Red State Blues
by E.M. Schorb
Enola Gay opened the doors of the Battle Flag at nine, but now, near noon, I’m still perched on a cushioned stool in an empty roadhouse in a nowhere crossroads named Downy, outside Atlanta, waiting for a fat wallet to walk in. Enola’s left my Coors and me to dream while she counts cash or something down the other end of nowhere, and I dream of everything I had that mattered, make wishes on Battle Flag matches to get it all back, and blow them out.
I can see you, Maw-Maw, in a movie in my mind, waving two little stick flags on a Fourth of July, the Reb battle flag and the Stars-and-Stripes-Forever, your mouth stuffed with barbeque and slaw, beer suds on your nose, your round face flushed and happy, your white hair wavy as the snow on the ski-slope at Sky Valley where David took me and little Lee the winter before to teach us how to ski. Sometimes with my time-warp Star Trek X-ray vision I can see you when I wasn’t there at all, taking a piss, sitting in that hot port-a-potty at the carnival that set up in that field of Queen-Anne’s Lace and sneeze-making ragweed outside Downy last summer, white as blackboard chalk, but scarce able to sweat even in that boxed-in heat and with one evil fly buzzed down and landed on your pink putty nose which kids used to point at when you were younger and it was that port-a-potty like the Orgone Box cure-all I saw a picture of in my psych textbook when I still had educational ambitions, see you as if the door stood open, but the waiting crowd could only see it shut too long. Hodgkin’s or loss of life force finally killed your body, if not your unkillable spirit of troublesome fun. That lives on in my heart. You were boozing with Bubba, Uncle Bubba, and he was blamed, unfairly, for once, and driven from the pack, eventually, sick of hearing how he took you out and killed you in the most embarrassing public way possible.
But somebody would have surrendered to your wish. It was your life’s blood, the spirit of it, the laughing in the juke joints and calling young studs “sonny boy,” the Nascar video games, the mechanical bulls, the pool tables, the pickled eggs, pale in their jars of anemic beet blood—two of them and a beer made my birthday breakfast this morning—the honky-tonk jukeboxes banging out country music, and all the rest of that laughing life before death.
Hey, Uncle Bubba, how many banks have you robbed? Maw-maw told me once that you’d wasted most of your life behind bars, but the family always stuck by you, leastways until you took your sweet sister out that night to die. Shit, I might as well be with you, wherever you are, as here in the same town with them sin-spitting Bible-thumpers who started driving me out at fifteen, when I had little Lee by someone I couldn’t name for shame, just the way they Bible-thumped Mama out when she popped me, and she’s as gone as you are, Uncle Bubba, leaving me for Maw-Maw to defend, me some kind of bastard halfbreed bitch Mama got from one of her Cherokee boyfriends she liked to run with up in the Smokies, a bastard and breed bitch left for Maw-Maw, who done her duty, then Mama’s too.
“It’s a bitch!” I tell Enola Gay, when she comes my way, about today, tomorrow, and yesterday—about anytime since God’s marble blew up.
“Girl, you got Red State Blues,” says Enola Gay. But what I got now is a coziness around me, like an Indian blanket, not the heat, just that sweet beer safety. Fact is, it’s getting kind of hot in here, with the sun climbing. Enola plugs in the juke box and it lights up like Christmas. That’s cool! I go over and slug it and come back to listen. It’s Patsy Cline—“I Fall to Pieces.” I look in the mirror and see a cowgirl sip at a Coors behind a cancer-stick cloud. That’s me. That is I. See? The little whore knows better. She’s not just trailer trash. She’s been to community college. Thought I’d become a teacher or maybe a nurse, do some good in this good-for-nothing world. If it weren’t for Lee, having to feed Lee after Maw-Maw got her Hodgkin’s and anyway got too old to care for the sweet little brat, maybe I’d be saving lives instead of infecting them.
After I did David he came back like a persistent beau, and even brought me candy and flowers, Whitman’s and roses, and I began to forget that he was a trick and we began to talk because he was a teacher and I still had some of my ambition for learning, and he had this nice patient nature, too, not like the slope-headed, hairy-assed truckers and rednecks and servicemen who come in here looking for sex and trouble. You could ask Enola Gay if David wasn’t a gentleman and a kind of poet with his song lyrics he wrote himself and some of them were about me, too—eventually.
I’m gonna have another cold Coors.
It’s summer out there, and none too cool in here, but shady dark toward the back, where I am, sunny toward the door, with a big splash of sun wavering on the floor like gold water on the yellow wood. The Battle Flag’s got a good dance floor, big enough for shagging, or even line dancing. I just told Enola if she don’t turn up the air-conditioning, I’m taking my beer back into the fridge.
Thinking back, I suppose the best thing was that David liked Lee, showed him magic tricks with cards and chemistry—he taught chemistry—and I stopped turning my own tricks, and signed up for courses, and we began to make a family. David always had money, an “ample sufficiency,” he’d say, but that was what worried me, because he wasn’t teaching; he’d just go off and never say where, what he was doing, and come back and be good as gold to us, and I would tell Enola Gay, who had troubles of her own. I could tell Enola Gay that I was in love, but, black-eyed, she’d only laugh, or, maybe worse, try to wink that black eye.
Then one day David and Lee took off and never came back. David’s meth lab, that he kept secret from me, blew up. I had to go to the Sheriff to find out, nobody came to me. David’s dead and Lee’s dead, too, gone with him to pieces. Every blessed thing I care about is gone, like with the wind. All this shit happened before I was twenty-one, which is to say, that is the yesterday I’ve got to celebrate today. Today! Today’s my birthday, but I got nobody to spend it with. Well, maybe not! Here comes somebody walking on water.
E.M. Schorb is a poet and novelist. His work has appeared in 5 AM, Rattle, Quick Fiction, The Haight Ashbury Literary Review, Best American Fantasy, and Camera Obscura (where the above piece originally appeared), among many others. His first novel, Paradise Square, was the winner of the International eBook Award Foundation’s grand prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2000, and later, A Portable Chaos won the Writers Notes Magazine Book Award for Fiction in 2004. His most recent novel, Fortune Island, was published last year. See more of his work at www.emschorb.com