Inside Crowley’s Snakebite Tavern, Carter watches the man balance himself on a ladder behind the bar, struggling to pin up a banner. “You need a hand up there?” Carter asks, just as Crowley affixes the edge to the shelf and steadies himself.
“Looks like I got it.”
Crowley jumps down from the ladder, and now Carter can read the sign: “Welcome Home, Jackie Nolan!” He clenches his jaw and takes a deep breath. On the mantel above it, the stuffed copperhead that serves as the tavern’s mascot is mounted on a branch, jaws open, fangs bared, flanked by a shelf decorated with empty bottles of Jim Beam three rows deep. Carter is terrified of snakes, but he’d rather tangle with a snake than welcome Jackie Nolan back home.
Crowley reddens and shrugs his shoulders at Carter. “I know the score and you know the score, but he was a regular here, too, back in the day. He’s got a lot of old boys left around here, and I can’t go playing favorites. Not today.”
“It’s fine,” Carter says. He has willed himself into making peace with the fact that his father-in-law’s release from prison is the biggest event Pelham County has seen in years.
“I can’t have you looking for trouble.”
“Who wants trouble in this heat?” says Carter. He takes a pull from his beer bottle and meets Crowley’s gaze. “I’m just here for the party.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” He begins to wipe down the bar in front of Carter with a rag, clearing off peanut skins and salt.
“I need to see him, just this once,” Carter says. “We’re gonna cross paths sooner or later. Better here than in front of Jolene or our daughter. I gotta know where his head’s at.”
“All right. Fair enough,” says Crowley. “How’s Jolene handling all this?”
“She ain’t coming to the party, anyway,” Carter says, and leaves it at that.
He fidgets with his beer, watching as beads of water condense on the outside of the bottle like sweat. He ponders what he will say when Jackie Nolan shows his face, and despite having played out the conversation hundreds of times in the past few weeks, he knows he won’t be ready. Jackie Nolan just isn’t predictable.
By quarter to four, the bar is packed with revelers, and it’s already a bit rowdy, more so than the typical Friday. Despite the sweltering heat that lingers like a visiting relative, after the exhaustion of a long week, they forgo the comfort of barstools and booths in favor of milling around the pool table and feeding crisp singles into the jukebox. Classic rock and new country pour from the speakers, and a few of the women start to dance, while the men tell time-tested legends about all the crazy shit Jackie used to do. The kind of guy you’d want on your side in a brawl, was the way most people described him. Jackie Nolan had a temper that came on like a twister, and he could be a mean drunk. He once shot out the back window of Stu Messer’s F-150, when Stu was a little too drunk to remember to pay his share of a bar tab. Or, there was the time he held a welding torch inches away from Leroy Greene’s cheek, when Leroy had filched the last cigarette from Jackie’s pack during a shift at CPCC. But, that was just Jackie getting riled up, they’d say, and even Stu was here today, ready to drink to Jackie’s health.
It doesn’t matter that the Nolan men are low down to the last; a family tree with deep roots trumps all around these parts. He could be a fun guy, and could raise a little hell when he wasn’t raining it down. There was the time Jackie convinced Crowley to grab a few cases of beer from the cooler, then led the entire bar through the woods to Rutherford Pond for a midnight skinny dip. And his high school rushing record, still emblazoned on a plaque outside Pelham Stadium, had endured for over thirty years. Some folks put a lot of weight on those things.
A cheer goes up from the entrance of the bar and ripples back. Carter turns toward the hullabaloo, and there in the doorway stands Jackie Nolan. He is wearing a suit, the same one he wore last time Carter saw him, and he wastes no time taking the jacket off and throwing it on the pool table. A clip-on tie soon joins the pile of discarded courtroom attire, leaving him in a light blue collared shirt with short sleeves. Jackie lifts both hands above his head, waves two fingers on each in a victory sign, and shouts, “I am not a crook.” A raucous roar of laughter follows from the crowd, then he retracts his index fingers and flashes another salute, ostensibly to the North Carolina legal system. “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, motherfuckers!”
