THOSE IMAGINARY MILES
harrison scott key
Father was a salesman, but did not look it. He was not stooped and pathetic, like Willy Loman. Nor was he lean and handsome like Sam Sharpe, my State Farm agent. My wife has fallen in love with Sam Sharpe. “He’s kind of hot,” she says. He looks like a quarterback, with black-stallion hair and white teeth and eyes so blue you end up buying boat insurance, even without a boat. Father was not this kind of salesman. He looked more like a large, bald Hobbit.
His gut was an oaken cask. His chest was meaty and wide, like two Thanksgiving birds yoked together with chicken wire. The man had Popeye arms, and his head was large and round and hard enough to be its own helmet.
In his work, touring the villages of rural Mississippi to sling asphalt bids at county supervisors, he was tieless in his shirtsleeves and brown Sansabelt slacks. He loved Sansabelts, those ancient polyester slacks with an elastic waist that rendered the belt obsolete. Father did not even need a belt. He was that much of a man.
He stood upright and proud, but he walked in the manner of a government mule loaded down with munitions for some distant war.
He wore steel taps on the soles of his shoes, and every step he took across the linoleum had the grave sound of military judgment. In the right pocket of his Sansabelts, next to the moneyclip, he carried a small pocketknife, as men of his generation often do. He did not carry it for show. I have stood by his side as he refused to pay certain prices for automotive repair. I have heard him threaten to remove a mechanic’s scrotum and testes and feed them to our dog. I prayed to Jesus that Father would not do this.
Father was not to be trifled with. At Ole Miss football games, I have seen him point a beastly finger, thick and square as a ham hock, at drunken rednecks and tell them to cease their tomfoolery. I have seen him debate, with a fisherman in another boat twenty yards away, who has the right to fish in that particular hole.
“Good morning to you!” the other fisherman said. “You all catching anything?”
“Why don’t you move?” Father said.
“Why don’t you scoot on out of here?”
“I believe I was here first, good sir,” the cordial fisherman said.
“I believe I got a .22 pistol in my pocket says you ought to get your candyass out of here.”
The man trolled away.
I wanted to reach out, to explain that father suffered from a rare disorder that made him want to shoot nice people in boats.
Father pushed other men around. The imposition of his mulish obstinacy and the threats of violence were all it took. He didn’t speak like an angry man, which perhaps made him more frightening. He might say he was going to pull off your arm and beat you to death with it, but he’d say it in a charming way. Father spent his life crushing the souls of other men with this violent charm. But there was one man Father could not best. That was Clyde, his boss.
“Can I go to work with you tomorrow?” I said.
Father lowered his Rankin County News, a publication I would later value chiefly for its photographs of local virgins. Since 1848, the paper’s motto has been “Fear No Man, and Render Justice to All.”
“Work?” he said. “With me?”
I told him I was bored. It was summer, of course. Even with baseball and yardwork, there was very little to do. Father believed cable television and video games were for girls, and also for boys who wanted to be girls. As such, our days were languorous rural protractions, punctuated by moments of terror and death. We took guns into the woods and shot things to see if they were alive. We found cold creeks, built dams from Yazoo clay, and did our best to drown one another. I hadn’t planned anything very interesting for the next day. I was going to spend the morning sharpening my hatchet, which I had planned to spend the afternoon throwing at feral cats. A ride in father’s company car would mean, at the very least, a buffet lunch.
“I reckon,” he said. “If you want to.”
Father worked for Southland Oil Company, a small Mississippi firm that had poked a few dubious holes in the Delta and earned most of its money by turning crude into molten blacktop for the long, hot roads of our state. Father was a traveling salesman for Southland. He sold the same roads he drove.
In the Southland company car, always the latest model of a Caprice Classic, Father drove from one small town to the next, meeting county supervisors. They would discuss roadbuilding projects and asphalt prices by the ton. He came home each night with little to show for his work but the brown paper sacks full of tomatoes he bought off the backs of trucks in counties of central Mississippi—Neshoba, Yazoo, Jefferson Davis—a list of county names both native and European. In the sun of a windowsill, Mother set out sheets of newspaper and placed the tomatoes on them, to ripen. Father ate them all.
