Freddie Pepperlyn got the idea looking at a travelogue on TV, three men and one woman in an oversized dugout canoe on a small river aiming for the Amazon, the water around them burgeoning with flesh eaters of all kinds. All kinds. Crocks or ‘gators or caiman, or whatever they had down there that grew tails long as houses, and then the piranha like an army of friggin’ fire ants. Bet they could get her to screw all day, he thought, if they threatened to throw her over the side, and her big enough, proud enough, all woman right down to her goddamn toes. In a pair of beat-up and ragged denim shorts she had hips that caught onto his eyes like his own personal clamps, as if they had his name on them: Freddie’s stuff, they said. Her secrets were fingers away. Oh, he could smell her, the bends in her, the dips, the fade-a-ways to you-know-what.
The aroma was magic and he remembered someone saying once a long time ago it was the essence of life itself, that down-in aroma, that not-ever-letting-go smell. And he bet she couldn’t even swim, not a stroke. That’s all it would take, a non-swimming non-fucker who suddenly meets life head on, right where she couldn’t walk away from it.
He wouldn’t even have to practice at all, just trigger the ultimatum out in the middle of the lake, a full mile if an inch; fuck or swim, baby. Bongo!
Shake the canoe. Bongo! Bongo! Make her take her clothes off and neatly fold them and hand them to him as evidence legal enough for even a NOW-biased court. Bongo! Bongo! Bongo! Make her peel her sweet little panties off like she was stripping the skin off a banana, and the moonlight playing her golden as a goddess, knowing what shadow is and what shadow does. If she threatened to scream, he’d tip the canoe over, letting her have her way, down in the lily weeds thick and strong as webs of wire. Steel spiders, he thought, and loved the image he had created for himself, feeling the magic of it spinning wildly out of hand. Steel spiders. Goddamn!
Bongo! Bongo! Bongo! Bongo!
Get a chick old enough and it would be a lot safer than screwing around with kids and hoping they’d keep their mouths shut afterwards and not having to tell them his phony made-up buddy had taken pictures of them pulling down their jeans or taking it in their mouths down in the vacant foundation where he’d promised them model planes like a camouflaged Spitfire with real spent .22 shells for exhaust ports or an original set of old Lionels from a great collector “who died just last week and left them to me and loved doing what you do only now he’s dead and can’t do it anymore.” Stroke ‘em any way you can, Freddie. Like that Havendarp kid. He could be a winner for a long while if he kept his mouth shut. And the Bogstrom kid who had no fears, it seemed, down behind the old vacant house and again right under the porch with Freddie’s mother hanging out the laundry right above them and the kid waiting for his model planes. Tough luck, kid!
Leeanna was her name. He found that out from Hazel, who worked the diner counter, who liked the come-on look in Freddie’s eyes, the way it used to be for her.
Freddie had seen this piece at the diner. “She lives back of the fire station, Freddie. I guess she’s 20 or 21 and works for the doctors in that medical center on Garrison.”
Her smile was wider. “She looks hot, don’t she, Freddie? That’s the way I used to look.” Hazel had a way of moving that said age hadn’t taken hold of her, not really. She was live as an open electrical socket, her lips red and wet, nipples almost black under thin blouses, clutches of black hair alive under her arms he’d seen that one time. They still made him shiver, monuments to something only women owned. They made him shake his head, think the lively thoughts.
“You’re not done yet, Hazel.” Said it, he did, like a hot fudge sundae being propped on the counter with all old goodies, the cherry right up on top. “You got lots of rocks in your crib. You ain’t shot off all your rocks, not yet.” The old witch’d grasp any promise so he hung it there, a fat worm dangled for a fancy trout heading upstream.
“I’ll point you out to her real cozy, Freddie. Real cozy. That’s what friends are for, ain’t that the truth. She’s Eddie Bogstrom’s cousin. He has that little plumbing place off the square.” His hand fell across her wrist as warm as a promise. Freddie knew about Eddie Bogstrom and it made him think about Bogstrom’s kids, Bobby, smooth as peaches, behind the vacant house, under the porch more than once.
