You are reading Fiddleblack #20
By mid-morning I was in Chattanooga, eating breakfast at City Café, where they start serving liquor at eight AM. I had a Gordon’s and grapefruit with my corned beef hash, ordered a few more, caught a buzz and figured I’d stay in town a little longer; Tennessee was playing Florida that afternoon, so why not catch that somewhere. Maybe I’d still make it to Cocoa Beach by midnight, could be a job and a girl there for me––I’d kept telling myself this, and I’d started thinking it was true.
My Jeep was loaded. Anything I wasn’t able to fit had gone in the trash. Jessie would’ve told me to donate the excess to the Samaritan Center, sell the furniture or something. But no, I just kept a Rubbermaid full of my best clothes––with one of those Wrangler snap-buttoned shirts with rose vines snaking across the breast––some bedding and a box of old CDs and records and paperbacks I’d probably never read. I had $632.73 in my bank account. After City Café I had $612.20.
I left there and parked on Rossville Avenue, put on my sharpest coat, a tweed houndstooth blazer I got on sale at Dillard’s, a slick pair of Ray-Bans Jessie bought me one birthday and headed to T-Bones. The air was fall-cool, and you could see Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, spotted red and gold.
A man walked into the bar tugging this little Mexican woman by the wrist. He had a soul patch and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey under a long, oilcloth coat, a fresh-looking pair of shitkickers with thorny rose-vine stitching up the sides––just like my shirt. So I knew he was cool. I sat at the end of the bar by the window, watching the leaves fly around. There was a big flatscreen TV above the liquor bottles, showing the pregame, but I just couldn’t quit looking at all those leaves. I ordered a Coors and thought of Cocoa Beach, the hotels, seafood restaurants and good bars with daiquiri dispensers, all different colors and flavors.
My phone buzzed. It was D’Arcy King; I’d worked with her at the marina in Loudon, welding those big galvanized skeletons of boathouses. Make it okay? the screen said. I put the phone back in my pocket. I didn’t need any of that. I’d taken up with D’Arcy when things got real bad and the Wellbutrin wasn’t cutting it. She was the one who’d convinced me to get myself looked at. I’d already tried religion. I’d gotten saved back when I was a boy, but I didn’t stay that way. D’Arcy King, she was a respite. But when Jessie found out about us, she came down to the marina and caused a scene. That was the end of my job and both women.
Driving down from Loudon I’d thrown that bottle of pills out the window, right off that bridge crossing the Hiwassee River. Let some sorry bastard snag the thing fishing, might do him some good.
In T-Bones, that man and his Mexican woman sat next to me, and he ordered two shots of Patrón. But the bartender told him he couldn’t serve her, so the man settled for just the one shot and the Mexican woman screamed at the bartender, saying he was a fag and that she wasn’t drunk and so forth and the bartender told her he’d have her thrown out quicker than shit through a goose and I lifted a hand and said, “It’s all right, chief, we’ll keep her in line,” and I winked at the man in the rose-vine shitkickers. The man asked me if I’d really just said I was going to keep his lady in line, and I said, “Well, I guess I did.” His lady dropped her head on the bartop.
“I met her yesterday at Chester Frost,” the man said. “Taking her back with me to Tampa.”
I told the man I was Florida-bound too.
“She’s the best lay I ever had and she’s never seen salt water,” he said.
This man was from out of town, but he clearly had people in Chattanooga.
The bartender said, “Brent, next time you drag a sad case in here––”
“How about this,” I said. “We’ll take her out for some fresh air.”
He said it wasn’t such a bad idea, and I introduced myself. Since we were both headed for Florida, might have something to talk about. Out in the cool air, on Rossville Avenue, she stood between Brent and me, our arms all locked in a three person-chain. Then Brent said, “Oh Lord, Oh Jesus, God help me––she’s pissed herself. Here we go.”
“First time you’ve had a lady friend piss herself?” I said.
“I don’t know where she lives,” he said. “I got to get her home, wherever that is. Get her a new set of pants.”
“She won’t know how to get there, not right now,” I said. “There’s gotta be a Wal-Mart somewhere. Somewhere with pants.”
