There’s some think she’s my daughter or I’m her pimp, but neither is true. We got married last summer in Las Vegas at a drive-through chapel that I rented a convertible for, thinking it would make the event a glamorous memory, but mainly it turned out hot and dusty. Worse, she burned the back of her legs on the vinyl seat so bad she threatened to divorce me on the spot. If she left me, I think I’d miss her anger the most. It’s a kind of attention and I’ve attached myself to the habit of having it around.
She’s a freckle-faced woman with a wispy-type mustache that you can’t hardly see. Last night she had a dream I said something unkind to her and she’s been mad all day, won’t even talk to me. One thing she don’t get mad about is how I treat her. I’ve been married four times, and I know what women want—they want to think their hair looks good, their behind isn’t big and their shoes are cute.
A week ago I got the idea of going back to Kentucky for the first time in 30 years, coming home in style with a new truck and a new wife and enough money to buy a piece of land. We drove two days and stopped at a roadhouse just over the county line. They didn’t used to have bars here. Every few years the bootleggers and the preachers got in cahoots to keep liquor out, but the wet vote finally won. This joint had a jukebox, a pool table and a sink in the men’s room patched with driveway caulk. I wanted to find out if my family name was still as bad as when I took off. There’s a gob of us Tollivers, good ones, bad ones and married-in ones. My branch was the worst.
My wife was still stubbed up over her bad dream and wouldn’t talk to me. I joined a Melungeon-looking man sitting alone, his hand pressed to the jukebox. He just smiled and nodded with his mouth clamped like somebody bored at church. I thought maybe he didn’t care for strangers, but the bartender said the man was deaf and liked to feel the vibrations. I played songs with a heavy bass beat and put my hand on the other end of the jukebox. We sat there looking at each other and I thought about the advantages of being deaf. For one thing I wouldn’t have to listen to my wife not talking to me. Her silence was loud as a bowling alley.
I ordered another bourbon and attempted conversation with the bartender, a big man wearing a T-shirt with a pocket puffed out from a can of dip. He moved to the far end of the bar to watch reality on TV. Me, I like my reality out in the world, but I kept that to myself. I tried talking to my wife, but she’d drawed back into herself. She is younger than me and wears halter tops with tattoos poking out of the cloth part. She’s got a wild streak that every fool before me tried to tamp down, but I don’t believe in that sort of thing. She has a right to live how she pleases. Out in El Paso one time she took her clothes off and went swimming at a backyard pool party. I’m pretty sure some cowboys wanted to put the blocks to her but were too scared to try it. They knew I went about armed with a snub-nose .38, nothing fancy, a gun you could find at any swap meet.
An older couple came through the door. The man wore a feed-store cap high enough on his head to show the bald spot he was trying to hide. They went straight to a table. He circled the chair twice like a dog ready to settle in while she unloaded her purse—a pack of long skinny cigarettes, a compact and a little plastic packet of photos. I told the bartender to put their drinks on my tab and raised my glass to them. He lifted a finger off his glass like a rural driver giving a wave. I figured I’d let them drink for a while before going over and seeing if they knew my family.
My wife got tired of sulking in the corner and sat beside me like we were old buddies. That storm raging through her head had moved on down the road. She looked at the couple and pursed her lips to point at them, a habit she picked up from living with Indians out West.
“You think they have sex?” she said.
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
“Then what’s the point of them being together?”
“Maybe they’re happy,” I said.
“You mean the reason why we have a lot of sex is we’re not happy?”
“No, I’m talking about them. Not us.”
“Are you happy?” she said.
I took a drink of bourbon and branch, thinking how best to go on. Her questions generally come in the yes or no variety, and either answer might set her off. It’s like talking to a cop, the only group of people I don’t much care for.
“Reckon I’m like anybody,” I said. “Happy when I got something I want. Not happy if I don’t. It comes and goes.”
“What I mean is are you happy in general. And with me?”
“In general, no. With you, mostly. With our sex, always.”
I grinned to myself, figuring I’d got out of that little trap pretty good. She finished her drink in one long swallow.
