Wild Orchids Part 7

And I was glad he wasn't handsome, because the way I was feeling about s.e.xually attractive men, Lorena Bobbitt was my personal hero.

After I left Newcombe's I went back to the little rental house that I'd shared with my dad. Kirk's father owned the house, which is how I met Kirk. As I stripped off that hated dress and pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, I shoved my few clothes and other possessions into some old duffels and a couple of plastic bags, and I packed up my precious camera equipment. I knew I was racing against a clock. It wouldn't take long for my friends to find me, and when they did, I knew they'd be so "supportive" that I might be persuaded into talking to Kirk again.

First they'd do the "men are slime" bit, but then, gradually, like cold chocolate syrup coming down the neck of the bottle, they'd say what a shame it was about the wedding and all. Heather, who owned all the Miss Manners books and studied them as though they were a guide to life, would start talking to me about the disappointment of the guests, and wondering whether or not I was obligated to send handwritten thank-you notes for all the gifts I'd be giving up if I "left" Kirk.

I knew myself well enough to know that I'd use the f-word to describe my feelings about the gifts-and that would get me looks telling me I'd broken some unwritten girl code. Autumn would, of course, cry. And she would, of course, expect Momma Jackie to hold her hands and fix everything.

I knew that not one of the women would listen to me-I mean, really and truly listen-about what an illegal-not to mention despicable-thing Kirk had done to me.

"Oh, well," I could hear Ashley say, "Men are slime. We all know that."

But she'd dismiss what Kirk had done.

So I raced. I didn't want to see any of them. I grabbed film out of the 'frig, wrote a note to Jennifer and asked her to please box my father's books and my other personal effects, and said I'd call her later and tell her where I was so she could send them. As an afterthought, I added a paragraph of girl-c.r.a.p about how I needed to be alone so I could regain my inner peace.

I put all my bags into the back of my old car, stuck the letter in the doorjamb, then drove away. As I turned the corner, I glimpsed Kirk's car careening toward my house and I swear that every one of my friends was in the car with him. The car was still covered in white streamers, with "Just Married" on a piece of poster board on the back.

After I saw Newcombe and was sure I had the job, I used a made-up name and spent the night at a cheap motel out on the highway, making sure my car was parked out of sight of traffic.

At eight the next morning I was outside Ford Newcombe's house and ready to leave with him. The day before my wedding, I'd been too busy to register my surprise that he was planning to move to Cole Creek-the town of my devil story. At any other time, I'd have been full of questions, especially after I was told that he'd bought a house there. And when I saw him on Monday, I was still so upset about Kirk that I didn't say much.

When I got into the pa.s.senger side of Ford Newcombe's terrifically expensive BMW-700 series-he asked if I was okay. I said, "Sure. Why shouldn't I be?" Then I said I was sorry for snapping, but he didn't say anything, just backed out of the driveway. He glanced at my old car parked on the street and started to speak but didn't. My car wasn't worth much so I'd left the keys in it and thought that when I called Jennifer later I'd tell her where it was. If I'd told her in the note I left yesterday where the car was going to be, I'm sure she would have been here this morning trying to talk some "sense" into me. That my friends weren't here meant that Jennifer's mother hadn't told them about Newcombe's message she'd relayed to me. I owed that woman one.

I waited until Newcombe and I got on the highway before I spoke. I desperately wanted to forget the past day. "You're interested enough in this devil story that you bought a house in Cole Creek?"

He didn't look away from the road when he answered and I liked that. He was settled into that dark blue leather seat like the backside of him was growing from it, his right hand draped over the wheel like he'd grown up using a steering wheel as a teething ring.

Of course I'd read his book Uncles and had read how his hero-or protagonist-had uncles who loved any machine that had been built specifically to destroy something, and how the hero had been a misfit. I got the idea that Newcombe had spent his childhood hiding under a tree and reading Balzac. Or ironing his own clothes. He'd made a big deal about having to iron his own clothes. Gee. Maybe I could write a best-seller. I'd ironed my clothes and my dad's since I was eight. Anyway, if I'd been asked, I would have said that, based on his books, Ford Newcombe didn't know a gearshift from a windshield wiper.

