CL Bledsoe

Close-up of a dog lying down. The shot frames its head on a diagonal with the nose at bottom left. The dog has a black nose, golden brown eyes, and variegated thick fur in brown and black with a streak of white between the eyes. The dog's eyes are turned toward the photographer.

Photo Credit: Oscar Gende Villar/Flickr (CC-by)

Big Daddy and Momma June had been locked in their room for three days, watching the same two damn VHS copies of movies they’d dubbed from TV—watching one while the other rewound in the tape rewinder they’d bought when the movie rental place went out of business—when Tawny decided she’d had enough. She’d run through all the food in the house, including the slightly rusted can of tuna, even though it was in oil, and the only thing she hated worse than the fishy tuna taste was the consistency of the oil. She’d finished off the saltines with that yesterday. This morning, she’d eaten only a can of cranberry sauce—opened it and spooned the red gloop directly into her mouth. It had taken her till today—till the hunger and boredom overwhelmed her fear of Big Daddy’s sudden, inexplicable rages at being disturbed—but she’d been in to bang on their door more times than she could count since the cranberry sauce with no response, other than a grunt the first time. It was damned infuriating.

She tried one more time—banged on the door and was met with not even a grunt. She returned to the kitchen, tried all the cabinets and opened the fridge again to reveal spindly, bare shelves. There was a pot of honey on the scarred table and nothing else in the room. Then she went to her room and got her Bible from beside the bed, opened it to Leviticus where the twenty dollars Grandmother had given her was nestled, and dropped the book on her bed without another thought. Grubby light filtered in through the window above her headboard; she could get the screen off in no time and fit it back in from outside, but she thought, screw it, and went out the front door, letting it slam behind her. She stood under the sagging eave, listening, but no angry bear charged out to yank her back in, so she set off.

The driveway was a dirt track that crossed a ditch on two two-by-fours. She walked across one of them and emerged on the ugly asphalt of the highway. There were no cars. The sun was hot and rising toward the center of the sky.

She’d been walking for maybe a half-hour when she heard the three-wheeler approach. She’d been hearing the thing all day, going back and forth, and it wasn’t like three- and four-wheelers were particularly rare in those parts. She glanced back when it was still pretty far away, saw it coming down the highway, and stepped off onto the grass but kept walking. The thing thundered up behind her and seemed to hesitate to pass—she refused to look. After a moment in her blind spot, it pulled up into her peripheral vision and quieted some, rolling beside her as she trudged through the grass. Whoever was riding it wasn’t saying a word. She wouldn’t look, but she was working so hard not to that she didn’t look down, either, and stumbled over a clump of grass.

“Why don’t you just go on by so I can get out of this grass?” she said.

“Ain’t nobody stopping you from walking on the road.” The voice sounded slick as oil, low but not scary low. Confident with a hint of annoyance.

“I don’t wanna get hit.”

The three-wheeler shuddered to death and was silent. She stopped walking, and before she could catch herself, turned to look at him. He was skinny, dark-eyed with a thin mustache that managed to make his upper lip look dirty. His skin was the creamy yellow of not enough sun, which was strange, seeing as how he was out riding that thing around without a shirt on.

“You ain’t even s’posed to have that on the road,” she added.

“You gonna arrest me?” There was no hint of a smile, just innocent eyes. She shook her head, and there came the smile, spreading his lips to show his teeth. “I was just kidding. Where you going, girl?”

“Get me something to eat.” She looked down and focused on a clump, pretending it was the one that’d tripped her earlier, and kicked at it.

He looked down the road. “Five miles to Forrest City.” He turned back to search her face, like he thought she might not know this.

“Yep.” She sighed and started walking again.

“How ‘bout I give you a ride, Goldilocks? Unless you’re scared of this big, bad wolf?”

She laughed. “You ain’t that big.”

“But I’m bad.”

The laugh was real, this time. “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

His eyes were playful and her feet were already bothering her.

“I ain’t got no money for gas,” she added.

“Me neither.” He kicked the three-wheeler back to life, and she came over and climbed up behind, wrapping her arms around him. His smell crept into her nose, a little bit sunshine and grass, a little bit musty dog. It was comforting, like an old dirty shirt she wanted to sleep in.