Sometimes, along with the tomatoes, Father brought home the great unseen burden of Clyde. Clyde was a loud man, a dervish with a voice like gravel and gasoline, who came at you with everything and put you on your heels. He was older than Father, but tall and lean and with a full head of speckled black hair and a pushbroom mustache. If Father was a government mule, Clyde was a wild Appaloosa. With a mustache.
I did not understand Father’s quarrel with Clyde—he didn’t share this information with his children. But after we’d gone to bed, or out to play ball in the yard, Father lumbered into the kitchen to discuss the subject with Mother. On occasion, we listened at open windows or around paneled corners. I could understand very little of it—only that Clyde was a sonofabitch who mocked and derogated Father’s lack of formal schooling, along with other qualities that irked him. This, as one could imagine, made Father wanted to rip off Clyde’s head and take a shit down the hole in his neck.
“I’ll kill him,” Father said.
“Don’t kill anybody,” Mother said.
“I’ll do it,” Father said. “I’ll knock hell from that mustachioed peckerwood.”
“You’ll be fired,” Mother said.
“I’ll be a hero,” he said. “Then they’ll make me the boss.” Father was under the impression that modern companies functioned much like the animal kingdom.
Father never did get to bend Clyde over a barrel and beat him to death with a steel pipe, or even to usurp his position at the top of Southland’s food chain, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t stick it to Clyde somehow—which is what he did.
We left the house right after sunrise. As was my custom, I smuggled a book in my pants. It was the only way to pass the time. There were only so many animals you could shoot before you ran out of ammunition. After my friends and I had exhausted such pastoral pleasures, we were tempted to unnatural ones, like lighting each other on fire and shaving our pets. If we had been older, we might have turned to sex and drugs. Instead, boredom coerced us into lives of literacy. Books were a respite from the tedium. I took them to places where reading was discouraged, like school, and I often found myself in the principal’s office having to explain my fascination with knowledge.
I climbed into the car and quickly shoved my paperback under the front seat. It was a short novel by Robert Heinlein—a book that, perhaps, can still be found at the bookstore under the banner of the Science Fantasy. If a book is a frigate, as Emily Dickinson says, then science fantasy is a castaway galleon for the socially awkward.
We drove and drove, into the morning sun, and then beside it, and then under it. We listened to FM country and AM talk. I decided I’d wait until lunch to open my book. We did not speak, really. I couldn’t think of anything to talk about. At last, as always, he began talking about fishing lures.
“You see that new Red Belly Devil Horse I got?” he said. “Now that’s a jig, boy!”
I pretended to be asleep. I was unfamiliar with the new products of the freshwater fishing industry and found largemouth bass tiresome. I would rather have taken a fishing rod to the grocery store and tried to hook a box of Little Debbie Fudge Rounds. Finally, I pretended to wake up and pulled my book from under the seat.
“What’s that?” he said.
I was always coy about my books, afraid Father would find them effeminate. It was embarrassing. Not because the men in my family were uncultured, but because the books had titles like The Star-Beast.
“What’s it called?” he said.
“It’s just a stupid book,” I said.
“For school?” he said.
“School doesn’t start for two months,” I said.
“Reading’s good, I reckon.” He meant it in the same way that blood transfusions are good. They are necessary, perhaps, in times of great distress. “What’s it about?” he said.
It was difficult to share even the most basic narrative elements of the book without sounding like a girl, and I was not a girl. I was on the liminal boundary of manhood. In our community, by the age of ten, you were expected to have killed something that weighed more than you. A deer. A bear. A cousin. Unfortunately, I was not good at killing things. Oh, I wanted to kill things, and I would have, if it were legal to hunt deer by running them over with a car. I learned to drive at age eleven, and by age twelve had learned to run over animals and other sundry stationary objects. In spite of these accomplishments, my community did not consider me a man, merely a hazard.
