A Mirage or Something
by Dylan Smeak
Friday nights were arm wrestling nights. It was five o’clock and Hutto Sherman sat propped up against the headboard of a cheap motel twin bed, staring at a full-length mirror. In his reflection, Hutto’s long hair fell down his shoulders toward his frail chest. The scrape of key metal in the door broke Hutto’s concentration on himself, and he shifted to watch the handle turn. The door opened and Mary Frances walked in, already undoing the back-tie of her waitress apron. She smiled at Hutto while she stripped out of her stained clothes as he watched. Every now and then, he’d find his reflection in the mirror again, his face and arms showing up in the angles Mary Frances’s body was making as her head cocked slightly, her hands rubbing up and down her exposed apricot belly.
“If it’s a girl, what’re we going to call her?” Mary Frances asked, turning back to Hutto. He watched goosebumps spread across his body as he placed his plastic cup on the nightstand.
“We’ll call her Jack, that’s what we’ll call her,” he said, crawling toward her. When he reached her he rubbed his cracked palms up the rolling muscles of her right arm and she flexed proudly, instinctively. “I tell you what, you bring home some serious money tonight and I’ll let you call he-she-it whatever you want to call it.” Their eyes caught in the reflection. “Just make sure this,” he said squeezing her right arm, making her hold her flex,” does good enough tonight, ok?”
She smiled into the mirror, twisting back and forth slowly, Hutto still flexing and folding her limbs into angles like a paper bird. “I don’t think I ever heard of a girl being called Jack,” she said.
“My great grandmama was called Jack.”
“You lyin’ sack-o’-shit,” she said, peering back at Hutto’s reflection. His hands ran down the hollows of her forearms, landing on her rough, fisted fingers.
“You have the ugliest hands I ever seen,” he said, ignoring Mary Frances’ charge as he tensed his thin arms behind her.
“Tools ain’t ‘spose to be pretty.”
Hutto ran his hands back up her arms. “Do something for me,” he said. “Growl.”
“Do what?” Mary Frances said to his reflection.
“Come on. Try it. Think about that man who took you for fifty bucks last Friday, the one who pinned you in ten seconds.”
“That turkey was ridin’ clouds he was so glassed. He’d a pinned a black bear if it had enough money to bet,” she said, straining her arm.
“Then growl like a black bear, for me,” he said into the mirror, the blacks of his eyes swollen and floating in his sockets. She let out a little grunt. “No, now come on.” She let out a deeper grunt. “There we go. Louder. Come on. Let Jack know you’re here.” She lowered her head and crawled back to the top of the bed to let her finish dressing. He reached for his pack of cigarettes and pulled out a joint he’d hidden in the bottom of the saggy pack. When he lit up, Mary Frances inhaled from across the room, closing her eyes and swaying while she grabbed a thin shirt from atop the bed.
“How’re the clouds up there?” she asked, grinning into the mirror as she buttoned her top.
“Bring that arm on over here and I’ll show you.”
An hour later, the two were outside the motel, lighting cigarettes as they slinked into their primmer-flaked car. They sped south down empty backroads toward Squeaky’s, aiming to get there early enough for Mary Frances to work the room a little while Hutto talked her up and got loose. The sun that afternoon was a big late-July yolk sun that rested high above scrub pines and live oaks, shining through the strands of Spanish moss that hung from branches like forgotten rosaries. The heat rushed in through their rolled down windows and the light splintered into the car as they drove toward and over mirage pools on the hot asphalt.
“Goddammit,” Mary Frances said, propping her leg on the dash, fanning herself while she cranked the window lower. “I thought you were gonna fix the air conditioning this week.”
“And I thought you were gonna win us more money last week,” Hutto answered, slapping the inside of her thigh and growling. She giggled a bit as she stuck her hand out the window. “Besides, where would I put my smokes if the air worked?” he asked while he stuck cigarettes between the blinds of the AC vent.
“Hm … Hey,” she said, searching through popping white noise on the radio, “I got a question for you.”
Hutto decided to play along, continuing to place cigarettes in the AC vent as he looked over to Mary Frances smiling. “Okay. Shoot.”
Mary Frances rolled her arm in the arches outside the window as she looked out over the road. “You believe in ghosts?”
