by ROBERT MAYNOR
I knew what my brother would do before I called him. That’s why I’d put it off for so long. JD is not a moderate kind of man, and he saw enough of women being mistreated when we were kids. He don’t have any sympathy for that. My whole life, JD has taken care of me. He is a problem solver, and the whole Ronnie situation had become a problem. I couldn’t take his meanness anymore. So I mustered up my courage, called my brother, and tried hard not to think about what would happen afterwards.
“Where are you right now?” JD asked, his voice low and crackly over the phone.
“In a Waffle House parking lot,” I said. “Off Highway 61.”
“Are you okay?”
“I ain’t dying, if that’s what you mean. It hurts, but I don’t think nothing’s broke.”
“Did he get your belly?”
“No,” I said. “Mostly just my back.”
“Good. Then go inside and get a cup of coffee or something. Sit at the window by the road and don’t move until I get there.”
“A’ight.” Neither of us said anything else and I heard JD take a heavy breath, not like he was aggravated, but like he needed to get his lungs real full. “Are you coming here straight?” I asked. I already knew the answer. I just wanted to be sure.
“No,” he said. “But I won’t be long. Is there anything in that house you can’t live without?”
“No,” I said. “There’s nothing.”
“I’ll come get you soon.”
The restaurant was slow. I ordered a Sprite, but the drink mix had run out of the machine so it just tasted like bubbly water and soap. I only took a couple of swigs. After two hours just sitting there, the waitress came over and put her hand on my shoulder. She squeezed me, in what was supposed to be a tender way, but all I could feel were her thick fingernails like waterbugs on my collarbone. “You doing okay, baby girl?” I saw her eyes go toward my stomach. “I can bring you a piece of pie. Or if you want to talk—”
“No, thank you,” I said. She coughed like a choked vacuum and flipped her ponytail and strutted toward the register.
Not long after, I heard the big mud-grips on JD’s Bronco slapping against the highway. He pulled into the lot and parked facing the window where he’d told me to sit. The headlights of the truck shined over my face and made my eyes flutter. JD climbed out of the cab and spat and I could hear the juice hit the asphalt, even through the glass.
The waitress was behind the counter, wiping at the grill with a rag. When JD came in, he stopped in the doorway and took off his hat and nodded at her. She got that look on her face like a startled goat and raised one hand in a halfhearted wave. JD came through the restaurant and sat across from me and grinned. The waitress brought him a plastic cup full of water and asked if he wanted something to eat. Her hands were shaking.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “Six eggs, two pork chops, and a waffle, please.” She nodded in an overly exaggerated way and scribbled on her pad and walked back toward the grill.
“She thinks were going to rob her,” I said.
“Well, we ain’t. Not tonight, at least. I’m about out of bullets.” He smiled and took a sip of his water. “Other than a skittish waitress, is everything else good?”
“You already asked that.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“On the phone,” I said. “Not in the same words, but you did.” I tore the top off of a packet of sugar and stirred it into my Sprite with a butter knife. “Do you really think everything is good? It’s four in the morning, I’m sitting in a Waffle House, beat to shit, and I ain’t pissed in the last three hours because I’m scared of what might come out.”
“Do you need the hospital?”
“And what if I do? You just ordered a full dinner in the middle of the morning like you ain’t got a care in the world.”
JD shook his head. His face looked tired. “I’ll leave it,” he said.
“I don’t need no doctor. I told you, I’m sore, but I’ll make it. Don’t ask me none of that again.”
The waitress brought three white plates of food and set them in front of my brother with as much care as if she were serving him a lemon cake or a roast duck. He doused everything in hot sauce and ate quickly without talking, tearing the waffle with his hands at certain intervals and eating it like bread. When he finished, he wiped his mouth and stacked the plates and pushed them to the corner of the table.
“We can pretend like this didn’t happen,” he said. “All of it. We can go home and go to bed and when we wake up, it’ll be a brand new world. Nothing bad ever happened to you and nothing bad ever will. We’ve done it before.” He ran his hand through his hair and put his hat back on. “Is that what you want?”
“Done deal.” He pulled some money out of his pocket and laid it on the table and stood up. “Let’s go home,” he said.
