It was nobody’s fault the tractor died. That hydraulic seal was probably the original. The old man was too cheap to fix anything before it went. Maintenance meant kicking things. After Dell collected his share of abuse, he walked away and let Mr. Hacker curse the machine and the deity. At least he was predictable. Dell drove off to the John Deere place over in Mount Joy to get a replacement valve.
You know what’s funny? All the fancy names and abbreviations they have now for describing crazy people. There’s a spectrum they say, like for canned olives—green, black, pitted, stuffed, large, extra-large, jumbo, giant. Hello, there are as many varieties of whackos as there are whackos. Make your own list. Start with your family and move on to your neighbors. Aunt Garlynda and her thing about cats. Cousin Steve and why he’s in jail. Charlie Pundick and his zipper thing and why he’s not allowed in town. You don’t need fancy diagnoses to make allowances. Dell wondered when Steve was going to get out. Mr. Hacker was just being himself, a shit head.
Anyway, as long as he was going to be in Mount Joy, Dell would stop in to see how Holly was doing. It had been a while since he’d last checked in on her. Holly had once sworn she would never forgive Dell for his getting married to someone else on her birthday, but that was so long ago she sometimes forgot it. Or maybe she just pretended to forget it, just like he pretended to forget things, for simplicity’s sake.
— * —
Holly hated freezer work. But if she didn’t do it, no one else would. And it had to get done or she would get blamed. She was a shitty boss, hated giving orders. She never wanted to be a boss. It was like a punishment for being there longest. She was surprised when the new guy Troy came in to help her without being told or asked. She was glad for his name tag, because she couldn’t remember his name.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on register two?” she asked.
“It’s slow out there. Thought I’d give you a hand.”
She was doing dairy. “Soda,” she said. She was wearing the down jacket she kept at work just for this duty. Troy was only in his short-sleeve, chain-issued, uniform shirt. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked.
“From Minnesota,” he said. “Don’t mind the cold.” He hauled a case of bottles over and started slipping them into their slots. “I won’t say it makes me homesick.”
Homesick, Holly thought. You have to leave home to be homesick. Well, that was one affliction she’d never known. She had never been out of Lancaster County long enough to have to do her laundry anywhere else. She could see through the freezer’s glass doors, past the necks of the quart containers of two-percent-fat milk, the few customers in the store. She didn’t know who they were—no name tags—but she knew them, knew them the way you sort of remembered but can’t quite pull up the names of fellow mourners at a funeral. Collectively, they were her people; individually, they were nobody.
“Never been to Minnesota,” she said.
“You haven’t missed anything.”
Holly saw him when he came in the door. It was hard to miss Dell. First off, he was big, almost like another species of human. Think Clydesdale. But as big as he was, he always wore work clothes that were slightly too large for him. God knows where he found them. Carhart’s giant catalog? His purposefully loose clothes masked how big he really was. Then, there was the hat. Not always the same hat—he went through them quickly—but a hat that announced that its wearer was not sure whether he was a cowboy or a farmer. He looked good, healthy, right down to his graying ponytail. What would Dell be doing all the way over here on a weekday?
“Finish up here, Troy. I haven’t done the ice cream or the eggs. Then take a break.”
Luckily, there were three customers in front of Dell at cash register number one. She’d have time. She ditched her jacket on the pile of empty crates beside the outside freezer room door and went from that artificial winter to the blast of concrete-heated summer air outside. She had her car keys in her pocket. She’d go for a ride somewhere. The store could take care of itself for a while.
— * —
When you think of other times, say a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago, you know it would look different and smell different, but have you ever thought about how it would sound different? No traffic sounds or car horns. No weed eaters, lawn mowers, or leaf blowers. No sirens or airplanes or trucks beeping as they backed up from the Turkey Hill Minit Market. No rap music thumping from the car beside you at the West Main stop light. Horses didn’t make much sound when they were working. Holly’s car air-con wasn’t working, so her windows were open and she could hear it all. Holly liked to think that she had been born a hundred years too late, that she belonged in another, more peaceful, quiet time. That thought was a comfort, an excuse.
