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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
"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.