"What should I call you?" she asked. She liked leaning against his solid middle while he lay on his side. That and playing with his chest hair.
He made a noise. "Not Ricky," he said. "That's a wimp name. A grown man called Ricky? Please." He played with the long curls hanging down her back, tickling the nape of her neck with her own hair.
She giggled. "Well, it was a nickname. My real first name was Roderick. How about if I call you Rod?"
He laughed, the vibration in his chest giving her goosebumps. "Rod Peters?" he said. "That makes me sound like an old-fashioned porno stud."
"Why do you think I didn't use it?" She giggled again.
"I like it. Rod it is. And I'm going to call you Cissy, instead of CeeCee." He grinned. "You're a hell of a lot more girly than I ever was."
She blushed. "Am I really?"
"Mm-hmm." He bent a little to rub his whiskery chin against her shoulder. "Ouch," he said when she tugged on his chest fuzz in retaliation.
With her other hand, she investigated. "I think you're ready again. Rod." Fire and ice played tag in her tummy and she sighed without knowing she had done so.
"I think you're right, Cissy," he said. "This time, you get on top."
At a big, smooth, table in the largest room in the Sweet mansion sat the family executive council, their hands and elbows resting on the pecan wood with cups of coffee and glasses of juice near at hand. The room would easily hold forty people with as many as sixteen sitting at the big table and two dozen more scattered around in comfortable chairs and sofas. Dom, the family butler, had made sure that everyone had refreshment and then lead the other servants out, closing the door behind him.
Outside, the southeastern edge of the storm punishing the middle of the country tormented Florence, Alabama with rain, hail and tornado sirens. That tame beast, the Tennessee River was unlikely to flood but the water coming down did what damage it could. Sweet family pumper trucks might be needed to empty basements as well as septic tanks after this gale.
Hamilton Edward Sweet, Pappy, the ruling patriarch of the Sweet clan, pushed a fist into his stomach and belched into his other hand. Damn acid reflux would be the death of him yet, he decided, if cancer didn't get him first.
Pappy glanced around the room, taking in the attitudes of his brothers, daughters, nieces and grandchildren, as well as a few assorted in-laws. Borden Pruitt and Lucas Boyle would cover things at the offices today while the true Sweets dealt with disaster.
He ignored his parents, Josiah and Susie Mack, both in their nineties. Josiah was deaf, almost blind and rested in his high tech wheelchair gumming nothing and whining when he became aware of anyone near him. His wife, Pappy's mother, dozed nearby, sitting upright in a straight chair, her once blazing red hair now an ironic white halo. Susie Mack had been a bomb-throwing anarchist, party girl and authentic hell-raiser in her day.
Her third son, Hamilton Parker Sweet, evidence of Susie Mack's once evil ways because he was only legally and not biologically a Sweet, sat at Pappy's right hand. Sunny, as he was known to all, still ran the finances of the family answering only to Pappy in many decisions involving money. Sunny was a metaphorical as well as an actual bastard and took a perverse pride in both.
The middle son, Hamilton Joseph, Old Joe, had suffered a stroke years ago and his once hulking presence at the table seemed ghostly somehow. Old Joe had been Battlin' Joe in his football years with the Crimson Tide, and Colonel Joe Sweet, USMC, during World War II. Now the ruined half of his face looked as if he had died in that old war and been poorly preserved all these years. A patch covered the dead right eye. The corner of his mouth on that side had actually been stitched up to keep him from drooling. The left side still had life, though, and a wary malice gleamed in his cyclopean gaze.
Old Joe hated all things living and Sweet and imagined that this fact was only known to himself. He sat across the table from his brothers and never looked them directly in the face in order to keep himself from sneering. Millie, his wife, sat on his blind side, the one person he trusted there. She always came to family executive sessions because Old Joe's voice sometimes broke down into frustrated stammers and cursing and only Millie could always understand him.
At one end of the table sat Hamilton Edward Sweet II, Ed, Ned's father, Pappy's eldest son, and presumptive heir to leadership of the family when the older generation consented to die. At the other end sat his brother and rival, Hamilton Patrick, Salty.
Old Joe's son, Hamilton Montrose, Li'l Joe, sat in a nearby easy chair with a square glass of bourbon in his big left hand and an unlit Cuban stogie in his right. He would not sit at the same table with his father but he was the family enforcer now and needed to learn of executive decisions soonest.
