by Dan Patterson
Wilmington North Carolina and Warner Robbins Georgia are 422 miles apart, and it was that much blacktop and at least two family branches that separated William Reuben Lewis and Kenneth Reuben Wilson. Their shared middle names were from a common ancestor dead and buried in Louisiana in 1867, their mothers chose the name decades apart after looking through Bibles and family albums; they wanted to get away from the Stephens, Kevins, Jameses, and Richards all around them. And because the name had a certain something about it, maybe it was a romance and mystery about the tintypes with expressionless faces from the family archives that appealed to each woman’s sense of adventure. Maybe it was the old fashioned sound of it. Whatever it was neither man ever met another Reuben though William would be only 19 in December, Kenneth was 60 this past June.
The two had met without knowing at a wedding in Charlotte when Kenneth was not yet 40 and William had yet to take his first step; William couldn’t have remembered anything and Kenneth couldn’t even remember who got married but he did remember the bridesmaid that blushed and smiled when she caught him staring at her. And how hot it was standing around waiting for the photographs, and then more waiting in the heat and tight suits so they could all pretend everyone would be happy for ever after and throw rice at the couple when they ran to the getaway car. Another wedding or two and a couple of funerals over the years brought pieces of the family together here and there, toddlers became school kids and everyone got a little older then a lot older and their paths sort of mingled in those crowds but not so they would remember.
The time in the morning was the best, alone and quiet. Sandra wasn’t such a sound sleeper so him and the dog Sammy had a good routine worked out, rain or shine. It had gotten so that his body clock woke him up around three every morning and he used to lie there with his eyes closed and pretend to sleep but what was the point of that? And for the past year or better he’d been sleeping in the guest room to keep from disturbing her. “You snore,” she’d said. “Yeah, you do too,” he thought, but didn’t press it. So the guest room it was. Better that way anyhow.
He’d get up quietly and the dog would sneak in to the kitchen with him, they’d go outside and do some business, check the weather, sniff around the yard a little, then go in for breakfast. On days when the mood struck him, the two of them would go to the small shop behind the garage and work on a motorcycle or lawn mower for a neighbor or friend before getting ready for work. The shop started as a place to park his bike when they moved in, what, fifteen years ago now? They had just gotten married a year before and Sandra got full custody of her son just after that so they needed more room. His first wife had a kid, too but that all fell apart before they needed to adjust. When they first started dating, Sandra was all about riding with him on the Road King, she even started wearing biker chick clothes when they rode that showed off her figure and didn’t mind him taking curves a little fast and getting on it pretty good from a stop light. Things slowed down some as her son Jessie got older and they spent time at sports and school events with him but they still made time to take trips, dinners with friends, maybe a trip to the beach or mountains here and there. Then the economy took a dump when the big shots tripped over their scams, of course none of those guys took it in the shorts but it hit people like them hard. He was laid off and took on odd jobs and did mechanic work in his shop for over a year, Sandra went back to work managing a doctor’s office. And all that changed things. Or maybe it was just them getting older but the days all ran together, all they talked about was how to pay bills and what was going to happen next. She got rid of all her fun clothes, he sold the Road King, Jessie’s work went bankrupt and his girlfriend broke up with him so he moved back in with them and that made for a crowd. Sandra would wake up mad and the day usually didn’t improve from there, and she lost interest in most everything. Like all that was his fault.
The world gradually improved and some things got back on track. He got on at a Northrop in the machine shop, Jessie found a job in Savannah and Sandra went to part time at the doctor’s office. The days were not all dreadful and there was some time for fun again, but not like it was. He found a good deal on a BMW road bike but she turned her nose up at it so he sold it for what he paid for it. A buddy had a Moto Guzzi 750 he’d sell so they made a deal on it. Italian Red with black leather and it looked killer, plus it was lighter and easier to handle than the Road King and with getting older that was another plus. A good list of aftermarket pieces let him add some personal touches, a touring seat and small windscreen made it a better road bike. He’d done all the maintenance on it for his friend so he knew the bike inside and out, and it felt great to have a bike of his own in the shop again. He’d tried his best and at this point Sandra could like it or not like it.
“One of the girls at work invited me to do yoga at the Y,” Sandra said while she was rinsing squash in the sink one Friday. “I was thinking about doing some workout stuff, you know,” and she let it trail off.
“Baby that sounds like a good idea,” he said. “Not that you need it or anything.”
“Oh, you. Go on now,” and she tossed the end of a squash at him. It hit the floor and Sammy snarfed it up. She had been a little playful now and then lately, sort of like the old days.
“I should get with some kind of program myself, eat better, you know? Lift some weights, get back in better shape. I stepped on the scales at work and I’m a few pounds more than I need to be. And you know the babes don’t dig on old men with beer bellies, or do they?”
“No they don’t and you’re more than a few pounds over dearie,” she said but she smiled.
But she was right. After he’d gotten out of the Army he’d stayed pretty much in shape; they’d both quit smoking long ago and didn’t do anything out of reason, but time does take its toll so some changes were way overdue. So he started a weight routine at a gym, was careful about what he ate, got better definition and added some muscle, and took a notch then two then three in his belt. Sandra did yoga at the Y, workout sessions three or four times a week, spent some time on a tanning bed. And then a new haircut, changed her makeup, bought some new clothes and it was damn, girl.
So things got a little better between them and they didn’t talk about it but it seemed like they were sort of getting back on the same page maybe, more or less. About a year later at work the supervisors called his group together and talked about the coming changes for the industry and how they had to adapt.
