UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

KATHERINE CONNER

Bloody 98

         Ida told her father not to build his store off Bloody 98, so when the roof caved in and knocked him stupid, Ida said to his loose, blank face. “Now, look at you, look what you done.” Ten years ago now, it was, and

not once has his expression changed.

         He is there in the corner of the store, always the same, his mouth agape, the line of drool, like a sliver of sunlight, shimmering from his bottom lip and his eyes filmy as the morning mist that hovers over the highway. He is there, where she keeps him, his right wrist tied with cord to the heavy rocking chair that he built himself. But today she will sell that rocking chair and everything else and she will sell him too.

         “All this time, I been here,” she tells a man with a flat, squashed face who stands at the counter. She points to the highway beyond the open door. “I been here since they laid it down.”

         The man pushes a tangle of fishing lures at her.

         “Hey,” she says, “where’re you from?”

         The man clenches his jaw, looks ready to spit. “Canton,” he says.

         “You ever been down this road before?” Ida leans over the counter as she says this, too quick, and smacks both hip bones against the ledge. She is a thin woman, and her hip bones pose a problem in the store, where shelves are frequent, as are jutting mantles and rough-edged table-tops. She’ll crack a bone, if she’s not careful. She is only thirty-five, but feels that her bones are fragile, hollow as a bird’s. “Hey,” Ida says. “You know what they call it?”

         The man is not looking at her, but over at her father, rocking in his chair in the corner.

         “Bloody ninety-eight,” she says. So often she has warned them, the travelers that stop on their way down to the coast or to Mobile or to places beyond, far, far beyond to what Ida imagines as a brilliant, watery landscape. She saw, once, a Technicolor film down in Mobile—reds and blues and greens so bright they made her eyes sting and this, she is sure, is Florida, Georgia, Louisiana. Places so beautiful that people die to reach them. “I seen it happen,” she tells the man. “I seen people die right in front of this store.” Most of them in head-on collisions on the two-lane highway: glass gleaming as it flies up from the road, the screech of tires and the sulfurous smell of burnt rubber, the great thunder-crack of metal against metal. Yes, she has been here, front and center. Lone witness to the deaths of teenagers in coupes with the tops down, of middle-aged men half-drunk by mid-morning, fishing poles jutting from their truck beds. And women too, often in hats and gloves that, later, Ida finds scattered among the weeds, washes, and puts out to sell. Women, yes, and many with their children, some of them babies too.

         “I never had any babies,” Ida says. “Not even one that died.” She didn’t plan to say it, but it’s her last day after all, and why shouldn’t she tell this man? Her sister had given birth to a baby that died. And she’d had her show of grief, her graveside wailing, while Ida herself stood back, stood peering over shoulders and wide-brimmed hats that blocked her view, crowded her out.

         The man gives her a squint-eyed stare, heavy brows dropped low, and then taps the fishing lures with his finger. “I’m in a hurry, Miss.” His hair is matted against his skull and Ida has the urge to comb it through her fingers. She stretches her hand across the counter, palm up. From the corner, her father begins to hum. Always the same three notes, over and over until Ida can’t think for it playing in her mind.

         The man drops the coins into her palm, careful—it seems—not to touch her, and before she can think of something else to say, something to keep him here, he is gone.

         “Look what you done,” she says to her father. She stands over him, hands on her hips—a posture she picked up from her mother—but her father does not look. He only blinks and drools onto his chin and she’ll have to shave him, make him presentable, before the doctors come; his stubble has grown back—how fast it grows! While the rest of him, his jutting shoulder blades and bony face, his skinny legs, his white, hairless stomach, lay inert, dormant, down to the scab on his left knee that, for some reason, never goes away.

         “Just look what you done,” she says. But she has things herself to do, more than usual. She has her past to sell, and only half of it priced and put on display. She’ll put rest out, all the junk her family left behind. She’ll get rid of it all, her father included, and then she will shut up the store and head on down the highway herself, as far as Mobile and then farther, until she leaves that flat, black stretch of road behind her, like her mother did when she died, like her sister did when she married and moved up to Memphis. Like them, Ida will never come back.

