When Claire McGill turned eighteen, she partied for a weekend at Myrtle Beach with her best friend, Marla Haggerty, and paid a black-bearded tattoo artist $25 to ink a fairy on her right breast while listening to Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven.
“You know, some of the mummies in Egypt have tattoos,” the tatooist said, the needle buzzing between his fingers.
“Really”” Claire said. “What about the daddies?” The tattooist rolled his eyes. Claire was teetering, her brain numb, her skin throbbing. She and Marla had spent the day working on a case of beer, slathered with Panama Jack cocoa oil, baking like two chocolate chip cookies in the scorching sun, and flirting with a squad of burr-headed Marines from Cherry Point.
Aloe-scented vacationers strolled the boardwalk, pausing at the tattoo shop window to watch the artists at their craft, the night sky behind them laced with pavilion lights. Claire looked down to see her blood mixed with black ink rising in droplets from the tattoo.
Her tatooist had studied folklore at Western Carolina and explained that fairies had once been angels but were kicked out of paradise because they weren’t good enough. He said the fairy would bring magic to her life but only after paying a tithe to hell.
“How does it do that?” Claire asked.
“Pay the tithe?” The tattooist rubbed his prickly goatee with the back of his hand and thought about it. “I don’t know, maybe by doing a little evil herself.”
Six years later, driving home from a dive joint named The Inferno, Claire thought about all the tithes she and her fairy had paid since that night on the boardwalk. Like a logo advertising Claire’s spirit womanor girl power,the fairy was drawn in plain view where the roundness of Claire’s shoulder sloped into the pectoral muscle, honey-haired with gossamer wings, no bigger than a full-grown dragonfly, but cross-eyed. The tatooist had flinched at the moment he was adding details to the tiny, pinched face.
In Samson County, below the dam that holds back Lake Haskins, the Blue River runs through a valley and under a two-lane bridge. Highway 29 takes a steep descent straight down the side of the valley, like a gigantic roller coaster that pulls the world out from under you. Local boys used the hill to generate speeds of 120 or even 140 miles per hour. At one A.M., Claire had the highway all to herself.
As she sailed down the hill, a speck of light appeared at the bottom in the center of the bridge. At first she thought it was a white cat standing in the middle of the highway. She slowed and the brakes on her piece of crap Celica squealed rebelliously, but the cat didn’t stir. Then she realized that it wasn’t a cat, it was a blonde-furred dog, and it just stood there. But as she reached the bottom and slowed to a stop, she saw that it was not exactly a dog either, it was a small red wolf. She stared at it through the windshield. Reflecting her headlights, the pup’s eyes glowed like nuggets of gold, and its only movement was the movement of the fur covering its ribs, rising slightly with each breath. It was watching her, patiently, like it had been waiting all night for her to come down the hill. Claire thought she saw a sadness in its face, like the sadness of a lost child. She decided to get out of the car, but when she did, just as she was stepping onto the road, the wolf pup scurried into the woods. She didn’t see it run, it happened at the moment she looked down to plant a foot in the road, when she stood up it had vanished. She immediately began to wonder if it had been an apparition or dream.
At senior prom, Claire had loved showing off her cheap little bare-naked fairy whose plump, perfectly rounded butt boys found strangely erotic. Drawn in shades of purple and black, the color of a fresh bruise or ripe fig, the fairy looked as crazy as Claire felt most of the time, back then before she had any responsibilities other than herself. When her mother saw it for the first time, she sighed with disgust and said it looked “slutty.” More than one boy had asked if he could kiss it, and a few had.
A month after graduation, Claire was pregnant. She didn’t exactly know how it had happened (they’d used a tropical-colored Trojan), but she blamed Karl, who, six years later, was waiting for her in the joyless den of their singlewide mobile home, a brand new, black, gilt-edged Bible clamped between his pale hands when she came home from The Inferno. Ever so gently, she closed the aluminum door behind her so as not to wake the boys.
“I been prayin’,” Karl said from the sofa, his voice fragile and airy like someone broken and empty.
“Damn you, Karl, you scared the shit out of me. What are you doing in the dark?”
“I been prayin’, prayin’ real hard,” he said.
“Well, good for you.”
“It is good for me, and for you and the boys.” In the surrounding forest, the hollow abdomens of hundreds of male cicadas were vibrating, making the singlewide hum like a hydroelectric dam. “Sweetie, I miss holdin’ you so freakin’ much,” Karl moaned.
“You try to jump me, I’ll puke on you,” Claire said.
“I don’t care,” he muttered plaintively. Claire hated hearing him whine. She wanted to kick him in the face and pressed her right foot into the soiled shag carpeting to thwart the impulse.
