By J. Allen Carpenter
It wasn’t as if anyone got Hurt. In his weather-worn, leather-torn brogues his momma kept of his daddy’s. Wandering soundlessly, aside from the crunch of highways and backroads between the sole and the Earth. Nobody really got the man, just the image of a forward walking, hungry-looking young feller, thumb in the wind and shirt flapping a couple days until a wash.
On a gravel path in a Georgia country town, he blew into off the fall leaves and humid air trickling down the US. Hunched over shining legs on a dirt pillow, a girl meets his eyes on the red road, looking away quickly like the hiding rabbits in bushes assuredly. The young woman stared at the road’s life story, the constant foot traffic fleeting from one direction to the other; the endless consumption of distance, time, and pace. If not for the buttons on the ripped and red cloth, he would’ve thought she was draped in a torn bedsheet, wrapped around her body cicada style; a little husk of a past life, something she used to be.
“Everything alright?” He asked.
Silently, she stirred in the sand a bit, cooking a philosophy with spices of the hot Georgia sun. The sheer weight of heat coming down across her breast like an iron bar kept the breath from her lips. He, with his lips dry and cracked, but still talking, reached down to lift that weight off her chest. His ‘everything’ in sack dangling from a stick over his shoulder, holding the weight of his whole life across his Mississippi deltoids. Shirt sleeves wrinkling under the bow of a vagary staff, yielding to his attention at the girl.
“Looks like you’ve had a day. You alright? Need some food?”
Doe-eyes down range pierce the young nomad hunter. Cept’ he’s not hunting, he’s barely fishing, he’s just trying to help. Her stomach eventually nods for her in rumbling, and the feller helps her up. He tells her she should change her clothes if she’s gonna go out, but she just stands there on the road; not moving a muscle. From the dangling sack, a spare flannel from his back is gifted to the woman who’s clearly taken a hard time to heart. Cloth spins on thin frames like a Viking ship ride at the carnival, halting when around the young woman’s shoulders, covering up the detached linen and clips.
They both just started walking, never saying a word. Her following him and he following the sounds of civilization. Up ahead a young boy messes with the basket on his bike, either retrieving a jacket or just now putting one up.
“Say there young feller, where might a man and lady get somethin’ to eat round here?”
The boy’s freckled face met Hurts. His lips dropped with the sticky bangs on his forehead after he had stopped fighting the breeze with the spokes of the bike.
“Say there! Yoo-Hoo? Anybody home? Do you know where I can eat something nice?”
“Are you my momma’s friend, Mister?”
“Huh?” Hurt looked at the boy puzzled. “Little feller I don’t know anybody here. You alright? You need some water or somethin’?”
“You look just like him.” the boy recoiled a bit, the limited gaze towards that man ignited one of them frantic little kiddy dances one of them do when they want to leave, deep in the toes of that child.
“There’s a diner up around the bend”, Freckles said.
“Which side do I take?”
“Okay, thank you kindly.”
The boy slowly led his stray bicycle home at a trot. As the two people pass, the girl turns to look at the boy. His frightened gaze submits, and hops on his bike, riding cautiously away from the two. Hurt suddenly jumps to a spot on the road, bending to retrieve a treasure. A thin little tube of intrigue.
“Little guy musta dropped it,” he pocketed the cigarette, “He don’t need it anyhow. Save him some hurt later.”
Shadows mute the passing forest floors down the backroads she inhabits. They walk for a good fifteen minutes before they reach a diner sewn onto a gas station. Inside they sit down and stare at each other for a good minute before a round waitress pushes fixin’s on em’.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“I’d hope for a coffee. A pie for the girl.”
There was a calm quiet; like those momentary silences that follow fellers after saying the wrong thing at the wrong place. Those silent exchanges between a local and a tourist, saying “now why in the hell did you do that?”. These glances and happenstances pass by the wanderer, but now, he has no clue as to why the sudden heading of this simple process.
