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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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“You one of them people goes on the island?” the tall boy said indifferently.

“Which is that?” he said.

“The other side of the lake is a big island. It ain't even in Arkansas. It's in Mississippi.”

“I don't know nothin about it,” he said.

“There's a man owns it from Mississippi. He's old.” The boy let his tongue dawdle in and out of the space where all the teeth had been. “He's always got some people going over there to hunt. I carried the Ole Miss football coach over there one time.”

“You ain't done it,” the younger boy said, and gave his brother another gouge with his cotton switch, and put the glass back inside the refrigerator.

“Shut up, igmo,” his brother said, and kicked him a hard lick in the knee, which didn't seem to bother him. “I carried 'em when Gaspareau was having his throat cut at the Veterans Hospital in Memphis.”

A Trailways bus came into sight up the road, its flasher blinking to turn.

“What's the man's name?” he said, having a look at the bus, then back at the boy standing in front of him.

“Lamb,” the boy said, watching in the direction of the bus. “That old scoundrel's mean as ptomaine.”

He let the name go through his mind and decided it didn't mean anything. The bus slowed, crossed over the highway, and grumbled under the flat eave of the store. The door shoved out and a big pale-faced man in a wool jacket and tennis shoes got down, shielding his eyes from the sun. As quick as he was out, the bus groaned back up on the highway and got lost beyond the gin. An old woman came out of the store and stood under the eave talking to the man who had gotten off.

“What come of your cotton?” he said, looking back out at the water reflecting little strips of sky all down the field rows.

“Wet,” the older boy said confidentially. “Couldn't get no combines in in September. It ain't going to be no more cotton if the sun don't stay up.” The boy glared at the sun as if he had threatened it.

“Then what'll you do?” he said.

The younger boy's slate eyes gleamed and he started pointing with his nubby thumb toward the Oldsmobile. “We'll git our ass in this here shit bucket and drive to New York City, and stop sitting in the dirt like a couple of fools.”

The woman stepped around to the side of the store under the “Be Sure With Pure” sign and pointed out the levee. The man bent to listen, looking like he might have an interest in what was over on the other side.

“He's ignorant,” the older boy said, smiling pitifully. “He thinks getting in that car'll fix everything.”

It dawned on him that the man might be somebody going after the job, and that if he had any sense he better get down the road, since it would take the other man time to get there on foot in the heat. He trapped a big drop of perspiration against his temple.

The older boy walked back authoritatively, opened the icebox, took a big drink out of the glass, and shut the door. “You don't have to be growed up to know better'n that,” he said.

“You ain't never going to be grown up,” his brother said. “You might as well figure you know it all already even if you don't.”

He started back across the road without speaking to the boys. He heard the woman say something about Gaspareau, and he gave the man a suspicious look. A hawk was riding the vapors out over the fields and for a moment he watched it fall back toward the river, climbing and growing smaller every second. The man didn't seem like somebody who wanted to guard somebody else's property. He looked more like somebody who worked in a bank. The man walked by the truck down the road, staying to the shoulder. He had taken off his coat and had his wet shirt unbuttoned so that his belly pushed over the belt loops.

He let the truck idle into the road until he was up even with the man. He opened the window and stared suspiciously at the man, who was sweating in the dusty sunlight. “Where you going?” he said.

The man put his elbow in the window and wiped his face with his coat. “Some goddamned island,” he said.

“About that job?” he said, ready to hit the gas.

The man looked as if the sweat on his cheeks was giving him a lot of pain, and he answered by frowning. “I don't know anything about it,” the man said, stepping back out from the window, ready to start walking again.

He tried to take a fair gauge on the man and what he might be doing out in the heat dressed like a banker, and couldn't. “Get in,” he said shortly.

“What's that?” the man said.

“I'll carry you. Ain't no need to walk in the hot.”

“You sure I'm not going to take your job?” the man said, opening the door but standing back shielding his eyes.

“No,” he said, looking off across the fields dismally. “I'll run over you in this goddamned truck if you're lying.”

“That's not the worst offer I've had today,” he said, sliding onto the seat. “At least I know what to expect. Newel's my name.” He stuck out his hand.

“Names don't make a shit,” he said.

“Well, mine's Newel,” the man said, using the same hand to wipe away more sweat, then letting it hang out the window.

“Hewes,” he said softly, wishing he didn't have to say it. “You don't need to remember it. It won't mean nothin if I've got anything left to say about it.”

Part II
Sam Newel
1

In the taxi he had started going over the first day one more time, reproving himself for every instance. He had found a room on Harper Avenue, pried out the dormer, stood up between the gables and let air pour, exchanging atmospheres, circulating around his bags and under the bedstead, while he leaned out, taking the climate, trying to fix on it and be cued to the city. He had satisfied himself before leaving Columbia that Chicago was a rare place to learn the law, mired in the middle of the country. The air smelled like piled newspapers and the city felt low-spirited and musty like an uncle. Next morning he had stumped down in the dark fog across Jackson Park to the long cement strand and calculated the midwestern sun bulking up beyond the buoys, baking the sky maize and copper and magenta, until the day was full up. And at the end, the time had seemed incantational, and the air had smelled like cooling bread circulating down the city lines, pressed into the fog. And he had gone back to bed feeling exalted, ready to begin. Which goes to show, he thought, the cab shooting down the Midway in the rain, that nothing good lasts very long.

At the depot the rain had begun to bump off the cobbles in sparklets. He went inside, bought his ticket, set his suitcase at the end of a row of benches, and walked outside under the marquee
to stand in the air. A taxi slid in under, discharged a passenger, and shot out into the avenue. He walked the sidewalk in the shelter of the station until he could make out the chain of lights up Michigan, brightening above Randolph Street into the luminance of the Wrigley Building. He felt the old exhilaration that he wished he could devise some smart way of sustaining so as to make it unnecessary to go off into the night on a lunatic trip he couldn't even understand the good sense of. The whole prospect darkened on his mind, and he had an urge to call Beebe, and have her taxi to pick him up, which he knew would thrill her.

