Cheaha, fiction by A.M. Garner

THE MAN WHO LOANS TOOLS IS OUT. The hand-let­tered sign hung dead cen­ter of the rear wall of the cement block garage. Lendon Philpot—the man who didn’t loan out his tools—leaned over the motor of a red ’67 Ford Galax­ie, try­ing his best to loosen the rust­ed bolts on the red Ford’s water pump. Yel­low jack­et wasps buzzed his face every time he squirt­ed sol­vent on the stub­born parts before yank­ing his hands, arms, and tor­so in a gut-wrench­ing tug.

The group of men gath­ered near the red cold-drink machine either sat on mule ear chairs—homemade wood­en chairs with two back posts that curved out like mule’s ears—or  propped on wood­en Coca Cola crates set on end. They watched care­ful­ly and mar­veled, hard­ly able to believe Lendon wasn’t curs­ing.

Lendon’s done got reli­gion.”

A Ford could cause a man to lose his sal­va­tion.”

A red Ford is Satan’s hand work.”

Lendon gave the wrench one last red-faced mon­u­men­tal tug.  His hand filmed with engine grease slipped, crash­ing his right hand knuck­les into a pro­trud­ing piece of met­al that cut a gash at the same time his body shift­ed in such a way that Lendon’s right cheek pressed on a yel­low jack­et.  It buried its stinger an inch from the cor­ner of his right eye, the cat­a­lyst for the show about to occur.

Son of a BITCH.”

This was more like it.  The mule ear chair gang set­tled in to watch. Lendon shot up out of his crouch over the motor and hit his head on the propped up hood. When he set­tled steady on his feet beside the car, he danced around like a man who had lost his mind and threw his wrench with such force it glanced the top edge of the Ford Galaxie’s wind­shield, spi­der­ing the glass.  Lendon removed the dead yel­low jack­et from his face with his right hand while rub­bing the top of his head with his left, all the while roil­ing out epi­thets so fierce that some of the men gath­ered around the cold drink machine cringed, one whis­per­ing “oh no, you shouldn’t say things like that about somebody’s mama, Lendon.”

Clyde Colvin—the mem­ber of the gang always giv­en the best mule ear chair not sim­ply because of his advanced age and role as leader and spokesman but main­ly because he was by far the best local boot­leg­ger in a dry county—summed it up best. “The dev­il is present and account­ed for this morn­ing.”

A firestorm of com­men­tary erupt­ed from the mule ear chair gang who’d all had at least two cups of cof­fee from the per­co­later that sat on a small met­al cart beside Lendon’s desk and who were wait­ing to com­bust.

It’s sure hot as hell. August in Alaba­ma might be hell.”

Not exact­ly. The Bible describes hell as a lake of fire that will con­sume the flesh but not end exis­tence or eter­nal suf­fer­ing.”

Pull them shoes off your feet and walk down that black top yon­der and see if you don’t think you’re being con­sumed by fire. Burnt, but not kilt.”

That don’t make no sense.  Only a fool would take his shoes off and walk down the hot pave­ment in August.”

Up on top of a hill is where you need to be when it’s this hot.  My ol’ grand­dad­dy said always build a house on a hill to catch the breeze.”

We need to be up on Chea­ha Moun­tain.”

Yessir.  You can catch some breezes up on Chea­ha.”

Ain’t nev­er been to Chea­ha, have you, Clyde?”

Clyde paused before speak­ing.  Every man there fol­lowed the pause, wait­ing to see what Clyde would say. “Nev­er seen no need.”

Hell, man, it’s just over in the next coun­ty.  Not more’n thir­ty mile.”

All you have to do is go out Hollins Road and cut through that road by the Bap­tist church with the red winders.”

Naw you don’t. That ain’t the way.  Just go up town and turn right at the red light past the bank and go out that way to Clair­mont Springs.”

You boys couldn’t tell a blind man sit­ting on a toi­let how to find his rear.  There’s more than one bank up town.  And what if the light ain’t red?  What if it’s yeller or green? When then?  And besides, roads have num­bers.”

Clyde, you still scared of heights?  That why you nev­er been to Chea­ha? I heard you won’t buy a new pick­up ‘cause the new ones sit too high off the ground.”

Every­one had a laugh over that, but Clyde didn’t answer.

A nice-look­ing young woman wear­ing a starched and ironed dress and with neat bobbed hair walked up and looked around, wide-eyed.  “I’m look­ing for Mr. Philpot,” she said.

