Copperas Cove, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

May 1954

The dang battery light comes on fifty miles south of Tupelo.  Then the engine cuts out and stops.  Next thing I know, I’m parked on a gravel shoulder, staring at a road sign through the windshield, thinking about my misguided life, wondering what it will be like to start a new life in Biloxi.

Seems awfully hot for May.  My T-shirt and jeans are damp and clingy, my neck is gritty from the wind blowing in off the hot pavement.  I get out of the car, stretch, then stare off down the road.

Copperas Cove, three miles, the sign says.  Pop. 967.

Three miles … long walk in this heat.

Guess most of Mississippi looks the same: narrow roads winding through pine trees, now and then a crop-worker’s shack, maybe someone on the porch, stirring the heat with a fan.  Every few miles, some sleepy forgotten little town: a makeshift grocery store, a filling station, a church in need of paint off in the trees.  Usually not much else.

I don’t bother to open the hood.  Never learned anything about engines.  That was one of my older brother’s many talents.  Pop seemed to think he could do just about anything.  He asked me one time why I couldn’t be more like him.  I tried; at least when I was young I did.  Realized it was impossible by the time I turned sixteen.

I walk to the other side of the car and stare into the trees, then look down and watch the dust rise as I sweep my foot across the dry grass, thinking about my friend from college.  Brian.  He wanted us to run off to California together.  Me and him.  The two of us live together and finish school, then keep living together.  Sometimes I wonder if I should have listened to him.

He said there were a lot of guys like us in San Francisco, but I’m not like that, not really.  When I got out of high school, I planned to get married and start my career.  What Brian and I were doing … I don’t know … it was just something to do.  It bothered me when he talked about California.  Not sure why.  Maybe he was getting too serious about our game.  Maybe I was tempted.

Wonder what it would’ve been like if I had gone with him.  Sometimes I think about that.  What it would have been like living that way?  At least I wouldn’t be standing in this heat on the side of the road in Mississippi.  I look up into the sky, roll my shoulders and sigh, wondering what he’s up to now.

I prefer the back-roads.  There’s more to look at.  More time to think.  This one’s a narrow two-lane, some ten miles off the main highway.  Better scenery and less traffic.  More time to think.  Figured I’d go down to the coast since I’ve never seen the Gulf of Mexico, maybe find a drugstore in Biloxi that needs a pharmacist.  My Ford’s paid for.  Don’t need much in the way of a place to live.  Everything I own is in the trunk.  Jennifer wanted everything else, the house and furniture, even the TV—she never missed Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows.  That’s okay.  It was starting to give us a lot of trouble anyway.  I got the radio and most of the bills.  Her lawyer told me I was lucky there weren’t any kids.

I turn and look at the Ford.  It’s covered in dust.  The grill is splattered with dead bugs.  Just one dent near the left taillight, no rust.  Probably have to have it towed to Copperas Cove.  With a population of nine hundred and sixty-seven, they ought to have a good mechanic.

I start walking, thinking about that day my brother caught me.  I often wonder why he never said more about what happened that summer afternoon.  Paul, Pop’s favorite.  Older and bigger than me—he always was.  By thirty pounds even now.  He caught me with the boy down the street that day.  Figured he’d clobber me—he was angry enough—but he didn’t.  Instead, he picked up my clothes, took me by the arm into the next room and put me up against the wall.

“Don’t ever do anything like that again,” was all he said.  After pushing the wad of clothes into my belly, he turned and walked out of the house, my friend Randy’s house.  Randy had put on his underwear and was standing in the doorway watching me get dressed.

I was fourteen then, almost fifteen, embarrassed, scared to death Paul would tell Pop.  I knew I was different from the other boys, knew for quite a while.  All the same, I never went over to my friend’s house again.  Even tried to pretend I didn’t know him.  It seemed worse than when Jennifer caught me in the shower with another man two weeks ago, more humiliating.  Still seems like it happened just yesterday.

Guess when something like that’s inside you, it never goes away.  That was probably it for me as far as marriage is concerned, not that I have regrets—our marriage died years ago when she found out she couldn’t have children.  We were two strangers living in the same house.

At first I thought it was a kid thing, something all boys do when they’re growing up, that I would forget it ever happened; but it didn’t work that way.  Even now I still feel different, always pretending, always thinking something is wrong with me.  Maybe if I met the right woman.

Anyway, a long time passed before it happened again in college.  That’s when I met Brian one day in the lab.  Black hair, dark complexion, nice looking.  We became good friends, went to the movies, shared meals, talked about the war.  One day he asked me to help him study for a test and I told him to come to my dorm room that night.  I knew his reason for asking for help when he put his hand on my leg.  I knew what was going to happen.  We studied a lot together after that.  We never got caught.

Not until almost ten years later, when my wife came home early from visiting her mother.  Figured I must be jinxed.  After ten years of being faithful, a customer at the drugstore propositioned me, a guy close to my age.  I was in the shower with him when Jennifer walked into the bathroom.  That was in Pittsburg, my hometown until a few days ago.  That’s why I’m here in Mississippi.

I’m Jonathan Scott, thirty-three, five foot eleven, hundred-seventy pounds. Light brown hair, blue eyes.  Mom said I was the prettiest one of her children.  Not a good thing when three of them are sisters.  A few people call me John, but I prefer Jonathan.  World War II had ended by the time I got out of college, otherwise I would’ve ended up somewhere in the Pacific.  Been a pharmacist ever since.  Lived in a house three blocks from the drugstore before my wife insisted I leave.  Presently living in motel rooms.

My T-shirt is clinging to my chest, damp and uncomfortable.  I pull it off and use it to blot the sweat off my forehead, then toss it over my shoulder.  My pants feel heavy, like they’re hanging on my waist, so I tighten the belt.  Haven’t seen a car since the engine stopped.  Nothing up ahead but heat shimmering off the asphalt and more pine trees.  No breeze, not even a wisp.  Every few steps a grasshopper goes flying off toward the trees.  Sure be nice to get a cool shower.

I’ll have to get used to living alone.  One room is all I’ll need: a bed, a place to sit and read, maybe a small kitchen.  Figure I’ll eat most of my dinners at the A & W.  I know they have them here in the south.  Living alone will give me time to straighten myself out, down here where I don’t know anyone and no one knows anything about me.

Pop never found out what happened that day.  Guess it doesn’t matter one way or the other.  He never had much time for me anyway.  I didn’t like baseball or watching football games at the high school field, so he and Paul spent most evenings together.  Sometimes when I was doing my homework, I’d hear them playing catch in the back yard.  That time I came home from school with a black eye, he got mad when I told him I didn’t hit the guy back.  Then Paul pounded the guy the next day.

Finally a pick-up truck passes, then pulls over a few yards ahead.  I start running after it, wrestling my T-shirt back on.

“That your ‘48 Ford coupe back there?” a young man asks when I lean toward the passenger side window.  He looks about twenty-one, a little cocky, sandy hair almost blond.  He’s chewing gum and has a half-empty Coke bottle wedged between his legs.

“Yeah.  The motor quit on me.”

“Hop in.  I’ll give you a ride to Branson’s Fillin’ Station.”

His truck is as dusty as my car.  The inside, too.  You could write your name on the dash.  A baseball mitt is on the floorboard next to my feet.

“What’s your name, Mister?”

“Jonathon Scott.”

“Ain’t from around here, are ya?”

“Pittsburgh.  On my way to Biloxi.”

The boy nods.  “I’m Tommy Lee.  Good thing I came along.  Long walk to town from here.”  Tommy looks at me for a moment.  “Why ya headed to Biloxi?”

“Find work.”  I notice his legs look muscular in the tight jeans.  That new singer is on the radio.  Elvis, or something like that.  I like his voice.  It’s different.

“What kind of work?” Tommy wants to know.

“I’m a pharmacist.”

“A what?”

“Drugstore work.  I fill prescriptions for people.”

“Oh yeah.  Like old man Peterson at the Rexall.”

I’m surprised a town as small as Copperas Cove has a Rexall.

“Seems like he’s been talkin’ about retirin’ for five years.  Bet you could work for him if you weren’t goin’ all the way to Biloxi.”

Doesn’t sound like an interesting proposition to me.  Too far from the coast, for one thing.

“They got a fountain,” Tommy adds.  “Best French fries in town.  Good chocolate malts, too.”  He swerves the truck when a cat runs out onto the road.  Stunned for a second, it barely gets out of his way.  I hated it when the boys tried to run over small animals back home.

“Dang.  Fifty points and I missed.”

Copperas Cove is beginning to look even less appealing.

“Mr. Branson’s got a tow-truck.  Probably cost ya five bucks to get your Ford towed in.  Whad’ya figure’s wrong with it?”

I lean my elbow on the armrest and watch the scenery.  We pass a dingy looking nightclub of some kind.  Someone in overalls is up on a ladder working on the neon sign.  “The battery light came on.”

“Dead battery, probably.  Mr. Branson stocks ‘um in a shed next to the station.”

The small talk continues all the way to Branson’s Filling Station.  A few blocks before we reach it, Tommy nods at the feed store ahead and lets me know that’s where he works.  We turn left on a road just before we get to the downtown square.

