“Alright, just let me lock up,” I flash James my best forced warm smile. Leaning over, I grab at the handle of the window lever on the passenger side door and look up into the brown eyes of the wolfish man. I pause as if to say, “Well? Are you going to move so I can roll up the window?”
“Oh! Of course,” he chuckles as he leans back, snaps his suspenders on his overalls and gives his shirt a few casual tucks under his pits to stuff back the fabric that’s pulled free from stretching. As I crank the window shut, I catch a glimpse of a few brown flecks scattered across the shirt under his right arm.
Leaned over, I whisper, “Great act, Penny! Hold out here and stay still until I get back. I don’t know how far this Billy’s gotta go but I don’t want him to see you when he comes back, understood?”
“Mhphmm,” I hear a muffled groan as she shifts position a bit.
Looking out the window, through the mirror, I can see that James and Billy are conferring behind my truck. I breathe a momentary sigh of relief knowing that I don’t currently have a shotgun to my head. With as little additional movement as possible, I stuff the cold steel pistol down my pants. It feels like ice as it grazes across my privates but it provides me with enough confidence to calm the shudders my shoulders are currently wracked with.
I’ve never been here before, in the midst of eminent conflict. I’ve always imagined it, thought I could handle it, but I’ve never been in the middle of it. And it’s more intense than I’d thought it would be.
Reminds me of when I entered the gas chamber as a private in the Army, thinking I’d be the one guy immune to the stuff, only to find out, in shocked horror, how terribly wrong I could be. The gas had entered my lungs like any other air, but brought with it the sensation of being struck across the face with a hammer as my tubes clamped down in violent protest and my stomach became my new and far less functional lungs. It was then that I learned what it might feel like to die, to have no choice but to let go of the spark of life.
And I am now finding this immediate and real threat to be a lot more worrisome than I could’ve believed. The idea of having a sudden shootout at any time is enough to cause my guts to liquefy out of fear alone. They feel on the brink of jellifying already and as I take a moment to find some calm, I realize every muscle in my body already aches with the soreness of overwhelming tension. I paw at my crotch to make sure things are still dry and am relieved to discover no more moisture than would be indicative of a strong flow of perspiration.
“Ok,” I affirm to myself as I sit up and grab the wheel and cast another wary eye into the rearview mirror only to be reminded how chock full the back of my truck is. Penny’s door is now locked and it’s time to get moving if I’m not going to appear to be spending time in sly preparation.
“How long will you be?” Penny whispers.
“I’ll make sure not to take long. Just leave everything LOCKED,” I hiss in an attempt to deny moving my lips. “Just lay low and we’ll be on our way in no time,” I assure.
Opening the door, I get out and stretch. The morning air immediately sets to work evaporating the clamminess from my skin. James walks forward with a dark grin on his lips and I quickly take a step and throw the door shut behind me.
“You sure your dog’ll be alright in there while we go grab a bite?” he asks. “Don’t ‘e ever gotta pee?”
“He might but he wasn’t interested in the leash. I’m really getting worried. Just lays there panting and growls if I move the blanket,” I say as I turn to look in the window, more to keep my own body in the way of James as he approaches, appearing to want to get a closer look.
Now that I’m standing outside, not bound in a truck seat, I feel much more capable of dealing with him if he were to get hostile. He isn’t that much taller than I, though he is a bit wider set and looks as if he’s spent some time farming, given the thickness of his arms. I wouldn’t want to wrestle him, that’s for sure.
“Well?” he says as he comes to stand before me. His eyes glance over towards the diner and he flicks his hand to gesture we get a move on.
I nod and smile, adding as I begin to walk forward, “I actually do appreciate this. I was trying to avoid paying for any food until I reached my friend’s house. I’m going to need to find work of some kind and until then I’m on a finite budget.”
“Fi-nite huh?” James says absently as he pauses in passing the window to glance down into the truck cab.
