Sunday, June 9, 2013
Dalton Fiori’s hopes of hitching a ride were fading faster than another set of taillights melting into the horizon. He stood hopeful with thumb extended as an old pickup topped the hill. For a brief moment the vehicle appeared to slow, but swerved into the passing lane and continued on. He kicked at the gravel along the shoulder, sending a spray of pebbles tumbling onto the blacktop. Before the last spinning rock settled a metal on metal screech pierced the air. Dalton lifted his head to see the welcomed sight of brake lamps, followed closely by the whining sound of a transmission in reverse.
As he closed the distance his olfactory senses were assaulted by the unmistakable stench of chickens. Not one or two of the filthy creatures, but an entire pick-up bed full. The cages were stacked three high, front to back, cinched across the middle by a frazzled section of rope. It was late afternoon, his calves were in knots, and in the last four hours the beat-up old Ford was the only offering. The creaking of a passenger door swinging wide was all the invitation he needed.
Dalton ducked his head into the cab to discover a grizzled, grubby looking fellow. Despite his outward appearance he sported a grin that spanned ear-to-ear. The kind that indicated he was neither bothered nor embarrassed by the unfortunate circumstance that left two lower teeth searching for companionship. His left arm rested on the steering wheel like it was welded there the day the truck rolled off the assembly line. Stained fingers dangled from his wrist, inches from an open bag of chew lying on the dash—if indeed there was a dash lurking somewhere beneath a smorgasbord of trinkets that stretched the breadth of the cab. Dalton scanned the contents looking for any sharp object that might be plunged repeatedly into a hitchhiker’s eye. He discovered nothing to support the nervous churning of his insides, but could feel the heaviness of the old man’s stare dissecting him. As Dalton confirmed the gaze he found the man’s right eye settled squarely upon him. The right eye obeyed his master completely, but the left wandered away as if had better things to do. The driver leaned close, draping his right arm over a chicken cage sitting beside him.
“I’m Earl, this here’s Penny Sue.”
His eyes gleamed when he nodded at the cage.
“Ole Penny Sue’s a blue-ribbon winner, four years runnin’. Wouldn’t think of fryin’ her up, but the rest of ‘em won’t go nowhere without her. Climb on in if you don’t mind sharin’ space. I’m sure ole Penny Sue don’t give a cluck. Get it? The chicken don’t give a cluck!”
The old man chuckled until he ran out of breath, and when he did inhale it came with such force the wad of tobacco lodged crossways in his throat. The blockage spurred a coughing spell lasting nearer a minute than not; a body-wrenching, head to foot thrusting that culminated in a brown spray of spittle against the windshield. Earl composed himself enough to flash Dalton a gummy-grin, then used the back of his hand to clear the drool swinging from his chin. By now Dalton was giggling, not at the joke as the old man supposed, but how the coughing spell appeared to have fixed his bad eye. Briefly both of them tracked in unison, before the left rolled lazily away.
“If’n you’re aridin’ then toss that backpack in the bed of the truck and climb in. Whatcha name?”
“Dalton Fiori, and I’d prefer to hold the bag on my lap.”
“Suit yourself. Where ya headed?”
“As far as you’re going.”
The old man eased the clutch until the truck lurched forward. After the tailpipe belched two puffs of black smoke the size of cannonballs the engine smoothed out. With pleasantries out of the way there appeared to be little to talk about. For several miles the only sound present was that of a laboring motor, what leaked back through the firewall and reverberated around the cab. Then with a smack of his lips, Earl jumped to the heart of the matter that had been rolling around in his head for some time.
“Don’t suppose you runnin’ from the law are ya?”
The hitchhiker’s posture morphed quickly to one of defense.
“No, Sir—why would you ask such a thing?”
The old man drew his index finger and thumb along the length of his jaw, making his whiskers whisper like 60-grit sandpaper against a slab of red oak.
“You mean somethin’ outside of the fact you done checked the mirror ‘bout twenty-three times in the last mile?”
Dalton wanted to dismiss Earl’s comment as an exaggeration, but he couldn’t. He turned his focus to the mirror again and observed a black sedan cresting the top of a hill. Although a couple of rises separated them the sedan appeared to hover just above the roadway and was eating up pavement at an alarming rate. With little to no processing Dalton’s thought turned to action as he reached for Earl’s right knee and pushed downward forcefully.
“Earl, you gotta get this piece of shit movin’ or we’re both in a boatload of trouble!”
