The driver's window is down. Pavement hums beneath his tires, air beats against the rear windshield, and the engine howls as he climbs. A heifer moans from a shadowed pasture on the roadside.
Logan gears down as he rounds a curve and, without benefit of blinker or brakes, spins into the driveway. He races uphill, fishtailing, dodging the larger rocks and potholes. At the crest he slides to a stop and waits while a cloud of dust drifts past. His breath comes hard as though he had climbed the hill on foot. The rear view mirror shows stubble on his chin, eyes shot with streaks of red, and snarls of dark yellow hair that stick out like the roots of upturned trees in a bulldozed field. "You good-looking devil," he whispers. "Don't you ever die."
He gets out but doesn't go straight to the trailer. He crosses the front yard and stops at the edge of a garden plot. Ripe tomatoes stand bold against their foliage like Christmas ornaments on an outdoor tree. Cucumber vines snake through the garden before escaping into the lawn. Brown, brittle leaves cling to them. Two more weeks, he figures, and that'll be all she wrote.
Something about the trailer catches his eye. He isn't sure what, but something is different. Someone was on the property while he was working. He feels it, knows it, more than sees it or thinks it. A burglar? Not likely. Too many rich folks live on top the ridge for some meth head to kick out his window for a shotgun.
He doesn't keep a handgun in the van anymore. Homeland Security's made it so an old boy can't even tote. But he's not scared. Why should he be? Somebody going to kill him? He should be so lucky. He walks directly to the front of the rusting mobile home where a Plexiglas storm door hangs askew on a single hinge. He circles the trailer, examining windows. No evidence of forced entry. Hinges creak as he eases open the hollow wooden door.
Inside, cockroaches scatter into crevices. Some coffee grounds wallow in the bottom of a cup beside a wrinkled newspaper. Atop a plastic tablecloth, two German Purple tomatoes, deep red and irregularly shaped, frame a sheet of notebook paper.
He goes to the living room, no longer stepping lightly, and snatches a pair of reading glasses from the frayed arm of a sofa. He mounts them on the bridge of his nose and returns to the kitchen. Dale Earnhardt, in dark glasses and a Goodwrench cap, watches from the wall as he reads the note.
Darling, it says, I hope you're not too mad. I missed you so much, I had to come home. I'm glad I did because it don't look like you're eating so good. I'm gone to the grocery store. Take a shower and I'll kiss you all over when I get back. All my love, Sonja.
"Bout time you drug your ass home, woman," he says aloud. His voice booms. It sounds unnatural in the empty trailer.
He lays a blue oblong tablet on the tablecloth, covers it with the cellophane from his cigarette pack and starts crushing it with the heel of his Bic. As he sticks a truncated straw up his nose and bends over the line of powder, he notices an apron hanging on the doorknob of the broom closet. That makes him smile.
Logan pushes a platter scattered with morsels of fried potato, biscuit, and omelet away from his belly. He leans back in his chair and stretches. "I be damned if I ain't gained ten pounds since you been back," he says. "Your cooking gets better all the time. Like everything else."
Sonja looks down and smiles. "I gotta watch out. I might be taking on a few pounds myself."
His tone changes abruptly. "You come dragging home knocked up, and I'll show you the door sure enough."
"I ain't pregnant; I'm sure of that.” After a pause, she adds, “I'd like to be, though. With yore baby."
"For crying out loud." His voice turns gentle again, like spring water bubbling out a rock face. "Renée's going on a teenager, and you're talking about another kid. That ain't practical and you know it. Besides, three is more'n I can afford, already.”
"I know. I know all that. But still, I'd give my right arm for another kid. One of yores." She starts to cry.
He reaches across the table and strokes her arm. Wrinkles like back streets on a road map radiate from the corners of his eyes as he looks into hers. "Aw, Sugar, you know I love you. And Renée is like my own. They ain't no difference in my mind."
"I know," she says, sobbing. "I know. But still."
Minutes later he walks out and climbs into a service van that says BADCOCK'S REFRIGERATION SALES AND SERVICE in block letters on the side. Sonja leans against the doorjamb, wiping her nose with a tissue and brushing away tears with the back of her hand. She hugs herself and blows him kisses as he turns the vehicle around.
