Under the De Soto, fiction by Barrett Hathcock

We had a roof­ing job in Eureka Springs. Stu­pid name for a town. It’s up in the top cor­ner of Arkansas, almost in Mis­souri, stuck in this Ozark gul­ley, every street a down­ward spi­ral. There are no grids in Eureka. It’s all very dis­ori­ent­ing. Fol­low­ing the Steel Cloud into town, I got lost right away.

I was back work­ing for Billy. He’d moved up in the roof­ing world and was doing hotels, re-tarring and re-gravelling, and we kept doing these lit­tle trips out from Dal­las. I’d go with him and we’d hire a bunch of hands wher­ever we ended up. We’d do a week in Galve­ston, two days back home, a week over in Bossier City, four days back home. He just kept com­ing up with the jobs, each building’s super let­ting us know about a buddy he had.

Back in Dal­las, Billy had his old lady and a kid in school, though it didn’t seem to slow him down in the social depart­ment. I had Elise, who was always ask­ing how long I’d be gone, but it was only ever a few days. When roof­ing jobs dried up in the win­ter, I’d sub around the local mid­dle schools. Elise didn’t like it, the unpre­dictabil­ity, but it wasn’t like we ever went hungry.

We were there to re-tar this old hotel down­town. I’d got­ten lost but before long I saw the Steel Cloud parked in front of what I assumed was the hotel. It was the only build­ing tall enough to dis­ap­pear into the fog. I asked a bell-hop and he said they were on the roof giv­ing it the once over.

Up top was in bad shape, beyond patch­ing. Appar­ently, it’d started leak­ing all over a wed­ding party in the ball­room in Sep­tem­ber and that was just it. Billy was lay­ing it on Ralph, the day man­ager, even though the con­tract was already sewn up. Billy marched off square footage, called me over and said, “This here is my lieu­tenant Mr. Thomas,” and gen­er­ally made tar sound com­plex. I played obe­di­ent second-in-command, which was basi­cally why he kept hir­ing me.

The good thing about the job was that they gave us rooms in the hotel—no more sleep­ing in the van. It was Octo­ber and slow. Billy and I each had our own suite, which meant I had a lit­tle liv­ing room with a table and a couch and my own cof­fee maker and mini-fridge. Ralph said we could just charge what­ever to our rooms, but Billy gave me the eye. He said he was off to find some hands and that we’d start tomor­row straight up like nor­mal and that I should go enjoy myself. But not too.

It was about six when we all got set­tled in. Billy left me stand­ing there in front of the old hotel, dri­ving off in the Steel Cloud to god knows where. Ralph was shrug­ging into his rain jacket, head­ing home, and saw the Porsche pull away.

Must be nice,” he said.

Don’t you know it,” I said back.

All that was left was for me to do was find some­where to eat. The weird moun­tain road slanted down under my feet. It was like I was back in geom­e­try class, but trapped inside some shape. The town was like a game of Tetris with the stag­gers. The roads split at strange angles, and spade-like sides of build­ings sud­denly came at you. There was a restau­rant up on the sec­ond floor, and I could hear laugh­ter and some­one play­ing the gui­tar and singing that Daniel song by what’s his name. The queer with the glasses. Don’t have it.

I went walk­ing uphill on the main drag, and the side­walks were full of peo­ple, mostly old couples—ladies pulling their hus­bands through the streets, all of them in white sneak­ers. I’d walk up to a restau­rant, look in the win­dow, but inside I’d see noth­ing but shoul­ders, so I kept walking.

I decided I needed more cig­a­rettes, so I hiked on down to the truck. On the way I passed by this pizza place with an awning and an Arkansas flag and a lit­tle rain­bow flag. No one in there. Across the street was an Indian food place, but I’d only had Indian once before. I’d enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what any­thing was called. Elise had ordered every­thing for me. Lord knows when she’d become such an expert. Kept walk­ing down hill, feel­ing the grav­ity pull at my shins. A lit­tle moun­tain creek ran behind the shops to my right. I have to admit it was charm­ing in a way. There were ice creams shops and fudge shops every block or so. Lots of clum­sily hand-done signs and fly­ers every­where. Come see the Eureka Sings pro­duc­tion of The Lit­tle Foxes! This Thurs­day! That type of thing. I passed a gui­tar shop, stopped and looked in the win­dow. The brown back­sides of acoustic gui­tars hung float­ing from the wall. The sign said closed but inside an old man with too much beard sat with a gui­tar, point­ing to the gui­tar of another man, telling him where to put his fin­gers. They started strum­ming together and I walked on, not want­ing to inter­rupt with my staring.

Got to the van, pulled out my cig­a­rettes from the glove box. Van was mostly empty now that all the gear was on the roof. Just a sleep­ing bag and a lantern and a milk crate of parts. It looked like a box of metal cor­ners. I began to walk back uphill the way I came, puff­ing along, mov­ing slower now. The day was heav­ily cloudy and all the build­ings in the town looked like cookie dough—beige and unfin­ished. But the col­ors of the shops stood out. There was another quilt shop with a lit­tle rain­bow flag. It was like the town would not be bat­tened down by weather or geog­ra­phy or noth­ing. I blamed this on the tourists, who appar­ently was this town’s thing. The stu­dent was chop­ping reg­u­larly away at his gui­tar when I came back by, though I couldn’t tell what song he was playing.

Elton John, that’s the guy.

I was com­ing back up the hill where I would turn to get back to the hotel, and there was the pizza place and the Indian place. I went for the pizza.

Inside was lots of green vinyl and tele­vi­sions. I sat down and started look­ing over the menu, and went through it almost three times when I saw the lady up at the counter. She was look­ing at me, regard­ing me like an animal.

You order­ing or just here for the TV?”

Order­ing,” I said.

Well come on up.”

I ordered a medium with pep­per­oni, black olives, and arti­choke hearts.

Mmm,” she said. “Yummy. You must be from some place else.”

You could say that.”

That’ll be eight dol­lars. You want to drink? Which state?

Huh? Yeah, large Sprite.”

Which one?”

Oh, orig­i­nally? Out west some­where. One of the boxy ones.”

She smiled. She was a tall gal, not that pretty, with a plain evenly wrin­kled face and large teeth, the kind you’d keep inside your smile. She had long gray­ing blonde hair that she held in a low pony tail. She wore a T-shirt that said Eureka! It sure beats the shit out of Hot Springs.

Be about ten min­utes. You eat­ing here?”

Yeah,” I said, tak­ing my change. I pulled a paper from the stack near the reg­is­ter. I saw another lady spread­ing out my cheese, like she was sprin­kling dust. She took the pizza board and walked over to a big metal box, and pulled down one of the hor­i­zon­tal draw­ers and slid the pizza in place. She was shorter, wide hipped with iron grey hair, cut high and tight like she was a fresh recruit, but it was hiply gelled into lit­tle frozen waves. She pulled a cig­a­rette from behind her ear and nod­ded at the lady who had taken my order and then dis­ap­peared in the back.

I sat down with my paper but couldn’t con­cen­trate from watch­ing the weather on TV. They were say­ing some big storm was on its way in, mov­ing over from Okla­homa going to hit Arkansas around eight. I had to remind myself what state I was in. Right as the weath­er­man was say­ing that the sta­tion had us cov­ered, a wind swept down­hill out­side the open door and the lights in the restau­rant hic­cupped. I checked my watch: 7:40. I went back up to the reg­is­ter. The tall one was stand­ing there with her paper tented out in front of her. She folded down a cor­ner at my approach.

Is there any way I can get that to go,” I asked.

Get it any way you want it,” she said.

Great, thanks.” She walked over to the oven, pulled on the thin door and peered in. “Three min­utes,” she said.

Cool.”

What brings you to Eureka?”

Roof­ing. I’m work­ing up at the hotel.”

Which one? The Cres­cent or the Basin Park.”

I don’t know. The tall one.”

Oh, the Basin Park. The one just up the hill.”

That’s it.”

Used to work there.”

Yeah?”

Oh yeah, everybody’s worked there. They come to town and work with at the Basin Park, or at the Cres­cent, or at the hos­pi­tal. Ain’t nowhere else to work in town.”

Yeah.”

Up until they quit and open up their own shop.”

Yeah? I noticed there were lots of shops around.”

The tourists love it. Ain’t nobody in this own actu­ally from this town.”

Where you from?”

From way they hell down in Hilo.”

What brought you here?”

Who can remem­ber? Peace of mind? Been here almost twelve years.”

There was some­thing about this woman. There was an open­ness to her that com­forted me. It wasn’t sex­ual. It wasn’t mater­nal. Occa­sion­ally, I find this rap­port with older women, women I don’t find attrac­tive nec­es­sar­ily and yet who I can talk with. And I enjoy talk­ing with them because our talk feels free, cleansed of the hor­mones that clog almost all my other con­ver­sa­tions, not exclud­ing those with Elise.

This your lit­tle store?”

Yep. You got it. We been in busi­ness just over a year now.”

Right then the other woman walked by the open door­way car­ry­ing a large plas­tic jug of some­thing. She didn’t stop.

