An Exchange of Favors
Vidor, Texas had a reputation for being a tough town. Vidor started out life supplying cheap labor for the wildcatters when oil gushed from the Spindletop field. After that, with the oil flowing and drilling at an ebb, the same people sweated at the refineries that processed the raw crude into high octane fuels. They raised their children, poached venison for the freezer, drank and fished a lot, and enjoyed a brief but prosperous time during WWII.
The façade of recent prosperity stretched along the route of Interstate 10. Emily May Bjørnild, the last name taken from her Norwegian mother’s farm name, knew that a lot of other folks in the Vidor area, the ones without recent jobs or welfare checks, the ones whose oil wells ended up as dry holes or who got suckered out of their mineral rights for tempting wads of ready cash, made up a shadowy side of Vidor, the side where people lived in tar paper shacks out in the swamps and on low, sandy hummocks.
Emily May, who knew the taste of ultimate rejection, who had watched her real father, Hamilton Mouton, raise up another daughter instead of her, who had longed to know her Norwegian mother until her death put that out of reach, considered herself very much of a castoff even though she had not suffered the kinds of economic depravations that she saw in the faces of the people around her.
She had driven over from from Sulfur, Louisiana, which was a town with a different brand of smells. Sulfur reeked of chemicals, of vinyl chlorides and mercaptans, unlike Vidor which smelled like a busted oil town, an industrial toilet, unflushed just like the one in the bathroom tacked on the back of the café where she had taken a moment to comb out her tangle of blond hair and add a bit of lipstick to her pale lips. The pale gray eyes that watched her from the foggy mirror drooped slightly at their outer corners where a web of fine lines radiated something other than a sense of humor—more like a sense of failure that was infiltrating the softer features of a middle aged face that took most of its shape from her father, Hamilton Mouton.
The walls of the bathroom were single sheets of plywood, the shed roof low overhead, and the springy floor was covered in cheap linoleum. Emily wondered if the toilet was actually connected to a sewer line, or did the shit simply flush into the bayou out back. A single florescent tube hummed and flickered overhead, harmonizing with the clatter of a vent fan in a corner. Through the screen over the hole, she watched yellow jackets tending their celluloid crèche. The only thing shiny in the place was a new condom dispenser. She worked a paper towel from the reluctant dispenser and used the paper like a glove to unhook the latch and open the door. No way was she going to catch something from a door knob. The dim corridor smelled strongly of bacon grease, fish, burnt cayenne peppers, caramelized garlic, and scorched flour. Someone flushed the toiled in the men’s. She hurried back out into the main room, not wanting to rub elbows with a stranger in the dark hallway.
An air conditioner mounted through the wall behind Emily growled, spit out fog, and failed to keep up with the unexpected warm spell that was assaulting the coast with oppressive, summer-like heat and dampness. She had been expected and was shown to a small corner table—Mr. Madling’s table, the waiter had said. The wooden table covered over by a fresh red and white check Italian tablecloth, was set for two. She sat next to a window clouded with moisture and was sipping on a second cup of terrible coffee. She took a moment to tug at her short skirt and scowl at the bald man wearing horn rimmed glasses who was seated at the next table. He was pretending to read his paper, flipping pages at random, while staring up her dress; no sense in giving the perverts any excitement, she thought.
Finally, as she was wondering if she’d have to order something with her third cup—the waiter was starting to look impatient as the lunch crowd began filtering in—the man she worked for, Puddy Madling, walked though the front door.
Or rather burst through the door, she changed her mind. He was one of those massive men who wore sport coats that made his head and neck looked too small on top of his sloping, powerful shoulders. He had mean eyes, ears that stuck out, and small lips that appeared feminine. Emily knew that he worked out a lot with weights and was getting sensitive about his waist line. Madling could be frighteningly intense; there was a level of anger that occasionally broke through the wall of control he projected. Not that he’d never been particularly aggressive with her, and he’d never come on to her, though some of his unsavory associates had bothered her once or twice. She wondered if he might be gay. He was insensitive towards others, but he wasn’t necessarily rude or a bully in public. Even so, a path opened through the crowd of customers as if by magic as he caught sight of her and crossed to his table.
The big man overflowed the chair. Harley, the waiter, was at the table almost before Puddy finished settling in. “Your coffee, Mr. Madling,” he placed the large sized cup carefully in front of Puddy, a napkin neatly folded under the cup, a spoon placed precisely along the side of the saucer-Harley hadn’t bothered to furnish her with a saucer and her spoon had looked used. “Fresh cream,” he placed a white creamer in front of the cup and four inches to the left.
Madling nodded and picked up the creamer, slid the top aside with his thumb and sniffed, nodded again and poured a measure of cream into the hot coffee. “Special blend they keep for me,” he told Emily.
Emily thought the coffee smell incredibly good, especially after the thin, bitter stuff she’d been drinking. She started to ask Harley for some of the better stock.
Harley had moved back a couple of steps, waiting, concentrating on the man in a way that told her that Puddy had met with many women at this table, women that hadn’t been important enough to notice. “If you and the lady are ready to order?”
“In a minute,” Puddy motioned Harley away. He hadn’t offered to get Emily a cup of the special blended coffee.
He used to be nicer to me, she thought. Aloud, “I talked to Cassell about his son. I’m not sure he believed me.” She felt the table vibrate as Madling drummed his fingers on the surface. “I might see him again. What do you want me to tell him?”
She let her day dream overtake her, again. She had been working on a catering job in Lake Charles—just a few miles down the road at one of those huge, ugly chemical plants near the lake. She remembered the summer day was blistering hot, and the sulfur smell burned her nose giving her a bad headache. Inside the meeting room the air conditioning was going full blast and the smell was less noxious. She walked in the door along with Jim and Betty carrying heavy trays of fried crab finger sandwiches, diced condiments, and boiled shrimp on beds of ice. The cold air had made her nipples press out against her blouse like pop tents, attracting the eyes of every man in the room.
