Learning to Drive Home from the Bar

By Erika D. Price

MAY JEAN, age twelve, sits on the white-washed porch of the Swamp Fox Inn waiting for her parents and picking at her scabs in the glow of the Milky Way. Miles from any city of any size, the starlight is immense even in the moon’s absence. A superstitious child, she’s glad there’s no moon this evening.

Inside the Swamp Fox, her parents quarrel and dance. Her mother, Opal, is radiant in pin curls and downtown makeup, swiveling generous hips to the garbled sounds of an old record. In the dimness of the inside, her cheaply rouged cheeks are like thick, purple peaches. Gazing in the door, May Jean watches her mother guffaw and stomp and clutch closely against a man in oil-stained overalls. May Jean squints to see past her mother, past her spinning and spinning with the man, their hands intertwined, the music sinking under the din of glasses and laughter and the stomping of gravelly boots. Her father can’t be seen.

She waits on the porch in her pedal-pushers, and runs a bored hand through the damp bluegrass. She’s used to waiting here. Once, she tried taking off her sweater and bunching it into a pillow so she could sleep a spell on the deck. It had proven too loud. May Jean was used to sleeping to the drone of crickets and the twinkle of rain, and could stop her ears effectively against hollering when it was only two people. Here, in town, outside the bar, the drunken human sounds were multiplied to cacophony. It was too dark to read and too bright and loud to properly doze. She sure didn’t want to watch the revelry in there, either.

*

The Swamp Fox Inn was a rickety operation on a dirt path just off the Big Rock Mountain. May Jean and her parents lived in a shack on the mountain’s other edge, meaning over the mountain, which was accessible only by a thin strip of road that ran up and along the folds of the mountain’s curved sides. Her daddy, Malus, worked in the mines on that side of the mountain, and their home was in a muddy clearing with about two dozen other mining families. That was the whole population—some miners, their wives and kids, and hundreds of useless green crabapple trees. They all built their one-room shacks together in the clearing, without disturbing the plants or troubling to build a city hall, or their own bar, or anything else. They called it Crab Orchard.

All the men toiled in the mountain’s shadow by day, and travailed its precarious sides in search of the Swamp Fox by night. Mostly their wives and children didn’t accompany them. They waited in their shacks or out on their sun-burnt lawns, sipping rubbing alcohol and lemonade out of mason jars and drooling rivulets of tobacco onto their cotton hammocks all night, too bleary by the time their husbands returned to make any proper note of it. No housewife bounded out of her stupor and ran across the clearing to her husband, remarking how relieved she was he made it back across safely despite his having drunk a half-gallon of bathtub gin.

Nor did anyone blame the mountain’s craggy sides when a man sometimes failed to return, and was presumed by the community to have plummeted over Big Rock Mountain’s edge. Perhaps the drink was blamed, but if so, it was done with dripping-dry irony, mentioned blithely as the town’s women sipped their own drinks and clucked with gossip while hanging lines of wash. No one ever seemed perturbed by these all-too-timely deaths.

Drunk driving wasn’t even a concept yet. Neither were seat belts. The men worked in the mines, for godsake, and death was blandly faced on a daily basis. Death they confronted in the form of accidental explosions, freak cave-ins, poisoned water tables, drunken brawls, coal truck pile-ups, equipment failures, gas leaks, fires, and, among the older men, cancer and black lung. The town’s kids perished of childbirth, fever, fainting, dehydration, Lyme disease, spider bites, heat stroke, alcohol poisoning, panther attack, and gun accidents. The wives died of childbirth, alcoholism, gun accidents, car accidents, old age, hangings, pill overdoses, drowning, and occasionally, serious beatings. May Jean knew this was just the way things worked. Sixteen, eighteen hours a day underground will drive a man and his kin sick in all manner of ways. The post-bar car wrecks that happened a handful of times a year were part of the cost of living, and May Jean hadn’t ever lived anywhere else.

