A LAND MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN HERE
by Casey Whitworth
Two miles from the Greyhound station, Burt hiked through the pinewoods to the edge of Lena’s backyard. The trailer windows were dark. Her Chevy wasn’t in the driveway. They hadn’t talked during the last nine months of his stint in Starke, and what-ifs had been fermenting like toilet hooch in Burt’s head. But what he saw now in the morning light—Virginia creeper on the siding, bull briars in the yard—was a way to work toward absolution.
On his way to the porch Burt picked a camellia and carried it up the stairs. He knocked at the door. What if her pickup was in the shop and she was inside peeking out the blinds? He had on the same snakeskin boots and leather bomber as the day they met, like no time at all had passed. He knocked again, louder, then fished his keys from his pocket. A gentleman would wait, he thought. Her nightshift at Healthfirst would have ended by now, and she was probably already crossing Tallahassee, no clue he’d been released a month early. Through the arch window, he noticed she’d treated herself to a couch and a wall-mounted TV. He knew he should wait, but he tried the key anyway and when it slid into the lock, he leaned his head on the door and slowly turned the deadbolt.
Inside, the warmth of home began to envelop him, albeit like an ill-fitting robe. Liquor bottles and dirty dishes cluttered the kitchen counter, and there was something rancid in the trash. Not like Lena at all. She’d let things slide. But in an hour or two, he could have it all neat and clean, then they could ride to his sister’s house and pick up his son, and bring Larry home where he belonged. They could start over.
A noise made him drop the camellia. What sounded like the mewling of a scared cat grew louder and morphed into the shrieks of a baby. Burt slunk into the hallway, pinching his nose to cut the stench. The door at the end of the hall was closed. Quietly he peeked in his son’s old bedroom. Along the back wall where Larry’s model cars had been on display, a baby in a diaper was standing in a crib. When the baby noticed him, the screeching calmed to a whimper. The baby—a little boy, it looked like—had eyes as blue as Burt’s.
He braced himself on the jamb and started doing the math. Was the boy nine months old? Ten? When did they start standing up? He had no idea. If he’d been locked up a little over twelve months, then on the night he got arrested Lena would have been six months pregnant, showing. In the crib, the baby began to wail.
“No no.” Burt scooped up the baby and held it at arm’s length. Slime the color of mustard slid down the boy’s legs. “All right now,” Burt said. “Everything’s gonna be all right.” And his voice seemed to soothe the baby, who looked at him now without suspicion, only wonder and hope and love.
A dog barked outside. Through the bedroom window, Burt saw a Honda parked in front of the trailer, a fat woman in pink pajamas climbing out the driver’s door. She picked up a handful of gravel and flung it at the neighbor’s chain-link fence. But the dog wouldn’t shut up.
The woman lugged a diaper box toward the porch. Burt carried the baby to the crib, set it down, and backed off. The baby smiled at him in a way that seemed sinister. And it all started to make sense—the new furniture, the unexpected squalor. Lena had moved out of the trailer and on with her life, and the story Burt had been rehearsing—his plan to move them to Memphis once the P.O. signed the papers, and the job waiting for him at Knuckles’ garage—was no different from the lullabies other inmates had told themselves to get to sleep.
The woman unlocked the front door. Burt went to the window and scraped it up the track. The baby started screaming behind him, reaching for him through the crib bars. Burt had a crazy thought—take the boy and run. Give the little guy a better life than this one, teach him someday to ride a bike, rig a rod and reel, the sort of things Burt would have done with Larry if the boy hadn’t turned out quite so special. But no, that was crazy. He straddled the windowsill and tried to step down but lost his balance and flipped sideways over an azalea onto the ground. Dazed, he climbed to his feet with a sharp burning pain in his palm, a gash dripping blood. He lunged toward the trailer, managing to yank the window shut and duck out of sight before the woman entered the room.
