Fearing for her life, an eleven-year-old orphaned Cajun girl and her traumatized cousin, Scoot, run away into the bayous of the Deep South in the summer of 1964. Along the way, she encounters the hidden people of the swamps, including a mysterious tattooed albino baby and Knife, the man who will lead her to her Choctaw grandmother and the challenge of proving herself before being accepted as a granddaughter and apprentice.
SKATING BACKWARDS WITH ELVIS
I hear the sound of roller skates a ways off…before we get close enough to see anything but a circle of light in the middle of the field Mr. Buck Tuten rents out to the roller rink, carnival, and such, when they come to town every summer. The sound is like someone strumming on a washboard with a broom handle. Maybe the racket is why they have to set up so far out of town without any houses close by. I remember the shivers and shakes that had traveled up through my feet and legs when I’d skated here before on that uneven plywood floor. This year I ain’t got to go skating but twice. I love skating fast better than anything. It makes my head feel empty and I don’t think about anything as long as I’m going round and round with my bangs blowed back.
“I wanna go skate,” Scoot says, letting go of my dress tail and running off ahead into the weeds and broom straw.
My legs are longer, so I’m able to tackle him pretty quick, but I drop my paper bag. I wrestle him down in a clump of beggar lice and sit on him. “We got to save our money if we ever want to make it to Hawaii.” I hate to lie, but there’s no way I’m going back to Granny’s. I can’t chance Hero catching me alone, and the only way I can make Scoot keep walking is to make him believe we’re finally going to the beach and live on our own. “It may take us a week or more to get to Hawaii,” I say as I climb off him, pick up my paper bag, and stand up. I try to pick some of the beggar lice off my clothes.
“You got to keep walking to run away,” I tell him.
“Well, I like roller skating better than going to Hawaii,” Scoot says, looking up at me like he’s the boss.
“I told you we gotta spend our fish bait money on food.” I reach down and drag him up. “You can’t go fast in them strap-on skates they make you wear anyways. They set the wheels so all you can do is walk in them,” I say.
Scoot digs his hands into the pockets of his shorts and pulls out a handful of nickels. “I got big money...look a here, Betty Jean.” He sticks his dirty hand out towards me. “I can rent fast skates and go faster than you. I’m hungry…let’s buy us a Baby Ruth.”
Scoot keeps on jabbering, but I’m not listening. I got too much worry in my head.
It’s got quieter over at the rink and I wonder if they’ve heard us talking. There ain’t any sounds out here except for a hoot owl and a cow mooing way off somewhere. I wonder what time it is. The moon has rose and the sky is thick with stars. The dirt road we’re on passes close to the rink, but there ain’t cars parked there. I reckon they’re already shutting down for the night. Me and Scoot was sent to bed before it was good dark and we must have walked at least two hours by now, so it must be pretty late. I wonder if the noise had been the wild boys practicing the fancy tricks they do to get people to want to learn to skate. They can squat down on their skates and stick one leg out in front and coast-roll right under the rope when it’s limbo time.
“I said I want to skate…I want to skate…Betty Jean, I want to go skate.” Scoot is pulling on my sleeve.
“Shush, don’t talk so loud. You don’t have to say everything a million times, I ain’t deaf. Let go of me,” I say, and pinch his arm to make him turn loose of my sleeve. “We ain’t skating and we ain’t buying no Baby Ruth,” I tell him. “You can have a piece of my sweet potato if you just have to eat something.” I keep trying to pick the beggar lice off my clothes with one hand as I hand Scoot my sack with the other.
“Who’s that out there?” a man calls, walking towards us shining a flashlight. “We’re closing up in a few minutes,” the voice says. He keeps walking towards us with the light fanning out on the ground in front of him. When he gets close enough I see that, like I thought, it’s one of the wild teenage boys that travel with the rink to set it up and teach people to skate. He walks right up and shines the light in our faces. “What’s that you eating, boy?”
I blink and shade my eyes with my hand.
Scoot mumbles, “Ain’t none of your business.” His mouth is stuffed so full that his checks are puffed out like he’s come down with the mumps.
