Hank dropped a Tylenol and then some tablets for his blood pressure. He chased it down with leftover Jim Beam mixed with yesterday’s cold coffee. Hank looked at a brochure. It read: “No matter how difficult a problem you face, there is a solution. Talk to me first, Clarice Cottrell, Trouble Counsellor.” Hank dialed and hung up. He dialed and let it ring before hanging up. A few minutes later his phone rang.
“Hank, Roofing Academy.”
“Clarice Cottrell. You called, but then you got cold feet. You have a problem?”
Hank could have hung up. “Yeah. I got a problem.”
“Come talk to me before you do anything. I can feel your pain from here,” the woman’s voice said dripping with compassion.
“Well, it’s a lot to dump on someone.”
“I’ll listen. I’m a professional.”
“I’m under the witness protection program. A key witness in a mob killing. The head of a big family got his brains taken out with an ice cream scoop and I know who did it. I haven’t slept decently in years and I have guns all over my house. I used to live with a nice lady and I was a good father to her two teenage kids, but they hated me because… well… I just never measured up to their real dad. I have gambling debts, which is why my house burned down. I tried to drink it all away but I now got even bigger problems to face. I just passed a thousand days of sobriety, give or take a few swigs of tequila at a friend’s cremation. I’m such a loser. I’m too far gone.”
“Nonsense, young man. You only have to change a few beliefs about yourself and you’re as right as rain.”
“Life is permission to play the game. Well Hank. Why don’t you cut yourself some slack and come and see me?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Her voice sounded like the grandma in Kansas Hank always wanted to have waiting for him at the end of the street where the rainbows appeared near sunset.
Hank drove down a tree-lined street in a part of town he never had much occasion to visit. The houses were freshly painted one-story ranch-style homes from the 50s. Their roofs never needed fixing. The lawns were watered and pristine, the trees shady and the lanes well kept. These modest houses were situated in such a way to avoid the direct sun for a better part of the day, much like the elderly residents living here. The fruit of their prudent planning was a lovely oasis in a forbidding desert.
Hank walked along a small pebbled path snaking its way over a shady green lawn, bordered by a green hedgerow. The path led along cool flower beds to a pond where goldfish reflected like shards of bright precious metal. Frogs warmed themselves on the lily pads. Rows of pansies and tulips bloomed in verdant tufts of green and blue. Clarice, dressed in a white frock, welcomed Hank with a warm smile and led him down some stairs into an arboretum, cool and quiet. Birds flew by noiselessly to their perches. Clarice was tall and slender with a gray mane of hair tied in a ponytail. Her face was chiseled, while her dark brown eyes remained motionless yet peering, almost invasive. Hank could feel himself relaxing immediately in her presence. Her hands were warm to the touch and the sensation spread through Hank like a wave of warmth.
“You have been carrying a huge weight, Hank. It’s mostly from that round thing on top of your shoulders. The mind can cause a thought to weigh a thousand pounds.”
Clarice touched Hank’s chest and he began to draw deeper breaths. “That feels good,” he said.
“All that holds you between what you want and what you are is your shame. Release it now,” she demanded.
When Hank awoke, his pants and shirt were soaking wet. He seemed to be looking at himself from somewhere else in the room.
“Hank. You’ve been away,” Clarice said. “Now it’s time to come back.”
Clarice helped Hank get up from the couch. She stood next to him, her eyes shimmering in the fading light. He could feel her breath on him.
“I feel… light,” he said.
‘Of course. You left a lot of baggage behind, Hank.”
“I feel like a new man.”
“Think how much better you’ll feel once we begin the real work.”
Clarice was grace and peace all rolled into one. He put his head on her shoulder and held her hand like a lifeline.
“Oh god. I’m weak.”
“This is not the time to put down the lance, Hank. Still more battles to fight.”
Clarice had to be firm with Hank. Clarice was a nice looking woman in her early 70s. She was trim, fit and stylish, befitting her role in town as the crone. Men let themselves go when around her.
