google-site-verification=cnsbIyulDFltNiOejwuGvLbaGT0fC7TiRPxTnRpvprY google-site-verification=JdZ4lc7OlXoqz2-IG9QyYipt9M6DmRPWGKkWQsG0a8s
Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations
Noble Dan

“Their wine is the poison of dragons” - Deuteronomy 32:33

For however many years it had been since the accident that crippled the girl who became his wife, Dan Klapp’s upright life was one, long clenched muscle of an existence. A wire-tight tension holding himself in check against the strain of his unruly nature. The only thing the upright life gave him, he’d shout if he could, was a goddam back ache. And, maybe, the stroke.

Sorry, he mouthed.

Inside the safety of his own head, Dan Klapp was a profane man, a vindictive man, a vain man. Outside, he was the saintly Dan Klapp, the pillar of virtue and rectitude. It wore him out living every single day inside the skin of someone so much better than he knew himself to be.

Managing his unruly nature meant he lived with the sensation in his guts that God had given the whole of His creation access to everything that might flash out of Dan’s hot skillet brain. He had an apology tic that went off for every resentment, every profanity, every slack-hearted idea that zipped free of its restraints.

Sorry, he mouthed again to the imagined cloud of witnesses listening in.

Maybe it would have been easier, all those years ago, if they’d sent him to jail for taking the car, let everyone think whatever shit about him they wanted to think.


Instead, his life turned into one long, goddam – sorry – backache.

Dan Klapp shook with irritation and had to steady himself at the kitchen sink as he looked out the window. He’d been watching his granddaughter Rosella in the back yard, dressed in her princess gown and tiara. She worked with all the grit and industry a four-year-old can muster to lift a worn-down and grimy block of salt out of her rusty red wagon. Part of her dragon trap, she’d told her Gram’pop.

If not for his stroke he would be right there alongside her, squatting in the dirt like he used to, helping her build her dragon trap.

Down at the other end of the back yard, sitting and smoking Chesterfields in the tiny arbor set up against the back fence was the dragon – Dan’s blind, half-crippled wife Nolie.

Dan was out of practice living with small children and keeping secrets.

Rosella, being all ears and a thousand questions, caught Dan in the code he used with the rest of the family when Nolie’s demands and accusations got the better of him causing his exasperation to boil over. The dragon is awake, he’d say. Or the dragon is hungry. Or the dragon is out of smokes.

Nolie had always been high-maintenance, Dan would tell people. Out of her hearing. High maintenance before it was a thing, he’d say.

After his stroke, Dan could no longer take care of Nolie as he had for so many years. The two of them were all alone in their house in Darwood, their children grown and moved out. At the end of last summer, Dan and Nolie moved in with their middle daughter Angela, her husband Lloyd, and their two kids. Only for a time, he’d said. Until he could get around on his own again.

Down the road less than a mile from Dan and Nolie’s place, Angela’s house was just east of Princeton and a little bit south of the Western Kentucky Parkway. It had a small back yard with a few bare trees. The unraked leaves left over from autumn still covered the ground, although it had been spring for weeks. Taking care of both Dan and Nolie used up all the time Angela and Lloyd had for looking after their own place.

Dan watched Nolie smoke. It made her tolerable. Angela wouldn’t let Nolie smoke in the house, so taking her cigarettes out under the arbor gave Dan a few minutes of peace. A few minutes of relief from Nolie barking her demands in a hoarse fury, accusing him of using his stroke as an excuse. Leaving her to do for herself, Nolie’d say, what he knew good and well she couldn’t do on her own. Or moving things, Nolie’d say, he knew good and well she’d knock into. Or scheming to run off and leave her, Nolie’d say, when he’d keep quiet like he wasn’t even in the room with her. Forcing her to call out for him when she knew good and well he was sitting right there. It was his own fault, she’d say, making her kick out until she caught him a good one and proved he’d been there the whole time.

From the minute Rosella heard adults talking about a dragon in the house, she pestered her mother and father to let her see it for herself. They would shrug and point at Dan, neither of them willing to get crossways of Nolie any more than necessary.

Only when Rosella marched off to find her Gram’mom and get to the bottom of this dragon business, did Dan corral her, promising to tell her about it. But they had to wait until Gram’mom was outside for another cigarette.

