Grievous Angel
by Christy Alexander Hallberg

She was dead. Let’s get that straight right now. Slumped over the video game machine at the back of the store. Dead. Before we ever touched her. Like eyes fixed and dilated, not breathing, lips turning blue dead. I may not be a doctor, but I can spot a dead junkie at twenty paces. 

She. Was. Definitely. Positively. Absolutely. #DEAD.

I didn’t know her. Not really. I mean, I was never with her, if that’s what you’re wondering. She wasn’t my type, and she knew it. Hell, I just work there, Johnson’s Mini Mart, the night shift, Wednesdays, when she used to come in—or rather, stagger in, always real late on Wednesday nights, when the band practices in the shed out back. They’re buddies of mine, the band. A bunch of jackoffs I’ve known since junior high. Call themselves Chihuahuas on Cocaine. It was Mason came up with the name, after his grandma’s spazzed out dog that choked to death on a chicken bone last July Fourth. Actually, he wanted to call the group Chihuahuas on Crack, but Lee J. said crack was too trailer trash, that fans didn’t want to be reminded they were in Deliverance country when they came to see them. Said cocaine was way classier, more New York City than Rabun County. We reminded Lee J. he lives in a shit box trailer a squint away from the Chattooga River, where Deliverance was filmed, but he told us to piss up a rope and it was cocaine or nothing at all ‘cause he owned the amps and it was his goddamn band, so that was that. Anyways, I’m not supposed to, but I let them practice in the shed on Wednesday nights, while I clean up and restock the shelves and the asshole manager’s out diddling some ambulance chaser’s old lady. It’s a small-as-fuck town, Clayton. Everybody except the ambulance chaser knows about said diddling. Well, except for maybe you, until now.

So that particular Wednesday night the guys were standing around in the store, gnoshing on Cheetos and beer, smoking a doobie. I probably shouldn’t have told you that last part, but oh well. They were getting buzzed before plugging in, and that’s just for reals. By the time she wandered in, all wasted and shit, the place smelled like a Cheech and Chong movie. I was bopping ‘round spraying air freshener in case some square on a late-night baby diaper run should stumble in and get any ideas about narc’ing. I don’t smoke that shit. It’ll stunt your growth, not that I want to get any taller. I’m six-four and, according to the last doctor my mom dragged me to, clinically underweight. I was born with hyperthyroidism. That’s another reason I don’t smoke. Makes my heart race. 

But in she straggled, and I could tell she was pretty far gone. Had that glazed look on her face, that vacant stare in her bloodshot eyes, like a chick vampire on Twilight. You could see the track marks on her arm and thigh ‘cause she was always wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts or one of those skirts that flies up when you twirl. Fancy threads, not Salvation Army-grade, like you can tell she wasn’t always strung out, that she had style, and I don’t mean the heroin chic kind. She had this way of crossing her legs at the ankles when she sat down and tilting her head up so she was looking down at you that reminded me of old movie stars like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Ain’t that some bad assery gone to hell. Grace Kelly a fucking skag head. What was somebody like her doing hanging around a dumpy convenience store with a bunch of north Georgia jackoffs ain’t even old enough to drink legally? See how it was? She liked the band, though. Don’t know why. They suck worse than asparagus piss. But don’t tell Lee J. I said that. He thinks they’re the second coming of the Dead Kennedys. They’re not. Even if they were, nobody listens to the Dead Kennedys nowadays, but whatever. Lee J. thinks he’s such a badass. Hell, nobody in these parts has been worthy of that title since Burt Reynolds canoed down the Tallulah Falls in 1972. 

