1999


by Glenn Turner

Suffering from the summer afternoon heat as the sun danced her way across the sky, Davy trudged his small way with an older brother towards Charity, the nearest town. A crossroads actually. Originally built as a railstop for farmers and a maintenance headquarters for Southern Pacific, the town slowly died after the railroad closed its shop and station, becoming a near corpse with a grocery store-gas station, a rusty water tower, a few occupied houses, one ghost, and its name.

As the boys entered the town limits, guilt added to Davy’s discomfort. Mom had firmly ordered them to stay out of Charity. “Take your bottles to Sam’s in McKinny,” she had said. “Sam knows you and will treat you right.”

She glared over her flour board at two of her sons, rows of rising bread hinted at the biscuit dough her hands were about to bully, her black hair gray with flour dust which coated her redish-brown skin now white like their father’s. “Eddie, are you paying attention to me?”

Only five and blindly obedient, Davy had given no thought of going elsewhere, but Eddie, defiant from the womb, had convinced him to take their bottles into the nearer town. “It’s closer,” Eddie had said, “and the road to Charity is paved. Besides, she’ll never know.” Davy felt attracted to deception and to the shorter trip and agreed. Now they pulled the rusty Radio Flyer wagon along the dirt shoulder, the blacktop being tacky from the sun, moving carefully as to avoid chipping the glass pop bottles they had spent all morning collecting off the highway’s right-of-way.

Each whizzing-by car frightened him. He continuously glanced back to the farm. Near the horizon, he could see grandpa’s faded red barn sticking up against the cloudless blue sky -its repose unbroken by Sputnik or Echo, the tin roof bright, and the seven-bladed windmill lazily spinning in the breeze, and he imagined hearing its metallic groaning, pumping water into the cypress water tank.

Without looking for danger, they crossed under the blinking yellow light suspended over the dead intersection and dragged the wagon to the grocery’s door. An R. C. Cola sign with chipped paint clung to the screen door that complained squeekily as Eddie pulled it open. Davy yanked the wagon through. The bottles rattled.

Inside, the grocery was comparatively dark and cool. A swamp cooler, smelling of mildew and rot, futility attempted to chill the air. The ceiling was high, the lights off. Behind the tall register sat or stood, Davy could not determine which, a bald man wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. Tufts of white hair sprung from underneath his collar and armpits. He looked somewhat old and soured, like the way the room smelled. The room was silent but for the spin and whoosh of the swamp cooler. The bald man did not move as Eddie approached the counter.

“What-d’ya two want?” the bald man demanded.

“We’d like to cash in our bottles,” Eddie answered as the agreed-upon financial spokesman. Davy pulled the wagon to the counter.

The bald man lifted himself from a stool to peek over the counter at the wagonload of bottles. So he was sitting, thought Davy. The bald man leaned on callused elbows. Davy wondered if the counter held matching holes for his elbows.

“Well, what-ya waitin’ for? Bring ‘em behind the counter.” The bald man frowned with impatience. “Don’t stand there like a fence post!” Eddie waved his younger brother forward with the wagon. The bald man snatched the wagon handle from Davy’s hand. It hurt. Davy felt his mouth dry up a little. This place is not nice he thought. Sam was much nicer than the bald man. The bald man disappeared in a back room.

“Damn! You boys didn’t even sort the bottles.”

He heard the glassy chink-chink as the bald man sank each bottle into its wooden carton. Eddie posted himself in front of the register. Davy moved nervously moved to the candy isle, looking for Milk Shake candy bars, his favorite, and soon lost himself in sugary greed.

The bald man reappeared.

“Well boys. There’s six bottles at two cents, twelve at three cents, and twenty-three bottles that I don’t carry and cain’t buy. So. Let’s see. That’s furty-eight cents.” Grabbing the handle of the register, the bald man smiled and said, “Make it fifty cents. I’ll take the other bottles off yer hands.”

He yanked the handle. A bell clanged and a faded No Sale popped up. Fifty cents! thought Davy. Is that all? They had worked so hard.

“No Sir,” said Eddie.

“What wuz that?”

The bald man’s face jumped from benign to fury. Davy stepped back, but Eddie stood firm.

“Give us our bottles back. We’ll go to McKinny, to Sam’s. He buys all our bottles.” The boy’s voice was shaky but sure as much as a ten-year-old’s can be. The bald man’s face grew red.

“You little son—-”

“These boys giving you trouble, Charlie?” came a reedy voice behind them. In the open doorway stood a ethereal form, black against the backlight. It took a step. The door slapped as Davy, eyes locked on the shape like a bird’s on a snake, watched the man silently glide closer. He was thin and sweaty. A heavy black leather belt wrapped his skinny waist, from which hung a gun, and a tarnished badge tilted limply forward over a chest pocket. Davy could not look at the man’s face, only at the gun.

“These here boys,” Charlie whined, face now innocent, “tried to steal some candy. When I caught ‘em, they accused me of takin’ their pop bottles. Snotty liars!”