Leeanna came into the diner late one night, ordered a hamburger trilby and a coffee. Hazel said,
“Gee, Leeanna, that’s what Freddie over there just had.”
Hazel’s nod was at Freddie who had heard every word, who kept his eyes on Leeanna’s eyes, who didn’t let them wander like he wanted to.
“Freddie, this is Leeanna. She works at the medical place on Garrison. Leeanna, this is Freddie, an old friend of mine. Say hi.”
“Didn’t I see you down the beach one day,” Freddie said. Right on it, baby.
“I don’t have much time for the beach.” Her voice was smooth, her jugs were good-sized jugs, he could tell, and she had juice cool skin, making him tremble. He wondered if she detected it.
“Maybe it was on the lake, down by Stanton’s boathouse where they have rentals. I go there a lot.” Don’t waste any time, he thought. If she didn’t pick it up, he’d try again.
“Not the lake either. I don’t swim very well at all.” A dimple sat the corner of her mouth. He swore she was winking.
“I tell you, Leeanna, nothing’s like a canoe ride on a quiet night, the moon bouncing off your soul, loons crying like they lost their mother, the lake like a pane of glass. Once, as far away as you can get, I smelled lilies from the cove by the old icehouse.” The old shovel felt good in his hands. Goddamn!
It did it. First there was a night walk holding hands, his hard-on crabbing his walk, her saying little. He kissed her once, lightly, when he really wanted to toss his whole tongue right down her throat. He knew she felt his rod against her. Handing her a compliment, he figured. She’d understand, her nature to understand such things. All women knew. Even Hazel knew.
The third time they were in the canoe, middle of the lake, the crescent moon barely rising over the hill. Her legs were absolutely friggin’ fabulous stretched out in front of her, plopped in the middle of the canoe and facing him, her short shorts creased properly where they ought to be, molded in place alive. She had great tits. He couldn’t wait.
“Leeanna,” he said, “I’m trying to be a gentleman, but I can’t make it. I got to have you tonight. Tonight you do it for me or I’ll throw you right over the side of this boat. It’s easy, kid. All you got to do is screw or swim, and you ain’t too good at swimming, but I bet you’re a great piece. Am I right?” He was ready for her, luminous in the faint light, the elegant legs so fabulous he couldn’t take his eyes off them.
“You’d really do that, Freddie, throw me in if I didn’t do it for you? It didn’t have to be like this.” Her eyes were enormous, full of expressions he couldn’t read, like they were going right through him. Her jugs were going to pop out. “Maybe we could have done it in a few months, when I’d know you better, me waiting for the right guy.”
“That’s the way it is, kid. Screw or swim.” He was thinking of the piranha again and the big chick in the canoe with the guys. What did they do when they camped for a night?
Her voice didn’t come oozing out of fright. “Freddie, I told you, I don’t swim, terrified of the water, almost drowned once.” On the sides of the canoe her hands had stiffened. Her eyes were bigger. Her jugs were bigger. A button, he knew, had popped off her shirt. The moon was working on her face; the lips so edible, ajar, beautifully breathless.
“You can start by taking them shorts off, kid. I got to get a look at you.” Those legs were the highway to heaven and back.
“What if I don’t, Freddie? You’ll really let me drown? What’ll people say?” She was a cool kid. You had to see that.
“Nobody knows you’re with me, kid. It’s screw or swim. Simple.” For punctuation, he aimed the paddle at her.
“In the canoe? Out in the open?” In the middle of the canoe, perfectly balanced, she stood up.
“Right here, kid, or over you go. Get them shorts off. And don’t rock the boat or you’ll be over your head before you know it. No bottom out here, what they tell me.”
