by L B Gschwandtner

Everyone in Clifford Falls agreed it was Piney’s way to be cruel. Some folks in town – ones who’d known him the longest – said it was because of the hurts he’d suffered as a child. Others said he was just born ornery. It was true that his father had been cruel to his mother, and the older sister used to beat up on the middle brother until he got big enough to knock her across the room. And it was true that the whole family was cruel to little Piney. Some said Piney had to be mean just to make his way.

By the time he could run Piney started slapping Molasses on the rump every time she came near him. She was the laziest mixed-breed lab in all of Clifford Falls, useless as a hunter and not much better as a watchdog. By the time she was a year, Mo would skirt a side wall to avoid coming within arm’s reach of Piney. She’d even wait until Piney left the kitchen before she’d go near her dinner bowl. That was until Piney took it in his head to stalk poor old Mo. It was then she began to go downhill fast. Piney could be cruel enough to kill.

But folks had seen his cruelty so often they just said of him, “Oh, that’s Piney’s way.” And they let it be. They didn’t even try to stop him. Which is another kind of cruelty.

Piney started out sickly and puny but in time he grew to be big and strong. He got a tattoo on his left forearm when he was but thirteen. Two snake heads hissing at each other. Piney wore short-sleeved shirts to show the tattoo in all its blue meanness. Girls were scared of it and Piney liked that just fine. Especially when they shrank back from him when he came into the store or the diner or Bert’s where he went to shoot pool after work loading pickup trucks at the mulch plant.

Piney stopped going to school before he was legally of age but no one bothered to come after him. He just spent more time at Bert’s. That went on for a few years. He got into fistfights that he always won. Seems like those other fellas was not as serious about fighting as Piney was. He liked the way someone else’s bones and flesh felt against his knuckles. Even if he got hurt, too. That didn’t seem to matter much to Piney. As if he was beyond feeling any pain of his own. But he could feel their pain, those other guys. And it made him feel something. When they saw their own blood and he saw how they reacted to it, he felt like he had really done something to brag on.

Then into town one day came Heyward. With her smile and her earrings that swung when she walked and her hair, black as a moonless night and glossy like mink fur. She was the most glamorous thing anyone had ever seen in Clifford Falls. Piney first heard her name at Bert’s Grill when someone pointed her out through the window. He stared at her and made up his mind right there about what he would do when the chance came around.

Piney figured Heyward didn’t know anything about his ways. She was new and different. She walked around town almost tiptoeing. Graceful, like a ballerina in a fine costume. She wore a skirt made of light, airy cotton so you could just about see through it to her trim legs beneath, but you couldn’t really, just an impression it was. And Piney kept looking. He could hardly keep his eyes from devouring her. And that was not Piney’s way. Until now.

Even the children wanted to know about Heyward. Maybe that was because she never said a thing to them. Or to anyone else. She stayed outside town at the home of Miss Emmaline Smallwood, who had a sister out in Charlottesville on a horse farm. That was where Heyward came to visit from, they said. She never said. But others in town did.

When Miss Emmaline came to town to buy her groceries at the Kwik Stop & Market, the ladies asked her what was it Heyward was doing in town.

“That’s nobody’s business but Heyward,” Miss Em told them. “If she wants to come to town to tell y’all, that’s her say-so,” Miss Em said.

When the children came around she shooed them away, calling them nasty little peekaboos. The children scattered at this. And then Piney showed his face from around back of the store where some game machines were hidden in a corner.

“Miss Emmaline you’re a damned fine one to be tellin’ all’s can hear what to say and do, seeing as you no better’n my dog.”

Miss Emmaline got herself into one snit on that one.

“You can take yourself out of my sight this minute if you know what’s good for you, Piney Ramsey.” Miss Em picked up her grocery bag. “And don’t you think you are one lick better than when I rapped your hand in second grade.” She gave him a withering look.

But he didn’t move. It was not Piney’s way. He stayed where he was and went further, if only to rile Miss Emmaline even more.

