>I had nothing to do that day, but needed to do something. My psyche had been feeling the brute force of reality, served painfully as a dish of depression and a side of uncertainty, and I had the day off from work. I was feeling trapped, stuck in a town where everyone wanted to be except me. The transcript of my life story listed me living in Wilmington, North Carolina for two years as a college student with nothing to show for it but a drinking habit, a diabetes-induced blind spot in my left eye, student loans and a mishmash of sporadic friendships – hit-or-miss ones that usually were unaware that they were even supposed to be aiming at something to begin with. Quite frankly, I’d begun to feel like it was time to pawn the “Move Down South” experiment off as a failure, graduate, and get the Hell out of there while I still had any bit of the “smartass Yankee” left that made me so beloved in Western New York. By all accounts, I was having a terrible week. That’s what sent me to Bladenboro.
It was a good day for a drive – a great day, in fact. I left at around 12:30 after sleeping until noon, following a stay-out-all-night-because-microbrews-are-two-fifty-at-the-Copper-Penny-and-it’d-be-a-crime-against-Hemingway-to-not-try-them-all drinking spree with my buddy from Philly. My senior seminar class was at 8 o’clock that night and I still had to do some reading for it, so I knew I had to shit-and-git. I stopped by Walgreens on the corner of Oleander and College, picked up a set of cheap sunglasses and a Diet Dew for the road and took off, deciding to get gas later. There were a good five millimeters between the needle and the E; I drove a Lumina. Parched or not, we were in it together – the Lumina and I – and it was real good on gas. I almost had enough of the Arabian gold to make the 70-mile trip without getting more at all, so I left. I was getting away from Wilmington, driven solely by the yearning to be driving.
Now don’t get me wrong, I got no problem with Wilmington specifically – it was being out of Western New York that irritated me when I thought about it in the days before this trip. The Port City, in contrast to the home of the Buffalo Bills, had a booming economy and was a great town with a lot of history and all kinds of both beer-drenched and non-alcoholic shit to do. You want bands? It’s got ‘em. Good beer? That too. It’ll cost you an arm and a working leg, but it’s there. Women? Oh yeah. If you can’t get a piece of ass in Wilmington on the weekends, you’re either not trying hard enough or you haven’t been to the Rox. Allah could get laid in that place, maybe even by a Baptist minister’s daughter, assuming she’s drunk enough … not that they drink or anything. The city was scenic, historic, growing and touristy. Everyone wanted to be there. It was great for the first year, until not having my family and childhood friends around started to catch up with me. Once it did, Wilmington died in my head real quick.
It looked plastic, superficial and reeked of condos. Poorly-timed traffic lights, unnecessary medians and shit head drivers cluttered the roadways like old farts in the vitamin aisle at CVS. I started to lose my grip on the town when my cousin died and I couldn’t make it home for the funeral because it was too long of a drive. I would have been there if the economy in Western New York hadn’t sent me halfway to Florida with my tail between my legs a year earlier, but I butter cupped out and left that place like a big wimp. The first year after the move was great, but the 12 months after was a period of utter shit, a chapter of my life I wanted to fast forward DVR-style right to the glorious end. I was done pissing around with Wilmington before I ever really started.
Bladenboro, in turn, became my Mecca for the day. One of my professors at school had suggested taking a day trip to “one of these little towns” and I, being unfamiliar with the state and true Southern culture, went to work looking for a place that fit the bill. I Googled – no shit, I really did – “small towns NC” and a two-day-old newspaper story from Bladenboro came up regarding a legendary beast that had killed a bunch of farm animals and pets back in the 50s by smashing their skulls and draining their blood through their noses. Upon reading this, I knew, surely, that Bladenboro was the ideal place to spend the day.
I hit the road at lunchtime, a foreseen death sentence which meant I had to deal with the traffic to the edge of town before hitting 76’s entrance ramp (I had to cut off an SUV to make the merge, which apparently warranted a long honk from the gas-guzzling driver, which definitely called for a flip of my middle finger at the end of an outstretched arm through my open window) and separating from the rat race. But after a few minutes, it was over and I was sailing on a traffic-free sea of pavement under the sun. There was no reason to be stressed over on-road incidents miles ago back in town, but I still was, and on top of that, anticipating more of them. Wilmington’s effect on my state of mind was hard to shake. I put on a Tom Waits album and started hearing the jazz-peddling piano of “Drunk on the Moon.” I thought of the night before and how the song described it – minus the being on the moon part – and got a little happier.
