I listened to Jimmy telling me for the hundredth time how easy it was. We didn't talk about much else when he joined me on the back porch during this summer that we couldn't see the end of soon enough. I wanted to believe him as he stood next to me lighting a new cigarette from the butt of the old one, pretending he was that cool kid who had an answer for everything.
"It's not that Rick will come after you," he said.
Sure wouldn't. My uncle Rick had the laziest bones in a fifty-mile radius, and that was saying something. Lazy bones were in abundant supply in these piney woods. Together with spines so weak that lifting a bucket to do chores was totally out of the question. The condition only affected the males of the species, it seemed. The women were like the trees. Solid. Resilient. And that was the problem. My solidity. My resilience that made it so difficult to leave.
I didn't have a special love for the place where I grew up. The only place I'd ever known so I couldn't compare with anything. From the road, through the trees and the tangle of vines, when the light hit the peeling shingles and the crumbling gray cypress boards a certain way, the house had the seductive disreputable air of a lady who'd had too many jars of moonshine yet retained in the slope of her forehead an inkling of grace. The light was best at dusk, when Jimmy slipped up the narrow path from the trailer park to chain-smoke by my side and dream aloud of the world far down the freeway. He didn't choose the hour when birds fold their wings by accident. It was the hour of the bat, sliding on the air, falsely disjointed and velvety. A little bit like Jimmy. He knew I was most vulnerable then, most inclined to listen to his stories of wide-open skies and ribbons of road under a shimmering sun. Miles away from the long day slog at Ginny's Diner. Miles away from the demands of this sagging house and those I loved who lived in it.
My brother Andy and Gran, my ninety-year-old great-grandma.
They were the reason why I went back and forth, indecisive, all summer, why I endured the lousy tips at the diner, why I didn't pack a bag a year ago and caught a bus, hitched a ride, plain walked away, or hopped on one of the slow-moving freight trains that wailed through town. They were the anchor I couldn't slip and Jimmy knew it. When he said Rick won't come after you, he implied the sturdy anchor line would be cut and I had to come to terms with the consequences.
Gran wouldn't last long without me. Rick wasn't smart enough to keep her alive for her social security. He'd just take the money and drink it, for as long as Gran managed to breathe, and then wonder why the dough stopped coming. And Andy, my sweet brother, fourteen in September. Smart, funny. The spark hadn't been pounded out of him yet. In a year, it would be a different story. I'd seen it happen to the boys I went to school with. The boredom that settled in, the frustrations of small minds in a small town, the urge to break through. The urge to break something, anything.
Night after night I wanted to scream at Jimmy. What do you want me to do? Tell me what to do. I didn't scream and he didn't tell. He just kept talking. Where his confidence in me making the right choice came from I don't know. But he had a deadline. He wouldn't wait for me forever.
"A couple weeks and I'll have enough for the truck I've had my eye on for months. It looks beat up but it's good under the hood."
His lopsided smile wrapped around the deep drags from his cigarette. I shivered in the heat trapped on the porch. A couple of weeks. Short for me to reach a decision. Terribly long for Jimmy. He faced the scorn and hatred of a bunch of people set on punching the face of the pretty boy they couldn't look at without seeing their own malice and ignorance refracted. In the fading burn of sunset, I couldn't see the cut on his eyebrow or the plum bruise on his cheekbone. He often showed up for work at Ginny's Diner with an eye swollen shut. It was getting worse. The punks that hung around Main Street in their ridiculous tricked pickups weren't satisfied with jeering and throwing shit at him anymore. They were coming after him in the dark in small lethal bands like feral dogs. If Guillermo, the diner's cook, hadn't decided to dump the garbage, the animals would have cut my friend to ribbons. Jimmy couldn't afford to wait.
"Two weeks? How much are you short?"
He chuckled. "You think I can't outlast these morons long enough to cash a paycheck?" He reached down to his boot and extracted a long, thin blade. "Guillermo gave it to me."
"You know how to use that?" I had visions of old movies with guys in leather jackets and motorcycle boots flashing switchblades. I tried to picture tall, lanky Jimmy crouching down for some fancy knife play.
"It beats the rusty thing I've been carrying. If I managed to stick that into somebody, I'd give them tetanus." He laughed and coughed on the cigarette smoke. "Death by lockjaw!"
"It wasn't much use to you yesterday," I said.
"I wasn't paying attention. They won't jump me again."
There was steeliness in Jimmy's voice. The dimwits could call him sissy or faggot, it might as well be white noise, but he stood his ground in a brawl and he had an impressive wingspan.
The two weeks were almost gone and done. With head, shoulders, hips and limbs, I banged against the walls of the house, against the walls of Ginny's Diner, against the tall trunks of the pines that were everywhere, straight as fence poles and much higher and tighter. I was boxed in. There was no life for me here. Nothing to look forward to but a quick fuck in the bed of a pickup truck some night that would leave me shackled for life to a Rick lookalike. I was angry, so frigging angry I could hardly breathe.
I gathered the courage to talk to Gran.
She was propped up in the armchair where she dozed more than she slept. I had carried her to the bathroom and cleaned her up. She had taken the little bird bites she could still absorb. She was ready for what she called story time when I sat next to her to listen to her rocky voice distill yarns like drops of moisture on the wild irises.
"You usually stay out longer chatting with that friend of yours, Jimmy, yes? I can't hear what you two are whispering about but I like the music of the voices. Did you have a falling out or something, does he have another girl?" Gran's hooded eyes were on me, slow and ancient.
