by Lawrence F. Farrar
Laurie Kittredge guided her old Dodge pickup across the graveled parking area and stopped in front of the Travelers’ Rest Café. Already late for work, Laurie leaned back and sighed. Untouched by the better things of life, she’d hoped for more. But now, in the fall of 1960, she firmly believed she’d missed her one great chance. She sighed again. Was this the best she could hope for; cook-waitress at a broken-down café clinging to the side of a secondary New Mexico road? The nearest town was ten miles away.
The cafe occupied a low, flat-roofed building. Mostly adobe beige, the exterior had yielded up faded patches of light brown to time and to scouring desert winds. A narrow walkway constructed with scavenged wooden planks fronted the structure. Piled up cartons of one sort or another littered one end; a wooden rocking chair occupied the other. Three or four rectangular windows on each side flanked the double-doored front entrance. A lonely derelict, a long-abandoned gas-pump stood in front of the building. Bluish-green rust encircled its base. Above it all, on the roof, up rose the café’s most singular feature; a twelve-foot-high neon sign, visible from a mile away: EATS. Unfortunately, the letter E had long since sputtered and gone out.
Relic of a by-gone time, a tilting outhouse stood off to one side of the building. On the other side, a makeshift bird garden featured eight or ten feeding stations for hummingbirds. The sight of so many of these little creatures swarming in one place was sufficiently attractive to lure occasional tourists traveling the main highway.
When Laurie pushed through the entrance, Jack, the café’s resident dog, slapped his tail on the floor in greeting. A graybeard Lab mix, he did not, however, deign to leave the woven rug where he passed his days. Burrowing rabbits no longer feared him, and scampering geckos tormented him.
Fifty-year-old Wilford Brodie, owner of the place, also greeted her. A tall, balding, and undistinguished looking man, like Laurie, Wilford was a native New Englander. His Boston accent had never abandoned him. He’d come west as a young soldier, and he’d stayed on. A long-time New Mexico resident, he wore a string tie with a turquoise slide, a blue work shirt, and jeans. His belt boasted a large silver buckle. A gregarious person, Wilford relished chatting with customers. And when there were no customers, as Laurie put it, he liked to bend her ear. Wilford seemed to have an opinion on every known subject. And, like the hummingbirds in the garden, he flitted from topic to topic.
“Morning, Laurie. You had a phone call. Just hung up.”
“Who was it?” Laurie had no phone in her mobile home and received few calls.
“Some woman,” he said. “Didn’t give her name. Just asked for you. Said it was important.”
“Well, I guess if it’s important, she’ll call again. Anyway, I’d better get to work.” Laurie said no more. Who might it have been?
Still puzzled, she slipped on an apron and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. Then she retrieved a dozen cake doughnuts from the fridge and arranged them under a clear plastic cover on the counter. Wilford declared the display encouraged people to buy ‘em if they saw ‘em. Laurie tuned in a Santa Fe station on the old Philco portable perched on a shelf over the sink. She had a nice, mid-range voice and liked to sing along with her radioland favorites. Hank Williams wailed away on her favorite Oldies but Goodies station: Hey, Good-lookin’.
Laurie felt Hank couldn’t be talking to her. Nobody called her good-looking. Laurie had a turned-up nose, green eyes, and generously reddened lips. Fast approaching forty, shorter than she wanted to be, Laurie could do nothing about her height. And sporadic weight reduction campaigns had availed her little. She’d abandoned her bouffant and cut her hair short. She’d also given up her bleached blonde experiment for a consequent intermingling of brown and blonde.
By nature, smiling and tender-hearted, Laurie found the smiles increasingly hard to come by. More than a year had passed since her husband, Fred, climbed onto a bus and vanished. She’d struggled to get by working at this dilapidated restaurant that was itself struggling to get by, the victim of new highway construction that provided no nearby off-ramp. Laurie desperately wanted to “go home” to her native New England but had been unable to accumulate any savings.
Some people embraced this enchanted, arid place of rock and sand and shrubs. Laurie was not one of them. The sage in bloom was not perfume. The odor assaulted Laurie’s nostrils like some bitter oil. She yearned for the green Vermont hills. Looking out across the flat terrain, she scanned a panorama dominated by shadowed browns, and red-browns, and faded yellows. Against this background, only the weak greens of sparsely dressed sagebrush, yucca plants, and cactus-like ocotillo revealed themselves. Here and there, gnarled mesquite trees struggled against the environment. In the distance, mesas and rock formations delivered texture to the land. And, in the far distance, she could glimpse the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
At night, Laurie listened to the tortured braying of coyotes while wind-driven sand scoured the exterior of her broken-down mobile home. Hers seemed a life of utter loneliness. At times, only the mournful rise and fall of a distant diesel horn reassured her that other people even existed. She yearned for the small New England towns of her youth, with their white, gabled houses and village greens. She longed for the autumnal smell of burning leaves.
