Vernel took a drag on her Kool and leaned back on the bench, the wooden surface eroded with age and scratched over with obscenities. The sun was setting behind the cotton fields and casting long draggy shadows over the live oaks. Draped in kudzu, they always reminded her of shrouded monks, their long robes muddied at the bottom, on their way to prayers.
The bus was late. It was always late on a Friday. She’d have to ask Forty to let her make up time at the end of her shift.
Forty was her boss at the Chiken Shak. That’s right, the Chiken Shak. Down in these parts a lot of people maybe didn’t know how to spell, but the name was actually a joke, handed down from Forty’s grandma Roddy. Roddy had a recipe for fried chicken to die for, and everybody in Bluffton knew about it. She was a fan of shorthand, always leaving letters out of words. When she got up there in age, she passed the business down to her daughter, who died young of some kind of cancer, who handed it down to Forty.
Forty just took it and went with it. By the time he graduated high school he was married to the place. Frying chicken – or chiken – was in his blood. He could be a mean sonovabitch sometimes but he had a good heart. He liked Vernel and the way she treated the customers; she has this funny way of saying ‘hey’ whenever anybody would come through the door. He got his nickname from the 40 ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon he popped open every night at closing. Sitting out back he would listen to the cicadas vibrate the South Carolina night with a searing, earsplitting thrum.
Vernel grew up in a doublewide just outside Tulip, Mississippi. Her mom was a heroin addict and Vernel would hide under the sink and watch her and her boyfriend, Daryl, shoot up in the afternoons. The rubber tubes, little pieces of foil and the tap tap tap of their fingers against the syringe fascinated her, but she hated the needles. When they got ready to inject themselves she would cover her eyes and wait for the next thing that would happen, a long, drawn out groan, a smile would cross her momma’s face, and for a moment, she looked like she was happy.
They’d be unconscious for a couple hours and Vernel would sneak out to the library, to read The Secret Garden for the fifteenth time. She could identify with the main character, Mary, an abandoned girl who had to adjust to life in a new country. By the time she got home, they were coming down from their high and the night always ended with Daryl beating the shit out of momma for no reason.
She watched her die one night at the kitchen table. She had been sitting there, eating supper one moment, and the next her head just dropped onto the linoleum counter. Edged in chrome and covered in pink and gray boomerangs, Vernel would never like linoleum again. Just seeing that 50s style of countertop brought back memories. Her mother’s blond hair, dyed black at the roots and teased up into a rats’ nest, laying motionless on the plastic surface, like a wig display from Bettie’s Beauty Shop that had tipped over. She had a tattoo on the back of her neck of the Confederate flag, and another of a rattlesnake wrapped around her bicep. Momma had been a tough woman, but not tough enough to beat the smack, or Daryl. When the medics came to take her out of the doublewide, her neighbor Tyree came over to stay with her, telling her ‘don’t worry, it’s all gonna be OK,’ but Vernel knew her momma wasn’t ever coming back.
Daddy took care of her after that. He was a good man. But he was gone a lot on the road, ‘on business’. When that happened, which was most of the time, she was left with the neighbors. Tyree was nice, and so was her husband Sam, but their eldest son Butch crawled into the doublewide one night when she was 15 and tried to rape her. Vernel kneed him and while Butch was doubled over in pain, she pulled the shotgun from behind the door, leveled it at his legs and fired. The kick sent her back into the wall, but when she stood up, Butch was screaming like a girl, holding a mangled hand to his face, several fingers missing and a splatter of blood and flesh on the walls. She grabbed the jar of coins hidden under the sink and hit the road, ending up as far as she could get on $49 and a Greyhound ticket – Bluffton, South Carolina. She kind of liked the fact that it was close to the ocean. She’d never seen the ocean in her entire life.
But Butch – and Daryl for that matter - had soured her on men. Butch had been in the same grade at school but the sonovabitch was stupid, for starters. Never paid attention in class, not like Vernel. She liked hearing the teacher talk about the ancient Greeks, especially how a mortal named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to his own people. But her favorite was Artemis. Those other goddesses were always getting knocked up by Zeus, but Artemis, she was equal, on par with the male gods. She could run away, change form, elude. She was one smart goddess and Vernel liked to think of herself like that.
Vernel was her granddad’s name. And Vernel’s momma had been too high the night she was born to add the extra “l” and “e” that ought to be at the end of her name. She was a girl, after all, and no girl in her right mind had a name like that. But Vernel had become rather proud of it. She would have to think like a man, now, to save herself.
So during these long waits at the bus stop, she liked to play a little game. Every now and then cars would come by with some guy in it. They’d pull up to the stop, see her sitting there, and roll down their window.
“Hey baby,” they’d shout. Or “sweetie,” “honey”, “sugar”, “you want some action?” Or sometimes just “yo, little ho”.
