Junior Samples, Joe the Plumber, and the Marlboro Woman
Early Monday morning, Alison stopped at Castle’s on Carter’s main street for a cup of coffee and a local map. She was early and decided caffeine was just the thing to wake her up while she waited for the crew that was going to move a trailer in for her outside of town. She went to the coffee station and got a large cup. When she went to the counter to pay, a young man was at the register, but Sandy saw her and came over, waving off the other cashier.
“Sandy, how’s Tucker?”
“I saw her Saturday morning. She was bruised up some.”
Alison felt miserable. “I feel so bad about it.”
“Oh, honey, our Tucker is one tough lady. It’d take a lot more than a broken nose to slow her down.”
Alison hesitated then asked the question that had been on her mind.
“Is she always so…” She searched for a word that wouldn’t offend Sandy, but she couldn’t come up with anything. If Sandy was any indication, Tucker was well-liked in town.
Sandy came to her rescue. “Tucker’s private and independent. You just didn’t see her at her best.” Sandy chuckled. “It takes a lot to get to know her, but she’s good people.”
Alison was skeptical and didn’t know what to say. Sandy must have sensed Alison’s unease because she smiled and changed the subject.
“So, you’re moving to town, are you?”
“Yes, I’ve taken a position at the high school.”
“Oh, Alison Tyler. The new choir teacher,” Sandy said, nodding in recognition.
“That was fast,” Alison said. She felt a familiar cold lump form in her stomach. The cashier’s recognition sent a quick stab of panic through her, reminding her of the nightmare she’d come from.
“Oh, we’ve been looking forward to having you since the end of last semester,” Sandy said.
“Really? Do you have kids in the choir?” she asked.
“Heavens! Three of them; two boys and a girl. A few years and you’ll meet my fourth. I think Thad will be a musician, too. They all love music, and they can’t wait for the semester to start. Everyone’s waiting to meet you.”
The ice in Alison’s stomach spread to her spine.
It doesn’t mean anything. I’m safe.
She forced herself to remain friendly. “It was nice talking to you,” she said and escaped to her car.
The truck carrying her trailer pulled into the lot as she leaned against the trunk, and a pickup followed and stopped beside her car. The bottom four inches of the truck’s wheel-wells and door were rusted away, and the muddy brown paint bubbled and peeled all along the side.
A gangly fellow unfolded himself from the pickup’s cab and sauntered over to her with a stiff-kneed gait. He pulled off a filthy John Deere cap and switched a mangled toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
“Miz Tyler?” he asked and offered a grimy hand. “Tom Ames.”
Alison took his hand and released it as quickly as seemed polite.
“Good morning,” she said, looking over her shoulder at her new home with a sinking heart.
The trailer and its delivery man could have been twins; ragged, leaning, banged up and bent, bits and pieces sticking out here and there. She was suddenly sure she’d made a huge mistake. This trailer and its escort were an omen. Nothing good was going to come of any of this.
“Um, Mr. Ames—”
“Call me Tom,” the man said. He put the cap back on his head and his hair spiked out over his ears, making him look even more unkempt.
Alison tried again. “Tom, this doesn’t look at all like the trailer in the magazine.”
Ames nodded. “Windstorm came up last week.” Alison looked at him dubiously, but he didn’t notice. “Ain’t as bad as it looks, ’n I know someone can take care of the repairs. ’Fact, she’ll be out with the ’lectrician.”
She? Alison sighed. She was stuck. “All right. Let’s get going.”
She followed Ames out of town, over a small river bridge and out onto winding blacktop. The tractor-trailer pulled into a long drive lined with cottonwoods and stopped beside the lot prepared for the trailer. Ames got out of his truck and met Alison by her car.
“We just gotta wait for Tucker to get started and I’ll be on my way,” he said.
“Tucker?” Anxiety shot into Alison’s throat, almost making her choke on the name.
“Oh no, it couldn’t be.”
“Tucker Wiley. She’s the one coming with your ’lectrician. She owns the land ’round here. Several acres.” He glanced up the driveway and pointed at a battered Ford pickup and a cheesy-looking van with a bad fantasy vista painted on the side. “Here she comes.”
