A row of beaten mailboxes jumbled together like gravestones in a forgotten cemetery, all listing at different angles, all bearing the same name—when they bore one at all—Outlaw. Pete was almost surprised to have found the place; he’d half expected it to have vanished completely like some swamp Brigadoon.
The car bounced along the uneven dirt road, through the pines, for what seemed like forever before passing two small houses, scarcely more than shacks. Facing off across the dusty lane—siding blown off, exposed tarpaper in shreds, grass up to the sills of the busted windows—they belonged to Outlaw cousins long dead. When he was a boy, Pete and his sister Jenny and their daddy had camped in one or the other of these houses when they came fishing. There had been no electricity or running water, and his daddy had told them it was an adventure to do without amenities and a privilege to be able to listen to the sounds of nature and to smell the humid air, free of so-called civilized intrusions.
At the next clearing, Pete said to Claudia, “This is it.”
She straightened and looked up from her magazine.
The shotgun house was four rooms long. Heroic specks of white paint clung to its weathered gray clapboards. By the door hung a rusted switchbox from which a tangle of wires splayed like the loosened roots of a storm-toppled tree. Some of the wires ran over the open window, behind which a yellow and pink flowered bed sheet served as a curtain. An ancient pecan tree spread its gnarled branches over the tin roof.
Rocking in a straight-backed wooden chair was a skinny old woman in worn jeans and a terrycloth shirt the color of oatmeal. A long-legged black mutt lounged on her lap, white muzzle hanging over one arm of the chair, rump and tail over the other.
Pete cut the motor. Above the ticking of the engine, he thought he could just hear the woman’s labored, tuneless singing: I love you dog, yes I do, I love you, ’til I’m blue. Won’t nobody take you away. I love you, and you here to stay.
Claudia said, “You didn’t tell me they were so poor.”
For the first time Pete thought of how it would look to the Outlaws, him and Claudia driving up in her brand new car, and he resented his wife for marring his initial pleasure (if it was pleasure; right now all he felt was irritation) of being there again for the first time in many years.
His wife. He felt a crazy jumble of pride and love and fear when he said it or even thought it. They had been married only four months, still counted the months like the marriage was a baby.
“Does it bother you that they’re poor?”
“Of course not.” Now she was irritated. “I guess I just thought—oh, never mind.”
Pete got out of the car, waving and calling to the old woman, who cupped a hand over her eyes as she looked out. The dog jumped down, ambled to the top of the steps, straightened his tail, and commenced a low, tired growl.
“Stop that,” said the old woman, trying to snap her fingers. The sound that came was the rasping of two sticks scraped together in a lackluster effort to make fire.
“Come on back here, Booger,” she said.
“Miss Neeny?” called Pete. “It’s Pete Briscoe. Remember me?”
“That baby won’t hurt you.” Talking about the dog.
“Yes, ma’am. I know.” He knocked on the car window and gestured to Claudia to get out. She had her mirror out and was doing something to her mouth; without looking she put up a finger to signal she’d be ready in a minute.
The dog sniffed Pete, peed on the tires, and returned to the porch.
“Come on over here,” called the woman, trying to push herself up out of the chair.
“Don’t get up, Miss Neeny. We don’t mean to disturb you.”
“You ain’t disturbing nobody. I be durn if I can call your name though. I know I know you. You favor somebody.”
“David Briscoe. He was my daddy. I used to come with him and my sister until they had the accident, you know.”
“Briscoe. That name sounds familiar. What kind of accident? You know sometimes people get run over by those combines and things, happened to a man over in, oh, I forget which town it was, just last week. Not a young man, but he won’t real old neither. I forget what he did exactly, something foolish. Farming since he was little bitty young’un, the paper said. You’d have thought he’d have known better. Sad though.”
“It was a fishing accident,” said Claudia, who had come up beside Pete now and stood as erect as one of the thousands of pines they had bumped past in their effort to get here. It still astounded Pete that somebody as good-looking as she was had married him. Her long fit legs in shorts alone would have been reason enough to love her, but they were only one of her many good qualities, not all of which were physical, of course.