“Yeah,” I act naturally as I notice him looking in the truck behind me. I cast a quick prayer that Penny senses that NOW, more than ever, she needs to stay the hell still! “You know… limited.”
“Ah know what ‘fi-nite’ means,” James chuckles as he turns and grins toothily, ambling towards me with his suspender straps twisted around his thumbs. “Ah just can’t see who ‘tis yer tryin’ ta’ impress is all.”
“I… I wasn’t trying to impress
anyone!” I state defensively. (Bullshit!) Was I? “I was just using the best word I could think of for the message you know?”
“Mmhmm,” James nods. “We’re gonna hafta work on yer people skills, Randy. Folks ‘round these parts might find ya a bit… well… y’know.”
“Um, arrogant?” I guess as we reached the crosswalk. I pause to look for oncoming cars as James pushes past me and strides off solidly across the street.
“I was going to say ‘pompous’,” he says.
“Oh,” I say as I sheepishly dash across the road to catch up. “So I can’t use the word ‘finite’ but you can sling terms like ‘pompous’ around and that’s just fine?”
“Well,” James pauses on the other end of the road, glancing back to wave at Billy who starts up their truck with a ‘grugugugugug’ echoing throughout the town, “You may not realize this, Randy, but you kinda give off the impression that you think you’re better than everyone else.”Not everyone, just you,
I think immediately. I’m looking James up and down trying to envision where he might be hiding any weapons, guns, knives, anything dangerous aside from his ham fists alone. He does have some sizeable pockets and it’d be impossible to tell without patting him down if he has anything squirreled away within. “I… I don’t mean to. It’s not like I think I am
better than anyone else,” I defend as we round the corner of the street to head to the entrance behind the diner.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t THINK you think you are,” James chuckles gruffly spinning on his heels and gesturing me forward to take the lead around the back of the building. “It’s just kinda a ‘vibe’ you put out there y’know?”
“How is that?” I ask as I take a moment, not comfortable with the thick man walking behind me, to open the glass door for him to go through first. A small tin bell casts out a dull clink as the door is drawn. “By using words like ‘finite’?”
“Oh, I suppose that’s a part of ‘t all,” James nods in appreciation as he slides into the diner ahead of me, boldly ignores the ‘Please Wait to be Seated’ sign and saunters over to a booth seat situated in front of a dingy window that allows a hazy view of my truck across the road beyond. Billy has apparently left, for their truck is nowhere in sight.
He motions me to take a seat as we are approached by a thin elderly woman with a sour look on her face like that of a pinched mouse. I’m not sure if it’s an expression of how she feels in response to our presence, or if it’s just the natural set of her face.
Aside from a disdainful twitch on her lips, she seems to have a great poker face actually, betraying nothing of her thoughts, neither towards James, surely a notoriously well known local, nor I, an obviously out of town foreigner.
“Coffee?” she asks.
“Sure, Mae,” James answers kindly as he turns up the mug in front of him to allow her to pour the java without ceremony.
I’m wondering what it means that this is the full extent of their conversation right now. Does she mean to say, “I can tell you have a new guest from out of town but I’m not going to ask until later,” or, “I’ve learned long ago that anything you’re
involved in is something I don’t want to know anything about.”?
I turn over my cup, happy to have anything that could enhance my reflexes at my disposal. “It’s caffeinated, right?”
She pauses and gives me an offended look and states dryly, “It’s coffee ain’t it?”
I shift uncomfortably in the vinyl seat and smile sheepishly. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
“Breakfast?” she asks us both as she stands back upright. It almost sounds like a statement in the way she says it.
“I’ll pay for us both,” James says as he nods. I notice neither of them seem to seek eye contact. Maybe they are afraid they will give away too much if they do.
She turns and walks away leaving me to wonder what ever happened to menus and choices. Rounding the counter lined by a row of faded and worn swivel chairs, she shuffles through a swinging half-door to the kitchen. I haven’t seen any sign of movement outside of Mae’s activities and I begin to think she may be running a one woman show.
