Chapter 14

 

That Friday Feeling

in which Elmore sees a turn in his fortunes.

The orange sun to the west glowed like a hickory coal. 

Hot Friday. 

Elmore muscled the wheel of the panel truck onto County Road 5. He worked through the gears down a lonely stretch of paved road. Alabama sweetgums and pines drooped limbs over the two-lane.

Lafayette looked good in the rearview mirror.

It was 5 p.m. The sun would still blare down, furious at the world for some private reason, for hours yet. A man on the radio pronounced this the longest day of the year. How in the world could these summer days get any longer? Why did every workday seemed to last twenty-five hours?

Elmore flipped back the brim of his baseball cap and let the wind blow his sweaty hair. 

The blacktop would bring him to his rental house in seven miles. 

The Rogers home. 

Elmore had hired on with Rankin Cabinets at the end of January. He spent five days training over in Columbus, the first town in Mississippi the road reached after escaping Alabama. People called that little city Possum Town back in the day. Elmore always thought how cool it would be to have a marsupial statue to dress up the plain town square.

Elmore learned in Columbus how to build and install kitchen and bathroom cabinets. God knows why somebody at Rankin hired him when they did, still in a thumb cast and grimacing with a broken rib every breath. But the woodworking company had grown big and bureaucratic doing construction projects all over the New South. Rankin needed warm bodies. They liked to hire veterans. Newbies like Elmore went through training and safety instruction, no matter their past experience. 

Somebody on the crew one day explained it to Elmore this way: It’s a HR thang.

I could have hired on at some nuclear plant and gotten work carrying a loaded Smith & Wesson around those reactors in the middle of the night for less trouble, Elmore thought one day in the middle of table-saw training. 

But he didn’t complain.

The upside of the Mississippi visit came with a reconnection to two cousins, a brother and a sister on his daddy’s side. Johnny and Junie Rogers took care of the twins for the whole week Elmore trained. This branch of his family lived in a little brick country house with pecan trees, pink flamingos, and white bird baths in the yard. Their half-acre of skillet-flat property held two catfish ponds and a fern greenhouse full of tiny, frisky, bright green tree frogs. Will and Mary caught the wriggling amphibians by the cupful using their bare hands.

Johnny had lost both legs in Vietnam. Junie took care of her brother, forsaking all others, when he came home. Not marching, but home.

Johnny and Junie didn’t complain. What good would complaining do? The Lord laid out His plan. If it didn’t make sense to anybody but Him, that wasn’t a worldly concern.

In the end, Elmore had to admit his cabinetry training wasn’t a total waste. He learned techniques – that’s what the instructors called them – for the tricky router work required to cut out openings for fixtures and sinks. He developed a knack for applying linoleum and silicon around newly installed kitchen appliances so they laid flat and wouldn’t leak. Really, the training made business sense. You had an expensive mistake on your hands if you mucked up a set of new basswood kitchen cabinets.

Elmore started to work back in Lafayette on Groundhog Day, just in the nick of time – in one more week, eviction bulls from Mr. Wood’s own Lafayette Savings & Loan would have bum-rushed him right out the front door. The thought of losing even a rental house over the kids’ heads saddened Elmore, and he had worked his new job without missing a single hour, Saturdays included, twenty straight weeks of the year so far. Some days, the work seemed as rewarding as a $3.65 an hour job could be.

Then, lengthening days brought hot weather, mosquitoes, world-weariness.

In rough moments, once or twice on Mondays about 11 a.m. when Elmore’s rib hurt and his liver hurt and he sometimes just felt like lying down to die, he flipped opened his billfold and took a quick peek at two little perfectly square, white-bordered, elementary-school pictures.

Then Elmore stuffed the tattered Olan Mills photos back in his hip pocket and got to work again.

Rankin Cabinets did good business all over the South, big orders going out for construction around the new car assembly plant in Tennessee and Biloxi’s giant gaming industry hotels. The Rankins partly had Mr. Wood to thank, of course, for their company’s growing prosperity. His development empire kept crews of all kinds hopping in and out of delivery and installation trucks. Table saws and band saws screamed night and day in cabinet shops, and hammers and air guns banged away in new houses and apartment complexes rapidly replacing fields where cotton once stretched to the horizon.

One of those fields now stretched to the right of Elmore’s grumbly Mack, with its 12-year-old engine.

