“The boys weren’t no better, Deedee’s brothers. Coy and LaDoy. Had them same mean eyes as Big Mamoo. And useless, shiftless skunks. You ain’t seen useless till you seen them.”
“What did Deedee look like, then?”
“Gorgeous. Like a movie star.”
“Yeah, but short? Tall? Cross-eyed?”
“Normal sized I guess, but a lovely shape. Just somethin about it.”
Mary had never heard Shag use the word “lovely.”
“Brown eyes, brown hair with some gold in it. Nice tan skin. Them days the girls all wore cut-offs, and Deedee’s legs were made for them. Almost painful to look at.” Shag felt a twinge of the old pain now, recalling the smooth little bare feet in rubber flip-flops, the perfect, heartbreaking knees.
“If the rest of the brood was so ugly, how’d she turn out such a doll?” Mary inquired.
“I used to wonder at that, myself. Maybe, before the mother got so wore out she had some looks, I don’t know. It was strange, like heaven had dropped a angel into the pigsty.”
“They’re all angels at sixteen.”
“No they ain’t.”
“You should have seen me.”
“Scuse my sayin so, but she was prettier’n you. Prettier’n you ever was.”
“You never saw me at sixteen.”
“Didn’t have to.”
“I got a picture somewhere.”
“I don’t want to see it,” Shag sniffed.
“Oh, all right, fine. Forget it. I don’t like stirrin up the past, anyhow. I like lookin ahead,” Shag declared, looking ahead to a cold night beneath a train trestle. He chose a stick from a pile beside him and poked at his fire. Mary hugged her legs and rocked.
After a moment she uttered a conciliatory sigh. “I’m just giving you shit, honey, tell me more.”
“Awww, please, please, pretty please?” She got to her feet stiffly and rubbed her knees before coming to squat beside him. Smiling, squinting, she plucked a pigeon feather out of his hair. “Come on, hon.”
Shag diddled with his fire and sulked.
“Tell me more about their place, then,” said Mary, nudging him.
Recalling it, Shag’s expression softened. “There was skinny dogs, bunch a mangy cats, even chickens trottin around til the neighbors called the constable. Not that this was no fancy street, it was mostly country types. Lots of cars on blocks, barrels of trash smokin in the yards. I guess chickens kind of rubbed it in a little deeper than most folks wanted.”
“And Big Mamoo?”
“She lived in this old green trailer in the back yard. Laid there in the bed smokin Chesterfields and listenin to gospel radio, but most of the time it was ‘too hot’ or ‘too damp’ and she and her big nasty feet would be propped up on the sofa, watchin gospel TV in the house.”
“Didn’t Deedee’s mom have any say about the old lady mooching off them?”
Shag snorted. “Heck no. Anyway, it was the other way around. Deedee’s old man couldn’t hold a steady job, and Big Mamoo had rent property. She was a shrewd old bitch and owned three or four li’l old houses near there. So it was them lived off her. Them shacks couldn’t have rented for more than thirty-five, forty dollars a month but, still, sometimes that was all the income they had.”
“So how did y’all meet? You just snatch Deedee off that porch and ride into the sunset?”
Shag’s fire had finally taken hold and he began adding fuel he’d collected: a piece of rake handle worn smooth in the creek, some beer cartons, a realtor’s Lot for Sale sign featuring a color portrait of a fat man posing before the stars and stripes. Shag watched the face distort and blacken, never losing its far too sincere smile. Until he looked up from the blaze and noticed his and Mary’s shadows fluttering against the concrete pilings, he hadn’t realized how late it was. He offered Mary a cigarette, which she declined, then shook one out for himself and lit it with a burning stick. He settled back on his haunches and exhaled toward the darkening sky.
“Deedee attracted ever unmarried guy for miles.”
“A few married ones, too, I bet.”
“The one she was partial to was a guy named Dewayne Petrie.”
“Dee-wayne. He was the type girls fell for them days; combin his hair all the time, tattoos, motorcycle boots. Had the reputation of bein a toughnut. He looked like he could kick your ass, I guess that was enough. And he had a car. Customized Mercury, set real low. Long as I knew him he worked at Tisdale’s garage, so he had access to whatever he wanted, wholesale.”
“Were you jealous?”
“Who? Me? Shit.”
“Sounds like he had it all.”
