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Arkansas Stories

Driving Snake River
by Marla Cantrell

The first time it happened I was driving 95 on the two-lane highway that whips around Snake River. I love that road, the curves like the body of a guitar turned on its side, and the way you can slide into them, feeling your car shimmy and then bank hard, and how you can hear the tires kicking gravel when it skids onto the highway’s shoulder.

I had the windows down, and the river was rushing by, and the sun was in that spot where you can’t see right even if you have sunglasses on, which I did. I shut my eyes for just a second and I had this vision where I saw the next big curve, maybe a quarter of a mile away, and there was a white highway truck pulling out from the side road marked by a sign that read Mt. Judea Road, and my Miata came shooting toward it, and I couldn’t stop, and when the truck hit me, I saw the windshield, the glass shattering like a million diamonds right in my face, and my body went tight as a fist.

My own hollering shook me out of the vision, and then I hit the brakes. I was shaking, even my toes were shaking, which I didn’t know was possible.  When I pulled over I barely missed hitting the guardrail. I looked around. To my left was Mt. Judea Road, and there was the white highway truck just like I’d seen it a split second before, and it was already in the middle of the road, and I had just about died, I knew I had.

After I stopped shaking, I reached under the seat where I keep my bottle of vodka hidden, and I took a swig. I felt like I’d had a revelation, like I’d been spared because I might do great things, and for a week after I didn’t shoplift once, not even a lipstick, and I didn’t, well, indulge in what one of my old boyfriends used to call the double-body blessing, and I stayed away from Snake River.

And then on a Friday, when I was downtown, it happened again, I blinked and I saw a little movie of a yellow dog, some kind of lab mix, and it was dragging a leash, and a man in a plaid shirt was chasing it, and then the man fell and his glasses broke, and the dog kept running.

I looked up, and there was the dog, and there was the man behind the dog, and there was the leash dragging. And then the man tripped, then fell, and I heard his glasses pop just as they snapped apart.

Whatever that was, I thought, it wasn’t a dad burn revelation, and I got chills, is what I did, and I went inside the Burger Hut and I asked for a Coca-Cola, and I took my little bottle of vodka I keep inside my purse, and I poured most of it in, and I drank it down fast.

A few days later, I tried to conjure up a vision, real deliberate like.  I sat like they do on the yoga DVDs I have but don’t use because I find myself fast forwarding through them, which isn’t Zen at all, but it is me, and I made O’s with my thumbs and forefingers and I squinted like crazy.

Nada.

But later, when I was doing the dishes, all relaxed like I get when I have my hands in sudsy water, I shut my eyes. And right then I had a clear memory of being a baby, standing in my crib, my face red from crying. I had on a pink dress with smocking and little roses around the neck, and my mama was coming for me, and she was saying, “CeCe, come on bunny rabbit, there’s nothing to fuss about.” I wailed then, really turning up the volume, and there was a man with her who was not my daddy, was absolutely not my daddy, and he had his hand on the small of her back.

I opened my eyes, and the vision faded. I tried to remember more, but who can remember anything before they’re two? But I knew it was real, the way you know you hate broccoli without ever trying it.

So, now I was seeing both backward and forward, which made me about as nervous as a hen when the rooster’s got his eye on her.

You know what I did? I went to the freezer, where I keep my good vodka, and I poured a teensy bit in a jelly glass, and I felt betrayed. And I’ll tell you this. If Mama was still alive, I’d be over at her house in a flash, and we’d be having a little talk. But she’s at the cemetery, where I haven’t been since Decoration Day in May, and I don’t think she’s talking.

Then I had a date last week, and right before Stone, that’s his real name, said in one long breath, “My ex-wife cheated on me and now I have a hard time trusting women,” I shut my eyes a second too long and I saw Stone and he was in a motel room, and there was a woman with him who was not his wife. His wife, she was calling Stone, and his phone was vibrating away, and he turned the phone over and took the fornicator in his arms.

I got up from the table at Wide Awake Café, and I looked him in the eye, and I said one word. “Liar.” And then I walked away, and I reached in my coat pocket where I keep the teeniest bottle of vodka you’ve ever seen, and I took a drink, a little ladylike drink, and I started walking toward home.

I’ve thought about seeing my doctor, but I don’t know what I’d say. I sound crazy, is what I do, but I’m not crazy. I’ve considered talking to a fortune teller or a psychic or whatever, but when I do my Baptist upbringing drops down in front of my like a banner unfurled and it reads, Do Not Consort With Powers Of The Unknown, which is not part of my vision. I’ve been seeing that since I was a primary in Sunday school.