The biggest tree in western Alabama threw deep shade over the road ahead. You could mention the Mayhew Tree to most anyone in these parts and get a quick nod. Elmore read somewhere that the 20-story-tall tulip poplar might be 200 years old. Just 10 of those years ago, the massive tree impressed a crew of normally ruthless road builders so much that the state actually sent civil engineers back to their drawing boards to design an expensive curve in string-straight County Road 5.

Elmore grew thoughtful. Thirty years ago, such a thing – curving a road to save a tree – would never have happened. The Mayhaw would have been turned into winter firewood at some highway developer’s lake house.

It struck him as a good thing. Maybe people were basically pretty good, most places, most times.

Or maybe not.

At this afternoon hour, the shadow cast by the giant poplar sprawled east a hundred yards, covering the blacktop. The temperature in that shade would drop by twenty degrees, Elmore knew.

He glanced at his odometer – from this spot, he’d reach his driveway in exactly three miles.

Elmore entered cool shade. He felt refreshed. He departed cool shade.

He entered the… literal… home stretch.

Elmore raised his head slightly. He sniffed the air. 

The day was crystal clear, not even a high cloud. But some kind of faint blue smoke hazed the flat central Alabama landscape. Elmore could see it like a strange fog in the tangled Alabama woods off the road. 

He smelled something peculiar.

A chemical.

Were the woods burning? 

An old wooden fire tower stood way off to the east. It always made Elmore think of the rotten, upright skeleton of an abandoned lighthouse – a lighthouse with its eye put out. He knew his fellow National Guard mate Billy Nevers had worked that watchtower years ago, though he now ran another tower, this one galvanized steel, ultra-modern, over near Gordo. Back when Elmore drank, he heard another Guard buddy say over a beer that lightning had struck the steel tower seven different times while Billy worked inside. Elmore could believe it. The forest ranger always talked a little faster than he needed to. He got really nervous when it thundered.

The blue mist thickened. 

Elmore watched for firefighters in the woods – yes, smoke definitely clouded the air. Still, it didn’t smell like any kind of wood fire Elmore knew.

A wicked thought clanged in Elmore’s head.

Some ringing fire bell might mobilize Dick Wragg and the other Lafayette Fire Department volunteers. Maybe they already howled along in that fine, fancy, shiny red truck that Mr. Wood bought them. Maybe some old plantation house had gone up. Lots of those firetraps still stood, all over this part of Alabama. 

With some luck, Elmore caught himself thinking, this will be the day Dick Wragg gets burned alive. Maybe a tree will fall on him, and while he lies there trapped, with both legs broken in multiple places, the hot flames will crawl closer and closer ... 

The strange, pungent smoke suddenly thickened. Elmore heard a whirring noise louder than the sound of his truck engine.

Up ahead, he saw why. 

The county’s slow-moving mosquito control truck glowed ghostly yellow through a thick blue fog of DDT vapor. The chemical smoke boiled out of some black contraption mounted in back of the bug truck. 

A cloud machine. 

What Elmore saw next overflowed his heart.

Two beautiful children on still-shiny Christmas bikes wheeled in and out of the DDT fog. 

Pedaling with all their might, Will and Mary chased a cloud. They swerved in smoke, whooping like Chickasaws. Will’s bike sported baseball cards in the spokes, and Elmore could imagine that they whirred like rattlesnakes every time his boy pumped furiously forward in the heat of the chase. Mary followed, chasing too, pedaling so hard her pink bike frame jerked side to side.

No mosquito would draw blood from one of the Rogers children this night. They wore the ultimate repellent.

Elmore tooted his horn, motioned an arm out the window – move! move over! He dropped the tires of the truck onto the right shoulder, exploding a little colony of Queen Anne’s lace. He herded his surprised children to the roadside. 

The mosquito truck vanished in the distance. 

Elmore leaned from the window with a grin. Payday felt so fine. Extra fine – he’d told the Rankin crew foreman at lunch break: I’m taking tomorrow off. My first free Saturday all year. Y’all think you can keep out of trouble without Elmore Rogers around?

“You young’uns want to go to the picture show?” 

Yay! Hurray!

God bless those two little souls, stout Will and skinny Mary. They panted like puppies after their chase. Cherry-cheeked, Will must have gained a pound of freckles in one afternoon. Mary’s sweaty hair stuck to her forehead, and she chewed one strand.

Elmore had never seen anything more beautiful. He roared the Mack engine, yelled at the top of his lungs over it. 

“OK, then! I’ll head home and wash off the sawdust! Y’all ride down and tell Mrs. Jordan I’m home, then be back at the house in 20 minutes!” 