The roar of the thing made it hard to talk, so she kept her face down so no bugs hit her anywhere important and eyed the scenery as well as she could. The scrub on the side of the road gave way to pines that didn’t look to be much older than her. Trash caught her eye more than anything, and she resolved to bring a bag to pick up cans next time. She could sell them to the recycling center, which they happened to be passing right then. It was such a good idea, she cursed herself for not thinking of it before, and almost asked him to take her back.

After Mr. Bershrom’s trailer, where everybody took their recycling, there was another stand of trees and then the gas station that marked the real beginning of town. The boy pulled up to the parking lot and cranked the thing off.

She climbed off.

“There you go,” he said. “Name’s Wolf by the way.” He offered a hand.


He nodded and grinned, hand still out.

She took it. “I’m—“ she started to say, but he cut her off.

“I know you. You’re Goldilocks.” He pointed at her hair.

“Tawny,” she said. She started off, away from him, toward the gas station, not hesitating until she heard the crunch of his feet on gravel jogging after her. She picked up her pace as he settled in beside her. She didn’t look at him; she imagined him straining to come up with something to say, his mouth opening and closing, which explained the quiet throat-clearings and grunts, exhales and subtle lip smackings. It was exquisite. She savored his awkwardness until she got to the door and realized he wasn’t following anymore. Then, surprise got the better of her, and she turned to see him grinning.

“Reckon I’ll hang out till you’re done.”

She shrugged and went inside. The bell dinged, and the air was a different kind of dusty in there. She found a barely-functioning red basket near the door and went down the aisles, filling it with cans of Vienna sausages and a sun-faded box of saltines. There was a crash from somewhere in the back, and she glanced up long enough to see Ms. Watkins, the heavyset woman behind the counter, head into the back to investigate. There was a rack by the register with marked-down and damaged items, and she found a dented can of potted meat and one of black-eyed peas that she added to her basket. There were some homemade baked goods on the counter. She selected a large chocolate chip cookie, moved it to the center of the counter, and stacked the rest of her purchases neatly beside it. Several minutes passed. She glanced toward the back room, and then again, and then called out, “Ms. Watkins?” There was no answer, so she looked around the empty store and moved toward the door to the backroom until the front door dinged open, and she turned and saw Wolf, grinning. He sidled up to her without missing a beat.

“I like your basket,” he said.

His words were rushed like he was out of breath. Maybe just nervous, Tawny thought.

“I’m waiting on Ms. Watkins. She went in the back.” She pointed.

“Why don’t we just go?” Wolf licked the side of his mouth like he was trying to dislodge something stuck there.

“She knows me.”

“Did she see you come in?”

Tawny searched her memory. She hadn’t spoken to the woman, had just come in and started shopping. “I don’t think so.”

Wolf shrugged. “So let’s go.”

Tawny looked toward the back and then to Wolf. He was already turning, heading toward the door. She watched him until he put his hand on the handle, and when she heard the bell ding, she turned back to the counter. “Wait,” she said, but he was through the door. She slid her selections to the side and launched herself over the counter until she could reach a plastic bag, grabbed it, and threw her things into it. She hesitated for a moment and grabbed a second cookie and ran for the door.

Outside, Wolf was astride the three-wheeler and stomping on the starter. She ran across the gravel, forgetting decorum, and hopped on behind him as he got the thing started. He spun a wide, sliding wheelie in the gravel and headed back out of town.

After about a mile back up the highway, he took an abrupt left into the desiccated scrubland.

“Where are you going?” She screamed into his ear, but he didn’t respond. She repeated it, and when he again ignored her, she stuck her finger into his ear. He slapped it away but didn’t slow or answer her. She glanced to the ground, which was passing quickly. They were on a gravel road, which looked too potentially painful to dive off into. Also, she wasn’t sure she could clear the three-wheeler well enough. So she settled in, and when they took another sudden turn onto a dirt track, she reconsidered diving off. But now, the gravel was replaced with trees and the occasional log. She didn’t want to get stabbed.

Finally, they left the pines and crossed a clearing. At the far end, was a blackened fire pit which seemed to be their destination. They pulled up to it and slid to a stop in the grass and dirt. Tawny climbed off and backed away as Wolf hopped up onto the three-wheeler and twirled around to smile at her.

