Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Culloden County, Mississippi - 1975
It wore Mary-Alice slam out that she was actually raising her son inside a barn. “It’s a loft,” her boyfriend—not husband—Hank always said. “A loft inside of a barn,” she would argue. It was bad enough to be still unmarried and with a three year-old but to live in an upstairs apartment of the Pickford’s old feed barn was absolutely for shame.
She stood on the balcony overlooking Hank’s pride and joy red Chevrolet. Sometimes it was all she could do not to beat in the windshield with a baseball bat. One of these days she would buy one. If she had any money.
Tommy, their miracle-son—some miracle; he nearly ate them broke on a regular basis. Mary-Alice could not believe how much that child could eat—was busying himself jerking the slats off the stairwell going up to the apartment. All that food went immediately as fuel for him to perform some near superhuman feat of property damage and Hank had long forbade the child from getting near the car. She was hell getting him stopped tearing up the steps when Hank came sprinting into the barn to his car and hopping inside in a panic.
“What in hell has got into you now?” Mary-Alice said.
“County done got ’em a motorcycle cop. We seen him ride past the store. Ain’t got time to gab. Austin’s probly done beat me to him, the shitass.”
Hank shot his pipes and tore out of the barn leaving Mary-Alice nearly in tears from the racket and worried to death for the baby’s eardrums. But, of course, rather than being one ounce concerned, he was just sitting there giggling like it was the best thing in the whole world, which added fire to her greatest fear that he would turn out just like his daddy.
It wasn’t so much that Mary-Alice didn’t like Hank or even that she didn’t love him. She did love Hank. She loved him to death. There was just no knowing Hank’s mind for her. One moment he was the sweetest boy in the world and the next twenty minutes he was awfullest son-of-a-bitch who ever walked. No doubt at that particular minute him and that cracked Austin Grantham were trying to see who couldn’t wreck that poor man just trying to do his job. He’d probably wind up thrown off into a ditch and maybe crippled and those two having a laugh about the whole deal. One of these days they’d catch those two and likely kill them if they could.
Directly, Tommy was tugging at her dress again which meant it was time to eat some more.
Willy and Agnes Smith had given her a crate of eggs just the other day. Seeing her barn was just down the way from their store, she often had little else to do and walked over and swept up or did other jobs and took pay in the form of vegetables and milk. Sometimes Willy might slaughter a hog and have fresh sausage. Willy didn’t like to sell any food out of the store that he didn’t know exactly who and where it come from. Austin usually brought in two or three dozen eggs to trade for his day’s gasoline.
Willy wouldn’t take anything from up in Jasperville. Not one thing. Poor luck for those people, Mary-Alice always thought. But they had their own store, she reckoned.
It didn’t take too long to fill the boy up with scrambled eggs and milk and Mary-Alice pointed him up the quarter mile driveway covered nearly over with drooping pine limbs. The boy went off like a shot and she tried her damnedest to keep up with him. It irritated the fire out of her how she could not have him fed five minutes and him already running so hard he was hungry again.
And fast. By god, could that boy beat a trail. It was all the exercise she needed staying next to him at a run and this time he’d long left her behind. Mary-Alice had not been too often around other toddlers before but believed a great deal about her son was not very normal and she feared the day he got so big she flat out couldn’t handle him, a day she expected probably some time in the next year at the rate he went.
Before she could get close to catching up he was nearly to the highway and she screaming for him to stop to no purpose. He dusted straight across the road and smack into some scraggly-haired old man in a porkpie and toting a Jap army sword on his shoulder.
“I say there, now, do you know who I am?” the man shot at little Tom, who most certainly did not know who the man was, but clearly the man neither knew who Thomas Waylon Grady was. Memorizing the three parts of his own name was one of the very first conscious acts of his life. He very much enjoyed repeating just those three words at every occasion he deemed suitable, which was most, this being one of them.
“I’m Tom Waylon Grady,” the spud shot at the man, with fists balled and back bowed out for a fight.
“I say, but you ain’t kneehigh to a gumstump, you little squirt, and say now, what’s the matter with yore skin?” the man asked, looking down now at the boy’s physique which appeared to be rippled with tiny muscles and little else of note.
“I apologize, mister, but he just gets away from me sometimes. I hope you weren’t scuffed terrible when he tripped you. I can mend or wash any tears to your clothes if need be,” Mary Alice spat out as best she could, being out of breath from her jog.
