// Excerpt from “The AC” in Strangers to Temptation
The long summer I dabbled in religious ecstasy, Eddie Baxley’s 1972 gray Lincoln Continental was the only thing in our neighborhood with decent air conditioning. This was the big, heavy model with suicide doors, the ones hinged toward the middle of the car, in the wrong place, it seemed to me. Once the weather went full-on hot in mid-June, my father spent most of his afternoons in the Lincoln. He’d fill an empty spackling bucket with Old Milwaukee cans and ice chips and march (a military pace with as much good posture as he could muscle) across the street to Eddie’s yard, where the Lincoln sat large and looming on the little rise above the sidewalk. Eddie Baxley owned a garage for years and years, so he’d run across good deals on nice cars every month or so. The Lincoln he got for a steal. An old lady from Andrews let it run empty of oil and the engine seized just off Highway 527. She told Eddie she’d had enough of big, ugly cars and he could have the Lincoln for five hundred dollars. Eddie died six months after he had the Lincoln running again. Between Christmas and New Year’s, a heart attack hit him while he lay on his mechanics creeper beneath a Ford pickup with a bad transaxle. My father slid him out by his bare white ankles and said he’d never seen a more surprised look on a dead man’s face, like he’d discovered something important, like a new country.
Teenage Wasteland //In Strangers to Temptation, Scott Gould weaves 13 short stories together through the compelling coming of age narrative of a young boy in the 1970s.
I’ve never known whose idea it was to park the Lincoln in Eddie’s yard and sit in the waves of cold air and watch the neighborhood shimmer in the heat on the other side of the windshield. But it sounds like something my father would’ve dreamed up. He was a smart man, smart enough to never put decent skin in any game he happened to play. Which is why I can see him talking Eunice Baxley into making the Lincoln the coldest place on our street and letting him set up shop with his bucket of beer. But it might’ve been her idea. She had been a stranger to the outside world since her husband died under the Ford. Maybe she arrived at the point that she just wanted someone to talk to. Because as far as we could tell, that’s what my father and Eunice did in the front seat of the Lincoln—talk away the afternoons while the cool air blew on them.
They kept the windows cracked so they wouldn’t die. And they didn’t have to worry about wasting gas because they got all they needed for free, from McGill’s Esso station out on Highway 52. The entire town knew Mr. McGill had family money and ran the Esso station for fun. At least that’s what my old man said. Mr. McGill sipped Old Crow and Sprite from a coffee mug most of the day, so when it came time to close down the station and turn off the lights, he could never seem to remember to shut off the pumps. He would walk away and leave things running all night. My old man would sneak over to the Esso station long after dark and fill the big tank on the Lincoln. He wasn’t the only one. A dozen or so people in town knew that McGill was too buzzed to shut down his pumps at closing time, and they helped themselves to some fuel as well. Everybody said McGill could spare a little, with all he had. I have come to understand now that these people saw the free gasoline as reparations for a long-since-gone offense of some nature. It was an easy, innocent revenge.
When I had twenty-five cents I felt I could part with, I sat in the back seat of the Lincoln and listened to my dad and Eunice talk. It reminded me of a kind of church. They talked in low tones, in that adult code that I had only begun to decipher. I thought if I sat there long enough, the words would start to mean something important, something I hadn’t learned to figure out by myself. My mother had dragged me with her to the Kingstree Methodist Church every Sunday morning for as long as I could remember. The words there were different, all wrapped up in stained glass and candle wax and little bread cubes on a tray. There, I listened to Reverend Scoggins talk about god and the devil and the existence of miracles in the real world. And when I had a quarter in my pocket, I listened to Eunice Baxley rant about the weather her husband tolerated in Korea and to my dad go on about Vietnam and tiny men in black pajamas. I remember thinking at the time that the Lincoln would probably do a better job than Reverend Scoggins of getting me to heaven, as long as there was enough free gas at McGill’s Esso to make the trip. This was the summer religion started to confuse me.
My mother wasn’t pleased about the admission fee to the Lincoln. “I can’t believe you charge your own son to sit in that car,” she said one evening, without looking at him. She rarely made eye contact when they discussed each other’s shortcomings. I imagined she thought his eyes possessed some sort of magical x-ray power, and if she stared into them for too long, she would lose bodily functions. Granted, his eyes were strange and growing more different each day—darker and sunk deeper in his head. By the summer of the Lincoln, he was rail thin from his relentless stomach problems, and the eyes seemed to burrow backwards little by little while the rest of him retreated to the surface of his bones.
“I’m teaching these youngsters a life lesson,” he said. “You want to be comfortable, you need to check the price tag. If you want a little cool air across your neck, you got to pay for that pleasure. Pleasure costs.” He paused. “The cold air is a metaphor, you see.”
“Maybe you can save up all those quarters you’re taking from the neighborhood and buy us an air conditioner. This fan won’t be much pleasure come August,” she said back, and she was right. The house was hot all the time now, and the little fans my mother planted in the rooms hummed day and night, doing nothing more than stir up the hot air. The noise from all of them running and oscillating made our house sound like the world’s largest active beehive. I learned to sleep without moving a muscle, which I thought was somehow cooler in the midst of the swelter. I taught myself to sleep inside the noise.
Word(s) on the Street // For more from Scott Gould, pick up a copy of Strangers to Temptation at M. Judson Booksellers and Storytellers in Greenville or the Hub City Bookshop & Press in Spartanburg.
But my father wasn’t saving the money. He used the quarters to buy more Old Milwaukees at the IGA food store. Sometimes the line to get into the Lincoln would be a half dozen kids long. Never any adults, always kids. We each bought a half hour for twenty-five cents, and my dad would only let two at a time into the big back seat, because, he said, he “wanted us to have enough room to stretch out and really enjoy the cold.” I received special treatment because I was his son. I was allowed to go solo in the back seat. And sometimes he would let me stay more than a half hour. The inside of the Lincoln smelled like beer and pine trees. I liked to shut my eyes and feel the air moving across my skin and pretend I was at the North Pole. I listened without looking, imagining the words blowing in the air.
“You realize Eddie would tell us this isn’t really cold here in this car,” Eunice Baxley said. “You don’t know cold, he would tell us, until you are sitting waist deep in a mud hole that’s got ice floating on top of it and wondering if your toes are still attached to your feet and wondering if those infidel Chinese are going to run over the hill at you, but then you get to thinking that they are cold too because for all the things Chinamen ain’t got, they do have toes and their boots ain’t no better than yours and so Eddie figured their toes are freezing off so there will be no running involved with what they had heard was the impending invasion of mud holes by said Chinamen. That’s what he’d say. If he were here.” When Eunice became a spokesman for her deceased husband, she tried to spill out everything in one thin, desperate breath, like she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed the chance to draw another. I supposed that’s the way you begin to think when your husband rolls underneath a Ford one afternoon and never comes back.