A short story by david blankenship.
“Pass that”, my best friend Matt said still chewing his mouth full of eggs, pointing with his pinky finger and waving his coffee toward the plate of bacon just a few inches out of his reach.
I push the platter filled with hot, greasy pork a few inches closer to him and go back to pretending I’m sipping my coffee alone. “That stuff is going to kill you.”
“But I will have lived, Mr. Toad. I will have lived”. Only Matt calls me Mr. Toad, it’s a long story. We’ve been friends for a long time. I think sometimes that’s the only reason we are friends, because we’ve been friends a long time? He sits there in his stained, faded blue jeans, his knobby knees showing through holes, an over-sized tee shirt with matching stains and happy for no reason at all. Hasn’t had a thought in his head for years. He can dress however he wants, he could buy and sell me without emptying his petty cash drawer, if he were organized enough to have a petty cash drawer. (The only place I’ve ever seen him go to in order to replenish funds is the old hide-a-bed sofa in his one room apartment.) He can always come up with enough loose change from between the cushions for a meal.
“That,” he motions toward the catsup bottle that’s been sitting on the edge of the table since the beginning of time. I slide it next to the platter of bacon and turn away, not wanting to know what is going to be covered with the red slime.
We were four years old, unknown to us, the two youngest kids in a classroom full of kindergartners. I watched the door of the room close leaving my smiling mother on the other side.
Before I had time to shed tears Matt hollered, “hey you, bring those bricks.”
As I entered the room Matt was in charge of half the group of post toddlers. He had them building walls out of cardboard bricks, no one knew why but it was something Matt felt must be done.
One team of small children built a wall on one side of the room. One team of small children built a wall on the other side. Matt instructed each team to stockpile small wooden bricks he called ammunition. Our teacher sat at her desk enjoying her creative, well managed, group of special people.
With walls completed and stockpiles piled Matt stood tall and shouted with his short arm extended toward the opposite side of the room, “War!” and lodged a wooden brick toward the far wall of cardboard bricks. The children, with an innate sense, understood and wooden bricks filled the air but the cardboard walls held. Matt pointed to me and to the opposing wall. I understood without explanation. I prepared for the consequences and started my run across the room yelling the whole time. I plunged into the cardboard wall of the opposition and, in giving my life, destroyed the defenses of the enemy.
Matt and I sat on the bench outside the principal’s office swinging our short legs in the air. Neither of us knew what to expect but both of us felt just in our actions.
Matt cleaned his plate with his last bit of toast as I took another sip of coffee from my half filled cup. The waitress, a girl we had grown up with, along with everyone else in this small town, laid our check down at the edge of the table and smiled at Matt more than she smiled at me. Matt did the expected and slid the bill toward me giving me his sad, hound dog look that meant all his money was in the sofa at home. I put cash on top of the slip of paper without bothering to enter a fruitless discussion over my having had only a cup of coffee.
“Got to go, Mr. Toad”, Matt wiped his greasy fingers on his stained pants and headed to the door without looking back. I watched him hurry past the plate glass front of the restaurant.
The energy in the room shifts to a gentle heartbeat without Matt’s bright-eyed eagerness in the mix. The coffee is good; I hold the oversized cup in both hands and keep the mixture near my lips in between sips. Most of the booths are empty, where there are customers their sounds are contained, I can see mouths forming words and hands adding emphasis but the only sound is the soft instrumental music coming from speakers hidden in the ceiling. The girl comes back to the table and offers more of the black blessing, she knows my name and I know hers but she just smiles and I just nod. The idea that I could spend the day here, watching people pass on the sidewalk outside, while I drink coffee doesn’t sound like wasted time at all but possibly redeemed time. What is incorruptible? What has worth? I know the guy who spends his days teaching small children to sing. Their notes are not found on keyboards but he smiles and encourages until they at least have a discernable direction and then they move to another teacher who reaps his crop. He has a list of silly songs that make each new group laugh. I search out seven year olds and ask the question, “how come six is afraid of seven?” The answer means nothing to the average six year old but to seven year olds it opens windows and floods their world with light.