“That’s not true, Deputy.” said Eddie. “Those are our bottles. Me and my brother spent all mornin’ pickin’ ‘em up off Highway 24.”

Deputy yanked a limp handkerchief from a shirt pocket and wiped his forehead. He turned his body square with the boy.

“Get out,” he said, with the calm authority of a badge and gun.

Eddie held his ground. “I want our bottles back.”

Deputy hung sweaty thumbs inside the gun belt and leaned over them. “Boy, I said git.” Deputy learned over them.

Davy began blubbering, “I want my wagon.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “I want my wagon.”

Charlie the bald man shoved the wagon out from behind the counter, barking Eddie sharply on the calf. Charlie grinned.

Whimpering, Davy pushed open the complaining door for his brother.

Deputy removed his hat. “I know what you are and I don’t want to see you boys bothering decent white folks again. I done told your grandpa to keep you red niggers outta this town.”

Outside, the white sun hit them hard.

“Gimme something cold,” they heard Deputy say.

“It’s on me,” was the reply. “We shoulda killed ‘em all off a hunnerd years ago.” The door slapped shut.

Eddie clenched and unclenched his fists nearly the entire way back. “I’m not a red nigger,” he repeated to himself like a litany. “I’m not a red nigger.” Davy simply cried.

At the farm house, Eddie made him stop weeping and washed his face at the well, for he had no intention of letting their mother discover what had happened to them. Davy parked the wagon under the back porch. He avoided his mother the remainder of the afternoon. After their afternoon naps, he watched Eddie march to the barn, to play with the puppies he thought. He followed, finding his brother playing with his model bi-plane. the puppies were sleeping.

“I’m going to be a pilot, just like grandfather Elliot,” Eddie said.

He zoomed the plane high over his head and then made it dive, like their white grandfather must have done to the Germans in World War I, and he dashed to the hayloft. Davy wanted to cuddle a puppy, but he felt it wrong to wake them.

He ambled inside the house. His brother’s ruckus could be heard from the barn. He climbed into his grandfather’s chair which looked out westward through a window through which he could see ordered rows of thriving cotton run alongside a harvested wheat field now lying fallow. Heady, masculine pipe tobacco smell mixed with Old Spice clung to the chair. From the kitchen, along with the happy sounds of dishes being washed, came a old song. It was his grandma in Cherokee, who had a song for everything. His mother’s unhesitating voice responded with another song. They soon sang in unison. As the scent of the pipe permeated his mind, the rhythm became a drumming in his ears. Its beat, first in counterpoint with the rhythm of his own blood, soon synchronized. The blood pounded in his ears louder and louder. He caught a snatch of Eddie hollering in the barn, but as the red sun touched the black horizon, casting long red shadows out from the black direction and separating the house from the barn, he heard nothing but the beat, beat, beat of drums, growing louder until all else was drowned out.

by Steven J. Frank

He wasn’t quite sure when his watch had become dislodged, or where it might be. But that would be as good an excuse as any. He’d go back later, maybe tomorrow, knock on her door and explain. Then she couldn’t possibly tell him to get lost.

The morning air was lush and it made him drunk. His coat was too heavy, his shirt felt grubby, and his crotch stung like a salted war wound. The smell of her room lingered under his nose. He knew exactly where he was, which way he needed to walk. The streets were unfamiliar but recalled; he’d memorized them as he’d driven her home along them two nights before. So far he’d only missed one class. A miracle. She never liked to miss class, she’d told him.

Avoiding injury was becoming an effort. Sprays of swollen cherry and magnolia buds crazed the sunlight. The worn brick sidewalk, already slick with late-March mud, upwelled around every tree. She tried not to miss class, she’d said, because her father liked to ask questions. He told her the last time he’d heard his own father’s voice was before they reassigned him to the Gulf the previous summer. Both of them had gone on and on like that for who knew how long, talking ridiculous, he described the blind roar of night maneuvers at the Johnson airbase, she tried to mimic the look on her father’s face the afternoon he discovered her in bed with a glass of wine, a Laura Esquivel novel and no clothes. Her eyes seized his when he spoke, as if his every word were precious and yet completely beside the point–no more than prelude. Her eyes seemed to know something he didn’t.

And, later, the rest of her–rangy and glorious, the pale dormroom light spread across her like the last moments of sunset on a beach.

His shoe slapped against the toe of the curb rising above the brick sidewalk, nearly pitching him into the street. Idiot, he cursed silently. No one ever stopped at that stop sign. He could have been killed. And what if? How would she react to news of his poor flattened carcass? With devastation? Or secret relief? He’d left because he didn’t want to look like a wuss, asking if he might stay. But also because of something he sensed–a departure time wordlessly announced, mutually understood. If he hurried now, didn’t kill himself, he might just make it to his next class.

He stopped dead. No notebook. No problem set, no answers, no clue. What was he thinking?

–Hi Daddy.

Thinking about that conversation was what. He couldn’t get it out of his head. As if she’d been expecting the call.

