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Piggybacking

by Reggie J. Poché

Ronnie entered Star Grocery, the town of Remyton’s only such store, and as had always been the case his wide reflection was cut in half, slenderized by the sliding glass door. He had to pass Flick, who solicited just outside, pacing under the door’s electronic sensor as if he were teasing himself with a second or two of cool air from within. Ronnie had always liked Flick, who looked official in a vinyl yellow vest, a yellow canister in his hand.  And Flick liked everyone, always smiling and bringing up his other free hand in an Indian chief how type of motion.  He did so to Ronnie and then tipped his baseball cap, which had his name airbrushed on the front.

“So what happened with that Stephanie?” Flick asked, rattling his canister. “She finally knock out P.J. Fryoux?”

“You can ask her yourself. But really, that’s between them.” Ronnie fished into his pockets.

“Between them and the law,” Flick said. “If a mother’s gonna wig-out on her daughter’s boyfriend like that.”

“And the law,” Ronnie answered.  He tried to separate his pocketed dimes, nickels, and quarters by touch while the rattling continued.

“Spare change for the mongoloids?”

“You know, Down syndrome is the word you should use,” Ronnie said.

Flick took off his great old-man glasses, which seemed to Ronnie like Walter Cronkite’s, and leaned forward. “You really think folks around here know what the hell that is?”

“I’m just saying, Flick. It’s always better to use the right word.”

“Which one you think sounds more pathetic?” Flick shook the canister again.  “That’s what this business is about,” he bellowed after Ronnie made a donation.  “The most pathetic wins.”

“Wise old Flick,” Ronnie laughed from behind the sliding doors.

The two cashiers in Star Grocery, still sleepy-eyed that early in the morning, hardly acknowledged Ronnie when he entered. “Stephanie Tatje come in?” he asked the young O’Brien girl, who was flipping through a fashion magazine.

“Somewhere,” the girl said. “Check produce.”

“Thanks, honey,” Ronnie said, but she didn’t answer. “Thanks,” he said again.

The O’Brien girl cleared her nose, took a hard swallow, but remained with her magazine. “Welcome,” she finally answered.  The other cashier only continued to massage Vaseline onto what must have been a freshly inked tattoo, what looked like a boa constrictor coiling down her forearm.

He hadn’t expected them to be all doe-eyed and maple-sweet, but word should have gotten around to every person in town of how good he’d been to post Stephanie’s bail. How many next-door neighbors would be so kind, especially these days?

Spreading gossip is a given in such small towns.  Like Flick, even the snotty little O’Brien girl probably had a few questions of her own.  You’d expect her to at least love a break from the routine of dog-earing magazine pages and sampling perfume ads.  How many of those things could she possibly rub on her neck?  But she’s young, Ronnie figured.  She can’t recognize a gallant act as such.  To the young, pretty, and slim, nothing is special because everything is.

The Velcro straps of Ronnie’s sneakers, which crackled from the strain of his enormous feet, betrayed his presence to Stephanie, who stood misting a bunch of apples.

“Honeycrisps, these are called,” she said without turning around.  “What a wonderful word.”  When she did turn, Ronnie noticed something like the sweaty glow on her face from the night before when he went to post her bail—a face that had been streaked with tears, her gray-peppered hair flattened by the humidity of her jail cell.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said.  “Puddin cried ‘cause he thought I left him at his little friend’s house last night, so I just told him it was car trouble.”

“He’s a good boy,” Ronnie said.

“He worries about me.” Stephanie patted her face dry with her shirtsleeve and offered Ronnie one of the apples. “I can’t thank you enough, Ronnie.”

He could feel a nervous tingle in his sternum rising up, buzzing like a beehive caged in his ribs.  So he reached for the apple first and took his time by inspecting it, then polishing it with his shirttail. “Don’t worry about that,” he managed to say, only a small hesitation in his voice. “I came by to check on you and to ask if I can make supper for you, Puddin, and Magda tonight.”

“Supper’s not necessary. You’ve already done so much.”  She put down her spray bottle and smoothed her smock over her hips.

Ronnie tossed the apple nervously between hands. “If I can be honest,” he said, “it’s really for me.  Because of my great new job.  It’s my second paycheck. Made no sense to celebrate the first, the way things always seem to go. And I just hate, you know, to celebrate by myself.”

“You won’t have to do that,” she said, her voice gushing with a tinny, sympathetic sound—not the apologetic, graceless refusal he had feared. “I’ll bring a salad.”

If Ronnie could, he would have leapt into the air, rocketed upward like a great balloon released of its warm, borrowed breath. But instead, he could only take out a shopping list, written on the back of a receipt, from his front pocket. “I’m thinking Cornish hens and fresh snap beans and dirty rice,” he said, showing her the list.  “Maybe sweet potato casserole, too.  And corn on the cob, of course.”

“That sounds wonderful. Puddin loves dirty rice.” She hitched her spray bottle to the side of the smock—like holstering a pistol. “It’ll just be me and him, all right? Magda would rather be with her bum boyfriend.  And please, don’t be fancy.”

Ronnie went immediately to the sweet potatoes and scrutinized their size, replacing those that had the tiniest wound or spot on their skins.  He nodded to Stephanie, who by then had moved on to arranging a grapefruit pyramid, and continued down his list and even added a few incidentals he had forgotten. He would need some cloth napkins.  And his mother’s silverware would have to be polished. A gravy dish for the dirty rice was a must; he could get that from his aunt Millie. And dessert, there had to be dessert.  And good coffee with chicory. Aunt Millie’s French press would be best for that.

At the bakery counter, his last stop, he surveyed the cheesecakes and pies, the milk drops and the oversized pralines, with the scrutiny of a diamond merchant. He swore he could taste the vanilla and powdered sugar in the air. Then, behind the glass of a refrigerated case, a tray of brightly colored petit fours drew his attention. Puddin would love these mini-cakes, Ronnie thought.  And what a charming complement to a little after-supper coffee.

“Ms. Brazile, can I try one of those?” he asked the old woman behind the counter.

