Issue Nine - May 2005

Down the Road

by Leta Currie Marshall

Nolene saw the dust cloud rising in the distance long before she could make out who it was. She knew most of the pickups around, and if it wasn’t a vehicle she recognized, her lips stiffened into a frowning arc as the dust rolled toward her.

She kept the garage sale going every day. There was nothing else to do, and the stuff sold so slowly there was no danger of it running out any time soon. She sat in her front yard in a sagging aluminum lawn chair, crocheting purses out of oddments of yarn, decorating them with plastic beads in rainbow colors that she had bought by the bagful. Now and then she’d look out across the flat land, squinting beneath the brim of what had once been a stiff straw cowboy hat, its hatband now an old brown necktie. Stuck in the band were two frazzled rooster feathers salvaged from Butch III and Butch VII as they did their involuntary striptease on the way to the stewpot.

Not many people drove past her place. Out-of-towners didn’t know about the dirt-road shortcut that led from Burnfield to the blacktop highway, and from there to the interstate; locals didn’t have much reason to come out this far. Every once in a while, one of the farmers or their teenage boys would show up, looking for some doo-dad to fix a tractor or first car or other piece of machinery. From the shade of the great sycamore, Nolene would watch a customer browse through the piles and buckets of parts stripped from the cars and tractors that had crawled out back of the house and died. She’d wait until he finally named what it was he was looking for. Then she’d gesture with her crochet hook, the purse in progress dangling precariously, in the direction of the plug or switch or belt he needed to fix whatever it was that was broken so he could get back to work. She’d make him a price, take his money ­ the farmers knew to bring cash, and most of them would rather deal in cash anyway ­ and put it in a Roi-Tan cigar box on the ice chest next to her chair.

Sometimes a customer would let Nolene bully him into buying a half-pint jar of her dewberry jelly or fig preserves, but not until he’d held it up to the light, tapped the lid a few times with his fingernail, and given the rusty ring a little twist, just to make sure it wasn’t blown. Once in a great while someone would pick out one of the rainbow purses for his little girl.

Nolene’s best old laying hen roosted in the shade under the lawn chair, eyes half-closed, imperturbable, like some scruffy feathered Buddha. Occasionally it wobbled stiffly to its feet and wandered off to look for a bug, drink from the bowl next to the front step, or nibble a bit of Nolene’s breakfast leavings, thrown out in the yard for it to find.

Nolene’s hair, still with a surprising amount of brown, hung unevenly to her shoulders unless the day was just too hot. Then she’d bobby-pin it up on her head, where it would writhe like a nest of baby snakes. Tanner used to like to pull out the hairpins and watch her hair fall to her waist. It was one of the few gentle things he did. Now, when it got too long and made her neck sore, she’d pull the hair off to one side in a single hank and chop it off with scissors.

The cheap cotton house dresses she’d always worn had faded all together to the same yellowed greeny-gray. Over the years they’d been mended with bits of lace and unmatching fabrics, random stitching and unique buttons. Her soft breasts settled in the pouch formed by the belt riding high around her ribs. Although she rarely wore shoes and could walk heedlessly over the flinty ground, Nolene’s feet were shapely and all her toenails sound and round.

The dust cloud billowed up the road and out of it nosed a battered blue Ford pickup. It was Bruce, whom she had loved for forty years. She had known him all her life, but he became someone else to her one breathless July day when she was twelve. She had ridden bareback on Catfish, the family horse, over to the neighbors’ place to see if her friend Patty wanted to go riding. Patty’s brother Danny and Bruce and a couple of other boys were whittling and shooting the bull under the sweet gum trees. Danny told Nolene that Patty was in town with their Mama, but instead of turning Catfish on down the road, she lingered in the shade, watching the boys whittle. Bruce got up and strolled over to her. Suddenly he had a fit of the devil and plunged his pocketknife into Catfish’s rump. The horse bolted and bucked, with Nolene hanging on for dear life until she finally lost her grip and hit the ground hard. Her dress flopped up and exposed her panties with the sagging elastic and she was so humiliated she wanted to die, and she wanted to kill Bruce, as much for seeing her underwear himself as for giving the other boys a chance to see it.