“Ain’t paying for any pants,” he said. “And we gotta get the panties too. I’m not having anyone with wet panties. Are we? Are we, Ruth? We’re not having anyone with wet panties. She doesn’t have any money.”
“One thing is, my Jeep’s loaded up,” I said.
“That’s all right, I got room in the truck.”
This was an old lifted 1980s F-150, brown, with an aluminum cap. Two guitar cases sat in the truck bed, plus a Fender amplifier and a single duffel bag. Brent told Ruth, “All right, in you go.” He got behind her, took her by the hips and just guided her up into the truck bed; he got her belly flat on the tailgate, and then took her by the ankles and slid her on in there.
“Jesus,” I said. “She can pile in front with us.”
“Not when she’s wet like that,” he said.
I went over to my Jeep and grabbed a quilt. I asked Ruth to please get out of that truck bed, and she looked over at Brent. Brent shook his head and walked off, and I helped her slide out and wrapped her in the quilt. “Here,” I said. “This’ll keep your seat from getting wet.”
“I can’t handle any of this,” Brent said, and he stuck his nose in the air and breathed in real deep. “All right, good Samaritan. You win. You see that, Ruth? He wins. He won one for you. What have you won today?”
We drove into that lowbuilt part of town near the Georgia line where all the Mexicans live. Ruth kept pointing to this house, and that house. Her eyes were just glowing with tears. She was young, maybe twenty. There was a crescent scar along the side of her neck as though she’d had some big operation.
She pointed at a squat pink stucco house on a corner with the sprinkler going in front, and a little boy and girl, neither of them any taller than my hip, were racing around through the sprays. She told us to stop here, this was it.
We brought her along a beaten dirt path to the front steps, and she banged on the door. A man in a purple dress shirt unbuttoned to the belly opened the door and said: “Baby girl.” He was baldheaded and had a fat jaw framed in a square goatee. He couldn’t have been much older than Ruth. Brent and I introduced ourselves. His name was Hector. Hector asked us to sit, and then he led Ruth through a hall into the back of the house.
“This isn’t my fault,” Brent said. “I didn’t get her in the shape she’s in.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” I said. “Old Hector looks like a real nice cat.”
Hector came back into the living room with three Budweisers. I heard the shower going in back, and through the doorway into the kitchen, I saw a woman in a pink bathrobe shuffling back and forth. “She doesn’t speak English,” Hector said. Brent turned the Budweiser bottle up and set it down half-empty on the coffee table.
Hector told Brent, “My sister, she’s got a problem. She lives in Patton Towers; it’s rough in there, man. I give her money sometimes, but she just gets drunk.”
“She’s young,” I said.
“I think she’s on the spectrum,” Hector said. “Something’s bad loose in there.”
“I wasn’t trying to take advantage,” Brent said. “She’s sweet as can be. You talk like a white man.”
Ruth came in wrapped in a towel, long hair combed all to the side, rich and wet and deep- black. She kissed Hector’s bald head. “You ought to nap real quick,” he told her.
She shook her head. “I get drunk quick. I recover quick. I have a fast system.”
“Get back there and put something on,” he said. “Alma’s got plenty to pick from.”
Ruth kissed Hector again. Brent said, “Hi buttercup,” but she went in back. Brent told
Hector, “Know why she likes me? I’m a musician.”
“Hey, I play, too” Hector said. “It’s open mic night at Tito’s in Fort Oglethorpe. Come out and show us what you got. What’s your story?”
“Traveling,” I said. “Cocoa Beach. Gonna live by the ocean.”
“Now there’s something,” he said. “Miami. Pretty ladies, all at mojito bars. What do you call those hotels? Deco. Pricey though, if you want to live good.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe later for Miami.”
Ruth came back in, denim dress on with little bitty sunflowers for buttons, and sat on the lounger, running her hands over her knees. Hector’s kids came in from the sprinklers, dripping wet, and Hector’s wife called out in Spanish from the kitchen. The kids went in there with her. Hector called out to her in Spanish, and Alma stood in the doorway, hands fastened to her hips and screaming.
“Little chilly out there, playing in the sprinklers,” Brent said.
“My kids don’t get sick,” Hector said.
“Adorable,” I said.
