Stickman Review Fiction Contest
by A.C. Koch
For a number she had never forgotten, Margie Finn was having a hard time hitting all the right buttons. It was the white pages that was throwing her off, following along with her finger on
the page as she poked the buttons on the phone, not trusting her memory. And there was something strange about this pay phone. She realized on her third try, after losing a buck in quarters on wrong numbers, that
this phone was so low to the ground because you were supposed to use it while sitting in your car. A drive-up phone. She twisted around to gaze across the asphalt at her Beetle, cute as an after-dinner mint, parked
at the curb in front of Fred’s Liquors and Liqueurs. Should she go get the car, drive up to the phone, and try punching the number one more time? Driving always sharpened the mind. Click, buzz-buzz. The
line connected. Margie waited for a stranger’s voice at another wrong number, but the sound that purred into her ear was as familiar as her old junior varsity letter jacket. “Yeah?”
“Bobby! Hey—you know who this is?”
A few seconds went by, as the last ten years ticked backwards in his head until he got to the tiny wrinkle in his mind that had been reserved for remembering Margie Finn. “Ho-ly cow! Is this Margie Finn on the horn?”
“It’s me, Bobby. Is that you?”
It was him. They chattered for the duration of two more quarters while she stood stooped at the low phone, not taking her eyes off the curlicued neon signs hanging in the window of Fred’s
Liquors and Liqueurs. Molson’s. Bud. Bobby was saying he wouldn’t let her past the state line into Indiana if she didn’t drop by to say hello and have a beer, catch up a little on these last ten years.
“You still remember how to get out here?”
“County Line Road 66, three lefts and three rights.”
“Hell, Margie. If you still remember that, then how come it’s been ten years since you showed your face around here? Did you call it quits with that woman? I heard something about you
and this gal—”
“My dad—” she started.
“Yeah, I heard about that, too. Jeremy called. I’m real sorry, Margie.”
But none of this was good for the pay phone. It needed to be a front porch conversation, with the sun gone down and the fireflies hanging like ornaments under the cottonwoods and cigarette
smoke curling up from their hands, keeping the moths away. She said, “Hey, you need me to pick up anything? I’m on Orchard, right by Fred’s.”
“Fred’s? Get some juice, then.” A smile curled up the ends of his voice. He didn’t mean fruit juice. Her quarters were gone so they signed off. She crossed the asphalt and stepped
inside Fred’s to a blast of cool air that brought out goosebumps on her bare arms. She hugged herself as she walked through aisles of cases stacked shoulder-high. A bottle of Bushmills and a twelve-pack of Negra
Modelo. As the cashier rang it up, she let her eyes roam over the pint bottles on the back shelf. “Give me a little Jack,” she said, waving a finger at the one she wanted. The pint bottle was flat and curved,
made for a back pocket. She could almost taste it already, the heat of it. Two days on the road: freeway, freeway everywhere, and not a drop to drink. A little sipping now wasn’t going to hurt anything between
here and Bobby’s, six miles away. She kept her hand steady as she handed over the fifty dollar bill. “Give me a couple dollars back in quarters,” she said. She had another call to make today.
Just yesterday morning, three hundred miles east of here, she was sitting on her
mother’s backyard patio getting sauced under the Kentucky sun. Everything about the late morning was adding up perfect—the cushioned wicker chair, the Tanqueray on ice,
the sky cotton-balled with clouds that floated above the fringe of dogwood and birch leaves—except that her father wasn’t here, and this was the third day without him.
“Margie!” rang her mother’s voice from the kitchen window. “I know you already told me once, but are you a cream-n-sugar person?” The same question, every morning,
like a ritual. Margie wondered if it was more than just stress or grief: the onset of that forgetting disease she didn’t want to say the name of. “Black,” she called, like every morning for the last week.
She wasn’t going to worry about her mother. That was a decision she’d come to, like a
New Year’s resolution, and she intended to keep it. Her theory was that there was only a finite amount of worry in any one person, and you had to spend it wisely or you’d
have nothing left for the times you’d really need it—like when you had kids, or when your husband started working later and later. There were no kids, and no husband,
anywhere on Margie’s horizon, and a truckload of worry hadn’t helped her father one bit. So her mother was on her own. Margie watched her come outside, sliding the
screen open and then shut with a slippered foot while holding a tray full of breakfast cocked out on one arm, with all the skill of a retired waitress.
