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Shawna Hart lived on the river bottom where she rode her rusted-out pickup hard and careless like it was a smooth-mouthed nag. In high school, she abided no foolishness and scared the living fire out of every boy who crossed her path, waylaying wisecrackers and jocks lamebrained enough to taunt her. Rumour has it that Shawna would never have swaggered down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance” had she not cornered the twitchy runt of a principal in his shuttered office and threatened him against holding her back a year. Furthermore, she ought to have been fired long ago from her job at the Save-All Pharmacy for perpetual insubordination. But Mrs. Elsie Price, the senile manager, kept her on. And it was at the pharmacy that Shawna roared into the sad but peaceful life of young Lonnie Odom.
Lonnie was a lanky, freckle-faced momma’s boy, severely sheltered in the Pentecostal holiness of his little country church. When he was not beside his mother in the pew, he passed the time in their snug living room absently perusing the latest issue of The Gospel Harvest while his mother sewed beneath a rust-coloured lampshade. His childhood friends had long ago left him to romp through the thicket, shoot down squirrels, and drift along yellow creeks. After losing her husband in a mangled wreck, his mother was determined to harbour her only child from all these pursuits.
So when Lonnie graduated high school and needed to earn his keep, Mrs. Odom asked Shawna Hart, whose family lived up the road, to get him a job at the Save-All and give him rides. Mrs. Odom did not think the Hart family, a rough clan of unchurched drinkers and smokers, was much count. But she took Shawna’s sturdy frame and gruff demeanour for steadfastness. At first, Shawna scarcely acknowledged Lonnie beside her in her truck, and she ignored him all through their shift. Then one day she found him alone in the tiny breakroom and motioned him over to the fridge. He stood at her beckoning. She took out a little Tupperware bowl of chocolate pudding marked Elsie Price and peeled off the lid. She pulled from her pocket a small bottle of liquid laxative – unpaid for, of course – and poured it into the pudding, grinning and glaring at Lonnie as she stirred it with her finger. He dropped back down in his seat and hastily ate up his sandwich, terrified.
After Mrs. Price had her late lunch, Shawna and Lonnie passed the rest of their shift under the same unholy expectation. The old lady’s frame, already hunched by a weak back, doubled over incrementally until she could do no more than lean at the register and fan herself. An hour before closing time, she scurried out from behind the front desk and hobbled down Aisle 7 toward the bathroom. Shawna signalled Lonnie over to witness the dire moaning and the tweaks of gas behind the door. Grunts gave way to shuddering gushes. Shawna nodded her head like a music lover enjoying the sweetest strains. And she would not move her eyes from Lonnie’s, for she had taken him under her ragged wing. Lonnie buried his face in his pillow that night and asked Jesus to wash away his sin: He had never been party to such a thing in all his life. He pleaded for the Holy Ghost’s anointing that he might lead Shawna to salvation. But then he turned aside, remembering the old woman’s pitiful groans, and thought it better to pray for deliverance from Shawna.
Every Monday and Tuesday when they got off work, Shawna and Lonnie dropped by the Shady Rest Burger Stop and shared a jumbo basket of onion rings. She slopped ketchup over her side of the basket and ate the rings whole while he nibbled and sipped ice tea. She talked much louder than he preferred, spilling forth an endless saga of personal feuds and betrayals. Her great enemy was the congregation of Good Shepherd Baptist Church, which Shawna had attended with her grandmother from age nine until just a few months ago. But something had gone awry and she loathed every last person in the pews – she hated the whole Youth Fellowship in particular and most of all she despised Jenny Blackman, the preacher’s daughter. Lonnie nodded with a barely audible mm-hm as his eyes flitted around other tables, terrified that respectable folks might overhear a pious girl like Jenny Blackman being so maligned. Though she never showed a shred of respect for Lonnie’s holy, upright living, Shawna’s anger was moored in a peculiar righteousness unfamiliar to him, an all-consuming wrath toward hypocrisy. Even her awful trick on Mrs. Price had a deeper meaning he could not have guessed.
