Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Little Unfinished Business - Chapter 2: Gauntlet


Corkle woke up on the sofa. The dog was licking his face. He had no idea what time it was. A skinny young man stood in the middle of the room regarding him with a quizzical smile.
“You must be Kevin,” the boy said.
A slice of Corkle's life had somehow slipped into oblivion. He wasn't sure that he wanted to retrieve it. He studied the boy's face, hoping that he wouldn't find any sign of malice. He didn't.
“And you are?” he asked.
“Stang.” The boy did not offer his hand. “Cheryl said I should stay with you until you woke up. She and Janice went to skating practice.”
“Oh yeah,” Corkle said. “She mentioned roller derby last night. What's that all about?”
“Just something they do. I'm not sure I get it, but they all seem to like doing it—even when they take a beating on the track. I'm heading over there now. You want to come?”
“Probably not,” Corkle said.
“C'mon, Kevin. Maybe you'll make some sense of it. Then you can explain it to me.”
Corkle drove. They stopped for breakfast along the way. Corkle was hungry, but Stang—ravenous. He put away a three egg omelet with sausage links and biscuits and gravy—for all of which he was happy to let Corkle pay.
The Pipe Dreams practiced and held their bouts in a rented warehouse building just north of the I-244 corridor on the east edge of town near Catoosa. With Stang riding shotgun and burping up clouds of spicy sausage, Corkle pulled into the parking lot. The first thing he noticed was the remains of a school bus perched in a large oak tree adjacent to the seedy looking warehouse structure—left over, as Stang explained, from a string of tornadoes that had ripped down the interstate in '93. Limbs of the tree had encircled and pierced the bus over the years so that it was now permanently impaled and forever established as part of the landscape. Stang pointed out Janice's wreck of a car, and Corkle parked next to it.
Inside the warehouse, whether foreshadowed by or in homage to the treed bus, chaos reigned. Women on skates milled about like so many ants from a scattered mound. Fans, family, and hangers-on stood conversing with one another, shouting encouragement to the skaters, and generally impeding anything like an orderly flow of traffic. Cheryl and Janice were circling the central track with some speed, apparently racing one another although to what end, Corkle had no clue.
“They're both jammers,” Stang explained, “the skaters who actually score points by passing players on the opposing team. They're the ones who most need speed and agility.”
The Pipe Dreams got their name from several convergent phenomena. First, roller derby teams and their fans seem to be enthralled with bad puns and double entendre. Second, most of the women on the team enjoyed at least an occasional session with a bong or a pipe, although the use of the term 'laying pipe' as a euphemism for sex figured as well. And third, to give the organization at least a vestige of respectability, Tulsa is a town built with and beholden to oil money and its peripheral enterprises including pipelines—not that there is anything particularly respectable about that.
“They have rules?” Corkle asked. “Seems like barely organized bedlam to me.”
“It's actually pretty simple,” Stang said. “For the spectators anyway. How much do you want to know?”
Sports had never held much fascination for Corkle. He was sure he didn't want to learn much about a new one. “As little as possible,” he said.
“So just the basics, then,” Stang said.
“If you insist.”
“Jeez, Kev. I'm just trying to pass the time here.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Okay, just the basics.”
“Each team has a jammer and four blockers on the track. Bouts are organized into time periods and jams. When a jam starts, the jammers try to work their way through the blockers while the blockers try to keep them in the back of the pack. If a jammer breaks free, she laps the pack and scores a point for every blocker she passes from the opposing team. If she passes them all with time to spare, she can do it again. The jam times out in two minutes or whenever the lead jammer calls it off.”
“Sounds simple enough,” Corkle remarked.
“True, but like they say, the devil's in the details.”
“Meaning?”
“There's a fine line between blocking and assault.”
Stang spread his hands, palms up, and shrugged as if that ambiguous gesture made his meaning clear. Corkle was still trying to figure out what he was even doing there.
