Felton picked up the frog—still kicking—and retied him by his leg onto the dogwood limb where he hung in a row of four victims, all riddled with pellet shot.
"Tough little punker, ain't he?" He turned the frog over, examining the wounds. "Look here, Pheus, got him twice in the butt." He looked up at me and grinned. His teeth consisted of rotted stumps from years of Skoal.
I smiled, painfully. I had on my Fred's Frozen Igloo red cap and I was watching another grown man examine a frog he had just riddled with pellets.
He returned to where I was standing about twenty feet away, cocked his rifle and fired again. The frog spun around.
"You try it," he said, handing the rifle to me.
I glanced across the yard at a big rig from International Paper in Savannah that had just then pulled in at Pump 12. I had to go back to the cash register because I knew the trucker smelled like a sewer and needed a shower and was hungry for a couple of our triple toxic Three Mile Island Hotdogs, a place to nap and later a bottle of Pepto. At Fred's Frozen Igloo we do have a system. Behind him and across the line of bushes that divided Fred's from McDonald's the booty shaker employees at McDonalds were gaping out the window at Felton with their palms flat against the tinted glass.
"Felton, this ain't only cruel," I said, "those girls over at Mickey D's are right now whispering about how sick the male of the species is."
Felton paid no mind to the booty shakers and pushed up his Braves cap, tugged his leather shooting gloves tighter and showed me his best rotten-tooth smile.
"What? You one of them bleedin' hearts can't take a little blood?"
"Felton, you're shootin' frogs! Little lice-headed boys in the mill village shoot frogs!"
He pumped his gun with his good hand and held the butt between his legs, pumping with his good hand. "You sayin' I need to wash my head or somethin'?"
He reached into the fishing bucket, pulled out another frog and tied him to the limb. A pudgy eight year old boy with a black Atlanta Falcons jersey on and cherry ring around his mouth slipped out the window of his gold SUV—Delaware plates—down to where Felton was annihilating amphibians. I looked back up the hill. No one saw him. I figured the boy's momma was inside and that she had explained to him in her clipped Delaware consonants that if he set foot outside the car between Jacksonville and Atlanta, the ax handle-waving ghost of Lester Maddox would jump out of the piney woods and eat him, but her warning hadn't phased him.
"Wanna shoot?" Felton asked. The boy nodded vigorously. He ran down the hill and stopped short, staring at the row of the condemned. About this time I was wondering just how this whole scenario would play out in the larger world. I mean I'm no PITA pushover for all the furry critters jumping around in Walt Disney flicks or nothing, but I figured Felton had just about reached the limits of something in the civilized world.
He gave the gun—already pumped—to the kid who took it, aimed and fired and missed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Scarring the life of a child isn't a punishable offense in One Round—unless it involves teaching him heretical theology about the Georgia bulldogs, but somewhere inside my store right now there was a momma who might think otherwise.
"That's enough," I said. "You head on back up to your car, sonny."
"Phe-e-us," Felton whined. All of a sudden he's Mr. Boy's Club. He showed the boy how to aim a little better and lo and behold the kid hit one of the dead frogs. A few more guts drip out. The boy stared at the frog, dropped the gun and started bawling.
When his mother appeared, Felton waved at the woman like they had sucked heads together at the local Dairy Queen and motioned for her to come on down for a Mason-Dixon reunion. The boy was going into body trembling—long shudders that sounded like some geriatric ghost. The mother, a snappy black chick in stiletto heels and sun glasses, marched down the slope with both fists balled and stormed to within three inches of Felton and his rotted teeth.
"It's cretins like you who give the south a bad name!"
She turned and pulled her boy away by the back of his shirt even while he wailed and reached into a sack she was carrying full of Tootsie Pops. He had one unwrapped before they got up the hill. With the Tootsie Pop in his mouth he shot Felton a bird. Felton returned the courtesy.
"Cute little two-timer, weren't he?"