“Dear Lord, this is a disaster.” Alison groaned and started walking toward the trailer.
Tucker saw Tom Ames’s truck and growled at Junior through the rear-view.
“This is going to be a disaster.”
She got out of her pickup and waited for Junior to catch up to her. While she waited, she recognized the woman who’d broken her nose. Then the detail that had niggled at her brain at the hospital fell into place.
“Alison Tyler. Oh, shit.”
When Junior got to her truck, she rounded on him. “Goddammit, Junior, why didn’t you tell me it was Ames and that woman?”
“Her.” Tucker jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “That’s the woman who broke my nose.”
“I didn’t know she was the one. Whew!”
Tucker scowled and said, “Pay attention!” Junior looked at her and hiked an eyebrow.
“Tuck, I knew you wouldn’t want anything to do with it ’cause of Tom, but this gal needs you.” Tucker cocked an eyebrow and frowned. Junior lifted a hand toward the woman. “Listen, she’s that new choir director from Omaha.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“How do you know that?”
“She was the director of Omaha Westside at the Nationals.”
“Wow! No wonder Tess was always teasing you. She’s a looker,” Junior said, pulling off his hat and fanning himself in a mock hot flash. “Wait, does she know who you are?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Knock it off. What’s going on here?”
“Ms. Tyler called me last week to set up her ’lectricity. When she said she bought the trailer from Tom, I did my best to change her mind. She didn’t believe it could be as bad as I told her. Well, now she does.” Junior gestured at the woman standing in the middle of the old Homestead farmyard looking at the wreck Tom Ames had delivered.
Tucker looked over at the woman and paused for a moment. Petite and blond, she stood with one hip cocked and a slender hand on the other. Her face and arms were lightly tanned. She wore a blue sleeveless shirt, faded jeans, and sandals. Her hair shone in the sunshine and danced around her face in the gentle breeze. She had a rear caressed perfectly by her jeans, and her legs went on into the next county. She was even more beautiful now than in Tucker’s memory.
Alison Tyler stood beside Tom Ames, her eyes shooting daggers at him. Tucker could almost see the flash from where she stood. The slightest stir of interest whirled through Tucker as she watched the woman from her truck.
Ames seemed clueless. He gestured grandly at the trailer as if he’d delivered a palace instead of a piece of crap that looked ready to fall apart at the first gust of wind.
Tucker took off her hat and swept an arm across her forehead. She watched the blond for another minute, then glanced at Ames. Her stomach threw out a burst of acid and she pounded her sternum with a fist.
“Junior, you don’t think I’ve got anything better to do than rescue some city girl that hasn’t got the sense to listen to some friendly advice? Rescue her from Tom Ames, for God’s sake?” Tucker was almost spitting with disgust and anger. “Crap on a stick, Junior, it’s her own mess. Let her deal with it.”
She started to turn away, but Junior put a hand on her shoulder. “Remember when you needed a hand, Tuck?”
“Oh, for—this isn’t the same!”
“Ain’t it?” Junior looked at her steadily with soft, understanding eyes.
Tucker glared at Junior for a moment then jammed her straw hat on her head. She slammed the cab door so hard both Ames and the choir director jumped.
“How do I manage to get pulled into these situations?”
She stopped by the trailer and looked it over, feeling the woman’s eyes on her as she examined every inch of it. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, but distracting.
“I don’t need this grief.”
She concentrated on the sorry Clayton trailer. Time enough to deal with Miss Music Teacher later.
She had to agree with Junior. Ms. Tyler needed some help digging out of this hole. The trailer was a mess. Its siding was bent, dented, and ripped; insulation hung out, eaves sagged, and half the skirting was beaten into scrap metal or missing altogether in places. She did a slow walk around with Junior and listened to him curse the condition of the power hook-ups.
Tucker got back to the semi-tractor just as Phil Connor pulled up in his van. Phil the Plumber was lettered neatly on the side in hot pink against a black background. When Phil got out of the vehicle, Tucker saw the music lady do a double-take and grinned.
