “We’re a little underdressed for this place,” says Mavis.
“I shoulda worn my uniform,” Chuck says. “We mighta gotten a free round.” He holds up his nearly empty glass.
The waiter appears, smiling. “Another?”, he asks.
Chuck looks at Mavis, raises an eyebrow. “Coffee, please,” Mavis says to the waiter.
Chuck raises his glass. “A nightcap,” he says to the waiter, who nods and walks off. “No driving tomorrow,” he says to Mavis. “Maybe do a little shopping, eh?”
Now Mavis raises an eyebrow. “You’re flush all of a sudden,” she says.
Chuck tries to look serious. “An advance,” he says, “that’s all.”
“What does Gio have stashed in that Hudson?”, Mavis asks. The waiter arrives, sets down Mavis’s coffee and Chuck’s drink, and disappears.
“Strictly legit,” Chuck says, his voice low.
Mavis groans even lower. “Now I know something’s up,” she says. “Tell me and get it over with.”
“Somebody in Los Angeles buys a car from someone in Chicago,” Chuck explains. “How does it get to the buyer? Us.”
“What else?”, Mavis asks.
“In the process,” Chuck continues, “we facilitate a funds transfer of a sensitive nature.”
“How sensitive?”, Mavis asks.
Chuck looks away. “Couple grand,” he says to the tabletop.
“How sensitive?”, Mavis repeats.
“Ten or so,” Chuck replies. “Give or take. Small potatoes.”
“How goddamn sensitive, Chuck?”, Mavis says evenly.
“Twenty-five,” he replies. “Two grand for us, one here, one on delivery.” He smiles.
Mavis’s expression doesn’t change. “Commissioned officer,” she says, looking him in the eye.
“I got it covered, Mavis,” Chuck says. “Relax. If anybody asks, we tell ‘em it’s a gift from your rich uncle in Hamtramck.”
Mavis puts both palms flat on the table. “There is so much wrong with that statement,” Mavis says. “’If someone asks’? Who would ask but a copper? No copper would buy that guff. ’Rich uncle in Hamtramck’?”, Mavis struggles to keep her voice down. “The last rich person in that town left a long time ago.”
“And why wouldn’t my rich uncle write us a check?”, Mavis adds. She leans back. “You got no future as a crook, Chuck. We get five grand.”
“Just like that?”, Chuck asks. Mavis drinks her coffee. “Gio won’t mind?”
Mavis shakes her head. “You drive,” she says, “I’ll negotiate. How did the Bartoli’s know we were coming west?”, Mavis asks.
Chuck shrugs. “Gianni called me about a week after I got my orders,” he says. “He asked if I’d do him a favor, make a few bucks.”
“Did you ever once think maybe you were being set up?”, Mavis asks.
“Gianni?”, Chuck replies, “Nah. Gio, maybe. Not Gianni.” He leans forward. “It’s easy money,” he says, “plus we get a little vacation time.”
“You keep forgetting that Gianni doesn’t call the shots,” Mavis says. “Gio’s not your friend. And if you think you owe him, you’re wrong.”
“What do you have on Gio?”, Chuck asks.
Mavis tilts her head. “You don’t know?”, she asks back.
Chuck smiles. “I guess I do now,” he says. He signals the waiter for the check, drains his drink, and says, “When I get back from Japan, we’re relocating. Anywhere but California.”
“Suits me,” Mavis replies. “I already offered to bunk with your Aunt Marguerite in Saginaw ‘til your tour’s up. To hell with California.”
“To hell with California?”, Chuck repeats as the waiter sets the bill on the table. “You don’t remember what Michigan winters are like?”
“You don’t remember what working for Gio is like?”, Mavis asks back.
“You won’t be working for Gio,” Chuck replies, “unless you want to.”
He lays money on top of the bill and smiles at Mavis. She says, “I want to work for Gio like you want to spend the winter in Michigan.”
“Touché,” Chuck says. He stands and holds his hand out to Mavis. She takes it and holds it as they head for the coat check, in no hurry.