“Oh, some a them thought so I guess, girls anyway. Me, I didn’t get it. Still don’t. He had these quirks he’d learned at the movies, like he thought he was James Dean or somethin. Mumbled everthing, so you never knew what the heck he was sayin. Went around with a sneer like Elvis,” said Shag with a sneer. Mary chortled.
“Heck, I couldn’t look like Elvis, cause I always had freckles. There weren’t no heroes with freckles. Ever time a guy with freckles popped up in the movies he was a bad guy or some kinda nut.”
Mary squinted and gave her head a shake. Indeed, she could recall no freckled heroes.
“But I had my points,” said Shag. “Worked a job clearin brush for the county and had purty good hair, myself. Sideburns and the like, this coil thing over my forehead.”
“Attractive. Weren’t the Beatles around yet?”
“Out our way, anyone dumb enough to go runnin around lookin like the Beatles woulda been stomped into the dirt. Shit. So, anyway, Dewayne was number one, but I was definitely number two and gainin. Not bad out of thirty or forty guys.”
“But how’d you finally get her?”
“I’m gettin to that.”
“While you’re gettin to that, I’m gettin friggin cold, honey. Couldn’t we find a little something to warm us up?”
“Want my blanket?”
Mary socked him in the chest hard enough to topple him off his haunches.
“What you do that for?” Shag howled. “I thought you was cold. I was tryin to be nice.”
“You were being a smartass, smartass.”
“You really don’t care to hear this do you?” Shag said, mightily offended. He dusted the seat of his pants, glaring at her.
“Yes, Lord, I want to hear it, but I’m freezing to death.”
“Liquor don’t do nothin for warmin you up,” said Shag piously. “Not really. It’s a figment.”
“Fine. You and figment stay down here and freeze your ass.”
Shag flipped his cigarette butt into the gloom and heard it fizzle as it struck the water. “Well… I guess this shit’s startin to aggravate me, too,” he had to admit. His puny fire was still burning, but produced little warmth. Standing on tiptoe, Shag peered out beyond the trestle toward a section of track where some boxcars had been shunted and apparently forgotten for twenty or thirty years. “Wonder if any a them old cars is open?”
“Shag Clutter, you’re the cheapest man alive. Twenty dollars in his pocket and he’d rather freeze solid in a boxcar than get a nice warm motel bed.”
Shag saw himself in a nice warm motel bed with Mary and his heart sank. “We could traipse around all night lookin for a twenty-dollar motel, and then what’d we have left for food? Or drink?” he said, with emphasis.
Mary made a disgruntled, defeated noise.
“Gimme the damned blanket.”
“In my sack, behind you.”
She leaned back, dug it out and, after a lot of flouncing and jerking, got the blanket around her and over her head. “All right,” came a muffled voice from within, “so you were number two and this Dee-wayne was number one.”
Shag noticed she’d left his things strewn around on the ground, among them a flannel sweatshirt. He removed his 4H jacket, pulled the sweatshirt on over his other three shirts and put the jacket back on. When he’d stuffed the rest of his belongings back into the sack, he made a backrest of it and eased himself down.
“Well,” he began, punching the sack into a more comfortable shape, “I’d been workin on her steady for six months and seemed like I wasn’t makin any headway. I’d bring her little doodads from the dime store—she liked these scarves the gals were wearin—and when I could afford it, we’d go to the drive-in picture show.”
“So you had a car, too.”
“Well, no, I didn’t.”
“You borrow one?”
“Well how’d you go to the drive-in without a car?”
“Friends most a the time, we’d double up.”
“What’d you do all the other times,” Mary persisted. She still wasn’t happy about the blanket.
“Well, I guess we’d walk.”
“Walk! And you were number two?” Mary guffawed and slapped her knees with both hands. “I’d like to have seen number three! He must’ve had a wooden leg!”
“That,” said Shag stonily, “ain’t really funny.”
“What did y’all do once you got there? Spread a quilt on the asphalt?”
That was exactly what they did, but now he could never admit it.
“At least she wasn’t snuggled up in Dewayne’s Mercury.”
A snigger escaped the blanket. “Except for all the times she was.”
“I ain’t denying that,” said Shag, defensively. “I already said he was her favorite and, to be honest, there was times she’d talk about him. You know, ‘Dewayne done this’ and ‘Dewayne done that.’ She didn’t mean to make me feel bad, she just kinda had Dewayne on the brain.”
