Ash City Stomp
a 44MB mp3 audio
file of Richard Butner reading "Ash City Stomp."
had dated Secrest for six weeks before she asked for the Big Favor.
The Big Favor sounded like, "I need to get to Asheville to check out
the art therapy program in their psychology grad school," but in reality
she had hard drugs that needed to be transported to an old boyfriend
of hers in the mountains, and the engine in her 1982 Ford Escort had
caught fire on the expressway earlier that spring.
Secrest was stable,
a high school geometry teacher who still went to see bands at the
Mad Monk and Axis most nights of the week. They had met at the birthday
party of a mutual friend who lived in Southport. She had signified
her attraction to him by hurling pieces of wet cardboard at him at
two a.m. as he walked (in his wingtip Doc Martens) to his fully operative
and freshly waxed blue 1990 Honda Civic wagon.
The Big Favor
started in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they both lived. He had
packed the night before -- a single duffel bag. She had a pink Samsonite
train case (busted lock, $1.98 from the American Way thrift store)
and two large paper grocery bags full of various items, as well as
some suggestions for motels in
Asheville and sights to see along the way. These suggestions were
scrawled on the back of a flyer for a show they'd attended the week
before. The band had been a jazz quartet from New York, led by a guy
playing saxophone. She hated saxophones. Secrest had loved the show,
but she'd been forced to drink to excess to make it through to the
end of all the screeching and tootling, even though she'd been trying
to cut back on the drinking and smoking and related activities ever
since they'd started dating.
That was one of
the reasons she liked him -- it had been a lot easier to quit her
bad habits around him. He had a calming influence. She'd actually
met him several months before, when he still had those unfashionably
pointy sideburns. She pegged him as a sap the minute he mentioned
that he was a high school teacher. But at the Southport birthday party
they had ended up conversing, and he surprised her with his interests,
with the bands and books and movies he liked and disliked. Since they'd
started dating she had stopped taking half-pints of Wild Turkey in
her purse when she worked lunch shifts at the Second Story Restaurant.
His friends were used to hunching on the stoop outside his apartment
to smoke, but she simply did without and stayed inside in the air-conditioning.
Hauling a load
of drugs up to ex-boyfriend Rusty, though, was an old bad habit that
paid too well to give up, at least not right away.
She compared her
travel suggestions with his; he had scoured guidebooks at the local
public library for information on budget motels, and he'd downloaded
an online version of North Carolina Scenic Byways. His suggestions
included several Civil War and Revolutionary War sites. Her suggestions
included Rock City, which he vetoed because it turned out Rock City
was in Tennessee, and the Devil's Stomping Ground, which he agreed
to and did more research on at the library the next day.
"The Devil's Stomping
Ground," he read from his notes, "is a perfect circle in the midst
of the woods.
natives, the Devil paces the circle every night, concocting his evil
snares for mankind and trampling over anything growing in the circle
or anything left in the circle."
"That's what the
dude at the club said," she said without looking up from her sketchbook.
She was sketching what looked like ornate wrought iron railings such
as you'd find in New Orleans. She really did want to get into grad
school in art therapy at Western Carolina.
"Of course, it's
not really a historical site, but I guess it's doable," Secrest said.
"It's only an hour out of our way, according to Triple A."
"So, there you
"This could be
the beginning of something big, too -- there are a lot of these Devil
spots in the United States. We should probably try to hit them all
at some point. After you get out of grad school, I mean."
"OK." It wasn't
the first time he had alluded to their relationship as a long-term
one, even though the question of love, let alone something as specific
as marriage, had yet to come up directly in their conversations. She
didn't know how to react when he did this, but he didn't seem deflated
by her ambivalence.
That was how the
trip came together. She had tried to get an interview with someone
in the art therapy program at Western Carolina, but they never called
back. Still, she finished putting together a portfolio.
The morning of
the Big Favor, she awoke to a curiously spacious bed. He was up already.
Not in the apartment. She peeked out through the blinds over the air
conditioner and saw him inside the car, carefully cleaning the windshield
with paper towels and glass cleaner. She put her clothes on and went
down to the street. It was already a hazy, muggy day. He had cleaned
the entire interior of the car, which she'd always thought of as spotless
in the first place. The windshield glistened. All of the books and
papers she had strewn around on the passenger floorboard, all of the
empty coffee cups and wadded-up napkins that had accumulated there
since she'd started dating him, all of the stains on the dashboard,
all were gone.