About an hour into the drive at the Emerson exit, I decided it was time to get some gas. The Lumina was below E and Triple A had kicked me out months back for drunkenly locking my keys in my car on three occasions in one week and having a locksmith come bail me out. I didn’t know anyone in Emerson and all three of my friends in Wilmington were doing something else, not that they would have driven all that way to give me a gallon of gas anyway. I rolled down State Road 211, anticipating a big convenience store with 28 gas pumps like I was used to. I then realized I was setting the bar way too high and began scanning around every bend in the road for a small place with a dusty old woman inside watching over one or two pumps with gauges like a car odometer. After a few tree- and field-dominated miles of this search turned up empty, I just started looking for signs of life at all.
20 or so miles short of Bladenboro, I found a gas station. It was a house with a gravel yard and one pump in the front. There were no flowers. Cages covered the windows and the door (just to be safe, you know) and an old minivan that probably took Britney Spears to soccer practice when she was 12 was parked along the side. I pulled parallel to the pump, looked out my window to see if it worked or just did back in the 80s and shut off my engine. It was prepay only, labeled three times as so.
“Must be to keep all those hybrid drivers around here from stealing gas,” I sarcastically thought to myself.
I opened up my door and heard the sound of Emerson – the sound I’d been longing to hear and almost forgot about. I cleared my throat and heard it bounce off the building and across the road. The nearby field spoke to me; I turned toward it. It wasn’t talking to me, but its brethren on the other side of the gravel lot. I was just in the middle of them. Normally I would have considered the scene custom-built for a very dreary act of bestiality, but considering my recent psyche, it was a relief just to be there. The ambient noise of the city – the cars, the sporadic hoots and hollers and distant sirens – was gone and I loved it. I heard nothing. A smile in which all my facial features participated in decorated the front of my head as I picked up my chin. I was pleased to be out of Wilmington.
The heavy wood door of the old place creaked like a thin screen one would have when I opened it. It was white like the building used to be. Still smiling, I looked at the woman behind the counter scratching lottery tickets, obviously still thrilled with church officials letting North Carolina have them. Vertical wire racks flaunting plastic bags of “Tom’s Spicy Pork Skins” stood on both sides of the little alleyway set up for customer(s).
“That pump out there,” I said. “It prepay?” It was a question the ruthless signage on the pump begged a smartass like me to ask.
“They shore are,” she said like a rock, as if she’d authored the policy and it had just prevented a robber from putting her store finances in the red.
“Well you’re in luck,” I shot back, my good spirit fueled by her lack of one, “because here I am, I got my wallet and I need some gas.” I was nearly dancing in place.
She smiled – a product of my good spirits. “How much you want?”
I handed her my credit card, told her to run it for 20, took it back and strolled out. When I got back to the Lumina, an old-looking man who’d apparently just left the Great Depression was pumping gas on the other side. So much for the place’s prepay policy. I gave him a head nod which he returned, gazing interrogatively at me from below the brim of his farmer’s cap with a plastic screened back. It looked as old as him. His truck, loaded with proof that people really do steal from yard sales, appeared to be just as historic.
“That Bladenboro just up the road from here?” I asked like I hadn’t just looked at my map 15 minutes earlier.
He spit a stream the same color as a raw sienna crayon that I diagnosed as mostly saliva. “Sure is.” He changed hands holding the gas nozzle and turned toward me. “What you goin there for?” He made the place sound like polio.
My mind searched for an answer as I pumped my gas. I didn’t plan on him being so interested. Saying that I and my car with New York plates were going there for a day trip didn’t seem like it’d generate much of a conversation. “My aunt lives there. I’m going to see her.” I expected him to say ‘oh, that’ll be nice’ or ‘oh, have fun’ and send me on my way. But he didn’t.
