There is a special place in every Southerner's heart for their automobile. Just as with California's Car Culture, the Deep South also embraces their beloved wheels.
When I was a tad, the hottest car in the whole world was a Chevy Camaro and its twin in spirit, the Trans-Am. These cars were guaranteed to help you score with the babe in the hot pants and tube top you invited to the movies "and stuff". If you were a girl, a Camaro was a guarantee to the fellows that you can look but Daddy's shotgun will not allow you to touch. And, she was likely to outrun you in the all-important Red Light-to-Red Light local, informal and illegal drag race on the edge of town.
Oddly enough, a Camaro is not considered the go-to Midlife Crisis car of choice. That title still belongs to the Ford Mustang, long recognized as the Fountain of Youth for thousands of Baby Boomers all over America. This made sense: if you were going through a midlife crisis, odds were you wanted to shake up your normal world, but not shatter it completely. A Mustang said you only wanted to recapture a time in your life when the future was open to you, or that you always wanted to own a cool car like that and you were now in a position to by golly get one. A Camaro was more likely to say "I am unhappy and want to get laid like I did back when I was scoring in high school." This might be one way to announce you intended to leave your home, although there were nicer ways of doing so. A Camaro just placed a big target on your butt from a vengeful soon-to-be ex-spouse. It will probably be no surprise to reveal that Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle owns a pearlized blue Camaro.
If you were single and chose one or if you never gave up your Camaro in the first place, things were not so cut-and-dried in presumption. Take the case of Miss Beth Ann Vollinger.
Miss Beth Ann Volliger is actually the Widow Vollinger, the surviving spouse of our local hero Officer Danny Vollinger. Danny was killed in a traffic accident on the job, and Beth Ann is probably one of the few people in all of Greater Metropolitan Roopville I admire without a trace of sarcasm. Beth Ann was only twenty-five years old when Danny died, and she has weathered the storms of sudden single parenthood admirably. She has a six-year-old and a three-year-old and works at the underwear plant. She's a Panel Seamstress. Now, you may think that ought to be all the history you need to know about Beth Ann, but it's not.
Danny and Beth Ann comprised that ubiquitous Southern couple, the High School Sweethearts. They married the summer after graduation and moved into a little doublewide trailer on his parents' property. Eventually he got hired on at the police department and life was good until a high-speed chase and an oil slick on the roadway put an end to the dream.
Danny's cherry-red Camaro sat in the driveway in front of the house for months. A natural-born Roopvillain, Danny owned a pickup and Beth Ann drove an SUV, but he had not given up his Camaro. It would be a collector's item some day, he once told me.
Beth Ann considered her options and made practical choices. She sold his pickup and traded the SUV in on a nice mid-sized sedan that got good gas mileage. She continued to take her children to the First Baptist Church of Greater Metropolitan Roopville each and every Sunday. She even plowed up a part of the front yard and planted a vegetable garden to cut down on her grocery bill. She did not come to the Feed and Seed for all her gardening needs, but I suppose she figured going to Wally World was more economical since she and her kids were At The Age where Wally World was one-stop shopping for the family. I understood and certainly did not hold it against her. Wally World has been the nemesis of every small town shop and all we can do is hang on and wait for customers to return to us.
One day I looked up to see a cherry-red Camaro park in front of Fable Feed and Seed. Sure enough, there was Beth Ann Vollinger and her little kids getting out, and she herded them into the store. "I'm sorry," she apologized right off the bat, "I guess I should have come in here to get my seeds. Daddy said I'm a scandal to come here after shopping at Wally World."
"No; don't be silly. You have to do what you have to do, Miss Beth."
"Well, I need to get some tomato stakes. The ones I have are pretty flimsy."
I showed her my stock and she chose a nice sturdy type. "Are you looking to sell the Camaro?” I asked as I rang up her purchases.
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "I wouldn't dream of it! Danny loved that thing, and I like to think I can kind of feel him still with me when I drive it. I usually drive the sedan but we just felt like driving the Cammy today."
I looked at the little girls, all dolled up in little matching outfits and big white sun hats. They were giggling at items in my display case. "You have toys," the older child said.
"They are my goat collection," I informed her. "People from all over send me toy goats to decorate the store. Do you like them?" They nodded. "Do you think I ought to tie ribbons around their necks, or just leave them like that?"
"Ribbons!" the older girl decided. The younger one just smiled and hopped up and down.
Beth Ann looked around at the store. "Danny always said you had more items than any other store in town. It's true. His dad came in here one day and was gone for five hours. I got worried but Mama Vollinger said 'oh, he's just at the feed store stringing some lines.' Just what does that mean?"
"Charlie Vollinger stringing lines? That means he was telling some tall tales with some of his pals over back there at the sharpening stand. He and Eldon tested out stories to see if they should enter the Liar's Contest."
"We almost had a couple of good entries," Eldon called from the sharpening stand, where he was putting a fine edge of a set of hedge shears for Miss Alma Duffer.
A teenage passerby stopped abruptly out on the sidewalk and poked his head in the doorway. "Is that Camaro out here for sale?" the hopeful young fellow asked.
