My car was only six years old, but I’d gotten it secondhand and the previous owner had not been kind to it. I always suspected he’d used it as a target for batting practice. Or opening coconuts, it could go either way. In any case it was full of dings, the paint had gone powdery with a lack of wax, and the rust from the chrome had streaked and spread to the sheet metal, blistering the robin’s egg enamel. The roof was supposed to be white, and some of it still was.
I rattled down the long orange wheel-ruts and over a cattle guard as I entered the Burkitt property. I could see a whitewashed frame house up ahead of me, the sun blasting off the tin roof, an Aermotor windmill ginning in the field, and a little way behind it a big grey barn, the roof purple with rust. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing there, but it had been a couple of days since I’d been fired from the Mount Rose Canning Company, and I guess I needed something to do.
Mount Rose, or the Pickle Factory as it was colloquially known, was a big cinder block building, long and low, the interior a hot, high-ceilinged space full of clattering machinery that dumped pickles into glass jars, shot brine in there with them, capped and sealed them, and glued a label around the jar. I wore a hairnet and a coverall and watched jars go sliding by me on conveyors. Once in a while I got to slap a big red plunger button and call the shop mechanic over to fix something that had gone wrong. It was a pretty simple job, but also a pretty unpleasant one, and I had a tendency to shoot my mouth off to that effect.
It wasn’t a surprise when I got called into the plant manager’s office one Tuesday afternoon, a sort of disembodied office interior dropped like a movie set into a warehouse space, windows all around so The Man could survey his domain. He had a battered metal desk and a threadbare office chair, and waved me impatiently toward a chair opposite him.
“All right, what did I do now?”
“Dial it down, Cogbill. It’s your mouth gets you in trouble. I swear it’s like you don’t want to be here.”
“We make pickles, Morris.”
“And we take pride in it.”
“Who takes pride in fucking pickles?”
“Don’t walk in my office and start swearing at me.”
“Does anyone even like pickles? For Christ’s sake, it’s a stunted cucumber in a jar of piss.”
“I think you have a problem, Harold. I think you don’t belong here, and I think you know it. Your attitude is just plain disrespectful.”
“I wasn’t swearing at you, Carl. We were talking about pickles.”
“You damn well know when you were in the Army you wouldn’t talk to your superiors like that.”
“Of course I did, Carl, it was the goddamn Army. How do you think we talked?”
“Why do you keep calling me Carl?”
“Why do you keep calling me Harold?”
“Get your things out of your locker and get out. Did they seriously let you get away with this stuff in the Army?”
“No. They kicked me out.”
He put his hands up in the air, popped his eyes and shook his head. The conversation was over. I dropped my hairnet in a jar of pickles on my way off the production floor.
So here I was, the little Hornet coupe creaking and banging up the Burkitt’s driveway. A man I assumed was Ethel’s father was driving a tractor in the field. He was wearing brown work pants and suspenders, a blue shirt open halfway down his chest, his sleeves rolled up off his wrists. Whatever was on his head probably used to be a panama hat. He stared balefully at me as I bumped along, then swerved and pulled his tractor up opposite me on the other side of the fence. I stopped, and he motioned for me to roll my window down.
“Can I help you, son?”
“Name’s Harry, I’m here to see Miss Ethel.”
“She know you’re coming?”
“No sir, I’d have called ahead but was somewhat daunted by the fact that your telephone doesn’t exist.”
“A comedian,” he said, and spit tobacco into the grass. “Alright, son, pull on up and I’ll meet you in front of the house. Just so we’re clear, Ethel doesn’t want to see you, you get right back in that car and go. You got any trouble following directions and the doctors in town’ll be digging buckshot out of your backside.”
“The hell kind of dog is that?”
I did as her old man said. I didn’t really begrudge him his attitude. He was protecting his daughter, and I didn’t figure she got a lot of gentlemen callers. Or whatever the hell I was, for that matter. I don’t know how many years I had on her, but I was forty and she was not. I made her about mid-twenties. I left the fox in the car, with the windows open a little for ventilation, and followed Mr. Burkitt around the back of the house to a chicken coop. Ethel was there with a bucket, spreading feed, in her overalls and flannel, neoprene boots, sort of a weird sack of girl, and when he called her name she turned, squinting in the sun, and threw a hand up to shade her eyes. She wore no hat, and the sun had turned her light brown hair to gold. When she saw me, she put the bucket down and her hand on her hip. Her whole posture changed.
