A Southern Ballad by Drew McCoy
They walked hand in hand through the furrows of the immense cornfield, and the sun shone bright upon them, beating down on their necks and backs. They walked in silence save the noise of their feet squishing in the sodden dirt. The wind blew lightly out of the west and it coaxed the tops of the cornstalks to bend slightly in its wake. Bees and flies buzzed their heads and he swatted at them in turn, keeping them out of his line of sight and away from her face. She smiled and laughed watching him. As they neared the end of the field a flock of black birds rose from the stand of trees that awaited them just on the outskirts of the cornfield. The birds flew overhead, cawing back and forth. They flew in a wingless flight, diving and then rising again effortlessly in one massive group then they disappeared into the tall grass.
They pressed on through the small thicket of trees and the forest floor was blanketed with dried leaves and sticks and their footsteps could be heard from several feet away because of it, he stopped moving, and turned to her and put his finger over her lips as if the world might hear them coming. They walked quieter.
It was the curse of a forbidden love, having to sneak away from their friends and families just so they could share their intimate moments on the stripped out railroad tracks that divided the two counties. It was not only a spot that held a special meaning to them but it was also a spot Mason was sure nobody would ever find them.
They sat on the railroad ties and draped their arms over one another.
What are you thinking? Alejandra said, her voice soft in the wind.
Mason shrugged and turned to her, his hair fell in front of his eyes and she brushed it away with the back of her hand.
You, he said.
I love you, she said. You know that right?
The heat shimmered above the railroad tracks and he waved his hand through it then he rose and stood. He was tall and thin, his skin pale in comparison to hers.
Alejandra pulled her knees into her chest and her feet were bare and streaked with dirt and sweat. She watched him as he stood with his back to her. She angled her head and stared up at the sky. The white cumulous clouds moved across it to the east.
He turned around and stared down at her.
She held his gaze for a moment before she broke away and looked down the tracks. He smiled watching her and he tried to imagine what she was thinking then he closed his eyes remembering the first day they kissed.
It was seven months ago and they were walking these very tracks, he was walking in the center of the them while she was walking up on one of the ties, her arms out for balance and he reached for her, grabbed her hand because he didn’t want her to fall. They stopped walking at an old rusted out tractor that bordered the tracks as if it had just died there, never to run again. He picked her up by the waist and hoisted her onto the tractor then he climbed up it from the side, using the back tire and wheel well as a step. The sun was beginning to descend below the horizon and before he kissed her, she watched the sun fall away before closing her eyes.
Mason opened his eyes and studied her.
I wish we could stay here forever, she said, blinking away the glare from the sun.
He moved towards her.
We could, he said, and then he reached down for her hand and pulled her up from the railroad tie. Not here though. I want to take you away from here, he said.
He twisted strands of her black hair around his finger then he wrapped his arms around her back and hugged her tight. He nestled his head in the space just below her neck, her black hair spilled over his face.
He breathed her smell.
They started back up the tracks towards the old tractor and they walked right past it, both of them smiling at each other, thinking the same thing. They walked for two more miles then they cut through a small field of broomgrass until they reached the dirt packed road that would lead them to the river, its water murky and brown this time of year.
They would come here often for the calmness of the water. The steady current bringing with it tranquility, and when the summer sun would hang motionless over the fields and trees the river brought a moment of escape; its cool water was always there, waiting.
Alejandra rolled her shorts further up her legs and waded into the cool water. He watched her from the sandy bank, his arms folded across his chest. She splashed in the water and laughed and smiled then she dipped her face in it and walked out. The hair along her forehead was damp and it stuck to her skin, he peeled the strands away, pushed them off her forehead.
She sat down and buried her feet in the sand and it was cool and damp and she could feel the grains gathering between her toes. A lone hawk circled in slow revolutions overhead, its cry echoing back down to earth like that of breaking glass.
She watched him throw pieces of tree bark and sticks into the river. The water carried them away and she thought each time he tossed a stick into the river it was like throwing a piece of them into it too. Because she couldn’t love him anymore than she did.
He lowered himself next to her and rubbed his hand up and along her bare leg. He loved how the water on her skin glistened in the sun, her brown skin appearing darker.
My daddy doesn’t like us being together, she said.
He stared at her, his right hand inching further up her thigh.
Well I don’t care much for your daddy.
She turned away.
He doesn’t think we should be together.
Nobody does, he said.
He thinks you’re using me, she said, then turned back around and flared her brown eyes.
He shook his head in confusion.
Because I’m Mexican, she said.
That doesn’t make sense.
He thinks you’ll leave me.
I wouldn’t do that.
