HomeSouthern VoiceOne Way Ticket

One Way Ticket

by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Callis Somerset looked out from behind his counter and a haze of gin into the bar he tended. He’d been working for his older cousin who owned the bar for nearly three months—summer of ’58—way up in Jersey. It had been his mama’s idea, of all things, to send him up north to employment she thought would be demanding and calm him down before classes started since the University of South Carolina Office of the Registrar had said it was his last chance before flunking out.

When she suggested he work at her nephew George’s establishment in New Jersey for the summer, her naiveté astounded him. She believed Callis would work long, hard night hours and thereby stay out of trouble. He had managed to keep a straight face and hide his elation. His mother did not frequent bars. He wondered, actually, if she’d ever entered one. She did not understand he was headed for a summer dream job. He chuckled later at the irony. Staying at home would have meant his father rousting him out of bed every morning at dawn to work on the farm, cotton and soybeans. It was a big operation, including a lot of land tenants to oversee.

But now, moving into the middle of August, the job had worn on him, and it was hard to wear Callis down. He enjoyed his role as a smooth college boy—sharp, squared chin—pursuing eyes—dark, taper-cut hair. The girls at school loved his clean-cut looks, combined with how he could show them a good time. The same was true with girls who came in the bar, too, he’d quickly discovered with pride. But the long nights of boozing and revelry had weakened his form. He had, in fact lost about 20 pounds, bringing his weight down around 140.

The place didn’t actually lock up for another hour, but he was ready to close. He needed rest. The stale residue of cigarettes and alcohol saturated everything—the floor, the walls, his shirt—suddenly overpowering him. The band had stopped an hour ago, and everyone was gone anyway, everyone except old Billy Commode who was always around. It wasn’t the first time Callis would have to jostle him toward the door.

“Hey, Billy,” Callis put his hand up to his eyebrows like he was peering out to sea, “let’s close up and go home.”

“What you want to go home for?” Billy asked. Callis thought the musician’s voice carried a wavy quality coming across from the far corner table. Billy was the clarinet player in the house band. Rumor had it he had gotten his start with Benny Goodman at the height of swing, but if that was true, that was a long time gone and he was relegated now to a third rate ensemble, playing the modern cool jazz.

Billy sat hunched over his battered clarinet case resting on the table beside one hand,  a watery whiskey beside the other. He didn’t make much money, Callis knew, but he had all the free drinks he wanted.

“Come on, Billy,” Callis called. “I’m tired. I wanna to get out of here.”

“What’s the hurry? You guys never close this place ‘cept the hour a day the law makes you.”

“I gotta go,” Callis answered walking from behind the bar, moving toward him.

Billy sat up straighter, fidgety now. “We got a lot of time left in the night.”

“Nope, I’ve about drunk myself to death in this dive. I’m going home.” It dawned on him just then that he could do just that—go not back to the garage apartment George let him use, but go all the way home.

Billy ambled toward the bar, not toward his own dwelling, wherever that might be. Moving through the dim light, he appeared to Callis a kind of rubbery figure bending up and in and down and out. He was tall and skinny and always wore the same boxy pants. He was at least twice Callis’ age and wore his hair in a jelly roll—oiled and combed up into a flip at the front—the style of a greaser.

“You don’t understand what I’m talking about, Billy. I’m talking about home to South Carolina.”

“South Carolina, Cal? Now? I thought you said you’d be around till your schooling started back.”

Callis looked around at the accumulated mess—his job to clean up. He retreated behind the bar, touched his palms to the sticky surface, layered with the spills of beer and liquor. The floor, as always, was gummy, too, requiring him to mop it with scalding hot water and ammonia. He looked out at the tables with overflowing ashtrays and knew without looking behind him the heap of dirty glasses stacked in the sink. He shuddered most at the thought of the men’s bathroom, the stench of rancid piss hovering where guys missed the urinal. “I was, but I’m not. I just decided,” he said more to himself than to Billy.

“What’s Big George gonna say if you walk off the job?”

“He won’t say anything because I’m going to leave him a note.” Callis knew his decade-older, big-shot cousin would be mad to find him gone unexpectedly like that, leaving him short-handed, but he’d get over it. Briefly, he reconsidered his impulse. He was beat—dog-tired—and there was the matter of staying awake on the road.

Then, suddenly, looking at Billy standing slumped in front of him, his clarinet case under his arm, an inspired thought struck Callis. “Hey, I got an idea, Billy. How about you going home with me?” He was drunk but not too drunk to know he might need company on the long drive to make it through.