“Let’s have sex,” she said.
“The closest motel’s 20 miles away.”
“I was thinking of the truck.”
She gathered herself as if marching off to join a parade and headed straight for the door. I dropped a 20 on the bar and followed her into the yellow dirt parking lot. Dusk was drifting into the tree line, but the August heat draped over me like a heavy coat. My truck was full-size with a toolbox bolted in the bed. I had a gun rack for a while, but the strap gave out and if I braked hard, the fake mahogany swung forward and hit me in the back of the head. One night I’d had enough and threw it in the ditch and went on.
An old pickup eased in the lot, pulling a dented horse trailer, sending up a cloud of dust that coated the world with another layer of dirt. Two boys got out of the truck, brothers by the looks of them, long-haired with boots and jeans and sleeveless shirts. The driver checked on his load. The trailer was too small and the horse stood sideways with its head hunkered down. I felt sorry for the animal but figured that rig was the best those boys could do. The driver headed for the bar. The other one came toward us in a shambling walk like someone who’d forgotten how to use his legs then got cured by a preacher.
“Hidy,” he said. “I’m Bill. His retarded brother.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
He stared at my wife, something she’s used to on account of that red hair and freckles spread over her face like little spots of clay. The driver joined us. He was about 16 and his clothes were too big on him. I wondered what it was like to wear hand-me-downs from a big brother like his.
“Don’t pay him any mind,” the young one said. “He’s Bill my retarded brother.”
“Yeah,” I said, “he was just telling me that.”
“Is that a mustache?” Bill said to my wife.
Quick as a lizard, the young one slapped Bill in the back of the head.
“Don’t talk that way,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Bill said. “Okay, I’m sorry.” Then he turned to his brother. “Are you sorry you hit me?”
“Yes, I am. Come on now, let’s go in.”
The young one headed toward the bar with Bill following like a pup.
“Hey,” I said. “You ain’t going to let him drink, are you?”
“No,” the young one said. “But he’s old enough to buy for me.”
I half wanted to go inside with them, but my wife had the truck door open. The low sun streaked her skin like flame. I got in the passenger side and set one foot on the floorboards and stretched my other leg across the bench seat. The sun slid down the sky, leaving stripes of red above the tree line. The sound of katydids kicked in, and a rain crow moaned from a field.
My wife had my pants open and was working me pretty good, then got the notion to try and tickle my prostate. She’d mentioned it a time or two and I said no way. I’d had a medical exam along those lines, and that was all I needed of that particular matter. But she wouldn’t let the idea alone. Every couple of weeks she’d pick back up on it, reciting stuff she’d read on the internet—how it would increase the pleasure of orgasm. I told her I didn’t have no complaints about the regular kind.
I felt the pickup truck shift a little in the back. I kind of got distracted from my wife. The truck rocked again and I figured somebody had climbed into the bed. I stretched my neck to see out the rear window, while reaching for the glove box. I eased it open and took hold of the .38. The effort forced a little grunt out of me, and my wife must have took that as a sign of encouragement because she started whirling her finger where I didn’t want no whirling to happen. I felt the truck move slightly to the passenger side. A big hand pressed against the window, then the shadow of a face. I aimed my pistol and was getting ready to sing out a warning, when my wife shoved her finger right up my backside and I shot wild through the window. The sound was terrible in the cab. My wife stopped what she was doing.
“What the eff?” she said. “What the fucking eff?”
I got out and leveled my gun. Bill sat in the truck bed, staring at his bloody palm. Window glass lay in his hair like a chandelier. I sobered up quick because shooting somebody, even a retarded man in Kentucky, would put me crossways with the law.
Across the narrow lot, the horse was hollering to beat the band, kicking against the gate. I saw Bill’s brother run from the bar to the trailer and open the gate. The horse came bucking out, scared by gunfire, and galloped down the road. Bill clambered out of my truck holding his hand, saying, “Okay, I’m sorry. Okay, I’m sorry. Okay, I’m sorry.”
