She saw it as he walked through the room. Maybe the second or third time he passed by, saying something and she answering something, the way he walked changing each time. He had come in walking like a fat man who worked all day out in the sun walks. Shoulders bunched up. Chest pushed out. Ass tucked in. His aching, weakened knees bent as little as possible. His ankles crackling quietly like a child tiptoeing slowly across gravel. Then he went through the house, boots and hat falling across the floor. The dining room table. Into the kitchen. The next time his knees were moving a bit and his shoulders a little more relaxed. He said something. She answered something, then he was gone again and back. She still can't remember what she said or why she said it, but that was when she saw the change. Almost impossibly his chest puffed out even more. His hands started dangling off his wrists, his elbows and his shoulders swaying ever so slightly in sync. But it was his eyes that did it. They sharpened, tensed up from the slack fog of exhaustion and the first real drink of the day.
She started breathing. Paying attention to it. Deep, purposeful breaths focusing on what was about to come. After the first couple of steps out of his bedroom to kitchen, to bedroom track there was no denying it. Here it comes. Breathing. Ready. His upper body makes that slow arch over his lower and she takes one long, frightened, tense, clear-as-a-bell breath and the hit and the breath bursts out of her mouth and she moans, but she can take it. She breathes. Still calm and still ready. She can take it. She breathes. She can take his fist and she can take that mean-assed stare. She can take the spittle that flies out of his mouth and tinkles across her face like the very first and the very last drops of rain and she can take all the horrible words and deadly, painful promises. Deep breath. He hits her again. She breathes. He's pissed that she is not crying. He hits her. She can't see out her left eye. The left side of her head is tightening and sickeningly numb. She's too scared to breath like she was but she is ready. They are a little more shallow and getting closer to the rhythm that is exploding through her chest, in her ears, in her feet legs hands. The next punch is in the mouth and she can feel the skin of her lip split, top and bottom, and tooth gives way in a crunching roar and flies back to the back of her mouth. She can't breath at all and now everything is black. She can hear herself moaning. Both in pain and in effort to steal another breath. There is only panic and her hot, swelling head. She is only vaguely aware that he has gone to kicking her because she is on the floor and his back hurts too much to bend over.
The boy had slammed the door on the way out and left behind a complete and sudden silence. Dolly sat on the end of the bed smoking a cigarette. She could hear the tobacco burning and turning to ash. The smoke drifted lazily through the sunlight pouring in from the picture window at the head of her bed. The television was on but muted. Some lady on a game show screamed and jumped and cried over her new car. It was the whirring of the refrigerator’s compressor that kicked her out of her malaise. At first she thought it was the boy coming back into the house. She stood up and even though she knew it was the fridge she still walked to the dresser to put her cigarette out in the ashtray.
She went out onto the living room and slumped back in her recliner. She stared to where the television used to be. She shook the beer can that sat on the end table and sucked down the last gulp left in it the night before. She clenched her eyes at the warm, flat beer and opened them to let them fall back on the empty space. She sat sucking slow on another cigarette thinking of her son, staring blankly into the empty spot where the television had lived and died. It made her think of her son and what he had done. It was an irrational fit of violence she saw in Briar plenty of times. The thought made her twitch. Was she going to have to go through all this again with the boy? She knew Briar would eventually go away, but the boy would stay. There was no choice. He had another five years or so living with her, and she knew that was plenty of time for him to become the terror his father was. She thought of this and the blank spot in the corner. She was searching for some kind of answer.
There was no beer in the fridge.
The idea came to her and she hopped out of the chair.
It wasn't unusual for Dolly to lie awake and watch her husband sleep, but never for this long. She would drift in and out of her awareness of the time, of what she was doing. Thoughts like waking dreams played around in her head. Her face though, it never gave a hint that there was anything going on besides her laying there on her side watching Harlen sleep, his chest heaving slowly as he sucked in the dank, mildewed air in loud, guttural torrents. Ten o'clock turned into midnight. Midnight sank into thoughts of her wedding and came out the other end as one fifteen.
It had been quick, the wedding. It took place on a hot Saturday in the gymnasium of the high school Dolly (who then was still called by her proper name Darlanetta) had graduated from two months earlier. There was a preacher and about twenty people including Clovis Mander, the school janitor, who sat up high in the bleachers waiting for it all to finish so he could clean up and go home.
There had been plenty of shouting and crying about the wedding. Dolly's parents weren't too thrilled about their seventeen year old daughter marrying a twenty-nine year old man. Honestly, Dolly wasn't exactly excited either, but she didn't know what she was going to do about the child growing in her belly and Harlen was the quickest, safest solution she could think of. She was shit-scared and he offered to marry her. They could live in his grandparent's house. His grandmother had died the year before and had left it to him. He was getting a job with the city in the pubic works department.