Miss Neeny studied Pete’s face. A breeze rustled the dry branches of the old pecan tree, and it dropped a useless nut onto the roof. They heard it thunk, roll leisurely down the roof’s grade, then fall a second time to the ground.
“I’ve got it!” she said at last, clapping her hands as though she’d won a prize. “The man and his daughter. Name of Crisco.”
“Right, Briscoe. And there was a boy, too, but he won’t drowned.”
“Come here where I can look at you better. Can’t see nothing with the sun in my eyes.”
They had been standing down in the dust, Miss Neeny sitting above them like a judge. Now Claudia followed Pete up three creaking wooden steps onto the narrow porch. At Miss Neeny’s invitation, they sat on the remaining chairs, Pete’s a rusty metal one, hers a vermiculated relic that Claudia hoped wouldn’t snap under her still modest weight. She had starved herself before the wedding and so naturally had put on a couple pounds since. “Honeymoon fat,” her mother had warned her, “You get too happy, and you’ll blow up like a balloon.”
Claudia racked her brain to recall if she had ever visited people who looked this poor. She felt a vague shame. It seemed bad not to know any poor people or at least not to have visited any. The chair itched her bare legs. She hoped it wasn’t full of those—what were they called?—chiggers.
“Did you eat yet?” asked Miss Neeny. Up close she looked even older, with her humped back, her stringy hair, her brown eyes weirdly outsized behind smudged glasses, her skin wrinkled as a hound’s. When she smiled, showing ill-fitting dentures with impossibly rosy gums, the wrinkles rippled away from her mouth like pond water from a stone. “You ain’t hungry?”
“No, ma’am, we ate. We stopped for breakfast back in that last place before the bridge.”
“I’ve never eaten there myself, but they say it’s good.”
They’d had eggs and grits and coffee, silently reading the local paper as the sun came up. It was reported that a man had shot his brother-in-law in a dispute over a weed-eater; a woman had reached her hundred and first birthday; a zipper factory had closed and put people out of work. Pete had asked Claudia could they stop and visit the Outlaws. She wondered if he had been thinking about it since they’d first decided to go away for the weekend. She couldn’t deny him; she knew they were about to cross the river in which his father and sister had drowned years ago. She admitted a little morbid curiosity of her own. So even though they’d left Raleigh before dawn so as to have almost a whole first day at the beach, she’d agreed to the stop.
“Are you sure they’ll be up?”
“By the time we get there? Sure. You know country people are up with the chickens.” Something his daddy used to say. He’d be a little over sixty now.
“I don’t know any country people,” Claudia had said, pushing away the runny grits. “Or any chickens either.”
Miss Neeny asked, “Y’all want something to drink?”
“That would be nice, thank you,” said Pete, wishing to be polite. He was disheartened that she had not recognized him. But after all, she was mighty old, Claudia would say later in the car. Plus she hadn’t seen you since you were a little boy. (Claudia would say this tenderly, wishing she could see Pete as a little boy.)
“Brody!” hollered the old woman in a surprisingly strong voice. “We got company!”
Heavy feet stomped from the back of the house. The screen door swung open, and a young man emerged, squinting into the daylight. His shirtless torso was pink with sunburn and spotted with freckles. He held onto his cut-off army pants with one hand; with the other he scratched the back of his buzz-cut head, making a sandpapery noise.
“What time is it?” Brody yawned.
“Time to get up, lazy. You member Briscoe?” said Miss Neeny.
“Can’t say I do,” mused Brody. “Hey,” he said, noticing Claudia in a way that Pete didn’t like. Still, Pete couldn’t much blame him—what a treat to wake up and find such a creature on one’s porch.
“Used to come fishing with his daddy,” said Miss Neeny.
Brody smiled at Claudia, who stretched her legs out before her in a seemingly unconscious invitation for him to stare at her some more. Surely, Pete thought, she couldn’t like Brody looking at her that way. Jenny never had; it was the one thing about visiting the Outlaws she’d ever complained about.
He stood and shook hands with Brody. “It’s Pete.”
“Pete. Yeah. You used to bring me KISS tapes.”
