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Book Jacket

0805431586
Trade Paperback
256 pages
Jan 2005
Broadman & Holman Publishers

Living With Fred

by Brad Whittington

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

 

There are times in life when you wonder if you have screwed everything up—when you think that if some bored biographer decided to chronicle your existence, it would turn out to be a dismal account of one mistake after another.

I was in the midst of such speculations. It was after midnight, the perfect time. I was in Dad’s study, the perfect place. I was organizing Dad’s stuff in preparation for the estate sale, the perfect occasion.

Heidi and Hannah, one at a time, had peeked in to check on me and had gone away. I knew this even though I had not looked up. Each time the door had a distinctive creak that told me who was peeking. Heidi’s squeak was fast and high, like someone annoyed. Hannah’s squeak was slow and creepy, like someone opening the door with something else on her mind. Both times the door had closed slowly without a sound.

I had been there for some time, a little black notebook in my hand, thinking back on 1972 in Barstow, California, when I had made a choice. It had seemed the right choice at the time. I was still pretty sure it had been.

I had been a scrawny sixteen-year-old preacher’s kid in search of Nirvana in the form of the California girls the Beach Boys had sung about. The perfect embodiment had appeared in my mind in hip-hugger, bell-bottomed, patch-covered jeans, wearing a headband to hold back straight hair that hung long enough to sit on. And that was where she stayed. In my mind.

I did not find Nirvana. Instead I found two roads branching out before me. At the head of each road was a man.

One road began with logic and science. I had a fondness for this road. It was clean and unambiguous, free from the messy chaos of emotion. But the Mysterious Stranger inviting me down this road had caused me to suspect that the randomness and chance lurking beneath the surface led to cosmic indifference, thence to nihilism and despair, and ended with death.

The other road began with death. A great cross cast a shadow across the fork. On it hung a bleeding, dying God, a human parchment upon whom was written an unbelievable message of love and forgiveness. This road was messy and laden with emotion. But beyond the death was the promise of redemption and meaning. Life with a purpose.

I chose the second road.

Then I returned to Fred, the microscopic East Texas town where I thought I knew everybody and everybody thought they knew me. I told no one of my choice. Not Dad or Mom, not my sisters Heidi and Hannah.

I hadn’t thought out the next steps. The thought of blurting out that I got religion seemed awkward. I was a PK, a preacher’s kid. I was already supposed to have religion. Besides, I didn’t know how my friends would react.

Ralph was my oldest friend in Fred, the first to befriend me when I was dropped into this hick town four years earlier. We had shared many experiences but didn’t discuss religion much. C. J., also a transplant from a big city, was my closest friend. We discussed religion not at all. Jolene, the beautiful but incurable practical joker, and Bubba, her hapless brother, were sporadic at our church. Darnell, the Terror of the Back Roads, had one religion—driving fast.

I might have considered telling my Sunday school teacher, Mac, but he wasn’t my Sunday school teacher anymore. A truck driven by his best friend, Parker, had hit his car while he was changing a tire. Mac’s wife and daughter were killed instantly, and he was in a wheelchair for life. Scooter and Brenda had taken over the class. I didn’t even consider telling them.

I suspect Dad knew something in me had changed. But I always suspected Dad knew a lot of things. That was one reason I was now indulging in a fit of sentimental reflection. Here I was, about the age Dad had been on that vacation, and I still felt like a sixteen-year-old kid. Where was the wisdom, that prescient certitude that he wore like an undershirt? That was one thing he hadn’t passed down. Or if he had, I hadn’t discovered it. Perhaps it was in a drawer I hadn’t cleaned out.

I began that summer long ago with a life-changing decision. I didn’t realize at the time just how life changing. But in the next few years I was going to find out.

CHAPTER TWO Returning to a routine after a three-week vacation is at once alien and familiar, but the first Sunday back in Fred was more alien than I expected. There was no hint of strangeness when we arrived. The building looked the same, the people looked the same, the routine was the same. But when I got to the Sunday school class, I entered alien territory.

The first clue was that it was crowded. Heidi, Hannah, and I arrived together. Heidi would only be around for a few more weeks before she went off to college. Hannah was preparing to enter high school. I split the difference between them. When we walked into the room and had trouble finding an empty seat, we looked at each other in wonder.

