The South |


by Jared Yates Sexton

Faye and me were really up a creek. The rent was due and collection companies were ringing the phone every couple of minutes. My problems all stemmed from my second divorce and the child support I couldn't afford in the first place. Credit cards were the source of Faye's. She liked to shop a little too much and it'd caught up with her. So we did what we had to do. We pooled what money we had and Faye maxed out her last two cards. We loaded her wardrobe into the car and took off with no real direction.

For two days we just drove around pretending to be outlaws. I handled the wheel and Faye the map. She got into the habit, between painting and repainting her nails, of reading off names of all these small towns we could settle down in.

Harpersburg, she'd say. Maybe Murfreesboro. You know how I love Tennessee.

Didn't know she loved Tennessee. We'd only been together a few months and I didn't know much about her at all, but she was always assuming I knew this thing or that. She was a helluva good looking woman though, so I played along most times.

Tennessee's just about your favorite, I said.

Hell yes, she said, shifting up on her knees in the passenger seat. Lakes and mountains. Countryside. She squealed and stretched, her white tank top lifting up and over her flat stomach, revealing the once-hot pink now faded to fuchsia, butterfly tattoo on her hip.

Hey Butterfly, I said to her.

Hey Sugar-pie, she said to me.

You wanna settle down in Tennessee?

You mean it? she said, clapping. You'd live there?

Wherever you want, I said. I reached over and put my hand on the fat of her thigh.

That's what I want, she said.

Afterwards we stopped at a liquor store down the road and bought the cheapest six-packs they had. We were in a small town on the back roads of Indiana, and when I asked the kid working the register how to get to Tennessee he shrugged and said, Drive south.

Back in the car we popped open a couple beers and toasted our new lives. Faye said she wanted to maybe start singing when we got established.

You know how I always wanted to be a country singer, she said. Like Loretta Lynn.

Sure, I said, though I hadn't known that either.

People always said I had a voice just about as good as hers, she said, and then she started singing Loretta's songs.

I settled in with my beer, keeping eye for cops, and listened as she got to belting out Don't Come Home A'Drinkin'. Faye didn't have the best voice I'd ever heard, that was for sure, it was pitchy and she liked to warble on, but I could tell she was putting every last bit of herself into that song and I couldn't help but smile.

That sure was pretty, I said when she was done.

Really? she said. You really think so?

Just about the best I ever heard.

Oh honey, she said, leaning over and wrapping her arms around my neck. She gave my cheek a big, wet kiss. She said, What do you wanna do down in Tennessee?

I don't know, I said, pausing for a drink. Might be a coal miner.

Uh huh, she said. Sure.

I mean it, I said with a wink. You or Loretta know anything about that kind of life?

Faye giggled and started in on Coal Miner's Daughter. I was happy that she got to singing because the last thing I wanted to do was talk about the future. Things had been so awful, what with my ex-wife being a monster and all of Faye's bills, that I didn't know for shit what I wanted after the smoke cleared. Didn't even know if I wanted to keep on with Faye, to be honest.

See, Faye was an absolute saint of a woman. Kind, funny, understanding to a fault, but she was young, eight years my junior, and she lacked a certain seriousness about her. Everything to her was solvable, temporary, and the gravity of our situation - how much we'd fucked things up, how much we owed, and what a general shit-storm we were in -  didn't seem to bother her for a second. Being with her then was like looking down one day and realizing you were sporting a fancy convertible when what you needed was a four-door sedan.

Well, that's what I was thinking about when we pulled into a motel off the road. It was a small, six room place with a dried-up pool and a rusted sign that just said MOTEL. The doors were all aqua blue and so was the trimming. There wasn't another car in the lot. I got out and walked over to the office where, at the desk, was this sad looking guy with a half-grown-in beard. Across one of his cheeks was this big, purple birthmark.

Hot one out there, I said, filling out a form.

You ain't kiddin', he said. Been burnin' up all week.

Ain't that the truth, I said. Say, pretty slow around here.

