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PHOEBE’S PACE hastened as she approached her truck parked in the lee of the building near the big trash compactor. She’d had to find a spot away from prying eyes because she couldn’t trust Maydean and Willie-Boy to behave without her standing over them. Like now, she noted, discovering Willie-Boy hanging out the window.
“Did you get work?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Phoebe said, brushing off the fact that the interviewer had insulted her down to muscle and bone. “I didn’t want that old job nohow. Dern it, Maydean. I told you not to mess with that mirror, didn’t I?”
Twelve-year-old Maydean flounced. It took her whole body to do it. “How much money we got left, Phoebe? I’m hungry.”
Phoebe didn’t want to think about money. Or buying food. Or where they were going to sleep that night. She reached up, adjusting the mirror. “We’ll eat when I get hungry.”
“You never get hungry! And you’re never going to get no job, either. You’re too skinny. I told you! If you want to work in the city you got to have a figure. I told you! Stuff toilet paper in your bra. There ain’t nobody going to hire a flat-chested string bean like you. Not to work in no office, they ain’t. And you oughta dyed your hair. Folks take one look at that fire-engine red and they know right off you got a temper. Know right off you’re skinny and mean. You ain’t never going to find us a place, Phoebe. I know you ain’t. Ma should never have trusted you to do it. We’ll probably never see Ma and Pa and Erlene the rest of our lives.”
For an instant Phoebe closed her eyes against the bright glare of the sun. Pride and anger warred within her. In her heart she wanted to be as good and kind thinking as the all-forgiving Lord meant her to be. But right this minute she felt awfully like grabbing a handful of Maydean’s hair. “I wish I had your cold heart, Maydean. Then I wouldn’t be worryin’ about what to do next, where our next meal is comin’ from or where we’re gonna sleep tonight. Anyhow, it ain’t in the chest. It’s in the backbone. Hair color don’t make no nevermind. Now shut up. You’re makin’ me mad. Hike up and look out over that trash bin. I got to back out.” She focused on her sister with an expression so fierce Maydean grudged a skittering glance over her shoulder.
But there was, and Phoebe backed right into it. A pickup, newer than her own, but not much newer. Still, she felt her mouth going uncommonly dry.
“We’re goin’ to jail now, ain’t we?” cried Willie-Boy. He scrambled to his knees to look out the cracked back window. “Lor, Phoebe,” he whispered. “There’s a giant gettin’ outen that truck.”
Phoebe watched the man emerge. Labeling him giant wasn’t far wrong. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a waist tapering into well-cut jeans filled out so she could tell he had never missed a meal. She left off watching him disentangle his legs to focus on his face. He was putting on a frown.
The eyes were dark, deep set and thick lashed. Sparking eyes, Phoebe thought. Most likely he used them to advantage on women. The idea made her feel an odd fluttering in her stomach. Had she been able to snag a man like him back home, why her whole family would still be together.
The rest of the man’s face was filled out with a good straight nose and kissing lips. All over his head was curly black hair, tidily cut. Went to the barbershop every month most likely. Curls like that couldn’t be kept aright if left to grow wild. She ought to know. It’d been months since she’d had her own curls parlor cut, and now they slipped band and pin and pomade with fierce regularity.
The man was looking at her. Phoebe saw the kissing lips turning down at the corners and the good straight nose beginning to narrow like he was smelling dead fish. Edgewise she caught a glimpse of Maydean patting her hair and puckering her lips, one hand on the door handle. Phoebe grabbed her.
“Stay put,” she ordered. “You too, Willie-Boy. I’ll see how much damage he done.” Adjusting her cotton skirt and brushing trailing wisps of red hair back from her face, Phoebe stepped out of the truck. “How ‘do,” she said, politelike. She tracked all of him in a close-up glance before she gave her attention to their locked bumpers. “Looks like you hit me a fair blow, don’t it?”
His gaze darted over her, taking in the narrow, heart- shaped face, the shoulders, true and squared, slender legs below the flowered skirt, the once-white sneakers, laces knotted twice over where they’d broken. His eyes lifted back to her face where wisps of red hair— hundreds of them—were all astray. Phoebe watched the frown spread out all over his face. He hadn’t answered her and she was not equipped to meet silence. She spoke again.
“I know what you said. It’s the other way round. You ought to look where you’re going.”
Phoebe tried not to pay attention to his voice. It was deep, good sounding and smooth. “I was looking,” she said resolutely. “I didn’t see you.”
