Where the Tigers Sleep

fiction: Marla Cantrell
Twenty-three-year-old Bessie Turner grabs her keys from a hook by her front door and holds them to her chest for a few seconds. The light here is dim, but outside, this October day is all red leaves and blue skies.

She left the washing machine running, and as she jumps in the seat of her old Ford Bronco, she hears the rinse cycle start, pushing a whoosh of soapy water from a pipe inside the house straight onto the yard.

The rearview mirror needs to be adjusted. Her brother Robbie was the last one to drive the Bronco, and he’s a foot taller than Bessie. When he brought it back last night, he offered her fifteen thousand for it, but Bessie, who could use the cash, didn’t consider his offer for a New York minute.

The Bronco is orange with black interior, circa 1977, the year her daddy bought it new when he was just sixteen. She learned to drive in the old monster. This morning she decided to skip work. She looked out her bedroom window, saw the SUV, and decided it needed a drive through the country. As she starts the motor, she imagines her daddy sitting beside her, one arm across the back of the seat, the toe of his work boot raised, as if he were ready to slam the brakes should she need him to.

When he died two years ago, Robbie, who’s a year older than Bessie, got the house trailer and the land that went with it. She got the Bronco. She shakes her head, thinking of last night’s conversation, of her brother’s want of the little piece of her daddy she’d been given.

The SUV is loud and rough as it plows through the rutted road that leads to Alma. Bessie likes the way her hands vibrate on the steering wheel when it really gets going.

She’s wearing her daddy’s favorite belt buckle made of brass and a polished stone that’s aqua green with gold flecks. The markings make it look like sand falling through an hourglass. It’s one of the few things she took from the house after he died. The buckle, a shoebox of photos, and an old bottle of his pain pills that she keeps in her purse in case some hurt or the other gets to be too much.
Bessie swings the old Bronco onto the two-lane highway that etches through the mountains from Alma to Fayetteville. On her thin wrist, a sling of bangles rattles. She checks her face in the rearview mirror. She has hazel eyes. Black hair. A line that looks like a shot arrow on her forehead. She smiles a half-smile, an act that’s supposed to make you feel better even when you don’t. She checks the smile, decides it looks ridiculous, digs in her purse for lip gloss and swipes it on.

In the last year of his life, her daddy installed a CD player, rigged it to the Bronco’s dash with bailing wire and duct tape, and bought a collection of sad old country songs that could make a teetotaler take to the bottle. Bessie turns it on, and Jim Reeves starts singing “He’ll Have to Go.”

The song is about a man calling his ex from a pay phone inside a bar, asking her to tell the guy she’s with to hit the road.

As the Bronco climbs, the landscape changes. The trees in the hill town of Mountainburg are shaking their heads, scattering red and orange and yellow leaves to the ground. A big yellow dog ambles across the road, a dog who looks like its name should be King or Brando. When she honks, the dog eyes her as if it’s thinking Who died and made you boss?

The school’s marching band is practicing on the football field, and Bessie can hear the jaunty notes of what sounds like “Eye of the Tiger.”

Her cell phone rings and she picks it up. “What do you
want, Jackson?”

“Just thinking about the other night.”

“What about it?” Bessie says, her voice sharp as sewing needles.

“Well, you know, the whole ‘seeing other people’ talk kind of got off track.”

“I think it was exactly on track,” Bessie says. “And I think you should see all the other people you want because you won’t be seeing me again.”

“Now, that’s the thing,” Jackson says, his voice husky as all get-out. “That doesn’t work for me at all.”

Bessie passes a sugar maple with leaves as red as a campfire. The mountains smell like earth and pine. Just beside the road is an election sign that reads ‘Trust Ted,’ and she remembers her grandma’s warning: Never trust a man who says trust me.

“I don’t give a damn what you want,” Bessie says, her words a different kind of fire, and ends the call.

Jackson overplayed his hand. He thought he had some kind of hold over Bessie because she never complained. Because she praised every small thing he did for her. What he didn’t know is that you can’t break a heart that’s already broken.

The Bronco still smells like her daddy. Drugstore aftershave that’s overblown with menthol and cedar. Cigarette smoke. Pine and oak shavings from the furniture factory where he worked nights for as long as Bessie could remember. One day the smell will go away. The thought feels like an iceberg inside her stomach.

