Monday, December 7, 2020

The Debutante, fiction by Rosemary McLean

 Your daddy weren’t a good man,” her uncle had said, “Weren’t much a man at all.” Her daddy, as she’d heard so many times, was a long-tongued ne’er-do-well who had followed the blasting gangs down from the north about 20 years ago when blasting gangs still came down to carve roads into mountains. Before she died, he’d brought her mama corner-store flowers every week, even if she didn’t want them. S. Herman was his name. 

“‘S’ weren’t short for nothing either. Just ‘S.’” Her uncle shook his head. “Never trust a man with a damn letter for a name.” 

He had tossed his cigarette, like he always did, out to the long wet grass before rising from the rocking chair on the back porch of the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant. 

“After tonight, things are gonna change. You'll be a woman now, and you know what that means. Things’ll be worse for you than they were for your mama when the men start coming around, ‘course,” he had said, his gaze lingering on her crooked, brace-set legs before blinking away, eyes watery, like looking at the sun. “Most girls can run away.

“That’s why you’ve got to stay home. Those books you read don’t tell you what happens when a girl goes out too far without a man,” he had paused, resting his thumbs on the seam of his jeans and belt. “Ain’t fair, but it’s a man’s world. Girl, especially a girl like you, just ain’t safe anymore.” 

Ever since she could read Jesup had wanted to travel, to go out on her own and explore the world beyond the Wayne County Public Library. Nowadays she didn’t feel much else besides the yearn, the desire to get out, to go somewhere else. It was all she'd ever wanted, no matter how much her ill-grown body felt sometimes like a cartoon ball and chain anchoring her to this damn old stretch of road where adventure and excitement came to retire after a string of bad investments in the big city. 

Still, her uncle's words hung over her like a blade over a Frenchman or a bird around a sailor’s neck. After a bit of consideration, she decided to ignore his advice. The biggest factor in this decision was the simple fact that her uncle was shot dead in front of her, and it was a woman who pulled the trigger. 

It had all happened before she turned around. Three pops from the front of the bar, quick, like firecrackers. Then two more, wall shaking ones, like church organ notes. Her uncle had spun around, then another note, then the long wet grass was all red and her uncle stumbled back drunk and fell over. His nose looks like a candle, she thought, and the racket blew it all out.

The last sound was damn loud, and Jesup’s hands clung to her ears as the woman in the thick brown Carhartt coat walked out of the bar. The woman studied Jesup’s uncle with the look one has when driving past a car crash or looking at a disabled girl’s legs, and hiked one of her boots up onto his chest. She cocked open her gun— a small thing, frail and silver, not like her uncle’s hunk of wood rifle hanging unloaded over his bed back home— and emptied out a bunch of little bronze beetles that sang together as they fell. Then, like a watchmaker, she started loading in new ones one after another, clicking the little cylinder one notch to the left between each shell.

A boom echoed out from inside and Jesup’s ears rang again, and glass sprayed out from the restaurant window and the woman stumbled a half step back like something punched her in the side as she spun and she pointed her thin little silver gun and another boom sounded and Jesup’s head was splitting now but she heard a thud inside and the woman grimaced and put the gun in a little leather holster on her side. Jesup looked into the shattered cobweb window of the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant and saw three big bodies laying around the place, all poked full of holes. Uncle’s friends. One of them was knocked back onto the billiard’s table. A big club of a gun lay beside him, with a thin little trail of smoke crawling up out of its barrel. 

“Damn,” the woman grunted, gravelly, as she fingered the little burned hole in the front of her red flannel shirt, “I’m getting sloppy.” 

“Are you gonna die now?” Jesup asked, the bass drum pounding in her head dying down to a lighter, snare drum type of sound. The woman’s gaze snapped to Jesup as though she’d only just noticed her, and for a moment the little thin frail silver gun was pointing at Jesup face-wise, but the woman loosened up and slid it slowly back in its little leather suit. The woman’s eyes were umbrellaed by a trucker’s cap, but Jesup could tell she was looking up and down the thick metal wires criss crossing her legs. Half a second later the womans’ shadow-eyes had looked up— quicker than most folks’ do— and fixed on Jesup’s chubby face. 

