“Are we almost here?”
“We are, little darlin. We was just talking about you.”
Janice shook her head. “We were not.”
“Janice was just saying how much she loved them little perky breasts of yours and how she really wanted to see them.”
“Soutee! I said nothing of the sort!”
When I turned around, without further prompting from anyone, Little Donna put that halter top to its best and highest use and slid it down, to let Janice (who quickly turned away) and me and everyone else riding on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway system going south on I-55 at that exact moment see them. And they were marvelous. Truckers honked, and at least one pimple-faced kid riding in the back seat of his mom’s wood-paneled station wagon got his first taste of manhood that day, with the look on his face. I am often prone to hyperbole and puffery, but it was inspired and glorious.
We rode into downtown, past the majestic bridge and the waterway that separated the west from the east. We rode past the little park, which held a Civil War cannon and started to see the streetcar loop and all the pent-up excitement of a big city on a Friday afternoon. We turned another corner, and there I found my favorite alley. I pulled my shiny car in and asked the “valet” to please park the Cadillac as we walked into the Rendevous. It was one of the most glorious holes in the wall America has to offer. The ribs have this rich dry seasoning and don’t need a drop of barbecue sauce to be the best thing you’ve had all day, and the yellow glow from the old saloon style lights mix with the deep red from the neon beer signs made the place seem homey and comfortable.There were all kinds of trinkets on the walls and in the cabinets, including a couple of rather vile statues gratuitously displaying the love between a man and a woman in the Greek and Roman times. They was my favorite. Finally, there were a few music posters that reminded me of how many legends had felt the same love affair for this place that I did. I had had a few nights in this place where the beginning was considerably easier to remember than the end, and at least one night ended up with the most elegant and stunning woman who had the coloring and the bearing of a Shawnee princess accompanying me across the alley to the Peabody, where we lost everything but our desire and our passion. The food was divine, the atmosphere was always alive, and there was always someone to strike up conversation as long as the place was open. I never got tired of coming here, and now, on a Friday night with the clock was ascending into the expanse of weekend time, it seemed like where the universe meant us to be. We sat down and ordered a pitcher of Budweiser, and I realized I probably wasn’t going to get much more detecting done that day. I took one long swig off the first mug, and decided I at least ought to try to call Mark one more time.
Before I could even make it to the pay phone, a little redheaded bird got in my way and stared me down. It took me a second, but I think I mighta remembered her, sort of.
“Soutee.” The way she said it sounded more like a straight-out curse word than the way I’m used to hearing my name out of a woman’s mouth. Her green eyes peered into me, and I was trying to remember how I had royally pissed off this woman.
I tipped my hat and gave her my best introduction. She stared right through me. She was determined to play this out and exact whatever revenge she thought was deserved. And I wasn’t denying that it was. It could have been. But I wanted right then to get that phone call made and get back to the beer and ribs and bullshit. This was slowing me down.
I couldn’t say what I wanted to say — Do I know you? — because I obviously did. But I should remember this one. Her green eyes sparkled like a neon sign and she carried herself like the Queen of the Silver Dollar. She wore a denim long-sleeve shirt with some daisies embroidered on it and I couldn’t see her backside, but given the view from the front, I imagined it would be glorious. The way she glared made me thing I had done something really bad. And that might very well be good.
“I can see you don’t even remember,” she said, looking down for the first time since she met my eyes.
I tried to be noncommital, but I knew I was failing.
“Two Christmases ago. Your pilgrimage.”
Then it hit me. Some of my podnuhs and I had come down to Memphis, just months after Elvis went off into the starry realm and brought our Elvis records and a couple of bottles to do some shots from. We camped out in front of the wrought iron gates of Graceland and got numb enough for the dentist to work on us free gratis. When the local constabulary ran us off, we found a little home on second street. I remembered extolling the virtues of this young lass. I appealed to her beauty and her inebriation, gave her my phone number afterwards, and then promptly failed to ever talk to her again. Being face to face with her again, I couldn’t say why I had made that mistake.
“Why hello, darlin,” I said.
“You don’t remember my name.”
She had me.
And Janice, who had seen the whole scene and probably knew exactly what it was about, saved me. She came up beside me, and literally brought me to the table.
“Sorry,” she said to my green-eyed admirer. “But I’ve gotta borrow Mr. Steve for just a second.”
She grabbed me and whispered close into my ear. I grabbed her waist and pulled her closer, while looking at Little Green. She seemed to be mixing a cocktail of jealousy and confusion. When my gaze lasted too long, it seemed to slowly turn to anger.
“What was that about?”
“It seems to be about a night of amorous passion gone awry.”
“Soutee, that doesn’t exactly narrow it down.”
I really wanted to get to the phone. But I’d have to walk right back into a talk with my old friend, and I really preferred to sit and let the alcohol massage my brain before I went back over there. I ordered a rack of ribs from the delightful waitress looking after me, and enjoyed the familiar flavor of Missouri’s finest while I waited for my ribs in Tennessee. Gradually, Little Green looked away and left her sentinel post. Without saying a word to the others, I saw my opportunity and went to the phone.
