Today has been like a spoon slipping deeper and deeper into water—me the spoon, life the water. The deeper I get, the more bent I look. I know it’s one of those days when you’re not supposed to come out the same as when you went in, but am I even a spoon anymore?
Right away Daddy began staring bad weather at me because I told Mother I couldn’t eat anything, or I’d be hunting ladies’ rooms all day. I tried pushing my plate to Ted so at least it wouldn’t be wasted. Daddy said that was the last thing Ted needed if he was going to make weight. Mother said it was only orientation day, but I said no, just some orange juice. Then Daddy pinched a Neat out of his shirt pocket and held it up.
“This is what built that bluestone wall around that college and all the castles inside. Tobacco, that’s all. Those Burkes are no better than us Burkes. I don’t care how rich they got.”
That ditty—I almost sang it at him:
Nettles Neats more valuable than gold
Rolled tight, smoke right
Best you’ll ever hold
Mother started on my hair. “I think you should let it down loose. Just brush it out a bit. The shape it gives your face is better.”
I said, “Mother, who’s looking? I sign up for classes. I come home. End of story.”
“They won’t be taking your picture ID?”
Ted said, “They shaved me bald before I got my picture ID and gave me a hat that wouldn’t fit if I let it grow. No new hat for rookie cops for a year to make sure you keep it shaved.”
Daddy said, “Leastwise you won’t have lice. Why blacks do it.”
Mother said to me, “That ID picture will be your picture for four years with your hair pulled back like you couldn’t be bothered.”
Daddy had his Neat half-smoked already and was twisting his thumbnail backwards to scratch under his nostril. “Don’t be telling your mother stop. She’ll stop when she’s ready to stop. And don’t leave for college thinking you’re better than us and come back this evening thinking it either.”
He took one last pull at his Neat before he went upstairs for his sit. Mother picked up the dishes. Ted went to his room for the hat that fits his bald head. I went out to my cruddy ’89 Duster. Ted had his girlfriends’ stink all over the back seat, but how would I get back and forth to Burke if he didn’t “give” it to me for $300?
I drove along Pine Cut past the trailers, cottages, and quarry entrance, and through Burke Heights and all its lawns and hedges and crepe myrtles until I got to the south gate and heard the front right tire pop. I could barely hold on until I reached a visitors lot where this beautiful attendant came over—the skin on his skull was black as Chinese lacquer—but I told him I could handle things. I’d just change this flat and make a mess of myself and turn right around and drive home and get fresh clothes and spend all day catching up.
“No need for all that,” he said.
“It’s okay. I grew up in my father’s gas station. Know what I’m doing.”
“Please, let me help. Won’t take two minutes.”
He was so nice I gave in. It was like one hidden person meeting another hidden person, both of us peeking out from inside.
When he got to mounting the spare, which was as bald as he was, he said it would need air at the next service station I passed but not too much or it might blow. He squeezed the tire to show me. I’ve never seen anyone with hands big and powerful enough to do that to car tire. Then he married the spare onto the hub bolts like he was hanging a picture.
I said, “I’m going to be a commuter and my brother sold me this wreck to get in and out from Greentail County.”
“Trade you. I’m on a bus from East Village across Nettles every day.”
“No, thanks, I hate buses.”
He looked at me as if I had something important when all I was doing, really, was saying that if he had picked up that smell from inside the car it wasn’t my fault.
“Me, too,” he said, meaning buses, hadn’t smelled anything, apparently.
“Why is that?” I asked, giving him a chance to tell about himself.
But he didn’t want to tell about himself. He became hidden again.
I thought, Well, he’s from East Village and probably hates waiting for the bus to go spend the day as a parking attendant. Same age as me, but I’m in Burke and he’s sort of under it.
So, I said, “I’ve got to drive over to the old gym lot now.”
And he said, “Fact is you can get there easier by walking and leaving your car here.” He pointed toward the path on the other side of the road. “Leads right to the old gym.”
He didn’t answer right away because he had just said that, hadn’t he? And now he was a black person feeling cancelled by a white person.
“Yes, right over there.”
I followed the path, the first person from Greentail High in years to get into Burke. On the admission’s tour, Mother and Daddy walked way back from the group, not even wanting to hear. Why Burke? Ivy across the buildings’ facades—princes’ lairs, bishops’ lodges, angels’ towers, king’s castle and courtyards for the princesses. But I said even if I only got a tuition scholarship and had to live at home, I wanted to go to Burke.