“Nah,” the woman thumbed a bit of blood from her cheek, smearing it into accidental warpaint like the Indians wear on TV. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“You don’t die?”

The woman grunted out a sigh before looking at her gun and counting out a 7 on her fingers. She half-turned, facing towards the tall grass behind the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant. 

“Wait!” Jesup called out to the woman, “what am I supposed to do now?” The woman looked back, frowning. Some kind of sun ray peaked out from over the Turtle Lake then because, for the first time, Jesup could see the woman’s face. Her cheeks were worn with two long lines, like tear-troughs, and her eyes looked like a junkyard dog’s. 

“What do I know? Go to your mama.” 

“My mama’s dead.” 

“Your granny, then.” 

“She died too. Brain problems. All I got’s my uncle.” Jesup paused, looking down to the noseless body by the woman’s feet. “Well, all I had.” The woman’s eyes flicked towards the body, then back to the girl. She sighed again, louder. Jesup’s face lit up with a sinister little memory. “Wait, I heard about you. You’re that man-killer. Mildred.” 

The woman’s dog-eyes kept staring, but there was something different behind them, like if you made one mistake she’d jump on you and kill you with her own teeth. Jesup didn’t care much.

“They say you kill every man you meet. You’ve been killing men all across Franklin. Must’ve been,” Jesup paused, kneading her bottom lip between her teeth as she ran through the television broadcasts and radio commentary in her mind, “thirty men, plus three or so was in the bar just now.” 

“Dunno,” the woman replied, adjusting her hat to sit between her and the sunlight. “Only counted the bullets.”

Jesup frowned, gripping the rough edges of her eggshell Sunday dress. The woman took a little leather book from her jacket and flipped it open, scanned it for a moment, and then shoved it back deep in her low-hanging pockets. 

“You scared of me, girl?”

“You ain’t kill girls. Everybody knows that.”

“I ain’t kill women. Just cause I ain’t killed a girl don’t mean I wouldn’t.” The woman smiled a little, prodding. Jesup crossed her arms over her chest, holding onto her sides. Her eyebrows furrowed defiant, and her mouth curled up too.

“I’m gonna be. A woman, I mean. Tonight. I’m gonna be sixteen.” The woman stopped, her ghost of a smile disappeared. This time she looked Jesup over was different. Wistful. 

“What’d you kill those men for?” Jesup asked, feeling a little emboldened. The woman clicked her tongue like chewing tobacco and ran her hand along the brim of her cap. 

“Ain’t they deserve it?” She paused on that for a second, bringing her hand up to touch a rough line of scar across her neck. Without looking back, the woman turned and headed into the long grass. 

“Hey, wait!” Jesup called after the woman before she knew what she was doing, and— upon realizing— grabbed her mouth with embarrassment. The woman kept on. Jesup watched the woman leave with a strange sort of anxiety, til’ finally the woman was gone and her eyes drifted down to the body before her. He looked so peaceful now that he couldn’t stare or yell or touch her when she didn’t want him to. Without that knobby long nose of his, you almost couldn’t tell he was a Kinney, like her. Her head tilted sideways, then her long Kinney nose scrunched up and she looked back towards the lifeless bar. The colic sirens of seven or so police cars screamed towards Turtle Lake from the highway, echoing out through the forest branches of the valley. As the screams grew, so did the weight of the thoughts dancing between Jesup's ears. The police find me, then what? She swallowed deep. Her own kin ain't wanted her, what'll the tax payers of Wayne County do with her? No France, no pirate ships. I'll be here...

 Lit up like an electric chair, she stirred to life. Her arms pushed hard on the wheels by her sides, rocking herself down the rickety old ramp by the back porch. She rolled off the lip, pressing trenches into the soft dirt behind her until the roots of the long grass filled her axles and clung to her like skeleton hands. She pulled again, once, twice, but the wheels wouldn’t budge in the Appalachian muck. Singing little curses under her breath, Jesup fumbled out her long metal crutches from their fixture on the back of the wheelchair and straightened her brace-legs best she could, lunging forward a couple of times until the weight shifted and she stood on her two feet. Sweat climbed down her brow, but she started forward into the dark. 

"Hey! Wait up, hey!" 

