(Just another Appalachian novel, to keep Dee Cyrus Henderson satisfied)
It is 1986 and the flat ground along Route 60, which will someday be Mill Creek Crossing, a Covenant Community, lies silvered in the moonlight, a rutted field of tire marks, wrappers, and cans.
A low-bellied animal rattles a bush and heads for the two-lane, only to freeze at sudden headlights and a blaring horn. The ensuing thud is quick, soft and wet; the car whizzes by so fast, it sounds as though its tires have skimmed water.
There is a river in the distance, a small branch of the Guyandotte running behind the treelike on the field’s far side, but it has been a dry July and the bed only emanates a dampness, creating a muddy chill in the air.
There is nothing here but flattened weeds and clumps of blade grass with jagged edges, quick to raise welts or draw blood. Yet, when the vehicles pull in for the flea market on the weekends, most of the children spill out barefoot. No one knows how the flea market got started or why it should come to this field, but it might have happened like this:
A young man from Chelyan, West Virginia, is driving down Route 60 in a tan Chevy pick-up. His name is Reuben Saunders and he’s rolled down both windows; the only sounds within the cab are the wind and the roar of an engine. A chain link dog collar dangles from the rear view mirror; on the last loop is attached an oblong piece of wood on which Reuben has burned his name in large letters, leaving a flourish at the end. He made it in shop the day before he dropped out of high school.
Reuben’s eyes are the blue of an indeterminate distance and he doesn’t blink or tear at the whipping wind. He squints steadfastly at the road, foot pressed to the gas with the urgency of a need unmet. Suddenly, he turns the wheel with an abruptness that defies natural law; it’s as if he scented the field before sighting it, reeling the rest of his senses in. The cords in his neck jump before his eyes move.
The truck is now stopped, straddling the graveled berm and the edge of the field. A gnarled apple tree is approximately three feet behind his left bumper. Reuben sprawls behind the wheel. The key chain sways, causing the wood to knock against the windshield. Reuben watches it until he can no longer stand hearing his name repeated and removes the chain from the mirror, stuffing it into the glove compartment.
He lights a cigarette, but after only a few draws, throws it out the window. He opens the door and leans from the cab. He sweeps the seat free of cans and miscellaneous debris. He pushes the magazines under the seat; he kicks the cans under the truck. Though he now stands perfectly still, Reuben carries an air of perpetual motion about him, as if a slight upset might jar another Reuben out of his skin.
Reuben narrows his eyes and studies the tree. Its drooping limbs bear scant patches of leaves, not green but slate-colored due to the dust, and no fruit. He hoists himself into the bed of the pick-up and squats, lifting a square, lumpy bundle wrapped in garbage bags and knotted with twine. He throws it over the side of the truck so that it lands flat, then he neatly jumps over the side of the bed.
Now, he hesitates, watching as cars whiz down the two-lane, glancing at the road kills, turning back to study the black plastic glinting in the sun. The field behind him is clear. He drops to his knees, digging in his jeans for a penknife, and carefully slices the plastic.
Inside is a stack of Elvis Presley tee-shirts. The King, alive again on hot pink, smiles from the top. Reuben smiles back. Of the four poses printed on the pink, yellow, orange and lime green tee-shirts, this one is his favorite. Elvis smiles face forward, free from fat and guile. This is exactly the way he would look, Reuben decides, if he were a star.
He rummages under the stack and brings out a clump of wire hangers, then cuts the twine that binds the tee shirts with his knife. He does this blade upward, but when the sharp edge rises, it is at least three inches from his face.
He unfolds the first tee shirt and slips it on a hanger. He walks to the apple tree, selecting a limb slightly above eye level. He bends the neck of the hanger until it bites the bark. Reuben steps back and grins as Elvis gently gyrates in the breeze.
Reuben turns to the stack he left on the ground and freezes. The wind, which caused the hot pink Elvis to flap, has also raised a cloud of dust around the rest of his merchandise. He’s startled into action by a flock of birds overhead.
He carries the cut batch in his arms carefully, as if he were carrying a bride across a threshold, and lays it at the base of the tree. He gathers the biggest rocks he can find from the berm to weigh down the edges of the plastic, then makes quick work of hanging the shirts. His rapidity doesn’t exclude precision; there is not one color overdone in the balance of the tree.
Reuben kicks the rocks away from the plastic, then wads the garbage bag into a ball, throwing it in the direction of the river. The breeze scuttles the plastic across the field, changing its shape time and again until it reaches the tree line in the form of an enormous turtle with a nearly severed head.
He returns to the truck bed and lifts out a camp stool, the canvas seat striped green and white. Spine straight, he crosses one booted foot over the other and reaches in his shirt pocket for his smokes. The pack is empty. He wads it into a ball and throws it, but the wind has vanished and the crumpled pack remains in sight. The cars continue to roll past and he nods at every one.
