William Matthew McCarter
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea letting my husband run off to a night club with his buddies on Ladies Night,” Bobbie Sue said playfully as Johnny kissed her goodbye. The truth was I didn’t really believe that she was being playful. She hated it when John went anywhere with Roscoe and me. It seemed that every time we left the house together something happened and it was usually bad. The three of us had a very volatile dynamic at times, and A.J. was with us, so that would likely only add fuel to the fire.
“Don’t worry, Bobbie,” John reassured her as he walked toward the door. “We’re just going to hang out, and I’m only gonna have a few beers. Besides,” he continued, “A.J. and Roscoe are just gonna get a little sideways …and Billy is just going to get drunk and then be depressed about Cassidy being gone. The way I see it, we’re about as harmless as a bunch of prepubescent Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Although John had been clowning around, he struck a nerve with me by bringing up the “c” word. I would rather hear any “c” word—cunt, copulate, corpus collosum, cunning linguist or even Chlamydia—than Cassidy. I slammed my beer, got another one, and immediately bummed a Marlboro from Johnny as a reaction to even hearing her name. Cassidy created a real cognitive dissonance in my head that was nothing less than extremely painful. Like the Ramones, I wanted to be sedated.
You see I first met Cassidy at the IGA when I was playing music with the band, Southern Justice. She was young, beautiful, and was trying to get a gig singing with a country band. I got her an audition with Southern Justice, knowing full well that we needed another singer like we needed to shit and fall back in it. It was all a ruse so that I could get to know her better and try to charm the socks off her. It turned out that she was thinking about the same thing when she went to the rehearsal. Both of us were basically doing the same thing to manipulate the situation to our advantage. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
However, looking back on it now, I could see that I had heard a wrong chord playing somewhere in my mind. I wasn’t sure what it was or who was playing that chord, but I could plainly see that it wasn’t quite right now. However, when you are caught up in the music and enjoying the tune, you tend not think about the notes that seem just a little out of place. And I never heard those notes while we were both being night owls, hanging out with the local musicians at the bars and at after gig parties. Both of us thought that were going to make it in the music business somewhere …maybe not Nashville or LA, but somewhere—anywhere but Piankashaw.
When Cassidy and I weren’t hanging out at the bars, at the after parties, or on one of our midnight rendezvous, she was either at work or at home with her fiancé. I was really cool with that, at first. I had been with married women and women that were taken before, and it usually turned out to be quite convenient and rewarding. I got to have a good time with them while I was with them, but I didn’t have to deal with any of their problems. When any of these borrowed angels wanted to go out and have a good time, they called me, but when they needed the grass cut or the car fixed or anything like that, they relied on someone else. These borrowed angels were like a magical shot of whiskey—twice the alcohol, half the calories, and none of the hangovers.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for me. As much as I tried to play by the rules of the game, this beautiful blonde singer had wormed her way into my gypsy heart, and somewhere along the line, I wanted something more from Cassidy than just some last call romance or an early morning rendezvous out at Possum Holler Lake. Finally, I convinced her to leave her fiancé …a few days later, she left me, too. For all I know, she could be sucking dick for drug money in East St. Louis. Who knows? Maybe she went on an audition and was picked up by a touring band or something. Maybe she would get whatever it was that she wanted—maybe she already had. After all, she was out of Piankashaw, and out of my life.
You know, men can be fools or we can be assholes, but sometimes we could be both. At that point, I really hadn’t figured out what I was—a fool, an asshole, or both. John was convinced that I was just a last desperate fling before Cassidy settled into the complacency of being someone’s girl—I was just another stop along the highway of her life …just another exit sign for a tourist trap on the interstate of her early twenties. I really didn’t know what I was …or where I was, for that matter. This feeling wasn’t really a heaven or hell kind of feeling, it was just me coming to terms with my own limitations. It was me experiencing a kind of mortal limbo that comes from loving someone who doesn’t love you in return. The kind of mortal limbo that really plays on your existential angst and makes you ask yourself: “Have I come this far just to go on dreaming alone?”