“I feel love for you,” Hank sighed, finding it incomprehensible that she wouldn’t go to bed with him.
“You’re confusing your feelings. I am merely the provider, the medium, as it were,” Clarice said, stroking his head. “I’m not the object of your longings, but merely the channel to your completion. Stay with that. Let’s not cross borders.”
One day, soon afterwards, Hank was driving back to the office when he picked up his cell phone. It was Dolly’s shaky voice on the other end.
“Hank, Plan B. Come pick me up.”
Hank began to sweat as he drove across the desert town to meet Dolly at the bank. Dolly jumped into Hank’s van. She was serious, sitting there with her skirt riding high up to her panties. She scratched her inner thigh with long red nails.
“So…what’s the urgency? ” Hank began.
“Bank examiners, Feds. We’re basically fucked, Hank.”
Dolly wore her emotions as heavily as she wore her mascara. Her eyes were wide open and her pretty mouth parted. “They asked me questions. I nearly shit my pants, Hank.”
Dolly went on with her story. “It seems as if our bank Manager, Kenneth Farris, has not come back from vacation. He took an exceedingly large amount of money with him. They’re going to be going over everything — everything.”
“Well, cut to the chase, Dolly,” Hank asked almost breathless, now with the color draining from his face. “How long we got?”
“Not much time. I’ve wired our investments to Costa Rica.”
“Costa fucking Rica?”
“It was all I could think of doing. I panicked. If my manager hadn’t run off, we’d be fat pigs in the trough. We gotta get out of town, Hank. We’re going to jail if we don’t.”
Panic had seized her features. Hank could see the small child in them both becoming smaller by the minute. What seemed important that morning now seemed trivial to the extreme.
He dropped off Dolly and then went back to his apartment. Thoughts of prison flooded the small compartments of his brain like water flowing into a sinking ship. He picked the bottle out of the desk drawer and drank deeply, mixing the sea water with Jim Beam. He spent the next half hour in a hazy mist, trying to pack all the stuff that remained of his life into one large suitcase. Hank returned early afternoon to pick up Dolly at her apartment complex. He sat in his van looking into blank space when Dolly banged on his window.
“You’re late and we don’t have much time,” Dolly said. “Help me with my luggage.”
Hank started to load her three heavy suitcases into his van.
“We’re not going in your van,” Dolly yelled. “We’re going in that.”
Dolly pointed to a Cadillac from the early 80s, sitting in the blazing sun.
“We’re going to Costa Rica… in that!” Hank screamed.
“It’s got air conditioning.”
Hank walked the bags over to the Caddy. The second shock of the day was seeing Clarice behind the wheel. She was finishing off a cigarette and tossing out it the window.
“Hi, Hank! Plenty of room in the trunk,” Clarice said smiling, as if she were taking a nice drive.
Hank lifted the luggage into the trunk. He felt out of his body again. Clarice, even in this heat, was wearing a floor length mink coat.
“I don’t think you’re going to need that coat where we’re going,” Hank said.
“I was photographed in this some forty years before, the only other time I ever wore it. Besides, I’m going to sell it there to some rich tourists. Now get in.”
With Dolly in front, Hank in back, Clarice deftly cranked the automatic steering wheel of the Caddy.
“Surprised to see me, Hank?” Clarice asked.
“I’m more surprised that you’re one of Dolly’s clients.”
“It was my idea to bring you along. We could have left you to face the gnomes of Zurich on your own,” Clarice said. “How long do you think you’d last?”
Only a few minutes into the ride, Hank noticed that Dolly was wearing far too much perfume. This had the makings of a bad road movie.
“Damn it all,” Hank said to himself.
Clarice looked at him through her dramatic sunglasses.
“Hank, as I recall you cried big fat tears into my lap about how unhappy you were. Well, the gods heard you and gave you a new adventure. Now deal with it.”
Clarice took one hand off the wheel and tweaked Dolly’s cheek. “Oh, we’re going to be fine.”
