Sticking closer to home after the out of state bust, Bobby Earl discovered that he had a natural gift for breaking and entering. This made his nights a lot more entertaining than sitting around loaded watching television…”
by j.b. hogan
Bobby Earl Bunton decided to stop trying to make crystal meth and just use it after his cousin Tommy Ray Wilson caught on fire when his trailer lab in the woods northwest of Fort Smith blew up on him. Tommy Ray came barreling out of the trailer screaming bloody murder with his wife Verleen chasing after him cursing and howling. She thought she was throwing water on Tommy Ray from a cup she had but it was some kind of flammable liquid and just made things worse.
“Goddamn you, Verleen,” Tommy Ray screeched at his thick-bodied wife as he rolled across the front lawn fully ablaze.
“Tuck and roll you son of a bitch,” Verleen swore at her combusted partner.
Tommy Ray rolled alright. In fact, he was flinging himself around the front yard like a chicken recently relieved of its head. After a few agonizing moments, he did manage to put out the fire. He stood up carefully and slowly, wisps of smoke trailing into the clear Arkansas air like little blue funnel clouds.
“Tuck and roll,” was the first thing Tommy Ray thought to say to Verleen after he was no longer aflame. “Tuck and damn roll? That’s what the hell you to do to the inside of a car, you dumb bitch. It’s drop and roll. I was on fire, not being upholstered.”
“Well, hell,” Verleen shot back, “you knowed what I meant.”
“Yeah, shit,” Tommy Ray said, shaking his head.
When he told Bobby Earl about the incident, Bobby Earl immediately swore off of meth production.
“Hell,” Tommy Ray said, “it was just a accident. Coulda happened to anybody. Ain’t no reason to stop makin’ up batches.”
But Bobby Earl was adamant. He might be dumb but he wasn’t stupid. He had had enough of the smelly, dangerous chemicals and the fret and worry of buying too much of this or too much of that at the drug stores all over most of Crawford County, as well as southern Washington and western Franklin Counties. No, he would stick to using booger and leave the cooking to amped up nut jobs like cousin Tommy Ray.
“You gotta pay for it from here on in,” Tommy Ray warned him.
“I reckon then that’s what I’ll do,” Bobby Earl said haughtily. He had no idea how he would afford it but by God he would somehow.
“Suit yourself,” Tommy Ray said.
“I will,” Bobby Earl vowed.
It didn’t take Bobby Earl long to realize he couldn’t afford to buy the crank he used to help make. Tommy Ray was hard ass about the price and Bobby Earl slowly drifted away from that scene. He moved south, into Fort Smith itself, looking for a connection and a cheap ass place to crash. Being a young man of a resourceful nature, Bobby Earl soon had found both.
He shacked up with a teen-age runaway in a crappy trailer at a crappy park at the edge of town and spent his days alternately scuffling for drug money and getting high. Sometimes he would go as far as to cross the border into Oklahoma looking for scores and ways to raise cash but he got busted for possession in some damned Okie town and spent a couple of months in their lousy creep-infested jail before his runaway girlfriend managed to bail him out. Of course he immediately jumped bail and headed back to Arkansas, putting a hard stop to his more overt activities in the Sooner State.
Sticking closer to home after the out of state bust, Bobby Earl discovered that he had a natural gift for breaking and entering. This made his nights a lot more entertaining than sitting around loaded watching television with his boring teenie bopper girlfriend, who by then considered him to be just as boring. Instead, he would take off after dark and tell the girl he was going to the store for smokes.
Of course, he spent the entire evening carefully breaking back room windows, jiggling weak locks, and creepy crawling houses while he made off with anything he could find in the houses that wasn’t nailed down and was worth something – anything. He wouldn’t come back home until daylight but the girl would be asleep and she didn’t seem to care whether he was there or not.
Unfortunately, one evening a late-returning family caught him robbing them and the old man of the house hog-collared Bobby Earl and held him until the police arrived. He was put in the Sebastian County jail and spent his days cleaning up the streets of Ft. Smith in his prison jumpsuit.
Several weeks into his sentence, Bobby Earl heard of a program that would get him out of jail for a couple of hours a week. Every Wednesday night, the best-behaved prisoners could get a two-hour furlough to a local church. All you had to do was stay out of trouble for a week and feign an interest in religion and you were out of the county slam long enough to get some decent food and mingle with real live people instead of the losers he spent his days with picking up paper and junk along the roads in town and out in the county.