“Well I live in Bladenboro – lived there my whole life. What’d you say her name was?”
My internal dialogue went something like this: ‘Shit.’ I stopped pumping as the gauge read $16.43.
“Well, her first name’s Sally, but she’s actually my wife’s aunt so I don’t know,” I said while pretending to round my gas total to the next dollar. His eyebrows raised above eyes which were now penetrating the liar they looked at. “I had some business in Wilmington and decided to come over and pay her a visit.” My goal was to pawn the “relationship” between “my wife’s aunt” and I off as a limited one.
He pursed his ratty lips and stuck out his chin. It looked like something cows did.
“Well, thanks for your help.” He wasn’t buying it; it was time to shit and git. Lord knew how it was going to look when he voiced his suspicions about me to the woman inside who had just run my credit card that almost proudly displayed UNCW. Married business man from New York heading over to see his aunt-in-law in a town of 1500? That was unlikely enough. But I was dressed and unshaven like a college student and had the credit card of one. He’d know I was full of shit in a matter of minutes and either run me down for “insulting his intelligence” or have both the cops in Bladenboro waiting for me at the town limits. I put the nozzle back on the pump, twisted the Lumina’s gas cap back in place and scurried to my driver’s seat. The boat of a car swayed richly to the right as I made the u-turn out of the place and headed toward Bladenboro. I put the Waits album on “Diamonds on my Windshield,” turned it up real loud and laughed at the little predicament I’d created for myself.
“This late night freeway flying always makes me sing – it always makes me sing.” Waits probably said it best, though I was hardly on a freeway and definitely wasn’t flying.
About a mile or two up the road from the gas station and its visiting rummage sale on wheels, I saw a decrepit Ford minivan that looked like it had left its better parts in Detroit. As I approached, I could see that it had the ability to piss off tree huggers from Greenpeace while at a complete stop; smoke plumed from out of the front of it like burning tires on an Indian reservation. The closer I got, the more I could see its paint was losing an imperialistic battle to rust, odd for a vehicle in a snow-free area to be feeling the downside of road salt. I was having fun meeting the locals, so I decided to pull over and offer whatever assistance a non-mechanic could.
It had a New York license plate and a Buffalo Bills bumper sticker below the cracked rear windshield commemorating their 1993 Super Bowl appearance. They lost to Dallas 52-17 to mark their third straight loss in the big game, a commemoration the sticker neglected to include. “What are you guys, Cowboys fans?” I asked nonchalantly as I walked up the side of the van.
Grizzly Adams poked his head around the side of the van. He was messing with something under the hood and apparently was startled by my appearance. “What’s that?” he asked, stepping away from the four-wheeled contraption and wiping his hands on his David Hasslehoff jeans. He had the beard of Grizzly Adams, but the body of a stork. I wondered if he’d aimed for that look when he got up that morning.
“I saw your bumper sticker and wondered if you were a Troy Aikman fan.”
“He some sort of a car driver?” His southern accent made a streak-free window to the foundation his misunderstanding.
I laughed, partly because he clearly know nothing about football and mostly because of how far off my original assertion was that he was a Western New Yorker. I instantly decided it was best to move away from the topic. “What’s wrong with the car?”
“Oh, that dang old radiator hose done busted,” he retorted, getting back to his work under the hood. I heard him ramble something about turbines and wondered if he’d just spent the last of his vocabulary by using two multi-syllabled words in as many sentences.
“There something I can help you with?” I hoped he’d say that there was, but wished intimately that it didn’t entail him getting into my car.
“Nah, m’girlfrynd’s gone inta town to git a new hose. Shy’ll be back anny time.” He poked another look at me and grinned. “It’s her car, y’know, so I told her to walk!” He laughed bronchitisly like he’d just one a battle in the war for male chauvinists and I was his ally. If he had teeth, I didn’t see them.
Just then a truck pulled up. Like the one I had just seen at the gas station, its bed was bursting with shit. Not important, useful shit, either … more products of a landfill robbery. Inside the cab was a cross between Tom Selleck and Bo Duke. Riding shotgun was a dingy heifer with pale skin, greasy hair and crispies on her neck. Between the two, there were at least 480 pounds; the guy couldn’t have weighed more than a buck-sixty.
