Since retiring, and my boys leaving home, I’ve started to take over one of their rooms. I have some of my paintings and photographs on one of the walls. I sit at the desk and occasionally write. Now that I’m working a real job again, I spend more time in this room. The window looks out over our street, the corner our house is located on. What I see out that window is a hell of a lot of delivery trucks. Endless streams of Amazon and UPS and USPS trucks delivering packages. Yesterday, all of those trucks reminded me of this story.
I wrote it in response to a first line from The First Line. Unlike Sunbaked Sand and The Smoker’s Club, they didn’t publish Tentacles. When I published a couple of short story collections, this story made its appearance in Shady Acres and Other Stories. If you like what you read below, give the collection a try. There are far more worlds to visit.
In Pigwell, time is not measured by days or weeks but by the number of eighteen wheelers that drive past my house. It’s been that way for years, ever since I moved in on a cold blustery day in April. I learned of its unofficial name, Pigwell, when I was ushered past the door and into my room.
“Welcome to Pigwell,” the woman lying on the upper bunk said. She didn’t move and didn’t bother to look at me. She just stared up at the ceiling, her left hand picking at the peeling white paint on the wall above the bunk.
“You’ll figure it out,” she mumbled, turning her back to me and focusing her efforts on the paint. I put my things on the floor and sat down on the lower bunk, hearing and feeling the bed springs creak under my weight. In the corner was a toilet and sink. Along the opposite wall was a small table with one chair and on the wall above the table was a shelf. A handful of books were scattered haphazardly on the shelf and two pictures were taped to the wall below the shelf. One appeared to be a standard school picture of a blond girl, probably about six or seven. The girl was trying not to smile too widely, probably to keep from opening her mouth and revealing the gap caused by missing teeth.
Looking at that picture, I thought of Jane, my own little blond girl. There was a school picture of her somewhere, too. Taken five or six years before I entered the confines of Pigwell, she had been the same age, trying to hide the same gap. Only in her case, the missing teeth were caused by her father’s fist, not by the normal progress of childhood.
The other picture was of the same girl, a year or two older, standing next to a woman sitting in a chair. Although I had only briefly seen the woman on the bunk above me, I could tell they were one and the same, and that it had been a long time since the picture had been taken. The black and white of the picture had begun to fade and the edges were tattered by years of handling.
Alone in the room but for the stranger a couple of feet above me, who had fallen asleep, my reality sank in and I began to quietly cry. The wall I had built around me, hiding the physical and emotional pain I had endured for years, for the first time in a long time began to crumble. I lay down on the bed and curled up into a ball, the tears silently streaming down my face and dampening the thin pillow. I cried myself to sleep, waking up an hour later to the sound of the door to the room opening. Before I could get up, two feet, followed by legs and a body appeared from above me, as my roommate slid off the bunk and ambled towards the door. Quickly, I got up and followed her, knowing that, although she had said barely a word, this stranger was a lifeline I might need.
* * *
My house? I live in Carrollton, North Carolina, a small town tucked away in an out-of-the-way corner on the western edge of the state. During much of the early part of the century, from 1908 to 1942, the town was run by Charles Sidwell, the local sheriff. In 1942, Sheriff Sidwell, good ol’ boy that he was, got himself killed at the hands of his enraged mistress after he slapped her around a bit. Up until that point, nothing happened during his reign without his stamp of approval and when he died, the respected citizens of the town thought it would be a good idea to name everything they could after him. In the tradition of the South, they managed to ignore the circumstances of his death.
There was Sidwell Park, Charles Sidwell Elementary School, and, after obtaining state approval, the Sidwell Women’s Correctional Institution. I still wonder how they managed to keep from renaming the town, too. In an effort to establish just the right environment of gentility and class–Sidwell was built in the 1940’s when people still cared about such things–each building was named after a famous woman writer. Hence, my home, my house. The Dickinson House at the Sidwell Women’s Correctional Institution.
A couple of months after arriving, I found out why the residents called it Pigwell. Once the warmth and the humidity of summer arrived, the aroma from the area’s pig farms, one of which was nestled comfortably in the countryside directly across from Sidwell, permeated the facility. Windows closed, doors closed, it didn’t matter. Pigs may, in fact, be one of the cleanest animals, but what thousands leave behind on a daily basis sure the hell doesn’t smell clean particularly in the humidity of a sweltering North Carolina summer.
