Earl’s Half & Half was located at the border between Louisiana and Arkansas. The liquor half was in the state of Louisiana, and the grocery half, in Arkansas. Customers joked that you could go from one state to another in less time than it took to sign your name.
The store had started out as a coffee bar, a place for truckers to buy their morning cup. Earl’s customer’s kept asking for more—gum, chips, cigarettes, magazines, then canned goods, fried chicken wings, pizza, and of course, sodas to wash it all down. Earl nursed the bottom-line until his big day came: he was able to afford a liquor license.
Since Hentsbury was a dry county, everyone driving there to Arkansas, stopped to get beer. The place was a goldmine. Sales helped put their girls through college. But five years ago, Earl had come down with a rare blood disease. Rae-Ann stood by his side and watched him sicken and die.
The girls had already moved away. We became her family. And there were always other people passing through—people from Wildlife and Fisheries checking on stands of loblolly, hunters and fisherman, nephews and grandnieces on holiday visits. She worked weekends, didn’t want to be in the house with reminders of Earl: the leather recliner in the living room where he sat watching TV, or looking at the framed photographs over the fireplace with his arm draped around her like a fox stole.
After Earl’s death, we insisted that she go away with us for a girlfriend weekend (we won’t take no for an answer). We rented a cabin in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Whenever she passed by a mirror, she seemed embarrassed by what she saw: an attractive woman who could’ve passed for ten years younger than her actual fifty-three, a fringe of bangs and shoulder-length hair that she dyed a light cocoa, her body plump but not out-of-shape, still able to fill out a pair of jeans with dignity.
They’d met in high school. Earl had been a member of the football team. She’d sat next to him in Biology. I heard her talk about Earl on our walks home.
When he graduated and began to run the front desk of his father’s storage facility, he proposed. They bought a house on a main road leading into town. After the girls were born, she decided to open a day care. She put a large blue sign in her yard with a picture of Tinker Bell touching a sparkling wand to the words Day Care, and ran an advertisement for a few weekends in the Penny Saver.
For years she ran her business out of the house, set up a screened area on the back porch where the babies could play in the summer. When her girls got older, every so often they watched the babies so she could head over to the Half & Half and lend Earl a hand. But after twenty years of running the day care, it seemed like she always had a cold or sore throat, catching whatever the toddlers had. Plus, snacks were getting more expensive and she didn’t think she could raise her rates to cover costs. By the time Earl had been diagnosed, she’d closed the daycare; she’d converted the patio into a greenhouse for tuberous begonias with glossy green leaves and waxy orange and pink blossoms.
We’d mailed her condolence cards that she’d arranged on the fireplace mantel, brought by baskets of fruit, and a book of daily prayers. I brought her a kitten to keep her company. She’d named it Whiskers, an orange and white tabby that liked to hide behind the kitchen curtains and attack her feet every time she walked by. “You scamp,” she’d pick him up by the fur of his neck and scratch the white fur on his belly. “What am I going to do with you?” She always did the same thing—gave him a hug and placed him back on the ground until Whiskers was distracted by a crumb on the kitchen floor, or by some fly that had gotten past the screen door.
The older girl was in Atlanta. She told Rae-Ann that she had an extra room. “Just think about it, Mom. Please. You can move in.” As tempting as the offer was, Rae-Ann didn’t want to weigh down her daughter who’d just gotten married.
Each morning she felt her way through the darkness, colder in the winter months especially after an ice storm, slipped on her work shoes before throwing on the light. A few people relieved her around lunch and after the first mill shift in the evening, the same people who had worked for Earl, like Janice who was getting close to retirement age and wanting to spend more time with her husband who’d been diagnosed with diabetes. Confidentially, Janice had told Rae-Ann that the doctor said her husband had to stop drinking a pint every day, and if he didn’t, he’d probably end up with a liver problem in addition to everything else that was wrong with him. Rae-Ann only told me, because I was her best friend.
People trusted Rae-Ann. She knew about the pastor’s wife, Eudora Franklin. For some reason, Eudora had blurted out how she had become pregnant with their fifth child, and never told her husband. He was pastor of The Living River. “You have to understand, it’s not like I wanted to do that,” and bit her lower lip looking down at the display of Slim-Jims and raising her eyes back to Rae-Ann again.
Earl had never liked Dwayne McCullor who came into the store every Friday to load up on several cases for the weekend. 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.”
Jeff Corkle’s dad was getting milk and orange juice from the freezer and talking about car parts. His friend was having problems with his starter and wanted to know where to get it fixed. A small TV on the counter was tuned to the Weather Channel with news of a cold front moving in by afternoon.
He looked like any one of the mill workers, broad shouldered, wearing a wind-breaker and a Razor Backs cap. But it was his eyes that were strange. Rae-Ann watched. Now he was walking down Aisle 3 and heading back her way. A stream of morning sunlight shone on cellophane packages of whole wheat bread. He picked up a can of Vienna sausage with a pop-up aluminum top and placed it inside his shopping basket. “That’s it. Except for this.” He handed her his thermos, battered from years of use. “Fill ‘er up. I drink this stuff by the gallon.” She turned on the spigot of the coffee pot and kept her finger on the spout. “Also a pack of Marlboros,” he said.
Rae-Ann rang up his bill at the cash register; he stood there shifting from one foot to the other; 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?” It was a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. Rae-Ann looked at the TV screen above the cash register. The broadcaster was still talking about weather—some artic plunge.
“Ever try one of these?” Rae-Ann pointed to a pack of tobacco-less cigarettes. His eyes started spinning in his head. “You feeling okay?” she asked.
He rested his beer on the counter. “He screwed me.”
Rae-Ann swept his change into his palm. She didn’t know what else to say. “Thanks, Dwayne. Have a good day,” which is when it happened. Dwayne took out a pistol and started shooting. Everywhere. We’re not sure that he meant to hit Rae-Ann, but he did.
Her daughters asked me if I wanted to take home a few of her begonias. They were in bloom with heavy pink blossoms. The girls found a small cardboard box from amongst her things and told me to pick out whichever ones I wanted. Whiskers jumped into my lap. “I don’t suspect that you’ll be wanting to take the cat home?”
They looked at each other. The cat began to purr. “No,” they said.