My best plan is to keep my eyes open as much as is humanly possible. Beyond that, I just don’t know. But I will tell you this. I feel caught between and betwixt. My inner eye, as I’ve come to call it, saved my life on Snake River. But it also showed my mama to be something less than I thought she was. And now it looks like I’ll be able to spot men lying before they ever utter sound, which I know is bound to cut clear down on the dating pool, at least from my past experience with men and their secrets.

If you have any advice for me, I’d love to hear it. I’d love to talk to someone else who sees things the way I do. I’ll be waiting to hear back. If you can see me out there with your own inner eye, I can tell you this. That is me shaking just a little bitty bit. And yes, that is me going back in the liquor store for another bottle of Grey Goose. I hope you don’t judge me on these two scraps of information.  I used to be a much different girl.

Marla Cantrell lives in Arkansas, and writes for @Urban magazine in Fort Smith. She also serves as the magazine’s managing editor. She has a background in broadcast news and worked as a reporter for an online business journal, but one of her great loves is Southern fiction.

 

The Watch-Out 
by Jacob Cooper

I’m the watch-out, Simon thought, watching Jack Calvert glide across the gray puddles in the nearly empty parking lot as horizontal sheets of rain continued to fall. Here we go. The young cashier, who Simon had watched sing karaoke at a local bar on Friday night, scrunched her face in visible frustration and left the cash register as a white-bearded man in motorcycle chaps entered the discount store ahead of Jack. It was the same disgusted look she had when Simon wandered in ten minutes before closing-time a few days ago. Simon and Jack had rehearsed the plan repeatedly since, but Simon still lacked faith.

“How long have you known me, Simon?” Jack had asked before jumping out and following the bearded man inside. Simon tried to hide his fear, but he knew Jack sensed his doubt. Simon understood the real question: He’d known Jack for a couple of months, so why did he trust him enough for this? Because Jack Calvert was the first person to console him after his wife left. But it didn’t really matter why now because it was too late to turn back.

The stealing had started small, a means of survival while Simon tried to rebuild his life. He was forced to start over with a little over $500 and a pickup truck that used too much gas. These days Jack paid for most their gas and food, occasionally coming out of gas stations with a snack or paperback book for Simon. Jack didn’t talk about himself much, but Simon knew he had never been married and had left home when he was fifteen to work on-and-off in commercial construction, drifting around Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee before arriving in Arkansas. Sometimes they just drove aimlessly, shooting the shit, which comforted Simon because he needed somebody to listen. Simon had questioned his wife’s loyalty before the separation, usually feeling guilty afterwards because he never had any proof, but her abrupt departure this time confirmed his assumptions: she was having an affair.

“Irreconcilable differences, my ass,” Simon would say ceremoniously. “What does that even mean?” His partner — that’s how Simon came to think of Jack — always listened, but Simon figured Jack wanted him to forget it and move on. Jack Calvert didn’t like riding in the truck much anyway; he didn’t have to say that. Simon could tell by the way Jack slouched and rubbed his temples like he had a migraine when they were on interstates or highways. Once they had a target and a plan, Simon would explore the rural areas of the town for gravel roads. It was on these bumpy, dusty roads that Jack talked the most, and Simon learned what little he knew about his partner.

I’m just the watch-out, Simon reminded himself, noting the neon-green 7:45 on the dash of his truck. Most of the jobs they worked didn’t take more than a few minutes. Jack’s timeline had them out of Northeast Arkansas and into the Missouri Bootheel before 9:00 that night. Drive around the block twice, pull-up to the storefront, and drive away. The plan was simple. Simon, though, worried about working a job in such a busy area of town — the store was one of many in the shopping center that formed an upside down “L” with a movie theater at the top end — but his spirits rose at the sight of a single customer to contend with; however, his insides were twitching like they always did as the watch-out. He prayed this would hold them over long enough to find steady work; Simon didn’t have the stomach for this line of work — he knew it, and so did Jack. Simon wished they could find work together, maybe open up a mechanic shop or a small-town discount store, but he feared that Jack would never settle down. Jack didn’t like to be attached to an area. Halfway around the first lap, heading directly towards the movie theater, Simon noticed a nondescript black SUV. This was the kind of detail he was responsible for as the watch-out. He tried to visualize the plaza from the past two nights, but he couldn’t place the vehicle. If only I’d paid more attention instead of talking about Callie.

