Fandom: Sling Blade
Length: ~ 8,350 words
Warnings: Homophobia, domestic violence (mostly implied), redneck asshattery and occasional cursing
Prompt: 20) Some knowledge and some song and some beauty must be kept for those days before the world again plunges into darkness. -- Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999), American author of fantasy novels, short stories and anthologies, poet, composer, editor and co-founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Summary: In a small Arkansas town less than an hour's drive from Little Rock, Linda Wheatley lives a life of quiet desperation. If not for her son, her best friend and, eventually, an odd man named Karl, she wouldn't have much to hold onto.
Author's Notes: The film SLING BLADE was released in 1996 but I didn't see it until August of this year. Linda is the only significant female character, and this is my vision of her story, both before and during the action of the film. Once Karl enters the story, occasional bits of dialogue are taken directly from the script, which I found online. Copyright 1996, Miramax Films and The Shooting Gallery. No copyright infringement is intended (but all grammatical errors in dialogue are intentional). Many thanks to my beta, miss_bowtruckle.
Something to Hold Onto
A long time ago, Linda Wheatley was a fairly happy person.
Sure, she lived in a boring little town called Millsburg, in Arkansas. Never managed to get past high school. But she had a loving husband, Curtis, and a beautiful young son, Frank. Linda, Curtis and Frank lived in a decent house. Not fancy by big city standards; in Little Rock or Hot Springs it might be considered kind of run down. But they had electricity and running water, an indoor bathroom, a stove and an ice box that never broke down. They had two separate bedrooms, so Frank didn't have to sleep on a cot in her and Curtis's room, or on the hide-a-bed in the front room. There was a nice front porch where Linda and Curtis liked to sit after dinner while they listened to the crickets and Frank played in the front yard.
It was a good life, until Curtis lost his job.
Frank was just barely eight and in the third grade. Curtis drove around for miles at a time, for weeks on end, looking for work. When he couldn't find anyone who would hire him, it just about killed him. His unemployment checks ran out quickly and he couldn't stand taking charity. Linda had been working part-time at the dollar store for a whole year, but her salary alone wasn't enough to make ends meet.
Curtis said he didn't feel like a man any more. He couldn't sleep and Linda urged him to get sleeping pills. She should have locked up his gun right then, but she didn't. She wished she had when she found him behind the garage. He'd taken all the sleeping pills first, then shot himself, just to make sure he died. Didn't shoot too clean either; he would've been a vegetable, as the saying goes, without the pills, so maybe that was a blessing.
At that moment, she was happy for any blessing... and she had exactly two: Her job at the dollar store, and Frank.
Frank grieved a lot, of course. He was only eight, and he missed his daddy something fierce. Linda didn't have much time to grieve. They buried Curtis on Friday, and Linda went to work full-time at the dollar store on Monday.
“Thank God for Vaughan,” she told Frank as they waited for the school bus that morning.
“Mama, are we gonna be okay?” Frank asked, clinging to her hand as the yellow bus pulled up on the road in front of their house.
“I don't know, Frankie, I hope so. Vaughan's gonna help us as much as he can.” Linda's mama and daddy had died in a car crash when Frank was only two, and she knew Curtis' family wouldn't help out; they'd stopped talking to him shortly after he and Linda got engaged, when they were both nineteen. So Vaughan Cunningham was about the only person Linda could count on.
Vaughan was the manager at Ben’s Dollar Store, and he had already promoted Linda to head cashier. He was doing about as much for her as a friend could, other than marrying her, and that wasn't going to happen. If Vaughan was going to marry anybody it would be some other homosexual man, and that wasn't going to happen either, not in Arkansas anyway and maybe not ever unless those two ran off to Europe or somewhere else that let homosexuals get married. Linda didn't really know. She only cared that Vaughan was her friend, and a darn good one too, and that Vaughan understood her love of pretty things.
“Those earrings are really cute, don't you think?” Vaughan said to Linda one day, about two months after Curtis lost his job.
Linda saw where he was looking and picked up the earrings. They were silvery hoop earrings with a little silver heart dangling at the bottom. She shrugged at Vaughan. “I guess so.” They really were cute, but she didn't feel like she could splurge on anything right then, not even stuff from the dollar store.
“Well, I'm going to have Melinda mark them down.” Melinda was kind of slow, but she was very nice, and she was good at putting price stickers on the merchandise. “So if you want them, I'll have her put them aside for you after she marks them down.”
Linda knew Vaughan was being nice because Curtis was out of work. “Thanks, Vaughan.” She was pinching pennies, but even a penny-pincher could spend half a dollar now and then on cute earrings. And she needed something to cheer herself up. She was glad Vaughan knew her so well.
