The first hint Myrlie had that her boy Dane was up to no good happened on Wednesday night. She’d come into the kitchen through the back door and seen Dane sitting at the dinette table fingering his way through a wad of dollar bills. He hadn’t even bothered to take off that nasty cap of his’un and he knew better than to sit at his momma’s table with any kind of hat on. Ever since he was old enough to wear a Cookie Monster Forever cap, Myrlie drilled into her son how impolite it was to sit at somebody’s table wearing a hat. Dane wasn’t one to pay much mind to the conventions of civility except where his momma was concerned.
The slapping of the screen door alerted him that someone was entering the kitchen. Soon as he saw it was his momma, Dane placed his hat in the chair beside him and returned to counting out his money. Mrylie pretended like she hadn’t seen the hat. The money, however, was another matter. Dane pulled out two more $100 bills and placed them atop a stack of the four he’d counted out previously. He reached for the cigarette burning ashes in a nearby saucer and took a drag.
“You got another one of those?” Mrylie asked.
“I thought you gave up smoking,” Dane said as he nodded at the half-empty pack sitting next to the saucer.
“I did,” Mrylie said. “Except for after prayer meetings.” She tapped a tobacco stick out of the pack and lit it. She licked the end of the match and put it in the saucer next to Dane’s mashed out cigarette. “If you heard the list of people in need of prayer, you’d understand why I make exceptions on Wednesdays.”
Dane smiled at his momma. He was amused by mountain women like Mrylie; women whose faith had them keeping company more with guilt than with Jesus. Women who felt the need to justify their every decision as if practicing lines for the impending Judgment Day.
As the only son of Deke and Mrylie Owens, Dane never felt guilt, even over wrongs he’d actually done, like the time he’d busted out the back window of Coach Holloway’s truck after Coach belittled him for missing a tie-breaking pass from Linton McCrary. Coach knew Linton had overthrown the pass but instead of yelling at Linton, he lit into Dane and blamed him for losing the game that would have ensured the Cougars a spot in the playoffs. Coach figured it was Dane who’d busted his window but he never could prove it. Dane didn’t feel one bit of guilt over it. Instead, he was quite proud of his self for not only busting the window, but also for never getting caught. The way he figured it, anybody could do bad acts if they set their mind to it, but it took real skill to get away with criminal behaviors.
Mrylie had cut herself a slice of the leftover chess pie she’d carried to Wednesday night supper at First Dominion House of Prayer. “You want some?” she asked as she pulled out a chair and sat down.
Dane shook his head and continued counting his money into piles of tens, twenties, hundreds and five-hundreds. Mrylie studied upon her boy. He’d kept his blond hair styled in the same buzz-cut he’d worn since his daddy had taken him to his first haircut at Mr. Bob’s, Fayetteville’s downtown barber. Mr. Bob died during Dane’s first tour of duty in Iraq. His death had broken the young soldier. It was Mr. Bob who gave Dane his first job. Soon as he’d gotten old enough to hold a broom, Dane spent nearly every Saturday afternoon at Mr. Bob’s sweeping up underneath the chairs and carrying out the trash. Dane looked up to Mr. Bob and considered his advice even when he didn’t have the will to follow it, which was more often than Dane cared to own.
Mrylie was loathe to pry into her boy’s financial matters, even though he was bunking in his old bedroom in the house his daddy had paid for with monies earned from his electrical business. When they bought the three-bedroom ranch for $21,000 in 1972, there wasn’t a neighbor in sight. The house, now hemmed in on all sides by bigger, finer homes, was worth over $300,000 and her old man had been dead nearly 12 years. After Deke died, Mrylie considered selling and moving back to be near her momma’s people in West Virginia. Dane was off at war and Mrylie’s baby girl Lauren had up and moved off to Ohio, chasing after that Hill fella.
Mrylie always knew that Hill boy was going to do Lauren wrong, that’s how come she decided against selling off and moving back to her momma’s people. Sure enough, when Lauren made a quick trip home in April, she confirmed her momma’s worst worries. Lauren told her momma that she’d gotten a job at Texas Tech and was moving to Lubbock.
“Lord, girl, why would you move off way across the country like that?” Mrylie asked.
“It’s not across the country, Momma…”.
“Near about,” Mrylie protested.
Lauren hated fighting with her momma, especially since the two of them had seen so little of each other since she’d moved off to Ohio.
“What does J.D. think?” Mrylie asked. “He just gonna up and leave his job and follow you to that god-forsaken land?” Ever since JFK got his head blown off in Dallas, Mrylie and her people had no use for Texas. As far as she was concerned Texans were all responsible for the country going to hell in a handbasket, killing that young man the way they done. They might as well have sent an engraved invite to the Devil himself, asking him to release the hounds of Hell upon America. He’d heeded it, too.
“I don’t know what J.D. thinks, nor do I care,” Lauren said.