--

        There will be, most likely, a lot of junk leftover, a lot that she doesn’t sell. If only she’d known in advance that she’d be going, she could’ve planned. Put signs in the window, Going Out of Business, Everything Must Go! Beautiful, hand-painted signs in big scrawling letters—how often she has imagined them, and the joy she would feel in hanging them, neatly, against the glass. Last Chance! Only 1 Day Left! How she would have loved to stand on the front porch and call to the passers-by: “Stop now or stop never! Tomorrow, I’ll be gone!”

         But it was too sudden. Only yesterday afternoon the doctors came. They came, sputtering up the highway in a faded blue truck, a tail of exhaust curling out behind them. They were on their way back to Jackson, they said, and all of them wore damp shorts and boots that squished and tracked mud onto the floor—the mud is still there, proof that they had come. But they looked like all the other men with their stained tee shirts and big, calloused hands, and she hadn’t given them much thought at first. She was busy—a group of teenage boys had just slunk up to the counter with bottles of beer and a carton of cigarettes—but then, “What’s he got?” one of the men said, and when Ida looked up, they stood in a loose ring round her father’s chair. There were three of them all together, and it was the littlest, a man no taller than Ida herself, who had spoken.

         “What’s he got?” he said.

         “A knock in the head, a long time ago.”

         The man kneeled in front of the rocking chair, waved his hands in front of her father’s face. “What you got, there?” he yelled, right in her father’s ear. When her father did not respond, the man stood and circled the rocking chair, eyeing her father up and down. “Look at him, Cal, Tupper,” he said to the other men. They talked it over then, their heads bent close together, voices dropped low. One of them poked her father in the ribs, and when another struck him in the knee with his fist, the teenagers at the counter drifted over to watch. The little one tugged at her father’s hair and, “See how he don’t respond? Could beat him to a mess, probably, and he’d just sit there.” They went over and over him, touched his face and studied his clothes, his posture, the loose flesh of his arms, and when he began to hum, “What else does he do?” they asked.

         “Nothing.”

         They offered to take him. They would take him, they said, to the institution in Jackson, where they worked. They’d study him there; they’d seen nothing like it. “Of course,” said the little one, “we’ll give you something for him.” He glanced at the teenagers huddled round her father, then, “Tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll take him tomorrow, after you close up.”

         While he spoke, the other two men wandered through the store. They sifted through the barrels of ice, touched the pretty tea cups laid out on a table, held the silver spoons up to the windows so that they gleamed in the sun. They studied the brass and tin and ceramic and they studied Ida too. She could feel them looking, looking from across the store, and “Yes,” she said. “Take him, take him,” before they could change their minds.

--

        Above the store is the room where Ida sleeps, the room that was once her father’s—a “study” he called it though, as far as Ida can tell, her never studied anything. What he did do, she doesn’t know, but it was up here that the beam, rotten and water-logged, fell from the ceiling and caught him at the base of his skull, and “I hope it was worth it,” her mother said to the still, white figure beneath the hospital sheets. And even now, years later, Ida wonders what her mother had meant. At night, she wonders as she lies there, in the narrow twin bed beneath the broken beam, her father’s senseless humming drifting up from the cot in the store below. She wonders what he did here, what there could ever be to do, and she stares up at the cross-hatched pattern of the beams, her arms trapped beneath the covers, her eyes wide open and daring it to come down, the whole damned roof.

         Up here, too, are the things they left behind. She takes inventory now, as she moves through the room, careful not to smack her hips against the slick wood table tops, the pretty, curving chair legs. Pencil in her mouth and paper in hand, she takes note of her mother’s pink sofa and the big oval mirror framed in brass, her sister’s porcelain cats lounging on the window sill, the years and years worth of glass décor hung or propped against the walls, the silk replicas of wild flowers, iron wall sconces shaped like birds, and framed prints of her mother’s of ladies, their limbs long and plump and draped over couches, throats bare and white. Ida likes these especially, likes the ease and freedom with which these woman lounge. But she won’t take them with her. She has made that promise to herself, that she will take nothing with her when she leaves.

