Tina Elliot is leaving tomorrow, heading off with Boo Nesser to shack up in a trailer next to a Texas oil field, and I feel as bad as the time my mother died. After I close up for the day, I sit out back by the little camper I live in behind Maude Speakman’s store, and I drink too many Blue Ribbons. I lean over in my chair and puke up some froth. My throat burns as I light another cigarette and Watch a swarm of black gnats gather around the mess. I hear Clarence Myers a couple of houses down raising hell with his old lady about a lost corn knife, and I wonder just how much a person can take. He’s bitched about that machete all summer long, and I hope if Juney ever finds it, she sticks it clear through his stupid toothless head. A carload of boys from the holler keeps racing up and down the road in a ‘56 Chevy coated with primer, and I can tell by the way they’re burning rubber that there will be another wreck somewhere tonight.
Though she’s rotten to the core, I reckon I’ve always loved Tina Elliot, from the first time I laid eyes on her. She came in the store with her mother right after I started working there, just a little-bitty thing, said she’d give me a kiss for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. But that was back before she was old enough to do other things, and ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could have been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toadstool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.
Not too long ago, she told me that I reminded her of a cousin she’s got down in Pike County, an old crazy boy who plays with a plastic coin purse all day, talks off-the-wall shit to the birds. I knew she was high on some of the stuff that Boo’s always taking, but it hurt me when she said that, made me think about the time my old man took me rabbit hunting. I can still remember the disappointment in his cold, red face because I couldn’t pull the trigger that day in the snow. “You done ruined him,” he said to my mother when we got back to the house. He must have told the poor woman that a thousand times before he died. Sometimes it scares me to think I will probably spend the rest of my days wishing I’d blown a rabbit’s guts clear across Harry Frey’s orchard when I was six years old.
The mosquitoes finally drive me inside the camper around midnight, and I watch a Charlie Chan movie on Armchair Theater. It always gives me a comfort, watching the TV late at night, thinking about all the other people around Ohio watching the same old movie, maybe even thinking the same old thoughts. I picture them curled up on their couches in their living rooms, and all the lonely little sounds of the night drifting in through their window screens. Maybe it’s because Tina is taking off tomorrow, but I get choked up tonight when the movie flickers to an end and the Columbus station signs off the air. I finish my last beer while they play “America the Beautiful” and the big flag whips around in the breeze. Then I crawl into my bunk that’s bolted to the wall and lie there listening to those goddamn boys run the dogshit out of that old junker some more.
The sun is coming up over Bishop Hill when I wake up with a sick headache from all the Blue Ribbon. It’s the kind of fucking headache that almost makes me wish I’d taken my mother’s advice and knocked up a Christian girl who’d lay down the law. It’s hot in the camper, and I look outside and see the Pepsi thermometer I got nailed to the outhouse already shows seventy-seven degrees. I pull on a pair of dirty jeans and a clean T-shirt and pump some water from the well into an old dented dishpan. After I wash up, I fill the mop bucket I keep behind the counter. Some of the customers like to see me dip my hands in it before I slice their meat.
I jiggle the lock on the back door and carry the bucket inside the cinder-block building. A log truck rattles down the bumpy road out front, and I think how lucky I am not to be stuck working in the woods in this heat. After I turn on the lights and the gas pumps, I unlock the front door and flip the cardboard sign over that says we’re open. The box fan that sits behind the wooden candy case makes a hell of a racket when I start it up, but I leave it on anyway. It blows some dust around, some cigarette ashes, a couple of dead flies dried up in their husks. Maude keeps promising me a new one, but I know she won’t come through until the old one locks up completely. She’s tight as the bark on a tree when it comes to stuff like that. I pull out the gray metal box we keep under the counter behind a stack of old True Confessions, and I start counting money.
I arrange a hundred dollars in small bills and change in the cash register, then pop a couple of aspirins and hunt up a heel of bologna in the meat case from the roll I was cutting on yesterday. I find a bottle of RC Cola slushy with ice in the back of the pop cooler, rip open a bag of green onion potato chips. This is my breakfast, and has been every morning but Sundays for the past twelve years. As I stick my hand down in the chip bag, I think that even if I was to go away with Tina, I’d probably still keep eating the same thing. Then I catch myself and try to laugh it off. It’s crazy to think that kind of shit, I know, but I been doing it so long now, I have a hard time stopping myself. The old man used to say I lived in a dream world. I peel the skin off the bologna heel with my thumb, pitch it in the trash. Maybe I’ll stop wishing for things I can’t have once Tina’s gone for good.
