Friday, January 17, 2014

Lend Me Your Ears

By Bettyann Moore

Cecil Hampton had just one more stop and then he could head home. These four-week sales trips were killing him. Sure, he’d made a few bucks along the way, but it was mostly drunken schmoozing and he was getting too damn old for that. And the young twits he had to deal with these days, with their tightly-held belief in their own Golden entitlement! Thank God Cecil had a hollow leg and could drink the snot-nosed little shits under the table. He loved nothing more than to get their signatures on the dotted line bright and early on the day after a “sales meeting.” Still, it was getting harder and harder for Cecil to keep up.

His dour mood deepened as he aimed his Ford Escort toward the home offices of TrustUS, Inc., his largest and least favorite client. The operation might be high-class – plush offices, squeaky-clean manufacturing floor and a polite and welcoming staff – but it was run by a ball-buster by the name of Janet Sommers who was as mean as she was gorgeous. There wouldn’t be any shots of tequila at some dive, nor visits to the local strip club; all business would be conducted in a well-appointed TU, Inc. meeting room where Cecil would be expected to jump through hoops, juggle balls and sell, sell, sell. And there Janet Sommers would sit, looking at him like he was some sort of slimy microbe. He wouldn’t doubt that she had the room fumigated after he left.

Cecil drained more than half of the Coke he’d opened earlier and with one hand still on the wheel, managed to add some rum to the remainder. He’d had a lot of practice. What really galled him was how his wife teased him about TU, Inc. and Janet Sommers. “Saving the best for last again, dear?” she always said. “Have a little crush on Ms. Sommers, hmmm?” 
I really should give the old battleax a call, Cecil thought, meaning Linda, his wife. It’d been almost a week since he last talked to her and she’d sounded kind of funny on the phone, sad maybe. Probably missing me, he thought, probably just lonely. “Ha!” he said aloud, “she doesn’t know crap about being lonely!” He took a large swig of his fortified Coke, then cranked up the volume on the Elvis’ Greatest Hits tape that was his constant companion and started singing along.

Twenty minutes later, after the King had failed to take the edge off his foul mood, Cecil saw something he didn’t see every day – a hitchhiker and a female one at that. She was holding a sign that said AUSTIN in big, black letters. It’d been close to ten years since he’d picked up a hitchhiker. When he quit, the people who had told him all the horror stories about crack addicts who didn’t need a reason to slit your throat and take everything you had, the gangbangers looking to satisfy some gruesome initiation right, applauded his decision, and he let them. A self-admitted motormouth who loved an audience, Cecil missed the company.

He hesitated, but not too long. He put on his blinker and pulled over a dozen yards ahead of her. He watched through the rearview mirror as the tall, skinny girl scurried toward the car, a big grin on her face. The smile made Cecil feel like a knight in shining armor. He reached for the passenger door and had it open for her when she came alongside the car.

“Good morning, little lady!” Cecil greeted the girl as she slid into the seat and reached for the seatbelt. She was still smiling as she settled her backpack on her lap, then flipped the AUSTIN sign over and pointed at was written on the back.

Thank you for the ride, it said, but I cannot hear or speak. I hope that doesn’t cause you any discomfort. My name is Emily.

Cecil’s immediate reaction was yeah, it does cause me some discomfort, but when he raised his eyes and saw the imploring look on her plain, thin face, he smiled one of his best salesman smiles and gave an exaggerated shrug. He flipped on the other blinker and pulled out onto the nearly-empty highway while the girl made herself more comfortable and stared straight ahead.

Well, crap, Cecil thought, this won’t be much better than driving alone. He reached over and pulled out the Elvis tape and replaced it with Springsteen. If the King couldn’t do it, maybe the Boss could.

“Born in the USA!” Cecil started singing along, loudly. Then he remembered he wasn’t alone. Then he remembered that his passenger was deaf so he continued singing, tapping his hands against the steering wheel and rocking in his seat, like he usually did. He glanced over at the girl – Emily, he recalled – and saw that she was smiling at his performance. He contorted his face in what he hoped conveyed approval and gave her a thumbs-up.

She mirrored his expression and gave him a thumbs-up as well. Cecil remembered reading that deaf people could feel the vibrations from music, especially the bass, and could actually enjoy the “sound”. He reached over and cranked up the bass, just for her. He took another drink from the can he kept between his legs, then tapped the girl on the shoulder and pointed to a cooler on the back seat. She smiled again and shook her head. He wondered if she read lips. He pointed to his own mouth and asked, drawing out the vowel sounds. His lips felt huge. She cocked her head, furrowed her brow and shrugged. Cecil took that as a “no.”

Defeated, Cecil turned down the volume and sucked gloomily on his drink.

“It’s not like anyone listens to me anyway,” he said. “My wife, my boss, my clients … at least you have an excuse.” He realized that, indeed, no one was listening to him now, but that had never stopped him before. He cut his eyes at the girl; his rambling and gesturing didn’t seem to faze her in the least.

“You seem like a nice kid,” he said. “But you sure got the short end of the stick. I can’t imagine not being able to hear … or talk! Of course some people shouldn’t talk at all. They should just keep their freakin’ mouths shut ...” he trailed off, frowning. He drained the last of his drink and threw the can into the back seat. He wanted another, but figured the girl would flip out if she knew about the rum; she’d want to get out. He wasn’t ready for that yet.

