Aubrey watched his daddy’s bare ass bounce up and down behind the wall of quilt at the foot of the bed. June Henning panted and moaned, like one of the seals he’d seen at the zoo in Birmingham. Aubrey was thirteen years old, old enough to know what they were doing, but still not quite sure about the schematics of the act. A blast of humid air hit Aubrey in the face when the oscillating fan made its mark on the open window where he sat perched. He’d seen his father’s coffee cart from the street and came to the house in hopes of securing a nickel for a bottle of Coke. The commotion from the bedroom had drawn him to the window.
“God damn, woman,” his father said.
“You know you bring out the beast in me, George.”
“How am I going to explain these marks? It looks like a cat slid down my back.”
“You’ll think of something. You always do.”
George Conyers was a route man for Royal Cup in Tuscaloosa. He did home deliveries all over town. Aubrey often overheard his father’s friends claim that George delivered more than just French roast. Now he knew for sure. He backed away from the window and squeezed though an opening in the azaleas into the neighbor’s yard.
“Who was it this time, George?” Aubrey could hear his mother’s voice through the wall their bedrooms shared.
“I told you when you got pregnant, and your daddy forced me to the altar, that no one woman could satiate all my carnal needs.”
“Jesus Christ, George. You could do a God damn better job of hiding it,” his mother said. “I turn a blind eye to it as long as you’re putting food on the table, but we’ve been struggling as of late. Did you talk to Billy Henning about that TVA job? He said they’re going to need a lot of boys up in Lauderdale County on that Wheeler dam project.”
“I stopped by the house, but he wasn’t home.”
“Of course he wasn’t home. Why didn’t you go to his office? I swear, George. You ain’t got a lick of sense in you some days.”
Aubrey had heard arguments like this most nights for the past few months. He used to hear the creak of the box springs and the head board knocking against the wall, but that had stopped around March when his daddy got fired from the paper mill. Nights like these made Aubrey wish he had a brother or sister to commiserate with. The doctor told his mother after he was born that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children, Aubrey had wrecked her uterus.
George woke Aubrey up early.
“Come on, son. Let’s get out to the levee and get us some dinner,” his father said, tapping him on the forehead.
A trip to the levee and the swamp behind it meant George’s commission check was either exceedingly low or non-existent. Aubrey had gotten used to the trek over the last few months. The way his mama fricasseed the frog legs almost made him forget what he was eating.
It was still dark out when they left the house and the air was filled with the chirps of hundreds of tree frogs.
“What would you think about moving to Birmingham, son? I think a little bit of relocation might help me in the job market. I know things are tough all over, but I figure there’s got to be more jobs in a big city. Hell, maybe we can make our way over to Atlanta or down to New Orleans. Delivering this coffee just ain’t cutting the mustard. Folks are too broke around here to be buying Royal Cup.”
“Not Mrs. Henning.”
“Whoo! You hit the nail on the head there, son. How do you know June likes her coffee?”
“I saw your cart out in front of her house yesterday.”
“You did? Why didn’t you come see me? That was my last stop. I could’ve given you a ride home, that way you wouldn’t have been late for supper and your mama wouldn’t have tore into you like she did.”
“I didn’t mind walking. You seemed busy.”
George picked up a rock and skipped it across the water.
“Look at that. Five bounces. That was pretty good.”
“Let’s get these frogs, Daddy.”
It was July and Aubrey was restless. The new shine of summer vacation and freedom had faded into boredom. He’d begun reading Tom Sawyer but hadn’t made it past the first chapter. On a whim Aubrey grabbed his fishing pole and headed down to the levee. He passed Mrs. Henning’s house and his father’s cart parked out front. George stopped by a few times a week now and the neighbors were starting to wonder how much coffee the Hennings drank.
Aubrey caught his father’s eye as George stepped out onto the porch.
“Where you going, son?”
“Down to the levee. Going to try and catch us some supper.”
“Well, alright. I’m finished up here. You want some company?”
Before Aubrey could answer Mrs. Henning slid out onto the porch clutching a few folded dollars.
“Here you go, George.” She slid the bills deep into his pants pocket.