I’ve been working in the store since I was sixteen years old and now I’m twenty-eight. Maude hired me right after my old man got his legs cut off up in Michigan. He was working around Flat Rock with a section gang on the DT&I Railroad, and he slipped in the snow and went under a railcar loaded with ties they were shoving off on a siding. Though he hated being away from the holler, the railroad was the best paying job he’d ever had. Every time he came home for the weekend, he joked, “It’s so goddamn flat up there I can’t stand up straight.” The old man didn’t last long after the accident, and the day we laid his box in the frozen ground, I quit school to help my mother hang on to the little house he’d bought us. We kept things afloat for a while, but then she got her cancer and the bank took the house back anyway. That was when Maude bought the camper and set it up behind the store for me to live in. It’s shaped like a lunch box on wheels. Sometimes I can’t help thinking it’s the same size as a prison cell.
I finish my breakfast and break open a fresh pack of Camels. Maude pays me thirty dollars a week, allows me one pack of smokes a day and whatever I can scrounge to eat out of the store. I open up at seven in the morning and work until whatever time she decides to show her face in the evening. It’s not a hard life, not like my old man’s was, but some days it’s a long one, especially if Maude don’t come in at all. I keep a few Blue Ribbons stashed in the bottom of the meat case for times like that. She gives me Sundays off because selling cigarettes and candy on the Sabbath isn’t good business around here. Even old Maude tries to put on a good act when it comes down to the Lord’s day. The Shady Glen Church of Christ in Christian Union sits only a couple hundred yards away from the store, and I wake up every Sunday morning to the crying and clamoring of people who fear God.
By midmorning, I’ve waited on twenty or so customers: loggers needing chain-saw oil and gasoline, old men after Doan’s Liver Pills and honey loaf, little kids trading pop bottles for SweeTarts and cigarettes. Most everyone that stops in talks about the money Boo will make in the oil fields. But then Henry Skiver says, ‘I can’t see it,” when I tell him that Floyd Bowman said Boo will make twenty dollars an hour starting out. “Shit, that Nesser boy wouldn’t work in a pie factory.” For a minute I get my hopes up, see all sorts of possible disasters happening once they hit Texas. Hell, I even picture Tina coming back with her head hanging down, asking me for a place to stay. Then Henry pulls out his little change purse and carefully counts out ten pennies for a cake, and I feel low again remembering the time she compared me to her dingbat cousin.
It looks like it’s going to be a slow Tuesday, so I start breaking open the boxes that the Manker’s man delivered yesterday. I check everything against the yellow invoice, stamp prices on cans of Spam and Campbell’s soup, and stock the bare spots on the shelves. I turn on the radio and listen to Miss Sally Flowers rattle on about everything she’s grateful for this hot, sticky morning. That gets old real quick and I turn the station. The DJ puts on a Monkees’ song, and I sing along to “Last Train to Clarksville” while I sweep the dust out the door and change the dirty fly ribbon that hangs over the kerosene stove in the back. All the time I’m piddling, I keep an eye on the gas pumps. Some people like to turn the handle back a gallon or two if they don’t think I’m watching. Boo’s one of the worst for pulling that kind of shit. He gets caught doing that down in Texas, they’ll break his goddamn head for him.
Around noon, I’m getting ready to take a break and watch As the World Turns on the little TV I’ve got set up behind the candy case when I see Jake Lowry walking out of the holler past the church. He shuffles along with his hands crammed deep down inside his patched-up bibs like he’s playing pocket pool with himself. As he crosses the road, he kicks at a busted beer bottle lying at the edge of the store lot. Most times I turn the TV off when I see someone coming because I don’t like for people to know I watch soap operas, but I don’t give a damn what Jake thinks. He never has played with a full deck all the time I’ve known him, and people say it’s because he lived so long in the woods by himself back during WWII, hiding out from the draft. Right outside the door, he stops and spits a long string of tobacco juice in the gravel. The screen door slams behind him as he steps inside the store, and he jumps like someone just shoved a cob up his ass. He’s the flightiest bastard I’ve ever seen.
Jake works the chew in his mouth, lays two arrowheads down carefully on the counter. I open the register and count out some change. Maude gives him forty cents for each one he finds, then she turns around and sells them to the Sinclair man for two dollars. He brings in five or six a week, sometimes more. I lay the money on the counter and Jake pushes a quarter back at me, like he always does. His dirty fingernails are long and cracked down the middle. I slide the glass door open on the meat case and lift out a roll of headcheese. He likes his cut thick, and I adjust the meat slicer. I try not to think about us both eating the same damn thing every day, and what that might mean to a head doctor.