Mrylie didn’t ask her daughter any more questions. If it took going to Lubbock, Texas, to get shed of J.D. Hill, it was an answer to Mrylie’s most pitiful prayers. She had no use for that boy. Dane didn’t much care for J.D. either, but he knew something about Lauren’s leaving that his momma didn’t.
“That’s a heap of money,” Mrylie said, nodding at the rows of greenbacks. She stood at the sink washing out the empty pie tin.
“It sure is,” Dane said, grinning. “Ten-thousand dollars.”
“Lord. God. Almighty!” Mrylie exclaimed. She was shy to ask her boy how it was he came into so much money. The war in Iraq was over. Troops were being drawn down in Afghanistan. She knew good and well, Dane had not re-upped. The 82nd Airborne wouldn’t have him no way, not on account of that bum leg of his, but because of the opioid addiction that had enabled him to heal the wounds of that IED explosion. Dane had worked to overcome his addiction and was two years clean, but his job at Home Depot hardly afforded him such a windfall.
“Should I assume now that you are night manager that this is the day’s receipts you are counting out?” Mrylie finally asked. She hated herself for thinking it, but the silent part of her was afraid her son might have turned to dealing drugs. Given that they were well into the Holiday season, Mrylie reasoned it was entirely possible that one day’s receipts could be so high, but the truth is, she had no idea how much money Dane handled daily.
“You should never assume anything, Momma; you know better than that. In fact, aren’t you the one who taught me that?”
Mrylie felt like slapping that smirk off Dane’s face. Instead, she walked out of the kitchen and reached for the remote in the living room. She turned the TV to MSNBC. Mrylie knew that Dane would do near about anything to shut up Rachel Maddow. One night he got out his handgun and threatened to “shoot the feminist bitch” if Mrylie didn’t switch the channel. She figured it wouldn’t be but a minute before Dane would be interrupting her show, offering more information about all that money he was counting out.
She figured right.
“If you insist upon knowing …” Dane stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room.
“I didn’t insist upon any such thing,” Mrylie replied. She hit the mute on the remote.
“I earned it,” Dane said.
Mrylie’s eyebrows raised up over her wire-rimmed glasses. She cocked her head to one side quizzically, the way her own momma used to do whenever she knew Mrylie was telling a tale. She flipped the remote over, trying to decide if she ought to unmute Rachel.
“I did!” Dane said. “I earned every dollar of it. Legally.”
“What did you do? Get yourself a Sugar Mama at the Pony Up strip joint?” Mrylie was the one smirking now.
“No, I most certainly did not,” Dane said. His face and neck were flushed, part out of frustration and part out of embarrassment that his momma, a God-fearing woman, even knew the name of a strip joint. “It’s reward money.”
“Reward for what?” Mrylie asked.
“For turning in a criminal.”
“A criminal? Who do you know that is a criminal?”
“Don’t ask me that, Momma.”
“Okay,” Mrylie said, content to let well enough alone. She’d just as soon not know if one of Dane’s friends was involved in criminal activity. “You don’t have to tell me who done it, but at least tell me what kind of crime they done. It must have been a big something for you to collect that kind of cash.”
“They had an abortion,” Dane said. His voice was flat, void of any emotion, like he was reciting the list of medications he took daily.
“Having an abortion isn’t a crime in this country,” Mrylie replied. She was confused. Why would anyone pay Dane $10,000 for reporting some woman’s abortion?
“It is in some states,” Dane said. “Some states are paying people to report women who get abortions.”
“Why! Lord, I never heard of such a thing. How can they do that?” Mrylie asked.
“It’s up to the legislators in those states. They passed laws that allows them to pay informants like me.”
“We don’t have any such law here in North Carolina; do we?”
“No,” Dane said. “Not yet, but we might have soon.”
Mrylie was turning things over in her mind. She’d long thought Roe v Wade was settled law. The way Mrylie figured it, no woman ever wanted to have an abortion. It wasn’t like choosing an ice cream flavor. If a woman was considering an abortion, there was probably good reason for it and Mrylie was willing to leave that choice up to the woman, her doctor, and God. It wasn’t any of Mrylie’s nevermind.
And it wasn’t any of Dane’s for sure. Unless…
“Was it your child?” she asked, shocked by the question she felt she needed to ask.
“God, no, Momma. I’d never let any woman kill a child of mine.”
“Then you took money for reporting on a woman you don’t even know? A situation you know nothing about?” Mrylie was pissed now. Her tone sharp, accusatory.
“Hold on a minute, Momma.” Dane put up his palm. “Simmer down. I didn’t say I didn’t know the woman.”
“Don’t tell me to simmer down,” Mrylie said. She stood up, marched into the kitchen, and began digging through the trash can.
“What are you doing?” Dane asked. He watched as Mrylie sifted through the debris in the trash, moving it from the can into the kitchen sink, right on top of the dishes she’d washed earlier.
“What state? What state?” she screeched. “What state paid you that money?” She threw a handful of egg shells at her boy.
“Texas,” Dane said, defiantly.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend (A Novel) Mercer University Press.