Girls of Michigan, by Gary V.Powell

It was an era of inci­vil­i­ty; a mean time when lines were drawn and peo­ple picked sides. A few lived large while most teetered on the precipice. In those days, I ran with a rough crowd, row­dy guys who played pick-up rug­by on week­ends, drank until they puked, and got into fights. We attend­ed com­mu­ni­ty col­lege part-time and worked at cor­po­rate dives like Wal-Mart, Apple­bees, and Best Buy. Some of the guys lived at home with par­ents lack­ing the for­ti­tude to kick their sor­ry ass­es onto the street. Butch and I rent­ed the upper floor of a dilap­i­dat­ed house on South Main. Most nights, after work or class­es, we cruised the drag from the old rail­road sta­tion to the turn-around. Sun­days, Butch and I drove north out of Indi­ana, into the dark­ness on the edge of town, cross­ing the line into Michi­gan where the girls were eas­i­er, the beer cheap­er, and the back roads lone­li­er.

We were shoot­ing nine-ball at Zimmy’s the first time I saw Lila. The game paid on the three, five, sev­en, and nine, and we were into two fam­i­ly men for more than they could afford. Between racks, the younger of our two oppo­nents, a skin­ny, ner­vous dude with greasy black hair, retreat­ed to the bath­room to snort the bal­ance of his pay­check up his nose. The old­er guy—I guessed him for ear­ly forties—smoked cig­a­rettes and checked out a gag­gle of hard-edged women con­gre­gat­ing around the fire­place.

Every­one turned to look, even the old farts and floozies tilt­ing against the bar, when the three girls flounced into the place. None of them was knock-out pret­ty, but they were young, curvy, and most­ly unblem­ished. They wore five-inch heels, tight jeans, and sweaters that bunched around their breasts. Lila’s long blonde hair, blue eyes, and tough-girl stance caused her to stand out from her two home­li­er friends.

The bar­tender, an over­weight ex-cop who went by the name of Ham­mer, checked their IDs and served up beers. When she leaned in for a sip, Lila’s thong crept above her waist­band, reveal­ing a gar­ish tat­too that ranged from one shape­ly hip to the oth­er. There was some­thing vul­ner­a­ble and taint­ed about her, under­scored by that tat­too. I want­ed to lick it, like a dog lick­ing a wound.

Fresh meat,” the old­er guy said with a wink, and even in a joint like Zimmy’s it sound­ed crude, the kind of com­ment that sucked the soul out of every per­son there.

Your shot, man,” Butch told him in a monot­o­ne. Tall and rangy with a scrag­gly beard and long hair peek­ing out from under his Cubs’ base­ball cap, Butch had no patience for ban­ter while play­ing pool. He drank Wild Turkey, changed his own oil, and fought with­out fear.

You like that?” the younger guy asked.

He’d caught me look­ing and read my mind. I felt like he’d stolen some­thing pre­cious from me. “I can take it or leave it.”

He thrust his hand into his jeans’ pock­et, leav­ing his wed­ding ring behind. “Yeah, me too.”

I want­ed to wipe that leer off of his face as much as I want­ed to shut his part­ner up.

Will you fuck­ing shoot?” Butch said.

The old­er guy gave a “what­ev­er” shrug, lined up his shot, and missed, leav­ing Butch with a duck on the two. After tap­ping it into the side pock­et, he dropped the three, four, and five. Then, snook­ered by his own hand, he tucked the cue ball against the rail at the far end of the table from the sev­en, the six hav­ing fall­en on the break. The younger guy couldn’t even see the sev­en much less make it. After he missed, I ran out the table, putting us up three hun­dred dol­lars for the night.

The fam­i­ly men paid, then asked to play again. I explained that since they were broke and we didn’t shoot for plea­sure our brief encounter had run its course. The old­er guy protest­ed, say­ing they could be trust­ed for it. Butch reset his base­ball cap on his head and said he wouldn’t trust him to shov­el shit with Chi­na­men. The two glared at each oth­er until I tossed a ten on the table as a peace offer­ing. The younger guy swept it up, took his part­ner by the elbow, and steered him to the bar. Butch and I found a spot on the oppo­site side of the fire­place from the hard women, ordered drinks, and wait­ed for the next suck­ers to show. The fam­i­ly men sidled up next to Lila and her girls, buy­ing them a round with my ten.

