Alan Hines ~ Oak Cliff, Summer 1963

Nell hung up the phone and turned to her sis­ter. “I need you to dri­ve me down there.”

You still haven’t learned how to dri­ve?” Agnes had just come in from the storm. She had an umbrel­la, but she was still soak­ing wet.  “Where did they take him?”

Parkland,” Nell said. She felt like she was about to pass out. “I don’t know how there could be enough left of him to take to a hos­pi­tal.”

Her sis­ter shut her eyes, either imag­in­ing the sight or avoid­ing it. “Didn’t they say?”

No,” Nell said. “And I felt fun­ny ask­ing.”

Though Agnes lived ten min­utes away, they hadn’t been in the same room togeth­er in thir­teen years, not since their falling out. They were stand­ing in Nell’s kitchen now, with wall­pa­per Agnes had hung her­self when this had been her kitchen. Rows of iden­ti­cal chick­ens on the walls, march­ing in for­ma­tion, on patrol. One day, Agnes had real­ized she nev­er real­ly did like chick­ens.

I guess I’ll have to iden­ti­fy the body,” Nell said.

Oh. Now we’re call­ing him ‘the body’,” Agnes said. “I can rec­og­nize his body if you don’t want to.”

Of course I don’t want to.”

Fine,” Agnes said. She gave a lit­tle shrug. She opened Nell’s refrig­er­a­tor and stooped to peer inside, not look­ing for any­thing in par­tic­u­lar.

*

They looked like sis­ters. All Talley women were high-fore­head­ed. Large full-bosomed women with strong jaws. Nell had been Agnes’s brides­maid when she mar­ried Leonard. The cou­ple had been togeth­er for a while when Agnes decid­ed that she had not real­ly thought this through. “I’ll take him,” Nell had told her. “I don’t mind.” She had adored Leonard since Agnes met him at the ser­vice sta­tion where he was a mechan­ic. So Agnes had moved away to Shreveport with Mr. Delaney from the dime store, leav­ing Leonard and Gene, their young son, with Nell.

In the begin­ning, Leonard slipped some­times and called his sec­ond wife “Agnes”, but that hadn’t both­ered Nell. What both­ered her was that Agnes took it as a com­pli­ment when she moved back to Oak Cliff after a short time. Proof that she had made a last­ing impres­sion.

Nell stood at the mir­ror by the door, not able to fath­om how she would get through this. “I bet­ter get ready to go down there,” she said. “I look like death warmed over.” She was wear­ing a sleeve­less blouse and ped­al push­ers, the same thing she wore every day, and her hair was in bob­by pins and tied up in a scarf. Agnes would nev­er be seen this way in pub­lic, even if her house was on fire.

Agnes gave her a side­ways glance. “At least fix your hair.”

The offi­cer on the phone had told Nell that Leonard’s car had been cross­ing over the Houston Street Viaduct, from Oak Cliff to Dallas, when it blew a tire, skid­ded across wet pave­ment, and shot through the con­crete rail­ing. The Marimba Red Bonneville soar­ing out into open air, free falling then mak­ing a nose-dive toward the banks of the Trinity River below. Back dur­ing the Depression, a sort of Shantytown had been down there on the flood plain below the bridge. Poor coun­try peo­ple, like Agnes and Nell’s par­ents, had left their farms, migrat­ed to Dallas, and camped in the shad­ows of the con­crete arch­es while look­ing for jobs and places to live.

Rain pep­pered against Nell’s kitchen win­dow. “You know Leonard,” she said. “He got that notice for jury duty, he took it dead seri­ous. Like it was his draft notice.”

Leonard was a wiry lit­tle man in oil-stained over­alls with a cou­ple of strands he combed back, slight­ly stooped over. When he smiled, the cor­ners of his mouth nei­ther went up or down. It was all in the eyes. During the war, he had fixed over­pow­ered fight­er planes in the Pacific, and now he fixed people’s cars in the garage behind the house. All day long, fix­ing people’s cars, lis­ten­ing to the radio. Every now and then he’d take the rag from his back pock­et and wipe his hands.

The cou­ple who lived in the duplex next door were mak­ing a rack­et, bang­ing pots and pans in their kitchen.  Agnes turned to stare at the wall. “Don’t those peo­ple know that some­body lives over here?”

Nell sat at the kitchen table, star­ing down at the place­mats, hers and Leonard’s. Shaped like the State of Texas. He had bought them for her at the State Fair as an anniver­sary gift. All at once she burst into tears.

Agnes wait­ed for her to catch her breath. “Somebody has to tell Gene.”