Always is, he said, reaching under the counter and pulling out a beer. Don't get much business.

I said, You own this place?

Sure do, he said. Well, it was my mom's and when she passed I took over.

How long's that been? I said.

Seven years now, he said. Bout that.

Huh, I said.

It ain't too bad, he said. Hardly anybody comes through and I just stay over here in Six. He sipped his beer then and shook his head. Don't worry though. I got you two in One, so I won't be in your hair at all.

Well, I said, thank ya. We'll be out of your way tomorrow, or the day after at the latest.

Stay long as you like, he said. He had that beer to his lips but he wasn't drinking. I could see he was staring out the window at Faye, who was fanning herself by the car.  Ain't no hurry,  he said.

Faye and me got in our room and took turns in the shower. When I got out, and was toweling off, she was sitting there on the bed wearing this light blue bikini that was covered in black butterflies.

How about that?  I said.

I got it before we took off,  she said.  It was on-sale at the K-Mart and I figured, if I'm not gonna pay bills anymore, what it's gonna hurt?

Nothing, I said and lay down on the bed.  It's not gonna hurt nothing and it won't hurt nobody.

Well good, she said.  Glad you think so.

I do, I said.

The two of us tussled on the bed and then in the floor until the sun went down and night rolled in. When we were done Faye went straight to sleep, that blue bikini hanging from her like ropes, and that left me to sit there thinking over everything. I'd been tied down by work and Nat, my ex, for so long that I didn't quite know how to handle all the freedom I had all of a sudden. So I sat there dreaming places I could go, things I could do, until I'd had my fill and closed my eyes.


In the morning I opened them to find that Faye wasn't there. My first thought was that she'd skipped town and I was shocked by how relieved I felt. But then I got to worrying that something had happened, that maybe the owner had snatched her or something.

I threw on some clothes and opened the door, only to find him sitting in a lawn chair outside. He was drinking a beer and had a whole case's worth chilling in a cooler at his feet.

Mornin', he said.  You lookin' for Faye?

Yeah, I said, feeling uneasy hearing her name in his mouth.  Where'd she wonder off to?

Yonder, the owner said and pointed to a patch of trees across the road.  She's picking strawberries.

Strawberries?  I said.

Yeah, he said, have you a seat.  He pointed at an empty lawn chair and handed me a beer after I'd sat down.  We got to talkin' this mornin' and I told her there was a mess of wild strawberries over there.

Okay, I said, popping open my beer.  They safe to eat?

Hell yes, he said.  They're just strawberries.

We sat there drinking beer and watching a car go by every twenty minutes or so. It felt so lonesome there I could barely stand it.  Not trying to shit on your parade, I said, but do you ever get tired of living out in the middle of nowhere?

The owner nodded slowly, like it was a question he wondered himself.  It's slow as a motherfucker, he said.  Bout put you to sleep half the time.

No doubt, I said. I looked across the road, at that patch of trees, and thought I could see a glimpse of Faye out there.  Hey Butterfly, I yelled.

Hey Sugar-pie, she called back through the trees.

It's got its good parts though, the owner said.

Yeah?  I said.  What's that?

Bein' out here, he said, it’s freeing, I guess. All I got to do is sit on my ass and drink beer and wait.

There're worse jobs, I said.

I'll drink to that, he said and took a healthy swig. He got another beer out of the cooler and popped it open.  I mean, I get a ton of time to think and dick around. Most people can't say that.

No they can't, I said.

And, he said, I don't get many people here, but I get a few. Sometimes I get a newlywed couple out here and they lodge up a day or two.  

I looked at him and watched him drink his beer. Between the piss-poor beard he was sporting and that birthmark on his cheek I figured this here was a lonely man. So lonely that the thought of a couple kid, fresh off being hitched, coming in and screwing all over the face probably made him sad as hell.

I got a story for you, he said out of the blue.  Hey, first, what's your name?

White, I said.

