When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback–pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he’d had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he’d shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn’t died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he’d brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she’d disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die.
The dog rises nimbly from the dust and turns a circle, follows behind as Lane makes his way to the truck, which is parked in the only shade, beneath a tree. Lane stops and turns. He looks at the dog, then back at the store, a squat, white cinder block structure baking in the crossroads’ heat. The battered window shades inside are drawn against the late afternoon sun, and the chipped letters of the TEXACO logo painted on the glass repeat themselves in shadow on the ripped canvas beneath. Lane wonders if the dog is a stray or if it belongs to the people here, to the black-haired woman behind the counter who’d wordlessly taken his money, to the man now coming through the garage door, his shirtsleeves rolled up around grease-stained arms. The woman’s husband, Lane would guess; he’d seen living quarters through the door behind the counter, smelled stewing meat.
Lane clears his throat. “He y’all’s?” he calls.
The man spits as he crosses to the pump, where a car is waiting for service, shakes his head no.
Lane tosses the dog a piece of the jerky he bought with the coins Captain Seward allowed him and continues to the truck, a bright red 1941 International Harvester cornbinder. Everything about it seems to Lane round in some way: fat round wheel fenders, round hood, round taillights and headlights, as if the whole thing were surprised. And maybe it would be, if it knew what was inside the sheet-metal trailer mounted to its bed. Lane had seen them load it up back at Angola, the straight-backed wooden chair that would have looked innocuous enough but for the leather straps along the arms and the wooden rail between its two front legs. He’d been confounded by the sight; he’d expected some kind of metal contraption with wires and knobs attached. The fact that the chair looks frankly like a chair is troubling to Lane; he finds something deeply sinister in its simplicity.
He opens the truck door and climbs in behind the wheel.
Seward is in the passenger seat, an unlit cigar between his puffy lips. He’s a big, chinless man, with a neck so thick his head seems less to sit upon than grow out of it, like a parakeet’s.
Seward glances at Lane across the gear shift. “Thought you might have made a run for it,” he says. The cigar waggles between his lips as he speaks.
Lane looks at the empty fields around them, the intersecting gravel roads that stretch flatly away: east, west, north, south, anywhere. “Nowhere to go.”
Seward gestures at the bag of jerky. “Satisfied?” Lane offers Seward a piece of the dried meat in reply.
The fat man pinches the cigar from his mouth and exhales as if he’s taken a drag. “Too damn hot to eat,” he says, but he takes the jerky from Lane anyway, rips a bite off with his side teeth.
“Lane had seen them load it up back at Angola, the straight-backed wooden chair that would have looked innocuous enough but for the leather straps along the arms and the wooden rail between its two front legs.”
It is too hot to eat, a merciless Indian summer, but when they’d stopped so Seward could stretch his bad leg Lane claimed hunger all the same, just as he claimed a need for the facilities when they passed the station before this one. Six years he’s been inside, dreamed of things like jerky, M&M’s, porcelain underneath his thighs. Now, a prison trusty, he is out, chauffeur to Seward and his chair, and he wants his jerky while he can have it. Wants to want it; its terms make this taste of freedom bittersweet. “Never too hot for jerky when all you’ve ate for years is gruel,” Lane says, though the piece he takes for himself he only plays with, twisting the hardened meat between his fingers. Finally he tosses it in the direction of the dog, who sits by the truck’s open door. “Reminds me of the one I had when I was a kid,” he says.
Seward grunts. “When you was a kid. What, you a man now?”
Lane says nothing. He’s twenty-four years old. He watches the dog eat the jerky, then, from his seat behind the wheel, makes as if to kick the creature. “Git!” he says, as the dog backs away. “Git!” He slams the truck door closed, and the captain and trusty again are under way.
Dale watches the truck disappear down the road to the south as he fills the tank of the waiting car. The truck kicks up a cloud of dust that hangs behind it in a slowly fading column. It’s been a dry spell, October, not a drop of rain in weeks.
He lowers his eyes; vapors shimmer around his hand as the gas tank fills. The numbers on the pump dial tick slowly upward, and with a click, as he releases the handle, at twenty-five they stop. He replaces the nozzle, twists the gas cap shut. “Quarter,” he says, bending through the car’s open window. Three glistening faces look back at him: father, mother, and between them on the bench seat, a little girl, country folk in a borrowed or hard-earned car. An infant lies sleeping in a basket in the back.
The driver drops two dimes and a nickel into Dale’s waiting hand, as soiled with grease as the man’s is with dirt from the field. “Reckon that’ll get us far as Houma?”
“Ought to.” Dale stands. He puts the hand with coins into his pocket and watches the car drive away, into that lingering column of dust. Then he turns, walks across the boiling lot toward the store. The dog has settled in the shade of the water oak where the truck had parked, not their dog but becoming so after two-odd weeks around. They’ve never been dog people, but Ora says she can’t help feeding him as long as he’s here, even as Dale tells her that the fact of her feeding him is why he sticks around.
The bell on the shop door clatters as he pushes inside. It’s as hot inside as out, but at least there’s a fan. Ora’s on a stool behind the counter, her black hair damp against the side of her face. She looks up from her magazine, expectant, and Dale realizes he has nothing to offer, nothing to say; he just came in to come in. He runs a hand through his hair, which is stiff with sweat and dust, leans against the cooler. “Smells good,” he says.
Dale looks at his wife; she returns his gaze with a stony face.