“You got yourself thinking you’re better’n everybody aroun’ here just because you got yourself a house out of town and a guest from Charlottesville who thinks she’s too high’n mighty to talk to us plain folks here in town. But you got another think comin’, Missy Em, if you think she can stay out there and not let people know what she’s about.” He took out a chew of tobacco and pulled a plug off and stuck it in the side of his mouth where it formed a bulge in his cheek. And he stared right at Miss Emmaline until she got so distracted she just let out a huge noise, like she was a kettle about to boil over, and then she turned away from him and stomped off out of the store. And Piney had himself a good laugh at that. He spat at the corner and almost hit a fat, brown spider.

After the door slammed behind her she yelled back at the store:

“And you got no business calling me Missy Em like you was my family. No business A-tall.”

She got in her car and drove away fast, leaving a puff of smoke from the exhaust pipe.

Later that same day, after dinner but before it got dark, during that in-between time of day when night is coming on but it’s not there yet, Heyward came strolling into town. She must have walked all the way, because there was no car in sight, or maybe she had parked it on the road into town where no one could see it. She was wearing a different skirt. It was dark red. And kind of grabbed between her legs when she walked so you could see the shape of her legs outlined by it. And she had a hat. A big wide straw hat with a ribbon down the back of it. And a blouse made of some ruffly material with flowers all over it and long sleeves that had loose cuffs with more ruffles. And painted nails red as apples. And she was walking like she had nowhere to go. Just walking for the pleasure of the act itself. Slowly. So everyone could watch her. Like she was the whole show. Well, Piney was watching her.

He left off standing outside Bert’s because he was about to go back in there to shoot some pool with Dexter Taylor, and he would’ve beat him too because Dexter couldn’t hit a ball straight to save his soul on Sunday but he kept on getting roped into games where he lost five dollars on every one to Piney, because that was also Piney’s way. Piney moved fast over to where Heyward was walking and slid in next to her.

“You walk all this way from the house out at Miss Emmaline’s?” He asked her just like that with no how d’you do or anything leading up to it.

Heyward said nothing. Just kept walking. So Piney said again:

“I say, you come from the house walking all the way?”

But she just walked and pretty soon they were nearing the corner where Mr. Dee’s Diner is and the street takes a turn.

“People around here are a mite curious about where you come from and what you doing here.” Piney never let up once he got going.

Heyward turned the corner and started down Mason Street. Piney right beside keeping up with her.

“You gonna have to tell me something or I’ll never quit and let you alone. So why’nt you spill it now and get it over and done with?” Piney was about to bust a gut by then and he felt he’d been nice enough up to now, but it was not his way to go on and on.

Heyward lifted up a hand and straightened her hat a bit as the sun had shifted to being very low in the sky what with night about to come on soon. Her hand sort of fluttered a little like a breeze might blow her all over the place if it was to come up. They were walking behind most of the buildings in town now and no one was around.

“The way you done up look like you almost a fancy woman from the city. That where you from? The city?” Piney was looking right into her face then, walking a little ahead of her so’s he could look her in the face and didn’t have to look from the side. He was almost walking backwards in fact. But she still didn’t say anything and this was driving him mad. Her lipstick was as red and shiny as her nails and this was driving him mad, too.

“Look, if you don’t answer me right now I’m gonna stop you from walking until you do.”

Heyward kept walking anyway, with Piney now walking completely backwards and staring into her face with his mouth all curled up and his chin stuck out with pure pig-headedness. The sun had just about set and the sky was glowing red and the heat was letting up some.

“You might be thinking you got something to put over on me and the rest of this town but I’m telling you that you ain’t got nothing on us. You probley think you some special woman or something like that, with your hat and your hair and them earrings and the way you walking around here and not saying nothing to nobody. Well you ain’t spit and that’s the truth of it.”

Piney took a little hop as his foot hit a rock in the road that he couldn’t see because he was still facing backwards. Heyward kept on walking, staring straight ahead, as if Piney wasn’t there and she was walking all alone down that road. They had passed through town by now. Some children were playing outside a shack by the road and they stopped when the strange couple, the man walking backwards and the woman who looked so stylish facing frontways, swept by them.

“Hey Piney,” yelled the biggest one, “you got a date?”

“Shut up you little bugger nose.” Piney didn’t take his eyes away from Heyward when he yelled to the big boy.

