by Mike Tebo
Mike Tebo endures the heat and humidity of the Deep South in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In September 2008, he was selected as a resident writer at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (Eureka Springs, Arkansas). Peeks and Valleys: A Southern Journal published two of his short stories in 2009, and in 2010, he co-founded The Cat Head Biscuit Review: A Literary Journal from the South, which he now helps edit.
The gate gives inward when I lean on it--an old cyclone fence topped with a row of wire triangles like wave caps. I wonder where the rest of that kind of wire is since the gate is the only thing resembling factory-made. The gate looks old; the galvanized triangles don't shine, and I see that they tend to droop--too many kids pulling at them over the years, I guess. Someone has built a cedar pergola over it. The aroma of the wood overwhelms me for a second and threatens to start an asthma attack, so I step away, gauging which way the breeze blows. With at least sixty miles left, I can't afford to start wheezing.
The pergola is new from the look and smell of the cedar, and a red-neck wind chime suspends from the center beam. It says so on the small hand-painted sign that dangles empty Budweiser cans at the end of fresh copper wires, still shiny like new pennies. Every few feet the fence bags outward, reminding me of the word frumpy, and it sags more than it pulls tight across its top. The wire is not cyclone fence stuff, but a roll of big squares that most any house dog could walk through with no problem. Whoever chose this wire did so because it was cheap, so it makes a poor excuse for a fence. I suspect that where the althea bushes and the fat hydrangeas grow thick in the fence-line, it is because they fill spaces where there is no fence. I have seen that all along the way, where people just try to make do, whether it's with a fence or a husband or a car or themselves.
But what catches my eye, what causes me to stop and lean on the gate until the cedar pushes me away, is the signpost that sticks up from the middle of the front yard like an Egyptian obelisk, even coming to a point on top. Each side jumps with color--vivid green, bright red, purple that shines, and yellow that glows. All the way up the obelisk are wooden slats trimmed to point with names and mileage burned into them: Paris--4,000 miles, London--3,000 miles, Bogalusa--40 miles, Tokyo--6,000 miles, Heaven--up, Hell--down, Nelda's Kitchen--25 steps, Sahara Desert--40,000 miles. Each slat points in a different direction. I read the obelisk a couple of times but still do not see how far I am from the Gulf of Mexico.
I start to read it over again when I hear a screen door open and someone says, "What the hell you doin on this side of the driveway? You supposed to stay back. Can't you read?"
The tone of someone's voice angers me and reminds me of that impatient and ancient English teacher from the seventh grade who would beat me for not keeping up. I answer just as hateful as that someone's voice. "I can read any damn thing you throw at me. What do you think I'm doing, counting?" I point to the wind chime. "Redneck wind chime. Budweiser. Budweiser. Budweiser. Budweiser. Budweiser. Now, are you happy?" I ask. "I've read your obelisk to myself twice. You want me to read it to you?"
The man looks like he could be in a cartoon with his big belly, little arms, and hair in high tide covering his thick neck and rolling up the back of his head. As long as I have been on the road, I have not seen anyone like him. He reminds me of the word manatee. I have seen and remembered people who look very much like another stranger in some other town. And I have seen people who resemble some that I once knew personally who are now dead. I remember thinking, God must have let them come back for a while, and He's given them a car to drive around, but they cannot have contact with anyone. I just happen to be on the road at the right time, so I get to see them driving around, checking things out, seeing how things have changed since they died. I will always believe that my father waved to me in Monroe when I first headed out. For miles, I kept glancing in the mirror to see if he followed, slowing for him to catch up.
The man who stands on his steps yells at me. "Read what's hangin right under your nose. You skinny smart aleck."
Sure enough, hanging in the middle of the cyclone gate is a sign made from scraps of left-over obelisk slats. I see that he used leftover purple paint to write "Unless you're invited, you ought to stay back." I read it quickly to him.
