The following story, based upon a true adventure, won the state Hackney Literary Award in 2014. Enjoy!
THE MEANEST MAN IN PICKENS COUNTY
By Steve Coleman
In the winter of 1971 the Super Bowl was too exciting to miss. Torn between either remaining glued to the TV or, more sensibly, driving down the winding Highway 276 past Caesar’s Head to Greenville, South Carolina before the roads froze over, I elected to stay at my friends’ remote North Carolina mountain home until the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys with a field goal in the last five seconds of the game. I had heard the weather forecast—rain and temperatures falling to 8 degrees—but I expected I could get on down the mountain safely before it got too cold.
“Are you still here?” Jane asked with surprise when she came into the living room. “Haven’t you heard about the weather?”
Sumner, who was still engrossed in the post-game wrap-up, overheard his wife’s admonitions and peered outside. “Yes, you’d better stay for the night,” he advised.
“I have to teach in the morning,” I replied. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it down the mountain pretty quick to where it’s warmer.” With Jane shaking her head, I grinned, zipping up my lightweight windbreaker, saying a quick thanks and goodbye.
But, man, was it cold and rainy outside. I ran to my yellow ’66 Mustang, started up and headed down the long driveway into the darkness of deep woods. At the highway, I turned left and headed off, windshield wipers working hard. By the time I crossed the border into South Carolina, passed the entrance to Caesar’s Head and started down the steep grade, I realized I had not made the best decision. The park there was closed; the few nearby cabins were vacant in the winter, and I would pass no more houses until the bottom of the mountain, about 2500 feet down and more than a few miles away. Within another mile or so, I was sliding around the S-curves, sensing that the rain was freezing on the pavement. I slowed to about 15 to go around the next bend, found the wheel turning free in my hand and the little car totally out of control. Ten seconds later, I was off the road to the right with wheels spinning.
When I turned off the ignition, the wipers stopped and began to freeze inside a solid sheet of ice across the windshield. I looked at my watch in the gloom and realized how late it was. There had not been a single car going or coming, and I knew there would not be any before morning. There were no cell phones then. Only an idiot would have been out on the treacherous road, driving down a steep mountainside at this time of night. I sat there in total darkness, beginning to shiver.
Just as I was considering my survival options, I heard a vehicle coming. I jumped out of the car and nearly slid down, waving frantically at the headlights coming down the mountain. It was an old army-surplus jeep with a canvas top. It stopped and the door opened.
“You’ns all rite?” someone called. I slipped and slid, walking over to them. In the ambient light I could see two men in the front.
“My car’s run off the road,” I explained. “Too icy I guess.”
“We done got chains on,” the driver said. “We’s out joy ridin’.”
“Where was you a’goin’?” the other man, asked. He was dressed in camouflage fatigues.
“Greenville,” I replied.
“We’re a’ headed to Pickens,” the driver said.
“Well, let me go with you,” I pleaded. “I don’t think I can make it here in the car all night.”
“Reckon not,” the man in the right front, “shotgun” seat, said and moved over to the middle, straddling the gear shift. “Git in.”
“I could climb in back,” I offered.
“Kids back ‘ere,” Driver said, shaking his head. “Joy ridin’.”
I climbed in, pulled the canvas door to and latched it. Driver (no names exchanged) put the jeep in gear with a grind and headed on slowly down the steeply descending, icy road. In answer to their questions, I had to explain who I was and what I was doing up on the mountain. But then when a clinking sound started on the windshield, the driver interrupted me.
“I do believe that’s sleet,” he said. He glanced at me. “Open the door ‘n stick yer hand out there ‘n see if ‘at ain’t sleet.”
I did as I was instructed, feeling the patter of ice crystals on my bare hand. I pulled it back in and shut the door.
“Look a’ there,” Driver said. “His hand’s just as dry as it could be. I told ye that ‘as sleet. Open the door and stick yer hand back out there again.” So I did, and they both commented on how it proved it was “’a sleetin’”.
In a few minutes we got on another subject. “Look here,” Driver said. “I don’t like drivin’ with them chains on. It ain’t good for my tarrs. We got to stop down here and yank off them chains.”
“Nah, don’t do it,” Camouflage man said. “We’ll run off the road and git kilt.”
And so we went on, half driving, half sliding down the mountain. The driver getting me to stick my hand out once or twice more, and at least three more discussions about the chains on the tires. All the while the boys in the back had been silent.
