Greene County was talking about Muriel Foster’s stepson. People had always talked, always kept one eye on the Foster house like they were waiting for a bad seed to bear what they knew it would. So far Dan’s boy, Paul, had been quiet, good in school, but it was like he was too good—they couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it wasn’t natural. Creative, they had murmured, and not the good kind, when in third grade the boy had shown up at the K-Mart looking like Mary Magdelene, a blue blanket draped around his face. It marked him further that he was smaller than the other boys, with a fragile look, that by high school his inquisitive eyes hadn’t gone dead like a normal teenager’s but instead shadowed with the sort of sidelong cunning that made other boys want to shove him against lockers for walking by.
“Just a boy,” the county said now, as if shocked.
“Seventeen— that ain’t just a boy no more.”
The police were involved, so no use in keeping quiet about it, not even for Muriel’s sake. Poor Muriel, they said. She made another bad match, her second marriage. The first one, you know, was bad enough to put her in the hospital from stress. Now this. You heard about it, of course, the Foster boy. Got picked up at some rest area over in Rockdale county, one where that sort of thing goes on, apparently. Well, yes. I suppose there’s all kinds. Don’t get me started on the sickness of this world, Lord have mercy. At least it didn’t happen here.
Muriel knew they were talking, knew there was nothing she could say to make them stop. In the beginning, she’d wanted to scream in rage, scream the shock right out of their eyes, these gossips who presumed to know it all. They didn’t know a thing. But she closed her lips and kept to her house. Inside, her family was safe from words, the silence clouded here like a settled weather that gathered about the boy as he ghosted from room to room and back behind his own door. Almost peaceful, as if she and Dan and the boy had agreed on a preference for softer tones, agreed to speak only what was purely necessary.
“You keeping those biscuits for yourself, Paul?” she’d ask gently at the supper table. With the briefest glance from under his lashes, he’d pass the basket, whispering “Sorry.” “Sorry,” he’d offer to the house in general, as he bumped a chair where no one sat. “That’s alright,” she’d answer, and if he came close enough, she would take hold of his arm, almost fiercely, as if to assure him of the fact. Later he would come to say good-night and linger another minute in the doorway of their bedroom, saying nothing. His dim blue eyes wandered over the two of them in their bed, then over the items on Muriel’s dressing table and Dan’s nightstand without ever finding a place to land.
“It’s late, Paul,” Dan would murmur. “You need something?” For a minute she and Dan would listen to the boy’s careful breath, his silence, and before he could manage another apology, Muriel would suggest that he get some sleep.
After Paul had gone to his own room, Dan might meet her eyes with a glance so quick it looked like guilt, just the way his son looked at anyone those days, before leaning away to set his reading glasses on the nightstand and switch off the lamp. In the dark they would lie barely touching, unspeaking most nights, as if it had all been said so many times.
“He didn’t do it—those things they say,” she had tried to insist one night, for Dan’s sake. This was back in the beginning, before the silence began to feel like a comfort.
Beside her, she could sense Dan staring at the ceiling, turning the problem over for himself in his detached way, a purely intellectual puzzle. “How do you know that?”
“This is Paul we’re talking about. He was only hitchhiking. He wouldn’t lie. He wouldn’t . . .do that, what they say.”
“So, because you can’t conceive it, it didn’t happen?” He might as well have been musing over something he had read in the paper, something that happened to other people. Again Muriel had to remind herself that Paul was not her child.
But he was. Or he was like her child. When the awful call had first come from Rockdale County—Paul’s scared voice, tuned to a wispy tenor—she felt his instant relief in hearing it was her on the line, his trust that she would be the one to understand as always. “I got arrested,” he said. “They won’t set bail till morning.”
He tried to explain what had happened, but she couldn’t get a picture, couldn’t think of anything beyond the cell where he would have to spend the night. Surely the place was dirty and cold, maybe dangerous, no place for a lamb who would never hurt anyone. She was certain he’d be injured by the experience in some deep and permanent way, so that the change in him would be visible by the time they arrived to post bail.
But the boy who emerged was the same one who had left her house the day before: 17-going-on-15 in a white T-shirt, cut-off shorts, high-top sneakers, and a faded baseball cap. Dan hugged him first, without eye contact, the gesture both tender and automatic on both sides. She went forward more hesitantly, peering close at his face to find the change. As if the boy would escape, she held him around the small of the back—he was inches taller than her now—and lifted the baseball cap. Underneath he was still Paul, unmistakable, his delicate features and bruisable skin, the same short, winter-grass hair and the faint blue vein etched along his temple. She was used to other eyes though, narrowed and foxy with humor, irony—that look was gone. Her fingers reached toward the vein above his eyebrow, but he pulled away. “I’m okay,” he mouthed to her clearly, soundlessly, glanced once at his father, took back the hat.
