Nov/Dec 1997  •   Fiction


by Buck McCrary

When the big interstate highway was first being built through her home town in Stafford, Indiana, Shelly Short's boyfriend drank a bottle of Boone's Farm wine and climbed the overpass with a can of pink spray paint. 'SHELLY LOVES BONES,' he wrote. The words were scrawled on the concrete between the girders. Everybody in the county would see it, no question. Shelly was embarrassed when she rode under with her parents, but she was a little proud too, as if she'd been given a gift. It was a symbol of something, she felt.

It was common knowledge around school that this Bones dude was a herky jerky type. Nice, but lank and clumsy, and relatively small in stature. Plus, some of his teeth were a little less white than others. Why hadn't she noticed this before?

Soon Shelly found herself maturing away from Bones. There was some consolation in that the new looker of a boy in town, Gerald Sweeten, who was also known to date Annie Laurie Browning on occasion, was taking more and more interest in her.

In Phys. Ed., jogging the track with the other girls, Annie Laurie Browning, blonde and bouncy at the curves, trotted up close to Shelly.

"If you're going to give up your cookies anyway, you could do a lot better than that geeky Bones," she said.

"Cookies?" said Shelly halting in her tracks. "What are you trying to say?" Finally she busted up with Bones. No big deal really. She'd matured away from him, was all. A week later Shelly and Gerald Sweeten were dating.

After a slick, talkative beginning, Gerald started instructing Shelly on the finer points of, as he put it, "evening out the personality." She'd gotten herself in a position where she could see only upward to the dashboard lights and the shadowy male figure trying to mount her. "This is evening me out?" she panted wrestling his hands away.

"Absolutely. I've studied the Bible, you know. In there it says to do everything in moderation, but it does mean everything." Gerald caught his breath, then slipped her the bottle they'd been drinking from.

Gerald Sweeten was tall and muscular, and quick with an answer. He was somebody worth listening to. But Shelly had a powerful instinct for right and wrong and ultimately would not give up her cookies, not all of them anyway.

One day, after she'd earned her driver's license, Shelly passed under the bridge on the way to the mall. 'SHELLY LOVES-' Well, it didn't say 'BONES' anymore, that's for sure! A new word was there which meant what girls like Annie Laurie Browning did with boys during the second feature at the Starlite Drive-in. 'SHELLY LOVES FUCKING,' it said. She practically fell off the driver's seat. And after all her holding out! She seethed. That Bones was the most bitter, lowest son of a -

At school Bones came to Shelly at the lockers. He smiled his open, sideways smile. "I love you, Shel. I've loved you since we were little kids," he said quietly. Shelly huffed with disgust. "Then why did you write-" she started, but then wheeled and walked off.

Over the next weeks more profane words appeared high in the rectangular abutments. Shelly struggled to remain the same cool-headed, smart looking girl she'd always been. But this rattled her. She simply had to take action. She didn't seem to realize how easily people saw through people who weren't themselves, how everyone but Shelly Short herself recognized the graffiti as merely a crude joke, nothing more. Still, she couldn't help feeling damaged as the gross sex words continued to appear.

The next Saturday night, on the way home from the drive-in, Shelly Short and Gerald Sweeten approached the overpass. It loomed like a great, rigid-legged monster in the distance. Gerald had been teaching Shelly how to drink beer. How beer could perk you up from the aftereffects of the sugary apricot brandy he kept in the glove box, not to mention refresh a person from their tiring back seat activities. As it happened, they'd come to an understanding about her cookies. They were meant to be consumed, not fermenting away in some mason jar, insisted Gerald. And what did it matter anyway, decided Shelly, what with her reputation already marked in day-glo pink on the bridge. She checked her watch. Midnight. "Pull off up there, Gerald. There's something I need to do."

Gerald Sweeten came to a stop under the bridge. He leaned on the car and with a twisted grin watched as Shelly slung her purse over her shoulder and began a strange and treacherous climb up the girders. When she'd gone as far as she could she withdrew the can of red spray paint she'd been lugging around for the past week. She meant to cover those repulsive words Bones kept putting up there.

No use though. The final arm extension was too far, and she couldn't summon the strength to go higher. How Bones got up there was a mystery, since he too was short. Shelly squeezed through a couple of smaller beams to a spot only a girl her size could reach. She was unable to cover over what was written about her, so instead she sprayed, "BONES LOVES BOYS."