Corkle had seen a food truck near the entrance. He walked out to see if he could score a cup of coffee. While he was stirring sweetener and something that claimed to be half and half into his cup, Cheryl skated up next to him and gave him a hip bump. In skates she was somewhat taller than he. She looked like she was glad to see him.
“I didn't think you'd come,” she said.
“Your boyfriend was very persuasive. I only had to buy him breakfast.”
“Sorry.”
Corkle shrugged. “It's okay really. It was my idea.”
“So . . . what do you think?” Cheryl gestured toward the building.
“Not really my kind of thing.”
“I know that, silly. Doesn't mean you can't have a thought about it.”
“You want me to say I think it's stupid, maybe a little barbarous?”
“If that's what you think. You have a hard time speaking you mind, don't you?”
“I'm just wondering why you wanted me to come out here,” Corkle said, “why you'd be interested in spending any time with me at all.”
She reached for his coffee, took a sip, handed it back, and stared at him for a long minute.
“I'm making a project out of you,” she said finally.
“Excuse me?”
“A project. I think you're broken. I thought it last night when I saw your act. You're just drifting around without any sense of purpose.”
Corkle looked into his cup, swirled the coffee around a bit, and then stared at Cheryl. Her face was earnest and open, although comical, he thought, given the neon hair and garish make-up. He wanted to be pissed. Couldn't manage.
“Really?” he said. “You figured all that out from watching me tell jokes? What are you going to do? Fix me?”
“Why not?”
“I have to go now.”
“You kept saying that last night, but I notice you're still here.”
“It's been interesting. I'll give you that, but I really need to leave. Enjoy your life, Cheryl. I hope it all works out for you.”

* * *

Corkle headed east and took Highway 69 south towards Lake Eufala. He was in no hurry. He had no place to go, nowhere to be. This was his usual method of decompression—in his car, alone with his own counsel. He used to call it the Rand McNally approach to self discovery until calling that seemed to make more of a joke of it than it actually was. He'd been doing it for years, whenever he felt forsaken by circumstances or the people who were supposed to love him. He could do it anywhere. Locale wasn't nearly so important as moving.
He never turned on the radio. Music was all about someone else's angst or joy, not his. He liked quiet. When he got to the lake, he'd poke around the lonesome one-lane county roads that twisted and dipped around the promontories and coves.
Even as a young man he'd come here periodically searching for something to connect him to past iterations of himself that had grown unfamiliar, strange even, over time. There had been a girl once. All she'd done was smile, but that had been enough to fix her in his mind, a vision he could always dredge up when it suited him. He would come up to the lake looking for her, hoping against all reasonable expectation that he would see her again. He never did. He probably never would, but that had never stopped him looking. Even now he would keep a eye peeled for her, not because there was even a remote possibility that he would see her, or recognize her even if he did. Because rather the search reminded him what had once mattered to him in a simpler time, when things had made more sense.
The confusion of the past couple days weighed on him. First there was the whole stand-up thing. He didn't know what he'd been thinking—certainly not that it would be easy, but that perhaps it would suit him somehow. He'd dreamed of doing comedy when he was a kid. Not seriously, but fancifully.
His friends had admired rock stars and athletes. He'd always thought the guys who made people laugh were somehow more important in the grand scheme of things. He'd watched Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, George Carlin, Dennis Leary, Bill Hicks, and a host of others on comedy specials and on the Carson Show when he was growing up.
He liked their apparent ease with the kinds of social exchange that had always made him feel awkward. He was transported by their use of language and inflection to get a laugh, make a point, show a more enlightened path.
It wasn't that he thought at the time that he could do it. That unhappy notion hadn't occurred to him until just a few weeks ago. What he thought instead was that what the comics managed to do in the midst of the laughter was something worth doing, something that mattered. He still thought that, but there was no way, after the numbing futility he had felt the previous evening, he was going to try again. Of that much he was absolutely certain.
