For 38 years, writers have been gathering on the banks of Troublesome Creek in Hindman, Kentucky, to write, learn, share stories, fellowship and honor Kentucky literary greats like James Still. This year, I have the opportunity to join them.
The Appalachian Writers Retreat officially kicked off last night with readings by Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon and former Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman, author of “Divine Right’s Trip.” After the readings, we gathered on our covered porch, rocking in the red and white metal chairs, to hunt and peck through facts and details of the lives of one another. West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire. Poets, essayists, food writers, novelists, short story writers. One of my favorite housemates is Key, the Great Dane-German Shepherd mix who is accompanying his companion, Lexington poet Rebecca Gayle Howell.
Today, writing workshops began and there were afternoon readings by several participants. One of my housemates, E. Gail Chandler, encouraged me to read because she was going to, and I read a short story called “Another Minute.” It was well-received. Even Robert Gipe, author of the ballyhooed graphic novel “Trampoline” complimented me (which made my day!). I thought I’d share the story with you.
Darlene wiped Amethyst Ablaze lipstick from her lips with a greasy McDonald’s napkin as Earl’s Camaro shuddered to a stop. Go back with Maybelline on her lips and the screws might figure she’d been gone for five hours.
Earl wrapped a rubber-band around the gearshift to hold neutral, grabbed the crowbar from the back seat, then scuttled behind the back of the car to keep watch while Darlene slid low in the seat and emptied out the contents of the Wal-Mart bag: three tubes of Great Lash Mascara, two tins of Camel Spice snus, and one “Thrill” rechargeable personal massager. She’d get enough to buy commissary for the next three months and then her bit’d be up.
Darlene shimmied out of her jeans, pulled the “Go Vols” t-shirt over her head and then reached for the orange jumpsuit crumpled behind the seat. She put her feet into the leg holes and slid the sleeves up and onto her shoulders, feeling like she was clamping shackles on herself.
Earl wrenched open the passenger door.
“Earl, put this mascara under my bra in the back.” She lowered the back of the jumpsuit, giving him full access while she arranged each round tin of tobacco in the front cups of her bra. “Now all’s left is the vibrator for Screamin Nina.”
Earl snorted. “Don’t reckon you’d wanna . . . ”
“Earl. God. Don’t be gross,” she said, but snickered. “Anything coming?” Darlene examined the road in both directions and saw no traffic. She stepped out of the car and stood hunched next to Earl with the jumpsuit hanging open off her shoulders. The vibrator tucked neatly inside the back of the grayish-white prison-issue granny panties.
She snapped the front of the cheap cotton cloth back together. “Sounds like bars closing, don’t it, Earl?”
“Damn baby.” Earl enveloped her body. “I hate leaving you here again. You call when you’re back in now.”
Darlene nodded once, sniffed back a few tears. She knew Earl felt bad; he’d told her many times how sorry he was she got caught with his deal. But there it was, he was out and she was in. She didn’t want a blotchy, tear-stained face to be the last thing Earl saw. She wanted him to remember those two hours at the Motel Six and hoped it was enough to keep him honest for her final ninety days. She stepped away and turned her back to him. “You don’t see nothing?”
“Nah, baby. You’re good.” Earl leaned against the passenger door, grasped Darlene’s ass in his hands then turned her for a final kiss. Behind her on the hill was nothing but grass and trees and silence. If he hadn’t known better, he would’ve thought this was just another of the rich, loamy farms in the area; limestone swiss-cheesing below the surface of the grass they called blue, glossy millionaire horses chawing on blades of it from above.
“I’ll make it back fine before the count as long as they ain’t looking for me.”
The sound of gravel spraying surprised them both but it was just an old Chevy parking in front of a yellow frame house across the road. A sturdy man in jeans got out of the car, glanced quickly at Earl’s beater before popping the trunk and pulling three brown paper Kroger sacks to carry into the house.
“You’re a good man y’know, Earl? I couldn’t of stood this place another day if you hadn’t of got me this morning. I needed you in that motel room.” She pressed her groin against him, hard. “Don’t forget that. This shit for the girls inside is just a little extra for commissary, you know? I hate having to ask you for money.”
Earl groaned. “Gal, don’t do that or I’ll take you right back to the motel and no Wal-Mart this time.”
Darlene giggled and ground against him tighter. With her head on his shoulder, she could see a mile down the road. She heard a growling Harley, saw it approaching from far away. “When I’m done, let’s get one of them bikes and just go. God, I wish it was now.”
A job in a Seven/Eleven; fixing food she wanted, not something slopped out of a can barely heated; maybe somewhere down the line a pink baby with Earl’s red hair wrapped in a soft, blue blanket.
“Get on now, ‘Lene.” Earl held her tighter for a heartbeat and then released her with the changing of the wind. Darlene sighed, detached herself and edged up the hill. She heard the clang of the crowbar Earl threw it into the floorboard and turned back to wave. But the man across the road had come back out his front door and was looking at Earl too. He spoke to Earl from across the black border of asphalt. When he started walking toward Earl, Darlene froze.
There were no trees, no shrubs, not even any long grass between the road and the brick walls of the minimum-security prison. Only short-termers and low risks were housed here with the expectation they would stay put. If you were dumb enough to screw up your last minute, the bulls would make sure you got enough time you didn’t make that mistake again.
Brophy stood in the road, completely focused on shouting at Earl to move the Camaro and damn if that Harley wasn’t headed right for his stupid ass. Jesus God, Brophy, Darlene thought. Look up.
He did not.
As the bike got closer, the noise got louder but still the damn fool didn’t move. Surely to God Earl heard it. But Earl was still as a catatonic holy roller.
Darlene stood rooted ten yards away from Earl, undeniably outside the low, wire fence that marked the boundary. “Brophy,” Darlene shouted. “Move!”
He jumped at Darlene’s shout, saw the motorcycle headed for him and ran toward Earl. The Harley swerved, continued without slowing, the growl decreasing as it passed. Darlene watched until it shrank to a pinpoint on the vast blue horizon. When she turned back, the Corporal’s narrowed eyes were fixed on her face.
“Thanks, Cooper,” he said. “Course, that’s escape. I gotta charge you. You’ll probably get transferred and do two more years.”
“Yeah.” Darlene put her hands behind her back.