Jay had little chance to think that morning. The first five hours at Ed’s were relentless, the patrons moody in the way a town could get when a storm drew near from off the coast. Breakfast bled into lunch. In the moments between moments, when Jay’s mind could settle, it lit on Ira Glass — on the strange fixation the cop seemed to have on him. It ran behind all of his thoughts, an uneasy current.
He pushed it out of mind; or tried to. There was little to gain from worry, though it was easier to think so than to make it stop.
Not till one thirty did he catch his breath and mop the sweat from his brow. After a morning of dishwashing there was scarce a dry inch on his body, which was still sore from his night on the bare floor of the ruined house. He sank into a corner table, groaned, let his plate clatter down before him. Jay stared at it, nearly too tired to eat.
Who was Rumor, anyway? Jay wondered. What made her so anguished? What did it mean that she had “spells”?
Jay bit into the grilled cheese Shem had slapped together, but he didn’t taste it. His thoughts clenched at him till he remembered to breathe. Careful, he warned himself. Might not be a good idea. If only there were someone he could ask…
But there was. Mosquito.
Jay set down the half-eaten sandwich, scanned the dining room for his boss. He stood and ambled toward the back of house.
He found Ed ill-humored, telling off one of the servers. Jay turned to go, but the man had already spotted him. “What is it?” he snapped.
“Nothing,” Jay stammered. “I was just thinking… What do you know bout that homeless man came in last night?
Ed gave a dour look, but that was nothing new. “More’n I should,” he grumbled.
“Do you know where I can find him? I mean, if someone did want to—”
“Best not mess with it,” Ed cut in. “Used to feed him while ago. Had to stop. Thing of it is, you show a kindness to men like that, they only keep comin’ back. Ain’t no help for it.”
Jay had a word or two he could say to that, but thought better. He needed to know what the old man knew.
“Sure, okay. But if I could talk to him, then—”
“What?” Ed growled defensively. “Think you can change his life? Make him want to work? Buy him a nice home? Be my guest. I done all I can for that man.” He turned to the server and scowled, daring her to say a contrary word.
Jay too held his tongue. Sighed, walked away. Through the windows he could see moss-draped oaks stir in the wind, calling out to him from far away.
If only he could heed them. The day sat heavy on his shoulders, and there were still hours left to go. He would have to find another way.
* * *
Cee Gadsden gathered up her things: buckets, line, scraps of week-old chicken in a small plastic tub. The creek had swelled with crabs today, so both buckets were full; and anyway it was quitting time. The tide had gone slack and would soon roll out.
The boardwalk creaked as she trudged shoreward. It was near evening and the sky was pale, the kind of pale with a glow behind it. Not a radiant, summery glow, but a dull blaze under white skies. It made her weary, but calm as well, contented, as if she could find the strength for another day, hard as that could seem on autumn nights like these.
She crossed the lonely road and made straight for home, the only building on Sea Cloud Way that did not seem a mansion to her eyes. She didn’t go inside, only threw the leftover scraps of chicken neck to the dogs and leaned the hand net against the rail by the back door. She set the buckets down. Stared in at the jostling blue bodies.
How much could she eat in a week? How much could she spare?
At this time of year, with the crabs thick in the river, she only ever kept a week’s worth of food. In the past she had thrown back the rest, but that was no real option now. End of the week, she could always go back for more.
It was no chore to her. To sit by the water in her folding chair and stare out at the bends in the marsh. To listen to the fiddlers swarming up the bank. It was a pleasure, one of the few real ones she still took. It was something real, something pure. A distraction from the weight of her worry.
Cee packed what she could spare in the passenger seat of her grey Accord, and headed for Sixty-one. Her mind drifted, thoughtless, barely took in the old ruined house on Coffin Road, nor any other sight till she pulled into the cramped lot at Ed’s.
She wondered how often she’d made that drive. Too many times. She sighed, turned off the car, grabbed the two buckets.
Ed’s was slow, but not dead. She’d seen it dead, and she’d seen it packed in her day. Wasn’t sure if slow was a good sign or not. A slower day meant Ed might have time for her, but if business was too slow he might not want to buy what she had.
A young man she’d never seen before greeted her. “Hi, welcome,” he breathed, pushing a strand of hair back from his temple. “Just one?”
“Uh, no — I want to see if I can talk to Ed real quick.” She held up one of the buckets in her hands. The man glanced inside, frowned.
“I’ll see if he’s in back.”
Cee wondered who the new guy was. She hadn’t been in since late June, but still it was unlike Ed to hire new staff on a whim. The diner seemed no busier than it ever had. Not a single patron glanced up her way. It bugged her. She drank in their brisk, carefree air and felt her displeasure grow. Cee had never liked the diner. Its acrid smell, the ghost of the old guard embedded in the glossy wood tables and walls.
There was something else in it, though, that unsettled her more. Touched closer to home. An air of impermanence, maybe.
