My friends all moved away / And they moved to big cities / Where they fight all that traffic every day / While I sit here and rot / In this godforsaken town / That gets older and sadder every day.
At the produce stand, not all was drudgery. Sam Maitlin encountered his fair share of dull curmudgeons grumbling about the weather, Obama, Obamacare, gun rights, and local politicians who had no more sense, in their estimations, than the aforementioned president. Sam tried to be cordial and remember that, while he might not agree with them, he wasn’t above selling them his fruits and vegetables. Business got better, so much so that he complemented his trips to the State Farmers Market with purchases from local suppliers. He earned a reputation for selling the best the best in town, and it captured a segment of the population that not only knew of the superiority of homegrown tomatoes but cared about it.
Not to worry. The supermarkets were still surviving.
Another traffic draw was boiled peanuts that Sam produced in his slow cooker. He knew a secret. Back when he had been a child, boiled peanuts came in small paper bags and had to be drained before being bagged, lest the peanuts fall through the soggy bottoms. Nowadays the peanuts were generally sold in plastic bags, which meant they were cold and soggy. Sam drained his and bagged them early in the morning. They were fresh and lots better.
One day a truck pulled off the highway, and the driver bought a watermelon and a sack of tomatoes, and pretty soon he was stopping by regularly and selling Sam a few cases of Coke and Diet Coke. Sam already had a large cooler. Soft drinks greatly enhanced boiled-peanuts sales. Once he started offering cold Cokes and boiled peanuts, the level of the discourse improved, particularly on cloudy days when it wasn’t too hot. Sam started spending less time reading paperback novels. As the radio stations – the ones that remained, that is – claimed in their promos, it was wall-to-wall talk.
In particular, Sam came to enjoy Carlton Pixley’s occasional visits. He came to see Carlton, who was a little older, as the last of the old-time wheeler-dealers. He liked to dabble in politics, as he put it, but he didn’t offer much in the way of opinion. Carlton had learned to play the winners. He’d been burned back in the nineties when the state had briefly legalized poker machines, and Carlton seized the opportunity and started opening up combination convenience, hamburger-and-beer-selling stores, but mainly they were poker-machine casinos. When the General Assembly turned around, succumbed to the preachers’ complaints, and banned the machines two years later in favor of a state lottery, it almost broke Carlton, and he’d learned then the importance of protecting his interests. On those rare occasions when Carlton talked politics, he tended to endorse what he perceived to be the prevailing view.
Sam thought Carlton Pixley was sneaky in a good way. He admired him for it. The two didn’t talk politics. They talked about Clemson and Carolina, and the local college and high school, and the Atlanta Braves, and Sam told stories about all the years he’d chased all those teams around, but most times the first words out of Carlton’s mouth were the same: “How’s business, Sam?”
“Aw, it’s getting better, Carlton. That’s the hell of it. Do you know I’m about to the point where I like it? Lord have mercy.”
Carlton just chuckled, amusement rumbling like distant thunder down in his throat. Then he reached in the cooler, fetched himself a can of “Co-Cola,” opened a bag of peanuts, and slipped a couple greenbacks on the table. “Much obliged,” Sam said.
One day Carlton said he had a favor to ask. He’d never asked one before, and he’d given a few Sam hadn’t asked. Sam’s only clue was that maybe Carlton was involved with parlay cards, the ones distributed “for amusement purposes only.” Sam had already figured it might be a way to turn a little change, but he hadn’t thought any more about it since he’d started prospering a little. It turned out there wasn’t any reason to think about it now.
“I got a grandboy,” Carlton said, “just got out of high school. He went to the Christian School, and he’s enrolling at Clemson in the fall. He’s a real bright kid, but I expect, you know, just out of school, headed off to college and all, he’s turning a little to the bad. His mama and daddy can’t do nothing with him, and I just want somebody that ain’t his daddy, ain’t his family, to spend some time with him.”
“Well, Carlton, you know I’ll do it, not that I’m particularly qualified, but I have gotten right busy.”
“I think he might listen to you. You been all around the country, seen it all, so to speak. Back when I went off to school, I was wild as a colt, too, but, you know, I just don’t want the boy to get hisself in no trouble.”
“You’ve never mentioned that, Carlton. Where’d you go to school?”
“Clemson. I wasn’t there long. My grandboy’s smarter than me. I want him to stay that way. … Look, when you going to the Farmers Market next?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“You mind just letting Justin — that’s his name — tag along?”
“I’m leaving no later than five in the morning, Carlton.”
“I’ll get him there. It won’t be easy, but I’ll bring him over to your place myself.”
TO BE CONTINUED