I was six months pregnant.
When I woke the next morning, it was past one in the afternoon and the sun was beaming off the river and onto the ceiling over my bed. The room was sparse: paneled walls and a three-legged dresser. For a second, I was confused about where I was and what I was doing there. I tried to hold onto that feeling, like I was an amnesia patient on some soap opera, innocent and historyless. I rubbed my hand over my swollen gut.
Downstairs, JD was sitting on the porch with the doors open, looking out over the yard and the river. The floor creaked as I walked and he turned around and looked at me, one eye closed so tight it almost seemed like it wasn’t there. When he saw the bruises on my arms and around my neck, a wave of anger passed over his face—he gritted his teeth and ran his tongue around his mouth—then it was gone.
“Jesus, Carlene,” he said. “You look like you been run over by a bus. What happened?”
“Fell down the back stairs,” I said. “Couldn’t sleep last night, so I thought I’d walk down to the water, but it was dark and I was only half-awake, you know. I tripped over that loose plank.”
It amazed me how quickly I came up with the lie. I’d thought I would be rusty, but lying, I’ve found, is like an old watchdog: it sits curled up in a knot, sleeping so hard you think it might be dead, but as soon as that door handle shakes, as soon as you need him, he’s up.
“Hell,” JD said. “I reckon I need to fix that.”
“Or at least put up another light.”
“Probably both would be best. We can’t be having no hazards when the nephew comes.” He smiled and nodded at my belly. My heart was beating hard and I thought I might vomit, but I forced myself to smile back.
Lying to ourselves was always step one. When we first took off from home, I was fourteen and JD was seventeen. “We know the whole story, little sister,” he said. “From start to finish, every detail. If we can fool ourselves, with all that knowledge, we can pull the wool over anybody’s eyes.”
He was so big, even then, that most people didn’t ask him nothing. And he was already developing that look in his face that makes people squirm when they see him, like he is somehow different than the rest of us. Most of the questions then fell to me, and I found that no matter what people asked, I could come up with an answer, and they always believed it. We was two babies pushed out into a place where we had to fight like animals to survive: Momma usually dazed-out or beat immobile, and Daddy, when he blew in, always raging like a whiskey tornado. Me and JD figured out early on we had to stay tight if we were going to make it. So when we took to the road, people didn’t know what to do with us. We wreaked havoc up and down this whole angry coast.
But that was supposed to be done with. We’d been living in the quiet shadow of the Edisto River for going on six years. JD had got himself a house and I’d shacked up with Ronnie. I thought me and my brother had cut the skin that bound us and set the foundation for two separate lives. I should have known that could never last, not for us.
For two weeks we lived in that in-between state. JD went to town for a job every couple of days and came home with enough groceries to last a short while. I stayed put, healing and fiddling with little things around the house to keep busy—washing rugs, scrubbing baseboards, hammering down binding on the floors—things a man just don’t think about. I tried to stay tuned in to the TV and the radio as much as I could, looking for any mention of Ronnie. I wanted to stay ignorant about what JD had done to him—not knowing for sure made me somehow feel better about it all, like anything was possible—but if word of him floated up in the news, we needed to know. I was waiting for any little reason to jump town, but somehow none ever came. It was as if Ronnie had just disappeared.
In the late afternoons, when it got too hot in the house, I walked down to the river to swim. The bottom felt like a thick, squishy carpet and as I waded out into the current, the silt floated slowly to the top like black moon dust. It coated my whole body in a slimy funk, but it felt good. Sometimes I reached down into the riverbed and got a whole handful of the stuff and rubbed it over my bare belly until it felt like my stomach was completely separate from the rest of myself. Like I was me and my hands were mine, but my belly was something completely foreign. I thought of it like I was giving the baby a bath, readying it for the world. When I climbed out of the river and up the bank, the sediment stuck to the little hairs all over my body, and I walked to the house feeling like something of the water, not land.
One evening, JD got home early and came down to watch me. When I saw him coming, I laid face down in the water like a corpse, but he didn’t buy it. I stood up and went over to him.
“We learned how to swim in this river,” he said. “Do you remember?”
