I've mentioned Faylene McFarland, my main character in the Faylene in High Plains books several times, but some of you may not be acquainted with her. She can be pretty vocal and has been pestering me to introduce hersself to any of you who don't know her.
So, to please her and get her to stop talking in my ear, I am posting the first chapter of book one in the series, "Faylene's Biggest Catch."
Coincidentally, you'll also get to meet a few of her quirky friends. I hope you enjoy what she and her pals have to say.
The gaudy neon sign flashed the words “Bart’s Discount Caskets” alternately with “Come in and browse”. I rubbed my eyes and blinked, but I wasn’t seeing things. Pulling up in front of the building, I shook my head at the conspicuous advertisement in the window.
So that’s what Becky Jo had been bragging about. She made sure everyone at Tootie’s Cafe knew her brother was involved in a new business venture. While I was enjoying one of Tootie’s legendary ham omelets, she approached me with a smug smile on her made-up face. “Faylene, Bart’s got hisself a business loan, and he’s on the cutting edge of something. I guess now you won’t be the only one in town that’s a business proprietor.”
Me, a business proprietor? What a fancy word for someone who owns a car wash in High Plains, Texas. I used to be an executive assistant for an attorney until my fiftieth birthday, when I realized I didn’t want the responsibility anymore. Deadlines and incessantly ringing phones became very unappealing. I quit and went for something with a lot less stress and a lot more freedom. That’s when I bought The Splash N Dash Car Wash. Because I’d been single my whole life, I didn’t even have to okay it with anyone.
Apparently, Bart had become the ‘proprietor’ of a retail casket store. I figured it must be another one of his get-rich-quick schemes, but I sincerely hoped it turned out better than his last one. Painting cattle guards did not turn out to be profitable. Yes, he really tried that. I can’t make this stuff up.
I had to go in and check out the newest store in town. Bart stood behind a counter, talking on the phone. He hung up abruptly and bounced toward me, stretching up to his full height in an attempt to bring us eye to eye. Still, it was more like his eye to my nose. I think it bothers him that he’s shorter than me. He gave a quick nod. “Well, if isn’t Miss Faylene McFarland.”
“Yes, it’s me.” I squinted in the dim light, trying to see my surroundings. Soft organ music played in the background. What was supposed to be soothing came off as a bit macabre. I had visions of Boris Karloff banging on a pipe organ, bats flying overhead. Instinctively, I swatted the air above me.
Bart looked at me, puzzled. “Everything okay?”
I gulped. “Fine. Just fine.”
His voice became soft and concerned. Maybe he had taken acting classes. I’d never known Bart to be concerned about anything or anyone but himself. “Would you like to hear about our pre-payment plan?” Bart had a slight under bite. When we were in school, the kids used to call him Bart the Bulldog. One time in junior high, he tried to kiss me. I had turned my head away, not wanting his flabby lower lip to ever touch mine.
I found myself looking at his mouth, thinking about that day. “No, thanks. Not interested in a plan. I just came in out of curiosity.”
“Yes, well, as the sign says, browse all you like.” He leaned obnoxiously close to me, his combover almost in my face. “And when you’re done, maybe you’d like to grab a bite for lunch?”
“I don’t think so, Bart. I have to check the change machines at the car wash.”
He shrugged. “Your loss, doll. Maybe next time.”
I left as fast as I could without sprinting. My cell phone began to ring, and Molly June Taylor’s gushy voice greeted me. “Faylene, I’m here at the Splash N Dash and I need help.”
“I’m on my way, Molly. Hang on.” Molly June hadn’t grasped the concept that the car wash was for cars. The last time she called me, she was using a spray wand to wash off her husband Duane’s muddy boots.
When I rounded the corner, I saw Molly June’s small frame in one of the bays. She struggled with a large red wagon, tugging on the handle. I pulled in, bracing myself for whatever the wagon contained.
She called to me. “Hurry up! I need help.”
I ran over and looked in the wagon. Orange and white golf balls covered the bottom. I didn’t even ask.
Molly handed me the wagon handle, and used the soap brush on the golf balls. “Now you stir them up and I’ll rinse them off.”
I scrunched my eyebrows into a knot. “Stir them up?”
