American Culture

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Moments That Matter” by James Gardner

It was just after seven.  Dianna Reynolds sat in the front seat of a faded green Mercury Sable with half a bottle of vodka held tightly between her legs.  She lit a cigarette with a pack of matches off the dashboard and blew smoke out the open window.  Randy Whitehead leaned against the hood of the car eating spaghetti and meatballs out of a can with a plastic fork.  The gentle sound of the river and a smell of fish filled the evening air.  Randy Whitehead finished the spaghetti and threw the empty can into the trees.  He licked off the plastic fork and put it in his shirt pocket.  Then he walked to the side of the car and stuck his head inside.

“Give me a beer, Dianna,” he said holding out his hand.  She reached into a red ice chest and handed him a can.

“Here,” she said indifferently.

Randy Whitehead glanced at the bottle of vodka.  “You better slow down on that shit if you want it to last you.”

“I don’t give a damn,” she replied.  “I want to get good and drunk.  Besides, it’s Friday and I’ve got another bottle in the trunk.”

“Hell, is today Friday?” he said.

She nodded her head.

Randy Whitehead walked back to the front of the car and opened the beer.  He took a drink.  It was cold and tasted good.  He was glad it was Friday.  They had enough food and drinks in the trunk to last all weekend and plenty of cigarettes and if they were lucky and the cops didn’t make them move they could stay parked right there until Monday morning.  The car was well hidden by the trees and the chances were good that they would not be spotted from the road.

He walked to the edge of the river and looked down into the water.  It was a good place to spend the weekend.  It was very private and they could get buckets of water from the river to wash themselves.  Randy Whitehead pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his jeans.  He took a bent one out, carefully straightened it and lit it.  The tobacco was good and he paused to enjoy the taste of it.  Randy Whitehead had learned how to savor the moment.  The moment was all that mattered.

Being by the river always reminded Randy Whitehead of better times, times when he was a boy and would go fishing on the Stanton River with his father and his Uncle Pete.  His Uncle Pete always wore bib overalls and a straw hat.  He chewed plug tobacco and could knock a drink can off a fence post from five feet with one careful spit.

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Dianna Reynolds.  He had not noticed her standing beside him.

“Lord Honey, you surprised me!”

“You want to go swimming?” she asked.

“No,” he answered.  “Do you?”

“I just said it for something to say.”

He squatted down and picked up a small flat rock the size of an Oreo cookie and swung sidearm.  The stone flew low along the water and then dropped and skipped across the surface.  Randy Whitehead counted the times it skipped.  “Seven,” he said.  “Beat that!”

“I can’t skip no rocks.”

“Why don’t you try?  You don’t never try.”

“What the fuck’s the point?” she said.

“It’s fun,” he replied.

“Shit,” she said as she turned and walked back toward the car.

He watched her as she walked.  He could tell that she was already very drunk by the way she swung her arms to keep her balance.  Then too, she was starting to get mean.  She always got mean when she got drunk and the more she drank the meaner she got.  He hoped that it wasn’t going to be a bad night.

One third vodka and two thirds Mountain Dew, that’s what Dianna Reynolds liked.  She mixed it without ice because it was important to save the ice as long as possible.

Randy Whitehead began to drink beers more quickly.  If she was going to get smashed he might as well too.  As it grew dark, the sounds of the frogs replaced the sound of the flowing water.  Lightning bugs flickers along the bank beneath old Sycamores that reached out over the river. Dianna Reynolds had spread a brown bath towel on the ground in front of the Mercury to sit on.  She leaned against the bumper with her knees pulled up to her chest.  She had opened a second bottle and was drinking it straight now.

“Look at all them fucking lightning bugs,” she said.  “They’re everywhere.”

“Yeah,” said Randy Whitehead as he sat down beside her.  “When I was a boy I used to love to catch them.  I’d put the jar by my bed and watch them when I was going to sleep, but they would always be dead in the morning.”

“Why are you forever thinking about when you were little?” she asked.

“It makes me happy to think about those days,” he answered.  “Don’t that make you happy?”

“Hell no!” she said angrily.  “I don’t never think about that.  It makes me cry.”  She raked her long gray hair behind one ear, put the bottle to her lips and took a drink.  He stared at her faint profile in the darkness.

“It’s starting to cool off,” he remarked.

“It’s about time.  It was hot as hell today.”

“I hope the damn ice holds out,” he said.

“Well, if it don’t we can put the drinks in the water to keep them cool.”

