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Chapter 20

Don't Let Fred Catch You Sleeping

       Celia parked Mr. Stephens by the back door, her door, back at Irma’s. Even after porchin’ with Bo and delivering her whole day’s load, she was home at 4:30 and not expected with the crew till 8. 
       She swung out of the jeep grabbing her satchel and yup, two small dead snakes flopped to the floor of the jeep. Celia started to tear up. “I’m losing my mind. What the hell is going on here?”
       She continued that conversation in the bathtub. Her plan, loosely, was this: bath, dinner at Babby’s—probably last call—and then cards at 8. 
       As the night might be cool, she grabbed her treasured jacket on the way out. Maybe Mary or Babby could tell her more about that nice Mr. Hickles.
       Celia drove in real slow, like she didn’t want to disturb the sunset. Never took it out of first. There was only a lone pick-up parked in front of the café. 
       “Bo is real. Not the crew. Irma is real. Morrow is real. Miles? Babby? Hmmmmm....”
       Celia rolled to a stop, quiet and slow, like a predator. No chatter and hum came through the screen door. It was closing time. Celia had one foot in the screen door and caught sight of Babby’s piercing eyes though in the little mirror.
       “How’s it going chef?”
       Babby did not appreciate being busted in her surveillance mirror. She continued to wipe down counters and bring salt pepper n’ tabasco into regimental arrangement. Celia was aware of something less than hospitality, so far unknown in Ardensville.
       “Am I too late to eat, or are you all broken down?” chirped Celia.
       Babby considered Celia’s restaurant lingo. New York? L.A.?
       “Yes to the latter but I was about to eat myself, by myself, but now, I guess you’re my date. Park it at the counter.”
       Celia had not heard the café so quiet up to this moment. You could hear the crickets outside tuning up. Then there was a sound. A toilet flushing and the women’s eyes met, crashed really. Whoever flushed that toilet was coming outta that bathroom any second. All possibilities were on the table. Counter. Celia waited for a revelation. Breathing stopped.
       Next was heard the sound of running water, and then the hand dryer concluded the performance.    
       A very large man came out of the john. He worked on getting one of his overall straps re-attached, but with his massive calloused hands he might as well been threading a needle. Mission accomplished, he slapped his prodigious gut and spoke, now aware of Celia’s presence.
       “Your liver, bacon and, soybeans has made me the man I am today Babby. I mean that, coast to coast, you betcha. You must be the new P.O. lady livin’ at Irma’s. How’s that workin’ out for ya? I’m Jem Fulton.”
       “It’s workin out fine Jem! I’m Celia.”
       Celia stepped up and put her hand out. Babby rolled her eyes. Like others, Jem was not accustomed to a woman shaking hands like a football coach. Hesitantly, he took her hand making careful sure not to crush like he would a spent beer can.
       “And on that note ladies, I will say good night. Good night, and I wish you a pleasant evening in the knowledge we will be together tomorrow again.”
       Jem took his cap out of a pocket and parked it on his bison-sized head. The hat said “Scotch.” An enormous bearded man in a plaid shirt smiled broadly displaying a big gap in his teeth, two made of gold.
       “Good night Jem. Glad to know you.” Celia was charmed by this gregarious giant elf.
       “Good night Jem. Get home safe and don’t let Fred catch you passed out in your truck.” Babby’s ever commanding voice was always heard in her place if she was facing you or not, reaching under a table for a dropped fork or standing straight looking right at you.
       “When we gonna tie that knot Babby?” asked Jem viewing Babby’s stern poking out from under a table.
       “When the dead rise up and ride through town on tractors. Now get outta here ya damn leprechaun.” Babby rose showing her retrieved fork and a half eaten chicken wing. Jem tipped his hat again and left. Babby followed him to the door, not too closely. She turned off the dining room lights, on a couple of exterior lights, flipped the lock on the door and returned to the localized light of the counter and kitchen.
       “That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone lock a door in Ardensville. You expecting company?” Celia’s honest question was like a siren.
       “Story of my life, honey,” said Babby, busted again.
       “I’d love to hear the story of your life, honey.”
