The Ballad of Billy Joe Fitz, fiction by Misty Skaggs

Well that was a blast!” My fiancée exclaimed as he stuffed his long body and tight Wran­glers into the pas­sen­ger seat of my beat up Ford Focus.

I rolled my eyes in a big dra­mat­ic way and turned the key in the igni­tion. While I tugged at the straps of my black sun­dress and regret­ted not wear­ing a bra, Bill stuck his shag­gy head out the win­dow like a half-blind sheep dog. He waved wild­ly to the gag­gle of rel­a­tives once removed gath­ered in the grass of the yel­lowed front lawn to see us off. He shout­ed his best twangy “Bye ya’lls!” and “Take cares!” at the top of his lungs. I didn’t look back; too busy fight­ing the lump in my throat. The trusty lit­tle motor groaned, but then sprang to life.

Funer­als are not fun,” I replied, wig­gling into the seat, find­ing the worn out spot where my bony ass belonged on these long dri­ves south to my grand­par­ents’ defunct farm.

The dri­ve was becom­ing more and more famil­iar because it had been hap­pen­ing more and more often late­ly. Bill seemed sud­den­ly excit­ed to inter­act with my fam­i­ly. The same ones he’d referred to as “brain­washed red­neck hicks” the first time he met them. We’d slept in the barn on East­er and on the fold­away couch for two nights of Memo­r­i­al Day Week­end. Christ­mas was com­ing up quick. I sighed.

Ooh. No. Well, I didn’t mean it like that…” He awk­ward­ly twist­ed at his bushy, trendy mus­tache and searched for the right thing to say. “I’m sor­ry your Papaw passed, Car­lene.”

Wasn’t my Papaw no ways.” I assert­ed as I lit up a Kool and inspect­ed my French tips.

I couldn’t stop the small smile that snuck across my men­thol fla­vored lips. Maybe funer­als were fun after all. My grand­moth­er had looked hap­py for the first time in my life­time. My child­hood tor­men­tor was final­ly van­quished by old age. Bill laughed. Big and loud, break­ing my con­cen­tra­tion. I glanced over at him, tak­ing my time as we chugged slow­ly up the road — watch­ing beams of late-fall sun­shine dance down through the canopy to flat­ter his face. He was hand­some, but still. Bill was no Burt Reynolds. In spite of the lux­u­ri­ous­ly hairy chest and upper lip and the charm­ing smile sparkling in his eyes. No mat­ter how many West­ern shirts he bought at the Good­will. Even though he found that tacky gold chain at the flea mar­ket. Bill was no Ban­dit.

I love it when I get to come home with you. The ver­nac­u­lar real­ly comes back. You said ‘no ways’ and I count­ed like, four ‘aint’s’ today! And a ‘reck­on’. My lit­tle Ellie Mae!” he reached out to lay a heavy hand on my thigh.

Fuck you and fuck the Clam­petts,” I meant it.

I swat­ted his warm palm away from the knee he found under my black skirt. That shut him up for the first time all week­end. The next few miles were qui­et except for the half-bro­ken buzz of the heater and the crunch of grav­el beneath my tires. I hat­ed that sound when I was a kid. I squeezed my eyes closed tight and imag­ined a mon­ster, grind­ing bones between his false teeth, wear­ing over­alls but no shirt. That sound meant com­ing back to the only hor­ri­ble place I could real­ly call home. That sound was a sick­en­ing grum­ble, lead­ing to a sharp right turn that fol­lowed a dirt path back in time where women were prop­er­ty and what went on behind closed doors was nobody’s busi­ness. I heard it for the first time when I was four years old and my moth­er packed her bags in the mid­dle of the night and point­ed her VW Rab­bit for­ev­er north. Frankly I don’t remem­ber much about Mom­my.

The sto­ries Granny told were ide­al­ized. At night, espe­cial­ly in the fall like this, she’d talk for hours on end about my moth­er while the brisk wind was creep­ing in through cracks around the foun­da­tion and freez­ing our toes. When we were hud­dled togeth­er in the same broke down bed my moth­er was a prodi­gal daugh­ter, a flower too beau­ti­ful to flour­ish in the used up dirt of our crag­gy bot­tom land. She had to be for­giv­en for allow­ing her roots to spread. In Granny’s mind, she would return to us some­day. Save us both. Car­ry us off like fall­en petals to a far more, del­i­cate place

The sto­ries Pop Orey told were demo­nized. They were lurid sketch­es of my moth­er the whore, caught in her biki­ni, grind­ing up on some farm boy next to the cow pond. His anec­dotes were relayed in the most uncom­fort­able places and ways. His anec­dotes were designed to make me squirm and feel sick. He would laugh hard at the din­ner table and rub at his shriv­eled up eye, press­ing it closed with a wrin­kled fist. I knew he could still see her there in that dark place in his mind, young and lithe and com­pro­mised. By him. I remem­ber think­ing that she must be able to feel his dirty, half-blind glare no mat­ter where she was. That was our con­nec­tion. I grew to know and dread that look. I learned to sneak out the win­dow almost every night to escape into the arms of some good ol’ boy and the cab of his truck.