The wives and most of the daughters of the men of the executive council sat on couches and chairs nearby. The boys and some of the girls of the fourth generation had all gone to help Ned look for his bride but they didn't all attend these meetings, anyway.
All of the men except Sunny were either bald or had thinning blond hair. Sunny's hair took after his mother's and had gone an odd shade of orange-pink, like a mixture of sugar, cinnamon and khaki-colored dust. Millie shaved Old Joe's head everyday, working carefully around the scars where the doctors in Atlanta had taken out the blood clot.
Salty cleared his throat, looking from Pappy to Ed and back again. Sunny chewed on a pencil and spat eraser crumbs into his hand. Li'l Joe grunted, and old Ham in his electronic chair whined that he needed prunes but no one ever listened to him. He was right, they didn't.
"Cho we kyiww hewh," said Old Joe.
"So we kill her," repeated Millicent.
Pappy frowned. "That's a little extreme and a lot premature," he cautioned.
Susie Mack stirred in her sleep, one leg drawing back to kick a strike-busting goon where it would do the most good. The daughters and wives sitting or standing on the sidelines twittered and nattered.
Sunny cleared his throat. "I think it would be unwise."
"Uncle Joe didn't mean it," said Salty.
"Chess I did," grunted Joe. "Fuggin paster." Millie left that untranslated.
"Since she runned off right after the wedding, we could probably get it annulled," suggested Ed. He had a law degree so he ought to know.
"That won't he'p," said Li'l Joe. "She can still rip us all a new hole to shit with, eventually." He sipped his bourbon and chewed his stogie. It wasn't 8 a.m. yet but damned if he were going to drink coffee or fruit juice while they talked about killing someone.
"Cho we kyiww hewh," said Old Joe again. "Witches got it cumpin."
"The bitch has got it coming," Millie clarified.
The car carrying the younger male Hamilton Sweets, besides Ned and Hank, had missed the turn off to Jonesboro, assuming that their quarry had driven straight through. By swapping off drivers they had continued on through to Little Rock and negotiated the poorly marked roads around the Arkansas metropolis. Even going directly through the city on I-40 all the way, it was possible to get lost if you didn't know that doing the simple thing was always correct because the signs were half-hidden, defaced, missing or even just wrong.
Emerging at the northwestern corner of the city, they were headed for Fort Smith when they got the call from Hank to meet up in Dallas.
Bo closed up his cellphone and asked the obvious question. "Why Dallas?" The other two cousins shrugged. Nobody knew or wanted to even guess.
The simplest thing to do, Bo decided, would be turn around, take I-430 around the western edge of the city and pick up I-30 heading straight to Plano. By the time they got there, someone should know better where they should meet up. All he had to do now was tell Tater.
Driving with the seat almost all the way forward to account for his short legs, Tater hunched over, elbows out instead of down. He peered through the rain, his jaw muscles knotted. Sitting, he was as tall as any of his cousins but standing up he looked like that cartoon character on King of the Hill who had his feet attached to his knees. At the moment, he also looked the very picture of stubborn intensity, and pictures don't lie.
Besides being the shortest male Sweet, Tater was also the oldest of his generation and had the least amount of hair. A pitiful combover decorated his big square skull and he purely hated for anyone to tell him anything while he was driving. He'd probably already figured out what was going on and didn't seem inclined to look for an exit to turn around on.
Bo sighed and glanced over the seat back at his brother, Luther, sprawled out across the wide back bench. Luther grinned at him, knowing what the problem had to be.
Tater spoke, confirming Bo's worry. "I'm driving as far as Russelville," he said. Halfway to Fort Smith, in the wind and storm, driving like a bat out of hell with Beelzebub on his tail; Tater didn't do anything at less than maximum effort, except drinking and fishing. No, wait, he was a serious drinker, too.
"That's right, Tater, that's what we said. I'll take over there," said Luther from the back. "Just let me get some shuteye now and then you can sleep all the way to Dallas."
Bo shook his head but he didn't argue. You could argue with Tater and even win with logic and persuasion but you might get a rabbit punch in the kidney a week from next Tuesday. He's nothing like his brother Hank or his dad Salty; he's more like my granddad, Old Joe, except he has two eyes.