Well, White, he said, my name's Barry. And this was probably a year ago. Last summer, anyway. This group of bikers rolled in one weekend. Must've been a dozen of 'em, all riding on these big, shiny bikes.

These weekend warriors or real, honest bikers?  I said.

Oh, Barry said, these were outlaws. The real deal. And I told 'em I didn't have enough rooms for all of 'em, and they just said one room would be fine.

All twelve in one room?  I said.

That's right, Barry said.  They were sleeping on the floor, in the closet, in the bathtub. Everywhere. But that's not my point.

What's the point?  I said.

Well, Barry said, they had this girl with 'em. Just one. She was maybe the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. Dark hair. Grey eyes. Walked around here in this long, white number, like a wedding dress.

She was a looker, huh?  I said.

Oh god, he said.  White, this woman was magical.  Barry lifted his beer and drank long and hard.  I couldn't hardly talk to her for how beautiful she was.

What happened to her?  I said.

I don't know, Barry said.  I try not to think about what happened in that room.

Good idea, I said, trying not to myself.

But that's not the point, he said.  Point is that it's lonely, but every now and then someone comes along and makes it all worth it.

Right then Faye climbed out of the patch of trees. She had on her bikini top and cut-offs and she was carrying a Wal-Mart bag full of strawberries.

You find a whole bunch?  I said.

We're gonna eat so good tonight, she said as she crossed the road.  I thought maybe I'd cut these up and that we could get some steaks in town. Thought we could really do it up.

That sounds about perfect, I said.

You're more'n welcome to join us, she said to Barry.

Nah, Barry said.  I got a microwave dinner with my name on it.

Come on, Faye said and sat the sack down by the cooler.  We insist, don't we?

She looked at me and then Barry looked at me too. I shrugged.  Yeah, I said.  We insist.

Well shit, Barry said with a smile.  That's mighty kind of you.

The rest of the day I sat in that lawn chair next to Barry and me and him and Faye shot the shit and drank beer. She was telling him about her favorite places to shop and where she grew up and how she never really felt good before I came along.

I was seeing this piece of shit named Todd, she told him.  And Todd was mean as a striped-snake. Use to get liquored up and throw me around. Threatened to kill me on more than a few occasions.

That is a shame, Barry said. He was really focused on everything Faye was saying, almost like he couldn't look away.  I tell you, he said, some people don't know what they have.

No they don't, Faye said.  And you know I can't stand that.

I do, Barry said.

And White here, she said, he knew Todd from a ways back. Use to play cards, didn't you hon?

We did, I said.

That's right, she said.  And he was over there one night playing cards and he caught Todd pulling me round by the hair. Didn't you?  I nodded. She said, Tell him what you did.

I laid him out, I said.

You sure as shit did, she said.

Thatta boy, Barry said without taking his eyes off Faye.

And what'd you say to me?  she said.

I said, Let's get out of here.

She said, That’s right. Let's get out of here. And we did.  She leaned down and gave me a kiss on the lips.  We been together ever since.

That's the long and short of it, I said.

Which was true, but not true at all. I didn't want to get into the specifics of things. I didn't want to spoil the party by finally coming clean with Faye and letting her know that Todd, one of the worst gamblers in the history of cards, had bet her on a flush that didn't make. And I didn't want to tell her I laid him out after he welched on that bet and lost his damn mind. Didn't seem like something I really needed to get into, particularly after I'd really taken a shine to her.

It wasn't like I'd planned the whole thing turning out the way it did. When Todd put her on the line, to cover a thirty-dollar bet no less, I thought maybe I'd get a night's worth out of her and bring her back the next day. But when we got in my car, after I'd put him on his ass, she reached across the console and stroked my hand. Then she held it and started smiling like she'd never been happier before.

They fit, she said to me and looked at our knotted fingers.  I been looking a long time for something that fits.

I was running that over in my head while she talked to Barry, telling him every little story from every little day we'd spend together, and I think Barry would've sat there listening to Faye for as long as she would've talked, but the morning crawled into afternoon and we all got hungry. Finally we decided to go with Faye's plan and eat those strawberries and grill up some steak. Faye borrowed my knife and got to work on those strawberries while Barry and me got in my car and drove to the IGA in town to get steaks and some more beer.