Felton was a short, wiry man with a gnarled left hand and a Braves hat on backwards. He had to sit the pellet gun barrel on his disabled hand, then work the barrel down into the natural crook and fire. Around One Round he was known as Worm Daddy, a bait farmer. He had a well-tended worm farm down by the Big Mammy where he was lord of several acres of massive gardens: rows of trenches labeled "Red Wigglers", centipedes, Big Boppers, chub worms, and our local favorite, the diving doober. Also, several corrugated sheds temperature-controlled for crickets, grasshoppers and such. And even weird items like white bread and cheese balls for the serious catfish fans, pre-packaged with the comic "Worm Daddy" logo that showed a wiggler with a top hat and cane leaning off a hook, doffing his hat to his fans. The Great Satan in Felton's world was Fishbites, artificial worms that dissolve in the water and leave a worm-smelling scent the fish love, especially bass and catfish. When fishermen came in praising Fishbites, Felton—with his rotten teeth glaring like a mad dog—went mildly beserk. I even made the mistake once of stocking a few. He wouldn't deliver to me for a month.
Felton's bait was world class. Every TV channel in the Wiregrass had covered it. Whatever he sold me sold out because One Round locals know their bait fishing and they know The Worm Daddy is the best so I gave him leave to carry on his frog foolery under the dogwoods out beside Fred's Frozen Igloo where I was manager.
"Don't give that gun to any more kids," I said.
"Aw, he was just warmin' up to the blood lettin'."
I went back inside, where an boy running frozen Popeye's out of Moultrie had an armful of Coke, sweet rolls, Car and Driver, potted meat and saltines which I stuffed into a white, plastic Fred's sack. After he disappeared into the bunk room, I stepped back out to see how the great white hunter was faring.
A stretch limo drove up, the only one in One Round. It belonged to Metonymy O'Toole, socialite daughter of Gutterball O'Toole, our local kaolin millionaire. She also lived in the only mansion in the county, which Gutterball had named Warwick. The locals called it: Airwick.
Metonymy stepped out, her face was so fat and puffy from alcohol that her jaws sagged. She shielded her eyes from the sun as she watched Felton firing at amphibians. She was blond and wearing crisp new jeans and carrying a tiny white poodle. I could see the way she pulled her sunglasses down and eyed him that she was sizing Felton up.
"I can improve your score," she said, loud enough for Felton to hear. Her deep, tobacco filtered voice sounded almost fake.
Felton turned around slowly. He shielded his eyes from the sun.
"I ain't keepin' score," he said with a slow drawl.
Metonymy opened her trunk and pulled out a .30-30. I started to put a stop to what I was afraid was going to happen. Apart for being a brat, Metonymy O'Toole is also one of the best shots in the county. Most local hunters who are fool enough to think they can shoot have been suckered into a competition with her and they have lost.
From about forty yards she fired. Wincing, Felton stooped down with his fingers in both ears. I backed up, stunned. Truckers do weird things, especially at night, but I've never seen one fire off a deer rifle round at a dogwood sprouting dead frogs. I turned to see if anybody was calling the sheriff on their cells. The girls over at McDonald's were jumping up and down, mouths open and their chewing gum showing and waving for everybody to come to the window to watch. Inside my place several locals sauntered came to the door. When they saw it was Metonymy, they all stepped out to watch.
Her shot blew the frog limb clean off the dogwood tree. About six inches around, the limb rolled over on its side entangling the dead frogs in the dogwood leaves. The echo rattled around down in the pines behind Fred's until it sounded like it was coming from everywhere in those weird waves high-powered rifles make. So to the already toxic, carboniferous air at Fred's you could add the stink of gunpowder. I expected the yard to go up in flames.
Felton ambled over to the limb, kicked it, looked back at me. Then, he stooped and examined the splayed white dogwood meat with the BB gun on his shoulder.
Shaking his head, he started chuckling. With his pellet gun on his shoulder he climbed the grassy knoll where Metonymy was standing with the .30-30 on her shoulder.
I stormed out, pointing my finger at her. "You want to blow us all to kingdom come?"
Felton put out his hand to stop me. He reached in his jacket pocket for a wadded-up five dollar bill, which he unwadded and handed to me.
"Pheus, hush your mouth, and go buy Annie Oakley here a beer."
"You know squeezing off a round from a deer rifle with all this gas is breaking a whole slew of laws," I pointed out when I returned with the beer. She scratched a match off the sole of her shoe and lit up a Winston. Felton was more and more impressed. He stood by as she and I chatted and didn't say much, but from time to time he gave off this silly, high pitched wheeze and went into a doubled-up posture at something Metonomy said.
"Some people think women can't shoot," Metonomy said. She cupped her cigarette like a man. "My momma taught me to shoot from a moving pickup. Did you ever see a BB Gun make a heart in a Valvoline can?"
Felton's eyes lit up.
"Set up some targets," she said to Felton who scurried to the dumpster to retrieve some empty Valvoline cans. The two marched down the slope, Felton panting like a puppy. He fired first, then Metonymy reached around him, showing how to shoulder the rifle tighter against his shoulder.
They returned with a Valvoline can riddled with pellet holes in the shape of a heart. Soon, they were drinking beer, in the limo, all doors open, while customers and truckers wheeled in and out. When a family of Asians emptied out their van at the next pump, it looked like Custer's Last Stand with the lovers limo in the middle surrounded by oriental Sioux. The couple appeared oblivious. I glanced at them from time to time as I rang up sales. Felton was laughing and drinking fast. He glanced inside at me working the register, gave me a Bud toast and smiled, showing his rotten upper teeth. I waved back. I have caught truckers abusing my cots in the bunk room; I have seen romance flourish behind a Dempsey Dumpster—but the wild child daughter of an eighty year old millionaire hooking up with a worm farmer with one good arm and rotten teeth?
In an hour Metonymy returned for two six packs and a carton of cigarettes. She leaned on the counter, talked to me out of the side of her mouth so as to keep anyone else from hearing. "He'll do once we get those rotten teeth capped. Daddy knows a dentist in Atlanta," she said as she gave him a fake smile and a wave through the glass.
I smelled weed. I looked in her eyes.
"I don't allow Mary Jane on my lot, "I said as I handed her the Winstons.
She wagged her head back and forth. "Pheus, the stuff you don't allow is the only stuff that's fun."
I watched as her driver sped out, spinning wheels and flinging gravel.
That weekend I was working Saturday night when a black Benz wheeled up at Pump 1. A black chauffeur stepped out, followed by Felton, who stumbled and caught himself with his flat hand before he hit the concrete. I could see inside the smoke-filled car: Metonomy was unscrewing a bottle of Vodka. She was wearing an orange and blue bikini.
Felton made his way to the back freezer where he picked up a quart of Orange juice. "Hey, it's my shootin' buddy, Pheus!" he said as he wove down the bread aisle, waving his orange juice. At the counter he rocked back and forth. He handed me Metonymy's Master Card.
"You can't sign for that," I said.
"'tonomy says it's OK."
"I don't care what she says."
Felton staggered back out to the car. In a moment she tumbled out, but she wasn't as wasted as Felton. She stormed over to the store entrance, dropped her cigarette and squashed it with her bare foot before she opened the glass doors.
Without saying anything to me, she grabbed a pen and scribbled her name flamboyantly across the receipt.
"Won't even trust me to have my own name forged," she whispered loudly. She drummed her freshly-painted fingernails on the counter top. Her eye shadow was powder blue and her lashes were thick and black. She glared at me.
"I notice he still has those bad teeth."
She showed me a photograph of caps. "Forty thousand dollars. We're going in a month. Makes you feel like you’re chewing the sirloin with your own teeth."
I looked outside. Felton was throwing up by The BP Diesel. A black SUV rolled by with several kids hanging out and screaming: "Look at the man barf, daddy. Let's stop! Let's stop!"
"Oh, hell," Metonomy said. She went to the door, opened it and turned back to look at me. "That boy cannot hold his liquor."
I took the mop out of the bathroom.
The SUV stopped and the dad leaned out the window with his camera. He was tall and blond and wore a New York Yankees baseball cap.
"Great local color shot" he said, as I turned around from mopping to stare at him. "We're from Connecticut. There's so much color and life here in the South."
I returned to swabbing the mess Felton had made. He leaned his head out of the window. "Pheus, buddy, I'm awfully sorry." He motioned for me to come closer. I came as close as I could without igniting. "Ain't she a pistol!" he whispered. His breath smelled like a bucket of hydrochloric acid. I nodded and smiled and the limo driver gunned the big car out of Fred's lot down onto the interstate where it was soon out of sight.
