Morgan Thomas

“Spindly,” Chelsea Welsh

 

Hitching

Walk on the right side of the road in a taffeta dress with a parasol on your shoulder, and people will make assumptions. They’ll think you’re down on your luck. They’ll think you’re lost. They’ll think they’re doing you a favor pulling off the road to offer a ride.
He pulled off. He pulled in front of me, his tires crushing the marsh grass. He said through the passenger window, “You could use a lift.”
I told him, “I’m not looking for a ride.”
There’s always a choice, a decision to be made, an action to take. I’m walking alone on a county road in lace-up boots not made for walking. I’ve got no wallet, no cell phone. In two hours, a Megabus leaves Lafayette for Lake Charles, my home. I need to be on that bus. Here are my choices: walk four miles more to the bus stop (with my parasol wilting and my heel shimming a blister the size of a quarter) or climb into that truck.
The truck looks official, orange bar lights atop the cab and Roadkill Removal “You hit it, I’ll haul it” painted on the door.
I know. I know anyone with funds to spare and a lug wrench can accessorize, get his truck looking official. I’ve heard the stories. A woman once hitched from Cleveland to Albuquerque without a spot of trouble, because every time she climbed in the car, the first thing she did was lock eyes with the driver and say, “I trust you.” Another walked home every night, late and alone, and sang “The Lord is My Shepherd” all the way. She did this even after she had both vocal cords stripped for cancer. She was never bothered. These are the exceptions.
I work in Lafayette. At nineteen, I’m the youngest living statue to busk at the Mosey Down Main Street Festival. That’s not bragging, that’s fact.
You learn to protect yourself, busking. A crowd will do all sorts of things to people with paint on their faces, things they wouldn’t do to people without. Today, a little shit kid snuck up behind me and blew in my ear. I took off after him, chased him two city blocks, brought him to his knees on Main Street.
I carry a parasol with a sharp metal ferrule. I’ve read up on umbrella self-defense. I’ve read the Marquis de Queensberry. The Marquis puts women’s safety down to mental fortitude and an avoidance of hobble skirts. He instructs sound footing and a sharp thrust to the eye, as with a rapier, against any highwayman or vagabond inflamed by drink: Do not try to thrash him with your umbrella as with a barrel slat. You must use the point. You must strike at the face. I’ve never used my parasol, but I could use it.
I climb into the truck.
Most things aren’t as dangerous as they’re made out to be. Most cars that slow for you will drive on if you wave them on. Most clouds aren’t storm clouds. Most things which may contain peanuts don’t.
“I’m catching a Megabus out of Indian Bayou,” I tell him. I don’t have a ticket for the bus. If I get lucky—a male driver and a near-empty bus—I’ll ride home to Lake Charles for free.
“Sounds grand,” he says. “You want to close the door, I’ll get you on your way.”
I close the door, and he pulls onto the road. I set my parasol across my lap. The man at the tip of my parasol tells me his name is Ledane.
I give him my statue name—Adelaide. Adelaide Bartlett, Victorian deer-hunter. She slayed deer with bow and arrow, slayed her first husband with arsenic from soaked flypapers. She died at sixty-three, gored by a stag she’d shot. That’s the kind of tough she was.
“I like to walk,” I say. “That’s the reason I was walking.”
“Walking’s great,” Ledane says, “so long as you know what you’re walking through. There’s cotton snakes and canebrake rattlers make a home in that grass. There’s oil pipes will bite you just as quick and you’ve got tetanus. I know that, because I laid them. There’s times it’s good, walking, and there’s times it’s damn foolish.”
People like that word, foolish. They like it especially if you’re young. Sure, I’ve done idiot things. Today, I took off after the kid that blew in my ear. I left my money vase. When I got back my money vase was gone, and my bag was gone. I’ve learned things today. I’ve learned little shit kids get off scotch free. I’ve learned nobody working the Festival is interested in tracking down a busker’s money vase. The festival is not responsible for any property lost or stolen. Stolen, I told them. It was stolen.
