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I met Percy Dwayne Dubois after a fashion at his Indianola house. I’d come to collect his television and was explaining to his wife that they’d gone three months delinquent on their rent-to-own installments. He eased up behind me—I heard the joists complain—to offer commentary with a shovel.
Lucky for me it was a fireplace shovel, though uncommonly stout as that sort goes, and he swung it with force enough to lay me out on the linoleum.
Since I’d enjoyed a sort of career in legitimate law enforcement, I’d met with occasion to get myself knocked on the head a time or three. I’d been dinged with assorted planking, a dinette chair, a brass shoe tree, had survived my share of semi-drunken glancing tire-iron blows, and was once deafened for a week in Roanoke by a shemale named Varnella who caught me square on the ear with a handbag full of what proved to be shoplifted rice.
So I was familiar with the abrupt, iron-oxide flavor of it all and the baleful overtures of gravity. I knew the barest of chances to mount a survey of the kitchen floor before selecting a spot and informing myself, “I think I’ll stretch out here.”
I don’t believe I was ever altogether senseless. As him and the wife were wrangling about me, I could make out what they said. In what I preferred to believe at the time a home economical impulse, she proposed they hack me up and pack me off to the woods in a sack. She was kicking me all the while she talked, poking me with her naked foot in a fashion that suggested I was exasperating clutter.
“Let’s think about the boy,” he told her, and they contemplated together their son, who was sitting hard beside me in his grimy, fragrant diaper.
The ammonia reek alone was probably keeping me awake. He was rolling a little plastic sedan up and down my shirtfront while he burbled that way toddlers will and unfreighted himself of drool. The wheels tickled and left me helpless against the need to twitch and squirm, which earned me the occasional supplemental shovel tap.
Up to this point, he could have gotten off with a month or two in the lockup, back payments on his TV, and a spot of contrition before a judge. But he saw fit to go, the way his sort will, all white trash philosophical and decided the world was stacked against him and he’d never know much of a shake.
He informed his wife there were higher-ups in the government in Jackson, most especially a fellow he’d crossed once on the attorney general’s crew, who were looking to put him in Parchman any way that came to hand. So it hardly mattered what he did or how he went about it.
“I can’t come out on top.” He said it with that air of wan self-pity that’s peculiar to humans with Pall Malls behind their ears and homemade tattoos.
Then he thumped me again and helped himself to my key ring and my wallet, and that was when his troubles got authentically underway.
By sheer chance I was driving a pristine 1969 Ranchero that my landlady had told me her dead husband, Gil, would have wanted me to drive. I’d never met Gil, but I’d seen a snapshot of him on her sideboard. It showed him wearing spotless coveralls and grimly Armor All-ing a tire. Gil looked the sort who’d probably rather have made me the loan of his liver than endure me to wheel his Ranchero out into the fallen world.
Sadly for him, his widow wasn’t the sort to value a car, and worse still the woman was a relentless insister by disposition. She’d led off insisting I call her Pearl instead of Mrs. Jarvis, had insisted I park my Nova in her driveway instead of down by the curb. She routinely insisted her Guideposts on me directly out of her postbox and piecemeal items from Gil’s wardrobe that never threatened to fit.
She was fond of some manner of alfalfa-looking green from the Sunflower Market and would always insist away about half of what she carried home. She forced on me countless pans of desiccated box-mix brownies, the occasional bundle of tube socks from dollar-store sidewalk sales, and she even insisted a salve on me once for a rash I didn’t have but she insisted the humidity would guarantee I got it.
Pearl had a son in New Orleans who lurked, as a rule, just out of insisting range. He’d swing by every now and again heading to Little Rock or Memphis. He never stayed the night or stuck around long enough for a proper meal. I once came across him on Pearl’s back porch plundering through her handbag, and he shot me one of those miscreant sneers that gave his game away.
From then on, I felt an obligation to tolerate Pearl’s insisting, a duty to serve as proxy for her boy. It was plain Pearl couldn’t help herself. She insisted like most people breathe. So I decided that whatever she said I ought to take or do, I’d just go ahead for rank efficiency’s sake and take or do it.
That’s basically how I ended up with Gil’s restored Ranchero. My Nova had been chewing a bearing for the better part of a week, and the wheel had finally locked up the day before the fireplace shovel. As I was walking up the drive Pearl had come into the yard to insist some manner of cheesy casserole on me, and she was right in the middle of reinsisting I not park in the street when I let her in on my Nova’s complaint.
To my surprise, Pearl told me she had a spare vehicle in the car shed. I lived above the thing and passed its grimy windows every day, but I’d just assumed Pearl’s garage was chock full of the sort of clutter I’d spied already down in her cellar and out in her storage shack.
For Pearl’s part, she drove a Buick sedan, one of those lozenge-shaped four-doors that looked extruded rather than designed. Pearl had personalized hers by dinging and bashing it in at every corner because Pearl had a way of insisting when she was behind the wheel as well.
“I can fit in there,” she’d tell herself, and then demonstrate she couldn’t.
So I hardly expected Pearl to open the car shed door to reveal not just an impeccably, almost clinically tidy interior but a Ranchero up on jack stands under a fitted tarp. The elastic at the bumpers had gone primarily to powder, so a couple of tugs on the canvas brought the covering away to reveal, in its full resplendence, Gil’s restored vehicle. I now know the proper name for the color is calypso coral, a fairly arresting shade of tropical pink.
A Ranchero is essentially a glorified Fairlane, which never rated glorification. It’s sort of a low-slung, boxy coupe in the front and a shallow truck in the back, not fit on the one end for a proper family or on the other for legitimate cargo. Consequently, the thing looked right at home elevated on jack stands, a street-legal curiosity on display. I’m sure Gil’s goal had been to keep the tires from going square, but he’d also all but guaranteed the thing would go undriven.
