Tornado Alley

CHAPTERS 1-3 | TORNADO ALLEY

ANOTHER SAD CAFE

I'm sitting here in a toxic, greasy spoon just off the interstate near Sioux Falls where I sometimes stop for a quick indigestion fix on my way to Kansas City. It's the first day of spring but everything smells like rotten peaches and gasoline. I don't notice her at first but when she sits down at the next table I think I must be seeing things. She looks exactly like the girl I'd dreamed about last night. She's got the same sad beautiful eyes and she isn't even real. At least not to me she's not. How can she be? Like I just said, she's only a girl in a dream. The same sad girl.

I have no idea what to do about it so I decide to do nothing. At least that's a start. Buys me some time to think things over. Maybe I saw her somewhere before and had the dream about her afterwards. That could happen. But you'd think you'd remember a girl like that: wild Palomino hair flailing away in the breeze, wary eyes giving off sparks that dance with the shadows on the wall, skin tanned smooth as spun gold. No way she's real. Jesus, what have I been smoking? They must have put something in my coffee. People do that: muggers, thieves, sodomites. I've heard about shit like that.

She gets up to go. She hasn't even touched her sandwich. Probably noticed me staring holes in her face and thinks I'm a serial killer. I gotta do something fast, so I go take out a pen and go over to her table. "That'll be six ninety-five," I tell her, "but I'll give you a break since you didn't eat your sandwich. You want pie? They've got great pie here." Really laying it on, big smile. She's looking at me like I just ran over her cat with a Zamboni. I don't know if she's got a cat but that's how she'd look if she did. She gets up suddenly and flees like I'm a plague of locusts, and doesn't look back, another dream shattered. But what else can I do? Who'd believe a story like that, finding a girl in your dreams eating a sandwich in a café by the side of the road in South Dakota? I sure wouldn't.

I run outside to see if I can catch up to her but she's doing ninety in high heels, and I doubt I could get a word in anyway after the chest-pounding chase she's giving me. Fortunately she's so terror stricken she can't remember where she parked her car, so I tell her, "I've got a Mack eighteen-wheeler parked in the the lot, you want me to bring it around? We can drive around looking for your car. No charge."

She's in full retreat now but stops long enough to pull off one of her high heels and fire it at my head. It doesn't miss by much.

OK, I know my approach is a bit unorthodox, but I've got no time to come up with a game plan. Shit like this doesn't happen to an average guy like me every day. And what can I do? I throw up my hands and back off. "Hey," I tell her, "I'm just trying to meet you. I saw you in a dream last night and wanted to say hello."

"Well, how the hell come you didn't say something," she says, lowering the other shoe that she's got aimed at my head. "I get that all the time. I must have one of those faces. Everybody thinks I'm somebody else. You got a name?"

She's coming around pretty quick if you ask me, but what do I care?

"Uh, yeah, I got a name, but I don't think I should give it out to somebody who'd buy a story like that."

"Suit yourself. Mine's Doris. Like in Doris Day," she purrs, batting her eyes. "The movie star."

And that's how we met. Who says you need to sign up for one of those online dating services to meet people. You just gotta stand up for your own damned self and move your lips.

Unfortunately Doris and I didn't exactly work out. Turns out she's an ex-carnie grifter who trolls the interstates picking up suckers like me and then fleecing them out of their life savings. But that's a whole other story. At least I met somebody. And I don't even own a computer.

***


MONTANA RAIN

She's standing on the shoulder of the road in a downpour, wearing a white, mud-splattered wedding dress. It looks like she must have run into Zorro because there's a thin red slash of blood in the shape of a "Z" across the front of it. She's also wearing black cowboy boots and a beat-to-shit straw cowboy hat, but she doesn't look much like a cowboy to me. She looks more like one of those anorexic runway models who's so fried on smack she can't make it down the runway without falling on her butt, so she gets a job modeling brassieres at Sears: and judging by the look of the coal-black river of mascara that's pouring down her cheeks, she must have been crying for a long time. But what do I know? I'm a truck driver, for all the good that English degree did me. It's none of my business; I'm not a marriage counselor. Something's telling me that I should just put the peddle to the metal and slam the hammer down, but I can't leave a drop dead head spinner out there alone like that, crying her eyes out in the rain.

When I pull over she hikes up her wedding dress and edges her way up all three steps cautiously, like she's checking the cab for fleas before finally crawling on in. "What took ya so long," she says, in a west Texas twang.

