The following is from Laird Hunt’s novel, The Evening Road. Hunt is the author, most recently, of Neverhome, a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice selection, IndieNext selection, winner of the Grand Prix de Litterature Americaine and The Bridge prize, and a finalist for thePrix Femina Étranger. A resident of Boulder, CO, he is on the faculty in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Denver, where he edits the Denver Quarterly.
“Woe to the man with a wobble in his legs.” My father liked to say that. In fact, it might have been about the last thing he said out loud on this earth. That night, it could have been Dale’s song. Since about a mile on down the road after I thought they were settled, he got roused up enough to half stand, say, “Lordy me,” and fall right out of the wagon. He landed with a pillow-punch sound in the ditch grass and I set the brake and climbed off to see whether he had broke his neck. The others in the back hadn’t moved a smidge. Bud was sleeping like a baby, Pops looked like his trick in the tree had caught up with him and he was about ready for the embalmers, and the speechmaker was drooling onto his hand and had a long fat leg dangling over the wagon side. Dale was lying still on his face so I put some elbow grease into it and flipped him over. He had a scrape on his cheek and some leaves in his hair. He was looking at me and grinning.
“Some night, wasn’t it,” he said.
“The night ain’t over,” I whispered back.
“What’s left to do?”
“That’s what I said.”
He kept grinning. There was bubbles of his whiskey breath popping on my cheeks and nose. There was whiskers of what could have been steam coming out his nostril holes. Some of that steam hit my face and I felt a heat rising up in me.
“Everything,” I said and whacked him across the face with the rolled-up map.
The grin came off his face.
“You were rude to that Klansman, Ottie Lee.”
“You know I can’t stand a Klansman. Last I knew about it you couldn’t either.”
“Tonight’s different. This is Marvel night. Anyway, you know how Bud feels.”
“To hell with crybaby Bud Lancer,” I said. I hit him with the map again. Hard this time and right on his nose. He grabbed my wrist. I tugged away. The heat hadn’t stopped. It had grown stronger. I felt it in my arms. Felt it in my legs.
“You mean that?” Dale said.
“’Course I do.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Quit my job.”
“You going to quit?”
“I’ll quit tomorrow.”
“You better quit.”
“I plan to.”
“You think I don’t know?”
“Know what? That Bud’s the king of the jackasses?”
I hit him again with the map, hard as I could, and this time Dale started laughing like I’d told my best joke.
He stopped laughing when I unbuttoned his pants. “What are you doing, Ottie Lee?” he said.
“You’re an idiot and don’t know everything, Dale Henshaw,” I said and pulled up my dress. His personal appliance was drooping some, but it wasn’t everything about Dale that was small and I’m being honest when I say some droop down there on that hot, dry night was an advantage. I got this picture as I started of Pops and Bud and the fat speechmaker risen from their slumbers and looking over the wagon boards at me in the moon-dark and it made me whack at Dale’s face again and ride faster. “There’s things you don’t know,” I said to him. Saying it out loud made me bite on a corner of my lip. “There’s lots you don’t know,” I said. Saying it made my eyes turn right, then left, then right again. It made me grunt and growl and groan.
“She didn’t just try to kill me.”
“Easy now, Ottie Lee, you got a lot of drink in you,” Dale said.
“Easy now to hell with you,” I said back. “Let’s see what you got now. Let’s see you do this. Come on.”
Dale was looking up at me, his eyes squinting hard. “You sure, Ottie Lee?” he whispered.
“Call me Pearl,” I whispered back.
That’s when someone started shooting at us.
* * * *
It all went quick then. Like an old movie machine got cranked too fast. “Jesus fuck!” said Dale as a bullet winged up over our heads. He’d been flat as a piece of burned pancake the minute before, but now he flew straight up off the ground like I wasn’t on top of him. The gun went off again and Dale jumped back so hard it threw me against the wagon and I cracked my head. It was a big gun with a big report and it didn’t need to go off more than that second time for me to leave off rubbing the side of my head and scramble up on the wagon. The mule was going berserk in its yoke and when I dropped the map and pulled off the brake it leaped forward with a lurch that just about launched me into the atmosphere.
The gun went blam! again and we flew straight down the road and then off it into the shallow ditch where Dale and I had been lying and up into a bean field. Blam! went the gun, and Dale, who had been running behind with his pants unbuttoned, yelped, caught up with us, and climbed aboard. The four boys lay flat in the back of the wagon, hands covering their heads. The gun went off one more time and I felt the night air move next to my ear and thought I heard someone behind us yell out something I didn’t understand, a name I couldn’t catch, then I must have fainted from that bullet I’d almost caught because next thing I knew, I was waking up in a patch of dirt and bean stalk.
“Goddamn, Dale, I fell out of the wagon too,” I said. But no one was there to hear me. The wagon was gone. I stood up and saw where its tracks led off into the dark.
“Hey!” I yelled, but a crop field swallows sound, so it came out quieter than I liked. I yelled again. “Hey, you tin-can fuckers, get back here!” I started to yell once more then remembered that as fast as that mule had been running, we hadn’t rolled all that far from where the shooter had been.
