“Under the heat there’s a coldness, and even the coldness can’t be pinned down… His fleeting pleasures and undeniable pain aren’t so much depthless as unfathomable.”
—Robert Christgau on George Jones in Growing Up All Wrong
“Take the goddamn gun out of your mouth and give me a Juicy Fruit.”
Sophie leans back her head with the barrel on her tongue and the sea wind whipping through the trees, through the car window into her bobbing blond hair. The road rolls on before them through the Georgia pines, and the headlights play across it like stones they’re skipping.
“You can still taste that?” she says. “You like that taste?”
“Take the goddamn gun out of your mouth,” says Natalie, and puts a hand to her own windblown hair.
It looks blacker in this light, Sophie thinks. Or it is blacker. She lowers the gun from her lips. “Better?”
“Juicy Fruit,” says Natalie.
Sophie pads her hand around the glove-box until she finds the last stick of gum, shrivelled into its foil wrapper like a dead caterpillar. She hands it to Natalie.
“Ugh. Even touching it gives me the wallies. How can you eat that?”
“This from the woman last seen sucking a gun barrel.”
Natalie glances down to unwrap the gum, and the car swerves onto the gravel shoulder before she catches the wheel with her knees and jerks it back toward the road.
“Watch your driving,” Sophie says.
“So can I see the nothing when I hit it?”
“Seriously,” says Sophie. “You’re going to wreck us.”
Wrenching the wheel to the right, Natalie spins the car onto a dirt trail, and they bump along it until the pines clear and they’re idling in front of three sand dunes that have humped up out of the ground, side by side, like whales surfacing. The moonlight burns their sand-skin white. Natalie shuts off the car.
“You know,” Sophie says, “a gun is just like a Lick Em Stick someone stuck a trigger on.”
“A gun is just like—”
“And there you have it. The single dumbest thing I have ever heard. And I’ve been driving around with you all night, every night, for almost a month.”
“And sharing Moon Pies and tent-sleepovers and Gilmore Girls and at least two boyfriends for a good twenty years before that.”
“I’m trying to block all that out.”
“And yet, a gun is like a Lick Em Stick someone—”
“A gun is nothing like a Lick Em Stick anyone stuck anything on. A gun couldn’t be less like a Lick Em Stick if it were a… Guns aren’t even straight. And even if they were. Saying something’s like something else because they have sort of the same shape—or not at all the same shape, in this case—is just stupid. It’s like saying a brain is just like a sponge-blob someone stuck a thought in.”
“Now, see, that’s just cynical, that’s what that is. It’s worse. It’s nihilistic.”
“Nihil. Rhymes with bile.”
“Oh. I thought it was nil. Rhymes with kill.”
Natalie’s slap rocks Sophie’s head off the seat-rest into the door. “Shit,” she says, “I’m sorry.”
“Didn’t hurt.” Sophie sits up. Natalie puts her cold hand on her friend’s cold cheek.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Three weeks,” Natalie murmurs.
“As of tonight,” says Sophie. “I know.”
They watch the dunes, waiting for them to sink, but they don’t. Unconsciously, Natalie fishes in the pocket of her denim skirt and draws a cigarette from the crumpled pack. The second the cigarette touches her lips, before she has even thought of lighting it, she gags, spits it out the window into the sand.
“Well, hell,” she says. “I’m cured.”
“One good thing, anyway,” Sophie says. “Hey, maybe we could open a business. Let them pick us, instead of our picking them.”
“Shut up, Sophie.”
“Guaranteed to work. They get their lungs, we get—”
Reedy sand-grass nuzzles against the sides of the car, and the stars dangle like a mobile. Somewhere not too far, an alligator bellows.
“Nat?” Sophie half-whispers. “Let’s just go see them. We could just look in the window. Please, let’s—”
“Sophie, I swear to God, don’t—”
“Just to see. Just once more. Those little faces. Little feet.”
Natalie starts the car, grinds into reverse, wrenches the wheel around and sends it bumping back down the trail. When they reach the asphalt, she fishtails onto it, her wheels kicking up a spray of dirt like a Jet Ski throwing wake. They hurtle down the rolling road between the pines.
“You hit some nothing,” Sophie says, lifting the gun off the seat and sticking the barrel back between her teeth.
“Baby,” says Natalie.
