December had blown into town, had stolen its warmth. Nights returning to the motel were an agony for Jay, even wearing a jacket. You could hear the air’s sharpness in the way the leaves scraped the pavement, the same way it scraped at his bare cheeks on the ride home. Then the chill would ebb and the warmth return, only to flee again in a few days. At least when it rained it wasn’t cold.
Time was sweeping by now that he had something, someone, to think about other than work. It would soon be Christmas. The thought surprised him; that he might care how near or far a holiday was. Another thing to mark how rooted Rumor was now in his thoughts.
Should he buy her a present? She didn’t seem the type to care much for gifts, but a part of him wanted to give her something. To prove how much he cared for her.
Careful, Jay, a part of him warned. It might not be a good idea.
He rode to Celia’s house on a Monday to see about her weaving a basket for him. Like the one she had on her mantle over the fireplace, made of grass and fronds and pine needles.
“I’ll pay what you want for it,” he said. “I know it’s not cheap.”
It would be worth it, though, even if he did have to stay at Ed’s another week to make up the loss. And it was a way of helping Miss Celia, without admitting he’d overheard her words to Rumor.
Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave anymore. Or to stay, really. But that would have to work itself out when the time came; he wouldn’t plan it either way.
“I ‘preciate the thought,” she told him. “But I never learned to do that.”
“Really? I thought that was something passed down. A tradition here.”
She sighed. Leaned against the doorway, then straightened and waved him inside. “Maybe so, but I never learned it. Prob’ly from sheer will and rebellion.”
Jay didn’t know what to say to that. He looked around, not wanting to meet Celia’s eyes. His glance rested a moment on the piano. “What should I get her, then?”
“Rumor?” Cee laughed. “You don’t need to get her anything. She don’t expect it. Just be there with her.”
Jay nodded. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he still had a while left to decide.
He found himself scanning the road on his way back to the Loblolly. He knew it was silly, but he couldn’t help it. He’d begun to see that cop everywhere now. He would peer over his shoulder in odd moments, as if by reflex. Nothing there.
But then, when he would let his guard down, he would spot Glass’ gimlet gaze, his rustbitten hair. He hadn’t been stopped or questioned; not since that second time he’d met the officer on Coffin Road. But the man was stalking him. It was beyond question in Jay’s mind. Every time he saw the black and white hull of a Crown Vic, there would be Ira Glass staring back at him. Especially when he was with Rumor.
No sign of him today, though. He wasn’t sure whether to be glad or unnerved. He shook it off.
Wednesday morning, Jay walked into the diner half an hour late. He’d left his phone off the charger and the alarm had not gone off. Bursting in the door, his eyes swept the dining room: no sign of Ed. He sighed in relief. If he could sneak back to the kitchen without being seen —
He froze. There at the bar, sitting with a coffee in hand, was Ira Glass.
And he was talking to Rumor.
Jay felt an electric current lick through his veins. He couldn’t move for a moment. “There you are,” Rumor called as she spotted him. Glass, too, slowly turned and locked eyes with him. Nodded once.
“Where you been?” she asked as she drew near. “You’re late.” He couldn’t answer yet. He was still staring at the cop, who finally turned to his coffee again.
“What did you tell him?”
“Who?” Her brow creased.
“The cop. Was he bothering you? What did he say?”
She frowned. “Nothin’. He was talking about the weather.” She gave a coy smile. “I think he likes me.”
“I’ll bet he does.” Jay scanned the room again. He didn’t see the server, either. He guided her to a table and she sat. “Do you want anything? Or were you just coming for me?”
“I’ll have a coffee, I guess. I wanted to talk to you about somethin’.”
He brought her the coffee and sat down with her. He knew it’d only get him into hotter water with Ed, but he was too jarred by the appearance of Glass to care. The cop had never come into the diner while Jay was working there, as far as he knew.
She saw him glancing at the bar. “What’s the deal, Jay? You know that guy or something?”
