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Jackson Stanley leaned into his rusted Mickey Mouse lawn chair and waited for the sky to fall.
“It shore looks like rain, don’t it, Missy?” he said to his dead wife. No answer came but the thin tinkling of rain on endless acres of bashed tin cans. The junkyard always got very disgusting in rain. Slimy potholes filled with polluted water, and trucks with broken spark plugs went sloshing in the thick black mud. Over Jackson’s shoulder, a broken crane hung at a precarious angle. Back in his younger days, he would pick up bikes and lawnmowers with this crane, to drop and smash.
Jackson’s house had little running water. Two hound dogs, both named Marshmallow, bared their teeth as he put a slice of raw beef in the microwave. Struggling bitterly for his dinner, he would eat dripping red meat with dogs’ toothmarks on it. “Never hurt me nothin’, the meat or the dogs,” he confided to Missy. “Them dogs drink out of the rain-buckets and the terlet!” Jackson himself bathed about once a year. He wore the same overalls with tobacco stains on them year in and year out, and that was his only outfit, save his Cookie Monster nightshirt.
His house was a smelly cave of half-drunk beer cans, rust, slime, mold, rats, and mildew. He sank deeper into this house every year. It may sound surprising, but Jackson was not an ugly old man. He was twenty-seven. He was slim as a fruit-fly, quick-fingered, silver-eyed. If it weren’t for a jagged shock of a scar above his nose—he’d gotten it from a bar-fight at the Lucky Gibson Café—he might’ve been called handsome. Maybe.
He was a cowboy with a herd of Gremlins. He was a singer with an audience that was only watering-cans, toasters, tractors, weedwhackers, and washing machines. He was a circus-master who beat license plates off wrecked pickup trucks all evening. He was a lover who was surrounded with life’s bashed, seared, burned, scorched, twisted, mangled, rejected, misfit, crashed, and destroyed rubbish—trash—JUNK, JUNK, and more junk.
He dozed in front of his stale beer and listened to oldies, while his fuzzy TV played “The Dukes of Hazard” theme song on infinite repeat. He thought vaguely that rain was forever falling in gutter and potholes of time.
The stench of smoke woke him up, the next morning. He hollered, “LORDY!” for it was too horrid to be true. Fire! The junkyard was on fire!
Fire bloomed from tin trash cans full of neglected oil-rags. Even the rain could not stop the fury of flames, and they spread by way of tattered newspapers. All over the junkyard, Jackson heard rain sizzling and popping as it hit flames.
“WE NEED A FIRE BRIGADE!” he cried, running in frenzy, screaming to wake the town. The town came. Dick, the old barber. Jemmy, the bartender. Allen, the mailman. Georgie, the grocer. Elmer, the town bum. They all came to stop the fire, sloshing their buckets wildly. All the time, Jackson’s TV kept droning, “The Dukes of Hazard”—until the flames caught Jackson’s shack of a house. The house burned.
Jackson and the town fire brigade gazed sadly. The men were all shrunken and purple and washed-out. “Junk ain’t paying hardly nothing these days,” they said. “Shut down this here junkyard and see the world. We got more to this town than the junkyard. Take over the paper route. Our old paper boy—well, he’s not a boy, he’s sixty-two years old—our old paper boy got committed to the mental institution last week. We shore could use a young one like you on the paper route. How ‘bout taking over? Junkman, you’ve got the world coming to you!”
Jackson wept as he stumbled around heaps of his junk. Buried deep in all this burned skunkweed lay a camper bus that was once painted banana-yellow. Now it was gray and faded, like the rest of the world. The camper bus was named Proud Mary, after a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and it held the secret to the junkman’s past. He pried open the doors and inspected.
Once the camper bus had been Jackson’s home, belonging to his wife Missy, and they traveled all over the USA with their baby son, Ethan.
He remembered so well!
Ten years ago, Jackson had been a high school boy, obsessed with things no other kid cared about. He was obsessed with Portuguese rappers, conga drums, and pet rocks. He wore clunky glasses held together with paper clips. He still played with Frisbees and made model airplanes in high school. He’d had no plans in life at eighteen, content as a fruit-fly on a glass of lemonade. Then it happened. He met Missy.
The Lucky Gibson Café was a glowing ball of lights that Halloween. Fourteen-year-old Missy and her boyfriend laughed in a booth, arms tightly locked, swaying to the sweet melodies on the jukebox. A customer started playing a sad song on his fiddle, and Missy stood up and started to dance. She was blonde hair, childish laughter, wearing torn-up Bermuda shorts. Jackson Stanley got hot and made a grab for the fiddle. An ugly scene followed, and several dishes broke, and he took a lot of angry blows, but the evening ended with him escorting little Missy home to safety. He took her to his family’s junkyard, and he gave her a free ear-piercing as a bonus. Missy loved him. After that, Jackson and Missy were inseparable.
It was Mississippi, they lived in a junkyard town, and they were two very young kids. So they got married, lickety-split, before you could say, “Robert E. Lee’s last stand.”
“This camper, Proud Mary, it’ll be our home,” Jackson told Missy, who still played with paper dolls and kittens. “My old jerk of a dad, the redneck miser, he wants me to inherit the junkyard. How can he boss us? We’re married now. We can go where we want!”
