The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 8

Knox had agreed to follow Levinthia to the Scarlet Sow barbeque grill. When she had suggested that they go somewhere they could talk, Knox realized all he’d had to eat today were those slices of cantaloupe. He wondered how long Levinthia planned on talking to him. If she planned on a long conversation, the Scarlet Sow would be a good place to go because when Knox was growing up it had served the best barbeque in Hibriten. It was the only place in town that had clung to its curb service although it did have a crowded, dark dining room in the back of the restaurant. Through high school, the Scarlet Sow had been the favorite date diner for Knox and his friends.

Pulling into the parking space beside Levinthia’s van, Knox felt an adolescent excitement even though back in high school he had never dated Levinthia, much less brought her to the Scarlet Sow. Still, Knox felt certain that she hadn’t invited him out to talk about business. For that discussion, they could have easily driven back to Levinthia’s log cabin art shop. Maybe the divorce had changed her. Maybe becoming a successful businesswoman had changed her, but this wasn’t the same woman who had married and divorced him. He had always found her attractive, but in the short exchange he’d had with her when she found him standing by the Loomises’ fence and on the short drive to the Scarlet Sow, Knox admitted to himself that he now found his ex-wife arousing as never before. Had he just missed her more than he realized?

Climbing out of his truck, Knox looked around the parking lot. Across the street was a small supermarket that had been around almost as long as the Scarlet Sow. Adjoining one side of the restaurant’s parking lot was another parking lot that belonged to Wilson’s Tire Store. It had also been in operation as far back as Knox could remember. Not a quarter mile down the road, Knox could see a used car lot. When he was in high school, that lot had belonged to a drive-in movie theater. The ultimate romantic evening, as far as Knox was concerned, would still consist of having barbeque and sweet tea at the Scarlet Sow then driving down to the Valley Galaxy Drive-In Theater for a double or triple feature horror film fest.

He walked over to the passenger side of Levinthia’s van and slid onto the Corinthian leather seat. Before he got his door closed all the way, he detected the scent of linseed oil and turpentine. With unexpected sharpness, the two odors pinched Knox’s memory, and the pain coated him with a stiff awkwardness as if he were wrapped in aluminum foil. For seven years, he had lived with Levinthia’s odors, particularly the scent of her paints, but it had come to represent his own frustration and anxiety. In her studio, she had announced that she wanted a divorce. So now Knox was completely surprised to find himself further aroused by the odor.

“What do you think of my van?” Levinthia turned to face Knox.

If he had judged from the expensive paint job on the outside, Knox would have expected the inside to be decorated with stained glass and Italian marble, but what he saw was pure functionality. Behind the two leather seats stretched uninterrupted cargo space, all of it padded with industrial strength carpet, a deep burgundy that matched the paint on the outside. Spaced along both sides of the van’s walls were slots that Knox deduced allowed straps to be pulled out of their concealed storage compartments whenever some expensive piece of furniture had to be transported from Levinthia’s new shop.

As Knox admired the elegant functionality of Levinthia’s van, he felt a distinct wave of dizziness wash over him, as if he were standing on a very high cliff and happened to look down without giving his brain a chance to prepare itself for the height. For a couple of uneasy seconds, the van appeared to be much larger on the inside than it could possibly be. Not exactly the size of a warehouse, but somehow larger than the trailer of his own two-ton truck. Before the dizziness turned his knees into Jello, Knox considered hiking to the distant back end of the van and see just how long it took him to cover the distance. As the vertigo vibrated along his spinal cord, suddenly it seemed much more pleasant to stay close to Levinthia.

“Why did you get such a big van?” Knox found if he focused on Levinthia’s gray eyes, he didn’t feel so disembodied.

“Look who’s talking.” Levinthia jerked her thumb over her shoulder to indicate Knox’s truck. “You could haul the Louvre in that barn you’re driving.”

“Yeah, but that’s my place of business as well as my transportation. Not all of us can afford cute little shops on the main street of affluent tourist villages.” Knox was surprised that he didn’t sound bitter. In fact, at that moment, he didn’t feel any of the resentment that had tormented him for the last three years.

“I can give you a really good deal on my log cabin property.”