Two half inch thick, plate glass windows, tilted out at their tops, have stood the test of time for at least seventy years. They cover the front of the restaurant from corner to corner, two feet from the floor and three feet from the ceiling, leaving room between them for a single, wood framed, glass door. Medium brown real wood siding with rounded joints running from ground to ceiling every six inches covers the rest of the walls. In memory I know a counter with red cushioned stools runs across the back of the store defining the line between the territory of customers and the kitchen workspace. The high back of my place in one of the booths that line each sidewall prevents me from seeing the back half of the building, but I’ve seen it before and the plate glass windows offer more entertainment. Outside the plate glass window six feet of concrete, marked when poured with two foot by two-foot squares, fills the space between the building and the curb next to the road. The road is well used. The sidewalk gets some use.
A very young mother (Very young being anyone under thirty.) walks slowly, allowing her daughter to walk at a normal pace. How differently will this child progress for not having been pulled by the arm and dragged from place to place? Will she be more prepared for life? Will she be less likely to pull and push others as she makes her way? At this point she looks a bit smug, like she expects to be treated well, like it is nothing special.
My older sister is such a person, naturally assuming she is entitled to a proper life. We were sitting in her room, a rare moment in my life, most of the time her room remained strictly out of my rights. We were sitting on the floor, on hard nine by nine asbestos strengthened tile. My sister Martha read from a fiction book about the famous Mickey Mouse Club’s Annette. It was a very odd day indeed. As she read I listened. I became a part of the world of a mouseketeer.
“You’re looking at her!” my sister shouted, dragging me from my place in the fiction world. I was dumbfounded; who could I be looking at?
“I saw you. You were looking at the picture of Annette on the cover. You think she is prettier than I am!” No such thought had crossed my mind but I could think of no words in my defense. I wanted to get back to the world of fiction. “If you must look at something, look at me.” After this proclamation she went back to reading as I took great care not to look at the cover of the book she held, no longer in comfort. At the end of each page she would peek over the top of the book covered with Annette’s face and find my wide-open eyes looking anywhere but at that face. If she thought she would catch me at any time looking where I was forbidden to look she misunderstood my need to know what Annette would do next.
“Are you spending the day here, Todd?” My diligent waitress, Susie, stood at the end of my table with a pot of black coffee in one hand a white cloth for wiping tables in the other. “Where were you?” she asked letting me know she wasn’t rushing me off.
“A long time ago,” Susie and I had known each other forever but had never gotten to know each other. She’s a good person; we had never been in the same circles, different tracks at school, and different parts of town. “Should I have some pancakes?” thinking the rent on my table might have become due.
“You’re fine, as you can see this is not our busy season,” she waved a hand toward the rest of the restaurant that now catered to only me.
A wild thought crossed my mind, “would you sit with me?” offering to bring her into my world for the first time. She turned and left. A few seconds later she returned without the pot of coffee and cleaning rag. She slid into the bench seat opposite me and looked straight at me, smiling, waiting for my reaction. One of the reasons we have never become friends has been she is prettier than a girl I expect to give me a second glance. And while she is no longer young she still has eyes that capture, like Annette’s.
“So, how’s business?” it was lame but it was all I could think of.
“Fine,” she answered, still smiling, enjoying my predicament. “I had a crush on you in the third grade,” she was just trying to make things worse, but I rather enjoyed the electricity that went up my spine.
“I was pretty cute that year,” it was an honest reply; third grade was one of my best years.
“I tried to get you to watch me on the monkey bars.”
“The monkey bars were the cultural center of the play ground.” A group of people pushed open the door and started finding places in booths before I could think of more to say.
“Got to go,” Susie slid out of the booth and turned back into a middle-aged waitress. “Hang around, I’ll be back,” she gave just a taste of Schwarzenegger.
The new comers are out-of-towners and need menus and explanations; she will be busy for awhile.