“Yes. You know, so they’ll all get rinsed.” My instinct was to argue with her. It was a very hot day, even for Texas. Most folks were indoors, not out doing physical labor. But I knew Molly June. I would be wasting my breath.
I shuffled them around and waited patiently while Molly June rinsed. When she was done, she instructed me, “Now dump the water out of the wagon.”
There must have been at least a hundred golf balls swimming in several inches of water. “Uh, I don’t think I can do that. The wagon’s heavy, and the balls will roll out.”
Molly June sighed loudly. “Faylene, isn’t this your car wash?”
“You’re wiry. Those long arms can handle it. Besides, I don’t want to break a nail.” I glared at her, but she spoke again before I could. “Don’t you think you should take care of your customers? Just dump out all the water you can, and we’ll scoop out the rest.” She cupped her hands together, making a scooping motion.
“Okay, Molly, I’ll try, but let me remind you that this is a car wash. For cars. You know, you drive your automobile into the bay, feed the coins in the slot and use the spray wand to wash your car. It really isn’t recommended for anything else.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, you don’t think I would wash these golf balls in my bathtub, do you? I’ve got a lovely claw foot porcelain tub, and there is no way I would do that.”
“Do you have a garden hose?”
Molly stared blankly for a minute, then sniffed. “Well, I’m here now. Just help me finish, okay?”
When we had scooped out most of the water, Molly smiled. “There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Maybe not for her. I smiled back, hesitant to voice my real thoughts. “If that’s all, I have to check the change machines.”
“Whatever. Oh, hey, did you hear about Bart West’s casket business?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I was coming from there when you called.”
“You were? I hope you’re not in need of a coffin. And did you ever hear of such a thing?” She shook her head. “Discount caskets, my eye.”
Nodding, I agreed. “It is a little strange.”
Molly pulled the wagon up to the door of my SUV. “You’ll need to give me a ride home.”
I glanced around, not seeing Molly June’s vehicle. “You didn’t bring your car?”
“No. I pulled the wagon thinking the exercise would do me good, but I’m worn out now, and it’s hot. It’s all too much for a little ole thing like me, anyway.”
My lack of patience wasn’t Molly’s problem. I tried to remember I was a Christian, so I said, “Okay. Help me lift the wagon into the back.”
She made a half-hearted attempt to lift the front end of the wagon while I raised the back end up into my vehicle and pushed.
Out of breath, I climbed into the driver’s seat. Molly June faced me as I drove, a serious look on her face.
“Girl, are you ever going to get married?”
Silently, I counted to ten. “Have you been talking to Iris?”
“Well, of course I have. She’s concerned about you. You do remember Iris’s deathbed promise to your mother, don’t you?”
Of course I remembered. Iris was my mother’s best friend. Mom made Iris promise to try to get me married off. I had to smile. They had done everything in their power for years to find a husband for me.
My SUV glided into Molly’s drive. “Don’t you worry about me. I’m happy just the way I am.”
“You know Bart would marry you in a heartbeat if you just showed him a little interest.”
“No, thanks. He’s not my type. In fact, I wonder if he’s anyone’s type. I know he means well, but he’s just so…”
“You don’t have time to worry about finding your type, honey. You’re a spinster if I ever saw one. In fact, you’re getting mighty close to old maid territory. You still don’t look half bad, although you could use some wrinkle cream. And so you’re a little awkward, but that’s probably because you’re flat footed. You shouldn’t wear flip flops, you know.”
I shut off the engine in front of Molly June’s house. “Thanks for your concern, but I’m doing just fine. I hate to rush you off, but I really need do to go check the change machines. Somehow I forgot to do that.”
“Fine. Help me get my wagon out.”
Iris knocked on my front door early the next day. “Faylene? You in there?”
I was busy paying bills. “Come on in, Iris.”
Iris was a tiny lady, but she loved large handbags. She glued plastic flowers on them to match her outfits. Her current bag had a large red bloom glued to its side. She pushed through the door wearing a bright red pant suit, her lips smeared with matching red lipstick. A cloud of lavender scent followed her.
She hovered over me. “Come downtown with me, dear. I want to see Bart’s new store.”
