George Singleton ~ I Cannot Escape Diogenes

Finally, after I got my offi­cial dri­vers license and could dri­ve at night, my friend Randall Meeks’s father hired me out to tough­en his son, or at least get the boy inter­est­ed in some­thing oth­er than musi­cal the­atre. I’d get paid in beer and pulled pork, maybe the occa­sion­al ten dol­lar bill and a joint. This has to be between us, Randall’s father said. He said, Don’t tell your mom­ma or dad­dy, under­stand? At the time, aged sev­en­teen, I had noth­ing bet­ter to do. It’s not like I knew how to fist­fight to tough­en Randall, though since about fourth grade I’d tak­en up for him dur­ing recess, know­ing that boys like Olin Pike shouldn’t be taunt­ing Randall by call­ing him Randall Freaks, or Randall Reeks. In truth, he didn’t reek. I thought he smelled good—smoky—from stand­ing out­side while his dad smoked pigs, ready­ing him­self for any upcom­ing bar­be­cue com­pe­ti­tion. Olin Pike taunt­ed, I stood up for Randall, and then we came back inside from recess or gym class—elementary school through ninth grade—and I sniff-sniff-sniffed my best so as not to allow blood to drip down on the pages of my text­book. Sometimes I’d look over at Randall, who didn’t seem affect­ed by any­thing, Randall, sit­ting there with his shirt but­toned to the top, his loafers shined so hard that some­times in the after­noon, when the sun beamed down through the lou­vered win­dows, I got blind­ed, me befoul­ing every­thing from the Bobbsey Twins to Anne Frank’s Diary page by page, drip by drip.

            Mr. Meeks, evi­dent­ly, cringed when a pho­to appeared on the front of the week­ly eight-page Hopeless Creek Herald, show­ing off our school’s cho­rus, stand­ing on alu­minum bleach­ers, ready­ing them­selves for some kind of region­al com­pe­ti­tion in Asheville. All the boys—basses and baritones—stood off to the left. All the girls—sopranos and altos, I guess—stood on the right of the stage, Randall Meeks in the cen­ter of them. Later on the same pho­to would show up in the yearbook.

            I wasn’t in the pho­to. Everyone at Hopeless Creek High—I think our stu­dent pop­u­la­tion was some­thing like 300, ninth through twelfth—had to par­tic­i­pate in an after-school activ­i­ty. Well, no, 295 or there­abouts ninth through eleventh, with five seniors, see­ing as most every­one dropped out to work pulp­wood, or over at the paper mill. Anyway, I ran track. I pole vault­ed. Not that I could brag about it, but I got up to just under twelve feet, which was enough to get some atten­tion of a coach from a small col­lege just over the state bor­der, where I went. I got the hell out of Hopeless Creek. Randall Meeks and I might’ve been the only two to do so.

            Mr. Meeks also played the ban­jo, and spent week­days pan­ning for rubies and sap­phires, which he tum­bled nice­ly and sold to tourists pass­ing by on high­way 19, at a pro­duce stand-look­ing assem­blage he’d erect­ed, four poles, met­al roof, ply­wood-topped table. If I were a psy­chol­o­gist, I’d say that Mr. Meeks’s con­cern over his son’s dain­ti­ness might’ve stemmed direct­ly from a cer­tain gene passed down that involved not work­ing a stan­dard job, and want­i­ng to get by on prize mon­ey from bar­be­cue, prize mon­ey from ban­jo com­pe­ti­tions, and what­ev­er he talked peo­ple into buy­ing in order to make their own jew­el­ry. I don’t know if he kept a tow truck parked in his yard at all times as some kind of front, but I nev­er saw him out on the road, trolling for strand­ed motorists.

            Mr. Meeks col­lared me while walk­ing down the road look­ing for my dog. I told him what I did. He said Hey, Stokes, boy. He said, Don’t let your dog come over and get my chick­ens. He said, Mother’s Day’s com­ing up, or Valentine’s Day, one or the oth­er. You need to get some nice gem­stones from me.

            I said, Hey, Mr. Meeks.