He pulls his belt to another notch and that causes his wrinkled khaki pants to bunch out and bag like his fence all around his middle below his belt line. His thin, sleeveless T-shirt has holes, and I understand why he has cheap wire and just makes do with his fence. He bounds down the steps and comes after me, so I back up and get my bicycle ready to go. By the time I straddle it and aim it toward the street, he stands at the gate, shorter than when he stood on his porch. "How old is that bicycle?" he asks.
I point the bicycle at the street. "Fairly new," I answer. My right pedal--my power leg--stands at twelve o'clock in take-off position in case he opens the gate to finish coming after me.
"Looks old. I like old stuff."
"It's just built to look old. I only have one hundred and thirty-two miles on it," I tell him, reading it off the odometer.
"Would you sell it?" He asks, with more voice.
"Don't believe so," I answer.
He looks it over from end to end, and I feel satisfied that he will not come after me, safe enough to get off and lean it out from me, holding onto the tip of one handle-bar so I do not impede his admiration. "I had one about like that when I was a kid. Red, too. Do you mind if I look it over?" His hand rests on the gate latch, waiting for my permission for him to open his gate. I think of the word oxymoron.
"Not a bit," I tell him.
He touches it with a gentleness that I do not expect, judging by the way he yelled at me. "I'd put a bigger basket on it than what you got, but then again, I had a paper route. And that Buddy seat, is it made with a spring so you can slip stuff under it and clamp it down?" He sounds harsh and aggravated, but I understand that this is just the way he is.
I undo the bungee cords that strap my clothes bag to the flat, chrome rear seat to show him that it is spring-loaded like the one he had. "That's my 'truck bed,'" I tell him, hoping he will laugh.
"Saddle bags come with it?"
"No. I put them on myself."
"Mind if I ride it?"
I lean the bike closer to him, and he struggles to get his right foot over the saddle bag to straddle the bike; but he manages, squirming around in the wide touring seat, testing the springs underneath it and getting it comfortable to his wide ass. He pushes off like a row boat from a dock to catch the current, and off he goes down his driveway to the street. Precarious sifts through my mind. The turn at the edge of the street becomes a series of wobbly hitches of moving and stopping and sticking out his short manatee leg as a pivot, but he makes it and rides back to me. His dismount bothers him, too. "I'd get rid of them damn saddle bags," he says, "but I guess you need them. That back wheel feels a little out of round, too."
Holding the bicycle, I wonder if he expects me to get off his property or if he wants to talk about the bike some more, so we stand in a silence that amplifies the screeches and chirps of a mocking bird up in his pecan tree. "Archie, who is that out there?" A woman's voice calls from the porch. "Come in and eat. Your breakfast is gettin cold." She comes down the steps and walks toward us, looking at me with her head tilted.
"Doesn't look like your sign's doin much good. What's he sellin?" she asks when she stands at the gate.
"He let me ride on his bicycle. It's an old Schwinn like the one I had." Archie turns to me, winks and whispers, "I'll just tell her it's old." Then, in a louder voice he asks me, "You had breakfast?"
She moves like a squirrel, taking a quick back and forth step beside Archie and glancing from Archie to me, and I expect her to protest; but she stays quiet. Archie moves past me to open the gate, sweeping his wife off the sidewalk to let us in the yard. I give her time to step behind Archie, and I follow them to the house, watching her shuffle along in the wake of the manatee. Sashay comes to mind as I count the steps to the front door, and there are fifteen.
"Come on in," Archie says at the front door. "Nelda's got tuna patties this mornin. Fix him a plate, Nelda."
Nelda shuffles off to the kitchen, and I begin counting ten steps that it takes to get her there. Archie's obelisk is dead on the money on how far it is from the front yard. Archie follows her to the stove and returns with a plate of two straw-colored discs covered with a white paste. "Make yourself at home." He nods toward the kitchen before sitting down in a wallowed recliner and turning his attention to CNN. "If you don't make yourself at home around here, you'll starve."