At the Shady Rest a few days after the pudding incident, Shawna said out of nowhere, “You ’member Billy Creel? Used to do maintenance at the Save-All? You know how come Mrs. Price fired him, huh?” Lonnie did not know. Shawna leaned in. “She says she caught him drinking beer in the parking lot before his shift. Grown man sitting by hisself in his own truck having a beer and she fires him for it.” She thought Lonnie was not sufficiently moved. “Well, you know Mrs. Price has a grown son lives with her? And would you like to know what he does from sunrise to sundown? Just knocks back one beer one after another. Don’t lift a finger except to knock back his next beer.” Shawna sat back and studied Lonnie’s disgusted face. “Yep. Mother of a no-good beer-guzzling son fires a honest hard-working man for popping a cold one in his own truck.”
Lonnie’s brain was naturally steeped in signs and prophecies, but Shawna had just laid on him a revelation so startling that even a good Holy Ghost-sanctified boy like Lonnie, for whom beer drinking was as bad as fornication, could very nearly be moved to pity poor Billy Creel and to see Mrs. Price as a hobbling witch. In the following nights, Lonnie would lay beneath his tisking ceiling fan, praying and worrying and working it all out in his head. He could not discern precisely what Shawna was, but she frightened him.
The next time they went to Shady Rest, Lonnie took a big swig of ice tea as if it were whiskey to steel his nerves and said, “You have set here and told me every dirty secret all these poor souls have to hide. But you have yet to tell me just what it is about Jenny that’s got you to where you hate her so much.”
Shawna was in mid-bite. She plopped the greasy ring in the basket and drew the napkin across her lips. “Lonnie,” she said, more seriously than he had ever heard her speak, “it’s a lot you don’t know.” She folded a dripping onion ring into her mouth and licked her fingers.
The next Saturday evening after clocking out, Lonnie found Shawna slouched on a wooden crate in the alley behind the Save-All. “We going or not?” Lonnie asked. Shawna stared him down like she was a cow chewing cud. “How’m I supposed to get home?” he whined.
Shawna rolled her neck around until it popped, and she looked off. “I got my mind fixed on what’s got to be done.” Her lips played with a toothpick.
Lonnie kicked out his lower jaw. “Shawna Eason, you been talking so much bull since I met you, ain’t no way I can keep track of what you say.” He shook his head. “Who you think is gonn’ give me a ride now?”
Shawna roared laughing and nearly rocked herself off the crate. “Oh, you gittin’ a ride all right!” Lonnie grimaced. Shawna rose with a heave and a grunt and flicked the toothpick away. She walked over, a little stiff from sitting, and slapped him on the back. “You git yer ass in that truck.”
When they got on the highway, Shawna cranked up the honky-tonk station, and though Lonnie saw her mouth wide with laughter, he could not hear her over the crying pedal steel guitar and the flapping wind. Five miles outside the city limits, Shawna turned down the back road that she always took to get them both home. But when she roared past Lonnie’s driveway, he startled and yelled, “Where’s your head at?”
Shawna brayed, “I told you we was going for a ride! Haw!” She punched the steering wheel. “You ain’t believed me but now you see!”
So he thought nothing of it as they rounded the bend toward the river bottom where Shawna’s trailer house swept past and the blacktop petered out into a sandy deep-rutted logging road.
Shawna clicked off the radio and hunkered toward the windshield. She shifted her head like an owl and said, “Yep. Still there.” She swerved aside and killed the engine. The rusty hinges of her door croaked as she stepped out. “Whatch you waitin’ on?” she yelled into the cab. She walked along the headlights’ path, and Lonnie slunk out after her. Shawna whistled him over. “I seen this yesterd’y. Figured it wouldn’ have moved by itself.” She snorted and kicked the dead possum’s rump. “Pick ’im up.”
Lonnie whined a protest, but she was already halfway back to the truck. He leaned down to the moonlit sand that still panted the last breaths of heat absorbed all through the day. Lonnie’s eyes adjusted, and he could see that in death the possum bared a little snarling smile and hid its nose in its hairless articulate fingers as if it were sniggering.
Shawna returned and whipped open a paper grocery sack. “Scoot ’im on into here.”
Her hooded eyes cast streaks of shadow down her cheeks. She forced the sack into his hand and left. He lifted the possum’s rear with a stick and slid the open sack along the body, and as the slender grinning face slipped inside, a mournfulness overtook Lonnie. He closed the sack and crisply folded the top. When he lifted it, he found it much heavier than he had anticipated, weighted by the distinct pull of a lifeless body that has surrendered to gravity.
