Short Dogs, Tall Grass
THE people who lived on Bolt Mountain had lived there for their entire lives, as had their parents and grandparents before them. It was as if they were raised from the dirt and peaks that surrounded them, mined from the coal beneath them. The ash from burnt coal ran in their veins, coursed through their circulatory system, and pumped their hearts. So they married their high school sweethearts, if they married at all. They waited tables or worked long night shifts in the mines. They took vacations—once every few years—to Myrtle Beach. They stayed in seedy motels they didn’t find seedy because there were wide blue swimming pools to float in, which made them forget the scratchy comforters and the bathrooms that reeked of mildew because they were carpeted. They lived in trailers or small single-story houses inches from the road and miles from the wealthier few—doctors and lawyers and dentists—who they called townies.
At night the people on Bolt didn’t listen to crickets or the breeze. They heard trucks heavy with black coal nuggets driving too fast, the wind catching beneath their cabs. Sometimes the coal would fly off, zip down between the homes with a ping against trailers. Kids on Bolt collected the errant pieces the way other children collected seashells. They lined trailer windows and small, easy-to-assemble Walmart bookshelves. They were proud—too proud—of where they came from and too wary of money and strangers and liberals to want to be anywhere else.
Rosa O’Neil was one of them, and damn proud of it. She was nineteen when she’d had her only child, Becca, and Becca had continued that tradition, falling in love with a pill-popping kid and having his twins at seventeen. Being a grandmother in your thirties wasn’t so remarkable on Bolt, and Rosa eased into the role. She was fine as long as she had Becca. Then one day, she didn’t.
Rosa had watched lots of people leave. Her boyfriend, the father of her baby, Mama. People think you get hard, invincible to the pain. But in reality the cuts got stretched, pried further apart. When Becca left, her pockets heavy with pills and her granny’s engagement ring to pawn, Rosa felt like someone had cracked her chest open and shot it with a BB gun. The babies were just three months old, pink and shriveled and constantly awake. Becca had seemed happy to have the babies outside her, relieved to feel more like herself. Her self was an addict though.
Rosa had seen long white stains on her dresser. Residue, as they say on “Law and Order.” There were other signs too. The way Becca’s pretty eyes couldn’t focus. An arrest at the old folks home where Becca had tried to steal prescriptions. The pawnshop receipts and that boy. That boy coming around and wanting stuff. Asking Becca for rides. For money. For sex. Right after Becca popped those twins out, that boy was on top of her. Rosa walked in on them mounted like dogs in heat.
As her daughter shoved the contents of her life into a torn canvas backpack, her neck covered in the purple hickeys, Rosa grabbed one of the babies. It was scrawny and wailing. Its face nearly the same color as Becca’s love bites. The baby’s toes were curled under, and his back arched.
“You’re going to miss everything,” Rosa said, holding her grandson under the armpits and not supporting his head. Becca laughed at the lame attempt at guilt.
“Happy to miss that caterwauling,” she said.
As she headed down the front stoop, Rosa was sure she saw her skip, her heels lifted slightly off the ground. That boy was waiting in a white jeep stained gray from the coal dust. His shirt was torn at the collar, and he had a giant wad of tobacco in the left corner of his cheek. He raised a pill bottle in his left hand, shook it vigorously.
“Hillbilly mating call,” he said and spit a big wad of tobacco juice and saliva into Rosa’s grass. Becca cackled like it was the funniest damn thing she’d ever heard, her head thrown back and her eyes closed tight.
“Girl, you’re a short dog in tall grass,” Rosa said, using her dead daddy’s favorite expression. “You’ll be back.” Then closer, in her grandson’s face, “She’ll be back.”
The car tires squealed as they turned onto Bolt and she was gone. A ghost.
Rosa never really forgave Kyle, her grandson, for being unable to convince Becca to stay. Plus Kaylie, her granddaughter, was the smart one. Rosa learned that quick.
When the twins were young, Rosa took them to a public pool. There was a low fence and patches of grass browned from chlorine. The bathrooms were littered with murky puddles. The twins splashed one another as they paddled into the warm water of the shallow end, their plastic water wings peeking from the pool. Kaylie would hold Kyle beneath the water, counting loudly to three before she let him up, sputtering and splashing and gulping for air. When they were hungry, Rosa paid a teenage attendant at the snack bar for ice cream. She watched Kaylie eat her pushup greedily. Her mouth tinged orange. Her tongue aggressively shoved the bright sherbet from the stick. From the corner of her eye, Rosa saw Kaylie pinch her own arm. A red welt rose instantaneously. Kaylie slipped her wet, sticky hand around Rosa’s knee, whimpering softly.
