I’m no savior—hell, I’ve been spelling it wrong my entire life—but sometimes I get a feeling about people who need extra help when it comes to subsisting, plus understanding the different paths they might consider. I’ve been wrong, sure, but probably not as wrong as when I managed to wedge myself between my unfettered sister and her tow-headed son, in the name, I swear, of prudence.
Anyway, I don’t consider myself a clairvoyant, either, though I made a bet with myself that I’d not know how to spell that word and sure enough put an E in there instead of the last A, thus causing more little red dots like what happened when I went to type “saviour.” If my fifteen-years-younger-than-me, unexpected surprise little sister Anuston ever questions my motives, she’s going to say, I would bet, “Oh, you’ve got a lot of little ‘red dots’ to talk about, Clayton, as in all those red dot stores you went to aged ‘Underaged’ to a couple years ago, if, indeed, you’ve quit drinking, which I don’t believe seeing as I’ve always been the Ashton with will power, not you, and I ain’t been able to quit myself for more than a week, though with me, you know, it’s the opioids and whatnot I got hooked on after my back went out working over at the nursing home lifting people who should’ve been dwindling in size rather than veering toward obese at age ninety.” Well, she might just stop with the “will power” part, seeing as Ashtons, too, aren’t well-versed on confessions.
I don’t think I’m going out on a dangerous scenic overlook to say part of my problem early on might emanate (spelled correctly, first time) from my own name: Clayton Ashton. Broken down, what does this mean? It means 2000 pounds of clay, then 2000 pounds of ash. I understand that our parents couldn’t do anything with the “Ashton” part, but goddamn couldn’t they think of a first name for me something like, oh, I don’t know, John, or Larry? Again, no soothsaying, no clairvoyance, no cause-and-effect in our parents’ make-up, neither for me or Anuston, who or whom they named after an actress on one of those situation comedies back in 1994, but they misspelled the woman’s last name.
Break down my little sister’s name.
If not clairvoyance, then plain recognition, flat-out understanding, and prediction based on either logic, statistic, and probability that I learned when I took a general education requirement in college called “Mathematics 101” back when Anuston wasn’t but three years old, just old enough to learn not to open a back door on our parents’ mobile home and fall five feet out because they’d never attached any kind of steps that way.
Oh, I went to college. I came, I saw, I graduated in seven years. (That’s something called an “allusion.” I’m referring to something I learned in “Ancient History 101,” and making fun of myself—which is called “self-deprecation.”) I got my bachelor of arts in sociology, and got my job with the Department of Social Services, and got married to a woman who also got a degree in sociology—same college, but with a smarter minor degree—and at night we came home and talked about things that mostly started with, “I know I’m not supposed to talk about this, but…”, and we couldn’t have children, and then Sydney said she needed to tell me something, and then she went off to live with a woman who worked at Discount Tire, and the next thing you know I came home lonely, and confused, not knowing what else to do.
I’m not, I swear, embarrassed by ex-wife Sydney, who finally admitted that she was a lesbian, I promise. If anyone ever says to me, “You turned a woman lesbian!” I doubt that I’ll punch him or her in the face. I’m not that way. I’m not a pacifist or anything, but I don’t like the way my knuckles feel damaged. A long time ago I punched a tree, when growing up, a tree outside my parents’ trailer, and it hurt. I thought to myself, Damn, don’t do that again. I punched it because there’d been a tornado, and the tree didn’t fall on top of the trailer. Everyone else nearby got some kind of Red Cross help, and those families ended up getting to stay at a nice motel out on 278, and later on they moved to duplexes.
Anyway, Anuston got knocked up by someone, and she’ll never tell us who it was ever, though I think it was Tommy, but Tommy joined the Army and never came back to here in Bluffton. If not Tommy, then Danny, Bobby, Ricky, Smiley, Sonny, or Leon. So my little way-younger-than-“me”-or-“I” sister Anuston had a boy, my nephew, who’s now six years old, alone, and my parents went off and died one after another from the virus because they thought it wasn’t really around and, I guess, they licked doorknobs and elevator buttons or something, aged 66 and 67, and because I’m the only family member with any sense I wrote their obituaries and mentioned “Covid” in them, which pissed off not only aunts and uncles I didn’t know, but people prone to write letters to the editor in our local paper. I don’t know if I’m alone in this thinking, but shouldn’t people plain bow their heads and refrain from anti-mourning? (One time someone wrote a letter to the editor saying how she’d been married for 60 years to a man who grabbed her by the crotch, right after he got off a merchant marine ship up in Charleston, and that if that was good enough for her, it should be good enough for America. I’d not been paying attention to political news that week, so I thought it odd. I’d also been dealing with a foster family who ended up thinking it necessary to “teach” their “children” how to dance like the Radio City Rockettes for visitors out in their front yard to paying customers, all men lined up in their cars. Also, I read an item from Dear Abby about a man who couldn’t understand how come his sister-in-law had something against humidifiers. On top of this—understand, all of this occurred in the same week—I never could figure out a Word Jumble on the comics page that went AAINGN, that I finally had to type into Google with “unscramble,” et cetera. I don’t want to say that I almost had a heart attack when I got the answer, but it was close.)
