Preston Heller

I am not an honest man. I am not a good man. In my time I have been called a liar, a cheat, a con man and things far worse. These are all true. The details of how I have come to such a pathetic end are of little consequence. Call it bad judgment, call it lack of conscience. It doesn't matter. It is almost done, this life littered with train wrecks and bad choices. Most of the memories have faded now, the color bleached from them like photographs left in the sun too long. But some return. Uninvited. Shell shocked flashbacks visiting in the dead of night. Nameless backwater towns; winding country roads strewn with litter and pitched over telephone poles; fat bearded bikers sporting jailhouse tattoos; rattlesnakes and shotgun shells; junkie whores with missing teeth and lifeless eyes; hiding out in frozen desert caves; tired old jukeboxes in deadbeat bars; and one cell jails painted thick with the stench of fresh urine and vomit. Leavenworth, Joliet, Cedar Junction. Others. Too many sleepless nights alone in bed. Most are lost, burned away by drugs and alcohol, but one I have kept with near perfect clarity.

I chose my path in life on a warm cloudless afternoon in the early spring of 1964. I was a bright teenager, hard working, industrious, an excellent student and horny most of the time. I did not come from a broken home, did not have alcoholic parents, nor suffer any form of mental or physical abuse.

My mother, a big round woman with a broad back and strong hands, hired herself out cleaning people's houses and doing decorative painting with stencils. My father was a carpenter. Finishing work was his specialty. He could do anything with wood and loved cherry the best. Hated polyurethane. "There's no damn skill to it," he said. He spent hours in the barn, late into many a night, working by bad light, hand rubbing the finish on a breakfront door or a dining room table. When he was done, the surface could be nothing less than ‘unruffled'. "Smooth as a glass topped lake at dusk," he'd say. Most of his work outlived him and to this day examples can be found in fine homes all over Kadis County, his initials and a date burned somewhere into every piece. In his spare time he created wonderful children's toys out of pine scraps left over from work, painted them bright yellows, reds and blues and donated every one to Our Lady of Christ for their Christmas charity drives. I'm sure some have survived, hidden away and long forgotten in dusty unvisited attics. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and take up the tools. I tried, but had no passion for working wood. This was a great disappointment for him, but I didn't want to spend my life measuring, cutting, sanding and staining. I didn't want to come home at night with sawdust sprinkled in my hair and have the stink of varnish hanging on my clothes and skin. I was restless and wanted adventure. What did I know?

I was a normal fifteen year old when first taken by the gaze of her ice blue eyes. Don't misunderstand. I blame no one for who I became and what I did. No one twisted my arm, no one held a gun to my head and she was not the devil incarnate. Many years later, my dear sweet mother, bent over from old age and arthritis, would wave her swollen hands in the air and tell her friends I'd sold my soul for a smile. "It was that gypsy girl's smile," she said, as if it were a fact proven in court. "That's what done it. He was a good boy till he met up with her." They would nod their tired heads, sip mint tea with lemon and give her what little comfort they could. In her seventy-second year, the last time I saw her, she told me she had no tears left. I could not attend her funeral and have never seen her grave. When my father was dying of emphysema and lung cancer, he was hobbled by a long green oxygen canister, which he pulled around on wheeled cart. A clear plastic tube, attached to a brass valve ran up to his nose. Encumbered in this manner, he lit candles at Our Lady, and prayed out loud for my eternal soul, all the while wheezing and gasping for another breath. Now and then he would cough up dark clotted blood, spit it into the crumpled hankie in his cupped hand and cross himself.

