Ampersand by Rusty Barnes
Sissy had a snake coiled at the base of her spine. It wasn't your typical ass-hat. Darker in color, bloody orange and that blue you only find in tattoos. I had only met her the hour before but we were getting along. She bought me a beer and I bought her several beers and I watched her purse when she went to the ladies, which was when I noticed the snake. My buddy Ray noticed me noticing. He had introduced us. Sissy worked with him at the restaurant. Ray leaned over and yelled in my ear.
"Yep." I couldn't quite see her now, just the top of her head as she wound her way through the bar.
"I figure she'd be good for you."
"So you said." I wondered what exactly it was about me that made her good for me. I hadn't known Ray all that long either. It had been a couple months now and he had already insinuated himself into a role in my life. I didn't have much else going on since Ellie took the kids and split. Ray wanted to hook me up.
"She might be able to get you on part-time at the plant, too. Here she comes now. Look alive, Jared." Ray pushed his chair back and went to the bar. I tried to relax my hands so I wouldn't look so tense. Nothing will turn a woman off faster than desperation. I'd been doing odd jobs and carpentry for a couple months now, and things were tight.
"Hello again" Sissy said as she sat down. She'd fiddled with her hair and put on some perfume. She was the best-looking woman I'd ever smelled.
"Hi," I said. Ray hadn't come back the table yet.
"Let's just go somewhere," she said. "Don't you think it's so noisy in here?" I couldn't quite tell if she wanted to go or if she wanted to GO. You know. It'd been a long time since I'd done anything like this.
"All right," I said. "Let me talk to Ray, and we'll go." I held out her coat for her, and then went up to Ray.
"Hey buddy," I said. "We're going to go somewhere." Ray nodded and unwrapped his fist from his bottle long enough to pat me on the arm.
"Get 'er done, my frien'." His hand was heavy.
"OK Ray. OK." I turned back to the table and Sissy had already left. I walked out into the parking lot, gravel crunching under my feet. Sissy sat on the hood of my Corolla smoking.
"Ray's a sweetie," she said, and blew her smoke out into the night. I could see the night unfolding in front of me in angles. I would follow the straight line until I hit a wall, then change direction, then change direction again and again till all the moves that seemed right fuck me back to the beginning of whatever this thing would turn out to be.
"Ray said you might make a call for me."
"Yeah?" She flicked her knee with one stiff finger. "He said you were looking." She stubbed out her cigarettes with the toe of her boot. "Is that why we're out here, Jared?"
"Then why?" She pushed her hands into her pockets.
"I liked talking with you in there. You smell as good as any woman I've ever—"
"Stop that now."
"You don't have to do this. I'll place a call in to Huntley, the supervisor. You don't need to do whatever you're planning on doing."
"Well I want to." I didn't want chance to run away from me. I didn't know how many more would come.
"If you really want to, then." We drove back to my place, her following me, me imagining her hand on my thigh, and I watched her walk into the house as if she knew right where to go, and what to do when she got there. That made one of us.
Sissy came in from the bathroom wearing herself. Light eggshell skin and dark nipples like stars against a sheet. She came over to me and held my hands, and she put them around her and I felt the knobs of her shoulder blades under my palms. Then she led me into the bedroom, and I didn't have to worry about what I was supposed to do anymore.
I woke up with her hair spread over my arm and pillow. The mist rose up up from the pond out beyond my open bedroom window, and I heard the ducks out there rustling around and quacking. I kept them under an old car hood. Occasionally they wandered out into the road and got themselves killed, but I was surprisingly free from weasels, who normally got to the ducks, if anything did. I wondered if I dared to shift my arm out from under her head, and I decided in one motion to do it. Sissy's head just shifted over to the pillow and sort of snuggled in. She reminded me of Ellie. That set the whole guilt machine into motion. I should have been out trying to get my wife and kids back. I shouldn't have been out at a bar where I could pick up women. I didn't know Sissy from Eve. I could hear my ex-wife talking in the back of my mind, and I wondered where she was at and what she was doing even as Sissy burrowed into my chest.