I walked into the old gym with its six basketball courts and blue backboards, and it was mobbed and covered with tables where you got your Burke T-shirt and your Burke gym shorts and your bicycle permit and could sign up for the astronomy, kayaking, and chess clubs—plus, sorority recruiters and LGBT people and everything else—the whole kit and caboodle.
In the A-D line for official sign-in, the girl in front of me asked where I was from. I said down the road. She said what road. I said Pine Cut, which leads into the south gate. She didn’t know there was a south gate, much less Pine Cut Road. Turned away from me. Then the girl behind me bumped me and apologized. She had hair black as crow feathers and a long, thin, hooked nose and a green silk blouse and skinny jeans and I felt exactly like the little girl stuck at the gas station in the summer sitting between Mother in the office running the counter and Daddy in the garage working on cars. How did I get going to Burke into my head? The way she said, “Excuse me,” sounded like she’d been educated in London even if she looked like came from Saudi Arabia. I already was beginning to see the spoon of me heading the wrong way.
Finally when the gym was all mixed up, beaten, and whipped, it was like they pulled the plug and everyone swirled out of it toward the cafeteria and dorms and advisors and I headed off to find mine—along the way looking at Mercedes and Lexus SUV trunk lids popped up and luggage and boxes and lamps coming out and mothers hovering like dragonflies and fathers hoisting more than they could handle and first-year boys and girls trying to peek at each other without anyone seeing them do it.
I walked across the bridge leading to the law school and found a boy already ahead of me and someone else in the office. The boy was sitting on one of the folding chairs in the hallway holding the same dark blue knapsack as me with Burke lettered on it with the same swirls on the serifs as the swirls on Neats packs. He didn’t say hello, so I didn’t say hello. He was studying the course catalog, his skinny long fingers knotted together by bumpy little joints and his nails puce up to where they were bitten and his knees far out at the end of his long thigh bones and then his shins shooting down to his big sockless white feet adrift in his moccasins like ice floes—which made me feel fat and doubly so when who comes out of the office door but the same hooked nose girl in her silky green top and skinny jeans who doesn’t say hello, either. She walks right past me, and the guy went in after her, and when he came out, he walked past me exactly the same way and Professor Buckley came to the door to see if anyone else was waiting and it was me because I had been thinking about running the other way but didn’t have the guts.
He said, “Come in, come in, and let me apologize if you weren’t expecting a law professor but the entire university faculty serves as advisors and I do teach an undergraduate course in criminal law.”
I said I was fine with a law professor and I knew his name because he’d been mentioned in trials I’d read about in the Nettles News. He said all he did was consult on juries—he hadn’t sat in the lead chair since coming down from New York.
He was wearing a blue pinstriped suit and had short gray hair and closely spaced teeth that would be impossible to floss, which I thought about because I’d flossed so many old people’s teeth for them volunteering on the outreach clinic, maybe the real reason Burke accepted me, but I didn’t want to talk about the outreach clinic, much less his beautiful teeth, and asked what consulting on juries meant. He joked it was like on TV. Who’d hang your client and who’d let him go? I asked if he taught a course on juries, too. He said in the law school. I asked why he came to Burke from New York. He said he should be asking me questions, shouldn’t he, not vice versa.
“I asked you first.”
Which was so fresh I couldn’t believe I said it, but he went along with it and said his wife was from Carolina and someone told her about the opening at Burke, criminal law, his specialty, and he took the longest walk of his life that day all over Paris, where they had a getaway apartment, asking himself whether he’d rather go back to New York or try something different.
“But who really knows why they do what they do?” he said. “Anyway, that’s my story, and here I have a file on you, all there is to know about Sheila Burke.”
“Depends on what’s in it,” I said, fresh again.
“There might be more?”
“It doesn’t look very thick, but then I’m only eighteen. Maybe that’s it.”
He opened the file and read a page and then another page. “So you’re smart like everyone at Burke but you’re actually from close by, and your last name is Burke, so do I put the two together?”
“No relation at all. I can’t even afford to live on campus so I’m living at home.”
“How’s that going to be, living at home?”
I kind of froze on that, looking out the window at a pair of giant beech trees, their leaves waxy green as string beans. “Maybe I could put it this way: You’d have a tough time winning cases in my family.”
“Why is that?”
“To them you’re guilty before you’re innocent.” Again, I couldn’t believe I said something like that, but it was true.
“Guilty of what?”
“Oh, our sins, our sins.” He looked at me expecting me to go on, which I sort of did. “Haven’t you seen the little churches out in the county? They’re all houses of judgment and peoples’ homes down here are house of judgment, too. That’s my family and probably the whole South, so if you want a jury, just look around.”
