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Redemption Center, a debut collection of stories by Ashland professor and musician Vincent Craig Wright, delivers a funny, troubling, and sometimes hallucinatory look at modern American life, love, faith (or lack of it), and work (ditto).
On Mayday, what would have been her grandmother's ninetieth birthday, Ann-Mrie Hunt left Beaumont in a baby blue, four-door Falcon that had been sitting in the front yard on four flat tires for four years since her grandmother died falling off the front porch.
Ann-Mrie said to her mother, "I'm going to take a job on that riverboat casino in Lake Charles."
And even though her mother would've said the f-word if it might not make her fall off the very same porch, and even though her daddy quit fixing the window broken after a softball game to say the Falcon wouldn't make it but the one way, Ann-Mrie bought new tires. She wanted to ride out of town on the same gas her grandmother had put in. Her daddy said it was half water. She said she thought all gas was half water.
When Ann-Mrie left Beaumont her favorite radio station was playing "One of These Nights." She turned it up. Then she turned it back down. And then off, speeding up a little. That sort of song would not be her favorite anymore.
At the consignment shop, where the week before she had taken any clothes she would not be needing at a casino, they gave her thirty-seven dollars and told her how a cheerleader type had bought everything but the yellow dress, which they offered her eight dollars for. She took it.
Ann-Mrie drove by the cemetery on her way out of town. She could hear her grandmother as if she'd never been in the ground, her torn-linen voice saying, "There's a certain pulling at a person," the same words she'd spoken just before she fell off the porch, when Ann-Mrie came running out in the dress that matched her grandmother's except for how it had faded in the sun.
And then that sudden, spreading, red-edged spot just at the neckline.
Coroner said he wouldn't bury her in such a thin, thready dress, so at the funeral Ann-Mrie lay across her grandmother, across the black and the yellow, put a daisy below her chin, and thought for the first time about the Lake Charles Riverboat Casino.
Johnson McCrae had a good life. Had been a pit boss in Reno for four and a half years. Before that he'd dealt blackjack in Vegas at the Riviera. Before that had pitched double-A baseball, and before that been in love with a girl named Cindy.
Had not been in love since. Wasn't going to be. Had a good life.
A man like Johnson McCrae did not need but one time where the place in between asleep and awake is full of pictures you can't see, where there is that line pulling you from your center, where the sun is something you bounce in your hand.
The more he held it, though, like ice, the more it would change. The tighter he'd try to hold on, the smaller it would become, eventually running right through his fingers.
Wasn't going to be in love again. Had a good life now.
Thing was, Ann-Mrie Hunt was bearing down on the Lake Charles Riverboat Casino, her eyes her headlights, pulled along by the telephone lines, thicker, tighter even, than the prettiest black snakes, and she was pulled by the big royal trucks that sometimes run over snakes and leave them there popping at the world, in the sun, in the rain, in places only those that move after death know about.
Out there in between.
And she was thinking about that yellow dress.
That, and about the day in Beaumont when the sun had been the brightest it had ever been. Everybody'd said so. Said outright how if anything had happened that day it would have been too hard to notice and harder still to remember because of the silver sun, the dime stuck in its belly, sucking up shade.
The streets pulled themselves in that day.
No one could hold an expression.
Birds couldn't get more than three feet off the ground before the sun, heavy on the tops of cars, pressing in their shade, beat them down.
Somebody'd be getting that dress that could use it.
Johnson McCrae could not see what his painting had to do with any moon. And in fact, if he ever named them at all, it was after the work was done, when the only way out of the corner of his head he was always painting himself into was to call it something.
The painting was bright, nothing fading. And no moon.
No moon at all but that title, "Fading Moon," its letters bright, the word ‘Fading' bright as the top of water, hanging in the air just above the canvas as he worked.
When Johnson McCrae left Reno he gave his latest painting to a call girl from Phoenix who said she liked it, would hang it on her wall, and that, if he would sign it, she would remember his name forever.
She had started not to charge him that night, but they could neither one go through with it. She needed the money and he had it.
That breath of paint, barely even on the canvas, could have been called "Fading Moon," but that had not occurred to him.
And here was this painting taking the name down upon itself in spite of its whipping-sharp shine.
There was just no need for a dress like that at a casino where everything, she had seen in movies, was roulette red and roulette black. Red and black. The suits of the men and the suits of the cards. Red dog.
The lines on the road were suddenly all she had, and even they were not always there, and not really that yellow at all.
His paints were still out. He had forty-five minutes until he'd have to leave for work, and his paints were still out, ready to put in the last, the lasting, to make the picture move.
A few times he'd picked up his brush, reached towards a particular paint, a particular color, and then withdrawn, putting his brush back down.
He had thirty minutes now.
He turned on CNN. Went and looked at the painting. Maybe it was done, maybe could do without anything else. Keep it understated, subtle.
But the painting would not let go like that. Something could keep the thing from just sitting there, and the painting itself seemed to know.
He looked through his mail.
Ten minutes now. Five.
In the shine of the painting, not too far but a little down into it, down in the shine, he could barely see some turn, some stirring, suggestion, swerve, but how to pull it out, bring it to surface, to light?
It was time to go.
And the painting showed him.
He took up the brush, twisting it thick in color, touching just the spot suggested, and pulled a thickening line out from the very heart of the painting, letting it end in its own exploding eruption. Yellow.
The boy at the gas station had rags in all his pockets. "One for your windows, one for your oil, and one for my hands," he'd said, and when she didn't ask, "Usually say the other'n's for my back-up. Either that or I say it's for the customer, I mean if you need it."
He'd done a cartwheel for her when she'd taken it and pulled off, and he started jumping up and down and flapping his arms, a rag in each hand, keeping at it for as long as she looked in the trembling rear-view, letting her new rag flap in her hand like a flag on a float in a parade.
The radio was doing its best, offering up all sorts of songs, some sort of familiar, some as strange to her as deep snow. She sang at some.
Then a woman telling everybody in radio land about a big sale at some furniture store sounded like Ann-
Mrie Hunt's tenth-grade math teacher, Mrs. Spivey, who drove a car her husband had built out of a kit he'd ordered from a magazine, when she'd say how much something was, something about how she put her numbers.
The kind of thing Mrs. Spivey might say is, "That dress is worth more'n any eight dollars, Ann-Mrie.
"Hello, Mr. McCrae," they'd say, or just, "Mr. McCrae," with a little nod, and he always tried to speak back, remembered what it was like to try and make your mark, stand out in a place where the most important thing is that you don't.
He hurried through the buffet, putting together a salad, knowing no matter how much he wanted to do something different with it, when he sat down in his office it would look the same as yesterday's. And, even so, somebody, usually a tip-charged waitress, would just have to say before he could get there, "Sure is a good-looking salad, Mr. McCrae."
He liked sunflower seeds where he used to like bacon bits.
In his office were four television screens, built into the wall, three always showing changing angles of the tables. The fourth was regular TV, hooked up to the satellite that sat atop the captain's quarters, bouncing beams of soft porn and sports of the fringe, such as tractor pulls, into his office.
But all he watched on it was The Andy Griffith Show. "The finest show on television" came on three times during his shift, and he worked around them.
The rest of the time if he was in his office he was watching the other three screens, without the black and white indifference he had to wear out there, watching not so much for cheaters and thieves, he could spot them without looking, but for the drama of a woman playing with her salary, or a man playing with somebody else's.
Anytime Ann-Mrie Hunt smelled garbage burning she'd think of barbecue. And she'd think of when she and her grandmother would go for their rides in the country, smelling barbecue smoldering in the smoking leaves and trash piled in the squared-off yards of the grown children of whoever owned this ranch or that farm.
She remembered once on one of those rides they'd come up on a dog sleeping in the road.
And Ann-Mrie'd thought it had been hit by a car, but her grandmother'd said how it just looked too comfortable to have been hit by a car, and they sat there looking at that dog until Ann-Mrie said if he hadn't been hit by a car now he might be soon, laying there like that, and could she pet him.
Her grandmother said no, he might have something you could catch, and their car pulled off, Ann-Mrie saying she could get a stick.
And though Ann-Mrie knew it wasn't the same day, in the movie her memory was showing, she and her grandmother went and had barbecue somewhere, and she drank her Coke out of the bottle, dreaming of having a yellow dress like her grandmother's, one with that yellow that announces itself, even in church.
Says me and this person I'm on are here. We have our own way, can walk just as fast as we like.
We don't have to go in when it's raining.
Got sun in pocket.
Talked at by a drunk parts salesman from Mississippi who'd run off most of the table, Johnson McCrae watched how his new dealer, a woman born in Africa, handled him. And he did his smile.
"She's a good'n," the man said, splitting aces. "Where'd you find her? England?"
Johnson McCrae did his smile.
A queen and an eight. To her seventeen.
"Hot a mighty, I'm telling you, boss, I'm going to follow her around tonight, make enough money off her she'll have to marry me."
Johnson McCrae made a note that his dealer wasn't easily shaken.
