George Singleton ~ Protecting Witnesses and Witnessing Protection

I left the front door to dis­cov­er what end­ed up being a 1944 John Deere B trac­tor parked in the grav­el dri­ve­way. Not that Im a trac­tor guy. Im not a farm imple­ment, auto­mo­bile, or boat afi­ciona­do, if it mat­ters, basi­cal­ly because I wasnt born pre-Korean War, like my father and every oth­er man from back then who could dri­ve eighty miles an hour at night on a two-lane road, point at oncom­ing traf­fic, and go, 1954 DeSoto, 1964 Ford Fairlane wag­on, 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 XL, Model T, 1933 Pierce Arrow pulling a 17-foot 1956 Chris Craft Sportsman, plow behind a mule.” Take away my testos­terone card, I dont care. I got oth­er prob­lems. Id agreed to move to a house far from civ­i­liza­tion for an inde­ter­mi­nate time, a place with an anten­naed TV set that got one of those reli­gious chan­nels, and anoth­er that aired The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, The Outer Limits, and zom­bie movies sole­ly.

Whered you get this nice John Deere B?” a man said when I came out. He was one of the retirees who hung out down at Gordons Bait and Coffee, a clap­board con­coc­tion with addi­tions tagged on every ten years since trout fish­ing became a lifestyle here in west­ern North Carolina, even before the actor Burt Reynolds bought a sum­mer house down the road. Its a 1944 mod­el, aint it? You got a nice one. You think­ing to plant some corn next spring?”

I wore paja­mas. I wore flan­nel paja­mas that my wife bought for me a day or two before she sent me off to a rental house shed found on the banks of the Tuckaseegee River, bright red paja­mas with gray ele­phants print­ed all over them. Whatever mar­ket­ing agent thought these things up had a great sense of humor, because an ele­phant head with­out a trunk took up the bot­tom front flap until I pulled my dick out. Id bet that this night­wear attract­ed per­verts and repub­li­cans alike.

I said, Hey. Quarles, right, Mr. Quarles?” I said, You got me on the year.” In my mind I thought, You were born about that same year, more than like­ly. That would make you sev­en­ty-five.

Quarles said, Oh, its a 1944. Hey, you get­ting up mighty late, aint you? You just get­ting out?” He looked at his wrist­watch.

The only rea­son I came out­side was because the news­pa­per deliv­er­er had been throw­ing a free Asheville Times-Citizen into the yard, tempt­ing me to sub­scribe. I liked the word jum­ble. I liked the Hocus-Focus. I liked the obit­u­ar­ies, police blot­ter, any of those oth­er items that made me feel bet­ter about myself. My wife sent me to this house in a wit­ness-pro­tec­tion kind of way. She said to me, We need to send you off for a while, so peo­ple are pro­tect­ed from wit­ness­ing the things you do.” Then she told me that she loved me, which I under­stood total­ly.

I had said to her, Well.

She said, This place I found isnt com­plete­ly dry, but its going to be dif­fi­cult for you to get to a liquor store.”

I said, Well.

And then Velvey thought it nec­es­sary to list off what Id done in the last few months: Id gone into our local Bank of Payne and start­ed yelling about inter­est rates being too low for poor peo­ple unable to buy stocks, scar­ing tellers and cus­tomers alike. Id tak­en a chis­el and ham­mer to a stat­ue of Barnard E. Bee, Jr. in our town square, a Civil War gen­er­al who had lit­tle to do with South Carolina in gen­er­al and Payne in par­tic­u­lar. Id tried to add an R to the end of his name. Evidently Id scorned some lit­tle kids walk­ing togeth­er down a side­walk, all of them look­ing down at their cell phones. I remem­ber none of this.

Thats right: I live in Payne, South Carolina. Before Velvey sent me away, we lived in Payne. She still does.

Quarles spit a line of tobac­co juice that some­how touched my grass and his lips with­out an inter­val of air­space involved, a gigan­tic spume, right into my rental yard. Maybe I wasnt pay­ing atten­tion, but I thought Quarles had either con­fessed or bragged about being a lawyer before announc­ing his retire­ment. What kind of lawyer chews Red Man or Beechnut?

I said to Quarles, Yeah. I was up all night, work­ing. Im get­ting a late start on the day.”

Id been gone for six weeks and hadnt worked what­so­ev­er.

