By Matt McGowan
Leon DeWitt walked toward Joplin on Trout Farm Road, a twisting and rolling double yellow not made for hitchhikers. Two times already he’d hopped off the road to avoid getting hit, first by a pickup truck, then by a concrete mixer.
The latter surprised him. No one Leon knew out here had money to build anything.
It was Dog Days, but the wet heat of southwest Missouri was nothing like southeast Asia. Four months ago, he was kneeling on a trail in Quang Tri Province, sweat dripping off the tip of his nose.
He’d been thinking about how he got out of Vietnam. It wasn’t luck. Nobody in Leon’s family ever had any of that. Nor wits, though Leon suspected he was a mite smarter than his folks. Then that pickup truck and concrete mixer came along, and Leon knew. Senses. He heard those vehicles coming a mile away.
He heard the Dodge Dart too, the first car going his direction. Leon put his thumb out, and the driver pulled over after passing him.
The Dart straddled the edge of the road. There wasn’t much shoulder to speak of. Thistle and ragweed had grown three feet high, all the way up to the passenger window, so Leon walked to the driver’s side.
“You need a ride, mister?” said a young woman, a girl, really.
“You don’t look old enough to drive,” said Leon.
The girl laughed. “Just got my license,” she said.
“Hmm . . .” said Leon. “Well . . .”
“Are you going that way?”
“Which way?” said Leon.
“That way,” said the girl. She pointed at the windshield. “To Joplin.”
“I reckon,” said Leon.
“That’s where I’m going. Hop in.”
* * *
The windows were rolled down, and the girl had to push her pom-poms under the seat to keep them from blowing around inside the car. She managed to do this without swerving off the road or crossing the center line.
“You a cheerleader?” asked Leon.
“Yes, sir,” said the girl.
No one ever called Leon sir. It was odd hearing it. This girl wasn’t much younger than him, and sir’s what he called his sergeant.
“You look familiar,” said the girl.
“Do I?” said Leon.
“I thought you were one of the Callahan boys. I see them out here almost every day.”
“Nope,” said Leon.
The girl offered her hand. “My name’s Priscilla Wilcox.”
Leon shook her hand.
“What’s your name?” said Priscilla.
“Wilson,” lied Leon.
“What’s your first name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Bobby Wilson,” said Priscilla.
“Likewise,” nodded Leon.
Priscilla reached for the dashboard. “Do you like music, Bobby Wilson?”
Leon said yes, and Priscilla turned on the radio. Jim Morrison’s baritone bellowed out of the speaker. “Girl, you gotta love your man . . .”
“Oh, I love this song!” said Priscilla. “Have you heard it?”
Leon said he hadn’t.
They listened to the song for a while, and then Priscilla said, “So, what do you do? Do you go to school?”
“No,” said Leon.
“Did I what?”
“Go to school?”
Leon said he had.
“Where?” said Priscilla.
“Memorial,” said Leon.
“Memorial! That’s where I go. When did you go there?”
“While back,” said Leon
“It don’t matter,” said Leon.
“Come on,” said Priscilla. “Tell me. When’d you graduate?”
Leon looked down at his lap. He leaned forward and touched the hard-leather handle of the valise on the floor between his legs. “I didn’t,” he said.
* * *
On the leeward side of the next hill was Tindall’s, a little country store that sold gasoline.
“Can you pull over up there?” said Leon.
“What for?” said Priscilla.
“I want to get some cigarettes.”
The Dart rocked across the pot-holed gravel lot in front of Tindall’s and slid to a stop, kicking up a cloud of chalky dust, Leon walking through the last wisps of it before entering the store. When he returned, he tossed a carton of Tareytons onto the front seat, and Priscilla took off before old-man Tindall could write down the license plate.
* * *
South of Racine, Priscilla had the Dart up to 65. Leon opened the carton and pulled out a pack. He tapped the end of a cigarette against the dashboard before putting it in his mouth. He offered one to Priscilla.
“No, thank you,” she said.
“You like driving fast?” said Leon.
“I just like driving,” said Priscilla. “Am I going too fast?”
“I don’t mind,” said Leon.
* * *
After crossing the low-water bridge at Shoal Creek, Priscilla drove up the long winding hill of McClelland Park. They entered Joplin south of downtown. It wasn’t yet noon, but the streets were bustling with people headed out for lunch or running errands.