Rosella peppered him with more questions than Dan had imagination to cover. He cobbled together a fairy tale about how a dragon came to live under the house. Since the cellar was unfinished and poorly lit, it was off limits. It seemed a safe place for Dan to stash a fictional dragon. Dan hoped by putting the dragon far enough out of reach Rosella would lose interest. But that only increased her agitation. Living every day with a dragon under her feet was an electric idea for a four-year-old.

Rosella wanted more than anything else in the world, she said, to see it for herself. It sleeps through the winter, next to the furnace, Dan told her. It hates to be disturbed before spring. Waking up a dragon before spring was just like waking up Gram’mom. Rosella knew all about that.

Rosella was desperate to tell everyone about the dragon, but Dan warned her to keep it to herself and not say a word to anyone. No one. Not one single soul. Especially not Gram’mom. Otherwise, the sheriff would find out and come cart it away with the stray dogs.

That seemed to be enough for Rosella, and she didn’t mention it again the whole rest of the winter. Dan hoped she might have forgotten.

Dan watched Nolie light a new cigarette from the stub of the old one. She chain-smoked when she was angry. She’d been chain-smoking for two days now.

Two nights ago, Dan told Nolie he’d decided there was no choice for them but to move her someplace she could get the care she needed.

“Some kind a nursing home, you mean,” Nolie’d fired back at him.

“Assisted living, where you—”

“A damned old nursing home.”

She didn’t say anything more, letting him go on.

He’d continue to live in their house, alone, keeping the place up for the grandkids. Not like he used to, but as best he could. They couldn’t afford putting them both into a home just now. Not any kind of a good home. He was recovered enough to get around without the cane and manage his own care. But tending Nolie as he’d done all the years of their marriage was beyond him right now.

Nolie didn’t make any further sign she was listening. He went on anyway, explaining how Angela and Lloyd didn’t really have the room, the time, or the energy. Angela had Rosella and the twins Gabby and Darlene to look after, on top of working full-time as a checker at the Food Giant. Lloyd couldn't help out, having to work late like he did so often.

Dan had kept his voice grim so Nolie could hear for herself how much the idea pained him. He wanted her to catch for herself how breathing was a chore, how words were harder to come by, how things he’d done for her with no thought before now took an exhausting effort.

What he didn’t want her to catch was any sense of his relief, thrill even, that percolated through him since coming home from the hospital. The realization that he couldn’t be the one taking care of Nolie any longer made him tingle.

Nolie said nothing more about it the next day as she smoked and moved around the back yard. How could she not hear his slurred words?  The scuffy sound of his house shoes on the carpet as he walked? His lack of strength getting down to help her with her socks and shoes? Dan began to think she was coming to grips with the reality.

Until dinner last night. Nolie let loose on Dan, with Angela and Lloyd, their kids, Lloyd’s older sister Kate, her husband Ray, and their two boys, all there at the table.  She let them all know what her devoted husband Dan Klapp had been scheming for his invalid wife. What he planned, in spite of all she’d done for him. In spite of having his kids and raising them up. In spite of her being wholly blind and dragging around two bum legs. Without, mind you, a single minute of hired help which she would have had if she’d married Gary Easton, who’d done fine for himself in pest control.

That set off a blow-up between Nolie and Angela that rattled the tableware.  Angela defended her father’s life-long, good-hearted sacrifice, while Nolie wiped all of it away with a sweep of her hands, glad to match the saintly Dan Klapp, sacrifice for sacrifice, if he’d care to go at it.  Right now.  This minute.

Angela threw up her hands, fending off accusations that had gone stale a long time ago, having been pulled out and waved around so often.

It would have gone on like that, but Rosella, seeing the conversation was officially in a free-for-all and the dinnertime rules would be suspended for the duration, called out her intention to catch the dragon that Gram’pop said was hiding in the cellar. The dragon Gram'pop said was afraid to put its nose out, 'cause it might snap off in the cold. Gram’pop said.

Dan tried to distract Rosella, giving her a stick of celery dipped in the ranch dressing. But Rosella chewed on the celery stick as she went on, saying she’d waited all winter and now with it being almost warm again, maybe she could get that dragon to come out so she could see it for herself.

“There’s no such a thing as dragons. What chucklehead told you that?” Nolie demanded.


"Figures," said Nolie.

“There’s a dragon hiding under the house. Mom and Gram’pop talk about it all the time.”

Angela glanced at Dan and shook her head, letting him know he was on his own for this one. She’d done her ten rounds as Nolie’s punching bag tonight.

