©2014 Ken Finton
Clay said: You’ve heard about the type of guy who’s always gettin’ in trouble, just one fix after another without any in betweens––like the driftin’ cowboys on TV westerns, sort of tall and quiet, but trouble follers after ‘em like a friendly pup. Anyway, my life ain’t been quite the same since I met up with him.
His name was Penrod Applehand. What God in the heavens ever saddled him with a name like that, no man knows.
It’s not that the trouble doesn’t really come to him from his own makin’, mind you. It’s sort of like he drags trouble around behind him and every time he slows down it wheels up and cracks him on the back.
Tell you how I met him, now that I’m a-thinkin’ of it. I remember it was a dark night late last fall when the wind was a-whistlin’ through the trees like a teakettle a-boilin’ on the stove. The temperature had skidded down to nearly freezin’. The frost would have been on the pumpkin fer sure, but it was too late for pumpkins. All the pumpkins we had ‘round had been hollered out fer Halloween and was all dried up and rottin’ away on the manure piles. We live out on the edge of town near the railroad track, so we can keep chickens and an old milk cow without the town council or the health department complainin’ too bad. We got a few neighbors, but it ‘s just a stone’s throw from our place to the open country.
Anyways, I was a-sittin’ home that Fall evenin’, real tired and all snuggled up in my clothes with my feet on the stove when I heard this knockin’ come at the door. Right away I knew it was somebody there at the door because of this knockin’, you see.
I got up and walked out to the hall in my stockin’ feet, peekin’ through the darkness to see who I could see. Well, some danged fool had dropped as thumb tack and I stepped on the fool thing.
The pain started up my foot and crawled over my knee. ‘Fore I knew it, it come up into my lungs and come a-whizzen out in a whoppin’ scream that made Sis’s hair to curl. She ought to have thanked me for curlin’ her hair—God knows, it needed it—but she didn’t speak to me for three days after that, so I don’t know if she was happy about it or not.
Well, I went over to the door and there was this guy ‘bout my age, but a mite taller and a mite thinner than me. I told him to come in a second while I pulled the thumb tack out of my foot. He said ‘okay’ and stepped inside. I flicked on the light and sat down on the floor to tryin’ to pull that darned tack out.
Sis came into the hall, her hair all curled and her face chalk white. This guy, he took off his hat. It was one of those hats they use to climb mountains with–a big turned down brim and a big red feather that helps you to keep your balance when you’re a-roostin’ up there on them rocks. Sis smiled at this feller, but didn’t even look at me, so I said, “Christ, that hurts,” and she said, “Shut your mouth.” It made me feel better that somebody knew I was a-hurtin’.
The guy said he had a flat tire and didn’t have a jack in his car. Now, I’m always ready to help a guy in trouble, so I offered to pull my car over, give him a little bit of light to work by and let him borrow my jack. He said he’d be very much obliged, so I started off to get my car while he and Sis walked out to the road.
His car was pulled off to the side of the road on a grade, almost tipped over. One tire was flat, but the others looked all right. Sis said she thought he could drive it ’cause it was only flat on one side.
He laughed and thought she’d made a joke, only Sis wasn’t jokin’. She’s stupider than me sometimes.
I pulled my car ‘round in front of his’n and pulled the throttle out a little so the battery’d stay up with the lights on, then I fished the jack out of my trunk. Lord, the wind got bitter all of a sudden.
We started jackin’ up the car, but the dirt was pretty soft and the jack kept a-slippin’ and a-goin’ crooked. Finally, though we got the car up and pulled the tire off. It had a nail stickin’ between the treads. That started as to thinkin’ ‘bout that thumb tack I ran in my foot and my foot got pretty sore just thinkin’ about it. “Christ, that hurts,” I said. Sis said, “Shut your mouth.” She don’t say much other than that.
Right then the engine in my car started to pop and whinny a little, then it gasped one big breath and died. I tried to start it up again, but the starter just whined away and the motor wouldn’t take hold. I looked at the gas gauge and figured out my trouble. I cranked down the window and hollered out: “Hey, you guys, I’m out of gas.” They started to laugh and I got a little hot under the collar. It wasn’t that funny.
