Looking west, Crosscut saw the mountains were just gaining the sunlight that had been warming the ridge to the east of Crosscut's cabin. Standing on the front porch and looking back to the south he examined the gravel road as it descended to the edge of Sylva and the by-pass around it. It was a terrific view. One Crosscut had been enjoying each morning, with a hot cup of fresh coffee in his hand, since early September when he had first moved into the cabin. In Crosscut's business it paid big to have forewarning of approaching police cars or cars belonging to people he didn't really want coming to his home.
Crosscut was a drug dealer.
His real name was Sylvester N. Mull, Junior, a twenty one year old who looked every bit of sixteen until you looked closely at his eyes and saw that though his mouth smiled his eyes never cooperated. His long dark brown hair did nothing to make his age more apparent. Crosscut wasn't just a drug dealer, he was a smart, cagey dealer.
He got his middle name from his father just after Sylvester was born. His dad had been released from the North Carolina Department of Corrections where he had done six months for the only breaking and entering the cops had ever been able to pin on him. Not the only one he'd done, just the only one where he'd left a fingerprint behind. Sylvester's dad was a real nasty piece of work. Senior had been a thief since he was around sixteen and was proud to give Sylvester the best middle name he could think of for what he saw in the boy's future: Nomiddlename. He knew this would drive cops nuts for years to come. They hated to put NMN on a fingerprint card and arrest sheet. NMN or No Middle Name meant an incomplete arrest record. Cops hated incomplete anything.
If Sylvester's mother had stuck around things might have been different. No one talked about her at all, and the only reference to her that Sylvester ever found was on his birth certificate. It gave her name as Eileen Jackson. There was a handwritten, scrawled really, note on the document: "They say my mammy left me the day before she had me." In later years he heard the rest of the song in a red neck joint in Haywood County: On a Fast Train to Georgia became a favorite of his.
Senior was just shy of six feet two and just over two hundred twenty pounds. When he worked as a young man he'd been on a logging crew headed by a guy even meaner than Senior: Augustus Mull, Senior's dad. Senior learned at his father's knee to be mean: drunk or sober. Augustus was also a large man and both he and Senior could and would fight at any opportunity. Being large imposing men, they could use brawn instead of smarts to make their way through life. Augustus was as honest as a day is long, but he was pig headed and ill tempered to anyone he believed was wronging him, family included. He taught Senior the way of the fist. He taught him well. But Junior was a slight boy and fighting just got him hurt. So at a young age he decided to break the mold and become smart. Smart meant stealing without getting caught. Smart meant making money without really working.
When Junior was seven years old, his father was killed in a fight in an Asheville bar called Red's Tavern. Junior became the responsibility of Augustus. He wanted his grandson to follow in his footsteps, and saw Junior as the man to replace him as boss of the logging crew when the boy turned twenty.
Extra money was often hard to come by for Augustus. Logging was a hard business. Presents were seen as an extravagance, but the grandfather wanted to do his best for his grandson. The first Christmas the boy was with his grandfather, Augustus gave Junior a wagon he'd made out of scrap wood and a small crosscut saw just like the ones the logging crews used before chain saws. He'd had the little saw made special by a blacksmith friend in Whittier.
It was a great Christmas morning. Just Augustus and his grandson to open gifts; Augustus's wife had left him years before. Junior had even saved money from stealing small amounts of change from purses left unattended at Harold's Supermarket in Dillsboro, and the Rexall Drugstore, and Hooper's Drugs on Main Street in Sylva. He bought his granddad a nice bottle of Old Spice. He had tried to steal it but got caught by a clerk in Hooper's who made him pony up the money or get reported to the Sylva Police Department.
Augustus was thrilled with the gift and even more thrilled when he saw that Junior was actually taken by the saw. He and the boy sat all morning and ate a breakfast of eggs, sausage, sawmill gravy and some cathead biscuits. Augustus dozed a bit on his fake leather recliner. The boy played with the little wooden wagon Augustus had made and would periodically pick up the saw and, holding it at arm's length, stare at it before putting it down and grabbing for the wagon again. About noontime Augustus drank the last bit of coffee in an old yellowed mug and told Junior,
"I'm going up the road to Old Man Green's place to get a quart of Christmas shine. I'll be back directly."
