Beems grew up in a rough St. Louis neighborhood. Used to run with a bunch of toughies, darting out in front of cars, hands over their eyes. It was the kind of game, Beems said, young guys his age liked to play in the late '40s when there wasn't anything else in the world to do on a hot Sunday afternoon in the city. And when that didn't work, they'd get hold of some fag and get him down and pound the hell out of him. Said he'd outgrown all that, though. Sixty years old, mellowed out by now. "But there's a line — a man can still cross that line with me."
Billy figures he's crossed that line. One is the rent, being late on it. The other's bumming things off of Beems: sugar, flour, eggs, milk, baking powder, shortening. Even pocket change. Jeanie said it was stupid taking from a man like that, but Billy assured her Beems didn't mind.
Oftentimes Beems'd offer him a glass of Jack Daniels or a cold Bud, and they'd sit and talk for an hour. Beems talked about the Kansas City Royals, about investments — a Laundromat and a car wash down in K.C. and other things like winning racetrack tickets — that sounded like pretty big opportunities. They sat on stools at the polished oak bar Beems installed about a year ago. When Billy left the trailer, he felt very light-headed and important.
Important because Beems took an interest in him, especially when Billy said he'd recently gotten a promotion at the glove factory. "Moving up in the world, huh?" Beems winked. "Pretty soon, you'll be running the place."
But for the past month, Beems'll sit on the stoop to his trailer, rubbing his white mustache, cigarette perched between two fingers. Say hi to him, he won't say hi back. He smokes Marlboros, filterless, lights one off the other. Maybe he's got lung cancer the way he coughs all the time, long, hacking coughs that end in a hollow rattle somewhere in the back of his throat. Sometimes it pops into Billy's head that Beems is a dead man.
Beems didn't offer him a beer the last time he went over to pay the rent, right on September 1, forking over $700 (August and September combined). Just took the money at the door, gave Billy a grin — only it was real cold, with a tight lip.
Billy told him thanks, but Beems was already closing the door to the trailer.
"I told you that'd happen, hon," Jeanie said when he came back worried about Beems not inviting him in after he'd just shelled out $700. "He was adding up what you owed him little by little and now he's going to collect. You were foolish to trust him — to have anything to do with him at all."
This galled Billy. "Well, what were we supposed to do? Starve?" She knew he didn't make much at that glove factory.
"I'm just telling you the facts," Jeanie said; her brown mop of hair swung down over the rim of her glasses.
Billy knew where she got that snippy ending like the tail of a whip in your face. From her father, the way he talked when he laid into the "system," how he'd be damned if he'd lose his land over new John Deere equipment. How he'd be damned if he hadn't held onto his land when all his neighbors went bust. But in the final roundup, he didn't. Went belly-up like the rest of them around here, just took a little longer. And then went and shot himself, did it with a 12-gauge out in the barn, blew a hole as big as a basketball in his chest so the coroner's new assistant just had to go off and puke when he looked at it. Billy thought a lot about it afterwards. Why hadn't he stuck the thing in his mouth the way a lot of them do? But then you'd have to think about the second when the thing'd blast your teeth away and take your head off. Maybe that's why he aimed for his heart.
Jeanie and Billy didn't talk about it much anymore. At first, that's all they could talk about because Jeanie wanted to know how it was right, if someone was really trying, for everything to go so bad? When there were bad people who didn't try at all, and somehow they went on and on and did okay. Now how could that be right?
When it began to rain non-stop, Billy knew there was bad luck in it. This morning Billy and Jeanie stand in the field behind Beems' trailer and listen to the rush of river water down in the bottom. Sounds like the train, steady and ongoing. Constant roar. Beems comes out of his trailer, smoking. They stand together, saying nothing.
The first thing Billy thinks of is Beems collecting the rent.
"It looks bad," Billy says. "Expect you'll lose a lot down there."
"Plenty." Beems flicks his cigarette butt into the wet weeds. His lips flex against the white stubble on his chin. "And I'll tell you something, son," says Beems going for his Marlboros. "Would take a miracle. That's what it'd take."
"Sorry," Billy offers.
Beems saunters back to the trailer. Billy starts to follow, but Jeanie grabs his arm.
