When Savvy Kane walked into my shop, I was wrestling the rotted muffler from a Maxima.
It’s not a pretty job. Rust flakes, road crud, frozen bolts. Cursing is involved.
As I gave a final twist, the customer door swung open.
I looked again.
My jaw dropped.
The muffler dropped.
It weighed thirty pounds, and every one of them landed on my right boot.
Her name was Savannah, but when I’d met her in a biker bar on the south side of Owensboro, Kentucky, all the Harley boys had called her Savvy.
It wasn’t hard to see why. She didn’t pay for a drink all night. And she drank a lot.
Me too. Back then.
“What the hell,” I said, stepping into the customer area.
“Some greeting,” she said.
“Close the door,” I said.
She stepped close, planning a hug until she saw the grime on my coveralls. I could smell her hair. No change: almost like apples, but not quite.
“You look the same,” I said.
“You don’t.” She took my face in both hands, brushing a fleck of something from my forehead. As she studied me I remembered her eyes: They were a gray that could look blue, green, brown, or nearly black, depending on the light. Depending on her mood.
Savvy thumbed my right cheek. “What happened?”
“Life. And lots of it.”
She shook her head. “Death.”
“Some of that, too.”
Her thumb was still on my cheek when the door whooshed and Charlene walked in.
Savvy did not freeze. She stroked my cheek again, dropped her hand, turned, squinted, paused a long beat. “Darlene?” she finally said.
“Charlene,” I said. Quickly.
“Well knock me over,” Savvy said.
“Savannah Kane,” Charlene said, then curled her lip. “Savvy.”
“Are you two…” Savvy said.
“Hell yes,” I said. Quickly.
“How sweet,” Savvy said, then faced Charlene. “Come to keep an eye on your man?”
“On my business,” Charlene said. “I own the place.”
“Well,” I said.
“Or may as well,” Charlene said. “I hold the note.”
“True enough,” I said.
“My my,” Savvy said. “Business and pleasure.”
We stood there. From the work area, where I ought to be, came an Eagles song on the classic rock station. Then the whir of an air wrench as Floriano Mendes, my friend and only employee, took something off a Honda Pilot.
Savvy said, “Can you spare Mister Goodwrench here for a cup of coffee?”
“Pretty busy,” I said.
“Too busy to chat with an old Barnburner who’s got a problem?”
Barnburner. Savvy’d said the magic word, and Charlene knew it as well as I did. Charlene hit me with the ice-blue eyes, a stare that cut deeper than words could. Then she turned and walked to her desk. Didn’t say a goddamn thing.
Didn’t have to.
* * *
A long time ago, in a nineteen-dollar-a-night hotel room outside Paducah, Kentucky, Savannah Kane and I had swapped life stories.
She was born and raised in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. Her father made nozzles for high-quality pressure washers and did well enough so the toughest choice his daughter ever faced was jumping or dressage. She majored in drunk at the University of Virginia, put together a rich girl’s cocaine-and-vodka habit. She never sniffed or drank any more than her friends did—but after college, when the friends dumped the cocaine and got jobs, Savvy didn’t. Couldn’t. That’s when her story turned ugly, the way they do.
“Nice little place,” she said now, looking around the coffee shop. A girl on hidden speakers sang a slow song. Customers diddled with laptops.
“I like Dunkin’ Donuts better,” I said, “but this is closer. Where have you been? Why are you back?”
She laughed some. “You still don’t beat around the bush. I remember how much I liked that.”
I said nothing.
“I stayed put for seven years,” she said, “right where you and that weird little guy put me.”
“Yes! Such a great name, how’d I forget it?”
“So you’ve been in Greensboro this whole time?”
“North Carolina.” She said it Noff Caro-LYNE, exaggerating the accent. “And don’t sound so skeptical. I grew fond of the place, believe it or not. You were right about its being the perfect city to get lost in.”
“Moe was right,” I said. “Greensboro was his call. What did you do there?”
“I did just as you recommended. As Moe recommended, sorry. Some of this, some of that. McJobs. I waited tables in chain restaurants, stocked shelves at Staples, sold sofas in big furniture stores. Never hung around long enough to get funneled into management.” She sipped her coffee, a fancy thing with whipped cream and a cinnamon stick. “Not long enough to get close to anyone.”
