Here’s a fan favorite from Mule writer Tim Peeler. So much code to delete, it took forever to clean this one up. This came from the Wayback Machine. 1990s Classic Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
Was there snow on the ground, or was it one of the first thawed out warm days of spring?
She couldn’t remember now. She could barely recall answering yes as he lowered the dipstick back into the engine of her ’68 Road Runner. It was not the first time he’d asked, maybe the third, and she remembered the nervous edge in his mechanical voice, a voice that moved carefully like a hand feeling for a hidden lump of cancer, the slight twitch in his face that brightened around his thick mustache when she said,
“Well, okay,” thinking he’s not half bad and I probably do owe him at least a “date.” Todd had worked on her car four times at the school garage, charging her only for parts, and these at the discount prices he received for the school.
Dating in your forties takes on a different quality than dating in your thirties or even twenties, she had often thought. Personalities anchored like hundred year-old oaks. Habits entrenched. Food, books, movies, sports, yes even sports, the great brain-killer of our time. And now this one, this lanky-howdy-doody yankee, sharp-featured and handsome. Rumor had it he’d written books, yes books, she thought.
But books about car engines?
She would find out why. One thing for sure, he was not the swift talking airline pilot, orthopedic surgeon, textile mill president she had dated even in her thirties. Unfortunately, she had aged out on that type, and the scars from skin cancer surgeries had become harder and harder to hide.
But she knew she still had something—a perky smile, a hiker’s muscled legs, no stretch marks–no children, the carriage and countenance of a doctor’s wife, like two of her aunts, degrees from fine universities, nothing too terminal, and a wealth of reading knowledge–her résumé? Perhaps a document she taught too many times in the technical writing classes, or seen too many times during her years as a personnel director. Now her thoughts came to her–organized with bullets.
Todd, we’ll see what you’ve got, she thought on the Saturday morning she scrambled out of bed, thirty minutes till he’d arrive to drive her to the mountains, then what? Oh the mystery of a man. She massaged her temples as the codeine and three drinks of the night before smeared her first impression of the day.
“God, I feel like the shell of a bug about be stepped on.” She talked aloud as she often did since her mother had died, leaving her by herself in the condo that was the last thing left of Dad’s chiropractic “empire.”
She flipped the stereo tape deck on; a young man with a too gravelly voice sang, “Moma’s got a brand new girlfriend now,” a steel guitar wailing pretentiously in the background. Music was her second love after books, and she prided herself on keeping pace with the latest singer/songwriter hip/eclectic renderings.
The doorbell rang as she hustled down the townhouse stairs–rushing to the kitchen to feed the dog before she left. When she picked him up, the electrical static from her rush across the thick carpet gave her a visible jolt.
“Be a good boy, Toto–Kiss, kiss, kiss” she said as she slobbered on the gray poodle and lowered him back to his breakfast bowl.
The doorbell rang again. Where the kitchen tile and the living room carpet met, she caught the heel of a hiking boot and tripped. “Son of a fucking bitch,” she half-covered her mouth as she realized Todd had probably heard her.
“Coming, coming,” she heard herself say and thought of Anthony Hopkins in his pathetic portrayal of the BBC’s OTHELLO–rushing around to hide his freshly strangled wife while the frantic Emilia slammed at the chamber door. She wondered if her eyes looked as godawful as Hopkins’ darkly made-up ones. Her lit classes always got a kick out of this hideous performance, and one of the students always asked, “Ms. Montford, are you sure that’s Hannibal the Cannibal?”
“Yes, watch closely, he’s about to eat his dead wife,” she’d reply in an entirely witchy voice, and the class would arise from their catatonic state, trying to recall that part from the Cliff Notes.
“Why, hello Todd,” she said when she finally opened the door, pushing past him and with one rapid movement latching her condo door behind her.
She’d learned long ago how to slip past these first awkward moments of a date. Move quickly and run your mouth. Just like in modern tennis, pace is everything. She was good at both of these and it tended to release some of the tension—the whether or not to touch thing, the hold the car door or not question.
She’d come a long way from her younger days when she drank way too much and might have a man unzipped and in her mouth two blocks from her house. This Todd was most likely different anyway. Her boss, knowing her penchant for unbridled hedonism, had warned her that he was a bit heavy on the religious side. This shook out memories of that tall Presbyterian minister she’d dated in her late twenties–who in his best “sermon” voice would utter, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh” as he slowly worked in and out of her.
“How do you like the car?” Todd asked as he opened the door of a mint-condition classic Mustang.
She appreciated cars from that era. Her daddy had bought the Road Runner she still drove as a college graduation present. Through all the upheavals, moves and job changes, it was the one thing that had remained constant in her turbulent life. Even when she was broke or in debt, she babied “the Runner” with regular attention.
She sometimes thought there should be a place designated on your resume where you put what kind of car you drive. It says so much about a person. She had even asked this question several times in a job interview when she was having trouble deciding between qualified applicants.
She did like Todd’s car. But when he backed out on 14th Ave, he squalled the tires for about fifty feet before fishtailing back into the right lane, just in advance of oncoming traffic. “Jeez!” she somehow cut herself off without finishing the name and felt her already nauseous stomach sliding up her throat.
“This baby still runs!” Todd bellowed above the third gear roar of the powerful engine.
Oh my God, I’m back in fuckin high school, she thought.
When they reached the interstate, Todd settled into a more nonchalant speed, just five to ten mph faster than the rest of the traffic. “I thought we were going to Boone,” she said.
“No, I’m pretty sure I said Asheville. It’s faster and there’s a good radio station we can listen to in Black Mountain.”