I filed a police report, which was suggested. It was also suggested I shut down my checking account, but the money in my checking account wouldn’t pay to groom a poodle. The pirate Blackbeard, who busks on the next corner, offered me his phone, but I didn’t have anyone to call. A year ago, I left my parents’ house, because we didn’t see eye-to-eye. Three months ago, I left my girlfriend’s house, because she put a chore chart on the refrigerator with my name all over it, said I needed to start pitching in. I did pitch in. When I wasn’t preoccupied with my busking, I wiped dust from the windowsills and organized her utensil drawer, but she wanted more. I won’t snake a drain for anyone.
Ledane tells me he had a call from the parish before he stopped for me, a doe struck down on the thruway. “I wouldn’t mind snagging that doe before I drop you at the Bayou if that’s all right with you.” He is licensed for roadkill removal in three parishes, and he’s expanding into Crowley next month. You hit a deer in St. Landry Parish or Lafayette or Vermilion, you call 1-88-DEER-DROP, and the man who picks up the phone is Ledane.
“There will be other people after the doe,” he says, “or I’d take you straight to your bus.” Each parish licenses only one removal specialist, he says. Anybody else after the deer is in contempt of the law. “That doesn’t stop them,” he says.
“I don’t have all day,” I tell Ledane.
“Doe’s right on our way.”
Adelaide Bartlett brought down a dozen does, pierced them with her arrows from a hundred meters. I’ve never seen a doe up close, but I’d like to see one. I tell him it doesn’t matter to me if we stop for a deer first.
“What’s your work?” he asks me.
“I’m an artist,” I say. “A statue.”
I created Adelaide one year ago, modeled her after the Stitched Lady, who busks in the French Quarter. The Stitched Lady has paint looped over her mouth to shut it and eyes drawn in black beneath her real eyes. She keeps her real eyes closed, the lids brushed a red to match her parasol. She doesn’t use a soapbox or a ledge, doesn’t need the height to keep the crowd from bothering her. She spends all day ignoring us, just kissing her own hand. She’s protected. No one would dare touch. If you do it right, busking, that is the prize—you can stand centered, still and untouched, as the crowd spills its life around you.
I put ten dollars in quarters in the Stitched Lady’s fishbowl all in one day, coming back again and again. The Stitched Lady, for four quarters, touches one hand to her mouth, then spins her open parasol. She wears satin elbow gloves. Her hands are breakable as birds in those gloves. I watched her ten times spin her parasol, and I went home and stood in the mirror and tried to get it right. I went back to the Quarter the next day. “The Quarter’s addictive, that’s the problem with the Quarter,” my girlfriend said. I ignored her.
Adelaide is intrepid. She’s not bothered by drunk tourists or sticky-fingered kids, doesn’t flinch when a glass bottle is hurled at her feet, thinks nothing of sticking a man in the belly with the point of her parasol or clotheslining a teenager who thinks it’s a good idea to pour a carton of milk over her head. Adelaide can’t be intimidated.
“My good friend Lillian was an artist,” Ledane says. “Used to make these dainty critters out of wood, useless things. Make me a table, Lillian, I told her. You’re going to buy wood by the sheet that way, make me something can rest a coaster.”
I tell him a person can make what she likes.
“She used to sit out on her driveway, humming, spinning her sanding belt. We had been married, but this was after we called it off. She’d bought the place next door. For a while we were shy as bandicoots. She was in the yard, I’d come out with a leaf blower, and she’d go right inside. Once I caught her making this tiny deer. I’ll give you forty for that deer, I told her. Right here. I’ve got it cash. She said, I don’t sell to anybody’s ass, Lee-dane.”
I say, “I don’t know anybody making art for the money.” Most days, I don’t make enough to cover expenses. They leave chocolate coins in my money vase. They leave leaves. They leave pamphlets—“Follow Jesus, Live a Merciful Life”—and flyers and my own business cards. They leave notes and numbers. Here’s ten. Buy a corset. Or, Hey, beautiful, just a suggestion, try your hair red.