Dingy Heifer hopped out of the truck like she had been born in a snowstorm and contracted frostbite somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 seconds after birth. It was quite an accomplishment to her, this athletic feat of gracelessly letting gravity (a lot of it) carry her out of the truck; she huffed and puffed like she was going to blow one of the seven plastic lawn chairs out the back of the truck.
“Well who’s this young man you picked up, Fred?” she asked her main flame between cardiac arrests, looking at me. Her glance went from head to toe then back to my head. I hated it.
“Would … you … shut … up … and just bring me the hose!” Fred asked, more rhetorically than a big-city traffic court judge. She grimaced in his direction and threw it to the front of the van where it slid on the pavement behind Fred’s high top sneakers.
She looked like a trashy cockroach hooker as her stare begged me to answer the question she had asked her boyfriend. Her blouse – cellophaned to her belly – must have looked good on a slender 10-year-old. On her, it just looked like a terrible mistake. “Well, you gotta name or what?” Her tone went up at every other word starting with “name,” like people from back home did when they were being a smartass about telling you to hurry up and answer a question. Her dialect was like mine and it occurred to me that she might have been the one from my home area since it was her van. She fit the bill of someone from the region with the nation’s highest rate of obesity a Hell of a lot better than that blouse fit her.
I fumbled for what to say. I hadn’t told Fred my name or where I was from, so the gate to deception in those departments was still as wide open as a whore’s legs. “Name’s John,” I said, limiting the discourse as best I could so not to reveal my dialect and encourage further conversation from Dingy Heifer. “I just stopped to … hold on.” I acted startled and fished my phone from my pocket, pretending like it was ringing. I raised my pointer finger to suggest it would just be a second and turned away from her, toward the Lumina. I had to make a getaway before this hormone- and appetite-driven mammoth swallowed me whole. I wasn’t sure which of her impulses would win in the battle – her hormones or appetite – but I didn’t want to find out.
I started dancing my way into the front seat of my car like a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome had overtaken me. “Hey, I’m sorry, but it looks like you guys can take it from here. I gotta go.” I wasn’t sure if I looked like an important CEO who had just engaged in a multi-million dollar business transaction or not, but I didn’t really give a damn. I started up the Lumina, put her in drive and sped away, unconcerned with how weird I must have looked to the three gazing hillbillies. They were going to make it to Bingo that night regardless of how rude I was to them earlier in the day. God bless ‘em, every one.
Tom Waits blared the latter half of his song and it made perfect sense to me. “Wisconsin hiker with a cue-ball head, wishing he was home in a Wisconsin bed. Fifteen feet of snow in the east – colder than a well digger’s ass.” It was probably as cold in Wisconsin in the winter as it was hot in Wilmington in the summer.
I hit Bladenboro at about 4, aware of how close I was cutting it to making it to my 8 o’clock class, but yearning to experience more of the everyday life of the town’s down-to-Earth people regardless. To me, it had only gotten better the farther I got from 76, the farther I got from Wilmington. Route 211 was seasoned with cotton fields, vegetable stands and quaint, one-storied houses. It was garnished with realism. Dented but otherwise well-maintained trucks were parked in the driveways, scarred by someone actually using them and not just making their owners look in command of peasants around them on their way to Wrightsville Beach in the summer. The green hills, plush and condo-less, anticipated a glorious, color-stricken sunset as men returned home from their hourly-waged jobs, satisfied with all life had given to them. The landscape was beautiful itself, but so was the society. I wondered why so many of the students I knew at school who were from towns like these were so apprehensive about discussing them. This place was gorgeous and if all of rural of North Carolina was like it, I wanted to be there.
Bladenboro itself was not a special town, more so just a place where all the people who lived on the outskirts could get groceries and have lunch. I drove the length of the community in about 79 seconds, turned around, and then drove back for 26 until I hit a little diner. It was pale blue and had a sign out front that read, “Chuck’s.”
