The game he called “Going Back to Prison” was Rhinehart’s favorite, and it does him no credit. He pulled it more than once during Molly’s middle school and early high school years.
Through no fault of her own, Molly was a popular girl. She often brought friends home with her after school, as people do in small towns. Some of these friends were boys. To Rhinehart, in fact, Molly seemed to have a new boyfriend every other week, and maybe it was true. Western Minnesota boys, frankly, are up to their downy chins with blue-eyed blondes. Although they knew that Molly was as American as anyone, to them, she was a dark, curvaceous mystery from an exotic world far away. Consequently, the boys followed Molly’s black ponytail through Henderson Falls High like large Lutheran puppies, and there was always a certain amount of shoving and elbowing to get next to her. Molly didn’t mind the attention, it must be said, but no one blamed her for that.
The trouble was Rhinehart. If Rhinehart found any creature more dreadful, random, and pointless than the American teenage girl, it would have to be the American teenage boy. Thus, whenever Molly let her guard slip and actually introduced one of her friends to Rhinehart, he was ready to strike.
“Oh, um, hi Rhinehart,” Molly said, as she tugged a boy by the sleeve into the kitchen. “Is Grandma Claire not home?”
“Taking a nap,” Rhinehart answered, draining a can of beer as he leaned on the fridge. He had been mowing the yard, and wiped a sleeve across his sweaty face.
Molly frowned. “Rhinehart,” she scolded, “I thought you were going to stop drinking.”
“I quit drinking once before,” said Rhinehart. “Worst eight hours of my life.” He crushed the can against his forehead. “Who’s this critter, then?”
Molly giggled. She didn’t wholly trust Rhinehart, but she knew a good performance when she saw one. “Rhinehart, this is Greg,” she said. “He’s in my English class. Greg, this is Rhinehart.”
Just past his fifteenth birthday, Greg Elmerson was a tangle of arms and legs, strong ethical convictions, and a precocious grasp of computer programming. Greg knew in his heart that Molly was the kindest, most brilliant, most respectable girl in Henderson Falls High. Anyone who suggested otherwise was going to get a piece of his mind. Anyone who actually disparaged Molly—who called her a Dot Indian, for example, or the N-word—would find their hard drive mysteriously destroyed by a virus. It would not be too much to say that Greg was smitten. A member of the debate team, when he looked at Molly, Greg entirely forgot how to speak.
Rhinehart knew none of this, and it’s not clear that it would have mattered. What Rhinehart saw in Greg was a small-town boy hunched nervously between his glasses and his backpack, looking a lot like a nerd sandwich.
“Rhinehart,” Molly said. “I’m going to change, and then Greg and I are going to study, okay? So don’t . . .” She fixed him with a dire and threatening look. “You know, just don’t.”
Molly knew the difference between puppy love and the real thing, and she had no doubt that Greg was the real deal. He smelled right. No, literally. In a world where all the men smelled like fuel oil, and the boys at school smelled like feet and sour milk, Greg smelled like iced tea. Sometimes green tea, sometimes herb—it didn’t matter.
There was more. Three weeks before, she had seen Greg at the IGA with his mother and his baby sister. Molly yanked Grandma Claire back behind the display of canned pineapple.
“Isn’t he cute with the baby?” she whispered urgently.
Grandma Claire peered cautiously past cans of yellow chunks and slices to where Greg stood in the pasta aisle with a one-year-old on his hip. While Greg’s mother tossed packs of macaroni into the shopping cart, the baby had latched onto Greg's tee-shirt with one fist and his lower lip with the other. Greg’s eyes were watering, and he was saying “Mommmm . . .”
Grandma Claire grinned at Molly. “There’s just something about a man who can handle a baby, isn’t there?”
Molly sighed. He was the one.
“Um. What does she mean by that, sir?” said Greg, when Molly was gone. “Don’t what?”
“Hell if I know. You want a beer?”
“No sir, my parents wouldn’t . . .”
“No thanks. I really . . .”
“Kind of a pansy, ain’t ya?”
“Never mind. So you kids gonna do a little schoolwork, eh?” Rhinehart said, with a knowing smirk.
“Um. Yes, we have a test tomorrow.” Greg swallowed noisily. “On Beowulf.”
Rhinehart winked. “Our Molly sure is a purty girl, ain’t she? Know what I mean?”
“Um, I guess so.”
“Um. You guess so.” Rhinehart raised an eyebrow. “You must mean ‘Um, I guess so, sir.’ Ain’t that right, Greg?”
“Yes, sir. She’s very pretty.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Rhinehart, rolling up a sleeve. “C’mere, Greggie. Just wanna show you something.”
An angry scar ran up the inside of Rhinehart’s left arm from wrist to biceps. He got this scar in a farming accident twenty years before.
“I got this scar in a bar fight just last year.”
“Just said I did, didn't I? Tore up Mr. Binford’s Lizard Lounge over in St. Cloud,” Rhinehart said, wrapping his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “You ever been to Mr. Binford’s, Greggie?”
Greggie shook his head.
“Course not,” said Rhinehart. “I spose yer folks don’t approve of cowboy bars, neither.”
With his other hand, Rhinehart pulled a four-inch folding knife from its holster on his belt and flipped it open with his thumb. This was a simple utility knife like every farmer carries.
“And this here is what give me that scar.”
The truth is that Rhinehart hadn’t been in a fight since third grade. He had got his scar from a sharp piece of tin roofing on his cousin’s machine shed up in Twin Lakes. The main point of that experience, Rhinehart felt, was to prove that he had always been right to keep his tetanus shot up to date and a first aid kit in his truck at all times. The knife? He bought it at Farm and Fleet in 1985. But no matter. It was a better story the way Greg was hearing it.
“I see,” the boy said. Gulp.
“Yep,” said Rhinehart. “And then I took it away from the fool what used it on me. He didn’t need it no more, see. . . .”
Greg blanched and began to sweat. Why are old men always so scary? he asked himself.
“I just wanted you to know that story,” Rhinehart whispered into the boy’s ear. “Because like we was sayin, our Molly sure is a purty girl. And if anyone was to get our Molly drunk . . . or in a family way . . . or bring her home late for The Daily Show . . .”
Molly came dancing down the stairs, having changed into a crop top and impossibly tight jeans. She called out cheerily, “I’m back! Ready to study, Greg?” And then, with a scream, “Rhinehart! No!”
The boy, still in Rhinehart’s grip, was near to wetting himself.
“Rhinehart, let him go!” Molly threw herself between them and shoved against Rhinehart with both hands. “Oh, I will so totally get you for this!” she said. “Greg! Whatever he said, don’t believe a word of it!”
Rhinehart towered mildly over Molly, while she pinned him to the refrigerator. He stared at the boy, unblinking. “True story, boy. And don't you forget it.” he said.
“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you,” Greg offered breathily, his hand on the doorknob.
“Just remember,” Rhinehart shouted after Greggie, “I got no problem going back to prison!