Started clean­ing rooms up at the hotel. Then worked the front desk, night man­ager, saved up enough and we bought this build­ing. Took a while to fig­ure out what we wanted to do with it.”

You could have opened a fudge shop.”

Too much fudge in this town already,” she said smiling.

She went back to the oven and pulled open the door, and pulled out the disc of my pizza. She slid it into a box with an aggres­sive, expert casualness.

You want pep­pers and shit?” she said.

No thanks.”

All right. You come back tomor­row after the storm, have a beer.”

Two slices down I walked into the hotel, and I was imme­di­ately flagged down by the kid at the front desk. Hadn’t been there a day yet and already they knew me by sight. He said he had a mes­sage for me. So chew­ing on my third slice, I unfolded the pink piece of paper on top of the pizza box as I rode the ele­va­tor up to my room. My plan was to buy two cokes from the machine and mix it with the bot­tle of Evan Williams I had in my bag, ride this storm out in style. The mes­sage was from Elise. The lit­tle “please call” box was checked and in the open, free response area it said, “You for­got your cell phone again.”

***

The storm front hit as soon as I got up to my room. Started watch­ing some movie on the tele­vi­sion but the screen kept turn­ing jagged when­ever the wind picked up. I think it was one the National Lam­poon Vaca­tion ones. I never under­stood why they were called that.

Finally, at about ten, after the storm had raged and set­tled and raged and set­tled, and I’d fin­ished the pizza and one of the Cokes, I decided to call Elise back.

Some peo­ple might be about to go to bed, you know,” she said.

Since when do you go to bed this early?”

Since when do you care what time I go to bed?”

Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been working.”

At ten at night? It’s rain­ing over there. I know this. You didn’t go to Mars, you know.”

The red planet.”

So what you were out par­ty­ing with Billy until all hours?”

Just din­ner.”

What did you have?”

What?”

What did you have?”

A steak.”

Mmm. Manly.”

I knew you’d say that.”

Don’t say it with such exhaustion.”

I’m not exhausted.”

You sound exhausted,” she said.

You sound exhausted.”

Well I have a per­fectly good rea­son to be.”

I do, too.”

Look, are we going to talk like this all night?”

Just then the line stut­tered and went to dial tone. Even though I knew what was going on I kept call­ing her name Elise? Elise? Elise? over and over, though I also kept telling myself to just shut up and call her back.

You didn’t have to hang up on me,” she said.

I didn’t hang up. Some­thing with my …”

Calm down. It was just a joke.”

I don’t want to fight,” I said.

We’re not fight­ing. We’re just shak­ing it out.”

What does that mean?”

You know, like when ath­letes fin­ish doing some­thing, they shake their arms out? Shake shake shake.”

I’ve never done that,” I said.

Like when we watched the Olympics. The runners?”

Okay, I remember.”

See? No big deal.”

Well what do we have to shake out?” I said.

I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one that up and ran to Arkansas.”

I didn’t run. I just took a job with Billy.”

You ran.”

I take jobs with Billy all the time.”

Yes, but usu­ally there’s like a note or we talk or you know, you tell me before you split.”

I told you …”

Yeah, you like shouted it as the car was speed­ing away.”

I did not.”

Did too.”

Okay, look, how are things?”

Things are great. Things are pregnant.”

What?”

Things thinks they are preg­nant. Things are grow­ing big and round and like Saturn.”

What? Wait, what did you just say to me?”

The power stream shud­dered and dimmed, the cater­pil­lar of snow descended diag­o­nally across the screen of my tele­vi­sion, the entire room hic­cupped and my phone went dead again.

God­damn fuck­ing hick town,” I said when she picked up.

I’m preg­nant,” she said. “I’m preg­nant, Tommy.”

How can you be pregnant?”

Really, they didn’t teach you this.”

No, I mean, you know what I mean.”

Look it hap­pens. It can hap­pen. It has happened.”

But I thought you were on the pill.”

I am. Well, I was.”

You got off the pill? When? Weren’t you going to tell me?”

I got off yes­ter­day when I found out I was pregnant.”

Why?”

Because if you stay on the pill when you’re preg­nant, you fuck them up. You give them like horns and shit.”

Really?”

Oh, Jesus, Thomas, yes, really.”

But before …”

Before I was on the pill. Remem­ber, every day. That lit­tle damn hockey disc.”

Then I mean, I under­stand, but how then did—”

I don’t know,” she said, sigh­ing into the phone, sound­ing gen­uinely con­fused by it all. “Maybe it was the antibi­otics a cou­ple of weeks ago.”

The anti what?” I said.

The antibi­otics I got for the sinus infection.”

They can do this?”

Yeah, they can.”

But did we even?”

There’s no one else.”

I didn’t say that.”

Let’s just say I could feel where you were going.”

Alright sorry, jeez.”

I’m not feel­ing so well.”

I can tell.”

Sym­pa­thy, Thomas, what I need at this moment is a moun­tain of sympathy.”

Okay, sorry. What did the doc­tor say?”

I waited for her to speak, and I kept wait­ing and noth­ing, and then I sud­denly real­ized that the phone was dead again.

I haven’t been to the doc­tor yet,” she said when I got her back on the phone.

What do you mean?”

I mean, I haven’t been yet. I did the stick.”

You peed on the stick?”

Yes.”

Well, then, I mean, I’m not try­ing to dis­credit you or any­thing, but we don’t really know what we’re talk­ing about yet. You got to go to the doc­tor. You just did the lit­tle pee stick.”

I peed on three of them.”

Well, that fine. I’m not …”

Yes, you are. Yes, you are. You are saying …”

I’m not say­ing any­thing. I just think we need to confirm.”

Con­firm what?”

Con­firm the preg­nancy. How many weeks along? Do you know that?”

I think three.”

Okay, that’s fine, but we need to con­firm every­thing. Why three?”

That’s just sort of my hunch.”

Well how late are you?”

Well tech­ni­cally I’m not late yet.”

What do you mean ‘technically’?”

I mean that I’m sup­posed to start tomorrow.”

You mean you’re not even late.”

Yes, tech­ni­cally as of now I am not offi­cially late. But the stick says.”

Well why did you even take the stick if that—”

I had a hunch okay? I had a hunch in my fuck­ing preg­nant belly okay? Women just know.”

Just know.”

Women just—”

I know. I heard you. Okay.”

I had a feel­ing about the antibi­otics,” she said.

Why did you say any­thing before we—”

I for­got, okay?”

Jesus, don’t get hysterical.”

Do not use that word. What­ever you do, do not use that word around me ever again. Do I make myself clear?”

Roger.”

Do I?”

Roger.”

Now, I don’t like talk­ing about all this over the phone any more than you do, but what would you have me do?”

Well you could wait until I got home.”

And when is that going to be?”

My mind went numb. I was look­ing out the win­dow at the rain falling in the street light and the leaves of the trees shud­der­ing inter­mit­tently into the light, like the branches were try­ing to shake off the rain. For a moment, I couldn’t get back to the room where I was. I had no idea how long it would take to do the roof upstairs.

It’s rain­ing here,” I said.

I already knew that part, Thomas.”

***

The next day it was still rain­ing, but one of those decep­tive sprin­kles, where you think it’s really noth­ing but as soon as you get out in it, you seem to be cov­ered in nee­dles of water. The town was back alive, its tourist blood flow­ing. Old ladies hauled their hus­bands up and down the side­walks, the lit­tle rain­bow flags beck­oned, and the cute bub­bling stream from the day before now had real vio­lence too it. All around us grav­ity was hav­ing its way. The side­walks were moated with rain­wa­ter, too fast and deep to walk through.

After cof­fee and a muf­fin from one of the cute spots down the street, I got up to the roof. The new hands were there, stand­ing sto­ically in the rain and smok­ing, but there was not a thing to do, and Billy was pissed. He paced around on his cell phone despite the rain. I wor­ried that he might get elec­tro­cuted but I wasn’t the type of per­son to say any­thing. Finally, after like an hour of this, he told me to go down­stairs and tell the man­ager the day was a bust.

I rode down the ele­va­tor next to a cou­ple of guests, drip­ping the whole time and try­ing not to look dan­ger­ous. Some­thing about con­struc­tion or repair just makes peo­ple nervous.

Ralph was easy. He seemed to like me for a rea­son I couldn’t fathom.

Yeah, I fig­ured,” he said, sit­ting in his chair and play­ing on the com­puter, its blue glow light­ing up his big glasses. “We gotta just hang on until this thing passes. Prob­a­bly tomor­row some­time. Look, there was some­thing I wanted to dis­cuss with you. I mean I could talk about it with Billy but it’s about this weekend.”

I had the feel­ing that Ralph dis­liked Billy. Billy was one of those peo­ple who unnerved some peo­ple. Well, most peo­ple really. There was noth­ing vis­i­bly wrong with him, but he had a slick con­fi­dence that creeped peo­ple out. He could stand there and com­pli­ment your car, go on and on about it, and fill you with the notion that he was about to steal it with your wife inside.

Do y’all want cash or is a check okay?”

I answered with­out really think­ing about it.

