I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to know how, but on the first night Hannah Holiday and I spent alone together, she told me how she hit that boy with a shovel, as casually as if she were talking about last night’s dreams. To hear her tell it, the kid had had it coming for a long, long, long time. He was begging for it, practically on his knees praying for a right-thinking adult to pound some sense into him. No one liked that boy. He swore and spat at women, gave the finger to cars, and pushed little kids around, even ones as young as her daughter Abby had been, and she was just barely out of diapers at the time. Clearly, he took after his jailbird father the car thief even more than his half-mad junkie mother. Besides, the boy was so goddamn filthy that anyone could see the lice treating his upper body like a playground, leaping from his curls to his ear to the collar of that brown and yellow striped shirt he wore every single day of his life like he was some ragamuffin Charlie Brown, and she wouldn’t normally let him around her daughter if he was offering candy and flowers, because she didn’t want her to catch Ebola or some such thing. When that boy shoved her daughter down and stood over her laughing, Hannah Holiday simply did what any normal parent would do and went to scare the kid. If she aimed to hurt him, then this world would be one delinquent lighter, she can guarantee you that, because she would have cocked that shovel back and treated that boy’s head like a tee-ball, and you better believe there’d be lot of homeless lice in Hazard, Kentucky. As it was, she barely tapped the boy, but had to take him to the doctor’s on account of his bleeding. She drove him to the hospital herself, because she didn’t want any real harm to come to the boy. And if it’d really been so bad, why didn’t they charge her with anything? You can’t just go smacking kids who don’t deserve it with a shovel and not get charged for it, now can you? That right there shows a lot of what they say about her was garbage.
I listened to that whole story—and she told it several times that summer, never once showing a hint of embarrassment—biting hard on my lower lip, counting each unbearable second until it was finished. I’ll never know what it is to be a mother, so maybe I’m out of my emotional league, but that story, chockfull of every justification and excuse in the language, sounded worse than just wrongheaded or naïve; it sounded like a lie.
Thank God she didn’t tell it to me until after I’d heard her sing, or else I may have tried to avoid her all summer. Once I heard her sing the blues, then she could tell me anything she wanted, and I’d at least try to believe it. I wanted to believe a voice like that was incapable of lying, of whining, of anything except the highest order of truth.
Right after high school, the first time I ditched Hazard, Kentucky, I was positive that no matter what potholes I stepped in along the way, at least the women would be better. How could they not be? Whenever I thought of Hazard women, my mind formed a ghoulish collage of pants-suits, foot high hair, and unnatural tans. Those pinched, wavering voices that sounded like old men singing falsetto, those houses that smelled like pork and baked beans and air-freshener—I wanted whatever was least like that.
At first glance, Hannah Holiday was everything I hated about Hazard wrapped up in olive-colored, nicotine-stained skin. Yes, her long curls went down instead of up, but she seemed so happy here. I always assumed any woman I tried sinking my claws into would regard her hometown as a necessary evil: a heart murmur the doctor straightens out before handing you your Indian Ocean-sized chunk of the world. But Hannah, more talented and sharp-minded than a twelve pack of me, didn’t have the same wanderlust. Not long ago, contentment was the least forgivable sin a woman could commit as far as I was concerned. Happiness without the need to ramble meant the end of youth, and that meant you might as well start decomposing. She was older, and by nature immune to guilt, so she had no interest in questioning her own good spirits. All it took was an evening or two with my arm wrapped around the small of her back to come around to her point of view. Anger has its charms, but there are other, better poses for young men to strike.
On our first date, I showed up at Holidays, her uncle’s bar, and watched her and my father trade off songs from their tiny stage in the corner. My father was generally acknowledged to be the best hillbilly singer in the county, and Hannah was his protégé. I didn’t realize it was a date until I sat down in the front row and saw my father, the conductor, standing behind her with his Cheshire grin. Before every romantic song, he nodded at her, and she’d giggle and walk to the microphone. “This one’s for you Jesse,” she’d say. “Welcome home.”
