Thunderbirds and Thumbtacks
Have you ever seen somebody who sparkled your eyes? Someone who shone with a different light, and a different energy than anyone you had seen before? I hope that if you ever did see someone like that you gathered the courage to follow that feeling. It could be that person was perfect for you in that moment. It could even be that he or she was sent there for you.
I discovered someone who sparkled like that at both the most and least likeliest of places; I found her at a funeral. It was my mother who pointed her out to me. Mother looked at her with that face she gets and said, “Would you look there? What kind of hussy wears something like that to a funeral?”
When she was younger my momma married the man who was to become the most powerful man in Augusta County. It was no accident that Father became that, and Mother knows it was not. He really had no choice, not with a woman such as her behind him, pushing all the time. That’s not to say she isn’t a good person. She just has little patience for Tom-foolery, or with someone who… well, a good example would be someone who does not dress respectfully at a funeral. Mother walked away after pointing the girl out, as she is wont to do when something seems beneath her station and unworthy of her time. But being that I was a twenty year old, full of himself, raging male, I did look. And I did wonder, same as Momma did. But my wondering was not so much at what the girl was wearing as at the sudden screeching halt to the natural flow of time that occurred when my eyes settled upon her. My wondering was more at the inferno that swept through me threatening to boil over my blood, and at the desire that weighted so heavy on my chest that it blocked the oxygen from my lungs. And finally my wonder was at the quick demise of all of those feelings when it occurred to me that prayer was not the reason the girl was bent over poor Mr. Lannom’s casket, but rather it was because she had her hand shoved down in it clean up to her elbow. Was it not for that, I might have never met Myrtle. She might have been just another pretty girl who came and went through my life’s days, noticed and then gone. But rooting around in a casket at a funeral is a curious thing. Being the curious sort I crossed over to find out why?
In Mother’s defense the girl was an anomaly. Her skirt was short, and her heels tall. She wore a blouse made of white cat fur, or some such soft, fuzzy material which was cut low-down on the top and high-up on the bottom, while her hair fell past her bare shoulders and down upon that white cat fur in beautiful platinum waves. It being over two hours into the gloomy reception, the girl was the only one still viewing. Everyone else had seen enough and had gathered about in small clots either remembering when, or learning what each other had been up to since the last time there was reason for us to all come together… back last summer I believe that was, when Uncle Seymour had that awful threshing machine accident.
I stepped up beside her, but she did not seem to notice me there, intent as she was with shoving her hand around under poor Mr. Lannom’s backside. “I doubt they are putting him under with his wallet,” I said.
"I ain’t looking for his wallet." She did not look up, but kept on rooting, obviously unworried by the interruption.
“Well then, what is it you are looking for?” I asked her.
She seemed to strike gold. “There!” Her empty hand slid out of the box, satisfied with it’s mission. When she straightened up she was near as tall as me, and I’m six foot… course she had the heels on.
“I’m Charlie Crutchfield.”
“I know who you are. You was my first crush. A girl don’t never forget that.”
I tried to remember back. "First crush" sounded like school days. There had been quite a few girls in my class, some of them pretty, but I recalled none like this one. “Sorry. I don’t seem to remember as well as you do.”
“No reason for you to. That crush was long ago, and is long over. My name is Myrtle Hayes now, and I have blossomed since then. I say now because I changed my name at the same time everything else was changing. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I found me a name that better suited someone like me.” Her work here done, she took a Virginia Slim Menthol from her purse and pasted it onto her lips before starting for the door. As I stated before, being the curious sort, and that curiosity still unsatisfied, I followed close behind her.
She stopped on the patio just after passing through the doorway, her frame bent slightly toward me, waiting. Ready as any Boy Scout I quickly drew my Zippo to oblige her. She blew a few concentrated puffs and resumed walking. “Don’t carry a lighter no more,” she said with some satisfaction. “Don’t need one.” She managed the gravel driveway well in her tall heels, using short, swift steps to carry us up beside an antique, champagne pink Ford Thunderbird. “You can drive,” she said as she continued around to the passenger door, safe in her assurance that this lost puppy she had found would continue tagging along. I was forced to hustle around her if I was to hold open her door, an act which roundly amused her. She tossed the unsmoked cigarette into the gravel and fell with a flourish onto the car’s low-set seat, her long legs following serpent-like into the floorboards, almost disjointedly, seeming to find their place long after the rest of her was already settled in. I slammed the door and jogged back around to the driver’s side before pretty young Myrtle could change her mind. Mother was standing in the doorway watching as I stood on the gas pedal a little too hard, so that the spinning rear wheels peppered the sides of all of the more boring sedans parked near it with gravel. Those same tires screeched harshly at the asphalt when I popped the clutch into second gear, and we were off. The nimble little car seemed to like my heavy foot on it’s accelerator. “Where to, Myrtle Hayes?” I asked.
