I don’t guess I ever really understood why, but momma used to tell me that I ought to respect my daddy more. She kept harping on me about the way I went around talking about him. Saying a girl my age ought to know better. According to her, I was just misunderstanding him, and he was a good man. A man that still had dignity.
Daddy used to be a big-shot wrestler back before I was born. He held on to his former glory for a while—and we spent the first years of my life going from one cheap motel to another, as he fought his way across every small town in the South.
I got dragged around from one school to the next. Sometimes it would just be a stop over for a week or two, and they didn’t even bother to enroll me. Others, we’d start to get settled in a place and I’d make a friend or two, only to wake up one morning to find my stuff packed. We’d be back in the van, pulling onto the highway for the next gig, and I’d still have a sweatshirt and lunchbox in my locker.
Daddy decided to give it up when my brothers came along. His hip had been hurting for a while and thought that running all over the place with two young kids attached to momma’s hip wasn’t going to work out. So we all settled down in north Georgia right outside of this little wide area in the road called Tallulah Falls. Our landlord told us that the Great Wallenda walked a tightrope across the big gorge down the road, and there were more than 30,000 folks that had all came out to watch him. I still don’t know if I believe him. I can’t imagine 100 new folks fitting up here. But there we were, talking to this guy about a dead tightrope walker and settling in to watch daddy live out the rest of his days working on the roadside and drinking everything he could get his hands on.
If you were to press me, I guess I’d say that I do have plenty of good memories with him. When I was young, he used to come home from a show and spend the rest of the night reliving it for me. Saying, “We’ll do this thing the right way. You ready to go through it play by play?” I’d agree, and he’d get going with this over-done announcer voice, “In the red corner, weighing in at forty-seven pounds, is the mighty Crystal ‘Wildfire’ Jensen.”
That’s when momma would start cheering, and daddy would tell me to lift my arms up to get the crowd going. He’d make that imaginary bell ring and grab me before I ever got a chance to run. Then pick me up and have the crowd go wild when he dropped me down on the bed, tucked up in his arms. He was always still covered in the stench of that night’s fight. There’d be this musky, baby oil smell about him. His hair was never quite dry. And his muscles shook a little when he lifted me up.
Every once in a while, one of his cuts would open and these drops of blood smeared across the bedspread. It’d freak me out when the blood got on me. But I still thought those nights were something special.
Momma usually sat over in the chairs they used to have by the motel windows with her cigarette and watched as daddy pretended to put me in the sleeper hold. She’d get real nervous when he’d act like he was jumping off the top rope and hitting me with his suplex slam. But he never hurt me. He always landed somewhere just off to the side and only acted like he’d delivered that final move that knocked me out. I used to play along.
But those days are over. They never lasted that long. I don’t guess they were really meant to. Momma explained that the small venues didn’t look after daddy like they should’ve. They didn’t care about who he’d been, and before long, he threw his hip out in Spartanburg. This time it was for good. None of the doctors could do a whole lot for him. They all said his best days were behind him, and things weren’t ever the same after that.
When I sit around and think about it, I guess I’m about as fucked up as I got a right to be. Momma thought I could do better for myself. But that’s what mommas do. My friend Kyle’s momma tells him the same thing, and she’s a meth-head, who has a string of random guys coming in and out of their house.
Momma always went on about how I could do so much with my life. Saying how wonderful things used to be with her and daddy, and how they’d wanted the same for me. And whenever shit really started to look bad, and the daddy got depressed, momma gathered us all up and told us about the time daddy shocked the world up in Atlanta, and pinned “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer in front of a sell out crowd at the Omni. She would beam when she said, “That’s the night your Daddy won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.”
This would get my brothers all kinds of excited. They’d sit there like a couple of dogs waiting for scraps—hanging on every damn word.