As Augustus went out the door he tousled his grandson's hair, "I won't be but a minute. Why don't you crawl up on the couch at the fireplace and take you a nice warm nap?"
Augustus went out the front door and across the porch. When he had gone down the two front steps and looked around him, and he saw the little stone house comfortably stuck back in the holler. Couldn't see to Green's Creek Road and couldn't see the house from the road: it was a nice place for his grandson and him.
Augustus got back to the small house fairly quickly and had just made it through the front door when he heard the Christmas tree fall over... branches smacking pottery on a table, his old ornaments smashing to bits on the floor, and Junior standing next to a small pile of sawdust. The boy had cut his first tree with that crosscut saw. Augustus was furious at first; so much so he couldn't speak or yell or move. Then he was just angry, but it was Christmas. When he looked at the boy's innocent joy after using his present, he sat down on a chair, looked at the boy, and declared, "Young'un you just won't do!"
They both were quiet for a bit staring at each other. Augustus called the boy over, rubbed the boy's head, and in a happy voice said, "From now on I'm callin' you Crosscut!"
At eight Crosscut started breaking into homes and stealing cash money, not change. At ten he was helping an older teen break into businesses all over Jackson County. At fifteen he took over leadership from the crew leader who'd been arrested for breaking and entering by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and sent to prison. At sixteen Crosscut joined the former crew boss in Polk Youth Center as a CYO, Committed Youthful Offender. Crosscut viewed Polk as junior prison until the first night there. He found that it was as bad as any prison anywhere, especially if you were new, small and had nothing much to trade. It was going to be a long three years. Crosscut needed a plan.
Being smaller, brawn wasn't going to be part of anything to keep him from being a victim. Being smart, though, was a possible gateway to an easier life inside. Crosscut sought out the guy he had partnered with in Jackson County. But Leroy was a loser and didn't want to give Crosscut much help, if any.
So Crosscut thought and thought. After a few long weeks Crosscut had nearly worked him a plan. He figured he could be a runner for some prisoner boss and set out to do just that. His old partner did, in fact, help him just a shade when he vouched for Crosscut by telling the inmate bosses the boy never said a part of a word about him to the cops. Soon, if you looked at Crosscut, you'd see a small prisoner running errands for guards. It looked, at first blush, as though the boy inmate was a stooge for the men in uniform. But the inmates knew Crosscut was running errands for those really running the prison. He used the things he did for the guards: fetching coffee, a sandwich, or sometimes a package from guard to inmate, as a ruse. The guards never questioned Crosscut about anything. He wouldn't snitch on anyone: inmate or guard. Crosscut had mastered getting along in prison.
At lunch one day Crosscut overheard two fellow inmates talking quietly about wanting to get some pot to smoke. He hadn't thought about pot too much before prison. But after eavesdropping on the two fellow inmates, that's what Crosscut thought about nearly every hour he was awake. He needed a plan for his future. He sure didn't figure on real work, no siree! His plan was just a sketch, an outline, but between errands and after lights out it slowly took form.
He knew his fellow cons would tell you why they were in, if they wanted. But asking brought trouble. Crosscut just listened and finally found a guy who was inside for a second round due to marijuana trafficking. The guy's name was Bob and he was a smuggler. Well, he said he was a smuggler. Bob was the same size as Crosscut and had long brown hair and the hope of a mustache. As he and Crosscut became friends Bob made it clear he was part of an offload crew on the coast of North Carolina: a little fishing village called Engelhard. The big boys paid the offload guys in pot. Bob would take his twenty or so pounds of payment and make hundreds of dollars. He hadn't been caught selling or even actually helping offload a fishing boat of its illegal cargo: he'd been charged with conspiracy. Somebody snitched on him and the cops tried to get him to flip on the rest of the crew. Bob had refused, twice, now he was doing time in Polk, and when he turned 21 he was going to be transferred to adult prison. He had a long stretch before being released.