Clyde Colvin stood like a gen­tle­man and nod­ded in the direc­tion of Lendon. “That would be him.”

When the young woman walked up to Lendon, he who had been curs­ing like the damned changed gears and smiled like a Sun­day school teacher, found a rag in his pock­et and wound it around his bleed­ing knuck­les.  “Yes ma’am. How can we help you?”

They could all tell just by look­ing at her she was a good coun­try girl, qui­et and the kind who spends hours at hard work tend­ing her gar­den, her chil­dren, and her own busi­ness.

My hus­band, Pete Boshell, he said for me to drop off his old truck.” She sound­ed like she was apol­o­giz­ing.

Lendon looked out in the shop yard and didn’t see any­one wait­ing with anoth­er vehi­cle as her ride, just Pete Boshell’s old blue cat­tle truck left where she had parked it.

You got a way to get home?”

No sir.  I’ll be walkin’. Ain’t but ‘bout a mile.”

Lendon turned to the men whose mouths were for the most part hang­ing open.  “How ‘bout one of y’all fetch the keys to my truck there”—he nod­ded in the direction—“and dri­ve Miz Boshell home. Too hot to be out walk­ing bare­head­ed, and I sus­pect Miz Boshell’s got plen­ty a work at home just wait­in’ on her.”

Lendon saw his port­ly cousin Hubert, one of the mule ear chair reg­u­lars, wob­ble out of his chair so fast he turned it over back­wards on his way to the peg board that held keys in the cor­ner that Lendon called his office.

Lendon con­tin­ued.  “Pete Boshell’s a hard-work­ing man.”

Every man there knew Pete Boshell was one of the locals who arose before dawn every morn­ing to tend what­ev­er cat­tle he had that sea­son on his few fenced ragged acres, eat break­fast, and be on the job up at the cot­ton mill in Syla­cau­ga for the sev­en AM shift.

Least we can do is keep his truck run­ning for him.”

Of course every man there also knew that it was Pete Boshell work­ing at Avon­dale Mills right over the coun­ty line that pro­vid­ed the mon­ey to pay Lendon Philpot, who was not in the busi­ness of hand­outs unless it was that time the school bus broke down right in front of his shop and he gave all the kids free cokes and snacks from his Lance cook­ie jar, which was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry alto­geth­er. Lendon hat­ed to see a preach­er com­ing is what he told the mule ear gang. Espe­cial­ly Bap­tist preach­ers. They always thought you should do their work for free and expect noth­ing more than a prayer in return. Mon­ey was always hard to come by in Coosa Coun­ty.  You had to bring mon­ey into the coun­ty, not the oth­er way around.

Lendon believed in hard work, keep­ing mov­ing, lin­ing up the jobs and the day’s work.  That’s how a man got ahead in the world.  A few years back he’d had four bays in his shop, but it was too much to jug­gle, hav­ing three mechan­ics besides him­self on pay­roll and the shop yard lined with so many cars need­ing repair that it looked like a used car lot. Plus, with all those cars parked around all the time, some rumored he was boot­leg­ging. And when he had to dri­ve the five miles up town to pick up parts in his pick­up, upon his return he found no work at all had been done.  So he’d closed up the two back bays, parked his tow truck in one, and kept the one mechan­ic Bil­ly Banks who worked slow but steady and could rebuild a trans­mis­sion bet­ter than new.  And Lendon set to giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties to the chang­ing brigade who sat around in the mule ear chairs, nev­er doing any­thing but watch­ing him work, swap­ping lies about cars and fish­ing, and wait­ing to see if Lendon would pitch a con­nip­tion fit or join them.  He did join them about four every after­noon when the men all bought short cokes in thick glass bot­tles from the machine that still just charged a dime. The cokes were just to chase the swigs of whiskey each man took from what­ev­er bot­tle Lendon Philpot had stashed in the bot­tom right draw­er of his desk. They would pour the neck out and fill it up with the fla­vor whiskey of the day. Thanks to Clyde Colvin. And no one knew exact­ly where Clyde got his stash, though many—including state law enforcement—had sur­mised. Local law enforce­ment didn’t have to sur­mise since Clyde was pay­ing them off to let him know when state or fed­er­al law might show up.

But it was just mid­morn­ing, a long time until four p.m.  The day was already so hot the heat shim­mered off the black top on the high­way out front, and burn­ing sweat rolled into Lendon’s eyes.

