Word got around that Sam had wooden teeth. The retainer certainly looked wooden after half a life of hanging from her puffy gums. Folks who saw her flash an open-mouthed smile would later swear her left incisor bore a swirled knot. The teeth happened when a well-mannered boy Sam rode horses with for years didn’t touch her back. They were brushing the animals when Sam, emboldened, touched the boy’s hand. It wasn’t an accidental touch, and when the boy failed to respond, Sam’s blood boiled and her heart quickened and her brushstroke fiercened. The horse whipped its tail and rolled its eyes, wild and white, Sam slapped the unsettled beast with the brush. It kicked her.
The horse crumpled Sam against the stable wall. When her gums, lips, sockets, and jaws finally healed, bills burdened the family. Sam never got new teeth. She relied on a partial retainer that held two aging, discolored fillers for the dark holes in her mouth. Dinner with the Johnsons: Mr. Johnson showed off his big tv. A movie star’s eyes sparkled. Her skin was perfect, just right, and the things she said floated like perfume.
Sam practiced speaking when the house was empty. when the brothers and Diddy went to the market or to Birmingham for work. Sam practiced inflection and nuance in lines from that picture. Then she rehearsed everyday language, from “pass the peas” to “Where did Diddy park the tractor?” Diddy asked her to lead prayer on holidays or when he’d sworn off drink. Sometimes after she came to bed, Rob would call out across the dark bedroom for her to say something. She’d recite in a sleepy voice, and after her words had settled into night, he would say, “The world’s gone do you right, Sissy.” She knew change would favor her.
Pizza Hut hired her although she needed a stool to work the top oven. Greg, the lanky assistant manager, gave her rides to and from work in a car with more gears than cylinders. She saved but gave Diddy bill money, and usually, she took food home. She planned to one day move to Birmingham . There she’d meet a mogul–a word Greg impressed her with–and he’d make her famous. Diddy and the boys would watch her on Mr. Johnson’s tv.
She was soon elevated to assistant kitchen manager. She was fast in the dish pit, and she did little things, like dry-mopping to prevent injuries. On bathroom break, Sam would recite the “Preventing Workplace Injuries” list taped to the mirror until the words rang foreign. She’d ride home with Greg, a box of breadsticks in her lap, her black pants dotted with dough, splashed with processed tomatoes, stale in the afternoon sun. They rode with the windows down.
“So I hear you like movies,” said Greg. He waited. She nodded, not so much in response but more, perhaps, to a private reverie. The engine whined, and the car’s thin doors quaked. Faster cars swept past. “Soo,” said Greg, “What is your favorite movie?” Another car, then silence save the four cylinders doing their best. “On television or in theaters,” added Greg.
“I like the tv movies,” she said. She paused, then said something, perhaps, for which she’d one day be known, once the tide of fame had swept her away. “That dog will hunt,” she said.
Moments slipped by like the dotted yellow line. Greg nodded slowly.
“We’d have been in trouble today if you hadn’t caught up and proofed that dough.”
Pines loomed on either side of the road. “We got slammed.”
“I can kill a warshing,” she said.
“The best we got.”
“That dog’ll hunt,” Sam repeated.
The square little car shimmied along.
Alabama’s wet August heat. nNeighbors who came for eggs caught Sam’s performance, and they all spoke honey. Summer slugged on. One day, Greg told her of the grand opening of Italian Shaved Ice, a yellow trailer that caged employees inside, with sliding windows, a churning ice machine, and decorated with rows of colorful bottles. . Signs dotted the side of the road. There will be a news van, said Greg. “We’ll stop on the way home, but we gotta hurry. It might rain. Finally.”
The 12-inch iron pan dropped from Sam’s fingers and clanged in the steel sink. Sam stood still, her mouth open, exposing temporary teeth gone permanent. Today, something would happen. A cameraman on break, smoking, would notice her. She imagined the customer line that snaked to Italian Shaved Ice instead snaked toward her.
Greg’s hot car: “Hello,” said Sam to the rear-view mirror. “My name is Samantha Anne from Birmingham.” She continued with a rather melodic phrase about orchids in a tall vase. Greg
whipped his door open and plopped into the seat.
“Were you talking to the mirror?” he asked, turning the ignition. Sam didn’t reply. “That was you. You have a good voice.” Greg glanced at the sky and pulled into traffic. “Really good,” he said. Chuckling, he added, “That dog’ll hunt,” but it sounded wrong. Samantha smiled anyway. Greg readjusted the mirror; smiled back.
Sam’s body over-filled the seat; Greg’s bony fist gently knuckled her thigh every time he shifted to fifth gear. Sometimes his hand rested on the gear shift longer. She liked those times.