When they run water, it smells like overripe apples, though that's not it either. If you put your nostrils up to the faucet, and let the water run, you get a whiff of something real bad. Water's dark and gritty. The water comes from the well down in the bottom and it's been dark brown for the past week, but this sure looks different. Like the brew in a bucket when you've got a leak.
Jeanie tells him to get purified water from the store. Hands Billy a five dollar bill, sends him up to town with it. "You won't be able to buy all that much. Up there it’s about a buck a gallon. But we gotta have clean water."
Billy wants to see the river, so he drives up the back road. It's way out all the way to Omar. It's risen into the tree line a quarter mile from the road, and it looks like a dusky mirror with the morning sun on it.
The gravel road winds four miles to town. Full of potholes and deep crevices and water trickling through them. In one place the road narrows, with a deep cavity cutting away to the left where a drainage tube's going out. Billy pulls to the right and the tire sinks in the mud.
Up at the Hurry 'n Shop, Billy loads up with four gallons of Deluxe Purified Water, the brand with the bright blue sticker on the neck announcing the purity of its origins from Colorado spring water. "You are what you drink." "Purify your life."
Woman rings it up at $4.61. "How's the water down your way?"
"Can't drink it."
"Too bad. Got in the town lagoon, what I hear. But maybe it'll clean itself out."
Billy drives toward the west end of town over gravel roads to where the flooding will be the worst. Kills the motor. Three boys are wading to their waists and splashing blackish water on each other. Shirts off, tied around their necks. Billy wonders what their mothers'd think about them wading in the city's sewage lagoon. He rolls the window down, smells the stinking water. One boy, maybe twelve years old, slaps water at another boy the same age. Billy sees it splash up in his face, in his eyes and hair. He has long black hair that covers his ears and runs down the back of his neck. "Shit," the boy yells. "You got me."
Billy takes off.
When he gets back to the house, he spots Jim Beems on the stoop to his trailer. Billy steps out of the car, waves at him, then goes around to the passenger side for two jugs of Deluxe Purified Water. When he closes the door and starts toward the house with the jugs, Beems is already approaching him, cigarette in one corner of his mouth.
"Need a word with you."
Billy stands still, chest pounding.
"You're behind on the rent. Couple weeks."
They're facing each other, squaring off. Billy leans over and puts the jugs of water down on the rocked driveway. This is the wrong move to make, like he's about to do something, stand his ground, lay right into Beems.
Billy doesn't say anything, and Beems says, "Well?"
"I'm gonna catch it up next month. Promise. It's just I've got a bunch of expenses — and I been laid off."
"Laid off. Laid off when?"
"Couple weeks ago."
"You've been laid off a couple weeks. But you've been late ever since you took that damned house." Beems coughs and there's that hollow rattle in the back of his throat. "You thought you could take advantage of me, didn't you, but you fucked with the wrong guy. That's what's happened here. You've screwed around with a guy who won't take such shit."
Billy shakes his head. "I'll get it to you, Jim. I promise. It's not like I'm planning on running off or anything. I'm planning to pay the rent. I really am."
"Bullshit. Rent is due the first. That's the contract." Beems' tongue coats his lower lip.
"But I don't have it!" Billy protests. "And…"
"I thought we were friends or something."
Beems glares at him. "Pay your damned rent, Billy. That's all I'm asking."
"I don't have it," Billy yells. But it's more like a big moan than a yell. "I'm laid off. It wasn't my fault. Gimme a break, willya?"
"Then cart your butt off the premises. Or I'll have a man out here to do it for you."
Billy hurries after him, grabs his arm. "Wait a minute, Jim. Please, just wait a minute."
Beems pivots, slaps Billy's hand away.
"Can't you wait?" Billy's voice cracks and he knows he's hunched over as though ready to dodge a sudden blow.
"You sniveling little pussy," Beems mutters, shaking his head. "I'll tell you what. You think the world's going to come around just because you suck up to it. But the world's a hard place, Billy, like that river that's out down there. You think that's fair? Fifty acres of soybeans ruined by that goddamn water. You don't whine your way out of something like that. Now do you?"
"I just wanted…"
There's that grin. "I know what you wanted. Only, if you don't pay up what you owe, I'll clean you out." He points to the rental house. "All mine."