“Just drive, Charlie Crutchfield.”
So I did. We were doing 97 mph when we crossed into Nelson County on a two lane road to nowhere. She didn’t seem to mind the speed, or even to notice it. Having only ever driven the farm trucks at work and the Cadillacs at home I found the sports car grand, so much so that I forgot the girl beside me for the moment. The tiny little car shot up to speed like a bullet, and turned (as they say) on a dime. The respite was brief however, as the joyful little thing could only divert my curiosity from the woman who owned it for so long. ”Where was it we met before?" I'd held off on the question, but I was dying to know.
He response came out of the blue. “I was putting a thumbtack in there.”
"Huh?" It seemed that Myrtle Hayes' answers came at their own speed, and had no concern with my questions.
"Back at the funeral home you asked what I was doing with my hand down in the casket. I was putting a thumbtack in there, right up under his ass. I hope it hurts like hell forever.”
Coach Thomas Lannom had been family somehow, least that’s what Momma told me. Not close enough family that we had much to do with each other, but distant family. Hell, it seemed that everyone in Henrico County was related somehow, but more than that “Coach Lannom” had been my middle school gym teacher and baseball coach. As such he was certainly not perfect, but it seemed odd that someone would want to put a thumbtack under his dead carcass’ backside. It was such an odd thing to hear it said that it made my backbone shiver. “Why in God’s name would you want to do that?”
"Would you look yonder at that cow? Have you ever seen the like?"
We were still zipping along, the Shenandoah Valley flashing by us in all of it's glory. The cow in question was easy to pick out amidst the other thirty or so cows grazing in the knee-high grass. It was easy to spot for two reasons: 1) because it was separated from the others by 15 to 20 feet, and 2) because the lone cow was albino, and stood out white as bleached cotton from head-to-tail, but for it’s pinkish horns and snout.
"That is so sad," she said. "It is hard to be different."
I supposed it would be hard to be different, but what would Myrtle Hayes know about that. She was young and beautiful; a bit country, granted, but certainly not albino. “I can’t believe, pretty as you are, that you ever had trouble fitting in.”
She gave me a hard look. “There's all kinds of ways to be different, Charlie Crutchfield. Haven't you ever felt like you didn't belong?" She gave a pause, thinking what she said over. "Well, maybe you haven't. You was two years ahead of me in school, but I knew who you were. Hell, everybody knew who you were, Charlie Crutchfield. You was so smart, and everybody knew you would be somebody, someday. You was the baseball star, and all the pretty girls crushed on you. I reckon I carried my crush for you in part because all the other girls did... and also partly because you did me a kindness once.”
Mostly curious about the part of her story that included me, I asked, “What kindness was that?”
She paused, as if trying to remember which kindness, but then a different memory climbed it's way to the surface of her thoughts, spilling itself from her mouth. "He raped me."
The turn was too sudden for me. “What? Who? What are you talking about?”
“You asked why I wanted to put a tack under his backside. It was because he raped me.”
"Mr. Lannom? The baseball coach? Get out of here!" I blustered. "He was a good man... a teacher, and a coach!"
"More’n once," she said. Her voice calm, and quiet. "Every Friday, for awhile in fact. I hated that man at first, still do I guess, but after awhile it didn't hurt all that much, and he give me the best school marks I ever got, after. Guilt, I reckon.”
It was a lot to digest. "Holy Cow!"
"Do you think it was Holy? Or just albino white?"
I was not sure if she was making a joke, but the conversation was serious, so I didn't laugh. I was not normally a great listener, not unless the conversation centered around myself, but the way her mind bounced from subject to subject somehow kept me alert, and engaged me in the conversation.