I’m no kidnapper. I could’ve purloined a number of soil-bottomed, drooling, misfed, hungry, knock-kneed, big-headed, disaster-prone, scabby, snot-nostriled children doing my own job with the Department of Social Services should I have felt thusly. I didn’t. The only child I thought worthy of saving, per se, happened to be my sister’s boy, whose got a birth certificate with UNKNOWN for the Father’s space, a boy my sister named, oddly, Junior, without a middle name. (If I have one hope in this world, it’s that Junior grows up normal, has a son, and names it Junior Ashton, Jr.)
So I decided all that Junior needed was to feel better about himself. I know what it’s like growing up in a dilapidated single-wide with a cliff for a back door, and since Mom and Dad died one after another Anuston thought it her right to just move right out of her own worsely-dilapidated trailer, move to where we grew up, and stay there without having to pay any kind of rent or mortgage, which is fine by me. I’m pretty sure my sister and nephew didn’t get exposed to any leftover virus because Junior walked around most of the day with tampons in his nose, and Anuston self-quarantined in the back bedroom, what with her back problems. (By “better about himself,” I mean that I needed to drive around the county and show Junior places that made the trailer look like the Taj Mahal, or at least like subsidized housing. One thing a social worker can point out, in any town in every state, is a worse place to live than what you got.)
I showed up on Saturday. “Come on, Junior, let’s you and me take a ride,” I said.
From the back my sister yelled out, “Where y’all going?”
I said, “I need to go buy some oil for the truck,” which might’ve been true.
Anuston dropped the channel changer on the roll-out linoleum, it sounded like. She yelled, “Will you get me a couple packs of cigarettes? Virginia Slims menthol.”
“They don’t sell cigarettes at AutoZone,” I said. I looked at Junior, who had his pants on backwards. “Son, don’t ever go out in public like that. Get your pants on right, and put on both shoes. And get a coat with your largest pockets.” They were those Velcro type of sneakers. (I’ve never done any official research, but most of my clients have children who don’t know a shoelace from a whittled stick, and already I know there’s no hope for them.)
Maybe I indeed bear a touch of fortune-telling in my proclivities.
I don’t want to accuse my sister of exposing Junior to a lifestyle no six year old child should witness, but we weren’t two miles down the road, on our way to a Days Inn out near the interstate, when Junior pointed at my dashboard and said, “What’s that?”
I had him buckled up. This was in my truck I normally used only to take garbage to the recycling center, haul mulch yearly back when my wife didn’t know everything there was to know about steel-belted radials and tire pressures, and maybe to help clients move their sad fourth-hand furniture from one hovel to the next. I said to Junior, “The speedometer?”
He pointed to the right. “That.”
“The gas gauge? The odometer” which happened to be broken and stuck on 129,000 miles. “The radio? The ashtray?”
Junior leaned over until he almost touched the push-in cigarette lighter. Because Anuston drove a late model Jeep Patriot (with the “Pat” part taken off, somehow)—I don’t want to think about what she had to do in order to get it—I figured there was no ashtray or cigarette lighter on its dash. Junior said, “What’s it do?”
I pushed it in. I felt like I was about to introduce my nephew to one of the great inventions of the twentieth century, to what should’ve been included on that list of Great Wonders of the World. I said, “Watch for it to pop out.”
We passed two pulp wood trucks coming our way, then a flat bed truck hauling a dead horse. Then came eight members of an old motorcycle gang I dealt with off and on, all of them on mopeds because of previous DUI offenses. I pointed off to ex-sharecroppers shacks, leaning in the middle of ex-tobacco fields, and said, “How’d you like to have to live there, Junior?”
He didn’t answer. When the lighter popped, I pulled it out and said, “It’s a lighter. People who smoke—and don’t ever start—can use this. I guess they could use it to light firecrackers, too, then throw them out the window, like on New Year’s Eve. You’d have to be quick, though, and maybe steer with your knees. Don’t ever steer with your knees, Junior.”
I thought, There, I’ve taught him two things already that his mother wouldn’t have gotten around to saying: Don’t smoke, and don’t steer with your knees.