Well, this is a nice trac­tor. You ought to be proud of it. Id like to hear it.”

I dont know why I didnt plain say, It aint mine, I dont know where it came from, I dont even know if theres a key.” I said, Did you steal my news­pa­per, man? I came out to get my paper, and it isnt here.”

Quarles looked left and right. He said, I didnt take your paper.”

Someone did,” I said. I said, Hey, jump up on that seat and start it up. Let me go put on some clothes and maybe we can dri­ve this thing down to Gordons.

I didnt wait for his answer. I went back inside to find the land­line ring­ing, and knew that itd be Velvey check­ing up on me. Part of the pro­tect­ing-wit­ness­es-from-me deal involved a nec­es­sary land­line, see­ing as I could pick up the cell and lie as to my where­abouts. I picked it up while slip­ping off my paja­ma bot­toms. Velvey said, Do you like it?”

I said, Being here? No. I thought I made that clear on every oth­er con­ver­sa­tion weve had.”

The trac­tor,” my wife said. Have you even been out­side yet? Did I wake you up? Its after eleven.”

I set the receiv­er down on an end table. I took off my paja­ma tops. Then I start­ed think­ing about how Quarles might plain walk in on me naked, and then Id prob­a­bly have to move to a sec­ond hide­away, maybe in Tennessee. I yelled out, Im in the mid­dle of dress­ing, and theres a man out­side admir­ing a trac­tor. Im going to yell so you can hear me.”

I walked into the bed­room and found the pants Id worn the day before, and maybe about four days in a row. I smelled a wool long sleeve shirt and slipped it on. Outside, I heard the trac­tor crank. When I got back to the tele­phone I could hear Velvey yelling, You have to admit its a great idea.”

I picked up the receiv­er and said, Whats a great idea?”

I fig­ured that if I parked a trac­tor in your yard, it would make some of the locals think, A.) Youre nor­mal; and B.) Theyd stop by and admire the thing, which would make you talk to them, which would make you make some sober friends.”

I said, I have enough friends, Velvey,” and then asked the nor­mal ques­tions: How are you doing? When are you com­ing to vis­it? Will you bring Ramrod with you if and when you vis­it? Has any­one said any­thing about me? Have you told my clients Im busy at work?

Ramrods my dog. Hes a mix-breed with a gigan­tic head.

My clients” are peo­ple who have so much mon­ey they dont know good from bad, beau­ti­ful from ugly, right from wrong. Oh, I have a back­ground in art, I got a degree in stu­dio art, but some­where along the line I strayed toward the Outsider, or the exper­i­men­tal, or the avant garde, and the next thing you know I was mak­ing these lit­tle voodoo dolls out of dry­er lint, any­where from the size of Gumby to full-scale life­like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick dolls. You name a Prime Time FOX host, and Ive sold a voodoo doll engi­neered from the detri­tus of work­ing peo­ples jeans, panties, over­alls, tow­els, work shirts, robes, camisoles, socks, and so on—Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Sarah Sanders, that Huckabee guy. Dryer lint on a large scale is a lot clumpi­er than peo­ple think, but I still need heavy-duty three-ply thread to hold my dolls togeth­er. Just like mix­ing pri­ma­ry col­ors to make sec­on­daries, by tak­ing sec­on­daries and invent­ing ter­tiaries, I can—or could, back before these pro­tect­ing-the-wit­ness­es days—stand back, glow­er over heaps of lint, then get to work mesh­ing togeth­er the per­fect skin tint for Geraldo Rivera, or any of the bad Supreme Court jus­tices.

On a lucky day I can find a Clemson fan dry­ing noth­ing but his or her sweat­pants, t‑shirts, sweat­shirts, shirts, and pants, pull out all that orange lint, and lat­er make life­like repli­cas of the pres­i­dent, which is my Number One Life-size Voodoo request.

You have zero friends, Calvin.”

It doesnt hurt that my names Calvin Cline. Not Klein, like the famous fash­ion design­er. Cline. All those peo­ple who dont know good from bad, beau­ti­ful from ugly, and right from wrong also might not know spelling,” or how to Google.” Listen, back when I made my first or sec­ond lint-doll, and some­how it got on the local news, and then it went viral, I got a call from an actress every­one knows—shes been nom­i­nat­ed for an Academy Award a cou­ple times, but not won. She got in touch with CNN, and they sent her to the sta­tion down in Augusta, Georgia, and they sent her up to me north on the Savannah River and on the South Carolina side. She said to me, How much would you charge for a life­size voodoo lint doll of…” and I wont give the name. I cant. I signed some kind of non-dis­clo­sure thing, about a woman who has won more than two Oscars.

