Salton

Salton

A Story by Mounsell

Chapter I

Hunched over the diner's long counter was a haggard figure.  Dirt coated the shirt on his back and the old work boots on his feet.   His hands, which presently held an empty mug, were calloused by hard work.  He tousled his hair and was able to loose some dust.

He watched as the diner's only waitress moved from table to table, wiping each surface with a ragged cloth.  A few minutes was all it took for her to clean the majority of the tables. Standing over the last sullied surface and only a few feet away from John, she scrubbed tenaciously at a single stubborn smudge. 

With no intended audience, she commented, "Looks like this spot doesn't want to come out."

After several more minutes of cleaning, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Looking out the diner's front windows, his thoughts were carried to the long road that lay ahead of him.  He remembered the waitress's statement that only a handful of towns stood along this two-lane highway.  Fueling stations would be even scarcer.  This piece of information troubled him.  His truck sat outside the diner with less than half a tank of gas remaining. 

Turning back to the front of the diner, he pulled a heavily worn map from his jacket pocket.  He spent some time unfolding it and set it on the counter.  While studying the map, he glimpsed the approaching waitress.  She carried a pot of black coffee in her right hand and the rag in her left.

When asked if he wanted some, he responded, tersely, "Please."

After filling his cup, the waitress asked him, "Well, John, where are you going to go from here?"

Tracing a long highway on the map with his index finger, John replied, "I'm gonna follow this road all the way here."  He tapped a fork in the highway.  "Then, Anna, I'll head north to one of the bigger cities."

"You mean like Los Angeles?"

"Yeah."  He folded the map and returned it to his pocket.  "I'm sure I can get work there."

She nodded in agreement and told him, "I'll be right back with your burger."

While watching her leave the room, John grabbed the steaming cup in front of him.  Once it had cooled some, he sipped the coffee and waited patiently for his meal.  He could hear the sound of the grill.  Although he was unable to see into the kitchen, he knew that burger was being prepared just a short distance away. He did not have to wait long, as the kitchen door swung open just minutes later.

Seeing Anna walk from the kitchen, plate in hand, he held his empty mug up and told her, "You make a mean cup of joe."

"Thanks, John."

She set his meal before him and remarked, "Here you go."

Sampling it, he added, "You make a great burger, too."

She moved to fill John's cup.

"No thank you," he said, shaking his head.

She asked him, "Are you sure?  You have a long way to go before the next town."

John considered this and conceded.  "Go ahead and fill it up."

After following John's instructions, Anna left him alone in the dining room.  He only took a few minutes to finish his meal.  Sifting through his pocket's contents, he managed to find enough cash to pay the bill.  John placed these crumpled bills atop the counter, stood up from his stool, and walked towards the end of the silent dining room.  Standing by the door, he fastened the buttons of his jacket and readied himself for the trip out into the cold, desert air.

A voice cut through the silence.  "Goodbye, John."

He looked over his shoulder and saw Anna standing behind the counter, keys in hand.

"Goodbye, Anna," he replied.

Opening the front door, he felt the cold air rush to meet him.  He closed his jacket tightly about his body and strode quickly to the lone truck sitting outside.  Once there, he pulled a key from his pocket.  The cold air rattled his hands and he fumbled at the door's lock. After managing to open the door and setting himself in the driver's seat, John looked about the cab and spied a few of supplies.   On the floorboard laid a pair of work gloves, covered with dirt.  A pair of sunglasses and a canteen, half-filled with water, both sat in the passenger seat.

He placed his key in the ignition.  Turning it, the truck came alive.  Its bright lights cut through the expansive darkness and its engine let loose a low growl.  Checking the fuel gauge, John saw that its needle hung precariously above the "E."  He pulled away from the diner and accelerated quickly down the highway.  In his truck's rear-view mirror, John was able to watch the lights of the diner grow fainter and fainter.

Within minutes, he was able spy a few lights along the road.  He drove for only a short time before reaching their source.  Along each side of the road were various shops, some dimly lit and others not at all.  He searched for a filling station and quickly found one on the western edge of the town.  John parked by one of the pumps and stepped out of his truck.  Looking towards the far side of the lot, he spotted a small, brightly lit building with signs for cola and tobacco propped up in its windows.  He walked inside and looked about.  In one of the store's large freezers, John found a collection of water bottles and pulled one from the shelf.  After walking to the counter, he set the bottle down.

Without looking up, the cashier asked him, "Is that it?"

"I need to get some gas from the second pump," John replied, opening his wallet.

He handed the man a few dollar bills and walked out to fill his tank.  After doing so, he drove from the lot; he looked toward the road signs and compared them to the labels of his map.  Following this signage, he quickly found his way back onto the highway.

 

 

Chapter II

            With a roar like a lion, the truck made its way down the highway.  The vehicle kicked up clouds of dust and coated its exterior with the stuff.  The truck's windshield was splattered by the innards of dozens of insects.  The driver, seemingly oblivious of any posted speed limits, was able to make quick progress along his route. 

            Even through the thick layer of grime on his windshield, John was able to see this highway.  The miles of road that lay before him appeared to fade into the distance much like the miles behind him had.  Each mile he saw the same gravel road, the same desert, and the same hot sun.  The great distance he had covered and the great stretch of highway before him troubled John.

            He kept one hand on the steering wheel and held his map with the other.  Having memorized each of the map's features, John was able to stay on his planned route.  The monotony of his drive was broken only by a few brief radio transmissions.  From these, he was able to make out the melodies of various songs.  The growing distance between John and the sending stations lessened the clarity of these transmissions.  As he drove further, they ceased altogether.

            The needle of the truck's fuel gauge had moved further and further towards the large red "E" with each passing mile.  John, no longer distracted by the radio, noted this.  He tapped at the gauge's glass cover, and frowned.  His drive had taken up much of his tank and no filling stations were in sight.  John glanced once more at the map.  He determined that he had traveled well over a hundred miles from the last town. 

            After several more hours of driving, the truck's engine began to sputter.  John glanced at the fuel gauge and saw that it was still positioned above the "E."  Looking towards the hood of his truck, he noticed a rising cloud of smoke.  He decided to pull over.  Once he had brought it to a complete stop along the side of the dusty road, John stepped out of his vehicle and lifted the hood.  Watching the smoke continue to rise, he muttered a few obscenities.

            He decided to set off for the next town on foot.  The mercury rose ever higher, but driving was an impossibility.  The few supplies he had in his truck were soon retrieved. Holding a bottle of water, a pair of sunglasses, and a weathered map, John set off towards the next town.   

            After several hours of hiking, John was able to spy a small house along the horizon.  Unable to make out the finer details of the structures, he took them to simply be mirages.  When he finally came close to them, John realized they were not the result of heatstroke.  This realization quickened his pace.  He hoped its inhabitants would be able to give him a ride to the next town. 

            As he drew closer to the home, John began to doubt whether it was occupied.  He walked to the building's side, and peered in through a gritty window.  Wiping away a thick film of dirt with his sleeve, he was able to see the dilapidated state of the home.  Its wallpaper had chipped and cracked, revealing the rotting wood underneath. A few wooden chairs were scattered about the small area that John was able to see.  A red couch with its foam cushions exposed sat along the far wall, just below a cluster of old photographs. 

            He pulled his face away from the window.  Stepping carefully through the bushes, John headed back towards the road.  Checking his pockets, he realized that his sunglasses had fallen somewhere within the thick shrubbery.  He found them lying below the window sill.  Wiping dirt from their lenses, John continued down the road.

 

 

Chapter III

            As the sun sank ever lower, John began to concern himself with thoughts of shelter.  He knew a night in the desert would be extremely cold and unpleasant, and felt no desire to test his fortitude.  A bitter wind nipped at John’s back, and he wrapped his jacket even tighter.

            As the moon rose high above him, John heard a low rumble.  Looking ahead, he was able to spy two faint lights.  The lights grew brighter and he could make out the outline of a truck.  The driver, too, appeared aware of the man hiking alongside the road.  He pulled his truck over on the opposite side of the road.  Turning his head towards John, the driver looked the hiker over several times and saw his appearance was atypical of the usual hitchhikers.  The stubble on the man's jaw was trimmed, the clothing he wore appeared relatively clean, and the shock of brown hair atop his head had been carefully combed.

            The driver, upon determining the man was not a threat, shouted out the question, "Need a lift?" 

            He looked at the driver and weighed this deal.  This decision took mere seconds as a frigid wind bit at John’s back once again.  He replied in the affirmative, and walked to the passenger side of the truck. Once he had lifted his tired body into the cab, John looked around for a map of the area.  On the floor sat an atlas folded back to reveal a map of the area.  John glimpsed at it and saw the nearest filling station was well outside walking distance.  The driver noticed John was glancing at the atlas.

            "This isn't a museum.  Feel free to grab it."

            John took the atlas in hands and studied his planned route.  The driver started up the truck and began to speak. 

            "I'm glad you accepted my offer.  Nights out here can get pretty cold." 

            John nodded and the driver continued speaking.

             "I'd sure like to know why you're out here.  I'm sure you have your reasons, but I haven't seen any hitchhikers carrying nothing but a bottle of water and a wad of cash." 

            John looked down at the scarce supplies in his hands.

