Janice D. Soderling
HERE IS THE GIRL WALKING DOWN THE CONCRETE HIGHWAY, THE AUGUST SUN BEATING ON HER HEAD LIKE FISTS.
____The girl keeps walking, one foot in front of the other, like an unwanted dog relentlessly finding its way home.
____A succession of telephone poles borders the road. Through the red copper lines linking one pole to another, voices of people flow like water: some of the voices are sweet and full of tenderness, others are a preface to the act of banging down the receiver, hard.
____A car whizzes by and then another. Faces look in her direction, curiously or without interest.
____By counting her steps, she is able to go on walking .
____She passes a house being demolished. Two men are making a bonfire from the torn-away wooden siding. The gaping walls expose brightly wallpapered rooms, a flight of stairs. It looks like an empty dollhouse. The smell of the smoke is a good smell; she has always liked the fragrance of burning wood, of dried leaves, fires in fireplaces. A child squats beside the hollow rooms, stirring with a spoon in a little bucket.
____One of the men unties a neckerchief and mops his brow with it. The men do not notice her as she continues down the road.. Soon she has rounded a bend and if they looked up from their work they would see only the sun-scorched highway.
____The soles of her feet burn from the hot concrete. Her shoes are thin. They are not shoes for walking.
____The houses are few and far between. She loses count of her steps and starts again from one, concentrating on the counting. This is how she fools herself into continuing her forward direction.
____There is a ditch beside the highway. Clumps of tiger lilies grow there: large, black-spotted reddish-orange blooms, pretty but so common that no one wants them in their fussy, brick-edged flower gardens. Uprooted or mowed down, still they grow tenaciously, their reflexive petals stubborn as the sun overhead. There is clover in the ditch too, and Queen Anne's lace. Late daisies and snapdragons thrust roots into the dry soil, looking for moisture. There is none.
____The girl does not notice. She walks and counts her steps.
____A woman wearing an old-fashioned sunbonnet and a long-sleeved dress is hoeing in a garden. The sound of the blade is rhythmic as a heartbeat. Beehives huddle beside a glass-paned greenhouse. On the adjoining lawn stands a gaudily painted windmill, but no wind turns it.
____The girl walks on, counting her steps.
____There is the sound of a car approaching behind her. She is walking on the wrong side of the road. The girl does not turn around. A rattletrap Ford slows as it passes by. A pinch-faced woman peers out the rolled-down passenger window and the car disappears around a curve. Some minutes later the girl also rounds the curve, and sees the car pulled over to the side of the road, waiting.
____She starts to walk past it, not looking at the man behind the wheel, or the anxious-eyed woman beside him, or the four freckled children in the back seat.
____The woman steps out of the car and asks,. "Are you all right, dearie?" The girl nods and continues counting. The woman gets back in.
____The man tilts back his straw hat and starts the motor again. The car rolls slowly beside her on the decline of the hill.
____"Would you like a ride?" The woman leans her head out the car window. Her voice is hesitant and low-pitched. It is a kind voice, and the girl beats back tears as the sun continues its fierce blows.
____"Get in the car, dearie," calls the woman though the car has already glided past her. The man brakes the car to a standstill and they wait for her to catch up. The back fenders of the car are rusted. The tail pipe hangs askew.
____The girl climbs into the back seat, the four children giggle and tumble against each other to make room for her. Their clothes are the clothes of poor people.
____"How far you goin'?" The woman turns in the front seat, eyeing her sharply. The girl names a town.
____"That's a long way," the man says. "Your car break down?"
____"No," the girl answers, staring at the dust on her shoes, feeling faint and wanting water. He gives a low, drawn-out whistle and says, "Well."
____The car doesn't start at once, he turns off the ignition, drums his fingers on the dashboard, tries again and the car bucks and jerks into motion. They drive on in silence except for the tittering and exclamations of the youngest kids who jostle and pinch each other. The oldest child, sitting next to her, fingers a tarnished, heart-shaped locket, snapping it open and closed. There are no photos inside the locket, but a piece of red glass shines like a jewel on one hinged half. "You were walking on the wrong side of the road," says the child.
____They drive on. The telephone poles whiz past too fast for the girl to count, but she is counting anyway, to have something to concentrate on.
____The child fingering the locket tells the girl they are going to visit their grandmother. The town she mentions is not in the direction the girl is heading. "But you can ride with us till we have to turn off," the man says, looking at her in the rearview mirror. "You feeling okay?"
