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ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

The three MacDuc sisters lived in Howell County’s single remaining antebellum mansion. When Grant stalked and bloodily dogged Lee from Petersburg to Appomattox, the war only skimmed our southside acres and left all but a few great houses unplundered. Most, however, constructed of sawmilled Virginia shortleaf pine, gave up over time to weather, fire, or impoverishment. Not Wyndland, built using red-clay bricks kilned on the place, their courses patterned in Flemish bond.

Wyndland had three stories, each surrounded by a veranda. Every room gave off to a promenade. Eight chimneys poked through a slate roof. Broad windows reached floor to ceiling. The white oaks had been planted in 1826, the last year of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

The mansion sat on the highest knoll in the county, and during the spring when the air was hazed with blowing greenish-yellow pollen and the sun still hadn’t set out to scorch life off the face of the earth, Wyndland cloaked in purple-blooming porch vine still shimmered with the ghost of vanished grandeur.

MacDuc men had been governors, senators, generals, and divines. They’d also been drinkers and gentlemanly scoundrels. During my lifetime Garnet MacDuc had moved to Texas and got jailed for an oil swindle. He served his sentence and was last seen wearing a sombrero south of Guadalajara, Mexico.

Women became the remaining strength of the line. MacDuc men might wander off the lot or lose money they couldn’t afford playing cards, but the women tended their duties at Wyndland till finally with the exception of their ailing father no men or children either were left but just the three MacDuc sisters—in my youth all unmarried, exotic, unattainable.

Lavinia, the oldest, and the father lived on the first floor. She was tall, erect, haughty. After her mother died of galloping pneumonia during a wet, endless winter, Lavinia ran Wyndland like a man. She was a case of female primogeniture, a word spoken and explained during my teens by a high school history teacher.

She hired me to fetch the morning Lynchburg paper from the galvanized box at the head of the half-mile lane overbranched by black-walnut trees that traced a lacy shade on the reddish dust. Though my daddy was a tenant, I carried the paper to the front door. He planted fields, kept up fences, repaired machinery. He shared in the crop, which was still mostly dark-fired tobacco sold to the Danes.

“I go to the kitchen door less I’m dressed for preaching,” my daddy explained as he drew water from our well to wash his hands, face, and neck free of wheat chaff sticking to them. He was scrawny but strong. “She never told me one way or another, but I knowed in my bones.”

Priscilla was the middle daughter. Though just 16, she’d already laid on fat. She had the second floor where she kept a piano. When her French doors were swung open to the veranda, I’d hear her play and sing as I sweated helping my daddy sucker tobacco—her voice distant and pure, notes of the piano broken off or lost as breezes weltered the coarse, rasping leaf.

“Carl Lippitt run far as he could hie,” I heard Daddy tell Mama.

“Didn’t know about Carl,” Mama said. She was lean and brown as Daddy from working rows. Carl was Tobaccoton’s police sergeant—a muscled, heavy-footed man who hit baseballs so hard he won a chance in the big leagues. He batted cleanup for the Tidewater Tides before the fact he couldn’t field a fly ball dropped dead center in his mitt slammed brakes on his career.

“The broodmare stall,” Daddy said.

“The broodmare stall what?” I asked as I walked in from feeding stock.

“Sh-h-h!” Mama said.

“Less talk, more work,” Daddy said, spat, and left in his long-legged arching stride to hone sharp a nicked mower blade.

Loretta was the youngest daughter and lived on the third floor. She had long red hair to her hips and a puckered smile. I’d see her riding her sorrel ‘round the property, some 800 acres still in the holding.

That sorrel, named Penny Gold, lodged a gravel between his hoof and shoe and became gimpy as she cantered from the river. Loretta reined in and leaned forward over the saddle to see. I hurried to Penny Gold, drew my pocketknife, and prized out the gravel.

“You nice,” she said, smiling. She wore riding pants, boots, and a derby hat. “I bet you got a way with horses. Like to ride Penny Gold?”