Bubba and Jolene were there. That was all wrong. The class hadn’t even started. They usually arrived late or missed Sunday school completely. Even worse, there were new faces. Squeaky was there, Ralph’s alleged girlfriend. I was miffed. After all, I was the PK. This was my turf. I had been there every Sunday for four years with little to relieve the tedium. I missed two Sundays for a long-deserved vacation, and suddenly there were strangers in the camp, very chummy with the regulars. Talk about nerve!

Scooter opened with a prayer. Scooter and Brenda Brown had replaced Mac and Peggy after the wreck. Scooter was a deacon with a blond flattop, seemingly precision cut with the aid of a framing square. He wore boots and a bolo tie. I had pegged him as “Most Likely to Go to Bible College.” His kids already had vestiges of the begrudged celebrity and instinctive wariness that marks a preacher’s kids. It was only a matter of time.

I looked down at the scuffed, salmon-colored tile and positioned the front legs of the metal folding chair precisely two inches in front of the third tile, a spot determined by years of experience. It allowed me to lean back against the institutional green wall at the proper angle. From this position of repose I pondered in my heart the meaning of this great host before me.

Something had happened while we were gone. During the first half of the class I searched for an explanation. I was mystified until I traced the timeline back to the events just before our departure. Reverend Bates. Six nights of hellfire and damnation. Forty verses of “Just As I Am.” People streaming down the aisle with tears streaming down their cheeks. Revival.

I was attending a postrevival class with an infusion of new blood into the congregation. My moment of enlightenment was interrupted by Scooter asking me if I knew the story of the rich young ruler.

“Uh, yeah. He was very sorrowful because he was very rich.”

“Come again there doll.” Ralph was leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the room. “If yer daddy was rich, he wouldn’t be sorrowful.” By which he meant he would not find an abundance of material goods to be an undue burden. (If you spend much time in Fred, you learn quickly that when people say “yer daddy” they’re not talking about somebody in your family, they’re talking about themselves. And when they say “doll,” they’re talking about you.)

Several others voiced their agreement with Ralph’s position. Then Bubba spoke. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

My head jerked around so quickly that it upset the balance of nature and my chair collapsed with me in it. As I painstakingly extracted myself from the wreck, Jolene whispered to me, “Don’t pay him no mind. He’s been talkin’ like that fer three weeks.”

I looked at her closely for signs of jest but only detected exasperation verging on resignation. I scanned the room. Heidi’s lips were pressed together. She shook her head. Hannah looked at me and raised one eyebrow.

I looked at Bubba. He looked like the same old Bubba, laughing along with everyone else as I set the chair back up and reduced my formula by one inch for insurance.

Scooter took the reins. “Bubba, yer on the right track. But I expect we might should begin back at the beginnin’. Let’s look at the verses in Mark 10.” He scanned the room over his drugstore reading glasses. “Ya do have yer Bibles, don’t ya?” A few kids nodded their heads and flipped around looking for Matthew. Most avoided eye contact and flipped to the lesson in the Sunday school quarterly.

Bubba had a Bible that must have served most of its life holding down a very sturdy coffee table. The kind that has pages in front to record the family tree and significant life events. I looked at Jolene.

“I think he done read that thang through three times in the last three weeks,” she muttered in my direction.

“Bubba, read verses 17 through 20.”

Bubba cleared his throat.

“And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.”

“Good,” Scooter said. “So, what do y’all think? Did he really keep all the commandments since he was a boy?” Several heads nodded automatically, no sign of thought on their faces. These were the folks who automatically answered “Jesus” to every question in Sunday school, figuring the odds were better than even.

“There is none righteous, no, not one.” This time I was ready for it. I just eyed Bubba carefully and kept my balance.

“Good point, Bubba. What do y’all say? Have y’all kept all the _commandments?”

Some kept on nodding, like those little bobbleheaded dogs in the back car window. Others avoided eye contact.

This question had never crossed my mind. I had certainly never killed anyone or committed adultery or stolen. Did false testimony include the time I broke a lamp and blamed it on Hannah? Maybe. Defraud? I think not. Honor my father and mother. Well . . . who’s _asking?

Jolene spoke up. “I ain’t never killed no one.”

Ralph snorted. “Not yet, anyway. Give her time; she’ll get around to it.”

“So, y’all agree? Think yer doin’ OK?” Some shrugs around the room. “As good as the next guy?” A few nods. “OK then, sounds like yer in the same boat as this guy. Let’s see what Jesus says. Squeaky, read verses 21 and 22.”

“Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.”

“OK, so what does that tell us?”

“You mean now I gotta give away all my stuff?” Ralph demanded. “Can I at least keep the dirt bike?”

