My nails are dirty. Always have been.
A constant reminder to Irma that I wasn’t good enough for her.
I didn’t know men had their nails cut until I moved from Hutchins, Georgia, to Lafayette about seventy miles away. Lafayette had three theaters and a new mall where you could buy everything and not have to speak to anybody as they drifted by in a glaze of indifference.
I listened, sometimes walking right behind couples, making mental notes on how badly they spoke about their dearest friends. And there was always the cheating.
I’d seen cheating. Knew cheating. Was unable to cope with the possibilities of cheating which seemed to color every connection I ever had with women. Not everyone in the world was suspect, just too many for me to trust.
My bed is in a small, cramped space connected to the storeroom where Gus is examining the eggs, bread, and bacon he should have thrown out yesterday. He doles out dishes to Gretchen, waitress and sometime wife, and Diana-Lynn, a pinch-faced young girl with a name she has spent her young life trying to live up to.
Gus slapped his hand against the storeroom wall. “Hey, Reilly, get your fat ass out here and help with the garbage.”
I haven’t got a fat ass but expect he’s said that to every drifter who came by needing a day’s wages and found himself indentured to the temptation that was Gretchen. “Don’t crap in your pants about it, Gus,” I said, but he doesn’t hear.
I slipped into my pants and yesterday’s shirt, a blue and white striped denim I found in Lawson’s Dime Store over in Hutchins.
I took out the garbage, the foul leavings of Dave’s Diner.
Gus bought it from Dave Gunderson a dozen years ago with his young wife, Gretchen. They were full of promise, as Diana-Lynn told me on a hot, airless Georgia night some weeks past, in anticipation of the opening of a plant that was to have made automobile fenders.
They bought a plot of land with a loan on Gus’s insurance policy. Gretchen was fifteen years younger, and both thought they were on their way to the easy life. The plant never opened and, this far from downtown Lafayette, they barely survived on tourists and locals—the lean combination stirred Gus’s brooding resentment that preferred to believe there was a celestial conspiracy bent on keeping him down.
Any man who came into the diner looked at Gretchen longer than at the menu. Gus spat out threats and cursed and knotted his face when it became too obvious, but he knew she was a draw.
“You seeing somebody else, girl?” I had asked Irma.
“Now don’t you go on about that again,” Irma had said in that tone that diminished everything and everyone, with the skill to make you feel less about yourself, keeping you in place with just a nod of exasperation.
She controlled me like that. But it was not until the end that I realized what she was doing and was powerfully angered and blind to the depth of my rage.
Irma smoothed the skirt to her hips in front of the mirror that last night. “Just going over to Benson’s Landing. Olive’s sick.”
“She was sick last week.”
“She’s depressed since Carl left.”
They were a wild couple that preyed on each other’s weakness, sometimes like Irma and me and the rest of the world. “Carl should have left years ago.”
“You’ve been in town two months and you have all the answers. You’re so damn smart?”
That night she came home smelling of cheap whiskey, with a slight rash on the side her neck. When I pointed it out, she screamed and cursed me, then came at me when I told her I thought Olive was a tramp and Carl deserved better.
She spat in my face. I had to cut off her indecencies, her contempt for my pitiful existence.
But the words in sound and spittle found a way out. Her lips undulated with heartless, cutting trash about what I wasn’t and what her new young lover was, about my manners and stupidity and how I couldn’t compare to what she had found in another man’s arms.
I knew that I had to cut off the words. That’s where the nightmares and hurt were coming from.
“Reilly, the delivery truck is here,” Gus belched.
I put down the broom and went outside. “What do you have for us?”
Calvin Connors yanked open the side door to his refrigerated truck, revealing racks of chilled eggs, vegetables, and fruits. The new bumper sticker on the fender below announced Eisenhower’s run for a second term in bold red, white, and blue lettering, a thing of some pride to him. Connors had survived the Battle of the Bulge and a dozen years later was still considered a real hero in these parts.
“Nothing you couldn’t get better anywhere else.”
His answer was always the same, but I liked it. We shared a disenchantment and distrust of life. I lifted three crates of eggs and set them on the hand dolly. “How long you been at this?”
Connors shook his head. “Too long. Too damnable long.”
“Not good to be doing too long. A man needs to move on,” I said, catching a gust of alcohol on his breath.
“Demon Drink,” my pastor railed every Sunday until I was convinced giving in to the devil was the only way to get back at my abusive parents. I deserved better than those two. I knew that from an early age.
Connors slapped the door shut. “Say, you been keeping on top of that murder over in Hutchins?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
“Woman strangled to death. Police are all hot up about it. Seems she was the granddaughter of some big shot in Atlanta.”
“Sorry to hear.”
“Say, don’t you come from Hutchins way?”
