She was a year younger than me and semifamous. I’d seen her all through high school, and then on the hood of a white Corvette as Miss Lonoke in the Soy Parade, a distinction that sent her to the Miss Arkansas pageant where she’d been first runner up to a raven- haired Miss Texarkana. She’d won a scholarship to some kind of modeling school, but by that summer she was back with her parents, clerking for old man Jolley at Lonoke Pharmacy and Drug.
This was Arkansas summertime, the heat was brutal, and my delivery truck was unairconditioned. Kimberly inhabited the cool inside the pharmacy’s double doors, a fluorescent-lit delight to the flesh and blood. I’d already hit Lowman’s, Mr. Templeton’s IGA and Knight’s Grocery, with its ten-foot tall suit of armor. It was Friday afternoon, payday, my labor was almost done. I had tickets to the All-Star game that night where Elvin Floyd Taylor was slated to suit up in Jackrabbit purple. It was a good, good time to be alive.
I carried a forty-pound bundle in past the soda bar. The air was fresh with the sprays of display perfume and medicine. She stood behind the counter in a white sundress, the spaghetti straps of which lay over tanned shoulders where spilled honey-blonde hair all lit up by the most extraordinary hazel eyes.
“Hi Joey,” she said. “You set those over there.” The sweat between my shoulders was cold.
For lack of anything better, I said, “Hey. Look here,” and pointed at my byline under a front-page story about a pig farm converting to ethanol. “That’s me.”
She laughed, a single note ringing. “What’s funny?”
“Puercos Gordos,” she said, and tapped my article three times with a fingertip. “Las Higas des puntas.”
The picture above my name was of three spotted hogs, snouts stuck in a trough. Snorkey’s corn will be turned into a new kind of gasoline… the caption said.
“I’m the author.”
She said, “Oh,” and nodded her head at me, narrowing beauty queen eyes. “I see.” “Want to get together?”
She’d had a boyfriend, I remembered. A B‑team lineman named Joel or something, though the dirt of their story escaped me. Her father was a famous drunk, an amputee who’d once been a football star.
“Maybe I’ll write a story about you. Take a picture of your trophies.”
She said, “Okay.”
The next afternoon I drove out Mt. Carmel Road, past the Confederate Cemetery into the countryside with its lush green hills rolling off into pastures where farmers had just mown and raked hay into long rows that shone acre after acre, and I remembered working for a man named Guess, hauling up a bale with a sliced in half king snake dangling from a wedge of green. This country was in my blood, where every house had a vegetable garden growing up to its back door, and dead animals littered the roadside, opossum and raccoon, squirrel and car chasing dogs.
Every few miles was a schoolbus stop, where communities had constructed tin-roofed shelters over rickety benches, like the one Kim Burgin sat on that second, her hair yellow like a fire, waving me into that ripe Saturday evening in June, when the air we breathed seemed blessed and golden.
“Looking for somebody?”
“You.” When I opened the door she slid in beside me, and we drove real slow up the gravel drive to where her Daddy, a double amputee, sat fiddling with a ham radio hooked to an orange extension cord that was duct taped across the front porch.
Mr. Burgin looked up and nodded, then went back to his radio.
“Daddy. This is Joey.”
“Hey Joe,” Mr. Burgin said, and the radio let out a staticky cackle.
“He’s coming to supper.”
Mr. Burgin regarded me. His tee shirt was sweat stained and there was tobacco juice on his left shoulder. His pants were tied in knots below his knees. This close, he reminded me of Mama’s people, colorful, nobody’s fool. He wheeled my way and I shook his hand, trying not to look. Kim was radiant at his side–I have to tell you. There was nothing fake about her in the least–she was real to the bone. And I could see she had his face, the fine bone and shining eyes. “Well,” he said, “we could do worse. Tell me when.”
Inside, food was cooking, purple hull peas, it turned out, cornbread and ham. A blackberry cobbler steamed on the stove where a mess of okra drained on paper sacks. I was fed a fine country meal with sliced tomatoes and crookneck squash, lemon squeezed in the tea. Kim’s mother said the prayer, then set a hot plateful in front of me.
