The Ladies Temperance Club's Farewell Tour.
1st book in Fish Fishbein's Adventures in La-La Land series.
Prologue & Chapter 1
Jack Thibideau wasn’t Catholic.
He wasn’t an Episcopalian, a Baptist, or a Lutheran, either.
Nor was he a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jew. Or even a Muslim.
What he was, was a con man and a thief. A bottom feeder who didn’t have much use for any tax-exempt Judeo-Christian outfit that discouraged its members from separating others from their hard-earned shekels.
He also didn’t have a lot of patience for the rules, regulations and bylaws of the rest of the world’s religious clubs and associations.
Particularly, the Hindu and Buddhist notion of karma, and the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, and trying to move a little further up the cosmic food chain with each successive lifetime.
Lead a good and righteous life and you just might come back as a higher being, eventually achieving enlightenment and moving up to the major leagues.
But take a lower path, and your next lifetime could come with a job description with a much higher yuck factor. Like, say, a vulture, a dung beetle or one of those mites that live inside a city councilman’s descending colon.
Too bad the whole concept of karma and riding the reincarnation-go-round was such a dead issue with Jack.
Because before this evening came to an end, so would he.
“God damn it, Kay,” Vonda hissed at her friend from behind her menu. “You don’t come to a place like this and order fries!”
They say the road to purgatory is paved with good intentions.
“I mean, look around. You see a drive-up window here? You see a kid with zits behind the counter? It just ain’t freakin’ done.”
They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
“Whatcha want is called a ‘pommie-fritz’. That’s French, dear. Think you can remember that?”
They say that life in a southern California suburb like Newbury Park is pretty damned nice – bucolic even.
“And for Crissakes, don’t even think about askin’ for ketchup!”
Together, Vonda, Kay and their friend Louise made up the entire active membership of the Newbury Park Ladies’ Temperance Club - all seated around a freshly set table at La Petite Auberge, the town’s newest upscale bistro.
“And waiter . . . bring us another bottle of the house Chardonnay, sill voo play.”
Vonda went back to folding and unfolding the cellophane wrapper from her toothpick, getting ready to use it to floss between two of her front teeth, just as soon as the waiter disappeared back into the kitchen. Between her multicolored and sequined sweat outfit and the matching shoes and handbag, she was the most expensively dressed Temperance Clubber at the table and - at least in her mind - a fashion leader, whose example the others in the group would do well to follow.
“Just look at the two of you,” she made a sucking sound, trying to dislodge a morsel of food from between a bicuspid and its nearest neighbor. “You look like a pair of over the hill, middle aged moms, for Chrissake.”
Kay pulled in a deep breath and looked away for a moment, slowly counting to ten in silence. She and Vonda had been close friends for more years than she cared to remember, yet through it all there was always this picture in the back of her mind, of Vonda, forced out of her career, with not much in the way of options. All of which left her trapped in a relationship that would have to be ten times richer, more affectionate and supportive to make it all the way up to loveless.
All right, so Vonda had to climb up on her high horse every now and then in order to feel like she had any value as a human being. So what? If that was what her friend needed, then let her climb.
But right now, the cellophane-flossing fashion plate was working on her last nerve and Kay really wanted to give her a piece of her mind.
As if that was ever going to happen.
The two other women at the table were her best friends in the world, and with Louise and Vonda, sometimes you just had to get along to get along.
Heck, she sighed heavily - most times.
Kay turned back toward Vonda and dropped her gaze to the linen tablecloth, unable to look her in the eye and more angry with herself than she was with her friend.
“I know,” she sighed, letting all the air exit her lungs in one long, ennui-tempered rush. “I’m sorry.”
Louise bristled for a second, then angrily snatched a slice of baguette from the basket on the table, tore it in half and jabbed it into the dish of heavily peppered olive oil on the table. Nobody picked on her friends, not while she was in the room. Not even another friend.
“I swear to God, Kay. You apologize to that cow one more time for being who you are - and I’ll kick the crap out of you myself!”
Then she turned on Vonda.
“And who the hell died and appointed you the fashion police, huh? Y’know, I just read an article in Vogue about how sequined sweat suits were sooo two seasons ago.”
