Sparks on the Turnaround, fiction by Marsha Mathews

With her hands clapped over her ears, Birdie Dee tried to read Hobart’s lips. Thick and pink, they curled and stretched, puck­ered and part­ed. But she couldn’t fig­ure if he was com­pli­ment­ing her or cussing her. All she could hear was the roar of stock cars – red, blue, green, some with Tide box­es, m&ms, or oth­er graph­ics. She nod­ded like she under­stood so he’d quit bug­ging her. Besides, not hear­ing him suit­ed her just fine. Hadn’t he said his fill at sup­per? Hadn’t he and his mama said enough, giv­ing their two cents plus about abor­tions and the way­ward girls that had them?

Hobart’s leg brushed hers, so she inched away. Behind sparse black hairs, his neck blotched red. He gulped air, then belched. The air smelled like dead fish.

Jeeze.” Birdie Dee stood, shook out her yel­low slick­er, moved down the bleach­er a bit, away from him. Because there was always mist in the South­west Vir­ginia air, she took it almost every­where. Now it came in handy again, sav­ing her butt from tobac­co spit, gum, spilled soft drinks, or any oth­er nasty thing that might be on a bleach­er.

Hobart turned back to the race. She liked Hobart; his mama, Imo­gene, too. Even if she did act like she owned the church and had a lock on every­thing right. Now, Hobart, well, she could imag­ine him lift­ing the “WE KILL BABIES” signs from the truck and prop­ping them in front of abor­tion clin­ics, Imo­gene with arms crossed over her enor­mous bosom, direct­ing him.

Birdie Dee, want a Coke?”

What?” she yelled, over the speed­ing cars.

Want a Coke?” He made a chug-a-lug ges­ture.

Before she could answer, he pulled a fiv­er out of his wal­let and waved it. The ven­dor strut­ted up the steps, a tray of drinks strapped to his neck.

Hey. Over here.” Hobart held up two fin­gers. “Two Cokes.” He looked at Birdie Dee. “Care­ful, loose lid,” Hobart shout­ed. He hand­ed one to her. The cars squealed past.

Thanks.”

Hobart jumped to his feet. “Yeah, bud­dy,” he bel­lowed from deep with­in his throat. “Yippee-yipee-yi-yi!” The Hooter’s car whirled around the track.

Peo­ple turned to look at Hobart, and Birdie Dee felt her face flush. They think we’re togeth­er, she thought. Me and this guy who’s Mom’s age and about as classy as a dump truck.

When she agreed to come with Hobart to the races, she assumed Imo­gene was com­ing, too. They’d stuffed them­selves like ticks with her coun­try ham, fresh corn, fried okra, and sweet pota­to casse­role, not to men­tion but­ter bis­cuits and what Imo­gene called her berry-D-licious pie.

After eat­ing, Birdie Dee took a walk along the grav­el road that curled around the boul­ders and ridges. She need­ed a break from Hobart’s invit­ing glances; and now, the added pres­sure of those fool signs. She came across them when she stepped out to the car­port for a smoke. They said, “WE KILL BABIES,” not the kind of thing you’d expect in an old lady’s garage. Birdie Dee need­ed time to think, to shake off din­ner, their talk, the truth accord­ing to Imo­gene-Knows-Every­thing. So she took off run­ning, and once Hobart ran out of wind and turned back, she eased into a quick, delib­er­ate stride.

In the dusk, the view was one not eas­i­ly for­got­ten, a feath­ery pink and vio­let sky, and if she could just climb about thir­ty yards or so, she would be able to see the full sash of Coeburn’s twin­kling lights curv­ing around the moun­tain like glit­tery wool tossed around someone’s neck. She swerved away from the road, and clutch­ing some ropey twigs, she pressed through the scratchy brush, found footholds, and began to climb.

From a jut­ting rock, she looked out over the hol­low. Imogene’s roof had not one cat, but four, all curled near the chim­ney of the wood stove. And there was Hobart, tak­ing the porch steps, two at a time.

Birdie Dee climbed high­er, tak­ing her time, mov­ing up the moun­tain the way Grand­fa­ther Laugh­ing Horse once showed her, not shift­ing her weight until her toe was lodged.

After what seemed a few sec­onds, a gun­shot! Her foot slipped. She rolled. Down she slid through bri­ars; rolled, bounced rock, rolled. Thir­ty feet lat­er, she cried out for him. “Hobart!”

