Spark Plugs

by Scott Blackburn

I was nine years old the first time I saw Crazy Kenny.

It was a summer morning and my dad was driving us to Hopper’s BBQ for breakfast, and as he turned onto Main Street, he nudged me and pointed up ahead. “Look yonder,” he said.

I pressed pause on my Game Boy, looked out of my window, and saw a man walking where a sidewalk should’ve been. He was wearing blue work pants and a lighter blue button-up that was stained and loose fitting. His gray and white hair blew high and backwards, like weeds in the wind. For every few steps the man would take forward, he’d stumble one step back, then he’d turn around as if someone had tapped him on the shoulder. I asked Dad what was the matter with him.

“Always been that way,” Dad said. “Your uncle went to high school with him back in the sixties. Always been an odd bird. Folks call him Crazy Kenny. Got millions he ain’t never spent a dime of.”

“He’s rich?”

“What they say.”

The man shrunk in the rearview. I turned to look out the back window and watched until he was gone.

The summer before, a house on Thayer Road had stolen my attention during those morning drives to breakfast. The house was large and white and sat at the end of a gravel driveway. Tim Farlow, who ran a local lumberyard, had lived in that house for over thirty years before shooting himself on the front porch. He’d used a hunting rifle, but he hadn’t left a note. I’d heard Dad tell the story on the phone one morning when he didn’t know I was listening.

Every morning for those few next weeks I’d sit on my knees and press my face against the glass as we passed Tim Farlow’s house, but I never saw a drop of his blood on that front porch. I always wondered if I’d feel something as we passed by—maybe a chill, maybe something I’d never felt before—but I never did.

On the days we ate at Hopper’s, I’d search the roadsides for Crazy Kenny. I’d usually see him once a week, a couple times if I was lucky. He was always wearing the same dirty clothes, doing that same walk: two steps forward, one step back, turn, and repeat. The “Kenny Shuffle” Dad had named it.

I’d only see him for a matter of seconds, hoping during that snapshot I could put a finger on why people called him crazy. Sometimes I wondered if he sat around and mumbled about the war like my Great Uncle Robert, or if he had conversations with the imaginary person that forever tapped him on the shoulder.

One morning, I saw Crazy Kenny standing in front of Cook’s Fill ‘R Up. He was watching another man squeegee the window of a big-rig. That man was wearing the same blue pants, the same button-up as Crazy Kenny. Crazy Kenny worked at Cook’s: a millionaire working at a rundown service station.

My dad never stopped at Cook’s for gas. He was always partial to the Zip-Go because he’d played in a bluegrass band with the station’s owner back before I was born. As far back as I could remember, they’d been telling stories of banjos and harmonicas, crowds and screaming girls, how they almost signed a record deal in Nashville back in 1980 or 1982(depending on who was telling the story). Those stories had grown tired. I just wanted Dad to go to Cook’s, but he never did.

In my teenage years, my boyhood curiosities had given way to other fascinations that, for a time, seemed more important. Like my friend Jeremy Cooper’s attic and the Judas Priest record he’d play backwards, the messages he swore were hidden in Rob Halford’s voice if I just listened closely. Like Sarah Reynolds, who kissed me on the lips the summer before 8th grade, how she grew and changed that next year into a girl that no longer liked skinny boys with long hair.

Those experiences came and went like the seasons, and somewhere in the back of my mind, the memories of Crazy Kenny still lingered. He was like Tim Farlow’s porch in that way. They were like unread books I’d put away on a shelf.

The week I turned sixteen, there was no question where I’d stop for my first tank of gas. It didn’t matter to me that gas was three cents cheaper at Zip-Go, four cents cheaper at the BP they’s opened off I-85.

When I pulled up to the pump at Cook’s a man asked me what he could help me with. His nametag said Neil; he was tall and fat and his shirt didn’t quite cover his belly. His question confused me. At Zip-Go’s, Dad always went inside to pay for the gas that he’d pumped himself. I told Neil I was running low. He smiled and set the pump to unleaded, then wiped his hands with a greasy rag. I looked around him and the pump that had numbers that slowly scrolled and fought back a smile when I saw Crazy Kenny sitting inside the station. There were a couple other men inside too. They looked old, but not quite as old as my Papaw was at the time (eighty two, I think).

