Friday, November 25, 2011

Inches

Inches

Orion stood his silent watch over the back roads of Sandlapper County. The frigid air gave the stars of his belt and upraised hand a brilliance rarely seen in the Deep South. Their light made the empty fields shimmer with a silvery glow and gave the woods the texture and depth of a black satin dress.

Two round headlights appeared down the two lane blacktop, their light dully reflecting off the frost on either side of the road. The ’56 Studebaker blasted past empty fields and passed into a patch of woods. Tires screamed and the car stopped, half on the road and half on the shoulder. A figure leaped out and stood at the edge of the trees facing away from the car.

"Aw, poor Runt can't hold his wee wee," a voice called.

"Come on, y'all, I had to go. You shouldn't have waited so long to stop!"

The car lurched forward a few feet and another voice called out, "Hurry up, squirt! TJ's not going to wait all night."

"Cut it out, Mole. Y'all ain't going to leave me.”

"Oh yeah?” TJ called. “Watch!" The engine revved.

"Yeah, well, I'm the only one who can steal more beer," Runt yelled, pulling up his zipper while he ran for the car. It was already moving when he grabbed the door and jumped into the back seat.

"Hurry up and get in, twit," Billy said. "It's cold in here now. Turn up the heat y’all. The twit's got it cold in here now."
"Go to hell, man. Move over. I'm tired of sitting in the middle." Runt tried to force Billy's two hundred pound frame over, but Billy pushed him into the space between himself and Mole.

Mole was long and graceful in a pullover sweater and starched khakis with penny loafers. His relaxed posture lent him a look of studied indifference. Billy, his older brother, was a fireplug with a crew cut and a short sleeved shirt open at the neck. Runt, breathing hard from his running leap, came by his nickname
honestly.

Gene turned around in the front passenger’s seat and cocked an eyebrow at Runt, who was shaking loose a Lucky Strike. Gene wore his collar turned up and his hair slicked back with exactly the right amount of Brylcreem.

"Give me the lighter, Gene. I lost my matches in the woods." Runt held the unlit cigarette between his lips and patted his pockets. Mole didn’t turn from the window while he struck a match with his thumbnail.

"Thanks, man."

"So where y'all want to go?" TJ asked. The glow of the dash lights through the thick haze of tobacco smoke gave his skin a turquoise tint. A cigarette burned in the corner of his mouth, and another sat tucked behind his ear. He held an open can of PBR in one hand and steered with the other arm draped across the top of the wheel.

"We could go to the river and raise some hell with those river rats down there," Gene suggested.

"Nah, they ain’t doing nothing." TJ squinted through the smoke.
"TJ's daddy would kick his ass if he brought this brand new car home all muddy," Billy jeered. "Let's go on over to Greggville and get a couple of whores. I got five bucks. I know you got a couple of bucks, Mole. What do you say, fellows?"

"You think we could?" Runt looked from one boy to the other, his eyes big.

"Hey," Gene said, "I heard my daddy say they got some new girls over there. How much money we got?" Runt, Billy, and Gene all dug into their pockets, and Billy held up five one dollar bills.
"Come on, TJ, turn around. I'm horny. Mole, cough up that two dollars you got."

Mole turned from the window with a smirk and shook his head slowly. "I don't see why you boys want to pay for something you can get for free.”

"But this is a sure thing, Mole," said Runt. "I mean, they got to if we pay for it, right?"

"Yeah, Mole, these girls are supposed to be really hot. You're not chicken, are you?" Gene asked.

"Hell, no. I just might know where we can get the same thing for free."

"Ah, great." Billy put the window down and flipped his cigarette into the night.

"How you gonna do that? You got coupons or something?" Gene snorted.

"He's just a chicken shit," Billy said loudly.

TJ studied Mole in the rearview mirror. "The old Mole gets around; let him talk."

"Chicken shit." Billy wiped the fog from the window with his forearm.

"Shut up, Billy," Gene said. "I want to hear this."

"Well…" Mole lit a fresh Lucky and leaned back with his long fingers laced behind his head. "It'll cost you that last beer."
Billy jerked his head towards his brother. “Screw you, chicken shit.”

"Ya'll's loss, fellows." Mole turned back to the window.
"Aw, come on, Mole," pleaded Runt. "Are these nice girls you're talking about, or what? Give him that beer, Gene."

“Don’t do it,” Billy said.

Gene looked at TJ and tossed Mole the last beer when he nodded.
Mole punched a hole in the top of the can with a church key and drained it in one long swallow. "There might be some girls having a shindig down at the Hill, and I just might know some of them pretty good." He tossed the can onto the road, and when he put the window back up the only sounds were tires rolling across asphalt and Hank Williams crying on the radio.

"Well...?" Gene raised his eyebrows.

"Well turn the car around," yelled Runt, wiggling between Billy and Mole.

"I want a shot at those whores," Billy said with a sullen glare.
TJ turned to Gene. "What do you think?”

"Those new girls in Greggville are supposed to be stacked, but like you said, the old Mole sure gets around.” He rubbed his chin. “Let's head for the Hill."

"You got it. I can turn around right after these railroad tracks."

"Just a bunch of chicken shits," Billy muttered.

They were still running ninety-five miles per hour when the car crossed the tracks, and Gene's beer jumped from between his legs and turned over in the front seat.

