Edie O’Leary—her name was Edna, but everybody called her Edie—had lived so close to the bone that, even now, at two years sober, she looked to be all bone herself, lean as a rib, sinewy and intense.
It was January and there was a bitter, January wind, but she was aching for a cigarette so she was out on the front steps of the Square Deal Grill. It was the middle of the morning rush and there was no one else to work the booths or the counter. The best she could do was to fire up a quick one. She had just time enough to suck down three shivering hits and to see, across the courthouse square, Deputy Tim Weatherstone, stringing yellow crime scene tape across the front of the drug store.
Three hits on her cigarette, that was all, and she had to get back to work. No one said anything—they all knew better than to say anything. But she could sense six pairs of eyes at her back and a worried cook in the kitchen. Someone’s order was ready; someone wanted his check; the caffeine level in the room was growing critical.
She stabbed her cigarette out against the doorframe, then carefully inserted the half-cigarette back into its pack, dropped the pack into her apron pocket, and came back inside to catch the order, refill the depleted coffee cups, and fetch that bill.
“What do you reckon happened over at the drug store?” one old farmer at the counter asked another.
“I have no idea,” the second farmer said.
Edie O’Leary had an idea, but she kept her idea to herself.
The two farmers shrugged and continued to watch out the front door and across the courthouse lawn to where the yellow tape fluttered. By now, the sheriff and a state trooper had arrived to ponder the broken door and the glass on the sidewalk.
“Do you reckon it was a break-in?” the first old farmer asked.
“There’s a lot of that goin around.”
“I hear there is.”
“Ever drug store in ever little town from here to Gallipolis has been hit.”
“And over in Kentucky, it’s just as bad.”
“That’s what they say.”
“And you don’t dare leave your house, they’ll strip it to the bare walls.”
“That they will.”
“Used to be you never had to lock your door.”
“Ain’t like that no more. Ask me why, I say it’s the drugs. It makes em crazy.”
“Makes em so crazy for it they’ll do about anything to get more.”
“It makes you wonder just what is this world coming to.”
“Makes you think.”
Edie O’Leary did not have much time to think while she was at work. And she liked it like that. In the one slack hour between the breakfast run and the lunch rush, with nothing to occupy her mind and hands, it was too easy to let stress, worry, and regret invade her mind.
So she was grateful when Tim Weatherstone came in, wearing his new county uniform, starched so stiff it looked like armor and pressed so sharp it could have been registered as a weapon. He was young and he walked with a young man’s strut and he swaggered with a young man’s swagger. But Edie O’Leary had known him since he was a boy.
No, she told him, she hadn’t seen a thing. Yes, she got to work at five in the morning, but she wasn’t looking at such an hour to see whose windows were broken, so no she didn’t see a thing, and no, she didn’t hear a thing, and no, she didn’t know a thing until she saw the yellow tape, so that by the time Weatherstone left, she was no longer grateful to have seen him at all and she was reminded of way too many times she had to answer way too many questions.
So she was only half grateful to see Maggie Boylan headed toward the door of the Square Deal with Sheila Hacker by the elbow. Maggie steered Sheila up the steps and through the door.
“Come on, babe,” Maggie said. “Edie’ll front us some coffee. That’ll help your nerves.”
Maggie marched the girl to the counter and planted her on a stool. “Edie’s my old runnin dog,” said Maggie. “She’s sober now, but she’s not stuck-up sober like some.” Sheila was younger than Maggie and Edie by ten or fifteen years and she was tagged with initials on her hands and studded with metal rings in her lip and brow. She placed her hands flat on the counter, looked to the window, and bit her lip.
“She’s worried, cause she thinks they’re gonna charge her for the break-in at the drug store. But I told her, don’t worry, I got your back.”
The girl looked out to the window and shook her head. She hunched her shoulders up and pulled her head down into the collar of her coat and tongued the ring in her lip.
“She’s all shook up and nervous and she needs a cup of coffee,” Maggie said.
“Maggie, I can’t give you coffee ever time you drag yourself in here.”
Maggie looked to the girl. “You see how she talks to me?” She gave Edie a look. “I ain’t askin for me. It’s for her.”
The girl’s hands did not move from the counter, but they shimmered, leaf-like. Her knuckles were red and her nails were bitten to the nub.
Edie poured coffee for the girl and one for Maggie and thought, This is trouble in the making.
“They got it in for me,” the girl said. “I know they do. They got no one else they can blame, so they’re gonna try to pin it on me.”
“So I’ll just tell em, you was with me all last night.”
“But what if . . . ”
“What if what?”
“I don’t know. I just know they’re gonna try to put it on me.”
“Don’t worry, babe. I got you covered.”
Edie O’Leary rapped once on the counter. “Maggie,” she said. “Come back here a second.” She marched Maggie to the back booth and sat her down. “I don’t know what you’re tryin to do with that girl,” she said, “but I see a truckload of trouble comin.”