“You young’uns stay awake back ‘ere,” Driver commanded over his shoulder. “Don’t want no carbon-bnoxide poison in you-uns.” He shook his head. “Joy ridin’.”
When the road leveled out some, we took the right fork onto Highway 8, headed toward Pumpkintown. By the time we drove the twenty or so miles into Pickens, the sleet had turned to snow, which blanketed everything. Telling me that I’d have to spend the night there because there would be no way to get to Greenville, they took me to a white Victorian-styled house on a side street with a sign that read “Colonial Inn.” They both got out with me and walked up on the porch. Two little, old gray-haired ladies, both dressed in black (I swear), came out to greet us.
“Now look a’ here ladies,” Driver said, “this feller done run his car off the road up ‘ere at Caesar’s Head; he ain’t got no place to stay, and ain’t eat, nor nuthin’, and I want you-ns to take real good care of him.”
And for a modest charge they did, too, except something about their home and their black dresses reminded me an awful lot of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Before bed, I did use their phone to call my roommate in Greenville to report that I was okay, and to please make my apologies for not being at school in the morning.
I awoke early to find that, although the snow had stopped, it had left a thick blanket over the roads and everything. At breakfast, I met two other men in their early forties who lived at the inn on a permanent basis, and neither seemed to be the slightest bit concerned about going to work anywhere. They wanted to know all about me. I explained that I was a teacher at a private school in Greenville, and one of them asked me what grade. When I said I mainly taught tenth grade, the man shook his head.
That’as the hardest grade I ever went thru in my life,” he said.
Then they wanted to know what I was going to do, and I said I needed to get to Greenville as soon as I could, and they asked me about my car. I said I guessed I’d have to leave it where it was for a while.
“Nah, don’t do that,” they said. “They’ll come along and strip off the tarrs and everthin’!”
I shrugged and admitted I didn’t know what else to do.
“We ain’t got no car no nuthin’,” they said, “but we know a feller’ll run you up ‘ere right reasonable.”
So with that, they walked with me down the street to a wooden shack kind of building that had a sign on it, “Police Station & Taxi Stand.” When we entered, I saw a desk with a sign on it “Dispatcher”, and seated there was a woman that weighed about 300 pounds and her eyes were crossed about as far over as they could be.
“Where’s Stewart?” my friends asked her. Without a reply, the woman grabbed up a desk-styled microphone with a meaty fist and yelled into it with great authority.
“Hey, Stupid, Whar ye at?”
“I’m up here on Main Street,” came the reply.
“Well, git in here, ‘cause I got a fare for ye.”
While we waited, I noticed an old man standing beside the big pot-bellied stove that heated the place. He was about the dirtiest looking old man I’ve ever seen. His cap was streaked with stains; his coat was threadbare, and his coveralls were so rumpled and soiled that they looked like they could walk off without him being in them. And his glasses are so dirty he barely could see through them.
He looked at me and said, “Who the hell are you?”
“He’s a school teacher, Carl,” my friend from the Inn said.
“And where you teach at?”
“Christ Church School in Greenville,” I replied.
“What denomination?” the old man demanded.
“Episcopal,” I answered.
“Hah,” he said with disdain. “I’m a Seventh Day Adventist myself.”
A little taken aback, I soon realized that he was putting me on a little bit, so I said, “Some people call us Whiskey-palians.”
“Hah,” he snorted. “Wait’ll I tell you how I got to be a Seventh Day Adventist.” And with that he launched into this tale. “I’m a bootlegger—everbody round here knows that. Well, I was out in the woods a runnin’ my still, and them two hunters come along with their dogs. They said they was a’ hungry, and so I got out this old ham I had, and they said they was ‘Seventh Day Adventists, and didn’t want to eat no ham.’ But they give me these squirrels they’d shot, and I took ‘em down to the stream and skinned ‘em and washed ‘em. And when I come back, them dogs was gone, them hunters was gone, and so was all the likker I had run off that mornin’. Well sir, I figured if that was the way a Seventh Day Adventist was gonna do his tradin’, I was gon’ be one, too—been one ever since.”