"Where's my waitress?"
Johnson McCrae did his smile.
"Tell my waitress I want my usual." The man, shaking ice out of his glass, said, "She don't know what my usual is, boss, you ask her why."
But Johnson did his smile.
His waitress, a woman from Houston with sky features, brought him his drink. He didn't tip.
"Look over there, boss," he said, "that big fat son-bitch. Man I work for in Jackson's fatter than that.
Son-bitch. Somebody's got to help him go to the bathroom." The man thought about it a while and said, "Son-bitch."
Johnson McCrae did his best.
Ann-Mrie Hunt's road was above water before she knew it, telephone lines hiding under the bridge maybe, black snakes gone cottonmouth or innocent water snakes taking the blame.
The barbecue piles smoked behind her.
The water lay low on the land, sealing spaces tight between the big, bearded trees.
An off-center V of ducks, pulling towards its short side, lost itself in the glare blurring any line between water and sky.
Her radio had turned Spanish or French.
And then, just as suddenly, the bridge bucked her up onto its hump, high above its waters, herded now, laked.
There were trees, but only lost and lonely ones, left living only that little.
And then, at the very top, high above the men in their little boats, she could see it, the Lake Charles Riverboat Casino, sitting back on its haunches, still a little uncomfortable in the lake, still getting used to the still.
The ducks came back and she remembered how her grandmother had taught her once that the way to know a bird's a duck is watch it fly because "if they don't flap they'll fall."
And she let go of having to push, let go of being pulled at, let the Falcon roll lazy down the bridge.
Johnson McCrae hurt. He was on the floor by his desk, sucking big haws of air, choking on the hee-hees.
Everybody who enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show loved Ernest T. Bass.
It wasn't like getting on a boat at all. She walked into a building beside the boat, like a hotel lobby.
"I'm sorry, dear," the woman said, "we've done all the hiring we're going to do. Why don't you take this complimentary chip and enjoy yourself?"
And then Ann-Mrie was sort of led through a line like for a Ferris wheel and she was indeed on the boat.
In the casino. And she had that chip.
All she knew was blackjack, and only because she and Bobbi Martin had played it in school, except they called it 21.
Ernest T. Bass had already run off into his woods, into commercials, but even if he'd been running right into downtown Mayberry, Johnson McCrae would have picked up on this screen-two wonder.
She walked up, put down a comp chip, blackjacked, and walked away. Took her $12.50 and walked.
Didn't take a drink even when the waitress from Houston, whose features weren't so sky in this new picture, explained drinks were comp, and what that meant.
It was the same black dress every girl from East Texas, South Louisiana, and West Mississippi wore when they came in looking for work.
Except it was different.
All the aerobics in those three states, the whole states, couldn't make a dress hang like that, like she didn't even know.
Johnson McCrae watched this different angel moving from one screen to the next, in different angles, watched her putting the whole place in slow motion, breathing into her hand like her chips were little birds to keep warm.
He wanted to hear her say something.
Then, finding herself in the nickel slots, she dug a nickel from her purse, dropped it in and pulled fifteen or twenty nickels out like she'd bought them. And walked out of the screen.
Except she didn't show up in the next one. Where she was supposed to. Out of the bottom left of two into the top right of three. But she wasn't there.
She was somewhere in between.
He jumped to his feet, trying to get into his shoes, going to go solve this mystery, and there she was again.
The riverboat hippo-jumped into its hourly voyage, required by law, around the lake, the motors like trucks way off on a wet night.
And she set her chips down and walked away.
When he got down there, the chips were gone. Somebody, and he'd known they would, had already gotten to them.
"Brenda, I need twelve-fifty right away."
"Here you are, Mr. McCrae."
"Twelve dollars and fifty cents, Brenda, and I need one of the fives to be a comp."
"See Matlock last night?"
"You ought to give him a chance."
He signed the cashier's ticket and was on his way out to the deck, Brenda still talking about Matlock being some sort of extension of Andy Griffith. He never gave that talk the first thought. You start listening at that, they can convince you of anything, that Gomer's better than Goober.
And he ran slam into her. Dropped a couple of his chips. Hit his knees like he was on a dance floor,
"Sorry, I was looking for you," he said.
She didn't say anything.
"I was going to bring you your chips. You left your chips back there."
She looked at him from way back. From a different life, a different story. She looked at him from left field. From down the line. From across.
And she held out her hand, rubbing her chirping little birds in her fingers. "I went back for them," she said.
(to be continued...)
© 2006 by Vincent Craig Wright