“Baby, I gotta tell you something. Honestly, I never felt this way before. God’s come into me and tore me all up, made me all emotional. I keep wanting to set things right by you and the boys, I swear that's become my heart's desire.”
“Don’t worry about it, Karl,” Claire said.
“What do you mean, ‘don’t worry?’”
“I've decided to leave you.”
“You what?For real?”
“Yep. For as fucking real as I can make it.”
After more groaning and whining, Karl finally manned up and went to bed without her.
She sat on the concrete slab they called a patio. The sky had cleared, but the atmosphere was tepid at two A.M., raising sweat, it was August, and Pabst seeped from her pores. She draped her red banner of hair over the back of the lawn chair and looked at the sky, smoked a menthol Marlboro, each inhalation tingling and burning her tonsils. She thought about Karl and their boys, Toby and Sam, and how her life was like a constellation of stars, kind of a big empty dipper: seeing double, try as she might, she couldn’t get the stars into focus.
In high school, all she’d wanted was to play lacrosse and maybe coach some day. Slight of frame but fast as a skink, she was the highest scorer in the history of Newton Grove. She flexed her arms and pecs, in the moon’s blue glow her fairy shimmered under a sheen of sweat. A breeze swept across the distant treetops, a moment later reaching her, chilling her skin, and she thought about going to find her letter jacket decorated with tiny brass lacrosse sticks, then remembered she had folded it up and packed it away in a plastic box in her parents’ attic. She fell asleep, the cigarette between her fingers forming a worm of ash until a breeze scattered it across the silvery grass as her brain ran away on its own and attempted to fabricate a dream.
Around 7 A.M.she heard knocking. When she opened her eyes, Toby was watching her through the sliding glass door. He was her oldest, age eight, and his mullet needed trimming. He probably wondered why mommy was sleeping on the patio. He held up an empty milk jug. “We’re out,” he mouthed.
She went inside. Sam, her youngest at four years, was watching cartoons, equally absorbed in picking his nose. She left without speaking to Karl and headed over to the Scotsman for a pack of cigarettes and quart of milk.
There was a time when Claire had enjoyed being married. And she loved her boys but wished one of them had been a girl. Maybe a daughter she could play Barbies with would make life more fulfilling. Her father had built her a two-story pink house when she was four, and every Christmas she’d gotten more Barbies and outfits. Her mother had even stuck a Barbie and Ken on her wedding cake, which was a store-bought sheet cake from Costco and needed a centerpiece. At sixteen, with her clothes off, Claire thought she looked a lot like Barbie, lithe and rosey, almost perfect.
Sheila was working the register at the Scotsman. During the night somebody had tried to break in but only got as far as busting out the lower panel on the front door. Miniscule glass bits flickered in the morning sunlight.
“Who do you think did it?” Claire asked standing at the checkout counter trying not to stare at the black hair curling from the mole on Sheila’s cheek.
“Some meth head, probably,” Sheila said. “Sheriff Clancy came by and drank three cups of coffee while he looked at the door and talked to Henry. He said it was the second time in a month somebody broke into a place or tried to.” Sheila took Claire’s payment. “Could be a car come by or something and scared him off before he could complete the job.” She dropped a few coins into Claire’s palm. “The Sheriff said Karl has become a Christian.”
“Um-hm. We’ll see if it sticks. Wonder how the Sheriff knew about it.”
“He goes to Nu-Life,” Sheila said. Sheila was only seventeen but had the vacant expression, I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, satanic tats, and biker tramp makeup you often see on country girls. “I visited once or twice but them folks are too fuckin’ loud for me. They got a full-scale rock band and a bigass speaker system like something at a Widespread concert.” Sheila handed Claire a warm sausage biscuit snuggly wrapped in grease-soaked wax paper.
“What’s that?” Claire asked. “Charity?”
“Do you want it?”
“Did I ask for it?”
“No, but do you want it?” Sheila asked. “I gotta git rid of ‘em, it’s after ten. Take some home to the boys and Karl why don’tcha.”
“Sure, Sheila. Thanks.” Sheila put four biscuits into a paper sack. “Hey Sheila, over at Nu-Life, who’s in charge there now, you know, who’s the pastor? I heard they got somebody new from Winston-Salem.”
“I forget his name but he’s a nice fella,” Sheila said. “He comes in here sometimes. I seen him peeking at a Penthouse, so he ain’t all that righteous. He’s got a nice smile though. Pretty teeth. Good hair. He buys a lot of TicTacs, like the multipacs, you know ...”
“Oh cool,” Claire said to cut her off, because Sheila could gab like a goose. “See ya later, Sheila. Thanks for the biscuits.”
Later that morning, things got worse. Karl started shaming her with his holier-than-thou work ethic.