I got up quietly and threw on my shoes. The ducks would be wanting food, and Sissy wasn't likely to be waking up soon. I pulled a shirt over my head quickly, and I could see another tattoo on her shoulder, a bluebird. I started getting stomach-sick. I had no business being where I was and doing what I was doing. Yes, it was my life, yes it had been something set up by Ray, but I had gone on through it and there was a woman in my bed now. One who had given her body to me, or who had taken what she wanted from me. Or exchanged sex for something else of value. A contact. A love. A job. None of it seemed a good fit for what we had done. I don't like sex when it's so fraught. A good word for me, a word I learned years ago from my grampa. He said all his life he was fraught with trouble, like a song, and in truth, the only time I was ever comfortable with the old man was when I found him dead amongst the lilacs, a bee buzzing his nose. I was 14.
I stopped by the back door and got half a bucket of feed and stepped out to the pond. I tossed the food on the ground in front of the car hood and squatted among them for a while, liking the feel of being part of something beyond me. The ducks didn't care. I fed them, they ate and didn't worry. They'd survive without me and me without them, but I felt bad when the little shits ended up dead in the road too. I felt responsible. The sex had been magnanimous, that was the best way I could put it. We tried hard and mostly succeeded at having a good time. I remember a moment when she touched my lips and I disappeared inside myself for a moment or two and came back to her pleasure, if you judged by the scratches on my back. The reeds shifted in the nearby water and a frog jumped once and disappeared. Her car sat like a cat in front of my truck. Cats at night in this weather always warmed themselves against the engine block and I hoped they got out in time. Most of them did.
When I got back inside Sissy had started up the coffeepot. The eggs sat on the counter and she'd already broken a couple into a bowl. She'd gotten out the cast-iron fry pan I never used.
"Hey." She was in my t-shirt again and a pair of silver panties. I hadn't even seen them last night. Didn't remember taking them off her, didn't remember a whole lot except how good it felt to have a woman near again, strange smells and all. There was a balance point between that and my old life, but I had yet to think of where it might lie.
"Hey yourself," I said.
"I don't know how you like your eggs so they're getting scrambled." She whipped them quickly into a mess of yellow,threw some milk on top and some cheese. I didn't know how old the cheese was.
"You're quick with those." I sat down and then got up and brought two plates down from the cupboard.
"I used to work at the Dixie restaurant—you know where that is—on the breakfast shift when I was younger." She sprayed the pan and dumped the eggs in, where they immediately sizzled. I saw one more tattoo on the side of her ankle. It said D&N in big block letters.
"It's not a name, if you're worried."
"I wasn't. I just wondered."
"We're not at the place where I explain that to you, yet." She smiled at me, a little quirk of the lips, and shifted the pan over the flame. Just then I heard the rattle of an exhaust and the crunch of gravel in the driveway. I walked out in the living room. I could see a man sitting in the driver's side, but he made no move to get out, just lit a cigarette and dangled his hand out the window. It was a big hand.
"Someone you know, Sissy?" I pulled the curtain back for her. "Something I should know?"
She said Jesus under her breath and went into the bedroom and came out half in her clothes. "It's not what you think." She sat on the couch, drew her pants on and tied her shoes quickly.
"What do I think?"
"I don't know. But I don't have time to talk to you about it right now. Donald needs me. You have your eggs"
"Donald. Huh. Am I in for an ass-kicking?" I said.
"I—you know, I can't explain this right now. I have to go. He's not my boyfriend, he's not my husband. He's just Donald. " She brushed past me and then looked back, kissed her hand and put it against my cheek. "I'll see you. Tonight. Yes. Tonight. I'll call you." She swung her purse into her car and the door slammed and the vehicle took off with Donald, whoever he was, following before I could really even think about it. Behind me the eggs burnt a trail of smoke into the air. I went back and turned them off.