After that I told myself to stop, I was making a fool of myself, and turned as fast as I could to the pre-nursing courses I wanted to take. To which he said the nursing program was for junior college transfer students, not first-year undergraduates, and I should be thinking about being a doctor. I said I didn’t want to be a doctor. He said he saw I had volunteered in a rural outreach health clinic, so what about biology as a major and then maybe public health in graduate school if I didn’t want to be a doctor? And then he kept on: I had a foreign language requirement to meet, too. What about Spanish? Then maybe a junior year in a Spanish-speaking country, do a rural health project in Central America, for instance. Or did I want to continue with Latin since I already had three years and would only need one more?
Before long I was listening to him the way I listen to rain hitting the roof sometimes with the wind bending it from wherever it’s falling to wherever the wind wants it to fall. I just liked his voice—the way it kept coming at me like he knew me better than what was in the file and I wasn’t guilty and he wouldn’t let me fall where my life’s gravity was sending me. He had other ideas.
I just gave in and asked what he’d suggest I take first semester.
“What would I suggest? Well, some language, intro to molecular biology, the seminar in the cultures of the Western Hemisphere, which is required, and math—calculus 201.”
“What about your course in criminal law?”
“I’m not offering that this semester. Does criminal law interest you?”
I said criminals did. He asked any particular kind. I said child abusers, arsonists, racists, haters, statutory rapists, that kind—and I said it so fast I thought that if I had talked to people like him all my life, I’d find out more about myself than I ever knew, I’d be a different person.
“Have you known child abusers, arsonists, racists, haters and statutory rapists?”
That stopped me because he meant it. He was asking me personally. Of course, I didn’t want to say.
“They’re out there, I guess.”
“And racism isn’t a crime.”
“Maybe not down here or where would we put them all?”
“But hate crimes are crimes.”
“Not hate itself?”
“No, the crime in hate is the use of force motivated by hate to interfere with or prevent engagement in one of the six federally protected activities. That’s hard to prove but not impossible.”
“What are these six federally protected activities?”
He gave me a look that sort of folded me over like piece of paper, hiding whatever was written on me that I’d been hinting at despite myself. “There’s a list.”
Of course, there was list, but he didn’t want to go into it. So I said, “Well, we’ve got to put something on my course card. I’ve got to get my car taken care of—had a flat on the way in and the spare is no good, either, so I need two tires, one to replace the blowout and the other for a decent spare.”
Now why tell him that? And why would he be more interested in talking about cars and tires than federally protected activities, at least with me?
“Where will you go to get them?”
“Where do you take your car?”
“The Porsche dealership in Church Mount.”
“Is Church Mount where you live?”
“In my wife’s childhood home.”
“That’s nicer than Nettles for sure.”
“Nicer than Nettles maybe but not nicer than this.” He meant the Burke campus inside its seven-mile bluestone wall.
“I won’t be going to the Porsche dealer, I know that.” And if I went to Daddy’s garage he’d tell me to go around back to the nigger pile and pick two that would fit a junker like the Duster. “I don’t know where. Somewhere, I guess.”
He went back to the courses he’d suggested and said they wouldn’t preclude nursing but again Spanish would be logical given the growing Hispanic community.
Maybe it was the French cuffs on his shirt and the silver cufflinks that matched his hair…anyway I said, “What about French? You must speak it if you have a place in Paris.”
He said he did his junior undergraduate year in France but no one spoke it here—might not be so useful.
“Why’d you go to France for your junior year?”
He could see he wasn’t getting rid of me because I had a crush on him already, and I guess he liked it because he gave me a real answer this time.
“I was fascinated by a French writer named Montaigne who happened—now that I think of it—to say that what you call our sins emerge from self-opinion.”
“You mean having no opinion of yourself frees you from your sins?”
“It’s a step.”
“How would you go about having no self-opinion?”
“Montaigne tried to do it by pushing all of his self-opinion into his writing and leaving it there.”
“Is that possible?”
“He was hard on himself in his writing.”
“Can you be that hard?”
“Only a genius or a saint, I would think.”
“Which was he?”
“A genius. He didn’t leave any miracles behind, just his essays.”
We listed French, and I mentioned the tires again and realized that was another reason I had wanted to keep him talking—thinking that now I had no choice but to go out to Daddy’s place and picturing driving out there on Pine Cut past the quarry and then our house in its notch and then around the bend over the bridge and what a way to end a day that was supposed to be my big step in getting away.