            "Sure," the man continued, "a bottle of water quenches your thirst, but you can't eat cash."

            John looked at the driver and spoke.  "I know.  I've tried." 

            The man chuckled and John explained, "My truck broke down a few miles back.  I plan on getting fixed in the next town."

            The driver contemplated on his passenger's situation.  Suddenly struck by a thought, the man turned to face John and spoke. 

            "I just realized I never told you my name." 

            Holding out his hand, the man said, "The name's Bill Hodge, but you can call me Bill."

            John turned to face Bill. 

            "My name's John, John Turner."  

            "Well, Mr. Turner…"

             "John’s fine."

            "Well, John," Bill continued, "I'm sure you'll understand my thinking when I ask: You don't have a place to sleep, do you?"

            John answered, "I've enough cash to rent a motel room for a few nights."

            "Now, you don't need to go off and waste your money on some musty old motel room when I have a perfectly good home just up ahead.  Me and my wife, you can call her Mrs. Hodge, have a bedroom that's been empty for close to ten years now.  She loves having guests and you would be no exception."

            Before John could reply, Bill added, "Besides, this area doesn't have any motels."

            John thanked the man and accepted his offer. 

            "Great!  We'll be coming up to the house in just a few minutes.  Just be careful when you walk in.  Mrs. Hodge turns into some kind of fiend if she ever gets woken up in the middle of the night."

            Bill laughed and began to look more intently at the road ahead.

            As the truck roared down the highway, its headlights lit up a large, rusting sign along the side of the road.  John was able to make out the word "Salton" before the truck passed it.

            The two men sat in silence for most of the drive.  Bill was absorbed by his driving and John was absorbed by the passing landscape.  After about an hour, John spotted a faint glow in the distance. 

            Bill pointed out this glow and said, "There's the house."

            John was able to make out the finer features of this house only after the truck had driven much closer.  The source of the glow, as John soon discovered, was a tall lantern standing in the middle of the yard. 

            The house appeared adequately maintained by its residents.  Bill had trimmed the bushes away from the stone path leading up to the front door and had placed a few potted plants on the porch.  These plants were unable to survive the intense summer heat, despite Bill's careful watering regimen.

            Bill saw John looking at the vegetation and explained that "nothing wants to grow here."

            Drawing his attention to the house's exterior, John could tell it had seen much better days.  The paint had begun to chip, and the windows were peppered with dust picked up by the desert wind.

            Bill parked the truck in front of the home.   Both men got out of the cab and followed a concrete path to the front door. 

            John steps up the stairs caused the wooden beams to creak.  He looked at the steps and saw they were warped by weather and age.

            As Bill Hodge drew a key from his pocket and placed it in the lock, he turned back towards John and spoke.

            “Now I know you don’t have any other clothing with you.  There’s some in the extra bedroom’s drawers.  They're not exactly the most stylish pieces, but they’ll probably fit you."

            Bill pushed open the door and John walked through the threshold.  John noted the stark contrast between the conditions of the interior and the exterior of the house.  Inside, the house appeared well maintained.  The walls were covered with a light sea green paint which matched those pieces of furniture which sat throughout the home.  Old photographs of family members hung in clusters on the walls.  Gaudy porcelain figures lined the shelves.  The only light came from a dimmed lamp sitting on a coffee table in the corner farthest from John.

            Upon entering the bedroom pointed out to him by Bill, John spied a large chestnut dresser along the far wall below the sole window.              Pulling his head back from the photographs, John stifled a yawn.  He looked at a clock along the wall and saw that dawn was only a few hours away.  John fell back on the bed and slept.

 

 

Chapter IV

            John woke up shortly after the sun had risen.  Looking out his window, he saw the area had yet to be lit up by day.  John pulled his body from the bed and began to prepare for the day ahead.

            John noticed that atop the dresser stood a single framed photograph.  He reached over to the lamp and turned the switch.  The light allowed John to make out the minute features of this picture.  Looking closely, John quickly discovered the two figures shown were a much younger Bill Hodge and his son.  The boy whose arm was wrapped around his father reminded John of himself.  The young man's dark stubble and rugged features were shared by John.  Each man, however, displayed much different senses of style.  John had worn the clothes issued to him by his father but this young Hodge wore the uniform of a social misfit.  Hodge's blue jeans and shoulder-length hair starkly contrasted with the work attire and close-cropped haircut John had once worn. The boisterous smile that lied across Hodge's face showed his great elation.  Drawing his attention to the older man standing next to the boy, John could see a similar smile spread across Bill's face.  The father appeared younger and much more joyous than his present self. 

            John directed his attention to the dresser itself and opened several of the drawers.        Sifting through piles of magazines and books, John was able to find several pieces of clothing that may have been considered stylish twenty years ago. 

He pulled a long-sleeved plaid shirt on and buttoned it.  A pair of jeans he picked from the pile was rather slim on his frame and he tried on a different pair.  These new jeans fit the same and he gave up trying to find a looser pair.

            While glancing at his clothing in the mirror, John noticed the aroma of pancakes and sausage wafting into his room.  He followed it across the house and finally came to the kitchen. 

            From across the room, he could see Mrs. Hodge busy at the stove.  At the kitchen's small round table, Bill sat with his head hidden behind a newspaper.  Every once in a while, an arm would appear from behind the paper, grab the mug of coffee sitting on the table, and replace it a few seconds later.

            The distinctive click of John’s boots shook Bill from his position at the table.  Mr. Hodge, placing his newspaper on the table, greeted John with a hearty "Good morning!"  John smiled at this exclamation and replied similarly. 

            As Bill's spouse turned to face the visitor, John spoke. 

            "Mrs. Hodge, I presume?" 

            "Why, yes, but you can call me Martha.  Bill has told me a lot about you." 

            "Did he tell you how he saved me from the desert?" 

            Exchanging knowing glances with her husband, Martha said, "He may have told me once or twice." 

            Bill chuckled and returned to his newspaper.  As Martha opened her mouth to speak, the sizzling in her cast-iron pan became much more intense.

            "How about we talk more over breakfast?" asked Mrs. Hodge, returning to the range.

            "Sounds great," said John.

            Lifting a pan from the stove, Martha began to pile strips of bacon and pancakes on John’s plate.  He noticed the growing pile of food on his plate, but did not motion for Mrs. Hodge to stop.  After some minutes, the woman stopped piling John’s plate and served Bill.  Bill noticed the grub and set his newspaper to the side.  Martha sat down at the table once she had placed some food on her plate.

            Noticing that both men had finished eating, Martha grabbed their dishes and moved them to the sink.  She returned with two cups of coffee just as Bill began to talk with John.

            “So what brings you way out here?" Bill inquired.

            “Well,” John replied, “I’m on break, and I’ve always wanted to see this part of the country.”        Martha set the mugs in front of each man and John thanked her.

            Bill replied, after taking a sip of his coffee, “Break from school?"

            “Break from everything.”

            “Ah.”  He took another sip.

            John could tell that Bill didn’t completely understand.

            “Back home in Maryland," he elaborated, "my father was really strict.  He ran our household like a boot camp and treated my sister and I like grunts.  After about eighteen years, I got completely sick of it and left."

            "And your sister?" asked Mrs. Hodge, sitting down at the table.

            "They were enrolled in college by the time I left." 

            “So what have you-” Mr. Hodge thought long and hard about the words he wanted to say.  "What have you done since you went your own way?"

             “I’ve had a lot of jobs in the past few years: busking in Memphis, pumping gas in Tulsa, bussing tables in Amarillo.  Eventually, I scraped enough greasy plates to buy an old truck and I’ve been traveling around the country ever since.”

            John looked at a clock on the wall and then at Bill. 

            “That reminds me, Bill," he began, "you don’t happen to know the number of the nearest tow company, do you?  I should probably get my truck into town soon."

            “Don’t worry about that.  Neil Bruner has a tow truck he can use to pull your vehicle into town.”

            "Neil Bruner?" John asked, puzzled.

            "He owns a car garage on the outskirts of town," explained Bill.  "If you're willing to stay in town for a while, he could fix your truck, too."

“That would be great, Bill,” replied John enthusiastically.

            “In the meanwhile,” Bill added, “You may want to look around town.  Salton has a few shops you might find interesting."

            Martha added, "We also have a great restaurant right in the middle of town. You'd enjoy it."

            John thanked both Bill and Martha and stood up from the table.  He walked back to his bedroom and grabbed his wallet from atop the dresser. John left through the front door and set off towards town.

 

 

 

 

Chapter V

            Despite the oppressive heat, John was able to reach the edge of town within a few minutes. 

            Walking through town, he saw the effects the salty air had on each building.  Every structure’s paint had been slowly gnawed away by the salty air.  This corrosion left metal exposed and contributed to the rapid aging of each building.  The most severe cases were few in number.

            John walked for some distance before seeing a curio shop that piqued his interest.  From the sidewalk, he was able to make out a number of antiquities in the store’s window front:  An old bottle, an anchor, a ceramic ship, and an assortment of small trinkets.

            Once inside, John was greeted by an older man with salt-and-pepper stubble.  John returned the greeting and looked about the shop.  An acoustic guitar along the far wall caught his eye.  The instrument looked as though it had been exposed to the salty air for far too long. John inspected the damage and saw that it only had a few nicks on its surface.  The strings had uncoiled in several spots but were easily replaceable.  The instrument remained in John’s mind long after he left the shop.

