Choosing Family, the fifth book in the Boone series, is scheduled for release in May of this year. This selection is from early in the book, and Boone is back on the road, but looking for a place to live.
A few nights in a motel, a tank of gas, and feeding me and Frankie used up a lot of what I got paid for those two and a half days of busting my ass. It’s got to be cheaper to have a place of my own instead of paying by the night. There’s no way I’d live in town, but I’m wondering how much it would cost to rent a house somewhere out in the country. But I don’t know about getting a place before I’ve got a job of some kind. And I can’t take Frankie with me while I look for a job or I’ll run into the same problem I did with McIntyre.
Getting Frankie is probably the best thing I ever did in my life, and she’s probably saved my ass more than once, but there’s stuff I can’t do because she’s with me all the time. I hate even thinking about this kind of stuff, but it doesn’t seem like I’ve got much of a choice.
“What about it, girl?” I look over at Frankie. We’re still in the parking lot of the restaurant, and she’s in her spot in the front seat. “Want to go looking for a place to live?”
She looks at me and then at the window. I think all she wants is to get moving.
“Okay. Let’s get on the road, find a place to sleep tonight, and we’ll figure this out tomorrow.” Seems like there’s always plenty of old abandoned gas stations around, so finding a place to park is usually pretty easy.
In the morning we get out the map and find where we are and where Knoxville is. Not that I’m going all the way back or anything, but just to have a direction to start.
Looks like Highway 11W will get us going in the right direction. It’s on the other side of 81 from Greeneville, and I’ve already been there, so 11W it is.
When we stop for lunch I notice Frankie’s keeping an eye on a couple across the way. We’re sitting in some kind of park with picnic tables and a good sized playground. The couple aren’t paying any attention to us. They’re watching some kids on the swings and slides and I figure one or two of them must be theirs. The girl looks over at me and pokes her husband, I guess it’s her husband, in the ribs. He looks over at me and turns back to her. They talk for a minute and he gets up and comes over to me. Frankie isn’t growling or anything like that, so I’m not too worried.
He stops about six feet away. “Nice dog.”
“Does he bite?”
I don’t ever think of Frankie as a scary dog, so it surprises me whenever I get asked that question. She is pretty good sized, though, so I guess it makes sense.
“Frankie’s a she, and she’s fine unless she thinks I’m in some kind of trouble.”
He nods. I’m not sure he believes me, but he says, “That’s a good dog to have around.”
“I think so.”
He stays where he is. “Anyway, we were wondering if you could help us out.”
“I don’t know, man, what kind of help you need?”
“Well,” he says, “we’re on our way to Bristol to see her mother. She’s real sick, and we need to get up there as quick as we can.”
I don’t say anything, and he keeps talking. He talks fast.
“So, we don’t have enough gas to get there, might not even make it to the next station, so if you could help us out we’d sure appreciate it.”
He keeps looking back at the girl and over at the kids on the playground, so I say, “One of them yours?”
“What?” he says, and then, real quick, “oh, yeah, that one’s ours.” He points to a kid, looks like about four or five I guess, but I don’t know that kind of thing. “She needs to see her granny, you know?”
“So, what is it you need?”
“Well, if you had a couple of bucks for gas it would sure help us out a lot.” He keeps looking around.
I shrug and pull out my money. “Five bucks do?”
“Yeah, man, we really appreciate it.”
I nod. “No problem. Y’all take care now.”
He’s already on his way back to the girl and she’s getting up. Guess she saw me give him the money.
They’re walking fast, almost running, and get into a black two door. They slam the doors and I hear the engine start. Five seconds later they’re heading out of the parking lot.
“Damn, Frankie, they just left their kid there on the swing set,” I say, and look over just in time to see an old guy reach down and the little kid jumps into his arms. He swings her up into the air and they head toward the other side of the playground. There’s a picnic table with about a dozen people around it and they’re all waving at the little girl.
“Well, I will be dipped in shit,” I say. “Frankie, we just got conned.”
Now I’m really pissed off. Here I was trying to help somebody out because I had a little extra money, and ended up buying those two liars a six pack or a bottle of wine or whatever. I start to get Frankie into the truck so we can go after them and stop when I realize I don’t even know which way they turned when they left the park.
