Kermit Hamrick arrived home shortly after six to find Betty asleep on the couch, dressed in the same t-shirt and sweats as she’d worn yesterday. He let the door close sharply. She didn’t stir. On the television an infomercial expounded upon the secrets of youth.
Checking the status of a dinner he knew wasn’t there, he poked his head into the shabby yellow kitchen. He’d promised to remodel it when he’d been promoted, but there hadn’t been time and he hadn’t really felt the inclination. It wasn’t like Betty was the same girl to whom he’d made those promises anyway.
The house wasn’t that bad. In fact, if Dogleg Bend had an upper crust part of town, this was it, just up the hill from Main Street. It probably began as a foreman’s house, a brick single-story, built in the sixties. An aluminum double car canopy sat on the side, surrounded by grayed lattice. He’d remodeled the living room when they moved in, but most of the place, like the kitchen, still needed to be spruced up.
Nevertheless, Kermit felt lucky to have it. Not so many people had it this good in Dogleg Bend since the last of the underground mines had shut down and the devastation had begun to the south. He felt fortunate to have his job at the West Virginia Department of Highways so he could afford his mortgage. Before he and Betty got married, he already knew he never wanted to live in a trailer again, like he had with Mom.
He didn’t feel lucky this evening though, and there was a distinct aroma of déjà vu mingling with the nearly full trash. Whatever the odor, it didn’t smell like dinner. He wasn’t in the mood for Millie’s Diner or Totelli’s Pizza. There were more choices in Trevelton but he didn’t feel like driving the twenty minutes for Chinese or KFC.
He walked back into the living room and stood over Betty. Her mouth hung open and a few strands of her black hair, askew as if she were floating underwater, lay across her lips, sucked in and out with the slow tide of her breath. Looking at her, he was reminded of Mom in her housecoat, a bottle of Seagrams on the coffee table. He turned away before the comparisons went any further, before he started considering throwing water in her face and screaming at her.
He walked over, sank into the recliner, switched the channel to ESPN, and cranked the volume.
He unfolded the Bergen County Gazette he had carried in with him and looked at the headline for the hundredth time. GREENBACK CALLS FOUL ON DOH – Claims signs stolen at height of election season.
Kermit rubbed the bridge of his nose, squinting. What a shitstorm.
Part of him wished that, three days ago, he would have paused to consider the possible repercussions before he sent out the crews to clear illegal signs. If he had done that he might have reconsidered the whole thing. But his drive to work that day had made the decision for him. The law was being flagrantly violated and the roads in the county were beginning to look like a dump. Once made, the decision was permanent, petrified into the hardest stone. He would never back down from his choice. He threw the paper across the room, past Betty’s head.
He thought she was a real shit for fucking him over on a day like today and again wished for a normal life, something that didn’t seem so much to ask for. He wasn’t sure what that might be like. He rose from the chair and stood looking down at her.
He wondered what it was this time, who she got it from. He often wondered this. Old Calvin across the road had told him he’d seen Dewey Burke’s car up here a couple times. With its orange door, it was easy to spot. She probably got her hands on some Oxys, but you can’t smell pills. He thought about checking her usual stash places and then decided it wasn’t worth it. That would just prompt another fight.
He nudged her shoulder with the back of his hand, nudged again, and then nudged harder. He suppressed the urge to slap her. No matter how bad she got--and every time he asked anything directly, the fight got worse--he could never bring himself to actual physical violence. Her eyes came slowly open and then widened when she saw him. She began to twist, turn, and stretch, her t-shirt riding up over her navel ring.
“Well, hey baby!” she said. He remembered when he used to find that drawl sexy, when the look of her roused from sleep was likely to delay her actually getting out of bed.
Not tonight. Tonight it would be god-awful pizza.
A few days before Kermit contemplated pizza, and a day into the sign clean-up, an early morning call from Reverend Mooney at the Baptist Church had been the first portent that things were about to go horribly awry.
“Well, what I mean Reverend, and I apologize again for any disrespect, is that while I entirely sympathize with your position, the entire county was given ample notice that these removals were going to take place. My crews were instructed to remove all signs in violation of the legal distance and those illegally placed on county or state property. I truly wish that your sign had been moved before my crews set out.”
A moment of silence ensued, like church.
“Mr. Hamrick, I really don’t think our sign presented a problem.”
“Reverend, I’m sorry, but our office has fielded numerous complaints about your sign in particular. It blocked the view when turning from Elizabeth Road.”
“This is because of that old Mildred Barnes, isn’t it?” Reverend Mooney’s voice had risen. “She calls here all the time! Oh Heaven help us! Mrs. Barnes isn’t happy! So you destroyed our sign on the whims of one cranky Methodist?”
“Reverend, this is a county-wide sweep. Like I said, all signs in violation of the law are being removed. Not just yours. I will look into whether your sign is salvageable. That’s about all I can do for you.”
“Mr. Hamrick, this church has been here since 1895. My great-great grandpappy...”
Kermit’s attention strayed. His office manager, Carol Anne, leaned against his doorway, trying to get his attention in a knee-length floral dress, white with purple flowers. She looked like spring, like lust after sunrise service on Easter Sunday. On the phone, the preacher continued his oral history of the church, which wasn’t helping Kermit pull his gaze from the curve of Carol Anne’s hip. She gestured to the phone. The other line was on hold.
The barrage of phone calls had begun, the Chamber of Commerce, several business owners, and of course, the campaign office of state senator, M. Wallace Greenback.
Kermit walked out of his office that first day and stopped at Carol Anne’s desk. “What is it Carol Anne? Why is it every goddamn person out there thinks they’re special and the law doesn’t apply to them?”
“Cause people are assholes, Kermit.” Kermit smiled. He could always count on a straight answer, even if every word did seem loaded now.
“No more calls. I’m done with assholes for the day.”
On that first afternoon, after the initial calls, Kermit wandered out into the yard to wait for the trucks to see if he could at least get the church’s sign back. He had no intention of doing that for anyone else. When he saw Walt’s truck pulling in, he directed him to dump his load behind the garages. By the time he cleared the corner of the building the massive pile of signs was already falling from the back of the truck.
He stood there looking for a minute.
“All of these?” he exclaimed, to no one in particular.
The three guys on the crew turned around, grinning.
“I guess it went alright,” said Kermit.
“Yeah, Kerm,” said Walt, “no problems. The boys here even enjoyed themselves I think.”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy Gainor, a gangly twenty-something with a scruffy beard, “it was kind of, well, relaxing!” Kermit couldn’t remember ever seeing him so happy after a day’s work. He wondered if the kid was stoned before his attention was pulled back to the four-foot pile of twisted metal, plastic, and broken wood.
“Holy shit. I knew it was a problem, but this? Shit. There must be a hundred signs here, and you’re only one crew.”
“I feel like I left West Virginia a more beautiful place,” said Jimmy, as Kermit, again, wondered.
“You guys did out by Elizabeth Road, right? Think we can get the Baptist sign outta there? I had a helluva time on the phone with the preacher.”
“Aw shit, Kerm,” said Walt, “that thing was damn near anchored on the berm. It was deep. We tore the fuck out of it.”
“That was when it got kind of fun,” said Jimmy.
That day’s headline in the Bergen County Gazette was not the last. Senator Greenback made a righteous stink in the media over the affront to his free speech during the primary campaign season. Kermit fielded daily calls from his superiors in Charleston. They began as questions and reprimands, but became more supportive when Senator Greenback publicly vowed to change the road sign laws in the next legislative session.
Kermit often thought about the fact that Greenback was unopposed in the primary.
This, in turn, often led him to thinking about the southern third of the county, just over the hill from the DOH yards, all life there ravaged, flattened, gutted by grinning diesel dinosaurs and dynamite, everything else poisoned by the groundwater, barren and riddled with cancer like Betty’s family, driven from their home by death.
Kermit recalled Greenback saying that mountain-top removal was a great idea too. It was going to create jobs, said the senator on TV, on the radio, in the paper, and on his podium. Apparently these jobs weren’t for anyone Kermit knew. And Kermit knew a lot of people.
At home too, life remained the guessing game that he was entirely sick of playing. Every morning he got up, showered, kissed Betty goodbye, and wondered what condition he would find her in later.
One morning after the clean-up, he left the house with a determined dash through steady rain to where his truck was parked under the canopy next to Betty’s Grand Am. At the end of his street, he turned right onto Pike Creek Road, following the path of rain running to the river. He made his way out of the pseudo-suburbs of Dogleg Bend, built atop the very lumber camp that started it all, and onto Rt. 12 which ran through town proper. He turned away from town, left, toward Upper Leg.
The two main parts of town had been referred to for generations as “Upper Leg” and “Lower Leg,” corresponding to the river bends along which the town sat. Lower Leg had downtown: the drugstore, the town’s two restaurants, the old Ferguson Theater, a couple gas stations, one with a convenience store, and a few other businesses, most closed. All of it was old and dying, paint flaking, stone and brick chipped and dull, or already dead, slowly murdered by the Wal-Mart on the northeastern outskirts of town, where the dog’s paw would have been. Nobody called it that.
Kermit drove south through Upper Leg, less developed, but somehow feeling even more abandoned. The old lumber mill, on the river’s edge to his right, had been closed at least fifty years. The roof sagged in the middle. It loomed out of the overgrown fauna and rampant wheat grass like a mammoth sinking into a tar pit. On his left he passed the old high school, closed when the county schools consolidated to become the new Bergen High up in Trevelton. At least the grounds there were kept up, mostly for the baseball field, but also for the occasional community meetings in the classrooms.
He accelerated as he hit the straight stretch before the hill. The depot road was off to the right near the top of the long hill. No sooner had he gassed it and the truck leaped forward, than he quickly removed his foot from the gas pedal. He almost passed the thing before it could truly register, but there it was, illegal as hell, mounted on two metal sign posts, a long, green, rectangular sign. ROTWEILER PUPS - FREE! He was too incensed to register the phone number beneath.
He accelerated again along the straightaway and out past the last of the sparsely peppered structures, all run down like old dogs. He pondered who the culprit or culprits might be as he drove the last few tree-lined miles before turning onto the access road to the depot. Whoever it was obviously didn’t read the paper.
Kermit often observed that the State Road depot yard, in the greater dog-leg picture, sat just below where the dog’s ass would be, but nobody called it that.
Carol Anne already had the coffee brewing when he came in wet. It wouldn’t do any good to ask her if she’d seen the sign because she always drove in on Corwin Road.
“Carol Anne, if you see Walt before me, tell him I got a job for him.”
“I’ll do it,” she sang. He pondered the look of her ass in her jeans and boots.
“You’re awfully chipper this morning.”
“Well, only ‘cause I been thinking about puppies.” She offered a smile both innocent and mischievous and set a cup of coffee on his desk in front of the picture of him and Betty at the beach. She always set it there now.
“Ain’t it funny?” she said. “We had two different people call here this morning asking about free puppies. I told them if they figured out where the free Rottweilers were, to give me a call. Those dogs are like eight hundred dollars, you know.”
“What do you need a Rottweiler for?” he asked, barely thinking about the words coming out of his mouth. His mind was putting the sign, the phone number, and Carol Anne all together and, even in the light of his dawning realization, he still found himself sidetracked by the thought of his lips on the side of her neck.
“Well, maybe if I had a big, strong man to take care of me.” She trailed off, her eyebrows arching. Carol Anne was divorced and lived by herself in a trailer just off Corwin. He’d only been inside it one time, after the Christmas party, when she needed a ride. She kept it nice, for a trailer.
The phone rang and Carol Anne turned around, giving him another long look as she walked back to her desk.
“Puppies?” he heard her say. “Isn’t that strange! You’re the third person to call about puppies this morning!”
Tonight, it was hot dogs, pork and beans, and macaroni and cheese, the straight noodle variety.
“Sorry babe,” she said. “It’s all we had in the house.”
He gave her a reassuring smile. The real talking had ended a few years back, but he understood, in retrospect, that their talk had never been about much of anything, just two kids imagining their version of the good life.
He looked at his cheap wiener wrapped in a slice of Wonder Bread and considered the good life before he bit into it.
She was such a sexy thing back then, just ten short years ago. Oh, she hadn’t lost her figure, those short, shapely legs, the perfect breasts for her small frame. It wasn’t a physical thing at all. The light had just gone out of those brown eyes. She still smiled, pranced, and danced about, but Kermit had learned that it was all a big show. She was trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to convince everyone around her.
He smiled and pretended too. There was no way forward that he could see. He ate his powdered cheese macaroni and feigned satisfaction. There was an edge to her joy tonight.
In the weeks following the free puppy sign, numerous people called the depot asking about the free tractor that needed work, or how much free topsoil was available, even one for suicide prevention. Carol Anne was rattled by that one. She talked to the unemployed coal miner’s wife while she looked up a real suicide prevention hotline. Afterward, she was shaking. Kermit hugged her until the pressure of her fingers on his back forced him to cut it short.
He dispatched a couple trucks to canvas the county roads, find the outlaw signs, and bring them to the justice of the junkyard. Again, he wondered who was behind all this. He wanted to blame the preacher or one of his congregants.
“TWO hundred dollars!” the pastor had said over and over, like it was some spell or chant that could make the money magically reappear in his hands, if only he didn’t stop saying it. Kermit apologized for not being able to retrieve the church’s sign, but didn’t feel sorry about disappointing the reverend. The church had since put up a new one, bigger and better, and probably within a frog hair of the line. The complaints from Mildred Barnes were sure to begin again. Yes, he could quite easily see the preacher dropping a broad hint to a member of his congregation.
Short of sending out the sign brigade, he didn’t have time for much else in way of investigating. He had raw material inventory that day and a meeting with his two schedulers about spring fills. That was also the day that Greenback chose to declare the Department of Highways to be a den of nepotism and Democratic Party conspirators. That afternoon the news trucks began showing up at the depot.
Kermit did three television interviews that day, first with a station from Charleston, then Clarksburg, then Wheeling. He was asked questions like, “Did you receive instructions to tear down the political signs of Senator Greenback?” Kermit explained calmly that this was a fair, county-wide sweep, initiated by the county office, and that the senator’s signs were not the only ones removed. He reiterated the state law and returned often to the statement, “I’m sure we can agree that safety is all important on West Virginia highways.”
He tacked on a joke at the end about West Virginia highways being more scenic now, but Kermit still thought they all left a little disappointed.
Two of the DOH trucks came back near quitting time empty-handed. The last truck to arrive was Walt's. Jimmy Gainor jumped out and yelled, “We found the free tractor sign!”
The next morning they got a call for an abortion clinic.
Kermit’s supervisor in Charleston called him the next morning as well.
“Hamrick,” he said, “Saw you on the news last night. You should’ve called us, let us know.”
“Yeah, sorry about that Ted, but they surprised me. It just happened. I didn’t really have time to think. I hope I didn’t screw anything up.”
“No, no, nothing like that. You did fine. That bastard Greenback is setting himself up for a run at the Governor’s seat and he’s just trying to get some free publicity at our expense. Said it was a plot of the entrenched democratic regime in state government. He’s grandstanding-- but listen-- that’s only partly why I called.”
“Well, you looked good on TV, Hamrick. Made the DOH look real good. Senator Nelson is planning to convene a special session of the legislature here in a few weeks, trying to regain control of the conversation or some shit like that. He wants you to come down to Charleston to testify. You up to it? We’ll arrange for some comp time for you, pay to put you up.”
“I guess so.”
“Good,” said Dempsey, “And don’t be surprised if you get a call from one of my friends, George Pelton. He wants to talk to you.”
The next call was indeed from George Pelton, a member of the Democratic Party, asking him if he ever thought about running for House of Delegates. The call after that was from old Calvin who lived across the street from him.
He sped down Route Twelve, toward home, the rundown barns and shacks and mills falling apart as he flew by, fractured and dissolved by the water in his eyes.
Losing the third one, that’s when it happened.