The kitchen occupies one end of the same room where Archie watches the news. On the bar Nelda sets two plates of what she's made for Archie. "This morning I woke up and I had a feelin that I ought to fix more tuna patties and white gravy than I usually do. Don't ask me how I knew. I do that from time to time. I had people on my momma's side who could do things like read signs and take off warts and cure the croup in babies, so I suppose they passed some of that on to me. That's how I get such feelins from time to time. He don't believe me when I tell him, 'I had a feelin.' Watch this." Nelda steps past me and half yells at Archie, "I had a feelin we'd have company for breakfast."
Archie never takes his eyes off Wolf Blitzer. "Bull shit, Nelda."
The pattie breaks under my fork, and I swirl the piece around in the white gravy pool. Nelda has already started on hers. After she swallows, she says, "Sit down and eat. Good grief, you're not in that big of a hurry."
Holding out his empty plate, Archie steps to the bar, "Well, now I got a feelin. I feel like I want another tuna pattie," and he spots the platter sitting in the middle of the stove. He joins Nelda and me at the bar.
"She used to put a few chopped shrimp in these, but since we only got social security to live on, some things have had to go. Still pretty damn good, though."
"Where you goin on your bicycle?" Nelda asks.
"Gulf of Mexico," I reply. "The last place anybody saw my grandfather was on a pier in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. I have always wanted to go and stand at that same spot where he was last seen."
Nelda seems more interested than Archie that I would want to do such a thing. "I think that is such a worthy, honorable thing to do for your family. Anything we can do to honor family ought to be done," she says, "and Bay St. Louis is such a nice place." Archie finishes his fourth tuna pattie.
"It's a long way from here to Bay St. Louis. Seventy miles," Archie says. "How far have you traveled already?"
"One hundred and thirty-two miles," I tell him, remembering the odometer, my mind ringing with the word accuracy.
"Mother Mary," Archie frowns at me as he says it. "And you expect to go all the way on a bicycle? Next question, why?"
"My grandfather always rode a bicycle. I figured I would ride one to the place where he disappeared."
Nelda smiles at me and reaches out to hold my hand, and I notice how her eyes fill with tears and begin to redden a little, crystallizing around their blue irises so that they become even more piercing. Penetrable repeats in my mind.
Nelda leaves the table, and Archie pushes his chair back for some belly room. "Well, son, I hate to be the one to tell you, but that pier ain't there." He flattens his hands out on the table. "I don't know where you're from, but anybody from any state close enough to piss in the Gulf of Mexico remembers Katrina. I hope your grand daddy wasn't standing on that pier durin all that shit."
"No. Poppa disappeared twelve years ago." I can't tell if it is Archie or the word cynicism that angers me. "I understand about that storm, sir. We watched the whole hurricane in the TV room until we lost power and they came and moved us, but as I understand it now, a new pier has been built to replace the one lost to mother nature. It's the best I can do under those circumstances."
Nelda returns to the table and hands me a poorly folded road map of Louisiana, one that also shows the western edge of Mississippi. "Take this with you. We never go anywhere anymore. And as far as doin for your family, you don't let anybody discourage you. Archie wouldn't even drive to Bogalusa for our family reunion this year." Then she asks, "Before you go, would you like to use the phone to let somebody know where you are?"
We do not eat any more of the tuna patties, so Nelda digs a paper sack from a drawer and wraps the patties in napkins so that I can take them with me. The words compassionate and generosity throb alternately in my head. Since Archie has not said anything else since telling me that the pier no longer exists and he doesn't talk as they walk me to the gate, I wonder if I have made him mad.
I push the kick stand back with my heel and start to throw my leg over the saddle bag. "Thanks," I say.
But before I can push-off into the drive way, Archie asks, "If you won't sell that bicycle, would you trade it?"
"I couldn't do either one," I reply, glad that he has spoken to me before I leave.
"Before you make up your mind and go, I want to show you something," Archie says. He looks and sounds serious, the way he acts while watching the news before breakfast.
