by Ken Waldman
You’re driving southeast on route 50 in Carolina. Your forehead is sloppy, hot. Your clothes stick like paste. Since getting in the car you’ve fiddled with the windows and vent, but nothing’s helped. This feverish humidity. Air-conditioner? It stopped working last week. All you want is ocean, and that’s where you’re heading. But all this stretch of road reminds you of is the worst job you ever had: washing dishes in a hospital kitchen.
That gig had lasted a month. That same winter you participated in a starvation study. For two hundred and fifty dollars you spent a weekend without swallowing food or liquid, attached to a machine that fed you through your veins. Every four hours a team of doctors took blood samples, weighed you, stuck a thin plastic tube up your nose and down into your throat to suck out bronchial fluids. When you had to urinate, you pulled your feeding machine with you down the hall to the bathroom. The machine, which was taller than you, was set on wheels, and rolled like a dolly. You lost ten pounds that weekend and read Crime and Punishment.
The time had passed slowly. You shared your room with a middle-aged man dying of stomach cancer. He had many visitors; you had none. Sunday night, as you finished the book, you hallucinated that you were simultaneously awake and asleep, and you believed you discovered the heart of something profound. Monday morning, before you left, you wanted to talk about this to the cancer patient, but didn’t.
Now it must be ninety degrees outside. It’s moonless. You don’t see a single star. Your high beams light the murk. You cough. The radio crackles and flares, a country-western station from Kinston. You hear Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings wailing away, crying for love. You turn off the radio and cough again. Steamy air whips through the window. You glance at the gas gauge. It’s edging toward empty.
Up ahead there’s an intersection, lights. You slow down. On the near right corner’s a beer and barbecue joint, motorcycles and pickup trucks filling the lot. You wonder why all the business, but then remember it’s Saturday night, and guess people must come from miles. You see a gas pump and feel lucky. You pull up, get out, remove the gas cap, and stick the nozzle in the hole. With your left hand you wipe sweaty hair off your brow. The numbers on the gauge go around. Men are shouting, their voices mixed with the heavy metal rock of the jukebox. You breathe in equal parts motor oil, beer, and burnt pork. You look around for a name or a sign to this place, but there is none.
The nozzle clicks, and you stick it back in the pump. You walk inside to pay the bartender, a woman. Her back is to you. She’s wearing tight black leather and she’s got long, straight black hair. She looks beautiful from behind and you keep your eyes on her, not wanting to look right or left, not wanting to act the gawking stranger in a rough place. Still, you’re aware people are talking about you. You feel people staring. Then the woman turns to take your money. Her face is swollen red, a round welt of boils. You look away, and she knows why as she gives you the change.
You hurry to your car and drive off. Just past the intersection you see someone waving on the other side of the highway. You slow down past the figure and pull off to the dirt on the right. You don’t know what to do so you stay in the car, keeping the lights on, the engine running. A half minute later you shut off the lights.
Then you kill the motor. Hearing a harmonica now, you’re out of the car and crossing the road, looking. Beneath a scraggly oak, a light-colored black man with deep creases in his forehead plays music. Seeing you approach, he takes the harmonica down from his lips and sings, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t, Don’t. Don’t you do it.” Then he moans the lyrics twice more before raising the harmonica back up to play.
You watch him and listen close. His fingers curl around the instrument like he’s eating a half an ear of corn. His cheeks puff. Every once in a while he bends a note this way and that as if it’s a long green twig and he’s testing how far he can go before he breaks it. With the lights of the bar behind him, you get a good look.
He’s wearing a seaman’s cap propped high on his head. The hair underneath, charcoal-colored over flecks of pink scalp, remind you of a used-up Brillo pad. His nose is wide and freckled. A bull’s nose, you think. He’s wearing a sweater full of holes, no shirt, a ragged pair of blue jeans, greasy boots. At his feet are a small box and a sailor’s duffel bag. You listen as he makes music that sounds first like a train whistle, then like a gospel number, then like a woman. You think: where have I see this guy before.
“You like my music?” the black man says suddenly, palming the harmonica before putting it in a pocket.
You nod warily.
“Joe Jefferson,” the black man says in a sing-songy voice. “I want to get up in the morning,” he sings, “clear ‘cross this state. And I want you to drive me, white man, clear ‘cross this state.”