"Pull over here. I have to pee."
I had been so lost in our conversation that we had climbed up the Afton Mountain without my even being aware. The pull-off she pointed out was just a brown-dirt, semi-circle that looked out across the valley, a place where the few tourists who took the time to pull off of the interstate were treated to a quiet place for a packed lunch and a great photograph, if they'd thought to bring their camera. I lit Myrtle's Virginia Slim before she disappeared into the trees. The Valley below was still green, though the season was late. The leaves would be changing soon enough. In a few weeks the mountain would shimmer in red and gold majesty, but for now it brooded smokey-blue as it fell steeply away to the valley's floor, which was itself a quilted patchwork of greens, and browns, and purples. Here and there, far away, scattered farmhouses trailed long fingers of smoke high into the afternoon sky before some unseen breeze snuffed them all out. "Canning season," I thought to myself.
Myrtle returned, every bit as put together as she had been when she walked away. She joined me on the hood of the Thunderbird, where I lit another Virginia Slim, but she only held it face high in her crooked arm, never taking a drag. There was silence between us as I pondered what she'd said, and as she wondered just how much she should tell. "While you was taking batting practice, so was he. It got to where he'd find a reason to give me detention every Friday. He'd come inside while y'all was practicing ball, when the rest of the school was totally empty. That first time he made me pull my britches down... even my panties. I didn't want to, and was already crying. I think I already knew what was coming. Then he made me bend over his desk. He paddled me so hard it left whelps. I was crying even harder then, and he was too; sobbing like a baby for what he hadn't even done yet. But he knew he was going to do it. If I knew already, then he had to know to, didn’t he? He had already gone too far to stop. He set the paddle down then, and rubbed me with his hand, apologizing, tracing the whelps he'd made with his fingertips. I was 14 years old, with a single Mom. I didn't know what to do. Hell, I still don't know what to do, except to put a tack under his dead ass.”
It was stunning to hear. I didn't know how to respond. It was hard to believe that at the same time this man had been gaining the complete confidence of an entire baseball team full of teen-aged boys he could also have been destroying the trust of a young girl. But I believed her. She would not have showed up at his funeral just to put a tack under his ass for any other reason. I was ashamed of my gender at the moment, and of my family, and of myself for the reason I had followed her here, and yes... I was well aware of what that reason had been. I was feeling pretty damned sorry when she continued.
"Next time it started the same way, but it was worse. He come in from the ballfield and told me how bad I'd been in class. He did the paddling again, and the touching. But it was only me crying that time. He was already beyond crying. It didn't stop with touching that time, neither."
I was feeling sorrier than hell now. "I'm so sorry." It was all I could think to say. "We ain't all that bad, Myrtle."
"Are you not? I got away from that asshole by quitting school in the ninth grade. That was easy enough, but it just got me out of one bad situation and into another. I went to work at Hoyt-Dunham Trucking when I was sixteen. I worked in the office, doing some paperwork, greeting the truckers when they came in, handing out the keys, cleaning the mud off the floors when they left, that kind of thing. Frank Dunham started being nice to me. At first it was just saying nice things about my hair, or my jeans, but it got more and more suggestive as time went on, and as I blossomed. I'm not stupid. I knew I was blossoming, and I wanted it to happen. I wanted to be pretty. I never had been before. Hell, you yourself can't even remember me, I was so plain back then.
There was this one Friday when Coach Lannom was done with me. I was standing in the hallway crying. I'm certain that I was a complete mess. You came in from outside and saw me. You stooped to pick up the books I'd dropped. I was standing there because I hurt too much to bend, and didn't know how I'd ever get them books picked up so I could get home... when that was all in this world that I wanted to do, was to get home. And you there in your dirty sweat pants and that white shirt with the maroon sleeves that all the ballplayers wore, and you being so damned nice, when I was so damned broken. It's why I got the crush, I think. It's also when I quit coming to school. I think maybe you were the reason I quit. I didn't want you to ever see me like that again.
Anyways, once school was quit I was away from Coach Lannom, so things was better for a while. You find a way to put that stuff out of mind, most of the time. You have to. And I was blossoming. I was seeing myself different, and feeling different. That was why I changed my name, so I could think of myself as being a different person than that 14 year old me.
