Jared Yates Sexton
My girl Jen is in the middle of the floor surrounded by scraps of newspaper. She looks crazy, holding a pair of scissors and scanning the piles of black-and-white waste.
“There’s nothing to do anymore,” she says.
I want to tell her that of course there’s something to do. There’s always something to do. When all else fails you can breathe, I want to yell. But she’s right. This town has gone to the pits. It’s like it knocked off years ago and no one’s had the guts to check the pulse or call the coroner.
“It’s the saddest place I’ve ever lived,” she says. “I mean that. It’s like it’s sucking my life away one day at a time.”
I’ve been flipping around on the TV for hours now, so long I’ve lost track of time. Jen’s been cutting the Sunday paper to shreds for what seems like years now. Sheared the sports page before I could even get a good look at it.
On the screen is a show where a couple of guys get on a boat and go cruising around the marshes outside of Savannah. They’re both wearing tan vests pinned with angles like war medals. Every few minutes they pull a fish from the water and hold it up so the sun can play off its scales while it suffocates.
“I’m going out of my mind,” she says to me. “I mean it, I think I’m really cracking over here.”
I want to suggest something, a cure for this terminal case of boredom. A drive down I-16, but we’ve been down that stretch so many times I could close my eyes and keep the car between the lines. Maybe a quick hop over to the beach, a day with our toes in the sand. The last time though we took a box full of Southern Comfort and I nearly drowned a man in the waves.
“You brought me here,” Jen says with malice. “Drug me down here to this godforsaken, po-dunk hell.”
“That’s it,” I say before I’m even sure what I’m going to suggest. On the coffee table is a glass of SoCo and 7-Up, a ring of sweat eating away at the imitation wood. I stand up, stretch, look out the window and see the neighbors arguing across the street. He’s mowing the yard with a Coors Light in his hand and she’s got her finger in his face and is wagging it and screaming as loud as she can. The mower’s growling over them. “Get your shoes on,” I say, “we’re taking a walk.”
With a groan Jen raises from the heap of scraps and trudges over to get her flats from beside the front door. “It’s hot,” she says.
“Of course it is,” I say, “let’s get out there and sweat a little.”
When we walk out the door our neighbors stop fighting long enough to give us a suspicious glance. We’ve never gotten along, at least not since their dog Buttercup took to squatting next to our bush of the morning. One morning I went out there to get some fresh air—I hadn’t gone to bed yet and was still drinking hard—and saw him doing his business. He was a big red-haired dog and he glanced over his shoulders without even the slightest bit of shame. Drunk and mad, I got a Hefty bag out from under the sink and carried it over to their front porch and dumped it on the welcome mat. It wasn’t an hour before the neighbor was over and knocking on the door, the waste locked in a see-through sandwich bag.
“You leave this on my porch?” he asked me.
He hadn’t said another word, just turned on his feet and marched back home with that sandwich bag in tow.
Now we’re getting glares. The venom those two share is heading directly our way. There’s nothing like a common enemy, I think, as the mower growls and growls and growls.
Jen and me turn the corner and head up the next street. I’m not sure what I’m expecting. Every house looks the same. Ranch-style homes. Yards cluttered with dried pine needles and forgotten tricycles and deflated basketballs. The blinds are all drawn. No one like sunshine in this town. No one likes to look out and see the world. I can’t hardly blame them.
“Maybe I’ll go back to Oklahoma,” Jen says. She grew up there before running away as far as she could get, which ended up being Columbus, Ohio. She told me once that every day in Oklahoma felt like the world was beating you senseless. I don’t know what’s there for her anymore. “Maybe I’ll go back and figure something out.”
“You going alone?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe. I don’t know what there is to say anymore. I try and talk and the only thing that comes out is what I read in the newspaper. See on the TV. I’m not even sure I’m a person.”
I want to tell her that of course she’s a person. That the conversations are scintillating. I want to wrap my arm around her and let her know she’s number one to me. But I don’t want to lie either.
“Maybe I’ll go to beauty college,” she says. “Or work in a library. Somewhere where there’s air-conditioning.”