Sometime just after midnight, Natalie surprises Sophie by pulling into the parking lot of a Waffle House. The building is low and brick. Teenagers crowd around two booths near the front, and a couple of solitary truckers sip coffee in the back. Through the grime and the flittering moths on the windows, all of them look yellow.
“Where are we?” Sophie says, and fabricates a yawn. Yawning, of all things, turns out to be something she genuinely misses.
“Waffle House,” says Natalie.
Sophie smiles. “Thanks, Sparky. Waffle House where?”
“Waffle House is its own where.” Again, Natalie reaches into her pocket for a cigarette. But this time she doesn’t even glance at her hands, just tosses the whole pack out the window. “No,” she says. “Waffle House is nowhere. Always.” And she looks at Sophie.
“Oh, shit,” says Sophie, and her tongue sneaks onto her lips. “Here? Now? It’s time?”
Natalie puts a hand to her own chin. The hand doesn’t shake, but she wants it to. Wishes it would. “I don’t know. How do we know? The bastard didn’t say. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“I’m going to call them,” Sophie says, catching Natalie off-guard, and before she can grab an arm and stop her, she’s out of the car, walking fast into the shadows of the pines.
Natalie considers giving chase, opens the door to do just that. Then she just sits with her legs swung onto the pavement, feeling the sticky night air rush up her skirt. So warm. How did they stand it all those years? From this distance, all she can see is her friend’s silhouette. The stocky, bouncy frame—like a gym-bag full of volleyballs, Sophie’s fiance Willie used to say happily, stroking her thigh—the blond head bobbing. Phone against her ear.
Against her ear. With her baby boy’s voice filling it.
Unless she’s talking to Natalie’s baby boy.
At the last second, Sophie senses her coming, whirls around as her friend swoops out of the light and rips at the phone. “They’re not home,” she squeals, but Natalie’s long nails are raking the inside of her wrist and the phone has flown from her hands. “Ow,” she says.
“What do you mean they’re not home?” Natalie drops to her knees, padding around in the shadows for the phone. “It’s after midnight, where would they be?”
“Maybe your mom did what you said. Maybe she took them. Maybe they’re gone, and we won’t ever—”
Silencing her with a growl, Natalie stands with the phone in her hand, staring like it’s a heart she’s ripped out. Then she slams it to the pavement and stomps it to pieces.
When she looks up a few seconds later, meaning to apologize, wanting to clutch her oldest friend to her and scream, Sophie is gazing over her shoulder. Natalie turns slowly and sees the trucker.
Just a boy, really. Long, lanky southern boy, skin like a slicked summer peach and an alligator smile he hasn’t mastered and doesn’t mean.
“Well, damn,” he says, and then his smile goes slack, and Natalie feels a twinge, a real one. You’re not so far over your head, she wants to tell him. Don’t stop now.
Or else, Stop right now. Turn around. Run.
“Thelma and Louise,” Sophie whispers, and Natalie jerks back to herself.
“Thelma and Louise. Taking back the night. Look at him. He’s perfect.”
“Who’d miss him?”
I would, Natalie thinks, knows that makes no sense and probably isn’t true, and steps into the light. Even from ten feet away, she can feel him vibrate like a string she’s struck.
“Well, damn,” the boy says again, swaying in place. He takes a woozy step forward.
“Don’t,” Natalie murmurs, and he takes another step. Still five feet between them, but she can already taste his breath, bubble-gummed and maple-syrupped and hot with him. It’s as though she’s developed a new shark-sensitivity to every twitching, fumbling, ridiculous movement living things make.
“Don’t,” she says again, and he steps closer still.
“But I really want to,” he murmurs. So close, now. His mouth so near. His cheeks no longer yellow but sweetly tan and red.
“So do I,” she says.
“Thelma and Louise,” chants Sophie. “Thelma and Louise.”
Grabbing her wrist, Natalie yanks her past the kid toward the Waffle House. She really has to pull because Sophie is jamming her feet down like anchors, and from her mouth comes a brand-new, mewing sound. The kid shudders, desire unfurling from him like a sail. They weren’t home, Natalie thinks. They’re gone. Oh, Mom. Thank you. She practically has to hurl Sophie into the restaurant while holding the door with her hip.
For a second, she thinks Sophie’s going to turn on her, that they’re going to have it out once and for all. But there’s something instantly soothing in here, familiar in a way almost nothing else has been these past few weeks. The fluorescents are bright, the music on the radio is Buck Owens, and the dead-eyed, red-haired counterwoman halfway smiles as she nods them toward a booth. All they have to do is…act naturally.