Neither one of them had ever told the other I love you, but Dolly was working real hard at convincing herself she did. Of course, to her parents she professed great love for this man she hardly knew that knocked her up in the back of Gil Coleman's truck. She fucked both of them that night, but it was Harlen that came inside her. In the end, after meeting with Harlen and his promises, and having no idea of the child, Dolly's parents relented seeing as there wasn't a whole hell of a lot they could do about it in the first place.
Dolly could remember the dress she wore very well. It was blue with small, demure, white flowers, and it fit her just right in all the right places. The dress was the thing that made her the happiest that day, though she was doing real well that the marriage was what she wanted. She remembered the looks in the men's faces as she walked by. They were family, sure, but it was the thought that counted. She could sense a bit of jealousy in her sister Roberta's eyes. That made her feel good too.
She remembered the day was very bright. The sky burnt a ferocious blue and everything seemed to reflect and magnify the white hot sun. It exploded upon the modest crowd as the big blue double doors were swung open at the end of the ceremony and they leaked out onto the asphalt. The heat of the day radiated up out of the parking lot in slow waves that made everyone eager to leave, seek air-conditioned shelter, eat cake and drink beer. Dolly remembered how hard it was to see and smile trying to say thank you and good bye and I'm so happy and this is wonderful to all those people. It made everything seem like an agonizing dream. The kind of dream you have no control over and nothing really ever make sense. The kind of dream you forget real easy and are left with nothing in the morning but a strange amnesia. Everything, Dolly thought, looked like a real shitty polaroid.
Then there was the honeymoon, a week of sitting around the house drinking the handle of moonshine his father had given him while Dolly went through all the musty, mothball-stained remanence of the grandparents. All the furniture was theirs. The towels in the bathroom and the tar-stained curtains - they all wreaked of the ninety year old near-corpses.
After that week, Dolly started to get nervous. The job with Public Works Department hadn't materialized into a moneymaker like Harlen had promised. He was laying asphalt and mowing the sides of the highway making the same money as some kid in a fast-food restaurant. Her belly had begun to swell. The mere mention of work or the child they would soon be having to feed bound Harlen up in a rage. After a few days and a very scary night, Dolly decided not to say anything, but after a month of so little income and their wedding money drying up, she couldn't take it.
"I'm doin th'best I fuckin can," Harlen screamed after she blew up at him.
His eyes got huge and the blood bloomed into his face with unnatural speed. Dolly's chest ballooned. She was about to fire back at him. She could see that he knew. He could see it and he wasn't going to take it. Before she could say anything, before she could even move, his hand was in the air and swinging toward her. It crashed hard and flat against the flat space of her head right behind her eyes. There was a pain like her brain had exploded out the other side of her head and everything went black.
And it was silent.
Once it felt safe to open her eyes, it could only have been a matter of a few seconds, Dolly could see him standing over her. His eyes were still huge, bulging out of their sockets, but all the color had drained from his face. His mouth hung open just like hers. They didn't, couldn't, speak.
Finally Dolly managed: "I just want our baby to be safe." She whispered it, imploringly, hoping her tears would soften him.
It looked as if the words were traveling slowly through the air hitting his ears a syllable at a time. She could see him deciphering them and soaking them in. They rolled around in his head and bound up his face into a maniacal twist, and he grabbed her by the collar of her shirt just like they do in the movies.
"Y'so goddamn worried about the baby," he said.
Dolly didn't recognize this as a rhetorical question and answered: "Yes, I. I just want it to be safe, I-"
"You don't give a shit about me," Harlen said.
"You don't think I'll take care of the baby," he asked.
"Oh, I'll take care of that baby."
It was a sunny afternoon, and as time eased into summer, the heat became more prevalent. She didn’t mind the heat so much. She got used to it over the years as the clunky window A/C at the house hadn’t worked. Besides, people tended to mind their own business more in the summer. They were too interested in getting where they had to go and doing what they had to do to get out of the heat. Normally, she would have stopped off at the Mexican restaurant at the end of the boulevard to get a beer or two, but she was on a mission. She veered off onto the highway and only cut off two cars to make the turn into the Walmart.
She parked back from the entrance so she’d have time to finish her cigarette before she went in. There were people everywhere. Kids yelling and screaming Blazing plastic carts full of groceries and furniture and toys and everything else. The sun was high and hanging like a molten glob in a cloudless sky. The heat was bearable, hardly rising from the pavement at all. Just a taste of summer. In a few weeks Dolly would be cursing it, but for now it was alright.
