Sunday Afternoon at Earl's, fiction by Randy Lowens

The driver's win­dow is down. Pave­ment hums beneath his tires, air beats against the rear wind­shield, and the engine howls as he climbs. A heifer moans from a shad­owed pas­ture on the road­side.

Logan gears down as he rounds a curve and, with­out ben­e­fit of blink­er or brakes, spins into the dri­ve­way. He races uphill, fish­tail­ing, dodg­ing the larg­er rocks and pot­holes. At the crest he slides to a stop and waits while a cloud of dust drifts past. His breath comes hard as though he had climbed the hill on foot. The rear view mir­ror shows stub­ble on his chin, eyes shot with streaks of red, and snarls of dark yel­low hair that stick out like the roots of upturned trees in a bull­dozed field. "You good-look­ing dev­il," he whis­pers. "Don't you ever die."

He gets out but doesn't go straight to the trail­er. He cross­es the front yard and stops at the edge of a gar­den plot. Ripe toma­toes stand bold against their foliage like Christ­mas orna­ments on an out­door tree. Cucum­ber vines snake through the gar­den before escap­ing into the lawn. Brown, brit­tle leaves cling to them. Two more weeks, he fig­ures, and that'll be all she wrote.

Some­thing about the trail­er catch­es his eye. He isn't sure what, but some­thing is dif­fer­ent. Some­one was on the prop­er­ty while he was work­ing. He feels it, knows it, more than sees it or thinks it. A bur­glar? Not like­ly. Too many rich folks live on top the ridge for some meth head to kick out his win­dow for a shot­gun.

He doesn't keep a hand­gun in the van any­more. Home­land Security's made it so an old boy can't even tote. But he's not scared. Why should he be? Some­body going to kill him? He should be so lucky. He walks direct­ly to the front of the rust­ing mobile home where a Plex­i­glas storm door hangs askew on a sin­gle hinge. He cir­cles the trail­er, exam­in­ing win­dows. No evi­dence of forced entry. Hinges creak as he eas­es open the hol­low wood­en door.

Inside, cock­roach­es scat­ter into crevices. Some cof­fee grounds wal­low in the bot­tom of a cup beside a wrin­kled news­pa­per. Atop a plas­tic table­cloth, two Ger­man Pur­ple toma­toes, deep red and irreg­u­lar­ly shaped, frame a sheet of note­book paper.

He goes to the liv­ing room, no longer step­ping light­ly, and snatch­es a pair of read­ing glass­es from the frayed arm of a sofa. He mounts them on the bridge of his nose and returns to the kitchen. Dale Earn­hardt, in dark glass­es and a Good­wrench cap, watch­es from the wall as he reads the note.

Dar­ling, it says, I hope you're not too mad. I missed you so much, I had to come home. I'm glad I did because it don't look like you're eat­ing so good. I'm gone to the gro­cery store. Take a show­er and I'll kiss you all over when I get back. All my love, Son­ja.

"Bout time you drug your ass home, woman," he says aloud. His voice booms. It sounds unnat­ur­al in the emp­ty trail­er.

He lays a blue oblong tablet on the table­cloth, cov­ers it with the cel­lo­phane from his cig­a­rette pack and starts crush­ing it with the heel of his Bic. As he sticks a trun­cat­ed straw up his nose and bends over the line of pow­der, he notices an apron hang­ing on the door­knob of the broom clos­et. That makes him smile.

###


Logan push­es a plat­ter scat­tered with morsels of fried pota­to, bis­cuit, and omelet away from his bel­ly. He leans back in his chair and stretch­es. "I be damned if I ain't gained ten pounds since you been back," he says. "Your cook­ing gets bet­ter all the time. Like every­thing else."

Son­ja looks down and smiles. "I got­ta watch out. I might be tak­ing on a few pounds myself."

His tone changes abrupt­ly. "You come drag­ging home knocked up, and I'll show you the door sure enough."

"I ain't preg­nant; I'm sure of that.” After a pause, she adds, “I'd like to be, though. With yore baby."

"For cry­ing out loud." His voice turns gen­tle again, like spring water bub­bling out a rock face. "Renée's going on a teenag­er, and you're talk­ing about anoth­er kid. That ain't prac­ti­cal and you know it. Besides, three is more'n I can afford, already.”

"I know. I know all that. But still, I'd give my right arm for anoth­er kid. One of yores." She starts to cry.