The next day he had an email to report to Associate Relations for a meeting and was given the option of separating with a package, or an immediate reduction in pay and benefits. The writing was on the wall for employees his age, the next step would be a reorganization, or outsourcing, or merger, or some back room deal and then he would be patting the streets again. But only after he’d trained his replacement and it was expected he’d smile the whole time. He took the deal. Since he’d gotten out of the Army there had been several of these shuffles and re-stacks at different companies and none of them worked out. So here he was faced with this shit sandwich again, too young to retire and too old to be the new guy with some big company. So instead of stewing about it he decided to take some days off to update his resume and start talking to people out there and see what he could dig up. Rumors were going around a few months ago and he’d brought it up with Sandra but she reacted like she’d stepped on a snake. So he just went about his usual morning routine and didn’t say anything about the meeting at work or taking some time off, not yet. He’d get a plan together first and then they could talk about it. He went on as usual and left like he normally did, but then drove over to Print and Go to make copies on good paper and get some help with making on line applications. All that went well and he made copies and transferred the file to a thumb drive, now he felt better about it, like he was doing the right thing trying to get in front of all of it and be prepared. The folder with copies and cover letters went on the front seat and he was on the way to an independent garage east of town, they had referred each other some work in the past and that seemed like a good place to start.
A news report came blaring on the radio about layoffs at work and budget cuts and how cutbacks were being made immediately across the board. Damned if it didn’t sound a lot worse than the company made it out to be. Some young guy was interviewing people at the plant; he bent over a little to listen better and took his eyes off the road for a half second, but that was enough for the guy in front of him to jam on his brakes at a stop light. He hit the brakes hard enough for the anti-skid to rattle and barely missed eating the rear-end of a box truck. “That’s what not paying attention will get you, dumbass,” he said to himself. The quick stop caused the file folder to hit the floorboard, so he bent over to gather all that together and kept lecturing himself about the near miss. When he raised up a few cars were stacking up at the light in the left lane and a new yellow ‘Vette convertible with the top down rolled by slowly and stopped with the door even with his mirror. Sandra was in the passenger seat talking and laughing with the driver not five feet away but she hadn’t seen him. Before that completely registered the driver leaned over for a kiss with his hand on her neck. A deep passionate moment between the two, a romantic connection and not a new one.
His mouth went dry and his heart stopped for a beat. Just then the light changed and the ‘Vette blasted away so he turned right and pulled into a convenience store parking lot. What did he just see, anyway? A hundred scenes played in his head looking for clues, but it was no use and all he had after twenty minutes was a headache and more questions. And he had to pee and right now. So he walked like he was under water past the gas pumps into the store and made for the men’s room with the weight of what he’d just seen dragging behind him like a sled.
“Time to get going or you’re going to be late again,” his mom yelled at him from down the hall. A quick look in the mirror as he rushed by, his hair was just right.
“Yeah, I’m out of here. Bye,” and he hit the door to the carport and walked a few steps to the old Toyota he shared with his older sister. It turned over but barely and caught, blowing a plume of blue oil smoke, and late or not it had to warm up a minute or the transmission would slip. So that forced a little wait before he could go to the first day of his last month at John Hoggard High, not that he was in a hurry. Since Friday afternoon there had been a change in the air at school, it was like everyone was just waiting to go on vacation; the future was out there somewhere but fun came before that, they deserved it. There was more than a little excitement in his stomach this morning, but not about school. Shannon Miles said she’d love to meet for lunch. Finally! They had been flirting and talking on the phone for months, but not able to make a date for one reason or another. Shannon was in the drama club, dance team, orchestra, and debate team and their classes were mostly on different ends of the building but they talked on the phone almost every day. They had been friends since 6th grade and she had gone from regular girl to heart-stopping gorgeous after their sophomore year, and since then he’d been slowly cultivating their friendship building it toward something special.
He’d rather ride his motorcycle but Shannon might want to a skip classes and take a ride over to Wrightsville or Airlie Gardens with him after lunch. He checked the back floorboard for the little gift bag and card he’d stashed; it had a flash drive of some very cool music they’d talked about and pair of blown glass earrings with a bracelet that had some of the same colors. Nothing too personal for the first date but still nice. The card was dark green thick artisan paper, a blank writing sheet was inside and a feather lacquered on a thin diamond shaped piece of black walnut on the front. He’d written “First Date” and signed and dated it and put it carefully in the bag.
He didn’t have trouble finding a parking spot because about half the senior class was missing in action that morning. Shannon’s car wasn’t in the lot so he just left the note he’d written to put under her wiper, “See you at ‘leven,” in his backpack. He talked with the advisors about some of those plans for next year that just couldn’t seem to gel and about getting some ideas together for an alternative of some sort to college. Nothing came of it except best wishes, good luck, etc. so he filed all that in the forget-it folder in his head. What he secretly planned was to ask Shannon one more time, directly and no more dancing around it, what she’d decided on for next year. Then he could get in to a school there, maybe it would take a year at a community college first but it’d be worth it to be close; she had said several times she hadn’t made up her mind but she was always on the honor roll and was in all the college prep classes so she had to have some kind of idea. “I’m just not really sure yet, you know?” she’d say then change the subject. But time was running out so today he’d make a stand and get to the bottom of it. But while he was walking down the hall a thought just dawned on him out of the blue. “Maybe she’s going to stay in town and go to UNC-W. She doesn’t want to talk about it so that group of girls she hangs with can’t look down on her because she stayed home instead of going off on some wild party adventure. Save money and stay close to family and friends. She’s level headed like that and that’s one of the reasons she was just so adorable. Now it makes sense, she probably got accepted early in the year and just kept it to herself. That’s why she doesn’t want to talk about it.” He thought about it for a minute and felt himself relax inside and smiled a little. He’d been bothered that she wouldn’t tell him about her plans but now that he’d figured it out his next steps suddenly became simpler, too.
