Lucien primes the engine and watches a little slug of sweat glide down his shin and break against the ankle bracelet. This is a good, normal thing to do, he thinks. The edger starts on the third pull. He imagines taking a step over the invisible line, and them coming for him, sirens ablaze—maybe not ablaze, but coming, nonetheless, and driving him south, to Cooper Correctional. He stands revving the engine, deciding what side of the yard to start on when he notices someone coming up the sidewalk. It’s Peg Vernon. Lonely Peg. Beautiful, sweet Peg.
Right on time Peg. He cuts off the edger and walks to the middle of the yard and waves a hand.
“Lucien Nix,” she says. “I’ll be damn.” She acts surprised to see him, though she is not. She’s been waiting at the street corner for what she thought was the right moment. She looks over the yard with her hand over her eyes for the sun. “You missed some spots with the mower over there.” She points.
“Yeah, I know. I was just gonna hit those with the trimmer,” he lies.
She is dressed in what he takes to be her nicest outfit: a sheer, billowy, cream-colored blouse, tucked into brown corduroy pants, and brown desert boots. Her long blond hair is in one fat braid down the middle. This is her. He thinks, seemingly unchanged over the years.
“How did I know it was you, Peg? You look different grown,” lying again.
She glances down, as if to remind herself of what she looks like, smiles. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it—since high school?”
“Since Randall Ginny’s graduation party. Ninety-three.”
She nods, smiles again, tries not to look at the thing on his ankle.
“Where you headed?”
“Walking to town. Job hunting.”
“I remember when you worked at Dino’s.”
“I still did, until a week ago. It closed down.”
“Dino’s closed down? Man, I made out with Claudia Nolan in the parking lot of Dino’s. She let me touch her boob.”
“Many a boob was handled at Dino’s—that’s for sure.”
“Wish I could come along with you. Keep you company.”
“Why can’t you?” She acts as if she doesn’t know the answer.
He points down at the bracelet.
“Shit.” She walks forward, into the yard. She squats down and looks at it, touches it, cups it with her hand. It feels warm. She stands up, crosses her arms and clicks her tongue.
“House arrest, huh? What the hell for?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Well…” she says and claps her hands against her legs.
“I got an idea. Why don’t you go and do your job hunting and come back by after. I’ll be done with the yard then, and we can sit inside and catch up.”
“Where’s your momma? She in there?” Peg looks toward the house. When Peg was about five, Lucien’s mother spanked her for picking a lemon out of Lucien’s granddaddy’s grove. “It’s stealing, even if it’s only one,” she’d said as she laid into her in the front yard, Lucien, seven-years-old, standing nearby. It may not have been the cruelest thing that ever happened to Peg, but it was demeaning and unnecessary and soured Peg on Lucien’s mom. She never did forgive her for that. Her hand reaches into her back pocket. She pulls out a black ink pen and hits it against the palm of her hand.
“Naw, she’s gone. Out of town for a week. Visiting a cousin, some gal she grew up with. Might not actually be her cousin. She’s mellowed over the years.” The last bit is another lie, she’d actually gotten worse.
“What happens if you leave your house?” She points at the bracelet. “What does it do?”
“Alerts the police, and they come looking for me.”
“Does it tell them where you are?”
“No. Just that I’m not home.”
She nods and looks up the road.
“I’ll come back by after.”
Lucien climbs out of the bathtub and looks into the mirror. His face is his father’s—a Nix face, not a Byrd or Loomis face. His mother uses Nix as shorthand for all things undesirable. He does something stupid, like gets arrested for robbing a convenience store: “That’s your Nix blood.” If she just says Nix she does not have to say the other words. On the ride home from the police station she tells him that she is not at all surprised that he’s gone and done what he has gone and done (she cannot say it), something so “Nix like.” “Summa Cum Laude,” she says under her breath. “Latin for white trash.” He locates a red bump that has cropped up in the crease by his nostril. “Little fucker.” He tries squeezing it but can’t get around it with the tips of his fingers. His eyes tear up and he sneezes three times.