“No,” Jolene said. “You can give it ta me. That way you can go ta heaven. I’ll just take my chances.”

“That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Three guesses where that came from. I didn’t bother to look.

Squeaky looked confused. “Wait a minute. Brother Bates said the directions to heaven are to ‘turn right and go straight.’ This guy did ever’thin’ right, but he’s not goin’ ta heaven? That doesn’t sound fair.”

“Who said life is fair?” I asked.

She glared at me, her little mouse-ears poking through her thin red hair. “Well, at least God ought to be fair!”

“Touché.” I should have kept my mouth shut.

“Squeaky, you should be careful about accusing God.” Scooter looked reprovingly at her. “Like Jesus said, ‘there is none good but God.’ He knew this guy thought he was good. Why else would He say that?”

“All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

“Yes, Bubba, we know that. The point is that ya can’t work yer way to heaven. This guy came in all cocky, thought he had it sewed up, and Jesus took him down a few pegs.”

I wasn’t sure about this interpretation. It said, “Jesus beholding him loved him.” That seemed a little strange to me.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Scooter looked on the verge of throwing a quarterly at Bubba.

I leaned over to Jolene. “How does he know all this stuff? I know the Bible pretty good, but I can’t pull them out like that, word for word like a tape recorder.”

“Bubba was always good at memorizin’ stuff. He knows all the players on all the World Series teams since the beginnin’ of time. And their battin’ average and all that stuff. He’s got a photogenic memory.”

My correction was interrupted by Ralph trying to work out his _salvation.

“You ain’t answered my question yet. Do I have to give all my stuff away to get to heaven?”

Scooter turned on Ralph. “Do ya love yer stuff more than ya love God?” he asked in a snarl.

Ralph blinked rapidly four times and said, “No.”

“Then ya don’t have ta give it all away.”

Brenda broke the tension by announcing it was time to split into groups.

 

In the church service I took my usual seat, far enough back for comfort but close enough to maintain appearances. I noticed Parker right off. He was on the front row, hair slicked down, wearing a new leisure suit, dark brown with light stitching. Sonia was next to him. The strap from his eye patch cut across his hair in the back.

Thankfully, the service was a lot tamer than Brother Bates’s revival. As usual, Dad called on somebody to lead the benediction and sneaked to the back to greet folks as they came out. Dad collared me as I squeezed through the crowd.

“Mark, it seems Deacon Fry has a proposition for you.” He nodded at the large bald man standing next to him.

Deacon Fry blinked at me benignly and flashed an odious, ingratiating smile. I had an instinctive dislike for this man. His prayers reeked of the ponderous piety of King James rendered with an East Texas accent. He was a tall man, well over six feet, with a bulk to more than match, making for an intimidating physical presence. He was as hairless as an egg. You couldn’t even see eyebrows unless you looked closely for the vestigial line of fuzz brushed above his steel gray eyes.

He frequently snoozed through the second half of the sermon, propped against the end of the pew, his index finger running alongside his eye, the rest of his fingers fanned out across his face. I didn’t know whether his failure to conceal his sermonic slumbers was incompetence or insult. Consequently, I didn’t know whether to hold him in contempt or resent him. But I was sure one of those attitudes was the proper one.

He sang a sonorous, booming bass on all hymns, which might have redeemed him in my eyes had he not scooped the notes like a geriatric Elvis.

“Yes,” he droned in his growling drawl. “We find that the feller who has been doin’ the janitor work for us is goin’ ta be out fer a spell. We have a mess of folks that could do the job, but we thought we might could give you a chance ta earn yerself some pocket money.”

For once I had an interest in something Deacon Fry had to say.

“OK.”

“That’s mighty fine. It’s five dollars a week, cash money. Pastor Matt, I mean, yer pa can show you the ropes.”

He nodded at us, detached his wife from her conversation, and led her to a black LTD.

Parker and Sonia were next. Since I was standing next to Dad, Parker grabbed my hand and shook it. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks.” The patch was there over his left eye. The white scar was visible from hairline to jawbone. I tried not to think of the sunken eyelid that lay beneath the patch.

Sonia nodded at me. She seemed calm and content under a generous apportionment of makeup. Some things remained reassuringly constant.

Parker moved on, grabbing Dad’s hand with both of his. “Welcome back, pastor. We’re glad ta see ya.”

“Parker, I am very glad to see you here.” He grabbed Parker’s shoulder. “It’s been a long three weeks since we last talked. How are you doing?”

