Mob Rule: Part 43
After turning pruny in a bucket of dishwater, Jack realizes he needs to get back to New York City and touch base with his estranged bosses before he’s either killed by his own clan, or declared President
By John Armstrong
That said, I wasn’t planning on staying forever. While we dawdled, our bus passes had expired and at night I tried to figure out how long it would take us to save enough to get North. In my less optimistic moments I had visions of ending up like the dirt farmers Vanessa served meals to in every day – too poor to do anything else but keep going the way they were. (I couldn’t count how many times I heard the joke about the farmer who inherited a million dollars and was asked what he planned to do with it – “Reckon I’ll just keep farming till it’s all gone.”) Even working a 14-hour day, after Cooter took off his (more than reasonable) charge for room and board, we had about enough for cigarettes and the occasional trolley ride down to the river just for a change of scenery. I’d all but given up on Frank and Meyer, after pumping too many quarters and dimes into the drugstore phone leaving messages it was clear they never picked up.
I was about ready to suggest Vanessa stand at the side of the road and show some leg in hopes of attracting a ride when one night at closing Cooter told Lurlene to pack us a sandwiches and thermos dinner.
“We’ll be gone a couple of hours,” he said, then to me, “I think I figured a solution to your problem.”
When we got out to his truck he said, “There’s an old boy some ways out of town that owes me a small amount and ain’t likely to ever be able to pay. What he does have is an abundance of vehicles, mostly junk, but a couple might could be coaxed back to life.”
“Abundance” was a conservative estimate. When we pulled off the road and up his long dirt drive, we could see humped shapes in the dusk over the fence on both sides, so many I suspected he was simply growing them somehow.
Cooter laid on the horn, which was hardly necessary as several dogs appeared, howling and barking. Behind them a screen door slapped shut. A voice called out, “What do you want coming here this time of the night?” and I heard the sharp snap of a shotgun breech being closed. It was maybe eight o’clock.
“It’s Cooter, Esau. Call off your damn dogs.”
When he heard the name, Esau stepped into the headlights, an elderly man in a suit of grey long-johns and gumboots. I assumed that at one time, the underwear had been white, around about the same time these cars were running.
Cooter motioned me to wait by the car while he had a short chat with his friend and then came back over.
“Esau says he’s got a couple that might serve so we’ll take a look. Let me do the talking.” Esau had gone back into his house and reappeared with a Mason jar. In these parts, it seemed any negotiation or swap was always accompanied by some home brew. We all took a sip and he re-screwed the cap and headed for his barn.
When we got there he lifted up the bar and heaved the door open on one side then reached inside for the light switch.
“I keep the ones that are mostly still in driving condition in here, out the weather. Anything they might need, I got plenty of parts in the graveyard.” He placed a finger alongside a nostril, bent at the waist and blew loudly.
It was the only fanfare these cars were ever going to get. To my eye they didn’t look any more roadworthy than the derelicts in the fields outside but Cooter headed down the center of the barn, surveying the cars parked anglewise down both sides of the building.
He stopped at a delivery sedan and stuck his head through the open passenger window. I was wandering along behind him, wondering if any of them could be trusted over about 10 miles per hour. They reminded me of a photo I’d seen as a boy, of a Civil War hospital set up in a farm building beside a battlefield. These old warriors looked like they’d all been under the careless knife of an overwhelmed surgeon. They were all missing something; headlights, grilles, wheels, doors – one sedan had had half its roof sawn off and the sharp edges hammered flat to turn it into a primitive pickup.
Cooter and Esau were dickering over the sedan and both shaking their heads, passing the jar back and forth. Then, Cooter threw his hands up and walked away. Apparently the old green wagon was the jewel in the collection.
Halfway down I came to a mostly-black coupe with a three-piece, split windshield and a massive, flat, chrome snout set into the front and canted back like the cowcatcher on a locomotive. Down the edge of the hood raised chrome script read “Aerodynamic.” Someone had begun grinding the paint off at some point in a fit of enthusiasm and then lost interest and all four fenders were bare metal with flecks of undercoating and rust and it had spoked wheels with wide-whitewall tires that looked like they still had some tread left. As I walked around it I found the one wheel that still had its baby moon hubcap, with the rather inelegant name Hupmobile embossed in the center.
“You like that one, do you?” Esau said from behind me. “Have a look inside.”
I creaked the door open and did just that. It had one deep-brown leather bench seat, split in the middle and a long gearshift lever snaking up from the floorboards. I pulled the driver’s side back and saw that the back seat had been removed and there was a nice storage area behind it that ran straight through to the long sloping trunk.
“That all got took out for running ‘shine,” he said.
“It run?” Cooter said, without much expectation in his voice.
“Like a goddamned rabbit,” Esau replied, hawking a great ball of spit at the dirt floor for emphasis.
“That engine was all tore down and rebuilt to outrun the federals. Wasn’t nothing that could catch it.” He fiddled with the hood and got the catches free and we helped lift it up. It was an engine, all right. Further than that, I had to take his word for it.
Esau unscrewed a wingnut and popped the small, stubby air filter off, then wandered away to a bench on the wall and came back with a cup of gas from a jerry can. He wiped the inside of the carburetor and set the gas on the fender.
He turned to me and said, “Battery’s over to the bench there.” I retrieved it and we set it in the holder and attached the leads.
“Cooter, you get yourself in there and hit the starter when I say.”
He dribbled fuel into the engine and worked the metal intake flap a few times with his fingers, then said, “Hit it” and pulled his hand back.
Flame shot up out of the carb and the engine backfired blue smoke, then it settled into a deep rumble, like a bear with a chest cold. It shuddered periodically as if the bear were shaking himself after a long nap.
