It’s July, and we’re in a small town in Kentucky, shooting the independent cowboy/zombie film that my boyfriend, Jeff, is funding. Though he’s paying for the whole production, Jeff is content to erect tripods and make beer runs for the crew. The movie is called “Blood and Dirt,” and the script is awful: too ridiculous to be scary, too violent to be funny. Jeff says it’ll come together in post-production.
Because he made a fortune off a protein powder he invented in college, Jeff now gets to pursue his dream of being an artist. All he ever wanted was to be a “creative type,” as he calls it, and laments that he’s more of a “science guy.” He says this almost every day in some context. “I like it, but I’m more of a science guy,” he said yesterday when asked his opinion of a painting hanging in a coffee shop.
We’ve been here a week. At night we camp on a dirt field with the rest of the crew. Even at midnight, the temperature stays above ninety. Our bodies are sickening orbs of heat. We don’t touch inside the tent — a cramped, slippery thing, filled with tiny ants.
The adjacent park is occupied by a Civil War reenactment group. They wear real wool uniforms, suffering for verisimilitude. We suspect that they’re practicing for an upcoming event, since reenacting a single battle can’t take this long. When we ask them questions, they spout platitudes about God and country.
Last night we ate at Pizza Hut, all twenty of us. Only three people had cash so we split the bill on sixteen cards. We stayed in the parking lot for two hours smoking cigarettes and joints and drinking beer from the gas station. One by one, townspeople came out of their houses and stared.
Jeff feels self-conscious if I’m around while they’re filming, so I’m alone again today. The temperature hits 100 by eleven a.m. I wander down Main Street. A wave of nausea and I just make it to the diner bathroom before vomiting a gruel of Krispy Kreme and weak coffee. I’m either pregnant or sick from organisms lurking beneath the sneeze guard at the Pizza Hut buffet.
On my way out, an old man corners me behind a wood partition. His eyes are cloudy, like egg whites that have just started to cook. He breathes on me; his breath smells like apples softening in the sun.
“Your people pissed on my lawn,” he says.
I edge past him. I feel his runny eyes on me clear to the door.
Even the sparrows move in slow motion, their Chiclet hearts taxed by heat. I follow a trail of popcorn to the town square. Rusty water spasms from the fountain. I sit on a tree stump and am immediately approached by a small woman. She’s skinny, with bulbous joints, dull red hair and a jaw like a desiccated chicken wing.
“You’re all a bunch of grade-A assholes,” she says. “Skipping out on your tab like that.”
I tell her I don’t know what she’s talking about. I walk to the drug store where the crew buys energy bars and Gatorade and condoms. They say the local girls are almost too willing; no fun in it.
I linger in the air conditioning and buy a pregnancy test. The girl ringing me up looks at the name on my debit card. Then she looks at me. She chews her gum slowly. She blows a bubble that deflates suddenly, as if pricked. I have to reach over and pry my card from her hand.
I decide to go to the library. I move as fast as I can without running. The back of my flip flop is stepped on. The shoe comes off and I have to stop and retrieve it.
I’ve been stalked by a family. A middle-aged man. A plump woman with skin like yogurt with chunks of fruit in it. A teenage girl, blonde with a wide forehead, her eyes red from crying.
“Your friend had his way with my girl,” the man says. “She’s only seventeen.”
I shrug. “It’s none of my business,” I say.
“Will you give him this?” the girl says. She hands me an envelope. “Steve” is written across the front in girly, looping script.
Steve is a pudgy guy who wears stained t-shirts and scratches his ass on tree trunks. I laugh. “Steve?” I say. “Really?” The girl blushes and runs away.
Around six we spread a tarp over the hot dirt and eat KFC. Jeff shows me stills from the day’s shoot on his iPhone. The blood looks fake — too red, too thick, like the tomato paste my mom used to slather on meatloaf. “Looks good,” I say.
I tell Jeff about the townspeople, how I don’t feel safe alone in the town all day. He laughs and says I can’t let these backwater hicks intimidate me. I sip gravy from a Styrofoam cup like it’s strong tea.
