Free range


Thomaston, Alabama

It was an unseasonably warm day when I landed in Thomaston, Ala. — suddenly waking up to find the sticky sweetness of a cherry popsicle dribbling down my chin and landing squarely on the collar of my white button-down.

The involuntary curse that left my lips made as little matter as its cause, and I laughed at myself for bothering to cast a glance. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and likely hadn’t been for quite some time.

Slowly, I made my way down the street, carefully stepping over each and every crack, counting to myself subconsciously. No use inviting bad luck.

Truth was, I’d had more than my share lately. A sickly hot-cool breeze lapped at my shirt-tail and sent my neck hairs rising. Instinctively, I hunched my shoulders. I’d been watching my back for so long that I wore the habits as closely as the Alabama dust that coated my skin.

The town looked as weathered and beaten as I felt. Lazy circles of tar meandered down the main road, while loose tin squeaked out an insipid tune. Absent-mindedly, I found myself humming along.

Man, those Associated Press guys — they had the life. Wander around, explore some old rural outpost, string some words together and send them on their way. The worst they had to deal with was maybe a crotchety old editor on the cell or some vapid harpy yammering on about some nonsense. A quick duck inside an elevator or underground parking garage usually took care of that.

Gotta love technology, I thought to myself. Damned useful sometimes.

No one would be calling me though. My phone was locked in the trunk, and I planned to keep it that way. I was dangerously close to being free, and I wasn’t about to give that up just yet. Not without a fight anyway.

Suddenly, for the first time in all 31 years of my squalid existence, I knew exactly what I was going to do. If I hedged my bets right, I could buy myself a ticket to most anywhere. Certainly out of this dust bowl. Maybe even farther.

My stepdaddy always said he figured I’d end up face down in a horse trough someday, but he was dead wrong about that and most everything else. I never was one to stay on my knees for very long, and I’d be damned if I was going to lick anybody’s boot heels.

No sirree. Not me. I had a plan. Like slipping a fine tether over a wild mare’s muzzle, it was going to take some finessing, but I had a steady hand.

First order of business: change clothes and find a fifth of rot-gut. The rest could wait till morning.

[NOTE: Yes, kids, this would be fiction. Any resemblance to real life is purely intentional. And yes, for those who recognize the city, the photograph was shot during this trip last year. As for the story, I began writing it some time around 1976. It’s a work in progress.]

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