HomeSouthern VoiceShell Partners

Shell Partners

by Jennifer Riley 

In the mid-August afternoon pulled a sky blue Thunderbird. Hiram Stone, Tamara Adkins’s former neighbor, raced the engine once to announce himself. Ted and Bess, five-year old Adkins cousins, swooped to the side of the T-bird.

“Jump out, like you did last time.”

“Jump?” Hiram opened his door. “How about you jump?” The cousins hugged his waist as he struggled to jump with them. They laughed.

“Hiram, jump over the car door again. Please.”

“Yeah, get back in. Do it again.”

“No.” Laughter.

“Hiram! Come play with us, if you won’t jump, Hiram.”

Hmmn. Tamara thought. She watched Hiram curve his arms around the two cousins and then carve an opening for Potter “Pothole” Wood to shake hands.

“Hiram, buddy,” said Pothole. He flexed a thin arm around Hiram’s shoulder, knuckles tatted with “T A M.” He and Hiram signaled a brief  t-shirt and bicep embrace. “’preciate you comin’ when Tam’s truck threw a rod on graduation night.”

“Three months ago. Think nothin’ of it.” Hiram stepped back and shook Pothole’s hand. “How are ya?” Hiram nodded at the goddess sitting on the porch swing, “Tamara,” using her given name. She blushed, rubbed her hands over her pink ruffled top and denim cut-offs, and pushed dark hair behind one ear.

The two cousins tugged on Hiram’s hand taking him to the front of the new asphalt patch.

“Hiram, where are your letters?”

“What letters?”

“Letters. On your knuckles, like Potholes”

Not any. Not yet. Fixin’ to change that soon.

“Hiram doesn’t have letters on his knuckles, only Pothole does,” crowed Ted in triumph.

Bess started to frown. She wanted Hiram to be Pothole’s equal. The Adkins cousins had been playing with their two-wheeler kickstands, making pock marks in the asphalt, and rubbing them smooth with their sandals. They snaked and pleaded for Hiram to join their game, looking at his feet. They let go of his waist. He tried to re-curve an arm around each one.

ring“Not t’day.” Pothole warned them. “Go. Play.”

The cousins left Hiram’s side. They whooped, chased, and tagged each other through the side yard. Pothole angled into the shade, looking at the Thunderbird and talking low man talk.

Tamara couldn’t hear. She noticed Hiram’s t-shirt curved to his back and jeans curved with his muscles, hugging in and out, a smooth surface. Pothole stood tall and thin as a surveyor’s stick. Straight. No curves. His striped cotton shirt skimmed his shoulders and fell straight to his belt. Pothole’s straight black hair receded, then spiked forward. He ran his left hand over the back of his neck. Tamara noticed his former class ring showed as a pale vanilla outline. Pothole wore it for four years, outside on road work in the sun, inside, then he’d given it to Tamara three months ago when she agreed to go steady. It’s upstairs in my jewelry box. The tatts T A M on his knuckles had been his idea. Take up blank space. Pothole leaned toward Hiram as the two men talked. Pothole punched Hiram’s shoulder and laughed. Would they always be friends?

Tamara touched the heart locket at her throat and pointed bare toes to the floor, pushed, then pulled her feet up into the air, stretching her toes. Pothole’s ring was upstairs in her bedroom, but she didn’t want him to notice yet, so she put on a heart shaped locket as an excuse. She curled her toes and noticed the new Esprit powder she’d bought during the beach trip. The road surface looked smooth, but underneath, maybe gravity and granite.  She knew both. She resurveyed the two men. Idly her fingers traced each curved link in the porch swing chain. She halted. She reconsidered Hiram’s back. Hiram and many other men wore t-shirts in the summer. What was different about Hiram? Tamara returned her attention to the links in the chain.Bettern’ counting daisies. She gazed into the blue convertible’s dazzle. She let her vision go blurry. Maybe they’d go for a ride. No, Pothole would want to drive the truck, show off the Tam and Pothole license plate frame. Has its advantages, she giggled to herself. Hug those curves.

“What, darlin’?” Pothole turned toward her.

Has Pothole heard me? No.  He and Hiram were talking about my truck breakdown. Something about mechanics.

The two children steered their bicycles closer to Hiram’s convertible.

“Move away,” Pothole commanded, in control of the side yard. The smooth surface of asphalt spread over gravel and grass.  Pothole worked during the hot summer laying asphalt wherever the state legislature commanded. In return, a small patch blanketed Tamara’s family’s side yard.

Hiram smiled and said, “No.”

Pothole said, “Stop that.”

