RED DIRT ROAD
Excerpt from RED DIRT ROAD . . . the novel
Jim Barnett walked ahead of the group, opening the bank’s door and stepping aside to let the woman and her son enter first. The cold air hit Amy like an assault. It contrasted so heavily to the outside temperature that a chill rushed through her. This type of temperature change always brought colds in the summer. She pulled Michael in front of her as Barnett followed.
“Jim, Jim Barnett,” a woman’s voice rang with laughter across the bank and weaved its magic into a melody.
Something was not right. Amy searched for the reason for this feeling of dread that descended on her. She always got a warning, a kind of second-sight on things that weren’t right. And this was not right, somehow.
She couldn’t make it out as she stared at the crisply dressed woman who called Barnett’s name. The staccato click from the woman’s high heels beat across the space that separated her from Barnett. When the woman reached him, she hugged him, planting a kiss on his cheek. She then took his arm to pull him excitedly toward her office.
The woman ignored Amy and Michael. But Barnett stopped and started introductions.
“Jennifer, this is Amy Mansfield, my new bookkeeper, with her son. And Amy, this is Jennifer Neal, my loan officer.”
Jennifer looked up at Amy with a frown. The woman appeared to be mid-twenties, about Amy’s age. Jennifer dressed attractively. Her hair length fell below her ears and lay in a very neat, straight and stylish cut. The woman’s crisp-brown linen suit complimented the red-gold tones in her hair. Initially, Jennifer’s appearance would be pleasant. But after careful observation, Amy decided that the woman’s weak chin would be hard to hide if her hairstyle changed. And the woman’s large teeth reminded Amy of that ugly mare that her dad once owned.
For some reason, Amy did not like Jennifer Neal on sight. Warming to her vindictive thoughts, Amy wondered just how neat Miss Jennifer Neal would look after a twenty-four-hour trip on a bus.
Jim looked briefly at Amy, his eyes narrowed just like before when Amy thought that he was reading her mind. Amy felt on display with Jennifer not saying a word but only eyeing the tear in Amy’s worn Levis. This tattered look might be fashionable in some locations, but Amy knew that for her, it was actually only one of the last items of clothing that she had after the fire.
Amy straightened to her five-feet eight inches making her tower over the diminutive woman who wore three-inch heels. She returned Jennifer’s cold stare. She deliberately folded up her long sleeves to her elbows. And then she lifted her chin a little higher, a habit that she had when she felt threatened.
Jim Barnett must have felt the tension because he disengaged his arm from Jennifer’s hold and he placed his open palm at the small of Amy’s back. He moved next to her and guided her forward, causing her to break her gaze with Jennifer.
Amy felt herself sway into him as her body easily fit at his side. Barnett’s nearness now reassured her. While the uneasy feeling still threatened her, Amy looked at the bank tellers, the marble floors, the leather upholstery, the nameplate stating, JENNIFER NEAL, LOAN OFFICER, but she couldn’t identify where this feeling of a threat came.
Amy also knew that the man, Jim Barnett, had no concept of a threat here.
As the group entered Jennifer’s glassed-in office, the woman turned to Amy. “Glad to meet you,” Jennifer smiled.
Jennifer turned back toward Barnett, “Tell me, Jim, why you didn’t inform me of this bookkeeper that you needed. I know several reputable local bookkeepers. But I haven’t met Ms. Mansfield.”
Jennifer turned her gaze back to Amy, “I don’t believe that you’re from around here, are you Ms. Mansfield?”
Amy had no intention of giving personal information to this woman. She turned to Jim.
“Mr. Barnett, could you tell me why we’re here?”
Barnett responded by pulling a chair for Amy to sit down. He nodded for Michael to take another. Finally, only Barnett and the loan officer stood.
“Oh, yes, pardon me, please, everyone have a chair,” Jennifer finally stated.
Barnett stood with his hat in his hand waiting for Jennifer Neal to take her own offer.
When Jennifer finally sat down, Barnett moved to sit beside Amy. Mr. Barnett’s courteous manner made Amy confront her own poor attitude.
She wondered if her thoughts about Miss ‘Neat’ had anything to do with the way the woman possessively held on to Jim Barnett’s arm; or the way the woman’s eyes scanned the handsome man’s face but didn’t stop short of other attributes, like his broad shoulders, or his narrow but muscular hips, or the way his Levis faded over the mound at his zipper. Amy felt her face flush at her own vulgar thoughts.
After Barnett folded his length into the overstuffed chair, he placed his straw cowboy hat on the edge of Jennifer’s desk.
“What made you come today, Jim? It’s been ages.”
“I wanted you to know that I now have Hank’s replacement so that we can get those books checked like you’ve mentioned.”
Jennifer’s eyebrow lifted in surprise, “Jim, I certainly hope that the books are wrong just to save your ranch. And I do hope that we can find that error that you have mentioned ever since I moved here. Was it four or five years ago?” she questioned, but she didn’t wait for Barnett’s reply. “My goodness, how time flies. But, Jim,” she paused, “I sincerely believe that there is no error. We’ve gone over and over this problem. You’ve sold more and more cattle to meet this foreclosure. We can’t stop gravity.”
Jennifer then turned to Amy, “Are you certified in the state of Oklahoma?”
Barnett responded, “Actually, Jennifer, Ms. Mansfield is not certified in any state.”
Miss Neal’s mouth shaped an O but she made no sound. Several silent seconds clicked by as Jennifer’s eyes remained locked with Amy’s. Then Jennifer turned back to Barnett.