I sipped too, looked her in the eye. “I don’t believe you.”
“Asshole!” She hissed it, slapping her coffee to the table.
“It’s not in you to work a square job,” I said. “Maybe for a month, for giggles. No longer than that. You need action. When you can’t find it, you make it.”
“If you’re so sure about that, why’d you help me run in the first place?”
“You were a Barnburner.” My AA group, the ones who saved my life. Savvy’d been a member of the group for a while. It’s where she met Charlene. “I help Barnburners. No questions asked.”
“You’re still running around with that crowd? They must all be a hundred and ten. What kind of super-sexy problems do you solve? Canasta cheating scandals? Misplaced hearing aids?”
I took it, both hands flat on the table. On the hidden speakers, a boy now sang a slow, sad song just like the one before it. Only with a higher voice.
Savvy hadn’t changed. She was smarter than you and didn’t mind letting you know it. She’d whip you up and down trying to get her way. But if you gave in, she lost respect and dropped you as whatever you were to her: friend, co-conspirator, lover.
In her bedroom, I remembered, I’d wanted to do everything, tell everything, feel everything in a way I hadn’t known before or since.
I felt her hand on mine and snapped to, pissed that she could still read my mind. I was a simpleton to her, always had been.
“Why are you back?” I said. “And since it’s been seven years, maybe you can tell me why you needed to disappear.”
“Why’s your face red? What were you thinking about just now, Conway?”
“Why’d you need to leave all of a sudden? You wouldn’t tell me then. I didn’t force it. You seemed scared. But it’s seven years on.”
Savvy cut her eyes left and right, then put both hands in her lap so she could lean way in. With her chin nearly touching the table she said, “I don’t remember you being much of a political creature, but you do know y’all have a gubernatorial election a week from today. Right?”
“And you know Betsy Tinker has been a lead-pipe cinch from the get-go?”
I said nothing.
“Name ring a bell?” she said. “The sweetheart of Massachusetts? The money, the senator hubby?”
“He died. She took his seat. More money than God.”
“Right. The whole world loves Betsy Tinker. Doesn’t matter what she says, doesn’t matter what her plans are. After this clown of a governor, the one who’s on his way out, voters want somebody uncontroversial, somebody nice. Three weeks ago, the polls had Tinker up twenty-six among likely voters. Do you pay attention at all, Conway?”
“Not to politicians. I keep hoping they’ll go away if I ignore them.”
“Betsy Tinker’s not going anywhere except the corner office. Thomas Wilton, her opponent, is a nothingburger, the Washington Generals.”
I smiled. Leave it to Savvy to throw in a Harlem Globetrotters reference. “For a North Carolina gal, you know plenty about Massachusetts politics.”
“Tinker’s lead has been shrinking,” Savvy said. “That’s natural. Nobody wins by twenty-six, not even in Massachusetts. However…” she leaned forward even more “… there’s a problem.”
“There are, I’m given to understand, issues that could put a very big dent in Tinker’s lead.”
“Such as me.” Her eyes danced as she said it.
“I have a history with Tinker’s running mate, the next lieutenant governor,” she said. “He’s a business guy, a charger. He was supposed to grab the blue-collar votes while Tinker focused on Morrissey Boulevard and Newton and the Berkshires. Any idea who he is, my strapping, not-as-dumb-as-he-wants-you-to-think friend?”
I said nothing.
“Thought not. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about the second name on the ticket. Ever heard of Bert Saginaw?”
“Made a mint in fences,” I said. “Built himself a palace right here in Framingham.”
She mock-applauded me for finally knowing something. Like I said, she’s smarter than you and doesn’t mind if you know it.
I sipped. “What about him?”
Half a smile played across Savvy’s lips. “Bert Saginaw has a little John Edwards problem. And I’m Rielle Hunter.” She read my eyes, sighed, put both hands on mine. “I asked you and Moe to disappear me seven years ago because I was pregnant with what the tabloids call a love child.”
Copyright © 2012 by Steve Ulfelder