“Willy Wally came to a bad end,” Fran said. “Just like I predicted.”
My mother’s phone call interrupted my packing. As usual, she blurted out a tall, true tale in her cheerful, bone chilling way. I wondered what booby-trap waited, springs poised. I stayed quiet, smoothing out old newspapers for wrapping my stuff in.
“You remember Willy Wally Watkins, don’t you?” She prodded.
Something up my backbone bristled and crept, like a tarantula along a baseboard. I could hear the scratch of rolling flint on the other end of the line, the windy catch of flame, a sharp breath. I pictured Fran, Marlboro Light dangling, in her pleather recliner that looked like the last occupant died by chainsaw massacre, the chair the only survivor, and its wounds bound with silver duct tape.
I call my mother by her first name. It annoys her, which ensures I continue to do it. That’s the way it is with us.
I encased my braising pot in my now semi-crease free paper. Hard to do while holding the phone under my chin, given its cast-iron weight. “Yes, I do…Fran…listen, I’ve still got some packing to do. The movers are coming in-”
Not concerned in the least with my logistics, she went on. “The simpleton went out with a bang at least. You know, that ugly wife of his always stirred up trouble.” The only memorable thing about Wanda Watkins was the comic alliteration she’d married into. You couldn’t make it up. Other than that, she blended…a non-entity. Trouble would have made her a lot more interesting.
“Did she kill him?” I asked the obvious question. Obvious, if you lived in my mother’s ‘hood.
“No,” Fran barked. “Hunting accident. His father-in-law shot him. Guess he thought Willy Wally looked like a deer. Or, a moose, what with that shnoz.”
I nestled my beloved French pot into the box with a mix of stainless steel and copper pans. A sensual, warm mix of spice tickled my senses. Vietnamese cinnamon, curry paste, Mexican vanilla beans, and the like. Since anything more exotic than salt and pepper would soon be out of my purview, I’d chucked them in. My attention waned, remembering the zest of other locales. Fran’s heavy breathing brought me round. “Who’s his father-in-law again?” I asked.
“Harold Bates. Doctor Bates,” Fran said. “You remember him.”
“Doctor Bates is still up there?”
“Diet doctors still in high demand on the highway?” Blood rushing to my head competed with the hum of the freezer.
Fran didn’t reply, just kept smoking.
“You don’t have to tell everything you know.” If I’ve learned anything from my mother, it’s that. She’s said it, and lived it since I can remember. Fran ekes out dribs and drabs of information with the enthusiasm of a Guantanamo Bay inmate, or she gives up nothing. To say she keeps her cards close to the chest doesn’t cut it. They’re strapped to her like a suicide bomb. Try to pull one from the deck and she’ll blow.
When Fran’s got something to say that simply must be told its delivery gets tacked onto the end of some other extraneous diatribe that often involves some bizarre mishap experienced by someone other than her. Bizarre mishaps and suspicious calamities are pretty much the order of the day in my mother’s orbit. So, conveying the odd bit of personal strife under cover of someone else’s misfortune was easy.
“Why Willy Wally didn’t strangle himself with his own umbilical cord, I’ll never know,” Fran said, ignoring my inquiry, redirecting the conversation. “If that goofball name wasn’t a neon sign for ‘shoot me in the head with a double barrel shotgun,’ I don’t know what was.”
I didn’t offer up a reply, hoping Fran would fill the silence with whatever biblical-style plague she planned to release. Something loomed. I wanted it over.
“They’re not pressing any charges,” Fran kept on. “Shit happens around here. Which is exactly what I told Jimmy Dale.”
I leaned into my cell, the better to hear any meaningful undercurrent in my mother’s voice. My flattened ear ached as I listened, intent as a runner flush with the starting line, desperate not to miss the gun. I detected nothing, not a quiver or qualm.
“Jimmy Dale?” My palm and fingers hurt from pressing them into the edge of the open moving carton. “Who is-”
“He’s a cop, sent up from L.A., a real Nosy Parker,” Fran said, with her tone. Anyone new, and in her mind disagreeable, came from L.A. where they all swapped wives, smoked crack, and indulged in a wild array of degenerate behavior. “Well, we can catch up when you get here.”
“The Sherriff questioned you? He thinks you know something about Willy Wally’s-”
“Oh, heavens no,” Fran chuckled. “But, I did tell him the folks around here… well…some come to a bad end, that’s all.”
Around here. Highway 53. It’s not a town exactly, just a stretch of two-lane road with no real name I’ve ever heard. The natives just call it the highway. The middle of nowhere is an aspiration. Coming to a bad end there is a birthright. Death by natural causes is a sign of weakness.
“What was he questioning you about then?” I swiped at my damp upper lip with the back of my sore hand.
“Now, what?” Fran’s voice drifted. “Delilah, I’ve gotta run…Vi’s back already...” That was that. She’d gone.
I poked a stiff finger to shut my phone off. I felt relieved I’d been spared more damaging details, even though I knew I’d been given only a temporary reprieve. The Governor would never call to commute my sentence. Especially not now, since I was going back to the highway.
I boosted myself up to the top of my seventies-era, big-box freezer to sit. It took up a lot of room – a loud, long, waist-high monstrosity that you can’t buy anymore. It could hold a whole pig and a side of beef, which I’ve needed from time to time. Fran let me take it years ago, and I’d hung on to it.
My dream house stood almost empty. I’d sold everything except what I couldn’t bear to lose, my high-end cookware, German and Japanese knives, professional appliances, Kitchen Aid mixer, Chef’s Choice 750 Meat Grinder, kitchen odds and ends, and the freezer – all the necessary tools of my trade.
With a naiveté that normally eluded me, I hoped the nearness of my mother would act as a balm and not a burn. Whatever she’d left out of our stilted conversation would prove to be the most important part, all in good time. I knew it as well as I knew her. She might not acknowledge our history, but the prickling anticipation never left me, like a locked and loaded pistol tied to my hand.
The summer I turned 16, way back in nineteen…well, let’s just say Madonna wasn’t a virgin anymore, but Michael Jackson still looked a little like a man in the mirror, a string of shit happens events occurred along the highway, a spree, of sorts. Although, I’m not sure of the exact definition of spree when it comes to killing. After that, the occasional inconvenient accident weeded another 53 dweller out of circulation, but nothing to get too riled up about. Lately, something in Fran’s obscure conversations didn’t pass the smell test, but I couldn’t get a handle on it.
I’d find out soon enough. My head pounded, my stomach rolled. What were the odds that going back home would end well? Probably right up there with going to Phil Spector’s house for a late night cocktail.
After all, it was the highway, where they take care of their own, and getting away with murder was as simple as letting the dogs out.
Flesh of My Flesh
Fran and Delilah. The mother of all relationships.
An off kilter Food Network Chef goes home to the small, highway town she grew up in, and to her mother, whose past is terrifying. Who knew that might not work out?
Check out Diva Dines for recipes inspired by Flesh of My Flesh and some that are just plain inspiring.
I am the author of The Last Day for Rob Rhino, a 2013 Foreward Review and Next Generation Indies Book of the Year. Flesh of My Flesh is my second novel.
Foreward Reviews and Next Generation Indy Books General Adult Fiction Indy Book of the Year Finalist