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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Magnolia
by M. Blake

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Magnolia, Mississippi, a small town off Highway 59. The first person to stop for him took Simmer here, a middle-aged man and a native of the Magnolia area. He was returning from a trip to Atlanta and had stopped in Birmingham for a break.

"I'm not going to New Orleans," he said, before Simmer jumped into the truck. Simmer had N. Orleans written on his sign for lack of anything better to put on it.

Simmer had never heard of Magnolia, and the driver did tell him that it was a small place, but that it had a truck stop there. When Simmer heard that he felt better. A truck stop meant that there were probably other businesses around a commercial area in other words, which meant traffic.

"You'll be about two hours from New Orleans," the driver said.

The man then gave Simmer some historical information on the Magnolia area, with a focus on the civil rights movement of the sixties (when he was a young man) and the part the KKK played in it in this part of Mississippi. He claimed to have known one of the big shots in the Klan who was sent to jail for murder.

"The man was no dummy," the driver said. "He was a very intelligent man, but he didn't focus that intelligence in the right direction. He got carried away, and things got out of hand." The driver mentioned something about a house burning down and someone dying in it. "The last I heard he was writing a book before he died. He had gotten out of jail after so many years and everybody thought he wasn't right." The man tapped his head with a finger. "But I used to see him once in a while, and I'd always ask him how that book was coming along. Supposedly it was about education in this country. He said he'd send me a copy, but I don't think it ever come out." The driver smiled.

"Kennedy sent the FBI in here to break the Klan up, by any means necessary." He smiled again. "He didn't care how it was done. He didn't want to know. Some of those Klan members always maintained that the FBI set them up. They wanted charges that were going to stick.

"Of course, things have changed here in Mississippi since that time. People up your way might look at all of us down here as being prejudiced. Maybe that's the way you look at it, I don't know. Maybe I am prejudiced, the way someone else looks at it. But I know I've gone out of my way to help change things. Over the years, I've personally helped black people, people I've been involved with, and I know things have changed. I used to be involved with that kind of thing, to try and make a difference." He looked at Simmer, seriously; and then, as he talked, he kept doing it. "But the problem with that, I always found, was that you'd help people, with money or work or whatever, and then they'd stab you in the back afterwards. So finally, after that happened a number of times, I just said the hell with it, let it be. What'll happen will happen. Let them do their thing and I'll do mine."

The man was a self-employed handyman who had worked all his life in Mississippi, but now planned on moving to Atlanta, where he claimed there was better paying work. He had just married for the second time and his wife's family lived in Atlanta.

"I really don't have any family in Magnolia anymore," he said. "Everybody's dead or moved on. It's hard to make a living around there because the pay's low. Plus, a couple big companies in the area moved out, so times have been tough for most people. And my wife wants to be close to her family, so I agreed, though I'm not all that keen about living in the big city. I'm fifty-eight years old and I've lived here all my life. This is a big change for me."

"It might be more lucrative for you, work wise," Simmer said, trying to mention something positive, for it did sound like quite a change in lifestyle for a lifelong country boy.

"That's what her family tells me," the man said. "They say I can make a lot more money in Atlanta, and I'm going to need more of that. Though my wife makes good money herself so it's not like we'll be hurting."

Simmer noticed that the sky had gotten very dark purplish-black and he was glad that he had some distance to go yet with this driver. His new shoes had never been wet and he wanted to keep it that way if possible.

"That could be a twister up ahead," the driver said, pointing toward the horizon.

Simmer had never seen a tornado except on TV, but it did indeed look like a funnel cloud shaping up in the distance, and a strong wind now buffeted the truck.

"We get them down here," the driver said. "That's one thing you want to look out for if you're going to be in this part of the country. If you're on the side of the road, you want to look for some kind of cover quick. I've seen what those things can do. I've been a fireman for thirty years, and we've had some bad ones."

The man related some disaster stories to Simmer, some of the worst experiences he'd had as a fireman, involving wrecked homes, landscapes, lives, and plenty of casualties. He talked of men putting their own lives on the line to help others, and he had seen disaster bring out the best in some people.

The rain came down so hard that they could hardly see in front of them, and other vehicles pulled off to the side of the road. Simmer wondered if he was going to experience the wrath of a tornado firsthand, what with the sudden intensity of the storm. He thought of cars being lifted off the ground and tossed like kids' toys, and then he saw himself as part of a tragic news story on TV that night: a victim of a deadly tornado that ravaged certain parts of the state. His body found in a tree, miles away. The final ride of his wandering career. Literally, the last lift he caught.