            When the sun rose to a position directly above the town, John began to grow hungry.  He realized he had only eaten a few bites of the breakfast prepared for him by Martha.  John strolled to the center of town and saw the restaurant Martha had suggested he eat at.  The large windows of the building allowed him to see much of the dining room.  Only two people sat in the diner.  The man, sitting in a booth adjacent to the window, had his head stuck in a newspaper.  He seemed oblivious to the girl cleaning the tables around him. 

            John was suddenly struck by the girl’s appearance.  Her flaxen hair, her clear blue eyes, and the spray of freckles across her face all seemed so out of place in a town such as this.  The only residents he had seen thus far were much older and carried countenances weathered by time.  In regards to age, she appeared as young as John.

            Opening the front door, John could feel a rush of cool air rush to meet him.  The jingle of the bell tied around the door handle startled the girl.  She set the rag in her hand on a nearby table and walked to the front of the restaurant. 

            “Table or booth?” 

            John, still struck by the girl’s sweet looks, failed to register her question.  She repeated it and he replied “Table.”

            The girl led John to a table near the other patron.  The man looked up from his paper and spoke to John.

            “You look new here.”

            “Yeah, I just got into town last night.  I plan to leave as soon as I can get my truck fixed.”

            “It broke down on you?” the man asked, studying John.

            “Yeah,” replied John. 

            The man returned to his newspaper.

            The girl walked over John’s table and asked him, “Coffee or soda?” 

            “I’ll just have water.”

            She left and quickly returned with a glass full of water.  She placed it in front of John.  He looked closely at the glass and was able to see a layer of salt lying along its bottom.

            “This is the only water we can pump here,” she said.  “Now, if you want some coffee, it’ll cost you a dollar.”

            She bent over the table, pen and notepad in hand, eagerly waiting for his response. 

            John gazed glumly at the water placed before him.  His obviously false disappointment with the situation amused the girl.  She smiled, revealing two rows of pearly whites.

            John answered, after much contemplation, "I'll just have some coffee."

            "Very good, sir." she replied, noting his order on the pad.

            The girl walked back into the kitchen.  A few minutes later, she appeared by his table, and handed him a cup of hot coffee.

            John sipped his coffee until only a few drops remained.  While cleaning tables, the girl noticed John sitting with an empty cup still in his hand and asked him if he was ready to order.  John replied with a simple "yes," and she listed his choices.

            "You can have burgers and fries, a burger with no fries, or fries with no burger."

            John answered, "I'll have the burger and no fries."

            "How would you like your burger done?  We cook 'em medium-rare."

            John smiled and said, "Medium-rare is fine.  I was planning on ordering it that way anyway, but you went ahead and read my mind."

            The other patron, still sitting in his booth, interjected, "She does that."

            "I'll be back with your burger in a few minutes," said the girl.

            As John waited for his burger, he heard the bell on the front door jingle.  Looking up, he saw the other patron walking out the door.  A few moments passed and John saw Bill Hodge walk into the restaurant. 

            The girl noticed Bill's entrance as well and walked out of the kitchen to greet him.  The plate she carried out of the kitchen held a large steaming burger.  As the girl walked by John's table, she placed the plate in front of him. 

            "If it isn't Bill Hodge!" Lissie exclaimed.  "How are you doing?"

            "I'm doing just fine, Lissie.  Thanks for asking."

            "And Mrs. Hodge?"

            "She's good.  She's good."

            "Well, what can I do for you, Bill?"

            "I just came in to see how John was doing."

            "Well," Lissie said, turning towards John, "from the look on his face, he's enjoying one of my burgers."

            John heard her say his name and looked up.  Lissie smiled at him and walked back to the kitchen.  Bill took the seat across from John and began to speak.

            "I talked to Neil Bruner and, unfortunately, his truck's winch is broken.  This might make getting back on the road a bit more difficult.  It's gonna take a few days or so to get the winch repaired.  As for fixing truck, that could be anywhere from a week to a month.  Salton isn't exactly a metropolitan center.  Fortunately, this predicament gives you more time to stay in town."

            "Well," John replied, thinking back to the girl in the kitchen, "It is a pretty nice town."

            Bill nodded and glanced at the kitchen door.  John followed suit and saw the girl walking out of the kitchen with a coffee pot.  She walked to John and Bill's table and filled both their mugs with coffee.  Once both their cups were full, she took a seat at the table.

            "So you've met Lissie?" asked Bill.

            Exchanging smiles with Lissie, John said "We've talked a little bit."

            Lissie interrupted, "I read his mind."

            "She read my mind," confirmed John.

             "She does that," said Bill.

            Lissie directed the conversation towards John.

            "So what brings you to Salton?"

            "Well," John began, "a few dozen miles out of town, my truck broke down.  As you probably already know, Bill, here, chanced upon me and saved me from the cold weather."

            "Staying anywhere?" she asked.

            John replied, "Bill's letting me stay in his home."

            "That's pretty nice of Bill," said Lissie, "He's not like Mrs. Hodge.  Doesn't care much for visitors."

            "Well, John's different." Bill spoke.  "I could tell he was a lot better than the people that usually come to my house."

            "You mean Debora and Sarah?" asked Lissie.

            "Yeah.  Anyway, John's going to be staying in town a few days until we can get his truck fixed."

            John nodded and Bill continued speaking.

            "Lucky for him, the chili festival is in a few days." 

            "The chili festival?" John enquired.

            "It's an annual event here in Salton." answered Bill, "All the townspeople come out to watch and to eat.  You'll get to taste Lissie's chili.  It really is some of the best in the region." 

            He added quickly, "Still can't beat my Martha's."

            Lissie jabbed Bill in the side with her elbow. 

            "Now, Bill, you know my chili has won the contest three years in a row."

            "Maybe, but don't expect a fourth.  Martha's been perfecting her recipe and I'm sure it has what it takes to win this year.  I should know.  She's been making me taste test it.

            "We'll see when the contest comes."

            After this exchange, Bill and Lissie directed their attention towards John, who sat listening to their banter with an amused smirk on his face.

             John told the two that he would love to attend and Bill cheered.  At the man's exuberant exclamation, both Lissie and John grinned. 

            Bill glanced at his watch and spoke.  "Well, I should probably get going.  Martha wants me to test some more of her recipe.  I swear to God, I'll be sick of chili by the time the contest is over."

            Bill stood up from the table.  Lissie walked to the door with him and they exchanged a few words.  John saw Bill hand her a few dollars and walk out the door.  John walked to the front and asked the waitress about his tab. 

            Lissie responded "Bill already paid it, but if you want to give me more money, I'd gladly accept it." 

            John smiled and left the restaurant.

 

 

Chapter VI

            Leaving the restaurant, John thought back to the guitar in the curio shop.  The instrument had appeared in fair condition.  The salty air had done minimal damage, and any other imperfections could be easily fixed. 

            Walking through town, he was able to quickly find the shop.  He walked through its door and exchanged greetings with the shopkeeper. 

            John walked to the wall that held the guitar.  He grabbed the price tag hanging from the instrument.  Looking at this tag and the condition of the guitar, John determined it was a fair deal.  He brought the guitar to the shopkeeper's counter and handed him a wad of bills. 

            "Musician?" the man asked, checking the price tag.

            "I can play a few licks."

            "Why don't you play me something?" Mark implored.

            John took the guitar's strap and placed it around his shoulder.  He proceeded to play one of the few songs he knew.  The instrument's rich tones filled the room and greatly entertained Mark.  After a few minutes the music faded away, and John took the strap from his shoulder,

            The shopkeeper waited for the last notes to die away before saying, "You're pretty good."

            John replied, simply, "Thanks."

            "You know Lissie?"

            John nodded.

            "She holds a concert every week in her diner.  Pretty good, too.  Voice like an angel."     

            Now that the man mentioned it, John remembered seeing a poster at the restaurant that proclaiming the times of these performances. 

            "8:00 p.m. every Friday, right?" John asked.

            "That's right."

            The man watched as John began to leave the store.

            "Hold on a second.  I have a case for the guitar,"

            He walked to the wall behind the counter, grabbed a large black case, and handed it to John.  The instrument was placed in its case. 

            Before John left the shop, the man spoke again.  "Be sure to tell Lissie that Mark Doulas told you about the concert.  You won't have to pay cover."

            John wished Mark a good day and stepped out of the shop.  Outside, the heat was beginning to weaken its grip on Salton.  The wind had picked up while John was in the shop and brushed against him as he made his way to the Hodges' home.  He had to walk only a few minutes before reaching the house.  He trudged up the wooden steps.

            Even from the front porch, John could smell chili cooking.  He sniffed and could make out the distinctive smell of aroma of tomato, onions, and black pepper.  He opened the door and the overwhelming aroma rushed to meet him.

Bill heard the door creak open and beckoned John with the phrase, "We're in the kitchen!"

            John followed his nose to the room.  Once inside, he set his guitar in the corner.  He could see Martha standing by the table with a pot of chili.  Bill sat at the round table with nearly a dozen bowls in front of him.  He appeared fatigued by the taste-testing he had done thus far, and leaned backwards in his chair.