Elbows on the counter, chin in her hands, Laurie permitted her thoughts to drift. Memories spewed back. Regular customers knew the story well. Laurie had shared it with them many times. Now, as she often did, she reviewed the chain of events that had first lifted her up, then sent her crashing back to earth.
On a freezing winter night, a man, very much down on his luck, had wandered into the restaurant. Hollow-cheeked and scraggy, Merle Swopes needed a helping hand. And Laurie had provided that hand. When she learned the man had no money, she had supplied him with hot coffee and a steak dinner and, perhaps more importantly, with encouraging words. Once fed, Swopes had disappeared into the night. But he left a note of appreciation and an old Elgin pocket watch, a pledge he would someday return and pay for the meal. Laurie later recalled Swopes as “a gaunt man; like one of those prophets in the Bible,” she said, “who’d come out of the desert.”
Unprophetically, Merle Swopes had died along the highway weeks later. It turned out he was the troubled son of a wealthy family. He’d left a badly written will in the custody of a highway patrolman. It apparently named Laurie the inheritor of $250,000. Apparently because the will recorded only his benefactor’s first name, and that was rendered as Lilly. The will also said she worked at a roadside restaurant in New Mexico.
Swopes’ note had been misplaced, and possession of the watch, with its unique inscription mentioned in the will, was crucial in identifying Laurie as the heir. When a law firm representative told her all she had to do was produce the watch to confirm she was the intended heir, Laurie was elated. Elation, however, yielded to dejection when she discovered that Wilford had innocently given the watch (kept under the restaurant’s counter) to a nameless traveler seeking a gift for his son. When he realized the consequences of his act, an abashed Wilford said he felt “lower than dirt.”
Complicating matters, Swopes’ brother, Merrick, had challenged the will. The legal battle dragged on and on further confused by the fact that—of all things—two more claims surfaced. One involved a young woman in Tucumcari who produced a cigarette case she said Swopes left as a pledge. And a waitress showed up in Gallup arguing a locket Swopes left with her proved she was the person mentioned in the will. The time for adjudicating competing claims would run out in sixty days. All efforts to trace the watch had failed, a series of false trails and frustrating dead-ends.
Plagued by feelings of guilt and regret, Wilford talked about closing the cafe. People assumed Laurie held it against him for giving away the watch. But Laurie knew he’d acted with a kind heart, and she forgave him. Moreover, Wilford had provided strong support to Laurie when her husband abandoned her, and she’d struggled to make emotional and economic ends meet. When her self-confidence began to founder, he’d done his best to buoy up her confidence.
“Don’t hide your light under a bushel, Laurie. You are an able woman,” he said.
She wished there was a way she could repay him. Meanwhile, Laurie continued to ladle soup, fry chicken, and brew black coffee for drivers, ranch hands, miners, backpackers, and other folks who came by for lunch or succumbed to the night-time neon promise of EATS. She still couldn’t put together enough money to go back east. Reluctant to start, the pickup still gave her fits. And her absent husband still wrote to ask when she expected to come into her fortune.
Laurie tried to reconcile herself to the notion that what might have been never would be. It appeared the chance to remake her life would never come again; the cruel result of a single error. However, her effort to accept this seeming reality failed. Only one thing dominated her mind—that missing watch. It was as if it possessed some talismanic power. She continued to hope it would somehow turn up. She continued to dream.
The opening of the café’s entrance doors roused Laurie from her waking dream. A pair of cattle truck drivers, their rig just parked in front of the café, strode through the front door. It was a warm day. The smell of manure rode with them in the truck; it rode with them into the café. Both men wore jeans, tee shirts, boots, and ball caps.
By now, Hank Williams had yielded place to Freddy Fender. Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.
“Nice music,” the younger of the two said. He was a fresh-faced young man, little more than a teenager.
“Story of my life,” Laurie replied.
“Come on, Laurie. How you really doing?”
“Doing fine, Jake, until you two showed up,” Laurie said. “Sure be nice if you smelled a little sweeter when you come by.”
“Aw, Laurie. You know you’re waiting for us more than anybody else,” the older driver said. He was a muscular man with a ruddy face and favored her with a Texas drawl.
“Yeah. Must be the big tips.” The two men were, in fact, favorites. She knew they worked hard. “Now what’ll you have, Charlie?”