“Me? Scuffed terrible? Woman, do you know who I am?” he asked with even more force. “I am Wild Bill Scanlon and this here,” holding out his sheathed sword. “is Mr. Kujiko.”
“I think it’s silly, you men naming things that ain’t alive. And I don’t guess I care if you’re Wild Bill Hickock Jesse James the Kid, neither. I’ve had it to here,” she said lifting her hand above her head, “with you overgrown boys and your reputations and your toys.”
And at that, Mary-Alice tugged little Tom by the arm and began to drag him toward the store where she would now need to buy herself a pack of cigarettes.
“Well, but you’ve sass, that’s sure,” Bill said. “Now, don’t get riled at me, too hard, now. I just feel I should mention the name as I intend to be your next supervisor. Do you vote?”
“Not usually,” she said, continuing on her way.
“Well, now that just beat all. I swear, you women are the damnedest creatures that ever was. That riles me to no end y’all hollering and fightin’ them years to vote and then don’t care to do such once you're able. That‘s just flat irritating.”
“Well, if you’re my best option, I’d just as soon not care. Now, I apologize again for my son hitting you, but I must say good day, Mr. Wild Bill.”
Bill was clearly at a loss. He could not remember the last time anyone had talked to him with as much sass, never a woman, and surely what man it must have been had quickly regretted it to be sure. Not that he had any mind to lay out a woman in any way, but some understanding ought be reached, else it would shortly get round the holler and soon the whole county that Wild Bill Scanlon had been talked tall to by a skinny, black-haired girl.
“Now, see here, again. I believe we’ve got this thing back end frontwards. How’s about I walk you out to Willy and Mrs. Agnes’s here and we’ll set down and have us a cup of coffee and some ice cream and talk it out?” he asked, then pointed his glance at the boy. “What about you, son, what’s your opinion about ice cream?”
At that, Tommy took off in a sprint toward the store. That’s where ice cream, he knew, came from and so he intended not to lose a minute in getting his share.
“Well, he’s a cooking little son of a gun, ain’t he?” Bill said and as he thought a minute, added, “Who’s his daddy?”
Wild Bill flung the door to Smith’s Farm Supply open with his free hand and pounded into the main meeting area. Willy had designed the front of the store to include two long benches with a small table toward one side and had the spot pretty well filled most every morning with idle chatters sucking on five cent coffee and telling big lies. Bill was what you might call an irregular. He only swung through once in a while when he was down in this part of the county. He was a walking man and a rambler.
“Put on a fresh pot of coffee, Willy,” Bill hollered as he set his sword beside the bench and took his seat next to Charlie Ford. “I’m here to do a little politicking.”
Mary-Alice slipped in behind Bill with Tommy holding her hand. He would run straight up to the front door of the store but would never go inside it without an escort. There was a fat man named Rodney who hung about often enough inside who had a tendency to knuckle-rub his head, which severely irritated Tommy, and he fully intended to box the fellow as quick as he could muster the height to perform the chore. In the meantime, Tommy had to content himself with hiding behind his mother’s skirt which was a shameful act of cowardice, he knew, but his only recourse for the moment.
“Bill, you do as you please, but no roughhousing inside and you keep that dern blade to yourself,” Willy said with Agnes looking on. Agnes liked Wild Bill just a hair less even than other folks because she firmly believed he’d drug Willy off to see a slant-eyed whore during the war. And even though she hadn’t even met her husband before then, she still considered it a vile act of infidelity on his part.
“Willy, I can’t help it if you’re now jealous of my butcher knife since you hocked yours up immediately. Besides, this here‘s what they call one of them aphro-disiacs,” Bill said winking at Mary-Alice and her trying her best not to laugh. She wondered if anyone else knew that word. “That’s one of them new ten dollar words. Means it makes you randy, though, what it has to do with colored people, I have no idea.”
Agnes hmphed to herself and turned back to do some chore back toward her filing cabinet near where she kept the cigarettes. She didn’t care for any word, regardless of price, that had anything at all to do with folks being randy. It was only a short road from such topics to discussions of whores and she intended to have no talk of whores in her presence.
“Bill,” Willy started, “a silly silver-studded dress up knife don’t do me a lick of good whereas eighty acres and a solvent seed business does me plenty.”
