Thh-whack! Thh-whack! Never before during the eight years Earl Barker had spent in countless motel rooms as a cardboard box salesman had he heard a more disturbing sound. While he couldn’t be one hundred percent sure, his worse fear was that the two, quick, bone-cracking smacks which had just exploded through the wall were the sounds of a woman being punched in the face. He wanted to easily dismiss the discord, and thereby avoid even the threat of a confrontation, but the bad feeling he had had while checking in assured him the issue was not closed. The moment he had seen the biker and his young female companion follow him into the dimly-lit registration office, he knew there would be trouble. He had seen it in the desk clerk’s eyes and in the way he had dismissed Earl prematurely so the biker was not inconvenienced even a second longer. The clerk hadn’t even confirmed he had given Earl a room in the back of the motel as requested.
The door of the room next to Earl’s slammed shut, shaking the adjacent walls of the two story motel. "Shit!" Earl nervously whispered. He quietly shuffled across the room and then squinted through the peep hole. A blurry figure strutted past, and bounded down the stairs to the parking lot below, keys jangling off his belt as he moved. Earl heard the revving of a motorcycle engine, first loud and unsettling, and then muffled and fading.
After a few moments, all was quiet.
Earl sighed heavily, and tried to relax. The sounds could’ve been made by a number of things, and no one had cried out. Surely, if a woman was being beaten, she would shout out for help; and if a woman had screamed, Earl would’ve called the front desk right quick.
As he commenced his routine of turning on first the air conditioning fan and then the television, Earl prophetically wondered if this was going to be the day that made him regret his decision to become a traveling salesman. Not that he really had had much of a choice in the matter. He had had a good job at the Midwestern manufacturing outpost of a Fortune 500 company for twenty-four years, but that had ended abruptly. In one fell swoop, which seemed so extraordinary to Earl it could only be described as a "force majeure" – a term he had heard the company attorney use when things when wrong unexpectedly – he had received the official plant closing notice and his final divorce decree in the same sunny Saturday’s mail. An advertisement for a sales seminar at the nearby Holidome, which draped the front of a "missing persons" postcard in the same batch of mail, led him to sales.
The Champion Seal and Box Company of Elkhart, Indiana gave him the chance to prove himself. For over sixty years Champion had believed that a 100% commission system was the most effective way to motivate its sales force. In some ways, Earl was a terrible candidate to be a traveling salesman. He had a weak constitution, and wasn’t at all a "people person." Also, he was easily confounded by his district manager’s ever-changing principles of sales, such as "Art of War" marketing tactics and "win-win" solutions. Earl wasn’t polished like his idol, the "take no prisoners" Alec Baldwin character in the movie "Glengary, Glen Ross," and he was far from handsome. In fact, he was plain-looking and small in stature.
In other ways, though, Earl was the ideal person to sell cardboard boxes along America’s highways. He didn’t mind – actually enjoyed – being alone; and, perhaps most importantly, he loved driving and staying in roadside motels. He had no problem living out of a suitcase for months at a time. He also didn’t expect to have a wife any time soon and, at his age, it was unlikely he would have any children. The company preferred it that way; no family to worry about getting home to or wife distracting his attention from the deal before him.
Not that Earl wouldn’t mind being married again, but he had resigned himself to the fact that it would not happen. It was just too hard to develop a relationship; it never moved beyond his answers to the prospect’s inevitable first two questions: "Cardboard box traveling salesman," and "regrettably, divorced." Talking about his divorce was particularly awkward. It didn’t make sense to just say, "My wife and I were torn apart," without going into all the details, but it didn’t seem right to expose his dirty laundry to a virtual stranger. Ultimately, the ballet of the mating dance didn’t matter much because Earl couldn’t convince himself that any liberated "Woman of the 90′s" would be interested in a balding, grey-haired, fifty-six year-old who made under $40,000 a year, and whose most expensive suit was purchased at a Haban discount outlet in Columbus, Indiana.
Earl had arrived in this small Tennessee town with high expectations for closing a big sale. Exiting off Interstate 24 to a randomly-numbered state highway to the Mid-America Industrial Park forty-five minutes early, he was confident of picking up his first new account of the month. Upon his arrival at The Great Smoky Mountains Container Company, however, he was rudely informed that he had missed his appointment with the Executive Vice President of Distribution by three hours, and that said Vice President had already left for the weekend (as was his custom during the summer months) to race his cigar-shaped speed boat on a nearby reservoir. Earl particularly resented how the middle-aged secretary insinuated that he didn’t know his sales target well. He thought of tracking the vice president down just to prove to the secretary how resourceful he could be, but decided that would be too aggressive. A salesman never wanted to come off as intrusive or put his own inconvenience ahead of the customer’s interest.