One afternoon Crosscut brought Bob a Styrofoam cup with hot, black coffee and handed it to him. He sat down on one end of the rack and Bob was on the other. Crosscut blew on the top of his cup to cool it down but was looking at Bob over the top of the coffee.
"Bob, I wanna be a dealer when I get out, and I want you to tell me how to do it and not get caught." Crosscut slurped some coffee, loudly, and continued "You've been busted twice and I'd like to learn from what you did, mistakes you made, to land in here." Crosscut took another loud sip of the coffee and waited.
At first Bob just stared at Crosscut with a blank expression. Then he looked like he might punch him. Finally Bob let out a long breath, leaned back and put both feet on the bed. He moved so his back was on the wall where a headboard would be if this weren't a prison bed. After taking a sip Bob said, "OK, you gonna take notes or what?" Staring at Crosscut. "Just kiddin' there bucko."
He looked sternly at Crosscut. "These first 'uns are important: don't trust anybody you sell to. Don't front nothin'! Don't trust anybody you buy from. As soon as you start you're on the path to getting busted." Bob got louder and louder as he talked. The coffee was sloshing all over his rack and onto the floor. Crosscut was a bit startled and Bob suddenly realized he was nearly yelling. He finished the remaining coffee, and handed the now empty cup to Crosscut. "Anymore coffee?" Bob asked.
As Crosscut's time was shortened through good time and gain time - days he wasn't in trouble and days he agreed to one prison job or another - Bob helped Crosscut finish his plan. Just before Crosscut's time was up, Bob gave him the name and phone number of a pot dealer who might help Crosscut get started.
During his time away Augustus had died from a heart attack while trying to unstick a chainsaw bar from the clutches of a giant tulip poplar in Whittier. The men on his crew tried to get him to the Bryson City Hospital but he died on the way. With Augustus' death went any tiny chance for Crosscut's future as an honest logger.
Crosscut left Polk Youth Center with a plan but nowhere to live. He was going to be the best-damned pot dealer in Buncombe County. Too many people remembered him at home so he'd start brand new in Asheville. He'd get him a place near downtown, maybe a room on Montford. He'd been by there with his granddad a couple of times visiting a bootlegger or two. UNCA was close; the projects weren't too far away and those damn hippy college kids loved to party. Beer and doobies were tools to get rich by, but he had no intention of tending bar.
First things first, Crosscut had to get a job to keep his parole. So with the help of his PO - Parole Officer - he got a gig as a dishwasher at the IHOP on Tunnel Road. After he got the job he had to get a place to live... and deal. The other dishwasher offered to let Crosscut stay with him but the guy was weird. He always wore coat and tails and a top hat to work before changing into his dishwasher togs. He talked to the dirty dishes like they were puppies. So Crosscut found a cabin up the side of Beaucatcher Mountain on the Tunnel Road side. Now he needed a marijuana source. Using Bob's name and rep he located the guy in Greensboro Bob had told him about. He borrowed a car from one of the servers at the IHOP, and four hundred dollars and a tank of gas later Crosscut had him a pound of weed. It was a pretty sorry excuse for a pound though. Stems and seeds mixed in; it wasn't manicured a bit.
The guy in Greensboro said, "You may have built some time with Bob, but out here you gotta prove you can do business and keep your damn mouth shut. First deal is this, second is gonna be the same but, after that, if you ain't in jail and ain't narked on me, it'll get cheaper and better. Who knows? You could be the real deal soon enough." The Greensboro man spit some chewing tobacco juice at Crosscut's feet, laughed a deep nasty laugh, and slammed the door in Crosscut's face.
Back in Asheville, Crosscut spent the first night separating the pot from the stems and seeds. He threw the stems out the back door, scattering them like so much of the leaf and pine needle crap out there already. Then using a box of plastic sandwich baggies, and a small postal scale, he made half lids. Each baggie was just short of one half ounce including bag weight. He gathered them in a paper grocery bag, waited for dark, and walked down Tunnel Road to a bar frequented by dopers and bikers.
