What do you mean that one?
She looks down and the other nine she lined up before are gone.
You said for every five tubs I picked I got to keep one. I picked ten tubs. What you tryin to pull? And where’s the eggs you promised for Maury choppin that wood?
Freckled Albert squints at her.
I don’t care for the way that feeb chops. I wanted em chopped bigger.
She brushes the hair back from her forehead and licks her lips.
Open up your ears now, Albert, she says. You wanna listen to what I’m tellin you—and what I’m tellin you is this: You’re makin a mistake.
Again Albert laughs until the cough overtakes him and he hunches over, his body cramped and twisted. When he looks up again his eyes are circles of red.
What you gonna do, girl? You gonna get your feeb to stomp me?
Without standing, he reaches one arm into the doorway of the shack and pulls out a shotgun that must have been standing just inside and points it at her.
Now shoo, he says. I ain’t a bad man is why you get one tub of berries at all.
You ain’t a bad man is why I’m not gonna kill you.
He drops his guard momentarily, trying to puzzle through why she isn’t scared of him—and that’s when she grabs the barrel of the shotgun and jerks it forward to pop his finger free of the trigger, then with all her strength she shoves it back, stock-first into his belly. He clenches his stomach and falls out of the chair. Then she turns him over and plants one knee on his chest, jamming the shotgun lengthwise across his throat.
Now here’s what I’m gonna do, she says. First I’m gonna go inside and get my two tubs of bingberries, like we agreed before. Second I’m gonna go out back to the coop and pluck me a dozen eggs for the work Maury did for you. Third I’m gonna take along a jug of that lemonade you got—to even things out so I don’t have to resent you for the offense you given us. You got that?
He nods, still choking and gasping. She stands and backs down the steps of the porch.
Now why don’t you lay there awhile, she says. You’ll get your breath back in a bit.
Around the side of the shack, the big man continues to chop with thick precision.
Maury, she calls. Maury! You can stop that chopping. We’re gettin back on the road.
LATER, IN the car, she puts a tub of the berries on Maury’s lap.
Eat up. You’ll like em. You can eat that whole tub if you want—it’s for you. I got us each one. Go on.
She takes one and puts it in her mouth to show him.
Mmm. I ain’t had bingberries in I don’t know how long. That Albert, he may have been a scoundrel all told, but he knew how to raise himself some crops, didn’t he? Go on, eat one.
Maury puts one of the berries in his mouth and a sour expression comes into his face. He opens his mouth wide as though hoping the thing will fly away on its own.
What’s the matter, you don’t like it? I swear, you got no feeling for the finer things in life, you big dummy. That’s a project for you to work on. All right, spit it out. Here, here’s a rag. Try not to make such a awful mess everything you do.
He spits the berry out and scrubs the rag across his tongue, but he’s still cringing afterward and he begins a low moan like crying except without the tears.
All right, she says. Hush up now.
The moan goes on long and low.
Hush up I said. Goddarnit, you would of thought I poisoned you. Here, drink some of that lemonade, I know you like that. But don’t drink it all up or I sure enough will leave you by the side of the road. You got that, Maury?
He drinks, and the moaning goes away. His gaze goes blank again.
Lord, Maury, you’re a big slobbery mess of devilment, ain’t you? You better hope Jeb and Jeanie Duchamp know what to do with you—cause they’re your last chance. I’m depositin you there no matter what.
THEY DRIVE on. She makes sure to keep the setting sun ahead of her and the rising sun behind. On some stretches of freeway, you can really fly—but you can just as easily get caught up in a tangle of crumbling overpasses and massive multicar collisions, ancient burial mounds of metal and exploded upholstery.
Sometimes it’s better to stay on the side roads, where the opportunities for detour are more plentiful.
And even though she knows it’s impossible, she keeps expecting to look behind her and see Moses Todd’s black car bloodhounding her trail.
Mississippi is one of the words she recognizes when she sees it. All those squiggles in a row, separated by vertical lines. She sees a sign that says Mississippi on it, and it doesn’t surprise her. Along the roads the trees have been overpowered by kudzu, like a blanket of green tossed over all the shapes of the earth. Driving through the small towns, she finds canted treehouses with rotted floors, plastic slides toppled over on front lawns, whole communities gone dense with the smells of honeysuckle and verbena. Elsewhere, on rolling stretches of back road, desolate plantation land has long ago gone back to wildflower and weed, grazed over by riderless horses traveling in packs and mewling cows that stand silhouetted on the hilltop horizons.
Just outside the center of one Mississippi town, they come across a big marble building with columns in front like a plantation mansion except more stoic. The front doors are shut tight, so they go around back and find a window they can bust high enough off the ground to keep the slugs out. She instructs Maury to roll a dumpster underneath it so they can climb on top and get in.
It’s a museum, she says when they’re inside. That’s what it is. Come on, Maury, let’s edify ourselves.
To be honest, the place makes her a little nervous—all those complicated cubicles snaking around one another like a labyrinth. She likes situations where she knows which direction to run if she has to. But everything is quiet. It looks like the place hasn’t been opened at all in twenty years or more. They stroll from room to room, standing in front of the artwork. Some of them are just patches of color on canvas—and these are the ones Maury likes, his eyes filling up with the color, the thick textures of the paint.
She finds him, palm flat against one of the canvases—as though feeling it for heat.
No touching, Maury.
She pulls his thick arm down.
This is art, Maury. You just can’t touch it like that. These things have gotta last a million years so people in the future know about us. So they can look and see what we knew about beauty.
He looks at her with those flat distant eyes of his—then he looks back at the painting.
Now you and me, we ain’t connoisseurs of nothin. Most of these we may not understand because they weren’t painted for the likes of us. But sooner or later someone’s gonna come along who knows how to read these things, and it’ll be like a message from another civilization. That’s how it works, you see? That’s how people talk to each other across time. It puts you on a wonder, doesn’t it?