“Here we go,” said Greg. They pulled off between the bank and Tropic Tan into a brightly painted space. Toy-colored flags flapped over the brand-new parking lot. The air shimmered; cicadas buzzed from the tree. The sky boiled, darkened. People stood in a line over 100-feet long on brand new, heat-radiating asphalt. Two men in yellow hats and shirts flitted around inside the yellow trailer, working the register and flavoring ice.
A blood-red Action 2 News van topped with a satellite dish had parked beside the trailer.
In line, baggy-clothed teens smoked cigarettes while elderly women, shaded by umbrellas or hats, flipped funeral home fans and clucked. Squawking children orbited sandaled adults, who gossiped and ignored them except to administer warnings or slaps. A door opened on the news van.
A blonde woman in an office-grey pantsuit edged out and held a palm to the clouded sky, then spoke sharply into the vehicle. The passenger door swung open and a long leg emerged, then another, bothbelonged to a man nearly seven feet tall. He wore a cornflower-blue polo. His stained khakis looked too big for his frame. He lumbered to the rear of the van and pulled out and shouldered a black camera.
The reporter in the pantsuit wore a blonde bouffant of hair. She peered at it in a small mirror and tended minor imperfections, then pocketed the mirror. “Ok,” she said, “We start right here,” and she motioned toa pair of elderly women in shorts. Their legs looked brittle. They giggled and joined her, and the big cameraman turned his instrument on them.
Sam’s jaw worked with jealousy. As the reporter interviewed them, people hopped into the shot, mugging and waving in ridiculous attempts to outdo one another. Next, the reporter motioned for a man in a striped tank top. The man danced some ancient step instead of approaching normally. Sam’s palms itched. Her tongue kept clicking the retainer teeth in their sockets. The reporter interviewed a short man in a cowboy hat. Then she hovered over a wiry, buzz-cut little boy who stood on the gooey, hot pavement without shoes.
“Why are you waiting in this big, hot line?” The reporter offered the little boy the mic.
A long moment. The boy squinted and smiled. Sweat stained the cameraman’s shirt under the arms. “We don’t usually get no shaved ice,” the boy said. He scratched, waved at gnats, pointed at the cameraman. “You’re hot. Don’t you want to cool down?” The cameraman laughed, deep and throaty. He said that they would use that. The pantsuit reporter agreed that yes, they would.
Pantsuit reporter saw them then, Sam and Greg, and the gears of the world slowed. Sam’s stomach twisted. The reporter’s face was gentle creases edging blue eyes. The woman motioned to them, and Greg pulled her forward. Hands trembling, knees wobbling, Sam focused on each step. Pantsuit reporter shook hands with Greg and glanced at Sam’s shoes and wrinkled her nose like she smelled something bad. Then she spoke to Greg, and Sam heard through heartbeats and cotton-filled ears. Greg answered smoothly and sounded smart. He expressed calm approval of Italian Shaved Ice. Then the camera turned. Thoughts flew past Sam like birds on a tailwind. Sam stared into the lens. In the deep, curving reflection, something looked back. She saw herself and a dark, cloud-ruffled sky. She saw her eyes glitter. A breeze lifted. Indeed, the moment had been made perfect. The reporter held the mic toward her.
“Alright, sweetie,” she said, “whatcha got for me?”
Sam’s dry mouth opened, and she croaked. Her panicked look at the reporter said,
Come back to me, but pantsuit reporter pushed the mic closer. Sam saw the sneer lifting the woman’s lips. She again stared deeply into the lens. It was like looking into the black eye of a crow, and inside that eye, more eyes were born. “I like ice cream,” said Sam. Her voice twanged. She’d said it too slowly. She cleared her throat. “I like ice cream.” Sam gazed into the black glass eye. Greg hooked his arm inside of her meaty elbow. He stepped between her and the camera and pulled her away. Moments passed while the cameraman tracked. Sam twisted and leaned so that her head popped out from behind Greg’s slender back, and she hollered, “That dog’ll hunt!”
“Attagirl,” said pantsuit reporter. Sam saw the cameraman’s thumbs up and saw his torso spasm. And the people in line laughed at her. Then sparse pearls of cold rain splattered them all.
The line dissolved into individuals seeking shelter. The news team dashed to the van. Greg led Sam away. At the car, he opened her door.
The sky dropped the water it had been withholding. Greg drove with his face close to the windshield. He drove slowly. Sam held the pizza box and stared into the gauzy windshield and soaked up what had happened. Engine and hard rain and nothing else.
By the time Greg stopped in front of her swampy driveway, the rain had quit. They did not speak as she got out and stood roadside. He yanked the car into gear, beeped weakly, and drove on. Steam rose around her. Her chest heaved. She tossed the pizza box. It smacked on the blacktop. She stepped in the road and walked toward town. She walked fast. She lived 6 miles out. The scenario repeated with each step. She would do better. My name is Sam, she might begin. Samantha.
