You are reading Fiddleblack #6
Before winter sets in, people around here start to get anxious. Crops need to be harvested, and farmers, like the one I work for, push through those bustling days with hopes of turning a profit, which is rare. Most people just break even, like the stones the frost pushes through the earth. Winter comes and freezes the ground, life and the occasional secret while people sink into misery and habits and try not to look at the calendar too often as if they’ve forgotten that eventually, the ground will thaw and their secrets will sprout from the darkness.
When I was a kid, right before winter, my dog and I used to bury things together. In the spring, after the first good thaw, we’d head out into the woods and try to find what we’d buried. When the dog died, and it was him I had to bury, I didn’t get so eager to push my fingers into the ground after the thaw. I’ve spent my life burying things, watching them grow and get bigger like a desire that won’t stop reaching for the light, even in the dark.
It was late fall the first time I saw her. She was in the back of the bar, her ass pushed up against a pool table. She wore a short green dress the color of moss and lichen, the color blending so efficiently to her as if she were already in the grave. She lifted her leg up on the table and covered the corner pocket with her thigh, leaning the cue in her left hand against the floor to brace herself. The man she was with smashed his mouth against her neck and she tipped the drink in her right hand, spilling it onto the felt. She worked her right foot in a circle and her flat bottom shoe fell to the marred carpet stained and moist with decades of ignored spillage. The guy next to me muttered about what a whore she was. The people here have a thing for labels, especially concerning other people. In a town like this, people do what they have to, to pass the time, and in the same breath repeat the state mantra, the way life should be.
A song came on the juke box, Moondance, and she dropped her leg from the table and toed her foot back into her shoe. She pranced around the bar, belting out the lyrics—and I’m trying to please to the calling of your heartstrings that play soft and low. She passed a patch of light from the desk lamp the bartender kept by the register. She had a fat lip. The edge of her nose beside her eye was bruised, a shade of purple a little darker than her hair. She was good looking despite that, and she had a better voice, but it was obvious that everyone in there had heard it before. Nothing special, something that wouldn’t be missed for a few years until someone heard that song again and asked, Remember that girl who used to sing? Whatever happened to her? The guy she was necking with smelled the tips of his fingers and smiled. He stuck them in his whiskey and stirred it around.
She squinted her eyes when she sang. For a few moments I wondered how she got the black eye. She moved closer to me, probably because I was alone, unable to pretend to engage in a conversation topic like the ones around me—the town’s deer population problem, high school football, who gave who herpes. I pulled the brim of my hat lower. I didn’t go out to bars much, and I talked to people even less. Something about her kept me posted there against the bar sipping the lukewarm Labatt that the bartender had on special, two for one.
“Hi,” the girl said.
She told me her name, and I’d heard it before in conversations at other bars. She asked for mine.
“Oscar,” I told her.
“Like Oscar Wilde?”
“What’s your middle name?”
“Oscar Birmingham White? Sounds like the name of a kindergarten teacher or someone who’ll kill the president.” The girl repeated my name, and I wasn’t fond of the way she did it, snapping her head from side to side and tapping out each syllable on the bar. “You want a shot?”
“No. Thank you.”
She ordered two shots of Jameson and pushed one over to me.
“I said I didn’t want this.”
“I’m a button pusher,” she said.
“Don’t be a faggot. Drink it.”
I took the shot and let it stick to the back of my throat. It burned into my lungs and I choked off a gag.
“Have you read any Oscar Wilde?”
I’d read an assortment of his work. I liked him immensely, but mostly because he was the only famous person I knew of who shared my name. Another song came on the radio as I was about to answer. The girl scrunched her face at me as she started singing and slipped from her bar stool.
The next morning, I woke up earlier than normal. It was still dark when I went out to the fields on Myer’s Farm, an organic co-op that milled with vegans and overzealous, part-time botanists who marveled at the stringy, parched plants they produced. I didn’t make much money pulling weeds and pushing seeds, but there’s a certain splendor in harvesting something you put in the ground, like a wish that comes true.
I saw the girl a few nights later at a diner where she worked. She didn’t recognize me when she slapped a plate of hash and eggs on the table. Her eye was healing, and the swelling in her lip had faded. The eggs were broken and the hash was cold. In some places, food is a representation of the people who make it.