“It was him finally shot hisself in the foot. Let her catch him foolin around with another gal.”
“Some things never change,” Mary sighed.
“That’s when she stopped waitin for me to call her, and she started callin me. Fore long we was steppin out most ever night.”
“Let me guess. And every where you went, you just happened to bump into Dewayne.”
Shag did a sort of double-take.
“I think I’ve heard this before,” Mary said knowingly.
“No you ain’t! Who told you?”
“I mean, hon, its an old story. The girl wanted to make the guy jealous. Deedee was using you to make Dewayne jealous.”
“I knew that!” Shag snapped. Actually it was the first time he’d considered it, but now, looking back, it seemed painfully obvious. What a dope. “Just the same,” he groped onward, recasting himself into a slightly different kind of hero, “I was determined to make hay while the sun shined. Figured if Deedee got to know the real me, she’d see I was the better guy.”
“And it seemed to be workin,” Shag said, coyly, “cause her kissin altered.”
“Her kissing altered?”
“Yeah. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in the house alone. Wasn’t often, but when we did, we’d burn up that old couch, that’s for sure. And I ain’t talkin no friendly pecks, I’m talkin serious—you know, tongues and stuff.”
“Tongues and stuff,” Mary said dreamily.
“Wasn’t long till she loved me more’n Dewayne.” Shag glared in Mary’s direction, daring her to contradict him. The shroud made no comment.
A mysterious light flashed in the sky. An air horn gave a mighty blast, and the ground beneath them began to rumble. Pigeons exploded from their roosts. Mary’s head popped out of the blanket to say something lost in a sudden roar. They hunkered down, one wrapped in a dingy pink blanket, the other hugging a duffel bag. The black, rusty girders groaned and quaked. Rails screeched as if the steel were going to shatter. Boxcars hammered overhead; ca-clank, ca-clank, ca-clank. Then the train was gone, the horn going flat in the distance. Previous sounds returned; the water trickling from the pipe, sleet peppering the dry weeds, Shag’s little fire snapping and hissing.
“Jeez,” Mary exhaled. “Jeez.” Feathers and grit drifted down as the pigeons, with much rustling and wing flapping, returned and settled themselves back into their crannies.
Shag pushed more fuel into the fire, plumped up his duffel bag and continued. “Last week of summer the carnival come to town.”
“Summer…” the blanket echoed unhappily.
“Course Deedee wanted to go and, first rattle outa the box, we bump into Dewayne. We was at the penny-pitchin booth—I was always a cham-peen penny pitcher—when here he come with Deedee’s best friend on his arm. I think her name was Varna or Verna, somethin. Anyway, she sashays up to Deedee and shows off this new ring. ‘That looks like an engagement ring!’ Deedee says, gaspin, like she’s about to throw up. ‘Oh, it ain’t really,’ says her friend, but then Deedee hauls off and slugs her right in the stomach. Me and Dewayne finally pulled em apart, and that was that till the next time I went to see her.”
“I’ve heard songs like this, honey,” Mary chortled, rocking in her blanket shroud. “It’s like country music.”
“That deal at the carnival finally seemed to do the trick. Next time I went over to Deedee’s, there wasn’t no talk of Dewayne Petrie, and his name was mud from there on out. By wintertime folks was mentioning us in the same breath like we was a pair, and it wasn’t long til Deedee started hintin around at gettin married. Well, I guess I didn’t see no reason not to. Except for them folks of hers. I never knew why, but they just seemed to hate my guts. ‘How’m I gonna tell your old man?’ I asked her, ‘And Big Mamoo, what’ll she think a the deal?’ ‘They ain’t gonna think nothin,’ she says right back, ‘because they ain’t gonna know about it.’”
Mary whistled. “Ooowee, baby! Now the fat’s in the fire.”
“We planned to run off. Buddy of mine knew this JP in Louisiana that was supposed to be a drunk and didn’t care who he married long as you greased his palm. Deedee was just shy of seventeen and we couldn’t get hitched in Texas for more’n a year. I didn’t know what the law was in Louisiana, but if that’s where this JP was, that’s where we intended to go. Fifteenth of February, me and Deedee lit out for the state line.”
“Walkin?” Mary couldn’t suppress a giggle.
Shag gave the shroud a withering look. “I borrowed a very nice car.”