Crosscut didn't have an "in" here so he was sitting on a wall at the back of the parking lot trying to figure out the best way to start his business without getting his dope ripped off the first night. A cop car came rolling through the lot and lit him up with a spotlight. Crosscut wasn't worried though; he had already hidden his stash a bit away from where he sat but well within eyesight. The spotlight went off and the cop slowly went back onto Tunnel Road, turned west and was gone. Back to the original problem.
As he sat there thinking, the headlights of a car washed over him from Tunnel Road.
Ah, shit here comes that cop again.
But this time it was an old tan Volvo with a small dent in the driver's door and some hippy looking guy in his twenties driving and a girl, he thought, in the passenger seat. The car pulled up to where Crosscut sat and the driver called him over. Crosscut sat there for a few seconds and the guy beckoned him over using his hands, "C'mere dude."
Crosscut walked over and sure enough it was a real cute girl in the passenger seat... auburn hair, purplish tube top and shorty shorts. Crosscut stared at her and she just giggled.
"What do you want, man?" Crosscut asked in a hopefully friendly and not too nervous manner.
"Smoke, man." The passenger answered across the driver.
Crosscut didn't want to appear too eager and too stupid either. Maybe these two were narcs. Crosscut looked at each one and decided they were already high from drinking beer and more than likely weren't any kind of cop. So he answered.
"I might know where you can score some weed," he said. Twenty bucks a half lid. Good stuff. No seeds, no stems." As a final part of his sales pitch he took a pull on the cigarette he was smoking and added, "Jamaican!"
The driver said, "Well let me check it out, man."
Crosscut handed it over, seeing a prospective future customer. But the guy gave a holler that sounded between a rebel yell and some kind of banshee scream and drove off with the half lid and the money.
What could Crosscut do? He half-heartedly chased the car until it turned up Tunnel Road heading to the tunnel and parts unknown. Crosscut could hear all the laughing and hooting until the car went out of sight up the hill.
"Shit." Crosscut slouched his shoulders and walked back to the wall. "Just shit."
Just when Crosscut was convinced he'd need to go back to breaking and entering to make a decent living, the Volvo came back. The driver stopped and got out. He was several years older than Crosscut and the girl was still on the other side of the Volvo. He stuck his hand out and Crosscut saw a large silver ring set with turquoise on what should have been his wedding band finger. In the hand was a "dub."
The guy said, "Name's Bud. Here's the money I owe you." He thumbed in the direction of the girl in the car and said, "Willow says I need to pay you. And I should apologize, she says, but I'm not gonna." He stepped toward Crosscut and leaned in, "What I will do is tell you to not be such a dumbass in the future... dumbass."
He dropped the money on the ground, got back in the Volvo, and Bud and Willow drove off in the tan Volvo with the dent in the driver's door.
Nobody else stopped for a couple of hours. Then Crosscut saw the Volvo from earlier. He stood up ready to fight; ready to grab the guy by the hair and drag him through the driver's window. But it wasn't him. It was the girl.
"Hey baby." The girl was cute and had a friendly smile. She handed Crosscut another twenty and opened the car door. She took him by the arm and led him back to the wall.
"I'm sorry about that asshole earlier. We were both a little high from some Annie Green Springs. But he'd of pulled that anyway. Does it whenever he can.
"My name's Willow." She stuck her hand out for Crosscut to shake.
He couldn't help himself, although he was beyond angry. He shook her hand and looked at her cute face and those green eyes. He must have stared for a minute, still holding Willow's hand. She was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. Up close he could tell she was his age and from the look in her eyes she'd been around too. She was about five feet six and perfectly shaped. The reddish hair and the green eyes nearly caused his knees to get weak.
She slowly took her hand back and asked the fledgling pot dealer where he stashed his car. When Crosscut told her he didn't have a car, Willow's expression turned to concern.
"How are you going to be a righteous dealer with no wheels? What's your name?"
'Hadn't though much about it. Crosscut."
"Boy, you need a car to deal. Ain't no way you're not gonna get caught if you can't move around. You gotta get your dope and you gotta get to your customers. You can't wait around a place like this. No way." Willow told him all this with the confidence of an established dealer.
"You deal too?" Crosscut asked.
Willow took her right index finger and stroked Crosscut's left cheek and chin. "No baby, but I've screwed a few."
