Sometimes she wonders if it was a mistake, coming back up to this river town with its long memories. It’s not like she had much choice, but still. She didn’t really expect anything as grand as forgiveness or acceptance. Maybe she had hoped for some kind of peace. People do leave her alone. Averting their eyes in the market, crossing over to the other side of the road as soon as they spot her. She’s not sure what’s worse, these casual evasions or the bags of hand-me-downs and day-old cakes that arrive on her porch like clockwork after every Church social or bazaar. She thought the town’s tongues would have moved on by now.
Just stay there for a little while, her sister said. It was something at least. Just stay there till you know what’s what.
‘Tennessee,’ the boy answers, meeting the stare of these two boys at his front gate. This is their territory and they’re quick to sniff out newcomers.
‘Tennessee? What kinda name is that?’ asks the taller one with the buzz cut, leaning back in his bike seat. He squints at Tennessee like someone used to calling all the shots.
‘My momma says she gave it to me so as I’d never forget where I come from.’
‘That where you’re from?’ the other boy pipes up, pushing back his greasy bangs with dirty fingernails. His left sneaker is worn through at the toes and his patched-up jeans are grubby with oil stains. ‘Tennessee?’ he spits the word out. A watermelon seed.
‘Nah. You’re from the South. We’re calling you Dixie,’ the big boy declares and the matter is settled. ‘I’m Billy. He’s Sam.’
‘All right, Dixie,’ says Sam. ‘See ya ‘round.
Tennessee watches them ride off. Billy’s strong legs propel him forward for a few seconds, then he stands on the pedals and glides his cherry red BMX down the hill. Sam’s knees make sharp angles as he furiously spins his rusty one-speed to keep up.
Over the next few weeks, he sees them around the town. Notices them pinching peaches from the fruit truck, shortcutting through the cemetery to the river, selling nightcrawlers to the fishermen for odd nickels and dimes. Sometimes when Billy sees Tennessee, he waves broadly, ‘Hey, Dixie, we’re over here!’ If he can slip away from Momma, he goes.
They show Tennessee how to put old pennies on the train tracks just before Harley’s Hornet comes barrelling down on its way to Parkersburg. Afterwards, the three of them hunt among the tracks and ties, gathering up the uneven, shiny ovals of squashed copper.
Other times, they seem to see straight through him. Billy’s caught up arguing with Old Man Jenkins about a broken window and doesn’t look so friendly. Doesn’t look so big next to his daddy, either. Sam passes him by on Main Street, without even a nod, softly singing Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.
‘Tennessee, washing’s done. You gotta hang up that laundry now. Where’d you put them clothespins?’
‘Tennessee, when you gonna wind up that hose and put the shovels in the shed?’
‘Tennessee, you listenin’ to me?’
Truth is, he hears every single one of her questions, banging out, one after another like kids slamming through a screen door in summertime.
No, Momma. Not today. There’s a bend in the river with mud turtles in its flats and crab grass on its banks. Sam and Billy are collectin’ worms and asked me along. They don’t ask more’n once. I wanna see the blackbirds flit through the cattails, them ones with the red and yellow badges on their wings. I wanna be by the water. I just don’t have it in my bones to find and fetch for you today, Momma.
‘Tennessee? Tennessee? Where you hidin’? Don’t you go thinking I don’t know where you are! Tennessee-eee?’ When she adds another syllable to his name, her voice goes up like a bird whistle. He looks up through the cracks between the wood planks. The boards bow slightly as she moves across the veranda.
She stands right above him. He holds his breath, wills his heart to beat more quietly.
Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! She hits the bottom of her cane on the porch. There’s precious few inches between her stick and his skull. ‘Tennessee?’ Bits of dry dirt and grit fall through the cracks into his hair. He doesn’t dare twitch.
‘That boy,’ she says it like a curse.
When her lopsided footsteps hobble to the other end of the porch, he starts to breathe a bit more easy. She settles into the hanging wooden swing. Its chains creak and the floorboards squeak their relief.
‘That boy.’ Softer this time, sadder.
Inside, the phone rings. She doesn’t move.
Ten minutes pass. Tennessee’s scalp itches. Pins and needles are prickling his foot. The phone rings again.
This time, with a heavy sigh, she gets up from the swing, makes her way inside.
She puts down the receiver and glances out the front window. Sees him sneaking through the front gate and dragging out the beat-up old bike he hides in the bushes. His face is losing its boyish roundness, growing into the harder edges of his father’s cheekbones. She wishes he didn’t act so hunted. Eyes always darting, checking corners for danger, for escape. He’s always been skinny, but this summer, he seems bony. As if his arms and legs are running towards something so fast the rest of him can’t keep up. When he looks back one last time, checking to see if he’s made a clean getaway, she steps away from the window.