After Curtis killed himself, Vaughan said that Linda ought to get some therapy to help her deal with it. Linda insisted that she didn't need therapy; she needed to keep working, and maybe have a few pretty things to keep her spirits up. She didn't have money to go to a regular doctor more than a couple times a year, between herself and Frank; how'd she ever have money to see some psychiatrist? Besides, she'd have to go to Little Rock or Hot Springs or maybe even Memphis to find a head doctor, and she didn't need that. She loved Curtis and missed him, but he made his own bed, as the saying goes, and life had to go on.
She had to go on, because Frank needed his mama.
So life went on, and Linda stayed on at the dollar store. Vaughan was still as queer as a three dollar bill, but Linda didn't care because whatever he and his boyfriend – whoever it was at the time -- did when they were alone was none of her business. Linda was strictly a “live and let live” kind of person. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” the Bible said, and she'd always tried to live by that. What mattered about Vaughan was that he was a good friend as well as a good manager. Besides being as reliable as a grandfather clock, he also had wonderful taste in just about everything. She could always count on him to point her to the nicest things that came into the dollar store and anywhere else in town.
“We got a case of that Sunset Pink nail polish you like; want me to put a couple bottles in the back room for you?” Vaughan knew how much Linda loved to paint her nails, especially her toenails.
“No need for that, Vaughan,” Linda called down from atop the ladder, where she'd been hanging HAPPY BIRTHDAY in cutout letters over the birthday party supplies.
Vaughan grinned that sly grin of his. “You'll be sorry when we sell out. You know how popular this color is.”
“We won't sell out for at least a month. But thanks. You can set one aside for me.”
Vaughan put one palm on his cheek. “You pay attention to that sort of thing, Linda. You have a good eye for how much we have in stock and when we should reorder.”
By now Linda was back on the floor, looking up and checking to make sure the HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign wasn't crooked. “I have a nine-year-old boy. I have to keep my eye on a lot of things,” she laughed.
When she left the dollar store that evening, Linda went home with a new bottle of Sunset Pink nail polish. Once she'd fed Frank and got him to bed, she pulled off her shoes and gave herself a manicure and a pedicure. Then she put her feet up on the coffee table and watched Melrose Place. It was just what she needed, a wonderful evening of pampering and mindless entertainment: pretty toenails and pretty people on the television screen.
Sometimes that was all she had to hang onto.
* * * * *
By the time Frank was ten, Linda had been promoted to assistant manager at the dollar store. Vaughan was still as queer as ever, but now he had a boyfriend. Vaughan didn't seem to know that everyone knew he was dating Albert, who worked at the funeral home. Vaughan and Albert didn't kiss in public or hold hands or anything like that; Linda just knew. It was the way they looked at each other whenever Albert just happened to stop by the dollar store or when Vaughan and Linda ran into him when they went shopping for groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. Albert wasn't as good-looking as Vaughan, but his taste was just as nice. He always had on a nice shirt and tie and his shoes were never dirty. Linda could tell he was educated, too, because he was polite and she never heard him say “ain't”.
That year, for Linda's birthday, Vaughan and Albert took Linda and Frank out to dinner. Vaughan told her they would be going someplace nice, a real restaurant, not someplace like the Dairy Queen or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Linda made sure Frank took a bath and wore a clean shirt and pants, while she dressed in a pale blue pants suit and wore her nicest pair of sandals.
When the two men arrived, Vaughan was carrying a bouquet of pale purple flowers. Irises, maybe. Nobody had ever given Linda flowers before. Ever. Not even Curtis.
“Oh my. Oh my. Thank you, Vaughan. And Albert. Thank you.” Linda grabbed the flowers from Vaughan and scurried into the kitchen, looking for a vase to put them in.
Vaughan shot a look at Albert, who smiled like that cat in Alice in Wonderland. “It's your birthday. We thought you deserved something really nice today.”
“Y'all wanna marry my mama or somethin'?” Frank asked, giving both men a strange look.
Albert covered his mouth, trying not to laugh. Vaughan leaned down, putting one hand on Frank's shoulder. “No, Frank. Nobody's looking to marry your mother. At least not me or Albert. But nice people deserve to get nice things, don't you think? Especially on their birthday. And your mother is one of the nicest people I know.”
Linda returned to the front room carrying the flowers in a simple vase. Then she leaned up and kissed first Vaughan, then Albert, on the cheek. “Y'all are too nice to me sometimes,” she said quietly. “But I'm glad y'all are. It really helps a lot, you know?”
“We know, sweetheart,” said Vaughan, giving Albert another look. “You're welcome.”
They ate dinner at a steakhouse near Haskell. Between the flowers, the restaurant and the delicious meal, it was one of the best nights Linda had since before Curtis lost his job. She knew that when things got rough in the future, she would think back to this night as a lovely, perfect evening. It never occurred to her to think if things would get rough; she'd had too much heartbreak to think her life would ever be easy. She just hoped things didn't get too awful.
* * * * *
A few months after Frank turned eleven, Linda and Frank were outside the Piggly Wiggly, taking their cart full of groceries to the car, when she noticed a man talking loudly to two other men.
