by Jennifer Riley
Oaks towered over Tucker Body Shop, the only body shop on U.S.Highway 99 in Tuckerville, North Carolina. In 1952, acorns covered the asphalt welcome mat spread in a remote corner of Fletcher County. Most drive-ins, diners, and body shops used gravel, but the body shop provided the first smooth asphalt finish in the county. Prentiss Tucker worked on state highway patrol cars and accepted only a few favors, traded from another county, to keep it legal. His nephew, Edwin Watkins, joined the state highway patrol when jobs were hard to find. Although only a deputy, Win stood high as the most moral, upright man in the county. His name came up for promotion to sheriff and then judge; others forecast national politics might suit Win. Across the road from the Tucker Body Shop, another asphalt quilt spread to hold overflow parking, a gift from the other county. Favors exchanged outside Win’s jurisdiction.
Little Dill Tucker, four years old, jumped and smashed, jumped and smashed. Holly trees stood straight like ballerinas in skirts to the left of the yard around the home. The Tucker family sat on the front porch. Prentiss Tucker listened to Dill crunching acorns, hoping his granddaughter would be ready for an afternoon nap. He nestled his penknife deeper into the Old Man of the North he carved from a good sized elm wood stick his daughter-in-law found last week during a country music show. Lillian Munford Tucker, his wife, sat beside him on the front porch.
“Acorns, plenty of them this year,” said Lillian. She pulled her sweater closer over her house dress. “Can’t sit out here much longer. Enjoy your tea, Prentiss.” Born in Fletcher County, she had never traveled farther west than Gatlinburg, Tennessee, just over the state line, the boundary where North Carolina crashed up against the Tennessee terrain.
Prentiss put down the carving, careful to fold up his penknife, and asked, “What’s it mean? Weather sign?” He dropped his penknife into his flannel shirt pocket; with his other hand he swooped up the iced tea, he took a swig, and set the green glass down on the porch floor.
Lillian spoke up, “Prentiss, don’t let Dill touch-,”
“Lillian, I know you’ve been out here once this morning all ready with the long-handled broom.” Lillian swept the porch at least three times a day and anointed the steps with a dishpan of soapy and a mop. Lillian’s mop left a trail of sparkle.
“The dogwood handle is on the rake your grandmother left us,” she said. For the millionth time, Prentiss knew the rural electricity strung on wires through Fletcher County was no match for Lil. Her smile flashed the same wattage and current. And after 30 years of married life, Prentiss counted himself Chief Meter Reader for each one of Lil’s charms.
“Darlin’, I’m not saying you aren’t tidy. What’s got you so upset about the porch? Your brother and I built it to your exact specifications.” Heck, thought Prentiss, Lillian’s specifications for the deep, wide porch allowed the family to congregate, picnic, eat, pray, spark, argue, and stomp. They could almost square dance on it. Some had learned the bare bones basics of clogging on it. Swains knelt on bended knee to offer marriage proposals. Children tried the swing and the jumping off place until Lillian made Prentiss plant hydrangeas that removed temptation. Most of Fletcher County had been on the porch, never mind the asphalt parking lot. The frontage that faced the road boasted regular porch furniture. Around the side, refurbished school bus seats were discretely stationed for private encounters. However, Lillian had refused recycled church pews, saying it wasn’t respectful.
To answer Prentiss’s questions about weather forecasting, Lil said, “Nothing, just the acorns are plentiful this year. Now, persimmons, that’s another story.”
Across the yard, on the paved parking area, Dill stomped another acorn. “Black-phalt.”
“No, Dill, asphalt,” said Lillian. The glider she sat on squeaked like fussin’ jaybirds in the oaks.
“Black-phalt.” Dill looked up at the three adults sitting on the porch. “Just like my Uncle Eb told me a story. When people get older and they don’t want to dance at the Fletcher County socials, they get to say no and claim that they have jitter-bugger-slugger.”