The bartender came outside with a shotgun. Beside him stood the couple carrying the drinks I’d bought and I sent them a kind of half wave, which they failed to return. The deaf Melungeon peered through the window and I wondered if he felt the vibration from all the gunfire. The horse sure had. It was out of sight and the two brothers were walking down the road after it. The younger one was wrapping Bill’s shirt around his wound. I knew a man who shot himself in the hand while loading a flintlock rifle and managed to fire the ramrod through his palm and into the air. He came out of it fine and I figured Bill would too. He probably didn’t use his hand much but running it down his pants while window peeping.
My wife scooted across the seat to the passenger side and I circled the truck and got behind the wheel.
“We got to book it, baby,” I said.
“No,” she said. “We need to help those boys.”
“That’s not a real good idea, I don’t think.”
“Their horse is loose on account of us. We owe them.”
I pulled the ignition key from my pocket and didn’t speak.
“Do I ask you for much?” she said. “Do I ask you for anything?”
She tipped her head and lifted her eyebrows, stretching freckles as the skin pulled. A tiny shard of glass clung to her mustache. I brushed it away.
“Not really,” I said. “No.”
“Nothing,” she said. “No ring. No clothes. No shoes.”
“I give you everything anyway.”
“I know it,” she said. “You’re nice. But I’m asking now.”
The bartender had gone back inside and I figured he was already on the phone to the law.
“Please,” she said.
“On one condition,” I said. “No more of that finger business.”
I put the gun in the glove box and drove. The light was sliding away, dark already in the east, the air in the woods black as a cow’s insides. I swerved to pass the brothers, but my wife made me pick them up. Bill was scared until she said he could sit up front and he grinned as if it was a special treat. He held his hurt hand on his lap, wrapped in the bloody shirt. When he started in saying “I’m sorry,” my wife hushed him by saying that we were all sorry.
Half a mile farther we found the horse cropping grass, its coat gleaming with sweat, a long line of slobber running from its mouth. It was older than I’d thought, swaybacked and slow, and seemed more relieved than skittish when Bill got out. He began singing “Happy Birthday” in a rough whisper, out of key. His brother said it was the only song he knew. Holding the bridle in his good hand, Bill led the horse along the road back to the bar. My wife walked with him. I followed in the truck, riding the brake against the high idle and wasting gas. The little brother rode with me.
“How’d Bill get shot?” he said.
“I ain’t for sure,” I said. “Could’ve been somebody in the woods. Maybe he shot hisself.”
“He don’t have a gun.”
“That shows good sense,” I said. “What’s that horse’s name anyhow?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We just traded for him today. Aim to sell it in Mount Sterling. Now that money’ll go straight to the doctor’s bill.”
A sad look came in his eyes and I saw a way out of things, maybe not a full way out but a little shortcut. “I might could use a horse,” I said.
“It’s a good one,” he said. “That trailer hitch’ll fit this truck.”
We hemmed and hawed and by the time we got to the bar, we’d settled on a price that was higher than a cat’s back. I didn’t want a horse, don’t even like them much. They’re for bigwigs over in Lexington, but I felt kindly bad for shooting the boy’s brother and ended up owning a horse.
A late-model Crown Victoria sat in the tavern lot, solid white with black trim and black wheels and a spotlight on the driver’s side. I parked beside the boys’ truck. We switched the trailer to my rig and loaded the horse. A fat man, six feet tall, came out of the bar. He wore a Stetson and boots and official clothes with no necktie. We all stood in the lot watching each other. I didn’t want to talk first. Cops take that as a bad sign.
“How’d Bill hurt his hand?” the cop finally said.
My wife spoke before anyone else.
“I shot him,” she said.
“Say you did?” the cop said. He looked at Bill. “That right, son?”
“I’m sorry,” Bill said. “Okay, I’m sorry.”
He held out his hurt hand. The shirt wrapped it like a puff pastry with strawberry filling. A little breeze came out of the trees. The horse stomped twice, rattling the slat floorboards. I stared hard at my wife, trying to figure out what she was up to. There was no telling. She’d have made a good spy.
“He kinda grabbed at me,” she said. “I did it without thinking.”
“Say he grabbed at you?” the cop said.
