Friction Fiction #4 — “Shucks & Puffer Come to Town”

Welcome gas station sign

by Ted Hicks

Drive three miles east of Highway 71 on county road 14 and you’ll come to Arcadia (pop. 187), which lies roughly in the southeast corner of northwest Iowa, in the midst of rich farmland that’s slightly rolling but mostly flat. As you approach the town there’s a school on the left, a solid three-story building made of fading red brick set back from the road on a slight rise above the half-moon driveway. The top of the grandstand that anchors the ball field behind the school is just visible.

After the stop sign at the intersection just past the school there’s Wally Beever’s double-pump gas station. Right now Wally’s wearing his usual uniform of baggy bib coveralls over a greasy black tee shirt, sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair outside under the awning that covers the pumps, drinking a beer on a hot September morning and waiting for Kenny to come back out.

Standard gas stationInside the station Kenny pulls a bottle of Coca Cola from the icy water in the battered pop cooler. He opens it and takes a swig, looking at the calender above the cooler, beneath the shelves of motor oil. It’s been there five years at least, the edges curling up on the picture of Marilyn Monroe naked against a red background. Kenny sighs, steps outside and squints.

“Christ almighty,” he says, “this is just as bad as August.”

“Yeah, you’ll be bitching when it’s winter,” Wally says as he nudges a rock with his boot, then leans forward to pick it up.

Kenny grunts and moves to sit in the empty chair on the other side of Wally. He sits a minute, then says, “The kids sound pretty good today.”

It’s only nine o’clock, but already the marching band from the school is practicing in the streets. The drum beat and the faltering sound of the school fight song is several blocks away. The town is quiet except for the music from the band and the sounds of insects.  Occasionally you can hear a screen door slam.

“Yeah, well,” says Wally, studying the rock in his hand,  “it’d be nice if we won some games this year.”

A car stopped at the intersection revs its engine and squeals around the corner, rocketing past the station. A piece of gravel thrown by the car ricochets off one of Wally’s gas pumps.

“I don’t much like that,” says Wally evenly.

The thick dust slowly settles. In the morning sunlight it looks to Kenny like someone has been shaking rugs out.

Kenny leans forward and looks down the road after the receding car. “Who was that?  That Cooney kid?  Where’s he going?”

Wally gives his rock one last look, then tosses it away between the pumps. “Naw, it wasn’t him.”

Kenny jerks his head around. He knows Jim Cooney’s car if anybody does. “Oh yeah?” he says. “Who was it then? Looked like Cooney.”

“Maybe it was one of those Hollywood hotshots,” Wally says with a bitter laugh.

Kenny’s forehead wrinkles slightly as he ponders this. “Huh.  I heard they were coming back. Do you think it’s them?”

Wally feels himself working up some steam. He looks to his left toward the large white sign displayed beside the street that branches off the blacktop and into town. “Arcadia – A Mighty Small Town” is painted in red script above an outline of the state with a dynamic arrow pointing to a star approximating the location of Arcadia itself.  On a newer sign board nailed to the old one is written in a more modern graphic style, “Home of TV’s SHUCKS & PUFFER!”

“Shucks and Puffer my ass!” Wally says under his breath, shaking his head.

“Come on, Wally,” Kenny says, “who’d ever thought somebody’d do a TV series here?  Don’t you think it’s great?”

“What’s so great about it?” Wally says as he tosses his empty beer bottle into the fifty-gallon trash drum by the pumps. “They come here just to shoot the outside stuff, tramp on everybody’s yards and act like they own the place.  What’s so great about it? Besides, I bet they ain’t coming back anyway. Be cheaper just to build a town out there.”

Kenny enjoys seeing Wally get worked up. It reminds him of Dave Boyer’s pickup truck boiling over. “Come on, what about that thing on Entertainment Tonight? What about those tee shirts they’re selling down at the cafe?”

Wally makes a fist of his right hand and slams it into the palm of his left. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Entertainment Tonight!  How come the Hobbs were on that?  And that loony kid of theirs? Standing like idiots in front of their store. You’d think there wasn’t anybody else living in this town!”

Kenny laughs. “I guess you’d feel different if folks across the country had seen Beever’s D-X on TV, huh?”

Wally is really angry now. “Boy, Kenny, you’re completely screwed up, you know that?  Everybody in this town thinks they’re gonna be a celebrity now. All because of some stupid show about a kid and his genius pig saving people week after week. An 800-pound pig that opens doors and rescues babies!”

You have to go three blocks away from Wally’s station to find Hobbs’ Groceries on a corner of Main Street, the only grocery store in Arcadia. There’s only one of anything here, and not many of those, though the residents are hoping the television series will somehow rejuvenate the town.

Sweating in the hot morning sun, Sonny Hobbs, thirty years old, mentally impaired and wearing a Shucks & Puffer tee shirt, stands in front of his parent’s store and slowly sweeps the sidewalk. The high school marching band rounds the corner and heads down Main Street. Joey stops sweeping and slowly waves at the majorette, Debbie Jensen in her short skirt, as the band goes by. Sonny thinks of TV shows and Debbie’s knees.

Shucks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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