“What’s the book about?” Father asked.
“It’s just a stupid book about a star-beast,” I said.
I read from the back cover: “It’s a sentient creature belonging to an advanced alien race, brought back to the earth many years ago,” I said.
“Oh,” he said.
We drove down the highway, chasing its hot ripples across the distant edge of the blacktop. Maybe this was one of Father’s roads. Maybe this was his asphalt. I did not care.
We drove and drove. He said nothing, only stared at the road ahead. The July afternoon was hot and bright and then hot and wet and then bright again. I asked if we could roll down the windows, but he refused. The jetwash of air would have upset the sculpted flap of hair on Father’s great big marble-slab head, kept in place by half a bottle of Vitalis Maximum Hold and a great deal of prayer. The windows stayed up, the hair stayed down.
I tried asking Father about his work, but he offered little exposition. He asked even fewer questions of me. He was not a great fan of the interrogative sentence, unless it was some form of “Did you see that deer?” We did not see any. It was hot. Deer don’t like the heat any more than we do.
We wheeled into the town squares of villages like Kosciusko, Philadelphia, Newton. Father traveled to these rural seats of power offering Southland’s services in the building of roads. He entreated government servants, the genteel planters and upstart hotheaded rubes, to buy his asphalt. I suppose they did. I do not know. He left me to wait in the car, with the window cracked, like a dog who could read.
Returning from one of these expeditions, he took notice of my book again. “I used to read,” he said, settling his heft down in the seat of the car.
“What did you read about?” I said.
“Mussolini,” he said. “He was an eye-talian. In the war.”
This was encouraging. Up until then, I was pretty sure father only read the Rankin County News and telephone bills. I had never seen him read a real book. I had recently read The Rise and Fall of Adolph Hitler, an old paperback written for schoolchildren, and I saw the shimmer of a real conversation out there on the road ahead.
“Did you like the book?” I said.
“It wasn’t one of them kind you read,” he said.
“It was longer, you mean?” I said. “Like history?”
“No,” he said. “I mean maybe it was a TV show.”
Our preacher had lately been talking about work, both for the Lord and for money. “God calls people all the time,” the preacher had said. “He called Paul to be an apostle, on the road to Damascus. The word itself—vocation—is from vocare, to call. To call! Is God calling you? You best attune the antennae of your heart to the frequency of the Lord Jesus Christ and find out.”
In the Bible, it seemed like boys were always taking up the work of their fathers. Should I follow mine and take up the yoke of asphalt sales? It sounded about as fun as eating my own teeth.
I fell asleep against the car door. I had a vision. I saw Father, standing on the highway. He was in the Holy Land, but it was altered somehow. The land was Mississippi, but it was a purple Syrian sky. And then Jesus came out of the air like a Shoney’s Big Boy, heading straight for my paterfamilias.
And as he journeyed, he came near Coldwater, Mississippi, on the road to Memphis: and suddenly there shone ’round about him a light from heaven. And Father fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “My son, my son, why dost thou disappoint me?”
And Father, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”
And the Lord said unto him, “Arise, and go to junior college, and drop out after the last football game. At the appointed time, it shall be told thee what thou must do. It will likely involve asphalt products. I knowest it does not sound like promising work, but it will involve a company car.”
And just like that, the Big Boy Jesus went back to paradises yet unknown. Father had looked so alien in the dream, with hair and strange clothing, his pockets filled with papers and pencils. It was him, but different. Or perhaps it was me, but older.
I woke up, and we were home. While I slept, he had purchased a sack of tomatoes.
