The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story PINCHED MAGNOLIAS

Spring 2015 / Issue 97

Leigh Camacho Rourks

Dalia brought the butt of her shotgun to her shoulder. Everything was damp, clammy. The air smelled of blooming magnolias and churned-up swamp bed, sweet and earthy all at once. Her husband stood, grinning, on the edge of her property where water met land. He spread his arms, palms toward God, and shrugged a little. Bud was a large man, wide and tall, and his broad shoulders looked ridiculous shuffling around under his denim coveralls. He took a step forward, his mudboots sinking into the black gumbo of the bayou that banked her garden.

“Off my yard, Bud. Now,” she said, the same way she might have said, “Pick up that mess.” Tired sounding, mostly. Bud took another little step, his open arms easing down, and Dalia wriggled her big toe around in the ground, digging a hole. Otherwise, she was still, a five-foot statue in a wide hat and flower-print dress. Her voice was steady and calm, her anger only apparent in how heavy her drawl had become. “Get back, I said.”

Like most of the women in Marti Parish, she’d been brought up with one finger on a trigger, and the weight of the gun felt good in her hands, natural. But Bud was the sort of fool who figured she wouldn’t use it, and he kept walking. “Baby, give me that big ol’ gun,” he said, that grin a smear across his face. “You know you ain’t going to shoot nobody.” It was the same tone he’d taken the first time he’d lifted her shirt in high school, the both of them grinning back then.

“Anybody. It’s ANYbody, you asshole.” She looked down at the hole she’d made in the soil. Her father’d had his own proverbs, wisdoms only he knew. “Nothing good ever grew from shotgun shells,” he’d say, his arms often in the dirt, “but the brass gives roses color.” The hole would do. “Take another step, Bud, really.”

“Baby, you know I love you.” His boots sucked at the ground.

Dalia pulled the trigger, smiled at Bud looking so damn surprised. “Fuck off,” she said, the sweetness of her drawl hanging on the words. She nudged the dispensed shell with her foot and sunk it deep into the dirt, pushing it into her little hole until it all but disappeared. She finished covering it, her foot sweeping and smoothing the moist earth. Only then did she look over at her husband’s body, at the ragged hole the buckshot had ripped through his chest, at the way the blood looked black as it pooled in the mud. She did a mimic of his little shrug and went inside the house to make a pot of coffee.

It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Bud loved her. Honestly, he was the sort of dumb mutt that loved everyone—therein lay the problem. She’d thrown him out when she realized that he was cheating on her, but like the old cur he was, he padded on back whenever he was hungry or lonely. He’d come in his boat, pulling in next to her daddy’s old one, a peace offering of fresh-caught white perch and half a six-pack in his worn hands.

Even that, she could live with, but he wasn’t secret with his whore. She’d eventually met the girl at the Piggly Wiggly, the both of them in the parking lot, Dalia’s cart full of half a month’s groceries, the girl’s holding only gin and tampons. She was just a little bit of a thing, short and dark like Dalia, maybe eighteen, dumb like him, and built like a rolling river, waves of her spilling out of her baby blue hot pants.

Still, Dalia could stomach it. Barely, but she could.

The girl was a stripper, of course, across the river at Pinky’s, somehow managing not to get tetanus or typhus as she crossed its parking-lot-slash-junkyard. Dalia knew the girl was just a symbol of everything that was wrong with Bud and his world and this town and had somehow managed not to hate the child whore. Not really.

She picked up her cell phone and watched the coffee drip. Her sister was sheriff, like their father had been, and so she was the only one to call. “Mary,” she said, the phone resting between ear and arm as she filled a little blue pitcher with cream and pulled out some china, “I’ve shot Bud. You might want to come.”

After their father’s death, Mary had let Dalia keep the family home but had stayed close. Three acres down, she was Dalia’s nearest neighbor. On the other side, the thin, empty homes of seasonal hunting camps leaned toward the ground. Tangled woods choked with brush and dewberries surrounded everything, slipping through and behind the sprawling lots. Only a gravel road and the bayou connected the homes, and in the thick of spring, even they seemed to get lost in the overgrowth.

The coffeepot was hot and ready when Mary stepped into the kitchen. Without even a hello, Dalia poured her a cup, and they sat at the table. Keeping her gaze on the pitcher and off of Dalia, Mary began spooning sugar into her cup.

Like so many sisters, they were opposites and made for mismatched bookends. Mary was slim and tall, her daddy’s girl, and wore rumpled jeans and a T-shirt. Her black boots, so normal everywhere else, looked out of place and clunky across from her sister’s small, naked feet.