The offer confused Knox because he could tell she was serious. He hesitated before answering, considering. He hadn’t really settled down since he and Levinthia had sold their house down in Albany. Certainly, he had his apartment in Atlanta, but it was more of a place to park his truck when he needed to get off the road for a day or two. More of a rest area than a home. It was a place to wash his dirty clothes, stretch his legs, balance his books. Then he started driving all over the place once more. “Make my base of operations in Hibriten?”

“Surely, you’ve started hearing Hibriten calling to you, haven’t you?” Then in an unsteady but perfectly clear voice, Levinthia sang, “When I call to you, will you answer true?”

For a long moment, Knox sat in stunned silence. He had never heard Levinthia sing. She’d always been too self-conscious. Once she’d complained to Knox that she sounded like a Walt Disney mouse when she tried to sing. But her voice wasn’t mouse-like at all. Child-like, slightly wavering, but pure and clear. As she sang, she looked straight ahead toward the blue mountains, a slight smile indicating that she knew Knox was staring at her in complete disbelief.

Before he knew what he was doing, Knox found himself thinking of how Levinthia looked when she was naked. In clothes, she moved with a slight awkwardness as if she had never quite adjusted to the physical world. But as soon as her clothes came off, the awkwardness disappeared, leaving only a slight residue of modesty that made even the most casual sex with her feel on the verge of breaking some unspoken taboo. When they were first married, Levinthia’s modesty had always excited Knox, but as soon as his furniture sales started dropping, Knox began to think his wife’s unwavering modesty indicated that she just didn’t care for sex with him.

Earlier in the day, when he’d seen his likeness in those paintings in Levinthia’s shop, the conviction had poked into his brain that she had resented him all along. But now, here he sat with his ex-wife in what once represented the most romantic grill in the county. And she was singing to him. A love song that he would never have suspected she knew. He’d never heard her mention Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy. Come to think of it, though, Knox realized that Levinthia’s profile reminded him of a more regal Jeanette MacDonald. How had he not noticed the resemblance before?

Knox rubbed his eyes. For a moment, he thought the Scarlet Sow’s front windows were boarded up and the parking lot had weeds growing through the pavement. He hadn’t noticed those signs of dilapidation when he’d first parked his truck and joined Levinthia. A second glance at the restaurant reassured him that the place was as presentable as it had always been. With the menu painted on two squares of plywood, four feet wide and bolted on either side of the Scarlet Sow sign over the front door.

Finishing her song, Levinthia took a deep breath and rested her hand on Knox’s knee. “Are you ready to order?”

While Knox was wondering if he should put his hand over Levinthia’s, he heard the grill’s screen door slam. Approaching their van was a scrawny boy of fifteen or sixteen wearing a striped t-shirt, jeans, black tennis shoes, and a paper curb hop hat. In one hand, he carried a pad and pencil. With his other hand, he shifted through the gears of an imaginary stick shift. Each time he shifted gears, he would give a short hop and skid his foot backwards four or five inches. Knox hadn’t seen any boys body drag racing since he’d been in elementary school. They were always boys who got jobs as soon as they could leave the house by themselves because their one ambition was to buy a car. If they had been boys who thought about reincarnation, they’d all want to come back as hot rods, something fast, low to the ground, with an exhaust system that could wake up entire neighborhoods.

As soon as the curb hop passed by the front of Levinthia’s van, he stopped changing gears and studied the van’s paint job. He stopped a couple of feet from her door, tapped his pencil on his pad, and smiled at Levinthia. “Nice van.”

“Thank you. I use it mostly for my business.” Levinthia rested her elbow on the widow ledge so she could tilt her head outside.

The curb hop took a step back and read the sign on the side of the van. “Antiques? Like old furniture?”

“And pictures. Some dishes. Some rugs.”

“Why don’t you drive an antique car?” The curb hop now moved closer to Levinthia’s window.

“Is that what you drive?” Levinthia crossed her arms, challenging the boy.

He raised his foot and pointed to a well-worn tennis shoe. “Just about.”

Levinthia laughed.

“You ready to order?”

After they gave the boy their order and he disappeared inside the grill, Knox glanced around the parking lot.

