“B-Baby doll,” said Mary, stuttering with cold, “if you were to buy me a b-bottle, I’d share with you.”
“Buy your own and I’ll share with you,” said Shag.
They were huddled beneath a railroad trestle on the outskirts of a north Texas town. A steady wind moaned overhead, bringing with it blasts of tinkling, icy rain. A friend had promised Shag a job on a road-repair crew, “standin around, maybe wavin a flag oncer twice an hour,” but Shag got assigned to the asphalt wagon and quit after lunch the first day. He’d been trying to return south when the cold front blew in.
“Please, please, pretty p-please?” Mary wheedled.
Shag ignored her and busied himself with a small fire of rail tie splinters. Fuel was plentiful under the trestle, but it was getting wet. When he’d stacked a little teepee of splinters over a hunk of pigeon’s nest for kindling, he struck a match on his thumbnail and lit it.
“Ugh, them feathers stink,” he said, leaning away. The nest caught, flared, glowed a soft gray-orange, then went out. The splinters weren’t even warm.
“Only thing I got is a twenty,” said Shag, irritably, “and danged if I’m trusting you with that.” He scowled at the little collapsed web of white dust, all that was left of the pigeon’s nest. He would have to disassemble his teepee and start over.
“You go with me, then,” Mary suggested.
“That liquor store was more’n half a mile back.”
“Exercise would warm us up.” She tucked her knees against her chest and hugged them, shivering. “If you were any kind of gentleman,” she scolded, “you’d come over here and warm me up the old fashioned way.” Shag lurched to his feet and came near cracking his skull on a low-hanging girder.
“Got to find drier fuel,” he said hurriedly and slouched crab-like up a concrete embankment, inspecting and discarding pieces of flotsam and rail tie. It had been 90 degrees when he came north for the job, he hadn’t packed a winter coat. When the cold front hit, he’d had to part with seven precious dollars for an old corduroy 4H jacket--with ‘Marvin’ embroidered on the sleeve-- and three flannel shirts to wear underneath it. Mary, being a local, owned a voluminous red parka that looked like it was fashioned out of a sleeping bag. More often than not, it served as one.
They bumped into one another whenever he visited the area; for Shag, a mixed blessing. He liked her, basically, she was a “good-hearted old gal” and would share whatever she had, but her appetite was large: for wine, any kind of drugs, and worst of all, sex. She never stopped hitting on him. He’d known her long enough to remember when she was actually attractive, in a ragged-out, battered way, but now her teeth were bad, and a meth habit from love-child days had ruined her eyes. A persistent squint spoiled what was left of her features.
Shag came down the embankment with more sticks, squatted and began again with his fire building.
“Might be goin to freeze toward mornin,” he said.
“I’m freezing already,” said Mary. She rocked on her heels, still hugging her knees. Pigeons moaned and scuttled overhead, a feather floated down like a dirty snowflake. “Can’t you buy us just one little bitty bottle? Please, please, pretty please?”
Shag groaned. “You sound just like my wife. She was always goin ‘purty, purty please.’”
Mary’s head jerked up and sideways. For an instant she lost her squint to an expression of blank, wide-eyed astonishment. “Wife! Wife! Shag Clutter, all the years I’ve known you, you haven’t once mentioned being married.”
“It was a long-assed time ago. Fore we ever met.”
Mary hooted. “How long have I known you? Six, seven years—?”
“Get outa town—”
“Twelve. Goin on thirteen.”
“Far freaking out.” Mary squinted and gave her head a furious shake. “How long were you married?”
“Over before it started. Practically. But I was married, all right, and to one beautiful girl.”
Shag set a match to his new construction. The kindling flamed, and the splinters, this time, crackled encouragingly. Nearby, a drainpipe big enough to crawl in belched and began to drool into the scummy stream a few feet below. The pungent, smoking creosote masked the gutter smell nicely.
“I can’t believe it,” said Mary. “What was her name?”
Shag mumbled something.
“Deedee? Awww,” sighed Mary, “I always did like ‘Deedee.’”
“I was twenty-five. She was only sixteen, but already a completely formed woman.”
“She was a knockout.”
“They all are at that age. You shoulda seen yours truly. I was—”
“Guys would hang around her front porch like flies on a porta-john. Her old lady used to have to spray em with the hose to run em off.”
“Get outa here.”
“She done it. More’n once, too. Ever guy in town was after Deedee even though her folks was poor as dirt. They called em white trash.”
Mary caught herself before she could ask Shag what they called him.
“You shoulda seen it, the house and everthing. Lived in this old shotgun shack with floors goin ever which way. Feller’d get seasick walkin from one room to the other. Set a glass of water on the table and the water’d be crooked in the glass.”
“This was a real dump, with them brown water stains all over the ceiling where the roof leaked and not a patch of varnish left on the floorboards. Deedee’s mom tried to keep it halfway clean, but it was a losin battle. That pore woman was like a broke-down horse. Always leanin on a broom.” Shag shook his head with feeling. “I always thought of her as old, but she was probly a good ten years younger than we are now.”
“Life was hard back then,” said Shag, adding sticks to his fire. A raft of garbage—fast-food trash, what looked like catfish heads in a swollen plastic bag—drifted by in the gully below the trestle.
“In the summertime they all went around barefoot. You don’t see that too much anymore, but it wasn’t unusual then. Heck, I remember them people’s feet better’n I do their faces. Even the old grandma’s. They called her Big Mamoo, and she ruled the roost.”
“Big Mamoo. Sounds, I don’t know, nasty.”
“She was. Built like something fell out of a dump truck. Solid, too. Musta weighed three hundred pounds. And these puffy, slit eyes like she was always pissed. Hell, she was always pissed. And her son, Deedee’s old man, was a horrible drunk. Violent, used to beat on his wife and kids, includin Deedee when he could catch her. He was one a them little guys thought he could look big by growin a big belly and walkin around with his arms bowed out like the muscles wouldn’t let em hang straight. Hell, he didn’t have no muscles, just a foul mouth and a evil temper.” Shag scowled, remembering.