“Venison?” he asks.
She looks back at her magazine. “Pork.”
“That hog’s gone a long way.”
“You cool enough?” He offers, “I can move the fan closer.”
“I’m all right.” She doesn’t look up.
“Changed the spark plugs on the truck,” he says. “I’m hoping that’ll do the trick.”
She looks up, her face a question. “Engine kept misfiring,” he explains.
She is uninterested, looks back at her magazine.
Dale pats his chest pocket for his cigarettes, and finds he’s left his pack in the garage. He scratches his head, staring at his wife as intently as she’s staring at her magazine, her eyes not traveling across the page.
Finally she looks up. “What?”
“What you?” he asks.
She closes her magazine and stands. “Meat’s about done,” she says, and she goes into the back, shuts the door behind her.
Dale rubs his eyes. He pulls himself from the cooler and crosses to the doorway. He stands there in the glass and stares into the distance, where the highway disappears in a quivering mirage.
In the kitchen, Ora turns the burner down and without stopping to even lift the lid and look inside the pot, she hurries to the back screen door, which used to slap shut in a familiar sound until last week Dale put felt pads in the door frame. The silence seems louder to Ora than the crack of wood on wood echoing across the field ever did; it makes her uneasy. Used to be that the Negro boy out between the rows of cotton would have looked up at the sound and seen her standing there; now, unaware of her presence, he continues picking, and puts the cotton into a burlap sack.
“She had visions of it as a kind of meeting place, a hangout for both blacks and whites, like the country store in Natchez where she grew up. But Dale didn’t share this vision, still doesn’t, and nothing’s changed at all.”
She settles on the three wooden steps that lead from the door down into the station’s backyard, where it comes edge to edge with the field. Cicadas buzz like rattlers. She wonders if Dale is still leaning against the cooler inside, staring at the place where she was as if he still might get whatever answer he’s looking for from the space she’d filled. She doesn’t let herself wonder where Tobe is. There hasn’t been a letter from Guadalcanal in weeks. She and Dale do not talk about it, as if acknowledging the fact might make its portent real. It is not lost on her how their son’s absence, after all these years, has caused the same sort of rift between them as his arrival into their lives did eighteen years ago. Then, they secretly wished for their old life back, each quietly blaming the other for its loss; now they await the mail and news of the Pacific front in anxious silence.
She glances up at a commotion of bird noise, watches a sparrow chase a hawk across the field. From the other side of the building she can hear a car whizzing past on the highway, and then a minute later she can see it, growing smaller down the road to the east. Sometimes Ora finds it strange to live at a crossroads, where almost everyone she sees is going somewhere, while her life is such that she has nowhere to go. When Tobe was younger and would sit with her behind the counter, before he was old enough to pump or be of use to Dale in the garage, they’d make up stories about the people who’d come into the store: the woman in the hat was going to New Orleans for her birthday; the family with the twin babies was moving out to California; the man with the handkerchief was a fugitive from the law. She doesn’t make up stories anymore; she only wonders.
The boy in the field has come near to the end of the row, shirtless and sweating. He’s maybe nine or ten years old, one of many Negroes who live in tiny tenant shacks on the surrounding land, who conduct their lives as if Dale and Ora’s station did not exist. They’ve got no need for gas and they get their goods from the plantation commissary a couple of miles away. For the twenty years since Dale inherited the station from his uncle and they’d moved up from New Orleans it has been this way. At first Ora thought that surely things would change after they took the station over. She had visions of it as a kind of meeting place, a hangout for both blacks and whites, like the country store in Natchez where she grew up. But Dale didn’t share this vision, still doesn’t, and nothing’s changed at all; the “Whites Only” sign Dale’s uncle hung still hangs on the door. It’s always added to Ora’s sense of isolation here to be surrounded by a whole community and yet to be so thoroughly apart. And Tobe’s absence has made that sense of isolation even worse.
Impulsively, Ora calls to the boy, Dale be damned. He looks up at the sound of her voice and drops his hands to his sides, one hand empty, the other wrapped around the top of the sack. He waits. Ora kicks off her sandals and walks through the dirt to the edge of the field. He watches her distrustfully.
“You hungry?” she asks him. He doesn’t answer.
“Got some pork on the stove,” she says. “Too much. Bring you a pail?”
“No ma’am.” The boy glances over his shoulder, across the field, where others are picking in the distance.
“Not hungry?” she asks.
He turns back to her and shrugs, and beneath the dark skin his shoulder blades rise like bird bones.
“How about some chocolate?”
The boy’s eyes flicker. He doesn’t refuse.
Ora reaches into her pocket for a half-eaten box of Milk Duds. She shakes a few into her palm and looks at the boy: yes?
He sets his bag down and meets Ora at the edge of the field. She drops the candy into his waiting hand; he looks at the small brown balls with guarded interest.
He puts one of the candies into his mouth, and as he chews his face registers surprise. “Ain’t chocolate,” he says.
The boy swallows. “I ain’t never had chocolate like that before.”
There is a shout from across the field; the boy looks again in that direction. Then he turns back to Ora, looking at her as if for permission, or release.
“Go on,” she says, and she waves her hand. He puts the rest of the Milk Duds into his pocket, and as she watches him hurry through the dirt clods she is sure that Dale is also watching from the doorway behind her, is sure she feels his disapproving gaze. But when she turns, the doorway is empty, and she is alone.
From The Mercy Seat. Used with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Winthrop.