“What’s your name?”, the waitress addressed
“Doran. Doran Hurt. Do I know you?”
“You look awfully familiar. Though, the name ain’t hittin’ me.”
“It happens. I’m not from here, so I don’t know who you’d think I was.”
Again, that silence fell leaf-heavy upon the diner floor of an antisocial autumn. The woman adjusts her metal clip tucked between her band across her diner-lady dress.
“I’ll get your food then.”
He and the girl patiently examine oily tiles and frayed, compacted cushions across the establishment. His hands scraping the top the marked-up and worn side of his seat while her hands remain placid; one hand picking at the deep gash made into the fibers of the cushion comforting her. Fiddling an uncomfortable tune with an orchestra of painful instruments, colored by the white tiles of space beyond her attention.
They both just sat there. For Hurt, the inaction was more impressive than the girl’s, which was already understandable on a humanitarian level. He exercised his silence; examining the old salt latched to her cheekbones from a couple long hours earlier as the sky shifted from black to turquoise, in the dirt, crying like a babe in the woods. Inflammation setting in around the nostrils and the eyes; redness found akin, but not the same as the handprint wreath wrapped around her neck and collarbone, covered by his tattered flannel that at least looks like it was born to be tattered and foolish; not like her dress, which was gorgeous and thus destroyed. Tiny fingers laced in her lap, every so often, would release and move a piece of the flannel tighter around her much too small frame. All were perfect except for the tiniest finger on her left hand. It was bent like a hook turning into all the other perfect tiny fingers as if to ask, “what gives? Why am I all sigoggled?”. She used it like a hook to grab cloth around her shoulders; her perfect tiny shoulders.
The lady came back, arms full of consumables, deadpan and bouncy.
“Coffee”, she said as she placed it before the man.” And the pie.” As she placed two pieces before them. The young girl fell her eyebrows at the piece mirroring hers, resting before the man in front of her.
“You look an awful lot like a guy I used to know in school. What school did you go to? If you don’t mind.”
“I didn’t ma’am. Government didn’t reach my house I guess.”
“You don’t say? That musta been some luck then.”
“It had its conveniences. But I never learned what that word meant, so who knows.”
“That boy used to tease me all the time.”
“All the time?”
“Why lord yes; The Devil. He was a piss ant all the way up to high school.” She looked off at her composure as it steadily receded into the window pane and further down the road. She went to darting around the diner like it was her job to look disturbed, and like she didn’t want to keep talking about the things she wanted to keep talking about. Then she’d come barreling back their way, sucking in a stout breath to lay out eventual details.
“This one time, all of us was at the lake after school. We went over to swim at a friend’s place. And he was there with his friends, and he just. We were all in swimming outfits and he just wouldn’t leave us be. You know? What an ass.”
She trailed off looking into the grime of a neighboring table, tackling the off-kilter litter to get away from her rant’s end. Eventually, she pulled back her activity and looked around before tucking her cleaning rag and going behind the counter into the kitchen.
The girl watched Hurt toss his calloused hands from palm to palm; interrogating the tiles of his face and the play around the wrinkles of eyes, determining whether or not he was real. His hands always slightly shook; he fiddled with himself lightly all the time. Not too obvious in ways, but enough that if you were looking for it, you could see he wasn’t entirely comfortable all the time.
“He just, I wasn’t even wanting to talk with him and he’d been drinking.” The sudden collapse away from her vacant staring, and into the woman’s story again, startled the girl.
“And he just wouldn’t leave me alone. And he just.” She trailed off again, emotionally hiking away from the main roads, beginning to heave dry sobs out of the empty air.
Hurt laid a hand on the woman’s thin, wrinkled digits. Their eyes met and stayed trembling with hands on the table. A great deal was said between the silent air separating the two human beings. Eyes staying still, the way two bodies do when they have said enough and can just look deep at each other without having to think about nothing because they know each other. She smiled and wiped her eyes with the freehand wet with dish soap. He released the other from his gentle prison.