“I came out of that parking space.” He waved his hand in an easterly direction. It was a big hand, finely shaped and callused. The calluses impressed Phoebe. A woman couldn’t go much wrong latching onto a man with calluses. It took steady work to thicken skin like that.
Phoebe decided to be friendly, generous of spirit. She was proud of her teeth. They were white and even with no gaps. She gave him her best smile. “I can’t tell which dent I did you or you did me. We can call it even, I reckon.”
“Even?” He eyed her with suspicion. “Are you telling me you don’t have any insurance or money to make good on the damage you did my truck?”
All sorts of dreadful apprehensions began to rise in Phoebe. Still, she was reluctant to give up being friendly. “I’m not sayin’ any such thing. I don’t discuss personal things like that with strangers.”
He muttered something beneath his breath. “I didn’t catch that,” Phoebe said, hanging on to her smile.
“You probably don’t have a driver’s license either. You old enough to drive?”
Offended, Phoebe bristled. Her smile faded. “Way old enough.”
Disbelief made his eyes go cloudy. “I’m going to call the cops.”
“Twenty-five. Almost. I swear. That’s what it says on my license.” The truth was that she was twenty-four, looking to be twenty-five and an old maid. She wanted to skip being twenty-five. She decided against any further friendliness. “‘Scuse me a minute.” She sidled up to the cab where Willie-Boy and Maydean were arguing for gawking space. “Count to ten, Maydean, then you two start wailing.”
Wearing her most serious expression she rejoined the man. He was scowling at the locked bumpers. “If you stood on yours,” she suggested, “big as you are, I could drive my truck right off it.”
“One of us is bound to lose a bumper.”
The caterwauling began. He looked up startled. “What in hell—”
“When you run into us, they hit their heads on the windshield. Like I said, you hit us a fair blow.”
His whole body went rigid as a block of granite. “I didn’t run into you, lady. You backed into me.”
“My sister and little brother said you run into us. They were watchin’.”
“And that’s what you’d tell the cops,” he replied, sarcasm flowing.
“Well, not me, mister. I didn’t see you and that’s a fact. But Maydean did, certain.” Phoebe aimed an anxious look toward the noise. “We better figure somethin’ out quick. I might have to take those kids to the hospital.”
He growled an epithet. Ladylike, Phoebe pretended not to hear. Her eyes stayed glued to his face. He was making a decision, she could see it in his expression.
“A fender bender’s not worth the trouble,” he said. “I’ll stand on the bumper, you see if you can pull your heap off.”
Moving quicker than a sprite, Phoebe got back in her truck. “Y’all can quit your snivelin’ now.”
“I can’t,” whimpered Willie-Boy. “Maydean pinched me.”
Phoebe hung her head out the window. “Hey, mister, you set?”
“I’m set.” He gave a tentative bounce on the bumpers. “You go slow. Easy and slow. I don’t want to end up with a broken leg.”
Phoebe put the truck in forward gear while he rocked the bumpers. The vehicles parted with a screech. Her flesh crawled. It sounded worse than chalk gone awry on a blackboard. She got out and went to the rear of her truck again.
“Afraid your bumper came clean off,” said the man.
“That’s okay,” said Phoebe. “I can weld it back once I get the chance. Just toss it in the back yonder, will you? On top of our suitcases and such.”
Effortlessly, he picked up the torn and bent metal. Phoebe noticed his face didn’t even go red with the strain. When he had the bumper chest level, his dark eyes held hers a heartbeat. Then he tossed the bumper into the bed of his own truck.
“Hey! Hey, mister, you can’t do that. That’s my bumper.”
“Sure it is. And when you get the money to pay for the damage you did mine, you can have it back.”
Phoebe’s wide eyes narrowed to slits. “That’s a mean trick, mister. I’ve got to have that bumper. It’s got my tag on it. I can’t go drivin’ around Alabama with no tag. Troopers would stop me, sure.”
He brushed his callused hands together. “I’ll take good care of it for you. You just come out to G. G. Morgan’s junkyard when you get the money. It’s on the other side of the bayou. Ask anybody to point the way.”
Phoebe’s heart sank. “C’mon, mister, can’t we talk this over?”
“I’m done with talking, I’m late for an appointment.” He stepped into his cab, slamming the door then leaned out over his elbow. “You’re real slick, little lady, but you’ll have to go some to outslick G. G. Morgan.”
“I got seven dollars,” Phoebe called with a failing heart. “You can have it.”