Buttered biscuits got sent around the table, along with a jar filled with syrup and mashed butter–poor man’s jelly. Across the room, a woodstove sat below a mantel where pictures showed Mrs. Burgin with a baby in arms, daddy Emile standing beside them with a big wide smile.
“You was a running back, no?”
Kim looked at me, and Faye got up for more tea. “Yessir.”
“Number 45,” he said.
“That was me.”
“I was back oncet too,” he said. “But I ain’t never fumbled on no one yard line in a playoff game. Ha,” he said. “Ha, ha.”
“Daddy.” Kim grinned and I could see that she loved this man. This all happened thirty years ago when I had no notion whatsoever how daughters loved their fathers.
“It was wet,” I said. My senior year, I’d lost the ball, and in turn the game, one rainy night against Bauxite Pirates. You’d think football was God or Jesus or something.
Mr. Burgin passed the cobbler, said “S’Okay, and looked me straight. “You be nice to my girl.”
I said, “I will. Promise.”
The Burgins sent me home full, with a paper sack of tomatoes and crooknecks, a jar of muscadine jelly and some chow-chow. Country people will give you the soles off their shoes if you let them. I drove away with the gifts in the front seat, and the taste of Kim Burgin’s lips on mine.
Next day I looked up the history of how Emile Burgin lost his legs. He’d been an athlete, all-District the year the Jackrabbits went 10–0. He’d been offered a full ride at Arkansas Tech in Russellville and accepted the Wonderboy’s offer. The week before he was to report for summer two-a-days, he took a job with Alfred Tipton manufacturing as a night shift supervisor, where they turned out mobile homes for poor whites who set them up in cow pastures from Butlerville to Vilonia. Report-in day came and went at Tech. That’s where he lost both legs, at Tipton’s, when a prefab truss machine grabbed him into its works. Only Mr. Tipton’s lawyers twisted it so it was Emile’s fault, a pint whiskey bottle that materialized in his locker was followed by negligence charges.
The case between Alfred Tipton and Emile Burgin was settled out of court when the former agreed to allow the latter to take ownership of a newly manufactured home. Kim was just a girl, a toddler, when Faye took over. There were the monthly disability checks and a holiday ham every Christmas from Tipton’s. A series of DWI’s almost got Emile jail time, and it’s fishy how he skated clean. He built a front porch on the house trailer on a piece of land he’d inherited from his people. He took up the ham radio, long distance conversations that blurred his nights into mornings, when Kim would crawl out of her bed and turn the radio off, cover her father where he lay, and put the bottle back in its place. That’s the story, the best I could make of it.
By Mid-Summer’s Eve, Kim and I had taken to meeting in an old barn two pastures over. I’d drive out after dark, park on the roadside in blackberry briar, and sneak through the barbed wire and out to the barn, where the door hinges would squeal and there’d be Kim on a bed of straw, little white streaks of moonlight pouring through the board cracks onto her bare skin.
Once on a full moon, she brought a drugstore- scented candle in and lit it. Then, thrown up large on the barn wall, our shadow. She was pregnant. We talked about eloping to Memphis, Kimberly and me, putting the Mississippi between us and Lonoke County.
And you think that would be enough.
There came a night when I was supposed to tap on her bedroom window, load a suitcase and drive off to our new life. But the truth is, I chickened out and went on back to college. What did I know? I was afraid, and that fear dogged me for a while, and then it went away.
So it was with mild surprise, not so long ago, that I found the stamped letter in my mailbox, careful writing on a scented envelope. Joey, it said.
