You are reading Fiddleblack #6
They say when you start talking to yourself, you’re lonesome. There are blank patches. A woman is dead. The voice on the radio says the killer’s loose. They call him the Highway 65 Terror. He’s southbound, according to the spread of sites.
On a toll road, I arrived faster than the legal speed limit would allow. I left the ticket on the floor. And after a couple trips in and out of a muddy gas station and a coffee and donut shop, my grating shoe soles smear the print off it. It’s good our country’s a union of independent states. I can leave my crime in another one. I don’t plan on ever driving through Indiana again.
In the rearview I’m tired, not fierce at all. I look at the aqua green digital clock on the dash. There are times I wish I could tear that thing out. Sheila would have an answer for how I’ve wronged her. I have a number of excuses. She’ll never get it out of her head what I’ve done. I’m too weird. I’m not the man she wants. Judgment has to come soon enough to slit your throat.
The sun flushes the Kentucky skyline with the color of a wrathful visage. Sheila will end up missing me soon, she’ll call on the cellphone.
I lost my cellphone.
Each morning I worry over what I said a week ago, a day ago, at dinner, in bed. The mile marker passes. The sun meets the earth and sinks into it like a raging figure razed by night-black water. Maybe it was good I left. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Like I said, there are blank patches, patches the size of Indiana.
The radio fuzzes when I switch it on and start to seek. It’s a different accent than before, a Southern accent. I’m in Appalachia. I dip in and the grass shifts to blue with my descent. On and on I fall, and I must check the rearview ten times thinking there are trucks careening down on me. The voice on the radio speaks on how he’s afraid the killer’s moving south now. Another voice speaks soft and venomous. I switch the radio off. I start picturing that killer up in Chicago. My cellphone goes off and ’bout scares me off the road.
I repeat: it’s good I skedaddled. I knew it was the right thing to do, and I know I need to be where Sheila ain’t. I need to think on what I done said to her and what I ought to say to her. I line my vertebrae up with the highway stripe.
The next station plays oldies. I hear that famous song about balls of fire. They tag the singer as the killer. I’m not sure what it means. But that’s his nickname. I don’t reckon he ever really killed.
My stomach’s growling, so I rein her in and shoot down an exit ramp into a town—I don’t bother reading the name off the sign. A honky-tonk bar’s neon lights blazon the sky. I park in front of the glut of pink and blue light, set my driving hands in my lap to settle the grinding feeling, and heft out of the car and across the parking lot. My stomach’s burned out with hunger.
The honky-tonk lot has its share of scores, ruts and holes. On the curb there’s a jagged bottle-half. There’s a blown-out condom, there’s a gritty wet thong panty. I make my way in all the same and sit down in one swoop, like a bird of prey relying on his aspect alone to seize a chickadee. The walls seethe with insects, I am sure, seeing as they were built of only the finest cheap pegboard paneling, and the wainscot was rigged with the grease that steamed off the plate. A couple gals saunter by, and I follow them and their dipping hips. There’s a gal drinking at the bar all alone and looking at every feller that talks to her like he was an unidentifiable slab of road splatter. She would be my first kill were I the killer.
The carpet’s cheap and thin-worn, the same as the basement of the building where Sheila is right now and where I’ll have to make a plea sometime soon, maybe over the cellphone. I’m supposed to be thinking over a mug and the sauced rippings of a cow on bread. A few old men aiming on nothing and some kids with chaw in their lips are my compañeros. The kids have gals, and the old men are too old. My hunger brings visions of slaughtered meat, and I bang the table with my fist sending for the waitress to fetch. My breath is rife with the brown, gritty air.
The gal, my first kill, sits down with me directly and says nothing. She doesn’t know me yet, so she has no judgment and nothing else to say. I keep mute too over my soggy bread. She blows smoke up and out like a steamboat and slides her feet near to mine but never touches a toe. Still, I can feel her. When I’m done and settled, we head outside and sit on the curb like we knew each other. Then she asks me if I’d want to go to a motel for seventy-three dollars.
The digital clock glows like swamp gas from the dash. She wears fishnets under a short skin-tight skirt. She has a veil in her purse and her blouse is black. So, I ask, who died? The wind howls unnatural at that juncture, hard enough to rip my head off.
No one I knew, she says. She asks my name and I say we’ll just say my name is Jack Dawes with a silent s. I might of told her my name was Sheila’s husband. I figure that’d be a mite gauche. Plus there wasn’t yet any accounting as to the killer’s sex, I reckon, so I keep my mind focused. She asks me if I’m from around here, and I’m on my way to answering when it comes to me that she’s fooled by my accent that I copied from the pitiless radio personality. I have me one-up on her. Yes, I’m from around here. She asks me am I worried about the killer, and I do not answer that I’m worried for Sheila. That’s nothing to go on about, I tell her. The killer could of been her or even me. The street mirrors the color and texture of the moon, and it all serves to make sure I’m not forgetting Sheila’s voice of judgment or her hurt little spanked face. I knuckle my eye to scratch it.