“This road leads to the north side of Stone Lake” Tommy Lee says.  “Mr. Branson used to sell bait, but he quit about three years ago.  Said it was more trouble than it was worth.”

The station is one block off the highway in a run down area.  Tommy Lee pulls in, parks, gets out with me and introduces me to Mr. Branson.  I explain what happened and why I’m here.

“It’s a ’48 Ford Coupe,” Tommy tells the stoic man in grease-smeared overalls.  “North on the Old Tupelo Highway, ‘bout three miles out.”

Mr. Branson nods and reaches into his pocket for the tow-truck keys.  “Is it locked?” he asks and I shake my head and hand him the key.  He tells the boy working for him that he’ll be gone about twenty minutes.  I stare at him as he gets in the truck and drives away.

“You hungry?” Tommy Lee asks.

“Guess I didn’t have to go with him,” I say dumbly.

“Naw.  He’ll haul it in and get it checked out ‘fore ya know it.  You hungry?”

I realize I haven’t eaten all day.

“The Rexall’s just two blocks away, on the corner of the square.  Their burgers are good, too.”

I look around, get a sense things move a little slower here than I’m used to.  There’s a row of small frame houses across the road.  No one in sight.  Maybe people don’t get out much in this heat.  I smile at Tommy and we start for the drugstore.  We cross the deserted highway together and walk the two blocks to the square.

“Appreciate the lift.  Kinda hot to be out there walking.”

“Don’t get many strangers around here,” Tommy says.  “Most people take the new highway, lest they’re comin’ here for some reason.”

It’s a typical Rexall.  The fountain in this one is over to the right, near the back.  We head that way and take a seat on the stools.  A few aisles over, at the back of the store, I see the old pharmacist at work behind the prescription counter.  Tommy Lee was right, he looks too old to be on his feet all day.  Three stools down, a girl is sipping a malt, one elbow propped on the counter, her legs crossed underneath a pleated skirt.  She glances our way every few seconds.

“Hey, Betty Marie,” says Tommy, glancing her over.  I’m sitting between them so he has to look around me to see her.

I suspect she’s used to being stared at.  She’s gorgeous: thin shoulders, large breasts, small waist.  Her legs are long, the calves, which are visible below the hem of the skirt, are creamy smooth and shapely.  The leg crossed over the other is bouncing.  Her face is lovely: pouty lips, small pointed nose, blue eyes gleaming with a little mischief.  Her light brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail resting on the nape of her neck.  She’s wearing too much makeup.

“Who you got with you, Tommy Lee?” she asks.

He looks at me. “Whad’ya say your name is?”

“Jonathon Scott.”

“Jonathon Scott,” he tells her, “all the way from Pittsburgh.  He’s a pharm…” He looks at me again.

“Pharmacist,” I say.

“He’s a pharmacist, like Mr. Peterson.”

She picks up her malt and moves to the stool next to mine.  Now I can smell the fragrance of her hair.  She smells nice.  Perfume mixed with girl-sweat.  I’m breathing shorter quicker breaths.  She’s staring at me, brazenly.  She seems awfully close.

“You here for that job?” she asks.

Tommy Lee answers for me.  “He’s on his way to Biloxi.”

She leans over her malt and sucks on the straw.  Her breasts push up against the edge of the counter.  I wonder if, by virtue of this brief exchange, we’ve been formally introduced.  And if that was the extent of our conversation, does she intend to stay on that stool while I eat my hamburger?

The lady behind the counter approaches.  She looks at Betty Marie and shakes her head.  Closer to my age, she’s pretty, too; just doesn’t flaunt it like Betty Marie.  There’s a grease burn on her forearm and a stain on the front of her light brown uniform.  I pay little attention, as I’m still feeling a little jittery sitting this close to such a curvy, sweet smelling girl.

Tommy Lee and I order burgers and fries. The lady turns and walks to the grill, and seconds later the air fills with the smell of sizzling ground beef.  I draw a breath and glance at Betty Marie.  She’s staring at the side of my head.  Then her eyes meet mine and she smiles, sort of a coy smile, hinting a flirty forwardness that I find overwhelming.

“Why are you goin’ all the way to Biloxi?”

Tommy Lee again.  “He’s lookin’ for work down there.”

I purse my lips and glance at the condiments lined up along the wall counter.  Even with the ceiling fan over the counter, it feels uncomfortably warm.

“You wanna work in a drugstore in Biloxi?”

I nod.

“Why don’t you talk to old man Peterson about workin’ here?” she asks.

“Yeah,” says Tommy Lee, “he’s been gripin’ about findin’ somebody ever since I can remember.”