“Of course.” I stepped onto the bank and shook my hair. “That ain’t the kind of thing you can forget.”
“Well, you were lucky. You only had to go through it once.” He bit at his thumbnail. “I had to watch you. It was like living the whole thing over again.”
“You’re so dramatic,” I said.
“No, I’m serious. He tossed you out into the middle of the river and my heart seized up. You couldn’t have been more than six years old.”
“It was awful.” I sat down on the dirt. Somewhere, a woodpecker was hammering on a dead tree.
“You were kicking your feet and flailing your arms and sputtering like a boat motor trimmed to high. You screamed for me, and I could hear the water filling up in the back of your throat. I tried to come in after you, but he wouldn’t let me. So I said, ‘Daddy, please, do something.’ He just laughed and put his hands to his mouth and hollered.”
“Keep swimming,” I said.
“Keep swimming or be drowned.”
The hair on my arms stood up and my ears went hot. I patted JD’s knee and neither of us said anything else. We just sat there by the river until the sun disappeared and the mosquitoes got so bad we couldn’t stand it.
In the back yard, JD had a little shed where he kept his tools and his fishing poles and his sneak boat. Just outside was a bare halogen bulb mounted on top of an eight-foot pole and it burned like a dim blue eye all day and all night. I could see it from my window.
One day, JD came home from working on one of the build-sites with a bunch of scrap material and put it all in a pile under that light. I sat in a chair on the porch, drinking ice water and watching. When he finished, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and came onto the porch himself. “Afternoon, little sister,” he said. He took the cup of water out of my hands and drank it down in one gulp, then he handed the glass back to me. “How y’all feeling today?”
“Hot,” I said. “But not too bad.”
He smiled and got down on his knees in front of me. “That boy getting ready to come see his uncle?” He rubbed his hand over my stomach.
“Not yet, I hope. But soon.”
“Not soon enough for me. I was thinking earlier, it might be time we should get a bag packed. You know, just in case.”
“We still have a while.”
“I know,” he said. He stood up and knocked his boots off against the side of the stairs. “But there ain’t no such thing as being over-prepared.”
“You’re right.” I smoothed my dress out over my lap. “I’ll get some things together.” I had a feeling like ants were crawling over my ankles, so I shook my feet, but there was nothing there. “What’s all that junk you brung home for?” I asked.
JD grinned in a way that would have made most people scared. “You’ll see,” he said. Then he went inside.
That night, packing a bag, my mind wandered. I couldn’t decide whether it was supposed to be for the hospital, or for a getaway. It was getting harder to tell what was real and what wasn’t. Plus, the only clothes I had were a few JD had bought for me since I’d been staying with him. I didn’t have much to spare.
When I finished, I went downstairs and set the sack next to the back door. JD was in the kitchen, frying ham in a square skillet. “There,” I said. “It’s done. Do you see?” I pointed at the bag and waited for him to turn around and look at it, as if it might run off.
He peered quickly over his shoulder. “Perfect,” he said. “Thank you. Now come get y’all some supper.”
Living with JD felt like falling back into a bad habit. As a baby, I never had no pacifier or any kind of special blanket. When I got older, I never took up smoking because it was too expensive. Nothing eased my mind like being near my brother. Nothing made me feel safer.
When we heard that our folks had died, we moved home and tried to start lives of our own. JD bought his place on the river and worked odd jobs. I tended bar at the Free Bird Lounge and lived in a room upstairs. It was painful as hell. I didn’t sleep soundly for six months. I stayed up most nights peeking through the window at a flashing traffic light, like a junkie coming off her drug. I had to learn to live without him.
In some ways, I think that’s how I first got tangled up with Ronnie. He was not a bad man. He talked a lot and he had a high-pitched laugh you could hear across a room. He was little, hardly an inch taller than me, and wore boots with heels on them. When we met, I thought he was funny and kind of spry. Me and JD never had the opportunity to be children, so I think I was drawn to a person able to act youngish even into adulthood. He was nothing like JD, but for whatever reason, he made me feel almost whole. Then I quit my job and moved into his trailer and he aged quickly. It was as if somebody kicked the front door off of him and I could see all up inside. Like my father, he was a terrible drunk, and as soon as I started to show, he took to wailing on me right regular. I decided then he wouldn’t ever lay eyes or hands on my baby.
