The air in lower Tennessee on Tuesday morning was bracing but getting warmer by the minute. John was driving south straight and fast in a white Camaro with no top. He could taste the Mississippi River in the criss-crossing currents of wind. He had both hands on the steering wheel, half a cigarette in his teeth, and Dylan’s new hit on the radio.
He thought of the coal miners. He thought about stopping in town and staying a while. He imagined getting to know the men who descended into the earth every day. Did they shower in the morning?
He slowed down and swung wide around a build up of trucks waiting in line at the first gas station he had seen all day. He glanced at the gages. A quarter tank left. He downshifted and slammed on the accelerator, spitting the last of his cigarette over his shoulder.
A half an hour later he crossed the border into Mississippi and pulled over behind a black sedan.
He grabbed the worn out duffel bag from the passenger’s seat and stepped out of the car.
He opened the back door of the sedan and got in, putting his bag on his lap and taking out a pack of cigarettes.
A fat man in the front passenger’s seat asked, “Did you drive the whole way with that top down? It’s not even forty degrees outside.”
The driver said, “What kept you?” He started the car and continued the south.
“Couldn’t be helped,” said John as he lit up.
The driver had a handlebar mustache and dead eyes. His name was Randall Hughes. His passenger was a man known only by his nickname, Little Frank, and as the son of the legendary bootlegger Frank the Fox.
“What’s the job?” asked John.
“Another convoy,” said Hughes. “Armed escort is bigger than the last one, but manageable. I heard you ran into trouble in New Jersey.”
“Ran into a lot of trouble since,” said John.
“Makes me wonder,” said Little Frank.
“Makes you wonder about what?” asked John.
“We can’t imagine how you avoided prison,” said Hughes.
“The United States justice system protects freedom of the press. You boys’d know that if you’d’ve went to school once in a while.”
Little Frank laughed and looked back at John. “I still wonder.”
“Wonder if you want,” said John, turning to the window. “United States justice system protects the freedom to do that, too.”
“What do you think, Hughes?” asked Little Frank.
“I think it’s a bad idea having a reporter around and I’ve thought so from the start, Frankie. It’s you and Perch the reason he’s here.”
“You’ve no sense of history,” said Little Frank.
“You’ve a fat ass,” said Hughes.
John stretched his legs and leaned his head against the window. The humming of the road and Little Frankie’s labored breathing lulled him into sleep.