“Just picture it. Tables of hot shells, end to end. Folks standing under hanging moss, shucking knives in gloved hands. The steam of the roast vanishing into cool air. And everywhere, beer and hot sauce bottles — you’d make a killing on the beer sales alone.”
Ed grunted. His face was a scowl. Bony fingers scratched at his chin absently, though his eyes were present, boring holes into Jay.
“Think of the trash,” he groaned. “Solo cups an’ empty shells all over the place.”
“The cups wouldn’t take long to clear away.”
“An’ the shells?”
Jay shrugged. “It would add to the atmosphere.”
The man grunted again. His frown deepened, but Jay could see the thought behind it start to turn. “Not much markup on oysters,” he muttered, “but the drink sales might could be worth it. And people would come.”
“I don’t know,” he glanced at Jay. “I’d lose half the profit, probably. I ain’t even sold on the idea, then you want me to go and donate it all away.”
“It’s the whole point of the thing. A good cause. Publicity. Next year do it over again and keep all the money.”
“Mm.” Ed’s look soured even more.
It didn’t worry Jay. The old man always looked like that when he was making up his mind to do something. He breathed a little easier; the thing seemed almost done.
“I need time to think on it,” Ed concluded.
Jay nodded. He’d expected that, too.
He had long started to smell like grease, and long ceased to notice, by the time Ed sent him home. It was nearing ten, long past when he usually left the diner, and yet he felt wired. When his door at the Loblolly swung open to receive him, it somehow seemed less odious. He could almost imagine the white sheets were clean.
What would Rumor say when she heard the news? When he told her what he’d managed to do? He grinned ridiculously.
The road. It called to him now, a heavy, ecstatic pull. To slip into the Buick and drive away from this place, to leave it all behind — but with Rumor at his side, in the passenger seat. No longer driving alone.
It nearly took his breath away. Even as he knew how unlikely, how impossible it was.
Jay couldn’t breathe. He opened the door, let in the night air, somehow as seedy as the inside of the motel room. He didn’t care. It was a sea of ink, waves of cold washing over him, a balm against all that he felt.
Somehow he made it through the night. At five in the morning, before the sun rose, he woke, showered quickly, then threw on clothes and a jacket. he pedaled down Sixty-one on his Spaceliner, then up Coffin Road, skidding to a halt just before the house. She wasn’t there. He could tell without entering.
Jay waited. Light seeped back into the world, the sun first a tiny glede glowing amidst the treetops, then a waxing orb. As it rose it cast colors over the land, warm colors that made him shiver more. Soon the day was bright and awake, the morning fresh with promise.
Now he entered the house. Climbed the stairs, turned into the hall and opened the last door on the right where the ragged quilt she had used for a pillow last time still lay in the middle of the room.
She wasn’t there. He had known she wouldn’t be, but he was surprised even so.
He sat on the floor, tracing the rough wood with his finger, the place where they had lain side by side. The grain was splitting apart. The rafters above, so warped they looked ready to fall, dripped with cobwebs fine and dewy. Outside the crepe myrtle wavered in no breeze that Jay could feel.
Why had he come here? Jay wondered. The brief warmth they had enjoyed was gone, and who knew when it would blow back into town. But there was no other place that was so tied to her in his mind. Here, where they had met. Here, where everything had happened.
He checked his watch. Time to leave. If he lingered any longer he’d be late for work, and he had no wish to anger Ed. Not now, when he was so close to getting his yes.
* * *
Midafternoon, after the lunch rush, Ed drove into town to drop off the deposit. He left the diner in the hands of Jay, Shem, and Annie, the only server there that shift. Jay had just dried the last of the dishes when he heard Annie’s voice calling from the bar.
“Jay! Some woman here for you.”
He rounded the corner, half expecting Rumor, but stopped short before the bar. It was Celia Gadsden. Her skin was dusky in the diner’s shade, especially against the honeyed gold of light on the far wall that spilled in through the door.
He smiled, about to greet her, but something in her bearing made him keep still.
“She tell me what you done. I ain axe for that.”
His face fell. “I know. But we wanted to help.”
Her lips thinned, eyes bitter as the smell of spill from the bar mat. “Ain nobody else I’d accept it from, tell the truth. But she,” Celia rolled her eyes, “she got a good heart.”