He is small–maybe five-six–and sinewy. His skin is like burlap, and Carter notices that he has grown a Van Dyke in prison that gives him a devilish look on his skinny frame. Otherwise, he hasn’t changed a bit. Carter can see that there is still not a soft spot on his body, every muscle coiled and primed, every bone like stone. He takes a pull of his beer and at that moment, catches Jackie Nolan’s eye from across the room. If Jackie is surprised to see Carter, he doesn’t show it, and his mischievous grin doesn’t flicker. He just points a skinny finger at Carter, his thumb raised up like a hand pistol, and winks at him. Then he flicks his hand at the wrist and makes a pop sound with his lips. Carter nods once, unsmiling, as he digs his fingernails into the bottle’s label.
Everyone takes their turn giving Jackie a hug, sharing a laugh, saying how good it is to see him. Most of his former co-workers from the cement plant are here. A few from the second shift have called in sick today to celebrate their former colleague. Even Ellen, the Snakebite’s waitress, is swept up in all the excitement, and after a few more empty bottles of Jim Beam have collected on the mantel surrounding the copperhead, she lets Jackie get away with squeezing her ass once or twice.
When folks mill past Carter, they stop for small talk, though he knows his presence must be more sobering than the partygoers would prefer. They politely ask after Jolene, and he simply says that she is getting big these days, eating him out of house and home, but otherwise fine. They shake his hand, wish him the best of luck, and make him promise to let them know if he and Jolene need anything, but otherwise, they don’t linger. A few say how sorry they are about this whole mess, how hard it must be for his family, and Carter just nods, never taking his eye off Jackie.
Finally, Jackie himself wanders over. He doesn’t offer a hand to Carter.
“How’s my daughter?” Jackie says.
“She’s fine,” Carter says. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Well, then. Guess we got that out of the way. I reckon it feels good, for you to get to tell me that. You tell her I’d like to see her.”
“I don’t believe I will.”
“It was an unfortunate turn of events, son. I did my time.”
“Not enough for me.”
Jackie betrays his smile briefly and Carter sees a quick glare in Jackie’s eyes. But Jackie offers a shrug and turns back to the party. “Sooner or later,” he says.
To Carter, the turn of events had, in fact, started out quite fortunately. He had been eighteen, though still a junior in high school. Jolene was seventeen, and they were crazy in love. They had done it a few times already, always in the back seat of Carter’s car, a sweaty mix of limbs and seat belts and nerves and fumbling. That afternoon, though, they were on the couch in Jolene’s living room. They had been studying, but Carter’s attention was wandering.
“Not now, sugar,” she would say every time Carter’s hand inched higher up her thigh. “Daddy’s gonna be home soon.” And Carter would oblige, though he had little interest in trigonometry and knew that if her father weren’t home by now, he’d probably gotten sidetracked at a bar after work. The later it got, the more she let him kiss her, and before long, the kisses began to linger.
Carter couldn’t forget. The lights were still on and he could see everything for the first time as she sat astride him. Her skirt was bunched up around her waist, and her blouse was unbuttoned and pushed down to her elbows, and from that day on, when he closed his eyes and thought of her, he would always try to picture her as she leaned forward with her hands on his chest. He would remember their, “I love yous” and “I love you mores,” the heavy breathing and her blissful smile, and the moment where she shrugged the blouse off her arms, then held up her hands and ran her fingers through her hair, the vision burned into his heart, and her necklace falling between her breasts and her eyes closed.
When they heard the garage door opening, she scrambled off Carter’s lap and cinched up her shirt, while Carter adjusted his jeans and tried to regain composure. He could never predict what kind of reception he’d get from her father. Sometimes, he treated Carter with a leery tolerance, and other times, he’d just tell him to get the fuck out of his house. They opened their textbooks back to the chapters they had been studying, and when Jackie walked in, Carter was amazed at how calm she could look as she smiled at her father and said, “Hi, Daddy. How was work?” Jackie grunted a weary response while Carter held his breath. Her father barely glanced at the two of them as he hung up his jacket and trudged toward the kitchen for a beer. Jolene let out a relieved giggle when Carter finally exhaled. But it couldn’t have been more than a minute later before Jackie was back in the entryway to the living room glaring at the two of them. Maybe Jolene had missed a button on her shirt, or perhaps Carter’s cheeks showed too much color. For all he knew, Jackie had just been looking for an excuse. Whatever it was, Carter didn’t register the fact that something had set her father off, until he kicked aside the coffee table to clear his path to the couch.