Cash, def­i­nitely. We need it to pay the hands. If we don’t pay them daily, they’ll skip out on us. Then we’re back on square one, pick­ing up Mex­i­cans every morn­ing. Got to keep them faithful.”

I fig­ured as much. Okay, so y’all have today’s and then I was think­ing. I was think­ing of pay­ing the rest tomor­row before I split for the weekend.”

Don’t come back in on the weekends?”

Not if I don’t need to. I’m sure you under­stand. And I sure as hell ain’t going to let Kenny have all that cash. You met Kenny?”

No.”

Yeah, well, you will this week­end. Sat­ur­day man­ager. Couldn’t wipe his ass with­out pulling a muscle.”

That’s fine. I’ll dou­ble check with Billy.”

Yeah. Okay. I guess that’ll be fine,” he said. “Tell him I’ll have the money tomor­row after­noon. Y’all be tar­ring by then?”

Yeah, if this stu­pid weather cooperates.”

***

What did he say?” Billy asked when I got back upstairs.

He says cool. Get to it when we get to it.”

Yeah? Want his money back?”

Huh, no. Noth­ing about that.”

Cool. He say any­thing else?”

Nah, he was busy. Cool with all of it.”

Billy smiled for the first time that day, almost invis­i­ble under all that rain and his ball cap. “Cool deal,” he said.

After grab­bing a cig­a­rette from the com­mu­nal pack we’d kept in the shed, he called the Mex­i­cans still stand­ing still in the rain over toward the edge of the roof.

Hola, viejos. Aqui venido. We’re com­pleto hoy. Siesta all day, com­prende? Mañana morn­ing, bright and early. Bring a friend, mas o manos? Amiga de la roofer? Comprende?”

The Mex­i­cans nod­ded in uni­son, and Billy slid one of them a fold of money. He looked at it for a sec­ond, made some mute ges­ture toward his friend, and they trudged away.

I got enough for one more day of that,” he said.

It’ll let up. I watched the weather this morning.”

Since when did you become mis­ter weatherman?”

Since you brought me out to the Big Rock Candy Moun­tain, sir.”

He laughed and lit his cig­a­rette, and said, “Well that set­tles it.”

Yeah?”

I’m head­ing to Lit­tle Rock.”

Yeah?”

Got some busi­ness there.”

Yeah, more tars jobs?”

Tar pit more like it.”

Huh?”

Fig­ure it out.”

Yeah?”

I’ll be back Sunday.”

Sun­day, what I’ll do until?”

You know what to do.”

Well—”

Do you know what to do? You know how to do this? That’s why I brought you, right?”

Yeah, I know what to do. I know how to roof.”

Good. That Ralph off this week­end, right?”

Yeah, some week­ender is com­ing in. Kenny.”

Right, good. You just keep your nose straight. Don’t drink too much. Hire another hand if you need to but no more than four. Five would be just greedy. Here.”

He reached back in his coat and pulled out the rest of his cash, tight­ened up in one his daughter’s hair bands, handed it over to me.

You make that work, how­ever pos­si­ble. I don’t want any calls from you begging.”

Hey, we’re set. Weather’ll clear out this after­noon. You come back Sun­day we’ll be pack­ing up and load­ing out Mon­day by lunch with cash in hand.”

Good. I com­prende that.”

You lin­ing up some work down in Lit­tle Rock?” I don’t know why I was press­ing him that morning.

Let’s just say I’ve got a solo gig there for the time being,” he said. And with that he blew out smoke that got caught between us in the rain. And he looked at me from under the brow of his cap with a plain male frank­ness. I hate to say that, but there was some­thing male about it. It was some kind of straight-on pre­ver­bal male com­mu­nion, out there in the smoke and rain. It was a look that said, shut up with your god­damn questions.

So I shut up.

***

The rest of the day was like my own per­sonal vaca­tion in Eureka. I went for an early lunch at the pizza place. The tall blonde was there again, and she sat down and ate across from me. Said was bet­ter to eat early before the nurses came. Her name was Ser­ena. Said every Fri­day was Nurse Day and all the ones from the hos­pi­tal would twad­dle on down. Her part­ner came by later, her name was Tracy, and it finally dawned on me that they were together. I’m cool with that. I never wor­ried about what other peo­ple did to each other, but I didn’t see it at first. Any­way, they told me that if I had the day I really should drive around and look at the scenery. They said stay away from all the old lady shops unless I needed a quilt for my lady back home. But I said no thanks. We’re all full up on quilts. I asked them about the gui­tar shop, and they said yeah that was Tex and he was legit, been there longer than anyone.

Is he a native?”

Heck no. He’s from Vermont.”

They said after that come back for din­ner. It was lasagna night.

Y’all do lasagna?”

We’re not just a pizza joint,” Tracy said.

What if I want to see some of the other nightlife in your fine town?”

Well that’s fine, they said, but don’t go drink­ing on an empty stomach.

And so I trouped on down to the van. I passed by the gui­tar shop but it was closed with a lit­tle clock that said he’d be back at 2:20. I bought a car­ton of cig­a­rettes to share with the hands (one of Billy’s secrets). It was still rain­ing a lit­tle but I man­aged to find my way out of the gully and got on the Pig Trail, which turned out to be really High­way 23. I rode for a lit­tle while with the hori­zon jump­ing up and down.

Finally, I just pulled the car over at this lit­tle look­out point and I got out and lit a cig­a­rette and stood for a while. It was more than beau­ti­ful, the way the trees all ran up and down the hills in their fall col­ors. I was above every­thing, look­ing down on the hill­tops and down there it looked like some great crum­bled rusty machine, all quilted together. The rain had stopped and there was a pleas­ant chill to the air, a cold­ness brought in on the storm’s heels. I could tell it would clear up the next day and that we’d have three days of hard work ahead of us with­out Billy to make peo­ple ner­vous. I fin­ished my cig­a­rette and started another. There was nowhere to sit down so I just kept stand­ing but didn’t seem to mind. The wind was free and light like it was finally done with sum­mer, and it pushed me gen­tly to the edge, and the crum­ple quilted sur­face of the tree­tops bowl­ing out below me made me feel like I could fall into them. I thought about lasagna night and hav­ing a beer with Ser­ena and Tracy. It was so won­der­ful in that moment feel­ing that I had nowhere to be, no one I was sup­posed to call. The next cig­a­rette was already gone, so quick, and it seemed waste­ful to start another right away. I couldn’t chain smoke like I was 20 any­more. I stood out there just breath­ing for another five min­utes before I got self-conscious.

I drove back into town and found my hotel park­ing lot and began to trudge back up the hill. The gui­tar guy was back in the store, stand­ing at the reg­is­ter read­ing a Thomas Har­ris book, and I came in and said, can you give me a lesson?

A cow­bell clunked to announce my entrance.

You buy a gui­tar, I’ll give you a les­son,” he said.

I don’t want a guitar.”

Well then.”

You know Tracy and Ser­ena up at the pizza place? They’re old friends of mine. I’m new to town and they said you were the man to see.”

That a fact?”

You bet,” I said.

Well,” he said, slid­ing a gui­tar pick inside his paper­back to mark his place, “let’s go pick you out something.”

And we spent the next hour hud­dled together, each on stools as he tried to teach me an E chord and then a G chord. We started on D but then his next les­son came. My fin­ger­tips were sting­ing raw, like they’d each been indi­vid­u­ally scorched. But I didn’t want to leave. There was some­thing about strum­ming out that E that felt so good despite the pain, like a big twang­ing exhale.

You come back tomor­row I’ll teach you ‘Mar­gar­i­taville’,” Tex said.

I need to buy a guitar?”

We’ll work on that.”

Back at the pizza place that night, I had lasagna, and I told Tracy and Ser­ena about my day. They were right proud, and I was proud telling them. It was strange being so proud in front of them. Tracy would get up and tend to the ovens while I was talk­ing. A bowl­ing league had come through and set up in the restau­rant, all wear­ing iden­ti­cal pink shirts, snap but­tons with short sleeves. They must have won because they were loud and kept tot­ing pitch­ers out to the tables, two at the time. I was eat­ing up near the reg­is­ter, almost like the help.

Tourists,” Ser­ena said. “From Lit­tle Rock.”

My boss is in Lit­tle Rock,” I said.

Every­one is in Lit­tle Rock. It’s where every­one wants to be.”

Not me.”

Well you’re the first. Where do you want to be, then?”

I didn’t know but I was on my sec­ond plate of lasagna and third beer, and my belly had this radi­at­ing, warm full­ness to it, and I just wanted to bring every­one together, the bowlers, Ser­ena and Tracy, and make a giant gui­tar out of them and strum them over and over.

Then I went back to the hotel and stayed up watch­ing Law and Order reruns until Elise called at ten-thirty.

I’m not pregnant.”

What?”

I’m not pregnant.”

What do you mean you’re not pregnant?”

Just what I said. It’s a no go. I’m with­out child.”

But yes­ter­day.”

I know, I know. I went to the doctor.”

Already?”

Yes, already. What, now you’re mad I went to the doc­tor too fast? Yes­ter­day you were all go to the doc­tor.”

