Jay sat down in his corner table. He’d had little chance to think that morning, sore as he was all over from his night in the little house on Coffin. For the first five hours at Ed’s, business had been furious. Breakfast had bled into lunch. By the time he found a moment to breathe, just after one thirty, there was seldom a dry inch on his body from all the dishwashing.
In the moments between moments, when his mind did have a chance to settle, it had lit on Ira Glass. On the strange fixation the cop seemed to have on him. It was an uneasy current running through all his thought.
He pushed it out of mind. There was nothing to gain by worry.
But Rumor, though. He did wonder about her. Who was she? What had driven her to anguish? He was beginning to get caught up in the thought of her; he could hardly breathe. Careful, Jay. It might not be a good idea… If only there were someone he might ask.
But there was someone. Mosquito.
Jay set down the half-eaten grilled cheese Shem had made him. Scanned the dining room for the old man. 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 of that homeless man came in last night?
Ed gave a dour look, but that was nothing new. “More than 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. “I 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 him.”
Jay had a word or two he might say to that, but thought better. He needed to learn what the old man knew.
“Sure, of course. 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, as if 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 him from far away. If only he could heed them. The day was wearing heavy on his shoulders, and there were hours still left to go. He would have to find another way.
* * *
Cee Gadsden gathered up her things. Buckets, line, bits of week-old chicken. The day had afforded better crabbing than she’d looked for, and both her buckets were near filled by now. It was time for quitting. The tide had begun to sink again.
The boardwalk creaked underfoot as she trudged toward shore. It was near evening and the sky was pale, the kind of pale that had a golden glow behind it. Not a radiant, summery glow, but a dull blaze under white skies. It made her feel pleasantly tired. Calm, contented, as if life really could go on, hard as that seemed on autumn nights like this.
The marsh, though — it really was that summery gold. The fleeing light lit the sea of grass in all its end-of-year glory, setting it afire. It was one of the few ways you could tell fall from summer in the Lowcountry. When the marshes shed their green.
Cee crossed the lonely road and made straight for her house, the only building on Sea Cloud Way that did not seem a mansion to her. She did not go inside. Instead she threw the leftover scraps of chicken neck to the dogs, leaned the hand net against the rail by the back door. She set the buckets down, staring in at the jostling blue creatures. How much could she eat in a week? How much could she spare?
This time of year, when crabs were 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. They didn’t bring in much, but she needed every penny. End of the week, she could always go out for more.
It was no chore to her. To sit by the water in a folding chair and stare out on the bends in the wandering marsh; to listen to the fiddlers swarm up the shallow bank… it was one of the few real pleasures she took, one of the few things that could let her forget her worries. It added something real to life, something satisfying that she couldn’t define.
Cee put what she could spare in the passenger’s seat of her grey Accord and pulled out onto the road. Made the turn onto Coffin, passed the familiar ruined house and willow tree, headed for Sixty-one.
Her mind had only begun to drift when she pulled into the cramped lot at Ed’s. She sighed, turned off the car, and grabbed the two buckets.
She heard the bell extol as she opened the door. Ed’s was slow, but not dead. She’d seen it slower, and she’d seen it packed in her day. She wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or not. A slower day meant Ed might have more time for her; but if business was too slow he might not want to buy what she had for him.
A young man greeted her who she’d never seen before. “Welcome to Ed’s,” he breathed, pushing the hair from of his forehead. “Just one today?”
“Eh, no — I wanted 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 the back.”
Cee wondered who the new guy was. It had been late June since she’d last been in, but still, she hadn’t expected to meet new staff. She studied the dining room, drank in the brisk and carefree air of the patrons. Not a single one glanced up her way, nor took any notice of her at all. She supposed that was best, but it bugged her for some reason. She’d never liked the diner, not really. Though she wasn’t sure why. The acrid smell, the aura of the old guard in its glossy wood tables. There was something else in it, though, something that unsettled her more, touched her closer to home. The air of impermanence, maybe.
“Celia,” the old man croaked as he emerged from behind the bar. He nodded briskly. “I see you’ve got something for me again.”
“You know I do.” Her words were bold and confident, but she didn’t feel any of it. Ed grimaced and shook his head, displeasure filling his features.
