I always take him with a few grains of salt. Not too much. I mean, dude’s always been on the rotund side, and he’s got a heart condition, for Christ’s sake. But don’t take everything he tells you at face value. You just can’t. Don’t get me wrong: I love Bubba to death. Known him for almost ten years now. Together, we’ve caught rivers of fish, travelled the world, and even started our own construction business. He’s the type of dude you don’t mind loaning money, the sort of fellow you toss your housekeys and ask to feed your dog while you’re away, and he’s absolutely the type of dude you want at your back in a barfight. Still, when he called me one day and said he spent the afternoon on his front porch with a Playboy Bunny, I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Bullshit,” with the proper three syllables that such a statement truly deserves.
Of course, he starts swearing on his mama’s grave and Holy Jesus that he’s telling the truth. But come on! Dude lives in a one-stoplight town in the ass-crack of South Texas. Although the population sign says 3,435, I’m pretty sure three quarters of them are inmates at the prison, the town’s only employer. And my left butt cheek has more resemblance to Hugh Heffner’s mansion than his ratty old trailer. Even the word porch needs a few shakes of salt, to hell with his damn heart. Step is a more accurate description.
I’ll be damned if the ol’ boy didn’t prove me wrong. Again…
Before you start calling me a straight-up asshole, you’ve got to understand how we two met. Bubba and me, that is. I ain’t losing any sleep over what you may call me. I’ve been called worse. A lot worse. Today, even, and the sun ain’t even up good yet. Still, how we met says an awful lot to how we’ve put up with each other so long. It says a lot about what makes us tick, how we view the big wide world around us.
Hard to believe, but there was a time—not terribly long ago—that Bubba and me hadn’t said word one to each other yet, despite having been on the on the same jobsite for going on six months. I’d seen him around a couple times, but that was it.
Simply put: We worked different crews in different trades. He’s a framer, which is lot like a carpenter for any of y’all never worked a building crew before. The big difference being that most carpenters work exclusively with wood—cabinets, finish trim, that sort of thing—a framer may do a little woodwork, but mostly, he deals in steel and drywall, the preferred mediums of modern commercial construction. Me: I’m an electrician. We follow along right behind the framers to put in everything electrical. We’ve got the drywall guys behind us, the tape-and-float guys behind them, so on and so forth, through every trade—pipefitters, plumbers, HVAC, concrete, finished floors, roofers, windows—it’s one big line, one after another, until we’re done. We finish ahead of schedule, there’s bonuses; works with penalties, if we’re behind. It ain’t just your part held up. The crews behind you are legion, and they’re all juggling schedules, trying to keep their guys working every day and the whole project moving forward. Nowadays, too, there’s no telling how many different crews you may get at a single site or what language they all speak, so they talk dollars. Everybody understands dollars.
It’s kind of an unwritten rule on a construction site: You don’t fuck with other crews and they won’t fuck with you back. Makes everything a hellova lot easier, most days. Probably don’t need saying for most us, but if I learned anything in the years I put in, it’s this: I work around all sorts of people in a day’s time, the kind of work I do. You might be dealing with honest-to-God, real-life fucking geniuses one minute and talking at people that don’t even know the words coming out of your mouth the next, so you don’t ever assume shit on a job. Gabe Shorter, the fella that taught me this trade—you caught it, too, huh? An electrician named Shorter—well, ol’ Gabe put it to me like this: You know what happens when you assume something in this line of work?
How ’bout y’all? Y’all ever hear this one?
Hell naw! It ain’t got nothing to do with asses. Where do you get shit like that from? Sicko…
No, you assume something—kind of work I do—somebody winds up dead. Electricity don’t give a shit how ashamed or ass-like anyone feels. Jump to hasty conclusions without double and triple checking simple facts first, it’ll smooth cook you from the inside out, and it don’t give a damn who else it might take out when it does.
