There was little noise as he walked from the shed door to the pickup, a weathered tone of the sky above, with small embellishments of rust round the windows and under the taillights. He could smell the dry chill of the air around him, separate and distinct from the salt smell of his own face and body.
In the truck would be his keys in the ignition, a half pack or so of cigarettes on the seat, and a couple of dangling haggard seatbelts, never used. When his hand met the cold snow of the door handle, he felt the night creeping out of the metal and into his arm.
It was forty miles to Mother’s trailer. Twenty to Booneville, and twenty back again. The truck warmed and the ice on the windshield thawed from the vents outward.
Deputy Marshall saw himself in the rearview mirror as he settled into the truck bucking beneath his weight. His jaw was a drawn mass of leather skin and greying stubble grown since the night before. Scowling at the mirror, he pushed it back into position above the bed door and the gravel road the truck crunched in reverse, kicking dust into air where it hung a drifting, lazy ghost.
The radio couldn’t decide on a station, either. Two or three seemed to fade in and overlap, each fighting for dominance of the airwaves with deep-throated station ID’s and flash-bang commercials. He sighed, shifting the dial to something else, hating the local stations for being local, and finding little else of sufficient strength to bother turning the dial. Pausing at the public station, he listened to the educated smugly relate their views of the day and the day’s news. With an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he dug in his shirt pocket for a lighter, found none, and leaned over to the glove box for a pack of matches that floated near there for just such an emergency. His right tires caught the gravel on the side of the road, and he jerked the wheel back to the left while he dug.
In a puff of light and sulfur through burning eyes and nose, he squinted at the road dwindling in the distance. The tobacco smoke came with the same smell, and he shook his hand absently. The smoke trailing around the cab joined the thicker cloud from his mouth. With the match between his thumb and forefinger, he unrolled the window and pitched the stick, breathing clouds into the slipstream of the truck, its own plume of moisture rising behind.
When he stopped the truck, he did it in the street, easing the clutch in and killing the engine, letting the beast drift into the diagonal white lines in front of the pool hall. He opened the door and shut it, leaving the keys in the ignition and the windows down. Inside the pool hall, he could see Mack and a couple others sitting and staring at each other and the street walking and driving past. The door swung with a squeak.
“Deputy Marshall! You come to see old Mack, or to try and put your cuffs on me? You’re not in your county anymore,” he said with a wink.
“Mack, how we doing?”
“Still here, still here,” Mack said. He spit brown juice into a red plastic cup. “We looking for next weekend? Got a run on State, you want to keep it in play.”
“No, I’m good. I’ve got to get a bit to Momma. She needs a bit more than Uncle Sam will throw her here and again.”
“Don’t we all. Can’t believe that they cheat the old folks, but that’s the people in Washington. Honest men don’t last long in politics.”
“Neither do poor men in a poker game.”
“About the same, when you get down to them.”
“Well, let me see what I owe you.” He pulled a small green memo book from his shirt pocket, licked his fingers and turned a couple of pages, squinting, then turning a couple more. “Looks like you pulled a decent haul. About two. We’ll just go ahead and make it two. Keep it friendly.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Well, it does a man good not to run off the regular folks. It’s the deadbeats you got to worry about.” He reached into his hip pocket and pulled a wad of bills out, thumbing them carefully and without taking his eyes off the green numbers.
“I believe it.”
He put his fingers into his tight pockets and looked away.
“Alright, there’s two in twenties. We’ll see you again soon?”
“Can’t see why not.”
The money was warm in his hand.
“You tell your mother that I said hello.”
Outside the door again, the same squeak and then the silence of the cold day, he threw his weight into the truck when he sat down in it, the shocks echoing in metallic grinding protest. A thin woman walked down the street from the library with curlers in her hair and a brown gilded book cradled in her left arm. The grey of her hair matched the cornices of the buildings. She turned into city hall and disappeared in the doors. The town was a desert of concrete and white powder.
