“I feel like an idiot,” I protested. “Shouldn’t we just go inside?” We were sandwiched between two cars, standing beneath a struggling, dim, streetlamp. I resisted the urge to peak at the people in the car behind us. I wondered what they thought of the two scruffy guys, standing in the drive through line for no other reason than to do it.
“Where’s the big brave, ‘I got a sense of adventure’ Mike that was up there in the parking lot?”
“That Mike shouldn’t be allowed to make decision for me.” I rocked back and forth.
“We’re the next in line, just tough it out big guy, everything is gonna be alright.” Steven clapped me on the back.
I shoved him away. The car in front of us finished their order and moved forward to pay.
“Want to mess with them a little bit?” Steven motioned toward the speaker. “It’ll be funny.”
“Me or you?” I asked. I wasn’t really up for walking through the drive through in the first place, and I didn’t want to add to the misery of some poor fast food worker. I just wanted my cheeseburgers, and I wanted to move on.
Steven shrugged, “I guess I’ll do the honors.”
Steven jumped triumphantly in front of the speaker, and the speaker squawked to life. “Can I take your order?”
“Umm. Yes.” Steven leaned forward, getting close enough for his breath to condense on the cool steel meshing of the speaker case. I furrowed my brow; he grinned up at me.
Static crackled and popped.
“Do you need a moment to decide?” The speaker responded after some time.
Steven leaned in close again, “Oh, no, I know what I want.”
“Ok,” the speaker crackled again, another momentary pause, “what do you want?”
“I thought you would never ask.” Steven covered his mouth to hold back the giggles. “We will have two double cheese burgers and then whatever my buddy wants.”
“Um, I’ll have five double cheese burgers and a large Coke.”
“Will that be all?” The voice said flatly.
“Yes.” I confirmed.
“Seven McDoubles and a Large Coke. That’ll be eight forty-eight. Please drive around.”
“Can do!” Steven put his arms out to grip an imaginary steering wheel. He made sputtering engine noises and shuffled his feet forward.
“Thank you.” I raced to catch up. “You know they’re gonna spit in our food, right?”
“I’m going to choose not to believe that Mikey.” Steven put his hands down and walked normally. “America’s food service workers are good, honest people. Also, you planning on eating five McDoubles?”
“Nah. I mean, I could. But I got some extra for our new friends.”
Steven nodded, “good call.”
When we reached the window, a girl I recognized from school stuck her hand out. She was a grade above me, and I didn’t know her that well, but our paths had crossed once or twice. She was attractive. The McDonalds uniform hugged her tightly in all the right places, and I liked the way her long, dirty-blonde, pony-tail was pulled through her black and yellow visor. She was visibly annoyed. “Eight-forty-eight.”
I handed over the bills. “I’m sorry for my friend.” I motioned to where Steven stood just behind me.
She snatched the money from my hand and turned to make change. I shouted after her, “he’s an idiot. Thinks dad jokes are funny. I’m Mike.”
Her eyes softened a bit by the time she returned to the window. I took a peak at her name tag. It said Emma.
The bag of food quickly followed, and Emma hurried to close the window in our faces. I put a hand up and stopped her. “We are going to walk over across the street and hang out with some guys at the produce stand. You should come over after your shift.”
I stepped away without waiting for her answer, and Steven followed my lead.
“Damn, Mikey. Pretty bold.”
“She won’t come.”
“You never know. My policy is you just ask as many girls as you can. If I ask a hundred girls to hang out with me, one is bound to say yes.”
“A one percent success rate isn’t very good Stevie.”
“If I ask a hundred girls out and one says yes, then I count that success.”
“I mean, I guess you’re doing better than the rest of us.”
“Damn right I am.” Steven pawed at the bag of cheeseburgers. “Come on Mikey, pay up.”
“Alright.” I handed the bag over. Steven inhaled and the two burgers were gone before we were across the highway. “Damn dude. Did you even taste it?”