“She’s just a kid,” Maggie said. “I’m tryin to help her out.”
“You’re gonna help yourself right into a jail cell.”
“Somebody’s got to help her.”
“By telling the cops some kind of bullshit lie? Look, suppose she did it—which, if she did, I don’t want to know about it—but if she did and you’re tryin to stand in the way, well, there you go. You might as well put your hands out for the cuffs. And if she didn’t do it, what the hell does she need you for?”
“I’m telling you, she’s just a kid. She don’t know how to handle these things.”
“And you do? Maggie, it’s not that long since you handled yourself a year in Marysville.”
“I knew you was gonna throw that in my face.”
“I didn’t throw it in your face.”
“Then why did you even bring it up?”
“Cause you always seem to forget it.”
“How am I supposed to forget goin to prison and losin my kids?”
“I don’t reckon you ever will, but do you ever want to get them back?”
“Are you sayin I’m unfit too?”
“I’m sayin. . . . ” She took a deep breath for patience. “I’m sayin that you’re putting yourself in a bad place.”
“Because I want to help that girl? I thought you was better than that.”
“Maggie . . .”
“Used to be you would help somebody like her.”
“Maggie, I’m tryin to help you.”
“Help, my ass. I thought you was my friend.”
“You can think what you want, Maggie.” Edie O’Leary was done with patience now. “I got to get back to work.”
Two secretaries from the courthouse had sat down at the counter. The girl stared out the door.
“Come on,” Maggie called to her. “They don’t want the likes of us in here.” She grabbed the girl by the elbow and pressed her out into the street. A feed mill truck had to hit the brakes to keep from turning them into mulch. The driver honked and Maggie waved him the bird. Maggie talked the girl around the corner and out of sight and she was gone.
Soon, everyone was gone. The secretaries took their coffees back to the courthouse; the old farmers paid up and went their way. The cook came up front to say that everything was ready and he would be back before lunch. So she was alone with her thoughts. She busied herself with filling the saltshakers and the napkin holders, but really, there was nothing to do until the first of the lunch crowd came around. To keep the old thoughts cornered, she threw on a sweater and went back out to the step to smoke. She came back in, all ashiver, dialed her sponsor, and left a voice mail. She wiped the counter clean and polished the racks that held the menus. Everything was as clean as she could make it.
Later, after the lunch rush was over, there were still some customers in no big hurry. The old farmers had been replaced by a new set of old farmers and a new set of courthouse secretaries sat talking in a booth. Six or seven others were scattered among the other booths or at the counter. There was plenty to do now, so Edie O’Leary did not notice right away that Sheila Hacker sat at the counter, close by the register, with her hands flat on the table. She was nibbling at the ring in her lip and staring out across the courthouse square.
“Can I get you something, honey?”
“Can I just sit here?”
“Honey, it’s a restaurant.”
The girl looked left and right, then pressed her hands even tighter to the countertop, so Edie turned on her heel, poured a cup of coffee, set the cup in front of the girl and asked, “Are you hungry?”
“I didn’t bring my purse.”
“Hold on,” said Edie. She went back to the kitchen pulled out a plate and prepped an order of the meat loaf special. She set it in front of the girl and went on about her business. The secretaries were ready for their bill, the new old farmers wanted pie, and the half dozen others wanted some of this or some of that. When she finally got back to the girl, she had her fork in hand, but she had not eaten more than a nibble off the corner of the meatloaf and had barely put a dent into the mashed potatoes.
“You all right, honey?”
“I’m just nervous, is all.”
“They ain’t charged you yet, honey. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The girl pondered this a moment. She looked up, nibbled at the ring in her in her lip, then asked, “How did you do it?”
“Do what, honey?”
“How did you get clean? How did you get off the drugs?”
Edie looked around. No one else was listening. It was an opening, a chance to carry the message. She leaned closer. “Honey, they court-ordered me to treatment,” she said. “Or else I probably would still be out there. Or dead. I lost my kids and everything, just like Maggie. But I’d probably still be out there.”
The girl nodded, but she kept one eye on the door.
“It worked, but I had to let it work.”
The girl drummed her fingers on the counter. She looked again to the window.
“The court got me in the door. But I had to want it more than I wanted to get high.”
One of the new old farmers raised his coffee mug to catch Edie’s eye. Edie glared him down.
“Cause if you don’t want it,” she said to the girl, “it’s not gonna happen. First couple times I went to rehab, I didn’t really want it. I still wanted to party. They tried to tell me what was up, but I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t wait to get out and get high again. I knew the OxyContin was eatin me alive, but I didn’t care. But this last time . . . ”
The girl interrupted. “I heard you was the one to get Maggie Boylan started on Oxy.”
“Who told you that?”
The girl looked away.
“Okay,” Edie said. “It don’t matter.” She thought for a moment. If she knows that, what else does she know?
The old farmer had raised his cup again and the secretaries had risen and were headed for the register.
