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Sheldon Compton
The Smallest Kindness in the World

APPALACHIAN DAYS WRITING CONTEST
Honorable Mention

There was a chance she wouldn’t even answer the door. But Roy needed money, and there was nothing he knew to do but ask. He hadn’t seen Jenny or her boy, Thomas, in five years. West Virginia had been his home, but he was back in Kentucky and looking for a way back without money.

And cancer, on top of that, to beat all. He had cancer, and no money. How could she not answer the door? He knew his daughter.

Jenny’s address came from Estill at the gas station. Roy came back two weeks before and milled around at the station during the day playing chess, eating free cakes and drinking free coffee. He did this for long enough and asked during the whole time where Jenny lived, until Estill and the others finally figured they’d had enough with his stories and eating up the merchandise. They gave him the address and Pete, a worker for Estill, agreed to drive him to Jenny’s place. Roy said he’d have some money for him in a few days. Of course, Pete believed him.

Pete dropped him at the mouth of Doc Calup Hollow, preferring not to drive straight into Jenny’s driveway, he said. Roy didn’t bother to mention the cancer, which was in his colon and was going to make the walk up the hollow, about five houses up, they said, more difficult. He could have and Pete would have carried him to the front door, but Roy saved his strength of persuasion for Jenny. No need to spend energy just because a little pain.

Might make for better sympathy if he showed up at the door sweating and hurting and grunting. Jenny didn’t know about the cancer.

As he walked the hollow, Roy practiced what he would say if a knock did, in fact, produce an open door. But the trip was shorter than he had figured on, and he had only time for a few scenarios before the house loomed out from the hillside, a tilting thing peeled bare of paint. From the windows Roy thought he heard laughter, the high giggle of a young boy.

But the sound eased out of earshot.

He turned to his right where the dumpster for garbage pickup was leaning toward the creek running at the base of the mountain and on up crooked through the hollow. A plastic box meant for the dumpster had missed the mark. Spilled from it were a child’s winter parka and random bits of cardboard and what looked to be the contents of a few ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

Must have been the porch garbage box catchall. Some things never change, Roy thought.

Before he left, he and Jenny and her mom spent a couple evenings a week on a porch tossing empty Pepsi bottles into his catchall box. They likely figured him lazy then, too. He never denied he had a lazy bone about him, but he figured ways to make things work, until he couldn’t.

Wouldn’t, Roy thought, not couldn’t. But what difference did it make? People didn’t change, and everybody knew that really. Somewhere in the guts of their guts they couldn’t deny it. He played it so he looked out for number one all the way through to this point of his life, trading cars because one had more gas than the other, sleeping soundly while Jenny cried from hunger through the night. Messing with women his age or older and girls not his age at all.

He hadn’t changed, and would not. He was here now to figure a way to get Jenny’s food stamps so he could trade them for cash to get back to West Virginia to his new woman, named Vanessa. Everything was the same about him since childhood. Families in town poured pity over him like bathwater after his folks took off before he’d even learned to talk. This is how he learned to play it. Criticism or even outright hatred for his ways didn’t matter to Roy, never had.

When Jenny answered the door, Roy resisted patting his hair down into place. He kept his arms at his sides. His flannel sleeves eased out and back in as he drew a breath and then exhaled. He wondered if Jenny noticed he was sick. She seemed to look through him at a spot in the sky.

Her eyes seemed less blue, dulled from the last time he’d glared into them half a decade ago, but she appeared healthy. A light from inside cast a shine on her hair, an auburn ribbon curving at her neckline as bright as her mother’s in summer. He saw her ring finger was bare. Roy thought of Thomas somewhere in the house and what he might be doing.

Jenny stepped out of the doorway so he had to take a step back to protect his personal space. A pain came on him then, in the gut, but he kept straight, held his breath. Where to start, he thought, so he could get his hands on those stamps? He’d need to offer to make a grocery run for her, but without a car that wouldn’t fly. He walked the hollow to get here and there was no vehicle in the driveway.

There had still been not a word spoken when Jenny leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips, not on the cheek but the lips, the way she did when she was knee high and still losing teeth. She turned then and left him on the porch hearing the easy click of the door closing.

When his legs allowed, Roy shuffled down the steps, noting the grass overtaking the yard, the poor condition of a Japanese maple that must have been planted before Jenny rented the house. He could come help with some repairs. Time enough to do a little painting and work on the yard. Thomas could even help him. Time enough to jump over the moon.

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well. He was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still: Journal Fiction Award. He survives in eastern Kentucky.

 

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