“Them cherry cabinets?” the man said, pointing to some cabinets that Linda could see in the open end of a step van. “They gotta go to the Pritchard house in Jones Mill. Y'all get them installed tomorrow, y'hear? I'ma be there by noon so don't y'all waste time.”
When the other men walked off, their leader – must have been their boss, Linda thought – glanced up and noticed her. Didn't just notice, though – he practically stared her down. Linda felt herself blush like she hadn't done since before Curtis asked her out in 12th grade. The man was tall, with a high forehead and dark hair that was seriously thinning on top. He had a mustache, too, and the prettiest blue eyes she had seen in a long, long time. Linda was a sucker for men with blue eyes. His were so pretty she could forgive that he was starting to go bald.
“What's a foxy lady like you doing in a place like this?” the man asked as he strolled up toward Linda and Frank, who stared at the man like he had two heads.
Linda's face still felt hot. Before she could say anything, Frank piped up, “Nothing, mister. Just buying groceries.”
The man glared at Frank. “Didn't ask you nothin', boy. I asked your mama.” Ignoring Frank now, he turned toward Linda and tipped his tractor cap toward her. “I'm Doyle Hargraves. Hargraves Construction. I'm doin' jobs from here all the way to Malvern. And who might you be?”
Frank was nudging her, that way he did when he wasn't happy and wanted to say something. But Linda nudged him back with her foot, hoping he would just be quiet. “My name's Linda. Linda Wheatley. And this is my son, Frank.”
Doyle Hargraves stared at her again. Linda thought he had that look people seemed to get whenever she said her last name.... Wheatley, Wheatley... where do I know what name from? Oh Lordy... she must've been married to that poor bastard who killed himself a few years ago. Doyle Hargraves didn't mention that, though. He just gave a thin smile and nodded up and down. “Well, it's nice to meet y'all.” He reached into a back pocket and pulled out a card, then wrote a phone number on it. “If y'all ever need any construction done, or just getting stuff fixed, let me know.”
And that was how Doyle Hargraves came into Linda and Frank's life. Linda didn't call Doyle, not even when the kitchen sink leaked. She knew how to fix a leaky sink. She didn't need a contractor for that; Curtis had taught her. But a few weeks later, Doyle came into the dollar store while Linda was cashiering. She didn't know how, but somehow he'd found out she was working there, and he came in and asked her to go to Maisie's Bar the next night. He was in a band, and he wanted her to see them. So after Frankie went to bed, Vaughan came over and watched TV while Linda went out to Maisie's.
Linda bought a bottle of Old Milwaukee and sat at the back of the tavern, away from the little stage where the band was set up. They were a God-awful band; the drummer couldn’t keep time, only one of them even knew how to play guitar worth a lick, and Doyle was the only one who could actually sing. But oh, how he sang. The voice of an angel, Linda thought, smiling as she drank her beer. When the band’s set ended, Doyle found her and convinced her to go outside with him to talk. Next thing she knew, Doyle was kissing her like she’d never been kissed, not even by Curtis.
One week later, Linda asked Vaughan to stay with Frank overnight while she went out with Doyle. “Because I’m going with him and the band to Malvern and we’ll probably be back real late,” she explained.
Vaughan seemed to be struggling not to let out a big sigh. “You don’t need to explain yourself to me, Linda,” he said, rubbing her shoulder. “You know I’ll stay with Frank if you need me to.”
“Thank you, Vaughan.” She bit her bottom lip. “I think Doyle might be someone special.” At least that was what she hoped; before Doyle she’d not even had a date since Curtis died.
“Special, hmmm?” Vaughan grinned. “Well, I’ll have to meet him some time. He must be quite a man. What’s he like?”
Linda leaned back against the counter. “He’s tall and he's got blue eyes and sings better than Tim McGraw and Clint Black. And he kisses like the devil.” Now she felt herself blushing furiously.
Vaughan laughed. “He sounds dreamy. Good thing for you I don’t like straight men. I’ll be at your house at seven. Tell Frank I’ll bring popcorn.”
Linda went with Doyle’s band to Malvern that night. When the bar closed at midnight, Doyle sent the other guys home in Morris’s pickup. Linda hoped she would go home with Doyle; she wanted to see where he lived, what his house looked like. But Doyle didn’t want to take Linda there. So instead, she made love with him in the back seat of his car, on a deserted country road. It wasn’t exactly her idea of lovemaking, though; Doyle didn’t even push down his jeans or pull her panties down, just shoved them to the side.
It was over in less than ten minutes, including the foreplay. It was the first sex she’d had since two months before Curtis died. It wasn’t great sex, but Doyle was handsome and he liked her. It was something to hold onto.
A couple weeks after their first encounter in Doyle’s car, Linda went home with him. He didn’t want her to come to his house that first night, he said, because it was such a mess. When she finally did see his house, there were clothes all over the front room, and beer cans all over the kitchen. She had to wonder how much worse it had been earlier.
