Fiction
Fiction

Be Good to Our Pretty Girls

John Brandon

 


 

 

The last pretty girl has left our Gulf Coast town.  None of us were raised with the particular goal that we become gentlemen, but when the pretty girls were around we were just that.  She went to Atlanta, our girl.  They choose between Atlanta and Miami.  And once in a while a spindly thing we have never considered pretty will head off to the North, to New York City, to have her picture taken in outfits and have it taken without an outfit, and though we take this personally, the dressing up and undressing of one of our gawky lessers for the sale of fancy clothing, it does not bruise our hearts.

 

We were not raised by our mothers to be gentlemen but we are aware of the war being fought between growing numbers of the stalled and fallen and pockets of men like us.  We fight our losing battle by sipping and setting alarm clocks and dragging ourselves out of bed each dawn, and they defeat us with insurmountable hangovers.  Most are on the fence in this war, but our mothers did not raise us to sit on fences.

 

Our pretty girl will miss us, our selves and the idea of us, but pretty girls, like soldiers and salesmen, go where they must.

 

We never have to order another round.  The barmaid knows to bring one.  Our table on the front patio is reserved without the need of a sign.  We act like we own the place, and the other patrons don’t mind.  They know we keep the bar in business and they know we are not bullies.

 

The teenagers drive sensibly outfitted cars nowadays and they don’t fight.  We can see most of downtown from here.  We watch the fat women walk by and the very skinny ones and we nod politely.  We can see all the way down to the river, where it used to be canoes and skiffs and now it’s kayaks.  People used to shoot the alligators and deep- fry them and now they take pictures of the beasts and frame the pictures for their front rooms.

 

No one touches the jukebox.  We supply the barmaid with dollar bills and she plays whatever she wants.  We don’t like any of the music, and this is somehow relaxing.  None of it is from our era.  It’s older.  It’s music from the early 80’s that the barmaid knows.

 

To be honest, we know little about the North.  None of us has been there for more than a weekend.  We know that everyone continually blows their car horns.  In our town, if a man blows his horn at another man without a convincing reason, there will be a fight, and this is a way of doing things that both rednecks and civilized men can get behind.

 

We know that in the North they like bagels and soup and they prefer professional football to college football.

 

We no longer fish. In grade school we yanked brim from the ponds and in high school we dangled our lines off the piers and in college we dropped frozen chum blocks into the Gulf and watched them thaw and disassemble and then we dragged shark after shark up onto the decks of our small, sparkling boats, each animal thudding and thrashing and training us with his eyes.  The sharks seemed to know this was part of the deal for them, being tricked, a cost of their business.

 

 

One day we went to the hydroelectric plant, which had opened its canal to the public, and the bluefish and ladyfish and adolescent jack leapt onto our hooks all day, hundreds of them, before the bait could even sink out of sight.  No sport to get lost in, boredom caught us.  This isn’t fishing, we joked, this is catching.  There were manatees bobbing like blubbery icebergs.  The whole thing made us feel silly.  It was a place for rednecks, this canal.

 

We don’t need anything, so on our birthdays our mothers give us paperweights and letter openers and bookends, items meant for olden day men who kept studies.  We are so far from the olden days, that the gifts are almost jokes.

 

We never wanted to marry the pretty girls, yet when we got out of bed in the morning it was for them, to ensure they had a suitable place to live.           

 

Without us, our town would be shabby.  One of us owns a lawn business and he does plenty of pro bono work, old folks who can’t afford the service and can’t go out in the heat anymore.  One of us does roofs, and many of them for a severe discount.  One of us does flooring, one paints, and the other, the only one who uses his education, is a lawyer.  He’s the kind of lawyer who looks out for people.  He charges the Northerners full price.

 

None of the paying customers mind that their neighbors get our services on the cheap.  They want to live on tidy streets.  It’s a type of socialism, I think, unless I’m not clear on what socialism is.

 

New pretty girls will graduate up from the high school, and it may take them a few years to leave, but they won’t be our pretty girls.  They’ll be children.  We could sooner be inspired by their mothers.

 

Each of us smokes a different brand of cigarettes.  We trade a smoke now and then and act like we can tell a difference, but only the lawyer’s cigarettes taste better.  He orders them from England and when they arrive he stashes them in his freezer.

 

One of our pretty girls, years ago, left for Miami and came back sick, all kinds of things wrong with her organs.  During the week that she hung on, we brought her flowers every day and we brought her mother flowers.  There was plenty to be sad about, a girl with supple tanned arms and a skeptical nose and gleaming almost-straight teeth and inside her lungs are fraying and heart sputtering.  But at least she made it home.  This is what we told her mother and it wasn’t mere consolation.  She was home, where when things rotted it was obvious.