I have little doubt that Father could have hurled Clyde across the road like a brokedown lawnmower, but he did not. Father had no education and had labored long and hard to a salaried position. If he tried to pull off Clyde’s genitals with his bare hands, he would be shuffled back down the Great Chain of Being and end up shoveling rocks on a Department of Transportation road crew. Father made very little money, but twice as much as he should have made, given his education. As such, he was beholden and enslaved to Clyde, and Clyde, apparently, knew this. He did not like Father, and from the head offices of Southland, He needled and bedeviled and provoked Father.. I do not know how he did this—only that he did it. I overheard Father’s stories of things Clyde had said in the company of colleagues and clients, hurtful things that demanded vengeance. Clyde mocked Father’s rural laxity with forms of the verb to be; his high golf scores, a game of choice in the asphalt industry; his bowlegged cowboy walk. And worst, he did it at conventions of the Mississippi Road Builders Association in midcentury Gulf Coast hotels, in the company of men. These men would have ordinarily shown Father a great deal of respect, knowing that at any moment he was prepared to beat them to death with a Gideon Bible. But with Clyde in the room, Father was passive and sterile, the butt of every joke. Clyde was the only man in the world, it seemed, who could hurt him. I gathered that Father was only biding his time until he could return the favor.
It was still summer when Father crawled under the Caprice Classic with a pair of pliers and a roll of duct-tape. I could not have guessed that he was doing it to hurt Clyde. “Fear No Man,” the Rankin County News had said. “And Render Justice to All.”
Father, I suppose, had taken it upon himself to mete out the judgment of God’s immutable law, and to do it with pliers and duct-tape. If he couldn’t beat Clyde to death with a metal chair, he could at least detach the odometer from the Caprice Classic.
“Hand me that Phillips head,” he said.
Father had wedged himself underneath the car, despite the fact that it was only a foot off the ground, and this was significantly less than the diameter of his head. His superhuman noggin was serving as its own carjack. Ah, what a glorious head! He could have stored all the Great Books of the Western World in that resplendent skull. He could have created whole new branches of phrenology.
I asked him what we were doing.
“Fixing the car,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?” I said.
“I got to fix the odometer.” He invited me to crawl under the car and assist. I did, and my sensitive moral thermostat registered an indiscretion. Father did not fix cars. When he crawled under them, it was usually to extract a mangled cat from the fan belt housing. He used my small, bookish hands to find the odometer cable. It was black, and similar to a cable on the family’s disabled exercise bike, purchased a few years earlier by Father after his heart attack, which was precipitated by an attempt to lift an aluminum boat over his head. The bike’s cable ran from the front wheel to an odometer on the handlebars, where one could assess how many imaginary miles one had peddled at that imaginary speed.
The car’s odometer cable ran from the front wheel to the dashboard.
“Yank it,” he said.
“Yank what?” I said.
“The wire, boy. Don’t be an idiot.”
I yanked, but it did not come out. It seemed unnatural to fix a car by yanking things. My soft and uncalloused conscience understood now. This did not feel right. It did not feel right at all. I was a troubled child, burdened by a nubile moral sensor that was only going to do me harm in my working life ahead. Father reached up, and with a bearish paw, he pulled the cable from its housing.
I prayed that Jesus would help keep Father from being found out and removed from his job. I was worried about becoming homeless. Our family was not suited to it.
Later that evening, we drove to Sunday night church. It was always a long, dreadful drive to evening worship, but these miles did not count. They were as imaginary as miles on the exercise bike, as make-believe as the star-beast, as free as grace, and a judgment to Clyde. We rolled into the house of God in a sedan of lies. Get thee behind us, Clyde.
Father worked at Southland for many more years, until he was too old to fight. Instead, he whipped Clyde with a narrow steel cable housed in polymer, with lashes as light and airy as the undulations of an appaloosa’s tail. They never caught Father. But they let him go anyway.
Harrison Scott Key lives in Savannah, Georgia. His humor and essays have appeared in City Journal, Document, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Defenestration magazine, and elsewhere, including two recent pieces, "The American Idol Judges Review My Recent Karaoke Performance" and "A Brief Letter to the YMCA Regarding the New Pool Regulations." He welcomes reasonable proposals and invitations and HarrisonScottKey at gmail dot com.