Excerpt from “Drunk Man”
We picked him up south of town along the blacktop, this man known to be a drunk man, a man someone like my father couldn’t leave out there on a sweltering summer day. “It’s Odie Moad.” He was already slowing down, braking our Ford pickup. “Jesus.”
Ahead of us, heat vapor shimmered from the asphalt. The sun beat down on the dust covered weeds in the fencerows—milkweed and foxtail and turkey foot grass. The leaves on the sassafras and persimmon saplings curled for want of rain. A haze hung over the cornfields, the stalks tasseling now and spiking the air with pollen. My father pulled our pickup onto the shoulder and lifted his hook from the special spinner knob on the steering wheel that helped him drive. Hot air stopped rushing through our open windows. Above the hum of the idling engine, I could hear mourning doves calling somewhere in the distance, and the crackle of burnt weeds and grass underfoot as Odie Moad made his way to the passenger side of our truck.
He leaned in through the open window, and I smelled the whisky on his breath. The whisker stubble on his chin, silver-flecked in the sunlight, scraped my bare arm before I could move it away. “Hot,” he said, and my father asked him where he thought he was going. “Town,” he said, and my father said, “You’ll die of the heat stroke.”
I was fourteen, beat after a day of working on our farm, and I wanted to be in our house in town—the sooner, the better—stretched out on the floor in front of the box fan, letting the air move over me. I was fourteen. I had no time for a drunk man in need of a ride.
“Let him in,” my father told me, and, knowing I had no choice, I opened the door and stepped out into the weeds so he could climb in and sit between my father and me. Why didn’t I just slide over next to my father and let Odie have the seat by the window? I didn’t like the idea of him getting into our truck because he scared me, not because he was drunk—I realize this now—but because he was a certain sort of man common to that part of rural southern Illinois, a rough man, and I’d already started to catch on that I wasn’t going to be that kind of man at all. My parents and I had come back to southern Illinois after living six years near Chicago. Our time “up north” had been long enough to distance me from the often-coarse lives of men in the small farming town where we now lived. I didn’t want to be trapped between Odie and my father in that truck. I preferred whatever extra space sitting by the passenger side door would afford me.
Where’d he been? My father wanted to know, and Odie said he couldn’t remember.
“Somewheres, I guess.” He worked a crushed package of Pall Malls out of his shirt pocket, shook out the last cigarette, and let it dangle from his lips. He reached across me to toss the empty packet out the window, and then he looked at me and said to my father, “This your boy?”
“My right hand man,” my father said. He pulled the truck back onto the blacktop and mashed down on the accelerator. We picked up speed, and soon the hot air was whipping around us, and the telephone poles were flashing by as we headed toward town. “His head’s all full of girls,” my father said, and I looked out the window, wishing that my father and Odie weren’t talking about me, wishing I could be off by myself somewhere which was often where I lived best in those days, inside my own head where I was the truest person I could be, not puffed up with a swagger I didn’t really feel though I knew the company of men required it, but more the quiet, tender-hearted boy I really was, a boy more like my mother’s even-tempered nature than my father’s bluster. “He thinks he’s a real lover boy,” my father said.
That’s when Odie laid his hand on my thigh. “Boy, you got any lead in your pencil?”
“Sure.” I squirmed over closer to the door, but still Odie’s hand clamped down on my thigh.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.”
My father said in a quiet voice, “Leave the boy alone, Odie.”
“Aw, I’m just having fun with Mr. Lover Boy.”
“Odie,” my father said, “you ought to do something about yourself. When’s the last time you had a square meal.”
“I don’t know.” He took his hand off my leg. “Sometime a while back?” He stuck his hand in his pants pocket and pulled out a cigarette lighter. It was a stainless steel Zippo. He flipped up the lid, and I could see he’d somehow lost all the innards. There was no wick, windscreen, thumbwheel, or flint. All he had was an empty stainless steel casing. He held it up to his Pall Mall, and his thumb kept trying to find purchase, kept coming down on the rim of the casing. “Roll up that window,” he told me. “I can’t get my ciggie lit.”
“You’re off your nut,” my father told him. “Take a better look at that lighter.”
Odie stuck his finger into the empty casing. “I lost my goddamn lighter,” he said.
By this time, we were at the south end of town, coming past the first houses—the Caldwells, the Hecklers, the Griffins—and on down Christy Avenue past Sivert’s funeral home and the Christian Church and the school. We drove by the Sumner Press Office and Billy Jones’s Drug Store, on past the corner where Spec Atkins had his grocery on the west side and Burton Ferguson had his on the east side. My father turned left onto South Street and its short line of businesses—Piper’s Sundries, Buzz Eddie’s Pool Hall, Tubby’s Barber Shop, and Hazel and Abner’s Café. My father pulled the pickup into a diagonal parking spot in front of the café.
“C’mon, Odie,” he said. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
That was enough to shame him. “I don’t need no handout. Let me out of this damn truck.”
“I’d give you a five,” my father said, “but you’d just spend it on a pint.”
“I don’t have to listen to this.”
“No, you don’t have to listen on account you already know what you are.” My father nodded at me to open the truck door. “Go on with you, Odie. Go on and do whatever you’re a mind to.”
He crawled out of the truck, hitched his dirty Dickey work pants up around his bony hips, and stomped down the sidewalk, disappearing, finally, into the pool hall.
I got back into the truck, and my father and I sat there a while, neither of us saying a word.
“Don’t be that kind of man,” he finally said. “A no-account man.” And I told him I wouldn’t.