2   +   9   =  

My father liked to say that the only thing to do in Florence, South Carolina, is eat dinner at Cain’s BBQ, and I am beginning to think he’s goddamned right. Of course, many thousand more restaurants exist here now, most of them slick chains, but the notion that my father, the Colonel, once had still holds water and holds it pretty well.

I was having some weird kind of high from taking all of the Loratadine pills. I slipped one when Becky Bling had turned her eyes toward the buffet runner. The man had a hot new pile of whiting, which Becky liked better than sex. Quicker than quick, I bit in the pill and got the familiar rush going, right there in the middle of Cain’s, some Pentecostal band entertaining us all with gospels just fifteen yards away. I’d told Becky to put some singles in their tip jar, but she wanted to eat, eat, and eat more than a bull gator.

I’d stolen the pills from Walmart along with some golden condoms and nicotine gum. We were putting ourselves up at the Red Roof Inn, and we weren’t telling the people in charge about Levon, our huskador. A huskador is half lab and half husky, a kind of best-of-both-worlds scenario, at least in my waves.

We left the door to Room 237 wide open since the night was so cool and crisp and feeling like something out of a book. Becky shared the bourbon with me, and I let her chase it with Natty. We had not stolen the alcohol.

The one thing about drinking, though, is that it kicks up the anxieties in me, and it comes inside of me like a bad sugar rush. My neck reddens up like a beet. My throat collapses on itself. But more swigs tend to help things calm over, so I always drink more than I should. Because I cannot think of anything I hate more than the “The Stuck.” Becky Bling gave it the name. “The Stuck” is what it sounds like–it’s being mentally stuck on something, wrestling with that something, hogtying that something and all kinds of other chaos thrown in until I can figure the thing out, until I can achieve the stupid, selfish, human mastery over the goddamn thing. It’s an adult portion sort of problem; that is, I never had “The Stuck” when I was a little kid.

The skeeters aren’t so bad with the door open. The air is great. Everything should be great, but I can’t seem to figure out why the nightstand beside me has a bevel on the edges. Why, I brainwave, did the framers of this cheap particleboard piece of shit, put on a damn bevel? What does a bevel add, how does a bevel even assist us? Does it bend our fingers and our sweaty thumbs just right so as to cause resistance? So we won’t fumble over the nightstand, so we won’t collapse on the floor in the middle of the night? I can’t get any direct resolution, any closure, so I focus on the massive mirror that Becky’s doing her eyeliner in. Why are mirrors polished, what are they made of?

I don’t even know how old Becky is. Don’t know what race she is. Who cares? Important questions such as those of this brand never concern me–only stupid things ever do, like nightstand bevels and shiny mirrors.

*     *     *

Levon needs a big feeding, so I walk him over to the Exxon for beef jerky and diet cola. Becky has treated herself to a snorefest after we got wasted and had our playtime. Levon’s hair, I notice, is shedding out in a blow, which means summertime is now upon us. The thick white hair of his undercoat flies all around the 20 gas pumps and the 0 customers at 4:00 am; there, on the curb, I pet his angelic head and wonder just what we of our trio can do for $$$ next. I could always walk right back in the Exxon and rob the money from the little zit-faced fairy inside. Her name’s Amber, and I have no idea why they let her work so late. She looks 16, just like my sister. But my sister could be older now, I can’t remember. I do know she lives in North Carolina, near some clear water.

Then the fillet comes to me: wake Becky up and get the hell out of Florence. Get the hell to Myrtle Beach, where we can make some money and have better fun than in our hometown, which is nothing but banks and chain restaurants, chain restaurants and banks.

But Becky won’t wake up–she’s hit the Old Forester hard as hell. I watch the glow box, all 5 channels, and smoke the menthols. They’re lights, which means they are perforated just before the filter end so that “natural” air can mix in and reduce the tar percentage. What a crock of shit.

In the morning, I take a couple more pills before we trudge over to the Waffle House and eat like starved sharecroppers. I let Levon lick bits of syrup and sausage when the wait staff has their backs to us. More and more, seems people have turned their stern backs on us.

And I know why. It’s because we run our way out of restaurants and get our details sent to the police.

But the police never do anything.

And we don’t die.

*     *     *

We made our way into the Cornbread Queen’s treehouse. She’s one of Becky’s friends, a young girl who loves her family and says that I should go and do likewise. I tell her she’s a little old for a treehouse and that my family––father, the Colonel, mother, the gospel recording artist, and sister, the North Carolina recluse––don’t aim to have much to do with me. And I feel the same about them.

