Tom directed her to a footpath carved through the bramble behind the strip mall, and Clara Mae hesitated. She told Tom it was for fear of under-brush critters and poison ivy, but he knew the real reason.
“Don’t you worry none, m’am. I walk this path many times, and I ain’t ever encountered no snakes–not even garden snakes. No poison ivy, neither, and you got on long pants. I’m gonna make this easy for you. That’s what you’re paying me for. I’m gonna go first. I’m gonna smoosh down the grass and stomp around to run off anything that might be out there. Then, see, I’d be the first one to get bit. I’m taking care of you, m’am,” T tipped his hat in an exaggerated fashion.
It did the trick. Clara Mae knew his graciousness, his chivalry were part of the trade–but on some level, she thought they were from a place of sincerity. She thought, in fact, that he would protect her.
He took a step into the woods.
She took a step behind him.
“See, it clears up down yonder,” Tom pointed off into the thick of the woods, and Clara could see the clearing below. “It’s just rained so much, ya know.”
“Say, what did you mean back there about Kathy having her husband killed? What did you hear?” Clara asked.
“Did T say that? T didn’t say that. Or maybe T did. Can’t remember.” Tom laughed, and it sounded like an excited Daffy Duck. “Lady, T’s mind don’t always work so good.”
“Are you really sure you can get us there? If your mind don’t work so good?” Clara asked.
“This place, I have no trouble remembering,” Tom said.
Clara Mae felt she was better off not asking why. So the two continued down to trail that was downright spacious now, obviously cleared from a steady tread of feet over time. At least, it seemed, they were not alone in this journey.
“M’am, I know I got swiss cheese for a brain,” Tom chuckled a bit. “But I do remember some things. I remember you brung me a coat one time when it was cold and rainy and all I had was a Hefty bag. I remember you brung me some fried rice–”
“You do remember!” Clara exclaimed.
“I surely do,” Tom said. “I remember you apologized for eating all the shrimps out. But I don’t care for shrimps, anyways.”
“I’m glad you remember that,” Clara Mae said. “Why do you act like you don’t?”
“I don’t know, m’am. Reckon it’s just easier,” T said as he bent down a patch of overgrown stalks of weeds with his feet, so Clara could make her way through. “I don’t want nobody to know me, I guess.”
“Oh? Why not? You’re not such a bad person to know,” Clara said.
“Well, you don’t rightly know that, m’am,” Tom said. “Least my family seems to disagree.”
“What do you mean?” Clara said.
“My son lives here in Tippashaw. My only son. My pride, my joy. Got himself a job. Works over at the plant. Doing right nicely for himself, or so I hear: manager! But I come all the way here to see him, all the way from Georgia where I had a house and a job, I come all the way here, and he ain’t want to see me. First it was excuses: I gotta work late. I gotta date. But the days turned into weeks, and I realize he ain’t want to see me. And I had put my everything into that boy, an’ he ain’t want to even see me!”
“Wow, T,” Clara said in a hushed voice. “I’m so sorry.”
“But, you see, I ain’t realize it. I stayed around, I stayed around too long. And I ain’t realize it. I been a good father to my boy. I give him all my time when he been growing up. I even watched him when he was a baby–I was outta work then–T’s the one that changed all them poopie diapers. T had a hole in his heart before he had a son, but when he had his boy his life was FULL. T was a happy man. But when T find hisself all alone, that hole came back. An that’s when T start up with the drugs.” Tom hung his head. “My boy shore ain’t gonna see me now. No siree.”
“Tom, I know things aren’t great for you right now,” Clara Mae started. They were deep in the woods now, and Clara had no choice but to trust Tom’s direction. She couldn’t have found her way back if she tried. “But everybody makes mistakes. What’s most important is that once you know you’re making one, stop.” The two stopped walking, and Clara touched his shoulder. “I know you don’t want people to know you, Tom. But now I do know you. Help is out there. I will help you find it, if you really want it.”
“Thanks, Clara,” Tom said, and Clara was surprised that he knew her name. “Maybe T can be a happy man again.”
The pair walked for over an hour, and even though there was still a good chill in the air Clara Mae was hot and sweaty. She wished she had brought some water. “T, how much longer? I’m not trying to complain. But I’m not a hiking woman. I don’t know if I can keep going. (Old knees.)”
As soon as she said it, T just pointed, and she could see in the distance where the trailer was tucked into a spot cut out of the trees. “But she ain’t home. I usually wait up there.” Tom gestured up into the trees above them, and she realized there was a ladder built on the trunk of the tree in front of them that she hadn’t noticed. At the top of the ladder was a deerstand that hunters would use during the season.
“Wait. You don’t expect me to get up there? I told you, old knees,” Clara said.
“Trust me, lady. You gotta go up. The later it get, well, this woods ain’t a safe place to be if you know what I mean,” Tom said.
Clara Mae hoisted herself up the ladder with the grunts of a woman not used to physical labor. Tom spotted her below, giving her a push on the rump when she needed. (She was struggling too much to protest.) Still, she was careful to place The Doll ensconced in purse safely on the wooden landing first, before lifting her own rear up to the platform.