It hardly seemed worth taking down, and I was saying as much to Pearl when she gave another yank upon Gil’s tarp. One of the rotten fitted corners had gotten snagged on a bumper flange, and that tug proved enough to hinge the jack stands over all at once.
Gil’s Ranchero rode them to the slab and settled on its shocks. The force disgorged a mouse that sat dazed on the cement, spat with violence from the undercarriage.
“Oh my,” Pearl said. “Gil would have fussed.”
I imagined him rotating in the churchyard.
I didn’t make Pearl insist any further, just collected the oily kraft paper Gil had laid across the dash, reattached the battery cables, and removed the mangy shearling seat covers. Mice had come in through the heater vents and hauled off most of the fluff. I found the ignition key on the visor, set the choke half out, and the engine caught nearly straightaway.
My ancient Nova was ongoing proof I had no love for cars, but even I was stirred by the glorious baritone hum of Gil’s Ranchero and a little mortified to stall the thing out after rolling about six feet onto the driveway.
Telling Pearl I needed to take it for a test drive, I grew capable in a block or so, and was altogether seduced before I was a full half mile from the house. The low rumble of the engine. The extra-stiff ride. The unexpected pep. The polished walnut gearshift knob that felt erotic in my hand. My Nova had fluttering heat shields and wallowing suspension, clattering valves that made the thing sound like a Pacific Rim sweatshop on wheels.
Once I’d returned to the house and parked the thing, I pledged an oath to Pearl about the scrupulous care I’d take of Gil’s Ranchero. I assured her that I’d bring it back exactly like I’d found it, which is the statement I fixed on as I lay sprawled on that gritty kitchen floor.
Just before they left, that boy and his wife had tied me up with lamp cord, had given me one last shovel swat in the face, and shoved me under their dinette. Because they were shiftless trash, I was almost half a minute working loose, and I gained my feet by hauling myself slowly up a chair.
I could see my face in the breakfront glass. I was lumpy and puffy and crimson with my nose laid open along the bridge and my left eye swollen shut. My bottom lip was split. I’d leaked a slurry of bloody drool on my shirtfront. I had a headache of the blinding and unperforated sort.
I’d heard them start up Gil’s Ranchero, so I knew it’d be gone from the drive. They’d left me their rust-eaten Pacer with a screwdriver plunged in a sidewall, the best they could manage by way of forestalling pursuit.
The front room was shin-deep in trash and pieces of cast-off clothing. A ratty couch, a corner cupboard full of mismatched cups and saucers, and a dying aspidistra in a shiny plastic pot. They’d taken, of course, their plasma TV, the very thing I’d come to fetch.
I should have called my boss straightaway. That was company protocol. Whenever one of us got in a dustup, K-Lo insisted we phone him—not so he could help us out, but more so he could rant and fume. K-Lo was a hothead by disposition and technique, and there was little in this life he preferred to righteous indignation.
His given name was Kalil, and he was Lebanese by descent. His parents sold kibbe and domas from a storefront up in Clarksdale. K-Lo’s great grandfather had come to the Mississippi Delta to farm.
When the slaves were freed and the planters had liberated their field hands, they went scouring the planet for labor to help harvest the cotton crop. They brought in nearly anybody they could persuade to come. Italians, Slovaks, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, Middle Easterners—people in desperate enough straits back home to find the Delta inviting.
Of course, it turned out that picking cotton by hand in the Mississippi sun was precisely the sort of work you had to be indentured to do. If you thought you were miserable in Naples, Dubrovnik, Hunang, Rabat, or Damascus, you’d reconsider after a week in a Delta cotton patch.
Consequently, most immigrants gave up farming, but they stayed on nonetheless, could hardly afford to just pick up and leave. They became shopkeepers and tinkerers, money lenders and levee builders; opened stalls and restaurants to sell the food they’d eaten back home. That’s why there’s falafel in Clarksdale, congee in Greenville, tamales all over the place. Stuck smack in the middle of the homogenous South, the Delta is crazy exotic.
As a rule, deepest Dixie is black and white and Christian in a way the Lord and Savior could never have intended. Your basic Southern Baptist would willingly delay his personal ascent into heaven for the baser pleasure of hanging around to see you burn in hell. The Delta just supplies a regional wrinkle in the common tone.
K-Lo’s people might have been Muslim, but they’d evolved to the Southern veneer. They drank sweet tea, wore Walmart denim, and could rattle on about the weather, but they’d all retained their Middle Eastern volatility. It was an unrelenting tribal trait like being towheaded or chinless. I knew if I dialed up K-Lo, he’d effectively explode.
I decided instead to call Desmond, a far more temperate soul and the only one of my colleagues I liked. Unfortunately, I’d left my Motorola on the dash of the Ranchero and couldn’t locate anything but vacant phone jacks in the house, which sent me outside to waylay a boy on a bike down by the street. He didn’t see me until I was right beside him, when he all but levitated.
“Shit, mister!” he yelped, and retreated across the road in an awful hurry. It took a five-dollar bill to lure him back so I could rent his phone. He studied me while I dialed up Desmond to tell him where I was. Desmond didn’t ask questions, just agreed he’d come and fetch me.
“What happened to you?” the boy wanted to know once I’d handed his phone back to him.
“I got in a tussle,” I told him, and jabbed my thumb at the house I’d come out of. “Know him?”
He nodded. “Daddy says he stole our mower.” Then he added by way of friendly advice, “You might want to work on your tussling.”
Copyright © 2011 by Rick Gavin