LATE SATURDAY, DECEMBER 29, 1979, FAYETTEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
The engine of the aging yellow Subaru sputtered a bit, shimmying the steering wheel in Isabella’s hands. “What the hell!” she exclaimed, pressing hard on the brake pedal.
Looking up from her fashion magazine, Maria sighed and said, “Don’t tell me we’re out of gas.”
“Not according to the gauge, but we’d better fill up, just in case.”
Signaling her move into the turning lane, Isabella cut in front of a jacked-up pickup. The bearded driver honked angrily, flashing his middle finger.
“Screw him,” Maria said as Isabella pulled into a brightly lit Hess station. Looking around, she asked, “Where are we, anyway?”
“Some town in North Carolina. Fayetteville, I think,” Isabella replied.
Squirming in her seat, Maria drawled, “Otherwise known as Hicksville. Do y’all think the john’s clean here?”
Looking askance at her sister, Izzy said, “Only one way to find out. Go ahead while I pump.”
Maria made her way into a grimy, glass-fronted office where a mess of a man sat behind a battered metal desk overflowing with NASCAR and girlie magazines. His scraggly, yellowed mustache accented a mouth with few remaining teeth, and his eyes were red-rimmed and rheumy. More hair sprouted from his nose and ears than his scalp, and what little there was of that was an oily shade of gray.
“Well, hello there, missy,” he said, leering at Maria. “What can I he’p you with?”
“Is the restroom unlocked?” she asked, trying her darnedest to avoid looking at the man’s teeth or the center- fold of a naked woman on the desk in front of him.
“Naw, but here’s the key,” he answered, reaching back to grab a ring from a hook on the wall. “Ladies’ is the second door ’round to the side. Be sure to bring that back when yer done.”
“Yes, sir, thanks,” Maria assured him. Turning, she collided with Izzy, who was making her way into the office.
“Done already?” Maria asked.
“Yeah, only took a few gallons. Don’t know why it was acting up, but we should be good to go.”
The girls took turns using the single-stall bathroom, which wasn’t terribly dirty after all, although a disgusting cockroach had been desperately trying to extricate itself from the toilet bowl until Maria flushed it away. After they returned the key to the office, the old man called out to them, “Stop on back, ya hear?”
On the second try, the ignition caught, and with sighs of relief, the sisters pulled back onto the crowded four-lane road. Daylight was quickly fading, and colorful Christmas lights could be seen adorning buildings and streetlights on both sides of the road. Everyone in Fayetteville seemed in a hurry to get somewhere on this late winter afternoon, and Izzy swore under her breath when a low-riding El Camino braked abruptly in front of them.
With red lights stopping traffic at just about every inter- section, it was slowgoing as the girls made their way south. Braking at what appeared to be the last crossroad heading out of town, the Subaru once again coughed and jerked disconcertingly.
“Shit!” cried Izzy, banging her fist on the steering wheel. “This is ridiculous!”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“How do I know?” Izzy answered angrily. “We’re gonna have to pull over again.”
“Where?” Maria asked, peering nervously out the window. “The gas stations are all behind us.”
“There,” Izzy said, pointing to the dirt parking lot in front of a low, red-brick building that had seen better days. The glass front door, framed by a portico of rotting wooden columns that bowed haphazardly, beckoned passers-by with a flickering neon Budweiser sign.
Maria sighed heavily as Izzy steered the dying car to a stop beside a stand of unsold Christmas trees. A hand-lettered sign, originally reading All Christmas Trees $59, had been corrected with red paint to read All Christmas Trees $19. The next stop for the remaining few would be the mulch pile.
“What are we gonna do now?” Maria asked, sounding a bit panicked.
“I don’t know.” Izzy shrugged, watching the neon beer sign flash on and off. “Let’s go in and see if there’s a phone we can use.”
“This sucks! We’ll never make it to Florida tonight,” Maria complained. “First we drove twice around DC, and now this.”
“Shut up!” Izzy snapped, though she’d been feeling crappy about missing that earlier exit in northern Virginia, a diversion that had added over an hour to the already inter- minable trip. “Let’s just see what we find inside.”
The girls exited the car, pulling their purse straps over their heads and hugging them tightly to their bodies. With temperatures in the thirties when they’d left Pennsylvania that morning, they were wearing jeans and flannel shirts. Having left their heavy winter parkas at home, they’d tossed their lightweight jackets into the back seat when they’d stopped for lunch earlier in the day.