She did it. Not without splinters, but she did it.
Tom was not far behind her, and soon the two were perched on the planks together. From their position they had a clear view of the gravel in front where the cars park, but for the moment, it was empty, and the trailer was dark.
“I hope we aren’t going anywhere for a while,” Clara said, digging at a splinter. “I can’t hardly move.”
“M’am, I know it’s none of my business, but why you going after this lady anyways?” Tom asked.
“Kathy’s my daughter-in-law,” Clara said. “She’s got my grandkids.”
“She runoff with them, huh?” Tom said. “So you can’t see ’em.”
“They used to stay with me. We’re very close, me and those girls,” Clara said, and Tom could see the water welling in her eyelid.
“We’re close now,” T reassured, touched her on the knee. “Kathy usually comes in late. But they’ll be here. You just watch.”
“When Dan died, nothing was right after that, you know? It’s not like it was perfect before, but regular. You don’t really appreciate regular ’til it’s gone,” Clara said.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Tom said. “Who is Dan?”
“Dan was my son—you know, the man who got shot at the Kountry Korner? Kathy’s husband. My Dan. My baby,” Clara said, her welling tears turning into a trickle. “Sorry. Still hurts.”
Tom got quiet, and his already pale face seemed to get whiter. “I’m so sorry, m’am. It ain’t right that happen to your f-f-family,” he stammered. “I didn’t know he was a family man. Kathy said he was hurting those kids; wasn’t he hurting those kids?”
And Clara wasn’t sure, but she could swear she heard him mumble, That’s why she had that abortion.
“Kathy told you what, exactly? When did she tell you that?” Clara snapped. “Dan was the rock of this family. He took care of those kids. When he passed she just dumped ’em with me, ’til she got jealous and wanted ’em back.”
T didn’t answer, he just turned his back to Clara as dusk settled in and darkened the sky. He didn’t say anything, but she heard the click of a lighter and smelled the funny-smelling smoke and knew enough to know it wasn’t good. As the sunlight lowered, Clara could see people beginning to arrive, scattered throughout the yard. First one, then two, then a half dozen. Drifting. Together but not interacting.
This, Clara thought, must have been what he meant by not safe. It made her sick to think of her girls walking through that yard, up the stairs to their rooms. In the back of her mind, she knew why the addicts must be there.
Why would Kathy tell him that Dan was hurting the kids? And then (she couldn’t keep the thought from coming), Could Kathy have had something to do with his murder? Clara shook her head at the unthinkable.
Clara Mae looked around at the crowd of addicts gathering below like zombies—slow-moving with heavy hanging limbs—and the addict that she had willingly followed here, the addict now lapsing into silent paranoid glances, and she couldn’t help but remember the dream of Raw Gums: you-put-it-in-there, now-you-ain’t-getting-it-back is right, she thought. She had gone and gotten herself surrounded. She drew the purse closer to her, and wanted nothing more than to cradle The Doll in a fetal position like a frightened child.
Clara’s move toward her purse had spooked T. He jumped up straight away pointing his gun in Clara’s face.
“Don’t do this, Tom,” Clara said, pleading. “This ain’t who you are. There’s a good man in there.” Clara could see him shake his head, questioning her statement. “There is a good man in there, Tom. You can do it. Put the gun down.”
“There’s no saving T, m’am,” Tom said solemnly cocking his gun. “No siree. There shore ain’t.” She could see inside his eyes that he was going to do it, that he was no stranger to this, that he was reliving in that moment the deaths that had gone before.
Then, he turned the gun on himself.
Clara Mae jumped up and grabbed the gun, knocking him off balance and the barrel away from Tom’s face. The shot exploded instead against a nearby tree, and the addicts below them scattered—for the moment. The two tussled, and it wasn’t long until Tom had regained his balance. Though T was strong enough to be the victor, when Clara’s hands pried for it, T dropped the gun.
“Tom ain’t want to do it, m’am. You just know that. Kathy made Tom do it. That’s—a bad woman.”
Clara wanted to ask him what he meant by that, and wanted thank him for letting go of the gun, and even wanted to make good on the offer to get him some kind of help, but before she could, Tom had grabbed her purse and taken off down the side of the tree and into the woods with speed only found in a speedhead. Clara wanted to run after him—not worried about the money or even her cellphone, but thinking only of THE DOLL. She felt the weight of the gun in her hand and had the thought of trying to nick him in the leg. Just to slow him down.
She wouldn’t’ve, though, and by then he was long gone, anyway. The Doll was gone, but deep in her head she could still hear its cries: WAHHHHH. WAHHHHH. Clara looked down at the gun, and though she was no gun expert, the recognition was immediate from all of the talk about Dan’s case: it was the same type of gun, same model as what had killed her Dan.
She made me do it, T’s words rang in Clara’s head.
She felt sick to her stomach and might’ve thrown up, if at that moment Kathy’s car hadn’t pulled into park in the gravel drive.