A boy once filled my money vase with pebbles, dropped over a dozen pebbles down through the swan-neck. His mother watched him and laughed like isn’t he cute. And it would be cute if I didn’t have to make bus fare both ways and pay permit fees just to break even, if I didn’t have to dry clean my taffeta skirt, which I sewed for Adelaide with a round-point needle and satin thread, stitch by stitch.
“You don’t make much in roadkill collection either,” Ledane says. He supplements. He keeps the heads, the pretty ones, the ones that come without bruise or fracture through the wreck and the time roadside. He bags them double and freezes them. Zoos, sometimes, will want one. Hobbyists. Dentists. He’s trying to advertise, drum up a market.
He wants to animate them, he says. He has a friend who caught a large bass and paid someone to gut and mechanize it and hang it on the wall. Anytime you walk past that stuffed bass, it wriggles on the wall, singing, “Take me to the river, put me in the water.”
Ledane’s been waiting for the perfect deer head, wants to try something similar. “It’d be easy to get them talking,” he says. “There’s money in that sort of foolishness. Like what you do. Statues.”
“That’s nothing like what I do.”
“I just mean you’d give her a quarter to sing and move her head around a little bit.”
“You’re talking about making a dead thing move. I’m talking about making a living thing still. It’s not a charade, what I do. It’s not some cheap trick. I am Adelaide.” When I stand on the street, I am Adelaide through and through. Serene. Untouchable.
“I’m not trying to offend you,” he says. “I’ve got plenty of respect for anyone can hold still that long.”
People think stillness is the challenging part. When I busk, I go thirty minutes without blinking. I breathe shallow, just in my chest. My heart rate slows to forty-three beats per minute. You’ve done well, busking, when no one looking can tell your flesh from stone. But the challenge of busking isn’t stillness. The challenge is the crowd.
“Deer goes still on a road like this,” Ledane says, “it’s a goner.”
“In my work, stillness is success.”
I broke my stillness today. I don’t remember deciding to take off after the kid. I just remember his breath in my ear, and then I remember the hoops of my skirt splintering as we both hit our knees in the middle of the Mosey. I remember kneeling on top of him, blowing in his ear. I let him have it in his ear again and again. Adelaide wouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s hard, sometimes, to see yourself coming.
“People get shook up when they hit a deer,” Ledane says. “I’m always trying to get them to leave the deer after they’ve called it in. I’m on my way, I tell them. There’s not a thing more they can do for a deer.” But, he says, they like to stay. They like to stand behind the deer and wave traffic past with their hazards flashing, even when the deer is well off on the shoulder. They like to pretend the traffic without them would bottle and stall. They like to wait for him and talk to him. “It’s half my job, letting them talk.”
He tells me one woman wrapped a comforter around the head of the deer and held it in her lap, arms wrapped tight around it like a child. “Suffocating that deer.” That deer was not dead, just stunned, and when it came to, thrashing, she tried to keep hold of it, tried to shush it. The deer got loose of her, broke her knee with its thrashing. He had to call EMS and a tow for her car.
Another man wanted him to save the deer he’d hit. The deer was alive but broke in its head, convulsing there in the weeds. “Give it something,” the man kept saying to him. “Don’t you have something to give it?” Ledane got the man underway and gave the deer a cattle bolt through the forehead. “That isn’t regulation, but I don’t see there being any kinder way.” Ledane once let a man weep for forty minutes over the deer he had hit. He stood there flicking the glass of his e-cigarette to make the fluid jump while the man huddled over the deer.
He tells them they did right. It’s better not to swerve. You swerve, you’re likely to hurt someone else or yourself. He lets them help with the winch, straighten the harness around the deer’s middle or guide the deer up into the bed, watching the legs don’t catch and snap on the gate. This comforts them. Lifting the bed-gate comforts them, slamming it. Every one slams it.