"Yeah, I bought a house," Newcombe said in answer to my question, then closed his mouth.

I wanted to tell him that his silence was going to make it a lllooonnnggg journey, but I didn't. I just put my head back and closed my eyes.

I awoke when he stopped to get gas. I got out to put the gas in the car- after all, I was his a.s.sistant-but he got the pump handle before I could.

"Go get us something to eat and drink," he said while watching the numbers on the tank.

That's how all his former secretaries said he was: grumpy and uncommunicative. And no matter how much work they did for him, he didn't consider it enough.

"I have a life, Jackie," one woman I knew said. "He wanted me to stay all night and type what he'd written in his tiny handwriting. And he shouted at me because I said I would bring the papers home." Blowing her nose in an old tissue, she said, "Do you know what's wrong with what I said, Jackie?"

I didn't want to say. I wanted to be "supportive" but to do that I'd have to play dumb. "You take the papers home," I heard myself whisper, unable to stop. "Not bring. Take."

When this made the poor woman cry harder, I looked around the restaurant at the other diners and saw they were frowning at me. Heaven help me but they seemed to think I was making her cry. "Men!" I said loudly. Collectively, they turned away, nodding their heads in understanding.

I went into the little convenience store at the gas station and looked around, but I had no idea what he liked to eat and drink. From the look of him, I guessed he probably ate fried things that came in plastic bags, and drank bottles of stuff that didn't have the word "diet" on them.

I got him three bags of cheesy crispy fried things and two colas full of sugar and caffeine. As for me, I got a bottle of still water and two bananas.

When he came inside to pay, I put the items on the counter. He looked at them and didn't complain so I guess I did all right. He added a candy bar to the lot and paid.

Outside, when I asked him if he wanted me to drive, I could see he was about to say no, but then he said, "Sure, why not?" I had an idea he wanted to see how I drove, and from the way he watched me for the first thirty minutes, I knew I was right. But I guess I pa.s.sed because he finally settled back and began opening his bags and bottles.

"So tell me about this devil story," he said. "The full version of it.

Everything you remember."

"With or without sound effects?" I asked.

"Without," he answered. "Most definitely without. Just facts."

So, yet again I told my devil story, but this time I told it, not for drama, but for facts. The truth was that I really didn't know what was fact and what was fiction. The trauma of my mother's telling of the story had so changed my life that I wasn't sure where one began and the other ended.

I was a little awkward at first because no one had ever asked me to tell the facts. Everyone else had wanted spine-tingling drama. I started by telling him that when I was a young child, my mother had read me a Bible story that mentioned the devil and I started to ask questions. I think what I asked was whether or not the devil was real. My mother said that the devil was very real and that he'd been seen in Cole Creek. This answer sparked my interest, and I asked more questions. I wanted to know what the devil looked like, and she said, "He's an extremely handsome man. Before he turns red and goes up in smoke, that is." I asked more questions, such as what color the smoke was and who had seen him. She said the smoke was gray and that a woman who lived in Cole Creek, where we were living then, had loved the devil. "And everyone knows that people who love the devil must die," she said.

As I turned to Newcombe I took a deep breath. Other times I'd told the story, I'd played it for its ability to frighten people. I'd once won a black ribbon at a summer camp for having the best horror story. But to Newcombe, I decided to tell the truth. "They killed her. The story was that there were several people who saw the woman talking to the devil, and when she backed away from them, she tripped and fell. They wouldn't let her get up."

It was just a story but the image in my mind was vivid. "They piled stones on top of her until she was dead."

"And it was your mother who told you the details of this story?"

I glanced at him quickly. "It's not worse than Hansel and Gretel," I said defensively, then calmed. "Actually, I think I've taken my mother's story and embellished it with all the TV shows and books I've read. I told you that I can't remember what she said and what I've made up over the years."