Shag waited until she stopped sniggering before he went on.
“It was strange how easy it was. Big Mamoo asleep in the trailer, Deedee’s pore old mamma sacked out cold. I don’t know where the old man was—layin in a ditch somewheres, most likely. Coy and LaDoy was off spotlightin deer, somethin they did a lot. One of Deedee’s dogs kept whinin at us, so I threw him in the car, too, and told Deedee he’d be best man.”
“You had a dog for best man?”
“Naw, see I just—”
“Yeah, yeah, go on.”
“So we get to Louisiana about three in the mornin, and I’m jumpy as a skunk—bout gettin married, arrested, any damn thing. Then the JP turns out to be this real old guy. Answers the door, tells us to wait while he wakes up his wife. The first thing I’m thinkin is, he don’t look at all drunk; just mad as hell. After a few minutes he comes back, though, and lets us inside, and we wait some more in the hall with about two dozen cats. I ain’t kiddin. Draped over the chairs, hangin off the hat rack. Weird. And these two old people shufflin around in the dark in their bed slippers. One of em would come out and shut the door, then the other would go back and fetch somethin and shut the door again, then come out and shut that door—later, I figgered it was to keep the cats out or maybe somethin else in, but at the time I didn’t understand what the heck was goin on. I kept worryin they had someone hiding in there. Anyhow, we get married in that dark hallway, shiverin like Eskimos in a meat locker, and they don’t say one word they don’t have to. Not ‘howdy do’ or ‘would you like a drink a water,’ or ‘kiss my ass.’ The old woman just stands there and gives me the evil eye.”
“Deedee was just a girl. She probably didn’t approve.”
“Naw, we told em she was nineteen.”
Mary laughed. “Hey, what’d you do for a ring?”
“Deedee sorta borrowed one from Big Mamoo’s trailer. The old lady had a box of em she’d gotten too fat to wear.”
“So you two get your wedding papers and hop on the love boat to Hawaii.”
“Stop at the first motel and burn up the bed.”
“Where did y’all go, then?”
“I took her and the ‘best man’ back to her house. Made her crawl in the winder and go back to bed. Big Mamoo generally got up at dawn, and I didn’t want to wrassle with her til we decided how to break the news.”
“What a man,” said Mary.
“Hey, I was tired. I needed to think. Take on the whole tribe at four o’clock in the mornin? Shoot, that’d be suicide.”
“So what’d you finally do?”
“After a couple a days, Deedee told em I was comin over for lunch to make an announcement.” Shag smiled, remembering. “I went and bought four pounds of hot links to take, but by the time I got over there, all hell was breakin loose.”
“Not about us. Mamoo and the ol man had got into it over somethin and didn’t even see me. Heck, pots and pans were flyin, Coy and LaDoy had chose up sides and come rollin out the front door kickin and scratchin with their shirts tore off and big welts all over em. Shit. Deedee kept yellin, ‘We gotta nouncement to make, we gotta nouncement to make’ but the Martians could of landed for all they cared. The pore ol mother was barricaded in her room prayin out loud for the angels to save her. I just set the bag a sausage on the sofa and grabbed Deedee and lit out.
Mary chuckled. “Sounds like it worked out for the best, then.”
“Oh, I guess. I got us a motel room and went on back to work, clearin brush. Wasn’t but a week later I come home and find Coy and LaDoy’s car out front of our cabin. They’re just sittin in their car listenin to the radio and smokin cigarettes. I tell em ‘hello’ and they both gimme this fishy grin—know what I mean? Friendly, but not friendly. I go inside, and there’s Big Mamoo, herself, takin up half the room. ‘Hi, there, son,’ she says real sweet-like, and I’m thinkin ‘somethin ain’t right here.’”
“What was going on?”
“Deedee says,” Shag’s voice rose to a syrupy whine, “‘Honey, Mamoo done give us a house to live in. Rent free!’ S’posed to be a weddin present. Course, I act grateful and all, but inside I’m goin ‘somethin here don’t add up.’
“So, anyway, we move into one of Mamoo’s rent houses and Deedee starts actin like she’s queen fer a day.”
“Was it a nice house?”
“Yeah, it was nice—fer the roaches. Li’l ol box with a flat roof. Two rooms and a bath. Dirt yard. One dead Chinaberry tree. Cold as hell till spring come…” Shag paused, ominously. “I wasn’t around long enough to see how hot it got in the summer.”