Nolene was on her feet in a blink and went for Bruce, who was standing there laughing, his thumbs hooked behind the bib of his faded overalls. He was off like a shot, but she was skinny and fast, and when she caught up with him she threw herself at his knees and brought him down in the dirt. She beat the whey out of him with her fists until he yelled for mercy. She wasn’t nearly finished but she stopped anyway, because he’d asked her to, and because the welts and scratches were already rising red and angry on his bare shoulders and tanned, muscled arms. They both stumbled to their feet and stood bent over with their hands on their knees, sweating and panting. When she’d caught her breath, Nolene looked at Bruce, and something in the way he looked back lit a strange new heat in her blood.

She brushed the dirt off her hands and went to fetch Catfish, who had not gone far once he was shed of her and the pain had gone dim. A thin dark trickle of blood ran partway down his hindquarter. She took the reins and scratched between the horse’s ears, whispering epithets into his sweating chestnut neck.

“Nolene.” She stopped and looked back. He was standing with arms akimbo, head cocked sideways, squinting against the blinding sun.

“Sorry.”

Maybe he was.

She and Catfish walked home, only the rustle-thump of bare feet and horse hooves on cracking earth and the distant buzz of cicadas under a sky white as ashes.

She had hungered for Bruce ever since, but he had soon lost his heart (his mind, Nolene had said to herself) to Lillian, a bosomy red-haired girl as lush as overripe canteloupe. Lillian had a way of being in her body, even when she was standing still, that made boys want her.

Thorny, bony Nolene had balled up that flaming love of Bruce and stuffed it away in her heart. After all these years, every time she saw him, he was still beautiful to her, with his shiny bald head and broad shoulders, the sunbleached hairs on his forearms, and the deep squint lines at the corners of his chicory-blue eyes. She’d married Tanner young, and borne him a handsome son, but now that they were both gone, it was just her, and the days were all the same.

This day, Bruce had on a clean plaid shirt and no gimme cap. He got out of the truck, walked over, and gave Nolene a quick little nod.

“‘Afternoon, Nolene.”

By the way his mouth was twisting around, it looked like some important words were trying to work their way out.

“What’s on your mind?” Nolene said.

He was no good at small talk.

“Nolene, when’s the last time you paid your property tax?”

“None o’ your business.”

“Well, it’s the county’s business, and you’re liable to lose this place if you don’t pay up.”

“And just how do you know so much about my property tax? You workin’ for the county now?”

“I was just over to the courthouse checkin’ on that place that used to belong to the Stegners. There ain’t nobody been in or outa there since I can remember. If nobody’s been payin’ the taxes, I figure it would be a nice addition to my place. It’s good land and it oughta be worked. Anyways, I heard Beulah behind the counter there tellin’ Darlene that you ain’t paid your taxes.”

Nolene looked off into the distance, at the line of poplars that marked the edge of Mansell’s farm.

“I ain’t got it,” she said.

She looked up at him. “And I ain’t gonna have it.”

It was Bruce’s turn to look away. He turned and squinted off in the same direction as she had. After a moment he said, “You still got that Oldsmobile in the garage that Billy was workin’ on?”

“You know I do. Who’d want it?”

“I would. LaNell’s got her license now, and a job in town, and she needs a car. I want her to have somethin’ solid, not one o’ them Japanese tin cans.”

Nolene looked up at him, tilting her head back to eyeball him from under the straw hat.

“It ain’t been run in forever, and with the price o’ gasoline nowadays, LaNell better have a good job.”

“You let me worry about that. How much you want for it?”

Nolene took a long, slow breath. “Two grand.”

The car was worth maybe half that. Bruce pulled his checkbook out of his hip pocket and a ballpoint out of his shirt pocket, opened the checkbook, and started writing.

“Here’s a down payment,” he said. “I’ll get the rest to you next month.”

“Ain’t you even gonna haggle?” she said.

“What’s the point? You don’t give, Nolene.”