The chair he selects for Peg is the last of an old dining room set that has been around since he was a kid. It is solid and sturdy, but before he carries it out he sits down in it and shimmies around and it doesn’t as much as squeak. People of patience and skill used to take care making a small, mundane thing like a chair, he thinks. Who gives a shit, anymore, about a chair? He feels a slight, fleeting ache in some part of himself, in his chest perhaps, when he thinks of his deficiency of craftsmanship, of handiwork. To no small degree, his failure at all forms of redneckery is why he went to college in the first place. College was, in effect, all he could do. He majored in history, with an emphasis on The American Civil War, and found some satisfaction in the praise of his professors. War, he thought, was a subject befitting a young man, a masculine topic, and his study of it, perhaps, compensated for his shortcomings. His favorite professor was Dr. Cyril Brown, a colorful southerner who told impossible stories of his Huck
Finn boyhood and who liked to call The Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.” A Kentucky Colonel who had travelled with a circus when he was a teenager, had been a tightrope walker and a barker and had learned to barely miss young maidens with a throwing knife. Finally he’d tired of the circus and its shabby romanticism and decided to go to college. He didn’t stop until he had earned a PhD.
Lucien took every class he taught, including Civil War through Letters, which had been his favorite. Dr. Brown had told Lucien on the last week of his last semester in college that he thought he was graduate school material and told Lucien he’d be glad to write him a letter of recommendation. Lucien thanked him and told him he would think about it, and Dr. Brown told him not to spend too much time thinking. What would Dr. Brown think, he wondered, of his present predicament.
Peg walks up the sidewalk carrying a twelve pack of Busch. As she draws closer, Lucien stands up to greet her.
“So where we working now?” He points at the empty chair, like a waiter, and takes the box of beer from her.
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see.” She sits in the good, sturdy chair.
Lucien cracks a beer and hands it to her.
Peg has a relieved, accomplished look about her, as if sitting down now and indulging in a drink or two, after going out and putting forth considerable effort, is a good thing, well earned. The day has warmed to all-out hot and she has unbuttoned the top two buttons on her thin blouse and strings of sweat-darkened blond hair stick to her glistening neck. She glances back at the house and takes a sip of her beer. “Getting hot out.” She puts the can of beer against her neck.
“I can get a cooler of ice for the beer.”
“Wish you could leave here—come to my place.”
“Me too. We can go inside if you want to.”
“We can sit out here. Go get a cooler of ice, though, for the beer.”
Lucien returns with a cooler full of ice-tray ice and a box fan plugged into an extension cord running from inside the house.
“Good thinking, college boy. Put it on high.”
She closes her eyes and holds her hand out as if she is fighting hurricane force winds.
“Damn, never mind! Put it on medium.”
Across the street, old man Preston has come out and is standing by his mailbox with a stack of mail in his hand. He takes a moment to look at them, sitting in the yard in mismatched chairs, in front of a box fan drinking cheap beer. Lucien sees him watching and becomes aware of the spectacle they must be to him.
Lucien holds up his beer and, loud enough for the old man to hear, says, “Cheers, Big
Ears!” Looks at Peg.
Peg holds up hers. “Likewise, Piss Eyes!” And they bump their cans of beer.
Preston shakes his head and walks back inside.
“You never did tell me what you got that thing around your ankle for,” says Peg, pointing her beer at it. She leans back in her chair, tilts it back on two legs.
“The law is making me.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“I shot a man.”
She stares at Lucien with narrowed eyes.
“Yep. Just to watch him die.”
She smirks. “That’s a goddamn Johnny Cash song.”
“It’s a coincidence.”
She punches him in the arm.
“Fine, don’t tell me, asshole.”
“You’d think a whole lot less of me if you knew.”
She puts her empty in the cooler and takes out a fresh one and pulls the tab on it.
“As long as you didn’t do anything, you know, creepy.” She sips her beer and looks at him sideways.
“What’s considered creepy?”
“If you have to ask…”
“I didn’t rape or molest anyone if that’s what you mean.”
“You sure about that? Hell, it’s been a long time. Maybe you grew into some kind of weirdo. Fact is, I hardly know you.”
“It’s just that it’s kind of embarrassing. How it happened is stupid.”
“You can do something stupid every once in a while. Just don’t make a habit out of it.” Lucien drinks from his beer and sits quietly.
She readjusts the fan and moves her chair so that she is facing Lucien. “Well, anyway,
Justin told me you were back about three months ago.”
“It wasn’t like it was a secret.”
“Some people didn’t want me to know, especially after you got arrested.”
“So you knew I got arrested?”
“Yeah, and I know why too. I was just having fun with it—wanted to see if you’d tell me.” She sits up straight in the well-made chair and puts her finger in the air. “But let me make sure I got the chain of events right: graduate from college. Come back home. Meet up with some old friends and get drunk. Commit robbery with the biggest dumbass hick in town. Get put on house arrest. Mow the fucking lawn. Does that about cover it?”
“You forgot be reunited with the woman of my dreams.”
