Roll Them Bones (Novella #12)
by David Niall Wilson
Jason pulled his sleek black Volvo in beside a faded, rust-pocked Chevy truck in front of Macomber’s General Store and killed the engine. He couldn’t suppress a shiver. If it hadn’t been for the peeling paint on the side of the building, and the new feed and grain store across the street, he’d have believed the trip was all a dream and he was twelve again. So little had changed.
Old Bob Macomber was on the porch of the store, rocker creaking slowly as he took in Jason’s car with a dubious stare. Curiosity, like everything else in Random, was slow to blossom. Jason stepped from the car and closed the door slowly, turning to scan Main Street. The Post Office and the Sheriff’s office were one building, a duplex, grey-concrete blocks bonded with cement and too-thick coats of paint. The American flag hung at a forty-five degree angle beside the front awning of each door.
“Hasn’t changed much, has it boy?” Old Bob’s voice broke the silence like a stone through glass, and Jason started, turning back with a sheepish grin.
“Not much at all,” he agreed, stepping toward the porch, and the store. “It’s been a long time, Bob.”
Bob nodded toward an empty rocker a few feet to his side. “Sit a spell, Jason. It ain’t every day one of our wandering sons returns.”
Jason stepped up to the porch and took the offered seat, watching the old man with a slowly spreading grin. “Don’t even offer a beer?”
“You know where the beer is boy,” Bob rumbled, “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll bring two. It’d damned hot out here. And don’t be thinking ‘cause you’re Glen Stiller’s boy you’ll be running a tab. Ain’t nothing free here.”
Jason laughed. He rocked forward and stood in an easy motion, turning to the store and pushing through the door. The cooler stood along the wall, just to his left, as it had stood when he’d gotten his first Coca Cola about twenty years in the past. The hum of electricity and the sudden sense of deja vu nearly stole his breath.
It was like stepping through a time-warp portal into another place. Hank William’s Sr. yodeled from an ancient, RCA radio on the counter. Flies buzzed around a barrel of apples in the corner, and on the wall above the cooler, James Dean winked at him slyly from a poster advertising a brand of cigarettes that no longer existed.
Jason leaned on the old cooler for a second, the cool porcelain supporting him easily, then he lifted the lid, snagged a couple of long-necked Budweisers and turned toward the door. The cooler closed behind him with a soft “whoomp.”
He handed one to Bob and returned to the empty rocker, unscrewing the top of the bottle with a quick twist of his wrist and tossing the cap in a lazy arc toward the can beside the door. It clipped the rim, then rolled in.
“Lucky,” Bob grunted. “Always was lucky.” He flicked his own cap into the can with practiced ease. “I guess you’re lookin’ for Ronnie?”
Jason stared at the bottle in his hand. Condensation had beaded the deep brown surface and dampened his fingers. He nodded. “I guess I am,” he said softly. “He called me about a month ago.”
Bob rocked, sipping his beer. He didn’t speak for what seemed hours and was probably not a full minute.
“He called some others, too,” Bob said at last. “Lizzy is here, and Frank. Ain’t seen a one of you since you graduated high school, but here you are.”
“They’re here?” Jason said, maybe too quickly.
Bob looked around slowly, then laughed, tipping the beer bottle up and draining it. “You see ’em?”
Jason smiled despite himself. “Nope,” he answered, swallowing his own beer in a single gulp. He rose, taking both bottles and returning to the store.
As he slipped through the door once more, Bob called after him. “Lizzy is here. She’s staying over at Mae’s. I reckon there’s a couple more rooms. Frank is due in tomorrow, or so Edna says.”
Jason grinned again. Edna would know. Edna knew everything that happened in Random, or nearby. The only contact with the outside world was the phone lines, and the phone lines went through Edna.
“They ever put in that automatic switchboard?” Jason called, as he grabbed two more beers from the cooler.”
He slipped back out onto the porch, noting that the sun had dropped a little closer to the skyline. It was a deep orange sunset, seeping over the tops of the trees and staining the black asphalt of the road as it stretched away across endless miles of open farmland.
“Nope,” Bob answered with a chuckle. “Edna couldn’t figure how to tap into it, so she put them off another year.”
“What is that, about fifteen years she’s ‘put them off,’?” Jason chuckled again. This time his bottle-cap sailed into the can cleanly.
“Something like that,” Bob answered, and for the first time, the old man grinned. “It’s good to see you boy. Don’t you think for a minute I’ve forgotten you owe me for ten comics, either.”