“Not me. The Police, probably,” said Pete. He looked at Brody’s thick arms, muscular and fat at the same time, and remembered how small and nerdy he’d always felt around him and how bad he’d wanted Brody to like him.
“Oh, right. It was that kid from Norfolk used to bring the KISS. I sure liked that KISS.”
“Me too,” said Claudia, shocking Pete as much with her flirtatious smile as with her remark.
Brody folded his arms over his chest and looked with new respect at Claudia. “They had some crazy hair though.”
“That they did,” said Claudia. Flirting with Brody, the kind of guy she usually would call a redneck, a bubba, a chauvinist (and she would call him these things, that very day, later in the car)—Good God, she’d flirt with anything.
“And this is Claudia,” Pete said, trying to keep his annoyance out of his voice. “My wife.”
“We were married in April,” she added, showing her gorgeous teeth and holding up her hand with the wedding ring on it.
“All right! Good for you.”
Miss Neeny kicked out at Brody with a slippered foot, wobbling the green pom-pom on the back of her sock. “His daddy had the accident? With the girl?”
“Oh, right,” said Brody, at last looking away from Claudia to turn a somber gaze on Pete. “That was real tragic. I helped look for them, you know. I’ll never forget the way they looked. Turned my stomach.”
“They don’t want to hear that kind of talk,” said Miss Neeny.
But wasn’t that exactly what Pete had come for? A first-hand account, something with more feeling than the brief paragraph the police had sent to his mother along with the coroner’s report.
“Why don’t you get some co-cola for Briscoe and his ladyfriend?”
“She’s his wife, Aunt Neeny. They just said that.”
“Well, get Mrs. Briscoe a coke, then,” said Miss Neeny, giving Claudia’s knee an approving pat.
Claudia didn’t explain that she had not changed her name.
“Any of them hamburgers left, Aunt Neeny?”
She shook her head. “I give the last one to Booger here. Hot dogs though.”
Brody said, “Hot dog, Pete?”
“Mrs. Pete? Hot dog for the lady?”
“I’m trying to cut back,” said Claudia, being funny, Pete knew, because if she was against anything, it was a hot dog, for a host of reasons, dietetic and moral.
Brody winked and aimed his finger at her like it was a gun. “I’m going to get them cokes, then.”
Miss Neeny said, “ ’Fore you do, Brody, lift that baby up on my lap so I can give him a scratch.”
With a grunt Brody heaved the old dog onto her, and she hissed like a tire having its air let out.
“Bring him a hot dog, too.”
Brody rolled his eyes. “His majesty want mustard on that?”
“Don’t be smart,” said Miss Neeny. “You ain’t too old for a whipping.”
Brody laughed and lumbered back into the house, the screen door spanking shut behind him.
The old woman looked around, leaned over the dog toward Pete and Claudia, and said in a confidential way, “He don’t work. He used to be in the army, you know, but he’s on disability now.”
They didn’t like to ask what his disability might be, as it seemed that a disability for which the government would send a monthly payment ought to be obvious to the naked eye. If they couldn’t see what it was, perhaps the disability was some kind of mental affliction (maybe violent tendencies? voices in the head? an extra personality or two?), and they wouldn’t like Brody to return and find them discussing his troubles.
Miss Neeny nuzzled the dog.
“Hey there, Booger,” she baby-talked. “You’re Mama’s sweet sugar now, ain’t you? You’re Mama’s good old man.”
Booger licked the bristly hairs on her chin before resting his head on her shoulder, looking at Pete, then Claudia. The dog’s accusatory eyes seemed to see all their bad qualities. He saw Pete’s jealousy of Brody, unreasonable because poor Brody had none of Pete’s advantages. He saw that Claudia didn’t like this place and was worried about this visit minimizing her beach time. Pete had just begun to notice that she used, without apparent irony, phrases like “I want to maximize our beach time by leaving early” or “Way to think outside the box.” He supposed it was because she worked for a big company and was accustomed to that kind of thing.
With some effort, Miss Neeny set her chair to rocking and began to drone her song again. I love you dog, yes I do, I love you ‘til I’m blue. Won’t no-BOD-eee take you away. I love you, and you here to stay.