But there’s a mother and daughter at the counter. The mother is wrapped in bright-coloured scarves, and the daughter, who can’t be more than twelve, is feeding her French fries. Maps lay spread in front of them between the ketchup bottles. The woman tucks a stray strand of hair behind her daughter’s ear and laughs. Natalie’s mouth has formed an O. Her heart isn’t really hammering, she knows.
“Well, hi, y’all,” Sophie says to the teens in the front booth.
They’re staring, of course. The girls, too, though the too-thin redhead in the back is forcing her eyes down to the table, playing pitifully with her napkin. She looks like a French fry dipped in ketchup, barely noticeable even when she’s right in front of you, and she knows it. God, Natalie remembers that sensation. Remembers whole Saturdays traipsing around the Goodwills with her mother, trying to find clothes to bring out the blue in her eyes. The only feature she was sure she could do anything with. Once, not more than a year ago, when they were sitting half-drunk on the lawn chairs in the dirt, Natalie’s mother had told her, “It’s so sad, really. One more proof of just how much God hates women. You only really start to radiate sexuality—the confident kind, the kind that’s you and that you really intend—long after you have any use for it. Also long after it’s probably healthy for you to have it.”
A wise woman, Natalie’s mother. Wise today, anyway, now that she’s a grandmother at 37 with a double-wide and two new babies to look after, only one of them blood-related, neither of them hers. Is she that wise, though? Has she really gone? Natalie doesn’t think so. And even if she has gone, she’s left a trail. In the hopes that Natalie will come one day and find her.
Veering away from the booth, she tugs Sophie to the counter and orders a double patty melt to go.
“Hey,” Sophie says. “That sounds so good.” She orders one, too. Behind them, the teenagers return uneasily to themselves.
“Be just a minute,” the counterwoman says.
Natalie fumbles in her pockets for the cigarette pack. Patsy comes on the radio, “Walking After Midnight,” and Sophie makes clip-clops to the beat with the salt and pepper shakers.
“You know,” she says, in the chirping-bird voice Natalie has loved since they were kindergarteners. “A patty melt’s just like a dead thing someone slapped cheese and onions on.”
Smiling, grateful, Natalie turns. “That doesn’t work at all.”
“It’s not a metaphor. It’s not even a comparison. It’s just what it is.”
“Well, that there’s the difference between you and me, Nat. I call things what they are.”
“I think I’ll go throw up, now.”
“Got to eat something first,” Sophie says, grinning, and Natalie feels sick but starts to smile back anyway, and then the woman in the scarves touches her hand.
“Oh, honey,” says the woman. “You’re just like me.”
Stunned, Natalie almost collapses right there. She turns shakily, but all she can see is black and grey hair sneaking from under the scarves on top of the woman’s head.
“What do you mean?” Natalie whispers.
“Cold all the time,” the woman says. “Bad circulation. I can’t ever get warm. Want your fortune read?”
“Come on, she needs the practice,” says the woman’s daughter. “No paying customers for a week. I’m going to the bathroom, Mom.” Hopping off the stool, the girl wanders away.
The counterwoman returns with the burgers in a bag, and Natalie turns to go, but Sophie pushes her down onto the stool.
“Give her good news,” Sophie says to the woman. “She could use some.” She keeps her hands on Natalie’s shoulders while the woman produces a deck of cards and shuffles them. Natalie’s mother was better at shuffling. Bad at winning, though.
Humming a melody Natalie assumes is meant to be gypsy but sounds like Patsy out of tune, the woman shuffles again, then fans the cards on top of the map.
“Touch two,” she says, and Natalie does.
The woman sets aside Natalie’s choices, reshuffles the deck, fans it open again.
“And two more.”
Natalie touches two more. The woman smiles. Her teeth are grainy and brown, but her black eyes are bright.
“Good. Let’s see what we can know.” The woman turns over a card. A black ace, Natalie thinks, from the brief glimpse she gets, then a second one. The woman’s hands slow, and her smile twitches.
“That’s not funny,” says Natalie, her voice a bobcat-murmur, her whole body tensing. “You have no idea how not funny—”
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I did this wrong. Out of practice, as my daughter told you. I’ll just reshuffle, and we’ll…” Suddenly, her smile vanishes completely, and she looks up. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Goddamn it.”
