Arkansas. On that day many years ago a rattling Ford truck carrying twenty-nine farmworkers and their children sideswiped a local truck carrying hogs to Little Rock on a rain-slick country highway. It was a shimmering-green day in late May, the Ford truck ended up on its side in a three-foot drainage ditch, and in the hazy rain everyone milled about in the road amid broken glass, a familiar stink of gasoline and a spillage of hog excrement. Yet, among those who hadn’t been hurt, the predominant mood was jocular.
Carleton Walpole would long remember: the skidding on the wet blacktop, the noise of brakes like a guinea hen’s shrieking, the sick weightless sensation before impact. The terrified screams of children and women, then the angry shouts of the men. By the time the truck overturned into the ditch most of the younger and more agile of the farmworkers had leapt clear, while the older, the slower, most of the women and younger children, struggled with the tarpaulin roof and had to crawl out on their hands and knees like beasts onto the soft red clay shoulder. Another goddamned “accident”: this wasn’t the first since they’d left Breathitt County, Kentucky, a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t the worst, either. No one appeared to be seriously injured, bleeding or unconscious.
“Pearl? Where the hell are you?”—Carleton had been one of the first to jump from the truck, but he was anxious about his wife; she was pregnant, with their third child, and the baby was due soon. “Pearl! Pearl!” Carleton yelled. His heart was beating like something trapped in his rib cage. He was angry, excited. Always you feel that mean little thrill of relief, you aren’t hurt. . . . Though once Carleton had been hurt, the first season he’d gone out on the road, his nose broken in a similar crash and the truck driver who was also the recruiter had set it for Carleton with his fingers—“See, a nose will begin healing right away it’s broke. It ain’t bone it’s cart’lige. If you don’t make it straight it will grow in crooked like a boxer’s nose.” Carleton had laughed to see his new nose grown in just slightly crooked at the bridge, but in a way to give his face more character, he thought, like something carved; otherwise, he thought he looked like everybody else, half the Walpole men, long narrow faces with light lank hair and stubbly bearded chins and squinting bleached-blue eyes that looked as if they reflected the sky, forever. When Carleton moved quickly and jerkily his face seemed sharp as a jackknife, but he could move slowly too; he had inherited someone’s grace—though in him it was an opaque resistance, like a man moving with effort through water. Not that Carleton Walpole gave much of a damn how he looked. He was thirty, not a kid. He had responsibilities. With his broke nose, people joked that Carleton’s looks had improved, he had a swagger now like his hero Jack Dempsey.
This time, Carleton hadn’t been hurt at all. A little shaken, and pissed as hell, his dignity ruffled like a rooster that’s been kicked. He’d been squatting on his heels with other men at the rear of the truck chewing tobacco and spitting out onto the blacktop road that stretched behind them like a grimy tongue. Where were they bound for?—Texarkana. That was just a word, a sound. A place on a map Carleton might’ve seen, but could not recall. How many days exactly they’d been on the road, he could not recall. How many weeks ahead, he’d have to ask. (Not Pearl. Used to, Pearl had kept track of such details, now she was letting things slide as bad as the other women.) Well, there was paperwork—somewhere. A contract.
Carleton wasn’t going to think about it, not now. It was enough to console himself I have a contract, I can’t be cheated because there’d been a season when he had not had a contract, and he had been cheated. Enough to think I have a savings account because it was true, alone of the sorry bunch of bastards in this truck Carleton was certain he was the only one with a bankbook, issued from the First Savings & Loan Bank of Breathitt, Kentucky. Not that Carleton needed to speak of it, he did not. He was not a man to boast, none of the Walpoles were. But there the fact was, like an underground stream.
Waiting for local law enforcement, waiting for a tow truck to haul the truck out of the ditch, goddamn. Everybody was excited, talking loudly. Where the hell was Pearl? Carleton was helping women climb up out of the truck. A woman looking young as a girl herself handed him her two-year-old; with a laugh and a grunt he swung the kid over the side like she weighed no more than a cat. Carleton’s upper arm muscles were ropey, and strong; his shoulders were narrow, but strong; his back and his neck were starting to give him trouble, from stoop-picking, but he wasn’t going to give in to moaning and groaning like an old man. “Pa, hey.” There were Carleton’s kids, banged up but O.K. Sharleen, shoving and giggling. Mike, only three, was bawling as usual, but he didn’t look as if he’d been hurt—his face wasn’t bleeding. Carleton picked him up and swung him around kicking, set him down out of harm’s way by some women who could tend to him. There was a smell of spilled whiskey mixed with the smells of gasoline and hog shit and mud and it was like you could get drunk just breathing, feeling your heart beat hard. Carleton touched his face, Christ he was bleeding, some. Was he? He clambered down into the drainage ditch to wash his hands, and wet his face. Maybe he’d banged his lower lip. Bit his lower lip. Most likely that’s what he had done, when the brakes began to squeal, and the truck went into its skid, those seconds when you don’t know what the hell will happen next.
