If I don’t make a decision right now it’s going to be done for me, but the last one I made was for shit, and I knew it about five minutes after I left the interstate; this is a lonely road and the snow is squalling up so bad, I swear it’s becoming a blizzard. I can’t ignore the rough-shod noise of my engine no more and there’s a burned-out smell that brings me out in a cold sweat. I’m nauseous. I want to spit up. Cold is creeping right into me and making me stupid. I got no sense of where I am; I could be a hundred feet from the nearest town or a hundred miles. Engine spits, drops, kicks back. It spews black smoke then cuts out altogether. I steer the van smooth as I can and let it coast to a standstill at what may or may not be the side of the road; for all I know I’m on the edge of a precipice. Probably am; these backwood mountain roads usually are. If I’m lucky there’ll be trees to break my fall if I go over, but that makes me laugh and I think, Shit, I might be going a little crazy in this cold, because if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s lucky; they’ll have been cleared for timber for sure and over I’ll go, and right there would be your poetic justice.
I reach in back and grab the bedding, wrap it around me and then just sit. I sit, and try to keep my fear in check, while the snow tries to get inside. I can feel wind from all directions, right there inside the van, and I can hear it, sounding like hellcats screaming and howling out there in the nowhere. Every now and again the wind gets ahead of itself and almost lifts the van off of its wheels; it don’t for one single moment stop rocking and banging about in the wind.
The cold keeps growing and crawling over me. I have on every piece of clothing I own, but still my belly tightens 9 and shudders, my jaw clenches so rigid it hurts and my body starts a short, hard, tight jerking on the inside that goes on and on; I can’t make it stop. And now I’m thinking strange, stupid thoughts about not being discovered till spring when the snow melts and uncovers my sorry ass and wishing I could tell Mama I love her. Right now, I wish that more than anything else in all the world. I want her to know it. And that I’m sorry.
My mind slips, slides away somewhere on thoughts of sunshine and water; a face smiling. The light around me is dazzling white and I can’t keep my eyes open no more. I shove my hands hard into the pockets of my coat, my shoulders bunched up around my neck so they ache, but I can’t relax and can’t stop my body from shuddering so hard I’m sure I’m about to bite through my tongue. I close my hand around the little box in my pocket and shut my eyes. A dull thumping fills my head. Maybe it’s outside me somewhere, I can’t tell. Keeps on. Shut. Up. Please just let me, just let me sleep.
Muffled voices come from way off somewhere. I open half an eye, before the bright pierce of white light, a tilt of icy blue, makes me shut it tight again. I wonder if it’s God calling me and think of laughing, but this time I can’t get further than the thought. I can’t seem to make anything work. Face of an old man is pressed up against the window and I wonder if that’s Him; A girl’s face comes into view and I think, now angels, but they don’t got fur lined hoods so far as I know and this makes me a little more determined to make out what she’s saying. I think it’ll be easier when I’m not so tired, so I turn away and try and ignore these clowns outside banging and thumping away, making out like I should follow the light.
Next thing I know, my fucking window’s been broke and I try and holler at them to get away, that I have a weapon, 10 but the words don’t come and the girl, she’s crawled through the back and she’s unlocking the door and shoving at me and pulling and yelling things in my face and I give up. There’s no fight left in me and, truth be told, it’s been that way longer than I care to remember.
I’m in the cab of a high up truck, heat running, blanket wrapped around me, shivering so hard my teeth rattle and I’m sure I’m about to knock ’em right out. Angel in the fur hood is trying to get me to drink something steaming from a flask and talking up how lucky it is she took this route to work, otherwise who knows how long it would a been before somebody came across me.
Old fellow posing as God is driving and tells me his name is Beau and that I’ll be alright now. ‘Lark,’ he says to the girl and I, stupid as I am, feel a lift that she’s a bird and not an angel; a creature like that is something I can believe in. ‘What do you say we take him to my place and see what’s what?’
‘Is Belle about?’ she asks, and the fellow tells her to use his cell phone and give her a call.
It ain’t no time before I’m sitting in his home by a wood burner, spooning some kind of thick soup into my clumsy mouth and trying to make sense of what’s going on. I can’t seem to make my fingers work right and worry I’m going to spill the soup. I put the spoon down and try focusing on whatever might be out of the window; ain’t much to see. The house stands in a clearing, that much I noticed when we pulled in. From here I can see the snowy yard, snow topped fencing, and a big ol’ barn with doors wide enough to take a tractor. A little way down the trees begin again.