“My lady,” he said, offering her a hand.

“What?” Tawny said, not approaching.

Wolf jumped, pulling his legs close to his chest, and cleared several feet to the side of the vehicle. “Thought we’d have a picnic.” He stared into her eyes, intense in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and then spun around and moved to the fire pit.

Or rather, the blackened, bare area where fires were mostly relegated. A thick log, thicker than any standing tree in the area, lay on one side. On the other, nearer side, a stump from a different tree served as a less-comfortable-looking seat. Wolf headed right for the log.

“Too hot for a fire,” he said as he sat down.

Tawny didn’t know this place, but she knew they weren’t far from home. And then she had a thought: she didn’t actually give two shits about going home, back to where her dad and his girlfriend were doing whatever they were doing. She approached, and as she got almost to Wolf, she saw, past him on the edge of the tree line, an old, moldy mattress, sheltered somewhat by the trees. She paused, but didn’t let it stop her, came and sat beside him.

“What’ve you got?”

She dug out some Vienna sausages and offered them to him, but he wrinkled his nose and shook his head. She shrugged, opened the saltines and pulled out a sleeve, and arranged these things on her lap.

“Want a cookie?” She offered him one.

He hesitated, his fingers curling and uncurling until he reached and gingerly took it from her proffered fingers.

“Oh,” he said. “Is that chocolate chip?” He shook his head. “I’m allergic.”

She dug out the other—a peanut butter one—and offered it.

He carefully unwrapped it, taking time to find the edges of the shrink-wrap plastic and separate them. She found it mesmerizing, but she was also starving, so she pulled the tab on her can of Vienna sausages and drained the liquid out, tore the plastic of the saltines open and laid the sleeve on her leg. When she was munching her first Vienna on cracker, she noticed Wolf was still unwrapping his cookie.

“You need help?”

Wolf shook his head, distracted, and finally got the plastic off. He then shoved the entire cookie in his mouth with ravenous noises that dropped Tawny’s jaw. He chewed with his mouth open, bits of cookie falling out, and the thing was gone in a moment. Tawny swallowed and turned back to her own food as Wolf smacked his lips.

“That smells like shit.” He tossed the empty plastic into the fire pit.

“So don’t smell it.”

“Too strong. I can’t avoid it.”

“Well, go sit somewhere else.”

“It stinks so bad, I’d have to drive about a mile away to not have to smell it.” He looked at her with a scolding face.

She dug another pale, pink Vienna out with her fingers, set it on a cracker, and bit it in half.

He sneered.

She chewed demurely and swallowed, and he seemed to remember his manners, because he looked down.

“Why do you eat that stuff, anyway?”

“Hungry,” she said. “No food in the house.”

“Why not eat something better?”

“Can’t afford nothing better.”

He pondered this as she finished the last of the meat products. “But you didn’t actually pay for it. You could’ve gotten anything you wanted.”

“I didn’t notice the already-cooked steak and potato, did you?”

Wolf chuckled. “I mean, you could’ve gotten more cookies or some chips or something.”

“I need protein.” She stuffed another cracker in her mouth and coughed a little, wishing she’d gotten something to drink. “And I did get that second cookie.” She produced it, and he watched with hungry eyes as she ate it. Finally, after a couple bites, he turned to stare at the woods and the sky and anything else.

His hair was a rich brown that spilled down over the back of his neck to his shoulders, parted at the bottom in a thick ducktail. It was a pretty shade that reminded her of a dog her cousin had, named Gunner. Her folks wouldn’t pay to feed a dog, or a cat, or anything else, hardly even her, so she’d had no pets. She’d always loved that dog, and used to make any excuse she could to go to her cousin’s and see it. It didn’t hurt that her cousin’s family was so much better off, lived in an actual house instead of the trailer Tawny’s family rented, and always had food in the house. Her cousin had a three-wheeler, too, come to think of it. When they became illegal and everybody else was upgrading to a four-wheeler, they’d picked it up cheap from some boys near Marion. She’d even ridden it a few times, though never driven it, since they were so difficult to steer. She glanced at the three-wheeler.