I guessed her to be eigh­teen to twen­ty. She prob­a­bly lived at home and wait­ressed at a restau­rant on the lake. Or maybe she was a col­lege girl, slum­ming with friends who hadn’t been lucky enough to escape these parts. Maybe she had a boyfriend who treat­ed her like an angel, or was a back­woods farm girl who’d nev­er even been felt up in the back seat of a car. When the door opened and a cold north wind blew in, Lila’s nip­ples strained against the fab­ric of her sweater. The younger guy’s hand slid down her back and over her but­tocks. She squirmed away, but he was back at her a few min­utes lat­er. I caught her eye and nod­ded. She returned my nod before look­ing away.

While the old­er guy chat­ted up Lila’s friends, Butch salut­ed them from across the bar.  He stuck cig­a­rettes up his nose and into his ears. The girls gig­gled, watch­ing his act over the old­er guy’s shoul­der. Butch bal­anced a spoon on the end of his nose. The girls gig­gled again, and the old­er guy turned to see what was so fun­ny. Butch scratched between his eyes with an index fin­ger, sur­rep­ti­tious­ly flip­ping the guy off, and caus­ing the girls to gig­gle even more.

The younger guy tried to work a knee between Lila’s legs. He whis­pered into her ear and rubbed his chest against hers. He brushed her hair aside and stuck his tongue in her ear. She wrig­gled away only to have him do it again. After a while, I’d seen all I could take. I fin­ished my beer, crossed the room, and pushed my way between them.

What the fuck?” he said.

C’mon, man, she doesn’t want your hands all over her.”

He took a step back, grinned, and said I should mind my own damn busi­ness.

Why don’t we ask her?”

Lila stared at the floor. “I guess I rather not be pawed,” she said, her voice bare­ly audi­ble against the back­drop of music, chat­ter, and laugh­ter.

Humil­i­at­ed for a sec­ond time that night, the younger guy’s face burned. He was pissed and high, a volatile com­bi­na­tion, and it wasn’t hard to see what was com­ing next. Not believ­ing in fair fights, if I could avoid them, I sur­prised him with a short, quick jab to the heart. He dou­bled over, and I hit him again, this time across the back of his neck. He dropped to his knees, clutch­ing at my thighs. I tore loose and kicked him in his bony ribs. When the old­er guy start­ed for me, Butch laid a pool cue upside his ear, open­ing a long, deep slash along his cheek. He sagged like an old barn.

I grabbed Lila by the hand and head­ed for the door about the time Ham­mer cleared the bar. Butch held the fat man off with his cue stick and ush­ered the oth­er two girls out behind Lila and me. We made a run for it across the park­ing lot. Butch dropped his Mus­tang into gear, popped the clutch, and roared into the night, snow drifts as high as the car’s roof on both sides of the road. Lila’s friends snug­gled togeth­er in the passenger’s seat up front, squeal­ing. Lila sat next to me on the bench in the back.

Are you total­ly crazy?” she asked.

I sank into the nau­gahyde. “We’re not crazy. We’re bad ass­es.”

She looked me over. Michi­gan moon­light streamed in through the rear win­dow, reveal­ing a sick­le-shaped scar at the cor­ner of her mouth. “You’re not such a bad ass,” she said.

***

I might not have been the bad ass I thought I was, but she was no wait­ress, col­lege stu­dent, or farmer’s daugh­ter. She lived in a run-down mobile home on a cul de sac at the end of a grav­el lane with her father and two old­er broth­ers, Lar­ry and Dwight. They were rarely around, work­ing days as tree trim­mers, yard men, and house painters, and fish­ing and hunt­ing on week­ends. They grew mar­i­jua­na, dried it in a shed behind the trail­er, and used a machine to roll tight, lit­tle bogies, which they sold to oth­er locals lack­ing the indus­tri­ous­ness to raise and roll their own. Lila washed their clothes, cooked their meals, and picked up after them, the wife and moth­er hav­ing long since fled the scene. I couldn’t blame her. I’d seen the old man, gnarly as an aged tree, teeth miss­ing up front, and a bro­ken nose. He came to the door instead of Lila once, hitch­ing his over­hauls over bare shoul­ders as he strode across the dark­ened room and ask­ing what he could do me for. I told him I was lost and need­ed direc­tions.

