ISSUE 16
May 2001

James Katowich

 

James Katowich grew up in rural Northwest Arkansas, living for several years in a half-built house without running water or electricity. He worked factory jobs to support himself through college and began to write stories about his co-workers. He is now a lecturer at the University of Arkansas, where he also received his M.F.A. in 2000.

A Thousand for the Summer 


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 again.

"You're a good one," he said. We wheeled around slowly making another turn. "You still planning on doing the baseball thing at L-State?"

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 groaned.

"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 that long."

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 hello.

"I expected somebody older," she said. "You don't look that old."

I told her I was eighteen and that I'd graduated already.

"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 to you?"

"No," I said. "You look like a grown up girl."

"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, hung everywhere.

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 party?"

She told me she wasn't crying and I should mind my own business.

"Where are we going now?"

"Home."

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 road.

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 her legs.

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 anymore."

"Thanks to him," she said. "That asshole."

She was close enough that I could smell the cigarette smoke in her hair and clothes. "You liked him a lot?"

"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 you?"

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 any customers.

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 lake.

"Whatever happened to you and Jennifer?" she said.

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."

"That's it?"

"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 really anything."

"I'm not anything either. You want to swim?"

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 blinded us.

"Who's out there," a voice said.

"Meredith Canfield," she said. "Who's asking?"

"Park Ranger. Who you got out there with you now?"

"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 closed."

I started for the shore, but she grabbed my arm. "We're not coming till you turn the light off."

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 floor.

"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 here?"

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 mean?"

"What am I, a dictionary?"

"Well anyway, it's really sexy."

"Yeah?" she said. "You want to make out?"

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 arranged perfectly.

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 recovered.

"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 flying.

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 empty.

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 shoulder.

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 inside.

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 married."

"Why?"

She looked at the date on a tin of oysters and put it back on the shelf. "It's the only way. I love Travis."

"What about your dad," I said. "What about what he said."

"I don't care. Daddy can buy you, but he can't buy me."

"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."

"Maybe."

"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 you?"

I shook my head. "This money will get you a little further," I told her. "Go on and go."

"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."

"Yessir."

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.

 

 

James Katowich: Poetry
Copyright 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 16The Cortland Review