“That’s funny. Twenty-four years old, fresh out of college, and trying to impress a fucking waterhead like Casey Talbert. That don’t make a damn bit of sense.”
“I veered off track. It happens.”
“You ain’t lying.”
“I think it’s built into my DNA.”
“You trying to make me puke?”
“What I mean is, I wanted to do it. It’s almost like I had to do it.” He stands up and walks a circle around his chair. “It gives me some dimension, don’t you think?” He strikes a pose: part catalog model, part James Dean.
“I guess if you were looking to accentuate the moronic side of yourself—then, yeah.”
“The gun was fake, by the way. He tricked me. How smart is that?”
Peg stands up and walks over to Lucien, gets close, so close their bodies touch at the
Lucien backs up. She moves toward him. She has a smirk on her face.
“Anybody can trick anybody. It don’t mean nothing. You’re better than he is.” Lucien backs up again and sips his beer.
“All right, then. Let me ask you this. It’s a good question to ask in a situation like this. Let’s say you were broke down on the side of the road—in the middle of nowhere. Who would you want with you—Casey Talbert, or me? Who’s the bigger dumbass in that situation, the dumb redneck who could fix your car, or the dumb, useless college boy?”
“I’d pick neither. Casey’d use it as an opportunity to get in my pants and you’d probably try talking the car back on the road.”
They laugh and Lucien moves forward, goes to embrace her. She moves into him and they stand like that for a moment. Lucien gives her a light kiss and she accepts it. When they break apart she looks down. The sidewalk is beneath them. “Loosh, look.”
He jumps back into the grass, as if the sidewalk is on fire, as if it will help to be back in the grass, but it won’t. He knows it won’t.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know. Just wait for them to get here, I guess, and explain what happened.”
“You think they’re gonna care for an explanation?”
“Probably not a whole hell of a lot, no.” She puts out her hand.
“If they’re gonna take you to away whether you’re a foot from your yard or a mile, might as well be a mile.”
“Where would we go?”
“Wherever you want to.”
Old man Preston is standing in his yard. He lights a cigarette, takes a drag and walks out to the edge of the road.
“Do me a favor!” he says. “When she gets back from wherever, tell that crazy-ass mother of yours to fire her lawn boy.” He smiles, clearly pleased with himself for having thought of a comeback to their earlier taunt, even if his timing is a little off.
They run and walk for three miles until they make it to the flea market, which seems to them like a decent place to lay low until they figure out their next move. The flea market has a bar in the center of it that sells cheap lite beer in plastic glasses. A man sits on a stool in a corner nearby and strums a guitar and quietly sings what sounds like a George Jones tune. It feels like a good hiding place.
“I walked by your house almost every day for a month,” says Peg, taking a drink from a cup of beer.
“I never saw you.”
“I could only do it in the morning or late at night, until Dino’s closed. Only took a week of afternoons after that.”
“A week of afternoons,” he says.
She rolls her eyes and takes a sip.
“They’ll find me sooner or later—it’ll be no more than a few days…. You should go on home. You don’t need to get yourself into any trouble.”
“I’m not going anywhere. It’s stupid, I know, but I’m not leaving you.”
By the time they’re done with their beers, they’ve thrown together a half-assed plan.
The Camellia Hotel lets rooms for ten dollars an hour, and between the two of them they have about fifty dollars. They get a room for two hours to regroup.
The room has a king-size bed and they both lay in it and stare at the ceiling.
“Air conditioning,” whispers Peg in a tone of awe. “God bless the fucker invented air conditioning.”
“You know what? I can’t remember his name, but the dude that invented air conditioning was from Florida.”
“It just had to be that way, didn’t it? Swampy-ass Florida: the birthplace of air conditioning.”
They lay in silence for some time, both thinking about how they have ended up in this moment together. How it was both bad and good. How to will all end, and what will happen after it does.
“You have a lot of girls while you were away at college?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“A legitimate one.”
“You have a lot of boys while I was away at college?”
“A few. I won’t lie. I wasn’t saving myself for anyone.”
“I suppose I had a few too.”
“Only a few?”
“Yes, only a few. Exactly a few—if a few means three.”
“It doesn’t matter to me. I was just curious.”
At that she rolls over and straddles Lucien and they kiss and quietly undress each other, and it feels inevitable. They take it slow, as if they have a surplus of time, and when it is over, they fall asleep.