Momma would go on and on about that night: “He was so handsome standing in that ring, holding that belt over his head. All those people stood up on their feet and screamed your Daddy’s name. And the whole time they was screaming, all your Daddy did was look for me in that crowd. And when he found me, he tried to wink, but he never really could. So it ended up looking like his face was having this big crunched up spasm right there in front of the world.” She’d act it out and make a whole side of her face squish up like a pumpkin. “Then once the crowd cleared, your daddy jumped right out of the ring and ran over to give me a big ole kiss and showed me that shiny belt of his.” She’d turn around, just a smiling, and look at that shell of a man and say, “That was the happiest night of my life. That’s the night I knew I was gonna marry your Daddy.”
I used to think the story was sweet. I’d get excited myself thinking about a bunch of strangers yelling for my daddy. My brothers would always run back and forth winking like pumpkins and holding up an imaginary belt, and I used to join them. It was fun to pretend like millions of people could admire us. But it just annoys me now. Reminds me that we weren’t ever really a part of the plan. I know he gets tired of hearing about it too. It’s probably nice when fans tell him they remember that night. But to hear momma talk about it—I’d reckon that it just makes him feel sorry for himself. Makes him wonder where it all went wrong. At least that’s how I’d feel if I were him.
But don’t feel too sorry for me. Things ain’t all that bad. I just get wound up when I get to thinking about him. Like I said, Kyle’s momma is a meth whore. Shit could be a hell of a lot worse. As it is, I just got a daddy that I don’t see anymore, who drinks and spends his weekends in jail on account of that drinking. I still worry that it’ll only be a matter of time before the government gets their shit together and sends him off to the jail on the week days too—on account of him only being out because he had a government job, and the judge being a big fan, and feeling sorry for him and all. Now that he lost that job, and sits around the house all day, it can’t be long before they figure out he ain’t out there on the side of the road pouring asphalt with the rest of them idiots. Momma told us not to worry about that. “The government’s too busy thinking about how to handle all those illegals and their gangs to care about us,” she’d say. But I guess it won’t be long before they take him off. And when they do it’ll be for a couple of years. But I promise you I’ll still be gone by the time they sort all that out.
You see, I met Jake a little less than a month ago. I was at the football game down at Habersham, and he walked right up to me and started talking. Said I looked lonely. Said I was way too pretty to be sitting there looking lonely. His brother, Eric, was a year older than me, and was a pretty big track guy. A few of the girls on the team were in my health class, and they’d been talking about how he’d almost broke this state record in pole vaulting without even knowing the form and all. I’d seen his brother at a few parties. He was usually stoned, and he seemed nice enough. But all I’d heard about Jake was that he’d found Jesus and didn’t really hang out at parties anymore.
When he walked up and talked to me at the game, he didn’t come across as the Jesus type. He didn’t stand there and get all preachy like the church kids at school. There was a gold necklace with a cross on it around his neck, but a lot of the guys wore one of those. They were more of a thing that said you’ve got good upbringing and enough of a job to buy something from a jewelry store than any kind of Jesus thing.
Jake was more mature than the guys at the parties, but I could tell that he could still go there and fit in with them if he wanted to. When I told him that my name was Crystal, he leaned in close enough for me to smell his cologne over the hotdog I’d been eating, and said, “You’re much too pretty to be named after some rock. I’m going to call you Kris. You cool with that?”
I nodded. I’d always wanted to be called that, but daddy wouldn’t allow it. And by the second time Jake called me by my new name, I knew I wanted him to take me away from there.
When the band started playing at half time, he got up, and without asking, wrapped his fingers up in my hand and started walking me down the whole length of the bleachers so everybody could see us. He said, “I used to play on that field,” and then pointed to a sign that still had his name printed on it in big red letters: Jake Bowen – Single Season Receiving Record – 1,248 yards – 1998 Season. He tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, and that he was kind of embarrassed that they still had it up there, but I could tell that he was proud to show it to me.
We went out to his truck. It was this old Toyota that had tires that wanted to be a little too big for it. The inside was a real mess and smelled like a stale can of dip. He apologized, but it was pretty clear that it wasn’t ever any cleaner. There was this stack of CDs tucked up in his visor, and he played this Dwight Yoakam CD that was one of his favorites. He sat there and sang some old twangy song. And even though he couldn’t sing worth a damn, I sat there and listened to him for a good fifteen minutes before he ever took me for a ride.