She sat beside Crosscut and put her chin in her palms while her elbows rested on her knees. "Let's use my car. You can pay for my gas and let me have some smoke once in a while."
Crosscut looked at the Volvo. "Oh. Honey that's mine, he was just driving us around."
Willow became his partner in every way. She knew how to hide money and make better deals for pounds of pot. She helped Crosscut establish a solid clientele in the Montford area. It was perfect. Close to downtown and the UNCA campus, and right at the I-240 on ramp. They still lived on the backside of Beaucatcher Mountain but most of their dealing was on Montford. They'd park her car and walk to Montford Park. Each evening as it got dark Willow took half of the stash they were going to sell and hide it somewhere close. When they needed restocking she'd bring more back to Crosscut. It was a great partnership. When they weren't dealing they partied together and talked about politics and how much money they were going to make that night but never about the future.
Willow was there until she wasn't. One morning he woke up and Willow was gone. No note. No reason. Just gone.
Crosscut sat in the motel room for half a day trying to figure out a plan. His mind wandered from Willow leaving, to getting a car, to "What the fuck am I gonna do now?"
About four o'clock, he decided on a plan. He gathered up five hundred dollars of the money he and Willow had been squirreling away and went down the parking lot and out onto Tunnel Road. He walked to the first car lot he saw and bought a 1964 cream colored Volkswagen. Crosscut drove away with a temporary tag: he'd steal a metal tag when the temporary expired. As he drove, a plan began to emerge out of his irritation of having to be on his own again.
He needed to find a partner he could trust. But he needed to do that really slow. Rushing into a partnership could get him busted and he might not get a CYO this next time.
A few weeks passed and Crosscut was about to make an approach to a young guy who'd been buying pot from him for weeks. The kid always paid, never asked for a front, and Crosscut never saw him toking and joking with anyone at the park. Crosscut figured he was no older than fifteen, making him perfect.
On a clear, warm June evening the kid approached and asked for his usual, a half lid. There were no other people around at that time so Crosscut decided to give it a try.
"Boy, what's your name?"
"Why, you a narc or somethin?"
"Yeah, dumbass I'm a narc sittin' here night after night selling dope and getting' rich. I hide my damn badge and cuffs under that bush yonder."
The kid started to turn his head to look where Crosscut was pointing but caught himself. He was skinny and smelly. His clothes were for someone much bigger than he was. His fingernails were dirty and tonight he was barefoot.
"Where you live?" Crosscut asked while handing the boy a baggie of dope.
The boy dropped the money just as Crosscut went to take it. The kid used that momentary lapse in Crosscut's concentration to run off into the darkness.
Crosscut didn't yell after him. He just let him run off. The kid would be back and Crosscut would try again. But he didn't see the boy for several weeks. Just as Crosscut decided he needed to move locations and that the kid was never coming back, here he came.
This time the boy walked slowly right up to Crosscut. His clothes were clean, fit him better, and the boy was clean.
"Name's Paul but they call me Pop Up."
Crosscut didn't say anything for a second or two and then, "Where you been, and why they call you Pop Up?"
"Cops caught me and put me in a kind of halfway house for runaways. Called Pop Up cause that's what I do. Just pop up every now and then."
"Pop Up, you wanna help me make some serious coin? Help me give the people the dope they crave? Help me help them escape the daily grind and orders of The Man?"
"Maybe, how much in it for me?"
"You're my runner. When my stash here runs low," Crosscut patted his jeans pocket, "you run over to where we hid the big supply and get it back to me without getting ripped off or busted." Crosscut made a point of pausing and looking like he was thinking really hard.
"You do that and I'll give you three bucks for every half lid we sell."
Pop Up sat down beside Crosscut and chewed on the inside of his mouth. He looked across the park at nothing in particular.
"Yeah, I can do that for four bucks a half lid."
Pop Up offered his hand for the obligatory handshake to seal the deal. Crosscut took the hand and a partnership was struck. That very evening Pop Up began making money from Crosscut and for him. Pop Up would go from one small group of people to the next taking orders and providing product. The partners worked in the evening all through the summer: Montford Park, Grove Park, a gravel pull off on the side of Town Mountain Road, Buck's Drive-In on Tunnel Road. They went back to Greensboro to resupply several times a week. The price stayed the same but as the guy said the first time, it did get better. The pot was now a full pillow bale and easier to deal with.
