Lowell Mick White
July 17, 1978
I was fifteen that summer and living with my grandmother and my Aunt Liza, and one day my father came to Burnt House for a visit, and he brought his new girlfriend, Norma. Norma wasn’t the woman he’d been sleeping with when my mom found out he’d been screwing around—when I’d helped my mom find out he’d been screwing around—she was someone he met later, a big blonde woman who taught sixth grade, very cheerful and pleasant toward everyone. Of course I hated her.
We heard the car coming from a long way away. Our house was at the top of a holler back from the county road, which ran up along Horn Creek. Cars had to turn off onto a gravel track that ran up alongside Stalnaker Creek, and then drive directly in the creek bed for the last hundred yards or so, bumping up and down and bottoming out on rocks until they could turn up into the yard, at the house. We were pretty isolated.
I sat on the porch with Gran and Liza and Liza’s dog, Mike, and we watched the long, blue Monte Carlo scrape up the creek and around some bushes and past an old, collapsed barn, and up into the yard. Mike stood up and looked at the car. It stopped, and we could hear the engine ticking, the creek running. My father got out and looked up at us, and his hair was a bit longer, and he was wearing a big mustache that would have been cool eight or ten years earlier. Mike barked at him twice.
“Shut up,” Dad said. “You damn dumb son-of-a-bitch.”
His first words back home. I’m not kidding.
Norma got out of the car, tall, blonde, white teeth flashing. You didn’t see many women like Norma in West Virginia.
“Hi, everybody,” she said.
We just stared. I stared at her, hating her, and Liza—and Mike, too, probably—stared at her hatefully because I hated her. Gran stared too because she didn’t know who this woman was with her son. We just sat there staring at her, gray eyes from Liza and myself, and brown eyes with Gran and Mike.
“It’s so pretty here!” Norma acted happy.
Dad came around the car and led the way up onto the porch. He didn’t look at me.
“Mom,” he said to Gran, his mother. He wasn’t really a hugger. “Elizabeth. This is Norma.”
“Hi, everybody,” Norma said again.
“You didn’t bring Jean?” Gran asked.
Jean was my mom.
“Well….” What was Dad supposed to say to that? He’d been divorced from mom for almost two years. He just glanced at me like it was my fault. Gran was giving him a hard time and he blamed me.
“Jackie!” Norma said to me. “You look good!”
“Yeah.” I looked down, and then out at the yard and the creek. Water flowing. Norma was trying. I know that now. She was always trying.
They’d brought some groceries, and Liza slowly got up, sullenly got up, and went into the kitchen to try and put a meal together. She was never much of a cook, unless she was stoned, when she’d pour together two or three different-flavored cake mixes and come up with some sort of gooey mess that tasted wonderful if you were high. She wasn’t loaded now, though, but she still went into the kitchen and banged around while Norma stood in the doorway watching helplessly and I sat in the front room with Gran and Dad. I tried to say as little as possible. I just stared at the floor, watched Mike sleeping out on the porch. The creek down there in the distance.
“So, you’re doing all right, here.” Dad looked at me and then at the floor.
After a silence, Gran said, “She’s doing good.”
“I suppose you’re bored.”
“No.” After a moment I said again, “No.”
How could I be bored? There was always plenty to read, and I could go for walks with Mike in the woods, or walk down to Burnt House, and once a week or so we’d go to town, and in the evenings, if she was around, I could smoke dope with Liza and do jigsaw puzzles and bake weird cakes, and in the mornings I could sit on the porch and drink coffee and look at the world, and no one talked to me when I didn’t want to talk, no one yelled at me or told me what to do, and everyone let me alone. I did just what I wanted. How many times in life does that happen? How could I be bored?
“You hear from your mom?” Dad asked. Mom was at summer school that year, finishing up her Master’s.
“No,” I said again. A lie, but so what.
“She called Saturday,” Gran said. “They all talked a long time—I bet they ran up the phone bill.”
“She’s seeing a shrink,” I said.