The rest of the morning was nothing much but he did finish a last paper for English class and then skipped out for the rest of the day. It was a hot and humid morning and sweat came through his good shirt by the time he got to the car, and it had to be over a hundred inside that old thing. “At least the AC works,” he thought and left the door open while the AC did its thing for a few minutes. No message from Shannon so far when he checked his phone and that was good because she had not cancelled this time. So he closed his eyes and let the cool air blow on him as the coming date took shape in his mind. The butterflies came again and he took a breath and held it for a little bit like his mom taught him when he was in first grade. He’d get to Big Robbie’s a little early and get a booth to avoid the crowd, tell the waitress he’s waiting on someone. Water with lemon and a straw for her but she could get something besides water if she wanted. He would sit with his back to the door so he didn’t look anxious, wait for her to see him and play it a little casual, but where he planned to sit you could see the door in the reflection of the menu board above the counter. The gift bag would be either on the floor or beside him, kind of hidden and he would give it to her after she got settled. Don’t want to come across pushy so he’d practiced what he would say as he handed it to her. “You have a birthday coming up,” or “Christmas in May,” something like that but it had to come across smooth and natural so he decided on “I saw this and thought of you.” That was good, thoughtful but not too much.
Big Robbie’s was a little busier than usual this early and the booth he wanted was taken. The next best one put him with his side to the door, not what he pictured but workable. He sat so he could see the cars come in and keep an eye out for her. The waitress brought the water and a little dish of cut lemons, and put two straws down.
“You want to order now or are you gonna wait?”
“No, I’ll wait. Thanks.”
“OK hon. I’ll check on you inna few. You want something else to drink or anything?”
“No I’m good for now. Thanks.”
It was a little after eleven. He took another deep breath and held it, checked the phone again. Then it was 10 after and then 12 after and the waitress had been by a few times checking on him. Maybe she had changed her mind again, but he tried to put that thought out of his head. A bright red 4Runner drove by and whipped in beside a van, not in a parking spot and too close for the passenger door to open. It backed up a few feet and he went back to his phone to try and calm those butterflies. A gamer he competed against on line had sent a text so he answered that and when he looked up Shannon was standing beside him.
“Heyyyyy. Sorry we’re late! God this place is BUSY today.” She looked like a model.
“Hey! No we’re not late, we said eleven and I got here in time to get us a booth,” he said and stood and gestured at the booth. Her eyes caught on the gift bag for the briefest of eyeblinks.
“Oh, but we can’t stay.”
“Oh really? Where are we going?” he started to say but she interrupted. A tall athletic man stepped beside her and she said, “Jarod this is my sweet sweet friend William that I told you about,” and she had the same look on her face you’d have looking at a puppy.
“Hey man. Nice to meet you. Shannon has told me nothing but good things about you,” and he put a big callused hand out like a gentleman does to greet William.
He felt his face get hot and his stomach fall below his feet but he shook hands.
“Hey yeah. Yeah nice to meet you,” he managed to croak out and then his eyes started to sting. Shannon looked at her date, not him, and said, “You remember Jarod from baseball season, don’t you? He went to Coastal Christian and was their pitcher and they always always beat us,” and she looked back at him. “He’s at the University of South Carolina on a baseball scholarship; he’ll be a sophomore next year.”
“Oh. Oh yeah. I think I remember seeing you around, yeah,” he lied. “A Gamecock huh?” His stomach was really hurting and he felt a cramp. “No no, please no not that,” he thought and squeezed as hard as he could. He wanted to just run. His eyes leaked a little and his chin quivered.
“Are you ok? You look pale,” Shannon said and touched his arm. He couldn’t look at her and now he couldn’t get a good breath. He sat down hard and the waitress came by again.
“Hey. Y’all know what you’re havin’?”
“Oh we can’t stay but thank you”. Shannon said and to her date “We need to get the car out of the way anyway.”
“Yeah we do. Hey, real good to meet you, man. See you around, ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. Same here,” he said but so hoarse it was barely loud enough to hear and they shook hands again. Jarod gave him a quick look; he knew what just happened.
“Well come on now, give me a big hug” Shannon had her arms outstretched and a big pity smile. He stood weakly and his ears started ringing, but he moved toward her and went to get a hug. She stood with her feet together and bent forward at her waist, like she would if she were hugging someone’s granddad. She turned her head and he caught a light scent of her hair, but it was chased away by a hint of Jarod’s after shave. She patted his back and rubbed and said “Awww.” Petting a puppy. He pulled back, all he wanted to do was run, run away as fast and as far as he could.
“I won’t be at school for the rest of the year, see I finished all my credit hours so I’m prepping to go to Carolina with Jarod,” and she looked at Jarod and he grinned. The cramping came back and his eyes leaked a little more. He stifled that but the chin wouldn’t stop.
“Take care of yourself, ok? We’ll see each other some more it will be fine, really. Ok?”
That was about all he could take. Just then the waitress came back.
“If y’all ain’t gonna order I’m gonna have to have this booth. People are waiting. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, my bad, we’re going now. Come on Shannon; we’ll see you later William. You going to be ok?”
“Oh sure yeah, sure. Stupid allergies, drives me crazy sometimes.” But his voice shook and he had to clear his throat.
