You are reading Fiddleblack #3
Cops run up and down this winding stretch of Kentucky country. Jolene drives slowly. She cracks the window for a cigarette dip. January shocks her mistoothed, drawn-up mouth, and she holds in a cough. Curves of light swirl through the glass of her half-primer, half-blue Pontiac. Pine trees line muddy hillsides, and bales of hay lie cozy on unworked land. Knowing that she’s owned the road, alone, for a good ten minutes, she slumps in her seat and takes it in. She’s early but just in time to avoid the school buses, the kids, the flying middle fingers. Her kids don’t ride the bus. Once her mother told her: “The way to prison should at least be warm.”
Jolene had already dropped Courtney off. She adjusts the rearview mirror to see Chelsea soundly in a car seat covered in sticky milk. She waits for the curve to end and unbuckles herself. She shifts her cigarette to her steering-wheel hand and reaches back. The bottle on the salty floor board is unreachable. She’d forgotten to pack a diaper bag on her way out this morning. If she’s lucky, Chelsea will sleep through the trip.
One more mile. Turner’s trailer is easy to find. Just a hard time on a few steep hollers. Her husband’s on unemployment because construction’s down. She needs to run to the stamp office after this trip. She hates that damn office, and it’s too fucking bad Jessie Turner don’t take stamps. She inhales another draw and watches the last trailers lined across the mountainside, smoke off their tops. Her own trailer is nice. Central heat. And as soon as she cashes her refund check, she’ll pay her rent and her back-rent and whatever else she owes him. She makes it to the top of the hill. Not a sound from baby. Old Jessie Turner. Motherfucker. Jolene hopes he’s up doing business this morning. She’ll have to come back if not, which means asking Jessie for gas money. She decides to leave the car running to keep Chelsea warm. She can’t bring her in, and getting inside is hard enough with a maze of chicken coops and potholes and shit. She gets out, shuts the door. She walks to the porch, turns around, stands tip-toe. Is baby okay—yes, she is okay. She turns again, faces the porch door and waits a second before knocking, wishing that Jessie would peek out of the window like he usually does. Jolene shivers, only a flannel on her arms. Turner looks out of the window, and Jolene figures he’s holding a rifle. But when the door flies open, nothing is pointed at her but his long and skinny old speckled nose.
“What the hell are you doing out this early. You lost your fucking mind, Jolene?” He steps aside and lets her enter, talking fast and getting nervous. Jolene sits down on a couch that smells like piss. She rubs her hands together: “I got a lot to do to, she replies, and Lonnie’s home and mad as hell.”
“I got two cases of Bud that I can put on your tab, but you got debt, old girl.” Jessie scratches his head and spits tobacco into a corn can. “You owe me, and so does your girl, and she can pay any way she wants.”
“I ain’t seen Courtney in weeks. Run off again”
“Hell, she’s your girl still, ain’t she.”
“Turner, I ain’t here for myself. I came to get Lonnie’s Bud and to tell you that them income taxes orta be here in a few days. I’ll come in and pay up. You know I can. I’m good.”
Jessie hands over the cases of beer. “Hey, you want a oxy cotton,” he yells as she leaves. “Cunt.”
Dragging the cases to the car takes a lot of effort for a little shrunken woman, broken by the land, and sore like herself.
Florescent lights. She stops in the women’s clothing section and looks at a soft white sweater. She runs her hands over the fabric, picks up the price tag, blows air at it. No. She makes it to the girls’ junior clothing and spots a purple dress that Courtney would love. Can’t have it. The store is quiet. Browsing in a clearance bin gives her a sense of peace. She can afford what’s on special, sales left from summer. A potbellied, sweaty man passes by, wet heavy breaths. Jolene had noticed him watching her finger the dress. Think about Jesus. Remember that song we used to sing that you loved about Jesus dying on the cross? Jolene begins singing to herself, “Oh, how can it be, that Jesus died for one like me,” and again the fat man passes.
Tennis shoes. That’s what she’d come for anyway. She’s not owned a new pair in years. A walking shoe. Maybe she could start walking around the track at the high school. Maybe look nice. That would make her feel good. Jolene sits down to try them on, and as she pulls off her withered man’s boots, she knows it all again. “Got to fight this. Lonnie’s going to give me money. Friday. I can wait.” She takes the new shoes from the box. She remains seated on the mirror stool. Another woman browsing the rack pushes Jolene’s buggy out of the way, into the stool. Jolene drops her old boots in the box and places it on the shelf. She snaps the tennis shoes apart, slips her feet in. Ties them. Gearing up for a run.
Snow begins to fall, and it makes her feel clean. “His love, how can it be, He should die for one like me? Thorns crown His regal head. In my stead. Living Word among the dead. This, the price for me.” Jolene sings this over and over again, lighter as she takes on the most dangerous curve on the highway. She likes the thrill having a body. How it could float severed over the guardrail if she hit just right. As she slows for another turn, she rolls down the window and breathes in the wood smoke. Her eyes water. The reflection of snow and sun and her thirty-nine years of life and there’s always been the good and bad and the ups and downs and her car kicks hard, pulling Turner’s hill again. Stark death of surrounding nature. It eases her spirit and she treads gently, through Turner’s yard, and the sounds and smell of chickens remind her of childhood. She fiddles with the roll of money in her pocket and looks yonder to the white-tipped pines encasing the mountain lot. Sunlight beams against them as Jolene takes more dips and banks, blending easy and slow and still alive into the bleak countryside.
Deana Nantz holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in literature from Eastern Kentucky University where she teaches modern drama. She writes fiction, poetry, and reviews, which have appeared in Paradigm, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Jelly Bucket, and Aurora.