We rolled into Sloat Tatum’s place at dawn with a flat tire, steam boiling from beneath the hood. A closer look revealed a hole in Landon’s radiator tank.
Sloat didn’t get up from the front-porch steps. He just sat there drinking from a plastic witch hazel bottle. His daddy’s Lincoln Continental was nowhere in sight—a good thing given our situation.
It could’ve happened to anyone. On our way home from a night of catfishing, we had veered onto someone’s asphalt driveway. Landon managed to stop the van before plowing into two parked cars, but when he threw the vehicle in reverse, one of his flip-flops got tangled up with the gas pedal, and we barreled backwards into a ditch, scattering a bag of red-haired sensimilla across the front seats and floorboard. Shots rang out, coming from the backyard. A bullet pinged the grill. We tore out of there.
“Where’s your folks?” I asked Sloat.
“Southern Baptist Convention,” he drawled. “Before they left, Daddy grounded me for losing my job at the animal clinic. It’s killing him that his only son failed as a shit scooper.”
Landon grinned. “Seemed like a job even you couldn’t fuck up.”
Sloat gulped from the bottle and continued. “But what Daddy doesn’t know is that I really got fired for leaving that vaporizer on overnight.”
Sloat’s parents were strict. His daddy preached at McNair Road Baptist Church, and neither of his folks drank alcohol. Sloat made up for that with a steady intake of Everclear and Coca-Cola. His routine drunkenness never raised questions. Everyone just assumed that Sloat Tatum was afflicted.
“What’s in the bottle?” I asked.
By which he meant the Bowaller boys. Their family owned a junkyard and probably used old car radiators to distill their liquor. Sloat didn’t offer us any. He claimed that the hooch was tainted. He swore that once, when he’d ignited a spoonful, the flame burned red, indicating that the stuff contained lead.
“Think you could give us a lift?” Landon asked him. “I need a cheap radiator. Maybe you could talk your cousins into selling us the one they used to make that popskull you’re drinking.”
Sloat never denied his ties to the Bowallers. But he did not like being reminded of their relationship. All of the folks on Respess Road shunned the Bowaller brood because the family’s presence in the area had lowered the property values on all the houses in a three-mile radius. The front yard of their dilapidated mobile home was devoid of trees, exposing the public to a rusty trailer with mildewed siding that sat on a litter-strewn lawn of tall weeds. But on Sunday afternoons, folks would go out of their way to steal a look at Jarvis Bowaller, the patriarch, with his sunburned beer gut on display as he fed garbage into a smoking trash barrel.
None of us said much during the 15-minute ride. Even with all the windows down, we were still popping sweat as Sloat’s busted heater belched sweltering air into the car. Paying someone to fix the problem was out of the question, and Sloat couldn’t figure out which wires to yank to shut the furnace off. I was stuck on the passenger side, bearing the brunt of the stifling onslaught because Sloat had all the vents pointed in my direction. When I complained about the heat, he took his eyes off the road and shot me a startled expression.
“This ain’t no damn resort,” he stammered. “And besides, you’re in a better spot now than you’d be riding in that Spam can that your dead-dick Uncle Derwood tools around in.”
What could I say? Uncle Derwood hadn’t worked since he returned from Normandy. He survived on canned food and wouldn’t have clean clothes to wear if his sisters weren’t doing his laundry. As we pulled into the Bowallers’ driveway past the “No Trespassing” sign hanging from their battered mailbox, I noticed green bottle flies buzzing around a chicken carcass at the edge of their yard.
Landon chuckled. “Hey, Sloat, maybe a call to the health department would shame your relatives into doing some housecleaning.”
As we pulled into the Bowallers’ driveway past the “No Trespassing” sign hanging from their battered mailbox, I noticed green bottle flies buzzing around a chicken carcass at the edge of their yard. Jarvis Bowaller squinted as us from the trailer’s doorway. Rolls of flesh rippled over his waistline as if momentarily suspended before dripping onto his dusty work boots. He raised his Ryder cap in a greeting. A tuft of hair sprouted from a globe of waxen flesh melted over a dead cigar.
“Your boys up?” Sloat hollered.
“Nope, those shitbags are still stinkin’ up the bedroom,” Jarvis chortled. He cast a pensive gaze at the clouds above. “Why, sweet Lord, did you have to give me twins?” He shook his head, raised a can of Black Label. “Interest you boys in a beer?”
“That’s a big 10-4,” Sloat replied. “Nothing like sippin’ suds to get the day started.”
Jarvis ducked inside and returned with a carton of beers. He cocked his head to one side. “I sure do appreciate the company, but is there something else I can do for you fellers?” he asked.
“I’m looking for a radiator that’ll cool my van’s V-8 engine,” Landon said, opening a beer.
Jarvis relit his cigar. His movements were quite fluid given that he was missing the index and middle fingers of his favored hand. Several decades ago, on his 20th birthday, he had been sitting in the back of his daddy’s pickup with the stock of his loaded shotgun resting on the bed. He had done right by pointing the barrels in the air, but had made the mistake of wrapping both fingers over them. When the truck hit a pothole, both rounds went off, sending his most expressive digits back to their Creator. “If he still had those fingers, maybe he’d talk less,” Sloat once said.
“Take whatever you want,” Jarvis offered, gesturing for us to follow him out back where a pile of burned out cars littered three acres of packed dirt. My eyes settled on a Ford Fairmont perforated with bullet holes—ventilation that would’ve made Sloat’s junker more comfortable.
“Don’t Fairmonts have V-8 engines?” I asked.
Jarvis nodded towards the car. “Ain’t nothin’ under that hood but angry wasps,” he said.
Clenching his cigar between his teeth, he struck another match and tried to resuscitate it. Half a dozen attempts failed with each discarded match landing in roughly the same spot, next to a tarp covering what appeared to be a load of firewood. We were so captivated by his persistence that we failed to notice the petrochemical stench that filled the air. It wasn’t till I turned to swat a horsefly that I saw smoke billowing from beneath the tarp.
The explosion caused everyone to jump, except Jarvis, who didn’t seem surprised.
“Maybe that’ll get those diddle-dicks out of bed,” he said. A smaller blast followed. Crimson flames flickered from beneath the blue plastic, melting it onto whatever was underneath, which sure as hell wasn’t firewood.
“You mean to tell me that the only goddamn V-8 we have around here just blew up?” Jarvis yelled.
The Bowaller boys just nodded. Nobody ever referred to them by their first names because no one could tell them apart. Their bellies were the exact same size, and they both cut the toes out of their work boots on Easter Sunday, then wrapped them over with duct tape when the winter frost first appeared. They were even missing the same goddamn teeth.
“Just how the hell are we gonna help Brother Sloat?” Jarvis continued. “I don’t need to remind you two that Sloat Tatum is family, and goddammit, you do whatever you can for family.”
I couldn’t look at Landon. I gazed downward, but somehow caught sight of his bobbing Adam’s apple, which got me so tickled I damn near sprayed him with a mouthful of beer.
At this point, Landon couldn’t have cared less about the radiator because he had come away with something far more valuable—a firsthand account of Jarvis Bowaller rising to the occasion and helping his dear relative Sloat Tatum.
In fact, Landon was so elated that he settled for a V-6 radiator, even if it meant driving no more than 30 miles per hour to avoid overheating the engine—because if that engine ever seized up, Landon would have yet another opportunity to remind his buddy Sloat about his close links with the Bowaller family. And in our neck of the woods, that sort of thing was priceless.
There ain’t nothing more important than family.