Shawna caught him gingerly nestling the sack between two-by-fours in the truck bed. She pounded the steering wheel, hollering, “Just th’ow it in, God damn it!”
Lonnie climbed into the cab and pressed himself against the door, prone to spring out and tumble into the littered roadside ditch. Leaning his head out the open window into the whistling air, he scanned the scrawny limbs that crackled in the headlight rays, and he longed to be curled up with the possum and its secret purpose. Grown man collecting dead possums, living in fear of a lunatic – ought to be ashamed, he thought. Even as Shawna’s truck ambled back onto the highway, the will to question had gone out of Lonnie.
After a while, Shawna coasted over beside a tight stand of pines and hollies near the grounds of Good Shepherd Baptist Church. “You know who’s fixing to come through them doors yonder in about ten minutes?”
“I hadn’ got the slightest idea,” Lonnie moaned.
“I thought your little possum friend might like to be friends with Jenny Blackman.” She could not hold back her smile as she watched his face drain. “So when Jenny comes out to get in her car, can you guess what she’s gonn’ find sitting there in her seat just a-grinning at her?”
“Oh my God, Shawna!” Lonnie grabbed the door handle.
“Where you going?” He sank back. “Yeh, you just sit tight,” she said, ducking out of the truck. She slipped along the church’s shadowed eave and, hunkering as she ran to Jenny’s Toyota, dumped the possum out of its bag into the front seat. As she got back in the truck, Shawna laughed. “She’s gonn’ be out directly, after she’s straightened the hymnals and shined up the offering plates for church tomorrow. Like Jesus even gives a shit.” In a moment, Shawna slugged his arm. “Haw haw! Here she comes!” Shawna seized his collar and shoved his face into the windshield.
Jenny came briskly out of the wide doors in her prim blue dress with her blond locks dangling and a dog-eared Bible pressed to her bosom. As soon as the girl ducked her head into the car, she stumbled backwards onto the perfectly trimmed hedges. She swayed and heaved up a steaming arc of vomit.
Shawna clawed at Lonnie’s sleeve and glowered at his stricken eyes. “How come you cain’t take a joke?” She gripped him hard. “You loyal to me or ain’t you?” Her voice broke: It was not pitiful but terrifying. Lonnie turned aside and trembled. “If you ain’t got me, you ain’t got nobody.” She cranked the engine. “You think that ain’t a fact? Ain’t nobody gives a flying fig about Mister Lonnie Odom.” She spun out and guffawed. “Ain’t nobody gonn’ give you the time of day.”
Lonnie’s throat clotted up. He rolled down the window hurriedly to let the wind wipe away his tears. Later, when Shawna had dropped off the stunned boy at the end of his long dirt driveway, she tugged from her back pocket a tattered square of folded notebook paper. By the yellowed dome light of her cab, she yanked it open and read the letter again –
Me and you have been like sisters ever since I moved here from Shreveport ten years ago. Being a preacher’s kid, I moved around so much I couldn’t make friends too easy. I used to pray to God every night to send me a friend. So when I walked into Sunday School that first time here and you asked could we be friends, I knew the Lord had answered my prayers. But now I just about wonder if it was ever a blessing at all. You have turned your back on the Holy Ghost and God’s natural order. Sad to say, I have seen this coming for a while now. I have prayed and sought the Lord about it and I just don’t know what else to do. All I know is I hope you can get right with the Lord.
In His Love,
There was a lull in Shawna’s vengeful crusade. Lonnie praised the Lord for this and vowed never to be an accomplice again. Life rolled on after the business with the possum: long shifts at the Save-All, rides home with honky-tonk music blaring, onion rings, Lonnie sipping ice tea while Shawna laid out her charges and spouted new gossip. Then one evening after their shift, they climbed into the truck, and Shawna sat sullenly for a few moments before she started the engine. Even on the highway, she did not turn on the radio. Lonnie attempted chitchat, but she would not have any of it. When Shawna did not take the road home, he was fit to be tied. Somewhere, about two miles down a stretch of unfamiliar road, the clustered boughs gave way to a treeless gap on one side, with nothing visible beyond, not even a hint of brush or tall grass. Shawna slung the truck off the main road into that blackness, and they soared clear of the ground. She whooped a high cackle, and Lonnie’s jaw sprang agape with a cry. The wheels slugged the ground and the fender scooped dirt. Lonnie opened his eyes and saw that they were charging down the steepest road he had ever seen. The cackle and the cry died in the hot air, and there was only the sandy hush of the truck rushing down the dirt road, listing in and out of the ruts, liable at any moment to skid off into the bulwark of pine trunks.