To Hiram, Pothole flexed his shoulder and nudged. “Thanks for helping Tamara yesterday. That girl, she thought the hubcap lug nut was damaged. Thanks for knockin’ the hub cab loose. Owe ya a beer.”

Hiram shrugged. “No, happy to help.” Hiram stole a glance at the front porch.

Pothole noticed Hiram’s eyes. “Let’s go sit on the porch. Beer later. Right now, iced tea.” He looked toward Tamara and kissed the air. Turning, he remembered his manners. “Hiram, tea?”

“Sure.”

“Sure.” Tamara’s feet braked the porch swing to a gliding stop. Her fingers

curved through the flat D handle on the screen door. Her shoulder propped open the front

screen door. “Hiram, tea?”

The two men climbed the front steps.

Hiram looked up. “Me? Tea’s fine. Need help?”

Pothole smiled. “Hiram will help you, or I will.”

Hiram said, “Pothole will.”

She heard Hiram sit down in her vacant seat on the swing. Men are territorial. Tamara smiled as she passed an umbrella stand holding one hot pink umbrella. Her hot pink beach umbrella was propped behind it, in the corner. The dark front hallway led to the kitchen. Opening the freezer, she considered one ice cube tray and decided on two. A pitcher of iced tea sat in the fridge, already cool and inviting. She’d make it more so. Three reused jelly glasses, lemon slices like parentheses balanced on the glass rims, the sugar bowl, the spoon, the pitcher, the carrying tray, and she broke sprigs of mint into each glass. Cool them off.

“Tam, company here?” Mrs. Adkins stood in the back yard, hanging a late afternoon load of bedsheets. “Hope these dry by sundown.” She snapped white cotton.

“They will, Mom, and they’ll smell even better.” The Adkins women knew hospitality. “Getting tea. Hiram is here. Want me to pour you a glass?” Tamara loaded the tray.

“No, later.” Tamara’s mother flapped another sheet and put the clothes pins over the corners.

“We’re probably going out, to thank Hiram for yesterday when he helped me.”

“Send the cousins to Aunt Min’s.” She positioned the last clothes pin.

“I will, Momma.” Carrying the loaded tray back down the front hall, she pushed the screen door with her shoulder as Hiram stood up from the swing and said, “Can I help?”

“Tea,” shouted the yard urchins.

Fending them off, “Later,” responded Pothole. “Let the grownups talk.”

Tamara turned. “I’ll get them dreamsicles.” She hurried back inside. She gave the two men time to pour glasses without pouring compliments to her.  Might get sticky. She smiled to herself. In the freezer she found the unopened dreamsicle box and pulled out two. “Just gettin’ dreamsicles, Mom, then I’ll send the cousins to Aunt Min’s.” Heading off any more questions.

Once again Tamara pushed open the screen door, bounded across the porch and down the steps, and opened the ice cream for the children.  “Don’t let it drip.” The children grew silent as they tested the frozen orange tip. “Trade ya?”

“No, finish your dreamsicles and then you’re going to ride to Aunt Min’s. I’m going to watch you bicycle down the sidewalk.” Tamara returned to the porch. She twisted the ice cream wrappers into long thin fingers and slid them into an empty soda bottle so flies wouldn’t get the sticky remains.  “Let me just put these inside.” Tamara glided back into the front hall, to the kitchen, to the swing top trash can, then remembered the deposit. Two nickels. She let the men sink into their conversation. After calculating, she returned to the porch.  She sat down on the swing at the opposite end, so Hiram didn’t have to make room for her, look at her, or speak to her. A yardstick wouldn’t have even touched their hips. The two men discussed engines, turbines, tractors, the upcoming fair, the repaving of county roads. Finally Pothole looked at her. Hiram refused.

“Pothole, you’re boring Hiram,” Tamara smiled.

“No, good tea. Wait, you need a glass, Tamara.” Without a word, Hiram picked up the pitcher and a glass poured iced tea, then handed the glass to Tamara, and let her fingers glide over his. “Liked the mint.” Hiram removed the sprig and chewed it, looking at the cousins, wishing he could put his hand back on hers.

Tamara risked looking at him. Pothole would never think of pouring a woman tea. Women’s work. Tamara saw Hiram’s jeans had faded to the color of summer’s end, soft blue denim, ragged edges, his tanned ankles exposed. His blue t-shirt curved to every muscle of his chest. He leaned over. He placed he empty glass on the tray, then sat back. His hands lay relaxed on his thighs. He didn’t look at Tamara.