My one and only first hand mem­o­ry of Mom­my was the way she rat­ted her bangs up even big­ger on the front seat of the tiny green car that morn­ing when we slid into the mud­dy dri­ve­way of Granny’s house. She was frozen in my mind, puck­er­ing in the rearview and drag­ging the slick, scar­let point of her lip­stick across that fun­ny face. It made me gig­gle then. My moth­er is the lin­ger­ing smell of Aqua Net and cheap per­fume poured on too thick. A young stranger in acid wash and a hal­ter top.

Bill brushed an arm against my body reach­ing for the radio and I jumped out of my skin. Hot ash bumped against my fin­gers and drib­bled down to my leg. I smashed it against my black jer­sey skirt and made a hot gray smudge.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a won­drous attrac­tion for me…

Strains of a hymn every­one knew blast­ed out of the huge speak­ers Bill had installed in my trunk back when he was so into indus­tri­al music. The voice was a high lone­some whine, quiv­er­ing with the fer­vor of the Holy Ghost.

Where do they find these peo­ple?” he asked.

That’s Mrs. Mar­lene Reynolds-Rowe-Wright.” I mum­bled.

Bill guf­fawed. I can’t think of any oth­er word for it. He brayed like a damned don­key.

Are you seri­ous? How would you know? That name is pret­ty price­less though.” He smirked.

I lived here for six­teen years with no tele­vi­sion. And on a Sun­day after­noon Mrs. Mar­lene is on basi­cal­ly every FM sta­tion. Her dad­dy and both of her hus­bands preached. Two out of three were evan­ge­lists.” I cracked the win­dow and tossed out my cig­a­rette butt. “Good mon­ey in it I guess.”

Mrs. Mar­lene had fin­ished up, but the old rugged cross was get­ting no rest. Rev­erend Wright dra­mat­i­cal­ly hic­cupped for air, engulfed in the will of the Bap­tist Lord and spread­ing His gospel in gasps over the air waves.

Jeeeeesus Christ!” I com­plained instead of exalt­ing.

My long fin­gers dart­ed out and mashed the but­ton clos­est to me. The voice of the guy from Swap Shop two coun­ties over droned on ten dec­i­mals too loud­ly about mixed Bea­gle pups for sale or trade.

You’re no fun.” Bill pout­ed.

I won­dered why he still thought that pout­ing was cute as I fum­bled blind­ly in the con­sole for anoth­er smoke and paused at a shot-up STOP sign. Then I won­dered why my radio favorites were tuned to the local sta­tions here instead of the trendy col­lege sta­tions back home in our trendy col­lege town. Bill reached for the dial and turned down the vol­ume, he flipped through the fuzz and pop coun­try.

I’m in search of more Mrs. Mar­lene. And I’m also going to start call­ing you Ms. Car­lene. Ha! You keep smok­ing those old lady men­thol lights… ” He reached into his shirt pock­et for a pack of Lucky Strikes.

It had cost him two extra bucks to look like cool­ness unfil­tered.

Don’t.” I snapped. “And Mrs. Mar­lene Wright would nev­er smoke. It makes a woman look old.”

How would you know? Did you ever meet her? She’s a local act, right?”

Granny knows her.” I said and laughed at the idea of Mrs. Mar­lene referred to as an act.

It came out more as a cough meets grunt.

Whaaat? Iva and Mrs. Mar­lene are friends? That’s got to be hilar­i­ous. I bet she has big hair. And lots of make-up, Tam­my Faye style.”

She makes the best pota­to sal­ad on earth,” was all I could think to say.

We pulled out onto the main road and Bill was qui­et as he stum­bled upon Mrs. Mar­lene doing her trem­bling sopra­no ver­sion of Amaz­ing Grace. He stared out the win­dow at the scenery, stroking his mus­tache one hand­ed and smok­ing with the oth­er. I could tell he was try­ing hard to look pen­sive and rev­er­ent when he checked him­self out in the pas­sen­ger side mir­ror.

I thought back to Mrs. Mar­lene stand­ing in Granny’s qui­et lit­tle kitchen slic­ing up car­rots and shelling beans.  She was the only friend I ever remem­ber Granny hav­ing. And Mrs. Mar­lene wasn’t Tam­my Faye. She was nat­ur­al and ethe­re­al and grace­ful. Her man­ners and per­son­al­i­ty were as sweet as her voice. I stared at her fin­gers as I leaned on the counter and she hummed some old coun­try song. Every sin­gle bean snapped and shelled per­fect­ly to the will of her del­i­cate touch.

Bill was dis­tract­ed gawk­ing at trail­er park res­i­dents as we neared what passed for town. I rolled down the win­dow and exhaled deeply, map­ping the place in my mind. First you dri­ve past the Dairy Queen on the left and a park­ing lot packed with bored small-town teenagers. Next there’s the high school. And the brand new, state of the art, pub­lic library — half-filled with the same smelly, moldy paper­backs from the old pub­lic library. There was the nurs­ing home and a low income hous­ing com­plex; the “Get TAN! And Video!” and the only drug store I know of where you can still get floats at the counter. I didn’t tell Bill about that. That quaint­ness was strict­ly for me to share with choco­late soda. Two gas sta­tions, one of which was also a gen­er­al store, were placed strate­gi­cal­ly on the far ends of the main strip. As we pulled up past the first gas sta­tion, I breathed in Bra­zier and had to lean towards the evening air.