A smile actually took over her face. She saw the deteriorating control of the parents of those screaming children and smiled because they weren’t hers. She saw couples arguing and snapping at each other and she smiled because it wasn't her. She smiled because so many people seemed to be vibrating with frustration, sweating out their intolerance, and she felt none of it. She really did love this place. There were people and lights and swooping sounds everywhere, but she was absolutely alone. No one paid attention here. It was like 3D 360 degree television. There were a million little dramas and laughs and outlandish creations all around, but each on their own little bubble and oblivious to every other one around them.
Dolly stepped lazily through the vestibule and smiled politely to the octogenarian that greeted her. In front of her a sea of people crisscrossed the white and green checkered linoleum trying to navigate the choked lanes of the produce section. To the left, they bottlenecked into the check out lines waiting patiently and not so patiently to hand over their money.
Dolly passed through it all in her short, swaggering gait. The sea parted. Her flat white shoes ticked on the linoleum. Her eyes widened, darting from package to package, soaking in the dissolute displays swathed in happy faces and price tags. Everything, it seemed, had a smile on it. There were cartoon happy faces, pale, smiling families enjoying the latest product, giddy children amazed by their toys... and there were the real people not so giddy and smiley and happy and amazed milling about among it all. They frowned deep ravines into their faces. They dealt with their bitchy wives and asshole husbands. They weakly managed their frantic children. They trudged along aisle after aisle of absolutely everything they could possibly need and never found a moment of respite from the knotted world in which they lived.
It just bounced right off her. If there was an argument going on in front of her she just took the corner and delved into the world of lamp shades or bed sheets or little plastic house plants. If there was a screaming kid or an asshole on the verge, she just took the corner. Kept on walking. Here, anonymous, anything she didn’t like just rolled away.
There was a buzzer that went off when she walked into the electronics department and it scared her. Several heads turned to see her and then swiveled back to their own business as if she was nothing more than random trash rolling down the street. It brought her out of her spell. The televisions were all the way against the back wall of the place and she had swam all the way back through the displays and creased faces of shoppers and her own thoughts.
She stepped through the small clot of folks in line for the register with her eyes and ears on the wall. There was an erratic blast of light from the twenty or so TV sets running back there and their sound clashed and ricocheted off one another. It was almost sinister how it pulled you in. Dolly made her way past all the foreign gadgets lining the lower shelves that ran as corridors to the big money items set behind. She stood before them not so much impressed but delighted that she had her pick of the lot. In her pocket, tumbling through her fingers, was the knot of bills no one knew about but her. Her secret. Someone knew about them. Briar. At least, he knew they were gone, surely. Unfortunately for him, he had gotten the money from stealing the copper wiring and old plumbing out of houses in the middle of construction and couldn't say anything about it missing. At night when Briar thought she was asleep, he would put his stash of bills in the toe of his gator-skin boots that sat collecting dust in the closet. She didn't take all the money, but enough. Just enough to pay some bills and to save up for an emergency.
She stared into the wall of television sets, but she was thinking of her son. Saving the money for an emergency. She was about to spend her savings on a TV. What if something happened to the boy? What if he needed the hospital or something? Then she saw her reflection in one of the screens as it went black. Just for a second to go to a commercial. Dolly could see the line of her breasts sagging from the weight of carrying milk for the boy. She could see the stoop in her shoulders from when she had to carry him a couple miles to the babysitter before she caught a bus across town to clean hotel rooms for five dollars an hour. She could see the lines in her face and the dingy grey in her hair. The boy? She felt a tinge of pain blaming her child for these things, but did he not break the other television? Was it not his mouth that swoll up her nipples and pulled her breasts out of line? Wasn't it the boy who got in all that trouble at school and made her responsible for those hospital bills? Was he not just another in a line of violent men aiming to sap her dry? She was angry and she regretted it. She felt trapped and weak, but it is her child. A child she loved with all her heart, all her being and body. Didn't she sacrifice it for him? She loved him, but she couldn't deny that she didn't want him any more than she could deny how much she loved him. This wasn't a thing she could reconcile. So fuck him, and fuck Briar. She was buying the fucking television.
"That's a good one."
Dolly jumped a bit and looked at the boy standing beside her with no mask for her mistrust.
He smiled, laughed a little. "Didn't mean to scare ya. Sorry."
She smiled and he widened his own smile in response. He was a pretty young man, well groomed. She thought maybe he was a salesman, but he didn't have the blue shirt on like all the others.
"Shopping for a new TV?"
"Yeah," she answered sheepishly.
"Yeah, thats a good one."
He pointed to the set just in front of them. Dolly nodded her head and crossed her arms trying to slowly and secretly prop up her tits.
"I got one a lot like it not too long ago."
