Friday, August 10, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part II

Vernon dropped the transmission into drive and eased back out on the asphalt. Black lines showed the path of his car's wild ride. Waiting at the intersection for a couple of battered pickups to go by, he offered a silent prayer of thanks that no one had been hurt. This move was hard enough on everyone as it was; he didn't need to add injuries to the stress.

He had been quite happy in his previous job at a small plastics company on the Texas Gulf Coast. Everyone in the shop worked hard, often performing the duties of two or three people because the owner didn't want the expense of adding to his headcount. Vernon didn't mind. It made for long hours but decent pay and a fair measure of job security. Or so he thought until Herb Franklin announced he was bankrupt and the company was shutting its doors for good. They found out later he had also moved to South America with his secretary and all the money he could squeeze out of his business, including the pension fund.

In the last six months, the Hamilton family had been forced to sell their home and move into a two-bedroom rat-hole of an apartment while Vernon looked for another job and his wife bore their second child. With his experience, Houston should have been an easy place to land something. But, as Vernon gradually discovered, Franklin was not the most ethical of businessmen. Prospective employers took one look at his resume and moved on to the next candidate. The only consolation, small though it might be, was that his former coworkers were having similar difficulties. A few old friends in the industry told him there was a general suspicion in the area that those with his level of seniority had been in on Franklin's shady dealings. His current financial difficulties just meant he got double crossed.

As their money dwindled, they moved to a smaller rat hole and finally an efficiency that even rats turned their noses up at. Vernon started to wonder if their next home might be under an overpass when he got the call from Ethan Roodschild, an old supervisor who had left the company a couple of years before. Something wasn't right about Franklin Plastics, he'd said before moving near the Oklahoma border to work at a place called Paris Plastics, Inc. They made little kiddie swimming pools and fake Christmas trees. Ethan had tried to get Vernon to come with him then, but he refused. How could he leave Houston, especially for a podunk little town on the backside of nowhere?

Ethan's most recent call came as a pleasant surprise.

"I heard what happened to the company and the pension," he said. "Is there any hope they'll get him back in this country to face charges?"

"Not much. Apparently extradition's a real bear down there."

"That's a shame." There was a pause, and Vernon could hear him clearing his throat. "Look, I know you're having a hard time finding work..."

"Try impossible."

"I know. That's unfair, but that's why I tried to get you to leave a couple of years ago."

"Yeah. I'm starting wish I had listened."

"Then this just might be your lucky day. We've got a couple of openings up here. I could use a good man like you on my crew. The pay's not as much as you're used to, but the cost of living is a lot lower up here," Ethan had said. "Are you interested?"

Not only was he interested, but Vernon agreed to it on the spot. He'd start in three weeks, at the beginning of October when the monthly lease on their current place ran out. Cheryl wasn't thrilled he had made the decision without discussing it with her, but she agreed they had to leave. It was only a matter of time before one of the gunshots they routinely heard at night put a bullet through their window. Ethan even had a home for them, an old, two-bedroom farmhouse he had purchased and started remodeling as an investment. He'd let them live there rent-free for six months, and they could lease it for only three hundred bucks a month after that. He even waived the deposit and had the utilities turned on. Judging from the photos he sent, the house wasn't much, but at least they had managed to take a step in the right direction.

Driving down this county road, Vernon listened to gravel crunching under his tires, smelled the dust his car kicked up and glanced sideways at his wife in the passenger seat. She chewed on a lock of her curly auburn hair, a sure sign of anxiety. The stress of the last half-year had taken its toll. A tall woman, she had always been thin and pale, but these days, Cheryl hovered on the verge of gaunt. Food had sometimes been hard to come by in the last few months, but he'd tried to make sure she and Alexis never went hungry. They certainly couldn't afford baby formula, so Cheryl had to breastfeed Ray. She ate enough to keep him healthy, but anxiety kept her from putting on any weight. Her usually penetrating stare had become a hollow-eyed gaze. She had her feet up on her seat, hugging her knees close to her chest as she hunched away from the screaming behind her.

I probably don't look any better, he thought. He had lost quite a bit of weight himself, but unlike his wife, his short, stocky frame had plenty to spare.

He reached over and patted her knee. "It'll be all right," he said softly. She shot a withering look at him. "Look, I'm sorry. I overreacted. You're right to be mad, and I'm a big, stupid jerk." Her face relaxed slightly, and she turned her frown back out the window. How long has it been since I've seen her smile?

They crested a hill and got their first look at their new home.

The community sat on the Red River, a motley collection of a few dozen houses on three hundred twenty acres tucked away in the northernmost point of Lamar County. He spotted some new construction, but most of it looked older, including a few that might even be from the 1800s. The gravel road circled around the community, passing an old church at the point nearest the Red River.

Vernon followed the looping road to the right, driving slowly as he looked for their house. Each residence had a large yard, several acres apiece. Alexis'll love that, he thought. Many sported tricycles, swing sets and other signs of children. He saw gardens and even a few small-scale farms. Most homes had darkened sheds or barns, and he spied several tractors and riding lawnmowers. Cars and pickups sat in driveways, under carports and, presumably, inside the garages they passed. Lawn furniture sat ready to provide outdoor comfort. Porch swings swayed in the wind. Leaves rustled and grass bent. Jennings Grove sported all the signs of life, but no life itself. Light glowed in a few windows, but no shadows moved inside. No dogs barked. No cows lowed or horses neighed. He couldn't find any cats sauntering from yard to yard or coyotes howling at the darkening sky. Even birds seemed to have abandoned the small town. So had the people.


Part III coming Monday!

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At August 10, 2007 8:04 AM , Blogger Bret Jordan said...

Glad to see that family moving away from Houston. That place is a horror story in itself! :o)

Looking forward to seeing what happens next.rington.mp3s  

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