Leaving the gentle din of the church behind, Mattie pushed past the vestibule door and plunged headlong into the painful glare of day. She descended the concrete steps, ignoring the handrail while bringing a hand up to shield her eyes. Behind her, the heavy wooden door swung shut, and then her heels were cracking loud against the fractured asphalt of the parking lot.
Mattie tugged at her hemline. For a moment the tanned, smoothness of her thighs disappeared beneath the formfitting black fabric.
She allowed herself a rueful smile. Dress too short; her heels too long. But the color was right.
At the far end of the parking lot, her faded red hatchback waited. At the sight of her misshapen ride, Mattie’s jaw tensed.
“Goddamn it, Carl.” It had been several months since her boyfriend had backed into her car, yet the sight of the dented driver-side door still managed to infuriate her. She quickened her stride, already anticipating the familiar struggle. The passenger side door had never opened from the outside, at least not since Mattie had owned the small beast, and now thanks to the number Carl and his truck had done on the driver-side door, the simple act of getting behind the wheel had become a daily ordeal. At the time of the driveway incident, Carl had promised to fix the damage, but aside from looking at used-parts online that night, he’d taken no action.
With Carl’s good intentions reverberating through her skull, Mattie reached for the door and pulled. The sheet metal creaked. Her grimace peeled into a snarl. She grunted and leaned into the struggle. She wasn’t about to walk home; barefoot, heels in hand, sweating through her goddamn dress. No sir. Not today.
With a warbling pop, the car door sprang open. Mattie lost her grip on the door-handle as her momentum carried her backward. And just like that, she was down on the hot black-top.
Embarrassed despite her relative solitude, she sat there, stunned and trembling. From the western foothills, a dry breeze washed her in spruce and juniper. Two trails of moist, conflicted sorrow rolled hot down her cheeks. She closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath.
Carl and his god-damned truck. She thought of the stupid, almost bewildered look he’d had on his face the day he pulled into the drive with the dealership sticker still in the back window. Almost as if he’d been surprised to be sitting there; behind the wheel; the first payment not yet on his financial horizon.
Mattie looked back across the parking lot at the temporary registration tags gracing the chrome bumpers and back windows of several 4-wheel-drive behemoths. She shook her head; Carl hadn’t been the only one to splurge when Apache had ramped up hiring. She leaned back on her palms and contemplated the misguided fleet. When the wells dried up west of town, First National would take it all. As to what the bank would do with all those lift kits and mudding tires, she wasn’t sure but figured there had to be an aftermarket for such tricked-out foolishness.
From her hot, tarry seat, Mattie looked over the pamphlet that had been handed to her upon entering the church. From the printed stock, Mrs. Montgomery smiled up at her. Mrs. Montgomery was always smiling: from behind her desk at the post office; in line at the grocery store; across the dinner table; in her living room as she helped her son, Sam, fasten a corsage to Mattie’s prom dress so many years ago.
Mattie looked over her shoulder at the church. Sam was in there, hidden somewhere amid the swell of dark jackets and slicked hairlines that had been building near the altar. Had the casket been open? She couldn’t remember.
Mattie turned away and resumed her study of the monochrome booklet. A picture, some dates, a few kind words, a roster of those left behind. An entire life distilled down to ink and pulp.
With a grunt, Mattie got to her feet. She picked a few small rocks from her palms and dusted the grit from her backside. She eased down into the driver seat and slammed the door shut. She eyed the church once more.
He was in there. Just as she’d hoped.
Mattie reached for the ignition. The hatchback shuttered, let out a bang, and then jerked her out of the parking lot, past the idling hearse, and into the sweltering July day.
Keeping one hand on the wheel, she dug through her purse, suddenly in desperate need of the cigarettes that she’d abandoned back in her twenties. Instead, she popped a consolatory stick of cinnamon gum into her mouth and then tossed the wrapper to the passenger-side floorboard where it joined a growing collection of empty diet-cola bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, and several discarded pucks of Carl’s chew.
Ahead of her, the town’s lone traffic signal flashed yellow. She careened the coup onto Main Street and backed off the accelerator. She looked around and exhaled. It appeared that everyone was either at the funeral or working overtime at Apache.