On the drive to Costa Rica, Hank rarely saw Central America. He slept by day and drove by night. When the threesome arrived in Costa Rica Hank slid to the underbelly of paradise seldom seeing Clarice or Dolly. In a couple of months later his routine consisted of hanging out in a shabby motor lodge offering no sea breeze, no beaches, no tourists and no one to ask penetrating questions.
One morning, Hank picked up the phone It was Dolly.
“This is no joke. People in suits with extradition papers showed up yesterday at our bank. If they found me, they’ll find you.”
“They know we’re here.”
Dolly made herself scarce since the threesome came to Costa Rica. She had taken up with rich swift looking younger men with pony tails wearing two thousand dollar Italian suits. While Hank had hit the low-life, Dolly had drifted to the luxury condo set. It didn’t seem to matter where she called from, every time she called Hank, it was bad news.
“Please help Clarice. I’m worried about her,” Dolly pleaded. “She sounded suicidal.”
“If you’re so worried, why don’t you help her?”
Hank had answered his own question. Dolly had always taken care of herself first. She was nothing if not pragmatic, leaving others to clean up the mess after she jumped in the last lifeboat.
“These guys play rough. Take care,” Dolly said, leaving in a few minutes on a plane to Taiwan.
“Bye, sweetie. God love ya,” she said.
Hank could easily count the money he had left in the world. The part he put in the bank was no tocar. He was thinking about being more prudent about the money, but the whores, dope and booze kept getting in the way. It was always later down here. But later finally arrived with Dolly’s phone call.
That afternoon Hank appeared at the gates of an exclusive hotel for rich American widows. He was showered and shaved in a cheap suit. Otherwise he’d never see the inside of the hotel. It was a lot easier getting into Costa Rica than getting inside Clarice’s hotel, which is why he hadn’t seen her much over the past few months.
The bellman gave Hank the once over and let him on the elevator to the top suite. Hank walked down the long hallway to a double walnut door entry. He knocked, then pushed it open. He went from room to room, finally entering the bedroom. The lights were off. A shadow was sitting on the side of the bed crying. Hank turned on the light and he saw Clarice’s face ashen and yellow.
“The bank. Now they’re coming for me. They’re going to take me to jail.”
“Now get up,” Hank said.
He got Clarice dressed and out of her apartment with all clothes he could carry with him in two trips downstairs. Clarice, unlike Hank, had put an emergency stash of cash in one of her suitcases. It was hard dragging an old woman and her heavy baggage down the stairs, but the local snips would be watching the elevators.
“I can’t,” groaned Clarice. “Save yourself.”
“Aren’t you the same person who pulled me out of a steep dive?”
“We got to get to Mexico.”
“Leave me here. I’ll slow you down.”
Clarice cried from a deep dark place as Hank drove Clarice’s Caddy north. The days went slowly as he drove through the airless swamps and border crossings where the lax customs men took one look at Clarice, an old gringo lady in a swoon. They waved Hank through without too many questions. They’d often seen the rich old gringas going back home to die.
In Mexico City, at the end of a long day of driving, Hank promised Clarice a bath and drove to a park near a hotel. Hank had taken the luggage out of the car and was having a smoke when he felt a tug on his elbow. Thinking it was one of the windshield urchins he looked around and saw a small caliber pistol held by a swarthy young man, his eyes fearless. The boy hit Hank hard in the nose with the gun, and several pairs of boots kicked him sideways on the ground. The youths tossed Clarice down like she was a blanket. They took the Caddy keys and drove off, leaving Hank and Clarice there on the pavement.
Hank and Clarice picked themselves up and walked to a pharmacy where Hank got some bandages. They didn’t want to go to a hospital because sooner or later the Embassy people would show up wearing expensive deodorant and cheap sunglasses asking a lot of questions. “We got to keep moving,” Hank said, not feeling all that strategic without booze in his veins. “North.”