"What are you
doing?" she asked, truly bewildered.
"Can't go on a
road trip in a dirty car," he said, smiling. He adjusted a new travel-sized
box of tissues between the two front seats and stashed a few packets
of antiseptic wipes in the glove compartment before crawling out of
the car with the cleaning supplies. As they walked up the steps to
his apartment she gazed back at the car in wonder, noting that he'd
even scoured the tires. She remembered the story he'd told of trying
to get a vanity plate for the car, a single zero. North Carolina dmv
wouldn't allow it, for reasons as vague as any Supreme Court ruling.
Neither would they allow two zeroes. He made it all the way up to
five zeroes and they still wouldn't allow it. So he gave up and got
the fairly random HDS-1800.
cups of coffee, she repacked her traincase and grocery bags four times
while he sat on the stoop reading the newspaper. They left a little
after nine a.m., and she could tell that he was rankled that they
didn't leave before nine sharp. It always took her a long time to
get ready, whether or not she was carefully taping baggies of drugs
inside the underwear she had on.
Once they made
it north out of Wilmington, the drive was uneventful. He kept the
needle exactly on 65, even though the Honda didn't have cruise control.
He stayed in the rightmost lane except when passing the occasional
grandma who wasn't doing the speed limit. After he had recounted some
current events he'd gleaned from the paper, they dug into the plastic
case of mix tapes he had stashed under his seat. She nixed the jazz,
and he vetoed the country tapes she'd brought along as too depressing,
so they compromised and listened to some forties bluegrass he'd taped
especially for the trip.
to be hearing a lot of this when you're in grad school in the mountains,"
She was bored
before they even hit Burgaw, and her sketchpad was in the hatchback.
She pawed the dash for the Sharpie that she'd left there, then switched
to the glovebox where she found it living in parallel with a tire
gauge and a McDonald's coffee stirrer. She carefully lettered WWSD
on the knuckles of her left hand.
What Would Satan
Do? Satan would not screw around, that's for sure. Satan would have
no trouble hauling some drugs to the mountains. She flipped her hand
over and stared at it, fingers down. Upside down, because the d was
malformed, it looked like OSMM. Oh Such Magnificent Miracles. Ontological
Secrets Mystify Millions. Other Saviors Make Mistakes.
In Newton Grove,
she demanded a pee break, and she recovered her sketchpad from the
hatch. Just past Raleigh, they left the interstate and found the Devil's
Stomping Ground with few problems, even though there was only a single
sign. She had imagined there'd be more to it, a visitor's center or
something, at least a parking lot. Instead there was a metal sign
that had been blasted with a shotgun more than once, and a dirt trail.
He slowed the Honda and pulled off onto the grassy shoulder. Traffic
was light on the state road, just the occasional overloaded pickup
swooshing by on the way to Bear Creek and Bennett and further west
to Whynot. He pulled his camera from the duffel bag, checked that
all the car doors were locked, and led the way down the trail into
the woods. It was just after noon on a cloudy day, and the air smelled
thickly of pine resin. Squirrels chased each other from tree to tree,
chattering and shrieking.
It was only two
hundred yards to the clearing. The trees opened up onto a circle about
forty feet across. The circle was covered in short, wiry grass, but
as the guidebook had said, none grew along the outer edge. The clearing
was ringed by a dirt path. Nothing grew there, but the path was not
empty. It was strewn with litter: smashed beer bottles, cigarette
butts, shredded pages from hunting and porno magazines were all ground
into the dust. These were not the strangest things on the path, though.
thing on the path was the Devil. He was marching around the path,
counter-clockwise; just then he was directly across the clearing from
them. They stood and waited for him to walk around to their side.
The Devil was
rail thin, wearing a too-large red union suit that had long since
faded to pink. It draped over his caved-in chest in front and bagged
down almost to his knees in the seat. A tattered red bath towel was
tied around his neck, serving as a cape. He wore muddy red suede shoes
that looked like they'd been part of a Christmas elf costume. His
black hair was tousled from the wind, swooping back on the sides but
sticking straight up on the top of his head. His cheeks bore the pockmarks
of acne scars; above them, he wore gold Elvis Presley-style sunglasses.
His downcast eyes seemed to be focusing on the black hairs sprouting
from his chin and upper lip, too sparse to merit being called a goatee.
"This must be
the place," she said.