I said to her, Ten thou­sand dol­lars!” Me, I just threw that num­ber out, because A.) I didnt care, and want­ed to get back into my stu­dio to work on some gouach­es that involved egrets; and B.) I actu­al­ly liked the woman whod won some Best Actress awards.

I made the fac­sim­i­le. The voodooed actress got anoth­er nom­i­na­tion. She didnt win. My client did. Word spread. There you go.

Look, Velvey, I dont have friends back in Payne. The rea­son why I dont have friends in Payne is because I dont want to live there—have your par­ents died, yet, like you said they would ten years ago when we had to move there?—and I have to spend too much time doing my work in cities big enough to offer laun­dro­mats.” I went on and on. I stood there naked for some of this con­ver­sa­tion, then with pants. I screamed because of the trac­tor out­side chug­ging, then low­ered my voice when I noticed it no longer hummed.

Velvey said, Calvin.

I said, Im sor­ry. That was mean. I didnt mean to yell. I love your par­ents.”

She knew—and I knew—that I didnt mean that. Both her moth­er and father said—rightly, Ill admit—that I couldve made more mon­ey by not going to col­lege alto­geth­er, and paint­ing hous­es. By the time I became kind of famous, Velveys par­ents slipped into a state of being some­where between bin­go-and-scratch-cards-is-good and full-blown demen­tia. When I said things to them like, I need to vis­it a laun­dro­mat in Athens sos to get lint, sos to make a voodoo doll thatll pay for ten months’ worth of mort­gage for your daugh­ter and me,” one or both of Velveys par­ents might say, I have a ham­mer toe that needs fix­ing,” or I like warm cream cheese!”

Velveys a fam­i­ly name. She told me this in col­lege. She stud­ied stu­dio art, too, but veered into the land of Interior Decorating. Guess how many peo­ple wish to have their hous­es redec­o­rat­ed in Payne? Its a noth­ing town. If you go Google Payne South Carolina” youre going to get Showing Results for Pain in South Carolina,” fol­lowed by ten thou­sand entries, or sites, or what­ev­er they’re called.

When Velveys par­ents dimin­ished quick­er than expect­ed, my wife talked her way into peo­ples hous­es and barns, dis­cov­ered eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy—all of those sites for peo­ple hop­ing to buy low and sell high. I dont want to pull out any kind of ques­tion about Velveys moral nature, but by the time her par­ents no longer knew any­ones names, their house looked like this: vacant room, vacant room, vacant room, vacant room, vacant room, vacant room, bed­room with two hos­pi­tal cots down­stairs, then vacant room, vacant room, vacant room, vacant room upstairs.At one point those vacant rooms held mid-cen­tu­ry fur­ni­ture thats a hot com­mod­i­ty nowa­days. They held high-boys and low-boys and bak­ers racks. Velveys dad, and her grand­fa­ther, owned land, ran an apple orchard, start­ed their own cidery that start­ed as a stand out on the road and end­ed up at Cracker Barrel and Stuckeys, made all kinds of mon­ey even after some­one point­ed out that an apple a day didnt actu­al­ly keep the doc­tor away. Somewhere along the line my wife talked her par­ents into let­ting share­crop­pers take care of the apples. Sharecroppers” might not be the right word. Maybe the land plain got leased out to peo­ple who knew the ins and outs of fruit trees and the labor­ers need­ed.

I might as well fill out the entire fam­i­ly tree by point­ing out how Velveys mom taught ele­men­tary school. One of those vacant rooms upstairs once held noth­ing but paint-by-num­bers paint­ings” on every avail­able wall space. Paint-by-numbers—which I know is prob­a­bly akin to dry­er lint art—happens to be cov­et­ed these days by Millenials, Gen Xers, even Boomers, from what I under­stand.

I under­stand noth­ing.

Im sober, and think­ing right, Velvey,” I said to my wife while walk­ing to the front door to look out the win­dow, to look at the dri­ve­way, to see what this Mr. Quarles did on the trac­tor. The land­lines cord mustve run some­thing like thir­ty yards and didnt even look like it went from spi­ral pas­ta toward spaghet­ti.

