I don’t give a damn / ‘Cause it don’t make no difference / What happens is gonna happen anyway / I’m a ship without a rudder / Adrift with no sails / And the water’s still choppy on the bay / So I’ll paddle around / Either drown or run aground / So far I’ve made it through another day.
Carlton Pixley called at a quarter to five, said the boy was going to drive himself over, and he was on his way.
“What’s his name again, Carlton?”
“Justin. Justin Millay. My daughter Katrine’s son.”
“Ah,” Sam said. “I’d forgotten. Katrine married Larry Millay.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Carlton said, “but she divorced him three years ago. That’s probably got a little to do with Justin’s wildness.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m ready to go. I better go sit on the porch and wait for him. Bye now.”
“Thanks, Sam. I really appreciate it.”
Let’s see. Justin’s eighteen. He might have been born when Katrine was twenty-one. That probably makes Carlton a little over sixty. That’s about right.
It was dark. The horizon was just starting to lighten over the pine trees across the road. Sam thought it best to turn on the porch light. Minutes passed. No sign of Justin. Was he lost? The house was right on the highway. Kids. Sam unlocked the front door, fetched a paperback, locked up again, and sat back down. He glanced at his watch every three or four paragraphs.
Justin Millay finally showed up at five-thirty, a half hour late. Fortunately, sitting out in the cool of the predawn and reading a little Larry McMurtry left Sam calm and philosophical. He needed to keep his cool. No good could come from confrontation, and Sam didn’t need the aggravation.
The boy was calm and philosophical, too. He didn’t apologize. His greeting was mumbled, and his handshake was soft. He had a reasonably nice grin, though.
“We gotta get going, Justin. Running a tad late.”
The boy climbed in. He looked like a tennis player, maybe. Or a golfer. The truck had an old-fashioned bench seat, but Sam had bought a cheap plastic console at Walmart. It just sat loose, but, fortunately, most of the time. when Sam stomped on the brakes, the console slid into the stick shift and Sam could grab it before it crashed into the floor. Sam opened the console.
“Here,” he said. “Have a stick of gum. I bet you’d like to stop at the McDonald’s drive-through out on the interstate.”
“I could go for an Egg McMuffin.” They were his first intelligible words.
“You drink coffee?”
They sat silent most of the way through town.
“Now, Justin,” Sam said, “I’m not your daddy, and I ain’t got no business telling you what to do, and if I did, I’m satisfied it’d piss you off. This is just friendly advice, non-judgmental, know what I’m saying?”
“You reek. I’m just guessing that you’re late ‘cause you got high on the way to my house, and that’s all right. You got time to get straightened up, but the time you had on the way to my house wasn’t enough. I’m not telling you ‘cause I’m pissed off. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just telling you, if you think you’re fooling anybody, you’re not. If you’re gonna get high, and you’re gonna bump into somebody who’s not, have enough sense to chew some gum, gargle, wash your hands.”
Justin didn’t say a word. He was in a state of paranoia, afraid to say anything. Oh, he was stoned, all right.
I sell a little weed / And I barely get my bills paid / Probably smoke too much of it away.
Sam pulled into a convenience store when he got to the interstate.
“I forgot,” he said. “McDonald’s isn’t open this early. We can either get something here – I’m gonna top off the fuel tank – or, by the time we get to Newberry, the McDonald’s down there will be open.”
“I’m gonna pump the gas. Reckon you can go, get two large cups of coffee, I recommend the banana-nut muffins – they’re usually good and fresh early in the morning – so, if you want one, get two of them, too. Fix your coffee the way you like it. Put two Sweet ‘n’ Lows in mine. You up to that?”
“Yeah,” Justin said, “I’m fine.”
“I reckon you are,” Sam said, laughing.
The kid took two steps and turned around.
“Would you, like, mind if I bought a pack of cigarettes?”
“Like I said, Justin, I ain’t your daddy. You can smoke if you want to – tobacco, mind you – long as you crack the window.”
Sam looked at the boy striding unevenly toward the front door, and thought, well, he’ll never make it, but then he remembered a time when he was quite a bit that way himself.
Back on the road, Sam said that he’d grown up on a farm, and when he got laid off, once it became obvious no one else was going to hire him, he’d just gone back to what he’d learned years ago, which was how to sell produce. He said he’d gone with his father to the farmers market more times than he could remember. Sam also mentioned an old country song, “Smoking Cigarettes and Drinking Coffee Blues,” that he thought was by Lefty Frizzell.
