BY NO MEANS
by B. P. Herrington
The fly skittering across the sales counter fiddled its forelegs and sprang up in an aimless drift. In the acrid odor of fertilizer and feed, Davis slouched at the register, counting the seconds until the fly alighted, and each time it rose he began his count again. When at last the fly lazed and cocked its head, Davis tightly rolled the local paper and swatted a second too late. He unfurled the pages and whipped through them, dreading more reports of old classmates out in the world making the dean’s list, joining firms, marrying sweethearts, warring in distant deserts. He flipped to the classifieds, lingering on one perpetual advertisement—a grainy black-and-white photo of businessmen shaking hands—that touted mastery of salesmanship in only six weeks for a fee that Davis could never afford. The fly looped in the glare of the long storefront windows where sunlight washed out scraggly pastures across the highway.
Davis jumped when the cowbell on the door jangled. A stooped shadow limped out of the sunlight. Davis grunted as he rose, having gained thirty-six pounds in the four years since high school. His eyes adjusted and he called, “Morning, Mr. McCormick. Thought we would have seen you Monday. Like usual.”
The old man hollered from halfway across the floor, “Had to go into town and see the doctor. Ain’t one thing, it’s another.” When he reached the register, McCormick planted his scarred hands on the counter and caught his breath. Years of work and sun and worry had scored a web of creases across his face. His course dingy white hair swept up from his crown to a point like a yellow onion. “Need four rolls of five-foot mesh fence. Hunnerd foot roll. Galvanized.” As the boy scribbled the order, the old man offered, “Dead tree fell on the coop.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, not listening. “Anything else?”
“Ten of them fifty pound sacks of layer feed.”
“Yes, sir. Ten bags.” The boy jotted down the order, cutting a quick whistle through his teeth. “Once you got ten bags you gonn’ be good and set. Might not see you for a while.”
McCormick chewed on the inside of his cheek and swung his head. “Heart gets weaker and weaker.” He pressed his rusty hands into the small of his back. “Cain’t make the trip so much.” As the boy worked out the figures on the receipt pad, the pencil lead scratched like a loud whisper. McCormick dug his freckled fingers into his billfold and tugged out three faded one hundred-dollar bills. He pinched coins out of his front pocket and laid the exact change on the boy’s palm. Sweat seeped down the old man’s furrowed face. His sun-darkened skin drained green. “Wisht I had a extry pair of hands unloading all this out at the house.” McCormick swayed like a tree and caught hold of the counter.
The slouching boy jerked upright and put out his hand just short of touching the old man. The boy’s ears burned with a flustering surge of pity. “I could run them by after my shift.” The old man shook out his crumpled handkerchief and dabbed his face. He chewed his cheek, not looking Davis in the eye. “Oh, thank you, son.” He drew a wheezing breath and turned away.
The boy choked a little. “I get off at four. That work for you, sir?”
The old man waved without looking back and walked into the blind field of late morning light. The cowbell clanked and died. Davis felt the feathery hundred-dollar bills still in his fingers and realized he had not entered the transaction in the register: there was only the hand-scrawled tally and its smudged carbon copy on the receipt pad. He felt a fool that a tottery old man should have thrown him off his task. He turned the sad, worn bills over in his hands and the president’s face was as greenish gray as the old man’s when he had swooned.
A pickup truck skidded into the dirt parking lot and Everett Eason hopped out, bounding through the chalky billows in that tight, wincing way old men run. When the cowbell rang, the boy crumpled the cash in his hand. Mr. Eason hobbled to the counter, waving one hand as if he were flagging down the boy in a crowd. “Git the ambulance people on the phone! But he’s dead already.” The boy read the ambulance number from a decal on the telephone and dialed it with the hand that clutched the money. He stammered at the dispatcher on the other end until Mr. Eason yanked the receiver away. “Yes, ma’am. Biscamp Road. Single vehicle. Run off in the ditch. Elderly fellow, name of Harold McCormick. Y’all can send ’em out but I tell you he’s dead.” He slammed the receiver and cut the boy a look that was as good as telling him off.
