Christmas with Nola, fiction by Joey Dean Hale

Greg had been see­ing Nola for over a year and a half and he was pret­ty sure he loved her.  At least it felt like love with all the crazy sex and good times.  They were both twen­ty and friends with all the par­ty peo­ple though she seemed to make friends more eas­i­ly than he did and much of the time he felt as though some of those par­ty peo­ple would just as soon he dis­ap­pear so they could have Nola all to them­selves.

Since she had migrat­ed to Wabash City from up north Greg had nev­er met her fam­i­ly but in Decem­ber ‘87 he agreed to ride up and spend the hol­i­days at her par­ents’ house.  He fig­ured all they knew about the guy shack­ing up with their daugh­ter was just that he was some long­haired broke-ass con­struc­tion work­er who grew up on a farm and was now laid-off for the win­ter so Greg thought it might be a good idea to pop in and change their impres­sion.

The snow fell like feath­ers through­out their four hour trip and as they entered the east end of the north­ern Illi­nois town her Ford Escort seemed minute com­pared to the filthy white heaps plowed up twelve feet high on each cor­ner and freez­ing sol­id under the evening street­lights.  He’d pic­tured Chica­go but the pop­u­la­tion here equaled only a few hun­dred more than the largest town back in Stan­ford Coun­ty, with bars and cafes and stores on one side of the main drag and a dou­ble train track run­ning par­al­lel on the oth­er.

She had nav­i­gat­ed the over­loaded car up the snowy high­ways and over the black ice slick­ing the bridges and now she slid per­fect­ly into a park­ing slot between a black Cadil­lac and a city pick­up adorned with a yel­low light and a wide iced-over snow­blade out front.

Nola kissed his cheek and said, “We’ll check in here first.”

He killed his beer, drop­ping the emp­ty bot­tle into a trash bar­rel buried halfway up in snow before fol­low­ing her into the bar and grill.  Coun­try music and the bel­lows of loud patrons leaked out the door of the old brick build­ing, out onto the frigid win­ter street.

Nola!”  They all said and she laughed and whooped it up as Greg squeezed into an emp­ty space at the bar and ordered a drink.

Two uncles and three aunts kissed and hugged her tight­ly.  Cousins and nieces and nephews and then, “Oh, there he is,” some of them said and a tall pot-bel­lied gen­tle­man with slick black hair swag­gered in from a side-room con­tain­ing var­i­ous flash­ing and ring­ing gam­bling machines.  He wore black slacks and a black west­ern shirt with red ros­es embroi­dered on the pock­ets.  A turquoise bola and ostrich skin cow­boy boots.

Could’ve sworn I heard my lit­tle Nola out here, but that can’t be right cause she nev­er comes to see her poor old dad­dy no more.”

Tim­ber!”  She rushed to him and they embraced, danc­ing for a moment to the twangy song on the juke­box.

How’s my girl?”

How do I look?”  Nola removed her heavy wool coat and hung it over the back of a barstool while her boyfriend from out of town did not.  The bar was plen­ty warm but recent­ly sev­er­al warts had blos­somed across Greg’s fin­gers, tiny ten­der cau­li­flow­ers remain­ing bloody raw and aggra­vat­ing between each dig­it, so now he was reluc­tant to remove his black gloves and he didn’t want to look like a fool wear­ing gloves and no coat.

You’re get­ting skin­ny, Baby Girl,” Tim­ber said.  “Don’t they have noth­ing to eat down there?”

Final­ly an uncle yelled, “Hey!  Who’s that young man there in the leather jack­et?”

Take off your coat and stay awhile,” an aunt cack­led and Greg smiled and meek­ly toast­ed them with his whiskey glass.

Dad­dy, I want to intro­duce you to some­body.”  Nola tugged her father over for an intro­duc­tion.  “This is Greg.”

Hands cold?”  Tim­ber twitched his thin mus­tache as if he smelled some­thing unpleas­ant.

Not real­ly.”  Greg smiled and pulled off the leather gloves, but then quick­ly slid out of the jack­et and fum­bled the gloves into a pock­et so as to keep his hands busy and out of sight.  “Nice to final­ly meet you.”

Call me Tim­ber.”  He lit a cig­a­rette and coughed deeply.  “So young man, just what are your inten­tions?”  And again the room erupt­ed with laugh­ter and already Greg wished he had stayed back home.

Some­one said, “Ol Timber’ll line him out.”

Her old man pat­ted him on the back.  “Any­thing you want in here, it’s tak­en care of.  You guys hun­gry?”

Nola said, “Thought we were all going over to Jackson’s for din­ner?”

That was the plan at one time, but some­time between when that plan was hatched and now, I seemed to have lost your moth­er.”  And again every­one yucked it up.

She’s already over there,” one blond woman said.  “I’m Nola’s sis­ter Rhon­da, by the way.”  She smiled at Greg.