All right he likes music, she thought, perusing in her mind the several singer/songwriter type nightspots in Black Mountain.
The deep basses and twangy too high tenors sounded like different breeds of frogs croaking, she thought, white gospel musicians should be summarily executed and buried in deep pits.
“Would you mind if we listen to another station?” she asked in a voice she hoped was less than a plea.
“Oh, don’t you like religious music?”
“Well, it’s not that I don’t like–uh, I mainly like organ music, classic European hymns performed on a quality pipe organ with a huge choir singing.”
Run that mouth, girl. What a quick answer as well as a nice image, she thought.
“I don’t like an organ,” he replied.
The air in the car went dead, or rather sank into sync with the hum of the cement-sectioned interstate.
She felt herself sinking into first-date hell.
She sank further when they stopped for lunch at a Hardee’s in Black Mountain. While Todd sang the praises of the roast beef sandwich, she licked the salt off a few french fries, wishing she had a pitcher of margarita instead. The mountains hung in a beautiful bluish-gray of rolling curves all along the plateau that leads from Black Mountain to Asheville.
Todd opted for the dangerous stretch of old Highway 70 rather than Interstate 40. She noticed the roadhouse looking bars, the fish camps and run down garages. The area, despite the richness of the surrounding beauty, had a cheap and fearful look to it.
She turned her thoughts away from the landscape and focused on Thomas Wolfe, LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL, and especially the father character. Oh, what was his name? When she was younger, this character had been one of her favorite inventions of literature. But looking later, she could not bear the faults of the writing; she had grown to hate the imprecise, the gushing, exclamatory language.
But by God, the idea of the gawky, immature Wolfe was more inviting than that of white gospel music. Todd had failed to change the station. Silently she cursed God for having made her incompatible with every man on the planet.
Even the movie they went to see brought out the worst in her. It was a hokey western, a vehicle for a young blond-headed star she liked. But here it became too obvious that the idea was for the star to be seen without his shirt against the backdrop of one majestic landscape after another. Someone should be shot for this, she thought, wishing she hadn’t run through the very last of her dead mother’s codeine prescription last night. Todd liked the movie in which good eventually triumphed over bad, although he considered it a bit racy. Since when he asked her did female nudity become a must in every popular movie.
Todd switched the radio to country music for the trip back down the mountain. She considered this only a marginal improvement but became instead consumed by her curiosity. What would happen once they got back to the condo?
She had caught Todd several times eyeing her body, and after the two valiums she ingested in the theater bathroom, he began to look better to her, much more the rugged cowboy type than the blond movie star.
“So Todd, I’ve heard you’ve published a number of books,” she began as the Mustang zoomed through McDowell County, while Merle Haggard blundered through a song. Real country, she thought, momentarily distracted. “Have they sold well?”
“I get a royalty check every now and then. It’s really just enough to keep my interest. I mainly just like the challenge of describing rebuilding projects.”
“You know I teach technical writing. If you ever need someone to look at some text, you let me know.”
“Well, actually my editor smooths everything out. And besides, I don’t think you’d find this stuff too interesting.”
“Oh but I might.” She stretched this last word to two syllables in a suggestive voice, just short of her “come and get me” standard. She added a fake yawn, raising her arms behind her head. Todd hummed along with Conway Twitty.
When the car rumbled into the condo parking lot, she could feel her motor purr along with it. It had been too long a damn while between “dates.” He may be a freak, but he is a “real” body. Her feet felt heavy from the tranquilizers as she allowed Todd to walk her up the sidewalk.
“Won’t you come in for a cup of coffee?”
“Well, if you’re sure you don’t mind?”
She heard his cowboy boots click across the brick front stoop, imagined the buttons on his flannel shirt coming open to his solid hairy chest, fantasized the feel of his callused hands working their way inside her blouse, then tripped over Toto as she entered the living room of the condo.
“Goddamnit, Toto! You fuckin little shit!” she raged even before she caught herself, one hand on a wing back chair, one on a beautiful cherry coffee table.
“Are, are you okay?” Todd stammered.
“Sure, I’m fine.”
Neither of them would look at the other.
“Uh, I-I better get going anyway. I’ve got to meet a guy tomorrow morning about a carburetor.”
Her face and voice both softened. “I understand, Todd. Thanks and I’ll see you around.” She heard his car crank, and it was gone faster than an idle memory. She wanted some codeine and thought hard about who might refill her mother’s worthless prescription.
When she got back from the pharmacy, she had two bottles of codeine and another “date” lined up.
She fixed herself a strong gin and tonic, swallowed two pills, undressed, and reclined against a “husband” on the luxurious oak bed she had inherited from her parents.
In an entirely symbolic gesture, she sagged across the room to the stereo and shoved a tape into the deck. The fuzzy roar was beginning in her head, so she was only mildly disgusted by the body she saw crossing the path of the mirror, back to the bed.
A recording of a radio drama emanated sharply from the Bose speakers. In the play a young man drove madly for no apparent reason all the way across the country till he arrived at the Pacific Ocean. Once he got there, he realized this was as far as he could go. Then in another moment of mad contemplation he drove right on into the tumbling surf.
She thought about this for a few minutes and swallowed another codeine. Ten minutes later she had read the same page of Bobbie Ann Mason’s latest novel for the third time. Finally, she put it aside and began instead to outline her own story. It was a very obscure attempt, but soon the Tom Wait’s music and the moonlight that pitched through her window dominated her attention.
And she felt herself slowly dissolve into a perfect round bullet that marked what remained of the night.