“Where you live?” she asked.

“Around,” Wolf said carefully.

“I ain’t seen you before.”

“You with the census?” he asked.

She laughed. “What’s that?”

“It’s…” he waved his arm. “I don’t know. It’s something my dad says.”

“I’ve heard it before,” she said. Had it been from her cousin’s dad? She carefully finished her cookie. “He nice, your dad?”

Wolf shook his head. “Always yelling. Made me sleep outside.” He glanced at her, shyly. “You’re nice, though.”

“Thanks,” she said because she didn’t know what else to say. And then, “I’m all right.”

He shook his head, looking at her seriously. “No, you’re nice. Always have been. Not like that Darla. Her heart waxes and wanes like the moon.”

Tawny rose to her feet, the sleeve of crackers spilling into the dirt.

“How do you know Darla?” she asked.

“Same as I know you. From around.”

She shook her head in slow half-arcs. “I never seen you before.”

He smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. “You have. You just didn’t know it.”

“I want to go home, now. Take me home.” The part of her mind that ruled curiosity was locked down dead, replaced by a cold worry that was quickly shifting to fear.

Wolf held up his hands, smiling again. “Hey, everything’s cool. We can go back, if that’s what you want. Or we could talk a little more.” He squatted down, palms still up toward her, and picked up her crackers and offered them to her. She’d backed toward the three-wheeler, and when he stepped closer, she backed almost into it. He stopped and simply held the crackers toward her.

“What you think’s happening, here, Goldilocks? We was just talking. No need to get antsy.”

“Where’d you get the three-wheeler?” she asked.

“It ain’t mine.” She raised an eyebrow when he said that, so he added, “It’s my dad’s.”

“Who’s your dad?”

A pained look spread over his face like a cloud shading water and was just as quickly gone. “I don’t rightly know his name,” he said. “I just call him Dad.”

“What’s his last name, then?”

He opened his mouth and closed it. “Wolf,” he said. She narrowed her eyes, so he added, “Wilkins.”


“It’s true.”

“I’m a Wilkins. How come I never heard of you?”

“I’m adopted.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “You know me, but I don’t know you. How could that be?”

He shook his head.

She glared at him and then turned and walked past the three-wheeler and on up the dirt track.

“I’ll give you a ride back,” he called after her.

She didn’t stop or even turn her head. She heard him kicking the thing started. It sputtered and then roared to life. She heard it throw dirt, and soon, he was rolling beside her. She crossed her arms and kept walking, refusing to look at him.

“Did I say something wrong?” he yelled over the engine.

She kept walking and didn’t answer. He jerked the thing forward and then braked. She kept walking, and he did it again. She was pretty sure it would stall out if he kept doing that, but maybe he was trying to get her to say that or talk to him, so she kept going.

“It’s a couple miles,” he said. “We don’t have to talk, just let me give you a ride. I got your things.” He held out the bag of food she’d forgotten behind her.

She walked a few more steps while he rolled along beside her, and abruptly stopped. She still didn’t speak, but the look on her face said that she’d decided something. He sat up, and she stepped over and climbed up behind him. They sat there for a moment, then he handed her back her food. She clutched it in one hand, wadding it up tight in case she needed to hit him with it. He cleared his throat nervously and she tensed, ready to bolt. He jerked the three-wheeler forward and thundered up the track.

“Not too fast,” she said.

He slowed, which made her feel a little better.

She smelled his musk, which really did smell like dog. His hair was thick and looked soft, also like a dog. It was a funny thought, one she might’ve had when she was a kid. It felt good to hold on to the thought for a moment. She imagined throwing something and seeing if he’d dart after it, maybe whistling to see if he went stiff. They left the trees behind and hit gravel and then, soon after, slowed as they emerged onto the highway. He looked long down one way and the other, clearly stalling, until she nudged him and he pulled out and went left.

“Good boy,” she muttered, pretty sure he didn’t hear her, but it made her giggle anyway.

It wasn’t long until her trailer loomed up. He pulled up to the little bridge and stopped short, killing the engine. The funny thoughts were gone, now. Tawny climbed off as he turned to watch her describe a wide arc around him.

“You sure you want to go back in there?” he said as she stepped onto the bridge.