I peered at her over my glasses. “You do know it’s a casket store?”
“Why yes, I’ve heard. I was actually going to talk to him about his pre-payment plan. At my age, you just never know.”
When Iris set her mind on something, there was no talking her out of it. “All right. I can finish these bills later.”
Gently placing my hand on Iris’s elbow, I helped her down the porch steps.“Mercy, Fay,” she said. “I am not helpless.”
I raised both hands in surrender. “All right. Just being neighborly.” Did I mention Iris is a very independent lady?
She chattered while I drove, stopping only to dab at her lipstick when we arrived at the casket store.
Bart met us at the door. He winked at me. “Couldn’t stay away?”
“Funny. I’ve just come to keep Iris company.”
Iris stood at the door, taking in the casket displays all around the store. She approached one and ran her hand along its smooth surface.
I waited patiently while Bart showed her several different caskets. Iris shook her head and frowned. “I thought this was a discount casket company. These seem awfully expensive.”
“Oh, these are about half what they would cost from a funeral director. Don’t take my word for it, though. Check it out for yourself.”
I shrugged. “He’s right, Iris. I remember getting Mom and Dad’s caskets. These are relatively inexpensive.”
Bart beamed. “There. You know Faylene wouldn’t steer you wrong.”
Iris shifted her purse on her arm. “Of course she wouldn’t. Well, then, I guess there’s nothing to do but get one, if they’re a bargain. Dear, do you like the silver, or do you think the powder blue would go better with my eyes?”
“Iris, I hate to bring this up, but your eyes will be closed,” I said.
She nodded in agreement. “Then let’s go with the silver.”
While Iris filled out paperwork, I watched the people passing by on Main Street. That’s when I noticed the men building something near the courthouse.
“Hey Bart, what’re they doing over there?”
He looked up from his papers. “That’s the new band shell. They’ll use it for the Catfish Festival, and other community events, too. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
Iris spoke up. “I love the Catfish Festival. When my Robert was alive, he always entered the Biggest Catch Contest. He never did win, but he came close a couple of times. Loved to fish, that man did.”
The conversation took me back to my childhood. High Plains, Texas rarely gets enough rain in a year. It’s hot and dry in the summer, but we are blessed to have natural springs outside of town. Years ago, someone with foresight had suggested the springs be dammed up to form Coyote Springs Lake. “Iris, do you remember me going out on the lake with him and Dad when I was a little girl?”
She laughed. “Of course I do. You were as bad as they were. You loved to fish more than you loved to eat back then.”
I continued. “They always got so excited when they caught something. Dad entered the contest once, but he didn’t win. The Jackson guys beat him. Seems like they win a lot.”
Bart handed papers to Iris to sign. “They wouldn’t have won so many times if they hadn’t cheated,” he said.
“The rules say the fish can’t be caught by any means other than on a pole. I saw them take their prize off a trot line one year. It was my word against theirs, though. I never told anyone. What good would it have done?”
I agreed. “I’ve heard rumors about them not following rules, too. Well, Iris, if you’re finished, I need to run by my car wash.”
“Certainly, dear.” She shook hands with Bart. He winked at me as we made our way out. I hoped he didn’t see me roll my eyes.
Iris patted my hand. “Bart’s really a lovely man. Why don’t you give him a chance?”
“Iris, I love you, but I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m not interested in Bart.”
“Well he’s a business owner now. You could do worse.”
“I wonder just how long that business will survive. This is a small community. Not much call for high volume casket sales.”
She set her lips. “Well, you still could do worse.”
When I returned to my house, I felt a rush of warmth. It was the house I’d grown up in and it exuded charm. When I inherited it, I eagerly left my sterile apartment and moved back in. I’d removed the carpet, exposing the golden oak floors, and had the kitchen modernized with new countertops and appliances. While the inside was comfortable, my favorite part of the house was the front porch. I didn’t change a thing. Under the overhang was a shady place to sit and visit. My mother’s trumpet vine snaked its way up the supporting pillars and a hummingbird feeder hung from one of the beams.
