The Boiler

Jamie Lyn Smith

A LINE OF FOUR SILVER MAPLES

Word was out in the township that Roby was back, living in a trailer behind someone’s house along 521 somewhere. The place belonged to people who weren’t relation to him but who Roby kept calling family. Paul knew the malleability of that term: Roby was his blood cousin. They were raised up next door to each other with only a line of four silver maples and a broad, open expanse of lawn separating their houses. Shoutin’ distance, as Paul’s father had said. Only most of the shouting came from his brother Ennis’ house, so Roby was at Paul’s a great deal, nose pressed to the glass of the storm door, asking if anyone could come outside and play.

It had been years since Paul saw Roby. With seven years between them Roby drifted off Paul’s radar when Paul left for college, then the city, where he taught school. Roby had long since disappeared into construction work where he was always changing jobs, getting fired, arguing with the boss or flitting in and out of doomed ventures in self-employment. Roby had such bad luck: perennially left holding the bag by some unsavory partner, only to wind up in small claims, jail, bankruptcy, or lien. Last Paul heard, Roby was in the middle of his third divorce, ducking his soon-to-be ex because the girl wanted her truck back.

It was early spring when Paul stood in the driveway at the farm, arms goose-pimpling in the shade. He could smell the heavy perfume of apple and cherry blossoms on the breeze despite the cold, dank weather. Stacking bags of mulch to spread in his mother’s flower beds, he was so lost in the shadows of his own mind that the first he heard of the vehicle was its radio blasting I ain’t askin nobody for nothin…if I can’ t get it on my own…

Paul looked up to see a light truck overshoot the driveway. It was a v6, 4wd, with a deer dent in one side. If you don’t like the way I’m livin…The motor groaned when the driver put her in reverse. Paul noticed the broken slider, one side tinted glass, the other with half a Harley Davidson sticker peeling off. You just leave this long-haired country boy alone…No tailgate, bumper held up with 8-gauge wire. One well-muscled arm hung out the window, thick with ink: dragons, a mermaid, a melting skull, confederate flag next to the Eagle-Globe-and-Anchor.

Last Paul saw him, Roby was a skinny twelve year old, all knees and elbows and the hungry look of a horny kid hoping for something, anything to let him stick his peter in it. Now, even slouched in the bench seat, Roby’s bulk made the truck appear toy-like.

“Hey cuz,” Roby drawled, teeth gleaming. “Long time no see.”

Paul smiled.

                                                                                     #

Paul’s mother was fast asleep in her chair with the cat in her lap, Bogsy’s enormous paunch warming her legs as they snored in unison. Paul adjusted the blinds to take some of the glare off Helen, turning around to hush to Roby when the younger man strode into the room, sending Bogsy bicycling his feckless paws across Helen’s stomach.

Roby laughed and caught Bogsy, hefting the poor thing into the air as the old feline arched indignantly. Helen’s eyes flitted open.

“Put my cat down,” Helen said. “Or you’ll pick your own willow switch.”

Roby chuckled and bent to gently drop the cat to the chair. “Awww, I wouldn’t do nothing to a cat,” he said.
Bogsy ran for his life.

“How are you, Aunt Helen?”

“Glad to see you, Roby,” Helen lied.

Roby hugged Helen, who offered him a seat but did not stand on account of her sore legs. When Paul’s eyes met his mother’s, he shrugged.

They chatted obliquely, while Roby coughed gently and intermittently into his hand. Paul sensed that Roby had read his unwelcome straightaway. If nothing was offered you—a slice of cornbread in buttermilk, some ice tea — you could bet you weren’t received. Paul noticed the tightness around his mother’s eyes whenever she smiled at Roby. The sanctimony of Helen’s distrust and thinly veiled hostility gave Paul a quiver of irritation towards his mother. Paul remembered how it hurt his father when Helen inked “Paul” and “Shelly” on dixie cups before each family picnic, her pretty mouth flattened into a straight line, as if the misfortune and grit that Ennis lived in would somehow backwash into the mouths of her children. Ennis noticed, and worst of all, Roby noticed. Paul knew that Helen’s persistent, and not-so-faint sense of superiority made Roby seek her approval.

