Bettie Page and Jimmy Free Bird

Issue #154
Winter 2022-23

I was standing on the packing line when I overheard it. Apparently, Bettie Page was in San Bernardino. The information came from Jim Wake, a man I’ve never particularly liked, but after hearing him swear up and down that the former pinup was actually around, I decided to join the conversation.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.

Jim didn’t answer. More DVD players made their way down the conveyor belt, so I placed one into a plastic bag, wrapped it, and slid the thing between two pieces of styrofoam. As I taped the box closed and glanced down the line, I saw that Jim was unloading a shrink-wrapped pallet. Jim ambled around it, taking a device here and there, staring more than working.

“Bettie Page,” I said, when he finally walked back over. “You’re full of it.”

Jim smelled like always. He is one of those kinds of men who drink too much and don’t shower enough.

“You think I’d make something like that up?” he said.

“I know you would. To impress the new guys.” I pointed at the two Randstad temps.

Jim grinned, which made me uncomfortable. He lifted his sweaty arms into a stretch and gazed into my eyes. I wanted to break the eye contact but didn’t want to come across as weak. It felt like a test.

“You Injuns always like that rockabilly shit,” Jim said. “Why is that, anyway?”

“You goddamn redneck.” I was right. It was a test—a challenge. “You gonna tell me about Page or not?”

Jim grabbed a stray DVD player and clumsily packed it away. He giggled hoarsely but ended up partaking in an exaggerated cough. The thing about Jim is he always takes our conversations in weird directions. In my approximation, Jim was blowing smoke up the temps’ asses with this Bettie Page thing, so I decided to take a water break.

“I’ll be back,” I said.

Standing at the yellow cooler with smudges of grime that nobody ever cleans, I thought about the possibility more. I couldn’t help it. What in the hell would Page be doing in San Bernardino anyway? I had attended several impersonation contests at the Route 66 Rendezvous Car Show, but the women there were always tatted to the hilt, so it never seemed that they were such great impersonators. But I was a fan of Bettie Page, nonetheless. My poster of her fighting a giant space creature, which my girlfriend had a love/hate relationship with, had been a staple in three of my last four apartments. Page pushed the envelope and did so in ways that others were afraid of. She embraced the strange. Bettie Page was the Roswell, New Mexico, kind of pinup. I appreciated her. She was an icon. And fuck Jim, I was kind of rockabilly. Proud even. I took my last swig of ice water and headed back to the packing line.

Jim was busy making a fool of himself in another conversation. He rattled on about the shitty Buick he drives. Jim’s Buick, a 1974 Century Gran Sport, is a public menace, but he swears up and down that it’s the best thing to hit the road since the Stingray.

“You talking about that ugly piece of metal you push around?” I said.

I knew my words would rouse him. Every now and then, when the warehouse gets too heavy and its noise becomes too much to bear, or when there isn’t anything else to do, Jim and I talk about cars. Often, it’s the same conversation. He might claim that the best cars were built in the 1970s, and I inform him of his ignorance. We eventually insult each other in unforgiveable ways, and then, just as soon as it starts, it’s over. We never get into knock-down, drag-outs. Neither of us can really lose the job. Jim is an asshole but has a wife and daughter who love him. And me, well, I’m just an asshole that likes to keep a roof over his head.

“What do you know about it?” Jim said, eyeing me again and elbowing the stocky kid next to him, a youngster who wore the Randstad badge and kind of looked like Biggie.

“I know the damned thing is an eyesore,” I said.

“Hey, hey,” said Jim, “ain’t no reason to shoot so low right out of the gate.” He turned to the kid with the Randstad badge. “He’s just mad because I won’t tell him about Bettie Page.”

“Who the hell is that?” the kid said. “I got shit to do, old man.” He dropped the box he was working on and headed to the other side of the line.

Jim’s feathers had been ruffled, but he probably knew there was nothing he could do about it. I almost felt bad for him, but then I remembered, I’ve never liked Jim much. I kind of enjoyed seeing him dejected.

“That went well,” I said.

