My boss looked at me for a long while before he stated the obvious.
“You look like hell,” he told me.
I didn’t doubt him. I’d sure looked terrible in the rearview mirror of my truck earlier that morning, and I didn’t expect that the long drive back into town had improved my appearance any.
When I came to that morning, I was covered in mud and damn near froze to death from the cold and the rain. At first I didn’t know where I’d slept or what time it was, much less how I got there. My head was throbbing as I sat up to survey the situation. I was wedged under a scraggly cedar tree on a steep slope. As my eyes focused up the hillside, I recognized where I was easy enough. A forested Ozark mountain towered over me. To the west of the peak was a gap cut in the trees at the top of the ridgeline for a road that wound up a sheer climb through some switchbacks and narrow stretches.
I knew right where I was. For some crazy reason, I’d spent the night up on Hinkle Mountain. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy camping out there, and camping was legal on Conservation Department land, but I somehow knew that I hadn’t been out there camping. There wasn’t any tent, or sleeping bag, or sign of a campfire. My only shelter was a few scraggly cedar trees on the north-facing slope of the mountain. As I got my bearings I saw my old pickup above me, almost up to the spot where CC Highway crested the ridge.
There was nothing to do but scrabble up the mountainside to the truck. When I got there and looked in the mirror, my face had that haggard look of a man who hadn’t slept in a long time. There were bits of cedar in my hair and beard. Cold mud clung to me and slicked my clothes in a red clay slime. I needed a shower, but the rising sun and the clock in the truck told me that I was fixin’ to be late to work. My cell phone was nowhere to be found, but given how wet I was I reckoned it wouldn’t work even if I could find it.
At least it wasn’t raining anymore. I remembered something about there being a lot of rain, but it was all hazy.
Fortunately, I had a change of clothes inside my truck, stashed away in a plastic bag. That was a pretty damn weird thing to bring along for what I could only assume was one hell of a Sunday night bender. There was also a wad of cash in the bag, near $500 in all. Why would I need that kind of money? Had I raided the stash from my refrigerator? And how hadn’t I spent the money on whatever chemical it was that left me strung out on the side of an Ozark mountain overnight? God, I didn’t even know what I’d took, but it sure didn’t seem like I’d be able to piss clear for my next parole meeting.
I remembered something about Ralph and maybe Paul, or maybe it was that Ralph and I were looking for Paul? Why would Ralph be partying with me on a Sunday night when he had to work then? Come to think of it, why would I be partying on a Sunday night? I seemed to recall that for some reason I’d spent Saturday night home all alone. There was something going on that I was forgetting, something bad. Something that made my head hurt.
I wiped the worst of the mud off of me with the cleanest parts of my clothes as I stripped them off. For some reason I’d left the truck near to the top of Hinkle Mountain, parked neatly and with the keys in the ignition. It was a stupid place to leave a vehicle, since there wasn’t any shoulder to speak of along there and scarcely room enough in the road for traffic to get around it. No one had hit it, though, which was the biggest thing. It wasn’t like the sheriff spent a lot of time out on CC Highway looking for illegally parked vehicles, and nobody was going to call the police over a truck by the side of the road on Hinkle Mountain. At least I didn’t have law enforcement to worry about.
I rubbed my temples at the thought about coffee. God, did I ever need some coffee, but there wasn’t time for that if I was going to avoid getting fired. I got dressed as fast as I could right there alongside CC Highway. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember what we had been doing or taking that caused me to wake up on a mountainside halfway to Arkansas in the cold and wet. I drove into town as fast as I could, so as to not be too late for work. Along the way I tried not to think too much about why there was some ratty duffel bag in the passenger’s floorboard, full of clothes that were too small for me, along with an entire box of ammunition to fit a gun that I didn’t own and that was nowhere to be found.
That’s all to explain how it is that my boss wasn’t a-telling me anything I didn’t already know when he said I looked like hell. Hank caught me as I drug my ass into work that morning and set right in to reaming me. The thing is, you don’t have to look pretty to build cabinets, so it didn’t matter what I looked like. You do need steady hands, though, and mine sure were shaking with cold and fear and God only knows what was still in my system, so I kept my hands in my pockets while Hank bawled me out for being ten minutes late to clock in. He sure was making a big deal out of it, even though lots of guys are later than that on a Monday morning.
“You ought to just go on home,” he hollered, “if you think that you can just show up to work when you feel like it, without so much as calling in sick or to take a vacation day when you ain’t going to be here!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I finally shot back at him. “You’re telling me I’m supposed to take ten minutes of vacation time if I’m running a little late on a Monday morning? Whatever happened to just making up the time at the end of my shift?”
Hank looked at me with something that drifted between anger and pity until his expression finally settled on the latter.
“You poor, stupid son of a bitch,” he said, shaking his head at me. “You need to go to the clinic and have them check you into someplace that can help you get straight. I might even be able to hire you back again once you’re pissing clear.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” I shouted at him, even though I was damn sure that I didn’t want to take a urine test just then. I never could stand Hank’s condescension.
Hank put a firm hand on my shoulder before answering me.
“Son, it’s Wednesday.”