“Yes’m,” I said.

“You don’t have to yes’m me. Come on now.”

Barefooted, I jogged along after them to the stable. She slid down along the sorrel’s neck and told me to raise a leg. She cupped her hands just below my knee to heft me. I was scared ‘cause Penny Gold was a big gelding, and I’d never ridden even a mule. She led us ‘round the fenced lot she called a paddock.

“Make you a deal,” she said. “You keep my tack clean and oiled, and I’ll give you lessons.”

I didn’t know what tack was but learned. Each time she finished riding and I could slip off from helping Daddy, I’d run to the stable, take her saddle, pad, and bridle from her, and carry them to the tack room. I soaped all leather and oiled it with neat’s-foot. I handwashed the saddle pads in a tub and hung them to dry on a line strung between walkway posts.

“You’re a natural rider,” she told me. “Good hands. And stop calling me Miss. It’s just Retta.”

Saturday afternoon while she instructed me how to jump Penny Gold over what she called an oxer, her father limped from the house. Age, liquor, and rheumatism had bowed him. He used a cane and dragged a foot. His daughters kept him clean, dressed him, trimmed his mustache. He was so bent he looked at people from the tops of his eye sockets.

“That’s enough,” he said to Retta.

“Oh, Daddy!” she said and slapped a leather crop against her boot.

“Put the horse away and go to the house,” he ordered her and turned to me. “You got no chores?”

“It’s Sat’aday,” I said.

“Honeysuckle never stops pulling down fences. Honeysuckle don’t know Saturdays.”

Nobody had ever told me one of my chores was to fight honey-suckles. As I sat at the supper table with Mama and Daddy, I asked shouldn’t I get paid extra for the job.

“You eating good food out the garden,” Mama said. “You got a roof and a place to lay your head. That’s pay.”

The rest of the summer when I wasn’t working tobacco, I used a bush ax to clear fence lines. From a distance I’d see Retta on Penny Gold but pretended to be busy and didn’t wave.

That fall she and Priscilla went off to a private school in eastern Virginia. Lavinia stayed behind to boss the place and tend to her daddy, who mostly lay in the bed and could be heard hollering. Sometimes she and the cook named Winona helped him out to sit in the sun. He cussed everything his voice could reach, but Lavinia acted as if she didn’t have ears to hear.

My junior year at Tobaccoton High the coach wanted me to play baseball. I’d been practicing. I painted a rectangle the strike-zone size of a normal-built batter on the woodshed, and evenings I threw a ball at it till Mama got tired of hearing the thump-thump-thump against the weathered, unpainted planks. I told Coach Gaffney my folks expected me to work at Wyndland. He drove out and talked to my daddy while he greased the New Holland seed drill. Daddy pumped the gun, chewed, and spat. Coach talked.

“He’s got a high-powered fast ball, the start of a working curve, and can learn control,” Coach said. “We need him bad if we are to beat Farmville and take the league.”

“It’s spring planting, and I need him worse,” Daddy said.

“Look, there’s work around the school. Roofs want retarring, and desks got to be sanded. I expect we can find him a part-time job.”

“How much?” Daddy asked, stopped pumping the grease gun, and held tight the spit he’d been about to eject.

“Minimum’s $2.50 an hour.”

“Done,” Daddy said because it was a dollar more cash money than I received for labor at Wyndland.

He had to explain to Lavinia. Her father by then no longer knew or cared what was happening around him. Lavinia was grudgingly nice about it. She could always find another boy to fetch her paper.

Coach Gaffney allowed me to pitch batting practice and told me not to give it full throttle just yet. “Accuracy’s the thing,” he kept saying. “The key to the bank. Just let your arm build and find its own knowing.”

My first game was the last inning of a double header against the Blackstone Goshawks. The Planters, that’s us, had a 3—2 lead. I gave up two hits but no runs.

Baseball in Howell County didn’t stop with the end of school. Every breathless, sun-axed town had its team. I was growing fast, already six-feet, huskier. I threw my new weight into pitches. People started calling me Fireball.