Shrink—psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor—I didn’t
know the difference then. Nobody did. But it was a shocking thing, something to be ashamed of, talking to some stranger about all our business.
Dad and Gran stared at me. Speechless. Liza was still banging on something in the kitchen.
“Well,” I said, “she is.”
Shrink—psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor—I didn’t know the difference then. Nobody did. But it was a shocking thing, something to be ashamed of, talking to some stranger about all our business. I’m sure Dad felt as betrayed as I did, and Gran, too. Mom was a traitor.
After a while Liza and Norma called us in to the dining room for dinner—sausage and gravy, green beans from a can, cornbread from a mix. Basic West Virginia food, food for people doing hard physical labor all day.
“Aw, Elizabeth, this all looks so good,” Norma said. “I wish you’d have let me help.” Norma was one of those teachers who always want their students to love them. She wanted Liza to love her, and Gran, too. And she wanted me to love her. That was a lot to accomplish on a single afternoon eating sausage up a holler in West Virginia, but Norma tried. I was hard to charm, though, and sat silently.
Dad tried talking to Liza. “When are you going back to college?”
“I don’t know,” Liza said. “I’ll go when I feel like it. Maybe I’ll take a class or two over at Glenville in the fall.”
“A class or two won’t get you a degree.”
“Maybe I don’t want a degree.” Liza got up and stomped back to the kitchen and get a glass of water and bang around. When she came back her face was red, though she wasn’t crying.
“Sometimes I think Elizabeth’s too smart,” Gran said. “That’s her problem.”
“Too smart or too lazy, one,” Dad said.
“I’m not lazy—I just don’t want to do anything!”
“See?” Dad said to Norma. “See? That’s why this place is so goddamn backward. Nobody wants to do anything, and so everything falls apart. You’d have to grow up in this fucking place to believe it.”
When Liza was 16 or so, Dad brought her up to Bowling Green so she could live with us and go to a better school. But that didn’t last long. Liza got homesick and ran back to Lewis County. Then he tried getting her into college in Ohio—tried a couple of times. But she’d always run back to Burnt House. Dad was still pissed at her. He was always pissed at her.
“Well.” Norma was all blond hair and white teeth, trying to make peace. “Everybody has their own pace.”
“Goddamn backward pace,” Dad said. Coming home always made him mad. “Living up some goddamn holler with fucking paint peeling off the house.”
Liza tossed her fork onto her plate and stomped out of the room. When my mom and dad were together and I was little and we all lived in the same house, my dad was always the one to toss something down on the table and stomp off. I’d sit with my mom at the table staring down, and maybe my mom would sigh and say, “Well.” But that was all when I was a little kid, and as time went on we’d all eat separately at different times in different rooms. It was easier that way.
Now it was Liza that got up and stalked off, and when she left the rest of us sat at the table, staring.
“God damn,” Dad said. Two words.
“Now, Bill,” Gran said. “Be nice.”
“You know you let that girl get away with too much.”
Dad wouldn’t ever let anyone get away with anything, except himself.
Later I sat in the front room looking at the television. Black and white, of course, John Chancellor reading the news. We only got one channel, NBC all the time. Gran sat in her chair watching, too.
After a while she said to me, “Is your daddy staying the night?”
“He didn’t say anything to me.”
Which meant no, I hoped.
“I hate it when people act up and show their asses,” Gran said. “Your daddy’s like that, and Elizabeth’s like that, and your granddad was, too.”
Outside Dad and Norma were walking around, he was showing her where he’d grown up. He was always sort of ashamed of West Virginia—a lot of people in Ohio were, whose families had come from West Virginia. I sure got teased when I was in school, and so did a lot of other kids. But our family wasn’t too bad off. Both my grandfathers worked in the oil fields for years, good steady work, and whatever their faults—and both those men had many, many faults—they had believed in education, and so we weren’t all poor and raggedy like myth would have most West Virginians.
Outside they passed a window. I heard Dad say, “You wouldn’t believe how much all this has changed.”
Then they came in the back door and I could hear them crossing the kitchen.
