Each Vagabond by Name: An Excerpt

Excerpted from Each Vagabond by Name, by Margo Orlando Littell (University of New Orleans Press, 2016).


EVBN Cover1118 Trillium Street

They rang the doorbell once. They’d been watching the house—two stories, red brick—and knew someone was home. They’d seen her drive up and carry in two sacks of groceries half an hour before.

She opened the door, neat tan slacks and a pilled red cardigan over a white turtleneck. “Can I help you?”

They bowed their heads. “A glass of water, ma’am, if it’s not too much trouble,” one said. No explanation, no apology, no reason why they should be refused.

The woman glanced over their shoulders then said, “Wait here.”

She left the door open when she went to the kitchen, the storm door unlocked. Quickly one of them slipped inside. He found the staircase and ran up as a cupboard banged shut. The bedroom he came to had not so much as a shoe on the floor. This one was easy. Top dresser drawer, behind the cupped white bras and rolled brown stockings, just as he’d thought. In a house like this, furniture matching, carpet old but carefully kept, things were always where they belonged. He took out the jewelry box and emptied its contents into a small cloth sack.

As he crept downstairs, he heard the woman open the porch door. “What happened to your friend?” she asked, her voice now suspicious. He ran to the kitchen and out the back door before he heard the other’s answer.

Back in the mountains, they spread what they’d taken on the floor of their tent. A tangle of necklaces, a gold watch that had stopped, a few tarnished rings, a crystal brooch in the shape of a leaf. Two pairs of gold hoop earrings in small velvet pouches—fourteen carat at least, eighteen at the most. As soon as they’d seen the house and the woman, they knew what they’d find. They’d seen a lot of towns in their wanderings, and they’d learned early on that people and the things they loved were all the same.

*

It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came. Leaves changed, fell, and clogged the curbside gutters. Crackling footsteps approached and receded, and the blue sky took Ramsy’s breath when he glimpsed it through his bar’s small window. For the first time in years, it made him feel hopeful, even though he knew better. There wasn’t any more reason to feel hopeful in the fall than at any other time, and anyone who believed otherwise was setting himself up for a life of disappointment. The blue of the sky and the smoky burning leaves in the air didn’t hold any magic, and they would disappear just like the hot yellow days of summer. Still, Ramsy felt something different this year, some stirring in his blood. Each morning, when he gazed at the maples like red smoke on the hills, he found himself unable to look away, as though something he’d been waiting for would fly out, any moment, from the branches.

Zaccariah Ramsy was a tall man, with long white hair and skin the color of whiskey. He had only one eye, bright blue and peering from a web of veins. The other socket was empty, sewn over with bits of skin, as red and raw as though the eye had been removed that day. It hadn’t—he’d lost it in Vietnam—but it looked that way. The patch he used to wear made people too curious. Eventually he left it off. Few people wanted to look at Ramsy now, which gave him plenty of time to study them.

Ramsy’s bar was at the end of a tree-shrouded road that curved into the mountains like S’s end-to-end. The bar was a cabin really, built with logs and boards, and nothing about it suggested what lay inside. There were no beer signs in the window, no welcome mat by the door, no airbrushed sign calling out to drivers by the turn. The bar didn’t make much of a profit, but it was somewhere to go, something to do in a small town like Shelk, and Ramsy was proud of it. The room was narrow, like a trailer. There were eight stools around the bar, and the walls inside were paneled with thin, dark wood. The only real light came from a wobbly lamp near the cash register and the portable, rabbit-eared TV. Only the people who knew about Ramsy’s bothered driving out that way. Outsiders took the toll road, which wound around Shelk and other mountain towns and led, eventually, to the Turnpike.

Shelk had a small downtown of blackened storefronts and weedy vacant lots, a grocery store, a Dollar General, and some local businesses that had been around for years: a printer, a trophy and baseball card shop, and a music store where high school students rented band instruments. Shelk wasn’t poorer than any other town. There was a decent public school, and the residential streets were clean. People didn’t walk in the old Southside Park at night, and no one would want to go into the mountains after sunset, but most felt safe. They locked their doors when they left the house, but they didn’t drive out of their way back home if they forgot.

In the three years past, Ramsy had seen nearby towns get wiped off the map. The bituminous coal that had fed the area for decades was harder to find now, but willing men could get in with one of the new companies shearing off the mountaintops to get to the coal inside. The blasts from the hilltops heaved silica dust and small pieces of rock over the towns like snow that wouldn’t melt, forcing people who’d never gone more than twenty miles from home to pack up and move on. Whole families—three, even four generations— took the payout money and resettled, even though the idea of bulldozed homes wasn’t easy to swallow. But Shelk was safe, nestled in coal-poor mountains that held nothing but white pines, eastern hemlocks, and American beeches.

