by Alan Sincic
Featured Art: “My Blue Garden” by Madara Mason
“Look at you, boy.” Cochrane gave his junk another shake, stuffed it back into his Levi’s. “You trying to tell me you could lift—we’re not even talking carry here—lift a quarter ton of bacon?”
“I been training,” said Barnett. The pudgy frame, the warble in the voice, the baby-fat of the face all pocked with rivets: we nobody believed he was old as he said he was. Fifteen? Sixteen maybe?
“Training?” said Cochrane.
“Dynamic Tension,” said Barnett, parsing out the syllables in the verberant tones of a preacher.
We laughed. We pictured the ads in the back pages of Gun Molls and Flying Aces and Popular Mechanics. Charles Atlas. The guy in the skivvies with the strapping chest and the husky, solid fighting muscles that every man should have.
“You mean bacon in a barrel,” said Joe from behind a tree, “so you could roll it.”
No sirree. No,” said Barnett. He rocked from side to side, careful not to back-splash off the azalea and onto his bare feet. “We’re not talking about a barrel. Like I said. We’re talking about bacon. Bacon by the slab. Four hundred pounds.”
Bang of the screen door. Maggie dragged a bale of sackcloth onto the porch. Later, under the shade of the trees, she’d boil it, bleach it, dye it a kind of cobalt blue to match the image of the Slapjack Diner imprinted there on the back of her brain. Whatever shape she could render up out of a empty sack of seed or grain or flour—tablecloth or a apron or even the dress she was wearing, the rough cotton with the ghost of the blue rooster on the shoulder—that would be what it would be, and no complaints about it, the Voice of the Almighty upon the face of the deep, Maggie’s creation, and God help the cowboy who snickers at the cut of the drapes or chafes at the weave of that beautiful burlap napkin.
“Next time one of you boys takes it upon yourself to spit on the floor of my restaurant—” She held a broom-handle in her fist. Shook it as she salted the air with her voice. “I’m gonna serve you up on a shish-ka-bob. You hear me?”
From somewhere in the brush a booming voice. “And it came to pass,” said Maxie. “And verily, and after the seven days, the water of the flood it flowed upon the land.”
“I got me a spit of my own, Mr. Brand,” she said as she wheeled back into the house.
“You hear me?”
Wham went the door in her wake. Shivered in the frame. More like a percussion instrument than a portal.
“So that four hundred pounds, GB,” said Maxie. “That bacon or that bullshit?”
“Barnett here talking like he got a daddy name of Tarzan,” said Duffy.
“Ever take a look in the mirror, boy?” said Lynch. He leaned against a porch pillar and looked out over the territory below. Woodpile. Pump. Snarls of dandelion and ivy out the rusted ribs of a wheelbarrow. “You got the build of a hamster.”
“Strongest creature ever to walk the earth,” said Barnett. “The hamster.”
“Pound for pound,” said Barnett. He pulled another chunk of timber off the pile.
“I seen a stevedore once pitch a whole side of beef up over the shoulder,” said Parrish. He leaned one-handed against the clapboard siding. Waited for that balky plumbing of his to obey. To pee against the wall of the Slapjack, that’d be bad form, but seeing as it wasn’t a real diner yet—just Maggie out front of what used to be, back in the day of the Greeks and the Romans, a Feed and Seed, what the hell. Not that Maggie would approve. If she caught him. But not that he would mind, some part of himself, if she did catch him. A shapely woman like that. Jesus. Not what you’d call a classic beauty, what with the limp and all, but. And not even a limp, really. More like a break in the stride where the polio nipped her. Clipped her. And just the one ankle is all. And what’s an ankle anyway, in the grand scheme of things? It’s not the stem of the grape you squeeze, no, not the bone of the T-bone you butter when you—
Out the window Maggie yelled: “GB. Boy. Boy! What the hell you got there? No. No. In your hands. A axe, right? A axe. How come I don’t hear the sound of a axe?”
Not that he could ever hope to butter a cut of a caliber equal to a Maggie. And not that Maggie would ever tender the notion, no. Not the kind of woman, Maggie, to vogue her way into a roomful of suitors, ripen the air with a sigh. Dot… dot… dot. He gave it a shake. Dot.