Ear­ly on, she con­fessed to being a high school drop-out, clos­er in age to six­teen than eigh­teen. So far as I could tell, there was no facile intel­li­gence lurk­ing behind those pale blue eyes, no clever con­ver­sa­tion wait­ing to bub­ble forth from that soft, will­ing mouth. She pre­ferred soap operas to sit­coms, and the only books she read were trashy romance nov­els with busty babes on the cov­er. In a t-shirt and jeans, hair pulled back, and lack­ing make-up, she was plain­er than she’d appeared that night at Zimmy’s. She lived on ice cream, can­dy, and root beer, mak­ing her soft around the mid­dle and prone to tooth decay. It wasn’t hard to imag­ine what mid­dle-age held for her.

We didn’t date in the reg­u­lar sense of the word, but as win­ter turned to spring and spring to sum­mer I spent more and more time at Lila’s. I’d blow off class­es or call in sick at work. I’d show up in the mid­dle of the morn­ing or ear­ly after­noon, when her old man and broth­ers were out.

We both knew what I was look­ing for.

She wasn’t dou­ble-joint­ed or kinky, wasn’t a moan­er or scream­er; but she was capa­ble, even skilled in the ordi­nary maneu­vers of sex. She nev­er asked to be tak­en out, didn’t expect to have mon­ey lav­ished on her, and wasn’t inter­est­ed in the least in how I spent my time away from her. Not once did she ask, “Randy, where do you see this going?”

Part of me knew I was tak­ing advan­tage. Anoth­er part of me was like a crack addict who denies his addic­tion each time he torch­es a rock. Besides, she was as grate­ful for the atten­tion as a pup­py hav­ing its bel­ly scratched. For three months, I kept Lila secret from Butch and my oth­er so-called friends, much as anoth­er man might have secret­ed an online affair from his wife.

Then, one evening in August, I came home from class to find Lila sit­ting on our front porch stoop. She wore a cheap cot­ton dress, the five-inch heels I’d seen her in that first night at Zimmy’s, and too much make-up. Across her shoul­der was a bling-encrust­ed purse, and sit­ting next to her was a leather suit­case that looked like it had been stowed in someone’s attic since 1950.

***

She can­not stay,” Butch said.

Lila remained on the stoop while we talked it through. I argued for one night, see­ing it as a rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tion to an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion.

Butch remained adamant. “No way in hell,” were his exact words.

I asked what she’d told him.

You know what she told me.” His voice was laced with dis­gust, maybe even con­tempt, aris­ing, no doubt, from the self-knowl­edge that while he’d nev­er have fall­en into this par­tic­u­lar mess, he could just as eas­i­ly have found trou­ble in anoth­er realm. We both knew he pre­ferred fight­ing to fuck­ing.

It just sort of hap­pened,” I said in my defense.

There was no mov­ing him. “Make it unhap­pen. She’s jail­bait, and I’m not going to jail over this.”

I fetched two beers from our aging Frigidaire and went out to the stoop. Cars cruised by with shirt­less guys hang­ing out the win­dows. The dri­vers played their music too loud­ly and called out to pedes­tri­ans in the cross­walk. The neigh­bor­hood had been tak­en over by His­pan­ics, and the air smelled like burn­ing oil and tacos. There was a Wash N’ Dry on the cor­ner next to a red­neck bar. Blood stained the side­walk out front.

How’d you find me?” I asked.

Copied your address off your driver’s license when you were in the bath­room. I walked out to the coun­ty road and caught a ride from a farmer.”

Maybe she had more on the ball than I’d thought. “So, why did you run away?”

She set her jaw. “I don’t like how they treat me. I do and do and do and nothing’s ever enough. They didn’t appre­ci­ate Mom­ma, and now they don’t appre­ci­ate me.”

This had been build­ing over the sum­mer, a crescen­do of com­plaints I’d cho­sen to ignore.

You need to work this out with your dad.”

No. I need a place to stay until I find a job.”

Well, you can’t stay here. You’re under­age.”

