by George Singleton
My father left me with two pillowcases of dimes and nickels, separated. He left a note atop the bags, stashed in the back of a tool shed, saying he started saving when I was born, and he meant to give them to me when I graduated high school, and then college, and then when I got married. He mentioned quarters, too, but I never found them. Maybe he went on a pinball spree at some point, or used the payphone an inordinate number of times. He wrote, “I forgot to give these to you, but I guess it’ll make a nice surprise, now.”
There’d been other things I inherited prematurely—tools, clothes, a few paintings he’d bought from Rose’s department store back in the seventies, a selection of Mickey Spillane paperbacks—that I’d already shoved into the smallest of mini-storage warehouse units there in Spot, South Carolina, a place where mayoral candidates bragged about how many times they underwent measles or chicken pox, thus making them viable candidates to run a place called Spot. There’d been a box filled completely with proof of purchase box tops from Kraft macaroni and cheese products. I don’t know how long he clipped these cardboard bottoms, but it had to occur throughout the marriage, then after my mom died. Later on, I’d do some addition, then long division, but it still made no sense. Who eats 7,000 boxes of macaroni and cheese over forty years?
I’d held a yard sale, then a makeshift auction. I sold off some furniture, pet dog and cat paraphernalia, his Buick, et cetera, to help pay for the nursing home. A case of pepper spray, enough blenders to hold a smoothie festival, all kinds of things bought from late-night TV infomercials. Lots of miracle cures and vitamins, “organic” tins of salmon, sardines, oysters, trout. I kept the clothes just in case he somehow got a doctor to say my father was in remission from Alzheimer’s. No one’s ever returned from dementia, I’ve come to learn.
Later on, I would say that my father left me a nickel bag and a dime bag. It might get laughs.
I don’t want to say that my father went downhill after my mother’s death—car accident on her way to a scheduled, normal, annual physical—but it’s the truth. My father went from “Man, I’m so glad I retired last year. Hey, let me show you some pictures of the fish I’ve caught!” to “I don’t want to go to school anymore, Daddy,” or “Who are you?” or the worst: “Why did you put me here in the nuthouse?”
One time I came to visit—I don’t want to come off as some kind of martyr, or good person, but I came to visit at least every other day for two years—and he told me we needed to go round up the suspects. My father worked as a drug addiction counselor for most of his life. About once a season he’d sit me down, aged thirteen to seventeen, and explain the terms nickel bag, dime bag, lid. Angel dust, horse, black beauties, weed, pot, Mary Jane, Peruvian marching powder. Later on, I realized that his boss—every quarter—rounded up all the counselors from a tri-county area and made them watch one of those dated documentaries. Reefer. Coke, blow, nose candy, snow.
“I knew your daddy,” this guy at the bar said. “He was something.” Because I no longer partook of the drugs my father warned me about, at least after about eight years past college, I found myself slipping into Spot’s only real bar to settle down from the visits, a place not officially a bar, to be honest, but a bait shack on the pond where Camp Spot—once advertised as the only summer camp for albinos—once thrived, a place deep between two mid-sized mountains that caught real daylight between ten and two only. The bait shop was a cement block building with a rusted tin roof, no more than 300 square feet. It used to house the infirmary when albino campers contracted poison ivy, sun poison, the occasional snake bite, right there on the edge of the lake, which, to be honest, was more like a twenty-to-thirty-acre pond, depending on drought conditions.
One of the ex-mayors ran the place, a guy named Big Ned. Big Ned sold night crawlers and chicken livers, crank bait, canned corn, rubber worms, hooks, lines, sinkers, and cheap Zebcos. He sold fishing licenses and took in the Fish All Day $5 fees. Supposedly a tagged giant Arkansas blue catfish wallowed around at the bottom of Lake Spot, and whoever got it could win a variety of bait shop prizes, or ten free full-days.
Big Ned liked to say that when you rearranged his moniker, it came out “binged.” He thought that worked as an omen for him to sell PBR and Jim Beam illegally, I guess.