I got out of my Jeep and walked toward the front door that had a “No Loitering” sign duct-taped to it. I could see an old metal Coke cooler through the window and figured it was plenty enough reason to go inside.

“Howdy,” a man in a boxy John Deere hat said as I opened the door. He was sitting in a metal chair, as was the man to his left who had no hat and no hair. Crazy Kenny sat across from them in an old bus seat. He said nothing, but watched me as I neared the Coke cooler. His mouth hung open just enough to reveal dirty, long teeth. He was wearing a plaid winter hat that day, the side flaps covering his cheeks.

Inside, Cook’s was a mess. It smelled like oil and gasoline, neither of which could cover the stink of urine coming from the tiny bathroom that was left open. The tiled ceiling was stained brown and drooped. The concrete floor beneath it was pockmarked and cold. On the wall behind the register hung framed pictures of  The Andy Griffith Show. One of the pictures was of Neil with his arm around the actor who played Floyd, the barber. The display reminded me of the shrine Pawpaw kept of John Wayne in his basement. Below those pictures was a wooden shelf cluttered with boxes for oil filters and spark plugs. Most of the boxes were open and empty. A space heater glowed and oscillated near Crazy Kenny’s feet, but I felt no heat from it.

I said hello real quiet, then took out a bottle from the cooler and laid it on the counter.

“Neil will ring you up directly,” Baldy said.

“Lord knows Kenny ain’t going to ring nobody up,” John Deere said.

Baldy slapped his knee then held his hands in front of his chest. “Not unless he was a gal with a nice set of  knockers.”

“Both of you is liars,” Crazy Kenny said in a high-pitched voice that sounded part possum screech, part grumpy old man.

The sound of crazy, I thought.

“Kenny,” Baldy said. “You know you get all tight in the pants ever-damn-time a gal with a big ole rack walks in here. Only time your ass leaves that seat.”

“Ain’t nothing but liars, the two of you,” Crazy Kenny said, leaning forward until his round gut rested in his lap.

The jawing went on for another minute or so, then Neil came inside to ring me up for twenty-three dollars and four cents. I paid cash and emptied a dollar ninety-six change into my coat pocket.

“Hell, Kenny would’t know what to do if a gal wanted to look at his pecker up close,” Neil said.”Heard he’s partial to men, anyhow.”

“Heard that, too,” John Deere said. “There’s a picture of him and Sid Lewis all hugged up at the prom. Damn thing even made the yearbook. Took up half the page.”

Baldy scooted up in his seat. “Jimmy Lewis’s brother? One that works over at the funeral home?”

“Same one,” Neil said.

“Hell, I believe it,” Baldy said. “He drives that damn hearse around town even when there ain’t a funeral.”

I didn’t know if Neil and the old men were just joking with Crazy Kenny or not. And I didn’t know if Crazy Kenny was really as angry as his voice let on. Cook’s was a spectacle, like a weekly cable show. From then on, it was the only place in town I bought my gas.

John Deere and Baldy weren’t at the station every time I stopped by, but most times they were. Sometimes a guy with an oxygen tank was there. He wore tubes under his nose that made a squealing sound as he smoked cigarettes one after the other. Even the mayor, Roger Barnes, would join the group from time to time. And as far as I could tell, those men just came in to shoot the shit, and Crazy Kenny took the brunt of it all. Rarely did those men need a tank of gas.

“Hear what that priest up in Maine done with them little boys?” Oxygen Tank Man said one afternoon.

“Yeah,” John Deere said. “Kenny, you Catholic, ain’t you?”

“Catholic my whole life,” Crazy Kenny said. “Media ain’t  nothing but a bunch of liars.”

“Sid Lewis Catholic too?” The mayor asked. “Lord knows he’s a damn democratic. Has been for years.”