Pete had heard her sing it all those years ago, the first time his daddy had brought them out here, to the edge of the world—Pete five and Jenny eight. Somehow they’d known better than to laugh at Miss Neeny Outlaw singing to that dog. In his memory, it was only a puppy, and she was rocking it and feeding it from a bottle. It seemed like the puppy was wearing a diaper, too, but that couldn’t be right—probably his hyperbolic tendency at work.
In between trips, Pete remembered, Jenny used to beg their daddy to tell about when his daddy took him fishing back in the 1940s. It was their grandfather who’d first hired old Mr. Outlaw—Miss Neeny’s brother—as a fishing guide.
Back then there was no bridge across the river, their daddy said, only a two-car ferry run by a grizzled Charon in a World War I army coat.
“Real pleasant fellow. Great with numbers. One of those savants, I think. You could set him any math problem in the world, and he could solve it. Of course, I never knew if he was right or not because I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
“Why’s that?” Pete would ask.
“How’d he eat?” Jenny asked.
“His wife chewed his food for him like a mama bird does for her babies. She spit it in a spoon for him.”
“Gross!” said Jenny.
“She had to put the spoon in his hand because he couldn’t see too good either, but once she got him set up with that chewed-up food and that spoon, boy, he would go to town! He had a good appetite.
“After the ferry, it was still a while to go. Back then there weren’t any houses or landmarks along the road other than what Mother Nature provided. We’d be going along, and it would seem like we’d been driving for hours and that we ought to turn around and then Daddy’d say, it’s just up there. And I’d say where because I didn’t see anything—they didn’t even have any mailboxes then. I believe the ferryman brought their mail over for them once a week, and they’d meet him at the dock—yeah, that’s right, come to think of it, we used to bring it to them sometimes.
“Old Mr. Outlaw lived in that same shotgun house they all stay in now. I don’t know what happened to his wife.”
Here Pete’s mother would speak up. “I reckon she got sick of being stuck out there in the middle of nowhere and left him.” She had only gone to the Outlaws with them once because the children had begged her to, but she had ruined the trip by always being uncomfortable (hard beds, bad food, primitive toilet, the damp, the snakes, the sun, the dust, the bugs—Jesus, the bugs!), and when they’d gotten home, she’d hurried to vacuum the sand and pine needles out of the car.
“He never did say what happened to his wife. Anyway,” Pete’s daddy continued, “he had three sons. Brody—the one you call Mr. Outlaw now—was the youngest. He was about my age and pretty quiet. But the big uns were real rowdy. Hulks with upper arms the size of hams and red greasy faces. One of them had an eye that was clouded—all milky white—and that damn thing scared the be-Jesus out of me. Mr. Outlaw said he used to hunt bear from a rowboat with a .22 pistol that had been given to him by a human cannonball from the circus. And if he didn’t drop the bear with his first shot, those two meatheads would row to shore, jump out, and chase it down with their rifles.”
“Aw, Daddy,” Jenny laughed. “You’re just making that up.”
“I’m not either! I’ve seen the bearskins! And all that hunting made them powerful hungry. Those two could eat a turkey apiece in one sitting—wild turkey they’d bagged, very disconcerting the way they’d spit shot into their plates all through the meal—ping, ping, ping—and at the end of it just a pile of bones and all those greasy little balls. And they loved grape Nehi. Daddy used to bring them a couple of cases when we’d go down there, and they wouldn’t let Brody have a drop of it. The first night they’d drink a whole case between them and get drunk as lords—”
“You can’t get drunk on that stuff, Daddy,” Jenny said. Hanging on his every word, and Pete had to admit he was sucked in, too.
“It was the sugar, baby—you drink enough of anything, and it’ll have some kind of effect on you. Well, they’d get pretty rambunctious and start singing and dancing so that the whole house would shiver and shake until Mr. Outlaw couldn’t take it another minute. He’d grab that big iron skillet off the stove and just—Wham! Right down on the table, and he’d say, ‘You idjits git to bed. We got to make an early start.’ And they’d scamper right off to bed. They must have weighed 250 pounds apiece, but they were scared of their daddy and always did like he said.”