The oversized, plate glass windows still offer a view of life, like the guy in the cave watching shadows passing by I watch for clues. A small gang of mostly boys – the word gang softened by their all having matching Razor scooters, rolls by.
When I was nine an overpass was built between my home and my school. It meant we would not have to wait for trains or run across four lanes of traffic; so it was never considered a bad thing even though my father had to buy a different car as his would not make it up the man-made hill without smoking out the neighborhood. (Take a breath.) At that time skateboards were made out of steel wheeled roller skates attached to a board. Great care was given to picking out the right board; wheel alignment was secondary as the bent nails that held the wheels in place never held that well. I painted and pin striped, Matt just used any old board and left all its imperfections in place, but he was the better skateboarder. Kids today jump, get air, spin around, ride handrails I’ve even seen some do hand stands; our goal was to stay upright and rolling. The gang of Razor riders wouldn’t pause at coming down an overpass and while technology may have changed, being kids we knew it would have to be done. And we tried. Steel wheels nailed loosely to two-by-fours lack stability and short thick posts with guardrails bolted to them hurt when you land on them. Matt’s solution was to nail, with two nails, a two by two four-foot length of wood to his skate board. He nailed, with one nail, a cross piece at the end and attached (with what we described as big nails) two four-inch wheels one at each end of the crosspiece. Matt’s plan was to lie down on this modified skateboard/go-cart and navigate down the overpass. He may be the inventor of the first street luge. We carried his invention to the top of the overpass. It was a long, high overpass with a narrow, four-foot walkway. The first half of the walkway had a short concrete wall with a pipe handrail attached to protect cars from pedestrians and pedestrians from cars. The last half of the walkway had short eight by eight posts six feet apart with galvanized steel railing bolted to them. There was no pushing off. The garage- built luge, made using half rotted lumber nailed together using rocks for hammers gained speed slowly, its well-oiled steel wheels finding their own alignment as speed increased. Matt laid back on the skateboard part of his contraption and made minute adjustments with the cross piece using his feet. The rest of us ran after him loosing ground quickly. He almost made it. I’m not sure we ever considered he would make it all the way to the foot of the overpass because in so doing he would have plunged into cross traffic with no way to time his arrival, but he stopped short twenty feet from the base of the man-made hill when one four inch wheel caught the base of one eight by eight post. The two by two post broke in the middle sending the half with two four inch wheels out into the road and leaving Matt still lying on his skateboard. He pretended to be knocked out for a few seconds and we played along asking things like, “is he breathing?” And saying things like, “He was a good guy.” He pretended to come out of his coma and we all agreed that the Street Luge was ahead of its time.
The clock on the wall reads nine am. I’m sure there is something somewhere that needs my attention but nothing comes to mind. I was brought up to work hard, “by the sweat of my face”. I sought out hard things to do, lived in a hot industrial part of the country, which provided a well taken care of family and many years of health without health clubs. I’ve never enjoyed riding a bike that goes nowhere or cross country skiing in the comfort of a room filled with sweating people. Today, sitting in this booth, I have no desire to sweat either to create something or to feel good about the way I take care of myself.
I started out as a small guy and eventually grew into a medium guy. My first day of high school I weighed in at one hundred twenty nine pounds, counting blue jeans, a white tee shirt and slip on white tennis shoes. I should note; the blue jeans were flared bells, not the wide bells the hippies wore, just a bit wider than boot cut jeans (it was, after all, the sixties and I’m not a nonconformist).
