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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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“Some people don't know when they're good off.” His eyes flashed. “They have to fuck it up. What're you doing here, Hewes—trying to fuck up something?”

“I wanted to look at you.”

“What the hell for?” The old man was hunched up underneath the bulb, glaring.

“If I had a good idea, I might just think about twistin your head off.”

The old man smiled instantly. “Old Buck might not of known
very much, but he knew how to kill hisself good enough. You don't even know how to do that, Hewes.” Rudolph's smile broadened until he could see dark splotches on his gums.

He looked at the old man in the cone of scaly light, leering out at him, until he felt the urge to go away and come back in the night and burn the house down and everything with it.

He went back out through the kitchen all the way to the truck without stopping. But when he got in, he tried to think about Buck killing himself, waking up in the cold little house and looking out and seeing nothing at all, knowing that in an hour or a half hour the doctors would be there, and there was nothing to look forward to beyond sitting there with the old man while he stared at the fields and cried, until he himself went to sleep and the old man sat there mumbling half-awake about Edwina and Tarquini and how he let it get away from him. And he thought that might finally just
have
been enough to make him turn on the propane and go to sleep, that it was all just a kind of weariness, and the best thing to do was to go to sleep. He sat in the truck and tried to think what all that meant to him. And he sat for a long time, listening to the trucks hiss on the highway to Memphis, and decided that while it made him feel bad, it didn't mean anything to him, and didn't affect his life at all.

12

When he had worked in the switchyards at Helena, the old heads used to say that once the river had been where the town was now, and that the town was set up on the Kudzu bluff that overlooked the present town, and where the town of West Helena is now. They said one night the river simply changed its course, removing itself five miles to the east, leaving a thick muddy plain for the residents of the bluff to stare at and get nervous about. They said little by little the people on the bluff ventured down and started establishing themselves where the river had been, and building stores and houses. And after a while everyone moved
down and they changed the name of the town to West Helena and called the new one in the bottom Helena. The men in the yard called this movement The Great Comedown, and swore that the town, by coming off the bluff, had exercised bad judgment and would have to suffer misfortune because, and it seemed to make good sense, the town now existed at the pleasure of the river, and they believed anything that owed to the river would have to pay, and when it paid, the price would be steep.

When he had told Beuna she gave him a pained look and said, “Ah, shit, Robard. We're all dying sooner or later. Them assholes think they figured the reason. But I'm satisfied there ain't no reason.”

He got to Helena at noon and drove straight down the bluff into town, the sky pale and hot, and kept straight on through, uneasiness brewing inside him. The streets were wove up with country people in town for lunch. He thought everybody who noticed the truck was noticing him, and anybody who noticed him was a threat. He watched the doors and the alley mouths, in case W.W. should suddenly come striding out of some beer bar and stand mooning at something in the traffic he thought he recognized but couldn't figure why, but
would
if he had another minute to ponder it.

When he had shown up in Tulare, W. had gotten gloomy, as though some bad idea was trying to hatch out in his mind that he wasn't going to let live because of the slowing effect worrying had on his fast ball. Instead W. had gone around moping and frowning and acting as if he had a quince in his underlip and couldn't talk, but was still highly agitated. He had tried to stay where W. could see him anytime he wanted to, thinking that might dewire whatever W. was trying to figure, but couldn't quite get clear.

In the hot grandstand he asked her if she thought W. might be thinking, and she laughed so hard her flesh had gone into violent quivers. “What with?” she said, in the meanest voice she knew. “His mind ain't nothin but a baseball. Baseballs don't get suspicious, far as I know.”

Except, he figured, watching people traipse back and forth
across Main Street in the sunshine, W. might not turn out to be so altogether slow if he found out what was happening to his wife while he was screwing parts in BB guns. All those years when he could've been cashing big pay checks, but instead ended up building air rifles for three-eighty an hour and pitching Industrial League at Forrest City, might just have built a big reserve of unrelieved nastiness that he could start relieving if he could just catch somebody diddling his wife and figure out a way of getting a shot off.