"No, it isn't," Beth Ann told him. "I'm just driving it to keep the battery up, and just for fun."
"Girls shouldn't drive Camaros," he groused.
"Boys still wet behind the ears shouldn't try to decide who should drive what," Beth Ann replied promptly. Chastised, he slunk away.
"That's telling him! I wouldn't want to sell it either," I told her. "Of course, it probably doesn't haul goats around very well. It hauls a different set of kids, I see." The little girls giggled and continued to trot along a plank in the floor that was a lighter color than the others.
Beth Ann bought a couple of other items and left with a wave, and a promise to buy her seeds from me from then on. After work that afternoon, I stopped in at O'Paddy's to pick up a sandwich for dinner. I came across Miss Nancy Sweetanall, and sat down at her invitation to talk a bit.
"Was that Beth Ann Volliger I saw in town earlier? In that red Camaro of Danny's?"
"Yes it was."
"Oooh. Viola's going to have a conniption fit."
"Viola? Why? Because it's not for sale?"
"No! Viola doesn't give a snap about cars! It's Beth Ann that puts Viola off her feed."
"Why? Beth Ann is as sweet as they come."
Nancy shook her head at me slowly, as if I were an addled child with a foolish question. "Truman, you should know by now that Viola is suspicious about any woman that sweet. That's just how she is. She says she doesn't believe anyone could be so saintly at that age."
"But Beth Ann doesn't try to pass herself off as saintly, not to me anyway."
"You're a man," Nancy said as if that explained everything.
"Thank you for noticing, but so what? Why shouldn't I think well of her?"
Nancy stirred a straw through the ice and soda in her glass. "Well of course you should, Truman. I've known Beth Ann Vollinger ever since she was a girl and she's always been real sweet. It's just that Viola... well, she is not always charitable when it comes to potential rivals."
"Rivals? Oh please, Miss Nancy! Beth Ann is only twenty-five, and Mrs. Viola is - is - is of a more seasoned persuasion," I said carefully.
Nancy gave me a wry grin. "I wondered how you were going to cover your ass on that one."
"Danger lurks in every potential misstatement," I agreed. "I haven't lived twenty years in the South without having at least that little bit of information sinking in. So Viola sees Beth Ann as a rival. But suppose Beth Ann does not intend to issue any such social threats?"
"She's the pretty young widow of an admirable lawman killed in action; that alone wins her points. I'm not saying she's aiming for notice, Truman. It's just that she's the kind of girl a man wants, rather than the kind..."
"Careful now," I cautioned. "Make sure your words can cover your fine little ass."
She gave an amused snort. "All right. Viola is more seasoned as you say, but in some circles, that is not considered as appealing as a sweet young widow." She thought about her words. "You know, it takes as much concentration to be a gentleman as it does to be a lady who covers her ass."
"Well, if we don't concentrate we will be called hounds; that's why."
"And we are called the gender equivalent, and it's a much harsher term I'll have you know!"
"I cannot imagine any circumstance at which it would be turned on such a charming lady as you, Nancy Sweetanall."
"Oh no," she said, crossing one careful manicured index finger over the other one, and holding the result up to me as if to ward off evil. "Don't you start that sweet talk with me."
"Never you mind! Just take care if you mention Beth Ann to Viola."
"Now why would I bother to mention anyone to Mrs. Viola? I fear for my well-being with her as it is. Duck and cover, that's my motto."
Nancy laughed and finished her drink. "Good; then you are on to her."
The waitress brought Nancy's check, and I plucked it off the table. "Let me get this, in lieu of taking a Lesson in Southern Survival," I suggested.
Nancy put her fists on her hips and studied me with frank suspicion. "I just cannot figure you out. You're not sweet like Beth Ann and you're not jaded like Viola. You're not distant like Judge Butler but you're not right in anyone's face like Mary Margaret McGuire. You're too nice to be mean but a little too smooth not to be suspicious as hell."
"It sounds like you have me figured out exactly."
"Hmmm, maybe. But I won't argue with someone who picks up my check without looking at it first."
"Oh my. Did you host a family reunion earlier?"
"No, just a sandwich and a Coke."
"Sounds like I can handle that; I came here for that myself." I placed my order as Nancy went on her way. On my way out with my sandwich order in a bag, I saw Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle on the other side of the square. I quickly turned and strode as fast as I could, taking the long way around to get back to my truck. Nancy's advice was more like a refresher course than it was a lesson, but knowledge is useless unless you use it. I almost made it to my car when Viola appeared at the driver's side, a bit winded but a look of determination in her eyes. "Well hello Mrs. Viola -"
"Don't start with me," she snapped. "I am very vulnerable right now." She looked as vulnerable as a snapping turtle but I did not say so. She fell silent and simply stood looking at me.
"May I help you, Mrs. Viola?"
Her lips pursed together and then twisted slightly to one side, the sure sight of a plotting mind. "Truman Fable..." she began in an uncharacteristically unfamiliar patient tone. Mrs. Viola is seldom patient with me; I have always been regarded as "that smartass Westerner from the wilds of the Plains states." It put me on my guard, and with good reason. "I hear you might be in the market for a Camaro."