From the direction of the bathroom comes a giggle which explodes abruptly into full-blown laughter. The daughter is still laughing as she hurtles past the stools, past the teenagers in the front booths, and out of the restaurant.
Staring after her, the woman in the scarves stands and begins to collect her things and fold the maps. She flips over the deck so Natalie and Sophie can see it. Every single card is a black ace.
“She thinks she’s hilarious,” the woman says. “Thinks she’s Tina fucking Fey. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t scare you.” On impulse, she reaches into her purse and lays down an extra ten dollars on top of her check. “For your patty melts.” She leaves.
A few moments later, after Sophie has slathered her burger in ketchup, she and Natalie follow. Back in the car, Natalie switches on the radio and dials through the stations until she finds the one from the Waffle House. It’s Loretta, this time, sending ‘em all to Fist City.
“This is the best DJ on earth,” she says, tears streaming down her face. Real tears. How did those get there?
“Wow,” Sophie says.
“Shut up,” says Natalie, and pulls them out of the lot into the dark.
“You know,” Sophie says, after they’ve driven another long while, the pines far behind them and in their place peach trees squatting in rows on their stubby trunks like old women under hairdryers at the beauty salon, “she’s got it all wrong.”
George Jones on the radio this time, the static sewn into his voice like a smoker’s rasp. Singing flat and sad, no drama at all. “Just a Girl I Used to Know.”
“Who?” Natalie murmurs.
“Has got it wrong?”
Sophie swats her on the arm. But carefully. Or at least softly. Not like Natalie swats, these days.
“Tina Fey wouldn’t be the daughter loading the deck. She’d be the customer getting mistakenly told she was going to die.”
“You think so?”
“Complications would ensue.”
“Hello? Ground control to Natalie Robot? Switch brain back to on position. Over.”
“We have to get rid of these burgers,” Natalie says, and Sophie looses an explosive sigh.
“My God, yes, even the smell is giving me the wallies.”
“The willies, goddamnit.”
“Well, what’s wrong with the willies?”
“I liked my Willy,” Sophie says.
Natalie almost rockets them off the road. One good kick to the pedal, a quick swerve, and they’d be launched through the peach trees. Maybe if they got going fast enough, they’d just fizz away into the dark like an Alka Seltzer tablet. Which is a Sophie comparison if ever there was one.
She glances toward her friend. Sophie’s the one crying, now. The sight makes Natalie furious, but she has no idea at what.
“Nat, I’m so hungry,” Sophie says. “We have to choose.”
“I know,” says Natalie.
“Anyone you want, Nat. Any way you want to do it. Anything you think is fair. We can’t shirk it. We can’t pretend we can avoid it. It’s just—”
“What do you suggest, Sophie?” Natalie doesn’t mean to start shouting, barely notices that she is. “Next breakdown victim? Next guy in bad pants? Oh, I know, how about next Black dude, you always had a thing for Black dudes.”
“That’s just mean.”
“Natalie, I’m serious. It’s killing me.”
“Maybe we should let it kill us.”
“You know it won’t work. You know what he said. It’ll be like trying to kill yourself holding your breath. In the end, instinct will take over. Then we’ll just act. We won’t have any choice. That’s what he said. Is that what you want?”
“He said a lot of things. Maybe we’re stronger than he is.”
“Maybe you are, Nat.”
Natalie can’t even remember his face. Can’t remember whether it hurt. Can’t even remember how she and Sophie wound up with him that night. But she can see him straightening over her, mouth already dripping with her. The pull of him overwhelming, sucking up every little passing ball of magically cohering, animated dust like a black hole. She’d wanted him to kiss her some more.
No. She’d wanted to feed herself to him.
What will it be like? she’d asked, not really caring.
And he’d actually paused for a second, as though between courses, or maybe he was thinking about it for the first time. Eventually, he shrugged.
Like coming loose. Like letting go of all those stupid, prickling, hurtful sensations you were always told are what matters. Like a slow slipping away. Same thing that happens to everyone before they die. Only it won’t be slow. And you won’t die.
As he’d finished her, Natalie had thought of her mother. And now, she thought of her mother’s resigned, almost dispassionate reaction later that same night when Natalie banged on the door, handed her her grandson and also Sophie’s son, and told her she should disappear. Leave no trace. And never come back.
He’d been right, of course. What’s happening isn’t slow. Just not quite fast enough.