“Elizabeth!” Dad sounded mad. “Why the hell won’t you mow that yard more often?”
I heard Liza’s voice but couldn’t make out what she was saying. Dad came on into the front room.
“Mom, you’ve got two perfectly healthy girls living here, why don’t you put them to work? This place is falling apart—get them out there mowing the goddamn grass or something.”
Gran shrank back a bit in her chair. Maybe she was kind of afraid of my dad. She said, “Oh, they work in the garden some.”
Liza had set out a garden back in the spring, before I’d come, but every tomato, bean, pepper, and onion out there would have died if it hadn’t been for me. And I didn’t do much, really. Watered a little. Neither of us were much for yard work.
“They can get out there and push a goddamn lawn mower around,” Dad said. “They can get off their asses and paint a goddamn porch, too.”
Norma was just standing back, watching us. Dad sat on the couch.
“Jackie,” he said to me. He had that tone of voice he used when he was pretending to be patient. “Listen, this is a tough time. You’ve got to help your grandmother.”
“Oh, we get by fine,” Gran said.
Dad ignored her. “You’ve got to help her, okay?”
“We don’t need anything done,” Gran said.
Dad just stared at me.
“I know,” I said. “I do lots.”
“You’ve got to do more. You can’t wait around for your Aunt Elizabeth to do everything, because she won’t do anything—”
“Liza does lots around here!” I wasn’t going to let him put Liza down.
Dad looked like he was going to yell at me, but he controlled himself because Norma was standing there and he just glared. That was almost worse, really, than yelling.
“Just try to cooperate,” he finally said. His new moustache bristled out, his jaw was stiff. “Help your grandmother.”
“I do,” I said. I couldn’t look at him. I just looked at the floor.
Liza came in then from her bedroom. She’d been listening, of course. It was a small house, you could hear almost everything. Liza stood in the doorway and Dad glared up at her.
Liza asked me, “You about ready?”
Dad looked at me.
“Movies,” I said. “They show movies down at the old schoolhouse?”
Dad didn’t believe me. He looked at Gran.
“Oh, they’ve got something going on down there,” Gran said. “I don’t know what. Mrs. Talbot says they’ve got people watching shows.”
“I came all the way down here to see you,” Dad said to me. “Norma came all the way down here.”
“Well?” I remember thinking something like, Fuck this. You’ve seen me. Now you can leave. “So?”
“It’s just old movies,” Liza said. “Mom, you going to let me drive?”
“No,” Gran said, “I don’t think you need to.”
Liza was 22 but Gran didn’t trust her with her car, not any more—there had been too many nights when Liza came home late, or didn’t come home at all, and a time or two when the car somehow ended up in a ditch or a creek, or other times when she banged Gran’s car into a barn or a tree. And she hit a deer once, too. She’d already totaled four or five cars over the years and damaged others. Gran wasn’t going to risk Liza wrecking her cars any more.
Dad was still looking at me. “You’re going to go down there and leave us.”
Now I looked right back at him. I was pissed. I thought, So? What do you care?
Dad just shook his head, disgusted. I got up and followed Liza out the door and across the porch and down into the yard. Mike got up and followed us. Dad and everyone stayed in the house.
“Your dad can be an ass sometimes,” Liza said.
I shrugged. He was her brother, she could get away with saying things like that. Even though I was mad at him, even though he really was an ass most of the time, or worse, I couldn’t ever think that way about him, at least then.
Dad’s car was parked under the big oak tree in the yard, in the thick grass—tall, too, pretty tall, the grass reached up above our ankles and somebody should have mowed it, sure, and the car was deep blue, one of those mid-70s Monte Carlos that were long and wavy like a sad pimp’s car. The air was cool outside under the tree in the grass.
Liza was already headed down the driveway to the creek. She turned and looked at me. “Come on!”