It was embarrassing at first, like my father had bought me a very public lapdance. I tried to catch his eye and warn him off of it, but he just looked at me and laughed, like I was a boy in short pants who didn’t want to have his picture taken. I considered leaving, but that’d mean at least a week-long cold shoulder from my family, and, anyway, I did like the music. After a few strong bourbons—they don’t charge my father when he sings, and that benefit was extended to his lineage—the sideshow dropped away, and I got lost in the songs, almost addicted to them. They were the same hillbilly and Irish standards I’d heard pumping through the house as a kid, but every now and then, Hannah could take over and sing, ‘Pack up all my cares and woes, here I go, singing low,’ and it sounded perfectly in place, like it came from the same imaginative wellspring. Her voice was thicker, pulpier than my fathers, better suited to blues, but she could thin it out and harmonize with him, whenever he needed someone to hit the high notes.
After the set, when she talked to me, I listened hard, seeing if her speaking voice showed any hints of what her singing voice could do. “Where’s your daughter at tonight?” “What’s that one song you played with the ghost in it?” “You think it’s going to rain tomorrow?” Each question was meant to illicit some new sound in her answer, either shocked or bored or intrigued, that could show me just where in her throat she kept that particular voice. I got so caught up in my experiment, I kept losing the thread of our conversation, but she didn’t seem to care. We both stood to leave, and I put my arm around her and pulled her beside me. I could barely believe my boldness, and I couldn’t even blame the bourbon. On some lower level, I was taking the cue from my father, and Hannah, suspecting I might be, went along with it.
We began meeting most nights when she could pawn Abby off on her mother. Usually, we just walked around the parks and open spaces—me, making an occasional awkward swipe at her hand, and her, holding back giggles. She could handle long stretches of silence better than I could, so oftentimes we just kept mum until I snapped, and blurted out something obvious about the weather or the President just to hear a voice of some kind. She’d look at me, nod my words away, and go back to staring out at the horizon line. It wasn’t boredom that kept her quiet. She was fine out here, barefoot in the grass, rolling her head back and forth to her own arrhythmic tune, and if I wanted to hold her hand and talk to myself, she wouldn’t stop me. I was the racing stripe across her convertible, happy to be along for the ride.
Once, we walked past the blue concrete basketball courts where I used to play before they let me into the gym. I’d played three years for the high school team, and even though I’d never mentioned that to Hannah, I’m sure my father had. We stopped to watch a beefy white guy with a shaved head shooting foul shots with one hand. He had an ugly, crooked shot that he fired from the back of his head, but it went in four times out of five.
Hannah put her hand across my lower neck. “Are you still good?”
“Not as good,” I said. “Since I left Kentucky, my friends don’t really play as much.”
“Can you beat him?”
I wiped the sweat off my forehead and stuck my fingers through the chain link fence. Unlike me, he was dressed for basketball, and that shot somehow kept finding the net. But I knew how she meant me to answer her question. “Of course,” I said. “Easy.”
We hadn’t played three points before I figured him out. He was fast, but not quick, and he preferred swiping at the ball to staying in front of me. I crossed him over twice in a row, but he didn’t wise up, still going for the steal whenever I let a dribble bounce up near my waist.
On game point, I backed in on him. I tried playing possum, dribbling high and on my side, but for once, he didn’t bite. “Shoot it,” he whispered. He was panting, and I could feel his hot breath blow out in spurts all over the back of my neck. “If you can shoot, shoot it. I’ll give it to you.”
I spun and tried to drive around him, but he guessed where I was going. We ran to the lane, side by side, and jumped up together. For once, he played me just right, but by luck, I tossed the ball just over his hands and onto the back of the rim, where it bounced twice, before finally falling through.
I wanted to pump my fist, and scream, but I knew Hannah was watching, so I just shook the guy’s hand and bent forward with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. Hannah walked up next to me and took me by the arm. “Can you dunk?”
I leaned back and took a deep breath. “I used to be able to.” That wasn’t true, but I could grab the rim. “I probably still could, but I’m not sure.” I stood at the foul line, bouncing the ball and staring at the basket on the other side of the court. Even if I couldn’t grab the rim, I could probably get the upper nets, and climb up, before she noticed the difference. The one-on-one game had gotten the blood flowing back in my tendons and nerves, and for once I felt in control of myself around Hannah. I wasn’t ready to let that go before I understood it.
I took off from a sprinting position and headed for the far basket. When I crossed the half-court line, I was almost certain I could do it. My body, from the ankles up, felt light and springy, and I imagined myself sailing to the hoop, and wrapping my fingers around the iron of the rim. When I got to the top of the key, I scooped the ball up high, aiming for the top left corner of the square in the backboard. It felt so natural leaving my hand that I barely registered the sight of the ball smacking against the front of the rim and shooting back at my face. I threw my hands up, but not quick enough to catch it. Instead, it smashed against my fingertips, jamming my right ring finger and ruining my jump. I lurched forward, tripped over my own heel, and fell, forehead first, against the iron pole.