There was nothing unusual about Kleghorn's Market, except maybe for the plywood ramp behind the checkout counter. It was a small town market, not unlike thousands of others scattered across the country. In 1964 modern supermarkets with their shiny tile floors, air conditioning, and endless rows of well stocked shelves had not yet made their way to the likes of Chambersville. The floorboards were dulled down the middle of the aisles, the finish worn away by countless shoppers' footsteps. They often creaked when pressed upon. In spring and summer, three dirty white ceiling fans spun lazy circles overhead, collected black soot at the edges of the motor housing and never cooled the place very well. The four narrow aisles were separated by wooden shelves painted pastel green. The store was stocked with canned peas, corn, flour, rice, mustard, relish, tuna fish, sardines, mayonnaise, white bread, wheat bread, canned peaches, ketchup, chocolate chip cookies, beer nuts, peanut butter, potato chips, every kind of beef jerky, cans of fruit drink, and tons of soda. For two years my job was keeping them neat, dusted and full. "Remember, young man, a neat shelf fully stocked sells more goods," Jasper Kleghorn once told me. Against the far wall several tall glass fronted cold cases hummed a low white noise in constant unison. Kept milk, eggs, butter and six packs of beer ice cold. Behind a slope fronted deli case stood a wood-lined walk in cooler. My father custom-built it the year after the Kleghorns purchased the store from Agnes Rafferty. Inside, huge slabs of fresh beef and whole pigs hung from sharpened steel hooks. Live chickens were kept in a coop out back and were slaughtered to order. Mrs. K., a woman put together like a pot-bellied stove, made triple thick Boar's Head sandwiches on Wonder Bread for the lunch time crowd. For her loyal customers she always ground the beef fresh, or carved them two-inch steaks with the skill of a surgeon. When her County Fair-winning garlic and cheese sausage was available, she put a small hand-lettered sign in the front window announcing it. No batch ever lasted more than two days. I once asked her for the recipe. For my mother. She just smiled. "It's a secret. If I tell you, I'll have to kill you." Laughed at her own joke. Stuffed a ball of raw hamburger in her mouth. "If you really want it, I'll leave it to you in my will." I was nowhere near Chambersville when she passed on, so I don't know if she ever did that, but it was damn good sausage. Occasionally, in the quiet of a late afternoon, I'd spot her stepping into the big cooler when she thought no one was looking. Once inside, she'd pull a leather covered hip flask out of her apron pocket, unscrew the silver cap and take a long hard slug.

In the fall, hunters from as far as thirty miles away would bring fresh-killed deer to Kleghorn. He was a square broad-shouldered German who, with calloused hands the size of ham hocks, could lift a 175 pound buck by himself. Grizzled men in red and black plaid, on the run from nagging wives and jobs they hated, stood by beaten pickup trucks with dented tailgates lowered. Blood stained and glassy-eyed, their prizes lay gutted, with twisted heads posed for the camera. Kleghorn snapped Polaroids. After the store closed Mr. K butchered the animals and put the cash in his pocket. It wasn't legal, but no one seemed to mind, including the aging Hutch Graystone, our esteemed Chief of Police. Three weeks before Kennedy was shot, Graystone rumbled in with a huge 12 pointer. Dressed out at 205. When the shutter clicked you never saw a man with such a big grin on his face. That photo remained pinned to the wall behind the register, along with scores of others, until sometime in the nineties when the store finally closed and Graystone was long dead.

In the back there was also a small selection of more exotic foods that Mr. K had brought into the store as an experiment. These included lump fish caviar, stuffed hot cherry peppers, Gefilte fish, white horseradish, Chinese and Mexican foods and a host of other New York delicacies. Mrs. K called them "dust magnets" and they were a constant source of conflict between the Kleghorns. But in general business was good. The forces that would destroy their way of life were far off and unknown at the time. As unknown as the young woman who walked into the store that afternoon and changed my life forever.

Jason Kleghorn, the one and only heir to the Kleghorn fortune, was an asshole from the day I met him until the day he died. He was two years ahead of me in school and I soon learned to steer a wide berth round him and his cronies. "Ain't nothin' but trouble," my father often said. "Too much money. Not enough brains." I agreed. Jason was slight of build and not very muscular. He had long greasy brown hair, pasty white skin and a wandering left eye. His school bully behavior was tolerated by other kids because he was always surrounded by a motley gang of junior thugs, not the least of whom was Richard "Moose" Bartley.

Moose, two years older than Jason, was a high school drop-out and unemployed. At six foot four and two hundred forty pounds, he was a quick-tempered masher with a blonde buzz cut and arms the size of most kids' thighs. He was a touch dumber than sand but could heave sixty-pound bales of hay into a barn loft for hours on end. The name Moose, however, did not come from his size or strength. It came from the shape of his face. Long, square and down-turned. He had enormous buck teeth and massive ears that stuck straight out from his head. The space between the bottom of his nose and his upper lip was near three fingers wide. Luckless features. He'd been called Moose since he was eight, but only by close friends.