He tosses her a single kiss in return as he eases out of sight down the rocky, red dirt drive. When he reaches the road, he stomps the accelerator and cuts the wheel. Balding tires spin on rocks, then catch on pavement. They smoke, leaving twin streaks that curve across the street. "I got the best olé lady on all of Parsons Ridge," he yells out the window at some cattle grazing the hillside. "Good cook,” he continues in a conversational tone. “Hell-on-wheels in bed. And she loves me, in spite of all common sense and decency."
He pumps the brake pedal, striking a balance between checking the van's speed of descent and saving its brakes. Despite his efforts, when he hits bottom the acrid smell of scorched pads fill the cab.
The road levels onto the valley floor and his grip on the wheel relaxes. He reaches for the radio, but the knob comes off in his hand. He fiddles with it briefly, trying to fit the tuner back onto the metal core, then drops it into an open ashtray. "Glue it back on after while," he grumbles. A tall, slim girl in tight jeans is unlocking her car door by the roadside. He looks up and turns the steering wheel to avoid her. She presses her waist close against the sedan as he passes. "Dang," he murmurs, "Don't run over that."
Idling down the state highway towards town, Penny Sue's Café passes on the right hand side. The restaurant is newly boarded up, and Logan sighs. Penny Sue was the last holdout among the small business owners when chain stores began to appear like bait worms after a summer rain, dotting the slopes beside the interstate exit. Abner Croft of Croft's Auto Parts, Buster Riley of Riley's Hometown Pharmacy, and now Penny Sue commute forty or fifty miles every day to jobs in Chattanooga or Knoxville. “Bad enough when the mill closed, and now this shit,” he says to himself.
A Godfather's Pizza, Walgreens, Auto-Zone and Favorite Market stand glossy and metallic against the farmhouse Penny Sue had turned into a restaurant. Next to the abandoned A&W drive-in, one side of a billboard advertises cure for drug addiction while the other admonishes the reader to REPENT because JESUS IS COMING. An old man sells tomatoes and cucumbers from the back of his truck; a woman, used clothes from her front yard. As he continues down the highway, the businesses and signs, old and new, hopeful and threatening, shrink to a cluster of dots in his rear view mirror and finally merge.
Logan turns off the highway and promenades the former business district. Downtown is more of the same, smiling mannequins desperately posing naked in deserted department stores, boarded shoe-store display windows framed in brick, row upon row of vacant buildings interrupted only by the occasional pool hall or storefront church. Logan sticks his arm out and pretends to be a 1950's teenager cruising the main drag in a muscle car, looking for action. Giggling, he pulls it back in and rolls up
the window. "Folks done think you crazy, Logan. Don't make it no worse."
He looks at his watch. Five minutes after eight. “Well,” he says, making a wide U turn across an intersection, “I guess I ought to quit riding around and go to work. See what the sonuvabitch wants out of me today.”
Earl Bartlett wears a long-sleeve plaid shirt over a white ribbed undershirt every day of the year. In summertime he rolls up the sleeves and unbuttons the front. During the winter he pulls a jacket over it. Several of his plaid shirts are red and a couple are blue, so a body might think he rotates the same two shirts for days on end. But that's not true. The fact is simply that, years ago, he chose a certain look, and he's never had call to change it. He would no more wear a polo shirt and khakis than he would decline to stand and cheer when the band played Dixie at a high school football game.
Today the front of his shirt is buttoned, but the sleeves are rolled up. The dog days are behind, and the air is comfortable.
Earl stands beside a metal-frame dinner table. A Lucky Strike smolders in the ashtray beside a stovepipe can of PBR. Smoke hovers around his hairline. Behind him cases of Bud and Bud Light are stacked clear to the ceiling.
An older fellow sits at the table. The two men have the same tailor, all plaid shirts and denim pants, but the slicked-back hair of the sitting man is red. He's a big guy with inch-long tufts the color of dishwater growing beneath giant knuckles.
The sound of a mower passes the kitchen window. The man tilts his head in that direction and asks, “How's olé Billy Wayne working out, Earl? Don't cut him no slack, just cause he's my nephew.”
“He's all right. Works hard, don't complain.” Not the sharpest pencil in the package, Earl silently adds, but he don't have to be.