“Of course, darlin’.  What color icing?”  She wiggled her fingers into a plastic glove and opened the back of the case.

“That pretty yellow one. The one with the cloverleaf on top.”

“It’s a little beauty,” Ms. Brazile said, handing him the cake.

“I need a dozen,” Ronnie quickly answered before even sampling his purchase.

 “The mongoloids thank you much—very, very much,” Flick said when Ronnie gave up his remaining change upon leaving Star Grocery. After the short drive to work, the vanilla of the petit four had given way to a pleasant almond-like aftertaste. Ronnie eyed the tidy bakery box on the front seat, put there so the cakes could keep better in the air conditioning. Just one more, he demanded of himself, and then he savored it, a blue one this time, before he left his car.  He was just as pleased with the fact that he was able to buy them, and the entire dinner, with the money from his new job at the “Cat Factory,” otherwise known as Saunders Biological Specimens, a supplier of embalmed cats used for veterinary school dissection. With this new job, no more piggybacking on the government’s dime, which filled Ronnie with pride. No more monthly deposits of federal funny money, as he called it. Now he could afford to show Stephanie a proper supper instead of the box of day-old doughnuts he sometimes brought over for breakfast.

“What you got there?” Leonard Peavine, one of the cat-skinners, asked when Ronnie entered the cavernous processing plant with his sack of perishables, including the petit fours.

“None of your business.” Ronnie made his way to the walk-in freezer at the back of the warehouse.  It was half full of cat cadavers—individually wrapped, vacuum-packed, and ready to be shipped—so he found a space for his groceries on an inconspicuous top shelf.

“Tell me what you got there, Buddha Belly,” Leonard said again, blocking Ronnie’s exit.  “Or I’ll tell Leander, and he’ll tell Chris. Then the pink slip.”

“They’re groceries I have to keep cold.”

“What kind of groceries?” Leonard draped his long rubber gloves over his shoulder and folded his arms.

“Groceries for this, that, and the other,” Ronnie answered.

Leonard reached for the microphone to the PA system. “Attention, you gruesome ghouls of the Cat Factory,” he said, his best Alfred Hitchcock echoing through the warehouse, “Ronnie-boy, our very own Big Daddy, has something….”

Ronnie quickly swiped the microphone away with one of his gorilla-sized hands and quietly told Leonard about the supper he had planned for that night and how the perishables would never make it to the end of his shift unless they were placed in the cat freezer. “You get the best produce when you shop in the morning. Everybody knows that.”

Satisfied, the cat-skinner took a deep, dramatic breath, which seemed to whistle through his teeth. “So,” he said in a leisurely exhale, “a little seed for the jailbird. Instead, shouldn’t she be feeding you something?”

“Go to hell,” Ronnie said.

Leonard put his hand on Ronnie’s shoulder, rose to his toes, and leaned forward. “Fuck.  What happened to your mouth? It’s all blue.”

“It’s icing,” Ronnie said.  Then he had to appease Leonard further by giving him one of the petit fours.  Ronnie also gave one to himself—for its calming effect.

If he had to part with one petit four to shut Leonard up, it was worth it. Someone in Remyton had to either die or retire for anyone to have a prayer of getting a job at one of the local grain elevators or refineries, and more often than not, the want ad was published the same day as the obituary.  So after almost five years of waiting, Ronnie was thrilled to get the job at the Cat Factory, a place where most of his old coworkers at Falgoust Sugar, including that loudmouth Leonard, had ended up. All the other plants wanted stronger, younger workers, and in Ronnie’s case, especially not an obese forty-three-year-old who would be a danger to himself and to those below if he were to ever shimmy up a scaffold.

As the newest employee, going on four weeks, Ronnie had been put to the part-time task of sloshing the fluids and other refuse of the preserving process down a massive floor drain in the processing shed.  One guy would hose the floor while Ronnie and his push broom worked the phenol, isopropanol, formaldehyde, and other chemicals whose names he could barely pronounce, much less spell, into a swirling, acrid froth. “Breathe enough of that shit in, you’ll be shooting blanks the rest of your life,” Leander, the crew leader, had told him during safety gear orientation. “At the very best, your children will come out looking like grasshoppers.” But a job is a job, as they say. Ronnie at least hoped that, after a few months, he’d get on the full-time Stage 3 Preparation shift, which required hardly any physical labor except for injecting the cats’ arteries and veins with red and blue latex.

And even if he didn’t get the preparation shift, Ronnie’s present job was still better than the one given to the polite young man from Ghana, who had started a couple of months before.  The African had been put on skinning with Leonard because management had figured he would be a natural at it.  Just like in the African bush, they had said.  And it turned out that he was quite adept at skinning cats though Kwodwo, renamed Butch because of his coworkers’ constant mispronunciation, swore that he had grown up in a city and had never skinned anything in his life before finding himself there in the soggy backcountry of southern Louisiana.

“I heard you had been detained after an altercation with Mister P. J. Fryoux last night,” Butch said from behind as Ronnie struggled to stretch a pair of rubber waders to his hips. “Is that true, Mister Ronnie?”

“No, I’m not the one who got put in the pokey, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“But Mister Leander told me you were detained last night.”  Butch fidgeted with the skinning knife hung around his neck.  He had gotten the idea from Leonard, who had fashioned a lanyard with braided fishing line he swore was made from catgut.

“It was my neighbor,” Ronnie said. “Got in an argument with her daughter’s deadbeat boyfriend. A misunderstanding is all. I bailed her out.” He was certain Stephanie had done nothing wrong. What does “criminal mischief” really mean, anyway? It sounded basically harmless to him—like kids covering a house in toilet paper.

“Did Mister P.J. Fryoux owe your neighbor money?”

“Whatever the reason, it’s her business, really.”

“I bet he owes her money.”

“You know what a deadbeat is?” Ronnie’s rubber waistband sank deeper into his hips. “That’s what the man is, and he got what he deserved, whatever it was.”

After Ronnie had posted her bail, a deputy drove Stephanie to pick up her car at P.J.’s, so she could then get Puddin at his friend’s house. Ronnie went home and warmed some leftover brisket to make each of them a sandwich and then settled down in the parlor to wait for her knock at his side of their rented double shotgun.  She’ll just put the boy to bed first, Ronnie thought when he heard her screen door creak open. Then, he decided that she just needed to collect herself once he heard the tap water running.  But she never did knock, so Ronnie ate both sandwiches before going to bed.

“Really, Mister Ronnie,” Butch said as he patted the wallet in his back pocket, “money is always the problem. My fiancé in Ghana, she is always trying to extort money from me. She thinks I am getting rich in America without her.”

“Just keep her happy,” Ronnie said as if he had extensive experience in such matters.

“I send to her whatever I can, but Mister Leander told me that that may stop soon.”

“What now?”

“We’re closing.  At least maybe.”

As Butch continued talking over the next minute or so, Ronnie saw Stephanie’s bailout being spit from the town’s rumor mill so it could instead grind on notions of the Cat Factory’s impending closure.  Because of the proliferation of no-kill shelters in the States, Butch told him, the company planned on moving to Mexico where it could get children to round up and drown strays for a dollar apiece—no more expensive gassing. Leander himself had joked with Ronnie recently that the company had considered answering “free to good home” ads from the newspaper. Supply from the shelters was that low.

So maybe there was some truth to this tittle-tattle among coworkers. But rumors are only just that, Ronnie told himself. But then there was more doubt, then the more heartbreaking notion that, if he did indeed lose his job to a bunch of Mexicans, he would be back to where he started.  If anything, Ronnie knew that women, especially single mothers like Stephanie, are attracted to men with steady employment. The most gourmet meal could never change that.

            Though supper had been quite pleasant, Ronnie still worried that the sharp vinegar smell permeating his side of the double shotgun would be too much for Stephanie and Puddin and that they would retreat to their half of the tiny house before dessert. Aunt Millie had told him that he only needed to mix the vinegar with a little water and then the old plank floors would shine like the dickens. “A clean house’ll make her that much more sweet on you,” she had said.  But Ronnie figured he had used too much, making the place reek of pickles, maybe expensive cheese, but definitely something that didn’t compliment the meal.  He had joked that, instead, it was maybe the phantom smell of the Cat Factory lingering in the air. “Too gruesome,” Stephanie had said after Puddin, who was fascinated by such a career, asked for more details.

“How about over coffee?” Ronnie said, and they followed him into the front parlor where, thankfully, the chicory aroma overpowered everything.

Ronnie was careful not to spoil the evening with questions about her arrest. But if Stephanie offered an explanation on her own, in confidence to him, her friend and neighbor, he would listen. He would simply be there for her and possibly help if he could. He knew for certain that seeing about Magda had been the reason Stephanie had gone to P.J. Fryoux’s house the night before. But what could she have done that called for being carted off to jail? What kind of “mischief”? Like the rest of Remyton, Ronnie only knew that Magda had been dating P.J. and that Stephanie was displeased.  What mother wouldn’t be?

“Your place always seems so much bigger than mine,” Stephanie said, running her pale hand over the equally white parlor wall.

“Having hardly any furniture helps. Imagine how big it would be without me here, baby grand that I am.”  Ronnie passed her the plate of petit fours, the remaining eight of which he had arranged among wedges of the Honeycrisp apple.

“What color, Puddin?” she asked.

“Red for cat guts,” the little boy said, snatching a cake.  He sat in his mother’s lap as if he were still a wispy kindergartener and not a growing, weighty third-grader.

Stephanie took a petit four for herself and bit off a small piece from its corner.  Ronnie imagined her rolling the tiny morsel over her tongue, tickling her palate, massaging her taste buds until it dissolved into nothing. “Wonderful,” she said and then ate the rest whole.

“Crispy,” Ronnie answered, nibbling on a piece of apple.

“So tell us more about your job.” Stephanie moistened a corner of one of the new cloth napkins with her tongue and carefully wiped Puddin’s red-stained mouth. Only a mother could apply such firm, yet loving, brushstrokes, as if she instinctively knew her child’s tolerance for pain.

“Of course, some of the guys there are morons or shady characters, maybe an ex-con or two,” Ronnie explained with the idea of possible layoffs in the back of his mind. “But there’s really nothing more to tell. What about you guys?  And Magda?  Is she okay and everything?” He didn’t mean to, but the question just came out in a burp of apple and strawberry-flavored icing.

“She’s cracked,” Puddin said while quietly picking at the calloused ball of one of his dirty feet. Stephanie pinched his rosy cheek, which made the side of his mouth curl upward, exposing crooked, pink teeth that matched his lips. “Ouch!” he said and flung himself from her lap.

“Be nice about your sister,” Stephanie said. “And watch where you put those feet.  You’re going to start wearing your shoes like a civilized human being.” She poured more coffee for Ronnie and for herself. “Everything, and especially the sweet potatoes, was wonderful, Ronnie.”

He eyed the three remaining petit fours. “Want the recipe?”

“I don’t have your talent for cooking,” she said and then put one on her saucer.

Her comment made Ronnie proud, even though his so-called talents—like cooking or being able to give himself a haircut or finding just the right spot to position the television’s rabbit ears—were simply necessary skills acquired from his solitary years of near-poverty. He had no natural aptitude like Butch’s ability to skin cats. Ronnie’s were skills developed like a man who had lost the use of his arms: he finds a way to make-do.

He reminded Stephanie of another time before when he had, in a manner of speaking, cooked for her family—when Puddin was about five and his entire kindergarten class had contracted lice.  She had come over sobbing and asked to borrow linens because everything in the house had to be washed repeatedly or thrown out.  “I just want to burn it all,” she had told him. So Ronnie had helped her start a fire in the front yard. Puddin screamed, “Murderers! Murderers!” when they threw in his stuffed toy animals. Magda laughed and offered to throw in her expensive evening gown, which Stephanie had bought for the high school’s Magnolia Queen pageant.

