Read an Excerpt Hick
By Andrea Portes
Unbridled Books Copyright © 2007 Andrea Portes
All right reserved.
Chapter One You know why you keep losing, cause, guess what, you're a fucking loser."
If I could grab you out your seat and make you fly past yourself and set you down in the middle of this red wooden shoebox, you'd be staring at my mama. You can see her now, ruddy-faced and getting a little too loud, some kind of aging Brigitte Bardot, ten years later and twenty pounds past what might have been, sitting there in a yellow tank, pink nails and blond flip-up hair. And the shoes, the shoes are the crowning glory, the angel on top of the tinsel tree, yellow plastic mules with a flower etched on the strap, just above her chipped pink toe-berries. My mama's littlest toe looks like a shrimp. She's half in the bag and not caring about bra strap showing or big brass laughing or acting slutty.
That's my dad, there in the corner, hunched over the bar like some kind of beaten question mark. He's staring fixed into his 7 & 7. Seven for give up. Seven for make do. Not much left over. There's no doubt in my mind that if he could dive headfirst into the ice-cube clinking whiskey pool dangling at the end of his fingertips, he would.
If you threw Elvis and a scarecrow in a blender, topped the whole thing off with Seagram's 7 and pressed dice, you would make my dad. He's got tar black hair and shoulder blades that cut through his undershirt like clipped wings. He looks like a gray-skinned, skinny-rat cowboy and I would be lying if I didn't say that I am, maybe sorta kinda, keep it secret, in love with him.
And you would be, too, you would, if you met him before drink number five or six. Just meet him then. Get lost before things get ugly.
His name is Nick, but call him Nicholas, like that Russian royal from my yard-sale World Book, cause if anybody in Lancaster County looks like some displaced king, it's my dad, shot through time like a diamond in a dirtbox.
My mama's name is Tammy, last name Cutter. And the worst part about it is, my dad can't stop being in love with her. Even as she sharpens her knife on the bones sticking out his back, even as she slurs her words, even as she makes goo-goo eyes at strangers, even then, he tilts his glass and shrugs and jiggles the change in his pocket and waits for her to love him back.
"I mean, they never win. They never win. Tom Osborne is just not a winning coach."
She lowers her voice to a loud and confidential whisper.
"I mean, if you ask me, he's just a dud. Just an old dud. He's not hungry enough to win."
And then, like she's gonna show you what true hunger looks like, she throws her head back, sucks down the rest of her berry-lime cooler and slams the empty glass on the bar like a drunk German, itching for a fight.
If you want to know how to reach us, you can call us here. Let's just say that's your best shot. So, here's the number, just ask for Nick. Let's just say the phone may or may not be working back home. Let's just say next to the line marked O for office, you can just put down the Alibi and Bob's your uncle. If you want to track us down on foot, it's that red neon sign three miles outside Lincoln, halfway down Highway 34 towards Palmyra. If you get to the water tower, you passed it.
"I hear they're gonna build a mall down on Route 5, cross from the slaughterhouse."
The bartender's trying to save me from hanging my head down and memorizing the floorboards. His name is Ray and he's known me since I was tall enough to put a quarter in the jukebox. The angels played a trick on him, giving him the body of a linebacker, then putting freckles all over him and topping the whole thing off with strawberry-blond hair. It's like if Strawberry Shortcake had a big brother that looked like he wanted to kick your ass.
Sometimes I call him Uncle Ray because sometimes he's the only one that makes sure I get home safe at night. He and I are in a secret club cause we both know the rest of the night by heart. We've watched this little drama played out, night after night, season by season, and Dad and Tammy are the stars of the show. That's the way it's gotta be, she wouldn't have it any other way. She's not stepping out of bed for just some two-line bit part.
Here's what's gonna happen. The little round glasses are gonna get filled and drained, filled and drained, over and over and over again. For about the first two drinks there's gonna be a nice breeze going through, simple, easy, light FM, lemonade by the side of the road.
Then around drink number three or four, everybody's gonna start having the time of their life. These guys are all gonna be best friends for good with everybody, that's for sure. Somebody is gonna play "That's Life" on the juke-box and everybody is gonna sing along and pat each other on the back and next thing you know, we're all moving in together.
Lord knows, "That's Life" is the anthem of drunks everywhere. If you want to make friends, just walk into any bar from here to Wahoo, find the juke-box, put in a quarter, play "That's Life" and watch the souses slur and sway. Before you know it those gin-blossom faces will be sidled-up, just a little too close, going on six ways till sundown, about the one that got away.
But wait till drink number three or four. That's when a fella could drop by from Timbuktu and be taken in as a brother, no matter what color or language or creed, we are all compadres here. He could be a Hatfield and the McCoys would sell him their sisters and offer him grits. Mi casa es tu casa. Mi bar es tu bar. Drinks are on me, amigos.