Hunched in the bushes, Burt dug a bandanna from his back pocket and fashioned it into a tourniquet on his hand, pulled the knot tight with his teeth. It was only four miles to his sister’s house, to his son. He should’ve gone there first and let Lena go.
The neighbor’s dog started barking again. “Burt!” it seemed to be saying. “Burt! Burt!” It was the first time in many months that anyone—or anything—had called Burt by his given name.
The sun was high and bright by the time Burt walked down his sister’s canopied driveway. The two-story brick house came into view through the oaks. Up on the front porch, the Stars and Stripes had been taken off the flagpole and someone had flown a Jolly Roger. The outside world had begun to make no sense at all.
A Mercedes, a Lexus, and a red Audi were parked on the concrete by the garage. Well-to-do company. The last thing Burt wanted was to field twenty questions about where he’d been and why. Through the front bay window, he saw Charlotte at the kitchen sink looking out at the backyard—teased blonde hair, black dress that clung to her thin frame. There was desperation in her stillness, in her fixed gaze.
He went to the side of the garage and opened the door. There it was: the car. He peeled off the cover and stumbled away to get a better look at his mother’s final gift to him: a black ’77 Firebird Trans Am Special Edition with golden honeycomb rims and a screamin’ chicken on the hood, a replica of the car Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey and the Bandit. She’d had an obsession with the actor, with whom she’d supposedly had a fling at Florida State University in the late ’50s. Used to have his photograph hanging on the living room wall and everything. Even named her only son after him.
Burt startled at the sound of Charlotte’s voice. At the top of the stairs leading up to the kitchen, the door was cracked open. She hollered at someone to leave the dishes alone. “Go mingle with Bigfoot,” she said. “He won’t bite.”
Burt’s sister came down the stairs with a martini. She wore an eye patch, and a silver scabbard hung from her belt. On the bottom step, she noticed Burt and all the color drained from her face. Her martini glass slipped from her fingers, shattered on the concrete. “Burt?” She glanced at the Firebird. “I thought you were getting out in January.”
“Is Larry here?” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “He’s upstairs practicing his magic tricks.”
“What? He didn’t tell you? I got him a kit and outfit and everything.”
Lena appeared in the doorway. “Charlotte, what’s. . .?” When she noticed him, her voice trailed away. She looked gorgeous in her tan Stetson, suede fringe jacket, and denim skirt. “Burt?” she said. “Your hand. You’re dripping blood.”
In the hallway bathroom, Burt waited on the edge of the tub while Lena knelt on the rug by the sink searching the cabinet for the first-aid kit. She wore boots he’d never seen, brown leather with a tan python inlay, the soles already scuffed.
“You’re about the last person I expected to find over here,” he said.
“Good to see you, too.”
Laughter outside drew his eyes to the window. On the patio, a half dozen costumed men and women sat in Adirondack chairs: a tiara-ed fairy godmother; an Asian Superman with comically large pectorals and biceps; a couple dressed like Hell’s Angels; a ruddy-faced Bigfoot, mask propped on his furry knee. Standing among them was Charlotte’s husband, Ed. A short man with a big paunch, Ed wore a tricorn hat, a frilly white blouse, and a black topcoat. A scabbard like Charlotte’s hung from his belt. Captain of the costume party.
Lena settled on the stool beside him and opened a white lunchbox on her lap. “Let’s take a look at that hand.” She guided his wrist over the tub. He leaned forward and discreetly sniffed her lavender-scented hair, which curled over her shoulder in a long blonde braid. Her fingers worked a pair of scissors through the blood-soaked bandanna.
“D’you come here with somebody?” he said. “I didn’t see the Chevy out front.”
“It broke down,” she said, “a while ago. But, for the record, I’m capable of driving myself anywhere I need to go.” She peeled off the bandanna and sucked air through her teeth. “How’d you do this?”
“Babysittin’,” he said.