"You heard me."
"Well, you're one big heartless bastard," Billy yells as tears of hurt and frustration well up in his eyes.
"I've give you an hour," says Beems. "No more."
It's November and Uncle Buford's up at four in the a.m. drinking coffee out of those big plastic mugs in front of the Hurry n' Shop with the deer hunters — whole bunch of them in their orange hunting gear whooping it up and watching the steam rise before them in the early morning cold.
Jeanie's got the graveyard shift. Tells Billy all about it. Says Buford's a kind of god up there at the Hurry. Buford this, Buford that. "I don't know why they listen to such a blowhard. He's stupid and he's creepy. Grandma Hattie, she knew. Always trying to get poor old Buford saved, but it was a lost cause. Just bad blood from the day he was born is what Granny Hattie said."
"She was real religious, wasn't she?" says Billy.
"Well, that's the way they talk up at the Assembly."
Billy's trying to work out something on the rent. Buford's got him lined up with a couple beers, a full one before he's finished the first. Buford's a big man, large buttocks, arms thick and hairy. To look at him, you'd think he'd move slowly, but he moves about lightly and never seems short of breath. Billy finds him fascinating. He's thinking that Buford's not that bad. Just get to know him, that's all.
"Just pay it soon, okay, pal?" says Buford. "Don't make me wait to Christmas. Got it?"
"Got it!" says Billy. And he drinks up.
Buford's saying he's king of the antlers around here. "You ask anybody. You don't get that sitting on your ass. You got your general hunter, run of the mill guy, and then you got your king. He knows how to hold it. He don't blow it."
Buford gives him a quick look, his tongue lolling out, then darting back in. "Well, you gotta be damn good, what I mean. You might get drunk, fucked up real good, but you still nail your fucking buck. And if you wound him, say, and he runs off, you track him down. You don't leave him there for some pussy to say he got it — you track him down. You got a blood scent about you. Like you know what's inside of that thing and you're going to make it all yours."
"He's worse," Jeanie tells Billy. They're sitting at the kitchen table, room dark, watching the cold November rain pelt the window. It runs in thick rivulets down the pane and washes over the rotted windowsill. The house is in bad need of repair and repainting. Billy says maybe they oughta do something with it. Fix it up. Make improvements. Ask Buford for the money, and they'll try to do the work themselves.
Jeanie looks at him like he's sick in the head. "You think Buford'd pay money to fix this up? And besides, we're not staying here that long. This is real temporary, dear. Real temporary. We get out of here, we're never coming back." She pours herself a cup of coffee. "Because I'll tell you what, I don't like the way he looks at me."
"I have to spell it out for you?"
"No." Then, "Are you sure?"
"Of course I am. You don't know Buford, if you don't know that."
Billy looks out at the walnut tree split by lightning, sitting on an island of bare ground, the gravel drive surrounding it, the field across the road flooding, and he feels trapped. Two hundred a month, and the doors to this shack he lives in don't even lock. Won't hardly close. Everything you can think of leaks. Sometimes, at the glove factory, he felt like this, then suddenly he'd get this feeling he could outdo anyone on piece work and he'd give it his all and he'd be flying along on that machine, stitching better than any of the women did. It was mostly women who worked there. Just a couple of guys. Made him feel funny sometimes, but that's the way it was. But in those moments when he got going, stitching like hell, he'd sense a kind of freedom, like he could take over the whole factory and rise to the top. And then his spirit would suddenly cool, just all at once like he'd been stomped on by somebody a lot bigger. Somebody who knew him for what he was, not the kind of guy who gets ahead, who makes it big in the world — no, a big loser — and then he'd be back at his regular pace and he'd feel more depressed than ever. And he knew he wouldn't even count on this job, no matter how well he did, because they were always laying off people — and he'd probably be next.
One of the guys he worked with had him down to break, talking his ear off. "They're looking for ways to make everybody around here do twice what they're doing for the same pay. They cut people, then they cut pay. You watch. People are desperate around here. They'll go for it. They'll work for shit."
And sure enough, they cut him. But even when he begged and begged, said he'd work for minimum wage — hell, even less, they wouldn't keep him on.