Steven let out a deep, rolling belch. “Oh yea,” Steven patted his belly. “If this thing with our new friends don’t work out,” Steven handed the bag back to me, “I call the leftover burgers.”
“I might eat all five.”
“You wouldn’t do that to me would you Mikey?”
“Nah. Less I eat, the less chance I’ll get the one they spit on.”
“What did you think?” I jerked my head back toward the restaurant.
“The girl at the drive through.”
“Oh, she was cute. I was expecting an old lady with one of those moles with a single hair poking out. So she was a pleasant surprise. She would be good for you Mike. Not too far out of your league, but also not a slump buster.”
“A slump buster?”
“A girl way under your league that you date because you’re desperate. In a slump. Everyone needs a slump buster sometimes.”
“That’s terrible Steve,” I laughed. “But I’m glad you approve. I hope she shows up.”
“If she doesn’t, she’ll be the one missing out.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if you have a thing for me Stevie.”
“You don’t have to wonder,” Steven winked.
As we stepped into the produce stand parking lot, and a lot more detail came into focus. There were only four vehicles parked altogether, two trucks and two cars. The group seated in and around the cars didn’t seem threatening, but it was plain to see from their posture that they weren’t at all sure what to do about Steven and I. They pointed and whispered, but made no attempt to call out in greeting.
Parked in the center of everyone was a yellow pickup, it was yellow and rust pocked, must’ve been from the seventies. The bed had been replaced by steel belted wooden planks. A large fuel tank sat on a platform just behind the cab. I recognized the truck from school, it belonged to Jeb Jenkins.
Jeb and I took geometry together. He was an upperclassmen with a reputation for drinking, fighting, and general craziness. Jeb was a good ole boy and a hunter. He got suspended once for forgetting to take his side arm off after an early school-day hunt. He wore the pistol into the building and walked around with it for fifteen minutes before anyone on staff confronted him. Jeb insisted on making an apology over the intercom for scaring everyone before leaving campus. Jeb was a giant personality without a real place in the world. He apologized when he was wrong, and he always told the truth, even when it meant he would suffer a consequence. But Jeb also reacted violently to personal attacks. In his mind, he gave respect, and he refused to tolerate anything less in return.
I helped Jeb pass geometry, and he protected me from some of the more aggressive seniors. We were somewhere between acquaintance and friend.
The truck’s door hung open and little puffs of cigarette smoke drifted out into the ambient light from the highway. I shielded my eyes so I could see a little better. I didn’t recognize anyone else.
“Jeb?” I shouted, “that you?”
“Who is Jeb?” Steven whispered, “Who names their kid Jeb. Poor bastard.”
Jeb’s size thirteen work boot landed on the ground outside the truck door. A gun rack held two rifles in the back of the cab. “I would watch what you say Stevie, and how loud you say it.”
The truck rocked when it was free of Jeb’s weight. He stood head and shoulders above Steven and must’ve outweighed him by a hundred pounds.
Jeb squinted through the light, “Who wants to know?”
“It’s Mike. From geometry, Mike Stokes.”
Jeb thought for a moment, “Oh yeah, Mikey.” He walked over to meet us, shook my hand, and pulled me in close for a bro hug. “How the fuck are ya buddy?”
“Doin’ good man. This is my friend Steve Parker.”
“Good to meet ya.” Jeb grabbed Steven’s hand. Steven grimaced. Jeb’s handshake was crushing and had to be met with equal force to avoid broken fingers. Jeb stood back and put his hands on his hips. He looked me up and down. “You all walk here, or what?”
“God, no. We rode to Shop and Save with some other guys, saw you all sitting down here, wanted to say hi.”
“We were with two other guys. They were too scared to come down. They’re sitting up there.” Steven pointed across the highway. I could barely make out the outline of Daniel’s car in the unlit corner of the Shop and Save parking lot.
“Don’t know what’d they’d be scared of.” Jeb almost looked hurt before bursting into laughter. “We ain’t nothin’ to be scared of are we fellars?”