During a game between the Planters and the Crewe Wildcats I spotted Retta in the bleachers. That’s all the seats we had, and chicken wire stapeled between creosoted barn poles formed our backstop. But we played mean ball, sometimes in aroused red dust so thick the batters couldn’t see good even if I pitched at half speed. Fielders had their own eyesight problem.

Retta sat with another girl, both wearing blossomy summer dresses, and two boys in suits and ties. The four stood out among the shorts-and-jeans garbed spectators like Episcopalians at a Baptist revival. My next pitch I winged in so hard I knocked Skeeter Henry, my catcher, onto his waddling butt. He removed his mitt and waved his hand to cool his fingers. “Trying to kill me?” he asked.

That game was my first no hitter. I cut those Wildcats down as if they held no bats. Shouts and cheers. Word spread through Tobaccoton. By the ninth inning so many people arrived at the park that the bleachers were swaying and a crowd ringed the fences. I smoked the last pitch, and it smacked into Skeeter’s mitt like the crack of a .30—06. Tobaccoton fans had fits, and for the first time in my life I knew the headiness of glory.

After the game I hoped Retta might stick around and say hello, but she and her friends had left.

My senior year scouts from colleges looked me over. I received two scholarship offers, one from VPI, the other East Carolina. I accepted VPI’s.

Mama and Daddy were high-headed proud, though they had trouble believing I’d get it all free for throwing a ball. The only close kin who’d been to college was a first cousin once removed of Mama’s called Uncle Amos, who became a Norfolk chiropractor.

Late July Mr. MacDuc died choking and cussing. Wyndland had a private cemetery with an iron-spiked fence around it. My folks and I attended the graveside funeral.

The three sisters wore black highheels and dresses. Lavinia stood like a soldier, back stiff, chin lifted as if into wind. Only Priscilla cried. Retta looked calm and elegant in shade of the scalloped canopy. Yeah, I loved her—the way you yearn for a want you can never quite touch, like figures in a dream that become shadows when you reach out for them as you half wake and your fingers close on nothing.

Leaving the grave to walk to the house, the three sisters passed, but only Retta noticed me. Her mouth moved, yet no sound came from it. I lip-read the word: “Fireball.”

I saw Retta next in Charlottesville when VPI played the Hoos. I started the game and won it 5—3. Instead of returning to Blacksburg, our team stayed the night in the gym’s barracks-like quarters. Lots of partying down the street, traffic heavy, horns honking, the thumping beat of music everywhere. Little Easters, they called it.

I strolled past Tom Jefferson’s Rotunda and illuminated colonnades and then along fraternity row where a rock band played on a platform in a mowed field surrounded by boxwoods. There were Japanese lanterns, tapped kegs, and a bar made by laying boards across sawhorses.

On the darkened side lawn of the Phi Kap house a girl stood over a sprawled body. In an oblong of window light I saw the girl was Retta. She wore yellow shorts, a white T-shirt, and pearls. I knew she went to Sweet Briar.

“He dead?” I asked as I hurried to her.

“Bastard’s dead drunk,” she said and peered at me. “That you, Fireball? Drive me to my motel?”

“I can walk you,” I said.

“Better than nothing.”

“What about him?” I asked.

“Just let old Bucky lie and die,” she said.

She had on leather sandals that slapped concrete. She’d been drinking and swayed. Her bare arm bumped mine. Jesus, it was a hot shock against my skin. Her perfume scent and sight of those slim, shaved aristocratic legs lit my fire. The jolt of each step caused her thigh flesh to quiver.

“How come you never been out to see me at Wyndland?” she asked.

“It’s allowed now your daddy’s gone?”

“You need remember Daddy was sick and had to be humored.”

“I try not to remember,” I said.

“Water under the old bridge,” she said.

At the Hojo we stood in the lobby to wait for an elevator. I wanted her to ask me up.