About that time, Stupid Stewart shows up in the cab. It turns out that the old man–Carl Washburn’s his full name–wants to go to Greenville, and I want to go up the mountain to get my car. Stupid Stewart studies the situation and decides we’ll both go, and he’ll take me up to Caesar’s Head first and then go on to Greenville with Carl afterwards. So Carl Washburn gets in the front seat; I climb in back, and we start off down the road—except that Stupid Stewart has to stop by his house first to take his medicine “on account that he got out of the hospital only just last week.”
“Bring me an Alkie-Seltzer, Stewart,” the old man called after him.
While the two of us “fares” were sitting in Stewart’s driveway waiting for him to come back, I regard the old man and decide to see if I can help.
“I don’t want to beat this cab driver out of making his money, or anything,” I said. “But when we get to my car, I’m going to Greenville and will be happy to give you a ride.”
The old man took off his glasses, spit on them and rubbed a couple of little mud balls, cleaning them. “Son,” he said. “You don’t want to have anythin’ to do with me. You don’t know who I am. Fact of the matter is, I’m the meanest man in Pickens County, and I deal with the meanest, orneriest, trashiest people there are in this world, and you don’t want to go to Greenville with me and do what I a’ gonna do when I get thar.”
Well, I sat there in silent and perfect agreement. About that time, Stupid Stewart came walking gingerly down the snowy driveway carrying a glass of bubbling stuff.
“I ain’t got no reg’lar Alky-Seltzer, Carl,” he apologized as he climbed in behind the wheel. “All I got’s this new improved Alky-Seltzer what’s got the lemon flavor in it.”
The old man shrugged, grabbed the glass and turned it up.
“Let them tablets dissolve first, Carl,” Stewart advised. But Washburn just gulped it all down, burped, and threw the glass on the floor. The taxi driver started up and pulled out on the road, speeding off, going far too fast for conditions.
“Stu-rrrt,” the old man said. “If you run this car off the road and git me kilt, I ain’t never gonna speak to you again the rest of my life.”
Stupid Stewart slowed to a more reasonable pace, and we rode on.
“Say, Carl,” Stewart said. “What’s that I heared ‘bout them fellers in yer house the other nite?”
Carl Washburn shifted in his seat. “Well sir,” he said. “I got home kinda late the other nite, and I was shakin’ off my clothes, when I heared this rustlin’ under my bed. Well, I got out my horses.” He glanced at me. “Them’s my Colt .44’s. And I yelled, ‘Come out from under there!’ Well sir, these two fellers come a’crawlin’ out, and I cocked them horses. And one of ‘em says, ‘ye ain’t gonna shoot us, ‘ere ye?’”
“Well what’dya do, Carl?” Stupid Stewart asked.
Carl smiled. “Well, sir, I reckon you got to be nice to some folks, cause that’s the only-est way to git along in this world.” He arched an eyebrow. “But I told ‘em not to never come round there agin.”
The snow was beginning to melt off the asphalt by the time we rode through Pumpkintown, and Stewart drove a little faster. Carl Washburn kept up the conversation by going on about how hard his life had been, how he hadn’t accumulated much and so on—‘po mouth talk’, he guessed. He was looking at me while he reached inside his coat. I was sure then that he was going to pull out one of “them horses.”
But instead, he pulled out the biggest, thickest wallet I’d ever seen, opened it up and thumbed through the bills before my eyes. I saw twenties and fifties—probably $1000 or so in there.
“Why don’t you put that in the bank?” I suggested. He exchanged glances with Stewart and then looked at me like I’d never learn.
“Listen son,” he said. “I don’t truck with no banks.”
We began climbing the mountain about that time and soon arrived at my car, which thankfully had not been stolen or stripped or shoved over the cliff. Both of them got out and helped me push it safely back on the road. Stewart charged me only five dollars for that thirty mile trip, and I guessed that was why they called him “Stupid.” I thanked them both profusely.
“One word of advice,” Carl Washburn said, looking at me seriously. “Don’t always be takin’ up with strangers.”
I paused. Was I really looking at somebody so all that different?
“Somehow, I don’t really feel like you’re a stranger,” I offered. He gave me a severe look, but I caught a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, don’t tell nobody,” he said.
Then we shook hands all around. I got in the Mustang and, when it started right up, I knew I had been, not just rescued, but saved somehow, by the meanest man and those others who lived in Pickens County. I waved and watched and wondered as the two men got back in the cab and headed on off to Greenville, “to do whatever it was they was a’ gonna do when they got thar.”