Newcombe was looking at me strangely so I decided to nip this in the bud. "Don't look at me like that. I wasn't involved in some evil coven-and neither was my mother. The truth is that the night I told my father what my mother had said, my parents split up. My parents argued horribly and later my father wrapped me in a blanket, put me in the car and took me away. I never saw my mother again. I think my mother's telling me a forbidden story, one that was too violent for a little kid to hear, was the final straw that made my father leave. And I think the trauma of the separation made the story stick in my mind. Truthfully, I barely remember my mother but I do remember that devil story."

Over the years, I'd learned to keep quiet about my parents, but now my father was dead and I was heading toward the town of my childhood.

Telling the unembellished truth of what I remembered of what my mother had told me seemed to be making memories come back to me. And maybe it was because Newcombe was such a good listener but I'd just told him things I'd never told anyone else. When I'd calmed myself, I went on to tell him that I remembered that my parents were always arguing, all of it done in quiet whispers that I wasn't supposed to hear. A few days after my mother told me the devil story, my father and I were walking outside and I asked him where the lady had seen the devil. He asked me what I meant.

After I'd repeated my mother's story, he picked me up, carried me back to the house and put me in my bedroom and shut the door. But even as an adult, I could still remember the argument they had that night. My mother was crying and saying that they were all going to die anyway, so what did it matter? "And she needs to be told the truth." I remembered that sentence vividly.

I took another breath to quieten the turmoil the memories had raised and glanced at Newcombe. He was frowning, seeming to think about what I'd told him. I didn't see any need to tell him that my father had moved us repeatedly over the years. Sometimes he'd receive a letter or a phone call, his face would turn white, and I knew that within forty-eight hours we'd be on the road again. Over the years I'd lost friends and places I cared about because of my father's constant moving.

As I watched the road ahead, my mind full of my own thoughts, I began to fear that Newcombe was going to try to get me to reveal more than what I had-which, for me, was a tremendous amount. After all, he wrote books about his own life so now maybe he'd want to take mine apart. But he didn't. Instead, he grinned and said, "Okay, now tell me the story with drama and fireworks."

Just weeks before, I'd been embarra.s.sed to find out that he'd heard me tell a story, but things between us were more relaxed now, so I let him have it. I forgot about reality and the involvement of my parents and told him my devil story in the most grisly way possible.

I had never had a more attentive listener. When I glanced away from the road to see if I was boring him, he had the wide-eyed look of a three-year-old sitting at the feet of a storyteller. The telling took me nearly forty-five minutes, and when I finished, we were silent for a while.

Newcombe seemed to be thinking about what I'd told him. Finally, he said, "Devil stories are rare. I've read a zillion witch and ghost stories, but I'm not sure I've ever heard one in which someone was believed to have loved the devil. Not just seen him but loved him. And a pressing." He went on to tell me that piling rocks on top of a person believed to be a witch was an old form of punishment called a "pressing."

After a moment or two, he lightened the air by telling me what he'd done so far to discover the origins of the devil story. From the moment he told me about a librarian hanging up on him-him, Ford Newcombe-my mouth dropped open and stayed down there. I must say I was impressed when he told me how he'd bought a house over the phone.

Isn't it the dream of every minimum wage person in the U.S. to be able to buy a quarter of a million dollar house just like that? I'd never lived in an "owned" house. My dad and I went from one rental to another, one job after another. He'd managed a bowling alley, sold tires, been night manager at a dozen groceries. It wasn't until I was nine that I realized my dad was moving us around so often because he didn't want to be found.

I must say that it was good to be able to live vicariously through Ford Newcombe's chutzpah and his money. "You bought the house and the contents?" I asked.

"Turn south at the next junction," he said as he drained half a bottle of cola. "Yeah, and it's your job to go through all the junk in the house."