“Nothing.” He wrenched his eyes away and met hers. “I’ll tell you later. What were you going to say?”
Again her eyes crinkled. They seemed to bore into his own for a while, then she sighed and looked down at her coffee. “I think we should do something to help Miss Celia.”
Jay was surprised, but not really. He hadn’t expected this, but he wasn’t taken aback by it, either. “What did you have in mind?”
She bit her lip. “Well…Jay, I don’t — Look, hear me out. The land taxes are almost due, and Miss Cee’s comin’ up short. I know you got a lot of money saved up. All she needs is a little bit.”
Jay felt his shoulders hunch up. “How much are you talking about?”
She hesitated. “Only about nine hundred. Not even that. A bit less.”
Nine hundred. He gave a low whistle. Was she really asking him for money? Now he was surprised. But it would be a way to give them something both — Cee and Rumor. His first idea had failed; and hadn’t Cee herself said that Rumor wouldn’t want anything he could buy?
But no — what was he thinking? It was out of the question. He’d worked hard for that money. It was his, and it was for getting his mobility back. He’d been crippled for too long, no way to escape. He had to think of the Buick first.
Jay tried to speak. His voice came out rough and he cleared his throat, tried again. “Why don’t you just give her something yourself?” She turned her head, squinted sidelong at him. “I mean… I thought your family was rich.”
“My family?” Rumor looked confused.
He hesitated. Didn’t she own Indicum? What had she said, that day he’d met her. That she’d always lived there…right?
“I don’t have any money, Jay. I don’t even have a job.”
“Then how do you get by?”
“I’m provided for.” He expected her to give a hard look, as if daring him to press the subject. But instead she looked vulnerable. Again he felt lost; as if he’d missed some important subtext in the conversation.
What had Celia said? You can’t get a word out of that girl she didn’t want to speak.
“Just think about it, Jay. That’s all I ask. If she don’t get it somewhere, she’ll lose her home.”
Jay stood. “Listen, I want to do something for her. And for you. But…you don’t know what you’re asking. It’s not just the Buick. I just, I need…” His voice fell off. He wasn’t sure what he needed.
“It’s okay.” She clasped his hand. “I just thought I’d ask.”
She didn’t break her gaze, and Jay was too ashamed to break his. He felt worthless, but helpless to do or say anything that might save the moment.
“I want you to spend the night with me again,” she said. His eyes widened. He nodded slow. “It’s gonna be warm this weekend.”
She slipped out of the diner, leaving him to pay her bill. Ira Glass, too, stood and followed her out. Gave a nod as he passed by toward the door. “Be seein’ you, Jay,” he said, and flashed him a mocking smile.
Jay could not say a word.
* * *
Again. What had she meant by that? He had still never been to Rumor’s home, but she wanted to spend a night with him again. That left only one place.
Come Friday, he biked to the thrift store just off Bell Drive to buy a blanket. He made sure to bring it to the laundromat when he washed his clothes that night.
In the morning he rose early, stepped outside into the motel parking lot. It was indeed warm, but the kind of warm you only felt in full sunlight. Still, a welcomed change from the chill that had fallen over the town. He checked his phone. The high sixties. He breathed in deep, took in the late-year smells of the Lowcountry: burnt pinewood, tea olive, moldering leaves.
He’d decided last night to come early. He wouldn’t spend just the night with her, but the whole day. The roads as he pedaled opened up for him, showing hidden things he might never have seen had he stayed indoors. The white of a fox squirrel standing in the shade. A yaupon tree bursting with sprays of red berries.
Even the willow seemed to sing in a mild breeze as he arrived. Somehow its yellow leaves still clung to the branches, though they’d grown less crisp and bright. It didn’t make much of a difference, though. It still seemed cheery and inviting.
He’d grown to love the tree, he realized. The tree and the house and the whole span of Coffin Road.
Jay dismounted and leaned the bike against the willow’s trunk. He paused. Thought better of it. He wheeled it around to the other side of the house, where it couldn’t be seen from the road.
