I’ve been on the five-year college plan, and now it’s time for me to accept my piece of paper to show for all those expensive college classes Uncle Jerry paid for. If it wasn’t so dang important to see me strut across the long stage in front of doting parents, grandparents, and whatnot, I’d be home watchin’ a little wrastlin’.
“You look so cute in a suit,” Mama says. “C’mere, Tim, let me fix your tie.”
“Whatsamatter with my tie, Mama? I done it just like Uncle Jerry taught me.”
She shakes her head and laughs. “You can take the boy to college, but you can’t take the redneck outa him.”
“The apple don’t fall far from the tree, Mama.”
“True.” She gives my tie an extra yank and cups my face in her hands. I hate when she does that, but I know it makes her feel good. “I am so proud of you, shoogie. You’ve worked so hard to get your degree, and now you’re gonna start on a career of a lifetime.”
“Mama.” I take a step back and look her in the eye. “I’m just gonna be sellin’ hair products. That’s not exactly my dream job.”
“And why not? It’s perfectly respectable, and Jerry is kind enough to give you a company car and all the benefits to go with it.”
I’d much rather be sellin’ farm equipment or maybe even runnin’ some of it myself. But Uncle Jerry felt like he had to man up when my daddy, his brother, took off and left me and mama. Some of my college buddies still hadn’t found jobs, so I know I should at least act grateful.
“Yeah, I’m a lucky guy,” I say. “Not everyone has an Uncle Jerry.”
“Did I hear my name?” There’s no mistakin’ my uncle’s boomin’ voice that sounds bigger than life. “C’mon, let’s leave this boy alone so he can get his sheepskin.” He winks at me. “You’re becomin’ a man tonight, and we’re all so proud we could pop.”
The next three hours drag as the university president calls out the name of each graduate. The whole experience is about as boring as it can get, but I know that’s all part of growin’ up. When I was a kid, I thought it would be cool to be an adult on account of it looked like they could do whatever they wanted, eat whatever they wanted, and stay up as long as they wanted. Now I know better. Bein’ an adult means tryin’ to pretend you’re havin’ fun when you’re bored to tears.
After the whole thing is over, Uncle Jerry tells all the women folk that he needs to talk to me, man-to-man. I cringe ‘cause I think he wants to have the birds-and-bees chat with me. I learned the normal way—from my pals in the boys’ room back in middle school. But since this is one of those things that’s so all-fired important to him, I figure I’ll just let him do what he feels like he needs to do.
“Now that you’re all graduated, it’s time to tell you my plans,” he says as he grins and pulls some keys out of his pocket. “Oh, and while we’re at it, here are the keys to your company car.”
My heart pounds. I never had my own automobile before. I start to grab for them, but he pulls them a few inches away.
“C’mon, let’s go out to the parkin’ lot, and I’ll show you the car I’ve leased for you.”
I don’t expect the snazziest sports car in the world, but when he leads me to a land yacht on wheels, my heart sinks. “This is it?”
Uncle Jerry’s chest swells as he nods and grins. “I usually start my salesmen with the basic fleet car, but since you’re my nephew, I thought I’d get you into the biggest and most upgraded Buick they had.”
“I’m fine with the basic car. Seriously, Uncle Jerry, this car is way…too big for me.” No way do I wanna be seen in this big ol’ honkin’ thang.
He turns around and looks the car over before turning back to me. “Are you sure? Most of my salesmen would love to have this car.”
“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you give it to one of ‘em, and I can take their old car?”
At first, I’m a little worried that he’ll take offense, but when he slaps me on the back and flings his arm over my shoulder, I know I done somethin’ good. “You’ve just made one man very happy, Tim. Why don’t you take my car tonight, and I’ll drive this one over to Lawrence’s house tomorrow? Me and you can swap out when you and your mama come to lunch on Sunday.”
We head back to the arena, him talkin’ and me listenin’…or at least tryin’ to. He goes on and on about my new territory.
“You might not think it’s all that great to call on hair salons, but believe you me, it’s better than it looks on the surface,” he says.
“Yeah, you get to see pretty ladies all day. They’ll probably fawn all over you in the beginning, but after they get to know you, they’ll share their deepest confidences. You’ll become their best guy friend.”
That doesn’t sound all that great to me. Bein’ just friends with a pretty girl isn’t my idea of a good time.
“And there will be some who will take a different kind of likin’ to you.” He grins and nudges me in the ribs with his elbow. “Know what I mean?”
Now we’re talkin’. I smile. “Yeah, I think so.”
“And speakin’ of pretty girls, the first account I’m givin’ you is Prissy’s Cut ‘n Curl in Piney Point. The owner is a young woman with a ton of ambition. I figure the two of you, both bein’ so new in the business, will be able to grow together.”
“Piney Point?” I say. “Ain’t that the hick town out from Hattiesburg?”
“Tim, let me set you straight on somethin’ before you go spoutin’ off insults to your clients. Some of those what you call hick towns grow some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Don’t ever forget where you come from.”
I feel ashamed of myself. “I’m sorry, Uncle Jerry. I don’t know what got into me.”
“You’re just feelin’ all full of yourself ‘cause you just got yourself a college degree.”
“I’ll make you proud,” I say as I draw a cross over my chest with my finger. “I promise.”
“I know you will. Take the next week and get your stuff together. I’ve put a deposit on an apartment in Jackson that’s centrally located in your territory.”
I hadn’t thought about where I’d live. “Does Mama know you done that?”
Uncle Jerry exploded with booming laughter. “Does your mama know? Tim, she’s the one who picked it out.”