I knew he was testing me so I just smiled and said, "Be glad to."

"Unless your husband..."

When he trailed off, I knew he wanted to know if I'd left before or after the I do's. "It's still Miss Maxwell," I said. "So you want to tell me about wages, benefits, and hours?"

I don't know what I said that made him angry, but I could see his face start to turn red.

"Job description," he muttered, as though I'd said something vile.

I'd had all I could take from men in the last few days and I really didn't care if he dropped me and my bags at the side of the road. I knew from experience that there were always jobs to be had. "Yeah," I said as I turned south, and there was belligerence in my voice. "Job description."

As he looked out the window for a moment, I could see his reflection in the windshield and d.a.m.ned if he didn't smile a bit. Maybe he was so used to people fawning over his big successful self that he liked it when people didn't bow down to him.

Finally, he said, "I don't know. I haven't written a book since"-he paused and took a deep breath-"for a long time so I don't know what I need in the way of an a.s.sistant."

"There are a lot of women who'd agree with you on that one," I said before I thought, then glanced at him in horror.

But, to my relief, his eyes crinkled up and we both laughed.

"I'm not the monster you've probably heard I am," he said, and explained that most of the women who'd worked for him had marriage, not typing, on their minds.

It was easy to be flippant and think that, of course, he'd be pursued since he was rich and unmarried, but I too well remembered my father in the same situation. Not rich, but unattached. Maybe some of the women Newcombe had fired deserved it. Maybe...

For a while he munched on his cheesy things in silence, then I said, "You want to give me a job description?" and that made him laugh again. "And where do I live?"

It turned out that-dare I stereotype and say "like a man"?-he hadn't thought of where his a.s.sistant was to live. When he said, "I guess you'll live with me," I shot him a look that told him what I thought of that idea.

He tried to get me back by looking me up and down, obviously finding me wanting. "You don't have to worry," he said.

I'm sure he meant to put me down, but it made me laugh instead. He may be rich and famous, but I was the one who was in shape.

Turning away, he shook his head for a moment, as though to say that he'd never before met anyone like me, then he wadded up his empty cheese-poison bag and said he thought the house was big enough for us to live together and not get in each other's way.

"I don't do domestic," I said. "I don't cook or clean anything. I don't do laundry." I almost said that I didn't iron shirts even if they'd been run over by a tractor, but I decided that might be too much.

He shrugged. "If they have a pizza parlor or a diner I'll be fine. You don't look like you eat much anyway."

"Mmmmm," was all I said to let him know that my eating habits were none of his business. It was my experience that if you talked about food to a man he thought you were coming on to him. Men seemed to go from food to body to "you want me, I know you do."

"So what exactly am I to research?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, honesty in his voice. "I've never done this before.

I've spent the last two years reading local ghost stories and trying to put some of them together. And it's been difficult trying to get to primary sources, especially since I've not had a lot of help."

I bit my tongue on his last bit of whining. "So now you want to know about this pressing. Have any idea exactly when it took place?"

At that he gave me a look.

"Right," I said. " I am your primary source. But I really have no idea when it happened or even if it did."

"Based on the att.i.tude of the librarian, it did."

"Or maybe she was tired of people asking about it. Maybe it's like Amityville and the residents are sick of people asking about that house. Or maybe she's just afraid that her sweet little mountain town will be overrun by people with swastikas carved onto their foreheads, looking for the devil."

"Mmmmm," he said, giving me the same non-answer I'd given him. He scrunched down in the seat, his long legs looking as though they'd disappeared into the motor, and put his head back. "When you get down to a quarter tank, pull over and I'll drive," he said as he closed his eyes.

I drove in silence for a long time and I enjoyed it. I thought a little about Kirk and what he'd done to me, and thought maybe I'd someday break my vow of silence and ask Newcombe if he knew how I could go about recovering the money Kirk had stolen from me. But mainly I thought about how to research a story no one wanted to discuss.

