A Sweet, Sweet Cherry Mash

1.

Bill Calisher was driving north on US 65 through the Arkansas Delta, barely an hour from his home in Little Rock, when he passed a little black and white sign announcing Dancing Rabbit Creek. He’d driven this route many times on his job with the highway department without ever noticing the strange name, nor did he recall the gas station and little restaurant across from one another, just beyond the creek. On a whim—he wasn’t particularly hungry or thirsty—he pulled off onto the parking lot of Fat Man’s Café and went inside.

He’d taken three steps into the dining area when he realized the floor was damp. A young black man holding a mop was eyeing him.

Bill took a step back and held his hands up. “Oops! Sorry. I didn’t mean to walk on your clean floor.”

The young man did an exaggerated double-take and said, “My floor? Did you say my floor? Hot damn, this is my lucky day. Now I’m the owner of this fine establishment.”

A coal-black, big-chested, ham-armed woman emerged from a door behind the counter and said, “Montell, quit acting the fool.”

“Yes, Mother dear,” Montell said. He said Motherdear as if it were all one word. Maybe that was the woman’s name.

Then Montell turned to Bill, laughed a soundless laugh, and said, “I was just messin’ with you. Go ahead. You can march up and down on that son of a bitch all day long if you want to.”

“Montell!”

Bill sat down at a booth beside a window. He had his choice, the café being empty even though it was dinnertime. It was a Monday, though, and probably Fat Man’s didn’t do a landslide business at the best of times.

Montell went back to mopping, and Motherdear came over and handed Bill a menu. “Luanda will be right out to take your order.”

She disappeared through the door at the back, and a moment later a young woman came out carrying a notepad and pencil. She looked a little like Montell except she was probably a year or two older and taller, although that may have been due to the heels she was wearing, too high for a waitress on her feet all day, Bill thought. She had on a pair of those blue jeans that were so tight they looked painted on. Nice figure. Very nice figure.

“Do you know what you want?” she said.

He forced his eyes back down to the menu.

“What’s good here?” he asked, and without hesitating she said, “Pie.”

“Ha, you skip the main course and head straight for the dessert.”

“Don’t everybody like their sweets?” she said with a little smile.

Was she flirting with him? That would be almost as astounding as the possibility that he was flirting with her. Bill was forty and married. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d flirted. In fact, he wasn’t sure he ever had.

“What kind of pie do you have?”

Luanda looked back over her shoulder at one of those old-time metal pie racks in a glass cylinder sitting on the counter. “Apple, cherry, lemon,” she said. “And Motherdear’s got a raisin pie just come out of the oven.”

“Raisin pie! I haven’t had raisin pie in years.” In fact, Bill couldn’t remember ever eating raisin pie. “Bring me a slice of raisin pie and a glass of iced tea. And make it sweet,” he said with a grin, prepared to wink at her, but Luanda dutifully wrote his order down on the pad without meeting his eye.

Bill leaned back in the booth and watched her walk away. Those skin-tight jeans. He heard a snicker. Montell seemed intent on wringing out that mop in a bucket, but he had a big grin on his face. He looked up at Bill and winked. Bill winked back.

He was strangely proud of his brashness but even more bemused than proud. What the hell was he up to, barely an hour from home but flirting with a young black woman in a black café in the Delta?

Montell finished mopping, took mop and bucket through the back door, then reappeared almost immediately with a newspaper. He sat down behind the counter and began to read.

It was a few more minutes before Luanda came back out with his pie and iced tea.

Bill didn’t give himself a chance to think about what he was about to say, just rushed on and said in a half-whisper, although Montell seemed oblivious to everything but his newspaper, “So, good lookin’, what time do you get off work?”

Luanda laughed so hard she took a stagger-step sideways. “Hoo, boy, hoo, boy! ‘Hey, good lookin’.’ Oh, lord. No, Mr. Smoothie, it afraid it wouldn’t do you any good to know what time I get off work.”

“Already got a boyfriend?”

“That’s my business, but it wouldn’t do you any good even if I didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“Ah. Not your type huh?”

“Not hardly.”

“What is your type?”

“Well, for starters, somebody about half your age.”

“Ouch.”

Luanda was still chuckling as she walked back around the counter and through the door.

Montell folded up his newspaper and put it under the counter, then came over to Bill’s table.

“Hey, slick, if you’re looking for a date, you gotta ask better than that.”

“Oh yeah? How should I have asked?”

“With a hundred-dollar bill in your hand.”

“A hun—oh, ha, got you. You think a hundred dollars would work?”

“I flat guarantee you I can get you a date for a hundred dollars.”

“And what would I get for my hundred dollars?”

Montell rolled his eyes. “Come on. You get as much as you can work yourself up for. I figure that would be about ten minutes for you.”

