The small South Carolina municipality of Darlington – population a little over 6,000 – is currently famous for just one thing. Each Labor Day weekend, its racetrack plays host to the Southern 500, one of the key events of the NASCAR racing circuit.
Perhaps one day soon, however, the word “Darlington” will become associated in the popular imagination with the fiction of the town’s most creative resident Phillip Gardner.
A North Carolina native who has called Darlington home for over 30 years, Gardner has just published his fifth collection of short stories. Titled “Where They Come From, Where They Hide,” the book contains 17 tales set in a fictionalized version of Darlington and, in particular, a fictional watering hole the author has named the Paradise Lounge.
Sooner or later, most of book’s denizens spend some time in this imaginary honkytonk: either working, drinking, getting into trouble, or perhaps all three. The pivotal character is Coach, whose now-doomed relationship with his wife B.B. had once provided the people of this fictional Darlington with a model of what true love might look like. That was before Coach lost his job at the local high school for beating up a young rowdy who desecrated the one tangible vestige of his single moment of glory, the state championship banner. Now the book’s male characters, most of whom played football under Coach’s guidance or sat in his history class, try to cushion their idol’s slow but inevitable dissolution.
The stories are also linked by another character who calls himself Vapor. He is the classic observer. With his nondescript facial features and near-total lack of social skills, Vapor claims to be completely forgettable; in fact, he is generally remembered, if at all, as just the man in the turtleneck. Vapor also serves as a witness to Coach’s decline and to the comings and goings of the Paradise Lounge patrons.
So many characters in the book are marked by unfulfilled longing. Molly, for example, feels that she and her husband Joe are “like two strangers waiting at an elevator.” Her future appears not so much connected to her mate as it is dependent upon her dog Skippy, a “rat-faced” Chihuahua whose costumed antics have made him a social media sensation.
Four tales are focused on the tragicomic love triangle of Pete, Russ and Chloe. Best friends Pete Hump, owner of Pete Hump’s Heat Pumps, and Russ Watts are entangled in a knock-down-drag-out struggle for the affections of the latter’s wife Chloe, whose good looks make her dream of Hollywood and rebel against any attempt at domesticity. On the run from her husband Russ, Chloe makes Pete take her to Dollywood, Graceland and, on her own after she leaves Pete duct taped to his steering wheel, the Ava Gardner Museum. She is on a quest to find out what destiny has in store for someone with movie star looks. The two men in her life are little more than collateral damage.
Most of the stories in the collection come with a soundtrack. The characters are listening to music on the Paradise Lounge jukebox or on their car radio or in their heads. One of the joys of reading the collection is discovering how effectively Gardner has matched the music to the plot of each tale. In this regard, his own personal experience as the member of a musical group, the Gardners of Soule, has stood him well.
When Russ comes to the final realization that his wife has transferred her affection to another man, the 1964 rendition of “You Lost that Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers is playing on his truck radio; and when he decides to pursue Chloe and his erstwhile best friend Pete across country, “Searching” by the 1970s Southern hard rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd is the soundtrack of his long drive. In one memorable chapter set the night before the annual Southern 500, one of the barmaids at the Paradise Lounge programs the jukebox according to what she believes will be how the evening will unfold, beginning with “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles and ending at 2 a.m. with some hard-driving tune by Australian rock band AC/DC.
Gardner knows his popular music; he also knows how to weave a tale that balances deftly between comedy and pathos. Take the character of Chloe. Lest we dismiss her as one of countless young people for whom a middle class life holds no charm – the author describes her initially as a “woman whose idea of housework was opening the mail” – and for whom effortless fame and fortune is just around the corner, we get a final glimpse of Chloe walking through the “tombstone landscape” of Sunset Memorial Park near Smithfield, North Carolina, trying to find the grave of Ava Gardner. Chloe anticipates an imaginary conversation with the movie star, during which she’ll somehow learn what she must do next. “She knows Ava is out there, waiting. It is the one thing Chloe knows, the one certainty, the one sure thing. She will look and listen. Await a sign.”
Published by Lamar University Literary Press, “Where They Come From, Where They Hide” is available from major online retailers.