*

The town was also a big moonshine stop, had been since the days when booze was illegal, and hooch remained the town’s second chief export after coal. The women, the invalids, and the boys who were too young for the mines all fermented what they could in whatever earthenware vessels they had lying around. Near to every family in Crab Orchard had a closet or spare outhouse filled with warm, sweaty containers of homemade whiskey or vodka or port. May Jean’s momma kept jars of sweetened Sun Tea out brewing in the light several extra days or weeks at a time, until the candy-like drink had coagulated into a sour-sticky rum of sorts, which she sold to neighbors for pennies or drank by herself throughout the day, sprinkled with shavings from the icebox.

“Rum-running is a longtime family tradition,” she’d tell May Jean, sipping and fanning herself in the shade. “Ever since my own granddaddy fled here from Spain with a big ole cask of red and sold it on the Indian Reserves, back in slavery times. It’s our craft, alright.”

The first time she heard this, May Jean had asked what other crafts they had. Dancing, say, or patchwork. Maybe a nice flamenco, from the old country?

Her mom had boxed her ears. “Hush up, I can’t hear you with my head ringing. I was sayin’, this here is our craft. You thinkin’ you’re better’n that? You want some kinda art?” Here she had held up her glass. “This is what our kin brought us. This is what we know how to do, so take some gosh-damned pride in it. Anything done artfully can be art.” And then she had spat a cockroach-sized plug of tobacco into the empty cup, and rolled over to sleep.

*

This local industry was nearly as dangerous as the mining was. Kids were born blind or dull, with faces that seemed squished together and too small for their own bodies. Parents would go to bed hot and sweaty, raving with drink, and by morning they would be cold and pruney, never to wake up. Sometimes folks just plumb went mad. May Jean’s own uncle had died under bizarre, whiskey-fueled circumstances, a year or two back. The occurrence had already been distilled into legend: he’d gotten too greedy in his dealings, he’d tried to encroach on the mob, and started peddling his moonshine in Nashville. They’d understandably protected their assets by purging him from the map. Strung him up, and propped his body like a scarecrow against a tree.  It’s just the cost of buying cheap and selling dear.

*

For all these reasons, May Jean sits outside the Swamp Fox placidly. Crab Orchard is simply a danger-infused place. And May Jean has never been sober of the small town’s influence, its petty dependencies and terrors. Adults drink, and dance, and rage at each other, and people stumble around and fall into ruin and die, and that’s just how it settles, and there’s nothing about it to fear. She sits on the porch in the glow of the bar and hears the clanking of glass and tries to read Anne of Green Gables for the fourth time.

But the night, this time, goes long. She can see her pretty mother dancing, can see her knowing, to herself, that she’s too pretty for this rust-bucket shitfuck town, and can hear her mother spitting white wine onto the Fox’s sooty floor, grinding her cigarette butt into the wet dirt with the ball of her high heel.

She can see the light in the fireplace dimming. She can see the stars turning pale in expectation of the sun, and she reckons it’s near to four AM. The men all have to trudge to the mines by eight. The more tired the tree, the more gnarled its branches, she knows. Tired fists rain down on you more harshly than do well-rested ones. It’s counter intuitive, but it doesn’t take much testing to learn.

May Jean goes around the side of the Swamp Fox, running her fingers across the building’s scalloped, shingled panels. Ain’t no one there. The paint is chipping in big chunks, each unearthed segment resembling some alien continent or sand-blasted mountain range. How many men and idle children have straddled this line and pulled off strips with their quick-bitten digits? May Jean pulls at a strip of paint—she’s done this before, many times, beginning when she was just a tiny kid.

Her dad used to ride down the mountainside in his red truck with her sitting in his lap, helping shift the gears and steer while he moved the gas and brake pedals below. He’d pull into the Swamp Fox’s driveway and plop her beside the building, leaving her to flick the paint off the building with a hickory branch while he swilled bourbon and let the sun set. That was before momma Opal had started joining them. For years, she’d been too sick to drink. Then all of a sudden, when May turned nine, she got better, and from then on the whole family went to the bar together.