She looked at him and rolled her eyes in that way he used to love. “Long as you didn’t cut it on metal.” She uncapped the hydrogen peroxide, poured it over his gashed palm, and though the pink foam burned like hell, he didn’t flinch. This was the closest he’d been to a woman in over a year, and his stomach was all twisted from it.
“I could’ve got the truck running,” he said.
Lena smiled but didn’t raise her eyes. She patted his hand dry with a gauze pad, then laid a fresh one over his palm and began wrapping medical tape around his hand. He wanted to tell her that in his heart it felt like not a day had passed, even though out here everyone had moved on, things had changed. Somehow he still felt like a prisoner.
“There.” Lena cut the tape. “Be careful with it now. Give it time to heal.”
While she repacked the first-aid kit, Burt tugged a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “D’you know Larry wrote me letters? This here’s the last one he sent. Two weeks before they told me I was getting out early.”
She furrowed her brow and took the piece of paper, inspected the row of dots and dashes. He told her they’d communicated like that, in Morse code. She read aloud Burt’s handwritten translation at the bottom. “Open Sesame.”
“I would’ve wrote you, too,” he said, “but you would’ve never got them. Would you? You never did think to tell me you’d moved. I had to go inside to find out.”
“You what? You’re lucky you didn’t get yourself shot.”
“The key still worked,” Burt said. “How’s I supposed to know you sold the trailer?”
“I rented it,” she said, “to Mrs. Henderson. She’s a tech at—oh God. Your fingerprints. You didn’t take anything, did you?”
“Of course not. I did find some baby all alone, but that lady, she didn’t have a clue I was there.” As soon as Burt said it, a chill settled over him. The camellia, he’d dropped it by the front door. “You could’ve wrote to tell me.”
Lena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I tried to write you, Burt. I did. But the longer I put it off . . .”
Burt clutched her wrist and she looked at his lips, into his eyes. He kissed her hard, the way he’d pictured it in his bunk when the cellblock was quiet and still, and for a moment her lips opened to his, but when his hand cupped her breast she bristled and shoved him away.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
He took her hand and went down on one knee. “Marry me,” he said. “Come with me and Larry to Memphis.”
And she seemed to consider it until someone knocked at the bathroom door. “Burt, I need to talk to you.” It was Ed. The doorknob jiggled, and Lena blinked a few times and looked that way.
“Lena,” Burt whispered. “We’ll get in the Firebird and drive away.” She had this faraway glint in her eyes that made him feel like he was holding onto someone who’d already left the room. “Lena.”
The doorknob jiggled again. Lena pulled her hand away and left Burt kneeling on the tile. She went to the door and drew it open and stormed past Ed into the living room. Burt called her name, but she opened the front door and was gone.
Ed had one hand on the hilt of his plastic sword. “Burt,” he said. “A phone call would’ve been nice.” Behind him, Charlotte got up from the sofa and followed Lena onto the front porch.
Burt watched through the front window as Charlotte escorted Lena down the stairs and across the yard. It had been stupid to kiss her like that. To propose in a damn bathroom. The women vanished from view, and Burt noticed something in the corner of the room, shaped like an armoire and covered with blankets.
“What’s that?” he said, though he had a guess.
He crossed the room and drew the blankets off. It was the cage he’d built for his mother’s sugar gliders. Bandit was hunched in the bottom corner, his bushy gray tail curled around him. Burt searched for Snowman, the albino with bright red eyes, in the hanging tiki hut. The two sugar gliders used to scamper all through his mother’s house, leaping from chair to table, climbing the drapes.
“Look,” Ed said. “We’ve got company in from out of town. And you know how Charlotte gets. Look. If it were up to me, you could hang out.”
Burt made a contemplative noise. His brother-in-law was a terrible liar. He traced his finger down the cage’s plastic netting, and the sugar glider raised its head to squint with glassy black eyes. Burt knew he should just go upstairs and knock on Larry’s door. Tell him to pack his bags. But something kept Burt from doing it, some anxiousness about seeing the boy face-to-face again after all this time.
“I’ll get you a hotel room,” Ed said, “until things get figured out.”
