Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Shuffle Chapter One
In the eighth grade I wore a size 34D. With a big bra full of chest and a given name of Tana Rose, I realized I could have a career stripping at the Dirty Sock south of town. Trying to avoid that fate, I told my friends and family to call me T.R.
According to my folks, stripping would have been a wiser choice of vocation than what I’m doing now. I deal Texas Hold’em in an underground (as in illegal) card room. Not to brag, but I run one of the most popular poker tables in Central Texas. And Texas has a lot of underground poker tables.
My family thinks I’m going to hell ─ or to jail, whichever comes first ─ and glow red with embarrassment whenever someone asks them what little T.R.’s doing since she stupidly (implied but not stated) left that great CPA firm she started working for right out of college.
I’m just surprised anyone needs to ask that question since everyone in my town seems to know everything about each other’s business.
In my defense, I tried hard to fit into the facts and figures career I went to college for but the job just wasn’t a good flop for me. The hours made me miserable. There just aren’t many accounting jobs out there that match my body’s sleep cycle. I’m wide awake all night, tossing, turning, reading, pacing; but daylight finds me with my head on my desk, eyes closed, mouth drooling.
So when I heard about this poker gig from a buddy, who had a friend, who knew someone, who was acquainted with a guy who had put the word out that he wanted a big-boobied dealer for friendly games of Texas Hold‘em, I knew I qualified.
Big boobs I got. Texas Hold‘em I love. The fact that gambling is illegal in Texas I’m not so keen about but great tips kind of put unlawful way in the back of my mind. Three nights in a poker room more than equal a really good paycheck of a fifty-hour workweek.
I’m thirty-four now, living the life my sleep rem was designed for, but I'm still touchy about what folks call me. So when some guy called me the ‘C’ word and tried to open the passenger door of my truck, I kinda freaked.
“Cunt!” he yelled. “HEY, CUNT! Open the door!”
I let out a startled squeal and almost wet my pants. My eyes jerked to the door locks, making sure they were safely in the locked position. When I looked up again, the drenched would-be intruder wasn’t even looking at me. He was staring down the street. The brim of his cowboy hat drooped under the weight of rainwater, making it impossible for me to see his face.
Whoever he was, he stopped pulling my door handle and rushed away. That’s when I stomped on the gas pedal.
It was my own fault the dripping dude had surprised me. I had pulled my current read from my purse at a long red light in the downtown warehouse district and was digesting a couple of paragraphs from the blistering bestseller. The rain on the roof and the sluggish thud, thud, thud of the wiper blades provided a perfect background rhythm to read by, although for the steamy parts I would have preferred a rapid, more deliberate pulsing.
Between the book and the blades, I didn’t even care that the light had cycled through green several times. It helped, of course, that all the traffic in town was coagulating around the university at this time of day, leaving my intersection as empty as a steer’s scrotum.
Attempted panhandling, robbery, or truckjacking, whatever the cowboy’s goal, it was a first for me. On the upside, I guess I should have been thankful. The soaked saddlebum made me realize I could have been home reading in my own comfy bed instead of sitting at an intersection in my brother’s borrowed truck.
He didn’t have to call me names, though.
The back end of the truck slipped sideways on the wet street when I hit the gas and I felt rather than heard a thump on the passenger side of the pickup.
OhmygodIranoverhim, I thought as I slammed on the brakes and jammed the transmission into park. Jumping down out of the big one-ton rig, I ran around the front of the pickup, fully expecting to find an injured man pinned under the tires.
But nobody lay dead or dying. Nobody was even there.
“Quit playin’ around, Runt!” I heard from the driver’s side door. “Get in! I need your truck now.”
Runt? Not Cunt?
Oh. Handle puller knew my brother Runt, apparently well enough to call him by his nickname. It was also obvious my brother’s friend hadn’t looked below my neck yet. Even though Runt and I look alike we do have our differences.