“I thought he was, like, a basketball coach.”
“That was Lefty Driesell,” Sam said. “Lefty Frizzell was a country singer. Of course, he’s dead now.”
“I told you, I’m not about to tell you what to do,” Sam said. “Anything we talk about is strictly between us. I was thinking about it this morning. One of the problems a kid like you has is, if you ask an adult for advice, he’s generally just gonna say no. Well, what if you say yes? Who’s gonna give you advice then? Nobody. What you don’t realize, I don’t think, is that grown-ups are smarter than you think they are. They were your age once, too, and you’re about two generations beyond the time when kids started smoking pot. It’s not that parents are dumb. They’re scared of what you might be doing, but, deep down, they don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to be hypocrites, but, at some point, they feel like they gotta.”
“You don’t have any kids?”
“Ah, I was married for two years, way back. I got a daughter who’s twenty-seven years old. Her mother remarried, and she grew up in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. I see her about once a year, most times, but not since I went to her wedding two years ago in Cincinnati. She and I keep up with each other on Facebook, mostly, but I call her from time to time. She seems to be doing all right. Hadn’t give me no grandkid yet.
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead … Sam.”
“Yesterday, sitting up at my stand, it was pretty slow, and I thought a lot about what me and you might talk about. When your grandfather told me you were getting a little wild, I kinda figured drugs might be involved. It was one those things left unsaid. I expect, when I was your age, about as many kids smoked pot as they do now, but one difference was, when I was eighteen, it was legal to buy beer. Now you got to be twenty-one. I got to thinking, and, well, what I was figuring was, maybe, one of the reasons kids smoke pot a lot is, nowadays, it’s easier to get marijuana than it is to get beer. Fellow selling weed don’t require no ID.”
“That’s right,” Justin said and paused, then he added. “And weed is better.”
Sam was glad he was opening up, though he suspected that part of the reason his tongue was loosening up was that he was still slightly high but no longer paranoid.”
“How you figure?”
“Well,” Justin said, and he pounded a pack of Camel Lights against his palm. “What I mean is that weed is better than drinking, and it’s not as bad, neither.” He lit a smoke and exhaled. “You don’t get a hangover. It don’t wreck your whole day. It don’t make you wanna whip nobody’s ass. It’s just a happy thing, you know?”
“Well, I used to, but it’s been quite a while.”
“Worst thing about it is, shit, I just crave a cigarette.”
“And it’s illegal.”
“Yeah,” Justin said. “It’s illegal, and that’s so full of shit.”
Well, I’m glad we got that settled.
It was closing in on seven when they encountered the mild traffic of Columbia’s early risers. Avoiding it was the reason for going early, that plus being back with the produce at a decent hour. Business was light in the morning, anyway. Sam casually mentioned that the market had been across the street from the Carolina football stadium when he was a kid. Now it was out on the Charleston Highway, southwest of the capital city, and a bit more out of the way for a drive down from the northwest.
“Here’s what I want you to know,” Sam said as he exited right to stay on Interstate 26. “Don’t be stupid. Have your fun, but don’t get yourself killed, and don’t let it ruin your life. Everybody’s different, and this is just me, but one time, oh, God knows how many years ago, a fellow I really respected told me that the difference between a man who drinks and an alcoholic is that one drinks from the bottle, and the other, the bottle drinks from him. Best words of advice I ever got. The same’s true with pot. Some hit from the bong, and some, the bong hits from them. I really can’t stress enough how true that is.”
“Another thing is, examine yourself,” Sam said. “Try not to be compulsive. Don’t get tore up. If you’re gonna drink, or you’re gonna get high, don’t just do it till you pass out. Cop a buzz, and just drink enough, or smoke enough, to keep it. I got a friend today, and I dread it when I see him coming, because him and me’ll go out drinking – I don’t do it that much anymore, mind you – but it’s like a damned tug of war. He’s trying to pull me down the toilet, and I’m trying to keep him out.”
“Who wins?” Justin asked, and Sam noticed he was smiling.
“If you knowed him, you’d know that the best a man can hope for is a draw.”
They pulled into the market and started shopping for the last local watermelons of the summer.
TO BE CONTINUED