“Why Harry Cogbill,” she said.
“You know this man?”
“We met briefly,” she said.
“He said he wanted to see you.”
“He thinks he’s funny.”
“I’ve noticed. Does he stay or go?”
“Oh it’s all right, daddy. We’re going to take a walk, if you don’t mind. We won’t be a few minutes.”
“He ain’t hurting anybody, and you know I can holler loud as anyone.”
Ethel Burkitt wasn’t exactly pretty, but I found myself looking at her. She had kind of a round face, big brown eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. Her mouth pouted. She wiped her arm across her forehead and it left a smear of dirt.
Her father went out front to his tractor as Ethel and I strolled around the grounds. It was a pretty nice place, and I said so.
“Cut the crap, Harry Cogbill. What in the hell are you doing here?”
“As I recall, you wanted my help.”
“As I recall, you made it pretty clear where I could go.”
“It was kind of a…I had… last night was… it’s been a rough twenty years or so.”
“Welcome to planet earth, Mr. Cogbill. You know what I think? I think you was setting up all night feeling sorry for yourself on account of you lost your job, and a little ol’ farm girl in an overall and pickup truck comes asking for help, and you figure your calendar’s pretty full up what with all the moping and the drinking and such.”
“I hadn’t been drinking,” I said.
She folded her arms across her chest, and squinted up at me as the wind blew her hair around. She dropped her voice as low as it would go and said, “look at me, I’m Harry Cogbill, you know what I do for a living? Not a damn thing, huh-huh-huh.”
“I had that coming,” I said.
“So now what? You just changed your mind?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“It ever occur to you that maybe I changed mine?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out, isn’t it?”
She shook her head. “I think you’re here to find out what kind of a man you are, cos you don’t know, and that scares you.”
“Will you stop trying to scramble my wires?”
“Probably not,” she said, and grinned.
“Reckon I can live with that.”
“So, what’s your daily rate?”
I said, “My what?”
“You didn’t think I expected you to work for free, did you?”
“I…well, I’m not sure.”
“All you private investigators got a daily rate.”
The grasshoppers were flying in from the field, gold shapes in the sunlight, riding the smell of the mown grass like a thousand tiny kites on the wind.
“Miss Ethel, maybe you haven’t been listening, I’m not a private investigator.”
“Well I’m hiring you to investigate, and I reckon that makes you a private investigator.”
“Investigators got a license, you know, a Photostat in their wallet, says they’re allowed to investigate.”
“Mr. Cogbill, you know what a license is?”
“Didn’t I just tell you?”
“It’s when the government takes away your freedom to do something and then sells it back to you.” Then she said, “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not discuss the particulars here. Can I meet you this evening?”
“Miss Ethel, I believe I’d like to take you to dinner.”
She shook her head and looked away from me, then stopped walking and turned to face me full-on.
“What did it for you, Mr. Cogbill? Was it the overalls, the chicken droppings on my boots or the sweat in my hair?”
I’ve always been hard-headed. I wasn’t sure what a safe way was to respond to that, so I grabbed her waist and kissed her. At first I thought she was going along with it, but then she started struggling and I let her go, and she slapped me. Just slapped the hell right out of me.
I stood there looking at the ground, my hand on my neck, my face burning.
She said, “all right.”
“All right what?”
“All right, Mr. Harry Cogbill, you can take me to dinner.”
“Well hot damn.”
“You better believe it.”
I drove home and put a bowl of water down for the fox, and opened a Coke for myself. My hands were shaking and my feet wouldn’t stay still. I had a job and a date. Probably I’d get back there to pick her up and find out she’d changed her mind about all of it; no job, no date. Then her father would shoot me in the ass and the natural order of the universe would be restored. But the sudden burst of energy didn’t go away. I did the dishes. I mopped the floors. I cleaned my toilet bowl and did the wash and hung it out to dry in the back yard. I thought I ought to take a nap. I laid down a while but I was wired. The fox, on the other hand, had been up well past his bedtime, and after a drink of water he slinked under my bed and went right to sleep.