At the end of the block is a parking lot for the drugstore. It’s one of those big chain ones where you can get your medicine and a candy bar the size of your head. We run in there and the canned air brushes over our skin and leaves goosebumps. I get a coke and Jen a bag of chips. An old Doors song plays over the speakers and Jim Morrison tells us to break on through while the tired old cashier rings it all up. The song gets to the breakdown and she coughs into her fist and says, “Three-fifteen.”
I take a glug of coke and Jen swallows down as many chips as she can grab. We’re outside again and the heat is bubbling like an ocean across the highway. Without explanation Jen tosses the nearly full bag of chips into a trashcan. She takes a drink of my coke and trudges off back in the direction of our house.
“I always thought I’d end up famous,” she says when I catch up to her. “My face on the covers of magazines. My name on everybody’s lips.”
“There’s still time,” I say, and get a nasty look in return.
We take a different route home. The long way, as it were. We’re on a different street but the houses are all the same. One has a soccer net off to the side, the rungs of the frame rusted through and the net with big holes in it. Next door another ranch with a chain link fence. At the gate is a dog that looks a lot like Buttercup. He’s barking at us and making laps. I’ve got a real desire to chuck my bottle at him.
“Miss Stephanie,” I hear Jen say. “Readings and visions.”
I look. There’s a nearly identical house down the way but out front is a sign with an upturned hand. In the palm an all-seeing eye emitting tiny lightning bolts. It all needs a fresh coat of paint.
“Miss Stephanie, huh? Not the best name for a psychic, is it?”
“Hush now,” Jen says. “I ever tell you that I had the gift?”
“When I was little,” she says, “my grandma told me that it ran in our family. That if we concentrated we could tell the future. I could tell just by the way the phone rang who was gonna be on the other end.”
“Impressive,” I say.
“Let’s check this out,” she says, a smile crossing her face for the first time in god knows how long.
Truth be told, I didn’t have any interest. There’d never been a time in my life where I ever thought there was anything to any of that bull. One time I dated a girl in Cleveland who told me she could read my palm and, because I wanted to get on her good side, I went ahead and let her get a look. She turned the lights down low and sat us at the table. She took my hand in hers and narrowed her eyes and traced over the lines on my palm.
“You’re going to come into some money in the future,” she’d told me.
Just thinking about it makes me want to look her up again and show her just how right she was. Living the dream, that’s what I was doing. Slumming it in Georgia and standing outside a psychic’s house on a pan-frying-hot Sunday afternoon.
“You coming with me?” Jen says.
“Sure,” I say and have another swig of pop.
She rings the doorbell and we wait. Inside I can hear somebody watching the TV. Somebody yelling. Then footsteps and a lock being messed with. When the door opens there’s a guy standing there with his shirt off, his sunburned chest covered in soft roils of hair. He’s got a gut hanging over a pair of running shorts and a big drink, the kind you get at a gas station, in hand.
“Yeah?” he says.
“We’re here to see Miss Stephanie,” Jen says.
“One second,” he says and then, before walking away, he puts his lips on the straw of his drink and sucks some up. He disappears around the corner and we hear him call Miss Stephanie. “Somebody’s here,” he says.
“Customers,” he says. “I think.”
Miss Stephanie tells him to hold on, and he comes back, blank-stared, and relays the message. “You can come in if you want,” he says.
We do, and the place is freezing cold. The AC is blasting like a renegade jet and the ceiling fan is going full-tilt. The guy who answered the door plops down on their couch and is still sucking away on his drink. On the TV is a show like the one I was watching, only in this one there are two guys tromping through a forest dressed in camo and carrying shotguns. Lining the walls of the room are cardboard boxes, moving boxes labeled “Kitchen,” “Bedroom,” “Misc”.
“You moving here soon?” I ask the guy.
He shrugs. “That’s the plan.”
“Where ya’ll heading?”
“Charleston,” he says. “Or Lubbock, Texas. One or the other.”
I’m just about to say that’s a big difference when Miss Stephanie walks in. She’s a big girl, maybe two hundred and twenty pounds and standing at least six foot tall. She’s got her hair done up in a hastily raised beehive that you can almost see the fresh hairspray rising off of. Around her neck are a half dozen turquoise necklaces and on every finger a matching ring. “Welcome, welcome,” she says in a sweet-tea accent. “Ya’ll want something to drink?”
“I’m good,” I say and hold up my coke.
“I’d take a water,” Jen says, the life returning to her voice.