That night at Doyle’s was the first and last time she was ever in his bed. After that, when Doyle wanted to make love, they did it in Linda’s bed, the same bed she’d shared with her dead husband. At first she’d felt disloyal to Curtis, but Doyle’s kisses usually made her forget about that. Doyle got better in bed too, and Linda was glad that Frank’s room was on the opposite side of the little yellow frame house; she hoped he couldn’t hear her moaning those nights when Doyle stayed over.
She hoped, too, that Frank didn’t hear all of the fights she and Doyle had, fights about people and things that mattered to Linda, like Vaughan. It was bad enough Frank heard any of them. One night at dinner, Doyle lit into her about Vaughan.
“Dunno why you keep working for that faggot,” he said through a mouthful of biscuits.
Linda frowned. “He’s a nice man, Doyle. And he’s good to me. I don’t know what I’d have done without him when Frank’s daddy died.”
Frank almost growled. “Don’t be calling him names, Doyle. Vaughan’s my friend too.”
“Shut up, boy. I’ll call anybody a faggot I want to, and ‘f ya ask me, Vaughan’s the biggest faggot this side of Hot Springs.”
Linda had never been to Hot Springs, but lots of people said it was a den of sin. “Vaughan’s not from Hot Springs, Doyle. I’m pretty sure he’s from St. Louis.”
“Fuck that,” said Doyle, tossing what was left of his dinner across the kitchen. “I don’t like you working for him, baby. You oughta find another job.”
It was easy for Doyle to say stuff like that, Linda thought. He was a contractor and there was plenty of building and remodeling going on. But Linda didn’t have much in the way of skills; she’d married Curtis two years out of high school and there weren’t many jobs around here anyway.
But Linda didn’t want to cross Doyle. He’d already threatened to kill her if she ever left him. So whenever he got started about Vaughan, she’d just say, “Mmmm, well... I’ll think about it, honey.” She didn’t, though. Not really. Vaughan had been so good to her and who’d he have left to help manage the dollar store? Melinda wasn’t cashier material, much less assistant manager.
No, Linda decided, she would not leave the dollar store, or Vaughan. She didn’t care what Doyle wanted. She’d worked too hard to get to where she was, and she wouldn’t abandon Vaughan, not just because he needed her at the store, but because he was her best friend.
* * * * *
A couple of months after his twelfth birthday, Frank brought someone to the dollar store to meet Linda. The man introduced himself as Karl Childers. Karl was tall and big-boned, and he wore a denim shirt and overalls. Linda couldn’t tell how old he really was, because he sounded like a shy, overgrown boy.
Once the introductions were over, Linda pulled Frank to the side, leaving Karl alone with Vaughan. “I can see you want something,” she told Frank. “Out with it.”
When she heard what Frank wanted, and why, she sighed. “I don’t know, Frankie. We don’t really know him. But I know you’re lonely and you’d love the company, so maybe he can stay out in the garage.”
“I told him Daddy got hit by a train,” Frank said.
“It’s all right, baby. Don’t need to tell people everythin’ about you first off.” Karl seemed odd but not in a bad way. If he hung around long enough he’d probably find out eventually how Curtis really died. When she told Karl that he could stay in their garage, Karl didn’t have much reaction. Linda just figured he was mentally retarded; she said as much to Vaughan, who was worried that Karl might be dangerous because he’d spent a long time in the state mental hospital.
“Frankie is crazy about him... You know he's always after a father figure, and Lord knows Doyle ain't a good one with his mean ass,” she told Vaughan, who would probably be a decent father figure if he wasn’t a homosexual.
So Karl gathered his things from where he’d been living, in the small engine shop that Bill Cox owned, and went to live in the garage behind Linda’s yellow frame house. Linda had worried about how Doyle would take it, but Doyle only seemed to be worried about the socket set he’d left in the garage.
“Don’t want no retard stealin’ it,” he said as he drank a beer with Linda sitting next to him on the arm of the easy chair.
Before Karl moved in, Vaughan had taken him to lunch and made him promise that he would never hurt Linda or Frank. Linda couldn’t imagine him hurting a fly. As far as she was concerned, as long as Karl didn't get in any trouble, he could sleep in the garage and take meals in the kitchen with everyone else.
When Karl had been living in the garage about a week, Doyle got it in his head that he wanted to have a party out on the patio. "So's I can show Karl off to the boys," he said, then phoned the fellows in his band and told them to come over. Linda didn't like the idea; it made Karl seem like some dancing monkey that Doyle wanted his friends to see so they could laugh at him. Not to mention those damn boys always stayed almost till dawn, drinking beer and being loud and obnoxious. Not really what Linda wanted on a night when she was dog-tired.
