On the morning the woman burned to death by the railroad tracks, Aggie and Earline sat drinking iced coffee on Betty’s front porch on Lafayette Street. Old friends, their faces were wrinkled from long years under the deep South’s sultry sun. The porch was just big enough for the three of them and the rusty air conditioning unit that hung from the front room’s window. The unit didn’t work, but Betty kept it, not quite convinced that it couldn’t be fixed. Now it served as a table for their morning biscuits and coffee. Aggie sat in front of the air conditioner, Earline next to it, and Betty at the edge of the porch in case someone wanted to go in or come out of the front door.
“What does Corinne say?” Aggie asked as she stood and reached for the pitcher of iced coffee.
Betty clutched a letter she had received the afternoon before from her daughter. “She says she’s coming home.” Betty fanned herself with the envelope.
Aggie said nothing. Earline clucked as she settled into her chair and straightened her skirt. Her glass of iced coffee clanked on the porch at her feet. “It just wasn’t right, her leaving those two sweet kids for you to raise like that.”
“Ya, well, Corinne had her reasons, I guess. You know, after her daddy died she was never very happy,” Betty said.
On both sides of the porch, two large, flowering crepe myrtles, like lavender-topped snow cones, shaded them. Cannas grew tall in the cement-block garden against the front yard fence that Betty had built several years back. In the last few days, fist-sized blooms had popped out like yellow, orange, and fiery red popcorn. It was as warm a morning as they got in bayou country in the summer time, and a steamy morning, all three agreed.
They watched traffic pass by. Lafayette Street was two blocks long and crossed railroad tracks, but it had a lot of traffic because it was a short-cut to downtown and the interstate a few miles away. Earline’s house was a street over and one up, just behind Aggie’s house next to the tracks. A long, thick line of Cypress trees fenced both their houses from the noisy trains. The trees had been planted years ago by Earline’s deceased husband, Joey, Aggie’s half-brother.
Aggie smacked her lips and spooned three hills of sugar into the dark coffee. The ice cubes clinked as she stirred. She picked up another biscuit and lowered her rump to the chair. “When’s Corinne coming home this time?”
“Soon,” Betty answered. “She even sent a check for a hundred dollars.” She made a tight smile and dangled the check by a corner between two fingers. She bent her head sideways, squinted her eyes. “It says here, Corinne DeMont, 13 North Bend, Pasadena, California. The National Bank of Los Angeles. Now where did she get that name, DeMont? It was a Fontenot she ran away with. Here, listen what she says: ‘Mama, I’m sorry I haven’t written in so long. I have so much to tell you. I’m coming home in a few weeks. Things have been going great and I want to see you and the kids. I love y’all so much. Your daughter, Corinne.’ She drawed a big heart around the ‘y’all.’” Betty made the shape of a heart in the air and harrumphed as Corinne’s oldest walked out onto the porch. “Morning, Nora, Baby,” she said hastily and tucked the check with the letter into her apron pocket.
Nora stopped and bent her long neck sideways. “You guys talking about Corinne, again, huh?” She leaned over and kissed Aggie and Earline on the cheeks. Her thick black hair was braided tight against her skull and the bared skin around her waist sparked the gold bead of a pierced bellybutton. She leaned towards Betty, but stopped. “What do you have there, Grammy?”
“Nothing, girl, for you to mind about. Get along to work now.”
The three friends watched Nora swing a large purple backpack in front of her and settle it onto her shoulder by a strap as she strolled down the walk to the street and turned towards the railroad tracks. They watched her walk up the block and enter the front door of the welding shop on the other side of the tracks.
“She don’t know about her mama’s letter?” Earline asked.
“No,” Betty frowned. “I don’t want to spoil her summer. She’s so excited about starting college next month. She’s got a little scholarship for the year, an’ I don’t know where I’s going to get eighteen hundred dollars for the rest of it,” Betty said. “But I guess this check will help.”
The three sipped their coffees. Aggie wet her finger and picked biscuit crumbs off her dress.
“I’m too old,” Betty said, “to be cleaning houses and two hundred and ten dollars a month food stamps don’t feed us now. And we’ll lose some of that if she goes to college—let me tell you, no way.”
Aggie and Earline bobbed their heads in agreement. Roadblocks were a problem throughout their lives, but they’d get around them, over or under, sometimes they even had to knock them down. Life’s not easy, Earline’s dead husband used to preach. But it’s easier when you don’t pay taxes.
“Don’t I know,” Aggie said. “It’s a good thing Mama eats like a bird. Her check sure don’t feed us so good. No steaks on our table. She don’t eat so good, anyway, and she’s been in lots of pain these past weeks and pain medicine costs a lot.”