Just then I heard a crash like a sack of potatoes fallin’ off the kitchen table and onto the floor. I hopped out of the car and looked around. The jack had slipped off this other guy’s car and the car had come down. The handle of the jack was stickin’ up through the fender just as pretty as could be. It was my turn to laugh.
This other guy was a-laughin’ too. “It won’t hurt this car any,” he said, but how do I get it back up?”
“Call a tow truck,” I said.
“I couldn’t pay for it.”
We sat there a-laughin’ and tryin’ to figure out what to do until we got good and cold and had to go back into the house to warm up a mite. Later on we hammered the jack out from under the car and got the car back up so as we could put the spare on.
He told me his name then, Penrod Applehand. I had a hard time keepin’ a straight face. He said he was new in town and worked in a factory over there across the railroad tracks.
Well, we got both cars a-runnin’ again and started up a real fast friendship. Sometimes I think there is a little bit of courtin’ goin’ on ‘tween Sis and Penrod, but I can’t tell for sure. Still, I can’t get used to that name of his’n. I’d shorten it to Pen, but it just wouldn’t sound right.
I saw quite a bit of Penrod after that. He was by our house off and on all winter long, but we really didn’t get out ‘til after the snow melted away and the sun started shinin’ warm again. Then, one day last Spring, Penrod had to take a trip over to Harding to see about a new job. Harding’s about a hundred and fifty miles, so he wanted me and Sis to ride along.
It was a real nice day for a ride, the sun a-shinin’ and makin’ everything golden. An old man was thumbin’ his way along the road and Penrod thought he’d do a once-in-a-lifetime good turn and pick him up. The old man sat in the back seat and for miles and miles he didn’t say much of anything. He was just a-lookin’ out on the countryside and smilin’ all inside his self. After we’d gone about a hundred miles, Penrod turned around and said, “Where do you want off, Mister?”
The old man squinted his eyes and put his hand up to his ear and said, “Thank you, this will be fine.”
Well, there wasn’t nothin’ in sight, not a house or a barn or nothin’, just a lot of woods and fields and telephone poles. Penrod pulled his car over to the side, dropped the old man off, and we started up again.
Before long, we noticed that there was this car behind us. Penrod slowed down a little (I guess we was doin’ about seventy-five) and let the car catch up with us. It was one of those highway patrol guys, damn the luck. He flagged us over to the side and here was that old man sittin’ there in the front seat right up beside him.
“You picked this man up,” the cop said, pointin’ back at the old man in the car.
“Yes, sir,” Penrod said. “We carried him all the way from Jasper.”
“Don’t you know kidnapping is a serious offense?”
“I didn’t kidnap nobody,” Penrod said.
“That’s tellin’ him, Penrod,” Sis said. “You tell him off good.”
I nudged Sis in the ribs so that she’d keep quiet.
“Get out of the car,” the cop said.
“Yes, sir,” Penrod said. He started climbin’ out over Sis and me. The cop looked a little startled.
“I said get out, not climb over on your girl friend’s lap.”
“I am gettin’ out,” Penrod said. “This door over on my side’s stuck. It won’t open, see?”
“Well, get out some way before I get me a can opener.”
Penrod and the cop went over and sat in the cruiser a while. Pretty soon, he came back and said that the old man had walked away from a state hospital and the cop thought we were in on it.
Well, it took a mite of talkin’ to get out of that one, but finally, we got the cop to believe that we only picked him up because he was thumbin’ his way.
“It’s against the law to pick up hitch-hikers,” he said. “I’m gonna have to write you out a ticket for that. You’ll have to follow me out to the Justice of Peace to get it paid for. And while I’m at it, I’ll just give you another ticket for speeding.”
“I wasn’t speeding,” Penrod said. “This old car can’t go too fast. Listen here.” He started up the engine. He must of forgot about that broken muffler, ‘cause it sure sounded bad.
“Uh-huh… driving with a broken muffler, too.”
“It must of just broke while we was a-sittin’ here,” Penrod said.