The girl, Lark, comes over from the kitchenette and stoops to pour my soup into a big coffee mug. ‘Try it this way, you’re still so frozen it’s bound to be hard to hold anything right now.’ She hands me the mug and I close my 11 hands around it, try not to shudder and lose the lot. ‘You got a name we can call you?’ She smiles.
I think for a moment, trying to get in gear. ‘You can call me Cassidy,’ I tell her. I lean back and close my eyes.
They talk together, real quiet, but I’m too tired to pay any attention anyhow and feel myself drift, before I whap my eyes open, startled by the feel of the mug slipping from my hands. It’s just her, though, the girl, taking it before I drop it, sweet look in her eyes. ‘Okay?’ I nod.
When the old fellow, Beau, is good enough to offer me a bed for the night, I speak up. ‘You don’t have to do that. You don’t even know me.’ He gives me a puzzled smile, gentle. ‘I know you need a bed,’ he says, and he looks right at me until I can’t meet his eye no more.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I appreciate your kindness.’ I’m overcome with shame that I might cry in front of these strangers.
The next day, me and Beau make a trip to the local mechanics. We drive up a single-track from his home, leaving the creek, and woods behind us. Cab of his truck is warm and quiet. He don’t ask too many questions, just gives out a little here and there.
‘Look up there to your right. See that cottonwood?’ It’s a beauty, real tall, and I think how it might look in summertime.
‘I ain’t never seen one that big,’ I say, and I see him crinkle at the edges of his eyes. ‘We entered it for Champion Trees of Kentucky a while back,’ he says. ‘Got ourselves a special mention.’
I don’t ask what that is, and it don’t matter on account of he’s pointing out Main Street and showing me where his lady, Belle, has her beauty parlour.
‘That’s it right there with the pink and green awning, next to what used to be our local newspaper. But that’s gone now you young people get all your news online or from the TV.’
‘That’s too bad, I guess,’ I say, thinking that’s what he means.
‘Well, I’m not averse to progress, and that’s a fact, but it does seem a shame that every time something closes, more folks move away, aside from your old fool diehards like myself, of course.’ He does a rumble deep in his chest I understand to be his laugh, but sobers pretty quick and says, ‘But don’t get Belle started on that. Her pet project is…’ he breaks off to check his mirror and pull across to the other side of the road and eases in at the kerbside next to High Beam Auto Repairs and Diagnostics. ‘Now, let’s see if we can’t get you back on the road and on your way.’
I guess I’ll never know what Belle’s pet project is. I get in front of him and hold open the heavy plastic curtain hanging over the open doorway and he goes in ahead of me. The floor is cement and oil, dirty rags and tools. Up on the wall, an old tube style TV is hanging out, tuned in to KYTV and turned up loud, trailing one of them reality shows Mama used to give the finger: Brooke Adler’s Random Acts of Kindness. There’s a music radio station on too and the sound of a blow torch working hard. Whole place smells good and familiar to me.
Somebody’s legs are sticking out from under a tow truck, greasy blue overalls and work boots are all I can see of him. ‘Is that you under there?’ Beau asks, bending to look. ‘Fellow here might have some work for you.’ Mechanic shoves a foot, comes rolling out on the dolly and sits up, reaching a hand out to Beau, who grabs it and pulls. 13 ‘Well who the hell else is it going to be, Beau? You think there’s ever going to be enough work in this town for me to hire help?’
I get that feeling of surprise that makes me want to kick myself; Mama’d be shaking her head at me right about now. ‘I raised you better’n that,’ she’d tell me. ‘Never assume, it makes an ass out of u and me.’ I got so tired of that old joke I stopped hearing it, which tells you something maybe about how long it takes me to learn a thing. Or not.
Anyhow, the mechanic ain’t a fella at all, but a woman about my age maybe, thirty some and real tall and rangy, backwoods to the core; she got that pale-eyed, cagey look but it disappears the minute she smiles, which she does just about every time something comes out of her mouth, just not at me. ‘
Hey,’ she says, leaning back against the truck and wiping her hands down her pants legs. ‘You must be the guy Lark pulled out of the snow. Lucky she came by.’ She turns her look on Beau again. ‘Did you ever see anything like it? Lark says her mama’n daddy remember an ice storm one spring to rival it, killed every last sprout they’d planted, but never saw a snowstorm like this in all their years farming.’
‘I can’t say I ever have,’ Beau tells her. ‘And damage to spring crops is going to be bad.’ He turns and puts a hand on my shoulder, and I flinch before I can think and that old fellow, he just squeezes and lets go with a pat, like he’s quieting a horse.