What are the odds? Well, your odds can change, can’t they? And the longer you’re around, the harder it is for the odds to change. When you start out, a win or a loss can change your odds dramatically, but when you have played the game long enough—life is a game, isn’t it? —each loss or win counts for less and becomes next to meaningless, almost the same. Holly couldn’t be gone from the store for too long. She’d drive up to the park on Little Chiques Creek and go for a walk up the creek. It should be pretty low; it hadn’t rained in weeks. Sometimes it was high; sometimes it was low. What were the odds? The creek bed had no say in it. It was just a passive channel for a foreign element. Would Dell ever go away?
— * —
Dell didn’t see why it was such a big deal. All he had done was go to find Holly. He figured the kid who came out of the freezer was lying when he said she wasn’t there. Why would he lie? Who knows? The girl at the cash register had said Holly was back there. People just lie, that’s all, say whatever works best for them in the moment. Hell, he did that all the time. Everybody did. Maybe the kid lied because he said customers weren’t allowed in the freezer. Big fucking deal. No one tried to stop him.
Dell didn’t know if someone called the cop or if he just showed up as a customer, but they got it sorted out. Dell wasn’t trying to rob the place. He wasn’t disturbing the peace. He had just stopped by to say hi to a friend. He wasn’t trespassing, as it was a public establishment. Dell said he was sorry for any misunderstanding, but he wasn’t. He smiled, played dumb, and shook the cop’s hand like they were old buddies when he left. But he thought him a total prick. Dell went to Beanie’s for a brew.
— * —
There weren’t any mountains near Mount Joy. It was just a name. Holly had once heard that the place was named after a ship, but that didn’t make much sense either, as the only piece of water around was Little Chiques Creek that wouldn’t float anything bigger than a canoe. But there were other strange-named towns around Lancaster County—Bareville, Blue Ball, Intercourse, Bird in Hand, even a Paradise. Her mother had come from Paradise. It wasn’t.
Holly didn’t live in Mount Joy any more. She had moved out to Maytown. That was out, not up. She liked it there. She was stranger enough there that her neighbors ignored her. Holly never just did things anymore. She gave herself instructions, then decided whether to follow them or not. It was simpler that way, with a chain of command to obey or ignore. That day, when she got home to her place in Maytown, she followed her internal instructions and watered the garden. It was like a refugee camp of wilted plants. It was a bitch having no one else to blame that on, or to confess it to. Birds or something had gotten to the tomatoes.
It was maybe true that the restraining order she’d taken out on Dell after Maggie left him had expired or whatever, gotten forgotten. She had never reported him when he did show up, but she had warned him. It had struck her that afternoon when she was at the creek what a strange name Chiques was. She had grown up with it, never thought about it. Maye Indian? But it sounded Spanish. She dropped the hose in the raised tomato bed and went in doors to look it up. She did this without obeying any internal instructions. She wondered what it meant in Spanish.
On her laptop she went first to a Spanish-English dictionary. The word chiques was the present subjunctive form of the Spanish chicar, to be drunk, in the second person singular. You ought to be drunk. She preferred that to the Wikipedia info that the name came from the local Indian word for place of crayfish. She remembered to go back out and turn off the hose.
— * —
The most irritating thing about getting older was how often he had to piss. Dell had to pull off twice on the way home to let his lizard, after just a few beers. That second brain below his belt still ruled his life even if it wasn’t about being horny. Of course, the Deere shits didn’t have the valve he needed. “Superseded,” the snippy little oriental clerk had said. “Have to order.” Slants in Mount Joy?
Holly had his number blocked, so he couldn’t call. That sucked. He wanted to call and tell her he’d stopped by to say hello but she was gone. She was on his mind now. Something the kid had said, “I guess she didn’t want to see you.” Little prick. At home, he cracked a beer and went out back to whittle at the chair that he was working on. The fluorescent light brought on all the bugs. He didn’t mind them. The light was what they liked. They were there for it, not him. They were company. As usual, he spent as much time sharpening his knife as using it. He was three legs in, each one different.
Oh well, fuck Holly. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to see him. She was always touchy about how she looked. Maybe she didn’t like the way her hair looked today. It wasn’t like he could have called and told her he was coming by. Dell wondered where she was living now. She wasn’t at where she used to be. He’d swung by there, some negro family.
Two days later, Dell got a call that the valve was in, and he headed back to Mount Joy.