“Kyle pinched me and I dropped the ice cream,” Kaylie said, her eyes wide and doe-like.
Rosa didn’t have cash for another ice cream. She stared down at the little girl. So much like Becca. So different. Kyle sucked ignorantly on his pushup, sticky liquid looping around his thin wrists to form a multi-colored bracelet.
“Share with your sister,” Rosa said sternly.
Kyle’s eyes stayed on his toes as he handed the sloppy snack to Kaylie without complaint. Rosa didn’t bother monitoring how many licks each child got. Didn’t count or time or tell Kaylie to hand the ice cream back. Rosa believed in survival of the fittest. Hadn’t she learned the difference between a table that tips well and one that won’t? Hell, she’d even grabbed tips for other waitresses some nights. So she understood Kaylie’s con. She liked it. She rewarded it. Kaylie understood that stepping on someone’s back might be your only leg up.
As she grew into a teenager, Kaylie didn’t look like Becca, but she was still smart like her, capable. If this girl could survive Bolt, Rosa knew she could be something. Not that Rosa wanted her to leave. Rosa imagined she’d go to school in Morgantown, study to be a nurse, and then she’d come home to take care of her with none of Becca’s preclusions for drugs or dirt-bags. Kaylie was Rosa’s second chance.
Surprisingly, as she got older, Kaylie’s temperament only improved. She would rub Aspercream on Rosa’s aching shoulders after long shifts at IHOP. She’d record “General Hospital” and, pressed in a tight-knit bundle, the two would watch together. Kyle would fold himself on the floor at their feet, reading or just bothering them with questions.
“Sonny is so handsome,” Kaylie said, her head resting on Rosa’s shoulder as the smarmy gangster’s face filled the television screen. The house smelled of warm pepperoni rolls, like fresh biscuits and olive oil and meat slick with grease. Rosa didn’t like Kaylie’s taste in men, but she was happy she hadn’t brought boys around yet.
Kyle clicked a pen, the sound interrupting the cinematic music of the soap. He stood to retrieve the pepperoni rolls from the oven. While he was gone, the familiar popping sounds, television gunfire, filled the room.
“What happened?” Kyle hollered, stomping through the house, his feet loud despite the shag carpeting. His voice urgent.
“Why do you care?” Kaylie teased, and Kyle blushed crimson. He flopped back onto the floor.
“Rolls are ready,” he said, staring at the television screen despite himself.
Kyle was too simple for his own good. He was skinny, his ribs exposed like a skinned fish and his wrists as tiny and fragile as a child, even as he grew. His gestures didn’t help garner any of Rosa’s sympathy. The way he flipped that red hair out of his eyes with an exaggerated whip, laughing hard and long. It was flamboyant. She decided early and often that he was stupid, a follower. Rosa knew he’d go to jail. Most boys on Bolt did for drugs or petty theft or vandalism, if not something more serious. Rosa remembered Kyle’s father jiggling that bottle with relish. Hillbilly mating call. She couldn’t find any of Becca in Kyle.
When they were all together, clustered close in the living room around the T.V., Rosa couldn’t help but think of her favorite movie, Sophie’s Choice. She’d rented it from Blockbuster when she was pregnant with Becca, her belly and ankles fat and swollen, acne scars and stretch marks covering her skin from the increased hormones. There was something about the story, the way Meryl Streep wept as she begged the Nazis to take both babies, kill them both. She couldn’t choose but then chose in the end. Sometimes Rosa lined things up in her mind, asking herself what would fall and what she was willing to save? The Twinkie, the pepperoni roll, the Doritos? “General Hospital,” “Dynasty,” “Days of Our Lives?” Daddy, Mama, Becca? Then, after the squalling and the fighting and the tears —Kaylie and Kyle. It sometimes surprised her that the answers were the same, even on the bad days, the early days when Kaylie had colic. They were what she saw on an endless loop. The pepperoni roll, “General Hospital,” Becca, Kaylie. The survivors were ever-present, a line of decisiveness that circumstances or the day’s events couldn’t shake. Rosa’s favorites were pre-destined and she welcomed the game in all its morbidity.
You weren’t gay on Bolt Mountain. You were different, or weird. “Closeted” is how Kyle preferred to think about it. He’d known since he was a little boy. He wanted dolls and nail polish. He wanted to watch soap operas with Nana Rosa and Kaylie, and he wanted to dye Nana Rosa’s hair for her. He wanted to teach her to be beautiful instead of watching her pluck her eyebrows in thin straight lines. Mostly though, he wanted to tell someone his secret.