“What?” Hiram had lost track of Pothole’s meandering conversation. Bet she likes the porch, the swing, and the tea.What’s she thinking? He risked looking at Tamara before nodding at Pothole’s description of the hubcap problem. Tamara’s slender figure graced the other end of the porch swing. He noticed the pink shell of her ear. He curled his toes. He wanted to lift his hand and trace the edge.  She was the froth of the ocean, fresh, appealing, soft, capable of leaving him with grit and vast emptiness. He’d watched her swim in the ocean. Wet spirit.  Hair roping and streaming in the shallows, foaming, waving, and then lying flat against her skull.  He remembered her hair trailing down her sunburned shoulders, over her back. Tender young lips. Eyelashes like paint brushes.  Had he read that somewhere in high school English class? Hiram wondered at his train of thought and looked at Pothole. What had Pothole said? Something about the hubcap or work?  He fought back, resurfaced on the porch, refocused on Pothole, tried to pay attention.

Tamara lost track of Pothole’s meandering conversation. Bet Hiram likes the porchWhat’s he thinking? She gazed into the blue shimmer, thinking of their last trip to the beach. The pink beach umbrella stuck in sand. Hiram and Pothole had tossed a football between them. When Hiram stretched, his swim trunks sank, exposing a pale rim that encircled his hips. Tamara watched from the beach towel where she sat. She tried to think of the color. Ivory? Pale gold? Straw? Finally she abandoned thinking. Stared into the distant blue. Her beach towel had curled up. She sat up, straightening it out, then she had propped herself on her elbows. Hiram had taken his father’s watch off before he ran into the ocean, unbuckling the leather watchband. “Take care of this for me,” he said, not looking at her but leaning in close. She liked the way he took care of the watch. Hiram would do the same with any possession. The watch curved next to her; he’d left it sitting beside her. She thought about putting her arms around Hiram.

The swing porch squeaked. She fingered the heart locket at her neck and blinked. What were they talking about? She moved to put her empty glass on the tray; Hiram took it from her, set it next to his, and leaned back, one arm on the back of the swing. Closer to Tamara.

“Hiram, buddy, heat got to you?” Pothole asked.

The swing stopped.

“Not yet.” The three laughed softly, and avoided looking at each other.

“Want to drive to Dink’s Drive-In?” Pothole offered. “We can all go. Fit into my truck.”

“Sure. Tamara, comin’ along for the ride?” Hiram looked at her.

On a devil’s instinct, Tamara pushed the swing. Her toe tips pushed back on her side, so she was farther back than Hiram.

Hiram could see the crescent moons of bath powder hugging each her toes. He looked sideways and noticed her ear. Again he imagined tracing it with his finger. He forgot where he was. He looked away, then relented, and started to push the swing himself. Hiram said, “Swing’s nice. You did a good job, Pothole.” Thanks for letting me sit here, buddy, next to Tamara.

“Beer,” Pothole snapped his fingers. “Tamara and I said we owed you a beer, after the trip to the beach. And you fixed the hubcap yesterday.

“We’ve been to the beach too many times to count. And you built me that book case I wanted, so we’re even.”

“Dark walnut stain, like you said,” Pothole said. “Tam and I both worked on the staining and sanding.”

Hiram said, “Great job.” He glanced over at Tamara. His thoughts idled. Pothole buzzed on. Hiram risked another look at Tamara. Her profile. Her dark brown hair streamed down her head, over ears, behind them, then over her shoulders and down her back. Curls along with way caught light. From memory, he knew her eyes glimmered, ocean at sundown. Hiram remembered to inhale.

Pothole continued, “If you change your mind, we’ll build you a desk.”

“Guitar. Have you tried making one? We could work on it together,” Hiram steered closer to his intent. Hiram looked away to the horizon, separating his trip to the beach from the light and air beside him. Hiram remembered the bookcase delivery.

Tamara’s eyes sparkled serious blue as she showed Hiram her work. “Here’s where I applied the stain. Pot, you were supposed to be right behind me, smoothing it out, but you were on the other side of the workbench. Anyway,” she had looked at Hiram, “you can see the brush strokes where the rag laid it on too thick. I never got it thinned out.” Hiram had imagined her on tiptoe, leaning over the book case as it lay on the work table. Ballerina of the wood shop surrounded by saws, woods, back siding, g splits vacuum hoses, brads, nails, screw drivers, and sawdust. Tamara had scrubbed, stained, sanded, and polished his book case. Hiram always kept her side empty. In the morning, he drank coffee while he looked at Tamara’s dark, uneven strokes. At the end of the day, he sipped whiskey neat, listened to his own music, curves surfaced and finished his day.

As the swing stirred and quaked, Hiram looked at Pothole and then looked away.

Penalty to the one who gets off the swing first. Hiram thought.