Parker’s smile eclipsed the scar on his face. It almost disappeared. “Never been better. You were right with that new creature thang. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I’m not always sure how to act.”

Dad looked to Sonia for confirmation. She pushed Parker out of the way and hugged Dad, to everyone’s surprise, including hers.

“I been waitin’ for three weeks to say thanks. He ain’t took a drink the whole time y’all been gone.”

“That’s great news, but don’t thank me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I just showed up; God did the rest.”

Parker shook his head. “You can act all modest if ya want ta, Pastor Matt. But we’re mighty proud ya showed up, if that’s what ya want ta call it.”

“He’s quit workin’ on that truck and started buildin’ a gazebo. It’ll be a lot nicer when it’s finished out and painted, but it’s a nice place to sit in the mornin’ with a cup of coffee. Parker comes out before he goes to work and reads the Psalms and all.”

“Well, I am impressed! We’ll have to get together next week sometime.”

Everybody nodded their heads, and we all stood around for a few seconds, awkwardly. Then Parker said a few more welcome backs and Dad said a few more thanks, nice to see yous and they walked off together much like the Frys, only to an old F-150 pickup.

It seemed the Fred we had returned to was somewhat different from the Fred we had left. Which was only fair. The Mark Cloud who returned was somewhat different from the one who had left. Although nobody knew that but me.

CHAPTER THREE  My newfound janitorial profit center was not of sufficient magnitude to allow me to retire from my former career as purveyor of the news. I resumed my Grit route on the Spyder bike, new driver’s license notwithstanding. Adding gasoline expenses to the overhead would have obliterated my profit margin.

Three weeks of back issues in the pouch threatened to topple me every time I took a corner. To my surprise, most of the usual customers opted for all three, and some even gave me a dollar and told me to keep the change. I hit a windfall at the Walker estate. Parker was in the half-finished gazebo drinking iced tea, a Bible next to him on the bench seat. I scored an extra dollar tip. In the euphoria of a capitalistic ecstasy, I pointed my chopper handlebars toward the river bottom, expanding my territory.

Predictably, my success rate fell. The river bottom is its own country. Despite the fact that I was a four-year resident of Fred, I had never seen the people who answered the door. Or who were sitting on the porch when I wheezed up the driveway. Greeting a stranger with something besides a shotgun was unusual for this demographic. Fortunately, a skinny kid on a bike posed little danger, but buying something from a stranger went against the grain. Particularly reading material.

I started to turn back several times, but I was seduced by what might be around the next corner. I might stumble upon a backwoods reading club searching for fresh material and move the entire stock!

But as each succeeding corner failed to reveal such a cultural anomaly, I was forced to consider a retreat. The light was failing, and I would have to turn back to get home before the prolonged East Texas twilight bled into night.

What lay around the last corner was a rarity in Fred—a hill denuded of pine trees, affording a panoramic view of the sunset. On the left side of the road, a rough plank house held the sun on its chimney. I viewed it with a critical eye, appraising it for telltale signs of the literati. It wasn’t a promising prospect. On the right side of the road, a green Pontiac Bonneville faced the house and sunset. A hand hung limply from the driver’s window. A thin tendril of smoke rose from a cigarette, like incense to the dying sun god.

Here at least was a sign of life. I leaned to the right and rolled to the open window of the Pontiac. With a practiced motion I pulled a paper from the pouch while extending a leg for support. “Would you like to buy a Grit? It’s a newspaper.”

The flaccid hand backed with coarse black hair rose slowly. My eyes were riveted to the cigarette resting in the center of the hand, between the middle and ring fingers. Or half fingers, I should say. The hand covered the bottom of the face as if to prevent a secret from escaping.

He took a drag from the cigarette and blew the smoke out his nose. I held up a Grit with my right hand, steadying the handlebars with my left. In the silence of the gloaming, we evaluated each other.

There wasn’t much for him to process—a skinny blond kid with hair in his eyes, shoving a paper in his face. The view from my side wouldn’t stop the presses either. Jet-black hair with a trace of gray at the temples, wide face with plenty of room for the wrinkles, bushy eyebrows, flat nose. He raised a Coke can to me with his right hand as if proposing a toast.

“Good evenin’.” He nodded and took a sip of Coke. I nodded back. “How much is yer paper?”

“A quarter.”

“What’s in it?”

“Human-interest stuff, puzzles, recipes, jokes. That kind of stuff.”

“No news of the war?”