In her youth, the emptiness of Main Street wouldn’t have been unusual. Her small town hadn't known a stable economy in over sixty years. The drilling outfits had moved in two years ago, and things had picked up. But only the most optimistic and foolhardy, such as young men like Carl and his best friend Buster, thought the frackers intended to stay long term. Once the natural gas was gone, or litigation shut them down, they would be off to greener pastures, leaving behind the indebted of the county to default on their credit cards and auto loans.
Pepper, Buster’s girl, also knew this as a certainty but wasn’t too concerned with her beau’s sudden spat of free-spending, even after Mattie had tried to counsel monetary conservation one afternoon at the bar.
“Won’t be like this for long. But he’s flush now, so why shouldn’t he play?”
And Buster was playing; a new Ford Mustang, a flat-screen TV, a dirt bike, a hot tub, Pepper’s name tattooed on his arm, his name inked into the small of Pepper’s back.
Pep wasn’t doing so bad herself: earrings, a new nose stud, some clothes, a killer pair of boots, and last but not least, a jewel-capped butt-plug for her tailpipe.
“He likes me to wear it when we screw,” Pepper had confided with a shrug and a grin one morning at the breakfast table while the guys were working an early shift at the well.
With that image lingering in her mind, Mattie roared into the dirt driveway and slid to a crooked stop. With a trembling hand, she put the car in park and leveled her disgust at the painted mess staring back at her through the cracked glass in the rear-view mirror.
With shaking hands, she reached for the glove-box. She ripped a wet-nap from its packaging and in an escalating sense of anger-fueled panic, set to work. A minute later, she leaned back from the mirror and surveyed the damage; she looked more the trollop now than before.
Mattie tossed the mascara-caked nap aside. She eyed the front door. If she could just make it inside without crossing Pepper, she could strip down, crawl into bed, and not look up until the day had passed, until Mrs. Montgomery was in the ground, until Sam was on his plane and long gone. Carl would be home tonight and she could curl up next to him and pretend this foolishness never happened.
At least Carl hadn’t presented her with a butt-plug. There was always that.
Mattie giggled. The thought of her kind, prudish Carl approaching her with a flexible bulb of plastic intending to force it up her ass was so tragic and absurd that her giggle threatened to grow into a full-on cackle. Instead, her emotional stage collapsed, plunging her back down into tears.
She leaned forward and placed her forehead against the tacky plastic of the steering wheel. She closed her eyes. Her shoulders heaved as her sorrow collected in the soft crevice between her legs.
“Jesus.” She groaned and weakly smashed a fist against the dashboard.
His mother had just passed, and she’d shown up in hooker heels and a cocktail dress; all but spelling out her intentions in lipstick across her bust-line. And why? Because she’d heard from the local gossip queens that Sam was on the outs with the missus; that she and the kids weren’t making the trip out.
Mattie raised her head from its sticky perch and again found the rear-view mirror.
They’d had something once; sweet and unrealistic; the love and lust of high-school; the innocence of undying promises spoken and then broken by graduation and the morph of adolescence into adulthood. What had it been, ten years? No, thirteen.
At 31, she’d kept her figure. There’d been a small detour down stretch-pants lane in her early twenties, but she’d recovered nicely and could still turn heads at the bar.
Mattie shifted her gaze. Propped up on cinder-blocks at the end of the driveway sat Buster’s hot tub; functional yet out of place. Stirred by her dramatic entrance, a thin layer of dust was drifting down and settling upon the foam cover. Empty beer bottles lined its perimeter.
The last time Mattie had joined Carl, Buster, and Pepper in the bubble-tub, she’d felt a storm of pebbles, grass, and other detritus tracked in from the drive swirling about her feet. The filter would clog soon, and the waters would turn sour. Buster and Carl would promise to fix it but would never get around to it. Eventually, they would just drain the damn thing and let it sit. Another plastic dream condemned to die a slow, yellowing death out in the back field behind the garage.
Mattie snorted back her tears. She dried her eyes, shouldered the door open, and then headed inside. She had a sensible blouse with a low but tasteful neckline and a nice pair of jeans that would balance out her heels. She would wash her face clean and do some light touch-up.
If she hurried, she could arrive at the cemetery in time for the burial and that long, solemn line of condolences that would parade past him. She would look into Sam’s eyes, and he would see her.
There was still time.
James Matthew Lee Wilson is a writer who pursues words and phrases down dusty dirt roads and dark starlit highways. His work has appeared in Flying Island Literary Journal and Reader’s Radar Literary Podcast. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife and son.