Their lawyer had arrived then, a woman, and from the start she hadn’t set right with Muriel. She was too young, too pretty; to Muriel, she didn’t seem to know what she was about. A competent defense lawyer ought to come in already raving about malicious prosecution and police corruption and such. Instead, this one calmly stated the charge against Paul, solicitation, cited the cop’s statement, all as if it were fact. She might as well have been one of the enemy. Serious and cool as a mortician, she set her clasped hands before her on the conference room table to address Paul. “I’m going to ask you to tell me what happened. Do you want your folks in the room for this?”
Muriel had gone cold at that, so cold she couldn’t turn to Dan for guidance. It was that lawyer’s fault, twisting things this way. The baseball cap was turned backward now on Paul’s head, giving him the slick-eared expression of a dog that just messed the house. He looked at Muriel and then at his father, and she saw in his eyes that he wouldn’t say no. That he was willing if they were, that they would not be sent away. Instinctively, she reached for Dan’s limp hand, lifted and squeezed it hard and said, “Maybe we’d best wait outside.”
An hour later Paul had emerged, face rubbed blank, erased. She took hold of his thin, bare arm above the elbow and stroked with her other hand in small circles, as if his arm were a separate creature, a fussy infant she meant to soothe—she had no clear sense of what she was doing. Dan made arrangements with the lawyer for the hearing, which was set for two weeks off. The three of them got into the car. Paul sat alone in the back seat, and all the way home no one spoke a word.
By day, in those long days before the hearing, she caught herself hovering, listening, outside his bedroom door. He was in there, moving around, the door cracked an inch as if anyone were free to peek inside. On the outside he’d mounted a Yield sign taken off the road—an innocent crime, she’d always thought. Boy stuff. Instead of looking in the door, Muriel stared at the sign’s glaring yellow and black, the rust that collected in the battered edges. Paul liked to issue such theatrical commands when they were alone together, joking in the kitchen while she fixed supper and he set the table: “That’s enough out of you,” he’d bark, straight-faced, aim an index finger, so abruptly that she burst into giggles. Play-acting suited him.
But when she tried now to hear that “Yield” in his royal tone, it sounded only dark, threatening; she could hardly recall what had ever been funny. How long had it been since he’d spoken in his real voice? Or was this the boy’s real voice after all, this chaff of sound lighter than air? When his rustling inside stopped, she caught her breath as well, motionless. She thought they were listening for each other now, with only the door between them.
She pressed his one suit for the hearing. Dan took the day off from work, and the three of them drove together back to Rockdale County to meet their lawyer at the courthouse. In the marble hall, the lawyer spoke briefly to Paul, and then without fanfare they were all four in the courtroom before the high-throned judge and the district attorney and the bailiff and the stenographer and other people who sat scattered in the wooden pews like this was some kind of a show. She looked in each face to make sure there was no one she knew. Things happened more quickly than she expected: the D.A. and the judge exchanged words like a secret code, and Paul’s lawyer stepped forward to enter a plea that was neither guilty nor innocent and sounded to her like Spanish. “What was that?” Muriel gripped Dan’s arm, frantic. “What’d she just say?” Paul stood beside the lawyer, his back military straight, hands locked before him. She wanted him to turn and look at her, to let her know he was in need of rescue. Maybe that lawyer really didn’t know what she was doing, for even the judge looked disgusted as she entered the plea.
The judge called Paul forward and began what sounded like a lecture. Muriel could see the man’s nostril’s flaring. “Are you aware, son, of the laws against sodomy in the state of Georgia and before God?”
“Yes, sir,” Paul answered. His voice was gruff, surprisingly audible, nearly echoing in the high-ceilinged room.
“You claim you were hitching a ride this time, is that it? A ride from Officer Kendrick, whom you propositioned?”
Again, “Yes, sir,” his eyes on the judge and not even shifting for the lawyer, who was five steps behind him and not moving to intervene.
The judge shuffled papers. “You have some reason to be in Atlanta, I assume?”
“To see a friend.”
“What kind of a friend?”
Paul hesitated but kept his eyes raised to the bench. “A good friend.”
The judge massaged the bridge of his nose wearily. “Son”—he straightened to his full height in the chair and fixed his eyes on Paul below—”are you going to stand there and act like you don’t know what solicitation of sodomy is? I do get sick of having to look in the face of a pervert every day in this court and—you know what I would like? I would like it if y’all would stop. Stop defiling this state and my courtroom.”