“Yeah. Well, ok.”
“Okaaay,” from Shannon, with a tilted head and tight lipped pretend smile. Then they hurried out. He watched them leave. Shannon wouldn’t be his first date or his first kiss and it would take a long time at Big Robbie’s sitting on the toilet to stop cramping and crying. He left the bag in the booth.
Nobody was home, thank heaven for that. He stripped and got in the shower and let the cool water run on his head and face for a long time. He soaped and washed every square inch of himself twice, then rubbed his face with a towel and just stood still and let the water drip off him for a few minutes. He dried just his face, combed his hair and looked in the mirror as if he’d never seen himself before. Pale, spindly, too tall for his weight and not much muscle, what little facial hair there was was wispy and light, and his mouth was too big for his face. He looked exactly like a tall child. A kid. He was eighteen years old but he looked nothing like a man, like a young adult; he’d seen pictures of soldiers from the old days, there were characters you could play online too, and he was their age now. And even in the video games they looked like they’d been grown for years already. If he met himself on the sidewalk downtown he would look right past, look straight through like he wasn’t even there and think nothing of it. So what? Another goofy boy, a boy taking up space, a boy getting in the way, wanting something; just a boy always wanting, always needing something from somebody. Somebody like Shannon.
He closed his eyes and stood thinking, retreating in his head. When he was in the first grade they had visited his cousins in Augusta; the boy, Nick, was a year older and his sister was four or five years older than Nick. Nick’s dad had built a tree house with a ladder going up to a trap door in the floor.
“Come on, I’ll show you my fort!”
It was fall and the leaves were clustered on the ground under a big maple in their back yard. Nick ran over to the ladder with him following, rustling through the dry leaves. He could smell them now, the warm fall sun on his face and that earthy scent in the cool air.
“Come on,” Nick was at the top of the ladder pushing the door up. He climbed up and crawled onto the floor. Nick was crouched down so he crouched too.
“Stay down and be quiet so they can’t hear you.” There was a short wall and a roof above that, but open all around. They knelt and put their heads lower and Nick put his finger to his lips. Nick’s sister and his sister, and some girls from the neighborhood were coming around the corner talking.
“I know. Boys are all weird.”
“Some boys in my class are cute.”
“Your brother is weird.”
“Momma says I’m going to need a training bra.”
“So what, I already have one and I wear it sometimes.”
They were all talking at once and they walked right below the treehouse then stood in the yard while they talked and giggled. Him and Nick heard every word and watched them through the gaps in the floor, all the secret talk that little girls have and all the gestures they make, and the dancing and maneuvering. “We shoulda made some mud balls and we coulda thrown ‘em at ‘em,” Nick said after they left. They both laughed and played the rest of the afternoon. He remembered the smell of hamburgers on the grill, and the potato chips on paper plates, and cokes in plastic glasses with everyone sitting around a red picnic table. But it was that crow’s nest treehouse that he remembered most, and now he imagined looking on himself from several feet overhead. With his hands on the counter and his head down and water drying on his skin he imagined what he looked like from every possible angle at this frozen instant, how the room appeared and his life within it, and the countless details missed because he saw them daily began to show up in his mind. A long many minutes went under his feet like water under a bridge until he finally took a deep breath and opened his eyes barely a crack, just enough to see a little, put on a pair of shorts and walked slowly to his room, opened the door and took inventory. All this had to go. All of it.
He started with the bed and took all the sheets, pillows, and everything off, even the mattress cover. The headboard was attached to the bedframe with bolts but it came off with a Crescent wrench and the bare bed got moved to the exact center of the room. The video game console and its stack of fantasy worlds that were used to be a challenge and fascinating were now just childish make-believe, just so much plastic and poison; they could go be a ball and chain around some other prisoner’s ankle. Everything on the walls came down and everything in the closet was in a pile on the floor when his dad came in.
“Hey. Whoa. What’s going on in here? Anything wrong?”
“Hey. Nah. Nothing I want to talk about really. I just need to make some changes. I feel like I’m an overdue book at the library, you know?”
“Oh man, yes I do. That’s not unusual for someone your age. And it keeps happening and gets worse as you get older. Sorry to break it to you. Some people don’t ever get used to it.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“Yeah. Well, let me know what you need alright?” He closed the door. His dad was pretty good at leaving him to figure things out on his own.
William went about his work; a small pile of clothes along one wall were useable and a much larger stack he could not stomach the sight of along another. He first thought he’d take all the discards and dump them in the first trash pile he came across, but that didn’t taste right. So he’d bag everything up and take it to a collection center downtown, one of the churches or something. Except his notes and all those emails to Shannon, he’d saved everything he’d written and made notes that he could no longer bear to look at much less read. Still, he couldn’t just toss that in a trash can yet.
Over the next week the room became a project and he spent more time on it than at school. He could skate through what few classes he had left so he only went when he felt like it, and getting all worked up over graduation then off to some college someplace just didn’t make sense any more. Plus the thought of being back at that school after all that just made him sick, people looking at him, Shannon’s friends laughing at him. No. He took his dad up on the offer for help, he wanted to repaint his room for a restart and get his head in the present instead of some nonsense make believe world. His dad was going to get the paint and brushes and everything but he said he’d rather do it, “Just make a list,” he said, so his dad showed him how to get started with a brush in the corners, making sure to take it slow and be careful, prep the walls, smaller brush for trim and all that. He’d forgotten how good a teacher his dad was, very patient and thorough. He screwed up several times and had to ask for help, but he finally got the hang of it and before too long the room went from bright blue to the soft color of driftwood, almost nothing on the walls and a simple darker brown curtain on the window. His mom wanted more decoration and accessories but he insisted and she backed away. “I do like that color,” she admitted.