I picked Miss Ethel up around seven o’clock. She was on the porch in a blue dress, sleeveless with a high, wide neckline and a tapered waist, and a crocheted shrug. She was in heels and stockings with a seam up the back of the leg, and she had a clutch and her hair was curled. Her face was made up, in a way that effectively highlighted her eyes, and she had a little bracelet and a locket. I had incorrectly estimated her it seemed in more ways than one. If she had, that morning, looked like a girl in a denim sack, I now somewhat envied the sack. I had put on a tie, and a vest, and my least-battered pair of oxfords, and I had the presence of mind to get out and open her car door.
“Hello, Miss Ethel.”
“Hello yourself, Harold Cogbill.”
“Wait, that’s really your name? Dear Lord, I thought you were putting me on.”
“Does this mean it’s over?”
“I’ll let you know.” She grinned.
I closed her door for her, then walked back around and got behind the wheel.
“Where did you get this car, Hieronymus Cogbill?”
“I bought it from King Kong, I guess he was tired of slamming it around.”
“I don’t think he was tired, I think he was finished.”
“You may be on to something.”
“I don’t know where you were planning to take me, Cogbill, but I do have a suggestion.”
“I thought Fredericksburg, there’s nothing really out here.”
“Oh don’t let’s drive into town, Harry Cogbill, let’s go up to Dahlgren. There’s a place up there we can eat and besides, I’d like to show you something near there.”
“The Potomac Grill? What’s wrong with that, Mr. Fussybritches?”
“That’s a thing, go along with it.”
“Sure. Well, I used to be a cook, and—“
“Now don’t start with that, it’s far too soon to get me into your house.”
I felt my face burning again.
“That’s not… Good Lord, Miss Ethel. I wasn’t suggesting…”
“Careful you don’t hurt my feelings. Maybe it really was the overalls.”
“I like you very much, Miss Ethel.”
“I like you too, Harry Cogbill.”
I drove us out to Route 3 and then past the pickle factory, out to 301. There was an old brick house with a tin roof on one corner, called Office Hall, with an outbuilding and a low brick wall. An auto repair shop stood on another corner. I eased out onto 301 and turned left, North toward Dahlgren. We went around the traffic circle at Edgehill where 205 crossed 301. There was a little store there on the left called the Circle Market. Left on route 205 would head to Purkins Corner, which was back toward Gera, and right led out to Colonial Beach. Which would also have been a much better night out than going to the Potomac Grill up in Dahlgren. There was gambling out at the beach. It was sort of a cheat, since anything built out over the Potomac River was technically in the state of Maryland. I didn’t know what Ethel had in mind making me take her to Dahlgren, but every time I asked her she just told me wait and see.
We passed Ralph Bunche School, which was where the black kids went. It was almost another decade before the Commonwealth desegregated the schools. There was the King George Motel, and then we breezed by Chestnut Hill and there wasn’t much of anything for miles, until we passed a motel called Hillcrest with a diner in the middle next to the swimming pool, and finally came down the hill toward the intersection with Route 206, which ran west through Owens and Weedonville, and out to Route 3 at Arnold’s corner, west of the courthouse. East of 301, Route 206 crossed Upper Machodoc Creek and then swept south, to the main gate at the Naval Weapons Laboratory. On the northeast side of the intersection was a house and a barn, back from the road. Up the hill to the left of us, away above the trees, was Cloverdale House. We continued north on 301.
“Up here on the left,” she said. “About a mile.”
“The service station?”
“That’s my uncle’s place.”
“So you want to hire me because something funny is going on at a gas station?”
“Not the gas station, the air field.”
“Okay, I’ll bite.”
There was an air field behind the filling station, sitting on a lot probably north of 150 acres.
“Just some strange characters. I commented as to how I don’t like the people been around lately, and Uncle Jack said not to be so unwelcoming of outsiders.”
“He’s got a point. I’m an outsider.”
“He hasn’t got a point, Hieronymus Cogbill, I’ve been very damn nice to you.”
“That’s true, you did not have to come out with me tonight.”