The rest of the gang were a sorry collection of pimple-faced losers and leeches. Jason always had extra cash to spend on them and would often treat everyone to pizza or burgers. That, coupled with the fact that Jason stole beer from his parents' market for weekend parties down at the local quarry, helped keep their allegiance to him strong and unquestioning.

He was arrogant, disrespectful, of average intelligence, a terrible student, and would've been left back twice if his father hadn't been a town alderman. He planned to enlist in the Marines upon graduation and let everyone know every chance he got, especially the girls. But one starless Friday night, about a year before the event of which I speak now, his wet dream of guts and glory in Viet Nam vanished in one blood-stained instant. It was the biggest story in Chambersville since Bock Niedermeyer's Mill burned down, and one Jason told me a dozen times, at least. It even made the AP wire.

Jason and Moose were hanging out behind the store with town tramp Liz Collins and Cindy Cooper, the Pastor's daughter. The two sixteen-year-old girls were first cousins and two years older than I. Cindy as short and well-built, with shoulder length strawberry blonde curls and fiery green eyes. Liz was a tall rail with sticks for arms, mousy brown hair, a long thin face and small pointy tits that barely showed through a sweater. A poster child for anorexia. Her reputation as being "the easiest girl in school" kept her phone ringing and calendar filled with an endless string of eager young men with permanent erections. Two weeks earlier, she, Jason, and several members of the football team broke into one of the Winnebago motor homes out at Silver's RV Ranch, up on the Basin Bypass. Spent the night in the camper drinking and carrying on. Everyone took their turn with Liz and left just before dawn. The hapless cops had an idea about who did it, but could never get any proof.

The Kleghorns were out for the night and the quartet of delinquents had liberated a case of Budweiser longnecks. They were drinking pretty heavy, when someone decided borrowing Amanda Peterson's new fire engine red GTO convertible would be great fun.

In big cities, where people are justified about being paranoid, they take more precautions with their valuables. People in small towns are too trusting. Too many never bother locking their doors when they leave home, even when they go on vacation. A false sense of security is what it is and it makes stealing easy. Believe me, I know.

The staggering teenagers arrived at the Petersons' around eleven thirty. Air conditioners droned in two bedroom windows. Inside, mother, father, and daughter slept in complete comfort. The keys to the three-eighty-nine lay on the jet black dashboard. In plain sight. Waiting. Beckoning.

"Zero to sixty in seven seconds," whispered Moose, while pissing against a giant oak.

"Five point six," Jason said with authority.

Moose shook it off and zipped his fly. "Really?"

Jason glommed up a huge lugie, spit it off to the side, and shrugged. "How the fuck should I know?"

It took a few seconds for the message to register with Moose, then both boys burst out laughing. They stumbled across the lawn, bottles swinging, grabbing each other for support. Beer spilled all over them. Moose put his palm over the top of his bottle, shook it violently, then sprayed the foamy suds all over Liz's red velveteen blouse. She squealed and jumped back cursing him.

"You goddamned asshole."

"Fuck off, you titless bitch," Moose said. "Ain't like you never got nothin shot on your blouse before." He poked Jason, who was staring at the waiting car.

"Shhhh," Cindy said, "you wanna wake up the dead?"

Jason held up his hand. "Shut up, Moose," he said, then started laughing. Moose gave Cindy the finger.

"Pencil dicks," Cindy said, disgusted. She finished her beer and tossed the empty into the woods.

"I'm driving," Jason announced. Moose furrowed his brow and squinted.

"Okay. Cindy's in the back with me," he announced while grabbing her hand and pulling her along.

Everyone believed Jason when he later told police they never planned to steal the car. "We only wanted to take it out for a joyride. We were gonna return it when we were done. That's all."

They backed out of the driveway slow and quiet, Moose's hands already groping for the buttons on Cindy's blouse. Half a mile from the Petersons' bi-level, Jason brought the fire breather to a stop. "Get that latch," he said to Liz. She undid the clamp and the canvas top folded away. Moose and Cindy, shirtless and horizontal in the back, couldn't have cared less. Jason cranked up the radio. It's been a hard day's night blasted from the speakers. "Hang on, kiddies." He jammed the shift into first, slammed on the accelerator and popped the clutch. For a moment he was six-foot five. A high-pitched squeal pierced the night and thick grayish smoke spewed from under the rear wheel wells. The acrid smell of burning tires filled the air. Chased after them. In an instant they were pounded back into the seats. Curved streaks of hot smoking rubber branded the road. They screamed, raised their fists, and cheered as the rocket flew headlong into the dark. Forty-five, fifty, fifty-five. Liz's hair flew wild and tangled in the wind. Jason focused on the winding road. Sixty-five. He slammed it into second, and left another patch of rubber as they gained more speed. He shifted again, and again. The thin red speedometer needle nosed over past one hundred and five. Tears streamed from the corners of their eyes. Liz stood up, holding onto the windshield. More spent bottles were tossed into roadside weeds. A light drizzle started falling.