How ya doing?” Greg said.  He thought she resem­bled Nola.  They were even dressed sim­i­lar, with black jeans and fringy boots, plen­ty of make-up and big blond hair-sprayed hair.

They fin­ished their drinks and drove down to Nola’s par­ents’ two-sto­ry house to unload their bags.  Nola said, “Me and you’ll be stay­ing in my old room.”

That’s cool,” he said.  “Fig­ured I’d get stuck on the couch.”

Oh no,” she said and smiled.

They rushed over to meet more fam­i­ly and friends at Jackson’s, anoth­er bar across town, dec­o­rat­ed with poin­set­tias and hol­ly and red and green rib­bons and bows.  A long buf­fet table ran down the mid­dle of the large room.  Some small­er groups of peo­ple sat at indi­vid­ual tables and booths though Nola’s fam­i­ly had arranged the long tables as if for a ban­quet.  Again Greg hov­ered over in a dark cor­ner of the bar, his jack­et draped over the back of the stool.

When Nola’s moth­er came over, a skele­ton of a woman, Greg stood and she hugged him, not warm­ly but rather as if attempt­ing to read his aura.  “I’m Del,” she said, snag­ging his hands in her boney clasp, burn­ing his thumb with her cig­a­rette.  He jerked back but did not escape her clutch­es and after she offered, “Sor­ry,” more as a for­mal­i­ty than an apol­o­gy, she inspect­ed his fin­gers.  “Boy, you do have a mess of warts, don’t you?”

Sur­prised and a lit­tle embar­rassed, he agreed.

She looked them over again.  “I see eleven, right?”

He had to cal­cu­late them him­self before say­ing, “Yeah, I think so.”

You just wait right here.”  Del crept over to her place at the table and dug through her bag, even­tu­al­ly extract­ing a small change purse.  She sift­ed through the coins until she sort­ed out eleven pen­nies then returned.  “Here,” she said, press­ing the pen­nies into his palm.  “Now go out­side some­where and close your eyes and turn around three times, then throw those coins as far as you can.  But keep your eyes closed and don’t watch where they go.  And those warts will be gone in a cou­ple weeks.  I guar­an­tee it.”

He stared into her seri­ous blue eyes, won­der­ing if he was the tar­get of some fam­i­ly prank.

Hur­ry back in,” Del said.

At least it was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get out­side.  He walked around the cor­ner of the build­ing and slung the pen­nies in the man­ner direct­ed.  Then he smoked half a joint before return­ing inside and tak­ing a seat beside Nola at one of the long tables.  A mug of beer foamed beside his plate full of fried chick­en, green beans, mashed pota­toes and brown gravy.  A bis­cuit on the side.

Nola rolled her eyes.  “My cousin Robyn already fixed you a plate from the buf­fet.”

He scanned the room and found the only woman there bet­ter look­ing than Nola smil­ing back at him.  She was about their age, with short blond hair and plen­ty of cleav­age to go around.  He smiled back and took a sip of his beer.

Nola’s fam­i­ly sucked their greasy fin­gers and ordered drink after drink, laugh­ing at end­less inside jokes.  Greg mere­ly grinned and nod­ded through­out the meal and when the wait­ress asked if he’d like anoth­er beer he leaned into her and asked, “Can I get a whiskey and Coke instead?”

You sure can, Hon.”

Lat­er he leaned on the bar, drink­ing his drink and watch­ing Nola work the room.  He won­dered if she was relat­ed to all these guys she was hug­ging or if they were all friends from school or what.  Then he start­ed won­der­ing which ones she’d slept with.

One of Nola’s uncles trudged over with his tie loos­ened at the neck.  “What’s the name of that town you’re from again?”

Wabash City,” Greg said.  “It’s about four hours south of here on the Lit­tle Wabash Riv­er.”

Ain’t much to do there, is there?” the uncle said.

Depends on what you like to do, I guess,” Greg said.

Nola’s cousin Robyn slipped up beside him.  “I say we blow this joint and hit some real bars.  What do you say, Greg?”

He said, “What­ev­er you and Nola want to do is cool with me.”

_____________

The next morn­ing found Greg naked in a strange upstairs bed­room of an unfa­mil­iar home, the cool north­ern Illi­nois air seep­ing in around the win­dow frames.

Rhon­da burst through the door and sat on the bed.  “Way to piss off the old man.”

What hap­pened?”  Greg rubbed his eyes and tried to focus.  Nola sat up in bed beside him.

The spare room was all fixed up for you to stay in,” Rhon­da said.  “But you slept in here with Daddy’s baby girl.  And now Timber’s not too hap­py.”  She laughed and punched him in the shoul­der.

We live togeth­er,” Nola said.

That doesn’t mat­ter to him.  This is his house.’”

You told me to sleep in here with you.”

Oh, it’s no big deal,” Nola told Greg.

By the way, Stal­lion,” Rhon­da said.  “You didn’t by any chance smoke any dope down in the base­ment bath­room last night, did you?”