Graduation wasn’t for several more days but he was not going to be a part of any of that. After the last class he’d ever take at high school he left without a word to anyone and rode over to a barber shop, to a place he’d never been on the east side of town, not the usual franchise in a strip mall near the house. He parked his motorcycle out front and went in. The old place was cool and dark and smelled like shoe polish and cologne. The barber was just finishing with a customer so he took a seat in one of the old chairs.
“Alright it looks like you’re next, mister. Just trim it up today?” the barber said pleasantly and he clipped a clean white cotton cloak snugly around his new customer’s neck.
“Uh, nah. I want to get a different look, you know? Simple and easy. How about just short all over, a little bit longer on top?” Why he said that he had no idea, but it seemed like just the thing.
“Comin’ right up. Like how short? We used to call it a buzz cut if it’s real short and that’s going to look real different, you know.”
“That’s right we did call it that,” from an old guy sitting in a chair in the corner.
“You wore your hair like that didn’t you Pop? When you had hair, I mean” and the barber laughed at his dad.
“I sure did, and I cut yours like that, too,” and the two men smiled at the memory.
“You go to college in town?” he asked as he went to work on his thick hair.
“No sir, still in high school. Well I was. Today was my last day, supposed to graduate end of the month but I don’t know if I’ll even go.”
“Oh, yeah. I see. Going to college in the fall?”
“Well, I don’t really know any more. I thought I was but those plans kinda fell apart, you know?”
“You’re lucky you have some options,” the barber’s dad said from his chair. “When I graduated the next step for me was induction at Camp Lejeune and before I knew what hit me I was in a Huey with a damn M-60 in my lap.”
“Things have a way of working themselves out. It’ll be alright,” They talked back and forth some then a couple of older guys came in and took a seat; they all knew one another. The barber’s dad took a bag from one of them and went to the back of the shop.
“Ox blood on both of these?” he said.
“Yeah and can you put some softer heels on them? Those are like walking on dang concrete.”
“Sure will, I’ll have ‘em ready in a little if you want to wait.”
“Nah I got to get on.”
“Alright. They’ll be here when you come back.”
“It’ll be Wednesday. The wife wants to go to Beaufort to see the grandkids.”
“That’ll be fine.”
The three of them talked and laughed a little, just a few words at a time but it was how they were with one another, the familiar and easy way they all had. No stress, no competition, nobody wanted anything from anybody. They were just men being with each other. Men, not the boys he was used to being around and not the boy like he used to be. The clipper buzzed around his head for a while then the barber carefully shaved the back of his neck with a straight razor stroked on a strop hanging from the cabinet behind them, and shook a few drops of Clubman’s in his palms and rubbed it on. “That’ll tighten that skin up and keep it from getting irritated,” he said. Then a shake of talcum on a whisk brush and that swept the stray hairs from his shoulders.
“There you are young man,” and the cloak came off and a small shower of his hair fell onto the floor, a light scent of hair tonic and talcum trailed in his wake as he raised himself out of the chair. His reflection in the wall mirror would take some getting used to but change is like that. He started toward the cash register but stopped and turned to the barber.
“My name is Rueben. Rueben Lewis; it’s nice to meet you,” and put his hand out like a gentleman does.
“Yes sir. Charlie Sawyer and that’s my dad Charles Senior.” They shook hands and Charles Senior gave him an up-nod from the shoe counter and went back to his work. He walked out into the sunny afternoon.
With all that hair gone the helmet didn’t fit ‘til he adjusted the chin strap. He rode by the high school on the way home, it was out of his way a little, and he thought about stopping by and braked for the entrance but changed his mind and geared down instead; the place might as well have been on Mars it seemed so unpleasant and he so out of place now. It would be better for everybody if he just forgot all about it and put all that behind him and thinking that just pissed him off, all that wasted time. He twisted the throttle a little harder than usual, something he had been adamant about not doing, and in the lower gear the bike nearly jumped out from under him. He put too much front brake on it and the bike got squirrely and dumped him on the right side of the street near the curb. A van stopped beside him a minute later.
“Are you hurt buddy?” said a guy about thirty from the passenger’s seat. “I saw it get loose on you an’ it looked like you ‘bout got it back.” The driver got out and the other fellow went to the bike and stood it up and was looking it over.
“I guess, I can’t really tell yet,” he said, but his elbow stung and the knuckles on his right hand were dripping blood.
“Here lemme see,” and he looked at the arm.
“Yeah, some road rash. Nothing broken? Can you move your arm and wrist? Go like that,” and he motioned with his arm and hand. Everything moved ok so he stood up carefully.
“You keep a kit on your bike?”
“No. What kind of kit?”
“First aid, bandages, antiseptic, that kinda thing. You can’t never tell what might happen.”
“Ah, I guess not,” he said.
“Is this the first time you dropped one?”
“Yeah. First time for everything I guess.”
“Shoot. First time it happened to me a lady pulled out in front of me on the highway, right in front of a church. It was either hit her or lay it down; the bike went under her van and I slid about a hundred feet on my back. Look here.” He showed his elbow where a scar took away part of a tattoo all the way down his arm. “Good thing I was wearin’ leathers. Ride for the slide, man.”
The driver went to the van and came back with a roll of masking tape and some paper towels. He used the towel as a pad and wrapped the tape around the knuckles and did the same for the scrape on the elbow. While he was doing that the passenger said “It don’t look hurt, some paint on the tank and the grip and foot rest is scraped is all.”
