He stood with a foot on the bumper of his twenty-year-old Ford, watching the elderly proprietor. This was one of those general stores once so common in rural America, now a vestige of the past. The gas pumps showed amber fluid in a globe with a tiny propeller which spun as fuel passed through on the way to the buyer.
The pistol was cold against his abdomen, covered by his shirt.
“Want me to check your tires?” the old man asked.
“Thirty pounds each.”
The June heat was suffocating. Across the road, faded red letters of a sign wiggled in rising convective currents: “LAST GAS.”
The old man tested a tire, examined his gauge. “Thirty pounds, you say?”
The nearest town east was fifteen miles. The next to the west was forty miles.
“Them’s what I call ‘maypops,’” he said. “May pop any minute under that load and in this heat.”
“Do you sell tires?”
“Not this size.”
“Not that it matters. Times are hard.”
“They are that. Worst since the Great Depression hereabouts. Betwixt the drought and the government, everybody is suffering. Banks don’t much care who you are anymore. Used to be, a man’s character was his bond. But the big outta-towner banks been buying up the little ones and all they see is figures in a ledger. They foreclosed a few this year.”
The terrain was nearly flat here. To the south, dry fields, a dusty farm road; north, behind the owner’s house, more of the same.
“Oil’s okay.” The elderly attendant held the dipstick at arm’s length. “Needs changing, though.”
“Where do you get enough business to survive out here?”
“That what is, finds me. Anything else?”
“My wife and son will want something.”
“She got some groceries.”
“She’ll want more.”
The man walked with shoulders rounded, knees bent. Inside, the store was cooler and dark. A refrigerated glass-front display case held loaves of sandwich meat and perishables such as butter. In a porcelain tray lay chocolate candy misshapen from melting. The soft-drink box was the old-fashioned kind with sliding top lids. It purred as the compressor labored against heat.
In the rear, in a rest room, he heard Bonnie admonish his boy, “Wash your hands, Chuck.” The toilet flushed noisily.
There was a smell of sawdust, sprinkled on the wood floor to hold down dust when sweeping. The faintest scent of light machine oil blended with the aroma of dry goods. Shelves on the walls rose to the ceiling. Amidst foodstuffs, bolts of cloth, an outdated calendar with a pastoral scene, were relics of times past: a horse collar, trace chains, an adz, a rusting sledgehammer priced at one dollar.
“Don’t you worry, stuck out here alone?”
“Worry?” The old man lifted shaggy eyebrows. “About what?”
“Oh—fire, for one thing.”
“Only way to win in a fire is don’t have one.”
“—and robbery, for another.”
A hint of wariness appeared in the pale gray eyes now. The owner rubbed his unshaven jaw, feigning a casual study of his wares. “Nothing much worth taking. Anybody did, though, where would he go? Miles of flatlands—they’d get him.”
“I suppose so.”
The commode flushed again, a water pipe thumping a gentle tattoo as a pump somewhere replenished the pressure. Bonnie was speaking to Chuck in low maternal tones.
“Long way to anywhere from here,” the old man reinforced his point. “The state troopers would catch a body before he’d get away.” He dabbed his tobacco-stained mouth with a checkered bandanna. “Besides,” he said, “no need to steal when credit will do. It’s available to folks for the asking.”
“Well, I tell you”—he took a breath—“I need some credit right now.”
“I lost my job about a year ago and we’re trying to get to California so I can find work. How about it?”
The old man looked rueful. “I don’t know you.”
“I’m good for the money. Soon as I get settled in, I can get work. I’ll send interest on the loan.”
“Don’t know that for sure, though—do I?”
Bonnie emerged from the toilet, holding Chuck’s wrist so high the boy was on tiptoes.
“We need some more things, Truman.”
“Get what you want, honey.”
The old man blinked rheumy eyes, watching Bonnie walk the aisles.
“Toilet paper,” Bonnie pondered. She took three rolls. “Can we have some luxuries, Truman?”
“Get what you want, honey.”
“Ten percent interest fair enough?” the proprietor asked. His voice quavered. He was frightened. When they drove away, he’d call the law. It was a long way to the next town.
“Could you tell me where to find sanitary napkins?” Bonnie inquired.
“Yes, ma’am. Far wall.”
The men were motionless.
“I’m going to get some candy, Truman.”
“All right, Bonnie.”
“What kind of candy do you want, Chuck?”
A drop of sweat hung on the old man’s earlobe. The buzz of a trapped insect on a spiral of flypaper was like the drone of a B-29.
“I guess that’s all,” Bonnie said pleasantly. “I already got cheese and crackers and cold drinks.”
“You want me to make a ticket on everything?” the owner asked.
Truman drew the pistol, held it lazily, muzzle pointed at the wide board floor.
When Bonnie and Chuck were outside, the old man croaked, “I won’t tell anybody.”
“Of course you would.”
“You could lock me in the storeroom.”
“Where the money?”
The machine clanged, drawer ajar. Truman emptied the tray, lifted it. “Way out here with no banks—come on, old man, where’s the money?”
“That’s all. I swear it.”
