My truck’s compromised radiator steaming, I pulled off for pepper flakes, expecting nothing more than having to call Triple A if I couldn’t fix the situation. This was in the parking lot of a place called Halfway Barbecue, down on Highway 176. I ’d chosen to take back roads all the way to the South Carolina coast in case something like this happened. That, and I felt no need to rush back and fill my wife’s brother’s basement with beach sand and seashells for one of his so-called last wishes. In a way, I guess if I ’d not dawdled I could’ve driven from Johnson City to that first beach south of Myrtle, filled the bed of the truck, and gotten home in time to watch a baseball game aired from the west coast. I could’ve taken 26 to 20, then gotten on 17, scoped out a secluded dune, and shoveled in what hot sand Rudolph wanted before he died. My wife’s older brother insisted on “Rudolph,” not Rudy, or even Dolph, like that actor. Sometimes I called him Adolph behind his back. Eva didn’t find humor in this, seeing as her name was Eva. She didn’t like hearing me say her name and Adolph in the same sentence.
I had said to my wife, “Great. I get a three-day weekend once a quarter, and you want me to go do some crazy project. Rudolph’s not sick, you know.”
My brother-in-law claimed to have agoraphobia. He went to college, studied computer science before it became commonplace, then got a questionable Tennessee psychiatrist to label him disabled. I’m no professional in that field, so I guess I can’t say. Rudolph’s not so disabled as to be unable to create websites for people, or fix people’s hard drives for money he never reports to the IRS. He’s not so disabled as to not pick up the telephone and get Eva to get me to bring him his needs.
“It might be the last thing you do for him, Cecil,” Eva said to me a week before this road trip. “I can’t let my big brother down. And you know I can’t do it myself, what with always being on call.”
Eva might’ve been what they call an “unexpected surprise.” Rudolph was ten when she was born, and their parents—Eva’s and Rudolph’s parents, in-laws that I never knew, which is probably not a bad thing—didn’t have their first child until they were in their mid-thirties. Eva’s a nurse. We met when I got a job in Johnson City after my EMT training. After I came back from my stint aboard a warship. After I spent one semester in a college setting and realized that I hated most professors and students, and that I ’d like to have a job where they depended on me or else, so I enrolled in a community college to get my certification. Eva and I underwent our first date in the Johnson City Medical Center’s cafe, and consummated our relationship in Room 238 with an “Oxygen in Use” sign on the door.
I looked at my wife, whom I loved to a fault, minus her sibling adoration. I said, “I don’t even think there’s such a thing as non-non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s got a cold or something. First off, that would just be called ‘lymphoma,’ nothing else. He doesn’t have lymphoma, and he doesn’t have a brain tumor. Remember last year? He got on the internet and convinced himself that he had endometriosis. Come on.”
“He’s never been to the beach,” Eva said. “He wants only to sit in a fold-out chair in his basement, on top of beach sand, maybe holding a starfish, if you can find one of those down there. A conch shell would be nice.”
I threw a shovel in the bed of my truck. I took my old duffel bag filled with clothes, plus my reflective vest in case anyone at the beach questioned why I had shoveled a sand dune down to nothing. I brought along a tent and sleeping bag, should I wish to stay at a KOA campground. If I ’d’ve been a Boy Scout, I guess I would’ve thought to bring black pepper in case my radiator decided to spring tiny leaks, so then I could throw in a couple palmsful, have the pepper clog the holes, and continue on my way.
But I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts. I was in the Navy, though I tried to forget about that part of my past. Maybe that’s why Eva thought I should know something about beach sand, like perhaps when I was aboard the USS Cowpens, sending Tomahawk missiles into Baghdad from the Arabian Gulf, the cruiser finally docked at a boardwalk pavilion somewhere and we all disembarked, looking for sand dollars.
“This might take me a few days. I’ll be back Monday night,” I said to my wife. I said, “I’ll have my cell phone charged. Call up if Rudolph succumbs to non-non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma so I can turn right back around.”
She kissed me hard on the mouth. She wore her uniform. For what it’s worth, men and women who fantasize about a woman in a nurse’s uniform probably shouldn’t. There’s always a slightly detectable taint of urine, bile, blood, and saliva that permeates every seam on a nurse’s uniform.
I lifted the hood of my truck and tried to remember the last time I ’d unscrewed the cap and checked the antifreeze. I thought, Go inside, order something cheap, sit down, and steal a pepper shaker.
I pulled out my cell phone, thinking I didn’t have the ringer turned up enough, to find that Eva hadn’t called anyway. In my mind I saw her either clipping a morphine drip onto an IV stand for a person who deserved such treatment, or sitting around with her brother, listening to his neurotic self-prognoses, probably watching a tv program about hoarders.
