Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Middle of Nowhere

Michael Fontana


Sally worked on quilts in the middle of nowhere, as they called any small town in Arkansas. She believed in hand stitching, which took absolutely forever and cramped her hands at times but still she continued because she believed that a project started was a project done, and so on. The fields ran behind her house in a gleam of corn silk that her husband harvested and which they ate all year long. The corn was cold and squeaked to the teeth, even in summer, Sally thought. That never stopped her from taking a bite.

She stood only five foot four and wore long denim jumpers that she knew made her look ridiculously younger than she was. She was pushing sixty, not thirty. Her hair was white by now and her husband sometimes placed his hands in it and swore it was the snow, it contained such warmth beneath the layers of icy white. Her eyes radiated lines like the inside trunk of an ancient tree.

One day she sat out on the rocker on her porch when a truck wheezed past, as trucks sometimes did, pick-ups like this one, a lot of them red like this one, so red as if to seem to burst. Unlike the others, this one halted. A man lifted himself out of the driver’s seat and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, removing his baseball cap.

“You lost?” Sally shouted. “Town’s about a mile or so that way.”

“Your husband around?”

This made her uncomfortable. No one came calling for her husband, especially no one with a truck as clean as this one. He was out working the corn somewhere, driving a thresher perhaps, doing some ministration with a machine that fell beyond her words.

She worked up some pluck. “He’s busy. Can I help with something?”

The man approached. Despite his country air, it was clear that he wasn’t country at all. Everything about him spoke of a cleanness that didn’t come naturally to working with the land. “Well, ma’am, I hate to say, but I’m supposed to deliver this here foreclosure notice…”

“Foreclosure? You have the wrong house.”

He opened up a scrap of paper, halting at the bottom of her steps, and read it again like he had never read it before, which was a lie in and of itself. “No, ma’am, this is the right address. Have a look-see for yourself.”

She stepped down and snatched it from his hands. She didn’t have her reading glasses on so she had to crook her neck a bit but there it was in bold print: her address, her house, and the word foreclosure settling next to it like a house of hens.

She crumpled it and threw it at the man. “We’re not moving, if that’s what you ask.”

He wiped his forehead again with his hand. “I think they’re asking for payment, if you can muster it.”

“We muster it every month,” she said. “Punctual.”

He knelt down and fetched up the scrap of paper, unwadding it and returning it to its original folds and creases. “Then there might be a mistake. Maybe that’s it.” This set him to grinning and easing his way back to the truck, where he had left the driver’s door open. He slid back inside and sped away, toward town where she had indicated.

“Succotash,” she said to no one in particular.

***

Sally made a conscious decision not to tell her husband. He always came in from the fields looking wearier than any man had a right. He was over sixty by now, his hair having vanished, the dome of his skull lit beneath a khaki cap that seldom left his head, sometimes not even while he slept. He was no longer muscular but simply wiry, which still bore a certain strength but also suggested that something somewhere might break with the right or wrong exertion.

She left him asleep in the rocker on the porch by night and stepped inside. She combed through a dresser drawer where they stored their bills and located all the ones pertaining to the house. Payment made, payment made, nothing seeming out of sorts to her. It made no sense. Maybe it was a mistake, as the clean man had suggested.

The man in the red pick-up returned the following day with a sheriff’s deputy in tow. This time the baseball cap and cowpoke garb was gone, replaced by what appeared to be an off-the-rack JC Penney catalogue number, complete with wrinkled tie. The periodic wiping of forehead with backhand continued.

“Hello again, ma’am,” the man said.

“You were right,” she said back from her rocker, the rocking gaining great urgency. “It was a mistake. I checked.”

“Yes and no, ma’am. It seems you may have been paying on time and such. But the company you were paying didn’t cover the bills. It’s what they call a Ponzi.”

“A what?”

”Let’s just say they were crooked. Unfortunately, the fault falls on good folks like yourselves.”

The deputy maintained his distance, standing in the gravel by the side of the road, his dark uniform painted in swirls of dust. His hands remained crossed at his waist. He was there as an ornament, she thought.

“We paid,” she said.

“It may not rightly matter, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

He extended the previously crumpled piece of paper toward her and she took it back. This time she had had the wisdom to bring out her reading glasses. She read slowly, just to make that critter in the red truck sweat a little more. He was right, from what she could understand, but she wanted the sun to do its duty and melt him like butter there. It didn’t.

“What do I do?” She asked, dropping the paper onto the boards of the porch.