We spent that night going up-and-down dark-country back roads and little dirt cut throughs. The windows were rolled down and the heat was blaring. The combination felt great with the wet feeling of the cold air, sneaking in while the heat kept our feet from getting cold. We talked about everything we could think of. He told me about how he’d gone down to West Georgia to play baseball. And how he only lasted a week before he decided to come on back home. He said he’d been on pretty steady kick of coke at the time. Said that the coke probably had a lot to do with why he and the coach hadn’t hit it off.
It was another three years before he found Jesus. And that decision had apparently saved his life. I lied and told him I’d stopped smoking pot a year ago—then ended up telling him about my daddy, and how he’d gotten pretty bad off with the painkillers, and then the liquor. He listened to every word, and held my hand the whole time.
Later that night, I let him screw me out by the Barnett’s old farmhouse. He was real sweet during it, and kept leaning into my ear and asking if I was alright. When he was done, we just laid there in the bed of his truck and looked up at the stars—waiting to see who could spot a shooting star first. He drove me back to my driveway about the time the sun was coming up, and I walked from there, so I could sneak in through the back without waking momma.
I didn’t go to school much during that next week. Jake worked for a lumber company early in the mornings. Then when he got back home, we’d spend the afternoons driving around the county and listening to more of his Dwight Yoakam. That Thursday, he showed me a bunch of the old train depots and manufacturing plants up around the northern parts of the county. All the tracks came together to this one spot where they were about twelve wide, and there were these two worn-down buildings that had been sprayed up by a bunch of white trash thugs. The buildings’ iron-covered windows had been busted up. The whole place smelled like piss. Jake’s old man used to work down in the far building at Carter’s, before they shut down. Jake was still angry when he talked about the place.
“Those damn white collars didn’t give a crap about my dad, or any of those other men down here at the tracks. They all sit up there at Lake Rabun and live off of stocks, while good folks like my dad, rot away in their trailers down in Clarksville. That crap ain’t right. My old man worked hard for them. And now he’s pinned up in that house, angry as all get out.”
I put my hand up on his shoulder but he didn’t even seem to notice. Just kept on talking. “If you want to know the truth of it, that’s a lot of the reason why I was so messed up back in high school. Watching what they’d done to him. Why I left to play ball, and why I was so damned pissed when I got sent back home.”
He was shaking at this point. “When I came back I knew something had to change. I found Jesus. Thought for sure that’d fix it all. It helps. But I still got to sit there and watch him. Him and my little brother. It ain’t that bad with Eric yet. But it’s a matter of time. I swear it. I seen that shit happen too many times.”
Not knowing what to say, I leaned in to kiss him. He jumped back and looked more than a little pissed. Stood there staring at me like I was a goddamned fool or something. For a second, I thought he might have been mad enough to hit me. But he just looked at me for a while and said he was sorry but he had to go. Said he was supposed to go to some Bible thing, and he really should have gone a while ago.
When I got home, daddy was sitting on the floor while Ken and Kasey ran around him in circles—jumping on his back every time they got away from his reach. I figured he was about too drunk to know who was going after him. He’d probably fallen trying to play with them, and now he just sat there, glazed over, throwing those big hands every way he could think to throw them. My brothers loved it. They were screeching and hollering. He’d try and grab them—end up hitting them on the head, and they’d keep on laughing. Momma was sitting on the couch watching it all. She had to take daddy back out to the jail the next morning, and I could tell she was about to get emotional. Knowing it was just a matter of time before she started in on the stories about when he was off wrestling with the circuit, I went on to bed, and laid there thinking about Jake, and whether or not he’d ever call me again.
I went to his house looking for him the next day, but he wasn’t around and Eric didn’t know where he was. I didn’t see him until that next Monday after I got out of school. He was waiting on me in the parking lot with some carnations and a card. Said he was sorry. It’d thrown him off was all. He’d been angry and didn’t know how to handle it.