“Gram’pop told me there was a knight on a horse,” said Rosella, “and he met a mean old dragon who said it was more fun being a knight than a dragon, and could it ride the horse if it promised not to eat them. The knight said okay and let the dragon ride behind him. But the dragon made the knight go faster and faster, until they rode smack into a tree,” said Rosella, clapping her hands over her head, emphasizing the collision like she’d seen Dan do, “and the dragon’s wings broke clean off, and the king said he would lock up the dragon for being a pain in the bee-hind.” Rosella shot a look over at her mother, then went on, “And the knight felt sorry for the dragon and let it live under his house. And everyone was happy that the mean old dragon couldn’t burn them up anymore. The end.”

“That dragon must have a peculiar sense of direction to wind up in Kentucky,” said Lloyd with a laugh, flicking a glance across the table at Nolie.

“It’s been down there forever and ever and ever,” said Rosella.

Nolie, having no living eyes to read, didn’t give away what she was thinking, her face aimed at some middle distance. Dan, for knowing her as well as he did all their years together, couldn’t decipher the still, sallow face canted away from him. It was a long, long moment before she gave a shake of her head.

“Whoever told you that lame-ass fairy tale got it all wrong,” said Nolie, “The way it’s supposed to go, is that knight, riding his scrawny, used up old horse and prob'ly stolen, was nothing but a show-off. All mouth, saying how he could have this dragon or that dragon, but the truth of it? Nothing but lizards and salamanders, trying to pass for dragons, would bother giving him the time of day.  But the dragon you’re talking about, that was a real honest-to-God dragon. Good-looking, and there was no end to the knights buzzing around. But her trouble was she felt sorry for him, that knight, the one you’re talking about, who didn’t have any more sense than a cock-a-roach. He pestered that dragon to go for a ride. Wore her down with all his whining. The dragon, still feeling sorry for the knight, hitched up behind him, knowing full well dragons don’t belong on the backs a horses. Then that bastard—”

“Momma!” shouted Angela, “Little pi’tures, if you please!”

“—having less sense than your common, ordinary stink bug, put his spurs to that horse and ran right square into a sycamore tree. Down we go, all hienie-over-tea-kettle and end up on the banks of the Tradewater, the dragon knocked on the head, making her bat-blind, her legs twisted up, and the knight, in case I didn’t mention it before, with no more sense than a deer tick, walked away, not a scratch on him. So that knight, seeing it was his fault and being too gutless to say so, knew rock certain he was facing the Almighty’s damnation to hell—”

“Momma!” said Angela again.

“—square in the face.  What’s he do? He hauls that dragon back to his castle, her kicking and hollering,” Nolie wagged her head and flailed her arms, a dragon in mortal terror, “and locked her in his dungeon, making out he was doing her a favor, turning her into his good deed for life.”

Nolie cocked her head to listen for any objections to her version of Dan’s fairy tale. All she heard was Rosella’s teary sniffles.

“Oh, for Chrissake. And they lived happily ever after. The end. Now, I’m going for a smoke,” said Nolie, pushing herself from the table. She felt for her walker, unfolded it, and made her way outside.

Once Nolie was gone, Rosella asked, “Did they live happily ever after?”

* * *

Dan brushed his teeth, watching himself in the mirror. Like old color leaching up through new paint, that one foolish, selfish mistake is always there. Nothing covers it up well enough or long enough.

A beejay the other guys called it. By the way they smirked when they said it, he was sure it had something to do with sex so he smirked right along with them.  But he was too green to grasp the mechanics. Whatever it was, the guys assured each other that Nolie Huff was good for it. All it took was a fast ride in a stolen car.

After the wreck, their smirks were aimed at him.

Dan, Dan the blowjob man.

He shook out his toothbrush, dropping it into the cup.

At the door of their bedroom, Dan stood a moment before opening the door, wondering if she’d have the lights on or off for him.

Lights on meant he could see to get around without annoying her.

Lights off, on the other hand, could be Nolie’s silent and grudging welcome to an urgent intimacy. Or the chance to chuck heavy objects at his head before he could see them coming.

He pushed open the door. The lights were on. Nolie was already in bed, turned to the wall.

Dan was relieved. No flying debris or hellfire tonight. Or sex. Just as well, for its own sake. In bed together, Dan was a dutiful journeyman and Nolie by turns a reluctant fury or an enervated receptacle. Dan could not recall there being any passion in their lovemaking. Just the simple glue of duty.