I don’t know how much more I can take of those peo­ple!” Nell said. “They’re stone deaf! You can hear them over there mak­ing pop­corn at two in the morn­ing, scrap­ing that pan back and forth over the burn­er!”

Nell.” Agnes just watched her, look­ing like their moth­er when she was scold­ing them, fists on hips. “Gene needs to be told.”

Nell sat there, qui­et for a moment, wip­ing her cheeks. “That’s why I called you.”

I can’t do that,” Agnes said, shak­ing her head. “He thinks I’m mean and self­ish because I desert­ed him.”

Nell and Agnes had not spo­ken since their falling-out, when Gene was sev­en years old and told his moth­er that Aunt Nell want­ed him to call her “Mama”. “It’s too hard to have to keep explain­ing it to peo­ple,” Nell had said to her. “He’s Leonard’s flesh and blood and he’s my flesh and blood, too.”

Indirectly,” Agnes had said. “I don’t care what he calls you but I will not have him call­ing you ‘Mama’!”

Gene tugged at their hearts. How hand­some he was, stand­ing there with a smile, comb­ing his pom­padour like one of the Everly Brothers singing “Love Hurts”.

Just then, some­thing made a squishy thud against the wall next door and then the cou­ple start­ed a high-pitched laugh­ing.

Is he still going with that cute lit­tle Mexican girl?”

She’s going to get her­self preg­nant if they don’t watch out,” Nell said.

Oak Cliff wasn’t the same, she had been say­ing that to Leonard, over and over. It was turn­ing bad. Gene was near­ly twen­ty and still run­ning with boys from high school, boys steal­ing hub­caps, scrawl­ing nasty pic­tures on restroom walls, boys head­ed for jail. She imag­ined he would get girls to go sit in the dark with him in the back row of the air-con­di­tioned Texas Theater and they would put their hands in each other’s clothes.

Agnes stared out at the rain. “I was nev­er a very good moth­er.”

Well,” Nell said.

I wasn’t. I know that.”

Nell would nev­er say so to any­one but she con­sid­ered that rais­ing Gene was her great­est accom­plish­ment. “I pitched in where I could,” she told her sis­ter, “but you have always been his moth­er. His true moth­er.”

From the time they were girls, Nell knew Agnes would nev­er be the home­mak­er type. She liked west­ern swing and rid­ing around with rough boys who had crim­i­nal records.

When he thinks of his moth­er, I know he thinks of you,” Nell said. “The two of you are so much alike; you have the strongest bond.”

Thank you for say­ing that.” Agnes put a hand on Nell’s shoul­der. “Actually, he did come see me a week or so ago. He told me he’s join­ing the Peace Corps.”

He’s doing what?”

Joining the Peace Corps. Going over to Africa or some­where to teach peo­ple how to fix their cars.”

Do they even have cars over there?”

I don’t know,” Agnes said, “but if they ever get them, he’ll be there to fix them.”

Someone was out­side, stomp­ing up the back steps, shak­ing off water. And then the back door swung open and it was Leonard, bring­ing the storm in with him. He gaped at the two women and they gaped at him.

They let out court ear­ly,” he said.

Nell shoved past him, out the door onto the back porch and down the steps, not car­ing that she was get­ting drenched. Gene’s pick­up was there, parked out­side the garage.  She rushed back into the kitchen again.

Where is Gene?”

Over in Dallas,” he said. “I think he’s at the Navy recruit­ment office.”

All three of them were soaked to the skin and drip­ping on the floor.

The police called,” she said. “They said the Bonneville had dri­ven off the bridge. They said you were rushed to Parkland Hospital. They said you weren’t going to make it.”

It couldn’t have been me.” His lips quiv­ered.

What do you mean, it couldn’t have been you?” Nell was beside her­self. “Of course it was you! Of course it was you!”

All at once, Agnes was weep­ing. She was about to col­lapse when Leonard moved toward her.

Nell watched them fall into each other’s arms. She was weep­ing, too, rain engulf­ing her kitchen. She went over to the chick­ens and banged her fist against the wall.

~

Alan Hines is an author, screen­writer, and teacher. He wrote the screen­play adap­ta­tion of his nov­el, Square Dance (Harper & Row) . His short fic­tion has appeared in sto­rySouth, The Literateur, and else­where. He was award­ed the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship from the University of New Mexico for Square Dance. The film Square Dance (Island Pictures) opened at the Sundance Film Festival as did Save Me. Other screen­plays include: Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which received the Peabody Award. Originally from Texas, he lives now in Central Florida and Exmoor, Somerset, UK.