"You the salesman," Dolly asked incredulously.
"No," he laughed, "not at all. My name's Martin."
He held out his hand and she shook it reluctantly.
"I'm not a salesman," Martin said.
"Y'sure look like one."
Martin's smile broadened and he ran a couple of manicured fingertips across his freshly shaved cheek. He shuffled his feet and looked at Dolly with his face cast down. She knew he was trying to be cute, and he was, but Dolly knew some sort of pitch was coming.
"No," he said slyly, "I'm not a salesman."
"Yeah," Dolly said absently and focused her attention back on the wall of televisions.
"There are good TVs," he said, "but they're expensive."
Dolly looked at the young man again and tightened her grip on the knot of bills in her pocket.
"Naw," she said.
"Yeah, me neither."
"I bet you ain't hurtin, though," she said looking him over.
"I guess I do alright," Martin said, smiling and shuffling.
"Look," he said, "I know your not stupid, so I'm not going to bullshit you."
"Yr givin yrself away, boy."
"Anybody says they ain't no bullshitter is just that."
Martin gave another sleek simper and shuffled his feet again. He raised his hand to say something else but Dolly didn't give him a chance.
"This ain't my first rodeo," she said. "Don't think I'm gonna fall fr nothin."
Martin laughed. "Oh, I am definitely a bullshitter, ma'am. Indeed. I'm just not going to bullshit you.'
"Now just listen to me. I'm not asking for anything but a few minutes of your time, and you don't have to do anything illegal or dirty or nothing like that.
Dolly didn't say anything. She stopped trying to hold up her tits.
"Now I been watching you just a little bit," Martin went on. "and I've seen the way you look at these TV sets."
Dolly felt a shiver of uneasiness move through her, and she was just about ready to walk away.
"Now I know one of two things. Either you don't do much buying, or you don't have the kind of money that makes buying that TV easy."
Dolly shook her head and wished she could just go back to being anonymous.
"Look," Martin said through a huff of air, "I'm not trying to con you. Point of all this is, you do me a favor and I'll give you $100."
She squinted at him and shifted on her feet.
"What I gotta do," she asked.
"All you gotta do is ask the guy over there for help."
"What?" Dolly barked and shook her head.
"Shhhh," he hissed and looked around. "I'm gonna go over there and talk to him. When you see him hand me a thing out of the case over there, you just come ask him to help you with the TV sets here. That's all."
"Lemme see the money."
Martin slipped a ragged hundred-dollar bill out of his pocket and held it out for her to see.
"You gotta really ask him now. You gotta make sure he comes with you. Even if he tells you to hold on or something, you gotta be a bitch and make him come right then."
"You gonna steal something?"
The look on Martin's face changed and he said, "What I'm doing isn't any of your business. All you have to do is take the money and do the thing."
"I don't want to be-"
"Look, I know I can trust you. You look like you need the money. You play dumb if they say anything to you and your alright. Your not doing anything illegal. Its a hundred bucks for two minutes of your time."
There was a pause. She looked at him long as if she could see something come through, as if the truth were going to show in his face, but she knew men and that they could keep the truth hidden away in places she would never be able to see.
"I just got to get him t'help me?"
"You give me th'money now?"
Martin held out the wrinkled bill.
"Ok," Dolly said softly.
Harlen was lying on his back. He slept like a corpse.Arms down to his side. Toes pointed up. If his mouth didn't hang open and his lips tremble just slightly as he snored, he could have been in a coffin. He was dressed in his white pajamas. From outside the streetlight seeped through the thin curtains and lay softly a blue/grey tint over his skin. Dolly thought he looked almost angelic. It was as if the cool, delicate light of heaven had shown down and bathed her husband as he slept. But, she thought, if he was an angel he was one of the fallen and it was only a testament to his cunning that the lord still shown on him. It wasn't lost on her that the blueish light did not make it to her side of the bed.
For two weeks, he had been after her to sew up his pajamas. He wined and screamed and kept on her, and she honestly tried to remember. It was then, with the thing about the pajamas, that Dolly began to realize that the lies she had been telling herself about their marriage just weren't going to work any more. It was increasingly easy for her, as he complained and threw his tantrums and slapped her around, to forget his needs and desires and all the ridiculous responsibilities she had towards him as his wife. Responsibilities like cooking for him. Like cleaning up after him. Sewing up his fucking pajamas. Just the thought of her husband, these days, put a bad taste in her mouth. The taste, perhaps, of his semen. The taste of his sweat and the fowl chemicals that mixed in with it from his days of working on the highways. She, thinking of him, could taste the asphalt and exhaust of the city. It was the city out there not thinking a lick of her in her dirty death-smelling house. It didn't give a second thought to her as she slops stale beer up off the bar for two dollars an hour and serves drinks. The city stank something awful, and he brought it home on the clothes she had to wash. He brought it home in the sweat that she had to smell and taste whenever the mood struck him. It was getting easier and easier, almost like a reflex, for her to forget all about what he wanted. His fucking pajamas.