“Don’t stand there hovering like an ax-murderer. Get in bed. You’re keeping me awake.”

Dan switched off the lights and eased himself in next to her. He lay on his back, listening to her breathe.

“Hell of a thing,” she said, still turned away from him, “finding out you had a dragon in the cellar all this time.”

“I made up a story for Rosella, is all.”

“Because she heard you talking about me like some great monstrosity.”

“Not like that.”

“That what I am to you?  The dragon you’d like to keep locked up in a cellar?”

“My tongue got away from me—”

“That’d make your life a whole lot easier, wouldn’t it?  Nobody’d give two shits locking that nasty old dragon away, would they?”

“My tongue got away from me is all, and Rosella was right there with her ten thousand questions. I never said it was you.”

“But ever’body over the age of five knows exactly who you’re talking about.”

“It was a joke and she happened to hear me.”

“Gave ‘em all a good laugh?”

“Sometimes, when you let loose the way you do, I do make a joke about it.”

“You must be a laugh riot.”

“They don’t come out the way they used to.”

“Nothing ever came out the way it used to,” said Nolie. “Glad to know where I stand.”

“One joke.”

“Your jokes like that are filthy mice. If there’s one, you can bet there’s a house full of them.”

“One joke stacked up against how many years of me doing for you?  Doesn’t that tell you where you stand, more’n one—” goddammed—“joke?  You can’t let me have even a single joke?”

She stayed quiet and her breathing so strong and regular maybe she’d dismissed him and gone on to sleep.

“You ever think maybe I’d like to know where I stand?” he said out loud, despite himself.

“If you can’t figure that out, after my keeping house for you, having four kids, I can’t help you.”  She shifted, reaching to twist the covers around her hips. “At least you don’t catch me telling Dotsie and Cherie how I’d like to see you locked up in a cellar.”

Dotsie and Cherie. The only friends she had left from the days before the accident. Both of whom warned her against him.

“The way you always cut loose on me?  In front of everybody?  How am I supposed to take that?” he asked.

Nolie didn’t say anything.

“I’d be happy for one thing, one single thing that tells me what Nolie Huff really thinks of me after all this time.”

“How about everyone thinking you’re a shiny-assed saint, living with a dragon in your house, and me playing along?  How about that?”

Nolie twisted toward Dan. “That’s it, isn’t it?  What’ll they think of good old Dan Klapp, putting Nolie in a nursing home by herself? That’s what’s eating at you, isn’t it?  You’ve gone all these years thinking it was you saving me. I let you think it. It was me saving you. If I hadn’t played along the first time Daddy let you come up on the porch, you’d’ve gone on being Dan, Dan the blowjob man. Thinking a quick ride in a stolen car’d get you something you’d be ashamed to say in front of your momma and daddy. A couple of shitheads, that’s what we were,” said Nolie, a slight snort passing for a laugh. “Excuse me for being a fool, thinking it was the one thing we shared.”

“I’d like to know there’s something you see as good in my coming for you.”

“You never once, from that day to this, said you were sorry.”

“That’s not so.”

“Yes, it’s so,” said Nolie, her voice tight, her jaw clenched. “Not once.”

“You’re just not hearing it.  Everything I do, every single day is an apology.”

“To who?”

He should have known what comes of poking a dragon that’s best left alone.

As if swimming in the same stream of thought, Nolie said, “Better to have let that dragon sleep. She could be a terrible creature when she wakes up to what’s going on.”

Nolie rolled back to facing the wall, working the covers up over her shoulders again.

“A person shouldn’t have to be the dragon in her own fairy tale.”  The air seemed to leave her body.

Dan listened for an embellishment or embroidery of emotion that would hint at some tender sliver under that crust of hers. But there was nothing. Just the rhythm of remorseless sleep.

And now, this morning, Dan stood at the kitchen counter watching Nolie and Rosella in the backyard. He set down the glass of water he’d held, steadying it with a studied care, thinking how Nolie, a slim, angry angel back then and beyond his grubby reach, could entice him with a wink into stealing a car.

She’ll make you forget ever doing anything else with a girl, they said, their meaning no more than a vague silhouette on a gauzy curtain of desire to Dan.

They drove, Dan in his new hunger, Nolie in control, not giving in to the aphrodisiac of speed and felony.