Miss Stephanie disappears for a second and comes back with a glass of ice water for Jen. “I’m just so glad to see you two, I swear. I was just telling Ricky here that I didn’t think I was going to have anybody else swing through before we made the big move.”
“We didn’t even know you were over here,” Jen says after a drink. “Otherwise we would’ve been here before.”
“Bad advertising,” Miss Stephanie says with a huff. “We put an ad in the paper but all we got were a bunch of crank calls. Ricky said we should put up flyers but I told him there wasn’t any use.”
Without looking away from the TV Ricky says, “Flyers would’ve done the trick.
“Maybe,” she says, “but who can tell?”
On the TV the hunters are hunched down in some wheat-colored brush with their shotguns trained at the sky. There’s a commotion a few feet away and a crowd of ducks rush up and the hunters pull their triggers. A second later one of them is holding a limp duck by its neck.
“Ricky,” Miss Stephanie says, “I just don’t know how you can watch that, honey.”
“Something to do,” he says.
Miss Stephanie shakes her head like she can’t agree and motions for us to follow her. We navigate through a hallway with more boxes and back to a room that must’ve been a second living room sometime in the past. The blinds are all drawn and its dark except for a lamp that’s burning on the floor. Still hanging on the walls are some posters of the stars and a guide to the Zodiac. One by the door has a turbaned man gazing into the glowing recesses of a crystal ball.
There’s a table in the middle of the room with two chairs. In the middle of the table is a stack of cards and I can’t help but stare as Miss Stephanie goes in the other room to grab a third chair. Jen turns to see what I think and I raise my eyebrows. In the past she would’ve laughed and maybe slugged me in the arm, but today she’s all business.
“Don’t you disrespect her,” she hisses at me. “Don’t you even dare.”
The third chair and Miss Stephanie return and now we’re sitting around this table. While she shuffles the cards Miss Stephanie says, “I’m gonna be honest with you, I had a feeling somebody would swing by here today. Just had a nagging suspicion.”
“How long have you had the gift?” Jen asks her.
“As long as I’ve been around,” she says. “Started when I was five years old and never let up.”
Jen smiles and shakes her head. Already she’s a true-believer.
“I remember,” Miss Stephanie says, “being a little girl and sitting at the table. This was back when on every table you had a butter dish and a sugar dish. I remember looking at that sugar dish and saying to my mom, ‘If Dad’s not careful he’s gonna dump that sugar dish.’ She looked at me like I was crazy and then Dad came in for breakfast, hungover as hungover can be, and Mom got his morning coffee ready and then he reached for that sugar dish and, sure enough, dumped it all over the table.”
“Wow,” Jen says.
“Wow,” I say, just trying to keep myself amused.
“What about you?” Miss Stephanie asks Jen. “I get the feeling you’ve got a touch of it as well.”
Jen’s hand goes for her heart as her mouth falls open. “You can see that?”
“Absolutely,” Miss Stephanie says.
She turns to me with wonder on her face.
“Miss Stephanie knows her stuff,” I say and get a drink of Coke.
“All right,” Miss Stephanie says. “Let’s see what the cards hold today.”
She deals the cards. There’s a pile here and a pile there. When she flips over the first one there’s a beautiful woman dressed in rags standing in front of a golden forest. She’s holding a scepter and an apple.
“Mhmm,” Miss Stephanie says.
“What’s that mean?” Jen asks.
“Hold on,” she says and flips the next card. It’s a gilded birdcage with the door open. She studies it with a scrunched look and then turns her attention to us. “There’s something ending,” she says. “Something is coming to a close.”
Jen rests her chin on her hand. “Is it telling you we should move?” she says. “Is that what it’s getting at?”
“Maybe,” Miss Stephanie says. “A move might very well be in order.”
“Hey,” I say, “maybe I’m alone here, but I’d love to know how those two cards mean we need to move. There’s a woman in the woods and a birdcage. Maybe it means we ought to buy a bird?”
Both Jen and Miss Stephanie give me a look that lets me know they don’t care for my joke.
The next card is a piano floating in mid-air. Some of the keys are pressed but there’s no player to be seen.
“Huh,” Miss Stephanie says.
“What?” Jen says.
“A bird who can play the piano,” I say.
“Stop it,” Jen whispers through gritted teeth.