The wind listed back. The train was called, and he walked back through the foyer into the arcade to get his bag. A group of well-dressed Negroes was standing at the swinging doors to the trains, talking noisily and stacking packages onto a fat woman who was taking a trip. The men all wore red carnations. He came to the end of the last row of benches and found the bag was gone. A little boy with drooping eyelids, the child of one of the Negroes, was left on the bench where the bag had been, patting his hands idly.

The Negroes began talking more loudly and one man abruptly shouted something that sounded like “bakery goods” and they all began hugging the woman with the packages. The little boy rose and looked casually over his shoulder and pursed his lips and turned back, as if he had seen what he had expected. The Negroes began shuffling out the doors, their voices softened, then silenced, leaving the sound of a teletype clicking at the end of the arcade.

He came back around to where the child was and looked at him. “Where's the bag?” He glared up the long aisle. The boy regarded him as though he were invisible and repursed his lips. “Who took it?” he said, glowering over into the boy's face until he could see the little amber tincture in his sleepy eyes.

The little boy smiled and produced a strand of pink gum from between his teeth and let it dangle between them like the clapper of an invisible bell. “Po-lice done got it,” he said.

He scanned the wide nave for some guilty sparkle of police shield in the shadows, but no one was visible except a redcap smoking a cigarette by the doors to the outside. A radio began
playing at the end of the waiting room, and he looked back down to where he could see through the glass the rainy headlights of the taxis cruising underneath the awning, scouting fares. He felt desperate.

“Didn't you see where the fuck he went?”

“Naw,” the boy said, and rolled the gum between his palms and returned it to his mouth.

He lurched off through the empty arcade, leaving the child, bursting out the swinging doors empty-handed. The Negroes were all getting wet, bawling and waving handkerchiefs at the steaming train. He avoided them, hustling down the platform and leaping up the silver steps into the vestibule. He shot an accusing look at the Negroes, standing in the rain crying. None of them was holding his bag. They slowly began milling back into the depot and he watched them grow smaller in the station until they were absorbed.

2

He sat gloomily in the recliner and watched the city slide in the rain, down the old wards he saw each commuter ride uptown to see Beebe. The car swayed smartly by 65th, gathering speed. He could make out a strip of timbers stenciled in the foreground, and farther back the dark Midway, headlights swimming into the rain on Hyde Park.

The train stopped at 103rd for no one to get off or on, and hissed and heaved out of the salmon lights, leaving the city in the underwater darkness.

“The city is put here to solve our problems,” Beebe had said, letting her fingers play in the thread of sunlight.

“My father would've agreed with you,” he said.

“Of course.” She smiled and ran her finger back along the icy line of shadow and light. “It brought us back together nicely. I'm sure he would've approved of that.”

He eased into the dark half of the bed, peering through the
window into the alley, thinking about nothing.

“I'd like you better today if you weren't so churlish,” Beebe said.

“I know the law,” he said. “I don't have time for the Committee for Social Thought or whatever you patronize.”

“You might go,” she said, breathing mist indifferently against the cold pane. “I heard Jane Jacobs. She thinks we'd all do well to live in the cities.”

“You should try it on the south side before you make up your mind,” he said.

“I'm here quite a lot,” she said, scoring her fingernail through the mist. “I get along with the boogies just fine.”

He was silent.

“What was it your father did?” she said.

“Sold starch.”

“Were there a lot of jokes about starch salesmen having firm erections?”

“I don't know.”

“I was changing the subject to something more amusing.” She was quiet a moment, then said, “A man exposed himself to me at the airport this morning.”

“What for?”

“I'm sure I don't know. It was a cabdriver in the queue at Pan Am. I leaned to tell him I wanted to go downtown and there was his lingam lying on his leg.”

“Did he take you?”

“Of course not.”

“Did you say anything to him?”

“I said, That looks a lot like a penis, only smaller.' He was reading
Time
magazine and covered himself and drove away. I'm sure it embarrassed him.”

“The city just hasn't solved his problems yet. Or does it only lavish its attention on you?”

“You're certainly cynical, aren't you?” She looked annoyed. “Why did you start limping today? It was very strange. Who did you see?”

“Nobody.” He watched up the alley, pressing his nose to the glass until the skin numbed.

“Then why did you start limping?”

“It provokes compassion from some people.”

She craned her neck and tried to see what he was looking at in the failing light. “I'm afraid I don't believe that,” she said.

“All right, goddamn it,” he said, exasperated. “When I walked out of the A & P I saw a man who looked exactly like me, carrying his goddamned AWOL bag to the laundromat.”

“So?”

“It scared me. He looked a hell of a lot better off than I do, a lot firmer in the belly. His eyes weren't murky, either. I made a point to look at that.”

“Did you speak?”

“Hell, no. What am I supposed to say? What if he doesn't think he looks like me?”

“I don't know why you felt you had to start limping.”

“I don't like goddamned Doppelgängers.” He stalked across the floor and slapped the radiator rung, making it gong. “This goddamn thing isn't worth a shit for a shoeshine.”

She reclined her head to the window ledge, the light silhouetting her face at the horizon of the frame. “You have a poor tolerance for ambiguity,” she said, rubbing her nose softly with her finger and watching him skulk in the shadows.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“To continue what you're doing when nothing is very clearly defined,” she said. “It's a source of spiritual stamina for scientists. I think it has pretty uses for other people, such as you, for instance.”

“What the hell do
I
do?” he said.

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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