Right of Way

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Dust chokes the woods, stirred up to mix with heat and diesel fumes by the bulldozers working on a home site across the unpaved street, and Jim watches from the leafy shadows inside the barbed-wire boundary to his ever-shrinking triangle of land. Three men stand and talk in what will be a driveway while the big Cats growl around them. The street is barely above sea-level, in a flood zone, and they are building up a space for a new house.

He strips off a maple twig and chews the end ragged, feeling the thirty acres stretching behind him, brushy dry sweet-smelling woods that hide the square cinder block house he shares with his wife and daughter.

The edge of the road is loose sand piled up almost to the wire. Every time the street is graded it edges another foot or two onto his property. Let them come, Jim thinks. Let them get tangled up in the wire and ruin their machines. He picks up a bottle cap from near his foot and pictures barbed wire lashing and twisting in the tracks. He scowls and flings the cap out into the washboarded road.

Not far behind him, his daughter Annie crouches barefoot and silent in the rosemary bushes, watching her father. She is fifteen and probably gay, and anywhere else it would be more than probably. But this is Starkey, Georgia, and the Ku Klux Klan still holds its rallies down Second Street, and the churches hand out their pamphlets on the dangers of the New Age movement. In Starkey, if you are anything but white heterosexual Baptist, you keep it to yourself.

Sometimes Annie dreams of a woman’s hands on her, and her own hands on a woman’s body, and the dreams always make her sad. Sometimes when she wakes up she goes and finds something solid to hold onto, a tree usually, and presses herself against it tight with the bark imprinting the pale insides of her arms.

Linda, Jim’s common-law wife and Annie’s common-law stepmother, is usually the one to follow Jim around on his trapping days, but she’s at work. He does this about once a month, near the full moon, but today he’s riled up about the dozers and the new house going to be right across the road, and he isn’t waiting for the moon. This morning, Annie knew it was a trapping day when she got up for school and saw him in the garage sharpening a machete. Rope and wire were coiled on the floor near his feet, and he was singing softly, the soft scraping of the sharpener providing an uneven rhythm. When Annie walked in and the door squeaked, he flung the machete. He jerked his hand back halfway through the motion when he saw it was her, but not soon enough to stop it. She jumped out of the way, but it was already flying past her. It landed point-down in the laundry basket on top of the dryer. How many times I tell you never sneak up on me like that? His voice seemed to snag on something. She didn’t answer, just looked at the machete sticking up out of the basket and imagined throwing it back at him. The blade would hit him across the forehead. Dark blood would cover his face.

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