“She’s cracked,” Puddin said again when Ronnie got to the part about Magda tap-dancing along the banquette and refusing to practice her pageant walk. Stephanie told the boy to hush up. And then Ronnie went on to remind them of his homemade relish and of how they all roasted hot dogs on straightened wire hangers once their clothes had been thrown into the fire.  And of how Magda and Puddin twirled around in Ronnie’s oversized shirts while Stephanie tied the billowing shirt he had given her into an elegant, formfitting dress.

Just then, Ronnie stopped short his storytelling and reached for another wedge of apple. The rest of the story, he remembered, wasn’t so pleasant. Stephanie’s silence, the way her thumb absently circled the rim of her coffee cup, told him that she also dwelled on the same unspoken memory.

“Go on and finish,” she said.

Ronnie reluctantly described how Stephanie had elegantly tiptoed about the fire. “See, Magda,” she had said, cinching her shirt-dress up a bit, “You walk with confidence and poise, pronounce those vowels correctly, and that crown is definitely yours.” Ronnie remembered the exact way she had synchronized her arms perfectly with the sway of her hips in that tight, improvised dress, her wrists relaxed, her calf muscles as firm as her pageant coach’s voice.

“To hell with that prissy little pageant,” Magda had answered, which immediately got her a slap across the face. She hadn’t recoiled in the seconds before her mother’s hand landed, but rather shored herself up, shoulders straight, fists clenched, as if she knew she had deserved it.

Stephanie’s thumb must have made dozens of silent revolutions around the coffee cup as Ronnie continued. “Remember how Magda didn’t want a bun,” he asked, feigning amusement, “and just kept dunking her weenie in ketchup?”

“Please Ronnie, don’t make me cry,” Stephanie sobbed, and Puddin went to embrace her.  She put his head over her shoulder and then cried more, rubbing tiny circles in the middle of his back. “She’s supposed to be a computer scientist. Puddin the engineer and Magda the computer scientist.”

“And I’ll be a good one,” Ronnie heard a muffled Puddin say. “A good, good engineer.”

Stephanie told him that the young lady he remembered, the young lady who had stuck metal bottle caps to the bottoms of her sneakers and tap-danced along the banquette way back when, had left college in Baton Rouge and was now living with P.J. Fryoux, the town druggie and wannabe lover boy.

Of course, P.J. would have liked everyone in Remyton to know him as their resident badass on two wheels, popping wheelies down Chickpea Highway at all hours—a title he inherited from Leonard who, twenty years earlier, had claimed a fight in every other bar from Port Arthur, east to Baton Rouge.

With only a handful of convictions under his belt, P.J. was by no means as accomplished, but, at twenty-four, youth was on his side. He’d reach Leonard’s legendary status sooner or later. He just wouldn’t be doing it on two wheels. The deadbeat had slammed his bike into a telephone pole and was back to his day job of digging crooked drainage ditches with a backhoe, supposedly stoned out of his mind, and then by night, hosting a few teenagers at his house—again stoned out of his mind. Magda claimed they had been together since high school, which Stephanie said took her by surprise. She had never expected her own daughter to be one of those girls who fell for this greaser throwback, with slicked-back hair and tight jeans, cigarette behind the ear.

“That’s why I forced her to live in the dorms,” Stephanie said.  “To keep her away from the trashy boys around here so she won’t end up like me in my sad situation.  But no, she had to find her way back. And she never answers the phone when I call her at his place, and he refuses to put her on. I doubt she even leaves his house. You should have heard the nasty things she said to me, Ronnie.” Stephanie seemed to hug Puddin tighter. “It’s dope. I know it’s dope. That’s how he keeps her there. Hooked on dope. I’m positive of that. I went to see it with my own eyes and he goes and calls Jerry, Deputy Dog-Shit himself, who said I was causing trouble and disturbing the peace.”

For the moment, Ronnie forgot how badly he had wanted to reach for one of the remaining petit fours and instead gorged himself on every trembling word. “I’ll do whatever I can to help,” he said.

“Then will you go over there?  Reason with her.” Stephanie took his hand, squeezed. “I’m totally done-in, you can tell her.”

“I’m happy to go tonight,” he said, feeling duty-bound, honored that she thought enough of him to finally share.

At work the next day, Ronnie tried to hold on to this feeling, especially when his bruised cheek throbbed and when the midday air in the Cat Factory, a stifling concoction of floor cleaner and chemical preservatives, threatened to make him tumble like the Colossus. For a slight man, P.J. certainly knew how to throw a great punch. The pain radiated from Ronnie’s cheek to all four of his limbs, causing his performance at work to slow and prompting many questions from the men on the morning shift. But Ronnie had maintained his silence until lunch hour, even after Leonard had threatened to make up his own version of what may have happened to the swollen cheek and then share it with everyone.

As he cleaned the ash from the incinerator, Ronnie heard Leonard yell, “I got a poppin’ momma!” from the other end of the warehouse, which meant he had come across a pregnant cat Ronnie would need to bring to another station. “Catch, Big Daddy,” Leonard said, lobbing the cat over.

But Ronnie covered his face and let the cat fall to the floor, leaving a trail of ooze on the wet floor as it slid. “Can we talk?” he asked.

Leonard came closer and made a move to pat Ronnie’s stomach. “Of course, Lovey. What’s on your mind?”

Leonard already knew a little about Stephanie’s troubles because Deputy Dog-Shit had spread the word.  But until then, the cat-skinner knew nothing about the failure of the hasty plan Ronnie had concocted with her at supper, which only resulted in his bruised cheek and, Ronnie feared, a greater resolve for Magda.

Minutes after Puddin had been put to bed, Ronnie told Leonard, he had knocked on P.J.’s door, and the shirtless, sallow young man had answered with a near-empty beer bottle in his hand. His stare was heavy-lidded and vacant—like one of Flick’s mongoloids. “I’d like to see Magda,” he had said.  P.J. just walked away, leaving the door open, and called for her to see about the fat man on the front porch.

Ronnie told Leonard of how the girl had cried brokenheartedly once he had pointed out what she was doing to her poor mother, who was ashamed of having been brought to jail because of her.  Her mother who paces the floor all night and can’t bring herself to eat. Her mother who wants her little girl back, safe and in college.