Whoever he was, he now stood between me and the steering wheel. Leaping from the duelie definitely didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.
The cowboy’s eyes widened as he turned and focused on my cleavage. He didn’t even glance at my face.
“Tana? Tana Rose? DamnitTanaRose! Getinthetruck!”
OK. He knew who I was just by looking at my boobs. And since he knew my full name, he had to be somebody I knew before high school.
“Tanarose! Now!” Runt’s buddy said as he grabbed the open driver’s door and swung up into the vehicle. Before the door closed on his blue-jeaned butt, I heard him say, “Yeah, I need to report a stolen truck.”
I stood in the rain wondering what I should do and why he was reporting a stolen truck to me, especially since it was my truck he was stealing. Then it dawned on me. I knew that rear end. That tight tush belonged to Shade Saunders, or he had a rump double.
“Hey, girlie,” a deep voice behind me said. “Come over here.”
I turned around just in time to see a scummy bum make a grab at my arm.
Whoa. This downtown area was getting scary. I slapped his hand away and took a step backwards.
“You bitch,” the damp derelict said, making another grab at me.What is it with the name calling today, I thought, but I didn’t hesitate. I turned and ran the couple of steps to the duelie’s passenger door. I heard a thunk as it electronically unlocked and I hustled myself into the truck.
“Hey, you’re suppose to come with me!” the man behind me yelled. Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna do that.
I glanced back just as the grubby guy stuck his hand down his pants. Wrinkling my nose in disgust, I settled myself into the passenger seat. It was either go with Shade or stay to see what the bum was digging into his britches for. Going with Shade seemed the wiser choice, but not by much.
As I slammed the door shut, I gave the bum one more quick look. Was that a pistol he was pointing at me? He had a gun in his briefs? I had completely missed that bulge, not that I’d given him that close a gander.
“That man has a…,” I started to say but the duelie leaped into action, slamming the back of my skull into the headrest and sending the lava novel I was reading skidding to the floorboards.
“Yes, that’s right,’ Shade said. “Downtown Bryan. Corner of Main and Sims.”
Now what’s Shade talking about, I thought as I tried to clear my head. First he tells me he stole my truck. Now he’s telling me where he stole it. He must have been bucked on his head one too many since the last time I saw him.
“Shade…,” I started to say but he waved me quiet and forced the truck into a tight right turn, followed by a hard, shuddering left. Empty beer cans in the bed of the pickup clattered back and forth, and suddenly I felt Tilt-a-Whirl queasy. “Dammit, Shade! Stop before you kill us!” I said. As an afterthought, I added, “That man back there pointed a gun at me!”
Shade’s driving improved slightly, and he looked my way, shaking his head. “I doubt it,” he said, “on both of those statements.” His eyes swept from my chest back to the road ahead. That’s when I noticed a phone earbud on the other side of his head. “My name is Shade Saunders,” he said, looking at my face this time but talking to someone on the other end of his phone. He winked and smiled the Shade-smile that’s made hundreds of Texas women fall in love with him…or want to make love to him.
Not me, of course. After dating Shade in high school and then again in college, I’m as immune to his smile as if I’d swallowed a dollop of live vaccine on a sugar cube, although the threat of an outbreak is always present when you mix together his matured assets and package them under a straw cowboy hat.
Like the old song says, don’t call him a cowboy ‘til you see ‘m ride. And lord knows, Shade could ride anything. Any horse. Any bull. Any truck, apparently, too. And it goes without saying, any woman he wanted.
Shade with his taut buns, broad shoulders, and cowboy ways. Who always smelled like leather, newly-mown hay, and manly-man sweat. I shook my head again.
Several blocks ahead a squad car with flashing lights turned onto the street. I thought I saw Shade’s old primer gray pickup fishtailing in front of the cops. I was on the edge the truck seat, one hand gripping the dash and the other trying to grab the skittering book before it lodged itself under the brake pedal.
