Coming from Off
fiction by Elaine Fowler Palencia

The best place to get breakfast on the back side of the lake is the Ready Mart, which is why Emil Palfrey and Bill Davis are there when the woman walks in just after six thirty that morning. They’ve seen her out the window, filling her Chevy Tahoe with gas, before she comes inside and stands gawking like she’s landed on the moon. Maybe mid-thirties, not bad looking, thinks Emil, but weighing in at a little too big for her britches, which are some kind of high-dollar black hiking tights stretched to the danger point over sturdy thighs. The Day-Glo pink and yellow exercise shoes would run you a hundred at a mall, and the bright blue fleece jacket, too. Designer sunglasses with lime green frames on top of her head. Of course, Emil says to himself, nowadays you could get all that online. He knows because his wife Sallie’s always browsing those sites and dreaming about what she’d wear if she felt better and they had more money.  It’s something else, something about the way the woman carries herself, that tells you she’s from off. Standing stiff and drawn into herself like she’s leery of the eastern Kentucky retirees and fishermen eating at the scarred tables grouped to one side of the merchandise racks. One hand clamped on her shoulder bag like she’s afraid somebody will steal it. 

“Ohio Navy,” Bill guesses. 

That’s what people call the fishermen who swoop in from Ohio of a weekend and put so much pressure on the fish population in the lake. 

Emil tilts back his Wildcats cap and squints at her. “No, farther off.”

They watch her take in the fact that despite Ready Mart being a gas station, people are eating full breakfasts—biscuits and sawmill gravy; pancakes and sausage; bacon, eggs, and toast. They watch her decide to eat and, hesitantly and squeamishly, walk up to the counter and order toast, an egg over light, and coffee.

“Can you do that? Over light?” she asks, causing Lorena, behind the counter, to roll her eyes and say, “I believe I just about can.”

Except for the one chair at their table, the fourth side being pushed up against the wall, all six tables are filled. For a moment they observe her trying to decide what to do about it, before Bill—being Bill—throws up an arm and says, “Set down with us. We won’t bite. Don’t have the teeth for it.” This is the part he likes about being old, he’s said to Emil. Young women don’t take you seriously so you can pretty much strike up a conversation with one anytime, anywhere.

Emil chuckles in support of the joke that isn’t a joke and pushes away his plate, self-conscious about eating in front of somebody he doesn’t know. Before he left the house, he forgot to put his bridge in. 

In different circumstances she could be pretty. Right now, she looks tired and beaten down and divorced. Has that same I’m-done-stick-a-fork-in-me expression as his step-daughter wears. No wedding ring, but a showy, handmade turquoise and silver job on her right hand worth, say, two hundred. Antique Navajo work, he’d guess. He knows a thing or two about prices from helping out at his nephew’s pawn shop.

She smiles, which makes a big difference, and says, “I’ve been driving all night. Got off I-64 at Mt. Sterling to wake myself up.”

“Where you headed?” asks Bill.

“Virginia, to see my sister. I live in Kansas City.”

Lorena brings the woman’s plate and freshens up everyone’s coffee.

Bill says, “I’m Jim Davis but people call me Bill.” Another tried and true joke, which produces a half grin from the woman. 

“Stella,” she says.

Emil says his given name. 

“You gentlemen are up early.”

“I got troubles,” Bill says bitterly.

Emil gives an amused snort. Not again, he thinks. 

“What kind of troubles?” she asks, widening her eyes and looking interested.

“On-necessary lawsuits. That’s exactly what it is. Completely on-necessary.” Bill leans forward on his elbows. His thin cheeks color and his voice rises. “I have my flea market up here on both sides of the road. They threw me out of the Big Flea, damn their eyes, which it wasn’t nothing I done to deserve it. Then a while back, up where I am now, a man come in and stole my little patio cowbell. My grandson recognized him. Knew him same as the paint on the wall. So I’ve got a lawsuit on that jasper. He sold it for ten dollars.”

Emil nods gravely, as if he hasn’t heard it all before. 