Or maybe it all started before that even, when Betty lost her father and sister. She always swore it was all on account of what happened to her family’s water when they started blasting Spenser Mountain. But it wasn’t until after the third miscarriage that she’d started complaining about the pain. Soon after that came the OxyContin. When that became a problem, the parade of anti-depressants began, one after another. None of them ever robbed her of her taste for the OxyContin. She liked the oblivion they brought. It was as though she wanted to knock herself right out of the world the way those babies were knocked out of her womb.
He supposed he bore some of the blame. After the second miscarriage, he'd had a hard time getting back to a supportive place. Betty was constantly on about the coal company and her sister's cancer, and Kermit, tiring of it, started blaming her a little. When he saw her after the third, sobbing in her hospital bed, he knew that they were doomed, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave her like that.
He realized he was crying now because it was Mom all over again, in so many ways. Was it true that you just had to keep repeating things over and over in your life? Was there no escape? From the time he’d been old enough to understand he tried to help her, begged her, pleaded with her, got angry with her, but the bottle always called her back. She never did come to terms with Dad’s death and Kermit never could get her to come back. In the end he watched her die, eaten by cirrhosis at forty-five, a shell of a woman who never came to grips with being alone. He watched her die now, again, in his mind, and his fury grew.
And then there it was, right as he turned onto Pike Creek Road, a sign with the DOH depot phone number that read, “FORTUNES TOLD.” Kermit couldn’t take it, whipping his truck off the road and jumping out, going at the metal fence posts with his Redwings, like a shitkicker Kung-Fu madman, screaming that all assholes should stop being assholes.
The sign wasn’t going anywhere though and several cars had passed by. He composed himself for the walk back to his truck.
When he exploded into the house, Betty’s reactions were slow, off by a second. It took a moment for the accusation to sink in.
“No!” she screamed. “I never done that! I never done that!” She ran her fingers backward over her skull, through her hair.
“Calvin saw you coming out of her house! And she's obviously not home!” Kermit’s arms pointed to Mrs. Sanders house next door.
“Oh, that old geezer is seeing things!”
He wanted to hit her. Every part of him wanted to slap her.
“That old geezer sees better’n you do,” Kermit sneered at her, “fucked up all the time.”
“Are you saying you don’t believe me?” Tears welled in her eyes now, part of the show.
“What was in there? Huh? Some valium, maybe? I doubt Mrs. Sanders has Oxys, but you are looking pretty lit up so you found something. What'd you find, Betty?”
“Oh what the fuck difference does it make anyway? You don’t believe me. You never did. I might as well be dead too.”
She started throwing things, pillows first, then lamps and remotes and anything else she could get her hands on. It ended like it always did, with Betty sobbing and Kermit holding her. He really did love her once.
But that night, he lay in bed, thinking about a winter night, warm, wine-soaked breath on his neck, soft flesh and loving eyes reflecting the warm luminescence of Christmas lights, and the fact that alcohol can make a trailer floor into the most romantic spot in the world.
In the morning he donned his usual attire, dress shirt, pair of jeans, and his Redwings. Betty was up. She had breakfast for him today. He declined, begging lateness. He was lying.
Betty offered a pity-me look, meant to be sexy.
“You be good today,” Kermit said.
“I will,” she said.
She was lying too, he knew.
He drove to work, lighter. Something had clicked over inside of him, a kind of resolve that he hadn’t felt before. Something big was imminent. Change seemed inevitable. As he hit the straightaway on 12 he saw it up ahead, another sign too close to the road. Coming up on it, he could see it was more than one sign. In fact, it was three in all, stacked to be read, like the shaving cream signs on Route 66.
YOU CAN'T KEEP
A GOOD SIGN
No, he thought, maybe you can’t. At least the assholes had a sense of humor.
He didn’t know it yet, but Carol Anne had already taken two of many more calls to come inquiring about the free full body massage. She would make a suggestive joke about that later and he would ask her to travel to Charleston with him. It would be a long time before he found out who was responsible for the signs.
The hill before the depot rose in front of him. The crest, where the trees had been cleared away and the road met the blue sky, cut a sharp line, like a doorway to the edge of the world, like maybe if you hit that edge you might just keep on going right on into the sky, right on into the next life.
C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain in the U.K., Still: The Journal, and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press, and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor of English. More at www.CMChapman.net and on Facebook.