So back to this woman—her name’s Felicia, by the way, Felicia Taylor, or maybe Jones. Hell, I don’t remember what her last name is, or was. The guys used to goof on her, say Bye, Felicia, like Ice Cube in Friday, just fucking with her. Mason probably remembers her last name. She dug Mason. They had kind of a thing going on, those two. He said she lived in a skeezey motel off US-441, near that Goats on the Roof place. Been staying there all summer, ever since she arrived in town. Her old man and their little girl died in a car crash a few years back, and that’s when she first picked up the needle. That’s what Mason said. Seems to me someone like her would get herself one of those two hundred-bucks-an-hour shrinks and start popping Prozac instead of reaching for the Schedule 1 drugs. But then, Felicia always seemed extra fragile, like she was one sad song away from erupting into a poof of little white flower petals that would catch the wind and float in a million different directions and you’d never be able to find them all to put her back together. That’d be it. She’d be lost forever, nothing but little white flower petals in the breeze. That’s how she seemed to me. Yeah, she was the saddest blue-eyed junkie to ever sport a ponytail and glitter nail polish.

Every time she came in she’d ask the band to play “Christine’s Tune,” that Flying Burrito Brothers song—you know, Gram Parsons. Yeah, I’d never heard of him either until she started raving about him. Apparently, he was a big deal a million years ago. Country rock musician. O.D.’d in a motel room in Joshua Tree in the early seventies. Man, she loved Gram Parsons. She even had a bumper sticker on her SUV that said “Grievous Angel” on it, the name of one of his solo albums. So the band learned “Christine’s Tune,” even though that’s not really their sound, and they’d play it for her, seeing how she was their only fan. They never did have an actual gig. I’d hardly call the noodling around they did in the shed a gig—performance, okay, I’ll give ‘em that. Hell, even Yoko Ono can give a performance.

She—Felicia, I mean—was clutching an old copy of People magazine in her hand when she came in that night, but then she carried that thing with her wherever she went, far as I could tell. It was the issue with Blake Shelton on the cover—Sexiest Man Alive. I don’t get the dudes they pick for that. Blake Shelton? Man, no way. And that time Adam Levine won? Get the fuck outta here with that. If I was gonna choose a dude, I’d choose somebody like the guy who played Don Draper on Mad Men. My mom got me hooked on that show when I had mono in fifth grade and rode the couch in front of the tube for a month of Sundays. Seriously, that guy’s totes GQ, like he wears a suit better than motherfucking George Clooney, and I used to think nobody wore a suit better than him. Definitely not me. Lee J. says I’m the spitting image of Joey Ramone, which means I’ll never be People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Whatevs. I say even Joey Ramone is better than Blake Shelton. But that’s who was on the cover of her magazine that last night she came in, all cockeyed and funny-acting, like something besides just smack was bothering her. Maybe she was missing her kid, or her old man, or both. Seemed like she was jacked up about something not just on something. Later, after the shit went down, Mason said he knew what was up with her the minute she pulled into the parking lot. Said he could feel the negative vibes. Talk about your dumber than the average bear bullshit. Like he’s her Psychic Friend or something. Mason didn’t feel a damn thing except the weed he was smoking.

That night was like a fucking doobie-Febreze-stanking steam bath from all that rain and heat. You know how it gets in August around here. I think about that now and wonder if it was some sort of sign.

He was working on a new song he said was gonna be the band’s signature hit. He kept playing air guitar all manic-like and screeching, Chihuahuas on cocaine, driving me insane, Chihuahuas on cocaine, driving me insane. Not the greatest thing you ever heard but not too bad for him. Lee J.’s the poet in the group, the real songwriter. Crappy bass player, though. He’s majoring in English at Toccoa Falls College, and he’s always coming up with some deep shit that nobody understands. It’s fucking brilliant, he claims about his lyrics, Arthur Rimbaud meets Johnny Rotten. Whoever Arthur Rimbaud is. All we know is Lee J.’s shit doesn’t rhyme, but then, you try to come up with something that rhymes with existential chaos. I bet you a case of hootch and a five-dollar Scratch-Off card you can’t do it. He’s been like that ever since I’ve known him, brainy and weird. His mom’s a librarian and his dad’s a doctor. Lee J. could easily live in much doper digs than he does. He’s got this thing about being woke and real, though, living close to the bone. Personally, I don’t get that. I mean, how much closer to the bone can you get living in Clayton, even if you do have the Benjamins? My parents run an antiques shop my grandparents started back in the day, and they do all right. They’re not rich or anything, but let’s just say if I ever decide I want to go to college, they’ll pay for it, just like they’re paying for my apartment, which is a helluva lot nicer than Lee J.’s shit box trailer. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about doing the college thing lately, especially now that nothing’s happening with the band. Before, I was gonna be the roadie and set up their equipment at gigs when offers started coming in. Don’t need to go to college to be a roadie. But I guess all that’s gone tits up now.

