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Highway 50

 

by Foster Dickson

 

Jimmy’s brother, father, and mother and were all killed on Highway 50. His baby brother Kyle was only two, his dad was coming home from a hard day’s work with the grocery money, and his momma, she died indirectly from it. It cut right through her family’s farm land, which broke her heart, then when Kyle was hit by a semi, that was it. She died of a broken heart.

            Little Kyle remained unattended while Jimmy’s momma, Earline, shelled peas in the kitchen with her sister, Lucy. Kyle managed to unlock the latch that held the screen door closed, and out he went. He wandered like any two-year-old would out into the road. A passing semi nailed him and the driver never stopped. He must have thought Kyle was a possum or a raccoon.

            Papa wasn’t so lucky. His death was slow. Used to be, there were country roads, mostly dirt roads, that lead to their farm house that had belonged to Earline’s parents before they died. Once Highway 50 was built, Papa came home using that road after working his day in the mill in Tallassee. Papa’s real name was Frank; Frank had actually picked up a few fingers of whiskey on the way home from work and was drunk out of his gourd when he got into a one car accident. Because of his new route home he lost his bearings and bled to death trying to figure out whose house he was near, to ask for help. That left Jimmy all alone in the world from age fourteen, and he blamed Highway 50 and the government that built it. They would be alive today if it wasn’t for that road.

 

Bill Shaw was an engineer for the state and had been for seventeen years. He had gotten a job on a road crew straight out of high school and worked summers on that same crew while he went to the engineering school at Auburn. When he graduated he got a full-time job and had been with the D.O.T. ever since. It was a good steady job, and forty-year-old Bill really liked knowing what his days would hold.

            Bill came in to work like any normal morning. “G’mornin’, Jeff,” then “Coffee.”

            Twenty years old, Jeff was just like Bill at that age. He had been on road crews during the summers, and he was attending Auburn. Bill had even helped him become an frat brother at AE, just like he had.

            “Comin’ right up.” The day was young, the sun barely up, and Jeff already had coffee made just like Bill liked it: weak.

            Bill already knew but asked, “What’re we doin’ today?”

            “Fixin’ potholes on 50, right?”

            “Good boy.” Jeff couldn’t figure out whether to get pissed off with Bill for calling him a boy or not, so he always just let it go. “Gather the guys up,” Bill said as he sat down behind his desk.

            It was Jeff’s job to get the crew workers together. Not officially, but since he was Bill’s patsy, it was his job. They didn’t like him any more than the crews 15 years ago had liked Bill.

            “All right, fellas, Bill says load ’em up. We’re fixin’ the potholes on 50 today.”

            “Hey, Jeff . . .”

            “Yeah?”

            “How’d Bill’s dick taste this morning, did he get any last night?”

            “Just get it together, Gary.” Jeff had learned to ignore the guys on the crews. Most of them never went to college, so their only real bets were to go into the military or get a job with the government. Clerk jobs, desk work, generally paid low and boring, so most guys tried to get on outdoor work crews, where the pay was higher, then wait on the cost-of-living raises. Jeff was about to be a junior at Auburn, he knew they were just jealous.

            Bill leaned back in his chair and briefly thought about Highway 50. He had only been out of Auburn a few years when they cut that road and laid it down. How long had it been? Wow, fifteen years. It would be good to take a look at it, see how it’s doing.

 

Jimmy walked toward his house, his family’s house, and his grandparents’ house before them, to get a spare tire off one of the trailers. The pothole at the end of his driveway had given him a flat when he hit it doing almost forty coming out on to Highway 50. It was 7:12 in the morning, and his shift at the mill started at 7:00.

            “Goddammit!” He was yelling as he stomped up the quarter-mile driveway to the house. That highway ain’t never been nothin’ but bad luck, he thought to himself.

            Just as he was getting the tire onto the truck, about 7:55, a crew from the state D.O.T. pulled up. “Y’need any help?” Bill was looking at him from the driver’s side of a white F-150.

