There I go again. I got ahead of myself, which is halfway most of my problem when I think about it. I'm always reaching before I think, puckering up before I see whose lipstick I'm about to taste. It's a real issue with me, I freely admit it.
Anyway, Clarise and me. She's a chubby ten-year-old with her mom's dishwater blonde hair, and big blue eyes. Smart as sin, too. I asked her once -- I was helping her do some homework -- what was twelve times twelve, and she looks at me without blinking, and says, "Gross." Then she giggles and punches my arm. I just kind of chuckle and move on to the next problem on the page. Two days later, it dawns on me what she meant, and I start laughing so hard I have to pull the truck over. Tears on a grown man's cheeks in Texas, there's a sight you don't see too often.
I met Clarise's mom at the diner. She'd been working there for something like twelve years. I knew right away I had to have her, with those long legs and sassy smile. Three days later we were humping in a sleeping bag out back of her house. She didn't want to wake Clarise. It was the dog she should have worried about. There we were, on the verge of sealing the deal, and that dog starts woofing up on the second floor, paws spread on the inside of Clarise's window. Oof! Oof-oof!
Her mom scrambles for her bra -- "Dammit, Jim, I told you not to be so loud! -- but it's already too late. Clarise ducks away from the glass. The dog drops down out of sight too. Her mom charges inside.
I flop onto my back, smoke a Marlboro, and watch me some stars. I wonder sometimes if maybe there isn't a star out there just like Earth, with people like you and me, and animals and trees, only the women are naturally polygamous -- that means they tolerate men a whole heck of a lot more than they do here. What would life be like on a star like that? A man can dream.
A few minutes later, the screen door squeals and that scroungy dog comes charging out, dragging Clarise's mom behind it. "Walk the dog," she tells me. I got a whole other kind of dog walking in mind, but she won't have none of that. "Walk the damn dog!" And so I do, only I don't put on pants. If the neighbors complain about some guy in a cowboy hat wandering around scratching his balls, and walking a dog at midnight, she's got no one to blame but her own self. And I sure did not pick up any shit. Not this Texas boy.
So, morning came around, and there's Clarise sitting at the kitchen table, stirring a spoon around a bowl of soggy cereal, and she says to me point blank. "You ain't the first to screw Momma on the lawn."
"Didn't think I was." I like to play it cool with kids. My dad was an asshole, used to beat us six ways to Tuesday. I would never beat a child. "The thing is," I said, "I like your mom a lot, and I hope that maybe, in time--"
"You like dogs?" she said. And right on cue, the mutt's head appears above the table. He must've been laying there at her feet.
"Sure," I said. And I mostly do, too, though I can do without poodles, and those little ones with the sausage body and pointed teeth, you know, the Mexican ones.
Clarise looked over her shoulder, then to the door, then back at me. "I'm going to explain this to you one time." Her eyes got real serious. The spoon clinked against the bowl's edge and toppled over, first onto the table, then to the floor. I heard the dog lapping.
"My momma can take care of herself," she said, "but if you ever hurt my dog, I'll skin you like a rabbit."
"Sure," I said. "I understand."
"No, you don't," she said. "I don't mean I'll lock myself in my room and cry a blue streak. What I mean is I'll take this knife--" and she lifted a butcher's knife from the empty chair seat next to her "--and I'll skin you like a rabbit."
Something about the way she said that made me swallow twice.
"Good," she said, "then we understand each other." She put the knife back, and retrieved the spoon from the floor. "Cletus is my friend. Friends look out for each other."
I nodded. "I think I'd like to be your friend." It came out kind of weak, but the feeling was real strong. Clarise might be ten, but she was the woman I had been looking for all my life. Not in a sex way, mind you -- that don't turn me on -- but in a, I don't know, deeper way, I guess.
She started eating her cereal. "You want me to call you Mister Cannon, or Jim?" she said like it was the first conversation we had all morning.
"Jim," I said. "Please."
And that's how it was until I screwed things up with her mom. It wasn't entirely my fault, mind you, that other waitress came on to me. She wasn't as pretty as Clarise's mom, but she had a little fire going on down there in the caboose. "What do you want on your wiener?" she says. I mean, really, right? So I ask her if she likes her buns toasted, and the rest is history.
Well, I guess that catches you up to the present, other than the two-day binge. I'm mostly sober now. Oh, and I didn't tell you about the dog leaned halfway out the passenger window, but then you wouldn't exactly be surprised if I did, so I won't apologize for that. I have a plan. I snatched the dog while Clarise was at school and her mom was at work, and now I'm off to the print shop to have some flyers made up. What do you think about this for wording?
Found: Large dog, off-white, answers to the name of Cletus. Call 555-1212 (you're crazy if you think I'm putting my real number here). Reward: One sorry-ass guy who will never do it again.
Now, I'm not pretending Clarise's mom will pick up on that code, but I'll bet anything Clarise will figure it out. And she'll find a way to bring her mom around. That's the thing about that girl. Smart as a whip, and loyal to her friends. I may not be one of them after our little falling out, but I'm banking on Cletus.
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared most recently in Scissors and Spackle, Spilling Ink Review, and Pure Slush. In his spare spare time, he edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, as well as the twitterzine, Trapeze. You can find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com