“I don’t talk to Sid Lewis. Ain’t friends now, never was.”

The mayor crossed his arms. “Could’ve sworn I seen a real sweet picture of you two.”

I drank my Coke and laughed quietly. That’s what I always did. I watched and laughed.

I think the old men liked an audience.

Sometimes I think Crazy Kenny did too.

One day I stopped by Cook’s and found myself alone with Crazy Kenny. He looked at me when I came in and, like usual, he didn’t say hello. I sat in Baldy’s seat nearest the register and scraped my thumbnail across the ridges of my Coke bottle, clearing my throat every so often to break up the silence.

After a few minutes, Crazy Kenny finally spoke: “Bought some salt yesterday,” he said.

His voice was calmer than usual.

I looked up at him and raised my eyebrows.

He stared at the ground. “Been eight years and a month,” he said. “Eight years and a month since I last filled up the salt shaker at the house.”

“Yeah, guess it takes a while to go through a whole thing of salt,” I said.

“Cost me a dollar-nine,” he said. “Prices gone up since eight years and three months ago. Gone up on everything.”

“Mmhmm,” I agreed. And we said nothing more.

There were other such occasions when the two of us were alone, and Crazy Kenny usually had something to say. And whether his ramblings about politics or chemtrails or the value of the dollar were directed toward me, or just any open ear, I never could tell. But I’d listen anyways.

And it was on those days, after I’d pay Neil and drive away, that I’d think about what Crazy Kenny’s house might look like. Far as I knew, I’d never seen his house, nor had I ever asked anyone where he lived. Some days, I imagined the house to be small and made of brick. Other days it was big like the houses in Steeple Point, the neighborhood on the north side of town where a Nascar driver used to live. Regardless of where his house was or how big, I imagined a closet filled with light blue button-ups, all of them hanging neatly. I pictured a kitchen with an old range stove, a cabinet above it, a box of salt in that cabinet.

Crazy Kenny died when I was twenty-two, but I never fount out how. I was in my last year at Appalachian and had come home for fall break when I heard about it at KC’s Diner. One of the waitresses was talking to a customer about the strange fellow who worked down at Cook’s. Kenny Something-or-another she called him. She said the mailman saw him sitting in his living room with his eyes open, and that Crazy Kenny didn’t move an inch when the doorbell rang.

A couple of days later, I read his obituary in the paper. He had no surviving family, at least none close enough to speak of, and no funeral arrangements were listed. His life was a small paragraph.

He was seventy-eight. And he had a real name.

That evening, I thumbed through a phonebook until I came across Crazy Kenny’s last name: Allen, and I wrote the address on a piece of paper. I knew the street he lived on, though I’d rarely driven down it. It was just a few blocks from Cook’s.

For weeks, that address stayed folded in my wallet. I’d thought about throwing it away several times, but I never did. And even if I had, 122 Franklin Road had tattooed itself onto my brain.

The day I decided to visit that address was a Sunday. It was early in spring and beautiful outside, but the air still held the breezy remnants of a North Carolina winter. I drove slowly that morning, taking my time to look at the houses that were cramped on each side of the two-lane road. They were all single-story clapboard, some blue, some white, one mint green. All of them looked to be built in the 40s or 50s like the houses on my grandparents’ street: attached carports, walkways that led to painted concrete steps that led to tiny porches shaded by white awnings. I pictured Crazy Kenny walking up those driveways with his unsteady gait, turning  back toward he road after every couple of steps, pulling his pants up by the belt loops.

When I came to his address, I stopped and pulled into the empty driveway. I walked to Crazy Kenny’s front steps and studied the plainness of the house: white, flaking paint, green shutters, a brick chimney jutting from cracked and faded roof shingles. On the left side of the house was a single window, and the blinds had been left open.

As I walked closer, there was a part of me that didn’t want to see inside. It was the same part of me that didn’t want to visit the house to begin with, yet I found myself next to the window, cupping my hands against its dirty screen.

