The Continental Divide
Edith’s son LT was driving her for groceries when he took a turn past the community college where young girls walked. She knew what he was up to and had a notion to object, but he was a grown man who’d paid his debt, so she bit her tongue at first.
“This ain’t the way, LT,” she said finally.
“I like the view,” he said, like he’d never seen short pants before.
That’s how their two minds worked. Of all the people in her eighty years—her mama and daddy when they were alive, her sister Rose, the Mister—Edith was the one to see the most sensible road to getting somewhere.
LT chose the path beset by peril on all sides.
“Keep your peepers in your head,” she said. He was forty-five and a month out of the penitentiary in Plainfield, while the girls were mostly in their teens. The way he slowed the Buick to watch them gave her the creepy crawlers, and she changed the subject. “When we seeing my grandson, or has his mama turned his head for good?”
LT didn’t answer. Since Plainfield he dosed his words by the spoonful.
“She’s a haughty one,” Edith said. “Like she never did wrong herself.”
“A cunt, is what she is.”
LT’s ex-wife lived in Mount Moriah with their son Wallace and ran a laundromat. “I don’t like that word, LT,” Edith said, though she might as well have scolded the thunderheads gathering in the west.
They turned onto Highway 23, where the Stop & Shop butted up to the Rite Aid on one side and the Waffle House on the other.
“As sure as there’s a sunrise,” LT said, and Edith followed his gaze to see the Law, a county boy, sitting at the Conoco station, radar gun aimed at the road.
“He ain’t after you,” she said, but then the Law pulled out and followed them into the Stop & Shop parking lot.
“Bastard,” LT said. His papers allowed him to drive when Edith was along or back and forth to a job, though of course nobody hired a two-time loser. The meth might be forgiven, but indecent liberties shut every door for good.
“For all he knows you became chaplain while you was inside.” Edith watched the brown and white cruiser turn back onto the highway. “Run afoul of the Law, and there ain’t no coming back. I always said so.”
She went into the store while LT waited in the car. He drove her to town because her eyes weren’t what they used to be. The doctor said he could cut the cataracts out and her vision would vastly improve, but Edith saw what she needed, and now that a man was in the house again to take her on errands, she was satisfied. The Mister had died while LT was away, giving her a suspicious glance one morning and crashing to the kitchen floor. Even before she got to her knees to look at him, she knew her husband was dead. No living body hits the floorboards with that kind of determination.
“At least he’s at peace now,” sister Rose had said at the vigil, though Edith doubted it. If there was a spade awry in the devil’s tool shed, the Mister would notice and jaw the subject to death.
At the cash register she looked out and saw LT in a phone booth, though by the time she wheeled her groceries to the car, he was finished and stood ready to unload.
“Who you talking to?” Edith asked. His papers told him to stay clear of prior associates, though she’d overheard enough whispered conversations to doubt he obeyed.
“Your grandbaby,” LT said. He grunted as he lifted a bag of dog food into the back seat, and his T-shirt rode up to show a white belly hanging over his belt. He’d always been full-sized, though he’d come out of Plainfield big as a house.
“You mean Wallace?”
“Ain’t he the only grandbaby you got?”
The clouds chased them home, and soon the sky was black and rain falling in sheets. LT stopped beneath the carport, and Edith hurried what she could inside while he got the rest. Zeke met her at the door, tail between his legs and whining with each breath.
“It’s just rain,” she said. “It won’t hurt you none.”
She was pleased beyond words at LT’s news. Her grandson Wallace was coming for supper that night and bringing his fiancée Aubrey. Edith hadn’t seen the boy in five years, and of course she’d never met his girl. It seemed impossible that the teenager she’d last seen at LT’s hearing was now twenty years old—a mechanic, she’d heard—and getting married in the fall.
“What you think about that?” she said to Zeke. “Your brother’s coming to visit.”