The funeral had been a blast, as far as wakes go. Henry Finn had been the center of gravity to a whole clan of mountain boys and coal miners who clawhammered their
banjos as fast as they put down their whiskey. They called him Hank, and it wasn’t unusual for a truck to pull into the drive at three in the morning, someone catcalling
his name in the moonlight: “Hankleberry! Git on outta there!” Her daddy would shuffle onto the porch in his p.j.’s, pick up a drink and strum a guitar, and he and his buddies
would be barking at the moon until the sun came up. Now he was, as they said, solid gone, and there was nothing they could do to wake Hank up, but they sure as hell were
going to go hoarse trying. That was, she supposed, why it was called a wake in the first place. A half dozen guitars jangled on the porch, strumming under a banjo that
clattered like crickets tap-dancing on a snare drum, and the songs blended from one to another without ever starting or finishing.
Every fifteen minutes, at the buffet table in the dining room, you could hear someone else saying, “It’s what he would’ve wanted,” as they slammed down their empty
whiskey tumblers and pawed through the deviled eggs and tuna canapés. They dragged Margie and her mother onto the living room rug for a jig, and they hollered to the
banjo player flickering his way through “O, Death” for something more uppity, and they puked over the porch rails into the lilacs. And they were right—he would’ve
wanted it that way—but that didn’t stop Margie from wincing every time she heard it. She was a professional entertainer, playing piano and singing torch songs into a boozy
microphone in half a dozen lounges six nights a week, and her ears were attuned to the kinds of empty platitudes that would never fail to get a crowd to raise their drinks and
toast. Her father’s wake should be different from those working nights, shouldn’t it? People should have something more meaningful to say. Wouldn’t her father have wanted it that way?
Now she sipped her morning gin-and-tonic and watched the clouds slip behind the crests of trees that marked the line between the backyard and the woods. Half this land
had her name on it, in the will. It was hers now. “You bury my ass out there,” her father had said just a few days earlier, motioning with his chin out the window, across
the yard and into the woods. “Wherever your mother’s got me planted, you go dig me up and haul me into the trees somewhere.”
Margie had been the only one there that day, sitting on the rocker beside the bed. Prescription bottles stood like a patch of weeds on the endtable. Her mother and
Jeremy had gone into town to pick up Chinese because the Mexican delivery boys wouldn’t drive their motor scooters this far out into the boonies. It was late afternoon
and the light hung like candle smoke in the room. “Nobody’s going to be digging anybody up, daddy.”
He coughed, a sack of bolts tumbling down the porch steps. He’d driven a forklift for
thirty-five years, and smoked a pack of Pall Malls every one of those working days. On the weekends, jamming with his buddies on the porch or gigging at some local
bluegrass festival, he’d smoke four packs. With a thin and tuneless voice now, he mumbled the words to a song but only got through the first line before the cough
caught up with him again. Margie knew the song. She finished the lyric in her vibratoless soprano: “Oh, rest my soul in those hills of coal, until this earth does tremble.”
Her father nodded. His head was still turned toward the window but Margie couldn’t
see if his eyes were open or not. There was cancer in him like jelly in a donut. That was what the doctor had said. There might be a bite or two of plain dough, but after that it
was just filled to bursting. The image was enough to keep Margie off jelly donuts for the rest of her life. She sipped her bourbon and the jingle of the ice got his attention. He
rolled his head away from the window and fixed his eyes on the cut-glass tumbler in her hand. “Last train to Hoochville,” he muttered. He winked, and the eyelid that slid
over his eye was as thin and crinkled as tissue paper.
“Daddy, that’s the worst idea you’ve had all day and you know it.”
“Come one, dammit. What’s it going to hurt.”
Margie looked into her glass where the booze curled off the edges of the ice cubes in
golden swirls. They both know it would hurt a lot. They’d taken him off the dialysis machine to bring him home, and his kidneys had given out. He was filling up with his
own poisons like a cow that hadn’t been milked—another choice phrase from the doctor. Any more booze would be pure venom in the blood. “Buy your old dad a drink, for Christ’s sake,” he said, a whisper. “Come on.”