“You always have something to say, Albert Tangled Pony, Barking Dog, or whatever it is your people call you. Keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.”

Jim had ramped it up. He was going for the jugular. Part of me was ready for it; the other part was dreading what might transgress.

“Watch it,” I said.

I left Jim where he stood and went to work the other side of the line. I’ve learned that busying myself is usually best when I get mad.

“So.” Jim was right next to me again. “You think I’m really lying, huh?”

His breath smelled like Cheez-Its and cod liver oil. Jim invaded that sanctuary of personal space I don’t let no one in, so I took a step back. And then I took another.

“Wash your mouth,” I said.

Jim looked a little hurt, like my words meant something, which they kind of did, but I had second thoughts after they tumbled out. Again, it’s weird when I feel bad for this man, but sometimes I do.

“All right, all right,” I said, “I’ll bite. You were talking about Bettie Page, right? In these parts? How the hell … No. Actually. Why the hell would she be here? And more importantly, why would a shit-star like you know anything about it?”

Jim seemed pleased with himself. He wiped a smear of sweat from his upper lip. “You ever hear of Patton?” he asked me.

I had to think a minute. I had seen a movie with the name, about the general. But Jim was asking like it was some kind of place.

“You mean the man?” I said.

“No,” Jim said, “the state hospital. The mental institution.”

Then it came to me. There’s a creepy-ass compound on the north side of town. All fenced in and shit, like a low-security prison. Right by the reservation. It’s been there forever, but I didn’t know too much about it. Someone I trusted once told me they used to forcibly sterilize Native people there, but that wasn’t something I was very informed about otherwise. Bottom line though, the place has a deep kind of history, one that I didn’t really want to know more about, especially if it was coming from the likes of Jim.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “up by the casino.”

“You would bring up San Manuel. How much they pay you?”

I wanted to slap Jim. He wasn’t letting up. I wanted to punch his gut. I wanted to spit in his eyes.

“How many times I gotta tell you,” I said. “I ain’t Serrano. Matter a fact, most Natives ain’t. Man, why don’t you go work by yourself. I’m tired of your dumb ass already.”

“Hold up,” Jim said, “Hold on now. I’m just dicking around. I know damn well you ain’t. You’re working here in this place with me, aren’t you?”

Jim had a sincere look on his face. It was a Jim kind of apology. I’d seen a similar look once before, when he got me going good on some whole other shit. For no apparent reason, Jim told our boss that I was wasting time, that I was taking advantage of my hours. And the boss believed him too. I had to get Mariano, the most honest man in the warehouse, to vouch for me. After the boss threatened to fire us both, Jim apologized. Jim’s face, as we walked out of the office back then, looked similar to the one he had now.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready to drop the whole thing. But what’s up with Page?”

“She’s up at Patton. Scout’s honor.”

“Yeah right,” I said. “Is she even alive? She’s gotta be way up there. I mean old.”

“Sure, she’s alive. A dusty old bat, but she’s still around.”

I wanted to check my phone, to end the nonsense, but our glorious employer makes us leave personal belongings in the lockers by security. And to make matters worse, we’re only allowed access to our lockers when we’re off the clock. Lunch had already passed, so there was no way to verify Jim’s story.

Jim stared at me, waiting, but I didn’t want to give him anything more right off. I thought I remembered that Bettie Page had mental episodes because of a traumatic childhood, and I knew she was in Los Angeles for most of her golden years, but I didn’t believe Patton for a second. And besides, the info was coming from Jim.

“How would you know?” I finally said. “Isn’t patient information confidential in places like that?” I began to think about how I could turn the tables somehow. Catch him up and lead him on at the same time.

“I got a cousin who is an orderly there. He’s been working there for five years. He was recently promoted to floor supervisor, where he has his hands in most of Patton’s business. Tells the other orderlies what to do.”

I called Jim’s bluff. “Why haven’t you ever mentioned this cousin?”

“I never had a reason to. Think about it. Have you ever mentioned any of your cousins?”

Jim had a point. He and I just aren’t close like that. We spend a lot of time together because of the job, but we never really talk about our families. I nodded toward another pallet that was just dropped off by Mariano from Receiving at the end of the packing line.