She put the groceries away, then swept the place top to bottom. Zeke shed like a house afire, the bulk of his hair collecting in the parlor, a room he rarely visited. Why that was Edith didn’t know, though she liked fussing on such questions, same as when she wondered why the moon seemed bigger at the horizon, or did a flock of starlings change direction by mutual agreement or leave the decision to an outlier among them? Later she peeled a handful of potatoes, leaving them to boil while she got dressed. She planned to fry pork chops and open some lima beans because she remembered Wallace the boy saying that lima beans looked like the kind of ears a frog would have if a frog had ears.
“I can’t deny it,” she’d said. “They do at that.”
A familiar darkness came over her when she remembered the Mister telling Wallace to hush up and eat, but she brightened again to think the boy would have his first meal at her table without the old man there to pick at him.
She washed her face, then changed into her good dress, the lavender one with pink flowers. It had been hung to dry in the sun so many times the cotton was soft as a butterfly wing. She looked at herself in the mirror and patted her hair. It was a frizzy horror, though she’d seen it worse. Finally she fetched her choppers from a glass and put them in her mouth. She’d taken to not wearing them for every day, but she didn’t want Wallace to be embarrassed introducing his grandma to his girlfriend. What was her name again?
When the young people arrived, Edith hurried to greet them. Wallace had changed little from the boy she’d last seen at the courthouse, but for a near-invisible mustache and a teardrop tattoo beneath his left eye that signaled his own time in juvenile lockup.
“Oh, Wallace, my sweet child,” Edith said. She pulled him to her and wept.
“And this must be Audra,” Edith said, stepping back to eye the young woman beside him. She wore black basketball shoes and jeans cut so short the pockets flopped against her milky thighs. Her hair was jet black, and she wore purple lipstick, and Edith decided she’d fit right in at a haunted house.
But then the girl smiled with surprising sweetness and said, “It’s Aubrey, ma’am.” Her gaze shifted, and Edith felt a tingling one feels standing too near an electric fence. She turned to see LT at her elbow. He was stuffed into a cream-colored bowling shirt with vertical stripes, his thin hair tied into a ponytail.
“This is Pap,” Wallace said, and when Aubrey reached to shake his hand, LT bowed wordlessly and pressed her fingers to his lips.
The girl turned pink. “Well, lah-dee-dah,” she said.
At the table, Aubrey told them she’d met Wallace at a meeting and both would be a year sober in November. She was a cashier, and Wallace was getting his mechanic’s license, and they would soon move into the apartment above his mother’s laundromat.
At the mention of his ex-wife, LT spoke. “All I can say, boy, is check the small print on the lease. Your ma wouldn’t piss on a body was it on fire.”
Edith looked to see if Wallace might bite back, but he put on the droopy face he’d always shown when his father said something mean. She felt a shiver of loathing toward her son as she remembered stories of the Law kicking in a door in Mount Moriah, only to find LT and a teenage Wallace so dazed on fumes they didn’t look up from their cooking.
The storm raged on, and Edith lifted her voice above the thunder. “Did Wallace tell you about his National Geographics?” she said, and when Aubrey shook her head, she continued. “When he was a boy, he’d come over to the house and look at my Geographic magazines instead of play.” She closed her eyes and swayed gently. “The Mister would be at work, and I’d be doing laundry or whatnot, and this little boy would come in and say, ‘Hey, Gamma, did you know there’s a firefly in China that lights up the exact same time other fireflies do, and nobody can figure out how?’ Or, ‘Hey, Gamma, did you know only girl mosquitos bite?’”
She opened her eyes. “That’s when I knew he was my grandson. We’re both the curious sort.” She laid a veiny hand on Wallace’s arm. “When you went away, I packed them magazines in Tupperware. I’ll get them out if you’d like.”
“That’s okay, Gamma.”
“He ain’t a little boy no longer, is he?,” LT said to Aubrey. He hadn’t stopped staring. Wallace looked more hangdog than ever, and Aubrey went pink again and dropped her eyes to her lap.