Carter only felt it as Jolene was pulled off the couch, his attention frozen on her father’s face. Jackie had one hand under her arm, and the other grabbed at the skirt around her waist. He yanked her up and tossed her, like he was emptying a bucket of water. She crashed, screaming through the flimsy wooden coffee table and coughed as the wind was knocked out of her. Carter had barely scooted back on the couch when Jackie was upon him with a hand on his throat, and Carter was too scared to even think of thrashing. He could hear Jolene sputtering weakly and glanced over to see her trying to sit up, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. Jackie saw her too, and released Carter long enough to deliver a full-swing slap to her jaw with the heel of his hand that sent her crumpling back to the ground. “Stay out of this,” he said.
As he scrambled over the back of the couch, Carter saw the blood pooling underneath Jolene and the rage in Jackie’s eyes. He looked at Jackie’s heaving chest and flared nostrils. Jackie surprised him by going at him straight over the sofa, and Carter’s first instinct was to push back on the couch to create space. The sliding sofa caused Jackie’s leg to extend too far behind him, and he fell forward, landing on the floor chest first. Carter tumbled back into a wooden desk chair, and without thinking, picked it up and swung it as hard as he could. Jackie Nolan went down with a small whimper and was out cold. Blood trickled out from a cut on his temple where the chair had splintered. It was dumb luck, Carter knew.
Jolene wasn’t crying anymore, and she wasn’t trying to get up. She exhaled a weak gurgle and his stomach sank. In the wreckage of the coffee table, she was half-conscious and sputtering, and when Carter tried to pick her up, he saw two large shards of a vase embedded in her back and one of the splintered legs of the coffee table impaled a few inches under her shoulder blade. She tried to gasp from the pain, but only managed a squeak. There was blood everywhere, and he looked in her eyes, wide, like a cartoon, and he felt her fear as she struggled to breathe. All he could think was to keep her off her back and cradle her in his arms, praying please, oh please, God, let her hold on.
When the paramedics arrived, they propped Jolene up on her side and shoved a tube down her throat, hooking it up to a balloon. One of the EMTs had to hold her up like that, the coffee table leg still skewered out of her back. Sheriff Potter questioned Carter while a deputy attended to Jackie, who was now conscious, though dazed. After his daughter had been loaded into the ambulance, a paramedic wrapped some gauze around his bleeding head, then let the police get back to the business of arresting Jackie Nolan.
Jolene suffered a punctured lung and severed tendons in her back, plus a concussion and broken jaw. She took four rounds of surgery and was left with a lattice of scars large and small across her upper back. Jackie Nolan’s attorneys tried to argue that in the heat of the moment, he thought she had been raped, and he overreacted in trying to protect her. The shot to her jaw quashed that defense, though, and he was charged with attempted murder, aggravated battery and child endangerment. Jackie already had a few misdemeanors on his record, and since it wasn’t his first rodeo, he was sentenced to nine years in the state penitentiary.
When the gossip started going around, there were those who found it easier to accept that this was all an accident brought on by Jackie’s quick temper. They said he was a good man deep down, a fun guy, and he didn’t have murder in his heart. Everyone was sympathetic toward Jolene, and she was overwhelmed with flowers and casseroles and get well cards for a few months, but there were also whispers that got louder as time went on, that she was a rebellious child, and might have provoked Jackie more than the police let on. For her part, she refused to talk about it, and Carter didn’t much care to dredge it up, either, so the details of the story softened. Tongues wagged.
Carter drinks beer slowly, but steadily as the night wears on. Crowley and Ellen have relinquished control of the bar to the revelers, and Jackie’s cup is never empty as he holds his audience rapt with tales of prison riots and Ziploc winemaking. He’s getting louder and more boisterous as the shot glasses pounding on the table turn to leaky swallows straight from the bottle. The constant laughter is starting to overwhelm Carter, and he knows it’s time to do what he came to do. When Jackie passes by on the way to the bathroom, Carter tells him to hold up a minute. “How’s it gonna feel to piss with no one else watching?” he asks.