“You mind if I get myself a glass of ice water?” Roby asked.

“Why sure, help yourself,” Helen said. “My legs are awful weak.”

“Cups in the same place?”

“Just where you left them.”

Neither Paul nor Helen took thought of the small cash Helen kept hidden in a coffee can in the cabinet just up right of the kitchen sink. They heard Roby open the refrigerator and rustle around.

“Mind if I make a sandwich out of this ham?” Roby asked.

“Course not, go ahead,” Helen said.

They heard Roby open the cupboard door, sneeze, then run some water. It would be months before Helen noticed the money was missing from the coffee can. She would remember the racket Roby made in her kitchen and blush with shame for suspecting him, and more shame for being right.

Helen leaned into speak to Paul, pursing her lips and gesturing towards the kitchen with her chin.

“What’s he doing back here?”

“I don’t know. He seems all right.”

“Take care not to cast your pearls before swine,” Helen said, and adjusted the pillows in her easy chair. Roby returned a moment later, stuffing a red bandana into his back pocket.

“You’re looking good, Auntie,” Roby said, sitting down and taking a big sip of water.

“Well sugar,” Helen murmured, “One must get old, but nobody has to get ugly.”

Bogsy growled a low, rumbling sound from his hiding place beneath the coffee table next to Roby’s chair. Roby reached down and scooped the cat up again, cradling Bogsy to his chest as the cat writhed. Roby scratched Bogsy’s ears, chuckling.

“It sure is good to be back home,” he said.

                                                                                    #

Paul showered, changed into a clean shirt, and drove to his Shelly’s, wondering if his baby sister knew about Roby. He knew the two of them took to palling around together at one point, years ago. Shelly thought Roby was sober because he was working. Shelly didn’t know that Roby didn’t need to drink when he was chewing down pills. Pills that made him smarter, stronger faster but just a tad less meticulous with everything from measuring the framing to mixing the mud at work. When Roby lost his job she took him in.

It did not go well. Paul knew Roby and Shelly had a falling out, and that Shelly refused to keep any company with Roby. In Roby’s defense, Shelly could be a bit quick. Paul had long teased her that her astrological sign was a burning bridge. He admired that in her, and he kept it in mind.

There was no answer at the sliding glass door of the beige doublewide, so Paul pounded on the man-door of the pole barn that Wayne referred to as his shop.

“Come on in!” Wayne bellowed.

Shelly had the baby hanging from one breast, its tiny face grotesquely concentrated into a puckering scowl, one hand cradling him to her chest and the other holding up a wad of audio wires while Wayne anchored them to the wall with a drill gun. Her long blond hair was usually a frothy web of waves, but now she kept it pinned up so that the baby wouldn’t pull at it.

“Go for power,” Wayne said. Paul resisted the urge to roll his eyes. She and Wayne made such a show of everything, it got under his skin sometimes. Shelly caught the look on Paul’s face, and he examined his nails. The TV snapped to life, revealing a screen split into quadrants.

“Look at that!” she said to Paul, “We got eight deer-cams now.”

Paul stared at Shelly, this strange woman who was his sister. She stood underneath a 12-point buck that she had taken herself, first year out. Wayne pointed to Shelly’s bow. It was a high-end model with sleek camouflage print and walnut detailing on the recurve.

“I wanted to start her out with a crossbow, you know, cause they’re lighter,” Wayne said, “But she wouldn’t have it. Said that the guys at the VFW told her they was for pussies and I laughed so hard I didn’t know whether to throw her down on the floor and bang her right there or wash her mouth out with soap.”

Shelly kissed Wayne and Paul felt a shiver of irritation run through him. He reminded himself that this was his sister’s husband, but he still wanted to punch Wayne in the throat. Instead, Paul smiled back and placidly accepted a beer. He reminded himself at times like these, that Wayne and his sister were just about all the company he had.