“I'm glad to hear it. Family's family, but a job's a job. If he don't work out, show him the door, same as anybody.” He wets his lips from a tall glass; it's straight bourbon, but he doesn't wince. “You know Logan Padgett, got his leg shot up in Iraq?”
“Twelve pack ever Sunday. Yeah, I know him.”
The redhead grunts. “Yeah, that's him. No relation to me, but he's blood kin to Billy Wayne. On his mother's side.” He figures you don't really know a man till you can name his family.
The racket of the mower stops. Billy Wayne sticks his head in the door. He's shirtless, and beads of sweat glisten on his muscled, hairless chest. “Hey Earl,” he calls, “I got the back yard done. You want me to do the front?”
Earl stares as he answers. “Yeeess, I generally do mow them in sets.”
Billy Wayne looks puzzled. His uncle covers the bottom of his face with a large, hairy hand. Earl grins and helps the boy out. “Go mow the front,” he confirms, pointing.
The kid bounds happily down the steps while the men watch and laugh.
Sunrise finds Logan sipping coffee at the kitchen table. He's reading the funny papers in a stained tee shirt and a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee.
A teenage girl with cornrows in her hair comes out of a bedroom. She plops on the couch, rubbing her eyes, feeling between the cushions for the TV controls. She's still in nightclothes, a green tank top and a pair of canary yellow panties. Ebony legs gleam in the morning light. Logan watches her for a moment. He turns the page of his newspaper and continues reading.
Sonja steps out of the other bedroom. "Damn it, Renée,” she says, walking past, “how many times I tole you not to sit around half naked in front of Logan? Go get some clothes on."
The girl rolls her eyes and continues punching buttons on the remote. The mother takes another step, turns and bellows, "Go!" The face Logan usually finds so attractive is a scowling mask.
The child stands and stretches. When her arms come down, the tee shirt rests on the small of her back a good two inches above florescent underwear. "Morning, Daddy," she purrs, flashing a smile over her shoulder that's all white teeth and thick lips.
"Morning, sweetie," Logan replies to her departing back.
Sonja takes a seat across from Logan. She glowers, drumming her fingers on the table and shaking her head. "That child," she says. "That child.”
Logan chuckles. He puts down the funnies and picks up the sports. "I think I'll go start on the yard work here in a bit," he says.
From his seat at the little metal-frame dinner table, Earl can watch the entire front yard out his picture window. When a blue Honda Accord pulls into the drive, he busts a big smile.
He opens the door before she can knock. “Come in, young lady. Come right in. What can I do for you today?”
Sonja is wearing tight jeans and a sleeveless sweater. She clutches a purse at her waist. Timidly, she steps inside and looks around.
Bartlett's place never changes. Everything is in its place, down to the Lucky Strike releasing curls of smoke from the ashtray. Sonja can't recall ever seeing him pick the cigarette up and take a puff. Does he really smoke, or does he just light cigarettes and burn them for incense?
“Logan sent me after a twelve pack, Earl,” she says. “We was supposed to have Sunday beer, but he done run through it all.”
“Honey, a beer can chugging is like the jingle of pocket change to my ears.” He treats her to a large smile. “So Logan's drunk today. Good for him. How you doing yourself, little girl? Don't seem well. You worried about something?”
“Aw, it's nothing. I'm all right.”
“Come on, you can talk to olé Earl. I used to work with your Uncle Herman. We like family.”
"Really, it ain't nothing much. Renée–that's my little girl–she's having a birthday, is all. Turning fourteen, and her boyfriend is over. I just wish Logan wouldn't drink so much. Or at least wait till after.”
“He ain't taking drunk and hitting you, is he?”
“Oh no, it ain't nothing like that. He just stays so high all the time, I feel… I dunno. Kinda lonesome. Like I'm by myself.”
“Zat right. Huh.” Bartlett scratches his ear and looks out the window. “Wasn't he in Iraq awhile? Took a bullet in the leg, I think it was?”
“Yeah. He don't talk about it much. I tell him he should be proud, but he don't think so. Says he'd rather a been somewhere else.”
Bartlett laughs. “I admire an honest man.”
“Anyway, yeah, shrapnel in his knee's what it was. The VA gives him pain pills. Between those pills and all the beer he drinks, and the pot he smokes, and… I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have said that.” Sonja's looks at the purse in her hand and blushes.
