A Thousand for the
Now and then I'm in Baton Rouge during the spring,
and if it's a sunny day and I have the time, I like
to drop in on Alex Box stadium and watch a Tigers
Game. It's a special place for me for a couple of
reasons, having to do with my youth and with a girl I
knew then, even though I never stepped foot in the
stadium until I was over thirty, and the girl and
what I felt for her were both gone and probably
changed for good.
I was a decent first baseman in the Babe Ruth leagues
myself, and for a long time as a boy, I harbored a
plan to play for the Tigers. This even after my
Mother moved us out of Louisiana completely, up into
Arkansas to a little town called Birdeye, where my
father had left us some property, namely an old house
trailer and a 1971 Ford F-150. He had split with my
mother twice, once before I was born, and then for
good when I was five, and though he was absent for
most of those years, the two of them were still
legally married when we learned about his death by
drowning. We came to Little Rock for the funeral with
a U-haul van, and after the service, we drove to
Birdeye and took residence in the trailer my father
had acquired years ago when he left my mother the
first time, in a town he hadn't lived in since he was
in high school. I was twelve years old.
The next five years I went to school and played ball
in the early summers, and when I was old enough that
college started seeming like a real possibility, I
started working and saving my money.
I took a job working for Marshall Canfield, at his
small country grocery, which stood across from the
rusted silos and the train yard and the Planter's
Union Bank in the middle of town. The building had
been an old bait shop when Marshall bought it along
with his crop-dusting business years before, and he
put in the coolers and the walk-in freezer himself
and installed aluminum siding along the face of the
building. The glazed bodies of several mounted
catfish and bass still hung along the walls, and when
it was hot outside, the first thing you noticed when
you came in was the smell of worms and dark soil.
There were not many customers, mainly farmers' wives
buying bread and eggs, or kids who saved up for
cigarettes and Work Horse chewing tobacco and who
stood in the gravel parking lot with friends, smoking
and spitting into the white dust.
Marshall made me responsible for inventory and
balancing the register sheets, and for keeping track
of gas levels for the one gas pump out front. Even
after a year, nearly every night at home there would
be a moment of panic when I couldn't remember if I
had locked the door or turned off the coffee-maker,
even though I double-checked everything and walked
out backwards, looking for something I'd missed.
Looking back now, it's foolish to think how I fretted
over that job, but I had a worrisome nature even
then, and I didn't want to let Marshall down.
The Sunday after I graduated high school, Marshall
asked me out to the airstrip to ride along while he
dusted a neighbor's fields. He had an old two-seat
Cessna that he'd outfitted with a couple of tanks and
a length of spray hose fastened along each wing. Ag
pilots have reputations for being crazy, drunk, or
both, but I hadn't been in a plane before and agreed
to go along because I was still at the age to do
things just because I hadn't done them yet. As we
bounced across the runway and lifted off, I hugged my
seat belt and watched the runway and field pass below
us and slip away from my field of vision.
"Up we go, into the wild blue yonder,"
Marshall sang. He was a big man, and he sat cramped
in the bucket seat next to mine, a slight grin
playing at his cheeks. I felt more skinny and awkward
than usual next to him, and I had my own trouble
figuring out what to do with my long legs, all the
while looking out the window for the best open places
to stop if we needed to make some emergency landing.
After a minute we were above several acres of
soybean, and the wind was kicking us around. Marshall
popped me on the arm with the back of his hand.
"Hold on," he said. The nose of the plane
dipped, and I stiffened by legs against the
floorboard, the field rushing up at us. At what
seemed the last moment, we leveled off and pulled
upward again, and I could feel my insides shifting
around, trying to slither farther down in my body.
Behind us pesticide whirled like glitter over the
field, and the cabin was instantly flooded with an
overpowering sweet odor. He looked at me and laughed.
"Not cut out for flying, are you," he said.
"It ain't too bad," I said, and he laughed
"You're a good one," he said. We wheeled
around slowly making another turn. "You still
planning on doing the baseball thing at
I nodded. "That's where my dad went."
"I don't see how that recommends it, but it's
your choice. You all right on money?"
After an almost gentle few seconds of floating, we
were falling again, shooting down at the field until
I swear I could see each blade of the bean plants.
"I'll be all right," I said after we'd
turned up again and circled back over the highway.
"I've got a deal for you," he said.
