“And that’s why I don't like those people. Their pride is all wrong. If they want to be treated like decent people then how about acting decent for a change. I knew they were up to no good. But, if I even think that I’m not being American.”
Grady swung his truck into a small gas station. With his hand starting to tremble, Grady pushed the cigarette lighter into the truck and waited for the coils of the lighter to heat up. Trying to ease his nerves, he inserted a cassette tape of his favorite Hank Williams, Jr. songs. He looked to the passenger seat and snarled at the small brown package. Grady grabbed a pack of Original Red Lucky Stripes next to the package and removed a single cigarette from the pack using just the corner of his mouth and a well-timed shake of the pack of cigarettes.
...preacher man says it’s the end of time…
He stared at the brown package again.
“Why do they live like this? They spend more money on…..and they don’t even want to work….”
..Mississippi River she’s a-goin’ dry...
The sound of the cigarette lighter finishing heating up startled Grady. He instinctively looked at his glove compartment and wondered if a gun was necessary. He pulled the cigarette lighter out of the truck’s dashboard and touched its hot coil to the edge of the cigarette.
The familiar sound of the cigarette’s first sizzle brought a brief calm to Grady. He knew the calm wouldn’t last if he didn’t rush the first few puffs into his body. He hated to fast smoke his cigarettes but he had no other choice. Forcing the cigarette to burn down, he puffed long and hard. It produced a glow of bright, neon reddish-orange at the tip of the cigarette. Within no time, there was more ash than there was a cigarette. Grady blew the smoke out through his nose and watched it fill the front seat of his truck. He could taste the sweetness of the nicely cured tobacco. Now he could relax. His mind drifted back to a few hours earlier.
...We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too...
... Ain't too many things these old boys can't do...
“Can I help you gentleman? You seem a little lost?” Grady didn’t want to appear rude to his new customers. He thought the word gentleman was a nice touch and he thought he sounded concerned.
The two black teenage boys looked at each other. One was noticeably bigger than the other. Both were wearing oversized black jackets with sports logos on them. Grady noticed the sports teams were from out of the state and it made him suspicious.
The two black teenage boys didn’t respond to Grady but communicated to each other using exaggerated head nods, hand gestures, and noticeable squints. The bigger of the boys two grabbed the oversized jacket of the smaller one around the chest and glared intensely. The younger one pulled out a small brown package from inside of his jacket and lowered his head. He walked up to the counter.
“Sir. I stole this trying to be tough. See, this white guy fell asleep in his truck and his window was rolled down, so I just took it. It was just sitting there. So, I took it.”
“You know people around here work hard for their stuff. You have no right to take what’s not yours. I should teach you a lesson. You're lucky your dad brought you back here. At least someone taught your dad some manners.”
“That’s not my….I mean, that’s not how I should behave, you're right. Here’s the thing back. I took it yesterday around this time.”
“Well, let go of it, will ya? Why are you looking at my camera? You afraid I’m going to call the cops on you, aren't ya? I’ll let you get away this time. But I don’t want to see you or your daddy around here again.“
Grady looked over to the older teenager “Don’t get me wrong sir, you did a good job making this one tell the truth. At least he won’t get shot like the others.”
The two teenagers walked slowly from the gas station with their heads bowed.
Grady put the package aside and allowed the pleasure of the scene to replay in his mind. He couldn’t recall anyone reporting a missing package and he found that a bit odd.
After a few minutes, Grady unfolded the brown package and saw a note affixed inside the wrapping. With each line, his eyes got bigger. Color began to leave his face and his hands started to tremble. He darted outside leaving the gas station to look for the two black teenagers.
“Damnitt!!. They wanted to be seen on that camera.”
...from North California and South Alabama
….little towns all around this land….
Grady sat in his truck thinking about how much he hated being tricked by the two black teenagers. He soon felt himself drifting off to sleep to the smooth sounds of Hank Williams, Jr.
...Country folks can survive ….Country boy can survive…Country folks…
Grady woke up fifteen minutes later feeling refreshed and new. His truck was still running and suddenly his body tensed up remembering why he came there. He reluctantly looked over to the passenger seat and saw the package undisturbed.
“Damnit!! Now you don’t want to steal?” Grady needed another cigarette but thought better of it.
He sat and thought for a second as Hank Williams, Jr was still playing. The familiar tunes worked their way through the acoustically friendly interior of his slightly rusty, deep baby blue, Ford F-150.
...cities against the counties, the counties against the state…
The state is against the government and the highways still ain’t paved.
The banker’s against the farmer, the farmer’s against the wall.
Doctor’s against me smoking and the devil is against us all.
Grady started to think about his mom. “We barely made it ourselves. We didn’t steal unless we absolutely had to and didn’t have nothing at all. But we didn’t stay on our food stamps like they like to do.”
