“In the fifth year of writing this book, I met a man who had been shell-shocked in the Vietnam War. I asked him to tell me his story, and he tried. But he had lost the capacity to make a meaning from the events of his life….”
Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones (p.260)
July, 1973 (North Carolina)
Entering a curve, the old Econoline creaked as it leaned heavily on the right springs. The tires began to squeal slightly (incipient skid, I thought) as the turn tightened, following the unpredictable mountain down into Maggie Valley. I leaned left, compensating, my elbow in the window, bracing the steering wheel for the curve. I glanced out across the misty old peaks, casually playing the speed so the squeal didn’t get too loud, holding the curve delicately, carelessly, even though I knew: beyond the blacktop was valley floor.
As the curve finally relented and the van leveled out, I noticed my front seat passenger sigh with the release of a breath held beyond comfort. I wondered what was up. Entering the next curve, her sharp intake of breath as the van lurched a bit to the left suddenly made it all clear to me: Miss Helen didn’t get up these mountain roads too often anymore, not used to this thunder road stuff anyway, guess I’m making her nervous. Yeah, maybe so!
Easing up on the gas, I realized the visit up to the campsite to help us break camp and poke around in the mountain laurel had probably been enough excitement. Sitting by the creek making up poems was more to her liking than careening down the mountain ‘goin’ fast, fast, fast.’ I watched her relax – and watched my thoughts rising up like mist: too many trips down this damn mountain, so I don’t notice the curves anymore, don’t even notice the view that was so inspiring last month. Nothing inspires me for long since I got back.
“Sorry, Miss Helen. Guess I’m a little too used to these curves, driving up and down the mountain to work every day.”
She smiled and gave a short, flat, slightly too-loud laugh. “Well, I was about to say you probably ought to slow down a little!”
“I’m really sorry!”
“Yeah, John, slow down, what’re you trying to do, kill us!?” Juli Ashley’s voice, laughing, mocking playfully, from the back of the van. “Remember that time y’all were up here and we were ridin’ around and you went under the trestle and…”
“Yeah, yeah. You don’t have to bring that up,” I interrupted her, trying to smile. I remembered that time too well. That time I almost killed everybody for real, on the sharp curve after the trestle on County Road. It had been during one of those cool green vacations when our families left the stifling heat of the flatlands and went up to the mountains together; one of those vacations with the Ashleys, camping, hiking, water skiing – one of those times among my favorite memories of how things had been before.
That night, I had taken all the kids out riding in Daddy’s big ’65 Plymouth station wagon, Juli and her sister, my brothers and sister, all out cruising. Our favorite thing to do. “Growin’ up in a small south Georgia town, nothin’ much to do but ride around.” Yeah, we were out cruising, I was driving, but didn’t know where I was going, not familiar with County Road at night, and Juli in the back seat called out with her infectious laugh, “Speed up going under the trestle!” Exciting, wild idea!
Juli was laughing now, telling the others in the back about it, though not loud enough for her mother in the front seat of the van to hear, especially as she didn’t hear well anyway. I could hear her fine. “I thought John knew, and we were all laughing…” she was saying. I remembered that laughter as we went flying under the dark trestle. I remembered the terror, too, when the road suddenly was curving away, and curving way too fast.
“Yeah, I remember,” I broke in. Didn’t want to sound angry, but it was rising. “You’re the one that hollered from the back seat, ‘Here comes the trestle! Speed up!’ How was I supposed to know about that curve?” I could see it all again, wheeling hard to the right, the trees dropping away to the left, the heavy car leaning, drifting across the center line until I was fighting just to hold it on the road. I could remember the squeal those tires made, the rattle of the gravel at the edge of the pavement.
Juli was still going. “And remember, Linda got so mad at us for laughing that she cussed! Linda cussed! Then she started crying…” I could remember my sister’s sobs, and our shock that she had cussed. “And then we all got real serious, real scared…” Juli continued, quieter now. I remembered that too, the cold finger down the spine, the sick, empty feeling of knowing you almost just died.
That was the first time I felt it.
“Yeah, I remember.” I shook my head slowly. “I remember.”
Juli laughed again. “Well, John, you were supposed to be the older wiser one, I thought you knew I was just kidding.” Her mother in the front seat probably didn’t follow all this, and nobody wanted to have to explain it, since after all, there hadn’t been another car coming, the station wagon hadn’t slid off the mountain, even if it was real close, so nobody needed to get all upset about it now, nearly ten years later. So I didn’t say anything. I just slowed down a little more.
Juli laughed again, that laugh that made everybody love her. I had always had a crush on her, even though she was my little sister’s friend and too young, and so had my brothers. Our families had always been close, and she was like a sister to me now, whatever I might have wished at some time past. I glanced back at her as she leaned back, still laughing, into the arms of her husband, Robin McBee. I realized then I had much the same family feeling for Robin, big fuzzy bear of a man that he was, with cascades of red hair and bushy beard. He even looks like my brothers, I thought.