The parking lot was nearly deserted, with a single tractor trailer off to the left and a rusty old pickup truck parked directly in front of the door. As the girls approached the entrance, Maria read aloud the faded sign above the door: “Jimmy’s Joint.”
A haze of cigarette smoke, backlit with tacky Christmas lights and buzzing neon signs, greeted them as they entered the building. Johnny Cash could be heard singing "A Boy Named Sue" on the jukebox in the back corner behind a pool table. Three men sat at the bar, their backs to the door.
Resisting the urge to turn around, the girls approached the aproned man wiping down the bar top. He was big and tall, appearing to be in his late forties. A ruddy face and hair graying at the temples highlighted his need for a shave and a haircut, but he reminded Maria a little of Buford Pusser, or at least Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser. Looking up, he tossed the rag over his shoulder and asked, “What can I get you, ladies?”
“Uh...,” Izzy started, hesitant at first to continue. “We were wondering if you have a phone we can use.”
Hearing the short exchange, the two nearest men stopped their conversation and turned to check out the girls.
“Hello, pretty things,” drawled the slighter of the two. Small but mean-looking, he sported a jagged scar across his pock-marked right cheek and beady eyes that darted from under the bill of a green-and-yellow John Deere cap. His unruly black hair, which he’d shoved behind his ears, hung to his shoulders. Dirty denim overalls and a jacket with “Stud” crudely stenciled on the back completed the package. Noting that last detail, Maria shuddered as she grabbed Izzy’s upper arm so tightly she winced.
“Mind yer business, Billy,” the bartender warned.
“Oh, you’re no fun, Jimmy. I’m just being nice. Right, Frank?” he asked the man sitting to his left, who, like Billy, was wearing grimy overalls. Unlike Billy, Frank was soft and pudgy with eyes that didn’t seem to focus all that well. His hair was buzz-cut short on top and longer at the collar, a style the girls knew to be a mullet. Maria was right, thought Izzy, we are in Hicksville.
Stubbing out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray, Frank slurred, “Yeah, that’s right. We don’t get many pretty ladies in here. Nice change of scenery. No offense, Jimmy.”
“Sure is,” agreed Billy, but before he could finish, Jimmy waved the girls around to the side of the bar, telling them, “Ignore those boys, ladies, and tell me what’s going on.”
With fear threatening to get the better of her, Izzy strug- gled to calm her voice as she explained about their car. “Maybe we could call a tow truck or mechanic to see if they can fix it.”
“Well, honey,” Jimmy replied, “that would be nice, but seeing how it’s Saturday night, there ain’t nobody open to come help you. It’s probably gonna be Monday before we can get somebody to take a look.”
Eavesdropping on the conversation, Billy chimed in, “Or even Tuesday or Wednesday. Case you didn’t know it, Monday’s New Year’s Eve. Won’t be nobody working over the long weekend.”
As Billy’s words sank in, the color drained from Izzy’s face, and she pulled Maria toward the door. “Let’s go,” she whispered, her voice a mix of fear and anger. “We’ll find someone else to help us.”
“Damn you, Billy,” snarled Jimmy, snapping his dishrag at the man. “I told you to mind yer business!”
“Stop ’em,” hiccupped Frank, leaning unsteadily toward Billy. “We can fix their car.”
“Yeah!” Billy agreed, jumping off his stool and stumbling after the girls. “Wait, little ladies!” he shouted. When he grabbed Izzy’s arm, she turned and slapped him hard across his scarred cheek.
“Keep your grimy hands off me!” she growled.
“Whoa, now, pretty girl. We was just gonna offer to help you,” he said, rubbing his smarting face. “No need to get yer knickers in a knot. My friend Frank here and me know a lot about cars. Why don’tcha let us take a look?”
Izzy and Maria exchanged doubtful looks, but with no other assistance coming their way for who knew how long, Izzy asked, “Do you really know about cars?”
“Absolutely!” Billy replied, drawing out the word as he attempted to corral the girls out the door without touching them again. “Come on, Frank, let’s give these two pretty ladies a hand.”
At the door, Maria glanced back in Jimmy’s direction with a look that seemed to say, Thanks for nothing. Jimmy gave an almost imperceptible nod, then shifted his eyes down the bar where the other lone patron had just called his name.