Outside the ducks were raising hell. I wondered what I was into. I wondered who Donald was. I went out to the ducks to see what was going on. The car hood had fallen off the cinder blocks I had it propped with. The ducks wandered around confused. I couldn't see any feathers or blood. They were just raising hell. I lifted the car hood up to reprop it and got a glimpse of movement underneath. I pulled it up further, and inside the straw with the broken eggs was a milk snake about the size of my wrist. Now, I shudder at the sight of snakes for the most part but this bad boy had to go. I stepped on his midsection and he climbed up my leg to where I could get hold of his neck and I let him curl around my arm then and carried him over to the field. I didn't want to kill him. He was probably puzzled by his day just like me. Wake up, eat a few eggs, and some monster picks you up from the breakfast table and lets you go in the field. I just didn't know what Sissy was about, and it was, for me, a hard decision when I asked myself how much I wanted to know what she was doing, what she did, who she did it with. None of which was any of my business, but I couldn't help but wonder. I wondered if she'd be back at the bar that night. Most of the factory workers went there to blow off steam so if I appeared there twice in one week the fat girls on the line would make sure everyone knew about it by the next shift.
I sat through the rest of the day watching old movies on Turner Classics. I saw Robert Mitchum in one movie. He had tattoos on his knuckles and scared hell out of a family. I saw Fred and Ginger so light-footed you wanted to cry. I didn't drink one beer. I wanted to get through this day in good order to get to the bar so I could see if Sissy would be there, see what this Donald was about.
It took her about two hours to show up, but I had only had three beers in that time. I looked over my shoulder occasionally for her or for Ray but they didn't show. When she did come in she looked pretty fine, all made up like she had been the night before.
"Hi Mister," she said. I raised a finger and got her a bottle.
"If you want to start talking, I want you to know I'm ready to listen," I said.
"I just didn't have time to choose my words this morning."
"Lots of time now."
"I live with Donald to take care of him." She fiddled inside her purse for her wallet. "See here." I looked at the set of pictures she showed me. Sissy sitting next to a big dark man with huge hands. Sissy standing at a grill with his hands on her shoulders. The man, Donald, was massive. He must have been way over six feet..He dwarfed Sissy. He dwarfed me, I noticed, with not a little bit of worry. Then she showed me close-ups of his face and I could see something wasn't quite right with him. He didn't have a gene disease like some retarded people I had seen, but something off-center in his smile. Child-like wasn't it either. You could see he was no child by his size and the hair on his hands, but looking at him was disarming. Could he be violent or would he be a gentle one? Hard to tell, in these pictures, but Sissy's cheeks flushed when she talked about him,in embarrassment or something else.
He was a friend of her brother's, she said, someone similarly afflicted as her brother but someone with no family to care for him. Sissy's family had done their Christian duty and taken him in and raised him as one of their own. I nodded through this as if I knew what that meant, but her stories of him showed I clearly didn't. When her own brother died—a charged moment for her—then her mom and pop died she simply took over Donald's care. He required less and less when he got older, and he had held down a job for the last five years as a janitor at the local middle school. He'd never live on his own, never pay his own bills, but he had a pretty good life, she'd said. Better than an institution would have given him.
"You got kids?" I asked.
"No. Married once, but it didn't take." She put her hand on mine. "The situation turns off a lot of guys."
"I can see that," I said.
"Does it turn you off?" she said, putting her hand under her chin. The lines cleared in her face suddenly as she seemed to know what I'd say.
"I don't think so," I said, "but I probably ought to know more about it before I say for sure."
The lines returned. "That's fair."
"Does he always follow you around?" I imagined how that would feel and didn't like it.
"You have to tell him what barriers there are, what restrictions there are, and he'll observe them, mostly."
"He worries about me, just like anyone else would." She tipped her drink back and tapped for two more. I could see Ray at the end of the bar give me a thumbs up.
"I guess that's OK.
"Do you, now?" she said, cocking her head to the side. "I'm glad it meets with your approval."