"He's leaving, Gran."
She hummed something looping. "The good ones always do. Are you going with him? Or are you scared? I didn't think I raised a scaredy kitty." She hummed her random song again. "Now, he's a bit incomplete, that boy of yours, isn't he? I don't hear so good but I know when kids are making out and I have plenty of time to watch you, punkin. There's a color in the face when a girl's in love. You have some color but it ain't the full bloom."
Her humming got into my head and scrambled my thoughts. "Stop weaving spells, Gran."
"Then speak, girl. I've heard every good and bad that can be imagined coming from the mouths of humans. Hell yes I have."
"I want to leave with Jimmy but I can't."
"And why is that?"
Sweet Jesus! She was making me walk on the white-hot coals. "Because without me taking care of you, you'll die."
Was that a dry chuckle or her breath catching? "And with you by my side, I'll sure live forever." She tapped the armrest. "Don't be silly. I'm a splintered old thing that can break any minute. You going to attach your young skin and bones to my stupid carcass so we can sink together?"
When she took us in, Andy and me, after our mother ran away, Andy was still a toddler. Gran was much too old to deal with diapers and elementary school tantrums. Yet she did it, with determined joy steeped in acid. I owed her the same fortitude.
"It's an interesting predicament," she muttered. "Andy will go with you, that's a given. It's just me being in the way." She nodded. "That is easily fixed."
Oh, I admit it did cross my mind. But that's all it did: cross, without lingering or leaving spores. Well, maybe a few, irritating like poison ivy.
"But that won't do. No. I can't take my leave just yet." She sighed. "It's arithmetic. You're nineteen. Too young. If I pass now, Rick will be Andy's guardian and that's no good, no good at all. You could run but if they catch you, and they will, they'll lock you up, and the boy Jimmy too. I have to hang on by my broken nails two more years. If I don't, you'll have to pickle me or stick me in one of these freezers they can keep a whole deer in." She winked.
We were back where we started. "As I said. I can't leave. I've gone around that bend a thousand times, Gran. It's still the same bend. It doesn't change direction from one time to the next."
"Tut, tut." She wagged a crooked finger at me. "What's Jimmy's vehicle?"
"A truck." Beat up. I didn't think Gran needed to know. I wanted her to think well of Jimmy.
"Trucks have room for stuff. Have you packed?"
"When is Jimmy planning to go?"
"Day after tomorrow."
"Good. We have time. Get the papers."
Gran was organized, and she didn't need much sleep. By morning, she had everything lined up. Birth certificates, court orders, bank stuff, title, will. Funeral arrangements. All neatly filed in a battered leather briefcase that might have been older than she was.
When Jimmy stepped onto the porch of the old house, we got into our usual soft chat as if this was a regular evening, and not the last one we might have together.
I held out my hand for a cigarette. I didn't smoke but I needed a prop. Jimmy gave me a light. I could see he was troubled by the hitch in the routine. He blinked, leaned forward, like the blue heron that fished at the end of the creek. The big bird bent that way when he thought he saw something edible flickering in the shallow muddy waters. It made me smile.
"I told Guillermo I quit," he said. "I'm leaving early in the morning. Daybreak."
I didn't talk to Guillermo. I gave my notice to Ginny, the owner. Girl talk. We hugged. She paid me severance. She didn't have to. That would remain between Ginny and me.
"We'll be ready," I said. I didn't know how much Gran heard, but she was listening and it gave me strength. "You never had a true family, Jimmy. You don't know about the warmth and what happens when it's missing. Don't worry about gas money or food. I got it." There it was. The package deal. I felt light-headed.
Jimmy had gone very still. Without a word, he popped another cigarette from the pack. His lighter flared orange and his face was a mask. He stepped off the porch into the slow-cooker heat of the East Texas summer night and disappeared between the trees.
My future was as entangled and opaque as ever.
I didn't know if he would show up in the morning.
The truck was the same kind of rusty workhorse you could see rotting in the weeds of countless neighborhood front yards. With a difference. It was clean and the windshield displayed a current sticker. Jimmy took his hat off and rushed to open the passenger door when I carried Gran out of the house. My muscular prowess looked more impressive than it really was. She weighed less than the briefcase I stuck between her legs. Jimmy gently pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder and strapped her in. Gran thanked him with a smile and a slow nod of the head. She looked quite regal despite her slightly askew straw hat. I plonked down in the bed of the pickup with Andy. We were surrounded by bags and boxes.
"You should stay off the freeway, Jimmy," I said.
"No kidding." The cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth shook. His fists were deep in his jeans' pockets. He looked a bit overwhelmed.
You see strange things on Texas roads. Dining room furniture on flatbed trucks, mattresses on the roof of overloaded sedans, trailers hooked up to trailers. We were not the weirdest, by a long shot.
I had a fleeting thought for my uncle Rick who was stone drunk passed out when we left. He still had a roof over his head even if it was leaking. I placed a pot right under the spot before closing the front door. He would probably stumble over it, but it was the least I could do.
Copyright © 2021 M.E. Proctor.
M.E. Proctor lives in Livingston, Texas. After forays into SF (The Savage Crown Series), she's working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in Bristol Noir, The Bookends Review, Tilde, All Worlds Wayfarer, Close to the Bone and others. On Twitter: @MEProctor3.