Frank Dunham was a lot older. He was also married, but he started bringing me lunch. Soon after that he started taking me out to lunch, and telling me how pretty I was, and asking why I didn't have a boyfriend, and telling me I was old enough to have one. I never told him I didn't want a boyfriend. I didn't want anything to do with boys, but it was nice being told I was pretty, even though I knew it wouldn't... that it couldn't stop there. I did know that, so I guess it was my fault, in a way.
She stopped, though I was dying to hear more. I had to hear more. I didn't say so, but I knew Frank Dunham, too! He played golf with my father. I even knew Mrs. Dunham! She came over on Friday's to play canasta with my mother, and to eat cucumber sandwiches. I noticed another unlit cigarette hanging from Myrtle's lip. I was so engrossed in her story that I only realized it had grown dark by the flash of my lighter. Dark and cool it had become on the mid-September mountainside, almost cold. I noticed then that the hand holding her cigarette was shivering.
"C'mon," I said. "You're cold. Let's go."
"I kind of like the cold. It makes you numb."
"If I take your hand, you won't think it's anything more than me trying to warm it, will you?
She looked at me for a long time. "Is that all it will be?"
So I did. I took it and held it between my own. It felt light in my hands, but cold and syrupy like spilt motor oil. I rubbed it gently between my own until the loose friction let it quit shaking, and then I held it some more, and petted it, swept up in the softness of it.
"I don't think you only wanted to warm it. Are you the same as those others, Charlie Crutchfield?"
It seemed like a moment of truth. "When I said it, it was all I wanted."
"Yes," she whispered. "And all Coach Lannom wanted was to make me a good girl. Let's go."
The ride down the mountain seemed much shorter than the drive up, though we went at half the speed. We rode in silence, lost in our thoughts, mine on her and hers on God knew what. I pulled the Thunderbird into the dirt driveway of the tiny farmhouse sitting on three acres whose mortgage was costing me $650 a month, money that wiped out my beginning salary at the Valley Branch of the Dept. of Agriculture. I didn’t want to get out of the car, but she didn’t say anything, so I left the engine idling and climbed out. Still nothing, so I started slowly towards the dark house. I heard the car door open behind me, and then slam shut, followed by shuffling steps, and the driver’s door opening. “I’d like to see you again.” I hollered to be heard over the throbbing V-8 engine.
“I work at Myrtle’s on Main. Come get a haircut sometime. I could use the business.”
I’d never heard of Myrtle’s on Main. I was on my third pass through town when I saw a small, hand-painted plyboard sign with the silhouette of a woman in a long gown holding her dress up in either hand as she danced atop a block-lettered Main Street sign. Nowhere on the sign did it specify that this was Myrtle’s on Main, but I was good at hunches.
I jerked my truck into the nearest spot, ignored the parking meter, and started up. On the door atop the stairs Myrtle's on Main was indeed stenciled in a beautiful, flowing script. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door open and walked in, not exactly sure what to expect. An automatic closer on the door pulled it to behind me, jingling a set of bells hanging from the knob as it did so. Unseen foot-falls echoed loudly from an adjoining room. There was no backing out now.
The front room was small. Against the back wall hung a single washbasin with a reclining chair backed up to it. To my right a couple of spindly, empty chairs meant for waiting customers crouched along the only wall with a window. Between the chairs a side table was piled with fresh, new, never opened fashion magazines. The air was missing the usual odors associated with a salon, the aerosol sprays, perfumed mousses, burnt heat elements and antiseptics so thick that they vied for breathing room, but still the room crashed against my manhood in waves. Panic ensued as the unseen footsteps grew louder, and nearer. Just as I turned for the door a shower curtain divider slid open and she was there, sparkling even brighter than before. What kind of woman was this, anyway?
She neither smiled, nor spoke, but crossed quickly to me, before I could make my get-away. With one arm she gripped my bicep, holding me in, while the other stretched towards my head, grasping a handful of hair, and testing it through her fingers as a farmer tests his soil. “It’s dry,” she said. “Damaged. The ends are split, but nothing that can’t be fixed.” The arm holding my bicep pulled me toward the recliner in front of the washbasin as the panic returned, but it was too late for fear; her quarry was trapped.
