“You goddamn sonsabitches ain’t leaving that in front of my home!”
It was Rayford Swindell, Sarah’s daddy. He held a shotgun.
I removed the final screw from the license plate and ran after Sloat Tatum. Mr. Swindell fired. Pellets rained around me as my friend disappeared into the woods. I found him panting behind a thicket of brambles.
“You think he recognized us?” he wheezed.
“I doubt it. It’s pitch-black out here.”
We had gotten Sarah home in time for curfew. Sloat’s plan was for her to check in with her folks, and then slip out back and meet us across the road where we had parked. But while we waited, some drunk rounded the curve too fast and sideswiped the Chevette, tearing off the rear bumper. The driver didn’t stop. When the lights went on in the Swindell house, Sloat decided to ditch his car.
“I got the stuff out the glove box,” he said. “Without that plate, Sarah’s daddy won’t know it’s mine. He’s never seen my rattletrap before.”
“Someone will recognize it.”
Sloat pondered the thought. “I’ll report it stolen.”
I sighed, exasperated. “Mr. Swindell might’ve gotten a look at me.”
“Let’s sleep on it, then.”
Sloat swore he hadn’t called the cops when I met him and our buddies the next evening at Godley Pond. We had a mess of chicken to grill. Sarah and her friends would bring the side dishes. We were trespassing, but if we contained the fire and kept the noise down, there was little risk of rousting Spartacus Godley, the owner of the pond and its 50 surrounding acres. Behind the tree line stood the abandoned Foursquare Holiness Church, where a hermit named Hobart Woolard holed up and awaited the rapture. Hobart also kept an eye on the property, and he enjoyed our company. Tonight he wasn’t around.
Sloat dropped a load of kindling on a barren spot and began laying a fire.
Sloat tucked a napkin into his sweater and deftly nibbled a drumstick, trying to show he had some home training. Landon Hodges frowned. “We can’t build it here. This used to be the church begonia bed, the same place where Reverend Boggs got bit by them snakes.”
Sloat scowled. “The reverend should’ve kept his own snake in his pants.” He spat on the naked ground. “He ain’t buried here anyway.”
“But this is where he died,” Landon sputtered. “Nothing grows here no more, not even weeds.”
Sloat’s face reddened. “Goddammit, Landon, it’s a pity the reverend’s followers left him. But any asshole who diddles a choir girl and then lays in a flower bed with two water moccasins and a timber rattler deserves what’s coming.”
Sloat’s fire blazed on a bed of white-hot embers. Sarah snuggled next to him on the blanket they shared. Her parents thought she was sleeping over at Maybelle Leggett’s house. Maybelle, Landon’s date, told her folks she was spending the night with Lorena Bullard, Greg Mwamba ‘s girlfriend. Unaffiliated, I cooked and kept the fire going.
Sloat tucked a napkin into his sweater and deftly nibbled a drumstick, trying to show he had some home training. At school, he now refrained from snatching leftover food from abandoned lunch trays, and his cheek no longer bulged with tobacco. Tonight, his Old Spice aftershave won the aroma war with the wood smoke.
Sarah shivered. “I just love a bonfire,” she gushed.
“Anything for you, baby doll,” Sloat purred, kissing her cheek. He sipped from her wine cooler. “Your old man say anything about my car?”
Sarah grimaced. “Honey, you know I don’t like to curse.”
“C’mon, sugar-booger, you can tell me.”
Sarah drew a deep breath. “Daddy swore he’d kill those no-count aborted sonsawhores who left that shit heap in front of our blessed home.” Her lips tightened, and her hair billowed around her taut expression. “He says now our place don’t look no better than the Bowallers’ hog hole. He wants to offer them your car.”
“You’ve got a problem, buddy,” I said to Sloat. “You’d better go and get that thing before your cousins tell Sarah’s daddy who it belongs to.”
Sarah looked confused.
Sloat winced as he faced her. “The Bowallers are distant relatives.” He downed the rest of her wine cooler, then turned to me. “How about cooking my sweetie a breast. Just make sure it’s well-done, not like that bloody stump you served me.”
“Anything for Sarah,” I said, handing her another beverage. Shadows flickered across the contours of her delicate face—a unique conglomeration of angular features framed by glistening bourbon-brown hair. I could barely make out the silhouettes of Greg and Lorena sharing a bottle of wine on a limestone boulder near the woods. Over by a live oak, shrouded with Spanish moss, Landon and Maybelle laughed between swigs from a bottle of Black Jack. While I basted the chicken, my thoughts drifted back to Sarah. How did she end up with Sloat Tatum?
“I’m not getting near that car,” Greg said.
“Me neither,” Landon barked.
“Chickenshits,” Sloat grumbled, kicking at the ground. A twig snapped behind me. I smelled stale sweat, grain alcohol.
It was Hobart Woolard. His eyes were bugged out, his mouth worked to form words. The flames cast an orange tint across his weathered face, highlighting his few remaining teeth and the gaps between them. He pointed at the roaring fire.
Hobart gulped the malt liquor. The booze steadied his trembling hands. I fixed him a plate of food. Hunger eclipsed fear. “You boys besmirched sacred ground,” he stammered.
Sloat snorted. “Ain’t nothin’ sacred about what your preacher man did to that child.”
Hobart sucked air. “Sloat Tatum, you don’t know nothin’!” he cried out. “That girl lied about that nonsense!”
Sloat laughed, passed him a Schlitz bull. “What do I know? I hadn’t even tasted my mamma’s titty when all that happened.”
Hobart gulped the malt liquor. The booze steadied his trembling hands. I fixed him a plate of food. Hunger eclipsed fear.
“This sure beats wild game and blackberries,” he mumbled through a mouthful of baked beans and potato salad.
Sloat gave him another malt beverage. “Wanna make a quick 20 bucks?”
“I’d just as soon earn a dollar as not,” he drawled.
Sloat tossed him a set of keys. “Just bring my car back here. I’ll drive you to it.”
Hobart nodded. He finished his grub, then faded into the woods and returned with a shotgun, a bedroll, and a rod and reel, all held together with hemp rope.
Sloat raised an eyebrow. “We’ll be back in 15 minutes.”
“I never leave my things,” Hobart deadpanned.
We climbed into Landon’s van, leaving Greg and the girls to tend the fire.
Hobart Woolard stopped speaking. Any attempts to engage him were met with a disbelieving shake of his head. Landon flipped on the radio. T.G. Sheppard crooned about country girls and a lover’s moon. We passed Sloat’s Chevette and drove a couple hundred more yards before dropping off Hobart. He tucked his belongings under his arm, and Sloat handed him a twenty. Landon sped off.
“Anyone tell him he might get shot at?” he asked.
“Mr. Swindell was just trying to scare us,” Sloat retorted.
“I just hope Hobart doesn’t shoot back,” I said. “It’d be a shame to get Sarah’s daddy killed over your car.”
“Hobart’s got the yips,” Landon added. “That shotgun’s liable to go off by itself.”
Sloat spat out the window. “Then why don’t you cocksuckers go hold his hand?”
We returned to a raucous crowd of party crashers. Word had gotten around about the free food and booze at Godley Pond.
“Spartacus will get wind of this,” Landon said. “Let’s kill that fire and head over to Sloat’s place. His folks are out of town.”
We doused the blaze. Flames fizzled, leaving behind a heap of popping embers. As smoke curled from the pile of smoldering ash, a web of cracks appeared in the earth surrounding the cinders before the ground collapsed, and the remains of the fire disappeared into a gaping hole.
The crowd gasped. Sloat Tatum muttered the Lord’s Prayer.
What a way to end the party.
I was passed out on Sloat’s couch when the phone rang. It was a sheriff’s deputy from Pickens County, nearly 50 miles away. He had pulled Hobart over for speeding and driving without plates.
Sloat wasn’t pleased.
“Motherfucker stole my car,” he snapped. “Let him rot in jail.”
“You scared the bejeezus out of him,” Greg noted. “You bear some responsibility for this.”
“According to the deputy, Hobart seems content to remain in Pickens County,” I informed them.
“Then let him stay there,” Sloat said. “I don’t want the goddamn car anyway.”
“They don’t have room for him,” I continued. “They’ll release him with a warning if you’ll just bring in the license plate and paperwork. I already said we’d pick him up.”
Sloat chuckled. “He’s gonna shit himself when he sees that crater in the flowerbed.” He made his way into the garage and returned with four cans of black spray paint, a stack of yellowed newspapers and a roll of masking tape.
“I’d better give my rattletrap a makeover,” he chortled, stuffing the paint cans and other items into a canvas backpack. “We’ll pull over and paint her on our way back.”
Bacon sizzled. Greg and Lorena cracked eggs, Sarah buttered toast. I made screwdrivers with grain alcohol, hoping Sloat hadn’t simply filled an Everclear bottle with Bowaller hooch. Once we’d had our fill, we would set out to find our friend.
Thirty years later, I realize how blessed we were then. If only all of our days could have been like those.