It’s because I look different than the other girls, she said. That’s why he thinks you’re with me. Then he thinks once I’ve fallen for you you’ll just pick up and leave.
But I won’t.
He lay back on the perpetually damp sand and he watched the clouds pass across the cobalt blue sky. Some formations he told her looked like people running or faces of past presidents. She laid her head back next to his and draped her arm over his chest and snuggled her head over his heart and they fell asleep like that.
Mason’s truck was red and old and she always forgot the make and year of it, only remembered that it was built before she was born. She knew he was the kind of boy who had a special relationship with his truck too, it was the way he walked around the front of it, his fingers gliding over the red hood and how when he leaned against it, it was like he wasn’t leaning against it at all, his eyes and face telling the rest of the story.
Later that night they sat on the tailgate of his red pickup truck. A brown paper bag sat between them, it was wet with condensation from the cold beers warming on the floor of the truck all day, the bottom of the bag ready to collapse. Her beer was warm now, from not drinking it fast enough and she made a face like it was bitter each time she sipped from it, but she enjoyed the feeling it gave her too much to pour it out. The flickering stars above them illuminated the field across the dirt road and in the moonlight they could make the bales of hay scattered about the field like fallen pieces of rock.
He turned his head and stared at her. She stared back holding his gaze.
Do you remember? he said and smiled.
She cupped the can of beer between her hands and told him yes, she remembered.
And this was how there first time had happened; it was a night like this and after her fourth warm beer he had scooted himself closer to her so there shoulders were touching and then he ran his hand through her hair and twisted several strands around his index finger. He massaged the back of her neck with his right hand while his left hand slowly crept up her leg, and when it was inches from her center, he leaned in closer—the warm beer on his lips and breath—and whispered how beautiful she looked under the stars, and even though she was fourteen she knew it was just a line, but nobody had ever said what he’d just said to her, so she closed her eyes and nodded slightly.
The night around them was still save the gentle breeze blowing out of the west.
He gently leaned her backwards, eased her head so that it rested on a couple of tarpaulins he had used the week before to cover the wood he had cut on his grandfathers farm. They smelt of must and cedar wood chips and she breathed in the smell through her nose and then exhaled. Then she breathed through her mouth, heavy, like a slow moan and it turned him on, her breathing like that, made it sound like she was enjoying it. She could feel him pressing up against the inside of her thigh.
It was over before she knew it and it didn’t hurt like her father and mother had told her it would, and the fact that it didn’t hurt scared her. They would lay quiet in the bed of his red pickup for a long moment before he rolled over onto his right side and looked at her, her long black hair pooled around her shoulders and neck.
Are you okay? he had asked.
She closed her eyes and opened them and stared up at the massive black sky looming above them. Yes, I’m okay. Are you?
They laid in silence for a moment and stared at the stars and moon and the few strings of clouds that slowly shuttled across the night sky.
Was it okay, he said, his voice low.
She nodded and brushed away the loose pieces of woodchips that flaked her hair.
It was perfect, she said, and she believed it too. Was it okay for you?
A smile had formed on his lips and he nodded yes then he shifted his weight onto his other shoulder. He kissed her and she kissed him back and his lips tasted of beer and sweat. The crickets were loud now in all directions it seemed, and the wind blew, shuttling cool air over their warm skin and the tall grass shifted in the wind and the summer air smelt like rain.
Can you believe it’s almost been a year? she said.
He took a long drink from the can of beer and set it between his legs. It went by too fast.
You still want to take me away from here?
He dropped her off a half mile from her house because her father would hear the diesel engine of the truck if he drove any closer. He kissed her goodbye and she waved to him as she crossed the field next to her house, the glow from the moon guiding her home. She snuck back into her house through the cellar door—she had chocked it open with one of her father’s empty tobacco cans as she snuck out—then she quietly tip toed up the stairs, skipping the second stair because it always squeaked under her weight. She held her breath as she passed through the kitchen, listening for her father or her brother, their heavy footsteps echoing through the house, the weight of their presence moaning through the floorboards, but the house was quiet and calm. She could still hear the crickets and frogs through the open windows of the house and she imagined them all circled around the pond in the back of her house croaking back and forth at one another.
She lay on her bed with her eyes open and she stared up at her ceiling and the ceiling fan pushed down the warm moist air and the box fan in the corner of the room hummed loudly, washing out the sounds of the night. She missed Mason already. They had talked about leaving once before, packing up their stuff in the back of his red truck and they wouldn’t need much really they had decided, just a sleeping bag, a couple changes of clothes, a few dollars, and the rest they would leave up to fate. Destiny she had said then. He had just said he would leave it up to whomever, just as long they were together.