Sometimes he’ll get a call, and it isn’t even a deer. Just something mistaken for a deer. An old mattress crumpled on the shoulder. A milking goat from a farm bordering the road. A bag of give-away clothes or a couch cushion lost from the bed of a pick-up truck. Sometimes there is nothing at all in the spot of the road where the deer is meant to be, the animal already strapped onto someone else’s hood or gone into the trees.
“I can tell you my job would be easier if every person would hit the deer and run,” he says, “but I understand, it’s hard letting a thing go. Lilian took the boys with her when she left, and they don’t hardly talk to me anymore. My medtech job was taken from me in the oh-eight layoffs. Then the gas station my family owned for forty years. My brother sold it right out from under me. I’d been fueling trucks at that gas station for twenty-five years. He sold that gas station, he sold a piece of my heart.”
“They took my permit today,” I say. “My performer’s permit.” Turns out it’s a misdemeanor, blowing in a kid’s ear. Turns out the Mosey has a zero-tolerance policy for assault by any street performer. “Assault?” I said. I told them he blew in my ear. I said, “Who’s assaulting who?” They weren’t interested in my questions. I said I’d pay a fine. I’d do jail time. Busking is what I know, it’s all I know. It’s my only talent. Don’t take that permit, I said. I need that permit like a bull weevil needs grass. I can’t lose Adelaide. I need Adelaide. They don’t care. They don’t listen.
“Something else will come along,” Ledane says. “Something always does.”
“I’m not looking for something else. I’m a statue. They can’t stop me statueing. If I can’t busk in Louisiana, I’ll go to Alabama. I’ll go to New York City. I’ll go clear to Canada or Morocco or Siberia. I’ll be the one who decides when I’m finished busking.” You can do anything you put your mind to, and I’ve put my mind to busking. “I hold tight enough to something, nobody can shake me loose.”
“Well, you’re young,” Ledane says. “I keep forgetting, on account of your dress. I keep forgetting you’re not some belle been dead a hundred years.”
“I don’t let things get away from me.”
Ledane doesn’t respond to this. His silence is generously tolerant. I want to slap him.
I wish I’d let that boy get away. I wish I’d stood there, unmoved by him. I wish I’d flipped him off. The crowd loves it when I flip anyone off. If I’d done that, I’d still be the youngest busker at the Mosey Down Main Street Festival, able to call at will upon Adelaide Bartlett and become her.
“There she is,” he says. He pulls his truck onto the shoulder ahead of the knocked-down deer. “I’ll be just a minute. You can come, or you can sit tight.”
I come. I don’t want him to think I’m afraid—not of dead deer, not of cattle bolts, not of him. I walk with him back to the deer. I bring my parasol, in case.
“She’s got a pretty head on her.” He takes it in his hands. He fondles her ears. “I bet we could get this head talking.” He pinches the lower jaw, moves it up and down.
Ledane sings, “Don’t worry, be happy,” moving the deer’s mouth like it’s the deer singing.
“Stop that,” I say.
“You don’t need to be nervous,” Ledane says. He’s watching me. He’s one of those, if he saw me busking, would tug at my skirt, slap my bodice, lick his finger and give me a wet willie, try to make me reveal myself.
“I’m not nervous.” I touch the doe to prove it, put my hand on the flat of her shoulder blade. I cup the underside of her neck, feel the spring of her jugular vein. I find a tick bloated in the longer fur of her ear and leave it there. Her coat is dirtier than I’d imagined, patchier, softer.
“She’s still alive,” I say. My fingertips are black, some tarry mixture of dirt and the deer’s oil. “She’s warm.”
“She’s just cooking,” Ledane says. He slides the wooden ramp down from the bed and untangles the straps of the harness. “Sun cooks them outside, bacteria cooks them in.”
It’s true I can’t find a pulse in that deer, can’t feel any breath whistling from her black nostrils, but one of her legs twitches, kicks straight for a moment. “She’s not dead,” I say. I’ve twitched that way myself, statueing, a twitch you can’t help.