“See? That’s exactly what I was talkin’ about!” James breaks me from my thoughts as he leans over the table, forcing the thin wood to creak and the salt shaker to slide across the cracked laminate into his elbow.
“I don’t see what you mean,” I say as I rub a spot on the window in an effort to give me a cleaner, less dust encrusted vantage on the truck.
“Why would you have even thought that she’d be putting some kinda pussy coffee in your cup? What’d be the point of that? Can you think of any person in the whole wide world who’d be like, ‘I’ll bet those guys’d sure would appreciate being given coffee that ain’t coffee at’all!. I mean shit man, that’d be like a horrible prank or something right? Cause that’s what people want in the morning, somethin’ that don’t do shit, right? I mean, just cause we’re country folk don’t mean we don’t drink real coffee y’know!”
“No,” I say, “Now that I think about it, I’m sure you all
drink the strongest coffee available.”
“See?” James sits back and shakes his hands in an incredulous expression. “Right there!”
“Right where?” I say, completely confused but thoroughly glad to be off the Penny subject. I try not to show my frayed nerves by glancing over at my truck too regularly.
“What was that supposed to mean? Were you trying to say that you think we don’t have any sense for our health? That we don’t see any value in caffeine-free coffee because we’re stuck behind the times?”
I pause for a moment, looking into the eyes of the bearlike man across the table, scouring them for an understanding of what he might be really getting at, wondering if I’m being too suspicious to be trying to read between the lines of what he’s saying. I laugh nervously and shrug. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe I ought to learn to think more before I speak.”
“Yeah,” he chuckles gravelly, “That way, when you say stuff that sounds like it could
be an insult, it’ll be clear you meant it as such. Y’know, cuz you took the time to consider how to make your words carry the most impact an’ all.”
I laugh a bit at this as his thoughts somewhat echoed my own. I nod, smiling, wondering if I might actually be beginning to like this guy, presuming that he isn’t so nefarious as I’m assuming him to be.
“What do you do for work, Randy?” he asks, causing me to cringe at the shortening of my name once again. I’m thankful, as I glance over at the truck once more, that I don’t see any activity over there.
“I’m in sales,” I say with my best confident and friendly put-on smile.
“Heh,” he utters, “What’re ya lookin’ to sell ‘round these parts? Pigfeed? Weed?”
“Weed? No…” I’m not even going to think
about what he’s just said there any further. That forbidden temptation is something I’ve done a lot of work to put far behind me. (Still finding it tempting though, aren’t we?) “I’m actually figuring I’m going to have to look for work down the road. You know, Cookeville, possibly as far as Nashville even. I didn’t imagine I’d be finding anything around here.”
“There you go again,” he mutters slyly.
“Oh, come on now,” I object, “Just because I presume a small town isn’t likely going to have many job opportunities doesn’t say anything about what I assume the going rate of intelligence is here.”
“Well, I suppose you’re probably right there,” he nods, acquiescing. Dang,
I think. I had been hoping he might be about to tell me there was some kind of indigenous industry afoot in Slaughter but seeing as he mentions nothing, I’m left to assume the locals make money in whatever mysterious ways hillbillies do. I pause, wondering what that could actually be. Hogging? Hunting crocodiles? Naw, Tennessee is too far north for that…
“Here,” Mae suddenly shoves a plate in front of me with a clank. I must have been pretty lost in thought to not notice her approach. I look up and smile and she returns not the slightest wiggle of her nose or twitch of her lips. Her eyes pass over me with stone cold uncaring as she bends to add a top off of coffee. I’m just as amazed that James doesn’t even thank her, just nods as she fills his cup.
As she shuffles off like a waddling goose, I look back down at the drab gray plate filled with a slice of ham, two eggs over easy and a pile of steaming grits topped with two gold slices of butter. Grits. Been a while since I’ve been handed a plate of grits. I only learned of the stuff’s existence during my time in the Army. The boiled hominy tastes… alright. Fairly flavorless if you ask me. One bite confirms, from one plate to another, grits are grits.