The adults chuckled. Lillian said, “Don’t say that. Uncle Eb has a way of twisting every other word. Don’t let anyone else hear you say jitter-bugger-slugger, Dill.”
Prentiss laughed. “What a mouthful.” He slapped the arms of his chair, and the metal twanged.
“Black-phalt,” said Dill.
Lillian said, “You don’t know what black-phalt means, so don’t use it.”
“I do know,” Dill began, propping her four-year-old fists on her waist, but before she could launch into a story, a huge rig, cab and truck bed pulling a full load of timber, slowed on U.S. Highway 99, and came to a stop. “Uncle Eb,” Dill said, hopping from one foot to another. “Look, he’s here-”
Uncle Eb squirted air through the horn and waved. He pulled into the lot across the street, honking again. Uncle Eb pulsed into the lot, pulled far forward, and then banged the gears into reverse. Looking over his right shoulder, then opening the driver side door on his side, he backed up, almost touching a second spreading pin oak tree, turned off the ignition, pushed the cab door, jumped out.
Almost to himself, Prentiss said, “Drives that rig too fast.”
“Shush, Prentiss.” Lillian ignored Prentiss and yelled, “Welcome, Ebenezer, come on over” She leaned forward then got to her feet. She’d at least start down the steps.
Prentiss continued thinking the rig Eb drove handled on a dime. Eb had pulled in, stopped, backed up the rig under the oak tree. Something about the physics of it didn’t look right to Prentiss. The rig was full of long timbers, the kind North Carolina forests yielded, in an earlier century, perfect for ships masts. Prentiss sensed out of kilter but didn’t have enough formal education to figure it out. He’d left school at sixteen. He’d sleep on it later. He dreamed solutions to carpentry problems-the porch-for example. Prentiss had just extended the floor joists, stacked rocks and put in girders under the middle of the house, where they’d never be otherwise, thinking if he and Lil wanted to enclose the porch later and make a front room, the flooring was in place. Prentiss was certain he could figure out why the rig’s appearance puzzled him. He reached for his pocket.
“Did you hear that, Prentiss?”
Prentiss interrupted his carpenter daydream and looked up. “No.”
Lillian continued, “Eb here said the roof at the shed caved in last night.”
“Caved in? why in tarnation?”
“That’s what we’d like to know.” Eb mopped his face with a handkerchief. “Have to haul. Jobs too few and far between.” Eb looked at the two adults on the porch. His kin. Prentiss was well set in life with his body shop. Eb founded it harder to find work here in the mountains.
“Uncle Eb, do you know about black-phalt?” Dill had run up to grab Eb’s hand and swing it.
“Dill, go play. Let the adults talk.”
“Can you watch me cross the road?” Dill knew to extract something for herself in exchange for leaving the adults alone for three minutes.
“Okay, we’ll all watch. Look both ways.” Lillian jumped up and was down the steps to save Eb the trouble. Uncle Eb didn’t call that often since hauling kept him on the road. “Look both ways. Run.”
Dill was already on the other side of the road. She immediately picked up a stick. “Clean your tires,” she called back across the road to Eb.
“Fine. Give you a nickel.”
Lillian said, “Play but don’t bother the truck, then we’ll get ready to ride over to the Fletcher Drive In for lunch.”
Dill put her head down and her lower lip out, but obeyed. The Fletcher County Drive In served lemon meringue pie. She could negotiate herself a piece. Dill walked slowly around the parking lot, looking for the first tire she wanted to clean, smashing acorns forgotten. Acorn drink, she thought. Acorn cup. Acorn plate. She moved closer to Eb’s truck. “Jitter-bugger-pancake-butter,
As the adults watched from the porch, Prentiss smiled. “Tell Eb about Dill’s latest flight of fancy.”
Lillian laughed. “We were talking about pickles we put up Fourth of July. We bought some extra from the grocery story, just to round out 10 pints. Dill thought we had bought store bought pickles, already made, opened them, mixed them in, and then packed everything into Mason jars.” The adults laughed. “What gets into that child’s head, I don’t know.”
