Rune Rofke - Glenn Emery
My first priority was to take a hot shower and wash away the miserable cold that had crept into my bones and joints during the night. I found a men’s residence hall and went to the second floor. It was still very early and the shower room was vacant. I undressed quickly and jumped in the shower. Hot water never felt so good as at that moment.
Suddenly I heard women’s voices. Two of them. Shit. This floor must have been turned over to the female residents for the summer classes.
I heard them turn on the water in two adjacent showers, still chatting as they undressed. I wanted to call out, let them know a man was on the floor, but I thought better of it. If they called security I could end up in deep trouble, and all I wanted was to take a shower and split. I waited until I could hear both of them in the showers, peeked through the curtain to make sure the coast was clear, threw on my clothes without bothering to dry off and dashed out before anyone saw me.
Safely outside I relaxed. I felt much better. The terror of the storm was gone. The morning air matched my mood. Refreshed and clean. I was ravenously hungry.
I walked over to the dining hall to see if there was any possibility of scoring some free food, but it wasn’t open yet. And even if it had been, I could tell from the set up of the place that it was designed to keep out anyone not connected to the university. I fingered the coins in my pocket and decided to see what I could buy.
Downtown I found a small shop that was open and took a Dannon yogurt out of the cooler. It cost 52 cents. I knew it would barely make a dent in my appetite, but it was better than nothing. I went over to the courthouse, climbed the steps and ate it slowly while I contemplated my next move.
“You looking for work? I’m looking for somebody to help me out.”
The voice was not directed at me. It was coming from down on the sidewalk beside the steps, out of my vision. I finished the yogurt and came down the steps to investigate.
An older woman, probably in her fifties, with leathery brown skin and faded black hair had a younger guy, probably some hapless student, almost in the corner. “I can pay ya. C’mon, I just need somebody to help me out.”
The guy wanted nothing to do with her. As soon as I turned the corner and saw them, he slipped by her and made tracks to somewhere she was not.
“What kind of work do you have?” I asked.
She turned toward me and her wrinkled face lit up. “Oh, all kinds! Big storm last night! Got a lot of cleaning up to do. C’mon!”
“Wait a sec. Where?” I did not want to leave Athens under any circumstances. I felt spiritually protected as long as I stayed in the city limits.
“It’s not far. C’mon.”
“Chancey. C’mon, let’s go.” She had a hold of my arm now and was trying to get me to walk down Court Street. But I wouldn’t move.
“I’m looking for work and a place to stay. What kind of place have you got?” The woman looked like a country girl used to manual labor. Her face was deeply tanned and weathered. I envisioned a small farm or ranch on the outskirts of town with livestock and various chores to be done. There might even be a bunkhouse. I was cautiously optimistic this might be a good place to stay for a few days, until I could get my bearings.
“All kinds of work. You’ll see. C’mon!” She flashed a toothy grin. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but I think it’s the teeth. On MFT I could always tell someone’s spirit by looking at their teeth. If her teeth had been rotten, discolored, decayed -- and especially if any front teeth had been missing -- I would have said no. But her teeth looked okay, so I decided to trust her.
“Where’s Chancey? Is that part of Athens?”
“Oh yeah! It’s real close. We just take the bus.”
“I don’t have any money for a bus.”
“You ain’t got fifty cents?” She was incredulous.
“I do not.” I turned out my pockets to prove it, holding in my palm two dull pennies.
She thought about it a second. “Okay, I’ll pay for ya. C’mon.”
As we walked to the bus stop, she told me her name was Betty Lou. “Everybody around here knows me,” she said, sweeping her arm in a wide arc. I suppose it was meant to put me at ease, but it had the opposite effect. Still, I saw no harm in investigating her proposal, so I got on the bus with her and she paid the fare. The sun was higher now and the coolness of the morning was quickly retreating. I watched carefully out the window, and when I realized the bus was leaving Athens proper, I suddenly got a bad feeling.
“Where are we going? I can’t leave Athens.”
“Take it easy. Chancey is just up here a couple miles. I told you. It’s not far.”