I walked inside carrying a reporter’s notebook, a red folder and a 300-or-so-paged book with a native African woman in tribal garb on the cover titled, “The Auditory Culture Reader.” I wasn’t sure if my possessions had anything to do with it, but I certainly was not received with warmth. When I approached the delicate front door – which was better fit to serve as a screen door to a home in Arizona than it was an entrance to a restaurant – I could see four men sitting around a table engaging in discourse. It must have been a jubilant conversation because a big-bellied, suspender-wearing man burst out in laughter just as I opened the door. A strip of bells hanging over the top rang like it was Christmas and they all looked toward me. He stopped laughing, abruptly, and they all looked back at each other. None of them said anything after that.
Still feeling like I was William Dafoe going into a segregated Jackson diner on Mississippi Burning, I sat at a table in the corner of the room that was farthest away from them, trying to act unfazed by their silence. If there was a wait staff of some kind in Chuck’s, I didn’t see it. Two women who looked like lunch ladies sat at a table at the opposite end of the floor, smoking cigarettes and drinking green pop. It wasn’t Mountain Dew. At the front of the place – which upon further review starkly resembled a small mess hall – was a counter about six feet long with a cash register on top. Next to it was an open doorway to the kitchen. Towering over the whole show was a “scoreboard” that showed Chuck’s elaborate menu. I walked up to the counter and faced the register; the lunch lady who wasn’t wearing an apron hastily put out her cigarette and scurried to the counter.
“What can I get you?” She asked, sounding half annoyed I had the nerve to bring business to the place.
I gazed up at the scoreboard and dropped my lower jaw a bit. “Uhhhhhhh.” I had no idea what any of the six platters were. “I’ll take the steak burger.”
“Ya want peppers and onions?”
“Yes, please – everything.”
Her pen ferociously scribbled the essay of an order. I thought it was going to light the paper on fire, then contemplated asking where she learned Arabic, but realized the joke probably wouldn’t be so funny to my audience and refrained. “Anything to drink?” she asked, still looking down and writing.
I scanned the joint until I found a coffee pot. “How ‘bout some of that coffee?” I forced a smile, thinking it would ease the tension of our atmosphere. It didn’t.
“You want coffee??” She sounded like I’d just asked for syphilis.
“Yeah, do you have it?”
She was baffled. In all her years as a waitress/cigarette smoker/casual observer of all that took place in Chuck’s, she had apparently never heard of someone drinking coffee at 4:30 in the afternoon. “Yeah, I just got to make some up.” She wasn’t pissed about it, just surprised.
“No, I can get something else with some caffeine.” I shot a glance over at the cooler where all the pop was located. It was filled with bottles of the green shit, top to bottom. It said “Sun Drop” on the sign at the magnificent top.
“No, hun, it’s ok.” She instinctively shuffled over to the coffee pot, still talking. “It’s no big deal.”
That was good news because Sun Drop didn’t sound like the type of beverage that was low in sugar, probably poison to a diabetic. “Ok, thanks,” I said, humbled by her tolerance of my previously-unheard of coffee-drinking habit.
“I’ll bring it right out to you,” she sang, almost talking with her tender eyes. Her accomplice wearing an apron extinguished her cigarette and loped into the kitchen.
I thanked her and made my way toward “the loser” lunch table and tried not to make eye contact with the “cool kids” sitting around the “cool table.” They still refrained from talking and had, undoubtedly, been listening to my entire conversation with the wait staff. My chair scratched like fingernails on a chalkboard as I slid it out and sat down. It was far more noise than I was comfortable making. I opened my notebook and my book, pretending to read and jot notes, but was actually listening to the “cool kids’” conversation. Nothing.
About the same time the woman with a warm smile brought over a cup of freshly-brewed coffee (terribly weak, but I wasn’t in position to complain), a Dale Earnhardt-looking fellow came through the side door that was a few feet from my table. He shared similar discourse with her at the counter before grabbing a round of Sun Drops from the cooler and sitting down at a seat adjacent to Santa and his cronies. Still, no one said anything, they just opened their pops.