But long story short, were it not for landing on the same floor that afternoon—and that dumbass kid—I doubt we ever would’ve said word one to each other, ol’ Bubba and me.
Every crew has its dumbass. That kid was theirs.
I’d seen hands like him a thousand times: This fresh-out-of-the-box, know-it-all little prick who couldn’t keep his yap shut if you paid him. He knew every obscure fact about how the Martians built the pyramids and how his piss-ant wages were single-handedly funding the welfare system—I know this because he told us, all morning long—but somehow in all his expertise, he hadn’t yet mastered the fine art of working a tape measure.
Not by a little, like he hadn’t got them fractions quite yet. No. Every stud he touched ran shy by at least an inch—up to and including five—inches, that is, shy of the wall he was building. Gets downright irritating, believe me. Make you plumb lose your mind. I’ve seen plenty who did. But not Bubba. No sir. He drew that kid in close, tucked him right under those big ol’ dragon wings of his.
“Gaawlee,” I heard Bubba say, not long after lunch. “This one’s coming up short, too.”
He sounded as perplexed as that kid must’ve been, standing there, squinting and biting his lip. There wasn’t an ounce of meanness in it, nothing Bubba said, just a kindly observation offered in the sweetest granddad baritone. Ol’ Bubba played it, too. He doffed his hat, scratched his big shaggy head. Would’ve thought he was working out astrophysics the way he seemed he was thinkin’ it all out. He even busted out a pencil, started working something out in longhand in the rafters, way up there.
“Boss is gonna be awful mad if we keep going through studs like this,” Bubba added in that same sticky sweet drawl. Even from across the building, you could see those words take all the wind out of that poor kid. His shoulders slumped. Feet shifted. I almost felt sorry for the little bastard.
Bubba had him right where he wanted.
“I know,” he said, stroking his beard like it dripped answers. “Yeah… That’ll fix it.” His eyes flashed across the room. “Go grab that ratchet with the big, orange handle out of my box over there.”
The kid lit right up, pranced like a baby deer clean across that whole floor. Spent the next several minutes with his head in that box, skinny ass in the air. Meanwhile, Bubba climbed down and started measuring out the correct dimensions needed for his walls.
“Orange handle, you say?” I heard the kid say, echoing inside the box.
“Dadgumit! That’s right,” Bubba said. “I loaned it to the electricians earlier this week. Why don’t you go grab it from them? Tell them I sent you to get my board stretcher back.”
That kid trotted right for me. “Don’t suppose you might know who borrowed Bubba’s board stretcher, do you?” he asked.
I ain’t gonna lie. I had hard time keeping a straight face. Bubba’s doubled over laughing back there in my line of sight didn’t help. “Let me see,” I said, imagining endless checkout lanes, crippled puppies, webcam hemorrhoid surgery footage—anything at all, really—to keep that shit-eating grin off my face. “I think Larry did, sometime earlier this week. You ought to check with him. I think he’s on the… sixth floor today. Yeah, go ask him.”
Now, let’s ignore the fact we’re in the basement and I just sent this kid up seven flights of stairs. Let’s ignore, too, that Larry remembered Chuck using that board stretcher last, and sent him back down another six flights. Or that Chuck, upon hearing why he needed such a fool thing, decided another fellow had an even better tool for the job: “Go find Jamal,” he’d told him. “He was the roof yesterday, but he’s the only one who has what you need. Tell him Chuck said to let you use his a 14-inch pantalón snake.” Then he grabbed him by the shoulders, got right in his face and looked him dead in his eye. “This part is critical,” he said, not even a hint of a smile. “It’s gotta be the fourteen-incher. Anything smaller just won’t do.”
That kid spent the better part of the afternoon on this snipe hunt before the big boss finally sent him home. He gave us all a stern talkin’ to at the next safety meeting—the dangers of pranking somebody on a jobsite, or some such—but by then, Bubba and I were becoming fast friends.