In pale light from a crescent moon, and a sky faintly blue, she stripped her shorts off, slipped them down her thighs. Her panties, nothing more than a shoelace, came next. At her crotch the darkness grabbed him with a mythic loveliness and want. His mouth watered, a breeze touched him faintly, the moon froze on the hilltop, and her breasts came out of her bra as though unfolded from heaven itself.
For that split moment, in the middle of the lake, the moon sharing its secrets, she was the most fantastic creature he had ever seen.
“Come up here real careful,” he said, his voice heavy and husky. “We got some pre-game stuff we’re gonna do.” He started to unbuckle his pants.
Leeanna Matterly, non-swimmer, apparent virgin, slipped over the side of the canoe and was gone. A faint ripple was all that was remained, from a full 10-rated dive off the low board. The handful of clothes had gone with her.
She’d have to break surface soon, he thought, hoping she wouldn’t scream at him, waking up the lakeside. No other boats were around. No lights on the shore. No more ripples in the water.
Five minutes later he knew she wasn’t coming up. The woman in the dugout canoe, the one with the great hips, came back to him again. Piranha and crocks and ‘gators teemed in the darkness below the surface of the lake. In his chest came the ultimate pounding of his heart. This he hadn’t bargained for.
Later, cautiously, he beached the canoe below Stanton’s Boathouse where he had earlier loosened it from a chain line. He replaced it on the bracket he’d taken it from. With no witnesses, he slipped into darkness. Maybe it was better with kids, he thought. They never came off this way, didn’t have the guts she had. What the hell, she might stay down for a year if caught in the weeds.
First thing in the morning a loud knock sounded at the front door, official, frightening.
“Freddie,” his mother yelled from the kitchen, “will you see what that racket is.”
Freddie Pepperlyn opened the door to three policemen, two uniformed and one in civilian clothes. They walked into the front hall. Freddie’s heart thumped.
The plain-clothes cop said, “You Freddie Pepperlyn?”
“Yeah, sure. What’s going on?”
“That’s what we’d like to know,” the plain clothes said. “You mind telling us where you were last night?”
They couldn’t have found her already, Freddie thought, unless some fisherman spotted her in the weeds. “Just hanging around, that’s all. I hang around a lot.”
“Yuh, we know that, Freddie. You down at the lake last night?”
How should he handle this? Nobody had seen them, he was sure. Nobody. No boats or canoes on the pond. His ass was covered. He’d only known her for a few days. What the hell!
“You know a girl named Leeanna Matterly, Freddie?” The plainclothes guy was a hard looker. A black spot sat on one corner of his mouth, like a cigar sat there half its life and spun loose of itself. The wrinkles in his face were harsh as old washboards, as deep. “You know her, don’t you, Freddie?” Searchlight eyes bored straight at him.
“Sure I do. Had a couple of dates with her.” Keep the tenses right, he thought, in line with everything. “Nothing real serious. Seems like a great kid. I was with her two nights ago. We were walking. Something happen I don’t know about?”
That’s it, be cool, he thought. They probably spend most of their time in traffic court.
“You ever go on the lake in canoes down there at Stanton’s?” The black spot was still on the cop’s lip. Freddie prayed it was cancer beginning to show itself.
“A few times. A couple of weeks ago the last time. Why, what’s happened?” Freddie was thinking if he stared at the black spot the cop might notice it and move on. He thinks he’s making me uncomfortable, the shithead.
“Well, Freddie,” plainclothes said, “I’m Detective Hardy, and Hazel at the diner says you’ve been dating Leeanna recently, trying to get in her pants. Is that a fact?” The black spot actually moved when he asked a question.
“There’s something wrong with that, Mr. Hardy? You saying you never tried? That ain’t your thing?” Give it back to them, cool, don’t give ‘em a bone. He could feel his mother standing in the doorway to the kitchen and Hardy had nodded at her. The top lip covered the black spot when he pursed his lips.
The eternal white apron, he figured, was wrung in her hands. “What’s the matter, Freddie? What’s going on?” She was shaking.