“And then here lately, they’s another man come with a little wagon and took more of my stuff. I’m lawing him, too. My grandson was right there again, but he couldn’t do nothing on account of his bad leg. I’m fixing to get it all back today. I know where that jaybird lives and I know my stuff.” He hitches up his chair menacingly and starts back over the outrages, supplying more details.

Emil would bet money that the real culprit is Bill’s sorry grandson Vance, who has a drug habit. 

Now Emil feels bad for the way he sized her up when she walked in. You never know about people, he reminds himself. Sallie always says he’s too judgmental, says it’s the Old Regular Baptist in him. 

“I love to hear you talk,” says Stella, daintily sopping up egg yolk with a corner of toast. “It reminds me of people I grew up with.” 

“Where’d you grow up?” Emil asks.

“Blue Valley. Not ten miles from here.”

“Still got family there?”

“Oh, no. We left when I was in high school. Moved to Bowling Green.  And then St. Louis.”

Now Emil feels bad for the way he sized her up when she walked in. You never know about people, he reminds himself. Sallie always says he’s too judgmental, says it’s the Old Regular Baptist in him.

Bill picks up his trash and takes it to the bin, returning to say, “Got places to go and people to see. Good to meet you, ma’am. Hoss, see you in the later.”

Stella says, “And I have to get on the road. It was good to meet you both. Thanks for sharing your table.”

As Emil finishes his coffee, he watches her get in the Tahoe, put on her sunglasses, and buckle up. Then, instead of making a right onto the road, she drives to the edge of the concrete apron and stops, so that a Lay’s delivery truck has to go around her. She gets out of the vehicle holding a cell phone and dashes out of his line of sight. 

Seeing how she moves when she’s hurrying, Emil realizes who she is.

He is the assistant janitor at Tolliver School again and it is late afternoon, after classes have let out. He is running the floor buffer at one end of the long, second floor hall when three little girls appear at the other end. What they are doing in the building at that hour he doesn’t know. When they see the newly waxed floor, they whisper together, take off their shoes, and, giggling, take running slides that propel them halfway to where he is working.

“Hi, Mr. Palfrey,” they chorus, and scamper back to the far end, where they slide again, waving their arms and shrieking with excitement. It is Ellice Ramey, Rosalee Hall, and Stella Van Trease, all third graders.

He has been going through a bad time, so bad that no light can reach the bottom of the well into which he has cast himself. Circumstances of his own making have left him alone and nearly penniless. His marriage is over; Connie has moved to Georgia. The school job comes too late to save him and he cannot see a way forward. Unbeknownst to Mr. Wright, the principal of Tolliver, Emil has been sleeping in the furnace room of the school, having nowhere else to go. And who cares? No one. He was born and raised across the line in Carter County and has spent much of his adult life in Blue Valley, but he could slip beneath the surface of town life tomorrow without leaving a ripple. He has been thinking of doing just that and has already bought a box of shotgun shells.

“Watch us, Mr. Palfrey! Watch us skate!” cry the girls, slipping and swooping like butterflies in white socks. They move in such an airy way that in the dark hall, they almost seem a trick of the light.

Quickly he lays down another coating of wax on his end of the hall and buffs it to glass, then invites them to slide there.

The children race towards him and hit the slickest patch at full speed. Emil picks up a broom to block the head of the stairs so they don’t fall down the steps. Stella is the tallest and most athletic; Rosalee the funniest, deliberately falling and rolling about; while Ellice tries the hardest to look graceful. They are from different parts of town and are not natural allies, but they are united in this activity, as children should be. And he is part of their happiness, a fatherly presence both friendly and vigilant. He feels a lift in his chest and starts laughing.

They turn to slide back the way they came. He leaves them to it and steps in the science room to sweep. When they tire of the game, they come to find him. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Palfrey!! That was fun! Thanks!  Be careful you don’t slip!” they chatter.  

Late afternoon light is falling through the transom window above the classroom door. The faces of Ellice and Rosalee are alight, their hair blazing with sun streaks. Because she stands a little taller, the sun doesn’t touch Stella’s face; it remains in shadow. For a strange moment, Emil wonders if he is seeing a vision of their future. 