I’d just completed another couple hours with my father at the home, which looked like an old elementary school. For some reason a number of ex-deputies lived there, and they patrolled the hallways in their wheelchairs, playing quickdraw with unsuspecting visitors.
It was Doctor Day, and she told me that it probably wouldn’t be much longer.
Anyway, the bait shop/bar was on my way home. I’d ventured off for some time, gotten married to Jocelyn, then returned thirty miles away from my birthplace after my mom’s death. I could work anywhere, running the non-profit Cartographers Without Borders—so every classroom in America sported a pull-down map of the United States, the World, and a globe—as could Jocelyn, as long as there was a nearby gym and an airport within fifty miles.
To Big Ned I said, “Hey, Big Ned. Bourbon, neat, please. And a beer.” I looked out at the fishing pond. Two boys and their father spread out away from each other, though the kids seemed to be looking at something in the sky. Black buzzards, I knew. I stared up, too, as a child when the albinos went home and my father took me here.
He said, “Hey, Quarles. Quarles, do you know Massey?”
I said, “I’ve seen your face,” to Massey, who stared at me from one seat over, slack-jawed, looking like he either wanted to fight or drive a sixteen-penny nail with his forehead. “Not around here, though. Where do I know you from?”
Outside, one of the boys hooked what might’ve been an average-sized bream. He dropped his pole and took off running for his father’s pick-up.
“Still think you’re hot shit?” Massey said to me. For the record, I’ve never, even once in my life, looked in the mirror and said, “Man, you’re hot shit.” Hammered shit, maybe. Plain shit. But never hot.
I said, “Did we go to school together or something? Is that where I know you?” Spot High wasn’t all that big. Hell, it didn’t even exist anymore.
“Oh, I know all about your daddy,” Massey said. “I had to check in with him once a week for I don’t know how long.”
I said, “Well.” Big Ned kept a pistol behind the counter, I knew. Sometimes he had to go outside and fire it into the air if someone tried to fish beyond the rules of common decency, like with a crank telephone. I said, “I don’t think I was ever at one of your meetings with my father. So that doesn’t explain how we’ve known each other.”
Big Ned said, “You gone sell or rent your father’s house? Wait. I shouldn’t be asking such a question with him still being alive. I apologize. But if you gone rent, I got a niece who’s been looking for a place around here. She’s a nurse over in Pickens. Well, a nurse’s assistant. She’s something, I forget what. She works at the hospital, doing medical-like stuff.”
“You the old boy married to the arm-wrestling champ, right?” Massey asked. “Just because she gets airtime on ESPN all over the place don’t mean you hot shit.”
I nodded. I drank from the bourbon—a heavy pour from Big Ned—made a point not to grimace like in the movies, then drank from the can of beer.
“We didn’t go to school together,” Massey said. “I dropped out in tenth grade, and I ain’t looked back.”
I smiled. “Who needs algebra?”
“Yeah,” said Massey. He still looked like he wanted to fight. I wanted Jocelyn to be there. Not once had she gone into a bar, been recognized, then won either money or beer with the biggest idiot available, wanting to challenge her.
To Big Ned I said, “I want two more, and get my friend here whatever he wants, on my tab.”
Big Ned said, “These are on me, both for you and Massey here.” He said, “Say, when the time comes, don’t forget me if you want to sell off some tackle your father might have stored away.”
Massey looked out at the pond for a moment. He said, “If I want to be honest, I hated your daddy for a long time. But he ended up being right. I need to apologize to him some day.”
“The big fish ain’t tagged no more,” Big Ned said. “I don’t know what to do about it. I found the yellow tag floating in the water about a week ago. Someone’s got to catch the catfish for me to retag it.”
“Turtle,” said Massey. “Sometimes catfish and snapping turtles get in fights down there at the bottom. It’s natural.”