“Ever heard of the Gorgenheim Girls?” I wasn’t sure if I had. But that’s the first question he sprang on me to defend his good name on the whole Playmate thing. If his intent was to throw me off by asking such a random question, it was working. He had a knack for stuff like that. A natural born conman, if ever there were. Of course, this whole Playboy thing came up on the tail end of what turned out to be a two-and-a-half-hour-long phone call. He had a knack for stuff like that, too: Blabbering on and on about not a damn thing until you physically needed a nap. But I was driving back from one of our recently finished jobs out West Texas way. I was captive. If nothing else, I suppose, he made those dull ass miles pass a little quicker.
“They were this cabaret act back in the vaudeville days,” he tells me. “Used to be pretty big up north. Chicago and New York, places like that. I had to Google them, myself…”
“You did what to them?”
“I’m getting to that—holy shit, man. That’s that chick I was tell you about who lives down there on the corner—you remember—good girls bend at the knee and bad girls bend all night? Well there she is man… Damn!”
“You do realize I’m talking to you on the phone, right?”
“Your loss, man,” he said.
That’s another one of Bubba’s knacks: I don’t care if she’s seventeen or seventy-five, he’s gonna gawk. And I don’t care if he’s writing a eulogy or telling you delicate details about passing his latest kidney stone—a chick walks by and he’s a Labra-doodle spotting a squirrel.
“Anyway, my neighbor had this big garage sale over there where that fine ass chick is bent in half right now. Man, you gotta see this shit! I do believe that chick’s an exhibitionist, man. She regularly opens all her curtains when she takes her showers. Pisses her ol’ man off something fierce. I know. I’ve got binoculars… What was I saying?”
“Googling Gorgenheim Girls.”
“Oh yeah—sorry, I get distracted—anyway, they had this big garage sale last weekend. You know that sumbitch made seven thousand dollars from that one day? I been thinking about having one myself, get rid of some of Momma’s old stuff. You know, all them angels and doilies and crap. Probably wouldn’t bring seven grand, but it’d get it the fuck outa my house. Still, I don’t wanna pay that goddamn city permit fee. Can you believe this little shit town makes you get a permit to have a garage sale?”
“Holy shit, dude! Does this story have a point?”
“Good things come to those who wait, man. I think that’s in the Bible. Besides, you forget: I grew up out there. You told me where you was wallago. I know there ain’t shit for at least another 30 miles.”
“Won’t make that mistake again.”
“So, yeah, I thought I’d mosey on over there, see if they had anything worth looking at. Found me some great fishing tackle—got us a good long handle net, a whole bucket of weights, even a couple of Penn reels I’m gonna tinker with and see if I can’t get them back up and operational…”
“Cool,” I say, hoping he finds his way back to the beaten path again soon. I can’t help thinking back to that dumbass kid, all those years ago. ’Ol Bubba’s got me right where he wants me.
“…So while I’m there, this little old Blue Hair walk over from down the street. I figure she’s the new neighbor. Saw all sorts of moving trucks and such over there a few days back. I keep on rummaging about, but I figure this will be as good a time as any to make my acquaintance…”
Now me, I could probably go days without saying a word to another living soul. Just the way I am. Not Bubba. No sir. He could be lost in the Mojave and somehow find the only other bastard in a hundred miles, strike up a conversation, and suddenly know their whole life story, especially if she has tits.
“…So, she walks around a while, looking at this and that, and spots this exercise bench—sorta like a weight bench, without the weights—it’s got this place to put your feet to do sit-ups and such. You can even adjust the height, you know?”
“Yeah,” I say, not even half listening at this point. I slow down and honk my horn at a circle of buzzards on the road. Looks like somebody smeared an eight-pointer the night before. From the looks of it, they probably needed some body work after that one.