She understood the feeling. Something inside her said, “Come on,” in that same whisper by about eleven o’clock in the morning every day of the week. She could hold
out until four or five if she had errands to run, but giving in felt so much better. The ringing ice cubes, the golden swirls. The first lick of fire, then the smoldering deep
down that burned all other feeling away. She leaned over the bed even as she heard the crackle of tires on the driveway. Her father lifted his head an inch off the pillow and she
cupped her hand under his skull to steady him as she brought the glass to his lips and tipped it up for the tiniest of sips. He grinned with his lips peeled back from his teeth
and said, “Hoo-eee!” in the strongest voice he’d used in days. In the next instant he was racked with coughs. “Keep it down, dad,” she said as she went to the hall and
listened to the garage door grinding its way open. “Pretend you’re asleep so they don’t smell it on you.”
He had turned his head back to the window, watching the woods filter the daylight into
darkness. “They won’t smell anything,” he said, “with that chop suey stinking up the place.”
There was a night, twenty years ago, when little Margie was spying on her father and his buddies gathered on the porch with their guitars and their banjos, playing up a
storm in the night, every one of them drunk as a banshee. Her father kept a slim pint bottle of bourbon in his back pocket and pulled it out for a sip from time to time. Late
in the evening, as Margie watched from the corner of her bedroom window, her father made his way into the shadows at the edge of the spill of light to take a piss into the
yard. On his way back up the porch steps he stumbled over his own feet and went down hard on his ass. Everyone burst out whooping and laughing while he clambered to his
feet, patting the back of his jeans where the denim was soaked. He felt his back pocket where the bourbon rode, now dark and wet. “God, I hope that’s blood,” he said, and his buddies cackled.
And they kept on jamming, banjos crackling and spoons clacking, and Margie stayed awake half the night twitching her foot in time, letting the raspy voices spin themselves
into her dreams until she was asleep with her head on the windowsill. That was how her daddy taught her just about everything he knew.
Her mother was halving grapefruits on the patio table under the morning sun. Margie gave her gin-and-tonic a stir with her pointer finger and then put her finger in her
mouth to suck it. She reached for the Tanqueray bottle and added another splash, another stir, another suck.
By some accounts the wake last night had ended badly, although Margie had been drunk beyond the point of conscious recall by then. “You don’t remember what your
brother said about Jazmine?” Her mother peered up from slicing her grapefruit zests with a steak knife. Margie didn’t remember. “Well, it certainly made an impression on
you at the time,” said her mother. “You wacked him so hard he fell over in his chair.”
It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened. Margie picked up her
drink and brought it halfway to her lips before stopping. “So what’d Jeremy say about her?”
Her mother went back to concentrating on slicing the skin away from the juicy part. “Called her a whore,” she said without looking up.
Margie set her glass down hard enough to spill a dollop of gin on the white painted table. “What!”
“Margie, please. You already threw a fit about it last night. You don’t need to throw another over breakfast just because you don’t remember anything.”
A whore. That was a word you didn’t hear too often these days, at least not when you lived in the city and spent your days and nights among people who wore ties. But you
couldn’t expect Appalachians to like or even understand what the high-rollers did in their downtown offices. Jazmine was a lobbyist for an environmental action group in
Denver, and the one time Margie brought her back home to Kreosill, Jazmine told dinner table stories about taking state senators on golf junkets and ski weekends at
borrowed condos. She had an office on the thirty-third floor of a glass skyscraper downtown, and she drove a company BMW. No one had called it whoring at the time,
but you couldn’t blame Jeremy for feeling touchy about it. He’d been working for hourly wage at Jiffy Lube for the last ten years.
“Do you agree, mom? Jazmine’s a whore?”
Her mother set down the knife with a clatter. “Now, come on, Margie. You know I think she’s very nice.”
“What does ‘nice’ mean?”
“Eat your grapefruit, Margie. You need to get something in your system with all that hooch you’re sucking down.”
It was during that trip, when Margie brought Jazmine home to meet her folks in Kreosill, that her father caught the two of them red-handed. She and Jazmine were
standing out in the yard past midnight with the birches and dogwoods towering overhead and pointing up at the stars which splashed across the sky in a way that just
astounded a city girl like Jazmine. They spoke in the low and quiet way that is the exclusive territory of established lovers with nothing to prove. “I hate stars,” said
Jazmine. “The stars hate you,” said Margie. “I meant movie stars,” said Jazmine. “So did I,” said Margie. A satellite slid overhead, a motionless point of light, rendering
them both silent. Some machine up there, circling the earth. The two of them, at the edge of the woods in the hills of Kentucky, staring up at it. Vertigo and love, physics
and dry palms. They laced their arms around one another’s waist, and Margie was pressing a kiss into Jazmine’s white throat, when her father stepped up next to them in the dark with a long whistle. Look what we got here, the whistle seemed to say.