This is a story about quiet and what breaks it, the hour after Mama’s lain down for the evening and the light bulbs from Daddy’s radio throw a blue sheen on his face, and if you don’t get here this second I’m going to kill you. A liquory voice speaks time to time and Daddy’s eyes flutter. He has an ongoing fight with this Mexican–Daddy thinks he’s a Mexican. They call each other fat pig and son of a whore in Spanish and I believe the Mexican’s drunk as Daddy–these nights. The other quiet is the waiting for the far-off crunch of gravel, cicadas thrumming and a whipporwhil’s lonely call and the starlight on the white bedspread Mama crocheted, new-washed for tonight and smelling of June sunshine. You’ll be past the mailbox now, the moon throwing your shadow past the tomatoes and bush beans Mama’s hoed, up past the well-house where Daddy peed my name in last spring’s snow. Are you deciding whether to walk away from me, to forget what we’ve promised each other, that I’m not worth it. Even though our rings are bought, bright shining this second in Mama’s old suitcase under my bed, even though our course is plotted and new life aches for us to join it out there round the bend. Our baby? You walk away from me now? Get in your car and drive across the river bridge and leave me and him stuck in Lonoke County for the rest of our lives? Hell with you.
“Hey, higo de punta? Are you listening, my brother?” The Mexican slurs everything. The words reach and touch Daddy in that place he goes to these nights when we’re all in bed and he takes it straight. “Puerco gordo?”
Joey’s saved four hundred dollars from his newspaper job, and he’s been working up a portfolio to show around Memphis, once we get there and find a place to hang our hats. I’ve got just as much down there in the suitcase, plus the crisp $50 Mr. Jolley handed me from the register when I told him I was quitting. He cried, the old silly, “We’ll miss you around here.”
He waved a hand so dust twirled round a shaft of light. “I’ll send a letter of good standing with you. You’ll need that,” he said and lowered his brow. Then he went off sniffling.
“Snorka, snorka. Fat piggy?” the Mexican says. “I have nice slop for you. Here pig, pig.” Through the half-open door, conked out in the recliner, Daddy’s not fazed. But I know that if I walked in there and turned the thing off he’d yell. Besides, when Joey Harvell taps on mywindow and I crawl out of this house for good, maybe that radio will mask us.
Daddy’d played football, too. I’ve seen the pictures of him running on the green field, throwing stiff arms and forearm shivers, diving over the line for the endzone. Then he went to the Tiptons. “They’ll get you from me too one of these days,” Daddy says. He’s got this car with knobs so he doesn’t need legs and he’s got this riding mower rigged up too, though he uses it mostly to drive out to the mailbox by the highway, to see if the check’s come so he can make the trip over to the county line and restock.
What I’ll carry from my life here? Soon I’ll feel it kicking to get out, just like me. I haven’t thought of names, they just won’t come, but I’ve read in the Health and Wellness section at work that babies never forget the air their mothers breathed while they were in the womb, that it above all will be sweetest to them and they can never ever be happy until they fill their lungs with it for good and ever. So you-know-who can never have him.
“Son of a whore–you answer me.”
For a while I walk the back pasture after dark, sneak through the barbed wire and out to the barn, where the door hinges would squeal to where he used to be. I knew nothing about life or money or how things get accomplished in this world, I didn’t know that I’d get stabbed in the back, or that I’d stab back.
I kissed and he kissed back. We’d marry, find some old farmhouse and make a houseful of good-looking babies. The fall chill’d come and we’d dance altogether in the front yard when a good rain came. We dreamed ourselves grown old in love, and swore to one-another that no matter what, there’d always be this, what the candle flickered on the cedar wall–and it didn’t take a stretch of the imagination, then, to feel the life we’d made find heartbeat.
The Mexican, where does he get off? Daylight’s coming, I can see it out the corners of my eyes, like the monster you see slinking under your bed when you’re eleven and the quiet comes on and you don’t dare dangle a hand off the side of the bed to the floor that’s cold to the touch, even though it’s June, and you’re eighteen now, and a new life is out there round the bend, fattening on the quiet.
“Señor? It is good with us then?”