It’s just I didn’t think …”

What?”

I thought maybe you’d wait until I got back home.”

Well sorry to dis­ap­point you.”

I’m not dis­ap­pointed, it’s just—”

You’re not dis­ap­point I’m with­out child.”

No, I’m dis­ap­pointed it’s just—”

This—”

This—it’s hap­pened so fast.”

Tell me about it. So when are you com­ing home?”

I don’t know.”

You have a ballpark?”

Ball­park four days.”

Four day ballpark.”

Can you live with that?”

I guess. What’s your next job?”

Don’t have one yet. Billy’s scout­ing work in Lit­tle Rock.”

Great. What’s with all this Arkansas work?”

I don’t know. He’s got a thing for Arkansas.”

Thing. Fling’s more like it. You alone in there?”

Just me and the mini-fridge and Law and Order.

Good boy.”

Thanks.”

Come home soon.”

I will.”

Soon soon.”

I will.”

I want to have a baby now.”

I under­stand that.”

I don’t think you do, but that’s okay. I don’t need you to understand.”

You just need me to like donate.”

Yes. But there are other rea­sons I need you too.”

Well that’s com­fort­ing,” I said.

***

            The next day we were back at work, and I was play­ing fore­man. The hands brought somebody’s brother and the three of them made quick work of the scrap­ing, and by ten they were heat­ing tar and get­ting every­thing ready. The smell was already thick in my nose. I was in the read­just­ment period where the smell comes back at you and takes over every thought. After a day or so it just becomes back­ground, but there is always the first day of hav­ing to stom­ach it once again. I was pre-embarrassed about lunch, what Ser­ena and Tracy would think with me com­ing down the hill smelling like turd.

And that got me to think­ing. Why was I embar­rassed about what they thought of me? I hardly knew these peo­ple. But as the morn­ing wore on, and I stood there and smoked, I couldn’t shake it, this sud­den car­ing about how I smelled and know­ing that I smelled worse the longer I stood up there. Sud­denly every­thing seemed too tight, from the cig­a­rettes to the tar to the cov­er­alls I was wearing.

I decided to go down­stairs and check on the money. I hollered at the hands, who kept on pour­ing, and rode the ele­va­tor down to the lobby. The whole way I could feel peo­ple lean­ing away from me, the smell push­ing them, dis­gust­ing. I was dis­gusted myself for the first time I could remember.

Here you go,” Ralph said.

Thanks for this.”

Hey, sure. Makes it eas­ier on me. Now I don’t have to worry about Kenny screw­ing things up. He’ll be around this after­noon. I’m prob­a­bly about to cut out myself. Y’all got every­thing you need?”

Oh yeah. No wor­ries. We’re pour­ing steady now.”

Billy being cool?”

Cool as a cucumber.”

Good. I didn’t see him out this morn­ing, won­dered if he maybe had too much to drink.”

Nah. He was up there. Maybe had cof­fee in his room. We’ve got suites,” I said, stupidly.

Prob­a­bly right. So lis­ten, y’all be careful.”

Sure thing. Them hands are tight.”

Those peo­ple up there speeka da English?”

They do all right.”

I stood there too long. The con­ver­sa­tion was over and I knew it, could feel it, but for some rea­son I stayed still, like I wanted him to bless me or some­thing. Maybe it was the lying about Billy, though I don’t know why that would have caught me up. Billy was just Billy. Who cared if he wasn’t around. Though if he was around, let’s be hon­est, I wouldn’t have done what I did. Maybe I was feel­ing some pre-guilt. I swear I hadn’t even thought of it yet but maybe my body could feel it, could smell the crime com­ing off of me like that tar.

Because what hap­pened was I rode the ele­va­tor back up to the roof, the fat enve­lope of cash in my inside pocket, and I got out to the shed and lit another cig­a­rette. The Mex­i­cans were still at it. It was com­ing up on lunch break, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back to the pizza place smelling like tar. And I couldn’t stand there for the rest of the day pre­tend­ing to be the boss. And what was most fright­en­ing was that I real­ized that I couldn’t talk to Elise again. The thought of hav­ing to talk to her on the phone again that night and the night after and deal with her spas­tic charm—I couldn’t do it. And to go back home and hash out all of that crap with the preg­nancy, to fig­ure out if she was preg­nant or not, or if she was fak­ing and why, and did she really want to have a child and when did this come up, when did she real­ize this. I knew what she would say anyway.

I don’t know. It struck me right as I was telling you that I wasn’t preg­nant. I real­ized that I actu­ally did want to be pregnant.”

Which was fine for her, but it wasn’t fine with me. I could see that. The tar was spread­ing and set­tling, cool­ing steadily, and the roof on this old hotel would be like new in two days, ready for another twenty years of rain­fall. And that’s how I started to think of my own life at that moment, that after so many years of one thing, a man had to make changes, a man had to revisit the sur­face of his life and check for leaks.

And so I knew what to do. I took out the cash Billy had given me and stuffed it in the com­mu­nal cig­a­rette car­ton. That still left Ralph’s enve­lope com­pletely untouched. Screw Billy. He would do the same to me, I thought. I waved over to the Mex­i­cans, indi­cated I was going to take a piss. They’d find their money. That was never a problem.

And then I rode down the ele­va­tor, swung by my room and got out of my jump suit and back into my reg­u­lar Wran­glers. Threw my shit into my bag and took the stairs down. No sight of Ralph. I walked quickly down the street, the fat enve­lope of money in my coat pocket, heavy and grimy. I passed the pizza place, just now open­ing up for lunch. I wanted to stop in and tell them good­bye, tell them every­thing, but I knew bet­ter. It was bet­ter to dis­ap­pear sud­denly from their view. Besides, I couldn’t set­tle there. I needed to find my own some­where new.

I kept walk­ing down the hill, spot­ting the van in the dis­tance. Billy could get another for cheap. It wasn’t like I was steal­ing his lit­tle Porsche. I stopped for a moment, won­der­ing if I was really about to do this, all the com­pli­ca­tions it would bring. Would Billy come after me for nine grand and an old Volk­swa­gen van with 200 plus miles on it? I was stand­ing in front of the gui­tar store. Inside Tex was lean­ing into the counter, almost done now with that Thomas Har­ris novel. The cow­bell on the door clunked as I entered.

Back for more, eh,” he said, not look­ing up.

Back for that gui­tar,” I said.

***

            I sped down the Pig Trail, the wave of the hori­zon whoosh­ing by, and I made my way through the Ozark National For­est as fast as I could. I just knew that I was about to see some patrol­men peek over the hill behind me and flip his lights. But instead it was just me and all that grav­ity, all those irreg­u­lar lines. As soon as I got up any speed, I was brak­ing hard to keep it on the black­top. All the van’s ingre­di­ents shifted with every turn, the sleep­ing bag rolling like a tum­ble­weed, the milk crate of metal cor­ners slid­ing back and forth. To keep my gui­tar from get­ting hurt, I sat it upright in the passenger’s seat and strapped the seat­belt across its big belly. I made it to the inter­state and got through Lit­tle Rock with­out too much think­ing, even though Billy was there some­where in its hills, hump­ing some­one, the Steel Cloud parked out front. Really more than any­thing he would prob­a­bly be proud of me. He’d write it off, insur­ance would pick it up. I was ashamed of what Ralph would think, but this seemed like wor­ry­ing about Ser­ena not lik­ing my tar smell. Since when do I care what these peo­ple think? These strangers? What about what I think of myself?

After Lit­tle Rock, I fell into silence and sim­ply drove, mak­ing sure not to speed. I was going to be fine. I stayed this way until I hit Mem­phis. It was the bridge that did it. As I came up its incline, the illu­mi­nated M-of its lights shook; I’d some­how caught up to that front that had come through Eureka. The wind descended and shook the van as I slowly made my way up the bridge. I could see the out­line of down­town in the dis­tance but only as a dense rec­tan­gu­lar shadow in the gray half-light. It was some­where around din­ner­time. My plan was to get all the way to Chat­tanooga before set­tling in.

I got up under that glow of the De Soto Bridge, under its arc of light bulbs, and all that light made me feel a bit more safe—a bit more like I wasn’t about to get flung off into the river for what I’d done. And it was just then, under that light that I saw the sign across the river, the red elec­tronic sign stuck on some build­ing down­town: The Birth­place of Rock and Roll. And that’s what broke me down, made me see what I was really doing to Elise.

It had all hap­pened by now: the Mex­i­cans would have dis­cov­ered their money, rifling for the cig­a­rettes after lunch. By now Kenny the idiot week­ender would have fig­ured out that I’d flaked, when all the noise from the roof had stopped hours too early. By now he would have called Ralph and Ralph would have called Billy, and Billy—emerging from God knows what scenario—would have called my cell phone, which was sit­ting on the kitchen counter back in Dal­las, right where I’d left it on pur­pose. I was tired of talk­ing to Elise even before I’d left for the job. I wasn’t plan­ning on leav­ing her. I had never thought about it before, but then there you go.