While the judge spoke, Paul remained silent, though at each rhetorical punctuation his dropped shoulders spread farther back, like wings. And suddenly he was answering yes, calmly, to a barrage of questions that Muriel thought would never stop. Yes, I have taken money for sex. Yes, I have traded blow jobs for rides. Yes. Until Muriel was standing, unthinking, screaming at the judge, “Stop it! He’s a boy! Stop bullying him. You’re confusing him!” Dan’s hand was on her arm, and the judge growled, “Counselor, shall I ask your clients to step outside?”
It wasn’t Dan who sat her back in the pew, mouth shut, but a cool, leaden density that seemed to have gathered inside her like a weight she could no longer resist. She sat, heavily. Not your son, a voice reminded her. Not Curtis, surely. Her own son, Curtis, had a college degree and a job up in Athens, a girl he might up and many any day now. That boy had been fatherless from the age of 10, later sent to live with his grandmother so that Muriel could take what they called “a little rest.” And after all that, the boy had turned out fine. This one, on the other hand, was Dan’s. She was fond of Paul, naturally, wanted him to grow up well, to turn out fine. But this sharp pang of responsibility, like a cord was twisted somewhere inside—it didn’t belong to her.
In the end, when the judge delivered the sentence, she felt extraordinarily lucky. After such vicious words, she’d expected that he would take Paul in chains back to the cell and close him in for good. But the sentence turned out to be no more than time served plus a little probation and community service. It was nothing. It was over now, she told herself in giddy astonishment, as they drove back to Greene County. They could put it all behind them. She wanted to chatter about the scenery, to smile with relief, smile especially at Paul, who sat slumped and bloodless in the back with his tie pulled loose, his collar undone. But she found she couldn’t meet his eyes, and she wasn’t sure why. She sat back in her seat, facing forward as Paul and Dan both faced forward. They all remained silent during the drive.
As the car pulled into the driveway at home, they saw where their journey had led them. An angry black scrawl crossed the front door and onto the white clapboard of the house, trailing huge under all the windows like an evil vine that had sprung up in their absence. Burn in hell faggot, it read, unmistakably.
They sat unmoving in the car. Paul was the first to open a door. Dan and Muriel remained seated while he walked across the lawn, cracked the seal on the screen door, which broke across the “U” in BURN and then settled back into a legible word again, after Paul had already vanished inside. Together, Dan and Muriel followed. They approached the house with slower steps, Muriel with a sort of hesitant horror as if the message would bite, Dan in a thoughtful study. He surveyed each letter while Muriel waited, wanting him to offer something that would fix it instantly. He drew and released a deep breath, then chewed the corner of his lower lip the way he would if he had discovered mole tunnels or termite damage. “I’ll go by the hardware store and get some paint,” he said.
He returned to the car and drove away. Muriel felt sick, afraid to face that message alone, so she went inside as Paul had. Inside was still safe. It was her own house, the familiar dim ticking, cool with air conditioning, the smell of potpourri and floor wax. Inside had nothing to do with outside.
She went to the kitchen to wash their breakfast dishes. Without checking, she knew that Paul was back in his room again, closed behind the Yield sign. Even in the kitchen she felt, rather than heard, his restless moving at the opposite end of the house. Each minute made her more certain that he needed her, needed for someone to speak and it would have to be her, what with Dan gone. At the least, she must bring him out of his solitude, get his help with the dishes so he would know there was still such a thing as regular life. That no hate could break through, nobody’s words could change them inside these walls.
She shut off the faucet and turned with a dishtowel pressed in her hands to fetch him. But there he stood before her in the door frame, in the afternoon light of the kitchen window. He had changed clothes: cut-offs rolled up tight around his upper thighs and an ancient shirt of Dan’s, a sea-green button-up with the sleeves pulled off, worn to translucence. His clipped hair rose from his forehead, cresting back in a little wave. In his ear shone the gold hoop—the one he never wore in the house, wore so rarely, in fact, that Muriel imagined he must have had to re-pierce it himself once a week. His school backpack, which normally carried books, hung on one shoulder.
“Muriel,” he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. That’s all, I guess. Tell Dad I’m sorry, and not to worry. I’ll miss him, and you. You were a good mom.” He turned and went out the back door.
She followed him out onto the porch. “Hold on now. Just what the devil’s going on? This is no time for. . . .” She waved her hand, in search of a word.
He was down the steps, out into the sunburnt yard. “It’s exactly the time.” As he glanced back, she noticed the way pieces of him glinted in the sun, a boy dusted in gold.
“Your father’s gone for whitewash,” she called from the porch, twisting the towel in her hands. “He’ll be back directly.” She heard the desperate rise in her voice, threat and promise. She meant somehow to say that whitewash would fix it, that Dan would know what to do. That Paul had no business running off on her, choosing the precise moment when his father was not around. But it seemed he was doing just that.