____"I'm fine," the girl says. "Just fine, thank you."
____The man pulls into a filling station, gets out, checks the water and the oil. His wife gets out of the car too and walks into the station. When she comes back she has a bag with seven open bottles of soda pop cradled in her arms. She pokes her head in the window and offers the girl one. The girl shakes her head and says, "No, thank you, ma'm. I don't have any money to pay for it."
____"Never you mind, dearie, this is our treat."
____The straw-hatted man is walking around the car, kicking the tires, polishing the windshield.
____The woman looks at the bruises on the girl's arm, her blackened eye. She asks, sucking the soft drink through a thick straw, "You in a family way, dearie?"
____The girl doesn't answer. The kids are blowing air through the straws into their pop bottles, watching bubbles rise to the surface.
____"I can tell long before it shows. I used to do cleaning at a doctor's office. There's something about the neck and the face that gives it away." She smiled for the first time. "Isn't that just wonderful. Children are a blessing."
____"I guess so." The girl shifts her weight against the hot seat covers and looks down at her flat stomach. "Thank you for the soda pop."
____"How old are you?"
____"You don't look it. I would of guessed sixteen maybe."
____The woman leaves the car and talks to the straw-hatted man. He spits and nods his head, replaces the gas hose in the pump and goes inside to pay.
____The woman comes back to the car and sits with the door open, fanning herself with the man's straw hat. "We'll drive you wherever you're going, sweetheart. We got plenty of time. You'll never get there by nightfall, not by walking."
____"You needn't trouble, ma'am," the girl answers. "It's out of your way. I can walk."
____"Won't hear of it," the woman replies. "We're put on this earth to help each other. Someday you may get a chance to help somebody yourself. That's what makes the world go round. Love and lending a helping hand. That's what makes this old earth spin." Then she adds, "I can tell by how you talk, you've had a good up-bringing. It's dangerous for a young thing like you to be out walking along the road. Anything can happen."
____The man climbs back in the car, puts on his hat, spits out the window, and pulls out onto the highway.
____They ride along in silence after the woman holds a finger to her lips, nodding at the younger children who have fallen asleep. "The heat," she mouths, and the girl nods.
____As they approach the girl's destination, she gives the man quiet directions, telling him where to turn, then turn again. The gravel crunches under the wheels of the car and the girl's face sets and grows hard.
____"Here it is. You can stop here." The man brakes the car in front of a house set back from the road. A pick-up truck is parked in the drive. Two people stand in the shady yard, staring curiously at the car.
____"Somebody you know?" the woman asked.
____"My mother and daddy. If you wait a minute," the girl says, "I'll get some money to pay for your gas and your trouble."
____"Don't you worry none about that," the woman answers. "I'm glad to see you delivered into safe hands."
____The man clears his throat loudly and shifts into reverse.
____"Well," the girl opens the car door and hesitates, "Good-bye and thank you for being so nice."
____The straw-hatted man nods curtly. The woman smiles, but her eyes are troubled. The three youngest children are still asleep. The child with the locket slides quickly into the space vacated by the girl.
____The car backs into the drive, then pulls away, tail pipe clattering. The pinch-faced woman in the car waves good-bye, but the girl does not see her fluttering hand. The girl enters the yard where the two people are standing under a tree. As she comes closer, they nod but remain standing where they are. The woman puts her hands on her hips, the man sets down the wicker basket he is holding.
____"Well, I never," said the woman under the tree, her darting eyes piercing the air like pointed knives.
____"Hi," said the girl to her mother. "I didn't expect to find anybody here."
____"What's this supposed to mean?" the woman asked, throwing an apprehensive look at her husband. "What are you doing here, Missy? Who are those people?"
____"Just some folks gave me a ride." Three baskets overflowed with ripe tomatoes. They were bright red and sun-warm.
____"How you doing, gal?" said the man in a worried tone. "You don't look none too good."
____"I'm okay." She sat down beside her parents in the shade of the sugar maple and took off her shoes. The grass was ankle-high and wanted mowing. The girl hunched down on the green softness, rubbing her feet.
____"You'll get chiggers," the woman warned.
____"Five minutes more and you would have missed us," said the man. "We just came to pick the garden. No sense letting all this go to waste."
____"No, I guess not."
____The woman folded her arms in front of her, her elbows jutting sharply. "What are you aiming to do here? Where's that husband of yours ?"
____"I don't know. Home, I guess."
____"You guess? Why aren't you there? What you doing out car-riding with strangers."
____"They gave me a lift."
____"You said that already."
____"You finished moving the furniture and stuff to your new place?" the girl asked.
____"Last week," the man said. "Most of it. There's not room for it all. You can have what's left if you want it. We still ain't got no buyers for this house. So you aimed to stay here tonight?"