“Natalie,” Sophie whimpers.
“Shush.” Natalie leans her head back, closes her eyes, feels them roaring into the blankness. Watch out, nothing. Bad moon rising.
“Natalie, what if we went home?”
“Shut the fuck up.”
She opens her eyes just in time to see the deer’s flank as they slam into it. The animal’s head snaps sideways and the antlers bang down on the hood so hard that the back wheels come off the asphalt momentarily, and when Natalie jams on the brake, the thing doesn’t fly off, it stays stuck a second and then just slides down the grille, the bones booming as they splinter underneath like 4th of July firecrackers. Even as they skid to a stop, Natalie knows there’s part of it still trapped in the rear tires, its weight like a trailer pull dragging them back.
“Oh my God,” Sophie whines. “Oh my God.”
Natalie is gripping the wheel so hard, her knuckles are threatening to explode through her skin. With a grunt, she makes herself let go, draws her hands into her lap.
“You hit it,” Sophie says.
“Is it dead?”
Opening her mouth to give that the response it deserves, Natalie freezes. Then she turns. Sophie shrinks back. It takes an absurdly, almost endearingly long time before understanding dawns.
Neither of them has any idea whose throat is making that sound as they spin to their doors, wrench them open, and leap from the car. The animal is a splayed, shredded ruin locked to the bumper, its head bent up under the rear axle and its antlers shattered all over the road. Natalie and Sophie dive together into the pumping gore in its crumpled ribs like little kids diving for candy in a burst piñata. Blood saturates Natalie’s skirt, pools around her thighs when she kneels atop a rib and snaps it as she plunges her face down, almost banging her forehead against Sophie’s. The sound Sophie is making might be laughter. Natalie reaches out as she buries her lips in the foam, spitting aside the hairy skin, and strokes her friend’s hair.
Sophie is the first to straighten, moments later. Natalie follows, settling back on her haunches, her fingers still twisted in Sophie’s hair. Gently, she disentangles them and lets go. Sophie’s face has twisted up, and she’s spitting over and over, trying to clear the taste from her teeth and her lips. Natalie just wipes a disgusted hand repeatedly across her own mouth. Still kneeling in the mangled deer, they stare at one another.
“So…” Sophie finally murmurs, glancing down one more time at the animal, then back at Natalie. “We’re vegetarians?”
Natalie closes her eyes, shudders just once, opens her eyes.
“Humanitarians?” Sophie says.
They stand together, their arms around each other, bits of cartilage clinging to their skin, their legs and skirts dripping. Natalie is about to return to the car when Sophie’s hands tighten on her arms.
“Nat,” she says. “I’m going home.”
“Just listen, okay? Stop looking at me like that and pretending you’re better and be my friend and listen.”
“Okay,” Natalie whispers. Merle on the radio, sweeping gently out the open driver’s side door. “Mama Tried.”
“I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. And what I’ve been thinking is—seriously, now, just wait, just hear me out—what better gift could a mother give her children?”
“Think about it, Nat. I am. I can’t stop. He’s all I think about. His little feet. God, his little feet. We could be back there in three hours. We could be with our children three hours from now, and never have to leave them again.”
“Sophie, please, you’ve got to—”
“What did you hope for when Eddie was born, Nat? What did you think you could do for him? What did you want for him? How about no worries, ever? How about no pain? Ever.”
“Sophie, you need to—”
“How about living forever?”
It was like a cobra strike, Natalie thinks seconds later, her teeth still buried in the softness under her best friend’s chin, Sophie’s dead, twitchless body flat beneath her. Like a goddamn bolt of lightning, Natalie thinks as she gulps and drinks. The only concern she’d had at the instant she’d acted was that it wouldn’t taste good. Would make her retch and gag like the deer had.
And it was cold, alright. A little sour, not quite right. But it tastes fine. She’s still lapping away, burying her face deeper in Sophie’s throat, hips rocking side to side to Merle’s rhythm. It tastes fine.
© 2008 by Glen Hirshberg. All rights reserved. “Like Lick ‘Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey” first appeared in KRDR: Welcome to the Ether, The Rolling Darkness Revue‘s 2008 chapbook, and is reproduced with permission.
Glen Hirshberg is an award-winning author of spectral fiction.
Sebyth (artwork) is old and usually unseen. Sebyth draws stuff and plays video games and doesn’t get out much. There are whispers of elves and strange games.