         There are also, folded and tucked inside a drawer, the presents from her sister in Memphis. Silk blouses and stiff, muslin slips, scarves with fringe and fingerless gloves, and still in its box, a collar made of real ivory lace, the card tucked beneath it—So you’ll look nice. These could fetch a good price, the collar especially, and she would’ve put them to sell if it weren’t for the men who now and then came into her life, like drifters, highway men. Up to no good, every one, but they liked her in silk and satin. They liked her with her hair loose and her neck and arms rubbed all over in perfume. One especially had liked lace, had buried his face in her lace blouse and taken it with him, along with three pairs of lace gloves and a handful of money from the register, when he disappeared. They all disappeared and this too was her father’s fault, his dazed and open eyes, his slack-jawed expression. “It’s unappetizing,” the last one told her. “And to be honest,” he said, curling his lip, “you favor each other. Same weird-eyed look.” When he was gone and her mother’s brooch with him, “Look what you done,” Ida said to her father. “Just look at all that you done.”

         She fastens the collar round her neck, fine soft lace tickling her throat, and she realizes that she may have somewhere to wear it, after all. A dance hall, a fancy sidewalk café, museums and galleries and shops—oh, the shops there will be! Better than the ones in Mobile. Maybe better than in Memphis, though she has never been to Memphis and can’t compare. But she is sure that if she goes far enough, she will find all of this and more, things she can’t imagine, and for a moment her hands linger among the silk and lace. She strokes the satin, fingers the tiny pearl buttons, and then she sweeps all of it up in her arms and carries it downstairs.

--

        It is past noon, and there’s no time to organize, no time for price tags or tidy displays, so Ida dumps it all in a heap on the floor—clothes and hats, old costume jewelry, ivory buttons, her father’s trophy lamp with three deer forelegs as its base, and everything else she can carry downstairs. By the time the next customer comes—a woman in a crisp straw hat and striped dress—Ida has made several piles, all in the empty space in the middle of the store.

         “My word,” the woman says.

         “Going out of business,” Ida says. “Everything must go.” But it falls flat. It’s not the way she imagined it would sound, like the trill of a piccolo or the chime of a bell. It sounds like everything else. It just sounds like her.

         “How much?” the woman asks, holding up a slip.

         “Two dollars,” Ida says.

         “My goodness!” The woman holds her head high on her long, thin neck. “Used, too.”

         Two small girls, both in pig tails and ribbons, push past Ida and run giggling past the candy and soda aisles, past the barrels of ice and the rows of old books. They run past the tables bearing the dolls that long ago her father had whittled from wood—so long ago, it was, her father out on the porch, bent over in his chair and raw, bright wood curling from the point of his knife—and they stop finally at her father himself, asleep in his chair.

         “What’s he done?” one of them, the biggest, says.

         The woman drops the slip and steps quickly over to her children. “Come away from there,” she says, taking them by the hands. “Come away from him.”

         “Look here,” Ida says. She grabs a doll from the table, holds it out to them. “Five cents for this.”

         “It don’t look right.” The smaller girl screws up her mouth. She is right; the doll is crudely shaped, its arms and legs too small for its head and its face smooth and flat, a tiny knick for a nose, a slash for a mouth. Her father wasn’t much good at whittling.

         “But what’s he done,” says the bigger girl, “to tie him up like that?” She tugs at Ida’s skirt.

         “He’s got himself in trouble.” Ida glares down at the doll in her hand. She tosses it into a pile of embroidered linen at her feet. “I can’t tell you how much trouble.” Because he had a knack, after the accident, of putting himself in harm’s way. Too many times Ida found him with a knife in his hand or a gun pointed to his chest or on the ledge of the upstairs window, ready to jump. Once, even, she dragged him by herself from the pond behind their old home, his heavy, wet body weighing her down, nearly killing her. Accidents, all of them, her mother told her, before she died. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” her mother said. “You got to watch him, Ida.” Her mouth puckered and small as a dried fruit, her eyes the flat black of the highway, like two bits of tar sunk into that sallow skin. “You promise me you’ll always watch him.” Her sister had promised too, and then had broken the promise when the man from Memphis came along and asked her to marry him. “Don’t blame me, Ida,” her sister had said. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”

         And so Ida was meant to stay here, to stay behind and watch her father because no one else would. Not her sister, who escaped through marriage or her mother who escaped through death or the one uncle, her father’s brother, up in Natchez who sent a card when he heard the news: Y’all take care down there, it said. And then, scribbled at the bottom: He always was getting into trouble. He would get into trouble still if Ida hadn’t taken, finally, to tying him to his chair. And it’s worth it too, the wide-eyed stares of the customers, the extra time it takes in the evening to soak his chafed wrists in salt water. It is worth even the throb behind her eyes, the ache in her chest as every night, to get his blood moving, she kneads his legs like dough.

         “What’s that fluff round your neck?” The child gazes up at Ida.

         “Oh, what a pretty collar,” the mother says.

         Ida brings her fingers up, is startled by the soft lace circled round her throat. She’d forgotten the collar. “But have you got it on wrong? I think it’s meant to lay flat.”

         “No,” Ida says. “This is how they wear it in Memphis.”

         “We’re from Memphis.”

         Ida rips the collar from her throat and tosses it at her. It flutters up in the air and then the bigger girl snatches it. “Take that back, then,” Ida says. “Take it back there with you.” She scoops up a slip and throws that at the woman too. “Take it, take it,” she says. She drapes a blouse over the girl’s head, throws a scarf round the smaller one’s shoulders.

         “You put those back,” their mother scolds them. But the girls spin and skip in Ida’s sister’s gifts. They dance in fingerless gloves and silk sashes and, with Ida egging them on, they twirl about in the too-long slips until they fall together in a heap among all that Memphis finery. But the mother takes none of it, when they leave.

         Ida follows them out to the porch, waving a white handkerchief over her head. As the mother shoos them into the car, “I bet he stole something,” one of the girls says. “And that’s why she’s tied him up.”

         “He did!” Ida balls the handkerchief in her fist and shakes it at them, as they drive away. “A dirty thief, is what he is. A common robber and no better than all the others who took from me. All of them crooks, every damn one.” She has run out into the gravel lot to say all this, and when their car disappears against the sun-white horizon, she throws the handkerchief with all her force at the highway. The wind carries it back and it is caught, when it lands, in the tall weeds at her feet.

--

        She doesn’t know how long she has been here, at the edge of highway. The sun strikes hard against her left cheek and her blouse is damp with sweat. Cars pass, too close, blaring their horns. A shrieking gang of girls squeezed into a tiny Plymouth with the top down tell her to have a nice day. They maybe mean it, even though they laugh, and “You better watch it!” Ida says.

         One of them, a pale blonde with bare, glowing shoulders, blows her a kiss.

         “Don’t you worry,” Ida says, though they’re too far off now to hear. “I’ll have a nice day.”

         It’d be nice enough, if she could stop gazing out over the highway like a fool. As she steps onto the porch, a truck roars into the gravel lot, behind her. Two men get out. An older man and what must be his son—a long-legged teenager in a bright blue shirt, a lot of brown hair hanging over his forehead.

         “Excuse me, Ma’am.” The older man stands with his hat in his hands, his greased, dark hair flattened against his scalp. A rough-neck, her sister would call him, and his boy too, with their worn boots, their ragged shirts and dirty skin, and Ida feels she would like to bathe them. Scrub the grime from the creases of their necks and elbows, wash the film of dirt from their hair. She’d like to rub them raw, the both of them, make them shining and pink with the flat scrub-brush that every week she uses on her father, as her mother did before her. Seven years her mother has been dead, and Ida’s clearest memory of her is the broad hulk of her back bent over the tub, her big round arms all covered in suds, the minty scent of the soap, and her voice—deep and monotonous, like the drone of passing engines, soothing, crooning to the man who frowned up at her from the tub. Often, he would jump to his feet without warning, a tall wet stalk of a man, so thin that his skin hugged up to his hip bones, his ribs.

         And when her mother fell ill, Ida knew that now it would be her turn. It was all she could think, as her mother lay dying in her bed. Her mother lay dying, and the smell—it was a stink like road-kill, squashed rabbit and coon, smashed armadillo, the splayed bodies that so often Ida has shoveled up from the stretch of highway in front of the store. And it was that smell, that stink coming off her mother, her own mother for God’s sake, and all Ida could think was that now she would have to stay here; she would have to stay and take care of her father. She wouldn’t have a choice.