It had been difficult, moving back to the township. Paul was no social magnet. Plain of face, tall and mild-mannered, he was too bland to arouse even nominal speculation. His mildness matched the understated, neutral tone of his classroom, and each year he seemed to fade along with its beige walls and eggshell-colored laminate cabinets and dull steel sinks. He wanted to stand out, but he did not know how. Or for what. Escaping notice might be a boon for others, but for him if offered neither solace nor refuge. Paul’s mind wandered back to Roby, and he waited until Shelly stepped into the house to put the baby down before telling Wayne that Roby was back in town.

“What happened with them two?” Paul asked.

Wayne spit a stream of tobacco into a Styrofoam cup, thought for a moment then said, “Shelly tried to help him. All he had to do, and I mean all—was stay off the drink. Within three days he was back on it—and mean as a snake. Shelly said Roby was screaming and raising cain, cussing her and throwing things around the yard, beating on the door.”

Paul waited for the rest of it.

Wayne ran his hand across his lips. “She had to call the law.”

Paul tried not to look surprised. “They pick him up?”

Wayne shook his head, stuffing a napkin into the cup before tossing it into a trash can. “When I got there the sheriff come and said he was gonna put them both in stir.”

“Wait…” Paul said, “They were gonna pick her up?”

“There’s your justice system at work. Damn law’s so poor it does you just as much good not to call it.”

Paul frowned. “He hit her?”

“She says no,” Wayne said, “But I don’t know that she’d tell me if he did.”

Paul nodded. That was true. Shelly was a tack, and a brass one at that. She’d never admit defeat. “No sense you winding up in stir with him.”

“You know it,” Wayne said. Paul’s heart softened a little. He remembered asking Shelly before the wedding what she saw in Wayne, a rough man who seemed to be made entirely out of callous, vulgar parlance, and mechanical knowhow. She had laughed at Paul.

“That man loves me to the point of sheer stupidity,” she said, smiling. It was one of the few times that Paul saw his sister compromise her demeanor. Her face turned childlike as she added softly, “He does the dumbest stuff you ever saw in your life to show off, but he’d kill for me.”

Paul had looked at her, shaking his head. “You want that, little sister?”

“Want that?” Shelly said. “Someday he may have to.”

Wayne was walking around the shop tidying things up, and the dull thud of an empty oil carton hitting the metal trashcan jolted Paul back to the present.

“…She didn’t know Roby was all twisted up on that oxy. When he first come back and they started running around again she told me I’m just so glad he came home and got out of that godforsaken city. Maybe up here in the country, with us, he’ll get better…

Wayne shook his head. “Then look what it got us.”

“I’m just going for a beer with him,” Paul said. “I’ll see what I can find out.”

Paul dropped his eyes, fishing for his keys to avoid Wayne’s gaze. “That’s your sister.”

“Daddy wouldn’t like it one bit for us to just turn our back on him,” Paul said. “He’s family.”

“That may mean something to you,” Wayne said, “But I don’t know what it means to him.”

“Blood is blood,” Paul said.

                                                                                     #

Roby had a crowd gathered around him at the bar when Paul walked in the door at Buckton’s Breeze On Inn. Roby sat at the bar with his new girl, a woman Paul had gone to school with but whose name he couldn’t remember. Roby had his arm around the woman’s puffy shoulders, and was running his thickly callused finger down the glittering beads of an earring so long it grazed the straps of the woman’s sheer tank top. Her hair was brown at the roots, red in the middle, and blonde at the tips. Paul could hear his cousin all the way across the room.

“We were going at it on these like, 80-grit sheets in the camper,” Roby said. “Her knees was all scraped up.”

The woman ducked her head, letting her hair hang over her face then tossing it over her shoulder as she giggled. “80-grit!”

The men standing around them laughed. Roby leaned in to the woman’s collarbone, then nibbled on her ear. She swatted him away. When Roby dodged her, he saw Paul.