He longed to pull her to his side as they drove, but she kept herself out of reach, her sandaled feet on upon the dashboard, her sweet, firm legs bare and pale. When the rain on the windshield caused him to slow up, she slapped at him to go faster. He did, adding a weave between the lanes, letting her know he was above any fear, and hoping she would slide in close to him to reward his careless courage with a little tremble of delicious fright.

Until he over-steered through a blind curve in the rain, sliding on the gravel shoulder, and down the embankment. Rolling once, the car slammed to a stop on its side against a tree, him crawling out unharmed, and her so twisted up and bloody down on the floorboards, flesh and bone compacted between the collapsed metal of the door and dashboard that it made him wince every single time he thought about it.

Like now.

Dan showed up at Nolie’s house after the accident not knowing why, or what he wanted. A peculiar sort of pride possibly. Parading his remorse. Showing off his regret. Take it all on himself, never saying anything against Nolie. How could he? It wasn’t him in the wheelchair.

If Nolie’s father had been angry, or Nolie’s mother had thrown weep-worn accusations at him, he might have never come up on the porch. But they’d shown no sign. No wrath nor welcome.

Thinking back, Dan may have hoped for a spot of warmth from the two of them standing there, him coming to face them. Then, out of nowhere, Dan was telling her parents that he’d come to pay court to Nolie, if she’d have him, maybe thinking he could draw it from them.

Her father said nothing, just took a long, long look at him, before giving Dan room to come up the steps, then held the screen door open for him. It wasn’t any kind of warmth that Dan saw, if he thought about it. Relief, maybe, on her father’s face and resignation on her mother’s face.

The sight of her in the wheelchair, those pale sweet legs of hers, tucked oddly to one side made him want to duck his head and run. He was ashamed to be standing in the living room, ashamed to flee, him shifting from foot to foot, feeling like he’d been turned inside out, every thought in his head written out and nailed to the walls.

Nolie let him go on calling. Who else was there?

Dan had made it easy for people to change their minds about him as he twisted his guilty courtship into a parable of fresh integrity. There was no need, really, for Nolie to feel anything for Dan, as long as he could stay inside the radiant esteem that seemed to have grown up around him as people watched him caring for Nolie.

Asking Nolie to marry him seemed easier than asking her to forgive him.  Rejecting marriage would not cause as deep and lasting a wound as rejecting his repentance. He saw how it earned him a collateral admiration, melting hearts and swelling spirits.  No one else was interested in her, broken as she was.  His gallantry was to be admired and envied, not smirked at and whispered about for taking a busted-up, angry woman for a wife.

Dan had been devoted, but never passionate. She was his all-consuming good deed. She got that right about him. A way to squeeze past the guilt. His side road into heaven, if he took seriously the one minister they’d seen for counseling when the kids were still little. A real holy joe who hit the nail on the head and that was the last they spent any time with that Bible-thumping asshole.


Dan again focused on Nolie as she flipped her cigarette over the back fence into the alleyway.

“Who’s it there,” he heard Nolie croak out, her head cocked toward the spot where Rosella worked, arranging her dragon trap near the back gate.

“Rosella, Gram’mom,” Rosella called back to her, shoving the salt-lick into place, inside a circle of rose petals snuck off the neighbor’s bush, and candy canes she’d saved from Christmas.

Dan pushed open the window so he could listen as Rosella explained to Nolie the science of dragon-catching according to Gram’pop. Flowers and candy seemed to work best Gram’pop said.  She pressed a rose petal and a bit of candy cane into Nolie’s hand, to feel for herself.  The dress, she said, was something from her storybooks, and maybe the dragon’d think it was back home where they have castles. Gram’pop said I should use the salt lick. Works on deer, so maybe it works on dragons.”

“A fire-breathing dragon, stuck in a cellar,” said Nolie, “ain’t looking for candy and flowers, you ask me. Probably looking for a place to raise some hell, let loose and scorch something. Wouldn’t you think?”

Rosella looked up at her Gram’mom who couldn’t see how Rosella’s nose was all pinched up, puzzling out what Nolie was telling her.