If I was her, I wouldn't be so picky about who picked me up. We're a hundred miles from any town anybody sane would want to be caught dead in and the rain won't let up. But what the hell, I can use the company, strange as she looks, and this load of black Angus T-bones-on-wheels I'm hauling can use a breather. I get out to check on their feed. They seem to appreciate the attention. Cows are stupid like that.

When I jump back up into the cab, I notice that the girl can't be more than nineteen, twenty tops. Probably one of those arranged Mormon marriage deals in Utah where some old horn dog with six wives needs a young fresher upper but the new girl's not having any of it and tells him so. The horn dog takes exception to the rejection and takes a couple swipes at her with his pig sticker but misses pay dirt by half an inch, and she takes off down the road, and here she is, sitting over there like a prom queen on a homecoming float, inspecting my cab to see if it's up to her apparently regal standards. I don't bother waiting for her seal of approval and gun my rig east. Looking back on things, if I'd have known she was going to be such a royal pain in the butt, I may have just left here there by the side of the road.

Against my better judgment, I to ask her what her name is. She reaches over and peeks up under my Stetson; "Que? What difference does eet make?"

She's switched over to a Spanish accent now and I can't tell where she's from, or where the hell she thinks I'm from. I've got blond hair and blue eyes, do I look like I speak Mexican? The next thing I know she shucks off her high heels and fires them right through the passenger side window. When they bang off a Mercedes that's passing by in the oncoming lane it sounds like a horse just threw two shoes through a plate glass window. I just hit the gas and don't look back. This trip just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

When she's not looking, I take a quick glance at her face. I've seen that look before on the faces of combat soldiers who know they're most likely going home in a box. Switching over to some kind of half-baked French accent she says; "Cowboys are lazy and reckless, and most of zeem are crazy. So tell me, why eeze it I like zeem like zat?"

I'm guessing she stole that line from a frog country-and-western song, but I can't be sure of anything anymore. This is going to be a long ride if we don't get a few things straight, so I lay it out there for her; "I'll take you as far as Chicago and that's it, cut and dry. Keep it simple. I'm no Dr. Phil and don't want to get involved in your whacked out love life."

She's cowering over there in the corner like I just took a swing at her, so I back off, which gets me thinking; what kind of sick son-of-a-bitch would leave someone as smoking hot as her by the side of the road in the rain like that? She must be a mind reader because she leans over and whispers in my ear in a crybaby rasp, "Nobody left me. I left heem."

Well now, I'm thinking, maybe it's best if I just shut up and drive: but I can't help myself from looking over at her again. It's hard not to. She looks defeated, like a horse thief with a rope around her neck, pleading for a last cigarette before they kick the horse out from under her. Unfortunately I don't smoke and don't know what to do for her; "You want me to get you a motel room so you can wash up?"

I don't know what the hell made me ask her that, but no self-respecting rat would want to use the toilet in my rig. She looks hurt, like we haven't gone ten miles and already I'm trying to put her out with the garbage. "No," she says. Just drive."

Ten minutes later she changes her mind and starts chirping away in a dopey, deep-fried southern accent; "Ok, maybe a motel's good. There's one right over thar. Pull ovuh."

What are you going to do? Women.

I check her into the motel and sit outside her room in my truck. She comes out an hour later wearing nothing but a cherry-red bikini bottom and a man's white T-shirt. She's been crying again and looks like a wet white rabbit with two black eyes. Her hair's soaked but the water freezes before it can drip to the ground. "You coming in?" she asks, "I'm too tired to go any further and I'm afraid to be by myself. You mind?"

Damned right I mind. My boss catches me with an underage hitchhiker who's flopping around barefoot in her underwear, and I'll be slopping out hog barns in Kansas for a living. So I tell her, "No thanks. I'll be just fine up right here in my rig. I got a sleeper in the back with a microwave and a shower. It's a regular Motel 6 back there."

She starts pouting and stomps her pretty pink bare feet in the freezing slush; "Why didn't you tell me?" she says. "I hate motels."

Running back to her room, she grabs her purse and her dress, tucks a Gideon's Bible under her arm, and scrambles on back up beside me. "Let's ride!" she says. How fast'll this thing go?"

She seems to be feeling better, but I'm not buying it. She's made a suspiciously fast recovery and I'm beginning to wonder if maybe she's on something. So I just come right out and ask her; "You a junkie or what?"