“Well that’s some good news. We both came out about the same, didn’t we?” he said. They both grinned.
“Hey Ronnie, take it down the street for him a little ways, make sure it ain’t hurt.”
Ronnie said, ”Ok if I ride your bike a minute buddy? Check it out before you get back on it, you know? Ok if I use your helmet?”
“Oh sure. Yeah, go ahead. Thanks.” He was still shaky.
Ronnie fired the bike up and listened to it for a second. He checked traffic and went back toward the school but when he turned around he went through the gears hard and whistled back by them for about a hundred yards. He put the kickstand down and got off the bike smiling.
“Got some vibration from the front at 45 but it goes away above 50, most likely the tire’s just a little out of balance. Brakes are good, she stops smooth, all the lights work, you should be good to go. That thing’ll scoot, boy. Shoot, if I was you I’d ride that thing all over the place. I wouldn’t get it out on the interstate much or nothin’ like that as light as it is, but I’d take that thing about anywhere else I wanted to go. A 250 like that’s a good bike to have, cheap to run and that thing rides real good.”
“Yeah, I really like it.”
They hurried back to the van. “Awright then. Let’s get outta here before a cop comes by. Take care of yourself, now.” And they took off before he could thank them.
Warner Robbins to Wilmington
Lots of thunder and lightning, denial, tears, threats, and hateful words went between them, then between two law offices. He wasn’t even mad any more, though that did take some hard thinking and talking to himself; his mistakes were lessons learned, sad but learned. Her mistakes were hers by herself and she could deal with those however she chose. The house sold in two weeks, bank accounts were divided and his tools and equipment from the shop were in a trailer in the driveway. Sandra was going to use Thursday through Saturday to get her things out and that made a perfect time for him to get away and get out of this rut. The Moto Guzzi needed to stretch her legs and the time and distance would do him good. He would pick up Sammy when he got back.
Thursday morning just after dawn he hit the road for a few days. Clothes and some road food in one saddle bag and a one-man tent and bed roll in the other. He took Highway 41 to 129 and put Macon behind him, then took 129 to where it joins 212, then Twin Bridges; it was state roads and light traffic the whole way to the National Park. It was a great ride and the time was over way too soon. He put the Guzzi in a spot and got off to stretch and put his gear together, but when he took the helmet off the soft buzz around him and the serenity, even with a few people near, took a little bit to get used to.
The weather had been just right for sleeping, and you could build a little fire and make coffee in the morning and listen to the birds. And all that was just what the doctor ordered, too, a few days like this really helps put things in perspective. But it was Sunday and getting late, so it was time to get back to reality like it or not. Big trip ahead, new job in a new city, may as well look at it as a new start on a new life. “I do dread that move, though,” he thought but was happy he’d gotten rid of all but the essentials and didn’t have that much to haul around. Except for the shop equipment, “And that will be a chore pulling a trailer full of tools behind a rented truck,” he thought, but that can’t be helped. “Time to get started,” he said out loud, and took a deep breath, looked around at the lake and trees and promised himself that would be the memory of this time instead of the house and its stain he was moving out of.
The ride back was good, but there was a knot in his stomach the whole way. Sandra said she’d put Sammy in his crate as she left and she sent a text saying she’d locked the doors and turned off all the lights. “Good luck” she’d written, whether she meant it or was being sarcastic he couldn’t tell, but he really didn’t care either way. Going back to that house, now nearly empty, wasn’t going to be pleasant but it had to be done and maybe it would feel like all that was finished. He’d find out in a few minutes. And what he found out was not a surprise as much as it was just sad. The house looked foreign, worn, and cold; the exterior, the driveway, his shop building, the yard. Everything. With the furniture gone and all the rooms stripped of their masks he could see the place as it really was, and it was only a collection of 2 x 4s and drywall; there was no soul and no warmth and any memories he had of that were just pretending. He was all finished with pretending.
Sammy was scratching at the kennel and jumped out when the door was unlatched and ran in circles barking in the garage. “Good to see you too, buddy boy! Let’s go pee in the yard. Let’s go pee and then we’ll get out of here,” he said as if the dog could understand him. Maybe he did.
One of the neighbors came over to speak for a minute, not prying but sorry to see them go and for all the trouble. They chatted for a minute and said an awkward good bye across the fence. Sammy sat in the cab of the rented truck while he got the trailer ready. The last step was hitching the trailer to the truck, and that took some back and forth but after a few tries she was all connected, lights checked and the hitch locked. Ready to hit the road. Sammy was sitting upright in the seat looking straight ahead.
“That’s the way to do it, buddy. Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you. Let’s go,” he said, and put the truck in gear and eased down the driveway.
The first half of the trip was nearly over and he was happy about that, and Sammy was too. He’d made the drive to his new job in Wilmington twice already and had spent a long weekend finding a house and now all that was signed and sealed. But with the truck and trailer and the slow going he didn’t want to push too hard so he stopped in Columbia to eat and get a good night’s sleep. They made Wilmington by about 11:00 the next morning and by then that skimpy girly breakfast from the hotel was long gone. A detour for construction on the highway took them through town and on the way he spotted what looked like a good local option for lunch. The parking lot in the shopping center next door had plenty of room for the truck so he wheeled it in. Sammy got out to pee and got right back on the seat. “I’ll be right back buddy,” he told him.
There was a short line waiting just inside the door so he took a look at the menu and saw that this was a good choice. “How is the barbeque here,” he asked two fellows in line ahead of him, just to make conversation.