The most obvious choice would be his sister but, no matter what Kyle said or did, he couldn’t get close to Kaylie. Kyle did both their homework, sitting in front of the couch with algebra books sprawled across his lap. He helped her with boys, sliding notes through the holes in lockers requesting they meet in the smoke hole behind the girls’ bathroom. He chauffeured her to school and back, never asking for gas money.
In return, Kaylie spent most of her time ignoring him. She was popular in the way most girls on the mountain were popular, because she put out and could chug a beer. She had a way of slipping her arms around the waist of buff football players as they did a whispered dance down the crowded hallways. The only fight Kyle ever got in was when he heard Johnny Gant call her a butter face in the boy’s locker room.
“What’s that?” another boy asked as he tied a pair of New Balance sneakers. Before his sister’s name was mentioned, Kyle was trying to avoid being noticed.
“You know,” Johnny said, explicitly thrusting his pelvis forward. “Everything’s hot, but her face.”
Kyle shoved Johnny into the lockers, using his thin shoulders as a weapon. He knew he’d only get one good hit. He raised a fist, his thumb shamefully folded under his fingers, but he didn’t get a chance to throw it. One of the other boys wrenched his arm backwards pinning it behind his back. Johnny got close to Kyle’s face.
“Listen,” he said, spitting slightly. “I’ll say what I want. I’ll fuck her when I want.”
Kyle hadn’t realized how handsome Johnny was until he was that close. He had thick blond hair and blue eyes. He was thin with dimples you could stumble into. Kyle hardly noticed the cauliflower ear from wrestling. Then, as the boys shuffled past Kyle towards the door, he heard Johnny’s last word.
“Faggot,” he said snickering.
In the months that followed, Kyle tried to forget the word. He was unsure if Johnny knew he was gay or just said the worst thing he could think of to a kid from Bolt. But he observed Johnny making a more concerted effort with Kaylie. He lingered by Kyle’s beat-up station wagon, leaning on the passenger door after school. In the cafeteria, Kaylie and Johnny’s thighs were glued together, his fingers tip-toeing up and down her spine before resting on her ass. On the way home from school, Kyle tried to tell Kaylie what a jerk Johnny was.
“He’s a jackass,” he said, staring hard at the road.
“Kay, he called you a name. A butter face,” he said, hoping he wouldn’t have to explain the term.
Kaylie laughed hard, her eyes watering at the corners in thin streams.
“At least he thinks my body’s good,” she said, blowing a big bubble of Bubble Yum.
Kyle didn’t try to explain what Johnny had yelled at him. He was too worried it would open another conversation he wasn’t ready for. They didn’t speak about Johnny again until skip day.
Every year since eighth grade, Kaylie and Kyle skipped school for an afternoon, riding with friends over the mountain to swim and fish at a fork in the Little Coal River. Nana Rosa didn’t mind or didn’t know, Kyle couldn’t decide which. Sometimes there was fucking but mostly it was music and alcohol. Kyle always drove his station wagon, loaded with beer and swimsuits and Kaylie’s friends. Johnny brought wide black inner tubes, and he and Kaylie spent the afternoon sandwiched into one, making out. Kyle drank big gulps of Natty Light, not really enjoying himself. The river smelled like sewage and dead fish carcasses. The beer felt lukewarm and fuzzy as it coated Kyle’s throat. Trees surrounded the bend in the river. The roots were fat clumps that ate into the river’s edge. Two cardinals sang in the high branches of one maple. Kyle hated how alone he felt.
As everyone was hitching rides home in the back of trucks, Johnny ambled up, the inner tubes deflating beneath his arms. He asked to ride with Kaylie and Kyle. Kaylie and Johnny slid into the backseat while Kyle situated himself behind the low steering wheel, his knees uncomfortably constrained. As he drove, Kyle heard their sloppy kisses. The sound of too much saliva and the smacking of tongues. Kaylie moaned lightly, and Kyle cleared his throat, hoping it was a hint so they would shut the fuck up. Johnny popped the top on two glass bottles of Coors, and between sloppy kisses, they slurped them back. The smell of yeasty beer bubbles filled the car. Kyle took the curves on Bolt hard and fast, grinding Kaylie and Johnny closer together in a fit of laughter.
“Mine’s gone,” Johnny said.
“Mine too,” Kaylie said with a hard laugh, a howl really, that made Kyle glance in the rear view mirror to check on her. He watched her nibble on Johnny’s nub of an ear.