After the children have gone, he takes off his shoes and tries a run or two himself. By the time he puts away the buffer, he’s thinking hard about how to move forward, how to survive. And here he still is today.

He’s on his way to his truck when he sees Stella and Bill standing over past the air hose, out of the flow of vehicles going to and from the station. Stella is holding the phone like a camera and focusing on Bill, who looks like he doesn’t know if he should grin or not. 

As Emil walks up, she urges Bill, “The whole story. How somebody stole your, what was it, ‘little patio cowbell,’ and everything. Just like you told it before. It’s hilarious.”

Bill scratches his head and says, “Well, I—.” He stops when he sees Emil. 

“Aw, come on,” says Stella, who then catches sight of Emil, too.

Now Emil doesn’t know whether to run, shit, or go blind. And here he was going to tell her how she helped save his life. The needle pricks of pain which he refuses to believe are angina stab his chest on the left side. 

“What’s going on?” he wants to know.

She blinks rapidly and her mouth tightens. “Mountain speech is disappearing, isn’t it. So I was just, well, this man here has a real, authentic sound.”

“This man here,” says Emil. 

“Bill,” she says, like a child who’s being made to apologize.

“Bill who? You even get his last name?” asks Emil, feeling his chest constrict.

“You know what?” says Stella brightly. “You guys have a good day.” She strides back to her SUV and gets in, slamming the door.

As they watch her drive away, Bill chuckles. “Aw, shucks. And I was going to try and sell her my fake antique churn.”

When Emil gets home, Sallie is sitting at the kitchen table with her oxygen tank next to her and the cannula in her nose, which is a good thing. It makes him nervous when she tries to do without it. He gets her some cereal and tells her the whole deal about running into Stella Van Trease and how mad he got at her treating Bill like some carnival attraction. Not long after he and Sallie got together, he told her the story of the three little angels, Ellice, Stella, and Rosalee.

And how do you feel now?” asks Sallie, giving him her sharp, bird look.

Emil shakes his head. “Disgusted.”

“With you, or her?”

“In my next life, I’m going to marry a stupid woman,” he says, and they both laugh.

“Because we could have, for example, taken her to the cemetery.  If you hadn’t run her off,” says Sallie. 

The sun is streaming into the holler as Emil parks in front of Craggy Fork Chapel, a small, whitewashed building set in a bend of the road on the way to Seven Up. A mourning dove laments softly as he carries the water bucket, zinnias and dahlias, and clippers, into the cemetery behind the church. Sallie didn’t feel up to coming with him, but she cut some flowers from her garden for him to bring.

He walks down the slope through the older section, where people he knew as a boy are buried—men and women who held up the sky in his small, rural community. That includes Dutch Van Trease, Stella’s grandfather. Emil and his buddies used to buy Nehi Grape pop at Dutch’s roadside grocery. Rosalee Hall is buried in a newer section, near the low stone wall surrounding the hilly graveyard. 

Emil kneels with difficulty, takes out a bandanna handkerchief, and wipes down Rosalee’s marker, which is set flat on the ground like a paving stone. He clips the grass around the stone and over the mound, then waters the miniature rosebush at the foot. The green plastic urn that Sallie put next to the headstone has fallen over. He sets it upright and fills it with water and flowers. He has kept the grave clear the last four years, after he and Sallie discovered it had been abandoned, and he expects to go on doing so as long as he is able. 

Maybe Stella just missed home, he thinks. Maybe that’s all it was.

When he stands up, he waits a moment until his head stops swimming, the way it does when he bends way over, then starts the climb back to his truck.

Elaine Fowler Palencia, from Morehead Kentucky, is the author of six books of fiction, including two collections of Appalachian short stories. This story is from a third collection that is wandering around, looking for a publisher. Her latest book, On Rising Ground, The Life and Civil War Letters of John M. Douthit, 52nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry (Mercer UP, 2021), is based on family letters. Her poetry and fiction have received seven Pushcart Prize nominations and other awards. She moderates the Red Herring Prose Workshop in Champaign-Urbana Illinois and is the book review editor of Pegasus.

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