“Who is working your station this weekend?”

“That damn Arnold,” she answered.

“Were you busy today?”

“Hell no,” she said.  “I guess I had five or six people bring stuff by.  It was mostly just clothes.  One guy brought a tricycle.”

“Did you ask Mister Phillips about getting me a job?”

“I done told you, Goodwill ain’t hiring nobody new right now.  You just need to get that idea out of your head.”

“It would be great if I could get a job too.  If I did, we could maybe get us a motel room somewhere.”

Dianna Reynolds lit a cigarette.

Randy Whitehead could sense her anger building.  He reached in the cooler for another beer.  He was feeling it now too.  This one was his ninth or maybe his tenth.  He had lost count.

“I wish the fuck you would get a real God damn job,” she said.  “It would make things a hell of a lot easier.”

“I know it.”

“You say that, but you don’t never do nothing about it.  You said you was getting a job working in the kitchen over at the Salvation Army, but you ain’t never got it!  I can’t see how that God damn Russell what’s his name got a fucking job and you didn’t.”

“I don’t know either,” replied Randy Whitehead shaking his head.

“Hell, all the shit he does with his money is buy rocks.”

“Russell’s trying to do better since he got out of rehab.”

“Bullshit!” she said.

“It’s true.  Besides, he says he’s saving his money to get back to Nashville.”

“He’ll never get back to Nashville.”

“Maybe he will.”

Randy Whitehead reached over to put his arm around Dianna Reynolds’s shoulders.  When he did she jerked away.

“What the hell’s wrong, Honey?”

“Just don’t fucking touch me!” she said.

“Why?  What’s the matter?”

“I just don’t want to be touched!  Is that alright?”

“I reckon so.”

“You know something?” she said.  “All I am to you is a piece of ass!”

“That’s crap Dianna!” he said reaching for her arm.

“You keep your fucking hands off me, I said!  You don’t give a shit!  All I am is somebody to buy you beer and cigarettes and fuck!  Without me you’d be out on the God damn street.  It’s my car and my money.  All the hell you do it take!  I’m sick of it!”

“You say this shit every time you get wasted.  You don’t mean it.  It’s just the damn liquor talking.  Besides, where the hell are you going to get another man like me?  Hell, you’re fifty-five years old!  You ain’t never going to get another young man like me!”

“I can get a man any fucking time I want one.  Don’t you kid yourself!  You ain’t shit!  Hell, half the time you can’t even get hard!”

Randy Whitehead crunched the empty beer can in his hand.  “Who the hell could get hard looking at you?”

“Fuck you!” she screamed.  She stood up quickly and began to kick him.  “I hate your guts you son-of-a-bitch!”

“Quit kicking me!  That hurts!  Stop it!”

“You’re lucky as shit to have me!  You don’t realize how damn lucky you are!”

“Listen,” said Randy Whitehead suddenly standing.

“What?” she demanded.

“Shut the hell up and listen!  Somebody’s coming!”

Dianna Reynolds stopped screaming and the two stood silently beside the Mercury.  They could hear footsteps in the darkness.  Someone was walking through the woods toward them.

“That ain’t no police,” whispered Dianna Reynolds.  “Go get that fucking crowbar!”

Randy Whitehead reached in the car and pulled out the heavy iron bar.  Facing the sound of footsteps, he held the rod shoulder height ready to swing.

“Hello,” said a voice from the darkness.

“What the hell do you want?” replied Randy Whitehead.

“I don’t want nothing,” said the voice.

“Go on and get out of here then!  We don’t want nobody around here!”

“Is this your land?” asked the voice apparently not dissuaded by the warning.  The footsteps had stopped and the voice was very close.

“Go on!” said Randy Whitehead, louder then before.  “I ain’t going to tell you again!  You get the fuck on!”

“Hey, I know you don’t I?” said the voice.  “Ain’t you that dude named Randy from down at the clinic?”

“Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Dean Moony,” answered the voice.  “You know me!  I see you all the time at the clinic downtown!”

“I don’t know no Dean!  Now go on and get before I beat the shit out of you!”

“No man, you know me I’m telling you.  I know you!  You got that tattoo of eyes on the back of your head don’t you?”

“Yeah,” replied Randy Whitehead.

“You see man, I know you.  You know me.  We ate lunch together down at the Rescue Mission just a few weeks ago.  Remember that?  We ate ham and potato salad on them picnic tables out in back of the damn Rescue Mission.”