I didn’t say, “Man, a tenth-grade education, but you’re some kind of ichthyologist, some kind of herpetologist.” I said, “Or it became compromised and just floated off. How long’s that catfish been tagged?”
“I guess you know everything,” Massey said. “Hot shit.”
Big Ned said, “You better watch yourself, Massey. Quarles’s wife might be famous, but no arm-wrestling champion woman’s going to marry a man can’t take care of himself.”
One time somebody donated an inflatable hang-down globe about the size of a Mini Cooper, and I put it on my back and got Jocelyn to take my picture, like I was Atlas. Most of the time people just send in cash donations so places like the Corridor of Shame up and down I-95 in South Carolina don’t have pull-down ancient, invalid maps with places like Siam, Rhodesia, Burma, Prussia, and Mesopotamia.
“Let me tell you something, both of you,” Massey said. He crushed his beer can as if manly, then pushed it toward Big Ned. “I had to tell your daddy all about this, and then he ended up telling on me. Goddamn. He also said you knew every capital in the world.”
“Not true,” I said. “I should, but I don’t. That’s the whole reason I don’t do crosswords.”
“Listen to me. I got something to say,” Massey said. “You both could learn from this, unless you had to attend fucking ‘Don’t Do Drugs’ classes and decided that honesty’s the best policy.”
From outside, all of us heard, “Son-of-a-bitch!” and saw the second boy run toward his father’s truck, the father’s broken line zipping behind him on the earthen dam, no bait intact.
Big Ned said, “I bet he lost old Lemmy.”
I didn’t ask anything. I knew that Big Ned saw the Arkansas blue once or twice and thought it looked like the lead singer of Motorhead.
“This was about, you know, ten or fifteen years ago. It’s back when I still took a lot of LSD. Y’all ever take a nice dose and then find yourself wanting to drive around aimlessly? Well I did. But I knew it wasn’t the best idea. So what I done was this: I kept an empty wallet with me, always sitting on the passenger seat, you know. Oh, when I wasn’t fucked up, I put some things in there, you know, like one of them punch-out cards from Subway and some old receipts folded up. Anyway, one time I was going up I-26, I guess swerving all over the place and speeding like all get-out. I looked up in the rearview and saw them blue lights, you know. They’s no telling how long that highway patrolman had been behind me. So I pulled off on the side of the road, and he come up to me, and before he could even talk, I said, ‘I know I was speeding, but I was getting gas back there and this trucker’—I pointed because there was a Roadways boy up ahead of me in plain sight—‘left his wallet on top of the gas pump.’ I reached over, picked up my fake wallet, and showed it to the cop.”
The man outside yelled to his two kids, “Don’t close the door! Roll down the window! I’ll be right back!”
One of those kids started crying out, “I want to go home,” but the man walked our way, holding that fishing rod as if it were a venomous snake, kind of out to his side, and with two fingers.
“Well,” Massey said, “that cop took the wallet and said I done the right thing, and the next thing you know he ran back to his cruiser and took off without even giving me a warning or nothing. Next thing you know, I passed him pulling over the truck driver, in order to give him his ‘lost’ wallet.”
The father walked in, nodded to the three of us, and said, “Do I get any kind of award for that big catfish coming up out of the water and looking me in the eye before my line snapped?” He looked older in person than from afar. He’d either had those kids later than most people in the Carolinas—like thirty-five—or they were his grandchildren. It appeared as though he suffered from an unfortunate bald pattern on the left side of his head only.
Big Ned said, “No award for that. Did you see the tag on it?”
“You damn right I saw the tag,” the man said. “It looked like an extra fin.”
I said, “That big blue tag?”
He looked at me and nodded. He said, “Blue as the sky.”
“You got to hold on a minute, my man,” Massey said. “I’m in the middle of a story.” He said to Big Ned and me, “I blew the horn and held onto it. Then I got to the next exit, took it, crossed the interstate, took the exit back down, went back from where I come from, and blew the horn again, ha ha ha.”
