Sunday, January 14, 2007


Stelly's Restaurant
Lebeau, Louisiana
photo by Warmbucket's Photos

This 2000 word short story is based on an excerpt from my second novel, “We Danced to Ray Charles.” Such literary transmogrifications always run the risk of confusing readers due to missing information. If any such lapses are noticed, please, please, please (yeah, I miss James Brown) let me know.

Bayou Bill


An Engagement for Lunch
by Bill Fullerton

The white, travel-worn, Ford Galaxie lumbered past fields of cotton and sugar cane on its way south to Baton Rouge. No one inside noticed. They’d seen it all before and were too busy talking.

On the radio, Bobby Goldsboro began a lugubrious lament about a dead wife and a live tree. Mark beat Amy to the dial and, as was his right by conquest, turned down the volume. Amy, who would have turned the volume up, leaned back and gave her life-long best friend the finger. He grinned in triumph at the obscene gesture, then motioned toward the passing landscape. “Y’all know what this road needs?”

The question halted conversation until Bob, sitting in the back with Libby, broke the silence. “Something tells me widening this sucker and straightening out the curves isn’t the answer.”

“A wide, safe, straight road? Get real, Brother Hemphill. No, it just struck me that this road needs a few Burma Shave signs like the ones along the highway to Shreveport.”

“And here I thought you were going to say it needed more honky tonks,” said Libby, as the car passed another unpainted, frame building covered with beer signs.

“Can’t have too much of a good thing,” said Mark. “Besides, those are juke joints, not honky tonks.” No one took the bait and asked him to explain the difference.

“What about more speed traps, potholes, and road kill?” asked Amy, darting her hand over to turn up the volume. The lugubrious lament about a dead wife and a live tree was ending. The Beatles began singing the praises of “Lady Madonna.” The song got everybody feeling goofy and bouncing in their seats. The AM radio signal began fading just before the song ended.

Mark turned it off. “End of civilization as we know it, except for Cajun, gospel, or country. And since those are out of the question, I guess I’ll have to fill in the dead air with a detailed account of my love life.”

Amy giggled. “That shouldn’t take but a mile or two.”

“That might have been funny, you redheaded hussy,” said Mark, over the laughter in the car, “if it wasn’t the absolute, pathetic, damn truth.”

“I told you we should have come in my car,” she said. “That way we’d have had the 8-track for music, and you’d have been spared all that emotional trauma.”

Mark gave her a stern look. “If we’d come in that rolling wreck of yours, the trauma would have been physical, not emotional. According to Hoss, your daddy just about had a fit when he learned your brakes were an accident waiting to happen, the front end was way-to-hell-and-gone-again out of line, the tires were shot, and the engine was hurting for a tune-up, if not an overhaul. Have you ever heard of changing the oil?”

“At least you can open my passenger door,” she spun the non-functioning handle on her door to emphasize the point.

This announcement wasn’t a news flash. The door handle in question hadn’t worked for years. Mark, who always got out on the driver’s side, considered it one of the car’s lesser blemishes. “Any human being can open that door, even you. Just roll down the window, stick out your hand, and use the outside handle. And if that’s too much trouble, you’ll be glad to know Hoss promised to fix it, someday.”

“Hoss is a bigger gossip than Skeeter,” grumbled Amy, still annoyed at his telling both her father and Mark about her car’s minor mechanical imperfections. “Between him at the garage and her at the beauty shop, no one’s safe.”

They were heading for what promised to be a real “hippie” wedding between Howard Ingram and Ginger Reynolds. Along with almost everyone else at LSU, Mark and Amy knew all about the groom. Howard was once one of the school’s many hustling future politician types. But over the last year, he began to assume the trappings of the counter-culture.

The bride was an average-to-pretty brunette who first met Howard at a fraternity party during their freshman year. She’d stayed with him through his unsuccessful campaigns for various student council posts. Then she went along with his recent transformation from frat rat to flower child. Libby knew her from high school in Shreveport, Amy and Mark from college.

Bob didn’t know either one of them, which was fine with him. Libby was the reason he came along, although he claimed it was, “To see the show.”

An hour later, they made a pit stop at the one business in the crossroads community of Lebeau. Housed in a large, rambling, white building, Stelly’s Restaurant served as a combination truck stop, gas station, bus depot, souvenir shop, convenience store, restaurant, bar, and mini-casino.

For Libby and Amy, the main attraction was the somewhat less than legal mini-casino located in a place of honor near the bar. Neither cared that all it contained was a few aging slot machines which, for appearances’ sake, lacked the traditional “one-armed” pull handle. While Bob and Mark went into the nearby restaurant to find a table and order, they got five dollars worth of nickels from the cashier and hit the machines.

They were down to a couple of dollars when the food arrived but still didn’t want to stop. Bob took on the thankless job of herding them over to the table.

The looks on Amy and Libby’s faces almost made Mark sorry the food had come. They were like a couple of little schoolgirls at an amusement park. But as every man in the place seemed to have noticed, they were grown women and jaw-dropping beautiful.

For years, Libby spent two or three weeks each summer in Pinefield with the Marshall family. She’d always been beautiful. Unlike Amy, she never went through a gawky phase. One summer she was an angelic little blue-eyed blond. The next year she was a gorgeous young woman.