Now May Jean pulls at a hunk of paint far up the building’s side, too high almost to reach. The paint unspools from the wood like twine unfurling under the pull of a kite. She goes on her tippy-toes trying to strip it further, and further, thinking perhaps she can clear a path of wood that goes straight up to the roof. But then the great plane of whitewash snaps, and disconnects from the building, and collapses into May Jean’s grimy hand. It’s long and narrow like Italy. Or perhaps just Florida. Either place May Jean would be delighted to visit all the same, but she’s never made it even to Memphis. She drops the hunk of paint into the grass, where a graveyard of much smaller chunks have come to rest with bottle caps and cigarette butts.

Inside, she can hear her mother still spinning and cackling with the other men. This must mean that May Jean’s daddy isn’t inside at all—he’d have gotten cross with her wailing, so much like a cat in heat, by now. Most men don’t bring their wives and children with them to the bar. This fact makes May Jean feel like something precious, something which must be closely kept.  This same fact makes her mother Opal a social and sexual magnet: the men who come to the Swamp Fox solo are drawn to her, and she gulps down their attentions as hungrily as their beer.

Some gay prohibition-era ditty is blaring, tinlike, through the building’s thin walls, and May Jean can picture her mother leaning into some gruff feller, balancing her large, curly head on the guy’s weary shoulder, and whimpering lustily. May Jean imagines the man is weary from lifting accumulated tons of rock and coal and soot with a big steel shovel for decades, so that a knot has coiled into his shoulder as thick and pulsing as a child’s heart. He’s weary from lugging a lunch pail of ham sandwiches and milk into the great pit beside the mountain, then lugging his starving self out sixteen hours later, every day, for thirty years. Weary from half a dozen children and a liverspotted old toad of a wife waiting for him with slack jaws. Weary from downing pint after pint here every night in avoidance of that family he’s unwittingly created. If her mother is some kind of paltry solace, maybe that’s not so bad.

May Jean goes behind the bar and finds a small gaggle of men smoking and surveying the stars. Among them is her father, Malus. He’s sitting on an overturned jug and throwing cards into the dirt with a couple other men, plumes of tobacco enshrouding him. An opaque cup rests at his side.

“Jean-bug!” he exclaims when he spots his daughter. “Pop a squat here and help me sort out what to do.”

He invites his daughter to take a seat in the grass beside him, his face ruddy with pride, and love, and whiskey. Just thirty-eight years of age, his eyes are already cloudy and hard for May Jean to connect with, as if he’s always staring into heaven, or crying, or both. Clear sight is no requirement underground.

Across the pile of dusty cards, an older mine worker titters at them. “Nah, son, that’s cheating. You just gone and doubled the total brains sitting at this game in one fell swoop.” He winks at May Jean. She has a reputation in town, because she can read and likes to. It’s akin to being a witch or a communist, almost.

They’re playing War, as it turns out, so May Jean’s not much use as a consultant. She inhales the smell of her father’s whiskey and hand-rolled cigarettes and watches the cards go down, feeling the men’s sweat and body heat radiating against her. Years in uncirculated air has anesthetized them to the heat.

Another man, John Jimmy, who lives in Crab Orchard in a shack two houses to the left, hands May Jean a cinnamon stick from his breast pocket, and winks at her. She reels back slightly from her perch in the dirt, without really knowing why. The music and drunkenness continues inside unencumbered. The longer they stay out here, the worse it will be, May Jean knows. The worse the position her mom’ll end up in. And yet, the longer it is, the longer until she needs to worry. If she can keep her daddy out here all night, then perhaps he and Opal will both pass out, and no one will be the wiser.