A few weeks later I pulled up at the The Prozac. Clouds were low and grey-fat, threatening a spring rain. Through the window I could see the group sitting in a circle in front of the washing machines. The group was large that night. The washing machines were filled with sudsy underwear and the air was thick with smoke and coffee. My girl, Ash, runs the therapy sessions on a donation basis. She's working her way through One Round Tech on the change she picks up. Sometimes it's over fifty bucks a night. The clients come in—mostly retirees, Mexicans, meth addicts—drop a buck in a cigar box by the door and tell the group their troubles. Later Ash leads them in a meditation session: they watch the clothes go round. Sounds silly, but there's something to it. I love watching the underwear go round. I sit next to Ash on one of the pews she brought in from a dilapidated church, drink in her sweet smell, her long brown hair and let her scratch my neck with those nails of hers and I'm a happy man. All her boys swear The Prozac makes them feel better. Some claim they don't need anymore drugs and most have stopped going to the VA in Dublin. That's where the nearest certified therapist is. Most of the regulars who have been to the VA tell Ash: "Thank God you don't have a Ph. D."
Felton walked in, looking low. He pulled up a chair in the circle, took off his dirty cap, revealing a few dark strands that crossed over a sweaty scalp.
"She says I got to get my teeth fixed," he said, like it was a death sentence.
I asked him to explain the situation to the group. Ash scribbled some notes on a yellow pad and nodded at the right moments. Felton pulled up a Styrofoam coffee cup and flicked ashes into it as he continued:
"I don't know, Pheus. She's rich and a lot of fun, but I like my teeth just like they are. I mean I live with worms and crickets. They don't care."
I could see this was a delicate situation. Teeth are real personal. I mean some of the most private things you do include your teeth: you nurse at your momma's breast, you nip your girl's ear lobe, you kiss. Ash picked up quickly what a tricky issue this was and started asking Felton some good break up the hard ground questions, most of which didn't have a thing to do with teeth, but were designed just to make him feel snug as a puppy in the group. She went on for a long time. The others boys were respectful, too. Then she zeroed in with a zinger:
"Felton, do you love Metonomy?"
Suck-in. Everybody in the group backed out like their four-by-four just jammed in a mud bog and they were gunning reverse like crazy. One little Mexican dude started rolling his dark eyes and his nostrils started expanding and contracting. Ash saw she'd hit a mother load, so she backed off.
She explained that love was a powerful force. "You have a perfect right to feel that way about teeth," she said, "but if you're going to live with someone"—and here she glanced at me—"you have to take their feelings into account."
Felton nodded like a schoolboy who'd just found out the school bully was going to crush his fingers under the see saw.
Ash leaned over with her yellow pad clutched to her breast. "There are some people who think a man with bad teeth is not physically appealing."
Felton hung his head. This was painful. I gave her a signal to go easy. Wormdaddy was having trouble putting it together. I figured Metonomy was the first woman who'd shown any interest in him in the twenty years since his wife had died. All the emotional undertow was dragging him out into a sea he just couldn't swim in.
After he left, Ash took me over near Big Number One , the washer the fire department boys use when they come in en mass to clean their half-incinerated undies. We sat in front and washed the underclothes spin round and round. The sweet soapy smell and the clothes turning whiter and whiter was a comfort. Ashe sighed and leaned her head onto my shoulder.
"Pheus, he's so pitiful."
"How many men has she done this to?"
"About five years ago Coach Beeson at One Round High took up with her. He lost his wife and his job. Looks don't matter. It's something she sees in them. I think it's their innocence she sees and she wants to destroy it. Remember that Baptist preacher over in Wrightsville, the one with the singing voice you liked so much—same thing happened to him, only in reverse. He lost his job first, then his wife."
"I think she's evil."
After that I didn't see Felton for a week. I called his house, left a message on his machine—"If it don't wiggle on the hook, the bass don't look!"—but he didn't return any of my calls. I was afraid of running out of bait. My truckers will often pull off the interstate and hang a hook in some puny trickle out behind their motel, but if I'm out of bait, they truck down to Wonderwilli's. Willi has three little tow-headed boys that dig doobers for him in the swamp out back so he always has a steady supply. Plus he hawks meth and aderol on the side. "Pick you up and take you down," Willi says as his flabby arms ring up another drug sale. I didn't want to go bust because I was out of fish bait so Ash and me hopped in the truck and made our way down into the woods to the Big Mammy.
The dirt road descended into scuppernong and kudzu where the thick sweet leaves darkened and cooled the air. As we approached the river I could hear it rushing, like a god exhaling long and slow. Felton lived on the only rapids on the river. Ahead his double wide sat in silhouette against the wide open space by the river. Leaning against it was a rusted steel traffic cop with his white-gloved hand raised.
We found himself sitting by the river, throwing rocks at dragon flies with his help, Skeets. Skeets was a short, wiry black who always wore a sock cap, winter or summer and a sleeveless undershirt. Energetic, he moved up and down the wriggler rows digging out the "frog bellies," as he called the fat worms, and depositing them carefully into large white cartons with a wire handle. His drinking and fighting had cost him an eye.
"One night I popped off five," Skeets said, as we sat down. "That's a record, ain't it Mr. Felton?"
Felton side armed a shot and nodded. "Skeets coulda been in the major leagues. Some kinda pitchin' eye."
Skeets grinned and nodded.
Mist had begun to settle in over the river, flat on the bottom, but wavy and dreamy on top. The four of us sat and watched it spread until it climbed the banks and crept out over the rows of wigglers like a cotton stuffing to keep the worms snug in their loam for the night. A fresh, dank scent came with it that led Ashe to sigh and slip her arm under mine.
Skeet squatted at the water's edge where he dug small stones out and washed them off. He believed these were the best for dragonflies.
"They flies more straight," he said.
Felton told us the whole story: "Pheus, you ain't ever seen anything like it. We flew up in her Daddy's jet. Got a bar and five or six giant plasma TV's, but he don't watch nothing but the stock ticker. Just sits there, fat and pale like some sick toad with his earphones on and some little English dude talking at him a mile a minute about oil and stocks and what all. There was some French movie on Metonymy liked about people standing around in the fog in some garden and staring at each other and talking on and on about how distant and alien they felt so I told her to switch to "Die Hard I" which I knew for fact was on Turner, but she got all prissy about what a hick I was and snorted some coke. I ain't messin' with that stuff. Nuh-uh, not this boy. Makes her all loopy and she starts singing 'bout how Lucy's in the Sky, Lucy's in the Sky. Hygienist was from Dublin so at least I knew one real person there. Went to this million dollar place downtown Atlanta. Pheus, them people are giants. They ain't like humans. I was looking up—I mean UP—at these giant football and basketball players there with women hanging round their necks. Metonymy disappeared with two Falcons, her special friends, and I didn't see her again until two or three in the morning. They brung her out and laid her real gentle-like in the back seat."
He opened his mouth. "See my new choppers?"
Skeets bounded up the bank with a hand full of smooth stones. He bobbed his head down and looked from the bottom up and pointed with his index finger nearly in Felton's mouth. "F-o-r-t-y thousand dollars! Woo-wee!" He shook his head and fired off another rock at a dragonfly.
Felton's smile revealed a sparkling set of caps that could have belonged to a movie star. I looked at the teeth; I looked at Felton. This was the man I had known for years. Teeth don't change a man, but I had to admit now there was something about him I had never seen before. Some second Felton had slipped in while I had my back turned and had taken over my friend's body.
Ashe gave a quick glance and patted him on the shoulder. "Felton, they're beautiful," Ashe said, squeezing my arm as if to say: "Be nice, now."
Felton curled his lips under so we could see everything. I looked into Ashe's eyes. They were saying what I should have been thinking. They said: Have mercy on this poor man. He has lived here by the river with his worms and his crickets most of his adult life, ashamed, though he would never admit it, of his own looks. Now some bright spot has come into his world. Some taste of the good life, even if it is a little overcooked. As usual, Ashe was right. Down by the banks of the Big Mammy, amid two acres of red wigglers and doobers and crickets, Worm Daddy now had beautiful teeth.
Weeks passed. The couple stopped in en route to baseball games, NASCAR, Disneyworld or Willie Nelson or some retread rock group from the sixties. Usually, they traveled in a garish pack, loud women in glittering dresses, or oily-coiffed men in costly informal wear. The men sometimes strutted around the yard with a bourbon glass in hand, chins aloft, eyeing the truckers as if they were roaches. Felton was often drunk. Sometimes his head would be flush against the windshield, his comb-over uncombed, his lips pressed like some slimy undersea creature against the window and his new teeth exposed as if they were an exhibit in a science museum. Other times he emerged and slapped me on the back, some English lord bragging about his world class red wigglers, but I could see the dark signs of sleep deprivation in his eyes.
Metonymy ordered him around like yard help. "Get in the car. It's time to go." Or: "Can't you read! I said Winstons!" Even their regular driver looked frustrated. A plump black with a grey, neatly trimmed moustache, he took two puffs from every cigarette and stamped it out. Self-disciplined. Rumor had it that of all his friends, family or employees, Gutterball confided in him alone and had even written him into his will.
Normally, his eyes were straight ahead, never a sign that he felt any emotion. As the weeks wore on, and the partying grew more frantic, he began to roll his eyes and even shake his head at me as if to solicit my commiseration as we both watched this man eater devour her man.
One night as I was locking up the phone rang. It was Skeets calling to say there was something wrong with "Mr. Felton."
When I arrived, Felton was out in the middle of his worm rows naked except for his jockey underwear. The moon was high above the water, half-full, gazing down with a puzzled face at what was happening. Instead of walking down the neatly drawn paths Skeet swept to keep clean, where there were typed labels with little Worm Daddy logos on each, Felton was tromping through the mounds. Laughing wildly, he held great clumps of worms up to the moon; then he threw them in the air and stooped and thrust both arms up to his elbows in the soft loam. Dozens of slithery coiling bodies that seemed to be the very life of the soil itself ripped out of the earth's body clung to his fingers and hands and wrists . He held up for the moon to inspect.
"Worm Daddy!" he shrieked. "Look at the Worm Daddy! Little punky hick high lifin' it in her daddy's Lear jet to Atlanta—to have his goddamned teeth fixed! Party down! Worm Daddy!" Wigglers squirmed over his arms and neck and chest. He even dropped them on his head like a drunken Medusa. "Fetch me a drink. Fetch it, go on! Nice boy! Nice, little Worm Daddy. Oooooh, ritzy nightclub. Women: black, Asian. Worm Daddy likes Asian! But Worm Daddy smells—he smells—" He started bawling. "Said take another shower dammit! You still stink! Scrub the stink off, gotta scrub it off!" He started scraping the worms off his body. "Go 'way, get off. Worm Daddy smells—snorting lines of coke—Worm Daddy tried one. Puked. Puked out the Big Mammy—no more coke for the Worm Daddy—"
Skeets was in the doorway to the trailer, crouched and rocking and wringing his hands like an old woman.
"Mr. Pheus, he torn up my garden. Taken me years to get that garden right!"
We dragged him inside the trailer where Skeets made coffee and we calmed Felton down. Soon, he started crying again, softly.
"I'm just old Worm Daddy, Pheus, old Worm Daddy. That's what she calls me. That's what all her rich-ass friends call me. They treat me like I'm some joke. All the cars and clothes and snobs. Old Worm Daddy."
Skeets was crouched in the corner, shaking. I knew he had sworn off the bottle years ago and that Felton had helped him stay off and I could see this was putting ideas into his head that involved brown bags and Arriba or Thunderbird. I forced him to drink some coffee, too.
"I never wanted to have my teeth fixed. I liked my teeth fine just the way they were. It was her and that fat, heartless daddy of hers. He said: "You get this redneck's teeth fixed if he's going any where with me. I didn't have no choice Pheus. I couldn't say no—could I?"
Later, Ashe and I discussed the problem in front of Big Number One at the Prozac. She had just finished a load of her own wash so the big door stood open wide and the sweet, soapy air filled the room. We sat on folded chairs and sipped coffee.
"Pheus, you need to talk to the man."
This was Ashe the Baptist. When a man is walking into an open fire and he doesn't see the flames, you have to stop him. "Tell him what a destructive path this woman is leading him down."
I shook my head. "Baby, I have seen this happen many times before. A friend attempts to intervene to help his buddy out. What happens? The friend gets blamed for the awful out come."
She stared at me and chewed her thumb. I moved her hand away.
"I know," she said. "Don't say it. I'm worrying too much about somebody else's problem, but what if she gets him hooked on drugs and then drops him and he won't have any place to get them any more and he starts robbing and stealing to pay for his habit?"
"And what can I do about that?"
She sighed deeply and leaned back into her chair. "Pray."
Then and there we prayed for Felton. We asked God to guide him and keep him safe. We talked a long time after we realized there wasn't much else we could do and that sometimes in life there are times when you just have to stand by and watch as a friend walks into that fire and there is little you can do to stop him or help him or save him. I have heard parents say this is what it's like watching a teenager take a wrong turn. We hugged and she cried and we tried to push it all away from us but both us felt this could end up nowhere but in a tragedy.