When Ronnie had stepped over the threshold to offer his handkerchief, he saw P.J. straddling a chair in the corner, arms folded over the back, his face in silhouette.

“Your mom is a mess,” he had told Magda.

“But he’s my heart,” she had replied. “Mom only understands white-collars and tuition receipts.” He decided that she was as lovely as her mother. Besides the brownish freckles ringing her neck like a specked eggshell, Magda had the same thin, penciled eyebrows and long, dark lashes. They were eyebrows that arched up ever so slightly as if she were just about to declare something wonderful.

“This man’s not good for you,” he had told the girl.

“He’s a good man,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “Nobody wants to know that.  They like snickering and making up lies way too much.” She tossed back the handkerchief Ronnie had given her as if his concern were an insult. “Tell Mom we’re taking care of each other.”

“The shenanigans we hear about…him doing this and that. Most illegal…. He’s going to get you in trouble one day.”

“He’s nothing but a stray puppy.”

“And a goddamn drug dealer.” Ronnie took her hand and tried to move her out onto the porch—so they could talk privately, he had said.

But Magda’s feet stuck to the threshold. When he pulled her forward, she only bent at the waist and tried to move his hand away. Ronnie turned to reassure her. I can’t force you to do anything, he had planned to say, but before he could get the words out, P.J. was at the door. The boy landed a broad fist on Ronnie’s cheek, pulled Magda inside, and locked the deadbolt.  After Ronnie had steadied himself, he listened with his ear to the door, but couldn’t tell if Magda was crying or laughing on the other side.

Leonard looked completely bemused as Ronnie told the whole sad story. He nodded his head repeatedly, stopped fidgeting with his skinning knife, and, of course, chuckled once he heard about Ronnie taking a punch in the face.

“I had to ice it with a bag of frozen peas,” Ronnie said.

Leonard did a little shadowboxing around his coworker. “A big boy like you should be able to take a hit,” he said.

“I’m standing here, aren’t I?

Ronnie didn’t tell Leonard how Stephanie had held him lightly when he returned home that night, like a delicate piggybank, and kissed his swollen cheek to thank him for the effort. That was for him alone.  But he did mention that she had suggested he enlist one of the “shady characters” from work in a better plan to get her daughter back.

“I’ll pay you,” Ronnie told Leonard.

“You better hope you’re worth your weight in gold.”

“I can do six hundred.”

“We’ll talk later.”

Ronnie reached for the cat-skinner’s apron strings before he could walk away. “Keep this a secret,” he said.  His grip felt as weak as his rubbery calves. “Keep this a secret, or you’ll regret it.”

“We’ll talk, Godfather,” Leonard said, twirling the skinning knife hanging from his neck. “Let me think a little. Planning a little mayhem takes time.”

            Two nights later, Ronnie took deep, nasal breaths as he sat in his parlor with Stephanie and waited for Leonard’s knock. She only had to open one window for the scent of the sweet olive planted on her side of the house to fill the room. Willing to suffer through the heat and humidity, Ronnie would sometimes open every window, hoping that the tree’s apricot fragrance would find its way in as it did on this evening.  He’d imagine, when he lay sweating in his bed, that Stephanie and he were not merely neighbors, periodic visitors to each other’s side, but that they were instead members of the same household, maybe a family.  If Leonard did bother to show, he would taint it all with the smell of cigars and aftershave. And then the knock finally came, so Ronnie inhaled the sweet olive one more time before opening the door.

Leonard looked to Stephanie, who stood pointlessly winding a beat-up brass clock on the mantelpiece. “Girls,” he said to Ronnie. “I thought I told you no girls allowed, anywhere, either at this shindig here or at the hoedown we’re about to have.”

“Don’t worry,” Stephanie said. “Magda’s working tonight. She cleans a doctor’s office.”

“Really?” Leonard said and sidestepped Ronnie to enter the parlor.  And then, at the door, Butch appeared from nowhere. He offered his hand hesitantly for Ronnie to shake then simply followed Leonard’s lead into the room once his greeting was refused.

The day before, Leonard had told Ronnie that he would need only two things, and then he would agree to help: eight hundred dollars and a time when P.J. would be alone.  But if Ronnie knew Butch would show up wearing a doo-rag and a 49ers jersey, he would have called the whole thing off.

“I told you to keep this quiet,” Ronnie told Leonard.

“You got me wrong, Ron. This here is our man. Just look at him.” Leonard motioned to Butch, who stood silently against a wall with one hand slung casually in his front pocket, the other wagging a fist meant to embellish the menacing scowl on his face. “Do you know of a blacker mother fucker around?  American, African, or whatnot?  We’ll scare the shit out of that boy.”

“Is he in a gang?” Stephanie asked.

“Now girlie,” Leonard said, “can you leave us alone?  We need to have a private meeting.”

Ronnie held the door open. “You really should leave.” Stephanie had already gone through so much. Hearing the specifics of their plan, as it were, would only make her worry.

“That’s gratitude,” Leonard said as Stephanie hesitated near the mantelpiece.

“I’ll let you know what happens,” Ronnie reassured her. “It won’t be long.”

“Yeah, don’t worry, girlie.” Leonard motioned for Butch to sit. “We’re not gonna be fancy. Just wanna freak out that greasy little tadpole. Then maybe he’ll give up the girl.”

“I just hope he doesn’t call the deputies,” Stephanie said. “Maybe this is all a bad idea.”

“Tadpole dopeheads don’t call the cops.”

“He called them on me,” she said. “I just don’t want ya’ll to do anything that gets Magda in huge trouble.”

“The big dog’s in control,” Leonard said.  “I got it covered.”

“I’m about to lose it,” Stephanie whispered to Ronnie and then slammed the door behind her.

“She is not happy, Mister Ronnie,” Butch said, scratching under his doo-rag.

“Did Leonard tell you everything?”

“I’m happy to help. And I’m thankful you can help me.”

“What do you mean help you?”

And then once again, Butch became the bearer of bad news, and it was no rumor this time. The Cat Factory would close as soon as the last shipment was made, so Butch had been grateful, he said, when Leonard approached him with a business opportunity. “I will split the eight hundred with Mister Leonard.”