Then he showed up that night, stinking of his shine, and tossed the box of safety pins in her lap. She was wavering out of consciousness, having only been home and sitting for a few minutes from her double at the Red Lantern.
"Thar y'go," he said as she looked up at him.
"Thar them pins y'wanted. You c'n fix m'sleepin pants now."
She had told him she needed safety pins to sew up the busted seat of his pajamas, but it had been more as a way to stall him and shut him up. She could sew them up without the pins, but then again, so could he.
"I ain't got time t'night," she said through the house to him in the bathroom.
He was silent. There was only the deep tinkle of his piss hitting the water of the toilet.
"I'm plumb tuckered 'n I still gotta do laundry fr t'morrow."
Still, he said nothing. She lowered her head into her hands trying to wipe the long day from her head. She didn't realize that she was mumbling to herself. That must have been why she didn't hear him walking back into the living room.
"You know-" she said as she looked up and was stopped short, for Harlen was standing right in front of her staring down at her.
"I didn ask if you's tard, Darlanetta," he said gently and slapped her hard against her cheek.
She recoiled against the blow and looked back at him.
"And I didn ask whatcha hadda do," Harlen continued and raised his hand again.
Dolly flinched, but he did not slap her again.
"Now I been askin you fr long enough t'sew up them pants. I want'em done t'night."
So she did it. She is his wife, he is the father of her dead child, and she has a responsibility. Getting ready for bed, she could see that responsibility in the mirror. A swollen, reddened cheek. Dark circles under her eyes. Lines, even at twenty, forming around her mouth and in her forehead. She could see that wife in the mirror and the ghost of herself, a child, lingered back buried deep in that strange flesh she lathered desperately in cold cream.
Then it was past three in the morning and she was still staring at her husband snoring in the seraphic streetlight. The aspirins had worn off and the dull throb had returned to her cheek. She held her hand over it and felt the heat of the swollen tissue. She had never said the words “never again” to herself, much less out loud to any who had asked where one of her bruises had come from. She was afraid to say it. She was afraid because she knew it wouldn't be true and her saying it would somehow solidify the weakness she felt. The helplessness. She never said it, but as she slid out of bed with this idea in her head, never again was what pushed her along.
The house was dark except for the gold-tinged light that bubbled out of the bathroom toward the back of the house. It put a faint reverse shadow on everything. The bathroom itself always felt wet and the musty smell that never succumbed to the bleach she poured on it constantly had soaked into every corner of the house. Standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom running her hands lightly over her sore cheek, she let the smell fill up her nose. It felt like this was the end of everything, and she felt a bit nostalgic about that smell now. But nostalgia, and that smell, they weren't going to hold her long tonight.
She left out of the bathroom. The image of her cheek, and the countless bruises and swellings and cuts of the months past, were held firm in her head. She walked back toward the front of the house and the bedroom. There was no sound save the now-subdued rumble of Harlen's snoring. She was aware of each step her feet took across the matted-down shag.
Dolly stopped at the front door. To the left of the door was an old milk canister that may have been used for umbrellas or canes in some houses, but in the Crabtree household, it held only Justice. That was an aluminum baseball bat Harlen had had for years. He liked to show it off to folks that came over to the house. He was always sure to point out a small greyish bit of material embedded in the aluminum near the end of the bat. Apparently, that was his father's tooth implanted there. Dolly slid the bat out slowly and deliberately and turned toward the bedroom. On the way, she slid the plastic cube of safety pins from the corner of the television set where she had left them earlier after sewing up Harlen's pajamas.
Harlen was still on his back, his arms and legs flat, lying like a corpse. Dolly slid in beside him as softly and gently as she could. She pulled one of the pins out of the package and fumbled it around her fingers. She thumbed the pin open and tested the point against her own skin. She looked at it a long time as it twinkled in the sparse light.
"This one's fr the time at the lake," she whispered to Harlen very faintly.
As she stuck the pin through the loose flap of his shirt cuff, she remembered a trip they had made to the lake not long after they were married. Harlen had gotten too drunk and couldn't get it up as they lay on the shore watching the sunset. Something in Dolly made her laugh. She didn't really think it was all that funny. She didn't know exactly what she was laughing at, but she gave a little giggle, and he hit her.
"This one's fr New Years," she said and slid another pin through the cuff just a bit down from the first one.
