by Gary Carter
(An excerpt from “Eliot’s Tale”)
The sun is just hoisting itself above the trees as I drift down the ramp and onto I-77, heading south from the Virginia foothills toward North Carolina in Das Boot, my dented but faithful 1985 Mercedes. I decided on an early start after an uneventful evening. I ate again with Uncle Walt and Aunt Rose, who, as usual, outdid herself in rolling out a table heavy with down-home goodies—pinto beans with chow-chow, made-from-scratch cornbread, honest-to-god macaroni and cheese, and banana pudding based on the timeless recipe that I believe is still found on the vanilla wafer box. Needless to say, I waddled away from the table, cursing myself for that last helping of everything.
And now I’m cursing myself again because the pintos and chow-chow have morphed into an intestinal quiver that is steadily filling the car with noxious fumes. It’s so intense that my eyes start to water, forcing me to lower the windows. Reminds me of my dad’s favorite declaration when someone—usually him—fired off a foul one: “God almighty, that’ll gag a maggot.”
One of our favorite family stories, depending on who you ask (not Aunt Rose) recalls one of those Friday evening traditions—dinner at the fish camp. Just in case you haven’t been blessed, a fish camp generally is a large building dedicated to serving copious amounts of heavily fried seafood, usually accompanied by fries, slaw and hush puppies. Washed down, of course, by plenty of iced tea so sweet it makes your teeth itch. Also, there is often an “all-you-can-eat” component that leads to gorging that can be troubling to watch.
On this particular evening, my mom and dad had accompanied Uncle Walt and Aunt Rose to Bill’s Dockside Diner for the standard Friday night special, which was fried catfish with all the aforementioned trimmings. Also along were the new assistant pastor and his wife, who were being squired around town by Aunt Rose in her perpetual duty as the Lord’s personal on-earth representative.
Needless to say, dad and Uncle Walt engaged in their usual contest to see who could eat the most catfish at one sitting. Now, keep in mind that we’re not talking about particularly big fellows here: Uncle Walt never weighed over 140 in his life, and my dad, while strong and healthy, was at best a solid 170. But when engaged in culinary combat, the two ate like a couple of 287-pound, big-bellied bubbas. And this evening was no exception, even with the preacher in tow. In fact, the story is that the duo even got him into the spirit until his wife, recalled as a bit prim and proper, gave him the nudge. My mom and Aunt Rose had long ago given up trying to influence the other two, at least when it came to fish camp outings.
There were no new records set that night, according to most recollections. Upon the return to Uncle Walt’s house, the men, as was usual, lounged on the porch and talked about manly things, while the ladies sat in the living room and chatted (not to be confused with gossiping, which is a particular southern art form generally not done in the presence of someone you don’t know well, unless, of course, they start it).
At some point, the goodies apparently began to work their deep-fried magic on my dad’s innards, resulting in a silent but deadly that was later rated as off the chart on the “gag a maggot” scale. The preacher caught the first whiff, but said nothing since it’s well known that “first smeller’s the feller” or, in a more literary context, “him who smelt it, dealt it.” So, he just held his breath while, without warning, the noxious cloud wafted over, hit Uncle Walt and quickly gagged him. Choked him up to the point that his retch reflex kicked in, turned over his bloated belly and sent him reeling rapidly to the side of the porch where he vomited long and loudly into Aunt Rose’s prized azalea bushes that were in full scarlet bloom. And which were situated in an ideal spot just below the living room window, which was open to receive the nice evening breeze, but now brought first the sound and then the smell to the three ladies therein. Which caused the preacher’s wife to plunge headlong into the bathroom where she purged herself of the evening’s fried delights. Adding insult to Uncle Walt’s injury, good old dad burst out laughing as the preacher tried to hand Walt a handkerchief to wipe his mouth and slipped in the steaming puddle, nearly pitching off the porch into the bushes.
From all reports, chaos of sorts ensued as the cause and effect were sorted out, and blame duly affixed. Uncle Walt was a gentleman about the whole thing, never holding a grudge over it. In fact, he later stated that you can’t fault a fellow for a fart that’s so ripe it causes another man to gag. However, the best thing for me is that Uncle Walt, always a notorious cheapskate, has always proclaimed that the thing that made him the maddest was the fact that he had spent six dollars and ninety five cents of hard-earned cash on the dinner that he heaved over the side. He also claims, on a more positive note, that Aunt Rose’s bushes were always healthier after that evening.
As for me, the air seems to be clearing inside Das Boot, and I can feel the sun hitting the side of my face as it clears the trees to my left as I head south. The Allman Brothers are hard into “Statesboro Blues,” the opening song on what I contend with great passion is the best live recording of the rock era, and among the best ever. Anyway, I’m holding a steady seventy-five and jamming, probably lost in the zone, when I glance in the mirror to find a black car on my ass as I pass a truck loaded to the gills with old tires. I mean, this thing is so tight against my bumper that I can’t see the grill and lights, only the windshield and the dark outline of the driver’s head. I push up to eighty, and this guy, I swear, is even tighter, drafting me like it’s the straightaway at Talladega.