You shake your head. You’re going the opposite direction.
“Born on the Blue Ridge highway. Between Deep Gap place and Blowing Rock town.” He takes the harmonica from his pocket, starts to blow it, and frowns. Then he bends, sticks the harmonica in the box, pulls out another, which he puts to his lips.
Playing this one, he starts bobbing at his shoulders, the motion like a current rolling through him so his arms, then his chest, then his waist, then his legs wag and shake. Soon he’s tap dancing in those greasy boots, his mouth still blowing in the holes. You think: you’ve seen an old man in Chapel Hill do this routine at a fair. But that was someone different: darker skin, glasses, a hat with a brim. You look from the feet to the face, and study the cracks in the forehead. They’re dancing too. Where have you seen this guy?
“I’ll be here now for a spell,” he says, stopping for a moment.
Then you watch him begin playing something that starts bluesy, but then sounds like hillbilly music, something you might square dance to. Every few times through, he breaks it up by singing, “Old Joe Jeff’s an old black man, Take me Take me home.” Once, though, he changes the words to, “You go leave me, you go on. Take me Take home.”
You begin to say something, but stop. You should, but shouldn’t. You cross to your car, get in, start it, pull onto the road, and accelerate. You know the scene you’ve just experienced means something. But what? You ponder that question the next thirty miles, past Maple Hill, Holly Ridge, across the bridge to Surf City.
You wonder if the answer has anything to do with the rank smell outside, or the mosquitoes that keep flying into your windshield, one after another, smashing their bug guts on the glass. You wonder if it has something to do with Angola Swamp, the awful spot you’ve driven past this muggy August night. You keep wondering as you enter Surf City, take a right onto highway 210, and drive a few miles toward Topsail Beach. Then you park your car and get out.
In bare feet you cross the asphalt, then skip over sand to the highest dune. You climb it and stand there for a minute, looking out, smelling saltwater, listening to the waves, feeling a cool, steady breeze. You want to own it, so you run off the mound, shed clothes, and sprint into the surf. The tide’s high. The bottom’s sandy.
You run and run, still only knee-high in water until the shelf suddenly drops, and you’re splashing around, swimming. For a long time you play near that spot, breaststroking, butterflying, backfloating, and somersaulting. When the clouds lift, the stars shoot brilliant holes. As the tideline ebbs closer, you let one big wave carry you most of the way to shore.
Atop the sand dune you put on your shorts. Then you return to your car. You find a flashlight, then scrape most of the bugs off the front window, using the shirt you’re holding. Then you settle back in the car, start it, and make a u-turn so you’re heading back to Surf City. As you drive north you look out the passenger side window, watching the first light as it barely grows. At Surf City you turn left, inland, back to the swampland. You keep glancing at the rear view mirror, stealing peeks at the lightening sky. In front of you there is still the blackness.
Past Holly Ridge, you re-enter the stagnant mugginess. It’s like opening the lid to a jar of creamed corn going bad, and taking a whiff. You’re positive today’s going to be hotter and stickier than yesterday. You press your foot on the pedal, making the air fly. The nighttime is dying in front of you, petering out. You feel a bead of sweat trickle down your armpit. Then you feel another.
You approach Maple Hill in the half-light. Your headlights shine, but you can see without them. A dark bug splats against your windshield. A pickup truck comes at you, no lights, a gray speck against gray sky. The truck gets bigger as it approaches, then backfires as it passes. You see the truck in your rear view and watch it disappear. Still looking in the mirror, you see the eastern sky’s pink.
You plan your day. You’ll reach your driveway before the midday heat, parking the car under the maple. Then you’ll nap, read, bathe, eat, doing what you feel like in no particular order as long as you stay in the shade. And then you’ll go to sleep, and when you wake it’ll be Monday. Work. Past Maple Hill, you realize you’re nearing the intersection with the beer and barbecue joint, kitty-corner to where you met the black man playing the harmonica.