“Let’s go unload it,” I said.

“Yeah.” Jim cupped his hands around his mouth. “You temps, come and help me and Albert unload this pallet real quick.”

The Randstad folks, all two of them, didn’t look very happy with Jim, or the fact he called them You temps. I think it was probably clear Jim had no authority to be making orders. But the technician, a quiet Korean man from Kimko, who’d only arrived for the rework and sat at the center of the line uploading each DVD player with new software, looked at Jim and nodded in approval. Unfortunately, that bolstered Jim’s confidence.

“C’mon folks,” Jim said. “Let’s get this pallet unloaded and these players unboxed.”

I couldn’t help but feel that the folks Jim referenced included me. The temps didn’t exactly jump to, but maybe they noticed the technician’s gesture, or maybe they just wanted to shut Jim up; whatever it was, they eventually lumbered over with their box cutters. The older temp, a small, balding white man with a thick mustache, slashed at the boxes and shrink-wrap with a kind of ferocity that made everyone a little cautious. Eventually, we got the shrink-wrap removed, the line loaded, and the plastic gadgetry removed. The DVD players resembled shiny keys on a xylophone, balanced atop each box, awaiting the technician’s upload. Jim’s endeavor to be a boss left the air a little tense, so after a hot minute, the temps left me and Jim where we stood.

Before long, I started to think of Bettie Page again. Strangely, I couldn’t get her off my mind. It was like she was a hallucinatory angel, a vision cascading down from tacky overhead light and giant metal ceiling fans. My imagination took me elsewhere, and I could see beauty. And if I really consider it, at that moment, I enjoyed it. I suppose when you are standing on the packing line like that, your neck cranked, the stifling heat suffocating you, and the eggy smell of propane-powered forklifts wafting between you and a man who smells like Jim, you do your best to make the hours go by.

“You were saying about your cousin,” I said. “Up at Patton.”

Jim glanced up from the DVD player he was fiddling with. He undid the plastic and set the shiny black-and-grey player on the box before him.

“Yeah, my cousin Cody. He transferred to Patton from the Department of Corrections.”

“How much does something like that pay?” I was distracted by the thought of money. More money. Better money.

“Damn good. He’s got all kinds of benefits too. When he retires, which will be sooner than later, he’s gonna buy some property in Baja and live like a king for the rest of his life.”

“Is that right? How come he doesn’t get you a job there?”

“It ain’t really a place I want to be. Patton isn’t easy.”

“And this is?”

“That’s not what I mean. They monitor you there. You got to go through all kinds of training. They make you test too. Worst of all, if you are an orderly, you might see some shit you never thought you’d have to. I mean, Vietnam, Afghanistan, I mean PTSD type shit. Patton is filled with criminals who claim they are insane to get off.”

Jim always had to throw something weird into a conversation, something fucked up. How was I supposed to take Jim at his word, a word that was claiming Bettie Page, one of the most beautiful women to ever walk this green earth, was at a place like that? It was nonsense, but then again, nonsense can make the day go by.

“You know,” I said, “I really don’t believe you. But I’ll give you a chance to convince me. We’ve worked together for a while now. That’s gotta amount to something. I still don’t know if she’s even alive. Can’t check since I ain’t got my phone, but for now, I’ll let you talk me into this wild story of yours.”

“I swear it. She’s at Patton. They have her in the elderly ward. She’s there.”

I saw an opportunity to throw a curve ball, to see how Jim responded. I asked him if Bettie Page used her real name or the name everybody knows her by.

“Hold it,” Jim said, “you haven’t let me finish what I was saying. Her real name is spelled with a y by the way. It’s what they have her under.”

He was right. It was too easy.

Jim continued: “My cousin says she lays in her room all day dressed like a nun. With a big fat old bible. And nobody says anything about it. All the other patients are told to wear hospital gowns, and they’re never allowed personal items like that weighty bible, but the officials don’t hold Bettie to the same rules.”