(1) Make eye contact; (2) smile; and (3) WIIFM! Earl reminded himself. "What’s In It For Me?" The question he had been taught in Sales 101 to ask from the target’s point of view.
"It’s just normal human nature," the Holidome instructor had emphasized, "for us homosapiens to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’"
He’d simply set up shop at the hotel for the weekend and be waiting for the V.P. Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. sharp.
Spreading his Day Runner calendars on the hotel desk, Earl double-checked the entries in both his business and personal calendars. In black ink ("The Great Smokies Sales Pitch"), each clearly showed his meeting was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. as he had thought. Although the error was not his, Earl was still upset; he hadn’t missed an appointment in eight years for any reason, including another person’s mistake. To a salesman, missing an appointment can be deadly. Any cold call, any chance meeting, could turn into "The Big One." Say what you want about Earl but he had never missed an appointment.
Despite his disappointment, Earl decided he had to move forward. Slapping his appointment books shut, he quickly located The Home Shopping Channel on the television, and pumped up the volume.
"Hell-loooooow Hoosiers!" The HSC host enthusiastically exclaimed to two Indiana-based sisters who had called in on "mom and pop" telephone extensions to purchase a porcelain pig with a red "I" stenciled in the center.
"Hell-loooooow Hoosiers!" Earl said, with a great deal of enthusiasm (for him), but not with nearly the energy of the HSC host. "I once heard Coach Knight speak at a sales seminar," Earl ad-libbed.
Upon learning his next caller was from Ohio, the HSC host smoothly shifted monikers.
"I’m a Buck-eye myself," he stated, with obvious pride.
"I’m a Buck-eye myself," Earl immediately repeated. Though it was easier for him to say "Hell-loooooow Hoosiers!" than to falsely proclaim himself a "Buck-eye."
After an hour or so of The Home Shopping Channel, Earl felt better about things. Because he hadn’t heard any more disturbing sounds from next door, he began to feel comfortable and secure in his motel room, as he usually did. He could tell from the registration office’s slanted, orange tile roof and pointed, turquoise and white spinnaker that this motel used to be a Howard Johnson’s. The old Howard Johnson’s sign, however, had been removed from the front of the motel. Small black and white clapboard letters – that spelled out a generic "M O T E L" – sat atop the roof of the wing nearest the highway but were too far away to be visible to passing motorists on the interstate. The spot had been a prime location but seemingly overnight, the completion of the interstate had created a guaranteed high-speed by-pass, as if it was the governor’s specific intention to put the HoJo’s out of business.
Earl knew the new Hampton Inns and Holiday Inn Expresses just off the interstate were nicer and served a complimentary continental breakfast, but they also attracted more guests. Being the summertime, those hotels would surely be crowded with families. Earl disliked the noises and commotion a family made in a motel; the constant patter of feet as kids ran up and down the hall; the loud cackles from cartoons; and the squeaking of springs as children jumped back and forth from one bed to the other. It was no place for a bachelor like Earl.
He also had discovered that most of his fellow sales road warriors stayed at the old private motels instead of the chains. He enjoyed the comradery, meeting them in the parking lot in the morning as he walked to get coffee, or, when the place looked respectable, for cocktails and a smoke in the motel lounge.
Hours passed at the motel without incident. Earl turned in early, hoping morning would come quickly. Things were never as unnerving in the daytime as they seemed at night.
He woke up the next morning craving coffee. Exiting his dark room, he was blinded by the sun. He heard someone splashing in the pool, but, because it was some fifty feet to the left of his room – way back in the corner of the motel property – he couldn’t see the person without obviously staring. He walked to the T/A Truck Stop next door and ate every scrap of the $3.99 "Haulers Special," which consisted of pancakes, eggs, coffee, grits, country ham, and biscuits smothered and covered with white sawmill gravy. The T/A was a sprawling complex – restaurant, fuel center, gift shop, hunting and hardware supply store and locker room (with ten showers), all in one. As far as Earl could tell, it sold everything from sophisticated survival gear to a wide variety of NASCAR-themed cigarette lighters and apparel. He read the small town newspaper, and watched as the locals descended from the mountains to get some grub or buy fireworks. Respectable people – lots of pickup trucks driven by men with their wives or girlfriends sitting right beside them. Still, these Tennessee towns were much rougher than his hometown, Columbus, Indiana, which, by comparison, was way more sophisticated.