And this is where I understood, without doubts, that I’d chosen the right thing, commandeering my nephew for valuable life lessons. He said, “It looks like a butt plug.”
Don’t think I don’t understand rejection, the caste system, ostracization, the feeling of being a leper, getting ridiculed and made fun of, and hunger. Listen, in college I had this professor named Dr. Walter Tewell who taught a special sociology seminar called something like The Microcosm’s Microcosm: Studies in Exile, Spring of my junior year. I don’t remember much of the reading material—for some reason I think we read about Richard Nixon and Job—but I do, vividly, recall my final group project I conducted with a Black friend of mine named Lorenzo, a guy who looked a lot like Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now. As an aside, Lorenzo emerged from this little project less scarred than I did. He’s now the manager of a Morrison’s Cafeteria down in Florida, making big money off those retirees who eat supper at four o’clock.
“If you ever go into the restaurant business, like as a chef, get a job at either Morrison’s or Piccadilly or Golden Corral,” I thought to tell Junior as I slowed down to turn into the Days Inn. I checked my wristwatch. We still had half an hour. “At a regular restaurant you’re going to be cleaning up till two in the morning, and then you’re going to acquire a cocaine habit.”
Junior pointed at a man carrying a twelve-foot long piece of PVC pipe to strap onto the roof and bed of his El Camino. He said, “That might be the biggest bong ever.”
Six years old! Butt plugs and bongs were his life!
Anyway, our professor handed out assignments in backwards alphabetical order. Who does that sort of thing? I wondered if he had dyslexia. Lorenzo’s last name happened to be Brunson, so we got hooked up with the very last choice. Other classmates did things like hang out at the free clinic and take notes, or stand outside Goodwill with filled-up shopping bags. Lorenzo and I were to walk around downtown for at least six hours—and we had to divide it up into three hours daylight, three hours night—carrying tape recorders, and notepads and, if possible, a video camera. Then we had to write a paper about our experience holding hands wherever we went. I don’t know what the professor tried to prove, but I think it had something about feeling like a Stranger in a Strange Land, to feel how it might be to live as a minority in the Deep South, to understand how gay men get treated. Lorenzo said, of course, “Man, I’m Black.”
“Exactly,” said Professor Tewell. “Now you’ll know what it’s like to be even more excluded.”
“I’m white trash,” I said. “People don’t like me from the get-go, white, Black, Asian, or Latino.”
“Exactly,” said Tewell.
I said, “This sounds more like some kind of hazing ritual people in KA might do, especially if they were drunk. Can we get drunk and hold hands?”
I’ll go ahead and say that Lorenzo and I wrote a term paper that ended up being the longest in the history of Plough College. It ran over twelve pages! We got a B because we didn’t follow APA guidelines, but in our way we thoroughly documented the honking horns, every term that got hurled at us through car windows, the beer bottles that landed nearby, the money we got offered from one older white dude, and so on. I’d never heard the term “cockknocker” before this exercise, and Dr. Tewell thought we didn’t spell it right.
I guess Lorenzo went and told the dean on Professor Tewell, I don’t know. I might’ve mentioned something about the experiment in my evaluations. I just know that Tewell wasn’t around my senior year. Maybe he got one of those sabbaticals.
Here’s the thing: I guess a lot of students at Plough College—on the outskirts of Bluffton, in the town of Plough, named after mud—saw us walking around the town of 3,127 residents, or down on the boardwalk that slithered through the nearby marshes, because no one would talk to me the following year. Not even Lorenzo. If I went into town and sat down for a sandwich, I didn’t get waited on. I couldn’t find a part-time job. No one sat beside me in classes. My roommate dropped out with only a P.E. credit needed. The sole person who would talk to me—and date me, now that I think about it—was Sydney. And we know how that turned out.
I parked halfway to the back of the Days Inn, as if I had room 117 or whatever, easily accessible from the side door. I said, “Come on, Junior,” and we got out of the truck. He wanted to take the dashboard lighter, but I told him there would be other things to play with inside at the continental breakfast.
I pulled an old magnetic Hampton Inn door key from the last time I went to a Department of Social Services conference that I kept in my wallet, and stood there waiting for someone to come out. It didn’t take two minutes. Junior said, “What are we doing?”
When a woman emerged, rolling a suitcase behind her, I said, “Hey. My key doesn’t seem to be working.”
Sometimes I don’t know how my whole head works. I must’ve learned more in college than I realize.
She said, “Mine didn’t work last night! Just go to the front desk and they’ll get you a new one.”
I said, “I will. I’m just trying to save some steps. Junior, here, might have rickets.” It wasn’t all that unbelievable, here in my hometown.