‘Cassidy, Evangeline here is our local doctor of all things to do with engines, like her daddy before her, and if she can’t get your van back on the road, it’s not going to happen.’ ‘Lark says you’ll need your van towed?’ I nod, but I’m unsure of what I need, and I’m concerned that towing is just the tip of this iceberg; I think again about the noise and smell and swallow hard. Evangeline is looking at me, suspicious and I would say, unfriendly. ‘Let’s get something straight, right off the bat. I 14 do not run a good-will service here. Unlike everybody else in this damn town. I’m not towing no van for charity, you got it?’
‘Now look here, Ev,’ Beau starts in, ‘least you can do is get that sucker off the side of the road. It’s a hazard to all and as far as I can make out,’ he turns to look at me then and says, ‘it’s your home, am I right?’ I nod and look at the doorway. ‘If we don’t move it soon, someone else will and Cassidy here will lose anything he owns.’
‘Well, I can’t bring it here,’ Evangeline tells him, grudging. ‘I don’t have the space. Unless you’re good for the money,’ she says at me.
Something sparks then, inside me, fires up for a second and I look right back at her. Hard ass, I think, but truth be told I kind of admire her straight talk. ‘Do I look like a body who has any money?’ I ask her then, and she raises an eyebrow at me. First time, right there, that her smile is at me.
‘Levi’s looking for help,’ she says and I’m struck by a thought that leaves me feeling empty; I’m now a man with nothing better to do, no call on his time nor company; it don’t make no difference to nobody if I put up in a broken down mountain town and take a job.
‘Levi’s always looking for help,’ Beau cuts in. ‘What kind of help?’ I ask and the mechanic, she gets that look that tells me I ain’t no better than I am, who the hell am I to be picky?
‘Bar work. Does it matter? It pays.’
And I think, well, she’s right. Does anything matter? I put my hand in my pocket and tap, tap, my finger on the little box.
Beau offers me a ride to Levi’s, but I’m done being inside of things for now.
‘I’ll stretch my legs,’ I tell him. ‘Get a feel for the place.’
Evangeline snorts. ‘Looking for the bright lights?’ she asks and lowers herself onto the dolly again; she sure is salty.
Outside, Beau points the way we came, and tries to talk me out of walking.
‘Forecast says clear,’ he tells me. ‘But it’s real cold and about to get colder. You don’t want to be doing yourself another bad turn in the cold now, do you?’
But there’s something in his manner, unhurried, kind, like he won’t take it bad if I make up my own mind.
I set out on foot to get to know the place. It’s an old habit I have from a child. When Mama and me came again to a new place, I’d roam about getting a feel for it, barefoot if I could, until I could find my way about in the dark if I cared to.
The auto shop is lonely on its own, just outside town, and the walk is further than I imagined. I get to wondering if I didn’t miss the turn in the road. There ain’t no kerbside, which is usual in these parts, so I walk along the paved road, keeping my ears sharp for oncoming vehicles.
Beau weren’t wrong; it is cold. And what began as a clear, pretty day, is fast clouding up and I’m starting to miss the winter sun that was. I pull the collar of my jacket closer around my neck. A movement snags at the corner of my eye and right away lifts my spirit a little; I always did like to pace myself alongside a woodpecker. I like the way they fly; dipping and rising and getting ahead, then waiting. It’s a friendly sort of game, trying to see if you can catch up while it waits at the next tree, or electricity pole. When I was a boy, I liked to think they was showing me the way and I let myself think that right now.
I keep walking, striding long to get my blood going. I can hear the crunch of my feet on grit, but the snow, still laying out over everything, seems to muffle most other sounds excepting for the one or two that are sharper to my 16 ear than they might otherwise be; silence and birdsong, calling and answering each other, and just for a moment the world good and clean. If I could just stay right here, with nothing but the birds and the trees to contend with, and this cold, sharp air that numbs everything, I might be okay. The woodpecker gives up on me and starts pulling at loose bark, getting at something good to eat. I stop to watch him for a moment before the cold slides up my legs and presses at the bones behind my ears.
About a half hour after I leave Beau, the road widens and the trees thin out, and I find myself coming out into the open, the tarmac road widening out and sloping away towards a long, low row of square, flat-fronted stores and buildings. There’s a white striped painted crossroad, but only one of the crossings seems to take you anyplace. The other leads you straight into a big old pine-mulched bed of shrubs, weighed down with snow. The square, brick, building on the corner, white paint peeling off of it everywhere you look, has a patchwork of bright painted murals telling you to LOVE where you LIVE historic Horse Neck Creek don’t drink and drive, y’all! Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot else to see.