It was a long dark way through the woods of Wayne County. The logs and branches twisted to reclaim Mildred’s thin trail, snagging Jesup’s crutches, tugging at her dress, and pulling her shoelaces. She tore her way through faster than the sirens could follow her, and before long their wails had faded into the gossip of the birds and bugs. It would've been a hard way through for any girl of fifteen, much more for a girl more iron than flesh. But sure as the day was long, some kinda fever drove her forward, some unknowable phantom worker shoveled coal into the engine of her spiderbit heart. The story told by broken sticks and parted grass was true, and Jesup had the strength and wits to read it. 

After an hour or more following Mildred’s rat-road, a thick oak crossed the path. Its branches bowed in reverence to the sun, but the long grass whose trodden part had guided Jesup all this way withered between the tree’s thick roots. Jesup turned a few times, but no trace of the woman with the gun could be found. Her chest tightened breathlessly, and she quickly carried herself over to rest against the sturdy old bark beneath the shade. Her muscles throbbed with numb pain, but her head rang worse. Leaning her brandy hair against the tree, she thought back to the noseless body and began to cry harder than she ever had before. It was strange, she thought, how long it took for her to care that he was gone. She hadn’t loved her uncle, hadn’t even cared for him at all, but he was gone. She would never hear him chop wood for their stove, or turn the game on his radio and play it through the trailer, or tell her about her mother. I’ll never hear about my mama again. Her uncle was gone and she was all alone. 

She sniffled and wiped her face with the back of her arm. She straightened her posture and adjusted her legs in their braces; they were pink, knobby and bent, turning before the knee and slowly corkscrewing to her little white socks and black shoes. In some ways, they were like trees that had grown up crooked— bent by some old storm or turning sideways to look for better sunlight. Just as twisted and, peculiarly, just as strong. 

By now her head had quieted enough so she could hear the woods around her, and her eyes lit up when she recognized the rushing of water close by. She steadied herself on her crutches and hobbled around the base of the wide old tree. Its thick roots crawled up and out of the black earth, eventually overtaking the soil and forming a rough floor of gnarled wood. Jesup carefully followed the roots past the tree, picking her way down its web. They—the roots, that is—flowed down a little crater of a hill, swirling at the bottom into a vast whirlwind of mossy bark. In the center of the whirlwind was a sparkling little spring, bubbling to the surface from some well deep, deep down. Long-toothed willows curtained the spring, protecting it from the rest of the wide, thick forest. 

Jesup picked her way to the center with a sudden vigor, lowering herself by the water and washing her face and arms. She pulled the heavy white dress from her body and tossed it into a pile by the water. Dirt and twigs and loose threads covered it, but you could still see under all that it was a nice dress, lightly patterned with a baby blue embroidery of Easter flowers. A present from the neighbors, made special for her ‘debut’ tomorrow night. Uncle had made her wear it a little early, on account of showing it off to everyone at church. Told them he’d bought it.

This was her first time ever bathing herself in fifteen—er, sixteen—years. In fact, this was the first time she had been by herself, unwatched. She laughed a little, cherubic, at the way the cool water kissed her tired limbs. Birds sang above her, little water-skippers ballet danced along the surface of the clear spring. She ran the cool water over herself until her underclothes were soaked to the skin, a gentle relief from the sticky summer heat. 

Still smiling, Jesup’s eyes wandered over to the dress in its heap among the roots and paused. Something about that dress, its liar folds and deadbeat stitches, some kind of black anger filled up inside of her. She wanted to crawl over to it and tear it apart, to feel the fabric rip under her hands. More than that, she wished she could tear its atoms apart, render it an amorphous unrecognizable gas of molecules among the forest green. She settled for tearing off the sleeves and dying it in the earth-black mud between the roots. After she pulled the rough dress back on, she shivered from the cold and excitement. She labored up to her feet and fixed her arms back into the crutches. A gunshot called through the trees from far away, kicking up a wave of frightened feathers. Jesup exhaled. She’d found her path. 