“Thank you, sugar. And thank you for choosing Royal Cup. Like our label says, ‘You’ll want the second cup.’” George’s face was flushed and sweaty.
“Is that your boy down there?”
“It sure is.”
“My, you’re as handsome as your daddy. I bet all the girls at school just eat you up, huh?”
Aubrey looked down at his feet and smiled a half grin. Mrs. Henning had missed the top button of her blouse and her cleavage was exposed.
“Did you talk to Billy Henning today?”
“No, he wasn’t by the house.”
“God damn it, George. Why won’t you just go by his office?”
“Well, his office isn’t on my route. His house is.”
Aubrey could feel the silence that last statement created, even in his bed one room over.
“Please, George. Tell me you’re not screwing June Henning. Please tell me you’re not fucking the wife of the only man in town who has the power to give you a job. Are you that much of an idiot?”
“I don’t feel the need to discuss this with you. If it will get you to shut up, I’ll go see Billy tomorrow. Will that make you happy?”
“Just get a job, George. One with a reliable paycheck.”
Aubrey laid awake in bed and thought about the times he shared with his parents before he knew his father was a philanderer. They used to take picnic lunches down to the sand bar and watch the barges going up river. He used to love to swim out and bounce in the wake the large ships would leave. His father would lay with his head in his mother’s lap and he’d proclaim all the wonderful things he’d do for the family, if someone would just give him a break. All he needed was for one person to see his potential and employ him in a high paying position that fit his qualifications.
Aubrey sat eating a bowl of Cream of Wheat when there was a knock at the door.
“Hi, Billy,” his mother said.
“Hello, Frances. Is George here? I have something I need to discuss with him.”
“Oh, is this about the job up in Lauderdale? We’re really counting on it, Billy. Thank you so much.”
“Job? Well, no. I didn’t know he was interested.”
Aubrey could see the look of defeat in his mother’s face. She knew why Billy was here. There’d been other jealous husbands and boyfriends over the years, Aubrey realized that now. It was probably the reason they left Livingston when he was six and Bessemer when he was nine.
“Well, you just missed George. He’s already headed out on his route. If he comes home for lunch, I’ll send him your way.”
“I’d appreciate that, Frances, I really would. And maybe I can see about getting George on that project out of town.”
Billy Henning was a short man with a small frame. Aubrey guessed his father was at least a foot taller and 75 pounds heavier. He didn’t know much about sex and relationships, but he could tell that Mrs. Henning was too much woman for her husband. She looked like she was too much woman for just about any man.
The day Billy Henning finally confronted George Conyers there was a full eclipse of the sun. It was four in the afternoon but dark as midnight. Billy had returned home from the office early, and on his dimly lit porch he ran head on to George Conyers. Aubrey watched the confrontation from behind the azalea bush, clutching his fishing rod.
“Well, hey now Billy. What do you say?”
“I told your wife several days ago that I needed to speak to you. Why haven’t you come by the office? There’s some rumors going round that you and I need to discuss.”
“Rumors? What kind of rumors? I hope no one thinks I’m dying.” George let out a loud bellow and slapped Billy on the side of the shoulder.
“You know God damn well what kind of rumors. My neighbor tells me your cart is parked out in front of my house nearly every day, for hours at a time.”
“Well, your neighbor is mistaken. If he sees my cart, it’s only because I’m dropping off your order.”
“What order? I don’t even drink coffee. I know my wife’s not drinking ten pounds of coffee a week. Who are you trying to fool?”
“I ain’t fooling nobody. This sounds like a discussion you need to have with your wife, not me.” George brushed past Billy on his way down the front porch stairs. He saw Aubrey standing in the shadow of the azalea.
“Hey, son. What you doing?”
“Got my fishing pole. Headed down to the levee.”
“Well, let’s go get us some supper.”
Aubrey turned to look back at the house and saw Mr. Henning sit down on the steps.
“He seemed upset.”
“Nah, he’s just a little hot under the collar. June will cool him off. Maybe convince him to give me that job your mama wants so bad.”
“Are we going to have to move again?”
