The old truck sputtered into the empty lot and came to a stop in the gravel next to the store’s dumpster. From the look of it, the truck wouldn’t make many more trips anywhere, but Sue knew looks were deceiving. Old trucks like this one would still be making their sojourns up and down back roads while their newer counterparts sat in some dealer’s shop for the latest recall.
Sue had been warned about this particular truck, though. In the two weeks since she had been working as a cashier at Hargrove’s Country Store, she had been expecting it daily. Old Hargrove had described the vehicle, a 1965 Chevy C10 with patches of baby blue still visible, in such precise details that Sue could hardly doubt its existence, though she was inclined to do so. She had already learned that the residents of this area were prone to exaggeration. But now here sat the truck in all its rusted glory.
Hargrove had cautioned Sue about the truck on her first day of work. Sue and her family had just moved to Pine Knot at the beginning of summer to take over the Glower family’s chicken farms. Being a newcomer to the community, Sue didn’t know about any of the families or their peculiarities. So what Hargrove had really warned her about wasn’t the truck, but rather its occupants, the McCrorys. According to Hargrove, Cecil McCrory was “the meanest man who ever walked the face of the earth.” Mrs. Hargrove had been even less complimentary in her description of him as “a known wife beater and just plain trash.” Both had told Sue she had best be on her guard when the McCrorys came to Hargrove’s because they’d try to steal them blind.
Sue had figured that Cecil would have come in on Monday when the government checks came out on the first, for Mrs. Hargrove had let slip that Cecil got a “crazy check” each month. That would’ve been just fine, too, because both Hargroves had been at work on Monday collecting their customers’ charge accounts for the month. The Hargroves allowed their government-check customers to charge purchases for a month at a time, but they expected payment in full when the checks came. They didn’t have any problems collecting either, for most folks in the community preferred driving to Hargrove’s to get their checks cashed instead of making the 20-mile drive to the nearest bank in town.
But Cecil McCrory hadn’t come on Monday. By Thursday, Sue had asked Hargrove why. He frowned as he explained, “Mrs. Hargrove don’t allow beer on credit, and that’s all Cecil ever buys.” Yet now, on what had been an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, the truck had finally made its appearance with its owner in plain view. Sue had been trying to envision the man for two full weeks, and what she saw in the truck did not disappoint her.
Cecil appeared to be a tall man, for his shaggy-haired head nearly touched the ceiling of the truck’s cab. His gaunt face may have been attractive in its youth, but now it looked haggard and old, though he was only 40. He had a thin, cruel mouth that was snapped shut in a hard line. His nose was crooked and looked like it had been broken more than once, but his eyes were the most haunting of all his features as they appeared to be nothing more than two small, hollow points set deep in their sockets.
After all she had heard about Cecil McCrory, Sue was ready for him, but she was surprised when the passenger door of the vehicle opened instead of the driver’s. Around the front of the truck walked a boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. That the boy was Cecil’s son could not be questioned; his eyes were exactly the same, as if, even though still in their youth, they had already seen too much of life’s hardships.
The boy had looked straight ahead while he walked to the door, but upon entering, he cast his gaze to the floor. Sue was on her guard in an instant, and she began to wonder if the McCrory propensity for thievery was an inherited trait.
Like his father, the boy did not have on a shirt. His only clothing was a worn pair of blue jeans; even his feet were bare, and from the amount of filth on them, Sue guessed the child probably hadn’t worn shoes since school had let out. His bare back was a dark sun-toasted brown, and his hair was so blond as to appear white, bleached from a summer spent outdoors.
The boy walked in the front door and immediately headed down the nearest aisle to the back of the store where the drink coolers were located. From her vantage point at the front counter, Sue could see down each of the four aisles. The way Hargrove had set up the store ensured that he never lost sight of any customer, so stealing was cut to a minimum. Hargrove also had the foresight to install two large mirrors in the back of the store that magnified the customer’s actions in the corners.
Most of the children who came into Hargrove’s usually ran wild, picking up various items along their way before being told by a parent to put things back where they came from. Some children actually returned the items to their proper places, but the majority of them just dumped everything on the bottom shelf of whatever aisle they were on. Not only did the McCrory boy not dart around the store, but he didn’t touch anything either. Instead, his hands were wadded into fists and shoved deep into his pants’ pockets. He did not even look to his left or right as he walked, but kept his gaze focused on the floor.