When he twisted around in his seat to see if anyone was parked in the spaces behind them, Levinthia asked, “Is something wrong?”

“This late in the afternoon, you’d think more people would be dropping in for their barbeque fix. Unless maybe the food has such a bad reputation that nobody wants to eat here.” Knox tried to remember when Levinthia had taken her hand from his knee.

“I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the food.” Levinthia once more turned in her seat to face Knox and tucked her legs up under her. She’d slipped out of her shoes. “This side of town is kind of drying up. When the mall opened, just a little before I moved back here after we divorced, people stopped coming over this way. I’m sure my art shop did so well because it was right over there at the intersection, so I was sitting where all the mall traffic collected from the four corners of the county.”

“Well, you had to be pretty smart to pick up such a prime location.” Knox felt another level of appreciation for Levinthia’s success. Of course a small town like Hibriten would present special problems for any single-operator enterprise. He had to admit that since their divorce, Levinthia had outdone him.

“I had some help.” Levinthia dropped her gaze to her pink fingernails. After a moment, she looked back at Knox. “Besides, even with prime location, you’d be surprised how many people saw the log cab as a disadvantage.”

“I guess most people would expect you to be selling quilts and cedar picture frames.”

“I disappointed a lot of tourists because I didn’t sell hillbilly souvenirs.” Levinthia rested her knuckles on her shoulder then leaned her cheek against the back of her hand, keeping her eyes on Knox.

This was the most flirtatious pose Knox had ever seen Levinthia strike. For as long as he had known her and been married to her, she had never struck such a pose. She’d never needed to. It had to be something she’d picked up since coming back to Hibriten. Maybe she had developed this new skill as part of her migration to Blowing Rock. Or maybe his ex-wife had a boyfriend for whom she had honed these suggestive postures. Although he’d seen only this one pose, Knox knew Levinthia had learned many more. She’d slipped into this one too easily not to have a series of them layered into her muscles.

With a convulsive conviction, Knox realized that Levinthia had brought him to the Scarlet Sow to tell him she was about to marry another man. No doubt some rich aristocrat with a summer mansion in Blowing Rock and a winter home in Miami. Flirting with him was simply her last act of cruelty. Reluctant as he was to admit it, Knox had been crippled by their divorce. And by his failed career. His art rental enterprise was really a form of therapy or rehabilitation. It had made him still feel perversely connected to Levinthia, putting art in places that didn’t really care about art. Reducing it to decoration.

This morning, when he had studied the way she had altered those paintings to reflect her resentment toward him, he had experienced the first glimmer of hope since the furniture market dried up. He thought she was sending him a message. Yes. Certainly, she resented him. And he deserved that. Throughout all of their marriage, he had been self-centered. He hadn’t grown with her. His devotion to his sales territory had been much more mature than his view of his relationship with Levinthia. At least with his furniture territory, he had constantly schemed to make it more profitable. No telling how many hours of emotion he had burned up calculating how to increase demand. Each time store owners informed him about plans to expand, Knox insisted on taking them and their families out to dinner.

“Had your old neighborhood changed much?” Levinthia slid herself a little closer to Knox.

The question that Knox had been wanting to ask his ex-wife since he’d followed her to the Loomis house was what sort of business brought her out to his old neighborhood. It must have been art related because he’d seen her carry in that large canvass. But he’d never heard any stories about the Loomises being art collectors. More interesting right now, as far as Knox was concerned, was the possibility that Levinthia’s visit might be connected to the new man in her life. As hard as he tried, though, Knox couldn’t recall any other members of the Loomis household except for Lucy and her parents.

“How old are Mr. and Mrs. Loomis now?” Knox thought maybe a distant relative had come to live with Lucy and her parents. Although neighborhood legend hinted that Lucy wasn’t much older than the kids Knox grew up with, her parents had always seemed much, much older than any other parents in the neighborhood. He’d never considered that the Loomises might have connections outside of Hibriten. Like Lucy’s Field, they didn’t seem governed by any of the normal rules defining society or geography.

“They’re both very old. You wouldn’t know it to watch them doing their chores, though. “They’ve got remarkable energy. And Spunk.” Levinthia dropped out of her flirtatious pose, leaning her shoulder against the steering wheel and shaking her head. “Mr. Loomis was the one who contacted me not long after I moved back to Hibriten.”

