(The following is an excerpt from an original short story, which is available in full here.)
We walked outside and jumped into Uncle Harmon’s truck, a pale blue pickup with a touch of rust around the wheel wells. It had a cloth bench seat with a grey seat cover that looked like a knitted sweater. It had all the finest AM radio stations, and the panel on the driver’s side door was gone so that all the inner parts were showing. If you had asked Uncle Harmon, he would’ve told you that it had power windows, in that it took some power to roll them down.
“Well, we couldn’t get the defrost fixed,” he said, after we had gotten into the truck. “But, we did get the heater to start working, so I reckon we’ll be set.”
He smiled at me, and I returned it.
“Now,” he said, “whaddya say we get us a bite to eat?”
Rudy’s, as it turns out, was not on the way. I didn’t know the way to Kentucky, but I did know the way to Rudy’s, and it turns out that they were in two separate directions. Rudy’s wasn’t much more than a gas station market. It only had two pumps outside, and the inside was fairly small as well. It had a fairly good selection of chewing tobacco, or so I assumed seeing as I always saw someone leaving with a few pouches in hand. The only place to sit and eat was a chair in front of one of the two aisles, and it was always occupied, usually by someone who wasn’t eating.
The breakfast they served consisted of anything they could fit on a biscuit: eggs, bacon, sausage, country ham, city ham, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, and any type of cheese you wanted as long as it was American.
I followed Uncle Harmon inside, passing a man coming out the other door.
“Whaddya know good, Harmon? Finally got cold on us huh?” he said as he kept walking.
“Yes sir,” said Uncle Harmon, “and not a minute too soon.”
Uncle Harmon led the way over to the biscuit display. I read all the tags on the biscuits wrapped in aluminum foil, looking for country ham. Uncle Harmon got a sausage biscuit and told me to go get us both something to drink.
Rudy Rudolph, the owner, was standing behind the counter. I had my doubts as to whether or not Rudy was his real name, but I had never heard anyone call him by another name, and I was too afraid to ask myself. He was a small man, with hair only on the sides of his head. He was bald on the top of his head expect for six or seven strands that were always combed over from one side to the other. He wore tiny glasses that were so thin, I couldn’t help but inspect them each time to see if there were even any lenses in them. His shoulders were always slouched and his head was always tilted down, with his eyes tilted up at everyone.
The woman fixing the biscuits looked tougher than Mr. Rudy in every way. I assumed she was his wife, because I never saw anyone else back there, but I also never heard them say two words to each other.
“You want any jelly for your biscuit, hun?” she asked, looking at me.
I couldn’t imagine jelly on country ham.
“No ma’am,” I said.
She slid the biscuits over to the counter where Mr. Rudy was standing.
“Well Rudy,” said Uncle Harmon, “did you ever find your dog?”
He nodded his head, keeping his eyes lifted up at Uncle Harmon all the while.
“Them Bryant boys brought him over in the back of their pickup,” he said. “Said they right near killed him.”
“Is that right?” said Uncle Harmon, smiling and lifting his eyebrows.
“Said he tore loose the gate off their chicken pen and let eight hens get out,” said Mr. Rudy. “Said he killed every one of em.”
Uncle Harmon laughed. Mr. Rudy only grinned, a sly grin that would’ve looked mischievous on anyone else. It had a natural look on him.
“Sounded to me like them chickens weren’t too bright,” he said. “I’da thought they could get away from old Booner. He’s half blind you know.”
“Blind?” said Uncle Harmon.
“Blind as a bat since the day I got him,” said Mr. Rudy. “He’s got one eye that’s just clear all the way around. Looks like a marble.”
“Well I’ll be dern,” said Uncle Harmon.
He rang up the biscuits and drinks and let Uncle Harmon grab them.
“Ya’ll getting into much today?” asked Mr. Rudy.
Uncle Harmon dropped his head a bit and smiled.
“Oh, just heading up to Kentucky,” said Uncle Harmon.
“Oh yeah, what fer?” asked Mr. Rudy.
“Well,” said Uncle Harmon, dragging the word out, “I’m gonna go see about my brother.”
Mr. Rudy tilted his head.
“I didn’t know you had a brother in Kentucky,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Uncle Harmon, handing me my biscuit and drink.
“Whereabouts?” asked Mr. Rudy.
“Freyer,” said Uncle Harmon.
“Hm,” said Mr. Rudy, shaking his head. “Hadn’t heard of it.”
“Aw, there ain’t much to it,” said Uncle Harmon, smiling again.
“Hm,” said Mr. Rudy. “Well, you boys be safe. Come back.”
“We’ll do it,” said Uncle Harmon. “Ya’ll take care.”
We walked back outside into the cold, hopping back into Uncle Harmon’s truck.
“Now we’re ready,” he said.
I unwrapped the foil around my biscuit, letting the steam roll its way out. I could already feel the heat of it on my cold hands. It’s amazing how cold a body can get just in the amount of steps it takes to get from the door of a gas station to the inside of a truck. Uncle Harmon’s bench seats were always warm, and even before he kicked his heater on—which was indeed working quite well—I felt much warmer being out of the wind. The biscuit warmed me up as I ate it, feeling the heat of it going down, followed by cold chocolate milk. Uncle Harmon had a taste for chocolate milk as well, and he drank a bit of it when he wasn’t drinking his coffee.
“How far is Freyer?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, in between bites, “we can be there in about two and a half hours or so.”
“Is it close to Maynor?” I asked.
Maynor was another small town in Kentucky, and it also happened to be the only place in Kentucky I could ever remember going to. I wouldn’t have recognized it.
“Naw, we could probably get to Maynor in about thirty minutes,” he said.
One thing I did know was that Reeder, our town, was fairly close to the Kentucky border. My understanding of distance as a child, however, was very limited. Close meant we could get there and back in a day. Far meant I didn’t expect to be going there anytime soon. Most of the time, thirty minutes felt about the same as an hour, and anything over that just felt like too far to go in a day. When Uncle Harmon said it would take us two and a half hours, I didn’t take it too seriously.
I didn’t know enough about roads to realize this at the time, but the drive from Reeder to Freyer is purely highway, and backroad highway at that. It’s a drive that’s stretches out, with farmland all around. When we crossed over the Kentucky border, I could hardly tell a difference at all. Rural homes, I have found, all tend to look mostly the same, and southern Kentucky highways can confuse a young boy rather easily, so that he can never quite tell how far he’s gone.
Driving across the Kentucky landscape, seeing all the homes that looked so familiar but yet unknown to me, I came to realize how little traveling I had done. It was strange to me that people could live so close together and yet never know a thing about each other’s lives. Any of those homes could’ve housed a boy my age. If only one of us had lived a few miles closer to the other, perhaps we would’ve become childhood friends. But, because of the few miles that stood between, we lived separate lives in separate places. I thought about Reeder and all the people that lived there that I had never come to know, and perhaps never would.
There was Rudy Rudolph, for example. I had seen him many times, but never outside of the gas station. I wondered if I would’ve even recognized him if I had run into him at the grocery store. I figured that I probably would have, but even so, that didn’t change the fact that, for all my dealings with him, I didn’t know a thing about him, save for the fact that he had a wife (or, so I assumed) and that he had a dog named Booner.
Even Uncle Harmon had a life of his own. If, for some reason, he had chosen years ago to move to Kentucky with Uncle Lane rather than stay in Reeder, I would’ve possibly never known a thing about him expect for the fact that he was my great uncle and that he lived in Kentucky. It was a strange thought to consider.
(This full story is available for purchase on Amazon.)