Betty Marie leans forward and eyes my hapless companion.  “Tommy Lee, why don’t you give Johnny a chance to talk?”

He looks down at the counter and picks up a salt shaker, like all of a sudden he needs something to do with his hands.  Her eyes return to mine with anticipation.

“Well, thought I’d find a place near the ocean,” I tell her, not used to people being so openly friendly and inquisitive.  Plus I can all but feel her body heat.  “You know, something different.  All we have in Pittsburgh is rivers.”

“We got Stone Lake just outside of town,” as if who needs an ocean?  “You could go swimmin’ there.  Not as big as the ocean, but big enough.  Hardly see across it in places.”

“Uh…” I don’t know what to say.

“That’s right,” says Tommy Lee.  “There’s a cove out there, kinda like the color of copper.  That’s why they call it Copperas Cove.”  Tommy Lee seems proud he knows this fact.  “They say the leaves rottin’ on the bottom causes it.”

“Nothin’ down in Biloxi we don’t have right here,” Betty Marie coos, looking me over like a small town siren.  “The movie house, the A &P, plenty of places to eat.  Everything but the ocean.  Anyway, you’d get tired of that.  And they get terrible storms down that way.”

“Got a five and dime on the other side of the square,” Tommy Lee adds.  “You couldn’t see it because of the courthouse.”

I scratch the back of my neck.

“How’d you two meet?” Betty Marie asks.

“I picked him up on the Old Tupelo Highway when his car broke down.”

“Tommy Lee!  I said let him talk.  Do you mind?”

“My battery light came on.  Engine just quit running.”

“Mr. Branson’s on his way out there to pick it up,” Tommy Lee adds.

Betty Marie throws her chest out a little further, reaches for a napkin, blots the sweat off the side of her malt, then uses the cool damp napkin to pat her neck.  The top two buttons on her blouse are swaying open.  “It’s so hot today,” she says, then sets her blue eyes back on me.  “You’d be runnin’ this whole drugstore.  Mr. Peterson’s tired of it.  Says so all the time.  Last month he got Nancy Strickman’s cold medicine mixed up with Mrs. Dingler’s heart pills.  Shoot, he’s gonna kill somebody one of these days.”

“You’d like it here in Copperas Cove,” Tommy Lee throws in.

Betty Marie still isn’t finished.  “My father has an apartment for rent on top of the boathouse.  We live out on the lake.  It’s real nice.  Bedroom, separate kitchen and bathroom.  Bet I could get him to lower the rent.”

I look down at the counter, feeling cornered, trying to think of a way to get off the subject without offending either one of them.  The lady behind the counter steps up with the burgers.

“Did I hear you say you’re a pharmacist?” she asks, placing the basket of fries in front of me.  She smiles with her eyes when I look up.

I like the sound of her voice.  A southern accent flavored with a smooth feminine tone.  Makes you feel comfortable.  I watch her push her hands down the side of her hips, like she’s smoothing out wrinkles.  Betty Marie stares at her like a cat looking at another cat that’s invaded her territory.

“Yeah.  Almost ten years at the same drugstore.  Up in Pittsburgh.”

She nods at the burger in front of me.  “Bet they don’t make hamburgers like that up in Pittsburgh,” she teases.

My eyes shift to the burger.  The bun is covered with sesame seeds.  The ground beef is thick and juicy looking.  I realize she’s giving me a hard time about being a northerner.  I like her brown eyes.  There’s a gleam in them.  Her face is pretty without much makeup: thin lips, narrow nose, high subtle cheek bones.

“This isn’t a bad place to live,” she says, “and Mr. Peterson does a pretty good business.  You might like it here.”  She extends her hand.  “I’m Celia Baker, by the way.”

I shake her hand and slump back on the stool, wondering why everyone here has taken such an interest in me.  Wasn’t expecting it.  They all seem so friendly and eager for me to take that job.  They must all be ready to be rid of old man Peterson.  What do I say?  My heart is set on the ocean.

“Just take a look at it,” says Betty Marie, referring to her father’s apartment.  “You gotta do something while Mr. Branson fixes your car.  Won’t take that long to drive out there and take a quick look.”

Taking a bite of the hamburger, I ponder getting in a car with this girl driving me somewhere to look at an apartment, admitting to myself that I’m tempted.  But why?  I’m not interested in living here—I’m interested in her.  And why she seems so interested in me.  It feels good, maybe because my wife was totally uninterested for so many years.  She talks me into seeing the apartment before I finish the hamburger.

Looking back as we approach the door, I notice Celia leaning against the counter, smiling and watching us walk out.  It dawns on me she’s far more my type, despite my curiosity about this young, irresistible enchantress.

