Haley Hemenway Sledge
On Sunday mornings Bridget rises with the dawn before even her mother’s rooster, removing a moth eaten quilt she made as a child. For a moment she lays still in the cold, feeling the hound on her feet, the wet fog creeping, and hearing not a sound from the mountains. Then Bridget is up like a shot. Itch, the basset hound, barely rouses and drifts back to snoring. Bridget pads her dry little feet across the cold wood. When Itch was a pup, he got splinters in his paw pads from the unfinished planks. After dinner, when the kitchen was dark and the roaches surely scuttled over the plates in the sink, Bridget sat the whining hound on her lap, under the light of a single lamp, and picked out the splinters with her fingernails.
She dresses quickly in the dark- a tattered flannel, unwashed denim. Out Bridget’s kitchen window, streams of morning fog drift down the mountains, over her back pasture, around the small home, and envelope the Sturg house across the road. Mares, still as small boulders, dot the pasture and disappear in the silver damp. Bridget doesn’t note this. She doesn’t pull a comb through her mousy hair or lather her ruddy cheeks in cream. She doesn’t even pause to trace the lines branching from her light eyes and tight mouth in the corroding mirror in the hall. Instead, she snatches a square of foil from a bare shelf in the fridge. Gingerly, she sets the sandwich in a plastic grocery bag along with her car keys and a tattered wallet, in which there are minimal crumpled bills. She pads toward the door and slips on a pair of blackened canvas slippers sitting on the porch.
Virginia creepers have woven their way across the screens enclosing Bridget’s porch. Their thin vines so plentiful that she can just barely make out the Sturg’s porch light gazing through the fog a half mile from the dirt road. When the basset hound was no longer young, but not yet slow with age, Bridget sat on the porch one autumn evening rocking in her father’s chair. Her mother had clipped back the creepers that afternoon, forming a charming oval through which she noted the comings and goings of grackles and warblers, people from far and near winding the mountain road. Itch trotted across the road and into the Sturg’s front pasture where he sniffed about. Suddenly, the hound became very still. His ears pricked up and back. His tail whipped straight out and his left paw curled up. Yowling out, the hound bolted toward a mulberry bush that separated the Sturg’s from the Wagner’s land. Itch dove into the bush and Bridget heard a horrible squeal cut short. Before she even exited the porch, the hound slipped from the bush and trotted back toward the house, something limp and dripping in its mouth. Dropping the heap at the foot of the stair, the hound whined, bowed, and trotted back around the house and out of sight. Half the sun had sunk behind the mountain and cut into Bridget’s blue eyes. Descending the steps, Bridget could see the little heap breathing quick and shallow breaths. A young gray cat lay still on its side. Its abdomen open. Bridget watched the cat’s breathing and darting eyes. It made no sound. Bridget recognized that cat as the one recently hunting her mother’s feeders, scaring away her beloved goldfinches. Shading her face from the setting sun, Bridget’s eyes swept the range. She sucked in the air- wet and sweet, dead and pure. The birds began their evening song and Bridget’s mother called from the kitchen. At the bottom step, Bridget placed the heel of her boot on the cat’s skull then stepped down and into the yard.
The sun rises behind Bridget and the range in a Save-A-Lot parking lot. A few abandoned vans and rusted out cars litter the edges of her view, but she watches intently the green Mazda waiting at a red light on the corner of Beauregard and Spottswood. Alone on the road, a cloud of chilled exhaust hovers over the two door. Its blinker winks at Bridget and she says to no one in particular, “Just right. That’s right. It’s just right.” The Mazda sits perfectly in the middle of the lane, stopped perfectly at the crosswalk, waiting perfectly still for the light to change. The light changes and Bridget sinks down in her seat so that she can just barely track the Mazda with her eyes. It parks directly in front of the store.
Leon puts his emergency brake on even though the parking lot is perfectly flat. He sets both shined shoes on the concrete before rising. The shoes were a Christmas gift from his mother. She made him try them on at the K-Mart on Shenandoah Avenue when he took her on her weekly trip out of the house. He hadn’t wanted to try on the shoes, but his mother began to sob loudly in the K-Mart, drawing glances and whispers. This a common tactic his mother used, Leon tried to remain stoic, but soon she was wailing and onlookers gathered. Looking down at his shoes, a little lump forms in Leon’s throat, but he swallows deeply and mechanically exists the car, locks it, and walks toward the store.
Bridget’s head slowly rises over the dashboard of her Ford as Leon walks toward the front door. Her mouth agape, she resists blinking. Once he is inside the store, Bridget is frozen for a moment. A full two minutes pass before she so much as twitches. She unwraps her tuna fish sandwich as other Save-A-Lot employees arrive at work. The white bread sticks to the roof of her mouth. After a while, Bridget falls asleep.
Bridget wakes to the sound of 75 grocery baskets rolling in unison across the Save-A-Lot parking lot. A gurgle issues from deep in her throat and Bridget stretches and flutters her toes in her canvas slippers. Her nails so long they scrape against the material. Leon’s body is at a steep incline, his arms thrust outward pushing the baskets. His hips dip rhythmically with his calculated steps. Bridget’s lips part and her eyes dart from the seam of Leon’s khakis to the thinning crown of his head bobbing between dry elbows. Bridget follows Leon with her eyes across the lot into the store. She falls back asleep.
