A long time would pass before Jay met Mosquito again, long after all the answers had come. He saw Rumor, though, not two weeks later on his way to the Loblolly in early evening. She waved him down from across the road and his bike skidded to a halt just past her. She smiled, a thing Jay was happy and relieved to see.
“You’re off early today,” she said.
“Came in early.” Jay climbed off the bicycle and walked it beside her. He would ask her to come with him, but knew she would never go inside the motel. He didn’t blame her.
“I’m glad,” she said. “Don’t see you too often. You’re in that diner all the time.”
Jay winced. “Wouldn’t be if I had the choice.”
She laughed. It was a strange laugh, a weightless one, as if she couldn’t understand this concept of need. But that clarity had returned to her eyes, that mood that could not be tethered to the ground. She didn’t have to smile; Jay could read it in every line of her face.
“What are you doing Thanksgiving?” she asked.
“Hadn’t thought about it,” Jay winced. “But I guess that is a couple weeks away. Ed will probably make me come in.”
Rumor shook her head. “He usually closes the diner, holidays.”
“Oh. Well, guess I’ll be spending the day at the Loblolly. You?”
She stopped and faced him. “Uh uh,” she beamed, head tilted in amusement. “Not a day like that, in a motel, alone. Why don’t you come eat dinner with me?”
Thanksgiving with Rumor. He turned the idea over in his mind. How long had it been since he’d had spent a holiday with anyone? Anyone he knew, at least. He breathed in slow. “All right.”
Their heads dipped under nets of Spanish moss, thick and ropy under the arms of a young oak. Jay crossed his arms, tried not to shiver. It was fall after all, even here in the South. He would have to buy a jacket soon.
“Why couldn’t I have wrecked in Florida?” he groused.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s getting cold,” he laughed. “And the beach is the best place to be in the winter.”
He stared at her. “Well, I mean, it’s warmer down there, for one thing.”
She seemed pensive. “I’ve never seen the ocean,” she said. “I know about it, but…I guess I just don’t feel the draw.”
“Really? You’re kidding, right? We’re practically on the coast now — what, maybe twenty miles away?”
She shrugged. “There’s water here in the river. Tides, too. Salt and crabs, even dolphins sometimes. And sand in the soil.”
Jay shook his head, stunned. He didn’t know what to say. “You like the sand, huh?” he finally mused.
She smiled. “The way it feels in my toes.”
“Well, there’s whole beaches to sink your toes in at the ocean.”
She didn’t reply. Her lips made a narrow line, but her thoughtfulness did not dispell that look of elation. When she spoke again her voice seemed to half-whisper the words of a song. “Seas of sand,” she said. “Seas of brine and water.”
Just who was was this girl? Something lifted inside Jay, something new and good and too-long unfamiliar.
“I’d see the ocean,” she decided.
She hadn’t changed her mind. He could read that in her features, somehow. The river, the creeks, the marshes, all were still sufficient for her desire. To see the ocean — it was a sentiment she had admitted by choice, allowing it to exist in her mind.
He could not take his eyes away from her. Words stuck in his throat. “I’ll take you there soon,” he wanted to say, but didn’t. “When the Buick is fixed, we’ll go, even if it’s January. We’ll see the beach together in the new year under the bright morning sun.”
He felt the way he had dozens of times in the past year: a twisting in his chest, a wrenching vine around his heart — just as he’d felt every other time he had stayed in a place for too long. The urge woke again and raised its sleepy head: to drive for hours and hours and not stop.
Instead he gazed at her, wondering if he should ask her for a kiss, or simply steal it while he had the chance. Before he could decide, she stole it from him.
At last she pulled away. He could barely speak.
“I’ll come for you on Thanksgiving,” she whispered.
She crossed the street and was on her way. His heart was beating. He had trouble forming thoughts in the silence that was all around him and growing within him.
Then the roar of a car as it sped by. A cop, Jay realized. It too vanished down Sixty-one. He had not seen the driver, but his ears and cheeks burned and the gravel ground like bitter shards under his foot.