I dialed, and the phone rang and rang. I was about to hang up when a woman answered.
“Why hello there, darlin’,” I said, equal emphasis on each word.
She picked it up. “Hello,” she said in a voice that showed … interest.
“To whom am I having the pleasure of speaking?” I asked, realizing that my code of ethics wouldn’t allow me to bird dog Mark’s girl. But who said it had to be Mark’s girl?
“This is Melissa,” she said, friendly and inviting. “What I want to know is, who am I talking to?”
“My name is Steve Soutee,” I said. “I’m a friend of Mark’s. I figured he’s probably at the ballpark, but nothing I’ve done today has been normal, so I figured I’d check and see if he’d answer.”
“He’s at the park, just like you thought.”
“Well, maybe I need to go down and see him. Are you a close and affectionate friend?”
“Not of Mark’s. It might be fun to meet you at the park.”
I looked over at Donna and Janice and wondered how I’d deliver that information.
“Well, I guess you could say I’m ‘accompanying’ Mark’s dad.” She said the words like they conveyed a prison sentence.
“That doesn’t sound like it suits you too well.”
“If you like smelling Old Spice and a lot of onions, it’s just fine.”
Clearly, Smitty wasn’t there.
I started singing a little Waylon. “Saw your picture in the paper …” I hoped she’d get my point.
She laughed. “‘The Door Is Always Open’? Now you’re just teasing me.”
“Indeed I’m not. Waylon is a personal favorite of mine, and that album is a special all-time classic in my book.”
“Yes, that’s my story. I’m taking up with the old man.”
“He’s loaded. We’re about to have a hell of a party.”
My heart sank a littl
e. I really wanted to find the judge to be wrong.
I looked over. My conversation was taking longer than I expected. Donna and Janice were doing okay, but Green Eyes had regained her focus on me.
“Can I come join this party?”
“You and I might have to have our own. Do you know him too?”
“Indeed I do. And we’ll need to keep this between us, if this is going to work.”
The words slid out of her throat like a phenomenal promise. “I’m an expert at that.”
“Well, when shall we commence our party?”
She thought about it for a second.
“They’re both at the ballpark. Game won’t even start for an hour or more. Meet me at the Peabody in an hour.”
I thought about putting her on, telling how far I was from there, but I was literally around the corner.
“I’ll see you then,” I said. “I always love making the company of a beautiful woman.”
She hung up the phone without another word. I kindly liked that.
I’d like to say that the girls took my news well, but they did not.
“You seriously did not invite us down here to leave us at the hotel.” Janice looked at me like I grew an extra eye.
“Darlin, I need to find out what’s going on here. To make sure that’s why he’s acting this way.”
“I’m getting drunk, and I’m going out on Beale Street,” Donna said. “I don’t care if Soutee’s here or not.”
Janice hadn’t looked at her the same since she flashed the teenagers and everyone else. “That doesn’t surprise me.”
Donna sneered. “You can come with. I know that if you have enough drinks, that stick will eventually come out of your ass.” They both glared at me. I kindly liked the sparks flying.
I gave em each a hundred dollar bill. “Let’s plan to meet up about nine. I’ll know a lot more by then.”
Janice looked straight down my soul. “I’m sure you will.” She grabbed my hand and dutifully escorted me out of the building. Green Eyes wanted to tear my heart out. I could see it. But that was a problem for another day.
The Peabody Hotel is one of the leading ladies of the south. The bellmen met you outside, the first sign of the forest green that pervades the place. They lead you inside and the scene is everything elegance should be. The lobby is big and majestic, a soothing combination of that ever-present stately green and a rich walnut. There are flowers that outclass the work of the most regal florist. That day, they featured the violet and lavender colors of the irises blooming locally, one of my favorite flowers, and their crepe paper delicacy was more entrancing than a dozen bouquets of more exotic blossoms. A bald pianist, pulling at his collar between every song, clutched the melody of “Moonlight in Vermont” a little too tightly, but I was partial to those classics as well as my country, and maybe a little picky. I looked around for my new friend, but no one came even close to fitting the description. I ordered a whiskey and water from the bar, and got deep into it. I saw the comely call girl in a sundress sitting at the bar, running a finger around the lip of her drink and looking for company, saw the heavy-set former Marine who didn’t know how to ask sitting not far way. I saw the couple so happy they couldn’t have been married, and saw the ever-steady bartender presiding over it all. Finally, I saw her walk in.
She had black hair, shoulder length and with a curly perm that meant business. Her skin was light as china, and the whole look reminded me of a sexy evil queen from a children’s movie. Her burgundy spaghetti strap dress showed a voluptuous figure, and the ever-lovely braless look made it clear she was happy to see me. As she approached, I willed my eyes back up to her face.
She recognized me immediately, and boy, I was glad she did. I thought of old Sandra at home, and was semi-heartbroken that this woman had set out to ruin Smitty’s life. I grinned as I stood up, giving her a gentle bow and looked into her hazel eyes. She had a look of naked desire, a woman who was unsatisfied, clearly looking to money and other pursuits and using her sex for something that wasn’t satisfying her.
“Mr. Soutee,” she said finally. “After I got off the phone with you, I began to believe I’d heard your name before.”