She ran the fingers of both hands over my head and through my hair as the water warmed, pulling lightly at it, using the hair to tug my head this way and that as she examined it before pushing it down into the sink. The water streaming over my scalp was warm, not hot, massaging me into an uncaring obedience. My eyes closed. I hadn’t realized how tired I was. Her hands worked my head like a doctor’s, at the same time both firm and gentle, unapologetic… professional.
It was with shock that I watched my hair fall in small, wet clumps, some of the clumps sticking to the apron I was covered with, others making it all the way to the floor. It was surprising how many there were, how many of the small, black half moons clung to the apron, and littered the tile. Through it all I said nothing. She was the professional. I could only hope she would leave me with something up there.
”There!” It was the same exclamation she’d used when she finished setting the tack under Coach Lannom’s ass. When she held the hand mirror up, I liked it. I looked good. Clean cut, but with a streak of bald meanness in the place of a geeky part that really suited me.
“Wow! I never looked this good before.”
“Wrong! You’ve always looked that good.”
”No! I mean it!” Not a vain person, I still couldn’t quit looking at my reflection. I could also see the deserved pride she took from my reaction to her work. “You’re an artist, Myrtle. Where are your customers? Women should be lined out of your door and down the steps! Hell, men should be too!”
The pride vanished as quickly as it had come. "I don’t have any."
"What? Why not? What do you mean you have no customers?"
"I mean just that."
"But, how can you pay the bills with no customers? How do you do it?”
She didn’t answer immediately, so I pressed.
"Frank Dunham, Asshole. Are you satisfied? That's how I stay open. Frank Dunham pays the bills. He pays to keep the shop open. He pays for me to sleep back there in the back. He even joins me, time to time."
She turned her back to me. I was definitely no Casanova, but I knew enough about women to know what that meant. I walked over to her. Unsure of what to do, but wanting to do something. I took her arms in my hands, meaning to comfort. She spun like a cat, breaking free of my grip. “Don’t you ever touch me like that! Get out of here! Get out, now!”
”Wh- but I haven’t even paid you?”
Her punch caught me dead on the end of my nose. I saw the next one coming through my watery eyes just in time to dodge away from it, but Myrtle's momentum couldn't be checked. She stumbled into the waiting room chairs, tripping on one and falling into the other one one, shattering it into kindling, and scattering the pile of magazines across the floor. I ran over to help her up, but she screamed when I touched her, and struck out at me again. I backed away to the door. "Jesus, Myrtle. I am so sorry. I didn't mean you any harm." And I left.
"... I don't care, Son. Yes, your hair looks wonderful, I have never seen it look better, but I have been going to Liz Peary for twenty-seven years. It would break her heart if I went to someone else. Especially someone like... well, someone like that!"
"She's a nice girl, Mother. She's just had some rough breaks. I like her."
"What is that supposed to mean."
"It means you are a young man with hormones and she is very well put together. That is all it means. Besides, look at you. She almost broke your nose."
"It was my fault for coming up behind her. She was raped, Mother."
"Raped? Every young woman says she was raped these days."
"By Thomas Lannom. When she was fourteen years old. At school, Mother. It's why she was at the funeral. She wanted to hurt him. She went there to put a tack under his ass."
"Humpf." Mother forced a smile back. Putting a tack under a dead man's rear end was not something someone with dignity laughed at, leastwise not in front of others. While Mother did not actually acknowledge this rape as a possibility, she did not deny it as one either, which I took as a positive sign. She finished trimming the rose bush back, and climbed to her feet before speaking. True or not, and I have my doubts, I have a hair dresser, Charlie. One I like. I see no reason to try another."
"Well, I see a reason." And I left her there with my pun.
He was right where I figured he'd be. Like most of them, Frank Dunham spent more time in the clubhouse than on the links. A Friday usually consisted of nine holes, a few drinks, some flirtations with the sun tanned tennis mom's, another drink, and off to a half-day of napping at the office.
"Hi-ya, Charlie-boy! Why don't you pull up a stool, Son?"
So I did.
"You look like you got something on your mind, Charlie-boy. Anything I can help with?"
"I don't know. What do you know about concubines, Uncle Frank?" No need to beat around the bush.