Mr. Magnolia didn't pull over, though he slowed to almost a stop several times as he came up suddenly on taillights. Drivers had their emergency lights blinking.

"I didn't get the weather today, so I don't know what we're heading into," the man said, gripping the wheel with his two big hands. "But this truck has plenty of weight on it to keep us steady."

Simmer wasn't sure about that. When it came to tornados, he only had so much faith in anything man-made.

"If it is a tornado, you won't see it. You won't see anything, but you'll hear it. Like thunder."

Simmer listened for it, but all he heard was the rain beating on the windshield. The speedometer showed forty. Vehicles had stopped on both sides of the highway. There was no point in talking.

Finally, the brief but fierce storm abated, and Simmer figured he wasn't going to experience a twister this day, which was fine by him. He could wait on that until another time.

The sky brightened in places and the rain became light. The driver sped up again.

"Another thing you want to watch out for around here, if you're going to do any camping, is gators," the man said, glancing at Simmer again. "We have them down here. There was a little girl that got attacked by one not long ago, right in her backyard. You hear about that every once in a while, and I thought if you're off here on the side of the road somewhere, it's something you ought to know."

Simmer, not seeing the man smile, thanked him for the information.

"But you should be all right around Magnolia. They have a Salvation Army there if you think you might spend the night."

"That's good to know," Simmer said. "Especially with weather like this."

He had the feeling he wasn't going to make much progress this day; it looked like the lousy weather had set in. Maybe he'd find a library in Magnolia where he could kill a few hours and stay dry. Or he could stay at the truck stop with his sign out, to let the drivers know his destination without approaching them. Simmer knew that a direct approach annoyed some of them.

When they got off the highway at the Magnolia exit, Simmer was immediately disappointed. The "truck stop" wasn't anything like the places he had become accustomed to seeing; this was an old, small town coffee shop and greasy spoon with a big dirt parking lot around it, in which a couple of trucks sat, not running. Across the street was a busy gas station-market that looked to be doing all the business the restaurant wasn't.

Past that, Simmer saw what looked like a few businesses further down what was apparently the town's commercial strip. With the rain still steadily falling, a forlorn impression overall. A place of poverty, small and dingy looking despite some modern touches. A little world of its own off the highway, surrounded by forest and swamp.

The driver turned into the old part of town, and here Simmer saw little shops and stores packed together in the way towns were built in the past, a section of Magnolia that was once the center of activity. The railroad tracks ran through here of course, where the town started. Yet these few short blocks were no longer the thriving center of commerce they once were; it looked like half of the buildings were vacated, with rent signs in their dark windows. Simmer saw a few shops open, and a liquor store seemed to be doing the most business of all with several people standing out in front of it.

"You want to be careful in this part of town," the driver said as they drove under a railroad bridge. "I don't think anybody'll bother you, but, just so you know."

This did look like the derelict part of town, as they passed what looked like abandoned factories and warehouses, and then into an old, rundown neighborhood with littered streets, cluttered yards and ruined houses. He saw young people wandering the streets even in the rain.

The driver took Simmer to where the Salvation Army was located. It was closed then, with no cars in the parking lot.

"Well, you can see it's not far from the other side of town," the man said. "There's a ramp onto the highway on this side too, but I wouldn't recommend that. Less traffic. The one you want is by the truck stop."

He took Simmer back to the gas station opposite the truck stop, where he filled his tank.

"If you're still here tomorrow morning I'll be going to the next town down. It's about twenty-five miles. I'll be going by here about seven in the morning."

"I might just take you up on that," Simmer said, not liking the looks of Magnolia from a hitchhiker's point of view anyway.

Simmer, because it was still raining lightly, sat under the roof of the store with his sign out. People who gassed up looked at it (some of them smiled and shook their heads) but he didn't get so much as a nibble in an hour or so. He decided to walk down the road to the on ramp and stick his thumb out. The rain had almost stopped, but it wouldn't be for long.

People stared at him as if he were from another planet, it seemed; they continued to stare back after the vehicles passed him. It didn't take him long to realize that most of these people were just going short distances, families who lived in the local area, high school kids racing around after school. Some drivers hit their horns and hooted at him, laughing.

There was a slight drizzle in the air, but Simmer was getting wet after about an hour in it. He noticed a store a short distance away with a big sign that advertised beer, and that's where he headed. It was break time.