Lendon was in pain but attacked the Ford again, this time with more focus, as if sheer human will could tame it.  The Ford had been noth­ing but prob­lems. When Bil­ly Banks changed the oil in the red Ford and the oil plug was stuck, he’d stripped it as he forced it out.  Then there was an elec­tri­cal short in the starter that had plagued the car for months.  Lendon had replaced the starter twice and had checked for oth­er shorts in the wiring. Each time it appeared he’d fixed the car.  But when the owner’s wife drove the red Ford to the gro­cery store and bought ice cream, the starter had anoth­er spell, strand­ing her with melt­ing ice cream in a hot park­ing lot.  Lendon began to think of the red Ford as an epilep­tic whose attacks were unpre­dictable.  And now this episode with the water pump.  Plus when Bil­ly Banks had sat in the driver’s seat of the red Ford to dri­ve the car into the bay, a screw­driv­er he for­got he put in his hip pock­et punched a hole in the uphol­stery and ripped it a cou­ple of inch­es.  Lendon was back under the hood, wrestling with the water pump, the mule ear chair gang watch­ing and tak­ing turns nar­rat­ing.

I wouldn’t have no ’67 Ford Galax­ie if some­body give me one.”

Cars got­ta be sexy now.  It’s all about the Mus­tang, all right.”

Espe­cial­ly a red Ford Galax­ie.  They’s the worst kind. Wouldn’t have one.”

Half them Fords these days turn into great big fire­balls in a wreck.  Like them Pin­tos.  Death traps on wheels.  That Cor­ley gal over near Clan­ton and her lit­tle sis­ter burned up in one of them Pin­tos.  Wasn’t their fault.  Hit from behind.”

I wouldn’t let my dog dri­ve no Pin­to”

Since when did your dog start dri­ving, Char­lie?”

Just give me a good Chiv­o­let, any­time.”

Yessir.  A good Chiv­o­let.”

Gen­er­al Motors.”

Yessir.  GM.  All the way.”

The mule ear gang was bet­ter than a cho­rus, singing Lendon’s own sen­ti­ments back to him as sweat dropped from his brow onto the Ford’s dusty motor.  By the time Lendon had the old part off and the new part on, he was red-faced and his eye had swollen close to shut.

Back it out, Bil­ly,” Lendon called.

Bil­ly Banks wiped his hands with a clean rag and crawled into the driver’s seat of the red Ford once again.

Lendon went over to the water cool­er and drank his fill, the cho­rus call­ing to him.

Hey, Lendon, come over here and let Char­lie here look at that eye for you.”

You know I was a medic in the army.”

Wet tobacco’ll take that sting out.”

I don’t believe nobody would want none of that chew out’n your mouth.”

Take that Prince Albert can in your pock­et and drib­ble some water on a wad —let it get good and wet—then put that wad up against the stung place and tie a hand­ker­chief over it.”

Well, now, hold on.  I heard you take kerosene and sprin­kle that on some clean Prince Albert and tie that on the stung place with a clean hand­ker­chief.”

That don’t make no sense at all.  The yel­low jack­et stung him up side the eye.  You want me to blind­fold him?”

Course I ain’t sayin’ blind­fold him. How can a man walk around—even in his own shop—if  he’s blind­fold­ed?”

About that time Lendon heard a loud sick­en­ing sound of met­al crash­ing into met­al and turned, expect­ing to find that some poor unsus­pect­ing soul had slowed down on the high­way to turn into the grav­el yard of Lendon’s place of busi­ness and been hit from behind by a speed­ing tractor/trailer, its dri­ver hell­bent on mak­ing his load to Mont­gomery on sched­ule. Instead, what he saw was Bil­ly Banks at the wheel of the red Ford with his face mov­ing in rapid sequence through five emotions—surprise/disbelief/outrage/anger/fear.  The rear end of the red Ford sat mashed into the side of Pete Boshell’s old blue cat­tle truck.  Even from this view, Lendon could tell the red Ford had more dam­age than just a bro­ken tail­light. The rise of the trunk lid was now at an angle more like that of a chopped off race car, only crooked.

Bil­ly Banks stum­bled out of the car.  “I swear I had my foot on the brake, Lendon.  I swear.  I took it off the gas and put it on the brake.  It was like the car was pos­sessed or some­thing.  I couldn’t stop it.  It was like it had a mind of its own.”

