The meeting with his attorney, an expert in the gray confusion of libel and character defamation left Ron Jamison with a miserable headache and an acid stomach. They had discussed possible defenses, once the next issue of Homecoming hit the stands, and the moment the door closed behind the lawyer Ron searched his center desk drawer for the big jar of antacids.
A series of vicious dismemberment fantasies involving Jane Fonda and the cretin who mailed the wrinkled, unspeakably stained manuscript from a small town in Oregon would undoubtedly pull them into court.
As Homecoming's editor in chief, Ron would accept full responsibility. The writer of the piece would be protected at all costs from involvement in the lawsuit.
It was the only way Ron knew to keep from meeting anyone who subscribed to, let alone wrote for, the nauseous rag. One of the personal horrors he lived with was the fact thirty thousand demented souls paid money to have the thing delivered to their homes.
Ron envisioned an endless row of slime covered rocks, Homecoming jutting from beneath each one like a partially exposed slug. It was his vision of "home delivery" of the magazine. Meeting subscribers was only one of the personal horrors he had to live with. So long as none of them ever tracked him to the office to hand deliver something, he rated it a minimal one.
Ron was quite adept at quantifying horror.
Though it was late in the afternoon, he stayed in the office. There was a phone call to deal with. While he slowly chewed three antacid tablets, Ron wondered who owned the Cora Sue, hoped they loved the forty foot cabin cruiser as much as he had.
Lord, but he did miss her, though his misery admittedly had begun aboard Cora Sue. It hadn't been the boat's fault.
Ron answered his phone on the second ring. "Time to talk, Cap," the familiar voice hissed. From somewhere just beyond the voice diesel engines throbbed, and Ron shuddered at the sound. "Time we decided about the current batch of submissions, right?"
"Sure, Haynes," Ron said. "It's time we talked."
"Right on, Cap," the voice said. "Let's get down to it. Now, you know we got to find space for what that guy Hawkins sent us, the piece about candles."
Ron felt a burn in his throat, hoped he wouldn't throw up. The candles Hawkins wrote about were created with a flame thrower. It was particularly beautiful, the article noted, when the victims lived long enough to run awhile. Especially at night.
"And the guy from Minneapolis, what's his name?"
"Knutson," Ron prompted.
"Yeah, right. Go with that story too. But send somebody up to get pictures."
An illustrated Knutson was too much. "We can't run photographs of tanned human skin, Haynes," Ron pleaded, knowing his token resistance was futile. "We just can't."
"Bullshit," Haynes snapped. "I seen something like that in a history book once, about some Nazi bitch. Old lady Myers, the librarian where I grew up, tried to keep that book locked up. When I was eight I picked the lock." The sound of Haynes' nostalgic chuckle sent chills up Ron's spine. "I stole me that book, Cap. Ain't never forgot them pictures."
"It's not the same," Ron argued pointlessly. "This isn't a history book."
"Cap, just get the pictures," Haynes said. "Let the Jew lawyer worry about what you can and can't publish." There was a pause. Ron tried not to hear the diesels. "Tell you what, Cap," Haynes offered. "If you still feel funny about Knutson, I can come see you, talk it out face to face."
"No!" Ron clamped his eyes shut as though Haynes were already in the office. "Don't. I'll send a photographer."
Haynes laughed out loud, a sound that reminded Ron of something wet, dragging across concrete. "If Knutson's smart enough to get them hides back to the World, he deserves a chance to show 'em off. Right?"
Behind closed eyes Ron nodded. "Right," he choked.
"Right on, Cap."
There was more. Much more. The phone calls always came toward the middle of the month, and Haynes never failed to demonstrate an intimate knowledge of what was in the stack of filthy manila envelopes Ron avoided touching whenever possible. Ron listened, taking notes when he was told to, until Haynes hung up. Or whatever it was he did.
Homecoming's masthead said the magazine was "by and for Viet Nam veterans." It should have read "by and for any blood crazed emotional cripple who can afford a typewriter." More than anything else in the world, Ron wanted to kill Haynes.
But he'd already done that once.