Harlen didn't wake up until the bat was pressed against his balls.
"What the fuck," he screamed.
Dolly had let the fat end of the bat drop between his legs and then tucked it up under his crotch like it was shovel with a heavy load of dirt. When Harlen jerked awake and screamed, she was standing over him. She wasn't smiling.
"The hell er you doin, Darlanetta," Harlen asked.
He had tried to get up out the way of his wife and the bat, but he couldn't move. He looked about to see what the problem was and that was when the fear really set in. About every half inch or so, there was a safety pin attaching his pajamas to the mattress so that a metallic seam ran around the edge of his body. The cloth of his pajamas was crumpled up enough to keep him secured tight to the bed. He had no leverage to pull out of the simple clasps. He was trapped.
"What're y'doin Darlanetta," he asked again.
She didn't answer him. He tried to make eye contact with her, but she wasn't looking at him. He could see right into her eyes, but they weren't looking back. They were looking through him to the other side of whatever horribly final thing she was about to do, and what she was about to do was simple. She raised the bat over her head. Her body was shaking. Harlen made another attempt to escape. They both heard some fabric rip a bit, but he still couldn't free himself. She brought the bat down and the tip of it landed hard into his ribcage. The breaking of bone was audible. Harlen screamed out and tried to clutch his side, but the seam of pins held him tight against the mattress. Dolly thought for a second that she should stop. That if she stopped right then things could still be okay. Instead, she swung the bat again. This time the bat came down on Harlen's hip just beside his cock which had released it's contents. A wide, wet patch formed around his crotch and through it. Tinged by the brightening sky outside, she could see the outline of his cock. The bat crushed his hip, and then there was blood mixing with the urine. Harlen wasn't yelling anymore, but sort of whimpering and thrashing against his bonds. There were tears coming out of his eyes and running back in and pooling in the sockets with sweat. Dolly brought the bat down again and again. She broke both his arms and most the rest of his ribs and soon he wasn't moving much at all.
She stopped. She watched him twitch and gurgle up blood and still she said to herself if she stopped right now it could still be okay. Then she said those words, those long forbidden words and they brought the bat down again. The blow crushed Harlen's jaw. He tried to start yelling again but all that came out was a steady ooze of blood and teeth and splintered bone. One more blow, she brought it down, and his forehead caved in. He didn't move or talk or scream or kiss or fuck or hit anything ever again.
Darlanetta pulled into the parking lot, gravel popping like a boiling pot under the Chevy's bald tires. She circled around back of the small, stucco building, pulled in next to a truck twice as big as her car, and pushed the column shifter into park. She turned the ignition back while taking a drag from the short remains of her cigarette, and as the engine rumbled to a halt, exhaled the ballooning grey smoke in a hissing rush of air. She smiled in the silence. She let her head lean back against the seat and took one final drag and let the smoke roll gently from her lips while quietly humming the syncopated crescendo of her favorite song: Champagne Jam. She tossed the smoldering butt out the window and it bounced off the fender of the white F-350 parked next to her. With a lazy, weaving fingertip she lowered the smudged rearview mirror so that she could see the red, white, and blue box that took up the bulk of the backseat. The television had cost her twenty dollars, thanks to the finely dressed young Martin. She thought she had played it very cool once the clerk realized the young man had absconded with what Dolly assumed was some very expensive equipment despite the very dramatic scene the pimply, high-strung boy was creating. For her part, no one was the wiser. To celebrate, she was going to have a beer, or two or three.
She double-checked the car doors to make sure they were locked against anyone eyeing her new television. She even looked back with pride once she had moved away a few feet as if looking back on a lover to see if the box looked as impressive from the back as it did from the driver's seat. She was very proud of herself and she let it be known with an extra little swing in her hips. She'd gone from humming her song to whistling it and deciding that just wasn't good enough, sang a bit of the chorus to carry her through to the front door.
"Dolly!" Wynette Mercer called from the bar. "Get on over here stranger."
"Hey Wynette," Dolly said, pulling out leather-covered stool next to her friend.
Despite the brightness of the early afternoon sun, the Rock House was dark and moody, almost gloomy, except for the rollick of the Temptations coming from the jukebox and the frenetic blitz of the christmas lights strung along the molding of the room. They danced weakly in the reflection of the tiny disco balls hanging over the bar, a budget dance party that never seemed to get going. Despite his best effort Hal Rockingham had not been able to make his bar the sensation he had envisioned it being twelve years ago when he opened it, but it didn't stop him from trying. Luckily for him, he was an old local boy, and all his friends kept him in business.
"Whatcha thirsty fr, Dolly? Usual?"
"Yeah, git me a Bud, Hal."