He reach­es across the table and strokes her arm. Wrin­kles like back streets on a road map radi­ate from the cor­ners of his eyes as he looks into hers. "Aw, Sug­ar, you know I love you. And Renée is like my own. They ain't no dif­fer­ence in my mind."

"I know," she says, sob­bing. "I know. But still."

Min­utes lat­er he walks out and climbs into a ser­vice van that says BADCOCK'S REFRIGERATION SALES AND SERVICE in block let­ters on the side. Son­ja leans against the door­jamb, wip­ing her nose with a tis­sue and brush­ing away tears with the back of her hand. She hugs her­self and blows him kiss­es as he turns the vehi­cle around.

He toss­es her a sin­gle kiss in return as he eas­es out of sight down the rocky, red dirt dri­ve. When he reach­es the road, he stomps the accel­er­a­tor and cuts the wheel. Bald­ing tires spin on rocks, then catch on pave­ment. They smoke, leav­ing twin streaks that curve across the street. "I got the best olé lady on all of Par­sons Ridge," he yells out the win­dow at some cat­tle graz­ing the hill­side. "Good cook,” he con­tin­ues in a con­ver­sa­tion­al tone. “Hell-on-wheels in bed. And she loves me, in spite of all com­mon sense and decen­cy."

He pumps the brake ped­al, strik­ing a bal­ance between check­ing the van's speed of descent and sav­ing its brakes. Despite his efforts, when he hits bot­tom the acrid smell of scorched pads fill the cab.

The road lev­els onto the val­ley floor and his grip on the wheel relax­es. He reach­es for the radio, but the knob comes off in his hand. He fid­dles with it briefly, try­ing to fit the tuner back onto the met­al core, then drops it into an open ash­tray. "Glue it back on after while," he grum­bles. A tall, slim girl in tight jeans is unlock­ing her car door by the road­side. He looks up and turns the steer­ing wheel to avoid her. She press­es her waist close against the sedan as he pass­es. "Dang," he mur­murs, "Don't run over that."

Idling down the state high­way towards town, Pen­ny Sue's Café pass­es on the right hand side. The restau­rant is new­ly board­ed up, and Logan sighs. Pen­ny Sue was the last hold­out among the small busi­ness own­ers when chain stores began to appear like bait worms after a sum­mer rain, dot­ting the slopes beside the inter­state exit. Abn­er Croft of Croft's Auto Parts, Buster Riley of Riley's Home­town Phar­ma­cy, and now Pen­ny Sue com­mute forty or fifty miles every day to jobs in Chat­tanooga or Knoxville. “Bad enough when the mill closed, and now this shit,” he says to him­self.

A Godfather's Piz­za, Wal­greens, Auto-Zone and Favorite Mar­ket stand glossy and metal­lic against the farm­house Pen­ny Sue had turned into a restau­rant. Next to the aban­doned A&W dri­ve-in, one side of a bill­board adver­tis­es cure for drug addic­tion while the oth­er admon­ish­es the read­er to REPENT because JESUS IS COMING. An old man sells toma­toes and cucum­bers from the back of his truck; a woman, used clothes from her front yard. As he con­tin­ues down the high­way, the busi­ness­es and signs, old and new, hope­ful and threat­en­ing, shrink to a clus­ter of dots in his rear view mir­ror and final­ly merge.

Logan turns off the high­way and prom­e­nades the for­mer busi­ness dis­trict. Down­town is more of the same, smil­ing man­nequins des­per­ate­ly pos­ing naked in desert­ed depart­ment stores, board­ed shoe-store dis­play win­dows framed in brick, row upon row of vacant build­ings inter­rupt­ed only by the occa­sion­al pool hall or store­front church. Logan sticks his arm out and pre­tends to be a 1950's teenag­er cruis­ing the main drag in a mus­cle car, look­ing for action. Gig­gling, he pulls it back in and rolls up
the win­dow. "Folks done think you crazy, Logan. Don't make it no worse."

He looks at his watch. Five min­utes after eight. “Well,” he says, mak­ing a wide U turn across an inter­sec­tion, “I guess I ought to quit rid­ing around and go to work. See what the sonuvabitch wants out of me today.”

