Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Sheldon Lee Compton
Lost Ball in High Weeds
Low light made it difficult to tell if it was dusk or the slow breaking of morning. A silence Dennie realized was the absence of bird chatter hinted to early morning in the woods making up Yellow Flats, though. The flat area was once used as a road for hauling coal from the mountain in hatefully loud short-bed trucks, but now it just made for a fine place to let go and be scrubbed clean of worry and all the terror of the world below, a Neverland without a leader, without conflict. Certainly without innocence.
Dennie got wiped out fast in order to push away the gang of nameless burn-outs pushing their half-hearted warnings off on him. They knew about the cops, the days in jail, and the detoxing he’d come out with. Most of them knew the cops took him out of Whitey’s, too. More warnings, more advice. But a ringed dinner plate to save the pill-crush from sliding off the side, two joints and half a fifth later those warnings were only murmurs standing over a fresh grave.
Each movement from the chilled ground might have been Dennie’s fingers repositioning the loose dirt walls of the grave, whipping aside slabs of rained thickened mud. But it was no use. This grave, this moment among the thick woods of Yellow Flats, this cold spot near the black scar left on the ground from the bonfire the night before, sucked around his boots and held him in place like a common sandstone.
Ashley was still asleep. When he was able to stand without wobbling, he eased down to the far end of the clearing where she had flopped, a spent lightning bolt having lost its bright cut across the sky hours before. She smiled in her sleep, moved one foot across the other. The dark morning air smelled of vodka, sour mash and, faintly, old wood gone soft with years of rain soaking through the bark and into the ageless soil and rocks beneath the roots. She strongly suggested he make a pallet at the north end of Yellow Flats and away from her after he started grabbing at her, touching her hair, whispering sweet and not so sweet things along the lobe of her perfumed ear.
With his head aching Dennie moved away from the patch made from the bonfire, through a small collection of young trees and to the cliff no more than fifty feet or so out from the clearing. The ache and what he could now see was early morning and Ashley’s meanness stripped away from him once he stood atop the cliff. A low fog covered everything below, leaving but three or four mountain tops visible. The valley cradling the areas of Flatwoods and Big Fork was an ocean now and the mountain tops strangely colored icebergs. Dennie took it in, distracted only when he felt the palm of a hand brush against his lower back, a playful finger hooking for half a second into his belt.
“Pretty ain’t it,” Ashley said. Her hair was perfect in every place save for an area at the back of her head that had rat-nested through the night back and forth deep into whatever she had used for a pillow. There was no sleep lag to be found in her features. She might have just arrived for a formal event, lips full and bright and without lipstick, eyes alert and in constant motion across the oceanscape of fog.
Dennie dug at the corners of his eyes with dirty knuckles to push loose the matter built up there. “Yup. Never seen it look like this from the Rocks. Uncle Wade’s down there somewhere. Either there or across the hill into Teller County. Likely across Town Mountain to the Teller and Clay County line. But I don’t know have a clue really.”
It was the most Dennie had said to Ashley about his uncle or anything about his life. Their relationship was, like so many others early on, physical and with little discussion, other than where they could get dope when the vodka and mash became too boring for the adventurous and tolerant. Their first stop when they decided to move up from pot was Whitey Collins. Thinking of Whitey and his uncle, Dennie eased out to a safe place on the thinned flat rocks at the edge of the cliff and sat down, crossing his legs.
“Everything’s a mess for me, Ash,” he said while still looking across the draped white of the valley, the bowl shape formed millions of years ago. “We have fun, but there’s some things are happening you can’t be part of. It’s Uncle Wade and the Collins. Whitey Collins mostly, just as luck would have it.”
Ashley didn’t say anything. She took a spot beside him, her legs positioning with the grace of a dancer warming up in some mirrored room far from his jagged world. For a spell they didn’t speak, just watched the fog lift skyward the way kids in Calvary sometimes watched coal trains passing, a transfixed exercise in allowing your mind to focus on one thing that leaves room for not a lot of other thinking or worrying. Just the slow and steady movement of things on the earth.
Ashley at last broke the silence. “There has to be something to make things better, right? When’d you last see him, your uncle?”
