This month marks two years since my first novel, A Plot for Pridemore, was published by Mercer University Press. I have a hard time believing it has been that long since the first copies arrived on my doorstep, and I held in my hands the product I had spent so many years working on. It seems like only yesterday.
I recently completed a second work of fiction, and I hope to tell you more about it in the near future. In the meantime, I’d like to share an excerpt from Pridemore that introduces Digby Willers, a character who plays a decisive role in the scheme to bring notoriety to the small town of Pridemore, Missouri:
A few blocks away, Digby Willers kicked an old soda can and whooped with delight as it bounced across Main Street and clanked against a curb.
He had kicked the can through most of the downtown business strip, from Saynor Circle to the blinking stoplight at Dunbar Street. The can left scuff marks on his new pair of Dingos, but Digby didn’t mind. The marks, he thought, gave the boots a real-life cowboy look.
Pang! He kicked the can into the street near the faded centerlines. It was an unseasonably hot, breezeless afternoon in late May that left the courthouse flags sagging and stray dogs sprawled and panting in the shade of a few parked cars along Pridemore’s main drag. Digby kicked his can against the stucco walls of The Lizard Lounge, which closed after Willie Larson shot Alan Carr in the thigh over some girl they were both seeing. Digby kept on kicking past the abandoned Westbrook Feed & Seed and he playfully range the big brass bell outside Truman’s Malt Shop, which no one answered because the shop’s owner, Ernie Tate, was in Farley getting an alternator for his Monte Carlo.
Anyone who strayed out into the 90-degree heat at that particular moment (and most locals had more sense than to do something like that) couldn’t have missed the 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound man-child zigzagging his way up Main Street. Digby wore army fatigue cut-offs, an orange T-shirt smeared with peanut butter and jelly, and a Cub Scout cap that sat on the back of his head like a navy blue beanie. He had a round face with cheeks that turned crimson at the first sign of embarrassment and thick lips that curled into a slow, open-mouthed smile. His hair, yellow as lemon custard, rolled over his ears in long bangs that gave him a Prince Valiant look. Digby cared very little about that. He just knew that he hated getting haircuts.
Today, the hair was matted around his brow like a helmet. His sweaty hands clutched a brand-new five-dollar bill, as well as a perfectly smooth stone that would be great for skipping if there were a lake nearby and someone to teach him how to do it.
Several other stones scraped each other in Digby’s fatigues as he hopped the curb and stepped inside Sanderson’s Hardware, a jingling bell on the door announcing his arrival. He basked in the air conditioning and wiped his face with his shirt. The clerk, a skinny kid in a bright red apron, studied him a moment, then shook his head and walked to the back of the store.
“Hiya, Digby,” Red Sanderson called out from behind his old iron cash register. “Come to get your hot rod, I suppose?”
“Well, let’s have us a look.”
Sanderson led Digby down Aisle B, where the Pinewood Derby kits were stacked on a shelf about waist high. He watched Digby pick up one kit, examine it closely, then pick up another. Aside from the clerk, he and Digby were the only ones in the store.
The Pinewood Derby for the Cub Scouts’ Yellow Jacket District was more than two months away. But for Digby, who’d won the race nine of the past 10 years, that was barely enough time to make a serviceable racing car from a scrawny block of pine. Each May, he bought his kit the first week Sanderson’s had them in stock. He spent June and July in his mom’s garage, carving the block into an aerodynamic form and sanding it to a smooth finish. He even sanded the plastic wheels because he thought it made them faster. He topped it off by painting the car blue with white numbers and red stripes. One year he painted his car green and gold, which looked pretty cool, but he lost the final heat to Timmy Thurson.
Digby returned to the blue-and-red color scheme and hadn’t lost since. That was seven years ago. Competing against a field of mostly 10- and 11-year-olds, he was the Dale Earnhardt of Pinewood Derby racing in Pridemore.
Naturally, parents complained. The scouting committee hemmed and hawed for years on the issue, briefly making Digby an “honorary” racer, meaning whoever finished behind him could get a trophy, too. This pleased absolutely no one, and the grumbling intensified. When it came to racing little blocks of pine down a 30-foot ramp, Digby Willers was as polarizing as Rush Limbaugh or the Dixie Chicks. You loved him or hated him. There was no middle ground.
Sanderson watched for several minutes as Digby sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at seven or eight kits spread before him. Sanderson was exceedingly patient, something he honed after taking on a grenade in North Korea and spending a year in a VA hospital as they put him back together again. He could spend hours playing with his grandkids or needle-pointing a landscape of his lake house. Or he could sit behind his register, read an old paperback and wait to hear that bell on the double doors. Sometimes hours would pass between the rings.
“You gonna pick one out? They’re all the same, you know,” he said with a wink as Digby arranged more kits on the floor.
Digby stared at Sanderson as if the old man couldn’t possibly be serious, then returned to studying the kits. After a few minutes of pondering, he chose a favorite, helped Sanderson return the other kits to the shelf and followed the old man to the cash register.
“You give ‘em hell this year, Digby,” he said, ringing up the kit and putting it in a paper sack. “You hold on to that trophy.”
Digby nodded and grinned. He waved to Sanderson and the skinny clerk as he skipped out the door. The soda can was right where he left it, so he gave it a nice, swift kick.
“That’s a good boy right there,” Sanderson said. “Wish there were more like him.”
“That boy is 22 years old going on two,” the clerk said with a snicker. “What do they call it – water on the brain?”
The old man glared at the clerk before tossing him a plunger from Aisle C.
“Clean the toilet, smart guy,” Sanderson said.