“The way you was weavin’ all over the road, I’ll give you a ticket for reckless drivin’ too,” the cop said.
“But I wasn’t drivin’ reckless. My wheels are a little out of line, that’s all.”
“Maybe I ought to give this car a safety check.”
“Oh, no, sir,” Penrod said.
“It would never pass it,” Sis said. I nudged her in the ribs.
“Follow me,” the cop said.
Well, we followed him all right, almost twenty miles along those crusty dirt roads back to a log shanty stuck alone out in the woods. There was a little sign a-hangin’ in front of the cabin sayin’ Justice of Peace.
Inside the shanty, there was this man, sort of crumpled up and fat at the same time. He had the worst case of shakes that I ever saw in a body. He could hardly raise his bottle up to his lips without sloppin’ some on his vest.
“Hank, I’ve got some more business for you,” the cop sald.
The judge didn’t waste no time. “Court is now in session,” he said, between sips.
“Speeding is one offense. Ninety miles an hour in a fifty mile an hour zone…”
“My car won’t even go ninety,” Penrod said.
“I can find somethin’ else wrong with that car if’n you don’t shut up.”
“… yes, it will, too,” Penrod said.
“Also,” the cop said, “he picked up a hitch-hiker, drove reckless and he’s got a noisy muffler. What do you figure we ought to get off this one, Hank?”
“Well, John, I don’t know,” the Judge said, thumbin’ his way through a little black book. It looked like a Bible, but it was pretty wore, so I knew it wasn’t a Bible. It was prob’ly one of those law books.
“I’d say that it ought to be worth fifty dollars.”
“I reckon so,” the cop said. “And then some.”
“Seventy-five,” the judge said. “Seventy-five plus costs.”
“But I ain’t got seventy-five dollars,” Penrod wailed.
“You got somethin’ we could take in trade?”
Penrod looked at Sis. I did too.
“Oh, no,” she said. “You ain’t tradin’ me.”
“How much you got, kid?” the Judge asked.
“Wait a minute, let me figure,” the Judge said, pickin’ up a piece of paper. Fifteen from seventy-five leaves sixty dollars. Sure you ain’t got any more?”
“Not a red cent.”
“Sixty dollars and the costs are hereby suspended.” the Judge said. “It’ll cost you fifteen dollars.”
Penrod opened his mouth fixin’ to argue some more, but I nudged him in the ribs and said, “That’ll be just dandy, Judge.”
That ended the trip to Harding. We didn’t have enough money to get the rest of the way. On the way back some old man was thumbin’ his way along the road, smilin’ all inside himself.
We went right on by.
Yes, sir, I believe ol’ Penrod finally learned his lesson about pickin’ up hitch hikers, but he’ll never learn about cars. Sometimes I believe, honest-to-God, that he has pistons in his stomach and fuel pumps as kidneys.
We got this neighbor that lives near the railroad tracks who buys a new car every year. He came home one day last week with one of those sleek, new, shiny red cars that caught everybody’s eye, especially Penrod’s.
“Do you think you could get Mr. Powell to let me drive his car?” Penrod asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “He don’t generally…”
“Listen. Tell him I’m a mechanic from Harvey’s Garage and we have to take the car out for a thousand mile test. That way we’ll be able to git it.”
“That might work,” I said.
“That ain’t all,” Penrod said. “I know where there’s a car just like that, only it’s been smashed up a little. The whole front end’s all caved in, but it still runs. What we’ll do is this…”
The next day I went over to Mr. Powell’s place. He was out in his yard pickin’ dandelion greens. “Hello, Mr, Powell,” I said. “How are the greens this year?”
“Fine, Clay, just fine. A little ruffage for the stomach. Makes a body feel as frisky as a colt.”
“You’ve got to boil ‘em in two sets of water,” I said. “Pour the first pot off and boil ‘em again and then they’re pretty sweet.”
“Did you see my new car, Clay?”
“Yes, sir. By the way, I was down at the garage today and one of the guys was a-tellin’ me that they’re gonna send a man out to take it for a thousand mile test.”