“Starry night,” he said.
Later, Margie and her father had a heart to heart on the back porch with a bottle of Jack while Jazmine helped her mother wash up in the kitchen after dinner. “She the
love of your life or something?” her father said.
“Well. How about that.”
“You know I like to do things my own way.”
“Yeah, I do know that.”
Sip from the bottle, passed from one to another and back again.
“She make you happy?”
“What I mean is, you don’t feel like you’re missing something?”
“No, dad, I don’t.”
She thought he was going to leave it like that, not quite a ringing endorsement, but at least not a condemnation. Then he said, “So I guess you and Bobby Bogue won’t be
making me a granddad until this passes.”
She’d just taken a sip of bourbon and had to grimace to swallow it down. It had been ten years since she’d brought Bobby home from college, but her father made it sound
like it was just last week. Hope dies hard in the heart of a mountain boy, thought Margie. That was a line from a song somewhere. She passed the bottle back to her
father without saying anything at all. If he thought he’d said something wrong, he didn’t show it. His lawn chair squeaked as he shifted his weight, staring out into the woods at the edge of the yard. Until this passes. Like the person she’d chosen to be was
just a low pressure front stirring up weather on the horizon. And maybe he was right. Because there were not going to be any grandchildren anytime soon, with Bobby Bogue or anyone else, and she was sure of that.
Her mother was back in the kitchen, pretending to rinse out the bowls and mugs but really only staring into the sink while the water curled down the drain. If her mother
hit the bottle every once in a while, Margie thought, it would probably soothe something down deep. Down where no one else could touch. Margie had hit that
smooth spot now, somewhere between the second and third drink, when something clicked. It was a physical feeling, like a switch thrown in the brain. Her eyes relaxed,
everything went soft around the edges, the tinkle of the wind chimes became a distant fuzz. “Ah,” she said. Time sailed.
Was it the drink that killed her daddy? or the cigarettes? Margie didn’t smoke anymore, because it was hard on her voice, so she already had a leg up on her father. And if there
was ever an occasion for getting on the wagon, this was it. She sipped her gin. An ice cube kissed her upper lip as the last floes of booze threaded their way onto her tongue.
She set the tumbler down. She had made the resolution before, but things were different now. Her daddy was in the ground, and all this land was hers. “Momma, I better be getting on my way.”
“Already, hon?” Her mother spoke through the screen in the kitchen window where she looked like a ghost of herself.
“You’re supposed to be three hours early for the plane these days.”
“Well, I’ll tell your brother to put your things in the car.”
“I can call a cab.”
Her mother didn’t even respond to that. They both knew that there was no such thing as a cab around these parts.
Jeremy drove a primer-grey ’76 Buick Riviera, which he’d bought in high school and had been souping up ever since. The back seat was a pair of bean bags lashed into
place, flanked with giant speakers in the bubble space under the rear window. The dashboard was missing, and none of the dials on the instrument panel worked, but
Jeremy said he could drive the thing by feel alone. Over the winding road that cut through the woods and towards the interstate, he wheeled them around curves under
the hanging branches of dogwood, around the mud ruts that lay crusted in the straight-aways. He flicked his long bangs off his forehead with a twist of the head that almost seemed like sign language. No trespassing, was the message. Growing up in the
woods had kept him wirey thin, and jumpy as a squirrel. His eyes flicked back and forth, skittering over the road, flashing into the woods. He steered with his wrist, one
hand curled over the top of the wheel, the other hanging out the window and thumping the door like waves under a rowboat. “So you gonna sell?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t think so, Jeremy. That’s not really what daddy would want, is it?”
“Who the hell can say.”
“You know what I mean.” She kept her hands folded on her knees, with her suitcase under her legs where the handles dug into the undersides of her calves. The tape deck
played an tape of Bluegrass tunes and Margie was concentrating on the music all the way down to her fingertips. She could feel exactly how to transpose the jangling guitar
into liquid piano, slowing it down and deepening it. Well, listen here fellers, so young and so fine, and seek not your fortune in the heart of the mine,…
Like drunken percussion, the car shuddered and shook across the washboard road under the flashing trees. Her father had left three hundred acres to each of them,
although Margie’s parcel included the house and the garage and even the trailer where Jeremy lived, while Jeremy’s parcel was nothing but a rocky hill with a stream cutting
down the back side of it. Perfect for hunting, but not for much else.