            Martha filled yet another bowl of chili for Bill and handed it to him.  He lifted a spoonful of the steaming chili to his lips and blew across it.  Once the food seemed cool enough, he placed it in his mouth, and made careful considerations of its taste and texture.

            "Still too much onion," Bill commented.

            Martha replied, "Sure, dear?"

            "I'm sure."

            John watched as Martha spent some more time preparing her recipe.  She added each ingredient in varying amounts until only the onion remained outside her pot.  Lastly, she sliced the onions beside her and placed only a few pieces in her large pot.  Martha placed the concoction on the stove to simmer and turned back towards John. 

            "So, John," she began, "Did you have fun in town?

            "Yeah.  I tried out that little restaurant you told me about. Lissie makes a mean burger."

            "She is pretty good with any kind of dish, but burgers are her specialty."

            Bill glanced at the guitar in the corner and asked John, "You bought a guitar?"

            John nodded and said, "I looked around a few of the shops and managed to find a good guitar sitting in Mark Douglas' shop."

            "Is it in good shape?" inquired Bill.

            "It's in fair condition.  There are a few nicks and some wear, but otherwise, it's playable."

            "Speaking of guitars," Martha interrupted, "Lissie has a concert every Friday night at her diner."

            "Yeah, I know.  Mark told me about it."

            "You really should go," Martha said, holding a spoon in her hand, "She's got…"

            John interrupted, "A voice like an angel?"

            "Yes.  Anyway, you'll really enjoy the concert.  Bill can drive you there.  Isn't that right, Bill?"

            Bill looked up and said "Yes, I'll drive him.  I was going to ask him if needed a ride."

            "I'll drive you there."

            Martha waited a few minutes before turning the stove off.  She took the spoon in her hand and used it to fill a clean bowl with chili.  Bill was handed the bowl.  He sampled the recipe and grinned from ear to ear.

            "It's perfect," he stated.

            "Really?" replied Martha.  "I don't want Lissie beating me again."

            She paused, looked at John, and said "John, come try this recipe."

            John was handed a small bowl of the chili.  Putting a spoonful in his mouth, his tongue was suddenly overwhelmed by the piquant ingredients.  He motioned for a glass of water and Mrs. Hodge handed him a cup of milk.

            She explained, "Water just makes it worse."

            John gulped down the milk and spoke.

            "It's really spicy."

            "But does it taste good?"  Martha inquired.

            "Yeah, it's great."

            Martha smiled and thanked John.

            She whispered in Bill's ear, "I've got this contest in the bag."

            Bill replied "Sure, honey."

            John grabbed his guitar case and walked to the living room. 

             "The two hours between now and the concert will give me some time to fix the guitar," John thought.

            Sitting in the living room, John was able to make some progress repairing the guitar.  He found an extra set of strings lying beneath a pile of clothing in the chestnut dresser.  Repairing the wood, he discovered, would prove much more difficult.  Some of the scratches on the instrument were particularly deep and he lacked the materials to repair them. 

            John decided to finish the repairs later.  He placed the guitar in the extra bedroom, and began to prepare for Lissie's concert.  He had just slipped his jacket on when he heard a knock at the bedroom door.  Opening the door, he saw Bill standing, hat in hand.

            "Ready to go?" Bill asked.

            John finished buttoning his jacket and replied "Ready."

            Bill drove John to the diner.  John asked Bill, "Aren't you going?"

            "No," Bill replied.  "I've got a date with some chili."

            "I thought Martha had finished preparing her recipe."

            "Martha is pretty serious about this upcoming contest.  She's trying her hardest to not let Lissie to win a fourth time."

            "Ah.  Well, I'll see you later." John said, stepping out of the truck.

            John closed the truck door and walked into the restaurant.  From his position at the front of the diner, he was able to see Lissie tuning her guitar on the small stage.  Several people, including Mark Douglas, sat by tables near the stage and sipped beers.  The man who had sat near John earlier that day stood in front of the stage, conversing with Lissie. 

            Lissie looked away from the man and saw John taking a seat across the room. 

            "Why don't you sit closer, John?  I'm not gonna bite you."

            John stood up from his chair and moved to a table by the stage.

            A few minutes after eight o'clock, Lissie began her performance.  The first few tunes were purely instrumental.  John watched as Lissie pulled mellow tones from her instrument and projected them to the audience.  With each song, Lissie's performance grew livelier.  After some time, Lissie's voice began to rise above the rich sounds of her guitar.  The clear, powerful voice that leapt from Lissie's mouth filled the room stunned John.  He sat in quiet awe for the remainder of the performance.

            Once the concert ended, and the other members of the audience left the diner, John lingered. 

            Lissie was placing her instrument inside its case when she asked John, "Like the concert?"

            "Like it?" John answered.  "I think it was amazing.  Mark was right when he said you have the voice of an angel."

            "Mark said that? I'll have to thank him when I see him again." 

            Lissie placed her guitar in its case and stepped down from the stage.  She grabbed a chair and sat near John.

            "So, are you a musician yourself, or do you just listen?"

            John turned his chair to face her and replied, "I've played guitar for a few years now."

            "Any good at it?"

            John, ever humble, replied "I can play a little bit."

            Lissie replied "Stay right there," and turned away from John.

            She pulled her case to the front of the stage and pulled the guitar out.  Once handed the instrument, John pulled the strap over his shoulder. 

            "Play something!" Lissie implored.         

            He complied and soon found himself strumming the notes of a song whose name he could not remember.  After only a few seconds, she picked up the melody and began to quietly hum along.  The tune grew faster and louder and Lissie's shifted her humming into singing.  She knew the lyrics by heart.  The sounds of John's playing faded away after a few minutes, but the girl continued to sing. Realizing this, Lissie quickly silenced herself. 

            "Sorry," she said.

            "Don't be sorry, Lissie.  You seemed to be really enjoying yourself."

            "Yeah, it's a great song.

            John shook his head.

            "Hmm.  You know, John, you're pretty good."

            John handed the instrument back to Lissie

            "I know you're only gonna be in town for a few more days…" Lissie began.

            Lissie paused for a moment, as if she was unsure of the worth of her question. 

            "How would you like to play with me next Friday?" Lissie asked.

            She added quickly "I mean, if you're still here."

            "Sure.  I can stay in town a few days longer."

            "That's great!" Lissie exclaimed.

            Lissie calmed herself and peered at the clock above her kitchen's door.

            "It's getting pretty late.  Could you help me carry my stuff to the house?" Lissie asked.

            "Your house?"

            Lissie replied, with a smirk, "No, the president's.  Of course my house."

 

 

Chapter VII

            John carried Lissie's guitar as they walked to her home.  Not burdened with any load, Lissie was able to run ahead of him and frequently did so.  Once she reached the edge of town, Lissie turned back to see John lagging behind. 

            After John finally caught up, she remarked, "Don't worry, we're almost there."

            "Almost?" John replied, wearily.

            "You didn't think I lived in town, did you?"

            As the pair continued down the dusty road, John noticed the sun setting to his right.  Its auburn form was cupped between two distant mountain peaks, as if they were laying the sun to rest.  The aura of this fiery sphere reflected upon the sparse clouds and painted them a brilliant shade of amber. 

            Lissie noticed John gazing off to the west and jogged back to him.  When the sun completely disappeared from their view, she broke the silence.

            "Beautiful, huh?"

            John replied, "It sure is."

            The two continued along the road and John spoke again.

            "You know, I've never had the time to appreciate nature.  At sunset, I'm usually in the back of some kitchen or looking for the next town on my route."

            "That's one of the great things about Salton.  It's not as fast-paced as the big cities." 

            "Is that the reason you live way out here?" John inquired.

            "One of them." Lissie replied.

            Before John could inquire further, Lissie ran far ahead of him.  He looked where she had run to and saw a quaint home, lit by a single lamp on its lawn.  The ground around the house was well gardened.  Despite the arid land around it, the garden's plants had managed to survive and even to flourish.  Vibrant yellow sunflowers sat among white daisies, and blue sages.  The home's exterior was painted in a vibrant yellow that paralleled the coloration of the sunflowers. 

            Lissie walked to the front door and pulled a key from under the doormat.  As she pushed open the door, Lissie looked towards John and spoke.

            "Come on in.  I assure you, there are no booby-traps."

            John grabbed the guitar case by his feet and followed her inside the house.  Lissie turned on lamps throughout the house and John was able to spy the clusters of photographs that hung on one side of the living room.  Postcards depicting the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon, and other distant locales, all covered the wall.  In the center of this large cluster was a small photo of a rainy day in Times Square.  In the middle of the square stood a young, flaxen-haired girl, clad in yellow rain gear.  Her hands were placed at her hips as if she was signaling to the cameraman her impatience.  She appeared as though she had been caught mid-laugh. 

Grinning from ear to ear, she revealed the same pearly whites that Lissie had flashed at John in the diner.

            From his position in the living room, he could hear a tea kettle whistle in the kitchen.  A few moments later, Lissie walked in carrying two steaming cups.  He gladly accepted the drink.  Lissie looked at the pictures alongside John.

            She sipped her tea and said, "So you've found my collection?"

            John replied, "It's a little hard to miss."