The only other person in the store that night was O.J., the drummer. He’s okay. Mostly a chill dude. The worst thing about him is he can get super hangry and woozy if he goes too long without eating. Low blood sugar. And he’s got serious man boobs. I don’t know what O.J. stands for—maybe his mom drank a lot of Tang when she was pregnant with him. We’ve always called him Bronco, after O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco that time he was running from the law after slicing and dicing his old lady. Pretty fucked up. But Bronco’s all right. Just forget I mentioned that hangry business. He must’ve scarfed down a huge bag of Cheetos and half a six-pack that night, so he was definitely not in a slicing and dicing mood. They were all three chillax, getting ready to start rehearsing. I pulled out the bucket and mop and started mopping the floor where Felicia had tracked in mud from the parking lot. It had rained to beat hell earlier. The A/C in the store had broken the day before, so after the rain stopped I propped open the door to catch the breeze, only there wasn’t one. That night was like a fucking doobie-Febreze-stanking steam bath from all that rain and heat. You know how it gets in August around here. I think about that now and wonder if it was some sort of sign. I don’t exactly know what I mean by that. Lee J.’s the smart one, although that stupid top knot he wears makes him look like a twat. I just wonder about all that heat and shit, if it was a warning that the night was about to go up in fucking flames.

Chihuahuas on cocaine, driving me insane, Chihuahuas on cocaine, driving me insane.

Mason kept on with that, playing air guitar like a demon with Tourette’s, the white scar he got when he ran his dirt bike into a barbed-wire fence when he was a kid streaking like a lightning bolt across his forehead when he raised his eyebrows on the high note at the end of each line. Lee J. hop-skipped over my mop bucket then draped his arm around Felicia and shoved his finger knuckle-deep up his nose. I love to pick with impunity in a clean room, he said to her. She didn’t even look up from the magazine. Felicia wasn’t impressed by the shit Lee J. said, not even by the big words he tossed at girls like aphrodisiacs. She didn’t bat a glazed eye. I remember she pushed his arm away and started weaving toward the video game machine in the back of the store, mumbling, Chihuahuas on cocaine, driving me insane, then, Chihuahuas on cocaine, damaging my brain, gonna die in vain. We all just stopped and stared at her. 

Hey, Mason said, passing Bronco the doobie, that’s off the hook. Damaging my brain, gonna die in vain. Way off the hook. He high-fived Lee J. What else you got, Felicia? he asked her.

She crawled up on the stool in front of the video game and crossed her legs at the ankles. Then she just sorta slouched over the machine, like she was hugging it, like she wanted to feel the cool metal on her burning skin. It’s an old-ass Pac-Man. The owners think they’re legit being all retro. Got a Who pinball machine beside it. Not bragging or anything, but I rock at pinball. Screw Pac-Man. That’s a shwag game. But pinball—I bet I could take that deaf, dumb, and blind motherfucker, Tommy, in pinball.

Lee J. picked up Mason’s guitar and started fumbling through the opening bars of “Christine’s Tune” to perk her up. She was sweating and ashen faced. Her bangs were sticking to her forehead and she was breathing real hard. I didn’t think too much of it ‘cause it was so fucking hot and humid in there. We were all sweaty. If you touched anything, you left a soggy print behind. And to top it off, the overhead kept flickering, which made everything seem even hotter and more urgent. 