“There’s some things that can be done. Likely’ll have to be done,” he answered and pulled his knees together. “More days since I seen Uncle Wade than I care to think on for too long.”
She was the only daughter of the Bells, a family still wealthy today thanks to a sharp and hardworking grandfather who started with a hardware store before buying up most of the land surrounding it. Half the people in Calvary bought or leased property from Cab Bell. Even the grade school where he and Ashley once went to classes sat on property at one time owned by her grandfather and then sold to the county school board for a price not made public. Her father owned the IGA grocery store, and that kept him and the rest of their friends well fed most of the time. He stopped doing that from boredom a few years back, and they took him on at the sheriff’s department as a deputy. But she didn’t know about these kinds of troubles. Making things better in his world often involved actions Ashley had only seen on television or maybe read in books. After the grocery store, her dad didn’t talk much about what happened outside their front door, and that was plenty in this town. Sometimes he called her Bubble Girl, if she was in a playful mood.
“Folks know about your uncle and Stan. I know about what happened to you at Whitey’s,” she said. She scanned the fog lifting. Houses were nearly visible now, floating peaks of shingle and dented tin. “I know more than you think I know. I know more than that bunch at least.” She pointed back to where half dozen of their friends still lay, blue noses and drunks fallen across the old auger road where coal was once hauled off the mountain, that flatness a perfect false ridge now.
“Ocean’s drying up,” Dennie said. “It’ll be gone soon.” He wanted to ask how she knew anything about him, other than significant birthmarks and scars, maybe how long he brushed his teeth in the morning or what he ordered when they went for lunch on Wednesdays. There never had been secrets in this town. Foolish to think it could be any other way. “What a nice white ocean.”
Ashley gave him a confused look, the mess of hair at the crown of her head tossing gently back and forth from the wind circling the Rocks. Her bottom lip was a hostage between her teeth. “Ocean?”
“Nevermind,” he said. “Just my crazy coming out.”
Ashley was nice to look at, and he liked her. She didn’t seem to mind his dish-water colored hair and the fact he only washed it when his head started itching. She didn’t mind his eyes, set just a touch too far apart, or his long and clumsy arms, always knocking things over or accidentally serving an elbow to her ribs during sex. But she knew about things he never told her, and that wasn’t something he could overlook.
“How you know about any of that?”
Ashley didn’t hesitate. “From Mom,” she said. He might have just asked her what time it was.
Dennie took his clumsy arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, used the palm of his hand and fingers to flatten the bed hair at her crown, smoothing it out as gently as plucking flower petals. She loves me. She loves me not. He had hidden things his entire life, but this was going to be the first time it came up with Ashley, keeping away his dealings with Hen, not Whitey. That Whitey’s was just a place to crash like any of two dozen other places around the county. Dennie became fully aware at that moment whatever he and Ashley had was no longer just physical and fun and light. It was secrets that really sealed people to each other. It didn’t matter in the long run, no matter how sad it all was. Stan was out to get his uncle, and that was the more important detail.
“We’re going to see your mom,” he said. “And then I have to find my uncle before anybody else does. Maybe she knows something I don’t.”
“Anybody else? Stan’s after him, far as I’ve heard.”
He kissed her before she had a chance to invite herself along after they talked to her mom. Whatever notion Ashley might have to help him find his uncle would, at least for awhile, rise and then be gone like the fog by midday.
The Dodge Aspen tossed out exhaust fumes from start to finish, fogging over the two-lane through Donovan’s Creek. Dennie made the curves fine enough, focusing on the road and keeping the corner of his eyes in check from wondering to Ashley in the passenger seat. He could feel her looking at him. Normally he would welcome it, but just know it picked at him.
She rolled the window down a couple inches and lit a cigarette.
“Wanna take a couple regular?” She took two Oxys from a wad of tin foil that had been tucked into those tiny second pockets inside the real pockets on jeans.