“What was it like being married to a sixteen year-old?”
“She was seventeen by then,” said Shag. “What was it like? Not exactly what I expected. Deedee’s idea of bein married was gettin everthing she ever wanted. Seemed like she was bent on catchin up for sixteen birthdays and Christmases. Free rent or not, the money just flew out the door. I finally had to get a night job haulin grease.”
“You know, goin around to cafes, pickin up their grease and waste products.”
“Schweinfurt and Sons, Buyers of Restaurant Waste, Grease, Bones, Fats. That’s what it said on my truck. You know, renderin.”
“Oh, God. Yuck!”
“Then I’d git home and all Deedee could talk about was how I smelled. She wouldn’t even let me sit on none of the furniture—which I paid for—cause she said it’d leave a grease spot. I’d go sit on the stoop all night, smokin, til it was time fer bed, watchin that idiot Dewayne in his Mercury, peelin out and burnin rubber up and down the street.”
Mary scooted closer, and Shag allowed her to squeeze his arm. “Poor baby. So Dewayne wasn’t giving up, huh?”
“Oh, it was just to aggravate me. He never tried to do nothin face to face. Some tough guy, huh?”
“What was it like in bed? Deedee afraid you’d leave a grease spot in the bed, too?”
“That there’s personal,” said Shag primly.
“You can be personal with me.”
“There’s other stuff I need to tell first.”
“Oh, all right.”
Mary noticed the sky had begun to clear, the low clouds having moved southeast ahead of the front. The sleet had stopped and a dry, frosty stillness followed, broken by the occasional moan of frigid wind. A bright slice of moon shone between the black girders overhead. She nudged Shag and pointed. Unimpressed, he only grunted, gently freed himself from Mary’s hold and got slowly to his feet. He rubbed his arms and stretched them, flexing his cold-stiffened fingers. Mary watched as he left the dim circle of firelight and returned dragging a mesquite branch. He positioned the brushy end of the branch over the flame and, at first, the foliage only sizzled and produced a lot of thick, sweet-smelling smoke. At last it flared and caught fire. Shag settled back onto his duffel bag and, to Mary’s surprise, slipped his arm through hers again.
“Couple a weeks after we moved in, I come home from work, and guess what?”
“Coy and LaDoy are backin Mamoo’s trailer into our yard. Seems like that fight she had with Deedee’s ol man hadn’t ever run its course, and the whole idea of givin us the house was so she’d have Deedee to look after her. Now, ever time I come home, Mamoo’s big behind is hangin out the refrigerator door, or she’s laid up on the couch with them big dirty feet, smokin Chesterfields and watchin gospel TV.”
Mary laughed heartily.
“Things just went downhill from there. Deedee didn’t want to, you know, mess around with Mamoo sittin in the next room, so there went the sex life.”
“Ever time I try to get her to do the wash or fry a chicken, Mamoo says, ‘do it your own self.’ Shit. That ol bitch started rulin the roost just like she did at home. I didn’t have no more control. And the worst thing was, Deedee got cranky and hateful. And naggin. Goin on about how bored she was. I’m thinkin, hell, you haul the grease tubs and let me get bored.”
Shag continued bitterly. “Next thing, Deedee started puttin on the pounds. All she and Mamoo did all day was watch TV and eat pizza. Course there wasn’t no pizza pie left when I come home wantin supper, just the boxes all over the floor. Naw, hell, I just furnished the money. And the house turned into a big sow wallow.
"That ain’t all. After this rocks along three or four months, my birthday come up. Deedee and me’d always talked about what we was gonna do for it, and we’d cooked up plans for the whole night. They had a bowlin alley in town with a bar attached, and that’s where we was goin to celebrate: bowlin, beer drinkin, dancin, and then, last but not least, spend the night at a real nice motel watchin color TV and you-know-what after that.
Deedee was actin happier, too. For the week leadin up to my birthday, she’s singin and laughin like her old self. The house is still a pigpen, but I figger, ‘well, we got to start somewhere.’ I even catch her puttin on a little lipstick and washin her hair. I say, ‘What you all chirpy about, sugarfoot?’ and she says it’s cause my birthday’s around the corner. Well, that made me feel fine.”
“Awww…” said Mary.