Hank bought bus tickets and finally they arrived in a small settlement at a crossroads. Clarice and Hank walked to a row of adobe huts and rented one for two pesos, close to the last money between them. Hank heard about a construction project up the road from the bus driver and walked some miles there one afternoon to look for a job. The Mexicans were suspicious of a gringo who was so hard up he’d work for pesos, but Hank’s friendly face and willingness to joke in bad Spanish got him work. That night Hank returned to the dilapidated hut, where Clarice fixed a meal of refried beans. Hank slept a few hours on the cold concrete floor before heading back up the road early the next morning.
Hank carried cement for twelve hours a day. At night he slept so deeply he couldn’t remember the day before. Every day he came back to the hovel, which was full of bus exhaust fumes spilling up through the cracks in the walls. At week’s end he had some cash to pay for medicine to help Clarice, who was increasingly ill. “It’s bad,Hank,” she wheezed. During the day Clarice fought off the cockroaches and scorpions in the cramped hovel. She managed to walk a bit, playing with the small children in the cool of the day. At night she cooked a meal on a small hot plate and waited for Hank. There was no running water and no air conditioning, but it was shelter against the winds, the heat and the blowing garbage.
One day Hank arrived home after he’d hitched a ride back with some Americans who gave him money and a half bottle of rum. He walked in the little room and saw the lights were off. Clarice was lying still in the cot. He felt her head and wrists and she was nearly cold.
“The man stole our money,” she said weakly.
Hank went to the office and saw the manager with a new white shirt on. He wore his hair slicked back and was flirting with one of the local women.
“What happened to Clarice?”
“No habla Anglaise,” the manager said.
“You little prick, you understand just fine.”
Hank had seen the manager go into the rooms where the wives stayed while their men rode off on the buses in the morning. The manager collected rent at both ends and nobody complained.
“Why did you take our money? Give it back or I call the police,” Hank demanded.
“No senor, I am police and jefe.”
“You came and took our money.”
“I collect a village tax for visitors,” said the small man. “You are worker, no? You pay taxes.”
“I’m a worker, yes. I work hard. I pay you for the shitty room. I’m paying the room rate.”
“Oh, the lady steals food from the market and you steal jobs from our people, so I am making you a chance to become part of the community.”
The little man was smoking a cigarette and looking very self-assured.
“My friend is sick, and I need that money for medicine. For a bus ticket out of this shit hole.”
“I am the bus manager. Two people, a thousand pesos, por favor.”
“Tickets don’t cost that much. We got to eat, too.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, you said that, senor. Two thousand pesos.”
Hank’s hair trigger temper sent his strong right arm to the throat of the manager and he held the little man against the wall.
“If she was young, you’d fuck her, but she was weak so you just stole the money.”
The manager’s head bounced off the side of the wall and blood began running out of the scared little man’s nose.
Hank let loose and dropped the manager to the floor with a solid left fist to the face and several kicks to the stomach.
By sunrise it was already getting hot. Hank and Clarice had walked miles in the dark but they couldn’t shag a ride in any direction. Clarice had to rest every fifteen minutes of walking and sat down by the side of the road.
“I’ll get us a ride. It’s about time our luck changed. I need positive energy,” she said. “You go over there and wait. I feel your negativity vibes from here.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
Hank sat in the shade next to a crumbling building. He was too tired to care whether something might crawl up to bite him or arrest him.
Clarice dutifully kept her eyes on the horizon. “Om…. om….om….”
After a few minutes she saw a caravan of eight silver trailers, each gleaming in the sun. The license plates were from Arkansas. Clarice stood and waved her thumb at the little blue-haired ladies looking out their windows. The men driving the trucks glanced at Clarice but kept driving.
“We must look pretty strange to them,” Clarice said to herself. She sat down disappointed.
A half block away the convoy came to a stop. A man in the lead truck got out and came walking up the road. Several other older people got out and came walking back. Together they looked like a bevy of gray-haired geese.
The leader was pudgy and shirtless with red, white and blue suspenders holding up his baggy shorts and droopy socks. He wore a baseball cap with a beer can off to the side. “The name’s Ted.”
“We’re Americans,” Clarice said.
“Where you headed?”
Clarice used the last of her charms.
“Ted, me and my friend lost everything to bandits. Our car, our clothes. We’re just trying to get back home.”