Up front, the driver of the old Ford truck with Kentucky license plates was shouting at the driver of the hog truck with Arkansas license plates. Carleton laughed to see, both these guys had fat bellies. Their driver had a cut eye. Carleton checked to see was anybody dead up front, lying in the road in the rain, sometimes you saw newspaper photos like that, and he’d seen one of a Negro man lying flat on his back in some place in Mississippi and white men banded around the body grinning and waving at the camera, and it made you sick-feeling but excited too, but the driver’s kid brother, a smart-ass bastard who rode up front sucking Colas like a baby at a teat, was walking around unharmed, Carleton was disappointed to see. This kid started saying to Carleton, like Carleton had come to accuse him, “It wasn’t our fault! It was that sonuvabitch’s fault! He come around the turn in the fuckin middle of the road, ask Franklin, go ask him, don’t look at me, it ain’t none of our fault.” Carleton pushed the kid aside. He was taller than this kid, and taller than fat-ass Franklin, and the less friendly he was with them, the more they were respectful of him, and maybe scared. For they seemed to see something in Carleton Walpole’s face. The other driver was cursing at Franklin. He was a squat fattish man with a bald head and eyes like suet and he talked funny like there was mush in his mouth. The cab of his truck was smashed inward but the rear looked unharmed. Too bad, Carleton was thinking, the hogs hadn’t got loose. Not a one of them had got loose. Christ he’d have liked to see that, hogs piling out of a broke truck and landing hard on their delicate-looking hooves (that were not delicate in fact but hard and treacherous as a horse’s hooves) and squealing in crazed outrage as a hog will do then running off into the countryside. And some of those hogs weighing two hundred pounds which was a nice lot of hog. Carleton smiled to think of how that would’ve been, hogs running away squealing not taken to the slaughterhouse where the poor beasts were awaited. The hog driver was cursing and whining and half-sobbing holding his belly with his elbows like a pregnant woman clutching herself. This driver was alone with his truck: they could gang up on him, and he knew it, and there was the thrill of anticipation that they might, but it would maybe be a mistake, they were in Arkansas and not Kentucky and the local law enforcement was Arkansas, and you had to know it, you had to acknowledge it. So nothing would come of the possibility like a match that didn’t get lit and dropped into hay. Not this time.
Carleton saw with satisfaction that the hog truck’s motor was steaming beneath the wrecked hood, the left front fender twisted against the tire so you’d need a corkscrew to untwist it. How bad off their truck was nobody could see since it was lying on its side like a stunned beetle in the ditch.
The last time they’d had trouble like this, it had been raining too: outside Owensboro, Kentucky. Whenever there was an accident or motor trouble everyone was disgusted and angry and threatening to quit but a few hours later they forgot. It was hard to remember anything overnight. And if you moved on, after a few hours on the road you forgot what happened behind you in some other county or state or time. Franklin was promising now he’d make the purchase of a new truck, if they could get to Texarkana he would get the money by wire he was saying, louder and more sincere than he’d made the promise last time, and Carleton shook his head, Jesus! you wanted to believe him even if you knew better.
There was a philosophy that said: The more accidents you had, the less in store for you.
Like the philosophy credited to Jack Dempsey: The more punches a man takes, the closer he is to the end. Because a man has only a fixed number of punches he can take in his lifetime.
“Pa? Momma wants you.”
It was Sharleen pulling at his arm. Carleton went with her to the back of the truck, worried now. What about Pearl? But there was Pearl squatting at the side of the road, on her haunches so she looked like something ready to spring, even with that watermelon belly. An older woman she was friends with was holding her arm. Women’s faces lifting to his like this, Carleton steeled himself for reproach. Goddamn, he wasn’t going to be blamed for this was he? This and every other goddamned thing? Hadn’t never wanted to marry. Not anybody. Hadn’t never wanted to be anybody’s daddy how the fuck did all this happen?
