Unannounced, Tommy stops by the house of an old friend
I pull up behind a Chevy and switch off the engine. Several boys play cowboys ’n’ injuns in the vacant lot on the other side of the street. I get out and cross the sidewalk. The metal gate screeches. I knew it would. Jim Gantry never oils it. He wants to hear anyone coming. Dusty sheers shake in the window. As I’m about to knock, the door opens. Jim frowns and says, “Why are you here?”
I’m about to answer. My right hand is out. Jim grabs it in his left; he pulls me through the door and slams it shut with his foot. He lets go of me and turns around. An old woman sits in a recliner crocheting a blanket. I haven’t seen Mrs. Gantry in ten or twelve years, and she pays us no mind as she crochets away on her balls of yarn. There are porcelain figurines and gewgaws in a curio cabinet and none of the furniture matches.
My eyes water as the stink of cat urine wafts by. I use the back of my hand to wipe away the sting. I blink and see Jim dangling a long .44 in his hand before he sticks it under a sofa cushion.
“Haven’t I told you? Never come here.”
“I thought you wouldn’t mind. I brought what I owe.”
Jim licks his lips and says, “All of it?”
I nod. A fly buzzes about my face. I shoo it away. I pull out the wad of bills. Jim steps forward as I count.
“Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. One hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Two hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Three hundred.”
I hand Jim the cash. He puts it into the wallet he has chained to his belt. For a moment I think he smiles. “You want anything?” he asks.
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“On the house.”
I shake my head. He shrugs his shoulders.
I nod back and tell him about the new job. Jim tries not to show it, but he looks impressed. He goes in the kitchen, takes the percolator off the stove, and brings it to the sofa with another cup. We sit. He pours me coffee and refills his own, lights a cigarette and says, “Hey, you seen Bob Oakley?”
“No, has he got out?”
“Last month. Came out with more scars than when he went in. He won’t be getting into trouble in Arkansas anytime soon.”
“I never did visit him,” I say. “Did you?”
Bob picks up a flyswatter and uses it.
“Once. Enough to know I’d never want to end up there.”
We drink our coffee, and Jim relays me stories Bob told him about doing time at Cummins State Farm. He tells me what he knows of the long line riders; the men, armed with rifles, on horseback, who oversaw the prisoners chopping and picking cotton. Bob had told him about the strap and this thing called the Tucker Telephone. According to Bob, the prisoners worked ten-hour days, six days a week in fields so muddy they’d drill holes in their spades to let out the water.
Jim finishes his story. Neither of us speaks. I turn the chipped cup in my hand and take a sip. One of the cats skulks along the edge of the sofa. It tries to rub up against my leg. I jostle my foot.
Then Jim crushes out his cigarette and says, “When you was a kid, you have any idea how we’d all turn out?”
I look down at the floor.
“Well at the time, I never gave it much thought.”
“Me neither,” he says.
I set my cup on the table and ask, “Was there something back then you wanted to be?”
Jim smiles and finishes his coffee.
“Yeah, a cowboy. Go out west where there weren’t so many people.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Turns out I got a fear of horses.”
Jim laughs. His mother looks up and asks what’s so funny. We just shake our heads and laugh some more. But the laughter is there to cover what both of us are thinking. Neither of us has ever talked about fear. It’s something we didn’t do. We look at each other, each knowing what’s in the others head.
After that I get up. I say so long and leave. I watch the boys play across the street as I walk to my car. Their whoops and hollers merge with sound of Webb Pierce singing on the radio from the house next door.
I get back on the road to check out Garland’s cabin. I’ve known Jim Gantry and Bob Oakley since we were kids. Of the three of us, I’m the only one who never did spend a night in jail. Jim’s two years older than me and the youngest of five children. Now he’s an amphetamine dealer and a sometimes money-lender, who occasionally tips me off as to who might have something I’ve been hired to find. Bob, I haven’t seen since before I got drafted. The three of us were once like those boys I saw playing across the street.
Get Descending Memphis to find out what happens