The trac­tor wasnt there.

I said, I have to go, hon­ey. Someone just stole your trac­tor.”

Oh, I hung up with­out any oth­er salu­ta­tion. What did I care? It wasnt my 1944 John Deere B trac­tor. If Velvey want­ed to spend her mon­ey on A.) Sending me off to a pro­tec­tion-of-wit­ness house; and B.) A trac­tor just so peo­ple would come by and wel­come me into the com­mu­ni­ty, then it was her prob­lem.

I walked back and placed the receiv­er on the cra­dle, then thought, Goddamn it, I need to tell her not to waste mon­ey. I called home. I dialed the num­ber. I thought, Im going to give her what for.

Velveys father picked up the phone and said, Apple.

I said, Hey, Dad,” because Id got­ten to that point of call­ing him thus­ly, This is Calvin. Can you hand the phone over to Velvey?”

He said, Apple cider.”

I dont know. Call me a dick­head. There I stood in a rental house on the Tuckaseegee River, a mile from any bait and cof­fee place, not know­ing my future and far from lint. I said, Whats the best thing to throw at some­one you hate?

He said, Apple.

Thats right. And whats the best thing to put in your pants sos to make it look like you got a big dick?”

Velveys father—Ill give him this—waited a few sec­onds before say­ing, A apple. A apple!

He would nev­er hand the phone over, I knew. In a way, I want­ed to talk to no oth­er per­son, so I could feel bet­ter about myself, prob­a­bly.

*

It took me thir­ty min­utes to hit Gordons Bait and Coffee, walk­ing right down the mid­dle of the road. When I got there, Quarles, Gordon him­self, and a man every­one called Wide Open stood there star­ing at the trac­tor. I should men­tion that Gordons coun­try store sold oth­er things, but every one of them could be used for bait: cans of corn, Vienna sausages, bologna, white bread. Bacon, pop­corn, soap, gum­my bears, bub­ble gum, hell—even Cheetos.

I walked up and said, What the fuck, men?” I said, What are you doing, Quarles?” I bowed up. I under­stood that these men didnt know me, that they would nev­er respect me, my being an out­sider, unless I looked like I might punch a nose or stab a jugu­lar. Goddamn, man, who gave you per­mis­sion to dri­ve off with my trac­tor?”

Lint Man,” Quarles said. He held his mouth askew. He said, Dont think we dont know what you aint done right. This here trac­tors some­thing to be desired and admired.”

I tried to go through all those neg­a­tives. I didnt say, Thats a dou­ble neg­a­tive,” because I wasnt sure. I said, What you going to do when I call the sher­iff?” I think Id seen some­one say that one time, in a movie.

Gordon and Wide Open didnt make eye con­tact. They looked at the right-hand front wheel. Quarles said, I just took this thing for a ride, noth­ing else. I wasnt steal­ing it or noth­ing, son. I was going to get it some new gas, then bring it back. Nothing else. I thought you’d be inside the house longer.”

There werent gas pumps in front of Gordons place.

Wide Open turned to me and said, This could be a good low-rid­er trac­tor.” He said, How much you want for it?”

Gordon looked at his wrist­watch and said, Coffee times over. Lets all of us go inside and pull out the bour­bon. You want some bour­bon, Calvin?”

Well boy yes I did. But I couldnt, I knew. I said, Yall dont know me. Why did you call me Lint Man?

Velvey deliv­ered me by step-van, filled with lint, thread, and pho­tographs in the back, but Id nev­er, those hand­ful of times, come into Gordons Bait and Coffee say­ing any­thing about my asper­sions or past. Me, I came in just say­ing, Hey, hey, hey to who­ev­er sat around dawdling. I had said, I hear there are some nice trout on this here riv­er,” and so on. I’d said, My wife and I split up, and Im just reju­ve­natat­ing my inner-soul.” Maybe one time I walked into Gordons Bait and Coffee and said, Im look­ing for a good ban­jo play­er,” because I could think of noth­ing else to say.

Velvey dropped me off, dropped off the lint and thread, said some­thing like, “Finish your com­mis­sion,” then drove the step-van back to Payne. She waved her left hand out of the win­dow and waved at me, yelling, I think, Dont fuck up any more.”