"I didn't mean—"
"It's fine, stop," Sissy said, laughing. "I know what you meant.."
"Let's go back to my place, then." I drained my beer. "Will Donald make me nervous again?"
"I don't know," she said, wrapping her coat around her arm."We'll know in the morning."
"Good deal," I said.
I opened my eyes at 9:30 AM to the phone ringing. Caller ID said it was Ellie. I let it ring. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before Sissy woke up and I opened the window. Outside, the trees were heavy wet. The air smelled clean, the odor of silage and cow shit and standing water without much drainage notwithstanding. The ducks didn't seem to be making noise. I stretched my arms to the ceiling and back again, and I noticed a hulking figure squatting out by the hood of the duck den. Sissy slept as I pulled on my jeans and last night's shirt with my down vest and went out the back door, after setting the coffee to percolate. Donald stood up as I walked toward him.
"Hello, Donald." I extended my hand to him, and when we shook, his hand was soft as a baby's.
"Hi," he said., then stuck his hands in his jacket pockets.
"You like ducks?" I said.
"I like lots of wild things," Donald said. "These black ducks are pretty."
"I got those from overseas," I said. "My wife—my ex-wife— liked them a lot."
"She don't like them any more?" Donald asked. "What's overseas mean?"
"Well, she—my wife—doesn't live with me anymore. And overseas means over the ocean. Far away."
"Uh-huh," he said, shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, and I suddenly didn't know what else to say.
"You want to feed them with me?" I said.
"Sure," Donald said, pushing back his hair so it fit under his cap better.
I walked back to the porch and slid the top off the drum I keep the duck feed in. I could hear noise from inside that meant Sissy was rousing herself.
"Just a half a jug."
"OK," Donald said. We walked back and lifted the hood of the den only to see a whole den of milk snakes now, wound around a mess of eggs whole and broken. "Oh no," Donald said. "That ain't right." He picked up the biggest snake and threw it headlong into the deep weeds. "They'll eat every eggie you got."
"Now, no need to throw them," I said. "Let's just pick them up and put them over there. They just want food and found an easy way to get it. No need to half-kill them."
"Oh, OK," Donald said. He bent down again and picked up a fistful of snakes in each hand, and took them gently over to the hayfield and let them loose at ground level.
"That's good," I said."Maybe they'll forget where the eggs are now." The crunch of footsteps reached me as Sissy came up and put her hand on Donald's back and mine.
"We're saving snakes," Donald said happily. He waved two more snakes at Sissy, who shuddered and put her face in my shoulder as Donald walked away.
"What's with you and snakes?" I said. "What about the tattoo on your back?'
"I don't have to see that one," Sissy said and laughed. "I wouldn't have thought you'd ask me about that one and not the DAN one."
"While we're on the subject then, what does that stand for?" I said.
Sissy leaned against me. "It's for Donald, and for Neal, my brother. All caps to remind me of who I am and who relies on me."
"Well, where is the you in that equation?" I said. Donald had finished snake-wrangling and bent to wash his hands in the shallows of the pond.
"I guess I'm the ampersand," Sissy said, breathing out slowly against my back.
"Not always, I hope."
"For a long time now." Sissy's eyes went to Donald. "But maybe that can change."
"Maybe," I said.
Sissy separated from me and bent to the hood. "The snakes missed one." I could see the dark tat on her back again, the bright, mesmerizing blue of it. "Here, Donald," she said. Donald took the egg with a puzzled look, but then his face brightened, and he walked over to the hayfield and tossed the egg in.
"I bet those snakes find this one easier," he said. Sissy moved her smooth hand to my back and Donald diddled back and forth on his feet, looking back toward each of us quickly, then at me for a long uncomfortable silence.
"I bet they will," I said. Behind me a duck quacked as if in answer, and Donald began to laugh.
Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. His poems stories, essays, and reviews have been published widely, and his fifth book, Reckoning, a novel, will be out in 2014.