Dan leaned down and strained to reach under the sink behind the bend in the trap for Angela’s basket of cleaning supplies where Nolie had tucked a pint of Jim Beam. Nolie didn’t have as many hiding places here at Angela’s, but Dan was sure he’d found them all. He screwed off the top and poured two-fingers’ worth into the bottom of his glass and splashed in a little tap water to cut the smell. The doctor had given him the warning about drinking hard liquor after a stroke, laughing at the need to mention it. Dan never drank anything stronger than Pepsi as far as anyone might recall. Nolie had to buy her Jimmy B for herself at the package liquor store down from the Food Giant past the filling station, on the days when she rode over with Dan for groceries.

Dan told the doctor he’d be glad to take it up just so he could quit and the doctor could check it off his list. That gave the doctor a chuckle, him telling Dan he appreciated a patient so keen to cooperate.

Dan cut back on stealing Nolie’s liquor.

Dan sat at the kitchen table with his back to the window. He rested his elbow on the table and tilted the glass to his mouth.

The mistake was shoe-horning himself into a noble character for which he was never fitted. A man known for his flaws only had to reach for uprightness. It didn’t matter if he ever managed to grasp it. The reaching was enough.

But playacting an integrity that had no sure footing in the soul was exhausting. It sent him careening through an impromptu life, a pinball, dinking off one bumper after another, racking up a meaningless score.

Good old, noble Dan. People never seemed to get tired of sunning themselves in the warm, confident certainty that Dan could go into the hard places of the heart where they could not. They knew the necessary moral fiber was threadbare in them. But that was okay because Dan was a whole thick blanket of goddam integrity.


When he looked back toward the yard, Nolie and Rosella were gone.

She couldn’t get far. She didn’t know this neighborhood the way she knew her own.

Dan poured himself another two fingers of Jim Beam. He had time before going after her. What’s the worst thing to happen? Walk herself into traffic—?

I’m sorry, he said out loud, sending his apology to chase after and run down the brutal pencil sketch of her end in his imagination, before that picture could be filled in with the indelible colors of desire.

Still, he couldn’t help thinking that while he may not be the good-looking kid in jeans and white tee-shirt that he had been, the ladies from church would still line up around the block with their casseroles and consolation if the way was cleared for him to start over. On reflex, he sucked in his gut.

The rain rattled on the awning over the patio, a steady rhythm at odds with the jigging limp of his furious, wandering thoughts, a road he was walking with one foot on the curb of regret, the other on the wide hot asphalt of his craving, giving his conscience an unsteady weave between the two as he let his mind wander along.

Nolie wasn’t much for citing Scripture’s wisdom to navigate life’s difficulties, but she was lightning quick to bruise Dan wickedly with chapter and verse to make her points. A man’ll give an account to the Almighty, said Nolie, for every idle word out of his mouth. The Bible was a lash to chase him from any argument and leave her alone on the field of victory.

When he simply stopped talking, she added that his idle thoughts counted, too. Nolie couldn’t abide the fact that there were places in Dan’s mind where her victories couldn’t reach.

Dan convinced himself that the only reason Nolie answered the preacher’s altar call some thirty-odd years ago to walk down the church aisle and declare Jesus her personal savior, was because Dan had done it the Sunday prior.

He still wasn’t sure if there’d been anything real in his own urge to stand up, slide out of the pew, and walk down front where the preacher and two of the deacons had stood, smiling at the slimy fish Jesus had pulled from the sea of sin and flopped down in front of everybody. Could’ve been the Holy Ghost just as easily as it could have been the expectations of everyone in the pews behind him all gathered up into a gaseous cloud that enveloped him. He could feel their desire to see the complete transformation of Noble Dan acted out under the rough-hewn cross over the communion table which was covered in the debris of the Lord’s Supper. Reverend Hayden ratified and blessed Dan’s newly borrowed righteousness with a holy kiss on the brow, kissing away the guilt.

That car he’d wrecked, a brand-new two-toned Dodge Coronet, wasn’t stolen. More of a lucky find. The owner, someone downtown on business, left the keys in the ignition. It made the difference between jail time and juvenile probation.

Dan had rolled up next to Nolie and she leaned in at the window, asking how he ended up behind the wheel of such a fine vehicle. She wore a white blouse with a turned-up collar and her hair pulled back. She rested her crossed arms on the roof of the car as she ducked down to look in at him. He let her think he’d hotwired it just for her.