“Yeah, well, I get this supervisor office this time, we’ll all be doing good and plenty. Time’s a changing, Willy. Yankees tearing up the country. Charlie, you going out to the polls?”
“Well, Bill,” Charlie began.
“‘Well, Bill’ nothing. You want to keep this country for country folk, you’d best make your mark next to old Bill Scanlon. Yessir. Good Old Bill Scanlon for Good Old Country Folk!”
Mary-Alice had laid twenty five cents on the counter for her a 7up and the boy an ice cream sandwich. Tommy was good about not making a mess with it. He hated to lose even a drop. Waste not want not was one of his many mottoes. Turn the other fellow’s cheek was another.
Agnes shot glances two or three times at Mary-Alice when she wasn’t frowning at Bill’s gab. Mary-Alice knew some folks around judged her pretty black for having taken up with Hank. It was bad enough he never got called up to the fight, but that way he carried on and brought shame down on his good father’s name put a sour taste in many a mouth. And then them yet unmarried. A just as sour note for Mary-Alice herself.
Fact was, Mary-Alice’s own people had told her not to bother coming back home 'til that man put a ring on her finger and the two took on an honest lifestyle. From her time so far with Hank, she knew full well that was not likely to happen any time soon. Tommy hadn’t even helped it along even a bit. That had been a shoddy gambit on her part, for sure, though she now doted on the boy, messed up as he was.
She had at least taken to wearing skirts and sun dresses most days she went out for her walks through the country. Unwed mothers were bad enough without sporting jeanpants on top of it. There, she and Hank at least agreed that certain ideas ought to be changed. She liked her jeans, when she got to pick them.
Sucking down the last of his ice cream, Tommy was recharged and bolted toward the back of the store where he knew there were hammers and other tools for him to mess about with. Tommy loved tools, hammers in particular. He liked the way it made his arms and back feel when he lifted them and swung them around his head. He had got in trouble one time when he had the big hammer Willy used to fix folks’ tires with and was slamming it down on the floor and making an awful racket.
As Wild Bill continued on his filibustering concerning the dangers of unchecked northern aggression, Mary-Alice heard again the unmistakable bawl of Hank’s Killafella teamed up with whatever Austin Grantham was racing these days. The two kept up a pretty mean rivalry and while Hank just wasted money on new and even more useless parts for his existing vehicle--because spending the money on milk and eggs would be just foolish--Austin had the even odder tendency to just trade for a whole different car every year or so. But, Austin didn’t yet have any kids to feed. At least none in this country.
“No, it’s because you’re a cheating ass,” Hank said cruising through the door and straight over to the RC cooler for a root beer and pack of nabs--his standard lunch. Willy and Agnes both harrumphed at the sight of Hank’s flared-out jeans and his old gaudy hat flopping atop his head. While it had been mildly cute in high school, Mary-Alice only found it laughable now. It seemed as though Hank had drawn up the cartoon version of himself long ago and was dead set for sticking to it.
“Losers always weep, Hank,” Austin said, grabbing his own victuals and signaling to Mrs. Agnes that Hank--apparently being the loser of whatever competition they’d just had--should cover his tab. “Howdy, Bill, what you know good?” Austin continued.
Hank shot a look over toward the benches and saw the unmistakable wild hair and trademark long blade leaning against the seat and was already quick losing his characteristic studied detachment.
Wild Bill Scanlon looked up to acknowledge Austin and saw Hank from the corner of his eye.
“I say, but it’s old sally jeans. How do, boy? Had any homemade get-up-and-go juice of late? My sister’s grandbaby, she still asks after you quite a bit,” Bill said with a chuckle, though most others just passed it off.
Hank winced and flinched at the same time and then looked toward the door. “Sugar-babe, I’ll see you back at the house,” he said and laid a dollar on the counter and was out the door. Within seconds they all heard the sound of his engine barking and tearing down the road.
Mary-Alice wondered what must have passed between Hank and Bill for Hank to be so out of sorts with the man. Of course, she had heard the usual tales about Wild Bill Scanlon being the terror of Culloden County, but all that was before the war and now that she’d met him he just appeared to her another worn out old hick just all like all the others in this part of the country. In some ways she thought, as she looked on at the wild silver-haired man with the thick mustache drooping down beneath his chin, she saw the future of Hank himself--an old silly cartoon man hanging on desperately to some idea of what he thought he once was. Silly men.