I don’t know what you’re supposed to do after getting fired for missing two entire goddam days of work that you don’t even remember happening, but I can tell you what I did. I went to the bar. At least, I tried to go to the bar (we only have one in town). Only, I’d forgot that it wasn’t even 10:00 in the morning yet. Of course the Roadhouse wasn’t open. I’d have to get enough booze to cope with whatever the hell was happening to me some other way.
It’s hard to remember exactly when the black sedan started following me. It probably tailed me from the cabinet factory to the Roadhouse. It definitely followed me from the Roadhouse to the liquor store, and I think that I even noticed its menacing presence despite my addled state. I’m pretty sure that’s why I was so worked up that Louise Miller at the checkout counter tried to talk me out of buying my booze. I guess that I was even more agitated than you would expect for a guy buying cheap booze for a bout of day drinking.
What I do know for sure is that I was a-coming out of Holler Liquor with three handles of cheap whiskey in a brown paper bag when I saw that strange car parked across the road in the insurance agent’s lot. It was strange because of how normal it would have been someplace else, like it was picked out to blend in by some city person who’d never spent time in a town of less than a thousand folks deep in the Ozarks.
We don’t drive generic black sedans around here. Most of the men and even a lot of the women drive pickup trucks. Trucks are useful for hauling stuff like tools, equipment, deer stands, and a deer after you shot it from your deer stand. Even if you don’t drive a pickup truck, you’re probably going to drive something like an SUV that can handle the rough roads in the area, and I can promise you they get plenty rough around here. Sometimes a teenage boy filled with testosterone and the aspiration to be a mechanic will buy a car and try to soup it up into a hot rod, but those cars become flashy rides, not plain passenger vehicles conspicuously trying to be inconspicuous. Plus, I knew damn near everyone in town. In the entire place, there’s maybe a half dozen four door sedans, and ain’t none of them black. And all of them are dirtier than the clean but boring car I saw across the street from Holler Liquor that morning.
I didn’t even bother to tell myself that I was seeing things or being paranoid. I knew something was up with that blaringly bland car and the man sitting in it, a man who, just like his ride, managed to be so nondescript as to make me feel prickles all up and down my neck. He looked to be about 40 years old, but in that way where if you checked his birth certificate he could turn out to be anywhere between 20 and 70 without surprising you. The hair of his head was somewhere between blond and brown, and unlike most of the menfolk around here he didn’t have a so much as a hint of a beard, not even stubble. I could feel him watching me tote my whiskey to the truck.
I was already feeling real jumpy. I was afraid of something, something even worse than being blacked out and then fired and inevitably sent back to prison for a failed drug test, but I just couldn’t remember what it was that I was scared of. Every nerve in my body was on a high alert, and I figured that little fucker in the black car might have something to do with whatever it was that had my nerves all a-jangle. I was going to have to have a little talk with him and maybe persuade him to answer my questions using methods that would most definitely violate the terms of my parole, but I didn’t want to do that in the middle of town. Fortunately, in a small town you’re never more than a few blocks away from being out of town.
I turned out of the liquor store parking lot like I was a-heading to my duplex, and that little black car turned out to follow me. Then I pulled into the gas station and filled my tank up, just to see what that little black car would do. It turned down Sally Street there by the station and slowly rolled out of my sight. I left the truck as it filled and walked to look down the street, never once believing that the little black car was gone. Naturally, I saw that it had done a u-turn on Sally and parked facing toward the station where the driver could watch me exit after pumping gas.
As I screwed my gas cap back on, I worked out what I was going to do to get that bastard someplace where i could ambush him and make him talk. It was a crazy plan, but then again I wasn’t in my right mind. When I fired up my truck, I exited the gas station and then made a quick turn onto Sally Street just as that little black car was coming out the other direction. I kind of expected the driver’s face to look confused or angry or something as I went by him, but he just looked as placid as could be. I gunned my engine and was going 45 mph through the neighborhood by the time I got to the end of the street. In my mirror, I saw the black car do another u-turn and head after me. I blew right through the stop sign where Sally meets Fifth Street, and then I was going as fast as I could a-heading out of town and into the thick of the woods.
Just like I expected, once I cleared the city limits going as fast as my truck’ll run that black sedan showed up in my rearview mirror again, and it was gaining on me. I didn’t think that I could lose him that easy, and I didn’t even want to lose him. I just wanted to get a little space between us and lead him to a place that I knew.
I jerked my steering wheel hard and turned into the old quarry. It’s supposed to be locked up, but me and the boys tore the gate down last fall so that we could drink out there, and so far nobody had put it back up. The trees had been thinned out all around the big hole to make it easier to haul stone out, but over the years sprouts had grown up. Just before I ran into the big old open pit, I skidded to a stop in the firm gravel where the big trucks used to be loaded. I left the truck as bait and scrambled into the thick clump of cedar brush where me, Paul, and Ralph had hid that time the sheriff came out after that dipshit Paul set off some big-ass fireworks last November. If the sheriff’s deputies couldn’t spot us in there, I was pretty sure that some son of a bitch from out of town like that man in the black car wouldn’t be able to spot me until it was too late.
I saw that black car drive in at a calm but urgent pace. It never hesitated, it just wheeled right around and rolled over to the cedars until it stopped between me and my truck. So much for surprising him. Then that little bastard got out of the car and started walking toward me there in the cedars. He called out in a thin, reedy voice, “Come out, Mr. Carpenter, you hid there last time. It’s time for your scanning.”