It was a long time before Jay saw Mosquito again. But he saw Rumor not long after meeting Celia Gadsden, on the bike ride home to his motel from Ed’s. It was early evening. She waved him down from the other side of the road and he stopped, looked her over. He was glad to see her again. Glad to see she was able to smile.
“You’re off early today,” she said.
“Came in early,” Jay replied. He climbed off the bicycle and crossed the road, walking it beside her. He would have asked if she wanted to come with him, but he 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 there workin’ all the time.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t be if I had the choice.”
He gave her a quick glance. Her eyes had that clarity he’d seen before, that weightless quality, as if her mood could not be tethered to the ground. She didn’t even have to smile. It was written already in every line of her face.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” she asked.
“Oh,” he laughed. “Hadn’t thought about it. It’s a couple weeks away now, and I don’t even know if Ed will need me.”
Rumor shook her head. “He usually closes the diner, holidays.”
“Oh. Well, guess I’ll be spending the day at the Loblolly, then. You?”
She halted, turning to face him. “Uh uh,” she beamed. “You ain’t spendin’ a day like that in a motel, alone. Why don’t you eat dinner with me?”
Thanksgiving with Rumor. He hadn’t thought of it before, and 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 wide nets of Spanish moss, thick and ropy, that hung from the arms of a young oak. Jay crossed his arms, tried in vain to hold in the warmth of his body. It was growing cold as the day faded and gloaming set in; cold, that is, for this part of the South, this time of year. He would need to buy a heavy jacket soon.
“Why couldn’t I have wrecked in a beach town?” he mused aloud.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s getting cold,” he laughed. “And the beach is the best place to be in the winter.”
“Why’s that?” Rumor frowned. She had the look of someone considering something she’d never thought of before.
“Well, it’s warmer for one thing. Nicer.”
“I’ve never been to the ocean. I know about it, but…I guess I just don’t see why anyone would want to go.”
His head wheeled sharply toward her. “Really? You’re kidding, right?”
She shrugged. “Why would you ever need to? There’s water here in the river. Tides, too. And salt and crabs — even dolphins sometimes. And sand in the soil.”
Jay had to laugh at that. “You like the sand?” he asked.
She smiled. “I like the way it feels in my toes.”
“Well, there’s a whole beach of it to relax on at the ocean.”
Rumor did not reply. She looked deep in thought, her pink lips a narrower line, though that look of elation had not left her features. When she spoke again her voice sounded as if she were half whispering a song. “Seas of sand,” she said. “Seas of brine and water.”
Jay smiled. He couldn’t help it sometimes, when he was around her. He felt something lift in him, something new and good and too-long unfamiliar.
“I would see the ocean,” she decided.
She hadn’t changed her mind. She still found the river and the creeks and marshes whole and satisfying, sufficient for anything she might ever want. To see the ocean — it was a sentiment she’d admitted by choice, as if allowing it to exist in her mind. He could read all of this in her face, somehow.
Jay swallowed, words of his own stuck in his throat. “I’ll take you there soon,” he wanted to say, but didn’t. “We’ll go when the Buick is fixed, even if it’s the middle of January. We’ll see the beach together on a bright morning in the new year.”
It was hard to breathe. He felt the way he had dozens of times in the past year: that twisting, agonizing feeling, a vine twining around his heart the way it did every time he had thought about staying still in a place for too long. He choked back the urge to flee, to drive for hours without stopping.
Instead he gazed at her face. Wanting to kiss her, he realized. Should he ask? Or just steal the kiss? Before he could make up his mind she stole it from him.
At last she pulled away. He could barely speak.
“I’ll come get you on Thanksgiving,” she whispered.
She crossed the street and was soon far away. He was nearly at the motel, he realized. He almost wished he’d asked her in, though he knew well what the answer would have been. He had trouble forming thoughts, felt the silence grow within him and all around him.
Then the air roared as a car sped by. A police car, he realized, as it too vanished down Sixty-one. Jay had not seen the driver, but he felt his ears and cheeks burn hot. The gravel ground like bitter shards beneath his feet.
* * *
Two weeks later Rumor knocked on his door. Jay opened it, eyes wide. Part of him had forgotten their Thanksgiving date; the other part had remembered but hadn’t expected it to really happen.
“You ready?” she asked, freckles pooling behind the clefts in her cheeks.
Jay followed her away toward the road. The day was bright and clear, warm too. He was thankful for that. A chill still hung on the edge of the air, but it couldn’t touch them. 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 crow uttered its throaty, cackling call. There was little other sound on Sixty-one today.
His eyes lit when they turned on Coffin Road. Would he finally see her home? Maybe meet some of her family?
He tried to picture what her father might look like. A solid man, a wooden build, but with doughy cheeks. Soon they passed the dirt driveways on both sides of the rundown house. Jay frowned She must be taking a back way, he thought. They were almost to the river.
The road dead-ended and Rumor banked right. Jay recognized the open place where she had taken him before, when the tide had been high and the marsh could barely breathe. It looked different now. The grasses were more yellow-brown and stood high above the water.
The road closed itself up again; he could no longer see the river. Houses came into view, large and grand. He could see Rumor’s people owning any one of them, if they owned Indicum, as it seemed they did.
She passed them all. Headed to the single rundown shack at the road’s end. Her fist rapped on the warped door and it opened, a familiar face filling its frame.