This time Jason’s laughter was clear and loud. “Let’s see,” he replied, “at twelve cents apiece…”
The silence that followed was deep and comfortable, and Jason sipped the beer, rocking gently and letting the voices of a thousand crickets calm him.
Mae’s was just down the street, and Jason let his gaze fall on the faded, white-washed front of the old building. In it’s day, the place had been a saloon, a flop house, even a temporary school. Now it served as motor lodge, hotel, boarding house and general rent-all. Whoever needed a room, for however long, was welcome. Jason felt welcome, and he hadn’t even left the store. It was good to be home, odd as it felt, out of place as he was in his Ralph Lauren Chaps and his Italian leather shoes.
The trees were painted with all the colors of autumn, and the air was brisk, but not yet cold. The high school would be getting ready for homecoming soon, and the scarecrows and fake spider’s webs already lined the street. Jason glanced over at old Bob and grinned.
“What’s the going price on toilet paper and paraffin?” he asked.
“You better believe it’s gone up,” Bob laughed. “Won’t be too many kids can find the price of a good paraffin stick this time of year.”
Jason grinned and drained the beer, standing quickly.
“I’d better get on over to Mae’s,” he said. “Don’t want to miss dinner. I’d hate to have to come back and wake you up.”
“Don’t sleep so much these days,” Bob said softly, more softly than Jason had anticipated. “Seen a lot of sun ups, and sun downs, boy. Reckon these days I prefer to be awake for both. You get on over to Mae’s, but you need a beer, or a sandwich, or a pair of ears to yak at, you come on back. Reckon I’ll be right here.”
Jason nodded, then took the space between them in a few quick strides, extending his hand.
“It’s been way too long, Bob,” he said. “I’ll be back to take you up on that beer before I head out. You can count on that. Likely be here for a couple of those sunrises, as well.”
“You do that, boy,” Bob smiled, showing that at least two of his teeth had not weathered the test of time. “You bring that Frank with you. I’d like to see how old Jim Moss’ boy turned out. Seems everyone leaves Random before they get old enough to have any sense, and those that stay. . .”
Tom’s words trailed off, and Jason didn’t question him. He turned with a quick wave and headed up the block toward Mae’s, leaving his car parked where it was. No sense starting it up to drive 100 yards, and for some reason he didn’t want to crawl back into the stuffy interior of the car just then.
The loud jingle of a bell startled him as gravel shot out of a too-quickly turned tire as a boy, maybe ten, sped past on an old Schwinn bicycle.
“Jeez, Mr.,” the boy called back, leaping the bike onto the sidewalk and whipping around the first corner with practiced ease. “Watch where you’re goin’.”
Jason laughed, trotting the last few feet to Mae’s. He hesitated as soft laughter floated out through the screen door. The voice was familiar, achingly so, and moments later he heard Mae’s throaty chuckle joining in. No mistaking that voice.
Jason knocked, then pulled the screen door open and stepped inside. Back in New York this would have been rude, but as each moment passed, he felt the sense of home more strongly. Etiquette in Random was a wholly different animal, subject to an older set of rules.
Those gathered around the dining room table fell silent as Jason entered. Lizzy looked up, then down to the floor with a shy blush that made Jason smile. He knew it was her. He hadn’t seen Lizzy in over twelve years, but he knew that smile, and that blush.
“Hey Lizzy,” he said softly, then turned to the head of the table. “Mae,” he nodded.
“Hope you got a room with a soft pillow and a real air conditioner.”
Mae laughed, standing slowly. She flowed from her chair, flowered dress spinning out around her in a whirl of color. To say Mae was a large woman would be like saying the Ocean was a big pond. The floor groaned with her weight, and her rumbling laughter rattled the china in the cabinet along the wall. Long, braided red hair fell over her shoulders and tumbled across her breasts. Her eyes flashed green across the room and Jason tumbled back through time.
“You’ll be lucky, and happy, to get a bed with clean sheets and a room with a ceiling fan,” Mae asserted, hands dropping to her ample hips. “And if you don’t sit that skinny butt down in about two seconds and start eating, you can say ‘excuse me, Mae, for missing dinner,’ and high-tail it back to that store for Doritos.”
They all burst out laughing at that, and Jason regained enough control of his limbs to seat himself next to Lizzy, letting his gaze trail over her soft features. She still wasn’t meeting his gaze, but she was smiling. Jason glanced instinctively down to her finger. No ring. That would be a tale for later, he guessed.
