“I’m going to buy both of these magazines,” I said.
I realized that I had just committed to purchasing not only the Car and Driver, but also the copy of Spooky American Tales.
“I don’t see you doing any buying. All I see you doing is reading. Mom and Dad are always complaining because people come in here and read magazines without buying them. They mess up the covers, and then no one else will buy them.”
I thought about the mangled copy of Car and Driver that I had bypassed, in order to grab an unsullied one directly behind it. Leslie did have a point, I supposed.
“I’m ready to check out now,” I told her.
I walked to the cash register and laid both magazines on the counter. Leslie saw the second one I had picked out, and said, “Spooky American Tales? Aren’t you a little old for that? Campfire ghost stories?”
I had grown weary of her ridicule. Even where a pretty girl was concerned, I had my limits.
“What’s your deal, Leslie? First you give me a hard time because I’m not buying magazines. Now you’re giving me a hard time because you don’t like the ones I’m buying. I can’t win here.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, with a hint of a smile.
Before she rang up the price of Spooky American Tales, she did a double take on the cover. “This is the May issue,” she said. “If you come back in a few weeks, we’ll maybe have the June issue in stock.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Leslie wasn’t above teasing me about my reading habits. But nor was she above trying to position me for the next sale at her parents’ store. I would never figure her out.
Leslie’s paperback novel lay on the counter, but the cover was facing downward.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“A Garden of Earthly Delights,” she said, “by Joyce Carol Oates.”
I admitted that I had heard of neither the book nor the author.
“No,” Leslie shot back, “of course you haven’t. Joyce Carol Oates writes literary fiction, and you like to read campfire ghost stories.”
She pronounced the words “literary fiction” as if they amounted to a sacred incantation.
“That will be two dollars and six cents,” she said.
I dug into my back pocket for my wallet, and into my side pocket for some change. Whatever I said, it seemed, Leslie would find a way to turn it around on me.
(I have one note to add to her remark about literary fiction. Some years later, on a whim, I did remember that conversation with Leslie, and I picked up a book by Joyce Carol Oates. I found it to be the most dreary, pretentious stuff I had ever read.
But what do I know? In my adult life, I have read maybe two or three novels per year, on average. These are usually titles by James Patterson, John Grisham, or Stephen King; and they are almost always books that I pick up in the airport bookstore, minutes before I board a flight.)
I had one more card to play with Leslie before I left.
“Did you see my car?” I asked her. “It’s right outside, in the parking lot.”
Leslie turned around and gave my Bonneville a pro forma look-see through the window.
“Nice,” she said. She pushed back a lock of blonde hair.
I was just about to leave, when her face lit up. A flash of hope. Then she spoke.
“Hey, speaking of cars: Does Jack still have that red Corvair?”
Jack was my older brother. At that point in my life, he was one of my least favorite topics.
“Yeah,” I said, as neutrally as possible. “He still has the Corvair.”
“I remember that car,” Leslie said, smiling now. “He used to drive it through our neighborhood. My friends and I, we were just little girls then. We’d run out into the front yard, and he’d blow the horn and wave at us.”
“Great,” I said. I couldn’t believe it. Leslie had ignored the car that I had purchased less than a week ago, while she was giving Jack credit for an old Corvair that he’d owned for over a decade.
“What’s Jack up to nowadays?” she persisted.
“I don’t see him much,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. I hear that he’s been living out in the country, near Goshen Hill Road, in that farmhouse. With a bunch of other people.”
“That’s right. Jack’s hippie commune.”
“Hey,” Leslie said. “Jack’s not a hippie. He’s a veteran, don’t forget.”
“He isn’t much of a veteran,” I said quickly.
“He went to Vietnam, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, for about three weeks.”
“Well, there you go,” Leslie said, without asking for further elaboration.
That was just as well. The resulting conversation would have been tricky.
In 1976, in certain environments, the appellation “hippie” was regarded as something of an insult. (Clermont County was one such place.)
And as for Jack’s brief, ignominious military career: Per my parents’ wishes, only a few people outside the family knew the full story about that; and I didn’t believe that Leslie was one of those people.
“Thanks for the magazines,” I said. It was time for me to leave.
“Thank you for the purchase,” Leslie said, adopting her shopkeeper mode. She picked up her book again. “At the Pantry Shelf, we aim to please.”
I headed back out into the parking lot, my magazines in hand.
As I approached the Bonneville, I couldn’t help noticing the missing persons flyer, tacked to the telephone pole.
Over on the hillside, the hoofprints with the nasty black residue.
I wasn’t going to look at either one of them again, I’d decided.
Then I caught a flash of movement from the corner of my eye. Someone was walking down the road that connected the Pantry Shelf to Ohio Pike.
He was a young man of medium height with a wiry build. He was wearing jeans and a white tank top. He was ambling down the road.
The young man’s most striking features were his head of thick, reddish hair, his long nose, and his pointed chin.
He saw me looking at him, and he slowed down.
The young man met my eyes. He gave me a smirk—not a kind one—and then he paused there by the edge of the road.
It was as if he was waiting for me to make a move, to start a fight.
Though I was by no means a habitual brawler, I had been in my share of scraps by the age of seventeen. That was an inextricable part of being a teenage boy in a semirural environment in the 1970s. The jostling on the totem pole was constant, and there was always someone looking to knock you down a peg. Sometimes there was no choice but to fight.
Other times, though, you did have a choice. I wasn’t afraid of the red-haired young man, even though he looked to be in his early twenties, and even though he looked mean.
But nor was I eager to get into a random fight with some random guy—a fight with an uncertain end. I had no interest here.
I turned away from the young guy with the red hair and the angular face. I climbed into the Bonneville before he could say anything.
In the rearview mirror, I saw him continue his walk. But not before he gave me a final, inexplicably vicious smirk. He apparently knew that I was still watching him.
That was my first encounter with Banny, though I didn’t yet know his name.