Out the little window above the kitchen sink I watch traffic speed north and south on Clark Street. No one stops. If someone slowed, pulled into our dirt driveway, knocked, I might get out of washing the dishes. Because mom’s wheelchair-bound, can’t answer the door very well.
“Are you gettin’ ’em clean?” she asks. My hair is stuck to my damp forehead and neck; a drop of sweat hangs from the tip of my nose as I scrub a chipped plate striped with hardened, yellow egg. I focus on the faces in the cars, imagine who they are, and how far away from here they’re going.
Clark Street is part of the highway; I never see anyone twice. I practice sending them telepathic messages, try to make one of the drivers stop at our house. Someone, something. Anything.
There are no birds outside. As they approach Exton, it must hit them: there are no trees, the corn fields are dried up. Exton must bore or depress them to death, though I’ve never seen a dead bird. There are over ninety billion of them; where do they all go to die? Away from here, evidently. I wipe the lukewarm drop of sweat off my nose with the back of my bent wrist. Just silverware left now, mostly spoons.
“Where’s dad?” I ask.
“Donny’s,” my mom shouts back. “Are you gettin’ ’em clean?”
Donny’s is the only tavern in town and a hangout for the local racists. My father is not yet a full-fledged racist, but he’s trying it on for size; he’s racist-light. He’s been a drunk for years, and has a long-running relationship with Donny. His rusted pickup is parked in its regular spot: under the oval window that frames the blue-neon Jim Beam sign.
The motorcycle next to my dad’s truck belongs to Jake Merit; another drunk, a confirmed racist. There’s a swastika on the gas-tank of Jake’s bike. My dad hasn’t painted any symbols or put any stickers on his truck, but that’s coming, I can feel it. It’s the state of things here in Exton.
I park the car at the side of the building, under a small billboard that reads: Donny’s – A Friendly Place. I’m only seventeen, but I walk inside, no one will care; kids come and fetch their liquored-up parents all the time. You’re doing Donny a favor because he won’t have to take them home or come back in the morning to find them asleep in their own vomit on the pool table.
“Hi, dad.” He tilts his head back and squints, peers down his nose at me like he doesn’t recognize me right off. This is a deliberate, transparent stall; I’ve seen it before. It allows the drunk that extra second or two to work up something to say, to collect his thoughts so he won’t come off like a sauced loser.
“We-ell, lookie here,” he mumbles. Drunks love the word “well,” too; they draw it out, it’s another time-buyer. Jake Merit is on a stool on the other side of my dad; they must remain in the same order they park. Past Jake is Clyde Diddow, who doesn’t own a car or a motorcycle, but he’s a drunk and a racist, too. Clyde Diddow gives me the creeps, has eyeballed me up and down since I’ve been about twelve. He’s doing it now, leaning away from the bar, gaping at my bare legs. Good ol’ Clyde, subtle as a freight train. Come and get it, buster. Clyde doesn’t know I keep a Buck knife in my purse; I’d gut him like a trout. But five-foot-five Clyde’s afraid of my six-foot-four dad, not me, so he stays put.
The chocolate-brown bar and the flicker of orange and amber candles remind me of Halloween, and my dad’s friends are the monsters. “Watcha’ doin’ down he-ere, little lady?” he asks.
“Mom and I want you to come home, dad, y’ haven’t been home for supper for a few days,” I say.
My dad, Jake, Clyde and several others that get stewed at Donny’s are racists, they contend, because of Jerry Roland. Jerry was the only black person in town when he lived here. He was working at Olsen’s Feed Store when an ancient, rickety grain loader that should have been replaced years ago fell on him and hurt his back. Tore it up. Old man Olsen didn’t carry medical insurance for his workers, didn’t have liability insurance on his business, and wouldn’t step up and pay for Jerry’s medical bills, so Jerry sued him. Mercy Hospital up in Ashley wanted their money, so they hired Jerry’s lawyers. “Jew lawyers from Chicago,” my dad said. I don’t know if Jerry’s lawyers were Jewish, but they were better than old man Olsen’s pin-striped gentile. The jury in Lincoln awarded Jerry enough money to square up with the hospital, and the doctors, plus two-hundred thousand for pain and suffering. Wiped out Olsen’s Feed and the Olsen farm; wiped out everyone’s jobs, too. Dad’s, Jake’s, Clyde’s, nineteen others. That’s why they’re racists, they say, because of the blacks, and the Jews, how they screwed over the working, white men of Exton.
“C’mon home, dad,” I say. “Mom and I will fix you a nice sit-down supper, meat and potatoes, the whole sha-bang.”
I just want to see if I can persuade my father to do something, like I used to be able to when I was a little girl. When he didn’t think so crazy. It’s the only reason I came down here.
Two black men enter Donny’s. One of them sits at a table and the other walks to the end of the bar. “Two Budweisers, please,” the man at the bar says to Donny. I can tell Donny doesn’t want to serve them. He does, though, because most people run tabs here and good luck getting them to settle up, but these guys are one-timers and will pay cash, and might even leave a tip. The man puts a ten on the counter, says keep it, and takes the beers to his table.
“Shee-it,” Jake grumbles, “you gotta be kiddin’ me! I’ll be damned!”
“Cool it,” Donny hisses, “just drink your beer and shut up.” Clyde giggles and my dad burps. Then, clear as crystal, we all hear one of the black men say something about ‘The Three Stooges.’
“Whad’ ‘ja say?” Jake growls, then pulls a pistol from under his shirt and points it at their table.