“Yeah, at my bosom.”
Nobody said anything. The cop was probably thinking the same thing I was, that she didn’t have a lot of bosom to grab at. I got no complaints, though.
The cop looked at Bill’s brother.
“Is that right, Harry?” he said. “Was Bill bothering her?”
“I don’t know. I was in the bar. I went to the bathroom and when I came out, Bill was outside.”
“Bill,” the cop said. “Were you messing with that woman any?”
“I’m sorry,” Bill said. “I’m sorry.”
The cop gave me the once-over. He was familiar in a vague way and I figured I knew his cousins.
“You got anything to say?” he said to me.
“I was around the side taking a leak. Heard a gunshot and came running.”
“Ain’t that handy as a pocket on a shirt,” the cop said. “Everybody busy draining their radiator when a shooting happens.”
He looked at the younger boy.
“How bad is Bill hurt?” the cop said.
“Not too bad. A finger shot off is all.”
The cop lifted his hat and wiped sweat off his forehead and spat in the dirt. It was something he’d done a thousand times, the sort of thing people do to give them time to think. He made a clicking sound in his mouth.
“All right,” he said. “Harry, you run Bill to the hospital.”
“Bill don’t like the hospital,” Harry said.
“Nobody does, son. But that stub gets itself infected and he’ll lose a lot more than a finger. Go on, now.” They nodded and walked to their truck and left. I wondered which finger was gone. My wife stood by the trailer talking to the horse. We’d all had a strange day, even the horse.
“You look a Tolliver,” the cop said.
“I am,” I said.
“They’s so many of you all, I can’t hardly keep track.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “We can.”
“Which bunch are you out of?”
“Up on Clay Creek. I’m Big Joe’s first boy. What’s your name?”
“Richard Martin,” he said.
“I went to school with some Martin boys.”
“Son, you went to school with me.”
“Dickie Lee?” I said.
He nodded. A grin wrinkled the middle of his face, a cockeyed set to his lips, high on one side and showing gum. I recognized him. He’d always had that smile, full of mischief the teachers said.
“You growed some,” I said.
“And you’ve gone gray-headed.”
“Shit fire,” I said.
“And save matches,” he said.
We laughed at the ancient joke from grade school. Dickie Lee was a year ahead of me, fat even then but a lot shorter and always laughing. I remembered him getting beat on by a boy named Dwayne. I’d thrown rocks at Dwayne till he let up, then hid in the woods.
“Are you a deputy?” I said.
“No. A constable.”
“I didn’t know they had them around here.”
“It’s a new development,” he said. “Sheriff had 12 deputies and it wasn’t enough and the county wouldn’t give him no more. There’s four constables now.”
“Why they need so many?”
“Drugs, son. Meth and oxy.”
“Whatever happened to that boy, Dwayne something or other?”
“Johnson,” he said. “Dwayne Johnson.”
“He left out of here on an assault charge and stood gone 20 years. Lived in Florida with a different name. Came home for a funeral and I arrested him. He didn’t know me from Adam’s cat. But I don’t forget things. You still yet good at throwing rocks?”
“I’m out of practice.”
“Who’s that girl to you?”
“Ugly old bastard like you?”
“It’s a new marriage,” I said.
“I figured that,” he said. “You let her carry a gun?”
“It’s mine. It’s in the glove box.”
“Concealed is against the law.”
“So is pawing at ladies,” I said.
“Way I see it, we got a he-said-she-said situation.”
The sun was almost gone and shadows lay in patches. I could hear my wife clean glass out of the truck cab, the horse stirring in the trailer. Either I shouldn’t have come back or not left in the first place.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” Dickie Lee said.
“Been 30 years. But seems like no time and forever both at once.”
“I know what you mean. I was over in Vanceburg seeing my daddy in a home. He’s got the Parkinson.”
“That’s a damn shame, Dickie Lee.”
“He calls me that. Not many still yet do.”
“Let’s go inside and have a drink.”
“I don’t fool with cocktails,” he said. “But I will take a Ale-8.”
