Oh crap, my head hurts! Let me just sit up.
I moved slowly, turning my head away from the window. Standing up was a problem to be overcome. Never hurt like this before.
Too fast, and it's gonna be lights out. Ugh!
I better not look at myself in the mirror. My head must be the size of a watermelon. Oh Lordy, maybe I can sit up.
I strained to lift my head from the pillow.
Nope. No way right now pal, later.
Back down to the pillow. I ran my hand where it hurt the worst. Yep, a damn pump knot right in the middle of my forehead. Then I touched the very top of my head. Right where my part should be, there was a knot, smaller-but holy Hell, they both hurt.
Why don't I ever listen to the voice that says 'mind your own business?' Why didn't I just keep driving?
It's the same outcome every time. I should have learned back in school that I couldn't win this battle. But ever since I first saw Pearl, she had a magnetic draw. She and I would get along great, and then that damn Junior would butt in. Pearl'd be with him in the blink of an eye. That is until he went to jail, or prison, or took off with the cops on his heels. It's gone like this over and over. I'm so stupid. Now I'm stupid and have knots on my head. She calls, and I come arunnin.' Stupid!
Maybe I'm punishing myself for a disremembered bad deed. I used to drink some. Maybe I blacked out back then and killed a preacher or a bartender or whoever. I don't recall anything, but that'd be the point, I guess.
I used to have a pair of them. You know, the good and bad voices most people have. But when I stopped drinking, the bad voice lost interest and said he'd keep in touch but was going to focus on somebody else for a while. I'm kinda worried the good one is about to give up on me too. "Mind your own business," it said. "That woman is trouble," it said. "Keep driving," it said. Now look at me.
I fell back on the pillow again and entered what I've come to call "almost sleep." My mind is pretty much up to speed and running as good as it ever does, but my body tries to keep me in bed. It wants me to go back to sleep. So I'll just lay here and drift for a bit. Some proper folk calls it dozing. Feels like coming out of a fog bank to me. It's a strange feeling for a sober man.
Damn it! She called and asked me to come pick her up at her in-laws. Oh, let me get up. Maybe that fool, Junior, will be long gone when I get there. Damn it Pearl. Damn it. I'm not some schoolboy no more. But all she has to do is crook her finger, and I go to her like I was a little kid. Pearl called. I said, "Sure."
So I got up. I had to squint to see because it hurt to open my eyes all the way. There was way too much light coming in. But I stumbled to the bathroom and drank a glass of water. As I stared at the mirror, I forced my eyes to open. My head wasn't as swollen as I'd expected. Crap, I needed a shave, but that wasn't going to happen. I leaned over and turned on the shower. When the bathroom began to fill with steam, I stepped in. The hot shower helped the throbbing in my head just a bit.
I dried myself off and stared out the bathroom window, looking at nothing really. I was just thinking that this next trip was most likely another mistake. I put on my t-shirt and jeans. Shoved my feet in them All-Stars and headed for my truck. Climbed in, fired it up, and shut it off. I thought very seriously of going back into the house. But I started it back up and backed out of the drive. Every time the truck hit even the smallest bump, I winced. As I drove, I thought about what happened to me yesterday.
Pearl had called and asked me to meet her at her former in-laws' house. I'd just walked into the kitchen at their house when Junior came around the corner and hit me right on top of the head with something hard. I dropped to one knee pretty damn quick. I saw all matters of stars and bright lights. He was on me so fast I just saw a flash of his face before I went down. Why the heck was he mad at me?
I shoulda smacked him good with the flowerpot that my hand found after he ambushed me. Would've, but Pearl and her crazy mother-in-law started yelling at me to drop it. I stood up and went to grab for Junior. His ma decided to intervene and hit me right on the tip of my forehead, right in the middle with a bean pot. I went down again. I started to stagger back up. She had her face all scrunched up in a fierce way, all wrinkled and red. She threatened to hit me again. One look into her wild-looking eyes, and I dropped to the floor like I was wearing a lead shirt. This time I began thinking that none of this crap was my business. So I just stayed on the floor and let Pearl, Junior, and his out-of-control mother scream at each other. They forgot I was even in the world.
I closed my eyes and rolled on my side. I could see the back door, fuzzy, but I could make it out. There was a chance I could crawl to the door and get to my pick-up. But when I opened my eyes, Junior's step-dad was on the floor too. My eyes cleared a good bit. I saw he was under the kitchen table and had a tall Bud in his hand. He motioned for me to come over to him. After I crawled under the table, I saw he was prepared to be there for a bit. He had a couple more tall boys against a table leg and handed me one. Clinked his can against mine and took a swallow. A big grin on his face, another swallow of Bud, then he whispered,
"Them three will be at this for a while. We could skedaddle out the back door yonder, or we could stay here and take in the show. Whatcha wanna do?"
