His father had warned him not to go out too far.
“One step at a time, boy,” his father had said sternly. “No need to pop a gasket right off the bat.”
It was mid-summer on Lake Argus, Illinois, where Billy Ray’s family summered. He nodded at his father but stole glances at the motorbike, a 60 cc Harley. He didn’t know they even made them that small, but that was okay since he’d just turned sixteen and really had nothing to compare it with, certainly not the family Plymouth station wagon. His old man had taken the bike in on trade and fixed the fuel line, brakes, and patched the leaky tires. With the throttle thrown wide open, it might hit forty-five mph, but to Billy Ray, it was downright supersonic.
The motorbike was—freedom.
It was twenty miles from the cabin to Argus. Too far on a rickety little motorbike. But it was just five miles from their lakeside cabin to the interstate and an overpass connecting two halves of a county road with grand views of streaming traffic. Chicago was north, Memphis south. It was like a throbbing artery in the Midwestern heart. Just a mile or so south of the overpass, on the far side of the highway, a Stuckey’s restaurant sign rose high above the trees. It could be seen several miles in both directions.
Billy Ray had never gone that far before, to Stuckey’s. He hadn’t yet even crossed the overpass to be on the other side of the highway, but he’d heard people mention the famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich. It was to die for, a neighbor lady had gushed. The details of it were fuzzy, just that it was divine. The best chicken sandwich ever. He had a hankering for one. For two. He figured to save his money and buy a dozen and treat his family. He could show them he was a man, someone who could get things done. The motorbike now made that possible.
He bided his time and accumulated money from mowing yards and doing odd jobs for neighbors. He painted a fence and even helped shingle a roof. He needed money not just for Stuckey’s famous for chicken sandwiches – and plenty of fries, too—but also for gas and oil. And a new tire when one of the patched ones went down for good. His father told him he was learning responsibility, but Billy Ray felt it was a lesson in frustration.
For a few days now, his routine consisted of reaching the middle of the overpass and straddling his motorbike, one foot on a stirrup and the other planted on the concrete walkway by the railing. From there he could survey the highway for miles south and north and see forests on both sides. Dense stretches of trees flowing to the horizon. Once, he stayed until the sun was an orange marble barely hanging above the horizon so he could see the approaching darkness. He barely made it home before sundown, which was wise because the bike’s headlight was out.
He marveled at the stream of cars and trucks that flowed toward him and under him. They mesmerized him. He often picked out a specific car, perhaps something exotic, like a silver Corvette, and watched it approach and then disappear beneath him, affording a quick glance at the driver, and then Billy Ray watched for the car to emerge headed north and he would watch it until out of sight, wondering where it was going and what the driver’s life was like. Sometimes, as a car sped under the overpass, he would see it was a female driver, her skirt hiked up to her bare thighs. One time, he’d even seen a woman’s white panties. The image stayed in his mind all the way home.
A day came when Billy Ray had replaced the headlight and felt he’d done enough odd jobs and had enough money for his mission. He had accumulated several hundred dollars. A fortune. But he reminded himself that besides the Stuckey’s feast, he had to finance gas for the rest of summer before the family pulled up stakes and headed north to their regular house in Bloomington.
His father told Billy Ray he was proud of all the odd jobs he’d done, and for taking care of the bike. He didn’t ask what the money was for, and Billy Ray didn’t volunteer how much it was. His mother said he should start thinking about some back-to-school clothes for fall, but Billy Ray couldn’t see much beyond his mission.
The day finally came when he rolled out of bed early and skipped the shower and pulled on clean clothes anyway and jammed his wad of bills into a Levi’s pocket. He managed to slip out of the cabin without a conversation with his parents. He’d skipped breakfast because there was no need. A juicy and amazing Stuckey’s chicken sandwich was waiting for him. He would buy a dozen of them, and fries and drinks to go, but first he would sit in a Stuckey’s sumptuous booth, all by himself, and slowly enjoy his own chicken sandwich. He would eat slowly and savor it. Billy Ray didn’t know if Stuckey’s had booths or if they were sumptuous. Maybe there was only a counter. It didn’t matter. Stuckey’s had the famous chicken sandwich.
Billy Ray remembered to wear an old Boy Scouts pack over his t-shirt for carrying the food and a canteen of water. It was like a real military mission. A man remembered to always be prepared. Contingencies, his father often said, were the test of a man. A man had to be ready to grapple with just about anything.
When he kick-started the motorbike and put it in gear, he looked back once, at his mother standing outside the cabin carport, a hand shielding her eyes from the morning sun, watching him leave. As he tuned off their lane onto a county road, he looked back again and she was still there, hands on her hips.