The pinning of the accelerator caused the engine to surge and speedometer to flutter, but the speed remained the same. With a jerk of his head Earl glared sideways at Dalton and slapped his hand away.
“Boy, you musta been born crazier than a shit-house rat! If you keep givin’ into spells of stupidness like that, you’re gonna roll us over the side of the mountain!”
No sooner had Earl finished his last word both of their heads snapped forward as the sedan slammed squarely into the bumper. The rear window burst and a shower of glass rained down like hailstones. Dalton wheeled around in time to see the fragile section of rope separate. Void of restraint the cages danced and swayed. He held his breathe as Earl negotiated a particularly long sweeping curve, but the cages leaned beyond the point of return and section by section they rolled off the truck. The nose of the sedan dove sharply as the driver jammed the brakes and swerved to avoid the landmines striking the highway. Each container exploded into a flurry of chicken feathers and debris, but as the whirlwind settled the sedan was still charging forward. Instead of making contact again the car swerved into the passenger lane and quickly pulled even with the truck. Earl hands were trembling, but he composed himself long enough to shake a clinched fist out the window. The tinted glass of the sedan window lowered and the passenger flashed a handgun and motioned for the truck to pull over.
“Earl, we’re short on horsepower and definitely out-gunned. Just pull the truck over. It’s me they want—they’ll let you go.”
Dalton expected the old man to be so rattled he would surely comply. Instead Earl’s voice erupted in angry spurts like lava spewing from a volcano.
“Save it Dalton! These here boys’ kilt my chickens…’nuff is a ‘nuff!”
Earl gripped the wheel; knuckles shiny, white, and determined. Yet when the time was right he spoke calmly and matter of fact.
“Good night, Irene!”
Earl leaned his entire body hard left until the truck made contact with the black marauder, pinning it against the guardrail. The smell of smoldering hot metal filled the cab and an occasional shower of sparks arched over the sedan and scattered across the windshield. Earl rode the accelerator until the safety-guard ran out. There was a slight chirp of tires as he righted the truck and with his one good eye, Earl watched with satisfaction as the trunk of the sedan rose momentarily before the rocky jaws of the ravine swallowed it completely.
He brought the truck skidding to a stop crossways in the road, and turned sharply on his passenger.
“O.K, Mr. cat got your tongue—you may not be runnin’ from the law, but you damn sure got on the wrong side of them boys. You best start yappin’ or I’m gonna commence to whoopin’ yer ass!”
Dalton showed no visible reaction to the threat. Instead he exited the truck, walked to the front, and tossed his backpack on the hood. Earl’s patience had run out. He poured himself out of the vehicle to confront the young man.
“Just a minute, Earl. I know you’re upset, but I’m thinking somebody must have planted something in my pack.”
Dalton unzipped the bag, and after shuffling the contents he retrieved a small black box. He drew his arm back and launched it into the ravine.
“GPS tracking device”, Dalton mumbled.
The hitchhiker turned to deal with Earl’s frustration and anger.
“This is going to take a bit to unravel. I know it’s asking a bunch, but can we talk while you drive?”
The old man said nothing but reached inside of the truck and retrieved the pouch. After stuffing a fresh wad of tobacco, chewing it thoroughly, he loosed a stream that landed squarely on Dalton’s shoe.
“Don’t suppose this trucks amoving ‘til you do some straight talkin’. Ain’t got no chickens to sell now. ‘Spect there ain’t nowhere to head but home, and at the present moment I’m fightin’ off a terrible urge just to bull-rush you over the edge of this road.”
Sensing the desperateness of the situation Dalton began spilling.
“OK…OK. My name really is Dalton Fiori, Professor Dalton Fiori. I work, or used to work, at the University of Raleigh, North Carolina. A colleague of mine and I worked independently from the university on a secret project for a very long time. After ten years we were relatively successful, but it turned out this friend of mine had a serious gambling problem, much more serious than I realized. Bookies began breathing down his neck every other day, and when they threatened to kill his family he folded. Without talking to me he made an agreement to turn over our discovery as payment. I got wind of the deal, cleared out our basement lab in the middle of the night, emptied my bank account, and hit the road. I’ve been on the run for a couple of days now. And that’s the honest to God truth, Earl.”
An invisible wall went up between them; disbelief comprising the lion’s share and silence the remainder. The only sound was one of sandpaper, as Earl drew his thumb and forefinger along his jaw-line. Dalton supposed he was deciding in his mind whether he believed enough of the story to allow him to continue riding.