This was about as nasty as Shelly Short could get. You couldn't see the words perfectly maybe, but you could see enough. Anyway, it made her feel better. It made her feel like things were partly evened out, like Gerald recommended.

Back in the car Gerald Sweeten smiled over at her. "Another beer?" he asked. Shelly shook her head. She felt guilty for some reason. As if she'd committed a crime. "Drink this. We've got a couple more places to go tonight," said Gerald. He passed her the pint of apricot brandy.

Shelly winced at the guy's audacity. Dictatorial, almost. By now she knew he preferred her high and loose, her curly red locks mussed around her cheeks, as if they'd just finished—Bones continued to stop by her locker. "I care for you, Shel. I just want you to know," he said quietly.

Despite herself Shelly was touched. Did she have some awkward teenage feeling in return? Then, all at once, the perverted words stopped showing up on the bridge in back of her name. Years seemed to have gone by, but the whole episode only started in the fall, and now Christmas was just around the corner.

Gerald Sweeten? Well, he'd come and gone like a tornado touching down for a bold moment at every convenient trailer park. She'd finally done what he asked, but no real romance came of it, no warmth. Besides, he was trailing Annie Laurie Browning at sniffing distance. These things happen. No big deal really, she told herself.

Since her name had first gone up in lights Shelly had metamorphosed from happy and outgoing to troubled and shy. She developed an inferiority complex. She began to worry about being two inches shorter than some of the other girls, and what with her last name being Short... She'd heard Bones was taking a pretty bad ribbing himself these days about the boys he was rumored to like. Served him right, she thought with a flutter. He was a nervous type, and only half assed popular to begin with—a lot like Shelly herself when she thought about it. Word was going around that Bones had let this middle-aged man in Indianapolis—but of course he couldn't have. Well, at least he got thirty dollars, they said.

Shelly's name was still on the bridge. No one saw it anymore, of course. The last bad word written about her remained, but had become part of the skyline. Shelly saw it though, and each time she was tormented anew.

At least Bones quit his pestering. She heard he'd become a loner. He had a friend or two in Indianapolis, but not around here. Shelly had no idea of the power of the little bit of writing she'd put on the overpass that night with Gerald Sweeten.

On Groundhog Day, February 2nd, a Friday, Shelly was at home. Snow had come the night before, then iced over with a shiny crust of sleet. So what? It didn't bother her staying at home. Shit, she didn't have a date anyway.

At 11:00 p.m. she was dozing in front of the TV, when an announcement aired on the local news. Someone had fallen from the interstate overpass down by Frontage Road. A man. No, a teen-age boy it was. Apparently he'd been climbing the iced-over girders, lost his footing, or slipped a hand hold. The boy was dead. They weren't releasing his identity until—Shelly snatched the car keys off the mantle and bolted.

Her parents were there on the sofa. Her little brother was on the floor. But she was through the door and spinning wheels out the driveway before any of them could put down their popcorn. At the overpass there was a big commotion. A lot of onlookers were milling about. The body hadn't been moved. It lay in the center of the highway, cocked like a triangle across the broken white lines. A sheet covered the corpse like an brittle chunk of limestone. A wide yellow ribbon with 'Crime Scene' printed in black kept back the public.

"Crime?" muttered Shelly. "What the—"

She parked on the shoulder of the highway with the other cars, then began a swift, unstable walk toward the crowd.

"It could have been murder," Shelly heard someone say, and for no reason at all her heart dropped. For a desperate moment then she wondered if she would ever have a man, or if she was just too hateful. Damnit though, she wasn't a killer. She was just a girl, a normal God-given type girl in a new woman's body.

A couple of people she knew trudged over in the crunching snow. Yes, they told her, it was Bones. He really wasn't such a bad sort, they pointed out. Things had been said about him, but none of it was true. They shook their heads. A light flurry of snow began to fall. A surge of sarcasm caught her. "What was he doing up there? More painting?" she asked, but immediately regretted it.

Scraps of information filtered from person to person. Several cans of spray paint had been found nearby. The boy was indeed trying to write something.

Jesus Christ, thought Shelly, what could he have put up there now? By the time the morning news came out she'd be losing her reputation all over again. A friend of Bones' mother happened to be standing beside her in the crowd. "He'd changed so much lately, Shelly," she said. "He seemed sad all the time, didn't he?"

Shelly bit her lip.

"It couldn't have been a crime, could it? Bones was the only one out here," said the lady. Shelly went back to the car and sat there a minute in the darkness. She flashed on the small bottle of apricot brandy Gerald had left hidden under the spare tire. Christ, she could use a drink.