“She’s gone,” he says. “She’s bleeding inside.” He puts the toe of his boot against her bloated belly and rocks her to show me. He prods her flank, where the car hit. Her skin is tight, swollen. “Broke her pelvis,” he says. He draws back her lips, so I can see her purpling gums, but gum color doesn’t tell me the first thing about life. “There’s some distance to travel between dying and dead, and she’s traveling it.”
“What about your cattle bolt?”
“I can’t do that,” Ledane says. “That’s too pretty a head. We’ll just hitch her up.”
As if I’ve agreed to help him. As if I’m his partner in all this. “I want to be sure this deer is dead,” I say, “before anyone loads her into your truck.” I lift the lids of the deer’s eyes. The eyes are flat and black. That could be because she’s dead, but it could just be because she’s a deer. Even when you’ve gone still, you’re in there. I imagine the deer in there—feeling, seeing. I stand. “Just because she’s still doesn’t mean she’s dead.”
“This deer was dead the minute she stepped out onto the asphalt.”
That’s when the deer sits up. I don’t know any better way to say it. She sits like a dog, her hind legs splayed out to the sides. She’s not right. Her neck swings off to the right, and her back legs are useless, but her front hooves scrabble on the asphalt. She works her jaw like she would speak.
“Would you look at that,” Ledane says. He kicks at her legs, but he can’t knock her down. “Could I borrow your umbrella?” he asks. “It’s twice as much work if she topples herself into the ditch.”
“No,” I say. It’s the second rule of umbrella self-defense—Do not let the highwayman get hold of your parasol. But I know what he wants. I look at the doe, moving all wrong—jerky, staggering, half useless, giving herself away. I swing the parasol. I swing it like a barrel slat at the forelegs. My parasol crumples, and she crumples. “Would a dead deer do that?” I say to him.
Ledane starts to shimmy his strap up under the deer. “She’s dying. You can’t change that. Some things we don’t get to decide.”
But there’s always a decision to be made, some action to be taken. Before Ledane can stop me, I position the tip of my parasol at the deer’s tear duct. I grab it right near the ferrule, and I punch the ferrule through the eye, aiming for her hindbrain. Something crunches. The deer is still.
Ledane starts to boil, blushing red like a crawfish in a pot, saying, “Hey. That was her head. That was my head. You owe me something for that head.”
I tug my parasol, trying to get it loose of the deer’s skull.
“She was already gone,” Ledane says. His voice is high-pitched and tight, unrecognizable. He jerks the harness strap out from under the deer, throws it into the truck bed like he’s done with the deer and me both. “You didn’t need to pull a stunt like that.”
“It wasn’t a stunt,” I said, though perhaps it was. It’s the sort of thing Adelaide would do, a show of her talent. She’d pierce the eye, a one-in-a-million shot. She’d stand where I’m standing, one foot on the doe, wrenching her parasol from the ruined skull. Perhaps it was Adelaide, banned from the Mosey, gone rogue on the state highways. Adelaide showing off. I reach deep in myself for Adelaide, because Adelaide would know what to do next. She’d know what to say to get Ledane back in the truck and driving me to the bus stop. She’d blow him a kiss, and he’d forget his anger. She’d lift her hand to the next car to come by, stopping them easy as stopping a taxi. I free my parasol. Twirl it. When a car comes by on the highway, I touch my free hand to my lips and raise it in the air. But they don’t stop, and why would they? I can’t find Adelaide. It’s just me doing those things.
 

Morgan Thomas is a writer from the Gulf Coast. Their work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Electric Literature, Vice, StoryQuarterly, them, and elsewhere. Their debut short story collection is forthcoming from MCD/FSG.

Chelsea Welsh is a photographer and writer. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2018 and an MFA in Photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2013. ​Her photographic work has been featured in Ain’t-Bad Magazine, Phases Mag, Lenscratch, and Rattle Magazine, among others.