"Call it a graduation gift. It involves some
money. You interested?"
I told him I was.
"It's to do with my girl Meredith. She's all
nuts about this kid Travis, some rice farmer's boy
from out of Forrest City. Travis and me took a plane
ride, and the upshot of that trip is Meredith won't
be seeing any more of him. You get my meaning?"
I nodded, though I did not get his meaning, and as we
turned again for another pass, I wondered if he meant
he'd killed the boy, pushed him out of the plane over
Lake Poinsett or into the Mississippi. Being up there
with him made anything seem possible.
"I'll tell you, that boy isn't worth a fart in
the wind. Uneducated. And not too bright. God knows
what she sees in him." We'd been flying eastward
while he talked, staring out the windshield, and now
he realized it and cut us around so quick the wings
"Meredith is put out with me," he said.
"Her mother is not speaking to me. They're both
mad, and now Meredith's saying she'll kill herself,
for Chrissakes. Maybe that's just girl talk, but I
got two unhappy women on my hands, and I know of only
two ways of dealing with a problem. Money and
violence. Today, I'm opting for money, a thousand
bucks in this case."
We were above the same field again, and he banked us
hard to line up with the strip we had yet to dust. He
looked at me, his eyebrows raised. "I'm not
inclined to hand money out, but I like to kill two
ducks with the same shell, and I got reason to trust
you. So you interested or what?"
I was already counting the money. I didn't care if he
wanted me to kill Travis myself. "What is it you
want me to do?"
He shrugged. "Take her to some movies, shopping,
I don't know. She needs somebody with a car to haul
her around. I'll get her to help you out at the
store. You're older, she'll like you. Just keep her
mind off that boy until school starts up in the fall
and she's too busy to miss him. It won't take half
I'd seen Meredith at the store and at school the past
year. She was two years younger than me and had a
plain face, and she kept her red hair pulled back.
She wore an old army jacket a lot and pegged her
jeans and smoked cigarettes and had a reputation for
being headed for no good. She was the exact opposite
of the plump, kind Pentecostal girls I'd dated.
"I'm your man," I said.
"Good," he said, and hit me on the arm
again. "But one thing. You stay out of her
pants, you hear me? You take advantage of her
innocence, and I'll make you wish you hadn't. It's
not outside my nature to inflict some real harm upon
you." He didn't look at me as he said this, and
I didn't answer, just gripped my stomach as we shot
toward the field to dump the last of the spray.
Our baseball team was not very good, and it was
around these younger boys, slower and less skilled in
grace, that I came to have a higher opinion of my
abilities than I probably should have. By early July
we were near the bottom of the state and hoping to
finish out the month with some dignity. But I was
batting over three hundred, the oldest boy on our
team, the only one out of school, and in some ways
I'd already left them and the team behind, so the
week after I flew with Marshall when we dropped both
Saturday games, it bothered me less than it might
have. I didn't care that our pitcher three times
overthrew me, and I'd had to dig his wild throws from
the opposing team's dugout. It was just that I'd
knocked in both of our runs, and caught every ball
that came my way, and I was simple enough to believe
that I was too good for that level of play.
It was only after the game that I saw Meredith
smoking a cigarette in the stands. Still flushed from
my good showing, I took my bag up to her and said
"I expected somebody older," she said.
"You don't look that old."
I told her I was eighteen and that I'd graduated
"You've got a car, I guess," she said, and
took a long drag on the cigarette. She didn't really
look at me much. It came to me for the first time
that, a thousand bucks or not, this wasn't
necessarily going to be a good thing for me. There
was no way I was going to let the money go, but
running around with a sour little bitch all summer
wasn't too enticing.
"A truck," I said.
"Of course." She looked up. "I don't
want you to think any of this was my idea."
"Mine either," I told her. "I don't
care what you do. I just need the money."
"I don't need watching over. I look like a baby
"No," I said. "You look like a grown
"You're not too bad of a ball player," she
said, flipping the cigarette away. "We'll see
what kind of babysitter you make." A car honked
in the parking lot, and she looked over her shoulder.
"My friends are leaving. You tell my dad
whatever you want."