A good mom, he’d said. How odd that sounded from Paul—more like something Curtis would say when he was a boy, urgent to call her out of the sadness she couldn’t shake in those years. Eventually Curtis had learned to hide behind a tougher shell, but there for a time he’d been as sweet, as pretty blond as this boy. This one never said mom, called her Muriel, darlin’, treated her more like a sister. Teased, scolded her. But past that, underneath, they’d always had a kind of understanding, how she was not to acknowledge the hunger in his eyes but merely feed him, quietly. That was being a mother, she supposed. It was all she really understood to do.
She started after him across the grass, in shorter steps than she meant to take because she still wore the cream-colored suit and hose and wedge-heeled pumps she had worn to the hearing. “Paul, stop.”
“What?” He spun to face her, his breath quickened, chin tipped up. She knew that look, though she had never seen it on Paul’s face, and her upper body tightened, shoulder to fist, like a single muscle.
“Get back in that house,” she ordered. “Right now.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What, I’m grounded?”
“Hell, yes you are.” She jutted her chin up toward his. “Now do what I tell you.”
He began to smile like this was one last joke between them, and she saw instantly how he would defeat her. He would laugh. Laugh and turn and go, her too-late efforts nothing to him. But the smile quivered to a smirk, ended there. “You can’t stop me,” he said, and the blade edge that pressed hard across the tremor in his voice wasn’t sharp enough to cut it. How much he wanted to defy her in some typical teenage way—she felt it like pain. This boy who didn’t own a hard look was trying to put one together from scratch. She almost cried to see it—not because it changed him, but because he failed to change at all. The hardness wouldn’t take, the way it did on other boys.
She shook her head at it. “Don’t you try to sell me a load. I know you.”
He tipped his head with a softer look, curious, almost pitying. “Do you?” he murmured, and as he turned away, his backward glance along one shoulder seared her with a kind of smoky Jean Harlow eroticism that made her breath catch.
She flared with anger. “I’ve known you from the age of 10!” she shouted. “Ten, Paul. And you are still a boy.”
With backward steps, his eyes leveled on hers, he flicked open the bottom buttons of the shirt, gathered the tails into a rough knot above his navel and jerked it tight. But she could only think that between that and the earring, he looked like a pirate prince, dressed for some make-believe game with the neighborhood kids. The most they wanted back then was to stay out past dark, to keep playing their game. Always it was “five more minutes, 10 more minutes, please, Mom?”
But that was Curtis, not Paul, their old neighborhood in town— why couldn’t she keep them straight? This was not her son. This was Dan’s son, who was turning again with his shirt tied up and his pack hitched on his shoulder, walking away. Still no sign of Dan. Paul lobbed his pack over the barbed wire fence of the Henderson’s cow pasture and ducked through the middle strands. So effortless—how many times had she watched him go that way, come home by the same route? She’d always admired the economy of motion in the way he caught the wire back one-handed above the graceful contortion of his body that slipped through clean, without a snag.
She trailed him to the fence. “Paul—” He bent to retrieve his pack, not listening. She snatched his wrist over the wire, propelled by a sudden rage that would not be restrained. “You’d do this for sex?” she hissed. The wire prongs bit at the breast of her suit. “Those things, whatever you do with them? It means that much to you, to ruin your family, ruin your life like this?”
“Yes.” His answer was instant. The unadorned word made her eyes drop, made her afraid to look at him as he leaned close to her face, said it again. “Yes.”
She released him like a breath. He turned, went away from her. He was like an air that whistled through her, gusted across the hot, still humidity of July and over the tops of the withered field grasses, the distant, fly-twitching backs of milk cows, and lofted easily toward the loblolly stand that darkly etched the horizon, before she knew there was anything left to say. By then he was past calling back— small with distance, harmless again. She focused on his familiar blue pack, urgent to read its shape before he vanished for good. Did he have any food, any money, enough clothes? A knife, perhaps— something to protect himself with? Too quick to trust, that boy. She had loved him just that fast, from the beginning, because he trusted her without proof. It was the very thing that terrified her now: his unmasked hunger that nothing sated, that left him vulnerable to anyone’s version of love.
The fence held her; in her narrow skirt, she couldn’t duck through. Paul was cresting the next rise, almost to the pine’s edge and not looking back. So many days that summer she had watched him leave that direction. Gone out to see his friends, he said. Of course he had friends, though she’d heard the county talk as if he were some kind of outcast, too peculiar for the company of other boys. He would be home again by supper, almost never late. Out again after supper, he’d make the midnight curfew and act sweet about it, never a minute’s trouble. His teachers talked of how he had a chance at being valedictorian next year. A boy like that, to go so wrong—it didn’t make any sense to her.