"Ain seen you in a month'o'sundies, Dolly. Where ya been," Hal asked as he popped the top off of the bottle and slid it to her, but then the phone rang and he walked away to answer it at the other end of the bar.
"Whatcha been up too, friend," Wynette asked.
Dolly could tell she had been drinking for a while. Her head loped up and down and her eyelids drifted. She had taken out her false teeth and her lower lip stuck out almost resting against the base of her nose. She took her teeth out if she planned on drinking to get drunk, for one night she passed out and her teeth came loose and almost choked her to death.
"I been around," Dolly said, smiling at her drunk friend. "Ain't had much money t'come out."
"Thank god fr guverment," Wynette slurped and tapped the bottom of her beer on the bar and lifted to her mouth and slurped down a healthy mouthful.
Dolly nodded and followed suit.
"Don't know what I'd do if I didn have no welfare," Wynette said. "Charlie sure's'ell didn leave nothin b'hind but bills - ooooh, I love this song!"
She raised both her hands up, her bottle tinking against one of the miniature disco balls, and started gyrating on her stool with her eyes closed and a wide, toothless, close-lipped smile twitching under her creased nose. Dolly laughed out loud and drank and shuffled her head from side to side. She vaguely remembered the song from when the two of them were in highschool.
Hal came walking back from the phone scribbling on one of the green ticket pads. He stuck his head through the door beside the beer cooler and yelled at Joker, the fry cook, that he had an order and he slapped the ticket on an unseen table.
"How's yr boy doin," he asked returning to his only customers.
"He's gettin along."
"How long till he's out?"
"He done got out," Dolly said, still nodding absently to the music. She took a sip from the bottle and started fishing her cigarettes out of her purse.
"Yeah. Few days ago."
"Hell yeah," Wynette said, her stool dancing having calmed to tapping the rhythm out on the heavily polyurethaned oak of the bar.
"He stayin outta trouble so far?"
Hal poured himself a shot of bourbon from a bottle he kept for himself under the bar.
"So far. Don't stay round th'house much."
"They never do," Wynette said.
"Boys will be boys," Hal said and tossed the liquor into the back of his throat.
"I caint keep up with'im," Dolly said, muffled by the cigarette in her mouth.
"Guess ol Briar's gonna hafta come outta hiding and set that boy straight."
"Oh, honey, he already is."
"Wynette, he's gonna moved back inna th'house an everthing."
All three of them looked to the back of the bar. In the doorway Joker, a tall, bug-eyed black man, stood wiping some unknown substance off of the ticket Hal had just handed him.
"What they wont on this burger, man? I cain't read yo writin f'shit."
"Hey Joke," Dolly said and waved her cigarette at him.
"Hey there, Dar'netta," he said and smiled wide.
"Just make it all th'way, Joker. It's fr Jim Harbrough."
"Aight," Joker said, nodding in recognition and scribbling over the ticket with the nub of a grease pencil he had tucked behind his ear. He looked back up at Dolly and Wynette and nodded again and they both waved back coyly.
"Damn, he's a good lookin nigger," Wynette said once he had disappeared back behind the wall.
"Not bad a'tall," Dolly agreed and finished off her beer.
"Briar'd skin yr hide he heard that shit," Hal said. He uncapped another beer and set it in front of Dolly.
"Hell, like he ever needed a reason," Dolly said.
Hal shook his head and poured himself another shot.
Wynette elbowed her friend as she slurped down the last of her beer and nodded toward the kitchen.
"Hey Joker," she yelled.
"Hey Joker, come'ere."
"Y'gonna make me burn m'food," Joker grumbled coming from around the corner.
"Hey Joker," Wynette said again, her lidded eyes not registering he was standing in the doorway.
"What," he said impatiently.
"You ever hit yr girl?"
"Leave'im alone," Hal said, leaning against the bar with a smile on his face.
"Hell naw," Joker said shaking his head.
"Nope," he said assuredly.
"Well," Dolly said stubbing out her cigarette. "Whatcha do when that bitch gits outta line?"
Both the girls laughed and drank and Hal shook his head.
"Hell, Dolly. I do what any man should do in that situation."
"Oh really," she said mockingly with big eyes. "What's that, Joke."
"I fuck th'shit out of'er!"
All four of them busted out in laughter, drowning out the jukebox, and Wynette spilled a bit of her beer.
"That so," she said, mopping up the beer with a cocktail napkin.
"Only thing'll shut'er up, I tell ya."
Another round of laughter was cut short when the backdoor opened and a shotgun blast of light cut through the dark and the smoke. Joker recognized Jim Harbrough walking through the door and was reminded that he had burgers on the grill. He smiled at his friends and quickly ducked back into the kitchen.