No sooner had Mr. Eason torn out of the lot than R. B. Plunkett zipped up to the store on his three-wheeler and jumped off. He tripped on the threshold and yelled from the door, “I just seen Harold McCormick dead in a ditch!” R. B. craned his neck but got no reply. His lips cinched tight in anger and he ran off at last, tripping as he had before.
The cowbell died against the door. Davis unfolded the old bills. Three hunnerd dollars. They were soft as water between his fingers. He envisioned himself in the grainy advertisement from the classifieds, closing a deal with a firm handshake and celebrating over lunch in a classy restaurant and he would owe it all to the six-week course: “Learn from proven executives—gain powerful skills of persuasion—be the salesman you are meant to be—only $250.” A breathless jolt rang down his arm and he ripped the receipt and carbon from the pad. He shoved the hundred dollar-bills into his jeans pocket.
In the tiny bathroom behind the counter, he took the book of matches off the toilet tank and set fire to the receipts in the sink but the fickle flame only licked the paper brown and petered out. An ambulance siren whined nearer until it passed and warped to a whimper. His hands trembled. The second match fell dead with a hiss. The third match took to the paper and charred it. He scooped up the flaking pieces and let them flutter into the toilet. After two flushes, black flakes still freckled the bowl. He laid down ribbons of toilet paper to pull the ashes under for good and when it flushed, the whole mess shuddered and went down glacially. He glanced out at the sun-whitened windows and scrubbed his fingers on the green bar soap until it was dented and bruised with soot. He came out of the bathroom wiping his hands across his jeans and sat hard on the stool behind the counter—its patched-up cushion huffed loudly under him. He worked the bills out of his pocket and unfolded the white-washed, velvety cash dolefully, as if the bills had been abandoned by their dying master.
The cowbell clanged. A spindly shadow, skeletal but lithe and as tall as the door, cleft the wash of light. He tucked the bills in his pocket and stood. Two little shadow bodies streaked across the front glass and tugged the door open. The tall body stepped into the calmer light inside and Davis could see a young woman in short cut-offs and a tank top, her bobbed hair sprigged with barrettes. He sucked in his gut. Her lanky limbs were pale as the sun and her careless gait dragged her flip-flops across the floor. A very young girl with golden tangled hair shyly wrapped both arms around the woman’s bony knees.
The woman leaned down and scolded through clenched teeth, “I cain’t walk with you grabbing a holt of me like that.”
The other child, a little boy in jeans and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, ran in figure eights, buzzing his lips and growling like a truck gone mudding.
The woman barely opened her mouth as she said to Davis, “I saw a ad in the paper, said y’all selling chicks. The kids is begging for one.” She kept rolling her neck to the side, her eyes roving over everything behind the counter but him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered in a deepened voice. “Right out here.”
He led them toward the side porch and the little girl’s blond head bounced along beside him. As he held the screen door open, he turned back and saw the woman hunched over the little boy, holding his forearm in a white-knuckled grip and whispering intensely against his cheek. When she finally strode past Davis, her ears were aflame and she left a breeze of strawberry and perspiration in her wake. Davis nodded them over to a little pen lit by a red lamp. Chicks rested in two quiet patchwork clusters. The three-week-olds with their newly sprouting ratty feathers looked like crushed pine cones. The newer hatchlings lay with their necks outstretched and their beaks buried in pine shavings.
The girl pointed out the hatchlings and whispered to her brother, “If he thinks I’m getting stuck with one of these dead ones, he’s got another thing coming.”
Davis heard her. “That’s just how they sleep,” he laughed. He turned to the little boy. “Which one of these you interested in?”
The boy made a face. “None of ’em.”
The woman swatted his shoulder. “Answer him.”
The little boy clutched where she had slapped him. He narrowed his eyes and said, “I ain’t ast for a stupid chick.”