Sue expected him to open a drink cooler and pick out a bottle of Coke. Instead, the boy went to the right corner where the beer and wine was stored. He reached inside, pulled out a six-pack of Old Milwaukee’s Best, and turned on his heels to walk back to the cash register.
As the boy placed the beer on the counter, he did not look up. Small for his age, the child merely kept his head bowed; he would not meet Sue’s gaze. Sue simply stared. Surely this child could not expect her to sell him beer? Why, even if his father did happen to be sitting in a truck not twenty yards away from the front of the store did not change matters. Sue bristled under such an assumption, and her voice came out a little harsher than she intended when she spoke.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot sell you this beer. You’re underage,” Sue stated. The boy, who had started shifting his weight from one foot to the next, remained mute. “You’ll have to go on out to the truck and tell your daddy that he’ll just have to come in the store and purchase the beer himself.”
Still the boy did not look up.
“Look, hon’,” Sue began again. “I realize that you aren’t drinking the beer yourself, but rules are rules. Your daddy will have to buy his own beer.”
The boy turned his head to look out the glass door to where his father was waiting in the truck. Obviously growing impatient, Cecil McCrory made a quick gesture for the boy to come on. Sue, who had also looked out the door, saw Cecil’s face storm up like a gathering thunderhead. Good, she thought! Let him get angry! Make the sorry jerk come in here himself instead of sending his child to do his dirty work.
“You go on out there and tell your daddy to come in this store and get the beer.” Sue waited for a response, but she did not get one. “I’m not going to sell it to you.”
No sooner than the words had left her mouth than a loud honking noise issued forth from the rusty truck. Cecil was mashing down on the horn and did not appear to be inclined to let up. The boy shivered slightly; a move that Sue did not miss.
Sue was glad that Cecil was getting angry, and she didn’t care if he blew on that horn the rest of the day. But something about the boy’s reaction to his father’s honking the horn made Sue do a double take.
Although the store was cool, it certainly was not cold enough to explain why the goose pimples had started popping up all over the boy’s arms. A flush of red began to appear in the boy’s chest area and continued darkening as it progressed up his neck. Sue supposed the red had spread to the child’s face as well, but the boy still had not lifted his head, so she could not be sure.
Instead of going out to the truck or even taking the beer back to the cooler, the boy began digging in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled five-dollar bill.
Finally, he spoke. “Please, ma’am,” came a voice barely audible above the sound of the horn, “is this enough for the beer?”
Sue stood still. She knew the boy had heard her tell him that she would not sell him the beer, but here he was attempting to pay for it. Sue’s anger began to boil. How dare this child ignore her command to make his father come in and buy his own beer! These McCrorys, even the little ones, sure had some nerve!
Just as she was about to yell at him to leave, the boy finally looked up at her. Tears glistened in his eyes and threatened to roll down his flushed face, but the boy was trying to check them. On his right cheek was a purple bruise that had started fading into yellow. For the first time, Sue noticed that his outstretched arm had four roundish bruises on the top; they were finger-size.
Sue felt her own face flush as her anger faded and the new emotion of embarrassment took over. The boy had not looked away from her, but now she glanced outside and stared at the truck. The horn had stopped blowing.
“Please, ma’am,” came the voice again, “is this enough for the beer?” The child offered her the money on his outstretched, dirty palm.
“Yes,” said Sue quietly. “It’s enough.” She rang up the charge and gave the boy his change. Feeling guilty she asked, “Would you like to purchase something else with what’s left? You could get a pack of gum or something?”
Almost imperceptibly, the boy, who had again bowed his head, nodded a “no,” so Sue placed the change in his hand.
“Would you like a bag?” She asked.
The child shook his head. He put his change in his pockets, grabbed the beer, and tucked it under his arm as he walked out the door.
As the boy started to the truck, his father leaned out the window and spat a long spray of tobacco juice on the ground. “’Bout damn time,” Cecil McCrory sneered, but the boy never said a word as he climbed into the truck with the beer.
Sue saw the truck ease out on the road, and as she sat back down on her stool to await the next customer, she realized that there was at least one McCrory who’d never steal her blind.