I knew Page was Evangelical, not Catholic, had wanted to be a missionary after the pinup days, some kind of guilt or repentance for baring her goodies, but Jim’s ridiculous attempt with the nun story was entertaining. I let him believe I was still following.

“I mean it,” Jim said. “I went up there last Friday. Cody let me meet her.”

“I call bullshit. I mean, you met her? How could you even get the clearance to get in the building?”

“I didn’t have to. The patients have hours outside in the yard, so Cody brought her to me in a wheelchair. I was waiting by the fence, and he brought her over. She was dressed like a nun, I’m telling you, just like Cody told me.”

“Nobody asked who you were? What you were doing?”

“Nah, Cody says that with celebrities, it’s happened before.”

“What’s happened before?”

“The workers sometimes introduce the celebrities to family or friends out in the yard, get them to sign autographs. You know. The usual. It helps the patients. Makes ’em feel more normal.”

The image of this orderly, a so-called Cody, wheeling an elderly Bettie Page, in nun attire no less, out to meet Jim at the fence was so bizarre that I couldn’t help but want to hear more. I felt terrible about what it said about me, but I was hooked. I began to think of why Page would agree to meet Jim. Or anyone for that matter. I knew it was a ruse, but I was gonna look in on Jim’s sick mind anyway.

“What did you say?”

Jim snickered. “What do you think I said? I asked why she was dressed like a nun.”

“You would say that.”

“Wouldn’t it be your first question?” Jim asked.

“I suppose it might be up there on the list. But that’s kind of fucked up, ain’t it?”

“Nah, she stood and blessed me. Bettie told me I had a lot to learn about life yet. Then she started up, talking about this experience she had in Oklahoma. I guess she met God at a train crossing.”

I noticed the older temp, the white man with a mustache, move just a bit closer. He had a DVD player in his hand but was being extra slow about packing it. Jim carried on.

“Yeah! I mean it. She told me that she was on a preaching mission for Billy Graham. Out talking to all the Indians in Oklahoma.”

“Jim,” I said sternly, “I ain’t playing. Drop this Indian stuff.”

“I swear it.” He had that damned look of sincerity again. “You ain’t never heard of preaching in Oklahoma?”

He had me there. Other than neighboring Redlands, a town with a church on every block and preachers on corners like hookers on jack, Oklahoma is the most Christian place in America. And there are a lot of Tribes there too. And white people are always trying to save us Natives.

“Listen, Albert,” Jim continued, “let me tell you this story before you go judging me. I ain’t lying.”

I thought for a moment. By luck or providence, Jim had cleared a few hurdles. He’d mentioned Billy Graham the evangelist. And that kind of matched what I knew about Bettie Page. And he also said he had questioned why she was dressed like a nun. And as messed up as it seemed, it also felt true. I could definitely see the likes of Jim saying that.

“Go on,” I said.

“Well, Bettie told me that she pulled up to this train track. Somewhere out past Stillwell. In the middle of nowhere. And as a person does, she stopped her car and looked both ways before crossing. And it was her face, Albert. I’m telling you—she had these deep irises that looked like murky caverns. She looked right through me. Like she could see the mountains behind me or something. It freaked me out at first, but then I realized I may have been having some kind of religious experience. Plus, I’d smoked a doobie before I arrived, so I just went with it.”

The sound of the old temp’s laugh broke in. I mean he kind of heaved a bit. It actually startled me, so I kept my eye on him. The man was fully enjoying himself though, cackling like a coyote. When he noticed me, I pointed at Jim.

“Who the fuck says ‘doobie’ anymore,” I said, shaking my head. “Why don’t you come over and help me decipher this nonsense.”

The old man, whose Randstad badge I now noticed said Dave, approached. He readjusted his back brace and started working on the packing line again. The other temp, who’s nametag I still couldn’t see, didn’t seem the slightest bit interested. He was sweeping up what looked like some broken pieces of styrofoam on the other side of the department. I kept my gaze on him too, and he finally looked back at me.

“Hey,” I called, “you wanna come over and listen too? This story is getting crazy.”

He waved me off and kept sweeping.