And she would get back at them. Thinking that each one of them was Butch, with his Marine Corps haircut, redneck football jersey and piggie features, or Daryl with his Alabama waterfall, wifebeater and scrawny arms, she would alternate the hand gestures according to mood.
“Fuck you pencil dick!” was her favorite. She’d hold up her little finger and scowl at the driver. Most of the time they’d burn rubber and drive away, leaving her in a cloud of dust but feeling triumphant. Sometimes they’d be local boys, just playing with her. Bubba and Shorty from down at the gas station, they’d mean no harm. On the way home from work, they’d see her there and shout “Hey skinny bitch how yo doin?” out the window. Or “Jezebel hair, what up?”
She always responded to them with a triumphant fist pump and never an obscene gesture – she knew the difference between when someone was playing with her or being serious. Bubba and Shorty were good guys, and she liked the fact that they noticed her hair. It was red, and it was the best thing about her. Her teeth were crooked, Daddy never had the money to straighten them. But the chipped one left a place for her to hold her Kool when she was fiddling with something in her purse. She had become used to it.
Other than her red hair, which was almost always pulled back into a rubber band – “don’t want any fuckin’ hair in the chiken, right?” – she wasn’t much to look at. She knew it. That’s why the game was so much fun. It was the only way she’d get attention from men, and since she hated most of them, except Bubba, Shorty and of course, Forty, she would have her daily revenge at the bus stop.
In a small town, she knew just about everybody, but in the past couple of weeks, there had been a car with out of state plates, cruising by. Not every night, just every so often. And it was weird. The windows were tinted so Vernel couldn’t see in, but the way the car slowed down in front of the stop, she just knew it was some pervert. And last night, she proved her theory right. She told Forty about it after work.
“So the car slows down, right, and then just sits there for a while,” Vernel said while Forty popped open a PBR for her at the end of her shift. “I figure it’s just another jerkoff, comin’ by to make trouble for me, so I flip him off.”
Forty smiled at her. He felt sorry for Vernel. She was a good girl, but her hard upbringing meant she didn’t trust many folks. For all he knew, the person in the car was just a tourist asking for directions. She ought not taunt folks when she’s at the bus stop, he thought to himself. One of these days she’s going to get herself into trouble.
“He just sits there, no response. Sort of creeped me out. At least he coulda had the decency to call me a bitch or something before he drove away,” she said, taking a pull off her beer. “Asshole,” she finally added, throwing her cigarette onto the ground and extinguishing it with her tennis shoe, the red earth staining the white canvas.
A flash of white caught her eye, snapping her out of her reverie. She watched as a crane landed in the swamp across from the bus stop. Lifting one leg up gingerly, then the other, it moved forward through the water, a white knife slicing the okra-colored scum. She slapped a mosquito on her neck and fanned her face with her book. The librarian told her Flannery O’Connor was a real good writer and that she would like these stories. So far, she did. They reminded her of her own life back in Tulip. But it was so damn hot that she continued to use Ms. O’Connor’s book to generate a breeze in the still, humid air. If this bus didn’t come soon, she would have to walk to the Shak.
She closer her eyes and thought about her trip to the beach last weekend. She had rented a $39 room at the Day’s Inn and sat in the sand all day, until her skin turned red and her eyes got tired of reading. She didn’t know how to swim, so she just watched the little kids with their parents, carrying them into the waves. At night she had the seafood basket at the Crazy Crab. She had become fond of the fried oysters and shrimp, and washed it down with a Palmetto Ale. A family, blond, tanned and happy, sat at the next table, laughing and talking. The mother was feeding the baby, plump and kicking in its high chair, pieces of crab with her fingers. Vernel watched in fascination until, embarrassed to realize tears were running down her cheeks, abruptly got up, paid the bill and left.
Lost in her daydream, she didn’t realize a car had pulled up. It was that same car, with the out of state plates. She never had the chance to see which state but now, as clear as day, she saw the magnolia blossom and the word “Mississippi” with its distinctive entangled “S’s” on the crumpled metal.
“Well they’re far from home,” she thought, trying to see through the darkened glass. For a moment she thought she would change her ways and wave instead of flip them off, then the window lowered. She had only a second to recognize the piggie eyes, the trailer trash goatee and the ‘Bama Crimson Tide cap. The pop sounded as if it came from far away, like a muffled bottle rocket. But he didn’t go for her legs; in the intervening years, Butch had learned to shoot with his good hand, and he was rarely off target. He had been practicing for this moment. Pleased to see his aim was straight, he smiled at his handiwork one more time and drove off, leaving a dust devil of red earth, spinning in the road.
Vernel slipped sideways, her head landing hard on the bench. Just before she lost consciousness, her eyes scanned her last views of earth. First the crane, lifting up from the swamp, flapping its wings like an angel, then the monk-like tree, towering over her, kneeling in prayer, and finally her library book. While sirens wailed in the distance she watched as its title, A Good Man is Hard to Find, slowly became covered in blood.
note: i was honored to learn here that this story won.
photo courtesy of Google images