I don’t know where I am / And I don’t know where I’m going / I reckon it don’t matter anyway / What factories are left here are mainly hiring Mexicans / I reckon that they’ll work without much pay.
Years ago, it had been the site of a filling station. Then it was a used-car lot, but after the main building burned down, the cops had figured out that the owner torched it for the insurance money.
Desperation worked on a man. As he sank, the solutions he tried got more and more radical. That’s why Jake Coebern was in the pen now, serving a little time for arson.
That’s also why Sam Maitlin sat in that paved lot, all except the grass growing up through the asphalt, with a pop-up tent and 1992 Ford pickup, selling watermelons, canteloupes, tomatoes, and peaches. Six months earlier, he’d been joking when he told his mother he could always sell produce on the side of the road.
Never say never.
What people asked – and there were a few who only stopped by because they were nosy – he told them he was mainly living off his savings till he could find something, and it didn’t hurt to try to stir up a little income just to give him some options. Sam figured he should have tried to find employment as a full-time snoop because the town had a lot of them and they seemed to be prospering.
Sam had a lot of “don’t call us, we’ll call you’s.” He’d started out applying for full-time jobs. He’d gotten a severance package when the company had eliminated his “position.” Nothing had seemed urgent. He could bide his time, pick and choose, but then had come the gradual lowering of expectations. Sam came to realize he was just the kind of employee companies were anxious to eliminate. These were desperate times. He had been around too long. He was making too much. His insurance was expensive. He knew his rights, right up the day he lost them. They took advantage of the fact that he was out on the road, never in the office, and so, while they plotted ways of lopping him off the payroll, he’d never seen it coming. They called him in on the eighth day of January, and that was the day they took back his mobile phone and key to the building. He’d made them money. It took them some time to figure out how to make it another way. Some accountants in Texas, at the corporate headquarters, figured out how to make the numbers work, and the Human Relations Department in Ragan, five states away, took it from there. Sam went from working for the Ragan Daily News to having the Ragan daily blues. He wasn’t eligible for unemployment till his severance ran out, and then it wasn’t enough to pay for utilities and groceries, and he’d applied for roughly seventy-five jobs, and out of all of them, he’d been interviewed a grand total of twice, but he even had a couple “your resume is excellent, we’ll be back in touches” from companies that didn’t deem an interview necessary. By the time the unemployment ran out, Sam was down to school-bus driver, substitute teacher, part-time tutor and public-relations specialist. Oh, and some other jobs that were completely based on commissions. He couldn’t sell encyclopedias door to door. There wasn’t any such thing.
Given the outlook, he figured out he might as well sell produce.
What was a man to do? Well, he could get his old pickup running, set out for the State Farmer’s Market at five in the morning, and lay down his cash money for fifty watermelons, twenty-five canteloupes, ten baskets of peaches and two bushels of tomatoes. If he could all that sold before it went “to the bad,” he could get up early and head right back down there. He peeled ten percent off the top and gave it to the man who owned the lot and a license to host commerce within its borders. Sam knew damn well the issue of sales tax was going to come up, but he set a little money aside for now and was really fond of dealing with the public in case and, occasionally, other considerations. So far, he was keeping the electricity on and slowly whittling down his credit-card balances.
If everything went well, and all the old truck cost him was gas, and someone local would sell him okra, onions, and squash, he could clear almost a hundred dollars on every load. He had some other things he did on the side: string a ballgame for somebody, and things would pick up in the fall when football started, and then he could make a little scratch running parlay cards.
Some things he would not do, but the list was getting smaller.
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 less sense, in his estimation, 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 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.”
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.
I’m too old now to make it / So I spend all my time / Telling kids not to make mistakes I made / If I’d known what I know now / And conjured up a plan / I’d be made in a different kind of shade.
On the way back home, Sam was just a bit concerned about the pickup being overloaded, so he exited the interstate and drove up through the small towns so as to avoid the weigh station. He was almost surely okay – all he bought was fifty watermelons, and they always made up most of the weight – but his profit margin couldn’t afford a fine. U.S. Highway 76 had been his daddy’s old getaway road, oh, forty years earlier. It still worked at least once.
Sam felt like he’d said his piece to Justin. The ice was broken. He’d taught the young man crucial lessons in the game of life, such as how to “pack” melons – sideways row, then forward row, stack the next one in the little “groove” where the two base lines met – and how bananas needed to be green enough to last but not so green that they’d never be tasty. He wondered if such lessons were applicable in any way to growing weed and if Justin had any interest in a garden of his very own.
But Sam didn’t want to know. He just wanted to wonder.
Now Sam was back to his normal, thoughtful self, gazing at the signs in beautiful downtown Prosperity and wondering if there was still such a thing as C-W-S Guano. Justin was the one wanting to talk, or he was the one breaking the silence, anyway.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, a paragon of subtlety.
“Driving through the country? I told you, I was a little worried about being overweight.”
“No, I mean, why are you selling produce?”
“Ah, it just keeps me occupied, I reckon,” Sam said. “Brings a little money in, while I try to figure out some other way to make a living.”
“How long since they laid you off?”
“Over a year now. Time flies.”
“But, you’re smart,” Justin said. “You’re … educated. This shit is so beneath you, Sam. I mean, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but, damn.”
“Fear not, Justin. You’re just getting started. You’ve got three decades before you have to face the Great American Dream.
“Ah, kid, let me tell you something. What a man does is shaped by one consideration, from when he’s younger than you till when he’s older than me.”
Sam let it hang, as if this were common knowledge.
“What? What is it?” Justin asked finally.
He laughed. “Why, it’s sex, and female companionship, and having somebody to snuggle and cuddle when things go ‘bump’ in the night.”
“You sell watermelons for pussy? That’s fucked up.”
“Literally,” Sam said. “A man’s gotta circulate, my boy.”
“That’s a good comeback there, Justin. Your granddaddy was right when he said you were smart as a whip. Just don’t be too smart. At your age, you chase cute little cheerleaders. At mine, you flirt with single moms because they think you might make an excellent dad for little Timmy, and try to have your fun without getting trapped. I expect I don’t have near as many prospects as you, but I’m right good at playing it for kicks.
“Look, I told you I’ve been there, right where you are, a long time ago. What I didn’t know then but do know now is sex is behind everything. Everything. A man wants a woman, I mean, I reckon, unless he wants a man. I can’t tell you, just like I can’t tell you, God knows, how a woman’s mind operates ‘cause I ain’t never had a woman’s mind. When I was your age, I played football, and I thought it was because I loved it and my daddy wanted me to, but the real reason was that cheerleaders were beautiful and they liked football players. That’ll get you in trouble, you don’t watch it. If you think a gal’s hot stuff, and she smokes, you gonna smoke. She drinks. You gon’ drink. You think you gonna get her in bed by getting’ her drunk, getting’ her high, getting’ her … frisky, you gonna do it.
“Better watch it, Justin. That gal’ll mess up your whole life. You find one you want to live the rest of your life with, either she’s gon’ change, and when you’re young, you won’t like that, or you gonna have to find somebody based on more than whether or not she’ll let you inside of her.”
That seemed to satisfy Justin’s inquisitiveness. He pulled out his iPod and his headphones, and Sam felt like he’d done well to hold the boy’s attention for such a long time. Sam dropped by the house on the way in so that Justin could pick up his car.
As he drove away, Sam said, “Stop by the stand sometime tomorrow, kid. There may be a pop quiz.”
Driving back to the stand, Sam wondered if they still called them pop quizzes.