The front door swung open and Charlotte filled up the doorway, red-faced. “Now wait just a minute,” she said. “Lena says you’re trying to take Larry to Memphis?”
“That’s right,” Burt said.
“He’s in a good school now,” she said. “Just made the honor roll. Isn’t that right, Ed?”
Ed nodded. “You should be proud of him.”
“He’s finally in a good place,” said Charlotte. “He’s right where he belongs.”
Burt felt a sharp pain in his bandaged hand and realized he’d clenched his fists. Ed took off the tricorn hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair, yammering on about what Burt should do to get his life back together—and though there was goodness in Ed’s intentions, in his crestfallen expression, he had no right. He had no idea how volatile a man could become once he’d lost everything. Burt looked down at the blood dripping from his fingertips onto the hardwood floor.
“Are you even listening?” said Ed.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Burt said, “both of you, for looking after my boy.”
He went past them to the stairwell, climbed two steps at a time until he stood outside his son’s door. Breathing hard, he raised his hand to knock. But there were voices in Larry’s bedroom: one that was muffled, another that belonged to a man. Burt eased open the door. Across the room, Larry sat cross-legged in the glow of a TV. He had on a black cape and top hat. On the screen, a man in an identical outfit was performing a card trick, and Larry was mimicking everything the man said.
Burt stood there with an ache in his throat. The boy looked so much bigger. On bookcases against the wall were sixty or seventy model cars, separated by color and manufacturer. His son had saved them all. Camaros, Chevelles, Barracudas. More on the windowsill, on the nightstand. Their final kitchen-table project was on display all by itself on the desk: the miniature replica of Burt’s ’77 Firebird.
“Son,” Burt said. “I’m home.”
Larry clambered to his feet and stared toward the doorway. He wore a black suit, dress shirt, and skinny black tie. A foot taller now and he had dirt-colored flecks of hair above his lip. The boy blinked a few times like he didn’t recognize his own father.
“I know. It sure is easier in letters.” Burt nodded at the magician on the TV. “So you’ve been learning tricks then?”
Larry opened his mouth to say something, but music started blaring outside. Burt stepped to the window and watched Lena’s Audi recede through the woods. Larry dragged a Hope chest toward the door.
“Hold up,” Burt said. “Lemme help.” He took ahold of the other handle, and the boy looked at him with nervous wonder. “What’s all this? You putting on a magic show or what?” The boy nodded. “Well, even Houdini needs an assistant.”
Downstairs, Burt and Larry lugged the chest toward the French doors that opened onto the backyard. Through the kitchen archway, Burt could see Charlotte and Ed whisper-arguing by the fridge. Ed turned and glared at Burt, but before he could say anything Larry had opened the door and started down the stairs.
A hush came over Ed’s guests as Burt and Larry crossed to the back of the patio and hefted the chest onto the table. Larry brushed past Burt on his way back toward the house, and as he was climbing the stairs, the door swung open and out came Ed.
“Y’all,” Ed said, jostling past Larry, “this is Burt. Larry’s dad.” Superman, the Hell’s Angels, Bigfoot, and the fairy godmother greeted Burt with nods or toasts. “Unfortunately,” Ed said, and clapped Burt on the shoulder, “he’s only popping in to say hi. Isn’t that right?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Larry announced in the doorway, his voice an eerie imitation of the magician on the DVD. “Prepare to be amazed!”
Burt shrugged Ed’s hand away. “Might as well stay for the magic,” he said. “If that’s all right.” He looked from one guest to another, then watched his son cross the patio. “Time’s about all I got left.”
“I need a volunteer,” said Larry. He fanned a deck of cards across the table. “Anyone? Anyone?”
Burt stepped forward, but Bigfoot beat him to the deck. The man took off one of his paws and selected a card, which he held up for everyone to see. “The king of clubs,” he said, then did as Larry asked and returned it to the deck.