“A very strange combination,” Miss Stephanie says and reaches for the next card.
She turns it. Jen’s on the edge of her seat. I’m swirling the last bit of coke around in the plastic bottle, bored out of my mind. The card has a picture of the Grim Reaper on it, smiling a bony smile.
Miss Stephanie gasps. “That can’t be right,” she says.
“Oh god,” Jen says.
“What?” I say. “Does that mean our new bird’s gonna die?”
“Sir,” Miss Stephanie says in a serious tone, “I wouldn’t be so casual about the death card. Treat it with respect.”
She sweeps the card back into the deck and gives it another shuffle.
“Let’s give this another try,” she says.
The card’s the same when she deals it.
Jen is nearly fit to be tied.
“My word,” Miss Stephanie says.
“Listen,” I say, “I don’t want to be the one to say this, but I saw this trick on the TV a few months ago. It’s a magic trick. They get you to pick a card and then put it back in the deck. Is this your card? That kind of deal.”
“Sir,” Miss Stephanie says, “you’re treading on very thin ice.”
“What?” I say.
“Why can’t you take this seriously?” Jen asks me.
“Because,” I say, “it’s ridiculous. What? Because a woman turns over a card in a deck we’re going to die?”
“There are many types of death,” Miss Stephanie says.
“There are?” Jen says.
“There are many, many types of death. More than you could ever imagine.”
“Look,” I say, “I’ll let you two do your thing. I’m gonna go in the other room and keep Ricky company.”
Neither of them tries to talk me out of it. Jen just stares at me like a complete stranger, like she can’t even stand the sight of me. I do her a favor and walk back down the hallway and grab a seat next to Ricky on the couch. He’s to the bottom of his drink, and when he sucks on the straw it sounds like the cup’s growling at him.
The TV show’s moved now to some snow-covered location. The two hosts are tromping through a snow bank with their rifles at the ready. Up ahead is some kind of mountain lion. It’s crawling through a crop of rocks and hissing at the camera. Its face is caked in snow and desperate.
In a couple of seconds one of the hosts manage to get a clean shot and the mountain lion howls and then limps off into the forest. Trailing behind it is a bright red line of blood. The hosts track it a quarter mile and find it sprawled in the snow.
They’re giving us a good tour of the lion’s anatomy when Jen and Miss Stephanie come into the room. They’re holding each other like old friends, Jen tucked in under her arm. Her eyes are bloodshot, her face puffy.
“You ready to go?” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “I’m ready.”
The two of them hug and we’re back outside. Somehow it’s even hotter. The air’s still and the heat’s just beating the hell out of us.
“What a crock that was,” I say to her. “I hope you didn’t end up paying that woman.”
Jen doesn’t answer though. Doesn’t speak for the rest of the walk home. We get back to our house and the neighbor’s still mowing the yard. He’s switched from cans of Coors Light to a bottle. His wife is behind him and knee-deep in the dirt of her wilting bed of flowers just off the porch. Next to her is Buttercup, panting and squinting against the sun.
Inside I head straight to the fridge and get out what’s left of the two-liter of 7-Up I’ve been working on the last couple of days. I throw it in a glass with some SoCo and settle down in front of the TV. The hosts are showing off that mountain lion they just bagged. In the time it took to walk home they’ve already taken it to a taxidermist and got it stuffed. Now it’s posed on a platform, snarling and raising its paw as if to strike forever and ever.
I’m admiring it when I realize I don’t know where Jen went off to. “Jen,” I yell and get no response. “Jen,” I say, “Jen, hon?”
I find her in our bedroom and surrounded by boxes. She’s stuffing the lamp we keep on the nigh stand, the one her grandma gave her, down into a box filled with the newspaper scraps she’d cut up earlier. She’s being as careful with it as she’d be if she were laying a newborn in a crib.
“Jen,” I say, “what’re you doing?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Jen,” I say again, “what gives?”
Again, she says nothing. I ask one more time but it’s not even worth it. It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. And I don’t even need a crummy set of cards.
Jared Yates Sexton is a born-and-bred Hoosier living and working in The South as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing. He is the Managing Editor of BULL and his work has appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of three collections of stories, including The Hook and The Haymaker and I Am The Oil Of The Engine Of The World, both forthcoming from Split Lip Press.