“No,” I said shaking my head in a slow wobble, “Passed through there once. Nothing much to stop for.”
“Hey,” Diana-Lynn yelled from the screen door to Gus. “How’ve you been?”
“About the prettiest thing around these parts, that’s got a heart anyway,” he said and walked over to her.
She was half his age, and beaming. Wrapped in conversation, they were standing uncommonly close to each other, which unsettled me, but it didn’t last long after she heard Gus’s booming anger and darted back into the diner.
“Nice kid,” Connors said, nodded, and got back into his truck.
“Yeah,” was all I could muster.
“Well, so long. See you next week,” he said and spun away onto the highway that led off to nowhere in every direction.
“I’ll be here.” I said, noticing Diana-Lynn staring out of the filthy diner window in my direction. Wore a mask of suspicion on her that I’d seen before in others.
A bluebottle fly stopped to feast off a blister of fat on the frozen packet of bacon as I pushed the hand dolly toward the storeroom out back.
Gus was waiting for me. “About time. We work for a living here, and that don’t include socializing.”
“Man’s got a right to be civil.”
“Not on my dime he don’t.”
“Crushed her neck” the newspapers railed. How come no one cares how evil the dead were in life? How come no one cares about their victims, the ones who trusted and loved them, who only did what they did because someone had to before they hurt others?
The papers didn’t give a rat’s ass about the whys of murder.
“I think your husband has it in for me,” I said to Gretchen as she came out of the back door where I was working. “Not much I can do around here that sits right with him.”
“Don’t pay him no attention,” she said, stepping into daylight, “He’s jealous anytime a man passes by who gives me the time of day.”
Gretchen once was a pretty woman, but less now in the harsh reality of the sun’s glare. “A man’s got to protect the pretty ones against strangers,” I said, first noticing the top button on her blouse was undone. Couldn’t recall ever seeing it that way.
She paused to glance at something in the field over my shoulder. I purposely didn’t give her the satisfaction of turning around.
“You’re a stranger.”
“True enough, though we all start out as strangers,” I said.
“Then some of us become more.”
I noticed a roll of flesh taking its toll on the front of her white uniform. The kind every waitress wears. Except Gretchen was different. The heft of her waist and thighs and butt was revealing, exciting. Urgently appealing. She wasn’t fat, but there was an irresistible sumptuousness about her.
“I’m none of anyone’s business,” I said.
She moved closer, now with a grin that gave her away. “I think you got darkness in you, strangerman. Special ones you can’t let out, ’cause if you did, it might be the end of you.”
“Who’ve you been talking to?”
“Ain’t been talking. Been listening. Listening and watching,” Gretchen said. “Does that bother you?”
“Can’t say as it does.”
“’Cause you’re watching me don’t fall on a dead heart,” she said and walked around behind me toward the open field that had caught her attention.
I gave in and turned. “You know that for sure?”
“I can feel the heat in your eyes brush up against my backside. Been feeling it since you got here weeks ago. Can’t imagine why Gus hasn’t noticed.”
“Maybe because he ain’t got nothing left for you.”
“Maybe because he don’t appreciate what he’s got,” she said.
“I have to get back to work.”
“No rush. Gus went out front to talk to Miles Winslow. They’re cooking up one of their deals.”
“Don’t mean he ain’t coming back. And what happens when he sees you’re not around.”
“It takes on a different meaning after you’ve rolled it around in your mouth a bit and slept on it. Have you been saying my name in your sleep?”
“Not that I know.”
“I don’t believe you. Not a bit of it.”
“What do you want?”
“It’s not me that’s wanting.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s not worth getting all fired up over.”
“I think it is,” she said, turned around and walked back into darkness.
I went in and broke open the packages of bacon and vegetables and brought them into the kitchen and set them out for Gus, who was still wrapped in conversation with the man Gretchen described. If you saw them on a street corner, you knew they were up to no good.
There was a relief when I realized how isolated we were in Irma’s cabin outside of Hutchins. We had only been together for a few months, and she refused to go anywhere with me. Said her friends and parents wouldn’t approve. Didn’t want to show me around and get townsfolk talking.
I didn’t care what others thought, but I did want to get into her pants and needed a clean bed for a while.
I knew the police were pressing to find Carl. His description was on the front page on every newspaper in the state. He’d been away since the day of the killing. I thought that strange.
Irma must have told Olive about me, with that kind of ridicule that came natural to her.
It would only be a matter of time before Gus would turn on me, like all the others.
Irma was the daughter of someone with influence who would use all their power to hunt down the murderer of their slut grandchild. I could feel faint regret being replaced by remorse, then quickly closed the door on that temptation.
I washed up for dinner and went out front to the small booth in the corner of the diner.