“Tell him to get the fuck out of here,” said Dianna Reynolds.

“I ain’t going to hurt nobody,” said the voice.  “I was just walking along the road up there and heard y’all talking and I come down to see.  I don’t mean no trouble.  I ain’t even got no knife or nothing.”

“Come on out here where I can see you,” said Randy Whitehead.

A tall thin shape stepped out of the bushes a few feet from where Randy Whitehead stood with the crowbar.

“Shit!  Don’t hit me man!  Don’t hit me!”  The figure crouched down and held his arms up to protect himself.

Randy Whitehead could just make out the man’s face.  He did recognize the man.  He remembered eating lunch with the man at the Rescue Mission.  “Go on and stand up.  I ain’t going to hit you.”

The figure lowered his arms.  “You see man?  You know me.  I’m Dean Moony.  We’re friends me and you.”

“What are you doing, man?”

“I was walking down to the park.  I was going to sleep there.  I sleep there some when I get drunk.”  The man walked cautiously around the car to where Dianna Reynolds stood.  Randy Whitehead followed him with the iron bar in his hand.  “Hey there Ma’am,” said the stranger as he held out his hand, “I’m Dean Moony.  I’m friends with Randy.  Hell, we’ve done known each other for a long time ain’t we Randy?”

“I reckon.  I remember you anyway.”

“I got me a full bottle of whiskey in my bag here and some meth too.  Do y’all do meth?”

“We don’t do that shit!” answered Dianna Reynolds.  “That shit will fuck you up bad!”

“I’ll trade you some whiskey for something to eat.  I missed supper at the Salvation Army tonight because I fell asleep.  I’ll trade you for some food.”

“All we got is canned spaghetti,” said Randy Whitehead.

“I love canned spaghetti,” replied Dean Moony.  “That would be good because I’ve got a God damn toothache and the son-of-a-bitch is just about to kill me.  I can’t eat nothing I got to chew.  Can you spare a can for some whiskey?”

“Yeah, alright.”  Randy Whitehead opened the trunk of the Mercury and got a can of spaghetti and a plastic fork.  “Here,” he said.

“Thanks Randy!  I’ll pay you back some day.  Want some whiskey?”

“Yeah, alright,” said Randy Whitehead, “I’ll have a drink of whiskey.”

Dean Moony reached into a black canvas bag and pulled out a full bottle of cheap bourbon.  “Her you go,” he said.  “You drink all you want.  You want some Ma’am?” he asked.”

“I don’t drink whiskey,” replied Dianna Reynolds lighting a cigarette.

Dean Moony opened the can of spaghetti and began to eat very quickly.  “You know that’s some damn good shit,” he said between mouthfuls.  They watched as the stranger finished the spaghetti and tossed the can into the woods.

“You were hungry!” declared Randy Whitehead.

“Damn straight,” replied Dean Moony.  “Hell, I ain’t eat nothing since early this morning and I been walking the whole damn day!”

“I thought you said you was sleeping this afternoon and that’s how come you to miss your supper?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Dean Moony.  “That is what happened.  Hey, you ain’t got a smoke do you?”

“Listen here Dean Moony,” said Dianna Reynolds, “don’t you think that you’re going to come around here and mooch a bunch of shit!  You can just get the fuck out of here if that’s what you’re thinking!”

“I got twenty cents.  Will you sell me one for twenty cents?”

“Yeah, I’ll sell one,” said Randy Whitehead.  He handed Dean Moony a cigarette.

“Do y’all have lots of cigarettes in that car?”

“So what if we do?”

“I was just asking,” he said, “that’s all.”  He lit the cigarette.  “Damn, I needed a smoke bad!”

“Come on Dean and have a seat.  We was just sitting here and drinking and talking.”

The three sat in a small circle in front of the Mercury and talked by the river in the darkness.  After her fears subsided, Dianna Reynolds mood lightened considerably.  Dean Moony told dirty jokes and Dianna Reynolds laughed at each one.

“You’re funny as shit!” she said.  “I ain’t laughed so much in a long time.  Damn Randy don’t never tell no jokes.  He don’t never make me laugh.”

After the whiskey was gone everyone drank vodka.  Dean Moony was buying cigarettes from Randy Whitehead five at a time.

“Where the hell are you from?” asked Dianna Reynolds.  “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

“Hell, I ain’t,” answered Dean Moony.  “I’m from Indiana!”