“Oh man it’s as good as you can get. We eat here all the time.”
“So does everybody else, it looks like,” he said and they talked for a minute or two.
A cute couple was talking with another young man and he was very upset about something, but the girl was smiling and gave him a hug before she and the other man left. The young man got up and hurried to the back.
A waitress came up. “I’ve good a booth for two,” she said to the fellows ahead, next in line. “Are you by yourself?” she said to him and one of the two men said, “Don’t eat too much,” as they went to get seated.
“I’m a to-go” he said.
“Awright, you know watchoo want?” Something for him and something for Sammy, and she wrote it on her pad with a pencil.
The new house was small and sparse but tidy and there was room to extend the garage on the side, make room for a workshop in the near future but nothing extravagant, a place to maintain the bike and work on some projects now and then. A real plus was the neighbors on either side, one family had twin little girls with an older brother and a red Dachshund, and all of them loved Sammy to pieces. On the other side was a newly married couple, she was expecting and just showing and he was recently out of the Navy, Brian and Kelly. Brian had come over and helped unload a few things from the truck and admired the motorcycle, turns out his dad has one of the big road versions and him and several others road the coast often. “I’ll put you in touch with the old man, he’ll talk your arm off so be warned”, Brian said and they traded phone numbers.
The new job was going great, he was getting to know his way around, found a couple of good spots to eat, and he could take Sammy on good long walks in any direction. He helped one of the office guys in another department load some pallets in his pickup after work one day.
“Thanks for the hand, man. I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Sounds good; ready when you are.”
It was that kind of place, comfortable and pleasant everybody knew everybody else and knew their business. Sometimes he even forgot he had life somewhere else, it seemed so far away and so long ago it was like someone else had lived it. Days off gave him a chance to get the new house together and even if it didn’t exactly have a women’s touch it didn’t look like a barren bachelor pad either; things were coming together so well he could hardly believe it. “Maybe things do work out for the best,” was often on his mind.
He got together with Brian’s dad Mark on Friday evening a few days later over a beer to compare bikes and get to know each other. Real good dude, former Army like him and he was one of those guys that didn’t seem to let anything bother him too much.
“We’re gonna do a run to Fort Macon next Sunday if you wanna go, be a day run back before dark. They’s four of us with Guzzi’s and you’d be the fifth. Five’s good luck” he said smiling.
“That’d be a good day, let’s do that,” he said. They talked a minute or two and paid the bar tab and chatted about the coming run.
“We plan these pretty good so I’ll send you a route map and the names and numbers of the other regulars; you’ll fit right it.”
“Look forward to it. Thanks and its real good meeting you.”
“Same here Kenneth and we’ll see you Sunday week if not before,” and with that they parted.
Kenneth walked a few steps toward the parking lot and felt at once elated, like he was a kid and had Christmas coming but in the next step it was like he didn’t belong here at all, like he was not really in his own body but was watching himself like in a movie. Very strange and it gave him goose bumps, but it passed as quickly as it started, like déjà vu. “Probably the beer buzz working on me,” he thought so he let it go. Tomorrow was an open Saturday and the weather was perfect, so a run up the road would be a good day.
Tomorrow was Saturday and it had been a good week. He’d had a heart to heart with his mom and dad, a very difficult thing like shedding a skin but very helpful. His sister had come out on the deck and joined them.
“I knew something was going on with you,” his mom said. “But it looked like there wasn’t anything much I could do to help.”
They all talked some more about most everything and later there was one of those intense emotional moments where they all hugged, him, his sister, mom and dad, on the back deck with the sunset blazing behind them.
He wanted to be known by Rueben to anyone he met for the first time and would be Rueben from now on – he felt disconnected from almost everything in his past. There were memories, of course there were, but those seemed to belong to someone else, and big holes in time that he couldn’t say where he’d been or what he’d done they were so bland. Thinking about that made him sad and irritated at the same time so he made a deliberate effort every day to move toward a finish line no matter how insignificant; no more watching from the bleachers, as his dad put it. Start doing a thing and finish it. A simple step was to get organized and keep it that way. Everything now had a place and a purpose, no clutter, no distraction, no unused items. One thing left was the stack of email and notes he’d written to Shannon and it was time to rid himself of that anchor. The stack had to be a half-inch thick and it seemed like so long ago they’d been so important, so intense. He’d printed them and put them in a paper bag tied with twine, some holes in the bag would keep the thing from floating and let it sink to the river bottom where nature would take care of it; that part was easy, it was the piece inside his head that was the challenge and that took a daily effort just like breaking any bad habit.
He put the package in his backpack, the same one his mom had bought him at the start of his freshman year, and the backpack went on a bookshelf his dad helped him build. They made it last week out of two pallets from his dad’s work and it turned out really well, much better than he expected. After sanding until his arms were rubber the wood was ready for stain and after a coat of Tung oil the grain was warm and buttery. And the smell was clean and new, and was a perfect match to his restart. “That looks so good with the color on the walls,” his mom said. “Now I’m thinking you could paint my bedroom too,” and she wasn’t joking. He said he’d love to do it for them. But painting the bedroom would have to wait because there was a finish line he wanted to cross first.
Kenneth still got out of bed early but not out of restlessness. A routine was developing and him and Sammy were both getting settled into it; they still did breakfast together and had some free time in the morning to prowl and piddle around. Today they slept in a little while longer and he took his time making breakfast and got the day started. The Guzzi was on the rack in the garage waiting to have an oil change, then her black and red paint job was getting a wax and her chrome polished. All that took the rest of the morning but she looked great sitting in the driveway ready to ride. Sammy was napping in the shade on the back patio and trotted over when he filled the water dish with ice cubes.