            He wore what he nor­mal­ly wore: kha­ki pants he’d cut off at the knees, and a black t‑shirt that adver­tised Meeks Q for U. He’d not shaved in a cou­ple weeks. One eye squint­ed, as if he’d been shot with lemon juice. His gray­ing hair stood up in ways that abo­li­tion­ist John Brown would’ve been proud. Somewhere back there in the house I could hear his wife yelling out, We need a real plunger, we need a real plunger!

            As an aside, my father called Mr Meeks’s Dodge Dart The Doghouse, for he’d seen him more than once get­ting out of it, wear­ing paja­mas, at sev­en in the morning.

            I could also hear, faint­ly, music: Was that Cher? Liza Minnelli? Bette Midler?

            Mr. Meeks let go of my col­lar. He said, You ain’t out here doing some­thing like bird-watch­ing, are you? Goddamn. What’s going on with you kids? Randall’s always walk­ing off say­ing he wants to watch some blue­birds and what­not. Listen, take him out and make him drink a Budweiser. Introduce him to some girls you know who might not think it unwise to sit up at Sunset Rock and make out with him. I don’t know. You got two gloves and a ball, Stokes? See if he’ll play Catch with you. He won’t with me or his mother.

            Then he made his pay­ment offer. He said, You know what I’m famous for? Barbecue. You know what my boy is? Vegetarian.

            He said, You got a sis­ter, right? Tell your sis­ter I’ll pay her the same, if not more.

            The Meekses lived, odd­ly enough, in a house that might’ve been 4,000 square feet, added- on, and added-on, and added-on over the years, wood, to brick, to wood again, to some kind of stuc­co. Originally, Randall’s great grand­fa­ther built a square four room cab­in. My par­ents, sis­ter, and I lived down the grav­el road, next door, but a good two hun­dred yards away. We lived in a reg­u­lar ranch-style. My father told me once that he’d heard that Randall’s father made a bunch of mon­ey by smug­gling mar­i­jua­na. According to my dad, Randall’s father went down to Mexico, gath­ered clean clam and oys­ter shells, stuffed each of them with a good bud, glued them togeth­er, then either bought or hired on a nice boat with a makeshift hold and sailed it back to South Carolina. I might be wrong about this. He might’ve only gone to Jamaica.

            I shrugged. I thought about how I might need bail mon­ey, should Olin Pike ever come out of his amne­sia. A week ear­li­er he’d been taunt­ing Randall, gone from Randall Reeks or Randall Freaks to Randall Streaks, mean­ing his under­wear. This occurred in a his­to­ry class we all attend­ed, and it seemed apro­pos of nothing.

            Anyway, there I was at the end of the run­way, get­ting ready to pole vault. Olin Pike hap­pened to be a shot put­ter. He stood near the pit where I’d even­tu­al­ly shove my no-name-brand pole, sup­pos­ed­ly made for 130 pound peo­ple.  Understand that these moun­tain­ous areas got winds, and I knew that, lat­er, I could blame a cross-breeze. I took off. Me, I need­ed twen­ty-two steps from where I start­ed. I held that pole up high and, when I got to Olin Pike, I shoved the end of my pole right into the back of his neck. No one was around. The two-mil­ers hap­pened to take the third turn on the track. Hurdlers lounged around stretch­ing on the foot­ball field. Our coach looked up at the sky. Boom! I hit Olin, and then I ran right through the pit. He fell down and hit his head on his own shot put, which caused the concussion.

            This is no lie. When I got turned around to look at bul­ly Olin Pike—I thought he might be dead—the only thing I could think about was my friend Randall Meeks there in the audi­to­ri­um, singing one of those songs that dealt with the hills being alive, our high school chorus’s claim to fame. I came back and checked on Olin, then yelled out Coach, Coach, Coach, like that. I said, I didn’t mean to, et cetera, et cetera. The hur­dlers kept stretch­ing. The two-mil­ers came back around, plodding.

            Anyway, I thought about how I could use five bucks, a pulled pork sand­wich, and a joint should I need to hire out a lawyer for assault with a dead­ly pole vault with intent to kill. I said, Okay.

            Then I went inside their house, half of which was inch-deep in toi­let water, to find my friend Randall in his room, lis­ten­ing to Barbra Streisand.

            I said, Hey, Randall.

            Tell me you knocked out Olin Pike on pur­pose, he said, plac­ing his hands against his cheeks in a way that remind­ed me of Marcel Marceau. I’d seen pic­tures. He said, You’re my hero, Stokes.

            I said, It’s Friday. Let’s you and me do some­thing tonight. I don’t have any­thing to do. And maybe you could help me out, explain­ing algebra.

            He said, Do you want to go to Asheville? There’s sup­posed to be a dreamy new Mediterranean restau­rant I want to try.

            I said, I have a track meet on Monday. My coach says I need to fill up with car­bo­hy­drates. I thought maybe you and I could just dri­ve around and then drink some beer. Maybe we could go over to Sunset Rock and hang out, you know. I got a good radio in my car that picks up AM sta­tions all the way to Chicago. Or we could go sit on the edge of the quar­ry, but it’s kind of in a bowl and I don’t know if my radio will work there.

            My dad had bought the car for me, a used Opal. It didn’t come with any kind of eight-track tape player.


I talk about Diogenes dai­ly. If not Diogenes, then Schopenhauer, or Thales, or any num­ber of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who tend­ed toward pes­simism. I went off to col­lege, I majored in his­to­ry, my pole splin­tered dur­ing a meet, I cracked my head open. When I came to, I thought about Olin Pike who, as it end­ed up, quit school and got a job at the paper mill. Sometimes I imag­ine him walk­ing around there, breath­ing in the stink, mak­ing fun of his co-work­ers. I’m sup­posed to teach reg­u­lar his­to­ry, here at one of these schools where the aver­age stu­dent expen­di­ture annu­al­ly is some­thing like a buck-fifty, a hun­dred miles from Hopeless Creek where the going rate’s at least two dol­lars. I coach track, too, but it’s not my spe­cial­ty. I coach, and I tell my students—it’s sup­posed to be American history—If any­one asks what you’re learn­ing, oth­er teach­ers or your par­ents, say you take the Fifth Amendment. That’ll make them think we’re focussing on the Constitution.

            It isn’t any kind of AP History, so it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter. It’s not like my students—in the old days, before polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, they’d be grouped as Turtles, as opposed to Rabbits or Dolphins—ever need to know how many sen­a­tors there are, how many House mem­bers, state cap­i­tals, the sto­ry of how bad a human being Andrew Jackson might’ve been. They don’t need to know about the Civil War, because their rel­a­tives offer up biased, wrong-head­ed sto­ries dai­ly. My the­o­ry goes like this: If they get on Jeopardy!, there’s a bet­ter chance to have answers con­cern­ing Diogenes, Schopenhauer, or Thales—oh, I talk about Nietzsche and Seneca a lot, too, but Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger gets them con­fused, see­ing as there’s a town called Seneca a cou­ple coun­ties over the state bor­der to the south. Seneca got caught up in that plot to kill Nero, tried to kill him­self by slash­ing his wrist, which didn’t work, then took poi­son, which didn’t work, and final­ly died, accord­ing to leg­end, from suf­fo­ca­tion in a steam bath of sorts. Seneca, South Carolina’s high school cheer­lead­ers go Gimme an S, gimme an E, gimme an N, gimme anoth­er E, gimme a C, gimme an A. What’s that spell? Go Bobcats!

            Thales fell in a hole, while look­ing up at the stars. My stu­dents like for me to recount that sto­ry about once a week. It makes them feel bet­ter about them­selves, I’m think­ing. Then I tell them how Thales died of heat stroke while watch­ing the Olympics. What does this teach you? I ask. It might take the entire class hour, but even­tu­al­ly some­one will say, Keep your eyes on the ground and it’s too bad there wasn’t sun­screen back in ancient times.

