fiction by Caroline Malone

Cornbread flattened himself out behind a thick row of boxwood separating a green Victorian on Keene Ave. and the Shell station on Broadway. Because he was hard of hearing, Cornbread missed the howling of a dog a few blocks away. It was dark, the night larger than the day, but Cornbread wasn’t the kind of man to take unnecessary risks, so he lay flat on his back and tried to steady his breathing.

The Honda Accord Cornbread had broken into was parked a few streets over on Kenwood, and when the flood lights of a Craftsman bungalow popped on, he had fled. The car had only yielded some coins and a package of crackers. Now, the best he could do was to stay put a while and meet up with his associate at first light.

Cornbread dozed until the sun began to break over the trees. The morning was too bright for his eyes. Now and then, cars pulled into the Shell station, drivers filling vehicle tanks with fuel and throats with coffee. Cornbread searched his pockets to find the three dollars in quarters he had taken from the Honda.

Walking to the Broadway Shopping Centre, Cornbread watched the traffic thicken. When he arrived at the strip mall, he sat on the sidewalk in front of the Bargain Food Mart and surveyed the empty parking lot. The sun was getting brighter, and Cornbread felt the humidity pressing on him, beads of sweat forming on his neck. He dug at the dirt under his nails and tapped his feet. Finally, Timbo appeared. He carried a large pack on his back and wore a red kerchief on his head.

“You got anything?” Cornbread’s voice sounded hollow in the morning air.

“Nothin’ you ain’t got,” yelled Timbo.

“Then we got nothin’, friend,” said Cornbread.

“Shit,” said Timbo as he neared his friend, and he spat on the ground.

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to hustle today.” Cornbread shrugged his shoulders.

Timbo shifted the heavy pack on his back. “I guess I’ll find Cindi. She always has a little cash.”

“Meet me here later, tater,” said Cornbread.

Timbo spun on his cowboy boot heels and headed for the park on Broadway.

Two hours passed without an opportunity. Cornbread rubbed the bristles on his face. They were golden like the stubble on his head. His momma called him Cornbread, she said, because her son looked like a healthy piece of yellow pone. She said his mugshots did not due his hair color justice. He ran his hand over his face again and watched a late-model Volvo station wagon enter the parking lot. The driver pulled the car into a space a few stores down from where Cornbread sat. In the back seat was a square-faced, big, blue dog.

A middle-aged couple exited the vehicle. The man wore khakis and a white polo while the woman had on a red sundress and a seagrass floppy hat. Cornbread decided to wait until the couple had finished shopping to approach. As the man and woman made their way back to their vehicle, Cornbread advanced on them.

“Excuse me, sir, ma’am,” said Cornbread, and he looked directly in the woman’s eyes. “I got a situation.”

“What’s wrong?” asked the woman. Her husband fooled with the car keys and unlocked the driver’s side door.

“Well, it’s my grandma. She’s real sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said the woman.

“See, I need to get her to the hospital, but my car it run out of gas. She’s sitting in it over yonder,” said Cornbread, and he pointed vaguely toward Broadway.

The man in the khaki pants arranged some bags in the back seat of the Volvo and glanced at the woman. 

"Well, we hope she gets better soon,” said the woman. 

The dog in the back seat stared out the window. Its ears pricked up.

“The thing is I gotta get her to the hospital, and my car don’t got no gas.”

The woman in the hat began to search her purse.

“Where’s your mother?” asked the man.

“She’s in the car, sir,” said Cornbread.

“I though it was your grandmother,” replied the man.

“Yeah. It’s my grandma. They’s a lot alike, my momma and grandma.”

The man chuckled and said something under his breath. 

“Excuse me, sir. I’m hard of hearing. Could you tell me that again?”

The dog began jumping at the car window, leaving drool and nose prints on the glass.

The man shook his head. “Do you even have a car?”

The woman in the hat stopped looking though her purse and eased open the passenger-side door to the Volvo. She slid into the seat and placed her purse in the floor of the front passenger seat.

“I do. I just need a few dollars for gas.”

“And how much is a few dollars? Ten? Twenty?”

“I reckon I’d take what you can spare.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll drive you both to the hospital. Why don’t you hop in, and we’ll go get your grandmother.”

“She don’t like strangers. I better just get some gas in the car and take her myself,” said Cornbread.

“Do you know what work is, buddy?” asked the man.

Cornbread had not anticipated this turn in the con. People usually gave him money to go away. Cornbread became silent and clinched his hands into fists.

“Look, I ain’t trying to start no fight. I just need gas money.”

“You’re the one with fists, not me. Me? I’m Marine. I can take you,” said the man.

The man in the khaki pants walked around the Volvo to stand a few inches in front of Cornbread. Although Cornbread was 5’9, the Marine was a good three inches taller.

“Well, I know about work. I gotta work every day, mister,” said Cornbread.

“Ha ha, sure!”

“You don’t think this is work?”

The man opened the back door of the Volvo and the blue dog sprang from the car. It appeared to take flight as it went after Cornbread. With the dog on his heels, Cornbread retreated toward the Bargain Mart. Before he could escape into the store, the dog grabbed his pant leg and tugged until the fabric ripped.

“Damn dog!” screamed Cornbread as he felt his cheek press into the cool glass of the store front. Cornbread began to cry.

The man called off the dog, and it tore off back to the open door of the car. Cornbread straightened his pants and rolled his neck side to side. Then he saw the Honda Accord pull into the lot, and he was on his way. 

Caroline Malone is a writer who lives in East Tennessee.
Her most recent poetry collection, Dark Roots, was published
in 2018.

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