“What’d you say?” Billy asked.

“I said let’s get on the road.”

“The band would fire me for sure if I didn’t show up to play tomorrow,” he answered. “And anyway, what would I do in South Carolina?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll find plenty of gigs.”

“It’d be kind of peculiar, wouldn’t it? I never been South. What would I do?”

“I’ll take you to my house till you get on your feet. Show you my corner of the world. If you get a notion, you can ride through the cotton fields with Daddy. I bet you never rode on a tractor in a cotton field.”

“Sure enough? Nope, I never been on any kind of farm. Or been in a grand Southern home.” He cackled at his attempt to imitate a Southern drawl. Callis knew Billy was tempted, even with the frown creasing his forehead.

So Callis pushed harder. He was getting fired up. “Sure and Mama’s a grand Southern cook. She serves up big meals with fried chicken, collard greens, squash casserole, anything you want.”

“Yeah? My mama cooked big Sunday dinners. Just her and me. You have lots of people there, Cal?”

“Hell, yes. You gonna love it. Our table’s full every Sunday with my little sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. You’ll eat so much you’ll have to sprawl out on one of Mama’s sofas half the afternoon to rest your stomach.” Callis grinned. The more he talked, the more he longed for home: his mother’s table, the comfort of his room, even the farm full of sun and blue sky, far away from the dim, sour interior of the bar.

“You talk mighty good, Cal,” Billy said, shifting to sit on a barstool, placing his case on the bar. Callis could see over the top of the bar the musician’s long legs askew. With Billy sitting, they were the same height, and Callis saw eye to bleary eye with him. “I think you just drunk,” Billy added and stood again, towering over the bartender’s head.

Callis tossed his hand out carefree onto Billy’s chest and said, “Don’t you worry.” Billy sat back down.

“I don’t know. This is awful quick. I been making out okay with the band and George. It’d been a while, see, before I hooked up here.”

“Hell Billy,” Callis nearly hollered. “I can get you all the jobs you want. Come with me.”

“Southern hospitality, huh? Is that what you offering?  Gotta admit, it does sound nice.” Billy uncreased his forehead, opened his case. He slid his long fingers up and down the ebony tube like he was thinking of a melody.

“Yes, indeed,” Callis concurred. He made a little bow. Billy nodded.

Callis was happy to have Billy go with him, sing a few songs with, tell a few stories to. And Billy could drive while he slept, if Billy could drive. He left the note for George—“Thanks for the summer, hope you understand. Got to get ready for school. And, also, Billy Commode is with me.” He took $40 from the drawer, left an I.O.U. and sent Billy to the back for a case of champagne to celebrate their departure. Never mind about his clothes back at George’s garage apartment.

Billy hauled the champagne box, and Callis led the way. In the parking lot, he held out his hand like he was introducing his Fairlane convertible, the top down. “Did you ever ride in a beauty like this? My high school graduation gift, 1956.”

The car gleamed under the streetlight, two-toned yellow and black. “These are some nice wheels, you bet,” Billy said and whistled a long downhill scale. “They gonna take us places. Let’s get on the road. I’m going to Carolina.” He grinned wide, and Callis saw he was missing two molars on the upper right side.

Billy hoisted the box into the space on the benched seat between them and folded himself in. Callis eased behind the wheel, like he drove better drunk than sober. Billy began to whistle the song about “Carolina in the Morning.”

“Hey, that’s a great song,” Callis said, tuning in. “’Nothing Could be Finer.’”

Billy picked up his clarinet, searching for the key of Callis’ voice. He began to play while Callis bolted out the words: “Nothing could be finer than to be in Car-o-lina in the Morn-a-orning.”

The car darted through the dark streets away from Plainfield onto the New Jersey turnpike and sped along for a while until Callis abruptly pulled off onto the shoulder. “I need to pee. What about you?”

Billy shook his head. “Na, you go ahead.”

Callis stepped out in front of the car. He arched his spray toward the grill, laughing. He’d just finished when the policeman pulled up.

He walked toward them, his boots a thick thud with each step. “What’re  you doing here outside the car?” he demanded. “I’ve been following you a ways. I believe you’re hammered. Let me see your license and the registration.” His scowl created a downward arrow of his wooly Mediterranean brows, making Callis determine the cop was Italian, and not someone to mess with.