She watched the angle of his shoulders and his stride, as he vanished without a pause into the pine and blackberry at the other end of the field—as if he knew his destination. Then she knew it too: Highway 12 and the Lake Oconee Bridge. Unmistakable.
She stumbled back down the lawn, back inside the house. Her bulky leather purse sat in a kitchen chair and she grabbed it up, feeling more prepared now that she had her hands on it. She fished out her car keys, looked at the phone on the wall. Surely there was someone to call. The police, maybe, or she could try to call the hardware store. A minute withered and died while she tried to calculate the difference between calling Dan and leaving a note. But there wasn’t time for this. Just go, she told herself. You don’t need anyone’s help. She pictured the face of the doctor she still saw once a week over at the county hospital, hardly more than a pleasure visit these days. You can handle this, he would assure her. You are capable. I am capable, she responded, and he nodded with her. Their heads bobbed in rhythm.
She went out to the carport and ducked into her little Honda Civic, backed out. Accidentally, her eyes swept over the front of the house, and the defacement twisted inside her like a new assault, seared her throat. Her own home. Who? Those highschool boys who loitered around the Phillips 66—they would do this. But then, she thought, so would their fathers. Women talked; men had other ways of being heard.
She pulled out onto Highway 12, which curved in front of the house, and followed it the familiar mile down toward Lake Oconee. Below, beyond the concrete barrier along the bridge, sun glared on the water. Paul was halfway across, shedding the same light from his hair so she had to squint to be sure it was him; the blue pack slung on one shoulder marked him. She slowed the car to a crawl behind him. He turned once to look at her without stopping, his expression unreadable in the light.
She rolled down the window and shouted his name. Behind her, a sleek black pick-up loaded with teenaged boys blared its horn, then shrieked across the dividing line. Passing, they leveled malice at her from their identical eyes, for the crime of driving too slow, like the weapons of a trained militia. Boys she’d known in past years would drink and whoop and holler, raise harmless hell up and down the county roads. Not these. They gave her the creeps, boys today—so contained, self-righteous, humorless, gazing out at the world like it gave them matching cases of indigestion. Her own Curtis had turned out a little that way, she thought.
Another car approached from behind, and she pulled to the right as far as she could against the concrete wall, rolling, the tires crunching over stones and glass. “Paul,” she shouted again, smacked the horn twice, and her bumper nearly grazed the barrier. He walked steadily, maddeningly, away from her. In the middle of the bridge, she hit the brake and threw the car into park, left it. On foot, she marched after him along the white line. Swallows twittered and chased each other past their heads.
“Stop, Paul, I mean it.” One pump slipped off the slick nylon at her heel, and she paused to jam her foot back inside. New shoes—the leather was stiff below each ankle, rubbed and pinched at every step, and her stride became the mincing gimp required to hold the shoes on her feet. “Slow down, honey, please,”
Nearly to the west end of the bridge, he stopped and turned to face her, arms crossed tightly over the knotted shirt, head tipped toward one shoulder. She caught up slowly. “These darn shoes,” She chuckled. “I can’t believe I never changed out of my good clothes all this time. Ain’t that stupid?”
Unsmiling, he flourished with one hand back toward the bridge like Vanna White. She turned to see the Honda parked half in the road at the center, the driver’s side door hanging open. “Oh. Oh, Lord.” She looked at Paul helplessly, back at the car.
“There’s no stopping on the bridge,” he said.
“You wait,” she ordered. She leaned close to his face but not touching him—his posture was forbidding—and jammed an index finger under his nose. “Just wait right here.”
She trudged back to the car, shuffling a few running steps whenever she could stand it. Already she could feel a blister coming up on one toe, and both heels were raw. Not until she reached the car did she turn to look after Paul, and he was already gone from sight.
She drove across the bridge, and he was standing in the paved loop of the pull-off. A few cars were parked there for fishing along the water side; at the other, near Paul, a lone sedan spotted with rust idled close to the exit. The car looked familiar, one Muriel had seen before around town.
As she pulled in, Paul was already at the sedan’s passenger window. At that distance, in those clothes, he looked like someone else’s boy: older maybe, hands in his front pockets, a lazy curve in his spine. She strained for a look at the driver, the dim back of a man’s head she thought she could almost place. Paul leaned in at the window now, ignoring her. Wild with fury, she drove up right onto the tail of the sedan, blared the horn. The sedan rolled forward a few feet and Paul followed, speaking fast words into the window. Muriel slammed her car into park and got out, fists balled. Whoever was in that sedan, she was going to drag him out with her own two hands and smack him senseless.