One song ended, and the next was “Bury Me,” one of Hankleberry’s favorite front porch numbers. “Did daddy say anything to you,” she began, then fell silent. She knew
she shouldn’t say anything, especially not to Jeremy, but it was already out. Maybe it was the gin talking. The woods flickered past the window and she cast her eyes into the shifting layers of green.
“What,” he said.
She looked at him from the corner of her eye. A wrinkle had spiked into the flesh over the bridge of his nose. He’d get angry if he had to say it again. She said, “He told me he
wanted to be buried in the woods. Not in the church lot in town.”
“Well, of course he did. But mom wasn’t going to do that. Why—what he tell you?”
“He said, ‘You bury my ass out there.’”
Jeremy barked a laugh with his head thrown back. He waved a hand at a ridge to the east, where Kreosill lay on the other side, where their father lay under a heap of fresh
dirt behind the Presbyterian church. The double headstone bore their mother’s name, too. “So let’s go dig him up. I’m game if you are, Margie. He wasn’t kidding when he told you.”
“I know, Jeremy. He wasn’t kidding. It’s what he would’ve wanted.”
Jeremy snorted. “First time I’ve heard you so worried about what he would’ve wanted.”
She let a few curves in the road go by in silence. A dare-devil squirrel high-tailed it across the gravel like it had just been waiting for a car to come along. “I’ve always been
worried about that,” she said. Until this earth does tremble, went the song.
“Too late now.”
It was two hours to the airport in Lexington, but not much more was said until they were pulling off the highway onto the access road. Margie pointed through the
windshield at a tall sign that said AVIS. “Pull in there,” she said. “I want to rent a car.”
Jeremy gave her a look, but he steered them into the lot past rows of gleaming new cars to the office building that sat like a glass island in a sea of asphalt. She went inside
and did the paperwork while Jeremy sat in the Riviera smoking one Winston after another. She watched him through the picture windows while the credit card went
through, wondering what were the chances that Jeremy would actually get a wild hair up his ass some night and drive down to the Presbyterian church with a pick and a
shovel in the trunk. He could fit a casket into the back of the car if he just took out those bean bags and speakers. She wouldn’t put it past him.
“I don’t know if this go-cart is going to make it all the way to Denver,” he said when he’d loaded her bags into the trunk of her mint green Beetle. It was one of the new
ones, with the bulbous fenders and big windows. “What about the plane? You afraid of flying all of a sudden?”
Margie watched her brother, wishing she could put her arms around him. He stood under the sun in his tissue-thin tee shirt with his ropy arms as tanned as belt leather,
shaggy blond hair in his eyes. He was almost thirty, and still a kid, and without a father now. “I got a lot to think about, Jeremy. Driving clears the mind, you know?”
It also clears the blood, she thought. Fifteen-hundred miles sober, between here and Denver. Three days dry. Freeway, freeway, and not a drop to drink. On a plane, it
would be five hours of booze, and no time to think. Half the flight fearing a fiery death and praying to a God she normally didn’t talk to, and the rest of the time guzzling
mini-bottles of California white wine and fingering an in-flight magazine. All thought and emotion neutralized, like the landscape you were flying over without touching a
thing. No, driving was the way to go. Clearing the mind. But she didn’t try to explain any of that to Jeremy.
A smirk played on his face. He wasn’t sure if the driving-clears-the-mind thing was meant to make fun of him, so he turned away to light another smoke with his hand
cupped against the wind. “I guess it does,” he said with lips pressed tight on the filter, sucking the ember alive. “Hey, I talked to Bobby Bogue this morning, told him about
the wake. He said to give you a kiss for him, but I’ll just let him speak for himself if you don’t mind.”
“Bobby Bogue,” she said.
“You should stop in and see him, since you’re going overland. He’s still on his folks’ place, but they’re long dead now, you know. Country bachelor.”
Margie watched her brother, seeing traces of her father in the lines that made parentheses at the corners of his mouth, in the droop to his eyelids and the hollows of
his cheeks. Maybe he wasn’t such a kid anymore. Maybe burying his father had grown him up a little. “You should drive out to Denver yourself and visit some time. Would this jalopy of yours make it that far?”
