Fred glanced over at the dark forest beyond the lonely lamppost beside highway forty-one that lit the entrance to the easement leading to Old Farmers Road. He gripped the wheel a little tighter, and checked his console to make sure he wasn’t speeding. He looked at his friend in the passenger seat to catch his reaction. Ronnie Joe wrapped his jacket tight around him and sank into his seat as though he felt a sudden chill.
Ronnie Joe had grown up in the house where Old Farmers Road intersected with the easement. The house was still there, visible from the highway during the day. It was one of a dozen weather-beaten wooden houses on quarter-acre plots with at least a half mile between them, in a neighborhood for the menial and the mendicant. There was no running water, no electricity, and no oxygen. The nearby surrounding trees leaned over precariously in a slow death thrall that had begun over a hundred years before when newly-freed black slaves called those buildings home, and that would most likely last another thousand.
“You should spend the night at our house,” Fred offered to Ronnie Joe.
“Momma won’t mind. She...”
“No!” Ronnie Joe growled, but immediately regretted his outburst. “Just let me out here,” he said in his most apologetic tone.
“Hold up,” Fred held up a hand, “I got you,” he said calmly. “There’s the Minit Mart coming up. I’ll drop you there so you can at least call somebody.”
Ronnie Joe nodded, smiling sheepishly. Their friendship was an odd one. As kids Fred had never been into anything Ronnie Joe’s other friends liked. When they would break into deserted houses to take the fixtures and sell later, or dive into the dumpsters outside of the Little Debbie shipping facility to look for discards, Fred simply walked away and went home. Truthfully, the only reason Ronnie Joe hung out with Fred at the time was as an excuse to see Fred’s sister Rhea. Eventually, after spending so much time at Fred’s house to see Rhea, Fred had become his truest friend. Ronnie Joe knew he owed a lot to Fred who taught him a different way to deal with his troubles growing up. “Sorry I snapped at you,” he muttered. “It wasn’t you that was intended for...you know?”
Fred smiled sincerely, “Yup. Don’t worry about it.” He pulled into the Minit Mart parking, and turned to Ronnie Joe. “Look. I don’t know what you got yourself into—not my business. I don’t know why you stopped hangin’ out, if you don’t want to tell me it’s fine, but I’m lettin’ you know that my door’s always open. Lemme give you my cell number, might not be home next time.”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Call me from a pay phone,” Fred said, pointing to the pay phone outside the Minit Mart, probably the only pay phone left in the entire state. Fred found a pen and an old envelope in his glove box.
Ronnie Joe stepped out of the truck and waited for Fred’s number. “I appreciate it, Fred.” He closed the door and stepped back to let Fred pull out, then stood outside and lit a cigarette. He stared at the faded Minit Mart sign, remembering a time when he was eleven, when the store manager had banned him from ever entering the store. Until that time, the Minit Mart clerks had always welcomed him, having been known to them as Gene’s boy who had to walk there almost every day to pick up a pack of Kents and some Pabst Blue Ribbon for his father. They had never given a damn that he was underage, having preferred to stay on Gene’s good side.
That all had changed one day when, as he stepped toward the back to grab a forty of Pabst, he spied a pack of Bar-S bologna that a previous customer had left on the shelf where the microwave meals had been on display. Eyes wide with anticipation and stomach growling, he picked up the bologna, looked back at the clerk who was staring right at him. He tried turning casually toward the next aisle and shoved the bologna in his pants. Then he grabbed the beer and walked to the counter confidently, thinking he was safe.
About halfway home, he pulled out the bologna, tore off the wrapper, and stuffed all eight slices into his mouth while cupping a hand under his chin in case any would spill out while he chewed. Afterward, he practically skipped the rest of the way home, grinning the whole time. He placed the beer and cigarettes on the work table in the garage where his father had been rebuilding an engine. Gene noticed his son’s smile. “What the fuck you smiling about?” Ronnie Joe dropped the smile and sped off, avoiding his father the rest of the day.
Later that night Ronnie Joe was awakened by the phone ringing. He could hear his father growling at someone on the other end then slam the handset down. His father’s plodding steps echoed down the hall, and he burst through the door of his room. He stumbled several times, and even crashed into his tall dresser. He smelled like an ashtray doused in whiskey and oil. His body and clothes blackened by engine grease made him almost invisible in the darkened room. Without a word he grabbed Ronnie Joe by the leg, pulled him out of bed and onto the floor, and whipped him for several minutes with an old black leather belt.
Ronnie Joe, cowered on the floor, bringing his knees and elbows together to protect his face, knowing not to cry out. His arms, legs, and back were on fire, but if he had made a sound Gene would have had reason to prolong the torture. After the whipping had been done, Gene dragged Ronnie Joe through the house by the arm, stripped him down to his underwear and tossed him out of the house to sleep outside on the dirt. “Sleep outside with the other fucking animals!” Gene shouted at him. Ronnie Joe curled up on the ground and cried himself to sleep. After that day he was not allowed to go back in the store and Gene had to get his own cigarettes and beer.
Ronnie Joe flicked his cigarette into the street and watched the glowing ash break apart into a flash of tiny fireworks that slid across the pavement before disappearing. He smiled when he thought about all the times his father complained about having to make the trip to the store himself. Later in high school, when he would relate the story to his friends, even though he would continue to get an occasional beating over the fact, Ronnie Joe would say that he considered that day one of the greatest of his life.