Here are some highlights from my fiction collection — Enjoy!
A Good Quiet Woman
By Susan E. Briggs
He showed up today in our August heat and walked into the air-conditioned heaven we’d created in our place. We operated a roadside gas-and-food on I-70 just west of Topeka. I stood behind the bar and crossed one arm over my chest, feeling with my other hand the stubble that hung on my chin from the morning. I could see his Mack truck to the side of the cafe where he’d parked it.
He sat down in front of me on a bar stool, took off his black rancher’s hat, and asked me for a Molson Golden. He had a thick, round nose and a flat face that didn’t say much at first. I flicked on the T.V. and got him his beer. An ad came on for a movie they’d be playing tonight: “The Wizard of Oz.” They showed a couple scenes from the movie, a little girl and her dog, a tornado, a dark forest, a witch.
When they got to the scene with the witch, he asked me to turn off the T.V. “Anything wrong, mister?” I asked him. Most people liked the T.V.
He looked off across the empty bar toward the door of the cafe where he’d come in. His dark hair looked greasy under the fluorescents, and his red checked Pendleton lay open down to his sternum. He looked back at me and pointed to the T.V., and he just started telling me about this life he’d had.
“Ever seen a witch before?” he asked me. “Ever been with one?”
“I’ve never seen one. Never been with one either.” I picked up a dirty beer mug and wiped at it with my rag.
“Well, I married one. Do you believe it?”
“I guess I do and I guess I don’t.” I thought of calling Maggie out from the back where she was making pies. Maybe the two of us could convince this man that one beer would be enough for today. I wondered how many he’d already had.
“‘Course, I didn’t know she was a witch at first. She looked just like the sweetest thing over on the other side of that cash register at Stuckey’s. I betcha even then she was better than any woman you’ve ever known. I asked her out on a date one night when it was late and she was closing up. She up and kissed me right then. I tell you, I was sold. We got married soon after that, but I still didn’t know she was a witch.”
“That’s nice for you,” I gave him my professional grin and turned my back to him. I began to rearrange the bottles of Bacardi and Stolichnaya. I’d wanted the rum over closer to the Cointreau for a while now but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it till then.
The rest of the cafe was empty. Tables and chairs I’d made three years ago of rough pine sat quietly, spread out across the room. Though it was after one, no one driving down I-70 seemed interested in a snack. Maggie was probably working overtime for nothing. The Denny’s just this side of Topeka attracted some of our customers who didn’t want to piss in the city but could only wait those few extra miles and the Denny’s was right there with a john and a piece of cake. I’d always known we were placed poorly, but we made it all right. If we had an overpass like Denny’s, we’d be catching them coming back too. Maggie’s apple-rhubarb would keep them looking out for us as far away as California.
Behind me I heard the man start up talking again.
“I remember when we were first married I took her on a walking trip across these Plains States, pretty fine, I just wanted to show her all those fields of wheat, those empty fields of moist wheat that blow in the wind and show like golden ripples of blankets of gold and they’re gold in the air and gold on the ground and they just ripple. And I wanted her to see that. I wanted her to see those wonderful storms that crack open the sky on an open lonely night out in these Plains States where there isn’t anything but cold moist wheat rippling in the wind and tornadoes and plain thunderstorms cracking over the ground. You ever rolled in the wheat with your woman, those cool fields of wheat, and then lay there looking up at the stars?”
“Can’t say as I have.” I thought of Maggie sweating it out in the kitchen and I thought of that big red and white sign that had my name on it outside the cafe: CARL’S. This was my place, mine and Maggie’s. This guy was talking strange and getting personal about my woman. I didn’t like being harassed. I turned the air-conditioning off in the bar. Fifteen minutes and it would hit 90. I knew he wouldn’t last. Unless he was from Arizona. “Where you from, mister?”
“Arizona. Just outside of Phoenix.”
Well, Kansas is a sweat heat, I thought. Maybe that’ll do him. “Is that where your wife’s from? The witch?”
“Yeah. She’s a cashier at the Stuckey’s on I-40.”
“I never knew witches had to work.” Keep him talking. Let him work up a sweat.
“Oh, she didn’t always work.” He paused and stared at me with pasty eyes. Then he grinned suddenly and continued, as if he had something highly valuable to say.
“One day on our trip across these Plains States she saved my life. When we got to Missouri we had to cross a river without a bridge and the water was deep and we got in that water and walked into it till it was up to our chins and we kept on walking till we started to swim and then she pulled me along because I’d forgotten how to swim a stroke and then we reached the other side and she pulled me up on the dry land and we sat there quiet holding onto a log that stuck out into the water. She was wearing a pair of canvas shorts and tennis shoes with a white button-up blouse that stuck to her chest like her breasts had suction to them. Her brown hair curled up under the breeze that blew over us and cooled us, although we were already cold from the water that we’d just got out of.
