A native of Southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south. The writer explores aspects of southern culture often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society. His work has been nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. Gardner is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Deep South Magazine, Newfound Journal and The Virginia Literary Journal.
A Short Story
By James William Gardner
Evan Dickey pulled in to the lot of the Huddle House restaurant on Two-Twenty near Madison. He parked, opened the door, flicked the butt of his cigarette across the pavement and stood to stretch. It was a hot night. He pulled up his trousers and walked inside.
The air conditioning felt good. It smelled like bacon and fresh coffee. He walked across the dining room and slid into a booth by the wall. He looked at his wristwatch. It was a quarter to three. That was Evan Dickey’s favorite time of day.
A waitress walked over and said, “Good morning.” She was a tall, skinny girl with deep-set eyes that seemed to look right through him. He said good morning to her and she asked if he would like coffee.
“I sure would,” he answered.
“You a driver?” she said.
He looked at her quizzically. “What?”
“A truck driver?” she said.
“No. I ain’t no truck driver.”
“Most of the guys that come in this time of night are drivers,” she explained. Then she smiled. There were deep creases around her mouth when she did. Then she hurried off to get the coffee. Evan Dickey pulled a plastic coated menu from behind the ketchup bottle and opened it up. There were color photographs of the offerings. A minute later she brought a mug of coffee and sat it down on the table along with a paper napkin, a spoon and two containers of creamer.
“Know what you want?” she said. She held a small pad in one hand and a short yellow pencil in the other.
“This country fried steak breakfast looks right good,” he said. “I believe I’ll have that.”
“How do you want your eggs?”
“Over easy,” he said.
“You want grits or hash browns?”
“Grits,” said Evan Dickey. He closed the menu and stuck it back behind the ketchup. She finished writing down his order and tore the sheet off the pad. Then she walked over behind the counter and stuck the sheet of paper on a clip next to the grill where the cook could see it. Evan Dickey opened the creamers and poured both of them into the mug. Then he stirred it and took a sip.
He began to imagine what everyone would say when they found out he was gone. He could hear his sister, “He didn’t tell me. I went by his apartment and there was a FOR RENT sign in the window. I called the number and talked to his landlord. He said Evan just packed up and moved out. He didn’t even get his deposit back.”
“Maybe he’s just moved to a new place,” his brother-in-law said. “We’ll probably hear from him in a few days.”
Evan Dickey smiled with satisfaction. Eventually they would figure out that he was gone for good. Hell, he might never talk to them again. It would serve them right. All the time that he needed them and they were never there for him. Shoot, for that matter there was no one there that he could depend on except for the counselors over at the clinic. That was okay. He didn’t need anyone. He could manage just fine by himself.
He’d simply disappear and nobody would ever know where he had gone. That would show his contempt for the whole lot of them. Who would ever find him down in Marion? Not a soul. He would be free to start his life over on his own terms.
The only possible weakness in his plan was his son, Phillip. Amy might call and ask him. He’d have to tell Phillip where he was living. After all, he might really worry and Evan Dickey didn’t want that. He’d tell Phillip to promise not to let anyone else know.
“Dad, you can’t just disappear like that. You’ve got to let people know. Aunt Amy and Uncle John will worry about you. What about Aaron and Justin?”
“Well, I hate to never talk to the boys again, but I’ve made up my mind and you’ve got to promise not to tell them where I’ve moved.”
Then he thought that maybe he wouldn’t tell Phillip either. He’d just call him and let him know he was all right and give him the new cell phone number, but not mention Marion. Yeah, maybe that was the best thing to do.
Marion would be a brand new start. He could be anonymous. He could be completely alone. After all, wasn’t he completely alone anyway? It sure as hell felt like it. A man is a fool to think otherwise. Everybody is alone in this world when you get right down to it, he thought. Nobody really gives a shit. Even the councilors at the clinic were indifferent. They were paid to act like they cared, but really they didn’t. Sue couldn’t remember what he’d told her from week to week. She’d ask the same damn things over and over again.
Amy might call the clinic and ask them if they knew what had happened to him. “Do you think that he is suicidal?”
“No, I don’t believe that he is, not anymore anyway.”
So, what if they thought he was suicidal. That would make it even better. They’d all worry that much more. He laughed.
“Hell Amy, don’t worry yourself sick. That’s probably what the devil Evan wants. He’s a messed up guy. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Then he started to worry that maybe everyone would reach that conclusion. “He’s sick,” they’d say. “He’s been that way for years. He ain’t worth worrying over. He’s going to do what he’s going to do.”
“Where is Uncle Evan, Momma?
“Honey, we don’t know where Uncle Evan is. He’s moved away somewhere.”
“Will he ever come back?”
“Oh, I’m sure he will. You know that your Uncle Evan loves you very much.” Privately though Amy might say that she hated him for the way that he had treated the boys. Oh well, there was nothing that he could do about that.
Then, he turned his thoughts to Marion. He imagined what his new life would be. For one thing, it would be free of pretence. He wouldn’t have to act like he cared about anybody and nobody would have to pretend that they gave a shit about him. He’d go for weeks and not talk to a living soul. He could be completely alone. Oh, he might say hello to the person in the checkout line at the grocery store or the barber that cut his hair, but that wouldn’t count.
“Who is the new guy that moved in number eight?”
“I don’t know. He don’t never say nothing. He barely ever comes out of the apartment. He just stays in there with all the blinds closed.
“I saw that he had Virginia plates. I reckon that’s where he comes from.”
“I reckon so. He sure ain’t very friendly.”
“Joanne said she saw him moving in. She said he didn’t have no furniture at all, but one recliner and a little folding chair and a desk. He ain’t got a bed or a television or anything.”