“Seen my camo Chucks?” He yelled from the bedroom. “Never mind. Found ‘em!” He walked down the hallway and entered the kitchen. Claire was thumbing through a story about Brad and Angelina in a People magazine her mother had loaned her. “I found ‘em stuck under the bed.” He sat on a kitchen stool, wedged his bare feet into the ratty old Converse.
“You don’t want to talk about it, do you?” He asked, watching her flip pages. “You don’t want to talk about what Jesus has done for me.” She didn’t look up. “Well, in due time,” he said, and without another word he went outside to mow the lawn.
She almost felt grief for the dead Karl. At least when he was high, his idiot ways were understandable. She watched him through the kitchen window. He was pushing the Craftsman to the center of the backyard. The grass was as high as a young wheat field and along the path Karl pushed their old piece of shit mower the blades of grass bowed over like hair smoothed down by a barber’s hand. She usually did the mowing, while Karl watched from the patio, a Rolling Rock dangling from thumb and forefinger.
In his floppy shoes and baggy old gym shorts it was terribly obvious she’d married a clown. His curly brown hair bounced as he walked, he didn’t have an ass, his skinny legs were as white as the underbelly of a county fair piglet. But his body had never been the magnet, no, it was that smirky smile and gleam in his eyes, the devilish look that said, “Yeah, I know, life sucks, let’s get drunk and screw.” Now, other than pity, she didn’t know what to feel for him. Where had her love gone? Their marriage was as stagnant as the algae water in the half-inflated baby pool he was dragging to the side yard.
This God thing had come too high and hard, like the pitch that split Jimbo Newsome’s skull open in the softball game last September, and he still wasn’t thinking straight. Karl had changed overnight, something had gotten into him, something called the Holy Ghost, and his desire to drink had vanished. That desire, that thirst, that demon, had taken them both right to the brink.
After mowing the lawn, Karl scraped the trailer. Paint had flaked off the aluminum in places and orange rust streaks had followed that made the singlewide look like an old urinal. Karl used a wire brush to attack the problem. Claire was fairly amazed.
“By the grace of God, I am a new man,” he had announced when he came home that incredible evening two weeks earlier, after falling to his knees at the top of Boykin Dam and asking Jesus into his heart. In the back part of her mind she had stored a thought, tucked it away like a jar of Gram’s spiced peaches waiting for the holidays: maybe Karl had gone to the dam to jump, to end it all, an easy escape from his addiction to alcohol and guilt for being a slack-ass husband, but then he’d heard a voice, maybe the very voice of God, or Jesus had appeared from the clouds, she had no inkling exactly what had happened, but it was something miraculous, it had to be, and what so disturbed her was the possibility that he had gotten to the edge of that cement cliff and that her bitching had pushed him there, her and those once-a-day pints of Jim Beam, so now the notion crossed her mind – or was it a wish? – maybe he should have gone ahead and jumped. Planning a funeral would be easier than living with a born again man.
Claire's mother, Joyce ("my friends call me J.J."), was becoming exceedingly lumpy all over, so lumpy, in fact, that Claire was a little embarrassed going out in public with her on their routine Sunday excursion. As she stood in line with her at Biscuit Hut, a woman behind a glass window was making scratch biscuits, rolling them out, cutting rounds and flinging them expertly into a dented baking tray, and Claire noticed that her mother’s skin had the color and texture of biscuit dough. When the Biscuit Hut woman was kneading the clump of dough, it reminded Claire of her mother’s bloated arms with their soft dingle dangle. Claire was afraid her mother was turning into a human biscuit.
“Momma, you eat too many biscuits,” Claire said when they had settled in at a table with their biscuits and coffee.
“If we can’t have our simple pleasures this life would not be worth the frustration,” JJ said, sounding serious, like this was her philosophical summation of the meaning of life.
“Hopefully there is more to life than biscuits and Big Lots,” Claire said. Her mother raised a fat, fluffy biscuit to her mouth, egg and country ham drooping out its edges, took a big bite, and winked at her petite daughter.
“I’m glad I don’t have your metabolism,” Claire said, “or I’d be big as a barn, too.”
After biscuits, Claire drove her mother to Big Lots to search for Japanese lanterns and yard gnomes. Her mother liked exotic things from the Orient most of all. She called it “the elegant simplicity of the Asian aesthetic.” She’d attended Sampson Community College at the age of 45 to take art classes, and now she used the elegant simplicity of the Asian aesthetic to counteract her husband’s wall-to-wall enchantment with NASCAR. On every square inch of their den he’d hung posters and shelves of replica cars and souvenir beer mugs, and half a bumper from Sterling Marlin’s Ford Thunderbird that crashed at the Valleydale Meats 500 in 1991, and all kinds of other racing crap, until J.J. insisted on a sunroom for herself, which he gladly built using leftover lumber from his brother Alsroe’s housing development in Clinton.