Hutto’s eyes darted back and forth between the road and Mary Frances. “Do I what in what?”
“You ever think ghosts are out there?” she said squinting through sunlight, looking still out toward the road.
“Nah, I don’t think so. I mean I ain’t ever seen one before so I don’t know, but … why you asking?” he said, scanning the blacktop in the rearview mirror.
“Cause I think they do,” she said, her hand still arching in the hot wind outside the car. “I seen one when I was little.”
Hutto tried his damnedest to find a fib in her face, but one never appeared.
“Yeah. Was my granddaddy. He died when I was seven and I seen him one night after his funeral, sittin’ on a fence outside our house.” Her pine branch fingers spread in the wind. Hutto let out a “bullshit” and waited for a laugh that didn’t come while he pinched a cigarette from the AC vent.
“I ain’t askin’ you to believe me,” she said, her hand trying to shield her eyes from the sun. “I had this little plastic toy rotary phone and he talked to me on it one night.”
Hutto’s eyes turned back and forth from the road, to the rearview mirror, to her face, still trying to find some hint of a joke, some wrinkle of a lie in the sweating corners of her red face. “Ah, no, no, no, that’s bullshit—you saw that on TV, I bet,” he said back to her, his cigarette hanging from his lips. He looked to Mary Frances and snapped his lighter on, waiting for her to respond before lighting up. “Well then, what’d he say?”
As her mouth opened, the sun exploded into the car in the waves and without warning. Sheets of heat filled the interior and Hutto felt it first on his eyelids, which had closed instinctively from the noise. As the car tires wailed, windshield glass collected in his shirt collar and Mary Frances screamed through coughs while rubber smoke caught up with them. By the time things turned quiet, the two were stopped in the middle of the road, too scared to move.
When Hutto finally opened his eyes, he looked into the half intact rearview mirror and saw that a broken cigarette was still clenched between his teeth. He placed the snapped cigarette in his shirt pocket as he looked at Mary Frances, her palms spread out on the dashboard.
“What in the hell was that?” Mary Frances said, moving to brush windshield pieces from her lap.
Hutto got out of the car, walked to the front, and saw hair bearding the rusted grill and a few pieces of feces dotting the hood. Blood smeared and streaked up onto the roof. He kicked a headlight off the street and into the ditch while he looked at Mary Frances through the blown out windshield.
“Flex for me, baby,” he said, panicked, and, realizing he wasn’t joking. Mary Frances’s right arm shot out and angled upward at the elbow. With her arm still flexing, she got out the car and stood beside him, looking into the shell of the busted up carriage.
“What was it?” she asked picking windshield from the gap between her tank top and waistband.
“Deer. Look at the hair,” he said walking around to the back of the car. When he got there, he kneeled down next to a doe splayed out on the asphalt, tongue hanging from her month like a pink cigar.
“What now?” she asked. Hutto looked through the back window of the car. To the right of the pair was a spread of pine trees, and to the left was a soy field, at the far end of which stood a little sunburnt house with an old car parked at the end of a red dirt driveway.
“I guess we go there,” he said, removing his hand from his hip and pointing to the house.
“Baby?” He asked, before they started off the road. Mary Frances stuck her arm up and flexed, knowing that Hutto was about to ask. The pair stood still on the asphalt, their eyes glued back on the deer.
They headed for the house and made their way across the soy field, their feet sinking through the top inch of the dried and cracked dirt that held the stalks. The sun bobbed just above the tree line. They walked about a hundred and twenty yards, not saying much to each other. Mary Frances held her elbows in shaky hands, her forearms against her stomach.
” You never told me what your granddaddy said on that phone,” Hutto said, ripping off the tips soy stalks as he passed them, throwing the newly torn pieces at her.
He said, ‘Keep my azaleas trimmed.”
The two walked the rest of the field’s length not saying a word. They got to the side of the house and knocked on the wooden frame of a screen door. A few gnats gathered around the sweat on their arms and foreheads, and through the little whiffs of their hands, they heard, “Door’s open.”
