Hit Your Brights captures people in tough spots, often of their own making. Fusing humor and tragedy, these thirteen gritty stories keep readers in suspense. Danger lurks, the needle skips, the bomb goes off, and the empties pile up. Outcomes are unpredictable, but the car always starts, and, sometimes, love wins.
Constance Squires casts the diminished circumstances of her characters with authentic detail familiar to any reader who has spent time in flyover country—a swath of boom-and-bust middle America that often seems forgotten. Here, marriages, families, and friendships all hit crisis points in a mutable world of army bases, casinos, truck stops, churches, and bars.
Hit Your Brights showcases a virtuosic range of styles and perspectives. The title story, told in second person, excavates the rationalizations of an alcoholic stumbling through the inexorable progress of her disease. After downing nine Rolling Rocks and three tequila shots, she races her car to the nearest liquor store before it closes, turning on her high beams to ease her double vision.
In “Dopamine Agonistes,” a family man, recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, ventures out to a casino and meets a child he tries to help. Other stories focus on people who find themselves in difficult, potentially violent situations. In “Wounding Radius,” two young women are checking on their marijuana crop in the Wichita Mountains outside of Fort Sill when they are discovered by a troubled soldier who has gone AWOL. And in “An Unscheduled Stop,” a mother traveling with her baby encounters diners at a roadside McDonald’s who might—or might not—be child traffickers.
Beautifully crafted, with a distinctly modern edge, the stories in Hit Your Brights give voice to women and men, young and old, overlooked and disenfranchised, who inhabit worlds that feel at once strange and familiar.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||824 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Lorne Taggart stood at his front door waiting for the mail. He watched the surface of his coffee vibrate with his hands, concentric circles rippling out from the center of the cup, then another vibration, this one in his front pocket from his phone. It was Jenny: Don't forget to check the mail. TELL ME if there's news! She had said the same thing when she left the house thirty minutes earlier. The text was to give him a visual reminder. Jenny was adapting far better than he was to his difficulty with planning and remembering. For her it was a matter of extra prods and hints — treating him like one of the kids, basically. For him, the present was acute and dim at the same time, while the future — even the very near future — was like a tall tale he didn't believe. The phone shook out of his hands and dropped face down on the concrete porch. It took him two tries to curl his hands around the phone and retrieve it. When he did, he saw that the front was badly cracked.
He lifted a yellow leaf that had drifted into his cup and dropped it, soaking, into the bushes that lined the front porch. Until now, he had always loved late September. Now he struggled to hold onto the details, the evenings and mornings that were cool enough for jackets, the high temperatures still reaching into the low eighties during the day, the way a great, purposeful drift of Monarch butterflies wafted through central Oklahoma during their yearly migration to Mexico, blowing orange evanescence like spice across the lawn flowers of Oklahoma City. Fat green caterpillars appeared and ate the green leaves of waning summer annuals. The sunflowers reached their peaks, five, six, seven feet-high faces peeking above fence lines and nodding from the sides of roads, bent like old men with heads too heavy for their necks. Suicide grasshoppers flew against car windshields. Garden spiders showed up, weaving their zigzag webs and hanging ziplines across light poles and porch corners. Pumpkins and gourds and stalks of Indian corn appeared on roadsides from vendors who opened the backs of their pickups and sat in lawn chairs waiting for customers with their radios blasting sports talk from inside the cabs.
And football season — that had always been what made fall really great for Lorne. The state turned crimson and orange with the OU/OSU rivalry, the north half up from the Cimarron River skewing orange for OSU, then turning OU crimson to the south. Car flags, ball caps, t-shirts, and jackets announced allegiances everywhere you looked, and even the rock stations played the college fight songs. Between a Foo Fighters double play, there would be the martial cadences of "Boomer Sooner," stirring up in him the old disappointment of his own high school football career replaced quickly by the long habit of allegiance and its steady rewards.