###


Earl Bartlett wears a long-sleeve plaid shirt over a white ribbed under­shirt every day of the year. In sum­mer­time he rolls up the sleeves and unbut­tons the front. Dur­ing the win­ter he pulls a jack­et over it. Sev­er­al of his plaid shirts are red and a cou­ple are blue, so a body might think he rotates the same two shirts for days on end. But that's not true. The fact is sim­ply that, years ago, he chose a cer­tain look, and he's nev­er had call to change it. He would no more wear a polo shirt and khakis than he would decline to stand and cheer when the band played Dix­ie at a high school foot­ball game.

Today the front of his shirt is but­toned, but the sleeves are rolled up. The dog days are behind, and the air is com­fort­able.

Earl stands beside a met­al-frame din­ner table. A Lucky Strike smol­ders in the ash­tray beside a stovepipe can of PBR. Smoke hov­ers around his hair­line. Behind him cas­es of Bud and Bud Light are stacked clear to the ceil­ing.

An old­er fel­low sits at the table. The two men have the same tai­lor, all plaid shirts and den­im pants, but the slicked-back hair of the sit­ting man is red. He's a big guy with inch-long tufts the col­or of dish­wa­ter grow­ing beneath giant knuck­les.

The sound of a mow­er pass­es the kitchen win­dow. The man tilts his head in that direc­tion and asks, “How's olé Bil­ly Wayne work­ing out, Earl? Don't cut him no slack, just cause he's my nephew.”

He's all right. Works hard, don't com­plain.” Not the sharpest pen­cil in the pack­age, Earl silent­ly adds, but he don't have to be.

I'm glad to hear it. Family's fam­i­ly, but a job's a job. If he don't work out, show him the door, same as any­body.” He wets his lips from a tall glass; it's straight bour­bon, but he doesn't wince. “You know Logan Pad­gett, got his leg shot up in Iraq?”

Twelve pack ever Sun­day. Yeah, I know him.”

The red­head grunts. “Yeah, that's him. No rela­tion to me, but he's blood kin to Bil­ly Wayne. On his mother's side.” He fig­ures you don't real­ly know a man till you can name his fam­i­ly.

The rack­et of the mow­er stops. Bil­ly Wayne sticks his head in the door. He's shirt­less, and beads of sweat glis­ten on his mus­cled, hair­less chest. “Hey Earl,” he calls, “I got the back yard done. You want me to do the front?”

Earl stares as he answers. “Yeeess, I gen­er­al­ly do mow them in sets.”

Bil­ly Wayne looks puz­zled. His uncle cov­ers the bot­tom of his face with a large, hairy hand. Earl grins and helps the boy out. “Go mow the front,” he con­firms, point­ing.

The kid bounds hap­pi­ly down the steps while the men watch and laugh.

###


Sun­rise finds Logan sip­ping cof­fee at the kitchen table. He's read­ing the fun­ny papers in a stained tee shirt and a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee.

A teenage girl with corn­rows in her hair comes out of a bed­room. She plops on the couch, rub­bing her eyes, feel­ing between the cush­ions for the TV con­trols. She's still in night­clothes, a green tank top and a pair of canary yel­low panties. Ebony legs gleam in the morn­ing light. Logan watch­es her for a moment. He turns the page of his news­pa­per and con­tin­ues read­ing.

Son­ja steps out of the oth­er bed­room. "Damn it, Renée,” she says, walk­ing past, “how many times I tole you not to sit around half naked in front of Logan? Go get some clothes on."

The girl rolls her eyes and con­tin­ues punch­ing but­tons on the remote. The moth­er takes anoth­er step, turns and bel­lows, "Go!" The face Logan usu­al­ly finds so attrac­tive is a scowl­ing mask.

The child stands and stretch­es. When her arms come down, the tee shirt rests on the small of her back a good two inch­es above flo­res­cent under­wear. "Morn­ing, Dad­dy," she purrs, flash­ing a smile over her shoul­der that's all white teeth and thick lips.

"Morn­ing, sweet­ie," Logan replies to her depart­ing back.

Son­ja takes a seat across from Logan. She glow­ers, drum­ming her fin­gers on the table and shak­ing her head. "That child," she says. "That child.”

Logan chuck­les. He puts down the fun­nies and picks up the sports. "I think I'll go start on the yard work here in a bit," he says.

###


From his seat at the lit­tle met­al-frame din­ner table, Earl can watch the entire front yard out his pic­ture win­dow. When a blue Hon­da Accord pulls into the dri­ve, he busts a big smile.