I fetched my wife and told her not to say anything, that it was all taken care of, and we went on in the bar. Everyone sat in the same place as before. The old couple waved this time. The deaf Melungeon was in his spot by the jukebox. Like everything in Kentucky, not much changed in here, no matter what happened. I remembered the old joke: What did Jesus say to the hillbillies before he died? Don’t you all do nothing till I get back.
I ordered bourbon and listened to Dickie Lee and my wife chat about dogs, church and football. As a Texan she could hold her own. I ordered another drink, trying to regain that cheerful feeling I’d had a couple of hours ago. The music quit and the Melungeon stirred and my wife went to play some songs. Dickie Lee watched her go, and it seemed to me he was looking awful close when she bent over the jukebox. She’s got herself a pert little hind-end.
“She really shoot that boy?” Dickie Lee said.
“That’s what she says.”
“What do you say?”
“I try not to disagree with my wife.”
“That’s a good idea in general,” he said. “But specifics are different.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Could be one thing, could be another.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What’s the other?”
“Maybe I’d like to saw off a piece of that girl. Call it square.”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. People say whatever they think then get stuck with their words later. Anybody can go crazy, even constables.
“Guess you’ll want me to throw the horse in too,” I said.
“I’m serious, son,” he said. “Somebody shot one of God’s children who never hurt a soul.”
“What about that he-said-she-said -business?”
“Law’s a funny thing,” he said. “Best to have it on your side in general. But there’s the specifics. Your window’s shot out and there’s blood in the back. Might be your prints on the gun. I’m giving you a chance to stay out of the jailhouse.”
“My family won’t like this,” I said.
“Son,” he said, “you been gone a long time. What Tollivers ain’t shot each other down, I personally took in custody. You’re a mite short on family to back you up.”
He slid off the stool and ambled to the jukebox, waving away the Melungeon man as if batting off a gnat. I didn’t know what to do. I watched him talk to my wife, feeling trapped and powerless. Her lie had doubled back on us and he’d seen through it clear as day. I could grab her and run, but they’d catch me and lock me up in my home county. If I told the truth, I’d wind up in jail too.
I went outside, removed the .38 from the glove box and started wiping it with my shirttail, then quit. My prints ought to be on my own gun. If she stuck with her story, she needed to handle it too. I headed back across the lot to get her. I met them coming out the door. He was red-faced and smirky. I gestured with my head for me and her to talk privately.
“He said he’d fix it all,” she said.
“Did he offer you anything?”
“No,” she said. “I’m not some kind of whore.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s what that damn chucklehead said.”
“I thought you liked him.”
“I don’t like anybody right now,” she said.
“I don’t want you doing nothing with that cop.”
“He knows you shot him. I’m no good at lying. What’ll happen to me if you go to jail?”
I nodded, trying to think. He could arrest her for lying to a cop, interfering with police business, even some kind of conspiracy. But this way, I’d have something on Dickie Lee forever.
“None of that finger stuff with him,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “You like that now?”
“I just want one thing left for you and me only.”
She nodded, then kissed me quick and turned away. Her and Dickie Lee got in his car, and he drove behind the bar. The engine sound dropped to idle and the brake lights cut out. I tried not to imagine what was happening when I heard the suspension creak. I wanted to run away. I wanted to drink the tavern dry. I couldn’t believe I’d put my wife in this situation. I’d never felt this bad. I sneaked around the edge of the building and peeked in the rear window. The light was dim. I saw a vast shadowy bulk in the driver’s seat and a quick, steady movement in the passenger side, the slight flash of red hair moving up and down. I stared transfixed, hating myself.
I walked across the front lot to my truck. I thought about shooting my finger off. I thought about shooting Dickie Lee. Instead I opened the trailer gate and sang “Happy Birthday” to the horse as it moved backward onto the dirt. It lifted its head to stretch from the cramped trailer. I slapped the horse on its flank and told it to run, but it just sidestepped and stared at me. I stomped my boot. It wouldn’t go and I couldn’t bring myself to hit it again. Full dark had come and the stars were showing. I wondered if my wife and I would ever recover, or how.