“What are you doing down here?”

“I just got here one day.”

“How long you been here?”

“I guess about three years,” he replied.

“You got any family back up there?” asked Randy Whitehead.

“I’ve got a sister somewhere, but I ain’t seen her in ages.”

“You want to go back?”

“Hell no,” said Dean Moony.  “What the hell for?  It gets cold as shit up there in the wintertime.”

“Hell, it gets cold here too,” said Dianna Reynolds.  “Last winter I thought me and Randy was going to freeze to death sleeping in the car.  We couldn’t run the damn heat because it used up too much gas.”

“Oh God!” screamed Dean Moony suddenly.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, man?”

“It’s my fucking tooth.  I thought if I got good and drunk it would quit hurting so damn bad, but it hurts like hell!  I swear I don’t believe I can stand it no more!”

“I know all about toothaches,” said Randy Whitehead.  “I’ve had to pull three of my teeth myself and I pulled one of Dianna’s too.  I didn’t think I’d ever get that one out.”

“Shit, I hate to pull the damn thing because it’s one of my last back teeth and you know yourself that you can’t eat worth a shit without back teeth.”

“That’s right,” said Randy Whitehead, “but still you can’t leave it in if it’s aching like that.”

Randy Moony stood up and began to stomp the ground.  He was moaning loudly while holding his jaw with both hands.  “Shit, shit, shit!” he yelled.

“You want me to pull the mother fucker out?” asked Randy Whitehead.  “I will if you say so.”

“You think you can?”

“I’ve got a pare of pliers and a God damn flashlight!  I reckon I can.”

“Alright then, pull the son-of-a-bitch!”

“You drink some more liquor and I’ll get the stuff,” said Randy Whitehead.  He opened the back door of the Mercury and fumbled around in a pasteboard box until he produced a pare of pliers.  Then he grabbed a small flashlight from the glove compartment and returned to where Dean Moony was standing holding his face.  “You sit back down so I can see.  Honey, you hold the light.  Shine it down in his mouth.”

“Is that good?” asked Dianna Reynolds holding the light over Randy Whitehead’s shoulder.

“Yeah, that’s good.  Alright now Dean, point to the one that hurts?”

Dean Moony stuck his finger in his mouth and touched the aching tooth.  “It’s that one,” he said.

“Alright,” said Randy Whitehead.  “Now, the trick is to hold it tight enough to pull it out, but not too tight.  If you squeeze too tight the son-of-a-bitch might crack off and then you really will be in a fix.”

“Oh hell man, don’t break the fucker off!” cried Dean Moony.

“You just hold still.  As long as it ain’t too damn rotted out it ain’t going to crack.  Dianna, hold that light still!”

“Hell, I can’t hardly stand up,” she laughed.

“Hold it still!”

“Alright, damn it!”

“I can feel that tooth wiggling around.  It’s loose.  It’s going to come out easy.”

“Get the fucker!”

“I’ve got it,” said Randy Whitehead gripping the pliers with both hands.  “Get ready!  I’m going to count to three and then I’m yanking it out.”  He spread his legs and shifted his weight and said: “one, two, three!”  He pulled up, Dean Moony shrieked in pain, and them Randy Whitehead tumbled backwards holding the pliers up over his head.

“Did you get it?” asked Dianna Reynolds.

“I got it!” yelled Randy Whitehead.

“Oh God!” screamed Dean Moony.

Dianna Reynolds put the light on Dean Moony’s face.  He was spiting mouthfuls of bright red blood on the ground.

“Go get some water and rinse your damn mouth out,” she said.

Dean Moony stood up and walked down to the river.  They could hear him moaning and cussing in the darkness.

“Hell,” said Randy Whitehead, “that damn tooth came out easier then I figured.”  He held the tooth under the flashlight.  “Damn, that’s a nasty rotten looking thing.  No wonder it pulled right out.”  Then he shouted: “Hey man!”

“Yeah?” replied Dean Moony.

“You want to keep this tooth of yours?”

“Hell no!”

“You sure?  I’m going to throw it away if you don’t!”

“Throw it away!”

A few minutes later Dean Moony returned and sat back down in front of the Mercury.     Dianna Reynolds put the light on him.

“Hell,” she said, “you still got blood all over your face.  The shit’s dripping off your beard.

“Fuck it!” he replied.  Them he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled dollar bill.  “Here,” he said, “let me get five more smokes from you, man.”

Randy Whitehead took the money and tapped five cigarettes out of a fresh pack.