The days my mother didn't stay in Memphis she
slept late. I was up by ten, and I'd sometimes have a
can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the oven and a
skillet of eggs scrambled with milk and pepper
cooling on the stove when she came to the table in
her green bathrobe. Her hair was always tangled and
matted, and she had dark smudges under her eyes from
sleeping in her mascara. She held a cigarette in her
mouth while she spooned her eggs onto a plate with
two of the cinnamon rolls and then ate with her
cigarette shrinking on an ashtray. If I'd already
eaten, I'd sit at the table with her and rub Red Wing
into the palm of my glove and catch my fist. She'd
sometimes shower and leave at three without much more
than a few words passing between us.
When she didn't work, we went fishing, or if she was
off, she came to my games and cheered in the stands
with some of the other parents. She liked to watch me
play, and I had to concentrate on not watching her
instead of the game. The only memories I have of her
smiling and shouting after my father left are of her
at the baseball diamonds of my youth, and she's
standing behind the plate with her hands in her back
pockets, yelling to ask the umpire if he needs to
borrow her eye drops.
That Friday, we drove the stretch of highway to
Jonesboro, and Meredith pointed me toward a dark
road, a house filled with people I didn't know.
Inside, a stereo, its speakers gouged out and
rattling, pounded music through the house. It was a
surly, distorted noise I didn't much like, and the
house was crowded with kids, though there wasn't much
talking. Cigarettes and plastic cups changed hands,
heads nodded in rhythm with the music. Elaborate,
colorful graffiti covered the walls of the kitchen
and living room, and the sweet burning odor of
marijuana, a smell I didn't recognize at the time,
Meredith disappeared into another room with a girl
who wore dark purple lipstick. She had little flecks
of it stuck to her teeth. I stood a while in the
living room then wandered into the kitchen where a
group of boys my age surrounded a beer keg. There
were empty cups stacked near the stink, and I tried
to fill a cup with beer but only a trickle came out,
until a sleepy-looking kid pressurized the keg for
me. It was the first time I'd seen that done. I drank
cup after cup of that flat beer and wandered the
house. In the bathroom a goldfish in a small bowl
sucked at the surface of the water for air. I found
Meredith again in a back room sitting on a bed with
one leg tucked under her. The girl with dark lipstick
was with her, and Meredith's eyes were red from
crying. I stood there in the doorway for a minute;
then Meredith stood up and shut the door in my face.
In the living room, a slower song came on, and the
speed of the nodding heads matched the song's
plodding rhythm. In a few minutes, Meredith came out
of the back room.
"Let's go," she said. The music followed us
outside, and it was only inside my F-150 I felt like
I could talk again. "Why are you crying," I
said. "Were you looking for somebody at that
She told me she wasn't crying and I should mind my
"Where are we going now?"
Her voice was sharp, so I rolled down the windows and
didn't say anything else for a while. It was a hot
night, and the warm and thick air rolled about the
inside of the cab. Beyond the scope of the headlights
everything was black, and I had to concentrate on the
At her house we sat in the truck in the dark. It was
quiet, and I was aware of the weight of her on the
seat beside me, the creak of the vinyl as she shifted
She turned to me. "Do I look happy to you?"
I shrugged. "I guess not."
"You'd think my dad would notice."
I told her I was sure Marshall had a lot on his mind.
"He told you about Travis."
"He said you guys weren't going out
"Thanks to him," she said. "That
She was close enough that I could smell the cigarette
smoke in her hair and clothes. "You liked him a
"We were only going to get married."
"I guess your dad put a stop to that."
"I don't care what he says." She turned
further to face me, and her knee rested on my thigh.
"I do what I want. But ever since my dad talked
to him, Travis won't see me."
"I don't blame him."
She shook her head. "I do."
The wind had picked up, and the cicadas called out in
the trees. I felt dizzy from the beer. I said I
guessed it was too bad about Travis and the best
thing was for her to forget him. She looked at me
like she was surprised at what I said. After a minute
she said, "I'll bet you want to touch me, don't
I told her I did, and she pulled the hem of her shirt
free and lifted it up to her neck. She folded down
one cup of her bra so that the swell of her breast
was exposed, the nipple pale and goose-pimpled. I
rested my hand there, flat against her, like I was
feeling for her heartbeat. "Travis likes for me
to do that," she said, then pulled away and went
into the house.
In the weeks that followed I slept late into the
afternoon and worked evenings at the store.