“GB! Boy! I’ma take a crowbar to that chaw you don’t spit it—now! Out! Spit it!”
Not that you don’t got your women, church women even who shift, like a tabby on a windowsill, when you shoot a glance in their direction. Who bask in the heat of the gaze. Who offer up the silent purr. Like Bidwell’s wife when he wasn’t looking, or Bess back of the toolshed that time, or the gal at the depot with the clipboard, the clickety-click of the cinnamon nails, the red rose of the breath, the red of the cheek, redder and redder with every whisper.
But not Maggie. No. Zip. No, goddamit.
One by one the rest of us finished our beers, crossed to the edge of the porch and, with a masterful twist of the fingers, mustered the empties onto the railing. A picket line of pony glass, a soldierly row.
Blame it on a sparsity of love—the drop-kick into the cradle or the smack of the belt or the back of the hand—but damned if we didn’t all of us lust after Maggie, picture her beside us, toy with a notion somehow, somewhere, to pluck her from the broom and the ladle and the hammer, from the blur of the day and the clamor of the till, to winch her up into our beasty arms and still her with a touch and then to hold her there, silent, in the dark, asleep or in a swoon, the moonlight there burning the sheet beside her, the scent of the damp earth in a drift above the sill.
“And pick up the splinters. Barnett? You hear me? Pick up the splinters!”
Did she notice the notice we gave her? But how could she not, out there in the open like that, and the way she carried herself, so brutal and prim, as if we couldn’t help but to see her when she’d feed the chickens every morning, when she’d rake them into a swirl with the back of her hand, and gather the eggs in the nest of her apron, and flavor the air with the scent of the apple and the peach and the blackberry pie. As if we didn’t watch her when she’d pin her hair, up, up in a heap, the fingers in a tangle as if to publicize, in spite of herself, the tender curve of the back of the neck. As if we didn’t hear the strange melody of the voice in the still of the morning air, the acrid laughter as she peddled her wares door to door, and at the train depot, and the Five and Dime, and off the front porch of the Slapjack, off of the rusty old sign Big Run Brand Self-Rising Pure Buckwheat Flour she’d managed to saw-horse up into a table.
One by one we swaggered down the steps to pee. In the eye of the beholder, ain’t that what they say, beauty? Grain by grain you gather up the sugar. In the blink of the eye you dream the dream. And who can say what the next beat of the heart will bring, the spin of the globe that scrambles the map of the clouds? Nothing is certain, nothing but the verities, the rites of the tribe, the dispensation of the sacred pee. You pick a bush. You mark the territory.
“A fiver,” said Barnett. He dropped the axe, plucked at the rope that held his denims ragged there, up under the ribs, to almost the height of a man. “Got five dollars here says I could bare-handed, I could carry it all.”
“Bullshit,” said Cochrane.
“Puppy-shit,” said Joe.
“Boy’s gotta learn sometime,” said Lynch, as if Barnett weren’t even there, as if Barnett were a rumor buzzed in through a broken screen. “Boy wants to piss away that piggy bank of his…”
Lynch was right. You take a half-dozen slabs of pork belly that weigh—what maybe, seventy-five pounds apiece?—and even if you could, like the boys at the slaughter-house, grip the burlap wrapping to heft them all, hump ‘em up the ramp, two to a shoulder, okay then, but how the hell you expect to ferry the other hundred pounds? Quivered up there on the tip of the snout like a seal? Bumped and bumped along like a balloon in the breeze, like on the moon maybe?
“I’m in for two,” said Parrish.
“Three dollars,” said Duffy. “Right here.”
“It’s money makes the world go around,” said Bidwell, his head pitched back to greet us above the palmetto that screened him—both the northern and the southern hemisphere of him, the orbicular majesty of his entire being—from the road. No need to look down at your pecker, not if you’re Bidwell, no. You listen for the pitter-patter of the leaves at your feet, the snap-crackle-pop of the pine needle, husk of the acorn, crust of the red clay.
“From that truck over yonder to this here porch,” said Barnett. He stepped out into the dusty center of the street. “From there to here. And with my own bare hands.” He raised his hands up over his head, as if the location of the hands were in question. “Right here. These hands.”