But the instant she was on her feet, visible in the daylight, the sedan leapt forward like a spooked horse and laid rubber out onto the road heading west. She gasped at the sudden exit, before a low, steady thrill came over her. She had this on her side at least—a mother’s power to put the fear of God back in a man.
Paul stared after the car, closed his eyes for a moment. Open again, they looked as scrubbed as sea glass, the same blankness of the first day in Rockdale after he had emerged from the room with the lawyer. He turned without looking at her and went to sit on the low wall along the woods, facing the road. She regarded him as she reached in to switch off her car’s engine, closed the door.
“Who was that?” she asked conversationally. He sat pulling the high weeds that grew nearby, peeling down strips of the long, bladed leaves in his fingers. She approached the wall. “Did you know that person?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. Sort of. What’s it matter?”
“Well, it matters. It surely does.” She crossed her arms tightly, hoping to conceal her confusion. “If you know him. If you think he . . . means something to you. I don’t know, Paul, I don’t know. You tell me.”
He gave her a pained look, and his eyes went back to the road. “He doesn’t mean anything.”
“You were about to get in his car.”
“I have to get away from here,” he said. “That’s all he is. He’s a ride.”
Weariness had slipped into his shoulders, his eyes—her Paul again, not that stranger she had glimpsed by the sedan. “Guess that’s over for today, ain’t it?” she said. “Nobody’s stopping for you so long as I’m standing here. And I ain’t moving.”
He sighed. “You stand there all day, it won’t change anything.”
“All I’m looking for is your rear end back at home.”
“I can’t go home. Don’t you get it?” He looked away and swallowed, hugging his ribcage. “I just don’t want to cause any more trouble.”
So young, that face—it was like looking at a memory, something already lost. “Sugar Pie,” she murmured, brushed a hand over his knee. He flinched at the touch. “I should wish for so little trouble. . . .” But at the same time, she could hear the echo of Dan’s words from the night before, after they had turned out the bedside light: “We haven’t begun to see the trouble this will cause.” Maybe even now, they had only begun to see it.
He got down from the wall, hoisted the backpack again with a glance at the sun. “Go home. Help Dad paint the house.” He began walking away, toward the road.
“Paul, now—” She started after him instantly, but already losing ground to her narrow skirt, the rub and slide of her shoes. “Paul!” At the road’s edge, he cocked a thumb for a car coming over the bridge. She held her breath until it was safely past, then ran up the embankment after him, fairly losing a shoe in the process. Headed west, his strides were long and easy, his pale head passing from sun to shadow between the edge of the woods and the road. She knew she’d never keep up, that she couldn’t trail him in the car either—not along the twisting pike of 12, where people always drove so fast you’d think Greene County was no more than a road between two other places.
But she gimped anyway along the roadside grass in her suit and pumps, as much a spectacle herself, she figured, as this strange stepson who pursed his lips and gazed so intently at every passing car. She stopped to knock a stone out of her shoe. When she looked up, the same black pick-up full of boys was rounding the curve toward them, engine gunned. As it passed, a can shot from the back, full, winging in a straight line close enough to Paul’s head that he threw an arm up in defense. It smacked the grassy edge beyond him, hissing with foam. Another, crushed and empty, clattered on the asphalt near Muriel’s feet. Over the engine’s roar, hoots and howls of laughter seemed nearly unconnected to human mouths; the truck crossed the bridge and was gone.
“Jeez Louise,” she gasped, hand to her chest. Paul gazed after the truck, mouth open, the defensive fist sinking by degrees back to his side.
“That was that Baker boy driving, wasn’t it?” she said, not sure if she was talking to Paul or herself. “And that one in the back—I know him too.”
Paul, flushed and breathing hard, came back to the place she stood and gripped her upper arms with surprising force. She stared at his face, mouth dropped open and dumb. “Go home, now,” he said. “You leave me alone, and I’ll have a ride in two minutes, I’ll be fine. You keep this up, and we’ll both get hurt. Go home.”
He set her back a step, as if she were the child. Bewildered, she stood where he had placed her, while he turned and went on walking. Was it possible he was right? Maybe he understood his situation better than she possibly could. Uncertain, she looked back at her car, the direction of her house—the same direction the truck full of boys had gone. She tried to picture those hard, young faces, attach their names. They would be back soon, she felt sure, and Paul might still be walking the shoulder, hoping for anyone to stop. Any car at all that might pass along this wooded stretch of the county, where she no longer knew people.
With a moan, she started after him. He had nearly gone out of range, beyond the next curve, and she shouted his name so loudly her voice broke. But he didn’t look back.