Clyde Colvin was stand­ing right beside Lendon now, his hand on Lendon’s shoul­der, help­ing Lendon sur­vey the dam­age.  “Well one thing’s for sure,” Clyde said.

What’s that?”

Pete Boshell’s truck sure as hell stopped it.”

 

* * * * * *

 

Paint’s going bad any­way.  Hood’s already turned pink.”  Clyde Colvin, try­ing to hold up his end of a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion, sat behind the steer­ing wheel of Lendon Philpot’s truck.  Lendon sat with his right arm perched in the open win­dow, star­ing ahead and occa­sion­al­ly offer­ing one word answers.  Between them on the seat, a brown paper bag held pot­ted meat, sar­dines, Saltine crack­ers, and a bot­tle of hot sauce Clyde had stopped and picked up from the store down the road from Lendon’s shop.

Not even a real air con­di­tion­er they’re run­ning in that thing.  It’s a after­mar­ket.  And them kind don’t nev­er work too well.  Or last too long.”

After Bil­ly Banks had backed the red Ford into the side of Pete Boshell’s cat­tle truck, the mule ear chair gallery had wait­ed for the fire­works show that was sure to fol­low.  Talk halt­ed and all eyes and ears were on Lendon.

But Lendon had not chewed out Bil­ly Banks or fired him on the spot or thrown wrench­es or turned even red­der in the face than he already was. He had not launched into his usu­al cre­ative spon­ta­neous recita­tion of curs­es invent­ed on the spot to fit the cir­cum­stances, curs­es so rich in imagery and rhetoric as to awe those whose ears were already accus­tomed on Sun­days to hear­ing the very best preach­ers describe sin­ners in the lake-of-fire hell in the hands of an angry God in such a histri­on­ic man­ner as to bring even the most stub­born-willed sin­ners to their knees.  Lendon was more enter­tain­ing than a preach­er and didn’t even pass the plate for an offer­ing. The mule ear chair gang hung in sus­pend­ed motion await­ing the show of shows.  But no. Lendon sim­ply turned from where he and Clyde sur­veyed the crushed rear end of the red Ford Galax­ie, went to the tiny sink in the bath­room at the back of the garage, poured kerosene onto his hands from a coke bot­tle sit­ting in the cor­ner, and pro­ceed­ed to lath­er up his hands thor­ough­ly with Gojo and rinse them before tak­ing out his pock­et knife to clean under his fin­ger nails.  Then he walked right past the mule ear chair gang as he dried his hands with a clean shop rag, walked to the oak office chair beside the desk in his office, sat down, and began shuf­fling papers.

The gang looked at each oth­er and made them­selves busy whit­tling, rolling cig­a­rettes, clean­ing out a pipe with a pock­et knife, inspect­ing the freck­les on the backs of their hands, one tak­ing a comb out of a pock­et and smooth­ing his hair.

Bil­ly Banks shuf­fled over from the work bench where he’d returned after back­ing the red Ford into the truck to stand in the framed two by fours that passed for Lendon’s door­way, as if offer­ing him­self as a sac­ri­fice.

Lendon had not even looked up at Bil­ly Banks.

Lendon’s pat­tern was not to sit at his desk in the mid­dle of the day.  Even at the close of the day when he went into his office to retrieve the whiskey bot­tle du jour from the desk draw­er, he didn’t sit down for long.  Now he sat .  He looked at the big stack of billing tickets—money peo­ple owed him—he kept speared onto a tall steel spike anchored by a heavy iron plate bot­tom that sat on his desk­top.  He had tak­en off the entire stack and stud­ied each one indi­vid­u­al­ly, as if check­ing his math before stab­bing it back onto the steel spike. This had gone on for a good twen­ty min­utes.

At that point, Clyde Colvin had tak­en his cap off the back of the mule ear chair he sat in,  perched the cap on his head in the jaun­ty angle he wore it, and stood in Lendon’s door.  He opened up his pock­et watch and looked at it.

C’mon, Lendon.  Time to go up town to the parts hous­es.”

Lendon looked up at Clyde and then back down at the stack of tick­ets in his hands for a while before he took the entire stack and pushed them back onto the spike and retrieved his own cap from the peg board and fol­lowed Clyde out a front bay door to Lendon’s blue Chevro­let pick up.

Clyde spoke up.  “Key’s in it.  Guess I’ll dri­ve if it’s alright with you.”