“Hey cuz!” Roby yelled, “Come meet my best girl.”

Roby introduced him to his friends, and bought a round. Then Paul bought one, then someone else, then Roby and Paul again and soon nobody was keeping count. The lady friend of Roby’s went out for a smoke and didn’t return. Paul handed the barkeep his keys. Roby tried, again and again, to call his best girl but the best girl was no longer answering her phone. Neither Paul nor Roby could drive by last call, and now seemed as bad a time as any to start the long walk home.

The moon was full and hung low over the cornfields that grew wider and longer as they staggered their way out of Buckton. Paul glanced at Roby’s profile, so much like his father’s. Roby was recalling the time that Paul’s father picked Ennis up by the throat for telling Shelly she had nice legs. That’s how Paul’s father had been; a little larger than life.

“Your dad,” Roby said, as if reading Paul’s mind. “He taught me how to be a man.

Paul nodded. “I been back with mom at the farm since he passed away.”

“I sure miss him.”

“Pretty hard not to,” Paul replied.

“I didn’t make the funeral,” Roby said. “I didn’t have a suit or gas money and I was too ashamed, when I was still torn up on hard stuff.”

“You past all that now?”

“I let it go after I screwed everything up with Shelly,” Roby said. “That about broke me. She’s like my sister, you know? You were gone and graduated, but her and me were in school together, all the way through.”

Their boots scuffed along the gravel, kicking up tiny pieces of rock that punctuated the silence. Roby stopped and took Paul by the arm.

“It meant a lot to me you come out tonight. Being seen with me in public. It seems like everybody done give up on me.”

“Don’t give em no more reason to, and you’ll be all right.”

“I mean to.” He sighed. “I’m gonna need help.”

Roby’s eyes were clear and pooled with tears in the moonlight. Paul remembered the last time he saw that look on Roby’s face, when Roby was a boy in trouble for something while Paul was babysitting him. Paul had swatted him across the bottom and sent him to his room, where Roby screamed and ranted and raved, repeatedly throwing a baseball against the wall in a flawless imitation of Ennis. When Paul finally had enough and flung open the door, Roby shrank against the wall, raising his hands up pleading surrender. Paul remembered feeling terribly ashamed of scaring him so.

“I’m sorry, Paul,” Roby had said, covering his face. “I’ll be good. I’ll be good I promise.”

He was saying the same thing now.

“What can I do?” Paul asked.

“Just what you done tonight,” Roby said, “Treat me like a human being.”

                                                                                    #

Roby stopped by the farm to see Paul nearly every day, but Paul didn’t mind him coming around. Paul was grateful for the company and for the slice of life that Roby afforded him. Monday to Friday, September to May, Paul taught all grades of chemistry at the high school. Saturdays he helped Helen with her errands. Sundays they had church and then Paul would go to see Shelly and Wayne. It had the feel of lather, rinse, repeat, as did all of Paul’s days –until Roby spun back into them.

Helen snoozed, Shelly and Wayne were busy with the baby, but Roby was always doing something. Frying a big batch of shrimp up, making gumbo and calling up a passel of friends in to feast and play guitar in the yard until all hours. Taking a canoe down the river, fishing all day amongst the live oaks in the dank watering holes where Paul’s father used to take them as boys. Rigging up a potato gun with PVC pipe, just to see if they could still do it, and nearly blowing a hole in the side of storage shed. Even just an afternoon of cornhole or picking off crows with a .22 was fun with Roby.

Paul took to returning the visits. People that Paul didn’t know were always stopping to see Roby, have a smoke, borrow a few bucks, kick back a beer. Roby brought out things in Paul that Paul didn’t know he had in him.

Hanging out with Roby’s crowd, Paul was startled to find that people liked him and that he could make them laugh. They went to a party and Paul got so rowdy that he threatened to punch someone who called him a faggot. Roby had his back and threw in a few good fists himself, and they ran to the car laughing, peeling out of the driveway and laughing like a couple of teenagers.

“Man, You shoulda seen the look on that guy’s face when you went animal on him.”

