Dustin Taggerroot was seventeen when I first met him but he could have been fifty-seven. He was lanky with jumbo-sized joints and a hollow, haggard look that perfectly complemented his sunken eyes, which peered out from beneath his dull straw-like hair. Mean-spirited people might believe at first glance that Dustin was a meth user but that was not true. Dustin’s family is sprinkled with members with jumbo joints and deepset eyes, and many of them are so pasty-faced the little kids have a hell of a time finding the right crayon they need to make a family portrait. I don’t think Crayola makes a “Pallor” shade.
Now while it is true that a branch of Taggerroots have reportedly gone into the meth trade, I might also point out that those particular folks live in Haralson County. It’s the crop the county extension agents don’t care to talk about. I might also point out that Dustin’s family is not that branch of Taggerroots. His are hard-working people who don’t care to waste their dollars blowing their minds on meth. There’s shoes for the young ‘uns to buy, flour for biscuits to get, and Granny Taggerroot’s tithe-ten-percent mantra is unshakable.
Dustin was hard at his job unloading boxes of booze behind O’Paddy’s Irish Pub when we first met. I was taking a shortcut through the alley in order to avoid running into Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle in the Square. I know that marks me as a coward, but that is only if the one making such a judgment has never met Viola when she’s mad. Dustin stared at me as I approached, and I am ashamed to admit I thought he was a Halloween decoration. Just about the time I realized no, this decoration was breathing and 3-D, the dawn of recognition lit his pale blue eyes. He cleared his throat and spoke in a drawl that slogged through molasses.
“You’re that goat guy, that Truman Fable from Fable Feed and Seed, ain’t you?”
“Yes, I am. And you are…?”
“Dustin Taggerroot. I went to school with your daughter.”
“Went to school? Past tense?”
“Yeah, I dropped out. I ain’t into all that.”
“Oh. So what are you into, working at O’Paddy’s?”
He shrugged his shoulders. His hair hung despondently down to past his ears and the bangs kicked over his eyes in defiance of the part down the middle of his scalp. He scratched the stubble of a beard. “Right now I’m into growing my hair out to keep me warm this winter. It’s okay. It’s a job.”
I invited him to visit the Feed and Seed, bid him a good day and went on my way. Over the next few years I saw him now and then. In the winter the brittle dishwater blonde hair reached to his shoulders and the beard was in full force; in the spring he shaved it on the Equinox and kept his face in semi-stubble all summer. I do not believe this was planned; Dustin was more of a oh-yeah-I-ought-to-shave-today sort of fellow rather than a use-a-special-stubble-attachment-on-the-razor kind of guy. Whenever we saw each other we would exchange greetings and brief pleasantries. Sometimes he came to the Feed and Seed to buy his grandmother vegetable garden seeds or a clever kitchen utensil. On my suggestion he bought some mane shampoo for horses that he used on himself, and the straw quality gradually lessened. He liked it because it was cheap, an important consideration on an O’Paddy salary.
He came in on his twenty-second birthday and announced, “I’m going north, Mr. Fable!” He had met a co-ed from New York when she came to the pub with friends from the college, and she and Dustin started dating. He decided to go home with her during semester break. His hair was nowhere as brittle as it once was and love had apparently also improved his wardrobe. The plaid shirt was clean and pressed and he wore khakis instead of torn blue jeans. I wished him a good trip and we shook hands.
The next time I saw Dustin Taggerroot it was five years later, and I hardly recognized him. Jim Dimity and I were having lunch in O’Paddy’s when we heard a whoop from the bartender, who turned up the sound of the big screen TV next to him. There, big as life, was Dustin Taggerroot or so the text scrawl at the bottom of the screen claimed. Dustin was strolling past the camera with a menacing snarl for the reporter. Dustin wore a white linen suit with a blue silk shirt open at the neck. His hair was neatly trimmed in the metrosexual style, shiny and blond and sleekly combed back from his face. His face still had a couple of days’ worth of stubble on it but it was definitely shaped, clean-shaven under the chin and neck. The rest of his face that was not covered in big dark glasses was tanned a nice golden saddle color.
“Is that really a Taggerroot?” Jim whispered to me. “I didn’t think they came in that shade.”
The Entertainment Totally anchor warbled, “We caught up with Dustin on his way to Fashion Week and asked about the rumors. The normally taciturn supermodel had a lot to say about it.”
His voice no longer had that long Greater Metropolitan Roopville drawl. It was shorter and he put g’s on the end of some words, as if simply by saying something quicker, that made the g hurry up to join the rest of the word. “I don’t know why it’s anyone’s business what I eat, but I do eat. I’m not starving myself. Now beat it.” He pushed past the cameraman and disappeared through a doorway.
The anchor continued in her perpetually upbeat delivery, “Dustin reportedly makes six figures a spread, so he’s definitely not starving!” As if that made any damn sense, but then it was Entertainment Totally so there you are.
“Hometown boy makes good!” the bartender howled, but then added sourly, “and he had to turn into a little snot to do it.”
Not long ago, supermodel Dustin Taggerroot returned home to Greater Metropolitan Roopville to attend his grandmother’s funeral. He came to the Feed and Seed to buy a potted plant to place on the grave. I saw him emerge from the black Cadillac, wearing a thousand-dollar Calvin Klein suit as he strode to the door. He stopped short at the entrance so suddenly his elegant outsider entourage of four piled up on themselves to keep from plowing into him. He slowly pulled the sunglasses off and his pale blue eyes stood out in contrast on his natural-on-anyone-but-a-Taggerroot tan complexion. When we made eye contact, he burst into a smile and spread those long slender arms like a condor and hugged me to him. His entourage stared bug-eyed at this phenomenon not experienced by any of them, but Dustin paid them no mind.
“Hi there, Mr. Fable!” he greeted. “Man, I sure missed you all!”
No no no. That is how the words are spelled. How he said it was, “Ha thair Mister FAY-bel! MAY-un, Ah shore mist y’all!” He spent the next fifteen minutes extolling the virtues of the town he never figured he’d ever leave, and buying a plant from the last man he spoke to before leaving town. He took some daffodils out to Granny Taggerroot’s grave and planted them with enough clearance for the headstone. His entourage looked stunned and their eyes glazed over. Dustin got the knees of his dark Calvin Klein suit dirty, but people say he was smiling and chatting like the old days at O’Paddy’s all the while.
You can take the boy out of Greater Metropolitan Roopville but you can’t pry the Greater Metropolitan Roopville from a hometown boy with a crowbar.