Danny stood by the table and uncorked the rye. He took a sip as his father's footsteps faded in the stairwell. He looked at his unmade bed and took another drink. chapter eleven Jessie's car only got Luther as far as central Missouri before one of the tires blew out just past Waynesville. He'd been sticking to back roads, driving at night as much as possible, but the tire blew out close to dawn. Jessie, of course, hadn't packed a spare, so Luther had no choice but to drive on it. He crawled along the side of the road in first gear, never getting above the speed an ox pulled a plow, and just as the sun entered the valley, he found a filling station and pulled in.
Two white men came out of the mechanic's shed, one of them wiping his hands on a rag, the other pulling from a bottle of sassafras. It was that one who said it sure was a nice car and asked Luther how he'd come by it.
Luther watched them spread out on either side of the hood, and the one with the rag wiped his brow with it and spit some chaw into the dirt.
"I saved up," Luther said.
"Saved up?" the one with the bottle said. He was lean and lanky and wore a sheepskin coat against the cold. He had a thick head of red 20 hair but up top he had a bald spot the size of a fist. "What kind of work you do?" He had a pleasant voice.
"Work in a munitions factory for the war effort," Luther said.
"Uh- huh." The man walked around the car, taking a good look, squatting from time to time to check the body lines for dents that might have been hammered out and painted over. "You were in a war once, weren't you, Bernard?"
Bernard spit again and wiped his mouth and ran his stubby fi ngers along the edge of the hood looking for the latch.
"I was," Bernard said. "Haiti." He looked at Luther for the first time. "They dropped us off in this one town, said kill any natives give you a funny look."
"You get a lot of funny looks?" the redheaded man asked. Bernard popped the hood. "Not once we started shooting." "What's your name?" the other man asked Luther.
"I'm just looking to fix this here flat."
"That's a long name," the man said. "Wouldn't you say, Bernard?" Bernard stuck his head out from behind the hood. "It's a mouthful."
"My name's Cully," the man said, and reached out his hand. Luther shook the hand. "Jessie."
"Pleased to meet you, Jessie." Cully walked around the back of the car and hitched his pants to squat by the tire. "Oh, sure, there it is, Jessie. You want to look?"
Luther walked down the car and followed Cully's finger, saw a jagged tear the width of a nickel in the tire right by the rim.
"Probably just a sharp stone," Cully said.
"Can you fi x it?"
"Yeah, we can fix it. How far'd you drive on it?"
"Couple miles," Luther said. "But real slow."
Cully took a close look at the wheel and nodded. "Don't seem to be any damage to the rim. How far you come, Jessie?"
The whole time he'd been driving, Luther kept telling himself he needed to come up with a story, but as soon as he'd start trying, his thoughts would drift to Jessie lying on the floor in his own blood or the Deacon trying to reach for his arm or Arthur Smalley inviting them into his home or Lila looking at him in the living room with her heart closed to him.
He said, "Columbus, Ohio," because he couldn't say Tulsa. "But you came from the east," Cully said.
Luther could feel the cold wind biting the edges of his ears and he reached in and took his coat from the front seat. "I went to visit a friend in Waynesville," Luther said. "Now I'm heading back."
"Took a drive through the cold from Columbus to Waynesville," Cully said as Bernard closed the hood with a hard clank.
"That'll happen," Bernard said, coming down the side of the car. "Nice coat."
Luther looked at it. It had been Jessie's, a fine wool cheviot carovette overcoat with a convertible collar. For a man who loved to dress, he'd been prouder of this coat than anything he owned.
"Thank you," Luther said.
"Might roomy," Bernard said.
"A bit big for you is all," Cully said with a helpful smile as he straightened to his full height. "What you think, Bern'? Can we fix this man's tire?"
"Don't see why not."
"How's that engine looking?"
Bernard said, "Man takes care of his car. Everything under that hood is cherry. Yes, sir."
Cully nodded. "Well, Jessie, we're happy to oblige you then. We'll get you up and running in no time." He took a stroll around the car again. "But we got some funny laws in this county. One says I can't work on a colored man's car until I check his license against the registration. You got a license?"
The man smiled all pleasant and logical.
"I misplaced it."
Cully looked over at Bernard, then out at the empty road, then back at Luther. "That's unfortunate."
"It's just a flat."
"Oh, I know, Jessie, I do. Hell, it was up to me we'd have you fi xed up and on the road five minutes from last Tuesday. We surely would. If it was up to me, I'll tell you true, there'd be a whole lot less laws in this county. But they got their ways of doing things and it's not my place to tell them different. I tell you what--it's a slow day. Why don't we let Bernard get to working on the car and I'll drive you down to the county courthouse and you can just fill out an application and see if Ethel will make you up a new license on the spot?"
Bernard ran his rag down along the hood. "This car ever been in an accident?"
"No, suh," Luther said.
"First time he said 'suh,'" Bernard said. "You notice that?"
Cully said, "It did catch my attention." He spread his hands to Luther. "It's okay, Jessie. We're just used to our Missouri coloreds showing a bit more deference. Again, makes no difference to me, you see. Just the way of things."
"Twice!" Bernard said.
"Whyn't you grab your things," Cully said, "and we'll take that ride?"
Luther took his suitcase from the backseat and a minute later he was in Cully's pickup truck and they were driving west.
After about ten minutes of silence, Cully said, "You know I fought in the war. You?"
Luther shook his head.
"Damnedest thing, Jessie, but I couldn't tell you now what it was exactly we were fighting about. Seems like back in 'fourteen, that Serbian fella shot that Austrian fella? And next thing you know, in 'bout a minute, Germany was threatening Belgium and France was saying, well, you can't threaten Belgium and then Rus sia--'member when they were in it?--they're saying you can't threaten France and before you know it, everyone's shooting. Now you, you say you worked in a munitions factory, so I'm wondering--did they tell you what it was about?"