“He don’t like to be bothered,” Dave said. “Let him be.”

Dave was literally such a fitting name for the old man. I could see his friends calling him Dave. Dear Dave, I imagined family Christmas cards saying. Dave, I heard his mom naming him after he entered the world.

“Okay,” I said to Jim, “you smoked your doobie and were having a religious experience.”

Jim shimmered with joy beneath the surface. So much so, I have to say, it began to bother me again. He resembled a kid after their first gulp of Pepsi. It was like he was animated by some promise of mayhem. Jim lifted his shirt up and wiped the sweat off his face. His paunch was speckled in matted hair and heat bumps. Jim’s funk was worse—the passing time had intensified the offense. I wiped my nose, but it didn’t help.
“There was something about her,” Jim said, after dropping his shirt. “Bettie had a power. I started to feel my heart pound. The longer she held my gaze, the more I was under her spell.”

“What does she look like now anyways?” I asked.

“The same, mostly. Just older. Her hair was covered by the veil, so I mainly focused on her face.”

The technician pushed a few more DVD players our way and I began packing them. Lazy ass Jim didn’t follow suit.

“Bettie saw a group of nuns, too,” Jim said, “following Jesus right up the train track. Right toward her. At first, she was scared because they kind of appeared out of nowhere. Like they stepped out the Oklahoma heat—like they were out of the steam when it really starts to boil. As the group neared, she said she questioned things even more, realizing the rail line had been abandoned for years. This really set her off, but she couldn’t move. Physically, she just couldn’t bring herself to press the accelerator.” Jim sighed and said, “Thinking back though, Bettie was probably taken with my interest in her story. Cody told me I looked like I was somewhere else. And to be real, I’d forgotten he was even there, forgotten there was a fence between us at all. It was like I was weightless. Anyways, Jesus approached her, carrying a cross made of two rail ties, and the nuns marched like soldiers behind him, reading their bibles and reciting prayers.”

I was impressed. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine Jim making up an elaborate tale quite like this. He sounded genuine and a little smart, which I will never tell him, but he did. He never struck me as the type to pull it off, but his story was capturing my imagination.

“What happened next?” I asked.

“She said Jesus stopped right in front of her car. He dropped the cross on her hood. And being that it was made out of the ties like I said, it crushed the car good. I guess it left a cross indentation.”

“How is that possible? There is no way a cross made of rail ties can leave that kind of mark on steel. Just can’t happen.”

“Yeah,” Dave muttered, but kept his head down.

“You’re the one who forgets,” said Jim. “It was Jesus who did it. And she was telling her story of meeting God.”

It made me think. Jim brought up a good point. Whether or not Page’s story was true didn’t matter. Whether or not the cross left a perfect indentation was irrelevant. The real question was if Bettie Page really told Jim that day at the fence.

I heard the department’s office door open and the boss’s gravelly voice start to bark orders back at his admin. I nonchalantly busied myself a bit more, jostling a few boxes and DVD players. I taped the box I was nursing closed. The boss seemed intent on some mission and walked out the larger swinging doors, his Dr. Scholl’s squeaking on the slick concrete the whole way there.

“Bettie Page coughs like Robin Williams,” Jim said, after the boss was out of sight.


“Yep.” Jim crossed his heart and nodded before holding both hands up like he was praising something. “She coughed right in the middle of our conversation, and I could swear I heard Robin Williams come back to life.”

“Did she smoke?”

“Obviously. But that woman, let me tell you, she was something spiritual. I felt like Robin Williams came to our conversation, reawakened right there in front of me, and then, just like that, he left us.”

“I thought we were talking about her meeting God.”

“Oh, you wanna hear more on that?” Jim acted like he wasn’t pleased, but I knew he was. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll get there. Jesus is the one who told her to become a nun. She agreed after he promised to remove the cross from her hood. The other nuns prayed in the background, and then they followed Jesus again as he dragged the cross further down the track. Bettie said she cried uncontrollably, and after closing her eyes for four whole seconds, everyone disappeared. Jesus. The nuns. Gone. Vanished.” Jim cracked his neck. “Bettie smiles like she did in the fifties too, you know, exactly the same.”

