There used to be a girl who mucked out stalls who told me stories. I never knew from day to day what kind of story I was going to get from Tommie, but no matter what, she told her stories with breathless excitement, punctuating every sentence not with a pause, that taking in of air that denotes a period, no, instead Tommie said, “And then . . .” and sometimes you thought she would just pass out before she got to the end, but she always got to the harrowing end and sometimes I considered suggesting to her that she take up deep sea diving, because that girl could run on less oxygen than any living being I’ve ever met.
So the other thing about Tommie, besides her sparkling smile, was her literal way of looking at things. Tommie wouldn’t know irony if it showed up in her pasture with her steers, the two she raises every year to fill her deep freeze. Everything in the world is what it is to Tommie, what she sees and hears is the truth. And this made her stories even more exciting to me. Sometimes Tommie just told me about what she did over the weekend, or about her grandchildren, yes, Tommie is my age, but she has grandbabies, lots of them. One morning she recounted every steer she ever raised and slaughtered, their names . . . Brownie, Blackie, Spottie, One Eye, Fuzzie . . . and how healthy they were, or sick, or the one that got loose one day and got into her neighbors garden. And then she’d tell me about the steaks, all that steak, Tommie eats steak every night, and all the steaks have a name. See, I’d like to raise a steer for my deep freeze, but if I gave it a name, and spent as much time with it as Tommie spends with her steers, I couldn’t send it to Siler City to be done away with and made into various cuts of meat. I’d own that steer for life.
But Tommie’s best stories involved current events of the most local kind -- usually murder. I’d bring Joe into the barn and start grooming him, and Tommie liked the way I comb Joe’s forelock to one side, she would always come over, and grin without showing her partials, and she’d say, every time, she’d say, “He looks just like a boy in school ready for his yearbook picture. So handsome!” And I think of that every time, every time I comb Joe’s forelock. But there I’d be, grooming Joe, getting my tack ready for my ride and Tommie would ask, “Did you hear about that boy in Mebane last week?”
“No Tommie, what boy in Mebane?” And I’d think how many boys must there be in Mebane? Alot of boys for sure, but I knew the boy Tommie was going to tell me about was either dead, or he killed somebody.
“Well, this boy, he was 23 and he done killed himself last week, right there in his car in his girlfriend’s driveway, with his girlfriend in the car.”
“Geez Tommie . . . ”
“I know, just tuhrable. She was only 17 and she was still in high school you know and she broke up with him, but she felt sorry for him, so she let him keep picking her up to drive her to school every morning like he’s been doing and he got there last Monday morning and he had a gun and when she got in the car he said he didn’t want to drive her to school no more ‘less she keep being his girlfriend and then he held the gun up to his head and she screamed I guess and he done shot the top of his head right off.”
“That’s horrible Tommie, poor girl.”
And then Tommie took a turn that I wasn’t expecting at all, “So this Saturday, last Saturday, Bobbie took me to the junk yard out there on highway 70, you know the one with the Christmas tree in the bucket truck?” And I stopped grooming Joe and thought for a minute and then I remembered the junk yard, that stretches for something like a quarter of a mile along the road front and seems to go back for acres and acres and it’s full of demolished cars, piled on top of each other. The junk yard is somewhere between Mebane and Burlington and I think the county tried to shut it down at some point, but never succeeded, that just because it’s an eyesore didn’t make a big enough case, but anyway, it’s got this old crane out front and sometimes they hang some old classic car from it, and during the holidays they hang a fully decorated Christmas tree from it, which has got to be a sight at night, but I’ve only seen it during the day. And I have to say that stretch of highway 70 has to be one of the most depressing stretches of highway in North Carolina, even on a sunny day, but it always seems cloudy when I’m on that road, and I’m always on some strange errand, cause that road doesn’t lead to any place very interesting or nice. But anyway, I say to Tommie, “Yeah Tommie I know that junk yard, now why did Bobbie take you over there?” Now Bobbie is her husband and they are two of the hardest working country people I know, but on top of working like the dickens every day, they seem to have a lot of fun too -- eating steak every night and playing with their grandbabies.
“Well last summer Bobbie bought me a 1966 baby blue Mustang convertible . . . ”
“Wow Tommie, that’s cool.”
“Yeah I know, I know, but it don’t run, the engine is all messed up and he’s been fixing it up slowly for me so that maybe by next summer I can drive it around and we needed a better steering wheel for it, cause the one it’s got is busted and we were thinkin’ we might find some front seats for it that were in better shape and then we thought we might find some parts for my daughter’s tractor and well next thing you know we had this big list and we drive up to the junk yard and then we get there and we know the man who owns it pretty good cause we go there a lot and we get there and Bobbie’s talking to him about my Mustang and if he’s got any Mustangs on the lot and he says he’s got lots of Mustangs, but maybe none that old, you know? And then he says he got a new car in that we might want to look at but that it needs alotta cleaning up on the interior and Bobbie asks him what for? And the man says well, he says, well it’s the car that boy killed himself in and Bobbie looks at me and I say I don’t want that car but I want to look at it you know? And Bobbie tells the man okay, we don’t want that car, but can we look at it? And then the man takes us behind his garage and there’s the car, it’s a Honda and it’s in real good condition on the outside but you could see already that the windows were spattered, you know with blood, and then the man took us over and he opened the driver side door and then he said, ”Tommie look in there Tommie,“ and he was smiling and kinda laughing, and so I looked at Bobbie and then Bobbie said, ”Yeah Tommie, go ahead, look in there,“ and then the junk man he said, ”Look at the ceiling . . . “ and then I stuck my head in there and I looked up at the ceiling and you know what? You know what? There was this thing stuck to the ceiling and then I figured out it was the top of that boy’s head, it was his skull bone and it still had hair and the blood was all dried like glue and it was stuck to the ceiling of that car, ain’t that something?”
I don’t remember what I said to Tommie after that, I might not have said anything, which wouldn’t have concerned her too much as she was mucking a stall furiously as she was telling me this, I think I was just glad that the story was over so I could go ride my horse.