I looked small but I had a secret. My father, while I was trying to pass the president’s eighth grade physical fitness test and failing miserably, purchased a drill. It was a drill for drilling into the earth, not for oil or for water but for drainage. My father’s bucket type rotary drill was capable of drilling a hole four foot across and thirty-seven feet deep. With a good bit of pushing the limits it could drill a hole five feet across and fifty feet deep but that was seldom called for in the world of drainage. Until late in life, my father had only enough money to find shelter and food for our medium sized family with very little extra, like much of America. There are earth drills made with the latest clutches and hydraulic arms, with rows of gages, buttons and levers. My father’s earth drill was made in Mexico with parts dating back to nineteen-o-nine. It was mounted on a nineteen-forty-nine Ford truck bed which today would be considered quite nice but in nineteen-sixty-five was just considered to be an old truck. Most people have never seen a bucket type rotary drill. I will try to explain without getting too technical. There are two types of by-hand posthole diggers. A clam type post hole digger opens and closes, like a clam, it is shoved into the dirt open, closes on the dirt, the dirt is lifted out of the hole, the clam is opened and the dirt falls out. A bucket type rotary drill does not work this way. A rotary posthole digger turns round with two slanted blades pushing dirt up and into a steel cylinder. This cylinder with blades on the bottom is lifted out of the hole and the dirt is dumped out. This is how a bucket type rotary drill works. The notable difference is my father’s rotary drill bucket was built of thick steel and was thirty-three inches across and thirty inches deep. When full the bucket could hold about four hundred pounds of dirt; add the weight of the steel bucket and the steel shaft needed to turn the bucket in the hole and you have my summer job. Most bucket type rotary drills made in the United States have a hydraulic arm that pulls the bucket to the side of the truck and dumps the dirt out the hinged bottom of the bucket; my fathers had a rope. A person could be enticed to pull the rope and pull the bucket to the side of the hole with the proper amount of money, or a father could tell his son this was his plan for the summer. I got pretty good at it. After the first dump legs could be braced against the pile of dirt and with the right timing and pulling with everything I had the task could be accomplished. My father and I drilled hundreds of holes all over the county. Looking back it was a well-spent summer. My father hired a replacement for me and I started high school. The first week of school the president wanted to know if we were still healthy. I waited in line to do my chin-up; in junior high only one chin-up was needed to pass and I had done that, with a great deal of effort. My turn came. I prepared for the shame. I grabbed the chin-up bar. My body felt strangely light. I did a chin-up with almost no effort. I did another. I did ten. I did twenty. Guys in the physical education class started to gather around and count my chin-ups. Cheering was heard. Out of sheer embarrassment I stopped doing chin-ups. I have no idea how many I could have done.
Susie is standing at the end of my table. She has a coffee pot in one hand and a white rag in the other. She’s looking out the plate glass window like it might be a chain link fence with razor wire rolled across the top. My cup is empty but that could be a good thing.
After a few seconds Susie remembers her lot in life, “coffee?” she asks.
“I think I should shift to water, if that’s alright?” still unsure of my squatters rights.
“I’ve listed you as a permanent resident. This is officially Todd’s Booth now”; she smiled and hurried off to check on half full cups at tables with “on a break” customers. I can hear her speaking Spanish to a group in the booth behind me. She doesn’t seem to have any trouble at all understanding their requests and answers questions quickly. I’m just guessing they are talking about food and drinks; it’s Greek to me.
I tried to learn Spanish in high school. The cutest teacher I have ever had. She had still been in college the year before she taught us, five foot two, brown eyes, brown hair, always smiling and it was the sixties so; very short skirts. I could blame my failure to learn a second language on her but she was a good teacher and I did learn some Spanish: “O la Isabelle, como estas? Muy be in, e to? Muy be in.” It took me four months to learn that much and I’m sure it is spelled and punctuated wrong. Miss Hanna was the first older woman to capture my love. She asked me to stay after class toward the end of the semester.
I watched her lips as she asked me, “are you planning to continue in Spanish next semester?”
I could smell her perfume, as I answered, “no.”
Her brown hair fell into soft waves on her shoulders as she stated, “Okay, I’m going to give you a C for this semester, but you understand I would have to fail you if you were planning to continue in Spanish?”
I nodded trying to think of a way to prolong the conversation leaving her with finding a way to break contact with a high school freshman silently standing a foot away from her while the next class took their seats.