All of the boys came over, of course: Morris, who Doyle called a "genius" and a "poet" (he wrote most of the band's songs); plus Monty with his drum set; Randy with his guitar, which he could actually play; and Terence, the poor bastard who'd wrecked his car years ago and had to play bass guitar while he sat in his wheelchair. The only one Linda could tolerate was Terence, and that was at least partly because she pitied him for being stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He wasn't a bad sort; neither were the others, just not real bright, and they all drank too much, which made them talk loud and do stupid things. Doyle had insisted on calling Vaughan too, and when the next-door neighbor yelled at them to stop being so loud, Vaughan said he needed to go home because he had to work in the morning. But Doyle convinced him to go with them to buy more booze. Linda put Frank to bed, then went to bed herself, hoping that Doyle didn't crash his truck from being drunk.
A few hours later a different sort of crash woke Linda up. Running out into the hallway, she almost bowled Frank over.
In the front room they found Vaughan and Karl, sitting on the sofa. Karl just stared straight ahead while Doyle screamed at him and Vaughan.
"I thought I told everybody to get out of my house. That includes cocksuckers and retards. Get off your asses and go."
"This ain't your house, Doyle," Linda said, her hands curling into fists that she barely kept from using on Doyle. "This is my house and I'll say who stays and goes. You've got a house. Why don't you go get one of your girlfriends and go home to it?"
Doyle sneered. "You know better than to talk like that when I'm hurtin'. Don't make me knock the piss out of you."
At that, Vaughan stood up, defending Linda, who walked up to Doyle and told him to get out and not come back until he was sober. She hated these arguments, hated Frank seeing and hearing this, and sometimes wished she'd never met Doyle. Next thing she knew, Doyle was saying he would kill her "deader than a doornail" if she even thought of leaving him. Thank God for Vaughan, always there to stand up for her. Now he was her witness to Doyle's threats. If anything ever happened to her, or Frank, Vaughan would make sure the sheriff knew who'd hurt her.
When Linda asked Doyle to leave and Doyle refused several times, getting more worked up each time, Frank went nuts and started throwing things at him. Doyle finally got the message when an encyclopedia smacked him in the head. Storming out, he pronounced his love for Linda. How did I get myself into this? she thought, as Frank and Vaughan both reached out to console her.
Linda assured Vaughan that she would be okay and he finally went home. After she cleaned up the living room, she thought long and hard about what she would need to do. She would not let Doyle hurt her or Frank. She also wished Karl hadn't seen the fight; he might be retarded but she figured he was smart enough to know that Doyle was a mean sonofabitch. It was almost dawn when she realized that Karl was in the kitchen with her. Once she got over being startled, she offered to make him something to eat. All the poor fella wanted was some biscuits -- with mustard.
He wasn't a bad sort, Karl. Odd, and probably lonely. Maybe she could help him be less lonely. She thought of Melinda, who put the stickers on items at the dollar store. Maybe she would want to meet Karl? It was worth a shot anyway. Even slow people deserved to be happy.
As she told Karl about Melinda, he started telling her her why he'd been in the state hospital. Linda was shocked, of course, but in a way it made sense. People in town had talked about it while she was growing up. So he was the one killed his mama and her lover...
"They say you're well now?" she asked, hoping he didn't take offense.
"Yes ma'am." Karl's words came out slow and jagged. "I like your garage. I wouldn't never hurt you or your boy. I'd lay my hand on the Bible and say the same thing."
"I believe you. I really do."
She made Karl some biscuits then. He ate them with mustard. Such an odd man.
* * * * *
The dinner with Melinda was just okay. It was at Vaughan's house and while the food was really good, Linda thought that Karl and Melinda didn't really hit it off. Maybe Melinda was too chatty for him, or Karl was too quiet for her.
One very sweet thing did happen, though: after a couple glasses of wine, Vaughan made a toast. "It just came over me in a rush. I want you all to know that I care about each and every one of you at this table."
"That's very sweet of you, Vaughan," said Linda. "We care about you, too. Don't we, y'all?"
Nods and grunts from around the table. Men, Linda thought. She practically had to kick Karl and Melinda out of the house to make them take a walk. The next day, at work, she noticed Melinda setting aside a bunch of flowers wrapped in cellophane.
"Who's that for?" Linda asked.
"I'm going to bring this to Karl," said Melinda. "At lunch time. Because I didn't bring him anything last night. Can you ring this up for me?"
"Sure I can, honey. That'll be two-ninety-nine, minus your employee discount, so that's twenty-nine cents off, so that's two-seventy, plus five percent tax. So that comes to two-eight-five."
Melinda took off at lunch time, just like she'd said. When she came back later on, she didn't have the flowers with her, so she must have given them to Karl. Linda wondered what Karl thought about getting flowers from a woman. Would he even care? He just seemed so different from everybody else she knew... but not in a bad way. Different wasn't always bad. Doyle was different too, but in a bad way. But not Karl. She truly believed he would never hurt her or Frank. She still couldn't believe he'd killed his mama and her lover. But he'd spent 25 years in the state hospital, and you didn't go there unless the court decided you were crazy.