“You can let me out here,” said Leon, a block west of Main Street.
“But where are you going?” said Priscilla. “I can take you there.”
“Here’s fine,” said Leon.
Traffic was heavy, and they were going slow. Leon thought about jumping out, like on the runway at Da Nang.
“By why?” said Priscilla.
“‘Why’?” said Leon.
“I don’t mind taking you wherever you’re going. I’ve got time. Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” said Leon. “I just need to talk to a man.”
“You sure ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s what my daddy says. Now tell me. What’re you going to talk to a man about?”
“A job,” said Leon.
“What kind of job?”
“Good lord,” said Leon. “How come you need to know that?”
“I’m just curious,” said Priscilla.
Leon waited a few seconds before answering. “These days,” he said, “I’d take just about anything.”
* * *
Leon lit another cigarette. At 7th Street, he could see the antennas on the other side of Newman’s, the department store one block south of his destination. He flicked his cigarette out the window. “Let me out here,” he said.
“Are you sure?” said Priscilla.
Leon nodded, and Priscilla turned into a gas station next to the electric company.
“I appreciate it,” said Leon.
“How will you get home?” said Priscilla.
“I ain’t worried about it.”
“I’ll take you back, if you can wait.”
“Naw,” said Leon.
“That’s silly,” said Priscilla. “I’m going back that way after practice.”
Leon thought about it. “Okay,” he said, “I guess that’d fine.”
“I’ll pick you up right here. A little after two. Can you wait that long?”
“Sure,” said Leon, slapping the roof twice and Priscilla drove away.
* * *
Leon walked into an alley between 4th and 5th streets. Back in high school, he and his friends used to skip school and smoked cigarettes there. Toward the middle of block, he found the spot they frequented, a nook behind Beefmasters, the swanky restaurant patronized by the downtown professional set.
Leon set the carton of cigarettes on the ledge of a boarded-up window. He opened the valise. From it, he removed a box of pantyhose and a World War II-era service pistol given to him by his father. He stuffed the pistol in his waistband and the pantyhose in a back pocket. After setting the valise and cigarettes on the ground below the window, he walked out of the alley.
* * *
He couldn’t see into First National Bank. The sun was bright and the windows newly tinted.
Leon stepped back off the sidewalk and stood between two parked cars. The lunch crowd had returned to work, and the sidewalk was empty. He walked around one of the cars and acted like it was his, like he was getting ready to open the door. Touching the handle, he looked back at the building and again tried to see inside the bank. Faint silhouettes moved around inside the lobby.
Leon returned to the sidewalk. Nestled between a column of cut limestone and the rounded corner the building’s façade, he removed the pantyhose from its box and pulled it over his head.
His entry into the bank went unnoticed. With the fine mesh over his eyes and shades drawn down against the lobby windows, the lobby appeared dim and almost sacred, like the waiting room of a funeral home. It was quiet inside the bank but not silent. Tellers talked softly behind the metal grills. To his right, as he walked toward the nearest teller station, Leon saw an old man in bib overalls hunched over an island counter used for filling out deposit slips. The man appeared to be doing exactly that. His face was less than a foot from the form he scrawled on.
Another man – the only other customer – was standing at the teller station farthest from the bank entrance. He too was hunched over and writing, but he was also talking to the teller on the other side of the counter.
Though Leon’s teller had worked at the bank for many years and had been trained for such occasions, she gasped when she saw him through the metal grate. Her hair was teased and stood up high on her head like Dolly Parton. She wore horned-rimmed glasses and a lot of mascara. There was a small Band-Aid on her left cheek.
“No need to be scared,” said Leon, setting the pistol on the counter, careful to point the barrel away from both of them.
The woman looked at the pistol and then the excess hose hanging off Leon’s head. “Kind of hard not to be,” she said.
“No need,” repeated Leon. “Just stay calm and do what I say.”
The woman nodded.
“Move at your normal speed,” said Leon. “Don’t look at anyone but me.”
“Okay,” said the woman.
Her hand shook as she inserted bundles of twenties, fifties, and hundreds into the valise.
Leon took the gun off the counter. “You’re doing fine,” he said. “We’re almost done here.”