“Button your fly, boy,” said Maxie.
“Tuck them raisins back into the box,” said Cochrane.
One by one we finished our business, climbed up out of the brush and onto to the, well, not the curb, but the pâté of the mud and the gravel and the Georgia orange of the clay, the ridge of the rut of a wheel, pooched upward and baked in the sun to a facsimile of stone.
Everybody but Lynch. Master among men, Lynch. Six-two. Six-three, who christened the landscape from the shady comfort of the porch, peed like one of them shiny bronze stallions at the Palace of Versailles, glittering rainbow of a seventy-five yard Otto Graham into-the-end-zone gravitational bomb.
“Like you got five dollars,” said Joe.
“I been saving up,” said Barnett. “I can prove it.” He strode back to the trellis that bordered the crawlspace under the porch. Thrust his hand into the blooming and tugged. Peeled back a single panel, plait of oaken staves all greened over with jasmine and bougainvillea, and then ducked. Crawled. Disappeared under the planking.
“This I gotta see,” said Joe.
The cicadas had been there all along, but it was only in the pause that we noticed (noticed and then forgot) the shrill, the squall, the rust of the gears that cranked us around the sun.
Out the door clattered Maggie with a hamper-full of seed bottles—some full, some empty, some flickered with a dust of coriander and dill. The scent of burlap and lacquer drafted out behind her. Soap. And pine. No. Pinesol. A woman like that. And nobody but the boy to help with all the monkey work, to haul the firewood, strip the paint, plunder the random iron from out the old store to sell to the junkers.
“No no,” she said, “don’t nobody move now, ladies. Take care not to jostle the flies.”
Lynch from his perch on the railing made a show to help, a lift of the finger, a flick of the ash, but Maggie rattled on, down the steps to the pump where she dropped the basket, dropped the broom handle she’d tucked under her arm, and straightened herself. Rubbed at the cross-hatch where the wicker’d embossed the white of the skin of her wrist. Rubbed away at the red. Looked down at the wood pile. “What the hell. What the hell. Where the hell did that boy—GB! GB!”
“Gone to the bank, Maggie,” said Joe. We laughed. We told her the wager. Parrish he hitched up his coveralls and favored us with a preview of coming attractions—little Barnett he staggers left under this invisible load, staggers right, sinks to knees… I been training! I been training!
The notion, the very notion—Dynamic Tension and How Joe’s Body Brought Him Fame Instead Of Shame! and Let Me Prove I Can Make You A New Man! We projected ourselves forward into the cool hollow of the back room at Maxie’s. The buzz of the laughter. The chill of the brew. The sting of the slap on the back. He did what? we’d say. Say what? we’d say. No, no—say it again we’d say as we’d hammer the tale into a shape aerodynamical and at the same time—like a bon-bon, like a bullet—snug.
“Say Joe,” said Lynch. Two-handed he held it, a wilted dollar, at the edges held it. Pinched it. “What day is today?”
“No. No-no-no.” Like a bootblack with a shammy, he zipped the bill back and forth across the top of the rail, snapped it taut to pop away the creases, then folded it neatly in half. “Today is payday.”
“The bank of Barnett,” said Parrish.
How sweet it was, that moment in the sun, us all of us laughing together. Maggie gathered up the empties. “That dollar looks familiar,” she said. “I think I seen that dollar before.”
Lynch smiled. Tuneful the smiles now, us all of us. A kind of a musical murmur.
“I remember now,” said Maggie. One by one she lifted each bottle to—as if it were an egg—nest it down into the wicker basket. “Down to the Relief Office last week, you know, peddling my wares, I seen a fella look a lot like you—cousin maybe. You got a cousin maybe? Got a cap kinda pulled down low across the eyes, same color cap as you…”
She gave the basket a tender shake. “No. Couldn’t be. This fella, he was waiting in line for the dole. You got a cousin maybe? Cousin on the dole?”
Lynch smiled, but we could see the color rise. Feel the heat, feel the blood—it’s always the blood, the blood that never lies. Under the skin, every mother’s son of us, the blood.