Lonnie feebly asked, “Where we going?” He kept his face to the fleeting roadside, but he felt her squinting at him.
“Boy? You don’t know?” She shrieked a whistle through her teeth. “Haw, boy! How you lived here all your life and you ain’t never been down Hooks Cemetery Road?”
He did not turn from the window. But any soul born in this sawmill town was bred on the tale of the spurned wife who lived long ago at the bottom of that hill, who wended from her cabin one night holding her baby boy. Standing on the muddy creek bank, she had raised her arms in the moonlight and, even as she sang a lullaby, tossed her baby boy into the gulping waters.
Shawna’s headlights cast flickering claws of shadow in the bramble along the road. She pulled over into a wide flat ditch and killed the engine. Chirping croaks and clicks rose up in the deeper woods. Shawna strode off into the brush without a flashlight, swatting aside branches with her forearms. Lonnie leaped out and yelled over the hood, “Where you goin’?” The crackle of her reckless progress faded deeper into the thicket. “Shawna!” His voice was thin as pine straw. He stumbled after her through the interwoven thorny vines, stopping now and then to frantically disentangle himself, and each time he paused, he thought he heard, over his panicked breathing, the mourning mother’s lilting lullaby in the wind. Lonnie found Shawna standing in a patch of rugged tombstones that sprouted among coarse weeds. The stones cowered beneath her, huddling their mossy faces together.
“Shawna, why you bringing me out here?”
“We come out here to get one of these stones for a little present – for Jenny.”
Lonnie could not see her face in the shadows. “You done lost your mind.”
Shawna did not move. “I been telling you how she done me, how she turned her back on me. You gonn’ sit and watch me get treated thataway?”
“Shawna, I ain’t about to do what you ast me.”
She did not raise her voice, but she deepened it. “She’s dead to me, Lonnie. We gonn’ leave a little tombstone right in her front yard. And she’ll see it and she’ll know.”
A shiver stole Lonnie’s breath. “I’m not gonn’ do it.”
“You ain’t never been a friend to me,” Shawna suddenly sobbed. “I ain’t hardly ast you for nothing. And here you just up and forsake me.” She stomped off, sobbing so hard that her loud cursing came out in a yodel.
Lonnie, lost to the world, dropped down beside a mossy stone. The tall dewy weeds, washed with moonlight and combed by an ebbing breeze, left him feeling that he had settled at the cold grassy bottom of a lonesome sea. He embraced the stone – it gave way too easily in the wet earth – and drew it near. The tipping stone disclosed a name:
Caroline Amanda Ard
Peace I leave with you
My peace I give unto you
He nestled the gravestone to his starving heart and turned up his face to catch his breath. Beyond the highest lashes of limbs, stars peeped from their perches. He pulled Caroline’s name into his sternum and curled up like the possum. Shawna was cussing him and tearing through the woods. Her footfalls cracked and rang near and far on all sides. Limbs croaked against the trunks of other trees. Frogs chanted at the faraway creek. Lonnie contemplated this Caroline Amanda, conjuring Jenny Blackman in a faded gingham dress, coming down the sloping forest floor to the mirroring creek. He longed to stroll the shaded bank with her and swing on a vine to the other side. But Caroline Amanda was gone and buried and forgotten, and he would not find consolation, he feared, before the mourning mother threaded a path through pines to drown him in her grievous love.
B. P. Herrington
B. P. Herrington is a native of the Big Thicket region of Texas whose studies took him to the Royal Academy of Music, London. His fiction has recently appeared in Post Road Magazine, Pamplemousse, Euphony Journal, Noctua Review, and Adelaide Magazine.