After I shook off these thoughts about Cassidy, I joined A.J. on the couch. He was rolling joints on John’s brass coffee table. John’s décor was a kind of art deco nouveau poor. Bobbie Sue did most of the decorating and that made their place look a little more like Better Homes and Gardens and a little less like Crash Pads from Hell. However, the brass coffee table with the mirrored top was the perfect living room utensil for rolling joints and doing lines of booger sugar and I am sure that was not one of the selling points advertised in Bobbie Sue’s Fingerhut catalog. I sat quietly on the couch and watched A.J. carefully roll the joints for our trip. While A.J. was rolling joints and John was saying goodbye to Bobbie Sue, for the second time that evening (I think he was really afraid that she would throw a monkey wrench into our plans), Roscoe was outside in the back of the van icing down the beer for the ride.
“Shotgun,” I yelled as the three of us walked outside to join Roscoe. I had just acquired the prestigious front passenger seat in the van. Now, A.J. and Roscoe would have to haggle over who was going to get to sit on the bed in the back and who was going to have to sit on the milk crate that served as the extra passenger seat. Johnny got in, fired up the van and took off down the highway, while the rest of us passed a joint around the cabin. The smoking lamp was lit and after only a few hits, so was I. John didn’t partake of the herb this time around because he had a phobia of driving stoned. He was almost always the pilot when we went anywhere. I hated driving and he liked it, so I let him drive while I leaned back in the front passenger seat, got stoned, drank beer and watched the world roll by.
I could feel the Piankashaw Valley growing colder as the last remnants of the late sun’s warmth dissipated into the air. The clouds were growing thick and the moon was hardly visible over Devil’s Icebox. Quickly, my eyes shifted to a spot just below the Icebox that we Piankashaw natives called “The Heights.” I remembered the last time that I had been up there. Cassidy and I were at a party on the Heights and hiked up to the Icebox just after daylight. It was funny how some places just seemed to strike a nerve inside us, and quickly I began to feel a sense of sadness about losing Cassidy. Once again, I was forced to admit to myself that, despite my struggles to shine on and try to be indifferent about our whole sordid fiasco, I still didn’t really know what to think about it all. It sucks that we really never know the answers to life’s questions before the final exam. I had tried to just put it all aside, but sometimes, especially during the sultry softness of the cool Midwestern twilight, my darker feelings and basest emotions just seemed to overcome me, like the amber color of whiskey clouding into water, altering the color of my soul.
In an effort to try and get my mind off Cassidy, I joined in on a little game that A.J. and Roscoe often played when we went on these road trips. They really didn’t have a name for this particular game, and the only thing that I understood about it was the one rule of engagement: try to see who can get the last beer by drinking the twenty-three that were remaining as fast as you possibly could. I opened my first can of beer and drank it down. It didn’t do much for me. My foundations were still shaking from the emotional wreck that had been taking place in my guts, so I poured a shot of 1843 into a dirty cup and then poured it down my throat before leveling a broken hearted gaze out the passenger window into the broken hearted Midwestern twilight.
Just as I finished my second can, John neared the intersection of Highway W and 67. Piankashaw had finally gotten big enough that there was actually a sign that tells motorists how many miles it was to town and the road that would take you there.
“I don’t see why they have that mother fucker hanging there,” Roscoe said, pointing to the sign, “Who would want to go to Piankashaw if you didn’t live there. And if you lived there, you wouldn’t need a fuckin’ sign to tell you it is nineteen miles away.” “Didn’t anybody tell you, ‘Scoe, Piankashaw is the vacation capitol of Southeast Missouri,” I said, trying to be funny and playful, hoping that a good laugh would wash away the black moments I had just been feeling.
“Hey, ‘Scoe,” A.J. began, and I knew that whatever he was going to say was going to be good because A.J. never said much, but when he did, it was usually pretty funny. “If no one would want to go to Piankashaw if they didn’t live there, then how did you get stuck there. I mean, you lived up in the city and came down here to party and blew your car up. Obviously, there must be something down here or you would’ve just stayed up in the city. Either that, or you’re just a dumb ass.”
“He’s just a dumbass,” Johnny said, laughing, “but unlike you, you Mill Creek hillbilly mother fucker, he’s a Piankashaw native and is not subject to any of the rules that would govern non-natives because of the troll.”
I snickered a little bit when Johnny used the word “governed.” John and I had been underachievers throughout high school, but had more raw intelligence than most of the student body. It was kind of amusing to see him enter “philosopher mode.”
“Troll,” A.J. asked, perplexed and taking John’s bait, “What troll?”
“Well, you see,” John began with a smile, “it’s a theory I have about why, no matter how old you get or how far away you go, you always come back to Piankashaw.”