One morning I woke up and JD was hollering from the yard, so I went to the window. He was under the light-pole in a welding mask, waving me out. I pulled on some clothes and went downstairs.
He’d built a crib with the scrap materials he brought home. The legs were made from galvanized pipe, it had a pallet-board bottom for a little mattress to sit on, and the cage was all welded rebar. When I saw it, I startled and kind of gasped a little bit like someone from a movie. JD thought it was because I was happy.
“I’m glad you like it,” he said. He looked like a cat that’s dropped a dead bird on its owner’s doormat. “I was working all night. I might have to get somebody to help me tote it upstairs, but hey, it’s sturdy as hell.” He smiled shyly. “You can’t buy nothing like that from the store.”
“No, you sure can’t,” I said.
We went inside and I fixed breakfast: boiled potatoes, eggs, and a couple of hamburger steaks. We ate next to one another from plates with deer painted on them. “This is good,” JD said. “You cook like Momma.” After that, I couldn’t stomach anymore, so I went to the sink and started washing dishes. A big, green grasshopper flew in through an open window and landed on the table and JD smashed it dead with his bare fist.
With two months till the due date, I started working the register at Kite’s Produce Stand, near the I-95 interchange. In the yard was a wooden sign mounted on seventy-foot posts that could just barely be seen from the freeway. “Fresh SC Peaches – Exit NOW” was spray-painted in red across both sides. When I first told JD I took the job, he said I was stupid. It was late at night and he was sitting on the floor, greasing the wheels of a die-cast car. I was on the couch, eating a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich.
“You’re going to be having a baby before you can turn around twice. What you gonna to do then, huh?”
I swallowed and wiped fluff from my mouth. “Lyman said he would hold my spot for a couple of weeks while I heal. He said I could even bring the baby.”
“Yeah, I bet he did, good old Lyman Kite.” He spun the wheels of the car and held it up to his ear. “I don’t trust that sumbitch as far as I can boot him.”
“Stop it,” I said. “He’s nice enough.” I cracked my knuckles. “Anyway, this baby’s going to be bringing a whole lot of bills when it comes. I can’t ask you to pay for all that.”
“I make money every day,” he said. “Don’t you worry about that.” He put the car down and pushed it across the floor and it rolled into the dark kitchen. “I love you,” he said. “And I’ll love this baby too. I’ll take care of y’all forever.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I know you will, Jefferson,” I said. “But that ain’t the point.” And I think he understood what I meant.
Most of the customers at Kite’s were travelers off the interstate. They looked like lost birds in their bright shirts and visors. They told me stories about where they were coming from or where they were headed, and it made me feel like the whole damn country wasn’t but a shoestring away.
“I should’ve hired me a pregnant gal in here years ago,” Lyman said. He was a short, fat man with a stringy beard and tobacco stained teeth. “It’s good for business. These old yankees just love buying fruit from a pregnant gal.” He was an alright enough boss. He paid me regularly. But every time he walked by, he rubbed the underside of my belly and it made me want to black his eye. “Just like a watermelon, damn sure enough.” He must’ve said that a hundred times. I’d put on this big smile and think about two pollywogs playing dominos, like JD had taught me when we were kids and Daddy came home raising hell. He’d put me in the closet and kiss my cheek and say, “Stay right here and imagine two little pollywogs playing dominos.” His eyes were like lightbulbs. “Don’t think about nothing else. I’ll be back soon and everything will be real good.” I don’t know where he learned that trick, but it works every time. You think about two of those freaky little critters propped up at a table, fiddling with domino tiles, and the whole world around you just turns a murky blue.
Then one unusually cool morning in August, Lyman pulled into the yard with a rusty beater on a flatbed trailer. I was on my knees, restocking the squash bins. There was no one else around. “Carlene,” he hollered, stepping out of his truck and onto the hard ground. “Get out here and have a look.”
I stood myself up and waddled into the parking lot. I looked at the car. “It’s nice,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s a 1983 Buick LeSabre,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Yeah it is.”
