Lulu and Butterbean
on the Road to Nowhere
You know that girl I live with, Lulu Cantrell? Anyhow, t'other night I was driving Lulu up to Picayune to get a new transmission for her truck, and we got stuck on Highway 109. Big traffic jam. We must've sat there for half an hour without moving an inch.
Then Lulu says to me, "Look, there's an exit over yonder. Let's get off 109, swing east till we hit State Road 21, and pick up the Parkway straight to Picayune. Otherwise, we'll still be sittin' here come tomorrow, and I don't want to miss my program on TV."
Well sir, I did like she told me. I reckon we must've got lost somehow, 'cause we ended up on this two-lane road out in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere. Lulu kept telling me to stop and ask for directions, but as I pointed out to her, there weren't no place to ask directions at. 'Bout the only place I saw was this gas station, and that place looked like it hadn't been open for business since Moses was a lad.
Lulu was mighty put out. Lord, I ain't heard language like that since Papaw McCall got his man-tit caught in a fan belt! But I couldn't do nothing except keep driving straight on. I sure as hell wasn't gonna turn around. Besides, I figured that if we didn't find State Road 21, we'd either hit the mountains or the sea, dependin' on which way we was headed. Lulu was going to give me grief no matter what I did, and I was too proud to admit that I might have temporarily gotten us into a mess.
I turned on the radio to listen to some music instead of Lulu's grizzling for a change. Hey, you know that new song by what's-his-name? Lots of slide guitar action. Goes something like this:
"My wife run off with my best friend
What do you mean, I sing like a cat caught in a meat mangle? Damn your hide, boy, and pay some respect to your elders. And you can reach me another beer while you're at it.
Anyhow, the weirdest thing happened. We come upon this railroad track that was real spooky. All the ground on either side was eaten up with kudzu, but the track itself was clean. No, that ain't necessarily the spooky part, but it was mighty damned strange. I once left an old backhoe in the north field for two weeks, and when I went to get it, the kudzu had completely covered it up. They don't call it "mile-a-minute vine" for nothing, you know.
So here's this railroad track, clean as a whistle. I stopped for a second to get my bearings. Right about then, the radio quit playing that song. It didn't just up and quit like it was busted, but the song cut off and something else came on. Sounded like a voice from real far away. I couldn't quite make out what it was saying, so I fiddled with the knob. Lulu was huffin' and puffin' and saying things under her breath that would've made her sweet momma reach for the soap.
I tinkered around with the radio, but danged if I could get that voice any clearer. What really raised the hair on the back of my neck was when I realized that no matter what station I turned to, there weren't nothing but that scratchy voice on it. Even Lulu had come out of her blue funk and was paying attention.
"Butterbean," she says, with one of them looks in her eyes, "I am going to slap you sideways if you don't get us out of here right now."
I'll admit to being spooked, but Butterbean Shirley McCall ain't no sissy. I had turned my head to give Lulu what-for (after all, it was her idea that got us there to begin with), and then I saw a light at one end of the tracks. I felt a rumbling in the earth, and I heard a whistle. There was a train coming. Fool that I was, I'd parked my truck across the tracks, 'cause they were at the top of a little hill, and my brakes ain't what they used to be.
Well, the engine coughed and died, which gave me a real "oh shit" moment. Lulu was her usual helpful self, meaning that she gave me eleventy-dozen different kinds of hell, the least of which would have earned her a good talking-to, had we not been stuck in the middle of a railroad track with a train drawing nigh. Lord, I love that woman, but sometimes she'd try the patience of a saint. I think she gets it from her daddy's side of the family. The Cantrells ain't particularly noted for sweet tempers. Lulu's charms lie elsewhere, if you know what I mean.
That light got brighter. The whistle got louder. I hollered at Lulu to haul ass out of the truck, thinking maybe there was time enough to push it out of the way. Best piece of advice my Papaw ever gave me - don't get into an argument with a train, 'cause the train's gonna win every time. He should've listened to his own advice when it came to the fan belt.
