Burning out the worry circuit

Fiction: Mob Rule – Part 44

After hightailing it out of the South in a moonshine-mobile, Jack and Vanessa head back to Yankee town pondering a pile of worst-case scenarios

By John Armstrong

It was beautiful day in early fall, and since no one had told the Sun or bees or the birds or the flowers and trees, they carried on as if it were still late August and the air came through the open windows like perfume. It was warm enough for shirtsleeves but I kept my cotton work jacket on over a sleeveless undershirt, what we call in New York a ‘guinea tee.” I would have shucked the jacket but it covered up my shoulder holsters. Just before we left, Cooter advised me that if we were planning on sleeping in the car, it was best to be ready: “There’s people out on the road that will kill you just for practice, and you’re travelling with a good-looking young woman.” He gave me knowing look. “If I was you, I’d shoot first and apologize later.”

It was hard to imagine on a day like this. The highway was in better shape than we expected and we were hitting 80 for long stretches, just us and the road and the blue sky above it, going fast enough to skim over the occasional potholes. The radio didn’t work so we sang songs to each other and the miles rolled away under us. But we had started late and when dusk came it was followed almost immediately by full night and after we crossed the line into North Carolina, just short of Fayetteville, we started looking for a likely spot to camp.

I pulled off the road and we bounced slowly across a meadow, stopping behind a copse of small trees. I couldn’t see the highway, except for the occasional headlight coming through the leaves, exploding silently and immediately disappearing again. There was the occasional, gusting whuff of a semi-trailer passing and then nothing but the crickets and frogs again.

mob rules victor bonderoff illustration

Victor Bonderoff Illustration

After sandwiches – the last of Cooter’s fried meat I expected to eat – Vanessa rummaged in our sack and triumphantly held up a roll of toilet paper, then disappeared around the far side of the trees. I laid back on the hood of the car, smoking and searching the sky for the Dipper, just in case.

When she came back we uncoupled the seat, the bolts still greasy from whatever Esau had used to loosen it, and built our nest of pillows and blankets. (A mouse ran out of the seat when we set it down, but Vanessa didn’t see it.) Lying inside, it wasn’t any worse than the wooden bed in Cooter’s shed but it was a little stuffy. In a moment of inspiration we got out, opened the trunk and slid in the other way round, with our heads under the canopy of the trunk lid. It let in plenty of air and kept the dew off.

“When we were finally settled Vanessa said, “Are you worried”?

I started to answer, then stopped. Was I? Was a man on the gallows waiting for the floor to open up underneath him nervous? During our weeks at Cooter’s I’d gone into a lackadaisical funk. My worry circuit had burned itself out and because there was nothing I could do to answer the question of where my family had disappeared to, I fell into a torpor of work, eat, sleep, repeat. Now that we were moving again, the circuit had woken up again and was beeping and clanging in my brain.

“No,” I lied. “We’ll have our answers soon enough and we’ll play whatever hand we’re dealt.” I hoped she believed that more than I did. I kissed her and we went to sleep.

Was a man on the gallows waiting for the floor to open up underneath him nervous? During our weeks at Cooter’s I’d gone into a lackadaisical funk. My worry circuit had burned itself out and because there was nothing I could do to answer the question of where my family had disappeared to, I fell into a torpor of work, eat, sleep, repeat.

I slept with my guns on both nights we were on the road but either I chose our hidey-holes well or we were lucky, or a little of both, but we had no problems with highwaymen or rapists and we woke early the next morning. There’s no way to avoid it; every creature in the woods and fields wakes up at first light and begins chattering or screeching and after we used up a little more of our food and toilet paper we set out again. The map said it was about 350 miles to Washington, a place I didn’t care to stop in and seriously considered driving around. Then I discarded the idea – in this car, looking like we did, if anyone from the Kennedy family spotted us they were more likely to tell us to keep moving than detain us.

I planned to barrel through without stopping and make Baltimore in about eight hours, given good road and my foot all the way down on the gas pedal. Of course, that’s not how it happened at all.


We were in a little town just past Richmond when I had to stop for gas, again. We’d started with a full tank and filled it twice in just over 500 miles. I knew the engine ate gas like a hog at the trough but even so, it seemed excessive. If this kept up I’d be using Esau’s siphon long before we crossed the bridge into New York.

The pump jockey interrupted my figuring, calling out from the back of the car, “Hey, Mister, you ought to come see this.”

He turned off the pump and holstered the nozzle.

“Look under here “

I squatted down and saw a damp patch on the ground by the wheel. He stuck a finger in it and offered it to my nose.

“You got a leak. No sense putting more in until you decide what to do ‘bout it.”

“It was fine when I left Savannah.”

He dropped down and squirmed underneath the bumper. “Probably was. You got a big rusted chunk here and a crack all the way through.” He wiggled his arm then held out a quarter-sized flake of metal. “Could have just hit a rock or a bump and that was all it took to let go.  You been on rough roads the last while?”

No, but I did drive over a lovely meadow, jouncing up and down all the way.

“What can I do about it?”

He got back up and shook flakes of my gas tank off the bill of his cap.

“Well, couple things. Could try patching this, welding it up, but you might go five miles and another hole will open up. Or you could just take this tank off and put in a new one. Not likely to find the right one, but maybe could be one that’ll serve. I could look out back. Might have to rig up some strapping to hold it on, if the frame’s solid enough to take bolts. Take a day or two.”

Neither one was appealing and we had no money to spend on hanging around this town anyway.

“Look, I have to get to New York City. Then the thing can shake itself to piece or catch fire for all I care. Can you think of anything else?”

He got a drifty look in his eyes and said, “Why don’t you and the missus go have a cold drink or something and come back in a while. I’ll put it to the brain trust inside.” He motioned toward the garage where three or four others were standing around the hoist, looking up at the undercarriage of a car and pointing and talking.

“We’ll get you going. Them boys ain’t had nothing interesting to think about for days.”


We took a blanket and the last of our sandwiches over to a vacant lot and ate lunch. I never had any talent for physics but I can demonstrate the malleable nature of time whenever you have a spare hot afternoon and a broken car. I sat there in the hot sun drinking warm lemonade and smoking, the odd grasshopper breaking the silence with a leap from one piece of grass to another, then checked my watch. It had been 20 minutes. A slow walk through town and back killed another 15. I didn’t know how long “a while” was but since we’d exhausted the sightseeing options we walked back to the garage.

Our man was just coming out of the service bay and gave us a big smile.

“Dooley come up with it right away.” He held out the paint can he was carrying. “Pine sap – pitch.

“We use it for boats, sealing windows, anything you want to keep watertight. Don’t know how it lasts with gasoline but you take this with you and if you need more, just heat it up and slather it on with a stick. I painted the whole bottom of the tank.”

“What do I owe you?” I said, praying it wasn’t going to be too much.

“Aw, nothing. Just for the gas.”

“That’s brilliant,” Vanessa said and grabbed the jockey by the ears and kissed him full-strength.

He needed to catch his breath, then said, “It was Dooley thunk it up, Ma’am.

“Well, you give Dooley a big kiss then,” I told him. “And give him one from me, too.”




Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, January 19, 2016


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