They drove the backroads, rain coming down harder, Nolie reaching to push in the lighter for another cigarette, the road slick and her slapping at him to go faster. The quick turn coming up on them, him oversteering, the wheels hydro-planing, brakes doing nothing, the slide off the asphalt, onto the soft shoulder, then the roll, slamming against the tree. Him crawling out, wet, the sound of rushing water a good thirty feet below, him thinking how they’d been saved by the grace of God from a plunge that would have killed them both, ready to abandon the wreck and laugh it off. Then looking in and seeing Nolie crushed down under the dash onto the floorboards.

Dan’s face was wet. He wiped at the stream. He was standing in the yard in the middle of Rosella’s dragon circle. The sun, hidden by the clouds, was a faint smudge of light, low in the sky. There was a drifting smell of woodsmoke. Dan thought he might tell Rosella it was her dragon on the loose. But that didn’t amuse him like it should have. He was troubled by having no knowledge how he ended up outside in the rain. Where had his mind been that he’d given no thought to the hard rain coming down?

Seeing how far along it was to being dusk, Dan couldn’t recall if the loss of time and the memory of its passing was to be expected with his stroke. His brain was telling his legs to trot back into the house and out of the wet, but all he could manage was a long, jerk-kneed stride across the grass, placing first one foot and then the other up onto the patio with a wire-walker’s care, then back into the house.

He saw his glass still on the table and went over to retrieve it before it was discovered.

Shit. Sorry.

He drained it and when he turned to put it back in the sink he saw Angela’s purse on the counter. She was home from work, which meant he’d lost track of more time than he realized.

The phone rang twice and then stopped mid-ring. He heard Angela out in the hall, answering.

He ran cold water to rinse his mouth and spit into the sink, then ran hot water, swishing out the glass. He was setting it on the drainboard when Angela came skittering into the kitchen, grabbing her purse off the counter.

“Get to the car,” Angela said to him, flying by, her sandals slap-slapping against her heels. She left the back door wide open as she ran to the garage to get her car out.

When he finally made it to the edge of the patio, Angela was there, impatient, reaching to help him with the step down to the gravel drive and into the car, the engine running.

She flung herself bottom first behind the wheel, drawing in her legs, putting the car in gear and pulling the door closed even as they began rolling toward the street.

“There’s a fire out at the house,” said Angela, pushing wet strands of hair away from her eyes. “Adele next door said there’s all kinds of flames out the window and smoke everywhere. The fire trucks are already out front, but she says it looks like the whole place is going up. She thought she’d seen Momma and Rosella.”

Angela gave only slight consideration to the stop signs along the way, crushing the brakes for the barest moment, then showering down on the gas. Dan braced himself, stiff-armed against the dashboard, pitched forward then tossed backward.

On the street in front of Dan and Nolie’s house, the fire trucks sat at angles to the curb, their hoses run out.

Angela had to park down from the house and run the rest of the way, leaving Dan to struggle out of the car.

A fireman corralled Angela, guiding her behind the nearest fire engine.

Rosella sat on the running board, huddled under a mylar blanket.

The rain had slacked off, but there was no one in the open, on the sidewalks, or on the lawns watching the flames.  They crouched behind vehicles or peered from picture windows.  The fireman made no move to put the fire out.

“Where’s Momma—?” Angela started, louder and more shrill than she’d meant.  The fireman nodded toward the burning house.

Dan had gotten himself out of the car and came up behind Angela, seeing where the fireman pointed.

Up on the lawn in front of the burning house stood Nolie, silhouetted against the flames. She’d dressed herself in Rosella’s tiara and tulle skirt, and held up Dan’s shotgun.

“What’re you all doing, standing around?”

“We can’t get close enough,” said the fireman.

“You have to get her away from there.” Angela started toward the house. The fireman caught hold of her.

“Let the police handle it,” said the fireman.

The older of two cops standing behind the fire engine stepped over to where Angela and Dan stood with the fireman.

“Is that Nolie up there?” asked the officer.

The house, with flames licking out the windows, did not seem real.

“Dan!” the officer said, louder to break through. “Is that Nolie up there?”

“Yes,” said Dan.

“Can she rack that thing?” he asked.

As if she heard, Nolie pumped a shell in the chamber and fired a blast into the house.

“I guess she can,” said Dan.

 “How many shots she fired?” asked the officer.

“I don’t know.” His house. His refuge. His reward for a lifetime of patience.

“Anybody know?” the officer called out to the nubs of heads sheltered behind vehicles, peeking through windshields.

“Two or three since we got here,” said the fireman.

“I heard five or six,” a neighbor called out from behind his pickup.