On his way back to his room, Earl noticed his was the only car in the parking lot of the motel’s back wing. As he turned the corner on the second floor, he looked toward the pool. He watched a young woman pull herself up the pool ladder and walk toward a green and white 7-UP machine housed in a rusted metal shed in the back corner of the pool area. Earl estimated the girl to be seventeen or eighteen-years-old. Because she had her back to him, he couldn’t see her face, but he was sure she was the biker’s girlfriend. He entered his room and kept the shades closed. In his book, she was too young for the thirty-something biker, but that’s how they did things around here, he reckoned.
After pacing for a few minutes, he boldly went for a soda. As he descended the stairs nearest the pool, he was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the gorge that laid just beyond the perimeter of the pool. He was high in the Smoky Mountains, not too far from the haze that covered the peaks.
He put his head down as he neared the pool, not raising his eyes until he heard the young woman say, "Hey, there!" He looked at her, shading his eyes with his hand, and squinted into the sun. She had brown hair and freckles (from too much sun) across the bridge of her nose. She was of medium height and weight but curvy. Her hair was long, and she wore a yellow one-piece bathing suit – a birthday gift the biker had bought for her from the Tommy Hilfiger outlet store outside Louisville.
"Good morning for a swim, young lady?" Earl asked.
"Yes sir," she responded, politely, shaking her hair away from her face.
Earl watched a warm smile break across her face like a wave cresting through the ocean.
That made him smile too.
"Just came down for a soda," he added, fumbling with his change.
"Ohhh…" she said, her face unable to contain her surprise. She could tell Earl was embarrassed and shy, which was the opposite of how all the men she knew acted around her.
Earl turned his back, walked over to the shed and nervously slid some quarters into the slot. He hadn’t seen any bruises, but he really hadn’t had a good look at her face either. He didn’t want to stare. He had noticed a tattoo just below her collarbone – a curvy "trucker girl" character – but turned away as the young woman caught him looking. Earl picked up his soda and turned around. He took a deep breath of mountain air, and was filled with the familiar smell of chlorine, which, surprisingly, was pleasing to him. He walked behind the girl who was bent over and untangling her wet hair with a large yellow comb. As she straightened up and shook the hair from her face, Earl saw heartbreaking purple welts on the side of her face. The young woman unconsciously touched her hand to the injured area as Earl fixed his gaze beyond her and to the biker looming on the balcony outside Earl’s room.
"Watch out for those rusty screws, mister," the young woman said, pointing to bolts in the cement which, years before, had held the diving board in place. "Lord knows what they’re there for. I almost cut myself."
"Oh, okay. I will. Thanks," Earl said, preoccupied by the biker’s presence.
"Shauna! Get your fat ass up here," the biker ordered. "Now!"
"Alright," Shauna said, cheerfully. "You should go for a swim," she said to Earl. "The water’s really nice; nice and cool on your face."
Earl didn’t want it to appear like he was gawking at Shauna, so he turned his back and stared out over the gorge, to the mountains on the other side. He didn’t look, but could tell the biker waited long after Shauna had gone into the room before he followed her in. Earl hadn’t noticed that another man had entered the pool area from the opposite direction.
"Howdy," the stranger said with a friendly tone. "I’m Tony Guidry. How ya doing?"
"Oh, just fine. Earl," he said, extending his trembling hand.
Tony’s large hand encircled Earl’s. "Everything all right, chief?"
"Oh yeah. Just fine." Earl repeated. "Just got chilled all of a sudden."
"Yeah, cool mountain air; even when the sun’s out. It’ll cool ya down right quick. I’m a sheriff’s investigator from Pickens County, Georgia, and I’m tracking a missing person." Tony said, getting right to the point. He pulled out a mimeographed copy of a police artist’s charcoal sketch which depicted a woman in her late thirties, with a thin face and dark, sunken eyes. Studying the photograph, "hollow" was the word that popped into Earl’s head. "This was drawn at the time from a Polaroid picture that was found at the scene but later misplaced by the local police. Her name’s Sharlene but folks called her Sally Jo. Have you seen anyone that resembles her?"
"Yes, I have; a number of women, actually, over the years," Earl stated, examining the woman’s face and wondering how it happens that someone just disappears.
"Really?" Tony asked, encouraged. "How ’bout him?" he queried, flashing a Polaroid photograph of a hulking bearded figure in a red flannel shirt. "I’ve got some good leads that this character may have been involved in her disappearance."