Prentiss said, “Last night she asked me about false bottoms. Wanted me to build her one.”
Eb said nothing but reached for his handkerchief. He swabbed his face.
“You’re a good carpenter,” Lil charmed. “Wouldn’t hurt her to learn.”
Far way, across the road and the fields, a helicopter raced like a black dragonfly. They looked at it making a straight line of flight. “Must be the state police training base nearby.” The black dot looked like a stick pin in the map of the blue sky.
“I’ve heard there’s a thought about patrolling the roads from helicopters. State Highway Patrol will come out and talk to the Rotary Club next week. Why don’t you come, Eb?” asked Prentiss.“Can’t stand in the way of progress.”
“I’m not standing in the way.” Eb screeched louder than a rusty glider. They looked at him. “Er, sorry, it’s the driving; got to stay on the road,” he said. Eb mopped his face. He looked across the road at Dill. “Don’t get too close,” Eb warned. “Make her come back,” he was halfway out of his chair and almost collided with Lillian. “S’cuse me.”
Lillian looked at Eb, exasperated. “Come away from the truck, Dill. Uncle Eb said to.”
Lillian got up from her chair, walked across the yard, across from Dill. “Look both ways.” Dill obeyed then ran across the quiet country road. She took Lillian’s hand as they walked to the porch. Dill sat on the porch step and watched the truck. She’d ask Prentiss about it later. Slowly Dill waved the stick and made windshield wiper noises, reminding herself to remember the sound.
Deputy Edwin Walker, driving his own car and not a state highway patrol vehicle, slowed and turned into the nearby parking lot. Win Walker was off duty. Ramrod straight, young with only the beginning of gray, like staples, caught in his dark hair, he often stopped by on his way home to talk to his Aunt Lillian. Win was the object of many broken hearts in Fletcher County and broken dreams of the future that included china and crystal patterns. The family joked that he was devoted to Aunt Lillian and not many local women could intrude. His blue eyes glowed when he looked at the family sitting on the porch. He looked away from Eb.
“Hello, Aunt Lil, Prentiss. How’s truck driving, Eb?”
Eb nodded and looked into the distance. “Rig drives fine, thanks to Prentiss and his crew. Might need new spark plugs in a month.” The helicopter was gone. “Been over to Taylor’s Station. Hauled a load last week.” Eb continued to mop his face.
“Eb, you coming down with a fever?”
“No.” Eb looked at his handkerchief. He didn’t meet anyone’s eye.
“Thought we might go over today to Fletcher Drive-In,” Prentiss said, “Win, go with us. You and Lillian can talk.” Prentiss started, “Roof collapsed, did you hear?”
“Yes, we’re investigating. SBI might be called in. Shed roof. Water damage. We might solve it first though. Eb, when did you park there last?”
Eb considered. “Haven’t in a while. Costs too much.”
“Good,” Lillian said.
Eb said, “Lillian’s right as usual.” He smiled.
Prentiss frowned. “Never known Lillian to be right more than 100 times in 100 days.” They laughed.
Dill walked close to Win.
Win smiled at Dill. “Go dancing with me, sugar?”
“Jitter-bugger.” She looked at Win.
Lillian spoke up, “Dill, I told you not to say that.”
“Better listen to your gran.” Win pulled a peppermint out of his pocket. “Here, sweet like you.”
Lillian said, “What do you say, Dill?”
“Thank you,” Dill replied.
“Sit down on the step and eat it. Don’t run or talk with candy in your mouth.”
“I’m off duty the rest of the day,” Win said, looking at the porch floor. Burger and shake sounds good.”
“Let me wash up,” said Prentiss. “Eb, you’re welcome to wash up too if you need.”
“Think I will,” said Eb, as he held the door open for Lillian.
Lillian said, “I’ll just powder my nose. Dill, you comin’?”