They walked through the door and into a kitchen. The linoleum on the floor and the vinyl on the cupboards were peeling in on themselves. A spread of plastic wrap-topped crockpots were gathered on the kitchen table, condensation beading on the underside of the sunken plastic dropping into the still warm casseroles and soups. A group of condolence cards were tented atop the kitchen bar, each one moving in fractional, rhythmic increments from an oscillating fan that blew in from the den.
“In here … You got a dish then just set it on the table with the rest of ’em.”
The couple followed the voice into the living room, where they found a man sitting on a stained white muslin couch. He wore a black suit and long grey hair fell over his shoulders. A loosened bolo tie hung around a wrinkled white collar. Next to him on the couch, a flower arrangement sat on a sunken cushion, at the center of which rested a framed photo of a white-haired woman.
“Who the hell are you two?” he asked, moving his head toward them and placing his arm around the flower arrangement. Mary Frances and Hutto stood in front of him, waiting for the other to say something. The words, “We hit a deer. Car’s busted,” flew from Mary Frances’s mouth with a tone sounding something like a child caught doing something wrong.
“Huh,” the man grunted. “Ya kill it?” he asked, his arm still wrapped around the flower arrangement.
“Yes, sir. I mean, I checked it out …” Hutto answered back. “Tongue was out and everything. Don’t think it was alive.” Hutto thought back to the deer spread out in the street and second-guessed himself.
“Good,” the man said, “ain’t a type of thing you want to leave unsure. Either or, ya know.” The man lifted himself from the couch. “You two sit on that love seat. Was my wife’s. I’m getting a drink. You two take ice or no ice?” They sat down and fell into the dip in the middle of the cushion as the man slowly lifted from his couch.
“Ice is fine,” Hutto said, correcting his nervous volume. “None for her, she’s in a family way.”
“Dark or clear, guy?” The man asked from the kitchen.
“Whatever you’re having.” Hutto responded. He looked around the room and nudged Mary Frances, pointing out the wooden picture frames on the walls and the verses burned into them. Above the fireplace was a velvet painting of an angel, its legs bent and arms extending upwards inside a latticed stream of yellow light.
The man walked back into the room with two glasses, one filled with clear liquid, the other with brown. He handed Hutto the clear drink and sat back on the couch. “Where you two goin’?” he asked.
“We’re going to Squeaky’s. In town,” Mary Frances said.
“You two married?”
“No, sir, not yet,” Hutto answered quick and through a dry smile. “We’re workin’ on it.”
The man remained still, looked forward, squinted a bit when he drank from his glass. “You should have a sip of that, ma’am. A little sip’ll be good for her in there.”
Mary Frances took a sip and wiped her lips.
“You gotta get married, though. Especially if she’s carrying,” he said, nodding his head at her stomach, staring at it for a few seconds as he placed his arm back around the flower arrangement. “You got blood on your neck, miss,” the man said. Bathroom’s down the hall on the left.”
“Thank you,” she said. Mary Frances stood and left the room. The man watched her as she left. The door to the bathroom closed and the man looked at Hutto as he pulled from his glass.
“You can take my car out tonight,” he said while Hutto drank. “You can take it and bring it back tomorrow. I might not be here tomorrow, though, so if I ain’t then wait till Monday.” The man turned forward and drank again from his glass.
“You sure bout that? I can call a truck and just get towed out to a Squeaky’s. I know a guy who can.”
“Marry that girl, though. Don’t call no truck, you can take my car, but you marry that lady,” the man said, his arm rearranging the flowers.
Hutto brought his drink to his mouth. Through the bottom of the thick glass he saw a distorted image of the man. Swashes of black and green surrounded the man in a muted blur. The two sat together, quiet except for the crinkling of the man’s arm against the flowers.
“Sorry ’bout your—” Before he could finish, the man stood in the door frame, drying his hands on the fabric of his shirt. Hutto turned back to the man, who made his way to the kitchen.
“He said we can take his car into town tonight,” Hutto whispered to Mary Frances, pausing as he listened to the sound of ice hitting glass,” said we can bring it back Monday.” Mary Frances looked at Hutto, confusion spreading on her face.