The bite of pork she was chewing turned bad in Edith’s mouth, and she spit it into her napkin. “Whenever it rains like this,” she said, “I remember Wallace reading about the Continental Divide.” She looked at Aubrey. “Do you know what that is?”
“Most folks know it as mountains that go from Alaska to Mexico, and how a drop of rain that falls on the west side flows to the Pacific Ocean, and one on the east goes to the Atlantic.” She peeked at her grandson. “But what is it folks don’t know?”
“There’s more than one,” Wallace said.
Aubrey smiled at them back and forth.
“There’s more than one continental divide, he means,” Edith said. She rapped the table top. “Tell the rest, boy. Don’t make me beg.”
Wallace sighed, then recited as from a printed page. “This house, Gamma’s house, sits square on what’s called the Saint Lawrence divide, only here the water goes north and south. Any rain that falls in Gam’s back yard ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, and any in front goes north to Lake Michigan.”
Edith clapped her hands. “How about that? He spends all day reading about Hottentots and crocodiles, when there’s a real, natural wonder right under his nose. He got so excited he fetched a glass of water and dumped it onto the back yard to see what might happen.”
“So what happened?” Aubrey said.
LT snorted. “It soaked in and disappeared. I could of told him it would.”
After supper the two men went to the carport to smoke, and Aubrey followed Edith into the kitchen. Before Edith knew it, the girl had filled the sink with soap suds and begun to wash the dishes.
“Where’d you get your manners?” Edith said, picking up a towel.
“My mama,” Aubrey said. “If I don’t help clean up, she says, ‘Who made you Queen for a Day?’”
“I like her right now.”
They worked side-by-side in the tiny kitchen, shoulders bumping lightly, and by the time they’d finished, the storm had grumbled to the east. Edith hung up her towel and turned to face the girl. “I hate to say this, but don’t get caught up alone with LT. I wish it warn’t so, but there it is.”
Aubrey’s eyes widened. “I don’t expect I’ll be here without Wallace.” She stuck out her chin. “Besides, I can take care of myself.”
“I believe you can,” Edith said, “but I got two more things to say. First, I love my grandson, but he ain’t never stood up to his daddy, and I doubt he’ll start now.” She patted Aubrey’s cheek. “And second, sometimes a smart young lady says, Yes, ma’am, I’ll take your advice and thank you for it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Aubrey said and, to Edith’s surprise, gave her a hug. Edith hugged her back and smelled her freshness and wondered why life would give an old woman three generations of foolish men to look after, with nary a girl in the mix.
When she and Aubrey returned to the sitting room, they heard LT shouting from the carport, “I’m still your pap, ain’t I?”
In another moment, Wallace stalked in and grabbed Aubrey’s wrist, and the two left the house without a word. Edith watched from the door as they hurried to Wallace’s pickup, the girl still in her grandson’s grasp as she ran-walked to keep up. The yard—a mess after any rain, tonight an unholy bog—sucked her black basketball shoes so deep she might have been walking on stumps.
Edith turned to look for LT, but he’d disappeared. She let the dog out a last time, then climbed the stairs, changed into her nightgown and got into bed. Zeke turned round and round before settling, his bones thumping the floor like a bag of damp sticks. She stared a while at the ceiling, then rose and went into the hall. LT’s door was ajar, and a wan, blue glow came from within, and she knew he was watching the old RCA he’d dug from the attic when he got out of the penitentiary.
She stepped to the door and hollered. “Whatever you’re planning for that girl—” She heard him curse and the mattress squeak violently. “Put it out of your mind. This family don’t need no more trouble.”
When no answer came, she padded back to her room. “I won’t allow it,” she told Zeke when he lifted his head.
Edith rose at dawn and put on her everyday dress and the Mister’s boots. She ate a bowl of peaches, then started a load of laundry and went outdoors. The sun was shining, though the ground was still muddy, and her boots squelched as she descended the northern slope of the property, where wild raspberries grew in abundance. The Mister had used the berries for wine, but Edith had seen enough of intoxicants, and she used them for jam and raspberry pies, both Wallace’s favorites.