“Brush my hair. Pink ribbon.” Dill got up, chewed up and swallowed the last of her mint, and followed Lillian inside. After five minutes, Dill returned, face and hands washed, hair brushed, and carrying her newest wallet, white with a daisy encased behind a plastic window.
“Nice,” said Win. “Here’s a nickel for that daisy purse you’re carrying. Mind your gran, sugar pie?”
Dill put the nickel in her new wallet. “Do you hear music from Eb’s truck?”
Win smiled, “Music? The radio?”
“Maybe. Music, coming from, well, I don’t know. All around. There.” Dill pointed across the road.
Win Watkins sat staring into space, thinking. When business was finished, new movie tonight at the Fletcher Cinema. Maybe he’d ask Charmaine Little, new in town. Dill started to say something. He quickly remembered her. “Music coming from the truck?” Win said. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes, I’ll show you, come on.” She tugged on Win’s fingers.
As she stood up, Prentiss appeared at the screen door. “Don’t pester Win. He’s resting for now. We can all go in the Buick. Leave yours here, Win.”
“Sounds good.” The two men and Dill walked to the detached garage, which held Prentiss’s 1950 Buick, Roadmaster, delight of Prentiss’s body shop. “Oh, he said, “Eb’s going to have to move his truck. The inspector’s coming to look at the tree. There’s a bole on it.
When Eb came out, Win was standing watching Prentiss back slowly out of the garage, holding Dill’s hand. “Eb, Prentiss said you need to move your rig.”
Eb frowned. “Move it where? It’s in the shade. Prentiss and Lillian have the best parking place.” He nodded across the road. Lillian came out the front door, closed it behind her and locked it.
“Win’s right. Prentiss called the inspector. Please just pull your rig forward. You can re-park after we eat.”
Eb said, “Wait here.” He crossed the road, got into the cab. A noise like heaven clearing its throat came out of the truck cab, then Eb straddled the truck across the asphalt. “Here?” he yelled across the road. The rig stood in full sunlight. Prentiss and Lillian waved for Eb to turned off the ignition. He mopped his brow, got out of the cab for the second time in 30 minutes, patted the side of the cab, mopped his face again, sniffed, and re-crossed the road. Standing beside Win, Dill noticed Uncle Eb didn’t even look both ways.
The two local surgeons, Harold Cook and Bob Broughton, stood in front of the county map. It was dotted with black pins. Both had returned from the war in which they served as Air Force pilots. Harold had fixed a former weather twin engine patrol plane. The Tobacco and Fire Arms Bureau sergeant looked at the aerial shot. “You’re certain?”
“It’s a still in production.” Harold scratched his cheek. “We didn’t notice it before, but then we kept seeing it traveling.”
On the ride over, Dill asked again about music coming from Eb’s rig. The adults all chimed in, “How would you know, honey?” Eb was sweating up a pitcher of iced tea on a porch. He kept mopping his face.
“Prentiss, roll your window down more.” Lillian turned around in the front seat to look back at Eb. “Eb, are you alright?”
“Fine, but I think I left money in the cab of the rig.” Neither Eb nor Win looked at each other; each looked out his own passenger window.
“No one will bother it. Win will take care of them if they do.”
Win said, “That’s right,” as he looked up from Dill’s latest church lesson they were reading. The Buick finally arrived at the Fletcher Drive In.
“No offense, but I want to check. I’ll take your car home, if you don’t mind, Prentiss, and just check. I’ve been absent minded lately.”
Prentiss shrugged, “Want us to order for you?” as he handed over the keys.
Eb gobbled up the keys, “No. Yes, burger, shake, fries, onion rings,” Eb rattled off and quickly got into the driver’s side of the Buick. “Back in a jiff.”
Eb almost peeled away asphalt as he churned the gear shift, digging for Drive. Eb didn’t want Prentiss to stop him.