G. G. Morgan lifted an eyebrow and laughed. “Come up with seventy and we’ll do business.”
Riding fury, hands balled into fists and propped on her hips, Phoebe watched G. G. Morgan maneuver out of the parking lot into light midmorning traffic. Watched her bumper and tag disappear. Her shoulders sagged, and for once her brain couldn’t grab hold of any ideas. She felt tired. The worrying and the driving and the hope she’d been harboring—all of it hit her at once.
“You look fretted,” Willie-Boy said when she slid onto the seat beside him.
“I got things to fret about, don’t I?”
“We ain’t goin’ to sleep in the back of the truck again tonight, are we?” asked Maydean, puckering her lips into a peevish moue, which she thought most attractive. “I’m gettin’ tired of that. I still got wrinkles in my skin from last night.”
“You got wrinkles in your brain, Maydean. Be quiet and let me think.”
“How’re we gonna get our bumper back?” Willie-Boy wanted to know.
“I’m studyin’ on it,” Phoebe said, forcing up the determination not to let things get her down. That was Pa’s problem. He let things carry him into a sulk so as nothing got done. Phoebe fought the feeling, afraid it was a family failing. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that was what had happened to Erlene. Erlene had been fine until she went into a sulk with a fever. When the fever went, Erlene’s grown-up mind had gone with it.
“What we’ll do…” she said, shaking loose old thoughts, “is, we’ll just go out to G. G. Morgan’s junkyard and get the bumper when he ain’t lookin’.”
Willie-Boy’s eyes grew wide. “Ain’t that stealin’? Ma said—”
“Stealin’ is when you take something that don’t belong to you. That bumper is ours.”
“You shoulda let me handle it,” said Maydean. “I have sultry eyes. Everybody in Cottontown says so. G. G. Morgan woulda looked into my eyes and I coulda made him give us our bumper. And, speaking of my eyes, Phoebe, first chance you get, buy me some mascara.”
Phoebe bit down on her tongue to keep from screaming. “Maydean, when you bat your lashes all you look is cross-eyed. Besides, G. G. Morgan didn’t strike me as the swoonin’ type. Now get out and watch traffic so I can back out. That is, if you can see anything besides pants with your sultry eyes.”
Maydean sniffed. ‘You’re just jealous cause my lashes are longer’n yours and I poke out more in front.”
“Stand behind the truck, Maydean. Then I won’t have to worry ’bout feedin’ you.”
“What pokes out?” asked Willie-Boy.
“Never you mind,” Phoebe chastised, grinding the gears and backing safely away from the trash compactor. “We’ve got to find a telephone,” she said when Maydean flounced back into the truck. “Y’all keep an eye out.”
Willie-Boy jumped excitedly. “We gonna call somebody? We gonna call Ma?”
“No. I got to get an address on that junkyard.”
“Lor, ain’t you smart,” Willie-Boy said with flattering awe. “I’m goin’ to be as smart as you when I grow up.”
Phoebe drove a quarter mile and found herself outside the small town. The road was narrow, lined on one side by ditches carved out of red clay and on the other by oak trees thick of trunk and gnarled landward by wind that swept in from the bay. “Goin’ the wrong way,” she said, whipping around in a U-turn. It wasn’t lost on Phoebe that lately her whole life was filled with U-turns, leading her from nowhere back to nowhere. Well, she meant to change all that. Somehow.
“There’s a cop followin’ us,” said Maydean.
Phoebe’s gaze flew to the rearview mirror in time to see the red ball start flashing. “If it ain’t one thing, it’s ten,” she moaned. She pulled onto the verge and shut the motor off, waiting.
“Howdy,” said the trooper.
“Mornin’,” replied Phoebe.
“Mind if I see your license?”
“No sir, don’t mind a’tall.” She dug around in her change purse and handed it out the window. “Nice day, ain’t it?”
“Cottontown. You’re a long way from home, aren’t you, miss? Cottontown’s north. What brings you to Bayou La Batre?” He ran the words together so that to Phoebe it sounded like Byabatrie.
“We’re visitin’,” she said, keeping to a vague truth.
“I see. It appears you’re missing a license plate, though.”
“It’s on the bumper,” Phoebe informed him.
“Is that right? Appears you’re missing a bumper, too.”
“Yessir. It fell off. This is an old truck. Bolts rusted. Darn thing just fell flat off.”
The trooper thumbed her driver’s license and stared into the truck. Phoebe tried to figure out what he was thinking. She knew they looked bedraggled and poor, which they were. But they were clean; she had seen to that at the rest stop earlier that morning. No doubt the trooper guessed that even if he gave her a ticket, she wouldn’t have the money to pay it.