"Concubines? What do you mean?"
"Concubines. You know, Uncle Frank. Kept women. Rich man buys her a house, maybe a business, comes to see her time to time. You know what I mean!"
Frank Dunham's eyes lost their drunken glaze, and turned serious. "You got something you wanna say, boy?"
"I know about Myrtle."
Giving the devil his due, Frank didn't squirm. "So what? Every man at this club knows about Myrtle. Most of 'em want in on it. I'm thinking about letting 'em in, too. Let her pay for that place, and that car. You wantin' in on it, Charlie? Is that why you’re here?”
Four years of high school baseball and two years of laborious farmwork had added some breadth to my shoulders. Not to brag, but when I bent to lift something, that something generally moved. The punch started at my chin, and it ran dead straight to the cleft in Frank Dunham's own chin, but it didn't stop there. No, it drove on through, aimed for the back of his head. His head flopped back, and he went down in a pile, but again giving the devil his due, he started back up again. When he did start up, the toe of my boot hit the base of his throat. After that, Frank was too worried about breathing to worry anymore about Charlie Crutchfield.
The police pulled me over a couple of miles down Highway 29. It was Mother went my bail. Pop never did have the time for something as insignificant as a son, especially not one who wanted to be a farmer, rather than studying law. Mother held her breath the whole time she was in the courthouse, hoping he wouldn’t see her, counting out the cash from her wallet with her fingertips, as though the money in her own pocketbook was filthy. I was starting to see now, how coming from this town it might have been filthy.
On the ride home she asked me what happened, so I told her.
Like a scene from an old movie the Cadillac crept down Main Street. The car was familiar to most of those who saw it pass, so they took little notice. It found a spot near the courthouse where it parallel parked nicely. The man driving it climbed out first. He took a moment to examine his parking job with pride. He then reached into his pocket for change, dropped some into the meter, and continued around the front of the car to hold the door for his patiently waiting wife, she being a woman who expected these niceties. Together, they crossed the street, found the sign on the wall their son had described to them, and carefully ascended the wooden steps leading to the shop.
The tinkle of the bells surprised Myrtle, but perhaps Charlie had returned? She hurried through the shower curtain screen to disappointment. "Can I help you?"
This was not easy for “Mother”. The woman was wearing black leather pants, and a sheer blouse with a colored bikini beneath that could not hide the butterfly tattoo over her heart. "We'd both like haircuts. Your salon is gaining some local fame, and we would like to get in your good standing before the rush. It is so hard to find a good stylist these days, and one of your customers is a huge fan. We had to come see for ourselves what the fuss was about.
The girl's smile was beautiful and genuine, but Mother still did not see what her son possibly saw in her, but it would be a mistake to start off thinking of a girl her son had feelings for as being "trash", wouldn't it. "Yes, Mam. Will you be first?"
"No Dear. Mr. Crutchfield's time is money. He will go first, and then you will have to drive me home when my hair is done. I am eager for a ride in your sports car, but I forgot to ask Charlie if it was a convertible. Is it a convertible?"
"Yes, Mam. It is."
"Splendid! I love a convertible."
It wasn't so much Charlie's mouth as Mrs. Crutchfield's hair that spread Myrtle on Main's actual fame. Her cut was short, and smart. It quickly became the talk of both church and country club. The bells on the salon's door rang again the next day, and twice the following day, until soon the broken chair in the waiting room had to be replaced, and the pristine magazines began to show wear.
Frank Dunham paid off the loan on the Thunderbird, and the business loan. He mailed the deeds, however, as Judge Crutchfield warned him of the legal hazards awaiting him should he stop by the salon in person.
The wedding was held at the top of Afton Mountain. The witnesses stood in the wings of a dirty, backroad, semi-circled overlook while the mountain itself shimmered rich in red-gold majesty around them. The girl who had sparkled the groom's eyes awaited his kiss from the overlook's edge like the angel she was, with the heavenly valley spread out behind her. Afterward, the powder blue convertible squealed away trailing bouncing strings of farm boots and hooker heels in it's wake.
And a little later, far below this blissful scene, that same Thunderbird sped past the grave of a bad man who was destined to endure a restless eternity with a devilish pin-prick in his backside.