"Er? No, I'm afraid a Camaro would not suit my needs."
"I should think a single man your age would welcome a first-rate MLC," she said.
"My, but butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, Mrs. Viola," I said dryly. "Thank you ever so much of reminding me of my rapidly approaching appointment with the Grim Reaper some day."
"Oh, you know what I mean! You're not so old. If you'd color that gray dusting in your hair and wear clothes from this millennium, you might do well to use my car to its natural advantage."
"Why would you think I need such a car?"
"Well, I understand you were looking at a red Camaro earlier today."
"No, no I wasn't. One was parked in front of the Feed and Seed but it wasn't for sale, and I wasn't inquiring."
"Well, I heard wrong then," she said, but she made no move.
"Mrs. Viola, I would admire to be able to get into The GoatHerd and go to the house."
She stepped aside and allowed me entrance to my own vehicle. After I closed the door, she rapped on the window. I rolled it down.
"Truman Fable, Some People are far too young for you," she said bluntly.
I gazed at her in wonder. Oh, surely she doesn't imagine that I'm interested in that sweet little Beth Ann! She's my niece's age, for crying out loud! Nancy Sweetanall was right. Some Southern belles just could not bear even an imagined adversary. I reached up and patted her cheek with my left hand. "Now, now," I cautioned, "don't assume you are so unattainable; it drives a man to despair."
I drove off, not realizing the disaster I had fashioned in my wake.
My pickup truck, known among friends as "The Goatherd", has kibble in its floorboard. It compliments the growing collection of empty cash envelopes I toss there every time I use the drive-through at the First United Bank of Greater Metropolitan Roopville. It's not much but it suits me just fine. I also have a fading paint job to compliment the amount of gray in my hair, and there are days when I don't fire on all pistons, so to speak. Anything I drive is going to be trampled by small wayward hooves all over the hood and roof, so what do I care what I drive?
I went to the Sunshine Cafe early one day to get a cathead biscuit and some eggs, unaware of the hornet's-nest buzzing inside. I looked neither to the right nor to the left, intent on simply sitting down and getting a bite to eat before opening the Feed and Seed. After the standard couple of minutes passed and no sign of a waitperson, I glanced up and felt the icy cold toes of Death's Little Brother dancing along my spine. Nancy Sweetanall peeked over the top edge of her menu, and all I could see of her was her merry blue eyes beneath heavy blond bangs. Dean McGuire was scribbling furiously in the little notebook he always carried in case a news story broke out. Judge Butler and Jim Dimity were seated in a booth nearby. The judge grinned wickedly at me as if in on the biggest joke in the world, but Jim bore an unusually distracted expression, as if he was torn between being saddened and pissed off royally.
"What's going on?" I asked Gary, the Sunshine Cafe's proprietor.
"That's what I'd like to know!" Gary exclaimed with enthusiasm as he sat a complimentary glass of water on the table. "I hear tell poor old Truman's in a world of hurt."
“Viola Hassendoodle’s been spreading it all over town that you have been seen in the company of someone young enough to be your daughter.”
“Viola Hassendoodle and I are roughly the same age,” I pointed out. “Ergo…”
“Are you saying Viola is over the hill?” Judge Butler teased.
“No, but I imagine she’s got a good view of the horizon,” I quipped. It was a classic case of bad timing, as Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle happened to emerge from the ladies’ room at that moment. She fixed a high-voltage glare on me but I was not about to back down. “Miss Viola; I understand you have been discussing me without benefit of my presence.”
“I might say the same of you,” she came back with a snap.
“Yes, but mine is verifiable.” I meant that I heard the gossip, but too late I remembered the other observation I had just made. Nancy Sweetanall sucked in her breath along with nearly everyone else in the diner except the judge and Jim. They looked at each other and yelped with delight. Viola shot them a withering look, but Judge Butler flashed his pearly white smile with a face that coaxed women to forgive him any discredit. Jim was able to avoid her wrath under the umbrella of the judge’s good looks. I was not so fortunate.
“You are a hound,” she said, and swept grandly from the establishment. Nancy swore under her breath, knowing she would have to pick up their check since Viola was not about to forfeit such a glorious departing exit for the sake of petty cash. Jim and the judge joined me for breakfast.
“You are fearless,” Judge Butler observed. “You know Mrs. Viola is not going to forget about this.”
“Well if he didn’t say something, he’d have to answer to Sally for it,” Jim said.
“Sally! Sally doesn’t care what I do,” I protested.
“Truman, you may think Sally doesn’t care, but trust me she does. It has little to do with what you think and everything to do with the fact that Sally is a Southern woman who and I shall capitalize it, Who Has Seen Him First. That is the first step toward getting her hooks into you and she won’t tolerate any usurpers.”
“No, he’s from the West,” the judge corrected. “They call it ‘rustling’ out there.”
East, West, North, or South, I’m dead meat any way you look at it.