Bill didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered.

“Well, you game?”

Say it fast, don’t think about it, say it fast, Bill said to himself, and then he shot the word out— “Yes”—terrified and excited.

Montell shrugged like he’d taken Bill’s request for a refill of iced tea. “Give me half an hour, then come around back. There’s a garage back there. Motherdear uses it for a store room, but you can have your date there…Cash up front, though.”

Bill took out his wallet and handed Montell five twenties, which Montell stuffed in his pocket, did a three-second soft-shoe, then went out the rear door.

Bill looked at his watch, took a sip of iced tea, then another, then laid a ten-dollar bill on the table and went out to his car. It wasn’t until he was sitting under the steering wheel that he realized he hadn’t even tasted the raisin pie.

*

It took forever for the thirty minutes to pass. At one point he’d about decided to put an end to this foolishness and drive on home, but then he thought, I have whole years of my life that I don’t have a single memory of. Why not do something to make this day memorable, Billy Boy, something to remind you that you’re alive?

After precisely thirty minutes, he got out of the car and headed around the café toward the back. Do it fast, fast, without thinking, he said to himself just as he’d said earlier, but now his body wouldn’t obey him. He felt like he was trying to push his way through a snowdrift, except it was summer, darning needles swimming in the heavy air in the field beyond the parking lot and here and there—it was dusk now—the slow bright pulse of fireflies.

When he got around to the back of the café, he looked furtively up at a window of, he supposed, the kitchen. Anyone looking out could see him easily. Montell would know that though, and he hadn’t warned Bill to be careful. Maybe arranging “dates” in the garage was part of the family business. Mother, son, and daughter. What a world! But Bill was in it, too, wasn’t he?

He forced himself on toward the garage. The big wooden double-doors were padlocked, but there was a smaller door to the side, which opened just as Bill got to it. Montell came out.

“She in there,” he said. He handed Bill something. “In case you ain’t got one. If you don’t want to wear it though, she’ll let you go without for an extra twenty.”

Bill stuck the condom in his pocket.

“OK, slick, go knock yourself out,” Montell said, walking off.

Bill stepped through the door into the garage. The only illumination was a single bulb, feebly glowing from a socket on the far wall. He looked around at the piles of boxes, empty bottles, a lawnmower, an old washtub. Where was Luanda? He’d just about concluded he’d been ripped off when he heard breathing near him, then saw her lying on a cot against the wall on his right, close enough he could have reached out and touched the bubblegum-pink sole of her bare foot. Not Luanda. Fat, with hair that was either frosted or gray, the woman wore a white bra against her black skin, and nothing else.

He swallowed hard, twice, before he could speak. “I was expecting Luanda.”

The woman began to laugh, the white bra dancing. “Luanda? Luanda don’t give it up for no hundred dollars.”

“Oh. No, of course not,” he said, edging backward. “Sorry, but, well, you see, I thought it’d be Luanda.”

The woman swung herself up, took a polka dot top off a fifty-gallon drum at the head of the cot and began to put it on. “Don’t apologize to me, white boy. You ain’t got nothing I’m going to miss.”

“Of course not,” he said. Then he was out of there.

He returned to his car and got in. This is the point when you insert the key in the ignition, start the engine, and drive home, he said to himself. He sat there.

There was something he wanted to do, but what was it? Go back to the woman in the garage? Most definitely not. Try his luck with Luanda again? No. Truth be told, he was relieved to have escaped that whole business in the garage. So what was it? Then it came to him—the reason he’d stopped at the café in the first place: to find out about that name, Dancing Rabbit Creek. Where had that come from? He’d planned to go in, buy a little token something, then ask about the name and be on his way again. But he’d gotten distracted, taken an unintended path with a predictable result: humiliation. Story of his life, in other words.

He looked over at the café, lit up inside like they had a big dinner crowd. But he wasn’t going back in there. There was the gas station across the road though. He’d go in, buy a pack of gum or something and ask about the name. Silly, of course, a waste of time, but what wasn’t?

He started the car and drove straight across the highway.

2.

Apparently, the gas station had originally been a two-story house with eventually an addition built on the front serving as the station office. Or maybe it was the opposite: just a small gas station at some point enlarged into a house. Whichever, it was now old and bedraggled with paint faded and peeling and two lone pumps out front, the feeling that it was something from a half-century ago enhanced by quaintly small neon signs advertising Dr. Pepper, Kool cigarettes, and Eskimo ice cream bars glowing in gaudy reds, greens, and blues from the windows.

Bill went inside and browsed for a minute at the candy shelves, glancing up now and then at the man behind the cash register leaning back arms folded, seemingly oblivious to Bill’s presence, gazing off at nothing. Bill at first thought because of the man’s pale, wrinkleless face he must be fairly young. But then he thought, no, he must be older than he looked—that head of gray hair. He finally concluded that if he had to guess, he’d guess the man was around forty.