"Noooo, silly" she says. "For goodness sakes. You the DEA or something?"

"Noooo, I'm CIA. Spread em!" Ha ha. I thought that was funny, but she sure didn't.

"You think that's something to joke about?" she snaps. "My almost-husband is a Cuban drug dealer and he told me that if he ever sees me again he'll rip my heart out and eat it for supper. He snorts so much coke he thinks he's Scarface. I found out on my way to the church to get married to that doped up freak that he already had a wife in Miami."

All I'm thinking is, this is all I need. And imagining how her razor toting, crack head boyfriend might take to getting stood up at the alter, I can't resist asking her, "Is that how you got that "Z" on your chest?"

"Noooo. I did that trying to cut my dress off after my fiancé's best man sprung the beeeg surprise about the little slut my fiancé's got stashed down there in Florida. My maid of honor had me sausaged into that damned dress so tight I couldn't pee, so I sliced eet off."

Oh, boy, I'm thinking, can this get any worse? "Look," I tell her, "I got no beef with Juan Valdez, or Fidel Castro, or whoever the hell your boyfriend is, and I don't need any trouble. I'm just a long haul truck driver with a load of surly sirloins headed for the feed lots in Chicago. How about I drive and you put the waterworks on hold and keep your little one-horse soap opera to yourself till we get there, ok?"

"Fine," she says, "but don't worry. My boyfriend is so coked up he can't find his own shadow; chances are he won't even miss me. I only agreed to marry him in the first place so I could get a green card."

Her accents keeps switching back and forth between Spanish, French, and English, and I'm thinking that if Francisco Pizarro, or whatever her boyfriend's name is, had found out about her only agreeing to marry him so she could get a green card, well then, yeah, maybe he did have a legit gripe, ya know? Who could blame him? In the mean time, I decide to keep one eye on my back door and one on the road ahead. I'm also thinking to myself that Chicago just keeps getting further and further away.

The stoned cold silence is lasting longer than both of my marriages. Queen Isabelle, or Marie Antoinette or whoever, has got herself all squashed up against the shotgun seat door over there, rummaging through my glove compartment, apparently looking for something to eat, or more likely, a gun. I wouldn't put it past her. Fortunately I'm not packing heat this trip and let her wander around in there for awhile, but all she finds are my maps, a weight log, and a leftover black silk slip. Maybe I'll get lucky and she'll find the rubbers I can't find in there. She does, but doesn't seem to know what they are. "You got any thing to eat in here?" she asks.

"Yeah, I got a Porterhouse steak, a bottle of French Bordeaux, and a couple pheasants under glass; keep looking."

My not-so-subtle sarcasm seems lost on her.

"You got any tootsie rolls?" she asks. "I looove Tootsie Rolls."

"Lady, I got a tire gauge, a buck knife, and four pair of panty hose somebody left in that damned thing, but Tootsie Rolls I ain't got. You want me to stop and buy you lunch? My treat."

She brightens up a bit but it's a no go. "I just wanted some candy," she says.

Shit, I'm thinking. I knew it. She's a speed freak. Only crank heads eat nothing but candy. Just my frigging luck. I feel compelled to ask; "You sure you're not a junkie?"

"No. I just have a sweet tooth," she says, giving me one of those wily coyote smiles that's supposed to explain everything.

We’re rumbling southeast down the interstate, staring into the face of a nasty blue norther that's roaring down from Alberta, blowing sleet and hail all over the dirty gold Nebraska plains. I look over at Miss France who's sobbing quietly into a questionably clean silk handkerchief that she may, or may not have, found in the glove box. There's something about the girl I can't quite put my finger on. It's creepy how sweet she looks, but she's got sad eyes. Must have had one hell of a life down there in Peru, or Venezuela, or wherever the hell she's from. It's hard not to feel something for somebody that lost. But I keep my hands welded to the wheel. I've got enough problems without getting snowed by a jilted dope fiend hitchhiker in a sliced-up, raggedy-ass wedding dress. Tears don't work on me, normally. I turn on Merle Haggard and look in my rear view mirror at the cold white slash of the Nebraska state line disappear.