“So I thought to myself, now that couldn’t be Lynch, no. Lynch, he’s a big man, big strappin’ fella, but this other man, this cousin? No. He was what you’d call… a little man. That would be the word.”
Lynch opened his mouth to… to breathe? To pretend to breathe? To wait for something maybe other than air, like there should be a substance of a larger, of a lighter timber out there somewhere in the empyrean, a breath, a single breath to buoy us above the thirty-two-pounds-per-square-inch ocean of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, neon, helium, methane, nicotine, garlic, oregano, and nitroglycerine that swaddles us the second we bubble out the womb?
It was GB broke the silence. Shivered the trellis, splintered up through the shrubbery.
“Got it! I got it!” He wriggled out the burrow with the stash in hand. Rose to his feet. Flakes of topsoil clung to the denim at the hinge of his knee. Smelled like a root cellar—groundwater and guano and the snout and the skin of the mole. A flour sack (what used to be a flour sack) swung heavy in his hand. Slung it over his shoulder and teetered up to Joe. Ching ching ching. “Quarters. Nickels. Dimes. Pennies.”
“So you say,” said Joe. “Looks like a sack of ball bearings to me.”
“You could count it if you want.” He dipped a shoulder, dropped the bundle. Ching ching. Tugged at the knot.
“I look like a rag-picker to you, boy?” said Joe. He tapped the flour-sack with the underside of the toe of his boot. “We count it when I win.”
“Let Maggie hold the money,” said Cochrane.
“Maggie? But Barnett is her boy.”
“He sleeps in my storeroom,” said Maggie. “That don’t make him my boy.”
“You know what I mean,” said Joe.
“No Joe. I don’t know what you mean.” She snatched up the sack. Red the knuckles. Rough. Slid her fist down the coarse fabric to the irregular lump at the bottom. The loot. The wager. The bludgeon. “Maybe you should ed-u-ma-cate me.”
Joe made a big show of backing away, hands up, as if to say what the hell you gonna do with a woman like this? You could call it a laugh, the little spasm of sound that rattled through us.
“Money talks,” said Joe. He pulled a clip from his pocket. Peeled off a five and five ones. Held it up. “That’s what I say.”
Maggie meet Joe. Joe—new in town. Regular enough, the features, but more an approximation of handsome than the thing itself, stencil of a stencil, carnival swag, paraffin bust of a Barrymore or a Valentino.
Joe meet Maggie. Maggie—the hubby dead or run off with another woman (she’d never say, we’d never ask) but she keeps the ring alright, and not in a box either, but right up there over the fist as a kind of a—what do you call it?—visual aid for the occasional moron foolish enough to try to sweeten, not the coffee, but the server. You don’t mess with Maggie.
Joe fingered the bills. Crumpled them up into a corsage he then pressed up onto Maggie’s collarbone. Held it there. The hand. The hand above her heart.
Barnett reddened. We unbuckled our hands from our pockets, made ready to hold him back, but then Maggie took a step forward—quick step, half-step—to smile up at Joe. She clapped her hand up over the money.
“Now don’t you get too attached to that picture in your head, Joe.”
He could feel the pulse, his and hers together.
“So far as I can tell,” she said as she sank her claws into the tender skin on the back of his hand, “none of them bills got a picture of Joe on it.”
You ever seen somebody snatch a finger out the mouth of a dog? Not but a blink—flash of the blood on the back of the hand, the stomp and the whirl and the hurdle bass-ackward into the crowd—Jesus, woman, Jee-ee-suz!—and he’s gone. Talk about a catapult. Not that he didn’t give it his best shot, give it a manly burnish even, the cry of pain, the treble and the bass all garbled together, Jee-ee-zuz Keeri-yi-yi-yist, but that look he was going for, that Clark Gable kind of crookedy grin from out of Red Dust, you know, when Harlow drives a brass poker through that bullet hole between his ribs? Not so much. Not quite the right—what do you call it? Recipe. Joe, Joe, Joe. Too much Joe in Joe, see? Not enough Gable.
We lined the street on either side, shooed a couple chickens out the way, calibrated the tilt of the cap to parry, within the breadth of an eyelash, the blaze of the sun.
