HATTER’S RIDGE - CL NEEDHAM
Hatter’s Ridge... My posting here as the sole representative of the Acme Cleaning Solvents Company was diplomatically couched in the language of corporate responsibility. I was an up-and-coming young executive entrusted with the running of a vital and financially important linchpin of the organisation. The truth was rather more prosaic. My promotion was a skilful solution, punishment for a moment of madness that had unfortunately reached the finely tuned ears of our hypocritical company chairman. Influenced by a surfeit of cheap champagne and vodka martinis, I had attempted to seduce the wife of a colleague at the firm’s annual summer barbecue. Since we were caught with our pants down, literally, there was no point in refuting the charges laid against us. My colleague got a divorce, and I got a posting to purdah.
What is it about small town America that makes the people of those towns so small minded? The people who live in Hatter’s Ridge are your archetypal folk from nowhere; they’re born here, educated here, get married here, work here and, ultimately, die here. I have often wondered how such close knit communities don’t dwindle away, or at least come to the attention of the authorities due to a disproportionately large number of genetic throwbacks. I myself was born and raised in a large city and have never understood the attraction of rural life. Be that as it may, I now reside in Palookaville.
When I first arrived here, the townsfolk gave me a hearty welcome. I suppose I represented the local equivalent of winning the gene pool: an outsider, not bad looking, with a fresh batch of chromosomes. Accordingly, I was invited around for Sunday suppers, especially when there was an eligible young woman in the house, and asked to judge church bake-offs and the elementary school’s Christmas art fair. All dull stuff to be sure, but it kept me from climbing the walls of my whitewashed clapboard prison.
And then that prissy little schoolteacher had the gall to call foul when things started getting serious. As if she hadn’t led me on with all those tired double entendres about teachers’ pets, extra homework and being kept after school for private lessons. Christ, did she really think she could hold out until I slipped a ring on her finger? Well, sorry, but this old shark has been cruising for too long to be caught by such stale bait.
Of course, after that, my name wasn’t precisely mud, but the invitations to dinner dried up, especially if there was an eligible young woman in the house. So, bored by the less than infinite variety of public entertainment available in a small town like this, I took to drinking - in a big way. Hell, I could have captained the Olympic drinking squad. I was putting away half a bottle of scotch by the time I locked up the office, but as there wasn’t anyone around to report to our beloved chairman, I got away with it. Maybe, if I’d made an effort to redeem my worthless ass, I could’ve earned a ticket to civilisation, but I was feeling pretty sorry for myself still, and preferred the comfort of a full bottle to the notion of improving sales figures.
Most evenings, I propped up the corner of the bar at Joe’s Kabin, a rundown dive situated at the rougher end of Main Street. The Lion’s Den was closer to home but the clientele were more upmarket types, which meant they owed their souls to the bank for the mortgage as opposed to living indebted to the council for their two-bit rent. On the way home, I’d grab a take-out from the Chinese or a pizza to soak up some of the alcohol before hitting the sack.
Weekends, I was free to indulge my penchant for oblivion and I soon became a regular down at the beer outlet, picking up a couple of cases on Saturday morning to keep me company while I watched the football. Sometimes I’d go to Joe’s, mostly if I felt like having a bet on the game, or if I had a sudden urge to risk ptomaine poisoning from one of their rancid burgers.
After a while, the guys in the bar obviously decided I was all right for a city slicker, so they’d call me over to join them at their table, or to shoot a game of pool. They were hardly the sort I was used to hanging around with but they were easy company and, since I was getting the cold shoulder from what passed around here for high society, I didn’t have a lot of choice.
Al Miller ran a poker game every other Saturday. We met at his house, a four-room bungalow decorated with chipped furniture, broken lamps and whatever else he’d rescued from the county dump where he worked as a security guard. Strictly speaking, it was men only, but the wives had a way of turning up for one thing and another. The excuses were always lame but they brought beer and pretzels and bags of cold cuts for sandwiches so Al let them stay providing they kept themselves to the kitchen. That was where I first saw her.
I’d gone to the toilet and was on my way back to the table when she bumped into me in the hall. Something about the way her breasts pressed against me told me that our collision was no accident, but I smiled and sidled past her just the same. When I got to the end of the hall, I looked back to find she was leaning against the wall, mouth slightly ajar so that the tip of her pink tongue was just visible between the ruby red lips. Damn, what a sight! Her white blouse was cheap and thin, her jeans way too tight, but I hadn’t touched a woman since my banishment to Hatter’s Ridge and, in that moment, she looked like an angel to my sex-starved eyes.