By now she knew. Only six hours ago every­thing was nor­mal, but by now she had to know. She would have picked up my cell phone, and Billy and her would have had the strangest con­ver­sa­tion. Full of con­fu­sion and expla­na­tion. It prob­a­bly took them a half an hour to fig­ure out what I’d done.

And what exactly had I done? Only what every man has a right to do, at least two or three times in his life, and that’s start over. Find a new spot on the map and make him­self up from scratch. I didn’t know that then. In fact, run­ning across that bridge and see­ing that sign, it felt like a true Sign—like God had come down to let me know that Elise really was pregnant.

***

There was some mean­der­ing before I got all the way to the coast. Some false starts. I stayed around east Ten­nessee and the Car­oli­nas for six months, just bounc­ing around, work­ing day labor. I turned myself back into a hand, tak­ing daily bits of cash and cig­a­rettes, mak­ing friends with the Mex­i­cans where I could find them, speak­ing their lan­guage, help­ing them find the work that was out there. I’d stay a week in the same place but no longer. I was lay­ing low until I felt the fog had cleared.

No one came for me. That’s how I knew she wasn’t really preg­nant. If that was the case, she would have really found me. If it were true, she would have gone hysterical.

Now, all this time later, I’m not proud I did it, but I under­stand why. You’ve got to pro­tect your­self. That’s what I learned in Eureka. You’ve got to clear out a new space for your­self, not box your­self in, patch your leaks, find your true home. That’s what Ser­ena and Tracy had done, prob­a­bly what Tex had done too. Everybody’s got that right. You’ve got it, too, if you want it.

 

 

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Tipping the Jug*, poem by GC Smith

Red­necks and black­men
old bud­dies and friends
will stand now together
with a clay jug of corn
they'll drink to their health
and com­fort each other with lies
and com­fort each other with lies

They'll talk of their dogs
and the ducks that they've shot
of hunt­ing through Low­coun­try win­ter
with their brag­ging of deeds
in the depths of dark piney woods
they'll not men­tion who shot the cow
they'll not men­tion who shot the cow

They'll avoid the com­mo­tion
of the farmer's vile notion
to sim­ply be paid what he's due
They'll vow to hide from him
and never men­tion that cow
as they drink deep of the old moun­tain dew
as they drink deep of the old moun­tain dew

*apolo­gies to Rob­bie Burns

GC Smith is a south­erner. He writes nov­els, short sto­ries, flash fic­tion, poetry. Some­times, but not in nov­els, he plays with dialect, either Cajun or Gullah-Geechee ways of speak­ing. Smith's work can be found in: Gator Springs Gazette, F F Mag­a­zine, Igua­na­land, Dead Mule School of South­ern Lit­er­a­ture, Naked Humorists, The GLUT, Flask Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, N.O.L.A. Spleen, NFG Mag­a­zine, Cel­lar Door, The Beat, Dis­patches Mag­a­zine, Beau­fort Gazette, Coyote's Den, South­ern Hum, Lam­oille Lamen­ta­tions , Quic­tion, The Land­ing, The Haunted Poet, Fla­vor a Deux, The Bin­na­cle, Stymie Mag­a­zine, Ban­nock Street Books. He has four nov­els, WHITE LIGHTNING –Mur­der In the world of stock car rac­ing and THE CARBON STEEL CARESS, A Low­coun­try P.I. novel, IN GOOD FAITH, A Johnny Donal P.I. novel, and Mud­bug Tales: A Novel In Flashes, wit' recipes. His poetry book is A South­ern Boy's Meanderings.

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The Hills are Alive, essay by Anna Lea Jancewicz

Yeah, every­body has a dead grand­mother story. They’re not sexy and nobody’s buy­ing. But this story is mine, and it’s not so much about the woman as it is about the place. I’m from a lit­tle coal town, McAdoo, in North­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. A place where peo­ple still use clothes­lines, and it has noth­ing to do with being green. A place where wed­dings and fam­ily reunions mean at least a fist fight, and maybe one of Aunt Vera’s boys piss­ing in somebody’s car to teach them a les­son. A place where it’s hard to say whose sin will draw the nas­ti­est whis­pers, the cousin who’s sus­pected of covert abor­tions, or the cousin who had the gall to earn a PhD. A place where aunts will still rec­om­mend spik­ing a baby’s bot­tle with Karo syrup, and stare slack jawed when you reveal that all of your chil­dren made it through infancy with­out ever touch­ing lips to a rub­ber nip­ple. A place where a cousin can snarl about all the ille­gal Puerto Ricans and not under­stand why you burst into laugh­ter and shake your head. A place where uncles cap­ture snakes from inside houses in paper gro­cery sacks, where a black bear might just amble out of the strip­pins, where great-grandfathers sit with Phillies base­ball games on their tran­sis­tor radios eat­ing tomato and oleo sand­wiches before they die of black lung and are buried in their Knights of Colum­bus uni­forms, swords by their sides. A place where Grannies yell at kids in words that are not Eng­lish, and the onion domes of Byzan­tine churches rise once-resplendent in once-golden paint above streets crammed with clap­board houses and Amer­i­can flags.

Because this is Appalachia, but this isn’t the Appalachia you think of, with blue­grass and corn­bread and kids named Billy Bob. This is where kids are named Stan­ley, and you can’t pro­nounce their last names, what with the sz’s and cz’s and w’s that sound like v’s. And the Stan­leys all say youse guys. This is the Appalachia where grand­moth­ers don’t flinch to say cock­sucker in front of you when you’re lit­tle enough to only pic­ture an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion for a chicken, but Protes­tant is whis­pered, a dirty word. This is the Appalachia where you vaca­tion Down The Shore, and pep­pers are man­gos and you sit on your dupa and shut your trap for two-tree min­utes now, henna?

The colos­sal maw of an aban­doned strip mine yawned behind my grand­par­ents’ house, the house that my Pop­pop built him­self, just down the big back lawn and across the alley from the loom­ing house that he was born in, the house that my Granny and Grand­pap lived in until they died, where Granny’s par­ents had been laid out for their home-funerals, back when such a thing was what was done. My sec­ond cousins lived in one half of that house, and the youngest was just my age. The sum­mer they finally paved that alley, she and I got in a fight, each of us on either side of the cool­ing asphalt, and one of us hit the other in the fore­head with a well-pitched rock. I can never remem­ber which one of us threw the rock and which one of us bled. We were that close. When she got knocked up at fif­teen, I thought Well hell, I can’t judge. There but for the grace of God and my par­ents’ trusty pick-up truck go I.

Because my mom and dad got out, had packed up every­thing we owned and moved us, pick-up truck­load by pick-up truck­load, to Vir­ginia in 1979. I was four. The world had been all of a cou­ple miles squared, and every per­son I’d ever seen had known my name, known my fam­ily. I’d thought black peo­ple were only on TV. But you’ve heard the Billy Joel song, so you know that part of the story. The coal was gone, the fac­to­ries were clos­ing. “It’s get­ting very hard to stay…”

But back I came, each sum­mer wowed by the hori­zon appliquéd with ghosty blue sil­hou­ettes of moun­tain tops, back to this place that seemed on one hand burst­ing with magic and wild­ness, and on the other just plain back­ward. Down at the bot­tom of Logan Street, behind Poppop’s house, there was the Shit Crick, into which all the borough’s raw sewage was emp­tied. There were no big box stores, no fast food restau­rants. We’d get on the high­way in Poppop’s big green Oldsmo­bile, cruise-control it to the Frackville Mall for that. I’d perch on the arm­rest beside my grand­fa­ther as he sang Sina­tra, keep­ing my eyes peeled to catch sight of the golden arches high atop the hill as the mall came into view. Or we’d wind down the moun­tain to Walt’s Drive-In for soft serve ice cream cones, watch golfers on the dri­ving range behind, bring back a CMP sun­dae for Nanny. Her favorite, chocolate/marsh mellow/peanuts. What McAdoo had was the fire­house, with booze at night. An Ital­ian place, for pitza, the kind that drips orange grease to bleed through stacked paper plates and needs to be folded in half to fit in your mouth. An inex­pertly hand-painted sign nailed up crookedly out­side somebody’s door, adver­tis­ing ETHNIC FOOD, and that means pierohi, halupki, halushki. There was a roller rink, but that was closed down every sum­mer, or maybe just closed down for good.

My cousin and I roamed, played all the make-believe games. We watched Hatchy Milatchy on black and white TV, and put on dance shows for Aunt Peggy when she came home from work­ing at the Kmart in Hazel­ton, and dressed up in Granny Palmer’s old hand­made floor-length slips and her other acces­sories, antique hand­bags and scarves, that my Nanny still had saved in a trunk. We picked Queen Anne’s Lace and put the flow­ers in glasses of water and food col­or­ing, watched the blooms turn col­ors. We argued over which celebri­ties we’d marry, we argued over which of her teenage sis­ters’ boyfriends was the cutest, and when we got a lit­tle older we’d skulk in alleys and sneak cig­a­rettes and sing Guns N’ Roses.

These were my sum­mers, until Nanny got sick.