            "I know.  Did you see the picture of Times Square?"

            "Yeah, you were the one in the yellow raincoat, right?"

            Lissie grinned and said, "Smart man."

            She sat down on a nearby armchair and sipped her tea.

            "Yeah, that photo was taken when I was about sixteen.  It was my first time in New York, surprisingly."

            Puzzled, John asked, "What do you mean?"

            Well, I lived in Yonkers, which is just a few miles out of Manhattan.  I never really understood why my parents wanted me to stay out of the metropolis until that time."

            Lissie looked away from John and sipped her tea.

            "Go on," John implored.

            Lissie smiled and said, excitedly, "Alright, if you insist."

            She began her story, "Well, when that photo was taken, I had only been sixteen a few months, so I was still daddy and mommy's little girl.  Keep that in mind.  It's an important detail."

            "Okay," John said, amused.

            Lissie continued.

            "In December of tenth grade, some of my girl and guy friends had the brilliant idea of sneaking off to New York for New Years Eve.  Of course, the other people were older than me, and most of them had parents who wouldn't care if their children were in Sing Sing.  About three days before New Year's Eve, my friends and I piled into Tony's Cadillac."           

            Looking at John's puzzled look, she quickly added, "Tony was the oldest boy of the group."

            "How did you manage to escape your parents?" John asked. 

            "Well," Lissie began, "When my friends came to pick me up, it was a little after midnight.  I had sat in my bed for God knows how long before I heard their car drive down the street and park in front of my house.  The idiots somehow got to in their heads that the most discreet way to get my attention was to honk the car horn.  Lucky for me, my parents were apparently unconscious by way of sleeping pills. 

Unfortunately for me, though, a rumor had passed from the kids of Yonkers to the adults that talked about a group of teenagers running off to New York for a few days.  My father overreacted, like he always did, and locked my bedroom door from the outside."

            "Could you get out?" John asked.

            "Of course, I could.  My father's mission to keep me in the home that night failed to account for the possibility that I might use my bedroom window as an escape route.  I was prepared for the escape, too.  The night before, I had stashed a suitcase under my bed and filled it with clothing.  I tied a good rope, or at least, I thought it was a good rope, around the suitcase's handle.  When my friends pulled up to the house and blared the horn, my plan went into action.  First, I opened the window, and grabbed the suitcase's rope.  I held the line in my right hand and managed to climb a little ways down the vines that crawled up to my window sill.  I tried to drop my suitcase gently onto the lawn but the rope slid through my hand.  When I climbed all the way down, I realized that my clothes had spilled out of the fallen case.  I collected them hurriedly as my friends shouted at me from the car.  I jogged across the grass and reached for the trunk door.  I discovered it was locked and Tony told me to just hop in the car.  Collecting my things, I moved to a spot in the back seat between Sam and Ashley.  Throughout the rest of the ride, I tried to hold my broken suitcase together."

            "When we got there, Tony checked us in to what had to have been one of the ritziest places in the city.  Marble flooring, magnificent chandeliers, luxurious furniture.  Tony, after checking us in, gave us all room keys.  I slept with Lauren and Ashley, while the boys stayed in another room.  I have to admit, for all of Tony's bad tendencies, he was a great predictor of people.  He knew what would go on if the couples stayed in the same room and didn't want to come back with an extra person by the end of the trip.  I was surprised he didn't make us stay in the same room.  He did have a huge crush on me."

            "Really?" John asked.

            "Oh, yeah," Lissie replied, "you could tell by the way he talked to me."

            Lissie sipped what was left of her tea and continued the story.

            "The morning after we checked in, my friends and I went sightseeing.  That photo," Lissie pointed to the one of her in the raincoat, "was taken about lunchtime.  We had just come out of one of those fancy boutiques and John wanted to take a few glamour shots of me and the girls.  I agreed to do so and he used his newly purchased camera to take that shot.  We ended up eating at some fancy restaurant called Sardi's for dinner.  Tony used his fake I.D. to purchase some two-hundred dollar wine.  By the time the restaurant closed, he was drunk off his a*s and we carried him to the hotel.  I got stuck with him for the night.  He puked in the toilet.  I slept on the couch.  It was magical.

            "The next day was a lot worse.  I woke up to the sound of Tony complaining about a massive headache.  All I had to do to get him to shut up about it was glare at him.  That day happened to be December 31st.  My friends and I made the stupid decision of getting to Times Square just as swarms of people were also entering.  I got separated from Tony and the gang and didn't see him until after the ball dropped.  Less than hour after midnight I found Tony looking pale as a ghost and running from something.  He grabbed my wrist, and pulled me into an alley.  I tried to walk back to the hotel without him but he grabbed me and started to talk so fast I couldn't understand a single word he was saying.  I told him to slow down and he spoke the words, 'The police know I stole my dad's car.'"

            "He stole it?" asked John.

            "Yeah, and wait, it gets better. So we rush back to the hotel.  I'm pissed off and soaked from the rain.  Tony was drenched also and, I suspect, a little drunk.  He makes me pack my things and put them in the car.  Apparently, the other girls and guys had already left, since their suitcases weren't in either of our rooms. 

            "John managed to drive us halfway out of town before the police pulled us over.  Long story short, he got prison and I got a slap on the wrist."

            "I'm sure you're parents weren't nearly as forgiving."

            "You're right.  They went absolutely nuts.  I got sent to a boarding school for girls upstate."

            Lissie looked at the clock across the room and said, "Man, I really talked your ear off."

            "It's alright.  I enjoyed it." John replied.

            He directed his attention to the clock and saw that it was well past midnight. 

            John, grabbing his jacket from the chair of the couch, said "I should be leaving.  Bill and Martha are probably wondering where I am."

            As he walked to the front door, Lissie called his name.

            "John!  You forgot your coat."

            John looked behind him to see her holding his worn jacket.  She smiled and helped him put it on.  Lissie wiped some of the dust from its back and opened the door for him.

            John thanked her and said, "Goodnight, Lissie".

            As he walked out the door and towards the street, she smiled and replied, "Goodnight, John." 

            Walking home, the wind constantly bit at John.  He wrapped his body with the jacket and prayed it would keep him somewhat warm throughout the work.

            The moon offered John a substantial amount of light.  Its beams lit the dusty road ahead of him and each street sign.  John followed this signage home. He no longer had anything to carry and was able to quickly reach the Hodges' home. 

            Standing before the front door, John considered knocking.  He quickly dismissed this idea after considering the possibility that the Hodges were asleep.  He turned the door knob and slowly pushed the door in.  Once inside, he was glad he had not knocked.  Sitting on an armchair in the middle of the room was Bill, snoring.  He appeared as though he had fallen asleep while waiting for John to arrive.

            John moved quietly to the spare bedroom.  He put on more comfortable garb and laid himself under the bed's sheets.  His eyelids began to grow heavy and they soon closed.  The fan above his head whirred quietly as John drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter VIII

            As John awoke, he could feel the breeze caused by the fan's blades caressing his face.  Sunlight trickled through the window and served to warm John's left flank.  He forced himself out from under the bed's sheets.

            Sitting at the foot of the bed, John reached out to open the chestnut dresser's drawers.  He searched the mounds of clothing for some clothing suitable to the weather and found a loose chambray shirt.  He buttoned it and then pulled on a pair of chinos he had also found in the mound.  Their looser fit pleased John.  He pulled his boots on and tied their laces. 

            Standing up, John felt invigorated.  The sleep had served him well and he was ready for the day ahead.  He walked to the bedroom door and pulled it open.  Peering through the doorway, he noticed that Bill had left his spot on the armchair.  The only sign of the man's presence there last night was a light blanket. 

            John followed the soft sounds of conversation that reached his ears from across the house.  The sources of these sounds stood in the kitchen, discussing the day ahead. 

            "You should help me carry some of the stuff to the contest site," John heard Martha say.

            Bill replied, "You can set it in the back of the truck and we can drive over there."

            Both Bill and Martha noticed John's entrance.  He stood at the threshold, listening to their conversation.  Bill was the first to speak to him.

            "You could help Martha carry pots and pans to the chili cook-off, right, John?"

            John replied, "I would be happy to."

            Bill turned to face his wife and said, "I told you, Martha."

            Martha ignored this and spoke to John.

            "I'm sorry, John, but I won't be able to fix you breakfast this morning.  I'm trying really hard to get ready for the chili cook-off.  I'm sure you can find some place in town that will serve you breakfast."

            Martha began to grab pots and pans from her cabinets.  Each container she pulled was studied carefully and either placed on top the kitchen counter or placed on the round table.  Within a few minutes, a large collection of pots and pans sat on the table and an even larger collection sat on the counter.  As soon as the cabinets were cleared of containers, Martha began to pull out utensils.  She seemed much less discriminating when it came to these and placed the vast majority of them in one of the larger pots on the table.  Once she had decided the fate of each utensil, Bill began to carry the materials out to his truck.  John followed suit and the table was quickly cleared.  When the two men set the last of the pots in the back of the truck, Martha came out carrying a blue apron and a few boxes of ingredients.  She took the boxes and dispensed them between the containers.  However, she kept the apron in her hand and carried it into the truck cab.

            As Martha sat in the passenger seat, Bill chatted with John.