I clear the truck, flip on my signal and duck back into the right lane, cutting a little too quickly back in front of the truck, which gives me a flash of lights in protest.
The idiot behind me pulls alongside, and now I can see that it’s a gleaming black Chevy coupe, duly announcing in red letters on the side panel that it’s the Dale Earnhardt Special Edition, a number three in bold white. And, no shit, I’m pretty sure it’s Dale driving, except for the fact that I’m also pretty sure he’s long gone.
But the guy in the driver’s seat has the look—thick dark hair, bushy mustache, big sunglasses, black shirt and a snarl on his face. He’s riding dead beside me, staring me down about six inches away from swapping paint with me. I let up and slow a touch, and he slows with me, holding the stare, letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was in his way and pissed him off. He hangs for another couple of seconds, then shoots me the middle finger, laughs and guns it.
As I watch in disbelief, he cuts in front of me, then quickly runs tight against the bumper of another car before whipping left, then right around a pick-up in the passing lane, then shooting the gap to slide in front of a tractor-trailer that is forced to brake and delivers a hissing blast of air horn. By the time I can see around the truck, the black Chevy is barely visible, cresting a hill and gone.
I settle back to seventy or so, take a deep breath, eject Live At The Fillmore and fish for something else, coming up with what proves to be the right choice: John Coltrane’s classic A Love Supreme.
Which eases my nerves after the encounter with the ghost of Dale and allows me to ponder my personal theory that the rise of NASCAR has a direct influence on and correlation to the aggressive driving you see on the streets. By the time I decide the need has arisen for a pit stop, the meditative wash of Coltrane has settled me down substantially. I glide off the exit and turn into one of those Flying J truck stops where I know there is always plenty of diesel fuel to power the Benz.
I top off the tank and start toward the building to replenish my on-road snack supply when I notice what appears to be the Ghost of Dale’s vehicle in the lot. And, as I catch a glimpse of it, the specter himself emerges from the coffee shop, digging his front teeth with a toothpick. I debate whether to approach the man in black and let him know I don’t appreciate his driving skills, but chastise myself for even caring. But, then again, there are times when things need to be said, and I head in that direction.
As I get closer, Dale is standing by his car, drawing deep on a freshly lit cigarette. He sees me coming and, behind me, Das Boot at the pump. He gives me a tight, tough smile, more malevolent than friendly.
“You got something to say,” he says, his voice unnecessarily loud.
I’m about to answer when a wiry old guy comes around the car from the other direction. He looks like he’s probably a trucker, wearing a leather vest and a hat featuring the Mack bulldog. Dale catches the movement and turns toward him. “Don’t tell me you’ve got something on your mind too, gramps. What’s your beef?”
The old guy stops in front of Dale, a good head shorter and probably fifty pounds lighter. He sizes him up, says, “You drive like an asshole.”
Dale laughs long and loud. “So, you want some of…”
Bap. Like a snake, the old dude pops Dale right on the bridge of the nose with a quick, sharp punch that traveled about two feet at something approaching the speed of light. I almost didn’t see it happen, and I know Dale didn’t see it coming. But he’s feeling it, going down to one knee and pushing his hand against the door of the Chevy to prop himself up. His sunglasses are on the ground, and there’s blood between his fingers pressed against his nose. The old guy stands over him, looks down at him, whispers something I can’t catch.
He turns and walks past me, a crooked little grin on his wrinkled face. He pauses, and says, “Enough goddamn assholes on the road without a shithead like that giving Dale a bad name.”
I nod agreement, and he adds, “Just like my daddy always told me—don’t matter how big they are—you bust ‘em in the snout with a hard one, they’re going down. Good thing to remember.”
He gives a little chuckle and a sideways wink, and strolls toward his truck, a little cut in his strut and stride in his glide as Tom Waits would growl.
I glance back toward the Ghost of Dale who has managed to get back upright and is trying to unlock his door. He sees me watching and manages, “Yeah, something you want to say?”
I start to respond, then feel better when I cackle at the absurdity of it all and also walk away, betting that a bruised ego for that guy probably hurts worse than a bloody nose. I register it as one of those extraordinary moments amid life’s daily travails that must be kept for review and consideration, a one-act morality play with a touch of the absurd to which even Beckett would have raised his cup.
As I reinsert myself into the leather embrace of Das Boot, I know there’s a big stupid grin on my face. And it gets even bigger when, as I move across the lot, a truck pulling away gives me a quick double-toot on the air horn and the old guy at the wheel offers a quick salute.
Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Gary Carter is a writer and editor whose most recently published work is Eliot’s Tale, a reverse coming-of-age road trip novel that contemplates things done and left undone. His short fiction also has appeared recently in Dead Mule, Burnt Bridge, Muscadine Lines and Read Short Fiction.
Look for the Dew review of Eliot's Tale on February 28, 2011.