“Who’re you visiting in Bayou La Batre?” he asked.
“You said you were visiting. Who? Relatives?”
“Oh.” Phoebe’s thoughts flew. “Cousins. We’re visitin’ a cousin.”
“This cousin have a name?”
Name? Name! Phoebe didn’t know a soul in— “Morgan, G. G. Morgan.”
The trooper’s eyes narrowed. “Gage Morgan?”
Phoebe’s heart did cartwheels. “That’s him. Unless—how many G. G. Morgans you got in Bayou La Batre?”
“Only one I know of is Gage. Never knew he had any cousins anywhere. Leastwise he never mentioned it and we went through school together.”
“We’re cousins three times removed, maybe more,” said Phoebe. “But, ain’t that something!” she gushed. “You and Gage bein’ schoolmates all those years. Why…that makes you and me almost family friends.” She pointed to her sister. “That there is Maydean and this is Willie-Boy, G. G. Morgan’s least cousin. Truth is, we just ain’t had time to visit afore now.” Maydean’s puckering lips fell open. Willie-Boy’s, too. Phoebe crooked her elbow, jambing it under his chin to keep his mouth shut lest he contradict her.
“Gage has our bumper and tag in the back of his truck. He’s waitin’ on us, out to the junkyard so we can weld it back on.” It was something, Phoebe thought, how a body could take a tidbit of truth and bracket it with lies and make it sound so good. Noting the trooper was swallowing it all, she gave her whole face up to a grand smile.
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Tell you what. I’ll follow you over to Gage’s, else going back through town you get stopped again, no tag and all.” He returned her driver’s license.
Phoebe protested hardily. “Oh, we wouldn’t want to put you out none.” In her mind’s eye she could see G. G. Morgan disputing all that she’d told the trooper. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
“It’s no trouble. The yard’s barely a block out of my patrol area. Besides, it’s part of my job to help folks.”
“Then maybe it’d be better if you led the way.”
The trooper squinted, suspicion flaring. “Why?”
“We just got into town this mornin’,” Phoebe said. “We ain’t been to the junkyard yet. When the bumper fell off, Gage came and got it. We were followin’ him, but I got lost ’cause of Willie-Boy here, a-squirming something awful on account of a full bladder….” She trailed off and closed her mouth. Casting her eyes down she held all the air in her lungs and pressed to make her face go red; mention of body functions and such never did have the effect of making her blush. She canted a furtive look at the officer. Her demure look and her flaming face were having the desired effect.
“Right,” he said. “But, you stay close now.”
Phoebe was torn between holding her breath and smiling at him. Need of air won. “Yessir.” She pulled out behind the cruiser, sighing relief when the twirling red light went dark.
“We’re in trouble sure,” announced Maydean. “All them lies you told, Phoebe. That cop’s gonna know soon’s we get to the junkyard.”
“You go to hell if you tell lies, Ma said,” piped up Willie-Boy, gazing at Phoebe as if she would go up in flames any minute, or at least get hit by flying brimstone.
“We didn’t get a ticket, did we?” Phoebe said, justifying her actions. “We’re bein’ led right to where our bumper and tag is, ain’t we? Besides, everybody’s brothers in the eyes of the Lord. Says so right in the Bible. If you have brothers, stands to reason, don’t it, you got aunts and uncles and cousins?”
Maydean giggled. “Maybe us and G. G. Morgan are kissin’ cousins.”
Phoebe threw her sister a sharp glance. “You keep talkin’ that way, Maydean, I’ll slap you. And get your hair off the top of your head like that. You look like a worn-out tart.”
The twelve-year-old sniffed. “You oughta see what yours looks like. Red hairs are crawling outa that knot atop your head so fast, they look like they’re running from a cootie convention.”
“I had cooties once, didn’t I, Phoebe? Ma shaved my head and rubbed it down with kerosene. Burned somethin’ fierce, I recall.”
“Hush talkin’ about lice, Willie-Boy. Help me keep that cruiser in view.” Phoebe shot another glance at Maydean. If she’d had her druthers, she’d ‘ve taken Erlene on this trip instead of Maydean, even if she did have to point Erlene in every direction she meant for her to go. Maydean was ripening too fast. Phoebe briefly thought about ways to hold back nature. But thinking on Maydean was just using up energy better spent elsewhere at the moment.