____"Get up out of that grass," said the mother. "You'll stain your dress."
____The girl ignored her. "How do you like your new job?"
____"Oh, it's a job, like any job. There's already talk they're going be laying us off though. Just when we got settled and everything. But that's the way she goes. That's life, I guess."
____The girl reached for a tomato and bit into it thirstily.
____"You leave those tomatoes alone. Those are for canning," said the woman.
____"We got plenty, " said the man. "More than enough. Won't do no harm if she eats a few."
____A whippoorwill was calling in the hollow. The man said, "Maybe it's going to rain. We sure do need rain."
____The woman asked again. "Where's that husband of yours?"
____"I left him."
____"You left him!"
____"That's what I said, I left him."
____"Well, I never," said the woman to the tree she was standing under.
____"I had my reasons."
____"So what you aiming to do now?"
____"I don't know."
____"Well, you can't come and live with us. You got yourself into this mess."
____The girl looked thoughtfully at the tomato in her hand. "He hits me."
____"You should of thought of that before you got yourself in trouble."
____"Now Elsie," the man said, "we need to discuss this. We'll just take her home with us. Can't leave her here."
____"She's got a home of her own. She's a married woman now."
____"Well, just till we get things sorted out."
____"There's nothing to sort out. She got herself into this pickle. She'll have to take the consequences."
____"You can at least hear her out. I think she's entitled to that."
____The woman said vehemently, "Like father, like daughter."
____"It's like father, like son," the girl said haughtily, and took another tomato.
____"Not in this case, it ain't. You're two of a kind, you and your daddy."
____"I'm not going back."
____"We'll just see about that."
____The girl took a step toward the father, but he turned away. She pleaded. "I can stay here until you sell the house."
____"You can't stay here," the mother said.
____"It's not just your house," the girl said angrily.
____"It is now."
____"I signed it over," the father said. "She's got the law on her side."
____"The law and the good Lord. So I make the decisions now, here and at the new place, and I say high-tail it back to your husband."
____The woman's face twisted as if she were trying not to laugh. Or to cry. "She thinks she can still just say 'Daddy, Daddy' and get her own way. You spoiled her rotten since day one and now you see how she turned out. Highfalutin ways and no sense of shame." The woman's voice was red-angry as the sun, red as the blood of the Lamb. "She'll end up just like that woman you took up with. No sanctity to vows." Then to the girl, she cried furiously, "You just traipse right back to that husband of yours."
____"He hits me," the girl said again, not looking up.
____"You need a good thrashing for what you done. You and your no-good daddy both. You two with your loose ways can drive a body out of their mind."
____"Now, take it easy," said the man. "You just take it easy."
____"Didn't we move so we could start over like respectable folks? Didn't we? You know what the Reverend said. We got a five-hour drive ahead of us and I don't aim to discuss this. All we need to start tongues wagging again is the shame of her sashaying around the neighborhood. We'll just put you on the bus, Missy, then we'll be heading home."
____"He hits me. He hits me every day. For nothing. He didn't want to marry me," the girl said. "Daddy, I can't go back. Tell her."
____"Maybe you should think of the young'un." He averted his eyes. "Lots of married people get off to a bad start, but things tend to work out."
____"Put all the tomatoes in the back of the truck" the woman said. "By the looks of them clouds there's going to be a major downpour. I don't like being on the road in a rainstorm."
____"Daddy!" the girl cried again, and reached toward him.
____The man turned away and lifted a wicker basket into the back of the truck. "I'll just check that all the windows are shut and locked." He disappeared into the empty house.
____"Mother." The girl's voice broke.
____"It's just one doggone thing after another," the woman said. She walked over to the pick-up truck and slammed up the tailgate. "I can't cope with no more trouble. You hear me, I just can't take no more."
Janice D. Soderling
Janice D. Soderling has work on-line currently at The Chimaera, Lucid Rhythms, Umbrella, Apple Valley Review, Loch Raven Review and is archived or forthcoming in others. Print journals that have published her work include: Beloit Poetry Journal, Blue Unicorn, Tar River Poetry (U.S.A.); Event, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review (Canada); Acumen, Other Poetry, Staple New Writing (U.K.). A story that was awarded first prize in the 2006 Glimmer Train Short Fiction Competition appears in their current issue, #64. Janice was a finalist in Glimmer Train's recent "Family Matters" competition.
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