Phil was a carbon copy of Samuel Wurzelbacher, the Libertarian everyman that John McCain picked up during his 2008 presidential campaign. After the election, almost everyone (except the Republicans) in town begged Phil to change his company name, so the following year he got a new van, painted it, and officially became known by that iconic name.
So far, Ms. Tyler seemed to have kept her composure, but after meeting Tom Ames, being introduced to the disaster that was her new home, and now laying eyes on Phil, the poor lady had to be floundering in her new reality. Tucker chuckled.
‘This should be fun.’
The ‘poor lady’ was livid.
“Is this somebody’s idea of fun? This is not the trailer I bought, and now I have the Marlboro Woman, Junior Samples, and Joe the Plumber here to set it up? What kind of hick nightmare have I landed in?”
Tucker strolled around the trailer with her hands in her pockets. Occasionally she shot a glare at Tom Ames, who shifted uncomfortably and rolled his hat in his hands. She finished her inspection, snatched her hat off her head, and stalked towards Ames, kicking up dust and causing him to scoot back a step before finding a bit of courage. Alison became aware of a subtle dynamic between Tucker and Ames.
“Hmm. Wonder what’s going on between them?”
Alison shifted her interest to the young woman scowling at a man that had to be at least twenty years her senior; she guessed that being her late thirties. She was one of the tallest women she’d ever seen; at least six feet if not taller. Her shoulders were broad under a plain white cotton shirt. Close-fitting boot-cut jeans showed off strong legs that curved subtly into a well-formed rear end, with a proportionately narrow waist and all the right curves in all the right places. She wore dusty boots and a black muscle tee under her shirt. The tee was tight enough to reveal the flow of her abs. It wasn’t six-pack hard, but still pleasing.
Tucker’s hair was black; cut short and swept back from a high, strong brow, feathered at her temples, and curled against her neck just above her shirt collar. She had high, chiseled cheekbones and a slightly crooked nose with a hint of a roman curve to the bridge. She was attractive, arresting, and infinitely easy on the eyes despite a severe scar. Beginning at her hairline above her left eye, it slanted down to jump her eye, burrow into her left cheek, and continue under her jaw to end in a deep dimple at her throat. It was odd; the scar did not disfigure the woman as much as define her face. It brought attention to her lines and angles and the shine in her eyes.
A streak of white painted her hair where the scar entered the hairline. She was a complex mixture of handsome grace. Her black hair, facial features, and deep tan more than hinted at Native heritage in her ancestry. The bruises from her broken nose were stark against Tucker’s tanned face and Alison winced inside at knowing she was the one responsible for them. Her eyes were dark grey and right now they flashed angrily at Tom Ames.
The Marlboro Woman squared her shoulders and slapped her hat against her thigh. She stood and glared at Ames for a good fifteen seconds, until the grimy man started twitching, then turned her eyes onto Alison. They lightened a bit, a bit of blue blending in, but were only slightly less unfriendly as when they were locked on Ames. The force of her gaze and the intensity of her presence hit Alison low in her stomach. A sense of familiarity formed in the back of her mind that she’d missed the day they literally ran into each other.
“Where have I seen you before?”
The woman held out her hand and said, “Tucker Wiley, Miss.”
Her voice was quiet and deep with a rough touch of gravel in it, which Alison attributed to the scar at her throat. Tucker’s hand was warm and strong. It was scarred as well, with her right ring finger and little finger twisted slightly. Tucker’s touch, coupled with the sound of her voice, put a shiver into Alison’s stomach, which she shook off when her addled mind registered Tucker’s formal greeting. As if they’d never met.
All right. Alison could play that way.
“Alison Tyler,” she answered just as formally and took Tucker’s hand. Tucker’s grip firmed just a bit and Alison’s stomach went twisty-flip. She had to remind herself why she was in Carter, and why she wanted nothing to do with Tucker Wiley.
Tucker returned her attention to Ames, who shifted his feet. His face was red, and a look of injured petulance crept over his features.