The policemen continued to move amongst the girders with their powerful flashlights. Below them, scattered in the snow, were the discarded cans of spray paint. Gray? What an odd color for someone writing nasty graffiti.

One of the officers walked back to his car and spotlighted the face of the overpass. The crowd strained to see. For an instant the message didn't register. Because.. Well, because nothing was there. Not Shelly Short's name. Not the dirty words. It was all blank. Or gray rather. As the spotlight panned across the concrete Shelly realized that the old pink writing had been blotted out in a giant oval of fresh gray paint. No longer were the things she'd consented to doing with her cookies at the Starlight Drive-in advertised. Christ, what a relief! And with all the people staring, and those TV reporters glaring around like wolves. Shelly got out of the car and wedged to the front of the crowd. The officers were lining up the fatal trajectory. One was high in the girders. He called, "Looks like the kid fell from right around here."

Shelly's eyes narrowed in the fierce chill of the wind. Suddenly she could see her own writing. "BONES LOVES BOYS," was still there. Under the strobes you could see it clear as day. People were squinting and pointing. A long squiggle of gray ran out toward the ugly words, but failed to reach them. Obviously though, he intended to cover them too. Cover the whole mess and start fresh. Which... which was when the slip came. And because of trying to do something good he was dead.

Was this, worried Shelly, how life was going to be? Bones—he really wasn't such a bad sort. He liked girls enough, she knew. And now, all at once, death, whatever death meant. Curled up in the day-old snow with a grimy police sheet over him, and just as alone as he'd always been. At that moment her heart sucked up to her throat. Had she... Had she committed a crime of graffiti? A crime of... Well, it would be of murder, wouldn't it? Or manslaughter or something? Certainly the police had seen her name up there. It was just a matter of time before they put two and two together and would want to speak to her.

Shelly returned quickly to the car and opened the trunk. She reached was a full grown God-given woman. Was she a criminal? An evildoer only she had knowledge of? No. Wait. Gerald had been there too. Annie Laurie said he was the one started with the dirty stuff. A bolt of terror zigzagged through her gut. Gerald was the killer. A murderer. A taker of life, only in a backhanded way as sure as God ruled heaven and hell.

Her eyes were clouded with grief and fear. The high beams were on. Suddenly she focused through windshield. Annie Laurie was standing a short distance in front of the car. Gerald Sweeten had materialized beside her. The two of them were exchanging words and gestures like a couple of childish Shakespearean actors.

Gerald gave Annie Laurie a push and walked over to the car. Shelly pressed the button to lower the window. He was wearing a natty down jacket with fur lining the hood. He was a looker. Shelly watched as he eased a bottle of apricot brandy from under his coat. "Need a slug?" he asked.

"No. I've got my own." With her fingernail she clinked the bottle beside her on the seat.

"Good girl." Gerald winked, then glanced quickly toward Annie Laurie. "Look, Shelly," he said privately, "I don't want you to think you did anything wrong. The idiot got a hair up his ass. He tried to climb with ice and shit all over the place. He's the only one to blame."

"Annie Laurie said you wrote the nasty crap about me. The obscenities." Shelly shuddered at her breach of confidence. But what the hell, breaking promises to floozy blondes was a teenage tradition. Just like drinking. Just like sex.

Gerald uncapped his brandy bottle and took a giant swig.

"I did it because I loved you, Shelly. I couldn't think of another way to get you to—I mean, you know, after a girl's reputation is blown she's free to do what she wants. I was trying to guide you to what you really wanted, that's all."

"Bullshit," said Shelly. She took a drink of brandy from her own bottle. "You were trying to guide me to what you really wanted."

Suddenly Gerald said, "Your writing killed him."

Shelly didn't turn her head. Annie Laurie had her arms crossed like two rifles, waiting.

"I'm the only ones knows, Shelly. See what I mean?"

"No, I don't."

"In Indiana people go to jail for incitement. You know, somebody prompting a person to die, even if it looks like an accident."

"What are you saying, Gerald?"

"Meet me tomorrow evening at the lake, that's what I'm saying. I don't want to have to tell anybody about this. So far you and me are the only ones know who wrote the Bones love boys line. That's what made him die. But we can keep it quiet if we want. Know what I mean?"