“What y’all doing way out here this time of night?” The man squats down so he can see Scoot better. He reaches out one hand like he’s gonna touch the welts the belt left all up and down Scoot’s legs. “Damn, boy,” he shakes his head and pulls his hand away. He just stands there a minute not saying anything, and then he sighs and pats Scoot on the shoulder.
“I wanna go skate,” Scoot says, shrugging the man’s hand off his shoulder.
I see that the man is wearing a gold snake ring wrapped around his finger. The red eyes glitter in the light and its forked tongue is stuck out. I ain’t seen a man wear a ring besides a wedding band before.
“You can’t close yet,” Scoot says with his mouth full. He finishes swallowing the sweet potato and sticks his hand full of nickels out towards the man. “I got money and we done walked a hundred miles to get here, ain’t we, Betty Jean?” He starts jumping from one foot to the other like he does when he gets excited.
I recognize the wild boy from when we’d come skating with Scoot’s mama before. She said skating rink boys weren’t nothing but trash and runaways that couldn’t get no other work. She said she thought they sure were pretty to look at though.
I study the feller as he keeps glancing at Scoot’s legs. He looks pretty old…eighteen or even nineteen maybe. Older than I’d thought before. I remember him because he was real nice to me when we come skating here before. He showed me how to put on my skates and lace them up and all. At first I hadn’t wanted nothing to do with him cause he’d had a black eye and his front top teeth were rotted out down to stumps. I keep looking him over now...his hair is different than the crew cuts everyone wears around here. It’s bleached out blonde and long on top and on the sides. He wears it greased back, just like Elvis Presley.
Scoot keeps poking his nickels in the man’s face. I think about all the squirming worms I had to dig up and sell to earn them nickels.
The man stands up. “Well I’m sorry, little boy, but like I said we’re ‘bout to close for the night.” He’s polite and I think he has a nice voice like he could sell stuff on the radio if he wanted. “Y’all walk on back home and come tomorrow night. We close at eleven o’clock except for Saturday night.”
Scoot starts in begging like nobody’s business. “Please, Mister, just a little while. I got money…See?” He steps even closer to the man and tries to give him one of his nickels. “Me and Betty Jean don’t never get to do nothing fun. Please…please…please…please.”
“Sorry, Mister,” I say, and grab Scoot by the shoulder. I pull on him and try to make him walk away.
“Ouch. Stop it. You’re killing me, Betty Jean.” Scoot looks up at the man. “Please, Mister, I wanna skate…please…please…please.”
I ain’t never heard Scoot say “please” so many times in a row. He keeps trying to give the man his money.
The man smiles and shakes his head. “Oh all right, just for a few minutes while we finish shutting down.” The man pushes Scoot’s hand away. “You can keep your money, little boy.”
I tug at the skirt of my work dress and make sure it’s pulled up between my legs and tucked into the top of my shorts before we follow the man through the high weeds. He’s started walking back to the rink shining his light so we can see our way through the field. Every time Scoot tries to butt ahead, the man motions at him with his flashlight to stay in line. Trash from the rink has been throwed away or blowed way out here to the edge of the field. Gum wrappers and cigarette packs are everywhere. People come out here a ways from the rink to pee and do their business and it stinks pretty bad in places. There’s a pair of lady’s drawers stuck in a clump of palmetto.
“My name’s Buster,” the man says. “What’s y’alls’?” He keeps on walking in front of us with Scoot right on his heels. I can see the outline of his wallet in his back pocket. He ain’t got no butt and his belt is cinched in tight to hold up his pants. “What y’all doing way out here by yourselves anyways?”
I’m having to step quick to keep up with Buster. He’s tall and walks fast. “Betty Jean and Scoot,” I say, thinking maybe I ought to give him some pretend names since he don’t seem to remember us from before. I don’t want him to go figuring out that we’re running away so I make up a story. “We’re just on our way to sleep at Scoot’s house. He’s my first cousin and his mama sent him to fetch me to help her pick butter beans in the morning. We just ain’t made good time getting there ‘cause Scoot keeps slow-poking around.”