 I didn't have hardly a dime to my name so Barry bought a half-dozen T-bones from the butcher and I sprung for half of another case of beer. It had the makings of a fine night, all things considered, but as we were walking across the parking lot Barry nudged me with his elbow and said,  Hey, that pretty girl of yours have a sister?

What's that?  I said. I was opening my trunk and putting the beer in.

Faye, he said.  She's just about the prettiest girl ever.

Prettier than that girl with the bikers?  I said, getting behind the wheel.

Oh, he said, it’s not even a contest. Not meaning to step on your toes, White, just lettin' you know you got somethin' magical ridin' round with you.

I appreciate that, I said.  Really do.

I didn't though. There ain't no way to appreciate some complete stranger praising your girl or making comments like that. I mean, I'd seen the way he'd been watching her, how he hung on her every word, and right then my defenses kicked in and I was ready to leave by the time we pulled back in at the motel.

Faye had a spread set up though. She'd pulled a table out of our room and covered it with a towel, a makeshift tablecloth, and had paper plates and plastic forks and spoons put out. The ice bucket held the strawberries, which she'd sprinkled sugar over.

Look at this, Barry said, loading the cooler with the beer we'd bought.

Yeah, I said.  Look at this.

Figure we could use a celebration, Faye said.  New lives, new friends.

New lives, Barry repeated.  New friends.

Barry got a small charcoal grill out of a shed behind the motel and we got some coals firing and before too long we were drinking beers and cooking those steaks. Everyone seemed to be having a hell of a good time. Faye kept telling her stories and Barry kept listening and I kept my distance for the most part. What he'd said to me had put me on edge and I didn't want to get too chummy in case I had to whip his ass and make a run for it.

How's that cow?  he said from the table. Him and Faye were between stories while I cooked.

Just about done, I said, grabbing a plate and popping down one of those steaks.

We sat down, the three of us, and tried damn hard to cut the meat with those plastic knives and forks. It got to be a pretty big joke, how useless they were, and Faye kept saying it was just about the most appropriate thing ever, three full-time losers sitting down to such a fine meal and not having anything to get the job done. Even though I was on alert I thought that was pretty funny, so I laughed and felt somewhat better.

Here, I said, getting my knife out again.  Pass her around.

That steak, once we got it carved down to size, was delicious. The strawberries were delicious too, sweet and juicy, and we all had more than our fill and had to sit back with our bellies hanging out. We were smiling and not talking much because we were too full to do much of anything. I looked over at Faye and she looked just like Barry had said, like the prettiest girl who ever came around. I appreciated her then, what I'd had, and I wanted to let her know.

Hey, I said, nudging her with my foot.  Tell Barry here what you're wanting to do when you get down to Tennessee.

Oh, she said, he doesn't want to hear that.

Sure I do, Barry said and sat straight up.

Really?  she said.

Really, he said.  Really really.

Just tell him, I said.  He really wants to know.

Well, she said, if I'm going to be honest, I want to be a singer.

Like Loretta Lynn?  he said.

Faye's face lit up like a light bulb.  Just like Loretta Lynn, she said.

She was my mom's favorite, Barry said.  Hold on a sec.

He rushed off and disappeared into his office. The sun was low in the sky and shadows were starting to crawl across the parking lot. Faye drunkenly got out of her lawn chair and came over to me and leaned down. She gave me a weak kiss and struggled to keep her eyes open.  You having a good time?  she said.

Sure, I said.

Barry's a heckuva guy, right?  she said.

Heckuva guy,  I said.

What's wrong?  she said.

Nothing,  I said. I took her hand in mine, like she had done that night I won her from Todd.  Nothing at all.

I mean it,  she said, looking scared.  What's wrong?

Nothing,  I said.  I mean it, nothing is wrong.

Is this strange?  she said.  This whole thing?