“Ruth and me, we were born here,” Hector said. “But Alma speaks no English. And I like that.” Alma was still screaming, and Hector walked in back.
“I think she’s a mail-order bride,” Ruth said. “If Hector could afford one.”
Brent patted his knee and said, “Come here, buttercup.”
“You’re in trouble,” Ruth told him.
Hector came back wearing a yellow Western shirt with red snap-buttons, black jeans and cowboy boots. “Let’s head down there,” he said. “Have a drink, play a set. Got room in that truck?”
We piled into Brent’s truck, Hector in back with the guitars, and rode back to Rossville Avenue, where I found my Jeep. I put on my rose-vine snap-button shirt. And when I got back to the truck, I heard Hector telling Brent, “She’s not riding with you man, I’m riding with you.”
This Hector, he’d had the most wonderful smile you’ve ever seen. I had a great feeling just then that old Hector had it all figured out, and this made me feel better about me, though I can’t tell you why.
Ruth loaded in with me, and we followed Brent’s truck onto I-75, snaking alongside the Tennessee River, heading for the Georgia line. The hills beyond, big and smoky, heavy wind out there and leaves still blowing all around.
I told Ruth, “You can sleep if you want.”
“I don’t need to sleep,” she said. “I’m fine now.”
“That Hector, he must take good care of you,” I said. “Brent, well.”
“I think that fuck slipped something in my gin and tonic last night,” she said. “He was playing his guitar at Parkway, and I thought he was cute. He was singing the Eagles. I take you for a bad boy too.”
“I’m just traveling,” I said.
She leaned her head against the window, and her mouth fell wide open. She snored. I turned the radio up. I could just peel off and take her with me. We could live by the ocean, and she’d be happy, and she’d see I’m not bad. She’d see it real quick. I’m all about living good.
My phone rang. It was Jessie, and I also had another text from D’Arcy King: Where the hell are u now? I set the phone on silent and hid it in the console. I’d planned on not paying the bill this month. I just wasn’t going to pay the goddamned thing. They’d eventually turn off my service, which was the whole idea.
I stopped for gas when we reached Fort Oglethorpe. Brent’s truck just kept racing along and out of sight, and I asked the convenience store clerk for directions to Tito’s. It was getting dark out. The gas cost me sixty dollars and thirty-one cents. So now I had $541.89 left in the account. I could still make a start in Cocoa with five hundred dollars.
The building looked like an airport hangar, nothing much else around; and the letters glowed red, one by one, in sequence—T-I-T-O-apostrophe-S—and burned out and started up again.
“Wake up, baby girl,” Hector said. He banged the passenger side window of the Jeep. I stood with Brent smoking a cigarette. Brent hadn’t said a word. He looked pretty pale.
“I could see how you might fall for a girl like that,” I told him.
Ruth opened the car door and got out, and Hector threw an arm around her. Brent stamped his cigarette and headed for the door.
We went in. “Where’s the stage?” Brent said. We sat at the bar and Hector bought us a round of well-tequila shots.
Brent leaned over to me and said, “I think that fat sonofabitch wants to kill me.”
“Hell,” I said. “The man just bought us a drink. Cheers.”
Hector wrung his arm around Brent, smiled with that wonderful beam-of-light toothiness, and said, “It’s you and me, son. And my buddy Gaston.” His buddy Gaston was leaned against the wall beneath a yellow neon Corona sign. He lifted a hand and blew a stream of cigarette smoke through his nostrils. He had gold-capped incisors and half his neck was a tattoo of an engine block. He had a Chevy tattoo on his forearm.
“I think I’ve decided to sit this one out,” Brent said. “Y’all can go at it without me.”
Ruth took shot after shot and I told her, “You oughtta slow it down, baby girl.”
“Only Hector gets to call me that,” she said.
“Wish I had a brother like Hector,” I said.
“You’re a little innocent, aren’t you?”
“You just keep on with that notion,” I said.
“You getting on the road tonight?”
“You’re really not a bad guy,” she said. “Let’s get drunk and drive all the way to Florida.
Take me with you. I’ve got nothing here. Fucking zero.”
“Get me drunker and I might consider it.”
Hector started ordering more shots and said, “Not playing tonight. The goddamned joint’s dying out. Gaston here wants to go for a ride.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Brent said.
