Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here

          Bo Schumpert took Sunday mornings off. She paid her neighbor, Dickie Robledo, six dollars an hour to watch the Country Mart from nine until noon so she could go home and vacuum her living room, mow her lawn, pour poison on fire ant mounds in the front yard. That morning in March, the day Shawna came back, the temperature was already in the low nineties. After running the mower for fifteen minutes, Bo was getting dizzy so she turned it off and wiped her forehead with the hem of her t-shirt. A cicada droned overhead and a hot breeze blew in off the Gulf. One hundred yards away FM 624 hummed as cars raced west to Orange Grove or east to Corpus Christi. Next door the oldest Ayala boy had laid pieces of cardboard across the grass and was attempting to roller-skate over them, making tight revolutions like a plastic ballerina in a jewelry box. Thirty people lived in Schumpert, Texas, named for Bo’s great-great-grandfather who’d founded it—but Bo was the only living Schumpert left in the county. As rare as hens’ teeth, she thought. Like a snowbird in Hell.
          Rocks crunched under tires and Bo looked up to see a red car driving slowly toward her on the caliche road. Bo didn’t recognize the vehicle and was surprised to watch it pull into her own driveway. She wiped her forehead once more and brushed her hands down the front of her jeans.
          Loud dance music pulsed through the car doors. The windows were tinted almost black and Bo could see nothing in them except her own reflection. But as she stood waiting to see who would emerge, and before the door even opened, Bo caught a subtle whiff of perfume, the Britney Spears kind in the bright green bottle that smelled like fruit juice and toilet cleaner. She knew: the person in the red car was her twin sister, Shawna. 
          “Damn, dude, you need a shower,” Shawna said by way of greeting. She wore checkerboard sneakers without socks and a t-shirt from a pool hall in Port Aransas that said Nice Rack. To Bo she looked older than twenty-nine. Gone two years, Shawna’s face was rough and lined, her jowls drooped, her eyes were red and her blonde hair was limp and showed traces of once having been dyed blue. Bo was dizzy again, the shock of her living, breathing sister standing before her almost enough to knock her down.
          Shawna had left without a word, a forwarding address, a plan, a dime. Bo had called the police—the deputy didn’t even get out of his car. He’d pointed to their small shingle house, at the mosquitos swarming the trash-strewn ditch that ran between them and the road. “Hell, I’d have left, too,” he said.
          “She’s a junkie,” Bo said. “I’m scared she’s gonna OD.”
          “She might,” the deputy said, watching a blue tarp flap against the side of Dickie’s house. “Most do.”
          Now Bo looked at her sister, her twin, with whom she’d shared a womb and for twenty-seven years, a life. She wanted to both hug and strangle her, knock her teeth out and then sit on her so she’d never leave again. She was afraid if she touched her she might not let go and it seemed unnatural after all this time everything should be rectified with a hug, so she crossed her arms over her chest and held herself close.  
          “The air conditioner’s broken,” Bo said, “but you’re welcome to come in.”
          Shawna squinted at the house. “Nah,” she said. “Anyway why aren’t you at the store? Who’d you get to watch it for you?”
          Shawna snorted. “You’d better count the scratchers when he leaves.”
          Bo bit the inside of her cheek and would not admit that was precisely what she did every Sunday. “You came straight here thinking I’d be at the store,” Bo said, preferring to yank the purpose of the visit out of Shawna, rather than listen to her sister lie and wheedle for hours only to discover she needed money. “What do you want?”
          “Why do you have to be like that,” Shawna said, crossing her arms, too, and thrusting one foot forward. “You haven’t seen me in forever. I’m clean now.” She held up her wrist to show Bo a small gold charm dangling from a bracelet. “This is for one year. I quit drinking, too. Even Boone’s Farm.”
          Bo’s eyes narrowed. “Let me see that,” she said, reaching for the bracelet.
          The charm was enamel, about the size of a quarter. On one side it read Time equals miracles, and on the other, A new way of living, Just for today.
          She dropped the charm and stepped back, still not convinced. “Where are you staying?”