It's coming on midnight and I'm still wide awake, lying in a sleeper, listening to the black angus in the back bawl. I don't know what's worse, listening to a woman or a cow cry. Carmen Miranda has decided that staying all alone in a motel would most likely drive her to suicide and that she'd rather sleep in the truck, if I don't mind. Of course I mind. Like I said, I like my job and I'm not cut out to pick grapefruit in the San Joaquin Valley. I try to give her the bed but she won't take it.

I can see her through the curtain, making herself right at home, stretching out across both seats with nothing much else on but the local news and the Des Moines weather report. Christ, it's not like I'm a sicko or anything, but after all, I am a guy, for Christ sakes. If she takes anything else off I don't know what I'll do. Thank God she keeps her panties on and I don't have to find out. She's asking an awful lot of me, and there is something about her. Maybe it's the way she tilts her head like she's listening to the ocean when I'm talking to her, I don't know. She's nothing like the other women I meet on the road. She's got moxie, like they say about the vamps in those old black-and-white movies. It takes guts to put yourself at the mercy of people like me. She doesn't know who I am. I could be a neo-Nazi serial killer that makes lampshades out of women's skin for all she knows. But I have to admit, it is nice having her here, even if she does talk funny.

The next morning we pull over to get something to eat. It takes a still-moving filet mignon, three baked potatoes, four Coronas, and a piece of fresh baked peach pie with homemade vanilla ice cream on top to get the girl to, but she finally tells me her name. She says it's Alice and that she's from Brazil. Like I believe that. She looks more like a Francoise or a Daisy to me.

Reading my mind again, she says, "You know those accents I've been using? They're just something I put on to keep undercover INS agents from figuring out where I'm from." And then she gives me the evil eye, like she's expecting that maybe I'll crack and confess to being one. For all I know, she talks like that because she's a spaced-out, pill-popping lot lizard that hustles free rides from suckers like me, but I don't say anything. Like I said, she is awfully cute.

It’s three years later and I'm hauling a load of ticked off cows from Denver to Omaha when I see a pretty little woman with a tear-stained face, not much more than a girl really, wearing a ripped, mud-smeared wedding dress, leaning up against the shoulder of the road, crying her eyes out in the rain. I can't believe it. She looks at me like a whipped puppy that expects me to run her over. I start to goose my brakes when I get this not-so-gentle tap on my arm. "Don't even think about it," my wife Alice says.

 

***

DUST DEVIL

It's pitch black except for a mean streak of moonlight that's peeking out from behind the nastiest cloud I've ever seen. I'm driving a leased, Mack CX613 eighteen-wheeler that's bigger than a house, but the pretty young girl standing by the side of the road doesn't seem to notice that I've even stopped. She's curling a strand of mysteriously colored hair around her finger like she's twirling a baton, concentrating hard, not a care in the world, staring off into the snow-choked, indifferent distance. I have to ask her twice before even she realizes I'm even there; "Hey, squirt," I shout down to her, goosing the breaks to get her attention, "you need a ride?"

"Uh, noooo. I'm here standing by myself in the Godforsaken middle of nowhere on top of a snow-covered sand dune picking up trash. You ain't trash are you?"

"Huh?" is about all I can come up with to say. How are you supposed to answer a question like that? She looks up at me like she can't decide if I may, or may not be Satan, and says, "You headed to Kansas City by any chance?"

"I might be, but with that attitude you won't be going with me."

"OK, I'm coming," she groans, staring up at me like she's deciding whether or not she'll need oxygen before she gets to the top. "And lighten up would ya? I was only kidding about picking up trash."

"10/4, junior, but it's gonna be a long ride, so if you're coming with me, you best hold your water and hang on tight; I don't stop for nothing or nobody."

The Montana sky is disintegrating like pink chunks of hard rock candy and there's a purple sheet of fire, burning a hole in my rear view mirror. If I want to make my schedule I need to dance on the peddles, but Lolita out there is still standing on the second step, trying to decide whether or not to put on a pair of rubber gloves before getting in and shaking my hand. "Hey, Gramps," she squeals, "if I go with you to Kansas City, will you take me dancin'?"

"Dancing? Those aren't buffalo in the back of this truck, ya know. Cows don't take care of their owned damned selves."

"Oh, don't be such a poop head. You know you wanta go dancin'. Just look at me. I'm friggin' God's gift, for cryin' out loud. I know men who would pay to go dancin' with me."

"I'm sure you do, but trust me, I'm no John Travolta. I'm a truck driver, and truck drivers with a lick of sense don't dance."