She padded along the road. When traffic approached, she edged into the grass—this soaked her shoes. Her feet hurt. Critters chirped and whined. Somewhere, water trickled. She walked on and watched the clearing sky as her mind cycled. Shadow spilled from deep in the woods and grew to ink the land. Then, the sky worked through blue on its way to black. A distant diesel engine fluttered. Sam heard the highway sweep of cars. Lights on the horizon looked small, like twin stars. When she reached the main highway, she trudged into the shoulder while two lanes of cars whizzed past. Pebbles crunched under her steps. Her feet had blisters, and some had burst. Drivers honked. Someone yelled, “Hey, baby!” and threw a fast-food cup at her. Dopplered laughter trailed the car like monoxide.
Samantha topped a small hill, and the lights of a bar and the gas station beside it blinked into view. Her short legs had gone rubbery, her clothes steamed, and her feet were raw. She hobbled on, eyes fixed on lights so that as she approached, they separated into green gas station, blinking bar lights, and finally a single parking lot security light. Vehicles clarified. She discerned cars, trucks, vans, then colors and models.
Atop a red van perched a satellite dish. They’d waited out the deluge, interviewed a few more customers, then stopped to eat on the way out.
Her limp worsened, but she accelerated. Shy of stepping from shadow, she ducked in front of a shiny F-250 parked on the light edge so that she could slip down its side unseen. She stopped, reached down, then picked up and wielded aloft a forearm-length pipe. She smashed air with it once, twice, then moved along the dark edge. Compensating with her tired body, she transformed limp into hop and humped low through the spaces between cars. She locomoted on in a pained rhythm, quickened by something else. The security light buzzed, muffled music
trickled from the bar, then voices over music, wanting to be heard in that place.
Later, a tipsy bystander would report that a figure wielding a pipe, gorilla-dashed toward the news van, circled, then opened a door and with some agility slid in and closed it with no sound.
Later, pantsuit reporter and the big cameraman crossed the lot with settled voices and waddled to the vehicle on full bellies. The big cameraman barely folded himself in and shut the door before the van creeped from the lot and sped north. It traveled the pine-flanked road a bit when from the van escaped a fleshy thwack and a muted cry, then another thwack, and another. The vehicle jerked toward the shoulder then swerved into the fast lane, accelerated, wheeled again across the slow lane, locked brakes and ploughed past the shoulder. It spat grassy clumps behind it, and a tire blew like a gunshot. The van flipped into the ditch. The second flip ripped the satellite dish off.
The ditch yawned below highway lights, so no passersby saw the capsized van. Maybe none looked, or maybe someone saw but thought it a monument of sorts and drove on. Slow creaks, drips, and hisses escaped the van. It shuddered. One bang, two. A rear door wrenched open. Moments passed. A squat figure emerged from the metal cavity. It grunted along, lugging something bulky, slipping twice in muck. In this way, it labored from the ditch. It paused for a car, then broke for the pines and finally collapsed there. After a few minutes, it rose and carried its load deeper into the trees.
Sam appeared on the edge of a starlit melon field. She paused and set the thing on a post. She stood, patted her hair and her collar, then spoke at the thing. At first, her voice sounded insectile, then nasally, wet. Her swollen, broken nose had damaged the song of her voice. She placed the camera on her thick shoulder. She willed herself on through the whispering, ankle-touching vines. The field gave away to an equipment shed, which she hobbled past in favor of a two-story white house.
On the second floor of the white house, a girl slid her window open and clambered down the ivy trellis. The girl reached the ground just as Sam stepped into the yellow security light. The girl brushed bugs and debris off her white shirt and overalls. Sam shuffled towards her.
A chunk of Sam’s hair was missing in front. She’d lost her retainer teeth but smiled anyway. In that yellow light, observed by frightened eyes, smeared in mud and blood, with a storm-bruised face, a swollen, purpled nose, and a jagged cut from temple to jaw, Sam lifted the camera and offered it to the girl. Anyone looking down from a window would have retrieved the squirrel gun. The girl moved her lips but made no sound. She turned one way and then the other before her legs rallied and she rocketed around the corner of the house. Sam held the camera for several minutes, offering it to nothing. To no one. A lump in her throat formed and throbbed more than her nose. It hurt deeper than the cut on her face. It panged more than the bruises and her foot. It was worse than the thing wrong with her leg and would stay with her longer than the kick to the face. She turned and looked out toward the field she’d crossed. Melon vines whispered, but none of them to her. The stars had left, and a lumpy, copper moon hung low in the trees. She dropped the camera, blinded in a jaundiced pool of light. Samantha stood there, blinking.
Luke McFarland attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches high school in Georgia, not too far from Flannery’s home. “Glitter Eyes” is his first published story. It is part of his larger project of re-imagining Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
© Variant Literature Inc 2023