It was late.  The lightning bugs were mostly gone.  The frogs and the crickets seemed to blend with the sound of the river to make a new sort of soft roar.  The air had grown cooler.  The three continued to talk and smoke and drink.  The pain in Dean Moony’s mouth had apparently subsided and he was once again talking cheerfully and telling jokes.  Dianna Reynolds was laughing loudly.  She had scooted over and was sitting close by his side.  Randy Whitehead lay on the ground with one knee up and his head resting on his hand.  He wasn’t saying much.  He was listening and watching Dianna Reynolds in the darkness.  He had seen her doing what she was doing several times before.  He told himself that he didn’t give a shit, but he did.  He thought about reaching over and grabbing the crowbar and beating the life out of Dean Moony, but he really couldn’t blame him.  She was the one.

“I remember back in Kentucky where I grew up,” began Dean Moony.

“I thought you was from Indiana,” interrupted Dianna Reynolds.

“Oh well, that’s right,” he replied.  Then he continued to tell about a dog that he once had.  As he told the story he reached out and put his arm around Dianna Reynolds and she leaned against him and placed her hand on his leg.  After finishing the story he turned to hear and said: “you know something girl?”

“What’s that?” answered Dianna Reynolds.

“You’ve got a sexy fucking way about you.”

“You think so?”

“Hell yeah I do.  If you two ever break up you need to come see me, Baby.  I ain’t kidding.”

“Well,” she replied, “you’re right nice too.  I like tall men.  Hell, Randy there is a short man, but you’re nice and tall and strong.”

Dean Moony tightened his grip on her shoulder and pulling her close he kissed her.  As Randy Whitehead watched, She put her arms around Dean Moony’s neck and the two embraced.  Randy Whitehead stood up off the ground and walked down toward the edge of the water.  He didn’t want to watch anymore.  He leaned against the rough trunk of a sycamore and lit a cigarette.  He knew that she was a whore.  Hell, he’d always known that even from the start, but he was fond of her and had grown to depend on her.

“What the fuck,” he said and flicked the cigarette butt high up into the air.  He watched the orange light of it arch and fall disappearing as it hit the invisible surface of the water.

 

After a while, Randy Whitehead didn’t know how long, he stood up and turned to walk back to the car.  He wasn’t sure if he had fallen asleep while leaning against the tree or not, but it seemed to him that some time had passed.  The last thing he wanted to do was to walk up on them screwing.  He figured they were probably passed out asleep in the front seat so he began to walk slowly toward the Mercury.  He could hear the tall grass brushing against his jeans as he moved.  Then from nowhere, there was a blinding flash of yellow-white light and he felt the vague sensation of falling.  That was all.

 

When Randy Whitehead opened his eyes saw a blur of bright blue and some dark green.  He tried to focus, but for a long time he was unable.  He felt an intense pain that seemed to be coming from his back or neck or maybe the back of his head.  He tried to move but it was excruciating.

“Oh Lord,” he heard himself say.  Time passed.  He didn’t try to move again.  Finally the bright blue became sky and leaves and branches became visible.  He could hear the sound of water over the pounding in his head.  Slowly he started to put things together.  The murky images and disjointed bits of the night before began to fall into a confused recollection.  He remembered Dianna and what she had done.  He recalled her ugly laughter.  Then, as if some power other then his own possessed him he began to move.  He first felt his legs and then his hands grasping at the tall river grass.  Then he was on his hands and knees and was quickly up and standing and he could see around him.

The pain pounded like a hammer in his head and made him dizzy and sick to his stomach.  He saw the black crowbar at his feet and a dark red spot in the sand.  He gently felt the back of his head with his hand.

The Mercury was gone and so were Dianna and that stinking son-of-a-bitch, Dean.  Two empty bottles, some beer cans and a ring of scattered cigarette butts were all that remained as evidence of what had happened.  Then too, there was the crowbar, but that was it.

Randy Whitehead wondered where they had gone.  He wondered if he would ever see either one of them again.  If he did ever see that bastard Dean he thought he’d probably kill him.  He felt in his pocket for cigarettes.  They were gone too.

“Oh well,” he said.  Then Randy Whitehead staggered down to the waters edge, got down on his stomach in the sand and stuck his head into the cool water of the river.  It felt good.  He held his head under for as long as he could and then he came up gasping for air.  A bird was singing somewhere high above in the branches of the sycamore tree.

 

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