“Old Fireball,” she said, and God she was beautiful under the pale yellow glow of a brass chandelier, her red hair hanging long and loose, her green eyes catching the light and making it their own.

“You still ride?” I asked.

“Not more than twice a day,” she said. “ ‘Course Penny Gold’s dead. Kidney stone big as a cannon ball. You get only one great horse in your life, and that’s if you’re lucky.”

She didn’t ask me up. She teetered onto the elevator, the silverish metallic doors closed, and she was again gone.

I didn’t finish VPI. At that time books weren’t my thing, and I received an offer from the Toledo Mud Hens. I had a good season, 9—4, and worked the off year at a sporting-goods store named Winners. I also married Trixie, a leggy blond who ran a boarding kennel.

During spring training I hurt my arm. I powered the ball too fast too early because I knew I was being watched and believed I’d be called up to Detroit as a reliefer. I felt the pain not so much in the snap of ligaments and grind of cartilage as in a bloom of fear at the center of myself.

After orthoscopic surgery, X-rays showed healing, but the arm stayed sore. Despite therapy, it never again worked exactly right. The third season I became an almost.

My marriage failed too, mostly because of my brooding and drinking. All those hounds and the stink. Trixie smelled of dog and so did the food. I drove home drunk a Saturday night, and those yappers jumped at the fences and snarled at me. It was my own goddamn house! At least my name was on the mortgage.

I unlatched runway gates and turned the howling mutts loose. They ran all over Toledo, and Trixie got so pissed she threw a feed bucket of Purina feed and her ring at me.

I drove to Tobaccoton when Daddy died of a tractor spill. Mama lasted another ten days. She ran out of gas sitting in her kitchen chair, closed her eyes as if to nap, and peacefully gave up the ghost. I shook her narrow, bony shoulder to be sure she was dead.

Neither of my parents got buried in the Wyndland family cemetery, though they’d bled out their lives working those hard, unforgiving acres. Wearing black dresses, Lavinia and Priscilla came to the service at the Pisgah Baptist. Retta had married and gone away to live in Tryon.

My folks didn’t even own the clapboard house where they’d lived, which belonged to the farm, and all the money Mama had squirreled away in her coffee can fell two-hundred dollars short of paying the undertaker’s bill.

Still the MacDuc sisters allowed me to stay in the house, which was partially shaded by a pecan tree lightning had half killed. Every couple of days I’d catch a chicken and wring its neck before plucking and frying it. I ate them all. Just Rhode Island Red feathers left blowing on the dry, shriveled grass.

Mayor Julius Burton offered me the job of town sergeant because Lester Hamlett went on disability because of emphysema. At first I laughed, but hell, I had nothing in Toledo or anywhere else. I was big and more than half-way respected in Tobaccoton because I’d played ball “up there.”

Wearing a tan uniform and a Smith & Wesson .38, I ambled ‘round town. I tipped my trooper hat to the ladies and chatted with the mossbacks who sat on green benches in front of the white stone courthouse. It was a job that’d do till something better happened along.

I rented a small log cabin on a ten-acre lake, the porch so near the water I could almost reach off to fish. I caught crappie, bream, and blue cats. I cooked on a charcoal grill and drank a little liquor, yet never enough to get myself in trouble. During the winter I carried my Savage .30—06 to the woods and brought home venison to set on the pine table I’d knocked together. I also read books from the Library Mobile, which bused through Howell County every second week.

Springtime I met Retta in town, her arms full of packages from the Hub Department Store. I helped load them into her silver Jag parked at a curb meter that showed the red-flag violation of lapsed time.

“Thanks for not ticketing me,” she said. “And come visit. I bought a new push-button bay gelding that’ll jump the moon.”

I drove out the same evening. I’d heard she’d broken up with her husband, a man named Grimes, who owned Carolina knitting mills and played polo.