          “With a guy over in Flour Bluff. He’s a boat mechanic.”
          “You working?”
          “Sometimes.” Shawna eyed the house again. “You got anyone?” she asked.
          Bo gave a short laugh. “Dickie brings me quails every now and again—does that count?”
          The sisters laughed politely until their voices were swallowed up by an eighteen-wheeler roaring down FM 624.
          “Well, I’ve got to get cleaned up,” Bo said. “If you want to stay for lunch you can come to the store and I’ll fix you some tacos.”
          “Yeah,” Shawna said, taking a few steps in the direction of the backyard. “Thanks.”
          Bo watched her sister a moment from the porch, silently absorbing the carefree way she put her arms out on either side of her as she walked over a two-by-four like it was a tightrope. “Come in if you want,” she said, “but it’s probably cooler outside.”
          Fifteen minutes later the sisters hoisted themselves up into the cab of Bo’s pickup truck for the short drive across 624 to the Country Mart. Bo thought Shawna looked pale, a lot like their mother when she used to get her migraines. And the darker part of Bo had to admit it was a relief. Her biggest worry the last two years, after her sister dying face-up in a ditch, had been that Shawna would find success outside Schumpert—that her decision to leave was the right one.
          “Are you alright?” Shawna asked as they waited for the traffic to break long enough that they could cross the highway. They were stopped beside the green metal sign that read Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here.
          “Just fine,” Bo said. “The store’s doing good, too. I started selling egg taquitos in the mornings. They hardly come off the grill before they’re gone.”
          “I can’t believe that stupid Coke can hasn’t blown away,” Shawna said, indicating the giant, inflatable Coca-Cola can tethered to the ground in front of the Country Mart.
          The girls had inherited the store when their mother died, though Shawna left town after only a few months of co-ownership. Shifts that began at six in the morning or ended at ten at night, sponging up urine from the men’s room floor at least twice a day, arguing with the same women every week about why they couldn’t use their SNAP cards to pay for diapers—Bo understood why Shawna would reject her inheritance, but how could she ignore the fact that her freedom had come at the cost of Bo’s imprisonment? Shawna had floated into the blue sky like a balloon while Bo was staked to the ground on a short leash just like that Coke can straining against its ropes. Bo remembered finding Shawna sobbing one morning with her head on top of the cash register. “I’m gonna be here when I’m eighty,” she’d said. “Right in this same chair.”
          “Well,” Bo had told her, “at least we’ll be together.”
          “And what are all those flowers and things?” Shawna asked as they pulled into the parking lot, pointing to the dirt field behind the store. Her voice had risen an octave and Bo knew she was lying, that Shawna had been talking to people and somehow knew exactly what she was looking at.
          Bo sniffed and looked at the gravel in the parking lot glinting blue and gold in the sunlight. “Why don’t you go see,” she said. “I’ve gotta tell Dickie I’m back.”
          Shawna was outside a long time. Bo fixed her one beef taco and one chicken, liberally pouring barbeque sauce over both, and left them on a Styrofoam plate near the cash register while she counted the scratch-off tickets. Shawna finally appeared after half an hour, red-faced and sweating. She made straight for the cooler and took a bottle of Sprite, pressing it against her forehead and in between her breasts.
          “A roadkill cemetery,” Shawna said. “I heard your ass had gone crazy but I didn’t believe it.”
          Bo said nothing. The dairy cooler was leaking again and she was busy searching the drawer under the register for the repair man’s phone number.
          “You’re not gonna say nothing?” Shawna asked. “How long have you been at it?”
          “How long have you been gone?” Bo answered.
          “Jesus,” Shawna said. She took her tacos over to a plastic chair and sat looking through the window at the highway. “What have you got—fifty, sixty graves out there?”
          “Seventy-one,” Bo answered, shutting the drawer with a hard bang.