“Looks pretty bad out there,” Mary said, finally making eye contact. “The flies are gathering.”

“I’d expect. It’s at least ninety.”

“Really, D,” Mary sounding sad now. “What on earth possessed you to shoot Bud?”

“He kept walking.”

Mary let the spoon clink against the cup as she stirred and stirred. Finally, she just said, “They always do.”

      

No one was surprised when Mary ran for sheriff, Dalia sitting right behind her at every little speech. Marti was a small parish, and everyone had known and loved their daddy. He was good people—maybe not the most honest sheriff, but wasn’t that the way? Honest and effective need not go together, not in Louisiana, and everyone understood Mary’s need to avenge her father’s murder, unsolved and itching at them all like a wound. She won easily enough, despite being a woman, her black hair yanked into a tight ponytail, skin scrubbed clean of any makeup, and Dalia behind her, bowing her head under the brim of a hat, touching her face with a tissue at each mention of their dad.

Dalia gave Mary a quick hug after she was sworn in and said, “He’d be proud,” her voice not quite happy. Mary just nodded.

She’d turned out to be a good sheriff and had been reelected, her sister once again sitting behind her, giving her the rare hug.

The women stood in the yard looking down at Bud.

Mary said, “You should wear shoes out here,” and Dalia wondered if she was just used to bossing people around these days. “Stickers and snakes.”

Dalia poking the body with her toe, “He was handsome when we met, sort of.”

“He was. But now, well, it’s a wonder he caught that girl’s eye.”

“Fairly certain he looked a bit better alive, drunk, and shoving dollars in her panties.” Dalia chewed at her lip. “Idiot. He could make a girl feel special, though, loved. In his own way, I mean. And he was funny.” The hem of her dress slipped into a mix of blood and dirt as she bent to look at her husband. She absently knotted the ends of the skirt like when she was gardening. “But, dumb.” She looked from Bud to Mary. “You know his girl looks like I did when I was young. Well, sluttier, but scrub her face and put some clothes on her . . .”

Her sister shook her head. “You ain’t exactly old.”

Dalia’d had enough of looking at Bud. Water lapped at the edge of the bank, eating it away, and she concentrated on that motion. Once upon a time when the sisters were barely more than babies, before their daddy told them that their mother ran off, before they’d forgotten her smell, her voice, there had been a couple more feet of land to play on out there, their little bodies getting bronze in the sun as they made mud pies. Their daddy drinking Beam and pretending to watch for gators as they played.

“This isn’t okay,” Mary said.

“No.”

There was a rumble of tires against gravel and both women’s heads shot up. Dalia could see a hint of black shifting behind the trees near the road. A pickup. She opened her mouth a little, finding it harder to breathe.

Mary closed her eyes, and Dalia listened to the soft shoosh of her breath. They waited. The truck kept rolling. “That camp past my house, I think. That Dutch guy,” Mary said. “It’s got to be him.”

“Shit.” The sound of the tires was almost gone now.

“Just grab his feet,” Mary said finally, waving a callused hand toward the back side of the house.

Near the farthest corner of the property stood a wooden T-frame attached to an old metal shed, rigged with a winch and rope. The nearest real grocery was the Piggly Wiggly forty-five minutes away, and so, like most everyone else they knew, the girls had been hunting for dinner since they could hold a Remington .410 steady. After a hunt, they had never been allowed to skip the skinning. “Real meat don’t come in plastic wrap,” their daddy would say, slipping a noose high around the neck of a deer before cranking the winch. Once the carcass was dangling from the T-frame, hooves a good foot from the ground, he’d grab a hose, nod toward the knives, and say, “Watch how deep you cut. You bust the gut, you contaminate dinner.” His girls, not quite tall enough to work a good-sized buck, would scrabble onto upturned pails, their daddy, tall and lean, adding his muscle to the job when necessary.

All the buckets were right side up now, but the winch was still oiled and functioning. When hunting season came around in the fall, Mary’d bring what she bagged to her sister’s house, dress it, and leave some of the meat in her freezer.

They half-carried, half-dragged Bud toward the T-frame. 

“Jesus, D, the least you could do is keep your end up,” Mary said.

Dalia’s hat fell off as she adjusted her grip. They’d slipped Bud’s boots off so she could get a good hold on his ankles, but they were wide and he was heavy, and the difference in the sisters’ heights didn’t make carrying him any easier. “Hold on,” she said.