Earl laughs again. “Honey, this olé bootlegger been around. I might even have tasted one of them joints, years ago. I tell you what: pull up a seat, and I'll fix a couple of drinks. We could both use one.”
“Oh no, I gotta get back home. Logan wouldn't like it if I stayed gone. And there's Renée's party.”
“You done said Logan's drunk. And Renée's a teenager, so I'm sure that little boyfriend can entertain her. Besides, Ray's coming over later, and we gonna play some cards. We may need you to cook up a little something.”
“Here, sit down,” he says, pulling a chair out from the table, “and olé Earl gonna get you a drink.”
“Well, maybe just a quick one,” she agrees, taking the proffered seat. Earl half fills a highball glass from an open fifth of Canadian Club, adds ice and Coke, and places it beside her. His cigarette in the ashtray is down to a nub, so he puts it out. He takes a fresh one from his shirt pocket, thumps it once, twice, three times and lights it.
Logan parks his van behind Sonja's car. From the back of the trailer, he hears a mower running before the machine itself appears. A young man is riding it. He's muscled up and tan, dressed in nothing but a pair of long denim pants. The boy turns the mower in a sharp circle without noticing Logan, intent upon his simple task, and disappears behind the trailer once more.
Logan gets out. Ignoring the concrete sidewalk, he strides directly across the lawn to the front door. He raises his hand to knock but thinks better of it. He reaches for the doorknob but decides against that, too. He rares back and kicks the door open. The lock breaks out of the facing. Splinters fly across the room. The door makes a second crashing sound when the handle punches a hole in the wall behind. It's a satisfying noise to Logan's ears.
He stands in the doorway with his finger pointed at Sonja's face, enjoying her dazed look, disgusted by the lipstick on her whiskey glass and the surprise on the bootlegger's face, before he realizes that Ollie Ray Crider is sighting down the barrel of a Smith and Wesson thirty-eight special, aiming up at his head. Where did that sonuvabitch come from? He's some kinda kin by marriage on Logan's Daddy's side, and fuck all that anyway.
Ollie Ray speaks first. “I'm only gonna say this once, son. Turn around right now, and walk back out that door. Close it behind you. Knock, like your mama taught you, and this time wait for an answer.”
Logan stares back at Ray. His upper lip quivers.
“Walk!” the big man barks. Logan leans his head back and laughs. He makes a hacking noise in the back of his throat, and when his head comes down he spits on the table in front of Ray. Ray flinches but holds his fire. Silent tears trickle like branch water down Sonja's cheeks, and her shoulders quake. Bartlett sits motionless, palms flat on the table.
"You come for something that belongs to you. That's all well and good,” Ray continues. “We just having a drink here. Ain't nobody trying to steal your woman. But you going about it all wrong, see. Now,” he continues, cocking the pistol and standing up from the table to assume a firing position, “Walk. Back out. That fucking door.”
Earl Bartlett hears the grandfather clock that's been in his family for generations go click, click, click, for three of the longest seconds of his life before Logan turns on his heel and strolls outside. The limp from his war wound is only faintly evident as he descends the wooden steps and crosses the lawn to his van.
Sonja's forehead drops to the table. Ray exhales. He eases the hammer down on the weapon and places it gingerly on the table. The bootlegger takes a deep breath. He turns to Ray and says, “I thought you tole that boy to close the door on his way out.”
"Shut up, Bartlett,” is his only reply.
Logan guns the engine of his van as he leaves, throwing a low wave of gravel across the quarter panel of Sonja's car like the wake of a motorboat lapping against the shore.
Billy Wayne appears at the door of the trailer. “Hey Earl,” he yells, though the man is only yards away. Billy stands with his hand resting on the door frame, oblivious to the damage done to it by his second cousin on his mother's side. “I got the backyard done. Tell me where the gas can is, and I'll start the front.” He notices the hair stuck to Sonja's face. He spies the pistol on the table. He opens his mouth to ask, but Bartlett cuts him off.
“Hell, son, the gas can's in the shed. Where you think it is? Now get on back to work, while you still got a job.”
The roof of the Piggly Wiggly is a sea of small stones stretching from corner to corner across the top of the store. The debris of years floats atop its placid surface: two discolored plastic jugs overlooked during a cleanup; a magazine stolen from the store below, thumbed through and discarded; and the occasional rusty screwdriver or pair of pliers that someone flung away in frustration. The motor room is windowless, a sheet-metal anchor buoy floating lonely beneath a clouded sky.