“We’re goin’ over the drawbridge again!” whooped Willie-Boy.
“Lookit the sailors on those boats,” cooed Maydean. Suddenly she thrust half her body out of the truck, threw up her hands and waved.
Phoebe grabbed Maydean’s blouse and yanked her back. “Another stunt like that and I’ll put you on a bus back to Ma!”
Maydean smirked. “You ain’t got the money for no bus ticket.”
“I’d find the money,” said Phoebe, her grinding tone so filled with resolution that Maydean appeared to believe her.
Driving past the building where she’d been refused work, Phoebe kept her eyes straight ahead of her. Another three blocks and the patrol car slowed, turning onto a sandy road that was little more than a well-used path, rutted and grooved by far heavier vehicles. In some places the road went right up to the bayou’s edge, in others it zigzagged around boat yards and barge fitters and commercial net shops. Green and black nets sagged like larger-than-life spiderwebs from booms jutting thirty feet into the salty air. Far back on the landward side were seafood houses where signs advertised that crabs were boiled and picked, shrimp was packed, oysters were shucked.
Phoebe eyed the seafood packagers with interest; the possibility that she might find work in one of them filled her with hope. Mayhap losing her bumper wasn’t such a bad thing after all. She never would’ve thought to drive down such an unpromising-looking back road.
“The cop’s a turnin’ in,” Willie-Boy said excitedly. “Phoebe,” he gasped.
“Lookit! Lookit all that good stuff. I see a bicycle. It ain’t got no wheels, but you could put some on it. Then I’d have me a bike. I allus wanted a bike.”
“I can’t study a bike right now. I’m lookin’ for G. G. Morgan or his truck.” Phoebe set the brake, but didn’t shut off the motor. She gazed at the acres and acres of wrecked cars, boat ribs, tires and shapeless metal. “Piled up on good ground,” she muttered. “Why a man could clean all that trash off and plant a fair good crop of cotton or corn and make something of himself. Why, even me and Ma could make a go, had we land—” She caught herself prattling and clamped her lips closed. She had no call to talk like that—or dream, either. Not while she was square on property that belonged to a man as unlikely to share it as G. G. Morgan. Do first what first needs doin’, she told herself. Get rid of the police.
Maydean opened her door. Willie-Boy scrambled over her and leaped from the truck. “Get back here,” Phoebe demanded. “Maydean, you let him out on purpose!”
“He said he had to go to the bathroom.”
“My foot! His nose is twitchin’ to explore worse’n a blue tick hound. Get after him. In this heat he’s liable to come down with an attack of asthma, and I ain’t got the time to fool with—”
“He don’t like me pryin’ when he’s takin’ a leak.”
The officer ambled her way. “Looks like Gage hasn’t got here yet,” he said.
“No doubt he missed us behind him and doubled back. Sure as anything he did. He warned me to keep close. We sure are bein’ a peck of trouble. But now Gage’ll be mad enough to throw us out on our ear,” she said, in case he appeared suddenly and did just that.
The radio in the patrol car began to crackle. The officer excused himself. “You’ll be okay now you’re here,” he said upon his return. “I’ve got to work an accident. You tell Gage I said hello.”
“That’ll be the first thing I tell him,” agreed Phoebe. If she ever saw him again, which she hoped she didn’t. “You be careful, you hear,” she called to the trooper. “And, thanks.” She forced herself to sit still until the cruiser was out of sight. Then she had to spend a precious ten minutes locating her siblings.
Maydean had found herself an old car with a mirror intact. Willie-Boy was sitting behind the wheel pretending he was a race car driver. They were frittering away time—carefree, without a thought in their heads as to how they were going to get decently sheltered and raised. No, they left that suffering to her, thought Phoebe. But the kids weren’t visible unless someone was to peer directly into the old car so Phoebe decided they’d be out of harm’s way for the few minutes she needed to scout the junkyard.
She began looking for a place to park. A shady place and one that was not directly in view of anyone driving through the old gate. There was no sense alerting the junkyard’s owner that they were anywhere close by. At least not right off. If she found that there was no hope of reclaiming her bumper without Gage Morgan’s interference, surprise made negotiating easier. And one way or another, Phoebe meant to be one whale of a surprise to G. G. Morgan. Most probably he wasn’t a man used to having folks camp on his doorstep until they got what they wanted. With all that was at stake, Phoebe figured she could outcamp and outsmart a truculent army of Huns. Gage Morgan was about to learn just how stalwart a Hawley could be.
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