Friday, March 7, 2008
Lonnie Busch’s novella “Turnback Creek” won the 2006 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in August of 2007. Short stories of his have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Southwest Review, The Minnesota Review, The Baltimore Review, Roanoke Review, The Southeast Review, Flint Hills Review, The Iconoclast, The Worchester Review, The Portland Review, Willow Review, and others. He makes his home in the mountains of Franklin, North Carolina.
(Lonnie is a member of NCWN and Netwest)
Princess of Hub Cap City
“There’s a child dancing on those old junker automobiles out there!” the woman screeched, horrified, standing in the doorway of my office with an eye on me and an eye on the junker automobiles. She was referring to my auto salvage just beyond the chain link. The woman had come inside to pay for the shifter knob in her hand. While she craned around the door jam, I slid the sawbuck from her fingers, smiled, and slipped her back a little less change than I should have. That old shifter knob she found on the table wasn’t worth more than fifty cents, if that, but it appeared to have a story and that’s all anyone cares about anyway, a story.
“Yeah, mister, a young girl, jumping around from hood to roof,” the husband chimed in, eager to be a part of something important—all the while their own little yard-apes were running wild through the parking lot, knocking over my columns of stacked caps. Cooped up in the car too long, I suppose. I don’t much care; nothing but junk anyway, as long as they don’t hurt themselves.
“What was she wearing?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.
“A blue dress with little yellow flowers,” the woman said, her face pinched with disapproval and looking like a weasel. “And she’s bare-footed!”
I could tell the woman was perturbed with Anna Beth’s appearance, her unkempt hair and filthy dress. I’ve had complaints before, worse than this.
“That’s my daughter, Anna Beth,” I said. “She’s out there dancing on those junkers every day about this time. I don’t know how she does it, frankly. The child must have soles made of asbestos. That metal out there is hotter than a griddle iron in a 24-hour diner.”
The woman’s eyes grew bigger than baby moon hubcaps. She glared at me for a second, then shot an “aren’t you going to say something?” look at her old man who couldn’t recall how to shift his brain out of park, so conditioned he was to rephrasing the little woman’s thoughts. Probably couldn’t remember the last original idea he had. He just stood there slack-jawed, slumped over like he might have hit his head on the windshield a time or two.
“Oh, no need for concern, ma’am,” I tried to assure her by standing up and walking toward the door. “Anna Beth is a little ballerina. Never so much as a bruised toe!” I tugged on my trousers to lend authenticity to my statement, even though I was wearing suspenders.
Of course by now her two little boys were into some sort of mischief out by the Studebaker front ends that my granddaddy had welded together. He thought it was funny, and I must say it is humorous to see a car with two identical front ends facing in opposite directions. Anyway, the taller boy was poking on the little one’s head or something, making him cry. The wife huffed out of my office and the husband slinked out behind, dragged along in her wake. Pretty soon those folks were in the parking lot hollering at their little renegades, shooting glances over in Anna Beth’s direction and shaking their heads. They hustled the boys into the Explorer, spit a little gravel as they left the lot, and continued on their vacation. I always get a lot of folks on vacation this time of year. My place is a novelty, I guess, though it’s nothing special, really, just home to Anna Beth and me.
The big sign next to the highway is what brings them in. Made it myself. Twenty feet high and sixty feet long. HUB CAP CITY. All capital letters made out of hubcaps. All caps!
Listening to cars rush by up on the highway, I felt the sun hot on my head where my scalp’s gone to seed. The sun can get hot here, even in June, especially when the sky gets wide and blue like a million miles of ocean. Today’s one of those days, without a breeze, and I usually wear a cap if I’m gonna be out very long. But I try to stay inside if I can, where it’s cool. I glanced over toward the sea of wreckage wedged in beyond the chain link, looking for Anna Beth, even though I knew I wouldn’t see her.
I wasn’t much more than a kid when Charlene got pregnant with Anna Beth, maybe nineteen, twenty at most. We weren’t married, but we pretended to be in the backseat of my Chevy. The day she told me she was pregnant, I said, “Charlene, if I don’t love this child, I can’t stick around!” Charlene just smiled, but I was dead serious. It may sound like a cruel thing to say, like I should’ve been more responsible-minded and all, but I had plans. Big plans. And they didn’t figure to include a wife and child.
I was headed for Nova Scotia to work on the fishing boats. Met a fella once who told me about the job, said it was hard work, fourteen hours a day, four or five months during season, but after they rolled up the nets and docked the boats your time was your own, and you had enough cash to last you the rest of the year. I loved tilling the sea. Back when I was in high school, I worked a few summers in Charleston on the fishing boats and took to it like a gull on a mullet. No seasickness for me. Some of the new boys spent the afternoon bent over the rail studying the food they had for breakfast. And not all of them were boys either; some were men shouting their grits into the brine. But I just hauled nets and laughed. I guess God blessed me with the constitution of a humpback whale.