Halfway Barbecue got named because it was halfway between Forty-Five and Steepleburg—two little towns in South Carolina—back in the 1940s. But by the Eighties, the owner’s son took over. Then the original owner’s grandsons actually got college educations, but still returned to the family business right about the time I stood on a deck watching missiles fly skyward. I don’t know if those grandsons studied business, economics, or logic—or, hell, culinary arts—but Halfway cooked upwards of two dozen hogs a week, and that’s a lot of money. Maybe they studied marketing or advertising, for the two boys ditched the original menus and got printed “Halfway Between Everywhere!” All of this information was on the back side of the menu, under “Our Story.” Halfway between Washington, D.C., and Tupelo, Mississippi. Halfway between New York City and Miami, halfway between Montreal and Mexico City, halfway between Venus and Mars. I wasn’t so sure an actual cartographer, land surveyor, or astronomer collaborated with the pit masters at Halfway, but it seemed like a worthwhile advertising project.
I walked in and picked a paper menu off a lectern of sorts, then shuffled toward a group of twenty people either waiting to order or just backed off ten steps waiting for the cashier to call their names. I had time to turn and see that this place brought together, almost, the great melting pot of our country. Metal-legged folding tables, able to seat ten diners, stood like hurdles throughout the space. There were lawyer-looking people at one place, after-work white women at another. One table held nothing but Duke Power employees, eating while wearing their plastic hardhats. A group of black men, all wearing bow ties, sat at still another table. Elsewhere, grandmothers, meth addicts, and little kids just out of Headstart programs. There were bib-coverall-wearing men sporting crooked trucker caps emblazoned with stitched Confederate flags, or ones that boasted that Don’t Tread on Me flag. They wore hats promoting the NRA, and Make America Great Again, and 3.
I ordered, gave my name, and took my Styrofoam cup to go fill up with iced tea. By the time I had ice in it the black man behind the counter yelled out, “Cecil,” though he kind of did a singsong version of my name, like “Seeeeeeee-suullll!” I won’t say that I didn’t have a minor flashback to when merciless kids made fun of my name in elementary school.
I got my plate and walked past the attorneys, the racists, and the families who wouldn’t know how to deal with a stranger in their midst, their children bent down looking at cell phones. I didn’t want to sit down with them, seeing that—as Eva pointed out—I had the propensity to say things like, “The world isn’t going to end in a bang or a whimper, but from you kids banging into each other and getting concussions, or falling in a hole, or prancing into traffic. I’m already starting to see it! I drive an ambulance!”
That one semester I took in college? I paid attention in a poetry class. And then I read nonstop.
I took my food and noticed a black man and white woman, seated side-by-side, at the end of a table near the door. I thought, How nice is this?: Here in the middle of South Carolina, a biracial couple comfortable enough to go out to dinner with one another. I thought, Eva would yell at you, Cecil, if you said anything like this out loud.
“This place taken?” I asked. I looked to see that there was indeed a full pepper shaker off to the side, next to bottles of vinegar-based, tomato-based, and mustard-based sauces, next to a stand-up roll of paper towels.
The man wore green work pants and a green work shirt. Above one pocket it read Standard Hole, and above the other Malcolm. He wore a yellow tie, for some reason. The woman wore a University of Florida T-shirt, with that alligator mascot. She may or may not have been wearing culottes.
The woman said, “No, no, have a seat.”
Malcolm said, “You messed up.”
I looked at his plate. I ’d chosen some pulled pork, coleslaw, and French fries. The woman had pulled pork, potato salad, and broccoli casserole. Malcolm had six helpings of sweet potato casserole, nothing else. There on his Styrofoam plate he held servings of plop plop plop plop plop plop off-orange tubers. I said, “Man, this place is busy.”
Malcolm said, “They’ll be lining out the door in another hour. Lined out the door at noon, too.”
I looked down at Malcolm’s hands. They looked like racks of beef ribs overcharred. When he held his hands to the side of his plate, it looked like he had plop plop plop plop plop plop of sweet potato casserole framed by two orders of ribs. Maybe it’s because of my line of business, but I wanted to feel his fingers. I stuck out my hand and said, “I’m Cecil.”
Malcolm set his plastic fork off to the side and shook. He owned calluses you could strike a safety match on. I shook his hand, and thought about how a person could whet a Case knife on it. He said his name, and then, “I ain’t ever seen you here.”
The counterman yelled out to someone named Lester that his barbecue was ready.
The woman said, “I’m Nita. I’m from Florida.”