“Don’t screw this up,” he mumbled to the empty truck. Something didn’t feel right about the SUV, but Simon decided to hold course until obvious aggression by the vehicle.

After the first pass, Hell’s bearded angel was still the only customer in the store, besides Jack, and stood alone at the cash register. Simon tried to picture Jack — the calm and quiet out-of-work laborer who named every bird and flower (cardinals, daffodils, irises, blue jays, ivory-billed woodpeckers) when they parked on a gravel road to unwind — convincing the cashier or her manager that he’d do something if they didn’t empty the registers. Simon suppressed a smile. If I get custody of my daughter, Jack Calvert is the first person we’ll` visit. He’s harmless. Jack always has everything under control. The storefront and the white-bearded man disappeared as Simon turned left and began his second lap across the bottom of the inverted L-shaped plaza. The plan, the motorcycle man, and the black SUV were the farthest things from his mind.

The bar had been dark; Simon didn’t know what he had expected. He’d never been the type to drink, much less frequent bars, but he couldn’t face anyone yet. Simon sipped on a light-colored beer, which he didn’t even like and felt guilty about wasting because knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it the divorce was finalized, and tried to reason things out. He had worked for weeks putting together their daughter’s birthday party, calling family, friends, and entertainment. And to think Callie had the nerve to leave him after such an exhausting, emotional day, whispering lies about going on an adventure like Peter Pan to their three-year old daughter Rachel. I’ll show her Never-Never-Land; I’ll send her to — that’s when a hand fell on his trembling shoulder.

“Don’t worry yourself too much. Tomorrow brings its own troubles,” the man behind the touch said, calming Simon’s exhausted body.

It was almost supernatural the way Jack had appeared, seemingly materializing behind him in the empty bar that night, Simon remembered. But that was Jack’s gift: knowing where to be and what to say; Jack knew exactly what was needed in every situation.

Simon slapped the steering wheel. He was upset with himself: he had never seen the signs. He would never admit that to Jack, but Simon suspected his partner knew more than he let on about these things. Their marriage had never been perfect. They had too many credit cards, years of college loans, and a thirty-year mortgage, but they’d had each other and their daughter. Simon told Jack everything he could about Rachel — the light scar on her left cheek from when he’d left the iron plugged in and she’d pulled it on her face (Callie had almost left him for that mishap), the sandy brown hair she inherited from her mother, the pinky-pale skin that burned and peeled constantly during the summer, and even her difficultly pronouncing W’s and R’s that she inherited from her father. Callie could go to Never-Never-Land with Peter Pan, but Simon wanted to be a part of his daughter’s life.

The rain began to pound the hood of the truck, imposing upon and muddling Simon’s thoughts. He hadn’t always lived up to Callie’s expectations, like dropping out of graduate school after they were married to take a full-time job in a factory. He had sacrificed his dream for insurance coverage and to pay the bills while she finished medical school. He’d done what needed to be done. She hadn’t seen it that way, even after finding out she was pregnant with Rachel a few months later. The late hours put a strain on their marriage, but they were surviving, which was all any young couple could ask for, he thought. They’d even made it through other —

“What the — ” Simon shut his former life out of his thoughts; he couldn’t afford to drown out the present — Shit, you’re the watch-out, Simon, concentrate — and what he thought he’d heard. Simon quickly identified the rain beat on the roof, but would have sworn that he’d heard a distinct pop underneath the pitter-patter, like a muffled firecracker. Two. Three. Four seconds passed. Then two more firecracker pops. Blue lights erupted from the dash of the black SUV at the movie theater. Aggression enough, Simon thought. He broke course and headed at a 45-degree angle across the L-shaped plaza, weaving in-and-out of parked vehicles. You’re always getting in the way, Callie. With a quick glance he calculated that he had about seven-second head start to get in the store, find Jack, and make a getaway before the SUV arrived and whatever came with it.

The truck skidded to a stop beside the white-bearded man’s motorcycle. Simon jumped out of the truck, leaving the truck running and the door open, and splashed through the puddles inside. The front was empty: a pack of cigarettes and Gummy Bears lay on the checkout counter. He saw all this in a glance as he raced towards the back. Come on, Jack.

“Jack.”