Laurie took their orders and stepped to the grill. While she cooked and the men scoffed up thick pork chops, they kept up a running conversation.
“You ever hear any more about the fella that left you that watch?”
“No. I think that story is all played out. Lawyers been doing their best. Even had a newspaperman trying to track the watch down. No luck.”
“What do you think you’d a done with all that money, Laurie?”
“Good question,” she said. “Not really sure.” In fact, it was a question to which she had devoted endless thought. Uncertain as to just how, she felt confident the money would have transformed her life.
“Well, it’s just too bad the way it turned out,” the younger man said. “We was sure pulling for you, Laurie.”
“Yeah. Right. You probably figured I’d start handing out twenties when I got the money.” She grinned, and the two men grinned back. “Thank you, boys. I know you mean it.” As her smile faded, she turned away so they would not see the tide of regret that washed over her.
She couldn’t resist their sweet talk. “I bet you’d go for another serving of this peach cobbler. On the house.” They never turned her down when she made such offers.
As the men settled their accounts, Wilford emerged from a back room. “It’s that woman again,” he said and added in a low voice, “Says it’s about the watch.”
“We’ve had calls like that before,” Laurie said. “But her pulse quickened. Might this one be different?
“You the lady looking for the watch?”
“Who am I talking to?”
“My name is Rosie. I have some information you might want to hear.” She had a raspy voice and sounded tough.
“What can you tell me?”
“My ex-boyfriend has the watch. He got it in a pawn shop. But he’s stupid and doesn’t know anybody is looking for it. And I didn’t tell him, either.”
How do you know it’s the watch we’re looking for?”
“Way back, there was this article in the paper. Had a picture of the guy you work for. Showed a nice picture of the watch, too. When Benny showed me the writing, I figured it had to be the same one.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I think this watch has to be important to you. What with the newspaper story and all. And because Benny is a jerk. It’s your watch. And you ought to have it. Not him.”
“Rosie, I need your phone number. Where do you live?”
“Can’t share that yet. I already called your lawyers. Meeting one of them tomorrow.”
“How do I know you’re on the up and up?”
“You don’t. But you’ll be hearing from one of them lawyers. Bye.”
Laurie heard the phone click. What to make of this call? Had the fruitless search for the watch taken on new life?
She hadn’t heard from him for months. She hadn’t missed him. But now here he was there, standing in front of the counter—Fred Kittredge; the prodigal husband had returned. For forgiveness? For reconciliation?
“Hi, Laurie. Sure is good to see you.”
“It’s been more than a year. What do you want?” She wasn’t having any of it.
“Come on, Laurie. Can’t we sit at the corner table for a little? There aren’t any customers.”
“Okay. But remember, I’m working.”
Fred was a lanky man in his early forties, had crooked teeth, and was much in need of a shave. His gray-brown hair was bound up in a ponytail. He had dark eyes and was given to accentuating his remarks with a wink. He sniffled a good deal and dabbed at his nose with a red bandana retrieved from a jeans pocket. He’d rolled up the sleeves on his plaid shirt. In a land of the booted, he had on a pair of nearly destroyed sneakers.
Once seated, Fred plucked a napkin from a dispenser and blew his nose. Then, as if struck by an inspiration, he helped himself to several more napkins, stuffed into a pants pocket.
The move elicited a look of narrow-eyed disdain from Laurie.
Undeterred, Fred said, “Come on, honey. You know you were always the one for me.”
Laurie considered him with a look of exasperation. “Same old Fred. Same old line. I’m asking you again. What do you want?”
“You don’t know how much I missed you, Laurie.” He had a hoarse voice she once found attractive.
“I thought you were gone for good. Your showing up here right now surely isn’t what I need.” She paused. “How did you get here?”
“Rode a bus. Hitchhiked some.”
Fred shifted uneasily in his chair. “Well, I thought the time to settle that watch business must be pretty close. I figured you might need me to . . . you know, back you up if there’s any kind of dispute.”
“Really? That’s why you came? Really? I want you to get one thing straight. There isn’t any money. And not likely to be any. But if there is, isn’t any of it going to you.”
“Come on, Laurie. You got me all wrong.” Fred lifted his open arms as if in a gesture of supplication.
“Is that so? You suddenly turned good-hearted?”
“I know we had our differences, but . . .”
“But nothing. You have a job?”
“I worked at a hotel in Albuquerque. But they let me go.”
“Well, I hear they’re busy up at the mine. They’ve still got that dormitory over in Lorton.”
“But you’re my wife. I ought to stay here with you.”
“No way you’re staying in the trailer. And I need the truck.”