She bit off some of the oil-soaked bread and continued, purposely spraying crumbs and extra-virgin in Vonda’s direction.
“And while we’re at it, who are you callin’ over the hill? You remember the last time we all got hammered and went skinny dippin’ in Kay’s hot tub?”
“Well, one of us was sportin’ a pretty detailed map of the whole damn Sacramento Valley on their tummy - done in stretch marks, babe. And it wasn’t either of us middle-aged moms.”
Louise stabbed her piece of bread in the oil a second time.
“And by the way, Vonda. It looked to me like your Sacramento River Delta was overdue for a good pruning, if you know what I mean.”
* * *
“Oh Baby, Yes Baby,
Havin’ me some fun tonight!”
Jack Thibideau took a swig from his glass.
Little Richard was serenading the whole freakin’ neighborhood again. And that could only mean one thing.
Vonda was just about at the driveway. And as usual, so was the rest of the Ladies’ Temperance Club.
And as usual, they were probably all half in the bag and driving hell bent for leather up the hill.
And as usual, Louise had her Mustang’s top down and the stereo cranked all the way up, blaring her “You-bet-your-sweet-patoot-I’m-snockered-and-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it, shorty” tape.
Jack had to hand it to Louise. She was more than just a woman who told it like it was and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought.
She was more than just a single mom whose kid was all grown up and on his own.
And more than just a big woman with appetites to match, who reveled in life and being alive.
Louise was truly larger than life -- a freakin’ force of nature.
Jack scowled as he brought the glass of cheap bourbon up to his lips to take another swig.
God, how he detested large, honest women who lived life to the fullest and didn’t give a crap what anybody thought about them.
But more than that, he also hated the mousey ones who didn’t have the ‘stones’ to stand up for themselves.
Not to mention cops, game show hosts, the acne-scarred kid who worked the drive-thru window at the Bun & Burger, most teachers, actors, Jews, Mexicans, African-Americans, professionals, guys who made more than him, guys who made less than him, the Pakistani clerk at the 7-11, and every last member of the 1969 New York Mets.
In fact, aside from Vonda, the only people he had much use for at all were the members of his old high school football team, their coaches (at least, those who were still above ground) and the products of their collective loins. Together, they made up his customer base, a statewide network of old football cronies, most of whom could be counted on to purchase one or more of his bogus insurance policies.
Damn right he was supporting himself and Vonda by fleecing his oldest and dearest friends. What the hell else were they good for?
Besides, it took a lot of bucks to keep Vonda in Chardonnay and those stupid looking sweat suits.
Little Richard was carrying on even louder as Louise’s car screeched to a stop at the top of the driveway. Jack took one last gulp of his bourbon, grabbed the glass and bottle and took off for his home office, shutting off the living room lights as he left.
On the way, he almost tripped over two of their dying German Shepherds, lying in the hallway and simultaneously wheezing loudly with every breath and leaking a different scented and colored fluid from each orifice.
All told, he and Vonda owned eight dying dogs – three German Shepherds, two beagles, a three-legged Dalmatian and a pair of ancient and diabetic twin Chihuahuas.
Funny thing was, for all the loathing and disdain he felt for most of the human race, his heart really went out to every one of his expiring canines. Go figure.
Jack closed the door to his office just as the front door flew open and the Ladies Temperance Club staggered in.
“Why don’t you two go open a bottle of wine? I’ll go see if Jack wants to join us.”
“Hey, why bother?” Louise chortled. “C’mon, that son of a bitch hates our guts and he makes my skin crawl. Who needs him? You can only pile shit so high, honey. And that midget’s pretty much stacked it as high as it’ll go.”
The three had been friends for a long time; so long none of them could accurately recall how they originally met. Yet, in good times and bad and with all the Chardonnay that flowed under their figurative bridge, one aspect of their friendship remained constant and unchanging, and that was the level of mutual hatred and distrust that instantly blossomed between Louise and Kay, and Jack. In their eyes, he was a two-bit hustler and scam artist, who never turned down a chance to carve off another giant economy-sized chunk of Vonda’s self-esteem. Neither woman would trust Jack even half as far as she could dropkick him. And, more than once over the years Louise had risen to her feet, towered over Jack and loudly told him that if he was ever on fire and lying in the middle of the road, she wouldn’t walk across the street to pee on him.