Still, the fact that Bill, old and crotchety as he was, could rankle Hank so bad was an amusing thought. There was a great deal about Hank that the man intentionally kept secret from her. She’d heard snatches through the years about this and that, never sure what was remotely true and what a total fabrication. She’d been told of traveling rocket salesmen to flying tigers to atomic mutant militia gangs. Somewhere, she guessed, Wild Bill and Hank must have had dealings. And none to Hank’s favor, it would appear. The man suddenly seemed all the more interesting.
It wasn’t long after Hank’s car had squealed off that Tommy reappeared from the back of the store toting a ten pound tire hammer on his shoulder and asking about his ‘papa.’ Mary-Alice was in a constant state of shock at the boy’s strength level. There he was, shaggy red hair in his face and carrying a piece of steel heavy enough she’d never want to mess with it for any reason and him barely three years old. One day she wanted to save the money to take him out to Mobile or New Orleans or somewhere and see some kind of special doctor just to make sure nothing wasn't wrong with the child. He was healthy enough. Damn healthy, in fact. But she just knew that something was off about him. The way his muscles got so big so fast and the way he ate constantly. He was a chore, that boy. A full time job just from cooking alone.
Mary-Alice stayed on until closing time, sweeping out the back room that held the farm tools and the fertilizer and helping out with the restocking. She fed Tommy another ice cream and two potted meat sandwiches before time to go and in the end, took pay in the form of two loaves of bread and several bags of rice and beans. With that, she thought she could feed the boy indefinitely and just learn to tolerate the consequences.
Wild Bill stuck around through closing time himself, steadily sucking down coffee and burning tobacco while going on and on about this and that he intended to do for the county as supervisor. Mary-Alice wondered but the man must not be serious. Surely he could not genuinely think good people would elect a sword carrying wild-eyed hillbilly with such a colored history as his. But then, this was Culloden County and she knew a certain man in a red and yellow racecar who practically got a standing ovation half the places he went. People here seemed to enjoy their outlaws and badmen.
“Would you care for an escort home this fair evening, ma’am?” Bill asked offering his arm to her and twisting his mustache ends with the other before jerking up his sword. “I’m a fair guard against the dangers of the wild if I say so myself.”
When the man smiled, she thought, he actually looked a little charming. He was probably fine looking when a little younger. He was tall enough. Wouldn’t that just eat Hank’s dinner? If she took an evening walk with old Wild Bill?
“A fine idea, Mr. Scanlon.” she said hooking her arm in his. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Smith.”
“That goes for me, Willy,” Bill said as they started out the door.
“Watch out for Old Blue,” Willy said.
“I reckon he’ll watch out for me as he always has. But, I’ll get him,” Bill said tapping his weapon.
Mary-Alice called for Tommy who charged from the back straight at the door and sent it nearly crashing to the other side. He had just devised a plan for a perfect formation of blocks and could waste no time in getting home to test his theories.
All the way back to the driveway leading to the barn, Wild Bill was the perfect gentleman. He told Mary-Alice old stories of the whisky runners before the war and what it was like growing up eating cornbread and onions three meals a day. It seemed to her a reasonable enough cause for anyone to turn to criminal behaviors. Hank had long done so and with far less provocation than that. In fact, she’d never been quite sure what Hank’s reason was for turning so bad as he had. He still had a mean on about that business with the bomb up in Jasperville, but that was all over and done with. The government people had said it was completely safe.
As they got to the drive, Mary-Alice took her leave of Bill, assuring him that the boy would be escort enough from here on out. Surely the only peril she could face then would be nothing more than a stray cat or jackrabbit which would be sorry the day it met with little Thomas Waylon Grady.
“Well then I assure you it’s been my great pleasure to have made acquaintance with you miss Mary-Alice MacGregor,” Bill said and leaned down to kiss her just barely on her right cheek, near enough to her neck she felt his breath.
And with that, Wild Bill took his leave and went on down his way, sword in hand and humming a Dixie tune.