“Shit fuck,” I said, crouching low. The beans were getting tall but they were beat down by the heat and it came to me I’d have to lie down if I really wanted to hide myself. My dress was already a ruin and I’d lain myself down next to the speechmaker in the road and on top of Dale in the ditch so I didn’t see how there was any way some more laying down could hurt. I stretched out on my stomach between the rows and put my cheek down on my hands.
The night had been all noise with never an end to it and now it was nothing but quiet. Just the gentle whooshing of the earth, the tiny stirrings of the beans. I felt cold, then I felt hot. My head hurt and itched at the same time. I’d hit a soft patch when I fell out of the wagon but I knew come morning I’d have about fifteen bruises. For all I knew, those clunkerheads were still lying flat in the back of the wagon with their eyes closed. Probably all saying their prayers. Thinking about them praying made me wonder if I ought to be. Dale and I didn’t get over to church much but we went sometimes. I knew my Our Father about as well as the next person. I’d learned it at the Spitzers’. I’d said it at night in my bed hoping my father would come back for me. I’d said it each time my father had left me there alone again. I’d said it plenty frequent after he came to collect me that last time too. “Our Father,” I said. Only when I said it, my throat caught and it came out wrong. That annoyed me and I was glad I was alone. Then I wasn’t glad. I’d looked earlier out of Sally Gunner’s eyes and seen lights in the trees. Where were those lights now? Had those really been bullets before? Or had it been those lights? Firing blasts from heaven. Salvos from the sky. Was that my message? Was that what the Abraham Lincoln angel had meant? I’d frowned and made faces inside a church where others had their heads bowed. I shouldn’t have ever let Bud drive me down the lane even if it was just to get groped. No matter how bad we needed the money. I shouldn’t have danced with the speechmaker. I should have spoken to my mother. Run down that road after her and Dale. Told her to go to hell. Helped her get there. Told Dale every part of what she had done. There wasn’t any way I could quit my job. Not unless Dale sold that pig of his. He ought to sell his pig. Or we ought to eat her. Chop her and roast her right up.
“Our Father,” I said again and hell if my voice didn’t catch a second time. I’m dead, I thought. I’m lying here dead in my grave and will never rise again. The map is gone with the wagon and I got shot and didn’t know it and now I’m as dead as those boys in their tree. Maybe I’m hanging next to them. Maybe someone sniffed me out. Spoiled goods. Got their gasoline at the ready to douse me. Set me to burn. Surprise! Maybe I was my bright message. Only I wasn’t dead. I could hear my heart. My tongue was dry and my ear was ringing.
“Our goddamn Father,” I said. This came out fine and I pushed myself up onto my knees and into a crouch again. Scanned the surround. Who knew how far away they might be by now? I was turned around some but the wagon tracks looked to lead off in the direction of Elwood. They’d had plenty of time to come to their senses. To come and fetch me. I’d have gone back for them. ’Course I would have. Still, maybe Dale had understood what I meant and told them, My wife is the issue of a madwoman. She’s afraid she’ d do things you don’t do. Hurt her own children. Her real name ain’t even Ottie Lee.
Where does it ever end? I was nineteen miles from nowhere; the farce had gone on long enough, it was time to find my way out of the field. Marvel or no Marvel, it was time to go home. I stood up and brushed off my dress and by and by like a bloom birthed out of the long night’s dream a young cornflower woman walked by. I didn’t see it at first but she was holding a pistol in her hand. When she got up on me she raised the pistol and pointed it in my direction. She held it on me as she kept walking and I didn’t breathe, then she pulled the trigger and it went click and she smiled and pulled it again then lowered it and stopped smiling and spit and then vanished down the wagon tracks into the dark.
* * * *
Home was where I was heading and home was where I would have gone. I believe that. My pillow was calling me. I wanted a bath. I wanted my side of the bed. I wanted Dale lying there next to me, no matter what he had told anyone else, already deep into his snores. Dale and our property would be my Marvel. A smiling cornflower with her gun could be my Marvel. Old ladies and magic pickles. Catfish suppers. Sweet mules and sleeping pigs and slaughter time. My mother gone up to Gary. Dancing on the gravel in the dark. I quickened my step. Shivering despite the heat, so I rubbed my arms. I’d stop shivering. I knew shortcuts. I’d be home before I knew it. I’d have been home.
But just a hundred yards into my retreat I heard a motor. I saw headlights and put out my hand. Of all the souls it could have been, it was Candy Perkins. She had been to Marvel, seen it all, borrowed a car, and left out to get herself freshened up for more fun. Now she was on her way back.
“You look like shit, Ottie Lee, hop in,” she said.
I pulled open the door. Climbed in with what I thought was some jaunt to my step. Raised up one of my eyebrows and gave her a saucy smile. Called up one of the remarks I’d meant to make to her when I saw her again. It was about old boyfriends and beauty pageants. But before I had gotten it even halfway out, I had my cheek on her shoulder and was blubbering like Bud. I cried and sobbed so long and loud, she shut off the engine.
“My good Lord, what’s got into you?” she asked me.
For a while, though, even after she’d started the car back up and got us going toward Marvel, all I could do was shake my head.
From THE EVENING ROAD. Used with permission of Little, Brown. Copyright © 2017 by Laird Hunt.