The peach man was in and I was up to my elbows in Houston County beauties, hauling them off his eighteen wheeler and setting up a stand in front of Fred's to attract the Orlando-bound Yankees. I was standing inside the truck, straining under the load of a basket when I saw Felton's old red pickup pull in and Skeets hop out the driver's side and deliver a box inside, and get back in. Felton drove. He looked solemn as they drove away up I-75 toward Macon. I put the basket down and crossed the yard. It was a hot July morning. Fat, rain-heavy clouds were still silver white above us, but truckers were pulling in with a thirst for everything so the drinks were flying and I was already sweating. Inside, my clerk handed me the package. It was a worm carton tied shut with kite string. There was a note: to Pheus. It read: I am going to Mississippi. I am going to look at some giant doobers my cousin says will make me a millionaire. Back in a week. I told Metonymy to stop by Fred's at two o'clock. Please give her this box your self. Your friend, Felton."
At two-fifteen Metonymy pulled up in a black BMW convertible. Her hair was in a pony tail which she had threaded through an Atlanta Braves hat. As usual, she was in high heels and starched jeans. She rushed into the store with her heels popping on the concrete. She paid no attention to the box on the counter, instead, she picked up a glamour magazine and flipped through it.
"OK—where is he?" she said without looking up.
I didn't look at her, either. "Mississippi," I said. I was on the foot ladder stuffing Doral's into the slots over the register.
She looked up from the magazine. "What?"
Slowly, I stepped off the ladder and picked up the box. "He's in Mississippi."
"Well, why in hell did he want me to stop by here?"
"He left you a present," I said as I presented her with the box.
"Can I open it?"
She rolled her eyes and looked at her watch. "OK, get this show on the road. I got a hair appointment in two hours in Atlanta."
I untied the box while she continued to flip through her magazine. Inside, on white cotton, were Felton's caps. There were chunks of what appeared to be nerve endings and raw flesh, and dried blood was everywhere—on the cotton, in the box. It was as if he had ripped them out of his mouth with pliers and thrown them haphazardly in, not caring how they landed, not caring what appearance or impression he made or what state they were in. Ripped out. Like turnips. Not hygienically removed with the soft music of the dentist office where you can squirt the blood into a disappearing vortex, but yanked out, one by one, with the pain and blood dripping from his mouth while one hand was trembling and gripping a table or a counter top where the blood must have spattered over the top onto the condiments and neat boxes of spice and herbs. Some were probably beaten out, maybe with a hammer, if the pliers couldn't do the trick until they were all gone, all the artifice of dental technology, forty thousand dollars worth gone into the same box that normally held the one thing of value in Felton's life: worms.
"That son of a bitch!" she said. "Would you look at that? Just look at it? I pick him up out of his worm hell and this is how he pays me back."
Within minutes she had filled a shopping bag full of beer and junk food and was peeling out onto I-16 for Atlanta. Felton was already forgotten.
The small Chicano peered in at the plastic container Ashe had stored Felton's teeth in. Unconsciously, he grabbed his upper teeth between his index finger and thumb and tugged. "With pliers?"
Ashe stood beside the teeth with her arms folded. "When your love isn't founded on a rock bed of honesty and a mutual love of God—this is what can happen," she said. She had on her stern face. Her hair was back in a bun and one hand held a freshly-sharpened pencil which she used to emphasize her points.
Tonight's group at The Prozac was small, a few grizzled meth head truckers trying to get their hauling license back and get back on the road, a few dusty thick-booted Chicanos and one cocky black man sporting a skully and a scar down his cheek. The room was thick with layers of cigarette smoke. Ashe had put Felton's teeth on a small table in the middle of the group so every one would be forced to look at them.
"Man," the Chicano said, shaking his head and reclining as if to say he had reached a major conclusion, "that dude must be crazy."
The man in the skully shook his head, sniffed and took a long drag off his cigarette, then blew the smoke out his nostrils. "Woman'll DRIVE you crazy," he said.
Ashe took the clear plastic container off the table and passed it around the group so that each man could hold it and look at it. A silence descended. These were men who understood pain, but its resurrection here in this clump of bloody teeth left even these world weary pilgrims speechless. Behind them Big Number One, soapy and steadily turning, was just beginning to cleanse the items closest to their bodies.