“No. We’re almost there, and I certainly don’t have all day. Buck the hell up.” Mary’s mouth was moving, but Dalia knew that voice. It was her father talking. She didn’t answer, but she stopped and dropped Bud’s feet. Made a show of wiping the sweat from her face with the edge of her skirt despite its filth. Made a show of inspecting her hat, putting it firmly back on. Mary watched her, hands still looped under Bud’s arms, making no move to clear her own eyes of sweat.

They traveled the last few feet without much noise, but when they got to the T-frame, Mary said, “This really isn’t okay,” and as they stripped the man, made the noose, turned the winch, Dalia wondered who in the hell she was talking to, which one of them she was trying to convince.

There is a myth that any meat dumped in the swamp will be eaten by gators, but a body dumped in the bayou was as like as not to end up floating into someone’s camp. That’s how the girls found their daddy: his body bloated and nibbled but mostly intact, except for a missing finger or toe and that hole in his head that really only left his jaw in place.

That day Mary called the deputy while Dalia, home from college, sat with the remains at the edge of the water, rocks and roots digging at her. Laying her fingers on his hand—the skin sloughed off in places—she’d cried a bit and hadn’t returned to campus after, to take care of Mary, she told her friends.

So, the girls knew better than to put a whole man in the water.

They worked quickly, looking up every time a squirrel shifted the tree leaves or an acorn cracked against Dalia’s tin roof.  Once or twice she thought she heard tires again, and she stopped, looked up at nothing. It was dark before they were finished with Bud, but there was light enough from the full moon and the stars to see.

Dalia stripped to her underwear, her dress ruined. “I got a call from his girl last week.”

Mary rolled a metal barrel out from under the shed, the bottom scraping as she tugged it off the uneven concrete that rimmed the building. She filled it with faded newspapers, dropped in her jeans, her T-shirt, Dalia’s dress. “My bra clear?” she asked.

“Looks it.”

“Soak the ground. There’s been a lot of rain lately, but still a hot ash might catch this grass.”

Dalia pulled the hose. “Daddy’s matches are still in the shed,” she said. “There’s lighter fluid, too.” Their father had often burned evidence here—gambling receipts, boxes from off the back of a truck, a dead drug dealer’s clothes. “You not going to ask what she had to say?”

“Is it why you shot him?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

Mary added twigs and Spanish moss to the barrel, more newspaper, threw a match in. “You got to be kidding me, D. You don’t know?” her voice loud.

Dalia ignored her. “She was crying.”

“She claim he beat her?”

“Bud?” Dalia laughed. “No. No, of course not. She said he was leaving her. Begged me to give him back. Like he was mine, like I wanted him.”

With everything damp the fire was slow to catch, and Mary got the lighter fluid out, tried another match. “Did you?”

“No.” Dalia watched the moss and wood and newspapers and bloody clothes light, watched the fire climb and fold itself over the edges of the barrel as if searching for escape. “And isn’t that sad.”

She had wanted Bud so badly when she was younger. Whenever she visited from lsu, he’d show up with magnolias that he pinched from the tree in the front yard, the one her daddy had planted for her when she was six, her daddy saying they’d grow tall together. Bud always claimed that he’d bought the big white blooms, the both of them laughing as he pretended to search for a receipt.

The night her father chased him off, Dalia had sounded just like the girl, Bud’s stripper. “I love him,” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and panting, the sound of it climbing to fill every space in the kitchen.

Her father had just stared at her. His eyes the sort of gray that blanketed the bayou in winter. She’d never yelled at him before, had never really cried, not since she was small. And there she was, sobbing so hard that her body shook. It felt as if her teeth might rattle right out of her head.

Her daddy hadn’t raised his voice, but it crackled like a bonfire. “You’re hysterical and he’s trash.” He put his 12-gauge on the table. “And if he comes back, I’ll shoot him. Now buck the hell up, sit the hell down, and calm yourself. You’re scaring Mary.”

And she knew he would. Her daddy had no problem with killing.

After a while, Dalia looked away from the fire in the barrel and said, “I’m not sure when I stopped wanting Bud; I’m just sure I didn’t want him anymore.”

“Why don’t you get dressed? I’ll watch this,” was her sister’s only answer to that.

       

Along with a large cooler full of the meat, full of Bud, Dalia loaded a frog gig, a couple of Maglites, and some Cokes onto her boat— just in case they were stopped by the Wildlife and Fisheries boys—and waited for the sound of Mary’s truck. She’d gone home for a shower, her badge, and her fishing license. “No need to take any chances,” she’d said.

The bayou was not a lonely or quiet place at night, and Dalia listened to the owls and crickets, watched the lightning bugs. She fought sleep, exhaustion creeping up on her as her boat rocked in the water. Once, she’d wanted to move to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, to be a doctor or an architect, but the cities hadn’t suited her. She’d felt trapped by the concrete, the constant buzz of lights, the people pushing against each other. She missed home, never stayed gone long.

