In the morning Clara awoke with her fingers intact, needing to pee. There was a toilet in the corner with a seat but no lid, and a rusted industrial flusher that was half-cocked toward the floor. Clara wondered if it would flush–but the bowl was empty, and that was a good sign. While she relieved herself she felt relief, running fingers against fingers and appreciating the sensation of her own touch against touch while her bladder emptied thick and pungent. She appreciated her fingers like she hadn’t before. It had felt so real.
It was then–with her pants around her ankles, hair mussed and soaked with sweat, her hands pressed together as if in prayer or here’s-the-church-here’s-the-steeple–that Clara Mae’s cell door opened.
It was Aunt Helen.
Sheriff Johnny pulled the door back until it was open only a crack, a gesture of respect to her modesty, and called out, “M’am, your bail’s been posted.” Clara realized too late that there was no toilet paper, so she gave herself a shake, and then, red-faced and mortified, she burst into tears.
For Helen to be here, it must surely be that Gerald has passed.
Clara Mae pulled up the waist band of her pants and hoped that damp would not visibly gather in her crotch while she wiped the damp from her eyes and nose. Clara mumbled gratitudes at Helen as she exited her cell, and Helen murmured something that could have been you’re welcome, and in turn did not look at her, only looked at the floor. The sheriff, hasty to rid himself of awkward female nuances, pointed them toward the parking lot and shuffled them outside the closest emergency exit.
“Gerald was worried sick,” Aunt Helen said as she unlocked the car. Clara wondered if Helen could even drive.
“Gerald? Is he…okay?”
“I guess you heard, huh? He is in the hospital, but he’s fine. They’re keeping him one more night for observation, but I think that’s mostly to watch and see if he turns crazy again.”
“What do you mean?”
“They think he done this to himself. Poisoned himself by eating moths. Hundreds and hundreds of moths. I never saw him eat a moth; you see him eat a moth?” Clara shook her head. “They said he must’ve been sneaking them for weeks. But he don’t remember doing it. He don’t remember nothing. Craziest thing. When he come out of it he was so worried to find you, like he wasn’t worried about himself, laid up in the hospital, just worried to find you. He asked me to post your bond and so of course I did.”
“Thank you for that,” Clara said, looking at the floorboard.
“Maybe he got into the BugZapper,” Helen said. The two women laughed together, longer than was warranted.
It turned out that Helen couldn’t hardly drive, and Clara Mae was grateful to see the hospital parking lot come into view. When Helen parked she parked in two spaces, but Clara didn’t dare correct her, and instead exited the passenger side with relief that after all of this she hadn’t seen her end in a slow motion collision at Helen’s polite, unsteady hands.
Gerald’s room was on the second floor, past the intake desk, room 234. Helen entered first, but Gerald’s eyes went directly to Clara. The joy was sincere, and it made Clara feel ever-so-guilty, but she couldn’t let on.
“So, they let you out of the pokey,” he said weakly, behind nose-tubes.
“Well, I hear you’ve been eating bugs. Why don’t we start with that?” Clara Mae said.
“I’ll be damned… I don’t know what happened to me. But I’m fine now. They don’t tell me nuthin’. Reckon they’re keeping me to come off the beer is all.” Gerald said.
“Detox, huh?” Clara wanted to ask if sober was for real this time, but she bit her tongue. “They at least let you have coffee? Coke?”
“A Coke would be great,” Gerald looked back at his wife with raised eyebrow, as if to say where is the nag? “Thanks, Babe.”
When Clara returned with soda can in hand, complete with bendy straw, Helen ran off for a snack bag of Cheez-Its. And so the day progressed right up to the end of Visiting Hours: with two overly tired women, fussing.
When she pulled into her driveway after dropping Helen off for the night (after, naturally, insisting that Clara would drive), her first thought was that somehow Gerald had finally cleaned out the overgrowth in the backyard. It was such a clear night and a clear view to the foothills behind them that she hadn’t seen in so long, at first she felt happy to see the peaceful scene.
Then she realized what was missing.
Clara ran to the empty spot where the trailer had been for so long, not even closing her car door. She knelt in the spot where the grass had long died, where the worms and and centipedes and roly-polys were now bared to the moonlight, where there was nothing now but scatterings of litter left in its wake. She knelt as if in pain and prayer, knelt as if she were searching for something that she had lost, knelt as if she just kept searching she would find it, as if it was here somewhere, as if she just looked hard enough she would find it, like an earring or a contact, if she looked close enough and the light caught it in just the right way it would be back to the way it was supposed to be and all of this would go away and she could go to bed.
After a while, Clara realized she needed to snap out of it. Quit being an old woman rolling around in the yard, she chided herself, pulling herself up to go inside and dial 911. The operator said they would send somebody right out, but Clara Mae was out waiting on the porch for a good 15 minutes before Sheriff Johnny drove up.
“Miss Clara, what’s this all about?”
“Kathy took the trailer from behind my house. She took the girls!”
The sheriff sat down on the porch step below her. “Now, Miss Clara. Kathy told me about y’all’s little spat about the trailer. She showed me the signed deed you were after when you broke into her place the other day. You know there’s nothing we can do for you, Clara. You just got out on bail. I reckon you’d better keep your head down, don’t you?”
“Clara, those girls are fine. Ain’t much we could do for you anyway, you know Grandparent’s don’t have claim to their Grandkids. They belong with their mama. Look, you just bake up some of them good cookies of yours. Take them over to Kathy tomorrow, and you girls can make up. But for now, go get some sleep, okay?”
“But I don’t even know where they are!”
“I’m sure they will turn up, Miss Clara. Trust me, you just need to get some rest,” he stood up. “Now, I don’t want to hear nothing from you again. Remember, head down. I don’t need you back in the clink.” The sheriff winked at her before heading back to his cruiser. Irritating.
She wasn’t sure if she didn’t sleep that night because of worry for her girls, or simply out of spite to Johnny for insisting that she should. Clara watched night turn to dawn without finding any rest between, and then earlier than was necessary she got ready for work.
She figured Bob would be pleased that she was in early, and she hoped that would help a bit since she was probably in trouble for not showing up yesterday. She thought he would stop by early for her reprimand, but when she drove up at 5:35 and she saw a car she was surprised. As she got closer, Clara realized that it was another car—not Bob’s usual at all. And as she parked she saw a shiny blonde head behind the counter.
“Oh, hi,” the blonde stopped wiping down the counter when Clara entered. “You must be be Clara. I’m Tammie. Bob said you’d probably be by.”
“Of course I would be by. This is my shift,” Clara said.
“Oh, yeah. About that. Bob hired me to be the new store manager. I’m his niece,” Tammie outstretched her hand, “and I just graduated from North Tippashaw Community College. In business. So now I will be taking this shift,” Tammie looked at her. “Um, sorry.”
“So, what shifts will I be taking?”
“Oh, I’m not really sure,” Tammie said.
“I thought you were the new store manager? What kind of store manager doesn’t know?”
“Well, it’s just that I think we have pretty good coverage of the shifts. But we will keep you in mind.”
“I need to talk to Bob. I’m calling him. I have given this store my everything for years. Risking my life to drive in through ice storms. They can’t just—”
“Bob’s on a fishing trip,” Tammie said, while Clara dialed Bob’s number. The phone rang and rang, but no one answered, only kicking over to a message about a full voicemail box after too many rings.
“They’ll mail the check to you,” Miss Community College said, and Clara Mae realized that, in fact, they wouldn’t.