Two days later, Chuck and Mavis are halfway across Illinois, looking forward to dinner in St. Louis - the one in Missouri, Chuck clarifies. Mavis wishes it were warmer so they could put the top down. Chuck was right about riding in style. “Are you sure we can’t keep it?” she asks.
“I didn’t know you like Hudsons,” Chuck says.
“I like this one,” Mavis answers. “What’s the model name again?”
“Terraplane,” says Chuck.
“Terraplane,” Mavis repeats. “Beats the hell out of that old Ford Coupe.”
“Beats the hell out of a jeep, too,” Chuck says. He floors it.
Three days later, the Terraplane’s top is down. Mavis is watching the brown desert hills roll by. Chuck twists the radio dial as he drives. “We should be getting LA stations soon,” he says as he fiddles with the radio knob.
“Then what?”, Mavis asks.
“Then LA,” Chuck replies.
“And then?”, Mavis continues.
Chuck hesitates. “What do you mean?”, he asks.
Mavis sighs, “What happens in LA?”
Chuck looks at her warily. “What do you want to happen in LA?”, Chuck asks.
“I want us to keep this car,” Mavis tells him. “Drive it to the beach, rent a cottage.”
“How can we not take this beautiful automobile to the beach?”, Chuck says with a smile. “We’ve got three days ‘til I report. Lotsa time.”
“How far to the beach?”, Mavis asks.
“About three hours,” Chuck replies. “We stay on this road ‘til the tires get wet.”
Mavis looks back. “What about the money?”, Mavis asks.
“We won’t spend it all,” Chuck laughs.
Mavis looks at him. “Isn’t Gio expecting it?”
“Ahh,” says Chuck. “What’s another day?”
“To you or to Gio?”, Mavis asks back. “We’re making enough to buy a nice car, take it anywhere we like.”
“It’s California,” Chuck says, smiling. “We gotta go straight to the beach. It’s like a rule. Besides,” he whispers, “I know a great place.”
Mavis thinks, Gio doesn’t trust anybody except his brother Gianni, but Chuck is the person Gio distrusts the least. She looks at the desert. A beach sunset sounds nice after 1200 miles of dust and gravel. Mavis slides closer to Chuck. “Tell me about this great place,” she says.
Four hours later, Mavis is sitting in a lounge chair on a shaded patio, listening to the waves roll ashore. Chuck brings her a cup of wine. “We wouldn’t happen to be breaking any laws, would we?”, Mavis asks.
Chuck sits in the chair next to her. “You mean today?”, he replies. “One of Gio’s drivers brought me down here from Camp Roberts. He worked for the family who owns it. Said it’s usually empty. Especially in winter.” Chuck looks down the beach, a quarter mile of warm sunshine in each direction. “Some winter,” he says.
“Not to mention the fruit stand a mile down the PCH,” Mavis adds, raising her cup of wine.
“Still want to winter in Michigan?”, asks Chuck.
“Someday, maybe,” Mavis smiles, eyes closed. “And this isn’t winter.”
“You’re tellin’ me,” Chuck says, soaking up the late-afternoon sun.
“I mean,” Mavis says, still smiling, “it’s only October.”
Chuck peers into the surf 30 yards away. “Could be a year,” he says, “or longer.”
Mavis looks at Chuck. “I’m gonna miss the hell out of you,” she says.
Chuck reaches across to her. “Would Michigan be better?”, he asks.
Mavis closes her eyes, smiles. “Safer maybe,” she says. “Duller definitely.” She stands, walks over to Chuck. “You got it worse,” she says as she sits in Chuck’s lap, leans into him. “Who knows what Podunk farm village you’ll end up in?”. She puts her lips to his ear. “All those unfortunate Japanese women whose husbands never came home from the war,” she whispers, her lips fluttering Chuck’s ear. “Alone.”
Chuck turns his head, kisses Mavis just as softly. “You forgot to mention,” he says, “no fuel to keep out the winter chill, poor things.”
Mavis smiles, lets out a Mae West moan/growl, kisses Chuck like she’s been waiting a long time. “Just try to forget about me,” she says.