“I ain’t no slow poke.” Scoot takes off running past Buster. I don’t know how he’s still got so much energy. I’m about killed and it seems like a long ways to walk across the field after all the walking I’ve already done tonight. We get close enough to see that there ain’t no cars parked near the rink now…looks like everybody’s gone home. We keep walking through the packed-down sand and red clay. The weeds and grass are all flattened down from people parking all helter skelter. There ain’t but one old truck here now. Scoot slows down when we are right up on the rink and me and Buster catch up to him.
I listen and there ain’t no roller skate sounds. I wipe the sweat off my face. It’s not cooled off much since the sun went down. The smell of honeysuckle is so strong that it makes my nose itch.
“Who’s them kids you got with you, Buster?” Another wild boy skates up to lean over the two-by-four rail on top of the chicken wire that runs all the way around the sides of the roller rink.
We walk up close enough that I can see his face. He hadn’t been at the rink when we come before, and I ain’t ever seen him around anywhere else either. He spits tobacco juice out into a patch of stinging nettles that’s right next to us. He looks to be about the same age as Buster.
There’s thick electric cords strung with light bulbs hung just under the edge of the brown canvas tent top covering the rink. Beat-up music speakers are hung here and there on big nails hammered into the post holding up the patched tent. I wish there was music playing, but there ain’t. I smell citronella, but there’s still mosquitoes buzzing around the tent.
“Just a couple of kids wanna skate a few minutes,” Buster says, leading us up a plank ramp onto the rink floor. There’s a counter at the top of the ramp on the right where they take your money and hand out the skates. Buster motions for us to sit on a long bench that’s held up by concrete blocks painted red. We sit down as he goes behind the counter. “How you gonna skate with that mess of skirt all up between your legs?” He’s rummaging around for skates that might fit us. Most of the skates have been packed up in wooden crates next to the counter. “Do y’all know what size you wear?” He’s looking at our bare feet as he sets some strap-on wheels on the counter for Scoot.
I feel my face get hot and I wish my dress was long enough to hide my dirty feet.
The tobacco-spitting boy don’t seem to be paying us no attention anymore and is skating round and round fast…sometimes forward and sometimes backwards. He’s got most of his teeth but real bad pimples. His hair is jet black. It’s long on the top and sides and greased back like Buster’s. A piece of hair keeps flopping down over his eyes as he skates and he keeps slicking it back with his hand. He’s wearing tight black jeans and a black dress shirt with the sleeves cut off. He’s got big muscles. One of his muscles has a heart tattooed on it and when he skates close to me I can see that “MOTHER” is tattooed across the heart. He catches me watching him and winks.
I hang my head but cut my eyes to the side so I can keep watching. I reckon he’s a big ol’ show-off, but I wish that I could skate that good.
“Hey, I don’t want no baby skates.” Scoot’s spotted the little-kid skates Buster has laid out for him. “I done told you I got money. What size I wear, Betty Jean?” Scoot is standing up and reaching in the pocket of his shorts for his nickels.
“You know what size he wears?” Buster asks, and then he laughs and says, “I ain’t gonna take your money, little boy. I done told you that you can’t skate but a minute before y’all get on home.” He pulls some socks that are stained up and don’t match out of a cardboard box. He balls them up in twos and throws one wad at me and one at Scoot. I catch mine but Scoot misses. He goes over to get his socks and then walks back and sits down next to me to put them on. He looks right funny with one red sock so long it comes to his knee and one big brown floppy one that rolls down over the mosquito bites on his ankle. I think it might have been white once, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
“I ain’t sure what Scoot needs, but I wear a woman’s size five,” I say, remembering that’s what size tennis shoes Granny bought me to wear to school last year. “I reckon Scoot’s about the same. His feet’s big as mine.” I ain’t sure it’s good for us to take time to skate but I can’t stop myself from doing it. “Thanks, Mr. Buster,” I say, and unwad my socks and put them on. Mine are pink and almost match.
Buster walks over and hands Scoot a pair of scuffed up black skates with low tops. “I ain’t a mister…you can just call me Buster. Plain old Buster.” He goes back, picks up a pair of white high top skates, walks back and sets them on the bench next to me. “You could skate better if you took that dress off from over your shorts. You got a shirt you can put on?”
I hang my head and blush. “Yeah. I got one rolled up in my paper bag,” I say without looking up.