"He looks kinda familiar too," Earl said. "But I travel all the time, so I see a lot of folks that look like other folks, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do."
"You know, a lot of the locals come down from the mountains and eat at that truck stop over there."
"Hmm," Tony said, immediately scrutinizing the portion of the truck stop parking lot which was visible from the pool area. His attention was quickly diverted to one hundred feet above the building by the circular T/A highway sign, a commercial lollipop reaching for the sky. "I may have to stake that place out tonight and tomorrow. I’ve also got my eye on that strip club over there. Experience tells me that the only nudie bar in the county will draw men from a hundred mile radius – like flies to honey," he said, chuckling a little. The nude dance club Tony referred to was adjacent to the motel registration office. From the cupola which still sat atop the building, Earl knew it had once been the Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Years before – who knew how many – it had served 28 flavors to craving children. Now painted black and gold, with opaque windows, it was called "Players – Adult Entertainment."
"Hey, you mind if I pull up a chair. I’ve been driving all morning and the sun feels good out here."
Earl and Tony hit it off right away. Tony was talkative, and during his years on the road, Earl had developed a keen ability to quietly listen while people recited their life’s story. Tony had tracked AWOL enlisted men for the army for twenty-four years before becoming an investigator for the county. He found his current assignment more rewarding because in many cases he was rescuing and not merely locating.
"Had a good run in the army – got my education and all, but I like this job better. I only handle unsolved cases. Once the trail’s gone cold, they hand it over to me. Usually, I’m tracking a missing person. More often than you’d think, the person doesn’t want to found, but this case I’m working on is different. Somebody with a personal stake in it brutally killed Sally Joe and dumped her under a highway overpass." Tony grinned. "I like to even the score for those who can’t help themselves all too much."
In one major way, Tony reminded Earl of Bob Kowalski, the top salesman at Earl’s company, ten years running. "Killer Kowalski" had played on a national championship football team at Notre Dame, and had a massive gold ring to prove it. So wide, it had room to spell out: "Notre Dame 1973 National Champs," in scripted lettering. Earl had, on a number of occasions, been one of a herd of salesmen gathered around Kowalski as he regaled them with grand tales of the deals he had closed. One such memorable fable was how after a five hour marathon at a high-class Indianapolis strip club, Kowalski had miraculously transformed "The Most Reluctant Target He Had Ever Come Across" into "The Guy Who Ordered Boxes In Sizes His Packaging Department Could Never Use."
"The ring, gentlemen," Kowalski had exclaimed, holding up his ox-size hand to display the gilded lettering. "The ring gets me in the door. The Killer Kowalski charm does the rest."
"You remind me of our top salesman," Earl blurted out.
"Oh yeah?" Tony asked. "How so?"
"You’re closers. You get the deal done." It was a strength Earl coveted.
"Well, I don’t know about that, but I appreciate the sentiment," Tony said, graciously. "I’ll tell ya one thing. I am tenacious. Like a damn Georgia Bulldog."
Earl smiled. Tony made him feel safe.
"Got any kids?" Tony asked. "You seem like a good family man, and I’m usually a good judge of character. Parta my business, ya know?"
"No," Earl said. "Had a son, but lost him ten years back. Single car accident – spun off an icy road and into a tree. Out near the Purdue University field house. He was gonna be a mechanical engineer." Earl repeated verbatim lines he had spoken many times before.
"Gosh, I’m sorry, Earl. I’m always puttin’ my dang foot…"
"Oh, it’s fine. Was a long time ago. I’ve made my peace with it."
With no advance warning, Shauna re-appeared. "Hey, y’all. I forgot my sunglasses," she said, hastily picking up yellow, plastic-framed glasses from under a nearby chair and quickly slipping them on.
"You don’t want to lose those on a bright day like this up in the mountains," Tony said. "It’ll turn that alabaster skin of yours beet red."
"No, sir. I sure don’t. Plus, Terry’s always telling me to mind my belongings better."
"That’s right," the biker said, strolling up behind Shauna and draping his forearm across her throat. "It’s a good thing she has me to keep after her. She’s beautiful; she just needs to learn a few things about how the world works. Needs to be taught a few lessons. She didn’t have no daddy ’round growing up in Cave City to instruct her proper."
Tony’s ears perked up at the mention of Cave City. Eyeing Terry suspiciously, Tony saw Terry’s T-shirt read: "Kickin’ ass and takin’ names." The black tee hugged Terry’s slim, muscular upper-body. Cowboy boots easily put him over six feet tall.