Shelk was the kind of town where people were rarely disappointed. Pittsburgh and Morgantown were just over an hour’s drive, but most folks were put off by the heavy traffic and stayed at home. Sometimes people camped for a weekend in the mountains, or drove through the counties in southwestern Pennsylvania just to say they’d been there. It was enough. Teenagers called it boring, but they, too, stayed on. No one forced them. The road was right there, crooked and potholed, but open.

*

Ramsy first heard of the gypsies in early October. He’d spent the day as he always did. He got up when he woke up. He counted the money from the night before and recorded the number in a small blue notebook. Then he headed into town, to the drive-through window of Pittsburgh Federal, and put the cash into a plastic capsule that whooshed through a tube to the teller inside.

Running a small bar wasn’t a job that required too much thinking, but there were things he had to do. Since it was a Monday afternoon, he drove to the beer distributor and backed into a parking spot in front of the open warehouse door. Inside, coolers of six-packs and cold cases lined the walls. He filled the truck bed with five cases of Budweiser, five of Coors Light, three of Yuengling, and two each of Iron City and Pabst Blue Ribbon. It had been a long time since he’d bothered keeping anything else on hand, save a bottle of whiskey or two. Light, bitter, cheap—these were what the men he served wanted.

Later, with his truck full of beer, he went to the bar. It was getting dark already—even in October you could smell winter in the air, clear as smoke from cigarettes—and he unloaded the cases in the last of the twilight. He filled the cooler with ice from the icemaker out back and broke down the cardboard cases as he emptied them. He put a few bills into the register for change. Then he turned the ballgame on, the volume low.

That night, Ash Haggerty and Charlie Snyder came in for drinks after working the mines, and they spoke of their wives while shadows slipped through the window.

“Junie was in one of her moods again,” Charlie said. One or the other of them always started off this way—with a mood, with an irritated glance, with a remark said sharply for no reason at all. “Told her my chicken was a little dry, and she dumped the whole plate in the sink. Five bucks of chicken, wasted.”

“Least she cooked,” Ash said. “Meg flat-out refused last night. Said she’s too tired. I had to go down to McDonald’s and get us a sack of burgers. Then she complained she was gonna get fat. Jesus.”

“It’s the job,” Charlie said. “Wears her out.”

“Yeah. The job.”

Ramsy had met Charlie and Ash’s wives. Junie was a bus driver for the school kids, her voice harsh and quick to yell, her nails stained with the bus’s black grease. Meg worked the breakfast shift at the Rowdy Buck, Shelk’s diner, and knew most people in town. All of them had married young and settled close to where they’d been born, just a few streets away from the houses and rooms that had held them as infants.

Charlie and Ash were gentler about their wives, more likely to show their hurt and confusion, without Jack Kurtz there. No one could complain about their home life the way Jack Kurtz could. As far as Jack was concerned, his wife, Kitty, wasn’t good for much more than spending his money without showing the proper appreciation. He complained that her need for attention could suck the air out of a room, and that her manufactured rage when people talked behind her back was equal only to her determination to keep them talking. Charlie and Ash were quick to complain but just as quick to defend, a habit Jack Kurtz ridiculed.

After their second round, Charlie asked Ramsy, “You hear the news?”

Ramsy didn’t listen to the news. “News of what?”

Charlie leaned forward. “There’s strangers in town,” he said. “Gypsies.”

“Gypsies?”

“We’re not the first town they hit. Came over to us from Owl Creek.”

“Gypsies? In P-A?”

“That’s what they say,” Charlie said. “They’re breaking into houses. Sneaking in. They’re saying you gotta lock your doors now all the time, or they’ll get inside. Heard they stole fifty grand in Owl Creek,” he said.  “People’s life savings, for Chrissake.”

Five houses had been robbed so far, every one of them during the day, and in three cases the owners had let in the gypsies themselves. “Gal named Mary Kolecik opened her own door for two of them,” Charlie said. “Took her cash and jewelry when she went to the kitchen to get them some water.”