She took a few running steps to keep him in her line of vision. That was all, she thought, just to keep that close. As long as she could see him, he’d be safe. Whole caravans of Greene County boys might throw whatever garbage was handy, but no one would lay a hand on him. No car would stop. But she saw, too, how a man who knew what he wanted might snatch Paul up so fast she’d never make the license plate at that distance, let alone the face. Desperate, she quickened her pace, running five strides, walking five, trying to separate herself from the pain in her feet. Finally she took off the shoes and carried them, picked her way along the shoulder in her stockings. Her eyes flicked between Paul’s distant head and the stones and broken glass that littered her path.
Whenever a westward car came along, Paul stopped and put out his thumb. Muriel gritted her teeth and ran, in the choppy strides allowed by her skirt, hoping only that by the time she looked up from the treacherous ground, Paul would not have disappeared. Once she had walked through the feet of her stockings, she tried putting the shoes back on and found they stuck better to bare skin, slipped less and allowed her to hold a steadier pace. They walked a mile this way, the gap slowly closing. Paul seemed to slacken and match her stride, head down. In the second mile he paid less notice to each passing car, his thumb out in a half-hearted effort, but still he refused to look back at her. She stopped calling for him. They walked.
Before she noticed it happening, the sun sat along the tops of the trees and she and Paul were nearly abreast, trudging along almost companionably, as if they had agreed on a single destination. Paul raised his eyes for the next passing car, but that was all.
Just past the next curve, she calculated, was the Ellis Brothers’ filling station. After all that walking, they were still so close to home. “Boy, I could use a Coca Cola,” she said. “You think we might rest a bit up here at Ellis’?”
He shrugged. The knot in his shirt had fallen loose, and the open edges flapped back from his pale, adolescent belly in the gust of a passing car. “You’re doing this for Dad,” he said, “because you think he wants it. But he would’ve let me go.”
“You’re wrong.” It was hard, she found, to speak without panting for air. “You’re wrong twice there. Your dad—I don’t know what you want from him, but you’re the one, Paul. You pulled away from him. I watched it happen, from years ago.”
He didn’t answer, though his jaw flinched at the words. Maybe after all these weeks he’d run dry on apologies. Softening, she added, “I wouldn’t be out here on his account anyway. You’re my son now, too.”
He smiled miserably, eyes on the grass. “I sure ain’t Curtis, am I?”
“No,” she said. “No, sir. You don’t need to be. Curtis ain’t no angel—you know that as well as anyone. He hasn’t been since he was a little boy.”
Their pace dragged as they approached the curve, and Muriel felt a strange urgency to get the filling station in sight. As if the presence of buildings and other people, the business of daily lives, would somehow save them.
“I tried, you know,” Paul said, addressing the trees. “To be good. To be like I’m supposed to. And then I tried to be good in Greene County and bad everywhere else, like I could keep those two people separate. But it all comes home sooner or later. It don’t matter what you do.”
“Paul, now, I don’t know that I—”
He stopped, facing her. “This is what it comes down to. What you don’t want to know. What I do with them.”
“Just—” She squeezed her eyes shut, palms flashing out. “Please. It’s not that I don’t. . . .” Defeated suddenly, she searched his face, tried to light on the words she needed. “I know how you are. I do. But do we got to talk about it? It’s just that you’re still so young, is all. There’s still so much time. . . .”
She heard the pleading in her voice, the sound of a child begging a favor like a magic trick—something beyond reason. What did she want? It wasn’t that she hoped he would suddenly wake from this curse, to be like other boys. It was not to be asked of him. She simply wanted him to find his way back somehow, agree to take his place at home as the child. Return to innocence, become a virgin, begin again. Go more slowly. Allow her to keep up.
He drew a breath as if to explain, but then stepped out away from her, gave her the back of his head. The filling station was in sight now, so she felt easy that he would only beat her to that resting place. But in the soft gold hair at the nape of his neck, she glimpsed how close he had come to vanishing before her eyes in a sparkle of dust, this trick he had mastered without her notice. The Great Escape—it was how Dan spoke sometimes of his first wife’s leaving, pain masked in irony, as if he saw something to be envied in that brand of magic. He insisted, too frequently, that Paul was born in the image of his mother. But Muriel hadn’t known the woman, saw only in a hundred lights how Paul would study out a problem with his father’s face, his father’s gestures.
No customers were parked on the filling station’s gravel lot, and for that small favor Muriel felt immense gratitude. She approached the store on the last steps she thought her feet would take, eyes locked on the Coke machine back in the shadows of the wooden porch. Paul sat out in front at the porch’s edge, eyes closed, head tipped back against a post of peeling whitewash stained along the base with years of tobacco spit.
“Lord, my purse is in the car,” she muttered. “Honey, you got a dollar? I need a flat one.”
He reached for his pack, pulled his wallet from the zipper compartment. From a sheaf of crisp-looking bills, he drew a 20. “You’ll have to get change,” he said as he handed it to her, not meeting her eyes.