I didn’t say, “Oh, y’all aren’t together?” though both of them must’ve seen my face drop. Malcolm said, “I’ve lived here all my life. Nita here, she just driving through and needed a place to sit.”
I told them I passed through only, too, but didn’t go into any details. I didn’t want to explain beach sand, neuroses, agoraphobia, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, or Room 238 with Eva. I didn’t want to say anything about how I needed that pepper shaker because of the pinholes in my radiator.
Nita said, “I’m on my way to see my grandmother up in Asheville. She’s in a nursing home. My momma guilt-tripped me into it. I’m halfway there, and thought this would be fitting, what with the name.”
I said, maybe because I took that poetry class and prided myself on a keen eye for the unusual, “How come you’re wearing a tie, Malcolm? You don’t see many people wearing a tie over thick-cotton work shirts.”
Malcolm might’ve been somewhere between forty-three and sixty-four years old, one of those people you can’t tell his age. He scooped one plop of sweet potato casserole onto another. “I couldn’t live in Florida,” he said. He looked at Nita and smiled. “From what I understand, you can’t have basements in Florida what with the water table. I ’d be out of business.”
“People have pools,” Nita said. Listen, this woman looked only like she might’ve been anywhere from thirty-six to thirty-six-and-a-half, just about my age. She had naturally blond hair piled up on her head in a way that look both haphazard and chic. “You can dig down enough in my home state to have a pool, I guess.”
I laughed for some reason. I said, “I know this old boy back home, all his wife ever wanted was an above-ground pool. Well, as you may or may not know, those things offer nothing but trouble. He got the pool, he got stuck trying to get the chemicals right every day, it cost him a fortune, and then his wife left him. You know what he did after that? He drove around at night scoping out above-ground pools, and shot them with his thirty-thirty. He told me that he did it as a way to make life easier for every husband in America.”
I didn’t make that up, except for the part about the wife leaving him. The wife was Eva, for what it matters. The guy with the rifle was me. I knew every above-ground pool in eastern Tennessee, seeing as I drove an ambulance around mostly to men suffering heart attacks that probably stemmed from the stress of daily chores. Plus, I had my own problems and urges, I’ll admit.
“How old your grandmama?” Malcolm asked. He didn’t look up from his plate.
“Pedro?! Order up, Pedro. Guillermo?” yelled the counterman.
Nita said, “She’s, you know, seventy-seven or eighty-one. They say she’s got dementia, but it’s not true. This is one of those places where people move into a duplex, then an apartment, and then finally onto the Death wing. It’s my mother’s mother. My momma gets reports all the time about how Granny is making stuff up, and no matter what my momma says to those people, they won’t believe it as fact.”
I went ahead and put the pepper shaker in my left pants pocket, thinking that I might forget it. It would be uncomfortable leaving the Halfway, then returning to steal pepper. Neither Malcolm or Nita said anything.
I said, “What kinds of things does your grandmother say?”
I didn’t understand any of this until much later, when I had time to get on Google and—after maybe twenty stabs—figure out the way to spell this guy’s name. Nita said, “She told one of the nurses that she used to be a model for Roy Lichtenstein up in New York in the early Sixties. And evidently my grandmother keeps spouting off, ‘I don’t care! I ’d rather sink than call Brad for help!’ It was from Lichtenstein’s most famous painting of all time, called Drowning Girl. My grandmother’s the model, or so she says. The nurses at Autumn Hills think it’s some kind of cry for help, or something like that.”
I didn’t know what to say. Sure, I read a bunch on my down time, but not much in the realm of art history. Mostly I read poetry, like I said. I looked over at Malcolm, who held a fork with his spareribs hands.
I like to think of myself as being able to interpret people’s faces vis-à-vis what they’re thinking. Malcolm thought, This probably isn’t a good place for a black man to sit right now. Me, I thought, This isn’t a good place for a white man to sit. I said, “Sometimes people use too much mayonnaise in their coleslaw. Not the Halfway! This is perfect!” I looked out the window to see if steam still escaped my hood.
Nita said, “Anyway, my grandmother says she got fired from being a model for Mr. Lichtenstein because she said, ‘You missed a spot,’ when posing for another one of his paintings.” Nita drank from her iced tea. “Do y’all know who I’m talking about?”
Malcolm said, “Your grandmother. Up in Asheville.”
I said, “Uh-huh,” like an idiot.
“I wear the tie just so as not to scare so many people,” Malcolm said. “When I go to someone’s door, when I walk into the store, when I go out to a place like this. If I had on a T-shirt, I ’d put a tie around my neck. It also makes me remember always people who’ve been lynched in these parts and keeps me alert.”
