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.