This is the 3rd, and at 2,221 words, so far the longest, in a series of related short stories. If you enjoy this enough, friends and fellow Bloggers, to check out the related short-short story and short story I posted previously, the hyperlinked words within this story (except of course for the Daily Post’s “glaring”) will take you to them.
I hope you enjoy “Side Job”, and I welcome comments, criticism, and suggestions.
Kortnee’s hands washed the lunch dishes while she gazed out the grimy window at the triangular courtyard between the tightly packed trailers of Knight’s Court. “Mother, what happened to the playground?”
Bethanee sat at the Formica kitchen table separating small, round, yellow pills, sliding them across the chipped surface with a used emery board. “8, 10, 12—what?” She tucked a stray length of hair behind her ear, stuck a Vantage 100 into the corner of her mouth and lit it then sighed out a long stream of smoke. “What are you talking about?” She joined Kortnee at the sink and started rinsing dishes. The courtyard looked exactly the same as it did when they had moved into the trailer 8 years before, when Kortnee was a chubby, waddling three-year old. A badly bent, faded, and rusting metal swing set with crooked slides at either end and only one unbroken swing sat in the middle of the dusty crabgrass triangle flanked by a set of monkey bars on one end and a bank of see-saws on the other.
“Seems like just the other day I was out there playing on it, and it didn’t look so broke down.” She plucked the cigarette from Bethanee’s mouth and took a drag then returned it. She drained the sink, rinsed it, and started drying her hands.
“Shoot, girl,” Bethanee laughed, “it’s always looked like that, it’s just now you’re a woman you finally got eyes to see.” She rolled her eyes, shook her head, returned to the table, and picked up the emery board. “14, 16, 18, 20. That ought to do it.” She tore a small sheet of plastic wrap off the roll, stacked the pills tightly together in the middle of it, rolled it into a tiny cylinder then wrapped it into a second sheet. She stood up, handed her cigarette to Kortnee, and walked toward the bathroom. “Finish that for me, baby girl.”
Kortnee walked out the front door and sat down on the sagging wooden stoop to finish the cigarette. She looked around at the neighboring trailers with their accompanying accumulations of broken-down cars and household appliances. Everything looked faded, shabby, bleached by the glaring Friday afternoon sun. She took a last drag then flicked the butt into the crumbling, potholed service drive that bordered the courtyard. She went back inside and leaned against the wall outside the bathroom. She rapped lightly on the door. “Mother.” Bethanee didn’t respond, but Kortnee could hear her brushing her hair. “I wish you wouldn’t take them pills in with you. Remember what happened to Jeriko’s momma last year?”
Bethanee came out and hugged her daughter, leaning her forehead against Kortnee’s. “Sweetheart, I love her to death, but Rose Wall, bless her heart, she suffers from chronic stupidity.” She wiped a tear from Kortnee’s cheek. “I haven’t been caught yet, and I ain’t fixin’ to start today. Besides, rent’s due Monday, and we’re short. Speaking of which, you better get working on those home rolls. There’s a carton full of empty Vantage boxes under the sink.”
Kortnee plucked a tissue from the box on their tiny coffee table, dabbed her eyes, and blew her nose then turned on the radio. She returned to the kitchen, removed a large coffee can full of cured and chopped burley and a box of Top papers from the pantry, and set them on the table. She tossed her crumpled tissue in the trash can under the sink, took the Vantage carton and put it on the table too then met her mom at the door for a goodbye hug.
Bethanee kissed the tip of Kortnee’s nose and stroked her hair. “Take care of you and keep the doors locked. Put that carton in the mailbox tomorrow when you get the mail. Kevin will drive by and pick it up in the evening. You wait five minutes after he’s gone then go get the money he leaves. You can keep five dollars for you. I’m going to stop by Pastor Huddleston’s place and ask him to check in on you tomorrow night. Don’t you let no one else but him in this house.”
Kortnee squeezed her mom tight, kissed her cheek, and managed a small smile. “Just be careful, please, Mother, and don’t worry about me. I’ll keep the doors locked and won’t open them for no one but the preacher.”
Bethanee stepped away then grabbed her phone and keys and went to the front door. “Now let me go, baby girl, I need to get to the jail by 2:00. I’ll see you early Sunday evening.” Kortnee closed and locked the door behind her, got a can of Coke from the fridge, then sat down at the table and let her hands go to work. She had been rolling cigarettes for a year now and was fast and proficient, but it would still take her about 3 hours to roll 300. She lit another Vantage 100 and let the smoke drift lazily out through her lips, murmuring, “…And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep,” a line she remembered from the poetry unit they had studied in Literacy class that week.
* * * * * * * * * *
After parking in the gravel lot of the American Zion 1st Free Will Baptist Church, Bethanee walked up the concrete steps and peered in through the glass doors. She didn’t see anyone, so she pulled one open and walked in. The sanctuary was much warmer and mustier than it would be come Sunday, and it seemed to her in its silence and emptiness a whole lot more reverent, more holy, in the absence of its congregants. She could hear Pastor Huddleston’s raised voice coming from the office off the far right corner of the room, and as she approached could hear the floor creak too as he paced back and forth. She rapped twice, hard, on the closed office door. “Preacher. Preacher! It’s Bethanee Stone, I need a favor!”
After a few moments, the preacher opened the door and stood just inside the office, breathing hard and dabbing his forehead and jowls with a thick terrycloth towel. His pale blue Polo shirt was soaked with sweat down its front and under his armpits. “Hello there, Miss Stone, it’s so good to see you today. Please come in, sit yourself down.” He went to the water cooler behind his desk and filled cups for himself and Bethanee. “It gets a bit muggy back here when I’m practicing my sermons!”
