But Eudora wasn’t the only one who shared their private business with Rae-Ann. Maybe it was because there was something in the way she presided over a sea of six-packs and zip-lock bags. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the store was a frequent contributor to the town’s soccer and baseball teams, and that she took out a half-page ad every year for the town’s annual fishing tournament at the wildlife refuge, now less of a refuge and more like a campground for sportsmen. Whatever the reason, people told her things that she’d sometimes rather not know. Take Dwayne for example.
Earl had never liked Dwayne McCullor. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t like him but told Rae-Ann over dinner, “He’s not put together right. Can’t put my finger on it.” Dwayne came into the store at least once a week to buy a case of beer. He looked like any one of the mill workers wearing a wind-breaker and a Razor Backs cap. But he had strange eyes. When Rae-Ann rang up his bill at the cash register, his eyes darted back and forth as though they were having muscle spasms, almost like he was on the verge of a fit. Then he opened his wallet and said, “How much do I owe you,” in a tone of voice that almost dared her to answer.
It was a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. There were two other people in the store. They were getting milk and orange juice from the freezer and talking about car parts. One of the men was having problems with his starter and wanted to know where to get it fixed. A fan whirred overhead. A small TV on the counter was tuned to the weather channel with news of a cold front moving into the area by afternoon. “Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
He rested his beer on the counter. “He screwed me.”
“That bastard, Randy.” Over the weekend, he had worked himself into frenzy about his meeting with Randy Crawford from the Arkansas Environmental Board, hardly sleeping and working his way through several packs of non-filters. “That stupid mother fucker. I recorded everything.” He slammed his change on the counter and pushed several quarters toward Rae-Ann. “Sure, I signed those documents. But he’s the one who asked. Can you imagine? Taxpayer money going to feed crooks.”
Rae-Ann didn’t answer. She swept his money into her palm and handed him his change. She didn’t know what to say. “Thanks, Dwayne. Hope you have a good day.” He picked up his packages and rushed through the door. The two guys from the back added packs of spearmint gum to their cartons of milk and orange juice. They shrugged. “What the fuck is eating him?” They watched him race out of the parking lot. Rae-Ann began to check her inventory before the next wave of customers entered. Dwayne always left a sour taste in her mouth. She wondered if he beat his wife, and began to arrange a display of corn chips at the front door.
Recently, there had been several closings along Highway 85, a fish and tackle and a beauty supply. She had talked to their owners. “We can’t afford to stay open.” They were apologetic. “Time to sell everything and pull up stakes.” As the unofficial head of the Merchant’s Association, Rae-Ann took this as a personal failure. This couldn’t be good. For fifty years, a whole half-century, her family had called Hentsbury home, a place that had grown up around one of the oldest paper mills in the south. The community had benefitted from Rand-Atlantic. Earl always had hoped that through their own dumb business luck, they would be in a position to help others thrive and build a community together, a place where families would buy homes and raise children. She loved Hentsbury. She had lived there for her entire life.
One of Rae-Ann’s favorite pastimes as a youngster had been to walk with her Aunt DeeDee over a bridge, its stone face always cool in summer. She would stand there holding her aunt’s hand looking down into the water, brown and steamy as it rushed beneath their feet; then her aunt told her the story of Billy Goat Gruff and how that was him, (right there, see?) a troll, creating a smelly steam cloud over the Mud River because he wanted to stop them from crossing his bridge (trip-trap-trip-trap).
“What’s a troll Aunt DeeDee?”
“An ugly selfish little man with scaly hands. He lives right down there.”
Rae-Ann peered inside the churning water. “Really?” Later on in life she found out that Aunt DeeDee’s husband had run away with an exercise instructor from Anytime Fitness, and afterward, had always referred to him as that troll.
“Uh-huh. And let me tell you something else.” Rae-Ann adored her aunt. She made her own chocolate-marshmallow ice cream every July Fourth and had crocheted Rae-Ann a hat for her birthday in her favorite color, blue. Her aunt lived on the Mud River in a small wood-shingled house with a fireplace and a garden of daisies. “If you listen carefully, you can hear the troll sing:
“Well, come along! I’ve got two spears,
And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;
I’ve got besides two curling-stones,
And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones.
Her aunt sung the part of the troll in a high-pitched, scary voice. “And let me tell you something else…If Domino (that was her dog), ever gets covered with fleas during the summer, you bring her here and let her run around for a spell in the water. Want to know what will happen? Every one of those fleas will jump off because they’ll be afraid of the troll.” And then her aunt laughed a scary troll laugh: brah-hah-hah-hah.
–to be continued