Cotton-Eyed

by Ryan Stevens 

The day Chuck Everett blew into town, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He drove up to the McDonald’s in a tiny little Lexus car the color of eggshells and got out. He stood by his car door, swung it shut, and took a moment to survey his new surroundings and ponder where exactly he’d landed. The town McDonald’s was nestled between the Englemans’ Grocery Store and the Shell Station, and just beyond the station an Auto Supply and a Dollar Store. One has to wonder if he even suspected that he was smack in the middle of the most active part of Southton. He didn’t appear to suspect anything, and he smiled a broad smile as he drank the place in.

He walked into the McDonald’s, strolling in to the tune of the tinkling little bell attached to the door. He walked up to the little lady behind the counter, Debra I think her name is, ordered a fish sandwich, and patiently waited for his order. He ran a hand through his sunbeam-blonde hair with a soft hand attached to a slender, svelte arm and shifted his weight from limber leg to limber leg.

Tyler Wells and his fiance Emma Ragsdale were sitting in a corner booth, munching on fries and nuggets and such. Tyler and Emma had known each other since their high school days and had started dating during their time at Abrams University. Tyler went there to study Graphic Arts or Digital Design or something or other, some kind of artsy degree while Emma studied history to become a teacher. Nowadays Emma’s substituting at the Middle School and Tyler answers phones for Butler Realty. After they graduated, they moved in together and Tyler put a ring on little Emma’s finger, announcing his intention to marry her. Just north of a year later, on the day of Chuck Everett’s introduction, they were still in the planning stages of their nuptials.

But I’m dissolving into gossip. Back in the McDonald’s, Emma, the little bird, was chirping on and on about her girl friends’ latest exploits when, by cosmic chance, Tyler’s mind and eyes wandered and drifted into a direct path with the curious, carefree eyes of Chuck Everett. He had just gotten his food and was ambling, tray in hand, looking for a place to sit. Tyler must have been awfully tuned out because they held the gaze for several seconds before Emma noticed and turned around to see what her husband had locked his sights on.

“Hello,” she said to Chuck. “Do you two know each other?”

“Hmm — what?” Tyler’s consciousness resurfaced for a moment. He registered his mistake and offered apology to both his befuddled bride-to-be and the stranger he had eye-violated. “Oh, uh … no. Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

“No problem at all,” Chuck said. “I’m new to this area, and I jus assumed you could see it on me. Charles Joseph Everett, but I’ve been called Chuck before.” He extended a hand towards Tyler.

“Good to meet you,” said Tyler, returning the handshake. “I’m Tyler, and this is Emma.” Chuck turned to Emma and extended his hand again.  Emma opened her mouth “So what brings you to —”

“My lord!” Chuck exclaimed, causing a few other customers to turn their fry-filled heads. He was holding Emma’s left hand and staring at the modest engagement ring on her finger. “That ring is absurd! You must have biceps the size of cinder blocks to lift that gem.”

Emma beamed in pride. “Thank you. Tyler here sure can pick ‘em.” She turned to her companion and lovingly put her other hand on his knee.

“I’ll bet he does,” Chuck echoed, relinquishing Emma’s hand. “You two are a blessed couple, you know. Not often two people find such perfect love.”

Emma tittered warmly. “That’s very sweet of you to say. Strangers are never this friendly. Can you believe this guy, Tyler?”

Tyler cleared his throat. “So, Chuck, you said you were new here? What brings you to Southtown?”

Chuck scratched the back of his head with one hand, balancing his food tray in the other. “Oh, just blowing through. I work for this snack food chain, see, and I’m just down here on business to check out all the little grocery stores and gas stations and what-have-you and do a survey on how the munchies are selling. Nothing too interesting, I don’t think.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, sounds like it could be fun,” Emma motioned to a chair at a nearby table. “Pull on up and sit with us.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly impose on you two —”

“It’s no problem at all! We weren’t talking about much important anyway, were we Tyler?”

Tyler had once again lost focus and became suddenly aware of the eyes of his new acquaintance that he was intently staring at. He blinked rapidly and shook his head to make clear his awareness of his mistake. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. No. No problem at all. Have a seat, Chuck.” Chuck had a seat.

“So,” Emma stretched her arms across the table, resting her her flat palms under Chuck’s nose. “How long do you usually stay in a town when you’re on the job?”