“But, honey . . .”
Laurie searched an apron pocket. “Here’s $20. Before you ask. Now, get along. I’ve work to do.”
“I’ll stay in touch, Laurie. If you need help, you know you can count on me.”
Laurie stood up. Feet apart, hands on hips, she said, “Yeah, Fred. I know damn well how much I can count on you. Please don’t come back. Vamoose.”
He turned at the door, blew her a kiss, and went out past a bemused farm couple on their way in.
Just then, Wilford emerged from the back room. “Was that Fred?”
“That was him,” Laurie said. Resignation permeated her voice. Not what she needed.
She shook her head. I must have been desperate, she said to herself. And she answered herself. I was.
Rosie had it right. A lawyer called the next day and arranged to come by to discuss the latest developments. His name was Paul Martinez. He’d taken over the case from a colleague who’d moved to another firm. He confirmed that he’d spoken to Rosie and learned both the name and whereabouts of her boyfriend.
Martinez arrived at the café shortly before noon. He was a man in his late thirties, with a high forehead, neatly trimmed beard, and slicked back black hair. He had on an open collar button-down shirt topped by a dark blue sport coat. Laurie told her boss later he looked just like the movie star, Ricardo Montalban; only younger. A soon-to-be-partner in the Albuquerque firm of Sullivan, Keefe, and Rodriguez, Paul struck people as a man on the way up. Perhaps he came across as a bit too smooth. But as they spoke, Laurie felt increasingly confident he had her best interests in mind. He possessed a reassuring smile.
The hickory tobacco aroma from the lawyer’s Meerschaum pipe competed with that of sizzling burgers. Laurie realized it was lunchtime. “Would you like something to eat?” She hesitated. “I’m afraid we don’t have much Mexican food. Maybe some fajitas in the fridge.”
Martinez smiled. He’d apparently encountered reactions like this before.
“No problem. A burger and a shake will be just fine.”
“Do you think she is telling the truth?” Laurie said as she delivered the food. “There have been others trying to get money from us.”
“Yes. I am well aware of those claims. We are, of course, careful. But we definitely think it is worth checking out. You know the time for adjudicating your claim is soon up.”
Laurie nodded. The deadline had been very much on her mind. “So, what now?”
“The watch has no intrinsic value,” Martinez said. But as with our earlier reward offer, we are prepared to provide the man who has it a nice sum. We hope he will realize he will gain nothing by refusing. His name, by the way, is Ben Kennedy. He works at a feed company in Santa Fe.”
“What if he still says no?”
“Then he will have a five-dollar curiosity piece.”
“Unlike some of my colleagues, I think that, even without the watch, we have some chance of proving you were the person Merle Swopes had in mind. I’ve learned that the highway patrolman who helped Merle before he died recently recalled the man’s mention of the EATS sign with its burned-out letter. Moreover, the circumstances are such that we might explore the possibility this fellow Kennedy could be subject to a civil action for withholding evidence.”
“I’m afraid to get my hopes up.”
“That’s realistic. I know this has been a difficult time for you.”
“We also have to contend with Swopes’ brother. So far, he has argued your claim is completely without merit. He argues that Merle was incompetent and could not create a will of any sort. He did, however, recently suggest a payment of $5,000 to you, as he put it, 'to be rid of an annoyance.'”
“What is he like? The brother.”
“Only talked to him once; his lawyers two or three times. Merrick Swopes seems a hard-driven man. Fifty or so, he appears to be well off. Successful architect. Big house. Doesn’t need the money. Maybe he thinks that in the end, the parents ignored him. Tried to make up for their earlier treatment of Merle.”
“Why is he so against me?”
“Not sure. But since he offered $5,000, I feel he is likely willing to settle for a larger amount. We might win big. But we could also lose completely. Even with the watch, a settlement is something we should consider. Is it something you might be willing to do?”
“What would a settlement like that be?”
“The arbitrator and Swopes might agree to say a 50-50 split of the inheritance. Maybe less favorable.”
“But the man intended it for me. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“First things first. I will try to work out a reasonable arrangement with Kennedy to retrieve the watch.”
“I’m kind of eager to see it again.”
“Meeting him tomorrow in Santa Fe. Some coffee shop. I’ll give you a call.”
Laurie could not fully grasp why a simple act of kindness had made her life so complicated.
As she watched the lawyer drive away, she hummed along with Patsy Cline’s sweet, sad rendering of Crazy.
The morning crawled forward, and Laurie became increasingly apprehensive. Why didn’t Martinez call? When the phone finally rang, she rushed to answer.