“…So, she starts talking to the fella holding the sale, drops a few bucks, and starts trying to drag this big ol’ bench back down the road. Well, you know me. This is my opportunity to make my hellos. I ask her: You need a hand with that? Sure, darling, she says, so I walk on over and pick it up. It ain’t heavy at all. In fact, I feel right off that the wood on the underside of this thing is almost completely rotten. He must’ve had this thing sitting out his yard or something ’cause it’s totally gone. Well, we’re chattin’ it up as we go—she’s telling all about her recent move and how nice it is to finally be back near where she grew up—but I can’t take my mind off that rotten ass wood on the bottom of this thing. Finally, I flip it over as we walk along and see the wood’s even worse than I imagined. I can literally flick it apart with my fingernail…”
“Really?” I could say damn near anything at this point and he’d never be the wiser. He lost me somewhere about garage sale, but once he gets going, it’s a lot easier just to let him talk. He gets all ass hurt if you try for the Readers’ Digest version of any story he tells.
“…So, I show it to her and tell her I can fix it. She lights right up, but starts saying oh, no, I don’t want to put you out in anyway. Well, I can’t have it falling apart underneath a little old lady. She’s liable to break a hip or something. It’s no big deal, I tell her, so she finally agrees to let me fix it. She points out her house—right where all the moving trucks had been—and says she’ll be back in a day or two to pick it up…”
“Mmm hmmm…” I check my truck’s navigation. Fourteen more miles to the next pit stop. Hope I have enough gas to make it.
“…So, I take it in my shop, pull the cushions and get to work. That wood was completely rotted out, man. Let me tell you. I toss that hunk of crap in the burn pile and look through my wood for a good replacement. I find this gorgeous piece of pecan wood about three inches thick. I had planned to use it as mantel piece at some point, but it’s almost the perfect size for this thing, you know? So, I take me a couple measures and start trimming it to size. It’s gonna add some weight to it, but it definitely ain’t gonna break on her. Hell, she’ll be able to will this damn thing to her grandkids, if she wanted…”
Finally, the gas station sign approaching. Thank God!
“Sounds good. Look, I gotta go. I’m running on fumes, and that’s the last gas station for a hundred miles. Talk to ya later…”
“I see how it is. You don’t wanna hear my Playboy Bunny story. That’s alright. See if I ever—
“Yeah OK, dude. I’m out. Bye.” Click. Finally. I flick on my blinker, glad I’ll finally get to stretch the ol’ legs.
I pull back on the highway with only two hundred fifty more miles to go. I’ve got a full gas tank, empty bladder and a fresh cup of coffee. I can already feel the sheets of my own bed calling me. Took us seven months to finish that last job—a full month ahead of schedule—and I’m looking forward to a few days of down time before we start it all over again, someplace else. I flip through the radio stations—Tejano, Tejano, Jesus, Tejano—not a damn thing on in this part of the world. And if I listen to that George Strait album one more time, I think I’ll jump out of the truck. No wonder he chose to retire.
I switch off the radio. Silence it is. I adjust my rearview, set my cruise control and take a long, slow sip off my coffee. About the time I set back down, my phone rings.
“B&B Construction. How can I help you today?”
“…So, I get it all cleaned up and put back together, better than if it was new, and I carry it over to her house,” Bubba says, as if he’d only paused for a breath rather than said a whiny farewell forty-five minutes ago. Despite traffic being scarce on the highway home, the entire Texas population was gathered at that last stop. It took forever to pee and buy a cup of Joe.
“…I knock on her door and I hear her shuffling around in there. Her head pops up in the curtains. She recognizes me and moves to the door—man, she must have like a billion locks because all I hear is thunk, cachunk, click, swip—well, anyway, she sees me and pushes open the screen door. Come in, come in, she says. I never expected you so soon. I barely get the bench wedged in the door and she’s already halfway across the room, holding this enormous goblet of wine…”
I grab my coffee cup and slump back in my seat, arm draped over the top of the steering wheel. Silence ain’t in the cards for me today.