The first couple who turn in are fresh from an estate sale in Olive Hill, Kentucky; they claim their station wagon is loaded with antique glass. The woman nods at Reuben, then plucks the car keys from her husband’s hand and unlocks the tailgate, sliding boxes forward. The man introduces himself as Larry Z. Rue and offers Reuben a cigarette, which he accepts. The men make small talk until the woman interrupts.
“Larry Zane,” she says, flatly.
Larry mumbles something under his breath and then says clearly, “Reuben, this is my wife, Mary Jo.”
“Please to meet you,” says Reuben, and Mary Jo nods before her eyes again fasten on her husband.
Larry Zane goes to the wagon and begins to load boxes with the expression of a man who’s earned a bad back while rearranging furniture for woman. Once the boxes are on the ground, he brings out an aluminum table, pulls back a shaft underneath and, with his foot, taps at each table leg until a click tells him it’s in place.
“Over there,” says Mary Jo, pointing to a level sport farther back in the field, and Larry lifts the table, aluminum legs thrust out, with a piteous expression which his wife ignores.
“Is this all right?” he asks before placing the table legs on the ground.
“No, back a bit. There,” she says, and then, “Right there. Now, help me with the rest so I can get the table set.”
Larry, so relieved he’s dropped his pained expression, walks alongside his wife until they reach the station wagon. Mary Jo gets a nubby pink tablecloth from the front seat and drapes it over the box she carries. Once at the table, she spreads her cloth with the swift motions of one preparing for a magic act while Larry goes back for the third box.
“That’s all for now,” she says but before Larry can put it down, adds, “Did you remember the cash box?”
“Right under your chair,” he says, and turns, hurrying with a gait that is surprising, going back to the station wagon where he brings out another folding chair. He goes to sit beside Reuben and offers him a smoke. They light up together and the two men sit companionably, watching as the cars whiz down the road.
“Prime location,” says Larry Zane, finally.
Reuben nods. “Thought so myself.”
“Yep,” Larry Zane continues, “Everything is chicken but the bone.”
Larry cranes his head over his shoulder and watches as his wife unwraps their valuables. Mary Jo takes each piece from the crinkled newspapers as though it were a precious treasure. She works carefully and fast; soon the table is laden with sun-filled glasses, silver-capped salt and pepper shakers, fruit bowls, banana dishes and salt cellars. Then she begins to arrange each piece just so, placing the taller pieces in the back with the smaller in front, turning each piece of glass at just the right angle so their etched sides show.
Larry Zane leans toward Reuben with an air of confidentiality. “We just came from an estate sale, haven’t even been home. The deceased was a judge. What’s behind you has value. Trouble is, people don’t want value anymore, they just want–” He breaks off, seeing the Elvis tee shirts cavorting in the breeze. “Anyway, I told Mary Jo we’ll sell everything first chance we get whether we make anything or not. I don’t want to pack it around.”
“Good point,” Reuben watches his last smoke ring dissolve in the air. “But I’m one of them kind that don’t appreciate nothing. Mommy’s house was full of old glass and crocheted stuff. I grew up around old.”
“You still have it?” Larry asks, shaking out another cigarette, and when Reuben hesitates, says, “Go ahead, I have a carton.”
“Naw,” says Reuben and takes, not one, but two smokes. “I took everything down to the dump after she died and left it there. Along with some cast iron porch furniture. Just the sight of them little chairs made my butt hurt. What good is something if it’s only to look at? I’m a man for comfort,” he says firmly, and lights up.
“We agree on that much,” says Larry, rearranging the cushion he saved for himself.
Their camaraderie is interrupted by the sound of squealing brakes, staccato beeps, and the sight of children being thrown forward in the back of a rusty maroon pick up amongst baskets of produce, and a hand, a hairy hand, motioning for the car behind to pass. The second driver, in a small silver compact, is furious and can’t quit laying on the horn; he also appears to be spitting at the windshield. The truck turns, the hand waves goodbye in a negligent manner, then pummels the field, its oversized tires plowing patches of hard earth.
Larry Zane grips the arms of his chair. “God Almighty,” he breathes.
Mary Jo, hearing the ruckus, has stepped in front of her table with outspread arms and a formidable expression. Death may be coming in the form of a rusted pick-up with unmatched doors, but even so she’ll protect her valuables. She and Larry were never blessed with children.
The driver continues to take the field in a series of short stops and starts, the engine’s stubbornness mixed with cursing. A woman also sits in the cab, silent and thin-lipped. The truck stops far enough from Mary Jo that not even the most delicate of her glassware is disturbed. Whether this courtesy is from the recalcitrant engine or the man’s own design is unclear and no one asks.
The man gets out and slams the door, which is light blue. He is huge, clad in bib overalls with no shirt beneath, the first two buttons unsnapped on either side. He takes off a psychedelic ball cap, revealing a mat of thick, dark hair, and approaches the men, swinging both arms. As he gets closer, Reuben feels a wash of emotion which leaves him both envious and uncertain. He doesn’t know if he could have pulled that off himself.
The man stops, his shadow covering both occupants of the chairs and says, “I’m Theodore Roosevelt Vance. What time is the flea market? I don’t want my produce to wilt.”