“I can make it make it,” he said, grinning. And he probably could. Not for nothing had he spent ten years at Jiffy Lube. “You say hi to Jazmine for me,” he said as she got
behind the wheel, poking around to find the button to lower the window. Now she was the one smirking, but she couldn’t read anything in his face with the sun behind him. Say hi to the whore for me. “I will,” she said, and rolled the window back up, searching
for the air-con buttons.
All day without another drink, crossing the Appalachians on Interstate 75, weaving down through the back slope of Kentucky as the sun sank ahead of her. Sleeping in a
Motel 8 with the television on, waking up without a hangover but not feeling particularly good. How many days had she woken up hungover? Rolling into work at
six in the evening, already half-sauced, then tinkling out a couple hours’ worth of lounge piano without a single head turning in her direction. No one noticing if she was
dead or alive or Mozart or drunk off her ass. She played jazzified versions of old bluegrass numbers, liquid and slow, and no one raised an eyebrow. The words floated
through her head as the tune reeled out, and no one noticed. She could turn any tune into something mellow and jazzy and piano-friendly, and the crowd watched the
hockey game, the baseball game, the football game. One night after another: How you folks doing tonight? I want to thank you all for coming out, got a real special number
for y’all, a tune my daddy used to play,…
Crossing the Ohio river before ten o’clock in the morning, threading her way through
the smokestack outskirts of Cincinnati, onto the rolling ribbon of State Route 503 and into Preble county. Here the green hills started to look like the same planet where
she’d gone to college. She’d ridden these same roads with carloads of boys, bashing mailboxes with baseball bats and hucking empty beer cans out the window into the dark.
Working on memory, she found her way into Bellefountaine and all the way along Orchard Avenue to the strip where the highway widened into a thoroughfare of
fastfood joints, warehouses and shopettes behind skirts of asphalt. Fred’s Liquors and Liqueurs was the place where she used to buy beer when she was a freshman, before
she even had a legal I.D. After all this driving, was her mind any clearer now than it had been yesterday at breakfast with a gin-and-tonic? Maybe a clear mind wasn’t the
kind of thing you could feel at all, and you only wished for it when your mind was cloudy.
She set her paper bags full of booze on the passenger seat and jingled the handful of
quarters in her fist. Her hands looked older now than they did when she’d last bought a bag of booze at Fred’s, back when the first Bush was president. You could keep your
body in shape, and rub your face in miraculous pomades to keep that fresh look of a college freshman halfway through your thirties, but you couldn’t do anything about
your hands. She’d have to get some driving gloves, to keep her mind off it.
She steered her minty green Beetle across the asphalt and up to the pay phone as close as she could manage and lowered the window. It was easier to use the phone from this
angle, plugging the quarters in and punching the buttons. She didn’t have to consult any phone book, because the number was her own, half a continent away, and her
finger hit the buttons by itself. A click and a buzz, then Jazmine’s voice rustled in her ear. “Hyello?”
“Jesus, where are you? I thought you were getting in yesterday.”
“Change of plans, Jazmine. I’m driving.”
“What do you mean, you’re driving? I thought you had a plane ticket.”
“I need some time to get clear. I got one of those cute new VW’s.”
“Get clear? Are you okay, Margie? Did everything go okay?”
“No, Jazmine. My dad died and we buried him behind the Presbyterian church. That’s not everything going okay.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry to put it that way. But is everything okay, considering?”
“Considering?” Margie ran her free hand over the steering wheel in circles. The engine
was idling, and all she had to do to end this conversation would be to drop into gear and hit the gas. The receiver would be pulled right out of her hand as she covered ground. You don’t feel like you’re missing something? her father had said. “I miss you,
Jazmine. I’m going to be a few days more.”
“How many days, Margie? When should I expect you?”
“A couple three. I’ve got some friends along the way, a few places I can stay the night. Look, babe, I’m out of quarters. I’ll call tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I love you, baby.” She hung up without saying more, hanging the receiver on the hook and pulling away into an empty space at the edge of the parking lot. She pressed
the rest of her quarters into the coin holder in the console under the stereo. Then she reached for the paper bags on the passenger seat and pulled out the pint bottle of Jack
Daniels, twisting off the cap and pressing the glass mouth to her lips without even thinking about it. Tip, sip, burn. She sucked air through her teeth as a chaser, the
whiskey burning her throat as it went down. It was only a sip, after all. Bobby’s place was less than a half-hour out of town, and she could drive the road blindfolded even
after all these years. That was just one of the many ways in which driving cleared the mind.