Leonard patted Butch’s head. “That’s fine with you, chief?”

“Do I have a choice?” Ronnie saw himself, like Flick, having to collect for some charity, which was nothing more than a sly way of panhandling.  Then he pictured barely being able to make his rent and having to move out of the shotgun. And finally, he forecasted his fate of being left with nothing, with no Stephanie, if he were to fail tonight.

            Ronnie held his breath when Leonard knocked on P.J.’s rickety front door, but no answer came.  The twitching returned to his calves when Leonard knocked again, louder this time, causing flakes of paint to fall from the porch ceiling. “Unbelievable,” Leonard said and kicked the bottom of the door with his boot, which rang loudly off the kick plate. Only then did the music within die down and footsteps were heard. Ronnie had to swallow his panic when the thought hit him: he had no idea what they were trying to accomplish that night.

From the moment they entered the house, Leonard had P.J. in a chokehold. The two men seemed to struggle for an eternity, pulling at each other, back and forth, like parts of the same machine. They knocked over chairs and smashed a jar of pennies, which scattered about the floor. A baseball trophy went flying through a window, and one of the stereo speakers was silenced by a fall from its shelf. Before planting himself on an old corduroy sofa, Ronnie thought to break them up once he heard P.J. gasping for air. After all, he only wanted to scare the boy, he remembered.  But then, with Leonard wild-eyed and riled up and P.J.’s right hook, who would he fend off first? Instead, he sunk into the sofa and waited.

The men wrestled to the floor and tried to pin each other at the shoulders. Their breathing went in waves of anguished grunts to what sounded like deep, languid yawns. But Leonard was only toying with P.J. He whispered in his ear. Laughed a bit. He also hummed a waltz when he rose to his feet and flung his opponent about. The thud of P.J.’s head hitting a doorframe seemed to vibrate in Ronnie’s chest. Leonard did it again, which made the sound of a bass drum this time, and P.J. went limp.

“Come here,” Leonard said to Butch, who had quietly moved himself to a corner. “I think Cupcake’s ready to listen now.” Butch stood frozen, both hands in his pockets, his scowl replaced by fear. “Get over here,” Leonard said again.

P.J. sat on the floor with his back against the wall, took a few seconds to catch his breath, and then became stone-faced, almost dignified, in spite of the bloody gash on his forehead. He wasn’t going to fold that easily.  Leonard knelt down and handed him a handkerchief. Butch squatted at his side.

“Do you know why we’re here, baby?” Leonard said gently. “I bet you do.” P.J. didn’t answer.  “Go ahead,” Leonard told Butch, “show Cupcake the mojo you got working.” Butch reached into his jersey with an unsteady hand and pulled out his skinning knife.  “See,” Leonard said to P.J., “this man can skin anything in thirty seconds or less, especially lily-skinned little cupcakes.”

Butch held the knife close to his chest as if extending it outward toward P.J. would put his own life in danger.

“Tell this man here where you stash the rock candy, baby,” Leonard said.  “Be careful.  He’s a regular maniac, you know.”

“In the floor furnace,” P.J. said, suddenly crying.

“Good baby.” Leonard only had to point, and Butch lifted the metal grate in the hallway floor. He pulled out a paper bag, inspected its contents, and tucked it under his arm.

“That’s not why we’re here,” Ronnie, finally on his feet, yelled. “I’m not paying you to steal his dope.”

“Now don’t get all bitchy,” Leonard said.

Butch hadn’t spoken the entire time, but the nervous spasms in his arms, the subsequent crackling of the paper bag, and the apologetic look on his face communicated enough.  I’m sorry, Mister Ronnie, he seemed to say. My apologies, Mister P.J., but I also have a girlfriend to keep happy. Ronnie thought back to his conversation with Butch a few days before, and he realized that his polite, young coworker and he were there in P.J.’s house for exactly the same reason. Leonard, on the other hand, was recapturing the joys of his youth.

“How much product we have in that bag there?” Leonard asked Butch.

“It is not product, Mister Len… It is cash money. A great deal of it.”

“Well shit, man, that’s ten times better. There’s nothing to sell. Let me see.”

Butch tossed Leonard the bag. Sure enough, when he emptied it onto the floor, there were rolls of bills in large denominations tied together with rubber bands, a little glass pipe, and a baggie Ronnie assumed contained drugs.

“We’re splitting the cash,” Leonard said. “That way, everybody has a reason to keep their mouths shut.” He tossed the baggie and the pipe and a roll of fifties to P.J.’s feet. “For your trouble, m’lady.”

Only the boy’s lips moved. “I’m gonna kill all three of you.” A mixture of spit and blood drooled down to the floor.

“That’s nice,” Leonard said.  He shoved his share of the cash into his pockets, tossed the bag to Butch, who had stuffed his own pockets before lobbing it into Ronnie’s hands like a tattered, deflated football.

“Okay, Big Chief,” Leonard said to Ronnie. “Me and Butch got what we came for. Your turn now.” He took P.J. by the hair and dragged him over.  Then he sat the whimpering young man up and held his bloody head straight and steady. “Kick a field goal, chief. Right in the puss.  Show Cupcake why he needs to leave the girlies alone.”

“I think that maybe Mister Ronnie should take his shoe off first,” Butch said, clearly panicked and ready to sprint home.

“No. We’re not pussyfooting with this one. Baby needs his lesson. So Big Daddy’s gonna plant one, shoe and all, in Cupcake’s pretty face. Everyone in this room wants to be a big shot without earning it. In my day, I collected kicks in the face like Boy Scout badges.”

Ronnie backed up slowly on his hefty, yet dithering, legs. “That’s it, Big Daddy.” Leonard smiled broadly. “Get a little room for a running start.”

P.J. at first seemed stiff and witless, but as Ronnie continued to back up, the young man stopped crying, composed himself once again. I can take it, he seemed to say. I can take it over and over. Can you?