Once inside, I curled up to rest, but my down time didn’t last long. A loud bang, followed by another one, jolted me off the couch. I looked out the front window. An old car was weaving its way slowly down the street, backfiring repeatedly. The driver was Mr. Bill Fenton, my elderly neighbor.
I ran outside, shouting at him to pull over. He ignored me. Mr. Fenton hadn’t had a driver’s license for several years, and his son had taken his car keys. Apparently, he missed one.
Thinking quickly, I ran in to get my own keys and jumped into my SUV. I drove around the block the opposite way, and met Mr. Fenton in the middle of the street. His car putted toward mine, head on. I honked, rolled down the window, and yelled. “Mr. Fenton, stop!”
He stared straight ahead, still headed for my vehicle. I was willing to take the hit to stop him. As slow as he was going, I doubted there would be much damage. I braced myself for impact when the old car’s engine suddenly quieted, and the car rolled to a stop a few feet from mine.
The elderly man peering over the top of the steering wheel looked startled. His face was unusually pale and his glasses had slid all the way down his nose.
I jumped out and opened his car door. “Mr. Fenton, are you all right?”
He scowled. “Well, of course I’m all right, but this blasted bucket of rust isn’t. It just quit running.”
“Here, let me help you out, and we’ll call for help. We need to get your car out of the road. Come and sit in my vehicle while I call a tow truck.”
He frowned, but allowed me to lead him to my car. His round cheeks had regained some color. Drumming his fingers impatiently on my dashboard, he asked, “Now what?”
Before I could call anyone, a policeman arrived. Someone must have seen what had happened. The High Plains grapevine would be launching into high gear.
The elderly gentleman snorted. “Police. Bunch of kids. They don’t know a thing. I need a mechanic.”
Officer Parker was indeed a kid, but his baby face belied his professional demeanor. He wrote while I talked, then went to speak to Mr. Fenton. “May I see your driver’s license, please?”
He sat up a little straighter and leaned toward the open window. “Was a time when a man didn’t need such a thing. He just drove, and followed the rules of the road.”
Officer Parker’s expression didn’t change. “I’ll need to see your license, sir.”
“Now you listen here.” Mr. Fenton shook his finger at the policeman. “You’re still wet behind the ears and you can’t tell me what to do. I don’t need you. I need a mechanic.”
I reached inside and touched Mr. Fenton’s shoulder. “Don’t get upset. I’ll talk to him.”
The young cop and I walked away from my vehicle. “Officer Parker, this is my neighbor, Bill Fenton. He can be forgetful. His son thought he had taken his car keys away, but I guess he didn’t get them all. If you’ll just let me call his son, I’ll get this straightened out. No one’s hurt, and there’s no damage to either vehicle. We can push his car to the shoulder and have it towed.”
Officer Parker searched my face. “This is unusual, but if you’ll call the son right now and let me speak with him, I’ll let this go.”
“Thank you, sir.” I did as instructed.
In a few minutes, Oren Fenton arrived. Officer Parker spoke briefly with him and left.
Oren sighed. “Thanks, Faylene. I’ll take over.”
“No problem. I was just concerned for your dad’s safety.”
“Me, too. I’ll have Gertie call you and invite you to dinner. Much obliged.”
Mr. Fenton’s son guided his father out of my SUV. I waved goodbye and decided to make a quick trip past the car wash. All the bays were empty. I prayed for rain, because everyone knows when you wash your car, it rains. I hoped the Lord didn’t think I was being selfish, but I had just paid my bills, and could use some extra money. Besides, praying for rain in dry West Texas wasn’t selfish. The farmers almost always needed it.
I went home to turn in early.
The band shell on the square was nearing completion. I stopped my SUV and got out to get a closer look. Men in hardhats drilled and hammered and shouted back and forth to each other. One approached me and spoke. “Hello, ma’am. Can I help you with something?”
He had dimples and silver sideburns. “Hi. Oh, uh, no. I was just seeing how things are going. I’ve lived here all my life and always like to check out what’s new in town.” I prayed that my babbling made sense.
He pulled off his work glove and extended his hand. “Sure. I’m Mike Chapman. Nice to meet you.”
Somehow, I found myself smiling at him a little too much. I tried to widen my eyes and stretch away the crow’s feet. Wow. I was attracted to this man. My common sense took a hike, and I hoped he wasn’t married.