"How'd it go with Karl?" she asked when Melinda came back to work after lunch.
"I saw him at the Dairy Queen and gave him the flowers."
"He took them. I told him I got a blister from walkin' with him in them bad shoes."
"And then what?" It was like pulling teeth from a caterpillar, like Linda's mama used to say.
"He said they was pretty. And then I left." With that Melinda found her sticker gun and went back to the storage room to do more stickering.
Linda sighed. Oh, Lordy. Well that was a big fat bust....Should've known it wouldn't work... How could she set anybody up on a date when her own boyfriend was somebody she didn’t even like most of the time?
It was maybe two hours later when the phone rang while Linda was taking inventory in the back room. It was Doyle, saying he wanted to have a talk. Linda hadn't seen or spoken with him since that night she'd tossed him out. Now he was saying how sorry he was and could she please come and talk with him at her house? She told Vaughan she needed to leave early, and why; not just so he'd know where she was, but in case she didn't come to work the next day, he'd be able to figure out what happened. When she got home, around three o"clock, Doyle was waiting for her in his pickup truck.
Linda and Doyle went into the house. The moment they got inside, Doyle backed her up against the wall and began kissing her. "I missed you so much, baby. I'm so sorry. I was all liquored up and I didn't mean everythin’ I said. I want us to be together again."
There he was again, kissing her with those soft lips, his hands sliding up the back of her skirt, making her feel things she wished she didn't want to feel. Linda wished she could be stronger, wished she hadn't agreed to meet him to talk. But she was weak, and lonely, and even though Doyle was an asshole most of the time, when he wasn't she sort of forgot most of the times that he was.
"I guess I can forgive you, Doyle. Let's sit down," she said, sliding away and taking him by the hand to lead him further into the front room. She sat on one of the chairs and Doyle parked himself on a stool in front of her. They sat for a few minutes, Doyle holding her hands and saying sweet nothings to her in a low, soft voice. Then the front door opened and Frank came in with Karl. Doyle was all sweetness and light, apologizing to Karl for the drunkenness and to Frank for hitting Linda that night. But he couldn't leave well enough alone, and suddenly he was telling them how he didn't approve of Linda spending time with a faggot and a retard, and how he didn't like wimpy little kids.
Then he got sweet again. "I'm gonna spend a lot more time over here and we're gonna get along. Like a family should." He turned to Linda. "I may even surprise you one day and pop the question. Well, I'm going back to work now." And with that, Doyle got up and left Linda's house.
Did he really mean what he said? Linda didn't know. Frank didn't think so. Linda reminded him of her plan -- to wait Doyle out until he got so tired of her that he left, so she wouldn't have to leave him. If Karl had any thoughts on he situation, he wasn't saying. She made an early dinner, saving some for Doyle, who was going to spend the night. And she made a big batch of biscuits, to make sure that Karl had as many as he wanted.
Once Doyle came to stay with them, things seemed to be getting better. He was behaving himself, being a little nicer to Frankie and not calling Karl names. He came home every night after work, ate dinner and watched TV with Linda, then at ten-thirty they went to bed. About a week later, in the middle of the night, Linda woke with a start to find Karl standing in her bedroom doorway with a hammer in his hand. Doyle cursed at him for waking them up. Turned out Karl wanted to get baptized. The next day was Sunday, so Linda, Frank and Vaughan took Karl to the First Baptist Church. After the service, the preacher took Karl to the river and baptized him. That made Karl happy, and that made Frank happy. When they got back to the house, Doyle was sitting in the easy chair.
"How'd your baptizin' go?" he asked.
"It went real good," said Linda.
"Well, that's good," Doyle went on. "It's about time to eat and you know what I'm cravin'? Some of that take out chicken. Why don't you run get some of it, honey, for lunch?"
Frank and Karl said they'd like chicken too, but when Linda asked if they wanted to go with her, Doyle spoke up. "Naw, hell, let them stay here with me and do men things. There might be some kind of ball game on we can watch. You go on."
"I'll be back in a little bit then." Linda left the house, wondering whether something was going to happen while she was gone. She didn't like Doyle being alone with Frank. Not that he was really alone; Karl was there. But she wasn't sure Karl could stand up for Frank if Doyle was really angry about something. Doyle didn't seem angry when they got back to the house after church, but who could know what was really going on inside that man's head? She sure didn't.
Linda was gone twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes tops. When she drove up to the house, she found Karl walking away, like he was leaving.
"Where you goin', Karl?" She was a bit confused. "Didn't you want some chicken and things?"
"No ma'am. I'm a'goin' off sommers."
Linda sighed. She couldn't figure what Karl was thinking either. "Well, okay. I got you some."
"Frank, he went off too. He ain't gonna be in there when you get indoors."