Embar­rassed, she lay on a ridge not ten feet from the dirt road. Crim­iny! She thought. Some­body shoot­ing? A hunter? She lift­ed her head but saw only fet­ter­bush­es. Sure­ly, Hobart was too far to hear her. Yet, in the moun­tains, sound car­ried, as it would over a lake. The last thing she want­ed was for Hobart to hear her cry for him, but in her moment of fear, that’s what she’d done, and she couldn’t pull it back.

She wait­ed for the dust to stop swirling. Just enough light, she could see coal flecks set­tle on twigs, the yel­low dirt. She smelled ramps and sti­fled a cough, her breaths drawn and raspy from her tum­ble. Unleashed, grav­el con­tin­ued to slip, crack­ling. She lay, unmov­ing. Hobart’s truck rum­bled toward her.

Holy Jesus on a moun­tain,” he said, jump­ing out. “You okay?”

I heard a gun­shot.”

Ain’t no nev­er mind, just me. I lost sight of you. I want­ed to wave you back.”

She felt a jab­bing pain in her leg when she tried to put weight on it but refused his hand, fell back against the slope. “Ouch!”

Good thing for you, Mama’s a nurse. Well, an aide. Used to be, any­how, in her hey­day. Don’t fret. She’ll fix you up good so we can go to the races.”

The races?”

Sure, hear that?” He paused, looked across the hol­low. “It’s them, doing the prac­tice rounds. That’s why I come up from Bryson City. There’s a spe­cial con­test tonight where you can win a dri­ve around the track. And I aim to win it.”

You seri­ous?”

Yeah, bud­dy. Mama thinks I come up to fix her wash­er, but this con­test, this shot’s only once a year.”

And me? What about me? I might get to dri­ve a race car?”

Birdie Dee didn’t see it com­ing. She felt his hands slide beneath her. He swooped her up. She was in the air, in his arms, against his chest.

Dern toot­ing. You know how it is today, women get equal foot­ing.”

She smelled some­thing. Shoe pol­ish? He reeked of it.

He pulled her clos­er. Every nerve in her body stood up inside her and poked her from the inside. “Crap, Hobart. Put me down.”

Look, do you want to go to the races or not?”

Okay, okay. I’ll go.” His skin, dark behind his side­burns, a sil­ver hair flag­ging her, she real­ized he had col­ored his tem­ple hair with brown shoe pol­ish. Gross, she thought. “But put me down. I’ll go, already.”

Birdie Dee pound­ed on Hobart’s chest. She pound­ed and spat every mean word she could think of: “You ten-ton tub of lard,” the whole way down the moun­tain to his 4 X 4.

That’s how she end­ed up at the races. But it was just the two of them, with­out Mama. To make things worse, Hobart had insist­ed on pay­ing her way in, like it was a date or some­thing. Birdie Dee pulled out her mon­ey, but Hobart pushed it back into her bag. Guys always the big shots, she thought. Throw­ing mon­ey around. Birdie Dee sipped her Coke. She didn’t even like Coke. She liked Sprite, but he didn’t both­er to ask.

At least she was right where she always dreamed of being — at the stock car races. Her Dad had told her girls didn’t belong in such places. “But look at me now,” she thought. To her, just being in a place Dad said was off lim­its was rea­son to be there. With the noise and the smoke and the fiery smells, Birdie Dee came alive.

I’m hav­ing fun.” Birdie Dee stretched her arms into the air. “Holy crap. I’m hav­ing fun,” she shout­ed to the whir of the tires. Her mom kept prod­ding her to go some­where, some­where cool. She couldn’t wait to tell her.

This was so much bet­ter than sit­ting in her lit­tle room above the video store where she worked, mak­ing sculp­tures out of pack­ing mate­r­i­al. She had just as much chance as any­one there to win that raf­fle. Birdie Dee imag­ined her­self strapped into the low seat of a stock car, push­ing the throt­tle – whoosh!

Trou­ble.” The loud­speak­er crack­led. “Trou­ble on the sec­ond turn.”

The Downy car spun twice. It backed into the wall.

Every­one jumped up.

He okay?” Birdie Dee inched clos­er to Hobart.

Hobart didn’t answer. Smoke gushed from the engine.