I heard a few weak no’s come from the other vehicles. I caught Jeb eyeing the bag of cheesburgers hanging at my side. “I bought some burgers on our way over here. Anyone want one?”
“I’ll take one.” Jeb said without hesitation. I handed him one, which he quickly unwrapped and bit into. “Let me introduce ya’ll to everyone.”
All the other guys gathered around. I offered each a hamburger, some took one and some didn’t. I ate with one hand and lit a cigarette with the other. Jeb went around the circle and told me a little bit about everyone.
“These two weird lookin’ some bitches are Del and Gray Bateman. Or as I like to call em’ the Batin’ brothers. Like masturbatin'”
“Jeb just likes to imagine me jackin’ it. He’s always been into me.” The skinny one spoke up. “I’m Del. This is Gray. He’s retarded and don’t say much.”
“Shut the fuck up Del. Don’t be tellin’ people that shit. They’ll start to think it’s true.” Grey did have a speech impediment of some kind. He spoke in a short staccato. Each syllable ended harshly, and the words didn’t blend together into sentences. It was as if Grey couldn’t think of the next word in a sentence until the present one had been spoken.
“They’re brothers if you couldn’t tell by the fightin'” Jeb chuckled. “This gentle giant is Ken Porter, and the fox next to him is Alicia. That’s his girlfriend.”
Ken and Alicia waved. I’d seen Ken around, but I wasn’t sure where. He was a big man, even taller than Jeb. He had a stringy, red beard that hung down to the middle of his chest. A rounded pot belly lapped over his belt line. Alicia was heavy too and flat faced. She had a single tooth stick out over her lower lip. Both of them smiled at us. Ken took a dip out of his mouth and threw it into the darkness. “I know you don’t I.”
“I thought the same about you. Couldn’t place where from.”
Ken snapped his fingers and thought. “I got it. You ever go to church camp out at the Baptist church there on Route 27?”
“Yeah, First Southern? My mom made me go there when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, my mom made me go there too.”
“Boy, I feel sorry for you all.” Jeb butted in, “Those people out there are loony as hell.”
“Did you get the pamphlet about how rock and roll is the devil’s music?” Ken asked.
“Yeah. Something about KISS stands for ‘kids in Satan’s service,” I laughed.
“You know, AC/DC stands for Anti-Christ, Devil’s Children,” Ken added.
“My mom quit goin’ there after they told her she couldn’t wear pants. She swallowed all that other bullshit, but she had to draw the line somewhere.”
“My mom made me throw away all my CDs,” Ken frowned. “Did you ever go to the camp?”
“Camp?” I tilted my head to the side. I had heard the camp mentioned during my short time at the church, but I didn’t know much about it.
“Guess not,” Ken Shrugged, “be glad you missed out.”
“That the one where they bus in all the black boys from the city?” Del asked, his face illuminated by the cherry of a lit cigarette.
“Yeah, I heard about that whole thing,” Gray added, “supposed to of been a mess.”
Ken’s eyes stared passed everyone for a moment before refocusing. “Yeah, they slept the black boys on one side of the church, the white boys on the other. They tore down the dorms and put the church back in the morning. Worship and preachin’ all day. Locked us in at night. The white boys and black boys took turns beatin’ the shit outta each other for the whole weak. I got hit once with a bar of soap in a tube sock. Bruised me so bad. Church lied about it. Mom believed them over me, left me there. I’ll tell you this, after that, I gave as good as I got. Spent the rest of the week pickin’ fights until they asked my mom to come get me.”
“Shit. Glad we only went for a few months in the winter,” I laughed. “How about Pastor Jim?”
“What a creepy asshole,” Ken laughed.
“I’ll tell you one on old Pastor Jim.” Everyone gathered around. I could spin a good yarn, and I knew early on that telling stories was a skill that would make me welcome in different social groups. Ken and I had a shared experience and a common enemy. Pastor Jim could be my bridge to a new social group.