One day, a cold snap whipped the ocean into a fury, waves spitting and spewing, had been since three that morning. Several of the men were on the rail, but one boy in particular had done run out of menu. The boy looked terrible, green as seaweed, and dry heaving nothing but foul air. The Captain walked over to him, turned him around, and said he saw something peculiar inside the boy’s mouth. “Boy, I’m not sure what that red ring is in there,” Captain said, with a grave tone, “but you better swallow hard, I think it’s your asshole!” Captain and I laughed until we about fell off the deck. That was the life for me and I knew it.
But it didn’t work out that way, of course. Life happens while you’re making other plans and I married Charlene and ended up hanging drywall with my old man. Not bad work, but hard work, and dirty, and I imagine my lungs look like broken sacks of flour from all the plaster dust. Probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway, the Nova Scotia thing. I would’ve spent the off season stewing my liver in Jack Daniel’s and losing all my cash playing stud in the back room of Ruby’s.
So I ended up with this place. My granddaddy owned it, called it “Bill’s Auto Salvage”. Name wasn’t a real bell ringer and when he died my daddy got it and quickly passed it off to me like a sack of copperheads. It was ten acres of has-been vehicles when it landed in my lap, an automobile graveyard all the way back to the sycamores. A few years after I got it, I decided to sell hubcaps, so I pried them off every wheel of every car beyond the chain link and stacked them out front. Stacks of hubcaps everywhere, like columns in a palace; hell, it was a palace, still is.
Eventually I put out some folding tables, made a little flea market, and filled the tables mostly with useless junk: little glass bottles, farm tools, shifter knobs and what not, but that’s what people want, long as it has a story. From time to time folks will buy a hubcap or two, but mostly caps are a curiosity. Folks like to look at them because they’re shiny and odd, and they see their reflection in the chrome. They hold them like a steering wheel in their hands, rotate them slowly, watching their reflections slip around the swells and valleys like fleshy pools of quicksilver. But they can’t figure what to do with caps other than what they’re doing, so they smile and put them back on the stack.
Now Charlene would never have moved here to live in a junkyard, but then neither would I if she was still with me. It was sad when I committed her to Harris Gloams Hospital, leaving her with folks that were screaming at walls and eating checkers. It broke my heart, what was left of it. But she had to go before she hurt herself again and I couldn’t stay home from work every day to make sure she didn’t. I only visit a few times a year now, not near as much as when hope was still an option.
So now it’s just Anna Beth and me, most times it’s just me. I remember when Children’s Services came out here to check on Anna Beth a couple years back. Had it fixed in their mind to take her away from me. Seems that one of my customers had called them after seeing Anna Beth dancing barefoot across the junkers, thought it was irresponsible of me, that I was unfit to have such a beautiful child. Hell, they might be right.
The woman from Children’s Services showed up wearing a tan skirt and jacket with a blouse the color of a canary and matching high heels. She had white hair as straight as a waterfall that ended at her narrow shoulders and little blue eyes that were so close set that it looked like the thin bridge of her nose was the only thing keeping them from a collision. She was friendly, in an institutional sort of way, but her smile was kind of sad, like the grill of a ‘53 Buick Skylark.
“I’m Trudence Galloway, from Children’s Services,” she said. “Are you Mr. Wiley Tiller?”
I nodded. She held out her hand and I took it, even though I had just finished jerking a carburetor off a ‘68 Mustang for a fella. She grimaced when she saw the grease on her manicured fingers. I handed her my rag, but it was dirtier than my hands. She pulled one of those wet wipes from her purse and cleaned her fingers. I figured she must have had plenty of run-ins with junk dealers to be that prepared.
“Mr. Wiley…I mean, Mr. Tiller, we’ve had a complaint about your little girl running around barefoot in your junkyard, playing unattended on the wreckage? Is that true?”
I didn’t know what to say to this poor woman, so I shrugged. I think she took it as a sign of moral ineptitude and demanded to see Anna Beth at once.
“I don’t know where she is right now,” I said, scratching my head and leaving a big greasy spot on my scalp.
“Where is Mrs. Tiller?” she asked.
“She’s indisposed indefinitely,” I told her, and she didn’t appreciate that answer either, putting her hands to her hips, obviously vexed.
Her features seemed to be shrinking, sucking in tighter toward the center of her face.
“I must see that child at once, Mr. Tiller!” she said, rigid as a fence post.
“Why don’t we walk outside,” I said. She followed me into the sunlight.
“There she is,” Trudy shouted, pointing, and looked appalled. “Mr. Tiller, that child hasn’t been bathed in weeks, and her hair, does it ever get brushed? She’s filthy and she…she is not wearing shoes!” That just made her madder than a moth in a street lamp. She stomped off stammering about tetanus and infection and germs and said she’d return with the law. She held to her word, I’ll give her that.