I stepped back behind the oak and pulled out my knife. My granddad’s knife. I never met him, he died just after I was born, but Gran gave me his knife to remember him by, so I’d have something of his. A black-cased jackknife with two blades, a Barlow knife, and I still have it on my desk as I write this. That day I unfolded the shorter, broader blade and I knelt down and I jabbed the blade into the passenger-side rear tire of Dad’s pimp car. And again. Air came softly whispering out and I stood up and stepped away from the car.
“That was real smart,” Liza said. “Now he can’t leave.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
I glanced back at the house—everyone was still inside—and then turned to follow Liza. I was still holding the knife in my hand.
“Your dad always likes to complain,” Liza said.
“I know.” I folded the knife back together and slipped it into my pocket.
“He likes telling people what to do, too.”
“I’m never going to be like that,” Liza said. “I’m not going to tell people what to do. And I’m not going to let them tell me what to do, either.”
That made some sense to me, of course. Fifteen years old, and I was sick of people telling me what to do—and that’s why I loved Burnt House. Gran never told me what to do. Liza never told me what to do.
Outside West Virginia the world was full of bullies.
“I don’t want to be that way,” Liza said. “What’s it worth not being happy all the time?”
We went walking down a path that ran along the creek, past a collapsed barn overgrown with vines, young sycamores on the far side leaning over, dark and cool in the late afternoon. Then we came out of the shade, and Hazlitt’s house was on a little rise above the creek, at the end of the gravel road. Mr. Hazlitt was out working in his yard, shirtless in a pair of khaki pants, his big gray-haired belly sticking out. His beagles came out and barked at us—at Mike, mostly—and Mr. Hazlitt looked up from his flowers at us.
“Girls,” he said.
Mr. Hazlitt was kind of intimidating. Big bald man with a deep voice and that hairy belly.
“Talked to your dad this afternoon when he was coming in,” Mr. Hazlitt said to me. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped it over his sweaty head. “Is he married to that woman he has with him?”
“I don’t know.” I made a big shrug.
“Who knows,” Liza said. She didn’t like Mr. Hazlitt very much, and she wasn’t afraid of him, either.
“Well, I was just wondering,” Mr. Hazlitt said. He bent back over his flowers and we walked on toward town.
“Everyone thinks they need to know everything,” Liza said to me. “Or else they already think they know everything.”
At Hazlitt’s the road switched up from the creek bed to a gravel graded track, and we walked along. A frog in the middle of the track jumped into the grass by the creek and Mike pounced, an old dog’s slow pounce, but he didn’t catch the frog.
“Your dad’s a strange one,” Liza said. “Bringing that Norma with him. Did you talk to her any? When we were in the kitchen, she told me about how she grew up in Michigan. She said she grew up on a farm, and she said she thought it was quiet there in the country, but she was never in a quiet place like West Virginia before, and I said, ‘Well, we like it quiet.’”
I said, “I don’t know Norma that well.”
I didn’t want to know her that well.
A light blue Chevy pickup came around the bend and headed up Horn Creek. Whoever was inside waved at us.
“Actually, I don’t like things that quiet,” Liza said. And that was true: she generally liked things loud and louder. “But you know what I mean.”
It was about two miles to Burnt House. The road ran along the side of the hill, to our right going to town, and to our left wide meadows opened up with Horn Creek running through and sheep or cattle grazing, and woods along the tops of the hills. A car passed us, going down, a little gray Dodge.
“Mary Isenhart,” Liza said. “Do you know her? She’s the stupidest woman I ever met. All she does is pray—and I mean pray.”
We got to the main road and Burnt House. Not much of a town then, and less of one now, I imagine, though I never go back. A few houses strung along between the road and the creek. The old one-room schoolhouse, which had been closed for years. A United Methodist Church, which only held services once a month. A post office. Two stores: Butchie’s, which was right across the road from the church and the schoolhouse, and Page’s, which was across from the post office. Burnt House was a drab little place, and old, and shabby, and everyone there seemed old and shabby even when they really weren’t.
Outside Butchie’s there was a pair of gas pumps where he sold Gulf gasoline and a tiny grease pit where he did oil changes. There was dried mud everywhere that had been tracked in by tires and a trash drum full of empty oil cans and broken car parts. That evening Butchie sat on a bench next to the front door, smoking a cigarette.