As she strikes this thought, her dad begins to slump in his seat, the cards drifting out of his hand slowly. May Jean lifts his cup and finds it surprisingly light– near empty, in fact. The men chuckle and John Jimmy puts a thick palm on May Jean’s knee, just shy of where her pedal pushers end.

“I think he needs to get to bed,” John Jimmy tells her, lurching forward. His teeth are blue-brown from decades of swilling wine and chew, and May Jean’s stomach swivels deep inside her. “Why don’t we go ask the proprietor if’n he’ll hole your folks up for the night. Ya’ll never stay, but they ain’t call it an Inn for nothing.”

May Jean bolts up. “I’ll see to it, thank you,” she says, her arms spread oddly wide, and she trudges across the grass and around the bar’s side in tight, fast, resolute strides, too clipped and sudden for John Jimmy to follow. She’s burning on instinct. She suspects that leaving her daddy asleep in a motel room and her mom drunk and unattended is a nasty, misfortune-beckoning mix. She doesn’t want to be stuck here alone.

She pops into the bar, and strides past the front tables, where other men are slumped over sleeping and drooling. She slides past her own momma, who’s curled up in a booth and near to sleeping herself, her long legs akimbo in the overalled man’s lap. May Jean’s little heart sinks as it always does when she sees the remains of the revelry inside. She floats past the worn, hand-carved pool table, past the men betting over dice and backgammon, and swims up to the bar. She has to plop her skinny ass into a stool to see the barkeep.

“Honey what you want in here?” the proprietor asks. “Dumpy knows I don’t cotton to babysitting.”

Dumpy is what everyone else calls May Jean’s daddy. Sometimes even she does, but not when things are serious. In the corner of her eye, she spies her mother’s legs rolling about in the booth, knocking her worn heels against an empty snifter of brandy.

The girl rallies herself and says, “I think we might be needing a room tonight, sir. My daddy’s gotten sleepy all a-sudden.” She reaches shyly into the pockets of her pedal pushers and withdraws a dime but palms it, ashamed it might not be enough.

“Your daddy don’t have the credit for that, pumpkin,” the barkeep says without a glance. “Seems like this all oughta be your momma’s trouble . . . but it looks like she’s beyond getting bothered at this point.”

He makes a show of casting his eyes across the bar, to Opal. May Jean doesn’t turn to see. She knows enough by now and wants none of the guilt of acknowledgement. Her momma nipping at some old so-and-so’s collarbone. Her décolletage slipping out the side of her dress, her miserable old shirtwaist dress she’s had since the thirties. It all makes May Jean want to puke, to flee, to down herself a bottle of mouthwash and set off hitchhiking for California.

She catches her own eye in the bar’s thin, greasy mirror. What is this knobby, freckled, red-as-a-peanut girl doing in here? Who’s gonna make sure she gets home alright? But nobody. And what’s she gonna make of her own tired self? She big enough for this, or not? How would Anne of Green Gables sort this shit out?

The record snaps off, and May Jean turns. Her daddy is there, ramrod straight and sober as a skunk, somehow, standing in the doorway. “Opal Whitehead, you lousy old bitch!” he hollers, and May Jean’s momma rolls awake in the man’s lap.

“Muhhallie? There you are . . .” Opal tries, vaguely, resting her arm on the table, kicking her legs about in the booth, trying to rally herself upward. Malus crosses the chasm, slamming the bar’s worn screen against its frame. The barkeep says softly to May Jean, “Go out back,” but she doesn’t.

The man in overalls comes slowly to life under Opal’s wriggling form. “Huh?” he says, his voice limpid and thick as a bottle of bitters. Opal is sitting up, her plump bottom right on the poor fella’s chest, Malus drawing in. May Jean wonders if she’ll have to throw herself in between them.

“What in the blue dog-screwing fuck is this supposed to be?” he says, drawing in on them. Opal kicks the brandy glass over and it shatters underwhelmingly.