“Or maybe you’d want a drink, too,” he said. “Nah, you’re just a kid, a nice kid.” He took his eyes off the road and dared a long look. Emily shifted in her seat and blushed, but never stopped smiling. “See, look at that,” Cecil went on, gesturing at her. “Clean hair and clothes, no weird tattoos or piercings like that other bi ...” He trailed off again and stared out the windshield.

After a time, he started in again. “See that?” he said. “I can’t keep quiet. ‘Course with you, it’s like having my own personal priest, only better. I could tell you all sorts of crap and you’d just sit there and smile … a confessional on wheels! Ever think about renting yourself out? Ha!” Cecil almost reached over to pat Emily on the knee, but resisted.

“For instance,” he said, adjusting his rear view mirror, “I could tell you how sometimes I cheat on my taxes. Everyone does, though, right? Or about the time I found a wallet in a taxi and kept all the cash, just a couple hundred bucks. But I didn’t take the cards, nope. In fact I even mailed the thing back to the address on the driver’s license with a little note that said: ‘Hey, just be glad you got the wallet back and I didn’t take the cards.’ I thought that was a nice touch.”

Cecil went quiet again. He noticed he was going a bit too much over the speed limit, so he backed off some, causing the guy in the car behind him to lay on his horn and flip him off as he pulled out and sped past the Escort.

“Jerk,” Cecil muttered. “Serves you right for riding my ass.” He resisted the urge to speed up and ride the other guy’s tail for a while. “Too many people carry guns these days, though, it’s not worth it,” he grumbled.

Cecil watched the other car for a while, frowning. “Hey, that was pretty cool,” he said, brightening, “saying that stuff out loud for a change.” He started yelling random transgressions into the air. It was even better than singing. “When I was 16 I got a blow-job from another boy, and I liked it! I once ran over a dog and I didn’t go back to see if it was okay! Sometimes I eat my boogers! I killed a girl!”

He stopped.

“But she deserved it,” he added, looking over at Emily who had dug a book out of her backpack and was reading. “She really did. I should have known not to pick her up. Tank top with no bra. Short-shorts. Tattoos all over her arms. About 20 piercings on her ears, not to mention her nose and lip … another one ‘down there’ I found out. Nothing but a prick tease.”

God, it felt good to say it aloud.

“It wasn’t like I planned it or anything,” Cecil went on. “We were having a good time, laughing, talking. She keep telling these dirty jokes, really nasty ones that sort of got my blood boiling, you know? We were driving out on the Colorado plains, it was night, she had to stop to pee ...”

Cecil shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He might need to talk about it, but he sure as hell didn’t like thinking about it.

“Next thing I knew we were sort of wrestling there on the sand and she just started screaming and screaming … I had to shut her up. There was this rock … it was like it just appeared under my hand and …

Cecil swiped away a tear as unobtrusively as he could. No use upsetting the girl.

“And then, and then I just panicked. I walked around and around. I couldn’t put her back in the car. All that blood! And then I see this old windmill, not like the ones today, I mean old, with this round rock base and I check it out and I see that some of the rocks are loose so I’m digging around with my penknife and I pull a few out and I see that it’s hollow behind there like I hoped.”

Cecil’s mouth had gone dry as his words tumbled over each other. He reached into the back seat and pulled a Coke out of the cooler and downed it in a few seconds flat. He forgot to offer one to Emily.

“It was tough going, let me tell you.” He burped and then went on. “But I got her in there and sealed it back up. I don’t think anyone had been near the place in a hundred years. I see it in my dreams sometimes. I could find the place with my eyes closed even though it’ll be ten years in June. But I don’t go back there, oh no! I’m not stupid enough to return to the scene of the crime, that’s how you get caught. That, and talking about it. No worries there, though, right?” He shot a look at Emily who had closed her book and was looking out the window.

“I don’t even go to Colorado any more, took it right off my route.” Cecil sighed, then sighed again. What an incredible feeling to finally get it all off his chest. And just in time, too, he thought, noticing the sign for the turn-off he has to take to get to TU, Inc. He glanced at the dashboard clock. “Crap,” he said, “I’d take you all the way into Austin, but I’m already running late. And Ms. Janet Sommers doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” he added in a snotty tone.

Cecil slowed down the car, pulled off the road and stopped near a road sign. Emily looked at him with a question on her face. He pointed to the sign, which read Austin – 60 miles, and then pointed to Emily. He then pointed to a road that ran perpendicular to the highway they were on and poked himself on the chest, giving the girl a sorry face. She understood and began putting her book back into her backpack. She reached for the door handle, then turned to Cecil with a huge grin. She raised the flat of her hand to her chin, then pulled it away, then did it again.

Cecil didn’t know sign language, but he gathered this meant “thank you.” He wished he knew the sign for “you’re welcome,” though he felt like it was he who should thank her. Out on the side of the road, she gave him a little wave and another thank you sign. Cecil tooted his horn as he drove away, feeling better than he had in ten years, washed clean, redeemed.

A couple of hours later, Emily pulled open her dorm room door and threw her backpack on her narrow bed.

“Yo, Em,” her roommate said, “about time you got back. Did you forget about the Spearhead concert? Man, you look like shit.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Emily answered, “you’d look like shit, too, if you had the kind of day I had. I’ll tell you all about it in a few. I have to make a phone call first. Do you think campus security has the FBI’s number?”

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