Cornbread, she’s got a great smile. I think she must be in high school, and here I am this old man and everybody calling me Kid or The Kid just to make me feel better about myself, I guess. But it’s my own damned fault for telling everyone I refuse to deal in physical age numbers, that I prefer spiritual age numbers, and I find me and Cornbread Queen and Becky Bling have rich spiritual age about us, within us. So do their friends, these guys Catfish and Honest John.  I think they must all be high schoolers, really. And here I am an old college dropout from Clemson, which is pronounced CAAA-LEM-SUN.

Catfish and Honest John, tough boys with golden hair, come on up the treehouse with thick coffee for all of us and we’re all five (6 counting Levon) sitting around like natives and slinging the hot joe back. I pop a pill or two and listen to them talking and yapping, all hyped up with life and so on and so forth. And then Becky laid out the day’s fillet:

“Why?” she said in her whiny, Low Country voice, “why don’t we go up there to Myrtle’s gas station and see what’s sup–no, no, why don’t we rob it?”

It grew quiet as Episcopalian church for a bit. And then we all stood up, finished off our coffee, our silent intention known collectively. We were going to rob this store because this was something out of the ordinary to do, this was something Pee Dee would talk about, this was something to tell our grandchildren; we would be a lighthouse to all who came after us–all of this coming from Becky Bling’s simple question, her plain proposition.

I tied Levon to a post and gave him a kiss. Honest John had some bacon for him.

We let Catfish drive us all–he had his father’s deluxe golf cart, a real beauty and long as a limo. We stopped at his cousin Seacow’s house, and the boy came out and talked to Catfish. I do not know how he got the name Seacow, this boy, but he could shoot the fuck out of a bow and arrow, had won state championships for it. He also liked French Literature and library science, and thereby, I would say he is very rich in spiritual age. But in your world, I guess he is eleven or so.

Since we did not have any Second Amendment toys about us, we’d have to rob the country gas store for all the cash they had hoarded by way of a bow and arrow and an eleven-year-old boy. Becky planned all of this–I was the legit adult, but I just felt along for the ride.

The golf cart’s plastic roof smacked across my head as we drove over the bumps and rocks of Sutton’s Way. I am very tall and very slender. I got stuck wondering how tall I really was, and then I relaxed myself, reassured myself that I could check my height when we got to the gas station and went up to the industrial door, for I knew any gas station worth its weight in gas had a height marker glued on the door jambs.

Honest John and Catfish broke into song, I think they were singing Elvis, but it was hard to hear over all the bumps and creaks. I held Becky’s hand and I held Cornbread’s hand. They ran their spare fingers through my buzzcut as I sat there like a scared boy on the dugout plank, hoping not to get called in the big game.

But somehow I knew I was going to get called into this game. And that had me stuck about all kinds of things, like how golf cart engines work, how freckles come about, how whiskey is made different than beer.

Catfish parked our limo in an abandoned lot, and we got our courage and our bite going. When the ox is in the ditch, pull him the fuck out.

I slammed open the door to Myrtle’s and didn’t care two shits anymore about how tall I was or wasn’t as I crossed over that threshold. Old man sat there alone behind the counter eating pork rinds and dropping drool all over his Skoal T-shirt.

“Give me the damn money,” I yelled.

“What?” he said, that poor sheep.

“Give me the damn money!” Behind me, I could hear Cornbread and Becky giggling.

“Mean to tell me I’m gettin’ robbed by a man with his finger and dat’s all?”

Seacow had stayed in the golf cart, hugging and kissing his precious bow and arrow.

“I will jump over this bar,” I said. I had no idea what I was doing, but the rush going to my cranium was intense, the stucks were all gone, completely.

“Jump over then, you little pussy.”

My soul didn’t have it in me. I almost felt like crying, inexplicable tears that the old man and my friends would not be able to interpret. That no one would be able to interpret, except for maybe Levon.

Back outside, quietly, somberly, I asked Catfish to drive us straight back to him.

And when we returned to the treehouse among the loblollies and live oak, Levon was gone. Vanished.

Honest John and Seacow assured me that he’d find his way back.

Becky, though, was more pessimistic. “If he’s dead, he’s dead. Everything fucking dies. That’s what’s sup.”

“Shut up, Becky,” Cornbread Queen snapped.

Catfish paced over the acorns. “Kid, why didn’t you just fight the damn old man? Think of the money––”

“Shut up, Cat,” Cornbread yelled.  “Somebody give me a light, y’all done gone and got me stressed the fuck out.”

When we climbed up into the treehouse, we all sat down in the familiar way and tried to reinvent a plan for Myrtle’s. If we were lucky, the old bastard hadn’t called the pigs on our little episode of bravado. I was leaning more to the side that we were lucky, that he hadn’t notified the police, that we could try it all over again, that we could reach success and be glorious to some, notorious to others.

But at the end of the day, we all just ended up eating at Cain’s. All of us lost in our thoughts, all of us miles and miles away from Florence, South Carolina.