"Well, she seems like a bright young girl to me," Tony said, staring coldly at Terry. "I’m sure she’ll do fine learning life’s lessons on her own."
"Oh, I beg to differ, sir," Terry said, tightening his hold on Shauna, and flexing his bicep. "God knows there are some hard lessons to learn in life – I’ve found it makes it easier if you’ve got someone to steer you though them. Give you the benefit of their experience."
"If I understand you right, that’s fine. That’s the approach I took with my boys. Gave ‘em as much advice as they could stand, and taught ‘em to own up to their mistakes. Gotta be their own men."
"It’s like a line from a little ditty I heard in a club in Nashville once – ‘if you write the script, you can’t bitch about the way the movie ends.’" Terry added.
Earl didn’t know if the others saw his hand shaking as he placed his soda down on the ground. He prayed the conversation had come to an end.
"We better be going, Sugar Pie," Terry said, brushing long bangs to the side of his face and putting on his mirrored sunglasses.
From past cases, Tony was well-acquainted with the deluding seduction of Terry’s wide, toothy grin which had no doubt granted him access to many a woman’s heart.
"You take care now, young lady" Tony said, searching Terry’s shades, trying to find his reflection.
"Hey, you’re the guy staying in the room right next to us, ain’tcha," Terry said, gesturing at Earl. "May have to pay you a visit since we’re neighbors and all," he said as he led Shauna away.
Earl felt relieved after Terry and Shauna had gone. He excused himself from Tony shortly thereafter and returned to his room. With the shades drawn, it was dark enough for him to fall asleep. He slept for several hours, and, as he had done a lot lately, dreamed of his son as a young boy. Among other images, those of "Father & Son Day" at the plant – a gravel picnic in the manufacturing company’s mammoth parking lot – moved through his head. The pleasant jaunt was cruelly interrupted, however, by Terry’s drunken yelling. A small table flew across the room past Shauna and slammed into the wall. Earl’s body shook upon the impact, as if the tremors had leapt directly through the wall and into his body.
"I better never catch you flirting with any old geezers again! You damn sure ain’t gonna be a slut like your momma as long as I’m around!"
Earl remained quiet in bed, as Terry’s footsteps grew louder. Within seconds, there were fists pounding on Earl’s front door.
"Mind your fuckin’ business or you’re gonna get hurt! I mean it, you fuckin’ weasel!" Terry shouted, before exiting down the stairs.
Earl stayed in his room for the next few hours, afraid of encountering Terry. He vacillated between thinking about his son, Shauna, and escaping the motel. Around nine o’clock, he heard the roar of motorcycle engines. Peering out his window through the closed binds, he saw Terry and a large buddy pulling into the parking lot on their bikes – not Harleys, but brightly-colored, Japanese made, "crotch-rocket" racing bikes. Earl braced for the shouting, but instead of coming up the stairs, the boys went toward the front of the motel. Earl heard Terry’s companion yell: "Let’s get us some neck-ed women!"
Though Earl was scared, his fear was subdued by a profound sense of sadness. The more time he had spent in this particular motel room, the more it reminded him of a road trip to the west coast of Florida he, his wife and their son had taken many years before, when Earl Jr. was ten. Earl had a love of roadside America even then, and wanted to show his son some sites along the way, like the "See Rock City" slogan painted across countless barn roofs throughout Tennessee and Georgia, and the pecan log rolls and ceramic Civil War souvenirs sold at Stuckey’s. Though young Earl Jr. generally took interest in his father’s highway treasures, there was a one night stay at a Howard Johnson’s motel that had remained vivid throughout the years in Earl’s memory. Earl’s wife was car sick, so they stopped during the afternoon and tucked her into bed. The two Earl’s proceeded to hold that motel up for everything it had to offer. First they hit the pool, with Earl Jr. repeatedly jumping off the diving board and sliding down the slide. Next, it was pinball and air hockey in the game room while Earl Jr. dried off and munched on Lance vending machine snacks. They later visited the HoJo restaurant. Earl Jr. had a grilled frankfurter in a square bun, served to him in a cardboard "boat" container, followed by a massive ice cream sundae piled into a clear goblet. Earl Sr. opted for the Friday night, "$2.99 All You Can Eat Fish Fry." On the way out, Earl Jr. picked up some fudge candy bars to eat later in the room while they played poker and watched incredulously as Sophie Loren laughed at Frank Gorshin’s impersonations of Jimmy Cagney on The Tonight Show.