“So you’re gonna see her again?”

“Yeah, I told her I’d return on Fridays after work. If you want to go, I told her I worked with a guy who was all into old shit and pinups. She wouldn’t be too surprised if you came by as well.”

Dave had his eyes on our conversation like he wanted to join in but didn’t know if it was appropriate. Sometimes it’s strange with temps. Getting too close never really works out. They are rarely around for more than two or three weeks. And the company hasn’t hired someone on full time since me and Jim.

“What do you think of all this?” I asked Dave. “Is he pulling my leg?”

“Sounds real to me. I mean, Patton is a state facility. Anyone from California can end up there. Sure, this might be the backwater to some, but it’s just a matter of who wants who, and where they want them to hide.”

The old man’s words were kind of disarming. Words that rang like they had seen the inner workings of life. Had a past. Survived it.

“You know anything about Bettie Page?” I asked him.

“Nothing much. I mean, I’ve seen a picture or two, but beyond that, I can’t really help you.”

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t justify any of it. I had that nagging feeling. Plus, I always do my best to avoid ever seeing Jim in my off hours. A couple times over the years, he has invited me to go to a dive bar downtown, The Marquis, but I always refuse. I don’t even want to accidently run into Jim at Stater Bros., let alone socialize. And I sure couldn’t see us going to Patton together, all to meet Bettie Page from behind a fence. But nagging feeling or not, I had to wonder. Could the Page really be in San Bernardino?

“So, do you want to go?” Jim said to me.

I taped up another box and walked it over to the complete pallet. “Nah, I still don’t think you’re telling the truth.”

“What more do you want? She’s there.”

“Yeah,” Dave said. “It doesn’t hurt nothing to go and see, anyway.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “You don’t know Jim like I do.”

“Ah shit.” Dave waved his hand at me like I was hopeless.

“You wanna go, Dave?” Jim gripped the side of the conveyer belt and pretended he was stretching again, this time his calves.

Dave looked at the clock hanging above the office door. “You going this Friday?”

“Yeah, it’s what I said, isn’t it?”

Dave stroked his mustache. He crinkled his forehead for effect, but I knew what his answer was. “Hell, why not,” he said. “I’ve got an AA meeting, but I’ll skip it this week.”

“There you go,” Jim said. “See, Albert. You’re paranoid. Even Dave believes me.”

Arrogance lilted in Jim’s voice. It was like he’d already won. The department’s swinging doors pushed open, and Mariano entered slowly on his forklift. He didn’t have any more pallets and motioned for me to come over. I put the box I was working on down and went to go and see what he wanted. Mariano’s forklift gave off a radiant kind of heat, and he looked like a tired warrior after battle atop the growling beast.

“What’s up,” I said.

Mariano set his scanner down on the company clipboard and maneuvered the two items behind his seat. From someplace on the lift, he pulled out a bottle of Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, and in that instant, the promise of nourishment looked divine.

“Almost quitting time,” he said and tipped the bottle upwards, gulping loudly as the cool water dribbled down his chin.

“Is it?” I looked at the clock again. It was.

“You want me to bring another pallet?” he said, letting out a gasp after the deluge. “Or are y’all good for the day?”

“I think we’re good,” I said. “We’ll pick back up in morning.”

“I’ll be seeing ya then,” he said.

Mariano leaned forward and turned the ignition. The forklift rumbled to a start, and he lifted the empty forks. As they rose, he swung his arm over the back of the seat and peered outward behind him. Mariano kept his left hand on the steering wheel, occasionally honking, and slowly began to maneuver his way out. I heard more beeping as the machine’s safety light eventually receded.

“Time to pack up,” I said as I walked past the Kimko technician.

He looked at me, irritated, like I’d just broken his concentration.

“Quitting time,” I said.

He nodded but kept working. Jim and Dave were over next to the coffee machine in the corner. They were fake straightening, trying to look busy. The other temp was setting a final box on the complete pallet.

“Should I shrink-wrap it?” he asked as I approached.