          The thing was, Bo was enormously proud of her cemetery. She worked on it almost every night after she closed the store, digging graves, planting plastic flowers around the tombstones, dusting the ground with boric acid to keep the coyotes away. Living so close to 624 she certainly had no want of fresh bodies. One day, not long after her mother died and Shawna took off, she’d watched a Schwan’s delivery truck clip a pregnant raccoon that was crossing the road in an attempt, she assumed, to reach the dumpster behind the Country Mart. She’d seen the entire, grim spectacle: how the raccoon’s swollen stomach practically dragged on the ground as she waddled across the road, how cars and motorcycles whipped past but she continued undaunted, dragging her greasy tail over the double yellow line. Bo’s dread had turned to hope as the raccoon entered the eastbound lane, her journey almost complete. Bo had turned away, starting for the dumpster, figuring she would fish out a meal for the animal and spare her the chore of climbing into the hot metal box when she heard the truck. Bo had lived a hundred yards from FM 624 her entire life and she knew the acoustic sequence of hitting an animal at seventy miles an hour—a do, re, mi of brake, swerve, thump. The truck, its Easter yellow paint now faintly streaked with red, had struck the raccoon just as her front feet had reached the solid white line that split the road from the shoulder. The driver climbed out only to make sure he hadn’t damaged the fender before he and truck were absorbed back into the other traffic going east.    
          It had been a slow day and anyway Bo didn’t want a dead raccoon sitting in front of her store. She decided to bury her near the dumpster—at least she could get there in death. When the raccoon was in the ground Bo looked at the little mound and felt it didn’t look quite right, that such a selfless, if foolhardy, mother deserved recognition, a story that would outlive her. And besides, Bo felt more than a little guilt that it had been her dumpster that had lured the animal to her death. How many others had died seeking the same prize?
          And so, each animal received a small tombstone inscribed with a few lines. Baby rat, found in a ditch outside Dickie Robledo’s house. Dickie’s cat probably got him but he was in one piece so he must’ve been a fighter. She said no prayers over the bodies. It was enough just to lay them in the ground, to cover them in soft dirt and mark their brief lives with a few words. They deserved at least that.
          Shawna licked her fingers, having finished the tacos. Bo cleaned smudges from the glass fronts of the coolers with newspaper.
          “I ran into Dickie,” Shawna said, “in case you were wondering. He said some of the neighbors think it’s weird you’re out there all night. They think it’s un-Christian to be…” She paused and cleared her throat. “Playing with dead animals.”
          “For Chrissakes,” Bo said, dropping the bottle of glass cleaner on the floor. “Who’s complaining? Mr. Withers? Kevin Hayek? Mr. Withers is mad because he thought he won five hundred dollars on the Pick Six and I had to tell him his ticket was from the wrong week. And Kevin’s mad because I won’t let him sell meth in the parking lot. Un-Christian? Come on. They’ve known me my whole life.” When she finished speaking Shawna was looking at her with such abject pity Bo thought she might scream.
          “You weren’t here,” she said, surprised at how her throat tightened and her chin wobbled. “I’m in this store a hundred and nine hours every week. I might as well move my dang bed behind the register. And it wasn’t supposed to be like that. It was supposed to be different.”  
          “Let’s sell the store,” Shawna said, holding her hands open to Bo like a TV preacher offering salvation. “Let’s get you out of here. You can move in with me, get a normal job. You’re smart with numbers—you can even go to school. ‘Cause that,” and she aimed her thumb behind her in the direction of the cemetery, “ain’t normal.” She paused and touched her bracelet. “It’s an addiction,” she said, her face brightening, obviously pleased with the analogy. “You’re working on that instead of working on yourself. You’re digging holes out there instead of filling the holes in you. Come on,” she said, and she approached Bo slowly and Bo could see her sister’s throat tighten and her chin wobble as well. Like looking in a mirror. “I’m sorry I left you here,” Shawna said, her voice cracking. “I’m sorry, okay? That’s one of the things they teach you in recovery, is how to say sorry. I was never strong like you. I never could hold up this whole place on my shoulders.”
          Bo let herself be swallowed up in the hug. Her vision blurred and she grabbed her sister fiercely and let her tears fall into Shawna’s hair. Something was loosening and uncoiling inside her, years of anger and fear breaking apart like clouds growing thinner and less distinct until there was nothing left but sky, until she was weak from relief. Could it be that easy? My God, if I’d only known, she thought. “Thank you,” Bo said, breathing in what tasted like new air. “Thank you.”  