The only alternative then was just to be smart and
stay off
. He had figured that out long ago. But waiting for the light, thinking everybody who walked in front of the truck was having a look at his license plate and a longer look at him, he could see just how much business he didn't have idling around town. He would have to come after dark, collect Beuna, and run her to someplace where they wouldn't have to jump up every time a bug hit the screen or start grabbing clothes for fear it was W.W. coming to pick up his cleats or leaving his pail before going off to hit fungoes. He figured he had to park the truck, back in to a wall, and not get near it until he had to, since every time he got in it he ran a risk, and every time he got in it with Beuna, he was pleading to get shot.

He pulled through the intersection, stopped, and made an inspection back up the street, thinking if he waited he just might see a face. When he didn't, he got out, stepped inside the drugstore, bought a newspaper, and drove full tilt out of town, keeping bandaged to the road.

A mile and a half past the last motel, he stopped at a drive-in and parked on the side away from town. The restaurant was a little pink cinder-block with a red and white keyboard awning strung out the back. A girl came down under the awning, took his order, and went off. A breeze picked up off the fields, stirred the dust, and made the awning groan and sway over the struts.

He opened the paper and stared at the Help Wanteds. There was a job in Helena to install linoleum tile, another one in Helena for a drag-line crew with the Corps of Engineers, a job to relocate
in San Bernardino, a job in Elaine to guard somebody's land, offering two meals and a room, and a job running a stamping machine in the BB-gun plant.

He hinged the paper over the steering wheel and stared out under the awning toward the fields, back of which he could make out the low perimeter of light green softwoods, beyond which was the river. The awning buckled softly in the breeze and the sun rolled behind the clouds, and he could smell his sandwich frying in the cinder-block kitchen. He tried to think just what it was he was doing. Without even intending, he had gone straight for a job, just like finding one was bone-hard necessity. It was aggravating. Because what was supposed to happen to Jackie, lying back in her room thinking God knows what? Making plans not to see him again, gone by now to where he wouldn't ever find her? It had seemed to him that when breaks came in your life, the decisions got made ahead of time. Judgment was supplied and the sides were weighted and one got chosen on balance. And that was the way he understood life got run, not counting the unforeseen. When he left Hazen, it had been at the end of a long time spent thinking and puzzling. Sides were added and the answer found, though it came in the middle of the night and seemed like foolishness even though it wasn't. But he wondered if decisions didn't really get made in reverse, acting one way, then supplying the reason based on the number of people who got maimed or made happy. And if it wasn't just ignorance to think decisions got made any other way. In this very case, there seemed to be no decision to make at all, only things to do for which he could supply reasons later, when he saw how it worked. So that the only thing he could do about Jackie, lying back there making plans, was just to see what happened and write a postcard.

The girl came back, supporting a tray with a beer and a sandwich. She smiled and fitted the tray to the window and wiped her hands on her pants.

“You going to want something else?” she said, tearing a check off and laying it on the rubber mat. She had a little wisp of mustache on her lip that she bleached.

“Which way is that BB-gun plant?” he said, trying to make her out through the condiments.

The girl stared back toward town and pointed. “Thataway,” she said, frowning toward Memphis.

“Then which way's E-laine?” He licked the mayonnaise off the rim of the bun.

“Thataway,” she said, pointing down the highway that ran in front of the drive-in and disappeared into the softwoods. Her cheeks were rouged up and she had peppered brown all around her nose to be freckles. “Twenty miles,” she said. “Ain't nothin but a store and a quit gin, and some old man's fishin camp over the levee. I used to go down there when I was married.”

“Ain't you married no more?” he said, wondering who'd marry her in the first place.

She shook her head and looked put out. “I quit him,” she said.

“What for?”

The girl removed a strand of dry hair from her cheek. “He cramped my style.”

“Well, would you say that E-laine was about as far away from that BB-gun factory as I could get?”