“Damn it, you know I can’t just be takin’ scraps from anyone walks in. 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, Ed. You do what you gotta do. Just like I do.”
The old man eyed her, tilted his jaw. She didn’t blink. Finally he gave a reluctant nod.
“Jay,” he called. The young man from before reappeared. “I’ll give you the normal rate for two bushels of number threes. Jay, take the buckets. Haul ‘em back to Shem and tell him to put ‘em on ice.”
Cee said nothing as Ed disappeared. She would have thanked him, but knew it would only have made him more surly. They were better than number threes, anyway. Some of them, at least. She peered sidelong at the young man who crouched to pick up the buckets. The man started to walk away, but halted a moment. 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. It seemed as if he were sizing her up, or trying to decide something. “What?” she drew back.
“Nothing. I’m sorry. It’s just…I think I might know your brother. Mosquito?”
Cee frowned deeply, looked askance at him.
“It’s nothing sketchy,” Jay rushed to say. “He came to bring me out to Coffin Road last night. He came because of — because of Rumor.”
That was different. She’d suspected the worst at the mention of her brother, but that was different. There was no telling what Mosquito might be up to these days. She didn’t see him unless he wanted to be seen; and that was usually when he showed up at her home for a meal and a night or two on the couch. But that girl, she was the one thing he was mixed up in that was something good.
He could see her features soften, and he pressed on, encouraged. “I’m trying to find him. To ask him what he knows about her. I’m kind of worried…she was in a real bad way, and I’d…like to know more. Unless you could tell me?”
Cee smiled sympathetically. “I’m sorry, hon. Yeah, I know Rumor. And she knows me pretty well. She about the only ear I have to talk to these days. But she never talks about herself much. You want Mosquito for that.”
“And where I can I find him?”
She hated having to wipe that look of hope from his face. “I can’t tell you where he is, ’cause I don’t know. Probably no one knows that but hisself.”
Jay took the buckets to the kitchen and came back out with the money Ed had given him. He held it out for her and she took it, flinching when their hands almost touched. She folded the bills and held her clenched hand to her breast. “Sorry,” she breathed, then turned and left.
She climbed in the Accord. Sat there for a moment and winced, looking down at her palm as her fingers folded and unfolded. The line of her mouth slackened a bit. She tried to breathe.
What did the young man know about Rumor? Surely no more than she did. She wondered what he wanted with her, and felt herself grow defensive on the girl’s behalf. But if Mosquito had really come for him, had fetched him out to the girl when she needed him… Well, he couldn’t be all that bad, right? She didn’t trust her older brother for much, but she trusted him with the girl.
Cee started the car and drove off east down Sixty-one, eyes lighting on the worn-down weeds at the side of the road. Thought of the summer, when they were so tall and thick and luxuriant. She took her slow time, cars passing 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 as much as anyone. There were moments when time pressed in on her, not letting her breathe, demanding something she wasn’t sure she’d be able to give.
* * *
Cee had come back to the Lowcountry after living in Pittsburgh for five years. She had come because her mother had cancer, even though she swore she’d never return to the South again. The house seemed as if it had lost a limb when her mother died. Then even more when her father followed his wife of fifty years soon after.
It was a sorry place to live. Sad and old, a shack compared to the new developments sprouting up around it. They hadn’t been here when Cee had left, but she wasn’t surprised. The land her family had once owned had been sold off, bit by bit, and now rich people lived where she once had played.
Cee had once hated this place. This house on Sea Cloud Way, so near the plantation her people once worked. Their blood, sweat, and tears were literally in its soil, along with that of sharecroppers and overseers. Her eyes then had only seen the cruelty of the past.
But once in Pennsylvania, she’d begun to miss home. She’d tried to shake it off, but it had clung still. A cobweb caught in her hair. When she finally came back, before her parents died, it had felt a bit like her lungs opening after years of holding her breath.
Sure, it was harder on the sea islands than here, with the land values being jacked up — but they were jacked up anywhere you go now. She felt the marsh and the river wander through her mind. Thought of the willow and its beauty in the midst of decay.
She was home now, at last. Her resentment of the place hadn’t died, but it was worn away, by time and water, and by the soul of the place itself; worn down to a dull ache in her heart. The grain of sand in a pearl.
She was home again. And home in this world meant taking the bad with the good, being reconciled to it.