“What does that even mean, standard holes?” Nita asked. I wanted to go buy her a helping of banana pudding for being curious.
Malcolm piled a plop of sweet potato casserole atop another, again. I made a mental note. I wondered if he was the kind of person who always asked a pizza guy how many slices came in a Large, the pizza guy says, “I can make as many as you want,” and then Malcolm says, “You better give me something like twenty-four ’cause I’m hongry.”
“We pretty much specialize in bomb shelters these days. End-of-the-world kind of shit. Excuse my French,” Malcolm said. “I work for Mr. Stallings. He’s a smart man. He’s gone around to all these people,” Malcolm waved his fork, “in about a three-county area and left fliers in they mailboxes, you know. Worried about another atom bomb? Worried about a race war? Next thing you know, somebody’s calling up wanting a little underground spot to store water and canned goods.”
Nita said, “That’s fascinating,” before I could get it out. She said, “The business of paranoia booms.”
I said, “I’m going to get some beach sand for my brother-in-law. He kind of lives in a shelter.”
Malcolm stretched his back. He put those spareribs hands atop his head. “All these people can’t read, evidently. They look right at my name, but still think it reads ‘Boy.’ They the ones dead set on the race war. They the ones ask for embrasures or arrow slits up top. Ones thinking nuclear warfare? They pay for the de-luxe model, with lead walls and a vent. Normally, though, it’s just some rebar and cement walls, kind of like a swimming pool with a roof.”
I would get on the Google and look up “embrasures” right after that polka-dot art guy. I said, “Sand, and seashells. I’m supposed to drive all the way down to the beach, load up my truck, then take it back. It’s a long story.”
Nita said, “How long does it take to make a bomb shelter? These are, like, for survivalists, right?” She looked at me and said, “I’ve seen enough sand in my life. I went from sand to Florida. Big mistake.”
Malcolm said, “We used to dig holes for all kinds of things. But people ain’t getting swimming pools like they used to. They ain’t making farm ponds. We used to get hired out to help making roads, but South Carolina ain’t built or fixed a road this century. We used to get hired out to help with footings, but no one around here has a new house. In a way, it’s a good thing we got all this new meanness going around.”
The man at the cash register spoke into a wax cup with the bottom punched out, like a makeshift megaphone. He yelled out, “Barack Obama? Order up.”
The diners at Halfway went quiet, then most of them booed. Malcolm said, “See?”
I said, “I have to ask. How come you don’t order anything but sweet potatoes? Are you on some kind of diet?” I said, “My agoraphobic, neurotic, hypochondriac brother-in-law, Rudolph, only eats beets and almonds. He read somewhere that it will help his condition. That, and being able to sit in a basement filled with beach sand. Which is what I’m on my way to get.”
“Don’t eat pig,” Malcolm said. “Not because I think they nasty animals or anything. I just don’t like pork.”
I felt my cell phone vibrate in my pants pocket. I didn’t look. I knew.
Nita finished her meal and said, “Well, I better get going,” before I could ask her about sand, and Florida. She picked up her plate, stopped, and said, “I don’t know how big a conscience you have, but I don’t know why you don’t just go buy some sand at Lowe’s or Home Depot. And you can pick up seashells at about every exit on the interstate.”
Malcolm said, “I got a big pile of sand left over at my last job. Had too much delivered for making the cement walls.”
I don’t know what got into me. I ’d never been this way. It just came out of my mouth. “Do you have a brother?” I asked Nita.
She said, “No. Only child.”
The counterman yelled out, “Jesus? Order up for Jesus,” and a couple people got up and left the restaurant, as if they feared a Second Coming. I guess everyone else thought the man meant Jesus, as in Pedro and Guillermo’s friend.
I said, “Don’t leave.” I could feel, deep down, that we had something in common.
Nita laughed. She said, “Well, I tell you what. I don’t want to sound like a bad granddaughter, but I could use a drink or two.”
Malcolm said, “What’s it going to cost you to drive another couple hundred miles in gas? Hell, man, I can give you this sand for, I don’t know. Let’s say twenty dollars. Sand cost anywhere five, ten dollars for fifty pounds. Just follow me out to the site. It ain’t but a mile from here. And maybe I got something in the cooler y’all might be interested in.”
Nita said—and later on I would think that maybe Eva hired this woman as some kind of detective to follow me around and tempt me—“I wouldn’t mind seeing what a bomb shelter looks like.”
