Fresh new fiction from Beth Gilstrap
Suebelle thought she’d handle things better in the country. Five years into marriage with Johnny, she blamed their inability to conceive on city fumes, power stations, and all that durn noise. No baby wanted that kind of pile driving, 2 am and the bar on the ground floor is still hopping kind of noise. Not to mention the hundred-year-old windows that leaked and needed caulking. When Suebelle duct-taped cardboard over the bottom half of all four of their windows and stapled pillows on top of it to boot, Johnny said maybe it was time for a change. Lucky for them, a month before their lease ended, Johnny’s granddaddy had the fortitude to finally die of his congestive heart failure.
“Well, you know it’s a blessing,” Suebelle said right there in his dead granddaddy’s living room in front of God and his sweet Granny and everybody. “You couldn’t carry on a conversation with the man anymore. Didn’t do a thing but stare at Bonanza reruns. That ain’t no kind of life.”
His grandma pulled on Johnny’s shirtsleeve until he was right by her mouth. “What did she say? Did she say he was better off dead?” blowing a hint of menthol chewing tobacco at him.
“Nah, Grandma. She wouldn’t speak such things,” Johnny said, looking at Suebelle that way where his eyes bulged and his upper lip twitched.
When Suebelle announced to the room she would be outside if anyone needed her, the relief was instant, like a fast July rain.
If Suebelle was supposed to be sorry, she wasn’t. She had no intention of letting herself get to that point of decay, of going batty in some nursing home where they threw sad 4th of July parties, everyone wheeling around in their stained clothes with little American Flag pins on their t-shirts, trying and failing to eat hot dogs on buns. No siree. Suebelle knew she’d take care of it herself. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to work a gun, but she’d figure something out. Pills. Hobble herself over to some train tracks and just lie down. No note or anything. If she made it to that age, people would assume she was demented and lost and oops walked smack into the 6pm Norfolk Southern. Poor old Suebelle, they’d say.
Back inside, the family made plans without her. “Well, Johnny, you know I’m not staying around here anymore since your Grandpa passed. Your Daddy and me talked about it and thought you might want to move out here and take care of the place for us. I don’t aim to sell it as long as it might do you and your new family some good,” his grandma said, careful to get a jab in Johnny’s ribs on the word “family.”
“I’ll have to talk to Suebelle.”
“I think you got to do more than talk, darlin’,” she said, tossing her head back in a laugh. With grandma’s sex talk, the whole room giggled, but almost as quick as it started, the laughter took a sharp turn to tears for Grandpa. They all agreed the world had lost a good man and once the Baptist contingency of the friends and family left, they all got to drinking proper.
Suebelle could feel Johnny watching her from the porch, but she didn’t look back. She walked the edge of the field where his family used to grow tobacco, humming a little Otis Redding and wishing she hadn’t given up on her guitar lessons. Maybe if she could play the blues better, she could manage to seduce her body and Johnny’s into making three out of two. Her arms had started to show age. More brown spots. A little more softness and flesh, the hint of cellulite when she pressed down on her arm. She told herself she was okay with it. She told Johnny she liked the way women aged, that she’d always felt old anyhow. Now her outside matched her innards was all.
Back in the city that night after all that drinking and mortality, they tried and failed to make a baby. By this point, she had stopped getting her hopes up in between periods. Used to be she’d stop drinking altogether, avoid caffeine, take the folic acid pills and the whole shebang, but hell, she was doing good now if she kept her drinks to two.
“Sweetness?” Johnny said.
“Yeah,” she said rolling onto her side. Red lights twirled across the ceiling.
“Grandma says she wants us to move in to her place since she’s headed to Sunset Manor.”
“We could get away from the city? How much rent will your people charge us?”
“None. We just have to look after the place,” he said, rubbing her shoulder.
“We could put a tire swing on that maple by the field.”
“Yes, sweetness. We sure could.”
“Can we redecorate?”
“She says it’s ours, to make it our own.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too, sweetness,” he said draping his leg over hers.
Five months after moving into his family’s farmhouse, Suebelle was still barren, but the house shined from new paint, rugs, and shutters on the bottom half of the twenty-three windows in the place. It was a step up from pillows stapled to cardboard. Johnny had been promoted at the bank, but had to travel a lot more so Suebelle was left home in those fifteen heated rooms and a root cellar with no baby and money to spend. She made the house hers until she was out of ideas. After that, she took to wandering the property. Twenty acres sounds like a lot until you’ve walked it so many times you can walk it drunk in the dark.
Little by little, Suebelle built herself a fort in the forest at the back of the abandoned tobacco field. When Johnny had only spent one night out of twenty at home, she rolled up one of the rugs that had clashed with the paint in the foyer and dragged it on out to her hiding spot. Not that she had anyone to hide from most of the time. His family didn’t come around when he was on the road. The quiet in the house had gotten fifteen leagues of deep, so deep it made her head throb. This might have been of concern to her friends if she’d kept in touch with any of them after college. It might have concerned Johnny if he’d ever been home long enough to wake up from his work and travels. When he came home, he was shell Johnny, shadow Johnny, couldn’t-even-touch-her-if-he-wanted-to Johnny. First it was the rug, then a tent and her guitar. She made a fire pit out of cinderblocks from the old house where traveling pickers used to sleep at harvest. She wondered if the land remembered their suffering; now, she blamed its ghosts for her lack of baby. For a while, she’d sit out there next to a fire she built herself on this land that had no memory of her own blood, her own family, and strum her guitar til her fingers blistered. She’d sing “ain’t got no man” songs and play into the wee hours to no one but the scrub pines and deer. The “no baby” songs were instrumental. She had no words for them.
