Emily Painton : Fiction : Nov 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Some folks say Oklahoma is the south, I’m not so sure. I was born there and grew up there but always heard the call of those more southern states. I moved on down to Texas for a while and soon enough I slid on over to New Orleans.

Dirty Bird

It’s been a long time since you’ve seen him. A year is a long time to an eighteen-year-old. You feel sorry for him, so when he calls to ask if you’ll go for a drive, you say, “sure.” He picks you up and he’s all jovial telling you about his new girlfriend, no, fiancé, they’re engaged now. He goes on and on, but you’re not really listening. 

You’ve got your window rolled down. In the side mirror, you watch the hot Oklahoma wind blowing your hair all around. You don’t mind, you like it messy. “A wild halo of blond curls,” he once said. That was probably the second time you met him.

The car steers toward the lake. Lake Thunderbird, but everyone calls it Dirty Bird because of the red clay soil that turns the water a rusty hue. Not to mention, the fact that it starts to stink to high heaven when it turns over in the fall. There are trees in it too, they say. Like almost all the lakes in Oklahoma, it’s man-made. They didn’t bother to clear the land first, just damned up the Little River and let the valley fill up. There’s also supposed to be a town under there. That seems creepy to you.

He’s still going on about her. Something about how she’s living in South America or South Africa right now, you missed some of that, doing Ph.D. research or some such. 

“Yeah, she’s in grad school,” he says. He seems to be proud of that. He probably thinks you’ll be impressed too since he knows your mom teaches at the university and your deceased father had a Ph.D. 

You’ve got your arm up on the windowsill and the sun is beating down in a not so unpleasant way. You start to worry that you’re going to get too many freckles, especially on just one arm. You don’t tan, you freckle and no, you don’t think your freckles are as cute as everyone else seems to. In high school, all the girls would say, “you need a tan,” and then they’d stare down at your pale legs. You wanted to say, “you need to fuck off,” but instead you’d tell them how your mom’s dad died of skin cancer when she was only sixteen, “So, I’d really rather not get cancer, thank you very much.”

He’s still talking, but actually asking you something now. 

“Do what?” you say. 

“So how have things been with you?” he says again like he’s the grown-up and you’re the kid.

“Oh, um well, I’m fine. You know, finally done with high school and just enjoying the summer before college starts.” 

“That’s great. I think you’ll really love college.” He must have loved college, you think since it took him so many years to finish his undergrad degree. He was still working on it when you met him.

Then he says all nonchalantly, “Are you seeing anyone?” Again, like he’s your dad or something. 

You start doing the math in your head. Let’s see, he was twenty-seven when you first met him, and you were sixteen, so that makes him, yeah, if not quite thirty then almost. You were flattered back then when someone his age was so interested in you, but now thirty sounds super old.

Your mathematical pause seems to make him nervous because he quickly says, “Not that it’s any of my business, of course. I just want you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

You let him off the hook. “No, I’m not really seeing anyone.” And it’s true, you’re not seeing any one person, but you are hanging out on and off with several guys. You don’t mention it though because he used to act so weird when you tried to talk to him about boys in the past, which was one of the reasons you started avoiding him after you broke up.

A strong breeze blows through the window smelling of damp soil and sweet hay. It’s that time of summer when everything is still green and lush. When summer in Oklahoma sounds like a good idea. By August, everything will be brown and dried to a crisp. The sun will feel repressive, and you’ll crave fall intensely. Fall is your favorite season, but June in Norman, Oklahoma comes in a close second.

Out of the blue, he sounds all wistful as he says, “I taught you so much.”  

Maybe it wasn’t out of the blue, maybe you just tuned him out again, but you can’t help hearing him say something strange like that. You want to get him to specify what he means but decide it’s not worth the effort. So you just agree, “Yeah, you sure did.”

The car takes a right and heads down a small gravel road. He pulls it to the side and kills the engine. He turns toward you with his back against the door and just stares at you for a while in silence. You’re thinking maybe you’re supposed to ask him what’s up, but finally, he speaks. 

“You’re so beautiful,” he says softly.

“Um, thanks, that’s sweet of you to say.” There was never a big break up between the two of you, things just sort of faded away. You felt like he took you for granted and you got tired of him bossing you around and treating you like a little girl, so you just started going over to his place less and less until it wasn’t at all. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem to know you sort of despise him.

He reaches over to smooth your windblown hair, then lets his hand caress your cheek. You smile. You don’t know what else to do. Suddenly he moves in to kiss you all wet-mouthed and passionate like maybe he thinks something’s going to happen out there between the two of you in the front seat of his car. He starts to get grabby and you swear you hear his belt unbuckling. Perhaps it was your imagination, but either way, you push at him and start smacking him hard on the back, the side of his head, and his chest as he retreats from you.

“What about your fiancé?” you scream.

“She just dumped me.” He’s crying now, great gulping sobs. 

“But you just said…” 

“I’m sorry, I lied. I’m sorry I tried to kiss you. And I’m sorry I said I taught you so much. It was you who taught me so much. The truth is you taught me everything.” He’s slumped against the car door and is full-on weeping now. 

You feel repulsed and you pity him all at once. “Come here,” you say. You can’t help it, you open your arms to him and he eagerly slides over and nestles into them. You hold him tight. He clings to you, and you feel pretty sure he’s getting tears and some snot on your blouse. When he tries to nuzzle up to you, you turn your head away. You aren’t about to let him kiss you ever again.