Earl leaned against the plastic back cushion mounted to the bed’s headboard, and lit a cigarette. It occurred to him that the interior of the room had never been remodeled. It was quintessential 1970′s Howard Johnson’s, with tear drop light fixtures and wood paneling. He took a long, deep drag and put the burning butt in an ashtray beside him on the bed. In each hand he held an old square photograph taken with his Kodak Instamatic camera. One showed Earl Jr.’s somewhat blurry figure leaping off the diving board at the Howard Johnson’s pool, his arms reaching for the sky, his eyes and mouth wide open with delight. The other, taken by a kind stranger, showed Earl Sr. smiling broadly and wrapping Junior up in a beach towel as he emerged from the pool. What Earl could never understand no matter how many times he looked at the photos was how a great relationship with his ten-year-old son then got lost somewhere along their way through life. There was no major blowup, no shocking betrayal, just a gradual separation and deterioration. With "EJ’s" (as his college buddies called him) sudden demise, there was absolutely no opportunity for a reconciliation; the utter fuckin’ futility of the single vehicle crash had robbed Earl of that chance.
Gazing at his son in a leap of joy, Earl began crying. He wept for the son he had lost, and for the changed world in which he lived. It was a place where orange roofed-ice cream parlors – designed especially for kids – had become perverted play lands for prowling adults, concealed in black and gold paint. Although the changes were obviously for the worse, no one did a damn thing about it. He took a final drag on the half-burned cigarette, oblivious that the toll smoking had taken on his health already showed in his face.
There was a soft tap at Earl’s door; and then, another. Was it Earl’s past, his future or both? He got off the bed, wiped his eyes, and opened the door. It was Shauna.
"He beats me on up a lot," she said, simply. "But he says he’ll stop, and I’ve got no one else to look after me."
Earl was silent. He stood motionless, gazing into Shauna’s sad, bottle-green eyes.
"He ain’t all bad; lots a times he tells me how beautiful I am. Also, he got me a hostessing job at the Huddle House where his buddy works. That ain’t so bad neither. And, he says I need him on account I didn’t have a real daddy, so I need a man to make me feel valuable. This way, I’ll grow to be confident."
"How old are you?"
"You could run away," Earl said with hesitation. "You’re legal."
"I did once and he tracked me down. I’m afraid it would just make things worse. Besides, momma used to hit me too, just not as hard. Ain’t much different."
"Where’s your momma now?"
"Terry says she ran off ’cause she was no good and weak. That’s why he had to raise me with tough love."
Earl went to his suitcase and pulled out a bottle of Seagram’s he had lugged around for years for the rare times he needed a "Seven and 7" to close a deal. He poured himself a drink.
"Here’s the only picture I have of my mom," Shauna said, holding up a tattered Polaroid photograph she had pulled out from her floppy shoulder bag. "I was seven when she left. I sure miss her a lot."
"Hollow" was the word that immediately entered Earl’s head, gathered in his throat like an iron ball and sank to his legs, pulling his heart down with it.
"Was her name Sally Jo?"
"Nah, it’s Sharlene."
Earl examined the photo, taking it from Shauna’s hand and bringing it close to his face. The black and white picture was faded but Earl made out the slightly-built Sally Joe and the torso and arm of an unidentified man. Sally Joe pulled away, but the thick forearm of the imposing man had a tight grip on her. It struck Earl as odd that Sally Joe looked straight at the camera (even as she twisted away) instead of at the man who restrained her. It quickly dawned on Earl, however, that her terrified eyes were trained on the man who held ultimate power over her.
Earl gulped the entire Seven and 7 and winced as the stale alcohol burned his throat. Fear had driven a shrunken Sally Joe into the back corner of the picture, and even though the technology existed at any neighborhood drugstore to blow the photo up to an 8" by 10", Earl knew there was no machine that could set her free. It was likely only a matter of time before Shauna would be forced to pose in the same position.
"Where’s Terry now?"
"Down at the strip club. Don’t worry; he won’t be back for hours."
Earl wanted to reassure her, to tell her he’d save her, but he was genuinely afraid. He had been in the middle of grieving for his son, and was now suddenly thrust into the eye of the Terry Hurricane. He knew he didn’t have what it would take to stand up to Terry. Selling cardboard boxes hadn’t prepared him for this. "The Great Smokies Sales Pitch" – the reason he was even at this motel – was the farthest thing from his mind.