Come on, Felicia, what else you got? Mason asked, reaching into his jeans pocket for the little notebook he writes his song lyrics in.

She just grunted. At least, Mason said it was a grunt, a guttural noise, no words. Lee J. said so too. Me, I think she muttered something—Gram. I think that’s what she muttered, and it was the last thing she said, which is perfect when you think about it. I told you she loved Gram Parsons. It’s real important you get that. I mean, Felicia loved that dead dude. Personally, I think he could have been on one of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive covers, only I don’t know if they did that back then. He was good-looking. I told Felicia that too. She never had much to say when she came into the store, but mention Gram Parsons’ name and she’d talk a blue streak. That’s how come we all know what happened to him. You heard that story? Supposedly, Gram told his road manager if he died he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree National Park. So after he snuffed out, all by his lonesome in the Joshua Tree Inn, his road manager rented a hearse, faked some papers from a funeral home, swiped Gram’s body at the Los Angeles airport where he was about to be flown home to Louisiana for a proper burial, drove him out to the desert, and set him on fire. Sounds seriously whack, right, but it was what the dude wanted. Not some stuffy funeral with a bunch of tight asses he’d have never wanted to hang with otherwise. I mean, the guy was friends with Keith Richards, for crissakes. So it might’ve been whack, but it was the right thing to do. I hope somebody’ll do the same thing for me when I buy the farm. Screw though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death shit. Have a kickass party then stuff a torch up my ass and light the sonofabitch. 

Before you go all Law & Order on me, you gotta understand we tried to help Felicia. Bronco knows CPR. He used to lifeguard for some boys’ camp in the Smokies. He tried. We stretched her out on the floor and he got on top of her and pumped her chest and did mouth-to-mouth and pumped her chest and the poor guy was sweating like a motherfucker and his man boobs were flopping in her blue face and we were trying not to freak out, but that girl was dead, man. Like she checked out of Motel Six and didn’t leave the light on. She was fucking dead. Nobody had to call it, like they do on TV. We knew without saying anything. We also knew calling 911 wasn’t gonna change a damn thing. Neither was running over to get some kind of medicine at the Walmart down the way, where that guy who played the freaky banjo-playing inbred in Deliverance works. For reals.

So we sat down next to her on the wet floor, all quiet-like and serious, and Mason pried her magazine from her hand and we noticed a tattered newspaper clipping was acting as a bookmark. The clipping was a story from the Asheville Citizen-Times on her old man and kid’s car crash. Had a photograph of ‘em in it, and a shot of the car all crushed and twisted. Dude ran head-on into a school bus. Turns out her old man was a big shot screenwriter living in Asheville, but he was originally from Clayton. Maybe that’s why she came here. Who knows. Didn’t say anything about next of kin in the article. Mason said she told him she didn’t have any family. There was a blurb on her old man’s death in People magazine on the page where she’d stuck the newspaper article. Said he’d been working on a screenplay about Gram Parsons at the time of the crash. No wonder she carried that magazine around like a dead baby.

I’m telling you, the whole thing was wicked crazy. None of us had ever seen anybody cash it in before. Not right the fuck in front of us. You’d be amazed at how fast you can go from firing on all four cylinders to clocking in at zero. Well, maybe you wouldn’t be. And she was nice, the nicest junkie I’d ever known. The one time I ever really talked with her, I asked her to tell me something about herself and she sighed and said there was nothing to tell. I said, yeah, me neither, then she leaned over and whispered real soft in my ear so no one else could hear. She said, yes there is, only you’re too afraid to tell it, but maybe one day you won’t be. And she smiled when she said it. Yeah, she smiled and touched my arm and I felt all naked and drafty inside. She said her brother was the same way as me, that he killed himself when their mom and dad found out and she was glad their parents were dead now because of that. I knew what she meant—about all of it—even if I pretended not to. I don’t want to talk about that, though. 

