The Impala’s glowing taillights set the billowing dust ablaze, engulfing Randy in a gritty red cloud. Without taking his eyes off the car, he put his arm up to his face to keep from choking. Well, shit, he thought as he spit the dust back onto the shoulder of the road. His suitcase had been yanked from the backseat and tossed unceremoniously onto the gravel while she had been shouting—demanding that he get out of the car. Now, as the silver moonglow replaced the fading taillights, he sauntered over to the small case and scooped it up by the handle.
A perfect end to a perfect weekend, Randy thought sarcastically as he wiped the dust from his suitcase and began walking. What had been a genius shortcut back to Sparksville an hour ago had instead turned into a freezing death march alone through dark and shapeless fields. I should have just kept my mouth shut for two more hours, he thought when a large bird screeched from the trees beyond the field beside him. He blew into his hands to warm them and picked up his pace, his still dusty suitcase bouncing against his leg.
Randy had lost track of how long he had been walking when he saw the white glow of headlights ahead. She didn’t make it far, he thought triumphantly as the car got closer. But his victory was short-lived and he saw the headlights belonged to a pickup truck rather than his Impala. It sped by in a cloud of dust, showering Randy with bits of gravel that bounced off his suitcase and jacket. Well, shit, he thought again with a sigh, his breath making a misty cloud in the cold air.
He had just resumed walking when he heard a low rumble in the quiet of the night air. This time, however, the vehicle was coming from behind him. Turning, he saw the incandescent white glow of headlights growing in the distance. When the car got close, the bright light blinded him and he raised his briefcase to his eyes while he used the other to try and flag the driver down. Both worked, and the car—a newer-model sedan—pulled onto the shoulder of the road just past where he stood holding his suitcase.
The car sat idling patiently as Randy walked up to the passenger door, coughing up fresh dust. The window was down and quiet jazz music escaped with the heated air into the night. He looked into the darkened car and—hoping his voice didn’t sound too desperate—asked, “any chance you’re heading toward Sparksville?”
The interior light switched on and revealed a neatly dressed man about Randy’s age in the driver’s seat. His wavy dark hair was pulled back behind his ears and the early signs of crow’s feet ringed his brown eyes as he flashed a toothy smile. “I sure am,” he said, “hop on in—I’ve got plenty of room,” and he patted the empty passenger seat.
“Thanks, mister,” Randy said, as he quickly tossed his suitcase on the empty backseat before climbing into the front. Shutting the door, he turned the window crank to close out the cold air and settled back with a sigh. The stranger turned the interior light off and pulled back onto the road. “Whew, you’re a godsend, bud,” Randy said as he rubbed his hands together for warmth, “I’m not sure how much longer I could have walked this damn road. It’s cold as shit out there too.”
The man let out a short laugh and said, “The name’s Dewey—Dewey Page. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” then paused before adding, “that’s all there is to it, really.” Grinning, he winked and held out his hand in the dim light for Randy to shake.
Randy took the offered hand, smiling back. “Well I appreciate it. Next time I’ll wait until the vacation’s over before I pick a fight,” he said, chuckling. “Or at least do it in the summer,” he added flatly with raised eyebrows.
Dewey laughed politely and then a thought suddenly came to him, “oh, hey” he exclaimed, reaching behind him to the back seat. He felt around in the dark without taking his eyes from the road. He finally found what he was searching for and produced a battered green thermos. “No cream or sugar, but it’s still hot,” he said offering the thermos to Randy. Randy’s eyes widened happily when he saw it and he took it from Dewey.
“That’s perfect,” he said with a smile as he unscrewed the cap. When he poured some into the makeshift cup, he raised it to smell the rich aroma before taking small tentative sips of the hot drink. “This is the first break I’ve caught in a while,” he said aloud, but to no one in particular.
“No problem at all,” Dewey replied anyway, “everyone hits a run of bad luck every now and then,” and he looked over to give Randy another wink. He drove with his arms outstretched and both hands on the steering wheel, occasionally taking one off to snap his fingers along with the soft jazz beat. “Me? I think I’m luckier than most—always have been—that’s why I like to make a difference in people’s lives when I can,” he said, and then began to softly hum along with the radio.
Outside, gray orchards of ink-black pecan trees lined the road like sentinels, their leafless limbs clawing the starry sky just beyond the glass. “Not me,” Randy said and shook his head, “if something can go wrong for me—it will. I’m like a magnet for trouble and misery,” he said with a low laugh.
“In high school, after two weeks of begging, I finally got Missy Adams to agree to go to the Homecoming with me,” Randy continued, unsolicited. “Except, when we get to the dance, she tells half of the wrestling team that I felt her up in the car. I didn’t, of course, but who do you think they believed? To this day it’s still the worst beating I’ve taken—and that’s a competitive list,” he said and took a sip of coffee.