            "Thanks for your help, John.  Do you have any money for breakfast?"

            "I have a few dollars." John replied.

            "Why don't you take these, too," Bill said, pulling several dollar bills from his wallet and handing them to John..

            John thanked Bill and the man continued speaking.

            "I'm sure you can find a place in town that serves breakfast.  I doubt Lissie's diner is open today, but there's a small coffee shop less than a block east of it.

            He thanked Bill for the money and information as the man pulled himself into the cab of the truck. 

            From the driver's seat, Bill placed his key in the truck's ignition and brought it to life.  John walked away from the truck and back inside the house.  From his bedroom window, he could see Bill's truck pull away.  John looked through his jean's pockets and found his wallet.  He placed the money Bill had given to him in his wallet and grabbed his sunglasses from the night stand.  He walked out the bedroom and grabbed an extra key hanging from a hook beside the front door.  John moved out of the house and locked the door behind him.  It gave a satisfying click once he set off towards town.

            John discovered the weather was much more pleasant than previous days. The sky was cluttered with heavy grey clouds that told of the impending storm.

            He reached the middle of town within a few minutes.  Following Bill's direction, he was able to quickly find the coffee shop.  John looked through the dirty windows and was unable to see any person inside.  Peering in, he also found no lights were turned on within the building.  He tried the door, but it would not budge. 

            Disappointed, John decided that he would try Lissie's restaurant.  Walking to the restaurant, he began to doubt whether it would be open.  His suspicions were confirmed when he tried the door.  It refused to open.  He glanced through one of the windows.  Although the dining room remained unlit, John was able to see a light in the kitchen.  Even from his position on the sidewalk, he could hear the sound of dishes clattering in that distant room.

            As John turned back towards the road, he could hear a pair of shoes walking across the restaurant's tiled floor.  He listened as someone fumbled with a set of keys and placed one in the door's lock.  A few moments passed and the lock clicked.  John, who now faced the door, watched as it opened and Lissie appeared from behind it.

            "John!" she exclaimed, "I wasn't expecting to see you here.  I thought you would be at the cook-off by now."

            "Yeah," he replied, "I helped Martha get ready for it.  Unfortunately, she didn't have time to cook breakfast for Bill or I and the diner down the road is closed."

            He added quickly, "I'm sure you're too busy to cook me anything."

            She thought for a moment and replied, "I'll see what I can fix you up."

            Without waiting for a response, she walked into the kitchen.  John took a seat at one of the smaller tables.  Looking about him, he was able to see a few tables that remained covered with the stained dishes, scattered napkins, and dirty utensils of past diners. 

            As John looked around the room, he spied Lissie walking out of the kitchen with a plate.  She came closer and John was able to see that the plate was piled high with sausage links, slices of toast, and scrambled eggs.

            Once she set the plate before him, he said, "You really didn't have to go to all this trouble."

            She smiled and responded with "It wasn't a problem at all.  I've cooked this meal so many times, it's gotten really easy to prepare.  Oh, and don't worry about the tab."

            John picked up his fork and poked one of the sausages. 

            He quickly set the utensil down and asked her, "What's the catch?"

            She gave him a sly grin and replied, "You have to help me carry my stuff to the cook-off."

            "I'd be happy to help you, John answered.

            "Great!  Just come on back to the kitchen when you're finished eating."

            John, eager to help her, ate his breakfast quickly.  As he did so, Lissie brought out pots and pans from the kitchen and placed them on one of the dining room's larger tables.  John, once finished with his meal, walked back into the kitchen.  He found her scouring the drawers and pantries.  The kitchen appeared as though a cyclone had passed through it.  Various boxes of ingredients sat on the counters and the doors of each pantry were wide open.

            Lissie noticed his entrance, and asked him, "John, could you help me find the pepper?  It should be in a red tin box."

            John looked through a nearby drawer and quickly found a crimson metal box.

            He held it up and asked Lissie, "Is this it?"

            She turned around and replied, "That's it.  Where did you find it?"

            He pointed to the drawer by his feet.

            "Ah," Lissie said, "It's always the last place you look."

            She took the box from John and placed it by the pots and pans in the dining room.  She came back and grabbed a stack of boxes by the stove.  John followed her as she walked from the kitchen and placed them beside the metal tin.

            She stood for a few minutes, looking over the materials set on the table.  Lissie turned to John.

            "I think I got everything.  What do you think, John?"

            "Did you get the onions?"

            "Got that."

            "What about the tomatoes?"

            She paused and said, "I forgot that.  Wait here for a minute."

            She returned just seconds later holding a jar of tomatoes. 

            She held onto it and told John, "Now, if you can just grab the pots and pans, we should be set."

            John did as he was instructed and Lissie walked to the door.  She pushed it wide open and held it there for him as he carried his load out.  She took a key from her pocket and locked the door.

            She turned to John and said, "Ready?"

            John shifted the containers in his arms, and replied with a terse "Yeah."

            Lissie led the way to the cook-off.  She made sure to check back on John, who was struggling to carry all the pots and pans.  She herself carried a few jars but entrusted him with most of the materials.

            Turning a street corner, John and Lissie came to a large paved area.  John figured it to be an old parking lot and the faded white lines that crossed much of its surface confirmed this.  On the other side of this lot stood a large, one-storied building.  The structure appeared well maintained and stood in stark contrast to most of buildings within Salton. Across the building's front was a sign whose white lettering had been painted and repainted countless times.  This sign declared the building to be the "Salton Civic Center."

            Lissie led John across the lot and into this building.  They passed quickly through a small entryway and entered a large hall.  Once inside, John was able to see rows of tables set up in the far half of the room.  Each held pots, pans, and assorted boxes.

            John and Lissie walked towards an empty table near a wall.  John passed several stands before spotting Martha.  She stood across her table from Bill.  Both husband and wife noticed John nearby.  However, Martha was the first to call him over.

            "Ah, John," she said, cheerfully, "I was wondering when you would arrive."

            "Yeah, I'm helping Lissie set up her stand.

            Martha smiled sincerely and replied, "How nice of you."

            Lissie, waiting on John, was spied by Martha.

            She spoke solemnly, "Lissie."

            "Martha," Lissie returned.

            Lissie directed John towards a table near the far side of the room and had him set the pots and pans down.  She placed a small stove in her hands on the table.  As she placed a pot on the stove and arranged the boxes of ingredients, she turned to John.

            "John," she began, "I'm probably going to need your help when the cook-off starts.  That's a while from now, so you could go check out the other stands."

            John took his leave and walked to Martha's stand.  She was busy sorting her ingredients and appeared flustered. 

            She turned to Bill and asked, "Did I remember the tomatoes?"

            "Yes, they're in the jar behind you."

            She grabbed the container Bill had pointed out and placed it on the table.  As Martha looked through the items, her husband spotted John.

            "John!" he exclaimed, "I need to speak with you.  I have some news about your truck."

            "Is it good news or bad news?" John asked.

            Bill replied, glumly, "A little bit of both."

            Bill led John to an area of the room far from the stands.  From this point, he began his conversation with.

            "Okay, first the bad news.  I talked with Neil Bruner today about getting your truck into town.  He told me that his tow truck's winch is broken."

            "How long will that take to fix?" John asked.

            "Just a day or two.  Now, getting your truck to town will take a few hours.  You'll need to go with Neil when he goes to get it."

            "Do you know how long it will take my truck?"

            "I'm not sure about that.  You could ask Neil but he probably won't know until he looks the truck over."

            John thought about his predicament, and remarked "You said you had some good news?"

            "Yeah," Bill replied, "I'll make this short since it looks like the cook-off is about to start.  I'm going to pay for you to get your truck fixed."

            "Oh, Bill," John said.  "That's really not necessary."

            "No, I'm happy to do it for you."

            Bill turned his head towards the stands and watched the people around them for a few moments.  John followed suit and saw the contestants had all taken to their stands.

            "We should probably get back.  The contest is about to start."

            Bill turned and walked towards Martha's stand.  John returned to Lissie's table and found her preparing.

            She noticed John and asked him, "John, could you help me set my stand up?  I want to make sure I have everything ready when the cook-off starts."

            "Sure," John replied.

            He began to place boxes of ingredients onto Lissie's stand.  As he placed the final box on her table, he saw her looking intently at a man walking past each stand and taking careful notes.

            Once the man had passed Lissie's stand, she turned to John and told him, "That's Neil Bruner.  He's the head judge.  He's pretty serious when it comes to the contest rules."

            John watched Bruner move to a microphone stand in front of all the tables.  The room fell silent.  Bruner's face remained staid as he examined each stand.  He glanced at the watch on his wrist. 

            Looking towards the contestants once more, he took the microphone and spoke into it the word, "Start."     

 

Chapter IX

            Most of the contestants feverishly began their cooking.  Lissie, however, remained calm.  She took some of the ingredients beside her and mixed them inside the largest of her pots.  

            Once she had placed this pot on the stove to simmer, Lissie turned to John and said, "Could you chop up these onions for me?

            He happily obliged and the two quickly returned to work.  John was given the duty of chopping up ingredients.  Lissie stood by the pot and determined the amount of each ingredient that would be added to the chili. 

