The Zoom call makes Papaw’s face look redder than usual, and he’s shaved clean, which isn’t usual for November. All throughout the year, Papaw keeps clean shaven, but in November up until New Year’s, Nana allows any sort of facial hair he desires. By far the most popular among the grandchildren is the Santa beard. He can grow his white beard out into a jolly triangle and, with his rosy red cheeks and German nose, all he has to do is throw on a red T-shirt and take off his USAF ball cap and he’s Santa.
Not this year. Maybe Aunt Kissy read somewhere that COVID likes bearded men.
“Don Henley and I used to play a game,” Papaw begins. “With the others.”
He means Don Henley the future Eagles drummer; “others” refers to Freddy Neese his third cousin, Jerry Surratt who would die in a car accident after signing a deal with Kenny Rogers, and Richard Bowen who was “just there”. The “others” and Don Henley were two years ahead of Papaw at Linden-Kildare High School. They still invited him along, even though his success at football directly contrasted Don Henley’s own failure at the sport, which led him to music. At night, a game was played, and it involved Highway 59.
As a small town resident myself, I understand how a highway can quickly morph from a means of transportation into an opportunity for entertainment. A weekend activity for Linden teenagers involved drag racing, dirt biking, or just watching the cars pass their monotonous way.
Sometimes, they played tricks on eighteen-wheelers.
From what I can gather, it was just those five; the whole of Linden did not indulge in such dangerous behaviors. Just those five would visit a closed gas station at two in the morning, where old tires were wrapped in brightly colored cellophane to make them look brand new, like oversized candies. Just those five stole an old tire (Orange, Papaw thinks) and rolled it to the highway’s edge, where they arranged it so a passing trucker, who would be barely awake and not thinking straight at two in the morning, would think it had fallen out of a tire-supplier’s truck bed. Just those five knew the allure of a brand new tire to poor truckers, who would slam on the brakes (It takes eighteen-wheelers a long time to stop, Papaw reminds us) and run out of the truck to find the tire. Just those five rolled the tire into the woods by then, leaving a bewildered trucker standing at the empty side of the highway, wondering what medication would make him stop seeing ditched cellophane-wrapped luck turned sour.
Papaw can’t even remember how many times they did it. They transported the tire to the highway in Don Henley’s senior gift: a four-thousand-pound Chevy Cutlass that blended into the night. It never got old, and it helped take their minds off college, missed opportunities, and what could come next.
There was one trucker who stopped faster than the others. Papaw and Don Henley bent to roll the tire into the woods, shuffling feet against asphalt; they were too slow. The trucker, eyes bleary from the road, squinted to the promised orange treasure and saw high school punks trundling it away, giggling like babies. Perhaps he roared in anger. Papaw only remembers that the trucker bolted back to the cab of his truck, gunned the engine, and chased the five troublemakers down a one-lane dirt road not meant for eighteen-wheelers at all. The boys, barefoot, ran harder than they ever had before, the headlights bearing down on them and hot panic making them forget that Cass County famously had rattlesnakes hiding in the sand. The boys were terrified the trucker wouldn’t stop, not only because anger was a stronger fuel than diesel, but because the road was so thin, he had no choice. So, they ran and he drove because that was all either party could do. The tire had been tossed into the woods — abandoned — at first sign of the chase. Eventually, the boys outmaneuvered the mechanical behemoth and disappeared into the dirt bike paths under quiet pine trees.
That’s the last time I saw Don Henley, Papaw tells us. He went to college after that. I heard about the band and the girlfriend when I got out of the military.
We sit in silence, wishing the Eagles were here to laugh with us about when everything was simple and impossible and real. And I want to give Papaw a hug, a Santa-sized one – to thank him for running fast enough, back to Bear Creek where his mother waited – but he’s in Houston, and my neck is cramped from staring at the screen.
We wave goodbye and the screen goes dark. I study my face in the aftermath. Would I have ever taunted eighteen-wheelers at two in the morning with future Eagles, if I’d had the chance?
Probably not. Too many rattlesnakes.
Maybe Papaw could have been a Rockstar, but rockstars need to know more than three songs.
Emma Hill is a published author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has appeared in the literary journals HUMID, The Bell Tower, and Route 7 Review and received recognition from various local chapbook competitions. When not writing furiously, she is enjoying her final year in Stephen F. Austin State University’s Creative Writing undergraduate program. She also edits essays for SFASU’s Academic Assistance and Resource Center, often with her not-so-helpful cat batting at the keyboard.