“Have another,” Hector said. “Drink it.”
“I know a good spot on Lake Spinnaker,” Gaston said. “Past the battlefield. We’ll get a coolerful. Ever seen the battlefield, Brent?”
Hector bought Brent another tequila shot, and then another.
Out in the parking lot, Brent loaded himself into the truckbed while Hector and Gaston watched. “You oughtta take it easy,” I told him.
Hector wasn’t smiling in that wonderful way anymore. The moon was out in full and Gaston’s gold incisors glinted in the dark. Hector told Brent to sit in the middle, and Brent handed over the keys. Ruth and I jumped in my Jeep. I knew now that Brent was not Hector’s favorite person on the planet. We got on the road and headed for the lake. I placed a palm on Ruth’s knee, and she kissed my neck, and I forgot about the boys in that truck.
Hector pulled into a Golden Gallon off Ringgold Road, and we followed them in. I checked my balance at the ATM. I’d spent thirty-seven dollars on drinks at Tito’s. Then I went back out and checked on Ruth. She was just looking out the window at black leaves flying up in big sprays.
Brent pumped gas into the truck, looking down at the concrete. A long, dark swath ran down the seat of his pants.
“My Lord, buddy,” I said. “I believe you pissed yourself.”
Hector and Gaston hobbled out of the convenience store with two Styrofoam coolers and a couple eighteen packs of Coors.
“Motherfucker pissed himself in the truck,” Hector said.
“It’s his truck,” Gaston said. “Like we give a shit.”
“There’s that quilt in there,” I said. “Maybe he ought to go home.”
“Nah,” Hector said. “He’s gonna wash himself in that lake, man. Get himself purified.”
We barreled down Powder Road, alongside some iron fencing, and beyond that was the Chickamauga Battlefield. You could see the barrels of cannons shining out there.
“They used to say the battlefield was haunted,” Ruth said. “We’d sneak inside every Halloween and camp out. I’d always wished we’d seen something. One time Hector and his friends dressed like ghosts and scared us. But that was the closest we ever got to anything happening.”
We drove along until the road got narrow, and there were only the shadows of trees, and Brent’s taillights red in the dark. Through the trees, you saw bits of Lake Spinnaker in the moonlight. Hector pulled over into the mouth of a dirt road cut off by a steel gate. I parked behind. He got out and swung the gate open, then got back in the truck and drove on through. Ruth said, “Just stay put a minute.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said.
“We could stop in Valdosta,” she said. “Stay in a hotel, be at the beach tomorrow afternoon.”
“I feel bad leaving Brent here,” I said.
“He got himself into this.”
“Starting to get the feeling they aren’t treating him all that well.”
“You must have a college education, honey. Just put it out of your mind.”
She leaned over and ran her tongue along my neck, and I touched that smooth scar along the side of hers. “How’d you get that?”
“I don’t really want to see what they do to him,” she said. “Quicker we get out of here, quicker you can take me to bed.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to see it either,” I said. “I don’t guess there’s any helping him––”
“Now there’s a good boy,” she said.
All the way down to Valdosta, we said filthy things to each other, and stayed loaded off the bottle of Lauder’s Scotch I kept beneath the seat. We’d drained it just before we pulled into the Day’s Inn.
It was four-thirty AM. The room was seventy-six dollars.
Ruth cut the lamp off and stripped down to her panties and bra and sat on the edge of the bed. “We’re out of booze,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can keep spending all this money,” I said.
“What’s the matter, baby?” she said.
“I just think we ought to be smart now, then better times in Florida.” She peeled off her bra. “There’s a gas station just across the street,” she said. “Beer first, then me.”
When I got back from the convenience store, Ruth was passed out on the bed and snoring, her mouth hung open. This wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but I thought that maybe I could really love her. That maybe we could have a good time by the ocean, and be good together.
We woke up the next morning and made love—I was surprised to hear her call it that.
She had me all over the bed, all over the room, everywhere. She showed me she could have power over me, and I couldn’t deal with that. Not heading south like this, the way I’d intended. It had to be me.
