What follows is the complete short story that is the second installment of this short series I’m posting to Kindle Vella and Substack. It’s basically me procrastinating on the next draft of my third novel. A couple blogs back I posted the opening lines . . . but here’s the full deal. About a 15 minute read.jason
The short answer was it paid better than McDonalds. And she could smoke on the job. And the hours were better, though that one wasn’t as clear cut. But of course, like everything in Tina Broussard’s life, there was a long version of the story that a lot of people she met weren’t ready for. Or at least didn’t care enough to ask about.
Cecil’s Bar had a certain reputation, not just in town but in that little corner of Acadiana – north of I-10 and south of, say, Ville Platte. Within the bounds of that relatively small part of the Cajun Prairie, Cecil’s was well known as the place to get into a certain kind of trouble.
That said, in the six months she worked there, Tina had come to see it in the light of a neon bar sign that was probably more subtle than most people appreciated. It was a rough place, sure. And the bar had its own set of rules, a kind of unspoken outlow code. That was also true. But it was more than just a place for fights in the parking lot and a certain kind of female.
The fat dude who ran the joint, son of the original Cecil, was a guy that, when his daddy was still alive, had been known as “Lil C”, but now went by Teet-C. Supposedly that moniker had originally been an ironic thing, “teetsie” as in the fly. As in small. Which Teet-C definitely was not.
Tina guessed he had started dressing in the quasi hip hop style he now sported probably around the time he took the “lil’” out of his name. The way Teet-C talked, his old man sounded a lot like hers, one of those raw, hardcore country kind of men from the last generation. The type of dude that walked around in steel toed boots and a can of Skoal in his back pocket. Teet-C never really divulged anything, despite all the hints she dropped to get him to talk about it, but Tina’s theory was that when his old man finally died and left the bar to him, Cecil felt free to reinvent himself.
Which she could appreciate, because that’s exactly what she had done. Except in her case it was her mom’s passing that seemed to . . . . what? Liberate her? She wasn’t sure that was exactly the right word. It wasn’t like she had shined in the–what was it? Going on ten years–since Ms. Lola had been buried beneath an oak tree in the Mowata cemetery, about halfway between Eunice and Crowley. No, far from it. Actually, she’d done a pretty good job of digging herself into a hole . . . but she did have a plan to get free. As her old man would say, “it’s an idea . . . it may not be a good idea, but it’s an idea.”
If anyone had experience with bad ideas, it was her daddy. Every pair of the man’s jeans had that worn circle in the backpocket, just like she imagined Teet-C’s old man might’ve had. Except for Tina’s dad it wasn’t Skoal. He dipped Coppenhaggen, the strongest and nastiest of a generally nasty habit. Every time she thought of his disgusting habit she flashed to that moment when she was thirteen years old and took a swig of what she thought was a fresh can of Coke but that turned out to be . . .
Her stomach recoiled with the memory, but it was an old reflex and so she moved past it quickly, thinking about her dad in the present. With his record, he hadn’t been able to get on with any of the oil companies to work offshore. The guys who worked in the Gulf all looked and acted tough, but the truth was, these days at least, you had to pass a piss test and a background check–not to mention get all kinds of safety certificates and such–just to qualify for the lowest position on the boat or the rig. You didn’t have to be squeaky clean, but you damn sure couldn’t have the kind of past that Gene Broussard did.
So the guys like her daddy tended to work on the margins of the oil business, in what his generation called “the yard” without any sense of irony that Tina could tell, even though a good percentage of them had personal experience with the actual prison yard. In this case the yard just meant the company’s main site on land, not far from the Gulf. The government regulations weren’t so stringent on shore, and so a guy with a record could pick up work doing no-skill work.
The word campus flashed through her mind. Technically, you could call the yard a “campus”. She couldn’t imagine her old man calling it that. But the word got her thinking about her own campus experience, exactly one semester at LSU-Eunice. It was just long enough to realize how desperately she wanted to be in college, and just long enough for things to go all wrong.
The Broussards were already an odd bunch. Most families from South Louisiana were big and Catholic, but growing up, it was just Tina and her mom and dad. The subject of church or God only came up as a prefix to profanity, the Lord’s name only invoked under the carport when her dad bashed his hand turning a wrench or late at night, the sounds of passion coming through the thin walls of their trailer house.