“You might want to talk to an attorney,” the man said, seeming pleased by this sudden sense of acceptance on her part. “But you may need to prepare to vacate.” This invoked a nod from the deputy, who she also foresaw melting into a slick alongside the road.

No one melted. They all three stood as if dazed by the swelter of the sun until she relented.

“Very well then,” she said.

This must have indicated some kind of closure to the man, because he nodded to the deputy, who then stepped off and into his cruiser, fading into the road. The man himself edged into his truck, made a call on the cell phone, filled out some kind of paperwork attached to a clipboard, and then yelled out to her. “You won’t need to see me any more, ma’am.”

“No, I won’t,” she said. She returned to the metal clips surrounding her quilt and stitched portions of it together, making sense out of patches of fabric that otherwise failed to make it into any other creation.

***

The following afternoon, Sally abandoned her quilting for a drive in the small white car that they owned as a back-up to the larger truck her husband usually drove on his errands when errands were needed. She seldom went anywhere, whether with or without him. Today she had her own errand, although she never told him of it. In fact, she hadn’t told him anything of the foreclosure notice. It was still a delirium of sunlight, she had convinced herself.

She went into town in her regular wear, as if going to purchase fabric. Instead she found her way inside the red brick of the local bank branch and stepped right up to confront a young man whose suit she recognized: the man in the truck.

“You work here?” she asked.

He had started to flash a perfunctory smile that no doubt appeared whenever confronted by anyone. But the smiled slip into a grimace for just long enough a second that she knew he recalled her. “I thought you had understood, ma’am…”

”Where has all our money gone?”

“Into someone else’s crooked hands. Your mortgage lender. They defaulted. They didn’t pay.” The words came tumbling out of his mouth like rapids over rocks. He was no longer coherent but babbling.

“You need to help us then.” She took a seat without invitation, upon which he then motioned for her to sit. That was him in a nutshell, she thought, all backwards commotion.

“Ma’am, I can’t. The police maybe. A lawyer maybe. But not us. We have to enforce the agreements that we have. Unfortunately, we never received your payments, so the house is technically in foreclosure.”

“Technically,” she said, trying hard to sound ladylike even as she knew she wasn’t, “you can kiss my ass.”

”Ma’am…” he said, finally failing any words at all, wiping his forehead again, suddenly a gushing boy there instead of a man, faltering before his elders.

“Sir,” she said, trying to restore to him a touch of the dignity he once possessed.

“We will never leave that land. You will have to plow us under with it before we ever depart.”

He swallowed thickly. “I understand. You understand that I will eventually have to call the sheriff back.”

“You understand that my husband has been friends with the sheriff since before you were an egg in your mother’s uterus.”

”The sheriff will do his job.”

“And so will I,” she said, rising. “Good day.”

***

Her job in the end was to quilt. So she quilted. She spent day and night out in the rocker on the porch, quilting, awaiting the arrival of the sheriff’s car, never speaking word one to her husband. The sheriff arrived a full two days later, when she had been awake nearly 48 hours consecutive. He was a portly man, the way a man might turn after crossing fifty, the weight of beers to wind down settling into a paunch that overrode the belt loops.

“Sally,” he said, crunching up to the walk, helping himself up the stairs, occupying the seat next to hers. “We’ve got an issue here.”

”I know that.”

“You tell that man of yours?”

“No. You will.”

“All right. If I must.”

“You must.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Hate you for the rest of my life.”

“I didn’t do this, Sally. You know that.”

“You’re enforcing it, even when you know it’s wrong.”

“Got to do my job. I got a family to support, too.”

”Your family’s not losing their land,” she said. She refused to look up any more but kept focused on her quilt, on the movements of her hands atop it.

“We’ll find you a place. This community’s not going to let you go sleep by the river.”

Her hands seemed to take on a life of their own. She watched one drop the needle and reach out to touch his hand. It was the first reassuring thing anyone had said and it brought her to tears that she didn’t want to cry.

“It’s all right, Sally,” he said, covering her hand with his other one.

“It’s not all right,” she said between sobs. “It never will be again.”

“You just finish that quilt,” he said. “That’s all you need to worry over.”

She nodded as he stood up. She watched him wander out back to where her husband was still at work, even though night was pressing in. She kept at work as well. Sometimes it was all a body could do, was keep occupied, praying that something divine would flow through the fingertips and create something new here on earth.

___

Michael Fontana's work has appeared in a variety of print and electronic publications, most recently Arava Review, Digital Dragon, Mirror Dance and Thema.  He works at a community mental health center in northwest Arkansas. 

© Michael Fontana

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2010