Ron's evening routine hadn't varied since he'd established Homecoming. In three years he couldn't remember more than four consecutive hours of rest, uninterrupted by nightmares or worse, a sudden knowing he wasn't alone in the dark.
The only way he slept at all was by being quite drunk before nightfall. Fumbling in his desk drawer for the fifth of bourbon by the antacids, Ron poured three inches into a tumbler. He carried the drink to the window to watch the sunset on the city skyline.
Once he'd thought sunsets were entrancing, lovely things. Now Ron dreaded them, bought office space in the highest building in town, where altitude might keep the dark at bay an extra few minutes.
A model boat rested on the window sill, its lines similar to those of Cora Sue. Ron liked to look at it and pretend there was a way to escape his torment. As the sun grew large and red he ran a shaky finger along the toy's sleek lines and despite himself, began to recall how it all started.
Cora Sue had been anchored on a Mississippi River sandbar, just outside a Northern Missouri city. Ensconced on the sun deck, Ron watched his two companions climb into the dinghy for a beer run, back to town.
"Don't get in trouble out here by yourself, Ronnie," one of them called. Grinning, she snatched her bikini top down and shook her naked breasts at him. They were stridently white against the rest of her lovely tanned self, the nipples pink, rigid, and so pretty. "We'll play some more later."
Ron settled lower in his lounger, sipped whiskey and water and thought of the wonderful combinations he'd worked the women into earlier. Party girls who hung around marinas seldom had a problem with anything his imagination conjured, so long as there was free dope, free booze and free food. That was one of the things lottery winners got to learn.
The many lessons lottery winners learned could be summed up quite succinctly: money did make everything better. A creative accountant kept most of the money from the IRS, while Ron spent his time drifting on the river.
He pulled the brim of his ball cap lower against the sunset. Above the brim were the words:
If you don't think money buys happiness
You're shopping in the wrong places.
Beached high on the sandbar, his boat rocked easily in the wake of a towboat shoving barges of coal south, toward New Orleans. Ron dozed, thinking maybe he'd head that way, once summer was over.
When a shadow passed over the sun, Ron opened his eyes, stretched, and glanced down river. Shards of fog blew across the water, and as he watched, the hazy wisps quickly joined together to form a low gray wall. Ron sat up straight to point a set of binoculars at the shifting nebulous curtain.
The fog bank grew until it stretched from one bank of the river to the other. It made him think of movie special effects, where a day's worth of clouds were made to scud across a screen in seconds.
Soon the town was entirely hidden, the fog crawling relentlessly closer to the sandbar and the Cora Sue. Suddenly alarmed, Ron left his chair, stepped to the boat's cockpit and turned the ignition key. The moment the twin engines fired he threw them into reverse at full power.
Cora Sue scraped herself loose from the sandbar and lurched backward, pitching Ron against the wheel. The thick impenetrable cloud enveloped the boat as he shifted to neutral, the sandbar disappearing as quickly and totally as a magician's prop. Ron swore at the strange haze, angry he'd taken so long to evade it.
Going back to the sandbar was better than taking a chance on drifting into a string of barges. Cora Sue would be crushed wreckage before a towboat pilot even suspected he'd hit something. Ron shoved the gearshift forward, bracing himself for a jar when the boat rebeached herself, but Cora Sue pushed serenely into the fog. "Fucking current," Ron muttered, wondering which direction the river had turned the boat.
He flipped the lever that released the anchor, let it fall free until the chain stopped rattling. Shutting off the engines, he tried to convince himself he was still close to the sandbar. It was permanent enough to be marked on river charts, and towboats wouldn't come near the shallow water.
His drink had turned to melted ice, and Ron pitched the contents of the tumbler overboard, then slipped down a small ladder to the boat's galley. Opening the refrigerator to drop fresh ice in the glass, he topped it off with four inches of bourbon.
Ron sat at the dining table and picked up a magazine, hoping to take his mind off his situation. But the dirty gray fog, pressing just outside the port holes looked tangible as concrete. The cozy galley seemed confining as a coffin. Ron tossed the magazine aside and climbed back to the upper deck.