Then, around drink number five, everything is gonna get real quiet. I call this the calm before the storm. That is, when I call it anything, which is never, since the whole thing is so shamey, why talk about it in the first place? Why even mention it at all? Maybe let's just talk about the weather or the new mall down on Route 5.
Okay, now, here comes drink number six, that's a doozey. That's really the party crasher, that one. He comes in and you know there's gonna be trouble. You can hear the record scratch right when he walks through the door. Drink number six. Hold on to your hats.
Get out now, before drink number seven or eight come waltzing through the door, cause you can slice up the air with a butter knife. You can almost see the surliness rising up through the smoke, coming off the pool table. You could just tell drink number seven and eight to stay home, but they got invited with drink number one and they RSVP'd around drink number four. There is no way they are not coming to this party. They've been gussyed-up since happy hour.
So, here they are, drink number seven and eight, and here's Tammy, starting the show off with a bang.
"Luli, you're doomed, you know that. You are just fuckin doomed."
She's leaning in, serious, trying to get it through my head that this is the most important thing I ever heard ever. The words are dragging the side of her lip down, clumsy and falling slurred. She leers tipsy at my dad. If she could find a way to take back time by slicing up pieces off her husband, if she could turn his skin inside out and get a rebate, then she would cut and cut and not stop cutting until she's deep into the bone and even then. She would slice and dice with pleasure.
"I mean ... look at this drunk you got for a dad, Lull. Lookit him. Just lookit him."
My mama likes to call my dad a drunk but she's giving him a run for his money. He's gonna sit in silence for a little while. He's gonna sit there and clink the ice in his whiskey and nod and drain his glass and drain another. It's gonna be a one-sided argument until he gets to drink number nine. That's when the fireworks start.
Here's what the argument is tonight. Tammy wants to go home. She doesn't want to be with a drunk like my dad no more, just lookit him. He doesn't want to leave. He's perfectly content with drink number nine and is starting to get a crush on drink number ten. Drink number ten has been batting her eyes at him for the last five minutes and my dad just can't resist. He's no match for that drink number ten. Her demure charms and mysterious ways are like a tonic. Like a gin and tonic.
"I am not gonna jus sit here night after night," Tammy says, "watchin my life pass me by, watchin you, lookin at you, thinkin that looky here what I got. This is the horse I bet on. Ha ha. That's a good one. That is precious."
None of this is new. This is like a script you'd follow if you were a vacuum-cleaner salesman. It's automatic. Instant. Standard practice.
My dad slams down drink number ten. I guess number ten was just a fling, cause he's out the door before the glass hits the bar. He's out the door now, storming through the gravel towards the sky-blue Nova parked always, forever, in the corner of the dirt lot. He's in that car and starting it up before you can say DUI.
I'm rushing along, trying to catch up, hoping this won't be the night, please God, not this night, not this one, when my dad finally acts out his final, inevitable, scene. It's the scene he's been writing for himself for years. I can practically hear the music swell up from the car wrapped around that old oak on Highway 34. The sound of the horn, drone drone, as the headlights cut into the pitch-black nothing and my dad's head turns the windshield into a glass spider web.
Not tonight. Please God, not tonight.
I'm almost to him by the time Tammy comes barreling past me on the left. He's trying to back up, but before he can she grabs the driver's side handle and wrenches the door open. She lurches in and throws herself over him, trying to grab the keys.
"You ain't driving nowhere like that, you sonuvabitch."
Oh, Lord, here we go.
"Tammy. You just shut the door, now. Just shut the door."
You'd never know he's on drink number ten now, cause that's how he gets. Calm. Quiet. Collected. My mama is maybe not so collected.
"You sonuvabitch, you ain't leavin me to raise Luli by myself, you selfish bastard."
This is when my dad remembers that he has a daughter and that, guess what, there I am. Just right there, smack-dab in the middle of the parking lot, standing dumb.
"Luli, get in the car. Get in the car now and we'll just leave your mama here. She's hysterical."
Now, that does it. Tammy throws hers arms around me like a spider devouring a fly and next thing you know she's protecting me like my life depended on it. This is her showstopper, ladies and gentlemen. This is where she brings down the house.
"Noooo. No. Nooo. You are not killing my daughter tonight. No sir. You are not takin my daughter with you. She's the only thing I have. My pride and joy."
She starts sobbing now. Make no mistake, this here is her show.
"Oh, Luli, Luli, I jus wanna do right by you. I do. I know your dad just, just can't hold down a job, just never could do nothin. I never shoulda married him, Lull. It's my fault. It's my fault. Blame me."
Now she is sobbing to beat the band. She did plays in high school and this is what it comes down to, drunken confessions in a square dirt lot.
"Luli, get in the car."