“No, no. Everything’s fine. Billy will sleep it off. Hell, knowing him, he’ll probably come apologize tomorrow.”
Aubrey heard the noise first. He and his father sat facing the river and didn’t see Billy Henning drunkenly stumble up behind them, but he did hear the pine cone crunch under Billy’s foot.
“You son of a bitch.” Billy waved a snub nosed revolver back and forth.
“Jesus Christ! Watch what you’re doing there.” George and his son both scooted back from Billy. Aubrey slid down the embankment and into the water.
“You’ve got a wife, George. Why’d you have to go messing with mine? Frances is pretty, real pretty. But that’s not enough, is it, George? You just take what you want and it doesn’t matter who gets in your way.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, Billy. I’m no home wrecker.” George clutched his son’s fishing pole.
“Yes, you are. You’re a no good lying cheat. I’d be doing the world a favor if I shot you.”
“You think your wife likes me now? Wait til you shoot me, then you’re going to really see some fireworks. She’ll probably kill you in your sleep.”
Aubrey lay still in the shallow water. He wasn’t sure what time it was, the eclipse had thrown off his natural body clock. The two shadows above him argued.
“You need to go on home, Billy. You’re just going to get in trouble out here.” George whipped the fishing pole at Billy’s hand and he dropped the gun. The two men dove for it and locked arms, neither giving way to the other. Aubrey rose from the water and began moving up the embankment toward the two wrestling men. He kicked the gun away from Billy and George and scooped it up into his hands.
“That’s it, son. Shoot this idiot and let’s go home.”
“Don’t listen to your father. You don’t have to shoot me. I’m done here.”
Aubrey held the gun and traced his finger along its barrel. The steel was cool to the touch. “Tell me why I shouldn’t shoot both of you?”
“What? Son, hand me that gun. Billy here meant to do us harm. He wants to destroy our family.”
“Now that’s just a lie. Your mama is a kind and decent lady. I only came here to confront your daddy for making me look the fool. But I can forgive that now. I’ve made my point and I just want to go home,” Billy said. Aubrey watched the man lose control of his bladder and urinate himself.
“Damn it, Aubrey. Give me the gun.” George reached to grab the revolver out of his son’s hand but tripped and lunged forward. He and Aubrey fell to the ground. Billy rushed over and tried to pry the gun from George and Aubrey’s hands. George let go of the gun to push Billy away. Aubrey took that opportunity to run into the woods. He sat hidden in the dark behind a water oak and could see his father rain blows down upon Billy. George picked up the fishing pole and wrapped its line around Billy’s throat. He raised the feeble man up off his feet and held him to his chest. Even under the cover of darkness, Aubrey could see Billy Henning’s face become purple and his eyes bulge as if they would pop out of their sockets. When his flailing had ceased, George dropped the dead man onto the ground.
“Come on out here, Aubrey.”
George Conyers’ son walked out of the overgrowth and came to a stop over Billy Henning’s lifeless body.
“Is he dead?”
“Yes, son. I’m afraid he is.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Well, first, you’re going to hand me that gun.” George took the revolver from his son and threw it as far as he could out into the dark waters of the Black Warrior River. “Now, help me drag him over there to the swamp.”
“Aren’t you worried? What are we going to tell mom?”
“Nothing. Just like in Livingston and Bessemer. I’ve dealt with jealous, rich assholes all my life. Sometimes this is the only way to shut them up.”
Aubrey watched in awe as George took out his pocket knife and began cutting the fishing wire into long strands.
“Grab me a few of those big rocks over there, son.”
George shoved the rocks into Billy’s pockets and down the front of his pants. He took the largest ones and tied the fishing wire around them and looped the other end around Billy’s wrists. George dragged the body into the water and struggled with it until he released it and it sank to the bottom of the murky swamp.
“Don’t worry about that man, son. He’s better off where he is now.”
“What about Mrs. Henning? What will happen to her?”
“Oh, she’ll be fine. A wealthy man like him has life insurance. She’ll be even richer than she was when he was alive.”
“Do you love her, Daddy?”
“No, son. I love your mama.”
Aubrey and his father walked home in silence.