Bruce was a good farmer, and a good man,but she couldn’t come up with anything sarcastic enough to say about the fact that he’d obviously come set to buy the car at whatever price she named. It wasn’t his fault that she had broken her heart on him, or that she’d got a bum deal when she married Tanner, but he didn’t have to rub her nose in it. He had seen her underwear again, and this time there was little she could do about it.

He ripped the check out a quick inch at a time and held it out to Nolene. She looked at it for a few seconds, then took it from him and reached for the cigar box. Bruce walked over to the garage door, spit on the window, and wiped off the dirt with the side of his fist. Cupping his hands against the glass, he peered in for a few seconds at the blue sedan covered in an even layer of dust.

“I don’t have time today,” he said, walking back to her. “I’ll come back in a couple o’ days and try to get it runnin’.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’ll be here.”

They both looked off at the dark rank of poplars again.

“Don’t take this wrong, Nolene.”

“How’m I supposed to take it?”

“LaNell needs a car, you need the money…”

“And what do you need, Bruce? Is there anything on God’s green earth you need? ‘Cause if there is, I’m pretty sure you ain’t gonna find it here. Or do you want my property too, and you’re just gonna buy it a little bit at a time instead o’ all at once?” She felt the heat rising in her face and was disgusted to notice the tightness of her throat. She had cried in front of him once, and she was not about to do it again.

“I don’t want your land, Nolene. I want…” He breathed heavily. “I want you…to want for yourself. To want better. Ever since Billy died ­ naw, hell, years before that ­ you ain’t cared about nothin’. You never fix up at all, you never got a smile for anybody, you just sit in that chair and watch life pass you by, and frankly, there ain’t a helluva lot o’ life passin’ by out here. I hate to see you waste the rest of your life, that’s all. You used to be nice lookin’, you know, but…”

“…But now I’m a bitter old hag who don’t give a damn, Bruce. What is there to give a damn about? Tell me that. You want me to fix up so I can go into town and get a job at the Dairy Queen? Maybe I’ll get rich and meet Prince Charmin’, workin’ at the Dairy Queen. Well, there ain’t no Prince Charmin’, Bruce, and there ain’t no salvation at the Dairy Queen. It ain’t worth the trouble. My husband is dead, though I cain’t say I’m too sorry about that. My Billy boy is dead, thanks to him bein’ a good soldier with bad luck, and I’ll never even have grandkids. I just truly do not give a damn any more. Let ’em come take this place. It never did nothin’ for me. I’ll hop on the next freight train that slows down goin’ through town, and I won’t look back, and you’ll never have to give me another thought. What do you think o’ that?”

“I think you’re crazy, Nolene. You’re too old and too female and too ornery to be a hobo. Nobody in their right mind’s gonna give you a crumb to eat or a tow sack to sleep on, ’cause you’re too mean. You better start thinkin’ about how you’re gonna hang onto this place. You’re gonna want a home in your old age, and like you said yourself, you ain’t got any family to take you in.”

“I still don’t see what concern it is o’ yours.”

“You mean other than the fact that we grew up together, and you’re practically family, even if you are a pain in the ass?”

Their minds went down the same road then: they both knew that he would never let her go wanting for a bed to sleep in, or let her go hungry. It was small comfort to either of them at that moment, but there it was. The thoughts bunched up in their heads and there were suddenly a lot of words not to say. He wasn’t going to say that if she’d try just a little harder to turn some of that vinegar into sugar, he might even want her to come live with him, and not as a charity case disguised as a maid. And she would drop dead before she’d say that if she’d had a man like him all those years, or not just like him, but him, she might have tried a little harder. Might still.

Things would never be easy with them. Things had not always been easy with him and Lillian, either, but by the time she’d died of cancer a few years ago, even the bickering had grown familiar and comfortable, and they had found a kind of tired tenderness.

The saving scent of sun-baked pine drifted down, calm and wise, and the cicadas were deafening in the still afternoon.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Bruce said. “Six-thirty?”

“Yeah,” Nolene said, looking at him only because she knew he was not looking at her.

“Okay.” He turned and walked to his truck, got in, and drove off.

Through the dust roiling up from his wheels, she saw his head turn as he looked in the rearview mirror.

©2005 Leta Currie Marshall

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