I said to Wide Open, Ten thou­sand dol­lars,” see­ing as it had worked for me before.
Thats too much,” he said. But he didnt look like hed been offend­ed. I was think­ing more like, I dont know, maybe, I dont know, a hun­dred dol­lars. Wait—did you already fill it up with gas?” he said to Quarles.

Quarles said, I put in six dol­lars out of the two-gal­lon can. You charg­ing way too much, Gordon.” He said, I put in enough for you to take this thing back home.”

I knew this trick. Oh, I under­stood what Quarles want­ed to hap­pen. And I dont want to say that Velvey had any­thing to do with it, but she did. I got it. I real­ized that I need­ed to dri­ve to a small city blessed with an over­abun­dance of lint, then make a voodoo doll of my own wife.

I said, You boys got some­thing else on your mind. How much is she pay­ing you?”

Please know that I con­ceive of this as sound­ing para­noid now.

Gordon, Quarles, and Wide Open said, What?” in vary­ing tones, at var­i­ous times. They said, We dont know your wife” and Weve nev­er been to South Carolina” and Kudzus a weed we have noth­ing to do with” and Krispy Kreme dough­nuts are way bet­ter than DunkinDoughnuts” and A lot of peo­ple think the cap­i­tal of Florida is Miami, but its Tallahassee.” I just stood there being myself and nor­mal, being myself and won­der-filled with every­thing that could go wrong in the real world.

I tried to think back. I thought about my lint works-to-be and how these geezers stood there prob­a­bly wear­ing panty shields against their hem­or­rhoids. Id noticed stacks of these things inside the store, and couldnt imag­ine them being used for bait. I said, Yall dont have any­thing else to do, am I right or am I right?”

Wide Open said, I got a pet pos­sum I taught how to cud­dle.”

I wasnt look­ing, but the oth­er two men said, Not yet.”

They called him Wide Open” because he once drank more than I did, evi­dent­ly, back in the day. Hed worked real estate, and sold a num­ber of hous­es when this area became a haven for retirees and vaca­tion­ers alike. Something that peo­ple will men­tion at his funer­al con­cerns the time he addressed town coun­cil with his fly open. Its too bad he didnt own my paja­mas for the occa­sion.

Quarles took my shoul­der in a father­ly way and led me inside the store. The oth­er men fol­lowed. He walked behind the counter at Gordons and pulled out two bot­tles of—get this—Pappy van Winkle, the good stuff. Gordon walked over to the refrig­er­a­tor he used for Styrofoam pints of night­crawlers and pulled out four squared glass­es, each one etched with a coon dog. He said, Calvin, Calvin, Calvin.”

Wide Open sat down at the one table. He said, I used to know a Calvin, grow­ing up. Hes dead now.”

I looked at that bot­tle. I thought about the work I need­ed to get done before return­ing to Payne. Quarles hand­ed me the key to the trac­tor, then said, Give me your key,” and held out his palm. We aint going to let you dri­ve back lat­er, I promise.”

The three of us done fell for that trick one time,” Gordon said. How do you think we got here? You see any wives hang­ing around us, any bet­ter-halves, any love inter­ests?”

Whats going on?” I asked, but I kept my eye on that bot­tle. Quarles poured four dou­ble shots, and slid the glass­es across the table.

I said, The doc­tor said I shouldnt drink, because of some med­ica­tion Im on.”

Gordon said, Believe it or not, I used to be a pedi­a­tri­cian, back in the day. I bought this place after hav­ing to stop prac­tic­ing. Its a long sto­ry. The point of all this is, unless youre tak­ing Valium, lithi­um, Ritalin, blood thin­ners, or Viagra, youll prob­a­bly be okay. Or insulin.” He held up his glass to Wide Open and Quarles, said cheers, and they sipped like urbane, enlight­ened tip­plers. I dont know if there was some kind of secu­ri­ty cam­era in the build­ing, but if so I bet it cap­tured my open­ing and clos­ing my mouth uncon­trol­lably, like a trout ashore, or some­one in hos­pice talk­ing to imag­i­nary angels.

I thought, Valium? How long has this guy been out of prac­tice?

Ive always want­ed to start up my own place somewhere—not here, but some­where—called Rorys Rural Brewery,” Wide Open said. Say it. Say it out loud. Rorys Rural Brewery. Hell, you sound drunk just try­ing to say the place.”

I said, Is your real name Rory?” It smelled like an envi­ous dog inside the bait and cof­fee shop. It smelled like pin­to beans on the stove too long.