Shade was still talking. “…just a minute…yes, down North Parker Street near John’s Transmission…you’re in my way…yes, north…no, not there.”
He spoke calmly as he concentrated on the evolving car chase. With his eyes focused forward and a phone headset in his ear, his conversation was very disconcerting. I couldn’t tell when he was talking to me, talking on the phone, or talking to himself.
“…OK, I’ll back off from following…,” he finally said. “But my competition saddle’s on the rear seat of that pickup and I’ll need it this weekend, whether you have to impound the truck or not…Thanks, Case…No, I don’t need a ride. I’m with T.R….Yeah, Tana Rose, the stripper, herself…No, we’re not dating again. Not yet anyway. But I’ll say this for her, she could enter and win any wet t-shirt contest in the area…Very funny. No, that was after my truck was stolen…OK, I’ll have her call you.”
He poked a finger at his ear and finally turned his full attention to me. “Your friend Casey wants you to call her with details,” he said, lifting both hands from the steering wheel to make those annoying quote gestures. “Leave that damn book alone, Tana Rose. What are you doing in Runt’s truck?”
Shade made a u-turn and started driving away from his old clunker of a truck and the squad car chasing it. He gave a quick, concerned glance into the rearview mirror.
“Oh. You talking to me now?” I said. “Then don’t call me Tana Rose. And what I drive is my business.”
Shade cut his eyes to me, then focused back on the street ahead. “That wet t-shirt almost makes you my business, Tana Rose. In that, you could be my only business. How’d you get so wet? You been dancin’ in this rain?”
Oh, yeah, dancing in the rain with some bum using his Fruit of the Looms as a gun holster.
Shade didn’t give me a chance to reply. “Where can I drop you?” he asked.
“Drop me? I’ll drop YOU!” I said through tight lips. “You’re not taking my ride!”
“Tana Rose, weren’t you listening?”
No, I wasn’t. When conversation comes around to Shade Saunders, I block it out automatically. Rainy days are no exception. And anyway, I was too busy worrying over the gun in the bum’s britches.
Shade kept right on talking. He always did like the sound of his own voice. “My truck was just stolen. I’m on my way to pick up a horse and I need wheels that can pull a horse trailer. This duelie is perfect. I’ll square it with Runt later.”
I furrowed my eyebrows in doubt. Shade wasn’t Runt’s buddy. They’re friendly whenever they meet by chance, but I don’t see them calling each other to shoot the bull. They’re just not that close. Certainly not close enough to ‘square’ this little hijacking. As far as I was concerned, Shade had stolen Runt’s truck and kidnapped his sister.
OK, maybe even I didn’t really buy the kidnapping part. I went along with Shade somewhat willingly, not only to protect my interest in Runt’s vehicle but to get away from the pants-digging, possible pistol-waving bum. But the truck stealing part was true, and you’ve got to be pretty good friends to square that in this state. We used to hang horse thieves here, and truck stealing isn’t that far down the road. We just don’t take that in Texas.
“One more time, Tana Rose. Where’s your car?”
“I borrowed this truck….” I pushed the words through clamped teeth, then remembered Runt didn’t know I had scrounged his beat-up old duelie yet. Well, he might know by now. It’d been a couple of hours since the mechanic had dropped me by my brother’s place to get it. Thankfully, Runt had the bad habit of leaving his keys in the ignition of his vehicles.
“…because my Mustang’s in the shop. And don’t call me Tana Rose.”
“Whatever you say, Stripper. Anyway, I hear you don’t start dealin’ until nine tonight. What else you got to do besides sleep? I’ll come back and get you to the poker room on time.”
Ca-rap. There it is again. The only secret in this town is the fact everyone knows your secrets. Next thing I know I’ll read it in the local paper under the headline “Known Hold‘em Dealer Kidnapped by Local Loco.”