Peg wakes first. She uncovers Lucien and looks at his naked body, thin and boney but attractive to her. She looks at his torso and down from there and thinks how odd it looks, like something apart from him. She touches it softly and then quickly pulls her hand away. She takes time to look at the bracelet on his ankle. She touches it and wiggles it and, for the first time, in the relative dark of the hotel room, notices a very small blinking red light at the top of it, not much bigger than a pore in your skin. Lucien rouses and sits up.
“It got cold all the sudden.”
“This little light here is blinking.”
“Damn sure is. Kind of like a little tiny siren, ain’t it?”
“It’s sending them a signal. It’s saying the same thing over and over again. Lucien is gone, Lucien is gone, Lucien is gone…”
“Something like that. Let’s take a shower together.”
They figure they can go directly to the police station, which would be the quiet, dignified approach, or they can just go back to the house, and call the police, and tell them to come and get him, that he’ll be waiting. Peg almost convinces him to come to her place and call the police there, but Lucien decides against it, not wanting to cause a big to-do in her neighborhood. In the end they decide coffee would be nice first, so they walk from the Camellia to Denny’s, only a few blocks away.
It’s slow inside and they are immediately sat. Their waitress is a middle-aged woman with quick blue eyes and a nice but fading figure, a body that is becoming too tired for the strain of being beautiful.
“I really think you ought to go on home—leave me to this.” Lucien sips his coffee and watches the line cook through the rectangular order window.
“I know you do. You’re probably right. But I can’t bring myself to leave you alone.”
The cook strikes a bell with a long, skinny spatula and barks “Ord’ up!”
The waitress walks up to their table and refills their coffee cups.
“I hate when they don’t ask. You get your coffee just right and they come along and mess it up. It’s a delicate balance.”
“You always get hung up on such stupid shit?”
“Maybe. I been meaning to ask you. Why ain’t you married to some big, strong country boy yet?”
“You mean someone like Casey Talbert?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Because he’s an idiot.”
“I’ll give you that. But there’s plenty around here better than him. Plenty of good husband material.”
“Maybe I’m not real big on tending to a doublewide all day and having big, dumb babies with some hick sticks his head in cars for a living.”
“It wouldn’t be as bad as all that.”
“Well, I figure, why add to all the white noise.”
“If you don’t like it here, if it’s that bad, why haven’t you left?”
“Guess I do kind of like it. In a weird way. Is that sick or something?”
“No. It ain’t sick. I get it. I feel kind of the same way.” He fixes up his diluted coffee.
“But you ever wonder if being ambivalent is the best you’ll ever do?” The cook dings the bell and a skinny, young waitress hustles up and takes two plates out of the window and skitters off to a small table out of view.
“What about you? What are we gonna do about you?”
“We’re just putting off the inevitable,” says Lucien.
She pushes her coffee out into the middle of the table.
He pushes his too.
The police station is a mile walk from Denny’s. They walk hand in hand along the cracked sidewalk, taking it slow. There’s no reason to rush something like this. The sun is heading down now and it is not so hot out and a breeze blows lightly from the north and their moods lift some.
“This is good,” says Lucien. “This is the right thing. I feel like I’ve come up against something and moved past it.”
“Yeah. Good. I’ll turn myself in, explain what happened, and they’ll probably lock me up, but not for long. Bet I get thirty days, if that. Then when I get out, it’ll all be over, and
maybe we can pick up where we left off.”
She squeezes his hand. “Not where we left off,” she says. “You got to promise me. I don’t care if it is in your DNA or whatever.”
“I promise,” he says. “I’m done with it. It’s like I said: I just veered off track.”
As they walk it gets cooler and a thunderhead appears on the horizon and flashes and grumbles and there comes a sound immediately behind them, on the road: gravel and road debris being crushed under a heavy weight. Lucien turns and sees a police car with tinted windows keeping pace with them.
He stops walking, pulls Peg into him and kisses her and then pushes her away.
“I guess this changes things a little bit,” she says.
“Yeah,” says Lucien. “Somewhat. But not substantially.”
He walks along the white line toward the police car, his knees bent, arms out like wings. He starts wobbling back and forth. He takes a step back, a step forward. He starts moving his arms like a windmill, like he’s losing his balance, like he’s tightrope walking, and falls down to his side and lies there for a moment, arms and legs spread out, like he’s dead. Peg laughs. The officer gets out of the car and walks over to Lucien and tells him to get his ass up, holds out his hand. He gently pushes Lucien against the car and Lucien puts his hands behind himself so that the officer can cuff them. With one hand the officer opens the backdoor of the cruiser and with the other he takes Lucien by the arm and guides him into the back seat. Peg looks into the car as it passes by her and she waves at Lucien. He can’t wave but he has a smile on his face.