Dead Water by Sara Hopkins

The gun bothered June. The woman had tucked it between the waistline of her denim cutoffs and her bare back, so when she bent over or stood straight or leaned to the side with her hip stuck out, the gun moved with her. June thought the woman might shoot her own ass off walking around with it like that.

Her thoughts returned to the menu as she tried to concentrate on what to choose – fried pickles, fried corn, fried peppers, fried tomatoes, fried beans, fried mushrooms, French fries, BBQ pork salad, BBQ chicken salad, BBQ pork or chicken baked potato, BBQ pork or chicken sandwiches, BBQ hamburger, BBQ cheeseburger, BBQ pie, BBQ chicken tenders, chicken tenders with a side of BBQ pork or chicken. The restaurant’s sign read Deadwater Oyster Bar, but there were no oysters on the menu. She imagined the owner of this place must get a kick out of that and wondered what that laugh sounded like. The woman with the gun, her laugh sounded like a high-pitched squeal that came out pig and then choked down – heeeee heee heee hee hee, though she hardly resembled one.

Long bleached blonde hair had been toned to the point of colorlessness save streaks of honey, which could have been deliberate and could have been poor lighting. Her skin shimmered with mica, a leathered shade of white, tanned either from the sun or a bulb – it was not tinted with a spray. The folds of her inner arm near her elbow and the backs of her knees deepened into a deep purple. She had white crescent lines that smiled from underneath her butt cheeks where the fat and muscle must have pushed together as she lay and prevented any UV rays from penetrating the melanin. She was mildly overweight, not even considered in this neck, but in the city, other women and men would have called her fat in a mocking tone and shamed her about it in their various ways. Here, her large breasts and pouch of the abdomen and hips rose from the sides of her shorts, revealed by a knotted sleeveless button-up. That her thighs touched, and her bottom was thick and round – all of this seemed especially attractive, and June noticed how the other two men in the restaurant watched the blonde. She couldn’t tell if they drooled over her or the BBQ. She saw how one man’s pants drooped down to reveal a hairy back and his wide crack that formed a y-shape. June noticed how she too gazed at the woman and felt a tinge of jealousy that she didn’t have the same confidence. She wondered if the gun was loaded.

– Hey, Shugger. What you gonna have to drink? You wanna beer or something?
– Hey. I’ll just have a water.
– Alright Shug, I’ll get that right over. You know what you want?

Want sounded like won’t. June said she didn’t, she needed more time to look, but in her mind she’d already decided on a cheeseburger and fries because honestly, how bad could it be? She didn’t usually eat meat or fried foods, but in this place, it would raise questions or comments June didn’t want to field. What’re you some kind of vegan shrub eater? She could hear it now. Besides she needed time to ingest the decor.

An aquarium stood to the right of where she sat on a booth seat with sticky vinyl pads that clung to bare skin and made her want to pull her legs up and place napkins underneath. Instead of water and fish, a Barack Obama mask rested on a rock near a stuffed rattlesnake that look poised to strike the empty eye sockets. There were small confederate flags lining the glass and various resin fixtures that would have been neon in an aquarium of use, but they’d been repainted in red, white, and blue. June couldn’t stop staring at it, the blatant, open racism – she knew people like this existed, but in the South, racism was veiled.  White people tried hard to keep their secret – that it thrived, that it lurked in ways that were overt and ways unexpected. It was one thing to confront this in a virtual space, where confrontation could be opened and closed. A completely different wave of dread shifted in her throat at the seeing the physical manifestation. Perhaps she shouldn’t have stopped. She’d known about this place since she was a child.

She’d taken a left turn instead of a right and didn’t realize which road she’d come onto. Everything looked the same she supposed, the green lawns, and pastures, and trees running beside the car. It wasn’t until she’d passed the sign and then driven back that she realized what caught her eye. This sign, one she’d seen many times as a child, where someone had fitted the plastic letters in the rungs. The sign read – Ladies Welcome, New Lesbian Bar. How odd to have a gay dive in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a rural highway. Perhaps progress had indeed found its way here.

Shortly after entering the place, another memory of the sign returned. One where she was young, still in elementary school, and her parents were driving to the Mountain, what her mother called the hill where her grandparent’s two-bedroom, one bathroom sat atop. The maroon Ford Taurus station wagon passed by and June caught the words of the sign, the bad words, those that called people a bad name.

Mama, did you see that sign? Yes, June, and don’t you go saying that filth. My father said, it’s those Leatham boys, you know, the ones from when the FBI came down taking down all the tag numbers while they burned a cross in that field. I heard they’d bought the place just to piss off the church across the road. That church still stood there, ominous, white, looking over this evil place. One side of the road being faithful to one thing, the other side opening its doors so they could have a reason to go to church. June’s stomach sank low. She knew she’d been disgusted, then deceived by a lure. She’d wanted to see why, what it had looked like, become, if only to quell that childhood curiosity of what lie beyond that wooden door. Her mother would have said, I told you so. I told you, not even a need to park the car and see. It’s a hateful place. Not even the weeds will grow near it. And that part seemed true because the concrete block building appeared to rise up out of dirt and dust, rocks and hard things. Nothing grew around it, despite it being summertime, hot and humid, and the earth would accept any old seed and see that it grew it its warm belly. But here, it was brittle, not even a skeletal reaching of dried up grass.


Sara Hopkins is a former photojournalist, who lives in Georgia. She writes fiction and is currently working on a short story collection.