Marshall's wife Jean would be there reading a Longarm
novel when I got there, and she'd tell me what needed
restocking or refilling, and I'd spend my nights
doing that or else giving directions to families
stopping for gas or carrying groceries out to the car
for older people. Sometimes Marshall stopped by on
his way to Truman and opened up a couple of cans of
sardines, and we ate them on potato chips or wrapped
in tortillas. Marshall said his wife didn't let him
snack at home, and he and I sometimes went through an
entire bag of chips and then dipped candy bars into
our coffee, or spent an hour cracking open walnuts,
pecans, and green boiled peanuts Marshall sold from
50-gallon barrels. Marshall said it was good to have
a man to talk to, and he sometimes thumped me on the
back and told me to close up early if there weren't
Meredith came by the store and helped me stock on
weeknights, and sometimes she'd drop by on a Friday
night with her girlfriends, most of them with their
hair all teased up and faces smooth as porcelain
dolls I'd seen at flea markets. They'd stop by to use
the bathroom on the way to a horror flick in
Jonesboro, and Meredith made a show of talking to me,
introducing me to her friends. They were high-school
girls, all of them fifteen and sixteen, loud and
laughing, and I sometimes spent a half-hour mopping
up an iced cola one of them spilled or rearranging a
shelf of Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines they'd
rifled through. Meredith usually walked out with a
few packs of gum and a carton of Marlboro Reds or a
bottle of Mini-Thins, and I paid for whatever she
took with my own money after they were gone.
One night she biked to the store as I was closing up.
I had to unlock the door to let her in, and she sat
on the counter drinking a Seven-Up spiked with
Seagrams while I dragged a mop across the concrete
floor. After that she helped me straighten the cans
of Vienna Sausages and Deviled Ham spread.
"People are always turning these around to read
the labels," I said, and read her some of the
ingredients "This one has 'steamed bone meal' in
it," I said. "Guar gum, choline
chloride." She put her hands over her ears,
laughing. Later we drove to Poinsett park and sat on
the warm hood of my truck and tossed rocks into the
"Whatever happened to you and Jennifer?"
Jennifer was the girl I'd dated in high school. She'd
moved to Oregon after graduation. "I don't think
she really liked me that much, " I said.
"We mostly held hands and stuff."
"We kissed a little."
"With the tongue?"
I shrugged. "Not really."
"She was Pentecostal, wasn't she? Couldn't wear
makeup and stuff."
I said she was.
"You Pentecostal, too?"
"We didn't go to church. I don't suppose I'm
"I'm not anything either. You want to
On opposite sides of the truck we stripped to our
underwear, and once in the water we splashed at each
other. I suppose if we'd been thinking, we would have
been quieter, but as it was, I swam after her, and
she screamed and shouted and tried to push me under
the water. After a while, she swam closer and put her
arms around my neck. "Open your mouth," she
said. When I did, she kissed me, her tongue darted
between my lips, under my own tongue, across the
edges of my teeth. I had my eyes closed, and didn't
hear anything until the truck door slammed shut. We
both looked up and froze. A spotlight from the shore
"Who's out there," a voice said.
"Meredith Canfield," she said. "Who's
"Park Ranger. Who you got out there with you
"None of your business."
"Your dad know you're out here, Meredith?"
"He knows it all, don't he?"
"Suppose you all come on out. Park's
I started for the shore, but she grabbed my arm.
"We're not coming till you turn the light
There was no answer, and neither of us moved. After a
minute, the light clicked off, and we saw the Ranger
climb into his truck and back out and pull away, his
tires slipping just a bit and spinning on the incline
of the road away from the lake.
An afternoon in early August my mother called me
into the bathroom while she got ready for work. She
stood at the mirror still in her robe working at her
bangs with a curling iron. There was a sweet smell of
hairspray like apples. Nylon hoses spotted with nail
polish to stop runs were strung up on the showerhead,
and underwear, q-tips, brown with eye shadow, some
worn leather purses and plastic bottles littered the
"I've found an apartment in Memphis," she
said. "It's a good price, but the thing is we've
got to take it soon." She raked her fingers
through her bangs. "If you want to stay on out
here until you leave for school that's okay."
It had been awhile since I'd even thought about
school. I'd been living in some kind of no-time, and
it hit me then that the summer wasn't going to last
much longer, and there was a small stack of letters
from the university piling on my dresser I needed to
see to. In a little more than one month I was
supposed to be in classes, and some time after that I
needed to try out at Alex Box stadium.
"After Christmas maybe I can help you with
money," she told me. "Until then you might
go without your books or something."