“Hold on, babe,” Edie said. She rang up the secretaries and took their money. She poured the farmer’s refill, cleared the secretaries’ table, and scooped up their morsel of a tip. She hesitated a moment before she turned back to the girl. After all, she thought, if I got Maggie started on Oxy and Maggie got the girl started, which was likely, then I’ve got a hand in whatever happens from here on out. The thought was as troublesome as any she had ever had. So she busied herself with bussing the tables. She carried the dishes back to the kitchen, said her short prayer, and came back out to face the girl.
But the girl was gone. Quick as that, the girl was gone.
At two in the afternoon, the new old farmers were still in place, each of them working through a third or fourth refill. A couple of teenagers skipping school, a couple truckers on a break—that was all. Everyone was talking quietly, one of the old farmers might tell a joke and the other one laugh, but for half an hour, it had been quiet as the moments before church.
It was quiet enough to set Edie O’Leary to thinking again: It’s a hard thing, she thought, to set a thing right once you’ve set it wrong. For Maggie Boylan had always been a wild one. But Maggie had never been so wild and never so lost and devious, never so spare of flesh and so all out at the bones when Edie O’Leary—high and heedless—had given Maggie her first OxyContin.
And then Maggie Boylan herself blew in the door. She marched straight up to Edie and pounded a bony fist on the counter.
“Where is she?”
“You mean that girl you brought in?”
“I mean that little metalmouth bitch that, yes I brought her in here this morning, and I need to know where the hell she went.”
“I don’t know, but Maggie, I told you I saw trouble comin.”
“Well, there’s gonna be more trouble soon as I find her. If I can catch her before a cop catches me, that’ll be the end of it right there.”
“Maggie, what is up with you? One minute you’re willing to go to jail for the girl and the next you want to kill her.”
“What’s up with her is what you need to ask.”
“So what’s up with her?”
“That sheriff scared her good enough that she decided to give me up so they’d let her go. So she ratted me out, that’s what happened. She flat-out lied on me. She told the cops I did that break-in. And now they’re lookin for me.”
“Maggie, you lie down with dogs . . . ”
“I know, you get up with fleas. So tell me what happened to that particular flea bitch I’m lookin for.”
“She left here about an hour ago.”
“Maggie, I don’t know. I looked up and she was here and I looked away and she was gone.”
One of the new old farmers pointed out the front door of the Grill. “She went left out the door lookin like a scared rabbit.”
“She ought to be scared,” Maggie said. She turned to leave.
“Maggie,” Edie said.
“I ain’t got time,” Maggie said. “I got to stop this little lyin bitch.” She slammed the door behind her and started up the street to the left.
At three in the afternoon, Edie O’Leary told the old farmers, “I’ve been here ten hours without a break and I’m ready to go home.”
The cook was on his way out the door and the owner was on his way in. Edie called to him, “Stavros, when you gonna get me some help in here?”
“You find some body who will do the job,” he said in his heavy Greek accent. She started to bus the plates from the truckers, but Stavros said, “Put it down. I got it from here.”
Edie did not argue. She counted up her tips and left the cook his share, then gathered her purse, sweater, and jacket. She took out a cigarette and her lighter and had the cigarette on her lips as she came out the door and onto the steps. She paused on the front step to light up the cigarette and let the nicotine massage her troubled nerves. She exhaled and let the wind take the smoke away. It was a January wind with the bitterness of a January wind and it carried with it the sound of voices from across the square. The gusts baffled the words, but she recognized them as curses and she recognized the voice as the voice of Maggie—oh my God, she thought—crazy Maggie Boylan with her hands cuffed behind her, her eyes narrow with rage, Tim Weatherstone at one arm and another deputy at the other and to the side, the sheriff himself, watching like the smug sonofabitch that he was.
At a word from the sheriff, the deputies began to steer Maggie toward the jailhouse on the other side of the square, but five steps in, Maggie balked and would not be budged. She glared toward the courthouse steps and her curses suddenly became more urgent and precise. For coming down the courthouse steps was Sheila Hacker. For just a moment, she stood, struck deer-blind by Maggie and her curses. But quickly she spat out a string of curses of her own, turned, and scuttled back into the courthouse.
The deputies found their traction and dragged Maggie away. But still, she cursed. She cursed the girl and her lie. She cursed the deputies right and left. She cursed her luck and the day she was born. She cursed the whole world around her until they shoved her through the jailhouse door.
Edie O’Leary dropped the butt of her cigarette and crushed it under her toe. The others from around the square who had been watching now turned to talk with each other. In a moment, the wind drove them all off the square and Edie O’Leary was left alone in the cold to trouble out what she had once set wrong and now could never set right.
Michael Henson's most recent work, The Way the World Is: The Maggie Boylan Stories, won the 2014 Brighthorse Prize in short fiction. He is co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the annual publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. His poetry collection, The True Story of the Resurrection, was reviewed in a previous issue of Still: The Journal.