I parked and watched while she rode. Nothing finer to the eye than seeing a proud, pretty woman joined to a blood horse. They moved and merged in surging arcs over jumps as if they’d become one—she grown from Bourbon Horn’s withers, the bay a glistening and powerful extension of her thrusting body. Her expression became removed, disconnected, like she was above mere physical considerations of time or place—bored, about to yawn, and so goddamn sexy I stood close to the fence so nobody could notice the bulge in my pants.

After she finished her drills, I took her saddle and helped her hose and rub down Bourbon Born. Retta slid those green eyes at me.

“Do my tack?” she asked and laughed.

“What I’d like is to drive you to my place, drink liquor, and grill us a rack of ribs,” I said.

“Done,” she said, no flirting, hesitation, or even thought.

That night at the cabin by the lake we were in the sack before dark.

We honeymooned at Sea Island. Her idea. I didn’t object when she paid most of the bill for our white cottage shadowed among live oaks and dangling Spanish moss, but back in Howell County as I slowed to turn at the road to the cabin, she laid a hand on the wheel.

“No,” she said. “We have a whole private floor at Wyndland. We’ll come to the lake for fishing and barbecues.”

“Good enough to screw in but not live,” I said.

“All my things are at Wyndland. The cabin won’t hold them, and that metal shower stall almost tips over when we use it. I need to be near my horses.”

No way I could expect her to live poor and keep her. At Wyndland I passed before gilt mirrors, murky portraits, and silver enough to squint the eyes. We hauled our bags to the third floor. She opened the french windows and stood on the veranda where she opened her arms as if she could take into them the wheat-gold acres of the front field that stretched away like a sea ruffled by a lazy breeze.

Her pink lace curtains lifted slightly in that breeze. In every room were closets full of dresses, shoes, hats, riding pants, boots, crops, and black fox hunting jackets with orange collars. I’d learned enough about antiques to recognize walnut, cherry, and rosewood. Her bed had a ruffled canopy and was so high two wooden steps led to the silky red coverlet—like boarding a train.

First thing after stripping off clothes, we tried the bed. Spent, we stared at a wobbly ceiling fan barely spinning. Crows cawed, and locusts, hotted by the sun, cut loose their shrill, wavering cries.

That night when we went down to dinner, Lavinia and Priscilla ate with us. Old wheezing black Winona served. Lavinia didn’t ask me to sit at the head of the table but took that place for herself and carved the ham. Priscilla, fatter than ever, grinned and winked. Silver gleamed in light from the chandelier, which hung glass pendants.

The question came up should I hold on to my job as town sergeant. Truth was Lavinia didn’t want me walking the streets as a reminder to the town of what Retta had married. She meant to improve me and claimed the farm needed my help.

“We’ve let things slip at Wyndland,” she said.

To keep the peace I turned in my badge to Mayor Burton and began consulting with Johnny Lancaster, who managed the farm. He was a good man—squat, strong, patient, born to Winona on the place. He knew every field, the soil, the rotations.

He didn’t need or resent me but allowed me to think he was really asking for my advice on crops, culling cattle, marketing tobacco. Often when I pretended to be out inspecting fences or checking for dropped calves, I’d settle under a shaggy birch down by the river, stretch out, and have myself a nip or two. Then a snooze might be in order till shadows slanted across and darkened the slick olive sheen of the purring water.

Lavinia fretted me. She moved about stiff-backed, taut, brittle. She’d liked me fine when I was a tenant’s son and ran to fetch her newspaper. Now I lived in the house and had rights to enter by the front door, she resented seeing me under Wyndland’s roof using what had been her parents’ things—especially her father’s heavy leather armchair set before the den fireplace. She eyed my shoes as if she believed I’d leave mud or stable droppings on the hallway’s Persian rugs.

She paid the farm bills, made up the payroll, kept books at her daddy’s black mahogany desk in the library. Each week when she handed me my check; her slit mouth’s left corner twitched—a way of letting me know in her opinion how little I deserved a dollar.

I caught her watching how I held my fork, which was heavy English silver, the fancily entwined MacDuc initials engraved on the handle. Before dinner each night I snuck a couple of drinks at the stable where I kept a bottle buried in the oat bin.