I remember looking at her on the floor that night and thinking about what she’d told me and those white flower petals and how that’s all she was now and that maybe one day, if I was lucky, I’d catch a glimpse of a piece of her blowing by in the sunset and how pretty that would be. How if I did see her like that, I’d make a wish. I’d be like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and ask for courage. She could be my Good Witch of the North, my Grievous Angel, flying through the sky. After all she’d been through, she needed to fly, to be free from a world that had been so shitty to her. That’s what I thought. She needed to be part of the air, not the earth. Burying her six feet under just didn’t seem right to me.

So you see, it was my idea, taking her out to a clearing in the woods near the Chattooga, to this spot off the trail where you could hear the rush of the rapids and crickets chirping in the sweet gums and feel the damp river air on your face and smell the moss growing around the mountain laurel and shit. We drove her out there and laid her on a blanket Lee J. found in her SUV and placed her People magazine with the news clipping tucked inside on her chest and Mason played “Christine’s Tune” on his acoustic guitar real slow and sweet and Lee J. and him harmonized on the vocals. Nobody could think of anything to say that didn’t sound like gloom and doom, so I just said, say hi to Gram. We stood there a little while, listening to the water crashing against the rocks, looking at her, like maybe she’d get up and stagger home if we gave her a minute. Then the full moon drifted out from behind the clouds and shone all bright on her face and Bronco squirted lighter fluid all over her. Mason—we thought it should be Mason since he kinda had a thing with her—lit a match. And that was it. Off she went. 

I think she’d thank us for what we did for her, like Gram probably would’ve thanked his road manager, who never did any time for the so-called crime, by the way, since there were no laws against stealing a body then. Even if he had, I bet he would’ve thought it was worth it. I do. I’m glad we did what we did for her. And nobody would’ve known a thing about it if Mason hadn’t posted a picture on Instagram like the dumbass he is.

Earlier, at the store, Bronco had wanted to call 911 to come collect her. He even punched the numbers in his cell, but I convinced him to hang up before it rang. I reminded him about the time all four of us got busted for underage drinking when we were fifteen and our dads decided to teach us a lesson and let us sit in County for the weekend rather than bail us out and how awful it felt to be somewhere we didn’t want to be and not know when or if we’d ever be free again. For that weekend, we didn’t own ourselves anymore. The cops—you guys—did. Gave us numbers instead of names, told us when to sit and stand and when to eat and sleep and what to wear. Separated us in different cells with people we didn’t know and all we wanted was to be together, but we couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t say, that’s the person I wanna be with, asshole, not this one. See what I mean? We didn’t get to choose ‘cause those were the rules. We had to be tough and act like we didn’t give a fuck or we might get the shit kicked out of us. And my dad was the worst. I was the last one let out ‘cause he wanted to make a man outta me, straighten me out, like I needed fixing. That’s what he said, and I knew what he meant. 

I reminded the guys about that weekend when we were in the store Wednesday night. The thing is, they only had a small taste of what it must’ve felt like for her, losing everything, losing herself too, being in her own kind of jail, not being free to be with who she wanted to be with. I didn’t tell the guys I knew a thing or two about not being free that they didn’t, that she was the only person besides my dad who knew that about me. I didn’t tell them that. But maybe one day I will.

Christy Alexander Hallberg
is the author of the novel Searching for Jimmy Page (Livingston Press, 2021). She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches literature and writing online at East Carolina University. She serves as senior associate editor of North Carolina Literary Review and editor of Flash Friday USA at Litro Magazine. Her short fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Main Street Rag, Fiction Southeast, Deep South Magazine, and Eclectica. Her flash story “Aperture” was chosen Story of the Month by Fiction Southeast for October 2020 and was selected by the editors of the annual Best Small Fictions anthology series for the 2021 edition. Find her on social media @ChristyHallberg.

home               return to fiction