Pretty soon, here come two patrol cars and her green Impala screeching into the parking lot kicking up dirt like a stampede of wild horses. Doors are slamming and people are muttering but mostly I hear Trudy’s shrill voice like a train whistle coming through the door. She’s all fired up, high strutting ahead of this pack of lawmen like Wyatt Earp with a lynch mob. Trudy plants her feet in front of my desk and shoots a bony finger straight out at me, then looks over at the officer.
“Mr. Wiley, I’m Officer Duncan. Sir, we need to see your daughter, now!”
“Well, I can’t help you. Like I told Trudy, I mean Ms. Galloway, I don’t know where Anna Beth is right now. But if you’ll follow me out to the parking lot….”
Officer Duncan took my comment as proof that I was lacking parental fortitude and moral fiber, and that I mustn’t have a booger’s worth of humanity anywhere in my old wreck of a body. He promptly escorted me into the backseat of his patrol car and commenced to making calls and running checks while the other officers searched the premises. Poor Officer Duncan spun like a dervish in the front seat of the patrol car when the news came over the radio. He glared at me around the headrest. All I could offer in the way of explanation was a shrug.
Still waiting in the backseat of the patrol car, I could see the color drain from Trudy’s face when Officer Duncan explained that Anna Beth had been nine years old when she had been reported missing, and that had been over twenty years ago. Never heard from since. Trudy shook her head, pointed out beyond the chain link, moved her lips in defense of her eyes, and rattled her head some more. She was starting to remind me of Charlene—just before I took her to Harris Gloams. Officer Duncan escorted Trudy to her car and she drove off slowly, but not before sending her eyes over the chain link several more times.
Officer Duncan warned me that even though he didn’t know what was going on, he would ‘upend the dirt’ until he found out. Well, Officer Duncan never returned and neither did Children’s Services.
For years folks had been stopping here and seeing Anna Beth dancing out on the wreckage, and for the first four or five years I’d run out to see, too. But I never saw her, even when folks said they were looking right at her. I wished I could, though, before Charlene got so bad. Maybe she could’ve forgiven herself, not that there was anything to forgive. Charlene just got caught in traffic on her way to pick up Anna Beth from dance class, got there ten minutes late. Ten minutes—that’s not much time, but enough to change the bearing of someone’s life forever. Anna Beth had been wearing the blue dress Charlene made her, the one with the little yellow flowers, and was waiting on the street. When Charlene got there Anna Beth was gone.
Charlene took it hard and I wasn’t much help. We grieved like opposite ends of a candle. She grieved fiercely, her hope and heart burning away steadily while I was the cold end, hiding at the bottom, beneath the residue of her sorrow. She grieved for both of us, I suppose, until the flame went out behind her eyes.
“Charlene, if I don’t love this child, I can’t stick around!” What a dumb thing I had said to Charlene that day in the Chevy when she told me she was pregnant. Hell, I didn’t even know what love was until Anna Beth was born. When I came to the hospital and looked at her through the glass, my heart melted like warm sap in a maple tree. I couldn’t stop looking at her, like the part of Wiley Tiller that was lost at sea had finally come home to port.
Anyway, for years I wished I could see Anna Beth the way strangers did, and I didn’t understand it. One night, long after Charlene was gone and I had moved here, I couldn’t hold a composed vigil anymore. I ran out in that parking lot in the middle of the night and started screaming at the stars, hurling hubcaps at God until it looked like Hub Cap City was under siege by UFO’s. The hubcaps seemed to hang there in the night air, flying and circling overhead, but not coming down. Finally, one by one, they landed in a crooked row between the chain link and me, the last cap falling at my feet. I closed my eyes a second, to let my soup settle, but when I opened them, Anna Beth was dancing across the caps like they were stones in a creek. I sat down on the gravel, waiting for her to come near so I could hold her, clean her face, brush her hair, but she didn’t. After an hour or so the sun came up and she was gone.
Sometimes Anna Beth is sitting at my kitchen table, 29 years old now I guess, that’s how old she’d be---is---I don’t know. I picture her at the sink, her two children at the kitchen table eating their cereal, rushing off to school. Sometimes I see Anna Beth reading under a tree; a fine young woman with blond hair wearing a summer dress, bare-footed, looking so much like Charlene it squeezes at my chest. But it’s the only way I see Anna Beth now, through a quirk of the brain cells, a trick of the heart.
I still can’t and haven’t to this day been able to see Anna Beth the way strangers do, during the day, dancing across the hoods and roofs. But on the nights I can’t sleep, after I’ve coaxed the last bit of novocaine from the television, I take my lawn chair out on the parking lot, cozy up near a stack of hubcaps, and toss them one after the other toward the chain link, toward the sea of wreckage, and they sail away, shiny and bright like moons.
See Lonnie's website: http://www.fiction.lonniebusch.com/