"Listen, I reckon’ it’s not right to ask you to help, but, I thought, well, at the pool, you seemed like a kind man… and Terry’s been gettin’ so mad lately."
Earl’s heart raced. He rubbed his hands together and stared at the cloud of make-up Shauna had used to effectively mask the swelling peaks on her face.
"Let’s go down to the club. I’ll have a look see if he’s gonna be there a while. Then, we’ll figure out what to do."
They went down to spy on Terry. Earl thought if there was a back door, he could slip in unnoticed. If Terry was occupied, maybe he could help Shauna escape; but where would he take her? What if Terry tracked them down? He’d probably extract Earl’s name and address from the motel desk clerk. Could Earl live in fear like that?
They turned the corner of one of the motel’s cement walkways – what used to be the path to the ice cream shoppe – and came face to face with Terry, who had just exited the back door with one of the club’s dancers in tow.
"Now lookie-here," Terry said, genuinely surprised to see them. "Take a hike," he ordered, shoving the dancer into a brick wall while staring Earl down. Thrusting his arms above his head, it was clear that Terry’s anger had rocketed from low to over-drive. "Old Man, you’ve made the biggest mistake of your pathetic life. NO ONE, fucks with what’s mine! NO ONE! I’m gonna cut you on up." Terry pulled a long hunting knife out of a sheath on his belt and pounced toward Earl. Earl was frozen; hypnotized by the sheer rage exuding from Terry’s face. Terry raised the knife over his head, and brought it down hard, aiming at Earl’s chest for a quick kill.
Rapid-fire blasts from a semi-automatic pistol drowned out Shauna’s screams, and made Earl’s sickened body quiver. Terry slumped forward. Earl instinctively caught him, and cradled him in his arms. Looking over Terry’s shoulder, Earl saw The Georgia Bulldog, placing a 9mm pistol back into a shoulder holster.
"Get outta here," The Bulldog ordered. "I’ll take care of this."
Earl gently placed Terry on the ground. He tried to walk away, but found himself bent over, with his head down. He felt light-headed and woosey. He saw blurry, disjointed images from his past – as if his life was passing before his eyes prematurely. If it had all ended for him right then and there, his obituary would’ve proclaimed him "The Man Who Knew Everything There Was To Know About Cardboard Boxes."
Shauna steadied him, and when he was able to stand, she led him back to their rooms where they gathered up their things and, at the direction of The Georgia Bulldog, fled to a motel in the neighboring jurisdiction.
Despite having gotten very little rest over the previous two nights, Earl and Shauna were fifteen minutes early for their 7:00 a.m. meeting with the Executive Vice President of Distribution on Monday morning. Shauna pleaded to accompany Earl, having gotten all dolled up for the first day of her new life. She wore the only nice dress she owned – a blue and white flowered sundress – and a pretty blue bow in her hair. Earl cherished the look on the impertinent secretary’s face as she eyeballed Shauna glide through the front door with all the confidence that innocence and youth engenders.
"Who are you?! You can’t go in there!" she said, springing out of her swivel chair, as Earl and Shauna confidently moved toward the V.P.’s office. They both knew that no matter how gruff the V.P. could be, he was nothing compared to Terry.
"Oh, it’s alright, Helen. Sit your ass down, will ya, and stop acting like a damn junkyard dog," the V.P. said, emerging from his office. "Earl, good ta see ya. Sorry I missed ya the other day," he said, shaking Earl’s hand heartily, the whole time looking over Earl’s shoulder at Shauna. "And who do we have here? Who’s this purty little girl?"
"Oh, my, ah, new assistant…" Earl began.
"Shauna," Shauna said, softly, unconsciously curtseying.
"Shau-nie! Ain’t that a purty name. Had a girlfriend named Shaunie once. Cute little West Virginia girl. Well, c’mon in," the V.P. said, escorting Shauna into his office like a gentlemen. "Sit down, Helen!"
Seeing that the V.P. was somewhat preoccupied with Shauna, Earl took a deep breadth and launched into his sales pitch.
"Yeah, yeah. You’ve got a sale — I’ll take the whole order," the V.P. said, cutting Earl off in the middle of his spiel. "Only because I want Shaunie to get off to a good start with her boss back in Indie. She’s the future, Earl. She probably knows how to work a laptop inside and out. Could take it apart and put it back together if she had to. Like a good truck driver; can fix her gear on the fly. Ain’t that right, Shaunie?"