Without hesitation, Jason grabbed a plate and spooned a generous helping of mashed potatoes into the center. There was gravy for the potatoes, meatloaf, corn and a casserole of mushrooms and spinach coated in thick cheese that had Jason’s mouth watering just from smelling it. Some things never changed. No one could eat a meal at Mae’s table and really wonder how she’d reached such prodigious girth. The real question was how those who surrounded her avoided it.
“You want to pass me that milk?” Jason asked, nudging Lizzy gently.
As she moved to grab the carton, he added. “You look great, Lizzy.”
“You leave that girl alone,” Mae called from the end of the table. Her eyes were twinkling, but it was clear that she wanted Jason to know she was looking out for Lizzy.
“Um…” Jason laughed, “I can’t reach the milk, Mae.”
Lizzy slid the carton within reach and Jason poured the glass full with a smile.
“You know what I meant, son,” Mae chuckled. “You just mind your manners, and we’ll all get along fine. She’s been through enough.”
“Mae!” Lizzy cut in quickly, the pretty blush returning.
Mae didn’t answer, but she let it drop. Jason watched Lizzy for just a second, then smiled and turned back to his food.
“Frank will be here tomorrow,” Lizzy said softly.
Jason nodded, not looking up.
“Ronnie will probably be here later tonight. He’ll want to talk to you, Jason.”
“I know,” Jason replied between mouthfuls. “I guess he’ll want to talk to us all, eventually. Isn’t that why we’re here?”
Lizzy looked away again, and Jason sighed. “It will be okay, Liz,” he said softly, laying his fork aside for a moment and placing his hand gently on her shoulder. “We’re not kids anymore, you know? Even Ronnie must have grown up. He did actually write the letter.”
Liz nodded, and Jason saw the hint of a smile crease the corner of her lips, but she didn’t really laugh. He watched her for a moment longer, then turned back to finish his food in silence.
He wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Ronnie either. Ronnie Lambert hadn’t been anyone’s close friend when they were younger. They’d hung with him because the alternative was to have him beat the crap out of them every time he saw them for not hanging with him. Besides, Random Illinois didn’t boast a huge population of kids at any given moment; their options had been limited.
Now here they were, Jason, Lizzy, and pretty soon Frank, all gathered together like a bunch of school kids because Ronnie Lambert had called them. Red-neck Ronnie still had that control, that tone in his voice, even when the words were written and not spoken. Jason felt suddenly foolish, and pushed back from the table and his empty plate with a sigh.
“Was a time you liked my meatloaf,” Mae observed, cocking one eyebrow.
“You know it isn’t the food, Mae,” Jason said thoughtfully. “It’s been a long time, is all,” he added lamely. “Guess after driving fifteen hundred miles I’m finally asking myself what I expected to find here.”
Lizzy turned, suddenly reaching out and laying her hand across his.
“I’m glad you came,” she said softly. “Very glad, Jason. I was worried you wouldn’t.”
It was Jason’s turn to blush.
“Hell,” he said softly. “What fun would it be spending Halloween in the city, alone? It was about time I got back here anyway.”
Mae watched the two for a moment in silence, then cut in.
“Kids are like really good books, you know?”
They all turned to her, and Mae nodded, continuing. “You read the dang thing once, and it’s wonderful. Every bit of it sticks with you. Then it’s out of sight, out of mind. You get to living and learning and forget about it, but flashes of what you read stick with you all your life, until one day, there it is. You have some time, and you pick that book back up, and damned if you didn’t miss a lot the first time. I can read an old book over and over, Jason. It’s good to have you home.”
Jason smiled. Mae could always put a thing into words. Among the kids, it had been Frank who had that gift, tall, bespectacled Frank. Of them all, it was Frank they would recognize most easily. His face was splashed regularly over the New York Times book review pages and the novel racks at every bookstore, airport, grocery and news stand in the country. Skinny little Frank with his piles of spiral-bound notebooks and his wild ideas.
Very suddenly Jason missed Frank. He had the urge, quickly stifled, to lean over and hug Lizzy. Whatever happened over the next few days, he knew he was going to make certain it wasn’t the last time he saw them. All his life he’d been running, running from the little dead-end town, running from relationships and responsibilities. He’d run to college, run out with a degree and found a good job.
In those days, the job had been the bottom line. Everything would be fine as soon as he had a job that paid him approximately twice what his small-town parents had made and let him have shiny cars and shinier women. That had been the formula for happiness. Life, add money. Live and learn.
The door opened again, and before Jason could pass on his new sentiments, there were quick, heavy steps and a hand smacked down on his shoulder.
“Hey, Jason,” Ronnie’s voice boomed too loud in the once-comfortable silence. “Good to have you home.”