The woman yanked the little boy by the arm and headed down the wooden steps off the porch. He twisted and kicked and cried.
The girl rolled her eyes and shook her head. With the woman gone, the child shed her bashfulness and confided to Davis in a wry, grownup tone, “I tell you what, that boy is a handful.” They heard five hard smacks from somewhere around the side of the building. The girl was oblivious. “I’ll take two of them little red-looking ones. They are just the cutest things.”
Davis leaned down by the girl to reach the chicks. She squinted at him and pursed her lips. “I guess you think she’s pretty, huh?” Davis giggled and his face burned up. He set the two chicks in a cardboard box. The girl tossed her hair. “All the men’s always staring at her ever’where we go. But sad to say, she’s spoken for.” She set her hands high on her hips and rocked. “My deddy ast would she marry him last week and she most certainly said yes.”
The woman stomped up the wooden steps, dragging the sobbing boy.
The girl worked her eyebrows and whispered to Davis, “Get a look at that ring on her. That’s what they call a rock.”
Davis handed the chicks to the girl. The little boy glared with his red-rimmed eyes at the cheeping box.
The woman tapped the girl hard on the back. “Hand them back to the man.” The girl’s mouth fell open and she clutched the box. “Neither of y’all’s getting a chick. I swear to God, this is last time—”
The little girl stared off and tightened her quivering mouth. The woman took the box out of the child’s hands and cast it carelessly on the floor. She stormed off and the little boy ran after her. The girl followed them slowly. She stopped and turned. With her arms crossed she asked Davis, “So. You still think she’s pretty?” Then the girl was gone, too.
Davis returned to his post behind the register. He put the oscillating fan on the highest setting and laid his head on the counter. A tractor catalogue flapped open and fluttered in his face. He was still thinking about the woman, but the little girl’s quivering mouth came to mind and muddied up his lust. He pulled the bills out again and smoothed them out on the counter. They squirmed beneath his fingers in the fan’s breeze. This is all I ever needed, just something to jumpstart it all.
Beyond the white blindness of the windows he mustered the landscape of his dead end jobs: bagging groceries, trading in scrap metal, cutting lawns, cleaning gutters. He figured he had done all that he could with scarce resources. He once even drove all the way down to Houston to pursue a no-cost, mysterious “one-of-a-kind sales opportunity” only to be recruited into selling mail-order kitchen knives door-to-door. The company’s gospel was the efficacy of ten: tell ten friends and they tell ten friends and the circle rolls on in a great cloud of customers. At the recruitment meeting, a regional sales manager who had flown in from Atlanta paced the stage like an evangelist, whipping the microphone cord out from his feet and mopping his head with a handkerchief. “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘All it takes is ten!’ Aw, come on. I cain’t hear you! You got to feel it. Now turn to your neighbor again for me and say, ‘All it takes is ten!’”
But when Davis returned to his sleepy town and laid out his wares on the dining room tables of kinfolk and church friends, he was an apostle of little faith. A few of the women placed token orders such as the twelve dollar paring knife, but the men had no use for any of it. At his uncle’s trailer house, Davis demonstrated the King Cutter, a pair of scissors that could cut a penny in half. When he was done, his uncle whined, “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
Davis shifted in his chair and put the scissors down. “Well, no. It’s just to show what all it can cut.”
“You know what I mean. Wires and things.”
His uncle stood up from the table. “Hadn’ you ever heard of wire cutters? Got three pair in the back of my truck.”
In the white-hot windows where Davis contemplated all these dead ends, a familiar beat-up yellow truck rolled off the highway and crept along the sandy lot. Mr. Collier, the owner of the feed store, parked near the door. The old man took three tries to hitch his leg out of the truck, grasping wildly at the doorframe with his arthritic hands to haul himself out. Davis tucked the hundred dollar-bills into his front jeans pocket. Mr. Collier, always seen in overalls and flannel, emerged wearing only blue shorts and a white collarless shirt, looking bird-legged and paunchy.