The teller nodded.
“What happened to your face?” said Leon.
“My grandson scratched me.”
“Hell,” said Leon, “you don’t look old enough to be a grandmother.”
The woman smiled and rolled her eyes.
When she could fit no more bills into the valise, Leon told her to close it and latch it shut. After she did, he dragged the valise off the counter and walked out of the bank.
* * *
On the sidewalk in front of Ben Franklin, Leon peeled the hosiery off and stuffed it in this back pocket. He was walking south on Main and felt exposed. He crossed 5th Street and zigzagged back to the alley where he’d left the cigarettes.
The gun had chafed his skin, making Leon wince when he removed it from the waistband of his jeans. He placed everything – the gun, the pantyhose, the carton of cigarettes and the valise full of money – into an empty box he’d found behind a foul-smelling dumpster. He closed the flaps of the box and set it under rickety stairs leading up to a dilapidated balcony behind Newton’s Diamonds.
* * *
He walked back toward the bank. He figured that wouldn’t make him look any more suspicious than walking away from it. By the time he reached 4th Street, he heard the sirens. His heart sped up, but he maintained a normal walking pace as he crossed the street and entered the public library. He walked upstairs. On the third floor, Leon grabbed a book and found a small table next to a window overlooking 4th Street. From there, he watched police cars arrive at the bank.
Twice, two cops and the same bank employee – a white-haired man in a gray three-piece suit – came out of the bank and walked back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the rounded façade. Then an unmarked car pulled up in front of the bank. Leon could tell it was an official vehicle by its tinted windows and radio antennas on its hood. A plainclothes officer got out of the vehicle and entered the bank.
Then nothing happened for a long time. Leon put his head down next to the book and fell asleep.
When he woke up, the cars were gone. He exited the library and walked back to the gas station where Priscilla had dropped him off.
* * *
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure myself,” said Leon.
Going west on 7th Street, Leon pointed at a traffic light. “Turn here,” he said.
Priscilla muscled the Dart into the right lane, and the car behind them honked. “Sorry,” said Priscilla, looking into rearview mirror.
“He’ll get over it,” said Leon.
“Where’re we going?” said Priscilla.
“I forgot something,” said Leon.
Priscilla turned. They were going north again toward the library. The car she’d cut off on 7th Street was behind them. The driver honked again and yelled at Priscilla after laying off the horn. Leon felt like fighting, but Priscilla was unperturbed.
“Hey,” she said, “did you get the job?”
“What?” said Leon.
“The job. You said you we’re going to talk to someone about a job.”
“Oh, hell,” said Leon.
“It didn’t go well?”
“Oh, it went fine,” said Leon, sounding tired.
Priscilla drove. After a while, she said, “Well, something will turn up.”
“I hope so,” said Leon.
* * *
Leon kept his eyes on the mirrors. A black and white police cruiser was parked in front of Charlie’s Hi-Ball, the pool hall where he used to find his father. When they passed it, the cruiser pulled out and followed them. Leon waited. He forced himself not to look in the mirror. After passing a long row of parked cars, the cruiser moved over into the left lane and passed them.
Leon exhaled quietly and told Priscilla to pull over.
“What for?” she said.
“I just need to pick something up.”
Priscilla stopped next to a wood-paneled station wagon. Leon got out and walked to the alley. Rounding the corner out of her view, he sprinted to the place behind the jewelry store.
* * *
“What’s in the box?” Priscilla asked.
“Nothing,” said Leon.
“Come on,” said Priscilla. “Tell me.”
Leon removed the carton of cigarettes. “Just these,” he said. He took one out of a package and offered one to Priscilla. She said no thank you.
“This is my sister’s car,” she said.
Leon frowned. “You should have said something earlier.”
“It’s okay,” said Priscilla, smiling. “I’ll let you smoke in it if you tell me what else is in the box.”
“Just some old clothes,” said Leon, “From Goodwill.”
* * *
On the south side of town, Leon spotted a Newton County patrol car turning left onto Main Street. The car heaved and accelerated, its big engine roaring as it straightened out and headed north. When its lights and siren switched on, Leon turned around and watched it speed toward downtown.
“Oh!” said Priscilla. “I forgot to tell you. Someone robbed the First National Bank.”
