“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 -
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.