He finds them down by the river sitting on the bank. It’s only just past noon, but he’s already sticky from the rising humidity. He longs to dunk his feet in the water’s rush. A rusted coffee tin sits by Billy’s side, a trowel sticking up out of it. Tennessee dumps his bike on the grass and walks over; the boys are looking at something Billy holds in his hand.
As he gets closer, Tennessee sees it is a squashed pack of cigarettes.
Billy slides one onto his palm and taps it on a rock. His face transforms into a grin as he looks up and sees Tennessee coming. He holds the unlit cigarette to his nose and takes a whiff.
‘Mmm, mmmm, sweet tobacco. Hey, Dixie, wanna smoke?’
Tennessee shakes his head and peers in the coffee tin, poking around for worms. ‘Where d’ya get them from?’
‘He lifted them from his daddy’s store,’ Sam gloats, reaching for the pack.
Sam puts a cigarette between his lips, pulls out a lighter, and with a practiced motion, lights the tip of the cigarette. He takes a deep inhale and blows smoke towards Tennessee’s face.
‘You scared?’ Sam holds out the pack of cigarettes.
Tennessee takes one and taps it on his palm, not sure which end to tap, so he taps both. ‘Nah, ain’t scared.’
Sam gets up, faces Tennessee. They are exactly at eye level. Sam’s left hand holds the lit cigarette at his lips. With his right, he holds the lighter only inches away from Tennessee’s face. Flicks it on.
‘C’mon, then, Dixie.’
The heat of the flame makes Tennessee’s nose tingle. He wants to bite his lips and turn his head but he knows breaking eye contact would be a mistake. Pushing the cigarette between his index and middle finger, he says nothing. He doesn’t want this dry whisper in his hands. He wants to dig for worms in the moist soil, to feel that dark coolness between his fingers.
Billy stands and moves between them. He pushes Sam’s arm down. ‘Leave him be, Sam.’
Sam’s eyes flicker up at Billy for an instant. He extinguishes the lighter and stuffs it in his pocket, scowling at Tennessee.
The afternoon passes with chores. She hangs the washing on the clothesline. Weeds and thins baby carrot shoots and spinach seedlings. Changes the bedding. She looks through the latest paper bag filled with other people’s old clothes. Finds some jeans that should do for Tennessee to last the summer and starts to hem them up.
The phone doesn’t ring again. She knows it won’t, but she can’t help looking at it, hoping for another call, a better one, with different news.
‘Where were you?’ Billy demands. ‘You missed the steamship leaving. Sam’s little brother almost fell in when they wound up the ropes and pushed away.’
He tells them how he was near ready to leave when his momma called out. How he dove under the front porch, thinking she’d go round back to look and then he’d make a dash for it. But she didn’t and he was trapped until the phone rang. Took two calls to get her to move. He’s about to demonstrate how he wiggled out from under the porch, belly to the ground like a sniper, when Sam butts in.
‘You’re always missing something, Dixie,’ Sam starts. ‘Why didn’t you just walk straight out the front door? Why sneak and hide? Just tell your momma you got stuff to do. Say “see ya” and skedaddle.’ Sam smirks and glances over at Billy. ‘Not like she’s going to run after you.’
Billy shakes his head, ‘Sam, don’t...’
Sam steps closer to Tennessee, smelling of smoke and sweat, and whispers in his ear, ‘After all,’ he sniggers, ‘she didn’t chase after your daddy, did she?’
Billy lets out a low whistle.
Tennessee turns, shoves Sam away, ‘You shut up! You don’t know a thing ‘bout my daddy, you don’t know a thing ‘bout my momma, you don’t know anything ‘bout anything!’
Sam, grinning, sidles around. ‘I know what my momma says about him.’ Taps his right index finger to his left palm. ‘I know what they say at the shop when they chit-chat at the counter,’ tapping two fingers now, ‘and I know what the church ladies say about you and your momma every Tuesday night prayer meeting since you got here.’ Three fingers. Lowering his voice, ‘You know what they all say?’
Tennessee’s can feel his blood surging down his arms.
‘Your daddy. He ain’t coming back. He ain’t never coming back. Everybody knows that.’
Tennessee draws back and swings, his knuckles smarting as they collide with Sam’s front teeth. Sam’s head is thrown back by the blow and his eyes bulge. Before he can retaliate, Tennessee punches him again, just below the chest. Sam stumbles backwards toward the river bank.
Billy shouts at them to stop, but his voice sounds thick like someone calling underwater. Sam’s down, Tennessee’s kicking. Every foot he lands in Sam’s belly feels like payback. He can’t stop. Kicks harder and harder. Sam wraps his arms around his body to block the barrage and rolls into the river. Panic sprawls on his face when he surfaces and splashes back under again. Billy jumps in to help.
She decides to roast a chicken for dinner, takes one from the deep freeze and leaves it on the counter to defrost. Looks for potatoes in the pantry, finds one of the jars of green beans her sister brought down from Marietta. It’s not Easter. It’s not even Sunday, but she wants to mark the day, counter bad news with good food.