Lendon had not said a word, just opened the pas­sen­ger door and sat down on the pas­sen­ger side of the bench seat on which he had rid­den maybe a total of twice in the his­to­ry of the 142,000 unal­tered miles on the odome­ter.

So Clyde had stopped at the store, bought the sup­plies, and head­ed north, dri­ving right past the parts hous­es and right on by the bank and the city hall and turned right and head­ed out the oth­er side of town where the city lim­its end­ed and the bound­aries of the nation­al for­est began.  Since they now drove through copses of tall trees, the air blow­ing through the but­ter­fly win­dow vents of the pick­up was not exact­ly grow­ing cool­er, but the shade offered relief from the August sun of a cloud­less sky, and Clyde had start­ed talk­ing and kept right on doing so, though he was get­ting lit­tle response oth­er than an occa­sion­al grunt from Lendon.

I know for a fact that the driver’s side win­dow in that Ford quit work­ing about six months so that ever time it rains the seat gets wet. When the sun bakes it dry, it just rots the whole thing.  So Billy’s screw­driv­er might not even been what split that seat.  And have you heard them brakes?  They squeal like a stuck hog.”

Clyde con­tin­ued.  “Now the front wind­shield being broke, that part is your fault all right.” Clyde looked over at Lendon. “Oth­er than a few road chips, that glass was sound as a dol­lar until you took that wrench and slung it.  Nobody’s sayin’ you meant to break it, but you know what I mean.”

Clyde kept right on talk­ing as he guid­ed the truck through the turns and curves, dri­ving by the old springs where the folks with mon­ey used to come stay at the old hotel and take the baths for what­ev­er ailed them, then dri­ving right on up the side of the moun­tain.  They passed fields aban­doned so long with no one to bush hog that the saplings had tak­en over.  They passed fields plant­ed in straight rows of pine for pulp­wood.  But most­ly they were in deep for­est that in places offered a total canopy for the tun­nel the road made.  Soon they had climbed enough to feel the first cool breeze.

Lendon seemed to come out of his trance. “Where the hell you going, Clyde?”

I guess where I’m going with this is that Bil­ly Banks don’t need to get fired over a red Ford.  That car’s been jinxed since it came off the line in Detroit, for one thing.  And for anoth­er, nobody’s ever done much to take care of it.”

Lendon seemed tak­en aback by the thought. “I’m not about to fire Bil­ly Banks.  He’s got a fam­i­ly.  And besides, he makes me mon­ey. What I mean is right here and right now.  In this truck.  Where the hell you takin’ me?”

We’re rid­ing to the top of Chea­ha.  To catch us a cool breeze.”

Lendon seemed to take this in.  “But you’re afraid of heights, Clyde.”

I ain’t plan­ning on lookin’.  And besides,” Clyde reached under the seat and pulled out a flat pint bot­tle and put it on the seat and then anoth­er, “I brought along a lit­tle some­thin’ to ease the pain of the view.”

So they kept climb­ing in the old straight shift truck with their arms perched in the win­dows to catch the breeze, fol­low­ing the CCC road clear to the rock tow­er the CCCs built on the top and then found a squat oak tree with dense shade across the road from the tow­er where they parked and hitched the tail gate flat and fash­ioned a kind of pic­nic out of the sar­dines and crack­ers and pot­ted meat which they ate with their pock­et knives and made a big show of hav­ing two lit­tle Coca Cola bot­tles promi­nent­ly dis­played in case a ranger hap­pened by.  Clyde had put one pint bot­tle back under the seat and kept the oth­er stashed in the front of his over­alls, one gal­lus left loose, and after they fin­ished the food, they threw the debris in an old oil drum left there for that exact pur­pose, holes punched in the met­al near the bot­tom so that the rain­wa­ter would drain and mos­qui­toes couldn’t breed.  And when Lendon said he might as well climb up to the top of that tow­er, since they were there, and have a look see, Clyde replied that he believed he’d just sit there in the truck and pol­ish off what was left in the first pint, if it was all the same to Lendon.

When Lendon got back into the truck and Clyde had backed the truck out from under the tree and they sat at the edge of the pave­ment once again, Lendon point­ed to a turnoff a hun­dred yards away.

