Justin Booth, whose non-fiction piece appears below, is something of a rising star in the the small literary world of Central Arkansas. Raised in Northeast Arkansas, Booth is a veteran of the U.S. Army who worked as a bricklayer, rode with a motorcycle gang, and did time in prison before falling into heroin addiction that eventually left him homeless on the streets of Little Rock for more than five years. In all that time, writing was his salvation and what carried him through. Since the publication of his first poetry chapbook, “Hookers, Ex-Wives and Other Lovers,” in 2012, he has found a job and a home, left the streets, and has seen his work published in magazines and anthologies both in the U.S. and abroad. His new book of poetry, “Trailer Park Troubadour,” was published in November, and is available at local booksellers and Amazon.com. Booth lives and works in Little Rock. The following story is part of a planned memoir about his life.
Cletus had called earlier and told us that he was getting a new car, something he had spotted in the paper and badgered his mother into buying for him. He’d always been able to get his way with her but now that he was dying, she didn’t have a chance. On the way to Walmart with my wife Melanie and our three kids, I stopped by to give it a look. We parked in the street out in front of his place, and Cletus was out the screen door before we could even get out of the car.
“She’s a good looking ride,” I said.
“What is it?” my wife asked. She already knew, but afforded him the opportunity to say. She stood in as a woman he could brag to — a feminine ear to listen to his woes. By those days, he had only the ghost of a woman and her memory haunted his mind. He flirted shamelessly with my wife in front of me. We all knew that it was totally harmless, and that he might be dead soon.
“That there is a 19 and 77 Olds Cutlass Supreme,” he said, “just like the one I had back just after high school.”
He carried a plastic tumbler filled with coffee in his good hand, the other — the one curled eternal by a teen-age accident — held a Marlboro 100, ash two inches long but holding on as if by some stubborn mojo learned from Clete himself.
I could count, if I tried, the number of times I had seen him without these two things, caffeine in one hand and nicotine in the other. He had given up booze and methamphetamine before I met him, and these took their place.
The car was a sort of cross between silver and grey, the color of impending storms, and looked as if it might lurch forward at any moment of its own volition. The lines of it reminded me of some great African cat that was able to project great speed and power while sitting completely still.
“She’s got a 350 Rocket V8 and three speed Hydro-matic transmission.” He looked over at me and added, “You know, they actually made these with a stick.”
He wore a rare smile, he had been heartbroken a decade since his wife left him, maybe even a little before. She was still his favorite topic of conversation unless some grand event, like the purchase of this car, took place and took his mind from her for a moment. I was as close to him as anyone in the world. I was a bricklayer then and, on days that rain made the work I did impossible, I would ride with him to some spot or other across the state for dialysis. His temper had gotten the best of him in our hometown of Jonesboro and he was no longer allowed treatment at the local hospital. He had also been removed from “the list.” He would get no kidney unless someone he knew ponied one up. I had already started the tedious process of finding out if mine were suitable. Initial tests looked promising. If things continued to go well, and I prayed they would, I would have to quit shooting smack.
“Look at those head lights,” he said.
They were square and there were four of them, giving it a much more menacing appearance than its round-eyed Cutlass cousins. He droned on and on about the Supreme, but the truth was, I wasn’t really much of a car guy and I wasn’t listening. I was worried about him. I saw a man whose life under the best conditions would be much too short, hardly fair since he was one of the best people I had ever hung out with in my life. My wife kept circling the car with him. He kept pointing out details. Leather seats, yadda yadda this, yadda yadda that. We kept nodding and smiling but the kids were still buckled into car seats and getting restless. Cletus just barely had time to point out the ball hitch someone had added, before I let him know that we had to go. He had no boat, but loved to spend his troubled, sleepless nights catfishing. I knew the purchase of some small craft would not be far behind this. After all, he already had the ball hitch. We said our goodbyes, Cletus hugged Melanie and we got in the car and drove off.
In those days I laid brick every day I could, but with a growing family, and work subject to the whims of nature, I had a plan B.
In spring I enjoyed a rain day as much as anybody, riding shotgun in the Supreme and smoking weed with Cletus, happy to listen to stories of better days, when good health and a woman had still been his. Winters, though, the weather would sometimes be too cold for the mortar to set properly before it would freeze. There were times when the temperature would shut down our whole crew for a week or more. Those weeks and bills to pay, I caught work with my pot dealer, Robbie. He was a painter. While I didn’t make the wages I normally earned laying brick, at least nobody would starve. Since he was a block away and had more pot than I did, I would ride to the job every morning in his truck.
We were coming into Jonesboro from Bono, coming up on Culberhouse Street where Cletus lived. I had just snuffed out a joint when I saw the lights and my heart fell through my gut. One ambulance was parked in the street in front of Cletus’ house, another in the yard.
“Wonder what all that is?” Robbie said in a weed-induced stupor.
“It’s my friend Cletus,” I said. “Let me out.”
The EMTs had just slammed the door on the van.
“What happened? Where is he?”
“We are going to St. Bernard’s” the medics said.
It was a moment or so before I came back to myself because by the time I looked around, the ambulances were both gone. I stood alone in the yard, next to the ’77 that Cletus was so proud of, the car he had browbeat his mother into buying for him less than a year before, shamelessly guilting her with the fact that his life was short, that she would bury him soon. I looked through the window and saw his car keys. He never took the keys from the ignition. Everyone in this old part of town knew him and I guess it just didn’t seem like a real big deal to him, all things considered.
I jumped in and fired it up, dropped it into gear and peeled out, heading for the hospital, the same one that had denied him treatment, the very same hospital that had ruined his arm and hand as a young man, when his life was all before him.
His mother and sisters were all there. I didn’t need to hear anything.
When I turned to take off, his 70-year-old mother caught me before I could get back to the car. She talked to me gentle and low, offering me comfort. I was ashamed that it was not me consoling her but could do nothing about it. She wiped at my tears, then went to her purse and handed me the money to get high. We were family after all, and she knew me too well. I didn’t go home that night. I still don’t know who called my wife. There was no way I could have told her.
At the funeral, I was so loaded that I stumbled carrying the casket, but we got through it. After me and the other pallbearers helped the guys pick up the folding chairs at the cemetery, Cletus’ mom pressed his car keys into my hand.
“He would have wanted you to have it,” she said.
I drove it for a while.
My kids called it the Batmobile. They loved how I could coax the big, heavy car into getting a little sideways as we would turn the last gravel corner on our way home. It always made me a little sad, though. Finally, when another close friend of Cletus’ had a son who was turning 16, I gave it to the boy. I was never really a car guy, and Cletus would have been prouder to have a budding young gearhead have it than me, I was sure.
I saw it sometimes, sitting on the side of Nettleton Avenue when I would go into town — the car always freshly washed and shining. Ol’ Cletus would have loved that, I think: His ’77 Supreme sitting on the strip for all of the other car guys to admire. It gave me peace.