I’ve been slicing meat so many years now I don’t even bother with the scales anymore. I can hit it within a penny or two every time. After I wrap the gray meat in a sheet of butcher’s paper and tape it shut, Jake sticks it in his pocket. He stands there working his chew, staring at the TV show. Neither one of us says a fucking word the whole time, but I’m used to that. Jake wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful. I’m lighting a cigarette when Boo Nesser’s car flies past the store and turns in at Tina’s mother’s house down the road. Suddenly, my headache breaks loose again, and I crack open another RC, pop a couple more aspirins.
As the World Turns is just going off when I hear car tires crunching on the gravel. A new Cadillac convertible pulls up to the gas pumps with a man and woman in the front seat. Jake leans back against the pop cooler and peers through the screen door. By the time I grab my oil rag, the woman’s already out of the car and taking a picture of the store sign out by the road. It’s just a rusty old Sinclair sign on a metal pole, but underneath the green dinosaur hangs a piece of plywood that says in big black letters WELCOME TO KNOCKEMSTIFF, OHIO. Maude spent a whole day in the back room painting the letters on, trying to get them right, but they’re still crooked.
The man slides out from behind the wheel and stretches. He’s maybe forty years old, tall and thin, wearing neat gray slacks and a white shirt. A gold chain hangs around his tan neck. He reminds me of one of those soap opera doctors, the way he smiles as he looks around. “So, this is Knockemstiff?” he says, waving his arm about slowly. The Cadillac has California license plates. We’ve had a few people drive through here from other states before, most of them lost, but never from that far off.
I follow the man’s hand with my eyes, up the dirt lane lined with dusty trees that leads to the top of the holler, then down the patchy blacktop road that runs in front of the store and goes all the way over to Route 50. There’s not a single soul moving about. “This is it,” I say. I wad up the greasy rag in my hand.
“Don’t seem to be much here,” the man says. He takes a white handkerchief from his back pocket and pats his forehead.
“Well,” I say, “there’s a church over there.” I point with my rag. “And up the road a ways is a bar. They call it Hap’s. Right past it, there’s another store, but they don’t sell gas.” I stop and think for a second. Behind me, I hear the woman’s camera clicking, but I’m afraid to look her way. “We got a ball diamond just up there around the bend, but it’s mostly houses, I guess. It’s kinda spread out.”
“Looks like it,” the man says. He bends down and flicks a speck of dust off the top of his shiny shoe, then straightens back up. “Why the hell do they call it Knockemstiff?” he asks. “Seems like a pretty tough name for a place this quiet.”
I sigh and reach in my pocket for a cigarette, but I’ve left my pack inside. I’ve probably been asked that question thirty or forty times since I started working for Maude, but I’m no storyteller. And the tale of how Knockemstiff got its name sounds stupid, even when the old-timers get loaded and tell it. But these people have come clear from California, and the man is expecting some kind of answer. “Not much of a story,” I say. “Supposedly these two women got in a fight over a man up there in front of the church. One was the wife and the other was the girlfriend. The preacher heard one of them swear she was going to knock the other one stiff.” I shrug and look at the man. “I guess the place hadn’t been named yet. That all happened before I was born.”
The man nods as I finish talking, and I turn to see the woman standing next to me now, writing something down in a little black notebook. “My wife’s a photographer,” he explains. “We’ve been driving across the country all summer, looking for places just like this to put in her book. It’s been pretty exciting for her.”
I pull my eyes away from the woman’s made-up face. She’s wearing white slacks and sandals and a soft flowered blouse. I wonder if the man is putting me on, making fun of me in front of his pretty wife. It’s hard to imagine why someone would make a special trip just to take a picture of Knockemstiff, or put such a picture in a book, but then I’ve never been able to figure out why the government sent those VISTA guys here two years ago to help the kids out, either. I look down at the greasy rag in my hands. The pink polish on the woman’s toenails is the same color as her lips. All of her parts match perfectly, and I try to remember if I’ve ever seen that before in real life.
“Did you know there’s a place called Toad Suck?” the man says, smiling.
“That’s a good name.”
“It’s in Alabama,” he says. “Or Arkansas, I can’t remember. Which is it, Charlotte?”