You weren’t wor­ried about that when you were hump­ing me.”

I stared at the cement between my knees. I watched a cock­roach crawl in front of us before stomp­ing out its life. “I can’t, Lila. Butch won’t allow it, and this is his place as much as mine.”

She took a tone she’d nev­er used before. “And I can’t go back. I’ll nev­er have a life if I don’t get out of there. I want to earn my GED, maybe become a beau­ti­cian.”

I con­ced­ed that the world could nev­er have enough beau­ti­cians.

And, you know what? I want to trav­el. I’d like to go to France or Italy or even Bel­gium.”

Bel­gium?”

Well, why not? You think I nev­er heard of Bel­gium?”

Her tone made me squirm. In all the hours we’d spent togeth­er, there had been no rea­son to acknowl­edge that Lila might have dreams beyond that mobile home on the cul de sac. But now her future lay before us like a hol­i­day din­ner, fra­grant with hope and expec­ta­tion.

There’s noth­ing wrong with Bel­gium,” was all I could think of to say.

I mean, what do you want to do, Randy? Stay here, shoot pool with your bud­dies, and slip around with teen-aged girls for the rest of your life?”

I turned to look into a face I no longer rec­og­nized; no more the face of some emp­ty-head­ed slut picked up in a bar, but the earnest face of a girl try­ing to become a woman. “Don’t wor­ry about me, I have a plan.”

She fin­ished her beer. “I thought there was more to you than this.”

I slapped my thighs and stood, unable to remain sit­ting. I offered her fifty dol­lars, the remain­der of my win­nings from the week before.

What am I sup­posed to do with that?” she asked. “That won’t last a week, if I have to rent a room and buy my own food.”

Take it. It’s all I have.”

Well, it’s not enough.”

So, what do you want me to do?”

She placed her elbows on her knees and cupped her chin in her hand. “My dad­dy keeps cash in a cof­fee can. It’s what he makes sell­ing dope. I didn’t take it before, because I knew he’d come after me if I did. But, now, I got no choice. You have to dri­ve me out there, so I can steal that mon­ey.”

Tonight?”

Damn straight tonight. We need to get this done, so I can get on with my life.”

What about your dad and your broth­ers?”

"They’ll be out frog­gin’ until day­light.”

Maybe they will and maybe they won’t.”

She shrugged. “What dif­fer­ence does it make? If they’re around, you can beat ‘em up. You’re a bad ass aren’t you?”

There were plen­ty of things I could have said or done, but at the time my options seemed few. I gath­ered up our beer bot­tles and head­ed inside. “Give me a minute,” I told Lila.

I laid it out to Butch and asked to bor­row his car, his Mus­tang being more reli­able and faster than my used Volk­swa­gen. I told him I’d be back as soon as I could, in and out, clean with the mon­ey, in no time at all.

They’re out all night?” he asked from under the brim of his base­ball cap.

That’s what she says.”

He con­sid­ered it—the sit­u­a­tion rife with con­flict and pos­si­bil­i­ty. “Maybe, I bet­ter come along. You know, watch your back.”

I wasn’t about to refuse his com­pa­ny.

The deal we cut with Lila was that she’d nev­er show her face again.

Butch slipped his trust­ed leather bil­ly club through a belt loop on his jeans and I tucked a tire iron under the driver’s seat.

Just in case.

***

We parked on the shoul­der of the coun­ty road and walked the dis­tance from Butch’s Mus­tang to the mobile home. Illu­mi­nat­ed by a bright half moon, the woods on both sides of the grav­el pulsed with the steamy growth of veg­e­ta­tion, the scream of cicadas, and the occa­sion­al rus­tle of a rac­coon. No one spoke; there was noth­ing to say. We were bad char­ac­ters on a mis­sion to steal from even worse char­ac­ters. I car­ried the tire iron. Butch’s bil­ly slapped against his thigh. When we closed in on Lila’s mobile home we kept to the shad­ows. A pick-up truck and an aging Jeep sat out front, but no lights shined from with­in the trail­er. We squat­ted in the under­brush and watched and lis­tened.

They must be in Larry’s car,” Lila whis­pered. “They go to the marsh on the oth­er side of Zimmy’s.”