Shade took off his water-deformed hat and slapped it over my chest. “Hang on to this here hat, Tana Rose. A guy can hardly concentrate on driving with those two wet things pointin’ his way.”
I purposely let the hat fall into my lap and let out a menacing murmur at the continued use of my full name. “You must be making another saddle, Shade. You stink! Like leather and sweat and…and horse.” I needed to say something nasty in retaliation for the full name thing. He knows I hate my given name.
We were pretty close to the little two-bedroom bungalow I’d bought last year when I had what the mortgage company calls employment.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
Oh? So how does Shade Saunders know where I live? For an old boyfriend he certainly seemed to know a little too much about me.
I sneaked another peek at him while I fumbled for my house keys in my purse. I hadn’t heard of any rumors floating around town about Shade. But then again, how would I know. I work with a bunch of men concentrating on their cards, not a group of women in office jobs, bored with work and dying to share the latest gossip of the day. At least gossip was the highlight of my day when I had a real job.
I assumed Shade was still unattached. No ring had been rolled onto his finger. No notices placed in the newspaper. And anyway, Shade hooking up permanently with a girl would have been major news, traveling from woman to woman with the speed of a spring storm. My phone would have rung on that one.
And I presumed Shade still worked alone. After all, he was a saddle maker and how many Aggies does it take to do that? I also assumed he still attended every rodeo and roping in the state, unless, of course, there was a national rodeo somewhere and then Shade would be there.
He and I may have both graduated high school and college here in town, but he was a working country cowboy, and I was a rodeo hanger-on city cowgirl. That meant I opened and closed the arena gates at the local rodeos for the real cowboys and cowgirls. I had to do something other than dance the two-step to earn the right to wear cowboy boots.
Even though I was over him, Shade was still the best looking man in town. I couldn’t take that away from him if I tried. He’s tan and tall ─ a lot taller than I am and, at five-foot nine, I’m not exactly short. He has the type of arms you’d expect from someone who makes a living by hard work. Biceps and triceps bulge under his shirt sleeves. A dark mustache rips clear across his face and his long brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail. He walks with that knees-bent, lanky cowboy gait that makes a gal wish every floor was a dance floor. I’m not even going to the starched jeans and white shirts. If I went there, I might want to stay.
As I compared my memory of the guy I had dated against the current version of the man driving Runt’s truck, I did a double take. Shade Saunders had a bald spot on top of his head!
“You’re going bald,” I blurted out before my brain could take control of my tongue. I hate it when what I’m thinking flops out of my mouth, bounces off the floor, and smacks me in the forehead before I even realized I’d thought it. It’s a trait prone to get a girl into trouble.
“You’re gettin’ too old to still be single.” His mustache quivered as he talked. “And your tits are sagging.”
Shade stopped the truck at my front walk. “Get out,” he said, looking straight ahead.
That bald spot must be a sensitive subject. I instantly felt bad that I had said anything and thought of apologizing. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He turned my way and reached towards me.
This could get interesting, I thought, but he stretched right past me, grabbed the door handle, and pushed the door open.
“Time to part ways,” he said.
“I’m taking your hat as collateral,” I said as I jumped out into the rain, slamming the car door behind me.
“And my tits aren’t sagging!”
“Stripper!” I barely heard the insult but the laughter floating back to me as he roared away down the street was loud enough to make me cuss.
“Damn you, Shade Saunders,” I said to nobody. “I hope you never get your truck back.”
I stood in the rain, watching Runt’s duelie get smaller and smaller, and tried to figure out what had just happened. I’d lost two rides in the same amount of hours. One would cost only money to get back in running condition but something told me I’d pay a lot more for the other one, not in coin but with my reputation and my pride.
Damn, damn, damn. And damn again. I’d just traded my only wheels for Shade Saunders’s wet, beat-up cowboy hat! Worse yet, I realized as I walked into my house, the crotch novel I was reading was still in the duelie! To hell with the truck, just give a girl her book back.