In his dream, Chuck is in a field, snow to his knees. It’s dusk. He’s looking around for the farmhouse. Someone keeps repeating, “Wake up!”
“I am awake,” Chuck says. “I wouldn’t be sleeping in snow.”
“Snow?”, Mavis asks, then ignores her own question to ask, “Where’s the money?”
Without raising his head from the pillow, Chuck points at the bedroom closet. “Good,” Mavis says, “’Cause the Hudson’s gone.”
Chuck jumps. “Hudson’s gone?”, he repeats. He runs naked to the front of the beach house, pries open the window blinds with two fingers, says, “Damn! He’ll be here soon, the son of a bitch.” Mavis’s smirk asks the question. “Gio,” Chuck replies. “Always the games with him.” He scans the house’s front yard through the crack in the blinds.
“Why don’t you get dressed and take a walk on the beach?”, Mavis says.
Chuck turns toward her. “That wasn’t a request, was it?”, he says.
“Good little soldier boy,” Mavis replies, cinching the belt of her robe.
Forty-five minutes later, Gio walks through the house’s front door. “Watch it,” Mavis says, “I haven’t had my coffee.”
Gio looks around. “Where’s the colonel?”, he asks. He avoids looking at Mavis, who’s sitting in a chair by the window, the morning light shining full on her.
“Taking a walk,” Mavis replies. “Five thousand.”
Gio walks past her into the kitchen, fills a glass of water at the sink. “Four,” he says.
Mavis stands, joins Gio in the kitchen. “It wasn’t just the money,” she says. “What else was in the car?”
Gio sips. “Okay,” he says, “five.”
“I should’ve asked for ten,” Mavis says.
“You wouldn’t’a got it,” Gio replies. He looks at the beach through the window. Mavis joins him.
They watch Chuck approach the back of the beach house. “Don’t get him in trouble,” Mavis says quietly.
“I won’t if you won’t,” Gio replies.
“Bullshit,” Mavis says, trying not to sound angry.
“Good drivers are hard to find,” says Gio as Chuck reaches the back door. “No bullshit.”
“You talkin’ bullshit to my wife already?”, Chuck asks as he enters the kitchen. “You just got here.”
“You want breakfast or no?”, Gio asks.
A half-hour later, Chuck and Mavis are in the back seat of Gio’s Cadillac, southbound on the PCH. The driver never even gave them a glance. Gio turns around in the front seat and says to Mavis, “I don’t get it. You’d rather spend a year holed up in Paso Robles than in the City.” Mavis just looks at him. “Suit yourself,” he says and turns back around.
“You wanna do us a favor?”, Chuck asks him. “Get us a ride north.”
“Train leaves twice a day,” Gio says without turning around.
“Get us a deal on a car,” Chuck says. “So Mavis doesn’t have to take the bus.”
“Army wives,” Gio says over his shoulder. “Tough life.” The driver pulls the Caddy into a spot in front of a diner just off the highway. The driver doesn’t budge as Gio gets out of the car and signals Chuck and Mavis to follow him. They enter the diner, find it all but empty.
Gio signals to the diner’s lone occupant, a waitress standing behind the counter, reading the funny papers. She disappears into the kitchen. They sit in the booth farthest from the door, Gio on the side facing the door, Chuck and Mavis facing him. The waitress brings them coffee. “Business first,” Gio says once the waitress disappears into the kitchen. He slides an envelope across the table to Chuck. “Five,” he says.
Chuck slides the envelope over to Mavis. “I may be dumb,” he says to Gio, “but I’m not stupid.” Gio shrugs. “All these years,” Chuck says, “all the way back to Grosse Ile, not once have you been straight with me.”
“You got more heart than brains,” Gio says.
“You got more greed than sense,” Mavis says to Gio. “How much did you make on whatever was stashed in that Hudson?”
Gio nods, sits back. “You call the guy who just gave you five g’s greedy?”, he asks Mavis.
“Says the guy who just made fifty g’s in his sleep,” Mavis replies.
“Our deal was for two,” says Gio softly.