“Tom.” Tucker didn’t bother hiding her contempt for the man.
“Tucker.” Ames was not successful in keeping a sneer out of his voice.
Tucker turned back to Alison. “Miss, I hope you have a photo of the trailer Tom advertised.” Her tone suggested she didn’t think Alison had the brains to bring it along.
Alison bristled. “Of course, I do.” She said, looking pointedly at Tucker. She glanced at Ames, whose petulance was morphing into worry.
Alison pulled the shopper magazine out of her purse and handed it over. It was folded open to a full-page ad with a half-page, full-color photo. Tucker took the magazine, looked at the ad, then looked at Ames with eyes that had darkened back to steel grey.
“Where’s this trailer, Ames?” she asked.
“Well, Billy came to town. Lost that job in St. Paul and needs a place to stay ’til he gets back on his feet—”
“Bullshit.” Tucker’s voice was amicable, but there was hard rock under the surface. “Have you cashed this lady’s check?” Tom looked down at his shuffling feet, and Tucker cocked an eyebrow. She turned to Alison, that same eyebrow cocked, and Alison couldn’t think of anything for a moment except how elegant that expression was on Tucker’s face, even though the look below that eyebrow said, “You paid this guy upfront? Really?”
Alison bit off the retort that came to her tongue and instead cleared her throat. “The check cleared my account this morning.”
Tucker handed the shopper back to Alison but her eyes nailed Ames to the dirt driveway.
“You tell me one reason I shouldn’t call Big Hank right now, Ames.” The shifty fellow started stammering, but Tucker’s voice ran over him like a road grader. “You get back in that truck, turn it around, and go tell Billy to get his head out of his ass and his ass out of Ms. Tyler’s trailer. Then you dump this piece of crap in the gravel pit, load up Ms. Tyler’s trailer and get it back out here tomorrow morning.”
Ames’s shoulders slumped and he started for his truck, but Tucker growled, “I’m not done yet.” Ames stopped and turned. “Three hundred dollars. Now.” Ames sighed and pulled out a checkbook. “Cash.”
“Tuck,” Ames whined, “I ain’t—”
“Bullshit,” Tucker said again. “I know you withdrew that cash as soon as the check cleared. Now pull three hundred out of that ratty wallet of yours in five seconds, or it goes up to five hundred.”
Defeated, Ames fished out three hundred-dollar bills and handed them to her. She gave them to Alison. Ames started putting his wallet away and Tucker said, “Ah!” holding her hand out again.
Ames stared at her, his face getting red. “You’re kidding me!”
“Three more. My time, Phil’s, and Junior’s. You’re not defrauding someone on my time and getting off. Three hundred, pronto.” Ames slapped three more bills into Tucker’s hand, then turned on his heel and fled to his truck. He sped out of the yard as fast as he could, throwing gravel and dirt. The semi barely made a U-turn in the tight space between the lot and a stand of trees and lumbered out after him.
Junior, who had stayed well out of the way of the fireworks, came up beside Tucker and chuckled. Tucker handed him a hundred-dollar bill and pocketed another. The plumber sauntered over, and Tucker handed him the last. He headed back to his van after assuring Tucker he’d be back tomorrow afternoon.
Alison stared after Phil, then gazed at Tucker and Junior standing side by side. They grinned like idiots at each other. Then the woman looked back at Alison and the humor left her face. The two walked over to join her.
Junior tipped his cap to Alison. “Hank Smith Jr., Miss. Your electrician when I get something decent to ’lectricate.”
Alison smiled at Junior’s outgoing, friendly nature. She took the big man’s hand, which enveloped hers like a bear paw, but was surprisingly gentle.
“Well, I’m not sure what to say.” She turned to Tucker and paused. The thought occurred to her again as she looked into dark blue-grey eyes.
“So strange. I’ve seen you before.”
“It looks like I’m not going to be set up when I thought I would be. And the movers will be here at any time.” For the first time, she allowed her worry to come out in her voice.