The kids had been back at school for a month. His eldest, Cade, would attend his fourth grade class in flip-flops and shorts until a hard freeze came. His little ones, Emily and Ryan, on the other hand, hurried the change of season with new clothes still too warm for the in-between days of early fall, wearing their new hoodies and corduroys with the browns and reds of changing leaves. The department stores were already jacked up with Halloween decor and costumes, rushing October to get to November and December and a Christmas season that still felt remote for all but the most forward-thinking planners. Lorne had been that sort of forward thinker once — he had prided himself on noticing, throughout the year, what his kids were into, and on picking up the perfect gift on spring and summer sale, not waiting until mid-December to try and come up with a decent show from Santa, not leaving it all to his wife, like his kids were somehow not his business. But this year he couldn't imagine Christmas. He couldn't even imagine Halloween. Would he make it that long? Not that the disease would get him that fast. No, it would take years and more malingering years.
He pushed open the screen door and saw the mail truck pull to a stop a block down. Jenny was at work, the kids at school, everyone hustling with determined cheer through the morning routines he had used to miss, up and out of the house too early to experience. Rushing out the door this morning, Emily had yelled, "Have a good day, Daddy!" Cade wrote a note in his blocky scrawl, and left it on the dining room table propped up by a salt shaker: "DAD — Don't Forget to Blow Up the Halloween Cat Today. Remember my Slumber Party!" A peck on the cheek from his wife, everyone adjusting without comment to his new status as stay-at-home dad, now that work was out of the question.
He didn't think he would ever adjust. Mornings in the oil fields, watching the shadows shorten under the pump jacks, coffee steaming the windshield of his truck, rounding up oil workers who'd been up all night at the casinos, that was what mornings were supposed to be. Now he sat on his front steps, staring at plastic bats hanging from the neighbor's trees. It was too early for Halloween decorations.
The mail carrier approached smiling. He had bleach-blonde hair and muscular calves. His mirrored aviator shades showed Lorne his own broad frame hunched on the steps. "Morning."
"Nice day." Lorne stood up and took the bundle of white envelopes. "No bills in here, I hope."
"Gave them to your neighbor."
"That's the way," Lorne grinned, pushing like a body caught in quicksand against the stiffness of his facial muscles. "Have a good one."
He watched the mail carrier cross his lawn and head up his neighbor's front steps before he looked at the mail. There were some bills. A National Geographic Kids with a stern blue parrot on the cover. Sales flyers for the usual crap. And an envelope from the Social Security Administration. To Lorne Taggart. He walked inside, dropped the other mail on the dining room table on top of Cade's note. Poured himself another cup of coffee. Then he returned to the porch and tore open the envelope. As he read, a high-pitched sound startled him, a sound he realized had come from his own throat. His hands trembled and he felt his face muscles tighten to a mask. It was official — he was fully disabled. The disability check would be decent, not much less than he had made when he was working. Good news.
They had waited months for this official notification, but he and Jenny had been told that total disability was a foregone conclusion with a diagnosis like his, a young man in the prime of his working life with three small kids at home. So money wouldn't be a problem. Was he supposed to feel relieved? He smacked a mosquito against his bare leg, gratified by the swiftness of his reflex, and said aloud, "When total disability is good news," and then, startled by his own angry voice, concluded the thought in his head, you know you're screwed.
* * *
In the back of the fridge there were some old beers. He drank one. He drank another. His phone buzzed, and he knew without trying to peer through the phone's cracked face that the call was from Jenny, but he ignored it. He thought about the guys at the well site, wondered what old Eugene was doing without Lorne there to roust the young ones, get them to work. There was a new guy, Lorne had heard, someone to take his place. Lorne decided he'd go by, just say hi to everybody, tell that new guy some of his tricks of the trade. Shoot the shit. On his way to the garage, he stopped in the utility room, breathing in a mealy odor from a big bag of cat food and the underlying sweetness of fabric softener. He jammed his feet into his boots, bracing himself against the washer and struggling with the laces for a minute before he gave up and left them untied.
In the garage, he climbed into his truck. The radio blasted a car commercial that he switched off. Then he sat in the garage and let the motor run. In the gray light, he made out the bicycles hanging from the ceiling, the weed eater in the corner, and the boxes of holiday stuff piled by the door. The big, plastic black cat that Cade wanted him to blow up was in one of those boxes. It really was too early to decorate, but Cade had been begging.