“Earl, what were the chickens worth, and how much to repair the truck? I’ve got cash and I want to make that right between us, regardless of whether you let me ride or not.”
Earl kicked at the ground a moment with his head hung low. Dalton peered closely awaiting a decision on the ride. He couldn’t see the expression on the old man’s face, but observed the heaving in his chest.
“Earl, are you cryin’…..over chickens and a beat up old nag of a truck?”
The old man drew his shirt-sleeve across his face.
“Hell no I ain’t cryin’ over that…for a damn scientist yer sure a dumb one.”
Earl attempted twice unsuccessfully to clear the lump in his throat before he swallowed hard and forged ahead in a shakier voice than before.
“Is a hundred dollars too much? I figure two dollars a chicken is a fair price, and the wife’s got a second-cousin who does body work on the side. If he can weld her up where she’ll hold that’ll be that. You see, son, as you get older you’ll learn that outside-looks don’t matter so much. Look at me, dusty as a tumbleweed, ain’t got two nickels to rub together, nor enough teeth to make a jack-o-lantern jealous. But can’t nobody tell me the Lord didn’t give me a good heart. My judgment is suspect from time to time, so you better get yer ass in the truck ‘for I leave you fer wolf-bait.”
Dalton had suspected Earl’s first question would be to ask about the discovery and what was in the backpack, but it wasn’t and he was thankful for that. A college professor’s life didn’t lend itself to associating with Earl’s type. Dalton felt a great appreciation for the opportunity to be in the presence of a simple man who thought simply, but found it awkward to know how to speak to him meaningfully on his terms.
The mountains were threatening to swallow the sun completely by the time Earl turned down a side road and found a lower gear. Dark shadows started from each side of the road until they meet in the middle, prompting Earl to turn on the headlights. Only the passenger lamp worked, but a full moon spilled an orange hue onto the ground, like a spotlight on a stage where the performers are nature’s creatures, unaware they are performing at all. Occasionally a family of critters scurried across ahead of the truck.
“Earl, it ain’t too hard to see why a man would want to settle in the mountain of West Virginia.”
Saying the word ain’t was painful for Dalton.
The old man laughed.
“Fer some of us it ain’t so much a matter of settlin’ as not having any means of escape. So far, four generations of us lived in this cabin. ‘Spect I wasn’t the first to have dreams of leavin’, but….”
Earl’s voice trailed off to silence.
“But what Earl? What’s kept you here?”
“Tragedy, and circumstance, I suppose.”
By now darkness filled the cab, but the creaking of the seat as Earl shifted frequently indicated his uncomfortable state.
“If you don’t mind sharing, Earl, what kind of tragedy and circumstance?”
“Well, to borrow a professor’s words I once knew, ‘This’ll take a bit to unravel.’ Started about a mile from here—me and my only son Roy was sawin’ logs. We’d set about clearin’ a pretty good chunk, and there was only a small strip of trees left…a couple of months from squirrelin’ away enough money to get outta here for good. Roy was a dreamer….he even convinced me that there was somethin’ better out there, just waitin’ on us to grab it by the tail. Though he didn’t talk much about what rolled around in his head, I could see it in his eyes. Think he had detailed dreams, ‘bout a much better life for his young wife and him.”
Earl stopped speaking and began to cry again.
“Earl, you don’t have to continue. I can tell it’s painful.”
The old man responded quickly.
“Yep…but bad stuff happens to everyone, and nothin’ good comes from bottlin’ it up. ‘Bout time it come out, eatin’ most of my innards already. It’s a story about pride, Dalton. Pride ain’t nothin’ but a pretty wrapper ‘round somethin’ evil. Always prided myself with a chainsaw; the ability to drop a tree with a foot of where I was aimin’. I missed bad that day…twenty feet or more. When I seent things goin’ bad wrong I yelled at Roy, but that tree was so damn wide there weren’t nowhere to run.”
“I’m sorry, Earl, don’t know what else to say.”
Earl remained silent for a few moments, as if to gather the courage to say what was coming next.