County Road 66, three lefts and three rights. Corn fields flickered by, interspersed with
stands of cottonwood and elm. Nothing looked any different. She’d started dating Bobby Bogue in the first month of her freshman year at Webster U., and it lasted until
the summer after graduation, when everything changed. During those four years, she’d traveled this road a thousand times, pressed up against Bobby’s shoulder on the front
seat of his pickup or squeezed into the backseat of some other car filled with her whooping friends, roaring over the gravel fast enough for the tires to pop tiny rocks off
into the darkness like b.b.’s. It was one of those nights, in a carload of drunks, that Bobby had first proposed to her. She’d laughed, with the wind through the window
filling her mouth and rippling her hair across his face, pressed against her neck where he kept whispering. Her only answer that night was that laugh, like he’d just told a
great joke. Days later, when she had to give him a reason why not, she said that her parents didn’t want her to get married until she’d gotten her career started. That was
very far from the truth and Bobby knew it, but you couldn’t argue with a girl who was turning down a marriage proposal. He resorted to flowers, bottles of wine, fancy
dinners at the Italian restaurant in downtown Bellefountaine. He even made a cedar headboard for her double bed, but she never came around for him. When she gave it
back to him, she heard later, he chopped the headboard into kindling and had himself a bonfire behind his folks’ barn. What else he burned there, she didn’t know.
Margie wouldn’t tell him her reasons, because she didn’t know them herself. It was just
a feeling, that she needed to wait. Then she met Jennifer Bashline at a graduation party, and everything changed. After Jennifer came Eliza, then Lucy, and finally
Jazmine. What she’d been waiting for. Bobby never knew where he went wrong. “So what did all these girls have that Bobby didn’t?”
It was Hank Finn’s voice. Her father was only in her head, but she imagined him in the
bucket seat beside her, speaking without looking at her, staring out the window with his chin in his hand. He was in his hospital smock because, she supposed, she would
always think of him as sick. The road rumbled underneath, dull thunder. She let a couple fields of knee-high corn go by, mulling the question. Could it be reduced to one
word? “Patience,” she said, to see how it sounded. And it sounded right. “She has patience.”
Her father snorted. That was the side of him that lived on in Jeremy, she thought. The incredulous snort. By now, Jeremy knew Bobby Bogue as well as she ever did, since
the two of them went pheasant hunting every fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was sure there had been plenty of campfire stories about the weird directions Margie’s life
had taken, the choices she’d made that didn’t include Bobby Bogue. And she got the occasional update via Jeremy, like the thing about the headboard bonfire, the clean
cedar smell of it. “If Bobby’d had a little more patience,” she said, “maybe things would be different now.”
“That’s bullshit,” her father said.
And he was right, only because there was no point in thinking about how things could have been different. She swigged from the pint bottle and held it out over the
passenger seat as if someone there was going to take it from her hand. No one did. Had the grave cured her daddy of the drink? Certainly, nothing else on earth could do it.
She had another swig, if only to prove she was still among the living.
“Tell you what,” her father said, “forget about burying me out there in the boonies. I
got a better idea: you move back home and settle down there on the land. Share the house with your old mother, or build a new place back in the woods. See if your
girlfriend likes the idea, with her patience and all.”
Half a smile turned up one corner of her mouth, imagining that. Yazmine, with her
office on the thirty-third floor and her rolodex full of senators and CEO’s, transplanted to the dark side of Kentucky where the only movers and shakers were crickets and
racoons. She’d curl up and die from social withdrawl, a time zone away from anyone else who understood the cartoons in the New Yorker. Thinking of the tirade she’d
throw at even the mention of the idea, Margie felt a twinge of loneliness, the need to wrap herself in Yazmine’s arms, the soft smell of her.
She felt her father’s hand on her arm, a warmth. “I only want you to be happy,” he said.
She didn’t know if it was something he meant, or if it was only the words to a song. She swigged another bolt of J.D., hissing her teeth at the empty passenger seat.
Meanwhile, the road rumbled on, and she realized that it really was clearing her mind.
“I gotta buy one of these cars,” she said out loud. She watched the gravel road coming at her under the late afternoon sun, recognizing the shape of a gnarled stump that
stood like a hunchback at the crest of a hill, amazed that a piece of dead wood could have lasted so many years out in the elements, and equally amazed that some part of
her mind had reserved a place for it. Two more miles to Bobby Bogue’s, was what the stump reminded her.
