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.