            “Yeah, you gon’ fix that pothole . . . or am I gon’ whip yer ass?”

            “Hey, there’s no need to act like that. We’re here fixin’ these potholes all this week.”

            “Good, start with this one, it just caused this flat. You payin’ for my tire?”

            “Nope. We’re starting down the end of the road and working up this way. We ought to be up here in a day or two.”

            “G’on then, git, asshole.”

            Bill decided that talking with this redneck was pointless. He reached over and rolled up the passenger window and drove on. The guys should be up there by now.

 

Jimmy got to the mill about 8:35. Mr. Lipsey was leaning against the wall next to the time clock with a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. He looked at his watch as Jimmy walked in.

            “I know, Mr. Lipsey, I know.”

            “Do you? Dammit, Jimmy, I loved yer daddy and it’d break his heart to see you comin’ in here late like you do.” Jimmy mouthed the words along with him. “I’m serious, boy. What do you think he’d say?”

            “I think I was seven when he died and I didn’t know him all that well. Some guys up on 50 fixing potholes, one of ‘em gave me a flat and that’s why I’s late. Y’wanna come see it?”

            “No, I don’t wanna come see it, Jimmy.” He paused and sighed. “Jimmy—”

            “Y’a’ready said my name once.”

            Mr. Lipsey sighed again. “This here’s yer last chance. I hate to say it, but it is. One more screw up and I gotta let you go.”

            “Let me go? Ya make me sound like a pent-up dog itchin’ t’run.”

            “Maybe you are. I know you was an orphan and all that. Man, don’t you think I know?”

            “Every-damn-body knows.” Jimmy was sick of hearing about it.

            “Jimmy get down to work, and just let it be said, this is your last chance.”

 

About 10:45, Jimmy was driving home. Mr. Lipsey wasn’t in the mood to laugh at him pulling Fred Tully’s pants down when he went to lift a box up onto a second tier shelf. Lipsey went straight to payroll and had his last check drawn up immediately, so there was no reason for him to ever come back. He also gave him a signed letter stating his dates of employment at the mill and what his job description was. “There’s no reason for you to bother me again, Jimmy. Have a good one.” Mrs. Bell, who had even written many of his father’s paychecks, waved sullenly to him as he left. No one else seemed to care.

            Jimmy thought about his situation on the way home. He had the house and the land that were paid for, a truck that was a piece of shit but paid for, some other stuff laying around, and the $174.65 that was on his partial paycheck in his pocket. He stopped by the liquor store and cashed the difference after buying two bottles of Evan Williams green label.

“Now, Jimmy, if you wasn’t who you is I wouldn’t be selling to you underage like this, okay? You ‘member to keep quiet, right?” Mr. Lucas was a good guy, had been selling liquor to Jimmy on the sly since he was sixteen, about the same time he started working at the mill. Mr. Lucas said that any man who was driving, working and taking care of hisself ought to be able to drink if he wanted to.

At nineteen, Jimmy was a seasoned veteran of life in this poor little community. “Yessir, I gotcha. I never let you down, do I?”

“Naw . . . Say, whachoo doin’ off so early?”

 

Jeff finished talking to Bill about the week’s schedule and was walking over toward the spot where the guys were sleeping in the truck when he heard, “Now that you’re done with Bill’s, how’s about comin’ and suckin’ mine.”

            “Shut up, Gary.”

            The guys in the extended-cab pickup all laughed. None of them were actually asleep.

            “We need to go fix that pothole up the road on the way home, so let’s leave a little early from here.”

            “Why don’t we just leave a little early anyway?”

            “Look, we gotta fix this one pothole today. Bill says there’s this guy up the road who threatened him about it, gettin’ it fixed.”

            “Then why don’t Bill go fix it ’fore that guy gets home?”

            “Just get ready early to head back toward the shop so we can fix it.” Seven more weeks then back to school, back to his AO∏ girlfriend, back to keggers and a new pledge class. Beats the hell out of all these guys.

           

            Jimmy got home about 11:50. He drove slowly, sipping on his bottle with no regard for who might see.