“You’d better be going to your next class,” she said in the softest, sweetest words. I stumbled out of her classroom and made it to my next appointment in time to get a special look from my algebra teacher.
Traffic on the road outside the plate glass windows has increased. Drivers keeping their cars a few feet from the bumper in front of them, making sure to reach their destination before the car two feet behind them. Two lines of cars moving to the east at a fast walk and two lines of cars moving to the west at the same pace. Mathematically I could be the mean. Without moving at all I may have somehow found the place on which everything balances, or not.
Honesty is a big part of proper communication. Without it everything breaks down, in my opinion. My 1960 Studebaker Lark had managed to get a carload of friends to an event and then into the parking lot of an A&W. This was back when girls on roller skates rolled from car window to car window with trays made to hang on windows rolled up one inch. We had drinks, someone may have had a burger but when we finished a pile of leftovers filled the window tray to overflowing. The girl skated by, picked up our tray and skated away – leaving the small glass mug with A&W proudly painted to its side in my hands while I waited for the last bit of ice to melt. There was only one thing I could do. I drove away with the stolen property. The thrill of the prefect crime overwhelmed me. The A&W was not the one near my home but in a small neighboring town so there was very little chance I would ever be brought to justice. The prize was significant. These were mugs that could not be bought, as far as I knew, if you had one it proved you were a thief. But crime leads to crime and I had felt the adrenaline rush. My next crime would be premeditated. Matt agreed that it must be done. He agreed to help with the distraction part of the plan. We pulled into our local A&W. I put the window up one inch and waited. A girl on skates stopped at the driver’s side window of my gray Studebaker Lark.
“Two hamburger, two fries, and,” leading to my future prize, “two large root beer floats please.” The girl filled in spaces on her note pad and skated off. As expected she returned with our order and placed it on the edge of the window. I paid in bills and she made change from the coin dispenser on her belt. After eating we placed the papers and holders on the tray along with one large A&W mug. This is where true criminal genius is displayed; before placing the small A&W mug I had stolen onto the tray a bit of root beer and froth from my large mug was swished around in the small mug, making it look used. We even tossed a napkin into the small mug to add to the effect. The girl skated by without a pause she removed the tray and carried it to the building. There were questions asked at the window access to the kitchen. The receipt was scrutinized. I started the car, preparing to make a run for it, sad that we would never be able to eat here again. The girl on skates turned and motioned for me to wait. We were caught. I shut off the engine and waited for our judgment.
The girl skated up to my window, “I sorry, I charged you for a large float instead of a small,” she said as she counted out the difference in change from the coin dispenser attached to her belt. It was decided we should leave our life of crime on this high note, as we would never be able to top it.
This day looks as much like spring as any I have seen but there must be a small cloud hanging over the restaurant I sit in. Small drops have produced dark spots on the cement outside the plate glass windows. The dark spots are still inches apart and on the dry, warm cement the spots are fading quickly. A man comes into the dining room and as the door closes it pushes the smell of rain across the room. The only time I completely relax is during rain. Rainy days, days in which the rain never stops, it slows to a sprinkle, increases to a downpour, the sun shines and the clouds darken the day but the rain continues. Living in this land of limited rainfall I have learned to enjoy the patterns of sprinklers watering lawns. The sprinkler manufactures have indulged my interest and produced a variety of pulses and sprays that are capable of keeping me entertained for hours. Today the bit of rain passes and the concrete dries quickly making the storm a memory.
Many of my memories come from dry places. The ocean is two hours and forty minutes away. A two-hour drive can be arranged but the most common drive consumes two hours and forty minutes before the gasp that comes every time I see the unbelievable expanse of salted water. Driving south on one-o-one there is a hill and then a turn and then a view of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Pismo, California, I’ve seen the view hundreds of times but I know that if I were to drive there today I would be amazed.