I thought about that question. I could've said yes, I could've blown the lid off the whole situation, but I looked at her, sweet, sweet Faye, my Butterfly, and I shook my head.  Not strange at all,  I said.

Okay,  she said.  If you want to leave tomorrow, I'm fine with that.

Maybe,  I said.  We'll see.

Barry hurried back to us with an armful of records. He put them on the table and we could see, in the dim light, that they were all kinds of Loretta Lynn albums. Seemed like he had every one she'd ever put out.

I told you,  he said.  Mom loved her some Loretta. We used to sit in that office and listen to her all day.

You got a record player in there?  Faye said.

We did,  Barry said.  I haven't played it in ages though. Haven't had a reason to, so I don't know if it even works anymore.

Faye looked in the direction of the office and got this look like she was thinking something over.  You got any extension cords?

Tons,  Barry said.  We got too many extension cords.

Go get 'em,  she said.  I got an idea.

Barry took off again, this time toward the shed, and Faye went to the office and came out carrying that record player Barry'd been talking about. It was a big unit, but small enough that Faye could bring it with her back to the table. I cleared off the plates and the ice bucket and made room.

Figured we could use some tunes,  she said.

Just what we needed,  I said.

Hey,  she said to me. She leaned in and gave me another kiss.  How you doing, Sugar-pie?

Doing great, Butterfly,  I said.

Good,  she said.

A few minutes later Barry came back with a cluster of extension cords. He handed them to Faye, who snaked them back to our room and plugged them into the outlet that'd powered our TV. That record player popped on, the face of it coming alive and flashing the time. It blinked all zeroes until Barry punched a couple buttons and then opened the top. He got to spinning one of those records and Loretta Lynn burst through the speakers.

Hot damn,  Barry said, smiling.

That's just what we needed,  Faye said and gave me a wink.

That's right,  I said.

Her and Barry sat in the lawn chairs and drank more beer and sang every word of every song. When it came time to flip the record Barry flipped it and they sang every song on that side. When that record ran out, Barry got another from the pile and they sang every word on that one. Then Barry stopped. He wasn't singing anymore. This was on the third record maybe. He was too busy listening to Faye at that point.

This one's got talent,  he said to me.  Am I right?

You are right,  I said. I was on my last beer.  Real talent,  I said.

She's gonna make it, by god,  Barry said.

She is,  I said.

They finished that record and, like clockwork, Barry got the next album off the pile and put it on. The needle dropped and Faye didn't miss a beat. Her and Loretta were singing together, to be sure, and they were making beautiful music. I lasted as long as I could. I finished my beer and felt a full-day's worth slogging around in my head. I was tired from all the driving, all the sun, all the booze, and I told the two of them that I needed to take a quick siesta. Barry told me to stick around, and Faye said she didn't want me to leave, but I just shook his hand and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

You keep having yourselves a time,  I said, walking toward our room.  Don't mind me a bit.

I got in bed and pulled the sheets over my head. That didn't block them out though, I could still hear Faye and Loretta singing and Barry clapping and going on about how good it all sounded. Somewhere in the middle of the night, maybe five more albums into the stack, I finally drifted off and got some rest.

That next morning I got up and threw my clothes back on. I planned on leaving one way or another so I packed up my bag and combed my hair in the mirror. I brushed my teeth and patted myself down with some soap and water. Outside Faye and Barry were passed out in those lawn chairs. The record player, still being plugged in, hummed in the still summer air. I could see, from the doorway, that Faye's hand, the one that had crossed my console, the one that had taken my hand, was in the palm of Barry's. He was smiling in his sleep and so was she. His birthmark glowed a little and so did her butterfly.

I didn't bother waking them. I got in my car and put it in neutral so it would roll out into the road. There wasn’t any reason to start the engine or make any noise. When you play cards long enough you learn the deal. You got to figure out what is what in a situation like that and be honest with yourself. You got to put away your pride and recognize when the fella sitting across from you is holding the better hand. You got to learn when to fold.