Maybe two feet below her, a trickle of ditch water flowed. When she was a little kid, she used to fish in it with her mom, before things went bad. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” Tawny muttered.

“Come with me.”

She turned with a smirk but held her tongue because the look on his face was tender. Vulnerable. She opened her mouth twice and closed it before finding something soft enough to say. “What’d you say your name was?”

He winced. “Wolf,” he mumbled.

“Right.” She wanted to say more, but her face was already flushed. She wasn’t quite ready for it to live in the air outside her mind. “Wolf,” she repeated. “Who’s adopted by my aunt and uncle but I never met before.”

He looked down.

An idea was trying to voice itself in her head, but she still couldn’t say it. So, she turned and crossed the bridge.

“There’s nothing worth having in there for you,” Wolf tried again.

She spun on her heel, angry. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she said, full red in the face, now. So bothered she couldn’t even say why.

“I’m just trying to help you,” he said.

“I don’t need help.”

“Of course you do.”

“I don’t know you. You shouldn’t even be here,” she said.

“You do.” He nodded, slow and wide-eyed. “You just don’t believe it.”

She shook her head.

“You know me. And I know you,” he said.

“Gunner?” she whispered.

“Call me Wolf, now,” he said, grinning.

That made her ball her fists up. “You’re a dog,” she yelled. “A fucking dog.” He winced, but she kept going, drunk with the thrill of speaking it. “Not even one of them purebred fancy dogs, either. Just a mongrel. And you stole that three-wheeler from my uncle.“ She pointed. “Should’ve fucking known.” The tears came, which made her even angrier.

“How could you know?”

She looked at him, wanting to chastise him for thinking he was so smooth, but the words died on her tongue as she realized the warmth of his tone.

“I’m sorry I deceived you,” he said.

“What kind of fucking dog talks like that!” she yelled. “’Deceived?’ Fuck does that mean?” She knew her words were idiotic, but the anger seemed like her best option, so she went with it.

“It means to lie—“

“I know what the fuck it means! I ain’t stupid! Why the hell wouldn’t you just say lie?”

He was quiet, and so was she for a long moment.

“Should’ve known the only person, the only boy that would take any interest in me would be a damn dog.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Wolf said.

She scoffed.

“Really. You think you ought to be like them in there?” He nodded toward the trailer. “Want to know what they’ve been up to? I can smell it, all chemicals and sadness.”

“I reckon I can figure it out.”

“Your uncle, he’s not a good man.”

She looked in Wolf’s eyes, which were suddenly full of anger, but he didn’t elaborate.

“But you were kind,” he said. “You always scratched me behind my ear.”

That made her laugh a little, and it was good to get some of the tension out.

“You’d rub my belly.” The way he said it was almost plaintive.

It reached to something deep inside her she’d never shared with anyone else, a vulnerability she’d forced down in this world of razor blades. “How?” she asked. “How’d you do it?”

He shook his head. “Not how, but why.”

She looked back to the trailer then to him. “What are you saying? You want me to move in your doghouse with you?” she snapped. “We gonna live on squirrels you catch?”

“Don’t you like squirrel?” He grinned.

She wanted to grin, too, which made her mad. He had those sad eyes on her, so she revised her question. “I mean, you got a people house or something?”

“I’ve got some money,” he said.

She put her hands on her hips. “How’d you get money?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We could go someplace nice. Someplace new.”

She shook her head, looking back to the trailer.

“We could have some fun,” he added.

She crossed the bridge, afraid to look back at him.

“What are you going to do tomorrow, when they’re still locked in that bedroom? Or the day after?” he said.

She got to the door and paused with her hand on it.

“You can be happy, now. I can make you happy,” he said.

She pulled the door open.

“I don’t know if I can come back,” he said. “I don’t know if I can… stay… without you.”

Everything in her ached to look back at him. But she didn’t.

“Don’t, then,” she said, quiet, but she knew he heard. She pulled the door shut and dropped to her knees. After a long while, she heard the three-wheeler start up and spit gravel as it raced away.


Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than thirty books, including the poetry collections Riceland, The Bottle Episode, and his newest, Driving Around, Looking in Other People’s Windows, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter. Email: clbledsoe[at]

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