I said, “If I get some sand here, then I’ll end up going in your same direction. I’ll be going straight back up i-26 toward Asheville.” I didn’t say anything about how I wanted to continue back roads. I didn’t mention the holes in my radiator. Still, I knew that some kind of bad thing would come of all this. I said, “Maybe we could convoy.” I felt like an idiot. That song started up in my head, and I had visions of two people talking on CB radios.
Nita said, “Come on,” to Malcolm and me. We picked up our plates to throw them in the receptacle by the door.
We took our cups. I said, “Y’all want a free refill?” and walked to get more water, in case I needed to pour it into my radiator, with the pepper.
“I can’t believe you’ve been digging holes all your life,” I heard Nita say to Malcolm, as they waited for me.
He said, “Well, I used to be a hog farmer.”
Outside, Malcolm walked to his truck at the far end of the lot—it ended up being an Old School tow truck with a winch on back. He pulled a portable cement mixer. The truck read Standard Hole on the door, written in the shape of a crude U, as if to look like a hole, I supposed. I didn’t know anything about the excavation business, so figured that this was either a makeshift truck or one actually needed for—I don’t know—pulling stumps out of the ground.
Listen, I ’d never cheated on my wife, and didn’t plan to do so. She ’d been through enough, though my moodiness had waned somewhat, I felt. But—again, maybe this is all “revisionist history,” something I ’d come across in my reading about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan—I felt deep down that this Nita woman needed companionship of a sort. She held deep pains and secrets. And my wife, Eva, anyway, continued to have a fling with an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor named Glenn. Named Rachel Glenn. At least that’s what I ’d talked myself into.
As it ended up, Nita and I were parked side by side. She drove an older Ford Taurus station wagon, with that optimistic Florida license plate. At the time I considered that maybe she planned to spend a long time with her grandmother, and that’s why she ’d filled the entire back seat and way-back with boxes, blankets, a Morris chair blooming with off-white stuffing from both armrests. A cat carrier appeared to be wedged between an old-school boom box and a stack of forty-some National Geographic magazines. She kept wrinkle-worthy clothes spread out across the boxes. Later on I would admit to seeing a baseball bat, a sword, a half carton of Dorals, innumerable plastic hangers, an empty Goody’s Powder box, a hardback Concise Atlas of the World, a waterstained and dogeared copy of Atlas Shrugged, two Gideon Bibles, and a GPS that got shoved into a cigarette lighter receptacle. I witnessed a black Coco Joe tiki god carved out of Hawaiian lava, an orange-handled Barlow knife, a copy of the Florida Times–Union’s horoscope page, and the sudoku puzzle where she ’d printed 3 in every space, wrong. There seemed to be an inordinate number of clipped-out coupons on the passenger seat for Hardee’s, Denny’s, Burger King, Krystal, and Applebee’s.
And discharge papers from the V.A. hospital in Gainesville.
She kept another book on the dashboard that went Beginner’s Sleight of Hand Tricks.
I glanced for a nanosecond only, but a good paramedic possesses an unearthly ability to scope out such things. It comes from arriving at a scene and going, “Unconscious driver with head wound and femur sticking out of skin, liquor bottles strewn everywhere, child in a car seat screaming, probable dangerous pit bull barking, wife running off in the woods.” From going, “Face up in the bathtub, water still running, big gash on back of head.” From going, “Big storm, tree fell, hands clenched to the power lines.”
I said, “I’m kind of embarrassed about this, but I have a problem with my radiator. I pulled in here overheated.”
I lifted my hood, slapped my radiator cap twice to ensure that it had cooled, then unscrewed the cap. Malcolm pulled his truck to the parking lot exit and idled, waiting for us. I took that pepper out of my pants and poured the whole shaker in, followed by sixteen ounces of water, which didn’t bring my radiator level up to a point where I could see anything. I thought, This is not good. I thought, The last thing you need is to throw a rod. Surely there would be a spigot at the house where Malcolm built a bomb shelter.
“Just so we have this straight, I can’t be ‘the other woman,’ ” Nita said. As I had my hands up on the edge of my lifted hood, she wrapped her hands around my waist and hugged me hard. Involuntarily I sniffed at her scalp, which smelled like a mixture of apples and rosemary, that special shampoo. “I’ve never even been ‘the woman,’ all this time. No siblings, like I said, and no spouse.” Her hair smelled like something else, which I wouldn’t grasp until later—the perspiration of someone heavily dosed on anti-depressants.
I didn’t say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, “Worse comes to worst, I’ll wait until tomorrow and see a mechanic.” I pulled down my hood but didn’t slam it. I hugged Nita back.
My phone buzzed again, in my pants.
She said, “I’ll follow you, in case you have trouble.” She said, “That’s the way this works—I go behind you.”