"Where'd he go? What's going on?"
"He wanted to go off and play, I reckon." Karl looked like he was a million miles away. "You go in there and you and that Doyle eat yer dinner. You don't have to worry yourself none."
Linda thought on that a moment. Karl didn't lie about things, so if he said not to worry, she would try not to. "All right then. Well, I'll see you later. If you see Frank, tell him to come on back home. I don't get to see him except Sundays. He can play tomorrow."
Then Karl told her that she was a good mother to Frank, how she worked hard to take care of him and that he could see how much Frank loved her. Linda felt her eyes well up. Karl even thanked her for making biscuits for him in the middle of the night. Well, maybe that was something that not everyone would do, but it sure wasn't something Doyle would ever thank her for. Not that she'd ever done that for him, or wanted to.
After Karl walked away, Linda took the bags of fried chicken into the house. She hadn't even crossed the front room before Doyle started in on her.
"What took you so damn long, woman?" Doyle snatched a bag from her and started spreading the containers of food on the coffee table, next to a couple half-empty bottles of beer.
"There was a line at the Colonel's," she explained. "And when I got back I saw Karl and we started talking. He was fixin' to walk somewhere. Didn't even want his chicken right away."
Doyle snorted. "Retard ain't gonna get no chicken no how. I run him off."
"You did WHAT?" Linda dropped the other bag.
"Ran that retard out of the house," Doyle said, smacking his lips after taking a juicy bite from a crusty leg. "I told him and that boy of yours that I'm the head of the house now and what I say goes. Told that boy he's gonna have to act like I'm his daddy and do what I say. Told 'em that retard can't live here no more. I don't care if he's been livin' in the garage, he can't live there neither. I won't have it. So that boy sassed me back and I smacked him a good one on his face."
Linda felt weak, like all the blood was draining from her face and torso and pooling down in her feet. "You are one piece of work, Doyle Hargraves. How dare you hit Frank like that!"
"I'll do whatever the fuck I want to, Linda!" Doyle's face was red and veins were bulging in his neck and forehead. "I'm the man of the house now. Me! Not your stupid dead Curtis, not Frank, not Karl the retard! Me! You do what I say or I'll beat the fuck out of you too."
Linda had seen Doyle angry plenty of times. But even the times when he'd hit her, he'd never looked as mean and ornery and downright wicked as he did right now. "Where's Frank?" she asked.
"I don't give a fuck where that kid is neither. He run out after I told the retard to get out." Doyle finished up a bottle of beer. "Don't worry, baby, he'll come back. I just tol' him what reality's gonna be like from now on. He stay on my good side, do what I tell him, we'll all be fine. Same with you."
Linda's legs were still weak. Same with you. So Doyle was going to be the boss and if she didn't toe the line, she'd have to worry about him beating up on her even more. Now it seemed like he really wanted to control her... which meant he would probably never get tired of her and never leave on his own.
"Okay... I mean... I can live with that," she lied. I can live with that for now. For today. Maybe not past that. Linda knew that she wouldn't be safe if she told Doyle how she really felt.
She had no appetite any more but if she didn't eat something, Doyle would suspect and light into her. Sitting on the sofa, she nibbled on a chicken wing and a biscuit while Doyle finished off one bag of food and drank another beer.
"Doyle, honey, I'm kinda tired. I think I'll go in the bedroom and have a little lie-down."
"Okay. You do that." He fished around next to the easy chair and found the remote control for the TV. "I reckon I'm gonna find a ball game on the TV and have some more beer."
Though her legs still felt heavy, Linda somehow managed to walk halfway normally from the front room to her bedroom, where she locked the door behind her. She wasn't tired; she was terrified. She had no idea where Frank was, Karl had just walked away, and only the good Lord knew what Doyle might do later on once he'd got liquored up again. There was an extension phone in the bedroom and Linda thought about calling Vaughan, but decided not to when she couldn't figure out what to say. Instead she got on her knees and prayed.
Dear Jesus, I go to church every Sunday, but I don't talk to You often like this, I know that. So maybe you can't hear me as well as somebody else who prays all the time. But please, I'm just asking for one thing. Please keep my boy Frank safe. Don't let nothin' happen to him today. Or ever. Especially don't let Doyle Hargraves do nothin' to him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.
Praying made Linda feel a tiny bit better. There wasn't much she could do right now, so she lay down on top of the quilt and picked up the Bible she kept on the nightstand. She opened it to the Book of Psalms and started reading. She read slowly, thinking about each line, hoping that Frank was all right. She was halfway through Psalm 46 ("God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble...") when the phone rang.
Linda grabbed the receiver. "Hello, is that you, Frankie?"
"No, Linda, it's Vaughan. But don't worry, Frank is with me."
"Oh, thank God. I'm so glad. I prayed to Jesus to keep Frank safe, and He did. Are you gonna bring him home soon?"