“You got it made, you know that?”
Sammy looked at him and wagged his tail. “You are a good buddy, Sammy dog, you know that?”
The ride to the river was stop and go from the tourists crowding the roads getting to the beach, and the late day sun felt like it was about two feet from his head; the chin straps wouldn’t stay adjusted and the sweat just made it worse. A new helmet would be smart but that wasn’t in his budget for now, he’d spent that on a good leather jacket, so this one would have to do uncomfortable or not. And the scrapes on his knuckles and arm were itching with the heat; “All in the price of learning lessons,” he kept telling himself. The bundle in the backpack would soon find a resting place at the bottom of the Cape Fear and that lesson is one he wouldn’t forget.
Traffic cleared after he took the road toward the bridge since the beach was in the opposite direction so he opened the little bike up and let the breeze in for a minute. Just before the bridge there was an intersection with a convenience store, so he stopped there and took the pack out of the back pack without getting off the bike. He sat on the package to hold it in place and got readjusted. As he sat in the parking lot he recited a short message silently. “We all make mistakes but we don’t all learn from them. I want to. I hope we can start over and be friends like we used to be someday.” He put the bike in gear, let the cars get a little ahead, then slowed when he was half way across and flung the package high over the railing; he saw it clear the top by three feet and arc toward the river. As soon as he turned his head back to the road he felt like he did as a kid when he’d peddled his bicycle up a slope then coasted down the other side. What a good feeling it was, all he needed now was a popsicle.
The way back home was clogged with beach traffic but even so it was his best option, so he turned around at the next street and went back the way he came. Cars were backed up about half way on the bridge and he slowed to a stop just about where he had thrown the package. It still felt like he was coasting downhill. A yellow convertible with four cute girls headed to the beach was stopped ahead, they were talking and laughing in their sun dresses and painted nails. “They’re coasting downhill, too,” he thought and smiled at the sight of them, not a care in the world, having a good time. While the traffic was stopped he took the helmet off to adjust the straps again and unzipped the black leather jacket to cool a little. The girl in the right front seat had turned around and she caught his eye and smiled. She had clear blue eyes and he felt his heart stop for an instant.
“Hey! Aren’t you hot in that jacket?” she said and laughed. The two girls turned to look, smiling and then their faces changed but that didn’t register with him.
“Well yeah. But you have to dress for the s-” and he could speak no more.
Charlie was happy with his ice and his toy, so Kenneth just left well enough alone and went inside to get ready. The plan was to check the route north out of town so he would be familiar with it before the group ride next week, and circle back to get a better look at the lay of the land south of town while he was out and about, maybe get a bite if he came across a place with some local seafood. No trouble at all with the route north, simple roads and intersections, traffic was manageable, and the streets just off the beach were busy but everybody was smiling and happy. Lots of bikes and they all gave the usual biker wave to one another. He turned off the beach and went inland a little and found a concrete block diner with a crowded lot and a faded red and white sign “Fresh Seafood, Burgers, Beer” and put in for a late lunch.
The girl behind the bar was half his age and cute as a button. “We got a special today, fried oyster Po’ Boy, comes with fries and slaw,” she said after making change for the couple next to him.
“That sounds good. And a cold beer sounds even better, please. Have one with me” he said but regretted it immediately. But she didn’t say anything right away.
“Not while I’m working” she said after a beat without looking at him. Dammit. He didn’t want to be that kind of guy and she didn’t need an old dude like him hitting on her.
“I’m sorry, that slipped out and I shouldn’t have said it,” he told her when she sat the beer down.
“Oh don’t sweat it,” and she said it like she’d had to say that a lot. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it. We all have to be nice to each other and not be so serious about everything, right? I mean, or what’s the point, right?” she said pleasantly and put her hand on his arm as she left, it felt sort of like a goodbye kiss the way she did it. People can be good when they want to be.
On the way home a burn that came and went started in his middle; that fried oyster Po’boy trying to get out he guessed. Traffic was getting thicker closer to town so it was stop and go near the river. A gaggle of cars turned off and the road opened for a little bit so when he made the turn to the bridge he goosed it a little for old time’s sake. Traffic was stopped again on the bridge so he up shifted to coast the rest of the way, then the burn in his middle changed and he had to hiccup and cough at the same time. The bike was still doing 40 and did not stop for the line of traffic but none of that was of any concern to him. He saw his body from a vantage somewhere above, his face blue and lifeless, and was curious and surprised but not frightened. He could move in any direction to see better but everything he saw was very confusing. Another fellow was lying nearby, face down in the road and two motorcycles were tangled together behind some cars. There was another man was across from him looking at the scene from the same place but he was very worried and agitated; he tried to get the man’s attention but couldn’t.
“This is she,” Sandra said into her cell phone and the deputy gave her the basic information. But by the time the sheriff’s office sifted through the records to make the phone call some days had passed, enough so that a service had already been conducted. Neighbors brought Sammy, he was confused and worried, and a few co-workers came but there was no family. Three days later two heartbroken parents made the only decision left and Ruben’s life ended as the respirator was disconnected and the monitor traced his last heartbeat at 6:14 pm. The man that had been watching across from Kenneth reappeared and he was no longer agitated and the two could now calmly see one another although neither looked the same as they once had. Time and the earth no longer had meaning and the world they once knew and everything in it and everything about it slowly faded away.
Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.