***

It’s a few days after my four­teenth birth­day, and I’m stand­ing in the Decem­ber rain, strad­dling one of my cousins’ old ten speed bikes, watch­ing some strangers dump back­hoe shov­el­fuls of cold wet dirt on top of my grandmother’s cof­fin. Nanny is down in that hole, not wear­ing the col­or­ful poly­ester pantsuit she asked to be buried in. She’s wear­ing the mint green gown that she wore for one of the twins’ wed­dings. They said what she wanted was tacky. I went back to the house with every­body else after the funeral, but they were all eat­ing and talk­ing, and I didn’t feel like doing either. I came back, by myself, to watch this.

There are sev­eral acres of ceme­tery out here on the edge of town, butting up to the rail­road tracks, before you cross over to the long road through the woods where wild huck­le­ber­ries grow in sum­mer, where cold, cold water bub­bles up from moun­tain springs, the road that leads out past the cigar fac­tory, over to Tresckow, where both my aunts live. Chain link and crum­bling stone walls sep­a­rate sundry grave­yards that belong to dif­fer­ent churches, fences that keep the dead Poles from the dead Ital­ians, the dead Irish from the dead Slo­vaks, the dead Rusyns from the dead Hun­gar­i­ans. I look out and see a wide expanse of gran­ite head­stones jut­ting from the var­ie­gated drab greens, browns, yel­lows of grass that’s been frost­bit­ten. Look­ing back toward town, I see the slop­ing streets crowded with clap­board houses, and the squalid onion spire of St. Mary’s against the low gray clouds.

***

She hadn’t been my favorite. My Pop­pop was ded­i­cated to spoil­ing me, sneak­ing me sug­ary cere­als in tiny boxes and buy­ing me cheap toys at the IGA. She was ded­i­cated to tough love, mak­ing me spend the whole sum­mer writ­ing out my mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables, and telling me that wear­ing those tight jeans like my cousin did would give me crotch-rot. But then she got sick. Really sick. She had at least two kinds of can­cer at the start, one of which required bed rest, the other of which was best man­aged with an active lifestyle. We would walk two miles every morn­ing, in a big loop, very slowly, very care­fully, and then she would spend the after­noon in her reclin­ing chair. I spent a lot of time with her. We talked a lot, like we never had before.

She told me sto­ries. Her toes curled up girl­ishly, and she rubbed her feet together as she told them. Sto­ries about drink­ing fresh hot milk from the goats her par­ents had kept in their yard over on Jack­son Street. Sto­ries about her father Wasyl com­ing to Amer­ica from Rus­sia, how the coal com­pany owned him, how he never really learned Eng­lish. Sto­ries about dat­ing my grand­fa­ther, illus­trated by black and white pho­tos held into the albums with those lit­tle paste-on cor­ner frames; pic­tures of Pop­pop with slicked-back hair, in white tee shirts and blue jeans, look­ing like Mar­lon Brando, her by his side in bobby socks, the cap­tions call­ing her Katie when I’d never heard any­body call her any­thing but Kath­leen or maybe a few times Kathy. Sto­ries about my mother when she was lit­tle, about how she finally got so tired of wash­ing and brush­ing and iron­ing my mother’s hair that she one day sur­prised her by lop­ping it off with a sly pair of scis­sors after her bath; about how she got so sick of my mother sneak­ing out of the house with her bell-bottom jeans rolled up beneath her school skirt, those hip­pie jeans embroi­dered with a big pair of hands grab­bing the ass cheeks, that she stole them and burned them in the fur­nace. Sto­ries about nurs­ing school, work­ing at the hos­pi­tal, trav­el­ing on her cruises. The story of when I was born, two months early, tiny but strong, and she was there in her crisp white uni­form to assist Dr. Lee with the delivery.

But most of all, she liked to tell me about her favorite movie.

I’d never seen it, The Sound of Music. We never watched it together. It was the mid 1980’s of course, and my grand­mother didn’t own a VCR. The idea of pop­ping a tape in and watch­ing a movie when­ever you wanted to was still an absurd exoti­cism. But this was even bet­ter. She recalled the plot for me a thou­sand times over. She described the char­ac­ters, recited dia­logue, sang the songs. I felt like I knew the whole movie by heart. It made her so happy, even when she was exhausted and strug­gling, even when she was so bent that she couldn’t lie in the bed any­more and had to spend all her time in that brown reclin­ing chair. She died in that chair.

We’d come up to visit for Christ­mas. My birth­day is the day after. I heard her the night before, up all night with my mother by her side, beg­ging my mother to help her kill her­self. Ask­ing for her sewing scis­sors, as if she’d be able to do the job with them. She told my mother that she could see her par­ents, stand­ing in the hall­way out­side her bed­room door, wait­ing for her. Then in the morn­ing, on the day I turned four­teen, she took one last gur­gling, labored breath. She was 54 years old.

***

The rain has soaked through my clothes and I am freez­ing. The grave is filled and I’m alone here, the work­men are gone and it’s get­ting dark. I pedal back up to the Slo­vak church, and I slip inside. The doors have never been locked, day or night, any time I’ve tried them. That would never hap­pen in the city where I live. But I’ve come here a lot, this is famil­iar. I kneel in front of the painted plas­ter Blessed Mother in the dim and quiet. Her eyes are like anthracite slag. I light one of the votive can­dles, add one more flick­er­ing flame to the field of squat red glass cylin­ders. I reach deep down into the pocket of my jeans, and I pull out my rosary beads.

***

I’m sure I’ve been gone a long time, but nobody seems to have noticed. Most of my rel­a­tives have got­ten pretty drunk, even the ones for which it takes a hell of a lot. As I walk in, I hear an aunt say She held out for Christ­mas, she held out so she wouldn’t ruin Christ­mas for every­body. My Pop­pop turns his head slowly, slurs, one thick fin­ger pointed at my chest, She died on your birth­day, so you can never for­get her.

I change into warm, dry clothes. I ghost past them, between them, eat a lit­tle frost­ing from my cake; it’s still in the fridge, pris­tine, with the plas­tic bal­le­rina on top. I go into my grandmother’s bed­room; nobody wants to be in there. I shut the door and curl up in the dark, in her chair. My hair is still damp. I’m remem­ber­ing when I was scared to sleep in the dark, in this room, and she told me The dark is noth­ing to be afraid of. God made the dark so that every body and every thing can rest.

I’m sob­bing now, chok­ing and heaving.

And when I’m done, I breathe deeply. I rub the brown velour uphol­stery on the arms of her chair. I notice the remote con­trol for the tele­vi­sion on her bed­side table, just where she must have left it last. It’s barely vis­i­ble in the dark, but it some­how catches my eye. I sigh, and I pick it up. My fin­ger touches the power but­ton, and there it is. In Tech­ni­color. Julie Andrews, twirling around and around and around:

“The hills are alive with the sound of music,

With songs they have sung for a thou­sand years…”

***

My grand­mother left me her wed­ding ring when she died, she left it to me. My mother took it, said I couldn’t be trusted with it yet. My mother wore it on her own fin­ger, for years. As my birth­day approached, in 2004, she asked me if I wanted any­thing spe­cial for turn­ing thirty. Yeah I said I want Nanny’s ring. She gave it up reluc­tantly, but now I wear it. It reminds me of where I’m from.

When peo­ple asked, I used to say Oh, from around Allen­town. Or maybe Do you know where Scran­ton is? Wilkes-Barre? But those answers are not quite true. So, you ask me now, ask me where I’m from. I’ll look at my fin­ger, and I’ll tell you:

Yeah, every­body has a dead grand­mother story. They’re not sexy and nobody’s buy­ing. But this story is mine, and it’s not so much about the woman as it is about the place. I’m from a lit­tle coal town, McAdoo…

Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, where she home­schools her chil­dren and haunts the pub­lic libraries. Her writ­ing has recently appeared or is forth­com­ing at Bartleby Snopes, The Cit­ron Review, the­New­erY­ork, Rivet Jour­nal, and else­where. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at: http://​anna​jancewicz​.word​press​.com/

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Where to Buy Your Weed, fiction by Misty Skaggs

Her trailer was a ripe patch of excess, bloomed con­spic­u­ously at the base of a cliff on the edge of a bone dry, Bap­tist county in East Ken­tucky. The half-acre around it was lit­tered with faded Moun­tain Dew cans glint­ing in the sun­shine and dec­o­rated hap­haz­ardly with a half dozen busted toi­lets turned planters. Mary had filled them to the brim with rich bot­tom soil and planted sturdy annu­als that burst forth in bright col­ors come spring­time. And you could hear her racket from a ridge over. Never music, just the strained voices of lonely peo­ple seek­ing solace over air waves. Her reg­u­lar cus­tomers learned to lean in when she hollered them across the thresh hold and into her home. They learned to brace them­selves against the blast of cack­ling talk radio hosts crack­ling out into the hill­billy breeze via AM radio, the reg­u­lars planted their feet against deci­bel after deci­bel blar­ing through the stacks of sec­ond hand speak­ers that tow­ered and teetered close to the droop­ing, water-stained ceil­ing. If you were a brand new cus­tomer just look­ing for a qual­ity buzz, it could be down­right overwhelming.