“Nah, it’s all good.” I saw now that his Randstad badge said Lonnie. “We’ll start everything back up in the morning.”

“You ever get overtime here?” Lonnie asked.

“Sometimes. When the work comes in. Been slow for the last few months, though.”

“How long have you worked here?”

“A few years now.”

I knew Lonnie was going to ask me if the company hired temps on full time. They all asked. And I never really knew how to respond. I had been a temp once, I understood, but ever since working at the place, I’d never seen another temp hired on permanent. It was me and Jim, and then the company gave up. But Lonnie actually surprised me; he didn’t ask like I thought he would.

“I’ll catch up with you tomorrow,” he said and started for the department door.

Everyone who worked a shift clocked out at the front of the warehouse, so I knew once Lonnie went through that door, he’d have to walk the long aisles, thinking about what it meant to be a temp. I’d walked down the aisles, past the bays, for months before they offered me the job. But then again, Lonnie was young, so maybe I was projecting my own experiences on him. Maybe the temp job was just right. Lonnie may have had something else going. Something better. I really didn’t know one way or the other, just like I didn’t know if Bettie Page was up at Patton.

“So, are you in?” Jim yelled. He was perched at the door and facing me only halfway. “C’mon, what do you have to lose? I got to call my cousin tonight to clear it for Friday.”

“All right,” I said. “All right, I’ll go.”

“See, I knew you’d come around!” Jim pointed at me. “You made the right decision. I’ll call him as soon as I get home.” Jim clapped his hands together. “I knew it. I’ll let you know what he says tomorrow.” Jim laughed and pointed at Dave next. “You should have listened to Dave from the start. He knows his shit, you know.”

“I know,” I said and watched Jim and the old man head out for the day.

I went around and locked final things away. The Kimko technician sat at the line and fiddled with another DVD player. I didn’t know why and didn’t really care; I was dead tired and ready to go home. I was ready to see my girlfriend and forget the place for the night.

“Have a good one,” I said and walked out.

I didn’t hear the technician answer.

When I got to my locker after clocking out, I couldn’t help myself. I’d given Jim a win. I turned my phone on and waited for it to cycle to the home screen. There were three missed calls, but that didn’t matter. I hit the Google app and typed her name in: Bettie Page. In a matter of seconds, there were millions of hits. Her image smiled at me, blue eyes twinkling below straight-cut black bangs. And there it was, as clear as day on her Wikipedia page: she’d been dead since 2008. My heart sank into my boots. I flicked the screen and scrolled down. To my surprise, she really had been at Patton, but it had been years ago. That’s when the anger started to set in. I could feel it working its way back up from my boots. Jim really put work in on this one. I slammed the phone into my pocket and grabbed my lunchbox. I ran to the final door, the last one I had to go through before I was outside. I wanted to catch Jim in the parking lot. I wanted the confrontation, to keep it all going.

Jim’s shitty Buick was idling a few feet in front of the door. It was a surprise. The car’s windows were rolled down and he was blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song “Free Bird” rattled his trunk like he’d saved it for the occasion. Words rang out over the parking lot in uncanny timing.

‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now

And this bird you cannot change

Jim grinned like a jackal and shoved his pudgy hand into the air and gave me a bird of his own. I started for the car, and he revved it, burning out as he pulled away. Jim flew the eagle all the way to the street, song still echoing on warehouse walls. There was nothing I could do. He turned and started driving real slow. Jim finally pulled up to a stop sign down the little street the warehouse was on. The car’s taillights turned from red to white. I’m not sure if Jim could still see me or not, but he leaned out the window one last time and gave another. I considered his posture, and I thought of mine—where we were in that very moment. I had to accept it. I had to give it to him. Jim had counted coup with his billy club.

“You son of Hades,” I said to myself, because it didn’t matter that I was alone, standing in the hot sun near the door. “You got me, Jim … Jimmy.” The words rolled off my tongue like water on rocks. “Jimmy Free Bird.” For some reason, I brought forth a new nickname, an enemy badge of honor for spinning such a fine web of lies. “You fucking got me.”