Jackie stops for a moment to stare him down, snorts at him, then continues on his way. When he steps out of the bathroom, though, Carter can recognize the change. He’s seen the look before: Jackie has taken a few minutes to let the slur sink in, and now it smolders in him, like the dying embers of a fire that’s not ready to go out. Carter knows that he just needs to blow on it and the flames will roar.
When Jackie walks by, he leans in close and whispers to Carter through clenched teeth, “This was all your fault, son.”
“Is that a fact?” asks Carter. He can see the scar on Jackie’s temple where the chair broke over his head. It looks like a teardrop. The smell of bourbon and Winstons is strong on his breath.
“I just told you, didn’t I?”
“I don’t reckon your telling it makes it so.”
“Just so you know, it should’ve been you I tossed through that coffee table. Should’ve been you rotting away in prison. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
“Yeah, I bet the injustice of it all just chaps your ass, don’t it? Ain’t it so damned unfair? I’m just gonna tell you once, stay away from Jolene. She ain’t ready to let you off for what you did, even if the state is.”
“She’ll come around.”
“Not if I can help it,” Carter says, and stands up. He isn’t tall, but he still towers over Jackie Nolan. This is nothing Jackie isn’t used to, though, and he puffs up like a cobra.
“You can’t help it, son,” he says.
“I ain’t your son.”
“You ain’t shit to me, and that’s all I have to say to you.” Jackie walks backwards away from Carter’s barstool, staring him down.
For the first time that night, Jackie sits down in a booth, and he is joined by a few of his old boys, the guys that have been glaring at Carter, too, for the past six years. Jackie’s getting fired up, and the menace in the air is as palpable as the wearying heat. He jabs his finger on the table, and his bourbon spills from his glass as he waves it around.
Crowley comes over to Carter’s spot at the bar looking fed up. “It’s time for you to go, bud,” he says. “Nothing good’s gonna come of you sitting around any longer.”
“I can think of one thing,” Carter says.
“Go home, before Jolene gets to worrying about you.”
“I guess it’s about that time,” Carter says. He pulls a crumpled twenty out of his pocket and nudges it toward Crowley.
“Not tonight,” Crowley says. “I’ll add it onto the tab for Jackie’s party.”
“Thanks. Sorry for all this.”
“Me too,” says Crowley. “Me too.”
Carter shoves the twenty back in his pocket and heads for the door. There are three men in the booth with Jackie, and their eyes all bore holes in Carter as he approaches. Jackie isn’t smiling anymore. He is sitting against the wall in the booth, spewing venom. Carter sees that familiar rage in Jackie’s face and can’t hold back. He taps his temple near his eye where the scar is on Jackie’s. “How’d the gang bangers up at Blue Ridge like that teardrop?” he says. “Did they welcome you into their little club? Treat you real nice?”
A chorus of threats and “fuck yous” rains down on him, and Carter smirks a little as he walks through the exit, out past the smokers getting their fixes and the sweaty drunks looking for air.
His truck is boxed in by other cars in the parking lot, but he knows he can drive across the lawn to the street. It’s just after midnight, and he can be home in fifteen minutes. Their daughter will be long asleep, but he wonders if Jolene will be waiting up. Today is marked with a simple circled X on the calendar that hangs on their refrigerator, but she hasn’t wanted to talk about it at all, and Carter wouldn’t know what to say, save for, “I’ll protect you. At least that’s one thing I can do for you.”
Carter figures she will be on the couch, watching a movie, sipping on sweet tea. Her swollen feet will be elevated and she’ll ask Carter to rub them when he gets home. He’ll put his hand on her big belly and tell her not to worry, tell her he took care of Jackie, tell her everything is going to be fine from now on.
He’s not drunk, but his head is a little cloudy as he sorts through his keys to find the one that will open his truck. He is listening for the footsteps, and hears them, just before he feels a hand on the back of his head. He can’t react before it shoves him into the driver’s side window. The window shatters, but Carter doesn’t fall. A few chunks of safety glass are tangled in his hair, and he tries to shake them out, to assess if he’s hurt. He turns around to see Jackie holding a beer bottle by the neck. Two of his old boys have followed him outside, and one of them tries to grab Jackie’s arm. “Come on Jackie, it ain’t worth it.”