The Devil approached,
neither quickening nor slowing his pace. She could tell that this
was unnerving Secrest a bit. Whenever he was nervous, he sniffed,
and that was what he was doing. Sniffing.
"You smell something?"
asked the Devil, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head. "Fire
and/or brimstone, perhaps?" The Devil held up both hands and waggled
them. His fingers were covered in black grime.
Secrest just stood
still, but she leaned over and smelled the Devil's hand.
"Motor oil!" she
pronounced. The Devil reeked of motor oil and rancid sweat masked
by cheap aftershave. "Did your car break down?"
"I don't know
nothing about any car," the Devil said. "All I know about is various
plots involving souls, and about trying to keep anything fresh or
green or good out of this path. But speaking of cars, if you're heading
west on I-40, can I catch a ride with y'all?"
"Uh, no," Secrest
said, then he turned to her. "Come on, let's go. There's nothing to
see here." He sniffed again.
"Nothing to see?"
cried the Devil. "Look at this circle! You see how clean it is? You
know how long it took me to fix this place up?"
filthy," Secrest said, poking his toe at the shattered remains of
a whiskey bottle, grinding the clear glass into a candy bar wrapper
The Devil paused
and glanced down to either side.
"Well, you should've
seen it a while back."
to leave, tugging gently at her sleeve. She followed but said, "C'mon,
I've picked up tons of hitchhikers in my time, and I've never been
messed with. Besides, there's two of us, and he's a scrawny little
"A scrawny little
"He's funny. Live
a little, give the guy a ride. You've read On the Road, right?"
"Yes. The Subterraneans
was better." Secrest hesitated, as if reconsidering, which gave the
Devil time to creep up right behind them.
"Stay on the path!"
the Devil said, smiling. "Forward, march!"
and turned back toward the path to the car. They marched along for
a few more steps, and then he suddenly reached down, picked up a handful
of dirt, then spun and hurled it at the Devil.
The Devil sputtered
and threw his hands up far too late to keep from getting pelted with
dirt and gravel.
"Go away!" Secrest
said. He looked like he was trying to shoo a particularly ferocious
"What did you
do that for? You've ruined my outfit."
She walked over
and helped brush the dirt off. "C'mon, now you've got to give
him a ride." The Devil looked down at her hand and saw the letters
"Ah, yep, what
would Satan do? Satan would catch a ride with you fine folks, that's
what he'd do. Much obliged."
From there back
to the interstate the Devil acted as a chatty tour guide, pointing
out abandoned gold mines and Indian mounds along the way. Secrest
had the windows down, so the Devil had to shout over the wind blowing
through the cabin of the Honda. Secrest wouldn't turn on the AC until
he hit the interstate. "It's not efficient to operate the air conditioning
until you're cruising at highway speeds," he had told her. That was
fine with her; the wind helped to blow some of the stink off of the
A highway sign
showed that they were twenty-five miles out of Winston-Salem. "Camel
City coming up," the Devil said, keeping up his patter.
"Yeah, today we've
rolled through Oak City, the Bull City, the Gate City, all the fabulous
trucker cities of North Carolina," Secrest replied. "What's the nickname
"Ash City," said
They got back
on the interstate near Greensboro, and Secrest rolled up all the power
windows. When he punched the AC button on the dash, though, nothing
happened. The little blue led failed to light. Secrest punched the
button over and over, but no cool air came out. He sniffed and rolled
down all of the windows again.
He took the next
exit and pulled into the parking lot of a large truck stop, stopping
far from the swarms of eighteen wheelers. He got out and popped the
"You guys should
check out the truck stop," he said. "Buy a magazine or something."
In the few weeks she'd known Secrest, she'd seen him like this several
times. Silent, focused, just like solving a problem in math class.
She hated it when he acted this way, and stalked off to find the restroom.
When she returned,
he was sitting in the driver's seat, rubbing his hands with an antiseptic
"What's the verdict?"
"Unknown. I checked
the fuses, the drive belt to the compressor, the wires to the compressor...nothing
looks broken. I'll have to take it to the shop when we get back to
Wilmington. You don't have a nail brush in your purse, do you?"
"A nail brush,
for cleaning under your fingernails. Never mind."
me," the Devil said, throwing open the back door. He had a large plastic
bag in his hand. Secrest pulled back onto the road and turned down
the entrance ramp. The Devil pulled out a packaged apple pie, a can
of lemonade, and a copy of Barely Legal magazine and set them
on the seat next to him. Secrest glanced back at the Devil in the
rearview as he sped up to enter the stream of traffic.
