US 501 South in November, stalks of cotton leaning to the highway. On the dead grass white bits drift, unpicked. And down the road, near dusk, a school bus stops to let the dark, late children home.
— Jim Wann
Although the distance is only thirty miles, I go home once a year. Once a year, for the last ten years, in August. I always drive at night. I never travel the highway, I take the back roads. I know them best.
The only reason I go at all is Lester. I go to commemorate, in some public way, Lester’s death. The others who know why he died understand my obligation. If they themselves observe some private ceremonials, they have not told me, nor would they. I am the outsider now. I chose to leave. Thirty miles is a long way.
Lester is Lester Bone. We were graduated from the county high school in 1955. Lester graduated like everyone else, although he could, by objective standards, hardly read or write. He was graduated in my class, or I in his, along with certain others; friends. Friends and relations. There was Beatty Sims. There was Hasty Nikero. There was John John Johnson. There was my sister Bambi Clark. And there was T. A. C. Oliver. He was black, the only black male in our class of two dozen. We called him Taco, a name he adopted and when we went thirty miles to Chapel Hill, the college town, on those clear November nights when football was over for us, Taco tried to pass himself off as Mexican in the restaurants there, boasting his darkness and breed so loudly that he goaded many a college boy to doubt such origin and to pay for such doubt with a bloody face. Taco was a fighter. After graduation he joined the army. He was a career man. He attained the rank of sergeant before he was shot in pax-marked Korea. “Seoul food,” Beatty Sims said. No one laughed nor was meant to.
So it’s thirty miles from Chapel Hill to Bliven. Bliven has no zip code, no post office, and the gassy tiger has never heard of Exxon, only Esso. The Esso sign rusts above the road. A company truck delivered the Exxon one, but the truck departed in the dead of night and no one hoisted the new sign up nor took the old one down. Bliven does have a mill which manufactures thread from which other factories in other towns manufacture stretch socks. The mill uses water from the Haw River. Haw is an Indian word meaning river. So we have the last water powered mill in North Carolina, using water from the river river. The mill is brick with rows of square windows. Old brick. Brick fired from our piedmont clay. A blood hued brick. Beautiful brick, which glows in the late autumn sunlight before night comes on and the world goes dark.
Bliven has its mill and a few houses. They are not set in any linear prospective along the main street. The houses, mostly three room, white, tin-roofed examples of depression architecture, are here and there on the slopes above the roadway. There are no fences. The trees are huge in girth. Old river oaks and hollies. We have no concept of zoning. Mr. Durban sells groceries and hardware. He closes Wednesday afternoons, as well as Saturday and Sunday. Mrs. Croft sells Esso gasoline. When Mr. Nikero, Hasty’s father, died, Hasty sold the building which had been an army/navy store to Beatty Sims. He sells fishing gear now. On Wednesday night people play cards there. Beyond the last store is the narrow bridge, dedicated in 1928; the road leads across the bridge, up a hill, and out of town.
But I am coming into town, returning on a humid August night down the back roads, past the gaunt pines and the pastures where the scent of blue grass and string grass is sweet. The beams of my truck’s lights gray the asphalt exposing the scars there.
I think of Billy Twill, who spends half his life in Bliven and the rest in Butner, an institution near the state capital. His crime is exposing himself to motorists on the main, or Federal, highway, 15-501, which runs south of here all the way to Florida. Billy always talks to himself, and finally a highway patrolman found out what Billy was saying. “These southern roads, these southern roads, they’re going to be the death of me. These southern roads. . . .” Billy tells the truth.
Anyone granted life takes death in the bargain. These back roads are life-giving; deadly too. I guess in northern cities men drink out their time in bar rooms. We don’t serve liquor in our bars, and we don’t even sell beer in this county. The bar rooms in the adjacent county are noisy with country music. The back roads are silent, and silence is in our southern blood, silence and the isolation of the road, silence and running the road alone. In his manhood, his car is where the southerner has the world on his own terms. His car, that special one, labored over, cared for better than a child, becomes one with the driver, or the driver one with the machine, and the driver escapes all that is mortal or hateful or irrevocable, escapes for a few moments out onto the night roads; for a few moments the driver controls his destiny, or its illusion. The boy of sixteen who once drove with a girl’s thigh hot against his is a man who doesn’t ask anyone to go with him. There would be no point in going at all if someone went along.
I can’t say I’ve always liked cars. Beginning at sixteen a Cadillac impressed me, a Chevy didn’t. “Damn college smart ass,” Lester said, “stick your head in here and look at this work.” He was talking about his Model A with the 327 cubic inch Chevy engine capable of RPM’s in the high four figures. “Jesus, Bobby, don’t you understand what this is, what you’re beholding here?” Although I couldn’t name the parts then, I knew I beheld a way of life, one which would haunt me despite my estrangement from Bliven.