“I certainly did not.”
We were coming up on it now, but the sun was about spent and there wasn’t much to see in any case; the air field in question was all grass, and only the filling station had any lights. We crossed Williams Creek, the shadows deepening among the trees lining the two-lane highway, and then passed Gate B of the Dahlgren base. Wilkerson’s Potomac Grill was a little further up, on the left, a little diner with two sets of paned windows and a kind of turret in the middle framing the door. The top of the building, just below the flat roof, had a sort of false crenellation that ran the length of the façade, and a tall neon sign by the entrance to the parking lot called out the establishment, “POTOMAC GRILL – SEA FOOD – FINE FOOD” and in red, “OPEN.” There was a clock on the turret, above the door. It was really just a diner, but I didn’t actually mind that. I just thought maybe we were a little overdressed, and for a first date I’d hoped to impress her a little. This was not impressive. We parked around the right corner, near three windows with awnings. When we opened the car doors, the sound of frogs in the marshland around us rippled through the night air, and as we walked around the gravel lot I admired Ethel in the neon glow. She caught me looking and I smiled. She smiled back. Well, all right.
Through the aluminum storm door was the basic tile floor, Formica tabletops and chrome trim, vinyl seats. The walls were wood paneled and a counter ran across the far end of the room, with the kitchen behind it. I put my slightly battered fedora on a coat tree by the door. There were one or two other couples, a small group of teenagers, and two or three old guys at the counter. In the corner, though, farthest from the door and away from all the windows, were three guys in ill-fitting grey sport coats and sloppy neckties, and one of them hadn’t bothered to remove his hat. They looked a little rough, something about the set of their jaws and the hardness of their eyes. Having been a corrections officer I felt like I knew bad guys when I saw them, and these guys were setting off all sorts of alarm bells. Highway 301 was a major traveler’s route, though, and weekends this time of year it tended to jam up pretty bad. It was only Thursday, but maybe they were just passing through.
I didn’t spend any undue amount of time looking at them, I just noticed, filed it away, and kept going. I tried to steer Ethel to a booth well away from those guys, but as it turns out I didn’t have to. We stayed near the front on the other side of the room, and she purposely put me so I was facing them and she wasn’t.
“See those guys in the corner, Mr. Cogbill? Look but don’t look like you’re looking.”
“I already saw them.”
“Those are the guys.”
“I think I see the problem.”
“I thought you might. Still think I’m just a crazy li’l farm girl?”
“I never thought that.”
“Begging your pardon, Hieronymus, but who’s the lyin’ son of a bitch now?”
I grinned. She grinned back.
“Okay,” I said. “What do we do now?”
“Now you buy me dinner, drive me home, give me a really dynamite kiss goodnight, and tomorrow, you get to work.”
When I got home that night I didn’t go right to sleep. I was exhausted after about thirty-six hours of no sleep, but my mind was racing, thinking about all the things I might have done wrong and whether Miss Ethel would go out with me again, or more absurdly if she’d somehow maneuvered me into taking her out so that she could lead me past the airfield and show me the guys in the diner. Even the soothing sounds of the country night outside my open window didn’t put me under. I tossed and turned until the sheet was tangled around my legs, then angrily kicked it off and gave up on sleep. I got dressed and made a pot of coffee, then dumped it out and went back to bed.
The trouble with being happy is I know it won’t last, and I always manage to talk myself out onto a ledge. I kept wondering why Ethel hadn’t hollered when I’d kissed her that first time. Her daddy would have laid me out, or run me off the property and out of the county and possibly the next one, and thus onward until he drove me into the sea. Maybe she really did like me. Or maybe it had been an act to get me to come work for her. Maybe I was the mark in some kind of elaborate scam. The fox kit jumped onto the bed, nipped playfully at my hand. I rubbed his belly and he rolled around with one eye closed, mouth open in a wide smile. Eventually he got his feet under him, stood up, squeaked out a rasping bark, and raced off into the darkened house. I waited for the inevitable sound of something breaking, knowing it would come; and when at last it did I got up and cleaned it up. Probably it was pointless to scold him. I’d adopted a fox, I’d have to figure out how to make that work. Or even anything at all.