"Shit," Liz said as she took her seat. "Slow it down." Jason eased off the gas and turned on the wipers, but he never let the car get below seventy. The rain came harder, pelting them, washing down their faces.

"It'll pass," Jason yelled.

Sergeant Stan Pickover was sitting behind the old Red Chief tobacco billboard out on Route Twenty-two, right next to the forty-five miles per hour sign, when they flew by him. "Son of a bitch," he cursed and cranked over the old black-and-white Ford. He took out after them, tires spitting dirt and gravel, rear end fishtailing till it caught the pavement. "Damn Kleghorn. I'll throw his ass in jail this time." A mile down the road Pickover set the cruiser in behind them, turned on his roof lights and hit the siren. "Please Lord, just let them pull over." It was a prayer unanswered.

Jason heard the high-pitched whine behind him and caught the flashing roof lights in his rear view mirror. He didn't stop to think, just smashed his foot down on the accelerator. Screams and laughter turned to fear and anxiety.

"My father'll kick the shit out of me," Moose said, as he looked back at the receding headlights.

"How's this for a little excitement?" Jason asked.

"Pull it over, J," Liz said. "It's Pickover. He's seen you."

Jason ignored her request. "Screw that. He'll never keep up, and I ain't losing my license over some stupid joyride."

Of course the Ford was no match for the GTO, and Pickover was soon left far behind. In the end, however, that didn't matter much. Three miles down the road Jason Kleghorn attempted a sharp left turn onto Montgomery Lane. He didn't even come close.

Pickover found the car on Emma Baker's front lawn, run halfway up the old maple that used to stand there, crushed beyond recognition. Liz, who had been sitting in the front passenger seat, was cut nearly in half. She died with a high-pitched shriek on her lips, and her dark red blood soaked into everything. Moose and Cindy were catapulted like rag dolls from the back seat. He was impaled on a large branch and hung slumped over till they could cut the limb down. She slammed headlong into the trunk of the tree where her skull cracked open like a ripe melon. ‘Died on impact,' the coroner said.

Jason was not so lucky. It took the volunteer fire department three hours to cut him out the wreck. He spent much of that time staring at the bloodied faces, guts and brains of his dead friends. The crash paralyzed him from the waist down and crushed the left side of his face, but he survived. Tests later confirmed that his blood alcohol was more than twice the legal limit. Police investigators calculated the Pontiac launched from the small berm surrounding Mrs. Baker's front lawn and went sailing into the tree doing well over ninety miles an hour. There were almost no skid marks at the corner and impact was some eight feet off the ground. Ninety to zero, in nothing flat.

Jason was hospitalized for nearly three months and dropped out of school, never to return. His twisted wreck of a body underwent countless operations and skin grafts. He lost one kidney, could barely see out of his left eye and was never able to sit in his wheelchair without a broad leather strap buckled around his chest. His withered left arm was next to useless and no measure of makeup could cloak the pitted moonscape on his face. The reconstruction reached from above his left ear down to his neck in a mottled patchwork of pale hairless skin. If I believed in some kind of God I might think what happened to Jason was his divine way of dispensing justice. No need to wait for hell. You can have it here and now.

The ramp was built six months later and accommodated Jason's motorized wheelchair quite nicely.

Before the accident Jason had always been an insufferable prick, but fortunately didn't spend much time in the store. Afterwards he turned bitter as well and spent most of his waking hours at the register. The counter where he sat was rebuilt especially for him. Cigarettes and other items that were sold up front were put within easy reach. A stack of brown paper bags lay next the register and customers got used to bagging their own groceries when he was taking the money. No one ever spoke to him about that night and his friends stopped coming around.

"Scumbags, all of them," he would often tell me. "The hell with ‘em. Who needs ‘em?" I just nodded and kept working.