“…You care for a nip, she calls back to me as she disappears around the corner. Well, shit man, it’s barely ten o’clock in morning, but I don’t want to seem rude. I haven’t even said anything yet, and I hear her pouring me glass already. Sure, I tell her. She’s already coming back, two big ol’ glasses in hand. I drink me a bottle of wine every day, she tells me, sometimes I even have more than one. Keeps you limber, she says, and kinda winks at me, handing me a glass—I didn’t think much of it then…”
“You don’t say,” I reply, back on my play reel of useless responses.
“…Now it’s kinda dark in this room I just got in. I told you she moved like a week ago, right? I was kinda expecting boxes and shit all over the place. But no. It’s like she’s lived there all her life. She’s got magazines spread out on her end tables, books and knickknack’s all over her shelves, and pictures hung on every wall. Hell, I don’t have that much shit about, and I’ve been in my place for 25 years now…”
“Hmmm.” I say, taking another sip.
“…Next thing I know, she sets her glass down, grabs that workout bench from me like it’s a box of Kleenex and hauls it off it off to another room. Make yourself at home, she tells me from the other room. Have a seat…
He pauses there. Sounds like he’s still trying to finish that glass of wine she gave him two days ago. He ain’t much of a drinker.
“…Now I’m still standing by the door, kind of floored she took that bench off as quick as she did. That pecan plank I used probably weighed a good sixty pounds by itself. Well, I figure what the hell, and I start making my way a little deeper in the room. Like I said, it’s kind of dark in there, so my eyes are still adjusting from outside. But that’s when I start noticing these pictures she has hanging all over her walls. It’s literally a who’s who of celebrities in there, a lot of them even have autographs on them…”
“No shit?” I say, finally not feigning interest. He knows I’m a history buff. “Like who?”
“…There’s one of Mickey Mantle. Charlton Heston. Sinatra. Johnny Carson. The Beatles. Trumann Capote. Even LBJ and Nixon. Plus, a shitload more I couldn’t make out. I mean every wall in this place is got somebody famous on it, and there’s dozens of pictures on every wall…”
“…Yeah. But that’s only half of it: In every one of these pictures is this drop-dead gorgeous woman. I’m talking pinup girl quality. Just waves of blonde hair, perfect tits and a smile you’d die for, and she’s not wearing much more than a tiara in most of those shots. I’m just standing there staring at all of them when that old lady appears out of nowhere behind me. I see you’ve spotted my pictures, she says…”
He pauses again, right when this finally got interesting. “And?” I say.
“…Well, I didn’t hear her walk up. I kind of jump a little because she surprised me, and I hear her laughing at me. We’re just gonna have loosen you up a bit there, sonny. And she gooses me…”
“… Yeah, man. Serious to God! I’m talking full on palm to ass cheek. Now she’s really laughing at me because she may have made me jump when she surprised me, but I’m pretty sure I come clean off the floor when she goosed me. You want to make a fat man move, just goose him real good one day…
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“…Yuk it up, buddy! I’d like to see how you would respond when some old broad decides to make you her Man Candy for the day…”
“Man Candy,” I say, when I finally catch my breath. “That’s rich!”
“…That’s Mister Man Candy, to you…”
Over the next several miles, Bubba filled me in on the woman’s history. How she got her start with Gorgenheim Girls in Chicago when she was only sixteen. How that launched her modeling career and landed her in New York City. How she wound up meeting all the famous folk she had on her walls. How she even started pulling out albums with hundreds more pictures than her walls could hold.