“Are they still able to take care of Lucy?”

“Oh, yes.” Levinthia hooked her arm over the steering wheel and pulled herself more upright. “Mr. Loomis told me that taking care of Lucy is what keeps him and his wife so sprightly.”

Despite suspecting that Levinthia wasn’t telling him the whole truth, Knox felt slightly relieved. She didn’t seem inclined to bring up any other important topics at this moment—like a new boyfriend. But from the way she kept shifting in her seat, Knox knew she had to be sitting on some serious secret. She was definitely different from the woman who had divorced him. It wasn’t just him being fooled by his own regret. Of that much he was certain. But she couldn’t seem to find the right angle to tell him what she needed to.

“Here comes our food.” Levinthia’s gratitude for the interruption infused her voice with a huskiness that sounded completely out of proportion to the arrival of chopped barbeque.

The curb hop carried their food on a metal tray with square hooks along one edge. Running along the opposite edge were four slanted braces. It looked like an appliance left over from the 60’s. At the peak of his sales career, Knox had eaten in every barbeque grill between Atlanta and Jacksonville, but the tray carried by the Scarlet Sow curb hop was an artifact that predated anything he’d seen in all of his meals on the road. For that matter, the boy himself worried Knox like a half-remembered name. He moved quickly enough. Maybe even a little too quickly, barely bending his knees as he scurried toward the van, his head tilted slightly away from the tray. He moved like a kid who had never seen Saturday Night Fever or Dancing with the Stars.

Tranquilized by the smoky flavor of the pork, Knox felt a tendril of nostalgia. Now, he recalled that Levinthia hadn’t said anything specific about Lucy. He wondered what kind of shape that invalid would be in after all these years. At the same time, he also realized that Levinthia still hadn’t explained her exact business at the Loomis house. “So what was that canvass you dropped off at the Loomises’?”

After she finished chewing the barbeque she’d just put in her mouth, Levinthia dipped her head to take a drink of iced tea. “Mr. Loomis commissioned me to paint a series of landscapes around his neighborhood. He says they’re for Lucy. He’s hanging them all around her iron lung.”

“How is Lucy doing?” Knox remembered telling Levinthia about visiting the Loomis house with his church children’s choir. He hadn’t gone into the details of how the iron lung’s glass walls had distorted Lucy’s face and body until she looked more liquid than solid.

“I have to admit, Knox, the first two or three times I went to that house, I didn’t know how I’d deal with what I’d been told was a horribly deformed . . .”

“Wait,” Knox interrupted. “Just how many times have you been to the Loomis house?”

“Seven.”

No one Knox knew personally had been inside the Loomis house seven times. He had grown up as something of a daredevil because he had been inside once and actually spoken to Lucy. “Have you talked to her?”

“We’ve had a couple of conversations.” Levinthia took a bite of her barbeque and covered her mouth with her hand as if she didn’t want Knox to see her chewing.

But Knox suspected that she wanted to conceal more than how she ate. “What did you talk about?”

“Art.” Levinthia dropped her hand from her mouth but let it hover in front of her chin. “Lucy loves art.”

Knox didn’t know what to think of Levinthia’s not trusting her face. Clearly, she wanted to be ready to obstruct his view of some involuntary reaction. This was the Levinthia that he remembered from the last days of their marriage, when she acted as if it was painful talking to him. Briefly, Knox dropped back into his old attitude toward conversation with his wife—probing her discomfort was the way to the truth. At least, now, he did wonder vaguely why he believed that. Wasn’t it just as likely that Levinthia felt uncomfortable when she had to tell him the truth?

“Isn’t it hard for Lucy to talk?” In all of his dreams about Lucy, Knox had never conceived of her as speaking. He assumed that living in an iron lung took away that ability. On the other hand, he could see how she would like art. He had played his trumpet for her. Thinking that she might be able to hear him across her field when he practiced there at the edge of the woods had induced him to practice more than he might have. If he’d had more talent, he might have done something constructive with his music. In a way, Lucy had been his muse. During his practice times, anyway.