Can he get out?” Birdie Dee grabbed Hobart’s arm. He stood stiller than a tur­tle on a log. Wasn’t he aware of her touch? Or had fear sucked his feel­ings into his boots?

When had the moun­tains on the far side of the track dark­ened to a sil­hou­ette? High Knob now looked like card­board against the ash sky. The crash caused fuzzi­ness inside Birdie Dee’s head.

The car door popped open.

The dri­ver stag­gered out.

Phew!” Birdie Dee bent over to tuck her cup under­neath her seat. She count­ed to ten, sat up.

Hobart’s mouth moved, but his words weren’t reg­is­ter­ing. His eyes wouldn’t turn her loose. She start­ed to hear him. “When we was at Mama’s, look­ing at the foun­tain?” She nod­ded. She knew what he was get­ting at. “We was get­ting along pret­ty good, me and you. I mean, no mat­ter how I look at it, I just don’t see why you run off like you did.”

Her face flushed, and she exhaled as she spoke, “I don’t, I was, con­fused.”

About what?” Hobart looked at Birdie Dee as if try­ing to under­stand. “The abor­tion thing? Mama’s real set on things like that.”

Look, Hobart. It’s not like peo­ple who have abor­tions want them.” “Gimme some cred­it. I know, I know it ain’t like run­ning up to Wal-Mart for bat­ter­ies.”

My best friend.…” She could see her friend Angel’s eyes just after it hap­pened, fad­ing from gems to flat gray slate.

I hear what you’re say­ing about your friend or who­ev­er, I hear what you’re say­ing, and I want you to know, I ain’t Mama.”

Birdie Dee’s mind was back on ninth grade. “If my best friend Angel couldn’t have had an abor­tion, I believe she would’ve dug the fetus out with her fin­ger­nails.”

Hobart’s eyes dipped like fish­ing sinkers.

A big guy holds a stink­ing fish­ing knife to you as he, you know.” She coughed.

Dis­gust­ing.” His eyes flamed.

She gulped and cleared her throat. Her face burned.

Are you all right?” Hobart reached over to pat her back.

She spread out her hands. “I’m okay, I’m okay. But it’s more than that. It tore Angel up.I mean, it tore her up.”

They’ll get him.”

Phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly, every way.” Beads of sweat formed on Hobart’s fore­head. His words were mea­sured, but kind. “He’ll strike again, that snake. And they’ll get him. You’ll see. They’ll get him.”

Nei­ther spoke dur­ing the next race. After­wards, Hobart said, “I want you to know, I don’t blame you.”

Birdie Dee’s brow creased.

Your friend, I mean. I don’t blame your friend for hav­ing the abor­tion. I don’t blame her one bit. I’d do the same thing.”

Jeez! She thought. He thinks it was me got raped. They sat with­out talk­ing. Peo­ple moved up and down the bleach­ers. Moths flit­ted about the lights. A baby whim­pered. Cars posi­tioned them­selves for the next race.

Hobart raised his voice. “Case like that, hell, it’s all you can do.”

See, Hobart, it’s not always about pre­vent­ing a life. Some­times – ”

The announc­er intrud­ed. “Sparks on the turn. Trou­ble. Trou­ble.”

The nine car, its roof paint­ed like a Tide box, trailed gray smoke.

Some­times it’s about pre­vent­ing a—an—explosion.” Birdie Dee jumped to her feet along with every­one else. The car spun twice, knocked three oth­er cars that, in turn, hit two more. Smoke licked the left front fend­er. The door flung open.

The dri­ver is still strapped in,” the announc­er said. “Smoke’s pour­ing from his radi­a­tor.”

He’ll burn up,” Birdie Dee cried.

Hobart smiled, and his cheeks balled.

He’ll burn up.” She trem­bled.

Sure pumps your blood, don’t it?” She want­ed to smack him. He was get­ting off from the poor guy’s pain. She stood, nib­bling on her thumb­nail.

The audi­ence whis­tled and stomped as the final race roared.

Stock cars, one after the oth­er, shot across the fin­ish line and then tax­ied off to the pit. News cam­eras con­verged as the win­ner, Spud Neece, said a few words: “Did what I could … lay in there real nice … had a great run.” From Miss Lone­some Pine, he accept­ed a tro­phy and a kiss before strut­ting off with a wave and a grin.

