THURSDAY: Beside Running Waters

BY TED MORRISSEY

Copyright is held by the author.

SHE STOOD in line at the filling station, the candy bar and cold bottle of soda in one hand and the exact amount of money in the other, $1.17, waiting on the customers ahead of her, Mrs. Willis and her son Charles, who everyone knew was slow. Mrs. Willis, in librarian-style tortoiseshell glasses, was resolute that Charles should pay for his hot dog, soda and baseball cards by counting out the amount from his mason jar of coins — but the boy, nine or 10, kept getting confused, and he was turning crimson under his stubble of white-blond hair as more and more customers gathered behind him and his mother, who was determined not to notice the lengthening line, now stretched as far as the Eskimo Pie freezer.

She could feel the cold leaving her bottle of soda — and she wished that she’d left it in the cooler until after she’d paid — but she wasn’t irritated with Charles and Mrs. Willis. The girl marveled at Mrs. Willis’s love for Charles and her endurance in pursuit of his success. Though the boy would’ve gladly given up any of the items, perhaps all of them, to end the spectacle and retreat to the things he knew, maybe fishing, greasing bicycle chains, mimicking birds.

Those in line behind the girl didn’t seem as patient; she sensed their mounting anxiety, which in turn made her anxious: Before long, she knew, the onlookers would notice her and instantly Charles’s counting and recounting couldn’t keep their attention.

The clink and scrape of the coins against the filling-station counter were a nuisance as she strained to hear the phrase she despised. For 15 years she’d had a name and in a moment no one seemed to recall it. For more than 18 months now she’d been the dead boy’s girl.

She looked out the filling-station window, a slick of diesel on the cracked concrete glimmered rainbow in the summer heat.

Even in grade school they’d played at being boyfriend and girlfriend, and didn’t mind their classmates’ teasing, so the joke soon grew old and ceased altogether. Their teacher must’ve thought little of it when during quiet time they would unroll their mats next to each other and hold hands as naturally as cloud break while music or a story played from a cassette. Perhaps Miss Hollis thought the phase would pass and boy and girl would return to their predetermined state of antagonism like cat and dog — until she and the other teachers stopped thinking of it at all.

By the time they were in junior high it had long been conceded they would be together forever. She sometimes felt sorry for her friends who were in such constant turmoil over which boy liked them, or that none did, that they liked some boy who didn’t know they were on the planet, while the boy they couldn’t stand mooned over them day and night. It must’ve been wearisome, and she had never experienced it.

Outside a pair of boys uniformed in sleeveless shirts, threadbare jeans and seed-company caps were filling gas cans preparing for a day of mowing. Their arms and necks, as brown as sycamore bark, were already becoming corded like their fathers’. The one in the blue cap was Everett Bishop who everyone called “Egg” except his mother; the other, in a green cap, was Dale Stupig. Dale and Henry had been friends, sometimes played baseball in the Stupigs’ grass field when a break in chores allowed, half-empty seed bags for bases. She played a few times but could barely hit the ball, which Henry tossed toward her in a gentle arc. She stopped playing and Henry must’ve too.

Still too young for a license but old enough to drive the old F-150, which left behind flakes of rust wherever it had sat for more than a few minutes, Henry took them down Stevenson Lane across a finger of the Hewitts’ property to a wooded stretch of Peach Creek, where spiny bluegill and pug-faced pumpkinseeds were plentiful and hungry for cricket bait in the shadowed water. Their catches would flop about in a metal bucket cooling in the Peach’s terracotta mud.

One afternoon she watched the tendons of Henry’s neck as he worked the hook from a pumpkinseed’s throat, and her eyes followed those tendons, like metal cables, down his back, where the muscles moved beneath the sweat-damp shirt, and she took in the rounded seat of Henry’s jeans, where only threads and a darker patch of blue remained as evidence of the right pocket. A feeling came over her that she knew only by reputation. Not quite sure what she was doing, she told Henry the heat was getting to her and she was going to rest in the truck.

He looked back at her strangely — the heat never bothered her. She knew in a few minutes he would join her so that she could rest her head against his shoulder, which she would kiss and taste its salt.

After that day they began fishing every chance they got. In the fall they developed a great fondness for hiking and autumnal foliage. When cold weather came, they visited friends, and the search for the perfect stand of Christmas trees became an ongoing odyssey that commenced with the first hard frost of November.

The boys were finished filling the gas cans and were coming inside to pay and probably to get something cold to drink. She shifted her weight from left to right foot and back again. Egg Bishop had been very sweet at the funeral and the days that followed, and she needed the support: she felt as empty as the Peach in winter, her will to get through each impossible day a faint trickle which at times disappeared altogether beneath a spread of ice.

Then Egg began to act like he was interested in taking up where Henry had left off, which frightened her so — to think that someone might take Henry’s place — that she stopped seeing and talking to Egg. In fact, she shut herself away from every boy in town, then from everyone in town. She felt like the wine merchant in that Poe story, the one who is bricked inside the cellar wall, except she was both victim and bricklayer.

