Terri has been at the summer carnival all afternoon with her two girlfriends. The silhouettes from the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster resemble black cutouts against the violet sky. Dusk is approaching. What a fun day, what an exhilarating day to be alive.
The cowboy sees them. He sees her: tan skin and glossy lips and pink neon. She throws her head back laughing and congregating with her two girlfriends at the cotton candy stand. She lets the pink bits of candy dissolve on her tongue. It’s not my fault people stare.
He’s relaxed on a bench, chugging Budweiser beer out of a Styrofoam cup. A black cowboy hat shades his eyes. His upper body is meat-packed inside a plaid shirt and he wears tight, worn-in blue jeans.
She tells her friends goodbye—she must be getting back home. She must leave what’s good: the smell of roasted peanuts, candy apples, children yelling, bells, whistles, game machines, and carnival music renditions of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” The cowboy struts to his truck parked in a large grassy field adjacent to the carnival. It’s where they all park, all the carnival-goers, that is.
Terri trudges up Route 5. The paved road stretches out before her. About a quarter of a mile away she sees the windows of a lonely farmhouse like rows of glowing teeth in the approaching dusk. It’s the same road she takes to and from town. A few hundred feet away on the left, bruised clouds roll over the horizon. Little flashes of lightning flicker inside them like a dying heartbeat.
A day spent at the carnival off Route 5 in Remville, Ohio: what a fun day, what an exhilarating day to be alive. She swings a right onto a quiet dirt road patterned with truck tires. She lives about a mile away. Fifteen-year-old Terri jumps at the screams of carnival-goers on rides. Their fear reaches to where she is and riddles her ears. It reminds her of slaughtering farm animals: pure, raw fear. She glances back at the carnival for reassurance, the neon lights rolling and darting like police cruisers. Night birds perch on landlines, squawking. They startle her. The clouds darken and hover up ahead.
Her soft tongue prods the cotton candy but now it tastes unpleasant, like chemicals, so she spits it out and throws the cotton candy into some brush on the side of the road. She walks fast and then jogs. She wants to get home, watch some silly television shows in her comfortable air-conditioned living room.
She passes the railroad where a group of kids are placing coins on the tracks to flatten them. A Ford pickup truck crawls past her, leaving a dust trail behind it, and an old man waves at Terri. The truck has a squeaky wheel. It’s Mr. Stone, her sixty-year-old neighbor. The pickup disappears in a cloud of dust.
She forgot her sweater and the wind is picking up. She wants to get home and it’s still a mile away. She should’ve waved down Mr. Stone for a ride, but now it’s too late. Terri wears high-waist shorts with a crop top, her sandy blonde hair is parted down the middle to her breasts. The cool breeze grazes her bare legs like a calloused finger she decries, saying No, No, I’m not interested. Please drop me off here.
The train is in the distance. The thunder growls. She suddenly notices how quiet it is. The chimes and whistles and carnival music have disappeared with each step away from Route 5.
Lightning strikes a nearby cornfield, beyond the train tracks. A shot of electricity slices the landscape like a cracking whip. The train track kids scatter with the wind.
The rain turns on like a fire hose. Her feet slip and slide inside her sandals. She squints and complains; she pushes her hair off her face. Two headlights up ahead—a truck—Mr. Stone? But it’s not. The rain spits in her face and makes it difficult to see who’s driving the truck.
The truck stops. She squints to see the cowboy thrust the truck door open and pat the dry seat next to him. He smokes a rolled cigarette and says, I’ll take you home, a lady shouldn’t be walking all alone, or how about we go some ice cream?—if you want—only if you want.
It’s hard to hear him with the train passing through. She hesitates. Never accept rides, Dad told her, under any circumstances.
The cowboy says, Come on sweetheart, I’ll take you home. She hesitates some more. She’s shivering, knees pointed inward, pigeon-toed feet. Mascara runs down her cheeks and her hair is mop-wet. The sky cracks and pops and down comes sleet the size of quarters and they sting and burn and bruise her skin.
She gets into the truck.
She doesn’t notice he’s toothless until she’s sitting in his dry truck that smells like loose tobacco and barn animals. The fuzzy radio is kept low. Buckets of sleet and rain splash across the windshield and he turns the wipers on high. The cowboy bounces up and down in his seat along the bumpy dirt road. She notices the cowboy’s sun-blotched skin and dirty hat. He notices the way her bare legs glisten. He noticed them when she stood by the cotton candy stand.
Now that she’s inside the truck, he keeps quiet at first. He grins continuously, eyeing her with a sidelong glance. One hand is on the wheel while the other is near her leg, gripping a bottle of whiskey. On the floor, by her muddy feet, is a lasso, or a rope of some sort. She figures he must wrestle animals, catch cattle, a horse wrangler, maybe. He knows good rope. He pulls at it, snaps it to test it, to test the strength of it coiled around his calloused hands.
No choice, no choice at all Dad. She leans over, picks up the rope, says, You a wrangler or something?
Nope, he says, and she says, Oh. He lights another cigarette and it sticks to his bottom lip as he talks. She sits upright. The wind and rain continue to spit at the windshield. He hands her the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and says, Go on, sweetheart, go on baby, take a sip, go on, just take a sip…
The bottle’s mouth glistens with the cowboy’s saliva. She wants to wipe it off but doesn’t want to insult him. She lifts the whiskey bottle to her glossy lips like it’s a baby’s bottle, both hands wrapped around it. She coughs. The amber liquid burns her throat and her eyes water. The cowboy is blurry—everything is blurry like the rain. He turns around the way she came—to get on Route 5.
It’s hot—so hot!—inside the truck and she tries to crack the window open but it’s stuck. The handle won’t turn and he says, Been meanin’ to get that-there fixed. Door handle sticks too don’t ya know it. It’s a 1972 Chevy truck, a steel gray color with a boxy, wide-sneering front end. It has a spacious interior but she wonders why he feels so close. She isn’t wearing the lap seatbelt. Neither is he. Dad would be mad.
She tries to smile at the cowboy but her cheeks, lips, and eyes fail her. Her face, her skin begins to twitch. A fat ant crawls along the dashboard. He squishes it with his finger. And then he kills another. Ya kill one, ya feel bad. Ya kill a bunch, ya don’t, he says. He takes a deep swig from the whiskey bottle and nestles it between his legs. He picks up his cigarette from the ashtray.
Um, I think you’re going the wrong way. I live the other— she says.
Hush darling, hush sweetheart, I know, I know, he says as they drive past the deserted carnival.
He reaches across her to force the window open—just a little. He sighs, swears. Terri is frozen to the sticky seat. Ash from his cigarette drops onto her wet shorts. The window finally cracks open and in flows a cool, hushing wind. The Doors play on the radio, even though it’s a little fuzzy.
Like waking up to an unsatisfied reality, where the dream was better than reality, but now your eyelids have been cut off, and you’ll never get back to the dream again.
The horizon has disappeared, the rain has passed, and she remembers the night birds squawking and she feels the rope grazing her bare feet like cacti plants (flash to her last vacation with Dad to Arizona). The promise of night is just beyond the hills.
* "Somebody's Sweetheart" was previously published in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Volume 4, Issue 16, Winter 2012.