Let’s dri­ve over there and check it out.”  As they drove out the grav­el lane, it was plain to see that this was where the real view was, the sheer drop off that made the moun­tain seem like the tallest thing in the whole South, any­one would imag­ine, the val­ley below stretched out in a faint blue haze with lit­tle roads like strips of string and a shiny lake and mov­ing cars look­ing some­thing like red bugs look crawl­ing up your arm.   Clyde drove slow­er and slow­er and had almost shut his eyes until Lendon had him pull over at a wide place in the road and had him get out and come around and stand with him with the hood of the truck between them and the drop off.  Lendon had Clyde place his hands on the hood to hold on to and start­ed point­ing things out to Clyde, the roads/lake/tiny cars.  A lit­tle band of clouds had appeared in all that blue sky, and in the far dis­tance they could see a gray thun­der­head like a child’s fist and Clyde asked him reck­on where that was and Lendon said Indi­ana for all he knew.

Back out at the CCC road, they did not go back the way they had come and instead took the road that seemed to drop off the moun­tain, the rest of the world laid out before them like a green rug just wait­ing for them to roll off the moun­tain onto it. Clyde closed one eye and held the truck between the ditch­es while Lendon talked about Pat­sy Cline and Cow­boy Copas and Hawk­shaw Hawkins all dying in that plane crash and that he didn’t think it was on a moun­tain like Chea­ha, where there had been more than one plane crash, but that still it was not too far away where the plane car­ry­ing Pat­sy had gone down, and one day he and Clyde might just dri­ve up to Cam­den, Ten­nessee, and check it out, all the while Clyde hold­ing firm­ly onto the steer­ing wheel with both hands.  As they neared the bot­tom of the moun­tain, a man on a motor­cy­cle swerved around the truck and leaned into the next curve before mov­ing on beyond their sight, the only oth­er soul they had seen.

Now that’s one crazy feller.”

Lendon smiled just a bit. “I rode a motor­cy­cle in ’42 before they sent me over­seas. I thought I would get to do that all the rest of my life.  Wear a leather jack­et and a shiny pair of boots.”

We all used to be some­thing or oth­er.  Just none of us knowed what we’d end up being.”

At the bot­tom of the moun­tain, Clyde opened both eyes for the first time and reached under the seat for the sec­ond pint bot­tle.

*******

 

When Lendon and Clyde returned, every­thing was as before.  The rear of the red Ford Galax­ie still sat crushed into the side of the stur­dy met­al frame of the bed of blue cat­tle truck, which seemed rel­a­tive­ly unharmed. The two front bay doors of the shop stood open wide, and in front of the coke machine sat the same cir­cle of men, two or three mem­bers of whom had left but oth­ers had appeared to take their places so that the tableaux remained unal­tered.  When Lendon and Clyde walked inside, Bil­ly Banks hov­ered over the trans­mis­sion on his work bench. The gang seemed relieved to see them.  They had all enter­tained them­selves spec­u­lat­ing about wild women, whiskey, alco­hol con­trol agents, and fatal car crash­es, none of which was reflect­ed in their cur­rent com­ments.

We’d about done give up on y’all.”

Was it a flat tire, Lendon?  I said it was a flat tire.”

Bil­ly yon­der said the parts truck with today’s ship­ment was pro­l­ly late.”

Yeah, that’s what Bil­ly said.”

A man smok­ing a hand-rolled cig­a­rette got up out of the best mule ear chair in order to give Clyde some­where to sit.

The gang was so busy telling Clyde what all had gone on while the two men were gone that no one seemed to notice Lendon take a gray met­al gas can with him when he went out to dri­ve the red Ford over to the edge of the shop yard and lift the hood or even saw him walk back in and replace the can on the shelf, much less watched him walk back out to the car, roll a cig­a­rette and light it before flick­ing the match in the direc­tion of the red Ford.  They did not even see the first flash of flame, but all turned at once when the gas tank explod­ed like a thing that had flirt­ed flame with petro­le­um all its life final­ly to have gone too far.

Next day when the insur­ance claims man out of Birm­ing­ham showed up with his check­book, the gang sat anx­ious to answer his ques­tions.  First he had talked to Lendon.  And now he ques­tioned the mule ear gang. And he had had many ques­tions, maybe ten min­utes worth of ques­tions so far.

So let me get this straight.  Was Mr. Philpot with the car when it explod­ed?  Was he sit­ting in it? Stand­ing beside it? In front of it? Behind it?”

He had been in it.”

He had been beside it.”

And in front of it.”

I’d say he’d also been behind it.  Wouldn’t you fellers agree that he had also been behind it?”

Every­one agreed.

The insur­ance man seemed amused.

What did it appear Mr. Philpot was doing in all those places?”