One September evening in the middle of the month the boys were sitting on the wall at Montford Park when a familiar car drove by on Cumberland Avenue. Pop Up looked up on Montford and saw a tan Volvo with a dent in the drivers' door. He put his cigarette down on the top of the wall and stood up making himself really tall.
"That car is actin' kindly strange Crosscut. Nobody goes that damn slow on that damn road!"
Crosscut picked up the cigarette and took a long pull. He looked up toward the car. Just a quick look. Just enough to see she was alone. Just enough to get his heart speeding up.
"Take it easy Pop Up. I know the driver."
Crosscut watched Willow park on Cumberland, illegally, and step out of the Volvo. She stretched a long cat stretch and looked all around: the park, the street, the people in the park. Then she walked over to the boys. Crosscut thought she looked older and a bit harder. It had only been five or six months since they'd been together but that could be a long time under certain circumstances. He didn't know where she'd been and wasn't about to ask.
"Well boys, can I take a seat with ya?" Willow may have changed a bit physically but her voice still made Crosscut's knees weak.
Pop Up didn't seem interested, but Crosscut introduced them anyway. Willow just looked at Pop Up and smiled. Crosscut was just looking away from Willow and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Willow wink at the boy. Nah, he must have been seeing things.
"You still washing dishes and keeping your PO happy?" Willow asked.
"Yeah, but I think he's gonna try to get me off of parole early. He keeps complaining about his huge case load and says if he had more like me he could coast to retirement."
Willow looked around the park and asked if the boys were doing a good business and where else Crosscut was dealing.
Pop Up looked at Crosscut, his eyebrows suddenly at his hairline. He just stared at Crosscut with his mouth hanging open. Nobody asks shit like that... nobody!
"We're doing alright and we're just makin' a few bucks here and there. Nothin' big." Crosscut started fidgeting with the jeans seam on his right leg. Something here wasn't just exactly right.
Willow dropped the questioning and started talking about what plans Crosscut had for the future. She reached inside the little pocketbook she was carrying, a small leather thing with a leather fringe. It looked like somebody had stolen it from Daniel Boone or Davy Crocket... well their wives anyway. She pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims and pulled one out with her finely manicured fingers. The only time she even looked at Pop Up was when she leaned into him for a light. After he grudgingly pulled a Bic and lit it for her she turned back to Crosscut.
"Well, you staying here or goin' elsewhere? You still travelling to Greensboro regular?"
Now Crosscut was really getting fidgety. He leaned back when Willow looked away from him and saw Pop Up's face. He wasn't too happy either.
Crosscut hadn't even told Pop Up he now had a source in Cullowhee. He'd found out through the grapevine that there were a bunch of pot smugglers in Boone and Cullowhee. It hadn't taken too long to make contact with one of them and since he was from Jackson County the guy had little trouble checking Crosscut out. They met three times a week at the rest area on top of Balsam Mountain at the Haywood-Jackson County line. No fronts, just cash. No jabber jack just business. Since he was buying more weight he was getting a better deal.
Pop Up didn't even know about Crosscut's other customers; the doctors, professors and stockbrokers. The boy didn't know that Crosscut was making a mint! He also didn't know Crosscut was getting ready to move his business to Sylva, closer to his core business.
Willow must have sensed that something was not exactly right. Crosscut thought he saw her glance at Pop Up just before she turned to him and gave him a light kiss on the cheek.
"Well, it was good talking to you. Maybe I'll see you around." Willow threw her partially smoked Slim on the ground and without another word walked to her car and was gone.
Pop Up looked at the car as it drove up Cumberland and stood up.
"Let's shut this down tonight."
Crosscut agreed and they started walking up to Montford Avenue. Crosscut looked around and stopped Pop Up.
"Look at all these old houses up here. This used to be the place to live in Asheville. Now they've turned to crap. This town has turned to crap. The business is OK but it could be better. I'm having to work too hard to make any real money."