The tight, hip-hugger bell-bottoms and short halter-top Libby had on showcased a figure that needed no help. Amy had on an LSU t-shirt at least one size too small and a pair of short, snug cut-offs that emphasized her long legs. It all made for a very pleasant view.

When the parade arrived, he gave them a stern look. “Y’all are starving, remember? That’s all you’ve been talking about since we left Alexandria.”

Bob sat down and prepared to tackle his jambalaya. “I don’t know what’s worse. The fact they’re both gambling addicts or that they come to south Louisiana and order hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“We’re not gambling addicts.” Libby took a defiant bite of her grilled cheese sandwich.

“That’s right,” agreed Amy, who was pouring ketchup on her hamburger. “We’re not gambling addicts. We’re slot machine addicts. So there.”

Mark ate some more crawfish etouffee and shook his head in a show of disappointment. “I can see it plain as day, Bob. Forty years from now, these two will be old, blue-haired ladies camped out in front of a row of slot machines in some low-class casino tossing away their Social Security checks at a nickel a pull.”

“And loving every minute of it,” said Amy. “Besides, I’ll never grow old. I’m going to be young, dumb, and happy forever. And at the rate things have been going for me, I’ll be boyfriend-less as well.”

Libby gave Bob a warning smile. “You better not agree with Mark or I might be an unmarried, old lady playing those slot machines.”

“Which reminds me,” said Amy, “have you two gotten around to deciding about wedding dates and all that?”

“Well, kinda. Although Mr. Romance here never has asked me.”

Bob rose to his own defense. “That’s not true.”

“Oh, yes, it is, dear,” said Libby. No one could miss the contrary emphasis on what should have been a term of endearment. “We’ve talked about getting married after you graduate. But the closest you ever came to a proposal was when you asked me if I had a date in mind for the wedding.”

An uneasy smile crept across Bob’s face. “Uh, well, you knew what I meant.”

“Yes, I did. And it’s all right, honest. But facts are facts. And the fact is, you’ve never asked.”

Mark and Amy glanced at one another and nodded. “Well, it’s now or never, Romeo,” said Mark. “There’s no better place to do the dirty deed than here in front of all these customers, and no better time than after a last meal, I mean a good meal. So give it your best shot before I lose control and start moving in on your woman.”

“We could leave, and give y’all a little privacy,” said Amy. “We could, but we won’t.”

Bob pretended to scowl at his two friends. “I should charge you two admission.” They responded with big grins.

After that, he ignored them and focused on the stunning young woman sitting beside him, the only girl he’d ever loved. “You want me to get down on one knee?”

She blushed and gave him a smile that took in the entire restaurant. “Not if you want me to say yes.”

Back in the car, Amy turned around and looked at Libby. “How does it feel to be officially engaged?”

“Nice, very nice.” She was still beaming and leaning her head on Bob’s shoulder. “I didn’t think it mattered. But it feels, I don’t know, special.”

“I guess that blows Mark’s vision of the two of us as old ladies gambling away our Social Security checks.” Amy poked him in the ribs.

Mark pretended to slap at her hand. “Don’t mess with the driver, young lady. Your life is in my hands.”

“God, but…” her voice trailed off. Then she finished her sentence. “That’s a scary thought.” After giving him another poke, she leaned back against her door and closed her eyes.

Outside, the scenery soon changed from open farmland to cypress trees, palmettos, and standing water. It marked the beginning of the huge Atchafalaya basin. After negotiating a long, narrow stretch of road through the swamp, they reached a four-lane highway and headed east.

The silence inside the car was starting to get on Mark’s nerves. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw Bob with his eyes closed and a pleased expression plastered on his face. There was no sign of Libby, aside from that look on Bob’s face.

With the folks in the back being otherwise occupied, there was no one left to play with except Amy. But when he looked over at her, he could tell she wasn’t in a playful mood. Her eyes were closed, but he knew she was awake. Instead of her mouth being open, which would have been the case if she were sleeping, her lips were pressed together in a small, tight frown.

She was unhappy. That much was obvious. But he wasn’t sure why, much less what he should do. His first instinct was to get her to slide over beside him and put his arm around her shoulders. But he wasn’t sure how either of them would react. So far he had no problems when they were together. He could still fool himself into thinking Amy was still just his old friend and didn’t want to push things.

But there was something else. Her expression was new to him. It was like dejection mixed with a touch of anger. Maybe she had a headache, except Amy almost never got headaches. Maybe it was that time of the month. Maybe it was none of his damn business. Whatever its cause, the look convinced him his gesture might do them both more harm than good.

All he could do was hope she’d be in a better mood when they got to Baton Rouge. After getting past the speed traps of tiny Krotz Springs and crossing over the narrow, Atchafalaya River bridge, Mark pushed the old Ford’s speedometer past 80 and silently hurried east.


Anonymous beth said...

Great title! Great chapter, BB. Terrific writing, as always.

Can't think of a better place for an "engagement" . . .


4:58 PM  
Blogger Bk30 said...

The converstation between the characters flows really well. You could really "see" the four friends on a road trip.

9:17 PM  

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