“Come along neighbors.”
For the next three days, Hank and Clarice rode in style. One of the ladies kept looking at Clarice.
“You look so much like that famous actress. Oh, what is her name?” she asked.
“I’m told that quite a bit,” smiled Clarice. “I was Clarice Cottrell.”
The ladies held their hands suspended over their mouths.
“Jack Warner wanted me to be named Claire actually. Harry Cohen wanted me to be Candace. We settled on Clarice. I was just fifteen at the time.”
“What’s your real name?” asked one of the ladies.
“Bertha May Beauchamp. Now you can see why I had to change it,” Clarice said laughing. “I’m really just an Iowa farm girl.”
“How did you get to Hollywood at such a young age?”
“I ran off with the man who sold brushes from door to door. He was the first man who called me pretty, so I handed him my virtue and told him to drive me to Hollywood.”
Clarice wiped away tears she’d held at bay for some time now. She didn’t want to tell anyone how the movie starlet ended up on a road and starving in Mexico.
“Now I’ll tell you a beauty secret,” Clarice said. “Do you have any hemorrhoid cream?”
“Honey,” said one of the women. “We could go nowheres without it.”
“Well, it does work wonders to mask those unwanted lines, reduce puffy eyelids and sagging cheeks.
Hank often rode up front with Ted in the lead truck in the caravan.
“They’re looking for you,” Ted said. “The police told us to look out for desperados. I guess they were talking about you and Clarice.”
“Suppose so,” Hank said. “You can see how dangerous we are.”
“We’ll jaw all about it in camp tonight.”
Hank and Clarice sang for their supper as the caravan moved across northern Mexico. Clarice took much needed pharmaceuticals and began to recover, with the ladies peppering her with questions. Under the desert stars, Hank took his pleasure in the beer the men provided and told his war stories, along with details of Costa Rican whores. The men chortled so loudly that their wives became suspicious. Well into the night the men talked in low tones but erupted with outbursts of laughter long after the women went to bed.
On the third day with the tourists, Hank was riding with Ted when he spotted a line of hills on the horizon.
“Pull over here. That’s where we need to go.”
Ted looked confounded.
“Hank, we’re taking you stateside with us. Nothing out there but desert.”
“We’d never make it across the border. We’ll be high on a watch list. Don’t want to get you in trouble. I have a friend who will get us back home by the back door.”
“Anybody but you said that you’re going to cross that desert mid-day I’d say they were just plain nuts. But I figure you know what you’re doing.”
“Thanks,” said Hank. “We don’t know what we’re doing, but we both agree it’s the best shot we have.”
The men who drove the trucks, not one of them a hugger, all hugged Hank good-bye. The little blue haired ladies didn’t want Clarice to go. In quiet tones, Clarice assured them they all had far richer experiences ahead of them.
“Thank you all for letting us be a part of your journey,” Clarice said, wiping a tear off her cheek.
The caravan set off once again, as Hank and Clarice began walking out into the desert.
“That motel manager did us a favor,” Clarice said, taking Hank by the arm.
“I can’t imagine how he did us a favor,” Hank said.
“We never would have met our allies if he hadn’t caused us problems. Only in chaos do the gods deliver.”
Her words gave Hank’s weary heart a fix on the horizon. “We have a long walk ahead of us,” he said.
Near a railway off the road Hank found a two-wheeled pony cart on car tires. Hank put Clarice on top and put the harness over his head. He tugged and strained until he slowly pulled the cart out of the sand. The tires were low, but at least it was moving. Hank was sunburned by noon.
“Someday you’ll think this is funny, Hank. You’ve tasted the bitter and the sweet. The gods must be very proud of you.”
“I can’t imagine they are.”
“Look at you,” her voice croaked from the cart. “You’ve had experiences other people only dream about.”
“I’m past middle-aged, I have to pay for my sex and I’m wanted for crimes I don’t want to think about. What kind of life is that?”
“A truly epic life, Hank.”
Hank pulled for all he was worth.