“You’re right,” Callis agreed, pulling out his wallet. “No doubt about it. That’s why I stopped. I knew I shouldn’t drive, so I got out to let my buddy take over.” He did a jaunty lean back on his heels and pointed at Billy.

“South Carolina?” he asked looking at Callis’ license. What business you got way up here?”

“Headed home, sir. Been working for my cousin in Plainfield all summer.”

“I hope that’s true ‘cause I’m off duty in 30 minutes. I don’t want to drive your ass 30 miles back and book you in jail. I wouldn’t get home until 5:00 am.”

“Don’t worry, officer. I explained why I stopped.” Callis pointed at Billy again who smiled uneasily from the car.

“Alright. I’m following you for ten miles. You get the hell on out of here.” He handed Callis back his documents.

Callis watched the beefy officer stomp to his squad car. Then, he sidled around to Billy and mouthed, “Can you drive?”

“I got no license, but I can drive,” he announced.

“Ssshhh, not so loud,” Callis said.  He palmed the key to Billy. “You’ve got the wheel.” Billy exited the car and walked to the driver’s side. Callis flipped himself over the seat into the back. “Taking a snooze,” he said. “There’s a map in the glove compartment. You’ll have to get gas somewhere. Here.” Callis dug a five dollar bill from his wallet.

He woke in Baltimore with the August sun beaming straight down on his face. He looked up and saw Billy Commode’s hair flying loose like a flag. In an instant he remembered.

“Billy, my pal. You pull on over first place you see, and I’ll treat you to breakfast.”

They stopped at a Howard Johnsons and filled up on fried eggs, greasy hash browns and sausage links. Afterward, Callis took over the driving again. He tried to get back the energetic bluster that felt so good the night before. He laughed at his own story of the cotton picking on his daddy’s farm, and Billy laughed, too. He opened a bottle of champagne, drank a long, spicy flow and passed the bottle to Billy. But it didn’t happen. Things weren’t the same.

By the time he pulled into a truck stop for gas in Raleigh, he had given up on champagne and burned through a pack of Lucky Strikes instead. Billy had been sleeping. He woke his companion and sent him inside for chicken and more cigarettes. Back on the road, he smoked and drummed the fingers of his right hand restlessly on the dashboard while he drove with the left. Billy chewed on a chicken leg and threw the bone over the side.

Somewhere between Raleigh and Charlotte, Callis’ left heel started an up and down jittering that made his whole body vibrate. The sun made him sweat, even with the 70-mile an hour wind blowing across him. When they reached Charlotte city limits, he was squirming all over—his mama would say like a worm in hot ashes. At a stoplight, he passed a boyish smile at Billy. He had begun to worry about bringing Billy home, and stayed quiet through most of North Carolina.

“You want some music?” Billy asked. He turned on the radio and twisted the dial. “Nothing but damn static,” he proclaimed and took his clarinet from its case. He put the reed to his lips to play.

“Nah, not right now,” Callis said and reached his hand over to pull the instrument down toward Billy’s lap.

“You tired, Cal? Not much farther, is it? We’ll get that warm Southern welcome soon.” He leaned over and gave his buddy a little exaggerated punch on the arm.

Callis stared over at Billy Commode’s tired, thin face. Maybe he was less than 50, but he looked much older—deep lines along his cheeks showing prominently in the light of day. How had this happened, he wondered. How had a has-been player at George’s Place ended up in the car with him, and what was he going to do? One thing for sure: he couldn’t take Billy home. His mama would die to see him bring a bedraggled old clarinet player to roost with them. She was going to be shocked enough to see Callis all thin and worn out,  arriving before his appointed time. She’d have a fit if she saw Billy, too.

He tossed a cigarette over, saw it spin sideways above the highway, and lit another. He thought briefly of driving to the university and dropping Billy at his fraternity house to stay with friends enrolled in summer school until he could figure out something. But even if they agreed, it would be temporary.

He saw in his rearview mirror a Greyhound bus pull up behind them at a stop sign. The destination on the front read “Daytona Beach.” These were people bound for pleasure.

He was bound for anything but pleasure no matter which way he cut it, and with Billy, he would be enflaming his predicament. He had to send Billy back and what better way, he now realized, than a Greyhound bus.

He turned on the left blinker and changed direction into the city to search out the bus station.

“Say, Billy,” he began, turning his expression serious. “I been thinking about last night. I jumped to conclusions. I was tight with gin, and I wasn’t thinking straight. I shouldn’t done that, talked you into coming along.”