Big Ned said, “Sorry.”
I didn’t say, “Big Ned says it’s yellow.”
Big Ned turned to Massey and said, “I wonder what that cop felt like when the truck driver said it wasn’t his wallet.”
“Damn right,” said Massey.
My phone dinged with a message. I looked down to see where Jocelyn wrote how she needed to leave for Las Vegas soon. I’d kind of forgotten. This was a big thing, with a ten grand prize, aired live on ESPN3, from the Golden Nugget. She wrote, “I hope you’re father’s okay. xoxo.” Then she added an emoji of a pumped-up bicep, like that Rosie the Riveter woman.
That’s right: She wrote, “You’re dad.”
Jocelyn said she didn’t like me to be in the audience during competitions, said it made her nervous and toyed with concentration. Nice try. I felt pretty sure she underwent an affair with the same head referee I always saw there on one of the ESPNs. During matches, he stared at her eyes more often than her grip, or her wrist should it near the pin pad, the peg, any kind of slip, or moving her opponent off center.
Massey said to me, “And then your dad asked me how I’d been doing, and for some reason I told him the truth. Next thing you know, he told my parole officer, Hot Shit.”
I said, “Would you be interested in buying a box of proofs of purchase? I got a load out in the car.”
I’d turned around in my chair a little so as to see the earthen dam. A car drove right up to the man’s truck. A woman got out of the car wearing a Terry cloth robe and old-fashioned house slippers, the slide-on kind with a foamy top strap holding a bow. Later on—maybe when retelling this story, or drifting away from my “dime bag and nickel bag inheritance” tale—I’d wonder if I made this up. My eyesight’s not so great to delineate yellow house slipper bows from a hundred yards away. They looked like they held the catfish tag.
The woman left her car door open—one of the Toyotas manufactured thirty years earlier—went to the truck window, said something, and the two boys ran and got in the back seat. She put the Toyota in reverse all the way until she almost rammed into Spot Bait and Bar, then took off without even looking our way.
Massey finished his story. The father said something about contacting the Better Business Bureau. I said, “Some woman just took your kids,” and pointed.
I guess there’s a reason we should visit our demented relatives as much as possible, just so we witness travesties outside of the nursing home, on the way there or on the return trip. The man threw his pole in the bed of his truck and performed about a nine-point turn so as to leave the earthen dam going forward. The three of us watched. If the driver’d gone about six inches too far, he’d gone into the lake; a half-foot more in reverse and he’d’ve slid down the spillway and down the embankment into Spot Creek.
“Reason why I’ve never officially named this place or sent off for a business license to the state,” said Big Ned. “Good luck registering a complaint to the Better Business Bureau, buddy. Maybe try the Chamber of Commerce next.”
Massey said, “That’s good thinking on your part. Kind of like the time I carried around a fake wallet with me driving around not completely in charge of my faculties.”
“I think you deserve to be called ‘Hot Shit’ for that one, Massey,” I said.
Big Ned walked out the side door to yell out, “No need for you to ever come back!” as the guy took off, following his children’s savior. Then he hurried back inside and said, “One y’all need to take over ’til I come back. Maybe both y’all.”
I said, “Where you going?” At first, I thought about how I needed to get home to Jocelyn, and then I thought, hey, I could stay here until closing, or go back to the nursing home and sit all night with Dad until one of us sobered up.
I’d never known Big Ned’s political leanings. I did my best to not ask people. Hell, I went out of my way to barely talk to strangers, seeing as sooner or later one of them would ask what I did, I’d mention Cartographers Without Borders, they’d ask me to explain, I’d eventually squeeze “non-profit” in the conversation, and then it would end up with my having to hear some kind of diatribe about how some children didn’t deserve an equal education, which would turn into something about DACA kids, which would turn into how we need walls at our borders, ad infinitum. Again, I don’t want to come off as a martyr or psychopath, but many of these conversations ended with my tailing the xenophobe until he parked his car somewhere—more often than not a pawn shop or shooting range—then getting out with some handheld hedge-cutting steel shears to cut their tire valves.