You’re sure no one’s home?” I asked.

I’m pret­ty sure.”

She drew a breath and fished inside her purse for a set of keys. “I’ll be right back.”

We watched her teeter across the yard in her heels, hips rolling beneath the cot­ton dress. She took one final look around before insert­ing the key, turn­ing the lock, and dis­ap­pear­ing inside. Long sec­onds passed, then we heard a scream and a crash. A moment lat­er, Lila burst from the door, clutch­ing a cof­fee can. She kicked off her heels and made a dash for the woods, breasts heav­ing, purse flap­ping, just out of reach of her old man who, dressed only in box­ers and a wife-beat­er, fol­lowed hot on her tail.

Butch and I strode out of our hid­ing place. We didn’t get far before the broth­ers emerged from behind a wood­pile. Like the old man, they were thick and squat with arms like base­ball bats. They rushed in low, look­ing to wres­tle us to the ground and do their dam­age there. I side-stepped Lar­ry and kicked him on the rump as he drove past. The extra momen­tum sent him sprawl­ing face-first into the grill work of the pick-up truck. As I advanced to take advan­tage of the moment, I saw Butch on my periph­ery. He had Dwight in a head­lock and was ham­mer­ing away.

I didn’t expect Lar­ry to recov­er as quick­ly as he did. He was on his feet again by the time I arrived, blood stream­ing from his fore­head and a stu­pid grin on his ruined mouth. I feint­ed with my left and punched with my right. I caught him on the ear, but felt a sick burn across my chest. I stepped away, blood seep­ing from the slash and through my shirt. Lar­ry cir­cled low, a straight-edged razor siz­zling between us. I cursed myself for leav­ing the tire iron in our hid­ing place. I fought back pan­ic and nau­sea and wait­ed for him to lunge. When he did, I popped him again, but paid the price with anoth­er burn, this one to my left cheek. I slapped at it, and took a sol­id right cross between my eyes. I fell back­ward, vague­ly aware that Lar­ry was mov­ing away.

I inhaled dirt and decom­pos­ing garbage, dog shit from anoth­er era. Across the yard, I saw Dwight break free of Butch’s head­lock and bury a frog gig in his fore­arm. Butch bel­lowed and reached for his bil­ly. Lar­ry arrived and slashed with his razor, Dazed from Dwight’s wound, Butch swat­ted only air.

I felt heavy. Time slowed and it was dif­fi­cult to focus. I regained my hands and knees and began to crawl. Behind me, I heard the sound of flesh on flesh; the broth­ers had Butch pinned against the pick-up, pum­mel­ing at will.

I felt around by instinct until I locat­ed the tire iron. I man­aged to stand, knees wob­bly, vision blurred. I took a breath, roared, and ran, swing­ing the tire iron like a war axe. The broth­ers turned. I brought my weapon down across the bridge of Larry’s nose. He fell in place. Before I could strike Dwight, Butch and his bil­ly con­nect­ed with a head-snap­ping shot to the chin. Caught in the heat of the moment, Butch prob­a­bly would have him fin­ished him off had a shot­gun blast not rocked the night.

Lila had man­aged to escape, leav­ing the old man free. He stood in front of the trail­er, a smok­ing dou­ble bar­rel rest­ing on his shoul­der. Butch and I dart­ed for the thick­et. We crashed and thrashed about until anoth­er blast scared us to the ground.

We lay in dark­ness, behind a fall­en tree, not twen­ty yards away from the old man and the broth­ers. We watched the old man make his way to Dwight, who’d man­aged to regain his feet. Blood drained, thick and black as motor oil, from the cut on his chin. The old man stripped off his wife-beat­er and wound it tight around Dwight’s head and chin. Togeth­er the two of them went to check on Lar­ry. He still lay motion­less where he’d fall­en, and it occurred to me that I might have killed him. They wiped his face with Dwight’s shirt and sat him up.

Lar­ry held his head in his hands and mum­bled a few words, dazed and like­ly con­cussed, but alive. I would not spend the rest of my life, clinch­ing my cheeks in a Michi­gan prison. While Dwight com­fort­ed his broth­er, the old man stalked over the thicket’s edge where Butch and I had dis­ap­peared.