Spanish moss hangs in curtains from what I think is a sycamore. The tingle up higher is what makes me know she’s touching my inner thigh, and I ask her please to put her hand back in her own lap, though my reaching hand nestles her own nubile warmth in the doing. The window’s all the way down, and my head’s out like a dog’s, tongue lapping, as we approach the light and she lowers the price twenty bucks. I see a fizzing motel sign yonder, and I hang my head inside the car. Sheila hurt me good for me to be testing myself so hard. What will happen to us, her and me? The rustle of knees in pantyhose and a tight clung skirt shut out the cicadas. I’m beginning to like the South. I know that’s no good for a Yankee like Sheila.
I drop her off at the corner of the lot and say I’ll get a room. She steps out without a word, sets off on her clacking heels. They make their way around the side of the motel, out of the light. I hear them heels, then I hear some voices, but I can’t see. Then, it’s all quiet, like no one had ever been. I flash my lights—nothing. I punch that man I see in the mirror.
I reckon right around then I had one of those blank patches.
The bright box of the motel office is direct opposite the back alley where the gal disappeared. Everyone can see me in the light when I come in. I ring one of them little bells and out comes a gal in a black skirt with little roses on it, a raggedy t-shirt, and her jet hair all up. She comes at me without my hearing, not wearing heels but Chuck Taylors. She’s strange soon as I see her. Against the bright yellow walls, she about takes my breath away as one of the few beautiful sights of my whole trip. The clock ticks, though, and I remember what I have to figure out. The motel beauty taps the guest book for me to sign and moves on to the key cabinet. Music screams from the back room while I lean into the guestbook and write Jack Dawes.
I just noticed. We’re already full tonight, she says.
Damn. But I done already signed my name, I say.
You’n erase it.
I don’t mind, I say.
She starts to head into the back room.
Hey, I call to her. What’s your name?
Cass, she says. She leans against the door jamb.
Did you see mine? I ask. I have to keep her talking, dumbfounded as I am.
No. I’ll see it when I erase it, she sighs without looking.
Wait, I say. She waits, still not looking at me. All I see is her black hair. I explain, I put a fake name on this here book. Let me tell you my real name. You ain’t curious?
Why’d I care? she asks. Why would I want to know?
But she’s smiling.
Well fine. I don’t gotta tell you. ‘Specially if you don’t care, I say.
All right. Tell me.
I tell her, while she reaches down to the boss’ desk right there for one of the cigarettes lying on the cedar. You got a drink back in that room? I ask.
Well, you gonna turn down a stranger asking for one? I ask, seeing myself in the glass reflection, a handsome devil if I say so myself.
I suppose not.
Now see. I been polite and you started being polite. When I say that, she frowns.
You don’t talk to me like you’re my pa or nothing or I’ll shut this door and you won’t have no one to talk to.
Yes ma’am, I apologize. I am a kicked cripple dog as I follow her smoky trail.
You reach on up to that shelf and find there’s a bottle of Old Crow up there.
All right. You got some soda? I’m in for a highball, I say.
Well I am too. She blows her smoke, her elbow in her palm. The smoke blankets the fluorescent lights. I sit down at the desk there and set her drink across from me. I might could work here, I say.
She nods, stubbing out the butt and sitting across from me. She takes her drink. That’s when she really stares at me.
What? I ask and stare back.
You ought not let in strangers like me, seeing as that killer’s loose and killing.
Yeah, well. There’s a number of reasons I don’t much worry. That’s a different highway, and he’s North now, and I don’t really need to worry besides, ‘cause I only let in people I know. They say he’s from the North, ain’t got no accent, she offers. And now I know you, she mumbles.
Well. This evening’s turned around. It’s just become a whole big carnival, I say.
Yeah, she says.
In her little back room there are dried roses all around, and she has the red sheets I like. A poster on the wall shows a rock star and beneath him a gal holding her hand in the shape of a pistol to her head. Fiona lives there for the summer, and then she’s back to northern Mississippi in the regular season. Later on in the night, she puts on a Nina Simone song about a golden ring with a sort of military drumbeat. I check to see if I’m wearing any paraphernalia what might tip her off to me not being faithful. While I’m lying in that dark, with her asleep by my arm, and the light of the clock’s red numbers peering out, I start thinking about Sheila, much as I tried to cut her out of my mind. I scooped her out of my brain, I stepped on it and squashed it. I got what I wanted here, lying next to me. I figure I still have Sheila, though I ain’t sure how she’d reckon that. I tell Cass I have to go, and she says nothing as I slip out of her arms and out the door. I set the padlock so she can rest safe.