Ned said, “Did you see those bumper stickers?” He reached down to below where he kept the hidden, expensive, and rare crankbaits, plus the better bourbons. It’s where he kept his pistol, too. “I’m tired of this. If I’d’ve known, I’d’ve told him we were closed down in the first place.”
Big Ned rummaged around. Massey said to me, “Anyway, I guess I can’t fault your daddy. He was just doing his job.”
“That old boy had an upside-down triangle bumper sticker, and another one of an igloo. He had one of those ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ stickers on his back window, a confederate flag bumper sticker, and one that read ‘14 Words.’ Look it up, if you don’t know what that means. I don’t know it verbatim, but I know what it means.”
I understood the flags, but not the igloo and triangle. Massey said, “Well.”
“It’s my duty not to let that man bring up children so they end up acting just like him,” Big Ned said. “Y’all drink all you want. Don’t go snooping around. If anybody comes by asking, you ain’t seen me.” He got in his Jeep and took off.
To Massey I said, “Man. Do you know what just happened? I’m a little confused.” I said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Big Ned was going to run down that old boy and kill him.”
Massey got out of his chair and walked behind the counter. He pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam and placed it next to his empty glass. He said, “Tell me a little bit more about these proof of purchases you mentioned earlier.”
I’m not sure why I kept the box in the trunk of my car. I said, “Yeah, man. I got a lot of them.”
I kind of feel bad about this now, but I’d been online looking for deals with Kraft. For some reason I remembered, as a kid, my mother sending in cut-out proofs in return for coupons, or flat-out money, that sort of thing. For my seventh birthday I got a half-dozen wiener mobile whistles that would probably be collector items, something I could sell and use the money for my father’s care.
“I do a lot of flea market work,” Massey said. He poured bourbon into my glass. He said, “What Ned needs around here is a goddamn ice machine.”
Oh, I could’ve lied. I could’ve told Ned, “I got enough proofs of purchase to send in for a good hundred plush toys, some wiener mobile whistles, those SpongeBob SquarePants fishing bobbers,” and so on. I’d done the research, though, and cheapskate Kraft Foods never offered anything for the cardboard box-ends. Why did they even have them anymore?
I said, “I think each one is supposed to be something like one-tenth of a penny in value, Massey. Hell, it might even be one-hundredth of a penny. They’re worthless.”
“Don’t think I don’t know that, Hot Shit. I’m a professional. But let me buy them off from you, and you let me take care of talking people into buying them off of me.”
“Quit fucking calling me ‘Hot Shit.’ Why the hell are you doing that? Have I come across as holier-than-thou to you?”
From afar, we both heard three cracks of a pistol, bang-bang-bang. It helped that Camp Spot existed in a natural bowl between the two mountains. In reality we heard about twelve cracks, what with the echo. It’s the same thing my wife said after pinning an opponent, bang-bang-bang.
Massey laughed. He grabbed and held the bottle of Jim Beam in a way that made me think he might swing it at my head. A car came down the gravel road, slowed, then continued. He said, “First in your class in college. All those job offers. Your daddy told me all about it. I dreaded going to his ‘Don’t Drink’ lectures, just because it became the ‘Quarles Is Great’ show. Then you got married to the famous arm wrestler. It kept getting worse and worse.”
I held up my palms. “First off, I didn’t graduate first in my class. And I got no job offers right away, to speak of. You know what I majored in? Fucking anthropology.”
Three more pistol cracks. Massey said, “How come you didn’t go on to get a job in bugs?”
I didn’t say how that was entomology. I said, “My father lied to you. He must’ve thought you had it in you to go on to college and get out of the Spot rut. Fuck, he used to tell me all about this cousin of mine I never met—my mother’s brother’s kid—who became an astronaut. You know what that guy really ended up? An assistant manager at a grocery store. My father told lies, man, lies.”