"They do when it's me that's askin'. Have you taken even one good look at this body of mine yet? I can hardly resist myself I'm so gorgeous."

"Yeah, I'm sure you are but I got a daughter out there somewhere that's older than you are, although where she and her mother are exactly is a bit of a mystery right now."

"Geeze, Louise, I didn’t ask you to pork me. I just wanta dance with somebody. You're somebody aren't you?"

"I used to be but now I'm just a long haul gear grinder with ten tons of snot nosed steak-on-wheels back there in the bed, slobbering all over each other, crying for something to eat as we speak. Now you going with me, or you going dancing? It means squat to me either way."

"Ok, I'll go to Kansas City with you if you promise me you'll take me dancin' when we get there. I love to dance. Deal?"

"Deal. Only I get ta choose the place. Now hop in."

She gets half way through the door, then furls up her brow and stops dead in her tracks. "Uh, wait a second. I don't do that Arthur Murray ballroom crap if that's what you've got in mind. And I don't do none of that Lawrence Welk twirly stuff with the fuzzy skirts and go-go boots either."

"We must have seen different episodes of Lawrence Welk cuz I don't remember that Cissy chick wearing any fuzzy skirts or go-go boots."

"Well, they all wore the same fifties junk with those purple pooch skirts and that bleached high hair, just like they did on that American Bandstand show you middle-aged geezers seem to like so much. I've been to roller rinks with more class. How 'bout we compromise and go to a hip hop club."

"Just how exactly would you define the word 'compromise'? Going to a hip hop club is not a compromise. That's going where you wanted to go in the first place, and I am not in this life time about to get caught dead in any hip hopper joint."

"OK, geez. We'll go to a titty bar and you can just stand there on the floor with that broomstick up your butt and I'll do a pole dance for you. That suit your taste, Gramps?"

"That would be fine if you weren't twelve and I didn't have a daughter older than you. And stop calling me Gramps. I'll give you ten to one that I'm younger than your old man."

"I'm eighteen, you crotchety old fart. And how come you don't dance anyway? You a Southern Baptist or something?"

"No, I just have a problem with you being younger than my daughter and getting myself tossed in the slammer with a two-hundred-pound sodomite for contributing to the delinquency of a minor; that's what I've got a problem with."

"OK. We'll go to the stupid 'Twist and Shout Club' and bump and grind to Chubby Checker if that'll make your saggy old self happy. You happy?"

"I'm overcome with emotion."

"That's 'sarcasm', right?"

"Bingo. Now buckle up and button your lip, and I'll take you dancing, deal?"
So what if I don't dance? It's either that or listen to her sing the blues till we get to Kansas City.

"Alright already," she says, slamming the door behind her; "I get it. You drive and I'll shut up. My Lord, the things I gotta do to get a ride to Kansas City."

You'd think I'd learned my lesson by now about picking up another wise ass teen queen in need of a serious attitude adjustment. But it's thirty-three degrees out there and it's spitting snow, and she's wearing nothing but a pink and blue polka dot dress cut half way down to the Gulf of Mexico and a pair of purple high-heeled spikes covered in gold glitter that must be two sizes too big for her. No coat, no hat, no nothing. Jesus, where do I find these people? She could be a runaway grifter, or maybe an underage carnie running a con on love starved truckers for all I know. But I figure she's too cute for a criminal. You'd think we were engaged, judging by the way she's paying no attention to me. I'm sure she's got a fascinating tale to tell, but I just don't wanta hear about it right now. And wouldn't you just know, she picks now to start telling me the Cliff Notes version of her frigging life story.

"My name's Altoona," she says." My mom was a waitress at the Slap and Tickle boob bar in Comanche, Iowa and my dad was a traveling salesman who knocked her up, and Altoona's where they had me. But you can call me Jacks on account of that was my favorite game when I was little. You got a name, Gramps?"

"Listen, kid, the traffic's bad and the weather's worse, so when we get to Kansas City I'll give you a copy of my autobiography and you can read all about me. Now count Burma Shave signs, or play Tiddly Winks, or something, would ya? I've got to concentrate."

The silence coming from the shotgun seat is so cold I check to see if the kid's got her window open, which gives me the chance to sneak a quick peek at her. She's a little fox alright but she looks awfully familiar. I wouldn't be surprised if I saw her face on a milk carton somewhere. I can't resist asking, "Somebody looking for you?"

"Lot's of people. By the way, I haven't eaten in days, you got any food in this rolling germ factory?"