Betty Marie is driving the Corvette I noticed before Tommy Lee and I went into the drugstore.  Seen pictures of them in a magazine, but never saw one on the street, until now.  White, red interior, canvas top folded back.  Very fancy.  Her family must be rich.  She opens the passenger door for me, then looks at Tommy Lee like he ought to be going back to the feed store.

“I gotta go back to work,” he says as if turning down an invitation to go with us, then stares at Betty Marie’s hips as she walks around the car and gets in behind the wheel.

“Nice car,” I say after she starts the engine.

“Daddy went all the way to Detroit to buy it for me.  Drove it back himself.”

We turn the corner and drive away from the square, her dress hiked up above her knees.  Strikes me as odd that, when a girl like Betty Marie can affect me this way, that men can even get my attention.  I stare at the glove box while I’m thinking of something to say.  Finally: “I think Tommy Lee likes you.”

She looks at me, put off.  “He’s a pest.”

“He seems like a nice guy,” I suggest.

“Too nice.”  She gives me another smile, one of those knowing smiles that suggests the two of us share a secret.  There’s a gleam in her eyes.  “You married?”

I look at my left hand.  The skin that used to be under the wedding band is still pale white.  “Getting a divorce.”

“You get caught or something?” she asks.

I look at her.  How does she know?  But she can’t know.  She’s thinking I must have had an affair with another woman.  “Uh, nothing like that.  We didn’t have anything in common any more.”

“Was she pretty?”

Not like you, I’m thinking.  “Well, sorta.  She put on some weight.”

We enter the outskirts of town.  The houses we pass are large and sit on large plots of land.  I’m getting a good idea of what kind of life Betty Marie lives.  Her father is obviously rich, confirmed by the huge house at the end of the road, pillars, manicured lawn.  The driveway seems a quarter mile long.  Going on past the house, we come to a building that sits maybe a hundred yards further down the drive, right at the edge of a lake.  I see a stairway going up the side of the building.

“That’s it,” Betty Marie beams, looking at the second floor over a boathouse.  She gets out of the Corvette and waits in front of the hood while I look around in a daze.  The big house sits on a higher elevation, the yard behind it sloping gently to the lake.  I see a terrace, a fountain, a swimming pool and a cabana.  It’s the first time I’ve been this close to wealth.  The back of the boathouse extends out over the water, resting on solid looking pylons.

Betty Marie looks impatient.  I get out of the Corvette and follow her up the stairs which top out on a landing behind the apartment, a balcony of sorts: small table with two chairs, a chaise lounge.  The back wall of the apartment is almost all glass, overlooking the lake.  I pause at the railing and gaze out across the water. The property is situated on a large cove that widens into the lake fifty yards out. The scenery is picturesque: tree lined shores as far as the eye can see, the sun reflecting off the calm surface.  I see a diving platform ten yards from the end of a pier, and a canoe turned upside down near the edge of the water.

“What do you think?” asks Betty Marie, giving me the impression she expects me to move in before sundown.

I look at her and smile.  It’s nice, but it’s not the ocean.

She’s younger than I thought when I first saw her, early twenties at the most, which means she’s far too young for me.  Besides, I’m still dealing with the trauma of an angry ex-wife, though I somehow don’t think that, or my age, would matter to Betty Marie, not with the conspicuous abundance of youthful hormones coursing through her ripe body.  I can’t imagine having her for a neighbor.

She bends over and retrieves the key from under the welcome mat.  My eyes drop when her dress hikes up the back of her legs, then shift quickly with a sudden stab of guilt.  I follow her in, thinking immediately, even if I was looking for a place in Copperas Cove, this would be too expensive, on top of being much too close to such a tempting, promiscuous girl.  I sense she has a possessive father.

It’s a large comfortable room, already furnished, even has a TV.  The small kitchen opens into the room, table and chairs, refrigerator, everything anyone would need.    The view is as good in here as it is on the balcony.

Betty Marie leads me into the bedroom, which is right on the other side of the wall from the living room and has the same glass wall overlooking the lake.  The bathroom opens on the opposite wall.  The view almost makes me wish I intended to stay in Copperas Cove.

“Well?” says Betty Marie.

I’m looking out over the lake.  I turn and notice the view can be seen from the bed.  “It’s nice,” I say.

“He’s home.  Wanna go talk to him?”

“Who.”

“My father,” she says.

“No. Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“I told you, I’m going to Biloxi.”

She doesn’t looked convinced.  “What do you think you’ll find in Biloxi you can’t find here?”

“The ocean.”

She draws a deep breath and heaves out her chest, almost as if to put her breasts in competition with the ocean.  It would have worked with most men, I imagine.  After a long stern look, she comes up with: “You can go down there on vacation, or on weekends or something.”