Tucker sighed. “I’ve got storage up the road, Ms. Tyler. You probably remember passing it on the way out?” Alison nodded. “You can store your things there until we get the trailer set.” Tucker picked a key off her ring and tossed it to Alison. The silver key had a black rubber tab on it reading, Tuck it Away Storage. Alison held back a snort at the cheesy name.
“Meanwhile, that three hundred should help cover your lodging. Do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes, I’m at the Starlight—”
“Lord, you do not want to stay there!” Junior spoke up.
“Well, it’s…y’see, it…” The big man turned bright red and looked at Tucker.
Tucker shook her head and chuckled, then knuckled Junior’s arm.
“Yeowtch!” he yelled. His face returned to its normal tanned hue and he no longer seemed tongue-tied.
“Trust us,” Tucker said. “I know just the place for you. Junior’s gramma has a bed ’n breakfast, very reasonable. Provides breakfast and a light lunch. Dinner’s up to you, but we have a couple of decent restaurants in town. I’ll give her a call and tell her to expect you.” Tucker sighed again, took off her hat, and ran her fingers through her hair while looking up into the sun.
Alison wanted that moment to last; Tucker standing in the sun, her face turned up and the wind gently ruffling her hair. The muscle shirt clung to Tucker’s body and the jeans fit as though they were caressing her shape. It was an image to make you believe goddesses walked the earth.
The moment shattered when Tucker cleared her throat.
“Next time someone tries to give you a heads up, Ms. Tyler, you might want to listen a little harder.”
Alison blinked, rudely pulled out of her daydream. “I beg your pardon. Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there is. I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time to go running around pulling city girls’ tails out of a twist.”
Alison was caught off-stride. For several moments, all she could do was stare at Tucker. Then the stress and shock of dealing with Tom Ames and his sorry excuse for a dwelling caught up with her. Nothing had gone right since the moment she parked in Castle’s lot.
“I’m sorry to intrude, Ms. Wiley. I certainly didn’t call for a knight in shining armor.” She raked her eyes up and down Tucker’s frame. She let out the rest of her stress into a tone of utter disdain. “And I wouldn’t have expected you if I had.”
Tucker’s eyes narrowed. “Listen, lady—”
“Tucker has to be going now, Ms. Tyler,” Junior said, interrupting the spat brewing between the two women. He grabbed Tucker’s arm and pulled her away toward the truck and van. “We’ll be out here tomorrow and get started.” He tipped his hat again.
Alison watched the big man all but drag Tucker to her truck and stuff her inside. Tucker turned at every opportunity to glare back at Alison, and Alison returned Tucker’s glares with forced indifference. But a question stuck with her that she couldn’t shake.
“I’ve seen you before. Who are you, Tucker Wiley?”
Junior came back to Alison after Tucker’s truck roared out of the driveway and turned north, heading farther out of town.
“Come on, Miss,” Junior said. “I’ll get you settled at Gramma’s place. You can follow me back to town.” He waved at the van. “What do you think?”
“It’s an …interesting van,” Alison said.
“Yeah, ain’t it great? I bought it for Tucker.”
“Really?” Alison didn’t know what else to say.
“Yeah; it needs cleaning and a paint job, and the Boris scene will have to be restored, but she’ll love it when it’s done.”
“Tucker loves that fantasy artist, Boris Vallejo. That scene’s one of her favorites.”
Alison thought the gesture was sweet, though the object itself was questionable, and the recipient undeserving. But had she made a mistaken assumption? A definite aura about Tucker Wiley had drawn her in and shaped her perception of the woman. She hid a snicker.
“With that attitude, she probably wouldn’t be with anyone.” She decided to test her gut feeling. “So, Tucker is…your girlfriend?”
Junior whooped, startling Alison. “Sorry. No, ma’am, she ain’t my girlfriend. Our families have been close all our lives. We’ve known each other since we were kids. She’s…sort of like my little sister.” A note of sad wistfulness crept into his voice at the last and he was quiet for a moment.“And don’t you mind Tucker, ma’am. She snaps a bit, but she don’t draw blood. Usually.” He chuckled, but Alison wasn’t amused. “Well, let’s get you into town,” he said.