One day, when Ian and I still lived near Nashville, he needed a sudden favor that involved my taking an impromptu trip to Fort Campbell, KY, about a 45-minute drive.
I had an early copy of Pretty Much True I wanted to bring to the Clarksville cabstand dispatcher, known in the book as “Shellie.” (Her real name is Sheila. I know – hardly a creative adaptation. What can I say? Her name just fits her.) She is, without exaggeration, the sunshiniest person I’ve ever met. A widow, she’d pulled herself through the loss and gone on to do this thing we call “living.” Boat trips on the river, lusting after Mister H. (the man who sold fresh vegetables on the corner at the bottom of the cabstand’s hill), taking care of her dog Puddin’ (name not changed for the book), and taking pride in her trailer, the homiest looking one in the otherwise dingy, dogs-chained-outside lot.
Sheila’s also sweet. Too sweet.
“You catch more bees with honey,” she said when I asked why she didn’t stand up for herself more. Some of the other dispatchers would take advantage of Sheila — because it was easy. And I was no better, I suppose. I was a grumpy driver, at times. There are those days…sometimes you can only take so much, when it makes you sick to keep driving a guy who says it’s his dog lying dead, there, at the corner, and naw, he’s not too worried about it because he got another one.
Those days, when Sheila would call me about a run, I didn’t do a very good job of disguising my mood.
I figured I owed her a book, at the very least. And I thought she might like that she was a character.
The first stop was Fort Campbell, but after that, I drove through Clarksville and pulled into Sheila’s trailer park. I thought I’d see if she was home in case she didn’t work Fridays. (It was on the way.) I didn’t see her bright blue pickup; instead, there was a mini-van parked outside. New car?
I got out of my car and walked up to the door, knocked, then looked through the window of her outdoor porch. Kids’ toys. Nope – she didn’t live there anymore.
My guess: she shacked up with Mr. H.
Construction on the only main road that would take me from Sheila’s to the cabstand made that road’s normally heavy and slow-moving traffic (a two-lane, this) downright ridiculous, but it cleared out, as it always does, on the road that follows the Riverwalk.
The Riverwalk is where Mia, parked at the river and taking a break from driving, remembers Jake taking her for a picnic.
Water splashes between rocks on the riverbank and crickets chirp from their hiding spots in the grass. … He pulled out two beers in cans, labels hidden by cozies, and handed me a cold, soggy drumstick.
Not far from there is the cab stand.
I climb in the car and step on hay–there’s hay on the passenger-side mat, too–and turn on the radio. I punch the buttons and the ashtray falls open and sitting there inside, a fat, half-smoked joint.
I pull it from the ashtray and hold it to my nostrils and close my eyes. It smells like nineteen, like the summer before my sophomore year in college.
There’s a loud rap at my window and Lenny’s face is in the glass. “Gimme that.”
When Mia decides to go back to work after sending Jake off in the hangar, it’s difficult to leave the news (equally difficult to decide whether she hates it or needs it).
The air is thick and stale, trapped by plastic sheeting covering the windows. The door stays closed to keep in Puddin’ and the dramatic lines of an eighties show bounce off grime-coated walls.
I cover my nose with my sweater cuff, pretending it’s for warmth, and eye the TV’s remote control sitting by Shellie’s phone.
Hay sticks to the bottom of Lenny’s right sneaker and a condom box squares his shirt pocket. He takes it out and pretends to look for something on top of the file cabinet while tucking the box behind a stack of magazines.
The air was just as smoke-thick when I visited.
I stepped outside because there’s air out there, and saw this: my old car! (Which inspired Mia’s car.)
I lean back in the chair and close my eyes.
Over the radio Shellie says, “Mia, you clear, yet?”
I reach out and press the button. “No.”
Here’s good,” Donny says and hands me a twenty. “Keep it.”
“It’s only thirteen.”
“Don’t want the tip?” He takes the bill from me and pulls a ten and three ones from his wallet and winks, puts it in my palm. “A lesson for next time.”
I went back into the cabstand for another air cigarette and asked the dispatcher if Sheila still worked there.
“Naw,” he said. “She moved somewhere up north some time ago–”
(“Up north” is a different country, really, to some very southern southerners.)
“Wisconsin?” I said. She would often talk about Wisconsin, where she lived before moving to Tennessee.
“Yeah–yeah. Wisconsin. And then, I don’t know, I guess she died…what…about two years ago?”
Some people have too much life in them, too much happiness to die, so his saying this made no sense to me and I stood there for a second before saying, “Oh.”
After that, there really didn’t seem to be a reason to stay.
At the bottom of the hill, not far from a pickup truck bed loaded with baskets of potatoes, Mr. H–wearing a straw hat that shaded his blue eyes–sat on a swinging, shaded bench. A woman his age–80, 85–sat with him. I asked him about Sheila. He didn’t know what had happened (my guess is a heart attack; she’d had a bypass years before), but said he’d heard about her dying two years ago.
“I thought highly of her,” he said.
Sheila’s not someone who would care too much about dying. “My time’s up when it’s up.” However, I’m happy she–and her way of saying “tomatoes” (tuh-may-ters)–keeps living in print. She’s someone who simply should.