“Honey, you all right? I thought—I saw you—you were lookin all right.” Carleton didn’t want to show any anxious concern for his wife in front of the other women gaping at him.
“Hell of a lot you care.”
Pearl spoke sullenly. Her face was a pale pretty moon-face: or would’ve been pretty if it wasn’t that bulldog look Carleton hated. When he wasn’t standing in front of her, Carleton could recall how pretty she’d been, and not that long ago. Pregnant with Sharleen, and her skin rosy like a peach. And she’d been loving with him then, even with her belly starting to swell. Not like now.
Pearl was younger than Carleton by three years. Fifteen when they’d gotten married, and Carleton had been eighteen. She’d been shy of him, and shivery in love if just he touched her sometimes, or rubbed his stubbly jaw against her skin. He’d been crazy for her too, he seemed to remember. Whoever he’d been.
Strange how Carleton couldn’t see the change in Pearl day following day. A pregnant woman, her belly swelling up. Until by the eighth and ninth month it’s a size you’d need a wheelbarrow practically to transport. How their legs supported them, Carleton was stymied to think. Made him sickish and faint to think. Where Pearl Brody had been a hard-breasted hard-assed little girl he’d liked to wrestle with, the two of them shrieking and panting, there was now this sallow-faced sullen woman with hair she never washed, and her underarms stale and sour, body soft as a rotted watermelon and a mouth that was set to jeering.
“Hell of a lot you care.” It was like Pearl to say things twice, the second time with some emphasis meaning he hadn’t comprehended it the first time. Trying to make him look stupid before others.
Before Carleton could mumble he was sorry, or better yet tell Pearl to shut her mouth, there she was pushing past him—“Bastard just takes our money, don’t give a damn if he kills us.” She was on her way to yell at Franklin, a look in her eyes wet and shining like gasoline. “You men ought to do something, what the hell’s wrong with you? All you do is drink, get drunk.”
Drunk?—Carleton hadn’t had a drink that day.
Pearl was a head shorter than Carleton and her lower body was swollen to twice its size, but damn if he didn’t have to walk fast to keep up with her. Damn!—Carleton was embarrassed of her, his young wife, carrying on like this in public. Lately Pearl was flying into rages at the least provocation. Sharleen, who was five, had sometimes to plead with her—“Mamma? Mamma no.” Pearl was wearing shapeless bib overalls some fat woman friend had given her, and over top of these a pink cotton smock printed with flamingos that would have been pretty except it was soiled, and on her feet frayed tennis shoes. She was furious, glowing hot. She cast off Carleton’s hand on her left, and on her right little Mike who was whining and sniveling for her. “You men don’t give a damn! Call yourselves men! Cowards!” Pushing her way through a band of observers, Pearl clambered up to Franklin, grabbed his arm, and continued to yell in a high-pitched quavering voice: “Why in hell don’t you look where you’re going? Who gave you a license to drive? You let my husband drive and pay him, he’s better than you any day. ‘Carleton Walpole’—he’s a better driver than you. And you’re cheatin us, too. What about my baby? Where’m I gonna have my baby?” Franklin tried to appease the indignant woman, you could see he was frightened of her, and the blood trickling down from his cut eyebrow made him appear more frightened; and Franklin’s kid brother trying to intervene, and Pearl threw off their hands with a look of contempt, and turned to the Arkansas man, the hog driver, standing there in the middle of the glass-strewn road gaping at her—“You! You hit us on purpose! Trying to kill us! I’m gonna have you arrested! What about my baby? Look here, you bastard,” Pearl was pleading now, lifting the pink smock to show her pregnant belly, “what about this? Think I got this on purpose? Not some man? One of you’s fault? Fuck you all lookin at me, thinking you got a right to kill us like vermin.”