“…I was quite the dish, wasn’t I? she asks me. I can’t let her down, and honestly, she really was. Hell yeah, I told her, her eyes just glittering. I’m trying to be polite and all, but this ol’ gal keeps climbing up on me. I’m starting to get a little nervous, you know? I don’t wanna be rude, so I figure I’ll finish my drink and suddenly remember I left my stove on or something…”
“…Well, I’m flipping through these pictures and come across one that looks like the same chick on the walls standing next to this dude in a smoking jacket with a cigar. Is that Hugh Heffner? I ask her. Oh yeah, she says, from the next room. She was working on another wine cork and walks back out with a fresh bottle. I was a Playboy Centerfold through most of the seventies, she says. I lived at Hugh’s mansion for several years…”
“Yeah. Well, I’m listening to her tell her story and what-not, but the whole time she’s talking she keeps throwing all these innuendos my way, you know? Nearly everything she says has two meanings—aww, what’s the word I’m thinking?—”
“Yeah, that’s it. ON-Tonder… Well, she keeps tossing it out there, right? And she keeps filling my glass. I finally ask her—you know, you never know how to go about that sort of thing with an older lady—but I ask her outright: How old are you anyway? You know what she tells me?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Eighty! She just had her eightieth birthday up in New York before she moved down here. Now I’m really floored. I wouldn’t have put her a day over 60 myself. I mean, she gets around so well and she has this—I don’t know—worldly way about her, I guess, that you don’t expect from somebody that just turned eighty. And like I said wallago, all that ontonder and what-not. Like when she took the album from me. I wasn’t halfway through it yet and she reached over and grabbed it out my hands. Mind you, almost every photo in that thing has her standing there naked as the day she was born. I better put this up before something comes up that it’s gonna take us all afternoon put back down, she says, staring me down with this wicked little grin on her face. This chick is laying it all out there, man. I mean she really wants some—”
“What the fuck is she doing living there?” I interrupt.
“That’s the thing,” Bubba says. “One of her daughters wound up marrying one of these ranchers around here. She lived in New York for a long time, but she’s getting up in years, and got diagnosed with dementia a few years back. She’s still in the early stages of it, but she decided to move a little closer to her family, just the same…”
“…Well, anyway, this chick wants me, man. And she keeps putting it out there, the whole time. She even offers to give me a tour of the place, wants to show me her bedroom, which she says everyone should see at least once. And I tell you, man, I don’t know if it’s the wine or what, but I’m looking at her—she’s wearing one of those swishy, old lady jogging suits, but ol’ girl’s still got her shape. I just can’t get my head around the fact she eighty…”
“Come on, dude! Take one for the team! When’s somebody like you ever gonna say he got to bed a Playboy Bunny?”
“What you trying to say there, buddy?”
“Well, what happened?”
“I was a gentleman. I finished my glass and went back home.”
“Yeah, right. I’m calling bullshit once again.”
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
It took about another hour to get him to hang up, but with San Antonio steadily approaching in my windshield, I finally managed to part ways. He knew I hated driving in that town, so he finally agreed to hang up. At least the radio offerings got better for remainder of my ride. All the way, though, I couldn’t get over this bullshit story he tossed at me for the bulk of my drive home. The things that dude thinks up sometimes…
Like I said: It takes a bit of salt.
Despite having talked with him for nearly the last four hours, I still somehow managed to keep a lid on the one surprise I was carrying. Because we finished the job a month ahead of schedule, the contractor awarded us a ten thousand dollar bonus, all cash under the table. I figured I’d swing by Bubba’s place and drop off his share before I got home.
As I turned onto his block, my jaw felt like it had come unhinged.
There, sitting on the steps of that ratty ol’ trailer of his, was a little old lady, bottle of wine in one hand and massive wineglass the other. Bubba waves at me with this big grin as I step out of the truck. “I’d like you to meet my neighbor, Susanna Scott. Susie, my business partner and best friend…”
The old lady reaches over and pats him on his thigh.
“Oooo!” she says to Bubba, eyes glittering like diamonds. “You didn’t tell me it was gonna be a ménage á trois. No worries. Not my first…”
She holds out her withered hand to me.
“Call me Susie,” she says. “I’m the Playmate I’m sure you’ve heard all about by now…”