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Authors: Charles Williams

River Girl

BOOK: River Girl
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River Girl

by

Charles Williams

1951

It was three in the afternoon and hot. Tar was boiling out of the black-top paving around the square and heat waves shimmered above the sidewalks. I drove on through town and down the street to the jail with the Negro boy. He was about nineteen and looked scared to death.

“I ain’t done nothing, Cap’n,” he kept saying.

“O.K.,” I said. “Relax. Nobody’s going to hurt you.” My head still ached from last night and his talking got on my nerves.

I turned him over to Cassieres at the jail. “Stick him in the county tank. Did Buford call you?”

“No,” he said. “What’s he booked for?”

“Assault,” I said. “Attempted assault. I don’t know. He took after another boy with a knife. Buford said pick him up.”

I drove the car around to the garage and left it and went back to the square. The courthouse was stifling and smelled of sweeping compound and old dust and cuspidors. Buford wasn’t in the office.

“He’s out for coffee,” Lorraine said. “Though how anybody could drink coffee in this weather…”

She looked at me and smiled. We both knew he was in the back room of Billy Barone’s drinking gin rickeys. She had worked in the sheriffs office about six years.

I shed the gun and tossed it into a filing cabinet. “I’m going home,” I said.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Louise was in. She said to tell you she picked up the car.”

“O.K.,” I said. “Thanks.” I’d have to walk. Louise was probably playing bridge somewhere.

I went out and my head started to throb again with the glare. Cars went by, hissing on the soft tar as if it were raining. I started to walk across the square to get a Coke before I went home, and then remembered Buford had asked me to stop by and see Abbie Bell.

Abbie’s hotel was out on Railroad Street, toward the planing mill and the freight depot. It was a run-down section, not over a half-dozen blocks from the square but tough and full of cheap beer joints. I could hear the shriek of the planer and the slap of dropped planks across the afternoon stillness and smell the heat.

It was different a long time ago, I thought. I walked this way to school before the old one burned down, and there were some good houses along here then. I was center on the fifth-grade football team and in love with a girl named Doris or Dorothy. At night I used to lie awake and rescue her from burning buildings and capsized boats and bullies big enough to be in the seventh grade.

A Negro girl was sweeping the lobby. I went down a dim hall and knocked. Abbie herself opened the door and looked out, then stood back for me to come in. There were two electric fans going and the blinds were pulled to keep out the sun.

“Hello, Jack,” she said. She must have been around thirty-five, quite short, with very sharp brown eyes and closely cropped black hair in tight curls close to her head. She always wore ridiculously high heels to make herself look taller, and now she had on a blue dressing gown of some sort of filmy stuff.

“God, this heat. How about something cold to drink?”

“Thanks,” I said. I sat down under one of the fans.

“Tom Collins?”

I nodded. She called out the door to the Negro girl. While we were waiting for the drinks she went into her bedroom and came out with a white envelope in her hand. The girl brought the drinks in and left them on a tray in front of the sofa. Abbie sat down and we lit cigarettes.

“Know any new toasts?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s too hot to think. Here’s how.”

She put the envelope down on the table. “I don’t know what the hell I get for this,” she said.

I shrugged. “Ask Buford. I just work here.”

She looked at me levelly. “You sure you want me to ask Buford?”

“He sent me,” I said. I could bluff too. Buford didn’t get all of it, but I didn’t think she’d take it up with him. He didn’t want to see her, anyway. Elections were tough enough without having to carry Abbie Bell on the ticket.

She spread her hands. “Oh, what the hell, you pay it anywhere. You always pay somebody. But I get tired of having my car tagged for overparking uptown.”

‘Take it up with the marshal’s office,” I said. “We’ve got a police force.”

“Don’t I know it? I have to support ‘em. And you people too. My God. And when I get a drunk in here that wants to tear the joint down, I have to bounce the bastard myself. It’s enough to make you cry.”

I took another sip of the drink. It was too sweet, but it was cold.

“Cheer up,” I said. “Suppose you worked here.”