He opens the door before she can knock. “Come in, young lady. Come right in. What can I do for you today?”

Son­ja is wear­ing tight jeans and a sleeve­less sweater. She clutch­es a purse at her waist. Timid­ly, she steps inside and looks around.

Bartlett's place nev­er changes. Every­thing is in its place, down to the Lucky Strike releas­ing curls of smoke from the ash­tray. Son­ja can't recall ever see­ing him pick the cig­a­rette up and take a puff. Does he real­ly smoke, or does he just light cig­a­rettes and burn them for incense?

Logan sent me after a twelve pack, Earl,” she says. “We was sup­posed to have Sun­day beer, but he done run through it all.”

Hon­ey, a beer can chug­ging is like the jin­gle of pock­et change to my ears.” He treats her to a large smile. “So Logan's drunk today. Good for him. How you doing your­self, lit­tle girl? Don't seem well. You wor­ried about some­thing?”

Aw, it's noth­ing. I'm all right.”

Come on, you can talk to olé Earl. I used to work with your Uncle Her­man. We like fam­i­ly.”

"Real­ly, it ain't noth­ing much. Renée–that's my lit­tle girl–she's hav­ing a birth­day, is all. Turn­ing four­teen, and her boyfriend is over. I just wish Logan wouldn't drink so much. Or at least wait till after.”

He ain't tak­ing drunk and hit­ting you, is he?”

Oh no, it ain't noth­ing like that. He just stays so high all the time, I feel… I dun­no. Kin­da lone­some. Like I'm by myself.”

Zat right. Huh.” Bartlett scratch­es his ear and looks out the win­dow. “Wasn't he in Iraq awhile? Took a bul­let in the leg, I think it was?”

“Yeah. He don't talk about it much. I tell him he should be proud, but he don't think so. Says he'd rather a been some­where else.”

Bartlett laughs. “I admire an hon­est man.”

Any­way, yeah, shrap­nel in his knee's what it was. The VA gives him pain pills. Between those pills and all the beer he drinks, and the pot he smokes, and… I'm sor­ry, maybe I shouldn't have said that.” Sonja's looks at the purse in her hand and blush­es.

Earl laughs again. “Hon­ey, this olé boot­leg­ger been around. I might even have tast­ed one of them joints, years ago. I tell you what: pull up a seat, and I'll fix a cou­ple of drinks. We could both use one.”

Oh no, I got­ta get back home. Logan wouldn't like it if I stayed gone. And there's Renée's par­ty.”

You done said Logan's drunk. And Renée's a teenag­er, so I'm sure that lit­tle boyfriend can enter­tain her. Besides, Ray's com­ing over lat­er, and we gonna play some cards. We may need you to cook up a lit­tle some­thing.”

Here, sit down,” he says, pulling a chair out from the table, “and olé Earl gonna get you a drink.”

Well, maybe just a quick one,” she agrees, tak­ing the prof­fered seat. Earl half fills a high­ball glass from an open fifth of Cana­di­an Club, adds ice and Coke, and places it beside her. His cig­a­rette in the ash­tray is down to a nub, so he puts it out. He takes a fresh one from his shirt pock­et, thumps it once, twice, three times and lights it.

###


Logan parks his van behind Sonja's car. From the back of the trail­er, he hears a mow­er run­ning before the machine itself appears. A young man is rid­ing it. He's mus­cled up and tan, dressed in noth­ing but a pair of long den­im pants. The boy turns the mow­er in a sharp cir­cle with­out notic­ing Logan, intent upon his sim­ple task, and dis­ap­pears behind the trail­er once more.

Logan gets out. Ignor­ing the con­crete side­walk, he strides direct­ly across the lawn to the front door. He rais­es his hand to knock but thinks bet­ter of it. He reach­es for the door­knob but decides against that, too. He rares back and kicks the door open. The lock breaks out of the fac­ing. Splin­ters fly across the room. The door makes a sec­ond crash­ing sound when the han­dle punch­es a hole in the wall behind. It's a sat­is­fy­ing noise to Logan's ears.

He stands in the door­way with his fin­ger point­ed at Sonja's face, enjoy­ing her dazed look, dis­gust­ed by the lip­stick on her whiskey glass and the sur­prise on the bootlegger's face, before he real­izes that Ollie Ray Crid­er is sight­ing down the bar­rel of a Smith and Wes­son thir­ty-eight spe­cial, aim­ing up at his head. Where did that sonuvabitch come from? He's some kin­da kin by mar­riage on Logan's Daddy's side, and fuck all that any­way.