On the other hand, Jack just hated everyone. So, what difference would two more make?
Kay jumped in to her friend’s defense. “Vonda’s just being polite, Louise.”
“Well, she’s never gonna pry him away from www.pornfortheimpotent.com, anyway. So I vote we let sleeping turds lie.”
Louise chuckled at her own joke for a second. Then she screwed up her nose, recoiling at something in the air inside the house.
“Jesus Christ, Vonda - what the hell are you two feedin’ those dogs? Sweetie, I’ve been downwind from septic tanks that didn’t smell this bad.”
“Now, Louise . . .” Kay was quick to jump to her friend’s defense a second time. “Now, you know you have to make allowances for the dogs. They’re all…well, terminal.”
“Yeah, well honey, they’re killin’ me.”
She turned to Vonda. “I mean, you and Jack ever thought about getting your dogs to do their business out in the yard?”
Shaking her head in disbelief, Louise gestured toward the kitchen.
“C’mon, let’s go dig up Vonda’s corkscrew,” she said to Kay. “I need a drink. And a mind is a terrible thing to baste.”
* * *
Holding her hands out to touch the walls on either side, Vonda carefully made her way down the dark, narrow hallway that led to Jack’s home office, refuge and online den of iniquity. Her years with The Ladies’ Temperance Club had taught her two important life lessons, learned -- sooner or later -- by almost every member of the worldwide fraternity of end-stage canine owners and close friends of the grape.
First lesson: the elasticity of your hallway’s floor and wall surfaces is in direct proportion to the lateness of the hour and the volume of fermented grape juice sloshing around in your tummy.
In other words, the more and longer you drink, the more it’s going to play havoc with your personal space/time continuum. And, gravity being the dependable, constant companion it is, when the walls and floor start getting a little too pliable, it’s a good idea to slow down your rate of forward travel and lean on said walls for support.
And the second lesson: expiring pooches being as prone to orificial leakage as they are, you might want to attempt that forward movement with your eyes wide open and the hallway lights on. That way, you’ll stand a better chance of avoiding–
“Oh, shit -”
Vonda didn’t need to look at her foot to figure out what she had just stepped in. The odor coming off her footwear and the sponginess of this particular section of hallway carpeting pretty much told her all she needed to know.
Cursing silently, she wiped her shoe as best she could on the already hopelessly stained, formerly white Berber carpeting, then moved on down the hall.
The idiot who originally insisted on flooring the entire house in white Berber – knowing Jack’s hobby of collecting dying, and therefore not overly housetraineable canines – ought to have had his head examined.
But then, there were so many reasons why the larcenous, alcoholic gnome at the end of the hall should have invested in some serious face time with a qualified mental health professional.
Starting with his infatuation with her, an interpersonal – and one-way -- fixation that dated all the way back to high school, circa 1964 or ‘65.
It was a simpler, more innocent time back then, an age when ‘stalking’ was something that hefty, rifle-toting guys with heavyweight red and black plaid jackets, dumb-looking caps with built-in earmuffs and nicknames like “Stosh” did in the Great North Woods, on the first day of deer season.
Vonda Mae and Jack’s initial meeting was anything but auspicious. Trumpets didn’t blare, angels didn’t sing and neither of them was struck dumb at the sight of the other.
Truth be told, Jack was struck dumb, but not by his first glimpse of Vonda Mae.
More like he was knocked senseless by a second string defensive tackle, who had figured out the only thing standing between himself and sacking the practice quarterback was all five feet and eight inches of third string offensive guard Jack Thibideau.
Jack came to lying flat on his back, somewhere between his thirty-five and forty-yard lines. Opening his eyes, he found himself looking up at most of the team, the trainers and his coach, who were all huddled around and anxiously looking down at him.
And thanks to the hit from the second string defensive tackle, he was seeing two complete sets of everyone.
He was also looking up at the inside of two blue and white cheerleader skirts, four milky white thighs and two pairs of blue cheerleader outfit panties. And since he was still a little loopy, it took him a moment or two to realize they all belonged to Vonda Mae Ables.
Unbelievably perky and blonde Vonda Mae Ables.
Head cheerleader and insanely hard partying Vonda Mae Ables.