The checkout lady at Big Lots was a “nice negro woman”– that’s what J.J. called them – who, for no apparent reason, gave her an extra ten percent off on top of the already enormously discounted prices. J.J. gushed with gratitude.
“It was just ten percent,” Claire said on the way to the car. “Good gosh Mama. You’d have thought she donated a lung to you.”
“I know. But it was just so nice of her. So many of them hold a grudge against us, from the Jim Crow days, but not her. I liked her.” Which goes to prove, Claire thought, that for many Southerners racism has a sensitive side.
“She was very nice,” Claire agreed. Ever since Big Lots had opened its doors in Newton Grove, her mother had been a regular, but this was icing on the cake. After this, she would be a Big Lots VIP Shopper until the day she died.
Big Eddie was home when they drove up and he came into the summer heat on the carport to make sure he got a hug from his precious peanut. His familiar Old Spice smell made Claire feel two again.
“Daddy,”Claire cooed, turning her face into the warmth of his T-shirt-encased chest. His name was Big Eddie but he was only 5’ 8” and thick with both muscle and a lifetime of Budweiser.
“Hey pigeon, where’d ya’ll get off to? Big Lots?”
“Um-hm, Mama found a gnome spitter. And we found you a Sterling Marlin thingamabob,” Claire said.
“A wall plaque,” J.J. clarified.
“Yeah, a wall plaque,” Claire said, wresting it out of the plastic bag.
“That’s real nice,” her father said, squinting at it. “What the hell’s a gnome spitter?”
“It’s a thing that spits water,” Claire said, “like you see in a pond.”
“We don’t have a pond,” Big Eddie said, “oh god, am I gonna have to dig you a pond now?” He groaned, wiping his face with a meaty hand. “Let’s get some tea. I just submerged from my nap.”
They sat at the dinette with tall green glasses of sweet ice tea.
“The sun has sucked out all my energy like a big fat tick,” J.J. said with her usual talent for imagery.
“How’s the kids?” Her father asked.
“Toby’s burned place is healing up real good,” Claire said.
“How’s Karl?” He asked. She could hear a snarl in his voice.
“He’s changed, Daddy, I swear, it’s like a miracle or something. I was tellin’ Mama, he’s quit drinking, and this morning he was up early mowing the grass and scraping the trailer.” Claire’s eyes lit up over the rim of her raised tea. She gulped and sighed, feeling cooler. “When I left he was out in the burning sun flecked all over with rust specks, sweatin’ like a hog in heat, and he hates to sweat. I swear, I think he’s found God for real.”
“Sounds like,” her father said doubtfully. He hated Karl so much he daydreamed about killing him and often admitted his imagined schemes to Claire. The first time Karl slapped her and split her lip, she went straight to her daddy And her daddy went straight for his shotgun.
“Daddy, you cannot, you must not, shoot Karl!” Claire had pleaded.
“Why can’t I? Give me one good reason or I’m gonna blow his dangfool balls off!”
“You want the children to see their grandpa being a murderer? Going to prison? Do you? You love them too much to let that happen, I know you do.” She’d gripped the cold barrels of the 12 gauge, yet somehow the violence in his voice comforted her, made her feel loved and childlike again. Clutching the steel tubes it dawned on her how death can be so quickly delivered, and she’d taken the heavy old gun away from him and put it back in the bedroom closet.
Anyhow, by the time her father would’ve gotten to the trailer, Karl would’ve been passed out on the sofa or in the bedroom. In the morning, he wouldn’t remember the fight, might not remember hitting her. A busted lip was no reason for her father to kill him. She’d gotten a lot of busted lips playing lacrosse. Her tolerance for pain was a gift, maybe it was something from Big Eddie’s side. His great grandfather had immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine and opened the first granite quarry in Virginia. McGill ambition put her husband to shame. It was bad enough Karl couldn’t hold a job, but beating her up, well, that was low life behavior, and low life was what he came from. His father had even done a turn in Central Prison for auto theft, and his mother had worked as a barmaid up until she died of lung cancer breathing other people’s miseries at Brightside Tavern. By contrast, Big Eddie had run his own Gulf service station and done some banging around on the late model circuit. And J.J., she’d gotten training in the Asian aesthetic, had cooked most of Paula Deen’s heart attack recipes, and had even directed a few weddings at Florida Street Baptist Church.
After that shotgun scare, Claire stopped telling her father about Karl’s assaults. Her bruises weren’t bad enough to put Karl in the grave and her father in the penitentiary. She could take just about anything. She just had to keep her mouth shut. She could do that. Stubbornness was another McGill trait.