“Did you bring Mr. Outlaw anything?” said Pete. He sympathized with the youngest in any family.
“You mean Brody?”
“I guess so.” It was confusing because there was a Brody in every generation, and more Mr. Outlaws than you could count.
“Well, we had to bring something the big uns didn’t like or else they’d have stolen it from him. They couldn’t read, but Brody could, so we brought him some of my old comic books that I was done with. I used to buy one every week, and all through the year I’d put aside the ones I thought he’d like. But he never seemed too excited about them when I gave them to him.”
“He liked them, though, Daddy,” said Pete. “You know he did.”
“I hope so. Old Mr. Outlaw said those comic books were devil’s work. He said that, too, whenever his sister got dressed up to go somewhere.”
“You know. Miss Neeny.”
Jenny wrinkled up her nose. “That old lady?” She didn’t like the smell of Miss Neeny, nor her looks either.
“Back then she wasn’t old. She’d get all dressed up, put her makeup on, stockings, a hat, a pocketbook—the whole banana—and make Mr. Outlaw or one of the big uns drive her down to the ferry every Saturday so she could do some shopping and go to the movies. I don’t know who picked her up on the other side and took her into town. If it was a girlfriend or maybe a beau.”
“A gentleman caller. A boyfriend.”
Now Jenny would screech with laughter. “That stinky old lady had a boyfriend?”
Their mother would speak up once more, “Yes, honey. A lot of old ladies had boyfriends once upon a time.”
“Well, what happened to him?” Jenny would say in a disgusted tone, intimating that anybody who would take up with the likes of Miss Neeny couldn’t have come to any good in the long run.
Their daddy shook his head. “Can’t tell you. All I know is, one spring we went down there and she had started wearing pants and was nursing a little dog she had found somewhere. I’m not sure she ever crossed the river again.”
At this point Jenny would always say with impatience, “Oh, get to the fishing part, Daddy.”
But it was hearing about the trip that Pete liked best because, to tell the truth, he was afraid of the river. The water was so terrifying and alluring that whenever he was in a boat, all he could think about was slipping over the side and plunging into the bottomless deep. He had felt his nerves wobble the first time he’d sat in his daddy’s motorboat, gripping the seat until his fingers ached. He was so small, and the others so serious and busy with their rods and hooks and bait. He was afraid that if he fell out, he wouldn’t be rescued.
So, summer after summer, Pete couldn’t concentrate on what his father tried to show him, never learning which lures to use, or what the bobbers were for, or how to attach anything properly, so that Jenny always had to do his for him and usually had to cast for him, too, because he was afraid of hooking himself. Once the lines were cast, and they all sat in perfect silence, waiting for something to happen, he would forget about the fishing and start looking toward land or at the other boats, and his thoughts would wander far away. Once, famously, he had even lost his rod over the side of the boat because he had simply forgotten to hold it. He’d been twelve then, and the next summer, he made sure to have something else to do at the time of the trip. Jenny went with their daddy, and he stayed home to play guitar and ride bikes with his friends, go to the movies, the pool, the arcade, he and his mother eating cereal for dinner, or frozen pizzas, because she didn’t cook when his father was away.
If their daddy was disappointed in Pete, he never said. He seemed just as happy that the trip that ought to have become a father-son rite of passage—the daughter dropping out to stay home with her mother to what? shop and do hair?—instead became an annual, eagerly anticipated, father-daughter event. Back home afterward, he would recount the way Jenny handled the boat, describe with pride her magnificent catches and the unsqueamish way she gutted and cleaned her own fish. And she would report on his triumphs and joke about his failures, the subtext always being that she would one day outstrip him in the fishing and sporting department, an idea their daddy seemed to relish. Year to year, the fish grew longer and more stubborn, the sky more threatening, the chop rougher. Over the years, Jenny and their daddy accumulated their own set of stories that Pete and their mother could hear but not add to, having forsaken, by their refusal to go along, the privilege to embellish and retell. The last of these stories was, of course, one that Pete and his mother could never enjoy telling—the capsized boat, the girl’s body trapped beneath it, her long hair tangled around her head like a net that had caught her, the man a quarter of a mile back, his coat snagged on a piling under the bridge, the fish swimming free around them.