       “Calm down, we don’t want The Times in here.” Babby slipped behind the counter, set places for herself and Celia and reached down into the lowboy pulling up 2 beers.
       “I met Bo Hickles today. What a may’an.” The women tapped cans. “I would think women were lining up to set up house keeping with him.” Celia licked her chops after her first long tug on her beer.
       “That’s what most say but when one comes around, those chucks put in their 2 cents and run off bachelorette #3. Bo stays with the chucks, and that’s the end of it. Territory or jealousy or chucks who smell a snake, I don’t know but he is a good tipper. Real gentleman.” 
       “Well that is very interesting, hmmmmm.” Celia imagined herself in a gingham apron holding a pie.
       Babby folded a bar mop and placed it on the counter between her plate and Celia’s, turned, and went back into the kitchen. She returned with a covered ceramic casserole and placed it gingerly on the folded towel.
       “Do you like fricassee?” Babby teased the moment a bit, not removing the top, and then pulled it off with style.
       “Whoah!!!” The vapors grabbed Celia’s face and shook it.
       “Babby, I’ve known cooks but you’re from another planet, in a class by yourself. Did you study formally or were you born with this precious gift?” Celia inhaled like the steam was all she needed to eat.
       “My Dad taught me to cook,” responded Babby, watching Celia and thinking she was working it just a bit much.
       “My Dad taught me how to cook but not like this, not like you. You’re a freakinfricasseein freakin genius.”
       “Calm down we….”
       “Yeah yeah yeah, don’t want the Times in here.”
       Babby half smiled and raised her beer, acknowledging her opponent had anticipated her. Sort of a touché toast.
       “Speaking of toasts, is there any wine in Ardensville, or is it local beer start to finish?” Celia waited. Babby rose, grabbed the two half-consumed beers, and returned to the kitchen. She returned with a bottle of wine, good wine, and a corkscrew handing both to Celia. Babby watched how Celia read the label, removed the foil, and operated the old-fashioned corkscrew with sommelier skill. Babby went to the kitchen and returned with 2 long stem glasses. Celia had the bottle open, and had taken and savored her first bite. 
       “Babby, what are you thinking? These are white wine glasses!” Celia smiled with her head cocked a little and using the tone of her mother. 
       Babby’s nostrils flared as she reached under her counter, fumbled for a few seconds, and with a resounding tear of tape, pulled out a big fat pistol and nearly had it in Celia’s nose. Celia stopped chewing and the women looked at each other hard.
       “Okay, now who the fuck are you, and what do you want in Ardensville, or do I cap a pop in your head?” Babby was shaking. Celia resumed chewing, then wiped her mouth before speaking.
       “You mean ‘pop a cap,’ don’t you?” Celia retrieved the serving spoon and looked for a neck bone.
       “You know what the fuck I mean, so start talkin’ bitch, or I’ll be cleaning up more than fricassee tonight.”
       Celia was entirely pleased with herself for being able to “out” another Ardensville mystery man. She smiled broadly and proceeded to not hesitating to out herself. This was becoming fun.
       “My evil mother sent me out here to scout for a bad network T.V. show that would give this place national visibility. But ya know, this town, Irma, Miles, Bo, Bo, you, Bo and your leetle frien, are all kinda growin on me and I don’t think I want to throw you all to the wolves.” Celia poured for Babby first and then herself. Babby put up her weapon, then down, then picked up her glass.
       “I’m hidin out.” Babby confessed.
       “No shit,” answered Celia sucking on a neck bone. “From who?” 
       “From the Seventies,” fishing for potatoes.
       “You betcha.”
       “Why Ardensville?” Stabbing a carrot.
       “Oh, for the questions that answer themselves.” Sausage.
       “Well how’s bout a hint?” Celia poured again.
       “I took over the diner...café, from 2 old sisters who ran it since the forties. They got it from their parents and willed it to me. Mighty decent ole pair of spinsters.”
       “You just told me about the diner…tell me about you.” Celia began dunking hunks of bread in the pot and getting them out when saturated.
       “You’re just a tad young to remember what was goin’ on in the ’60s and ’70s but, you may have read about how the Panthers got all unraveled in the Nixon years and….”
       “You’re running from the FBI?!” 