Bill picked up a bag of peanut M&M’s virtually at random and started forward, but then a Cherry Mash caught his eye, and he took that instead.

“Cherry Mash!” he said as he walked up to the cash register. “I haven’t seen one of these in years. I didn’t know they still made them.”

The man unfolded his arms and pushed himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against, grimacing as if the effort caused him pain. But then he smiled.

“Cherry Mash, yes sir, I’ve eaten one or two of those myself. Gotta be careful though. They’re so sweet they’ll crack your jaw.”

“I’ll take the risk,” Bill said, handing the man a dollar, which he took and put in the cash register and closed it without giving Bill any change. Must have just forgotten it. He didn’t appear to have the energy to try to cheat anybody.

“I was just across the road having a bite to eat at Fat Man’s. Thought I’d come in here for dessert. Get to patronize both establishments in Dancing Rabbit that way,” Bill said.

The man became a bit more animated, shook his head emphatically. “This isn’t Dancing Rabbit. Dancing Rabbit’s just the name of the creek.”

“Oh. What’s the name of this place?”

“Doesn’t have a name. It’s not even a place, really. Just two stores. I’ve never even been in Fat Man’s, so you’re one up on me.”

“Oh. You haven’t been here long then, I take it.”

“Been here all my life. I just don’t get out much.”

“Ah, I see,” Bill said, although he didn’t. “I get out too much, probably. I’m on the road all the time.”

“Maybe we should trade lives.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Bill said but then remembered why he was there. “That name though. Dancing Rabbit. Any idea where that came from?’

“I ought to. It was my granddad who named it. He pretty much raised me after my folks were killed in a car wreck when I was a tadpole.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“It was a long time ago. I don’t guess my life would have been much different if that hadn’t happened. I’d probably be right here. You are where you are, I expect.”

Bill thought he probably meant to say, You are what you are. But that didn’t make much sense either.

“You may be right. But Dancing Rabbit. How’d your granddad come up with that?”

“Simple. He saw a rabbit dancing on the creek bank one night.”

“That so? I’ll bet there was some alcohol involved in that.”

“I don’t see how. I mean, where would a rabbit have gotten alcohol?”

It took Bill a second, but then he laughed. “Ha, good one. I’ll bet you get asked about the name a lot.”

“Not really. I can’t remember the last time. The truth is, I don’t get that much business here. Most folks’ll get their gas in Pine Bluff or Dumas.”

“Why stay then?”

“Why are you on the road?” the man shot back, and before Bill could think how to reply, added, “Only you aren’t on the road. You’re here jawing with me.”

Was the guy joking with him or being confrontational? Bill couldn’t tell. He was right about one thing though: there was no reason for Bill to stand there “jawing” any longer. He was just turning to leave when the man said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound like an ass. You live alone like I do, you kind of lose the ability to talk to people.”

“No need to apologize. Believe me, I don’t do any better with people than you do. The only time I’m happy is on the road.”

“Pardon me for saying so, partner, but you don’t seem so happy to me right now.”

Bill looked down at the Cherry Mash in his hand.

“Ah, hell, there I go again,” the man said. “Sorry, buddy. Me and my big mouth.”

Bill shrugged “Don’t worry about it…Well, I’d better hit that road.”

The man followed him outside.

“Long drive still ahead of you?”

“Not that far. I live in Little Rock.”

“Little Rock!” the man said, like another might have said Singapore! “Live by yourself, I guess.”

“Yes,” Bill said. “Well, I do have a wife and daughter at home.”

The man barked out a laugh, at the same time looking at Bill with a puzzled frown.

“If you have a wife and daughter at home, why did you say…?”

He let the question trail off. Bill stood there with the Cherry Mash in one hand and his keys in the other.

“Or,” the man began, as if he’d just presented Bill with one possibility and now was offering an alternative, “you could stay a bit and help me watch for the Dancing Rabbit.”

*

Johnny, as he introduced himself, went back inside long enough to turn off the neon OPEN sign over the front door (the others he left on) and then came back out and locked the door behind him. He was carrying a six-pack of Bud.

Bill followed him around the gas station and then, behind the house, along a narrow path through waist-high weeds.

What the hell am I doing here, Bill thought. Or was the question meaningless? He was doing it, that was all that mattered. Whatever “it” was.

They’d walked for only a minute or two when the weeds played out, and there was a patch of bare ground with some sort of structure on it. It was fully night now, and although the moon was out, it took Bill a moment to understand what he was looking at: a bench swing hanging from a metal pole supported on each end by wooden A-frames.

Johnny sat down on the swing and patted the bench next to him. Bill sat down and only then saw that a few feet beyond the swing the ground sloped down abruptly to a little creek, running sluggishly and silently, water-starved in these dog days of summer.

Johnny pulled a can of Bud from the plastic ring-holder and offered it to Bill. “Have one.”

Bill held his hand palm-up like a cop stopping traffic. “Better not. I have to drive.”

He realized he was still holding the Cherry Mash. He set it on the A-frame’s crosspiece beside him.

“You don’t seem all that anxious to get back to me,” Johnny said.

“Sometimes when I walk through the door after a couple of days on the road,” Bill said, “they don’t even look up.” Sounding bitter and whiney even to himself, he quickly added, “But it’s all on me. I accept responsibility for my entire life, every single day of it.”

“Me, too. So what?”

Bill thought about that a moment, then said, “Give me one of those Buds.”

They sat sipping beer. Bill tentatively pushed off with the balls of his feet against the rocky ground, and the rusty chains went zkreeeack! Johnny said, “Huh uh. No swinging. This noisy son of a bitch will scare off the rabbit.”

“So you’ve seen it?” Bill asked, smiling.

“No, but I don’t come out here every night. There’s not much point in it if there’s no moon. Too dark to see anything.”

Bill looked at him out of the corner of his eye, expecting the punchline or guffaw to come any second now, but Johnny just kept sipping his beer and scanning left and right along the bank across the creek. You’re not serious, Bill wanted to say, but instead asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, pretty much my whole life. My granddad’s the one who put the swing up. I used to watch with him.”

Bill looked closely at him, expecting, if not that guffaw, to see a twinkle in his eye. But the only thing he saw in Johnny’s eyes was the moon.

*

They sat drinking beer, slapping mosquitoes, and peering at the water, the bank.

Finally, Bill asked, “Was it beautiful—the rabbit?”

“I don’t know. Granddad never said. It danced, that’s all. That’d be enough for me.”

“Do you think you’ll ever see it?”

Now Johnny did laugh. “No, hell no, of course not, shit.” Then he grew serious again. “But who knows. I might. There’s always that chance.”

“What would you do if you finally saw it?”

Johnny nodded a number of times like, Yes, that is the question. “I’ve thought about that. Maybe after I saw it, I’d say, OK, that’s done, and then I’d pack up and go somewhere. Who knows, maybe Little Rock. Maybe start a family before I get too damn old.” He took another drink of beer. “Or maybe I’d just stay right where I am, hope to see that rabbit again. Hell, every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s got a family. How many people can say they’ve seen a rabbit dancing in the moonlight?”

They drank one more beer apiece, neither saying anything. Then Johnny stood up, stretched, and said, “Well, if that rabbit’s dancing tonight, he’s going to have to dance alone. I’m tired of these damn mosquitoes.”

Then he started back up the path, the two remaining cans of beer dangling from the plastic holder in his hand.

“Yeah, I guess I’d better be hitting the road myself,” Bill called after him. Johnny didn’t look back.

*

By the time Bill had navigated the path and was back around to the front of the gas station, Johnny was already inside. Bill heard the sound of the door being locked, and then the three tiny neon lights—Dr. Pepper, Kool cigarettes, Eskimo ice cream bars—went off.

Bill got in his car and sat there watching the house. He expected to see a light come on in one of the upstairs rooms—that’s where the bedrooms would be, he assumed—but he saw no light. He heard nothing. He sat for another moment, and then started the car and slowly began to back, careful not to hit one of the two gas pumps standing like squat pointless monoliths in the night.

Bill eased the car up to the edge of the highway, then hesitated. To the right—the north—was Pine Bluff, then Little Rock. He turned left, drove slowly, slowly down the highway.

Fifty yards past the gas station and café, the highway crossed the little creek. Bill turned off onto the shoulder, then swung the car around in a U-turn and parked on the opposite shoulder. He got out. Right there was the little rectangular sign, black on white, standing chest high on a single steel pole.

DANCING RABBIT CREEK

Bill nodded as if, yes, something had been confirmed.

Just beyond the sign the highway crossed the creek over a little bridge that he hadn’t noticed before, strange considering his job: Bill was a bridge inspector. There were so many bridges though, hundreds of them, the vast majority narrow and rickety, supporting crumbling blacktops that led nowhere Bill would want to go. Depressing.

He walked back to the gas station.

The moon was now down or shifted or maybe behind a cloud—Bill understood nothing of the movements of the moon—and it was very dark. He found the path with no trouble though, and made his way along it by holding his hands out and brushing the weeds on either side with his fingertips. He came to the bench swing. He smiled when he saw the Cherry Mash still sitting on the A-frame support. He took it and sat down. He began surveying the bank beyond the creek, left to right, then right to left. He held the Cherry Mash.

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.

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