Miss Neeny pulled a packet of cigarillos out of her shirt pocket and said, “You care for a cheroot?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, trying to be sociable, not looking at Claudia, who didn’t approve of smoking. He put the unlit cigarillo to his lips. He and Jenny used to hold twigs up to their mouths and pretend to smoke.
“I think these got more taste than a cigarette,” said Miss Neeny, working at her matches.
Once she’d lit Pete’s, she lit her own, took a drag, relaxed back, and said, “Now, don’t that beat a Winston?”
Pete nodded, choking back a cough. He hadn’t smoked anything so nasty since college when a hippie girl he dated shared her clove cigarettes with him.
“Is Mr. Outlaw around?” he asked.
“He don’t live here no more. He got married. I reckon it was five years ago. Moved to Kill Devil Hills.” It was clear she thought this was an outlandish place to go—on the order of California or maybe France.
“It’s just me and Little Brody now. I expect before long he’ll find him a girl, too, and then it won’t be nobody but me and my old Booger here, all by our lonesome. Ain’t that right, Booger?”
She looked at the dog, who had got down out of her lap again and was staring mournfully through the screen door.
“I believe Brody forgot your wiener. BRODY!”
Again came the thundering feet the length of the house. The door flew open and a hot dog sailed out in an arc and hit the dirt yard. The dog chased after it, scrambling his toenails down the splintered steps, and pounced on the hot dog as though it might be alive. It was gone in one gulp, leaving Booger frantically sniffing the dirt for another. Inside, Brody retreated. They heard a man and a woman arguing.
“I can’t believe you did this to me. Can’t you even think of the baby?”
“Shut up! You don’t know me! You don’t even know me!”
Miss Neeny sighed. “That durn television dish. More channels than you could use. I don’t care for it. Half of it’s naked people, and the other half’s commercials. Little Brody likes it though. I don’t fault him. He gets bored sitting around disabled.”
Pete said, “Does Mr. Outlaw come out here to guide anymore?”
“Shoot. His wife owns a restaurant, and they’re too busy to worry with anything else. They come Christmas, and that’s about it.”
“What’s the name of the restaurant?” Claudia asked. Wanting to avoid it, Pete thought.
“Honey, I couldn’t tell you that if you stuck my feet to a hot stove. It’s some kind of fish house.”
Pete said, “My mother remarried, too. About a year after the accident.”
With that transaction he had also acquired a stepsister and stepbrother. The boy had been away at college, and the girl used to glare at Pete across the dinner table. She was his hateful mirror image, each of them resenting this new family that was like the old one only in its basic shape of man, woman, boy, girl. The marriage hadn’t taken; his mother had divorced a few years later.
“She met her new husband at her bereavement group. His wife died of cancer,” Pete continued.
Miss Neeny shook her head, blowing blue smoke. “Mama had cancer. Ate her up just like a rat. Near the end, she used to ask Daddy to shoot her in the head to put her out of her misery. Of course, he was too tender-hearted to do it.”
A real sentimentalist, Pete thought, but didn’t say.
“She’s buried in town, you know, across the river. He buried her, and then we moved out here. Daddy couldn’t stand folks after Mama died.”
“So you didn’t always live out here?” said Claudia.
Miss Neeny laughed. “Lord, no. It was our country cousins lived out here. We was town people.” She whistled. “Come on back here, Booger. Don’t go in them woods and get nasty, or poor old Brody will have to give you a bath.”
“Want me to go get him?” Claudia offered. Restless, Pete could see, from the way she was fidgeting.
“Naw, sugar, he’ll come back in a minute,” Miss Neeny said. “I bet Brody would’ve took y’all out in the boat, but the battery’s dead. He ain’t managed to get a new one yet. It’s a nice boat, too. He won it in a raffle. The ticket was twenty dollars! I told him he was crazy to pay that much. I never heard of a raffle costing more than a dollar. But durn if he didn’t win. Had his picture in the paper and everything.”