“Y’think he’s dead, Coach?” Number twenty-eight, the second string center sounded a little concerned.
“’Course he ain’t dead, numbnuts!” Just about every high school in America had a head football coach with both a gravely voice and a thorny disposition, and Barstow High was no exception.
“You better not freakin’ die on me, boy...” The man was the soul of compassion.
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head from side to side, then moaned.
“Better not puke on me either.”
Jack shook his head again.
Then he opened his eyes.
Ornithologists will be happy to tell you – newly hatched ducklings naturally assume the first living thing they see on opening their peepers for the first time is Mom, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
In ornithological circles, it’s called ‘imprinting’.
And like infant waterfowl the world over, Jack Thibideau imprinted on the first living thing he saw. In his case, it was Vonda Mae Ables and her extra set of skirts, knees, thighs and panties.
But not only was Vonda Mae a long way from being whelmed by the sight of all five feet and eight inches of Jack Thibideau lying flat on his back across the thirty seven-yard hash mark and moaning, the fact that the coach was concerned about him maybe launching the school cafeteria’s Chicken Ala King lunch skyward, well, that wasn’t earning him points in her eyes, either.
Undaunted, Jack resolved that come Hell or high water, he wasn’t going to let Vonda Mae’s initial indifference to him make a big difference one way or the other.
But after two months of composing and stuffing a love poem a day into her locker, he wasn’t any closer to getting Vonda Mae to give up the torrid affair she was having with every member of the Varsity backfield.
He kept it up throughout the rest of football season and long into the spring, letting nothing get in the way of his daily appointments with the louvers on Vonda Mae’s locker door.
Until one hot July afternoon, when Jack’s mother answered the doorbell to find a uniformed deputy sheriff, bearing a message from the entire Ables clan, as well as a restraining order.
Vonda Mae graduated from Barstow High a month ago, and had been living in Dallas for the past three weeks, attending stewardess school at the headquarters of one of the country’s larger, friendlier airlines. And would he please take the ever lovin’ hint?
For one brief moment Jack was crushed by the news.
His Vonda Mae was gone; she had flown the high desert coop that was Barstow, and even he had to face the fact that she was out of his life.
But that didn’t have to mean she was gone for good.
After all, sooner or later she would have to return to her hometown – for a family wedding or funeral, or something.
And he’d be there, patiently waiting.
With a single-mindedness known only to recently hatched Mallards, Pintails and Loons.
But in the meantime, Jack had an uncle out in Thousand Oaks who owned an insurance brokerage, and had offered to take him in and teach him the business.
So, he called an audible and changed plays on the fly.
He would learn the insurance business from his uncle Ted, make enough money to live in a big house, drive a new Caddy and impress the hell out of Vonda Mae the next time she had a layover in Barstow.
Then, one morning about five years later, while Jack was relaxing in his office in
Thousand Oaks, a blurb on the obituaries page of the Barstow Enterprise Intelligencer made him sit bolt upright in his chair.
Vonda Mae’s aunt Eula Belle had passed away earlier in the week.
She was one of the girl’s favorite relatives, a warm and gracious traditional Southern cook, whose heart and arteries finally gave up their lifelong struggle against the ravages of a lard and butter-based cuisine.
After a pedal-to-the-metal, hundred and fifty mile sprint to Barstow, Jack ended up spending the weekend cooling his heels at the Ruffalo & Ruffalo Funeral Home, hoping against hope that Vonda Mae would fly in for the funeral and he could “accidentally” run into her.
Since graduation, his hairline had crept considerably northward, while his waist began to expand a bit from East to West.
No matter, because Jack just knew that once his Vonda Mae got a look at the bright red, almost brand new Corvette he had recently picked up for a song at a repo auction, there was no way she wasn’t going to be impressed with the success he was becoming.
Unfortunately, Vonda Mae never got to see the gradually expanding Jack Thibideau, his hot almost new Corvette, or her late Aunt Eula Belle.
She was stuck at a gray and faceless Hilton Hotel just outside some city on the Baltic Sea, snowed in by a winter storm that had all of northern Europe paralyzed.
Fortunately, she had several quarts of vodka and aquavit to keep her warm.
As well as her plane’s pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.