“I knew I really loved her then, right then and there. I really loved her, but I still didn’t know she was a witch. I found out that night as we sat in our tent with the campfire before us and she took off her white blouse and I saw again those markings down low by her belly button that she’d never explained to me before then.”
“What kind of markings, mister?” I didn’t want to be hog washed with some devil worshipping line.
“Well, that’s what I asked her. I said, ‘Won’t you tell me now where you got those markings, Mary?’ And she just said, ‘Oh, my aunts up in Oregon gave them to me when I was just a babe and there ain’t no way of me taking them off. I’m a witch, you see.’
“I threw back my head and laughed. ‘There isn’t a better story to be heard in all of these Plain States, Mary, except for the one you just told. A witch. Christ Almighty. Don’t you tell me that.’ I was worried then because I didn’t know if she was telling me the truth or not, and those genuine markings on her lower belly told a story all their own. There was a picture of a coyote just howling up at a moon with two stars on either side of it and there was a dark red rain coming down all around the ground under the coyote but he wasn’t going anywhere. He just stayed and howled and watched in the rain as a snake of monstrous proportions glided ever so gently into view. That was the picture I saw on her belly, just below the button and it was carved out in scarring like she’d been marked with the slow, deep incision of a woman’s fingernail.”
I leaned against the Formica counter right in front of the man. I felt the sweat pumping out of my temples but he was as cool as a pound of ground round before it’s fried. It was at least 85.
“You got a woman?” he asked me.
“Yeah, I got a woman,” I stared at his thick nose. I didn’t tell him where she was.
“Well, then I guess you know what it’s like to be bewitched,”
“Can’t say as I do.”
“You don’t know what I mean, do you?”
“Can’t say as I do.”
“Well, you find yourself a woman who won’t let you sleep at night because she says the wind is howling outside when it isn’t. And then you watch her dance. By God, that wind will start howling and shoot in through the spaces under the door and the sky outside will crack open with the thunder and lightning and a tornado will carry your house up into the air and twist it around while you’re watching this woman dance and the red rain on her belly will be like your blood coming down to the groin.”
I thought of my Maggie making pies back in the kitchen.
“Are you saying my woman isn’t exciting like that?” I leaned in closer to the man and watched his calm, stupid eyes look back at me.
“I’m saying that by your own admission you’ve never been with a witch before.”
“Why the hell would I want to be with a witch? I just want a good quiet woman.”
“You want a witch, believe me. My wife is the high priestess of love in my bed, and you ain’t ever going to find that with a good quiet woman.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said, grabbing the man’s collar. “Just cause you tell the whole world what you do with your woman in bed doesn’t mean I don’t do jack with mine, mister.” I let him go and went through to the back to see Maggie.
As I left he said quietly, “I didn’t tell the whole world. I just told you.”
In the kitchen I found my wife rolling out dough on a long flat cutting board. Her thick arms pressed down the roller, then picked it up again and brought it back down. The pies she’d already completed were spread out on the counter and she’d rippled the edges of the crusts to make them look fancy.
Her yellow hair was pulled back in a bun and her full breasts rested on her generous frame. Her face looked intent on her work and sweat formed in a blanket on her wide forehead. I thought of the first time I’d kissed her lips. I remember she held on to me tight. She’d never kissed anyone before that, she told me.
I looked at her now, as I stood just outside the doorway. I thought to myself, how beautiful she is. And I stood watching her arms going up and down and back and forth and her whole body swaying with the motion, stood watching her dancing.
I knew I really loved her then, right then and there. She’d never saved my life in a river, but she had stopped my hair from burning once when I’d leaned too close to watch the pilot on the stove light up. She wasn’t a witch. I knew that.
I didn’t believe that man about his wife. Some hogwash. I walked back to the bar and turned on the air-conditioning for my own comfort. The man would be leaving soon anyway.
“You about done drinking for one day?” I asked him. He had his elbows up on the counter with his face resting in his hands.
“Guess so. Why? You kicking me out?”
“Gotta close today. Not enough business to make it worth my while. You understand.”
“Guess so.” He took out three dollars and left it all for me. Then he got up and slowly put on his black rancher’s hat and headed out the door. I watched him every step and I listened for the start of his Mack truck, the power of those engines. Through the windows I watched him move his machine off my property.
I leaned against the counter and waited a good ten minutes. When I felt the urge finally overtake me, I walked back to the kitchen and stood in the shadows outside the doorway. I took off all my clothes and stepped into the light.
Maggie looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness.” And then in a whisper,
“What about the customers?”
“We’re closed, closed for the day.”
She smiled, and her features underwent that strange transformation I was familiar with by now. I wasn’t shocked to see her eyebrows rise and twist in natty clumps, and her teeth shine forth with a bewitching sparkle. She gestured to me with her flour-caked hand, a suave encouragement that tickled the hairs on my head and the stubble on my chin.
“Come here, honey,” she said. “My apple-rhubarb’s been waitin’ for you all day.”
That was why I loved her. My wife: Staying at home, baking pies. A good quiet woman.