          “I love you,” Shawna said, letting go of the hug. “I know it must’ve been hard to run this place on your own. And you did amazing. But let someone else rot here. You don’t have to sacrifice your whole life just because your name’s on that stupid sign out front.”
          Bo had paid five hundred dollars in state fees to have the green metal sign put up in both directions of 624. She’d always had big plans for Schumpert. When she was little she dreamed of reopening the school that had flooded out in 1919, putting in an ice cream parlor, a pizza place, a roller rink. She could see it become more than a gas station and three streets dotted with trailers and junk cars. Even as she decorated the graves with plastic roses and plaster Jesus statues, she’d hoped that people would want to stop and visit the cemetery, that they’d kneel over the tombstones and remark on the care she’d paid to each occupant. When she was ordering the sign the clerk from Austin had asked over the phone if she had a motto she cared to include and Bo had frozen, wishing she’d thought to come up with one before that moment. “’You’re already here,’” she’d said quietly into the receiver, feeling the sentence conveyed both truth and an aspiration: visitors were, in fact, already in Schumpert by the time they were close enough to read the sign, but if they cared to stay the afternoon they would find aspects of the town that were familiar and, she hoped, reassuring.  
          But beyond the sign and the cemetery perhaps Bo had done nothing for Schumpert other than maintain the store and dutifully clear 624 of roadkill. Perhaps Shawna was right. Perhaps it was time to let someone else squeeze themselves into the town. Would anyone notice if the number of living Schumperts in the county dropped from one to zero?
          “I haven’t been to the beach since high school,” Bo said, smiling at the silliness of the admission. “I live forty miles from the Gulf and I haven’t been in eleven years.”
          “Well damn, dude, you gotta go,” Shawna said, wrapping a thin arm around Bo and pulling her into a sideways hug. “You can see the channel from our apartment.”
          “You can help me find a job?” Bo asked. “I always thought it would be nice to work at a bank. Come home not smelling like bleach and nacho sauce.”
          “I could see you working at a bank,” Shawna said.
          “And I could live in one of those apartment complexes that has a pool,” Bo said, laughing a little and feeling giddy. “I could get a milkshake on my lunch hour. A whole hour just for lunch!” Excitement was beginning to build inside her. The fantasies poured forth like bats escaping a cave—a giant television, high heels, a car with air conditioning, a house with air conditioning. Bo spent several tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of seconds as her fingers traced the outlines of wishes she’d never dared breathe.
          “So I may actually already have a buyer,” Shawna said. “He owns a boat that my guy works on sometimes. All I gotta do is give him a call.”
          “Just like that?” Bo asked, blinking rapidly. And as quickly as her dreams had come, now she could see them for what they were, the chipped gold paint revealing the enamel underneath.  
          “Just like that,” Shawna said, fidgeting with her bracelet. “He wants to come today, actually. But before I call him we gotta clean out that cemetery. If he sees that he’s gonna spook.”
          “You came to the house thinking I’d be at the store,” Bo said slowly. “You wanted to be at the house alone so—what? So you could grab the deed?”
          “What?” Shawna laughed and screwed up her face and a hard, little vein appeared on her forehead. “Don’t get paranoid. I’m just saying we can do this today. He’s got cash.” 
          Bo bit her lip and gave one last stab, not ready to let everything go. “What if you stay?” she asked. “You can move back in the house. I’ll get the air conditioner fixed.” She paused and readied herself to say the thing she’d wanted to say for two years, the little hope as small as a marble that she’d almost forgotten deep in her pocket. “If you’re clean now we can run the store together,” she said, “like we were supposed to.”
          But Shawna was shaking her head. “You’re not listening to me,” she said. “We’re doing this.”
          “The cemetery can be a tourist attraction,” Bo said, “like those Cadillacs buried in the ground up in Amarillo. We’ll make it bigger and charge admission. We can sell t-shirts and ice cream. Maybe get a little carousel.”