“Y’all have a nice day.”
The girl had not eaten her pie yet. So they sat alone together for another long while. Neither one talking the rest of their dinner. When they finished, Hurt got up to leave and ask for a check, but the waitress behind the counter waved them on. Unsteadily, behind the gaunt form of the man, the young woman followed him, peering into the avoiding eyes of the waitress, lost in a consistently avoiding floater, always in the direction opposite of the young girl and the wanderer. A stiff arm purchased outside air from the glass entry-way, further garnering rewards, by reaching into his lucky pocket, pulling out a raisiny cigarette. They passed a man going into the diner; fedora, suit, underneath the fancy robes flew coveralls close to his old cavernous body.
Hurt stopped the man and said, “Hey fella, got a light?”
Squinted eyes narrow the cigarette in the young man’s mouth, then the rest of the smooth-featured face.
“Do I know you?”, the old man said.
“Don’t think so. Got a light do ya?”
“I swear I’d known you.” the old man clutches his jaw, recounting a time when it was tougher, and less compacted by impactful nights at a bar. He reaches in his coat and withdraws a match. The impacts flicker across his eyes as the young man lights the stick on his leather soles.
“Thank ya’.” The girl matches Hurt’s confident strut in foot-placement, just not stride; still watching the man slowly regaining his own attention, reeling it in from the ghost of an unwanted assailing.
After that, they walked around the lesser part of the great state of Georgia a bit. For a while, they didn’t say a word to each other. The sun was setting and neither minded the coming descent of temperature. Sweat perspiring from their bodies late into the stroll could fill a small pool, but when the sun retreated the stars came out and basked them in cool light, misting the salty water from them with cool grace. She didn’t say anything the whole time; just cradled her frail arms in a flannel much too big for her and walked beside the man who gave her a pie. Strength was fading in Hurt’s exercise of silence, giving way to the heavy burden of curiosity.
“You know,” Hurt said, “Most people… Most people don’t mind talking to me about things. Specific things. Things that hurt em. Now, before I saw you, an old man gave me some coins for a telephone I wound up not having to use, all because I spoke real nice to him. And you just saw that lady give us some food. Now I’m not saying you have to do the same; If you don’t wanna say nothin’ that’s fine. I just…I’m just curious now is all. I’m just curious. Because. Usually. I don’t know. I’m not used to it.”
“Why’d you not pay for the food?”
“Well, I mean hell, I’ve got the money. It’s just that, usually, I don’t have to. I don’t know why. It’s just always been that way, for me that is. I’ve been able to go around this whole damn country. See everything on this side of the rock because everyone who ever done looked at me starts thinking something about me, seeing some part of them in me. Or they start thinking they know me, like I’m a ghost. They all look at me and think they know me; when none of em do.”
He caught the shine of her big green eyes in the moonlight. It was striking to him only now because he had not noticed the color swim in them before; only her dress and the pain that
clung to it like the particles of dirt. But now in the pale shining, he can see every color around her.
“I’ve met fellers up in Wizconsin that say they know me. Wizconsin! I don’t know a soul in Wizconsin. And still they either get really mad or they get really sad or they just ball up when they see this mug. Either way, I keep moving around. I keep getting what I need. I’ve never got an empty belly. I mean I ain’t a big boy, but I ain’t starving.”
She smiled, looking at him pat his shirt that fit his boney, wide shoulders, but not quite his stomach.