If he ended up going to the Sally for the night, he'd sure as hell have a buzz on. The malt liquor was cheap at the little store, and Simmer bought two big cans, getting a laugh from a couple of black guys who noticed the brand he had picked. Simmer smiled with them, thinking that these two had already sucked down their share of the same stuff.

Simmer stepped around a corner of the building and noticed an alley running behind it. He quickly decided that it was as good a place as any to suck down one of the cans anyway. Behind the store was an old chair, and Simmer wiped it off with the brown bag from the store. From this seat he could see out the other end of the alley to a side street and a couple of old houses on it.

He took his vodka out of his bag and had a shot, and then washed it down with the malt beverage. It was just what he needed on this warm, wet day in which the air felt sticky. He had gotten in something of a bad mood standing by the on ramp and the drink soothed his nerves. He wondered if he had made the right move accepting that ride instead of waiting for someone going all the way to the Big Easy. But then, after a few more pulls off the can, Simmer told himself that it was a waste of time thinking like that; he ought to know better.

He heard loud voices and laughter, and peered around the corner. He saw the two guys from inside standing with a third man in the parking lot. The men from inside had brown beer bags like his and Simmer heard the drink buzz in their voices. The third man was saying something amusing, it seemed. Simmer pulled back before any of them spotted him, with the feeling that these men would be hard to separate from if a conversation got started. Two of them had seen what he was drinking, and they might think that he had enough money to keep the party going.

Simmer guzzled the rest of his beer, thinking that he would stand by the ramp again. The rain might not be this light for the rest of the afternoon.

The black guys watched him walk down the road, and Simmer heard them laugh some more, no doubt at his expense. Yet he didn't care because the drink had kicked in and he felt the best he had all day. He was able to bring a smile up easily and keep it there for the passing vehicles. He laughed and hummed a song to himself. He'd get out of here, he thought. Sooner or later he'd get lucky and he'd be at I-10 by evening time. Or at least in the next town down the road.

Simmer was spoiled, he knew. He wasn't used to waiting any length of time for rides. He had heard some hitchhikers tell of spending days in one place, broke and wilting by the side of the road. Simmer never had and never wanted to wait that long for a ride. He wouldn't. He would start walking somewhere before that happened.

And perhaps that is what he'd end up doing here, for there was still no luck at this spot. The rain started to fall a little harder and he decided to walk over to the truck stop. He could have a cup of coffee and keep from getting soaked. Perhaps one of the truckers would start up a conversation.

There were four big trucks in the parking lot now (business was booming). Two of the trucks weren't running. Simmer saw one driver standing by his rig and he approached the man. The man didn't say no, but he was going north.

Simmer stood for a few minutes in front of the restaurant, noticing that most of the tables were full. Locals, he guessed, for there were cars in the lot. And they gave him the steady, "puzzled" looks he had seen from the passing cars earlier. Damn, he must really look out of place, he thought, though his pack wasn't that big. He was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, with a baseball cap on. It wasn't the cap, for he saw them everywhere. Was there some "stamp" on him, something about his appearance that he wasn't aware of, that told people immediately that he was a stranger or worse yet, a Yankee?

Simmer really didn't feel like going inside for coffee. Instead, the thought of crossing the street again and sitting outside the gas station seemed like the better idea. He could go behind the station and drink his second beer, and then relax with his sign out. Or maybe he'd make up another sign with the name of that town twenty-five miles south whatever it was. He might stand more of a chance that way.

Simmer had just about made up his mind to move when he saw a burly, young, dark skinned man with a cowboy hat step out the side door of the restaurant. He looked at Simmer through thick lens glasses when Simmer addressed him. At first he didn't seem to understand what Simmer wanted, but then he noticed the cardboard sign.

"I'm going that way but I'm not going to New Orleans."

"That's fine," Simmer said. "I'd appreciate a ride in that direction anyway. I've been here for a while and, well, it hasn't been too busy here." He shrugged and smiled.

"Okay. Hop in. I'll be a few minutes. I've got to catch up on my log."

Simmer went inside to use the restroom and found the men's room locked. People were still looking at him, but he didn't care now that he had a ride out of there. Finally, he stepped into the women's room, locked the door, popped open his beer and guzzled. It was a twenty-four ounce can but that didn't slow him up; he was a pro at this kind of thing.

When he got in the truck Simmer was ready to talk if the guy wanted to talk. If he didn't, then Simmer was content to sit back and watch the miles go by.

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