            Sometimes in the mid­dle of one of my dai­ly dia­tribes, or in between class­es, or dur­ing my Planning Period, or at lunch sur­round­ed by oth­er once-hope­ful teach­ers who matric­u­lat­ed from sub-par high schools to sub-par col­leges, I think about Randall Meeks. I always think about him on the way to work, because there’s a run­away truck ramp at the bot­tom of a long grade on high­way 64. Actually it’s just a red clay ex-log­ging road, but it veers off and I’ve seen more than a few eigh­teen-wheel­ers and bread trucks use it thusly.

            These flash­backs occur sole­ly because I took Randall Meeks out on that Friday night, at his father’s urg­ing. Mr. Meeks even hand­ed over a six-pack of beer. My friend and I drove around aim­less­ly on our moun­tain back roads until, final­ly, he said to me, Can I dri­ve your car, Stokes? Daddy won’t let me dri­ve his truck yet. He says I don’t have the arm strength to shift gears.

            He changed the radio sta­tion with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion. I didn’t care. Because of the ele­va­tion, we got pret­ty good recep­tion, but I didn’t think we’d get some­thing straight off Broadway, an AM out­fit com­mit­ted sole­ly to show tunes.

            Little traf­fic speck­led the roads. I pulled over and said, What the hell. Just don’t go too fast. I’m not sure if my father’s insur­ance cov­ers any­one out­side our family.

            Randall sur­prised me. I don’t want to say that he seemed a nat­ur­al for one of those Grand Prix road cours­es, but he took the curves with­out jerk­ing the wheel, eased off the gas appro­pri­ate­ly, and so on. I took over con­trols of the radio and found a sta­tion out of Macon that played the Allman Brothers every oth­er song, inter­spersed with Otis Redding, James Brown, and blues singers I didn’t learn until a decade lat­er when I found myself full-force in the world of pes­simism, ancient Delta men and women that Diogenes would’ve loved.

            Maybe I didn’t pay atten­tion enough. Randall took a road I didn’t know. I should men­tion that, as I sat there in the pas­sen­ger seat, I drank his father’s beer, but Randall didn’t touch it. Good. More for me, I thought. I might’ve said, This is a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be, Randy.

            He said, Don’t call me Randy. I’m a per­son, not an adjective.

            He turned left, he turned right. He used the blink­ers, but also stuck his arm out appro­pri­ate­ly. Randall even placed his arm out the win­dow down­ward when he slowed, even though no one tailed us. Obviously he’d been prac­tic­ing for the dri­vers test, even if his father balked on such an occasion.

            I’m not sure when we took an exit ramp onto I‑26, but we encoun­tered a seri­ous grade, at least in the direc­tion back toward Hopeless Creek. Signs lit­tered the road­side, cau­tion­ing dri­vers about the speed lim­it, the down­hill grade, how trucks need­ed to stay in the right lane. I said, We need to get back on the back roads, Randall. A lit­tle light glowed from my radio. I placed my wrist­watch down there and said, My par­ents said I have to be back by eleven, which wasn’t true.

            It might be revi­sion­ist his­to­ry, but in my mind, all these years lat­er, Randall turned down the vol­ume com­ing out of Macon, Georgia, and began singing the lyrics, in his high voice, to “Some Enchanted Evening.” And he stepped on the accelerator.

            Maybe my voice screeched high­er than his. Maybe I yelled out No, no, no, no, no, or Goddamn, you idiot, what’re you doing?

            And then, just like that, he veered and drove right into a loose-grav­el run­away truck ramp, meant for lost-braked eigh­teen-wheel­ers. He plowed into that lane, which rose up a man­made hill, and laughed the entire time. We might’ve gone, I don’t know, thir­ty or forty yards before my car came to an abrupt stop, sunk down past the axles.

            If I’d’ve been a dis­tance run­ner back then, I might’ve been able to run the ten miles back home, tell my dad what hap­pened, and helped him gath­er a winch to scoot the car back down to asphalt. If I’d’ve been some kind of super­hu­man pole vaulter I could’ve found a limb and cleared what­ev­er moun­tain stood between the inter­state and my house.

            I’ve always want­ed to hitch­hike, Randall said. He said, You stay here with your car, and I’ll hitch a ride back home and steal my daddy’s tow truck. He’ll either be down at Preston’s bar, or already passed out in his Dodge.