It was true. Jay hadn’t realized, but he would never have agreed to something like this if anyone else had asked him.
“Can’t say I don’t need it, or it’s a bad idea.” She looked him in the eye. There was something different in her now, tired yet less guarded. “They use to have fish fry on the islands for this kind of thing, way back, to help raise money for them what need it. But I don’t know no one would come now — not since I left.”
Since she left? How little Jay knew about her… A memory of the piano in her home flashed in his mind, and he wondered again.
“The first time Rumor brought me to the river,” he said, “I thought I heard music. Was that you?”
She stared at him. “Not me. I teach, but I don’t play. Not in a good, long while.”
Her hands clenched tightly together. Hadn’t she done that the first time he’d met her — here in this very dining room? But the look in her eyes was sad now, not flinching.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said. “Or disrespect you.”
Her eyes flashed hard, then softened. “I ain axe for help,” she said. “Don’t mean I ain grateful.”
* * *
Near the end of shift that night, Ed called him back to the office to give his answer.
“Ain’t gonna happen,” he growled. “Too much effort, not enough payout. Especially if I’m givin’ most of it away.”
Jay was stunned. His scheme had been so perfect. Hadn’t Ed been on board only a day ago? How had this happened?
“Some money’s better than none, though, right?” he pressed, grasping what thread he could find. “And you could have the roast without deciding to give her anything — just put off that part, decide on it later.”
Ed looked embarrassed. Not for himself, but for Jay; for being made to say aloud what he felt should be obvious from the first.
“Sorry, can’t risk it. We’re a diner, not a seafood shack. Plenty a those further in town, even more in the city. Best to know who you are and stick with that.”
So that was it. The plan was over.
He didn’t remember leaving the diner. Didn’t know if Ed had even let him go. He had certainly not said a word as he left, not even to Shem or Annie. He’d even left the Spaceliner at the diner, forgotten in his misery. He felt like a man facing a firing squad, walking home to the motel.
How was he going to tell Rumor? Or Celia, who he’d just all but promised the money… If only Rumor hadn’t told her just yet. Why had she, anyway?
Jay felt trapped now, cornered. A familiar feeling.
He had to leave town — now. But he couldn’t. The Buick was still in the shop, and there was nowhere near enough money to pay the bill yet. He couldn’t leave, but couldn’t stay still, either. What the hell was left for him to do?
I’d like to help. The words ran through his head in circles. I’d like to. But I’m not my own man. My time is not my time. My money isn’t mine, either, not till I can pay all that I owe.
She would never understand that. Neither of them would. He knew that the same way he knew they would forgive him; but that made it harder, not easier, to face them.
In his bed that night, Jay dreamed of foxes. A red fox, flying before a pack of hounds, tireless, relentless. An endless, desperate chase. The fox barreled over log and under fern and strove to keep its breath. Its whole body was a single nerve, pinched and harried by the threat of the dogs. Dwarf palmettos scratched its face and made it bleed. Thorny vines clutched its feet.
That was nothing to what the hounds would do if they caught it.
It had to keep going. It was almost to a den, then it could maybe sleep, eat a morsel or two, lick its wounds. One foot in front of the other. How long had it been running? Fix hours? Six, seven? It wasn’t sure.
The pines parted, opening on a glade bordered by rows of oaks. It ran into the allée, following a path long appointed that it knew nothing of. Was that a voice calling its name? Maybe it was. Jay, Jay… stay…
The fox stopped. Something turned deep in its stomach, like bent iron hammered straight. It turned and faced the hunters, all leg and lung and mouth. Whatever would come would come.
And the dogs themselves were taken aback, if only a moment, by the resolve in the fox’s eyes.
When morning came, Jay was no longer himself. Or so he felt, at least. His eyes whipped around the motel room… Was Rumor here? No, that was ridiculous. She had never even entered the motel before, and he knew she never would. But he felt her there in his skin, even so.
He opened the bedside table drawer, took out the Gideon Bible he’d hollowed out. Opened it, took out the stack of bills. Counted them. In an envelope he placed exactly $890, the amount Rumor had said was needed, then slipped the envelope in his pocket.
He walked entirely to Sea Cloud Way as if dreaming still. Opened the screen door of the last house on the river side, slipped the envelope beneath the door, and left without making a sound.