I didn’t black out. At first, I thought I might have, because I couldn’t see except for big unfocused blocks of light and color, but I knew that so long as I was thinking about it, I couldn’t be asleep. I could still hear all right, although the noises—mostly, stomping, hurried footsteps—sounded muffled and far away, even as they got louder.
The man I’d just beaten came running up to me. “You okay, buddy?” He squatted down and put a trembling hand on my chest. “I think he’s all right.”
My vision had sharpened and I saw Hannah rush up behind him. “Shit,” she said. “He’s bleeding.” She took a purple bandanna out of her purse, and wiped it across my forehead. When she took it back, I saw it was splotched with dark red. “Can we get him in your car?” she asked the man. “My mom lives just down the street.”
I’m fine, I wanted to say. Just let me rest for a little, and I’ll be fine. But, just like in a dream, my mouth wouldn’t move in my own defense, and so I just lay as flat as I could, watching the two of them lift me in the air. The man stayed behind me, and kept his arms wrapped around my chest, while Hannah squeezed each of my legs, right above the knee, as tight as two tourniquets. I tried forgetting about the man, and pretending it was only Hannah, lifting me as easily as if I were a boy. I wondered how close it was to what Sean Kimble must’ve felt in the moments after the beating—staring up at this almond-eyed blonde who’d made us bleed, and now, three times our size, was rushing us to safety.
Hannah stayed in the backseat of the man’s Accord with me. I could find my voice at this point, but I didn’t want to talk. She pressed both hands flat against my sternum, and drummed her fingers against each side of my ribcage. “The third house past the light,” she said. “With the dogwood in front.” Her voice was calmer now, or at least, with my head clearer, I heard the calmness under the high, nervous titters she ended each sentence with. Half-asleep, with blood gushing out of my head, and still all I could think about were the acrobatics that woman could do with her voice.
We parked at the curb, and I got out of the car on my own power. Hannah ran inside, and I took a step to follow her, but stopped short. The man offered to help carry me up the porch stairs, but I waved him away. “I can make it.” This was my first full sentence, and I was shocked to hear how froggish I sounded. I didn’t want to keep talking, so I just turned and tried to walk up the stairs. Before I’d taken the first step I saw the man lunge at me. I thought he was attacking me, except then, with all the grace he lacked on the court, he squatted down, and with one fluid motion, caught me by the shoulders and set me back upright again. I’d been falling without even realizing it.
The man carried me onto the porch and sat me down in a white wicker chair. It occurred to me I should ask his name, but I didn’t want to hear my voice come creaking out of my throat again. Also, I was feeling a growing anxiety towards this man that bordered on dislike. With his calm demeanor and thick forearms, I couldn’t help but think he was the better match for Hannah than the scarecrow they’d taken into their care. Maybe it was uncharitable, but I felt relieved when he waved goodbye and walked back to his car.
From behind me, I heard a screen door creak open. A woman with orange-tinted gray hair walked up to me, put my face in her hands, and tilted my head so she could see my wound. “Dear God, son,” she said. “You smacked yourself real good.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Real, real good.”
She put her oversized glasses up on her forehead, and squinted at me. For a second, I thought I should meet her gaze and smile, but then I realized the gesture would’ve been wasted on her. She wasn’t looking at my eyes, but an inch north, with laser-like focus, at my injury. “I can stitch you up,” she said. “If you want to go to a hospital, that’s all right too, but I can stitch you up just as good.” She stood up straight and looked behind me at the door. “Hannah, go get him a drink.”
“Mom,” she said. “This isn’t the old west. If you don’t have anesthetic, just tell him. He’ll understand.”
“He’s a guest,” she said. “Go get it for him, and get the first-aid kit too.”
Hannah’s mother, I thought. I knew we were going to her house, but I’d somehow resisted believing this woman was the Holiday matriarch. She was older than I expected; almost as old as my grandmother the last time I’d seen her. Smaller, too—with less power in her frame and a thinner voice. Did she know about me, either from my father or from Hannah, or was I just another boy in her care?
“Do you smoke?” she said.
I nodded. “You want one?”
“I can’t smoke no more,” she said. “Hannah’ll rip my head off. But you have yourself one and blow it on me. I can smoke that way, and she won’t care.”