Cooter stood back and wiped his hands on his legs. “Need to be tuned, but she’ll run ‘til Jesus comes home.”
“What about brakes”? Cooter said.
“None to speak off but that’s easy enough. Clutch, too. Be a few hours work.”
Cooter got back in and revved the engine up high and held it there for a while, then let it settle back into idle.
“All right, then. Let’s dicker.” While they argued I took a closer look at the inside and under the seat. The bench was held in place by two bolts on either side and I had an idea. If you loosened them off – and that was a big if – and pulled out the seat, there was plenty of room to stretch out, if I bent my knees a bit. You’d have to maneuver a bit so as not to be laying on the welded braces for the bolts, but it looked like it might be cozy and preferable to sleeping on the side of the road beside the car.
I suddenly realized how badly I wanted to get going.
Cooter and Esau were still haggling, then I heard the old man say “Done”, and both of them spit into their palms and shook.
“Esau says it can be ready in two-three days. That suit you?”
“Right down to the ground,” I said, which was something I could never recall ever saying before. Other considerations aside it was time to get home before I went completely native.
We left on Sunday, after dinner, as we couldn’t abandon Lurlene and Cooter to handle the weekend by themselves. Esau brought the car by Sunday afternoon, just before closing, especially proud that he had unearthed two more hubcaps, and Cooter and I took it for a test drive, Esau in the back crouched over and hanging on to the seatback. It started easily and I quickly learned you couldn’t get out of second gear anywhere in town; first felt like you were driving in ankle-deep mud, second felt like you were in a different car altogether and took us up to about 50, and when I found third the beast leaped ahead with a roar and tried to climb up the back of an innocent pickup.
“Only got but the three gears,” he said. “Wouldn’t likely need more.”
I was just happy the brakes worked and wondered if it was too late to add an anchor.
When I stopped shaking I asked him why it had been retired to the barn when it ran so well.
“It was my boy’s and after he passed I couldn’t bear to sell it. By the time I could, it stuck out on the road like a sore thumb and you don’t want that when you’re breaking the law.” He looked out the window and spit.
“My whole family cooked and ran shine. First, we outran the revenuers, then the gangsters chased us after they took over. The only difference between ‘em was the new bastards didn’t bother to arrest you. That’s how I lost my son.” He didn’t say anything for minute.
“Cooter says you’re fixing to run them out, the whole Christless bunch of them in charge down here. Seems fitting you have this car.” I could see in the mirror his eyes were filling up and he turned away and looked out the window again.
I couldn’t think of anything to say but thank you, and we drove him home, cautiously. When we dropped him off, he told us to wait and came back to the car with a gas can and a length of hose.
“If you’re travelling light on funds, you’ll need this. Just remember don’t never steal from a working man’s car and always leave enough for them to get to a filling station.” He passed the stuff in to Cooter and slapped the roof hard. “God speed.”
Neither Cooter nor I had much to say on the way home but just before we hit town, Cooter tossed his cigar butt out the window and said” “I’ll say one thing for Wallace and the rest of that gang of thieves. They worked long and hard to bring the white man down to the level of the Negro, and when we got there, we found out we were all just the same in any way that matters. That changed a lot of people’s ideas alright, not that we didn’t always have poor folk of both colors. But they took away anybody’s chance to do better, white or black.
“So I got no love for them, and neither do most people with the sense to pour piss out of a boot. The only reason we don’t turn them out ourselves is that everyone is just too damn tired and sore and worn out to pick up a gun and do it.”
Back at the restaurant Cooter pulled out a map and we sat around one of the tables as he marked out the best route to take with a grease pencil.
“Mostly you can just stay on Rt. One, the old Atlantic Highway. It’s about 12-14 hours to Washington but if the road’s decent and you can open that car up, you might could cut it to 10.
“Now, I haven’t driven up that way in a long time so I can only show you what I remember as being the best roads to use if the highway’s bad. Lord knows what shape they’re in, nowadays. And remember you’re riding on old tires. That rubber won’t take a lot of banging and bouncing.”
The Southern bosses had not squandered any of their earnings on things like roads and sanitation, I’d learned from my time here.
On the map he drew arrows off to both sides of the highway and connected them up to smaller northward routes.
“These are all local roads but you can use them to bypass any trouble, and it doesn’t hurt to know some back ways just I case. And failing that” – he turned the map over and drew a simple diagram on the back.
“My daddy taught me this when I first went hunting. This is the pole star, true north. And this is the Big Dipper. Now, you find the Dipper and look in its bowl for the pointer stars, these two, farthest from the handle. Follow along that line” – he ran his finger up – “and there’s your Northern Star. Head toward that and you’re at least going in the right direction.”
I could just see us driving though the night, one of us with their head out the window navigating by starlight. Cooter must have seen it on my face.
“It’s a last resort, if you get lost and there’s no signs. You get off on them side roads and they twist around this way and that, you can end up heading for Peru or some damn place before you know it.” He folded it up and handed it to me.
The women were outside packing the car. Lurlene had brought in a box full of clothes and old pillows and quilts she’d been saving for the Goodwill but donated to us instead and we had a box full of sandwiches and jars filled with water and lemonade.
Cooter fished in his pants and pulled out an envelope.
“Cooter paid off $250 of what he owes with the car. This here is what I owe you both up to today and there’s a little more on top of that, not much but it’s what I can do. You can send it to me when you get home.”
We shook on it and went outside where the hugging and crying had already begun. Twenty minutes later we were on the road out of town looking for signs to US Route 1.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, January 13, 2016
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