Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

A Night Out in Flat Rock

Don Jennings


Gravels crunch underneath the pickup truck as it crawls through the parking lot. A clipboard with a sheath of rumpled papers rests on the dash, visible through the glass on the driver's side. RAM TOUGH is lettered across the windshield.

Marcus shifts into park and gets out, leaving the engine running. A stream of white exhaust, like wintertime breath, eases from the pickup's silent tailpipe as he examines the familiar trappings of his wife's Accord. The feathered dream-catcher dangling from her rear-view. The unopened box of cigarettes reclined across the passenger seat.

Music and voices from inside the bar sound distant, faint, like television noise from a neighbor's bedroom window. Marcus holds his breath and listens. A woman's laughter trills above the others, and he wonders if it's her. He climbs back in his truck and continues down the line of automobiles.

#

Charla's earrings sway above her shoulders, delicate spokes suspended from a slender chain. Gabriel thinks they were gold, but they may be silver. They change color whenever the PBR sign above the pool table flashes.

She shakes her head emphatically and the earrings erupt, discharging particles of light reflected from the sign. I wish she'd do that again. But she speaks instead.

"No, no, our flag's not about racism, Gabriel. You know better than that. You grew up around here."

He looks away, towards the bar. The waitress holds up a shot glass in his direction, a question in her eyes. Anita, the waitress, was once a cheerleader, and he was a wide receiver. Now she totes shots to the tables, and he consumes them. He glances at Charla, then holds up his palm in a gesture of refusal. Tilts his empty glass over and fills it with beer. Lifts it to his mouth, but only manages to wet his mustache with the foam.

His companion is pouting, pretending to ignore him. She stares away from him, at nothing, waiting for a rebuttal or an apology. He studies the profile of her lips. Raises his glass and this time takes a small sip. She sighs, turns his way, and speaks again.

"I don't feel like arguing over no tattoo, Gabe, Honey," she says, glancing towards the rebel flag painted on her bare shoulder, then back up at the men playing pool in cowboy hats and sleeveless shirts. "I don't feel like arguing with you at all."

Closing her eyes, she leans her head against the brick wall above the cushioned seat. Her heart is open, her shoulders set back and relaxed. Gabriel stretches one leg underneath the table. For a long moment he closes his eyes as well and sits quietly, immobile, lost in the offer of the smell of her cigarettes and perfume.

#

This time when the truck stops, Marcus kills the engine before climbing out. On the last row of cars, at the rear of the parking lot, the crickets in the nearby forest are louder than the noise from the bar. He stands for a moment, listening to the woods. An owl screeches, and a shiver races up his spine. He squares his shoulders, pulls a set of keys from his front pocket, and swaggers over to an old gray Chevy.

He reaches to key the finish on the door but, noting the dents and scratches that already adorn it, stops short. Sticks the keys back in his pocket, and pulls out a razor knife.

He reaches towards a tire, but hesitates again. Looks up at the sky. No stars are visible; even at a distance, their light is drowned in the neon glare that pulsates from the signs outside the establishment. Slowly, deliberately, he removes the cap from a valve stem and presses with the point of the knife. The tire hisses. When it is noticeably low, but not dead flat, he folds the knife, puts it back in his pocket, and replaces the cap.

#

Charla makes graceful, unintelligible motions with her hands as she speaks. "I just hope you know that in spite of everything—I mean, even though I'm married and we been broke up a long time, and me and Sandra are friends, and in spite of the way you done her and all—I still care about you. I don't want...I couldn't stand it if something happened to you. If you was to hurt yourself. You know what I mean?"

Gabriel meets her gaze. She looks away. Takes a Winston from a golden box and lights it. Blows smoke out her mouth and catches it with her nose. Alan Jackson comes on the jukebox.

"You should take Sandra back, you know," she adds. "Sandra still loves you."

"She dumped me for another man. What the hell you mean, take her back?"

"She was just lonely. Scared, confused. And besides, look how you did her. You used to hit her."