He heard a small splash — for a second, Simon felt like he was sinking — and the smell of burnt flesh rammed his nostrils. He traced the puddle to the white-bearded man’s body on the other side of the middle-aisle shelf. Here all kinds of liquids mixed into a black mess. There was a hole in the bearded man’s chest — his leather chap breast pocket read AVIDSON. Simon felt his lungs drop into his stomach. He nearly vomited.

How long have you known me, Simon?

“Jack!”

Simon staggered to the back, scanning each aisle, and through the EMPLOYEES ONLY! door into a foggy room filled with boxes stacked on boxes stacked on pallets. All the boxes and familiar brand names made him dizzy. Or maybe it was the sensation of sinking that he couldn’t shake. Simon dropped to his knees, head spinning. I’m just the watch-out. He tried to focus. Where are you, Jack? Then two more bodies, lying perpendicular across one another, got caught in his peripheral vision. Simon recognized them immediately — the Karaoke Cashier and her manager.

“Over here, Simon,” Jack said, appearing from behind a mountain of boxes. “Don’t be afraid.”

Typical Jack. Always cool. Always on top of things.

“There’s an undercover cop, Jack. He was right behind me in a black SUV. I spotted him earlier, but—”

“— Come on. It’s okay.” Jack lifted Simon to his feet, guiding him back through the EMPLOYEES ONLY! door. Blue light from the black SUV’s dash flooded the room as Jack ushered them towards the front. AVIDSON still lay by the middle shelf; Simon tried not to look, but the smell overpowered his senses. The front windows were fogged over — Simon imagined the stink of death sticking to the windows. Jack didn’t speak but continued to usher Simon along. Simon could hear sirens, shouting, slamming doors, and the pitter-patter of rain.

They stopped a few steps in front of AVIDSON. Simon thought he heard the cliché “Put down the weapon! And put your hands in the air!” charade, but his mind was too clouded to be sure. Of all people he imagined the actor Clint Eastwood waiting outside, rain accentuating his clenched jaw.

“There goes my custody ca—”

An arm clamped across his chest and the warm muzzle of a gun jammed into Simon’s back before he could finish. He could feel Jack’s breath against his neck. His body went rigid and he pissed himself. He was too scared to react. He wanted to ask Jack the plan. Is there a plan? No one is going to fall for this.

I’m just the watch-out, he wanted to scream.

“Who do you think I am, Simon?”

“Ja-Jack. Jack…Jack Calvert.” At first he couldn’t find his voice, but he finally forced the words out. “My-my partner.”

“Yeah, partner. Do you doubt me now?”

Everything was happening too fast. Simon didn’t know if Jack was using him as a shield, as a ransom, as a diversion, as a sacrifice. Blue lights pulsated strobe-like across the shelves. The lights were getting brighter, the noises more intense; everything was muddling together…Simon heard a crack in the distance. And another. He felt something scrape down his back and right calf. White light exploded and engulfed everything.

–       –

“Jack?” Are we in prison?

“Who’s Jack?”

“Cal-Callie?” Where am I?

“Yes.” He could hear her voice, but he couldn’t find her in the darkness. “What were you doing in there? You could have been killed.”

“Trying to help Jack.” Wait. Why do you care? Is Jack okay?

“There wasn’t anyone but you…alive in the store, Simon. They just ran photos of the victims on the news. No one named, uh, Jack.”

“Where’s Rachel?” Maybe I’m dreaming.

“I didn’t want her to see you like this.”

Like what?”

“You’ve been in a coma for three days. They didn’t know if you were going to make it.” This time he saw her through the snowy haze. “I didn’t want her to experience this, this — she’s too young, Simon.”

His head was spinning again. How long have you known me, Simon?

“Experience what? Where have you been? What has she been experiencing?”

“Forget it! I didn’t come here for this. I thought it might help you…you—”

“Then why did you come?”

“Simon, I’m not fighting anymore. I just wanted you to know you can see Rachel when you’re better.”

She caught him off guard. What did we do, Jack?

“I’m sorry, Cal.”

When she didn’t reply immediately, Simon concentrated on the two beats he could identify: the soft rhythm of the rain and the shrill buzzing of technology around him.

“You were brave, Simon.”

This time he didn’t reply but pretended to sink into sleep, or into a coma, or wherever he’d been before he’d woken up.

Jacob Cooper lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and has an MLA in English from Henderson State University, where he’s worked as a graduate assistant and instructor for the last four years. 

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