“Okay, Ron,” Leonard said, “I’ll give you a three-count.” He crouched down and held P.J.’s head at arm’s length. “One-little-cupcake!” Butch hid his face behind his hands. “Two-little-cupcake!” P.J. closed his eyes. “Three-little-cupcake!”

Ronnie bolted out the door, ran blindly into Leonard’s car, and staggered toward home on foot, a walk that took nearly thirty minutes. The lamps on his street were out, which was not uncommon on the hottest summer nights. Nevertheless, he was guided by the glow from Stephanie’s parlor window, drawn along with the mosquitoes and swarming termites. He lingered at her door for a moment to collect himself and to wipe the sweat, and hopefully the shame, from his face. He went to knock on her door only to realize that the paper bag was still in his hand, so he hid it behind a flower pot. When Stephanie opened the door, Ronnie hugged her, kissed her cheek, and claimed that everything was going to be all right—that the three of them took care of it. What else could he say?

“Was he scared?” Stephanie asked.

“For sure.”

“Did that maniac rough up the boy? I was hoping he would—to be completely honest.”

“A bit.”

“Did he suffer?” she asked, almost giddy.

“No,” Ronnie lied, sparing her the ghastly details. “I don’t think so. Not too much.”

“That’s just wonderful,” she said angrily. “Then how can we be sure he leaves her alone? I wanted him to suffer.”  She shuffled about in her terry cloth slippers—a waspish gliding that sounded as if she were skating on sandpaper.

“Magda’ll leave him eventually,” Ronnie said. “I’m sure of it.”

She spoke in a near whisper. “Not likely. People like us are forced to live simple lives. We pray the kids don’t come up simpletons. And then there they are. Wonderful!”

“Magda’s still a good girl.”

“But that boy still needs to suffer. He’s embarrassed this whole family. Why couldn’t you just let those men get to him?”

Ronnie had never seen Stephanie like this before. In her jail cell, she had looked dismayed, withered—so beautifully vulnerable. There was no vengeance in her then, not even at their supper together. But now, she seemed beyond concern for Magda—sunk in an ugly place between hate and wrath. He never wanted to see her like that again.

Magda will be back, Ronnie tried to reassure her. She will be back, but not just because of what they had done that evening.  Magda will most definitely come back, he said, because she is too young not to. “She’ll get tired of him. And she’ll want to kick herself for being so foolish.”

“I wish that that were good enough,” Stephanie said. “Go back and do it right. Make the boy give her up now.”

“I can’t. The cops could be there by now.”

“Dopeheads don’t call the cops. Remember?”

“He called them on you.”

Stephanie stopped pacing and withdrew to the far end of the room. She seemed to listen toward the back of the house to where Puddin slept. “I told you it was him,” she whispered.  “That the boy was the one who called the cops. But it wasn’t. Magda’s the one who called. Called on her own mother. He tried to stop her. My own daughter.”

She began weeping, but Ronnie could no longer find words to console her. The spigot of platitudes and sympathies just wouldn’t turn back on. He backed up just as he had at P.J.’s house and retreated to his side of the shotgun. There, preparing a sandwich, he was beside himself with guilt. He ate it halfheartedly and went to bed hoping the sweet olive would again lull him into a forgetful sleep. But he could only imagine P.J., alone, retching on the floor and Magda finding him there.  So Ronnie strapped on his Velcro sneakers once again, stuffed the paper bag into his back pocket, and walked quietly out the door.

He sensed his own presence in P.J.’s house before he even entered, as if he were returning to reclaim some phantom part of himself. He didn’t knock but announced his arrival with the creaking of the porch floor and stepped over the threshold. He first saw Magda, in tears, sitting on the sofa, then P.J.’s head on her lap from where she dressed the wound on his forehead.

“He won’t tell me what happened,” Magda said hysterically. Her thin, friendly eyebrows arched and then angled into severe little peaks. “I need to call the police.”

“No!” P.J. yelled through swollen lips. “Twice in one week. Too much attention. My parole. Suspicious.” Magda had asked him to repeat the last word three times before she understood.

Ronnie lumbered to the center of the room—to the spot where he had previously left P.J., bloody but nevertheless ready for a kick in the face. He was about to tell Magda the whole truth when the young man raised his head.

“Delinquents. Looking for money,” P.J. said through the bloody rag at his mouth. “Kids, really. Shoulda just let ‘em take the cash. But I know you need it. For going back to school.” He looked to Ronnie with swollen, pleading eyes, then glanced artlessly at the floor furnace in the hall. “I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I love you.”

Ronnie took out the crumpled paper bag. “I…”

“Leave us alone!” P.J. yelled.

Before Ronnie took his leave, he apologized for the intrusion, told Magda that he’d try to smooth things out with her mother, and gave P.J. a reassuring nod. She continued to wipe her boyfriend’s face and lightly blot the remaining blood from the edges of the bandage on his forehead. Ronnie stuffed the bag back into his pants. He felt as if he had just sold the girl to her boyfriend. “I suppose I did,” he muttered to himself when he stepped off their porch.

            The next morning broke with the sound of Stephanie urging Puddin to rise and dress for school. “Sun’s shining,” Ronnie heard her bellow happily through their tissue-thin shared wall. “And baby-bird engineers go and learn their arithmetic.” Puddin laughed, let out a few tweets, and then broke into a kazoo-like reveille.

Maybe all was as it used to be, Ronnie reassured himself while he plated the conciliatory breakfast he had been preparing for the last half-hour: a tray of pancakes soaked in cane syrup, cheddar cheese and bell pepper omelets, and thinly-sliced hickory bacon. He hoped to at least reclaim his place as their kindly neighbor, the man with whom a little coffee and conversation could be shared.

When Ronnie knocked at their door, Puddin answered by swinging it open and almost knocking over the tray.

“Where’s your mom?”

“Fixing to put some doohickey in her hair.” The boy resumed his place on the parlor floor. Ronnie had seen him in the same spot hundreds of times, always no more than two feet from the television, remote in his hand, his posture suggesting a contented, sitting panda bear.