Wide Open stared at me too long. He said, My giv­en names Alvis. Its a fam­i­ly name. Alvis Wide Open’ Davidson.”

Quarles took the bot­tle of bour­bon and poured three more dou­ble shots for his com­rades. I said, I take it yall know that my wife sent me away for a while.”

All three men said, Mine too,” at the same time.

I was a doc­tor, I was a dis­graced doc­tor, my wife thought I might need to unwind doing a lit­tle fish­ing, and she found this place for me here. I tried to go back, she was long gone, and I returned to the Tuckaseegee. Luckily for me, Gordons Bait and Coffee went up for sale—back then it was called Ronnies. I thought it the right thing to do.”

I drank my shot in two gulps and point­ed the glass toward Quarles. He poured. He didnt say, There you go,” or Dont be embar­rassed,” or Things like this hap­pen.” Quarles said, I came here two years after Gordon. Same kind of sto­ry, for the most part. I aint one-upping, but sim­i­lar. Son com­mit­ted sui­cide at age twen­ty-two, right after get­ting induct­ed into Phi Beta Kappa. Maybe I pushed him too hard, I dont know. Id been a lawyer, and I think he want­ed to help out with the home­less. Maybe I said some­thing like, What the fuck are you think­ing, son?Maybe.”

He drank a lit­tle, turned his head, and coughed twice. Wide Open said, These boys know this sto­ry already, but its the truth. I dont remem­ber how or why I got to this area. I was liv­ing in Asheville, I did well, and then I woke up here one morn­ing. As a mat­ter of fact, I woke up in the same house where you are now, Calvin—if Calvin is your real name. My mar­riage wasnt going so swift­ly in the first place, so I just took it for a sign to stay. I mean, I called home once or twice. My wife said she didnt touch our bank account. I live over that­away in a nice place over­look­ing the riv­er, a rental.

Gordon raised his hand. I charge him four hun­dred dol­lars a month.” He said, I could get sev­en times that mon­ey, if I want­ed to go the VRBO route. I dont care.”

Anyway,” Quarles said. Thats a nice trac­tor. I knew you werent going to be plant­i­ng corn. Testing you, thats all.”

I drank more, this time in a mea­sured, taste tester-type way, and said, Outside of no women around here, or cable TV, I can see how yall might be sat­is­fied as fence lizards.” Fence lizards? What did that mean and where did it come from? I said, It might be nice if there was a hos­pi­tal with­in thir­ty miles, inter­net capa­bil­i­ties, a place to get ice cream or waf­fles, a gro­cery store that sold hard sala­mi, music venues, a car deal­er­ship, a Goodwill store, some antique shops, a tobac­co out­let, one of those Apple stores, I dont know, a book store, an art gallery. Definitely an art gallery. Not a fuck­ing gun range or firearms out­let.”

Quarles put his ancient index fin­ger to his lips, tried to slide back his chair noise­less­ly, and tip­toed over to the canned meat shelf. He reached behind it and brought back a vin­tage Etch A Sketch mag­ic screen. He returned to the table qui­eter. Wide Open winked at me and nod­ded toward every­one else. Loudly he said, Anyway, I dont think well ever have anoth­er real estate crash like back in 2009.”

Quarles messed with the toys knobs and point­ed to me a screen that read, We are here for a rea­son.” He shook it clean and start­ed a new mes­sage.

I saw a trout wig­gle itself onto the shore last week, going after some kind of bug,” Wide Open said. I turned my head to look at the trac­tor out front. There hadnt been a car pass Gordons since I showed up.

Quarles hit the table to get my atten­tion. I looked to see that hed print­ed out, Were sur­round­ed by white suprema­cists up here. Dont say any­thing lib­er­al.” I was amazed at how he could print so much, quick­ly and leg­i­bly. Were bugged.

I point­ed my thumb toward the door, and raised my eye­brows. I fig­ured it to be the inter­na­tion­al sign for, You want to go talk in the woods?

Quarles shook his head side­ways. He wrote, POSSUM” with a ques­tion mark after it, and lift­ed his shoul­ders, anoth­er inter­na­tion­al sign.

I looked up at the four ceil­ing cor­ners, over the door, above the cash reg­is­ter. I pre­tend­ed a need to tie my shoes and inspect­ed the bot­tom of the table. I searched for cam­eras, think­ing I might be on one of those real­i­ty TV shows.