She hummed as she worked, slowly forgetting the unhappy close to the evening before. When she’d picked enough, she climbed to the house and washed the berries in the sink, then stood on the porch and looked at the day. A spent, tattered quality to the trees told her cold weather was nigh, and the darkness came again as she pondered a winter shut up indoors with her son. She might stand it better if the young folks visited now and again, but, like Mister before him, LT behaved himself only when temptation was beyond his reach, and the way he’d looked at Aubrey—
“I’ll spend the winter without then,” she said aloud.
“Without what?” a voice said, and she turned to see LT at the screen door. He was in his underwear and wiping sleep from his eyes. She went inside to start his breakfast.
At the table, LT told her that Wallace had found him part-time work at the garage in Mount Moriah. He’d be fixing tires, changing oil, checking fluid levels—duties below a mechanic’s pay grade.
“He called while you was picking berries just now,” LT said.
Edith paused over her dishes. “That’s a start, ain’t it?”
“I’ll need the Buick, of course.”
“I expect so.” He rarely changed his shirt, let alone a tire, but she wasn’t about to argue with a paycheck. The Mister’s pension had been cut by half when he died, and LT ate like a lumberjack. She looked to where he sat, kneading a bit of toast between his fingers and watching her. “You don’t need an old lady’s permission to do what your papers allow,” she said finally. “Just remember the Law got his eye on you.”
Over the next week, he left the house after breakfast and returned by evening, as clean as when he’d driven away. When she asked how that could be, he mumbled about coveralls and Lava soap and handed her a five dollar bill, which she put aside for heating oil.
Before two weeks passed, the money dried up, and LT began staying out until all hours and smelled of pot when he came home, and Edith knew the job was no more, if there’d been one in the first place.
“Tell Wallace Gamma says Hey,” she said one day before he drove off.
LT glowered. “He’s proud, that one. He forgets who his daddy is.”
Edith studied on those words as the Buick disappeared, remembering suddenly Wallace the boy at the supper table, waving a Geographic and telling her and the Mister about a tribe in Africa who dyed themselves blue for so many generations their babies came out blue naturally.
The Mister had looked up from his beans. “I’d dye myself too, was I African.”
Edith covered her grandson’s small hand with her own. “Those people is less advanced than us,” she said. “We think every baby starts new, no matter who his folks are.”
Edith went to sleep in an empty house and woke before sunrise to Zeke growling at the window. She rose and looked for what had got his attention and saw lights off in the woods where the Mister had put up a deer stand. The lights flickered as figures passed back and forth, and when she cracked the window she heard men’s voices. She went downstairs and saw the Buick in its place beneath the carport, then climbed to her room and dug from the bureau the Mister’s Colt revolver she fired sometimes at chicken hawks.
She sat in bed with the pistol in her lap, and later she heard a vehicle roar from the woods and stop below and then voices exchanging hard words. She rose to see Wallace’s pickup speed away and then heard LT stomp up to his room, where he would stay until suppertime.
It was bad business. She held the pistol a while longer, comforted by its heft and coolness. The sun was halfway above the horizon when she returned the gun to the bureau, dressed herself and went downstairs.
LT didn’t leave the house for the next three days, and on the morning of the third he was on the porch and Edith was trimming sugar peas in the kitchen, when the Law drove up the lane. State boys, two of them, in Smoky-the-Bear hats. Edith left her peas in the sink and stood watching through the screen door, as the men climbed the slope to stand below the porch. The older wore sunglasses and had a paunch that rivaled LT’s. The younger doffed his hat and smiled at Edith.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Edith had a notion not to answer, though her rearing forbade such rudeness. She crossed her arms. “I wouldn’t say it was and I wouldn’t say it wasn’t.”
The trooper laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. “It’s early yet.”