“How many shells do you keep in that thing, Dan,” asked the officer.

“I keep it empty.”

Nolie racked and fired into the house again.

“That’s just great,” said the officer.

Dan watched the house burn, watched the fireman holding back, and any hope of salvage going up in smoke while they stood around.

“You may have to shoot her,” said Dan.

The officer gave Dan a sidelong look, as if not believing he’d heard right. “I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”

“With a firehose,” said Dan. “Knock her down. Then somebody could go up and get the shot gun.”

The house was fully engulfed. There would be nothing left. The house as it had been for him and Nolie had meant very little. As it would be for him alone had meant everything, a place to hide away from his noble calling.

He was shaking. He didn’t have armor enough to keep the fury at his core in its hiding place. He twisted at his hands, the mayhem building up in his fingers.

Dan’s fury got the better of him and set him walking up the hill to where Nolie stood.

The officer reached for him. “Dan.” Dan shook him off and kept walking, breathing hard.

It wasn’t courage, it was rage torching his insides, carrying him up the hill. Fury knotted his fists, even as he kept whispering sorry over and over through clenched teeth.

If anything I’ve done means anything more than a good goddam pile of shit—sorry—she’ll kill me before I reach her and everyone gets to see fucking Noble Dan the way God sees him.


When Dan made the top of the rise and stood in front of Nolie, he said nothing. He grabbed the barrel of the shotgun, and held it steady at his midsection, a dead hope in his hands. He had no idea what should come next, what he wanted to do, what he wanted her to do.

The flickering image of pulling the shotgun from her, striking her, looped through his mind, driving all else out of it. His apology tic kicked in, but his mouth gave way.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. “I—” his voice chuddered as he inhaled. “I’m sorry.” Now let her pull the trigger. Have done with him. Pay him back in full. Give everyone a good long look at where he stood with Nolie Huff.

Still holding the shotgun, Nolie said, “You can’t rest easy about putting me in a home, can you?  Too goddam worried what your admirers’ll think of you. Like they’re gonna say, ‘He’s done with her and chucks her in the trash. What do you expect? He was never anything more than Dan, Dan, the blowjob man.’  That’s what’s got you all worried, isn’t it?”

She let go of the shotgun, the butt hitting the ground, causing Dan to flinch. But it didn’t go off. She leaned in to him. “Who in their right mind’d blame you now?”

The fury left him.  The brutal looping imagery evaporated, as Nolie’s face transformed backward through the parade of years, returning to the face peering in at the window on the passenger’s side of the car, with that smile.

Even in the shadowy dusk and distortion of the flames he could see Nolie was smiling now.

“You could’ve shot me,” said Dan, finally. “Nobody in their right mind’d blame you.”

“Maybe I wanted to,” she said.

He flipped the shotgun over and checked the magazine.


His arms went limp, the shotgun hanging in his hands. The firemen scrambled to reach the house with their hoses.

“Daniel,” she barked. “I know you’re still standing there.  Come get me.  I’m all turned around. I don’t want to trip over one of your goddam lawn gnomes.”

“Where’s your walker?”

“In the house.”

He looked past her at the flames, feeling the heat. “Of course it is.”

“I couldn’t handle it and the shotgun, now could I?”

She reached toward the sound of his voice, waving her hand, summoning him to her.

He could feel everyone’s eyes on him.

His good sense and good nature were flimsy and unreliable.  Dan let his nerves and muscles take over, turning him around to fetch her. Nolie reached both her hands to his arms.

He walked her back to the fire truck, settled her on the running board, and sat next to her.  They faced the fire.  Of course she couldn’t see her handiwork.  The last good thing she saw was them driving in the rain along the Tradewater.

Dan had treated Nolie like a poison patch of loveless ground he’d taken upon himself to work. Dan glanced up at Angela jouncing Rosella on her hip, both of them fixed on the blaze.

He closed his eyes putting out of his mind the roaring turbulence of the flames, the crack of burning wood, and the hard hiss of water through high-pressure hoses.  He tried to see a beautiful stretch of road in a quenching summer rain.  Dan put his arm around Nolie. She nestled against his shoulder, her head tucked in close against him, her hand on his arm.

“I can’t love you, Daniel. But I forgive you.”

Dan and Nolie sat there, watching the fire take the house, the wall giving way and the roof collapsing as the firemen hosed down the piles of burning lumber, drowning any sparks that might break free.