The Kleghorns' roots in the community were strong enough to weather the cheap gossip and finger pointing and through it all, their business survived. Shortly after the incident, Mr. and Mrs. Kleghorn took second jobs to help cover the growing mountain of medical expenses. As a result I worked extra hours and saved more money. When the store was empty, Jason would pass the time telling me stories, making up most I suspected. Over and over again, he'd jack his jaws about how he'd slept with this girl and pumped that one, and about how little Chip Warner would give him his lunch money every Friday so he wouldn't get beaten up before the weekend. He told me about how he and his boys lit cherry bombs in the girls' toilets and the school was let out early because the principal thought it was a bomb scare. It didn't bother me too much, his endless bullshitting. Guess I must've felt sorry for the poor bastard. But it pissed me off no end that he could think I was so gullible.

If I ignored him long enough he'd get angry and bark orders at me, "Get back to work. Find something to do. Go earn your dollar fifty an hour." Then he'd grab a comic book and read, or turn on the little black-and-white television set next to him and watch cartoons. I never talked back. Jobs were damn hard to come by. Even crap jobs. If I wanted a car when I was sixteen, the money would have to come out of my own pocket, my parents had made that perfectly clear. None of my friends had a car, but none of them had jobs either. I had eight hundred and fifty-seven dollars in my savings account, with six months to go before I could drive.

I was behind the counter, stacking packs of cigarettes on the back wall when she walked in.

"Hey, Slick," Jason half-whispered in his gravel-throated slur, just loud enough for her to hear. "Check this out." This was his customary warning when a good-looking girl came into the store. I turned in time to see her walking over to the shelves where the candy was kept. I swear, my heart stopped beating. "How do you like stuff?" I shook my head, said nothing. "I can still have girls, you know. Anytime I want." Yeah, but only if you're willing to pay enough, I thought.

My eyes fixed on her. Long straight auburn hair falling perfectly down to the middle of her back, glowing like shine of fine silk. Skin-tight faded blue bell bottoms, frayed at the bottom and a white cotton blouse with no sleeves. Two buttons left open at the top. She had dark skin, like a good tan, but different somehow. I couldn't get a good look at her face, only her profile. Could've been fifteen or twenty. There was no way to tell.

"Forget about it, Slick, she's out of your league."

In all the years I'd known Jason Kleghorn I'd never once talked back to him.

"Fuck off, man." The words were out of my mouth before I realized what I'd said. I swallowed hard and waited, expecting to be fired on the spot. Jason turned and stared at me for a second, then snorted a short laugh.

"Finally growing some balls, Slick. Well, it won't do you any good. Girls like her wouldn't give someone like you the time of day."

I turned to the wall and slammed packs of cigarettes into the empty slots.

"You know her, or something?" he asked.

"Never seen her before."

She approached the counter. Jason gave me one of his lecherous half-crooked smiles, cupped a hand to his mouth to block her view, and ran his tongue back and forth out over his upper lip, then faced her.

"That's fifteen cents," he said, all polite and business-like, his head bobbing up and down. I looked. There she was, a goddess with a candy bar in her hand. My face burned with the rush of blood. When she smiled at Jason I felt sick. Her deep blue eyes held him transfixed. Flawless skin and a smile filled with perfect white teeth. She glanced over and caught me staring. I took a deep breath, held it, and lowered my head. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill, which she handed to Jason. I turned back to the cigarettes. Pretended to work. Jason put the bill in the register and counted out her change.

"Twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five and a dollar." Before he could get to the bills, she stuffed the change in her pocket and headed for the door. At that moment, neither of us realized it, but the hook had been set. If it had been someone else, maybe anyone else, Jason would've kept his mouth shut, let ‘em go and pocketed the nine dollars. But it wasn't someone else. It was her. Seeing his chance to score some points, he called to her, "Excuse me, miss."

She stopped and turned. I maneuvered to get a better look. "You forget something?" he asked, waving the nine dollars.

She flashed a generous smile and batted her eyelids. "I'm so embarrassed. Whatever was I thinking?" She walked back to the counter and took the cash. "Thank you so much. I could've gotten in a lot of trouble. It's my daddy's money."

"You gotta be more careful," he advised. Smug. "Not everyone would've called you back."

She nodded her agreement. "You know, I'm sorry for giving you such a big bill for this candy bar," she said, holding it up. "Can I get the ten back and I'll give you a five and five ones?"