He was almost halfway to the overpass, the throttle wide open, his head hanging low over the handlebars. He loved that part of riding, the speed, the wind rushing over him, the whine of the tiny engine—the progress toward something. In a curve, a June bug suddenly hit him square in the mouth and he had to pull over and spit out the remains and drink from the canteen to wash his mouth out. The taste was bitter and lingered. He vaguely thought maybe he should save up money for goggles.
He straddled the bike a moment by the side of the road and goosed the throttle a few times, revving the motor. He liked doing that, making the motor growl. But he remembered not to waste too much gas. That was one of those contingencies his father liked to remind him of. Being a man meant juggling a lot of stuff. There was a lot to remember.
As he started to take off, he heard a vehicle approach from behind and he waited for it to pass. He looked over his shoulder and saw a battered old red pickup, its front bumper missing. The truck was coming fast and trailed a brown dust cloud. Billy Ray pulled his bike a little bit closer to the shoulder. When the truck reached him, it sped up and swerved just enough to kick pebbles up off the road and they showered Billy Ray, who was hit in the arm and shoulder. Several pebbles ricocheted off his bike. He heard someone laughing—more than one person, he believed—as the truck roared past.
The dust cloud settled over him and got in his eyes and mouth and he wiped himself clean with the back of his hand. He even had to pour water from his canteen over his face. When he could see again, he flipped the bird at them, but the truck was far down the road and the dust cloud sank along it slowly.
Billy Ray reached the overpass and pulled over to watch traffic for a moment, but he snuck glances south, at the Stuckey’s sign. Below it, he could see the building’s roof, the restaurant nestled among tall trees. He was delaying the joy of finally going there to build anticipation. He’d heard his mother say once that anticipation made a mystery all the better once it was solved. If that was true, then he figured the famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich would be worth every moment he waited. Like adding a special sauce. It was a test, anticipation, to see how long someone could deprive themselves of what they wanted. Discipline, his father called it. A man had discipline. Lots of it. Billy Ray sipped water from the canteen and watched cars. He was being disciplined.
One car, a Ford sedan, was barely going the speed limit. It was routinely passed by other cars. As it approached the overpass from the south, Billy Ray could see it was a woman driver. Her legs were far apart, one on the accelerator and the other against the car door. Her legs were splayed. That was a word he’d heard his father use, but he couldn’t recall the context. She seemed to be doing something with her lap, her skirt pulled past her thighs, and then the car slipped under the overpass and Billy Ray caught sight of it again headed north.
He wasn’t sure what he’d seen. It happened so fast. Maybe he’d imagined something. Maybe that was just how the woman drove. His father once cautioned him to make sure he knew what he was talking about before he ever opened his mouth. His mother had told him that people with dirty minds would find something ugly in every innocent thing. Whatever it was that woman in the car was doing, he figured it was none of his business. But he decided he should buy a pair of binoculars for car watching.
As he looked at more cars streaming past, mindful of the ones with female drivers, he glanced at the service road on the other side of the highway, that ran in front of Stuckey’s, and he saw that old pickup truck again, the one missing a front bumper, cruising slowly toward the overpass.
The truck eased slowly along the service road and parked on the shoulder where the overpass began, facing toward him, but still a good ten yards or so away. Billy Ray could see two men sitting in it. They smoked cigarettes, blue smoke pouring out windows. He could hear their voices, but they were faint, the words indistinct. The driver passed a bottle to the other and he had a pull from it and then the driver drank again, too. They just sat there.
Billy Ray was still kind of pissed about getting showered with dust. He could still feel some under his shirt, and the pebbles had dented his gas tank. But they were two grown men, and he knew to leave it alone. He tried to appear nonchalant and glanced again at traffic, his thoughts back to measuring just how much anticipation was enough so he could go on over the overpass to Stuckey’s and claim his prize. He was measuring discipline.
The truck pulled away from the shoulder and came toward him slowly. It slowed even more when it was opposite him and he looked in the cab as it creeped by. The driver had a beard and they both wore caps, but he couldn’t really see the passenger clearly. The driver stared at him as they rolled by, and Billy Ray saw it said John Deere on the man’s green cap. A couple of farmers, he supposed.
When the truck had been gone for a minute, Billy Ray looked over his shoulder several times to make sure. He fished his wad of bills from his pocket. He counted it again, even though he knew exactly how much there was. He wanted to see the bills and feel them in his hand again. His fortune. He knew he had far more than was needed to buy his family chicken sandwiches and fries, but he remembered that his father carried a wad of bills wherever he went. For contingencies.
He scanned traffic below one last time, looking for female drivers, but now he was thinking mostly about the famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich. It was time. He’d done his anticipation long enough. He’d shown discipline, like a man is supposed to do. He kick-started the motorbike, revved the engine twice, and took a last glance at traffic before easing away from the railing.