One night at the church a long, stringy-haired girl came in toting a kid with her. Her name was Mary Beth and she was all about Jesus. Bobby Earl saw she was just right for him right away. She was wide in the hips but pretty in the face, sweet and kind of dumb. Tailor made for an aspiring crook like himself.
“My name’s Bobby Earl,” he said, sidling up to the girl in the food line at the church.
“H..i,” Mary Beth stuttered, “I’m Mary Beth and this is ….”
“I seen ya right away,” Bobby Earl interrupted, flattering the shy girl and standing so close that Mary Beth couldn’t quite breathe right. “I bet you’s a good Christian girl ain’t ya.”
“I love the Lord,” Mary Beth allowed.
“Me, too,” Bobby Earl said. He looked Mary Beth up and down like she was a ticket out of Arkansas, which maybe she was. “Do you believe Jesus helps those who help themselves.”
“I believe the preacher done said something like that.”
“Can I sit with you and your baby there at supper?”
“I reckon,” Mary Beth said slowly, looking down at her feet. Her baby girl nestled her little head against the warmth of her mama’s shoulder.
“Do you take your baby there with you all the time … I mean, you got somebody to watch after her sometimes.”
“I’m mostly with her,” Mary Beth said, giving Bobby Earl the once over, “but my Aunt Sally sometimes do watch her. Why you want to know?”
“No reason,” Bobby Earl reassured the girl, “just conversation, that’s all.”
Over the next weeks, Bobby Earl slowly and carefully cultivated Mary Beth. He was on his best behavior, doing all the Jesus stuff he could at the church, acting like he liked the girl’s damned little baby, and trying his best to finagle his way into Mary Beth’s good graces. It turned out to be a pretty easy job.
Seems that Mary Beth was primed for being treated well. She had had an abusive uncle – Bobby Earl wasn’t sure from her stories that the uncle wasn’t the baby’s daddy but that didn’t matter none to him – and was pretty much alone in the world except for the dumb Aunt Sally that watched the baby sometimes.
“If you could leave your little one with your aunt sometime,” Bobby Earl suggested one Wednesday night after they had stopped at a convenience store where he bought his favorite food, a pack of pecan twirls and a big Orange Slice, “me and you could slip away from this here church and have us some good times.”
“I don’t know,” Mary Beth at first demurred but Bobby Earl kept insisting and the next Wednesday she showed up at church without her child.
“You’re a good girl,” Bobby Earl told her, with a sneering laugh, “and I’m a bad boy.”
“I don’t think so,” Mary Beth countered, “I think you just need Jesus in your life.”
“Yeah,” Bobby Earl laughed, pulling out half of a doobie he had in his shirt pocket and lighting it up right outside the church. “Jesus, you, and some tote.”
Mary Beth didn’t know what to make of Bobby Earl’s blasphemy but she believed in the regenerative power of Jesus in this and the afterlife and so she stayed with him. He was wild alright and sort of crazy but with Jesus he could become a good man, a good provider for her and her baby.
“You do know my baby’s name, don’t you?” Mary Beth asked Bobby Earl one day when he had talked her into going to her aunt’s house to “borrow” her car for a run through Ft. Smith.
“Sure I do,” Bobby Earl lied with a laugh. “It’s baby.”
“C’mon, Mary Beth, let’s go downtown and get hooked up.”
“You don’t know it.”
“I know who I am,” he countered finally, “I’m Pretty Boy Floyd, I’m John Dillinger, I’m a bad mother.”
“You’re just a boy,” Mary Beth sighed, not close to giving up on his rotten Arkansas soul, “and Jesus will make you whole someday. He’ll fill you with love and you’ll be saved by his blood.”
“Damn straight,” Bobby Earl said, squaring away his shoulders, “his blood and my blood will set me free.”
Five or six more weeks of sneaking away from the church on Wednesdays, Bobby Earl hatched a grand scheme.
“I got a idea,” he told Mary Beth, “let’s borrow your aunt’s car and get out of this crap town. Maybe go out to Arizona or New Mexico.”