“I was looking for you—” Opal tries, and Malus grabs her by the wrists and throws her from the booth. She skitters across the floor and comes to rest behind him, her eyes wild and red, her cheap mascara leaking crustily across her face. The man in overalls is struggling to stand but before he can get a solid footing outside of the booth, Malus wallops him squarely in the corner of his forehead. He slides down, the back of his skull bumping the table’s edge.

Leaning on her husband’s thick shoulder, Opal says, “Sweetie—”

“You hush up.”

He kicks the man in the chest, though not over-hard, for the man sputters and kicks and spits up a touch of vomit but does not pass out. May Jean watches her mom struggle against Malus, trying to push past him. He flings her back, but grabs her firmly by the arm before she can fly out of his reach or crash against the wall.

“Whatcha gonna do Opal? Huh? Kiss his boo-boos?” he says.

The man slides around in a pool of indeterminate wetness, his legs flailing in search of ground but not finding it. May Jean knows Anne of Green Gables would feel for him, but she herself is glad to see a bloom of blood and bruise erupting across his head.

“Well? Or are you comin’ home with us?”

May Jean’s momma whines quietly, rubbing at her eyes and lips. She looks ghastly, a watercolor painting of a clown in a picture book. With a shaking hand she takes Malus by the arm.

May Jean’s daddy cocks a glance over to her at the bar. “Let’s git, bug,” he tells her. “And bring me over a beer.”

He cracks the bottle open as they approach the truck. May Jean knows the deal by now. Her mom gets into the back seat first, sobbing quietly. By the time her head touches the window’s glass, though, she’s out. Malus crawls in behind the driver’s seat. He leans forward and puts his keys in May Jean’s hand.

May Jean pulls the seat forward, both to locate the pedals with her feet and to accommodate her father’s large frame. When May Jean was little, he’d control the gas and break, but put her on his lap: she’d steer the wheel against the slow curve of the mountain road, shifting the stick when he grunted for her to. But his drinking and her size had outgrown this method long ago.

She turns the key and notices one headlight has died. It’s not a legal matter that concerns her when she notices this. The right edge of the road will be hard to discern in the dark; she’ll have to swerve and hope and guess where the pavement ends and the cliff starts. She hears her father scold her mother, call her a whore and run his big hands along her cheek, and she hears him slur and then pass out. When she was a little girl, she drove in his lap and he had to stay awake. He used to tell her to slap him when his head started to duck forward into sleep. Not anymore.

She backs the truck out of the Swamp Fox parking lot. The truck is old and red, with chipping paint and a dead headlight. She can feel the weakness of the tires on the uneven gravel, but she knows no different. All roads and wheels are weak here. The alignment has always been off.

May Jean puts Anne of Green Gables under her seat. When she was smaller, she had to sit on the book to see over the wheel. It doesn’t trouble her now; she just strains and squints her poor eyes into the night. There aren’t any cars coming down the mountain. She climbs up, shifting gears, pumping the brakes in her sandals when she hits a patch of wetness or a dip in the pavement. Her family snores and gurgles in the back seat, the beer bottle rocking and swaying along with her swerves, clanging against the many other glass bottles and aluminum cans left from the countless nights before.

May Jean reaches behind the seat and claims the bottle, and downs the last warm puddle of booze from the glass. The car rocks back and forth as she steers it gently around the sides of Big Rock, in and out, around the sloping, unfenced, precarious curves, one hand clenching the wheel, the other dangling the beer. Her parents used to watch her drive, and shout when she steered them too close to the edge. There are many skeletons of cars and men down there. Now she has outgrown all that.

___

Erika D. Price is a social psychologist and fiction writer living in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has been published in EFiction, EFiction Horror, Red Fez, and others, and is the author of an e-novella published by Thunderune Press. She writes all her first drafts on the notepad of her phone, which probably makes her look like a perpetually-texting woman-child to those around her.


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