I took a cigarette out of my squashed pack, and straightened it the best I could. The first puff tasted too thick, almost like a cigar, but I held it in my mouth for as long as I could stand it, and blew it up at her nose.
She closed her eyes and jutted her lower lip forward so she could taste the smoke. “Thanks, Hon,” she said. “Hannah won’t barely do that for me no more.”
The more I stared at her, the younger she looked. The lines on her face were thick and yellow, like generations worth of smoke had been caught in those creases. Between the wrinkles, her face was smooth and tight, almost colorful, as if she’d been cobbled together, using a young woman’s skin on an old, folded face.
Hannah came back onto the porch with a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a coffee cup full of ice. “Are you smoking on her?” she said. “Smoke one of mine. They’re Lights.”
“Did you get the kit?” her mother asked.
Hannah laid the cup and bottle on a plastic table and then pulled what looked to be a small, white lunchbox out of her purse. “Will it scar?”
Her mother shrugged and turned to me. She put my head between her hands again and looked at me with such concentration that her tongue peaked out from the side of her mouth.
“Mrs. Holiday,” I said. My voice sounded strong again, but distant, like it belonged to someone else. “I just want to thank you for doing all this.” It was hard to talk with my mouth squeezed between her hands like this, but even harder to look at her and say nothing, so I kept going. “I mean, you didn’t have to, and I just wanted you to know I appreciate it.”
She pulled out a dark red rag from her box, and patted my forehead, around the gash. “Not as bad as I thought. You might could just get it taped, but I worry it’d scar. Stitching it is safer, but if you just want it taped, we can do that instead.”
“Don’t worry, Jesse,” Hannah said. “She’s fixed up a lot worse than you got. Done it right here on this porch.”
Her mother cracked a wide open grin that showed her side teeth. “The secret’s that you start in the middle,” she said. “Not really a secret, I guess. That’s the first thing they tell you, but people think it’s like fixing a hem.” She dipped a cotton swab into a white milky lotion. “This is going to sting now, but don’t worry.”
It did sting. It stung like hell, but I just kept an eye fixed on the bourbon bottle and promised myself that if I could get through this without flinching then I’d drink it until my eyes closed from exhaustion.
“Tell him about the man,” Hannah said. “He ought to hear that one now.”
“Smoke another cigarette,” she said. I didn’t know if she was talking to Hannah or me, but I dutifully lit another and blew the smoke at her face. She poured a cup of bourbon and took the first sip. “It’ll probably hurt some, but just drink on this and don’t move.” She put the cup on the table next to me, and pulled out a needle with a tail of black thread hanging off the back. “Back when Hannah was no older than Abby is now, we had a wood fence around this yard, maybe six foot high. From where we’re sitting now, you could still see some of the street, but out in the yard you couldn’t see nothing but that fence and the sky. Hannah was playing on this old tin rocking-horse out in the front, and I’s out here stringing beans, keeping an eye on her. All the sudden, I hear this thump, and I look up toward the fence and see these two hands on top of it.”
She jabbed the needle into my skin and pulled it through to the other side. It didn’t hurt nearly as bad as the disinfectant had, and, compared to the original injury, actually felt good. I took a pull of bourbon and settled into my chair.
“My first thought was to scream and scream, and I’d likely have done it, except I knew it’d set Hannah off and anyway, it might’ve just been kids. Except, the more I look at these hands, I know it’s not just kids because how’s a kid going to jump up that high, and, anyway, these belong to a man. They weren’t hairy, but they were hard. I could see that just in the back of the fingers. I call Hannah to come on up to the porch, but she’s not listening. So I put down my beans and ease across the yard, like I’m walking through a snake pit I’m going so carefully. I get right on up to these hands, not sure if I should poke at them to get them to let go, or if I should just scoop up Hannah, run back inside and lock the doors. Before I could decide, this little man in a gray suit flips over and lands on his back right up on the yard.”
She looked over her shoulder and saw Hannah, with her back to us, staring out at the yard. In a flash, she swiped the cigarette out of my hand, took a quick puff, and jammed it into the ashtray. Without changing her expression, she leaned in close to me so that the smoke from her mouth could pass as smoke from mine.