The song and dance tonight is called, "Who gets Luli?", followed by a little ditty of tears, followed by a fine little number about apologies, complete with sparkly smiles and a flourish of "I'll-never-do-it-again-I-promise."
Until the next show.
Now my dad is out the car and it's an all-out brawl. There might as well be banjo music. She's got my body, hunched over me like an old-fashioned vampire, nails digging little C's into my back. He's got my arm, pulling the both of us millimeter by millimeter to the car. This show's a comedy and we'll all be back next week.
We stay in this little clumsy tug-of-war for half a century, him pulling her, her clutching me, me trying to wriggle out, until all the sudden I feel two hands whisk me out and place me square four feet away.
"What the fuck is wrong with you people?"
It's Ray. He must've been waiting in the wings. He's got me beside him, holding his arm in front, protective. I wish he wouldn't wait so long to make his entrance. He almost missed his cue. The light from the bar cuts a rectangle into the gravel as the dust settles. There's a lot of huffing and puffing now.
"Look at yourselves. Jesus."
Tammy and Dad stand there like two kids caught smoking. They stand there, side by side, waiting for the next line, cooling down. But somehow the shame thrown down missed them and hit me direct. They're just trying to straighten their shirts. They're just trying to figure out the most perfect closing line to get them the luck offstage.
"C'mon, Luli," Ray says. "I'll give you a ride home. I'm sorry. I am truly sorry."
He puts his hand on my shoulder and takes me with him while he tells the bar-back to cover, quick. He doesn't want nothing to do with this show no more. He's had it. There's nothing grand or loud or pretty about the way he steers me across the gravel. There's nothing flashy about the way he hoists me up into the truck, deep red, with giant wheels for winter. He just sets me up top the seat, simple, before strutting around and getting in the driver's side. He starts the engine and pulls out the lot, with not even a wink back to remind us he's the hero.
When we're pulling out onto Highway 34, I look back and see my dad leaning on the hood of the Nova. You could practice for years and never lean with that picture perfect cowboy slunk.
And you would think that would be it and call it a night, I bet. But just wait cause two fence-posts past our drive Ray stops the truck and next thing you know I'm staring into the big black night with just two headlights, that's it for miles. He starts mumbling something about there's a funny noise he's gotta check up on and there I am, feet up on the dash, thumb-twiddling.
If you're wondering what I look like, just throw two giant eyes and one big mouth at a face too small to hold them. There must've been a mix-up that day on the assembly line, cause they got the proportions all wrong. I got made fun of for my big mouth before I even made it to day-care. Fish-face. Quacky-duck. Put it on my bill.
Seems like Ray's doing a whole lot of nothing, tinkering with the engine and grunt grunt grunt but then, next thing you know, he's got his head in my window like he's the weatherman on the nightly news.
"Wull. I can't figure it."
"The noise. I can't figure the noise."
Now he starts scratching the back of his neck, shifting leg to leg.
"I wanna show you something."
Boy, he sure knows how to be boring.
"Um, wull, how bout you close your eyes and open your mouth."
"Wull, why would I wanna do that?"
"Just trust me. Trust me. You'll like it. I promise."
And now something in the air around me starts to vibrate and I get the feeling that funny noise was pure make-up and my thumbs stop mid-twiddle.
But there's also a side of me that won't ever look away from a dead bird or a car chase or a hold-up at the Alibi at 2 a.m. There's this side that wants to grab that buzzing thing and pull it close and twirl it around and inspect it, like dissecting a flog, belly-splayed.
So I do it.
I do what he says and I close my eyes and open my mouth and the next thing I know he's got his twenty-eight-year-old tongue in my thirteen-year-old mouth and all I can think is that I don't think the hero is supposed to be doing this.
He was supposed to grab me out the hullabaloo and gallop me off on a palomino horse, straight up into Orion's Belt and up up up into the stars. Just leave out the step about making up truck noises and grumbling round the tires and then he's got his tongue down my throat. Don't tell that part. That part's double-secret.
I squirm away and look at him like his marbles got lost. He looks at me, eyes swirling, and get this.
That thing swirling in his eyes, that thing, like he wants to jump into my body and devour me from the inside out, makes it like I could ask for whatever my little heart desired in this second and he would have to do it. He wouldn't have a choice. Right here, in this second in the dead black night with nothing but two white beams and a fence-post waning, I could ask him to climb Chimney Rock or go rob a bank or take me to Lincoln, no, Omaha, no, Dallas. I could ask him, in this little speck of a moment, to jump off a cliff or spit on his mama or crash his truck into the Missouri and he'd do it. He'd have to do it.
And I don't know if it's the way I open my eyes or the way I gawk at his eyes swirling, but he steps back and looks at the ground and shuffles his feet and shakes his head. Then he gets back over to the driver's seat, real quick.
Excerpted from Hick by Andrea Portes Copyright © 2007 by Andrea Portes. Excerpted by permission.
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