“You look familiar,” she said. “Have I met you before?”
I shook my head.
She bit her lip. “I don’t know. There’s something about you, but my memory is all fucked up from my car accident.” She tapped her pen against her small note pad. “What’s your name?”
I took an oversized bite of toast. “Oscar,” I answered.
“That’s a peculiar name.”
“It seems to be. I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She shrugged and pulled the check from her apron. “You’re kind of a creeper, aren’t you?”
“I prefer, introvert,” I told her.
“Puh-tay-toe, puh-tau-toe. You can pay at the register.”
I took the check and brought it to the counter. She’d drawn a heart on the back of it and signed her name. The girl went to a different table with a forced smile.
I saw the girl several times over the next week or so. She spent most of her time in a continuous cycle of work, going to the bar and stumbling home or even driving. On some nights I tried to talk to her, but she was always too imbibed or focused on the man who walked her home or tucked her into the front seat of his car.
After a while, it began to present itself to me, that I might want to take her home one of those nights, that I wanted to know what sort of pleasure surged through her when a man took her—why she couldn’t choose just one. I resolved to believe they couldn’t satisfy her and I began to imagine all the ways that I could, that perhaps I could help her end the turmoil she was obviously suffering.
I managed to be at a lot of the same places she went and I learned her favorite songs and eavesdropped on her conversations. She’d hopped trains, her greatest passion, and was only a few weeks away before she headed back out on one.
The night we left the bar together I’d been waiting for her to show up. I played an hour and a half of her favorite songs and took the credit for it when she giddily asked who’d played them. She looked happy. I started buying her drinks. She had a shot of whiskey at her fingertips for the rest of the night.
“What are you doing after this?” I asked her just before the bar closed.
“I don’t know. What are you doing, besides being a creeper?”
She had a way of plowing her opinions into the air. I’d seen her get like that toward the end of some of those nights. An anger came from her that was fueled by some dark, hurtful thing in her past that might have allowed her to be a different woman if it hadn’t happened. She’d buried things to keep them hidden, secret. I could understand that.
“I was wondering if you’d like to go down to the reservoir. It’s a clear night, and there’s supposed to be a meteor shower.” I told her.
“Yeah? That’s cool. I live down by there. You could drop me off at my place.”
When we got to the reservoir, I pulled the beer cooler from my trunk. She took one before I had a chance to offer and sat on the hood of my car. Moonlight skipped off the water onto her legs and I reached out to touch her knee.
“So that’s why you brought me out here.”
“No. Not really.”
“Whatever. Be patient. I want to see a shooting star.”
“Are you going to make a wish?”
“What are you going to wish for?”
“For the world to end.” She gulped her beer. “What would you wish for?” She looked over at me with a blank expression, her middle finger seductively tracing figure eights on her thigh.
We made love. My pelvis tamped gently against her while she clenched her eyes like it was some sort of punishment. Right before I finished, in the reflection on the windshield, I watched that shooting star she’d been waiting for streak across the sky and I knew that I would never be that guy who asked, Whatever happened to that girl? I let her slip out from under me and watched her fumble with her pants, pulling them on as if she were dragging some immense weight over her legs. I told her she didn’t have to behave the way she did with men anymore, that I could make whatever it was that made her hate herself go away. She got mad at me, yelled, and stormed off into the woods. I followed her.
The light of the hunter’s moon let through the branches where I knelt over her. She had this cold look about her. Her eyes were cloudy, like a mist had come to settle over the horrible things she’d seen in the world. She looked like she was finally at peace, but there was still a hint of anger in her eyes, betrayal. I didn’t speak, just brushed some of the hair from her face and sat there looking at her for a long time. I left before the sun came. I promised myself that in the spring, when the ground thawed, I’d head back out there to see her again.
Joe Ricker is a former bartender, innkeeper, and cab driver currently teaching English. Esquire referred to him as “a man of letters who’s gentle in the way that only the toughest hard-asses can be.” His fiction has appeared in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers, The Hangover, Rose & Thorn Journal, The Opiate, and Thuglit.