Matt’s Range Rover was one of a kind, built for him and his specific needs. It could handle any terrain or weather, but, with the torrential rain reducing visibility to less than fifty feet, he decided not to push it. He could get to Florida any time in the next week or so. His father had told him not to rush. That’s why he had detoured west for a visit with the parents of a friend who had been killed in Iraq, a Charleston kid named Tony Conte who had driven his Humvee into an ISIS roadblock, drawing the fire that killed him, while Matt and the others in his unit had loaded one dead and two injured onto an Israeli light transport helicopter.
The bar he stopped in had a jukebox, where Matt found a couple of songs that Tony, a big George Strait fan, loved. At the bar he ordered a double Jim Beam on the rocks. While he waited for it to arrive, he quietly assessed his situation. Two young guys in a booth behind him, an older couple at the far end of the bar, and a bleached blond bartender with a great ass. Wet out there, the bartender said when she brought him his drink. Cheers. Here, handing him a clean bar mop. He had gotten pretty soaked running from his truck to the bar’s front door. Thanks, he said, taking the small towel and drying his hair and face. Where am I?
You don’t know? she said, smiling.
Somewhere in West Virginia.
Lesage, she said, coal country, what’s left of it. You’re not from around here.
Matt took a small sip of his drink and put it down. No, he answered. How about you?
I’m from here, she said, but you know that.
Is there a motel nearby?
Keep on 52 south, she said, you’ll see the King Coal in a mile or so.
Matt could see in the mirror that the young guys were staring at them. One of them raised his hand.
They want me, the bartender said.
Hold on, said Matt. What’s your name?
Matt lifted his glass to his lips, and took another small taste, keeping the glass to his lips as he watched Marie interact with the guys in the booth. One of them took a swipe at her hip as she turned to leave, but she sashayed to avoid it.
Don’t stay at the King Coal, she said when she returned.
They heard us talking.
Who are they?
OK. Where should I stay?
I have a couch.
I’ll find another motel.
Before Marie could respond, one of the young guys went over to the jukebox and pulled its plug. He looked at Matt in the mirror as he returned to the booth.
Like I said, said Marie.
While Matt was finishing his drink, the older couple left, and then the young guys did the same. Outside the rain had let up, the pelting on the small building’s old roof down to a few pings more and more spaced out. I know there are good people in this part of the country, Matt thought, but not here, not tonight. And here I am, just another northern snob with a fancy truck, slumming with the permanently unemployed, the hillbilly depressed who had no grief counsellors rushing to help them when the mines all closed. The two young guys had been sneering at him, but behind that tough-guy look in their eyes Matt knew lay fear and helplessness.
Matt looked at his watch. Eleven.
I’m closing, said Marie.
Matt pushed his empty glass forward, and put a fifty-dollar bill on the bar.
Keep it, he said.
Marie picked it up. If you change your mind, she said, I live just down 52. Turn right at Duece’s Garage and I’m a half mile on the right. It’s a white trailer with a pink door. I’ll leave the light on.
Matt stood under the bar’s sagging overhang, and looked at the tire tracks in the muddy parking area, one set, a compact car by the look of it, leading to highway 52, the other, larger, heading around back. At the rear, peaking around the corner, he saw a battered pickup with the silhouettes of two people in the cab. They were both smoking, and drinking beer. White smoke drifted out of cracked windows. The tips of their cigarettes glowed hot red and then faded as they smoked and drank. He watched as the lights in the bar went out and Marie came out the back door. When she was in the truck, Matt stepped quickly through the darkness to the driver’s window with his Glock 19 in his hand and twirled it to indicate he wanted the window opened, which young guy number one, still holding a beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other, did.
I’m not sure what you were planning, Matt said, handing young guy number one an envelope, but there’s five hundred dollars in there. Think about what you’d like to do with it. Don’t follow me. If you do, I’ll take the five hundred back, and you won’t survive the night.
Matt waited at Deuce’s Garage, but the young guys did not appear. As he passed the King Coal Motel, its neon VACANCY sign a cry in the wilderness, he thought of Marie and of how he might have spent the night if her two colleagues in hillbilly crime had not been in the bar. But then again, he thought, they’re probably always there, getting shitfaced, being brave, waiting to waylay some poor stranger. He hoped they would see tonight for what it was, he really did, but it was up to them, and he’d never know.
About Project 52/2015: I like to take pictures and I like to write fiction. This Blog will combine the two in what I am calling Project 52/2015, one of my images mated with a piece of very short fiction each week in 2015. Enjoy.