Mary her­self was too much–too big, too loud, too self-assured, too self-righteous. She’d answer the door in a muu-muu splat­tered with crusty, sausage gravy and tacky flo­ral print. She’d tell you how Jesus don’t mind pot, but you bet­ter stay away from that ol’ Detroit dope. She con­ducted most all her busi­ness out of the kitchen. There was always an abun­dance of food bub­bling over on the stove and her rum­bling old refrig­er­a­tor was always stocked with strange, left­over smells and cold beer. The mis­matched can­is­ters lin­ing the counter tops were stuffed full of prod­uct. On the rare occa­sion she wasn’t cook­ing when you’d show up to score, she’d take your money all flopped out and sweat­ing across the queen size bed crowded into the built-on, back room of the mobile home. And she’d pro­duce a thirty bag or a sixy bag or even a whole ounce or two out from under the folds of her dress. Or maybe out from under the folds of her pale, fleshy body. Nobody ever dared to ques­tion the hygienic aspect once they real­ized that sticky, hairy, bud smelled even stronger and danker than the dealer.

No one knew where she kept her crop, but she gave the liv­ing room over to the house plants. The ivy grew up over the arms of the couch and she warned guests to avoid the moldy Lazy Boy. Not for the sake of their pretty, clean clothes or pretty, clean lungs. Because once, the rot­ting plaid arm­chair had belonged to her Granny, and now it belonged to the rosary vine. Her favorite. Her Granny’s favorite. Mary kept the room cool and dark so that the thick, durable foliage of it shone under the light of a sin­gle lamp that faked sun­shine. And the blos­soms were back lit, flick­er­ing red and waver­ing like can­dles at the base of a shrine to home­grown botany. Every­body on this side of the state knew she was thank­ing the good Lord for her green, green thumb.

Misty Marie Rae Skaggs, 32, hardly ever leaves the holler anymore.

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Uncles Charlie Loves You, poem by Misty Skaggs

I remem­ber tired, washed-out women
warn­ing us young’uns
with his name -
“Uncle Charlie’s gonna come,
gonna come all the way
out here
and get you."
I remem­ber we believed it.
I remem­ber the good ol’ boys
round­ing up a posse
fueled by bore­dom
and Pabst Blue Rib­bon
every damn time
he went up for parole.
He might get out,
he might come home.
No-Name Mad­dox,
back­woods bas­tard,
prog­eny of a pros­ti­tute
with no paved streets to walk.
He could’ve been one of them,
with a Mamaw out on Mauk Ridge.
Might’ve been another nobody
puffed up on Ken­tucky windage,
bed­ding high school girls
in the bed of a beat-up
pick-up truck
say­ing,
“I don’t know
what some­body is.”
Or maybe

Uncle Char­lie
could’ve been a coun­try preacher,
a pow­er­ful, prim­i­tive, bap­tist
run­ning the church house like a fam­ily.
A short feller filled
plumb up to the brim
with rural route right­eous­ness,
briar-hopping the pul­pit
instead of hitch­ing to Haight-Ashbury.
The Holy Spirit in his wild eyes
instead of homi­cide.
I know

I hear Ken­tucky
in his voice.
Hid­ing in the space
at the end of the words
where con­so­nants drop off
and disappear.

Misty Marie Rae Skaggs, 32, hardly ever leaves the holler anymore.

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Lock No. 10, essay by Megan Lewis

Parker and he went out to the lock.

He drove fast down dark roads. Roads that remem­ber us still. He parked. Next to the his­tor­i­cal marker—

I think.

We stum­bled through a star­less night, right down to the water. Right down to the water’s edge and we sat on the grass—cool, damp.

Took his pipe out of his pocket. A lighter too. Inhaled.

Kissed her, blew the smoke into her mouth. She didn’t cough.

Didn’t cough lying on the grass there. Down by the water. Out at the lock. And we laid back, sight­less, the night warm, and passed the pipe back and forth.

Tongues and spit and his hand beneath her shirt. My nip­ples hard and his fin­gers harder.

His pants slid down easy, even if her fin­gers were unsure, and there he was—and we both high—and in her mouth as he mur­mured all those words sixteen-year-old girls need to hear.

Honey, baby, oh yeah, so good.

And his hand in my hair.

Not the Erie canal, not the one in the song, but a dif­fer­ent one along the Shenango—near the dam. Lock No. 10. That’s where we went. It was dead then—the rail­road came and killed it. And then the steel mills died and killed the rail­roads too.

Miles of track they ripped up.

She sucked him hard, moved her head up and down, her hand too, hair wild and messy and falling into her eyes.

The rail­roads killed the canal and the steel mills they killed every­thing. Killed my friend’s uncle, cut him right in half.

Beneath my tongue and in and out of space and a time and place we want to for­get but which remem­bers us still and will come for us when we’re old.

The mill jobs are gone, but only a few escape. They go and live in the city, by the three rivers, and pre­tend they got away but as long as the water is near they remain sight­less in the night and it’s all the same as if no one left.

We never left.

Parker and he went out to the lock and we’re there still. He eager in my mouth, press­ing toward the future, dying to escape, and her believ­ing if she sucks hard enough he just might—

He just might like me.

Oh honey, baby, maybe next time.

he grass is cool and damp and we can’t see any­thing. The trains killed every­thing and I hear the whis­tles. The trains killed every­thing except the mills and the mills killed them.

Miles of track ripped up. Came across some rail­road ties aban­doned in the coun­try­side once. Out there fish­ing with my dad and the dog he shot. A Sun­day after­noon and I stood pre­car­i­ous on the ties they had forgotten.

He put a bul­let in her and claimed it was ’cause she was too stu­pid. Too stu­pid to live, that’s what he said.

Actu­ally, he said, he said that he took the dog to a farm.

Just for­got to men­tion that he shot her when he got there.

For being dumb.

When we were eight the union went on strike. A mill job was a good job, the kind you could keep, retire on and live a respectable life.

Even if the smoke made you cough and the asbestos scarred your lungs, like my neigh­bor. They gave his widow a set­tle­ment and she put in a swim­ming pool and started res­cu­ing dogs, some of them vicious; you’d be too if you had been kicked around like that.

He made good money, the kind your widow can dig a cement hole with, a respectable death.

The union lost and the mills died off, mostly, and the town went on. Mostly too. A ser­vice econ­omy now and the jobs pay less—but our hands are clean and no one gets cut in half anymore.

Mostly.

My mom called me up the other day, said so‑and‑so’s nephew shot him­self at the big hotel, the big hotel where she used to work.

A ser­vice econ­omy and a bul­let in your brain, just like the dog. The best you can do when there’s noth­ing more to be done and the Steel­ers are on TV.

You know the water’s down there. And you hear the whis­tles in the dis­tance as he pulls his pants up and the shift ends at the mill and the train goes by and your throat is sticky and maybe your hair a lit­tle bit too.

The men stag­ger from the mill to their cars and from their cars to the bars and drink Yuengling. And you stum­ble blind and high and stu­pid back to the car.

And he turns to you, turns on you. Turns as he puts the car into drive and says—

He says, if you tell Mag­gie about tonight, I’ll lie. And she’ll believe me.

You won’t tell. Won’t say a word about any of it—the trains, the town, the guy who got cut in half, the dead dog. And you’re going to leave here some­day soon and you won’t come back.

The dark roads remem­ber us still and he dri­ves fast. Through the town’s only stop­light. Past the bars where the men drink Yuengling and PBR. Past the boarded‑up mills. Down dimly lit streets, stop­ping in front of her par­ents’ per­fect lawn.

A dog barks and he doesn’t kiss her good­night, don’t know why you expected him to. He just dri­ves away.

I hear the water still and the ties are some­where. Some­where we ripped them up.

Some­where. And there’s a dog.

And the men drink beer. And talk about the good old days. And watch the Steel­ers’ game and don’t talk about the guy who got cut in half.

And he’s one of them.

We’re out there, some­where, down by the water. And you—you got away, got cut in half a few times any­way, but you opened your eyes and you got away.

Sticky hair and all.

Pre­vi­ously pub­lished in Prague Revue

Megan Lewis writes a weird mix of erot­ica and lit­er­ary fic­tion and has been known to occa­sion­ally mas­quer­ade as Parker Marlo, usu­ally when refer­ring to her­self in the third per­son. She is also the nar­cis­sist behind Mug­wump Press (www​.mug​wump​press​.com), a shame­lessly cap­i­tal­ist endeavor. When not pimp­ing writ­ers or writ­ing fic­tion, Megan works as a free­lance edi­tor. Find her at www​.park​er​marlo​.com and @parkermarlo.

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A Happy Ending by Murray Dunlap

How are you doing, Ben?”

The cam­era man crunches down to take advan­tage of a bet­ter upshot.

Well, I’d tell you, but there is a stranger in my house who seems to be film­ing us,” I say with sin­cere astonishment.

`        “Pre­tend they’re not there. None of them,” my buddy says.

And who are they?” I ask.

They are mak­ing a movie of “us,”” he replies.

They obvi­ous ques­tion here, is who are “we?””