Exhaust began to cloud the air. He could just keep sitting here.
He wouldn't feel it. He had known a girl in college, a girl madly in love with his best friend, Chris, who after Chris dumped her, killed herself this way. She had tried to change her mind but hadn't made it. Her parents found her in their garage slumped in front of the door that led to the kitchen, her hands reaching for the door handle. What was her name? Kimberly. Kim. A journalism major. Lorne had been planning to ask her out when she got over Chris. That stupid girl. He pressed the garage door opener clipped to the driver's side sun visor, and daylight poured in. He backed out the car and turned on the radio.
* * *
It was barely 10A.M., but the parking lot of the casino was crowded. All the people who weren't at work were there, or at least that's how it looked from the highway. Maybe it was where Lorne belonged now, too. He pulled in and drove deeper and deeper down the rows of parked cars until he found a spot a couple of football fields away from the front doors. Lots of folks not working today. Lorne had on occasion strolled through this particular casino looking for AWOL oil workers, whom he usually found glassy-eyed and desperate at the slots or playing Texas Hold 'Em with someone who had the oil worker's paycheck over on his side of the table. Now he wouldn't call it strolling, but his walk through the parking lot was brisk and not too stiff, right in the sweet spot after his medicines kicked in. Ten feet outside the entrance, the glass doors slid open and the air conditioning reached for him like long tendrils of mermaid hair pulling him into the deep. From the entryway, carpet stretched into the expansive interior, swirling blue-and-yellow patterns leading his gaze like an eternal mirror at a funhouse. It felt like the middle of the night inside. Although the place was huge, with fifty-foot ceilings suspending lighted glass streamers the length of limos, the air was stale with cigarettes and human sweat. Lorne couldn't imagine the air-conditioning bill.
He found the bar easily. Elevated and surrounded by a wall of backlit glass, it looked like a liquid color wheel, shifting through the spectrum, morphing and humming like a spaceship ready for takeoff. He bought a Jack and Coke. As he settled on a stool, he caught a whiff from his jacket of car exhaust.
A short woman with heavy breasts that pressed against a tight T-shirt strolled up and stretched on tiptoes until her low bottom caught the stool next to Lorne, and she shimmied backward onto the seat. "You believe that Baylor game?" she said.
Lorne realized he was wearing his OU hat, which invited these kinds of conversations. The old Lorne would have swung around and started laying out his theory about Oklahoma's defensive weaknesses this year, but today he just nodded and sipped his drink.
"I'll give them one thing — it takes balls, coming up here year after year acting like they've got a snowball's chance." She tilted her head to look at him. "You just lose a bundle?"
"Worse," Lorne said.
"Me, too," she said. She had chunky blond streaks in her brown hair and a diamond stud in her broad nose. "My son, he's got to have a uniform for T-ball, and I was hoping to make the money to get it for him, but damn if I didn't just lose what I had." Lorne didn't say anything so she continued. "What do you mean by worse, anyway?"
"I didn't lose my money."
"Oh." She appeared to think about it. "So you have money?"
She wasn't going to ask what was worse. Lorne shrugged. That was good.
"Then maybe we could help each other out. Start the day off with a bang." She gave him a hopeful smile, lascivious and embarrassed at once, and Lorne rose in his seat.
"Excuse me," he said.
The sun was bright when he left the building, and he shaded his eyes until he found the row of cars where he was pretty sure he'd parked his truck. He noticed a rusted-out Honda with a bumper sticker that said, "You're Just Jealous Because the Voices Talk to Me." Inside, a small face watched him from under the steeply rounded bill of a crimson OU cap much like his own. He stopped.
The boy was six or seven, and about the same size as his youngest, Ryan. When Lorne approached the car, the boy's eyes showed alarm and his head dropped below the level of the window. Lorne looked inside. Who the hell leaves a kid in a car? The back seat was full of fast food trash and clothes. He could see the boy huddled in the corner, his hands clenched around a baseball.
Lorne knocked on the window. "Hey, are you okay?"
The boy jammed his cap low on his forehead.
"I bet you need a T-ball uniform."