“It’s kind of pretty.” I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say and it made me nervous. I wrung my hands together over my waist.
“I’m glad you think so,” Lyman said. “It belonged to my mother.” He took his hat off and scratched the top of his head. “I want you to have it.”
“What?” I said. “No, I can’t.”
“Of course you can. I’m giving it to you, hear? I seen your brother bringing you back and forth to work every day. You need a car of your own, especially with that baby coming.” He took my stomach in both hands and said, “Ain’t that right, little buddy.”
I got a feeling in me like I needed to run. “Lyman,” I said. “Thank you, I appreciate it, but I just can’t take the car.”
“Yes, you can. You’re a good worker: you show up on time, you keep things organized, and the customers love you. Plus, I just plain enjoy your company.” He smiled. “I want to keep you around,” he said.
I tried to make my face up in a thoughtful way and think of something a woman on TV might say. Then a customer came into the yard in a silver Jeep and I just said, “I should get back to the register.”
“See what I mean? Always the perfect employee, never fails.” He rubbed my stomach again softly like it was a pup. “I’ll unload the car out back. Maybe I’ll come around this evening and we can take her for a spin together.” He winked, and I pretended like I didn’t notice.
For the rest of the morning, I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t think about anything but that Buick looming in the parking lot like a little black raincloud. A woman bought a five dollar bag of tomatoes with a twenty dollar bill and I only gave her seventy-five cents in change back. She pursed up her lips and just stood there with her hand out until I finally realized what I’d done.
On my lunch break, I went into the dry-room to call JD and tell him how Lyman was going on, but I stopped myself. I’d never had a car of my own. Lyman was slimy, but it wasn’t as if I’d never dealt with something like that.
Before I made a decision, I went behind the store and gave the car a good once over. I ran my hand over the metal hood, rigid and smooth. I slid my thigh along the bumper. I got behind the wheel and turned the key and it fired up, first try. I put my hand to the gearshift and realized I could pull that Buick onto I-95 North and drive away from all of it: Lyman, Ronnie, even JD, god bless him. None of it mattered. “Maybe I will,” I said to myself. “Maybe I won’t.” I pressed down on the gas and saw in the side-view a haunt of smoke shoot out of the muffler and break apart on the wind.
I went ahead and called JD, but all I said was, “I won’t be needing a ride this evening.”
“You sure?” he asked. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m positive,” I said. “I got me a set of wheels.” It felt like taking off my bra at the end of a long, muggy day.
When I took the LeSabre home, JD went straight to work sanding down all the rust patches and covering them with Bondo. He slathered on a new coat of primer and changed out the spark plugs and even got me a new set of tires.
The next Sunday, we packed the trunk with a picnic and took the car for a drive. “That Lyman Kite is one generous feller,” JD said. He opened the glove box and flipped through the papers inside. “I mean, I just can’t get over it. He give you a whole damn car, running and everything, and ain’t asked for nothing in return. Can you believe it?” He shook his head. “It seems too good to be true.”
“It does seem that way, don’t it.”
JD scratched his neck. “I just hope there wasn’t no miscommunication.”
“Quit your worrying,” I said. “The car is mine, cut and dry.”
It was a beautiful afternoon, the air cool and hollow, the poplar leaves beginning to turn. We rode toward the state park with our elbows poked out of the windows. JD was mostly quiet. I could smell the smoke of a fire somewhere.
At the park, we stretched out by the river. It seemed that no matter which direction you drove from JD’s house, or how far, you always ended up at the Edisto. There were families around, some of them grilling, some of them throwing Frisbees or playing catch. We ate cold chicken at a mossy picnic table. Afterwards, JD dug for crawdads and I laid in the sun like a scaly, bloated alligator.
“You want to go for a swim?” JD asked. He was barefooted and holding his little oyster shovel by his side. He looked like an overgrown boy.
“No, thanks,” I said. “The water’s gotten too cold.”
He shrugged and went off by himself.
When we got back home, it was nearly dark. JD walked me upstairs. At the door, he said, “I think I’m going to go down to Jellico’s for a beer.”
“That sounds good,” I said. “Thank you.”
I blushed like a girl. “You know, for everything.”