Earline looked sidelong at Aggie and smirked. “That woman’s so thin people say you don’t feed her nothing,” she said with a stir of her finger at Aggie’s puffy waist. “They say that you eat it all.”
Aggie straightened her collar and tugged the hem of her paisley-print dress over her plump legs. The elastic band of her flesh-colored, thigh-high support stockings made deep indentations all around under her knees. She pulled the stockings up higher, looked straight at Earline. “Well, at least I don’t feed Mama lettuce from the dumpster behind Rice Field Oasis Bar like some folks say you do those rat-face dogs you raise.”
Earline’s thick gray eyebrows bunched together. She passed her empty glass to Aggie and asked with pressed lips. “Do you mind?”
Aggie took the glass, pulled herself out of the chair and poured it three quarters full. “Sugar?” she said.
“Please, baby,” Earline said.
Aggie pushed the glass into Earline’s hand and nipped another biscuit before she sat down and stared toward the street.
“My Chihuahuas are supposed to be dainty,” Earline said. “And don’t you be putting down my dogs. They’re income same as your mama’s welfare check. We don’t got no one else to help us but them. I guess we both depend on tiny eaters.” They chuckled at the joke and looked to Betty for comment, but before Betty could put in her dime, her grandson stomped out of the door.
Donnie was ten years old, all legs, and toothy grin in a sun-browned face. He pulled a sweatshirt down over his thin chest as he stood directly in front of his grandmother, bouncing from side to side.
“Can I go to Robbie’s?”
Betty shooed him away with a flap of her hand. “Y’all be good,” she said.
“Donnie,” Earline said as she grabbed at a sleeve of the sweat shirt, “it a gazillion degrees. You’ll roast in this.”
“Hey, Auntie Earl,” the boy laughed, “it’s cool.”
“Cool? Oh, my lord. It’s suffering hot today. Things could burn up in this heat. Miss Pearl and Mr. Diamond keep jumping in their water bowls to cool off. And that’s a worry because Miss Pearl’s about to drop them pups.”
“No, Auntie Earl, it’s cool. You know, like—cool to wear a sweatshirt,” Donnie explained as he pulled a battered bike away from the side of the porch. He had to raise his voice because the wooden arms of the railroad crossing were lowering and the bells clanged loudly.
The Union Pacific train always stopped traffic this time of the morning, which gave the three women time to look and wave to passers-by and gossip. Donnie adjusted his shorts, straddled the bar of the bike, and his knees churned high as he pedaled towards the tracks.
“Look at that,” Betty said as she watched him ride away. She laughed, and then sighed. “He don’t even know his mama. What if she wants them back?”
The bike wove back and forth as Donnie stood and pumped faster, and as he rode toward the tracks, his voice blew back.
“Hey,” he yelled and pointed. “Look at that fool.”
A Daigle Oil tanker was attempting to maneuver around the lowered railroad-crossing barriers. The tractor had pushed into the space between the barriers, moving slowly, apparently trying to beat the train before it crossed the roadway. Cars began to line up on both sides. Donnie pedaled harder. The three watched the rig driver try to work himself out of the awkward angle across the tracks. They chuckled and sipped iced coffee and continued their talk about Corrine.
“Are you going to tell them?” Earline asked.
“The last time I told them she was coming to visit, she didn’t.” Betty had to raise her voice. As the whistle of the approaching train became louder and more persistent, the cars in front of the line started to honk and attempted to back away, but the cars behind didn’t seem to know what was happening. There was a loud crack as the tractor driver gave up trying not to break the railroad crossing barriers.
“That driver just jumped out of the—” cried Aggie. There was a screech louder than any scream they’d ever heard, and the train struck the oil tanker. A thousand suns roared, and the speeding train pushed a black and red inferno hundreds of feet down the railroad tracks.
Three mornings later, Aggie and Earline sat on Betty’s porch again. It was the first time they’d got together since the train took out the oil tanker. Coffee pitcher, milk carton, sugar bowl, and a Market Basket box of powdered donut holes were arranged on the air conditioner.
“We deserve it,” Aggie mumbled as she pushed three into her mouth and coughed a little puff of powdery sugar at Earline’s scowling face. Earline had a large bandage wrapped around her left knee. It covered the deep gash she got when Aggie pushed her over in a desperate scramble to get off the porch after the tanker blew.
“We? I was the one who got smashed.”
“But Mama was right there,” Aggie explained, spreading her hands like a newspaper laid open. Her mama was twenty yards from the fireball that blackened the entire sky. “The only thing that saved her and our houses from being burned up was all them trees in between.”