"What have you
got back there?"
"Pie and a drink.
"No, I want you
to put them away. You're going to get the back seat all dirty."
The Devil folded
down one of the rear seats to get into the hatch compartment.
"What are you
doing?" asked Secrest, staring up into the rearview. The car
drifted lazily into the path of a Cadillac in the center lane until
Secrest looked down from the mirror and swerved back. She turned to
look at what was going on and got a faceful of baggy pink Devil butt.
The Devil didn't
respond; he just continued rummaging. Finally he turned and gave a
satisfied sigh. He had a roll of duct tape from Secrest's emergency
kit, and he zipped off a long piece. Starting at the front of the
floorboards in the back seat, he fixed the tape to the carpet, rolled
it up over the transmission hump and over to the other side, carefully
bisecting the cabin. A gleaming silver snake guarding the back seat
of the car.
"I get to be dirty
on this side," he said. "You can do whatever you want up there." Then
he picked up his copy of Barely Legal and started thumbing
through it, holding the magazine up so it covered his face.
argue. She looked over at him and noticed he was preoccupied with
other matters. Secrest's hands, still dirty from poking around in
the engine compartment, had stained the pristine blue plastic of the
steering wheel, and he rubbed at these stains as he drove along.
She could see
the speedometer from her seat, and he was over the speed limit, inching
up past 70 steadily. He'd also started hanging out in the middle lane,
not returning immediately to the safety of the right lane after he
passed someone. Traffic thinned out as the land changed from flat
plains to rolling hills, but he still stayed in the middle lane. Plenty
of folks drove ten miles over the speed limit. That was standard.
Secrest probably attracted more attention the way he normally drove
-- folks were always zooming up behind him in the right lane, cursing
at him because he had the gall to do the speed limit. Now he was acting
more like a normal driver -- breaking the speed limit, changing lanes.
The Devil sat
silently on the hump in the middle of the back seat, concentrating
on the road ahead. The pie wrapper and empty can rolled around on
the seat next to him. She watched the speedometer inch its way up.
At 75 Secrest suddenly started to pull over through the empty right
lane into the emergency lane.
"What are you
doing?" she asked. Then she craned her head around just in time to
catch the first blips of the siren from the trooper's car. Blue lights
flashed from the dash of the unmarked black sedan.
The Devil leaned
forward and whispered in her ear. "Be cool, I'll handle this," he
said, and this curse invoked a daydream. In her daydream, she keeps
saying "Goddamn!" over and over. Secrest is busy with slowing down,
putting his hazard lights on, and stopping in the emergency lane.
The Devil is not in her daydream. She pops the door handle and jumps
out while he's still rolling to a stop, losing her footing and scraping
her knees and elbows against the pavement as she rolls to the grassy
shoulder. She stands up, starts running into the trees along the side
of the road. As she goes, she reaches up under her skirt and peels
the Ziploc from her panties, but it's already broken open. Little
white packets fly through the air in all directions. They break open
too, and it's snowing as she charges off into the woods. The trooper
chases her, and just as the last packet flies from her fingertips,
he tackles her. She starts to cry.
Outside of her
daydream, the state trooper asked Secrest for his license and registration.
He retrieved these from the glove compartment, where they were stacked
on top of a pile of oil change receipts and maps. The trooper carefully
watched Secrest's hand, inches away from her drug-laden crotch, as
he did this. She was sitting on her own hands.
you please move your hands to where I can see them?"
She slid her hands
out and placed them flat on top of her thighs.
The trooper took
the registration certificate and Secrest's license, but he kept glancing
back and forth from them to her hands.
isn't it, officer?" the Devil said, pointing to the smeared letters
on her knuckles. The trooper slid his mirrored sunglasses a fraction
and peered into the back seat of the car, staring the Devil in the
"Not really. You
should see the tattoos my Amy got the minute she went off to the college.
I won't even get into the piercings."
"Kids these days...,"
said the Devil.
"Yep. What are
you gonna do?" The trooper pushed his sunglasses back up on his nose
and straightened up. "Well, anyway, here's your paperwork. Try to
watch your speed out there, now." He smiled and handed the cards back
They stopped for
gas near Morganton. There was a Phillips 66 there.