Scoot has managed to pull his skates on, but he can’t get the laces wrapped ‘round all the hooks and he don’t know how to tie a bow yet. He’s fighting so hard to lace up the skates that sweat is dripping off his nose.
“Betty Jean, why ain’t you helping me?” Scoot takes one of the skates off and throws it at me. It’s too heavy for him to throw far. It lands on all four wheels a little ways in front of him and rolls right back to him on the slanted floor. He throws it again and grins, watching it come back to him. “Help me get on my skates,” he says. Nothing keeps Scoot occupied for long.
“Hold your horses. Come over here and sit. I can’t get your skates on until you sit down.” I can’t wait to skate, but I know there won’t be any peace until I get Scoot’s skates on his feet. He tries to stand up with one skate on and one in his hand and limps over to sit next to me.
“What songs y’all like?” The tobacco-spitting boy puts down the toe stop on the end of his skate and slides up to the counter pretty as you please. He don’t even wobble.
I take my skates off my lap and lay them down on the bench. I kneel in front of Scoot. “Sit still and quit swinging your legs.” The black laces are tied together in places where they’ve broke and the tips are off the ends. It’s hard to get his skates fixed up like they ought to be and I tell him, “Quit wiggling around. I can’t get the laces stuck through the holes.” I barely get them laced up and tied tight around his ankles when he tries to stand up.
“Get out of my way, Betty Jean.” He digs his fingers into my shoulders and then grabs my ponytail. He uses the top of my head to pull himself on up.
“Ouch! Stop it!” I yell and slap at him. He falls on his knees and crawls away fast.
“Hey, y’all be good now.” Buster tells us as he digs through a box of forty-five records with the tobacco-spitting boy. “Y’all be quiet and me and J.D. will play you a fast record to skate to.” He brushes one of the records off on the front of his t-shirt and hands it to J.D. The plastic cover for the record player is scratched and taped together. J.D. lifts it off, and it comes apart in his hands.
“Damn it, it’s always some goddamned something.” J.D. cusses and lays the broken record player cover on the counter. He picks up a little yellow plastic spider-looking thing and sticks it into the hole in the middle of the record. Then he puts the forty-five on the turntable and drops the needle. “Sugar Shack” blares out through the speakers.
“There’s a crazy little shack beyond the track…and everybody calls it the sugar shack,” J.D. sings along. He’s got a real low voice and sounds pretty good.
“I want me a Baby Ruth,” Scoot says. He’s crawled back over and is using the bench to pull himself up next to me. He slides right back down and sprawls out on the floor.
Buster comes over to Scoot carrying a straight-back chair from behind the counter. He sets it on the floor next to him. “What’s your name again, little boy?” Buster bends over and sticks his hands under Scoot’s armpits and lifts him up and stands him in front of the chair. “You see if you can stand up holding on to this here chair, and if you get brave enough you can start pushing it around on the rink...but take it slow or you’ll just be sitting on your rear end all night. Tell you what. You get to where you can push this here chair around the rink and I’ll get you a piece of candy from behind the counter. And you, Betty Jean, ain’t it? You can go behind the counter and take that long-tailed dress off and put your shirt on.”
“Yeah…come on over here and I’ll help you change your clothes.” J.D. grins so big I can see that his bottom teeth’s real little like a kid’s and don’t match up with his top teeth at all. He picks up an empty pork and beans can and spits into it.
Buster turns around from where he’s helping Scoot get started walking in his skates while he pushes the chair out in front of him. “Leave her alone, J.D., and finish tightening up the wheels on that pile of skates I showed you. These kids ain’t gonna skate but a minute, and me and you need to get squared away for the night. I don’t never know what time the boss man might come back by.”
J.D. walks away from the counter so I can go squat behind it and get rid of my dress. Worried as I am, I love the music and the way it sounds coming out of a bunch of speakers all at once. I take my shirt out of my paper bag and am glad it ain’t got no food or nothing stuck to it. I pull the dress off over my head and wad it up. I want to throw it away but we ain’t got much with us and I figure it might come in handy somehow down the road.
“Hurry up and come look at me, Betty Jean!” Scoot yells. “I’m skating by myself!”