Back home, Mary-Alice noticed the absence of the car and saw Hank had pinned a note to the door explaining he’d took an evening job and should be back later--with cash money. Or shot to death finally, she thought. She sent the boy off to his few toys--mostly homemade or hand-me-down--while she stood on the balcony with the last bit of sun sliding through the barn and pulling on one more cigarette before the hot bath she knew she needed.
Mary-Alice stewed on that peck all through her bath, going back over it time and again. What it was about that old man, she couldn’t guess. But he had witched her, as they say, for sure. Climbing out of her tub and dropping the boy in with his wooden ship and toweling off, she still had it on her mind.
Finally, Mary-Alice decided she was in the mood for sex so she put on Hank’s clothes. Theoretically, they were her clothes too. Hank just loved the fact they were both so similar in height they could wear the same jeans. “We can save money by sharing,“ he always said. It sometimes made her feel a little fat but then, of course, Hank had the skinniest butt of any man in the whole county, so maybe it was fair after all.
It was also a bother that the man near about wouldn’t touch her unless she sported jeans and a pair of boots, a rodeo shirt and her hair combed back--basically when she looked exactly like him. Hank was a strange man and didn’t seem too often to like being touched by women, even herself. But, she did at least have the matter down to a science and it was an easy enough task to perform in order to obtain what she wanted and any other time could well expect to be left be. So, she didn’t make all that many complaints.
When Hank finally pulled in and started up the stairs, Mary-Alice leaned in the lamplight against the right side post with her silhouette facing him and tugging on a cigarette. She eased a glance down at Hank and spat smoke out the side of her face and looked calmly at him, almost as if she didn’t even see him. That was all it took. As usual.
The next day Bill was back at the store shooting his gab about the election. This time more people made a point to swing by and listen to him go on. Whether out of genuine interest in his politics or just for the sake of gaudy spectacle, Mary-Alice could not be quite sure. But spectacle was the word for it. At one point the man was standing on the bench in front prattling out his tirade.
“We’re all at the turning point here, boys. You see what them Fed’rals done back in ‘67 when they had their way. You seen what they think of us plain folk down here in God’s country. See, they jealous of us. Jealous of what we got going for us down here. Boys, I can recall the day in this country when all a feller had to do was walk out his front doorstep and go not three yards and trip over a gang of fat rabbits or a hog or buckdeer or even an old buffaler.
“I recall when a man could head out to the river with a decent line in his hand and just start jerking fish out of the water so fast your arm was sore after half an hour. I can tell you that was the way it was for a fact. I lived it, sons. Me and plenty others. Well it was ruined slow and sure by northern aggression. These outsiders steady coming in with they paper mills and they textile plants and this and that and all the people running out to ‘em like they sent from heaven above. And what for? A dollar an hour wages and broke back? Sons, that ain’t a way to live. Not nohow. We got to stand up and take back our ways else they die out completely.
“You fellers know it won’t be long 'til they’ve got us all chained down. They’ll have our numbers, boys. They’ll say ‘you owe such and such dollars down and we’ll have it or you go work it off on the farm.’ Sons, it’ll be just like them old days before we took this country out from under them English. They’ll have our number, by god, and they’ll have us working ourselves to death for their interests. Well, what about our’n? By heaven, boys, a man ought not have to work that hard in his life just to get by. Not with a country that’s just spitting grain and groceries. By heaven, boys, working ourselves to death ain’t the way. A vote for Bill is a vote for the way home!”
Mary-Alice stood and watched the old man nearly yell himself hoarse in the middle of the general store to a crowd of maybe eleven people. In this county, maybe that was enough. Maybe they would each tell a cousin or two who would tell a cousin or two and that’d be pretty much everybody.
Bill had such a fire in his eyes when he spoke that Mary-Alice could almost see the history in his face. She wondered what it must have been like to see those islands out in that Pacific Ocean, to fight toe to toe with those mean Japanese who she’d heard had rather gut their own selves than lose a fight. She wondered how it could be to see things change so in a single lifetime. Already in her own she’d seen the shift over from raising crops and hogs to working at the mill or the plant. Every month a new road was being paved with blacktop and now nearly everybody had a telephone number. Bill, she then realized had seen it all from horse and buggy through to a man jumping around on the moon. She just couldn’t imagine such a sequence of shock and change. Already, her own life seemed too much to bear some days.