Food went missing, too. Fruit bowls were emptied of oranges and apples. Milk, juice, and beer disappeared from refrigerator doors. Cheese, bread, peanut butter, crackers—the empty spaces on shelves sometimes went unnoticed until hours or even days after the crime, opening the wounds all over again. These weren’t things that made the paper, but the missing food was what people talked about most among themselves. A few leftovers, a few canned goods—they weren’t worth anything in the end, but, once they were gone, they were what people remembered. There, near the coffee, was where the Campbell’s soups had been. Two pounds of ground chuck had been sitting on top of the eggs. Boxes of cereal, tins of homemade cookies, Tupperware containers of two-day-old chicken and rice—everyone who’d been robbed had a detail to add. They even took the cake left over from Jenny’s birthday, they said, and it was this as much as anything that made people shake their heads and double-check their locks at night.

There seemed to be an understanding that the gypsies would soon move on, that the danger was mild and temporary, something to be put up with for a short, inconvenient while. A rolling feeling in Ramsy’s gut told him otherwise—but he kept quiet and let the men in his bar believe what they liked. Outsiders always caused a stir in Shelk, and Ramsy wasn’t in the habit of worrying about himself or others—he found it tiresome and with few rewards.

He made an exception for Stella Vale. Stella lived alone and wasn’t the sort to open her door for strangers, but Ramsy still worried she’d let them in, offer tea or juice, linger in the kitchen while other gypsies took their time in her drawers and closets. Stella didn’t have much that a gypsy might want, but it didn’t matter. Ramsy didn’t like the thought of anyone in her house at all.

So he was relieved when she came into the bar the next night and sat down in her usual spot, farthest from the door. Ramsy rose from the wooden stool he kept behind the bar, lifted a bottle of red wine from a glass-doored cupboard, and poured a good bit into a tumbler. Nobody else drank wine in his bar, but he kept it on hand for Stella. They didn’t talk until everyone had left. Ramsy poured himself a drink, then leaned up against the bar near Stella.

“Two people came into the library,” Stella told him. “It was a busy day.”

“They take out any books?”

“They used the copy machine and left.”

Ramsy hadn’t been to the library for a decade, but he imagined Stella sitting behind the horseshoe-shaped desk with a newspaper or a water-stained book, waiting out the hours while the grandfather clock in the entryway tick-tocked its bulbous pendulum. It was how she spent her time in the bar, too, waiting out the hours with drink after drink.

Stella’s hair was silver-streaked and long, her frame thin but womanly, her kitten-gray eyes unlined. In another town, where nobody knew her, she might have been mistaken for a younger woman. But in Shelk there was no erasing the years she’d endured.

Ramsy drank and felt the whiskey slowly seeping into his blood, his gums, the tissues of his throat. It felt warm and familiar. The wine relaxed Stella, too—he could see the tension leaving the sides of her jaw, her temples, and her neck. He poured her a few more glasses—three? four? He’d lost track. She was probably drunk by now, but Ramsy could never tell. The only sign was a slight downward slope of her eyelids when she smiled.

“I’d better get going,” Stella said once the night tilted toward morning.

“It’s cold,” Ramsy said. “I’ll drive you home.” He wiped down the counter, drained the melted ice, straightened the stools around the bar, and emptied the cash register into a zippered rubber pouch. He turned off the lights, and Stella followed him outside to his truck. The mountain night was perfectly still.

Stella always walked to the bar, and Ramsy often drove her home when it was cold outside. He turned the heater on high and kept a steady speed around the sharpest curves, expertly balancing gas and brake, lightly steering with his fingertips. He knew Stella liked to watch him drive and sometimes, if she was tired or had had too much to drink, she sat in the middle seat and rode with her head on his shoulder.

“Have you heard about the gypsies?”

“I’ve heard.” She was looking out the window, and her breath fogged the glass.

“I want you to be careful,” Ramsy said. “Lock your door when you take a bath. Lock it when you leave. You don’t want them to get inside and take anything.”

“Take anything?” Stella said. “Everything I have’s been taken already.”

Ramsy felt cold spread from his stomach through his veins. She meant, of course, her baby. Her Lucy.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said when they reached her house, and she didn’t look back as she walked down the path. Ramsy drove away, cursing himself, once she disappeared inside.

*

Read our interview with Margo Orlando Littell here.

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About Margo Orlando Littell

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA from Columbia and has spent the past fifteen years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, Sacramento, and, now, northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Each Vagabond by Name, her first novel, won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction (Mid-Atlantic) in the 2017 IPPY Awards and was long-listed for the 2017 Tournament of Books. Read more at margoorlandolittell.com.

Margo Orlando Littell

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