All is stillness and quiet save the flapping cover of the faded girlie book. A plastic baggy nestles in Logan's shirt pocket. The crystals are gone. Only a chalky residue remains, devoid of financial value but worth a decade in the state pen. The sour chemical taste of methamphetamine lingers, reminiscent of the paint thinner and gasoline he huffed as a child. He stands awestruck, stunned, holding a charred square of aluminum foil in his left hand and a Zippo in his right.
Across a two foot chasm of silence, Johnny McCullough's eyes appear hollow and wide. The skin on his face is like cracked leather from the sun, wind and rain of a thousand rooftops like this one.
Logan's reverie is shattered by the phone at his side flashing and playing a tinny version of Reveille. The sound is carnivalesque, in a way obscene given the gray sky and grim circumstance. The caller can only be the boss man.
“I, ah, don't think I wish to talk to him, right now at the moment,” Logan says. He tries to force a smile, but just succeeds at looking vaguely ill.
Blue veins pulse in Johnny's forehead. He drags a parched tongue across blistered lips. “S'all right,” he says in a voice that sounds like a croak. “I'm sure he'll be glad to call us back later.”
Sunday afternoon is Earl's busiest time of the week. Monday morning is the slowest, so that's when the liquor van runs. He's sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for it to arrive. Today is Billy Wayne's first run by himself.
Earl looks up at the sound of scratching gravel. Yeah, it's the van. It doesn't appear wrecked, that's good. But it seems like Billy Wayne is taking a long time to climb out. When the boy does exit, he wobbles and steadies himself against the side of the vehicle.
“I be goddamn,” Earl mutters. “Out driving my van and it loaded, and he done gone and got drunk. I'm gonna string him up and put him in a shallow grave.” The old bootlegger continues mumbling to himself as he starts down the front steps. He walks real careful like, holding onto the railing and easing himself down. He's not as young as he used to be, and he's had a drink or two his own self.
Logan is paranoid as all hell. He's sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. He's not even thinking about shitting. He's just hiding out. He's hiding from the store manager. He's hiding from the boss man who, more and more, is prone to show up uninvited. Hell, he's hiding from Ollie Ray.
Of course, there's no reason for Ollie Ray to stalk the stalls of the bathroom at the Piggly Wiggly, looking for the man who kicked in the door of his favorite bootlegger. No reason at all. Logan knows he's paranoid, oh yeah. His mind understands. His intellect tells him to be rational, to calm down, but his nervous system won't listen. Every time the door to the restroom swings open, his gut clenches, his nuts shrivel,
and sweat breaks out across his brow.
Goddamn that Johnny McCullough. He knows Logan's a downer man. Why'd he go and offer that shit?
Only one hydrocodone remains in the bottle. Logan was going to save it for tomorrow, but now he can't. No way, man. Soon as his hands stop shaking he'll pull his pants up, go the van and crush the pill. He'll chase it with a tall Miller; maybe that'll soothe his nerves. Maybe the boss man won't stop by. Maybe the store manager won't smell the booze.
Maybe Sonja won't be too pissed off about the scene at the bootleggers. She's not answering the phone, but when he sees her face to face, he can smooth things over. He needs her comfort. He needs her bad, more than ever before. More than he ever needed anything in his life, he needs that girl. She's just going to have to understand that after all they been through, a man is going to be kind of sensitive sometimes. A little bit jealous.
Goddamn that Johnny McCullough.
Sonja stands on her tiptoes to force another shirt into the suitcase. She pulls the zipper closed, drags it off the bed and totes it into the next room where she places it beside two similar bags. That's everything but the toiletries. Three suitcases, a bag of brushes and hairspray, and a Honda Accord: not much to show for thirty years. Oh well, she's surviving. Some folks can't say that much.
She's trying not to think about Logan. That's why she's not leaving a note: when she attempts to explain herself, inevitably she finds her way back to the good things, and they decide to try it one more time. But the one-more-times are all used up.
When she returns from the bathroom with the toiletries bag, her chest clenches like a fist at the sight of Logan standing in the doorway. How did he get off work so early? And when did he learn to step so quiet, anyway?
