Billy Dawson's Good Dumb Luck
Anna Lea Jancewicz
WHEN BILLY FIRST laid eyes on Edie McBride, she was sucking down an ice-cold Ale 8, with her sweet seventeen-year-old rump squished up against the hood of his cousin Duke’s rust-splotched ’71 Nova. The glass bottle was pearled with sweat, and she wiped it across her neck in slow motion. She was a thick-legged girl in a purple pencil skirt, wrinkling her nose at the brutality of bare-chested boys. Jimmy Robertson and Hen Walker were shirtless and punching each other, circled by a ring of hollering onlookers, their fists making wet slaps against sunburned flesh. Billy had a bit of good money wagered on Hen, but he couldn’t keep his gaze on anything but Edie. She smiled at him when she saw him gawking, and twisted one of her black curls around a finger so graceful and so white that Billy thought he’d pass out right then and there on the hot asphalt of the IGA parking lot.
Billy knew from the start that a girl as gorgeous as Edie was too fine for the likes of him, and he couldn’t believe his good luck when she consented to tumble into Duke’s backseat with him that night while her giggling friends flitted around the bonfire at Devil’s Hill like lip-glossed moths. Duke told him after how Edie had surely just done it to make her ex-boyfriend jealous, a loping thick kid named Travis with a pock-marked face who’d dumped her for a faster girl. Billy didn’t care. When her hair had spilled out over the vinyl like black river rapids on a starless night, Billy knew he was the luckiest bastard who ever lived. He called her every day for weeks. He gave Duke love letters, scrawled in pencil and folded with great care, to stuff into her locker at school. He drove down to Miller’s Bend himself on the weekends, bringing wildflowers in bunches to her door and getting chased off by her mustached daddy and his two fat hounds.
When Edie did finally call him back, it was to cry. She was pregnant. Billy knew he was supposed to be devastated, but again he just couldn’t believe his good dumb luck. She was his. For good. Billy hadn’t had much for future plans. Dropping out of school and joining his father on the line at the factory had always seemed given, and he’d thought he’d probably knock up some girl sooner or later and settle down, although he’d thought it’d more likely be somebody like Mae Hollings, who had a great rack but a lot of moles on her face. He whooped into the receiver and danced for joy in his mama’s kitchen with the orange toadstool wallpaper. That only made Edie cry harder, and he wanted to take her in his arms and lick the tears from her cheeks, but since they were on the phone he just stared fervently into the big round eyes of a hoot owl magnet on the refrigerator, as if those wide peepers were Edie’s own, and said solemnly Edith McBride, you will be the finest wife and mother this world has ever seen. I promise it.
Billy and Edie were married at Stag Creek First Baptist on a Saturday morning not long after, before her belly started to poke out like a ripe melon. Edie didn’t cry at all during the ceremony. She wore a radiant smile and swirled in a blizzard of satin and scratchy lace. Her hair was done up like some kind of midnight jungle bird. Her smile never faltered, never quivered, even as Billy got so drunk that all three groomsmen had to be pressed into service to drag him along to the honeymoon night at the Tri-County Motor Lodge out on Route 9. They heaved him onto the coin-operated vibrating bed as he bellowed again and again Missus Dawson! Missus Edith Dawson! He could remember her sitting there in the chair with the ripped upholstery, next to the bolted-down color TV, unrolling her nylons from those sweet thick legs of hers, as his vision dimmed at the edges and began to go black. The last he saw, she was looking at herself in the mirror, wiping the lipstick from her mouth, and for just one half-instant before his eyes closed, he saw her face go slack.
Ever after, Billy would tell himself that it had been a trick of his bourbon haze, that glimpse of dead cold in Edie’s eyes. Her tombstone face flat and blank. It haunted him just a little, but he pushed it back, because he and Edie had it covered. She made his words come true. She was the best little wife and mother Billy could have dreamed up. Their girls were kind and smart and brave and good, their house was clean and his supper was always hot and ready when he managed to get himself straight home from work instead of getting caught up lingering over Bud Lights at The Rose Bush with Pike and Hen. And even when he stumbled in late, Edie was wearing her smile. Good goddamn, that smile. Christmas morning had nothing on the light in Edie’s smile.
She had to be happy. She had to be. She hadn’t gone fat or mean like some wives do. She never slapped the girls, or turned Billy away when he was feeling fresh. She never laid up on the couch or let the dishes get to piling up. But still. She’d gotten to be clumsy. Billy found cracked glasses in the trash plenty, and one or another of her pretty fingers was bandaged up from a cut more often than not. Something about it sent a shiver up Billy’s spine. Something about those jagged edges gleaming in the rubbish and her blood making dark spots through the gauze. Something about that smile that never quit. There was a small lump of fear in Billy, sometimes lodged in the back of his throat, sometimes swallowed down hard to set like a rock in his belly. He feared he might turn to look too soon one day, and catch another quick eyeful of that raw ice, those lifeless pupils burning cold. Billy slid his eyes slow and told himself again and again that he was spooked over nothing. Billy hugged his girls, and called them all Darlin’ and Sugar. Billy ate his pork chops and cornbread and tomato pie, and always remembered to say thank you for them. Billy prayed that his good dumb luck would hold.
Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. She is an Associate Editor at Night Train, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Atticus Review, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Phantom Drift, and many other venues. Her flash fiction "Marriage" was chosen for The Best Small Fictions 2015. She is working on her first novel. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at: http://annajancewicz.wordpress.com/.