“Oh, not too long, week or so,” Chuck’s words came out around a handful of fries. “Can’t afford to stay much longer this season, I’ve been getting chased by this nasty snowstorm every stop I make.”

“I think I saw something on the news about that. Snow and ice and all sorts of nastiness.” Emma looked down at the watch on her wrist, a gift from her father. “Well, if you get bored or want someone to show you around, here’s our number.” Emma scribbled their house phone number on a napkin. Tyler watched her and watched Chuck watching the delicate manicured fingers gripping the pen. “We’ve got to run, but you have a nice time in town, alright?” Emma rose to go, grabbing her trash with her as she went. Tyler followed her. He felt obligated to say something to Chuck, but a claw of awkward tension stopped his tongue.

“Much obliged, you two, much obliged,” Chuck Everett crowed as Tyler and Emma exited the McDonalds.

Emma strapped herself into the driver’s seat, even though it was actually Tyler’s car from before their engagement. Before their relationship, actually. The car, a 1996 Volvo had had its share of problems, sure, but Tyler Reese was not a fellow who gave up at the first sign of trouble. He and that car had been through two new transmissions, a new set of brakes, six new tires (one for each tire and the front right and back left twice over) and a cracked windshield. The heating was still spotty, but Tyler Reese finished what he started and he would drive that car until it sputtered and would go no more, no matter how much he yearned to just scrap it and buy a functioning one. When Emma wanted to drive, which was often, he offered absolutely zero resistance. He felt so lucky to have a woman so headstrong and independent and willing to drive the steel coffin. The two were practically made for each other.

As the couple rode home, Emma steering with her right hand, letting her left hand hold Tyler’s in her lap as she drove, Tyler’s mind continued to wander. He turned the images from the McDonalds over and over in his head, like he was trying to scratch an itch he couldn’t quite locate. He thought of his wife’s hands stretched towards that Chuck Everett fellow, thought of the warmth and softness of those hands, and how close they had been …

“Don’t you think? Honey?” Emma gave Tyler’s hand a gentle squeeze to rouse him from his daydreaming. “Don’t you think we should invite that Everett fellow to the Quarles’ for Dinner tomorrow? It’d be the neighborly thing to do.”

Tyler chewed his lip for a moment. “Yeah,” he finally decided. “I think you’re right. Very neighborly indeed.”

The rest of the ride home held little excitement. They discussed wedding plans, who to get to cater, what types of invitations they had narrowed it down to, other such mundane matrimonial matters. Emma, who usually had to deal with a barely-interested Tyler, was surprised to find, after his daydreaming both in the restaurant and earlier in the car ride, that her spouse-to-be was being tremendously invested in the discussion of hors d’oeuvres. She found herself actually caught off-guard by Tyler’s attentiveness. She had never seen him more on the ball. She had no idea that he was doing so very much on purpose, exerting sizeable energy to place his full attention on his fiancee’s words. He demanded his mind to wander not a single step.

 

Now, there aren’t many drinking establishments in the Southtown-Honea area, seeing as people tend to prefer to drink in their own homes and the homes of their friends, but the Tiger Brothers’ Bar does exist to fulfill the purposes of public watering hole. Typically it’s unknown wanderers that gather at said bar, though not exactly the drifters and scoundrels stereotype would have one believe. It was here that Chuck Everett found himself sitting alone at the bar, awaiting an anonymous guest at 8:45 p.m. two days after the McDonald’s encounter. Everett felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around, wearing his same world-loving smile.

“Oh, hi there.” His million-dollar-smile accrued enough interest and evolved into a billion-dollar smile. Those cotton-soft eyes widened to size of plush throw pillows. “I’m really glad we could meet up. I’m sorry about missing that party at the Quarles’ but I had too much paperwork to make it out last night. Buy you a drink?” Everett took a sip of his own microbrew to emphasize the allure of a drink.

“Well, alright. I’m really glad you could find this place.”

Everett found his hand under that of his current companion. Before either one knew it several more drinks had been consumed with alacrity; hours slithered down in just as blurry a fashion as the alcohol and at last call, roughly 3 a.m., Chuck Everett and Tyler Reese exited the bar in front of God and everybody, myself included.