Billy Ray coasted down the overpass road and slipped onto the service road, his first time there. He wasn’t sure why he’d never crossed the overpass before. He just hadn’t. He supposed it had been some sort of boundary he had needed to work up to crossing. A challenge. Maybe it was even about discipline. That seemed silly now. Kid’s stuff. A man didn’t worry about boundaries if he was prepared for contingencies.
He was tempted to throw the throttle wide open and roar toward Stuckey’s, which was a little over a mile away. He could see just its sign now, and an American flag fluttering in the breeze, next to the sign. He kept his speed low, thinking anticipation was still the way to go. There was plenty of time. A man need not hurry. As he rode, he glanced to his right, across the highway to the other service road: the old red pickup was there, parked on the shoulder.
Once he’d passed the truck, he looked back, and the truck was moving, parallel to him, matching his speed. He sped up and so did the truck. But for them to cross the highway again to his side, they’d have to go a few miles south to the next overpass. Billy Ray dismissed them as just drunk farmers having a joyride. They would probably disappear somewhere south.
Beyond a gentle curve, Billy Ray turned into the Stuckey’s parking lot. There were only a couple cars, a Chevy and a Dodge. But it was just a quarter to eleven, the breakfast crowd probably come and gone early, and not yet lunchtime. He figured business would pick up soon. Stuckey’s was the only restaurant for miles along the highway. He parked the motorbike well away from the door, by one side of the restaurant, and swung himself off. He patted the wad of bills bulging in his pocket and smiled.
It was a warm day, and he felt the growing humidity, but inside it would be air-conditioned. It would be clean and shiny. No dust or June bugs. No flying pebbles. Before he opened the door, he glanced over his shoulder, not sure why, and he saw the pickup truck again, on the other side of the highway, barreling north along the service road toward the overpass.
But Billy Ray didn’t care anymore about joyriding drunk farmers. As he walked inside and felt the air-conditioning wash over him, cooling his forehead, he looked over the counter and saw a large sign with pictures of their various sandwiches, and there it was, in the center, the famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich. It was huge and it made him salivate. A chubby middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache was behind the counter and he smiled at Billy Ray as he wiped the counter with a cloth.
Billy Ray first bought just one sandwich, fries, and a Pepsi. That was his breakfast and he supposed lunch, too. It would more than tide him over until he got back home with his amazing offering for his family. He had hatched a plan, to eat his first famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich by himself, to savor the new experience—bolstered by as much anticipation as he could stand—and take his time, alone, in the fresh air-conditioning. It was the disciplined thing to do.
Then, once finished and satisfied—happy—he would go to the counter again and the man would be impressed to hear Billy Ray order a dozen sandwiches and Billy Ray would flash the wad of bills and tell him that the sandwiches were for his family and the man would nod and smile, knowing that Billy Ray was no longer a boy and had become a man.
As Billy Ray carefully and slowly unfolded the sandwich from its wrapping, saliva thick in his mouth, the juicy mystery revealed just inches from his face, the restaurant door was flung open, and two men rushed in waving pistols. They wore red bandannas tied over their faces up to their noses, sunglasses, and one wore a John Deere cap and Billy Ray knew they must be the men in the truck.
As they ran to the counter, Billy Ray glanced out the window and saw the red truck, minus a front bumper. There was no mistaking who they were. Billy Ray vaguely wondered if they had cruised around all morning working up their nerve. Well, now they had plenty of nerve and one of them ordered the counter man to clean out the nearest register. Billy Ray considered dropping to the floor, to hide, maybe even under the table, but he froze like a deer in headlights. He could smell the aroma of the sandwich drifting up to his nose, but he could only stare straight ahead, at the men and their guns.
One of the gunmen glanced around and saw Billy Ray. The other one kept his gun on the counter man, who was nervously shoveling money and coins into a burlap bag.
“Look what we have here,” the gunman said, pointing his gun at Billy Ray. “Well, well, well. If it ain’t the fucking little motorbike boy, Claude.”
“Goddamnit,” Claude said. “No names, you dumb cluck bastard.”
“Who you calling a dumb cluck, Claude?”
“You see anybody else around here talking out his ass, numb nuts?” He pointed at another register and had the counter man empty it into the bag.
Claude’s partner kept his gun pointed at Billy Ray.
“Well, let’s just see what motorbike boy is all about,” he said, walking toward Billy Ray.
“Will you just watch the fucking door, you moron,” Claude said, agitated.
“Okay, okay, don’t get your panties in a bunch. But first, let’s have a little looksee here at this boy.”