But her father, he would track them down and bring her back to all this. It was the red truck; her father would surely find it, because he always did, because Mason was gradually pulling her away from them, away from her family.
The first time her father found the red truck was by the railroad tracks that passed by the old distilleries, the warehouses just dark empty spaces now and the smell of bourbon still clung in the air if the wind blew in the right direction. She was sitting in the passenger seat of his truck with her bare feet propped up on the doorframe and side mirror and he was leaning against the hood of the truck, his elbows cocked wide watching her through the glass windshield. First they saw the dust plumes rise above the stand of trees and hover in the air like some apparition then they heard her father’s car next, the engine screaming as her father drove hard down the narrow country road and several minutes later her father was standing in front of Mason, toe to toe. But her father would never do that again though, not now, not after that day, because Alejandra had stepped between the two men she loved and with her right hand raised she smacked her father hard across the cheek and mouth and the blood from that day was still crusted around the front headlights of her father’s car, as a reminder maybe of what would happen if he tried to interfere again with her life. She feared her father now more than ever though, because he started carrying a shotgun in the backseat of his car and he told her he wasn’t afraid to use it either.
She arose to find the morning sun seeping through her window, washing her bed in the warmth of it and she rolled over onto her back and opened her eyes. Her mother was sitting on the foot of her bed; hands on her thighs, legs crossed.
You were out late, her mother said; she wrung her hands in her lap.
Alejandra pushed the thin bed sheet off her legs and sat up.
Your father wouldn’t approve, her mother whispered as if her husband, the girl’s father, was at the door listening.
I don’t care about him, Alejandra said back.
Her mother pulled at a thread on her blouse that wasn’t there. Her head was down; she looked up at her daughter with just her eyes.
Don’t talk about your father like that, her mother said. He loves you very much.
Alejandra rolled her eyes. He doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t want to see you get hurt.
Mason won’t hurt me.
You love him?
Alejandra smiled wide. Yes I do.
Her mother sat silently for a moment and her face and eyes were harried.
What? Alejandra asked.
Your father. Did you see him last night?
Alejandra shook her head no.
Her mother stood up from the bed and leaned over Alejandra, tucking her black hair behind her ears, then she kissed her daughter on the forehead before turning for the door.
Do you think something happened to him, Alejandra said. About her father.
I love you, her mother said in the only voice she knew.
Mason was waiting for her by the old distillery. The railroad tracks were the only barrier between them now. The morning sun shone bright on the red truck and the red paint glowed as if it were new. She walked through the tall weeds leaving trampled grass in her wake and she crossed over the railroad tracks and climbed up the small incline.
She stood in front of him and smiled.
Good morning, he said then reached out for her, his touch gentle, soft.
He grabbed her high above the elbows and brought her into his chest and tucked her chin under his, she smelt of lavender and summer flowers.
I missed you, she said.
Look in the back of the truck, he said, hooking his chin towards it.
She came around the side of the truck, her hand trailing behind her, her fingers dancing on the paneling and then she lowered the tailgate. She stared at the sleeping bag and then at what she thought looked liked red paint that had rusted and bubbled in the rain and sun then she turned to him wearily, fearing that it wasn’t red paint at all, that it was something more malicious.
You were serious? she said.
He nodded yes and told her there was food and water in a cooler on the front seat and an envelope of money tucked away in the glove compartment.
Where did you get the money?
He looked off to the field behind the truck; it was dotted with bales of hay that had his fingerprints all over them. His sweat and blood.
She followed his eyes over to the field and the bales of hay were imbued in a soft golden light from the morning sun as it crested the tree- lined horizon and hung in the sky as if signaling their departure. She turned back to Mason but her eyes caught something in the back window of the truck that made her heart and stomach flutter. She walked towards it with hope that it wasn’t true, but as she grew nearer, there in the back window of the truck in the gun rack laid her father’s shotgun. She turned back to Mason but she was without words. She just stared at him.
Your daddy won’t be bothering us no more, he said.
She looked back at the shotgun, the sun glinting off the metal, and nodded as if she understood the meaning of seeing her father’s twelve-gauge in Mason’s truck like it was his own.
They stood in silence save a lone a whippoorwill cawing from the thicket of trees near the field.
Are you ready? he asked, finally
Where will we go?
He tongued out his bottom lip and narrowed his eyes.
Away from here.
I would like that, she said.
He steered the truck onto the dirt road with his left hand and his right hand was cupped around hers and the gravel danced all around them. He had rolled the volume up on the radio and with the windows cranked down they were as free as they would ever be and they drove with no where to go and the dust billowing in their wake was the only thing they left behind.