I know you son­s­abitch­es are out there,” he said. “I can see you. C’mon out and I won’t shoot.”

We didn’t flinch.

The old man walked back to where the broth­ers clung to one anoth­er. The three con­ferred before the old man returned. “All right, you chick­en­shits. Have it your way.”

The old man and broth­ers con­ferred again. Dwight went inside the trail­er and returned with two large pipe wrench­es. He hand­ed one to Lar­ry and the three of them set off up the road.

My car,” Butch whis­pered. “Not my god­damned car.”

***

We took a moment to check our wounds. My razor cuts oozed blood, but the mus­cle beneath the skin remained intact. Butch was worse. He removed the frog gig with a groan; his fore­arm showed four punc­ture wounds down to the bone. We tied his arm off with my belt and eased our way through the thorns and bram­bles. Lila was nowhere in sight, and I couldn’t risk call­ing out to her. Halfway to where we’d parked the Mus­tang we heard the sound of glass break­ing and met­al clank­ing on met­al. By the time we’d crept to where we could see, the wind­shield and the lights were out. Ugly dents showed on the hood and fend­ers.

Butch seethed beside me, but there was noth­ing to be done, not with the old man hold­ing that shot­gun. After a while, the broth­ers gave out. Lar­ry dropped his pipe wrench, bent dou­ble, and threw up. When he fin­ished, he was too weak to stand. The old man paced the tree line not far from where we hun­kered, our hearts thun­der­ing, our breath rasp­ing.

I know you’re in there. I’ll get you yet,” the old man hollered. “You hear me Lila, you lit­tle whore, I’ll have you and them boys before this is over.”

Dwight called out to his father. Lar­ry had top­pled over. The old man came and squat­ted next to him. He placed a hand on Larry’s shoul­der before send­ing Dwight down the road. I heard him say, “stitch­es, emer­gency room.” By the time Dwight returned in the Jeep, Lar­ry was on his feet again. Dwight helped him into the back seat while the old man made a final appeal for Lila to come for­ward. After it became clear she wasn’t show­ing, they drove off, leav­ing us to the moon­light, the cicadas, and the rac­coons.

No one moved for ten min­utes.

Then Lila called my name. We walked out to the car, glass and grav­el crunch­ing beneath our feet. “Someone’s going to pay for this,” Butch said. “Someone’s dying over this.”

Lila stepped out of the woods on the oth­er side of the road. Her dress was torn, her five-inch heels lost, her face scratched from the thick­et. She let out a cack­le and waved her wad of stolen cash high.

Damn,” she said. “Maybe you are a bad ass.”

Keep your voice down,” I told her.

Butch opened a car door and brushed glass off the seat. He slid inside, start­ed the engine, and then stepped out for a full inspec­tion. “Dumb shits didn’t slash the tires,” he said. “That’s the first thing I would’ve done.”

Lila took my hand and stepped in close. She crushed her breasts against my chest, her breath hot in my ear. “Let’s go some­where and fuck.”

I pulled away. “I don’t think so.”

C’mon, I got this mon­ey now. We can par­ty it up. My friends live just down the road. They’ll take care of Butch.”

Get in the car,” he said. “We’re drop­ping you at the first hotel.”

Oh, Jesus Christ. Don’t be that way. Let’s have some fun.”

You bet­ter dri­ve,” Butch said. “My arm’s get­ting stiff.”

Get in and shut up,” I told Lila, “or I’m leav­ing you here.”

Butch and I set­tled into the front seat, Lila in the back. With the lights out, all I had was the moon. I found first gear and crept for­ward. There was just enough light to make it back to Indi­ana.

gary powellA lawyer by back­ground, Gary V. Pow­ell cur­rent­ly spends most of his time writ­ing and wran­gling an 11-year old son. His sto­ries have appeared at Pit­head Chapel, Prime Num­ber, Fic­tion South­east, Carvezine, and oth­er online and print pub­li­ca­tions. In addi­tion, sev­er­al of his sto­ries have placed or been select­ed as final­ists in nation­al con­tests. Most recent­ly, his sto­ry  "Super Nova" received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the Press 53 2012 Awards. His first nov­el, "Lucky Bas­tard," is cur­rent­ly avail­able through Main Street Rag Press.

 

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