I let out a sigh.  Nothing satisfactory about disappointing a beautiful young woman.

“Why don’t we go talk to old man Peterson,” she suggests.

“Why?”

“About that job, silly.”

I almost agree, just to indulge her, perhaps to find a reason why I can’t stay and rent this apartment.  “Why don’t you take me to check on my car?”

This doesn’t make her happy, but she reluctantly nods her head.

We’re back on the drive to town.  The breeze balloons open the unbuttoned top of her blouse, offering a glimpse of the top of her breasts.  My mind wanders back to the bedroom over the boathouse, having her in the room, fantasizing about what it would’ve been like to watch her get undressed.  After all the humiliation I went through with my wife, this isn’t much consolation for my wounded ego, but at least I’m still thinking the same things other men do.

She whips the Corvette onto the gravel drive at the filling station.  Mr. Branson is cleaning the windshield on a Pontiac.  My Ford’s in the garage, hood up.  Betty Marie revs the engine to announce our arrival.

“Is that your car?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

“Looks like something must be wrong with it.”

Whatever it is, I hope it’s not too expensive.

I’m out of the Corvette by the time Mr. Branson approaches.  He’s wiping a pair of permanently grease-stained hands on a rag.  “It’s the generator,” he says.  He looks at Betty Marie like she must have come from another planet.

“Uh … can you replace it?”

“Gotta order one from Tupelo.  Be here on tomorrow’s truck.”

I nod, thinking I’ll have to ask Betty Marie to take me to a motel.

“Twenty dollars, in advance,” says Mr. Branson.

I fish out my wallet and hand him a twenty, then watch him glance at Betty Marie before he goes into the station and gets on the phone.  I think his eyes fell on the unbuttoned blouse.

“That man is always dirty,” she says when I get back into the Corvette.  “He gives me the creeps.”

I look at her for a moment, thinking she lives in her own tiny little world, her perceptions as vague to me as the inner workings of Buck Rodger’s spaceship.  I’m also wondering why she’s so anxious to have me live in Copperas Cove.  Must be because this place is so boring; I’d be a momentary distraction.  “Guess I’ll need a room,” I mention.

“There’s a motel next to the feed-store where Tommy Lee works.”

“Mind driving me over there?  I’ll buy you some gas.”

She snickers, then gives me a serious look.  “You can’t go over there now!  It’s too early.”  Her mind is still working a mile a minute.  “Let’s go over and talk to old man Peterson.”

I slouch back into the seat and look around, frustrated.  If I give in, I’m taking a chance of raising an old man’s hopes for nothing; but I can’t think of a good reason to deny her.  At least it’ll kill some time.  “Why are you interested in seeing me take that job?”

She gives this a little thought, then: “Because we need a new pharmacist … and you look nice.”

“You don’t know me.  You don’t even know I’m really a pharmacist.”

“I read people, Johnny.  You’re no liar.  I can tell.”

“My name is Jonathan.”

“Johnny sounds better.”

I turn my head and look toward the square.  It’s like fighting a lost cause.  Maybe she’ll meet the right guy one day, some hapless fuck that’s willing to spend the rest of his life trying to make her happy—God, what a thankless task.  “Alright.  Just a quick visit.  Just to see what the old man has to say.”

She beams, then cranks the engine.  I glance over the dash, impressed, thinking a pharmacist should be able to afford a car like this, knowing I’d feel foolish writing a check for the payment.

She parks in front of the Rexall.  It’s a nice town, not exactly picturesque, but nice.  The storefronts are neat and well-kept.  The people are friendly.  Far different from what I’m accustomed to in Pittsburgh.  I had never considered living in a small town.  Guess I’m comfortable with the anonymity of living in a city.

Mr. Peterson is assisting a middle-aged woman when Betty Marie and I walk up.  He’s grumbling, looks impatient.  We stand off to the side.  Seems the woman is looking for a stronger laxative for her husband.  Mr. Peterson is telling her the husband’s been using laxatives long enough.  Evidently the woman doesn’t want to go home without it.

Finally he sells her a bottle and she walks away.  Mr. Peterson’s tired, frustrated eyes shift to Betty Marie, then me.  We approach the counter, which doesn’t seem to change Mr. Peterson’s mood.  Betty Marie ignores his sour attitude.

“This is Johnny …” Betty Marie looks at me.

“Scott. Jonathan Scott.”

“He’s here to talk to you about the job.”

His gray eyes shift back to me, fixed with interest, set in a scrutinizing squint. “He looks like a boy to me,” says the old man, turning and walking back toward his work area.  I follow Betty Marie behind the counter and we catch up with him, now sitting on the stool in front of his counting table.