“Well, I’ve worked in better places than this,” she said, and grinned. Somehow she looked like an impish kid when she did that. I liked her. And still I’m chiseling her out of twenty-five dollars every two weeks, I thought, and wondered if the headache was getting worse.

“You never do any business here, do you? Except this.”

“No,” I said. “What the hell, you think I’m crazy?”

“Cut it out, Jack. My girls are clean. You can take my word for it.”

“Yeah, I know. And they’ll give you your money back if a parachute doesn’t open, too.”

“Well, it’s a good thing all married men aren’t as cautious as you are. I’d go broke.”

I shook the ice in the glass. “Buford asked me to give you a message, Abbie. He says for Christ’s sake don’t let any more kids in here.”

She took a deep drag on the cigarette and exhaled smoke into the blast from the fan. “Is he still crying about that?”

“Look,” I said. “He’s been sweating blood for a week, and so has the so-called police force. That kid was Buddy Demaree, and Buford’s really had the heat put on him.”

“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ‘em in here any more than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ‘em—all they want to do is to feel up all the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”

“Well, try to keep ‘em out. Buford may not be able to smooth it over the next time one of ‘em gets plastered down here and wrecks his old man’s car. And that preacher is getting worse all the time.”

She looked at me. “Yeah, how about that guy? I’m paying you people to do business here—why don’t you keep him off my neck? God, I never know but what he may come in here some night with an ax like Carry Nation and chop the joint up. Can’t you muzzle him before he closes the whole town up?”

“Maybe Buford’ll think of something.” I stood up and started for the door. “I’ll see you, Abbie.”

She waved the drink. ‘Tell Buford the girls are working for him.”

I walked across town in the heat, thinking of the lake and of trees hanging over water very quiet and dim back out of the sun. It had been months since I’d been fishing. The car was parked in front of the house, and as I went past I noticed the white sidewalls were black again. I grinned sourly, thinking of Louise and curbs.

She wasn’t in the living room. I went down the hall. A cold shower, I thought, and a bottle of beer out of the icebox, and maybe this headache will go away.

“Is that you, Jack?”

I looked in the bedroom. “You’d be in sad shape if it was somebody else, wouldn’t you?” I said, smiling.

She was lying on the bed in nothing but a pair of pants and a brassiere, reading the latest copy of
Life
. The electric fan was running on top of the dresser. Louise was very pretty, a taffy blonde with wide, green eyes and a stubborn round chin. She took a great deal of pride in her clear, pale skin, and didn’t go in for suntan because she always blistered.

“You’re home early, aren’t you? I called the office to ask you to bring in some steak, and Lorraine said you’d already left.”

“I had an errand.”

She reached out a slim arm for a cigarette and looked at me questioningly. “You did? Where?”

“Abbie Bell’s.”

She flipped the lighter and took a deep puff, letting the magazine slide to the floor and looking at me quietly through the smoke.

“Well, that’s nice. How were the girls?”

I sat down and started taking off my shoes, thinking of the shower. “All right, I guess. I didn’t see them.”

“Well, then, how was Abbie?”

“Cut it out, Louise. You know what I was there for.”

“Men are always on the defensive, aren’t they? Really, dear, I’m not accusing you of anything. I was just asking about them. After all, I don’t get much news. The husbands of most of my friends never go to whore houses.”

“At least not on business,” I said.

“You’ve got a dirty mind.”

“O.K.,” I said.

“I don’t see why you have to go there in broad daylight. Suppose somebody saw you?”

“Nobody did.”

“Well, it seems to me Buford could send somebody else.”

“You know why I don’t ask him to send somebody else.”

“Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it?”

“It’s being done,” I said, feeling too rotten to argue.

“Maybe she’d raise your cut if you went down there and worked as a bouncer or something after hours.”

“Maybe so. You want me to ask her?”

“And your father was a judge.”

“You tried to buy anything with that lately?” I asked.

“Maybe I should go down and help Abbie out on Saturday nights.”

“Oh, cut it out,” I said.

She slapped the bed with an arm. “Oh, why do we always get in these arguments?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I wish we didn’t.”