By sunset, Hank stopped and looked out on the expanse.
“There it is.”
A pillar of rock rose out of the horizon some miles away.
“What are we looking for?” Clarice asked.
“A friend. I used to come here a lot as a kid.”
“Hank, you’ve never mentioned him before.”
“He will help us.”
“Oh, I hope you haven’t lost your mind,” Clarice said. She hid under her blanket. “Well, what choice do I have — even if you are crazy.”
Under the light of the stars that night, Hank pulled the cart to an adobe hut. Hank carried Clarice to a cot inside. He put his hand in the water jug and lizards scurried out.
He scooped the rancid water into his mouth, now caked with dust. Hank spit up then scooped more of the foul water for Clarice who drank it without complaint. Sated to the degree that they could now talk, Hank and Clarice lay down out of exhaustion next to each other. They held hands.
“Now what?” Clarice asked.
Sometime that night Hank thought he’d heard a noise and saw a man standing in the dark.
A tall Indian with long grey hair lit a lantern. He held it high over Clarice.
“You look like that movie star I used to see in the pictures,” Samoza said.
“I’m her,” Clarice said.
“Was Victor Mature a nice man?”
“Not to me, he wasn’t. I called him Victor Manure.”
“Come, let’s go. The night is good for flying.”
Samoza carried Clarice as they walked to the bluff up along a steep ledge carved along the volcanic shards of the pillar. Samoza then disappeared into a cave. His torch lit the cave and inside was a large pool of green water that glowed in the dark. He lit several other torches and the cavern became yellow.
“Just like I remember it,” Hank said.
“You were young then,” Samoza said smiling. “Let’s go swimming.”
Samoza disrobed and laughed as he dove in, his long silver hair now wet and draped over his shoulders. He disappeared under the water and came up next to Clarice, who dove into the water like a sprite. She felt the water’s warmth and was immediately rejuvenated.
“So soothing, so peaceful,” she smiled. “Thank you for this gift, Samoza. I feel young again.”
Samoza’s face began to turn much older. His voice rebounded off the cave walls.
“Cona zundi, viventi obscutum, amoros, oblotti,” Samoza called out loudly.
“What’s he saying?” Clarice asked.
“He’s preparing us for flying,” Hank said.
“Suppose he makes a mistake and we end up a rabbit or lizard or something running around the desert,” Clarice said, not trying to hide her fear.
“Clarice, I’ll be flying with you.”
“Where will be come out?”
“Back to where we started.”
“Well, I’ve come this far…”
Samoza’s eyes turned from black to red and his friendly wise face transformed to a mask of dark stone.
“Today, we shall go to the sky,” Samoza breathed softly, his breath smelled like gunpowder.
Cymbals crashed and vibrations shook the cavern.
Hank was thrashing, then swimming in thick dark air. He seemed to reach every distance easily though he could not feel his arms and legs. A thick burning sensation entered his nostrils. He was now flying above the earth unbound by gravity. Hank flew off toward the moon at high speed and then felt pressure from Jupiter’s enormous gravity. Hank struggled for breath and came awake with a snore.
It was sunrise and already the heat was burning down on his head. He was sitting in the desert, bone weary and naked. His chest was heavy. In front of him Clarice was dancing naked in a circle, kicking up dust, singing “Starlight” to herself. Hank rubbed his eyes.
“Hank, dearest,” said Clarice, humming a tune. “Isn’t this wonderful?”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” he said.
“Nothing will ever be the same.”
Clarice’s feckless spinning kicked up dust all over Hank, who began to laugh. “We’re not far from home. We can walk from here.”
He got up and took Clarice by the hand.
“Where are we going?”
“This requires some shade.”
The sweat poured off his head. Whatever love he possessed he was driven by passion. He poured it all into Clarice’s pliant body lying under him. Clarice’s eyes were no longer empty. Her smile was slight when she kissed, and to Hank it was the softest kiss he’d ever known.
Michael Shandrick is a published journalist, biographer, poet, and essayist. His short and feature-length screenplays are in circulation, as are his plays.