I don't know where all these jail bait hitchhiker types get the idea that I'm driving a grocery truck. "There's a candy bar in the glove box," I tell her, "help yourself."

After rumbling around in there for awhile, she hauls out a two-year old Baby Ruth and inhales it in one snort. "That's it?" she whines. "That's all you got?"

"I could shoot one of those heifers I got chewing their cud in the back and cook you up a T-Bone steak if you'd like."

"I'm a vegetarian," she says, my sarcasm completely lost on her. "What about
stopping somewhere for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You like peanut butter and jelly?"

I notice she's got no purse, so guess who's paying for the sandwiches? Like that's a surprise. "Listen, little missy, I'll buy you lunch if you promise to take a nap until we get to Kansas City. A long one. Deal?"

"You and your deals. I see the way you've been looking at me," giving me that trapped coyote-with-its-tits-in-a-cougar's mouth look. "And don't think I'm taking a tumble for no sandwich. You ain't got enough money."

"Where does somebody your age get those kind of twisted ideas anyway? How old are you anyway? Really."

"I told you. I'm eighteen, and for your information, that's old enough to know a perverted old horny toad when I see one. I know that look."

"What look? For Christ sakes, I'm just talking about lunch, not a lap dance. You wanta eat, or not?"

"OK, but no more deals. We eat, then we go to Kansas City and dance. Alright?"

"Fine with me. But in the mean time, why don't you go paint your nails pink or do your homework or something. Anything but talk till we get there, deal?

"Deal," she fumes, the affect not lost on me: biding her time, pouting like a pro, planning her strategy. She's up to something, but then, isn't everybody? I know there's somebody out there looking for her, but why would I turn her in? She hasn't done anything to me. Not yet. Seems to me she's just a kid looking for a free ride to Kansas City. And once we get there, I'm dumping her off at the nearest child welfare office and not looking back. Eighteen-years-old my ass.

It's an hour later and we're sitting at a truck stop that looks more like the men's john at the Indianapolis 500. I've never seen so many beer-bellied speed freaks in wrap-around sunglasses and Dale Earhardt baseball caps. When the waitress finally shows up with my fried grease burger and junior's P&J sandwich and carton of milk, I nearly have a stroke. Holy crap. I knew I'd seen Lolita's mug somewhere before. She's sitting over there cool as you please, sipping out of her milk carton without a care in the world, and damned if her picture isn't plastered all over the back of the stupid thing, clear as day. It's her alright. I'm not kidding. I just knew she was one of those runaway whack jobs. What are the odds? I have GOT to stop picking up all these pubescent, gum-smacking neophytes. I make a note to myself; next time I pick up any damned body, check for references, a birth certificate, medical records, a psychological profile, and a driver's license.

After I pay the check I point to the back of the kid's milk carton and tell her, "This is the end of the line, junior. I travel solo and it's time for you to go home." Playing the innocent, she acts like she's got no idea what I'm talking about, but what do I care? She knows I saw her photograph on the milk carton. I figure her parents are most likely worried sick to death about her, but I let her decide whether to call them or not and give her a couple quarters just in case. It's the least I can do. Not to mention the twenty years in the state pen I'd get for transporting a painted-up, half-dressed minor across state lines.

When I get to my rig, I turn around and see her standing outside by the pay phone with tears rolling down her face, looking my way. I swear to God if I didn't know better, I'd think she actually misses me. Who knew?

When she thinks I'm not looking, she pockets the quarters I gave her and stalks off across the parking lot toward the interstate like a tiny little dust devil, carrying the pink plastic purse I bought her at the gift shop. Leaning into a blizzard of hamburger wrappers and swirling sand, she trudges off into the Orange Crush-colored sunset.

At first, she doesn't notice the state trooper that I called earlier, rolling up to a stop behind her, but when he crawls out of his cruiser and starts huffing and puffing after her, she takes off like a shot. After a heart thumping run for his money, the Pillsbury Doughnut Boy finally catches up to her and jams her, kicking and screaming, into his squad car. When she looks out the window and notices me still there in the parking lot revving up my rig, she cracks a Gulf wide smile and gives me the finger. I'm no lip reader, but I know what she's saying. "I'll see you later, Gramps. You owe me a dance, deal?"

"Deal," I yell back at her. But even if she did hear me, I've got my fingers crossed so it doesn't count.