She turned and stared up at the cinder-block restaurant a moment and faced him again.

“I'd say there's lots of places you could get farther away from that BB-gun plant than E-laine, Arkansas, though I doubt if you could find a worse one.”

“I need me a place to be low and still get out to the plant when I need to.”

“You ain't going to find you no lower place than that,” she said.

“That'll do it,” he said, and smiled at her, and the girl tapped the tray with her fingernail and walked away.

13

The River Road ferried out along the telephone lines into the marshed fields and pecan orchards eight miles, then angled back through the cypress and followed the shingle of the old river, a long shining horseshoe stoppered at both ends by green-and-orange shumard swamps.

The road twisted finally back into the fields, past standing cotton wagons and silver ammonia tanks on trailers, frosted in the sunshine. He surveyed the long grass levee, amber and flat, reaching away from the tip of the swamp down the margin of the true bottom, back of which was the dark invadable land the levee had been built to guard.

Elaine was a single plank grocery building at the highway, with the wetted fields sprawled against it. The ruined gin sat in the opposite weeds, the metal walls bent in and twisted, exposing the thick oxidized machinery and the cypress rafters that supported what was left. The store was a pale plain rectangle of bricks anchoring the end of a tractor lane that bore back into the boards and over the levee. A “Be Sure With Pure” circle was faintly stenciled on the wall facing north, and a shingle was strung to the eave saying GOODENOUGH'S.

Across the tractor path a light green '57 Oldsmobile was parked in the dirt with a white Servel refrigerator standing inside the trunk. The car had been backed up to the highway, and given a sign painted on the door that said NIGHT CRAWLERS $1 PAR CARTON FIREWORKS. Dark green stars had been put on the sign, and the doorhandles on the Servel had been sawed off and replaced with a big hasp lock.

The boys were squatted in the dust beside the refrigerator. He parked the truck by the store. One of the boys jumped up and waved and stood watching as he walked across the road.

“Yes suh,” the boy said, rubbing his hands and smiling, uncovering
a large empty space in his mouth where a lot of teeth had been. Both boys were white-headed and red-faced, and had their hair slicked and glistening in the sun. The boy standing was older, though the one sitting had eyes wide apart and a big mouth that made him look serious. The younger boy still had his teeth, and when he squinted they all showed at once. A tick-tack-toe game was scratched in the dirt, and the younger boy was eying the game, using a cotton twig to prod at the two squares that were empty.

“I'm trying to find a man named P. H. Gaspareau,” he said, looking off down the tractor lane toward the levee.

The tall boy smiled and leaned around the edge of the icebox and pointed. “Take this here down the other side of the levee and stay on it, and you'll drive right straight through his house.” He snapped a look at the tick-tack-toe to warn the other boy against cheating. “You come from California to go fishin?” the boy said, wincing at something inexpressible.

He looked back at the truck and couldn't see the license tag for the way the truck was parked against the store wall. “Where is it you fish?” he said.

The boy thumbed toward the levee. “It ain't no good. Bout wasted a trip.”

“I'll find something to do,” he said, looking at the tops of the shumards across the levee.

“Ain't nothin
to
do,” the younger boy said without looking up. He marked a zero in one of the boxes, then blotted it out. “Bout have to go to New York City.”

“He's ignorant,” the bigger boy said, smiling.

“He might be smart,” he said.

“I might fly to the moon tomorrow, too, but I ain't bought my wings yet,” the older boy said.

The shorter boy whacked his brother with his twig, and the older boy scraped his foot straight through the tick-tack-toe game.

“You was winnin it, fool,” the younger boy cackled.

“You ought to buy you a whole mess of crawlers,” the older boy said, sniffing as if that was the signal to commence business.

“I ain't fishin,” he said.

The smaller boy got up, dusted his pants, and got a big jelly glass of red liquid out of the refrigerator and took a drink. There were several white paper cartons inside the refrigerator, smudged with crumbled dirt, and a gray cardboard box marked “M-8os.”

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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