Eager to prolong the contact any way he could, Jason agreed. "Why of course," he said, "anything you like." I near puked. He handed her the ten which she promptly folded and placed in her pocket. She counted out the nine dollars he'd just given her and placed them in his outstretched hand. "And one more will make ten," he said, holding his good hand as steady as he could.

"You know what," she said, "you've got nine dollars there. Let me give you eleven more and you can give me a twenty." She touched a finger to the skin just below her neck. His eyes followed. "You do have a twenty in there, don't you?"

"A twenty? Oh, yeah. Sure thing," Jason said, eyes wandering to her breasts and below. "If that's what you want."

She reached in her pocket and pulled out the original ten plus another single and carefully placed them in his hand. He took the money and put it in the register before giving her a crisp new Hamilton. "Thanks so much," she said, taking the bill, making sure her fingers brushed over his hand. She left, opening the candy bar as she walked. I stared in mute amazement.

"That's how you handle women, Slick."


"You see her bat those baby blues? Damn, I still got it. Maybe someday you'll learn."

I was in shock. Dumbfounded. My mouth felt like it was filled with dry cotton balls. I leaned against the counter to keep my hands from shaking.

"She'll be back, you wait and see."

I didn't think so. Not after that performance.

"I think she liked me. Shit. You see the way she looked at me?" Oh yeah, I seen it, like a mountain lion watching its next meal. I checked my watch. Six o'clock. An hour until I could leave. Act fast or risk never seeing her again, that's all I could think. Was there some kind of choice?

"I gotta go," I announced as I ripped of my apron and tossed it under the counter.

Jason looked at the clock next to him. "Go? What the hell are you talking about? You're not off till seven."

"Didn't your mother tell you? I gotta pick up something for my Dad. She said it'd be okay."

He cursed me, but I was already at the door. She turned left. I knew that.

I spotted her a block-and-a-half away, walking as casual as could be, and raced down the street, dodging people like a pro halfback. Almost knocked over old Janice Porter. Huffing and puffing, I finally caught up to her. She stopped and stared at me, a puzzled look on her face.

"I saw you..." I said, pointing back to the store while trying to catch my breath.

"...Back at the store", she said. "Yes, I know." I nodded, bent over, trying breathe normally. "You were staring at me. Do you do that to all the girls who come into the store? It's quite impolite, you know."

I shook my head. "No. No. I'm sorry about that, but I saw what you did."

"What I did?" she asked, her tone suddenly much cooler. She started walking.

"Yeah. With the money. With Jason."

She stopped and faced me. Her claws appeared.

"What are you talking about?"

"What am I talkin' about? I'm talkin' about the money. The twenty dollars. That's what I'm talkin' about."

Her eyes narrowed and her head cocked a little to the side.

"What about it?" she challenged me. I had her. That's what I thought, anyway.

"You don't know? Is that what you're saying?"

"I haven't got a clue what you're talking about."

"All right. Then tell me this," I said. "How does someone walk into a store with eleven dollars and leave with twenty, and a candy bar?"

She stared at me for a long time, but didn't say anything. Looked straight through me it felt like, then up and down the street. Her face hardened. There was no fear in her eyes, just anger.

"Don't worry, I didn't call the cops."

"You didn't call the cops?" I shook my head. "Then what do you want?" Her tone softened, but she was still pissed. I didn't know what to say. "I'll give you half of what I made. That should make you happy?"

My heart was racing again. "I don't want any of the money."

"You didn't call the cops and you don't want any money?"


"Then what do you want? Everybody wants something."

"Nothing, really. I don't want anything. I…"

"You ain't gettin' a blow job out of this," she snarled. "So put that thought right out of your horny little mind. I ain't doin' nothing like that. You can go ahead and call the cops if you want to. I'll say it was an honest mistake, and give back the money. You'll just end up with shit on your face."

I stared for a moment then turned and walked away. I got about ten steps when she called to me.


I stopped dead in my tracks and turned.

"My name is Melana." A hint of a smile appeared on her face. I went to her.

"Nice to meet you Melana. My name is Illinois." I grinned from ear to ear. "Illinois Jackson."

She nodded and we shook hands.

"You know you're all right, Illinois, for a…" She hesitated for just the briefest second, searching for the words. I pulled my hand back. My smile vanished. Pure anger coursed through me and I exploded without thinking.