“Animal?”

“Yep. Animal.”

Paul let go of the steering wheel and pounded his fists on the roof of the truck, howling. Roby joined in and they goofed the whole way home, with Roby intermittently shouting, “Son of a bitch!” and Paul letting out another baling yowl.

That night they built a fire in the ring next to Roby’s trailer and listened to the local bluegrass station croon songs they remembered from childhood. Old hymns wafted promises of peace across the fog rising from the swamps…Going up home to live in green pastures, where we shall live and die nevermore….Paul woke up in the morning, the mandarin glare of light in his eyes. He hurried home and got Helen to church on time, speeding a little along Birch Road as he declined to explain where he had been or what he had been out doing.

“Now mama,” he said, “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m making new friends.”

“Will wonders never cease,” she said. He looked at her, and there was a little gleam of both humor and hurt in her eye. Paul knew she appreciated all he did for her. He had been trying hard for a long time to convince himself, and her, that it wasn’t too much to ask of him. She patted his knee. “It’s about time.”

                                                                                    #

It had all started simply enough: Paul had been working in the garden, sweat running down his back so hard he’d already taken to dousing himself with the garden hose in twenty-minute intervals. When it rained, it seemed that the angry sky did so only to heap humidity atop everyone’s already well-substantiated misery. By 11:00 in the morning, Paul retreated into his office, the air conditioner drowning out the sound of his entrance. Helen napped in her chair with the cat on her lap. Bogsy opened and then closed one green eye as Paul slipped past.

His cell phone was lit up with a handful of messages—a bank deposit, the weather update for the day, a couple texts from Roby. What was Paul doing? Did he want to goof off and do a little fishing?

Paul didn’t mind, though he never had been much of an outdoorsman. Roby was the one who thrived in the woods: dragging back sticks bowing with the weight of squirrels, bagging four good meat deer every season, a pile of rabbits each February, setting buckets of catfish sitting on the porch at dawn all summer long.
Paul said yes, as long as there was booze and shade.

“You’re not gonna believe this place,” Roby said, steering the truck onto a narrow lane, passing Paul the blackberry wine cooler they’d been swilling out of a gallon jug. “The guy don’t even live here. He’s got 300 acres that bump right up against the Hillier place and that woods runs all the way to 229 on the Minks County line.”

“How’d you meet him?” Paul asked.

“I was doing work on the house and he was there for an inspection,” Roby said. “I started joking around with him, and in a few minutes I had the guy trying on stilts to mud and tape drywall. So when I asked him if I could come on back and fish a little he said, anytime.”

They turned the corner and the double row of trees opened onto a wide lawn, revealing a two-story Victorian mansion. Paul could tell the man had money in it: stained glass windows, freshly painted and finished wood siding, a tri-tone slate roof, brick sidewalks meandering around the gardens. He whistled low.

“Don’t put the coffee on…” Roby waved at a security camera and grinned, then waved his middle finger. “That thing don’t even work. He thinks this is effin’ Green Acres.

Paul took a draw from the joint that they passed between them, eyeing the deep ruts and sinkholes on either side of the driveway as it deteriorated and narrowed towards the woods. “Do you think we should just get out and walk?”

“Hell no!” Roby said, “I got us in 4-wheel.”

Paul felt good, a humming in his chest cavity from the cool drink and a pleasant mellow feeling from the wine and the weed. They parked the truck in a small clearing, then hiked in another quarter mile, slapping at mosquitoes and winding their way along the deer trail that snaked through thin underbrush. The trail ended at an abandoned stock pond, half covered in algae, surrounded on all sides by thick woods of silvery beech trees, mottled live oak, and formidable black walnut. A felled tree served as their bench, its mossy top a little soggy and seeping into the seat of Paul’s pants.

They passed the hours in relative silence, only occasionally noting the changing light as the sun shifted downward through the trees, or moving to a cooler spot. Paul was feeling a little woozy. Instead of wearing off, the buzz was getting stronger, fuzzier. The gallon jug was empty now, a deep plum ring staining the bottom rim. Roby’s restlessness was playing out, his twitchiness sketching up the water.