The other thing on his mind, Cheryl, was an enigma to him. Certain as she may be of her own presence and path, she elicited no certainty at all in Corkle. He ought to have no interest in her life or her notions about his, and yet he was strangely drawn to her. He couldn't explain it, not even to himself. It made no sense. He didn't find her attractive. She was pretty enough, he supposed, especially when she smiled, but nothing about her demeanor held any fascination for him. Her attitude, insisting always that he do things he was not interested in doing, was as annoying as it was compelling. Her pursuits—clubbing, garish dress, drugs, and roller derby for God's sake—were all things he'd rather avoid.
So why did he feel so badly that he had walked out on her practice? Left in the middle of a conversation? Why did he wish he had left an avenue open so that he could see her again? There was nothing to gain by it, and yet the impossibility of it that he had crafted for himself left him with an abiding sense of loss.
Corkle shook his head to dispel that disturbing thought. He checked his speed—exactly 60, five miles an hour below the limit, his preferred pace. Everything came together in his car at sixty, the hum of the tires, the thrum of the engine, the roar of the wind, to produce a low E on the musical scale. He'd actually checked it with a pitch pipe once, the kind of thing he would occasionally do to satisfy his curiosity. That's what he told himself anyway. Usually what he was really doing was avoiding something he should have been doing—something like writing for instance. Low E was Corkle's resonant pitch. In his car it was a mechanical 'Om' that soothed his soul. He thought it kept the demons at bay. He'd never seen demons, so he thought it must be working.
Corkle gave himself over to this restful mental state. Somewhere in the depths of his mind a pleasant thought took shape, broke loose, and drifted in the currents of his memory. Maybe he would see her. Maybe he would see the girl who had smiled at him all those years ago. She wouldn't be a girl anymore, but maybe, just maybe, the years had not dimmed her light. Maybe she could still smile that smile, and if she could, he would know her.
A dark SUV, traveling well over the limit, passed him on the left. Too close for comfort. It jolted him out of his reverie. He watched it speed away, Cheryl's face pressed against the back window on the right side, a pleading look splashed across her face. Janice's car came a short distance behind. Corkle recognized it from the parking lot. Stang was gesturing wildly from the passenger seat. Apparently they expected Corkle to follow. He didn't want to follow. He didn't want to involve himself in whatever fresh hell this would turn out to be. He did though. He pressed down on the accelerator pedal, and his restful low E scaled up to G-sharp, a pitch that always set Corkle's teeth ajangle.

* * *

After just a few miles, the SUV pulled into a truck stop. The place was vacant except for a couple of trucks parked in parallel at the far end. Janice pulled up behind the SUV, blocking it from backing out of its parking space. Janice and Stang jumped out of her car. The driver of the SUV exited his car and closed the door. Corkle couldn't tell if anyone was in it besides Cheryl.
Corkle didn't like the guy's looks. He was built like a block of granite with close cropped hair and close set eyes. He was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and a thin black tie. The back of the SUV was festooned with someone's narrow view politics. Corkle could only assume that the sentiments belonged to the driver. Second amendment rights seemed to be of paramount importance along with keeping Christ in Christmas, putting prayer back in the schools, and impeaching Barak Hussein Obama, apparently for his middle name, which was printed in bold caps and styled to look Arabic.
Corkle checked the guy again. He was sure he saw the bulge of a shoulder holster under his left arm. Oklahoma was an open carry state, and concealed carry permits were available with few questions and almost no fact checking. Corkle had a concealed carry permit himself, although he no longer owned a gun. He wasn't wishing for one now as he could envision the emerging confrontation devolving into a you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine kind of exchange that could only end in tragedy.
Janice was yelling at the block of granite. Stang was keeping Janice's car between himself and the possibility of getting crushed. Corkle got out of his car. He knew he had to do something. He just wasn't sure what.
“Kidnapping is a federal offense, asshole.” Janice yelled.
“There's no call for that kind of language, little missy,” Granite said.
“Little missy? Who are you? John Fucking Wayne?”
“There's no kidnapping here, missy, no reason to get yourself all in an uproar.”
“Bullshit! You took Cheryl by force. I saw you do it.”
“She was just surprised to see me is all,” Granite explained. “Once she figured out who I was, she settled right down.”