My oldest ocean memory is from farther north, the soft sand of Santa Cruz still between my toes as I walk down the boardwalk looking into every doorway-watching people. As a four-year-old white boy with blond hair and blue eyes I stop and stand with my nose almost touching thick glass. On the other side of the candy store window a stainless steel machine hums as it leisurely moves. The machine on display in the window has two sets of shiny arms. From each of the machine’s arms two long rigid fingers extend and turn within the same space like the machine is slowly twiddling it’s thumbs.
I’ve been watching the taffy-pulling machine for several minutes. Its repetitive motion has me hypnotized. Time after time the long steel fingers stretch the taffy. I jump back, startled, as an iridescent green fly lands on the taffy. The fly stands still and rubs his feet together unaware of the danger around him. He seems very much aware of the possibility of a feast. I watch, spellbound as the machine catches the fly and folds it into the taffy. The taffy now has a moving, struggling dark lump encapsulated. Next time around the fly parts spread out over two or three inches the struggling has ceased. I continue to watch as the line of fly parts in the taffy become a long dark brown line. Wide-eyed and fascinated I’m glued to the window as the bright metal machine folds and refolds the candy. Five minutes pass and now the fly exists as a thin brown line throughout every fold of the taffy. I watch as the brown line pales. Fold within fold until at last the stain of fly parts disappears. A man comes and removes the taffy from the pulling machine and plops it down on a wooden topped table.
Susie slides onto the upholstered bench opposite mine and just sits waiting for me to come back. She watches my eyes until they focus on her, “How’s your day so far?” she asks as soon as she sees I’ve returned.
“I’m having a fine day, there is a great view of life from here.”
“I know, sometimes I feel like I watch too much of it go by,” she sounds tired. I suspect her shift is only half over.
“It’s the window that causes the illusion.”
“You speak strangely, old man,” she’s smiling and her eyes, as old as mine, still sparkle.
“We are not a separated bubble, it’s just a point of view. Consider the view from an airplane or the space station; we’re right in the middle of everything. We’re as much a part as anyone anywhere.”
“As you sit here and I wash tables?”
“As far as I can tell”, she just continues to be happy not letting my analyzing get in her way.
“You never had breakfast. It’s slow for a while yet. You want to have an early lunch or late breakfast with me?” I see the pretty little girl doing tricks on the monkey bars sitting across from the table. If only I had been smarter in the third grade we would be old friends by now.
“I’d enjoy some breakfast and your company”, without becoming a waitress or writing in her pad she slides out of the booth and leaves to tell the cook what she thinks my breakfast should be.
I was a witness to a miracle once, at least everyone else in the room said it was a miracle. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a great cook. My grandmother on my father’s side felt food should be drowned in hot grease. We were at my mother’s side grandmothers for Thanksgiving which was one of the few times it would have been safe to eat with my father’s mother as deep fried turkey had not been invented yet. It wasn’t the best time to eat at my mother’s mother’s because her best dishes were influenced by Mexico and Spain but with help from plenty of aunts and even a few uncles the table expressed the mass quantities of food needed to honor the Native Americans. This Thanksgiving, along with a beautifully browned turkey filled with stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade dinner rolls, and cranberries a huge bowl of boiled sweet potatoes held a place of honor in the center of the dinning room table. Once, when very young I was tempted to taste a baked sweet potato with melted marshmallows on top. I was right. I don’t like sweet potatoes. These sweet potatoes were something special. Technique was debated while they were made. They were talked about as they were set on the table. They even had a line in the Thanksgiving prayer. Sisters dipped into the sweet potatoes’ bowl and fished out, orange, sweet potatoes as the first item on their plate. I did not taste one but I heard expressed in several different ways that they were wonderful. The turkey was finished with and carried off. The cranberries were gone. The mashed potatoes and gravy were saved in the refrigerator. Uncles left the table to watch the game but aunts stayed around the remains of the feast and talked. As they talked they dipped into the sweet potatoes’ bowl and snagged bits to nibble at. Everything went fine for quite a while until an aunt commented, “I was sure I got the last one!”