Robin shook his head, perhaps at his wife’s teasing, perhaps unnerved slightly by the story, then looked up with a smile that crinkled up around his eyes. “Glad I wasn’t around then!”
“Yeah, me too,” Juli sighed.
“Yeah,” I echoed. I looked back at Juli and Robin and smiled, shook my head and quickly turned back to the road, shuddering at the memory of that icy finger. Back in the corner of the open van, lying against a cushion, Charlie – Charles Allen Breckinridge lll – was listening to the exchange, watching us through narrowed eyes, a half-smile on his lips.
As the group grew silent, Charlie carefully opened a box of Players©, took out one of the strong English cigarettes, and lit it, cupping the match against the wind that gusted around in the back of the van. Smelling the rich smoke, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and called out, “Hey Charlie! Would you pass me a smoke, man?”
“Sure!” Charley said brightly, smiling, seeming greatly pleased at the request. He crawled to the front of the van and sat on the floor between the seats. Almost ceremoniously, he lifted the lid to the box, folded back the foil, removed a cigarette, lit it and handed it up to me. I took a long draw and exhaled a large cloud of smoke along with a sigh.
“Thanks, man! Great smokes!”
“Sure!” Charlie said again, smiling and nodding, his head tilted to one side in pleasure, almost too gracious.
I found myself resenting the formalities, the unctuous manners. Wish he didn’t always have to make such a big deal over a damn cigarette, I thought. Just loves to have somebody smoke or drink with him, I guess. Charlie leaned back against the warm, throbbing engine compartment, and we smoked in silence.
Wonder why this stuff is bothering me now, I thought. I realized that, at first, I had really been charmed by Charlie’s eccentric ways. Now they were just starting to seem contrived, manipulative. Maybe it’s just me, maybe this place is just starting to get on my nerves. As they rolled down the winding road, my mind drifted back to several weeks before, when Charlie and I drove the thirty miles to Asheville just to buy cigarettes – because Charlie wanted Players©. It was about three in the afternoon, I remembered, and we were walking back to the van from the little tobacco shop downtown and passed this real tacky bar, must have been a converted store, big plate glass all the way across the front with cheap café curtains you could about see through.
“What a nice place,” Charlie said. “I think we’ll just have to stop in for a beer!’
“This place?” I asked, incredulous. I looked at Charlie and he was grinning. “This looks like a bad truck stop in the Texas panhandle!”
“Yeah! Isn’t it great!” He fairly gushed. “Kerouac would’ve stopped here. It looks like a real place.” Then he did his imitation southern-fried dialect. “Why, this looks laik the kind’a place mah mama would work!”
“Yeah, it looks interesting all right.” I wasn’t too sure about the place, but I was feeling like a beer myself, so in we went. It wasn’t much inside. Concrete floor. Tables and chairs from motel restaurants that went out of business in 1956. Big Formica bar with wobbly black and chrome stools that didn’t spin any more. Maybe it had been a drugstore. A nice old jukebox, though, probably full of country-western tunes that just fit the décor.
We noticed a few heads turn as we walked in and sat on the wobbly stools, and there was no conversation. I noticed right away I was the only beard in the room. We ordered Rolling Rocks and looked at each other. Charlie snickered and whispered, “Nice place.” Somebody got up from the bar and walked over to the jukebox. As I took a swallow of my beer, I glanced over at the man as he dropped his coins in the slot and quickly pushed two selection buttons without looking at the playlist. I do admire decisiveness and knowing what you want, but something about the way he punched the buttons and glanced at me as he wheeled and walked back to his stool made me uncomfortable.
Charlie looked at me and snickered again. “You think he cued up some Stones?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Honky Tonk Woman, no doubt.” We laughed quietly. The room was still so quiet you could hear the whirring and clicking of the mechanism as the jukebox popped up the record, dropped it on the turntable, and slowly lowered the tone arm to the surface. Slightly nervous, we sipped at our beers and waited. Suddenly the scratchy sound of the record’s bare grooves filled the silence. Then the song began. I don’t remember all the words. Maybe I was too nervous. Something about being an all-American working man. But the chorus stuck in my mind. “I’ve got my red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.”
We looked around the room. We looked at each other. By the time the song was over, we had downed our Rolling Rocks. We pushed the bottles to the back edge of the bar, and Charlie hailed the bartender. “Bring us a coupla Blue Ribbons, will you?”
I heard the squeal starting again. It brought me out of the reverie and I eased off on the speed, glancing over at Miss Helen to be sure she wasn’t getting nervous again. Then I glanced in the rear-view at Charlie.
Yeah, we’ve had some times together already. Just need to get back on the road. We’ve been here too long.
I thought about the Orlando orange grove where it had all started, this trip. Thought about the road fever that had seized me then, the boredom and dull disgust that had put me on the move once again.