I tried to stay calm, but already I felt my spiritual protection waning as the bus drove farther from Athens. It didn't help that Betty Lou was continually evasive on any details about her property and the nature of work she needed done. I made up my mind that if I didn't like the look of Betty Lou's place, I'd hitchhike or walk back to Athens immediately.
A few minutes later it pulled into a tiny hamlet named Chauncey. “I thought you said this place was called Chancey,” I said.
“It is. That's how folks here say it.” She didn't seem to feel any further explanation was necessary, but I didn’t like the sound of it. Too dicey, too iffy, too risky. The more I thought about it the less I liked it. Now I was certain I had made a mistake coming here.
The bus crossed the Chauncey railroad tracks and stopped in front of a handful of rundown mobile homes. Betty Lou pulled herself up from her seat. “Here we are.”
My heart sank the moment my foot hit the ground. This was worse than Dogpatch. Dilapidated trailers on cinder blocks in bare dirt yards with animal crates, busted machines, rusted cars and every manner of castoff piled randomly across the landscape. It was thoroughly depressing. A violent storm like we had last night could only have been an improvement. A flood would have been urban renewal.
“There’s no work for me here. I gotta go back to Athens.”
“No! Don’t leave! C’mon inside, I need your help.”
A tiny dog with giant fangs met us at the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I stared at the huge teeth protruding in all directions from his tiny snout. It didn’t even look real.
“Git back, Termite!” she barked. “He’s a Tasmanian devil dog.” Her explanation meant nothing to me. All I knew is it was the ugliest dog I had ever seen. He was so excited to see Betty Lou that he began racing from one end of the tiny trailer to the other like a little furry, yapping bullet, until Betty Lou deliberately tripped him with her boot, sending him flipping end over end into the wall. “Knock it off, Termite.”
The place was filthy. Dirty dishes and spoiled food and cigarette butts and beer cans and pornography and trash and dog shit were strewn everywhere. Flies buzzed on everything. It stunk to high heaven.
“I hope you’re not expecting me to clean this up.”
“You think it needs it?” She paused to see if I got her little joke, but I was not in a humorous mood. She led me into the tiny bathroom and lifted the lid on the toilet. It was filled to the rim with turds. The sight and stench made me gag.
“Can you fix it? It stopped working about a month ago.”
“Hell no I can’t fix it! What’s wrong with you? I thought you had a farm or something with real chores.” I turned toward the door. “I gotta go.”
“Don’t be sore. Maybe you can help me with this.” She nudged me toward the back bedroom. There were more clothes and trash and cigarette butts and beer cans and pornography scattered over everything. She sat on the bed and began tugging at my belt.
“No! Don’t do that!”
“Why not? I won’t bite.” She flashed her teeth again and started to unbutton her shirt.
“Betty Lou! Stop! I’m not going to have sex with you. I can’t. I’m a missionary. I have an assignment from God and it’s in Athens and must leave. I made a mistake coming here with you. I have to go right now.”
I looked at her face, which was beginning to grasp that she was not going to get what she had brought me out here for after all. Once upon a time she had probably been pretty, but sun, liquor, nicotine and fornication had sucked the beauty out of her. She was prematurely old. There’s a saying I sometimes hear when blitzing bars that there are no ugly women at closing time. I think Betty Lou just might be the exception to the rule. No amount of alcohol could improve her ragged appearance.
I turned to leave, but she grabbed my hand. “Okay, okay! I’m sorry! I didn’t know. It’s okay. I promise I won’t do anything. Just please don’t go.”
“I can’t stay. There’s nothing for me here. I need to get back to Athens.”
She struggled to come up with a reason to make me stay. “You can help me pick blackberries.”
“Yeah, down along the tracks. There’s tons of ’em. Whadda you say? Stay a little while and help me pick berries.”
I thought it over. I needed to eat something, and fresh berries might be the best I get for a while, so I agreed. “But then I’m going back to Athens.”
Betty Lou jumped up. “Sure, okay.”
Amid the chaotic, filthy clutter, one thing stood out in the bedroom as an anomaly. It was a professional sepia-toned photograph in a frame on the dresser of a young man in an Air Force uniform. Betty Lou saw me looking at it. “That’s my son.” The memory briefly flickered across her face as a mother’s pride, like the sun peeking out from behind a cloud. It vanished just as quickly. “He’s not here right now. He’s out.”