“So Maggie holds the money,” said Cochrane. “Any more takers?”
“I got two here says he can’t do it,” said Bo.
“I got—” Bidwell patted his pockets. “I got seventy-five cents.”
“For who?” said Lynch.
“The bacon. The bacon wins.”
“Okay boy,” said Duffy. “So what are the terms?”
GB crunched his way barefoot out over the crust of the clay. As he walked he clenched his palms together. Dynamic tension. Unclench. Clench… four… five… six. A block away stood the truck. A salvage job really—one of them troop transports with the accordion ribs and the green canvas cover like you see in the movies, but a lichen color now, bleached in the sun and, like a box kite upside a burst of wind, skewed. Smoked Meat said the banner affixed to the side. In the back booth of Porter’s across the street, Curt the driver—Thirsty Curt we called him, no surprises there—nursed a shot of turpentine as he reconnoitered out over the funny papers to land on The Adventures of Scorchy Smith. Scorchy en route to Burma. Scorchy slugs a china man. Scorchy and Eberling drag the munitions from out the burning plane!
We fingered the nickels in our pockets. From the roof of the truck to the tailgate hung a tarp to keep the flies out. Out back of the flatbed ran a wooden ramp, cobbled every couple feet with crossbars to slow the slaughterhouse wheelbarrows whenever they would, wobbly with slabs of meat, thunder down the slope.
“In one minute,” said Barnett, “sixty seconds—you can time it—I can fetch that four hundred pounds of bacon from the truck to the diner.”
“With your bare hands?” said Cochrane.
“Not a hook or a chain,” said Parrish.
“And no cart neither,” said Lynch. “No sled. Don’t try to drag it.”
“Bare hands.” He snatched up the broom handle and drew it across the powder clay to cut the road in two. “I got one minute to get it over this line.”
“From out the truck, right?” Duffy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That truck?”
“And you can’t move the truck,” said Bidwell.
“Don’t be stupid, Sam,” came a voice from beyond the circle. “Of course he can’t move the truck.”
“How do we know it’s four hundred pounds?” said Lynch.
“Got the bill of lading right here.” Maggie patted the front pocket of her apron. Two bits a day they paid her, all of them grocers from all of them other towns—Bithlo, Orla Vista, Ocoee—to store the surplus in her back room.
Joe spoke up. He’d slipped back into the herd. “That’s twelve seventy-five by my count, boy. And all you put up is a fiver. You wanna play the game, boss, you gotta cover the bets.”
“Hey,” said Parrish. “The kid could donate a kidney. You need a kidney, Joe?”
“I already got a kidney.”
“Got a set of balls here for you, Joe,” said Maggie.
“You gotta cover the bet, boy,” said Lynch.
Barnett said nothing. He bent at the waist. Squatted like a shot-putter. Swung his arms like pendulum, up and then back, behind himself, to press the hands together in a kinda shouldery stretch.
“Didn’t think of that, did you?” said Lynch.
“He don’t need to,” said Maggie. She’d gathered up the sack. “I got him covered.”
“No offense, Maggie, but—” He eyed the wooden buttons on her dress, whittled, one by one, from out a batch of broken clothespins. “You can’t even buy a Q-tip without you petition the bank for a loan.”
“I got a diamond here. Five carat. Gold setting.” It glinted against the twist of the cotton. “Worth hell of a lot more than seven seventy-five.”
The notion occurred to us that the ring might be the promise of a—well, of a sweeter sweet. Not that we would ever say so. No. But so long as the notion remained a notion, an unspoken notion, it was a genuine thing, a fragrance in the wind, irrefutable as air.
“Okay Maggie,” said Lynch. “Whatever. You win.”
“No,” said Barnett. He straightened up. Pudgy fingers damp in the folds of the shirt-tail. Face like a red potato. “No. The bet’s off.”
Maggie didn’t move. “I said it’s covered.”
“It’s not your bet to cover.”
“It is now.”
“But you can’t—”
Maggie gave him a cuff behind the ear. “Do as you’re told.”
“But you can’t—”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t. A bet is a bet.”
“Go win the bet. Go.”