It’s been so long since I stopped counting days and started counting eighteen wheelers I truthfully don’t know how long it’s been since I arrived. I know that I arrived sometime in April of 1978, but I have no idea of the year or month now. Days and weeks and months and years don’t mean anything. All that matters is that twenty-three trucks move past my window and I can close my eyes and begin counting again when I open them the following morning.
My room, on the northwest corner of the third floor, allows me to look out on Sidwell Street, a two lane road that leads to the interstate. The first morning of my stay at Pigwell, I woke before dawn and, after tossing and turning for what seemed hours, couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose and walked to the window. The sun was just beginning to make its approach over the horizon, creating the first glow of the early morning.
To the south, I saw the headlights of a vehicle coming down Sidwell Street. I followed the lights as they approached and then passed by my window. It was an eighteen-wheeler, the first of my Pigwell life. There were no markings on it. Just a cab pulling two white trailers behind. I thought nothing of it and five minutes later another went by. Five minutes later, another. And so on. An hour later, twelve trucks had passed by my window, heading north towards the interstate. I looked and waited, but no more came.
“That window is hell, aint it?” the woman on the upper bunk said, interrupting my new-found obsession with eighteen-wheel trucks.
“It lets you see the real world. A world you aint gonna ever touch again.”
Her words stung because they were the truth of a harsh reality. The rest of my life would most likely be spent in that room, or somewhere else behind the fences, locked doors, and barred windows of the Sidwell Woman’s Correctional Institution. But, somehow that first day I thought the window wasn’t so bad. Having a view of the world would allow me an escape from the confines of Pigwell.
“My name is Betty,” she said.
“Ellen,” I responded.
“Whatcha in for?” she asked.
Mustering the strength to say the word, I whispered, “Murder.”
“Yeah? Me, too.”
Instantly, I was scared. I was sharing a cell with a murderer. Somehow, I didn’t equate what I had done with being a murderer. I had killed because I had to. It wasn’t my fault that the jury hadn’t seen things my way. “Who’d ya kill?” Betty asked.
“Phillip,” I sighed. By this point, I had turned from the window and was sitting in the room’s lone chair. I was facing the bunks and Betty was still lying in her bed, but with her head perched on her hands as she looked down at me.
“Phillip?” she asked with a quizzical look on her face.
“Oh. Me, too.”
“Killed my husband.” Some small amount of relief spread through me. Maybe she wasn’t the horrible monster I thought she might be when she first said she was in for murder. “Stabbed the bastard. Twelve times. He got what he deserved.” We were two of a kind.
“I shot Phillip,” I said. My voice had returned to a whisper. I had never spoken those words, not even to my attorney or at trial. I didn’t get to testify. Back in those days, people didn’t yet care about battered women. Particularly, in the old South, and my attorney thought it best that I not say my piece. Good ol’ John Ralston, he of the soiled shirt collar and liquid lunch, also thought it best that he not know what really happened.
“I shot Phillip,” I repeated, warming to the words.
And, suddenly, the wall came tumbling down and words came out in a torrent, “In the head. I’d had it. The years of hitting me, kicking me, calling me a bitch, locking me in our room for days, raping me, and thinking that buying me flowers and saying he was sorry were enough to make up for it.” I stopped and took a breath.
“He had a shot gun in the garage, fully loaded. ‘Just in case,’ he would tell me with that damn twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he would remind me about the gun after beating me. I don’t even remember anymore why he would beat me. It got to the point where he just did it because he could. One time, he kicked me and hit me and then dragged me out back. He went back inside and came out with a watermelon under one arm and the shotgun in the other. He put the watermelon against the fence and stalked back towards me. He said, ‘Look at this,’ and then turned and shot the watermelon, obliterating it. Turning back to me, he said, ‘Just in case.’