“A thousand mile test?”
“Yes, sir. It’s somethin’ new that they just came up with. They always take a car out for a thousand mile test. That way they can tell if everything’s right—if the horn needs fixin’ or the fuel pump’s bad.”
“That sounds like good business,” Mr. Powell said. ‘That company is on the ball and that’s what I like to see. People on the ball. They make the world go ‘round.”
Right about this time, Penrod came a-struttin’ down the road wearin’ his usual faded jeans and grease-stained shirt. He came up into the yard lookin’ so innocent and serious that I couldn’t help but laugh a little.
“Mr. Powell,” he said. “I’m from Harvey’s Garage. It’s about time for the thousand mile checkup.”
“Yes, Clay here has been tellin’ me about it. Good business, I say. Very good business. You’ll find the key in the ignition switch.”
“Want to come along, Clay?” Penrod asked.
“You bet,” I said. I wasn’t about to miss this one.
Penrod revved up the engine and pulled out of the driveway. “It worked,” he laughed. “Just like a charm.”
“Don’t you think Mr. Powell will get the cops on you?”
“Nah, leave it up to me.”
We drove out Highway 26 to Ball’s wrecking yard. One of the guys from the yard crew was a-workin’ on a transmission out in front of the building.
“You got the car ready?” Penrod asked.
“Sure thang,” this fellow said. He smiled and his teeth stood out against his greasy face and his gums showed somethin’ horrible. He opened a rusty gate and we follered him out behind the building where a new car just like Mr. Powell’s was a-sittin’. A guy couldn’t hardly tell the difference between Mr. Powell’s car and the one that had been wrecked.
“You’ll have to bring it back before the boss gets back from lunch,” the guy with the greasy face said. “The boss’ll really be burnin’ if he finds out what’s cookin’.”
Penrod got into the wrecked car and motioned me inside.
“Thanks, Toothy,” he said. I’ll be back ‘fore long. If your boss does get back, just tell him I’m thinkin’ of buyin’ this car and fixin’ it up, so you let me take it out to see how it drove.”
The front shocks was broke and so was one of the springs. The whole front sagged way down and the hood was crumpled clean up to the windshield.
We drove slow back to Mr. Powell’s. He was still out huntin’ for dandelion greens when we got there. His head was bowed down and he was cuttin’ away with his putty knife.
Penrod turned in the drive and the wheel rubbed on the fender. The bumper grated on the gravel. Mr. Powell looked up, his mouth fell open and he dropped his putty knife. We pulled to a stop and he just set there on his haunches with his mouth hangin’ wide open, big enough for a coon dog to hop into.
Penrod got out of the car. “I had a little trouble, Mr. Powell.”
Mr. Powell’s whole face just sorta sagged. I couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh and had to cover up my face with my hands. Penrod, well, he didn’t even crack a smile. I don’t know how he did it.
“Your car’s in fine mechanical order,” he said. “Or–it was, anyway. You need a little body work, but I know where you can get somebody to do it right cheap. It’ll prob’ly only cost around seven hundred dollars or so.”
Penrod turned around to me. “Ready, Clay?”
I hopped out of the car and walked over to him, keepin’ my grin under my hands and pretendin’ I was a-wipin’ my nose.
“We’ll see you when it’s time for your two thousand mile checkup,” Penrod said.
Mr. Powell didn’t say a word. He just stared at the car with his mouth open and kept pinchin’ himself every now and then.
Since my house was right next door, we went over to my place and ‘fore long I heard Mr. Powell slam the door and go into his house. We could hear him just as plain as could be. “Martha, pour me a glass of lemonade. I have a murder to commit.”
It all seems a mite funny now, but at the time it was somethin’ else. Penrod and I went back to the wrecking yard and picked up Mr. Powell’s car. We drove it back to Mr. Powell’s. There he was a-sittin’ out on his steps with his shotgun laid across his knees, just a-starin’ at the wrecked car.
Penrod pulled into the drive and drove the car out onto Mr. Powell’s lawn. “Oh-oh, you shouldn’t have done that,” I said. “Mr. Powell’s awful proud of his lawn.”