“If they’re bad things, they’re clearly lies.” I said.
“No, I remember Mark and Smitty talking about you.”
“Well, I sure like both of them,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t inquire much more. I wanted to say I had known Smitty for long enough to hate what was going on, but I kept my tongue tamed, and looked her up and down.
“What brings you to town?”
“My eternal quest for an audience with Jerry Lee Lewis, and my love of good barbecue and fine women,” I said. “Does there need to be another reason?”
“Those sound like fine reasons to me.” She ordered a rum and coke, and looked longingly after the waitress who carried her drink order away. She hadn’t made up her mind about me, and I was fine with that.
The drink came back within minutes, and she scooted her chair in closer, then put her hand over mine, tracing the lines of my fingers while we talked. And oh, did we talk.
She was from up north, Minnesota. I told her it wasn’t her fault. She wanted to retire somewhere near the equator, and she was working every day to make sure she could do it. I wanted to ask her if wrecking homes and freeloading was a part of it. But what I learned about Melissa, quickly deigned from her manner and the gentle touch she ran across my hand like a constant reminder of her sensuality, is that her being just exuded that languid confidence. She didn’t need to work Smitty. Her talking to him would be more than enough. This woman was good at her job. I felt good that I could tell the judge that if he had been conned, it was truly by a star.
“Why Smitty? I’d hate to think an old man like that is your type.”
“Oh, he’s nice and harmless and like I said, he’s loaded.”
“You ought to see the cash he’s got on this trip. Gotta be ten or twenty thousand bucks. He has it in a satchel.”
“Well honey, that ain’t yours!”
She frowned and drew her hand away, offended by the truth I had just offered.
“I don’t think he brought a satchel full of cash just for his health. Tomorrow we’re going shopping, and he’s made it clear who’s getting spoiled.”
“So why are you here having drinks with me?” I smiled in a beguiling way, trying to keep the facade up, when I clearly didn’t fully feel it.
“Look. If a man of the world like the judge wants to spoil me, I’m gonna let him. How he spends his money is none of my business.”
I swallowed hard. I could see the attraction, but I didn’t know he’d lie and tell her he was a judge.
“Well, I’ve gotta ask. Have you been sleeping with the judge?”
“Hell no. I’ve told him I’m a virgin.”
I looked her up and down. She was about as pure as a dirty sock.
She could tell what I was thinking.
“Does he think he gets to pop the prize?”
She smiled. She was trying for sweet, but the effect was hideous. “Is it gonna kill him to dream a little?”
I realize it may well be a character flaw, probably is, but now I wanted to violate her in so many different ways, for myself, for Smitty, and frankly for America. I wanted Mark to know who this woman was, and I wanted to keep that money intact, having bought no Jordache jeans and no watered down perfume.
“I hope you’re not a virgin,” I said, trying to keep my real feelings out of my voice.
She put her hand back on me. This time it was on my thigh, underneath the table.
“I hope I won’t disappoint a man like you.”
The moment was there. I told her to wait for me, and paid for a room at the Peabody in cash. I didn’t want to humiliate her, so I wasn’t going to go to some cheap hotel, but I was sure gonna give her all I had. I looked back at her and told her so wit
h the look in my eyes.
And at that moment, with Lady Fortune smiling on me, crooking her finger and spreading her legs, who decides to walk over across the alley from the Rendevous, still spitting lasers from her eyes, all of them directed at me? Ol’ Green Eyes.
One of the first things you have to learn about practicing law is never to give away your emotions in a courtroom. Never show them what you’re thinking. You might outright act, but you can never show that they’ve wounded you.
I remember one time being in trial with Judge Pinnell. It was a divorce case, and I was facing one of my great podnuhs and a fantastic American, Joe Woodcock, who has about the best name a man can be bestowed. Joe had the husband in a divorce, and I had the wife. We got to trial and found out that the wife had a little of the “wanting,” as Faron Young might say. Joe brought an ol’ boy and put him on the stand. I didn’t know who he was, but I looked at my client, and she clearly did. Her eyes dropped, and I touched her knee and whispered to not give anything away. It couldn’t be that bad.
Well, it was. This little backwoods Lothario said that he came and picked up the woman (I won’t mention her name to protect the less-than-innocent). They was headed from Aurora to Monett, which ain’t very far. Maybe twelve miles. All good road. It wasn’t much of a stretch to make it in a quarter of an hour or so. But my client couldn’t wait. She told him to pull over, somewhere near Verona (that’s how I picture it, anyway). He obliged. She came over and gave him that loving gaze that only means one thing, and with cars passing on the highway, proceeded to unzip his pants and give him a little pre-dinner present, one which was clearly and equally unexpected and appreciated.
It did not present a pretty picture for the judge, I was sure. My client looked rottoner than an old worn-out truckstop whore, and Woodcock might has well have had a golden goose feather hanging from his lip. He grinned like he had just eaten it.
I had to think fast, or my intention of getting fair value out of this divorce for my little Lawrence County Jezebel was going to be dead on arrival. Woodcock looked at me with light in his eyes, and said, “Your witness.”