Low setting sun made the fog faintly luminous, but real night was close. Ron turned the boat's running lights on and while he was at the console, thumbed the switch on his marine radio. Towboats, negotiating the river by radar, would chatter mindlessly to one another, nervous as old maids in a doctor's office. If they knew he was near the sandbar they'd give it a wider berth.
None of the channels carried any boat-to-boat conversation. Ron pressed the button on his microphone and said, "This is motor yacht Cora Sue, anchored in fog near the sandbar at the mile 32 marker. Is anyone receiving me?"
There was static across the band for a few seconds, then a voice crackled harshly, "Big Mother to Cora Sue or whoever you are. Break silence again and I'll steam out there and personally break your ass."
"Fuck you," Ron said, without pressing the button on the mike.
Tow boats were like truckers with their CB's, acting as if the whole marine radio band was their personal property. And who the hell was "Big Mother" anyway? Boats were supposed to identify themselves, not hide behind goofy nicknames like CB handles.
There was something familiar about the phrase "Big Mother," but Ron didn't want to think about that.
Soon the sun was completely gone. Cora Sue's red and green running lights hazed in the fog, like mood lights in a smoky bar. The fog had looked chill and cool as it rolled in, but sweat rivulets slipped down Ron's spine. It was unbearably warm and humid inside the fog.
The river's silence and the radio's empty static built an awful sense of isolation. Ron pressed the microphone's transmit button and said again, "This is the motor yacht Cora Sue, anchored at marker 32, near the sandbar. Can anyone hear me?"
As he released the talk button the familiar voice was already squawking an answer. "...brained son of a bitch, don't key that transmitter again without a good reason. Maintain radio silence unless communication is absolutely necessary."
Ron stared at the speaker. "Radio silence" was a term from a place he never thought about. The radio crackled to life again. "Big Mother this is Small Pup Two." another voice said. "I know where that guy is. Request permission to check him out."
"Permission granted," the voice of Big Mother concurred. "Lock and load before you close."
"Understood, Big Mother," the second voice said. "He's about half a click up river. I'll talk to you again when we've closed on him."
Clicks. Small Pup Two. Lock and load. They were words Ron hadn't heard in years, in a lifetime. He took a big swallow of whiskey and leaned back in the chair.
Lighting a cigarette, he puffed on it nervously and tried to manufacture a believable explanation for looney radio signals. Other boats, stranded in the fog, their pilots bored, could be putting him on. Or the radio might have malfunctioned and picked up a military frequency. Maybe the Coast Guard was holding night exercises on the river.
What Ron wouldn't allow, what wasn't possible, was he'd turned into one of those terminal nut cases who ran babbling to V. A. counselors about flashbacks and homemade, personal tragedy. What he'd done a long time ago had needed doing. He'd never doubted it for a moment.
Still, even if he didn't want to, Ron most assuredly remembered Small Pup Two. He closed his eyes, pretended the wetness on his face was only condensing fog. Groping blindly for the drink, he gulped bourbon until the glass was empty, didn't open his eyes until he stopped the tears skidding down his cheeks.
There ought to be the sounds of passing towboats. Even if Ron didn't see them, their wake should rock Cora Sue, but she floated solid and stable as an island. Ron lurched back to the galley, weaving unsteadily. As he poured another drink he heard the thrum of big diesels.
Only one kind of boat in the world made that sound. The hand holding the glass shook, splashing bourbon onto Ron's shirt.
They were big fucking engines, big enough to be heard over a 50 caliber's rhythm and a staccato counterpoint from the bow mounted 20 millimeter. Throttles open, the twin diesels could raise a fifteen foot rooster tail behind a jungle green hull, but when they idled, like the ones drifting close to Cora Sue, they purred like God's own pussycat.
Ron took a military issue .45 caliber pistol from its hidden cabinet, slapped a clip in the handle and chambered a round. "Prob'ly some sorry pissant I used to work with, still jealous I won the lottery and got loose," he muttered to himself as he climbed back topside. A few rounds from the pistol would make them even sorrier.
The other boat, a Swift boat, built to navigate a shallow, muddy hell a world away from the Mississippi was very close now. "Hey Cap," a voice called out of the dark. "Time to talk, Cap."