"The landlord won't mind keeping the trailer
She looked at me in the mirror. "Marshall owns
this trailer park. He's kept the trailer here this
long. You'll have to feed yourself, though. You got
money for that?"
"I'll be okay with money," I told her. She
didn't know about the deal with Marshall; at least if
she did, I hadn't been the one to tell her. Marshall
had only known my father as a tenant, and I wasn't
sure what his relationship was with my Mother. I
hadn't known Marshall owned the lot where we kept the
trailer parked, where it had been ever since my
father bought it, and now I wasn't sure whether I
should tell her or not.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry I couldn't help
you more is all," my mother said. She looked at
me a second, then lifting the robe away from her
bottom, sat on the toilet.
A few weeks later Meredith rode her bicycle to the
store and stood on the pallet jack as I pulled boxes
of inventory along the shelves and stocked the
Chick-O-Sticks and Buddy Bars, Butter Mints, and
Southern Pecan Pies. Now and then as I sorted the
candy, she plucked one from my hand and ate it.
"Incroyable," she said, licking her
fingers. "Tres incroyable."
I asked why she was talking like that. She told me
her French II teacher said she was a natural and that
she ought to apply to be an exchange student.
"Ummph," she said after another bite, her
mouth full. "Bon."
"You think you'll go?"
She shrugged. "I'm trying it on for size."
She put a hand to her cheek. "Comment appelez
vous?" she said, pursing her lips. "How
does that sound? Sexy?"
"Beautiful," I said. I'd taken Spanish in
school, and even after two semesters didn't dare
speak any of it out loud. "What does it
"What am I, a dictionary?"
"Well anyway, it's really sexy."
"Yeah?" she said. "You want to make
I said yes and kissed her, and she kissed me hard
back, pushing me back onto the boxes. I felt her hips
moving against me, working her crotch against mine.
Against the hood of my truck we'd kissed like this
for hours, Meredith grinding her pelvis against me. I
kissed at her neck and ears, and she made soft noises
and stuck her tongue in my ear, so I stuck my tongue
in her ear, too. The boxes fell over and spilled
packets of ring pops and peanuts across the concrete.
She had her hand in my jeans, and it was the first
time I'd felt a girl's hand on my dick, and I worked
hard at getting her cut-offs worked down past her
hips. We hadn't said a word, and I was getting worked
up so that it was to the point at which I knew that
things weren't going to stop, and I pulled her
panties off and she leaned back against the pallet. I
put myself inside her just as I came.
We sat on either side of the pallet, the fluorescent
lights making the skin on my hands seem thin and
bloodless. My lips felt rubbed raw.
"You need a ride home," I said.
"No, that's okay," she said. She had her
bike. She wanted to ride it home. She left, and what
I remember of the rest of the night is the shiny
wrappers and colors of the candy, picking it all up
from the dirty floor and putting it back into the
boxes, and being very careful that it all was all
I spent a week waiting for Marshall. Sure she'd
told him or her mother that I'd had sex with her, I
didn't call Meredith, and the next time I saw her was
at Forrest City for the last game of our season. The
Forrest City team played as poorly as we did, but the
local people in the bleachers shouted and clapped
anyway. Meredith sat with her mother in the visitor's
section, and I noticed from the dugout during the
game she kept her eye on the leftfielder, a short,
slim boy with a full face and milky skin. I had a
good idea this was Travis, and I watched him the rest
of the game myself.
He was not a great ball player. A little slow in the
feet to be a center fielder, he should have been
covering a base, or maybe catching if he had the eye
for it. But he seemed to move without expending any
effort; he flowed across the field with a surly
grace. Watching him move was like watching light
ripple through silk or smoke rise up from a
cigarette. He struck out once and bunted one run in
and singled in another, and I got caught up watching
Meredith and hating him enough that I tried aiming my
hits toward him and bit air all three times at bat.
After the game I was down on myself, not just because
I'd had a poor showing, but because I'd let myself
get rattled. A real ball player wouldn't have let
something like that get to him; that was what I
realized then. A ball player can thread a needle on a
unicycle with a dump truck bearing down on him.
I asked Meredith who the boy was, but she shook her
head and told her mother she was ready to go. I asked
her again, and she told me Marshall wanted me to be
at the airstrip at dawn the next morning. Her mother
wouldn't even look at me.