 

 

When we were young, snakes had the run of the town.  We found them in our mothers’ gardens and under cars and even in our linen closets.  They clogged the river.  They hung from trees, fat and complacent.  Now there are none, and it is because the alligators have returned.  The state decided to protect the alligators at the expense of the snakes, and this was a sound stance.  A person doesn’t accidentally tread on an alligator. 

 

Our town has grown crowded, more people all the time and no place to put them.  The lines at the supermarket are testy.  The playgrounds are chaotic.

 

None of us has a child and any of us, we know, would make a good father.  We see all the troubled fathers and we feel delinquent.  We drink more beer.

 

A drivers’ education teacher at one of our high schools was caught taking the school’s car on his free period and picking up hookers.  He was forgiven, stayed out of jail and kept his job, but then he went and did it again.  Now he lives in the bars downtown, not our bar, the lesser ones.  His children had to switch high schools, a son and a daughter.  We drink deep into the night, knowing full well we have to get up in the morning and keep the whole town from going to shit.

 

Certain people follow our lead.  We make it plain that the drivers’ education teacher is not to be judged.  We tell ourselves, loudly enough for the other patrons to hear, that all of us paddle daily over nests of dark, prehistoric menace and only by some grace have we not yet fallen prey and been drug under.  We don’t know if it’s true.  We know our strength better than our weakness.

 

There are three high schools in our town.  One is for us crackers.  One is for the rednecks.  The brand new one is for the Northern transplants.  It’s called Silver Palm.  It has been open four years and they have yet to win a football game. 

 

We never go in one another’s houses, and rarely in each other’s pickups.  The lawyer’s pickup is luxurious.  There’s a small refrigerator in it and he can plug his computer into the dashboard and go on the Internet.  We make fun of the lawyer’s pickup, unsure whether we’re jealous.

 

One of us has a room in his house devoted to jigsaw puzzles.  He has a gaggle of nieces and nephews who work on the puzzles little by little each time they visit.  These nieces and nephews are from other parts of the South, parts long settled and sorted.  When they visit here, they visit the frontier.  It’s the roofer, the one with all the nieces and nephews.  He has his own puzzles, and he swears he never finishes one.  He feels lost, finishing.  He swears he gets within a piece or two and then dumps the whole thing in the trash.  He says he picks the puzzles up, intact, and folds them into the garbage can.  He doesn’t have a TV in his puzzle room.  He swears he doesn’t watch TV, the roofer, that he only watches football live.

 

The barmaid is known as Yankee Jan even though she’s from the flat part of Kentucky.  She tells stories of ice storms and floods, of natural terrors that spring from nowhere.  Our hurricanes are plodding in comparison, tracked from the middle of the ocean, from their infancies.  They’re named.

 

Yankee Jan is in love with us.  Her stories are all about being stranded, and about the fun that transpires among stranded people who understand that they will not die.  Listening to these stories, we wonder where these people are now, why Jan left them.

 

When the girl came back from Miami, bedridden, we learned a hymn and sang it to her, a bunch of reticent, shaven fellows who never sang before that day and will never sing again.  It kind of compromised us, singing, and the girl knew that, and maybe that’s why we did it.  I kept my hymnal, which was borrowed from the big Church of Christ.  I keep it in my nightstand.

 

The dying girl never lost her color.  Her throat and shoulders where the gown didn’t cover were golden as a sunset to the end. 

 

We don’t go on dates anymore, but we can’t let our mothers know this.  If they believe we’re trying, they give us their cool cheeks and pats on the shoulders.

 

And we haven’t given up, we don’t think.  We used to drive to Clearwater and meet women and ask them to dinner and try to kiss them and spend the night with them, and now we don’t.  We wouldn’t marry a Clearwater woman.  And here, in our town, the women are leery.  They know that if they were good enough for us they would’ve already left.

 

 

Our town almost became a big deal, decades ago, before we were born.  A man named Bryson began to cut a canal across the state from our town to some town on the Atlantic side.  He had the okays and equipment and assembled talent and muscle and more than enough money, and he forged two miles inland, several years’ work, before it was discovered that his massive trench was disturbing the aquifer.  There are huge stores of fresh water not far under the state of Florida, big limestone tanks that are the basis of everything here.

 

Bryson never got to have his life’s work kill him.  He never got to have his son take over his project, which, according to his journals, was his wish.  Bryson died old and bored.  There are pictures of him in the tiny museum we keep near the river.  His facial hair is outlandish and his son stands beside him, puzzled.

 

We don’t make a big deal about our history.  We really don’t.  Our little museum was a rundown cottage that we roofed and painted and floored and landscaped.  The lawyer secured the place for a hundred years.  The city leases it from the citizens, or the citizens from the city.