But she had cousins. Lots of them. From Eunice to Basile and Elton to Sunset, Church Point and beyond, there were Broussards everywhere. As she got deeper into her teenage years, not long before her mom flew the coop, she began to suspect that all those people that shared her last name weren’t blood at all. But it was hard to tell. The way her daddy talked, she was related to something like ten pages of the St-Landry parish phone book. She had her doubts, but then again, at every little gas station or drive through bar they pulled up to in his old Chevy, the rough men behind the counter always seemed to know not just her dad, but little Tina too.
Despite the darker turn it eventually took, she had fond memories of cruising through pretty much every little town between Opelousas and Kinder with the windows down, classic rock blasting a little too loud from under the cracked dashboard of her dad’s old truck. In the summer when the sno-cone stands were out, he’d stop and get them each one–Rainbow for her, the blue and red bleeding to purple and showing up like make up on her lips, and Coconut for him, which he spiked with whatever clear liquor he had stashed under the seat.
Her mom worked at the Winn Dixie and her daddy fixed things for people whenever he got “laid off”, a euphemism for getting fired that Tina would use herself every time she walked away from a convenience store cashiers job or a sleepy diner she couldn’t stand anymore. He fixed cars, tractors, refrigerators, all kinds of stuff. “If it has a motor,” he would say, “your old man can fix it.” She had just got her learners permit when her mom and dad started fighting for real. She was already familiar with the phrase, but it wasn’t until she started witnessing it on a nightly basis that she fully grasped what a knock down, drag out fight really was. She’d go sit on the steps of the trailer with her iPod and listen to hard rock that an older boy on the highschool baseball team had downloaded for her, and inevitably one of them would burst out the trailer and peel out in the gravel, spraying rocks and insults that seemed to whiz by as if she wasn’t there. In those moments she just closed her eyes and tried to get lost in the music, somehow the fact that she didn’t know what she was listening to–every stolen song just showing up as “unknown artist” on the device–helped her to get lost in the music.
She already had an intuitive understanding of sex because her boobs had come in early and the boys at school, the teachers, and all her “cousins” at the drive through places she went to with her daddy had long since started looking at her in that certain kind of way. Of course she understood the mechanics of it, but she still wasn’t that interested in boys. It was the letter her mom left for, the way it hinted at the power she possessed, that started to change things for her. “They want what’s between your legs,” her mom had written in her farewell address, the crudeness of her words masked by the beauty of her perfect, looping penmanship. “Until they get it, and then everything changes.”
When it was clear that her mom wasn’t coming back, she laid the responsibility on her dad, challenging him with “I thought you said you could fix anything?” They’d been sitting on the steps of the trailer. He had just laughed, taking a long pull from a red and white can of Budweiser. “You’re right,” he said eventually. “But that woman’s got a motor I never did understand . . . just something about the way she’s wired.”
They had sat on the steps for a long time, just sitting in silence, crickets in the tall grass chirping away but the mosquitos not too bad yet. Long after she’d stopped expecting him to say anything else, he said “maybe one day you’ll be able to tell me how that woman ticks.” And when she looked up at him, still unsure of what he meant, he said “well, basically, you are her . . . partly, anyway.”
Things got better between them after her mom left. She was old enough to take care of herself and he was pretty much always gone. The trailer didn’t get any cleaner, but there was a little more space in it now, and she was free to spend her time as she pleased. In all that time alone after school and on weekends, she was surprised to discover that the thing she liked to do was read. In a kind of epiphany, she realized that she wasn’t dumb or disinterested in the world around her. It was just that her school assigned all the wrong books.
People hadn’t become smartphone zombies yet, and she didn’t like sitting at a computer, even if she’d had one, so she learned about the world through magazines. She would go to K&B drugs or to one of the big Walmarts with whoever was sniffing around that week and grab a stack of magazines–a wide mix of women’s stuff, popular culture, and even denser publications written for a totally different world–magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic–and the boy would pay.
If he hesitated to reach for his wallet, there were always a half dozen guys in line right behind them. She wouldn’t have anything to do with football players or total idiots, which often came as a two for one deal, but that was her only prejudice. She had one simple rule: their dicks had to stay in their pants. It was better if they had interesting things to say, but strictly speaking, that wasn’t a requirement. Beyond those limits, they were free to explore. And that pretty much kept them all coming back.