When the sun blooms I’m thinking how the Southerners ain’t so bad after all, and I hack when I catch myself in deja-vu with the night only a few minutes gone. I fooled her. I could of been that killer, and she was lovely enough to let me through anyways. Then, I start getting to Sheila again. What if she’s doing the same? What if she has a man over too? I open the door and let it slam shut and open it again against the highway thrust and almost stick my neck in. ‘Cause the killer might be that man Sheila lets over. He might even be better than me. It’s good I left. I lost some time on that romance.
The roll and curve of the highway rocks me. The treeline nods too, and I switch on the radio to streamline my psyche. If there’s anything I come onto the highway for, Lord knows it’s patience. With that holy patience of the highway, some idea’s gotta come.
The killer is still on Interstate 65, an authority has determined. They’re waiting for the next strike. The radio personality squawks on with a gentleman’s drawl like in Gone With The Wind about how that’s unacceptable that a killer’s on the loose, and they and the other authorities are just waiting.
There’s a patient quiet. The authority says, Sonny we don’t know a thing about who this man or not is or what’s driving him. I can tell you that judging on the nature of the acts, he most likely has got the schizophrenia. But, he’s a killer, as I repeat. We’re on to his pattern of killing. But y’all got to realize that there’s nothing we can say about him. Anyone could be this killer.
Then that quiet.
Even you, the authority told Rex the radio personality.
I about mess my seat. Safety and caution are the last things I’m doing when it comes to Sheila. I ought to phone her, ought to of phoned her and told her to get her name changed to Shelly or Skyler, so as not to be identified as the fiancée of a dumbass worming along the highways and thinking about all hell else to boot. I would butt the windshield if I didn’t have to drive forward.
That one real famous song Hey Joe is playing on the radio so I ride on to a brighter note. I wonder whether Sheila already has herself a new man, killer or not. If he weren’t the kind of man who’d kill her and move on, and she had a nice thing going, well that’d burn my bottom like nothing. Now I could ride my car into a river and take a train home to Sheila. Just leave it there lying dead and hop on to the city of New Orleans. The killer or new boyfriend wouldn’t know it was me when I came, and Sheila wouldn’t neither cause they wouldn’t see my car. I would out-clever both of them without my old car and with my new accent. All in all, I just know in my gut that that’s what I have to do. I survey the hills for a deep and uncivilized pond to stick it in, but there ain’t nothing. The road slithers on like a slime trail. The song ends, and I shut off the radio to do the finding.
A dark little pond passes, one with a shed, an empty chair, and an open cooler down by it. Then, I see the head bobbing at the surface. Ain’t there a parcel of this earth uncivilized by man? I call out. I swirl my way into a dust cloud, in case I was followed by a confidant for the killer slash new boyfriend, then I tool around a bend and light out onto this dry dirt straightaway.
About half an hour into hillbilly civilization, I come to a stretch with weeds too high to of been driven on shortly. There I find a quarry deep off a cliff that’s full with rainwater. I see that some kids were drinking beer there, but I think it’s the perfect place, ‘cause that killer I reckon doesn’t have or talk to no kids. I search up and down for my cellphone, but it’s vanished in a puff of smoke. I leave my car sinking in the black water. The walk back is long, some I plain can’t remember. I nap for a spell along the road. Some kids wake me with a stick, tell me I ought to get off their land. They’re real shy, so I leave without giving a cuss.
Around the highway, I find a ride back to town. There happens to be a train station. I’m on my way to it, with my money and all, when I see the used car lot. I see the car, a 1968 Ford Mustang, the paint called starling azure. On the fender, I see a pair of legs and the high-thigh end of a skirt on a gal. The rest of the lot was a few boxy types and clunkers, some nice Japanese ones and a couple pickups. A boy sits in the office watching his mama sell. Them two eyes are a couple of shiny-toothed mouths. That boy looks older than I am on account of his patience staring through that window at his mama sell. She tells me she’s the owner of the lot, having to keep up after her man left years past. She enjoys it and does better than he ever did. If you sign for one of the autos, she might let you have her phone number, but it’s less than nothing chances. This whole time she’s rubbing her buns along the car like they’re buffer pads. Her name’s Delia, her phone number is 956-760.