“No, it’s not that kind of paper.”

He contemplated the purchase with another pull at the cigarette, fished a wad of bills from his shirt pocket, and peeled off a Washington. “Where you from?”

I dug in my pocket for some change.

He frowned and shook his head. “Keep it.” He tossed the paper into the passenger’s seat.

“Thanks!” That kind of tip didn’t come often in Fred. When it did, it was always from guys who were a little rough around the edges. Women were either exact in their purchase or gave me an extra quarter. “I live over near the school.”

“No, I asked where you from, not where you live. Yer not from around here, that’s fer certain.”

“I was born in Fort Worth.” I didn’t see the need to mention the four years in Ohio.

He regarded me with a penetrating stare that told me he suspected the four years but was too polite or lethargic to challenge my confession.

“OK.” A long silence hung between us, and I turned my bike. He flicked an ash toward me. “I ain’t seen ya out here before.”

“Nosir. I haven’t come down this road before.”

He nodded, admitting the factual nature of the statement. “How often does this paper come out?”

“Weekly.”

“Come a little earlier next time.”

“Yessir.”

He dismissed me with a nod and turned his attention back to the sunset. I turned my bike toward home and pedaled like mad.

 

The next week I directed my bike to the knobby knoll on my river bottom route. The Pontiac was absent. A girl in her early twenties was sitting on a glider swing on the porch at the house across the road. I stopped in the weeds that carpeted the yard and flashed a paper in her direction. “Would you like to buy a Grit?”

She sized me up without breaking her rhythm on the swing. “Nope.” She wore short cutoffs and a work shirt with the tail tied in a knot over her stomach. She might have been a prom queen at one time. Now she was just a girl on a porch on a Saturday afternoon, bored.

“Where’s the guy in the car?” I jerked my head toward the field.

The swing slowed to a stop. “What?”

“The guy in the Pontiac. He was parked over there last week.”

Her eyes narrowed. “He usually shows up a hour before sunset.”

“Oh.” I shoved the paper back in the pouch. “Thanks.”

She gave me a last look and kicked the swing back into action. I returned late in the afternoon. The Pontiac was there, the left hand hanging out the window, smoke rising from the cigarette. The girl was lengthwise on the swing leaning against an armrest, facing the old man in the car. She didn’t acknowledge my arrival. I returned the favor by veering to the car.

The man pulled his attention away from the sunset and raised the cigarette in my direction. I pulled out a paper in anticipation of another lucrative sale. He responded by pulling a Coke from a cooler in the backseat. It was glistening with moisture, unopened.

“I brought an extry in case ya showed up.” We exchanged the Coke and the paper. He tossed the paper in the back and a dollar on the passenger’s seat. “Hop in and take a load off. Enjoy the view.” He waved vaguely with the cigarette. I couldn’t tell if he was gesturing at the sunset or the girl.

I collapsed into the Pontiac. It smelled of stale smoke, dust, and a faint sweet, pungent whiff of whiskey. I looked around but didn’t see any cans or bottles. Just a pack of Lucky Strikes and a gold lighter on the dash, and a square medal with blue and white diagonal stripes hanging from the rearview mirror. I peeled the ring-tab off the Coke. It wasn’t _Dr Pepper, but in the wilderness one cannot be choosy. I slid the ring-tab up my index finger. Heidi collected them, making chains she hung in her room.

“Thanks.”

He nodded in my direction, dismissing my appreciation without breaking the silence or his gaze toward the sunset and the swing. I followed his lead, staring at the clapboard house silhouetted against the yellow-orange sky and sipping the Coke, feeling the carbonation burn down my throat. We admired the view in silence for several minutes.

“Long way from”—he glanced sideways in my direction—“Fort Worth to Fred, ain’t it?”

“Pretty much.” I took another sip.

“Especially when it ain’t in a straight line, I figure.” He took a drag on the cigarette in the same fashion I had seen the week before, clapping his hand over his mouth. I noticed that most of the fingers on his left hand were lacking a joint or two.

“Yep.” I didn’t see any point in volunteering information. Besides, it wasn’t the fashion in Fred to grow garrulous on any given point.

He nodded as if satisfied with the answer, set his Coke on the dash, and shot his right hand toward me. “Vernon Crowley.”

I wiped my hand on my pants. “Mark Cloud.”

It was a firm grip on both sides; mine slightly calloused from bike handlebars, push brooms, rake handles, lawn mowers, and other random evidences of my serfdom as a teenager. His was smooth.