“This suit you?” I asked, raising my porcelain gold-rim coffee cup in her direction.

“Have no idea what you mean,” she said and turned her face toward the portrait of her father above the mantel. He’d been a major during WWII and wore a pilot’s uniform. From that portrait his eyes were just like Lavinia—dark, glinting, accusing me with intruding.

“Am I holding my little finger out right?” I asked.

“You shouldn’t hold it out at all,” she said.

I’d been trying to do better. In her presence I even worked at remembering the differences between prepositions and conjunctions. I slurped down the coffee and lifted my fork like a sheath knife. I reached to the oval china meat platter and stabbed the half of pork roast left. I hoisted it high, bit deep, and shook it side to side like a dog killing a groundhog.

Lavinia gasped, Priscilla giggled, Retta glared. I opened my teeth to let the roast thump to my plate. Gravy splattered my shirt and tie.

“That better?” I asked Lavinia. “Did I grip my fork correctly?”

“Blood will out,” she said.

“So will bitch,” I said.

“Further evidence,” she said.

“Stop it!” Retta shouted, threw down her napkin, and walked from the dining room.

I stood, left the table, and hiked to the low ground. A shower blew in. The river ran black and fast, causing a chunk of bank undermined by current to plunk in. Bullfrogs bewonked, and chuck-will’s-widows called among dripping birches. I thought, Something’s got to give.

When I trudged wet back to the house and climbed to the third floor, Retta in her pink nightgown waited on the cream sofa, her legs drawn up, the latest Chronicle of the Horse opened across her knees.

“That was nasty, brutish, and dumb,” she said.

“Nasty upon nastiness,” I said.

“I know Lavinia’s difficult. We used to pull each other’s hair. She can’t help it. Do as I do and just tune her out.”

“Where’s the knob?” I asked.

“You’re the knob,” she said and opened her arms to me. “I’ll turn it for you.”

Like I was a lad to be bribed.

Retta was horsing more all the time. I drove the van and stood at the back of spectators to wait till she finished her rides. We carried three mounts to each show—two working hunters and Bourbon Born, the open jumper. I’d hustle to braid, wipe them to a high luster, and handle her tack changes.

“You the groom?” a towheaded teenager asked me as I tapped my hammer to tighten Bourbon Bern’s left hind shoe. Retta was taking the blue in the handy-hunter class. She had a room of strung-up first-place ribbons. Trophies lined shelves I’d built and stained for her.

“Yeah, the groom,” I said.

“The pay good?”

“The lady occasionally lets me lay her,” I said, and he walked off looking bug-eyed.

I particularly didn’t like her running with the fox-hunting crowd or standing around laughing and yakking to the willowy rich dandies in their black toppers, scarlet coats, white breeches, and spurred, calf-hugging boots. Yeah I’d learned to call them breeches, not pants.

Hunt club types couldn’t mask surprise when they learned we were man and wife. Often standing aside as they rode off on the chase, brass buttons glimmering, black-and-tan hounds clotted behind the huntsman, his horn sounding among the misty foothills, I felt surprised myself. Like being married to a queen.

It was crazy to be jealous of horses, but I’d get the notion after a couple of drinks she cared more for her animals than me. I could hardly catch a minute alone with her. She worked early and late at the paddock and stable. She babytalked and fondled the horses. She was forever experimenting with feed formula and dickering for new and better bloodstock.

It’d fallen to me to hold the mares’ heads at the breeding chute while she led Winter’s Winner, the gray stallion, up to mount them. She guided him in, and to see her small, pretty hands gripping that great warty wang of his caused me to feel excited, shamed, and a little sick all at the same time. She loved to watch mighty Winter’s Winner shoot his load, grunt, droop, and slide off as if defeated and dying.

I reached after Retta the third Saturday morning in October as she rolled from bed at sunrise. We’d left the French windows open, and the chill of the year’s first frost invaded the room. Prickled light reflected off the front field. Doves twittered among oak branches whose leaves too were coated white.