Well, when I peeked from under the table, Pearl was going for a big black skillet. Junior was already heading for the back door looking to escape to the garden. His ma was going for that damn bean pot again, and I was pretty darn certain an entertaining donnybrook was getting ready to go full bore.
I looked at my under-the-table conspirator and shrugged. We clinked cans again but didn't say a word. Neither of us dared hardly breathe. We wanted no redirection toward us. When Junior got to the back door, he suddenly shifted left and ran toward the front of the house. He went out of sight, but those two women were still yelling at him and in hot pursuit. Pretty soon, Junior came running back. He busted through the back screen door, and the screaming women went right with him. I couldn't understand Junior's mother, but best I could make out was that Pearl was calling him a coward. Both were after him with those weapons they had. I stood up, and the last I saw of that bushwhacking piece of garbage he was running through the garden. Tomato stakes and bean plants were flying every which way. I told my tablemate it was my time to leave, which I did. Came home with this terrible headache and knots on my head.
Anyways, now I gotta go back and get Pearl. I forget why she went over there in the first place if I ever knew. I shrugged. It don't really make no difference. I just hope that bushwhacking ex-husband is gone and his ma isn't still in that state of whatever she was in yesterday. I don't need no more knots on my head.
As I eased up to the house, I started having doubts. This was the time to keep going and circle back home. I was backing out to do just that when Pearl come running out of the house, waving at me to stop. If you want to know if I'm dumb or smart, this will give you the answer. I stopped.
"What were you getting ready to do Billy?" Pearl asked.
"Well, I thought maybe you didn't need me after all. I was going home to doctor these damn knots on my head. Where's everybody anyway?"
I shoved the truck door open and climbed down.
"Father-in-law is sleeping, and Ma's in there cooking some eggs and sausage. Want some breakfast?" Pearl was all smiles, and there was a politeness in her voice that was for sure missing yesterday.
"No, I don't want to go anywhere near that crazy old woman, especially if she has a hot skillet she could use on me."
"Oh, she's all cooled down now, Billy. It was that Junior. She gets all riled up when he's around. We're all better off when Junior's locked up." Pearl ran her fingers through her hair.
"Why'd you want to come over here anyways?" I asked.
"Junior's ma called me. She said he'd found out that I'd been giving her money to hold for me. You know someplace safe."
"Holy cow! He come over here to rob his Ma? If that don't take every damn cake in the bakery."
I stared at Pearl and then looked over her head to the front porch. I was making sure there wasn't another attack getting ready to commence.
"Why's the money over here and not with you? That don't sound right."
Pearl turned and looked out over the garden. She didn't say anything at first.
"I needed a place to stash some money." She said, but she wouldn't look at me.
"Pearl, this don't make no sense. You could've found somewheres else for that money. Maybe a bank would've been nice."
Pearl turned to the sound of a crow in the cornfield next to the house. She shaded her eyes from the sun, searching for the crow. Then she turned to me, her hand still shading her eyes.
"I somehow thought he'd calm down, and we could go back like it was. But that ain't ever gonna happen. I was hoping that money would make him see how good things could be. But he's a crook and a bully, and that's apparently his life's goal. Damn fine job he did too this time. I guess you heard about the break-in at the Rexall downtown. That was Junior." Pearl started crying.
She looked at me. I saw those tears in her hazel eyes and those freckles that spilled over her nose like somebody had sprinkled cinnamon, and it just stuck there. She didn't or wouldn't see me like I saw her. I shook my head. I was done with all this stuff. My heart was hurting as bad as my head. I got back in my truck and backed out of the driveway. I was going somewhere I just didn't know where. I left her standing beside my truck. She didn't make a move to stop me.
As I drove off, I could see Pearl in my rearview. She was standing dead center in the road with her hands on her hips, crying.
I didn't care.
I had heard of the drugstore break-in. It never crossed my mind that Junior was behind it. I was driving past fields of corn, soybeans, and tomatoes. With my window down, the smells of cow manure and mud from the stream bank that ran along the road mixed; I was trying to let the combination of those things make me think of anything but Pearl. It wasn't working.
I don't drink no more. There were too many stupid actions on my part with beer or white liquor to blame. Several years ago, I decided one morning that I didn't want to have a hangover every time I woke up and wonder what I'd been up to. So's I stopped. But this morning, I was seriously thinking of starting again.
Maybe there was a pint stuck behind my seat that I'd forgotten.
I pulled over and opened the door. After I got out, I leaned the seatback forward. There among the empty snuff boxes, the old candy wrappers, and assorted discarded mail, I saw a sparkle of glass.
Whoa Nelly! Is that what I think it is?
I pulled the jar up from the bottom of that mini-garbage dump and looked at it. I tilted the jar to the right and saw just a bit: just a good corner of shine. I started to unscrew the lid. I stopped. That bad voice was calling like it was a ways off. "Go ahead. You finally got some sense. I thought we'd never party together again. I'll be right there."