            From his position at Lissie's stand, John could see Bill trying to help Martha.  His wife appeared somewhat flustered by Bill's inability at cooking.  She soon dismissed him and he walked over to Lissie's table.

            "Hi, Bill," Lissie said, "Did Mrs. Hodge kick you off her team?"

            "That's a pretty accurate description," Bill answered, "She seems to have forgotten that I can't cook."

            "I thought you cooked barbecue," Lissie noted.

            Bill smiled and replied, "I barbecue.  There's a difference between that and cooking."

            "Sorry, Bill."

            "It's quite alright."

            Bill turned to John.

            "So, does Lissie have you on tomato duty?"

            John looked down at the fruit below his knife and replied, "Yeah.  She says I'm pretty good at it, too."

            "You're lucky.  My wife won't even let me turn on the stove in our kitchen.  She's afraid I'll burn down the whole house."

            John laughed at Bill's remark and listened to Bruner's warning.

            "Fifteen minutes left."

            Lissie remained calm and called for John to cut up some onion.  He handed her the requested ingredient and she dropped a small portion of it in the boiling pot.  After Bruner announced that only five minutes remained of the cooking period, Lissie brought her pot to a simmer and poured three bowls of the chili.

            John watched as the head judge walked to the microphone once more and announced that the cooking period was over.  Lissie turned the stove off and Bill walked back to Martha's stand. 

            The three judges began to make their way to the first stand.  Upon reaching it, they sampled the chili of the contestant.  Each took careful notes and moved on to the next stand.  When the trio finally came around to Lissie's table, they took longer tastes of her chili than that of the other contestants. 

            "Excellent as always, Lissie" Neil Bruner remarked.  He made a few short notes on his notepad and walked to a table at the front of the room.  The other two judges, whom Lissie named as Dianne and Sarah, trailed him.  Unlike Bruner, they did not make any conversation with the contestant.

            After the judges had conversed for several minutes, Bruner collected their notes and walked to the microphone.  He looked over the papers one final time, mouthing words and numbers to himself.  After ensuring it was on, he took the microphone in his hand and announced the winners of the cook-off.

            "In third place," he began, "We have Matthew Daniels."

            Daniels, a man much older than the other contestants, walked slowly to the head judge and accepted the small yellow ribbon that was handed to him.  As Daniels walked back to his stand, Bruner announced the recipient of second place.

            "In second place, we have Martha Hodge."

            As Martha walked up to accept the award, she looked at Lissie and smiled.  Mrs. Hodge appeared thrilled, despite the loss.  Lissie smiled back.  Martha, red ribbon in hand, turned away from Bruner and returned to her stand.         Bruner glanced over his stack of papers.  When one seemed to catch his eye, he brought it directly in front of his eyes.  He stared at it for some time before placing it among the other papers of the stack. 

            He took the microphone in front of him.  Loudly and clearly, he announced the name of the winning contestant.

            "Lissie Grant."

            Lissie smiled back at John and ran up to accept the blue ribbon that Bruner held in his hand. 

            The head judge exchanged a few pleasant words with her and said into the microphone, "Let's give Lissie a hand, everyone!"

            As the audience in the room looked towards Lissie and applauded, a wide smile spread across her face.  This smile and the audience's applause both faded as Bruner took the microphone once more.

            "Now," he began, "I know this is the part most of you have been waiting for."

            A few contestants nodded their heads in agreement.

            Bruner looked at John and said, "For those who are at their first Salton Chili Cook-Off, this is the time where the contestants get to serve their chili out to anybody."

            Nearly all the people in the room began to shuffle towards Lissie and Martha's stands.  Both women appeared eager to serve them and began to prepare more bowls of chili.  The line that had formed in front of Martha's stand quickly disappeared while the queue in front of Lissie's extended to the far wall of the room. 

            "Hey, John," Lissie said, "Can you help me serve the people?"

            John replied, "Sure, Lissie," and grabbed a ladle from her stand. 

            The line before them quickly split into two groups.

Once Martha's pot was emptied, she and Bill moved to Lissie's line.  Within minutes, they stood in front of Lissie, ready for her to fill their bowls with chili.

            With a sincere smile, Martha said "Congratulations, Lissie."

            "Thank you, Martha.  I'm sorry you didn't win this one.  Maybe next year."

            Martha tasted Lissie's chili and replied, "If you make it like this next year, probably not."

            Lissie, whose line had disappeared, watched as Martha left her bowl on the stand and left the civic center with Bill.

Lissie waited for John's line to thin out before talking to him. 

            "John," she began, "I was wondering if you could help me carry my stuff back to the restaurant."

            John, who had just finished serving the last person, looked over to Lissie and replied, "I was planning on it."

            She thanked him and began to collect the dishes on their stand.  John helped her and the two were able to clear the stand within a few minutes.  Once they finished, John looked around the room and saw the judges and the other contestants had already left. 

            John grabbed the pots and pans and waited for Lissie.  Lissie was able to quickly dispose of the empty boxes.  When she had done this, Lissie grabbed the remaining boxes of ingredients and followed John to the door.

            On the way to the restaurant, Lissie turned to John and asked, "So what did you think?"

            John smiled and answered, "I think it was a lot of fun.  The food was great."

            "I'm glad you enjoyed it.  Did you get to try some of my chili?"

            "I'm sorry, Lissie, but no."

            "Don't worry, John," Lissie replied, "I'll make some for you once we get to the restaurant."

            "You don't have to do that for me."

            "No, John, you have to try it."

            John caved and agreed to her request.

            After a short walk, they came to the restaurant.  John waited as Lissie searched her pockets for the key.  Unable to find it with her free hand, she placed the boxes on top of John's load and searched further.  She reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out the key.  She opened the door just as John's load began to slip from his hands.  Lissie saw this and rushed to catch the falling boxes. 

            When she had managed to save all the boxes from hitting the ground, Lissie turned to John and told him, "Sorry about giving you so much stuff to carry."

            John placed his load on one of the restaurant's tables before speaking.

            "It's quite alright, Lissie," he answered, "Do you usually carry all this stuff by yourself each year?"

            Lissie placed the boxes of ingredients on a separate table and replied, "I always took multiple trips."

            Before John could speak further, Lissie picked up several boxes of the ingredients and walked into the kitchen.  He waited patiently in one of the clean booths.

            After some time, Lissie returned with a steaming bowl in her hands.  She placed it on John's table.  He took the utensil handed to him by Lissie and lifted a spoonful of chili to his lips.  Putting the chili in his mouth, he could immediately tell why it had won so many contests. 

            Lissie waited eagerly for John to finish.

            Almost immediately after he set his bowl down, she asked him, "What do you think?"

            John, struck by the dish's flavor, replied, "It's amazing." 

            Lissie smiled and replied, "I knew you would like it."

            She took John's empty bowl and returned it to the kitchen.  She walked back into the dining room a few moments and sat across from John.  She sat in quiet thought before asking, "John, not to sound intrusive, but what is your money situation like?"

            He checked the contents of his wallet and replied, "I have enough money to get to the next town on my route.  I'll have to find work once I get there, though."

            "Why don't you work for me?  I can't pay you a living wage, but the tips are pretty good."

            Enthusiastically, John replied, "That sounds great!  When can I start?"

            Lissie's face lit up with John's answer.

            "Well, since tomorrow is Saturday, and the diner is closed on weekends, so you can start on Monday."

            John thanked Lissie for her generosity and walked to the door.

            As he stood by the entrance, John turned to face her and asked, "What time should I get here?"

            Lissie, still sitting in the booth, answered, "Eight o'clock sharp."

            John wished her a good day and walked out into the dusty street.

 

 

Chapter X

            Above John, the grey clouds had grown even heavier.  As he walked down Vista Road, which served to split Salton into two equal halves, thick droplets of water began to pound him.  He shielded himself from the rain with his jacket and quickened his pace. 

            Looking up towards the violent sky, John decided to return to the restaurant.

            "Surely," he thought, "Lissie can offer me some relief from the storm."

      ________________________________________________________________________

            Lissie stood in the kitchen, scrubbing dishes.  Once a sizable piled had stacked up beside the sink, she heard the front door open.  She placed her scouring pad by the sink and walked out.  At the front of the dining room stood John, soaked by rain and clearly miserable.  Lissie ran to comfort him.

            "John," she asked, "are you okay?"

            John, looking down at the girl whose arms were wrapped around him, told her, "I'm just a little wet."

            After Lissie relinquished her embrace, he added, "Don't worry.  I don't have pneumonia."

            She smiled at him and replied, "That's good."

            Looking at his drenched clothing, she continued, "You look like you could use some dry clothing.  I have some at my house you can borrow."

            Lissie looked out the window and said, "Now, we'll have to go pretty fast if you don't want to get soaked even more."

            John replied, "I'm worried about you getting drenched.  It's raining cats and dogs out there."

            Lissie replied, "Don't worry.  I'm used to it."

            Lissie ran to the kitchen and returned wearing a jacket.  She walked to the front door and opened it for John.  Standing under the diner's awning, John waited for her to lock the door.

            Once she confirmed that it was indeed locked, Lissie placed the key in her jacket pocket and turned to John. 

            "Ready?" she asked.