“Tarry a spell,” I said, holding her wrist.

“Got to put my foot on the road to Keswick,” she said.

“I want you to lie beside me a while.”

“Hit the deck,” she said, twisted her wrist free, and hurried to close windows. She wore a white cotton night-gown cut short. Skin of those athletic thighs quivered from her firm footsteps. She tossed hair over her shoulders to her broad back, which was muscled, yet feminine, a structure devised to support the milk fullness of breasts and kids we’d never had.

“World won’t end if you miss a chase.”

“Roll your lazy tail out of there,” she called from the bathroom.

“You know you used to smell like perfume,” I said. “Now everything’s an odor of nag sweat, liniment, and manure. It’s gotten on the furniture up here, in the bed, and until fresh out the shower, on you.”

“Liquor’s what you smell like before or after a shower,” she said at the bathroom door, a washrag held to her face.

“What do all those ribbons and trophies mean? Just junk Winona has to keep polished with her knobby arthritic fingers. You’d be lucky to get a hundred dollars for the lot.”

“They mean I’m good at what I do,” she said.

“You were good at what you don’t do much any longer,” I said.

“And you’re Fireball the Great, without faults, the world’s most perfect man.”

“I got faults, but I’d like my wife to smell sweet again once in a while.”

She walked back into the bathroom, closed the door, opened it.

“You used to walk proud, with a swagger, and now you slouch about the place like an old man. What happened to the Great Fireball?”

“Maybe I feel old ‘cause I’m not doing anything ‘round here that counts. I been thinking of reapplying for the town sergeant job. Mayor Burton hinted I could have it again if applied for. Earn an honest dollar.”

“You will not!” she said and stamped her bare foot.

“How you and Lavinia gonna stop me?”

“All right, do any damn thing you want!” she said and slammed the door.

“Except work at a job I like and live in my own house!” I hollered as I sat up in the bed.

“You’re besotted half the time,” she yelled through the door.

“More than half and why wouldn’t I being treated like white trash by Lavinia and trying to fend Priscilla off. You know she’s been exposing herself to me? Twice she stepped into the hall buck naked when I walked by. She rubs her tits against my arm when she leans to pass me food at the table. Or would it be all right with you if I serviced her? Maybe you could hold it like you do for Winter’s Winner and guide it in!”

She opened the door.

“There are times you are trash!” she said and threw her long-handled silver hairbrush at me.

I caught it, broke off the handle, and tossed the pieces to the pale yellow rug.

“I’m leaving for the cabin,” I said. “You care about me, you turn up.”

Even as I spoke the words, they scared me. I dressed, clomped down the steps, drove away in my F-150.I cleaned the cabin and set out the grill. Let her come to me, I said, I’ll go back to Wyndland and live, but please let her first come to me.

She never did. The following Wednesday I stopped to see the mayor and got my job back. I needed new uniform pants because my waist had thickened. I strolled the streets and traded gossip with the mossbacks who sat on the green benches in front of the courthouse. I tipped my hat to ladies. I arrested a youth for stealing hubcaps, ticketed a truck driver who’d let his inspection sticker expire, and collared two dudes fighting over a girl in the alley behind the Blue Moon Cafe.

Retta and me’d glimpse each other. She might be rolling through Tobaccoton in her van, a new driver at the wheel. Even after J.C. Doggins, her lawyer, served the final papers, she and I always raised our hands and smiled like friends. We sent Christmas and birthday cards.

Some nights off duty I drove out and left the pickup at the property’s edge. I’d follow a pine-tag softened deer trail and hunker places I could see twinkling house lights reach partway across dark fields of rustling corn, wheat, and tobacco.

For nips I carried a pint. If the breeze blew right, I’d maybe hear Lavinia typing at her daddy’s desk or Priscilla playing the piano, no tune ever completely finished. I might also be able to make out Retta’s shadow crossing gauzy curtains of the third floor. It was her shadow I waited on.


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