It’s July, and the summer issues of literary magazines are rolling off both the physical and cyber presses, including Virginia Quarterly Review, which this week shared a story from its summer print issue online. In “Dixon” by Bret Anthony Johnston, author of the bestselling novel Remember Me Like This and the award-winning collection Corpus Christi, a father risks border patrol agents and losing his job to illegally sell a shipment of Dairy Queen kid’s meal toys in an effort to save his daughter.
A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The first thing that is apparent in Johnston’s story is his facility with both setting and character. The Rio Grande valley pushes itself through car vents, smelling “of creosote and trapped heat;” it “swamp[s] in” through open windows, “heavy as wet wool.” The stars in the night sky are like buckshot. Johnston’s descriptions read as an extension of Dixon, a man who taught his daughter to bird hunt and gave her a .20 gage shotgun for her twelfth birthday, a man who says oblique and folksy things in response to misfortune like, “He didn’t think the creek would rise.”
Dixon has been the manager of the Dairy Queen for four years, and his sweet tomboy daughter, Casey, has become a teenager and has started down a bad path. She snuck out at night until he nailed her window shut from the outside. She has stolen her mother’s jewelry, Dixon’s pistol, even her own .20 gage, and tried to pawn them. She’s hanging out with older boys. She’s on drugs. After an incident that occurs the night before the story picks up, an incident that turns the stomach to read, Dixon and his wife decide that Casey will go to rehab. As a DQ manager, Dixon doesn’t have that kind of money. What he does have, however, is a shipment of new kid’s meal toys, which a man named Cornbread will buy for $3000.
“Dixon” has excellent moments of suspense, namely Dixon’s stop at the border patrol checkpoint and his meeting with Cornbread and Moose, a scene that is almost entirely dialogue expertly crafted by Johnston to bleed unease. The story’s best parts, though, are Dixon’s reflections on his daughter, her childhood, and her decline that punctuate the story like a heartbeat. Dixon’s tenderness toward his daughter and his strident belief that he can save her, even as—especially as—she defies him and abuses herself, is the light in this otherwise dark story. And if his thinking is hopelessly naïve, it’s also absolutely beautiful.
For the last hour of the drive, he’d been thinking of Casey as someone suffering temporary amnesia. She was in a fugue state. Getting her out of this sludge could be as simple as reminding her of the life before. All he needed to do was jar her memory. He could manage it. They’d play cards and go bowling. They could even start hunting again, maybe head up to the Hill Country for pheasant. If the taxidermy shop where he was meeting Cornbread did solid work, he’d have one of her birds mounted. Hang it above the television or in her room. When he’d laid her in her bed last night, Dixon was struck by how unfamiliar the room had become. Her plush toys and bright posters had been replaced by a wheelless skateboard, a lava lamp, and barren walls. Maybe they’d hang a bird on all of her walls, he thought now. Give her more to brag about, build her confidence. Trish would call his thinking naïve, but Dixon knew it would work. He could hardly wait.