It was still dark when we pushed the Cessna from
the tin shed Marshall used for a hangar, and the
fiberglass body and hollow wings were slick with dew.
Ten minutes later, we lifted into the air and the sun
was just breaking over the horizon.
"You want to fly?" Marshall said.
I shook my head. "No, sir."
"Take the stick, son," he said. We were
maybe a hundred feet up, the wind still knocking us
around a bit. I put my hands on the wheel, and just
like that, I could feel the plane's vibrations and
groans pass into my fingers and arms, the wind
pulling at my hands.
"Take us up," he said. "Get some
insurance under us."
I pulled back, and we nosed upward. The wind eased
off, and there was the sensation of not moving
anymore, of only leaning back. He sat beside me with
his hands in his lap. After a few minutes he told me
to level us off. Below, I could see the silos in the
center of town, the post office, and Marshall's store
a bit farther to the south.
"I've talked with Meredith about you,
Clay," he said, and the control wheel slipped
from my hands. We drifted downward a moment before I
"You got us?" he said. I nodded.
He rubbed his neck. "I admit my plan wasn't the
greatest from the get-go."
"Listen," I said. "Let me say this
first. I'm not going away to school. I want to stay
and be with Meredith."
A pause. "You sure about that?"
I nodded, feeling his eyes on me. The engine whined,
seeming far away now.
"Let me have the stick," he said and pulled
us tightly to the left. As we turned, I could see the
white-puffed lines of cotton in somebody's fields,
and the gray dirt between them. We wheeled in circles
for a minute, the sun fully up now.
I looked over and saw Marshall was smiling, shaking
his head. He looked at me, then looked back, smiling
and shaking his head some more. "I'll tell
you," he said. "I am good. I am so
G-O-O-D!" He laughed. "I should tell you I
had an idea this might happen."
"But what about what you said?"
"You don't raise a daughter without knowing
something about psychology, son. And you don't ask
some boy to watch after a girl without considering
what kind of son-in-law he'd make."
I saw my legs were shaking. I wanted to laugh,
myself, yell out a whoop.
"Tell you what," he said, slapping his
thigh. "I'm looking at a real duster, an Air
Tractor or a Turbo Thrush. How about I teach you to
fly this one, and you work for me. Maybe we make this
spraying business turn a profit."
He whipped us around again, and now I could see all
of Birdeye. They say it changes how you look at
things to see it from far away, and what I learned
looking out over the town was that it was a nice,
small size, and that I could come to love a place you
could see the whole of at once. I saw years passing
over those cluttered buildings and vehicles, my own
life among the lives I imagined down there now:
Meredith living with me in a two-bedroom A-frame, a
quilt her mother's mother made on our bed. I'd have
my own plane, and I'd wheel and circle above children
she and I would raise together. The plane dropped,
nosing toward the fields, and I let my hands hover
over the control wheel, as if I were still the one
After I closed the store that Friday I waited in
the parking lot for Meredith. I'd called her three
days before, and she said she'd be gone to visit her
cousin in Marked Tree, but would try to make it by to
see me tonight. It was nearly midnight.
It was too late to call, so I drove home but couldn't
sleep. I hadn't seen her since flying with Marshall.
After a couple hours, I dressed and drove to
Marshall's house, parking at the end of the long
gravel driveway. I walked quietly up to the house and
whispered for their old black-and-tan hound before he
started to bay and patted him a few times and threw a
stick for him to chase. Around the back of the house,
I peered into the windows. In one room Marshall lay
asleep next to his wife, his mouth open, the
television flickering. Even outside I could hear him
snoring. I found Meredith's bedroom window and
knocked softly. No answer. The window was unlocked,
and I pushed it open and saw her bed was made and
There was nothing to do but go home, though I drove
through town thinking I might see her. Coming upon
the store, I spotted a dented Mustang parked out
back. I cut my lights and killed the engine and let
my truck roll to a stop and slipped around the side
of the store. The back door was propped open, and I
waited outside with my back against the tin wall.
There were footsteps, and then the boy I'd guessed
was Travis stepped out the door, two full paper sacks
in his arms, a cigarette hanging off his lip. He put
one bag down, and squeezed on the cigarette sucking
in, and then flicked it away all in one slick motion.