I stand up and walk back over to the bench to put my skates on. I wonder if I can still skate. I always wonder when I first start, but it don’t take but a time or two around the rink until I get the hang of it again. I stick my bag and dress up under the bench and start putting on the white skates.
“You’re doing good, Scoot!” I yell. He’s made it to the far end of the rink pushing the chair in front of him. Buster’s skating not far from Scoot. He’s got his heels close together with his feet pointed out to make him go round and round in little circles.
J.D. comes skating up on me before I know it. “Let me help you,” he says, coming down on one knee in front of me. I don’t know what to say so I just sit there and let him do it. His hand is rough and damp when he holds on to my leg while he pushes the skates on. His breath stinks and smells good like Juicy Fruit gum at the same time. He stands up when he’s done and holds out his hand. “Come on now…I’ll take you around a time or two and get you started.”
His hands are stained with tobacco and his fingernails are gnawed off and dirty. He’s missing one of his thumbnails. I reckon he’s no good with a hammer. “Come on…we ain’t got all night,” he says.
I let him pull me up. When we’d come here before, the wild boys helped lots of people get started so I reckon it’s okay. “Thanks,” I say, but don’t look up at him.
He turns so he’s skating backwards real slow and holding both my hands to keep me steady. When I raise my head I’m looking at the middle of his chest. There’s a button missing on his tight shirt and I can see that the hair on his chest don’t match the hair on his head. His chest hair is red and curly. I ain’t ever seen men that dye their hair before now. My wheels catch on the joint between the sheets of plywood and make me trip.
“Whoa there,” J.D. laughs and pulls me closer to him. My nose ends up in his armpit and I almost gag. He smells musky like when a stray cat comes up on the porch and sprays stink all over everything.
Buster comes skating up and J.D. lets go of me. I almost fall again, but Buster takes my arm and steadies me. “I thought you was gonna finish tightening them wheels so we’ll have enough skates tomorrow,” Buster says, and I’m glad that J.D. goes back on over and picks up his wrench to go to work.
“Sugar Shack” plays over and over as Buster goes around the rink with me. I tell him, “I think I can let go.” My feet and legs are steady under me, and I count the laps I’m making without falling. Eleven, twelve, thirteen…I don’t even fall when Scoot sticks out his arm and tries to grab me… fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I wish that I could keep going all night. I feel my shirt soaking through with sweat. I feel a blister coming up where my left skate rubs me wrong when I make the turns, but I don’t care. When I skate I don’t think of nothing but keeping time with the music. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty…
Finally, I put the toe stop down and make it to the side of the rink. Best I try, I wobble all the way. I look around to see if Buster or J.D. is watching, but they’re starting to roll down the sides of the tent for the night.
“I’m gonna go make Buster give me my candy.” Scoot has pushed his chair over to me.
“Yeah, we gotta get going anyways,” I say, but I don’t want to stop skating.
Scoot’s got pretty good at pushing the chair, and I skate alongside him as we head back to the counter.
Buster stops dropping the sides of the tent and comes over to meet us. “I bet I know what you’re a-wanting,” he says to Scoot as he reaches under the counter and takes out a mashed-looking Snickers bar.
Scoot takes one of his hands off the chair to grab the candy and falls to the floor. He don’t say nothing about it not being a Baby Ruth…just gnaws the paper off one end and starts gobbling it down.
“You want a candy bar?” Buster asks me. “I ain’t gonna make you pay or nothing.”
“No thanks.” I’m hungry, but I figure he’s done been nice enough to me and Scoot.
“You a good skater, Betty Jean. You catch on quick. I bet you could skate backwards if you wanted too.” Buster slaps at a mosquito on his arm. The citronella has all burned down. Moths are swarming around the light bulbs. Three big old toad frogs are sitting at the top of the ramp flicking their tongues out to catch bugs.
“Nah, I couldn’t,” I say. “I’ve always wanted to learn to skate backwards though, ever since I first seen it done. Besides, me and Scoot better get on over to his house or his mama will give us a whipping.” I wonder if Buster believes my made-up story.