Vonda Mae might have been crazy about high school football players, but she had even less control when it came to airline flight officers. Just the sight of a man swaggering across her airline’s terminal in a powder blue, short sleeve dress shirt with striped epaulettes was enough to dramatically raise the humidity under certain parts of her 18-hour girdle.
OK, even Jack had to admit it had been a long shot.
But hell, there were bound to be other opportunities to run into his Vonda Mae in the future. And by then, who knew how big a success he might be?
All it would take would be cutting a few corners here and maybe taking a little risk there.
On the drive back from Barstow, he made a hundred-mile detour into Bakersfield, where he called on one of his old high school football teammates, who was now the assistant used car sales manager at a local Chevy dealership, and sold him a term life policy worth half a million dollars.
At least, it would have been if Jack had sent the man’s premium check to the home office, instead of depositing it into his own checking account.
* * *
Vonda took a deep breath and knocked softly on the door, which drew an unintelligible murmur from inside.
She knocked a second time, a little bit more insistently.
“Goddammit, it’s open!” She almost jumped as the venom in Jack’s voice accosted her through the door.
She eased the door open enough to poke her head inside the room. Even though there were no lights on in his office, she could see by the glow from his computer monitor that Jack had an almost empty bottle of Safeway’s best generic bourbon sitting on the desk.
Which was not a good sign.
Not entirely unexpected, but not an especially good omen, nonetheless.
Then she caught a glimpse of the website Jack had surfed to. A woman who looked like an extra from the movie “Deliverance” was trying to do to a horse what Vonda, in her younger and wilder stewardess days, was famous for performing on numerous pilots at thirty-five thousand feet.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Kay and Louise just stopped in, and I thought it would be nice if you’d come out and say hello.”
“Those two fat freakin’ dykes?!”
Jack’s shouted answer startled and embarrassed the hell out of her; she was sure her friends could hear him all the way out in the kitchen.
He took a long pull on his bottle of cheap bourbon. Then he continued on, at an even higher volume level.
“No, I don’t want to hang out with your two stupid-ass friends! Hell, I’d rather have my guts ripped out with a goddam dull teaspoon!”
Jack took another drink from the bottle. He was getting wound up for a virtuoso performance.
“Strike that, Vonda,” he yelled. “Tell you what, why don’t you just take a freakin’ hammer and cave the side of my skull in? I might enjoy that a little more!”
Maybe it was all the Chardonnay she had just downed at La Petite Auberge.
Or the almost twenty years of his skulking off to his home office, rather than spending any time with her at all.
Or the frustration of spending a couple of decades shackled to an impotent, alcoholic scam artist, who had to compensate for his inability to get it up by lashing out, ridiculing and belittling her, while he supported the two of them by defrauding his oldest friends.
Or the knowledge that Jack cared more for those goddam dying, shitting dogs than he did for her.
Whatever it was, at that moment something in Vonda just snapped.
As Jack turned his attention back to his monitor screen, she smiled.
And without even thinking, she walked over to the bookshelf and picked up a large, heavy football trophy engraved “DIVISION CHAMPIONS – VENTURA HIGH SCHOOL – 1979”, which Jack purchased at a pawnshop in Oxnard several years ago.
“Whatever you say, dear.” She answered in a calm, demure and almost affectionate voice.
Then she brought the trophy down on the back of Jack’s skull with all her might.
Three or four more times.
Jack’s head slumped forward toward his chest, his now lifeless and still-open eyes taking one last unseeing gander at the extreme animal husbandry playing on his computer screen.
Vonda was finally and irreversibly free.
Her companion and jailer for the past two decades was dead, still sitting perched in front of his computer while some of his brains dripped down the back of his neck and onto his shoulders.
There were millions of directions her mind could have raced off to at that moment. But instead of dwelling on her twenty years of bottled up anger, her new-found freedom or even the enormity of what she had just done, Vonda simply stared off into space, while the TV station in her head kept rerunning a scene of dozens of happy Munchkins, all dancing and singing, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”.
Kay and Louise suddenly appeared on the doorway.
“You all right, Vonda?” Kay asked.
“Yeah, you need any help with this two-bit—“
Then Kay reached into the room and flicked on the lights.
“Oh my Lord, Vonda!” she gasped. “What have you done?!”