Davis stuck his head in the bathroom and checked the sink and toilet for black flecks. The cowbell knocked and Mr. Collier yelled from the door, “Well, I guess you heard already. I run out to the wreck soon as I could. Ain’t even been home to change.”
Davis tidied around the register. “Yes, sir. Had Mr. Eason and R.B. both come tell. Cain’t believe it.”
Mr. Collier was ruddy and dripping with sweat. “Poor man’s wife says she thought he come here just before.”
Davis scrubbed an ink stain on the counter. “Yep. He come in and just about turned green. Hardly spoke at all.” He looked up. “Couldn’t even place his order.”
Mr. Collier closed his eyes and reflected earnestly, “To be the last one to see a man that died.” He shook his head. Then he slapped the counter and brightened. “We like to never got that truck out of the ditch. I mean, it plowed right in.” He noticed Davis looking at the clock. “Well, I know you got to head out. Purina truck gets here at ten tomorrow. I’ll come in and tend the counter while you get it unloaded.”
But as Davis stepped out into the late afternoon heat, he had no intention of ever again hauling a sack of feed on his back or sweeping up spilled grain or carrying armloads of potted plants to old ladies’ cars. He vowed that he would never again make small talk about anybody’s chickens or pregnant sows or their cow that had come down with lumpy jaw. When Davis climbed into the swelter of his rusty two-door car, the air burned his lungs and his sweaty clothes clung to the cheap upholstery. But today he was too exultant to mind it. He pulled out onto the highway and cranked up the local A.M. station, joyfully singing the honky-tonk refrains out the roaring open window. At the stop sign of an empty intersection, he reached into his jeans pocket to caress the secret money and, not finding it, he plunged his hand into the other pocket. He hauled his bottom off the seat and checked one back pocket then the other. He tried the front pockets again, the back pockets again.
“Oh, Jesus, Jesus! No!” He squirmed and dug deep in all his pockets. He turned off the radio and caught his breath. “No, no, no. Jesus, please.”
He turned down a back road and drove behind a stand of trees a little way off. When he had parked, he jerked all his pockets inside out and stuffed them back in and tugged them out again. He hopped out and paced around the car, beating the trunk with his fists until his arms went dead. “It’s got be a hole somewhere,” he sobbed. “Got to be a hole.”
He fell back against the car and wept aloud, picking and clawing at the seams of his turned out pockets. He flung open the car door and plunged his hands between the seat cushions and under the seats. He sank to his knees on the pine straw and swept his hands across the floorboard, and when stinging sweat blinded him, he went on feeling with his fingers. He collapsed in the car and told himself that there was no use in panicking. He breathed in, breathed out.
“Goddamnit, three hunnerd dollars!” he screamed, almost flipping over in his seat.
His hands flew all around him—the pockets, the seats, the floorboard. And with nowhere else to search, he shoved his hands down the back of his jeans and felt along his sweat-soaked underwear for the bills. He frantically unbuttoned his jeans and his pasty gut spilled over. He felt down his jeans, almost reaching his knees, and lifted rolls of fat as if the bills might be there. He threw himself against the seat and seized his gut with clawed hands, squeezing and screaming. He pounded the steering wheel and fell back in his seat, panting quietly. A breeze stirred over his fat, pale nakedness and set the birds singing. Strands of pine straw twirled out of the boughs and settled on the thicket floor. A woodpecker knocked hypnotically far off. Davis set his head wearily near the window sill and stared through the stand of trees where a tide of shadow welled up from the ground. The evening sun that had roared so mightily all through the day slid down a leaning trunk like a drop of dew and slipped away.
About the Author:
B. P. Herrington was born and raised in the Big Thicket of eastern Texas. His studies as a composer took him to the Royal Academy of Music, London, where his work received the Royal Philharmonic Composition Prize. His fiction has previously appeared in Post Road Magazine.