          “It’s my store, too,” Shawna said, her face beginning to redden. “You don’t get to call all the shots.”
          “We can make this work. We can make this town something special.”
          “What are you talking about?” Shawna barked, causing Bo to jump. “You said it yourself—you want to go to the beach and work somewhere you don’t have to mop up trucker piss. Don’t be stupid.” Her voice cracked again, this time out of desperation. “I’m handing you a ticket out of here,” Shawna said. “Just take it.”
          Bo let her sister’s words hang in the air a moment. Just take it. “You had this cooked up before you came out here,” she said. “Did you think you’d hit a big payday or something?” She pointed to the bracelet. “Is that even yours?”
          Shawna shrugged and fingered the gold charm. “You can find anything at a garage sale,” she said, smirking. 
          Bo looked at her sister and sadness grew like a balloon inside her. “Get out,” she said. And when Shawna didn’t move Bo shoved her hard causing her sister to stumble and knock over a display of Cheetos. “Get out!”
          Shawna ran out of the store and Bo stalked after her, afraid she’d run headlong into the highway like the raccoon. But Shawna hadn’t run to the highway—she was in the cemetery, Bo’s big shovel in her small hands, smashing the remaining tombstones and kicking plastic roses into the air. And she’d been at it a while. When Bo had been inside the store preparing her lunch, Shawna had been out in the cemetery dismantling two years of work. Almost everything was gone. Only the original few graves nearest the dumpster remained, including the raccoon.
          “I would have died if I’d stayed here,” Shawna said, holding the shovel up in front of her like a battle-axe. “Look what this town’s done to you,” and she brought the shovel down on a marker for an old Labrador. “I’m telling you we can get a goddamn garbage bag full of money, today, and you’re in there talking about selling ice cream? This is why I left. ‘Cause I knew staying here was gonna make me crazy, too.”
          “You need the money?” Bo asked, and she was surprised at how calm her voice sounded, how, even now she carried the uncoiled sensation inside of her like a flower shoved into the barrel of a gun. 
          “Yeah,” Shawna said, kicking at a stubborn tombstone that wouldn’t topple. “I got bills.”
          “I meant what I said in there,” Bo said. “I forgive you.”
          “Congratulations,” Shawna said, jamming the shovel point-down in the ground. “You’re Mother Teresa.”
          “And I love you.”
          “I don’t give a shit.”
          “Well that’s your choice, then.”
          Shawna tried to pull the shovel out of the dirt but she’d shoved it in too deep and her scrawny, drug-depleted arms struggled vainly to wrench it free. Finally she gave up and screamed into the sky that was now white with humidity and no one heard her except Bo and a pair of turkey vultures on a power line. Bo watched her sister—sweaty, stormy, defeated—and she wanted to believe it was only the addiction that had whittled Shawna down. Heroin was one kind of drug; hope another.
          The dairy truck rattled into the parking lot. The cow on the side of the trailer smiled wide with promises that her milk was the freshest. Beach days and swimming pools faded as Bo left her sister and propped open the back door for the deliveryman. She wasn’t worried about the cemetery—there would always be more animals.
          From the back of the store she could see the whole town, cup it between her hands, her entire life in the brief space between her palms. She walked around to the front of the store. The wind had picked up and her hair wrapped itself around her like a mask. When she reached the Coke can it was a foot off the ground, pulled west. She had a box cutter in her back pocket and used it to saw the old ropes until the can was free. She watched it somersault over the grass and into a ditch before it caught a good gust that put it on its side and sent it rolling down 624. Cars honked and swerved but no one hit it and the can rolled, unimpeded toward Orange Grove, Freer, Mexico. Bo laughed, covering her mouth at first but then letting herself double over at the sight of the emancipated can rolling to its destiny.
           When it was out of sight she put the box cutter back in her pocket. She was still smiling when she went back in the store.    

Elizabeth Gonzalez James' work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere. Her short story, "Cosmic Blues," was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers. She is working on her second novel, a magical realism western about her great-grandfather. She lives in Oakland with her family. 

Elizabeth .jpg