Angel Shreveport, where are you now?, by Joe Secreast

Feature – 17th annual short story contest winner

New Mexico, 1975
The cowboy boarded in the moonless night in a nameless town in the desert, the bus station a mobile home with a single streetlight out front. As Angel watched, the driver stowed the cowboy’s duffle bag in the luggage compartment beneath her window.
The cowboy had a big cowboy hat with a ponytail hanging out the back, a mustache, and tinted tear-drop glasses. Angel didn’t think he was a real cowboy, because she’d never seen a real cowboy with a ponytail or tinted glasses. Still, he was rangy and lean and dressed in dirty, faded denim. And there was the hat.
The cowboy and the driver spoke together outside her window, but she couldn’t distinguish words, just the sound of their voices above the idling bus motor. The cowboy laughed, and his laughter was loud and made her smile and want to laugh along.
In the seat across from Angel, an old Indian woman turned on her overhead light, and suddenly Angel was looking at herself, her own reflection superimposed on the scene outside. She looked rough. She started to pat down her hair, but instead moved her head slightly, so that the streetlight shone through her reflection’s left eye. Angel heard someone stir and ask sleepily of no one in particular, “Where are we?” The old woman turned off the light.
The cowboy sat two seats up on the opposite side. Angel hunkered down, pulled her jacket up to her chin and pretended to sleep. Her eyes grew used to the low glow of the green interior lights, and she watched the cowboy, the hard line of jaw beneath his mustache. The cowboy turned in his seat and looked back at her just as the bus moved forward, and Angel clamped her eyes shut.
An hour or so later, the cowboy stood up and ambled down the aisle, holding onto the seat backs with one hand. He stopped at her seat, and squatted down, bringing his face level with hers.
“I know you ain’t sleepin’,” he said. “I seen you lookin’ over at me.”
He smelled of tobacco and dried sweat. “Now, I’m not gonna bother you, but I just thought maybe you’d like to rinse the dust out, so to speak.”
He held up the bottle then, that familiar shape.
“Well, Slim,” she said. “How can I resist a man with such keen powers of observation?”
She sat up and he folded himself into the seat next to her. He unscrewed the cap off the nearly full bottle and made an elaborate show of wiping the top with his dirty jean jacket cuff before passing it to her.
She lifted the bottle and drank for a while.
“Well, now,” said the cowboy beside her, his leg touching hers. “I do like a woman with a thirst.”
“Lots of dust to rinse out, Slim,” she said, passing the bottle back.
“That a fact?” He drank, watching her out of the corner of his eye. He slowly wiped his mouth and then said, “You’re her, ain’t you? You’re Angel Shreveport.”
The recognition made her feel as warm inside as the whiskey, but she didn’t like that. She didn’t trust that. So she thought about saying “yes,” thought about saying “used to be,” but ended up just taking the bottle back.
“Angel-by-God-Shreveport,” he said. “I knew it. Soon’s I saw you. That there’s Angel-by-God-Shreveport, I thought to myself. I wonder, could she use a drink?”
“To rinse the dust out,” she said, passing the bottle back despite wanting to hang onto it. The bottle’s neck felt familiar and solid in her hand.
“Hell, yes.” He drank again, staring at her outright now. “I saw you on TV, you know. Ed-by-God-Sullivan. You was singin’ that song. Must have been more’n a dozen years ago now.”
“1961,” she said. “I was fifteen.”
“No kiddin.’ You sure looked growed up.”
“Well, I was an early bloomer,” she said, reaching for the bottle. She grabbed it, but he didn’t let go, and for the first time she looked right into his face. All she could see was the mustache, the hat and the big glasses, like he was wearing a disguise.
“You sure was,” he said, letting go of the bottle. She put it to her lips and as he stared at her she swallowed around the thing that had appeared in her chest like a rock, or maybe a hole where a rock used to be.