            John nodded and the pair began their run to Lissie's house.  Lissie's clothing was soon soaked by the rain and mud coated her shoes.  She ran far ahead of John, not wanting to stop in the rain.  Once she came across a building with a wide awning, she stopped under it.  It did not take long for John to reach it.  Standing under the covering, he motioned for her to wait.  Lissie was eager to move but understood that John needed to catch his breath. 

            After a few moments, she said to John, "From here, it's just a straight shot to the house."

            John looked at Lissie and asked, "No cover?"

            "No cover," she replied.

            John was able to quickly reach the house.  Standing at the front door, he waited for Lissie.  She reached the house shortly after John.  He stood patiently as Lissie unlocked the door.  As soon as the door was pushed open, Lissie placed her jacket on a hook in the entryway and walked to her bedroom.  John placed his boots in the entryway and hung his own jacket.

He moved to the living room and waited for Lissie to return.

            She came back carrying a pile of clothing, made up of jeans, oxfords, t-shirts, and various types of coats.

            John looked at the massive pile and asked Lissie, "Where did you get all these?"

            She answered, calmly, "Thrift stores, mainly."

            Looking through the pile, John was able to find some old jeans and a cotton shirt.  He went into the bathroom and changed his clothing.  Returning to the living room, John found it silent, save for the roar of a newly lit fire in the hearth.

            As he placed his soaked clothing on the stones to dry, he heard Lissie walking into the room.  He turned to face her and saw her wearing a dry outfit.  She stood, dressed in dry clothed, reaching for a glass bottle in one of the kitchen's cabinets. 

            She looked back at him and asked him, "John, could you grab these for me?"

            He moved to kitchen and reached for the bottles.  Standing on the tips of his toes, he was able to grab them.  Lissie grabbed one from his hands and looked over it.

            John looked at his bottle's label and asked her, "Beer?"

            Lissie replied, "Yeah, I thought we'd celebrate my glorious victory at the chili cook-off."

            She rifled through a nearby drawer and was able to find a bottle opener.  After opening her own bottle, Lissie handed the tool to John.  He pulled the cap from his beer and walked to the living room.  Lissie followed him and sat on one of the armchair.

            The two sipped their drinks in silence before John asked Lissie, "So what made you pick Salton, over say, Los Angeles?"

            "Well, when I escaped from the boarding school…"

            "Wait," John interrupted, "You escaped from the boarding school?"

            Lissie replied calmly, "That's a story for another day.  Anyway, when I escaped from the boarding school, I was a bit strapped for cash.  My parents sure as hell weren't gonna give me any money and I didn't have a job. 

            John placed his bottle on a nearby table and asked her, "Where did you go?"

            "As you've probably figured out, Salton wasn't the first place I ran to.  I actually spent some time around New England.  Most of the time, I lived in fishing villages.  I was able to find work at restaurants and stuff."

            She looked at John sitting quietly on the sofa and instructed him, "This is where you ask me how I got to Salton."

            John, amused and willing, questioned her, "How did you get to Salton, Lissie?"

            Lissie, looking at John's smiling face, cheerfully replied, "First, I told the owner of a restaurant I worked at that I was leaving.  He was pretty disappointed since I had worked there for several months.  He asked me where I planned on going, and I said 'no idea.'  He suggested I head to some thriving little town in Southern California."

            John, pulling the beer bottle from his lips, stated, "I'm assuming this 'thriving little town' turned out to be Salton."

            "Smart man," Lissie replied.  "By the time I left, I had saved enough money to get a bus ride here."

            Surprised, John asked "Busses come out here?"

            "They did a few years ago.  They must have realized that only a few people ride to Salton each year and stopped driving here."

            "Ah," John replied.  "What did you do when you found out Salton was nothing like

 

            "Well, after I stopped moping, I tried to find work."

            Lissie took another sip of her beer and continued, "Lucky for me, I was able to find the diner.  I told my sob story to the man who owned it and he offered me a job.  After a few months, I managed to make enough money to buy the little house you're sitting in now. 

            "Where did you live until then?" John interrupted.

            "I stayed with the Hodges."

            Jokingly, John asked, "Do they house every transient that passes through here?"

            Grinning, Lissie resumed her exposition, "Anyway, a few years after I got a job here, the owner of the diner kicked the bucket.  The diner was going to be shut down but I bought it for a few bucks.  I've managed to make an okay living since then."

            Lissie shifted her position in the seat and drank once more.

            She sat quietly for some time before speaking again.

            "So, John, where do you think you're going once you get your truck repaired?"

            John replied, "I thought I'd travel north and see if I can get work there."

            Lissie appeared surprised when John said this.

            "You mean you're going to Los Angeles?" she enquired.

            Jokingly, he answered, "They need busboys."

            Lissie remained staid and asked him, "When do you think you'll leave?"

            "As soon as I can get the truck fixed.  I'm not sure how long that will take."

            Playing with the bottle in her hands Lissie responded quietly, "Oh."

            Lissie turned to look out the window.

            John followed suit and remarked, "It looks like the rain has let up for now.  I should take this chance to head back to Bill's house."

            As John stood up from the couch, Lissie told him, "I'll go with you."

            The two walked to the entryway and retrieved their jackets.  John held the front door open for her and she followed him out the door.  As she locked the door, the clouds began to grow thicker once more. 

            Lissie looked to the sky and noted, "We'll have to walk fast."

            They headed down the front steps and out onto the damp sidewalk.  As he entered the town, John began to feel small droplets hit his jacket.  The rain quickly intensified and the pair's pace picked up. 

            As they walked down the road, the shower transformed into a thunderstorm.  The sound of the falling rain merged with the sound of thunder and both Lissie and John looked upwards.

            As they did so, each person could hear a low rumble in the distance.  Lissie looked forward and spotted a truck cutting through the pouring with its two beams cutting through the pouring rain. 

            "That must be Bill," she remarked.          

The vehicle pulled up next them and its windows were rolled down.

            From inside, Bill asked them, "Need a ride?"

            Lissie quickly replied, "I think we'll walk,"

            John laughed and told Bill, "She's just kidding."

            Lissie and John pulled themselves into the truck.  John sat on the back, while Lissie seated herself in the passenger's side.

            Lissie looked down at the wet footprints in front of her seat and said, "Sorry about getting your truck dirty."

            Bill reassured her, "That's alright.  It was already pretty muddy."

            He turned the key in the ignition and peeled away from the curb.

            Driving down the street, Bill asked the pair sitting near him, "So how long have you two been out in the rain?"

            Lissie looked back to John and he said, "Well, after I helped Lissie carry her stuff back to the restaurant, I tried walking back to the house."

            "How far did you get?" Bill asked.

            John grinned and replied, "Less than a block.  I decided to go back to the restaurant.  From there, Lissie and I ran to her house.  She gave me some dry clothes to change into…"

            He paused.

            Looking back at him, Lissie could tell that he was exasperated.

            Concerned, she asked, "What's wrong?"

            He noticed Lissie looking at him and admitted to her, "I forgot my clothing by your fireplace."

            Bill glanced at John and asked him, "Do you want to go get them now?"

            He replied, "No, I think I'll get them later."       

            As Bill turned his attention back to the road, Lissie stated, "Don't worry, John, I'll bring them to the restaurant on Monday."

            "Thanks, Lissie."

            She turned to face the road ahead and remained quiet for the remainder of the drive.  As the truck slowed down, John looked out the window and spied Bill's house.  The home was brightly lit and appeared greatly inviting. 

            Lissie, Bill, and Lissie ran to the front door but were unable to reach it untouched.  Lissie's clothing was soaked even more and John's boots were smeared with mud.  Bill was able to shield himself from the rain with a heavy coat but even this garment failed to protect him from the thick muck in his front yard.  Once he reached the front door and pulled a key from his pocket, Lissie spied this mud and chuckled. 

            Bill looked down at his pants and boots and muttered a mild obscenity.  He pushed the door open and motioned for John and Lissie to enter. 

            Just as they entered, Martha walked into the entryway.  She held a glass in one hand and appeared somewhat fatigued.

            She told Bill, "You need to get a new muffler, dear.  I can hear you from a mile away."

            He responded, "My truck runs well, so I'm happy."

            Martha shook her head in disdain and walked back to her bedroom.

 

© 2012 Mounsell


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John grabbed the steaming cup in front of him. - He seems so relaxed here - grabbed?

She asked him, "Are you sure? - Just ask. Two people in a conversation does not require you say who is speaking.

He looked over his shoulder and saw Anna standing behind the counter, keys in hand. - why would Anna have keys?

...spied a few of supplies. - people don't spy much anymore - seems awkward.
...Within minutes, he was able spy - spy again

He drove for only a short time before reaching their source. - delete, not needed

...John found a collection of water bottles and pulled one from the shelf. - being that broke, I found it hard to believe he would buy water. He had just come from the diner.

Following this signage, he quickly found his way back onto the highway. - most men can find there way on and off the freeway for gas. You wrote it like it was an adventure. LOL

Let me know if you like my reviews. I would be glad to continue if you find it helpful. Chapter one should grab a reader and make them want to find out what happens to the character. There is no adventure, danger, intrigue etc. to make me interested in this guy, John. Give me something to care about.

Please review mine too.
http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/doulasaz/1190709/







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Mounsell
Mounsell

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