Stepping in, he kicked aside what looked like owl droppings. The ladder groaned as he clambered up, holding the blanket in one hand.
She was already there, looking out the window. She turned as she heard him come. Her glance fell on the blanket, and she gave a winning smile.
“I did. I must be crazy, though.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t freeze.”
He believed her. He wasn’t sure why, but he did.
“Listen,” he began. “About the cop in the diner. That’s… Well, he was the one who gave me a ticket. I think he’s been following me. Keeping an eye on me. It kind of creeps me out.”
Rumor breathed in slow. “And you think…” She pursed her lips. “Is he dangerous?”
Jay felt his skin ripple. It was the first time he’d considered it. “Just… I’d feel better if you stayed away from him.”
She stepped back, annoyed. “I can look out for myself.”
“I know you can. I know. Sorry. Can we just talk about something else?”
They did. They lay together on the floor of the loft, basked in the sun streaming in the window, the dark green dance of pines in the breeze. She spoke of the land and the river, about all the creatures living in the maritime forests and the upper marshes even now, when winter had long come to the Lowcountry. Of the squareback crabs that hid under debris for warmth, and the coffeebean snails that still climbed on the marsh grass. Of the freshwater holes in the forest where alligators made their dens. The redtail hawks that still soared the air, the pelicans lingering in the salt marsh for fish.
She spoke of the Simmonds family, who had owned the plantation from before the Revolution, who had made their fortune mining phosphorus after the South had lost the war; how they had sold off all the land across Coffin Road, half the estate in its time. She spoke of the people who had lived in this land the longest and knew the most about it: not the Simmonds, but the ones who had been slaves; who had bought bits of the property at auction with money saved to buy themselves, and who were being driven off by developers now, as parcel after parcel was turned into houses the Simmonds themselves might have found spacious.
Last of all, she spoke of Celia Gadsden, last of the holdouts along the river. Of her and Mosquito, who’d left the house long ago to fare his own way, before Celia had even been born. Who was too proud even now to ask help when he’d lost his way. And if he showed up every once in a blue moon, to stay a night or two at the house? Then Celia would take him out crabbing or fishing with her, the two sitting side by side, him drinking a can of some ditchwater lager. Neither saying a word. It was how Celia showed her brother her love.
“I seen them out there a lot. He won’t come to the house, just out to the dock. And he’ll only come in for the night if she brings him a beer and lets him drink away his shame a bit.”
“I think that’s sad,” said Jay.
“Is it?” she turned to face him. “He has a home, even if he ain’t always there.”
Jay nodded, but pushed the words out of mind. If there was anything in them below the surface, he didn’t want to think about it.
Evening drew near. A silence fell over them, lying side by side on the blanket. The wind rustled in the willow leaves a moment, then fell away. Or did it? Jay heard a soft sighing sound and sat up.
Not the willow. Tires on the road. He couldn’t be sure, since there was no motor, but it could have been a newer, quieter model. He stood and stepped toward the window. Saw lights, but couldn’t make out the shape of the car through the pine boughs.
“What is it?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” he murmured. Knelt next to her again.
The night was cold, but the house blocked out near all of the wind. They slept pressed close together, keeping the other warm. Rumor had rolled up a ragged quilt to use as a pillow.
“I want to do something for them,” Jay spoke in the morning. He sat up and clutched the blanket to his shoulders, then let it fall away. It had been cold, but warm for the season. They’d made it through the night after all.
Rumor too sat up, looked him full on. “I want to do something,” he repeated. “But I can’t give her money. Maybe I can convince Ed to throw an oyster roast in her benefit. It’s the right time of the year for it, and it would draw a good crowd. I think we could make it work. It might be nearly enough.”
She tilted her head and a smile sprouted from her lips. Her brown eyes shifted green.
She kissed him slow: a kiss with a bitter taste like coffee, but different. She pulled away to meet his eyes, and he leaned in slow for another.