Soon, Suebelle and Johnny had no words for each other.
Suebelle knew they were in it big time when he stopped calling her sweetness. She always told herself they would be okay as long as when he got home, he lifted her chin so she had to look at him and said, “You’re my sweetness.” The first night he didn’t call her by the pet name, she made him chili. He ate it with Uncle Ben’s and said thank you and cleaned up his own mess.
He was so polite she wanted to beat him with her guitar.
She slept in her tent in the woods and he only noticed when she didn’t make the coffee before he left again. Suebelle heard his car crunch down the gravel and then put her tent in the fire. It burned strange and pungent. All color and fume. Her mismatched rug had grown a good layer of moss and she didn’t even have the heart to play anymore. No more “ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone” songs. She needed to create something, but what? Songs were too ephemeral for her now, lost to the trees, drowned in her own haywire.
For the rest of winter, she stayed indoors watching soap operas and game shows. She forced herself to run the vacuum once a week, but she quit cooking and now ate a different Lean Cuisine for each weekday. Weekends she ate frozen pizza. Johnny had TGIF frozen wings and cheese sandwiches on white bread when he was home. They’d nod at each other and drink in front of any number of cooking or dance contest shows until they both fell asleep.
Those months, she thought a lot about Johnny’s grandpa as she sat curled under his afghan in his favorite chair. The way he gurgled the last year of his life, mostly. Come April when the ground finally thawed, she walked the property again. Suebelle needed fresh air and exercise, to get her blood moving, to make something, anything. To somehow make up for her lack of Sweetness.
When Suebelle found the carcass out next to the maple, she knew she’d found her project. It looked to be a cow; maybe some kind of elk. She didn’t know much about that kind of thing. More horns than anything. She guessed those turkey vultures she’d seen a while back had eaten well since there wasn’t much flesh left to speak of. A little at the hooves. There, in the spot she’d envisioned spinning a little girl in a tire swing, were the bones of her future only she didn’t know it yet. All she knew was she was going to use them for something. Make something so this life at least didn’t go to waste. She dragged the carcass over to the back of the house to what had been Johhny’s granddaddy’s workshop.
When Johnny came home eight days later, Suebelle met him at the door with wine-stained lips and a bear hug. She wore a pair of his grandpa’s dickie’s and Johnny’s Green-era R.E.M. t-shirt.
He pushed away. “What’s got into you? Aside from a shit ton of wine?”
“I made us a little family,” Suebelle said. “And dinner. I made that hash brown casserole you like. With the crunchy onions.”
Johnny smiled, but took another step back. “Well, that’s a nice surprise. You know, I’m glad to see you coming out of your funk a little bit. Maybe it was just the winter blues is all? Maybe now spring’s here, you’ll feel better.”
She grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him in a way that made him wonder if he’d ever see his real wife again.
“I do feel better,” she said. “I finally figured out how to make this place ours. I’ve made us a family.” She led him into the dining room where she’d moved her new baby. She had positioned the figure she’d made from the carcass in the back corner of the dining room next to the window so it could get good light. Suebelle had also clothed her baby, draping her in one of Johnny’s grandma’s old tablecloths. Modesty was important. Staring at a skull wrapped in a cloak and standing at a man’s height, Johnny didn’t quite know what he was looking at, but he was worried enough to grab Suebelle by the waist just in case she was about to slit his throat or something.
“Well, now Suebelle,” he said, scratching his scruff while keeping one hand on her. “What on God’s green earth is it?”
“That’s Sweetness,” she said. “That’s my baby.” She wriggled loose and pinched a few buds off the roses on the table and sprinkled them over her baby.
“I don’t follow, hon.” He got up and lifted the tablecloth to see an old tripod from her college photography days. She had taped a pillow up where a man’s shoulders would be.
Johnny thought of what to say, how he should approach the situation, wondered if she’d fallen in with some devil-worshiping tweakers. He touched the tip of the horns and turned to her with those same old bug eyes that were supposed to scare her straight.
“I think it’s an elk. Found her out by where we were going to put the tire swing,” she said.
“I think it’s a cow. And hon, only males have horns.”
“I told you. Her name’s Sweetness. Now, be a doll and set the table.”
Suebelle hummed one of her “no man” songs as she cut out big squares of casserole, but she no longer remembered the melody to her “no baby” songs. She didn’t have to. As long as she had someone to call Sweetness, she was gonna be just fine out in the country.
After Suebelle sat down and had her napkin in her lap, she raised her glass to Sweetness and nodded at Johnny, but he looked pale. He waited for Suebelle to take the first bite. After he finished the only good meal his wife had made in nearly a year, he said, “Baby, I think we need to talk.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “I got my man and my baby Sweetness and all is right with the world.”
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (Twelve Winters Press, 2015) and No Man’s Wild Laura (Hyacinth Girl Press, forthcoming 2016). She serves as Fiction Editor of Little Fiction. She has been awarded residencies at The Vermont Studio Center and The Cabin at Shotpouch Creek through Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word. Her work has appeared in Quiddity, Ambit, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Synaesthesia Magazine, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.