She could almost hear Vaughan shaking his head. "No, sweetheart, I'm not. He doesn't feel safe there, you know? Because of Doyle. Do you know that bastard slapped him?"
Linda's lip began to tremble. "I know. Doyle told me himself. He said he threw Karl out too. Told me that he's the boss now and as long as I do everything he says, I won't get hurt." She could feel a tear leaking from her eye. "Vaughan, I don't know what to do. I'm afraid of him. I was hoping he'd just get tired of me and go away but I don't think that's gonna happen."
"Linda, this is what you need to do. Pack a suitcase and grab a bag of Frank's clothes. Y'all need to stay with me tonight. I'll give you half an hour. Then I'm coming to get you. Can you get out of the house without Doyle noticing?"
She sniffled, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Yeah, I can do that. He's probably drunk by now... he always falls asleep when he's drunk. I'll sneak out through Frank's window and wait for you by the road."
Half an hour later, Vaughan and Frank arrived in Vaughan's Honda. Linda climbed in the back seat, where Frank grabbed her and hugged her for a solid minute. When they got back to Vaughan's house, he said he had something for her. It was a small paper bag full of ten- and twenty-dollar bills.
"Oh my Lord, there must be at least two hundred dollars here. Where'd this come from?"
"It's from Karl," said Vaughan. "He said he earned it fixing lawn mowers and stuff. He wanted you to have it."
Frank looked puzzled. "Why'd you think he'd do that, Mama? Don't he need money himself?"
"I don't know, baby, I’m sure he does," Linda said, shaking her head slowly. "Karl's a nice man, even if he is kind of slow."
"And even if he did kill somebody," said Frank. "Do you know who he killed, Mama? He wouldn't never tell me."
"Well," she said slowly, "he did tell me, that night we was up so late after Doyle's band come over. But I don't think Karl wanted you to know. Maybe he thought you'd think less of him. 'Spose he broke a couple of commandments that day. But I don't think he'd kill nobody now, right? Least not you or me or Vaughan."
"No ma'am, I reckon he wouldn't. Doyle was gonna hit me again and Karl stopped him. That's when Doyle threw him out. I don't know Karl woulda even defended hisself if Doyle hit him."
"Well, let's not think about Doyle right now, okay?" Vaughan seemed determined to change the subject. "Let's just watch TV or listen to some good music and relax." Vaughan had an extensive collection of records and even some of those compact discs that were getting popular.
"How about some music?" she suggested. "I love Clint Black. Maybe a ballad would be nice. Something quiet and pretty." Anything that didn't sound like or remind her of Doyle.
Frank went to bed at nine-thirty. At ten o'clock, Vaughan turned on the television for the late night news. The very first story made Linda sit bolt upright on the sofa.
Police were called tonight to a home on Marigold Street in Millsburg, where a man turned in himself in for the murder of another man. Karl Childers, age thirty-seven, phoned 9-1-1 and told police he had killed someone at the home of Linda Wheatley. The victim was identified as Doyle Hargraves, thirty-four, a construction worker who was staying at the Wheatley home. According to the arresting officers, Childers told them he killed Hargraves with a lawn-mower blade. At this time the motive for the murder is unclear.
"Mother in heaven!" Vaughan jumped out of his chair and raced to Linda's side. "Are you all right? Oh my God, Linda. I mean, I despised Doyle but I didn't want him dead."
Linda realized she was shaking. "I didn't neither. He’s -- he was my boyfriend. I should be heartbroken. But I can't help myself, Vaughan. I just feel relieved. I feel... free."
* * * * *
Two weeks later, a hearing was held in Benton, at the Saline County Courthouse, to decide what to do with Karl Childers, the man-child who murdered Doyle Hargraves. A public defender had been appointed for Karl, whose 9-1-1 call had been a confession of guilt. Given Karl's history, particularly the fact that he had killed his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old, a court-appointed psychiatrist said that the State of Arkansas should confine Karl Childers to the state mental hospital for twenty-five years to life. The judge agreed, and as Karl left the courtroom in shackles, he nodded toward the row where Linda, Frank and Vaughan were sitting.
"I don't think they're doing this because they feel like Karl is a danger to society as a whole," explained Vaughan. "But he does need to be locked up somewhere so they can keep people safe."
"I know," said Frank. "Just wish I could see him again after today."
"Well, maybe they'll let him out again in twenty-five years," said Linda. "He'll be, what, about sixty-two then. And you'll be around the age he is now... thirty-seven. But who knows, baby? Maybe they'll let us visit him some time. We know he ain't gonna hurt none of us. And we owe him our lives, you and me. I don’t know what Doyle would’ve done that night if Karl hadn’t, well... Least we can do is visit him once or twice a year."
“That would be great,” Frank said with a grin.
Linda was pleased she'd thought of this. It wasn't much, as far as she was concerned, but it gave Frank something to hold onto.