Other women joined in. The fat woman friend of Pearl’s put her arm protectively around Pearl’s shoulders and yelled at Franklin and his brother. When women began yelling like that, there was nothing to do but back off, exchange glances with other men, smile, try not to laugh out loud. ’Cause that only combusts them more. Any public display of female rage was exciting and scary: it was comical, but you had to admire it, too. A man flying off the handle like that, he’d be shamed, but a woman like Pearl, and almost-pretty with her widened blue eyes like a startled doll’s, flailing her hands about like that, you felt different. Still, Carleton felt the sting, being called a coward, though he knew for damned sure he was no coward, and Pearl would regret her accusation later, when they were alone. For now, Carleton wasn’t going to intervene. Pearl was winding down, another woman was yelling, louder. Louder and uglier. The mood of the crowd was becoming festive. Carleton smelled fresh-opened whiskey. And there was his little girl Sharleen nudging his knee—“Pa? Pa, look.” Sharleen was proud of a bump on her forehead the size of a crab apple. She took her father’s stained fingers to feel it, and Carleton teased, “Know what that is, sweetie? A billy goat horn coming out.” Sharleen giggled, “Is not.” A little-girl friend of Sharleen’s felt Sharleen’s bump and showed her a flamelike rash on her own neck, that was like some rashes Carleton had on his neck, and on his sides, bad as poison ivy but it was some insects, or maybe pesticides, itched like hell. “Don’t you go touchin that,” Carleton scolded Sharleen, but she didn’t listen, running off with her friends squealing bad as the hogs. Too many kids in the truck, his own and the others’ and the shock of it was, damned if you could tell them apart sometimes. Especially the small ones like little Mike runny-nosed and sniveling for his Momma all the time.
Hadn’t wanted to be anybody’s daddy how the fuck did all this happen?
That was not true of course. Carleton Walpole was crazy about his kids, and his wife. All a man has is his family, when you get right down to it.
Carleton spat. His mouth was dried out from the tobacco he’d been chewing. Christ, he was bored!
Drifted to the side of the road where some guys were passing a flask of home brew. They included him, and he thanked them. These were men who liked Carleton Walpole, and he liked them. They were his age mostly. They were young fathers, too. They had his young-old face. His ropey-muscled arms, and fair skin that burnt faster than it tanned, and his bad teeth, that were mossy-green and crooked. They had his quick laugh, and his hopeful way of glancing up, squinting, to see what was coming next. Some of these guys, “Red” from Cumberland, for instance, were alone on the truck, they’d left their families back home. Like Carleton, Red was working to pay off debts. Not that Carleton didn’t have money saved, too: his mother had told him, always have a few dollars in the bank no matter what. And so Carleton had, forty-three dollars that Pearl knew nothing of, and would not know of, though maybe when they got back he’d buy her a little present from it, her and the baby, to surprise her as sometimes he did. Red was saying he sent money home to his family, and he missed them. When they’d been drinking together once Red had confided in Carleton, he was eleven hundred fifteen dollars in debt to a Cumberland bank, and Carleton bit his lip not knowing what to say—he was only eight hundred some odd dollars in the hole, not that he was proud of such a fact but—well, it wasn’t eleven hundred, that sum made you swallow hard. Of course, trouble is, Red and Carleton had to laugh, you can’t pay off a debt more than a few dollars since you have got to eat, and your family has got to eat, right now. So Carleton and Red, they got along like brothers. Better than Carleton got along with his own brothers in fact. But like brothers they were cagey not to tread on each other’s toes. Red respected Carleton who looked and behaved older. It had required a couple of weeks of groping around before they discovered the “facts” about each other. The way they pronounced their a’s and i’s, the way words slurred out into an extra syllable, turned out their father’s families—Walpoles, Pickerings—were both from North England, the countryside around Newcastle—but a long time ago, neither could have said how long. And Pearl’s people, Brodys, they were from Wigtownshire, that was in Scotland. Carleton didn’t know or care much about these old places—“Have to figure people left for a good reason.”
Carleton was telling Red this was going to be his last season on the road. The money he owed was mostly to one of Pearl’s uncles and that would be paid off, or nearly. Two wet springs in a row back in Breathitt County, wiping them out. Small farms, less than fifty acres. And the soil hilly, thin. He and Red were standing beneath a tall scrubby willow tree where the smell of hogs wasn’t so bad. Inside the truck, you ceased smelling the truck; but when you climbed back in, it hit you. Like the camps they stayed in picking lettuce, onions, radishes. Carleton was chewing a plug of tobacco, and spat in the direction of the truck. “Yeah. I’m settling what I owe. Going back.”
They talked of going back. At the moment neither could have said which direction Kentucky was in, the sky was hazy and overcast like mucus so you couldn’t see any sun to know which side it was slanting down on, that would be west. Anyway, on the road, the road’s always curving so you get confused. What Carleton meant by Kentucky was just where he lived, a circumference of perhaps thirty miles at the most, though there was Hazard he’d been to a few times, and Pikeville. He didn’t try to add up how long he and Pearl had hired out for farmwork, how many seasons. It was like cards in a deck: shuffled together, in no order. There was no point in trying to remember because there was nothing to remember. Like squatting at the edge of the truck watching the road roll out. Seeing where you’d been, not where you were going. There was a comfort in that. If you could live your life backward, Carleton thought, you wouldn’t make so many mistakes.