"The mother road,"
decommissioned in 1984, and now all we have are these lousy gas stations,"
said the Devil.
"Ooh, 1984. Doubleplusungood,"
"I'll pump," the
Devil said. "Premium or regular?"
got a large bottle of spring water, another packet of travel-size
tissues, and breath mints. She stared at the array of snacks and the
jeweled colors of the bottles of soda, trying to decide. Behind the
counter, a teenage boy tuned a banjo, twanging away on the strings
while fiddling with the tuning pegs.
It took her a
long time to decide to forgo snacks altogether, and it took the teenager
a long time to tune the banjo. She tried to think of a joke about
Deliverance, but couldn't. Secrest went up to pay, and she
headed for the door.
She went around
to the side of the building to the ladies' room. The lock was busted.
She sat to pee, carefully maintaining the position of the payload
in her underwear. The door swung open and the Devil walked in.
"You know, I've
been wanting to get into your panties ever since we met."
"Get the hell
out of here, or I'll start screaming," she said.
"Oh, that's a
funny one," the Devil said. "But I'm staying right here. You owe me."
"I don't owe you
anything." She was trying to remember if she had anything sharp in
"Of course you
do. Why do you think that cop didn't haul your ass out of the car?
You have me to thank for that, for the fact that all that shit in
your panties is intact, and for the fact that you're not rotting in
one of their cages right about now."
"OK, for one thing,
I don't know what you're talking about. For another, get out of here
or the screaming really starts."
"What I'm talking
about is all that smack you've got taped inside your underwear. The
dope. Las drogas. I want you to give it to me, all of it, right
now. That stuff is bad for you, in case you hadn't heard, and it can
get you in a world of trouble."
"Screw you. You're
not getting any of it. I was serious about the screaming part."
But then it didn't
matter, because Secrest came in right behind the Devil. He spun the
Devil around by the shoulder and kneed him in the crotch. It was the
first time she'd ever seen him do anything remotely resembling violence.
The Devil crumpled to the concrete floor.
"Screw you both,"
the Devil gasped. "I'll take the Greyhound bus anywhere I want to
They checked in
at the Economy Lodge in Asheville. Secrest checked the film in his
camera and folded up an AAA map of downtown into his pocket and set
out to see the sights.
district is a perfect square," he declared, as if he'd made a scientific
discovery. "So I'd like to walk every street in the grid. I figure
I'll get started today with the up and down and finish up tomorrow
on the back and forth while you're at the university. Want to come
She told him she
was tired and crashed out on top of the musty comforter with all of
her clothes on while the overworked air-conditioner chugged away.
She met Rusty
at the Maple Leaf Bar. It had been less than two years since she'd
seen him, but he had to have lost close to fifty pounds, and his hair,
once a luxurious mass, was now thinning and stringy. He still got
that same giddy smile when he caught sight of her, though, and he
rocked back and forth with inaudible laughter. They walked back to
his place on McDowell Street, where he gave her the $900 he owed her
plus $600 for the drugs in her underwear. They celebrated the deal
by getting high in his second floor bedroom, sitting on the end of
the bed and staring out the gable window over the rooftops of old
downtown as the fan whirred rhythmically overhead. After a few minutes,
he collapsed onto his back, let out a long sigh, and then was silent.
She was daydreaming
again. In her daydream, Secrest is out walking the maze, crisscrossing
through the streets until he sees the Devil walking toward him from
the opposite direction. The Devil's shoes look even filthier, and
his goatee has vanished into the rest of the stubble on his face.
His shirt is stained with sweat under the arms and around the collar,
turning the pink to black.
"Not you again,"
Secrest says, kicking the nearest lamppost with the toe of his wingtip.
"I was almost finished with walking every street in the historic district."
He looks away, back toward the green hills of the Pisgah Forest to
the south, then turns back, as if the Devil will have vanished in
you're very good at staying on the path," the Devil says. "But now
it's time for a little detour. Your girlfriend is sitting in an apartment
on McDowell Street."
"Yes, and the
police are closing in, because an old friend of hers has ratted her
out to the cops. They're probably climbing the stairs right now."
Or maybe he says,
"An old friend of hers is dying on the bed next to her right now."
Anyway, the Devil
reaches out and grabs Secrest's hand, shaking it energetically.
"Thanks for the
ride, buddy," he says.
Then Secrest comes
running up the street to save her.
by Richard Butner
Richard Butner interview