“Just picture it. Tables end to end, all covered in hot shells, folks standing under hanging moss with gloves and shucking knives in hand. The steam of the roast mingling with the cool air. Beer and hot sauce everywhere. You’d make a killing on the beer sales alone.”
Ed grunted. His face was a scowl, his bony fingers rubbed his stubbled chin. It was an absent movement, but his eyes were present, boring holes in Jay’s own forehead.
“Think of the trash, though,” he groaned. “Solo cups an’ emptied 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 grew deeper, but Jay could see the thought behind it starting 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. Next year, you can do it again and keep all the money. I promise.”
“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 some time to think on it,” Ed concluded.
Jay nodded. He’d expected that, too.
He’d long started to smell like grease, and long stopped noticing, before Ed sent him home that night. It was near ten, long past the time he’d usually get off. Jay’s body felt weary and alert at the same time. He could hardly stand another minute, but there was no way he would sleep any time soon.
The motel bed didn’t seem as odious as it had before. He could almost imagine the white sheets were clean. Relief and pleasure flooded through him, thinking of what he’d managed to do. What Rumor would say when she heard.
If only he could go somewhere. He stood, strode to the motel room door. Opened it. Outside a sea of ink met him, waves of cold washing over his frame.
Where could he go? To the house on Coffin? To see if Rumor might be there? No, it was too cold for that. Doubtless she was indoors, in whatever bed she’d so far refused to let him see. To Celia’s? No, it was too late for that. Even if it weren’t, neither place called to him. He felt their weight, the weight of what they’d come to mean.
The road. That was what called to him. To get in the Buick and drive away, with Rumor in the passenger seat.
It nearly took his breath away, the desire for it. Even as he knew how unlikely, how impossible it was.
Somehow he made it through the night. He woke at five in the morning, before the sun had risen, before the motel alarm clock had even rung. Jay showered quickly, threw on clothes and a jacket. He pedaled down Sixty-one and then Coffin Road, skidding to a halt just before the house.
Rumor wasn’t there. He waited. Light seeped slowly into the world, the sun first a weakened glede among the treetops, then gradually a glowing orb, casting the land in warm colors that only made him shiver more.
He wasn’t sure why he’d come here to find her. The brief warmth they’d enjoyed was gone, and who knew when it would return. But there was no other place so tied to her in his mind. Here, where he had met her. Here, where everything had happened.
Soon the day was bright and awake. The morning felt fresh, filled with promise. Jay went into the house again, climbed into the loft, as if somehow expecting her to appear there. She did not. Cobwebs dripped from the rafters, their beams so warped they looked ready to collapse. He sat down, traced the place where they had lain side by side. The wood was rough, the grain splitting apart.
Jay checked his watch. It was time to leave. Any longer and he’d be late for work, and he would not do anything to anger Ed. Not now. He’d toe the line as long as it took to get his yes.
In midafternoon, long after lunch rush ended, Ed drove to the bank in town to make a deposit. He left the diner in the hands of Jay, Shem, and Annie, the only server that shift.
Jay had just dried the last of the dishes when he heard Annie’s voice calling from the bar.
“Jay! Some woman out here for ya.”
He rounded the corner, half expecting to see Rumor. He stopped short before the bar, nostrils filling with the strong scent of spill in the bar mat. It was Celia Gadsden. Her skin was dusky in the shade of the diner, especially against the honeyed gold of light on the far wall spilling through the door.
Jay was about to greet her, but something in her bearing made him clam up. He waited for her to speak.
“She tol’ me what you done. I didn’t ask for that.”
His face fell. “I know. But we wanted to help.”
“Anyone else, I’da refused. I don’t take charity.” Celia sighed. “Comin’ from her, though… I know she got a good heart.”
It was true. He hadn’t realized it before, but Jay would never have agreed to a scheme like this if anyone else had asked him.
“Can’t say I don’ need it. Or it’s a bad idea. Folks on the islands used to do fish fries for this kinda thing when I was young, but I don’t have the resources to put somethin’ like that on. Or the connections. Not since I moved off.”