“Who you calling a bugger nose, you big fart?”

“I’m warning you, little prick ass, when I get finished with this business here I’m gonna come back and whup you a good one, so you better run.”

A faint change of expression wafted across Heyward’s face. Piney saw it right quick. His eyes narrowed.

“What you got going on there? You think you know something?” Piney kept up his stride with Heyward as they walked under some overhanging branches of oak trees. “You don’t know nothing because you ain’t nothing but a done up city-slicked fancy lady. I bet you work on the streets in the city for pay. I got me some money here.” He fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out some bills. “How much it take to get you to stop walking? Two dollars? Five?”

He held the bills up in front of her face and started to laugh.

“I bet you’d roll over right there in that field for a five. Look here. I got me one five and one ten. You want all fifteen? Well, you ain’t gonna get all fifteen of it. No sir. But you could get the five if you was to treat me nice. That’s a promise. I know. We can go over right behind that barn over there and take care of this right now. That’s what you come to town for wasn’t it? That’s what you want. Some fresh money. This is the freshest they is in this town. Fresh as can be.” Piney waved the five all around in the air. Heyward just kept walking.

“Where we going anyways? You getting pretty far from home. Going on dark pretty soon. You ain’t afraid to be out here on this country road with me? You should be. You should be right scared. Because you don’t know who might be coming out here. Could be some mean fellas coming by soon. And then what would you do? I tell you what. We’ll go over in that field over there so them mean fellas can’t find us. And we take care of our business and then we go back to town and that’s that. And you get the five.”

Piney started over to the field. Heyward didn’t follow. So Piney came back and grabbed her by the arm. She pulled away from him. But he grabbed her again. And this time he meant to have her follow where he wanted to go. He pulled her through the field until they were in between two rows of cornstalks, she stumbling in the dusty rows and the dry corn leaves tearing at her legs. And he reached out his hand to touch her breast.

Quick as a bee striking she pulled off her hat, and all her hair came off with the hat because it was a wig that was attached underneath it. And while Piney was so surprised he could have passed out right then and there, she reached her hand up and pulled her blouse off because it was held together by little teeny snaps that you couldn’t see and she had no breasts. Just a padded bra. She unsnapped it and let it fall to the ground. Her chest was very muscley, shaved smooth. And her biceps made Piney’s look puny, even though he thought of himself as quite a muscle man.

Piney stepped back but Heyward grabbed him by the arm. And then with the other hand Heyward punched him a good one – POW – breaking two teeth in Piney’s mouth. Before Piney fell over a look of recognition flitted across his face like a firefly on a June night flashing for just a second. Then he fell onto the powdery earth. It hadn’t rained in three weeks. The corn leaves were curling in on themselves.

Heyward looked down at Piney and thought about kicking the shit out of him but stepped back because Piney had passed out by then and Heyward walked out of the cornfield and back to town, rearranging her hair and hat, snapping her blouse closed, composing herself once again, walking all the way back through town and out the other side to where the car she had driven was waiting. She drove back to Miss Em’s house and started to pack.

“You leaving?” Miss Emmaline stood at the door watching Heyward pack. “You take care of that business?”

Heyward, who was looking right in Miss Emmaline’s face, smiled and nodded.

“He was a cruel child and he’s a cruel adult, but that don’t mean you gotta carry it with you. You been gone ever since that time he beat you. You could have just let it be. You got a new life now and that’s what’s important.” Miss Emmaline was sure Heyward knew what she had said but there was no response.

Outside, Heyward put the one bag in the car and hugged Miss Emmaline goodbye.

“Your Mama always told me, said: ‘Sister, Heyward should learn the signing talk.’ I think she was right. Now you go back up there and you learn it, because before I die I want to be able to talk to my nephew. You can teach it to me. Hear?”

But Heyward couldn’t hear. When he wanted to he could read lips. But he didn’t want to now. He just smiled, thinking about punching Piney in the mouth and about how some people couldn’t talk but they had a lot to say and others could talk but what came out wasn’t hardly worth giving them the gift of speech to say it with. He was also thinking life was a funny old dog.