A few minutes later he broke the silence again. “Not a bad rag. What’s new this week?”

“Not much. A guy in Oregon grew a giant turnip. Won a prize or something.”

Vernon nodded. After awhile, he nodded toward the house. “Now there’s a fine specimen, all things considered. I believe she even won a prize in her time.” I followed his gaze. The girl reclined on the swing, studiously ignoring us. I grunted a response, relying on ambiguity to be interpreted as his leanings dictated.

“She does that ever’ time. Like a cat paradin’ in front of a dog on a leash, just out a reach.” He lit another cigarette, releasing the aroma of fresh tobacco. “Funny how they learn that without nobody teachin’ ’em. It’s the same the world over.”

I tried the idea out in my head. My experience of the gentler sex was limited. I had never considered the possibility that they might be disingenuous. A surprising ignorance, considering my knowledge of Jolene’s escapades.

He blew a twin stream of smoke through his nostrils. “I know; I seen it in enough countries.”

Most Fredonians could count the number of counties they had visited on one hand and still have fingers left over to pick their nose. This guy was talking about countries. And he had fewer fingers available for nose excavation than the average citizen. “Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. England, Africa, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Mexico . . . Texas. They don’t change, no matter where you grow ’em.” I studied him a little closer. He noticed. “The war. WWII.”

“Ah.”

“You can’t swing a dead cat in any city, no matter where nor how big nor small, without hittin’ two or three just like ’er. Full a themselves, like a ripe peach that’ll split open as soon as it hits the ground. But it’s all downhill fer her.

“High school is a playground fer the likes a her, but now she’s stuck out here, no stage ta strut around on. Soon enough her pa will get his fill a her sass and marry her off ta someone.”

He took a long contemplative draw from the cigarette. “Or she’ll get bored and run off with one a the punks down the river.”

I grunted to acknowledge his peroration. My contemplations of the opposite sex tended to focus on their physical attributes. And, from the look I had earlier in the day, I wouldn’t have objected if she had come throwing rocks at my bedroom window, proposing we run off together.

We sat in the gloom for awhile. Then he suddenly reached up and cranked the Pontiac to life. “I guess I better be gettin’ on home.” He shoved the car into gear and lurched forward.

“Hey!” I hollered, spilling Coke on my jeans. “Let me out first.”

“Oh.” He slammed on the brakes and jerked the car into park. I shot a hand against the dash to avoid a flat nose and jumped out. I held up the Coke. “Thanks.”

“Sure.” He slapped the car back into gear and rolled forward briefly before stopping with a thunk. He gunned the engine. The back wheels kicked up a cloud of dirt. I looked around the front of the car. He had run up against a stump about two feet high. He shoved the gearshift around, hit park, gunned it, and went nowhere. He slapped it again, hit neutral, and gunned it with the same results. He squinted at the gears and tried drive again, creating another cloud of dust.

“Hey,” I hollered through the passenger’s window. “You’re up against a stump.” He looked at me with a confused expression. I realized he was drunk. I took a chance. “Hey, how about if I throw my bike in the trunk and drive you home?”

He glared at me for a few seconds and nodded, the fierce expression still on his face. “Yep, I reckon that’s a doofer.”

“Huh?”

“It’ll doofer now.”

He got out of the car and walked with deliberate concentration around the front of the car to the passenger’s side, stumbling over the stump on the way. I pulled the keys from the ignition and opened the trunk. It was full of glass gallon jars, the kind with a small neck with a handle on it. I slammed the trunk and maneuvered the bike into the backseat.

“Which way?” I asked as I rolled past the stump.

He nodded to the right toward the river bottom. I followed the road until I came to a trailer up on blocks in front of a decaying frame house. I extracted my bike. He met me behind the car. I handed him the keys.

“This’ll just be our little secret.” He winked at me.

“Sure.”

I watched him climb the cinder-block steps to the door of the trailer. It was locked. He called through the open window. A dark-looking woman, black hair jerked back in a severe bun, threw the door open, began cussing, and backhanded him. He tumbled from the cinder blocks into the dirt. Before he hit the ground she had already turned away. I ran over. His lip was bleeding, but he waved me away and got up, brushing the dust from his clothes.

“Don’t pay Gina no mind,” he said softly. “I’m terrible hard ta live with. She does the best she can, but sometimes it gets too much fer her.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yep, yep, right as rain.” He shook my hand slowly. “Now you best git on out a here.”

He didn’t have to tell me twice.