Bill walked her and Tommy home again that day and for many days thereafter. Each day in the store was much the same, him clamoring on and on about this and that offense from the people running the industry and making the laws, with people standing or sitting sipping coffee and half listening. Even Agnes Smith started taking interest in what the man had to say about cutting tax for the farmer. Mrs. Agnes had always said she’d sooner be tending her peas and corn than tending store.
In Bill, Mary-Alice decided, she saw what Hank Grady might be some day if he could ever settle down and make a run at something worth a damn. It was what she saw in him from the first day senior year. She remembered it well, the way he looked walking in with those jeans and that hair like he owned the world and didn’t care about a thing--like he had it all figured out. He had been a great boyfriend through it all. He was never short of something fun to do. Liquor was in no short supply with him around. But, now they were well in their twenties and with a boy to raise and Hank didn’t seem to notice that time had moved at all. He was still the fine-looking boy with the fine-looking car out to cut up and get in as much trouble as he felt he could get away with. It had long lost its luster for Mary-Alice. She wanted a husband for herself, a father for her son. She wanted a man. Not a boy in girls’ jeans.
Still, as each day was similar, so were the nights. Mary-Alice found herself to have such an appetite as she could not readily remember. Every afternoon in the store she stole glances at the man they say had killed not less than thirty white people, and more than one time she caught him stealing glances at her--parts of her, at least. She didn’t know why but it stayed with her and she did her best to work it out on Hank, who, admittedly, was being rather a sport about it all. It was usually a once or twice every few weeks sort of ordeal with that man, which, ordinarily, was plenty for herself.
Mary-Alice had always liked the way Hank looked once she got him out of her clothes, but now she focused her glances only on him from the neck down. She’d now developed her habit of putting her hands down on top of his face while she worked. Hank would puff and sniff and do all he could to pry her hands at least enough apart to get his nose free and manage to not die from lack of breath. Mary-Alice, somewhere deep inside, tried to tell herself to ease up, but she just couldn’t--not 'til it was over. And she didn’t want to see Hank during the affair. She didn’t even want him to touch her.
It was all well and good for her most nights until she finally, one evening, took it just the last bit further and sent Hank into a terrified frenzy. She’d been carrying on in the same way as usual, only this time, when he’d got a little excited himself and tried to grab her behind to brace himself, she jerked his hands off her and pinned them down. The man struggled for a minute to try to get himself loose, but she was having fun with him now and was strong enough it would not be easy for him to get free. She even giggled a bit at the fact she could make him jerk so.
That was when the screaming started. Hank shot out the most terrifying howls and ripped her hands from himself and flew out of the bed. Mary-Alice had snapped out of her trance and saw the look of horror on his face. Now Hank was the one long gone from the room. His eyes twitched and nearly sank all the way back in his head. He teetered and she thought he would pass out for a moment and jumped up to try and grab him. He flew back from her. He grabbed a pair of jeans and boots turned for the door. There was little Tom, staring at the whole scene and trying to make sense of who was doing what bad thing to who.
Hank stole out of the apartment and down the stairs to the car, Tom calling after his ‘papa’ all the while. The car squalled out of the barn that night coupled with the cries of the child and Mary-Alice sat dumbfounded on her bed. She’d only tried to play a little game with the man. Here again, she saw she’d never truly know him. But, now she at least had an idea why. He had made himself the creature he was to hide this thing about him away, to mask it in his silly hat and his glasses and foolish jeans and the outlandish vehicle. He had to show everyone he was something pretty, something flashy, something fast and tall and strong. All so they wouldn’t see this ugly thing, this sad and weak little thing that lived inside him. Now she’d seen it. Now she had seen enough of him to find him just close enough to human she could care about him again.
And now that he was real again to her, he was gone. For no telling how long.
It was three days before Hank showed back up. People knew he’d left, too. There had been an incident with Bill the night before where he finally worked up his nerve to offer his consoling shoulders to her for the evening.
“I do hate to see a fine woman distressed so, and alone of a night. There’s foul dealings can often happen to good women these hot nights,” Bill had said.
Mary-Alice had chuckled inside herself beside her driveway and mused for a moment on the irony that a week earlier she might have actually considered such an offer. But, of course, the very circumstances that enabled the offer consequently prohibited it from being accepted. She could by no means betray her man now that she finally wanted him again. And she did want him back.