“Evangeline,” she said simply. “Remember the name.”
Then Al called out that it was my deal so I headed back to my poker chips, but I made a mental note to find out all I could about Evangeline.
Evangeline Daisy Miller was Al’s sister, only she wasn't Evangeline Miller anymore. Now she was Mrs. Clem Wilkins, wife of our erstwhile deputy sheriff and so definitely off-limits. Problem is, when something is forbidden, it always seems twice as desirable as it has reason to be, and Evangeline was no exception. I wanted her and I wanted her bad. Bad enough to risk paying her a visit one afternoon, all the while silently praying that her husband was on duty down at the station.
My customers knew I took lunch from twelve to one so slipping away was easy enough, but I had to take care no one recognised my car pulling up in the Wilkins’ front drive. Our company sold industrial cleaning products to more than a few businesses in the area but I had no justification for paying calls on housewives, especially housewives who looked like this one.
The front door, faded and chipped, was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. I knocked. Realising that I had no idea what I was going to say, I was greatly relieved when Evangeline opened the door, looked me over and said matter-of-factly, “You’d better bring your car round. I’ll let you in the back door.”
Once inside, things progressed rather faster than I had anticipated and it wasn’t until I felt the cold linoleum against my back a while later that I realised we’d never even made it out of the kitchen. Dumbfounded, I stood up and began putting my clothes back in order while wondering what I should say but, thankfully, Evangeline read the situation perfectly and took charge arranging our next meeting for later in the week.
From then on, I saw Evangeline two or three times a week, always when her husband was safely behind the desk down at the station house and her neighbours were out shopping or visiting. At first, our meetings were nothing more than brief interludes of frantic sex, but, after a while, she began dropping hints, mentioning some little piece of jewellery or a dress she’d seen in a store window. They were small enough items, but then Hatter’s Ridge was hardly the sort of place for designer outlets and expensive shops. Wal-Mart was more the level of consumer interest in these parts, so I was happy enough to play the part of generous benefactor.
When she started asking for the money to buy the trinkets herself, I quickly agreed figuring that my frequent purchases of women’s attire were bound to raise questions of one sort or another, questions I was more than happy to avoid.
Looking back on it, I can see what a jerk I was and my only defence is that I was walking around half cut most of the time. The alcohol had dulled my senses to such an extent that I didn’t see the trap, even as I walked into it.
There were six of us playing poker at Al’s that night. Deputy Clem was on my left-hand side, at the other end of the table from our host. Mitch Adams sat to my right with Jeb Baxter and Bob Sherman opposite. As we cashed in our chips, Mitch brought up the subject of a hunting trip. Since my only memorable contribution on a recent fishing foray had been a spectacular display of seasickness, I just assumed I wouldn’t be invited, an omission that didn’t bother me in the least. As I said before, I’m city-bred so all this huntin’ and fishin’ and shootin’ is alien territory. But then I heard Jeb Baxter saying I can go in his pick-up, seeing as my only mode of transport is a two-door convertible not fit for driving in the mountains. I started to make my excuses, expecting a certain amount of arm twisting from the other guys, but then I heard Evangeline’s husky voice above the others.
“What’s the matter, city boy? Afraid the big bad wolf will eat you?” And before I knew it, I was making arrangements for Jeb to pick me up on the following weekend.
By the next morning, I’d forgotten all about the hunting trip but Evangeline reminded me of it during my lunchtime visit. I asked her flat out why she’d tried to show me up in the way she had, but she only laughed and pulled me back down on top of her, so I thought I’d leave that discussion until later. Of course, there was no time later since I had to be back at work, and somehow we never managed to talk about it during the week, either.
Mitch had organised the trip so that we all knew what provisions we were responsible for, which enabled us to head away as we were ready. That Saturday, Jeb picked me up at my place at five in the morning and we loaded the cases of beer and tinned food into the back of his truck. On the way, he explained that they’d talked it over and decided it was safer all around if I wasn’t given a gun since I was probably more of a danger to myself than the wildlife. Having never handled a gun in my life, I was happy to go along with the general consensus and began to think the trip might not be such a disaster. After all, I could hardly humiliate myself unless I got too close to the carnage and did my Mount Vesuvius impression again.