He sift­ed through the hazy footage of the film that was the night before — after leav­ing Jackson’s Bar he and Nola and her cousin Robyn and anoth­er cousin — Frankie or Fred­die or some­thing — had cruised around — hit­ting the bars in near­by Pon­ti­ac — or Fair­bury — or maybe some oth­er town — he met some of Nola’s old friends — a few hot girls — a cou­ple prep­py guys he had con­sid­ered punch­ing in the face — he pound­ed sev­er­al shots of bour­bon — and cheap tequi­la — then after last call they returned here to a full house — the fam­i­ly still drink­ing and smok­ing cig­a­rettes and yuck­ing it up — cousins and uncles and aunts and a neigh­bor or two — his eyes drawn to Robyn’s body like a mag­net — her funky hair — the laugh­ter danc­ing across those lips — her top unbut­toned just enough — a few more drinks — Robyn had caught him burn­ing a bowl in the base­ment bath­room and Greg had invit­ed her in — locked the door.  Had he propped her on the sink and nuz­zled her per­fumed neck?  He vague­ly remem­bered his hands under her shirt.  No bra.  Her tongue in his mouth.

Must’ve been some­body else,” Greg said.

I’ll bet it was Robyn smok­ing pot,” Rhon­da said.

I wouldn’t doubt it,” Nola said.  “That lit­tle bitch was piss­ing me off last night any­way.”

Greg sat there naked beneath the cov­ers and said noth­ing.

After Rhon­da left the room Nola said, “I don’t care if you was get­ting high in the bath­room.  Just stay away from Robyn.  She’s a lit­tle whore.”

_____________

For the remain­der of his stay Greg tried to lay low.  A cou­ple times he slipped away to that tav­ern they’d gone into when they first arrived in town and no one but Nola even seemed to notice.  She’d track him down then sit at the bar for a cou­ple drinks before giv­ing him a ride back to her par­ents’ house.

On Christ­mas Day Greg watched from the side­lines as the fam­i­ly exchanged a mul­ti­tude of gifts, slurp­ing beer and wine, and since not one present was addressed to him he man­aged to avoid prac­ti­cal­ly any con­ver­sa­tion until Robyn smiled at him across the Christ­mas din­ner table and said, “Maybe I’ll just come down there and see you some­time.”

What’s the hell’s that sup­posed to mean?” Nola said.  She sat her glass down and wine slopped over the rim and stained the white table cloth.

I was just think­ing about com­ing down to vis­it you guys.”

You lit­tle bitch.”  Nola scoot­ed back from the table and took her wine with her when she left the room.

Robyn made a face and shrugged her shoul­ders but every­one else stared at Greg until he excused him­self and went after Nola.

They had planned to stay the entire week but Nola decid­ed to pack the next day.  And so they drove back home qui­et­ly, this time the sun blind­ing against the flat icy white fields, dead stalks and stub­ble pro­trud­ing through the glare.  He awoke just as they crossed over the riv­er bridge into his own home­town.  Gigan­tic snowflakes con­tin­ued to fall, adding anoth­er lay­er to the pre­ex­ist­ing drifts, the streets packed slick from pre­vi­ous traf­fic, though now vehi­cles were scarce under the street­lights.

Nola slid to a stop in their dri­ve­way and flung open her door.   “Don’t wor­ry,” she said.  “You won’t ever have to go back.”

Now what’s wrong?”

Greg fol­lowed her in the house, car­ry­ing his duf­fle bag, but Nola quick­ly dis­ap­peared into the bed­room.  He raised the ther­mo­stat until the fur­nace grind­ed into gear and the smell of gas sat­u­rat­ed the room.  He removed his boots and clicked on the tele­vi­sion, wait­ing for her to come out from the bed­room and ask if he had brought every­thing in from the car just so he could say some­thing smar­tass like, “Well, I car­ried in all my presents.”  But then she didn’t come out.

He want­ed to call his own par­ents but his phone had been tem­porar­i­ly dis­con­nect­ed.  Ice glazed the met­al frames of the win­dows and the worn tan car­pet felt cold against his sock feet.  He kicked back on the couch and cov­ered his legs with a blan­ket, won­der­ing what Nola’s fam­i­ly was talk­ing about right now.

 

Thirst at Beale - lighterJoey Dean Hale is a writer and musi­cian in the St. Louis area.  He received his MFA from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty at Car­bon­dale and has pub­lished sto­ries in sev­er­al mag­a­zines, includ­ing Fried Chick­en & Cof­fee, Road­side Fic­tion, and Octave Mag­a­zine which also has his song “High Noon” post­ed online.  In Sep­tem­ber 2012 he was the fea­tured writer in Pen­du­line Press.  Hale’s sto­ry “Access Closed” is includ­ed in the 2013 Bib­liotekos Anthol­o­gy — Puz­zles of Faith and Pat­terns of Doubt.

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