The truck started fine. The engine temperature gauge remained below halfway, and I pulled up behind Malcolm’s Standard Hole tow truck. He took a left-hand turn without using his blinker. I checked both ways for traffic to make sure Nita would be able to pull out. I took a left. When I got straightened out, I looked in my rearview mirror to see her driving in the opposite direction.
I know better than to check text messages, or talk on the phone, or reach down between my legs for a lit cigarette I’ve dropped while driving. Someone needs to keep track of traffic accidents caused by such maneuvers. More than once I’ve gotten to a wreck after a driver plowed into a bridge abutment, only to hear a voice saying, “Are you still there?” or “What was that noise?” from a cell phone no longer attached to the driver’s hand. I followed Malcolm, with Nita no longer behind us, and looked down to see that I ’d missed one call from Eva, plus a text. The text read, “Listen to your voice messages.” The voice message went, “Rudolph wants you to pick up some salt water taffy while you’re down there. He says he’ll pay you back.”
I looked up to find Malcolm turning onto a dirt road off to the right, and I almost rammed into him.
I thought about calling up my wife and lying, saying that I was just entering Myrtle Beach and whatnot, but knew that she ’d want me to stick my phone out the window so she could hear the breeze, and I would, and she ’d say, “That sounds like you’re on a dirt road halfway to your destination,” because she had that ability. I set the phone on the bench seat, thought a second, then put it back in my pocket.
Malcolm drove his truck and portable cement mixer another quarter mile, through scrub pines, then took a left-hand turn down a rutted path that dead-ended into what must’ve once been a stately plantation house, a two-story place with four columns, a place surrounded by what appeared to be newly burned acres of trees. It looked like napalm once scorched the grounds in a full circle, all the way to a small pond and a stunted crop of moss-beleaguered tombstones down the hill. Malcolm pulled over to the far side of the house to where he ’d dug the bomb shelter.
I pulled behind him, looked at my temperature gauge, and saw what clean sand he still had piled up to the side of the excavation. I put my truck in reverse, did a quick three-point turn, and backed up, following his hands to tell me when to stop.
“Where’s your woman?” Malcolm said when I got out. He still held up two racks of ribs facing me.
I said, “She turned the other way. I don’t know.”
He said, “I thought she was taking a shine to you, man.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say, “I did, too,” or “I ain’t going to cheat on my wife.” I said, “That looks exactly like regular beach sand, doesn’t it?” I craned my neck down to the hole and said, “How long you figure a family could live down in a hole like that?”
Malcolm laughed. He shook his head. “I guess until I come by here and steal all they food. I don’t know about these people here, I never met them. Someone told me they took off for Detroit or some place to do some business. Pittsburgh. One them cities with a football team. If they like everyone else, though, I’ll know where they hiding, and what kind of food they got.”
I looked down into the unfinished bunker of sorts. Malcolm had already poured the cement, taken off the forms, and smoothed the walls. A wooden ladder descended down, and I assumed that Standard Hole would offer a regular staircase later, plus a roof and lockable hatch.
“White women crazy,” Malcolm said. He said, “Say, you got a shovel?”
I walked over to the pile of sand he had left over. I said, “I really appreciate this, man. Who would’ve thought that I ’d stop at a barbecue place and end up with what I needed.”
I nodded and pointed to the back of my truck. In my mind I thought about how going back to Johnson City I might need to stop every fifty miles and rest the radiator, fill it up with more water, and so on. For some reason I thought it necessary to say, “After talking with you, Malcolm, I might not eat anything but sweet potatoes for the rest of my life. It might make me a better person both physically and spiritually.” I wondered if I had ever come across a poem about sweet potatoes.
I shoveled. I went to town. I flung silica over my left shoulder not looking, and in my mind imagined myself as some John Henry kind of railroad champion. I sucked pulled pork from my teeth. I said, “Hey, didn’t you mention something about having a bottle of booze around here, Malcolm?” I thought, Man, I’m glad that Nita woman took off scared from us—smart maneuver on her part and lucky Siren-evaporation for me. I thought, How in the world did I ever come up with the term “lucky Siren-evaporation” and wondered if it was from a poem, maybe one of those late-nineteenth-century ones by Baudelaire or Rimbaud that I tried to figure out a few years back. I stuck my shovel point into the pile and flung. I sweated. I didn’t think about what my coworkers underwent while I got my three-day weekend. Were there fiery crashes on the interstate? Did someone have a chainsaw accident down in Jonesboro? How many near-ODs took place caused by heroin? Did Eva get called for help by Dr. Rachel Glenn to pull a dime out of a child’s nose?