She was silent for a moment. I went on undressing for the shower and started into the bathroom in my shorts when she said, “Cathy and Mildred are going down to the beach for a week. They asked me to go with them.”

“How can you?” I asked.

“After all, it’s only for a week.”

“I don’t know where we’d get the money.”

“Well, it certainly wouldn’t take any fortune.”

“With those two? You know how they throw it around.”

“They do get a little fun out of life, if that’s what you mean.”

“And you don’t?”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

Here we go again, I thought, off on the same old rat race. We were strapped with payments on a new Oldsmobile we didn’t need just because Cathy bought a Cadillac. In January we had to go to the Sugar Bowl because Mildred was going. Cathy’s got a new Persian lamb. Mildred’s getting a Capehart for Christmas. They could afford it. Cathy’s husband was Jim Buchanan, who was vice-president and a stockholder in the bank, and Mildred was married to Al Wayne, who was in the real-estate business.

“Sometimes I get a little fed up with those two,” I said.

“Yes. I guess you do seem to prefer Abbie Bell.”

“Oh, for God’s sake—”

“If you’d like, we could ask her over for bridge. After all, we’re practically in business with her. She could bring over one of the girls for a fourth.”

“You could ask Mildred,” I said. “Al Wayne owns the hotel and that whole block.”

“I doubt if many people know it. And he doesn’t have to go down there in broad daylight to collect the rent.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll quit going down there and to all other places. We’ll live on my salary.”

“Your salary!”

“Well, there you are.”

“You could have had Buford’s job if you’d run against him last time.”

I sat down in a chair and lit a cigarette, forgetting about the shower. “I couldn’t beat Buford, and you know it. He’s been sheriff for twelve years. And I haven’t got his personality. Nobody in the county could beat him.”

“You were in the war.”

“Who wasn’t?”

“Buford,” she said impatiently.

“He was over draft age. I’m telling you, if I’d run against him I would just have been beaten and then I’d be out of a job completely. I thought about it plenty, but it can’t be done. He’s just one of those people. Even people who know he’s crooked like him.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be too sure he’s going to be there forever,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“You know what I mean. Or who I mean. That new minister, the Reverend Soames or whatever his name is. I tried to get you to go to church with us yesterday. You’d have heard plenty.”

“Well, before you crow too much, remember that if they get Buford over a barrel I’ll be right there with him.”

“Yes. And isn’t that something nice to think about? And for the crumby few dollars you get out of it. Think of what he’s made.”

“My God, Louise, do you want me to take it, or don’t you? I can leave it alone.”

“So you’d like to blame it on me, would you? Well, I like that!”

“I’m not trying to blame it on anybody. But, for Christ’s sake, if I’m going to take it the way Buford does, let’s take it and shut up about it.”

“You can do whatever you want to,” she said coldly. She reached out and smashed the cigarette with a vicious stab at the ash tray, long slim legs sprawling as she lost her balance on her elbow. “I’m going to the beach. I’ll cash a check.”

“Don’t make it over seventy-five,” I said. “That’s all we’ve got in the bank.”

“That’s fine. That’s just fine. I’ll stay at the YWCA.”

I got up and took the envelope out of my clothes. “Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from—a girl on a bed.

“What about Buford?” she asked.

“I’ll stall him. I’ve done it before. He knows he’ll get it.”

“You won’t mind batching for a week, will you?”

“No.” Suddenly I was fed up with everything—the quarreling, the heat, money, the job, all of it. I wanted to go fishing worse than I’d ever wanted anything. “I think I’ll go to the lake.”

“I may not have to spend all of it, Jack. I’ll take it along, just in case.” She had the money out of the envelope and was looking at it. She hadn’t heard me. I went out in the hall to the telephone. After trying the office and Billy Barone’s, I finally located Buford at the Elks Club. He sounded as if he had a pleasant glow.

“This is Marshall,” I said. “I just wanted tell you I’m going fishing. I guess you can struggle along without me for three or four days.” The way I felt, I didn’t care whether he liked it or not.

BOOK: River Girl
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