Without a notion to stop anything other than keeping his uncle from getting gut shot, he put his hand out. “Regular will do when there’s no time for crushing, I reckon,” he said. He put the pill on his tongue and then rooted it around until it was lodged between his inner cheek and the gum line, the same way chewers did with tobacco. He secretly preferred taking Oxy regular instead of snorting. But instead of just shot-glassing them straight away like others did when they took them regular, he preferred pouching it away like this. The outer coating melts away and then the medicine eases out and the swallowing starts and then every bad thing stops for awhile. He wasted more chances to drive away the bad things by sneezing out perfectly fine Oxy trying to take care of a line off this coffee table or that kitchen counter than he cared to remember.
Dennie continued driving the two-lane, counting seconds, collecting minutes in his haze. Soon the two-lane along Donovan’s Creek turned to a one-lane and then from blacktop to gravel and from gravel to dirt. The dirt road signaled Dennie it was time to slow down and look for Ashley’s house.
Her folks lived fine in a nice house at the end of the creek. It was a good setup, off to itself and tucked into the mountain, not a neighbor for better than half a mile. How Ashley ever made it off the creek and into his world Dennie could not figure out. He wouldn’t have rebelled against a mother who was a nurse making plenty of money and a father who stood with integrity as a deputy sheriff known to get along with folks from every walk of life, pushers and preachers alike. It took that sort of makeup to deal with people if you found yourself working law enforcement in Eastern Kentucky. Everything became political, especially police work, as officers often needed inside help from the same flock they intended to split apart and jail when everything was said and done.
“Dad’s not home. He’s in Frankfort for training.” Ashley arranged her things in her lap. A purse, where she stuffed the tin foil, toothpaste and a tampon. After a second or two of thought, she pulled the toothpaste back out and squirted some between her teeth. She swished it around then handed it to Dennie. While Dennie took some for himself, she tossed her hair back and forth and checked it in the mirror. “Mom’s no doubt here, though,” she continued. “Probably in there on the phone already this morning making the gossip rounds. Guess it paid off this time, though, all her tongue waggling.”
Ashley talking as if there was a plan in motion and, worse, as if she were part of it, gave Dennie a deep wounded feeling in his gut. His life was not something he could share, never could. He knew that as far back as he could remember. His uncle made that clear and his mother was even more adamant. On the one hand, he had his uncle explaining they were different, his family, and that people were going to talk about them and to pay them no mind. Likewise, his mother had her version, a far darker version that always fashioned the bitterness into a thing of workable hatred.
“We’ll see what she knows,” Dennie said. “After that, well, I’ll figure it out.”
Ashley’s eyes fell to her lap. She didn’t look again to Dennie before opening the door, only waved to him to follow.
The house spread out over the property like a battleship made of brick and trimmed in rich woods. But, unlike a battleship, this place invited you in, said come to the front door and nevermind taking your shoes off. You’re at home here.
The place couldn’t have been more strange to Dennie.
A novelty wooden cutout of a police officer was set up beside a pair of wicker chairs. Folks were always so proud to be cops. Dennie found that odd, considering about eighty percent of the cops in this county were outlaws in their younger days. It takes one to catch one, and all that jazz. Dennie wondered what kind of hell Ashley’s father once raised.
Ashley walked straight from the front steps and opened the door. Dennie had forgotten for a moment he wasn’t trespassing, that he was a guest and that Ashley lived in this sprawling thing of a house. She disappeared into the dim insides and left the door open. He gave the welcome mat a couple swipes and followed her inside.
Her mom found Dennie before he found Ashley. She was a tall woman and seemed youthful, bouncing through the hall from the kitchen, her hair in ponytails. Some sort of midlife crisis situation, Dennie figured.
She gave him a long hard look and then smiled as fake as he’d ever seen anyone smile. “I know you, Mr. Kingston,” she said. “I’m Lana.” She stuck out her hand and Dennie shook it lightly the way his uncle had always instructed. Firm and fast for a man and soft and easy for a woman and you should have no troubles.
“Ashley’s mom,” he said. “Hiya. She came on in and I was just following trying to figure where she went to.”
“Probably went straight to her bedroom. You should be good to go on in since her dad’s not home,” she said and then gave him a wink. “And don’t worry about leaving the door open.”
Creepy enough, no doubt about that at all. Dennie watched her tilt off through the hallway back to some room where she would return to sitting in a chair, he imagined, legs crossed and eyes half-lidded. He’d seen the look before.