Roby ran his hand through his hair, and said, “You ever hear anything about my dad?”

Paul shook his head. “Last I heard he was down to Orient.”

“Oh, he got out of there after a while and got another church to take him on. That man could fall headfirst in a outhouse and come out smelling like a rose.”

They heard a strange chirping sound, then another.

“Sounded almost like a Nextel,” Paul said.

Roby shook his head and frowned. “Nah. Just a cricket or something.”

There was a small pause, a question in the air, as they stood, cupping their ears to draw in the sound. After a few moments of listening to the woods hum, Paul relaxed against the tree. Roby sat next to him, shoulders hunched up, tense. Paul turned and looked his cousin in the eye.

“You ain’t like him, Roby.” Paul said.

“You’re drunk as shit,” Roby grinned. “We better get you out of here.”

                                                                                    #

Paul kept his eyes on the frayed laces of his boots to keep his balance. He noticed that the ground was black, silky, and cut open nearly to mulch from the deer hooves that tracked across it. Roby trailed behind a few yards. When Paul stepped out into the clearing, he froze. A black cruiser was parked next to Roby’s ex-wife’s truck. The sheriff leaned against the truck with his arms crossed, and his Deputy coolly trained a gun on Paul.

Paul raised his hands, dropping his fishing rod. Roby had melted into the woods.

“What’s going on, TC?” Paul asked the Sheriff.

The deputy lowered his gun slightly, his face folding into confusion. “Mr. Burress?”

Paul had taught both the Deputy’s daughter that semester. Given extra help to the girl with his science fair project.

“Well, sir,” TC said. “We was hoping you could tell us the very same thing.”

When they read his charges, Paul felt half certain that urine would run down the inside of his leg. He was a 43-year-old schoolteacher. He did not know he had possession of a stolen truck, or that there was a slit in the barrel seat filled with methamphetamine, a good half ounce of marijuana and a bunch of pills Paul couldn’t have guessed the use for. He did not know he was committing criminal trespass, perhaps also getting a DUI, and fishing without a license.

Mercifully, T.C. let him wash up with a half-empty water bottle and change into an old pair of Roby’s jeans that were in the truck. They kept asking Paul if anybody was with him, how on earth he had wound up here, what he was doing with all that stuff.

When he wouldn’t talk, they arrested him. For everything.

At county they took his statement, his belt, his shoelaces, his driver’s license, what little money he had on him and his picture.

“You’re telling me,” TC said, “You were just out fooling around and you didn’t have no idea that you were driving a hot vehicle? That you don’t smoke even a little weed and are just as solid ignorant about that crank in the truck? That you did all this on your own?”

Paul didn’t say a word. They couldn’t prove anything in that truck was his, and Paul was pretty sure that the charges weren’t going to stick. For once innocence and naïveté might work to his advantage. Even if it took a bevy of lawyers he was not about to sing on family. Blood was blood.

“Mr. Burress,” TC said. “Please.”

Paul just shook his head, declining a lawyer for the time being and asking to be tested for the drugs they found in the car, thinking that would clear him, and thinking of Shelly. She told him recently, upon learning that Paul and Roby kept company, that Paul was dumber than a box of hair and had better quit running around acting like his balls had just dropped.

                                                                                    #

Aunt Helen stirred a little in her sleep. She shifted her thick legs and uncrossed her ankles on the footrest when her car keys clinked gently against Roby’s callused palm. Bogsy hissed at him. Roby gave the cat a good shove with his foot, but as he crept out the screen door Bogsy fled outdoors.

Silently, Roby dropped to his knees. He reached for Bogsy again, but the cat bounded into the garage and hid under the car. Cussing softly under his breath, Roby glanced back in through the window and saw Helen’s chest rising and falling in unbroken cadence, her lips trembling some with each exhalation.