            “I got frands in llloooowww places . . .” he sang as he drove along. The radio had quit working a long time ago. “Mr. Lipsey, you sumbitch, you can kiss it!”

            Jimmy was sauced by the time he pulled into his driveway. He swerved in, and BOOM! He nailed that same pothole and the front driver’s side tire blew, sure as the world.

            “AAARRGGHHH!!!” He let out a rebel yell that would have made anyone proud.

            He reached under the bench seat and grabbed his .38 pistol, shoved it into his belt, grabbed his rifle from the gun rack and started working the direction he had seen that fellow from this morning driving off.

            “That sumbitch! I’m gon’ settle this.”

 

            Bill sat in his truck – windows up, air-conditioning on – watching his five-man crew fix the road that he had helped produce. These ignorant farmers had been so angry at them building it across their farmland, one of them had even died drunk driving on it. The fool had got drunk, got lost, and bled to death looking for help. What a redneck.

            Bill looked out at Jeff working alongside the other four guys. Gary always gave him a ration of crap. But Bill himself was kind of scared of Gary who had spent time on and off in the pen, once for throwing his brother-in-law off a third story landing. Jeff could handle it, just like an S-A-E should. Bill thought for a minute about college, and when his wife had been so pretty, before the kids, and when she liked to give it up, just not when his roommate was around. Bill wondered if Jeff was getting any as he looked at his watch: 2:17.

            About that time he noticed someone walking up the road. It was strange to see someone walking up Highway 50, everything was so far apart that walking wasn’t really feasible. The man got closer as Bill recognized two things: it was the man from that morning, and he had a gun.

 

“What the hell . . .” said Gary, as he caught sight of Jimmy, striding up the road with his rifle hanging by his side, barrel pointed to the ground.

            “Is that a gun?” Jeff was perplexed.

            “Yep,” Gary replied. “Not no huntin’ season neither.”

            Jimmy stopped when he saw the road crew, stepped out of the highway instinctively, and dropped to one knee. He raised the rifle to his eye and shot. BOOM! Everyone ducked as a tire on their truck went flat with a hiss.

            “How you like ’at, you sumbitches,” Jimmy yelled as he continued moving toward them, rifle raised. The gun had five bullets in it, Jimmy knew that well, and he wasn’t about to waste any. Down to four now.

            Bill was petrified inside the truck. He should make a go at it! But what if that lunatic got his tire, too? Oh, shit, what do I do, Bill wondered frantically. His crew was all huddled behind their truck, which now had only three good tires.

            “Craig, let’s get that flat loose and see if we can change it,” Gary said quietly. The huddled group all stared at him.

            “Are you crazy? We gotta run, man.” Jeff was adamant.

            “That dude hit this tire from two-hundred-yards easy. He’ll pick off any of us that tries that crap. And I ain’t got no gun. You?” Craig was a quick thinker.

            Jeff shook his head no.

            “Then our only prayer is to run that bastard over or whip his ass with these shovels. Now get to work changing that tire or we’re down to one option.”

             Jeff liked having Gary around for once in his life. Craig started loosening the tire from under the F-350, and they all looked to Gary for what to do next.

Before Gary could give another instruction, Jimmy was standing over them. “What the hell’re y’all doin’ crouched down here like a buncha . . . like a buncha . . .” Jimmy couldn’t think, like-a-buncha-what? “Get up!”

            Bill was still petrified in his truck. He didn’t want to get out because he had pissed himself when he saw the redneck get within ten yards of his crew. His survival instinct just wouldn’t override his natural desire to avoid embarrassment.

            “Why ha’n’t that pothole by my driveway been fixed yet?”

            Jeff knew it then. It was the guy who had cussed out Bill that morning. “Um,” Jeff said.

            “What!!??!!”

            “Um, uh, Bill, over there,” and he pointed at Bill’s truck, with Bill in it, “he told us to fix it on our way home, today, this afternoon.”

