The Contrary Blues

The Contrary Blues

by John Billheimer

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932325393
Publisher: Crum Creek
Publication date: 09/15/2014
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

"I didn't reckon on no killing."

Hollis Atkins stood in rolled-up bib overalls and a soaked T-shirt hosing water over the side of a shiny new minibus. He kept his eyes on the stream of water, not looking at the man in the checkered vest standing free of the spray.

Purvis Jenkins, the man in the vest, mopped the back of his neck with a handkerchief and said, "What killing? Weren't no killing."

Hollis directed the spray against the soapy windows of the bus. "Man's dead, ain't he?"

"Man got liquored up and tried to sleep it off next to the bone pile. Slag fumes got him. Used to happen quite a bit."

The spraying water rinsed soap down the side of the bus, where it puddled in an oily film around Hollis's bare feet and exposed the name painted under the tinted windows: The Contrary Comet, written in a bright yellow script riding on the orange tail of a shooting star. Hollis rinsed the rear fender where it touched the tip of the star. "Don't happen no more. Local folks know not to go near the bone pile."

"Man wasn't local, Hollis. He didn't know."

Still not looking at his companion, Hollis bent to direct a jet of water at a gleaming yellow hubcap. "We got him liquored up. We knew."

"City fellow. Just wasn't used to corn liquor."

"Dammit, Purvis. You knew." Hollis directed the spray toward the puddle at his feet, splattering the oily film over the black asphalt.

Purvis Jenkins mopped his brow and stuffed his handkerchief halfway into the pocket of his open vest. "Hollis, that bus is already as bright as a baby's behind. Stop spraying that water and pay me some mind here."

Hollis picked up a bucket of soapywater and tugged the hose away from Purvis toward the rear of the bus.

Purvis twisted the valve controlling the flow of water to the hose. Spray spritzed and the hose went limp in Hollis's hands. "Let's review the bidding, Hollis. How many buses do you see here?"

Hollis pointed the dripping hose across the asphalt at the Quonset hut wedged between a stream and a jagged tree-covered slope. "Counting the one in the barn there?"

"Counting that one."

"There's two."

"And how many did we..." Purvis stopped and shook his head. "No, let's be clear about this." He took a manila folder from under his arm and pointed it at Hollis. "How many did you charge the federal government for?"

"Twenty. But that was a mistake. Nobody caught the extra zero."

"Be that as it may, how many did the federal government pay for?"

Hollis shook the drips from the lip of the hose and began coiling it up. "Twenty."

"And are you personally prepared to give the feds back the nine-hundred grand they paid for the extra buses?"

Hollis coiled the hose tighter. "You're the mayor, Purvis. It was you and Mary Beth that decided to charge them for running twenty buses."

"Well now, Hollis, how'd it look if we charged them for buying twenty buses and then told them we were only running two?"

"They'd probably want their nine-hundred grand back."

"Along with the extra five-hundred grand they give us every year for drivers and maintenance."

"That wasn't my mistake. It was you and Mary Beth dreamed that up."

"Hollis, let's stop talking mistakes. That money is keeping Contrary on the map."

"But the buses don't exist."

Purvis tapped the manila folder in his hand. "They exist on paper. Which is all the federal government cares about."

"Then why'd they send that Mr. Armitrage?"

"He came down to audit our books once a year. Once a year, that's all. He just had to make sure everything added up so he could approve our invoices." Purvis waived his folder at Hollis. "First three years, all he did was complain about the drive down from D.C., sneak a few peeks down Mary Beth's dress, and add up the numbers."

"And they all added up."

"Slicker than snot on a doorknob."

"But not this year."

"This year's numbers added up just fine. Mary Beth knows her way around a computer. This year, though, Armitrage decided he should inspect the system. Ride the rubber. Feed the fare box. Count the change. We both know what happened then."

"I thought we weren't going to talk about no mistakes."

Purvis put his arm around Hollis and steered him out of the puddles. "It's important we learn from the experience, Hollis. Now, the fed's Mr. Armitrage was a man who couldn't find shit in a one-hole privy. It shouldn't have been too hard to show him as many buses as he needed to see."

"But we only had two to show."

"Hollis, a man gets on a bus, he don't know how many buses he missed or how many are coming later. He just sees the one he's on. All you got to do is follow the route and make sure one or two people get off and on. The feds don't expect full buses in a town the size of Contrary."

Hollis ducked out of Purvis's grasp and bent to roll down his pantlegs. "He didn't get on no bus. Just stood there at the stop with his damn clipboard."

"I thought we'd gone over that." Purvis pointed his folder at the Quonset hut. "The bus you've got in the barn looks just like the one you've been washing. You just have to run a bus by the stop he's at every fifteen minutes like the schedule says until he gets on or gives up. Unless he's on board, it don't matter where the bus goes after it passes his stop. Send it around the block if you want. Just make sure it passes him on schedule and that there's a few passengers on board."

"And the driver," Hollis said.

"A driver, yes. Well now, Hollis, I'd say that's where the pig squeezed out of the poke."

"You told me somebody down from D.C. would expect to see niggra drivers."

"Black, Hollis. In D.C. they also expect you to call them black."

"There wasn't a lot to pick from. We got three, maybe four black families in all of McDowell County."

Purvis shook his head. "Slim pickings don't excuse shit-stupid selection."

"I thought they'd all look alike to him."

"Hollis, you let Bobby Joe Buford drive the lead bus. Bobby Joe Buford don't look like any black man you're ever going to see outside an Action comic. He weighs three hundred pounds, has WVU shaved into his hair, and wears a gold ring in his left nostril. You couldn't find a driver's uniform to fit him, and if you could have, you would have had to slit the sleeve to fit it over the cast on his forearm that says Fuck Penn State."

"We taped over the Fuck."

"Well, that little disguise didn't fool nobody. The third time Bobby Joe wheeled his bus past the fed and his clipboard even Mr. Armitrage's dim bulb flashed on."

Hollis mimicked the auditor's high-pitched squeal of discovery. "'I've seen that driver before,' he said, 'not more than half an hour ago.'"

"That's when he asked to count the day's passenger receipts and inspect all the buses."

"And that's when you invited him to stop by Pokey Joe's for some corn liquor. You told him Mary Beth would likely be there."

"Man just couldn't hold his liquor."

"It wasn't the liquor that killed him, Purvis."

"Let's not mine that seam again, Hollis. It was the fumes. Man picked the wrong place to sleep off his drunk."

"When I left, the man wasn't in shape to pick his nose, let alone a place to sleep a half mile away."

"Hollis, what's done is done. We got ourselves another problem today." Purvis took a letter from the manila folder. "The feds are sending somebody to finish Armitrage's job."

"Thought his job was pretty much finished."

"He didn't have time to report back."

"Lucky for you."

"Lucky for you, too, Hollis. Lucky for all of us. Lucky for Contrary."

Hollis turned the water back on. "We gonna have visitors, guess I better wash down the other bus."

Purvis crimped the hose to stop the flow of water. "And Hollis. Listen now. This is important."

"I know. I'll find a few riders, too."

"I don't care about riders. If you use Billy Joe Buford again, though, get at least one other driver. Just for contrast."

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