“When the day come, I had to wake up at five to get to work same as always, and Deedee never did get up and make me breakfast, but I sorta hoped since it was my birthday and all…”
“Well, she didn’t. I could hear Mamoo’s radio already goin in the trailer, so she was stirrin, but Deedee stayed in bed as usual til I drank two cups of instant coffee and left. I figgered we had a big night ahead and she probly wanted to rest up for it. I told myself there’d be a little somethin waitin on the kitchen table when I come home for supper; you know, maybe a cake. I’d got the night off from the grease truck, so six o’clock was party time.
“I could hardly keep my mind on the job and almost whacked my foot off with a hoe, but when six o’clock finally come, I couldn’t get home soon enough. Stopped by the flower shop, though, and bought her a rose so I wouldn’t be the only one gettin presents. Then I run home and tear across the yard and through the door and—nothin.”
“Big Mamoo’s on the couch with her hair all rolled up in curlers. Now that woman was ugly just sittin there, but you take and twist her hair into li’l ol knots all over her scalp and, man oh man. Made her head the size of a grapefruit, or a softball or somethin. I think, ‘Sugarfoot’s hidin somewheres. Gonna jump out and surprise me.’ Well… I was surprised all right cause she wasn’t even there.
“‘Where’s Deedee?’ I says, and Mamoo looks like the cat that ate the rat. ‘Dewayne come by and pick her up in his CAR.’ I like to faint. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ and she says Deedee wasn’t feelin up to snuff, it bein so humid and all, so he took her out for a ride in the CAR. ‘Why ain’t she feelin okay?’ I says, and that ol woman gives me this sly look. ‘Cause she’s pregnant.’
Mary can only gape.
“‘Well I’m the dang man around here,’ I says, ‘if anybody should be givin her a ride, it should be me!’ ‘You ain’t got a car,’ she says real nasty. ‘Look here, Mamoo’ I teller, ‘you been meddlin long enough! I think it’s time for you to GET THE HELL OUTA MY HOUSE!,’ and she gets this smirk on her old hog face and says, ‘Whose house? Whose house?’ Well, she had me there, but I cain’t stop myself now. I’m madder’n hell and couldn’t if I wanted to. I says, ‘Deedee’s my wife, you slop-hog, and if she’s got a kid, it’s the daddy’s job to be givin her a damn ride.’ Mamoo give me the smirk again, then she starts laughin. ‘But, you ain’t the daddy,’” she says, and laughs til she starts hackin and coughin. I’m so mixed up I run outside and just keep runnin.”
“Naaaw! No way!” Mary exclaimed. “Oh, Shag!”
“That’s all she said, biggest grin on her face I ever seen. ‘You ain’t the daddy.’”
Shag got up, made his way down the incline to the creek bank and, with his back to Mary, took a silent pee. When he returned, he built up the fire and crouched over it, rubbing his hands.
“Oh, honey…” said Mary. Shag snorted, straightened up and thrust his hands in his pockets. “Come over here and sit down.”
“Don’t feel like it,” he said sullenly.
“That old woman was probably lying. Just to be mean, don’t you see?”
“I considered that,” said Shag.
“Well, sure. How would she know whose baby it was, anyway?”
“I don’t know. But it turned out she did. I found out later Deedee had been runnin around with Dewayne practically the whole time, with Mamoo’s blessin. I was the only idiot in town didn’t know it. Oh, I went around tellin myself it was my kid, but one day I decided to see for myself. I’d moved away right after that, but three-four years later I was passin through and found out where they lived. Course, she and Dewayne had split up by then and, just like Mamoo, Deedee and the kid was livin in a trailer house.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“Hell no!” Shag said bitterly. “I just waited across the street hoping they’d come out so’s I could see ’em. Wasn’t long before the kid come out to play in the yard. That black hair give it away. It was a pint-sized Dewayne.”
“Oh, Shag, you can’t be sure about—”
Huddled in her blanket, Mary shivered and stared into the fire. Shag finally wandered over and squatted beside her. She sighed, glanced sideways at him, sighed again. Finally she said, “Hon, I think you could use a drink.”
Shag uttered a sarcastic snort. But then he nodded his head and chuckled. “You know, maybe I could, at that. Think you could use one, too?”
Mary grinned self consciously.
“Here,” he said, standing and digging the twenty out of his pocket, “I’ll go check out them boxcars while you’re at it, see if I can make us a decent nest for the night.”
