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.
Joey 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.