River Girl


It was three in the afternoon and hot. Tar was boiling out of the black-top paving around the square and heat waves shimmered above the sidewalks. I drove on through town and down the street to the jail with the Negro boy. He was about nineteen and looked scared to death.

“I ain’t done nothing, Cap’n,” he kept saying.

“O.K.,” I said. “Relax. Nobody’s going to hurt you.” My head still ached from last night and his talking got on my nerves.

I turned him over to Cassieres at the jail. “Stick him in the county tank. Did Buford call you?”

“No,” he said. “What’s he booked for?”

“Assault,” I said. “Attempted assault. I don’t know. He took after another boy with a knife. Buford said pick him up.”

I drove the car around to the garage and left it and went back to the square. The courthouse was stifling and smelled of sweeping compound and old dust and cuspidors. Buford wasn’t in the office.

“He’s out for coffee,” Lorraine said. “Though how anybody could drink coffee in this weather…”

She looked at me and smiled. We both knew he was in the back room of Billy Barone’s drinking gin rickeys. She had worked in the sheriffs office about six years.

I shed the gun and tossed it into a filing cabinet. “I’m going home,” I said.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Louise was in. She said to tell you she picked up the car.”

“O.K.,” I said. “Thanks.” I’d have to walk. Louise was probably playing bridge somewhere.

I went out and my head started to throb again with the glare. Cars went by, hissing on the soft tar as if it were raining. I started to walk across the square to get a Coke before I went home, and then remembered Buford had asked me to stop by and see Abbie Bell.

Abbie’s hotel was out on Railroad Street, toward the planing mill and the freight depot. It was a run-down section, not over a half-dozen blocks from the square but tough and full of cheap beer joints. I could hear the shriek of the planer and the slap of dropped planks across the afternoon stillness and smell the heat.

It was different a long time ago, I thought. I walked this way to school before the old one burned down, and there were some good houses along here then. I was center on the fifth-grade football team and in love with a girl named Doris or Dorothy. At night I used to lie awake and rescue her from burning buildings and capsized boats and bullies big enough to be in the seventh grade.

A Negro girl was sweeping the lobby. I went down a dim hall and knocked. Abbie herself opened the door and looked out, then stood back for me to come in. There were two electric fans going and the blinds were pulled to keep out the sun.

“Hello, Jack,” she said. She must have been around thirty-five, quite short, with very sharp brown eyes and closely cropped black hair in tight curls close to her head. She always wore ridiculously high heels to make herself look taller, and now she had on a blue dressing gown of some sort of filmy stuff.

“God, this heat. How about something cold to drink?”

“Thanks,” I said. I sat down under one of the fans.

“Tom Collins?”

I nodded. She called out the door to the Negro girl. While we were waiting for the drinks she went into her bedroom and came out with a white envelope in her hand. The girl brought the drinks in and left them on a tray in front of the sofa. Abbie sat