I poured that shine on the road and threw the jar up on the floorboard. I slammed the seat back into place and walked to the front of the truck. I sat down on the bumper and took some Tube Rose out of my jeans pocket. I shoved a pinch between my lower lip and my gums.
That damn voice again, "Well shoot. Be thataway. You know you had more fun when I was around." Then nothing.
I started thinking about Pearl and Junior.
He was too stupid to get away with that drugstore caper for long. Sheriff Clawson will have him back in prison straight away, to my thinking. This time he might get a boatload of time because I bet folks is tired of his dimwitted antics. Well then. I might have a chance with Pearl.
I spit on the gravel.
I'm an idiot.
I looked over at the field and saw Pastor Brown heading out with his team of mules. Maybe I could talk to him. I started to go over but had second thoughts. No way was I going to admit to anyone that I was stupid enough to carry any thought of Pearl. She was trouble, freckles or not.
I climbed into the truck and started home. Boy I could use a drink. Well, maybe tomorrow, not today. For me, the next best thing to having a nip was to drive. So I lit out, not knowing where I'd go. I drove some back roads so's I could relax. After an hour or so, I realized I was at Pearl's house. There she was bent over, her truck hood up. She was doing something with the engine. It was running, and I could hear it get loud then idle. She did this over and over for a bit. I just sat there like a fool watching her. Jesus!
Then she stood up and closed the hood. I turned my truck off, got out, and walked over to where she was standing. She was wiping her hands on a rag and didn't see me. She was looking out toward the woods behind her house. Finally, she turned and saw me. She stood there for just a bit, looking at me. Then she ran to me in a sprint. I caught her just as she got to me. She threw her arms around me and started crying again. I pushed her back just a tad. I saw she had the start of a shiner on her left eye.
Pearl touched her face near her eye. "That damn crazy assed Junior come back to his Ma's just as I was leaving and saw I had that moneybox in my hand. He grabbed for it, and I told him to leave it be. He hauled off and smacked me right in the face with his fist. His Ma was standing there with a garden rake. She hit Junior with that rake and left one hell of a knot on his cheek. She grabbed the moneybox and dropped it behind her. She turned back around and hit Junior again. She told him to leave and not come back. Ever. Then she patted me on the back and told me to go in the house. Junior took off, and I don't want to see him again!"
I looked at those hazel eyes. I saw those damn freckles. I hugged her real hard and steady for a minute or so. She frowned and pushed me away. She angrily walked back to her porch, mumbling as she went. Pearl thumped down on a rocker and took out a cigarette. Hell, I've never seen her smoke before. I walked up on the porch and sat down in the other rocker, and just looked out at the cornfield across the road. We didn't say a word for a long time.
"I'm done with Junior and his kind for a while, Billy. You men are just problems and issues. I'm gonna get me a dog or a cat. Maybe get one of each. If you want to come around in a month or so, I might be in a better state of mind. Right now, I don't want no company. I don't want no men around me. Go home."
So I didn't say a word. I didn't look back at her. I stood up and walked off that porch. When I got to my truck, I opened the door. I stood there. Then I shut the door, soft like. I walked back to the porch. I didn't go up where she was.
I looked up at her and quietly said, "I ain't Junior. I ain't a problem. Though I do have a problem that I can't fix."
I had tears forming in my eyes, and they was just getting ready to roll down my face, but I wiped them off with the back of my hand.
"What's your problem, Billy?"
"You." I couldn't stop the tears this time, so I turned, walked to my truck, and drove home.
Them damn pump knots are still killing me. I hope that no good Junior is in a ditch somewhere with his face all swoll up. Junior! Damn him anyway. Why don't I ever learn? Why don't I listen to my good voice? I am not going anywhere near Pearl for a long time.
I made it home and into the house. It was way too early to be thinking about going to bed, but I laid down on the couch in my living room. After a couple of hours, I stood up from my old worn plaid couch. As I glanced at the yellow and orange pattern, it nearly made me sick. I started to look out the front window, but my head really hurt, so I went to the freezer and got some ice.
I lay back down on the couch. The cool air from the oscillating fan felt pretty good, as did the ice bag. I'd just shut my eyes when the sound of truck tires on gravel popped my eyes wide open. It stopped. The motor shut off. A door opened and shut. I heard the steps creaking going up to the porch and knew without looking who it was.
At the same time, both of those voices were clear as a bell, "Don't you get up. Stay right where you are. That woman's nothing but trouble." Well, Hell, if both of them were telling me the same thing, I'd better listen.
I shut my eyes.
"Pearl, go away. Don't come in here. My damn head hurts, and you're the cause. Go away."
Next thing I heard was the truck starting and it spraying gravel as she spun the tires.
Temper tantrum I expect.
I closed my eyes and felt the breeze from the fan. I listened for the voices but only heard a blue jay and some wrens outside the window.