“God was good to you,” Earline said. “Joey planted those trees and saved your mama’s life. So you could’ve waited one small second.” She reached for the glass of iced coffee Aggie was holding out. “I was leaving as fast as I could.”
Earline’s Chihuahuas were also twenty yards from the tracks when the train roared by like a fire-breathing dragon. But she was too late; when she staggered onto the back porch, Miss Pearl was in her water bowl, and pigeon egg sized pups clumped at the bottom of the dish, drowned. Mr. Diamond was in spasms in a corner behind an old china cabinet. He threw-up for two days, then died.
Earline dabbed at her eyes with the cloth napkin. “I paid a thousand dollars for that little stud. Believe me, Miss Pearl will miss Mr. Diamond to the point of death. I’d be lucky if I ever get another pup outta her.” She sighed deeply.
“Yeah, well, Mama’s still shaking,” Aggie said. “She though Retribution was on the way. When I got there she was on her knees praying like Gabriel was on our porch.” She dipped her donut hole into her iced coffee then sucked it before taking a bite. “I don’t know, she’s not doing well. She’s slipped. I can’t get her to eat no more at all. She just stares out the window at them trees burned to sticks and says, ‘It’s a comin’. It’s a comin.’”
“I suppose for a woman of ninety-two it’s coming all right,” Betty said, and her eyes narrowed. “Retribution comes for all of us one way or another.” She looked down the street where several men were attaching metal bars to the railroad crossing signals. “Nora watched that woman burn up in those flames.”
They shuddered. It was hard knowing a person burned to death in the explosion.
Running into billows of hot, sooty smoke, Betty had quickly found Donnie. He was crying, pulling his bike behind him. Blood poured down the back of his head. His face was a crinkly, oily pink, and skin sagged in spots from his forehead, cheeks, and knees.
“They say at the hospital there’s sure to be scars,” Betty told Aggie and Earline. “The doctor said a plastic surgeon could help Donnie. But it’ll take operations. How do you suppose I pay for that? And what’s Corinne going to say when she sees him?” Betty pressed her hands behind her neck.
For the first hour she was at the hospital with Donnie, she didn’t know where Nora was. Betty’s ears rung still from the explosions she knew were tanks of gas the welding shop used. There had been a shed full between the tracks and the shop. They said people hurt by the explosions would be at Jennings Memorial. They also said one person died. So when Nora finally showed up alive, Betty almost fainted. Except for singed hair and scraped hands and knees from crawling across the gravel of the shop’s parking lot. Nora wasn’t hurt, although the paramedics said they had to give her lots of shots because she was in such a fit and fussing too much for them to handle. Nora wrapped her arms around Betty’s waist and drooled on her shoulder as she cried. She told Betty in tranquilized fits of hysteria about the woman at the tracks.
Nora was in the front of the shop when the tanker exploded, and through the front window she saw the first car in line begin to burn. Inside a woman tried to get out, but her hair burst into flames, and she snapped around like a snake tossed on to the coals of a bonfire. As the thick plexi-glass window in the front of the shop melted away, Nora prayed for the woman to die.
“It was a terrible shame, dying like that,” Aggie said. She munched donut holes for a few minutes. “Y’all heard, I suppose, there’s this lawyer going around town talking to people about damages.”
“Damages?” Earline asked.
“Money,” Aggie said. “Money for pains and suffering, and it can be for mental pains and suffering, too.”
“Who says?” Earline demanded.
“He says we can sue them oil people for free.” Aggie reached for another donut hole. Betty and Earline straightened their backs and raised their chins.
“Lord knows,” Aggie said, “there’s nothing wrong in getting your dues. That’s what Lester Crowley says. Y’all know, the one who does all those personal injuries cases. He says the oil people has lots of deep pockets because the driver of their truck was drunk. He’ll tell you. I invited him here.” A closed-mouth smile broadened her face as a sporty looking car pulled up in front of the house. She reached for another donut hole, but Earline leaned over and slapped her hand away.
“The Lord knows his way,” Betty said.
A lanky boy got out the car. He had unruly, curly brown hair. Although the morning was warm, he wore a brown linen suit that looked like it once belonged to a much bigger man. He smiled at the three friends on the porch with an eagerness that soon convinced them they had paid their dues.
A few mornings later, Nora sat silently hugging her knees on the step as the three friends practiced their complaints and refined their stories. Aggie coughed very hard for a minute and said that her asthma was so bad now because of breathing in the hot fire and soot of the explosion that she doubted she could ever work in a smoke-filled bar again. “Gone,” she moaned, “my cocktail waitress days at the Rice Field Oasis. I made at least fifteen hundred dollars a month in tips, yes, sir.”