The boy nodded wearily, like everybody knew about him and his T-ball needs.
"Okay," Lorne said. "Okay."
The exhaust smell had settled in the fabric of Lorne's clothes. That girl, Kimberly — he had watched her with Chris and he had wanted her. She was his first funeral. The place was packed. She was twenty-two, a pretty people-pleaser, a good student. The shock of it was an all-systems catastrophe for Lorne. Numbness with fury breaking through like a radio station into static. Some people at the funeral had treated Chris like he was to blame, and Lorne had stood with his friend like a bodyguard. Chris maybe never got over her death. They were both thirty-six at the time, and Chris was still unmarried, living three blocks from his parents' old house. For some reason when Lorne thought of killing himself, he couldn't fathom his kids' or Jenny's grief, which was too big, like trying to see the curvature of the earth, but thinking about what it would do to Chris gave him a picture and a scenario he could assimilate. His friend would be ruined. Lorne didn't want to hurt anybody, but he wasn't sure he would be able to help it.
The boy's mother was at a poker table, standing behind the players, shifting from foot to foot, watching the game. Lorne drew up alongside her and gave her a nudge.
She pulled her gaze from the game and glanced up. Her eyes leaped when she saw him, but she kept her face still. That was hard for most people, poker faces were. Lorne laughed at the idea that he could start playing poker now — his face was stiff all the time anyway. He could rake it in, leave his family with a pile. Parkinson's for fun and profit.
"Let's play," he said. "I'll stake you. Are you any good?"
"Good enough," she said.
"How much is that T-ball uniform, anyway?"
Lorne whistled. "That's steep."
"Cuz of the shoes. He needs a glove, too, but that would bring it up to, I don't know, a hundred and something."
Lorne considered just giving her the money, sharing a little of his Social Security windfall. She would take it, he was pretty sure. He thought too about taking her up on the sex, but he was afraid. He had already done a couple of things he thought he'd never do, had never wanted to do — the new neighbor down the street and a mother he'd met at Emily's gymnastics. The meds he was taking were doing something to his impulse control, that was a fact. A class of drug with a name like a race of badass extraterrestrials in a sci-fi movie. Dopamine agonists or something like that — they made it impossible to think of consequences. His mind didn't pull up all the considerations that it used to pull up. Drop that symptom into the disease's time issues, the new way of living in an eternal present, and you had a problem. He had a problem — a new one, on top of the Parkinson's, because that wasn't enough. He was doing well right then, remembering those early mistakes, remembering the medicine's side effects, remembering consequences. There were still these moments of clarity. It helped that he wasn't the slightest bit attracted to her. "So, are you in?" he asked.
"I'm Debbie." She offered him her hand to shake, and then found an empty spot at the end of the horseshoe-shaped table. He took the seat next to her. Three other players were there, a round Asian woman in a purple velvet track suit, an older dude in a yoked western shirt with pearl buttons who reminded Lorne of Burt Reynolds, and a jug-eared guy still young enough to have acne. They all had the fixed, hard-blinking look of people who had been there all night, and the palpable esprit de corps of veterans of a long struggle. The table was low stakes, the kind of table where Lorne used to find his AWOL employees, so he knew how scrappy, how all-or-nothing, these games could be. The all was small, but the nothing was total.
The Asian woman had the biggest pile of chips, guarding it behind wrists enwreathed in gold bangles. It looked to Lorne like she should cash out, but she had some higher mark in mind. Lorne bought in for himself and Debbie, twenty bucks each. His cards were crap, and he began shaking so badly he could hardly hold them.
Noticing his hands, Debbie leaned across the table. "Hair of the dog's what you need." She held up her own steady hands gripping the cards. "Should have seen me this morning — I was worse than you. Why don't you get a whiskey?"
Lorne smiled at her. So he could pass for an alcoholic.
He folded almost immediately, leaving Debbie at the table looking alert. He wandered the casino, cruising by the poker game every few minutes to check on Debbie's fortunes. She was cleaning up.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hit Your Brights"
Copyright © 2019 Constance Squires.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
An Unscheduled Stop,
Hit Your Brights,
Running Out of Music,
Live Through This,
The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon,