Featured Prose | June 04, 2021
“Bewilderness” by Karen Tucker
Adapted from her story “Anklewood,” which appeared in TMR 40:4, “Bewilderness” by Karen Tucker is excerpted from her novel of the same title, which was published this week by Catapult. Set in Tucker’s native North Carolina, it’s a hard-hitting story of female survival, friendship, and addiction. You can read an interview with Karen here.
I first met Luce two and a half years earlier at a shady little pool hall on the far side of the mountain. She worked the day shift from noon to seven and I came in at seven and stayed till one. All we did was ferry drinks from the bar to the tables. If the crowd wasn’t spending enough we’d put out little saucers of peanuts to make everyone thirsty and if someone was getting too ripped and starting to make trouble we just had to signal the bartender and boom, they were cut off. It’s not like the customers couldn’t have walked a couple extra steps and ordered their own beer or liquor, but the owner—a well-muscled brute of a woman with knuckle tattoos that read YOUR NEXT—had decided the place could do with some decoration of the female kind.
Everything was under the table. No hourly wages, no paychecks, not even a time clock to keep track of our comings and goings. After tipping out the bartender, Luce and I got to keep whatever else we could wring out of the customers, tax-free. I’d just turned nineteen and before that I’d run the register at a horrible little convenience mart out by the highway that paid minimum wage and stank of boiled hot dogs. I wouldn’t say my new job was any kind of spiritual experience, far from it, but the first night I strolled out of that pool hall with a hundred dollars cash in my pocket, it felt like I’d encountered the mysterious workings of some minor god.
Of course Luce and I weren’t paid for anything so easy as bringing alcohol to alcoholics. The way I saw it, we did that part of the job for free and putting up with the rest was what earned us our money. A guy trying to cup your butt when you had a tray in one hand and a beer in the other. His buddy grazing up against your backside while you waited for the bartender to finish making your drinks. The owner, Kaycee, who could lift a full keg over her head like it was nothing, flashed her knuckles at anyone you asked her to—but I tried not to ask if it wasn’t important. If I caused too much trouble she might decide to hire someone more accommodating and then I’d have to go talk the Quik Chek manager into giving me my old job back. He’d do it, sure, but it wouldn’t come easy. At least at the pool hall, the perverts tipped.
I didn’t know Luce yet. She’d grown up north of Anklewood, in a tiny unincorporated town called Ribbins. For the first week or so we just passed each other in the restroom during our shift change and gave each other careful smiles of assessment. While I shimmied into my denim shorts and tank top—the closest thing we had to a uniform—she tallied her cash on the bathroom countertop, tucking some into a well-worn Hello Kitty wallet and hiding the rest in the back of an eye shadow palette, the kind that lets you pop out the bottom to change shades or add refills. “In case my mom tries to help herself to my tip money,” she said.
At the time I felt sorry for Luce. Not only did she look a bit on the delicate side, it was clear that days didn’t pay near as good as nights did. Pair that with a mother who’d steal from her own daughter and she had it way worse than me. Not that my life was perfect. The motel I’d had to move into a couple months prior wasn’t the Mountain Paradise its name promised, and my car, a battered green Plymouth I’d inherited from my father, had begun letting out evil clouds of white smoke every time I hit the gas. Then again, working days meant Luce didn’t have to tolerate all the crap the p.m. freak show dished out on a nightly basis. Fair’s fair, I told myself.
One evening I came rushing into work, almost half an hour late thanks to my car overheating while trying to chug up the mountain in August. By the time it cooled off enough for me to make it to the pool hall, the room was swarming with customers. No sign of Luce anywhere. I hurried into the restroom to change as fast as possible, hoping Kaycee hadn’t noticed that no one was on the floor taking orders—and walked in on Luce and a guy. He had her up against the wall next to the towel dispenser, shoving his tongue in her mouth and dry-humping her pelvis. My first thought was I’d barged in on a private encounter. I’d once invited someone I’d been seeing into the Quik Chek bathroom and although our little get-together hadn’t exactly been worth repeating, maybe Luce was into that kind of action. I started to back out, murmuring an apology. Seconds later, Luce up and elbowed the dude in the throat. She must have nailed him right in his Adam’s apple because he began choking and gurgling, making all sorts of ugly noises. Luce wasn’t breathing so well either but she managed to grab hold of my wrist and yank me out of the restroom.
“Mother fucker,” she said between gasps.
With me close behind she went straight to the bar where Kaycee sat huddled up with the bartender, a man who—despite possessing a giant horseshoe mustache and elaborate skull tattoos that ran from his wrists up past his biceps—went by Alice. Alice turned and looked us over.
“Ladies,” he said. “You okay?”
“This . . . guy . . .” said Luce. She jabbed her thumb at the restroom behind us.
She was having a hard time getting the words out, so I took over. “Scrawny white dude. Rattail. Jean jacket. I saw the whole thing. He’s little enough we could hold him ourselves till the cops get here.”
“Cops.” Kaycee swiveled around on her barstool. “You’re kidding.”
Luce stared at her for a long moment. “You’re right. Forget it.”
“For real?” I said. I couldn’t believe it.
Kaycee shot me a look so fierce I took a step backward.
“It’s okay, I get it,” Luce said. She aimed a weak smile in my direction. “Seriously, it’s no big deal.” She went behind the bar, got her pink backpack, exchanged a few words with Alice. He gave her an encouraging clap on the shoulder and went back to polishing glasses. Before I could say anything else, she was gone.
My shift that night wasn’t what you’d call pleasant. For starters, Kaycee didn’t even bother to 86 Rattail and he ended up camping out at the bar for hours, nursing a whiskey and chewing a toothpick, trying to chat up any fool who had the misfortune to sit down beside him. Every so often he would rub his throat and wince, which I admit gave me a twinge of pleasure, and yet whenever I glimpsed that scraggly little braid snaking down the back of his jacket, my insides knotted up in disgust. At one point he looked straight at me and licked his lips, leaving behind a repulsive film of saliva. Then when it looked like he was finally getting ready to leave, Alice had to go and put another drink in front of him. “On the house,” he said, smiling.
Fuck these fucking guys, I thought.
It wasn’t until last call that Rattail finally hauled himself off his stool, swaying like he’d slurped down a whole handle of Old Crow instead of a few measly ounces. He left a crumple of bills on the bar and gave Alice a parting finger gun.
“Race it home,” Alice called after him. Rattail didn’t even bother to look back.
After work, I walked alone to my car, half sick with fury. Now that my mom had gone and moved to Winston to live with her sister, I no longer had any reason to stay in Anklewood. If I could hang on for a few more months I’d have enough money to fix my car and get out of this place altogether. One good thing about serving, I’d come to realize, is someone somewhere is always hiring. After you’ve got a little experience behind you, you can pretty much find a job wherever you want. I was debating the merits of Charlotte and Atlanta when a figure stepped out of the shadows.
“What the shit?” I said, jumping backward.
“Relax. It’s me.”
It was Luce. Instead of the pink halter top and white cutoffs she’d worn earlier, she had on a black Metallica T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers. Her hair, a short blond do she typically gelled into submission, was sticking up in angry-looking spikes.
“Can you give me a hand with something?” She motioned toward a dinged-up Impala she said belonged to her grandmother.
I told her I’d always had terrible luck with cars and she should probably get Alice to take a look at it. “He’s counting the drawer. Should be done in a few minutes.”
“It’s not my car I need help with. Besides, Alice already did me a favor.” She aimed a key-chain flashlight through the driver’s-side window.
Stretched across the back seat was Rattail, out cold.
Soon all three of us were speeding toward the other side of the mountain. Trees roared past us, wild and distorted. The night sky hung low and had a faint rubbery odor as if we’d gotten trapped under a giant tarp. After an awkward minute of silence, Luce turned up the volume on a mix CD full of thrash metal. While she howled along with the lyrics I alternated between looking back to see if Rattail was awake yet and fixing my eyes on the road ahead in an effort to not get carsick, an embarrassing habit leftover from childhood.
Where was Luce going? When she first asked if I wouldn’t mind giving her a hand for a quick half hour, I’d agreed right away, glad to get whatever revenge we could on that scumbag. But already the initial buzz of adrenaline had faded and in its place was a vague queasy sensation—the kind I always got when something was about to go sideways. Luce glanced at me. “Don’t worry. It’s not like we’re going to kill him,” she shouted over the music.
It didn’t exactly ease my mind.