Dewey laughed loudly once before catching himself, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh—I mean, I was only laughing about that last part; that’s a horrible thing to do.” He paused for a moment before saying, “You know, I hate to admit it, but I guess I was no saint myself in those days,” he said with a wry smile.
“I remember in 10th grade,” Dewey continued, “I found out from my cousin that Lenna Blaylock was going to this fat camp over the summer. See, Lenna had everything going for her, money, brains, and a beautiful face, except that she was…” and he took his hands off the steering wheel and held them out in a circle in front of him. “Lot’s of guys came close to scooping her up, they just couldn’t get past her size,” he said as his fingers tapped the wheel in beat with the radio.
“Anyway, I started writing her letters over the summer while she was at this camp. Nothing serious at first, but then towards mid-August I was laying it on thick. By the time she came back in the fall, she was the best looking girl in school—and she was madly in love with me.” He paused to listen to the radio DJ announce a song, but then turned the volume down even lower before looking over at Randy with a grin.
“Unfortunately,” Dewey went on, “I guess she got too comfortable with me, and before long…” and he mimed the big stomach again. “Ah well, it was on to the next. That’s the thing—the next one always comes along,” he said, smiling as he shot Randy another sideways wink.
Randy just nodded absentmindedly and watched out the window as the shadowy fields finally melted away and the car plunged into the pitch-darkness of a pine forest. He couldn’t feel it outside, but it still seemed colder in amongst the trees where the moonlight didn’t penetrate. The two rode in silence for a few minutes while the radio softly murmured a jazz number.
Randy finally spoke—partly to break the increasingly awkward silence—and said, “then, in college, I finally managed to rush the beta sig,” he said, waving his hands dramatically in the air. “And how long did that last? A week,” he hissed, answering his own question. “They had a big party at the house right after we moved in—booze; girls; dope, the works. Eventually, it starts to get pretty late at night and I guess the music was pissing the neighbors off. Someone finally called the cops to complain about the noise, even though most people had already left,” he explained.
Dewey nodded silently in the driver’s seat; lips pursed in a frown as he listened. “When the cops showed up,” Randy continued, “everyone scattered and left the music still blaring. Except that no one bothered to tell me. I walked out of the upstairs bathroom and face-first into a cop—joint in one hand, bottle of Corona in the other,” he chuckled to himself and ran his fingers through his hair. “Needless to say, they traded my scholarship in for a student loan and that was the last party I ever went to.”
Bits of loose gravel were hitting the underside of the car with tiny metallic clinks as they drove deeper into the pine forest. After a pause, Dewey said succinctly, “bad timing,” and snapped his fingers as if to emphasize his point. Randy just nodded once more in the dark and the two returned to the now ubiquitous silence. The DJ on the radio repeated the station’s phone number for sleepy listeners to call in their requests. When he finished, this time it was Dewey who broke the lull in conversation.
“When I was in college,” he started, smiling at the memory, “I was the one selling that dope.” He looked over at Randy and smiled revealing neat rows of white teeth. “You wouldn’t believe the people I sold it to. See, that’s what always interested me,” he said raising his finger in the air. “Students, sure—but I’m talking about faculty, senior faculty too. And the families—oh man—if half those people knew who was buying dope from me…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
“Never got caught—not even once,” Dewey continued, “you had to have a nose for it… for all the risks that you couldn’t see. You couldn’t just rush headlong into every deal because it looked like an easy score,” he said in a serious tone.
Outside, the moon was hanging low in the sky and it occasionally poked through a random gap in the dense pine limbs. Inside the car, Dewey went on, “Not many people lasted very long in the business back then. They were just too impatient—and you needed to be patient,” he said, jabbing his finger at the steering wheel, “you had to have a knack for the timing.”
Randy wasn’t very interested in the nuances of the illegal drug trade, but out of politeness he nodded solemnly anyway. Outside, the headlights lit upon a small metal sign advertising a self-service gas station—”one mile ahead.” When it finally came into view, Randy could see the lone wooden building set back in a small clearing on the left side of the road. A single bulb—dimmed by a layer of dirty cobwebs and dead insects—beneath the metal awning struggled to illuminate the two silver gas pumps.
The empty gravel parking lot was bathed in the yellow warmth of a sodium light perched high atop a cedar pole. The station was closed, and the inside was dark except for the hazy white glow of a soft drink cooler. Randy wondered if the station was even in business anymore but Dewey pulled in anyway, easing little sedan up to the first pump before cutting the engine off.