With his thumb, Truman cocked the hammer. The proprietor stepped backward.
“I swear before Jehovah, that’s all.”
He placed the muzzle against the man’s forehead and said softly, “Where is it?”
“If I had more, I’d give it to you.”
It was interesting the way different men faced this moment. Some wept and begged, some erupted furiously, others tried logic. The elderly, he had learned, would give up their lives before their cash. There was no point arguing. Even fear of death did not overcome a fear of old age without money.
“Last time,” he said mildly.
“I swear, I swear, this is all!”
He squeezed the trigger and the old man’s head jolted with the explosion. He crumpled into a fetal position, one frail leg extending slowly, quivering.
Truman took a carton of cigarettes from beneath the counter, tucked it under his arm. From the house out back he heard a woman calling, “Andy? Andy?”
The moment she entered a rear door, the dead man’s wife knew. A bearded, deeply tanned stranger with a gun and a carton of tobacco could mean just one thing.
He raised the revolver, fired. She grabbed for support and canned goods rained around her as she fell.
An automobile passed them at high speed, the first they had seen since leaving the service station. Their tires sang on hot asphalt; their faces were seared by drying heat.
“I got to do number two, Mommie.”
“You should’ve thought of that when you had a chance, Chuck.”
“I got to now,” the child insisted.
Truman drove absently, flicking ashes at the window, only to have the residue hurled back inside by wind. How many times? How many to come? His revolver was under the seat again, reloaded, ready.
“How much did you get back there, Truman?”
Bonnie burped, cheeks puffed. “I never saw so much grass.
Is that grass?”
“Wheat.” As far as the eye could see, gently rolling, endless fields of wheat.
Exhaust fumes rose from a faulty muffler, the uncarpeted floorboard hot and shivering underfoot. In the rearview mirror he saw Chuck’s face, parched, rosy red. “Stop bouncing on the seat, son,” he said.
Fifty-five years old, going where? Where had five decades gone? He felt empty.
“Wonder who owns all that wheat?” Bonnie squinted at the fields.
“Consortiums. Multinational corporations. No individual, you can be sure of that.”
When he thought about his life, he was appalled by the uselessness of it. He had once aspired so grandly. What happened?
“Want a Pepsi, Truman?”
“They’re hot anyway,” Bonnie said. “Want a Pepsi, Chuck?”
“I have to poot, Mommie.”
“Truman, you might as well stop.”
“Daddy says in a minute, Chuck.”
He had made a list as a youth: Climb mountains. He had never climbed a mountain. Fly an airplane. Paint a picture …
“I bet it’s fun to lie on your back out there,” Bonnie mused. “Look up at the clouds changing shapes. Probably makes you itch, though. You think it would, Truman?”
“Make you itch—the wheat.”
He nodded, pulled on his cigarette. ·He flicked the ashes and watched Chuck blink rapidly in the back seat.
Never climbed a mountain. Never studied music. He’d gotten swept up by life. By events. By the military. He’d spent twenty-five years in the Army. Korea, then Vietnam. Three marriages …
“I gotta pee myself,” Bonnie said.
He glanced at her. Bonnie Blue-eyes he called her, sometimes. The boy looked like her. His other marriages had produced four children, and they, none of them, favored him. Weak genes, and just as well.
“Truman, can we stop someplace before Chuck poots in his pants?”
He glanced in the rearview mirror—no traffic. When they reached the crest of the next hill they could see for miles—nothing. He pulled over. The highway fell toward the horizon as a manmade ribbon of tar and gravel.
“Where the hell am I?” Truman murmured.
“Kansas, I think.” Bonnie pawed through the map compartment.
“Where am I going?”
“To your mother’s!” Bonnie cried. “Isn’t that what you said? To California.” She unfolded a map. “Yep—see, we’re in Kansas.”·
“It isn’t the government,” Truman said.
“I’ve been angry for years,” he said. “I watch TV and scream at politicians. I listen to the news and my belly knots up—furious with the system—but it isn’t the system.”
“I thought you had to go to the toilet,” he snapped.
“Oh. Okay. Come on, Chuck, we’ll walk out in that field so nobody can see us.”
“Who?” Chuck asked.
“Your daddy and God—come on, we’ll lie down and look at the clouds.”
What had happened to those dreams? He twisted in place, anguished. Here he was, five years past half a century, and none the wiser for it. If there was a hell, he was going there.
He’d been there already.
Bonnie’s laughter rode the still air as she galloped through wheat with Chuck unseen at her side.
Who was to blame for his failures, for this emptiness—for everything in his life—who was to blame?
Son of a bitch. Papa, that’s who.
He should be going to South Georgia, not California. He should track that son of a bitch—make him pay for all those years of futility and failure.
He conjured the most vivid recollection of his childhood, the moment that had haunted him a thousand times in his life.
He remembered the wallpaper, a pattern of ivy gone yellow with age. They could hear roaches rustling in the walls, the scratch of rodents making plaster fall.
He closed his eyes tightly, perspiration trickling into his beard. Remember?
Yes. He remembered.