Aloud he said to Red, “Ever thought how, like a mirror you could look in over your shoulder, you’d see where you were going, but backward? And not mess up.”
Red laughed, spitting tobacco juice. Whatever the hell Carleton Walpole was speaking of, he’d agree.
Red spoke of quitting, too. Going back to work construction. There was a dam going to be built, somewhere near Cumberland. Carleton was silent, jealous of Red: not the thought that Red would get a good job but the thought that Red believed he might, at least for the moment. Carleton himself had been hired for highway construction in east Kentucky but with that kind of work he was the only person in the family to work and they needed more money than that—in the fields his wife could work, and she’d used to have been a good picker, especially of difficult things like strawberries where you can’t grab and clutch with a big hand, you need smaller fingers to avoid the leaves, and some places even kids could work: Sharleen who was five could make herself useful somehow. This was against the law in some states but nobody gave much of a damn. Local law enforcement did not. Very rarely did law intervene except if you got drunk and caused a ruckus in some local place which was dangerous anyway. Turned out, the sheriff’s men were guys looking like Carleton, same lean severe face and a look of being cheated, it was their bosses with the bald heads and fat faces like Herbert Hoover. Carleton sneered, and spat.
A cry went up: a tow truck had appeared. Carleton and Red went to watch. Carleton felt a stab of envy, Christ he’d have liked to own such a truck, and to drive it like that guy was driving like it was just something he did, a job. Like it wasn’t anything all that unusual or special. Though you could see the driver knew he was important. Carleton caught this guy’s eye as he backed the truck around, and a young kid jumped out of the cab to assist. Franklin was standing there wiping his hurt face with a rag and looking worried. Thank God, Pearl had shut up; the other women were quiet, too. Carleton was aware of kids playing in the drainage ditch but damned if he was going to look for his, if Pearl wasn’t.
Carleton wished the tow-truck man would ask him to help. Invite him to ride into town with him. Carleton was good with his hands, good at repairing farm equipment. Not trucks or tractors but wagon wheels. Carleton, Sr., was a blacksmith and also did farm equipment repair. But there was no money in it, you could rely on.
There came Pearl clutching at Carleton’s sleeve, her face pinched. “Carleton, I don’t feel right.”
Except she was poking at him, with her fists. Like trying to wake him. Carleton stared at her. She’d been crying, had she? He felt his underarms break out in a sweat. That damn rash up and down his sides like fire ants stinging. Was she going to have the baby here? So soon? Carleton wanted to protest it was early, wasn’t it? Pearl had not gone to any doctor but had counted the months and this baby was not due until next month.
“Carleton, I told you I don’t feel right.”
Carleton yelled, “ ’Melda, Lorene? Hey—Pearl’s gonna need you.”
Carleton was holding Pearl, who’d begun to lose strength in her legs. She gave a sudden high scream like a kicked dog, and clutched at her belly. Contractions? Carleton knew what that meant. But it meant you had time, too. Last time, with Mike, Pearl had been in labor through a day and most of a night, Carleton hadn’t been present and had been spared.
Now, women hurried to Pearl, to claim her. That animal glisten in their eyes a man found fearful to behold.
Carleton and Red backed off. White-faced, and needing a drink.
There came Franklin bellying up to them, the cut on his face still fresh. “You, Walpole. She’s having that baby right now, you and her are out. We can’t wait for you. We got a contract, we’re not waiting.”
When Carleton ignored him, Franklin said, appealing to the others, “If that woman dies it ain’t my fault! I don’t want no pregnant women on my truck! I don’t want no nursing babies! I got troubles bad enough!”
It was just blustery bawling, Carleton thought. The truck wasn’t going anywhere except to a garage. Nobody was going anywhere for overnight at least. Carleton wanted to slam the fat bastard’s face, bloody his nose like his eye was bloodied, but knew he had better not, his quick temper had got him fired in the past. He wasn’t young like Jack Dempsey had been getting started at sixteen, seventeen fighting in saloons out west, Christ he was thirty, and losing his teeth. Get on a recruiter’s blacklist, you were dead meat.
“Hell, Franklin. Your old mother had got to have you, hadn’t she?”