Frankie’s real good about knowing if people are mean or dangerous. After New Orleans and now this, I’m thinking maybe she’s not so good with liars. Guess it would be too much to hope for that she could tell if somebody was telling the truth.
“All right, girl, looks like we just lost five bucks,” I say to her. “Let’s get back on the road.”
While we’re on 11W heading toward some place called Morristown, I’m thinking about the couple that just stole money from me and the two guys in New Orleans that used me and Frankie to steal from all those tourists.
“What were their names, anyway?” I ask Frankie. “That cop told me. Scott, I think was one of them. I can’t remember the other one. Those two guys almost got you taken away from me, you know that?”
I get a little sick to my stomach when I think about how close I came to losing her. If he hadn’t let me go, if he had taken me to the police station, Frankie would have gone into a shelter somewhere and I’d never have seen her again.
“Now those two guys were real pieces of shit, but the cop was okay. Didn’t expect that, but I’m sure glad he was.”
Daddy had always told me the police were just out to get people like us, and I guess some of them are. Not that cop in New Orleans, though, and not Deputy Anderson. He was okay, too.
Most folks we’ve run into have been okay, and some of them, like Gamaliel and Mark, have been great, but Jerry was a real asshole, and so were those three guys in Georgia.
I sure wish I was better at figuring out what kind of person I’m dealing with right off. Daddy took the easy way out, figuring everybody was against him. He sure proved he was right about that, over and over again.
I can’t think about this too much without getting mad at Daddy all over again, and then I think about that morning in the barn and what I had to do to fix things. I really don’t want to get started on that again, so I try to find something else to focus on.
We’re out in the middle of nowhere, so it’s not easy to get my mind off that stuff, but after about ten more miles I see a sign on the right side of the road that says For Rent.
“Let’s go take a look, Frankie. Might as well start trying to find a place to live besides the back of this truck. This is as good a place as any.”
That place turns out to be real fancy, and I don’t even call the number on the sign to find out how much the rent is. The next two places we look at are about the same, except bigger and fancier, and too rich for our blood.
I almost miss the next sign, a little over a mile farther down the road. The weeds have grown up around it so it’s mostly covered up. I turn into the next driveway and drive back to it. Next to the sign is a gravel road, more like two ruts with more weeds growing up between them. There’s no house in sight.
We follow the ruts a little ways, and I’m starting to think it’s a sign for renting land instead of a house when we go around a little bend and there’s a house about the size of our old one sitting all by itself in a field.
It’s in better shape than where I used to live before I met Gamaliel, but that doesn’t mean much. The closer we get, though, the more it looks like somebody’s kept the place up pretty good.
We lived in a single wide for a long time before we moved to the house just down from Gamaliel’s. I lived in Gamaliel’s house until Jerry raised so much hell I had to move and then lived in that little place on the grounds of the old folks’ home. Since I left there, I’ve had those few weeks on the road and a month of just kind of farting around before heading up to Virginia. Two nights in a motel and now I’m back in the truck. I’ve had a couple of months living out of my truck and one thing I know for sure is I don’t want to keep doing that.
“Wonder what the rent is on this place?”
Frankie’s looking around and acting like she needs to pee, so we get out, and after thinking about it for a second I unhook her, leave the leash on the dashboard and let her run.
I’ve been around the house once and doing it again, looking in the windows this time, when I hear a car. Frankie’s nosing around in the field and I call her to me.
The car pulls up right behind the truck and a guy gets out. He comes right up to me and says, “What are you doing on this property?” He doesn’t say it mean, but he sounds pretty serious. Maybe he’s the owner.
“I saw a For Rent sign and followed the tracks back here,” I say. Then we stand there looking at each other for a minute.
“I just took down the sign. Dad,” he says, and stops. After a minute he goes on. “This is, or rather was, his place, his getaway, I guess. He passed on a couple of years ago. We’d had the sign out ever since he got sick and we knew he’d never make it back out here, but it’s been months since we’ve had a renter. There’s three of us kids, and we’re just about ready to give up on the idea of renting and sell the place.”
I don’t know what to say. I feel bad about him losing his Dad, and I don’t know if I should ask about rent, or if I can see inside, or anything like that. So I don’t say anything.
He notices Frankie and takes a step back toward his car. “That your dog?”