“I wonder what the dickens he does in there all day?”
“Joanne says he stays up all night and sleeps all day.”
Evan Dickey smiled again. He looked up and saw the waitress bringing his order. “Here you are,” she said as she sat the plate down before him. “Can I get you anything? Would you care for another cup of coffee?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he said. I wonder if I could have an extra bowl of this gravy to put over my grits?”
“Why, you sure can. I’ll be right back.”
He watched her as she walked away. Then he put his napkin in his lap and began to eat. She brought the coffee pot over and filled his cup and left two more creamers. Then she returned again with a bowl of gravy. He thanked her and spooned the gravy over his grits and cut his eggs and let the yokes run in too.
“Yeah, he’d be a mystery alright. He’d be the man that no one knew, the man that never spoke, the stranger in apartment eight. It was a pleasing thought. He would live the most simple life possible. It would be uncluttered by people or things. All he needed was a comfortable recliner and a good reading lamp, a small desk for the computer and a chair for that, a few pots and pans and a sleeping bag. He could eat hotdogs and drink beer, read and write and think.
Often, Evan Dickey would talk to himself. Not so that you could hear him, but he would do it in his mind. He could hear himself saying, “Why do you want to live such an austere life? Do you ever think that it might be that you’re subconsciously trying to punish yourself for something that you think you’ve done?”
“That’s ridiculous,” he replied confidently. “I live the way I do because I have a very limited income. That’s why I buy cheap hotdogs and drink cheap beer.”
“It doesn’t explain why you choose to isolate yourself from others.”
“Other people don’t do anything but let you down!” He could hear himself growing angry. He didn’t like it when the other voice would come out and start asking difficult questions. He wasn’t trying to punish himself. He was sure that he wasn’t.
“You go for weeks and don’t eat anything but cold spaghetti and meatballs out of a can. You don’t bathe for days at a time.”
“What difference does that make? I don’t see anybody.”
He told himself that he would live through the books that he read. He would read and he would write. He would devote himself completely to his writing. He would study O’Connor and McCullers and Faulkner and he would learn and he would write. He would eat cold spaghetti and hotdogs and drink beer and keep to himself. Yes, he’d keep to himself. He wouldn’t harm anyone and nobody could hurt him.
“Is everything alright?” the skinny waitress asked. He hadn’t seen her come up.
“Yes,” he said.
She reached over and filled his mug again. “Need more creamer?”
She pulled two more out of her apron and then hurried away.
“Who is that man over in the corner?”
“I think his name is Dickey.”
Well, of course the librarians would know his name. They’d see it on his card. There wasn’t any way of avoiding that.
“He comes in every Tuesday right before we close. He never says anything.”
“I thought you said that you wanted to move to Marion so that you’d be near the beach? Wasn’t that the idea? You’d go several times a week, rent an umbrella and read on the sand?”
“I know, I know, but I’ve gotten so damn fat that I’m embarrassed. Not only that, but those umbrellas are expensive. I can buy a weeks worth of spaghetti and meatballs for what it costs to rent an umbrella for one day.”
“That canned spaghetti isn’t good for you.”
“So what!” he could feel himself growing angry again. He looked up from his plate to make sure that no one was watching. Three guys were sitting at the counter talking. They weren’t paying any attention to him. Sometimes when the other voice was asking questions and he was getting mad, Evan Dickey wasn’t completely sure that he wasn’t talking out loud. It sometimes sounded as if he was.
Oh, he’d like to spend his days out on the beach beneath an umbrella. He’d like to eat foot long hotdogs at Peaches, but it was just too damn expensive. Besides, he was more comfortable at home in his apartment with the air conditioning.
“I think that you’re afraid! I think that all of this is because you’re afraid of living!”
“I am not!” he shouted. He had really shouted that time. The men at the counter turned to look. So did the cook and both of the waitresses. His waitress walked over to the table and looked at him and said, “Mister, are you all right?”
“Of course I am,” he replied. He smiled a reassuring smile at her. Her eyes looked troubled. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“You were talking to yourself, I think. You must have been. There’s nobody else here.”
“Everything is perfectly all right. I apologize if I caused a disturbance. It won’t happen again.”
She nodded her head and walked slowly back toward the counter.
“Is that guy okay?” asked the cook.
“He was talking to himself, I think.”
Evan Dickey took a half slice of toast and mopped up the rest of the egg yoke and gravy. Then he put grape jelly on the last piece.
“He’s all right. He’s perfectly normal. He’s over there eating his toast with grape jelly. After all, plenty of people talk to themselves occasionally. I reckon we’ve all done it at one time or another, haven’t we?”
The men at the counter turned back around and resumed talking to themselves as if nothing had happened at all. Actually, nothing of any significance did.”
If you spend all of your time locked up in that apartment by yourself you might get to where you won’t know if you’re talking out loud or not. Who will be there to tell you one way or the other?”
Evan Dickey finished his toast and jelly and stood up from the booth. Then he picked up the ticket and walked over to the register.
“How was everything?” asked the other waitress as she rang up the bill.
“It was very good,” he said. He reached in his back pocket and pulled out his billfold.
“That will be eight dollars and ninety-five cents.” He handed her a twenty. She gave him change and thanked him. He walked back over to the booth and put a five dollar bill on the table. Then he walked out.
“That was one weird motherfucker,” said one of the men at the counter.
“He’s from up in Roanoke. He’s moving down to Marion, South Carolina, but he didn’t tell anybody that he was moving. He just up and left in the middle of the night. His sister and them will be worried to death.”
“Well, it’s damn inconsiderate if you ask me.”