JD laughed. “Always, little sister,” he said. Then he walked down the stairs and out of sight. From inside, I saw the headlights of the Buick cast shadows over the yard.
The next morning at the produce stand, Lyman’s truck was parked crookedly in the lot. It was odd he was there so early, but I didn’t think much of it. I climbed out the car and went under the shed. He was sitting in a plastic chair beneath a harsh, yellow light. Both of his eyes were bruised, his ears were torn, and his lips were beaten so fat and bloody they couldn’t close all the way. Slobber pooled in the corners of his mouth.
“Get out,” he moaned. “Whore! Get out.”
“Lyman,” I said. “What happened?”
He laughed in a long, drunken way that reminded me of my father. “What happened?” he said, mocking me. “What happened? Your brother happened, you inbred bitch. Or should I say your lover.” He spat a glob of blood at my feet. “What’s the difference? Just get out! Keep the car, I don’t care. Just get the fuck out!”
I turned and walked quickly toward the LeSabre.
“I hope that little mongrel splits you in two,” Lyman said. “Do us all a favor.” I picked up a rock and threw it as hard as I could at him. It landed on the dirt in front of his chair and he laughed. I got in the car and drove home.
When I got to the house, JD was at the kitchen table, eating hot grits from a red bowl. “What did you do to him?” I asked. My insides felt like they were bound with a bungee cord and my legs were beginning to shake.
“To Lyman. He looks like he’s been bashed with a tire iron.”
“Oh, that.” My brother chuckled. “I was just making sure there wasn’t any miscommunication.”
“Are you insane?” I went to the table. “Do you even hear yourself? The man gave me a vehicle. So you beat him half to death? Does that seem right?”
JD set his spoon down and squinted. “I was looking out for you,” he said. “That sick bastard was expecting something in return for the car. He didn’t mean it to be free.”
I rolled my eyes. “You think I don’t know that?”
He leaned forward in his chair. “Oh, so you liked it?”
“I was handling it,” I said.
JD sprung from the table and his chair fell over on its side. He slung his bowl against the wall. It shattered and the grits ran down the sheetrock. “Is that right?” he said. “You were handling it? If you’re so good at handling things, why didn’t you handle Ronnie, huh? Why didn’t you handle Daddy?”
I took a step back. “That was different. You don’t know how this looks.”
“How it looks?” He stopped and cocked his head. “What did Lyman say?”
Suddenly, I was scared. I wished that instead of going home, I had disappeared forever down some highway. “Nothing,” I said.
“Oh, no.” He walked slowly toward me. “It’s too late for that now. For once in your life, tell the truth. What did he say?”
I backed up against the wall. “Nothing. Just leave it, okay.”
He walked up to me and put his face close to mine. “I ain’t leaving anything,” he said in a whisper. “I told that boy if he ever spoke another word to you, I’d kill him, just like I did the last sumbitch that treated my sister sideways, and I meant it.”
“Please, Jefferson” I said. “No more.”
“No more?” He gritted his teeth. “No more?” He stood up straight and took a step away from me. “Carlene, it can’t stop. Don’t you see? It can never stop.”
“It has to. For the baby. Look at us.”
“Things don’t change,” JD said. “They never have.” He looked at my stomach and grinned. “It’s like Daddy said. Keep swimming or be drowned.”
I’d never felt more alone. I screamed and tried to hit him, but he caught me by my wrist and laughed. He slung me onto the floor like a dirty tee-shirt, then walked out of the house, leaving the door open behind him. I heard the Bronco crank and the tires spin and then nothing but the birds, calling softly from the yard.
I stayed on the ground for a little while and thought about crying. Eventually I staggered to my feet and went to the kitchen. I took my getaway bag from where it still sat beside the door and went down to the LeSabre. I put the bag in the trunk, then let myself fall into the driver’s seat. When I landed, I felt a warm, white pop in my abdomen, like a bullet tearing through a beer can, and when I looked down, everything was wet.
Robert Maynor is from the Lowcountry of South Carolina. He has worked as a commercial plumber, dishwasher, meter-reader, sprinkler-man, etc. His stories and essays have previously appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Biostories, and Lander University’s New Voices.