When we reached the cabin, we found Mitch on his own clearing the formica table of plates and coffee mugs. Apparently, he and Bob had come up Friday night after work to get the place ready, which explained the breakfast things still scattered on the counter. Al and Clem had arrived about an hour before us, and not wanting to waste time had already headed out to the woods with Bob. I suggested bringing in our bags and the box of food out in the truck, but Mitch said we could do that later. Besides the beer would be colder if we left it outside. So, without further ado, Mitch and Jeb grabbed their rifles and ammunition and we set out into the woods to shoot innocent animals.
I had assumed that hunting trips were all about bonding but Mitch and Jeb made it very plain that conversation was to be kept to a minimum. With the two of them busy looking for obscure signs around us that would reveal the presence of something shoot-able nearby, I soon grew bored and let my mind wander. Fortunately, I had plenty to think about but my primary concern was where to find five thousand dollars quick. For the past few months, I had been subsidising my poker loses with bills for non-existent customers and forging the inventory records, but now someone was coming out from head office to look over the books. If I didn’t do something quick, I would be looking at a long stretch in even less salubrious surroundings than Hatter’s Ridge.
I’d been walking behind the others, or so I thought, when I looked up to find myself alone. So I did what any reasonable city person would do if they suddenly found themselves alone in the great outdoors. I panicked. Turning around to see if maybe Mitch and Jeb were within sight, I shouted out.
“Hey!” When that didn’t get any response, I tried yelling louder. “Hey! Mitch! Jeb! Where are you?”
Stumbling around, heart pounding, I spun one way and another until I had no idea which way I’d been heading and which way I’d come. Eventually, and on the verge of losing it big time, I heard voices not far off. This time, I bellowed fit to burst my lungs.
“Hey! I’m over here! Where are you guys?”
There was a rustling sound as the hunters approached. When they stepped into the small clearing where I stood, it wasn’t the two I'd been calling for, but Al Miller and Clem Wilkins. Still, I was so happy to see them I could’ve kissed their big ugly faces.
“What’sa matter, boy? Gone and got yerself into trouble, did ya?”
There was something in the way Clem spoke that I didn’t like, but, at the same time, I was so relieved that I just laughed and did my best to look sheepish.
“I, uh, I guess I wandered off a bit. Have you seen Mitch or Jeb? I’m supposed to be following them.”
“Mitch or Jeb, is it? I thought you might be lookin’ fer someone else.” Clem spat a thick stream of brown tobacco juice at my feet and grinned.
“Who?” I stammered, starting to feel very nervous. “You mean Bob? Isn’t Bob with you?”
“Yup, he’s with us,” Al answered, “just in there, behind those trees.”
“Jeb and Mitch find anythin’ to shoot yet?” Clem asked casually, hoisting his rifle onto his shoulder.
“Uh, no. At least, that is, I don’t think so. Not before I wandered off, anyway.”
“Pity,” Clem said, still grinning. “Be a real shame if you didn’t see somethin’ get shot on yer first hunt. Wouldn’t it, Al?”
“Sure would,” Al agreed laconically.
While I stood there, feeling seriously perturbed, a third figure emerged from the trees, but, despite the heavy coat and baggy trousers, it was obvious this person was much smaller than the ungainly bulk that was Sherman. As the figure came nearer, I recognised the perfume I’d bought, and the red lips I’d kissed so many times in the recent past.
“Hey, Bill, how you keepin’?”
Evangeline, out here in the woods. It didn’t make sense, but then nothing had made much sense since I’d left the civilised world behind in a cloud of disgrace. I turned to look at Clem as if I might find enlightenment but all I saw was his big gap-toothed grin. Panic returned, growing ominously until I felt the world tremble beneath my feet, only to realise seconds later it was me that was trembling.
“What’s all this about?” I managed to get out. “Clem? Al?” I looked at each in turn, but they just stood there mutely, stupid smiles plastered to their faces. I turned to where Evangeline had stepped into the clearing.
The last thing I remember is looking down the barrel of a shotgun and seeing Evangeline’s laughing face at the other end.
I guess you could say that Hatter’s Ridge is a dead end kind of town.
BIO: CL Needham writes short fiction because it’s an enjoyable way to avoid real work.
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