“You go on ahead and wait in the car while I talk to Jake for a few minutes, and then we’ll go over to the coffee shop and have us a little supper.”
“Give me the keys!” Barb, an unlit cigarette between her teeth, held out her hand.
“Here you go,” Denny said.
Barb snatched the keys he offered and headed for the door.
“You might want to try those on the gray Chevvy parked over there. I don’t believe the Humvee uses GM keys, and I don’t want you stinking it up with your smoke.”
Denny watched her leave, and when he was sure she found the Impala Jake drove to Harrison, he walked back into the jail.
“Well, that was unusual.” Denny lumbered up to the bars on Jake’s cell, sat backwards on the chair Boy offered, and rested his arms on the chair back. “I’ve heard a few evangelists in my day, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any of ‘em claim that Jesus could improve IQ”
“I didn’t say that!” Jake, grinning sheepishly, stood up from his bunk to face his guest. “Did I?”
“You told her God loved her and could meet her deepest need. From where I sit, that means a radical elevation of her intelligence.” His entire body bounced with his now-familiar chuff-chuckle. “Gotta hand it to you, though, Bubba. You were mighty persuasive.”
“I didn’t convince her, though. I wish I’d handled it better. I have this sick feeling she’s going to leave here in worse shape mentally than when she came.” Serious again, he shook his head. “I should have explained better what happened to me.”
“Aw, it wasn’t your fault, Jake. There’s something goofy about the woman. I don’t trust her a bit, even about not seeing her boyfriend again. Maybe especially that. The thing is, we gotta bust you outa here so you can take care of your kids.”
Jake watched Denny staring down the hallway, thinking dark thoughts, judging by the furrows in his brow. He entertained a few depressing reflections of his own.
“What do you think she’s going to do?” Jake asked. “She says she wants me to come home so we can be a family again. But she hasn’t changed. Even I can figure that out. I can see us six months down the road with everything back the way it was, and that’s no good.” He scratched his itchy three-day beard with both hands.
“I thought we were a solid family at the time, but I know now she was running around on me before Mike ever showed up. What a sucker I was! Still am.”
He looked over at Denny and inwardly thanked him for not agreeing, at least not so he could hear him.
“I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out why she married me in the first place. I’m not saying I was all that mature, either, but I tried to be a good husband. I know I loved our kids.”
There it was again; the sour taste of failure. When he resumed his voice was thick. “I can’t believe that she ever really loved me or wanted to have a family.”
Denny still sat glowering down the corridor.
“Driving as much as I do,” Jake said, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I wonder, what did she want? Was it the money?”
Denny stood up and faced him at that remark. “Money? Is there that much money in the trucking business? I saw the house where Barb lives, and it’s real nice and all, but I thought maybe she was renting, or that it was Mike’s house.”
“Mike’s house?” Jake shook his head. “Hardly. He may think it is, but I have the deed to it.” He tried to recall happy times in the little Victorian on Cedar Street and he couldn’t remember one.
“Actually, the kind of trucking I do, as an owner-operator, pays well and I can support a family without too much trouble. But yes, there is some family money.”
He smiled at Denny’s raised eyebrows.
“We aren’t the Kennedys or anything, but we’re comfortable. When our parents died, Albert and I inherited both the ranch our grandparents had and a smaller spread where my dad farmed. Neither one of us has much interest in farming or ranching, so we sold the farm—good, rich bottom land between the Nebraska and Missouri rivers—and invested the money. When the kids came along I built a new house at the ranch, and that’s right along the Missouri River, too. Beautiful location, real ‘Old West’ feel to it. That’s where I live when I’m not out on a trip. We raise prime beef there—have a good man running it for us—and there’s a nice, steady income, plus freezers full of some of the best steak you’ve ever eaten. Do you like steak? I could have some flash-frozen and shipped to you…”
Denny waved the idea away. “We’ll get into that later. Finish your story.”
Jake went on, “Even before I went into trucking Barb insisted that we move back to Lincoln, to the house you saw, the one we had when we were first married. She hated it out there on the ranch, but she’s always been real interested in our investments and income. As I sit here thinking about it, I know it always made her mad that all of the estate is in a trust. She tried to figure out ways around it, but Al and I both wanted the bulk of the estate in long-term investments. He and I make decent money doing work we enjoy, and I think I’ve always known Barb would just as soon spend it on clothes and cars.”