Tina learned to apply the lesson about her feminie power her mom had hinted at in her letter. But it went beyond that. All the teasing and dry humping was an education in its own right. She came to understand that sex was more complex that she had once understood. It was more than just a simple game of boys on offense and girls on defense. There was pleasure to be had. Escape. Release. And even further beyond that, in the deeper, emotional waters of relationships, there was the potential for real connection. For a powerful, natural kind of drug.
Reading was the gateway drug to writing, and by her seventeenth birthday she was a full blown addict, her nightly ritual of journaling by candlelight as consistent as her monthly cycle. The boys would buy her the nice ones with leather covers, an elastic band to keep it closed, and a thin ribbon to mark your place.
The first fifty pages or so were little more than a record of what she’d done that day, but it wasn’t long before she started talking to the journal, exploring feelings and ideas in a way that was more honest than anything she’d ever dream of telling another person. She hadn’t realized she needed someone to talk to until she started talking to her journals. But once she did, Tina wasn’t afraid to lean into it. Stacks of magazines, books, and journals in her bedroom grew like dirty dishes in the sink.
The writing helped not just in purging a lot of the negative shit swirling around in her brain. It also helped her understand. She came to see the ink that transferred from the tip of her ballpoint pen as a physical manifestation of her, like a snail leaving tracks in the world. Her penmanship took on an angular, assertive quality. Not loopy like her mom’s but still somehow femine and elegant.
She wrote about her physical encounters not because the boys were remarkable, but because of the intensity of her personal experience. There was a power and a complexity in it that she wanted to understand better. And even though she didn’t gain any immediate kind of clarity, she understood intuitively that exploring her feelings and insights on paper in this way would, if she kept going, offer the potential for some profound insight. There was something potentially magical here. Whatever might come of it, she always felt better afterwards.
It was in this spirit of exploration that went to her daddy’s bathroom for a razor blade used it to slice off a tiny section of a tab of acid a guy with good cheekbones had given her. She had worked her magic to avoid ingesting it with him, and later that night as she laid in bed with the lights low and her earbuds in, she was happy she did.
On a couple of occasions she had smoked the last little bit of a roach someone had left behind and tried to write, but she found she couldn’t concentrate. Which was frustrating, because she already had the sense that there was something deeper, some bonus level of feeling and sensation just beyond the realm of normal senses. The weed brought her closer to that door, but prevented her from going through it. But the acid was different.
She wrote at a languid pace for what seemed like hours, and when she looked at it the next day, it was like a foreign thing. Not only did she barely make sense on the page, but the shape of her writing was different. Totally different, like she was another person.
Two days later, a couple hours before her high school graduation, she swallowed the rest of the tab and watched, horrified, as the ceremony unfolded like a ritual sacrifice in front of her. The flaccid neck-skin of the principal warbled back and forth like a turkey as he spoke gibberish to the crowd. Everyone on the stage was still in their gowns, but their energy pulsed underneath the surface. Tina barely made it out of there.
A week later her daddy returned a day late for a two week hitch he had supposedly done around Orange, Texas. She was secretly upset that he’d missed her graduation, even though she was totally nonchalant about it, of course . . . but any irritation she felt washed away when she came to realize that the little beat up Toyota Corolla he drove up in was hers.
She knew he couldn’t afford it, but she didn’t care. She would need a way to get back and forth to LSU-Eunice once the fall semester started at the end of the summer. And anyway, in her mind she had earned that car. All the shit she’d had to put up with when most of the other kids at school were worrying about silly teenage problems . . .
After he took a long time showing her the different parts of the weak but nice little Jap engine, her dad told her to hop in and take him to Cecil’s bar so he could pick up his truck. He might’ve been a little drunk, and she was more than excited, so when he suggested they go in for a drink, her only objection was that she was underage.
Which, in other jurisdictions, might’ve been a big deal. But this was South Louisiana. And this was Cecil’s Bar, her daddy said. “Besides, you’re with me,” he said. So they went in and the very first person she saw through the cloud of smoke was a porky dude in a hooded sweatshirt, eyeballing her.
It turned out that her dad had taken a loan from Teet C to buy the car. That turned out to be his first mistake. His second one was bringing Tina into Cecil’s Bar that afternoon.