Gordon said, loud­er than nor­mal, There have been some recent med­ical arti­cles that say peo­ple live longer if they sur­round them­selves with pos­sums. People live longer with­out ticks and fleas. Possums eat a lot of ticks and fleas. And if theres no need for insec­ti­cides, you know. It makes sense. Theres a way to make peo­ple live longer.”

I felt embold­ened. I reached for the bot­tle and poured a sin­gle jig­ger.

People Opposed to Southern Supremacists United Militia,” Quarles showed me on the Etch a Sketch. He point­ed at Gordon, to Quarles, to Wide Open.

I tried to think back: How would Velvey know about such an orga­ni­za­tion? Why would she think it nec­es­sary to put me in their midst? Id heard of VAGINA—Veterans Against Guns in North America, but not POSSUM. Hell, Id made a lint voodoo doll for some­one in VAGINA, a small­ish piece that involved a tiny AR-15 and a rebel flag.Why would my wife send me off to be pos­si­bly indoc­tri­nat­ed?

Quarles wrote—as if he read my mind—“Its hard to explain.”

I thought, Well, I guess its okay to talk, as long as I dont say any­thing about how I would rather hang around non-whites. I said, I got a dry­er back at my rental house, but my clothes are so old they aint giv­ing me enough lint to do my work. Yall want to do your wash over at my house lat­er on today? We can make a real par­ty of it. Bring the bot­tle.”

Call me self­ish.

I got things to do,” Quarles said.

Gordon said, I cant leave the store.”

Wide Open said, Im fish­ing. I promised to take some lit­tle kids fish­ing.”

Quarles wrote on the Etch A Sketch. He point­ed the plank my way so I could read, Local cops KKK. Dont take trac­tor back. DUI. Get tomor­row.”

He hand­ed me the rest of the bot­tle, though, a good half bot­tle, to take home on my walk. He said, Think about it, Calvin,” and point­ed to the now-erased Etch A Sketch, I guess to invite me into POSSUM, to leave my wife for good, et cetera.

I stood up and noticed how the place smelled like a ruined mar­su­pi­al. I thought, Rorys Rural Brewery for Ruined Marsupials might be dif­fi­cult to say. I thought, This is the rea­son Velvey thinks I shouldnt drink.

I didnt say Yes or No. I didnt com­mit, though I thought that—if I imag­ined cor­rect­ly— these men’s makeshift non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion prob­a­bly met and tabbed racist local fish­er­men. I imag­ined their nod­ding and smil­ing and pre­tend­ing, wait­ing for white suprema­cists to leave their abodes, then burn­ing the places down, or at least steal­ing their guns, find­ing ways to send them else­where.

You’re one of us, whether you like it or not, Lint Man,” some­body said. All of them said, on cue, as if they worked as a Greek tragedy cho­rus. I thought, I need to fin­ish my work.

I walked to the house where peo­ple wouldnt wit­ness my destruc­tive ways. Its easy to say this now. Its easy to feign dex­trous intu­ition and sooth­say­ing endow­ment. But this is true: I walked home as dusk appeared, through a gloam­ing the old-timers men­tioned when­ev­er pos­si­ble when it came to near-night­fall, stum­bling across macadam in a way that wouldnt have hap­pened dur­ing my real drink­ing days back in Payne. Oh, I swerved and skewed. My brain felt like marzi­pan, like the fill­ing of a Mallo Cup. I found myself say­ing, Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it,” with every step.

Back home, I sat on the porch step, know­ing: The next day Id have to walk back to Gordons to pick up the trac­tor and dri­ve it back sober, so as not to get pulled for DUI by white nation­al­ists. But the trac­tor would not be there. And the store would be emp­tied, no bait or cof­fee, no Vienna sausages, white bread, Etch A Sketches. I saw it. I saw it. Then Id walk all the way back, call Velvey, and shed say either Where are you?” or Who is this?” She might say, “Maybe it should’ve been a Farmall trac­tor in the dri­ve­way.”

~

George Singleton has pub­lished eight col­lec­tions of sto­ries and two nov­els. His work has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, One Story, Georgia Review, and else­where. One sto­ry appeared in the Pushcart Prize sto­ry anthol­o­gy. He was a Guggenheim fel­low in 2009. He’s a mem­ber of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His lat­est col­lec­tion, You Want More: Selected Stories, will be pub­lished in September 2020.