By this time Corkle had moved up to stand beside Janice. Granite gave him a once over, and seemed undecided about his next move. Corkle spoke up.
“Maybe you should let her out of the car, then,” he said, “so we can make sure she's all right.”
“I don't think so.”
“Why not?” Corkle asked, spreading his hands in a gesture of reasonableness. “If everything's as you say, you can be on your way. We won't trouble you any further.”
Stang had managed to find something like courage now that Corkle had entered the conversation. He moved up to the passenger side of the SUV, near the window where Corkle had seen Cheryl's face. The front door sprang open and another guy, bigger than the first, emerged. Except that he was also dressed in a black suit and tie, the way he exited the too small opening of the SUV reminded Corkle of prepared dough popping out of a cardboard tube of biscuits. The Doughboy was also wearing a shoulder holster, but he had already drawn his weapon, which he now leveled at Stang's head.
“Jesus!” Stang yelled, and jumped back.
“Jesus is not going to help you, boy,” Granite said.
Janice threw her hands up in desperation. “You douche bags don't actually think you can shoot unarmed people in a parking lot and get away with it, do you?”
“Right now I don't see anything to prevent it,” Granite said.
Corkle put a hand on Janice's shoulder, held the other one up toward Granite like a cop stopping traffic. “Everybody just calm down,” he said. “There's no need for violence of any kind here. We're just concerned about our friend.”
He was about to suggest again that they be allowed to speak to Cheryl when three more cars poured into the lot and surrounded them. Women piled out of the cars, spread themselves in a loose circle around the SUV, and adopted menacing poses. A few of them looked large enough to give Granite and Doughboy trouble in a fair fight. Several of them were still wearing skates and elbow and knee pads from practice. Corkle wondered how the 'fine line' between blocking and assault might shift when the opposition had firearms. He'd heard the phrase, “never bring a knife to a gunfight.” What he didn't know was where a roller derby team ranked in the spectrum of armaments.
Janice was apparently emboldened by the sudden shift in odds. “You bozos don't have enough bullets to take us all out,” she said.
Corkle squeezed her shoulder. “Come on, Janice,” he said. “Try not to antagonize them.”
“Are you serious right now, Kev?” Janice asked. “They kidnapped my best friend, called me 'little missy,' and now they're pointing a gun at us. You don't want me to antagonize them? How about they don't antagonize me? How about John Wayne and his fat side-kick let Cheryl out of their car and then drive off into the sunset singing 'yipee-yi-yay-ki-o?' Doesn't that make more sense?”
Doughboy had cocked his elbows so that the gun was now pointing skyward. He kept shifting his gaze from Stang to Janice to Corkle to the nearest woman on skates and back again. Granite seemed to be at a loss for words. He was chewing on his lower lip like he couldn't decide what to say or to whom. Corkle decided that neither Granite nor Doughboy had much experience being threatened by women.
Janice pressed her apparent advantage. “Stang,” she said, “get Cheryl out of that car.”
Stang looked at Corkle as if for confirmation. Corkle shrugged. Doughboy lowered the pistol again, cupping the grip in both hands and pointing it at Stang's head. Two of the women on skates glided between Stang and the gun, pushing Doughboy back against the door. One of them grabbed the gun and forced Doughboy's hands into the air. The other gave him a vicious knee to the crotch. Doughboy crumpled where he stood, and the first woman came away with his pistol.
Stang opened the rear door to the SUV. He had to lean in and unbuckle Cheryl's seat belt. When she came out of the car, Corkle saw that her hands were duct-taped behind her back. So much for Granite's protestations of innocence, Corkle thought.
“You ready to explain yourself,” he said to Granite.
“It's okay, Corkle,” Cheryl said. “He's a deacon in Granddad's church.”
“Okay?” Corkle asked, more confused than ever. “Deacons carry guns, now? Deacons tie you up and haul you away against your will? That some kind of new conversion technique?”
“They weren't going to hurt me. They were just going to take me home.”

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