Ollie Ray speaks first. “I'm only gonna say this once, son. Turn around right now, and walk back out that door. Close it behind you. Knock, like your mama taught you, and this time wait for an answer.”

Logan stares back at Ray. His upper lip quiv­ers.

Walk!” the big man barks. Logan leans his head back and laughs. He makes a hack­ing noise in the back of his throat, and when his head comes down he spits on the table in front of Ray. Ray flinch­es but holds his fire. Silent tears trick­le like branch water down Sonja's cheeks, and her shoul­ders quake. Bartlett sits motion­less, palms flat on the table.

"You come for some­thing that belongs to you. That's all well and good,” Ray con­tin­ues. “We just hav­ing a drink here. Ain't nobody try­ing to steal your woman. But you going about it all wrong, see. Now,” he con­tin­ues, cock­ing the pis­tol and stand­ing up from the table to assume a fir­ing posi­tion, “Walk. Back out. That fuck­ing door.”

Earl Bartlett hears the grand­fa­ther clock that's been in his fam­i­ly for gen­er­a­tions go click, click, click, for three of the longest sec­onds of his life before Logan turns on his heel and strolls out­side. The limp from his war wound is only faint­ly evi­dent as he descends the wood­en steps and cross­es the lawn to his van.

Sonja's fore­head drops to the table. Ray exhales. He eas­es the ham­mer down on the weapon and places it gin­ger­ly on the table. The boot­leg­ger takes a deep breath. He turns to Ray and says, “I thought you tole that boy to close the door on his way out.”

"Shut up, Bartlett,” is his only reply.

Logan guns the engine of his van as he leaves, throw­ing a low wave of grav­el across the quar­ter pan­el of Sonja's car like the wake of a motor­boat lap­ping against the shore.

Bil­ly Wayne appears at the door of the trail­er. “Hey Earl,” he yells, though the man is only yards away. Bil­ly stands with his hand rest­ing on the door frame, obliv­i­ous to the dam­age done to it by his sec­ond cousin on his mother's side. “I got the back­yard done. Tell me where the gas can is, and I'll start the front.” He notices the hair stuck to Sonja's face. He spies the pis­tol on the table. He opens his mouth to ask, but Bartlett cuts him off.

Hell, son, the gas can's in the shed. Where you think it is? Now get on back to work, while you still got a job.”

###


The roof of the Pig­gly Wig­gly is a sea of small stones stretch­ing from cor­ner to cor­ner across the top of the store. The debris of years floats atop its placid sur­face: two dis­col­ored plas­tic jugs over­looked dur­ing a cleanup; a mag­a­zine stolen from the store below, thumbed through and dis­card­ed; and the occa­sion­al rusty screw­driv­er or pair of pli­ers that some­one flung away in frus­tra­tion. The motor room is win­dow­less, a sheet-met­al anchor buoy float­ing lone­ly beneath a cloud­ed sky.

All is still­ness and qui­et save the flap­ping cov­er of the fad­ed girlie book. A plas­tic bag­gy nes­tles in Logan's shirt pock­et. The crys­tals are gone. Only a chalky residue remains, devoid of finan­cial val­ue but worth a decade in the state pen. The sour chem­i­cal taste of metham­phet­a­mine lingers, rem­i­nis­cent of the paint thin­ner and gaso­line he huffed as a child. He stands awestruck, stunned, hold­ing a charred square of alu­minum foil in his left hand and a Zip­po in his right.

Across a two foot chasm of silence, John­ny McCullough's eyes appear hol­low and wide. The skin on his face is like cracked leather from the sun, wind and rain of a thou­sand rooftops like this one.

Logan's rever­ie is shat­tered by the phone at his side flash­ing and play­ing a tin­ny ver­sion of Reveille. The sound is car­ni­va­lesque, in a way obscene giv­en the gray sky and grim cir­cum­stance. The caller can only be the boss man.

I, ah, don't think I wish to talk to him, right now at the moment,” Logan says. He tries to force a smile, but just suc­ceeds at look­ing vague­ly ill.

Blue veins pulse in Johnny's fore­head. He drags a parched tongue across blis­tered lips. “S'all right,” he says in a voice that sounds like a croak. “I'm sure he'll be glad to call us back lat­er.”