Ashley eased around the corner. “You coming?”
“Hey, does your mom drink or anything?”
“What? God no. She’s just sleepy all the time.”
Sleepy, yeah. Leave it alone, he thought. “Well let’s have a talk with her about some of this and I’ll be going. How about it?”
A dog barked from the yard, three times and went quiet. Ashley’s eyes disappeared again, looking now at the floor or beyond it. If he didn’t know a little better, he’d think she was prone to pouting. Dennie felt more and more out of place standing in Ashley’s big house with her sleepy mom and him spilling out his box of rocks for everybody to pick over after a long time of stashing them away.
They moved into the kitchen. The image wasn’t as Dennie had pictured it. Lana Bell was at a chop block counter, one of those island deals with a stainless steel sink, refrigerator and all the other works circling it like petals. Lana held her head up by cupping her hand beneath her chin. She smiled when they stepped to the counter. Dennie felt Ashley’s moist hand wrap around his and he allowed it. Neither spoke.
“Well, here’s the lovebirds,” she said. “Want something to eat? We got things to eat.”
She’s high. Dennie was too nervous earlier to make it out clearly, but he’d seen enough of it to spot, and usually faster than with this otherwise perfect wife and mom. The whole thing was going to be useless.
“I’m trying to find my uncle, Wade Kingston,” Dennie said. Any hope he might have walked in with was gone and he didn’t care if it showed in his tone.
“Brown Bottle?” Lana looked past them now. Her eyes became more focused for a moment.
“I’d just soon you not call him that, if it’s all the same,” Dennie said. “I mean I know you’re going to other times, but maybe just not when I’m around.”
Dennie set his jaw just enough to maintain a respectful way about himself with a touch enough to show Lana he was young and yes most times wild, but serious.
“Good enough, I guess.” She stood and walked from the counter into the adjacent living room, picking out peppermint candy from a glass bowl on the coffee table. She patted the cushions beside her.
Ashley let loose his hand and waved him to follow. They sat on the couch, Ashley beside her mom and Dennie at the other end. The couch was enough to give him a deep craving for a nap, and maybe whatever Lana Bell had stashed away. Dennie was thankful when Ashley made it straight to the point.
“Dennie trying to find his uncle, and I thought maybe Dad had mentioned something.” She paused. “You know, something you could say that wouldn’t interfere or whatever. We thought it’d be best to ask you, Mom, cause of Dad being the law and all.”
“Dad being the law and all,” Lana repeated, her voice dropping to a whisper that hissed peppermint across the room. She didn’t stand up, but straightened her back. Her eyes became more focused. She leaned forward to look directly at Dennie. “You got some nerve, you little heathen.”
Her voice changed. Dennie had pegged her as one of those mountain people who visited family in Ohio or Indiana and came back saying creek different, saying crick instead. Pronouncing everything slowly and deliberately, like the people on the evening news. Now Lana’s southern drawl was full and thick, and the words streamed out like spring water.
“Did I stutter, you drug mutt? Get out!”
Ashley had yet to say a word, but she was holding Dennie’s hand. It was damp and the grip was hard. He stood up, trying hard to keep from calling her a hypocrite, and stepped around her crossed leg, one foot bouncing up and down casually, relaxed, not budging to make way for him.
Walking back through the kitchen with all its stainless steel and then the hallway with its framed black and white photographs, Dennie was less in awe of his surroundings. It all seemed like one huge mask now, and an ugly one for that matter. Ashley must have been sneaking around to see him, was all he could figure. Why would she bring him here, then?
On the porch, he gave the wood cutout of the cop a little flick on the nose, grinned and set his mind back to finding his uncle. The metal snap of the door opening turned him from his car door. Ashley stood on the porch. Even from a distance he could see tears standing in her eyes.
“Crocodile tears, I believe, love,” he said. “Just about have to be.” He opened the car door and sat down roughly in the driver’s seat. Before he pulled into reverse, regret settled in his mind, fit and solid. He knew if he looked to the porch he would see Ashley crying. Crocodile or no crocodile, the blood pushing through his veins would only allow for driving. Driving as fast and hard as he could, like a good heathen.
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