Bethanee sat and sipped the chilled water. “I’m sorry for interrupting you, Preacher, and I know we haven’t been to Sunday service for a while, but I need a favor.” Pastor Huddleston folded his hands and smiled, showing his capped white teeth and deeply etched crow’s-feet. “What can I do for you, dear? Do you need me to check on Kortnee for you this weekend?”
Bethanee inhaled sharply, mouth gaping. Her eyes darted left and right, and her knuckles whitened as she leaned forward and gripped the edge of the pastor’s desk. She snapped her mouth shut, took a few measured breaths, let go of the desk, leaned back, and drank some more water. “Guess I should’ve known there’s no keeping secrets from a preacher. Yes. That’s what I need. Will you please go by the house tomorrow after 9:00 and make sure she’s doing alright?”
“Of course I will, dear,” he said, rising from his chair. He walked around the desk, helped Bethanee stand, gave her a gentle hug, and walked her toward the exit. He stayed beside her, right hand on her left shoulder, patting gently all the way to the glass doors. “You give Kortnee a call now, let her know I’ll be coming by with Mrs. Beasley and some nice apple pie. Maybe we’ll see y’all in a few weeks when you get done serving these weekends, hmm?”
Bethanee had begun walking down the stairs but paused and turned, looking up at the pastor. “I expect you will, Preacher. I thank you.” She turned and resumed walking to her car. As she was getting in, Pastor Huddleston smiled, raised a hand in farewell or benediction, and hollered, “I’ll be praying for you, child!” She closed the door, buckled her seat belt, and cranked the key in the ignition, muttering, “I need all I can get.”
* * * * * * * * * *
As she was driving toward the highway, Bethanee called Kortnee. “Sweetheart, Pastor Huddleston’s gonna bring widow Beasley and some of her apple pie tomorrow night. I asked him to come after 9:00.” Kortnee finished counting cigarettes into a box. “28, 29, 30. Okay, Mother. When I get done with this tonight, I’ll make sure everything looks good before I go to bed. I love you.”
Bethanee pulled up to the stop sign at Seven Hills Road. “I love you, baby girl. I’ll see you soon.” She lit a cigarette, rolled the windows down, turned her blinker on, and turned right. She made sure to stick to the speed limit and use her blinker every time she had to change lanes. The last thing she needed was another arrest for driving on a revoked license. The next one would come with a habitual motor vehicle offender charge, and that would land her in jail for more than just a few weekends.
When she crossed the bridge over Cottonmouth Creek, Bethanee enjoyed the cool breeze wafting up from the water. She closed her eyes for a moment, shivered, and took a deep drag off her cigarette. As she returned her hand to the steering wheel, the butt bumped against the wheel, and it flipped from between her fingers then landed on top of her left foot. “Shit,” she screamed as it began to sear her skin. She reached down blind with her left hand to remove it but pinched the burning cherry between her thumb and forefinger, and the cigarette rolled and wedged between her shoe and her foot. “Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!” She had to look down briefly in order to remove the cigarette without any further injury. Bent nearly double and with only her right hand on the wheel, her car began to bear to the right, drifting onto the shoulder. When she noticed the car bump slightly, she quickly jerked it back left and sat up. She glanced in the rearview mirror but saw no other vehicles behind her, no cops, and nothing to indicate she’d run over anything bigger than a rock. She flicked the crushed and still smoking cigarette out the window. “Fuckin’ thing,” she hollered, and flipped a bird after it for good measure.
Five minutes later, Bethanee pulled into the parking lot of the Copperhead County Criminal Justice Complex, shut off her car, and lit one more cigarette. While she smoked, she called her best friend Rose, and the call went straight to voice mail. “Hey girl, I need you to run by the house a few times this weekend and make sure there’s no one parked in my driveway. Except for after 9:00 tomorrow night, Preacher’s gonna be there. Oh, and maybe have Jeriko call Kortnee a time or two to check on her. I’m headed in to the jail. Thanks. Love you.” She hung up, ground her cigarette out on the asphalt, and walked to the courthouse door. She put her keys on the conveyor belt and walked through the security gate. The young officer on duty smiled at her. “Hi Miss Stone. You have a pleasant weekend now.” She looked at him, smirking, “You wanna do it for me, Sonny?” He handed her keys back. “No thank you, ma’am.”
She walked to booking and was buzzed in. CO Fuller made her face the cold cinderblock wall, spread her legs, and lean up against the wall with her hands over her head. Before she started to pat Bethanee down, she asked, “Do you have any weapons, needles, or other contraband on or about your clothes or person?” Bethanee laughed, “Shit no, Fuller, I just wanna do my time and go home.”
CO Fuller finished patting her down and ushered her into a small, stainless steel observation room. The correctional officer closed the door and slid open a small Lucite window. “Remove all your clothing, ma’am, then open the drawer in the far wall, deposit all your clothing in the drawer, then close the drawer. After you have removed and deposited your clothing, ma’am—.”
Bethanee cut her off, “How long have I been doing this, Fuller? I know what to do.” CO Fuller frowned as Bethanee squatted and coughed. “Cough harder, ma’am!” Bethanee coughed harder and long enough to get lightheaded. Before standing up, she asked, “That good enough for you, Fuller?” CO Fuller passed a folded beige jumpsuit and a pair of foam rubber flip flops through the Lucite window. “Put the jumpsuit and shoes on, ma’am, and proceed through the opposite door. Report to CO Majors at D Pod.”
As she walked down the cold, gray hall toward her uncomfortable weekend accommodations, hardly noticing the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies, Bethanee smiled to herself and breathed a sigh of relief. She was eager to get to her cell, remove her product, and wait for her clients to begin filing by.