— * —
Sometimes Holly just had to get off the meds, free herself from feeling artificial. It had hit her on her hike up Little Chiques Creek. Here she was playing hooky on a fine—if hot—summer afternoon, in one of her favorite childhood spots, and she wasn’t feeling anything. Everything seemed flat, two-dimensional, ho-hum. That’s what the meds did. They didn’t let her feel. They kept her calm by making life boring. No ups or downs, no cutting edges, no pangs of joy. She had decided to stop taking them then. She’d stop taking orders from the pills. She’d be fine, better.
By Friday it was working. It was like she had hormones again. Before going to work, she washed her hair and fussed with it. She put on earrings and minimal makeup, lip gloss, her best jeans. She could still get into them. Troy noticed and whistled. Maybe that’s what guys did in Minnesota. When stocking cigarettes she swiped a pack of Pall Mall Blue 100s. She craved them again.
After work, Holly hung at the store while a thunderstorm passed. It was that time of year. The storm excited and pleased her. She was all dressed up. Why head home to Maytown? Off the meds she could drink again. She’d have a drink and dinner at Beanie’s. It was payday after all, and she was just a working girl. “Girls just want to have fu-un.”
— * —
Dell was sure they overcharged him, but there was nothing he could do about it. That pissed him off. Old man Hacker would have a shitfit at the price. “Goddamn commies,” he’d say. Hacker blamed everything on the communists. The valve was made in China. It was baking in Mount Joy, even as the sun was sinking. All that concrete and brick. The thunder shower had just added steam. It was unhealthy hot inside his pickup. He went to Mosby’s Pub. But it being Friday happy hour, there was no place to park, so he headed up East Main to Joy’s Tavern or Beanie’s. There were plenty of places to drink in Mount Joy. Was that the joy of the place? It was crowded and noisy at Joy’s, the younger crowd, but Beanie’s was just up the block. He walked there.
Beanie’s was jammed, too, but with an older, quieter crowd. The way humans herded. Dell found a seat at a table in the shade on the back patio, avoiding the crowd inside packed like cows in a corral. He ordered a beer from a big-breasted waitress with tattooed arms. He remembered when only sailors and ex-cons had tattoos. When she brought him his first, he ordered his second. Dell was the only person there wearing a hat.
The back door to the bar was maybe a dozen yards away, with lots of folks in between, but he saw her when she came out. Holly was looking good. She didn’t see him. She was turned away, in conversation with the man she had come out with. They threaded their way between people to an open gate onto the street, the way Dell had come in. The dude didn’t look like anything special. Maybe she was living with that guy now, why she had moved out. Maybe he’s why she hadn’t wanted to see him. Well, you move away, and people move on. Damn, she looked good.
Dell could watch them through the gateway as they walked up the street. Holly was in front, the man behind. She stopped to turn and talk to him. She gestured one way, he another. They’d come in separate cars, Dell guessed. The man approached her, gesturing. He made a grab for Holly’s arm, and she pushed him away. She started running up the block. It wasn’t until the man started chasing her that Dell got up and plowed through the crowd toward the gate.
The man caught Holly, and then Dell caught them both. The man went down easy enough and then took off. Dell stayed with Holly.
— * —
It wasn’t a diary. She felt no obligation to it. It was just a notebook where now and then she let her inner voices have their say. It was a way to silence them. That night, back in Maytown, she wrote in it:
What is a mate? Why do so many people have them? Is it like a pet you
can have sex with? Or is it like a cult of one? An obsession? Property?
Or just a competition—trophy hunting? But men call their close friends mate.
As a verb it means only one thing. If it was all just erogenous hormones,
there would be no need for bonding. Helpmate, that’s a fine old matrimonial
term. Makes more sense. Scratch my back. Pass the salt.
She stopped. There was a fly. She hated flies. She’d have to kill it before she could continue. She had her swatter. Fly survival relied upon erratic flight and quick departures. She had read somewhere that they took-off backwards. Dell had been so polite tonight. He had walked her to her car and complimented her appearance. She was so embarrassed. She always felt so small beside him. The fly disappeared.
She couldn’t go on. That inner voice, the spinster one, had vanished like the fly. She’d go back on her meds. She had forgotten this part, about being scared. Why did Dell scare her so? There was the past, but the past had died. She hadn’t told him where she lived now, that she had left Mount Joy, just like he had. He hadn’t asked.