The CD has made its rounds from heartache to heartache and back again. Marty Robbins whined about his mistress, the Devil Woman who caused him to stray. Tammy Wynette advised women to stand by their men. Patsy Cline fell to pieces.

As for Bessie, she drove on, through the Boston Mountains, past Ozark Folkways in Winslow where the hippies have knitted clown-colored sweaters for the old trees out front, have made sleeves for the lowest branches.

When she was a year old, a tornado came through, hit the little house they were living in at the time, during a freak storm in February. The twister lifted the roof and sucked her out, still in her crib. Bessie’s been told she was too young to remember what happened after, but she knows she does. Her daddy stepping over what she now thinks were downed power lines, the glow of his flashlight big as the moon. She can see it still, the round of light catching her eyes, moving up and down the length of the white crib.

Bessie heard her daddy shout, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” a statement she thinks was aimed at Jesus. He then called out to a group of other folks who’d been searching. Bessie’s crib was stuck in an ancient pecan tree, wedged between two strong limbs. She was barely even wet.

There is a spot a few miles up the road. A piece of land with a white church with a sagging roof and a bell on top. It has always looked like a postcard to her.

She pulls over, letting the one truck behind her speed by. She skids across the gravel drive and realizes she must have been going faster than she thought. When she parks the car behind the church—she doesn’t want anybody stopping to check on her—she pats the Bronco on its hood.

From the back of the SUV, she pulls the old quilt that has more stories than she has time to hear. Whoever takes care of this church has been slacking, and the still-green grass has grown as tall as her knees. As she walks, Bessie opens her hand to touch it.

She lies down on the quilt a few yards away, tugging her leather jacket around her. It is cold today, or at least nearly cold, and a breeze is blowing.

Lying hidden in the tall grass reminds her of childhood. She’d take this very quilt and find a spot in the hay pasture where her daddy had planted alfalfa. Nobody thought he could grow it in Arkansas, but he was tired of bermudagrass, and he’d done his homework.

He was smarter than anyone knew.

She loves the way the grass makes a cushion beneath the quilt that is gray and yellow and white. The sun is nearly directly above her, and she keeps her sunglasses on against it.

For months now, Bessie has tried to move on. Two years is a long time to grieve, but she feels like she’s somewhat of an expert on how to do it. Jackson was an attempt to push forward, but Jackson was a player. Before him, she’d spent too much money on her only credit card. When she thinks how long it’s going to take to pay it off, her whole body tenses.

From inside the church, she can hear a piano playing, a woman singing. She raises up on her elbow, feeling like someone who’s been caught, but then she decides she’s not doing anything wrong anyway.

The song is “I Saw the Light,” and the woman singing has the voice of the mountains. You can smell woodsmoke in her words. You can hear bacon frying on a Sunday morning.

Bessie puts her head back down and goes still. Clouds tumble across the sun, and she lies in shadow. She wonders what it’s like to have faith that doesn’t short-circuit the way hers does. She prayed so hard for her daddy. She got on her knees that one time, right beside his hospital bed. It didn’t matter one bit.

The world without her daddy is like a jungle at night. Bessie doesn’t know what her feet are touching. She doesn’t know where the tigers sleep.

The woman in the church is singing about the absence of sorrow, about blindness, grief. She sings like she’s made peace with sorrow.

What faith did her daddy have? He believed there would always be work for the willing. He believed a three-legged dog was a sign of good luck. He believed his soul would live on after the grave.

Bessie hasn’t prayed since her daddy died. If the whole world falls down, let it fall. She thinks about a poem she read in high school that had this line: Prayer is the avocado waiting to ripen on the windowsill, the collie leaping for a red ball.

She thought the poem was filled with errors, but now she’s not so sure. Maybe her hand on the Bronco is a prayer, the sweatered trees in Winslow, the yellow dog sure that he’ll make it across a trafficked road.

The woman in the church continues to sing.

For those who love to write, the Read. Write. Share. Workshop is on October 13 in Fort Smith. For details, contact Nichelle Christian at JFKWRITERSGROUP@gmail.com

 

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