Jay was struck by how little he knew about this woman. An image of the piano in her home surfaced in his mind’s eye. “The first time she took me to the river,” he said, “I thought I heard piano music. Was that you?”
She looked away. “Not me. I teach, but I don’t play. Not for a while.” She glanced at her hands, clasped them tightly together.
Hadn’t she done that the first time he’d met her? Here in this very dining room? Now, though, the look in her eyes was sad, not flinching. Why was that? He wanted to ask, but knew better.
“I didn’t mean any offense,” he said. “Nor disrespect.”
Her gaze snapped up toward his face again, eyes proud. Then she softened again.
“I didn’t ask for help,” she said. “Don’t mean I ain’t grateful.”
* * *
Jay finally got his answer from Ed near the end of his shift that day.
“It’s not gonna happen. Too much risk, not enough payout. ‘Specially if I’m givin’ so much of it away.”
He was stunned. It had seemed so perfect. Hadn’t Ed been on board yesterday morning? How had this happened?
“Some money’s better than none at all, right?” he pressed, tried to hold what thread of hope he could find. “And you could have the roast without deciding to give her anything — just put that part off, decide on it later.”
Ed looked embarrassed. Not for himself, but for Jay. For being made to say aloud what he felt should have been obvious from the first.
“Sorry. Can’t risk it. We’re a diner, not a seafood shack. Plenty of those further in town, even more in the city. Best to know who ya are, and stick with it.”
That was it. The plan was over.
Jay hardly spoke the rest of the day. How was he going to tell Rumor? Or Celia, to whom he’d all but promised the money? If only Rumor hadn’t gone and told her! Why did she go and do a thing like that, anyway?
He felt trapped. Cornered. A familiar feeling. He had to leave town — now. But he couldn’t. The Buick was still in the shop, and he had nowhere near enough to pay Jim Holt’s bill yet. He couldn’t leave, yet he couldn’t stay. What the hell was he going to do?
He didn’t remember leaving the diner that night. Didn’t even know if Ed had let him go. He had left his bike at the diner, had forgotten it in his misery. He felt like a man facing a firing squad, walking home to the motel.
What would he tell Rumor? He went over and over the words in his head, not feeling the cold at all. I’d like to help. But I’m not my own man. My time is not my own time. My money is not my own money. Not till I pay off the repairs.
That would never work. She would never understand it — neither of them would. He knew it the same way he knew she would forgive him. But that didn’t make facing her, facing either of them, a mite easier.
In his bed that night, Jay dreamed of a fox. It was a red fox, flying from a pack of hounds, led by horsemen in red. They’d been chasing it for hours, tirelessly, endlessly.
There was nowhere to look but straight ahead. The fox barreled over log and under fern, striving to keep its breath. Its whole body one raw nerve, pinched and harried by the threat of the dogs. Dwarf palmetto scratched at its face, making it bleed. Thorny vines clutched at its legs.
That was nothing to what would fall if the hounds caught it.
It had to stay awake. It was almost to a den, and then it could get some sleep. Eat a morsel or two, lick its wounds. One foot in front of the other. How long had it been running? Five hours? Six, seven? It wasn’t sure.
“Jay,” a woman’s voice called.
The pines parted, opening to a glade bordered by more oaks. It ran into the allée, following some appointed path it knew nothing of. Was that a voice calling its name? Maybe it was. It looked, but saw no one.
Then it stopped. Something in it turned, a bent hanger coming straight again, if only a little. It stopped, faced the huntsmen. The dogs all leg and lung and mouth.
Whatever would come would come. And the dogs themselves were taken aback, if only for a moment, by the resolve in the fox’s eyes.
* * *
In the morning Jay rose, paler than if he’d seen a ghost. He was not himself anymore. At least that’s how it felt. He looked around the motel room. Was Rumor here? No, that was ridiculous. She had never entered the motel, and he knew she never would. But he felt part of her on his skin somehow, even so.
He opened the drawer in the bedside table, 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. He slipped the envelope in his pocket.
When he arrived at Sea Cloud Lane, he left his bike by the stop sign. Walked to the last house on the river side of the road, opened the screen door slow as he could. He slipped the envelope in the crack beneath the door and left without making a sound.