Claude’s partner stood right beside Billy Ray and put the barrel of the gun against Billy Ray’s temple. The barrel felt cold against his skin. Billy Ray breathed slowly, his eyes closed. His hands gripped the edge of the table.
“Who the fuck are you, motorbike boy?”
Billy Ray didn’t know exactly why, but he figured he shouldn’t use his real name.
“Paul,” he said weakly, his eyes still closed. He could still smell his sandwich, but now it repelled him. He’d definitely lost his appetite.
“Paul,” Claude’s partner said, nodding. He sniffed and nodded some more. “He’s a fucking Paul. You hear that?”
Claude turned toward them, the burlap bag in his hand.
“We don’t have time to play these fucking games.”
“This ain’t no fucking game,” Claude’s partner said, pressing the gun harder against Billy Ray’s temple. Billy Ray prayed to himself, and he could see his mother still standing under the carport, watching him ride off that morning. He was shaking and gritting his teeth.
Claude went toward the door.
“Let’s go, dumb fuck,” he said, waving his gun.
“I’m not a dumbfuck, okay? This here is the dumb fuck, this Paul the motorbike boy.”
“Forget that fucking kid and let’s go.”
Claude looked out the front door nervously.
“Let’s see what you got, Paul the motorbike boy,” Claude’s partner said. “Empty your pockets.”
Billy Ray lowered his right arm slowly and fished his wad of bills out of the pocket and held them up.
“Holy shit,” Claude’s partner said. “Will you just look at what we got here. This dipshit kid is loaded with cash.”
Claude looked over and nodded.
“I guess it never rains but it pours,” Claude said, looking again out the door into the parking lot.
Claude’s partner snatched the money from Billy Ray’s hand. He had to lower the pistol to try and count it.
“Where’d you get this kind of dough, boy?” he said. “You steal it?”
“Odd jobs,” Billy Ray said, his voice barely above a raspy whisper.
“Odd jobs my ass,” Claude’s partner said. “I bet you took it from someone, Paul the motorbike boy. Did you?”
“No, sir. I worked for it.”
Billy Ray immediately regretted saying he’d worked for it.
“Yeah, well, we work for our dough, too, you little asswipe.” He bumped the pistol several times against Billy Ray’s temple.
“This ain’t no fucking time to count money,” Claude said. “Time to skedaddle right fucking now.”
“Okay, roger that,” Claude’s partner said, smiling at Billy Ray. He turned to go but went back and snatched Billy Ray’s sandwich off the table. “Thanks for the lunch, kid.”
Claude’s partner raised his bandanna just long enough to take a bite of the famous Stuckey’s chicken sandwich as he followed Claude out the door and tossed a sloppy salute at Billy Ray, who didn’t see them drive off because he still had his eyes closed.
A county deputy drove Billy Ray home, his motorbike safe in a Stuckey’s storeroom because Claude’s partner had let the air out of the tires. One last indignity. Billy Ray shook his head. He could just imagine Claude yelling at the dumbass to get a move on. Now they were probably somewhere counting his money and laughing at him. But at least they didn’t shoot any holes in the motorbike. That was something, anyway. Find something to build on, his father would tell him. Contingency.
As the police car went over the overpass, Billy Ray instinctively felt his pocket, where the money had been. The pocket was flat. There were just two quarters in it. All that work and now he was broke again. He sighed loudly and the deputy glanced at him in the rearview mirror. There would be no feast for his family. He’d even been deprived of a first taste of the famous sandwich. For a couple of miles, anguish settled in and enveloped him like fog.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” the deputy said, and Billy Ray nodded.
But when the police car turned down the lane to the cabin, Billy Ray remembered that no matter what happened, a boy might be defeated, but a man would always have contingencies. He looked ahead and saw his mother come out of the cabin and shield her eyes to look at the police car. He was awfully glad to see her. There was a moment back at Stuckey’s when he didn’t think he’d ever see her again.
As he got out of the car and walked toward his mother, Billy Ray suddenly understood he’d somehow passed an unexpected test, that there would be more for as long as he lived, and that there was still enough summer left to do more odd jobs and maybe at least break even. Breaking even would be good enough.
That was his contingency.
About Michael Lloyd Gray:
I am the author of six published novels. My novel The Armageddon Two-Step, winner of a Book Excellence Award, was released in December 2019. My novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize and my novel Not Famous Anymore garnered a support grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2009. My novel Exile on Kalamazoo Street was released in 2013 and I have co-authored the stage version. My novel The Canary, which reveals the final days of Amelia Earhart, was released in 2011. King Biscuit, my Young Adult novel, was released in 2012. I am the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. I was full-time lead faculty for creative writing and American/British literature at Aiken Technical College (South Carolina). My book of creative non-fiction, Sort of Still Original in Unoriginal Times, was published in 2016.