I nod. “I thought I’d let her stretch her legs while I was looking around. Her name’s Frankie.” I scratch her ear and she sits down right next to my foot and kind of leans up against me.
He smiles a little. “We’ve got dogs at home. Bo and Peep. My kids named them,” he says, like he has to explain their names to me. “A couple of Corgis. Both of them together wouldn’t be half her size. What kind is she?”
I explain how I got her and he nods. ‘“Good for you. Hate to hear about that happening to puppies, but I know it happens all the time.” He sticks out his hand. “Name’s Ralph Tomlinson.”
“Boone Hammond.” We shake hands.
“So, anyway,” he says.
I start to tell him I understand about not being able to rent the place, but not being able to just makes me want it more, even though I don’t know what the inside is like or how much the rent would be. Guess I’m really tired of not having a place of my own. The only place I’ve ever lived that was mine is the back of my truck.
Ralph says, “We’ve just decided on selling, and I don’t know how long it will take, or if anybody will even be interested in the house or the land. I might be willing to rent it to you month by month, but you’d have to agree to move out as soon as we get a buyer for the property.”
I start to say yes right then, but I remember how Tiny was when he was buying the truck. He didn’t act like he was in any big hurry even though he knew he wanted to buy it.
“Well,” I say. “I’d like to see the inside first, and I’d have to know how much the rent would be.”
He nods. “I understand that. Come on. I’ve got the keys with me.”
Inside it’s not as nice a place as Gamaliel’s. About as good as the one at the home, but not as big, plus the furniture is pretty worn out.
“It’s got power and water,” Ralph says. “You’d have to pay the electric. There’s no water bill; it’s on a well.”
I nod. “So how much money are we talking about here?”
“Well, you can see there’s no TV here, so it’s just lights and appliances. And heat, but as small as this is, the electric shouldn’t be much. We’re asking $300 a month for rent, and with utilities, the last renter said it was about $375, give or take.”
I know I can do that much. I’ve still got almost all of Gamaliel’s money, and I know I’m going to have to get a job of some kind.
When I don’t say anything right away Ralph says, “Boone, if it was up to me I’d drop the rent to 250, but that’s what we’ve been charging all along. I really can’t change it.”
I turn to Frankie. “What do you think, girl? Want to settle in here for a while?”
She’s already curled up in the corner of the main room, so I guess that’s her answer.
“Well, Ralph, I’d like to take it. I sure would like to not have to move in the middle of winter, though.”
“I’d be real surprised if anything happens in the coldest part of the year. Nobody’s going to want to look at it in February.”
“Okay, then. I’ll have to get to a place to use my debit card so I can get you the first month’s rent.”
“Let’s say by the end of the week. Does that give you enough time?”
I nod. “I appreciate that. Are you coming by to pick it up, or do I bring it to you, or what?”
“I’ll come by on Friday, about lunchtime.”
This time I stick out my hand. He takes it, and then hands me the keys.
“You know if you’d come by an hour later the sign would have been gone.”
“I know. Almost didn’t see it as it was.”
He looks around. “Dad loved this place. He’d come here two or three times a month, just for the peace and quiet. He used to say this was better than any church pew.” He wipes his eye with the back of his hand. “I really miss the old guy, even after a couple of years.”
All this makes me think about Gamaliel. He was better to me than Daddy by a long shot. If I’d gotten to know him before . . . .
There’s no way that would have happened, and I know it. Daddy would never have stood for that.
“You okay, Boone?” Ralph is looking at me kind of funny. “You were a thousand miles away just then.”
I shake my head. “Your dad sounds a lot like this old guy I used to know. He died a few years back. Him and me got to be pretty good friends before he died.”
I really don’t want him to ask about my Daddy, but I can tell he’s going to, so I jump in and cut him off.
“My daddy left us a while back, not sure where he is or what kind of shape he’s in.” Only half of that was a lie.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Well, anyway,” he says, and I can see he’s real uncomfortable right now, “I’d better get going. I’ll let everybody know I got a last-minute renter and that we don’t have to worry about anything until at least spring.”
“I appreciate that. See you on Friday.”
“See you then.” And he’s gone.
When his car’s out of sight I turn to Frankie.
“We got us a place, girl. Let’s get moved in.”