“It’s just… that’s what happens. It’s a thing of mine. I walk around and everybody tells me what’s hurtin’ em’, what they got outta hurt, how bad their hurt done em’. But, I don’t know these folks. I gotta hear some terrible stuff. I gotta hear about it all if I can’t walk off before they start going like that waitress. Everything you can think of. I ain’t gonna repeat any of it because you can maybe imagine it. But I don't know if I wanna meet anybody who can imagine it. So even if you can… ”
The girl kept walking and watching her feet. Glimpses of her big emeralds shining side view bright like a star on the ground.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is; why ain’t you told me yet? I know, I know that sounds nosey. And you ain’t gotta tell me nothin’; it's not my business. It’s just eating me inside is all. It’s got me wound up you know? I don’t have to know, but you’ve just got me confused. Either you’ve been to literal hell, or hell, I don’t know what.”
The tangled curls on her reddish-brown head unfurled as she raked it from her face, bracing her emerald obelisks to the dark sky. “I don’t know,” the words escaped her before she realized she spoke, “You just don’t bring nothing to my head. Nothing like ‘that ’ I reckon.” They both walked a couple more paces with the conversation lingering behind, waiting to catch up.
“What happened to me today happened before. I don’t know what to say about it other than it’s selfish. I never wanna do it, and when I don’t want to, Pa does me up like this and does it anyway. But, It’s just rude.”
They both walked a bit more in the treelines and shrubs. Hurt standing wooden-Indian straight against the shadows of knotty pines and echoes of barking dogs rustling in leaves.
“He just grabs me all angry like, like a dog with a toy. And he just, just goes ahead with it. I never mind it. It don’t hurt. I never get hurt. Even the first time. It never hurt. But the last time, it seemed too much. Too much throwing things, hitting me with things. Ripping my dress. He was drunk and I just hit him the way he hit me, just on his head instead. And the bottle cave him in just like that. And…and I didn’t mean it. But, he shouldn’t have been acting like that.”
“He gave you them bruises? Do they hurt?”
“Nah. He did, but they don't hurt. Nothing ever hurts.”
“I saw them ribs, they look done up darlin’.”
“They might be.”
“Is that why that pinky finger looks that way?”
“Yeah, I broke it long time ago and didn’t tell Pa until long after, because it didn’t hurt.”
“So, you just don’t feel nothing?”
“No, I feel things I guess. I feel sad, and I get mad. Lord, I’ve never been more torn up than when my dog got hit. And when I met you, I thought of that, but I wasn’t moved to tell you or nothing. I just didn’t think you’d care about it. But no, I don’t feel a lot of it. I don’t feel that hurt. I just feel lost now.”
They walked lost into the woods until the night was in full bloom. His route followed the older footsteps of himself, tracking the back heel towards her home. When they reached the red driveway of her faded white house, they both stopped and analyzed tiny pieces of rock in the sand-dirt.
“Well, If what you say is true; I don’t know what to tell ya. If there's a dead feller in there. I’d say you can call the police. They’d believe you from the bruises. And I guess if you’re okay, then I can just headon.”
“Can you stay right here? Just right here, just a moment, please. I’m gonna go inside for a minute. I’ll be right out though, just wait.”
And so he did; not knowing what the girl was up to. Maybe she’d come back with some money for the road, or some traveling tokens. He’d always get keepsakes from his travels that he would just toss in another state after too-long due to the cumbersome weight. Paperweights don’t do well on the road. The girl came out in jeans and a shirt and some canvas boots. Walked up to him slow and steady like.
“What’d you do with the dress?”
“Layed it with him.”
She looked at him and the world stopped. They knew each other, but neither one cried or felt a kind of power to yield and contort immediate emotion to, well, not in previous ways. They knew each other. And he knew why she came back with a flannel and a jacket in her hand, and a clean bandana smeared with the lipstick of her youth. Hurt went off to a pine thicket and sheared off a stick for her tiny body and he tied up her pole the way he was. He picked up the sack he left at her house that had been left undisturbed.
By: J. Allen Carpenter
They shouldered their sticks and joined hands. Two pairs of feet leaving cuts in the dirt for others to follow and faintly remember. For once, the young man held a person who could understand him; see what he sees and look into him and not see pain, but a memory. Not a ghost of a ghost, but a person. This time, nobody got hurt.