Sugarpool, an Appalachian novel

Prolog con’t.

Reuben, who is now beginning to believe there’s a plan behind everything and since he’s initiated this mystery, shrugs. “Soon.”

His answer satisfies Roosevelt and he clamps his ball cap back on his head. Larry Zane offers him a smoke, but Roosevelt declines, pulling out a packet of Mail Pouch.

The silver of the wrap shines as brightly as the soda cans in the sun and he says, “You can call me Rosie. Everyone else does.”

Then, he spits.

Reuben and Larry nod simultaneously and look past Rosie to the back of his truck. His children are stirring. Blue-eyed, wheat-haired children rise from amongst the bushels of unshucked corn and green beans, from heaps of watermelons and various kinds of squash. They rise slowly, wary as tree lizards who know foreign eyes are upon them, then gather their courage and stand upright, eager for a solid place in the sun. The last to stand is the smallest, a girl of nearly three whose hair is long and not cut blunt like her siblings. She blinks and picks a strand of corn silk from her eyes, staring squarely at the men. She is wearing only a pair of yellow shorts; her long hair covers her top half. She takes a pacifier out of her mouth and throws it over the side of the truck, watching where it lands.

The passenger door opens, and the woman slides out. Her eyes and hair are the same color as the children’s, and she’s wearing a faded cotton housedress whose floral print resembles an unreadable map. On her feet are rubber flip flops, the soles worn thin.

Because Rosie’s truck landed at an angle, both Reuben and Larry Zane have a clear view inside the cab. It is surprisingly clean, and the woman, who moves slowly, has been balancing a bushel basket of tomatoes on the floorboard between her feet and knees. Not a single fruit has been spilled, and she lugs out the basket without lifting her head and sets it on the ground. She slams the truck door with her behind, and at the sound, the children scamper out of the bed. Their mother doesn’t look up but bends over the bushel of tomatoes while fishing in her pocket. She pulls out a rubber band, and snaps back her hair.

Mary Jo, who stopped concentrating on her glass the moment the truck stopped, studies the woman. Like her children, the woman can feel eyes upon her and glances up, meeting Mary Jo’s gaze, but neither acknowledges the other. It’s clear by Mary Jo’s expression what she’s thinking — doesn’t that woman know what causes children? — and Mary Jo returns her attention to the small glassware, scrutinizing it for any stray stickers that might say “Japan.”

The woman is unaffected by the disdain and returns her attention to the tomatoes. It was a wild ride, and she lifts each one carefully, searching for just one bruise. She puts them back in and sighs contentedly.

“Everything all right, Dolores?” Rosie shouts. His wife nods, her smile stretching as tightly as the rubber band.

“Not a single one has been marred and tomatoes are so thin-skinned.”

No one is really certain to whom she’s speaking, for Dolores looks at Mary Jo but Mary Jo doesn’t look at her.

Rosie has been telling them about a gigantic swap meet he once attended at Washington Square Courthouse in Virginia, but interrupts himself when he sees the men’s eyes have strayed. All of his children, including the youngest, are racing for the river as though running for redemption, already they are halfway to the treeline.

“Jade, Hannah, Raylyn, and you, too, Jason,” he bellows, then spits out a brown blob so unsightly that even he has the grace to cover it with his boot. “Get back to the truck and give Mommy a hand with them bushels. And you, Arabella Raine, come to Daddy and see this tree. It’s sprouting Elvis instead of fruit!”

Elvis, free of fat and guile

He slaps his thigh, but only Larry Zane joins in the laughter. He turns to the men again and begins to speak of his youngest daughter. “Arabella Raine. What a name. But I let Dolores name her because I named all the rest and she’s our last. Just look at my wife. Pretty as a peach when I married her, but she’s ready for retirement now.” He laughs as if a joke has been played at his expense, which in the long run cost him nothing, then stops, casting a glance at Mary Jo.

The children have almost reached their mother, but she doesn’t lift her head. She’s still working the bushel, putting the best tomatoes on top. The children approach in a queue, but for Arabella Raine who, ignoring her father, goes to the spot where she dropped her pacifier, wipes it off on her shorts, and sticks it in her mouth. She finds a shady spot beside the truck and leans against a tire, working the pacifier.

Other vehicles, their truck beds low with unclaimed treasures, arrive over the course of the afternoon. Rosie stands on stacked cinderblocks, which Larry Zane found in the back of his wagon, and directs traffic, pulling off his cap only when sweat rains down his chest. Reuben keeps to his original position. By late afternoon, two more trucks with produce have spilled in, plus a couple selling genuine Indian jewelry and leathers, and two women in a sensible car with sachets of potpourri and stuffed animals with hides cut from old quilts. A rawboned youth, who could pass for Reuben’s twin, has bought a dazzling array of hubcaps bargain priced at five dollars or less, depending on their condition or whether they were stolen.

A crowd gathers, sparse as the tree leaves but moving.

The flea market might have started this way — maybe not. Reuben’s twin could have arrived first, filling the tree branches with hubcaps while the real Reuben laid his Elvis teeshirts on plastic in the sun. Or the women with the sachets and stuffed animals might have stopped first, preferring to try their luck in the open field instead of outside the Dollar Store at the strip mall.

However it happened, it now happens every weekend and the field is full of buyers, sellers, and seekers. A truck selling corn dogs, Frito pies, funnel cakes and soft drinks feeds them.

Yet at this moment, the field, now named Miller’s Bottom, lies silvered in the moonlight. The crickets have been joined by cicadas, which sing loudly from the tree line. Another low-bellied animal scrabbles in the undergrowth; again, headlights burn and disappear.

If one were to stand here long enough, as a child or a contemplative might, it would be possible by a trick of the imagination to make things appear as they are not. The cans filling the tire marks might become hard diamonds and the ruts turn to roads which, if followed, might lead to other worlds.

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