The engine complained. He let off the starter, pumped the gas gently, and turned the key forward again. With a growling rev of the engine, it caught, and he eased the stick into reverse as the radio rambled to life, putting his arm over the back of the seat and looking out into the road through the rear windshield. Snow littered the gutters and lightly dusted the roadway.
Mother’s was a grey striped trailer a few miles outside of town, off a gravel drive that snaked from the paved road. A wooden porch stood before the front door. Old, half-shattered Christmas lights hung from the trellis that served as a veranda, each bulb dusted with snow. His boots sent deep creaks through the wood and against the sheet metal of the trailer. Knocking, he could almost see the dents his numb knuckles left in the hollow excuse of a door.
Marshall could hear slow, unsteady footsteps approaching from the other end. They became fainter as they neared, stopping when one of the window’s blinds parted for a second and snapped back together, swaying back and forth. There was the jingle and scrape of a chain.
The front door opened. Mother stood with one arm against the door, holding her light blue kimono closed with the other. Her hair was a twisted mane of bleach blonde, about three months old. The kimono was fake silk and had a red dragon descending toward her waist among cigarette-burn polka dots.
“You coming to talk?”
“It’s going to cost you.”
“Is a hundred enough?”
It was dark inside. The windows each had a set of blinds and closed yellow curtains. The walls glowed, the inside of a wasp’s nest, an insect yellow that seemed to breathe near the corners of the eye. Patchouli and marijuana burned in another room. A thin fog of smoke drifted through the yellow buzz from the windows and made his nose itch. Mother fanned heat back into her kimono.
“You can use the back room to change. Your stuff is still back there.”
He could feel her in the other room while he changed. She was probably too gone to know how much noise she made fidgeting with herself. Like the walls were too close and made of glass, she kept going up to them and then crossing the room to the other, darting from one window to one wall, shifting her stance and rubbing her hands together quickly. His mind could see her picking at the scabs at her left elbow, where the blood would run and leave dark brown spots on the couch and the sleeves of her kimono.
He picked through his brown-paper grocery bag in the dark behind the closet door, pulling a bottle of cheap vodka out, twisting the cap and drinking for several seconds. His breath was fire. Through blurry eyes, he put his jeans and shirt on the bed in a folded ball. His boots he left facing the bed with the ankles touching.
“You ready yet?”
“Yeah,” he said, turning the golden brass knob of the broken door. “Don’t rush me.”
A hiss went through her teeth.
“Sorry, it's just I have somebody coming over in a little while. I didn’t want you to get caught here doing your thing, you know?”
He stumbled down the dark hall, leaning on the wall and running his hand down it as he walked, brushing small picture frames crooked on their single nails.
“Besides, he ain’t nobody important. Just a dealer. I need some powder.”
“Still. Hell, I know all those boys.”
“I know. But you had to know that hundred wouldn’t last long. Or you ought to have. You’re not going to give them shit, are you?”
“No, I like to watch their eyes when they know that I know.”
Stepping into the kitchen and living-room space, he turned to face the distorted mirrors embedded in the far walls. His wig was a good shade of blonde, not quite platinum, but golden. The stubble he’d grown since last night’s shower gave him away a bit too harshly. He wished that she’d give him time to shave. The pink slip was orange in the light of the room, but the black bra gave a double strap look that felt sexy and made up for the color shift. He lifted the slip, and ran his hand along the bra’s matching lace panties. A shudder ran through his legs, even after his fingers felt themselves leave the lace for his leg hair.
“It’s looking better,” Mother said, her eyes flickering at the front door.
“It feels better,” he said.
“Do you want to do anything?”
He turned and looked at Mother’s shaking eyes. She’d wrapped her arms around her chest. Her face fell to leave his, sharply to the left.
“You did give me the money for it,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“You said you wanted to talk.”
“So, talk then.”
“I don’t know how to start.”
“Start the way that you always start it.”
Kneeling at her feet, his head fell against his chest. She lifted the folds of her fake silk kimono in either hand, and, as his face collapsed into her naked lap, she lowered her hands over his head, petting him gently down the length of the wig, and cooing long after the tears began to soak through the satin.