Buster looks over at Scoot smacking on his candy bar with melted chocolate all over his face. When he looks back at me, his face looks sad. “Come on. I’ll teach you to go backwards. It won’t take long.” He grabs my hands and off we go with him backwards and me following. “We’re gonna turn together now…just put your heels together and point your feet out and wobble your feet back and forth a little like I’m doing.” He starts and I copy along best I can and sure enough we twirl around and change places. “Straighten your feet out now…we’ll go slow. I’ll just sort of push you along until you get the hang of it.”
It don’t take but a few laps until he can let go of my hands, and round and round I go skating backwards in time to “Sugar Shack.” I look back over my shoulder on the turns so I don’t crash through the chicken wire or into the center poles holding up the tent.
I feel happy.
The music stops and I turn around to skate back to the counter. I know me and Scoot’s got to go.
J.D. is putting another forty-five on the turntable. “Surfin’ U.S.A” by the Beach Boys starts up. I think of Hero and all his Beach Boys music and him making me play the passing out game. My feet fly out from underneath me. I fall, skinning both knees.
I take my skates off sitting right there in the middle of the rink.
“Ha ha. Betty Jean fell, Betty Jean fell.” Scoot’s trying to stand back up to push his chair.
“Shut up, Scoot, and get your skates off. It’s time to go.” I take my skates off fast as I can. When I pull the pink socks off, there’s a big old water blister rose up on my foot. I limp to the counter to give my skates to J.D. My legs feel light and my feet feel like they don’t belong to me.
“Which way y’all headed, anyways?” J.D. says, taking my skates and looking over at Buster rolling down the last of the sides. “It’s Buster’s night to sleep at the rink and I’m gonna be driving over to that fish camp store by the river. I’m about out of tobacco and it’s the only place open this late. I could give you a ride if it ain’t too far out of my way. I’ll drop you off, but not close enough for Scoot’s mama to come after me with a shotgun.” He laughs as he ties the laces of my skate together and throws them in the box with the others.
I don’t say anything. Something about J.D. don’t sit right with me.
“I wanna ride with J.D. I’m tired.” Scoot’s got his skates off. He leaves them by the chair and walks over in his red and brown socks. There’s chocolate smeared on one of his ears. “I want a drink of water.”
“Well, make up your mind…I don’t bite or nothing.” J.D. turns off the music and hands Scoot a metal canteen. “Hey Buster, I’m gonna give these kids a ride.”
Buster starts walking over. He stops and pulls a plug. The light bulbs around the rink go out all at once. The only light left is coming from a lamp with a red bulb that sits on top of the counter. I hadn’t really paid it much attention until now. The shade is pink with black fringe and the bottom is a hula girl with a grass skirt that wiggles. “What you want to do, Betty Jean? You want to go with him? I ain’t got no car or I’d give you a ride…and I’ve gotta wait for the boss anyways.” Buster is looking at J.D. like he’s thinking something over in his mind.
“Well, I ain’t walking no more.” Scoot hands me the canteen and I take a drink. The water is warm but I don’t care. The skating has made me thirsty. Scoot takes my bag out from under the bench and hands it to me. “I wanna ride with J.D.,” Scoot says again as he licks his tongue around his lips to get at the last of the chocolate. He yawns big and lies down on the dirty floor and closes his eyes. A nickel falls out of his pocket and rolls.
J.D. takes his canteen away from me, throws his head back and drinks the last of the water. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, puts the lid on the canteen, and sticks it back up under the counter. “They can’t sleep here. Boss man will kill us if they’re here in the morning. Get us arrested for kidnapping,” J.D. says and spits in the pork and bean can as if going with him is a done deal.
Buster leans over and gives Scoot a pat on the head. “You skated real good, little boy. Wake up now.” He shakes Scoot and hands his nickel back to him. “I reckon you better catch a ride with J.D. so you can get on home. Your ma probably has the law out beating the bushes looking for you by now.” He shrugs his shoulders like there’s nothing else he can do. A push broom is leaned up against the chicken wire. He starts sweeping around the counter.
Scoot comes over and wraps himself around me. “Carry me, Betty Jean.” I push him away and he plops down on the floor. I look over at Buster hoping he might say we can stay at the rink for the night after all, but he keeps on sweeping.
“Hey, Buster, you want me to bring you some bologna or something when I come back tomorrow?” J.D. winks at me as he pulls a key out of his pocket.