“Dalton, you know what it’s like to hold your only son, coughin’ up more blood then you thought he had in ‘em, twenty miles away from help, nothin’ to do but watch the tragic consequences of your own foolishness played out on someone completely innocent…your own flesh and blood. I prayed to die right there….asked God to send a bolt of lightnin’, cause my heart to explode, somethin’ to save me from havin’ to see this terrible thing I done..explain it to his momma and wife. ‘Spect God needed me to see every second that passed, watch every hope and dream fade from my boy’s eyes, ‘til his chest wouldn’t rise and fall no more.”
Dalton fumbled for words.
“I…I don’t know what to say Earl, except I’m so terribly sorry.”
Earl continued as if he was talking to himself, that there were no words anyone could say to soften the blow. He was probably right.
“Buryin’ yer boy is about the most awful thing a man can do…somethin’ about the cycle of life messed up bad when a child dies ‘fore his parents. And it woulda been more acceptable if it were natural, ‘stead of somethin’ you done to cause it. Suppose the next two blows was natural, turns out Lena, Roy’s wife was pregnant. She gave birth to baby girl…named her Royal…and she is that. ‘Spect I spoiled her ‘cause it made me feel better ‘bout her not havin’ no daddy on account of me. She’s five now and beautiful as a West Virginia mountain sunrise and spring-fed waterfall put together. In the last year her blonde curls is all gone now and some of the sparkle in her eye. What the cancer ain’t eatin’ the chemo is. Doctor’s say there ain’t nothin’ to do but make her comfortable and wait. All that schoolin’ and you tell a family you can’t do nothin’ else?”
Dalton’s mind was churning and before he knew it he spoke.
“Earl, I personally have never had much use for God, especially when I hear a story like this. How can you still believe in a God that rains down that much heartache upon one family?”
The truck slowed and a single headlight revealed a tiny shack in need of repair, the wood shingles that remained were covered in a thick green moss, and a crooked stone chimney directed a tapered stream of smoke wiggling its way through the heavy mountain air.
“Dalton, it ain’t much, but ‘yer welcome to bed in the barn for as long as you need. Can’t promise you more than a share of what momma fixed for dinner and a straw bed. Come on inside. Don’t mind the strange looks yer likely to encounter…dinner guests ain’t too common.”
Dalton’s belly was full, but less so than his head. As he carved out a comfortable nest in a pile of hay he couldn’t rid his mind of feeling like a hobo and how awkward it felt. This cast of characters he had met today was so far removed from his realm thinking it felt like a dream. Until today he couldn’t imagine people living in the middle of a wilderness, jammed into a shack with a dirt floor, smothered in poverty but seemingly unaware of it and able to smile and function quite adequately. Dalton reached for the lantern to blow out the flame when he heard a knock on the barn siding followed by Earl rounding the corner.
“Wasn’t sure you’d be here in the morning and wanted to respond to what you asked me right before we got outta the truck. You asked me how I still believed in a God that brung such tragedy. Dalton, as you seen tonight there ain’t much out here for a man to grab aholt of, and I figure he could do a sight worse than wrappin’ his arms around the Lord. God don’t bring tragedy to people; best I can tell he sees ‘em through it. Events and people…good and bad come into ‘yer life for a reason. I believe that sure as I’m standin’ before ya. Maybe had I not come along to give you a ride, them thugs woulda shot you dead today…pretty sure God has somethin’ else planned for you to do. God don’t make mistakes…he has purpose in all things. Welp, I guess I said my piece….just wanted you to know where I stood. I’ll see ya in the mornin’ if yer still here. Good to have met ya, Dalton Fiori.”
When Earl returned the barn the next morning Dalton Fiori was nowhere to be found, only his backpack and a note filled the indentation in the straw.
I spent most of the night entertaining thoughts and ideals I never considered. I did a lot of thinking about you saying that God places people and circumstances in your life for a reason. That’s as plausible of an explanation as any that you and I might have run across one another yesterday. I was a stranger and you reached out to help me, expecting nothing in return. That is rare in this day and age.
You never once asked what was in my backpack. I will tell you that somehow I lost sight of the potential for good associated with such a discovery and instead became consumed by the notoriety and financial gain for myself, but now my work has a beautiful face and spirit associated with it and Royal is her name. Although the formula has not been fully tested I assure you there is no harmful side effects, and the tests that were performed proved very successful. To date this is certainly the closest anyone has come to developing a cure for cancer and it is my gift to you, Earl. Maybe, just maybe, God used me to restore a measure of hope to your family. I’m not certain of that yet, but I am positive that you are right when you said ‘nobody can tell you the Lord didn’t give you a good heart.’ Good luck my friend.