            “Oh, Bill did, did he?” Jimmy lowered his rifle, pulled his revolver out of belt and pointed it at them. Craig was frozen under the truck, peeking out. “That Bill over there?”

            All of them nodded Yes with conviction, even Jeff. Bill saw this, but couldn’t hear it through his maxxed-out air-conditioner, and wet himself a little more. That guy’s gonna kill me, he thought.

            Jimmy eased toward Bill’s truck with the pistol still on the crew. Quickly, he jerked it over in Bill’s direction and blew out his passenger side tires, both of them, as he approached, then put the gun back on the crew. “You boys have a problem with that?”

            They all shook heads No, still crouched down, all huddled together, except Craig.

            “Crew 5-1-4, where is your locale now?” A staticky woman’s voice asked.

            “What was that?” Jimmy panicked.

            “Crew 5-1-4, are you there? Bill?”

            Bill was frozen. Jimmy started to his truck, yanked open the passenger door, and grabbed the CB radio. “Crew 5-1-4 is over at Jimmy’s place fixin’ that pot hole at his driveway, sweetheart, they can’t come to the phone right now.”

            “Who is this?”

            Jimmy dropped the radio and looked at Bill, who was couldn’t budge. “Y’all headin’ down to my house right now to fix my pot hole, right? What’s that smell?” It stunk of urine in Bill’s truck.

            “Yeah, uh, yessir, we’ll be there, uh ,shortly, just soon as we can fix these flats,” Bill replied.

            “No fixin’ flats t’day, Bill. Done fixed all that flats we gon’ fix t’day. Get out.” He led Bill out of his truck, and led him over to the F-350 and his huddled crew. “You boys get your crap, we’re fixin’ my pothole NOW!”

            As they pulled the tools off the utility rack of the truck, Jeff tried to whisper to Bill, “I called the office.”

            “What?” Bill couldn’t hear him.

            “I called the office, on my cell phone, while that guy was in your truck.”

            “Oh God, good. What’d they say?”

            “They said . . . you deserved it.”

            Bill had been a real ass to a lot of people along the way. An engineering graduate at twenty-three, he came along pretty young. He had pissed a lot of people off in seventeen years.

            “Shit. Get your shovel.”

            “No, you get your shovel,” Jimmy hollered at Bill. Jimmy had been listening. “And they’re right, you do deserve it. Whoever cut that road killed my whole family.”

            “Bill designed Highway 50.” Jeff was proud of his mentor. Bill cringed.

            “Say Bill designed it, did he? That right, Bill? What’s your last name, Bill?”

            “Shaw.”

            “Bill Shaw, you son . . . of . . . a . . . bitch. You cut this road through my momma’s daddy’s farm. Took our family land away from us. Weren’t no big truck come through here ’fore that and one of ‘em kilt my little brother. Nobody thought to watch young’uns out in the yard when there weren’t no cars or trucks to worry about. And more’n that, my daddy got lost on this road after an accident and died trying to find help.” Oh shit, Bill thought. “And my momma, she died of a broken heart, just laid down in the bed and never got up again. I’m a orphan ’cuz of your highway, Bill Shaw.”

            “I’m so sorry.” He wasn’t, really.

            “Sorry just don’t cut it here, Billy boy. What would you think if somethin’ I made had kilt your whole family?”

            Bill didn’t respond. Bill was up Shit’s Creek.

            Jimmy had waited for this day nearly his whole life. The day he got to face the road that killed his family. The day he got to avenge his brother, his father and his mother. All three of them. But Jimmy faced one problem, one thing he had never put much thought into: what was he going to do? What could he do to Bill Shaw? Bill had designed the road, proposed its path, even worked on cutting it through. Bill had taken part in it every step of the way, and proudly too. But what would Jimmy do to him? He had spent so much time hating Highway 50 that it hadn’t occurred to him to be angry at an actual person.

            “Git movin’!” Jimmy began to march the crew, tools in hand, to his driveway to fix the pothole. That would give him time to think.