“He’s from Pittsburgh, Mr. Peterson.  Worked in a drugstore up there.”

I’m thinking she’d look more credible if she wasn’t smacking gum.

The old man is staring at me now.  I’m looking at his shelves, wondering how he finds anything, wondering if he’s keeping up with the latest developments in medicine.  “You know something about this business, young man?” he asks.

My focus returns to him.  “I hold a pharmaceutical degree.  Have almost ten years experience; four as head pharmacist.”

“Ten years.  Then you’ve seen the changes.”

My eyes shift to his table.  Changes?  Everything changes.  What’s he talking about?

“They ruined everything.  Roosevelt and his bunch.  Got doctors making all the decisions these days.  What do doctors know about drugs?”

I look at him for a moment.  Definitely from the old school.  The changes he’s talking about were just taking hold when I got out of college.  A lot of the old guys didn’t agree with all the new rules and regulations, Mr. Peterson evidently among them.  Obviously Copperas Cove needs a new pharmacist.  Betty Marie’s haunches are resting against the bench.  She’s toying with her fingernails, giving the impression her time is being wasted.  I rub my neck, not sure what to say, certain I’ll not be winning any arguments.

“You want the government tellin’ you what drugs you should take?” the old man asks.

My lips tighten.  “Uh, Mr. Peterson, there’re a lot of new drugs coming out these days.  Some of ‘um are dangerous.  Doctors have to know which ones are safe.”

Next thing I know, he’s describing a myriad of symptoms and asking me what remedies I’d prescribe, as if that would be part of the job.  I’m distracted by the smell of French fries from the fountain, and Betty Marie’s impatience—she’s now filing her nails—and by the fact I suddenly feel like I’m applying for the job.   Mr. Peterson is rubbing his mouth, absently staring at something on the table.  He looks at me sharply.

“Five thousand a year and half the profit,” he declares.

I’m stunned.  Betty Marie’s lips curl into a cunning smile.  She’s looking at me with anticipation.  My mind wanders.  My gaze lands on her breasts.  What does she have in store for me, and if it’s what I think it is, will I be able resist?  The image I had conjured of her father aside, it occurs to me, if I’m to get my head straight, she’d be exactly the right girl to do it.  I’m bedeviled by how a female can be so distracting at a time like this.

“You’ll run the whole damn store,” Mr. Peterson throws in.

I had been on the road a long time, getting as far away from Pittsburgh as I could get, reliving those final scenes with my family.  The first thing Jennifer did after she decided to divorce me was call my mother and tell her why.  The memory of facing them still sends chills down my spine: my brother just shaking his head, my mother too mortified to talk, my three sisters confused and disappointed.  Pop wouldn’t even look at me.  Mile after mile, those images haunted me, that is when I wasn’t fretting over my future employment—will I find a position when I finally get to Biloxi?  Never did my plans to live on the Gulf coast include the possibility of a small town in rural Mississippi; but here I am, standing before an old man who’s offering me a position that sounds too good to be true, almost a partnership.

I manage to find my voice.  “Uh … can I give you an answer in the morning, Mr. Peterson?”

Betty Marie looks disappointed.  Why, I don’t know.  I’ve moved from I’m not interested to Let me think about it and she doesn’t see that as positive.

Mr. Peterson is grumbling about old age.  Whether he realizes it or not, the people here in Copperas Cove are desperate for a new pharmacist.

I look across the store and see Celia watching us.  She seems like an oasis in a desert of chaos.  I like the shape of her nose, and the fact she doesn’t wear much makeup.  I smile at her and shrug.

Back out on the sidewalk, I’m standing next to Betty Marie in sort of a surreal stupor.  The skeletal framework my mind had built up about my future had suffered an earthquake.  I’m staring absently at the square.  Near the courthouse steps I see four men staring at us, young colored men.  Out of the blue my brain registers where I am—those men wouldn’t be welcome in the store I just walked out of.  Where do they get their medicine, I wonder?

“Are you crazy?” says Betty Marie.  “He offered you half the profits!  What if he changes his mind by tomorrow morning?”

I see a bench on the courthouse lawn, shaded by a magnificent old oak, and realize I need to sit down.  Betty Marie follows a few steps behind.  “Where you goin’?” she calls out.

“Let’s sit down for a minute,” I call over my shoulder, glancing at the four young men who are still staring at me.  On the bench, leaning forward, my elbows propped on my knees, I inch down a little as Betty Marie sits next to me.

“You tired or something?”

I’m looking at her, but her question doesn’t register.  “Where do the Negroes get their medicine?” I ask.

She looks at me quizzically, then says: “Mr. Peterson takes care of ‘um at the back door of his store.”