My grandmother searched around the bowl with the provided spoon and found another slice of sweet potato, “I must live right,” she said as an explanation of her good fortune.
“Never give up,” an aunt said as she fished out a chunk equal to a quarter of a potato. And they kept finding more. At first they laughed and made more jokes and then they grew quiet and faced the bowl with a reverent fear. My grandmother who had been raised a Catholic but converted to Baptist forgot her conversion and crossed herself. Finally, as a group, they decided to call it a miracle and no longer fished for sweet potatoes.
“Country fries, eggs over medium, bacon and coffee,” Susie said as she slid identical plates onto each side of the table.
“You read my mind.”
“Or you come in here all the time and this is what you always order”, she slid herself into the booth and started unrolling the napkin from around her silverware. “You must be hungry.”
“This looks good.”
“It looks the same as it always does. When it looks different we worry.” The late breakfast went well. Susie was good company. I already knew she had married one of the best basketball players our high school had ever turned out and I knew she had children but I found out she had two children, both grown with families of their own. And her husband still played basketball with the kids at the local boy’s club. She found out little about me but there’s not much to find out. We finished eating and talked until the lunch crowd started finding seats. After she had gone back to work I made my first major decision of the day; I moved from my booth to a stool at the end of the counter. My view changed from the street to glimpses of the crew in the kitchen, my booth had become prime real estate.
My father was not a get rich quick kind of guy. He was a work hard, do your best, take charge kind of guy. He made candy for a living. Even today when I think of making candy I think of carefully stirred pots, drops from teaspoons onto wax paper, and a quick twist with the fingers or a sprinkle of colored sugar for effect. My father was not that kind of candy maker. My father worked in a factory with twenty foot ceiling, with overhead pipes running in all direction, with a level of noise that required everyone to wear ear protection and a chance of injury that required hard hats. I was four and my sister was six when he took us for a tour. Our first view was a mountain of white Easter eggs centers that would fill several six-yard dump trucks. Men pushing buttons, calling into radios, forklifts with piles of lemon drops and burnt peanuts all in a rush to produce more product. My father held my hand in one hand and my sister’s in the other. Everyone we passed seemed to think his name was Curly and that Curly had fine looking children. My father supervised coatings, colored sugar coatings, milk chocolate coatings and shiny dark chocolate coating. Rows of what looked like cement mixers filled a corner of the plant. We walked between the mixers while my father tried to tell us what was being made in each machine. Very little was heard above the noise and through the oversized earmuffs attached to our heads and the hard hats falling over our eyes. But it was a truly amaizing thing to watch thousands of purple Easter eggs tumble in one mixer and thousands of pink Easter eggs tumble in another mixer. My father tapped a few gauges and said something in the ear of a man watching the gauges. We were taken into a room filled with tables overloaded with bags of all sorts of candy, given a large bag and told to fill it. A chocolate bunny, almost as tall as me – counting his ears, had to be carried by my father.
“You want to go back onto the coffee?” Susie asked with a clean cup ready in case I said yes.
“Sure,” I said thinking I should be going.
“Matt just came through the door,” she said as she filled my cup. I turn to look and see Matt and a couple of friends moving into the booth I had vacated for paying customers. I pick up my cup and head back to the familiar, more comfortable location.
“Mind if I join you?” I motion with my cup to the empty space next to Matt and slid in before I get an answer.
“How’d your morning go?” Ted, a guy I worked with when I was doing pipeline work asked.
Matt turned and looked me over for a second, “you’ve been here all morning.” he was making a statement. He had no question.
“How can you tell?” realizing how funny it must seem to normal people.
“You just look like a bum hanging around a coffee shop, not much different from your usual look.”
Susie came to the table and took lunch orders. She didn’t ask for mine. It was nice to be sitting at a table with friends but I had little to add to the conversation and just enjoyed the background noise it provided to my restored view of the sidewalk outside the plate glass window. A tall, thin lady with very high heels, with long shined brown hair, definitely from out of town, paused for a second at the restaurant door. She almost came in. Wheather the smell of grease or perhaps the amount of grease she breathed in was all the nourishment she needed to maintain her model’s figure; she let the door close and hurried down the sidewalk.
