K.J. and Jake swing open the doors. They fly across the parking lot into the building, where they get lost among the flotsam and jetsam of the restaurant's country store. Nancy worries because it's late and the boys are tired. They need to eat, and they also need to be up early. Accompanying the family are two men, Brian Kenney and Hillbilly, who refused to give his legal name, out of concern over stalkers. They're the team's drivers, and they haul K.J.'s Peterbilt and storage trailer — where the monster trucks are kept — to the tracks every weekend.

"You're goin' back to Atlanta?" Hillbilly asks a New Times reporter, his words a garble of Western Kentucky mountains. "Why, shoot, you should come to Cedartown and stay with me 'n' Brian, and Brian can sleep on the floor!" he says, unironically slapping his thigh. Nancy corrals the boys, who, by this moment, would have already bought every trinket in the store had their allowances permitted. Meanwhile, Tod makes small talk with the hostess about her shaved head. Something along the lines of "What happened to your hair?" He doesn't mean any harm by it, but not everyone gets Tod's deadpan sense of humor. She offers a half-laugh and wordlessly leads the family to a table for seven.

K.J. scoots into the corner and jams a gummy crayon against a kid's paper menu. As soon as his brother sits down, Jake spills the plastic pegs from the wooden triangle game onto the table. Jake grins, showing off a black cavern of missing baby teeth.

Nancy, K.J., Jake, and Tod at the family’s warehouse.
Michael McElroy
Nancy, K.J., Jake, and Tod at the family’s warehouse.
K.J. signs pieces of a foam school bus.
Kevin Berryman
K.J. signs pieces of a foam school bus.

"Hey, hey, hey, so my dad and I, we built some rocking chairs that were little bit bigger than those," he says, pointing between a child-sized chair and an adult rocker, visible through the window. K.J. looks down, grabs his crayon, puts it against the paper, and bites his lower lip. He looks up, eyes a fading flash. "But they, um, didn't come out right."

The waitress approaches. Nancy orders the boys milk and grilled chicken tenders with applesauce and side salads.

"What kind of dressing do you want, K.J.?" Nancy, a Fort Lauderdale native, asks.

"Peh, peh, peh... "

"K.J., what kind of dressing?"

"Peh, peh, peh... "


"Peh peh peh... "

"He wants pepper — "

"Peppercorn ranch!" he says, squishing his mouth.

"Me and my brother made swords and shields and were playing with them," he says. "They're made out of wood. With tinfoil on them. Jake's is SpongeBob and has SpongeBob on it."

What's on his?

"A monster truck."

The waitress drops off the salads and the main courses too. K.J. pushes the lettuce around with his fork but shoves the tomato and onion to the side of the plate. He and his brother gnaw on the marinated chicken tenderloins but tend to match each bite with a fidget. On the flight, K.J. spent the hourlong jaunt playing monster truck videogames on one of several hand-held consoles that he owns. He returns to his food.

At the other end of the table, Tod, Hillbilly, Brian, and Nancy talk about the track and whether the jumps are set up and what can be expected from Cedartown.

"Hey, Kaid," Tod asks, "what kind of jumps do you want?"

"Like this," K.J. says, holding his hand at an angle.

"That's called a 40-degree jump."

"I want a 40-degree jump then."

K.J. drops his chin into his hand.

"You want to say what you're going to do tomorrow?" Nancy asks. "Your routine?"

K.J. pouts and shakes his head.

"No?" she says.

"You want to keep it a surprise?"

"Yeah," K.J. says, tucking his knees against his chest.

"You boys done with your food?" Nancy asks. They give some form of a nod, and she slips the remaining chicken and accompaniments to Tod, who has cleaned his own plate of a trout dinner moments earlier.

Talk returns to the track. K.J. slouches. His head is in his hands.

Nancy details how K.J. got into the sport, speaking with that cadence and familiarity with which a mother tells her son about the day he was born. According to Nancy, K.J.'s obsession with monster trucks began at age 3, when she took him to his first Monster Jam. "From that point on, everything was monster trucks," says Nancy, who works as a title agent. The curvy blond's soft voice and general girlishness belie that she also participates in the sport. From time to time, Nancy will commandeer the mastodon of a truck that is Black Night during these weekend bouts.

"In preschool, every time K.J. had to draw something, he would draw monster trucks," she says.

Fast-forward two years. K.J. told Mom and Dad that he wanted a monster truck for his fifth birthday. He wanted it to be named Gravedigger, after his favorite Monster Jam contender. Mom and Dad agreed. They bought K.J. a go-cart and airbrushed it with a gray-scale graveyard, with hints of electric green.

When K.J. got home and saw his present, he said: "That's not a monster truck."

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