Mary-Alice smiled at Wild Bill Scanlon--the last real outlaw in this county: one who’d had no other choice but be who he was. Maybe the man could pull off his election. She wasn’t sure about how all those things worked anyway. She’d spent the majority of her senior civics classes staring at a particular boy. But, she decided she would go vote for Bill. She hugged him again and sent him on his way.
At the store the next morning, Bill was absent. Presumably he had moved on down the road to the Pine Ridge area where he would no doubt repeat his wild rants for those good people there.
Mary-Alice was straightening the soaps down the far aisle of the store when she heard the bawling of Tommy.
“Papa! Papa!” he yelled as she heard his feet slapping across the floor.
Mary-Alice walked up front to see him standing tall, shielded in full regalia. Like a statue, he stood with the light from the hot southern sun bleeding in from the door behind him.
“Mrs. Agnes,” he said, “Put that diesel on Chauncy Pickering’s ticket. And two cokes for the road, please, ma’am.”
Mary-Alice couldn’t even know if the man was looking at her from behind those black glasses but she felt sure he wasn’t. From out the front window she spied a big rig truck parked at the diesel pump, trailer hitched and ready for the highway.
“Trucking out with Chauncy,” he said still not seeing her. “Taking on some bigger work.”
“Real work?” Mary-Alice was in such a mood she didn’t at all mind calling him out on his dealings in the midst of Willy’s store. Eyes from the bullpen stuck to Hank and Mary-Alice. People always did love to catch sight at others’ business any chance that presented itself.
“Real as any, I reckon,” Hank said without a beat and turned out the door.
“Coming back?” She shot at him.
“I could never leave my sweetheart,” Hank said turning back to smile his fakest smile yet, and only Mary-Alice knew what he really meant. He was wise that day to leave it parked elsewhere.
Hank left and Mary-Alice worked out the rest of the day with her jaw set hard as it would go. She tried well as she could keep the blame off herself and all onto Hank where she felt it surely belonged. But maybe he would really start something decent for a change. Maybe he’d straighten up and fly right and stop tearing about so much. And maybe next week she’d fly jet planes.
It was later that afternoon the handful of people inside were rocked by what sounded like explosions coming from outside the store. There were several all right in a row, loud as thunder nearly. In a moment of terror, Mary-Alice realized Tommy was nowhere in sight and she just knew he’d finally found something to destroy himself with.
She ran outside along with Willy, Agnes and Billy Parker.
There, they all saw the sight they couldn’t quite grasp. Tommy was standing up on a trailer with Billy’s little girl, Lacy, watching on. Somebody had come up with a flatbed of quarry stones and Tommy was hurling them up over his head and slamming them down onto the blacktop parking lot, sending sparks flying like little bolts of lightning with each one. Billy ran and grabbed him off the trailer before he could toss another one. Tommy and Lacy were just laughing wild as they could. It was all just their little game. Agnes stared at the boy like he might as well be the third cousin of the devil or John Brown.
That was when it all finally hit home for Mary-Alice. All she’d ever wanted was to have a plain and decent life. Live in a house. Plant a garden. Take her children to school. Go dancing with her husband on Friday night. Instead, she found herself constantly surrounded by ridiculousness. She had a duded-up rogue boyfriend who literally spat all over the law trying everyday hard as he could to get himself jailed or killed chasing down his own made up legend. She had an old ghost of an even wilder time dead and gone offering her use of his “sword” and wandering through the countryside living in the fading memories of purported exploits. And now, she had a little boy pushing three years and hurling boulders off a truck like they were baseballs. Nothing about her life, she knew, would ever be plain.
“Say, y’all,” Charlie Ford called out, coming in from behind them. “Y’all hear about Wild Bill? He just gutted a big fat panther down by the old burnt bridge. Sure and he did, split it wide open with that blade of his. Telling you what right now, but that man’s got my vote in a hurry. Ain’t lost a beat. Cut it clean near in half. Old Bill. What you reckon he makes a new hat from it? I bet I would.”
Jason Stuart is the founder and editor of Burnt Bridge, a literary magazine (available in paperback and ebook). This story is part of his book, Raise a Holler, a novel told in parts.He currently resides on the beach in Mississippi and works on an Air Force base, though he is not, himself, an airman. He has several lawyers but still no agent. He rides a motorcycle and roots for the Gators.