“Nah, I don’t need nothing. You better take good care of them kids, you hear?” Buster don’t sound none too happy. “Y’all get on home now.” He coughs a little as a cloud of dust lifts off the floor around his broom.
I drag Scoot up off the floor. I can’t think so I follow J.D. down the ramp. Now that I’ve stopped skating I feel so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open and my legs feel like they’re made out of cement.
Scoot flops down on the ground. “I ain’t walking another step. Carry me, Betty Jean.”
I don’t want to go with J.D., but I know I can’t carry Scoot. I keep trying to size up J.D. in my mind. I don’t trust him but if Buster is letting us go off with him maybe it’ll be all right. I remember that there’s a shed close to the store that we might be able to sleep in tonight.
The moon is full and bright. I’m thankful that I can see where I’m going. Heat lightning is crackling in the distance and pig frogs are croaking in the swamp.
J.D. picks Scoot up and throws him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He carries him towards his rusted pickup truck parked next to a power pole with a notice for a lost coon dog nailed to it.
“You go on and get in first, Betty Jean.”
I don’t want to end up sitting next to J.D. My legs are so heavy they don’t feel like they belong to me. I don’t know how much further I can walk.
“Open the door and get on in or you’ll have to sleep out here in the woods with the snakes and skeeters,” J.D. says and then spits out a chaw of tobacco as I walk past him to open the passenger door. I climb up on the running board and slide in. A spring is poking up through the narrow seat and I end up having to sit astraddle of it to make room for Scoot.
“Slide it on over,” J.D. says to me and his voice sounds excited. He dumps Scoot in next to me and slams the door shut.
I scrunch up close to Scoot with the spring digging into my leg. By the time J.D. is opening the driver’s side I’ve shoved Scoot up against the door handle on his side of the truck.
“Stop hogging the seat, Betty Jean.” Scoot is more awake now and slaps at me and shoves me back.
J.D. grunts as he climbs in. “Shut up,” he says as he pushes his greasy hair out of his eyes.
His key chain has a lucky rabbit’s foot on it.
“I want some bologna when we get to the store,” Scoot says settling down some. He ain’t got sense enough to worry about J.D.
The inside of the truck smells like rotted meat and turpentine.
J.D. cranks up the truck and turns the headlights on. They ain’t aimed right and one shines up in a pine tree at the edge of the field. Two eyes shine back at us from something sitting on one of the branches. An old possum, I reckon. The truck backfires twice. I about jump out of my skin, but Scoot claps his hands and bounces up and down on the seat. He loves loud noises.
“Make it do it again. Make it do it again.” Scoot keeps clapping his hands. I stick my elbow in his side, trying to make him scoot over again so that I can sit as far away from J.D. as I can. Scoot settles down a little bit and starts rolling the window up and down.
“Why you sitting way over there, Betty Jean? Slide on over here.” J.D. pats the seat next to him and then turns away from me to look over his left shoulder while he backs up. The heat lightning crackles again.
He clears his throat and spits out the window. He turns to look at me and I can smell his breath and his sweat. The dashboard lights are bright enough for me to see that the pocket of the truck is hanging open and that there is a hunting knife and a pack of gum in it.
“Hand me a piece of that Juicy Fruit.” J.D. shifts into first gear and we pull out onto the road.
Scoot grabs the gum out of the pocket and pulls a piece out for himself. “Give me that, boy,” J.D. says, real hateful, and he reaches across me to take it away. My shirt is thin and I can feel the weight of his arm against my chest when he reaches across me for the gum. “Unwrap me a piece, Betty Jean.” He lays the gum on my lap.
Scoot ain’t saying nothing now. He’s stopped wiggling around, too. I look over and he’s slumped against the door with his eyes closed like he does when he’s gone full speed for so long that he just passes out.
I unwrap the gum and try to hand it to J.D. without touching him.
J.D. shifts into second and then into third. The dirt road is flat and narrow. On one side, the bank of the road slopes right down into the swamp.
J.D. don’t take the gum from me. “Roll it up and stick it in my mouth,” he says.
He’s got his left arm propped on the window and is driving with his right hand.
He ain’t got no snake ring on his finger like Buster…but I know I’m about to take a ride with the devil.