Now, she lived off of her father’s pension and what Bud gave her, dreams of working, of being someone, lost to her wanderings in her daddy’s garden. Mary always helped her out if things got tight.

Tonight a part of her was afraid her sister wouldn’t return, though, so when the grating rumble of tires on pea gravel interrupted the swamp song, it was a relief. She squinted at the lights and felt panicky when they stayed steady, even after the engine cut off. She imagined Mary staring at her, how she looked in the harsh beams, and wondered if Mary hated her a little. As far as Dalia knew, Mary had never taken a bribe or planted evidence, had never enjoyed the “tiny perks” their daddy so loved. She’d walked straight.

Eyes watering from the light, Dalia counted. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Her breath more shallow with each Mississippi. Finally, the lights winked out, and the sound of the door opening knocked her in the chest. Dalia could breathe again, but her eyes were light-blind so she couldn’t see her sister’s face. Mary said, “Last boat ride, D. I mean it,” her voice hot and crackling like their daddy’s.

And suddenly in her head, Dalia was screaming at her daddy all over again. That night in the kitchen. Screaming and begging incoherently. Grabbing his shotgun and running into the night.

“Last boat ride,” she whispered as Mary got into Bud’s boat, untied it. Then Dalia reached for the ropes that held hers, loosed it, and turned the motor over, following Mary down the river.

She imagined what it was like for Mary that night, watching from the doorway as their father chased her. Her sister had worshipped the man, following him around and playing sheriff with his badge, showing him their mud pies and laughing as he told fish stories. Cutting the vegetables as he cooked dinner. Pouring Beam for him to sip on the porch. Always a good daughter. Dalia knew that they hunted together long after she stopped going, and that after she left for college they drank together, played cards together, even missed her together.

She barely knew her little sister when she came home for visits. Even though they were so close in age, she’d always thought of Mary as the baby, but the child had grown out of her quickly, the woman having moved in more and more each month.

Up ahead, Mary cut the motor, called out, “Here’s good.” So Dalia pulled alongside her and tried to hold the boats steady as her sister nimbly climbed from one to the other. “Let’s go,” she said, leaving Bud’s boat to the current. Dalia handed her a Coke and turned the wheel.

They drove for a while and finally cut the engine to drift quietly into a set of smaller waterways that branched off from the main bayou. Cypress knees bumped the hull occasionally, and the water was shallow enough that a wrong turn could beach them. Maglites out, they scanned the marsh grasses with the beams, looking for the red glow of alligator eyes. Frogs’ and spiders’ eyes glow green or yellow under flashlight, and there were plenty of those, the frogs singing nonstop, their voices so big.

Finally they found a series of banks with red reflections and backed the boat a little ways away until they were upstream from what looked to be nesting grounds, the darkness thick with gator eyes.

“Here’s good,” Mary said. It was the first they’d spoken in a while, and Dalia tried to read her sister’s tone. She got nothing from it.

They worked quickly, dropping the meat in the water a bit at a time.

She remembered how surprised her father looked when she whirled on him, his own gun in her hands. His eyes were hidden in the darkness but his whole body shot straight up with the shock of it, and he lifted his palms a little. There was a small noise as if he was about to say, “Baby,” as if the word was caught in his breath. Dalia still wasn’t sure if she actually pulled the trigger that night or if the gun had just gone off. The feel of it kicking in her hands made her think it was alive, that maybe, maybe, it had propelled the shot on its own—maybe she’d done nothing but not stop it. His face opened like a flower, blooming horribly, and she stood there forever, expecting it to close again.

The sound of the meat hitting the water made her feel a little sick. “I did love him,” she said to Mary, unsure of which man she meant.

It had been Mary who took the gun from her that night, who had decided they should leave their father in the dark water. Mary who’d told the deputy that their father’d left to hunt and that they hadn’t seen him since. Mary who’d mentioned a drug dealer from Dallas, mentioned that he’d been calling the house, leaving threats. Mary who’d run for sheriff so that Dalia would always be safe.

Dalia, on the other hand, had done nothing much except marry Bud.

Tossing the bits of the man she’d killed her daddy for into the black of the swamp, she thought of the morning her father floated back to them, of how she did not understand what the thing bumping the bank really was.

The fetid water churned and splashed as gar and bass and finally, finally, the alligators moved in. And the same sweet rot she had smelled a million years ago, sitting on the bank with her daddy’s body, then smelled again with Bud that morning, filled her nose.