 

The mild teenagers walk by in ranks with their dyed hair.  The fat women walk by in pairs and so do the very skinny women, and we nod.  The men happen by one by one, and if we’ve ever done business with them or fought them, we say hello.

 

The girl who left for Atlanta is all set to work for a nonprofit that fights hunger.  She will live in small, lofty apartment, but she won’t be there often.  She will eat unimaginable salads and ice cream that is healthy for you.  We can only hope we’ve instilled in her, through all our hot, hard work, a sense of her own value.

 

I don’t study these things, but as far as I know, there is no name for towns like ours.  We are not rural.  There’s no farming or ranching and no down home feel.  We are not a suburb; no one would drive to Tampa from here for work.  We are not urban.  This is not the middle of nowhere.  No bustle yet no quaintness.  No crop.  No industry.  No art, by God.  Everyone has a different religion and some have none at all. 

 

And we consider our bar a perfect reflection—sort of an Irish bar and sort of a sports bar and when you sit outside and smell the brackish river water wafting up on the breeze it feels like a beach bar and on certain nights people dressed to the nines appear and flirt with one another.  We have all agreed, though we know it’s the worst of ideas, to chip in and purchase the bar should it ever be in danger of going out of business.

 

Bryson’s canal is still here, unmarked, lined with alligators.  It’s north of town, spanned by a plain bridge.  It is the straightest thing anyone has ever seen.  I want you to drive slowly over that bridge and look left and right and then tell me you’ve seen something straighter than Bryson’s canal.                       

 

We see the drivers’ education teacher stumble out of Le Grande Café and into a low-roofed biker bar.  Even from a block away, we can see there’s nothing at all in his eyes.  His eyes only keep him from crashing into things.  Le Grande Café is an ironic name.  The place is a dive.  It seems an easy, low thing to do, to make fun of your own bar.  The biker bar is nameless, and that’s preferable in our eyes.

 

The drivers’ education teacher goes before a judge tomorrow.  A crowd will gather around the courthouse and we can only hope there will be not much to see, that the drivers’ education teacher will solemnly plead guilty and receive a reasonable punishment, that his family won’t be present, that the judge won’t grandstand and the reporters won’t yell and carry on.

 

There was a girls’ middle school soccer coach a few years back who accepted a hand job from his goalkeeper.  There was a basketball coach, hired when they opened the new high school for the Northerners, who never coached a game because he celebrated his hiring by driving to the next county, to a park famous for homosexuals, and propositioning a cop.

 

We believe in pleading guilty.  We believe there’s dignity in it.

 

Our fathers did not have the responsibilities or cares that we have.  They married our mothers in simpler times, when pretty girls were abundant and stayed put.  Our fathers were not self-employed.  They worked for the phone company and for the county and they sold cars.  My father worked at the hydroelectric plant and he still feels guilty about suggesting we all bring our rods and try out the canal when it was newly opened.  Of course, it wasn’t the artificially warm canal that ruined fishing for us.  Fishing went bad in more recent years.  I should tell him sometime.  I should tell him there is only so long a man can keep fishing without a son to do it with. 

 

All the sharks mean nothing.  The only day of fishing worth a damn is the first time we went out with our fathers and we drove the boat without any help and tied on our hooks ourselves and waited our lines and baited and put out and when we caught something without a bit of guidance and drew it dripping from the Gulf, it was what it was supposed to be—a snapper when we were snapper fishing, a grouper when we were grouper fishing, a stingray or a blowfish when we were just trolling for any old thing, for something unusual.

 

 


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The Pinch 

First published in The Pinch

www.thepinchjournal.com

Editor: Kristen Iversen

This story appeared in Issue 1 of The Literarian.

Mission:  The Pinch is a nationally recognized literary journal published by the University of Memphis. Our name is derived from the historic Pinch District in Memphis, once a residential area for Irish immigrants and Jewish merchants. By referencing one of Memphis’ first communities, we aim to reflect the heart of our city’s history and the soul of our creative approach as we publish diverse voices. In addition to representing Memphis and the university, our mission is to provide creative writing students with experience in literary publishing and to publish works of literary and artistic quality. We publish fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and visual art and photography.  We receive submissions from established and emerging writers from all over the world.

John Brandon is the author of two novels, Arkansas and Citrus County. His short work has appeared in The Believer, The Mississippi Review, Kitty Snacks, Subtropics, Lava, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Words & Images, Yalobusha Review, and The Duck and Herring Warm Weather Field Guide. He was recently a John & Renee Grisham Fellow in Creative Writing at Ole Miss.