            As they walked, Jeff noticed Bill pants while he was looking around, trying to figure out what stunk so bad. Had he been sweating? No, his shirt wasn’t even wet, and he had that great air conditioner in his truck. Oh God, he pissed himself.

            The rest of the crew walked silently. They had always disliked Bill. Today they hated him. This goddamn psychopath was going to kill them all, because of Bill. Bill had created Highway 50, and today all he had to do was stop and fix that guy’s pothole. No, Bill just had to do things his way.

            “Excuse me, sir.” Jeff spoke up.

            “What?” Jimmy leveled the gun directly on him.

            “We don’t have any asphalt or anything to fill in that pothole of yours. We were coming back with that truck tomorrow, to do the real filling in.”

            Jeff and Jimmy were about the same age. Jeff hadn’t noticed that before now. He looked hard at Jimmy. Jimmy looked hard back at him.

            “I’m gon’ put a real bullet in your ass if you don’t shut up.”

            They all kept walking. Jimmy had no idea what he would do after they got done. Surely they would call the police on him after this. And it’s not like they wouldn’t know where he lived. Damn it!

            Bill was silent. Jeff felt the admiration for his mentor slipping away. Bill was nothing to him now. This man Jeff had looked up to, this man who had engineered a whole highway as an engineer fresh out of college, but Bill didn’t care what he was doing to the people whose land it was. Why didn’t Bill take this family into consideration? And what about the other ones? Jeff wished he was back at college, instead of losing his religion and having a gun pointed at him. Suddenly he had an idea.

            “Excuse me.” Jeff said politely.

            Jimmy swung around toward him again with the gun. “What?” he said angrily.

            “Um, I was just wondering, what was here before the road was?”

            “What’s it to you?”

            Shut up, Jeff, for God’s sake, shut up, Bill was thinking. Bill just knew Jeff was about to get shot, then he would be next. Those other guys could rot for all Bill cared. Bill could rot for all they cared.

            “Well, I was wondering because . . . because I was noticing that there aren’t any crops around here.” There weren’t.

            “We stopped farming years ago, Curious George. I ain’t got time since I gotta work in the mill. Well, I did have to.”

            “How many acres do you have?” Jeff was talking as Jimmy continued to march them up the road.

            “Just under 600.” Jimmy was getting suspicious.

            “And all that’s behind your house?”

            “Most of it. What the hell are you gettin’ at?!?”

            “Well, uh, there’s lots of people who would love to have a hunting cabin up here. And you’re right on the road, not back in the woods like most are. And 600 acres is a lot of land, so if you were to, say, consider renting your house out as a hunting lodge, you could probably just keep up your land and stuff like that and not have to work, and guys like me might pay you to use it . . .”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah, I mean some guys will pay a thousand dollars for a long weekend, like four days, and since you’re right on the road with a store nearby and stuff like that they wouldn’t even have to stock up to carry four days worth of food into the woods. They could go get beer and stuff everyday instead of having to worry about keeping it all cold.”

            Jimmy stopped them right in the middle of the road. “A thousand dollars? Who the hell’d pay a thousand dollars for four days of huntin’?”

             Gary finally piped up. “The last time I went, we paid almost that much, but we got a discount ’cause it was one guy’s boss’s place and he had other folks that wanted it, too, so we couldn’t have it free.”

            “A thousand dollars!”

            Jeff was feeling better but didn’t want to push it. They were all standing in the middle of the road. Jimmy had lowered the gun and pacing in a wide circle, saying it over and over, “A thousand dollars.”

            “And all you’d have to do is put up some signs and get the word out.” Bill finally spoke up.

            “Shut the fuck up, Bill, you asshole. Man, I ain’t listenin’ to nobody that pisses theirself when somebody points a gun at ’em.”

            Everybody laughed, very quietly, except Bill, and Jimmy.

            Jeff thought it was the right time. “Hey, look, we don’t want any trouble. If you just let us go, we’ll forget this whole thing.” Jimmy looked up at him, surprised. Jeff reiterated, “We’ll forget this whole thing, and we’ll come back tomorrow and fix your driveway.”