“Hey, Rumor. Bout time. Who’s this?” The woman’s eyes settled on him, then narrowed in recognition. “You the new man at the diner,” Celia Gadsden said.
“I am,” he coughed, surprised and confused. He offered his hand. “Call me Jay.”
Inside he caught the smells of fried turkey and collards, red rice and candied yams. Who knew what else. The smells mingled in the air, beckoned him on. Jay put aside his questions and followed the two to a narrow room, where they sat at a round white table.
“I know what you’re thinkin’,” Celia said. “He ain’t here yet.”
Was she talking to him, or to Rumor? Jay wasn’t sure. Celia vanished into the kitchen and the two guests breathed deep, waiting for their host. 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 replied, giving Rumor a sidelong look. “If I knew I was havin’ three guests…”
Jay wondered who the third guest 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, her eyes distracted. “No, but that’s her way. Ain’t a big deal. Plenty to go around.”
The screen door slammed behind her as she went out the back door. “Rumor hon, you gon’ help me with this turkey, or what?”
Rumor smiled and followed her out. Jay watched her go, not sure what to do now, left alone in a stranger’s house. He could hear their muffled speech as they pulled the bird from the simmering oil. Should he go and help them? He hadn’t been asked, though, and didn’t want to get in the way.
He scanned the inside of Miss Celia’s house. The patterned wallpaper, family photos in an array of frames. Through the doorway he could see the drab living room: a threadbare wingback, a matching ottoman. An old console TV, covered partly with a checked vinyl tablecloth. A single, abstract painting above the sofa. Tired and sad — all but the upright piano on the far wall, carved with an ornate design on the upper panel. It was the focus of the room, he realized. Had he heard piano music here before, when Rumor had taken him to the river, faint and far off? Or was he imagining the memory?
Jay sipped at his tea again. Prodded the lemon with his straw. He felt awkward sitting by himself. They were still at it in the backyard; perhaps he should offer and hand after all.
He stood and strode to the door, but paused when he saw the way they were poised facing each other, leaning against the porch rail, staring out at the river with their backs to him. It was an intimate scene. One he had no wish to interrupt.
“It ain’t him I’m worried about,” Miss Celia was saying. “He’ll either come, or he won’t. No. It’s the land tax. I ain’t give lessons in a while.” She sighed. “Not much extra comin’ in these days. Though I don’t know why I be tellin’ you this stuff.”
Her tone was kind even if the words and cadence were brusque. “I’ll get the money somehow. I don’t want you to worry.”
“I’m not. How’s Gator doin’?”
The older woman laughed, glanced off at the dog that was sleeping nearby. “Runnin’ off, chasin’ fiddlers, diggin’ up my garden. Same as always.”
Rumor was quiet for a moment. “You know, maybe you’d have more comin’ in if you taught two instruments. When you gon’ play that cello again?”
Celia’s hands clenched tight. The air between the two seemed colder now.
“I’m sorry,” Rumor said. “I didn’t mean to push…”
“I know you didn’t.” Celia looked at the ground. “Take in that turkey, now. Once it sets a bit it’ll be fine and juicy inside.”
Jay hurried to sit again as the door opened and clanged behind the women. He could smell the fried oil even more now. Hadn’t he breathed it enough for a lifetime, at Ed’s all the past month or two, at all the restaurants he’d washed dishes in. But it didn’t seem nearly so off-putting here, now.
They ate outside at a table Cee had set up between her house and the shore. He could smell the river too, now, but it wasn’t a bad smell. It mingled in the aroma of the food, made everything richer, more savory. Through the thick maze of oak branches he could make out a sign in the marsh. Idle speed, no wake. It seemed to fit the day well.
“Thanks for the food, Miss Celia,” Rumor said when they had finished. Jay echoed her.
“That was a job.” Cee leaned back in her chair, gave a sigh of contentment. “Ain’t every day I be makin’ so much, but it’s worth it today.” She eyed the empty chair opposite her at the table, but she spoke nothing more.
“I’ll go in and wash up,” Rumor volunteered.
“I’ll join you in a minute,” said Jay. He watched as she wandered back toward the house.
He turned to look at Cee, who was studying him already. “She’s amazing,” he said. “I think so, at least.”
“She’s somethin’.” Again he saw her features soften despite her words. “I known her years now, still ain’t figured her out.”
“You mean…the spells?”
She fixed him with a pointed stare. Looked him over.
“That and other things. I don’t know.” She took a long pull from her flask. “Ain’t that I think she’s hidin’ nothin’. She ain’t the type to be mysterious. In fact, the opposite. She don’t think about herself too much — it don’t often cross her mind that she might be somethin’ to talk about. Least that’s how I see it. Mosquito could 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 know a lot about her. I tell her all sorts of things, but she don’t tell me much herself. Ain’t no one but that brother of mine can get a word out of her she don’t want to say.”
He nodded. Stared at his empty plate, thought of how full he was and how Rumor was busy with the dishes. Of how Mosquito had failed to show.
“I should go and help,” he mumbled. Cee nodded.
Trudging back toward the house, 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.
Yet 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. It hadn’t lasted. He’d thought it would, once, before he left. Before the night when everything had changed.
Again he felt the restless fear flare up, 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.