Up the driveway, past the gate, is a narrow garage that makes do to keep a car out of the weather, and I can tell that a car sits in it, covered with a plastic tarp as if someone does not trust the garage to hold off the sun and rain by itself. Inside, I squeeze through on one side of the car, and Archie takes the other. I see that three tarps cover the car in sections, and Archie has tied their grommets together with pieces of string. We make it to the front of the car, and in the dimness of the car shed, we talk over the hood. "I'd like to have that Schwinn," Archie says. He leans at me, making his belly push against the hood and fender of the car. "I got a deal for you. The car for the bicycle."
"I couldn't do that," I say. "I don't drive, and I don't have a current license." I never mention that I shouldn't even be on the road on a bicycle.
Nelda makes her way into the dimness to stand by Archie and to listen to him. "I can teach you how to drive. You take the car the rest of the way to Bay St. Louis and leave your bicycle with me. Do what you need to do on the pier, and when you come back through, we'll trade back. How's that?"
Surprise spreads over Nelda's face. "Archie," she says.
He looks and points at her and says, "Don't even say a word about havin a feelin about this."
When we walk the tarp backwards off the car, I look at the sea green Buick that has reached the age where it is better than new. Archie squishes himself behind the wheel and turns the ignition. "Ain't been cranked in a while. Gas is too high." The Buick takes hold, the engine spitting and sputtering at first until it shimmies and smooths out once the blue smoke clears from the exhaust. "Get in," Archie says. "Nelda, you goin, too?"
For the rest of the morning, Archie drives around his neighborhood while he instructs me on pedals and braking, turn signals and backing, on electric windows and door locks. I have to tell him, "I'm not completely ignorant of cars, Archie, and it's not that I can't drive, it's that I don't. I have driven before, but I'm rusty."
"Well, knock that rust off." Archie puts me behind the wheel, and the three of us with me driving pull up the driveway to the garage and back to the edge of the street. After a dozen trips back and forth, he tells me, "All right, Hot Rod, out into the real world." He directs me into the street, watching for traffic. Letting all the windows down, adjusting the rear view mirror, I catch Nelda's smile as her head swivels left and right, not missing a thing as we head up the street.
"Take a left, and let's get you used to some heavier traffic," Archie instructs. "Now you're on Adeline. Busiest street we got. Go where you want to, Son, the wheel is in your hands." He sits back and angles himself so he can watch me and the traffic.
A pick-up truck sits off the side of the street behind a hand-lettered sign that reads "Fresh Gulf Jumbo Shrimp. $4.95 lb." When I let off the accelerator to turn in, Archie panics a little and asks, "What is it?" and Nelda jerks up to the edge of the seat to see if anything is wrong. I feel the word justification.
"I have to stop," I reply.
When I shut the door, I hear Nelda say, "Now what do you think he's doin?"
At the pick-up truck a bearded, tanned fellow gets out of his lawn chair and says, "We got some good ones today." My roommate back home has worked on shrimp boats and still talks about the importance of getting them fresh. He says that if they smell like bleach, leave them alone. By now the man has opened an Igloo chest as large as a coffin to let me see what he has. I don't smell bleach, but I ask, "How fresh are they?"
"Man, these rascals was swimmin last night. How many do you want? I'll even ice 'em down for you."
"Ten pounds," I tell him.
When I get to the car, I hand the two plastic bags of slush to Archie who looks surprised. "For your next batch of tuna cakes," I tell them.
At the house, I remove the saddle bags, and we put everything else of mine in the back seat. Archie writes a letter to explain that the car is his but he is loaning it to me. He gives me his insurance card and phone number just in case. Nelda hugs me, and he shakes my hand. "Obey the signs and you probably won't get pulled over," he says.
I hang out the side of the Buick before pulling off. "It won't matter if I do," I say. "There wouldn't be much repercussion for me anyway." I slide it into reverse and back out to find Bay St. Louis. When I get to the edge of the street, I hesitate to watch Archie mount the bicycle, much easier without the saddle bags, and he cajoles Nelda to take the Buddy seat. I smile when she reaches down to pull her skirt hems together to keep them out of the spokes. She lights on the Buddy seat like a bird and spreads her feet out. The first couple of Archie's pedals take hold, and here they come. The word anticipation rides with me all the way to Poppa's pier in Bay St. Louis.
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