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.