Baton Rouge, 1945
Born Angela Catherine Garceau on a starless Louisiana evening to Judge and Mrs. Henry Garceau, no sooner had the girl-child’s hairy head crowned than the sky outside let loose a storm, a torrent of thick rain and driving wind accompanied by great jagged rips of lightning and rolling booms of glass-rattling thunder. Not—the Judge reflected, staring out the waiting room window through a pall of Havana smoke—a good sign at all.
Born from a difficult delivery that lasted two days, within the vine-covered brick walls of St. Jude Hospital, named for the patron saint of travelers and lost causes, this new baby that didn’t want to leave her mother’s womb, that fought every inch of the way to stay right where she was, within the slight, beautiful body of Mrs. Clara Garceau nee Piedmont, of the East Coast Piedmonts, of that separate race of men and women born to lead, to build, to breed leaders and builders.
But now, complications and a caesarian section and blood and no need for the doctor’s calloused hand to smack the pale and wrinkled bottom of this baby, no need whatsoever, for this particular baby issued forth screaming as soon as it hit the air, its face wrinkled as a knuckle, its toothless maw open so wide one could see its uvula vibrating with the sound.
Screamed as she was laid into the arms of her frail and aristocratic mother. Screamed into the Judge’s face, at her mother’s breast, at the white stucco hospital ceiling, at the unseen dome of heaven above. Screamed as the best doctors in the state found nothing whatever wrong with her. Screamed until she fell asleep, exhausted from screaming, and then awoke to scream again.
Screamed as she was taken home, finally, to the white columned mansion amidst rolling green hills, weeping willows mourning on the banks of a gentle creek. Screamed in the rocker on the expansive porch, screamed by the fire in the kitchen downstairs, screamed in the enormous nursery upstairs decorated throughout the happy pregnancy by the blonde and smiling Clara as she looked out of the large second-story window over the landscape of her estate and the landscape of her life with the contentment of someone who knows exactly what they deserve and have been given just that.
Until now, that is, as this thing, this screaming thing that had chewed up her insides like teeth and razors lay in the mahogany crib that had cradled four generations of Garceaus, and screamed.
Screamed at a succession of Negro nursemaids, who tried love, who tried threats, who tried patience and prayer and ointments and tenderness and outright violence, all to no avail. Screamed unless her greedy little mouth was wrapped tightly around that parade of purple nipples upon which she sucked and sucked, greedy and voracious, and where, affixed, she allowed her oversized eyes in her oversized head to open and alight upon the countenances of those many baffled women with an angry gaze that promised retribution and pain in this world or the next, that flashed pale blue as arctic ice, until even the most stout-hearted quietly slipped away into the curling blue mist of a humid night as the little monster slept.
After six months of this, after six months of nightmares and depression and laudanum spilling from the teaspoon held by her perpetually shaking hand, the Judge’s wife expired.
This former flower of the south had caused his breath to catch and his heart to ache as if squeezed in the loving fist of a righteous God.
And how full had the empty laudanum bottle been the night before? The Judge didn’t know, hadn’t checked, and wondered the question, worried at it like a tongue worries at a cut inside the cheek. For the Judge had discovered her there, breathless as clay, her features knotted up in the horror of the question: why?
And after the mourners had all retreated into the oncoming darkness, the Judge took the stairs two at a time and burst into the nursery, and looked down into the screaming face of his wife’s doom.
The Judge lifted the screaming baby up to look it in the face. The baby screamed louder, which seemed impossible, but still, it did, and with a howl of inarticulate rage the Judge shook the baby, shook it as violently as he had been shaken by his wife’s death, the child as helpless in his grip as he was in the grip of this rage and despair.
When he stopped, his ears rang with a silence as loud as an air raid siren. He looked into the baby’s face, which was still, peaceful, eyes closed. He suddenly couldn’t breathe.
The child was beautiful like this, quiet and held up high, as if in offering or supplication, lit by the silvering bayou moon. Angelic. What had he done?
But then the baby opened its eyes, its pale blue arctic eyes, and looked at him, stared deeply through and into him, into the darkest corner of the Judge’s heart, and saw murder, and worse. And then opened her mouth, and screamed.