They all looked at the insur­ance man for a while before some­body spoke slow­ly, like explain­ing some­thing to a child.

Well, this here is a garage, sir. Peo­ple bring their cars here when some­thing is broke on ‘em.  Lendon fix­es cars for a liv­ing. He walks all around ‘em and crawls all over ‘em all day long.”

The insur­ance man was not fazed.

So Mr. Philpot was sit­ting in the car when it first began to burn?”

The gang looked at each oth­er, some over their glass­es. This fool out of Birm­ing­ham appar­ent­ly thought a man could be sit­ting in a red Ford while it explod­ed and live to tell about it.

Nawsir.  He had been sit­ting in it.  But he weren’t sit­ting in it when it burnt up.”

Could any of you tell me why that car sud­den­ly explod­ed.  Oth­er than the fact that it was a hot day in August.”

Well that one’s easy to answer.  Didn’t have noth­in’ to do with how hot it was. Them Fords is bad to burn when they wrecked from behind.  Them Cor­ley sis­ters over near Clan­ton, they burnt to death in a Ford wrecked from behind.”

Sure did.  Two lit­tle gals not doing one thang wrong.  Just dri­ving down the road.  Then some­body just bumped ‘em from behind and that Ford turned into a fire­ball.”

A death trap.”

A fire­ball death trap.”

Just lucky we were all sit­tin’ here next to this Coke machine or else no telling what would of hap­pened to us.”

I was a medic dur­ing the war, and I can tell you that it would not have been a pret­ty sight.”

Had it been a Chiv­o­let, damned thing would still be here today.”

Pete Boshell’s truck there is a GMC and you don’t see much wrong with it, now do you?”

The insur­ance man went out to his car in the hot sun­light and sat for a minute before com­ing back in and hand­ing Lendon a check. “You’re very for­tu­nate, Mr. Philpot, to have had the pres­ence of mind to dri­ve that car to the edge of your prop­er­ty before it just hap­pened to have burst into flames, as luck would have it.”

The gang lis­tened to hear what Lendon’s reply would be.

Damned straight,” Lendon said. “If it had been inside this shop, your com­pa­ny would be pay­ing for a hell of a lot more than one red Ford.”  Lendon slow­ly looked around and let his gaze linger on his build­ing, the cars inside, all his equip­ment, his tow truck and his weld­ing truck.   He let that sink in real good before he looked the man dead in the eye, shook his hand, and took the check.

Of course, the gang told this tale for years, embell­ish­ing the size of the red Ford’s fire­ball on occa­sion.  In some ver­sions, Lendon bare­ly made it out of the car before it explod­ed, the hair on his head still smok­ing as he ran back inside the garage. In oth­er ver­sions, Lendon was back inside the garage and drink­ing a Coca Cola with them when they all saw the red Ford sud­den­ly burst into flames.

Only some months lat­er did Bil­ly Banks remem­ber to ask where Lendon and Clyde had been that day, before the red Ford Galax­ie explod­ed into anoth­er world. It was almost 6 pm, almost clos­ing time, and Clyde had brought his own bot­tle with him to sup­ple­ment the usu­al swigs.

Chea­ha,” Clyde replied.

The gang had a good chuck­le over that.

Naw, we’re seri­ous. Real­ly, Lendon.  What kept y’all so long?”

Like Clyde said. He drove me up to Chea­ha.  Drove me up there, stood on the top, looked all around, and then closed one eye and drove me down the oth­er side.”

The men laughed.

Even had a pic­nic while we were there, didn’t we Clyde?”

They laughed out loud.

No telling where Lendon and Clyde might take off for next.”

New York.”

Cal­i­for­nia.”

I’m bet­ting Alas­ka.”

Lendon’s truck would make it there and back, even with as many miles as it’s got on it, wouldn’t it Lendon?”

Lendon looked at them all and smiled.  “You take good care of a Chiv­o­let truck, and it’ll take good care of you.”

It was a line he made up on the spur of the moment but one no doubt he would hear many times repeat­ed to him in return.

garnerA. M. Gar­ner grew up on the bot­tom edge of Alaba­ma Appalachia—near Chea­ha, the high­est point in Alabama–and now lives and teach­es on the bot­tom edge of the Upper South on the Ten­nessee Riv­er in North Alaba­ma. She is flu­ent in red­neck.  She has eat­en squir­rel fried in lard and served with a cup of steam­ing black cof­fee. For break­fast.

 

 

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