Win and Dill walked into the drive in. All diners spoke to them. Prentiss brought up the rear. They were shown to a table for six. “We’re saving a seat for Eb. He’ll be back,” Lillian said to the server. Bring us all iced tea. Little Dill needs milk.” When Dill started to object, Lillian silenced her with a frown. Dill sat on Win’s left, feeling grown up. As Win pulled out a pencil and a folded piece of paper, she decided to turn over the paper placemat. She started drawing trucks and musical notes.
Eb sped down Highway 99 and scared a lady when he flashed his headlights. The woman threw up one hand, then she slowed down deliberately. Eb was swearing through the windshield when she finally turned into her own driveway. Eb sweated and pulled in beside the rig. He jumped out of Prentiss’s car without setting the brake. He pulled open the cab, turned the ignition, and nothing happened. He looked up across the road. In the black and white sat the Fletcher County Sheriff. Eb swore and look down at his hands. He leaned forward and put his head on the steering wheel. Beside the Fletcher County sheriff, Roscoe Baker, stood his deputies, Wayne and Mack Compton, and the easiest to remove parts of the still. They were taking photographs for the next election. Eb knew he had explaining to do.
After the ride back home, the family saw the commotion on the side of the road. Lillian sped Dill into the house, so the child wouldn’t see. “C’mon Dill.”
“What are they doing?” Dill began.
“Adult talk. Come out to the back porch. We’ll grind cheddar cheese and we’ll make pimento cheese and crackers for Prentiss and Win. You’ll like that.” Lillian steered Dill away.
Uncle Eb pleaded his best, but the sheriff wouldn’t hear it. Deputies clamped handcuffs clamped around Eb’s and Tom Chandler’s wrists. Eb and Tom were loaded into the sheriff’s cruiser. They squealed out of the parking lot, headed for the county jail. The sheriff posed more election campaign photographs, then left with the court house photographer. Win and Prentiss stood behind to watch the car become a black dot.
“State’s evidence.” Win motioned for Prentiss to walk around to the back of the rig.
“See anything wrong?” He cranked the rig’s back gate back and forth. Win was angry the arrest took place in front of Lillian’s home, and Dill saw part of it, but it couldn’t be helped.
Prentiss whistled. “Should be butt ends of logs, round circles. Not horizontal log siding. Horizontal logs are giveaway. “Tarnation,” Prentiss swore.
“Had a fake cover they forgot to bolt on properly. They left it off. Look inside,” Win opened the rig’s false back. Inside, pretty as you please, stood an entire firebox, built just the way a chimney hearth would be built.
“Portable fire place for a still?” Prentiss marveled. “What’ll they think of next?”
“Notice the pipe vented to the outside? Just like the rest of the pipes you see every day, sticking out vertically above the truck’s cab. And don’t ask what else, ” said Win. “Disguise in plain sight. Clever, not even backing up the rig would jar it enough to disrupt the operation, as long as Eb was careful. They just didn’t count on the wet steam from the still caving in the shed roof.”
Prentiss shook his head. “Dill thought she heard music.”
Win said, “Tom’s radio. He had it on soft, fell asleep, I guess from staying up around the clock, tending the fire and the still.”
“Rig music,” said Prentiss, the new former tune f the mountains around Fletcher County. Dial’s been turned to another station.” Both men shook their heads at a tale still told today in Fletcher County.
Jennifer Riley lives in Cary, North Carolina, and has a master’s degree in English. She’s active in the Triangle Writers Meetup, and this story comes from an anecdote from a friend of hers in Morrisville. “‘Rig Music’ is about a still that’s gone mobile and how the two men running the still get caught. The mountains, coves, and hollows of North Carolina still harbor mountain men and their ‘shine,” she says. After learning about “shiner” Popcorn Sutton, whose still was discovered in western North Carolina within the past eight years and who committed suicide rather than going back to prison, she decided to dedicate the story in part to him. Follow her on Twitter @jennifer_rileyx.