“Celia,” the old man croaked in a high voice as he appeared behind the bar. He nodded briskly. “I see you got somethin’ for me again.”
“You know I do.” Her words were bold, confident, but she felt none of it. Ed grimaced and shook his head, frown lines deepening.
“Damn it, you know I can’t just take scraps off anyone walks in here. This ain’t a juke joint. I got an account with Crosby’s, and they give me more than just buckets, and for less. You know I lose money if I take from you.”
“I know it, Ed. You do what you gotta do. Just like me.”
The old man eyed her, angled his jaw. She didn’t blink. Finally he gave a grudging nod.
“Jay,” he called. The young man reappeared. “I’ll give you the normal rate for two bushels of number threes. Jay, take these buckets. Haul ’em back to Shem and tell him to put ’em on ice.”
Cee said nothing as Ed retreated again. She would have thanked him, but it would only make him surlier.
“Number threes!” she shook her head. They were bigger than threes, or some were, anyway. She peered sidelong as the young man crouched and grasped the buckets. He started to walk away, then halted. Turned and looked her sheepishly in the eye.
“I’m sorry,” Jay said. “I don’t mean to pry…did Ed call you Celia?”
“Cee’s my name,” she said warily.
He looked her over again as if sizing her up, or trying to decide something. “What?” she drew back.
“Nothing. I’m sorry. I just…I think I might know your brother. Mosquito?”
Cee frowned deeply, almost glared.
“It’s nothing sketchy,” Jay rushed to say. “He brought me out to Coffin Road last night. He came because of — because of Rumor.”
That was different. She’d suspected the worst at her brother’s mention, but that was different. No telling what Mosquito might be up to, not till he showed at her door for a meal and a night or two on the couch, and that was rare enough. But that girl, she was the one thing Cee could trust him not to hold cheap.
Jay must have seen her features soften. “I’m trying to find him,” he pressed on. “I need…I want to ask what he knows about her.” He grimaced. “She seems…troubled. Do you know why?”
Celia shook her head. “Sorry, honeychild. Yeah, I know Rumor. And she know me pretty well. She about the only ear I got to talk to these days, but she never crack teeth about herself much. You want Mosquito for that.”
“So where I can I find him?”
Her eyebrows rose. “I can’t say where he is, ’cause I don’t know. Probably no one know but he.”
Jay frowned, nodded, then vanished into the kitchen with her buckets, appearing a moment later with her money. She took it, flinching when their hands almost touched, and folded the bills, and held her clenched hand to her breast.
“Sorry, honey.” She turned and left.
Cee climbed in the Accord and winced, looking down at her palm as her fingers folded and unfolded. The line of her mouth slackened a bit. She wondered what the new man knew about Rumor. No more than she did, she guessed, eyes narrowing.
But if Mosquito had really come for him when the girl needed help? Well. He couldn’t be all bad.
She started the car and drove away east down Sixty-one, eyes lighting on the worn-down weeds at the roadside. She missed the summer when they were tall and thick and luxuriant, a thing that no one, she was sure, spared thought for but herself. She drove slower. Cars passed her when no traffic could be seen coming the other way. People had so little time for anything, but time was what you made of it.
To an extent. Of course, time couldn’t always be what you made of it. She knew that same as anyone. There were moments when it pressed in on her, made it hard to breathe, demanded something she wasn’t sure she had to give.
* * *
Cee had returned to the Lowcountry after five years in Pittsburgh, even after swearing to never set foot in the South again, when her mother got cancer. The house had felt hollow and empty when her mother died, then even more so when her father followed soon after.
It was a sorry place to live. Sad and old, a shack compared to the new developments all around it. They hadn’t been here when Cee had left, but she wasn’t surprised. The land her family once owned had been sold off, bit by bit, and now rich white people lived where she once played.
She used to hate it, this house on Sea Cloud Way, so near to the plantation where her foremothers once worked. Their blood, sweat, and tears were literally in its soil, mingled with that of sharecroppers and overseers. Her eyes, then, had seen only the cruelty of the past.
Up north, though, she found that cruelty had followed her, though people hid it better, perhaps even from themselves. And she missed home. She’d tried to shake it off, to deny it, but it clung still. A cobweb caught in her hair. When she finally came back, just before her parents died, it felt like her lungs opening after years of holding her breath.
Sure, it was hard with the land values being jacked up, having to sell spare crab to save up to pay the property tax. But that was true everywhere here, now, and it was not nearly as bad as on the islands.
But there was nothing for it. It was cut into her heart, the marsh and the river; they wandered in her blood. The light of evening in the Spanish moss, the crepe myrtle’s smooth limbs and its tiny sprigs of white like lace. The clattering of shrimp in the river at low tide. All was beauty in the midst of decay.
Cee was home again. Her resentment hadn’t died, perhaps never would, but it was worn away now by time and water, and by the soul of this place itself. Worn to a dull ache. The grain of sand in a pearl.
She was home again, and home in this world meant taking the bad with the good, finding peace in the struggle.