She might’ve actually held the door open for me and said, “Ta-ta.” Who says “Ta-ta” at a Days Inn?
“Come on, Junior,” I said. I said, “You might hear me calling you ‘Son’ at some point. Go with the flow, buddy.”
We walked by a hotel maid’s cart and I whispered to Junior, “Here’s something else,” and grabbed two little bottles of shampoo to shove down my own coat pocket. I should mention that Junior’s coat was some kind of miniature camouflage thing, as if he were the youngest deer sniper in the United States. I didn’t say to him, “For what we’re going to do, it would be good to have a coat that matches the ugliest hotel carpeting available,” but I thought it. I said to Junior, “Don’t make eye contact with anyone,” and I walked beside him, really flaunting that magnetic strip room key.
At the “restaurant,” I sat Junior down and told him to act normal. Eight people sat in there, all by themselves. The room might’ve seated thirty. Oh what sad humans—salesmen; people who just couldn’t make it two more exits to a real hotel; the newly-separated traveling to understanding relatives’ houses; high-end construction workers; mourners awaiting a relative’s funeral; my friend Dink, with whom I worked at the Department of Social Services. I nodded at Dink and said nothing. Dink! I could always count on him being here, or at the Holiday Inn Express, the Hampton Inn, the Ramada, that place called Lowcountry Motel. We never saw each other outside of department meetings, and even then both of us pretended that—because we evidently owned faces that looked like regular guest-of-a-hotel-or-motel-on-the-interstate-exit—we’d not seen each other, regularly, near-squatting for free pastries.
I made a plate for Junior: sausage links, scrambled eggs, a tiny box of Frosted Flakes, one doughnut, a glass of orange juice, bacon, a glass of milk for the cereal, a Styrofoam mini-bowl of grits. I took it to our table, set it down, and said, “You can start.” And then I returned to make my own breakfast, pretty much the same, except without the cardboard box of cereal or milk. And I poured the orange juice into a plastic squirt bottle I kept, in order to later add it to a pint of vodka. I grabbed a few cellophane-wrapped honey buns.
Back at the table I leaned toward my nephew and said, “If you act like you know what you’re doing, and if you act like you’re supposed to be where you are, you can live forever for free. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Junior blurted out, way too loud, “Momma likes rare fried baloney.” It almost sounded like a euphemism. (Had to look that word up for spelling, as would anyone.) Junior turned toward strangers eating their sad continental breakfasts and yelled out, “Sometimes I wake up at night and hear my momma yelling out things about baloney.”
I can’t make this up. It’s what he said. We live this way. We are the Ashtons of Bluffton, far from civilization, some of us yearning for a new and equitable life. We learned how to whisper inside a jackhammer factory.
I reached over the table and told Junior to slip ten sleeves of mustard into his coat pocket, plus the two honey buns. Just in case, I took the salt shaker off the table. I said, “I don’t know if it’s possible, but you have to make yourself look as nondescript as possible. By nondescript, I mean ‘normal.’ Like you’re just hanging around a continental breakfast because you’re something like a man passing through, hired to check out some town’s wastewater system. You got to look like a government official, Junior. Do you understand?
My nephew stared at the napkin holder. He said, “Uncle Clayton, what does ‘illegitimate” mean?”
Oh, my sad, poor nephew. Who has to live with such conversations over his head through thin walls? Junior, Junior, Junior. I said, “Hold on a second,” and went back to make some toast. I brought back the Roman Meal, plus twenty packets of Smucker’s grape jelly to put in his pocket. I said, “Listen, buddy, you are the best thing there is in this world. Don’t listen to your mother. Would you like to live with me? I don’t know if I can pull enough strings, but there might be a way for you to come live with me. We can play catch in the backyard. I can take you fishing. We can do all kinds of things. Do you like video games? I can go get one of those consoles so we can play video games on the TV.” I said, “On top of this, I can teach you some things about sociology they aren’t going to teach you in school. You are in school, right? Your mother got you into first grade, right?”
Junior dug into his grits. He ate, as they say, with aplomb. Junior used both his fork and spoon, ambidextrous. He went at it. He looked like two side-by-side excavators working double-overtime to dig a zoo elephant’s grave. I’m not sure if he’d ever eaten bacon before, because he held it like corn on the cob and nibbled east to west. Same with the sausage links. I cleared my throat and looked at my fellow breakfast crowd, some travelers, others the same as me. I whispered, “What does your mother normally make you for breakfast?”
Junior picked up the ketchup squirt bottle on the table, put the nipple in his mouth, and squeezed. When he said, “Pickles,” and opened his mouth wide, it looked as though I’d punched him in the mouth. This do-gooder diner picked up her cell phone and took a picture of Junior and me, which I knew would be trouble soon, what with the social media.
