Down That Wrong Road
I was the one who finally got the courage up to knock on Old Man Tillman’s door. They said I should be the one who done it because I ain’t afraid of nothing. The other kids, they call me Johnny Fearless, because I’m supposed to have been born without no fear. It’s really the drugs I take for my learning disability; they have some side effect that suppresses my fight-or-flight instinct. But I don’t tell nobody that because Johnny Fearless is a pretty good nickname, when you consider that some of the other kids we run with is nicknamed Fag Moe and Shittypants.
Old Man Tillman lives right on the edge of the county line. He’s just inside where the town is incorporated, so technically he’s in Weaverville, but ain’t nobody considers him part of the town. When they talk about him, they always say how he lives in that house out in the sticks. Ain’t none of us ever seen him except Cindy Heller who works down at the Piggly Wiggly and brings him his groceries and she swore an oath not to talk. At least that’s what Mitch the Bitch, who’s Cindy’s boyfriend, says and I guess you see what I mean now about nicknames. I personally think that Cindy don’t know shit about Old Man Tillman. She lives over by where they leech all the car batteries, and the ground ain’t so good there so a lot of folks in that part of Weaverville talk like they got dirt in they mouths, and they don’t remember things so good.
Anyway, there was all this talk always goin’ around about Old Man Tillman. People said he was half a robot, or that he was the oldest man in the county, or that he used to best friends with Hoxley the Monster who cut up girls, or that he et blood like a bedbug, which the Piggly Wiggly would make special for him or else he said he was gonna blow it up with a grenade. We would ask Cindy Heller about this and she would just say “maybe” and suck her thumb until Mitch the Bitch gave her a piece of Dubble Bubble, so she wasn’t no help. Personally, I didn’t believe none of them stories. Where the Piggly Wiggly gonna get blood to feed a guy? How is a fella gonna be half a robot? There ain’t no such thing as a whole robot anyway, except in the auto parts factory up in Craigworth. The other kids said I was just a big know-it-all who thought I was smarter than them because I could read.
“Well, sure,” I’d say. “Of course I’m smarter’n you because I can read. I mean, that’s pretty much how bein’ smart works, ain’t it?”
They would all gang up on me when I’d say shit like that and if they was enough of ’em I’d take a beatin. So I set out to prove I was right.
When I come up on the house the first thing I noticed was that there weren’t none of that chemical smell you get in town. It took me a while to notice it, because it’s hard to notice something that ain’t there. The next thing is that his mailbox was full of bills, some of ’em going back to before I was borned. One thing was for sure about Old Man Tillman: he didn’t have no power, nor phone, nor any cable shows in that house of his.
I steeled myself up and pushed the doorbell. About five minutes passed when I remembered, he ain’t got no electric. I knocked on the door and that got better results. I have to admit when I heard the clanking I was a bit shook, thinking maybe he was a robot after all, but when the door come open, he was just an old man with rusted out leg braces.
“Yeah?” he says, in this raspy old man voice. “You ain’t that retarded girl from the Piggly Wiggly.”
I couldn’t think of a goddamn thing to say once I actually seen him. I ain’t bother to plan that far ahead. To be honest I thought about pushin’ him over and runnin’. After about a minute of standing there staring, which he didn’t seem to give no never-mind, I asked him: “How come you ain’t just oil them braces on your legs?”
He looked at me forever. At first I thought he might be gonna fetch out a deer rifle and take a shot at me. He had these eyes that looked like death: black and small and that’s the end. But after a while he said, “You know what? I never thought about that. You got any machine oil?”
Of course I didn’t have no machine oil. But he invited me in for Cokes just the same. The Cokes weren’t so good because like I thought there was no power, so they was warm, but they was at least better than the rusty tap water we got at home. The thing it occurred to me to ask him when he set me down on the couch is if he ever got bored. I figured I’d make nice with him before I sprung the big questions.
“Hell, no,” he says. “Why would I get bored up here? I got a telephone, internet, the TV and the radio. I got books. There’s plenty up here to keep me occupied.” There wasn’t no power, though, and I could see through to the kitchen where his phone was yanked out of the wall, and I didn’t see no books except a pile of old Time magazines from the 19 and 80s. But I had bigger fish to fry.
“Is it true,” I asked, “that you’re the oldest man in the county?”
“Shit, boy,” he says. I told him my name was John but he called me boy just the same. “People start sayin’ that whenever you’re an old man. They think you’re the oldest, when all you are is old. I ain’t no more than 93 last year.”
“Hell, Mister Tillman. That probably makes you the oldest man in the damn state.”
“No kidding? Well, maybe I am the oldest then. What’s it to you? It don’t make you special,” he says.
“What don’t make me special? That you’re the oldest man in the county?” I didn’t get it, and said so.
“Look, boy. You got another somethin’ to ask me, or not?”
I had plenty, all right. All that about blood and a grenade, that turned out to be he ordered blood sausages and Lik*M*Ade, which he liked to eat together, and Cindy Heller just heard him wrong. Although to be honest I found the idea of eating blood sausage and Lik*M*Ade, let alone together, pretty rotten on its own. I mostly wanted to ask him about Hoxley the Monster.
“Is that what they call him?” he asks, all scoffing. “My sister up in Summit said the same thing. Bill Hoxley weren’t no monster. He was my best friend for forty years and a hell of a whittler. When you’re kinda eccentric you get a reputation, just like me. But you look at me, boy. I ain’t no half a robot, and he weren’t no monster.”
I was a little relieved but disappointed at the same time. “See, ’cause we all heard that he was always cutting up girls and burying em out by the back fence.”
“Well, he did that,” he admitted. “I mean, if you think that makes a guy a monster, then I guess he was after all. If that’s your definition. Back in my day, we didn’t judge people quite so harsh-like. We forgive a man his little quirks and faults. Not that I’m one of them what thinks the old days were so much better than today. That’s just wishful thinkin’.”
The hell it was, I thought. Back in his day there wasn’t battery acid all in the groundwater and the tire plant ain’t put that black cloud over the schoolyard yet and maybe there ain’t no census to prove it, but I’m pretty sure the epilepsy rate weren’t near close to 40% the way it is now. But I didn’t want to gainsay the man, on account of he’d been sociable and I had one more question: “How come you stay here, Mr. Tillman? What keeps you in Weaverville? How come you don’t get off to the city if you got kin, where you can get better care for yourself and all?”
“Well, boy,” he says, all serious of a sudden and maybe a little weepy in his voice like, “I tell you. I got roots out here. I know this land; it’s alive. It’s like the Lord God: I can’t just get up out of my chair and see it nor feel it, but I know it’s there just the same. This town keeps me going, like that statue of ole Joe Brown in the town square. Knowing it’s there gives me life, whether or not it’s in my vision.”
In the end I didn’t tell the crew the truth about Old Man Tillman. I told them some story about him chasing me out the house with a butcher knife. It was a better one than the truth. If I’d have told them the real thing, just as if I’d told Mr. Tillman that statue of Joe E. Brown got torn down back in ’96, what kind of a man would I be?