Award-winning author Daniel Wallace shares a new work of fiction with SouthPark readers. Wallace is the writer of six novels, including Big Fish, which was adapted as movie and became a Broadway musical.
fiction by Daniel Wallace | illustration by Mariano Santillan
I bought a car from one of those grassy roadside lots, paid in cash that arguably wasn’t mine and disappeared into the night like the smoky tail of a dying match. I was in the next state by morning, at a Waffle Shoppe full of truckers and farmers and dropouts, all of them wearing baseball caps, none of them backwards. I turned mine around.
I found a booth in the back. Waitress caught my eye and winked. “Be right with you, hon,” she said, same as they always do, like it’s from the handbook. Tangerine lipstick and penciled-in eyebrows, thin tinsel gray hair in a ponytail. She was my age probably but looked twice that, weary but indestructible, like she’d been standing up her entire life and be buried that way too. She walked over to me with the pot, veins like river maps beneath her skin, face that had been through a lot, too much, but she smiled with a warmth that was so real I felt it in my heart. Nametag: Kate.
“Morning, baby. Coffee?”
I nodded, she poured. “What can I do you for, sweetie?” Like she might take me in her arms and rock me to sleep.
I kept my face low reading from the menu but when I looked up to order her eyes were fixed on me. She blinked once, kept staring. I could see her tongue resting against the top of her bottom teeth, her mouth hanging open just that much.
“Good lord.” She gave me the once over twice. “You’re — aren’t you — ?”
I turned away. There was a TV on the wall and I wondered if I’d been on it already, but nothing I’d done would make the news. That’s what I told myself. I thought I was faster than my past. But maybe nobody is that fast.
She pointed at me.
“You’re Dustin — Dustin — lord, my brain has gone to mush. I just saw you.”
Impossible. Never in my life. And I’m no Dustin. “Sorry?”
“Last night. The movie, your movie. Oh, you know — San Francisco Nights! With Julia Roberts!” An exclamation point, like she’d just won a prize. “Dustin Evers. You are Dustin Evers and I cannot freaking believe it. Oh good lord.”
Her smile made her makeup flake and her lipstick crack.
I shook my head. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.” Matter of fact, a little gruff, putting her off without pushing too hard.
But her eyes wouldn’t let me go.
Dustin Evers, I thought.
Dustin Evers, the actor.
“You got me,” I said.
I’d seen that movie too. A pastry chef and a fireman fall in love when her bakery burns down. I shrugged and almost smiled and she shivered like a woman about to freeze. She motioned a cohort over, a girl who might have been her daughter, twins basically separated by 20 or 30 years.
“Lucy,” she said, in a whisper. “Get over here. Look at this.”
Lucy dragged herself over and looked at me with her dull dead sleepy eyes. “Hey, sugar,” she said. Then to Kate: “What am I looking at?”
“You’re looking at Dustin Evers,” Kate said. “San Francisco Nights?”
Lucy took a minute to fall into the magical world Kate made for her and then just like that she was all in. She opened her mouth but no words came out.
“Oh, oh, oh wow,” she said, finally. “Wow wow wow.” Then, blushing: “I’ve had a crush on you since I was 12.”
They laughed. I laughed. Like I’d heard it all before.
“Well, thank you, I guess,” I said. “The camera is kind to me.”
“God was kind to you,” Kate said. “That face of yours is a gift from God.” She looked at Lucy. “I can’t believe I’m saying this to Dustin Evers!”
“Dustin Freaking Evers.”
“What’s she like?” Lucy said. “Julia Roberts. They say she’s nice but I think, I don’t know, she might be full of herself.”
I sipped my coffee. “She’s an absolute angel,” I said.
“Is there a movie around here you’re making?”
“Yes,” I said. “There is. Right down the road.”
“Wow,” Lucy said. “Wow wow.”
“That how you hurt your hand?”
She was addressing the blood lines on my knuckles.
“Yes. I do my own stunts.”
“His own stunts.”
Lucy and Kate looked at each other, because did they ever have a story to tell now.
“What’s it about?” Kate said.
“Yeah,” Lucy said. “What’s it all about?”
“What it’s all about?” Philosophers now. “Well, I guess it’s about a man who did some things he wished he hadn’t done, tries to run away from it all, meets a woman on a farm who sees him for who he could be, deep down, then hires him on to mend fences, and they, well, you know.”
“Sounds like my kind of movie. What’s it called?”
“Mending Fences,” I said, and I saw it unfolding before me. The woman on the farm — tall, copper hair, a widow maybe, tough unyielding eyes at first but deep pools of goodness and almost spiritual power, me working the land for her, sleeping in the barn on a bale of old hay, her scraggly mutt my first best friend, that mutt follows me around everywhere, and I was milking cows, riding horses, saving her life from that snake — a rattler — that almost bit her, how we picnicked beneath that big old oak tree, the one her granddad planted 100 years before, and then how one thing led to another and I kissed her beneath a sickle moon, and finally I told her everything, everything I did leading up to the night I got that car from the roadside lot, all of it, I couldn’t live that lie a minute longer but figured when I told her she would leave me and she almost does, she almost leaves me but she doesn’t, and she says hon, sweetheart, sugar, baby, damn it if I don’t love you, but you gotta go back and make things right, have to before we can move into the next thing, into the rest of our lives, together. And so in the movie I do, I go back and I see the girl and I see the man and my mother and my father and I do what I can to make it right, and then I come back to her and she takes me in her arms and the music swells and finally I’m happy, we are happy, and that’s why it’s called Mending Fences.
I told them the whole thing, and by the time I was done I was surrounded by all of them, the truckers, the farmers, the dropouts and a short order cook to boot. They loved me so much. Someone even bought my breakfast. And then it was over: I told them I had to get back on set. But I want to thank the Academy and my great director and Julia for being the best costar a guy could ask for . . . but more than all of them put together I have to thank Kate and Lucy for that morning, for the greatest gift I ever got in my life, to be another man for just those few minutes, to be famous for not being me. SP
Daniel Wallace’s memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well, will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2023. He is an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater, where he directs the Creative Writing Program.