Pothole, babbling. “We picked up that load of wood. Remember, Tamara? We got the best of the late delivery. Tell the story, Tamara.”

Before she could nod no, Pothole said, “The worker loaded the backing for the bookcase onto our hand trolley, didn’t he, Tam?” Before she could nod, Pot continued, “We unloaded at the  shop class. The instructor looked at the load. Then when we got it inside, the instructor looked at the load again, closer. He said, ‘you lucked out.’”

“We lucked out.”

“You lucked out, the backing was walnut, best wood there is. You got the best, Hiram.”

Hiram looked startled and nodded. “I did? The best.”

“Then tell about the truck breaking down,” Pot said to Tamara. “Anyway, Tam said she was driving home, graduation night. The truck broke down. Fuht-fuht-fuht, you can hear when an engine has throwed a rod.”

“Horrible sound.”

“Then Tam walked up the ramp in the dark, to the nearest office building. Dang fool clean up staff wouldn’t even look up when she pounded on the door. Finally a worker was leaving. Tam all but tore her way through the front door of the office building.”

“To call you.” Tamara smiled. “But you were out working on a paving job. Hiram to the rescue.” Tam wished she could propose a toast.

“Happy to help. After all, you built my book case.”

“Tamara had the idea of using the hot pink umbrella and the flashlight to light her place on the roadside, like you wouldn’t notice a broke down truck. I thought it was stupid, but it worked.”

“Hiram found me,” Tamara whispered. Hiram looked at the porch, the mat in front of the screen door, the quiet front steps where the cousins sat, and swore under his breath.

“Yes, Hiram did find you. We owe him a favor. Tamara, I told you to keep oil in the truck. Women.”

Hiram held himself back from arguing with Pothole. Not now. Not in front of Tamara or her family. 

“It’s Daddy’s truck, not mine.”

“Change of subject. Where do you want to go eat? How about the strip club before the show starts? Pot asked.

“No.”

“Ribs?”

“No, hamburgers,” Tamara spoke in a whisper. She raised her voice and stood up from the swing. “C’mon, kids, get your bicycles, say good-bye to Hiram, and I’ll watch you down the street to Aunt Min’s.”

“Can’t we go?”

“No, we are going to toast Hiram.”

The cousins had round eyes.” He’s brown enough.”

“Not that kind of toast, c’mon. I’ll explain later or you can ask Aunt Min.” Tamara watched the cousins and their bicycles down the street and into the front yard. The cousins opened the screen door and disappeared inside.

With the children safe at home down the street at Aunt Min’s house, “Awright,” Pothole chuckled, “toast it is.”

Tamara headed to side yard, climbed up the mountain to sit in the front seat of Pothole’s new truck, bought after the other red truck was towed to a pal’s garage. The truck sat in the older, gravel part of the driveway. Hiram pulled his Thunderbird forward, so Pothole could back out. Then Hiram climbed in the truck and sat next to Tamara, his arm naturally arced on the back of the seat. Tamara sat with her feet unnaturally wedged next to Hiram’s. Close as two quotation marks. The warm afternoon outside the cab matched the heat inside. While Pothole was looking to back out, they stared at the laundry hanging on the line.

“Momma’s sheets will smell good after they dry.”

“Yep. Sunshine and fresh air. My favorites,” Hiram said.

They drove through town. Pothole waved to the people the three knew. Dink’s Drive-In appeared on the right. Pothole bumped them over the parking lot lip. Asphalt endedCrunch through the gravel parking lot. Tamara bounced into Hiram’s side, closer than any alphabet letters. His arm tightened around her, then he was opening the passenger side door.  Tamara hummed as she slid out after Pothole, territory re-established. The three headed into the front door. They strolled and side-stepped their way to their favorite booth. They slid in, talked occasionally  glanced at the two television screens wedged high into each corner, over the counter. The black ceiling was festooned with its football pennants hanging from vent and pipes.

After a moment, Tamara excused herself and headed down a dim hallway. When she pushed open the simple restroom door, Hiram stood, blocked her right hand side. No alphabet letters could be closer. “Ready for music?” Tamara whispered.

He circled her, grabbing her wrist as he side-stepped her out into the early southern night. “Exit” glowed in red neon over their heads. “Delivery” flashed green one door down the back of the building. Hiram surrendered, traced the pink shell of her ear, moved her dark hair out of his way and behind her shoulder. “Give him his ring back. Tell him what happened that night at the truck,” Hiram pulled her close.

Jennifer Riley lives in Cary, North Carolina, has a master’s degree in English and is active in the Triangle Writers Meetup. Follow her on Twitter @jennifer_rileyx. Read her first story published in Deep South, Rig Music, here. 

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