“Mmm,” James munches, “Them’re good grits. Folks come from far an’ wide for Mae’s grits.”
“I’m sure they do,” I agree, hoping my tone doesn’t betray any further derision. I actually am hungry so I focus on eating, disappointed by the Southern portioning. I should’ve remembered it never amounts to as much as I’m used to having for a breakfast.
Though we eat in silence, I begin to wonder just how disarmed I might be at the moment. Eating is such a calming and relaxing experience. I can’t allow it to strip me of my sense of alarm here. Or can I? I wonder, as I glance once more at my truck through the grimy glass pane, if James really is completely unaware of Penny huddled in my cab right now?
Am I even dining with an enemy? Or could he really be
just a concerned relative? “What do you
do for a living, James?” I ask.
“Oh,” he pauses, wiping off a dribble of butter that had escaped down his beard, “a little of this and a little of that. Pharmaceuticals y’know.”
Pharmaceuticals? Drugs? Ah… he must be a pot grower or something along those lines. Probably not the most uncommon profession in these hills.
“I might be able to use a good product representative,” he suggests.
“I… I… I think I should probably stick to something else,” I stammer.
“Shame,” he says as he pushes away his empty plate to clack up against the one I’ve just pushed away. “I take it you got a problem with addiction, huh?”
I nod. “Something like that.”
“We ain’t talkin’ about your common city drugs here y’know,” he explains helpfully.
“Oh, well, I… I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it actually,” I start.
“Admit what?” he asks.
“I… I find… I struggle with something as simple as pot actually. Y’know? Marijuana?” I say as his expression goes incredulous on me.
“Aw, shit, NO!” he says in awe. “Really? THAT ain’t even a drug!” he asserts.
“Well, according to… well… it is actually. And it’s one I have a hard time staying away from, so really… since its pretty much the first layer of any drug culture’s activities I just need to steer clear of all of it you know?”
must think I’m an idiot, boy!” he guffaws.
“No, I mean it, I’m weak to weed, y’know?”
“Uh, huh…” he interjects through his laughter. Upon recovering, however, he suddenly stops laughing, looks up at me in the eye and states solidly, without any hint of humor in his voice, “I wasn’t talking about the drugs though, Randy.”
“What?” I ask as I hear Billy’s truck rumbling back into the picture in the distance.
“What I meant was,” James said with the voice of a man who’s lethally serious as he explains something to a child, “You can’t honestly think I didn’t notice the gun under your shirt? What are you running here? Guys don’t just drive through town packin’ without having something to hide, no? You workin’ for someone else?”
“Uh… no!” I assure, taken aback.
“Uh huh,” he says, glancing out of the corner of his eye to make sure Mae wasn’t immediately watching as he pulls a revolver from a pocket and sets it heavily on the table before us both. “I just showed ya’ mine. Now show me yours!” He says with the toothy grin of a hunter. “Surely you’d be willing to hand it over without me havin’ ta shoot ya for it? I’d hate ta hafta bury a fella I just fed.”
I pause to consider the situation. Billy is once more pulling up behind my truck and it looks as if he’s got a passenger. They could really be looking to help me to gas up here but then again, they could’ve just gone off to get some more help in any possible conflict too.
I still don’t know what James thinks he knows about Penny’s location but I know that he’s calling my bluff and is going to disarm me here and now and I can only assume he’s going to shoot me if he doesn’t get his way. I’m not sure if he’s trying to recruit me as an agent for his drug operation or if he’s just playing head games with me. Regardless, it’s all too clear that he’s got his finger just a twitch away from the trigger so if I dared try something now it had better be with a clear plan in mind.
So do I hand over my weapon, try to distract him from it, play a mindgame in return, or act bold and stupid in a panicked attempt to get this bastard off my back? Or something else entirely?