###


Sun­day after­noon is Earl's busiest time of the week. Mon­day morn­ing is the slow­est, so that's when the liquor van runs. He's sit­ting at the kitchen table, wait­ing for it to arrive. Today is Bil­ly Wayne's first run by him­self.

Earl looks up at the sound of scratch­ing grav­el. Yeah, it's the van. It doesn't appear wrecked, that's good. But it seems like Bil­ly Wayne is tak­ing a long time to climb out. When the boy does exit, he wob­bles and stead­ies him­self against the side of the vehi­cle.

I be god­damn,” Earl mut­ters. “Out dri­ving my van and it loaded, and he done gone and got drunk. I'm gonna string him up and put him in a shal­low grave.” The old boot­leg­ger con­tin­ues mum­bling to him­self as he starts down the front steps. He walks real care­ful like, hold­ing onto the rail­ing and eas­ing him­self down. He's not as young as he used to be, and he's had a drink or two his own self.

###


Logan is para­noid as all hell. He's sit­ting on the toi­let with his pants around his ankles. He's not even think­ing about shit­ting. He's just hid­ing out. He's hid­ing from the store man­ag­er. He's hid­ing from the boss man who, more and more, is prone to show up unin­vit­ed. Hell, he's hid­ing from Ollie Ray.

Of course, there's no rea­son for Ollie Ray to stalk the stalls of the bath­room at the Pig­gly Wig­gly, look­ing for the man who kicked in the door of his favorite boot­leg­ger. No rea­son at all. Logan knows he's para­noid, oh yeah. His mind under­stands. His intel­lect tells him to be ratio­nal, to calm down, but his ner­vous sys­tem won't lis­ten. Every time the door to the restroom swings open, his gut clench­es, his nuts shriv­el,
and sweat breaks out across his brow.

God­damn that John­ny McCul­lough. He knows Logan's a down­er man. Why'd he go and offer that shit?

Only one hydrocodone remains in the bot­tle. Logan was going to save it for tomor­row, but now he can't. No way, man. Soon as his hands stop shak­ing he'll pull his pants up, go the van and crush the pill. He'll chase it with a tall Miller; maybe that'll soothe his nerves. Maybe the boss man won't stop by. Maybe the store man­ag­er won't smell the booze.

Maybe Son­ja won't be too pissed off about the scene at the boot­leg­gers. She's not answer­ing the phone, but when he sees her face to face, he can smooth things over. He needs her com­fort. He needs her bad, more than ever before. More than he ever need­ed any­thing in his life, he needs that girl. She's just going to have to under­stand that after all they been through, a man is going to be kind of sen­si­tive some­times. A lit­tle bit jeal­ous.

God­damn that John­ny McCul­lough.

###


Son­ja stands on her tip­toes to force anoth­er shirt into the suit­case. She pulls the zip­per closed, drags it off the bed and totes it into the next room where she places it beside two sim­i­lar bags. That's every­thing but the toi­letries. Three suit­cas­es, a bag of brush­es and hair­spray, and a Hon­da Accord: not much to show for thir­ty years. Oh well, she's sur­viv­ing. Some folks can't say that much.

She's try­ing not to think about Logan. That's why she's not leav­ing a note: when she attempts to explain her­self, inevitably she finds her way back to the good things, and they decide to try it one more time. But the one-more-times are all used up.

When she returns from the bath­room with the toi­letries bag, her chest clench­es like a fist at the sight of Logan stand­ing in the door­way. How did he get off work so ear­ly? And when did he learn to step so qui­et, any­way?

After sev­er­al sec­onds her breath returns. She want­ed to make things easy for both of them, but okay, here we go. She squares her shoul­ders and forces her­self to look at his face.

So, what you doing, Son­ja?” he asks her, his voice all causal as he steps out of the door­way and takes a seat at the din­ner table. Something's wrong. Something's bad wrong. She's used to see­ing him messed up, with slant­ed, blood­shot eyes, but not like this. Today his eyes have bare­ly any whites left, the pupils are so large. And he hasn't called her Son­ja in years; the name sounds strange com­ing from him. Sug­ar Lips, Hon­ey Pie. Bitch, whore. But nev­er just Son­ja.

I'm, ah, I'm get­ting a few things togeth­er. So you can have your house back.” The mus­cles in her throat quiver as she speaks, but she man­ages a note of defi­ance as she adds, “Like you want, appar­ent­ly.”