Missy loved the camper bus. It had shiny picture walls and bunk-beds. She kept good care of Proud Mary, sweeping and dusting daily, while Jackson tinkered in his hated junkyard.
“I’m gonna have a baby,” Missy said one day. That’s when they left for their trip of a lifetime. Proud Mary took them to the Florida Keys, Fort Sumter, Washington, Maine, the Great Lakes, the Twin Cities, the Gateway Arch, rolling golden wheatfields, sunny cornfields, towering sheaths of mountains, and scorching deserts. When they had seen all they could see for two years of loving, they drove home to their town in Mississippi, transmission clunking all the way. Their suitcases were bulging with postcards. Missy had her baby in a tight swaddle under her arm, as they drove in sultry summer darkness. When the baby cried, she quieted him with her bell of a voice.
“Jackie?” Missy said, moon-faced, in the rearview mirror, “We’ve come back…to the junkyard? Is this all life will become? I thought we would travel the USA forever. You didn’t tell me…”
Missy changed very quickly. She hated the junkyard and spent all her nights hiding from her junkman husband in Proud Mary. Baby Ethan grew chubby and toddled around broken lawnmowers, a bottle of Kool-Aid stuck in his mouth. Jackson had a dreadful feeling of shame and terror as his wife sank into insanity and his kid was unsupervised all day, but he was deep into his own little world of hobbies—Frisbees, model airplanes, and junk-collecting.
“Jackie, it won’t work out,” Missy said. “Face the facts, bum!”
“Why? What’re you talking about?”
“I love you.”
“How long will we have to live in Hades?”
“Don’t mess with the temper of a junkman. I got countless sheets of sharp metal ‘round here.”
Missy looked deadly white. “No! Don’t…don’t you even dare…don’t mention such things!”
He grabbed her by her bangled wrist. “You’re my only consolation. Don’t leave, don’t leave, honey-child, don’t leave, little girl…”
“All right! Don’t go writing stupid pop-country songs about me. I’m not walking out on you—I’m taking a drive. I will drive a Gremlin. I am going. On. A. Drive. Alone. Tonight.”
“Asleep. Kid’s been fretful all day. Don’t worry about the baby.”
Missy couldn’t drive. She fought and struggled her husband for the keys, fought like a wildcat. Her temper was reaching the sky. The rain was falling and the night was slick, like a skidding permanent marker. Jackson sat inside his shack, waiting for her to come home, and he jolted when he heard the Gremlin crash. Skidding brakes.
Jackson Stanley cried straight for two weeks, and little Ethan begged at his ankles, crying, “Bring Maumy back, give me my Kool-Aid, I’m starving!” Finally, he saw the sunshine, felt his pulse, and discovered to his dismay that he was still alive. The funeral was long over and now only the wreck of a junkyard stretched before him. His kid begged, “Maumy… where’s Maumy?”
“Go outside like a good boy and search for Maumy,” said Jackson. He poured the small child a bottle of grape Kool-Aid and shooed him outdoors, warning him to be careful not to cut himself and to avoid crawling into cars. Ethan ran wild and half-naked every day. Whenever he came inside, crying, “Hello, Daddy! Guess what I found!” his Daddy would say, “Go outside and search for Maumy. Take your Kool-Aid and go play outside, little boy.”
The young man was horribly shaken by Missy’s violent and untimely death. The sadness and strangeness he felt were far deeper than any depressing song he listened to on the radio. He whittled away his days. He collected junk. He thought hard and contemplated the stars. He cried himself to sleep while whispering softly for Missy to come back, please, please come back. Why couldn’t he bring that girl back and change things that he’d wrecked?
Now, the day after the fire burned his house, Jackson discovered Proud Mary. She was rusting and had tires as flat as boards. She smelled like bats. He opened up the camper with a wrench, and there stood little Ethan, who’d crawled in through a window.
He was shocked. He said, “Ethan? Do you know me? I’m Daddy.”
Ethan held out a grimy, six-year-old paw and laughed hysterically. Jackson had a sickening plunge of guilt. He had neglected his poor kid, and how would he make up for his wrong? How could they restore their lives? Ethan was barefoot, and had the wild look of a feral child with blackened teeth. Underneath all that dirt, he still had Missy’s looks and sweet ways. Staring at the kid was too much. Ethan’s face was like a photograph of Missy that he’d kept in his shack, a photo that grew fuzzier the longer he stared at it.
“Ethan caught a bat!” crowed the child. “Ethan loves junk, junk, junk!”
Jackson grabbed his kid and stared into his eyes.
“Listen to me, we’re going to leave this junkyard of despair. You and I will leave. We’re a family! We will wash out your Maumy’s camper with bleach-water, replace the tires, and then…we will travel the world, as far as we can reach, and we will make life just as wonderful as a symphony!”
The kid looked confused. “Maumy’s camper? Where’s Maumy?”
“I am your Daddy, and we’re gonna see changes here. I am sorry—I don’t how to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry! God help us, we will leave this behind us, as far as we can. That’s a PROMISE.”
He had no idea how it would happen, but he was so determined to make it true, his teeth chattered with excitement.