“You know, Jim, that I can’t imagine why you would want to do this and waste your money that you tell me that you don’t really have. I would have rechecked your books for no charge. I would do that for an old friend.”
Bizarre images rose in Amy’s mind. The term ‘old friend’ broadcast a spectrum of odd visions. The image of Jennifer Neal requiring other services from this new boss came quickly to Amy’s mind. And Amy frowned at why she would think of such bizarre, wild sexual poses, images that Amy had never even imagined existed until this display danced across her mind’s screen—distorted images that couldn’t be real. Amy frowned. Did something about Miss Neal trigger this?
Jennifer continued, “You know, Jim, that I can’t understand your reasoning here at all. Somehow, up until now, you have managed to come up with the payments for your ranch. How much of your herd do you still have left?”
Barnett didn’t reply.
Amy watched Barnett’s hands. The long, lean fingers lay splayed on each thigh, relaxed and not moving. Amy wasn’t taking the interview as comfortably as her new boss. She tried to unclench her own fingers from their hard-little fists.
“Jim, you won’t have cattle forever at this rate. And now from your lack of funds, you’re hiring cheap labor to assure that our bankbooks are wrong? Really, Jim, to save your ranch, I certainly hope there to be something wrong with the books. I wouldn’t know what Pleasant Plains would be like without the Barnett ranch nearby. It’s a historical legacy.”
“Miss Neal,” Amy interrupted, pulling Jennifer from her discussion, “in regard to your choice of words about me being ‘cheap labor,’ you need to know that I’ll catch any error if there is even one thing wrong with the books, I’ll find it, certification or not. You remember that.”
Jennifer immediately turned back to Jim, “To have no professional papers, she certainly is confident.”
Barnett looked at Amy with another frown. But then he turned immediately back to Miss Neal.
“She did get recommended by several certified accountants in Florida. She contracted with them from her home. She would come to their firm, pick up the books and do the work from her house. Then she would take the books back to the accounting office that contracted with her. Each accounting agency that I called said that she never worked inside their office like a regular bookkeeper. But they gave her excellent references because even though she didn’t have a certificate, she never had an error on her books. However, she had caught several errors on certified accountants’ books.”
Then he looked back at Amy, “So, why is it that you never got certified?”
Amy turned to better face him. She really felt her head getting hot with anger. But she knew to keep her tone of voice pleasant.
“You didn’t ask me that question when you asked my wage standard. Is it because this loan officer is asking for my references or is it because you really want to know why I wanted to be at home with my son?”
Barnett’s frown deepened. He never broke eye contact. Jennifer stood. The click of Jennifer’s heels sounded as she circled her desk and stood in front of Barnett. Barnett’s eyes remained narrowed on Amy’s.
Jennifer tapped one toe of her high heels to get Barnett’s attention. And Amy didn’t appreciate Barnett breaking eye contact at Jennifer’s impatience.
When Jennifer saw that Barnett lifted his eyes to her, she took Barnett’s arm and prompted him to stand as she interlaced her arm with his and led him to her office door.
As she exited, she said, “I’m just sorry that it has come to this. To think that the Barnett Ranch will be gone out of this area and it’s been here since Oklahoma was only a Territory. It’s just unimaginable.”
The words drifted to Amy like a headache.
Amy watched as Jennifer continued her conversation out the door.
“You see, Jim, I just do not see how this bookkeeper without even a certification to prove her competence, is going to help you very much except, perhaps, put you even further in debt by her salary.”
As the twosome kept walking further without a backward glance, Amy no longer heard their conversation. She stood, motioning for Michael to stand. She put her arm around his thin shoulders as she led him out of the room. Michael leaned heavily into her, still exhausted from the long trip.
Amy narrowed her eyes on Jennifer and Barnett as they walked farther away. It seemed to Amy that this Jennifer Neal, claiming friendship, tried to discourage this new boss in something that he obviously needed done to save his ranch. Amy didn’t like friends like Jennifer. Friends like Jennifer Neal crushed hopes better than any hated enemy.
Jennifer’s laughter came again from across the room. But now the magic that earlier played within its chords seemed to have worn away to reveal an evil delight in Barnett’s shortages.
Amy felt her imagination running wild again. She realized that her thoughts were only speculative, but she had learned not to ignore her second-sight. It always gave her warnings, even in dreams. And right now it kept hinting of something very wrong with this situation—very wrong within this bank—maybe wrong with this Jennifer Neal. But her boss appeared clueless. Even if Amy didn’t get to keep this job because of Miss Neal’s pointed complaints, Amy knew that her curiosity about these books would take over if given even an inch to operate.
She now watched the couple approach the outside door and Amy prompted Michael forward with a sinking feeling in her chest. If she didn’t get to keep this job, there was no more money to go anywhere else. She would have to go to a local church to find a handout until she could locate a temporary job.
Barnett opened the door and held it for her as she approached. He nodded for her to walk ahead.
“It’s always good to see you, Jim.” Jennifer spoke as Amy exited. “See you soon,” Jennifer’s voice carried from the lobby as Amy and Jim exited the bank and the door slowly closed on its padded hinges.
Amy paused quietly in front of Barnett, “Do I still have a job?”
Barnett took time to place his straw hat over his short-clipped hair. He squinted his dark eyes into the bright sun. The heat from the sidewalk rose from the concrete like an oppression. But then he lowered his eyes to meet hers and nodded.