Earline laughed. “You cleaned the place. The only tips you got what’s written on the bathroom walls.”
“And what about them trees, they was almost as old as Mama.” Aggie looked hard at Earline. “It’s worse, too. Mama needs more tending now that she’s just waiting to die. It’s too hard to haul her around, to the bathroom, to the doctor’s, to visit each of my sisters who never comes and gets her or brings her back. I need help.”
Earline rocked her head slowly up and down. She knew that was the truth. Aggie was a seventy-year-old taking care of a ninety-year-old.
“Okay,” Earline said. “I had a good income from Miss Pearl. It comes to at least twenty thousand dollars a year. But what did Lester say?”
Can you prove that income? Lester had asked them. You know, income tax statements. Receipts, ledgers?
“I don’t know what he means, receipts.” She rolled her glass of iced coffee back and forth across her forehead. “And I haven’t paid taxes in, I don’t know—I think I paid taxes a few time. Maybe. It’s not patriotic to pay taxes.”
“How do you figure that?” Aggie asked.
“Well, you know. It’s unconstitutional to pay taxes. Written right there into the constitution, they say.”
“Who says?” Aggie asked.
Earline knuckled Aggie on the shoulder. “What difference does it make? If I’d paid taxes I’d never could’ve paid my bills. I’ll just say I didn’t when they ask, and that’s that.”
“Who are they?” Betty said. “The ones who ask?”
“Why, the people wants to know,” Aggie answered. “Din’t you pay attention? Lester says the company that owns the oil tanker that hurt us has to pay for our pains and suffering. First he says they make us prove that we have pains and suffering. Then we have to prove it cost us money. So what we has to do is document it.”
Earline’s and Betty’s brows moved in a sort of rhythm up and down at Aggie’s words and stopped with a crooked, What?
“We write it down. Get doctor reports and bills, income stuff, signatures, so when they ask us how much we was hurt and how much our pains are worth, we can just slap that bill down on their desk. He says maybe we get as much as eighty thousand dollars for us and Nora and Donnie. Course, Lester, he takes his cut.”
It is called nuisance value, he had explained, eighty thousand to settle a lawsuit quick is a drop in the bucket for Daigle Oil’s insurance company. Sure would like to represent those people of the woman who burned at the tracks, he said. Millions! He had told Betty to be sure to get all of Donnie’s medical bills. Don’t be afraid to send him to a specialist, they’ll pay. You might wanna get Nora to see a psychologist for her depression.
Eighty thousand dollars sounded mighty good, they agreed.
“Obviously, y’all never watched a person burn up alive,” Nora said suddenly and stood up from the step. “I wonder if that lady would think eighty thousand dollars was a good price for her to die like that.” They had forgotten she was there. All three looked in a different direction and said nothing as Nora walked into the house and slammed the door behind her.
“That’s worth eighty thousand, don’t you think?” Betty said and they tried hard not laugh. Betty waved her hand apologetically toward the sky. “God knows, I don’t wish that on anyone.” The three friends composed themselves as the morning heated up. Their brows furrowed, however, when a police car pulled up on the grass in front of the house. It was an old, much banged-up, powder blue Grand Prix, and the man who got out was as about banged-up as his police car.
“How’re doing?” Betty called as the officer approached the porch. He was a familiar face from their younger days, and a distant cousin; it was natural that he’d be there checking up on them. But still she leaned over to look into the police car.
“Well, Miss Betty, Miss Earline, Miss Aggie,” he said.
Three backs straightened. They raised their chins and squared their shoulders—something was up when an officer of the law addressed them so formally.
“I guess I have no good way to tell you this,” he said. His voice choked and his lips quivered as he looked directly at Betty. “We checked the plates, and the car’s VIN number with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The car was registered to Corinne Fontenot, your daughter,” he said, then put his finger in front of his eyes as if to hide his shame at thinking he had to remind her who Corinne was. “The lady who was burned up by the tracks.”
Aggie and Earline cried as they clutched Betty’s hands. “We’re so sorry,” they said over and over, as if, if they said it enough, it would be like a congregation telling their old, beloved friend how powerfully sorry they were that her daughter she hadn’t seen in years burned up, just down the street by the tracks. They sobbed and wiped Betty’s tears with their napkins.
Betty touched her apron pocket where Corrine’s letter lay in its envelope—the letter with the heart drawn around “y’all” and the folded check for a hundred dollars, waiting to be cashed.