She stood blinking for a moment, words floating just beyond her immediate grasp, then went into the store with the bill. Harvey Jr. stood behind the cash register, his small, dewy eyes peering from beneath a Skoal cap, She went past him to the refrigerator case and selected a pair of plastic-bottle cokes. At the register, she offered a brief smile and the 20.It occurred to her that her legs were striped with open runs, that her suit was ruined, that she was coated all over in sweat and gritty dust.
“How you today, Mizz Foster?” the boy said in his high-pitched drawl. She listened for any shift in tone from his usual greeting.
“I’m alright, Harvey.” She smiled again once he’d counted the change back to her, his usual grin pasted on his face. His expression remained dull, benign, locked in place as she rang the bell of the front door going out.
“Here, honey.” She tapped Paul’s bare shoulder with one of the cold-sweating bottles. He looked up and took it, and she held the wadded change of the twenty out after it. “You’re gonna have to tell me about that money. The money I don’t—” The words choked her. She clenched her jaw and looked away. Setting him aside for the moment, she sunk to the porch steps and slipped off her shoes, felt the sweet, aching wash of blood returning to throb in her toes.
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
She cracked the seal on the coke and took several long swallows before speaking. “Paul, if you’re gonna lie, you mighta started with that judge.”
“It’s not.” Head still tipped back against the post, his shut eyes squeezed harder as if to block the tears his voice betrayed. He took a breath and went on more calmly. “I don’t do it for money. It just happens that way. This is all from one guy. He just gives it to me, I can’t stop him.”
She sipped the coke and watched him. “Paul, honestly. You think this man cares about you? Loves you?”
“It’s not that, exactly.”
“Well, if it’s not, darlin’, you are tossing away your life for a pittance. I don’t think you got the first idea what you’re doing.”
“Don’t tell me that.” He shot her a red-eyed look, opened his bottle with a vicious twist. “When you were my age, tell me you didn’t know what you wanted. Tell me you hadn’t figured out what a man was for.”
She flinched against his comparison, but found herself answering steadily, without a pause. “You think you know it all, don’t you? About me and sex and everything else. I’ll tell you what. I don’t care what you done—you don’t know squat about this world yet, the danger you’re facing. I hope you never find out. And I’ll tell you another thing. You don’t know how a mother feels about a child, and I doubt you ever will.”
A car carrying three black teenagers, two boys and a girl, had pulled up beside one of the pumps. She could feel their eyes, hear their half-muffled hoots and laughter. So everyone knew. Paul sat motionless, exposed at the porch’s edge, head still tipped back as if he would bare his throat to any attack, as if he expected nothing else. This choice had lost him every protection in the world; that was what she couldn’t bear. She touched his shoulder, was surprised to see tears spring instantly along the seal of his lashes.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” he whispered. He covered his face and started laughing softly, at the edge of hysteria.
She slipped an arm around his neck, and his forehead dropped to her shoulder. “Come home,” she said, stroking his hair. “Have mercy on me, Paul. All I know is I don’t think I can walk any farther with you.”
Against her shoulder, she felt him nod, a tiny motion. She tightened her hold reflexively, flooded with the same relief that had washed through her feet when she took off the shoes. To be home—what a dream, what paradise.
“I won’t be able to stay, you know” he said. He separated himself, easing back against the post to gaze toward the snickering kids at the pumps. One of the boys screamed in laughter and shoved the other forward when he saw they had Paul’s eyes. “This is our life from now on, anytime we step outside in Greene County.” He nodded toward the pumps. “This here is the good part.”
“It don’t matter,” she promised. “We can just stay inside.”
He laughed a little, as if she had made a joke. But why not? They could simply keep to themselves, away from county boys in trucks and men in rust-spotted cars. Home is yours to make, her doctor told her—these words he said were his own good mother’s. Home can be the whole world if you choose it.
“I’m going to call your dad to come get us,” she said softly, earnestly, close to Paul’s ear. The car full of kids had torn off, and Paul gazed at the dust that hovered now at the verge of the road.
Inside, she borrowed Harvey’s phone. Through the receiver, her own phone rang at home—soon they’d be there too. But for how long? Maybe it would be only a week, a month, before Paul left in the night, not risking good-bye the next time. From where the cord tethered her, she couldn’t see the spot where he sat, and in her exhaustion—Dan picking up the line—she felt a moment of transport to some near future in which Paul was not the subject of her call, no longer this sweet trouble to be balanced awkwardly between them. “Dan? I’m down here at Ellis’s,” she said, the other words she needed for the moment beyond her reach. The window’s limited view held only the dust that persisted, shot through with the last sharp rays of daylight, out over the road.