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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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Robard felt himself to suffer the long breathless suspension, suspended between the moment of purchase and the moment when whatever it was had knocked him unconscious and made it feasible for him to drown in the floor of his own car, so that he felt that at any moment at all he could expect the impact and the long slow daze that ended by dying.

8

Behind the house the clouds had piled against the sky. The sun had gone and left the sky indistinct and pinkish. In the east it had been dark a long time. He lay still in the smoky light. There was a chill in the room, and he could hear the girl outside teasing the raccoons onto the rungs of the cage. He rose quietly, dressed in the corner, and carried his shoes out the door. On the floor outside the girl had laid a blanket, and he brought it inside and spread it over the woman, covering her until her fingers clutched the basting and she drew it around herself and slept on. He slipped down the stairs into the store, where the cold box glowed and the compressor hummed in the gloom. He took a candy bar out of a plastic jar and a soda from the cooler and stepped into the lot, where the air was slow with the fragrance of sage.

The little girl looked up when she heard the screen slap, and went back to tempting the raccoons when she saw it was him.

“You got a Butterfinger?” she said, keeping her eyes averted.

“And a Grapette,” he said, squeezing candy out of his teeth and taking a look down the cages.

“Seventeen cents,” she said.

Her hair was full of fine gold threads mingled with what was almost white. “I set you a blanket out,” she said without looking up. “It'll get cold. I knocked but didn't nobody answer.”

“We must've dozed,” he said, taking an interest in what he could see of the cat's cage, but feeling reluctant to go down to

The raccoons nibbled and licked the girl's fingers when the celery was gone. The rooster perched on a low branch and studied the raccoons curiously, as if he couldn't understand anything about them.

“What about your rabbit?” he said, stuffing the candy paper in his pocket.

“What about him?” she said.

He glanced down the list of cages. “His time must be about up?”

She giggled and pulled a cellophane bag of peanut hulls out of her shirt pocket and began feeding hulls to the coons one at a time. “His time came and went,” she said.

He looked at the girl quickly, feeling bested. “I thought you said he didn't get hungry till the sun went down.” He walked up toward Leo's cage.

“I can't tell Leo when to get hungry,” she said.

“I didn't hear nothin,” he said, looking up at the window with the chintz curtains flagging gently outside.

“Leo don't make no noise,” she said. “Sometimes the rabbit makes a little peep, like a bird, but usually it just gives in and don't say anything.”

Leo was lying against the back wire tearing off a piece of the rabbit's haunch and beginning to chew it deliberately. He searched the ground, but there was no sign of a struggle in the dust, as if the rabbit might have made a dash when Leo decided his time had come. There were two skid tracks where Leo had dragged the rabbit back to his own precinct, and it occurred to him that the rabbit might just have died of fright. After sitting in the sun all day staring at Leo's eyes, the final seconds might have been too much for him, and when he saw Leo get up, it may
have been over right then. The long wait must have got him. Leo gurgled at a sinew and pawed it with his front feet, stretching it backward until it snapped.

He felt an awful anguish and looked at the girl, who was watching him, squatting in the dirt. He felt maybe somebody ought to sit down and talk to her, and tell her she wasn't doing things right, give her an idea on how things ought to be. Except it wasn't his business and there couldn't be any use making it be. If she wanted to feed rabbits to wildcats, then there wouldn't be any way on earth to make her quit, since somebody had taught her that that was a thing to do. And there wasn't any changing that.

“What time is it?” he said.

She looked at her wrist watch. “Seven-forty. Dark by eight,” she said.

He saw the sky was steely down to the horizon. A flicker of bat slipped through the air and disappeared.

“Lonnie won't be back till late,” she said.

“Do me a favor.” He rubbed his fingers through his hair.

“Depends,” she said.

“Tell that lady”—he eyed the window, inside of which the air was dark—“I had to leave.”

The girl got up off the ground and dusted her jeans and stuffed the cellophane in her shirt pocket. “Who's paying?” she said.

He opened his wallet and took out a bill.

“Three dollars and seventeen cents,” she said, watching the empty Grapette bottle dangle off his finger.

“Keep the rest for the favor,” he said.

“She ain't sick, is she?”

“Tell her I said I had to take off. She won't care.”

“She ain't going to like it,” the girl said confidently, rocking on her heels.

“She won't care,” he said.

“What
you
say,” the girl said, and glared at him. “You ain't foolin nobody.”

“I know it,” he said, moving toward the truck.

The girl stared at him coldly.

He could see the last stippets of gold in her hair. He took a look at the window and saw the curtains swell into the breeze, and started for the truck. He dropped the bottle in the oil can by the pumps, and the girl watched him a time, then broke for the house, her ponytail licking her shoulders as she disappeared in the store, the screen door whacking shut. He could hear her hit the inside stairs. He let the truck idle, watching the door as if he were waiting for the woman and the girl to come boiling out like bloodhounds. But no one came, and he let the truck idle out onto the road. He watched the house in the mirror while it sank, and it satisfied him to think that when the woman woke she could as soon feel kindly toward the world, and toward herself, and toward Larry and maybe toward him.

At eight-fifteen it was dark. He passed Tucumcari, a strip of dairy bars and gray stucco buildings with lights frozen in the darkness. He watched the drive-in lots and along inside the lighted cafés for someone that might be the girl's brother, some kid standing up against a building waiting to get sober. He watched for a flat-bed truck parked back in the gravel lots, but there was nothing to fit what he had made up in his mind, a boy holding a bottle by the skinny neck, staring cross-eyed at the sky as if he hadn't figured out some mystery that plagued him. He stopped at the east edge of town and ate Mexican food and a bowl of custard and drove the thirty miles into Glenrio and from there past the signs into Texas before midnight.