Just as I got my feet on the ground, that voice on the radio came through, loud and clear. "Ready or not, here I come!" Sounded like a girl, about the age when me and my brothers were still playing on the tire swing in the yard. I didn't have no time to ponder, not if I wanted to save my truck. Lulu was still sitting there, staring at the radio like it was a snake about to bite her.
I went around to the other side of the truck, fixing to yank Lulu out by the hair, if necessary. Couldn't hardly hear myself think, what with all the train noises and the light that kept getting bigger. Sucker like to have blinded me. At the time, I reckoned the engineer didn't see us, 'cause it didn't seem like he was stopping. Anyhow, I looked over my shoulder, and what did I spy but a child standing on the track, 'bout twenty feet away. Little thing, all pigtails and big eyes and scabby knees. Where she came from, how she got there, I did not know. Nor could I understand how come she was standing there staring at me, when it was obvious that there was a train about to squash her flat.
Lulu will tell you that if I have one bad habit, it's that I usually jump feet first into something without thinking about it. I can't claim much common sense in that department. Quicker than a blink, I was pelting down the railroad track, screaming at that fool child to move. She didn't, so I grabbed her, but there was no more time. I could see the train not a foot away - smokestack, cowcatcher and all, looming behind that light - and knew I was about to meet my maker. So I held the little girl in my arms, shut my eyes and hunkered down, waiting for the big ka-pow that was going to mash us both to pieces.
Only the big ka-pow never came. Instead, I felt a coldness that cut me straight to the bone. I ain't never felt so cold in my life, except that time when I got accidentally locked in the meat freezer down at the processing plant. And a blast of wind that like to have knocked me off my feet. And a roaring in my ears, which was mixed up with a little girl's giggling.
It was over before I had a chance to die of a heart attack. I stood up, feeling my arms and legs to make sure I wasn't dead. The girl was gone, and so was the train. Much to my relief, the truck was still there, didn't seem hurt at all, although I couldn't say the same for Lulu. As she told me later, she didn't quite soil her drawers, but it was touch and go there for a minute.
"Butterbean," she says to me, with her face as white as the driven snow, "if you ever do such a thing again, I will smack you clean into next week. And feed your dinner to the dogs."
Well, I couldn't rightly blame her. My own jeans were somewhat dampish, if you know what I mean.
I climbed back into the truck, started the engine (it was working again), and finished driving over the track. I found a place to turn around about a mile or so down the road. Me and Lulu were still kind of shaky. We hardly said a word to each other. When we came back to the railroad track, I heard the little girl's voice come over the radio again. "Gotcha!" she said. "You're it!"
Me and Lulu looked at each other, then I stomped my foot on the gas and tore the hell out of there. I got us back to Highway 109 in record time. Can you believe the road was still jammed tight? Took us three more hours to get to Picayune, and by that time, the auto parts store was closed. Lulu missed her TV program, and I tell you, brother, getting the piss scared out of her didn't take the edge off her tongue whatsoever.
Now, you're probably thinkin' that maybe I'd had one too many Budweisers that night. I swear to God, what happened is the honest truth, no more, no less. Furthermore, I told Nanny Cantrell about it, and she told me something she'd heard back in her childhood, during the Depression. It seems there were these kids playing Hide and Seek over by the railroad track, and this one little girl got run over and killed by the Number 12 train. It happened somewhere near the old lumberyard, or so she says. I went back there last week, but I couldn't find that exit or the road we took. The lumberyard got tore down thirty years ago.
Anyhow, pass me another beer before Lulu gets here. And don't ask me no more questions, boy. Everything I know, I done told you already. Only one more thing I got left to say...
...how the hell do you get out of being "it" when you've been tagged
by a goddamned ghost? 'Specially when she didn't even give me a chance
to touch base!