We rode around that day, and I told him how alike we were, and how our daddy’s were the same kind. He agreed. We drove on out by one of the lakes, and walked out on this abandoned iron bridge he used to jump off of in the summertime. The water was muddy down below us, and he tried to point out a few of these old railroad posts beneath the water. I pretended like I saw them, but I really couldn’t. “I could’ve died right then and there,” he said, while looking down beneath the bridge. And he said it like he was serious, so I believed him.
We sat there not saying anything for a while. Just sitting, thinking about jumping off bridges, and life, and those kinds of things. I knew it was rash, but I told him, “You and me, we ought to run off together. Go get away from all of this.”
He thought on it for a good while, but said he’d have to think about it some more. We screwed again that afternoon, right there on the old bridge. I worked my hips and pressed my body into his to let him know that I wasn’t an immature little girl. I’d hoped that it would help him decide to leave with me.
Things went on that way for most of the week — us screwing and talking about what we’d do if we didn’t live in Georgia. Jake said he heard about one of those big mega churches out in Colorado Springs that had been doing a whole lot of good for folks all over the place. The main pastor was a lot like Jake. He used to be into drugs until Jesus showed him the path to salvation. And now he was preaching to over ten thousand people every Sunday. Jake didn’t want to be a preacher or anything, but he thought he could help out with the sports, or the kids, or something like that. Said it could be the thing he’d been called to do. He was still scared. And I guess I was too.
That Thursday night, we decided we were going to do it. We were leaving. Going out West. I thought about telling momma. Telling her that I finally figured out a way to do something with my life, and have my moment in the Omni. But after watching her drag out a blanket and take care of daddy, I decided that it’d just be best not to say anything. She hadn’t met Jake, and she wouldn’t ever understand. I wanted to leave a note. But at the time, I couldn’t figure out how to say the thing that I knew I needed to say. So I just left, and sat out by the end of the driveway to wait on Jake.
It was nearly an hour before he showed, and more than once, I thought about going back inside. Then when he pulled up, my heart felt like it had been able to finally come up for air. My hands were shaking when he got out to help me get my bag up in the truck bed. I wanted to jump up in his arms and kiss him, but I was scared that my feet might not be working quite right yet.
“Sorry I was late,” he said. “It took me a while longer to take care some things than I thought it might.”
“Don’t you worry about it.” I told him. “I enjoyed sitting outside looking up at the sky, and wondering where the cars might be going.” Of course it was a lie. It was just all I could think to say.
“You ready to go find Colorado?”
I swear sweeter words hadn’t ever been spoken to me. For the first time, I felt like things were going to be okay. It turns out that my feet did work, and I jumped up in that truck and tried my best to keep from crying.
We drove on through the night. I could’ve sat there and listened to Jake for weeks, as he told me about the church, and all the big things that the pastor was doing. I never really put too much thought into Jesus. Just figured it wasn’t a whole lot of a point to it. But to listen to Jake talk about Him and this church, I knew I should’ve been hearing about this a long time ago.
He told me how Jesus had called out to him when he’d hit bottom. He had come home one night, high on some trailer park crank, and his dad was sitting there, geared up for fighting. He’d been in the whiskey for a while and had gotten real mean. His daddy took a hard swing at him. Hit him pretty square. And then Jake jumped on him and started in on beating him. At the time, he said he didn’t care if his dad got up. He went on pounding him like that until Eric came out and tried to stop him. In the mess of it all, Jake reared back and hit his brother. That’s when he knew he’d done wrong by his family. He looked up and saw the hurt in Eric’s eyes. But he couldn’t ever bring himself to look down at his dad.
The next morning he heard a group of men over at the Huddle House talking about Jesus. He asked if he could join them. After that, Jake said he never looked back. Said Jesus taught him how to stop his using and control his anger. He said he thought about going back to college again, even thought about trying to play some more ball, but he liked it out there with the lumber company. It gave him a chance to get up before everybody else and spend some time buried in his own head. By the time the rest of the world really got going, he’d been loading timber onto trailers for a good six hours. For him, it was peaceful. But I guess he still liked the idea of a change. I think we all do, to some degree. We’re just scared of it.