“Today?” said Leon.
“How’d you hear about it?”
“Two men at the gas station,” said Priscilla. “I heard them talking about it while I was waiting for you.”
“I’ll be darn,” said Leon. “Well, that explains all the cop cars.”
* * *
They drove under the interstate. Below the bridge over Shoal Creek, they could see children playing in the water.
“That looks fun,” said Priscilla.
“I wouldn’t mind joining them,” said Priscilla.
Leon saw another sheriff’s deputy parked in a gravel lot on the other side of the bridge.
“I better get on home,” he said.
“You sure?” said Priscilla. “We can just put our toes in.”
“No,” said Leon, watching the patrol car. “You go ahead if you want. I can walk from here.”
* * *
By this time, Leon DeWitt figured his chances of getting caught were about fifty-fifty. Cops were crawling all over the place. Even before Priscilla suggested they swim in the creek, he had thought about stowing the box somewhere and walking. In one way, it would have given him more freedom, but in another, too much exposure. He decided stay in the car.
They were going south toward Seneca, a different route than the one they’d taken into Joplin, but Leon didn’t say anything. Any direction out of town was good.
“Where is your home?” said Priscilla. “I never asked you that.”
“Back where you picked me up,” said Leon. “Way out in the sticks.”
“Off Trout Farm Road?”
“Near there. You can drop me off where you picked me up. I can walk the rest of the way.”
* * *
Right before Leon asked her where she was going, Priscilla slowed down and turned onto an asphalt lot in front of the Candy House. Painted bright yellow, the building was an old grocery market and gas station converted into a confectionery.
“This won’t take long,” said Priscilla. “My mom asked me to pick up some chocolates for her bridge club.”
When she disappeared into the Candy House, Leon grabbed the box and walked behind the building. There were two boys out there, one swinging on a tire swing, the other throwing rocks at the tree that held the swing. When they saw him, the boys stopped what they were doing and ran to the back door. Leon smiled, but that didn’t comfort them any.
He entered the woods behind the store and walked toward an old black walnut next to a barbed-wire fence. Dense blackberry bramble surrounded the tree. Leon stepped sideways into the brush and set the box at the base of the tree. Thorns poked him as he went in and grabbed his shirtsleeve as he came out. Exiting the woods, he plucked cockleburs off his jeans.
When he got back to the car, the deputy was waiting for him.
Leon nodded and raised his hand.
“You Leon DeWitt?” said the deputy.
“Yes, sir,” said Leon.
The deputy pointed inside the Dart. “Did you take them cigarettes out of Tindall’s Market earlier today?”
Leon cursed himself for not returning the cigarettes to the box. “I did,” he said.
“And did you pay for them?”
“I was going to,” said Leon.
“That ain’t the way it works,” said the deputy. “You got to pay before you smoke ’em.”
“Yes, sir,” said Leon.
“This your car?”
“No,” said Leon. “Belongs to a friend of mine.”
“What were you doing out behind the building?”
“I had to pee,” said Leon.
“They got an outhouse back there?”
Leon looked down at this scuffed brown shoes. He was pretty good at making himself look pitiful. “No, sir,” he said.
“Well, all right,” said the deputy. “Grab them cigarettes and come on.”
“Where to?” said Leon.
“Back to Tindall’s,” said the deputy, surprised that Leon had to ask. “The old man recognized you. Said he knows your family, though, and don’t wanna press charges.”
Leon grabbed the carton and got into the deputy’s car. In less than a minute, they were up and over the first hill along Shoal Creek.
Two minutes later, Priscilla walked out and squinted into the sun. She stood alone on the stoop of the Candy House, its yellow-painted exterior brighter than the sun itself. She held two white paper bags, one full of chocolates for her mother and the other peanut-butter fudge for her and Leon.
The Dart was right in front of her. “Bobby,” she yelled. “Where’d you go?”
Matt McGowan grew up in Webb City, Missouri. He attended Missouri Southern State College (now University) and the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas, where he serves as Assistant Director of Research Communications.
His short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, such as Deep South Magazine, Concho River Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arkansas Review, and others. His short story “Sucker Flats” appeared in issue ten of Elder Mountain and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His debut novel, 1971, was published by Auxarczen Press in 2021.