She heard mumbles of voices from behind. She couldn’t look because she knew Egg and Dale were at the end of the line, which she imagined stretched around the Eskimo Pie freezer and snaked into the bread and cereal aisle. Soon it could form a U in the filling station, with the last customer standing back-to-counter next to scarlet-faced Charles Willis and his mason jar.

She thought she heard the words, and the patience suddenly drained from her like coolant from a cracked radiator. She reached past Mrs. Willis and deposited the money on the counter, more forcefully than she intended, and she rushed from the filling station. Before the door swung shut she heard a coin fall to the floor but didn’t know if it was one of hers or if she startled Charles and he’d fumbled a quarter off the edge of the counter.

The day’s heat fell upon her suffocatingly. She rubbered in behind the steering wheel of her Gremlin, her bare legs sticking to the black vinyl seat, which was cracked and losing padding. She had a bottle-opener on her key ring and used it. The soda was barely cool and tasted too sweet. She no longer wanted the candy bar that was melting in its wrapper on the passenger seat.

She watched the filling-station door open and Mrs. Willis and Charles came out into the sunlight. The boy had his items but he too seemed to have lost his appetite.

Unable to control it, she began retching, pushed open the car door and vomited the soda along with her breakfast of eggs and toast from three hours earlier. She wiped her chin with the back of her hand, shut the noisy door, and started the engine. Mrs. Willis, parked near the pumps, was stopped with her hand on her station wagon’s door. She’d seen the spectacle of the girl being sick. It was a hard look behind the tortoiseshell glasses, a face the girl could only interpret as anger without a trace of sympathy.

She put the Gremlin in first and drove off the filling-station lot. Without considering her course she left the main street and was quickly on County Road 12. She turned on the radio to the only station it picked up clearly, the AM Christian station from a neighboring town, and recognized Porter Wagoner’s “He Took Your Place” . . . Someday he’s coming back to claim his own . . . . She felt a warm drop on her bare right thigh and thought she’d missed something on her chin but discovered she was crying: another tear fell on her left thigh.

She recognized the early symptoms of a migraine, the headache as spiny as bluegill beginning behind her eyes, the nausea, the sensitivity to light, sound and touch. She turned onto Stevenson Lane, headed for the Hewitts’ property, and switched off Porter Wagoner.

Pulling away from the lane, she immediately saw the path that had formed in the grass field, worn first by Henry’s truck then by her Gremlin, whose tires fit easily inside the track of Henry’s F-150. The Gremlin’s low-setting chassis bumped along a minute a more until she parked in the shade—heavenly shade—with the Peach running before her in both sun and shadow.

She turned off the engine and let back the seat, hoping a few minutes’ rest would ease her head and stomach. Peach Creek’s gentle bubbling filled her ears. She began drifting away as if carried by the Peach’s steady current.

In a moment she felt the hand on her thigh, felt the fingertips kneading her damp flesh. She spread her legs to ease the hand’s working, and fingers wriggled beneath the hem of her shorts. She must’ve emitted a little sound but all she heard was the Peach’s cool waters. The hand toyed with her until she squirmed in her seat, gripping the bottom of the steering wheel as if the gunnel of a storm-tossed ship. Her lips formed sounds more ancient than words. Then the hand spread across her womb, and it was as warm and comforting as a griddle cake, even with the callouses. It lingered there gently pressing against her flesh, and she felt the pulse against the palm as its rhythm matched her own labored breathing. She reached down and put her hands over the hand that held her womb, and rather than muffle the beating pulse, it seemed to amplify it; and the reverberations spread to her arms and shoulders and throughout her young body . . . until they returned to their genesis.

She stayed that way a long while, thinking of this miracle that must be Henry’s doing. Her mind flipped through images of her future, like photos in an album. The images were blurry, though, as if the speed of the film were out of synch . . . would be out of synch. There would be a child, but boy or girl? The pictures were too out of focus to say. Henry’s blue eyes, she wondered, her brown hair, his broadness through the shoulders, her long legs?

The hand remained on her womb, the pulse continuing to vibrate throughout her being—then she felt the kisses on her shoulder, her neck . . . she felt the peach-fuzz tickle of Henry’s never-shaved lip. The kiss was upon her cheek, the lips brushing her earlobe. She heard the whisper of her name. She held tighter the hand . . . .

Miranda, but it came from another place . . . .

You all right?

She blinked at the sun-crests on the creek. Egg Bishop was at her driver-side window; someone was behind him at some distance, must be Dale Stupig. She released her seat upright, and looked at Egg, saying nothing while she started the engine and found reverse on the steering column.

In a moment, the Gremlin was speeding over the worn path. She glanced in the rearview mirror and in its jumpy image she thought she counted three figures standing watching her departure.

Tears hot as August fell upon her legs. She tried to clear her eyes before pulling onto Stevenson Lane but she was careful not to wipe the cheek where a touch of lips lingered like a final kiss goodbye.

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