* * *
Two weeks later Rumor knocked at his room at the Loblolly. Jay opened it, eyes widening at the sight of her. Part of him had forgotten their plans, but another part had never really expected it to happen.
“You ready?” she asked, freckles pooling behind the clefts in her cheeks.
He followed her away toward the road. The day was bright and clear, warm too. A chill hung on the edge of the air, but it couldn’t touch him. Their steps quickened as they reached the highway, treading now in clear, hard-edged shadows cast by the midday sun. A squirrel barked, a mockingbird rasped, a cicada creaked, but there was little other sound on Sixty-one today.
His eyes lit up when they turned onto Coffin Road. Would he finally see her home? Meet some of her people? He tried to picture her father. A solid man, a wooden build, but with doughy cheeks, maybe.
They passed the rundown house and then the last of the driveways. Jay frowned. She must be taking a back way, he thought. They were almost to the river.
Rumor banked right when Coffin dead-ended, and he recognized the open place she had brought him to before, when the tide had been high and the marsh flooded. Now the grasses were gold and stood high over the water.
The road closed itself up again, hiding the river. He saw houses now, large and grand, newer developments all. He could see Rumor’s people in any one of them if they owned Indicum, as it seemed they did.
But she passed them all, too, and headed to the single rundown shack at the road’s end. They passed a blue bottle tree glinting in the shade. Her fist rapped on a warped door and it opened, a vaguely familiar face filling the frame.
“Hey, Rumor,” the woman said. “Bout time.” Her eyes settled on him then narrowed in recognition. “You the new man at the diner,” Celia Gadsden said.
“I am,” he coughed, suddenly awkward. He offered a hand. “Call me Jay.”
He followed them in. Inside he caught the scents of fried turkey and collards, red rice and candied yams. Who knew what else. The smells mingled and enticed. Jay swallowed his questions and sat with the two at a round table in the corner of a narrow room.
“I know what you thinking,” Celia said. “He ain here yet.”
Jay wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or to Rumor. Celia vanished into the kitchen and he breathed deep, waiting. The house felt still. Were they the only ones here?
The woman soon returned and set a glass of sweet tea with lemon on the table for each. “Thank you, Miss Celia,” said Jay.
“Call me Cee,” the woman said, and gave Rumor a sidelong look. “If I knew I was having three guests…”
He wondered who the third would be, then remembered Mosquito. “So — she didn’t tell you I was coming?”
Cee laughed. Jay couldn’t read the tone of it; it sounded good-natured, but the lines on her face were taut, stoic, her eyes distracted. “No, but that’s how she do. Ain a thing — they’s plenty of food in the kitchen.”
She slipped out back and the screen door slammed behind her. “Honeychild,” she called, “you gon help me with this turkey or what?”
Rumor smiled and followed her out, leaving Jay alone, in a stranger’s house. He could hear their muffled speech as they pulled the bird from simmering oil, and wondered if he should go and help. He hadn’t been asked, though, and didn’t want to impose himself.
His eyes idly swept the room, the patterned wallpaper with family photos arrayed in frames. He could see into Cee’s living room, too, from there, with its old console TV draped partly in checked vinyl, faced by a threadbare wingback and ottoman. Against another wall, lonely and forgotten, was a dark and drab sofa crowned by an abstract painting, the sole colorful object in that room.
He stood and walked, sipping his tea, to the door between rooms. From there he could see the focus of the room, hidden before by the wall adjoining the dining room: an upright piano, ornately carved but old. Somehow it tied together everything else here — the place looked not so tired, nor sad.
Jay wondered at that; then he asked himself: Did I hear piano music before? When Rumor took me to the river? Faint and far off… Or no, it could just be an imagined memory…
He poked the lemon in his tea with the straw, feeling awkward again, and wished he hadn’t left his seat.
The voices out back rose again, and Jay jumped, not realizing till now they had fallen still.