“Jake, Jake,” my dad whispers, “you don’t wanna’ do this, put that gun away.”
“He’s right, Jake,” Donny says, “put the damn gun away.” Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’ is playing on the juke-box. The black men stand up and put their hands in the air like they’re being held up.
“We don’t want any trouble, mister,” the man that paid for the beers says. But his friend whips out a gun, too, and points it at Jake; in the dark haze, all I can tell is that it’s dull gray. “Mine’s a semi-auto,” the man with the gun says, “one shot goes off from yours and I’ll reel off ten, you just leave us alone and we’ll be on our way.”
“Oughta’ blast both your asses right here, both of ya’!” Jake roars. Clyde’s pale as pie dough and can’t take his eyes off the other man’s gun; he looks like he’s going to pass out. My dad has reached down, grabbed my wrist; I think he’s planning to yank me to the floor once the shooting starts.
It’s true, about your life passing before you once you’re convinced you’re about to die. My mom, before the wheelchair, chasing after me in the snow . . . my dad, spinning me around and around in the front yard until I was dizzy . . . the shimmering, gold wristwatch my parents gave me for junior-high graduation . . . that cute boy that lived on the same street as my grandma in Little Rock . . . my pet mouse Rocket that liked to get out of her cage and run under my bed . . . .
I recognize the two men! They drove past the house while I was doing dishes. They were in one of the cars I sent a telepathic message to, to slow down, to knock on the door. Wrong place, guys – you missed the house by a couple miles.
Jake has both hands on his gun now; the vein on his temple is as big as a pencil. “WHAT’S IT GONNA’ BE!” he screams; he’s all worked up. The black man with the gun is still aiming straight at Jake’s head as his friend keeps an eye on the rest of us.
I glance over my shoulder at Jake. I twist my wrist out of my dad’s grasp, step in front of Jake’s gun, wrap my hand around its barrel and point it at my chest. “What the hell you doin’, Jeanie?” Jake whines.
“Go,” I say to the two men, but I don’t take my eyes off Jake. “He won’t shoot me,” I yell, “GO!” They step backwards out of the bar, the man with the gun doesn’t lower his aim.
The blinding, afternoon sun invades the dark world of Donny’s through the opened door, and I see in the man’s hand that it’s not a gun after all, but one of those little all-in-one folding ratchets. Jake doesn’t attempt to move his gun as they leave. His mouth hangs open, like an empty sack, and he storms out the back of the bar, shrieking, cussing.
My father clumsily runs his rough fingers through my hair, kisses me on the cheek, returns to his beer. Clyde smokes a cigarette down in three drags. “Not a word of this,” Donny says, “or they’ll sure as hell yank my liquor license, then y’all will have to drive to the V.F.W. in Middleton, so just keep your mouths shut, we’ll act like it never happened. Jeanie, take your father home. You too, Clyde, go the hell home.”
“You’re a brave girl, honey,” my dad whispers.
“Let’s just leave your truck and come back for it tomorrow,” I say.
We get in the car to pull away from Donny’s, but I’m having trouble shifting into reverse because my shaking hand is cramped, frozen in the shape of Jake’s gun barrel, and I can’t make my fingers open up.
I hear Jerry Roland is living in Lincoln now; maybe I’ll look him up. The elderly woman seated in front of me on the bus has frayed, crimson ribbons and a piece of lint in her gray and purple hair. A small girl with a porcelain-perfect face stands in the aisle under a straw bonnet and grins at me.
Dad saw a doctor, was diagnosed with a bad back, depression and chronic alcoholism, and is on disability now. His check combined with mom’s makes sixteen-hundred a month coming in. He pushes mom to the market on cool days and stays home for dinner every night.
Jake Merit moved to Akron and may have found other nazis to hang out with. Clyde Diddow was arrested for indecent exposure near Exton Elementary School and is doing a hard deuce in the state penitentiary.
I’m taking a list with me to Lincoln. It reads: do not send any more telepathic messages, always use disposable plastic silverware and paper plates, cut hair very short. It is folded up, in my pocket, next to my ticket that cost sixty-one dollars even, which leaves me forty-two dollars and seventy-five cents.
I’m really going to look up Jerry Roland in Lincoln, if he’s there. Thank him for killing off Exton; it was terminal anyway, he just hastened the inevitable. Donny’s has closed and the skeletal building that was Olsen’s Feed has burned to the ground.
The bus moves; I stare at my sandals. There’s nothing to look at outside; there are no trees in Exton.
I crack my window on the bus and inhale city smells – a hamburger joint, asphalt, exhaust. My dad warned me: be careful, there are people in the city that will take advantage of a pretty girl; he said this with a straight face.
My plan is to find a neighborhood church, ask them nicely if I might stay just long enough to find a place; I will clean for them at night, wipe the windows and the toilets, get a job, maybe punching little holes in the buttons at the button factory. Unlikely as it is, if I become homesick, I’ll unpack my old wristwatch and a miniature brass bell that once hung around Rocket’s neck.
I will find a nice man, perhaps someone with whom I can have a beautiful, little girl with a tea-and-cream complexion and a honey-brown afro; she will smell like baby lotion and lilac powder and be soft as silk. I’ll tell her she lives in a city named for someone wonderful who was called Abraham.
I put my hand out the window and laugh. We travel slowly through Lincoln’s wide streets and there are trees full of birds, hundreds of trees, and if I stretch out my fingers, I can just touch their leaves.
© copyright Robert Louis Bartlett, 2019