The waitress exits the kitchen carrying two ham-and-egg breakfasts and a pile of buttered toast. She sets the plates in front of Chuck and Mavis, returns to the kitchen without a word.
“Your deal,” Mavis says. “You and Chuck. We never had a deal, though we should have. You gotta stop taking advantage of my husband just cuz he likes to drive.”
Mavis goes on, not giving Gio a chance to reply: “Where’s Gianni, by the way? He probably woulda pulled the plug on this stunt, or tried.”
“Your eggs are getting cold,” Gio says.
Mavis squints at him, says “Be that way,” and grabs a piece of toast.
Gio slides out of the booth. “Breakfast is covered,” he says as he stands next to the table. “So’s your ride north.” He points to the parking lot. “Not the Cadillac.”
Mavis and Chuck try to see past the window glare into the patch of gravel between the diner and the PCH. Two cars are parked side by side. “Is that a Chevy?”, Chuck asks.
“Does it have a radio?”, asks Mavis.
“Yes,” says Gio as he heads for the door. He stops before walking out. “The Hudson was Gianni’s deal,” Gio says. He starts to say more, then shrugs his shoulders and walks out.
Chuck gazes at the parked cars. He admires the Chevy as Gio’s Cadillac pulls onto the highway. “Nice car,” he says before returning to his breakfast.
Mavis elbows him. “I thought you didn’t like Chevys,” she says, reaching for her coffee.
“I like that one,” Chuck replies as he chews. “Looks like a ‘41. Take care of it while I’m overseas. Don’t be drivin’ to the city every weekend.”
“I’ll be workin’ weekends,” Mavis replies. Chuck gives Mavis a long look. “At Spreckle’s,” Mavis explains, “making sugar. Instead of getting it.” She smiles, returns to her breakfast.
Chuck watches Mavis eat, then puts his arm around her shoulders. “There’s an inn up the coast,” he says. “We’ve got 36 hours ‘til I report. Get you some sugar for your bowl,” he says in Mavis’s ear. “Keep you provisioned ‘til I get home.”
“You can try,” she says with a smile.
They kiss a good long time, embrace longer. “Sounds like a challenge,” Chuck says softly.
“Not a challenge,” Mavis replies, “an invitation.”
Thirty-four hours later, Mavis wraps an arm around Chuck as he snores in the bed next to her. “I think we’ve been here before,” she says. Chuck groans as he begins to stir. Mavis jostles him lightly. “I said,” she says, “We’ve been here before.”
Chuck turns to face her, smiles. “The place you told me your real name,” Chuck says. “That was up north, in Carmel Valley.” He pulls Mavis closer, kisses her good morning.
“I mean, you leaving me in California,” Mavis says softly. “I thought the war was over?”
“Not for us,” Chuck replies. “We’re peacekeepers.”
“They’re sending you to keep the peace?”, Mavis asks, cuddling closer. “We’re doomed.”
“I’m a peaceable guy,” Chuck says. “Ask anybody.”
Ninety minutes later, Chuck is behind the wheel of the Chevy as it speeds north on 101. “Gio knows his cars,” he says.
Mavis jabs his ribs. “You’re gonna miss this car more than you’ll miss me,” Mavis says.
Chuck feigns shock. “Not true,” he says. “I’ll miss you just as much.” Mavis jabs Chuck in the ribs again. Chuck yelps. “That didn’t come out right,” he says. “You and me been married for a couple years now. I just got this car yesterday.”
Mavis jabs him even harder. “You put more miles on me than you put on this car,” she says. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“No,” Chuck sputters. “Well, yeah. I mean, this is new.”
Another jab. “And I’m old?” Mavis asks.
“All I said was I like this car, jeez,” Chuck says. “I’ll be gone for a year maybe. I’ll do nothin’ but miss you. Who cares about a car?”
“That’s more like it,” Mavis says as she squeezes into Chuck.
He puts his arm around her shoulder, grins. “Helluva car though,” he says.
January 1967, continued
January 1974, continued
June 1900, continued
Copyright 2014-2019 by Dennis Richard O'Reilly -- all rights reserved