“Ah, yes, the tires. Good luck with the tires. Any time you want to see me again feel free to make an appointment.”
“I will but we won’t be speaking French for a while.”
“Perhaps sooner than you think,” he said.
He smiled at me with those beautiful close-spaced teeth of his, and I walked back across all the quadrangles and past the dormitories where people were still lugging things inside and over to the parking lot where that black guy was still in his booth.
I was so lonely I just said it. “My name is Sheila Burke, by the way. Not one of the Neats Burkes, we’re gas station Burkes. I guess you can tell that by my car.”
He had this little consultation in his eyes before he said, “My name is Lonny Salix.”
I almost said a salix tree was a willow but he’d know that. Thank God I didn’t. What else could I say?
I said, “You said you’re from East Village?”
“And you’re from Greentail County, you said.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Close to the Greentail Falls?”
“You’ve been there?”
Of course, he had—who hasn’t—but he said yes without sounding offended and asked me how my day had gone. It was like I couldn’t remember. I was lost in those black shimmering realms of his skull. Every time he moved his head, there was more to see.
“Not so bad after my tire blew. Thanks again for helping me.”
“Hope you’re going to take care of that squishy spare. Maybe get two new ones, one for the road, one for the trunk.”
“I can’t afford two new ones, but I’ll have to do something.”
“Go to that gas station your family has, I guess.”
I wasn’t going to Daddy’s. For some reason the way I felt about Daddy right then would be illegal whether I did any of those six hateful things or not. “If I even got that far. Know somewhere closer?”
It was like he withdrew a bit—hiding himself same as in the morning—but then he said there was a place in East Village that sold used tires.
“I guess. I don’t really know. My mother and I get by with no car, but the fact is some people buy fresh ones before the old ones wear out, so that’s what they sell at this place, trade-ins almost brand new.”
Was I going to say something stupid again? Sure, why not? “I’ve never even been to East Village.”
He gave me the smallest smile, half pity for me, shame for himself. But that didn’t stop him. “I’m going there now. My shift is done.”
“If I gave you a lift, could you show me this place?”
More of that small smile, its pity and shame, but he didn’t want to embarrass me. I could see that. “Miss my bus? I wouldn’t mind.”
He locked up his booth, and we went over to the Duster, and I told myself not to worry whether he thought the smell was me or not, nothing I could do about it now, and we pulled through the south gate with the sun behind us and drove down into Nettles past the shutdown warehouse section they still call Tobacco Town and around Courthouse Hill and then up the ridge of East Village where everyone who came to Nettles to make Neats a long time ago settled in. First whites lived there, then blacks and still blacks, just blacks.
“We go along here, then take a right down Kalisher,” Lonny said.
Already I was thinking about him by his name—as Lonny, not as this guy helping me out—and wondered if he was thinking about me as Sheila. As if we knew each other—as if I was bending his way now, not a spoon anymore, a tine of me grazing his skin—Burke too much, East Village more real—children chasing one another on a dusty playground, a barber poll turning and never ending, men pitching pennies at a stoop, a restaurant called The Sauce House, a young girl in pink Capri pants and a red top and an old man hoisting his trousers up on one hip then the other, and an old woman with a little white dog hoisting its little leg almost the same way.
Lonny said, “A person coming straight over here from Burke will be wondering where they’re at, I know.”
I said, “Whoa, I’m from the county. I don’t come from Burke.”
“You do now, I guess.”
“Please, it’s just one day. Give me a break. I’m still me.”
“Over there,” he said, not giving me a break, pointing to a place called Ace Tires, the sign saying all brands new and used, one of its bays in use, the other not.
“I can drop you off at your house before I go there,” I said.
“No, just drop me off here. I can cut through to my house.”
“Where you live with your mother?”
The way he tilted that head of his said yes, where he lived with his mother and not his father—acknowledging the fact that I had taken the trouble to assume the truth.
I pulled over to the curb and he got out and then he poked his head back in the open window. I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t. He just let his face float there a minute. Then he was gone, and I drove to Ace where I got two used tires for twenty apiece and I stood out on the sidewalk while they mounted them in the bay and it was like yes, I’d gone to Burke in the morning as one thing and now I was something else.
Robert Earle’s short fiction has appeared in more than 100 literary magazines in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. His most recent collection of stories is She Receives the Night/Vine Leaves Press. He also has published a book of nonfiction about a year in Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press, and a novel, The Way Home/DayBue. He lives in Durham, North Carolina. His website is robertearle.me.