by Sue Ellis
The Indian Smoke Shop on the outskirts of Worley, Idaho, conducted business from a single-wide trailer parked on a chunk of timbered land. Agnes DeWitt’s green Buick bounced across the hardpan parking lot and rocked to a halt in front of the store.
Matt, the proprietor, was nowhere to be seen. A retractable aluminum awning shaded the open customer counter that ran the length of the trailer, but Agnes didn’t relish standing around on arthritic knees to wait. Minutes ticked by as she watched for him. Old truant, she thought, he’ll fool around until a patrol car notices my Washington plates. A pang of amusement boomeranged against her breastbone as she imagined her grown daughters’ dismay if they found out about her illegal purchases of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s cheaper cigarettes. She didn’t save much after buying gas for the sixty-mile round trip into Idaho, but cigarettes weren’t the only reason she came.
She startled as Matt rapped on the Buick’s roof and bent down to peer into her open car door. He hadn’t aged well, as she had not, and the crease that followed an arc from the wing tip of one eyebrow to the softening angle of his jaw appeared deeper this trip. She remembered when his profile was as smooth as brown river rock, how he would self-consciously puff out his skinny chest beneath Worley High School’s sleeveless basketball uniform, until he forgot himself in the heat of the game.
He didn’t know her the first time she stopped to buy cigarettes. It had been more than forty years since she’d seen him, in the late ’60s. She wanted to re-introduce herself, but held her tongue out of the need to have him recognize her on his own. She’d never known if he had any regard for her. Probably not. His family had set a sterling example for Indian behavior in the reservation town, divided as it was with an equal or larger population of white citizens. The Homestead Act of 1909 had seen to that, opening the reservation land of three North American tribes to homesteaders.
By the time Agnes and Matt’s generation attended high school, there were still hard feelings that had passed from one generation to the next—Indians versus interlopers, so it would have been difficult for the two of them to become anything more than friends. Agnes’ older brothers would never have stood for a relationship between an Indian teammate and their younger sister, although they had seemed to liked Matt well enough. They called her, Miss, in those days, as their father did, and mimicked his reproving tone as well.
“Agnes,” said Matt, “Why don’t you buy your smokes in town? It’s a long drive for you, coming out here.”
“Because you’d miss me,” she said, swatting him out of the way as she levered herself from beneath the steering wheel. “Where were you when I pulled up?”
“I get cooped up in that damn trailer,” he said, thumb-pointing over his shoulder and into a copse trees at the edge of the clearing. “I found a nest of magpies to watch.”
“Somebody will come along and clean you out, you leave the place wide open like that.”
“Not with a bullet in ’em,” he said, grinning, and produced a pistol from the waistband at the back of his pants.
“You wouldn’t shoot anybody,” she said, feeling certain it was true. She’d discovered that there was a lot she knew about him, small details that came back to her after their chance meeting. She remembered watching his interactions with other boys in high school, his unfailing good humor and politeness. He’d walked a fine line with grace, a minority on his own reservation. Many Indian families refused to send their kids to the mostly white school. At the time, she’d considered that he might be acting, except that his eyes were so guileless. She, on the other hand, easily took offense and always had.
Matt evidently found something familiar about her after he thought about it, or maybe her first name on the credit card transaction had tipped him off, because he knew her the next time she came. Over the course of two years they’d grown comfortable around one another—at least for the time it took to exchange small talk while she made her purchase each month. Being around him transported her back to a time when life seemed more straightforward, and she cherished his ease around her.
He’d given her a mess of fresh perch the previous summer. At home she’d unwrapped them and discovered that they’d been expertly filleted. She’d pan-fried them in cornmeal batter, experiencing the hallucinatory smell of lake water sloshing against a sun-warmed wooden dock, same as it had when she’d fished with her Dad at Chatcolet. She hadn’t tasted perch since leaving home at seventeen, and could hardly swallow for the lump of nostalgia that formed in her throat.
“I’m moving to Reno at the end of the week,” Matt told her, his eyes appraising, as if he expected her to fall over in a fit.
“My daughter lives there,” he said. “She needs somebody to watch her dogs when she’s out of town.”
“Does she travel all that often?”
“She works for Amtrak. Rides trains for a living.”
“I’ll have a lot less responsibility,” Agnes said, striving for a tone of lighthearted indifference, “if I don’t have to drive all the way out here to keep you in line.”
He surprised her then, by cupping her face with his big hands and planting a dry kiss on her forehead. “Your tires will last longer,” he said.
After she bought her cigarettes he made her wait while he rummaged in the trunk of his car for a nylon satchel containing a short fishing pole that telescoped into a longer one.
“It’s not fancy, but I’ve caught a lot of perch and sunfish with it,” he said, and put it on the back seat of her car. You could drive to one of the local lakes without it costing you any more than it does to come out here.”
“Won’t you need it in Reno?”
“My daughter has spares.”
“Thank you,” she said, trying ignoring the particle of resentment she felt at his need to buy her off with the gift. Damned old Indian.
“I hope life treats you kindly,” she said, instantly feeling foolish for the way she’d worded her heartfelt wish. They stood together in companionable silence for several seconds before she got into her car and drove away.
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Sue Ellis is a retired postal worker who lives and writes in Spokane, Washington. Some writing credits include Prick of the Spindle, Idaho Magazine, and Front Porch Review.