There is a collection of old apples rolling around the bottom of the fruit bowl, they need eating. She peels the skin off the biggest in one long ribbon, rotating the apple as she pushes the peeler blade into the flesh. Concentrates on not breaking the fragile casing, getting just the right amount of width and depth to keep the whole intact. When she finishes, she picks up the strand and winds it back into the shape of the apple, a shell with empty insides. She holds it a moment, tosses the skin on the pile of peelings and slices the peeled apple.
Tennessee pedals as hard as he can, the wheels slipping on the dirt, moving too fast to gain traction. Doesn’t look over his shoulder; it would only slow him down. Unsure if they are close at his wheels or still at the water, he imagines them on their bikes, gaining on him, throwing rocks or sticks at his wheels. Away from the river, down the lane, across Main Street, whizzing through traffic signals. He passes his house, cuts through a vacant lot, and drops his bike in an overgrown hedge.
Heads for the thickest overgrowth, squeezing behind branches. A thorn drags along the back of his arm as he yanks his sleeve free of brambles. Shielded by heavy greenery, he crouches on rotting leaves, gasping for breath in the close afternoon heat, chest pounded by his rabbiting heart. Waits.
No one tears across the lot, no one comes looking for him. His knuckle feels sore. Looks down to see a cut where his fist met Sam’s front teeth. His blood or Sam’s? After gingerly flexing his fingers open and closed, he shakes his hand out and wipes it on his jeans. Rubs at the streak of crimson along his arm, wincing at the sting. He moves a few boughs to scan the lot again. No one. He remains still, stays alert. Stays until the shadows grow long and the heat softens. Finally, he creeps out, looks in all directions. He is alone. They would have gone home by now. It’s getting toward dusk.
In the twilight he sees the laundry has been hung up on the line, the hoe and shovel now stand neatly against the garden shed. He brushes away the murmur of guilt that comes with knowing how his momma would have laboured to complete these tasks. The garden hose still snakes through the grass. Behind the thin curtains, he sees her silhouette at the sink. She moves unevenly across the kitchen.
Inside, he brushes off his trousers. Carefully hangs up his jacket instead of leaving it on the floor. He pauses. Aromas of roast chicken and potatoes. It’s not Sunday. It’s not a birthday. Part of him stirs in alarm at this extravagance on an ordinary day, but his stomach rumbles louder than his suspicions.
She is sitting at the table with a glass of water. The places have been set. She looks up at him as he comes through the doorway, her deep set brown eyes looking more weary than angry. Damp strands of her greying brown hair have worked themselves free from her usual tidy plait.
‘Where were you? Coulda used your help today. I called for you.’
‘Sorry, momma. Didn’t hear.’
He feels her eyes studying him and moves his hand with the bruised knuckles behind his back.
She pushes her palms against the table top as she stands.
‘You go wash your face, I’ll get the dinner.’
When they eat, the only sound is the scraping of knives and forks. He doesn’t ask her why she’s made a special meal, but asks for seconds, eats every bite. She brings out an apple pie for dessert and he smiles. The first time all evening. She cuts him a generous slice.
As he stretches out his hand to take the plate, her eyes rest on his freshly scabbed knuckles. She purses her lips, ‘You been fighting?’
He quickly puts the plate down in front of him and tucks his right fist under his legs. ‘No, momma.’ He’s a bad liar, so he doesn’t say much when he tells a fib. It’s awkward to eat with his left hand, but he loves pie. She doesn’t press him any more about his day.
‘I had a phone call this morning,’ she begins. ‘Your daddy.’
He puts his fork down even though he still has half a piece of pie.
‘He… he says he’ll be coming back later than he thought,’ she speaks carefully, her eyes looking down.
‘He says it’ll maybe be in the autumn, now. Fidgeting with her napkin, she is grasping for words.
He sits back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest.
‘When he comes back, it’ll be better, we’ll be moving and…’
She speaks too quickly, and then her voice shrinks when she glances up and meets his gaze. A long silence.
He pushes his chair back, scraping the legs across the floor, and rises. Though his forearm is trembling, there is an unfamiliar resonance in his voice.
‘What are you talkin’ about, Momma? He ain’t coming back. He ain’t never coming back. Don’t you know that? Everyone knows that.’
He expects she’ll get up and slap him, scold him for being fresh. Tell him he’s talking nonsense and how dare he disrespect his daddy.
When she doesn’t, when, instead, she drops her eyes and her shoulders crumple, he looks down at his unfinished pie. He doesn’t want it anymore.
MELISSA FU grew up in Northern New Mexico and currently lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. She is widely published in the US and UK. Her piece 'Suite for my Father' was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition. She is delighted to be a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based WordFactory. In 2014, Melissa combined her loves of writing and teaching to start Spilling the Ink, a small business offering creative writing courses and coaching. You can find her on Twitter @WritingCircles