LT said something from his chair, and the older man turned sharply. “What’s that, LT?” he said. “I didn’t make out what you said.”
“I didn’t say nothing,” LT said. “Nothing anyhow for your consumption.”
The words caught Zeke’s attention, and he growled where he stood beside Edith. She made a whist sound with her lips, and he slunk to his place beside the stove.
“We’re here on a missing person matter,” the young trooper said to Edith. “Do you know a girl named Aubrey Sykes?”
Her heart skipped. “I don’t know that I do.”
“Well that’s curious, because she’s living with your grandson, and we have reason to believe the two were recently here to the house.”
“I don’t keep track of Wallace. He’s growed now.”
“So Aubrey Sykes hasn’t been on this property? Her ma’s worried something awful.”
Edith steadied herself against the doorjamb. “I’m sorry for that woman,” she said after a moment, “but I don’t know no Aubrey Sykes.”
“How about you, LT?” the older man said. His eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, though his beak thrust forward like a hawk’s. “You like the young ones. You know anything about the girl’s whereabouts?”
LT yawned. “What Mama said.”
The troopers looked at each other. “Mind if we poke around a bit?” the younger said to Edith. He smiled again. “Just so we can say we did.”
She peered at them back and forth. “I don’t see no paper in your hands.”
LT chuckled. “If they had cause, Ma, they’d of got one from a judge and brought it with them.” He nodded at the troopers. “That’s how it works, ain’t it?”
The men stood another moment, Hawk Nose speaking before they turned to the cruiser. “There’s talk you’re cooking again, LT, you and that string bean boy, but my gut tells me you’ll soon have bigger worries.”
The troopers drove away, and Edith returned to her peas, though twice she paused to study the back of LT’s head where he rocked in the sun.
The next morning she rose at first light. She put on her everyday dress and the Mister’s boots, and she and Zeke followed the tracks of Wallace’s pickup into the woods, four days old but still plainly visible. They led to a clearing where pieces of the Mister’s deer stand still clung to a pin oak, and pines loomed silently like judges robed in green.
She paused to let her eyes adjust to the dimness. A woodpecker hammered nearby, and a far-off answer came so immediate it sounded like an echo.
She found where the truck had stopped and walked in ever-expanding circles away from the place, stepping around fallen logs and mucky places that never dried out, and likewise Zeke ranged with her among ferns and puffballs and may apples, and after a time came to her with a black basketball shoe in his jaws. She took it with a tiny cry, and then followed him to a spot where branches of young wood were swept atop one another, their torn places fresh and their leaves wilting where they ought yet to have been stiff and green.
She called Zeke off from his sniffing, then sat on a stump and cradled the shoe in her hands, her tears raining onto it. After a time she tossed the shoe onto the soft earth, remarking to herself how foolish her two men had been, to think that the Law wouldn’t find a grave when a grandma and her dog had done so in less than an hour.
She dried her face on her sleeve and studied a while longer. The woods were ghostly quiet, yet she sensed the living and dying everywhere around her: the movement of earthworms in the muck, the shrews that hunted them, trees shedding their leaves.
Whatever LT had done to the girl—it was he and not Wallace, of that she was certain—her grandbaby would be stained with it also and sent downstate to Plainfield.
“Where a hundred LTs are waiting,” she said aloud. She stood and walked back to the house.
There she went upstairs and laid her good lavender dress across her bed and rummaged in the closet until she found the pumps she saved for weddings and funerals. She put these on the bed also and fetched the Colt pistol from the bureau and laid it beside them.
She heard a chair scrape and went downstairs to find LT at the kitchen table. She got to work, mixing batter and bacon in the skillet, then frying potatoes in butter and garlic salt the way he liked. She hovered at his side, heaping pancakes and bacon onto his plate and refilling his coffee, until finally he groaned and waved her away. He stood and belched, then pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket and went outside.