Let’s get milk­shakes!” Bill sug­gest­ed.

I’m going to puke.” I retort­ed.

No. Fuck­ing. Fun.” He slumped in his seat, drum­ming his long fin­gers on the dash and pulling one knee up to buff a spot out of his snake-skin cow­boy boots with a nap­kin he found in the floor board.

Can we at least stop at the gen­er­al store? Your cousin said they sell plug tobac­co. That twisty kind your Granny chews,” he con­tin­ued.

Wild Duck,” I said flat­ly.

Why thank you, Ms. Car­lene, dar­lin’! I had plumb for­got what it was called,” he fake drawled. My stom­ach made an angry rum­ble in response to his gig­gles.

When I met Bill, he was William. William Joseph Fitzwell Jr., a his­to­ry stu­dent with a pony tail and an acoustic gui­tar and a dog-eared, paper­back copy of Howl in his cliché back pock­et. Now I lived with a mon­ster I had prob­a­bly helped to cre­ate. It sud­den­ly occurred to me that I planned to mar­ry a fic­tion­al per­sona. Bil­ly Joe Fitz. I was rid­ing through my home town with a sub­ur­ban­ite skater boy turned wannabe hill­bil­ly and I felt ill. The guilt remind­ed me I was a sell-out. A trai­tor. Too good for my rais­ing. I escaped and left it all behind, with­out the cour­tesy of look­ing back. I was my moth­er. Only worse. Now I had brought in an inter­lop­er, some­one to cash in on the nov­el­ty of my cul­ture. An out­sider to laugh at how excit­ed my Granny was about her new indoor toi­let.

Yeah, we can stop at the gas sta­tion sug­ar.” I fake drawled back.

The gears were in motion. I had made up my mind.

That’s more like it, woman!” he chuck­led.

He didn’t even notice my hands shak­ing on the wheel as I whipped into the bust­ed asphalt park­ing lot. Bill bounced out of my car and swag­gered into the store. Iri­des­cent threads glit­tered in his new but vin­tage “cow­boy shirt”. As soon as he had mount­ed the steps and cleared the screen door, I rum­maged through my purse until I found a piece of paper, a bust­ed pen and a rub­ber band. After jot­ting out a note, I wrapped the white scrap around my cell phone and snapped the band into place. With bare­ly a grunt, I kicked three big plas­tic suit­cas­es out of the back seat and dropped the phone on top of the pile. I saw him in the rear view as I pulled out, trot­ting down the wood­en steps with a chaw in his mouth. I turned back the way I had come. His jaw dropped and his chaw dropped and tobac­co juice drib­bled from the cor­ners of his hip mus­tache as he read the note I’d left behind -

It’s over.

Don’t try to call.

You know me and Granny ain’t got no phone out here in the sticks.

Triple A will be here to pick up William Fitzwell in the next two hours.

Bil­ly Joe Fitz might be shit out of luck.

Now that Pop was dead and six feet under, Granny and I wouldn’t hide under the cov­ers and whis­per in fear of reper­cus­sion any­more. The nor­mal­ly drab lit­tle house would be filled with the smell of funer­al flow­ers and rebirth. Tonight Granny and I would sit at the kitchen table in our paja­mas and turn on all the elec­tric lights like Pop would nev­er let us do. We would drink sas­safras tea and eat black­ber­ry cob­bler and lis­ten to Mrs. Marlene’s old timey hour at ten p.m. Tonight we would get out the farmer’s almanac and get into the moon­shine and decide which veg­eta­bles to put out by the signs of the moon come spring.

 

Misty Skag­gs, 29, cur­rent­ly resides on her Mamaw’s couch way out at the end of Bear Town Ridge Road where she is slow­ly amass­ing a library of con­tem­po­rary fic­tion under the cof­fee table and per­fect­ing her but­ter­milk bis­cuits. Her gravy, how­ev­er, still tastes like wall­pa­per paste. She is cur­rent­ly tak­ing the scenic route through high­er edu­ca­tion at More­head State Uni­ver­si­ty and hopes to com­plete her BFA in Cre­ative Writing…eventually. Misty won the Judy Rogers Award for Fic­tion with her sto­ry “Ham­burg­ers" and has had both poet­ry and prose pub­lished in Lime­stone and Inscape lit­er­ary jour­nals. Her short series of poems enti­tled “Hill­bil­ly Haiku" will also be fea­tured in the upcom­ing edi­tion of New Madrid. She will be read­ing from her chap­book, Pre­scrip­tion Panes, at the Appalachi­an Stud­ies Con­fer­ence in Indi­ana, Penn­syl­va­nia in March. When she isn’t writ­ing, Misty enjoys tak­ing long, woodsy walks with her three cats and watch­ing Dirty Har­ry with her nine­ty six year old great grand­moth­er.

 

 

 

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