“You see,” he continued, “there is a troll in Devil’s Icebox that sweeps down and steals a little part of you when you’re sleeping, and no matter what you do or where you go, you can never get that back and wind up moving back to Piankashaw just to be near whatever it was that you lost there.”
“Is that why you moved back here from Indiana?” A.J. asked. “Because of the troll?”
“No,” John began with a hint of laughter in his voice. “I was broke, unemployed, and my wife was on the verge of leaving me, but,” he hesitated, “now that I think about it, I bet that fuckin’ troll had something to do with that, too.”
“What are you laughing at,” John asked, looking over at me as I sat in the front passenger seat snickering.
“I just think it is funny how people invent all of these crazy stories to avoid accountability for their actions,” I said. “Why can’t you just blame it all on Jesus or the Devil, like everyone else in the Bible Belt?”
“Because I’m an agnostic, so I’ve got to have a fuckin’ troll,” he said, laughing.
“That’s funny, but what I’d really like to know is who gave Piankashaw such a fucked up name,” A.J. said as John drove down the highway past the “Pick Your Own” apple orchard.
“They told us this story back in school, A.J.,” I began. “Long before the white man came to the valley, there was this Piankashaw Indian Princess named Weyatonqua, who was in love with a young brave from a rival tribe. Every day, she would meet the brave on top of a large cliff. Legend has it that her father, Sataunqua, found out about her rendezvous with the brave and told his daughter that he would kill him if he ever saw him with her. Weyatonqua went to the cliff where she met the brave to warn him about her father’s anger, but the brave was late getting there. She thought that her father had already made good on his promise and that her lover was dead. She was filled with grief and, in a sudden act of agony, flung herself off the cliff just as her lover approached. He, too, was filled with grief and prayed to the Indian spirits to restore her to life. The Indian spirits caused water to come up from the ground where she fell to her death and that spring feeds the headwaters of the Piankashaw River. A waterfall called Weyatonqua Falls still commemorates the spot where she is rumored to have died, and the mountain is now called Sataunqua Mountain, after her father.”
“Just like a Greek tragedy,” A.J. said, faking a few tears and mocking me.
“I think he got the story wrong,” John said. “I heard that both of them died and it was more like a Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare thing.”
“Well, if it’s a Greek tragedy or a Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare thing, then how can it be a fuckin’ Indian story. That’s what I want to know,” Roscoe asked in his foolish but interrogatory way.
Sometimes Roscoe did some really fucked up shit. Sometimes you felt sure that when he was dead they’d put him on a fuckin’ stamp to commemorate the quintessential village idiot. But sometimes he was spot on, and this was one of those times. We sat in silence thinking about what he had just said. I was clearly convinced that everyone but Johnny was high. He drove the van with a steady left hand keeping it always on the wheel. With his right hand, he constantly pushed the buttons on the radio, regularly changing the stations so that he could get all of the talk out of our lives. I think that we all realized that we had said enough. Roscoe, the village idiot, has once again shown us that the world we lived in was a complete lie and we were both naïve enough to believe our common narrative and naïve enough to know that if we didn’t have these stories we would have made them up anyway.
At this point, I had already run out of cigarettes and started chain-bumming Camels from Roscoe. I sat, smoking a Camel, in quiet contemplation, thinking about the Piankashaw legend and how sorrow seemed to be such a big part of life for the people who lived there. We were somehow connected with the land, and also somehow cosmically shared in the collective sorrow associated with it. I looked over at the Joe Camel head staring back at me and winked, thinking to myself, Yeah, we’ll bust out of this town one day, Joe and not even Johnny’s troll is going to stop us.
A.J. sparked up another joint and passed it over to me. I huffed and puffed and blew my doors off and then passed it over to Roscoe, who, after taking a hit off of the hogleg, passed it up to John who was now close enough to our destination to feel comfortable with getting stoned. I never really understood why getting stoned and driving was such a big deal to John anyway. It’s not like being drunk, where you lost control of your sensibilities and couldn’t operate a motor vehicle. Getting stoned just made you slow down a little bit. Worst case scenario: You got really stoned on some killer bud and drove twenty miles an hour while you tried to eat the dashboard on the way to the bar. Maybe that’s why John didn’t smoke earlier, the dashboard of a 69 Ford Ambulance didn’t sound very appetizing to him and he wanted to make it to the bar before last call.