I said, “Okay. Let’s get going.”
We walked straight out the front door. I held my fake key card up high, in case the desk clerk looked our way. There beneath the check-in awning, the PVC guy had now loaded up a half-dozen twelve-foot pipes and lashed them onto his El Camino. His car idled. He looked at me and said, “I had a chance to get even a bigger one, if I’d’ve had me a twenty-foot piece of PVC.”
I said, of course, “Bigger what?”
Junior threw half the jelly packets to the ground, then stomped on them. They splashed his pant legs, and mine. I grabbed his coat collar.
“Pythons!” the man said. “People paying a lot of money for killing pythons down in the Everglades. People paying a lot more to catch them live and bring them back here. It ain’t been made official yet, but pretty soon the FDA or whatever’s going to announce they okay to eat.”
“Huh,” I said, trying to urge Junior toward my truck. But he’d found a way to hunker down, unmoveable, like an ex-stray dog not wanting to enter the vet’s office. I said, “Are you coming or going?” meaning, of course, were there snakes in the pipe now.
“That’s why God made pee yellow,” Junior kind of screamed out to the man. “So you know if you’re coming or going.”
“They filled up. Left the Everglades,” said the man. And then he, too, pulled a cell phone out of his coat pocket and took our picture.
I used the mustard packets to camouflage my own license plate, smearing cheap French’s over the letters and numbers. We drove out of the parking lot mostly in reverse, then I swung a quick one-eighty and hit the accelerator. I thought, What did people we just encountered think?, but I knew the answer: kidnapper, bad daddy, child molester, sex trafficker—everything I had dealt with in my time at the Department of Social Services. Misguided teacher, preacher, or YMCA coach. Junior and I headed south, for—although we lived less than fifty miles from a beach, southeast or southwest—he’d never seen the ocean.
I said, “If we’re lucky, there’ll be some people out there surfing, even though it’s cold. We might see some starfish. I hope we can find some shark’s teeth. Maybe we can build a sand castle. I’ll show you. There’s a place open year-round where I can buy a bucket and miniature shovel, and beach towels. If we’re there long enough, we can get some nice boiled shrimp and crab legs, though it won’t be free like for breakfast.”
Junior said, “I know all about crabs.” I don’t know if it caused some kind of subliminal memory, but he told me he had to use the bathroom, and asked if I had an empty beer bottle beneath the seat. I veered off the road at the first place I could find a decent shoulder. That’s my story. It’s not my fault Junior took off running, later saying (attach him to a lie detector machine) that he thought he saw a snake worth catching.
This happened way out in the country, of course, with woods and swamps, so it wasn’t like I could just circle the block. I took off running in Junior’s direction, yelling out his name. Maybe it’s my imagination, but outside of birds making noises, the only thing I thought I detected was Junior yelling out, from far away, “I don’t want no sociology.”
I called 911. I got in the truck and drove around, blowing the horn, trying to find a road to the right that might meet up with a parallel two-lane, where Junior might stand, wishing he’d not stomped on his jelly. Not that I’m always optimistic, but I wondered if maybe Junior encountered people so distant from civilization that perhaps he could barter his honey buns for, I don’t know, a goat, and then he could barter that for a bicycle, on and on, all the way up to attaining a crop duster, learning how to fly, and making his way home.
Two hours later I drove back to the trailer of my birth to find Anuston standing there in a robe and slippers, Junior by her side, a cell phone in her hand. She didn’t look amused, as they say. I reminded myself not to yell at Junior. He looked like one of those Civil War soldiers being photographed, dumb and stoic. “Why the hell didn’t you call me?” I asked Anuston.
She waved the phone around in a three-sixty and said, “You know we don’t get no reception around here.” Then she asked me if I picked up her cigarettes. She didn’t ask how I lost her son, but as I drove away she yelled out, “I’mo remember this!” which is to say that, at any point, she can hold this over me.
Three or four hours later I asked a waitress for more napkins to wipe off the crab leg/shrimp peel/lemon juices off my laptop. I apologized for taking up space at one of her stations for so long, there at the beach, slipping vodka into my ginger ale, slow-eating crab legs and all-u-can-eat boiled shrimp, wanting to get it all out before I forgot or rumors emerged. The waitress looked a lot like my sister, and I could tell she lived under similar circumstances. Did she have a wayward and unplanned child? Did she live in an unstable abode and fear hurricane-strength winds half the year? I knew better than to ask. I promised a spectacular tip, one that I couldn’t really afford, hoping it might help save her.