“Arizona?” Mary Beth asked, thinking of carrying Marcie Kay, her baby, to some far away place. “Ain’t that a long way aways?”
“Shoot,” Bobby Earl said, downing the last pecan twirl from a pack and guzzling some Orange Slice after. He didn’t have the slightest idea where Arizona was much less how far away. “Cain’t be but a day or two,” he declared anyway, “we’d be right back. I swear on your Jesus.”
“Don’t swear, Bobby Earl,” Mary Beth gently chastised. “It ain’t right.”
“Shee-it,” Bobby said.
“And what about Marcie Kay?”
“What about her?”
“I cain’t just leave her.”
“It’d just be for a couple of days. Your aunt won’t mind. Won’t mind no more than borrowin’ this car that she don’t ever use.”
“I don’t know,” Mary Beth said.
Bobby Earl didn’t say anything for a few moments as he struggled to drive and simultaneously light a pipe that held what looked like a small piece of glass in its center. He took a deep draw of smoke from the burning pipe, his cheeks puffing out like a deranged chipmunk. In moments, the deranged look spread to his eyes and entire face.
“You’re scarin’ me, Bobby Earl,” Mary Beth said, pulling away from the boy.
“Ah, hell,” he said, shaking his head like a snake or something was running around in it, which it probably was. “Let’s go right now.”
“I cain’t do that,” Mary Beth pleaded, “not now. I need to see my baby ‘fore we go.”
“Won’t be hardly long till you see her,” Bobby Earl laughed, his eyes wild as a mad hatter’s. “We be back in no time.”
“Oh, baby,” Mary Beth begged, “please.”
“Hell, we already gone,” Bobby Earl said, spotting an entrance ramp onto I-40 West. “We gonna blow through Oklahoma like Bonnie and Clyde. We’re the second comin’ of them two. We are goin’ west, baby, praise Jesus.”
“Don’t you blaspheme, Bobby Earl,” Mary Beth warned.
But she didn’t say anything more about where they were going. She was just going to hold on and let Jesus take the wheel, even if her Savior had to wrestle control from her man. She closed her eyes and prayed for Bobby Earl’s soul, and for her Aunt Sally’s and for hers and that of sweet little Marcie Kay.
Beside her, Bobby Earl was sky high and wired to the core. He rolled down his window and howled into the Arkansas air: “I’m Pretty Boy Floyd, Goddamn it, I’m John Dillinger and me and my girl is the new Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I wish you wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” Mary Beth told the wildly exuberant boy. “It ain’t right.”
“Oh, hell, baby,” Bobby Earl declared, rolling up the car window and leaning back in the driver’s seat with a demented smile. “There’s just no stoppin’ me. I’m behind the wheel now, not your fairy boy Jesus. It’s hell to pay for Arizona and Goddamn good riddance to Arkansas.”
Bobby Earl rolled the window down again and stuck his face into the wind. Mary Beth closed her eyes and prayed.
“Woo-eee,” Bobby Earl squealed in delight. “I’m a free son-of-a-bitch. Cain’t nobody stop me now, ‘cept the devil himself and I’ll knock his ugly ass off if he tries. Right, baby?”
Mary Beth didn’t say a word. She kept looking down and praying, mostly hoping Bobby Earl would settle down, please Jesus. The boy looked over at her and laughed. The laugh, if she had been able to recognize it, was the laugh of a man leaning well over the narrow ledge between reality and fantasy, between reason and madness, between simple criminality and murder.
It was getting late in the day as the car sped down I-40, heading for the Oklahoma line. This was it for the young couple’s options. Bobby Earl had locked them into an uncertain, impulsive future. He was hell bent for the desert southwest. There was no turning back.
(photos: david j. thompson)
J. B. Hogan is an award-winning author with over two-hundred publications in such journals as Cynic Online Magazine, Istanbul Literary Review, Every Day Poets and Dead Mule. His work has been anthologized in Flash of Aphelion, The Best of Frontier Tales Volume 1, The Best of Everyday Poets Two and Tales from the South Volume 6. He was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize for his story “Kerosene Heat.” When not writing fiction and poetry, he is a local historian and bass player in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. His latest book, The Apostate, is available from Pen-L Press: http://pen-l.com/TheApostate.html More from J.B. Hogan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.