And Jim was as common an enemy to the youth of Black Hollow as any man. Jim was a firebrand, a throwback to a much meaner Christian God. Jim’s sermons asserted that women were to be silent and obey their husbands, and idleness was the enemy to holiness. Sex was for procreation only. The only valid instrument for worship was the organ, and the only acceptable worship songs came from Psalms. Pastor Jim offered family counseling services and was directly responsible for the homelessness of several of my classmates, one of which was kicked out of his home after his father discovered a Playboy magazine stuffed under his mattress.
Pastor Jim had suggested my parents do the same to me. Fortunately, he had lost whatever influence he had over my mother by that point, and my father hated him from their first interaction.
“So, we went to Jim’s church for a winter,” I began. “My mom drug me to some of their gatherings and cook outs, to a church service or two. Like I said, she quit going once Pastor Jim told her she couldn’t wear pants and still get into heaven. Anyway, spring comes and we quit going. Mom didn’t break things off all at once. I think she was a little embarrassed.”
“Or Jim guilted her. He did that to my mom. Made her feel like I was gonna burn in hell if she didn’t drag me to church,” Ken was itching to participate.
“I’m sure there was some of that goin’ on.” My mom was as strong willed as any person, man or woman, I’d ever met. She didn’t always have a strong bullshit detector, but when it came to protecting her family, she was ferocious. I was sure the first time Pastor Jim said anything bad about her children was the last time.
“So one day my dad and I are upstairs, tearing old paneling off the walls in my bedroom and replacing it with new drywall. There’s a knock on the door downstairs. Mom answers it. Naturally, it’s Pastor Jim.”
“He come to check on you immortal soul?” Gray asked in his stiff, muffled syllables.
“Shut up Gray and let him tell it,” Del smacked his brother.
“I’ll kick your ass, Del,” Gray punched him in the shoulder.
“Did your dad tell him to fuck off?” Jeb asked.
“Not quite. Almost as good,” I smiled. “Dad and I didn’t hear him knock. We had a football game on the TV, listening to it while we were working. I also had a VCR hooked up to the TV. It had this little indicator light on it, shined red when there was a tape in it.”
“It was porn wasn’t it?” Steven laughed.
“Yep.” I blushed a bit. Everyone else erupted in laughter.
“Oh, no.” Jeb crossed his arms. I see where this is goin’.”
“Yep.” I said again. “About the time Pastor Jim starts his march up the stairs, my dad gets curious about what’s in the VCR.”
“Oh, Lord.” Ken pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head.
“He presses play right when the good Pastor steps through the bedroom door. Now keep in mind that we had the volume all the way up so we could hear the game over all the noise from the tools. And I’d left it off right at the best part. The woman was screaming her head off.” I couldn’t help but laugh along with them. “The look on his face,” I howled trying to catch my breath to finish the story.
“I don’t think he’d ever seen anything like that.” I continued. “He and my dad both looked at it for a solid minute before they realized the other was there. My dad shut it off and Pastor Jim turned and left without saying another word. My dad didn’t even see him to the door.”
“Bet he never came to your place again,” Ken laughed.
“What did your dad say?” Jeb leaned in.
“He took the tape. I’m guessin’ he kept it. It was a good one. Never said another word about it. We worked together the rest of the day. I think he was just glad to be rid of Jim.”
I found out years later that Jim had called on my mom a few days after this incident. He cautioned her that I was on the path to hell, and that her whole household was in danger if I was allowed to continue to live there. My mom told Pastor Jim that if his God asked her to choose between heaven and her son, then she would find a new God.”
“Be glad you got rid of that guy. My mom hung around that church a long time.”
“It’s closed up now, right?” Del asked.
“Yep, that’s how I got out.” Ken dug a trench in the gravel with the toe of his boot.
“Why did it close down?” I asked.
“Not a clue.” Ken looked over my shoulder, I heard the crunch of gravel under tires rise above the general noise from the highway.
“Who’s this comin’? We are getting all kinds of visitors tonight.” Jeb nudged me with an elbow and chuckled.
I turned toward the road, barely making out the outline of an SUV before a spotlight turned everything white.