We checked out and had eggs and biscuits and gravy at a Cracker Barrel in Lake Park, Georgia. It cost $19.50, tip included. We bought beer in that town, and we hollered and toasted each other as we crossed the Florida line. We told Georgia and Tennessee Bye-bye and told the beach Here we come. We got drunk. We parked at a rest stop and made quick love on the stack of bedding, against the boxes of records and books. I drove on shirtless. Ruth stayed naked waist-down. We kept the windows open; the sun was out, the warm air streaming in.
I checked an ATM in Jasper, Florida, and had $396.39 left. And then I just tried not to think about it. We headed east toward Jacksonville.
I managed for a good while, not thinking about it. But Ruth fell asleep in the passenger seat, and I started having desperate ideas, like, Couldn’t there be some hand-of-God situation, in which you came upon the right person at the right time in the right place, someone of means, a lot of cash on him, wouldn’t it be easy? And then we could forget about it. He’d end up just fine. Honestly, we’d be laughing about it a year from now, having daiquiris on the sand, a big string of condos behind us, an airplane pulling a message behind it, like: Ruth, Will You Marry Me? But I’d never robbed anyone. I’d never even owned a firearm.
I looked at my phone. Another missed call from Jessie, another text from D’Arcy. All I want to know is r u safe. I stopped for gas, set my phone behind a tire, backed over it, and that was the end of that trouble.
“I can’t stand it in this car another fucking minute,” Ruth said. We were driving through Osceola National Forest on I-10, great swamplands and tall, naked trees flowing by, the sun high and blazing, no more wind, no more leaves blowing around out there.
“You’ve been unconscious the whole goddamn motherfucking drive,” I said. “I’m sorry honey. We’ll stop in Jacksonville. They got a beach.”
“We could get a start right there,” she said. “What’s the use in going any farther, if there’s a beach in Jacksonville? How much money you have?”
“Hell,” I said. “We might stay in Jacksonville a while.”
I left her at a big TA Travel Center, just outside Jacksonville. I’d sent her in with some cash to get chicken at Popeye’s, and I stood by the Jeep and smoked a cigarette. There were tall palm trees around the TA Center, and nothing much else nearby. I stamped out the cigarette and drove off.
Later on, night had fallen, and I made it clear through Jacksonville and took US-1, the Dixie Highway, for the scenery, though the night was blacker than you’ve ever seen, so there was nothing really to look at. I stopped for a beer just outside St. Augustine. Tomorrow I’d be in Daytona, New Smyrna, then Cocoa. I’d just liked that name, Cocoa. But I could make it anywhere.
I drank a Coors and fed coins to the jukebox, and I wondered if Brent was okay. One thing is, Hector surely wouldn’t have to worry about his sister anymore. There wasn’t much money left, but I had everything I needed in the Jeep. I felt like I had all I’d ever want in life laid out for me. There were only a few others in the bar, truckers, I guess, and I bought a round for everybody. A fat man in a yellow cowboy hat with seashells glued to the hatband came up to me and said, “That’s a real nice shirt.” I had on my snap-button again, with the rose vines. He set the shot I’d bought on the bar top in front of me. “I don’t drink,” he said. “I just come here for the people. The talk. But I do thank you.”
“It’s nothing to me, friend.” I said.
“Big spender,” he said. “And just who might you be?”
“Just passing through,” I said.
“Well, all right then,” he said. “But you can’t be too careful. Lot of people out there want to take things from you. I seen it myself. You been saved?”
Now there was a question I hadn’t been asked in a long time. But I had the right answer.
“First thing my momma did after she had me was get me saved.”
“Then you’re all set.”
I took the shot he’d given back. This bar had a Corona sign, with the neon palm tree. I set the empty glass on the bar top and paid and shook the man’s hand, the man who’d asked if I was saved or not. And I was. I stepped outside and cranked the ignition and got back out on the highway. I did start to feel bad about Ruth. But she was never part of the plan. She just happened. I hadn’t envisioned that woman, so I had to let her go. Because now all my visions were fixing to come true. There’d be another girl somewhere down the line, a little Florida baby. And Ruth would be all right. Somebody else would take up with her. A woman like that could start fresh and find a way in her life. She was a lot like me.
Brett Puryear grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana. He now lives in Washington, DC, writing stories, teaching at American University, and tending bar.