Josh Patrick Sheridan: Pride (a short story)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m born and raised in Lewisburg, a small West Virginia town a heavy stone’s throw from the southern border with Virginia. I went to elementary school with a drawl and to high school with an accent, but I’ve lived above the Mason-Dixon long enough now that I only sound funny when I talk to my mama on the phone. I hope one day they’ll bury me–or my heart, anyway, they can throw the rest away–under a patch of West Virginia soil, so that every time someone mentions my name the limestone shifts beneath their feet.
They lived just the two of them on the top of a hill, the mother and her daughter, the great deciduous valley spreading out below them, the river disappearing into a world returned to its most basic and necessary elements. With their nobbly, dry hands they dug fields and birthed livestock—enough to collect milk, to satisfy their need to be in charge, to claim dominion over something, and to trade; their bodies were slender and malnourished because they ate mostly potatoes and corn and lettuce and refused to slaughter any animals for fear the Lord would punish them a second time, would send his hatred to the surface and scorch away their meager futures should they pretend again that they had any sort of power similar to His, should they feel it their right to take an animal’s life toward something so petty as their own existence.
They got small news of the world’s misfortune as they stood at the bottom of their mile-long drive, their jars of fresh milk in the shade and their potatoes stuffed into old socks for easy carrying. People who’d managed to scrape out some kind of life on the new landscape—carpenters were in steady demand, as were fencemakers, clergy (too little, too late, the old woman said), and a certain breed of snake-oil salesman, reincarnated direct from the nineteenth century and in fervent competition with the churchgoing types—stopped at the ladies’ table on their way to here or there and sometimes traded bits of tobacco or jars of liquor for a sock of potatoes or a half-dozen ears of corn. They told of a smoldered world, a tooth-and-nail place that resembled the inside of a storm cloud, the living embodiment of a fight to stay alive.
In the evenings they leaned against the porchrails and smoked their trade tobacco, their thin eyes surveying fields that they plowed with an old draft horse named Love, and below, in the valley, the flicking tips of campfires, the rapport of gunshot, and now and then—though rarely—singing. They never talked of devastation, though certainly both of them had felt it. The girl’s father was gone, and her husband as well, swallowed whole together by a crate of Molotov cocktails dropped from an entrenched rooftop. Twice in the past their home had been invaded by men who knew them to be living alone. The first group had had their way, for a time; the second—three ugly, unshaven beasts with sour teeth and dingy fingers—had not expected an armed pair when they arrived and had taken several bullets apiece in their chests as payment for the miscalculation. Love had helped the women bury them in shallow graves, and they spent the next days apologizing to God, hoping He knew they’d only done what they’d had to.
What they talked about, instead, was harvest: the calendar, their yield, fair trade value, ways to improve efficiency. Through some combination of magic, strain, and desperation, they had managed a return on their plantings that would have had pre-war farmers spitting with jealousy. In the late summers their fields swayed, whispering rows of cornstalks and shin-high bursts of lettuce, the pink and orange heads of wildflowers, in the red evenings the pointed ears of whitetails before one of them fired a warning overhead and the deer scrambled back to the forest, their bellies full of stolen grain. The women blew smoke into the air and laughed at the natural world and its dark humor, at the things God still gave them though they walked with limps and were hunched by the overall weight of having no other person to depend on except each other. They laughed because of how well they’d done, with no skill, to begin with, at how much being together had taught them.
There came a day one early October, the hayseed high and bristling in the hot orange sun, when a man crested the hill down the road a ways from their table, and stopped—just the speck of him—to remove his hat and wipe perspiration from his brow. He approached on what appeared to be a gimp leg, but he was tall and striking, with a well-kept mustache and eyebrows that pointed toward the bridge of his nose. He stood rustling the ears of corn, setting several aside and putting them back where they’d been, before finally looking up at the women. —I am a traveling salesman, he said, which was curious; he didn’t tote any noticeable wares. —We are stationary salesmen, the younger woman said. The tall man laughed and squinted into the sky, flicked his eyes about as though he expected to see an airplane, or was counting the motes of dust.
He explained to them that he was changing his line of work, that the demand for writing utensils and homemade paper had all but dried up, and as he talked they watched his handsome jawline work back and forth, the becoming way his right side dipped a little thanks to one leg being shorter than the other. It gave him an air of danger, the pulse of a past commotion. —I am putting together a sort-of revue, he said. —That’s right, a traveling revue. All-female, talented women. Paying in gold at the end of the month. The mother put her cracked hand on her daughter’s shoulder. —You’re a pimp, she said. —Oh, tsk, no, no, he said. —I’m more of a… But the daughter cut him off. —As you can see, we’re doing well enough as it is, she said. The man nodded furiously, as though his head were on a spring, and smiled. —Of course you’re right, he said. He scanned her lithe frame, the cheeks sucked in, the knobby knees poked out from her skirt. —The work would probably be too much for you, anyhow.