"Whatcha gonna do?" Pop Up asked as he put a stick of gum in his mouth.
"Dunno." Crosscut had something right at the tip of his brain. Something was out of tilt but he just couldn't make it appear.
"See ya tomorrow night."
As Pop Up turned to walk away. "Yep."
A week later Crosscut walked out the back of the IHOP happy as he'd been in a while. This was his last night with that damn high-hat weirdo and his insane jabbering to those dishes. He was off parole and had worked his last shift. He looked toward his car and there was that tan Volvo. Next to it was Pop Up and it looked like Willow and the boy were arguing. Crosscut started to back off and see what was what when Willow spotted him and motioned for him to come over. She was wearing a white t-shirt, no bra, and shorty shorts. Pop Up was unusually clean and untypically ticked off.
"What the Hell is going on over here? Where did you two come from? Why are you here?" Crosscut was somewhere between angry and confused... a little of both.
Crosscut looked at Pop Up. "What are you doing way over here?"
"I was seein' a girl down in the bottom of Oakley and decided to go downtown. She wouldn't drive me so I started walking. I was gonna bum a ride from you and saw the damn Volvo here when I got to the parking lot."
Willow stepped out of the car with a Slim in her mouth. "He started asking me what I was doing here and what I was up to."
"Good Lord! You two get in the car. I'm hungry."
They rode together in the Volvo to McDonalds just up Tunnel Road. Once there, they went inside and Willow went to a booth while the boys ordered burgers and fries. As they sat in the booth no one spoke for a bit while all shared some fries. The boys ate their cheeseburgers.
Crosscut looked at each of the other two as he chewed. Willow stared at him and Pop Up just ate his burger. Willow finally spoke, "Well, what's the deal? Why's he," she thumbed at Pop Up, "so damn inquisitive about me anyway?"
"Darlin' I'm getting a funny vibe from you." Crosscut scrunched up his burger wrapper and put it in the bigger bag. "I think he's feelin' it too."
With that Willow pushed out of the booth, left McDonalds, got in her car and drove off. The two young men looked at each other. Crosscut smiled, shrugged and got up, as did Pop Up. They walked back up the hill to IHOP where Crosscut's car was still parked.
Neither said anything in the fifteen minutes it took to get to the car. When Crosscut got in he offered Pop Up a ride through the Tunnel. About halfway through Crosscut made a decision. Well, he made two.
"OK dude, here's the deal. I'm movin' and not gonna do the small time lid, half lid thing no more. You want in there's a bit of room for you, but you gotta find your own place and you need some wheels."
Pop Up tried to stifle a small grin.
"Where we goin' boss?"
The next week was a busy time. Pop Up needed a place to stay and told Crosscut he'd do it on his own like he always did. Crosscut went back to the home place up Green's Creek and moved in. Hadn't been anybody in the house for several years but other than needing a cleaning and some new stuff like towels and sheets he'd be fine. Without Pop Up, Crosscut drove up to Cullowhee and met up with his pot contact in the parking lot of the Cullowhee Post Office. They took a little ride in the guy's van to a small trailer park next to the Tuckasegee River.
Crosscut and the dealer made an agreement: no fronts, cash on delivery, and a minimum of fifty pounds a week. After just a month Crosscut was picking fifty pounds up twice, then three times a week. All the time Pop Up did what he was asked. He never smoked any pot so he was paid in dollars. Pop Up never asked to make any pickups from Crosscut's main man and Crosscut didn't offer.
Crosscut had regular customers now. He had no need to hang out trying to make deals. They'd call and arrange a time and either he or Pop Up would deliver the dope and collect the money. Monday afternoon was so and so at the Dillard House parking lot. Tuesday was another at the Hardees on 107. On and on it went. Regular buys from his regular customers.
One sunny May afternoon Crosscut and Pop Up were enjoying themselves in the parking lot next to the community pool. They'd eaten burgers from Hardees and had been drinking a beer from a paper sack. Pop Up stretched his arms out and was getting ready to go back to his car when his eyes strayed over the parking lot and he sat straight up and stared. Crosscut saw the reaction and looked where Pop Up was looking, and he jerked too.