Bridget spends every Sunday this way. Watching Leon push grocery carts across the Save-A-Lot parking lot. Bridget does her shopping across town at the Food World by her house. She only came to the Save-A-Lot once, on the day she cremated her mother two years before. Bridget doesn’t remember why she walked into the Save-A-Lot or what she bought or how she got there or got home afterward. All she can remember is Leon. Leon pushing the baskets. Leon’s arms swinging at his hips as he scoured the lot for carts. Leon placing her items gingerly in a paper bag. Leon saying, “Good morning, ma'am!” and Leon saying, “Have a blessed day ma’am!”
The sun is high and Bridget feels parched from her open mouthed sleeping and salty tuna, but she knows Leon will be out again soon, doing his final hunt for grocery carts before leaving. A young mother in a midriff baring shirt leads a small gaggle of toe headed girls, the youngest popping against her hip. A charming little gut shakes with her steps. Leon passes them in exiting the Save-A-Lot. He smiles and nods, but the mother doesn’t notice him. She’s whipped her head around and wags a finger at two of the girls fiddling with the quarter candy machines. Leon waits for two more customers to enter the Save-A-Lot after seeing them exit a van. An older couple. A frail woman with severe shoulder blades carries a bag twice her size. Her husband in a motorized scooter glides in front of her.
As Leon makes his way to the lot’s far corner, the one that looks over the river and Silver Top Mountain directly behind, he turns back to the store. Bridget rights her shoulders and scoots up in the seat. She hears what Leon must have heard, a thin voice stretching his name into three syllables, “Lee-EEE-yawn!” Bridget can’t see the body the voice issued from, but Leon certainly can. He hops into the air, his usual militant stride corrupted by a flustered skip. His body stammers back to the store. Bridget is frozen.
In two years this has never happened. No one has kept Leon from his final round of cart collecting. Not even Mr. Sellars, the owner of the Save-A-Lot, a potbellied ex-football player. Bridget knows this because she looked up all the employees of the Save-A-Lot at Beauregard and Spottswood on the company’s regional website. Bridget traveled two towns over to use the public library in Wilson’s Gap. She couldn’t risk someone in her own town of Priceville glancing over her sweatered shoulder and seeing her nose close to the monitor scanning every inch of Leon’s worn face. Bridget sets her face so close to the monitor she makes out the little pixelations of Leon’s muddy eyes. She traces the swoop of his straw colored comb over with her jagged fingernail. She’s breathing heavily against the monitor, fogging it up. Good morning ma’am. Good day ma’am. Can I get you anything else today, ma’am? Bridget almost falls off her chair when a flat voice drawls over the intercom that the library closes in five minutes. The monitor shuts off abruptly and Bridget grunts.
Back in the parking lot, Bridget can see Leon speaking with a blonde woman in front of the Save-A-Lot. They’re not supposed to do that. They’re not supposed to stand in front of the doors like that. Bridget knows this because she read the Save-A-Lot employee handbook that she found on the company’s regional website. That’s why Leon always brushes his shoulder blades against the automatic doors of the Save-A-Lot as he exists to look for carts. “Save-A-Lot employees will greet customers at the doors with a smile and welcome salutation.” Why he waits in the doorway when he sees someone exiting their car in the lot. He waits there until they walk across the lot and into the store before he will leave the doorway to look for carts. The blonde woman is keeping Leon from his cart collecting, from greeting customers with a smile and welcome salutation. The blonde woman was not on the company’s regional website. Bridget presses her fingernails into her palms and sweats.
The woman with the blonde hair places her hand on Leon’s shoulder. She’s a few inches taller than him and tilts her head down in a kindly way to speak to him. Leon stares at the ground. She throws her head back in a laugh, and Bridget can see, even from her seat, the woman’s perfectly white perfectly straight teeth. Her hair ripples past her shoulders. When she laughs, Leon glances up at her. His eyes are wide and he smiles a lopsided smile at the laughing blonde woman. Bridget shrieks and slams her fist on the horn. The blonde woman and Leon turn around and look into the lot. Bridget shoots down below the dashboard breathing heavily. Pushing her fingernails further into her palms, Bridget rams the joint of her thumb over and over again into her left temple. Hot tears surprise her on her cheeks and she groans rhythmically before she starts to sob. Big bubbles of spit form over her open mouth and then pop as she grunts and grinds her teeth. Bridget cries and cries and eventually falls asleep.
Not long after Bridget’s basset hound brought her the bleeding body of the young gray cat, the police came to her house. Her mother’s body lay still and cold in the bed she once shared with Bridget’s father. The hound greeted the policemen with his teeth. Bridget shooed him outside. The policemen gave Bridget a tissue. They patted her shoulder. They gave her a pamphlet with a list of churches hosting support groups. They said they were sorry she was all alone now. They said it would be okay. They said they would contact the appropriate officials. They said people would help her. They did not ask why Bridget’s mother slept on top of the covers.
Bridget wakes up shivering. Her face is crusty with spit and salt and snot. She peeks her head over the dash. It’s twilight and the mountains are black. The Save-A-Lot parking lot is largely empty and Leon’s green Mazda is gone.
About the Author: Haley Hemenway Sledge is from the Gulf South. Her writing appears in Black Sun LIT, Vestiges, The Ilanot Review, The Atlas Review, and elsewhere. She studied religion and southern culture in New Orleans and creative writing in New York City. She can be contacted here.