In the blizzard of the moment Shelly felt herself rise as if by the steel arms of a forklift from girl to woman. All at once she gripped the whole iodine stained picture with x-ray vision. Good God, she thought, how easily people can see through people who are not themselves. Gerald. Annie Laurie. Bones. Even the police. Seeing yourself—now there was the drawback, because to yourself you'd be forever invisible. All you could do was react. Just then a gasp came from the crowd. The white sheet had blown partly off the corpse and was snapping like a frozen flag in the wind. The body was exposed, then slapped over with the cover, then exposed again. It would have hurt if he hadn't been dead. Bones. He really wasn't such a bad guy.

Annie Laurie turned toward the crime scene. Gerald leaned against the outside mirror to make a shade, then reached in and placed his gloved hand on Shelly's breast. Erotic? Well, she was wearing her winter coat, and beneath that a heavy wool sweater. Certainly though this was a symbol of something large and unsettling, yet hot too in its dark deceit.

"I'm no criminal," said Shelly looking up.

A second passed.

"And I'm no lecher," said Gerald smiling.

She hadn't removed his hand. Slowly he pulled it away himself.

Ah, adulthood. The wide open future suddenly narrowed to loneliness and ill conceived compromises. Like she'd seen in her parents. Like she'd seen in her own friends, for that matter.

Shelly reached again for the bottle of apricot brandy, opened it and took a drink. Hers was an instantaneous, uncut diamond of sanity. An immediate super clarity, illuminating like the policeman's strobe the small but critical ovals of life. The uncapped bottle, for instance, sustenance for your desire laden frustrations. The nipple and the softly parted mouth. The offer of splayed legs and the purpled tattoo of the man to mark the center.

She shivered. For in her heart of hearts there was no denying it. This was adulthood. Yes, alcohol and sexuality—she nervously recapped the bottle—these were the widest paths through the forest, the only ones guaranteed to lead the way for you. They were the god and goddess of the loner. False protector of the insecure like Bones. Guiding light down the primrose path of the egomaniac riddled with low self-esteem, which was Gerald Sweeten, the looker. And the tainted, right-shoulder angel of Shelly Short herself, girlish seeker of a decent man to party hardy with.

She had the strangest thought then. She envisioned a future ride back to town from the lake. At the overpass she'd have Gerald stop. She'd say she wanted her name in lights again. She'd say, "Go up there, Gerald, and put how much you love me."

Gerald would be half looped. Maybe more than half. He'd climb and climb, getting unsteadier with each step, yet, child that he was, feel strong and invincible. With still wet sex in one hand and a belly full of apricot brandy in the other he'd be in ego heaven. She knew he would strive for the highest slab.

"You can make it," Shelly would call. Gerald grits his teeth and drags himself higher.

"Here?" he shouts.

"Yes, there. Put it right in the middle."

Gerald stretches, but the middle is an eyelash too far, as Shelly instinctively knows by the recent tuning of her vision. The alcohol begins to tell. A foot slips an inch. Then, as if struck by a bullet from a long-range rifle, an arm breaks loose. Gerald's strength and God-given sense of survival falter. In a blink his vision uncoils, meeting Shelly Short's cool blue eyes across the stale midnight shadows. She hasn't put her hand over her mouth yet.

She's waited just a moment too long. The delay hits Gerald like a hammer between the eyes. He knows? Yes, he knows.

Around them cars were pulling back onto the highway. The show was over.

"At the lake?" said Gerald shuffling his feet. "Say nine-thirty?"

Shelly slit her eyes. "Why so late?" she said.

Gerald did not change expression. "Since you asked, I'm meeting Annie Laurie earlier in the evening."

Shelly was simultaneously repelled and attracted. Death was right there growling at her heels. She had a way of knowing what she was going to do without consciously telling herself. One thing was certain: she had skill in - well, call it evening things out. Shelly looked up at Gerald. She gave a tiny, covert nod. "Nine-thirty then. At the lake," she said quietly.

Gerald winked. Of all things, a wink! He turned and walked back to Annie Laurie Browning. Illuminated by the thickening spray of snow blowing through the headlights Shelly saw Annie Laurie mouth out, "What took you so Goddamn long?"

Gerald began his answer, and like a couple of ghosts heading back for a night's sleep in the grave they disappeared into the blackness.

Shelly put the car in reverse, and she too moved off into the night.

Death and taxes, she thought riding away, that wasn't what you couldn't get out of. It was death and men. Not much different from war, was it? And all tumble dried like a batch of dirty panties in that hard stabbing dance beneath the midnight moon. She in her life, the male in his, yet always, always the lingering specter of a Bones or an Annie Laurie Browning singing Pop Goes The Weasel in the starry background.