I sneak out once Jeff’s asleep and go to the park bathroom to pee on the pregnancy test stick. A dash blurs into being; food-borne organisms after all. I vomit once for good measure, then stand on the concrete bib at the bathroom entrance, looking at the dark, uniform humps of soldiers’ tents, like sleeping elephants waiting trustfully for dawn.
The crew leaves early the next morning. I stay in the tent. The sun rises and I start to broil. I watch the tiny ants move in diagonals over the nylon membrane.
Pop, pop, go the guns of the fake Confederacy.
I step out of the tent, locate my plastic bag of toiletries, and set off for my morning bathroom visit. I ignore the townspeople who have encircled me. When I move, they follow, whining and clutching at the edges of my clothes.
I don’t think they’ll follow me into the bathroom, but they do. I go into a stall. They sit on the floor, light cigarettes and talk about kids, work, the weather. They could stay there all day. I unbolt the stall door and try to run past but they grab me and pin me to the wall. I start screaming. They touch my face, my hair, stick their fingers in my pockets.
“Leave the lady alone,” a voice booms. I feel wool scratch my cheek as his arm coils around my shoulders.
General Lee takes me to his tent. It’s spacious, the middle held up by poles. There’s a sleeping pallet, a table, a sepia-toned map. He lets me lie on his pallet. He lights his pipe.
I ask where he’s from.
“The great state of Virginia,” Lee says.
“How long have you been doing the reenactment thing?”
“If you’re asking how long this terrible war has lasted — why, it’s seemed lifetimes already.”
“I’m scared to go out there,” I say.
“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself,” Lee says. “You can stay here the rest of the day if you like.”
He hands me a Bible, then sits at his desk and writes letters for several hours.
At four, Jeff texts me. “I can’t thank you enough,” I tell Lee.
Lee stands and bows. “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me,” he says. “I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”
“Well, whatever,” I say. “Thanks again.”
I don’t tell Jeff about General Lee. They’re doing the sluicing scene tomorrow, so everyone’s excited.
“God, it’s so great to be around these creative types,” Jeff says. “I finally feel like I’m really living, you know?”
The men are burning through the town’s teenage girl population. The two women on the crew are having affairs with local married men. Angry citizens ring the dirt field the next morning. They hiss and spit at us as we break their ranks.
“Fucking rednecks,” Jeff says, and spits back.
I don’t bother going into town. I walk straight to General Lee’s tent.
His beard is real. I pull it gently, and he laughs.
His trousers are tricky to undo. No zippers, and the buttons are tight. We do it missionary, silent and with most of our clothes on.
After, I ask if he’s married.
“It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it,” he says.
I stay in the tent while General Lee goes to make a speech to his troops. The gun noises are so familiar, I don’t notice when the real gun goes off. But then, sirens. I walk with the soldiers toward the field.
The sheriff has a man handcuffed face-down on the ground. Jeff stands twenty feet away. His mouth hangs open as he stares at the bloodstained dirt. Real blood, so dark it’s almost black. It must be hitting him now, how fake the movie blood looks.
General Lee stands next to me. “What a cruel thing war is, to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors,” he says.
The reenactment packs up and leaves the next morning. The park is littered with pipe filters and spent packets of jock itch powder.
Steve’s left lung was punctured, but he’ll live. Filming lasts another two days. Now Jeff brings me along on the shoots. I sit in the dirt under a makeshift cardboard awning and imagine that I’m pregnant. Jeff will raise General Lee’s son as his own. He will never know. I will never trawl Civil War reenactment groups on Facebook, only to discover that my son’s father manages a Budget Rent a Car and listens to Creed.
Jeff hands me a twenty and tells me to buy a 30 pack of Miller High Life at the gas station half a mile down the highway. I nod and start walking, because life is a series of small battles, only some of which are worth fighting.
KATE FOLK is from Iowa and now lives in San Francisco where she works as an English teacher. Her fiction has been published in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Neon, and Bartleby Snopes, among other journals. She enjoys the company of cats.