“Laurie, I’m afraid I have some troubling news,” Martinez said. He sounded as solemn as the mission priest just down the road.
“Bad news? What is it?”
“It seems our friend Rosie was not all she claimed to be. As you feared, she and her boyfriend were simply looking to make a fast buck.”
“So, did you have to give them a reward; like you thought you might have to?”
“The fact is the boyfriend no longer had the watch. It seems Rosie had made another phone call; to Merle’s brother.”
“Rosie told his lawyer we were interested in a deal. She figured he’d pay well to deprive us of something that supported our case. She was right. He had a man deliver an envelope of cash before I ever got there.”
“You mean it is over? I have no chance?”
“Like I said, Laurie, we can still try. But it will be tough going without the watch. And the policeman is now uncertain about what Merle told him. This could drag on. The inheritance laws are complicated enough.”
“But I thought . . .”
“Honestly, in light of what’s happened, I think our best course is to try to arrange a division of some sort.”
“That doesn’t seem right. Yesterday you said . . .” Disappointment embraced her like a suffocating quilt.
“I understand how you feel. But the brother has the upper hand.”
“Do you mean like 50-50?”
“Well, I called his attorney. They are more inclined to 30 percent for you. Still a lot of money; $75,000.”
“But I thought the family disowned him. I thought . . .”
“One more thing, Laurie. I need to remind you we took your case on a contingency basis. Twenty percent. So, our fee would be $15,000.”
“I’m confused right now. I’ll have to think about all this.”
“Consider it this way. You never expected any reward that night you displayed empathy for a hungry man who’d come in off the road. Sixty thousand dollars is still a lot of money.”
Laurie was tired. The process had gone on with disheartening slowness. In subsequent negotiations during the days that followed, it seemed there was no give on the brother’s part. The prospects of a larger settlement had become nothing more than a will-o’-the-wisp. And time was running out. Sixty thousand dollars was, indeed, a lot of money. A week later, Laurie signed documents abandoning any further interest in the Swopes’ inheritance. Martinez handed her a certified check.
Two weeks had passed. Laurie and Wilford sat at a window table. It was late in the day, and dusk had begun to redden the sky. They had talked about various things, including Wilford’s decision that it was just not worth trying to fix the sign. But so far, they had avoided the topic that concerned them both; Laurie’s imminent departure.
“I guess you and Fred concluded things,” Wilford said. “I’m sure it’s been hard for you.”
“Well, I gave him some money. And he promised to stay away. Who knows? Maybe he will. Anyway, he knows I’ve started the divorce. I needed some money for that, too.”
“Pleased this is all working out for you, Laurie,” Wilford said. “I’m glad you got something out of the settlement. I’ve never got over feeling bad that I gave you all this grief. By handing over that damn watch.”
“Don’t worry. I know your intentions were good.”
“One reason I’ve been hanging on here is I was hoping things would work out for you. I suppose now you’ll be heading back east.”
“That’s been my plan, Wilford. Kind of tired of looking at sand and rocks.”
“So, I guess it’s time for me to close this place. I’ve had my eye on a little restaurant in Santa Fe. Expect I’ll do just fine.”
“Come on,” Laurie said. “You don’t have enough money for a new place. How much do you need?”
“Well, actually quite a bit.”
Laurie leaned forward, arms on the table. “I’ve been thinking. I suspect I’ve been gone from Thetford Crossing for too long.”
“I always thought you didn’t like it here. I thought you were homesick.”
“Maybe I was. Anyway, I’ve got a new idea. I’ve got quite a bit of money now. Having some money kind of gives you a new outlook on things. Maybe these New Mexico sunsets aren’t so bad, after all.”
“I don’t understand.”
“How about if I put up a chunk of money and we go partners in a new place?” She believed he’d harbored hope for a loan but couldn’t bring himself to ask her.
A look of incredulity crossed Wilford’s face. But when Laurie looked straight at him and said, “I’m serious, Wilford. Dead serious,” he grinned broadly.
“You won’t be sorry, Laurie.”
“Green Mountains will have to wait a bit longer.”
She reached across, and they shook hands.
Two months later, just outside Santa Fe. Laurie leaned on the shining counter in the newly opened Brodie’s Roadside Grill. She spoke to Maria Gutierrez, the young woman they’d hired to help them with the place. So far, business was good.
“Maria, have I told you yet about that night this fellow came in off the road?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A former U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Farrar served multiple times in Japan, Europe, and Washington, D.C. Short-term assignments took him to more than 30 countries from Iran to China and Tanzania to Venezuela. Farrar is a member of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. His work has appeared 75 times or so in lit magazines.
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