         “Excuse me, Ma’am,” the man says. “What you selling in there?” His voice is very deep, and smooth as cream. Familiar, somehow. “I need a shirt for the boy. He goes out there like that, he’ll scare off the deer.” He jerks his head toward the boy and his bright shirt. “I tell him he’s got to blend, but he don’t never listen.”

         Like sweet cream, or honey, that voice, so slow and thick and even, and she is certain that she has heard it before. “Listen,” Ida says, “don’t I know you?”

         The man’s mouth twitches, just briefly, then, “Don’t see how you could,” he says. “We most always stay up in Picayune.”

         “Or Lucedale,” the boy says.

         “This is Lucedale,” says Ida.

         “Excuse my language, Honey,” the man says, “but the boy don’t know his ass from his head. Born that way.”

         The boy curls his hands into fists at his sides, then stalks off toward the edge of the highway.

         “That’s not safe,” Ida says. “Hey,” she says, “you know what they call that road?”

         The man beats the brim of his hat against his thigh. “We just moved down here.”

         “Bloody ninety-eight,” she says. “You better tell your boy to watch it.”

         The man glances over at his son. “He always was getting into trouble.”

         Natchez. The word pops into her head, an image: Natchez, scribbled in pencil on a thick white card, dark, straight letters. Natchez, a word, another place she has never been. One more place to imagine, to conjure up from hearsay, from nothing: cobble-stone streets, maybe. Wooden bridges. Tall, bright pillars and clean blonde women. Men like the only one she has ever known from Natchez, her uncle, tall and gaunt and mustached and the sudden image comes to her: this man, this man here in front of her, only many years younger, swinging her high up in his arms, chasing her round the porch—and how much bigger it was then, the doorways and the stairs, the tall porch railing—and Ida laughing and running and her father, before the accident, stern and dark, scowling behind the counter. This man, with her now, and she squints up at him, at his shaven face, his sunken cheeks, and how can she tell? It has been more than twenty years since she has seen him, but it could be this man, the same man, older, dirtier, up to no good.

--

        Inside, Ida stands with her back against the door while the man and his boy browse the aisles. They’ve yet to notice her father, asleep in his chair in the corner.

         “I’ve got plums,” Ida says.

         “That so?”

         “Over there by the canned fruit.” She points them in the direction of her father. “Three rows down.”

         “I don’t care for plums,” says the man. “Where are the shirts?”

         “How about the boy? He’d like a plum, I think.”

         The boy comes shuffling out of the candy aisle and stands with his thumbs hooked round his belt loops. He jerks his chin up at his father, says, “I never had one.”

         “You ain’t starting now.” The man’s voice ripples forth, deeper, somehow, inside the store and Ida twists her hands together to keep from reaching out and slapping his bony face. “Look here,” he says to her. “All we want is a shirt. Brown or dark green. Maybe khaki. That’s all we need and we ain’t buying nothing else.”

         “But some of it’s yours,” Ida says. She throws her head back, turns slowly on her heel and walks, her head held as high as the woman’s from Memphis, over to the tables by the front window.

         “Ours?” says the boy, following.

         “This here.” She turns to the boy, a pocket knife—blade out—gleaming across her palm. “You sent this a while back.” She reaches next for a silver hair pin. “And this too. For one of my birthdays.”

         The boy plucks the pin from her fingers and weighs it in his palm. “Real silver, I bet.”

         “Put it back.” The man stands where they left him, crushing his hat in his hands.

         “And this one,” Ida says, “you sent to him.” She taps her finger against a cracked leather case that sits, unzippered, at the back of the table. “You had it full of things for him.” Things she didn’t understand—tiny vials of some kind of liquid, dark green glass, a finely wrought pipe. Her father had pulled them out with shaking hands, had spanked Ida when he caught her hovering.

         “Get over here, boy,” the man says. But the boy is bent over the table, fingering first the leather case, then a box of cigars, and finally a bracelet made of human hair.

         “That’s my grandma.” Ida points to the tiny daguerreotype set in brass at the clasp. “I never knew her. She had famous hair.” She rubs the tightly woven strands between her finger and thumb. “Of course,” she says, “she was your grandma too.”

         There’s a crash, a splintering of wood striking wood and the tinkle of breaking glass. The table lies on its side, the boy sprawled beside it.