We both turned our chairs to look out the plate glass window. Both of us saw what we assumed was Lemmy breach the surface and take something—a caddis fly, a moth, a small bat?—out of the air.
Massey said, “Whatever, I’m happy. I’ll quit calling you that.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“All these years I’ve been hoping for you to have a major downfall, you know, like one of them famous politicians you hear about. So thanks for making me lose one more dream.” But he laughed.
I said, “If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure that my wife…” but I didn’t finish.
“In a weird way, we’re accessories,” Massey blurted out. “You and me need to get out of here. We don’t want no deputies showing up asking us questions. Next thing you know, we’re in jail. I can’t afford no good lawyer using macaroni and cheese proof of purchases.” He said, “You got to give me a ride. I walked here.”
I don’t know why I thought it the best idea to ask Massey, “You want to go see my dad? Let’s go. It’s not too far, and you can apologize if you want. Or tell him you’re on to his old lies. Then I’ll drive you back home.”
I guess I thought he wouldn’t take me up on it. What drunk decides to take a break and visit an old folks’ home?
I left a pen, pad, and a note. I asked any customers to leave money on the counter, to write out a list of what they purchased.
We left the door closed but unlocked. He said, “Yeah, I got nothing better to do, and maybe we’ll come across Big Ned’s aftermath. I’d like to see what he done did.”
We drove up the mountain, over it, and down to the nursing home. We didn’t pass Big Ned or see the remnants of a four-flat-tires pick-up truck.
Massey and I walked down the nursing home’s hallway right as they fetched dinner plates, and right as—I’m sorry, but this is reality—a terrible odor infiltrated the establishment, proof that no one ditched their suppers out a window or into the toilet, if they were ambulatory. Massey didn’t seem affected.
The television in his room aired a re-run of Dragnet. My father sat in a chair. He shifted his gaze to me and said, “You need a haircut, hippie.”
I introduced him to Massey. Massey said, “I don’t know if you remember me or not, Mr. Yontz.”
My father cut him off. “Remember you? Of course, I remember you. Good God, boy, how could I not remember a guy who drove around with a fake wallet all the time, waiting to get pulled by the highway patrol, in order to tell a big lie about finding it on top of a gas pump? What you been up to, Massey? How’s your mother Leona and your father Burl? I’ve been thinking about them lately. Did you ever go to college like I advised? You still not taking any wooden nickels?”
Massey didn’t see this as odd or awkward. He’d not seen my father in a couple decades. I said, “How the hell do you remember all of this, Dad?”
To me, my father said, “I think my bedpan needs to be dumped, Charlie Brown. I’m sorry. But at least I didn’t miss.”
I looked at Massey. He smiled at my father. I didn’t cry. But I thought it necessary to say, “Where the fuck are my quarters? I came across the nickels and dimes, but where are my quarters?” I didn’t say anything about a failed marriage, how I’d kind of gotten drained financially, or how I might not even have a place to live much longer. Down the hallway, past the receptionist’s desk, and down the other hallway where the kitchen stood, someone dropped what sounded like a pizza pan, which skittered like a thumped dime ending its whirl on a stainless-steel table.
I can’t say that I didn’t jump. I looked out the door and saw men in wheelchairs, fingers raised as pretend guns in the direction of an aide’s mishap, and thought how I wanted to get out a map and find a safer place to live, an Eden where no one lost memory, and where box tops counted.
“Everybody’s fine,” Massey said.
“Come on, man, let me take you home so I can get out of here,” I said.
He sat down in the one plastic-upholstered visitor’s chair, across from my father. Massey didn’t answer, as if he bought time, then told me to go on, that he needed to explain some things no one else would understand.
George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice illustrated by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, The Atlantic Monthly, One Story, Playboy, The Georgia Review, Agni, Zoetrope, Epoch, Harper’s, and elsewhere. He’s a former Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His latest collection is You Want More: Selected Stories.