After several seconds her breath returns. She wanted to make things easy for both of them, but okay, here we go. She squares her shoulders and forces herself to look at his face.
“So, what you doing, Sonja?” he asks her, his voice all causal as he steps out of the doorway and takes a seat at the dinner table. Something's wrong. Something's bad wrong. She's used to seeing him messed up, with slanted, bloodshot eyes, but not like this. Today his eyes have barely any whites left, the pupils are so large. And he hasn't called her Sonja in years; the name sounds strange coming from him. Sugar Lips, Honey Pie. Bitch, whore. But never just Sonja.
“I'm, ah, I'm getting a few things together. So you can have your house back.” The muscles in her throat quiver as she speaks, but she manages a note of defiance as she adds, “Like you want, apparently.”
“You ain't got to leave on my account.” He's looking past her knees as he speaks, studying the way a piece of torn linoleum curls up on the edges like it's just the oddest thing. Last time she saw him, he was kicking in doors and spitting on tables, and now he looks looks like he's seen a ghost. What's he strung out on this time?
“I got to leave on my own account, Logan. On Renée's account. We've been through it and through it, and it don't get no better. Now please don't start nothing.”
He raises an eyebrow like she said something surprising. “I ain't starting nothing.” He stands up, and she takes a quick step backward. He sits back down. “I got the cotton mouth, is all. Would you fetch me a beer?”
She hands a sweating can across the table.
“I ought to quit this shit,” he says as he opens the tab. “I know I should. I been thinking about that a lot, lately.
“You're as likely to quit drinking as I am to drive at Talladega,” she spits out the side of her mouth. She snatches a bag from the floor and stalks out the door.
“I guess you're right about that,” he says to a kitchen left empty by her departure. He looks down at the can in his hand, shrugs, and takes a long drink. “Yeah, I guess you're right. But seems like there should be something we could do,” he continues as she walks back in and stands over the remaining luggage. “It just don't seem right, two people in love, but who can't live together.”
“Well, it may not be right, but that's how it is.” She grabs up the last two suitcases, then puts them back down. Her face turns red. If she can stay mad, she knows she can get through this and leave. “You come around showing your ass over me having a drink with Earl Bartlett. Earl Bartlett, for god's sake! Old enough to be my Daddy, and used to work with my Uncle Herman. And you go showing your butt…” She grabs the bags up and goes out the door, shaking her head and muttering.
She tosses them in the trunk and gets in the driver's seat. She takes a deep breath and releases it, slowly, as she checks her makeup in the rear view mirror. “I just hope you don't think this is what I want,” she whispers to the steering wheel. She tries to say something else, but the sound just comes out a sob. Stay mad, girl. Don't try to explain, just stay mad. She puts the key in the ignition and cranks the car.
A minute passes before Logan understands that all her gear is loaded. She's not coming back inside. When he hears her car start, he walks to the door and leans against the frame. If he was the crying type, this would be the perfect occasion. But he ain't, so he watches, dry eyed, as she puts the car in gear. He manages a weak smile and blows her a kiss, the way she used to when she saw him off to work. But she disappears behind a stand of mimosa that lines the drive without looking back.
He listens to her leave. He can tell the difference between the scratch of gravel and the sound her car makes accelerating onto the pavement. Then comes the silence. The damn silence always comes next.
A squirrel scampers down a branch and jumps onto a pile of fire wood left from the previous winter. He takes a nut in his mouth and turns to stare at Logan.
“What are you looking at?”
The animal doesn't respond. It remains still, watching.
Damn. He sits on the concrete blocks that form the steps to the trailer. Some things are sure hard to figure. A man spends his whole life facing down danger, proving himself, and after it all, the only thing it takes to knock the wind clean out of him is some skinny girl with a ponytail. Logan jumps to his feet and kicks gravel in the direction of the wood pile, and the squirrel darts out of sight.
Randy Lowens lives in a cabin on a wooded hillside in eastern Kentucky. His writing has appeared in Dogmatika, Blue Collar Review, and elsewhere. "The Flotsam and Jetsam of War" received the Tacenda award for Best Short Story of 2007, illuminating social injustice. "Sunday Afternoon at Earl's" is excerpted from a novel in progress.
I'd like to thank Ralls Jennings for use of the image above. (More of his work can be viewed at rallsjennings.com )