With Shag’s assistance, Mary hauled herself to her feet. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, feeling every one of her years; stiff, tired, cold, and sore.
“Thanks, baby,” she whispered. “What’s your pleasure?”
“You pick. Whatever you want.” Sleet had glazed the embankment, so Shag helped her up to the top where heaps of rubble and hulking, rust-streaked machinery made a dreary moonscape. On two of the boxcars he thought he could see open doors and wished he had investigated while there was still light. He’d have to make some kind of torch, and the prospect of fumbling around in the dark depressed him.
“Keep the home fires burning,” Mary sang out on her way to a hole in a sagging chain-link fence. Shag watched her until she’d made it as far as the road, then turned and looked down onto their camp. His duffel bag and the pink blanket, she had probably meant to wear, looked pathetic in the dying glimmer of his campfire.
After grabbing a can of Vienna sausages off the shelf and hitting the “Bargain Barrel” for two dusty bottles of screw-top wine, Mary left the stuffy, over-heated liquor store and headed, not for Shag and the campsite, but back into town. The Kowboy Kabins charged fourteen dollars a night, though the owner could be badgered, if business warranted, into accepting twelve or even ten. Business warranted, and Mary moved into a “kabin” reeking of stale cigarettes and insecticide with six dollars of Shag’s money remaining in her pocket. She set her bottles on the nightstand, struggled out of her parka and switched on the electric heater. A fan inside whined and ticked, and soon the odor of baking lint mingled with the other smells.
She cracked open one of her bottles and took a tentative sip. Sweet, sour, acrid, familiar. Comforting. She eased herself onto the bed and took a longer draft, oblivious to the taste but savoring the warm, expanding glow in her stomach. Holding the bottle by the neck, she leaned sideways and pulled down the frayed chintz bedspread and thin blanket. Shag and his boxcar. What a dope. She shivered imagining the wind howling through the filthy thing, the splintery, dirty floor, cobwebs, coon droppings, God knows what else. She slumped back against the motel pillows, expertly keeping the bottle upright. Her eyes began to droop. What the hell, poor old Shag. She imagined him trying to get another fire going in the boxcar, slapping his arms, jitterbugging with cold. She recalled his tale of woe, his sad-sack romance. What the hell. She took another swig. A little wine leaked from a corner of her mouth and two purple splotches appeared on the bedspread.
Poor old Shagster.
With supreme effort she pushed herself upright. There was nothing to do but go back and get him. He might die on a night like this, the silly ass. She tried to get her parka on while still holding onto the bottle and, miraculously, succeeded. She took one last swig, recapped the bottle and stowed it in her pocket. So that silence wouldn’t greet them when they returned, she switched on the ancient TV, tilting perilously on a swing-out shelf. It would make the room feel kozier, and maybe Shag would get the urge for a little intimacy.
The familiar music sounded before the anemic picture wobbled onto the screen: “Theme From A Summer Place”. A blurry orange Troy Donahue was embracing a blur that could only have been Sandra Dee. “Kiss her, dummy,” said Mary, chortling huskily. She slipped the bottle out of her pocket, unscrewed the cap and took another drink, waiting for Troy to kiss Sandra. Eyes glued to the screen, she eased herself onto the foot of the bed. For some reason, it became crucial that Troy kiss Sandra before she left the Kowboy Kabin for the dreary slog back to Shag’s campsite. The music swelled, Sandra jumped up and ran away. Troy, in swimming trunks, scrambled after her. Mary sagged onto her side and took another little nip. “Theme From A Summer Place” tinkled on. And on. A warm, sunny afternoon from her own youth came to mind; she was wrestling playfully with a boy whose name she’d long since forgotten. They’d met at a church picnic, and to escape the grownups had taken their blanket to a secluded spot by the creek. Oh, what was his name? She could almost hear the breeze plying the oak branches overhead, see the sunlight glinting and flashing on the water. With a smile on her lips, Mary sank back onto the chintz bedspread, skillfully keeping the wine bottle upright, and let herself be drawn into the memory. It was warm, gloriously warm, and she was happy. Then she was asleep.
Bob Brown © 2016
Art: Charlie Loving © 2016
Bob Brown is a legendary musician from the 60’s Austin Music scene. He is also a writer and continues to live in Austin.
You can listen so some of Bob's classic recordings HERE.