“My only regret at that moment wasn’t that he beat me black and blue, again, but that little Jimmy saw the whole thing. His high chair was in the kitchen and he was eating Cheerios as fast as he could shovel them in his mouth while Phillip threw me around the kitchen and family room. After Phillip destroyed the watermelon and stomped back into the house, I looked up and saw Jimmy, still in his high chair, looking out the kitchen window. Watching it all.
“Well, ‘just in case,’ finally came. Only it didn’t come the way he thought it might. I got the shot gun and crept into our room where he was asleep in his crappy Fruit of the Looms that were more yellow and brown than white. No amount of bleach could save those things. His gut sticking up in the air, quivering while he snored that way that he did. Hell, that snore could have woke the dead three counties over. Just didn’t wake him.
“I didn’t give myself time to think about what I was doing. I’d done enough thinking about it over the years. I jammed the shot gun up under his chin. Hard. His eyes shot open and he looked at me. I waited long enough for him to realize what I held in my hands. I wanted to see terror in his eyes. I did, so I pulled the trigger. He ended up looking a lot like the watermelon did.”
That was all I could tell her. I was arrested a couple of days later when Phillip didn’t show up at work and his boss called the police. His body was still in our bed. I was arrested and convicted of murder. Sent away for life.
“Good for you,” Betty said quietly.
We spent the rest of the day in uncomfortable silence, both knowing too much and not enough about each other. The only other exchange we had that day was when I mustered up the nerve to ask her how long she’d been there. “Twenty-three years, seven months, and sixteen days,” came the answer
That evening, after dinner, I stood at the window again, looking out as the day turned to dusk and the sun went down behind Pigwell. The lights of a vehicle approached from the north. A cab pulling two white trailers approached and blew past. Every five minutes, another followed, until eleven had made the journey past my window.
The next morning I woke before dawn again. I got up and looked out the window. As the sun rose, twelve eighteen-wheelers began to make their way to the interstate. I counted again. And, after dinner, as the sun went down and the lights of Pigwell were slowly extinguished, I stood before the window and counted eleven coming back from the interstate. The headlights announcing their approach, the roar of their engines announcing their arrival, and the gush of air stirring the trees and grass on the roadside signaling their departure from my world.
The window became my escape. The trucks, my puzzle. I have spent the days ever since wondering about them. What’s at the end of the road? Where do they come from? What are they delivering? Where do they go? And, most importantly, what happens to that twelfth truck? How is it that every day, twelve leave in the morning and only eleven return in the evening? How is it that over all these years, there’s never been any change to the schedule? Progress apparently never made it to whatever is connected with those trucks.
I probably could have asked somebody at Pigwell about the trucks. I could have got answers to the questions, but pondering the answers gave me something to occupy my mind. Every twenty-three trucks was a cycle of my life, to be repeated again the following morning.
* * *
The days and weeks and months rolled by. I lost track of those. I was never been able to count the days the way Betty did. The number is too big. Too much to handle.
Somewhere along the way I learned that Jimmy, at the ripe age of fourteen, was sent to an institution for juvenile delinquents. While playing one day, in a fit of anger, he managed to fire a gun and kill a friend. “Just in case,” came way too early for Jimmy. He probably wouldn’t have got in too much trouble if he had owned up to the shooting and claimed it was an accident. But, instead of seeking help, he dragged the boy’s body into some bushes and then went about his business, ignoring the search that went on around him and initially denying any knowledge about how his friend’s body ended up where it did.
And Jane, whose front teeth were knocked out by her father in a fit of rage over a glass of spilt milk or something of equal insignificance? As she entered adulthood, she wrote me letters that described her life. A succession of battering, abusive men of her own. The letters were filled with tears and anguish over the pain of her life and her inability to escape the violence that had begun when she was so young. Although I want only to throw out her letters when they arrive, I force myself to read them. It is part of my penance. I allowed a man into my life who was brutal and abusive.
The tentacles of that abuse have spread out and affected others. Too many others, including the family of an innocent boy gunned down by my son. And, most likely, the children Jane brings into this world as she bounces from abusive boyfriend to battering husband. I am powerless to stop it.
I still count the trucks that go by. Twenty-three. Twelve, one way. Eleven, the other. As those stupid trucks go by, I have needed them more and more. The mysteries they offer me have provided me with a haven from the disaster of my life.