"What the Hell..." Crosscut blurted and there came Willow. She'd been at the pool and had a red bikini top on and a red and yellow towel that was wrapped tightly around her waist. She strutted right across the parking lot and right up to the boys.
"Hey my pretty boys. Imagine this! How's everything going?" Willow was all smiles and sun tan lotion. She stopped just out of arm's reach and popped a hip to the right. She tilted her head and tossed her neck so her auburn hair flipped behind her shoulders.
Crosscut was unable to speak. It was Pop Up who spoke first.
"What the heck are you doing over here?"
Willow ignored Pop Up and walked up to Crosscut.
"Ain't you gonna say anything? You still mad?" She was getting a bit angry or at least appeared to be.
"Nah. Ain't mad, just wondering how you ended up here."
"I've started school at Southwestern. Gonna be a beautician."
Crosscut looked at Willow hard. He cocked his head just a bit and looked over at Pop Up.
"Huh. Well, well ain't that just somethin."
Pop Up jumped up from Crosscut's trunk lid and said he's leaving. It was all a bit too much for him, or so he said.
Willow sauntered up to Crosscut and said, "Hey, cowboy let's go get high or something."
The next thing Crosscut knew a month had passed and he'd been so busy entertaining Willow he'd arranged for Pop Up to directly deal with his Cullowhee contact. It had worked out great because the boy was making twice as many trips to see the guy as Crosscut had been doing. School was back in session and all was good.
Willow said she had talked to some good old boys at the Donut Shop in Sylva. She asked if anybody knew of a cabin for rent-reasonable. One old guy told her about one in between bites of his donut.
"It was at the top of a ridge and could see clear to the by-pass, " he said.
Willow had gone and found the owner and had worked out a deal. Crosscut and Willow had moved in and had spent several cool mornings drinking coffee on the porch and talking about nothing in particular. Willow had even helped Crosscut bury a large ammo box full of cash. She picked a place just past an old biffy about thirty feet from the back door of the cabin. This October morning Willow had left again before Crosscut woke up, but he was kind of getting used to it. She'd be back eventually, he figured.
But something was amiss with her and maybe even Pop Up. He'd caught each one looking at the other in ways that didn't seem normal for the distance they also seemed to keep around each other. It was a tickle at the back of his mind that wouldn't move forward.
Crosscut shook his head and went back in the cabin, poured another mug of hot coffee, and looked down the valley through the kitchen window. There was a car kicking up dust as it traveled up the road toward his cabin. Maybe it was going to somebody below his cabin. But Crosscut knew instinctively it was a cop car. He also knew, instinctively, it was coming to him. That damn tickle stormed forward with the might of a Mid-Western tornado.
"Well shit... just shit," he said to the wind.
With no place to run, no dope on the premises, his money buried ,Crosscut went outside and just stood there leaning against a roof support on his porch. Two cop cars fanned out as they topped the ridge at his cabin. A couple of deputies he'd seen around got out first, and went to the car trunk where they removed two shovels. As they walked by Crosscut one of them winked at him. The unmarked car arrived last. It drove up and pulled around and stopped right in front of Crosscut's cabin. The door opened and Pop Up stepped out. He looked grand in that gray suit with a vest and all. A white starched shirt and dark burgundy tie completed the picture.
Crosscut walked off of the porch and up to Pop Up. Pop Up stuck his hand out and, with a wolfish grin, said, "Hello Sylvester, it's really nice to meet you. My name's Special Agent Mike McCall. I'm an agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. We really need to talk."
Special Agent McCall looked at Crosscut's coffee cup and added, "You got any more coffee in there?" He started up the steps to the porch.
A gust of wind blew warm air up the face of the ridge and with it the sound of a car horn. Crosscut turned and saw a tan colored car going up the ramp to the by-pass heading east. He turned back around to see Pop Up, or whatever the Hell he said his name was, open the screen door and disappear inside the cabin.
Crosscut looked at his shoe tips and spat between them onto the dusty driveway. He looked up again, shrugged his shoulders, slowly climbed the steps, and went inside to see what was going to be next.