He was supposed to be in college so he could make something of himself and possibly deserve the long-term attentions of someone desirable. Someone with a full-time father on active duty. He was quite sure he was supposed to be in college and going to classes and studying something. There were classroom buildings just a block away up the hill. He’d met her in one of them. But he felt somehow disoriented, like a visitor, not part of the day-to-day. People would be wondering about him by now. Maybe he would never see her again because it had happened so fast, and he knew how things that sizzle also tend to sputter. He could picture her sympathetic frown, the furtive glance up and down the hall, the door closing.

At least two of his roommates had no classes until afternoon. If he went back now to get his notebook, one of them would say he looked like shit, and with raised eyebrows tell him, but maybe a good kind of shit and smack his knee at his wit. And when he said nothing the other would push back his glasses and say oh, do forgive, we are too coarse and vulgar to learn of your amours. And the envy and unanswered curiosity would sharpen an edge into their voices.

He’d felt a sullen terror watching her speak with her father. She had no regional accent but her old man was supposedly this big-shot judge in Birmingham. Tried to talk with his daughter about Breughel and Bosch, but her clipped responses gave her away.

–Yes, she finally answered, drawing out the word with a conspiratorial smile, eyes downcast. Then she stared at him. Suddenly he felt scandalous. He wanted to drape something over her.

–A little, I guess. Taller.

Trying to reconstruct the other end of the conversation: Does he look like me?

–Oh, I would imagine so.

Is he a good catch? Of upstanding character? A Godfearing Christian? Lily white like me?

Is he irresponsible? Does he trip over curbs and forget his notebooks and alienate his roommates and drive a faded black Escort with one wheel in the grave …

–No, I expect he’ll drive me to dinner somewhere.

The car. Where had he left the car?

Across the street from her dorm was where he’d left it, he realized at once. He couldn’t go all the way back at this point. He’d miss still another class. Besides, someone would see him and tell her what an idiot he was. He’d just leave it there, along with his watch and his pride, and hope the car thieves were more discriminating.

–Actually, that’s where we went last night.

Then,

–No, Daddy, no pizza for us. (Crossed fingers, clenched-eyed shrug.)

No, daddy, no pizza for at least another twenty minutes, she might have said. They’d just ordered. The man was evil in his recollections of youthful abandon and its rituals.

–Still your daughter, remember.

That’s what I’m afraid of. (Together they stifled a laugh.)

Ahead of him was the parking lot of the building that contained the room that would host the class he, as a good catch of upstanding character, should be attending. People threaded through the double doors from the left and the right. All carried notebooks. Their voices silenced by distance, they moved in a processional that seemed somehow manufactured, television with a broken volume control. The building was broad with sandstone panels beneath the windows. They caught the sun like mirrors. He found a lawn bench between a pair of stringy acacias, sat down and studied the tableau with a hand shielding one eye from the glare.

He couldn’t remember exactly what she’d told him about that Laura Esquivel book but it had struck him as remarkably clever, well worth the effort to recall exactly. And the distracted expression she reflexively got when her hair fell in front of one of her eyes, the right one, and she had to pull it back behind her ear. A detail he would have to commit to memory if she decided to dump him. He was laying down now, face warm against the sun, the air indolent. Through the red veiny sky of his eyelids he imagined figures flinging themselves through entrance doors, one after the other, mechanical in pursuit of their destinations.

He didn’t know why he felt so unanchored and removed. As his mind began to quiet, he decided maybe he had no solid evidence he’d be dumped after all–even though he wasn’t always responsible, not Godfearing, not even a Christian, certainly not unusually tall. She herself was not free of flaw. Not with morning breath that could launch an F-16. He was immobile, savoring the ecstatic disconnect, soaring in the wonder of no place to go.

by Andie Carpenter

Sitting here, glaring at the dark, I light another cigarette.
Somewhere across the room another ember brightens and fades,
letting me know you are still breathing, existing; still there.
I wonder if you are ashing on the floor.

I feel you glowering, searching for words, looking for excuses,
trying to remember what you said when you left some other girl
or what she said when leaving you.
I hope your cigarette will burn your fingers.

You begin to talk, about your talents, troubles, truths,
something about needing your space.
I am suddenly desperate, disgusted,
swallowed by the thickening air.

I have heard all these words before, same sentences, even.
Romantic, you are about to call me. I prefer the term addicted.
“I am not a sentimental woman,” I will say,
hot rings of dreams hanging overhead.

I will not believe in the kind of love you crave -
In drama and drinking and hate.
I find no satisfaction in that.
I crush my cigarette into an overcrowded ashtray and smile.

I wonder if you know I’m staring,
if that flip of your cigarette into the trash was for my benefit.
I linger on the irony of seeing you clearest in obscurity.
Obscurity suits you.

Yes, I must somehow enjoy loneliness. No, I don’t like to fight.
I can listen to you and light cigarettes at the same time.
Strange how in silence the air can be so dead and cold.
(I control the warmth of smoke between my lips.)

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