“Throw them down,” Kyle said. “I’ll stop at the Stop ‘n Save before we get home.”
Before he could really think about what Kaylie was doing, she cranked down the back window. Kaylie had a great arm. She could’ve pitched for the softball team had she not been so lazy. Kyle remembered watching her aim for the yellow pins at the Coal Festival every summer. Shattering the pyramid of milk bottles as Carnies called, “Knock one down, win a bear.” Kyle swerved as he stared into the shallow yard before the trailer park. A little boy, his arms stained with mud and his pants heavy with coal, was building an elaborate pyramid. Kyle glanced into the backseat.
“Don’t,” he said as Kaylie released the first bottle. Kyle reviewed Johnny’s face. His eyes were wide, his mouth dangling open with surprise and excitement. Kaylie launched the other bottle. Both nailed the boy in the forehead. Kyle slowed, began to turn the car around.
“Keep going,” Kaylie and Johnny cried in unison, pushing on his shoulders and the back of the seat to urge him forward.
Kyle shoved his foot harder on the gas, leaving skid marks on the asphalt and the child splayed in the grass, unmoving.
Kyle heard the sirens head up the mountain behind his house. Sirens weren’t new. They were part of the shit orchestra that serenaded the poor. But part of him knew that the wails were for that little boy who hadn’t gotten up. He closed his eyes, opened them again. Kyle kept seeing the boy. He imagined him extending his arms, raising them up to catch the bottles Kaylie threw. They had come down on him with a crash, square in the head. Kyle lay on the couch, popping his fingers and clicking his tongue against the back of his teeth. When Kaylie flopped into the chair beside him, he didn’t look over or acknowledge her. She was still wearing the wet swimsuit.
“It’s fine,” she said, sitting behind his desk. “It’s going to be fine.”
Kyle thought of all the people he knew in that trailer park. Of all the people they knew on Bolt. There wasn’t much chance this would go unnoticed. Kyle leaned onto his forearms and stared at the person he’d shared a womb with.
“Damn Kay, what on Earth?” he spat angrily.
Before she could answer, someone knocked on their front door. Then Kaylie walked calmly from the room, grabbing an old apple from the bowl on the kitchen counter, and turning on her heel, returning to answer the door.
Lie, she mouthed.
An officer in a neatly pressed blue uniform stood at their door. He had graduated a few years before Kyle and Kaylie. Charlie, Kyle thought, remembering a kid who was beaten with a belt so often, he’d gone to the academy in Beckley to become state police.
“Your nana home?” Charlie asked.
“She’s at work. What can we do you for?” Kaylie smiled and gave a wink.
“Who’s been driving that station wagon, the Corolla outside?”
Kaylie pivoted, leering at Kyle.
“Company,” she said, pointing a thumb towards Charlie. She bit into the side of an apple that had clearly gone bad. The crunch was noticeably absent.
“Officer,” Kyle said. He sucked in the sides of his cheeks. “What’s going on?”
“Were you kids up at the lake today? Coming home around three-thirty?”
Kyle nodded. “High school tradition.” He slouched against the wall, feeling faint.
“Were you drinking?” Charlie looked down at his notepads but didn’t move his pencil.
“Yes sir,” he said, pulling himself taller. “I had a few.”
“You got the empties in the car?” Charlie said. He wasn’t aggressive, and for the first time, Kyle considered the fact that he probably hated this job. He probably spent most of his time arresting people he knew.
“No, sir,” Kyle said. “We pitched them.”
“You hit anything when you threw them?”
Kyle wanted Kaylie to answer but she’d gone into the other room. He thought he heard her whistling lightly. Kyle’s instinct was to save himself but then he thought of his twin, the way she refused to ask questions about their mom even though she kept a crumpled picture in her sock drawer. The way she dried the dishes when Nana Rosa washed, their hands in perfect sync as they passed plates back and forth.
“Yeah,” he said, turning around so Charlie could more easily slip the cuffs over his wrists. Charlie’s grasp was gentle and Kyle realized it was the most any man had touched him.
“Bend your head now,” Charlie said, his words wet against Kyle’s ear as he pushed him into the backseat of the car.
As Charlie drove Kyle into town, past the Methodist church with its wide white steeple and the IHOP with its blue and red signs and the smell of waffles, Kyle leaned back in the seat and continued to think of the little boy. He wanted to ask if he was dead. Kyle imagined the child was gay too, not because he knew him, but more because Kyle knew there must be another boy on the mountain who felt the way he did. Kyle hoped the boy had been spared some terrible existence on Bolt, like coming out or getting hit or dealing with a drunk daddy. Bolt was full of those. It specialized in bad childhoods.