I look about for the striped awning Beau showed me before and follow his directions to Levi’s Bar and Grill. It stands in a dirty old parking lot, set back from the kerbside, with overfilled dumpsters and oil spills and who knows what else staining the paving. The whole place looks tired-er than me and just as used to it. There ain’t no windows, and the metal door must be a security service put up after the bailiffs come in. I take a moment to wonder if Beau and Evangeline was messing with me; Levi’s long dead and gone and nobody’s home; nobody’s looking for help. But fixed above the flat roof is a red, neon sign, fizzing a little every now and then and telling me this here is Levi’s and there’s an arrow swooping down towards the beat-up metal door to emphasise the point.
Now I wouldn’t put it past that salty car mechanic to mess with a stranger for her own type of fun, but I can’t think it of Beau, so I pull at the door and it opens easy enough into a storm lobby papered all over with flyers telling about hardwood for sale, a deal on a four by four with trailer, and an All U Can Eat Pit Barbecue long since passed. Tacked up onto the glass in the saloon door is a piece of paper reading: Last day to sign up for this month’s grocery run is the 21st, that’s THIS COMING THURSDAY folks! Sorry! NO exceptions! Thanks for helping us make this happen! Lark and Belle x. Somebody has drawn a little smiley face and heart next to their names.
Inside tells a whole different story to the sorry tale outside in the parking lot. It’s a big, dark, barroom, but lit nice, with green and red coloured glass shades. It’s longer than it is wide with framed photos over the walls of folks having wholesome, country-style fun and there’s a signed photo of what looks like it might be the inside of this very bar, with a band playing at one end. I stand real still, enjoying the warm and slowly notice the signs of life; quiet sounds of busy; clatter of dishes, bottles in crates being moved about and music—radio maybe— coming up the back stairs. As you might expect, there’s a long, dark-wood bar, beat and scuffed up, running all along the back wall, fronted by —ain’t no surprises here—slat-backed, padded leatherette bar stools swivelled towards a wall-hung TV over in the corner. I soon see it ain’t the only one in here; there’s numbers of them. They’re all over the damn place.
I call out towards the sounds of bottles being moved about and after a couple more hollers, a hefty fella in a green Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky t-shirt rolls through the doorway, behind the bar, and wipes his top lip with the back of his hand. ‘…do for you?’ he says, swallowing the front part of his sentence, and for a moment there I forget what I’m doing here. Or maybe I’m having second thoughts.
Levi tells me he has an opening for evening bar work, which suits me fine, and while he explains how the place works and how much he pays, I try and work out how long it’ll take me to earn enough to get my van fixed and move on. I give up after a minute, on account of how Levi calculates what he pays; they got minimum wage here in Kentucky, but, he says, as though I might start reading him my rights, the law says he don’t need to pay it if there’s tips involved.
‘I’ll have you working the bar and you’re in control, see?’ he says. ‘It’ll incentivise you—you know what that means? It’ll incentivise you to be decent to my customers.’
An older woman, beech-nut coloured hair done up like she’s going someplace, straightens from over the other side of the bar where she’s been setting up a microphone and messing with some tables and chairs. ‘The law says,’ she calls out, in a friendly voice. ‘The law says that if your employees don’t make minimum wage with their tips, the employer—that would be you, Levi, honey— the employer needs to make it up.’
She makes her way across the barroom and puts her hand out and I take it in mine. In that instant, I realise I haven’t touched another person’s skin in months and it pricks at me, almost makes me dizzy. I take my hand back, stroking at it with my other one. She talks with her hands, and her wrists, loaded as they are with silver and turquoise bracelets, make a fine, jingle-ringing while her hands are non-stop coaxing and shaping the air about her; it’s like she’s sketching the pictures of what she’s saying.
‘I don’t know you,’ she says to me, as though this is a thing of wonder. She looks me over, head to toe and back again and smiles. ‘I’m Belle and if you have any questions or suggestions, you just come on over and talk to me.’
She’s tall, a big woman, almost looks me right in the eye and it’s a real seeing look she gives; I look away. So, this is Belle.
‘Is this here your place too, ma’am?’ I ask.
‘Mercy, no!’ She laughs, and I get a flash of a couple gold teeth. ‘I have the beauty parlour on Main, that’s my baby. But I’m here a good deal of the time, just like everybody else. Levi’s is the front porch of our town.’ That makes me smile and she smiles right back. ‘Now before you head out, come and help me move these tables and tell me a little something about yourself.’
She’s turned and walking back to her arrangement. I look at Levi, wondering if we’re done. ‘I know better than to get in her way,’ he says. ‘I’ll see you back here tomorrow night, 5pm. Don’t let me down.’