Edith watched him disappear and knew he was going to the back yard, where the stone footing of a tumble-down barn was his bench, and where he sat looking over the southern hills as he smoked.
She put the dishes in the sink and went upstairs. There she changed into her good clothes and put her dentures in her mouth, then went outdoors to where LT sat. Despite her intentions, she couldn’t help but see how plush and extravagant the clouds were on the horizon, and how closer by the trees gleamed in the morning sun.
LT heard her steps and turned, though if he noticed her finery he didn’t have time to say so, because she pressed the Colt to his temple and pulled the trigger.
A pink mist bloomed from the opposite side of his skull. His shoulders convulsed and he fell to the ground. There he sprawled at the edge of the slope, face down in the crook of an elbow, like a man examining the earth’s surface one grain of sand at a time.
Edith looked to where he lay, then walked to the shed and returned with a spade. She wedged it beneath the dead man’s hip and pushed until the body tilted over and tumbled down the hillside. It rolled and bounced in the grasses and milkweed until it was out of sight, though she followed its path a bit longer by the wake it made in the green.
She stood for a time until something invisible chucked her beneath the chin, and she began to move again. She leaned the spade against the stone footing and walked to the house. For the second time that morning she found that she was weeping, and she rubbed her fists against her eyes, telling herself she had more work to do.
In the kitchen she dug through the phone book until she found the number for Wallace’s garage, then asked the man who answered if she could speak to her grandson.
“He’s busy right now, or he better be,” the man shouted over the sound of impact wrenches and revving engines.
“I’m afraid it’s an emergency,” Edith said, and, though she despised old ladies who did so, she made her voice small and helpless.
When Wallace came on she told him there’d been an accident at the house.
“What is it, Gams?” the boy said. “Is it Pap?”
“Just come. Come right away.” She dropped the handset so it bounced against the countertop, then went to the porch and sat in LT’s rocking chair. A tiny voice shouting Gams! Gamma! came from the kitchen. When it went silent, she knew the boy was on his way.
She closed her eyes in the sunlight, forgetting for a moment what her business was. Why was she sitting so idly? Where was LT? The Buick sat beneath the carport, so he hadn’t left for the day. Might he be wanting lunch soon? Also, she hadn’t liked the man at the garage. He clearly thought poorly of her grandson—a sweet, curious boy who, given the proper chance might yet—
She bit her lip, and the pain cleared her head.
When Wallace’s truck appeared, she would walk to meet it, then shoot him so his body fell down the north slope into the raspberries. Anyhow, that was her plan. She had learned that morning that a dead body goes where it wants to go, yet she was determined there’d be no taking a spade to her grandson like he was one of Zeke’s droppings.
She tilted her ear for sounds of a pickup, determined to stay alert. Soon, though, her thoughts drifted, and she remembered herself and Wallace the boy walking in the woods and coming upon a calf that had wandered from a farm and died. Maggots filled the animal’s nostrils and eye sockets, and its body was so bloated its legs stuck out stiffly like the legs on a hobbyhorse.
“Why is he so fat, Gamma?” the boy had asked, and she’d told him that a body gets that way, and then bursts to release all the liquids inside, and those soak into the ground to help whatever comes next to grow.
She winced, knowing that LT and Wallace would soon bloat in a like manner, but then she remembered the night she’d met Aubrey and how hard the rain had fallen, and she was comforted to know that LT’s vitals would wash to the south, where moss and copperheads hung from the trees and old colored women danced to voodoo music, while her grandson’s best parts would flow north to a great, blue lake, where eagles plucked salmon from the glassy surface and moose dipped their muzzles in the froth and came up blowing clouds of steam from their nostrils.
After she’d finished with Wallace, Edith intended to climb to her room, where she would invite Zeke onto the bed with her. There she’d take care of him as he would wish her to. He was an old dog and wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.
The final job would be easiest of all. The Law would find her in time, and there’d be the question of what to do with her remains, but Edith and her people would be ended by then.
What came next wasn’t her concern.