Jackie shivers him off. “He’s been asking for this,” he says.
He steps up to Carter, who is standing slumped against his truck. “You know what them gang bangers taught me inside?” Jackie says. “Always watch your back. Been waiting for this for a long time.”
He swings the beer bottle at Carter’s head, and Carter manages to turn early enough that it only glances off his temple. It still breaks though, opening a gash on his ear that drops him to the ground.
Carter rises up on his knees like an execution. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he says. “Make it count. You know I deserve it.”
Jackie steps forward again and takes a swing – a closed fist that connects right on his jaw, and Carter feels a tooth dislodge. He barely has time to process it before he feels his nose explode, and all he can see is white. “You got lucky, son,” Jackie says. “Any other day, you’d have been the one laid out.”
Carter doesn’t even put up his hands to defend himself. He wonders if this is what people mean by an out of body experience, because he does not exist in this present. He inhabits the future that he has constructed, his and Jolene’s. It’s one where the citizens of Pelham County whisper and gossip over cold beers in the Snakebite when they see Carter, and the Jackie Nolan stories are revised to become something more like fables with morals and consequences. It is a beatific vision, and Carter can’t help grinning, because in it, Jackie Nolan is back where he belongs.
Jackie sees him smile through a mouthful of blood and hits him, again and again, then staggers backwards. “Ain’t you gonna fight?” he asks. He leans over with his hands on his knees and catches his breath as one of the old boys puts a hand under his armpit to prop him up. “Leave me be, goddamn it,” Jackie says, and steps forward for one more barrage, getting off a kick to Carter’s side. Carter’s vision finally starts to focus again as the pain dulls, and he sees past Jackie, where Crowley is approaching, holding a hand cannon. He fires into the air, before leveling it at Jackie. The noise is deafening, and everyone freezes. The old boys step back, and Jackie spits on Carter, who is still on his knees, though fading. “I was done with him anyway,” Jackie says before turning back toward the bar.
Someone comes to Carter with a towel and a pitcher of ice water, and he slumps back against his truck. In the distance, through the woods, he can hear sirens, and blue lights flash brighter and brighter as he closes his eyes and lets himself drift.
It is nearly six in the morning when Sheriff Potter drops Carter off at home and the darkness is lifting. A light rain has started to fall, and finally the late April heat wave begins to break. He had given his statement outside the Snakebite, while paramedics stitched up his ear, and Crowley backed him up, word for word, so the police cuffed Jackie Nolan and loaded him in the back of a squad car. “Fucking A,” Jackie said. “I didn’t touch him. He fell down some stairs.” He had laughed at that, then said, “See you next time, son,” before the cruiser door shut him in, caged again. Carter had offered a taunting wave with his fingers, and Jackie Nolan’s smile broke for the last time.
Carter first peeks into his daughter’s room, where she is asleep in her bed, her knees curled up to her chin and a stuffed animal in her arms. He shuts the door so as not to wake her, then pads into the living room. Jolene is asleep on the couch, her feet propped up on the arm of the sofa. The TV shows the title screen of a DVD and Carter turns it off before he sits down beside her, lifting her legs to rest them in his lap. He can’t help a small yelp escaping his lips as he sits down and his ribs throb.
She stirs slowly, and he starts rubbing her feet.
“Mmmm, that’s nice,” she says. She opens her eyes slowly, but her glasses are on the end table and Carter knows she can’t see him in any detail. “My God,” she says. “What time is it?”
“It’s six,” Carter says. “Go back to sleep. I’m just gonna lie down next to you.”
“You’re getting home late,” she says. “Did Daddy show up?”
“Don’t worry,” Carter says. “He ain’t going to be a problem. Just go to sleep. Everything’s fine.”
He lies down next to her and puts a hand on her belly. He feels it gurgling and closes his eyes. He can hear her breathing slow and she is asleep again within seconds. Tomorrow, there will be worry and tears and talk of leaving Pelham County. Carter will tell her that they can make a fresh start right here at home. She’ll rub cream around his eye where a nasty shiner has already emerged, and she’ll help tape up his ribs. They’ll talk about how she can work for at least another three months, almost right up until the baby, and then they’ll worry about that when they have to.