“Girls,” he said. “What’s the news?”
“No news,” Liza said. “And that’s good news.”
“Thought I saw Bill drive up your way,” Butchie said. Everyone knew everything in Burnt House, or thought they did. “He staying long?”
“Just for the day,” Liza said. “Unless he gets a flat tire or something.”
Inside the store it was dark and cool and all mixed up—fishing tackle, bobbers and hooks, hung from the ceiling and beams along with small auto parts like clamps and fuses, along with combs, plastic door wedges, toothbrushes, and packets of headache powders. The walls were all a jumble. There was a cooler with milk and eggs and hamburger turning green. Another with beer and soda pop. A door opened into a side room where there was a pool table and a jukebox. I could hear voices from the pool room, the soft click of a ball hitting another ball, and then the Rolling Stones on the jukebox. “Miss You.” It was a big song that summer. I didn’t miss anybody. I was pretty sure I never would. I got an RC Cola from the cooler and took it over to Butchie’s fat wife, Claudie, who stood behind the counter.
“You staying busy?” Claudie asked.
“Not too,” I said. I was never a big talker then. I was a listener—a watcher.
In the back room Liza was talking brightly to the boys playing pool. They all sort of looked alike with stringy brown hair and wispy mustaches on their lips. One boy wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the other two had their skirts unbuttoned, and all three had flat rippling brown bellies. Skinny young boys, talking to Liza, looking at me. In the back another boy—older, really, a man—was leaning over the table lining up a shot, ignoring us. He had long yellow stringy hair, a real mustache that was sort of reddish, no shirt with the usual flat tanned belly. This was Naked Jackson, Liza’s boyfriend—sometimes her boyfriend, sometimes not.
I’ll be straight about it: Naked Jackson made me nervous.
I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. . . .
Gran said just looking at him you knew he was headed for the penitentiary.
I slunk back against the door.
Naked Jackson missed his shot, and then one of the boys talking to Liza made his way back to the table, shirttails flapping. Naked Jackson came over to us.
“What’s going on?” Liza asked.
“Oh, nothing much,” Naked said. He looked at me. “Hey, city girl.”
I’ll be straight about it: Naked Jackson made me nervous. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He was a Vietnam vet, and sold pot and speed around the county, and maybe did some burglaries too. Broke into cars, stole things. Beat people up. Gran said just looking at him you knew he was headed for the penitentiary. Liza, sometimes she liked him, and sometimes she didn’t. Right now she didn’t too much.
“We’re going over to watch the show,” Liza said.
“Well, I’ll be around later.”
“I bet you will.”
A door from the pool room led outside and we went through it, and evening was coming and the air was soft. Butchie was still sitting on his bench smoking a cigarette and watching traffic on the road.
“That Ace Everett likes you,” Liza said. “He’s not afraid of girls.”
“Oh, god,” I said. Ace Everett was the skinny boy with no shirt. Boy—man, Liza’s age, more or less. Though he was much the same as the others: skinny, awkward, stupid.
“No reason why you shouldn’t have fun this summer.”
“I have fun,” I said. Who could have fun with Ace Everett?
We crossed the road to the schoolhouse. Every other week a lady from the county library would come and show a movie—and this was in the days before DVDs or even VCRs. She set up a big film projector and actually ran films through it. We sat in the dark and watched old movies: Citizen Kane one week, The Best Years of Our Lives the next time, and now On the Waterfront. Black and white and old. We sat in the dark and we watched.