OK pal, you asked…  “We” are you and I. No fak­ing this. And “we” are the focus of a movie that “they” are filming.”

This is seri­ously messed up.”

You asked,” my buddy says.

And I assume my injuries will be the focus of this ‘movie’?” I ask.

You betcha, Ben. Just maybe make your limp a bit worse for the sym­pa­thy vote.”

That is not nec­es­sary, bud. I limp, plain and simple.”

Ah, thank you,” my buddy replied (for you guys at home, his name is Michael).  “That sort of detail will make this movie make sense.”

And what is the point of this ‘movie?’” I ask.

It’ll have peo­ple amazed to see what you have been through. How you man­aged to press on. To ‘hang in there.’ Par­don the phrase,” Michael says.

Ah, so you’ve seen this movie,” I say.

Yep. Watch­ing it right now.”

My TV is busted,” I say. “Watch­ing it how?”

We are it.”

This is a movie?”

Yep.”

Ter­ri­ble movie,” I say. “Who wants to watch a guy named Michael and a guy named Ben sit around talking?”

Well ‘we’ do, we’re watch­ing it right now!”

Hmmm. Weird.”

Hey, why don’t you tell us all about the wreck?”

Cut,” a dis­tant voice calls out.

Michael, what the hell IS this?” I ask sincerely.

OK guys,” a man who I assume is a direc­tor of some sort steps into the room. “”Let’s try to be more con­cise. And knock off on all the meta­nar­ra­tive crap!”

Um, well, you are the direc­tor of some film in my liv­ing room about me. How exactly do you think I can pos­si­bly have this NOT be meta­nar­ra­tive?” I ask.

Just keep going,” the direc­tor says. “And talk about the wreck.”

Fine.” As con­fused as I am right now, I’ll do just that. “The wreck. Not inter­est­ing. A man none of us knows ran a red light. The end.”

And…” Michael con­tin­ues, “Ben, tell us ALL what your injuries are.”

ALL?” I stam­mer. “This is ridiculous.”

Action!” the direc­tor calls out.

OK, OK, Ok… I have 3 frac­tures in my pelvis, a bro­ken clav­i­cle, 9 sutures in my head, five stitches in my ear lobe, and a severe trau­matic brain injury,” I state.

Brain injury!” The direc­tor calls out. “Per­fect! You should riff on this… Brain injury, and trau­matic too, and even SEVERE!”

Riff? Do you want our audi­ence, who­ever they are, to think I’m nuts with a brain injury?”

If that works…” the direc­tor stam­mers. “Then sure, you can be crazy!”

I’m get­ting crazy mad,” I reply.

Action!” our direc­tor shouts.

I’m really becom­ing angry, brain injury or not!” I shout.

Just try again,” our direc­tor says.  Fol­lowed by, “Action!”

And so I made a movie, try­ing very hard to be ‘me.’ I played along, ended up on Oprah, and every­one went home happy..

Cut!” our direc­tor shouts. “This is get­ting WAY too meta­nar­ra­tive!   And give this dread­ful drea­ri­ness a happy end­ing! Action!”

Hmph,” I start. “How to end this on a happy note?  Well, the fact that a movie is being made about me is exactly a happy ending.”

But your audi­ence,” the direc­tor shouts. “What will they understand?”

OK.” I say. “How about a new house?  You know. The cabin that I’ve always wanted…”

Out of the damn bud­get…” our direc­tor cries. “How on earth do we pay for a house?”

Well, you could chip in?” I stammer.

Horse­shit! Cut!” Our direc­tor looks as if he has given up.

Hmmm,” I start. “What about Oprah?”

And why exactly, do we hope for that?” Michael says.

Because I do care,” Oprah appears from the shad­ows as if the whole thing was scripted out.

Oprah… uh, uh, hello there?” I scratch my head in disbelief.

Dar­ling,” Oprah cuts my ques­tion in half. “Any­thing is pos­si­ble in a movie… You know that.”

So what is your part, excuse me, your ROLE.”

Dar­ling,” Oprah begins, “My role, as you call it, will be to help the pub­lic get a glimpse of how it is, in fact, pos­si­ble to “hang in there.”

And will this movie be it?” I ask.

Of course Ben,” Oprah says. “And I’ll give your story a happy ending!”

How does this end?” I ask in confusion.

Let’s go see your cabin in the woods,” Oprah states.

What cabin?” I ask in utter disbelief.

Fol­low me…” Oprah waves her hand to the front door and pro­ceeds to exit my house.

Really?” I ask as I fol­low Oprah onto the front porch. My ques­tion is answered when I see a shiny black limo in the drive. And of course, we then are dri­ven to a pic­turesque cabin.

Here we are my good pas­sen­gers,” the limo dri­ver says.

My good­ness! I am utterly bewil­dered. A porch over­hangs a beau­ti­ful lake.  My gosh! And once the dri­ver opens the front door, a dog comes bound­ing out to greet us!

Now THIS is a happy end­ing!” I scream with utter amazement.

Dar­ling, my dar­ling,” Oprah begins, “You know that I love to give people’s sto­ries happy endings!”

But I had no idea…” I drift into silence.

Ahhhh, I see you like?” Oprah gives Michael and I a great big wink.

This is awe­some!” Michael interjects.

I agree, I agree.” I have to admit. “Awe­some. Per­fect really.”

Are you happy?” Oprah asks.

My good­ness, Oprah,” I state. “Happy.”

 

The End (cred­its roll for our view­ers at home)

Mur­ray Dunlap's work has appeared in about fifty mag­a­zines and jour­nals. His sto­ries have been nom­i­nated for the Push­cart Prize three times, as well as to Best New Amer­i­can Voices once, and his first book, an early draft of "Bas­tard Blue" (then called "Alabama") was a final­ist for the Mau­rice Prize in Fic­tion. His first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, "Bas­tard Blue," was pub­lished by Press 53 on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniver­sary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). His newest book is the col­lec­tion "Fires." The extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als Pam Hous­ton, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing.

See www​.mur​ray​dun​lap​.com for a look at hiswork.

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Making Art, poem by Tim Peeler

Mak­ing Art

He down shifted the Opal from third to second

As they approached the inter­sec­tion of Hooker Road

And Arling­ton Blvd, swivel­ing his neck in an instant

Assess­ment as they sped on through the red light.

You crazy son of a bitch, his room­mate hollered,

Fight­ing the hot sum­mer wind to re-light a half-burned joint.

He was late; they had spent too much time arguing,

Then fight­ing after the intra­mural soft­ball game,

And now his model would be wait­ing at the house,

The art class project due in the morning.

Two more run lights and a near crash at Elm and 5th

And he skid­ded to a stop on Avery Street,

Clat­ter­ing in his cleats down the sidewalk,

Smil­ing at her with his busted lip and reach­ing out

His bloody-knuckled hand; thank you so much

For wait­ing, he said in his puppy dog voice;

Her hand held the green night­gown she’d picked out

For this por­trait he’d promised to copy for her

Boyfriend, and her beau­ti­ful face had the dark

Wor­ried look he would draw with­out the mark

He left there when she first refused to strip.

His room­mate lis­tened to them fight for the hour

It took the bong hits to do their work;

He’d heard it all before.

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A Wave of the Burger, by Dale Wisely

I'm in my patrol car
and I ges­ture to let a big guy,
dusted with white paint,
make a left in front of me.

He's dri­ving an old pickup
bur­dened by lad­ders.
There is a thick layer
of debris on the dash­board.
Cig­a­rette packs, food wrap­pers,
maps, receipts, work orders.

He cuts a big, slow,
sloppy arc across my path,
turn­ing the wheel with the heel
of one palm.

He's eat­ing a ham­burger
and has it in the other hand.

As he passes,
he salutes me with
a wave of the burger.

Fail­ing to do so would be
ill-mannered.

Dale Wisely grew up in Arkansas and lives in Alabama, where he edits
Right Hand Point­ing, White Knuckle Press, and One Sen­tence Poems.

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Two Poems, by Larry Thacker

I swim the vacuum

between your atoms
sing along the dark
mat­tered strands
between galax­ies
beyond imag­i­na­tion
wit­ness­ing the base
pat­tern of all worlds
the mys­tery scripts
hang­ing orna­mented
about your thoughts
I hum under your feet
within the val­leys
of fin­ger­print ridges
shrink­ing, expand­ing
destroy­ing, cre­at­ing
my laugh and smiles
wrap­ping your world
in scales of D flat major
be still, and know me

Mean­ing 

There are days when every­thing means every­thing,
polar­ized against oth­ers when all is the fright­en­ing
pit of mean­ing­less­ness. Who is immune to the inner
script of the empty end or, on bet­ter days, a hero’s
mys­te­ri­ous story in a world that screams both
sym­bol­ism and blank­ness as the bit­ter­est of kin.

We must lean in, and we do, and we fail and fal­ter,
some­times emerg­ing slightly scathed and hard­ened
against our silly demons, real­iz­ing how sky quakes,
earth sounds and flock deaths, fish kills, bee plagues
and rivers of snakes and win­ter tor­na­dos are nei­ther
curses nor bless­ings, but are just sim­ple questions.

 

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