The two of us had been on the road a good six hours. He’d been sleeping for the past three, and I drove that truck and watched its headlights curve in-and-out the mountainsides that seemed to cut right into the highway. The morning traffic started to pick up, and I sat there staring out the windshield, trying to recall what the roads used to look like when I was a kid. All I really remembered were the power lines covered in kudzu. I always pretended that they were dinosaurs, and that somehow, their leafy-green bodies were left over figures from some other world nobody ever really told us about. And if I could just jump out of our old van and slink over there into that belly-high field of kudzu, then I’d be able to disappear into a land of dinosaurs. I was lost in those thoughts when Jake woke up and pointed to the Nashville skyline off in the distance.
I’d been there as a little girl, but I couldn’t remember much about the place. All I really remembered was a photo that daddy had of us standing in front of the Grand Ole Opry. I was tiny and had hair that was nearly white. Daddy had a blue and white tank top with his muscles bulging out like he was about to jump in the ring. His tan made his hair look just about as blonde as mine. Momma wasn’t even as tan as he was. But she sure was gorgeous back then. She used to wear the prettiest dresses, and her hair would be curly like she’d just stepped out of the beauty parlor. The three of us were smiling in that picture. It had been buried in one of the photo albums in their closet before I found it and it put it up in a frame in the living room.
Once we got into the city, Jake pointed to a sign for the Grand Ole Opry, but I decided not to tell him about the photo. That was one I wanted to save for myself.
Nashville’s buildings were about the prettiest I’d remembered seeing, and as we drove under their shadows, I tried to imagine what kind of job you’d have to have to work in the tallest ones. For the first time since we were driving into Chattanooga, Jake talked about Colorado again. He wanted me to picture the little kids that we’d be working with. Think about them squealing through laughter as they chased each other across the playground. Think about the way they’d look up to me as I told them about Jesus. Picture their adoring little eyes on their oversized heads.
I watched the buildings get smaller in his rearview mirror, while he went on about how much fun I’d have taking care of the little kids in the church nursery while he took the older ones out to play baseball. He was talking about how the ball carries further in thin air when the truck’s engine started to skip on us. Jake didn’t sound too worried. Said this happens every once in while. But it had me a little spooked.
We crossed over into Kentucky and kept going for a while. We made it to Paducah before the skipping started to really get bad. Jake was worried, I could tell. And then when the truck lunged hard on us and acted like it was going to stall out right there on the highway, he pulled on into town and tried to find a mechanic. It wasn’t that long before we found this place called Denton’s Garage and handed over his keys. They looked like good people and agreed to give us a ride over to a bar they called Fat Moe’s for a bite to eat while they worked on it.
We ordered some burgers, and Jake counted out our money on the table while we ate. He never told me the final count, but I could tell it wasn’t much. Maybe five hundred. Maybe less.
When this little scrawny guy with Jeff written on his shirt came back by to pick us up, he also had this worried look about him. Jake tried to get it out of him, but Jeff said it wasn’t his place to make speculations about what things might cost, or what was going on with an engine. “I’m just here to drive you folks around,” he’d said. “Nothing more.”
It wasn’t until we got back, and Denton came out of his office that we found out that the motor was shot. They couldn’t do nothing to fix it. Denton said he wouldn’t charge us for diagnosing it, since he figured we most likely had a lot bigger things to worry about than paying them to find out we couldn’t drive off anywhere. Jeff took us up to a motel till we could find out what we were going to do.
We sat there in the uncarpeted motel and talked about what we could do. He wanted to sleep on it. I’d been thinking about it since the garage and told him we ought to see what we could get for his truck and take a Greyhound bus over to Colorado. He liked the idea, and said he’d find a pay phone to call Denton and see if he was willing to buy the truck. When he came back in to the room, he said we’d be on our way in the morning.
We spent the rest of the day laying in motel room having more sex than a good Christian couple should. But for the first time it didn’t feel we were doing something wrong. With him hovered over me, breathing heavy into my ear, I felt like I wasn’t too young to moan back.