The inside of the house was lit with what sun the windows let in and my shadow was cast on a far, white wall. Besides the sun-gold dust that flecked the air, the room was empty. I strained my eyes and could see imprints on the carpet of furniture that was once there: perhaps a recliner and a TV stand, maybe an old radio.

I turned and walked back toward the small porch and sat down. I thought about those stories Dad had told me, the things the old men at Cook’s had said over the years. I closed my eyes and could hear Crazy Kenny’s voice, the way it changed when he said the word liar and the name Sid Lewis. The way it changed when he spoke to me.

I opened my eyes and looked at the overgrown grass, the number 112 hand-painted on the leaning mailbox. I looked at the houses to the left and right and the ones across Franklin Road, then I pulled the piece of paper from my pocket. I imagined a different address scribbled on it: an address in Steeple Point, or somewhere like it. Some place where Kenny didn’t walk three blocks to work and three blocks back home. Where his walkway was brick and led to a house that looked like it belonged to a millionaire. And there was a family inside that house who talked about what was on the news and what was for dinner.

As I walked back to my Jeep, a scrawny dog crossed the driveway into Kenny’s yard. It was a brown mutt with black circles around its eyes like a Zorro mask; its long tongue hung from its mouth and swayed left and right, dripping as the dog slowly hobbled. The collarless dog sat and looked toward the front porch for a moment, and then toward me. I squatted and called for it softly, but it turned and lumbered away, looking back only once before vanishing behind the house next door.

I looked down again at the address in my hand. I balled the piece of paper up, tossed it onto my floorboard, and drove away. When I passed Tim Farlow’s old house on my way home, I didn’t think about that gunshot on his front porch. I thought about who he left behind.

It was better than a year before I stopped by Cook’s again. I avoided it. Some days I took the long way home from work down I-85 just so I wouldn’t have to pass by it.

Eventually, I did pull into Cook’s one afternoon for an oil change. It wasn’t something I’d planned; I just went. And things were different at Cook’s; it was quiet inside. Baldy and John Deere were there. They looked the same as they always had—maybe a little older—and they still said hello, but they didn’t say it the same way they used to.

The old bus seat where Kenny used to sit was empty save for a newspaper that was neatly folded. I slid the paper over and sat on the cracked, blue vinyl. The seat was hard, and the rips and tears in it scratched against my back. Baldy and John Deere squirmed in their chairs and they watched me.

I picked up the newspaper and opened it to the sports page. The North Carolina Tar Heels had won a basketball game the night before. They’d beaten the Virginia Cavaliers by seven; I’d watched the game at at a bar with friends. On page C4 there was a picture of a basketball player going in for a lay-up, a box score to the left of the picture. On the opposite page was an ad for a two-liter Cheerwine: Buy one, get one free.

“Know what I heard?” Baldy said. My mind left the words on the page and the pictures of basketball players and soda bottles. “I heard them Tar Heels ain’t nothing  but a bunch of cheats.”

“Mmhmm,”John Deere said. “Heard folks do their schoolwork for them. Ain’t even got to go to classes down there so long as you winning games.”

“All about the money these days,” Baldy said. “Damn shame, ain’t it?”

John Deere said it was.

I cleared my throat.

“You two ain’t nothing but liars,” I said, my voice high-pitched. I smiled behind the paper. “Media too. Nothing but liars.”

The room was silent again.

Outside I could hear the grumble of an engine, the service bell ringing, and Neil’s faint voice. I heard a car door shut.

The door to the station jingled open.

It was a teenage boy. The old men greeted him as he walked to the counter. He stood next to the Coke cooler and leaned his weight against it, but he never opened it. Our eyes met for a moment, then mine went to the ground and became lost in the scars of the gray concrete.

“Neil will ring you up directly,” Baldy said.

Scott Blackburn is an MFA candidate at the low-residency program at Southern New Hampshire University. He teaches high school English in North Carolina where he lives with his wife. He is currently writing his debut literary fiction novel.

The Tattler
Afterword to the Mis
  • Sarah Eisner / September 9, 2016

    Great story. Would love to read more from this author!