“Arkansas,” the woman says. She’s fiddling with her camera, taking another glass lens out of the leather bag hanging from her shoulder.
“It’s hard to believe there’s people that poor in this country,” the man says. “Living in the richest nation in the world.” He shakes his head and frowns, and though I don’t figure he really gives a shit, I can’t help but think that he sounds just like the VISTA man. I smile to myself and remember the first time Gordon Biddle stopped at the store in his short pants and floppy straw hat, looking for volunteers to help build a ball diamond. Someone had talked the paper mill in town into donating a little piece of flat land that sat at the edge of one of their timber stands. The boys from the holler worked like dogs for him all that summer, clearing the field of brush and rocks, smoothing over the rough spots with picks and shovels. Gordon paid more attention to them that one summer than most of their parents ever had. Once or twice a week, he’d load a bunch of them in his station wagon and take them swimming at the state park over by Hillsboro. Then one night he just packed up and left without even saying good-bye, and there was a lot of stupid talk about him and that Russell boy after that. Within a couple of weeks, the government sent another VISTA man, but that one, he was all business. That was just two years ago, but I noticed the other day that the green briars are already taking back the playground. The swing sets were already knocked over. It’s no wonder poor people get a bad name.
The man coughs and I snap out of it. “Sorry,” I say. “Did you want gas?”
Just then the woman squeals at her husband. “My God, Arthur, a chicken just walked into that house over there!” She’s pointing at Whitey Ford’s place right across the road from the store. Ever since his wife died back in the spring, the old man has kept his front door open, even at night. Animals and insects congregate there like fat people at a free dinner. Some people claim he’s gone off the deep end, but Whitey says he likes the company. Hell, I can surely understand that. The woman takes a couple of steps forward, shoots some more pictures of the stray dogs curled on the front porch.
The man looks at me and grins. “She’s a city girl.”
I glance back at the store, wonder what Jake is up to inside. “Look, I got things to do,” I tell the man. “Anything you need?”
The man says, “Yeah, anyplace we can get something to eat around here?”
“Well, not really. I got lunch meat and cheese. I could fix you-all a sandwich, if that’s what you mean.”
The man looks down at my dirty hands, and then glances at the store. “What about that bar you mentioned?”
I shake my head. “Hap don’t serve no food. Besides, I don’t think you’d want to take your wife in there.” Just then the door squeaks opens and Jake tries to sneak out past us, his head hanging down like a whipped dog’s. The woman wheels around at the sound and snaps his picture faster than a pheasant hunter getting off a shot.
Then she says to Jake in a loud voice, “Excuse me?” He hurries along, his face turned away from us. I wonder if I should stop her. He’ll shit his pants if the woman keeps it up. “Excuse me,” she says again, louder this time. Jake’s practically going at a run by now. She motions to me and points. “That man,” she says excitedly. “Could you ask him if I could take his photograph before he gets away?”
“I don’t know, lady,” I say. “Jake’s kinda funny.”
“Just one,” she says. “He’d be perfect.”
I toss the rag toward the door and yell for Jake. He freezes in his tracks at the edge of the store lot. I jog across the gravel and say to him in a low voice, “That lady wants to take your picture.”
He looks at me with fear in his eyes, and then shoots a quick glance back at the California people. “I didn’t do nothing,” he says. His voice is shaky. Tobacco juice has stained his gray chin whiskers brown.
I see the round bulge of something in his pocket, and I figure he’s probably got me for another can of pork and beans. “I know that,” I say. “It’s just what she does, Jake. She takes pictures of people.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t like that, Hank,” he says. Then he starts off again. It’s the first time in all these years I’ve ever heard him say my name.
I walk back over to the woman. By the look on her face, I can tell she’s disappointed. “I didn’t figure he’d do it,” I say.
She shrugs, takes a photo of Jake’s backside, and then turns to me. “What about you?” she asks. “Just a couple of pictures underneath that sign?” She steps a little closer and I get a faint whiff of her perfume. A trickle of sweat runs down her neck, and disappears beneath her silky blouse.
I look up and down the road, but I don’t see any cars coming. The holler’s dead, everything in it hypnotized by the noonday heat. “I don’t know,” I say. “I ain’t much for pictures either.” The last time I had one taken was in high school, right before the old man died. We drove into Meade on a Saturday, and he bought me a white shirt and one of those little clip-on ties at Elberfelds. All the way home he kept teasing me about looking like a preacher boy. That was the last good day we ever had together.
“Please?” the woman says.