He sets his glass down hard, starts to answer, but looks away instead. After a moment he whispers from the side of his mouth, "I ain't going back to Sandra. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever." Reaching across the table, he lays his hand atop hers. She doesn't flinch or pull away, but she doesn't warm to his touch, either. He looks down at her balled fist for a moment, then withdraws his hand and again picks up the sweating beer glass.

He knows she will soon leave. They have talked for nearly an hour, and everyone knows everyone else in Flat Rock, Alabama. You can say hello, maybe, every once in a while, but you can't visit long. Besides, she has to return home and sleep beside Marcus, to lay beneath him, to soothe him during the night and fix his coffee in the morning.

Gabriel excuses himself. When he returns from the bathroom, a crumpled twenty rests next to her single beer can. Merle Haggard winds down a song on the jukebox as he watches her cross the empty Monday-night dance floor without looking back. The waitress watches her leave, too, then pulls an unopened bottle of Early Times from beneath the bar and heads towards his table. The aluminum screen door makes a hollow sound as it closes behind her.

#

Anita stomps the accelerator once, twice, and turns the key. Bang, the old truck cranks. She looks over at Gabriel. He is leaned against the door, snoring. She pats his knee, and lets her fingertips linger on his thigh a moment while the engine warms. Looks down at his belt buckle, his pockets, wondering if any life remains there tonight.

Either way is cool with her. She adjusts the rear-view mirror down to suit her stature as she leaves the gravel lot and pulls onto the asphalt of the state highway. She always thrills to the long, slow ride in this man's arms, bearing the brunt of his hurt, his need, his imagination and frustration until neither can stand the intimacy any longer, and they each close their eyes and finish, together, alone in their passions, united in their rhythm. But she enjoys the nights he just comes over and sleeps, too. She likes having him nearby.

The truck feels like it's steering funny, but it always does after driving her Civic. She's just tooling along, pretty as you please, only doing about thirty-five as she enters the kiss-your-own-ass curve on Shinbone Pike, fiddling with the radio tuner, looking for a love song on the late night radio, dreaming of a day when Gabriel will settle down to marriage and wondering if Charla will leave him alone when that day comes, when the flattened tire loses its purchase on the mountain curve. The rear end of the vehicle slides around to where the front was a second before. There's no time to think, to pause, to reflect on the irony of circumstance or the vagaries of fate. Her past doesn't flash before her eyes, no, one minute she's dreaming of wearing white lace and saying her vows beside her old man, the next she's upside down with colored lights flashing and voices calling and something sticky is blinding her and oh my god, Gabriel, where is Gabriel, she has to find him and make sure he's alright but dammit, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how much will she exerts, she can't move her arms or legs or neck or anything else. Why the hell can't she move?

#

Marcus stares down into the fire on the stone hearth. His neck tightens like a conveyor belt on an assembly line at the plant when he hears the phone ring, but he doesn't move. Just takes a deep breath, then a small sip from his glass. Sets it on the mantle, and squats on his heels before the flame.

Maybe it's only a late-night call from one of Charla's friend. He sort of hopes it is. Maybe Nancy, who moved to Indiana to get married, is drunk and miserable and homesick again. Sometimes she calls when she gets like that.

He should have just keyed the finish on the door of the old truck, and been done with it. Or maybe left an anonymous, threatening note. Made Gabriel wonder which one of his girlfriend's husbands was onto him. Or better yet, he should have left a note, and signed it! Showed the little SOB he wasn't scared...

When Charla begins to cry, Marcus knows it isn't Nancy from Indiana on the phone. He knows, too, that their lives will never be the same. Not his life. Not his wife's, not anyone's. Certainly not Gabriel's.

He stands and stretches himself tall. Examines his face in the mirror above the fireplace for sign of weakness, for any outward trace of fear or indecision. Tosses down the last of the watery Scotch and gently places the empty glass back on the mantle, then strides from the room, across the hallway and into the kitchen, to his wife's side to comfort her.

___

Don Jennings lives and writes in Richmond, KY.  His stories have been featured in Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Camel Saloon, and elsewhere.  He blogs at oaknpine.blogspot.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

© Don Jennings

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012