         “Get up. Get up, boy!” The man, who has knocked the boy down with his fist, stoops over the fallen table, the broken trinkets and scattered cigars. He yanks the boy up by the collar of his shirt and pulls him toward the door.

         “Go on!” Ida darts in front of them, and stands blocking the door. “What did you come here for? Go on and see him. Look.” She points over the man’s shoulder at her father in his corner. “Look! Look!”

         The man does not look, but stands there, his boy panting beside him. He stands there, close enough for Ida to smell him—mildew, wood smoke—and, “I’m sorry,” he says. “Something’s wrong with you.”

         Her hands fly up, claw at his face. The boy ducks out of the way, and Ida throws the whole weight of her body at the man, pushing him back. He catches her wrists, pins her arms to her sides. “Whoa there,” he says, as if calming a horse. “Whoa now.”

         His hands, rough and dry as stretched canvas, burn like rope against her skin. She stares up at him, at the bags beneath his eyes, the deep creases that cross his brow, then, “You come to make me feel bad?” she says. “They told you I’m getting rid of him? I don’t care if they did!” Her voice rises, too high—a squeal like faulty brakes. “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

         From behind them, the boy says: “She’s got a man tied up back here.”

         The man answers without turning to look. “I seen him earlier.”

         “What’s wrong with him?” The boy appears at the man’s side, his eyes wide beneath the mess of hair over his forehead.

         “Looks to me,” the man says, turning Ida loose, “like nothing.” He bends, picks his hat up off the floor and sets it on his head. His eyes, hollowed in shadow, peer at her from beneath the brim. “Looks like nothing’s wrong with him at all.”

--

        The sun is setting by the time Ida has finished tossing everything into to the road. The broken table, the lamps, the porcelain and glass, dresses and hats and fishing line, tackle, canned meat—all of scattered across the highway. Cars pass, swerving out of their lanes to miss the rolling cans of fruit, the stacks of wooden crates, the fluttering linens and silks. It’s not all of it, but it’s all she can manage and she sits, panting, the front of her blouse soaked in sweat. East is where this highway heads, but Ida faces west, sun in her eyes. She sits on the heavy wooden trunk that she has hauled out to the edge of the highway. It is hot, and she hikes her skirt up to bare her legs, fans herself with a straw hat. The crickets have come out early, and the locusts, a slow, steady hum, always the same. Beside her, her father hums as well and she wonders, for the first time, if it’s the bugs he’s imitating.

         A station wagon comes lumbering down the highway and, without slowing, shatters her sister’s entire collection of porcelain cats. A face presses up to the passenger window, the mouth open and yelling something she can’t make out—something directed at her—and then is gone. Gone, but followed quickly by a bulbous, shining Plymouth, engine roaring, that brakes hard and skids atop a framed portrait of her mother. The frame cracks and pops beneath the tires, and Ida presses her hands to her mouth to keep from crying out, to keep from jumping into the road and plunging her hands among the broken glass and splintered wood. Because it’s what she wanted, after all; it’s why she wore herself out for the last three hours. So the cars could flatten it all like possums, and she’ll rescue none of it, not even her father who, loose of his cords, stands over her, blinking into the sun.

         By the time the faded blue truck appears, most everything has been smashed or knocked down or blown aside. The road is littered with debris; along the shoulder on either side cars have trenched the grass, and the orange-red dirt, spun-up by tires, spatters the road. The truck slows, rolls to a stop several feet away, and the men get out. Four of them this time, and they lope together up the highway. They kick aside the wreckage, stomp on the broken glass. They swear, loud enough for Ida to hear. The little one, out in front, stops a few yards away, folds his arms across his chest and leers at her.

         She knots her hands together in her lap, and for a moment—a moment only—it’s as if she’s waiting for her father to do something. As if she expects him to move, to run, to slap her maybe, or grab a table leg and charge them, these men, so clearly up to no good. But he does nothing. He stands there, his arms limp at his sides, his head tilted back and his eyes slit against the sun. In his hand is a wooden doll, one that he whittled for her sister, for her. He holds it by its middle, head down. A price tag dangles from its neck: 5 cents. Ida gazes at its pale, wood face, the rough, unformed features, and she wonders why anyone would ever want it.








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