He went to the car, and eased it into neutral, giving it a good shove to roll it down the driveway, popping as little gravel as possible. The movement startled Bogsy, who hid under the porch. Roby threw the parking brake on, got down and scooted on his belly into the crawlspace. His shirt grew damp from the thick, untended earth, and grit made its way into the waistband of his jeans. He reached and finally clasped the cat firmly by the collar and the back legs. When Roby tossed Bogsy indoors, he caught the screen with his forearm and left a smear of blood on it. By the time Helen woke up, the blood would have turned brown. She’d hobble over to the door, notice it, and spit on her apron, rubbing out the stain, never realizing what it was.

Roby was breathing heavily, and sweat stung as it trickled down his neck and into his skin. He was cut all to ribbons from running through the cornfield where he ditched the first car he’d stolen that day. Roby knew what he needed to do and didn’t mind doing it to Shelly. He remembered his daddy saying, “Better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you ain’t.”

That was the problem. Yes, that was the problem, Roby thought, as he started Helen’s car. Nobody ever saw the good he did, who he was inside. Everybody remembered every mistake that he got caught for and some he didn’t, but nobody caught him doing good, like putting back that old lady’s cat.

He dwelt on that the whole way down the road, until he turned into the driveway at Shelly’s house. Nobody was home.

                                                                                    #

Shelly waited a long time to see Paul, two hours that gave her plenty of time to worry. She clutched her purse to her side, full of cash from the house safe. She had hurried out so fast she had on a set of mismatched flip-flops. Paul finally emerged, looking calmer than she thought he would. T.C. read off the charges and slid the bail sheet across the counter.

“Is there anything you didn’t get arrested for?” Shelly asked, counting out the bills.

“I wouldn’t know how to do all that if I tried,” Paul said.

TC looked up from processing Paul’s paperwork, and exhaled through his nose. “Mr. Burress. I wish you would just tell us what’s gone on here.”

“I thank you, TC,” Paul said. “You treated me decent.”

Shelly and Paul stopped at a drive-through on the way home from jail.

“Talk,” she said, passing him the paper bag limp with grease. When Paul finished, the ice had turned their sodas flat and watery, and they were closing in on turnoff to Birch Road.

“I knew it,” Shelly said. “I knew I should have shot him when I had the chance.”

When they pulled into Shelly’s drive, Roby was stepping out of Wayne’s garage carrying Shelly’s bow with one hand, a .38 tucked into his belt. He let his hands drop to his side when he saw Paul.

Shelly was already rolling down the window and leaning out of the car.

“You dumb son of a bitch!” Shelly said, pointing to the bow. “I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t,” Roby said. His voice had a strange evenness to it.

“You’re holding the damn thing upside down,” Shelly said.

“Pawn shop won’t care, little girl,” Roby said grinning. “Hi, Paul.”

“Hey,” Paul said.

Shelly made to open the car door, but Paul firmly took her arm, and turned her toward him.

“Don’t.”

“Let me go!” Shelly said, whaling on the side of Paul’s head with her fist.

“Shelly!” Paul said sharply, “Anything you ask for you ain’t getting from him.”

In response, Shelly head-butted Paul and clawed at his ear.

“He’s robbing my house!” she screamed, punctuating each word with a blow on Paul’s head, torso, neck.
Roby walked around to Shelly’s window, put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. She writhed underneath his grip.

“Look,” he said. “It’s only because you were such a cunt to me when I tried to apologize to you.”

Shelly smacked his hand off her shoulder. “Get off my property.”

“You broke my taillight.”

“Fuck. You,” Shelly said. She made to bite his hand. Roby jerked back, and rested his free hand on the grip of the pistol. Paul slowly reached over, took Shelly’s keys out of the ignition, and tossed them out the window to Roby.

“Thanks, cuz,” Roby said.

“Are you in this together?” Shelly asked.

Paul shook his head no at her, and put his finger to his lips.

“Please,” she whispered.

“Let’s talk, Roby,” Paul said. “I’m going to step out of the car.”