We had taken a break for a while and Law & Order was on the mounted TV. Jake sat up and told me that we should get married as soon as we got out to Colorado. He said, “The pastor probably won’t take to kindly to us sleeping together if we ain’t married. Won’t let us hang around and influence the kids, anyway.”
I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. There was this lady on the TV screaming about finding her dead neighbor in the alley, and I tried not to cry. I hadn’t ever been happier. We went at it two more times, launching into each other like pigs in the spring, before Jake fell asleep. He’d told me that we had a big day tomorrow, and that I should also get some rest, but it was hard to get my mind to stop from racing all over the place.
My sleep must have been a good one. I didn’t remember any of my dreams. I just woke up to the brightness of the sun coming through those curtains, the smell of too much sex, and the empty spot next to me. That turned up blanket hit me in the gut like I couldn’t believe. He left a dingy little note on the dresser saying he was sorry and that it was just too much, or not enough. I never really could decide which. I don’t guess it really matters much. All I know for sure is that it didn’t say anything more than that. Not really. The rest of it was just words on a page. Kris, Sorry to leave it like this. It is just all happening too fast. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in store for my life. He wants me to do more with my gifts. I can’t run off with you. It just feels wrong. I’m so sorry. JB. It didn’t explain what kind of person it takes to ask a girl to marry him and then leave her stranded in the middle of the night. It didn’t say he still loved me. And to be honest, I couldn’t decide if he ever really did.
I made up the bed and walked back to the garage. They all looked surprised to still see me. Jeff said that Jake came by earlier and Denton gave him six hundred dollars for the truck. They all thought we were both getting on the Greyhound bus. He offered to give me a ride back to the motel, but I told them I’d be just fine. The truth of it was, I couldn’t go back. I didn’t have any cash to pay for the room. I ended up just walking on down the street. I didn’t want to be alone, but I sure didn’t want to look at them making those poor girl faces.
All the dust on the roadside grass kicked up past my ankles and made it feel hotter and drier than I ever remembered Georgia being. The garage sat down at the bottom of a hill and I had to walk for a while before I could even see anything besides overgrown weed grass. It hadn’t been fifteen minutes before I heard a truck pulling up behind me and saw Denton climbing out from the driver’s door.
He had a fist full of money and a look of shame that was strong enough to make me think that he could’ve been Jake’s daddy. He held out the money in that way that made it look like it was heavy. “Here, take this,” he was saying. “It’s not much, but it’s what can afford to give you. It just wasn’t right, what he’d done to you.” He was still holding the money out in front of him like he was embarrassed about having it. “Nobody should ever be left out here like he did with you. Not like this. Don’t you have somebody you can call?”
“I’ll be fine,” I lied. “I’ve got a friend lives down the road just a little ways.” I tried not to cry.
He forced the money into my weak little balled up fist, anyway. “Just in case things don’t work out with your friend up the road.”
He went to give me a hug, but that didn’t feel right either. I let him do it for a second on account of the money, but then I pulled away and just looked at him. He seemed to be the kind of guy that would have liked my daddy when he still wrestling.
I thought about daddy as I walked off. He still had another day before he got to come home from the jail. I wondered if he even knew that I’d left yet. He probably didn’t. I guessed that that was alright. I walked on down the road for a while longer and eventually found the Mississippi River. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it. The water was the color of mud and looked real cold. It didn’t appear to be moving, but I could somehow tell that it was going pretty fast. I sat there on the bank the rest of the day and tried to figure everything out. Denton had given me sixty-three dollars. I didn’t know what that could buy. I decided Jake had turned around and gone back to the Georgia Mountains, and I wasn’t about to do the same. I thought I’d seen a help wanted sign at one of the gas stations back near town. Maybe they could do well to get a girl like me. I didn’t figure Colorado would’ve been much nicer than Paducah is. And Jesus wasn’t ever my idea anyway.
William Garland teaches English and Creative Writing at Montverde Academy in Montverde, FL. He is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina, where he worked as an editor at Yemassee. His work has appeared in HOOT, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Revolution House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Real South Magazine, and other literary journals and anthologies.