This excerpt, “Prologue,” is from Whereabouts by Scott Gould. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Gould. Used by permission of Koehler Books.

The college kid selling encyclopedias was the only surprise in a day that was supposed to be boring and long. Missy Belue’s parents had driven to Augusta for one of her mother’s appointments and wouldn’t be back to Kingstree until almost dark. They didn’t worry. Her mother said she was old enough to stay by herself, “especially with your attitude.” Her daddy smiled when he heard that. He was proud of his daughter’s backbone. And he cultivated it every chance he got. He called her an old soul. “My Missy, thirteen going on twenty,” he said.

Missy eyed the fellow through a crack in the curtains. His broad forehead glowed with sweat, and his white shirt was wet and wrinkled like he’d been dunked in a swimming pool. He had a heavy bag slung across one shoulder. She decided that he was harmless, that the evil people of the world did not sweat like that. Plus, he was rail thin like a prisoner of war, with glasses thick enough to start fires.

Missy tried to sound older than her years, so she lowered her voice a little and asked him through the door what he wanted. He told her he was working his way through medical school selling encyclopedias. He held up a little brochure of some kind toward the small glass pane in the door.

“What kind of doctor do you want to be?” Missy asked.

“The kind of doctor that knows a little bit about a lot of things,” came a muffled reply.

She had to open the door when she heard that because Missy was a big fan, even then, of people who knew a great deal about useless topics.

“I thought you’d be older,” he said when the door swung open and he got a look at the girl in the threshold.

“I thought you’d be drier,” she told him back, and the salesman plucked at the front of his damp shirt. He told her he couldn’t come in without an adult on the premises.

“Company rule. I think they had some trouble somewhere once upon a time.”

Missy said her parents were up in the bed with smallpox and couldn’t really walk what with the way the disease was taking its toll. He backed away from the door a bit and grinned. His teeth were skinny too, the size of corn kernels.

“People don’t get smallpox anymore. At least not in the United States of America. You can learn things like that in the World Book Encyclopedia nineteen sixty-eight edition.” He held up the brochure again. “How old are you, anyway?”

No one could ever guess Missy Belue’s age. Hair that hung almost to her waist made her look like she could be as young as ten, or closer to nineteen. She was tall for her age, with long feet, too long for her legs. Her face was the problem, if looking older was a problem. Missy had eyes that were deep and brown and, like her daddy said more than once, eyes that suggested she had seen a great deal of what the world had to offer. But it was all a lie. Missy rarely stepped foot outside of Kingstree.

“I’m twenty,” she said, sucking in a swallow of air.

“If you’re twenty, I’m Paul Newman,” the salesman said back, mopping his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. “And in case you’re keeping score, I ain’t no Paul Newman.” His eyes lit up a little behind the Coke-bottle lenses.

Missy liked him better once he made fun of himself, but she didn’t ask him to come inside, and he didn’t take a step forward. Instead, he dug in the big canvas bag hanging on his skinny shoulder. Missy didn’t offer him anything to drink because she thought people should have to ask for the things they needed.

“Do you like ess?” he said finally.

Ess what?” she said.

“The letter S. Do you like the letter S?” He kept digging in the bag.

“I suppose of all the letters, it’s in my top five or ten,” she said.

He pulled a volume out of his bag. “Well, good then. This here is the S volume of the nineteen sixty-eight World Book Encyclopedia. It’s the thickest letter in the set. It is packed with the most up-to-date information in the world that begins with the letter S that you can fit between two covers. Now, of course, we have volumes for all the letters in the alphabet, but I am going to leave this one with you overnight. I want you and your sick momma and daddy to take a look.” He laughed. “You can even look up smallpox. I’ll come back tomorrow and sign you up for the rest of the letters. Consider it a little loan on your future knowledge. We have monthly payment plans that are truly reasonable.”

She didn’t tell her mother and daddy about the salesman and the overnight loan of the book when they walked through the door from Augusta. She didn’t want to fill in all the blanks they’d have.

 

He took a breath like the sales pitch had worn him out. Missy thought he might pass out on the porch. She wasn’t quite sure what to do if a damp encyclopedia salesman fainted on her porch with her parents miles away in Augusta.

He passed the book through the door and made his way back into the street without another word. Inside, Missy turned the radio up. It was a Supremes song, and she started dancing her way around the room with the book out in front of her. She had, of course, come across encyclopedias before, in school when she had to work on projects. But she’d never had one of her own, even if the S was on loan from a skinny college-boy salesman.

Missy settled on the couch. Casper the white cat weaved around her shins while she flipped through the pages. She finally settled on an article. The salesman was right. Smallpox was all but gone. She flipped some more and read quietly while the next song from WKSP leaked out of the kitchen radio on the shelf above the toaster. This time it was Lynn Anderson. Missy read aloud to Casper that sharks have to keep moving or they would die. She turned to the listing on sex and stopped talking to the cat. At the end of the listing, it said, “For human beings sex is more than a merely physical problem. It is involved with moral teachings and with intense psychological problems. See also REPRODUCTION.” All of a sudden, Missy felt every bit of thirteen.

She didn’t tell her mother and daddy about the salesman and the overnight loan of the book when they walked through the door from Augusta. She didn’t want to fill in all the blanks they’d have. Her momma was, as usual, worn out from a full day of making up answers to questions from the doctors and counselors. Her daddy was tired from pacing the halls of the clinic. She knew they would be mad she’d opened the door. She decided when the skinny guy showed up tomorrow with the twenty-five other volumes, she could pretend she’d never seen him. Make him sound like the crazy one.

But he never showed. There was never a knock on their door. Missy kept the S to herself for months, tucked under some sweaters in her closet. She read it at night before she went to bed. Her favorite section was always the one on sharks. She kept returning to it. She loved the way sharks kept moving and moving, night and day. That seemed like a good life. Finally, Missy put the encyclopedia on her bookshelf in plain sight, and her mother never noticed. That was no surprise. Her mother always had other things on her mind. After a while, Missy lost track of that book, but she never forgot about those sharks, the way they love to move, day and night.

A two-time winner of the SC Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Fellowship in Prose, Scott Gould is the author of the story collection, Strangers to Temptation (Hub City Press) and the novel, Whereabouts (Koehler Books). In March 2021 his memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly, will be published by Vine Leaves Press. He teaches creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities. Visit scottgouldwriter.com for more.