"It's not like we can help it," Billy says. "We didn't pick Buford because we liked him. We don't have any other place to go. If we don't live here with Buford, where're we going to live? That's my question. Just tell me that!"
"Shut up,” Jeanie says. “Just shut up and listen."
He looks away, out at the rain. "Okay, I'm listening."
"We've got to move. Right away. We're not staying here any longer, not with the likes of dear old Uncle Buford. At least I'm not."
"We owe him a couple months' rent. What about that?"
"We need money," moans Billy. "How we gonna move without money? How we gonna even live?"
"Will you just shut up?" hisses Jeanie, rapping her coffee cup on the table.
"Good doing business with you, son." Buford gives Billy a smile, his long white monkey teeth edging over his lower lip. "Wanta beer?"
"Okay, sure. "
"Thought you would."
Buford comes back with a six pack, and they drink a couple, and Buford reaches down for a couple more. Tells Billy about this lady he heard of who blew her cheating husband away with a U.S. Navy regulation 45 piece. "One hell of a weapon," Buford whistles. "Do considerable damage to a man. You point a thing like that, you'd better mean business. She got him right where he sat on the shitter. Called the MPs herself and said she wasn't sorry a-tall for what she done — pleased as pink punch. Put her ass away for a long, long time," Buford chuckles. "Happened on a base where I was stationed. Was one okay woman, otherwise — least, what I heard."
"You sure?" Billy gulps his beer.
"Just things you can't stop," Buford says. "He couldn't help but screw around on his old lady and she couldn't help but blow his butt to smithereens. The size of it. Way of the world. Like that woman who cut her husband's peter off."
Buford's grinning at him, and Billy sees it's the right time. "I may need to borrow some more," he says. "A bit later. It's getting pretty tough these days. I'd sure like to get even with that glove factory. I would if I could!"
"You never paid me the rent yet," Buford says. "I let you all in —relatives, that's why; still yet, I don't wanta get fucked over." His voice sounds thick and hoarse, and Billy's stomach flutters.
"I don't mean to…"
"What you mean and what you do are two different deals," says Buford. "You know, I ain't loaded if that's what you think. I ain't your rich uncle type."
"I'll do it for sure," Billy says, fiddling with his beer can. "Real soon."
Buford pats his arm. "Better be real soon, son."
"It will. I promise."
"Or I'll have to take it outta your hide."
"Gottcha," Buford laughs and slaps him on the shoulder.
"I don't wanta make an enemy of you. I'll be sure to pay it. You can count on that."
"It'd be real bad," Buford grins, "to make me an enemy."
"I know," says Billy. "I know that."
A couple days later, Billy goes to borrow more from Buford.
Buford: "You take a seat right here, Billy Boy… That's right… Back in a minute." And he goes inside the house. Comes back: "Here. Here's a beer, here's a second 'cause you're gonna wanta watch this and have you something to drink while you do." And then he goes inside again for a couple minutes, then comes out with a long rifle. Big telescope outfitted on it. And then, there he is, winking at Billy, and he's got his sights on Jeanie's Dodge.
Billy's shaking his head.
Billy's letting out a howl but it's too late.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. Right up the fender. Thunk, thunk, thunk, right up the same fender.
Jeanie's inside sleeping.
Billy's screaming. He's up, waving his hands.
"Sit down, son. Drink your beer. Watch this little show here."
Billy's howling, screaming.
"Just a couple more," says Buford, aiming, "so hold those horses."
Ripple of jagged holes right up the driver's side door.
Jeanie's out now, confused, rubbing her eyes.
Buford's lowering his gun. Looking at her. "You got a real case for a husband here. He owes, he owes, he owes, and then he wants more. So where's the rent? Huh? Where's the rent? Thinks he's gonna make a big sucker of me. So I'm settlin' things. Showing him he doesn't get something for nothing in this world. Wages of sin, just like good old Momma said. Ha! Ha!"
"That's my car you're shooting." Jeanie's got her hands on her hips.
"Thought it was his."
"No, you didn't."
Buford looks over at Billy. He raises his rifle waist-high. "Well, what's next then, son? Got to be something. You tell me."
Billy gulps his beer, looks out at the still-flooded field. He's going to find a way outta here. He's going to find a way out of a lot of things from now on.