Hardly anybody ever came to the movies, only six or seven people a show, and now, for On the Waterfront, not even that. The library lady, who didn’t count, since she had to be there. Bess Wright, the postmistress. Mark Sitton and Brandy Riffle, and Liza and me. Mark Sitton was my cousin on my mom’s side, my Aunt Irene’s boy, and he’d grown up in Minnesota, and he was spending the summer in Burnt House with our Talbot grandparents—lots of young people came back to West Virginia in the summers then, their parents divorcing and they had no place else to go when school was out—like me, like Mark. Mark was a little older than me, though, about Liza’s age. Brandy Riffle was a determined, pensive, brown-haired-girl, and Liza was sometimes friends with her and sometimes she wasn’t—Liza ran unpredictably hot or cold with a lot of people, most people—and right now Liza was mad at Brandy, so I was mad at Brandy, too, just because Liza was, and since Mark had something going on with Brandy I didn’t want to have anything to do with him, either, cousin or not. We sat on opposite sides of the room.
The library lady fiddled with the projector and then the movie started. A gritty big city—and I remembered Gran saying once that a city was no place to raise a boy, and I remembered thinking as the movie started, Why only boys? Why not girls? Cities were probably even worse places for girls to grow up, right?—but, anyway, in the movie these boys were men unloading ships, and it all looked cold and noisy and dirty, and the priest was spooky and creepy all dressed in black, and the blond girl was pretty and sad, and you just knew something bad was going to happen to her in her life, sometime, and there was Marlon Brando with his big, ham-shaped face—and Liza leaned over and whispered, “I bet he’s a really good kisser.”
Yeah? Well, I guessed so, too.
The library lady turned and looked at us, probably frowning at us, but I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t see her face. She was just a shadow.
After a while, Liza leaned into me again. “This is boring,” she said. “I’ll be outside.”
She got up and banged noisily into a couple of chairs, and went out. It was still a little light out, soft gray evening light, and I could see across the road to Butchie’s when she opened the door. The library lady was probably frowning. Then Liza closed the door, not too loudly.
I watched the movie. Marlon Brando had a problem: whether to rat out his buddies in the mob and lose his job or to stay silent and lose the girl and his soul or whatever. He informed, got beat up, and triumphed in the end. The light went up.
“It’s like that everywhere these days,” the library lady said. Mark and Brandy were whispering and glancing at me.
Outside it was full dark. I could see Ace Everett playing pool across the road at Butchie’s with his shirt off. Mike was sleeping right outside the door of the schoolhouse, and he stood and shook himself. I didn’t see Liza anywhere.
Mike followed me across the road. Butchie was still sitting on the bench with a cigarette in his hand.
“Seen Liza?” I asked.
“Oh, she went off,” Butchie said. “She went to town with that Naked Jackson.”
To town: that could be either Glenville or Weston. Or they might not really have gone to town, they might have just parked out somewhere to smoke dope and what all. I started back down the road to home.
“That show any good?” Butchie asked.
I turned and walked backwards a few steps. “It was about this guy who told on his friends so they beat him up.”
“That took two whole hours?” Butchie asked.
I turned and walked. A few people were out sitting on their porches in the dark—Mrs. Alltop, old Mr. Davis, Mr. and Mrs. Summers—and they said hello as we walked by. A car or two went slowly down the road. From everywhere around, from the creek, up in the hills, in the trees, in the sky, sound came down—frogs and crickets and owls—and lightning bugs sparked in the darkness.
I turned and headed up Horn Creek, the cracked asphalt road turning to gravel. The gravel crunching under my feet with every step, every thought. Mike, padding long behind me. Liza off with that Naked Jackson. Dad and Norma on their way back to Ohio. Pigeons circling over the gray dirty buildings in that movie. Mom yelling at Dad one night, I’m going to call my lawyer! And me thinking, She has a lawyer? Another time yelling, You’re oversexed! And me thinking, What? My cat, Jody, that died in the winter. Liza said she’d get me a new kitty. Boys with no shirts playing pool. Liza said that Ace Everett liked me. “I could have been a contender.” Okay. Crickets in the grass, owls in the trees. Frogs everywhere. Lightning bugs. Mike beside me. Liza told me about a boy she liked in college. Before she came home.
A car came around the hill. I could see the headlights reflecting up into the sky before the car itself appeared. I stepped down off the berm with Mike to the edge of the ditch and looked away from the light so my eyes wouldn’t hurt. Nothing but friendly darkness out there in that night. Safe and warm and soft.