As the wide interstate stretched before me, I tried to remember everything my mother had told me about the pressing. So very much of my early childhood was a blur, but if I concentrated, I could remember the two incidents that had changed everything. My mother had gone from reading me a bedtime story to telling me that people who loved the devil had to die, and because she'd told me that story, my father had taken me away.

Over the years, I'd often wondered what would have happened if I'd kept my mouth shut and never told my father what my mother said. But now that I was an adult, I knew better than that. Neither my big mouth nor my mother's story had separated my parents. The truth was that they had disliked each other a great deal.

When I looked at the speedometer, I saw I was going too fast, so I slowed down.

As Newcombe dozed, I tried to remember that awful night when my father had taken me away. When he was alive, I wouldn't let myself think about that night for fear I'd become too angry at him, and I knew anger wouldn't have done either of us any good. We only had each other.

The night I'd told my father what my mother said, he'd turned out the lights in my bedroom and closed the door all the way instead of leaving it open a bit as he usually did. But I could have been locked inside a bank vault and I would still have heard the argument he and my mother had.

Even though they talked in low, stealthy tones, I could hear them as clearly as though I'd been sitting under the kitchen table.

My father was saying my mother shouldn't have told me the devil story.

Suddenly, I remembered what my mother had actually said. She didn't say, as I'd told Newcombe, that we would all die someday. My mother had said, "So how will you explain to her why I died?"

I glanced at Newcombe, meaning to tell him, but he was sleeping, his mouth slightly open, his lips softened. With the tension out of his face, he looked much younger. Certainly not in his fifties as I'd thought. Actually, not bad looking at all.

As I looked back at the highway, I remembered that my mother's words had scared me so much that I'd put my hands over my ears and begun to hum loudly. Eventually, I went to sleep, but sometime during the night my father came in and woke me. "We're going on a trip, Jackie," he'd said as he pulled me out of the warm bed and lifted me in his arms. When I shivered, he grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around me. Minutes later we were in the car, there were suitcases on the floor, and my father told me to stretch out and go back to sleep. When I asked about my mother, he said, "She'll come later."

But I never saw my mother again and sometime later my father told me she'd died.

Over the years I came to realize that my father had kidnapped me.

Sometimes I'd fantasize that my mother was still alive somewhere and dying of loneliness without me. One day, I said as much to my father. He said that he'd taken me away because my mother was very ill and she didn't want her little girl to see her die. He said he'd taken me away so I'd remember my mother as a healthy, laughing woman who loved me very much. But another time, he told me my mother had died in a car wreck, and that was the story I told when I was asked about her.

My memories of my mother were vague and confused. Sometimes I remembered her as being tall with long, dark hair, smiling and singing, and making me feel good when I was with her. And sometimes I remembered her as being short, with light hair, and always in a bad mood.

I mentioned this dichotomy to my father and he said I was remembering my mother and his sister. I mentally leaped through the ceiling. I had an aunt?!

Quickly, my father said my aunt had been killed in a car wreck when I was very young. Even back then I'd wanted to make a sarcastic remark about so many people in our family dying in car wrecks. But I didn't say anything.

When the tank was down to a quarter full, just as I'd been instructed, I pulled into a gas station. This time I filled the tank while Newcombe went in to get his own food. He was polite and asked if I wanted anything but I still hadn't eaten my bananas. When he returned to the car with his arms laden with fat and cholesterol, he leaned against the door and watched me doing stretches.

Okay, so I'm limber, but I didn't appreciate being stared at in that way, especially not while he was eating a sandwich that reached from my knee to my ankle. The way he watched me made me feel as though I should hand out popcorn and charge admission.

After we got back in the car, him behind the wheel, we didn't talk for a while. We'd shared some laughter, and we seemed to now share a goal of wanting to find out the truth behind a story, so we were content. At least I was.

As we drove, we watched the landscape change into the drop-dead gorgeous scenery of western North Carolina, with lush, verdant trees covering rolling hills.

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