 

I can’t vouch one-hundred percent for what the night held next for those two, but we’re all adults here. All I know is the next day, at roughly 10 or so in the morning, poor Tyler’s marred and patched Volvo came rolling down my driveway and out piles a haggard looking Mr. Reese, dressed in the same outfit the night before (khaki’s, a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt and a flimsy little blue jacket). He hobbled up my front steps and tried to straighten himself out. I ambled out my front door to meet him, my left hand curled around my cane in case I had to forcefully introduce his cranium with some common sense.

“Mr. Bennett,” he said, clearing his throat before and after. He looked like his temperature was in the triple-digits on the Kelvin scale.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Reese? You don’t look too well.”

“I’m just … I … hum …” He took a step forward, a few back, kneading his hands like a baker behind schedule. “Where … were you last night?”

I tightened my grip on the rabbit’s head atop my cane. “Well, boy, your presence here certainly implies you’ve either got a sneaking suspicion or a near-certainty regarding where I was last night, so why don’t we bypass the whodunnit shenanigans and put our cards on the table?”

He looked at me like I’d revealed a sidearm and gutshot him right then and there. I realized this was going to be an experience akin to my pulling teeth in a lean-to during my days in the service.

“Alright young buck, here’s how this is going to happen. I’m going to open this here door,” I said, doing so to my front door. “You are going to enter through said door, have your sinful ass a seat, look me square in the eyes, say, ‘Old Saul, I know I have committed a reproachable act, and then you will explain yourself and I will pronounce how I intend to handle this delicate situation you’ve put us both in. Either that, or I give little miss Emma’s mother a call and feed some fresh grist to the rumor mill. Which shall it be?”

He staggered forward and through the door like a prodded steer and more collapsed than sat in a chair at my table.

“O-o-Old Saul …”he began. “I’ve, um, I know I have committed a … uh … re … re …”

“A reproachable act,” I offered, helping him along.

“Yes sir, a reproachable act, and …” he explained himself. You’ve heard what he said, more or less. He didn’t dress the story up particularly, didn’t attempt to bathe himself in justification or excuses. I respect that. The only thing I felt disagreeable was he kept harping on the Everett boy’s eyes, how white and pure they were and how they made him feel ashamed for thinking his thoughts but how they also ensured the thoughts would keep coming.

I crossed the room and gave his quivering shoulders a pat. “Hush, now, boy, what’s done will always be done.” I realized he was crying. Not bawling, but crying. A tiny creek of tears cut a path down his face.

I gave the jittery little animal a cup of tea and assured I wouldn’t go tell Emma or any of her kin, but reminded him I wasn’t the only pair of eyes in the Tiger Brothers’ last night, and if I heard tell of this story circulating from someone else’s source I would not deny it and sully the honor of my word. Then I sent him packing. A few days later I caught wind that the wedding had been pushed back another three months and wondered, had Chuck Everett not pushed that henhouse on its side, if there would’ve been wedding bells on the scheduled day after all.

 

That’s the story as I’ve been able to piece it together. The last I had heard, Tyler and Emma had pushed the date back another six months (that’s on top of the pushing it back I mentioned before, you understand). There’ve been some rumblings that Tyler got a job offer up in Tennessee doing some sort of graphic design who-knows-what, and he might drag Emma along or he might use this as his exit strategy. She got her own car now, could come down to visit her family every few weeks. I surely don’t know which way the wind is blowing for those two.

As for Chuck Everett, he was here and gone before the cock crowed three times. I’ve had my ear to the ground for any stories about the home-wrecker with the eyes as soft as the plush inside a teddy bear, but I haven’t heard a single tale about this kind of whirlwind debauchery outside of this one incident. I had one conversation with a lady from Tumbling Shoals, said she thought she recalled a man along the lines of Chuck Everett, and recollected him as “a sweet, gentle-hearted little stag who just a smidge on the awkward side.” I believe it is possible these two Chuck Everett’s are the same animal, but I surely cannot be positive.

Probably best we keep this between ourselves and those we trust. Lord knows there’s enough rumor-mongering in these parts as is, there isn’t any need to spike the water with any such truly scandalous truth like this, because married or not I reckon both the Reeses and the Ragsdales would curse the name of Chuck Everett if they knew what we know.

Ryan Stevens is a resident of Belton, South Carolina. He is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina, examining his relationship with the South in his writings. 

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