Betty Lou led me along the tracks a short ways. She hadn’t lied. The blackberry bushes were heavy with shiny fat fruits. We picked them by the handfuls, many of which went directly into my mouth. Perhaps it was because I had not eaten in more than a day, but they were exquisitely delicious.
We chatted as we picked our way along the tracks and had come to a spot that was secluded from any of the surrounding homes. “Hey,” said Betty Lou. I looked at her and she made a devilish grin. “I’ve got blackberries in my pussy you can pick.”
I glared at her. “You ever speak to me like that again, I will ask God to kill you. And He will. You don't know who I am. I'm serious as a heart attack. If you touch me, you will die.” I watched my words register on her face. “Am I making myself clear? No more.”
After a long pause she said, “I’m sorry.” Her voice caught. “It won’t happen again.” She started to cry.
I didn’t say anything to make her stop. Crying was good. She needed to feel sorry for what she had tried to do, and tears were the sincerest form of repentance. I kept picking and eating berries. When she finally stopped, which wasn’t long, we walked back to the trailer. Something about her had changed. She was no longer a threat, at least for now.
“I’ve gotta go.”
“You hate me.”
“I hate what you tried to do, but I don’t hate you.”
“What can I do to make it up to you?”
“You don’t need you to do anything. I just need to leave.”
“Yes I do. I want to do something. I don’t want you to remember me like this.”
“No it’s not!” Betty Lou was deeply distressed by what I had said to her. She knew she had done something wicked and she needed to fix it. She wracked her brain for some way to atone for her behavior. “Let me make you something to eat.”
The blackberries had done more to wake up my appetite than to satisfy it. I was, in fact, in desperate need of a hot meal. But I glanced around the disease-saturated kitchen and thought better of it. “That’s okay. I gotta go.”
“I’ve got some fresh eggs from my neighbor’s chickens. Let me fry a couple.”
Were it not for the extreme filth of the trailer, I would have gladly and eagerly accepted. I wanted to say no and leave as quickly as possible, but it suddenly seemed important that I let her do this. I debated it in my mind. I figured the heat of the frying pan would kill any germs.
“Okay. A couple eggs then.”
A few minutes later she put down a plate of fried eggs, mashed peas and a loaf of white bread with a tub of margarine. It wasn’t exactly appealing to look at. Betty Lou was no great cook. Yet, against all expectations, it was heavenly. She watched me devour everything. She was no longer a lecherous old bag. She had become, however briefly, a caring mother.
Somewhere in all the filth and clutter Betty Lou found a radio and turned it on. Patsy Cline's sweet voice found its way through the garbage and briefly transformed this disgusting trailer into a slightly better place.
"You want I should put on a gospel station?"
"No. Patsy is just fine. I don't care much for gospel. This is good."
“You look tired,” she said when I was finished. “Go lie down and take a nap.”
“I won’t bother you, I promise.”
I mulled it over. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept a wink last night out in the storm, and now it was catching up with me. Truthfully, I really wanted and needed some sleep.
“If you do, God will strike you dead. I’m not joking.”
Hearing me repeat the warning somehow made it seem even more real. For the first time, I saw she was a little afraid. “I won’t bother you. Take a nap and then you can go -- if that’s what you want.”
Thunder rumbled outside. An afternoon storm was moving in. I couldn’t leave now if I wanted to without getting soaked. I went into the bedroom, closed the door and fell asleep. I never heard the storm.
I awoke suddenly to the sound of an angry male voice. “Who’s back there?” Heavy boots clipped the floor toward the door.
“It’s just a boy. I ain’t what you think.”
“How about I shoot him just to make sure? Breaking and entering. Burglar.”
“No! He’s leaving. He’s just a boy. He didn’t do anything. He was just hungry and tired, and now he’s leaving. It ain’t what you think.”
“You fuckin’ whore. He’d better be gone by the time I get back.” I heard the screen door slam, followed by a car door, the loud low growl of a V8, and tires spitting gravel.
The bedroom door flew open. Betty Lou pulled me up. “You gotta go. Now.”