       “Hell no, I’m running from the Panthers. My cokehead boyfriend thought kidnapping Bozo the clown would advance the civil rights movement. My friends were going to get killed on ‘operation big shoes’ so that that idiot could nail white college chicks, like you. My ‘sistuhs’ couldn’t see it.”
       “So you just left?”
       “Nope, shot’em first.” Babby confessed sucking on a neck bone.
       “I’d a shot’em too, maybe. Did you kill him?” Celia asked a little afraid of the answer.
       “No, no no. The FBI finished him a few months later. He was a dog and I’ve forgotten what he looked like. That whole scene seems like a bad novel I didn’t bother to finish. I drove outta L.A. that night and kept driving till the money and the gas ran out. This town was a bit livelier then. Not much but some. Sisters here took me in, were good to me, didn’t ask me a whole lotta questions, unlike yourself. I could cook, and that’s all they needed to know. 
       “I took the place over when they both passed. Buried both of them, bless their hearts.” Babby drained her glass. Celia filled it.
       “Who’s Fred?” Celia asked emptying the bottle into her own  glass.
       “Who’s Fred?” repeated Babby.
       “Yes, Fred?”
       “Fred who?”
       “You told Jem Fulton don’t be caught sleeping in his truck by Fred. Fred. Who’s Fred?”
       “Ohhhhh, Fred.” Babby was back on board, chuckling.
       “Yeah, Fred.” Celia now intrigued and a tad impatient.
       “Fred’s the county ghost. Drives around on a old ghost tractor looking for the head he lost in a combine accident. If he catches you, he’ll take your head. A charming touch of neo-archaic folklore. Scares the hell out of the kids, the few kids that are left. Funny shit. 
       “Now, what about you, undercover girl. What’s your story. Shall you bring heaven’s fire to Ardensville. Tell me again who the fuck are you and why do you work at the post office?”
       “That’s just my cover. I’m really an actress.” Babby pursed her lips hard considering what a ridiculous thing Celia just said, seemingly unaware that she said it. This chick must be drunk already. Cheap date.
       “My mother is like the evil queen in a Disney cartoon about network television. She sent me to….”
       “I don’t want to hear about yer mommy, I want to know about you.”
       Celia raised her glass and smiled. Another touché moment.
       “What’s the word for a person who only visits real life occasionally and would prefer to spend the rest of her, or his existence in the fabricated impersonations of and about what others refer to as life. Well, whatever that word is, it might be synonymous with insolvency because I can’t put 2 nickles together and get a dime. Really quite pathetic. So I live my thespian life in New York supported by my deceased father’s will, but of late, my evil mother has put the kabash on that arrangement, hijacked me, and I have become the unwilling functionary of an uncivilized and malevolent cabal. The good news is that my complicity in this revolting project will rescue my ’umble Shakespeare company from perishing and rescue me to do everything and only what I want to do. Namely, play-act and sing and dance and paint and write, on and on and on. And if I could just get out from under my mother, all would be well.”
       “Damn girl, you’re a bit near the top of the hill to be crying mommy foul, dontcha think. But, you have my heart, and I don’t regular have time for this poor lil’rich girl bullshit. Wha’cha’gonna do?” Babby drained her glass and Celia hers. They were done.
       “I don’t know, but I’m not going to drop a dime on you
and Irma and Bo and this town. I have to ask, Babby, how is it nobody ever suspected you to be who or what you are? I’m not Sherlock Holmes, and here we are.” Celia fidgeted in preparation of her exit. “Can I help you clean up? I have to go.”
       “I guess I’d call it neighbors and fences. There’s a funny kind of tolerance here in Ardensville. I could never put my finger on it, but I’m ducking most of the time myself. Everyone is nice here, very polite. No one pries, unlike yourself. I’ll clean this up, no problem. I have inventory stuff anyway. You run along now.” Babby stood up. 
       Once again, in the face of simple honesty and humanity, Celia felt her heart melting. It was all she could do not to throw her arms around Babby and start bawling. She broke for the door.
       “Thanks for dinner, Babby, I’ll see you in the morning.” She was almost out the door when Babby called her back.
       “Hey, Don’t let Fred catch you sleepin’ in your jeep!”

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