All eyes on the boy. He glared at Maggie. Simmered where he stood. Rocked back and forth from one foot to the other. Seems like it was the first time we all of us at the same time had ever really looked at him, all the oddments in a crock. That crewcut he hibachied up with a hand-mirror and a rusty pair of shears. The stiff of the shoulders. The gait like a badger there scrapping up a little ziggy-zag of turf to call his own. Raw is what he was. A solid block of raw.
He set out for the truck. We crowded in behind him, but then Lynch called out from the porch. “Whoa up there, boy. You gotta start from here. From behind the line.”
“But I said—” he said.
“Behind the line,” said Lynch.
“But what I was saying was—”
“You gonna play a man’s game, boy, you gotta play it like a man.” We laughed.
“That’s not the bet,” said Maggie.
“Let the boy decide,” said Joe. “What’s it gonna be, Barnett? We gonna play the woman’s game or we gonna play the man’s?”
Barnett looked up the street. A good twenty, thirty yards away lay the truck. We figured he could cover the distance in maybe ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Forty-five seconds left. Forty-five seconds to hump it all—the four hundred pounds—back to Maggie’s?
“Don’t do it, GB,” said Maggie. “That’s not the bet.”
“A bet’s a bet,” said Lynch.
“Then the bet’s off,” said Maggie. “You don’t—”
But before she could finish, Barnett grabbed the broomstick from her, turned, and pushed his way back through the crowd.
“Clear the street!” said Joe. “Clear the street!”
“Ten bucks on the bacon!” said Maxie.
“Five more for me!” said Duffy.
“Right here, boys!” said Flynn as he dug into the elastic band of his sock. “Seven dollars and thirty-five cents says the boy can’t do it!”
Parrish gathered the money and gave it to Maggie. “That’s twenty-seven dollars to the boy’s five. Plus the ring.”
Plus the ring. Rumor had it the beau she lost had been a man of means—phosphate or copper, bauxite or steel or some other glittery vein, some other serendipitous ore from out the mouth of the Almighty.
The sun vaporized the last of the clouds. Drove us into the shade of the oak at the foot of the porch—the finish line. We gathered at the wobble of clay that bordered the road. Above us a cloud of leaves, below us a carpet of mulch. Lynch he posted up a few yards out, angled his pocket watch, pulled it up into the shade of his Fedora. Maggie stood on the top step of the porch, the sack in one hand and the money, tucked and rolled and rubber-banded, in the other.
Barnett crouched in a runner’s stance behind the line, his hands on the broomstick, the broomstick on the knee. That’s it. He could skewer the meat, shish-ka-bob the—no. No, he could sling the meat up in the burlap they wrapped it in, sling the pork up over either end of the pole like a set of pendulums, and the pole up over the neck and the shoulders like an ox, like in the movies, Gunga Din out there slugging away, up and down the firing line, the bounce of the yoke as he runs, the slap slap of the goatskin, the boom of the musket and the grapeshot and the Gatling. Yes.
Lynch lifted his hand.
We edged out over the curb.
Captains of Industry, that’s what we were.
“… two… one…”
We were Flagler, balanced on a crosstie up over the tide; we were Vanderbilt on the dock at the launching of the fleet; we were Rockefeller at the head of the well—
And off he went, the son of a bitch. Upright. At a walk. A walk. The stick a shillelagh at his side. Walking. A walk!
“You better hurry, boy!”
“Run boy run!”
It’s like we weren’t even there. Jesus. Jesus. By the time he reached the truck—… 28… 29… 30…—we were so keyed up from screaming we couldn’t hardly think.
Up the ramp he ambled. Ducked under the tarp. We should’ve seen it coming, could have, should have. The springs of the truck as they creaked. The green canvas that vibrated, that whispered up a puff of yellow—pollen or humus or clay—against the blue of the sky. And then the squeal, and then the grunt, and then the clatter of the wood and the pop of the tarp and the shock—even though we knew what it would be—of the snout. The bristles. The pink of the skin in the sun and the rumble of hoofs as the four hundred pounds of bacon shot down the ramp, Barnett behind it clap-clapping with his bare hands, down the street clapping, clapping, Maggie dropping the sack to join the applause, and the sound of laughter above the clatter of the ball bearings from out the mouth of the sack. Off the bare planking and down the porch steps they rattled, glittered, glistened in the sun like a little stream of—what would be the word for it? Piss.