The black man. Then you figure where you’ve seen him. He’s the old man version of Vernon, the mulatto dishwasher. Vernon. All that time you were so goddamned miserable in that hospital kitchen, not saying a word about it, only talking about books to the goddamned mulatto, Vernon, who stood there running the machine and whistling. And when you told Vernon you were quitting the end of the week, there he was, Vernon, tears in his eyes, saying you, white man, you seemed so happy, and your talking about books made him listen, made him think of taking a night class.
On your last day there, Vernon had given you that copy of Crime and Punishment, had told you to think of him as you read it. Vernon. You wonder if the black man’s still at the side of the road, playing. Then you think that’s unlikely. Possibly he’s already caught a ride home. Or more likely he’s dozing somewhere nearby. You decide you’ll offer him a ride if he waves you down again. This time you’re going in the same direction, only he has twice as far to go. You can drop him off at the interstate.
As you approach the intersection and slow down, you see four or five small dogs jumping and yelping, trying to climb the scraggly oak. You stop your car, shine the lights, then look up and see the feet. You try not to puke as you push open the door and get out. Jefferson is hanging, naked, from the lowest thick branch, a rope knotted securely around his neck. You stare at what someone’s done to him: his forehead’s been branded; his balls have been cut off. There’s a coppery-black stain beneath the body. The smell of the dead man has put the dogs in such a frenzy.
You don’t know why, but you stand for a minute, looking. Then you know what you need to do. You run to the beer and barbecue joint. It looks empty. It’s locked. You scout all around it, looking for a phone. There isn’t one. Then you run back to the car, open the trunk, grab a tire iron, and threaten the dogs. They scatter only after you hit one hard enough to injure it. Then, on your tiptoes, you stretch to touch Jefferson’s lower leg. It’s hardening.
You scramble up the trunk and pull yourself onto the branch which the noose is tied. Straddling the limb, you ease your way to the rope. Reaching it, you saw through it with a penknife. The body falls, thudding against the dirt. As it does, you avert your eyes and tears come. The crying does it. You feel flushed. For a few minutes your remain perched, looking up and down the highways in all four directions. To the southeast, the violet sky is turning blue. You breathe deeply and it smells like sex.
Then you look down at the body. If anybody saw you here, you’d be in trouble. You ease back toward the tree trunk, scramble down, hurry to your car, and spread a plastic tarp over the back seat. Then you grab Jefferson under his armpits, drag him to the car, lift him, lay him in the plastic, and wrap him. You go back beneath the tree to look and see if anything’s left behind. Twenty feet to the right you see something metallic, shiny. You go to it: Jefferson’s harmonica. You pick it up, finger it, and put it in your pocket. You look further in the grass, and in a short time you find his sweater, an empty duffel bag, and his box of harmonicas, all the instruments gone. You set the box in the trunk of your car. The sweater and the duffel you stuff in the tarp with the body. As you do this you remember the black man singing to you, remember his harmonica playing, remember his dance. You think: last night the man still had a lot of life left in him.
As you get in your car you look at the bundle in the back seat. Then you study your map. In the middle of the Blue Ridge, you find the area between Deep Gap and Blowing Rock. Monday can wait. The whole world can wait.
You roll down all the windows all the way, start the car, and pull out on the road. The sun’s behind you. The drive will be hell, but the mountains will be cool when you arrive. Somehow you’ll find Jefferson’s family. You’ll explain. You’ll help as you can, staying for the burial, and beyond.
Musical Contribution: “Chinquapin Hunting“.
In Their Own Words
I’m playing fiddle, and reading “The Road Circa 1978,” a poem which was previously published in EXQUISITE CORPSE and in TO LIVE ON THIS EARTH (West End Press, Albuquerque, 2002). This track was recorded in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of my album All Traditionals. I flew in a friend, Jerry Hagins, a banjo player from Austin, Texas, and also brought in two Alaska locals, Joe Karson on guitar and Phil Cassel on bass, for several tracks. The four of us never played together before (or since), but we recorded quickly, and had ourselves some fun.
Ken Waldman has an MFA from University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he arrived as a fiction writer, and graduated as a fiction writer who wrote poems. Since 2000, he’s had published six poetry collections, a memoir, and a children’s book, and has released nine CDs that combine old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry and storytelling. Over 400 of his poems and stories have appeared in journals. He tours widely, often as Alaska’s Fiddling Poet. www.kenwaldman.com