“Doesn’t that sound a little silly to you?”

Now she’s more confused.  Then: “Nobody has a problem with it.  You think he shouldn’t sell it to ‘um?”

“No, that’s not what I meant.”  I draw a breath and look at her.  “Never mind.”

What I feel is confusion.  With my life turned upside down so suddenly, any distraction becomes a mental ordeal, and Betty Marie is a distraction.  Copperas Cove is a distraction.  That job offer is a distraction.  What should be a simple process—contemplating a job—seems like confusing task; but here I am contemplating it.  But why not consider it?  It’s a nice town.  No doubt I would like the people.  And Betty Marie is right: I could drive down to the Gulf any time I wanted.  Plus who knows if there’s a job available in Biloxi?

River of No Return is showin’ at the movie house,” says Betty Marie.

I look at her.  “What?”

“Robert Mitchum’s in it, and Marilyn Monroe.  You like Marilyn Monroe, don’t ya?”

I’m nodding absently as her words soak in.

“Well, we have to do something.  We got all afternoon.”

She’s as dumb as a rock, but I suddenly realize I like her.  In a brotherly sort of way, I tell myself.

“I’m not in the mood to see a movie.”

She pouts, has no clue to how complicated making a life-changing decision can be.

“Then what do you wanna do?”

I turn my head and look back.  The four young black men are still gathered by the courthouse steps.  I’m wondering what it would be like to be one of them living here in the south.  “Who are those guys?” I ask.

Betty Marie follows my gaze.  “Corley Johnson and his friends: Tobias Brown, Vernon Parks and Leander Washington.  They’ve been hanging around together ever since I can remember.  Best friends I guess.”

“You know them?”

“I know most everybody in Copperas Cove.  Why you interested?”

I turn back to her.  “No reason.  Just curious.”

“I know a secret about them.”  She forms a mischievous grin.  “They have a secret swimmin’ hole over on the north side of Stone Lake.  They didn’t know I followed ‘um one day.  A long trail leads down to it.  Lots of trees.  I saw ‘um take off all their clothes and swim naked.”

I’m intrigued.

A thought enters her head and she looks at me sharply.  “Don’t you dare tell my daddy.”

“What makes you think I’ll ever meet your father?”

“Everybody knows my … well, if you take that job … are you?”

I draw a breath and scan the square, see a lady walk into the dress shop with her daughter.  Two boys lean their bicycles against the wall and go into the dime store.  An elderly couple are buying tickets at the theater.  A pair of farmers in overalls are leaning against a pick-up truck in conversation.  I push my feet out, fold my arms over my belly, lean my head back against the bench and look up into the trees.  I would meet all of these people, eventually.  The day would come I would be one of them, a citizen of Copperas Cove, the pharmacist.  They would ask my advice and I’d listen patiently while they described their ailments and aches and pains.  I’d have Betty Marie to contend with, and evidently her father.  I’d be working a few aisles over from Celia Baker.

“Well?” says Betty Marie.

“Give me some time to think about it, Betty Marie.  Are you always this impatient?”

“I’m not impatient.”

“Why don’t we go over and get my suitcase and you take me to that motel.  I’ll think it over today and let you know in the morning.”

“We could drive out to the lake, maybe go for a swim.”

“You ask me to take that job.  Now give me some time to think about it.”

“You could think about it while we’re swimmin’.”

“Maybe some other time.”  Jesus, this girl has a lot of energy.  I look at her.  Some other time.  What do I mean by that?  Am I really thinking about staying here?  If so, would it be wise go someplace with a girl like her if she’d be wearing a bathing suit?

She gives in.  We go back to the garage for my suitcase, then back out to the highway and I walk into the motel office.  Next thing I know, Betty Marie is out of the Corvette and waiting for me to open the door to the room.

“You can’t go in there, Betty Marie.”

She looks around.  “Why not?  No one’s lookin’.”

“You can’t go into a man’s motel room.  Especially one my age.  What’s the matter with you?”

“You’re not that much older.”

I lower my head and rub my eyes.  She gets the message and stomps back to her car.  “When do you want me to pick you up?” she calls out over the windshield.

“Eight o’clock,” I say firmly, thinking a good nights sleep will give me a better perspective.

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2 thoughts on “Copperas Cove, Chapter 1

  1. I just finished Copperas Cove on my kindle, what a great story. Although I was only 7 in 1954, I grew up in a small town in South Carolina and saw many of the same reactions to integration. My parents were from Texas so they did not have the same racial biases. Now if you had stolen a horse they would have hanged you. Being a nudist I appreciate the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Thanks for a very enjoyable story. Mark

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