Go figure, right? Who’da guessed it? A blow to be sure, but in the end what seared us was not the bet, the money, the (not even, no, though it burned like a brand) the laughter.
No. What pained us was the little tête-à-tête between Maggie and that apprentice of hers when all the hub-bub ended. The bacon saved. The bullshit plowed, the chits called in, the spectacle of Joe kicking a hydrant with the heel of the boot and the heel popping off, and Joe (It ain’t fair! It ain’t fair!) gimping up and down the drive like a three-legged dog.
By twos and threes the crowd unraveled. Maggie gathered up the sackcloth, swept the laggards away, plowed up into her apron pocket the scraps of rolling paper and the scrimshaw whistle and the jackknife dropped in the shock and the wonder of it all. Salvage rights. The spoils.
Out from under the shade of the bougainvillea she rousted the boozy Curt, christened him with a pail of pond water, embossed (with the heel of her boot) the palm of his hand. The stray butts, the half Luckies, the scab of the cigar she gathered to—potpourri of loose tobacco—sell at the end of the season. She plucked, from out the vest pocket of Bidwell—Bidwell the welsher—a pocket chain, a pocket watch, a knuckle of (you could tell by the rip of the fabric) silk.
Then back to work. Over the curb, through the clutter in the yard, back to the slam and the bang of the diner. To a man we parted. Stepped aside to let her pass.
A thing of beauty it was, all of a piece—the set of the shoulders, the steady brow, the stride a canter that carried the limp along for the ride. An impediment? No. More like a proclamation. You don’t mess with Maggie. She rode up over the broken turf with a—what would be the word for it?—turbulent grace. Tidy as a twister.
Now and again in the traffic between a man and a woman you get a moment to make you wonder. Give you pause. Something particular about the two, see, so it’s not the tribe we’re talking, the menfolk and the womenfolk, no, but the particular man with the stain of the biscuit on the sleeve of the shirt and the broken shoelace and the habit of humming Minnie The Moocher when he baits the hook. And the particular woman, the women with particulars of her own, the woman who macramés a bracelet from a twist of ivy and spikes her coffee with Jamaican Ginger and flings a pebble at (for the ka-boom, for the dance, for the hell of it) a squirrel.
GB and Maggie. Maggie. GB. They each of them a singleton. And then—ka-pow—comes a day they…collide would be the word, but no collision ever served up a silence the likes of which we’re talking here. Silence of a size to wander in.
GB pitched himself at the foot of the steps, there beside the booty. The cobblestones from the derelict mill they’d taken all summer to pilfer, the seat from out the bones of the Greyhound bus, the barstool, the army tarp, bundle of barrel staves. Pickets off a graveyard fence. Sconce off a Pullman sleeper. Bucket of powder cement they—with a whisk and a shovel and a sieve—swept out the bed of a Rinker truck.
Naturally (or so we figured it) she had a claim on the money. A claim (or so it would seem) on the fruit of the labor. He could have offered it whole, served it up in a show of—what do you call it? Chivalry? That’s the tack we would’ve (aside from Bidwell the selfish bastard) taken. Bust out the billboard. Lookee here now, lookee how big a fella I (who woulda thunk it?) just happen to be. And what with twenty-five dollars. Jesus. Christ on a cracker. Deputize the gift to do the talking for you.
But that’s not what he did. As if he knew something about Maggie that we—in our hunger to hold her, to King-of-the-Jungle her—missed. Nothing is what he did. Nothing. Held his ground. Fierce the look on his face, fist of bills in a furrow up under the shirt.
“And so go the stars,” she said in passing, as if the cosmos were a condiment you sprinkle up top the weather. Stopped. The sack at her shoulder swayed. Spry like a sapling she bent with the weight of it, swayed with the rhythm as she turned to face him, bam, full on, squared up onto the parapet together. Maggie the taller but GB up a step now to match her, to make it eye to eye. “Such a fine fella. You think that wood’s gonna up and chop itself in honor of you?”