“Roll your car off the street and onto the shoulder,” the man said, walking back into the living room. “I’ll call the authorities to take care of that deer when you two leave.” The man paused before heading back into the kitchen. Hutto and Mary Frances looked at each other, unsure but thankful. “May wanna get a move on before dark hits,” he said from the kitchen .
Hutto and Mary Frances walked back across the soy field, unsure of what to say to one another. They reached the car and Mary Frances hopped in, steering while Hutto pushed the car away from the deer and onto the road’s shoulder.
As Hutto and Mary Frances walked back down the man’s driveway, they saw him walk outside, a fresh drink in one hand, a cordless phone in the other. The three met next to the man’s car. The man placed his drink on the hood and handed Hutto the keys while he looked him in the face.
“You sure you don’t mind calling the cops for us about the deer?” Hutto asked.
“No … I don’t mind,” the man replied, handing Hutto the keys.
Hutto shook the man’s hand and walked to the driver’s side. Before Mary Frances opened her door, the man extended his hand to her.
“You named her yet?” the man said.
Mary Frances squinted back at the man, offering her hand. “Well, we don’t even know what it is yet, to be honest,” she said. He sipped from his drink and nodded slightly.
As the pair pulled out of the driveway, the tires kicked up clouds of orange dust that rose like smoke. The man shrank in the plume as the car reversed. He held the phone up to his ear as he disappeared in the dust.
Hutto put the car in gear once the tires touched asphalt. He opened the blinds of the AC and tried to place a few cigarettes in the open slits, but they were too wide to hold them, so instead he placed them in his shirt pocket. Mary Frances blindly searched through radio stations with one hand, using the other to search the glove compartment. Hutto watched the husk of his old car shrink in the rearview mirror. He reached for a cigarette as Mary Frances found a station. From his chest pocket he pulled the snapped cigarette that survived the wreck. “Goddammit,” he said under his breath. Mary Frances looked over and grabbed the bent cigarette. In a quick move, she snapped the cigarette in two, humming along to the crisp words of the radio.
“Nice man,” Mary Frances said, rolling her window down, tapping tobacco out the window. “Shame about his wife.”
“Yeah,” Hutto mumbled, watching her ham-fists twist the cigarette pieces into each other. She leaned over to Hutto and placed the fixed cigarette between his lips. He flicked his lighter, brought the flame to his face. He inhaled as deep as his chest would let him and held it.
Twenty miles later, the two pulled into Squeaky’s and Mary Frances hung a handicap tag she’d found in the glove compartment on the rearview mirror. They walked in and Mary Frances made her rounds while Hutto sat at the bar. After a few drinks, Mary Frances had won four rounds and lost one. Hutto sat and thought about the deer. He thought about the man standing at the end of his driveway, sweating in his suit, sipping his wet drink in the settling of the dust.
A sound grew behind Hutto and he turned to find a group of tanned and rode hard men gathering around Mary Frances. Hutto watched one of the guys squeeze the hard top of her right arm.
Hutto turned back to the bar and asked the bartender for an empty glass, the fanciest one they had. The bartender grabbed a highball glass that crowned the neck of a bourbon bottle and handed it to Hutto.
“Let me ask you something,” Hutto said to the bartender, holding the glass up to his face as he turned to watch Mary Frances. He twisted the glass like a kaleidoscipe against his eye and watched the glow of the bar’s neon beer signs blur and spread through the thick bottom of the glass. “You believe in ghosts?”
The bartender watched the growing crowd gather around Mary Frances as she gripped palms with a scrawny man in a faded blue jean jacket. The bartender sighed, thought a bit about the question. “Naw. Way I see it, a ghost would just be a second chance. And, brother, I don’t much believe in those either.”
In his pants pocket, Hutto felt the pressure of the old man’s car keys dig into his thigh and he rubbed his palm over their outline, bringing the highball glass away from his eye. “Yeah. Well, I ‘spose maybe you’re right about that,” he said handing his glass to the bartender. Hutto closed his eyes as the bartender poured. Behind him, a glass fell and shattered on the floor. After the half second of silence that followed, a howling opened Hutto’s his eyes. He turned around.
Mary Frances stood bathed in humming neon, beating her chest like some wicked live-in now let loose.
Dylan Smeak is a Georgia native currently living in Brooklyn, New York, while he completes his MFA.