The children no longer stayed Friday afternoons with Mrs. Mock. Elmore’s questionable late arrival on that snowy night before Christmas had ended their child-care arrangement. Forever, he was sure.

Elmore let off the clutch and wrestled the balky black stick shift in the floor. The panel truck rocked violently back onto the blacktop, clattering tools back in the cargo.

The kids chased Elmore now.

Will and Mary flew happily down the road in the truck’s exhaust. They grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. 

They were tiny, shiny specks when Elmore made the tight left turn and rumbled up the rutted driveway to the house. 

~~~

The tub steamed, nearly full. Elmore could tell by the sound. He’d lived a lot of Fridays in his life. He’d filled a lot of Friday bathtubs. 

He stuck his head in the refrigerator, took out the week’s very last banana, black as a finger with gangrene. 

Most Alabama people didn’t keep bananas in the icebox. But if Elmore left a bunch out on the counter on Monday, come Friday he opened the door to a house full of fruit flies. 

Summer heat in Alabama produced legends. One August weekend a couple of years back, high temperatures hatched a bag of rice in the kitchen cabinet. 

Elmore and the children carefully examined their Ripley’s Believe It Or Not curio on the kitchen table. They stared into a new kind of terrarium, an exhibition working alive with fearsome, newly hatched miniature red dragons. The beasts marauded a white-grained universe. Who knew how long such bizarre creatures had waited for life inside a cellophane bag of Mahatma long grain? Who knew what size they would reach if you just fed them enough rice and let them grow…

As a matter of fact, Elmore thought, from March to November insects pretty much ruled Alabama. Confirming this, as he entered the bathroom a brown roach disappeared into a crack beneath the tub. 

Maybe he could pay the DDT crew a few bucks to back that yellow truck up to the front door one afternoon and bluefog the inside of his whole darned house...

Elmore wondered. Did that fog feel cool, like waterfall mist? He’d ask the kids when they came in…

The bath definitely did not feel cool. The hot water turned Elmore’s hand lobster pink when he tested it. 

Just how he liked it.

He slipped in.

Jesus. How could hot water feel so good … even in hot weather?

The banana might have been the best banana in the history of bananas. Frozen and sweet. White as magnolia wood on the inside, with a couple of leopard spots.

Elmore turned off the faucets with his big toe. He took one big banana bite, then another. He flung the black peel, and it octopused through the air and splashed in the commode. Two points! The accurate hook shot made Elmore unreasonably happy. It took him back to high school, lettering in every sport for the Lafayette Lions.

He stretched a dripping leg and flushed the commode with his toe.

Life felt better these days.

As the summer solstice throbbed around the house like a hot pulse, Elmore savored a moment of peace. 

His mind floated.

He remembered something, for no reason.

On summer nights, the little Rogers family ran loud box fans in both bedrooms. A necessity of life. Without moving air, no one slept a wink. Thanks to their rackety fans, everybody got a good forty winks… sometimes even a good eighty.

One stormy Sunday, the power failed. Elmore lit leftover birthday candles for every room. He and Will and Mary tossed and turned all night. No one could sleep. The house filled with audible sweating, a medley of fleshy, melting sounds.

Those would be the sounds a banana made, Elmore thought, if a banana made sounds.

Why would he remember that sticky night now?

The hot water spigot on the tub never turned completely off. It dripped musically, steadily. The ripples tickled Elmore’s pale feet, braced at the end of the bathtub. 

His legs bore bad scars. 

Elmore massaged a blue spot of Head and Shoulders into his hair. He noted how his long-ago bludgeoned thumbnail had finally grown all the way back. Most of it, anyway. The old black thumbnail fell off months ago, and a horny new one, pink as a newborn baby’s head, regenerated. It had now grown nearly all the way up the space where a man’s thumbnail ought to be. In couple of weeks, Elmore would be back to normal. 

He marveled a bit. First he had a black thumbnail. Then no thumbnail. Then half a thumbnail. Now he had almost all a thumbnail. 

It seemed very weird.

He’d had fun brandishing his rubber digit. Before the new pink nail came in, he freaked out Will and Mary, approaching them with an ominous warning.

Run! Run for your life! It’s… Mr. Numb Thumb, Terror of the Town!

He waggled his wounded warrior, and the kids fled in pretend terror – maybe pretend – every time.

Maybe tonight he’d chase them just one more time. For old time’s sake. 

Later on.

Right this Alabama minute, he’d relax in hot water. Life pretty much felt OK. 

Elmore Rogers had that Friday feeling.