This wasn’t Carleton talking, it was somebody else. Carleton was drifting back toward the truck. The women had torn off the tarpaulin, and were making a kind of tent there. It was raining harder now. And the red clay shoulder of the highway getting softer. Kids liked to run in the rain like dogs, but not adults. Carleton was shivering. Carleton heard another high-pitched scream. That was Pearl, was it? He said, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t of let her come with me. I told her to stay home but she didn’t listen.” By home he meant not his and Pearl’s own home because they didn’t have one, he meant his in-laws, but nobody would know. Carleton was fearful of cry- ing. His lips were moving—“Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.” First time Pearl had had a baby, he’d broke down like a kid. So scared. He was a coward, that was so. He knew, there was danger of infection when a woman had a baby in such filth, everyone knew of babies that had died, and mothers burning up with fever, or hemorrhaging to death. “Carleton, she’ll be all right. They’re taking care of her. Carleton?” It was a woman named Annie: freckle-faced Irish: big motherly girl, in her late thirties but still a girl, breasts soft against Carleton’s arm like they were loose inside her shirt. In the rain Annie looked like a wax doll, smiling at him with her mouth shut so he could not see her teeth. Red was smiling, too. Smiling hard and ghastly. And thumping Carleton’s shoulder. Telling him it didn’t make any difference to any baby that ever got born, whether it’s a hospital or anywhere.
Carleton tried to say yes.
“Them hospitals are treacherous,” a man was saying. “Sometimes they cut open the wrong people. Put you to sleep and you don’t ever wake up. Ever been in a hospital?”
“Never was, and never will be,” Annie said. “They do things to women, you can bet. When they’re doped up and laying there.”
Carleton heard the dog cries again. He was grateful for people close around him, talking to him and about him as if to create a wall of talk to protect him. There was Franklin looking repentant. Handing him a bottle. “Jesus, Walpole. You look like you need this more’n me.”
Carleton thanked him. Carleton raised the bottle to his mouth, and drank. Swallowing the sweet liquid fire he didn’t hear Pearl’s screams, so he drank more. Jerking his head to one side and then to the other like a horse trying to shake free his collar. “Naw, keep it,” Franklin said. “You need it more’n me.”
Kids were running wild, poking sticks through the slats of the hogs truck. Hog squeals, and a stink of hog panic. Nothing smelled worse than hog shit, not even skunk. For skunk, at a distance, is not a bad smell at all. Only just close up.
Franklin was saying, “She oughtn’t said those hurtful things to me. She oughtn’t gotten herself riled up.” But he was sounding repentant, and Carleton could figure he wouldn’t drive away and leave them at the side of a country highway in wherever this godforsaken place was. Arkansas? Aw-kan-saw they pronounced it?
Carleton busied himself with the tow truck after all. Helping with other men to lift the truck out of the ditch, so the tow-truck man could position the hook better, and secure it. Behind, out of sight from this position, where Pearl was lying beneath the tented tarpaulin, thank God there was silence for a while.
And what if she died? And what if, and back home they would say of him He’s the one who let his wife die. Died having a baby in a drainage ditch in Aw-kan-saw. Him. He wanted to protest, he had not meant for Pearl to come along with him this time; it was just something that had happened. If she died, he would die, too: he would get hold of a shotgun. Both barrels, you don’t know a thing of what hits you. In the mouth, painless. If so he wouldn’t have this terrible pressure on him like a tire being pumped up too high. He couldn’t remember why he’d had to marry Pearl so bad. Crazy with love for her and she hadn’t let him touch her, hardly. That was how she’d been brought up, and Carleton respected it. Vir-gin-ity. He was sure he loved her but love was—it was hard to say what love was—when you were so scared, and your teeth chattering. Maybe he had killed her, pumping himself into her so hard. Like hot molten wax, the stuff that leapt from him. It was an agony to hold it back, he could not hold it back. If God helped them this one more time, Carleton vowed he would quit this job he’d hired on for and return home, maybe not at once because they needed the money but by August possibly, they could return by Greyhound bus. He would work every minute of every day, do anything, he would get them all back home—Pearl, Sharleen, Mike, the new baby—before it was too late and they never knew they had a home.
“Carleton? It’s a girl! Baby girl.”
“Carleton, come look!”
The women rushed at him. He was on his knees bawling. The baby born that day in red-clay Arkansas was a girl: they called her Clara, after Carleton’s little sister who had died of scarlet fever at the age of four.
Copyright © 2003 by Joyce Carol Oates. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.