Sharyn McCrumb

Once Around the Track

© 2007

To Ward Burton


You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you.

– Charlotte to Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web


Once Removed

“Have you found him yet?” The voice on the cell phone wasshrill and insistent, but then it always was, even for the most trivial of messages. Clients were notoriously impatient people, and she billed them accordingly.

Suzie Terrell looked out her windshield at the kudzu-covered hillside overlooking a ramshackle collection of buildings that could hardly be called a town. Next to the narrow concrete bridge spanning what was surely nothing more than a creek was a battered tin sign, emblazoned with checkered flags and bearing the bullet-riddled legend: MARENGO, GEORGIA: HOME OF BADGER JENKINS, WINNER OF THE SOUTHERN 500.

“I think I’m on the last lap,” she said wearily, and clicked off the phone.

As an Atlanta lawyer, Suzie Terrell had had her share of bizarre commissions-suing the dog’s plastic surgeon came to mind-and this latest directive from a group of women investors would probably make the short list of stories to tell at dinner parties after four drinks. It promised to be quite an adventure.

Find Badger Jenkins.

Who the hell-? When she received the assignment, she had dutifully looked him up on the Internet, and an instant later the name appeared on her computer screen, accompanied by an image of a glowering but handsome man in opaque black sunglasses and a red and black firesuit, positively robotic in his well- chiseled perfection, possessing all the soulless beauty of a state-of-the-art espresso machine.

Suzie stared at the scowling face for a few moments; then she sank back in her office chair and muttered to herself, “Oh, great! Now I have to go and make small talk with the Angel of Death!”

Further searches on the Internet turned up only vague hints as to the current whereabouts of this alien being. Badger Jenkins, it turned out, was a race car driver, currently unemployed, and a little older than NASCAR’s current crop of drivers (that is, he was old enough to shave). He was a native Georgian; he had won a few races, raised his share of hell both on and off the track, and was thought to be back home in some one- horse town called Marengo, wherever that was. What Mr. Jenkins was doing these days was anybody’s guess.

Suzie had tried calling his business office in Marengo, but there didn’t seem to be one. The phone number, garnered from an out-of-date Web site, turned out to be located in the Blue Tick Cafe, and was answered by a drawling waitress named Laraine, who claimed to be Badger Jenkins’s second cousin once removed.

“Once removed?” said Suzie.

“Yeah, hon. Once removed out from under him in the backseat of his car by my daddy and a loaded shotgun. I got grounded for three months, but, boy, it was worth it. He wasn’t but seventeen himself that time.” She sighed, savoring the moment. “Ol’ Badger was hotter than a two-dollar pistol back then. Tearing up dirt tracks, leaving a trail of broken hearts and dented fenders. Face like an angel, and hell on wheels. You ever seen one of them early sports cards of him?”


“Woo-hoo! It’d give you hot flashes just to look at him. There’s one of them cards I kept to this day that shows him with his firesuit unzipped to where you can see his curly little chest hair peeping out, and those white pants so tight you could practically read the Trojan wrapper in his pocket. ’Course that firesuit didn’t have pockets, as I recall, but you get my drift. And him settin’ there grinning and facing the camera with his legs spread-eagled wide apart, same as he sits in every picture I have ever seen of him right to this day. Like show-and-tell. I swear, try as you might, you can’t help but look! Honey, if that boy was a mindreader, he could not walk past a crowd of women without limping.”

“How…evocative.” Suzie shuddered. “Perhaps you can help me. I am trying to locate Mr. Jenkins. I was hoping that you could tell me how to reach him?”

Laraine was silent for a few moments. Then she said, “Well…your best bet is the post office box. I think the rent on it is paid up anyhow. ’Course even if it isn’t, Miz Todhunter the postmistress will give him the letters, anyhow. She’s seventy if she’s a minute, but she looks at him like a stray dog eying a drumstick.”

“Perhaps there is a phone number where he could be reached?”

“Oh, he don’t like us to give out phone numbers. Especially to bill collectors or ladies of a certain age, if you know what I’m saying. Badger says he’s a race car driver, not a damn turkey baster.”

“I have a business proposition to discuss with Mr. Jenkins,” said Suzie, adding ice to her most lawyerly tone.

“Oh. Well, I reckon you can talk to his daddy then. That might get a message to him. Mr. Jenkins says he don’t care if I give out his number to the older ladies. Reckon he’s hoping he’ll get some of the overflow.”

But that hadn’t gone well, either.

The old man who answered the phone had barely let her say her name before he launched into his spiel. “If you’re calling about Clover Hoof, our prize Angus bull, why, his stud fee is five hundred dollars, payable in advance. He’s a champion, he is. Won-”

“No, sir. It’s not about the bull.”

“Well, now, Keeper, our coon hound, ain’t won no prizes, but he’s the best tracker in three counties, no argument there, and his stud fee is fifty dollars cash money and the pick of the litter.”

“Mr. Jenkins, I’m calling about your son Badger.”

“Oh. Well, I reckon you’d better talk to him directly then,” said the old man. “I don’t know what he charges.”

In the end, Suzie consulted a road atlas, left her office in Atlanta, and drove nearly three hours north into the red clay hills of Georgia, in search of Marengo, which, Laraine had assured her, was so small it was only on the map two days a week.

Now she had found it. Parking wasn’t a problem, she told herself, as she surveyed the block of gently decaying storefronts subsiding into the hill of kudzu behind it. She seemed to be the only person in town. The two-lane blacktop was devoid of traffic, and the town’s one stoplight was permanently set on a yellow caution light. In the minute business district, consisting of mostly empty buildings, the Blue Tick Cafe was easy enough to spot: a whitewashed cinderblock building with a big plate glass window, framed by two white flower boxes of red geraniums. Suzie surveyed the scene, looking for stray dogs. In case she had to order something in the diner, she

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