Claudia said, “We don’t have time for a ride, anyway. We need to get back on the road.”
“Y’all ain’t going already? You just got here.” Miss Neeny squinted her funhouse eyes, taking them from wide and watery to small and hard. She flourished her cigarillo toward the house. “Brody ain’t even fixed your cokes yet. Bang on the door, see can you get his attention.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Claudia. “We need to get on, beat the traffic.”
“Well.” Miss Neeny picked a little tobacco off her tongue and worked her rubbery lips.
Pete said, “Brody must have good luck, winning the boat like that.”
“The Lord smiles on him is what it is. Has never wanted for a thing and nary a bad thing ever happens to him—except for the disability, you know.”
“Sometime I would like to come back and get him to take me out.”
“I wouldn’t ride in that thing,” said Miss Neeny, shaking her head. “Too fast for me.”
“Is that why you stopped going across the river? The boats got too fast?”
She didn’t seem to hear him; she was staring off toward the pines, trancelike. He and Claudia sat in embarrassed silence for a moment, Claudia, ever so slightly, tilting her head toward the car and making a question with her eyes, pleading.
Suddenly, Miss Neeny looked back at Pete, the sunlight on her glasses again doing weird things to her eyes, so that they didn’t really look human. “What you say your name was again?”
“Pete. Pete Briscoe,” he faltered. Who did she think she’d been talking to all this time? As a boy, Pete had imagined that the Outlaws waited all year for the Briscoes to come, like Santa Claus, and bring them wonderful things from the city. Now he suspected that the only thing that distinguished his family from the others Miss Neeny’s menfolk had taken fishing over the last sixty years was that his daddy had not listened when they warned that the river was too rough, too cold, and so, like a fairy-tale fool who refuses sage advice, he had perished.
“Briscoe. Now I got it.” She dropped her cheroot into a drained Mountain Dew sitting on the windowsill. The butt sizzled out, and a plume of smoke unfurled from the bottle top.
“Won’t the boats that was the problem,” she said. “Just won’t no reason to go cross the river no more. Won’t nothing to see over there once they closed the picture show.”
Earlier, after he and Claudia had crossed the river, they had passed the boat basin. There had been a dozen or so pick-ups parked, their trailers empty, their owners no doubt among the specks Pete had seen out on the water. He could easily picture them as they had been at dawn, men in caps going about the good-natured business of putting in their boats, sipping gas-station coffee and eating biscuits, talking quietly as they waited their turn at the ramp.
There had been a girl with Pete the last time, too, when he had come to retrieve his daddy’s truck. He had needed her to come along to drive his car back. Over the phone, his mother had told Mr. Outlaw, if he could, to sell “that damn boat,” which she somehow blamed for the accident. Soon after that trip, the girl had broken up with him because he was no fun to be around. After a couple of years he’d managed to stop thinking about any of them too much—the girl, the Outlaws, his daddy, or Jenny, either—putting them out of his mind like they’d never existed.
He’d wanted Claudia to see this place so that when he talked about it she wouldn’t just nod and look blank. He’d thought that maybe seeing the place would make her understand what he couldn’t put into words. If he brought her, he thought, maybe his daddy and Jenny would seem real to him again rather than just two names attached to an ever-diminishing set of memories.
Now, looking at Claudia’s pretty, bored face and restless hands, he shared her anxiety to go. He dreaded to think about a day when he might forget her—not the fact of her, of course, but her everyday being, all the expressions and movements, preferences and prejudices he was still discovering, some to his delight, some otherwise. Together, maybe soon, they might have children. Those children might never come here, and it grieved Pete to know that the existence and demise of his own father and sister would seem to his future children as outlandish as the blind ferryman and the greedy big brothers had once seemed to him.
As they stood to go, the dog pressed himself against Pete’s leg, friendly too late. As he reached down to pet him, Pete realized—suddenly, stupidly—that of course this couldn’t be the same dog he’d seen the first time he’d come. That dog had to be long dead, and this was only the last in a line of who knew how many, nursed like babies and spoiled rotten.