One of the workers called to him. Mr. Chapman looked a little annoyed. “Excuse me, Miss …uh?”
“Faylene. Faylene McFarland.”
“Well, Miss Faylene McFarland, I’m being paged.”
Still grinning stupidly, I replied, “Oh, certainly. Nice to meet you, too.”
“Maybe I’ll see you again?”
“Yes, maybe.” That grin on my face just would not go away. Surely a married man wouldn’t say that, would he?
I left my vehicle parked and walked down the block to Tootie’s Café. The building was old, but well kept. It smelled of strong coffee and bacon. I checked the bulletin board just inside the door. It had gotten punched so full of thumbtack holes that chunks had fallen off, and there wasn’t a lot of useable space left. Because High Plains was small, people used the bulletin board to post needed specialty items from Lubbock. Anyone going that way took the note and got the items for the person requesting them. I often just read the board for fun. It never ceased to amaze me what people thought they needed. One note read: Need plantains, chocolate covered coffee beans, and red satin pillow cases.
When I looked up from the bulletin board, Molly June waved at me from the gathering of mid-morning coffee breakers. “Faylene, come and sit with me.”
I really wasn’t in the mood for Molly June, but being the kind-hearted person I am, I obliged her. She touched her hair and grinned. “Do you like the new color?”
“New color?” It didn’t look any different to me.
Annoyed, she let out a puff of air. “Yes. It was Platinum Ring #4; now it’s Platinum Ice #3. Can’t you tell?”
“Oh. Well, maybe I see a subtle difference.”
“Subtle difference? Goodness, Faylene, it’s strikingly different.”
I forced a smile.
“Well, never mind. You probably didn’t notice because you’re just not into that sort of thing. Really, Fay, why don’t you do a little something with yourself? You’ve got nice eyes, and you’re not overweight or anything. You have potential.”
“Buh-bye, Molly. I’ve got things to do.”
She grabbed my arm. “Oh, now wait a minute. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I was just giving you a little advice. Have a cup of coffee with me.”
Bart’s sister Becky Jo Johnson popped up from the booth right behind me, scaring me in the process.
“Molly’s right, Faylene. You could use some help.”
Becky Jo’s makeup looked like it had been shoveled on, and her hair was stacked so high you could have driven a Volkswagen under it. She could have used some help herself.
I folded my arms. “What is this, Pick on Faylene Day, or something?”
Becky Jo clucked. “Just stating a fact. Doesn’t matter. For some reason Bart likes you just the way you are. Why won’t you go out with him, anyway?”
Standing, I faced Becky. “Bart’s a nice enough guy, but I’m just not interested, and he knows it. Now if you ladies will excuse me, I have better things to do than listen to you two figure out how to fix what’s wrong with me.”
Becky’s eyes widened. I turned and walked off, the aging floorboards creaking under my feet. I’m pretty sure I heard Molly say, “I never…”
Since Tootie’s didn’t work out for me, I went to Bart’s. Any port in the storm would do. Besides, I wanted a good view of the construction site. No one was in the front of the store, but I could hear noises in the back.
“That you, doll?”
“Umm, it’s Faylene.”
“Be right there.”
He came out, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “Becky Jo brought me a piece of cake. She makes the best red velvet cake I ever tasted. That Johnny Johnson’s lucky he snagged my sis.”
“I suppose he is.”
“Did you come to take me up on that lunch date?”
“No. Actually, I just came in to kill a little time.”
“Sure. Have a seat.” He pointed to a stool behind the counter.
“Thanks, but I’ll just stand here and look out the window.”
The handsome man I met earlier walked past my SUV and paused. I think he peeked in. “Hey Bart, do you know that guy there?”
Bart squinted. “Which one?”
“Right there, walking past my car.”
“No. I think the crew’s from up around Amarillo somewhere. Why? You got a thing for him? I wouldn’t like that.”
I ignored his question. “Gotta go, Bart. Thanks for letting me hang out.”
He mumbled something about nobody having time for him as I left.
My SUV almost drove itself past the car wash. Three of the six bays were full.
(End of Chapter One)
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