Looking at him made me feel ugly. It made my legs and
arms feel too long. He bent to pick up the other bag,
and I dove at him. Cans and bottles scattered across
the gravel. He rose swinging, and I fell down dodging
a wild punch. He fell on me, put his knee on my chest
and knelt over me, his fist drawn back above his
Meredith came to the doorway. He turned to look at
her. "It's all right, Travis," she said.
"Get the food on in the car."
He stayed where he was.
"Get off him," she said. "We got to go
soon. He won't stop us."
"All right," he said, and climbed up. He
kept his eye on me until I got up and followed her
The store was dark, and she moved along the aisles,
dumping food into her sack. I walked behind her as
she picked a loaf of bread, two jars of Goober Grape
Jelly, and several cans of shoestring potatoes.
"Travis and I are going off," she said.
"We'll get jobs and a house, and we'll get
She looked at the date on a tin of oysters and put it
back on the shelf. "It's the only way. I love
"What about your dad," I said. "What
about what he said."
"I don't care. Daddy can buy you, but he can't
"He hasn't bought me."
She had the sack held in both arms, and now she
shifted it up on her hip like a heavy child. "He
runs you like he runs this store, Clay."
In the dim light she looked different, like someone
I'd never met. "He'll find you. The both of
"You've got no money, do you?"
"Not a lot, no."
It came to me that if this all were some scene in a
book or movie it would be the one people would cry
over or feel very bad about. And if I'd known it
would happen this way I'd have thought I would cry
when it did. But how was it that I only felt a chunk
of ice in my gut, that I was numb, but that the
numbness was somehow cleansing, almost pleasant? I
suppose what I realized was that Travis and I had a
lot in common, and I was suddenly glad it was him and
not me out there picking up her food off the ground.
"There's money here," she said.
"There's the safe."
I suppose I could have stopped them. I could have
told her I wasn't going to let her open the safe, and
it's possible she didn't even know the combination.
"There's about a thousand in there," I
said. There was double that, but what I figured was
that all summer Marshall had planned on being out a
thousand bucks anyway, and it should go to his
daughter before anyone. I kept myself between her and
the floor safe behind the counter and counted out a
thousand and gave it to her.
"There's more in there," she said.
"That's all I'll let you take."
"You expect me to apologize," she said,
"for this summer and everything, don't
I shook my head. "This money will get you a
little further," I told her. "Go on and
"All right," she said, and left me in the
ransacked store, sections of the shelves bare and
papers scattered across the floor. I imagined the two
of them in the car, the engine loud as they drove
holding hands toward Greenville or Little Rock or
Vicksburg. I couldn't feel much anger toward her, and
when I tried to imagine her and Travis making love, I
only saw her crying on the edge of a bed in a motel.
I set to cleaning the store, noticing again the smell
of old bait, and I realized it was always there and
it just got to where I didn't notice it. The store
would open tomorrow or the next day just like before.
For that matter, the rest of the town would change
very little by her leaving, just as it wouldn't be
changed when I left the next week myself.
In the morning I told Marshall I'd forgotten to
lock the safe, and that someone had robbed the store.
He knew right away it was her.
"And you let her take the money, didn't
you?" he said. "It sure wasn't that little
shit that forced you."
He looked at me a long time, then told me to get out
of his sight.
A week later I moved to Memphis to live with my
mother. By then I heard the State Police had stopped
Travis and Meredith in Pine Bluff for having a
taillight out on the Mustang, and the Police held the
both of them until Marshall got there. I didn't see
any of them again. I went to a small school in
Memphis and majored in business, got married and,
through my wife, landed the job I have now, working
for a company that manufactures personal watercraft,
those speedy little numbers everyone finds so
annoying. For this job I travel a sales route that
runs down along the Mississippi and across the Gulf
Coast, and as often as twice a year, I pass through
Birdeye, though it is out of my way. And if while I'm
in the town I see a cropduster in the air I wonder if
it is Marshall wheeling around up there, or if he has
hired on someone else to do the work now. My mother
tells me that Meredith is living in Baton Rouge, of
all places, that she has a son, and that her husband
owns a couple offshore oilrigs. I look for her in the
spring when I am at Tigers games, though I have yet
to see her among all those bodies in yellow and white
in the stands. And so on these times when I find
myself in one of these two places that have such
meaning for me, I'm always unsure why I arrived or
how I got there, whether I've come with some
intention in mind, or if I've been driving
half-asleep, following routes I have long since
learned by heart.