MONROEVILLE—We’ve just left town and it’s getting late. My wife and I are on a desolate Alabama highway between Monroe County and the rest of the world. We haven’t passed a single car. We are on the umteenth day of the book tour. Everyone in their right mind is already in bed.
We are traveling late because it’s easier to travel at night sometimes. My wife is driving, listening to an audiobook on headphones. I am in the passenger seat, drifting in and out of sleep.
I just finished making a speech in Monroeville, telling stories. I’ve been making a lot of speeches over the last few weeks. Right now, I am sick of hearing my own voice.
Occasionally, I feel like a fool with all this storytelling business. After all, no child grows up saying “I want to be a storyteller.” Because it’s not even a real job. How did this happen? Frankly, I’m not sure.
I’m getting hungry. So my wife pulls over for me to fix something to eat from the cooler. I open the back door and shove the hanging clothes out of the way. The cooler is filled with multiple tubs of pimento cheese.
Earlier tonight, I received three tubs of pimento cheese as gifts from different kindhearted people in Monroeville. One tub came from Miss Lisa, one tub came from Miss Barbara, and one special recipe came from Miss Beth. If gifts like that don’t humble you, nothing will.
So I’m standing on an empty highway shoulder, slathering pimento cheese on bread, listening for cars. Whenever I stand outside our vehicle I always listen carefully for passing cars because nighttime drivers are crazy. They don’t watch where they’re going and achieve speeds upwards of 94 miles per hour. They don’t mind amputating your side mirror.
But tonight there is no sound. No vehicle noise. No lights. No nothing. Just silence. There is a deer in the distance. I see his eyes reflecting. He is looking straight at me. I wonder if he’s hungry.
I fix three cheese sandwiches for my wife and I, each with a different kind of pimento cheese, and I grab myself a lukewarm beer. My wife and I don’t normally eat supper this late, but we were so busy tonight that we didn’t eat.
There was a time when I had a job that you could define. I was a drywall man. I was a tile-layer. I was a bar musician. I was a fill-in-the-blank. But now, I don’t know what I am. I rarely refer to myself as a writer because, let’s be honest, I don’t exactly write high-brow literature. I once wrote an entire column about mayonnaise.
And I don’t know what you’d call the little shows I do. Silly, maybe. I play some guitar, and if I’m lucky I make people laugh. But I’m certainly no comedian, and I’m not an accomplished guitarist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not poor mouthing my line of work. This is just the first stage of life where I haven’t been in a blue-collar job. And I feel somewhat ashamed by this. What would my father the iron worker think of me? Galavanting across the country in a utility van, playing guitar, telling jokes, receiving pimento-cheese based gifts.
According to the men in my family, you weren’t a man unless you worked with your hands. Which I used to do. My hands used to have calluses just below the fingers joints. The calluses were so tough that my sister used to marvel at how she could pinch the thick skin to form a point, and they would hold their shape. I was sort of proud of my calluses. They didn’t come easy.
But today my hands are baby smooth. If I trace my finger along my palms I can feel where the calluses used to be. I have a writer’s hands now. I don’t feel like I’m earning my keep.
To tell you the truth, it’s as though the universe is playing a grand joke on me. And since I’m being so honest, I feel sort of embarrassed by my line of work sometimes. Because I have a few old friends who tell me they would like to be doing what I do. I know this should make me feel lucky, but sometimes it just makes me feel guilty.
“Do you want a bag of pretzels with supper?” I ask my wife, who waits in the driver’s seat.
“Yeah,” she says. “And bring a water, too.”
“Coming right up.”
My wife and I sit in the front seat, in the middle of nowhere, sharing pimento cheese for supper. She turns the engine off. And we are in absolute stillness. She balances her sandwich on the steering wheel. I’m wearing mine.
A family of deer wanders across the quiet highway. They pause to look at us. They stop walking and stare. We stare back.
“What am I?” I ask my wife.
She swallows a bite and thinks about what I’ve said. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what am I? What are we doing? Do you ever stop and think about what it all means?”
She places her sandwich on the dashboard. She wipes her face. She takes my hand and squeezes the baby-smooth skin. “Just shut up and eat your sandwich. This pimento cheese is a gift, you’re supposed to enjoy it, you big dork.”
I knew she’d have just the right thing to say.