Though I wish these people would just leave, I can’t refuse the lady. “All right,” I say, “if you hurry. I got work to do.”
“It won’t take but a minute,” she says. We walk out to the sign by the edge of the road. She tells me exactly where to stand, and then she moves away a few feet. I see Jake glance back at us, and then slow down a little bit. Behind me, I hear a car coming. I turn and see Boo Nesser’s green Ford pop up over the hill. “Christ,” I say to myself, looking back at the woman, hoping she’ll speed things up a little bit. But the car pulls up fast beside me and squeals to a stop on the asphalt. I stare straight ahead. “Okay,” the woman says. “Say Knockemstiff”
“What?” I say. I push the hair out of my eyes. Standing in the sun, I’m starting to sweat out last night’s Blue Ribbon, and I worry about the smell.
“She wants you to say Knockemstiff you dumb shit,” Boo says. He’s got a red bandanna wrapped around his head, a little feather sticking up in the back. His head is hanging out the window, his big teeth as yellow as dandelion blooms in the bright light. Three or four big cardboard boxes are strapped to the top of the car with baling wire and rope. A table lamp is standing up in the backseat. Everything he and Tina own in the world, I think. Boo flicks a cigarette butt at me and laughs when I jump back. Though I won’t go so far as to say I hate him, I guess I wouldn’t mind if he dropped over dead right now.
“You know, like instead of cheese,” the woman says. “Just try it.”
“Okay,” I say. Then I hear a door open on the Ford and Tina runs around the car and hops in the grass beside me. The girl doesn’t have a backward bone in her body. She’s wearing a tight pair of cutoff jeans and a baggy T-shirt she bought two weeks ago at the county fair for a dollar that says DO UNTO YOUR NEIGHBOR, THEN SPLIT. I know everything about her, and I wonder how long it will take me to forget that. “Do you care if I get in on this?” she asks the woman. “This might be my last chance to get my picture took with a dumb hillbilly.” She smells like bacon grease and Ivory Soap.
“Your last chance?” the woman says, looking up from the viewfinder. “What do you mean by that?” Her voice sounds a little aggravated at first, but then I see her look down at Tina’s dirty bare feet and smile.
“Because me and Boo’s headed for Texas,” Tina says, “and we ain’t coming back.” Her arm brushes against mine, and I feel a jolt like electricity. “Ain’t that right, baby?” My heart starts beating faster.
“That’s right, sweetie,” Boo says. Then he shuts the engine off. “We done outta this fuckin’ place,” he whoops.
The woman gives a little laugh and glances over at her husband. I turn and look, too. He’s leaning against the car, his eyes fixed on Tina’s ass. “Well, I sure don’t blame you for that,” the woman says to Boo, flashing him a smile. She raises the camera again and steadies herself. “Okay, ready? Say Knockemstiff.”
“Knockemstiff!” Tina yells, so loud it seems to echo off the hills. Then she turns and punches me hard in the arm. “Come on, Hank, goddamn it, you didn’t even try.”
“All right,” I say and nod at the camera. “One more time.” Then we say it together—Knockemstiff—and it almost sounds like it means something. The woman squats down and shoots a couple more pictures. Tina giggles, and I try my best to smile, but my face can’t seem to manage that right now. As I stand there, next to the woman that I covet, my head buzzes with all the things I want to tell her before she leaves, but I don’t say a word. I might as well be out following my old man’s ghost around in that orchard, afraid to kill a rabbit. And then I hear Boo yell, “Come on, Tina, it’s time to go,” and I can’t even say good-bye. Instead, I lean back against one of the signposts and watch Jake’s gray head start to sink over the other side of the hill.
That same night, at nine o’clock sharp, I take the money out of the cash register and stick it in the box. I figure I took in over a hundred dollars since morning. Maude never did come around, never even called on the phone to see how I was doing, and it’s been another long fucking day. I sit out back beside my camper and watch the green hills slowly disappear as the last of the light fades away. After a while, I take my shoes off and pop a Blue Ribbon, light a cigarette.
Down the road Clarence starts up the same shit again with his old lady, and I wonder where Tina is tonight. I think about us putting on a show out front today for that California woman, and all those photographs that she took. I turn the beer up and suck the suds out of it, toss the empty over in the pile. Right before she left, the woman tried to hand me a couple dollars for my trouble, but instead I asked her to send me one of those pictures. “One with me and the girl,” I told her, and she promised that she would. When it comes, I’ll stick it up in the store through the day so that people can see it. And at night, I’ll take it down.