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Excerpt from the Novel The Return of No. 44
BY BOB ROGERS I FEBRUARY 19, 2009
"Where the hell are we, Bette?" Ben had asked.
"Nowhere," Bette answered. "Glad I filled up back in that town, it looks like it's a hundred miles to Fields."
Taj cruised for an hour on the gravel ranch road between the snow-capped escarpment of Steens Mountain and the smooth roundness of the Sheepshead range.
"Hey, look up ahead, there's steam in the desert!" said Bette, pointing to a place where steam billowed from water bubbling out of a dry lakebed. "I got to get out from behind this damn wheel anyway." She pulled the Taj to a stop near a makeshift shelter and two pools. "It's a hot springs!"
She bolted toward the first pool, paused to shed her clothes and jumped in. Spot was not far behind, and the two frolicked in the steaming water, Spot barked and Bette laughed with delight.
"Oh my," said the old man, who had been awakened by the commotion. "Oh my, a nekkid lassie, Oh my!" His eyes sparkled.
Ben and Charlie looked in wide-eyed disbelief, and then made their way across the rough planks to the pool. Charlie stripped to his boxers and tumbled over the edge.
The old man found his shillelagh and shuffled as fast as he could toward the fun.
"Come on old guy, room for you too," said Bette.
When he got there, Bette helped him get undressed, "Oh my, Oh my," and into the pool, where she playfully splashed him, and Spot tried to climb up on his back.
"We could use some soap, guys. Who wants to volunteer to get it?" said Bette.
Charlie and Ben looked at each other. "Him!" they pointed.
"Men! I'll get it myself," said Bette, as she threw a thigh over the edge of the pool. Ben and Charlie looked on furtively. The old man smiled and stared with unabashed pleasure at her nakedness. "Oh my. Oh my."
She returned carrying soap and some towels. She didn't attempt to cover herself, and the men stared.
"Okay, guys, wash your eyes out with this," said Bette, as she passed out the soaps. She dunked to get wet again and proceeded to wash herself fully. "Get to work guys, Taj is startin' to stink. And stop your looking. You never seen a naked woman before?"
Charlie and Ben shyly soaped up and scrubbed in the hot water. The sulfur made it feel slick on their skin, and the scent, at first harsh, soothed their road-ravaged nerves. Their faces relaxed, Charlie began to nap, his head leaning back against the edge of the pool. Ben stared into the distance.
The old man stood in the waist-deep water, alternately playing with Spot, looking at Bette, or looking far across the mirages of the dry Alvord Lake to the blue-hazed mountains beyond—trying to remember something.
When Bette had finished with her long red hair she stood behind him and scrubbed his scalp vigorously like a mother lovingly washing a dirty child. Her breasts swung against his back as she worked. After rinsing his hair she washed his back and arms, working lower over his chest and stomach, cleansing his wrinkled drying skin with care.
"Oh my, oh my," he said. "I canna remember, I dunna remember har nam, but thar was a lassie..." He raised his head to the desert sky and placed a gnarled hand over his eyes. "Was wi' me long an love me. Was wi' me long..."
Bette stopped. "You two beat it. We still got some beers in the cooler."
Charlie and Ben looked at each other.
She remembered how it felt carrying him around in the hot spring and singing to him, how his thin, dry, wrinkled skin felt against her breasts.
Read Shelly Bryant's review of The Return of No. 44.