“Beats me, Mom. They haven’t said anything, ‘cept I’ve been dating a girl they know.” One thing he was sure of, he couldn’t turn around and look at her and that way she had of looking clear down through him to the soles of his feet. Since he was a kid.
“Freddie,” she said, the way she had said it a thousand times, something crawling in her voice with arms and legs on it and hands that went searching through his body, pulling at him, always pulling at him.
“Jeezus, Mom, I don’t know!” Don’t turn around, he said to himself. Do not turn around! He knew she’d be leaning against the doorjamb, like a laundry bag ready to crumple, all wrinkled and empty. Done it a thousand times, she had. Now it was in her voice.
The cop Hardy, the cop with cancer on his lip, the cop with an ugly black spot that’d make any girl throw up, was staring at him again. “When’s the last time you saw Leeanna, Freddie? The very last time?”
“A couple of days ago, I guess. Yuh, a couple of days. What the hell is going on?” Behind him he knew his mother was laundry again.
“Well, the trash pick-up worked this morning in the parks and one a summer helper found some clothes at the edge of the lake, on the beach, sopping wet, Leeanna’s clothes, her library card in a dungaree’s pocket.”
“What the hell does that mean to me?” What the hell is going on, he said to himself, seeing again the short shorts tight in her crotch, coming down off those hips, the black bush of her crotch? Immediately he saw Hazel’s arm pits the way he last caught sight of them. What the hell, this has nothing to do with him. Relax, he said to himself. Relax.
Black Spot came right back at him. “Know a kid named Bobby Bogstrom, Freddie?”
Oh, shit, he thought, the kid behind the vacant house, the kid who loved model planes, got his pants down so damn easy he was sure he’d come back for more.
“Don’t think I know him, Mr. Hardy. What’s he got to do with finding Leeanna’s clothes by the lake?”
“Funny thing about that, Freddie. He’s Leeanna’s godchild, says you abused him one day behind the old Stott place, and under your porch. Says he told Leeanna a few weeks ago, the only one, and now she’s missing and her clothes have been found at the lake and we figure something’s happened to her. She did not come home last night and the kid told his mother what happened and she came down to see us. Someone said they saw you with Leeanna last night, going down toward the lake.”
Freddie heard his mother gasp and saw one uniformed cop rush to her side.
“Freddie, you didn’t,” she said, as she folded empty and wrinkled into the arms of the policeman.
This is crazy, Freddie thought. “I might have seen her for a minute, but she was wearing a pair of short shorts.”
“You have to come down to the station, Freddie. We’ve got to do a lot of talking. Find out a few things. Where you hang out. What you do when you hang out. Who’s with you when you hang out.” For the first time Freddie noticed his thick eyebrows and then realized the wrinkles in his face were deep as ruts and how every so often he bit at the black spot.
“I didn’t do anything to her.” His mother was out of it behind him and the cop was fanning her face. Freddie could feel her eyes on the soles of his feet. Something was falling apart.
“Well, Freddie, there’s the kid and his story, and Leeanna’s missing. Doesn’t look too good from where I’m standing.”
The goddamn black spot was out there on his lip big as an ace of spades. If it ain’t cancer, it’s got to be something, Freddie was thinking. Would serve him right.
One cop was still fanning his mother as the other cop put handcuffs on Freddie’s wrists. The detective with the black spot was walking out the door, across the porch, pointing his finger over one shoulder, pointing toward the street and the cruiser parked at the curb, motioning them away from the house.
Three days later, in a motel room about fifty miles away, looking at the news for the third day in a row on television, the swimmer nonpareil, splendid diver, possible virgin, schemer and plotter, vengeful godmother Leeanna Matterly figured Freddie Pepperlyn, child abuser, womanizer, terrorist, had stewed just about enough in learning his lesson under a genuine threat of homicide, and then some. Maybe this was just the beginning for him. There was a lot of catching up to do, for sure.
She decided it was time to go home.
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