A few minutes later, the head lunch lady brought out a paper plate with a hamburger patty covered in steak strips, peppers, mushrooms and onions. A roll camped out on the edge of it all. “More coffee?”
“Yeah, please. Long drive.” I hoped this would bring about some arrangement of chatter. Conversation, after all, was why I was in Bladenboro. She smiled like a waitress and left, carrying my coffee cup and, I hoped, the seed of what to say when she came back.
Lunch Lady Number Two brought Dale Earnhardt his dinner in a Styrofoam takeout box and he took off. Seconds later, his buddies did too. If the cool table had communicated whatsoever, it must have been in some Bladenboroian language involving hand gestures and eyebrow movements, because I didn’t hear shit. Santa grabbed (yet another) Sun Drop for the road, threw a few bills on the table, then nodded like a Texas Ranger to the two women and left. It was the most peculiar scene I had ever been in, even if my role was just an onlooker.
“So where you driving to?” She snuck up on me with a new cup of coffee, catching me off guard while I pondered what the Hell was wrong with those guys.
I was again faced with the reality that being a college student at UNCW who was strung-out, tired of Wilmington life and wanted to take a day off from it all, was just not that cool. It would lead to questions regarding my major, which I would say was English with a concentration in professional writing and a minor in journalism, and she would ask what I was going to do after I graduated. I would then say that I didn’t know, that I moved here with the intention to stay but had decided long ago that it was a superficial Hellhole full of boat shoes, religious shit heads, overpopulation and a traffic problem worse than the Black Plague of 1656 and I wanted nothing more than to scurry back to snowy Western New York. Since lying was apparently my theme for the day, I opted to do it some more.
“Well, I had some business in Wilmington and …” The phone rang.
“Oop, I’m sooorry, I’ll be right back.” She dashed to the back of the store and talked for six minutes, long enough for me to kill my second cup of coffee. When she hung up, she asked in a resonant voice if I wanted more. Since the cups were slightly larger than sewing thimbles, I went ahead and obliged.
She came back with the entire pot and another cup, poured me another, then one for herself. Before sitting down, she flipped the open sign to “closed.” It was kind of strange, being just shy of five and all, but then again my whole visit to Chuck’s had been about as predictable as a menstruating teenager’s mood swings. She sat down across from me and rotated her coffee cup until the handle faced her. “Now where’d ya say y’were drivin’ to?”
Looking at and lying to garage sale-toting rednecks from a distance of a few yards was one thing, but sitting across the table from and doing it to a warm-hearted woman with dish soap-cracked fingers who had just served me dinner was quite another. I realized, reflecting on the acquaintances of the day, that despite their lack of what I called “sophistication,” these were the people Wilmington lacked. They were classy in their own right, as southern and unfamiliar to me as it was, and being deceitful to them was something they did not deserve.
Most people I met at the bars in downtown Wilmington on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were liars, trying to be something they were not. They polluted the air for the sake of looking rich at an average rate of 8 or so miles a gallon and it pissed me off. Much the same could be said of the yuppies I encountered at the ice cream shop I worked at on the beach. Salesmen, preachers, sons and daughters of so-called CEOs, Landfall residents, reggae-listening “hippies” who were rich enough to be poor, and even some professors at my school were all living lies to look in some way better than the guy next door and it drove me nuts. Yet, all day long I had done the same. It wasn’t important that I had gone to Bladenboro specifically, for the point was that I had gone there looking to escape the social norms of Wilmington. Through it all, though, I had put myself above all who I met and ended up acting the same way as the greedy, condo-building real estate investors of the Port City. It shamed me to think how disappointed my father, who had grown up on a soy bean farm in Ohio and had done his best to transfer his true-to-life values to his only son, would have been if he knew.
I looked up at the woman from my mental spot on the rug. “I’m a senior at UNCW and I just came here for the day to get out of the city. Nice town you got here.”
“The radio’s gone off the air, gives you time to think. You ease it out and you creep across. Intersection light goes out. You hear the rumble as you fumble for a cigarette; blazing through this midnight jungle, remember someone that you met. One more block; the engine talks and whispers home at last. It whispers, whispers, whispers
home at last, home at last.”