2014 Fiction Contest Winner
Fiction Contest Judge Denise Giardina writes that Chelyen Davis's winning story is "Sharp, intense, clear, and heartbreaking storytelling that stays with you."
From the porch of my trailer I can watch the valley of the farm fill up with fog and cows in the morning and on a summer evening, a hazy green bowl between me and my uncle's house across the creek. When I'm high the fog spins into shapes and the cows make noises that sound like they could make sense if I just listen harder.
My daddy got a bad back in the mine and had to stay home. Our trailer smelled like piss and old clothes; he laid up mad and yelled a lot and mama would shoo me out the door in the early mornings. Sometimes she took the car keys and we hit the road down to the store to get Slush Puppies. Hers was blue but mine was red and made my lips look like blood. You sure are getting big, the checkout ladies would say. Looks just like his daddy they said to mama and she smiled tight as a frown.
Sometimes when mama was watching her stories I’d creep down the hall to their room and watch daddy sleep. It was always dark in there, the curtains pulled tight, medicine bottles white like new teeth on the bedside table. One day it didn’t hardly look like he was breathing at all. I sneaked closer to check and he snaked out an arm and grabbed me, bones digging into my hand. Boy, he said, what you doing coming in here all quiet. Seeing if I’m dead yet. Well maybe I am.
I pulled but he held me fast, yanked me closer. He said it ain’t me that yells at your mama. It’s like some other feller is laying inside me and he just claws out when I ain’t looking. You tell her.
He let go and I ran out of the dark into the matted carpet and wood panel hallway where mama’s cigarette smoke curled a finger at me, said behave or I’d get a whuppin.
After a while daddy took too many pain pills and that was that. Whispers in the kitchen said an accident no it weren’t yes it was. The checkout ladies brought casseroles and fried chicken from the store. Someone let me borrow a suit that was too big and the preacher said Jesus would judge this poor sinner at the Pearly Gates but the good Lord would know that every man ain't Job and some can only take so much, and it don't reflect on that man because he was still a good man.
Mama took to sitting on the couch in front of the TV smoking and staring like she could see out past the walls of our trailer. My uncles said boy, you need anything you come talk to us. Mama watched Guiding Light and said I can’t believe he don’t see what a tramp she is. She said honey reach me another pack of Winstons this one’s empty. The uncles they ruffled my hair and said they guessed I was taking care of things fine. My cousins looked at me and said, well, you reckon you want to go see if there's any crawdads in the creek. And I went but it weren't the same.
When I was 17 I met Bobby and we had us a good old time. We was both working at the Texaco up by the highway. Bobby worked the counter but I was good with motors and I worked out in the garage. I can tell you just about anything about a motor. Bobby had an older sister who would slip us some beers, sometimes.
In the summer we would get us a twelve-pack and light out in Bobby's old car, driving fast over the mountain roads, slinging the curves till I thought we'd go over the edge for sure. The mountains smelled green and sharp and the bugs were so loud when we pulled over and cut off the car engine. When there was a moon we sat on the car hood at the highest turnout and looked out over the trees and the mountains all hunchy like a bed that ain’t been made and it felt like we was looking out over the world.
Bobby said he was getting out of here, going down to Knoxville, get him a job and a girl. I said who do you know in Knoxville. He said nobody, that’s the point.
When I was 20 I met Lisa and she came up pregnant. She said it was mine and she was probably right, so we got married and she came to live in the trailer with me and mama. The baby was a girl, we named her Annie. She was fat and when I picked her up she made gurgly noises at me and I thought I would break in two. I put on daddy’s old records and danced her around the living room, two-stepping to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty. You can take this job and shove it, I sang.
Bobby come around one day and said we ought to go out and run the road again, like old times. Said Knoxville was a big time and he had something out in the car to show me. Lisa scrunched up her face but I saw the mountain roads in Bobby’s eye and so I told him fine, I said let’s go. In the car he had a little bag of powder, and I asked where the beers was and he said no, this is better. So we put it up our noses and we flew that night. I saw every bug that hit the windshield and every star that shined down on us as we slid around the curves. I was alive and every nerve knew it.
Lisa got to where she was mad at me about all the time, it felt like. Where you been so late who you been with, I reckon you been out with that old Bobby you know he ain’t no good.
It ain’t me, I said. It’s some other feller inside me. I wanted to stay home and dance Annie around the room but that other feller, he saw Bobby coming and he said let’s go. Bobby didn’t ask for nothing but a good time and a few bucks. We could sit on top of the world and talk to the trees. So we went.
Lisa left and took the baby the third time I sold the food stamps. Said she loved me but she had to think about Annie. I said she was right.
Mama died one day while I was out with Bobby. But I knew she had give up years ago, and it was just her shell that had been sitting there on the sagging couch all this time, chain-smoking and watching her stories till she could go join daddy. We buried her beside him, on a sunny day so bright it hurt. I had to wear somebody else's suit again. Lisa came but she didn't bring Annie. She said I looked bad. Said I looked like I hadn't been eating. I said I was fine, that I was full of life. Right down to my nerve endings.
The bugs spun circles around the streetlight out front but the stars hid behind the city that glowed all night long.
The trailer felt empty, the ashtrays too clean and the TV dead and dark. One of the cousins said he knew a man in Knoxville that needed garage help. Somebody to work on motors. So I went down there, watching the mountains flatten down the closer I got. I found me an apartment where nobody chain-smoked and nobody watched Guiding Light and nobody burped up formula on my shoulder and at night I looked out the window at the next door wall and counted money in an envelope to give Lisa. The bugs spun circles around the streetlight out front but the stars hid behind the city that glowed all night long.
My boss’ friend come into the shop at quitting time and said you look like a man who needs a beer. And I looked at him and I seen he was Bobby with another face. The feller inside stretched out and said I reckon I could use a beer.
It was three days later I went back to the garage job, but the boss said too late so I went back up to the holler. The cows mooed welcome and the stars danced we missed you.
Bobby brought some friends over. They had some stuff you didn't snort but put in a needle instead. Said I'd think the powder was kids' stuff if I tried what they had. So I did. They were right. The moon told me stories no one else could hear, and I realized the bugs in the summer night were singing.
My uncle come across the holler and said he'd heard they were shutting off my electric. I said that might be right, but if he'd give me some money I could pay the bill and get it turned back on. He said he might just as well give the money straight to Bobby, save the middleman. He asked if I'd been eating much lately. I said I'd been eating starlight and drinking bugsong. He said he’d pray for me.
Sometimes I go sit across the road from the elementary school and watch Annie on the playground. She likes the swings. Lewis Tackett is the principal. We used to play ball together in school and now he looks at me and says he guesses he can’t stop me from sitting across the road but if I talk to Annie he’ll call Lisa. I say don’t worry Lewis she don’t know me. No more than you do.
Lisa says one year. A year of meetings and the chips to prove it before I get to talk to Annie.
I go to the meetings. I get the chips. And sometimes Bobby comes and sometimes I say no and sometimes the feller inside says let’s go. The feller says let’s ride the roads and whoop and holler and feel the wind in our faces and sit above the world. Then the feller and I go back to the meetings and start over.
I sit on the porch of my trailer in the purple evening. Down in the holler the fog is rising and the bugs are singing. The cows are talking and I understand. They say the bugs sing of life and the stars shout of happy, and that all I’ve done wrong can be forgiven. They say that heaven is for sure a small place where you know everybody, where fellers get knocked out of you and you can go in and sing with the angels in peace. The cows say Annie remembers in her bones that I danced her on my hip, twirling and dipping to Conway Twitty in the living room, both of us laughing like fools.