“This was a greasy man, with a little thin moustache, and he’s panting like a beagle, not saying nothing. I was too shocked to find my voice at first, so I grab Hannah, who’s still on that goddamn horse like nothing’s happened. She starts crying, which, in turn, gets me yelling like my lungs are on fire. I’m practically dragging her up by the hair, but then I look at the man. He’s still not talking, but he’s gesturing to me, trying to get me to stay quiet. Then he turns on his side and I see he’s bled through his shirt. I put Hannah back on that horse, and go to turn him on his side. It hurts him to move at all, but I can’t see what’s hurting him. Then when I get him on his side, I see he’s got one of those—.” She put her free hand to her forehead, and tried to think of the word. “Not a hatchet, but shaped like that. Chefs use it.”
“A cleaver,” Hannah said. She still looked interested, but I noticed a tinge of impatience in her voice. “You know what it’s called.”
“Yeah, a cleaver. He’s got a cleaver stuck in his side, right into his shirt. He must’ve got hit with his jacket off, because that’s not cut, only his shirt. I walk up to him, and rip that thing out of him, and you’d have thought I stuck it in him as bad as he’s hollering.” She caught her breath, and dabbed at my forehead with a white rag. “I ran inside to get something to clean him up, and only when I’m in the bedroom, trying to find some sort of clean sheet to rap around him do I realize I’ve left Hannah outside with the man. I grab the first thing I can, and run like hell back out to the yard, picturing him chopping up my little girl like she’s a Christian and he’s a lion.
“I get out there and he’s talking to Hannah as pretty as most grown-ups talk to little girls, saying, Honey, what’s your name and Ain’t you sweet like nothing’s the matter. Once he sees me, though, he remembers to panic. You want to smoke again?”
It took a second before I realized she’s talking to me. “Sure.” I lit one and took a deep puff. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I never asked.”
“Really?” I almost choked on the smoke in my lungs in surprise. “Why not?”
She turned back to Hannah and gave a low, raspy chuckle. “Of course, I asked. It was the first thing I did, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said he’s jumped by a couple of coons. Actually, he said niggers at first, but I told him not to say that in front of Hannah, so he says coons like it’s any better. I figure there’s no use lecturing a man who’s maybe taking his last breaths. So he goes on about these two coons who’re standing on the corner and figure he’s got money because of his suit. It doesn’t take too long to figure out he’s lying about something. Most of all, I see his wallet sticking out of his jacket pocket, and I’m just looking at it while he goes on about how they took his money, and sliced him up, but he’s able to run away. I say something along the lines of, ‘Fine, let’s just get you to the hospital.’ But he won’t hear of it. He starts going on about how he can’t go to the hospital, because those guys would be waiting for him, and they’re bound to finish him off. Two black guys waiting around Hazard Hospital for the guy they just robbed. I’m sure. But he won’t go, and I couldn’t put him in the car without him helping a little.”
“So what?” I said. “You just let him stay in your house?”
“God no,” she said. “I knew someone’s looking for him. Anyway, he’s not going to survive with just me. I had to get him to a hospital somewhere whether he wanted me to or not. I say, ‘Look, what if I take you someplace else. How about Jackson? Or are your coons going to be there too?’ He laughs, but he lets me wrap him up, and helps me walk him to the car. He lies in the back, and Hannah gets in the passenger side. Lord help me, but I remember thinking, He’s going to bleed on the seat. It won’t come out no matter how hard I scrub, and anybody who rides here’s going to be thinking of someone else’s blood. I may be a horrible person, but that’s what I thought.”
I recognized my cue. “You’re not horrible. I bet a lot of people think like that. They just don’t admit it.”
“You’re sweet to say it.” She patted me on the knee. “I swear to God and everyone, I never drove so fast in my life. I must’ve burnt a hole in the highway I’s going so fast. But the closer we got to Jackson, the more certain I am that he’s going to live. He must’ve felt it too, because he reaches into his pocket and hands me his wallet. A big overstuffed green thing, more full of scrap paper than cash. He says, ‘Take this. Either you’re going to take it or the doctors take it, and I want you to have it.’ I wanted it bad, but I knew I’m meant to say, ‘I can’t take your money,’ so that’s what I said. He says, ‘You ain’t taking it for nothing. You got to help me out.’ Then he makes his voice all hushed, and says, ‘Take the evidence and throw it away. Sink it in the river, or bury it. Just don’t let it get found.’ Right then, that very moment, I knew this was about a woman. Either she cut him or her man cut him, but it’s a woman he’s lying for. Later, well after we dropped him off, I looked in his wallet, and saw a small picture of her. At least I think it’s her. Fat and redheaded. Chinese eyes and big cheeks. Maybe could’ve turned a head or two, but not worth getting chopped up for.”