9

In the night he had driven over the flat husk of Texas to Oklahoma. After two o'clock his legs cramped and his eyes got tricky, framing figures on the fringe of the road caught in the headlights, then vanishing when the truck got into them. At two-thirty he hid the truck in a pecan orchard, slept an hour on
a sawbuck table and woke in the cold odor of green pecans, pressed dew in his eyes and started into Arkansas.

The letter in his shoe said:

Robard. I have me a plastic bag and a way to use it once I see you in your flesh. It can't wait forever. You have got to come and get it. This here is me. Beuna
.

Underneath her signature was a mark on the paper where she had pressed something wet, then allowed it to dry before folding it in the envelope so the paper was wrinkled and blotched a fishy yellow shade, but wasn't stuck together. Around it she had drawn a circle in ink with an arrow pointing down from the words “This here is me.” It made him feel hot inside. Though it was true enough that after that hotness expired nothing else was certain. The best he could remember, Helena was a weedy cotton plant on the skin of the delta. He had stayed around in 1959, working the Missouri Pacific in Memphis and deadheading down to save rent, boarding with his mother's cousin two days a week, and whomping Beuna both nights in the attic, then spending the day slipping around waiting for dark. All of which added up to maybe fifteen days sum that he had ever spent in Helena, Arkansas, which made him nervous when he let his mind play on it. Since fifteen days was almost too little an acquaintance to hope to come back after twelve years and carry on what he was hoping to carry on in the midst of everybody and have it work out the way he wanted without there being a slip-up somewhere and somebody noticing some irregularity. And he figured the only thing to do would be to be fast enough and cute enough when the time came to get out before the shooting started.

He had gone about settling some things before he left Bishop, standing at the screen, explaining to himself that in behalf of being smart, he couldn't afford any reliances, since there wasn't anybody to rely on and since there wasn't any reason to believe the place or anybody in it would turn out any better or kinder or any more understanding than they had been when he tried to make it honest, working for old man Rudolph, and had gotten
squeezed out by the innate stinginess that infested the place and everybody in it like an air that you couldn't breathe, but couldn't live without. He had just told himself that very thing over and over standing at the door waiting for good dark to settle, and by the time he left Bishop, he had it fixed in his mind.

Except that back behind whatever little plans he had was at least the reliance that the place
would
hold him up long enough to do what he came to do, pay him, in a sense, for having been born there and having put a good-hearted attempt into staying when it was clear nobody like him ever
should
stay. And the moment he figured he had kept that reliance, in spite of all he had schooled himself to believe, he had had the strongest unfaltering feeling he had made a mistake somewhere, and that the thing he ought to do was turn around and go back without another say-so. Except it was way too late by then, and he couldn't ever turn around now, not after getting this close. And it would all have to be worth it.

10

In Little Rock he ate breakfast and got back outside in the chill to the phone booth. He took off his shoe, got the letter, and flattened it on the shelf where he could see. He got Helena and wrote the number at the bottom of the letter just below where it said “This here is me,” and dialed the operator. The phone started ringing a long way off. Morning traffic came slowly. He watched two policemen saunter out of the café and stand looking at the truck, talking like they thought they wanted to buy it, then laugh at something and drive out of the café lot.

The phone was answered by a voice several feet from the receiver. “All right,” the voice said.

“Beuna?” He could barely get the word audible.

“What do you think?” she said. He heard the receiver strike something hard as if she were trying to hammer more words out.
“Who is this?” she said, her voice drifting away then reviving. “W.W., it better not be your asshole trick.”

“It's me,” he said, feeling the words stop up in his throat.

“I'm hanging up,” she said. He could hear her pounding the plunger. “Get the sheriff,” she said.

“It's Robard,” he whispered. And everything seemed to slide back, like a whole panoramic world had moved into the background, leaving him in the calamitous center, alone and unprotected. A fishy sweat crept up in his palms, and his short hairs got stout.

“Who?”

“Robard.”

“Oh, shit!” she said, as if some foulness had happened where she was.

“Beuna?”

“Where are you? God!”

“Little Rock,” he said, switching hands and wiping his face.

“I'll come meet you,” she said, all out of breath.

“No,” he said. “I'll
be
there. Don't do nothin.”

“Robard, I've been so awful,” she said, sobbing. “It's giving me the shakes to hear you.”

“Don't do nothin,” he said. His hands started trembling.

“Robard?”

“What?”

“I'm gonna come on the phone.”

“Don't now,” he said.

“I'm going to, it's just doing it.”

“Don't, just don't do that, goddamn it now!”

“I can't help it, things comes on you.”

“No!” he yelled at the receiver.

“Robard?”

“What?”

“Can we go someplace? It ain't got to be far.”

“We'll see,” he said. His mind sunk into gloom, as if he were caught in some commotion he needed to control but couldn't quite make slow down.

“Robard?”

“What?”

“I got my little bag?”

“I remember.” He could see the little bag, without knowing exactly what could happen with it.

“We're going to have to go to Memphis to do it. There's these rooms in the Peabody Hotel that's got shower baths with eight nozzles that shoots you everywhere at once.”

“All right,” he said, gasping.

“Robard?”

“What?”

“I want to do it in that thing with you.”

“We will,” he said, wondering what you did. “I'll call you.”

“W.W. ain't here days. He's workin at the BB plant and playing ball at Forrest City. He don't come back until late.”

“All right,” he said, his mind whipping. “I can't come today.”

“You got you some girl?”

“No,” he said, pressing his head against the window glass and leaning until the booth started to groan and he had his entire weight concentrated on just one cold spot of glass.

“Why can't you?”

“Look, I'll call you,” he said.

“You ain't got to bite my head off,” she said.

“I got to go.”

“Do you love me?”

“I can't talk about that.”

“You said ‘All right' the last time. I remember.”

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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