A Night Out in Flat Rock
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
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
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
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
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
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.