I took another sip of bourbon. “Did he make it?”
“I reckon he did. Back then, we’d have heard if a young man died, especially with the news going from hospital to hospital. But I tell you what. I took that sheet and that cleaver, and wrapped it up in another sheet and wrapped that sheet in another sheet yet. Then I tied it to a brick and sunk it in the Kentucky River, just like he asked me. Nicest thing I ever did, and I don’t even know who I helped.” She stood up and dabbed my forehead with her rag. “But that’s the story of the man, and unless I’m wrong, you’re more or less healed up.”
“Really?” I said. “How many stitches was it?”
“Two,” she said. “It won’t scar if you don’t pick at it.”
“Only two? Why’d it feel like more?”
“You tell me.” She wiped her hands off on the thighs of her slacks. “You all come in when you’re done now.” Then, she leaned over at the waist, gave my injury a dry peck, and walked inside.
Hannah pulled up a chair next to me, and refilled my bourbon cup. A neighbor’s dog barked at us, and we both turned our heads to look at it. After it stopped, we kept staring in its direction, waiting in the silence. Finally, Hannah reached out and put her hand on my knee. “You like my mom?” She still wasn’t looking at me.
“Yeah.” I coughed. “She’s like Batman.”
“Don’t believe it.” She picked up the cup, put it down, and then opened the bottle. “I mean, that’s pretty much true what she told you, but it’s a long time ago. Like, I think the world high-jump record’s maybe seven feet. If this guy can jump six with a knife in his back, then send him off to the Olympics.”
“You were the one who asked to hear the story.”
“I did want to hear it,” she said. “I love hearing it, and she loves telling it. But it kills me every time, because, for the love of God, I don’t remember any of it. I was what? Four, five? She made me younger this time, but usually I’m about five. Sometimes, I think I remember some of it, but really I don’t.”
I shrugged. “That stuff happens. It’s a good story, at least.”
She took a swig from the bottle, and when she looked back at me, she was grinning. “You want to hear a funny story? It’s true, too.”
“I don’t know.” I figured she was going to rehash her excuses for smashing Sean Kimble’s face, and I was thinking of polite ways I could beg off hearing that again. “I’m pretty tired.”
She leaned in close to me, and ran her index finger back and forth along her jaw-line. “See this?”
I did. A small white scar, no bigger than the edge of a thumbnail, ran across her face, right below her cheek. It was so thin it could’ve passed for a misplaced wisp of hair, except as summer wore on, the rest of her darkened while the scar stayed white.
“Wade gave it to me.”
Wade was Wade Larkin, her ex-husband and Abby’s father. I knew about him long before I’d ever heard of Hannah Holiday. I played ball with his younger cousin and remember Wade sitting in the middle of the front row at every game, barking out orders through cupped hands. Once, as I was walking back to the locker room for halftime, he reached out and grabbed me by the upper arm. “Your guy’s too short for you,” he said. “Keep your elbow straight, and you can shoot over him every time.” He was maybe ten years older than me, but the second I felt the power of his rusty, oversized palms pressing the sweat down on my skin, I remember thinking he’d seen more and felt more than I ever would.
Since I’d met Hannah, I’d thought of him often. I worried if I awoke her memories of him, then his ghost would uproot me, making me forever the little boy in the basketball uniform, squirming under his grip.
Hannah took a sip of the bourbon, and then held the neck of the bottle between two fingers, swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. “One morning when we’d been up all night, he’s cooking me some soup, trying to sober me up. Man had an iron stomach, I swear. Never even got so much as sick the whole time we’re married. So, we’re down in the kitchen—and this isn’t where I live now, this is when we’re over in Walkertown—and we’re still bawling each other out over something from the night before. I don’t even remember what the fight was.”
She did remember. I knew that, and she must’ve known I knew. Maybe she didn’t want to tell me about the fight, and maybe the fight wasn’t part of the story, but she knew, and she didn’t want me to ask.