The big black doolie lurched on the wet pavement as Tater's heavy foot mashed the accelerator. Christmas, thought Bo, now we're doing eighty-five! Damn good thing we didn't bring Borden or Lucas, neither of them would put up with this but Luther and I are blood and we understand Tater.
He smiled. It's kind of like understanding a tornado, just stay out of its way and you'll be fine. Oh, well. He pulled out his cellphone again to call his wife, Dottie Mack, and tell the car full of sisters and wives about the change in destinations.
Dottie McGill Sweet closed her phone after the call from Bo. The great grandniece of old Susie Mack, Pappy's mother, Dottie had married her third cousin Bo knowing full well what it meant to be a Sweet. She loved it. She'd even dyed her chestnut hair blonde to fit in.
"Ladies," she announced. "We're going to Shoppin'opolis! Neiman-Marcus, here we come."
"How do we get to Dallas from Rock City?" asked Emmaline who was now navigating while Molly Jo drove. She peered at the screen of the GPS mounted on the dashboard.
"We got to come out of that maze going south," suggested Suretta, still in the middle of the back seat. Being the smallest of the ladies, she naturally fit in between the tall, bony Dottie Mack and the plump, soft Naomi.
"Southwest," corrected Molly Jo behind the wheel. She didn't like driving in the rain but she only trusted Emmaline and Dottie Mack to not drive them off in a bar ditch so her turn kept coming up.
"Dallas is south of Little Rock," said Naomi. "I think." She'd put the snicker-snack away and had been dozing until the cellphone buzz had woke her up. She stifled a yawn and covered up licking caramel off her teeth by holding a hand in front of her face.
"South but more west," said Dottie Mack. All the girls agreed. Normally they flew into Dallas for their twice annual shopping trips and long distance driving was usually left to their husbands.
So, maybe it wasn't too surprising that they wound up circling Pine Bluff in south-central Arkansas, two and a half hours later. They eventually blamed it on the storm, the confusing freeway signs and the GPS but they wouldn't reach Dallas for another ten hours.
Cissy negotiated the walkway from Cabin 5 to the office in her high heels, wishing she'd thought to buy some plain flats when they'd stopped earlier. The howling wind grabbed her and tried to throw her off the path and into a mud puddle and she let out a yelp of fright before catching her balance.
Rod's jacket almost swallowed her up entirely but it had been the only thing in the cabin that could be used to keep her dry. Rod himself lay sleeping in the lop-sided bed which was probably even more lumpy and decrepit after the workout they had given it.
She gurgled deep in her throat. A newly married lady ought to enjoy her honeymoon, she thought. Only thing wrong was Rod wasn't her husband. "Ah, Neddy," she said aloud. "I hope you get over me quick. I'll get this marriage annulled soon and we can forget we ever knew each other."
That bothered her a little. In one way, she didn't know Ned Sweet and never had, and in another way she remembered quite well their lovemaking of the last few months, Neddy's proposal, their wedding and the desperate panic that had seized her as soon as their vows had been said. She'd run away and found Rod or he had found her and now she had the happiness she knew Ned could never give her.
She reached the office door and had raised a hand to knock when the door flew open and a skinny old woman grabbed her and pulled her inside.
"Get in here, child," Meddina Handshaw scolded. "You'll ketch your death of the grippe out in this weather!"
Jerry and Fay nodded identically. "Pure fact," said Fay. "Getting soaked to the skin in a summer storm has carried off more folk than falling off barns or drowning in the crick."
"If you fell into the crick, you'd probably get soaked, too," pointed out Jerry.
"'Tain't the same thing," said Fay.
"Hush up," Meddina snapped. "Get a body a hot cup of tea, why don't you? Pore thing's teeth are going to start chattering."
Cissy wrinkled her nose and laughed. "I'm all right," she said. She stopped grinning with a bit of effort. "But I'm – different. Different than what I was?"
Jerry nodded. Meddina glared at both of her brothers and Fay smiled a tight, satisfied smile. "You needed sorting out," he said.
"Huh?" She shook her head and licked her lips. "No, I mean – I don't think I'm the same person I was. I used to have red hair – no, I mean, he used to have red hair – no, see, he's got red hair, now but I used to be a blond. Uh...." She trailed off, unsure of what she had said, what she had actually meant and even more unsure of why she might be telling the odd trio what surely must be fantasy.
But the three of them were all nodding. "You needed sorting out," Fay repeated.
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