“Doesn’t surprise me, now that I’ve met her, and it sure does clear up some stuff I’ve been wondering about.” Denny sat down again and looked Jake straight in the eye.
“She looks out for herself no matter what, that I picked up right away. You know, she never asked how you were doing? And the thing that seemed really odd to me was, she said her kids were at her mother’s house, but she never even told them—or her mother—she was flying off with me. She didn’t call anybody, just jumped in my rental car and we drove to the airport.”
Jake waited. Denny obviously needed to get something off his chest.
“I caught up with her when she pulled up in front of her house. She acted like she’d almost been expecting me, or somebody. She didn’t ask how you were, but she didn’t hesitate a bit when I told her what I wanted her to do, that we were going to fly back here and tell the truth so you could start moving toward clearing up the misunderstanding with Austin and all. She just grabbed a grocery bag of clothes and stuff from the back seat of her car, and away we went.”
He stood and began pacing in front of Jake’s cell, chewing the inside of his thumb while he thought aloud.
“Another thing I noticed, she didn’t sound all that fed up with Mike when I first talked to her. I gotta wonder, why the sudden change of heart where you’re concerned? I’m thinking maybe things aren’t going so great with the kids and she is looking for a way to let somebody else take care of them. They might be cramping her style.”
“You may be onto something,” Jake said. He felt his hair crawl as he listened to his friend sort through what he’d noted about Barbara.
With every observation Denny voiced, Jake’s life came into sharper focus, and he perceived with sickening clarity what his years of self-focus and detachment had done. His children, his marriage, his work—even his avoidance of spiritual matters—everything had centered on him and what he wanted.
“Aaagh, I probably said more than I should…” Denny stared at his feet.
“This isn’t the time to hold back. What else do you have?”
“All right, one more curious item, and then I’ll shut up about Barb. I don’t know what she looked like before, but she is thin, man. I mean, real thin. And her color is bad. Far as I know, and I’ve been with her all the time except when she went to the bathroom, she hasn’t eaten a bite all day. Just smokes and drinks coffee. I believe I’d look into that if I were you.”
For a few minutes, both men stood quietly. What a relief to have Denny here now. They’d only known each other for three days, and already they were comfortable with times of companionable silence.
Hearing what Denny had to say about Barb, Jake’s thoughts turned back to his children.
“I’m always concerned about Joey,” he mused aloud. “He’s the one who’s been physically abused. But what about Annie? My daughter has been through all this, too. I’m wondering about her. Who’s showing her how to be a nice young lady? She’ll be a teenager soon. A girl that age needs guidance, and I don’t think she’s learning the right things from her mother. Barb’s mom isn’t any help, either, I’m pretty sure of that. She and her friends are always running off to casinos. At least that’s how it was two years ago.”
Denny nodded, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Boys are tough. I figure, when boys are upset, they bang their heads on trees or kick rocks or something, but girls…girls stuff it all down inside their selves and end up being lousy mothers, like Barbie-doll.”
Jake stared at his unlikely friend and smiled grimly, thinking again how completely he had misjudged the man when they first met.
“Well, Old Wise One, you do have a way of clearing the smoke and penetrating the core of a thing, don’t you.”
“Yeah? Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to tell you to beat it.”
Denny grinned. “About time.”
“Yes it is. It’s well past time for me to do something about the welfare of my kids, Barb or no Barb. I have something to do—Someone to talk to,” Jake paused, waiting for his meaning to register on Denny’s face.
“I don’t know how yet,” he continued after Denny’s slight nod, “but since I don’t have time to take a course in prayer, I guess I’ll do what Poppy does and just talk to God like He’s sitting here with me. I guess he is. Right here, I mean.”
“Good. I’ll be praying, too,” Denny said. “You really were convincing with Barb, Jake. Like I said, you made a lot of sense. If I hadn’t given my life to Christ at the same time Poppy and Kate did, I’m sure I would have today, the way you spelled everything out.”
He couldn’t resist one last dig. “Almost as good as when Christina explained it all to all of us—Poppy, Kate and me.”
“Want me to tell you how sweetly she spelled it all out to me?” Jake asked, grinning.
“O man, that would be painful.” He walked away, shaking his head for as long as Jake could see him.