This is a story about quiet and what breaks it, Joey. I waited. Goddamn you. For a long time. This matters. I’m serious. How could I tell him about you, how his eyes are the same blue and why he was faster than the rest? Why I loved him like I’d die? Here’s his football picture, number 45, just like you. The wreck wasn’t his fault–it was some drunk, we never found out. There’s a plaque outside the stadium with his picture on it, and two other boys from the State Championship team. We were there for the memorial. Eddie Stutt’s daddy broke down. I said some words. Well, that’s all from here. Still love, k.
The letter sits now in a box on my chest with a newspaper page from the Star Herald that announced the engagement and coming marriage of Miss Kimberly Lynn Burgin, daughter of the late Emile and Faye Burgin to DeWayne Tipton of Lonoke, son of Alfred A. Tipton of Lonoke. The bride and groom are softlit, and old Lamar’s given them the premier place on the page, what youth and beauty will get you when love turns chickenshit. Tipton adopted the boy. He comforted Kim on the sunlit day of the funeral last June, that’s all I know.
But all this is neither here nor there.
I don’t know why it’s all come back to me now, given the turn of events, Renee’s mother’s passing and the grief and sorrow that’s come down on us all over that. Only something happened during Renee’s visit to Florida, just before the hospice, when the bed scenes with her mother got the most intense–the very end of it for them. I was home with Lara in Utah. There was a night about half-way through it all when I’d cooked Lamb Curry, measuring out the happy-hour bourbons that took the edge off. And this one night, the one I’m thinking of, my daughter and I watched a movie together on the couch, some silly-ass love story or another, doesn’t matter, and it got me thinking about Kim and her now dead father, Emile, the person that I’d been once, and how things could have turned out different. So I mistakenly nursed this reminiscence with another whiskey until, well, until I woke up with Lara crying on the telephone, her mother distraught, long-distance–on the other end.
“It’s okay,” I had said. “I just fell asleep.”
“On the fucking living room floor? Joe? We put mother in hospice today. They’ve removed food and water.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll do better. I love you.”
When the phone went dead, Lara took the receiver from me and placed it in its cradle. “Time for bed, Dad,” she said.
In June, I delivered the eulogy for the Rockerson family at the Episcopalian service. We’d rented a place right on the ocean and, afterward, in the ungodly heat, Renee, Lara and I burned sage near the surf at a spot where sea turtles landed nightly to lay eggs. We took Lara to Disneyworld, and that made her happy–she loved the faux New Orleans haunted house best, the spectral images that laughed and drank wine in the old house splendor. So all the other business, that’s over with now, we’re moving on to a new chapter of our lives. Lara’s nearly twelve, she’ll come of age soon. It’s happening already. Renee’s finally through the worst of her change, and, after the operation, the endless bleeding and night sweats have let her be. We move forward. The Cap is coming for Thanksgiving, and I’m planning to fix up a room for him in the basement, though, after two-hip replacements, he barely gets around. I’ll lay in that handrail we’ve needed for so long, rip up the old stained carpet for new. We’ll track down a bird as big as a barn and light the holiday candles. I’ll lay in whiskey and a good stash of wine and we’ll watch the bowl games on a wide screen. The first holiday after is always the worst. We’ll take out the old photographs and laugh and cry and console, play the old songs and pretend we’re not crooked to the goddamn core, every one of us.
In honor of the newly dead, so help me.
Michael Gills was McKean Poetry Fellow at the University of Arkansas and Randall Jarrell Fellow in Fiction in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He earned the Ph.D. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Oxford American,Verb 4, Shenandoah, Boulevard, The Gettysburg Review, The Greensboro Review, Quarterly West, New Stories From The South and elsewhere. Why I Lie: Stories (University of Nevada Press, September, 2002) was selected by The Southern Review as a top literary debut of 2002. A 2005-06 Utah Established Artist Fellowship recipient, Gills is a contributing writer for Oxford American and a board member for Writers @ Work. He is currently a professor of writing for the Honors College at the University of Utah, and is promoting a second collection of stories, THE DEATH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE, and a novel GO LOVE..