Road to Caledonia
by Howard Reeves
A hot summer wind blew through the half-opened window of Ronnie’s old battered Jeep Cherokee, whipping Sheila’s platinum blond hair across her pale blue eyes. She yanked a white ponytail holder from her wrist and gathered the ends of her hair, pulling them through the elastic band. She shook her head and the ponytail fell across the nape of her neck, brushing her bare shoulders.
She sighed and looked at Ronnie. “Where are we anyway?”
He glanced over at her. “Not much longer ‘fore we get to Montgomery.”
“I still don’t see why you wanted me to come along,” Sheila complained. “He was your uncle.”
“I thought you’d want to meet my family. My parents, my brother, my aunts, my grandmother — they’re all gonna be there.”
“I don’t like funerals.”
“Nobody likes funerals, baby. But when someone in your family dies, well, you just gotta go.”
“I didn’t go to my daddy’s funeral.”
“Your daddy’s dead? You didn’t tell me that.”
“He died in prison.”
“Christ, I didn’t know that either!”
Those weren’t exactly the questions he’d thought to ask Sheila when they first met in Wal-Mart a little over a month ago. She was bending over a shelf in the deodorant aisle after dropping her faux diamond stud on the floor. He told her he was good at finding things like that, things that were seemingly impossible to find. How, when he was six, he found a silver pin his mother had dropped on the floor by dividing the immediate area into a grid then working from the center, clockwise, widening into a larger circle until he homed in on it. Ronnie found Sheila’s ear stud in less than twenty seconds. She was impressed with the fact that he’d broken his own record. They celebrated that evening at a karaoke bar where she got up and sang. He thought she had a pretty good voice.
“Jus’ wish you’d told me we were going to a funeral,” Sheila muttered.
“Sorry. I know I said we were taking a road trip,” Ronnie grinned. “We still can if you want. This is only the first stop.”
Sheila sighed again, mostly out of boredom. “What’s in the CD player?” she asked.
“Um, I don’t know — Kenny Chesney I think, maybe ol’ Merle Haggard. I’m loaded with country.”
Ronnie pushed a button and Merle sang about truck drivers and movin’ on. Sheila smiled as she stared out the window at the passing cotton fields, soft waves of white specks rising and falling across acres of land like a gentle surf.
About an hour or two from Ronnie’s aunt’s house, Sheila started fidgeting.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Gotta pee — real bad,” she said, biting a fingernail to keep from thinking about what was happening down below.
“Okay, but try holding it in will ya?”
After another five miles or so of peanut farms, and clapboard churches set back among the cottonwoods, Ronnie finally pulled into Jake’s Chicken Shack, a road house and gas station, just outside Caledonia. It looked like a worn-out honky-tonk with neon signs blinking in every window of the place, some of them only half lit up. Sheila headed for the door while Ronnie filled the tank.
Inside was dark and musty with a heavy odor of stale beer. Empty tables crowded the dance floor in front of the bandstand, while country music blasted from a jukebox in the corner. Jake, the owner, whose name adorned the sign on the roof, wiped another glass behind the bar.
He glanced up as Sheila came inside and looked around. “Can I help you?” he called to her.
“Where’s the ladies’ room?” she asked.
“Straight through that door,” Jake said, watching her as she disappeared into the restroom.
Ronnie slid the nozzle into the slot at the pump and screwed the cap back on the gas tank. Then he went inside and paid the cashier at the counter near the front door, before heading to the men’s room.
A moment later, Sheila came out of the ladies’ and sat down at the bar.
Jake smiled. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“A Coke,” she said.
He scooped some ice into a glass and pressed a button on the soda gun, filling the glass with the fizzy brown liquid.
“Here you go,” he said setting it down in front of her.
“Thanks.” Sheila smiled as she searched for a dollar bill in her purse.
When she found one she slid it to Jake who rang it up on the register, just as the jukebox started to play another record. She recognized the twang of the guitar and Reba McEntire’s soulful voice.
“I might have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name. Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down. Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down,” Sheila sang along with the record.
“You got a nice voice,” Jake said when the song had ended.
Sheila blushed. “Oh, thanks.”
“I’m lookin’ for a hostess who knows how to sing, someone who can add to the entertainment,” he said. “Maybe get up and sing a couple of songs with the band.”
Sheila’s eyes widened. “You got a band?”
“Yep, every weekend.”
“I’ve always dreamed of singin’ in a band.”
Jake could tell a star-struck girl when he saw her. He leaned across the bar. “You know who Alan Jackson is?”
“Duh, yeah I do. I love Alan Jackson!”
“Well, he stopped by one time when they was tourin’,” he said. “Their bus just pulled right up and they got gas, and then they come on in for some beers.”
“Wow, Alan Jackson. I love his songs.”
“So, you interested in the job?” he asked.
“Maybe.” She thought about it. “What’s it pay?”
“Fifty bucks a night, plus tips.”
Sheila struggled to calculate what she’d make as Ronnie walked out of the men’s room and made straight for the front door.
“All set, Sheila,” he called to her, “I’ll meet you in the car.” The door slammed shut behind him.
Sheila turned to Jake. “Where would I stay?”
“Got a spare room upstairs,” he smiled. “It’d be yours.”
The hot, steamy air hit Sheila in the face as she opened the door and surveyed the gravel parking lot and the four gas pumps. Ronnie was leaning against the Cherokee in front of pump number three. She took a long breath before stepping off the stoop.
“You ready to go?” he asked.
“What d’ya mean no?”
“Actually, I’m stayin’ here.”
“Jake offered me a job,” she explained.
“You already got a job in Macon,” he said.
“The Burger Barn?” she rolled her eyes. “I need me a real job, one with some class.”
Ronnie pulled her aside and pointed to the sign on the roof.
“This place is called Jake’s Chicken Shack,” he said sarcastically. “Do we see a similarity here?”
“They got live music on weekends,” she smirked, her hand smugly poised on her hip.
“Jesus, what am I gonna tell my Aunt Flora?”
“Y’know, they’re gonna want to know why you’re not with me. I mean, I kinda bragged on you to my brother.”
“So what the hell did you tell him?”
“Uh, that we’re thinkin’ about, um, y’know — ”
“Y’know, maybe gettin’ married.” Ronnie tried to cover a nervous laugh.
Sheila shook her head in disbelief. “You askin’ me to marry you, or somethin’?”
“Well, yeah,” he swallowed hard, “maybe.”
Sheila scowled as she looked him square in the eye.
“Listen, Ronnie, I need to look out for myself right now,” she said. “I got a chance — a real chance — to be a country singer right here in Caledonia. Jake said I can sing with the band. I ain’t got stars in my eyes, Ronnie, but I got dreams. And I need to live ‘em.”
Ronnie stared at Sheila for a long moment before climbing into the Cherokee.
“Look, you want to stay here with Jake? Fine, I got me a funeral to go to,” he said, tossing her purple backpack onto the gravel.
Ronnie turned the key and started the motor. “Call me if you want me to pick you up on the way back.” He slammed the car door and tore away from Jake’s Chicken Shack, whipping up a cloud of dust and gravel in his wake.
Sheila pulled off the white ponytail holder, letting her hair blow free.