“Ain him I worry about,” Miss Celia was saying, “He gone come, or he ain, worry or no.” She sighed. “But you know I ain teach no lesson in a while. Ain much extra coming in these days, and the land tax…it come due next month.”
He could see them through the back window, leaning against the porch rail and staring out at the river. It was an intimate scene, one he felt even more out of place witnessing.
Cee sighed again, somehow more heavily than before. “Don’t know why I tell you this. I get the money someways, so don’t worry none about me.”
“I won’t. Where’s Gator off to?”
The woman laughed, glanced away at the marsh. “He run off and chase the fiddlers, just about every time I let him outside.”
Rumor was quiet for a moment. “You know, Cee, you’d have more coming in if you taught two instruments. When are you gonna play that cello again?”
Celia’s hands clenched, and the air between them seemed cooler now.
“I’m sorry,” said Rumor. “I didn’t mean to—”
“I know it,” Celia barked, then looked away. She breathed and her brow unfurled, and she spoke more gently. “Once that turkey set a bit, it gone be fine and juicy. Now go get that diner boy and make him bring the dishes.”
Jay hurried to the table and sat again just as the door clanged open.
The three of them carried the food out to a long wooden table. Jay could smell the fried oil now, and his stomach leapt, though he had smelled it enough for a lifetime at Ed’s. Celia’s yellow lab could smell it, too; it came running up from the river as the three of them sat to eat.
Jay had never eaten Thanksgiving outside before, but something about it felt right. The smell of the river mud mingled in the other aromas and made the food richer, more savory. Through the thick maze of oak branches that bent overhead, he could make out a sign by the edge of the creek: Idle speed, no wake. It seemed to fit the day well.
“Thanks for the food, Miss Cee,” Rumor said when they had finished. Jay echoed her.
“That was a job.” Cee smiled and leaned back in her chair. “Ain every day I cook this much, but I can’t say it ain worth it.” She eyed the empty chair opposite her at the table, but said nothing more.
“I’ll go in and wash up,” Rumor offered.
“I’ll join you in a minute,” said Jay.
He watched as she loped back to the house, then turned toward Celia, who was studying him already. “She’s amazing,” he said. “I think so, at least.”
“She’s something.” Again he saw her features soften despite her words. “I known her for plenty year now, and I still ain figure her out.”
“You mean…her spells?”
She fixed him with a pointed stare and looked him over.
“That and other things. I don’t know.” She took a long pull from her flask. “It ain that I think she hiding something. That girl, she ain the mysterious kind — in fact, the reverse. She ain hardly studying herself. She rarely thinks she’s something to study about. Least that’s how I understand it. Mosquito, he able fa say it better.”
“But why do you think she gets that way? Is she lonely?”
“Could be.” Cee’s own face grew forlorn, her eyes glazed over. “I know her well enough, but don’t hardly know much about her. I tell her all sort of thing, but she don’t say much about herself. Ain nobody but that brother mine can year a word she don’t want to say.”
Jay nodded. He stared at his empty plate, thought of how full he was and how Mosquito had failed to show.
“I should go and help,” he mumbled. Cee nodded.
* * *
Scrubbing the plates beside Rumor, he was struck by the way it all had touched him. Cee was a hard nut to crack, that was certain. But he liked her nonetheless. There was something tough in her that couldn’t be trod on, but wouldn’t be bitter, either. Was it resilience, or apathy? Jay couldn’t tell.
But it wasn’t merely the company, either. The meal, the place itself. It all seemed ideal. Comforting, in a way, though it made him sad as well.
He couldn’t feel at home here. Wouldn’t let himself. He’d known something like it once, after all: not the same, but near enough for his liking. He had thought that it would last, and for a while it had. Before the night when all of it changed, and it was lost.
Jay felt the restless fear flare up once more, the need for the open road. But now there was something else. It didn’t erase the desire to leave, but stood against it, evenly matched. A reason to stay.