Only a few days ago, Ronnie would have gone to the kitchen as if it were his own, arranged the breakfast around the table, and brewed Stephanie a cup of coffee. But now he couldn’t presume he’d be welcomed. Instead, he remained standing by the front door, the tray resting on his stomach. The hair dryer, which had been blaring since he entered, stopped, and Stephanie appeared—face a bit flushed, hair still damp—from the back of the house.

“I bet hair dryers started out as torture devices,” she said, dabbing sweat from her forehead. The gray was gone from her hair, which was set away from her face with a glittering rhinestone barrette above each temple. Ronnie recalled her buying them for Magda to wear in the Magnolia Queen pageant.

“I bring breakfast,” he said, careful not to match her cheerful demeanor just yet. “You guys have time?”

“Oh, wonderful,” she said, taking the tray. “You’re so good to us.”

Indeed, all was as it used to be.

The three of them ate their breakfast at the kitchen table, Ronnie in the most sturdy of her mismatched chairs. Puddin cut his pancakes and bacon into little squares and stacked them into bite-sized sandwiches. Stephanie tried a piece of omelet before adding a little salt, a politeness that put Ronnie further at ease. He hadn’t expected Stephanie to immediately bring up the previous night’s events. They’d get to it sooner or later. But once breakfast was finished and she washed the dishes, he foolishly thought that she was happy letting the morning pass without a single mention.

“I realize, Ronnie, how wrong I’d been,” she said over the din of clanging utensils under the faucet. “Trying to shock Magda back into a good girl again was not the right way.  Puddin’s birthday’s coming up, and I would love to rent the VFW for a party. Deck the front of the place out with balloons, streamers, and a big, gaudy sign. I’m thinking that I’ve got to show her what she’s missing.  Like pancakes and bacon, weenie-roasts and tap-dancing.  We have fun, right? That lazy-ass boy just wants to loll in the air conditioning all day.”

Ronnie thought of Magda spending her morning cleaning P.J.’s blood out of their carpet. She’s a grown woman now, Ronnie wanted to say to her mother. She knows what she wants, and it’s not an eight-year-old’s party or even a beauty pageant crown.

“Can we have a water gun fight for the party?” Puddin asked.

“Sure. Outside.”

“I’d be happy to rent the hall,” Ronnie said. He thought of Magda pouring a bucket of blood and disinfectant into a utility sink. He imagined it swirling down in a long, gurgling slurp just like the floor drain at the Cat Factory.

“No, Ronnie,” Stephanie said. You don’t have to do that. It was just some pie in the sky idea of mine. You know how expensive the VFW is.”

“That’s no big deal. I really, really want to.”

“Oh my god! Magda’s gonna wish she was there.” She hugged Ronnie tightly. Even Puddin grabbed at his shirt and yelled, “Party! Party! Party!”

“Give Magda time to come around,” he said. “Young people make mistakes so innocently, but they wake up sooner or later. And if it’s love between the two of them, then what can you do?”

“I’m not going to accept it, for sure.”

“You don’t have to. Just remember what they say. You can’t choose for your children.”

“You can’t choose your children, either.” Stephanie laughed. Maybe that was a good sign. “I believe we have to shove off to school.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Ronnie said, pointing to the popsicle-stick sculpture Stephanie had carefully moved from the kitchen table to the countertop before they sat down to eat. “What’s that for?”

“That’s for Puddin to show in school today,” she said, seeming just as happy to change the subject. “It’s an exact replica of the Gramercy Bridge.  They say it’s the most gracefully engineered bridge over the Mississippi. I spent hours making it. Couldn’t sleep, so finished it last night. Been eating two popsicles at lunch for weeks to collect enough sticks.”

She obviously took great care in making the little bridge, painting each wooden truss a steely gray and sculpting styrofoam blocks to represent the real bridge’s massive cylindrical footings. She even glued colorful matchbox cars to the bridge’s roadway and painted tiny overhead highway signs.

“Puddin, tell Ronnie what kind of bridge it is.” The boy was more concerned with drawing a picture of the water gun he wanted for the party. “Come on,” Stephanie prodded.  “We drive over it on the way to school.”

“I forget,” he said.

“It’s a cantilever bridge,” she said and then noticed herself pointing a fork absently toward her son. She set it on the edge of the sink and continued. “You’ve got to remember that, darlin’. Okay?”

“I promise,” he said.

Ronnie hoped the little boy would indeed keep that promise—and many more to come—all the way toward engineering school and whatever other pies in the sky his mother had dreamed for him. It was the closest Ronnie had come to praying in years.

            Surprisingly, arriving for his last day at the Cat Factory was a relief, a feeling he seemed to share with most of his coworkers. Laughter echoed through the near-empty warehouse, and a few men even waltzed with their brooms as they swept the periphery. The last evening shift had finished most of the cleaning, and the final shipment to the veterinary schools left early that morning. They only needed to board up the windows, collect their final paycheck, and enjoy the doughnuts Leander brought from Star Grocery.

For people like Leonard, those who were perfectly suited for such a place, finding another legitimate job that would satisfy their brutishness would be difficult.  For Ronnie and Butch, who had to work there out of necessity, it was best that they got out when they did. Ronnie knew he would never again see the two men after that night at P.J.’s But still, he would have liked to part on better terms with Butch. Ronnie wished all the best for the young man, who still had a chance to make a life he truly wanted.

He imagined Kwodwo, writing to his love back in Ghana, telling her to pack her luggage for America.  He would sign the letter with his American name: Your fiancé, Butch. Ronnie pictured him meeting her in an airport terminal—a lovely, dark young thing dressed in whatever colorful headdress or robe they wear over in Africa. They’d spot each other easily, embrace awkwardly, and then disappear into their sprawling new country.  Each would never be alone again.

Less idyllic but no less honest, P.J. and Magda’s relationship would continue—maybe for weeks, maybe years, maybe into old age, even. For them, time never really mattered. Ronnie thought back to wise old Flick’s prophetic words: the most pathetic wins. Then he thought to the scene of Magda nursing P.J.’s wounds and how gentle she had been. Ronnie felt privileged, satiated, to see something so utterly pathetic yet still so full of love.