Then there’s a long blank patch, and I have a car and feel I done good not leaving Sheila with a bundle to grow up hungry, like a zombie. Maybe I shouldn’t even show back up for Sheila if I’m going to be such an animal to such a flower as her. If I’d done a crime, I could stay here with my new car and maybe meet one of Delia’s friends. I’d quit all this folly, hew it at the artery and burn it shut.
As my car mounts the highway ramp, I search for my cellphone. But it’s gone in that quarry. There’s no way to get in touch with Sheila now. And with Sheila and her new boyfriend, I have no chance with her. I reckon telling her how I figured this out in a beautiful, expressive way would be the sweetest thing I could do. Then we might as well let the killer slay us.
Along the highway I see a fruit stand, so I stop and buy some blood oranges. The gal inside, Fiona, smiles real genuine. So, I ask her does she want to be my new wife? I have my new car. I have my new way of talking. All I need is a gal. We could even make some kids into the picture.
Course she gapes back at me like I’m the one who’s crazy. Like I’m some killer with the schizophrenia. She shuts her mouth with that look, doesn’t say another word. When there ain’t nothing said, I hack and hammer, I slash and burn, and I will hang. The thunder bowls down like the chorus of wives I could of met and all the children I could of had, if not for that hellfire glance of judgment and un-acceptance. That look, like there’s nothing in my head but un-civilization, that look like a lover’s ache watching a scarecrow heading off from the highway onto the land, to sit by a pond, or to swim by a quarry, or to go whoring at a honky-tonk, or to live in a city up far from anyone, farther than the country is from life, as lonesome as any dead figure floating in black water, one that used to be a raging indignant human being. That look like I should just sew my mouth shut.
I ain’t nothing but uncivilized hulk—nothing, nobody. I’m just like anyone, easy. Don’t ask me for my ID. You don’t need a picture to see who I am. Let your mind wander, listen to what I’m saying.
I pray I’ll die out of this nightmare I’m in. The ugly green clock says sundown.
There’s a field that don’t have a scarecrow. I park the car ‘longside and head in. I start sniffling once I hit the dry crunch. That sound causes me to long for my Sheila, like the crack of bone. I wish Sheila was here. I wish Cass was too, all the gals I ever had. I stretch out my arms like Jesus hung. The gals would see me, nothing but a scarecrow. Some rubbernecker tools by and gawks. His head twists until it can’t twist no more. I have nothing else to do but be a scarecrow.
The plain’s untended now, but it was before. The stalks throng around me and stab through my clothes and flesh. It’s nothing compared to the stabs I remember. I know my clothes are right ripe with nasty. I haven’t showered for a few days. Even scarecrows need their rest. I lie on the field, reckoning it’s the horizon I’m lying on. The world spins under me, but it’s all flat with places I never been. I pray the sunset to crush me and send me to either the sky or the ground, one or the other. Maybe being a killer would pay the bills—a regular, concrete job. You could really sink your teeth in.
I raise myself up. I must of dreamt Sheila killed, ‘cause that’s the only picture in my head. I seen the handsome killer in that picture too, leaving the apartment. He’s sad. He done killed her out of love, that’s why. The new man done it for love. Makes sense the way he tells it. I drove five hundred miles away from my dear, left her prone. I care nothing and lost her.
As I stumble, I feel a thorn underfoot, lift it, and see a broken husk of a sweetgum seed lying in spiked pieces. To the edge of the field and behind where the house stands, in its center, is a sweetgum tree whose seeds have lit out. In some years, there’ll be more of these trees if these spore keep riding the wind. The tree eclipses the field with its dark brown bark and seething green leaves. Well shit, I say out loud. My voice is fading. Branches shake at me and scare me with the knotty muscles of the sweetgum’s crannies, tinier twigs like long fingernails. The tree stands surpassing all, like a sentinel of the sum of the world. And there’s no one to tell about it. That tree, I know in just this one sighting, is more beautiful than this whole scarecrow’s life. All I have is a few paces away. But I’ll find my peace.
There’s brush along the highway, pieces of plastic and cardboard littering it. The sun’s just gone under, the livid pallor of all the surface, save the sweetgum, sucks at me. My neck snaps, I twitch. I shut my window and ride on. The empty fields course and whisper past, the earth rolling over on her shoulder from me.
I hit the radio. There’s no news of the killer. One voice says he suspects the man has given up. Maybe so. Another says they’ll find a body in one of the great northern cities, such as Chicago, only after a period of time. Then it’ll start again. The voices all talk the same, the accents all sound the same. Then, I hear it—I’m talking to myself.
Ian Singleton is a working writer. His work has appeared in Asymptote, Prick of the Spindle, Midwestern Gothic, qarrtsiluni, and other journals. A story collection, Cussing, is forthcoming. He won a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan in 2004 and is a graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College.