We passed the discount mart where my mom used to pull her returned-merchandise scams until they caught on to her. The old Revco where we’d once filled my father’s heart med prescriptions before it went out of business, which was now E-Z Title Pawn and Payday Loans. After that came a string of boarded-up buildings, including the piano store where I’d taken weekly music lessons when I was little, the J & L Cafeteria where we used to eat after church service on Sundays, and the KinderCare I’d attended back when my parents were both full-time loomers—back before the Ankle brothers shuttered the mill without notice, raided the health insurance fund, and skedaddled to Mexico, a move that almost destroyed Anklewood altogether. Slowly all these places fell away behind us, growing smaller and smaller until at last I could no longer see them. Swallowing hard, I glanced at Rattail. He was still asleep, his knees curled up into his stomach, breathing through his mouth like a little kid.
We turned onto Old Road, which wasn’t much more than a pitiful thread of tar that wound around in a senseless maze before finally joining up with the highway. No lights anywhere, not even an old mercury streetlamp or a bare bulb at a gas station. We drove past a dead raccoon lying belly-up on the shoulder, his tiny hands spread wide as if he’d been trying to fend off disaster. We passed a weathered cross with depressing plastic flowers wired to the wood. At one point we tore around a curve and almost rear-ended a shuddering brown hatchback going about two miles an hour. Luce leaned on her horn as we skidded around it. “Sleep with one eye open!” she shouted.
Rattail let out a groan of complaint and rolled over.
“Yeah fuck you too,” Luce said.
At last we turned onto 109, heading north toward the Piedmont. If we kept going in this direction long enough, we’d eventually get to Winston where my mom was living. She hadn’t handled my dad’s passing as well as she could have and it was probably healthier for her to be with her sister instead of stranded up on our broken-down mountain with no one around to talk to but me. Even so, I missed her like crazy and as Luce and I raced toward the foothills I found myself pretending I was going to visit. I’d take her out to one of those breakfast buffets she loved, the kind where you could get custom-built omelets and boiling hot coffee and orange juice they squeezed fresh into a glass right when you ordered it. Afterward I’d take her to her noon meeting and clap louder than anyone if she shared her story. Maybe later we’d roam through the dizzying aisles of plants at Lowe’s nursery and plan out all the flowers we’d have when we finally got our own house and garden, the way we used to do. And when I had to leave and come back to Anklewood, my mom would ask if I would please bring her home with me, saying she’d made a huge mistake and couldn’t stand living apart from me a second longer. Of course, I’d say.
So when Luce took the next exit into Ribbins instead of keeping on to Winston, the old anger and disappointment needled into me like a poison. I scrunched deeper into my seat, wishing I’d never agreed to help out with whatever stupid payback Luce thought we were going to get from old Rattail.
Anyone with half a brain knew payback never worked out the way you wanted it to.
We followed an unmarked service road for several miles until at last we reached a turnoff. “Are we almost there yet?” I said. I knew it sounded childish but I couldn’t help it.
Luce turned down the volume. “We’re going in the back way. Might want to roll up your window.”
Moments later we were trundling down a skinny dirt lane while clouds of pink dust billowed around us. It was impossible to see beyond the reach of the headlights and though I’d cranked up my window as fast as possible, the mineral taste of red dirt filled my mouth and throat. At one point, we hit a monster pothole that leaped out at the last second. The impact must have knocked the muffler loose, because after that it sounded like we were dragging a metal body behind us. Luce let out a curse, low and guttural.
Last thing we needed was to get stranded here.
When a white mailbox blasted into view, Luce braked hard and flicked off her headlights. She turned into a gravel driveway, killed the engine. As the dust settled around us, a house materialized in the distance. Beyond that, a dark, shimmering lake. I didn’t know anything as civilized as a lake existed in the area since all we had in Anklewood was a bunch of helter-skelter creeks with razor-sharp rocks at the bottom. And my god, the house! Picture a huge white beast of a mansion, with gothic columns, rippling glass windows, multiple chimneys, and a lone attic porthole that peered out at the world like a giant demon eye. The wraparound porch sagged with expensive outdoor furniture that was far nicer than anything my family ever had inside and was surrounded by thick hedges of Queen Anne roses—the kind my mother longed for. Even from the car I could smell their rich, drunken odor.
“You know where we are?” said Luce. I shook my head in confusion.
She nodded at Rattail, who was still snoring bubbles. “Meet Ronnie Ankle,” she said.
We worked fast. Luce grabbed his wrists, I held Ronnie Ankle’s ankles, and together we lugged him up the driveway. We laid him in the grass as gently as possible. Luce eased off his socks and sneakers, his acid-washed jacket. Off came his T-shirt and belt. It wasn’t long before he began to whimper in his sleep, as though some part of him understood just what we were up to and by the time we managed to relieve him of his jeans and underwear my back was slick with perspiration for fear he was going to wake up and see us. While Luce went through his pockets, I kept a close eye on him. His junk looked so soft and helpless lying there in its nest of fur.
It wasn’t until Luce let out a low whistle that I glanced up. She opened her hand, revealing what appeared to be little more than a hunk of plastic, and pushed a button.
The blade of a tactical knife sprang out at us. We stared at it, unmoving.
“Help me get him onto his stomach,” Luce said.
Together we rolled him over, exposing his sad white buttocks. My chest thumped and thumped. Luce leaned down and spoke into Ronnie Ankle’s ear. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, you won’t hardly feel it.”
“Hold on,” I whispered. “You’re not going to hurt him, are you?”
She gave me a chilling smile. “Watch.”
With an artful stroke, she sliced off his rattail. Unable to help myself, I busted out laughing. Old Ronnie Ankle didn’t even flinch. Only when Luce held the braid up in the air like a trophy did he roll over on his side and protectively hug his knees to his chest.
As for Luce, she collapsed the knife and tucked it into her back pocket, along with his car keys and a tin of breath mints. After motioning for me to gather his clothing, she crumpled the money she’d found in his wallet all around him as if it were payment for services rendered and flung his nasty little rattail into the Queen Annes. She leaned over and gave him a parting smack on the bottom. “Next time it’ll be way worse.”
We sped back toward Anklewood, her mix CD blaring, our spirits higher than ever. Now we were both singing and banging the dashboard in time to the music. We tossed Ronnie Ankle’s clothes into the dark, piece by piece. Nothing could get to us, not the choking clouds of pink dust, not the potholes springing out at us from nowhere, not the old scenes from childhood rising up like goblins. Even when the Impala’s muffler fell off with a noisy clatter, Luce simply put the car in reverse, zoomed back toward it, and tossed it in her trunk to be soldered on later.
Only then did it strike me that—for the first time in a long while—I was happy. Or no, not happy. Not exactly. It was more like Luce had introduced me to my own mysterious power. The kind nobody else had ever thought to look for in me. She got in the car, hit the gas, and as the two of us rocketed into the distance, I sank back into my seat and let its intoxicating warmth ripple all through my bloodstream.
By the time we reached the pool hall, the cicadas that had been screaming earlier had downshifted to a husky rattle. The damp air quivered around us, jellylike. Luce parked, cut the engine, and set about emptying her pockets of Ronnie Ankle’s possessions. The knife she hid in the Impala’s glove box. The keys she bounced gently in her hand, as if weighing their possibilities, before sliding them back into the rear of her jeans. She popped open his tin of breath mints. “Fucking A. I knew it.”
Eyes gleaming, she held the tin out.
At the time I had no idea what I was looking at, but inside was what turned out to be a dozen or so 30s. Carolina blue with a sturdy little M stamped on top.
“Cool,” I said, trying to hide my confusion.
“Here, give me your hand.” She shook half the pills into my palm and glanced at me. All at once her face went soft in a funny way I couldn’t decipher. A look of tenderness, I decided. “It’s okay, we deserve it,” she said.
I peered down at the jumbled blue tablets. They really did look about as harmless as breath mints, and yet even I knew I was at the edge of a strange, enchanted forest. The kind of place kids thrill to in late-night stories, spooky with magic—or at least that’s how I would have described it back in those days. That night, when I met Luce’s eyes in the dim of her beat-up Impala, an old metal ballad playing low-key in the background, the stink of our armpits rising into the air, I sensed she understood me better than anyone, including my own mother. A long moment passed between us. Together we walked into those woods.
Karen Tucker is the author of the novel Bewilderness (Catapult Books 2021). Her short fiction can be found online at The Yale Review and Tin House, and in Boulevard, EPOCH, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North Carolina, she’s the recipient of an Artistic Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and a PEO Scholar Award. She teaches fiction writing at UNC Chapel Hill.
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