"Ah shit, asshole," TJ yelled. "Daddy's going to kill me!"
"I'm sorry, man. I'll get it up. Hand me that box of Kleenex, Billy."

"Get it yourself, chicken shit.”

"Give him the Kleenex, you bastard." TJ stood on the brakes and the car skidded to the side of the road. “Come on, guys! He’ll beat the shit out of me if I mess this car up."

"Here." Mole tossed the box of tissues across the seat.

"I'll do this," Gene said. “You get us to those girls.”

TJ grabbed a wad of tissue and lifted himself off the seat. “It’s all up under my ass.”

The crossing lights and warning bell came to life behind them while he was drying the seat.

"You better get us back across the tracks before the train gets here,” Mole said. “We'll be here all night if it’s a long one."
Gene wiped up beer while TJ turned the car around. The boys could see the head lamp of the approaching train as they crossed the track.

"You're just a bunch of chicken shits." Billy turned to watch the trees flashing by.

TJ slammed on the brakes and stopped the car sideways across the road.

"What the hell...?"

"Are you crazy, fool?"
 
"Damn, I cracked my head!"

TJ slammed the gear selector into reverse and threw his right arm across the back of the seat. “I’m going to show you boys just what a chicken shit really is.” He gunned the engine, and when he hit the brakes again the car’s tires rested on either side of the railroad tracks. The warning bells drowned out the radio, but not the cries of the other boys.

"Shit, man! What are you doing?" Mole yelled.

"Man, you'd better move this..."

Everybody shut up when Gene hollered, "Get me off of these tracks, asshole!"

The train’s horn was louder, and the headlamp seemed much closer than it had just a few seconds before, but TJ and Billy held each other’s stares in the crazy flash of the warning lights.
"Come on, man, quit screwing around," Runt said, laughing too loudly.

Mole leaned forward and spoke calmly. "TJ, let's get moving. These girls are really tough, man, and they're expecting us. I don't want to be late."

"Yeah, TJ, Billy's just a prick. Let's go."

"See?” Billy sneered. "Y'all are just a bunch of chickenshits. TJ won't sit here. He's more scared of his daddy than he is of that train."

The train's horn blasted a continuous wail, and the roar of its diesel engine grew louder by the second. TJ kept his eyes locked with Billy’s while he found the keys and pulled them from the ignition. He reached across the seat and dangled them in front of Billy's face. Their jingle was lost in the noise.

"You fellows bail if you want," TJ yelled. "Me and Billy are going to find out who's chicken."

Runt jumped on Mole's lap and clawed at the door while Gene punched TJ in the shoulder. "Come on, man, quit screwing around. Enough's enough. Let's get out of here." He stared past TJ at the oncoming train.

Runt got the back door open and fell onto the track bed.
TJ and Billy continued staring each other down.

Gene bolted from the car and followed Runt under a tree. Runt grabbed his shoulder. Mole was halfway out when he turned and yelled at Billy. "Give in, man. Don't be stupid. Just say what he wants to hear and it’s OK. Just let it go, man."

Sparks erupted from under the train and the brakes screeched as they locked down the engine’s wheels. Thunder rolled up the track as boxcars and piggybacks slammed into each other. The shrieking metal and fiery wall of sparks and broke the deadlock in the car.
Mole dove into the ditch.

Billy grappled for the door handle while TJ tried to fit the key back into the ignition. The train's head lamp lit the inside of the car like the sun.

“OK, man, I'm a chicken," Billy screamed. "I'm a chicken shit! Get out of here! Come on, you win!"

Runt, Gene, and Mole all shouted soundlessly for TJ and Billy to get off of the tracks.

TJ turned the key with his right hand and pounded the steering wheel with his left while his eyes stayed fixed the train’s rotating headlamp.

Billy stood frozen, watching across the top of the car as the locomotive ate up the last few yards of track. The train groaned along its entire length as if it were a beast in agonizing pain.
Mole raced out onto the track and threw his arm around his brother's neck just as the car finally lurched forward. The train was grinding through the intersection before Mole and Billy fell to the ground beside Runt and Gene. Runt had his arms wrapped around the tree trunk, and Gene sat on his knees, tears running down his cheeks. The train was a short one, and it began accelerating as soon as the locomotive passed through the intersection.

Gene, Mole, Billy, and Runt were huddled together in the middle of the road, their breath steaming, when the lights quit flashing and the warning bells fell silent and the night turned quiet except for the gentle creaking of the retreating caboose. TJ's car sat at an angle on the other side of the tracks, its back door still open. The other boys crossed over and found TJ in the road on his hands and knees, dry heaving and trying to clean himself off.

He took the cigarette from behind his ear and got it lit after half a dozen tries. Pointing at the large wet stain on the front of Billy’s pants he gave a shaky laugh. "I guess we're all chicken shits, huh? I'm going home."

__________________________

Author: Roy Jeffords

Roy Jeffords lives in the Dallas, Texas area, but can’t wait to return to the Lowcountry of South Carolina where he grew up.  He developed a love for Southern literature while studying English at The Citadel in Charleston, SC, and is (of course) working on a novel.  He is a 2010 Pushcart Prize and Best of American Short Stories nominee.

No comments: