I tell Cass to help her younger sister Polly with her long division so I can sit on the Milloways’ back porch and smoke and watch the river move fallen branches and trash out of town. The light bulb is burnt out, so I wobble on the edges of the steps like a fat ballerina. There are constellations of lights up and down the block. They snake up the river like a lighted path, or like an alert energy, something sentient. God in a small town.
I haven’t babysat the Milloway girls in a few months, but I was available on short notice. Yesterday afternoon, Mrs. Harriet Porter was shot by a vagrant as she was leaving her dog at the groomer, and she bled to death in the middle of the parking lot. Mrs. Milloway owns the grooming salon, but even if she didn’t she would be at the wake right now, because that’s how people here are.
Lots of folks probably think that’s beautiful, the way small towns manage crises, as if we’re incorporated communities of better angels. I’d invite those people to drop dead in that parking lot next to Mrs. Porter, see how quick we shovel over them, too.
I take a cigarette from the crumpled pack, and put it between my lips. I’m old enough to smoke, in case you’re about to say something tart. I’m an 18-year-old woman who likes to take a drag now and then, and it’s no crime in these parts. My mama’s first job at 15 was putting in tobacco at a big farm in Ahoskie. She used to hand leaves to the loopers, who would tie it to sticks and hang it in the barn to cure, so when you hear I’m out here smoking, just tell yourself I’m paying tribute and get over it.
Behind me, the sliding glass door whistles on its track. Cass Milloway pads out onto the porch. She’s got the daintiest walk, for a girl so tall. She’s 12, and every time I’m here she’s glued to me. She’s got nothing for or against me. She wants me to know she thinks of me more as a peer and not her babysitter.
“What’s Polly doing?” I ask her. I suck the end of my cigarette and the ash goes bright.
“Still on her math homework.” Cass sits beside me on the steps. She smells like Ivory soap and wears soccer shorts. She’s thin as a blade of straw; I bet my thigh is bigger around than her waist. “Is your mama at the wake?” she asks.
“My mama’s at work,” I tell her, something that would only be true if someone paid my mama to nurse white wine and watch reruns.
“I think it’s awful what happened,” Cass says. She folds herself and half and grabs her toes. Her hair falls forward. I see the pale tip of her ear. “I heard my mama on the phone. She said this man just walked up to Mrs. Porter, and there was a pop, something real uneventful, and she didn’t fall back or anything. She just sorta drifted to the ground. Mama saw it all.”
I can’t say anything that will make her feel like the world isn’t screwy, so I stare at the dark river as if it’s worth looking at. Mosquitoes swarm around a spray floodlight next door as if they are trying to carry it away.
After a moment, Cass says, “Do you know if they caught the guy who shot Mrs. Porter?”
“I don’t think so, Cass.”
“Where do you think he came from?”
Cass doesn’t understand a thing about things. Her mother teaches Sunday school, which is how I came to know their family; I used to grab for fixes, and I used to want people to like me. I ask her, “When you were in fifth grade, Mrs. Ingold took your class on a field trip to the bread factory, right?”
“And they showed you the loaves coming off the conveyor belt and how they got bagged and boxed and shipped out to the Winn Dixie?”
“I guess so.” She looks up at me, her features mashed together in confusion.
“And did they show you how that bread machine sometimes goes screwy and spits out a deformed loaf, sends it sliding into another area of the machine where it still gets bagged and a lady stickers it: Irregular?”
“It goes to the bakery outlet store. My mom shops there.”
“Well, when I went I remember a loaf of wheat bread coming down the belt, turned the wrong way, and tumbling the long way until it hit the wall of a chute and got caught in the gears. Got all mushed and gummy. Shut the whole works right down.”
I want to tell someone who isn’t Cass that there are saints, sad sacks, and troublemakers, and we all bake in the same oven. Some of us don’t make it down the chute. We live across the river, and our mothers drink, and our only choices in life are whether to be damaged and to disappear or wreck the machinery.
She’s still looking at me, so I offer her a cigarette. Sometimes she takes one, and sometimes she won’t.