I filled the truck to the brim, and watched the shock absorbers cringe.
Malcolm stood off to the side, as he should’ve, smoking what I considered to be a regular pipe, like men used to smoke in the Fifties and Sixties. I ’d not seen a person smoke a regular pipe outside of old movies. In my mind I thought about how I needed to get on the interstate and find a Stuckey’s—if they still existed—to find seashells and salt water taffy.
I took each grain of sand, a perfect fit. Malcolm said, “Damn. I can’t believe what I had left over is exactly what you needed.”
I wanted to shake his hand to see if my now-blistering palms might cause a spark when they met the calluses on his. I said, “Perfect. How often does something like this happen?”
Malcolm reached in his back pocket and pulled out a silver flask. He took from it two or three Adam’s-apple bobble’s worth, then extended it to me. I took it from his hand—it looked as though he handed me a thimble—and followed suit. As I drank, a noise not unlike a .22 pistol report sounded. I jumped, then looked to my truck. A second explosion occurred, and I saw both my back tires flat to the ground. Pow! Pow!
Malcolm said, “Too much weight for your back-end truck.”
I said, “Son-of-a-bitch, God, I didn’t have any intentions. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Yeah, too much weight, I guess,” Malcolm said. He said, “Hand me back my flask. You got bad luck.”
I didn’t even want to make eye contact with him, because in doing so it would mean that, sure enough, I understood that I had bad luck. At least I felt that way at the time. I thought, If you look at him, he’ll know that your eyes plead for help, help, help. I handed over the flask. I said, “I have only one spare tire.”
He said, “I don’t want you here when these people come back home. It wouldn’t look right. You got to find a way to get off the premises.”
I nodded. I said, “Let me go ahead and pay you for the sand before
I don’t know why, but there in the heat I envisioned Rudolph, waiting.
I saw him standing in his basement, moaning like a fool.
And then I reached in my back pocket to find that I no longer owned a wallet.
Later on I would beat myself up for never grinding my way through regular college and taking a course in Logic. I should’ve understood that any person with a Beginner’s Sleight of Hand Tricks how-to book in plain view, who later offered a long hug, meant nothing more than pickpocketing. And then there was the whole issue of Malcolm and Nita seated together at Halfway Barbecue.
Malcolm said, “Might be lucky I got a tow truck, I guess.”
I tried to remember Nita’s license plate, but could only envision those two oranges and the sunshine state beneath her letters and numbers. I didn’t check my texts. To Malcolm I said, “Goddamn it.”
“No matter what happens, I’m thinking you better start shoveling back out all that sand. It’s all gone fly out anyway, what with the angle from a tow truck.”
With each shovelful I relayed back down to the earth where it once lay, I did not blame Malcolm. I didn’t blame Eva, or Rudolph, or even Nita the pickpocket. Man, I self-loathed myself harder than a bad tooth, harder than mildewed wood, harder than a dying man stubbing out his last cigarette. I thought, Fool, fool, fool. I even thought, What if I have a heart attack and die out here, on a day when I could’ve had sweet potato casserole?
I don’t know how long it took me, but eventually there stood a nice rounded heap of sand where it once existed.
I said, “I guess you wouldn’t let me borrow your truck and try to run down Nita, would you?” She had an hour’s head start, at least, but that Taurus didn’t look like it could hit most speed limits.
Malcolm shook his head. “I don’t trust nobody,” he said. “You understand how come I can’t trust nobody, right?”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “I’m the same way.”
Malcolm unleashed the cement mixer from his tow ball and pulled my compromised truck out to the two-lane just in case the owners happened to come back. He said, “I could give you a ride back to your home, and you get some money, and then I release your truck down. Or I could give you a ride back to Halfway and you sit inside there waiting for someone to come pick you up.”
I didn’t want to call up Eva. It’s not like I ’d messed up a number of times in the past, but I ’d messed up enough for her to list out episodes that started with “catching the above-ground pool on fire” and finally ending with, “And now you’re telling me somehow you blew out your tires trying to play a trick on my dying brother.”
I thought about how my bank stayed closed on Saturdays, how I didn’t have an ATM card anymore, and how it might be a good idea to call credit card companies and cancel everything, if I had the fucking phone numbers to the credit cards, et cetera.
I said to Malcolm, “What do you think I should do?” I didn’t say that, as a veteran, and a paramedic, you ’d think I ’d have some sort of idea.
Malcolm looked up at the sky. He said, “They say that people always come back to the scene of the crime, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case here.” He said, “How about this: I tow you back home. If you don’t pay me two dollars a mile, I’ll know where you live. Know that I’ll come back, and I might bring me all my excavating machineries. Next thing you know, your house sinks down into a hole.”