The diner was busy for lunch and half empty for dinner. If you were going to spend money on a good meal, you didn’t come to Dave’s. Unless you wanted to see Gretchen and then, often as not, she would spend hours alone up in her bedroom, leaving the tables and tips to Diana-Lynn.
Diana-Lynn brought me leftovers, and I ate. I knew I had to leave soon. I was getting too used to it. Diana-Lynn usually brought me hot apple pie a-la-mode for dessert. Not tonight.
A truck pulled up and Gus got in.
“What’s up?” I asked, just naturally uneasy about what was going on around me that I could see and sensing too much of what I couldn’t.
Diana-Lynn cleared my table. “Winslow and Gus, they’re going into Atlanta.”
“This time of night?”
“Who cares? I hope the pig never comes back,” she answered.
Atlanta was a hard two-hour drive, and in that pick-up, closer to three. It was seven-thirty.
I was waiting for her to say something. Mention something Connors had referred to. Something about the murder in Hutchins.
Diana-Lynn made her way around the tables, servicing those few who had no other place to go and made their dinner at Dave’s an evening’s event.
Diana-Lynn came back after making a few rounds. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Curious coincidence and all, you know, showing up right after that woman got murdered over in Hutchins?”
“Connors told me about it today too.”
“The guy they described as a person of interest as a ‘big guy,’ about your height and build. I’ve been reading everything I can on it. It’s in all the papers. The idiots around here don’t read much, but I keep up.”
She finger-combed back her hair, trying to recreate her morning look, a dewy-sweet, torqued pose designed to call attention to her slim figure, her smile, and shallow charm.
“Imagine lots of types come through here.”
“Drifters, mostly. They stay a while until they can’t stand Gus and see there’s no chance with Gretchen. But she really likes you. The way her eyes darken when Gus rides you. The way she manages to take a cigarette out back when you’re doing heavy work with your shirt off.”
“So, what do you think?”
“Well, don’t take this too hard Mister Reilly, but she left an hour before I served you dinner.”
“She say where she’s going?”
“Gus don’t say where he’s off to and neither does she. God knows what keeps them together, but they definitely got an arrangement.”
Diana-Lynn had a thin neck, not like Irma’s, which was fleshy, a gift from her Eastern European ancestors. “You seem to know an awful lot for so young a girl.”
“You wanted to survive in my family, you got smart quick or you got taken advantage of. Bad.”
I could see Diana-Lynn in ten years with the same stained apron, posing for a different, more desperate class of trucker and laborer, with the same transient results. “Am I that obvious?”
“It’s just that I’ve seen it before,” she said, “Gretchen don’t mean anything by it. It suits her to wiggle her ass, show it off a bit if necessary, and get a man hot and bothered, as if they really stood a chance.”
“So, you know where she is tonight?”
“About four miles away with her old high school sweetheart.”
I finished dinner and walked out back into the darkness and stared up at Gretchen’s bedroom, all the while rattled by the way Diana-Lynn was taking a sudden interest in me.
The lights were out. The space over the diner must stink of bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns, and a million slices of burned toast. My arms felt heavy at my sides. A faint throbbing settled in my fingers; a lingering of pool of blood flooded into my groin.
I stared down at my upturned hands as though they belonged to a stranger. They were long and thick and threatening. They belonged to someone even I wouldn’t want to meet on the wrong side of town.
The next day Diana-Lynn didn’t show up for work. Gretchen called her a few times until another day passed, then pressed Gus to drive over to where she lived. The place was a wreck. An argument the police decided.
A month later I got into an argument with Gus over my salary.
I left short of half a week’s pay, but with an urge to get out of town and the tangle of my own suspicions. I hitched up a hundred forty miles to Gresham, Georgia, and got work in a lumber mill.
The newspapers kept up a flurry of investigations a few months longer, egged on by an ever-increasing reward posted by Irma’s grandfather. Carl was found working as an attendant in a large Tennessee trailer park. Seems he was dealing drugs in Hutchins and was spooked by all the attention. The police couldn’t prove anything and he was released.
A squad car came by the mill well after I arrived. They were investigating Irma’s murder and Diana-Lynn’s disappearance.
That night the nightmares returned.
But these were different.
It wasn’t only about Irma anymore.
Many women. Many faces. Many vile and tearing words.
You could hear their anger, the fire in their rage.
The next day I fell back to the curse of drinking I’d spent years evading. But it soothed the edges of my pain. Blurred the hate-filled images and softened the torment that haunted me.
I was fired for getting drunk and fighting with the foreman shortly after the squad car incident.
I do have regrets about my life, and every now and then I pray for guidance.
Not to the God of any particular religion, but to an Almighty, if one really exists—though sometimes I doubt it—and all too often ask myself how he can let people like me, with dirt under their nails from birth, walk the earth.