“It’ll be alright,” Billy responded. “I had nothing holding me in Jersey, ‘cept maybe my buddies in the band.  I want to start over. I thank you for suggesting it.”

“You see, though, I was so ready to beat feet out of George’s that I got over exuberant.”

“What you talking about, Cal?” Billy turned toward him in earnest.

“I’m talking about doing you a favor. Buying you a bus ticket back. Your buddies in the band must wonder what happened to you.”

“They don’t wonder. You left a note.”

Callis’ voice softened. “It won’t work, Billy. We’ve been having a lark, but I got to get home, and it wouldn’t … say… be the right place for you.”

“That liquor from last night and the sun’s got you vexed,” Billy said. He squeezed out an uneasy laugh. “I’ll hang with you, like you said, until I find a regular gig.”

“The band will give you your deal back. I’ll ask George to talk to them,” Callis promised, flashing Billy a smile.

“I got nothing there. This idn’t right.”

“Why, sure you do,” Callis said. He drove slowly among city blocks until he turned onto West Trade Street and saw the “Bus Terminal” sign rising from the curved modern building. Callis pulled the Fairlane beyond the building and parked. He jumped out, ran around to Billy’s side and opened the door, giving Billy a crisp clap on the shoulder. “Here we are,” he announced.

Billy glared at him. Callis kept smiling. “I’m going in,” he said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. “You’ll realize later and thank me.”

“No thanks,” Billy muttered.

At the ticket booth, Callis discovered the nearest station to Plainfield, NJ, was about twenty minutes from the city, so when he handed Billy his ticket, he included money for cab fare as well as food. He was doing what he could to help the guy and was taken aback when Billy took the proffered ticket and cash, and walked away without so much as a nod of his head. Callis stood staring at the musician’s retreating form.

He shrugged, squared his shoulders, and walked to his car. He took some time to clean out the trash and dumped it in a bin. He lifted the case of champagne, minus only two bottles, and set it on the curb for some lucky bastard. He started the car and as he glanced in the rearview mirror to back from his parking space, he saw Billy Commode exit the front of the terminal. Callis guessed he meant to bide his time sitting on a bench and people watch until his bus was due.

But Billy didn’t sit, or even stand at the curb. No, he began walking up West Trade Street. Callis continued to watch in the mirror until Billy was a speck among the other specks on the sidewalk. Abruptly, he u-turned his car and followed the clarinet player. He followed maybe a half mile until he saw Billy duck into a bar. What the hell was Billy doing? He wasn’t going back to New Jersey, that’s what, Callis thought.

He jerked the convertible across the oncoming lane to slide into a parking space in front of the bar, nearly careening into an ancient Buick Roadmaster. “Dammit to you, too,” he yelled toward the car, its horn blaring. He cut the engine and sat, trying to gather his wits. His fingers drummed wildly on the steering wheel.

His thoughts spun. Billy had to get on the bus. Callis’ parents were wealthy, influential people in the community. His mama would be furious if he brought Billy home. He’d never get out of the doghouse. And then, sitting in the sweltering still car, his body bone weary and his head whirling, feeling suddenly nauseous, it dawned on him. His mama had known all along, hadn’t she? She’d known what the summer would be, how he’d work those dirty chores while he lived hedonistically, wearing himself to a frazzle among the people he encountered at George’s Place. It was all to show him how it would be if he didn’t shape up. What could happen if the world was no longer his oyster.

Ignoring the cramps in his stomach, he forced himself up straight. He pulled the key from the ignition and stepped outside his handsome car. Change jingled heavily in his pockets as he stepped quickly forward. Only the double wide screen door—letting whatever small breeze might stir into a bar on a hot August day in downtown Charlotte—separated him from Billy.

 

Receiving her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Converse College, Susan Beckham Zurenda taught English for 33 years at Spartanburg Community College and as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School in South Carolina. She retired from full-time teaching in 2013 and began work as a publicist for Magic Time Literary Agency based in Spartanburg. Her fiction writing accomplishments include winner in Alabama Conclave First Chapter Novel Prize, Carolina Woman Magazine Fiction Contest, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, two-time winner of the Jubilee Writing Competition, two-time winner of The South Carolina Fiction Project, with one story reprinted in Inheritance: Selections from the SC Fiction Project, winner of the Hub City Hardegree Creative Writing Contest in Fiction, and winner in the Porter Fleming Writing Competition. She has published a number of nonfiction pieces. Zurenda is a lifelong girl of South Carolina married to a South Carolina man.

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