            I prob­a­bly should’ve said, No, or I’ll go with you, or No one’s going to steal my car from here, or Some trucker’s going to have his way with you, or My father’s going to kill me if the under­car­riage of this car is fouled. If I’d’ve known what I know now, I’d’ve said, This is the kind of sit­u­a­tion about which Bartleby would’ve shak­en his head.

            I said, Okay. I thought, I have four beers left, and looked up at the stars, wish­ing I knew more about constellations.


I slept through the entire pulling-my-car-out-of-the-grav­el-run­away-truck-lane, I guess passed out at age sev­en­teen. Later on I saw a re-run of an Andy Griffith Show where­in Barney and Andy under­go the same sit­u­a­tion. Maybe it’s a North Carolina thing, I don’t know. I awoke to Randall hit­ting my horn, which made me sit up and grab the dashboard—I still sat on the pas­sen­ger side—thinking I’d fall­en asleep at the wheel.  When I saw the lights flash­ing on his father’s tow truck, I thought a high­way patrol­man had arrived. Listen, I nev­er drank and drove again, prob­a­bly due to this confusion.

            Randall said, You don’t have to be all that strong to change gears. Well, tech­ni­cal­ly I nev­er did, see­ing as the truck was aimed toward the road at our house. I got here in first gear the whole way.

            I got out of the car and said, What time is it?

            Randall unhitched the hook from my back axle, then hit a switch on the bumper of the tow truck and reeled the met­al cable back in. He said, A lit­tle after two. I had to dri­ve the same route as we took, see­ing as I didn’t want to put the thing in reverse. Nobody’d pick me up on the side of the road until I rolled up my pants legs, or I would’ve been here sooner.

            Not that I ever con­sid­ered myself a gram­mar­i­an, but I got caught up won­der­ing if it was pants legs, or pant legs. I said, Man, I’m going to be in trouble.

            We both need a believ­able sto­ry, Randall said. He said, I had time to think about it. Actually, the truck­er who picked me up said to me, Hey, did some­one force you off the road? That’s our sto­ry. And then how I came back and couldn’t find my dad­dy, and I took it upon myself to steal his truck. You won’t believe this, but the truck­er was a Mexican or some­thing, and his name was Jesus.

            Randall made a big deal out of pro­nounc­ing the name, Hay-Zeus. He said, He drove for that Yellow com­pa­ny. Yellow. In Spanish, the word’s Amarillo. I take French now, but I’m try­ing to keep up with Spanish, too, in case I ever need to sing a song. In case I ever get a job lat­er on that needs my know­ing var­i­ous for­eign lan­guages. I’ll be the first to admit that I should be bon­ing up on Italian.

            I thought, Does Randall wish to work at the United Nations?

            Then, for some rea­son, he start­ed singing “Some Enchanted Evening” again. To this day, when­ev­er I see Robert Goulet I think of this par­tic­u­lar night, for I saw him sing it on one of those vari­ety shows once.

            I got in the driver’s side and start­ed the Opal. I backed up, then went for­ward, then backed up again. Everything seemed okay with the transmission.

            Randall sang, Who can explain it, who can tell you why?/Fools give you rea­sons, wise men nev­er try.

            I said, You fol­low me, Randall. I’ll keep an eye out in the rearview, in case you throw a rod or what­ev­er, in first gear.

            When we got to the top of the hill, where we need­ed to take the exit, I looked in my mir­ror to find Randall with his left arm out the tow truck win­dow, his crooked arm straight up like an idiot. He flashed his high beams, then took a right-hand turn instead, and drove into the park­ing lot of a con­ve­nience store. I U‑turned at the entrance ramp, et cetera, and came back to see if he had tow truck prob­lems.  Of course, an eigh­teen wheel­er sat there idling, dri­ven by his hitch­hik­ing sav­ior, sure enough, Jesus. Jesus smiled and nod­ded at Randall, and waved at me. He wasn’t a pedophile or any­thing. He raised a bag of pork rinds he’d bought inside. Jesus said, Gracias for the chichar­rones, amigo.