“Puff…puff…pass,” Roscoe said as I stared off into space, thinking about Cassidy, the legend of Piankashaw, John’s troll, and how it all fit into the great wheel of my life as the joint burned up in my hands.
“Billy, you’re getting that look. Don’t get all weird on me now,” John said, noticing the distant and contemplative stare developing in my eyes.
“Just leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about it,” I replied, knowing full well that he would start in on some apologetic theory about why I shouldn’t feel the way I feel about anything. John failed to realize that you couldn’t use a logical argument when it came to matters of the heart. No one ever said, “I love you with all of my logic.”
“If I feel the need to share something, I’ll go see a shrink,” I said, hoping that it would keep him off my back and quiet for a while.
“You don’t need a shrink,” he fired back at me. “You just need to find a new piece of ass. You know what they say: the best way to get over an old lover is to get under a new one.”
“Thank you, Dr. Freud,” I said in a smart assed tone of voice that I usually reserved for mocking Roscoe.
John had helped to set my ball of contemplation into motion by bringing up Cassidy in the first place, and now I couldn’t stop thinking about her, no matter how hard I tried. I slammed another beer, opened the next one, and then took another hit off the hogleg. I didn’t offend my brethren this time and “puff…puff…passed” nearly as quickly as I had received the joint. I couldn’t get my mind off Cassidy, but I damn sure could get my mind off my back by getting polluted—that’s what chemical dependent future rock stars did (when they were happy, they celebrated by having a toke and a smile, and when they were pissed off, they poured themselves into a bottle of whiskey and then woke up the next morning with a hangover and lyrics to a song). I just hoped that by the time this rocket ship to the moon of a music career ended, I would have enough money to check into the Betty Ford Clinic and hang out with Ozzy while I got sober.
“We’re here, we’ve made it to the Promised Land where pussy and beer flows like milk and honey in the land of Canaan,” John said as he pulled into the parking lot and we stepped out onto the damp concrete.
“That’s sacrilegious,” Roscoe said. “You better be cool.”
“I live for being sacrilegious,” John answered. “It’s a great way to reinforce being an agnostic.”
“How is being sacrilegious a great way to reinforce being an agnostic,” I asked.
“Well, I figure that if there was a God, I would have pissed him off a long time ago with my comments and He would have struck me with a bolt of lightning. I think that the fact that I’m still alive is a testimony to my agnosticism,” John responded.
“Don’t you think that acknowledging that there might be a God to piss off is contradictory to being an agnostic,” I said.
“Shut up, mother fucker,” Roscoe said. “It looks like rain.”
“What does rain have to do with anything,” A.J. asked.
“Lightning,” Roscoe said, pointing at the sky.
“Don’t tell me that you are even remotely religious, Roscoe” A.J. said.
“Yeah, can’t you just picture Roscoe reciting Bible verses in Sunday School,” I said, breaking into that sarcastic voice that I almost always reserved exclusively for mocking Roscoe. “Jesus cried like a mother fucker. Mark 3:18.”
We all laughed as we stood outside the bandwagon and finished off our beers, then began the journey across the parking lot and, hopefully, into a room of fresh new faces. Maybe John was right and all I needed to lift my spirits was a fresh piece of ass. But then again, maybe I needed more than just a piece of ass. I didn’t really understand what love was and didn’t know if I was even capable of feeling it. I didn’t know if I had fallen in love with Cassidy or if it was just some intense infatuation, but whatever it was, it was close enough for rock and roll and hurt like hell, leaving my soul feeling empty as if there was a part of it gone. Cassidy, like the troll high atop the mountain in Devil’s Icebox, had a little piece of me and I would never get it back and, like the Indian princess Weyatonqua, she seemed to have been transformed into a spring, feeding the headwaters of my sorrow, being the lifeblood of my tears.
About the Author
William Matthew McCarter is a writer and a college professor from Southeast Missouri. After completing his PhD at The University of Texas-Arlington, he has been busy writing work that brings attention to his native rural America. He has published academic work in The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices, Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice and Fast Capitalism, and critical work in The Ascentos Review and Steel Toe Review. His short story, “On the Road in ’94,” in A Few Lines Magazine was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His most recent published work appears in Stellaria and Midwestern Gothic. He has also published book reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and Southern Historian. McCarter’s first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America, will be published in 2012.