Grady had an idea. He put the package in the right front pocket of his well-worn, oversized overalls. He walked to the back corner of his truck and filled the tank up while rehearsing his plan. The tank clicked quicker than he thought it should. He remembered he filled up the tank before he left his own gas station.
“Damnit. This has to work.”
Grady walked slowly into the gas station.
“Uhm where I pay for da gas I just got rightcheer? These new fancy gas stations. Shucks, I ain’t used to these new contraptions down about these ways. Nope. Not a bit.”
The clerk eyed Grady suspiciously. “Well. Our gas station is not too different from others. I see you fell asleep in your truck and you barely got any gas. What exactly do you want? You seem a little lost.”
Grady tried to stay in character. “This uhmm...minority kid came to my wife’s flower shop. On the count of he wanna git him some of dem roses for his big mama. Roses and chocolate and uhmmm...some jew’ry we sell. Shucks, he paid her in food stamps. My wife gave it to him for free, cause she sentimental like that. But he wouldn’t take them stamps back. He kept ‘sisting she keep ‘em. We can’t do nuthin with food stamps. We work for a living and everybody we know is workers, but I thought heck maybe you knew somebody.”
Grady felt a huge knot emerge in his stomach and his chest started to ache. He couldn’t believe his own story but didn’t know what else to say. Suddenly the clerk smiled and a feeling of relief came over Grady.
“Man, take your phony accent and that stuff, that whatever it is you got somewhere else. We clean here. We don’t do drugs. So, tell your sheriff buddies to ….”
“I’m not with the police.”
“Oh, what happened to that accent?”
“Okay. You got me. So, these aren’t food stamps, but they aren’t drugs either. What really happened was this black kid came into my gas station. I followed him because I thought he was about to steal something. He cussed me out for following him and I pulled a knife on him and he dropped this package. I looked in the bag and it looks like he’s a really good kid after all. The bag is full of his rap poetry stuff, some really nice calligraphy-looking art, and a letter he wrote to the mayor about how bad his neighborhood needs to be fixed. He also got an envelope that has “spare change for the homeless” written on it. I just want to find a way to get it back to him and I thought you could help. That's God's honest truth.”
Grady exhaled and looked pleadingly at the clerk.
The clerk extended his hand while Grady looked up at the camera in the gas station with a faint, almost imperceptible smile. The clerk flipped his hand over and revealed his middle finger.
“Spare change for the homeless? You almost had me, Mr. Awe Shucks. Like I said, take that somewhere else.”
Grady fumed, but also privately respected the perceptive nature of the clerk. The respect wore off once he remembered he needed a plan that worked and he needed one fast. He got back in his truck and sped off.
“Just great. I didn’t pay for this gas. It was an honest mistake. He should know that.”
Another song by Hank Williams, Jr started on the cassette deck.
Too many lawyers in football
Baseball’s got a few
The pitcher got a Million dollars
And the quarterback he got two
The pitcher threw his arm away
And the quarterback ruined his knee
This they did so they could live the American Dream
Suddenly, Grady knew where he had to go. He wasn’t sure the best way to go but decided to drive where the houses seemed the most hidden from the rest of the city. He would look for a gas station there.
He found the area. Each house looked identical to the next. The only difference was the color of the expensive vehicles and the relative size and shape of their decks. Svelte women walking with small dogs poorly veiled their attempts to not frown at the sight of his truck. Grady thought to himself that people in the neighborhood seemed too proud of the wrong things. He found the closest gas station as quickly as he could.
He walked in, handed the package to the clerk, and looked at their camera. He barely remembered what he said, but knew it really didn’t matter much. He walked out relieved.
Before he got into his truck, someone called out to him.
It was a tall, distinguished-looking Black male with an expensive suit. He didn’t see the black male when he entered and was surprised to find any black people in the neighborhood. Grady thought he must be either driving through or a famous athlete.
“If the clerk is calling me back, I didn't leave behind anything I needed or wanted.”
“No. Sir. I just saw you give that man a package that looked familiar.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Just answer one question. Did you get this from two black teenagers with puffy jackets?”
Grady suddenly felt his body freeze. He turned around not knowing what to think or say.
“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Why would you care? What business would it be of yours if I did?”
The eyes of the black man fell and suddenly a look of shame came over his face. “I’m proud of who I am. You have no idea how hard I worked to get where I am.”
The black male disarmed his expensive vehicle, sat inside for a minute, and then drove away.
Grady stood stunned and feeling confused by the absence of pride he felt just moments earlier. Suddenly, he saw the clerk emerging from the gas station. Grady sprinted to his truck and was gone before the clerk could finish cussing him out.
“You backwards, Bama!……” The clerk looked around to see who saw him and tried to quickly regain his composure.
The clerk opened the package to read the note again.
You’re being watched.
The last person to accept this at the end of today will have lived their last day.
You’re the problem with this country and the person that gave it to you agrees.