The IHOP was so busy Rosa didn’t notice Kaylie at first. She was slumped in a corner by the bathroom with deep worry lines penetrating her forehead. She wore a translucent bikini and no shoes. Kaylie flexed and clutched her fingers, her nerves evident. Rosa wiped the grease from her hands, forcing a stalk of hair behind her ears.
“What’s up, kiddo?” Rosa asked, using one arm to draw Kaylie into a hug. She grabbed an apron from a hook inside the kitchen, shoving it harshly into Kaylie’s open hands.
“Kyle’s in jail,” Kaylie said. “County for manslaughter, I think. Or assault. Something. I don’t even really know. Charlie Clint arrested him.”
Kaylie’s words were a long ramble.
“You got some clothes?” Nana Rosa said. She turned in a wide circle, searching for her the canvas bag fat with her dinner and wallet and keys. She hollered back into the kitchen.
“Boys, I got to see about my grandson.”
A short man behind a deep fryer gave her a thumbs-up. Rosa briskly rubbed some color back into Kaylie’s arms. “He’s going to be okay,” she said, trying for reassuring. Then low, so low that it was barely audible, she whispered, “What’s that damned fool done this time? Ain’t a man worth a damn on the whole mountain.”
It didn’t take long for everyone in town and on the mountain to hear what happened. Charlie told a few people at the grocery. A nurse saw the weeping mother of the injured boy filing a police report. Some customers overheard in the IHOP. Rosa and Kaylie listened as a couple pushed a stroller in front of the police station, discussing the beer bottle boy who might have brain damage. The police station was in the center of town, a squat gray building behind the tall, gold-domed courthouse. Across the street was a brick library and the town’s only Mexican restaurant, the sound of mariachi music spilling into the street.
“Today you skipped school,” Rosa said. “I can tell as much from what you’re wearing. What else do I need to know?”
Kaylie told her about the lake and the ride home. About Johnny Gant.
“I sat up. Kyle wasn’t drinking as he drove. I threw two bottles out the window. I wasn’t aiming for him, but I hit that little boy.”
Rosa saw Kaylie pinch her leg lightly so that fat tears would form. Alligator tears, Rosa’s daddy had called them. Another con. Rosa momentarily wanted to slap Kaylie, to singe her cheeks. A temporary tattoo of shame. She thought of all the times she’d written Kyle off. All the moments she’d unduly assumed Kyle was the same as his worthless father.
“I don’t want to tell them what happened,” Kaylie said, her voice hard and distant like an echo. “But I will.”
Kaylie scooted over in the seat, rested her head on Rosa’s shoulder. She sniffled softly and rubbed Rosa’s forearm.
“I didn’t mean to,” she said again, looking up with a pouty expression Rosa was sure Kaylie thought was endearing. Rosa patted her hand, then kissed her knuckles.
Rosa and Kaylie walked into the jail. At the front desk, they were given visitors badges and led into a room that was gray. A two-way mirror lined the entirety of one wall. A table and four chairs, two on each side, were nailed to the floor.
“You have about ten minutes,” a fat officer said to someone Rosa couldn’t see. He pushed Kyle into the room. Rosa smoothed her greasy uniform. Tugged lightly on her ear. When Kyle noticed Kaylie’s feet were bare he removed his flip-flops, shoving them under the table towards her. Kaylie took them without thanking him.
“You’ve gotten yourself in a mess,” Rosa said, sitting painfully before him. Kaylie leaned against the mirror.
“Don’t know if I was alone in that,” Kyle said. He wouldn’t look at his sister. He scratched his hands, wiped the sweat from behind his neck. “I can’t be in here.”
Rosa saw the desperation in his face. The fear of being different in this place where everyone needed to fit in.
“Honey, I don’t have the scratch to get you out.”
Rosa looked across the table at the boy. The two lined themselves up in her mind. Kaylie and Kyle. You may keep one of your children. The other must go away. Rosa started towards the door where Kaylie stood.
“Guard,” she called. “This girl needs to make her statement.” Rosa tried hard to memorize the exact oval of Kaylie’s face, the way the sun made natural highlights in her hair.
About the Author
Katie Sherman is a journalist and an award-winning author who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, NC. Her story, "Hook Wounds," won theSame's short story competition and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Katie's story, "The Fairy House," was short listed for New Letters Fiction Award and Short Story America's Story Prize. She has an MFA in fiction as well as an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her two daughters. You can follow her on Twitter @KatiePSherman and Facebook @KatiePiccirilloSherman44