            Jimmy didn’t know what to say. They were all paralyzed. Jimmy hadn’t lifted the gun back up, but he hadn’t answered either.

            “That a deal?” Bill asked.

            “I told you shut the fuck up, Bill!” Jimmy hollered at him. All the guys laughed. “Yeah, it’s a deal, but with this guy, not with you.” Jimmy was talking about Jeff.

            Jeff smiled. All the other guys breathed a deep sigh.

            “Y’all get on outta here. I’ll see y’all tomorrow.” Then, Jimmy walked over to Bill. “I’ll see you tomorrow, too. Go change your diaper.”

            The crew had already begun to walk back to the truck. Jimmy turned and began walking toward his house, in the other direction. Bill was left standing in the middle of the Highway 50.

            A hundred yards away, Gary said to Jeff, “You know Bill’s gonna call the cops when he gets back to his truck.”

            Jeff didn’t look up. He sighed a deep sigh, looked over at Gary, and replied, “No. No he won’t. I’ll see to that.”

 

            That evening, Jimmy pulled some black paint and some white paint from the garage, and some plywood from the scrap pile near the house. As he did it he looked around. I gotta get this place cleaned up, he thought. Then he went and began to make signs that read, “Hunting Lodge for Rent on Highway 50. 600 Acres. Guided Hunting. Call Jimmy.”

            At his small apartment nowhere near there, Jeff sat in his recliner, his only piece of furniture, and sipped on a Bud Light. He stared at the black TV which wasn’t even turned on. School would start back soon, thank God.

            And nowhere near there, Yvonne Shaw, Bill’s wife, wondered why he came straight home, showered and put on his old gym shorts, until she walked back to the laundry room and followed the stench. He told her that he had tried to hold it since they were heading back to the office, but didn’t make it. She suggested that he consider going to the doctor to make sure that everything was okay. Everything wasn’t okay, but it was nothing a doctor could fix.


Foster Dickson is a poet, writer, editor, teacher, and a life-long resident of Montgomery, Alabama.  He earned a B.A in English, has worked at NewSouth Books, and now  teaches Creative Writing at an arts magnet high school. He founded and led the Writers’ Group at the NewSouth Bookstore from 2001-2002 and initiated the “Writers’ Group Series,” published by Court Street Press, which includes his own Kindling Not Yet Split, (poetry) which received reviews in First Draft and Big Muddy. He acquired and edited the other volumes, including chapbooks by the two winners of his short-lived, annual Dropping the Hammer poetry contest. His James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, in the Junebug Books “African American Profiles for Young Readers” series, is forthcoming. Foster’s third book, I Just Make People Up, an oral biography of artist Clark Walker, is due out in Fall 2005. Foster has been a book reviewer for Foreword Reviews since 2001, and was a staff writer for King Kudzu from 2001-2004. Foster acquired Tom House’s The World According to Whiskey; assisted with Weren’t No Good Times, Alabama slave narratives in the “Real Voices, Real History” series; and worked on the preliminary research for the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail.  He has published articles in Lifeminders, LiteratureClassics, American Window Cleaner and Weird Alabama. His poems have appeared in Zygote in my Coffee, Red River Review, Filibuster,  Churches, Banks & Bars, and are forthcoming in Snow Monkey, The SiNK [sic], and My Favorite Bullet. Foster has short fiction forthcoming in Crush magazine. Five books contain contributions from his student literary criticism work. He read poetry in the 10th annual Insomniacathon in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2003, and had work in the online Insomniacathon 2004. Foster has been a panelist at writers’ conferences in Tennessee and Alabama, and was recently a featured interview on Ryerson University’s CKLN. His current project is Taking the Time: Young Writers and Old Stories, supported by a Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Tolerance grant, for his students to write about Montgomery’s Civil Rights history.

            Foster has been married for four years, their first child is due in September, and they own a 19th century home in Montgomery’s historic district. He also enjoys playing guitar, a hobby he has had for fifteen years.

fosterandvicki@earthlink.net