“Right as he puts the soup in a bowl, he tells me to calm down, and get something on my stomach. I tell him something like, I don’t want to eat, and he can’t cook to save his fucking life. Of all the bad things I said, this is what gets in his ass. He throws that soup at me, gets me in the side of the head, and the bowl smashes on the wall. A piece of bowl cuts me, but I can’t feel that. All I feel is the soup.” She smiles, and gives a breathless laugh. “It gets in my hair, and, like a dog, I’m trying to shake it out, but, of course, that just gets it on me worse.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What’s he do?”
She put her hand up to silence me. “I’m getting to it. Poor guy’s just standing there, can’t think of how that bowl went from him to me, and then once he figures it, he’s saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, over and over again, so many times that he must’ve thought it was aloe and was putting out the burn. Then, he fills our pitcher with water from the sink, and makes to throw it on my hair. All I can think is that I don’t want him throwing anything else at me, so he has to chase me around the kitchen with a pitcher of water, until he finally corners me and soaks my head. Didn’t matter. He’s still got to cut off the hair, and I ran around for a month with hair like a man’s.” She took a deep breath and put the bourbon back on the table. “Most times when I tell that, it’s funny. It doesn’t sound funny now, but most times it is.”
I shook my head. “It’s not funny. Guy could’ve killed you.”
“Yeah,” she said. “With vegetable soup. Please.” She topped off my bourbon cup, and patted me on the knee. “I’m going inside. You want to stay out here or whatever, we’ll get supper for you.”
I crossed and uncrossed my legs, then lit my last cigarette and watched the smoke drift up into the sky. My head no longer hurt so long as I didn’t pick at the stitches, and, as I had my hands full with booze and tobacco, that wasn’t hard to do. I didn’t know what to make of Hannah’s story. She told it wrong, I knew, but it wasn’t a hard one for her to tell. I was just the wrong audience. While she was talking, her voice turned rougher, more clipped, almost like an impression of her mother. Maybe that’s what threw her off; hearing her own story in her mom’s voice, and thinking about how many times it’s been retold without her blessing. Anyway, I’d have been willing to bet everything I had and quite a bit more that her face-full of soup wasn’t what led to the divorce. How could it? It was a funny story.
I put my head on my fist and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the sun was setting, and from everywhere around me I heard a soft roar, like a raspy bulldog or a neighbor’s lawnmower. It took me nearly ten seconds to realize it was my own deep breathing. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than fifteen minutes, but I was fully rested. There was a slight chill in the air, better suited to April than July. For the first time since the accident, my head was clear. It was like the bourbon and injury were working at cross-purposes, canceling each other out.
I smelled smoke, and looked down to see the butt of my cigarette still burning at my feet. I tried to judge whether it was worth smoking the filter. Instead, I stood up and walked inside. The house was dark and crowded and smelled like salt. There were pictures everywhere, mostly old portraits of strong-jawed men with blue eyes and faraway stares. Dead husbands and semi-remembered uncles, I assumed. I wanted to stop and look at them, to maybe get a better sense of what sort of men shaped this family, but I was just a dinner guest, and so I followed my nose to the table.
I didn’t say much during the meal, but mostly just chewed the reheated vegetables and toasted rolls and kept smiling. There was enough talk at the table so I didn’t come across as rude. Hannah told her sister the story of my wounding, and I listened, fading in and out, counting what she got right and wrong and what she embellished. I kept thinking about the chasm of difference between our families. In mine, the men survived, the women died or fled, and we all ran around Hazard like we’re trying to burn down the town and everyone in it, ourselves first. Now here was this family of women, as strong and wild as any of us, but every move they made was in the service of nursing their neighbors back to health.
I put down my fork. The roll had lost its flavor in my mouth, and all I could taste was the unmelted pat of white butter. Suddenly, I felt the need for fresh air. Not the need to run this time, but something smaller; I wanted to get outside before it got too dark to see down the street. “Excuse me,” I said. “I really have to go. My father wanted to see me, and I forgot all about it until right now.”
Hannah gave a sharp laugh that went straight out her nose. “All right, Jesse.” She said it with just enough sarcasm to let me know she knew I was lying. “Tell him I say hello.”
“Come back in a couple days,” her mother said. “I’ll take them stitches out and make sure nothing’s wrong.”
I walked outside and onto the street. My head started hurting again, and I rubbed the stitches between my fingers. It was part of me, at least as much my hair. My skin would grow back together, and I’d be almost as handsome as I was that morning—the reconstructed man. I put my hands out in front of me, and started stomping down the street like Frankenstein. A model of health, and a miracle of thread and needle, lurching his way through the early night to one of his many homes.