"Aw, don’t be modest, honey. You don’t have to spare Earl’s feelings; he’s the dinosaur here and he knows it. Got no future in The New Economy. It’s gonna eat him up alive; do ya think he don’t know it? He’s dumb, but he ain’t stupid. Here, let me show ya something," he said, motioning them around behind his desk, in front of his laptop. He hit a single button on his keyboard like he was hammering down a nail. "See – our company’s new web page. E commerce, baby. Within a few months, our customers’ll place all their orders by visiting our web page. A few months after that, I’ll place all my orders the same way. Your company can’t be too far behind us. Pretty soon, Shaunie, you and I’ll hook up on an extranet and close a deal in the time it takes Earl here to pull his draws up after taking a leak."
Even one day before, the V.P.’s words would have nailed Earl in the chops. He hadn’t been completely blind to the emerging world of E commerce. Despite his district manager’s reassurances that the company would simply transfer Earl to a part of the country that wasn’t "wired" yet, Earl was worried that he was quickly becoming obsolete. Early retirement was not an option thanks to a misguided decision to invest his life’s savings in a former church friend’s Olympic coin business instead of buying shares of company stock (which had recently skyrocketed on the strength of its new Internet division). But all that had changed now, and contrary to the V.P.’s dire predictions, this was the first time in a long time that Earl wasn’t worried about his future.
"Now, don’t forget, Shaunie. The next time you’re out this way, we’ll take ma speed boat out, and maybe talk ’bout in-creasing our orders some, on account of Fall’s our busy season. Plus, I can always use some nice boat jewelry to show off to the boys on the reservoir."
Earl and Shauna entered the company’s Taurus sedan, and pulled onto the old U.S. highway.
"Not too shabby; our first sales call, our first closed deal," Earl said, beaming. "’Course they may not all be that easy."
Shauna smiled broadly.
"Let’s take the old road for a while," Earl said. "It goes through some very pretty country, and we’ve earned ourselves a change of scenery." Normally, Earl was eager to phone in a big sale to the home office to get his commission request in place in the cavernous bureaucracy of the company; but with the mountains surrounding them, and his thoughts tuned to a promising day, he didn’t bother.
Shauna nodded her head in agreement. She wasn’t in a hurry either.
They traveled alongside a pristine lake before climbing a narrow winding road that led to the top of the dam; they moved through no towns, slowly riding a sun-drenched bridle path through wildflowers and spruce trees. With the Taurus’ engine roaring, they wound their way higher, emerging on a part of the road that just minutes before they had viewed from across the ravine. They passed a weathered plaque commemorating the spot where four men had plunged to their deaths forty years before while building the dam. They crossed from loose, rocky blacktop to smooth cement at the top of the dam, and were awed by intoxicating views of the baby blue waters which embraced them. They drew a vermilion line through a wide-open, Carolina blue sky. Somewhere on the interstate far below, The Georgia Bulldog, pistol resting on the seat beside him, was speeding to his next assignment, having gotten the man responsible for Sally Jo’s unwilling departure from this earth.
Shauna recognized a song she loved, and turned the radio up loud. As she had done two hundred times before, she sang along.
"Shaunie, don’t you lose heart. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah," she sang, changing the girl’s name in the song from "Janey." "Shaunie, don’t you lose heart," she belted out.
Earl smiled as he watched her become increasingly excited.
"C’mon," Shauna encouraged Earl. "Sing it with me. We’re a team now."
"But I don’t know the words," Earl protested.
"Okay. I’ll tell them to you and then you sing ‘em with me. Okay?"
"Ready? Here it comes.
"’til every river, baby, it runs dry*..," Shauna spoke the words quickly before singing them. Earl repeated and sang them as best as he could, being a few moments behind Shauna and the record.
"…until the sun honey’s torn from the sky…nah, nah, nah, nah, nah*…" Shauna crooned with genuine emotion.
Unable to keep up, Earl stopped.
Glancing at her, it appeared the kinetic waters and azure lawless sky had turned her sad green eyes to sparkling blue. Seeing her so happy made him feel relieved and free. He hit the gas and the Taurus lurched upward as they encountered the beginning of a steep incline.
"’til every fear you’ve felt bursts free*," Shauna belted out, her voice soaring out over the vista.
Climbing into heavenly skies, with Shauna more blissful than she had ever been, Earl wouldn’t have protested at all if the angels came at that moment and carried them away.
THE END OF LOST ALONG THE WAY
*From the Bruce Springsteen song "Janey Don’t You Lose Heart"