"…For a what? For a black boy? For a nigger? Huh? Is that it? That what you was gonna say?" For an instant I thought maybe I would turn her in.

Probably get a raise out of it, maybe even get my picture in the newspaper. Local Boy Captures Con Woman.

"Hell no," she fired back. "What I was gonna say, before you so rudely interrupted, was… for a small town hick."

The words took a few seconds to sink into my thick skull. "Oh, damn," I blurted out, and wished I hadn't blown up like that. "I'm really sorry. I…"

"You should be," she interrupted, pretending to be hurt. We started laughing. Laughed so hard I doubled over. With tears streaming down her face she finally regained her composure.

"That's… an unusual name. Illinois. Sounds like a baseball player or something."

"That's amazing," I said. "You know my father was a ball player. Played triple A for the Yankees till he hurt his knee. Had the locker next to Tony Kubeck before he went up to the majors."

"Wow," she said, "that's very impressive."

"Nah, not really," I said. "I made it up. My dad's a carpenter. Always has been. A damn good one, too." I looked at her, hoping she wasn't upset. She gave up nothing. "I don't know why my folks picked that name. Guess they just liked it."

"You got me," she said, placing her hand on my cheek, "you got me good, Illinois Jackson. I would've bought it, you know. The whole thing. You could've kept me going with that one."

I smiled sheepishly and felt weak in the knees, standing there with the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen.

"Maybe you got a gift, huh?"

"Oh, I don't know about that," I said. "Maybe. Say, do you know what time it is?"

"The time?" she asked, then looked at her watch. "About ten after six. Why? You got a hot date or something?"

"Oh, no, nothin' like that," I said, grinning. "Just wanted to know is all." I checked up and down the street. "Listen. Can I ask you a question about back at the store, without you gettin' mad or anything?"

She measured her response. "Okay. Go ahead."

"Didn't you feel sorry for him, what with his condition and all?" She looked toward the store then right at me.

"Sure. I felt sorry for him. I got feelings just like anyone else. But I can't let them get in my way. He just happened to be there. Could've been anyone at the counter, it wouldn't have mattered. You see, what I did, it wasn't personal. That's all there is to it. If you start lettin' your feelings get in the way, might as well give it up. You could never run any con. Understand?"

I thought about it and nodded. "I think so."

"That's just the way I am, Illinois. The way I have to be. I've been doing this since I was eight years old. My daddy taught me and his daddy taught him."

"Damn, I never met no one like you before."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" she asked.

"I don't know just yet."

She laughed again "I like you, Illinois. You're all right."

"For a small town hick," I said.

"For a small town hick," she repeated. For a moment neither of us spoke. I thought the conversation had come to an end.

"Wanna get high?" she said, like she was asking if I wanted a Coke or a hot dog. "I got some grass back at my place."

I caught my breath and sobered up. Now it wasn't like I'd never been asked before, it was the ‘60's after all, but it was always by some of the guys. I always told them no thanks. I remember that very moment, as we stood there in the middle of Main Street, with the orange sun hung low in the sky. Suddenly I felt much younger than her and quite vulnerable. Then it hit me like a runaway freight. I didn't care. I really didn't care. I just wanted to be with her.

"Sure," I said, like it was some kind of regular thing for me. "Let's go."

Back at her place we got high and made love. Over the next four months we were together almost every day. She taught me all kinds of cons and scams and we made love whenever we could. She had more experience there as well.

One scorching hot night in August she came and told me she was moving to Los Angeles the next day. "Will you come with me?" she asked.

I wanted to, more than anything, but I was afraid. I didn't tell her that. "I want to," I said, "but I've got to finish school."

She knew I was lying, but let it pass. Turned out her parents were Gypsies from Hungary and were in trouble with the authorities over in Bucks County. She promised to write, but never did. It was the last time I ever let fear stop me from doing anything.

I never worked at Kleghorn's again. When I was eighteen I left home and went looking for her. I spent a year scouring southern California. Took odd jobs here and there. Hunted the streets by day and the bars by night, then moved on. I never found her. After all these years, I still have her photo taped up on my wall. It's faded now, curled and nicked at the edges. Cracks run all through it, but it doesn't matter. Her perfect smile is still there, bright, haunting, unforgettable.

It's one of the few things they let me keep.