“You took a fall for me,” Roby said. “I appreciate it.”

Paul never took his eyes off Roby. “You mind if I step out?”

Roby considered. “Long as she stays in it.”

Paul leaned over to Shelly. “Give me your phone.”

“No.”

“Give me your phone and I’ll get your bow. I’ll get that.”

Shelly stuck her lower jaw out, dug in her purse, and handed the phone to Paul.

Paul moved slowly. Every sound seemed amplified: the door handle buckling, the car door hinges complaining squeak, his boots popping the gravel.

Roby kept his eyes on Shelly. “I need to get on the road.”

“You don’t have to go like this.”

“They won’t give you no time, Paul,” Roby said. “You’re respectable.”

Paul edged towards him, but Roby’s shoulders stiffened slightly. Roby walked to the back of Helen’s car and tried to angle the bow into the trunk. It would not fit. Paul watched. Roby didn’t look like a lost little boy anymore. He looked hopped up, the adrenaline alone making him shaky.

Paul said, “How about we make a deal.”

Roby tried to go past him, but Paul put up an arm. Paul knew that Roby could whoop him good without even getting winded. “Hey,” Paul said.

Roby looked at him. They were eye to eye, nearly. Paul reached in his pocket and held out his phone, and Shelly’s. “You’ll get more for these than you will for that.”

Roby frowned at Paul. “I could just take both.”

“You don’t need that bow.”

Roby looked at Paul, shook his head.

“Let her have it back.” Paul knelt down and slowly tossed his phone, then Shelly’s, at Roby’s feet. “Don’t leave like this, cuz. You might want to come back someday.”

Roby nodded. Paul slowly reached up and took the bow off the roof of the car. It was surprisingly light, had pink camo detailing and bit of dark maroon deer blood staining its leather sling.

Paul met Roby’s eyes, and extended his hand.

“You done a good thing,” Paul said. Roby’s hand met his, and they shook. Roby avoiding Paul’s gaze, and shuffled his feet. It was over in a second, that moment. Roby skip-turned quickly around, got in the car, and roared out of the driveway. They heard the dull thud of the bass from the radio when he turned it up at the end of the driveway. Roby waved, grinned, and was gone.

                                                                                    #

They found Helen’s car a few weeks later down in Kentucky. One of the handguns turned up at a pawnshop in Virginia Beach, and one was used later in murder in Champaign. They never saw Roby again.

Paul was mostly exonerated by the grainy video of Roby, waving at the security camera they had passed at the farm. His lawyer got all the charges dropped with the exception of contempt of court, and a reprimand from State Wildlife, Fish and Game. The Judge gave Paul probation, and spoke very sternly to him from the bench about “the company you keep” and “complying with the law regardless of the family bonds you feel.”

Paul lost his teaching job and went to work at a grocery, rising from the ranks of bagger and stock boy to cashier, then assistant manager and manager.

Late of an evening, usually on a Sunday when the store was closed, Paul would turn on the bluegrass program and let the strident fiddles, and high lonesome sound lull him into a bit of the past. The glorious summer when he learned that he had a streak of danger in him and could live a little, even raise some hell if he felt up to it. His thoughts would turn to Roby, and wonder where he was and if he ever would come back. So as the radio wept lines on the highway, take me where I want to go… Paul would think of them as they had been ten or fifteen years ago, young and with some hope. He still had some, foolish as is was.

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Jamie Lyn Smith is a writer from Knox County, OH. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University. Her essay “The Promised Land” appeared in The Pinch in Fall, 2014 and won the Haidee Burkhardt Award for Creative Nonfiction at OSU. Her story “Nature Preserve” is slated for publication in The Kenyon Review in summer, 2015, when she will also serve as a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Fiction Workshop. Jamie Lyn recently finished two book-length manuscripts: “Township,” a collection of short stories set in rural north Appalachia, and “City Girl, Country Girl,” a collection of serio-comic essays detailing her experience moving back to Ohio after nearly fifteen years in New York and Los Angeles.