            I just want­ed to thank you again, Jesus, Randall said. He looked at me and yelled out, Hey, Stokes! Jesus thanked me for the pork rinds. This is an exam­ple as to why it’s good for me to learn Spanish.

            I said, You’re a good hom­bre, like an idiot.

            I’ll jump ahead and say that when we retuned to Randall’s house, his father stood out­side the Dodge Dart, with his driver’s door open. He held a bull­whip. He didn’t turn on his own son at first. No, he said to me, You owe me a six-pack of beer, and you ain’t get­ting no joint or ten-dol­lar bill. You just as queer as my boy! like that.

            It appeared as if he’d got­ten sick to his stom­ach some­where along the way, on his own shirt front.

            I said, What?

            He said, You heard me.

            His son said, You wish, but I don’t know if he spoke to me, or his father.

            Then Mr. Meeks attacked Randall, pop­ping that bull­whip in an expert man­ner, as if he’d once starred in one of those Wild West shows, maybe over at Ghost Town in the Sky. On one of the back­swings, though, the braid­ed leather tip caught me right beneath my left eye, split­ting the skin. And I guess, at this point—though he didn’t plan it—I got tough­ened up by spend­ing a night with Randall. I jerked that whip out of Mr. Meeks’s hand, threw it off to the side, and popped him in the face like a reg­u­lar Golden Gloves box­er. I’d like to say that Randall helped me, or that he pulled me off his father, or that he went inside to get his moth­er. I might be mak­ing all of this up, but right about the time his father hit the ground, my friend start­ing singing one of those songs by either the Sharks or the Jets. And he dou­bled over laugh­ing. I got in my car, drove the eighth-of-a-mile home, found both par­ents wait­ing up for me, and got grounded.

            I thought of this entire evening just now, after the funer­al. I’d not seen Randall’s father, that I could remem­ber, again, out­side of get­ting out of his Doghouse some morn­ings when I drove to school that last year. Here in Hopeless Creek, we attend funer­als, whether friend or ene­my. Somebody in the family’s a friend, always, mourn­ing. Randall offered the eulo­gy. He’d made it big, espe­cial­ly in the last cou­ple decades, what with the Cartoon Network. He nev­er made it as a Broadway singer/actor, but that high sopra­no of his brought him a num­ber of jobs work­ing ani­ma­tion voice over work, I guess out in Hollywood. Although I didn’t watch car­toons, some­times I picked up Randall, while flip­ping chan­nels, doing the part of a talk­ing squir­rel, or extrater­res­tri­al, or teenaged girl. At the funer­al, though, he chose to offer his father’s biog­ra­phy sole­ly in the dead­pan voice of Droopy Dog, start­ing right off with Hello, all you hap­py peo­ple. No one cried. We ate bar­be­cue after­wards, back behind the funer­al home’s chapel. I won’t say it wasn’t dis­con­cert­ing to eat meat behind a mortuary.

            Randall kissed me on both cheeks for some rea­son, then pre­tend­ed to punch me on the arm. He said his father didn’t leave me any­thing in the will, laughed, his face point­ed to the sky, then reached in his wal­let and tried to give me ten dollars.

            Olin Pike showed up and hugged Randall, clap­ping his back in a sin­cere way. Jesus the truck driver—somehow they’d become pen pals over the years—stood hold­ing two paper plates of chopped pork shoul­der. The funer­al director—whom peo­ple con­sid­ered the hon­orary may­or of our unin­cor­po­rat­ed town—walked over and asked if there was any­thing he could do. Randall start­ed talk­ing like Porky Pig, going That’s all folks, that’s all folks. I asked the embalmer to stand to the right, so as to shield me from the sun beat­ing down there in the mid­dle of Hopeless Creek, just like how my men­tor act­ed when meet­ing Alexander the Great.


George Singleton is a Southern author who has writ­ten nine col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, two nov­els, and an instruc­tion­al book on writ­ing fic­tion. His next  col­lec­tion will be The Curious Lives of Non-Profit Martyrs, from Dzanc. He was born in Anaheim, California and raised in Greenwood, South Carolina.