It was long dark by the time she caught up to Mildred. The woods were quieter than she'd ever known them to be, and the way was harder without a rat-road to follow. When she reached the woods’ end, she saw the lights first, sparkling blue through the box-shadows of two buildings. The police car was empty but the driver was nearby, two holes in the back and a gun just out of reach. The car siren'd burned itself out, but the click—click—clicking of the rotating lights was loud next to the night's hush. By the time Jesup had finally muscled her way out of the tangling brush, Mildred had looked up from her little leather book. Behind the big cigarette burn of a hole on her shirt, there was no sign of the gunshot wound from earlier. Just pink-white skin. Like magic.

"You again?" the woman's voice was low, lower than before. "Thought those woods'd've swallowed you up by now." The lightning trace of a smile crossed her chapped lips, and she slapped her book closed. This time, she stood up straight, and looked Jesup head on. Despite her age, Jesup's pale blue eyes looked fierce. Almost, Mildred thought, like mine. 

"I've been chasing you all over creation," Jesup began, half-panting between words, "so you're gonna listen to me and you're going to listen well. My mama's dead, my daddy's gone, and you done killed the last family I had." Tears boiled up from Jesup's eyes from somewhere deep, red-hot. They surprised her more than the shooting had. 

"Decide on revenge after all, then?" White teeth flashed between Mildred's lips. Jesup pulled her arm from one of her crutches and wiped her speckled cheek. Without a wasted breath, those eyes flashed back to Mildred. “You here to finish me off the way I finished that uncle of yours?” 

“That ain’t it—” Jesup began only to choke on her own words. Her mind swirled with possibilities, thoughts, outcomes. She had driven herself all this way, but now her options— her whole future loomed over her bigger than the idea of her debut tomorrow night had before everything changed. 

“To turn me in, then? I hear there’s quite a bounty for me nowadays. You’d be set for life.” 

“That ain’t it either!” She didn’t know what had dragged her all of this way. She should have stayed at the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant and went with the policemen and lived the life she’s supposed to live. She was pretty enough, at least to find some man who’d pity her and she could be his wife and spend her days reading and fantasizing, not doing whatever she’s doing here. Turn back, her mind screamed, it’s not too late. She stared forward. Why had she come all this way? She should have stayed, gone to the funeral. They would have felt sorry for her, at least for a bit. No. I know why I came. The answer was right there, if only she could just say it. 

“Then what is it, girl? Why’d you come all this way, if it ain’t for your little noseless uncle?” 

"Fuck my uncle. Fuck him and fuck those bastards and their billiards games and that damn ass librarian who charged me ten cents every day my bird watching book was overdue and fuck Wayne County!" She was screaming now, into that empty stretch of buildings, and the tears had bubbled back. Under the brim of her hat, Mildred watched. 

"So you listen up, you… Mildred. I know you been all over Franklin and I know you ain't slowing down. But you're not taking one more step unless I'm coming with you." Mildred bristled. 

The sudden iron ringing of the town hall bell crawled over the stretch, and the two stood silent until the twelfth note droned into oblivion. Jesup, counting along in her mind, let out a breath. 

Mildred's work boots drove forward over the weed-mingled gravel until she stood over the policeman's body. She stooped down, lifting his chunky black pistol between two fingers like a mortician. She looked it over, inspecting the chamber, before pointing the gun firmly at Jesup's face. 

"Remind me what says I won't just kill you?" Mildred's lip curled. 

Jesup straightened her back, balling her fists by her sides. "That ain't true. You heard those bells. I'm a woman now. And you don't kill women." 

Mildred's finger lingered beside the trigger. She took two steps forward, her shadowed eyes locked on the girl. With one motion, she loosened her fingers, allowing the gun to slip around until the grip faced Jesup. For the first time this night, Jesup's eyes blinked into confusion. 

"Go on then," Mildred began, turning her head away, "take it. Lord knows you'll need it."

Jesup extended her hands timidly, and the gun plopped into her grasp. It was heavy, heavier than she expected. 

"Tell me if you need to slow down. Otherwise, we're riding to Wampler tonight." Mildred rolled the officer onto his chest with her boot before starting down the road. Jesup studied the hunk of metal and leather in her hands— how different it felt than around her legs— before shuffling along after. 

Rosemary McLean is a 21 year old author and comic writer from East Tennessee. Her writing centers on themes of crime, resistance, dark humor, gender/sexuality, and the inexplicable. She can be found @filmatra on twitter and elsewhere.

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