Mr. Powell came up beside the car carryin’ his shotgun and Penrod just sat there behind the steerin’ wheel with that weird grin of his plastered all over his face.
“You didn’t wreck my car after all?”
“No, sir. It was just a joke.”
“You pulled up on my grass.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, Penrod said. “I’ll back it out on the street.”
He put it in reverse and spun the tires, takin’ a big hunk of Mr. Powell’s lawn with him. Penrod got out of the car. “I hope there ain’t no hard… Eeeps!”
Mr. Powell fired the shotgun straight into the air and bellowed like a bull. He charged straight at Penrod, swingin’ that gun of his’n like a club. I shut my eyes and started a-prayin’. When I looked up, they were runnin’ down the street, Penrod runnin’ for dear life and Mr. Powell right behind him still swingin’ that shotgun. For an older guy, Mr. Powell could sure run. I watched until they ran out of sight and then went home and sat down to keep my knees from a-shakin.
Well, Penrod got out of that one without much harm, but cars are gonna be the death of him yet. Just last Sunday he dropped by while Sis was finishin’ up the dinner dishes.
“Let’s take my car out for a drive,” he said. “I just spent every last dime that I ever had puttin’ new pistons, mains and piston rings in. Let’s see how the ol’ babe runs now.
“That car of yours won’t get us nowhere,” Sis said. “It’s dangerous to even be in it.”
It didn’t take much persuadin’ to get Sis in the car. She took the same seat she usually does, right next to Penrod–leavin’ me by the window. We were all set, waitin’ fer Penrod to get in.
“Everybody out,” he said.
“What for? Let’s go.”
“You gotta let me in. That door on the driver’s side won’t open. Remember? It’s stuck.”
We got out and Penrod scooted over behind the wheel. The engine started hard, but we finally got it goin’ and pulled out onto the road. Trouble was that we didn’t get any farther than the railroad tracks. Penrod went to slow down and it stalled the engine right on the tracks. He pushed on the starter and the engine growled. “Darn new rings and bearings make the motor tight,” he said. “I don’t think I can I get it started.”
“Well, this is a beautiful place to stall out,” Sis said., “right on the railroad track. What would happen if a train…”
Well, we didn’t have to wait long to find out. Right then, the two o’clock express hooted and came into sight about a quarter of a mile down the track.
“Get out,” Penrod said. “Get back real far and I’ll try to get this thing started.”
Sis and I hopped out. Sis got back and I started, pushin’ on the car while Penrod kept a-pushin’ on the starter. It wouldn’t budge. The train was really a-movin’. I could hear the wheels hummin’ on the rails.
“Put it in gear,” I yelled, “and let out on the clutch. Maybe it’ll move by the battery alone.”
Penrod put it in gear, but the battery was too low by now. It stopped completely. The train was a-gettin’ too close for me to stay any longer. I ran back a little toward Sis. Penrod was still in the car pushin’ away at the starter. Before long, I couldn’t hear the hum of the starter over the roar of the train.
“Jump, Penrod! Jump!” Sis yelled.
I ran up toward the car so I could holler better. “Penrod, you fool. Get out of there.”
The train was only about two hundred feet away. Penrod gave up and jumped out of the car. Before he got as far as me, the train hit and the car sailed up in the air, the front part landin’ on one side of the tracks and the back part bein’ throwed a hundred feet down on our side of the tracks.
Penrod came up beside me all out of breath. “There went my car,” he said.
Sis came runnin’ up behind us. The train was a-slowin’ down and stoppin’. “Penrod,” Sis said, “are you all right?”
“Fit as a fiddle,” he said.
“It’s a good thing that door opened when you needed it,” she said.
Penrod had forgot about the door bein’ stuck. So had I.
“My God,” he said. “That was a close one.”
“Sure enough,” Sis said.
“Somebody up there must love me,” Penrod said.
That didn’t sound right to me. “I think somebody down there don’t want you,” I said.
“Oh, shut your mouth,” Sis said.
She don’t say much other than that.