One summer Domino did get covered with fleas and Rae-Ann did just what her auntie had told her. By the time Domino shook herself dry, the dog was clean and ran up to lick Rae-Ann’s hand. Not a single flea. But when Aunt Dee became sick, some kind of nerve damage that attacked her heart or maybe it had been the other way around–it didn’t matter–the family buried Aunt Dee in the Weeping Widow Cemetery at the edge of town, the same place where Rae-Ann had buried Earl last year.
She looked at the TV screen above the cash register. They broadcaster was still talking about cold weather except he was saying something like artic shifting latitude. And in that moment, she realized there would be no new businesses opening up in Hentsbury any time soon except for a funeral parlor. Maybe she should take up her youngest daughter’s offer and leave Hentsbury for good.
Vernon was no stranger to the Weeping Widow Cemetery. He drove past the cemetery on his way to Rae-Ann’s place. It’s where they had buried Raymond Shields in a special plot reserved for the Shields family members next to Raymond’s wife, Rose. Members throughout the community had attended his funeral, people whom Raymond had helped at the mill, plus his fishing buddies who crossed their poles into a teepee formation over his gravesite during the pastor’s invocation, and members of the Citizens Committee for Environmental Justice, grateful to Raymond for asking several of the white mill workers to attend their meetings. He saw Kim and Deacon Turner there, both members. They shook hands.
And there was his daughter, Judy. She had her Grandfather Shields’ gravestone chiseled with a picture of an empty canoe and the words, Gone Fishin’. Judy thought he would like that. Standing at the gravesite after the last shovelful of dirt had been tossed, Vernon walked several hundred meters to find Dina beneath a small redbud tree. “How you doing, honey?” he asked. “Judy and the baby are fine.” Then as an after thought: “Her husband isn’t such a bad guy after all. His name is Mark.” Vernon didn’t have any other news; he turned around and walked toward his Tahoe. It had been more than twelve years since his wife had passed. Twelve years had been a long time, long enough for their daughter to grow up and have a baby and for him to develop regrets. But each time he saw Rae-Ann, he felt like he was coming alive again.
He had known her husband and liked him, but always thought of the Half & Half as Rae-Ann’s place. Didn’t know why. He just did. He was driving there now, saw hundreds of black birds prospecting for worms after a torrential week of rain, then fly into a black cloud overhead as he passed beneath them heading toward the highway where several trucks zoomed by carrying loblolly pine up to the mill, naked toothpicks of wood without a branch among them stacked and spilling over the back of a cab—tree trunks that were about to be reformed into paper products of every kind—paper that was indispensable to the lives of men and women—envelopes, stationery, newspaper, folders, books. Civilizations had been built on paper, never mind the necessities of toilet paper, boxes of cereal and tissues. Vernon had overseen that process, had been entrusted with making sure that the vats of chemicals, which could easily dissolve a man’s finger in a half second, were safe and protected, that is of course, until Dwayne had bullied his way into making Safety his own concern. Even so, Vernon had bigger catfish to fry. His job was to protect Rand-Atlantic—to make sure that the company did not receive unfavorable publicity from its release of mill effluents—chemical runoff into the land, air, and water. But after twenty years in Hentsbury, his job as head of the Environmental Division was testing Vernon’s last nerve. He didn’t understand why the company never seemed to budget enough money for maintenance or modernization. Instead, they invested in fences and redirecting county roads so no one could identify raw sewage that collected in green and black pools at the back of people’s houses, one emergency after another, always fighting fires, trying to wise up head honchoes to the danger that engulfed them; this latest H2S emission had not been the first, although Bryan Thurmond acted like it had been. He was still young. But it was those River Watcher types who irked him acting like he didn’t know where his dick was. What did they expect him to do anyway? But once Vernon got his hoped-for promotion and occupied a spot in Atlanta on the company’s national Environmental Safety Team, he’d initiate one small change at a time until Rand-Atlantic didn’t know what the fuck had hit them.
Vernon parked the Tahoe and got a thermos from his backpack. Every morning the same old shit floated through his head. Once he retired, maybe he’d move to Florida and sail a skiff around the Gulf. He loved the water; or maybe help raise his grandson, if his daughter, Judy, would let him.
He walked into the Half & Half, Rae-Ann’s place.
–to be continued