She hooked the last left, wondering what they’d have to talk about now. After a decade of pheasant hunting, Bobby might just share Jeremy’s ignorant attitude about her
lifestyle. But of course, they had her dad to talk about. The late, great Hankleberry Finn. Speculating, over that bottle of Bushmills, whether Jeremy really had it in him to
go grave-robbing behind the Presbyterian church. Or whether Margie had it in her to pack up and move back to the hills of Kentucky. Whether she knew any good recipes
for wild squirrel. Getting a few laughs in while the night was still fresh and the lightening bugs cruised like shooting stars. She tipped back the pint of Jack, sucked her
lips, and slid the bottle back between her blue jean thighs.
The sun had just slipped into the branches of a stand of cottonwoods on the flank of a hill when Margie saw the deer. Three of them, white-tailed does. They stood in the
ditch at the edge of the road, their eyes black pools glinting with the last of the daylight. She tapped the brake and reached for the headlights switch at the same time.
One of the deer took a step, seemed to coil on itself as the distance between them closed at fifty miles an hour. The lever that Margie thought should turn on the
headlights and paint the instrument panel in a moody blue glow instead sent the wipers in a dry and stuttery arc across the windshield. Then she heard the skree of
gravel somewhere underneath, felt the slingshot of gravity tightening the seatbelt strap across her chest. The horizon rotated fast, and slammed to a stop with a burst of confetti.
Margie, both hands on the wheel, stared over the dashboard at the road she’d just come from, steaming with dust. The three deer stood riveted to their spot in the ditch:
they hadn’t moved an inch. Now, in the ringing silence, they stepped gingerly across the road and slipped along the fence until their tails, like tiny white flames, disappeared into the swaying stalks of corn.
She held her hands up. No blood. She turned her head side to side, taking in the shattered passenger window where a fence post had burst through and punctured the
head rest. Anyone riding there would have been finished, pasted, solid gone. She twitched her feet and found no problem there. But when she looked down, she saw her
thighs were dark and wet. Shattered glass lay strewn across her lap like spilled popcorn. She pressed a hand to her thigh, feeling the stickiness that pasted the denim
to her palm. “Please let that be booze,” she muttered. She sucked breath through her teeth, brought her hand up, ran her tongue across her life-line. Jack Daniels. As far as
bourbons go, the sweetest taste in the world.
Bobby Bogue’s place was another mile up this road, and another mile to the right. The sun was gone, the sky bruising evenly from one side to another, and Margie Finn
wasn’t going to sit in her wreck waiting for someone to come along. Who knew what might be out here besides white-tailed deer? She left her luggage in the trunk, and
carried only the paper sack from Fred’s with the Bushmills whiskey and the Negra Modelo. Walking along the gravel, she found that her thirst was gone, as if something
had clicked in her head and turned off the whiskey switch. Maybe all she’d needed was a good shake-up to break the habit. This would be the test: walking the two miles to
Bobby’s house with a sack full of booze, and not sneaking a solitary sip. If driving couldn’t get her clean, then walking would. And when they were finally kicked back on
the porch and having a laugh and a smoke, then a drink or two wouldn’t do any damage. Besides, she hadn’t crashed because of the booze; it had been the deer that
had thrown her off, and the unfamiliar car. A bottle was a lot easier to control than an automobile, especially one of those space-age Beetles.
Without even coming to a decision about it, she set the paper bag on the ground and pulled out the bottle of Bushmills. The cap twisted off with a snap, and she tipped it
back for a mouthful of fire. “Hoo-ee,” she said in the twilight while the crickets chirped. It would be best to show up relaxed and confident at Bobby’s, with just enough juice in
her blood to take the edge off her nerves. She’d walk up the lane swinging one arm, the paper bag in the other, and she’d whistle at him where he sat rocking on the porch.
He’d wonder what the hell she was doing walking around in the dark, where the hell her car was, where in God’s name she’d been for the last ten years—and she’d have a great
story to tell. Three goddamn deer! It would be a hell of a laugh. He’d slip his arm around her in the front seat of his pickup as they headed out to winch her car out of the
ditch. Dark fields wheeling past. It would feel exactly like old times, like not a single day had come between them. As if he’d been patiently waiting for her to come back
around, just the way her father would have wanted it. It was never too late to start worrying about that.