“Okay, but”—I had learned this over the years—“can we stop at every exit along the way and see if that Nita woman is scamming someone else at a roadside diner? Then maybe I can get my wallet back.”
I climbed into the tow truck’s passenger seat. Malcolm reset his odometer. He said, “I got a third cousin lives up in Johnson City. Or right outside. He’s one them Melungeons.” Malcolm said, “I might go see him later on, while I’m up there.” He pulled onto Old Steepleburg Road and didn’t check his rearview mirror. We drove past Halfway Barbecue, which still held a crowd. Malcolm took the exit for i-26 going north.
I took out my cell phone and punched the Message icon. Eva had left three. One went, “Just get the sand. Forget the taffy.” The next one went, “You might want to hurry,” and the third one—all of these were within maybe ninety minutes, understand—went, “Because you weren’t here, I had to call an ambulance for Rudolph.”
I said, “Oh, great.” I said, “If you see Nita’s car on the side of the road, we should probably just keep going. Losing my wallet and having someone jack up my credit cards isn’t going to be my major problem.”
Malcolm said, “Do you like Johnny Cash?” of all singers, and shoved an eight-track tape into a device I had been born too late to ever experience. That “Ring of Fire” song came on, of course, with all of its “down, down, down” lyrics. I imagined Malcolm digging bomb shelters for paranoid people, this song looping over and over through his head.
I said, “Right now I feel as though I ’d be better off in Folsom Prison.”
Malcolm said, “You ought to call your wife, my man. You need to tell her what’s going on.”
We passed a number of exits, all with fast food restaurants, convenience stores, the occasional locally owned restaurant. I stuck my head out of the tow truck like a mixed-breed stray dog in search of her original owners. I saw no cars similar to Nita’s. I looked into the side mirror and watched my truck swaying slowly, backwards, its tail end facing me, its front bumper sparking every time Malcolm couldn’t avoid potholes.
I said, “Were you in the military, Malcolm?”
He nodded. He said, “Always. I is now.”
I is now, I thought. I is now.
When we got to the South Carolina–North Carolina border I looked off to the right. There was a long, veering exit ramp leading to the Welcome Center. Malcolm was driving a good seventy miles an hour, but I swear I saw Nita parked there, right behind two people walking poodles, and in front of the public restrooms. She sat on the hood of her car, her face buried in her hands. I didn’t yell “Stop” or “Take the next exit and turn around” to Malcolm. I thought about how Nita probably served at the same time I served, there in the desert, scared the entire time, unable to erase visions of leading a supply convoy through, say, southern Afghanistan or central Iraq without losing members of the unit.
Malcolm pulled out Johnny Cash and shoved in James Brown.
I started laughing when “I Feel Good” came on, and I couldn’t stop. When Malcolm hit the first steep grades of the Blue Ridge, his tow truck slowed down and people passed us. I thought, What are these returning-from-vacation people thinking, if they look up from their cell phones? Will they see a black and white man pulling a derelict truck only? Will they see the man in the passenger side wondering how he’s going to explain his past and future? Will they see a harmonious future for the South? Up ahead I saw a flashing portable roadside sign standing in the breakdown lane. It went experimental pavement ahead to detour ahead to watch for falling rocks to dangerous curves. I thought, Really? And then I asked Malcolm to slow down, and veer to the right a little. I retrieved the empty pepper shaker from my pocket, stretched out the window in a way that, as a paramedic, I would advise people against doing, and flung it hard right into the yellow bulbs.
Already I knew that, on the outskirts of the Tri-City area of eastern Tennessee, when Malcolm needed to fill up with gas, I would go inside, look for salt water taffy, find none, and end up stealing a bag of sugar-coated Orange Slices. At least I ’d return home with something, I ’d think. And it would be at this point, while convincing myself worse people traversed the planet, that I ’d backtrack mentally from retrieving the cup of water at Halfway Barbecue, crossing the lot, and going up to lift the hood of my truck. That I ’d remember carrying my wallet in my left hand, and setting it down atop the engine block while my mind skittered from radiator needs to Nita’s outright seductive nature. She would approach, hug, and I would close the hood while making an inventory of her car’s contents peripherally.
I would look at the back end of Malcolm’s tow truck and know that, by now, the wallet had unmoored itself and scattered roadside somewhere between false beach sand and my hometown. And then I would stand in the parking lot and call Eva to tell her everything that people like Nita probably underwent before finding me, and all those pitfalls my brother-in-law rightly missed by secluding himself.