New Mexico, 1975
“Shut up!” the cowboy hissed at her. Angel lashed out, swinging and clawing, the cowboy trying to simultaneously hold her off and zip up. She swung wildly, hit his face, dug her nails into it. He yelled and drove his elbow into her stomach. Pain exploded inside her, hit her brain like a head rush. She threw up, spewed up onto him, onto herself.
And kept screaming.
The bus’s interior lights came on. “What’s going on back there?” said the driver over the speaker.
“She’s goin’ crazy!” the cowboy yelled up to the driver as the bus pulled over onto the night highway’s shoulder, the air brakes hissing like suppressed rage. “She’s pukin’ all over the place!”
The other passengers were waking up, pale faces popping up over the backs of the seats.
The driver strode back; scowl blazing with contempt, a look in his eyes like all his suspicions about the human race had just been confirmed. He looked down at Angel huddled on the seat, at the mess and the bottle on the floor beside her.
“You people,” said the driver. “What’s wrong with you people?”
“I didn’t do nothin,’” said the cowboy in a high-pitched voice. “She just started pukin’ and screamin’.” Angel had knocked his hat off, revealing his bald head. She couldn’t focus on the driver, on the cowboy, on the situation. The old Indian woman was watching her with what might have been sadness.
“I just didn’t want to,” Angel tried to say to the woman, but the words came out garbled, inarticulate.
“Next town,” the driver said to her, “You’re off the bus.”
“Screw you,” Angel tried to say, “I’ll get off now.” She tried to stand, fell down into the aisle, and hit her head.

When she came to, the sun was up, a nuclear explosion in the bright blue desert sky. She wasn’t on the bus anymore. The driver and a fat man with short sleeves and what looked like a child’s necktie were standing over her as she slumped on a bench outside a bus station.
A cop was there, too, going through her things. They didn’t seem to notice she’d awakened. The cowboy walked past them into the whitewashed cinderblock building. He didn’t look over. The street in either direction was lined with stores, about half still locked down with iron grates in the early morning, the other half boarded up and covered in graffiti. Someone had painted a cartoon old man with a beard dressed in robe and sandals, stepping happily on down the road. Keep on truckin’, they’d written beneath it.
“What am I supposed to do with her?” the fat man was asking the driver.
“I don’t care,” the driver said. “She’s not getting back on my bus.”
The cop was looking through her wallet.
“Hey boys,” he said. “What we got here is a real live celebrity.”
He held up her ID and a piece of paper, a clipping from the Los Angeles Times naming “Roses That Wither” as the fourteenth top song in the history of country music.
“This here’s Angel Shreveport.”
“Who?” said the driver.
“Angel Shreveport,” said the cop. “You know,” and he began to sing, “Roses that wither won’t last forever, once they are picked they begin to die…”
“Huh,” said the fat man. “My mama loves that song.”
They were silent for a moment, and then the driver said, “I don’t care if she’s the Queen of Sheba, she’s not getting back on my bus.”
“Wow,” said the fat man, stepping back, wiping his hands on his tiny tie and squinting at Angel. “She was so beautiful. What happened?”
“Screw you,” Angel said. It came out like a croak, like a crow’s call. She sat up straight, setting off a Vietnam bombing run in her skull. “Leave me alone.”
“See?” said the driver. “She ain’t no way no how getting back on my bus.”
The cop began shoving everything back into her purse. “Well,” he said to the fat man. To the driver he said. “She get her luggage?”
“She ain’t got no luggage,” the driver said, already easing back towards the bus.
“You OK, Miss Shreveport?” the fat man asked her. “You don’t look too good.”
“Yeah, you neither,” Angel said. She tried to stand, then sat back down as nausea washed over her. “Just leave me alone.”
They left her alone, the driver back to the bus, the fat man into the building, the cop to a squad car and on down the desert street. The sun felt like a hammer, like a blowtorch. Right before the bus pulled away the cowboy came back out of the station, his jeans and jacket wet where he’d tried to wash off her vomit.
He looked around, then said, “You piece of trash. I never liked that song no how.”
“You’re lyin,’” she said to his back. “You did so.”
He climbed back on the bus and the door shut behind him. The air brakes hissed and the bus slowly pulled out onto the empty street, raising dust. Faces stared out at her from the windows.
“All you did,” she whispered into the dust that rose and hung in the clear air.
MM

About the Author: Joe Secreast lives in a cave in downtown Marquette. He dedicates this story to his mom, for all the encouragement and campfire sing-alongs, and to the memory of his dad.

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