The car passed. We got back up onto the road and walked. Crunched. Stepped. Thought. Then another car came, the headlights first again, and I looked away. The car stopped this time, and my father was driving.
“Where’s your Aunt Elizabeth?” Dad asked.
I shrugged big. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
No, I didn’t fucking know. Why did he ask again? He sat there in the car in the dark. Norma was sitting on the passenger side of the car, a blond shadowy blob.
“You don’t know,” Dad said again.
“No, she went to town or something. I don’t know.”
I stepped away from the car. Half-step crunch up the road.
“Get in,” Dad said.
“I’m going back to the house,” I said.
“I’ll take you back to the house,” Dad said. “Get in the damn car.”
Well. The Monte Carlo was a two-door, and Dad wasn’t getting out to let me in behind him, so I went around to Norma’s side. Norma was already getting out.
“You sit up front, honey,” she said. “Sit with your dad.”
“What about Mike?”
“Oh.” Norma looked at Mike, wet and dirty from nosing around in the creek and brush. “I guess he can sit back with me.” She pushed up the seat and muddy Mike jumped in back.
Dad said, “Jesus Christ.”
I sat up front. Dad was wearing a different shirt than he’d been wearing earlier, a clean light blue shirt, but he was still a little smudgy on his hands and arms from changing the flat tire. Ha!
I shut the door and the overhead light went out.
Dad drove down the road a bit, back toward Burnt House. Then he came to a gate leading down to a hay meadow by the creek, a turn-around spot. Dad made a four-point turn, in and out, forward and backward, forward and backward. Then we were headed back up Horn Creek again.
“I can’t believe Elizabeth left you to walk back alone,” Dad said.
I was staring silently ahead, at the headlights on the road.
“Jackie,” Dad said, and then he paused a long time. I could hear the night sounds coming in through the open windows, the deep crunch of the tires on gravel. In the back seat, Norma was petting Mike.
“Jackie, listen. Norma and I are going to get married.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah.” There was another long pause, and the car creeped up the road in the dark. “We’re getting married, and we’re going to make a new family.”
I stared ahead at the broken asphalt and gravel road.
“And we’d like you to come live with us.”
I didn’t have anything to say.
“We’d love to have you live with us,” Norma said from the back seat.
“Yeah,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say. So they were getting married. It wasn’t any of my business.
“You won’t have to change schools,” Dad said. “We’re going to get a nice house.”
Dad turned the car onto Stalnaker Creek road. Mr. Hazlitt’s house was all lit up.
“Say something,” Dad said.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Shit,” Dad said. The road ran out, and we were driving in the creek bed. “Goddamn West Virginia roads.”
“Think it over, Jackie,” Norma said.
I said, “Yeah.”
We splashed up the creek in the dark. Then the trees opened back away and we pulled up into the yard. Gran had the porch light on.
“We came all the way down here to tell you,” Dad said.
“Well, you told me.”
Dad parked the car by the oak tree.
He didn’t say anything. Looking at me. Glaring. He was pissed.
I said, “Okay, then.”
I got out of the car and stood in the wet grass. Dad just sat there, angry. Norma pushed the seat forward and clumsily squished out, and Mike jumped out too and disappeared. Norma tried to hug me but I pulled away.
“Think about it,” Norma said.
I turned and went up the stairs to the porch. I heard the car door shut when Norma got in, and after a moment the car turned around and headed back down the creek. I went inside. Gran was watching TV, the news. Sports. Some baseball players in a big fight.
“Your daddy go back?” Gran asked.
“Yeah, he went back,” I said.
I didn’t say, He went home.
I was home.
Lowell Mick White is the author of three books: Professed and That Demon Life, novels, and Long Time Ago Good, a story collection. His short fiction has been widely published and included in Callaloo, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Short Story, and he has also been awarded the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters. He is a native of Gilmer County, West Virginia. “July 17, 1978” is adapted from his current novel-in-progress.