Larry scooped up the cards and began shuffling with surprising dexterity. “When I count to three,” he said, “the chosen card will be magically transported into the audience. One . . .”
Charlotte sidled up next to Burt. “I’m sorry about Ed,” she whispered. “If it were up to me, you could stay as long as you want.” Out in the daylight her makeup seemed garish, the green eyeshadow, bright red lipstick. Burt thanked her, though he knew Ed had said the same.
“Sir?” Larry called out. The boy was staring at him. “Would you please check the side pocket of your jacket?”
Burt patted at his pocket, stuck his hand inside, and froze when his fingers settled on something thin and hard. And as he drew out the playing card, Burt remembered the moment Larry brushed past him, the transfer. “It’s the king of clubs,” he said, and raised it in the air. “What in the world.”
While everyone around him clapped and hollered, Burt examined the card once more. Larry had penciled a row of dots and dashes above the king’s crown, something he hadn’t been able to say out loud.
Larry had started in on a ball-and-cup trick. Burt glanced at the Hell’s Angels, Superman, and the fairy godmother, all of them admiring his son’s performance. Charlotte was shaking her head with joyful disbelief. He felt a sense of pride he hadn’t known in a long time, but with it came a startling realization: his son had done well without him, better than Burt could’ve hoped or expected, and something about that scared him.
Burt stuck the card in his back pocket and felt his keys. He had a crazy thought—what if he and Larry left right now, piled into the Firebird and started driving? What if they swung by Lena’s, convinced her to come with them somehow? Some sort of magic. Burt could almost see it now: the three of them traveling west on I-10, past beachfront motels in Pensacola, veering north into Alabama, not stopping for supper in Montgomery but driving on through cotton fields and pastures, past tractors and silos and cows, on through the trash-strewn streets of Birmingham and into the moonlit night. Maybe by sunrise they’d see a sign, a road sign for Memphis, and the story he’d been telling himself all along would seem true.
“And now for the grand finale!” Gripping the brim of his top hat, Larry displayed his free hand to the crowd. Then he snatched at the air, drew back his curled fist, and slowly unfurled his fingers to reveal a white egg. He removed his top hat, set it upside down on the table, cracked the egg on the table’s edge and emptied the shell into the hat. Then, carefully, Larry settled the hat atop his head and posed with his arms outstretched. Burt’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t say why. After a long breathless pause, Larry whipped off the top hat and there was the gray and black sugar glider clutching his hair.
“Oh no no.” Charlotte hurried to one end of the table. “Don’t move, Larry. I’ll get him.”
But the sugar glider hopped to Larry’s shoulder and clambered down his arm. Charlotte lunged at him, but Bandit leapt to the ground and scurried off through the grass. She crept toward him, and the sugar glider climbed quickly up the live oak.
“For God’s sake, Ed,” Charlotte said. “Help me.”
The crowd wandered into the yard to peer up into the tree. Bandit was perched on a high branch, cocking his head from side to side, gazing out at a landscape he’d only glimpsed through windowpanes, the world in technicolor.
Burt locked eyes with his son. Larry’s coy smile felt like their little secret, as if they both hoped Bandit would climb higher and higher through the treetops to a land more beautiful and wild. And Burt tried to think up some way to communicate exactly what they needed to do, some way to write out the dots and dashes necessary to say it would all be fine in the end if they only got in the Firebird and drove. But the boy was all right now—better, in fact, than he’d ever been. And the more Burt thought about it, the more the trip felt like running away the way he’d always done, and the more Memphis seemed like a locale in a dream, some place you only talked about until somebody handed you a map and said, “Draw me an X.”
Casey Whitworth is an MFA candidate in fiction at Florida State University and the assistant programs manager of The Southeast Review. Recently, he won the Blue River Editors’ Award for Fiction, the Green Briar Review 2016 Fiction Prize, and the Sixfold short story contest. He lives with his wife in Tallahassee and is currently at work on a novel. Join him on Twitter @CaseyWhitworth_