If Lester couldn’t read or write with any degree of general certification, like the newsboy in Baltimore who had the I.Q. of an idiot yet each day kept, in his head, a correct running addition of the license numbers of passing cars, Lester could read anything to do with motors and act upon his understanding. Lester’s game was to bring his Model A to Calvin’s BBQ on the highway outside Bliven and wait for a car of college kids to stop and make a bet, their motor against Lester’s.
The game had begun as early as 1960, a time when Lester’s job as a pickup driver for Sweet Meadow milk had paid him enough to buy the Chevy engine and have the bores done and transform the A into a beautiful, simple, invincible machine. By 1960 I had gone through college at the university at Chapel Hill. Beatty Sims had served a year in prison for running a cop off the road. Bambi had married and divorced and was living alone in a weathered tenant cabin on the field line of JJJ’s parents’ property, a trace of a hundred acres which they finally sold to the C.I.A. who built an underground monitoring system there. Bambi told me about the meetings at the BBQ nightlot, and the races out along the narrow two lane which passed over what we called chicken bridge, another one lane bridge, this one wooden, ten miles away, so named because whoever refused to keep pace, fender to fender, chickened out.
“What do you get, Lester?” I asked. “Money,” he answered. “You ought to know, Bobby. You’re there. Those college kids going to school with their year’s money on them. I get a bit.”
However in another five years Lester didn’t race anymore. He didn’t care about the money. I thought he was playing a losing game against diminishing skill. I supposed he took his car out to race by himself to preserve the illusion of a younger man’s co-ordination, the brain-hand-eye precision he had lost to ten years of pills and beer, loneliness and frustration. “You don’t know it all, Bobby,” my sister said in reference to my speculations.
So in the summer of 1965, when I was in Bliven for a weekend, I decided to set Lester up. Perhaps I wanted to prove my superiority over him once and for all. I planned to be with Lester at the BBQ when a college friend would drive in and challenge Lester for a bet large enough to entice him. My friend and I had staked a mule around a blind curve in the middle of the road. I was sure Lester, when he saw the animal blocking the road, would quit.
The race was arranged, Lester and my friend starting off and running the first mile even, each doing eighty on the curves. When they came to the blind curve my friend was in the lead by no more than half a car length. The mule heard the motors, and caught in the sudden spray of headlights, the animal moved, unbelievably gracefully sideways so that the animal straddled the center line, allowing just enough room on each flank for the cars to graze past. Lester didn’t let up, but my friend quit. He was so shaky he couldn’t feel the steering anymore. Lester laughed telling me about it. “But why did you set me up, Bobby? Why, Bobby? My life isn’t worth a damn, only my car is. You could have wrecked my car.”
A month later Lester killed a man in an argument, cut him up in the C-graded kitchen of a chili parlor near Siler City. Lester never said what the argument was about. “At night out on the road, Bobby, I could get away. Trouble was I always had to come back.” He meant Transcendence. For a while Lester transcended his life as he drove the night roads. Maybe he could have maintained the escape. Maybe my cheap trick had soured him, made it go wrong. In any event, Lester gave me the car to own. “There ain’t no road to drive in prison.” He turned after he had said that and followed the sheriff while a deputy followed him. They had locked chains around Lester’s skinny ankles. The faded blue prison shirt and pants fitted poorly on Lester’s five-eight body, all of a hundred pounds. “Lester won’t come out,” Bambi said. She was right. Lester hanged himself in his cell within the year.
So it’s my duty. I bring Lester’s car back to Bliven once each year. I ease it off the special trailer and park it by the Esso station. News travels fast. The next day everyone knows. Kids who were fathered by my classmates come down to examine the car. They lean over it, they don’t touch it; they seem to hold their breath. “Hey, Bobby,” one of them asks, “you going to race it?”
“I wish I could give the car away.” JJJ and Beatty nod. “You can’t, Bobby,” Beatty says, “no more than you can ever leave home. You just get to be a stranger in it.”
We walk up the hill to Beatty’s house. He hands me a flannel rag to clean the grease off my hands. “You’ve kept the car in fine shape,” he says. “I’d even trust you to work on my own.”
I answer: “I hate cars.” Beatty smiles. He knows that already down the moonless roadway the southern night — wind is calling my name and though I haven’t turned I will. Soon I will power through the darkness, my headlights spreading open the near darkness, holding it away before it closes behind me where I have gone, where Lester has gone, where all of us will go until we vanish forever in the greater darkness beyond.