Early Bird Cafe
The east Kentucky weather seemed to change every few minutes that spring. As I left the cafe, my old man and Mr. Blackburn were talking about how one of those other counties, either McCreary or Clay, they couldn’t remember which, was now the poorest in the state. They were proud it wasn’t us anymore.
Outside, the single lens of the traffic light flashed yellow over the intersection. Talk was that the mayor wanted a real stop light installed, but the township directors were fighting hard against it. When the old-timers talked about it at the cafe, they said it would be nothing but trouble.
As I pedaled down Market Street, a light mist sprinkled the handlebars. Just as the rain started to pick up, it stopped completely. Gusts of wind blew the clouds toward the abandoned mine, so I decided to head out to Marshall Creek. Which was fine, cause I wasn’t supposed to play around the old mine anyhow.
I almost lost control coasting down the hill too fast crossing Caney Bridge. Two voices yelled up at me from the creek. I recognized them right away. It was Amy and Andrea, the Brown sisters.
Andrea straddled a fallen birch tree while Amy stood barefoot on the rocks, letting the lapping water run up over her pink toes, jeans pulled up to her knees. She bent down and picked up a handful of White Baneberry floating at the water’s edge.
My bike fell to the ground next to theirs as I hopped off. Amy put the dripping flowers in my hand. Andrea giggled and kicked her legs up and over the fallen tree. She picked up a flat rock and skipped it across the creek.
Amy brushed against me as she sat down on the jagged edge of a granite boulder. I joined her, neither of us caring how muddy our jeans would get. Andrea looked at us and asked me if I’d heard about Johnny Mullins.
Johnny was the quarterback and our only chance next fall at beating Bell County for the first time in a generation. I’d always hear them talking about it at the cafe. Being in seventh grade, I’d never actually met Johnny, but dad took me to all the games, and he’d been the starting quarterback for three years now.
I told Andrea I hadn’t heard anything about him, and I just came from the cafe where if there was something to tell, my old man would be talking about it. Andrea sneered and leaned in close to us. That’s when she told me Johnny got his girlfriend pregnant. And she reminded me, in case I didn’t know, that Johnny’s girl was Marcy, the head cheerleader.
I waited for Amy to say something, but she didn’t. She just sat looking at her swinging legs. I thought she might call her sister a liar, or something along those lines, but she didn’t. So, maybe it was true?
When Andrea waited into the creek, Amy whispered in my ear that they’d heard it at the laundromat. Well, that made sense. You couldn’t believe anything you heard there. That’s what my old man always told me.
Amy started talking about her cousin who had come to visit from Huntington and how one day she hoped to be just like her and go to college at Marshall. I’d never been to Huntington before, so I didn’t have much to say. But it didn’t matter, because that’s when Andrea, who slogged her way over to the cement drainage pipe, started yelling at us as she looked inside. We hopped off the boulder to see what the fuss was about.
Trying not to get too wet, we moved along the edge of the creek bed and stood on top of the drainage pipe. Sticking out of the mud, I noticed a rusty shopping cart that looked like the kind at Velocity Market with a green plastic seat that flipped up and down. A torn nylon dog leash wrapped around the handle and dangled into the water. Several cardboard boxes were scattered about in the Green Cane Thickets.
Before I could ask Andrea what she was yelling about, she leaned into the pipe again, screamed, and splashed backward flailing her arms. Swimming to the bank, Andrea said she saw a body in the pipe. When I laughed, she kicked mud at me and ran to her bike. Amy looked dejected as Andrea peddled up the hill. She shrugged and followed her sister to the Caney Bridge. As they rode away, my eyes went back to the shopping cart and discarded boxes.
It made me think of Greta. She was the old woman who would show up downtown with a grocery cart full of odds and ends to sell. No one really knew where she lived, but she’d show up from time to time and people loved the bargains.
If I remembered right, Greta’s dog’s name was Coal. I looked at the torn leash tied to the cart. What if Andrea really had seen a hand in the drainage pipe?
I didn’t want to get all wet, so instead of jumping into the creek to have a look, I laid down on top of the pipe and lowered my head. The inside of the pipe was so dark, I couldn’t see anything.
My eyes started to adjust a little bit, and I could almost see something about fifteen feet into the pipe, but I couldn’t tell what it was. That’s when my imagination started running away. What if it was Greta? I mean, a cart was nearby that looked just like hers. Plus, it had a leash tied to it.
I needed to go tell my old man and see what he thought. I had to be careful though. I didn’t want him thinking I was fibbing. He wouldn’t take well to that.
It didn’t take long to ride back to town. The clouds got darker, and the air hung thick with coal dust. I leaned my bike next to the glass door.
Inside the cafe, my old man was still sitting with Mr. Blackburn, but now Mr. Jackson also joined them. They were drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking about the dreadful high school baseball season.
My old man looked at his watch when he saw me. He didn’t understand why I was back so early. I asked him if anyone had seen Greta lately. That got Mr. Blackburn and Mr. Jackson talking about her. They started telling stories of all the great things they’d bought from her over the years.
Then all three of them decided that Greta was one of the few things to be proud of here. As if God himself sent her here to save us what little money we had. Finally, they circled back to my original question of when the last time anyone saw her was. They settled on a few weeks ago when Mr. Blackburn bought his wife a beautiful pair of earrings that he couldn’t have afforded over at Castle Jewelry.
They asked him if his wife liked the earrings, and he couldn’t even begin to describe how happy they made her. Even after thirty years of marriage, he couldn’t remember any anniversary gift she loved so much. He only wished he’d bought her a couple more pairs because Greta had a whole box of earrings in her shopping cart.
Then my old man asked why I wanted to know about Greta. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. Seeing their faces lite up talking about her, I just couldn’t tell them what I thought I might have seen. So, I said nothing at all.
I went outside and rode as fast as I could to see if there was a set of those earrings in the discarded boxes so I could give them to Amy.
Kevin Joseph Reigle’s short stories have appeared in Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Pensworth Literary Review, The Dillydoun Review, Bridge Eight, Prometheus Dreaming, TDR Daily, The Yard, and Drunk Monkeys. He works at the University of the Cumberlands.