Folks?” the announc­er said. A hush fell over the stands. “It’s time for — ” Cheers shot up from the crowd. “You all sound ready for this.” The crowd hoot­ed and stomped.

Yeah, bud­dy,” Hobart yelled. “Yeah, bud­dy. You got that right. Yoooo-heee.” He grabbed Birdie Dee’s hand.

The sound sys­tem whis­tled. The announcer’s voice broke in and out of the high-pitched squeal, but his mes­sage was clear: “Time for the Grand Draw­ing.”

The sky was so dark now, the moun­tains had van­ished. Halos glowed about the lights. Miss Lone­some Pine’s tiara sparkled. Hobart let go of Birdie Dee, smacked his hands togeth­er. “This is it, this is it,” he said.

From the loud­speak­er: “One of you is about to win a ride of a life­time.” Birdie Dee held her breath. The beau­ty queen dipped her hand into the gold­en cup, drew the win­ning tick­et. Except for a few coughs and a baby’s bab­ble, not a sound from the crowd. What would it be like to be Miss Lone­some Pine and to hold someone’s dream in your hand? Birdie Dee won­dered.

Hobart grabbed Birdie Dee’s hand and squeezed.

8931,” Miss Lone­some Pine said. Her voice twanged.

Hobart drew in a breath. “8931?” “Yep.” Birdie Dee won­dered at the light in his eyes.

8931?” His voice was sandy. “You’re sure?” She nod­ded, and ver­te­brae popped in her neck.

He pulled out his wal­let, flipped it open. “Pos­i­tive?”

Her lips part­ed. “8931.”

8931,” said the announc­er. The micro­phone blared. “Will the own­er of tick­et 8931, please come for­ward?” He stepped away from the mike, but every­one could hear him say to Miss Lone­some Pine, “What the yokels is tak­ing so dang long?”

Birdie Dee’s eyes hung onto Hobart’s wal­let. He removed a tick­et from the right side. His tick­et. Yours is on the left, he had said ear­li­er. He’s just play­ing, she thought. He doesn’t fool me. If he real­ly won, he’d be jump­ing out of his seat like a crazy per­son. She could stand it no longer. “Did you win?”

No,” he said, hand­ing her the tick­et. Her heart felt as if it had been kicked.

You did.”

"What? No way.”

Yes way.” Her hand trem­bling, she inspect­ed the num­bers: 8931. “Oh, my god.” Adren­a­lin surged. “For real?” Hobart’s face beamed. “You seri­ous?”

His eyes shuf­fled joy.

8931,” the announc­er said. “Last call for 8931. Does any­one here have tick­et stub num­ber 8931?” Birdie Dee jumped to her feet. “Here,” she screamed. She hob­bled down the steps. “Here!” When she reached the gate, she turned, looked at Hobart. His tick­et was on the right, not hers. This was his dream, and she was no dream steal­er. She took a few steps back to him.

No! Go on with you.” He sig­naled with his hand.

Do I dare? She smiled and then hob­bled the rest of the way, through the gate, and across the track, her legs aching from her fall down the moun­tain. She breathed deep the scent, gaso­line and pine. She held the tick­et in the air, Hobart’s tick­et, the tick­et of the guy who might not be such a bad do, after all. And for tonight, at least, her father’s face and the cut­ting sor­row of abor­tion buried in her back pock­et.

Mar­sha Math­ews teach­es Cre­ative Writ­ing and Appalachi­an Lit­er­a­ture and oth­er inter­est­ing cours­es at Dal­ton State Col­lege, in Dal­ton, GA. Her most recent poet­ry chap­book, Hal­lelu­jah Voic­es, presents a South­west Vir­ginia con­gre­ga­tion as they expe­ri­ence piv­otal moments and also deal with their new “lady” preach­er. Marsha’s nov­el excerpt “More than a Mess of Greens” was a final­ist for the 2012 Rash Awards and appears in The Broad Riv­er Review. “Sparks on the Turn­around” was pre­sent­ed to a chuck­ling audi­ence at the South­ern Women Writ­ers Con­fer­ence at Berry Col­lege in Sep­tem­ber. The sto­ry is also a mod­i­fied seg­ment of her nov­el-in-progress A Secret to Kill For, which she one day hopes to sell like crazy.

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