The man standing at the front of the room was holding a pointer and talking from a flip chart clamped to a large easel. He might have been good looking if one side of his face hadn’t been ruined with some kind of burn scar. She remembered how he’d smiled lopsidedly at her and stopped talking so she and the others could set up the lunch table without feeling as if they were interrupting his lecture.
He was very polite. Usually they had to wait out in the heat, bringing in more iced tea and soft drinks if needed, but this time it was arranged for them to shelter during the lunch hour in the office next to the conference room. Blain was his name. She had thanked him, asked what he did, and he had said something about industrial paint. She had thought he was a paint salesman until later on when she looked at the card he had given her and discovered he was the president of Cassell Coatings, Blain Cassell himself. The memory was nice. Kind of handy to meet someone like that, as it turned out.
Things got real nice after that. She began to see him every time he traveled through the area. Through Blain’s introductions, she had picked up a part time job working on the side for a lawyer named Ernie Politabas in Beaumont—posting public notices in local papers and delivering occasional messages. Once Ernie had surprised her by asking her about Cassell. She told him it wasn’t any of his business. He’d laughed and said that just about everything that went on between Lafayette and Houston was his business.
She met Puddy Madling through Politabas. Madling worked at the construction site near Beaumont where a nuclear plant was being built. He was some kind of manager as well as purchasing agent and seemed to know a lot of important people. He’d engaged her occasionally as a paid escort service for important clients—nothing sexual, of course. She had made that clear. “Dinner and conversation,” he had agreed. “I want to know everything they talk about,” he’d added. Emily had kept her evenings just that way, strictly dinner and conversation, although that had been difficult once or twice. Madling mentioned a name that jerked her attention back to the table.
“…odd that you should know Blain Cassell,” Madling stared at her suspiciously, waiting for her to react.
“It was one of those accidents,” she hesitated, wondering where he was headed. “He got me the job with Mr. Politabas.”
“Mr. Politabas?” Madling seemed to find the formality amusing. He extracted a small brown envelope from an inner pocket in his coat. “I’ll tell you a little more about your Mr. Cassell. He’s promised some things that he hasn’t delivered. You might say that he’s gotten himself into a bit of trouble with some very important people.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Emily returned diffidently.
“No? Well, I don’t suppose Cassell’s that stupid. I’m told you see him on Sunday.”
Emily, trying not to show her surprise, nodded her head, “Not always.”
“Better make sure you see him tomorrow.” The big man tapped the edge of the envelope against the table. “Tell him again that his son is screwing up our deal. Either he takes care of things or we will.”
“He didn’t believe me the last time,” she protested.
“He’ll believe this,” he repeated, looking sour. “Make sure he gets this before Monday,” Madling slid the brown envelope across the table. “Don’t open it,” he cautioned her with lidded eyes narrowed to slits.
Emily turned the envelope over. The flap had been taped back together. Across the back, a label had been rubber stamped in red ink with the name Nightwing Laboratories in prominent block lettering. She made out the initials MM scrawled on the bottom line. Something to do with her half sister? She felt a thrill of hatred stoke her adrenalin.
“Cassell’s pretty straight laced, you know,” she studied Madling’s expression for any signs of interest. He yawned and she noted the yellow teeth and several gold fillings.
“I don’t pay extra for your psychological analysis,” he sneered. Using two fingers, he extracted a small fold of bills from his shirt pocket and tossed it on the table. “The usual.”
A fifty was wrapped around the outside; three more on the inside, two hundred in all—enough to get the valves fixed on her old car. She picked up the money and reached for her purse under the table. It wasn’t nearly enough, she realized. Not for the first time Emily tried to understand why she always seemed to sell herself cheaply.
“Not counting it?”
She couldn’t bring herself to look up at him. “I know where to find you,” Emily tried to joke. She flinched as he brought up one of his meaty fists.
“Don’t fuck with me,” he stabbed a blunt finger at her. Two gold bands alongside a diamond setting of impressive size squeezed the flesh like rubber bands wrapped around a flaccid hot dog.
The thought of the round chambered in the automatic tucked in her purse ignited a warm glow in her heart. She thought about blowing away his balls. “I love you too,” she smiled.
He sat back and laughed, bent a finger at Harley who came sniffing and whining like a dog to Madling’s side. “The usual fillet, medium rare, fries, no salad, and a Miller for me. Ask the lady what she wants.”
She chose the fried catfish, side salad, and seasoned vegetables. “I’d like some of that good coffee,” she pointed at Puddy’s cup.
She was still picking at the cheese-covered broccoli when Puddy pushed back from the table. She noticed a spot of catsup that looked like blood at the corner of his mouth. He licked his lips of the last bits of fat and meat juice, missing the catsup.
“The change is Harley’s.” He tossed a twenty dollar bill and a ten on the checked cloth. “And a bonus for you. Be a good girl and make nice with Cassell.” He tossed another fifty in her direction.
“Sure,” she bit her lower lip, controlling her anger, crushing the crisp bill between her fingers.
Madling noticed her discomfort and laughed. “Next time wear something a little nicer,” he looked her over. He bent down closer so only she could hear him. The beer and garlic from the steak topping was strong on his breath. “I can’t be seen with common whores.”
He lingered a moment; she wondered if he were waiting for a reaction. A few customers waiting by the pinball machine scattered as he made for the door. “Bastard,” she whispered to his receding back, feeling the heat of blood rushing to her cheeks. She transferred the crumpled bill to her purse, stroking the cold steel lying at the bottom, and thought her darkest thoughts.