You ain't got to leave on my account.” He's look­ing past her knees as he speaks, study­ing the way a piece of torn linoleum curls up on the edges like it's just the odd­est thing. Last time she saw him, he was kick­ing in doors and spit­ting on tables, and now he looks looks like he's seen a ghost. What's he strung out on this time?

I got to leave on my own account, Logan. On Renée's account. We've been through it and through it, and it don't get no bet­ter. Now please don't start noth­ing.”

He rais­es an eye­brow like she said some­thing sur­pris­ing. “I ain't start­ing noth­ing.” He stands up, and she takes a quick step back­ward. He sits back down. “I got the cot­ton mouth, is all. Would you fetch me a beer?”

She hands a sweat­ing can across the table.

I ought to quit this shit,” he says as he opens the tab. “I know I should. I been think­ing about that a lot, late­ly.

You're as like­ly to quit drink­ing as I am to dri­ve at Tal­lade­ga,” she spits out the side of her mouth. She snatch­es a bag from the floor and stalks out the door.

I guess you're right about that,” he says to a kitchen left emp­ty by her depar­ture. He looks down at the can in his hand, shrugs, and takes a long drink. “Yeah, I guess you're right. But seems like there should be some­thing we could do,” he con­tin­ues as she walks back in and stands over the remain­ing lug­gage. “It just don't seem right, two peo­ple in love, but who can't live togeth­er.”

Well, it may not be right, but that's how it is.” She grabs up the last two suit­cas­es, then puts them back down. Her face turns red. If she can stay mad, she knows she can get through this and leave. “You come around show­ing your ass over me hav­ing a drink with Earl Bartlett. Earl Bartlett, for god's sake! Old enough to be my Dad­dy, and used to work with my Uncle Her­man. And you go show­ing your butt…” She grabs the bags up and goes out the door, shak­ing her head and mut­ter­ing.

She toss­es them in the trunk and gets in the driver's seat. She takes a deep breath and releas­es it, slow­ly, as she checks her make­up in the rear view mir­ror. “I just hope you don't think this is what I want,” she whis­pers to the steer­ing wheel. She tries to say some­thing else, but the sound just comes out a sob. Stay mad, girl. Don't try to explain, just stay mad. She puts the key in the igni­tion and cranks the car.

A minute pass­es before Logan under­stands that all her gear is loaded. She's not com­ing back inside. When he hears her car start, he walks to the door and leans against the frame. If he was the cry­ing type, this would be the per­fect occa­sion. But he ain't, so he watch­es, dry eyed, as she puts the car in gear. He man­ages a weak smile and blows her a kiss, the way she used to when she saw him off to work. But she dis­ap­pears behind a stand of mimosa that lines the dri­ve with­out look­ing back.

He lis­tens to her leave. He can tell the dif­fer­ence between the scratch of grav­el and the sound her car makes accel­er­at­ing onto the pave­ment. Then comes the silence. The damn silence always comes next.

A squir­rel scam­pers down a branch and jumps onto a pile of fire wood left from the pre­vi­ous win­ter. He takes a nut in his mouth and turns to stare at Logan.

What are you look­ing at?”

The ani­mal doesn't respond. It remains still, watch­ing.

Damn. He sits on the con­crete blocks that form the steps to the trail­er. Some things are sure hard to fig­ure. A man spends his whole life fac­ing down dan­ger, prov­ing him­self, and after it all, the only thing it takes to knock the wind clean out of him is some skin­ny girl with a pony­tail. Logan jumps to his feet and kicks grav­el in the direc­tion of the wood pile, and the squir­rel darts out of sight.

Randy Lowens lives in a cab­in on a wood­ed hill­side in east­ern Ken­tucky. His writ­ing has appeared in Dog­mati­ka, Blue Col­lar Review, and else­where. "The Flot­sam and Jet­sam of War" received the Tacen­da award for Best Short Sto­ry of 2007, illu­mi­nat­ing social injus­tice. "Sun­day After­noon at Earl's" is excerpt­ed from a nov­el in progress.

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One Response to Sunday Afternoon at Earl's, fiction by Randy Lowens

  1. Randy says:

    I'd like to thank Ralls Jen­nings for use of the image above. (More of his work can be viewed at rall​sjen​nings​.com )

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