Lana, weeping beyond the wallpaper, the roaches and crumbling plaster—begging Papa to stop, but he didn’t stop. Her childish cries muffled, nobody to hear but Truman—Mama worked nights.
When it was over, Papa always put Lana in the bed with Truman, where she lay crying, hurt, cold, and rigid to his touch.
When Mama discovered the blood, she blamed Truman. Screaming accusations, she demanded punishment. Papa beat him unconscious that night. Years later, taking a routine X-ray, a technician noted three broken ribs that had healed poorly. It was hard to mend a fracture broken again and again …
Through all of that, Lana said nothing. Papa had told her the police would come and take them away. Neighbors would spit on them as they walked the streets. Besides, Papa had said, it was Lana’s fault—not his.
As he remembered, sweat oozed between his fingers, locked to the steering wheel.
He was twelve when it came to a head. He had gone to a trusted teacher and she called in Lana for confirmation. But Lana said no, it wasn’t Papa—it was Truman.
The teacher told people. The other children ostracized him with angry silence. And Papa—beating, beating, beating—
“Truman? We need some tissue.”
He opened his eyes to brilliant blinding sunlight. A cloud brought shade and relief. In the distance, thunderheads roiled, going black from the bottoms up. Crooked legs of lightning walked flatlands below.
“Truman! Chuck has worms.”
And Chuck was the son of the son who should never have been begot. The result of twisted genes and a warped personality, the product of poverty and paternal abuse. Papa was the man who had caused it all.
“Truman, precious—we need a roll of toilet paper. Do you hear me?”
He pushed aside articles in various sacks, seeking the tissue. He should be going to Georgia. He should end this!
“Are those worms, Mommie?”
What would Chuck recall of these days? Did he know about the robberies, the killings?
The air freshened. Thunder grumbled.
Bonnie knew. Her insouciance was not an act. She had neither the intelligence nor the fortitude to resist the truth. If caught, she’d tell the law and the law would be upon him.
Truman stepped out of the car.
All these years he had fumbled and faltered. So many times in the stockade he’d lost count. Dishonorable discharge. Worthless then and dangerous now.
And for what? He searched his mind for a single constructive act, the glimmer of any dream still alive. But he could find none.
He got the pistol from under the seat and shoved it into his belt. Bonnie’s laughter came in musical notes as she and Chuck squatted unseen in the wheat field.
What his father had done to him he now did to Chuck, and surely, someday, Chuck would do the same to his children.
It was Papa who should be suffering. As Lana the whore suffered yet. As Mama suffered in alcoholic stupor.
He could do one constructive act before it was over. As for Bonnie and the boy—it should end here.
He found them in the wheat and Bonnie took the tissue, tearing away wrapping. “Truman, look at Chuck’s poot—he has worms.”
The boy gazed up with blue eyes wide, fearful until he knew the reaction to such a condition.
Bonnie stood, pulled up her panties, flexing her knees to get them right. “Bend over, precious, so Mommie can see.”
“Why did you marry me, Bonnie Blue-eyes?”
She hesitated, as if to remember. “Because I loved you, Truman. See there—aren’t those worms?”
“It’s normal in a child.”
“It’s disgusting. We have to stop someplace and get some bitters, okay?”
“You married me because I’m a provider, wasn’t that it?”
She glanced at him, uncertain. Beyond her, clouds rose in angry boils, a hiss of electrical discharge bringing ozone to the air.
“Is something wrong, Truman?”
“I’m not sure you’ll understand, Bonnie,” he said. “Even though, intellectually, I see what’s happened to me, I am incapable of altering it. I was abused, and so abused is Chuck.”
“Ah, phooey,” Bonnie laughed. “We love you. Don’t we, Chuck?”
The boy was mute, mouth agape, sensing violence. He’d seen it before.
“The genesis was my adolescent suffering, Bonnie.”
“Please don’t use big words, Truman.”
He pulled the pistol from under his shirt.
“Everything is going to be okay when we get to California, Truman. You said so, remember? There’s work out there; Lana and your mama told you that.”
“If it chance your eye offend you, Pluck it out, lad, and be sound.”
“No,” Bonnie screamed. “No poems! Talk plain to me, please.”
“’Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you, And many a balsam grows on ground.”
“Truman …” Bonnie seized Chuck’s hand and tried to pass, but Truman shoved her backward.
“And if your hand or foot offend you, Cut it off, lad, and be whole; But play the man, stand up and end you, When your sickness is your soul.”
“Why?” she wailed. “I haven’t been much trouble, have I? I never complained. Truman … why?”
He raised the gun and she wheeled to flee, skirt flouncing as her knees rose high to gain momentum. He fired and she catapulted forward. He watched her claw the loam, struggling to rise, moaning. He aimed more carefully … fired.
The boy stood as stone, waiting his turn. His shoes were on the wrong feet. No socks. Face crimson from exposure, he put a thumb in his mouth and began sucking.
“It has to end here, Chuck,” Truman said tenderly. “I don’t know any other way to change things.”
He stroked the boy’s head and stepped back. The gun recoiled, the child fell.
The son of the son who should not have been.