“I got…” Look for look he matched her. Got him a look of his own. What’s mine is mine is what it said. “I got the power of the ax. That’s what I got.”
You’d think it was a Aphrodite in marble, that look of hers. Chopped and chiseled and filed—the set of the brow, the face at a angle, the—right down to the far country of the fingers—stone.
She breaks. Heads for the door. Hand on the knob of the door. Stops. Back over her shoulder she looks. We could all of us see it even though GB—tugging at the knot in the rope where (one fine day) the buckle would be—missed it. Not for our benefit the pause, not for any purpose of her own but there you go. Unbidden. The shake of the head, the shadow of the smile, and then… in she goes. Enough already with the niceties. Back to work. Not but a second but that was it.
When you don’t got nothing to begin with you make a go of what you got. Scrappers. That’s what they were, the two of them. Every pitch we ever made—the rum toddy or the sly aside, the snug of the roadster, the sleight of the hand, the whiskery kiss, the randy whistle and the random flower and the proffer of the open door—she spurned. We were the ones with the rightful claim. It was we who brought the fire. But we figured wrong, didn’t we? Not for Maggie the hearth, the beat of the heart, the breath of a summer here, here in the offing.
No. It was GB was the one she chose. We could all of us feel it, the shape of the space between them. Bastard. The bastard. Nothing is what he was. Nothing what he had to offer. Bought him a scrap of land no bigger than boot-print, the piss-ant, and set to work, in that backwardy way of his, to woo her. She had nobody and he had nobody, right? Couple of broken bobble-heads, that’s what they were. You flip the kisser on a kissing doll, reverse the polarity, see, you get a magnetic repulsion. A skitter off to the side to where they never face-to-face it, no, but instead they rappel around the periphery, levitate along the curvature to finally click together at a angle. Oddwise kind of connection. Awkwardy.
If only we coulda conjured up a nothing of our own—a simple face, a quiet hand, a tender sally. If only we coulda figured, in time coulda figured what even a fool like GB’d figured already, figured even as a puppy: when you know the nature of a thing, you let the nature be, no? Let the saw bite, the bird fly, the thunder thunder.
Bare-handed he wins the wager, he—bully for him—brings home the bacon, but the pain for us was in the payout, in the days to come, in the season to follow. To pine for a look you ain’t never gonna get—no way, no how, not from nobody, never, then to suffer the sight of them, season after season, in orbit around a what? What do you call it?
The basket of snap-peas she’d leave on the stool for him to attend to, and in he comes, and takes up the basket, and not so much as a by-your-leave he shucks the peas, and she pours the coffee, and he swivels on the stool. Not a murmur as into and out the kitchen door she flivvers, the clatter of the pots, the hiss of the griddle, the jabber of the boys and the clink of the silver as into the map he leans, map of the day there, from out the Embarcadero tomato crate she’d emptied and scoured and lined with felt to fit the maps, his maps, the accordion and semi-accordion and busted accordion configurations he ciphers over as he snaps the green and sips the coffee and plans the move of the day, the jog to the left or the jog to the right, the skid or the pitch or the swindle.
It was the privilege of it all, that’s what chafed us so. The way she’d let him do for her, and her for him. Not but a couple words between them the whole of an hour but a conversation all the same—the fresh at the top of the coffee she’d save it for him, and the corner piece of cake, and the crisp of the bacon. Come the night, in the dark, alone, adrift, we wonder at the how of it, the two of them, what it is, what it could be, the trick, the secret in the blood, that scam of his, that magical insult, that power of the empty hand to summon, from out the darkness, the dance without the music, the do-si-do, the moon and the earth in a silent roundelay
Alan Sincic studied at Columbia and Western New England University. A teacher at Osceola County School for the Arts and Valencia College, Sincic’s work has appeared in Cobalt, The Greensboro Review, and Hunger Mountain. His novella, The Babe, won the Knickerbocker Prize from Big Fiction Magazine, and stage versions of recent writing debuted at the Orlando International Fringe Festival. He is the author of the children’s book Edward Is Only A Fish.