Before answering, Levinthia took several bites of her barbeque. “She makes herself understood.”

Knox watched Levinthia closely. He leaned slightly toward her, wanting her to know that he was studying her face. “About art.”

“That’s what interests her most.” Levinthia refused to make eye contact. She made an elaborate display of opening a packet of ketchup, squeezing it into the corner of the cardboard bowl holding her hushpuppies, then dipping a hushpuppy into the red blob.

“Who’s her favorite painter?” Knox continued to stare at Levinthia. He was beginning to find this interrogation arousing. It was certainly more satisfying than hearing her talk about some new lover who wanted to take her to Tahiti.

“Whoever she’s got sitting in front of her at the moment.” Levinthia glanced up from her meal to return Knox’s stare. “I’ve been her favorite on occasion.”

“Like this afternoon when you dropped off your painting for Mr. Loomis?” Knox squirted out some of his own ketchup when he saw that Levinthia was going to take her time about answering.

“Everybody liked it.” Levinthia took a drink of her iced tea then stirred her straw. “Lucy remembers you.”

“She can’t.” Knox felt his hands and face go numb. As far as he was concerned, Lucy wasn’t real. “I spoke to her once about thirty years ago.”

“But then there were all those years you played your trumpet at the edge of your back yard so she could listen.”

“I really didn’t think she could hear me.” The numbness in Knox’s hands intensified. He worried that if his face grew more numb he’d lose his peripheral vision. “How could my trumpet have carried all the way across her field, through the wall of her house, and inside that thick glass of her iron lung?”

“Maybe you played louder than you realized.” Levinthia finished her last hushpuppy and put the cardboard container on the metal tray attached to her window. “Maybe her mother or father opened the French doors that opened on the back porch facing Lucy’s Field. Maybe Lucy can get out of her iron lung a couple hours each day.”

Most of his outdoor practicing did take place when the weather was warm. Knox recalled the marches he had to memorize in the fall for football season. In the spring, he worked on music for All-State Band tryouts, the solo and ensemble contests, and their spring concert. And he had always kept a regular schedule for his practicing outside: from around 4 till 5:30, sometimes a little longer as the evenings stretched out with more and more light. More than once, though, when he was driving between Atlanta and Jacksonville and he slipped in a CD of Harry James or Herb Alpert or Louis Armstrong, he had wondered why all that practicing failed to amount to more than it did.

“Lucy and I have agreed that you would have been a happier person if you’d not given up the trumpet.” Levinthia took Knox’s empty hushpuppy tub and his paper plate from his lap and stacked them on the window tray.

“I would have been a happier person if I could have played the trumpet better.” Knox dreaded the cloud of gloom that always settled over him when he thought too long about his one semester as a music major. “You know, Levinthia, I think one reason our marriage didn’t work was because you succeeded in your art. All I could do was be a traveling salesman on the road to ruin.”

“You can’t blame yourself for the furniture market drying up.” Levinthia squeezed Knox’s hand.

“Okay. Who can I blame?” Knox returned Levinthia’s squeeze and leaned closer to her.

“Blame a saturated market. Blame a flabby economy. Oversupply in the face of falling demand.” Levinthia glanced over Knox’s head and pulled her hand from his grip to give a quick wave. But then she dropped her hand on top of his.

Looking over his shoulder, Knox saw the curb hop churning toward them. He looked back at Levinthia. “You didn’t used to talk like that.”

“I’ve been doing some selling myself.”

“Seems like your art talent extends into retail.” Knox held onto Levinthia’s hands but swept them through the air to indicate the size of her van.

Still holding onto Knox’s hands, Levinthia stood up and slipped between the two chairs. Then she pulled Knox out of his seat. The back of the van loomed impossibly distant behind her. For a moment, Knox hesitated. He glanced out the passenger window toward the Scarlet Sow. For some reason, he worried about what the curb hop might think was going on inside the van. But now the restaurant looked long neglected, the parking lot unattended and abandoned.

Then Levinthia was pulling him away from the window, deeper into her van, which now felt more like a grotto than a commercial vehicle, the carpet onto which he sank with his ex-wife more like moss than fabric. Somewhere deeper in the van, Knox thought he heard a subterranean waterfall.

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