"Hey Jim," Hal said and started walking toward the other end of the bar.
Wynette elbowed her friend and winked, and Dolly elbowed back.
Jim laid a bill on the cash register for Hal and continued on around the bar to the two ladies.
"Hidy," he said to Wynette and tipped his hat. "Hello Darlanetta."
"Hidy, neighbor," Dolly said and smiled and held her beer up to him.
"Yall neighbors," Wynette asked, surprised.
Dolly turned and nodded. "Jim lives across th'street from me."
"How 'bout that," Wynette said and giggled.
Dolly kicked her under the bar and glared at her and shook her head.
"Food ain't quite ready, Jim," Hal said apologetically.
"S'ok, Jim. Tell Joker take his time. I already missed th'bus."
Jim's voice was soft and low. He wasn't the kind of guy who looked you in the eye unless he was talking to you. He was tall and thick, but not fat by any means. His dark, short hair was peppered grey, but the permanent stubble across his cheek had yet to turn. He looked down at Dolly and smiled and slowly took a seat next to her.
"Y'doin alright, Darlanetta," he asked.
"Oh, I'm fine Jim. Just havin a drink."
"Yes ma'am. Fine day for a drink."
"Indeeed," Wynette slurred.
Joker came around the corner of the kitchen with a white paper bag already beginning to splotch with grease. Jim nodded and said, "Thankee, Joke."
"You betcha, Jim. You hava goodn."
Hal set down a thin stack of bills for change next to the paper sack.
"Missed yr bus, huh," Dolly said and sipped out the last of her beer. She waved Hal off when he went to fetch another.
"Yeah," Jim said slowly. "Ain't another one for an hour."
"Y'need a lift?"
"I don't wanna break up th'party," Jim said and motioned around the empty bar.
"I'm ready t'go anyhow."
"Well," Jim said, looking up at Hal and then down at his hands. He reached out and scooped up his change and folded it slowly in his hands as if deliberating some very important question. "If yr going anyway."
"Ain't no trouble?"
"Not a'tall, Jim," Dolly said with a smile.
"Alright then," he said.
He shoved the money in his pocket and gathered up the paper sack in the crook of his arm. Dolly slid out of the stool and slung her purse over her shoulder.
"Y'gonna be alright, Wynette," she asked as she when she saw her friend fading into sleep.
Her eyes popped open and she grabbed at her beer.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she blurted out. "Dill's comin t'git me when he gets off work."
"Alright, darlin," Dolly said and turned back toward Jim. "Let's go."
They walked out side by side, Jim opening the door for her while he slid on a pair of sunglasses and then followed her out. In the car Jim set his food between his feet in the floorboard and put his seatbelt on. He looked over his shoulder at the sizable box in the backseat.
"Y'git a present?"
Dolly smiled and started the car and put it into reverse.
"Yep. New TV."
"Looks like a nice one," he said as she pulled the car out onto the boulevard.
"Got it cheap though."
They both lit a cigarette at the stoplight. Down Every Road came on the radio and they both began to nod to the lumbering rhythm. The car lurching forward with the green light seemed to shake words out of Jim.
"Seen yr boy was home," he said flicking ashes out the window.
"Yeah. Few days now. "
"You and Briar gettin along alright?"
Dolly shook her head, surprised by the question. "Much as we ever did."
"Guess that's good."
"What brought him around all of a sudden? I saw'im th'other night."
Dolly flipped her ashes out the window and turned the radio down a bit to hear him better.
"Boy, I guess."
"Figures he's gonna set'im straight."
"Little late, if y'ask me."
"I don't expect him t'come back, though."
They both looked at each other and Jim squirmed at seeing the hurt in Dolly's eyes.
"I couldn jus tell'im he couldn, y'know."
"I know, Dolly."
"It's his house too."
"I know," Jim said emphatically, and Dolly closed her mouth, cutting off what she was going to say next.
They drove on in silence and smoked. Jim let his cigarette roll between his fingers, the ashes fluttering on the heat of the cherry and then snapping away into the air. The need to say more sat heavy on his brain, but he didn't know what to say. He wished she would just say something, even to change the subject. Something to let him know it was OK between them, but she remained silent. He couldn't tell if the hurt he felt from her was just his imagination or not.
She pulled the car into the driveway in the same silence. She turned off the ignition and slid the shifter into park and neither got out.
"I didn't mean t'pry, Darlanetta," Jim said finally.
"It's alright," she said, nodding. "I shouldn take it like that. You's jus askin."
"Well," he said looking around and his eyes stopping on the box in the back seat. "Can I help y'carry that monster inside."
She looked up at him, smiling delicately.
"That'd be nice, Jim."