My father was a very musical person. Before I met him, I have been told, he played guitar and sang in bars and nightclubs. I’ve also heard my mother hung around the same places but I never knew these people. The people I grew up with went to church every Sunday and never drank anything stronger than Pepsi Cola. Before I learned to walk a Greyhound bus hit my father. Curly was walking seventy-feet off the roadway in the middle of the night, he’d had a little to drink but was no-where near sloppy drunk. A bus driver went to sleep, drove off the road, picked my father up with the bumper of the bus, carried him for fifty or sixty feet, dropped him back into the field and returned to the road. My father’s arm had been almost pulled off and he was bleeding badly. He made a tourniquet and waited for help. He waited, but no help came. He loosened the tourniquet several times, for a few seconds, thinking this would help save his arm. When the bus made it’s next stop the blood on the bumper was noticed and frightened passengers told their stories. A search began. Hours later my father was found unconscious in the field and rushed to a hospital where a skilled surgeon tied his nerves back together and stitched him back together. He never played the guitar again, although he tried, and he decided there was a God and that he was in need of a God.
My father never did anything half way. Like Paul in the Bible seeing a bright light and being told of his rebelliousness announced, “I’m an apostle now!” My father announced he was a preacher now and promptly started preaching. He preached at small churches on Sunday nights at first. With his winning smile and pale blue eyes he found favor in the eyes of mankind and moved to weeklong revival services. He had a talent for getting people to sign on the dotted line and was soon being referred to as an evangelist. Many pastors, at least in evangelical churches, are mild, people loving souls that only desire to help people through their lives. In order to really change lives the pastor needs his flock to make a strong commitment to not only God but to the local church. Soft spoken, loving pastors are not always gifted in a way that brings lost souls to the altar, which in the fifty’s was just about the only way to get to Heaven from the doors of a Southern Baptist Church. This is where my father came in. In sales he would be called a closer. He could talk, yell and wave his hands, and tell jokes, speak softly like to an individual, and look a person right in the eye and they would get out of their pews during the third or fifth verse of Just As I Am and make a commitment that would change their lives. I don’t know why and I’ve never wanted the skill but it worked. I’ve seen many people leave habits and life styles that were ruining them and their families and make dramatic changes over night that lasted for the rest of their lives. So while I am not my father, I am proud of him.
“We’ve got to go,” Matt told me, meaning let me out of this booth. As I slid out he added, “Thanks for sitting with us. It’s a shame you couldn’t have been here.” I nodded and said the proper goodbyes not wanting to become a complete hermit. Today is just not an outgoing day. I watch the three good friends walk out the door and pass the plate glass window laughing and pushing each other around like they had most likely done all through lunch.
Ann leads Pico; an old, retired, pastured horse, next to a weathered wooden bench where I could get high enough to climb onto Pico’s broad back. There was no saddle or bridle. With a bit of pulling and pushing I straddled his brown back.
“He’s broke to a hackamore,” Ann told me as she pushed the middle of a half-inch cotton rope into his mouth. “I’m saving up for one.”
Holding the scrap of rope in my left hand I prepared to give Pico the kick in the ribs that would send him off at an exhilarating walk. Before I was able to signal Pico and begin our walk Pico took off at a trot. I knew something was different. Pico never trotted without coaching. And then, before I could get seated properly, Pico moved into a gallop – I had never seen Pico gallop. Pico preceded to a dead run, front feet together rear feet together; we were flying through the still morning air. There was no up and down motion, no side to side motion it was just as if Pico had wings and could glide like Pegasus coming in for a landing. But we didn’t land; we went faster. And then I saw the fence. A narrow irrigation ditch ran along side a five-foot barbedwire fence sixty feet ahead. I thought, “Pico is a jumper.” My second thought was, “I don’t want to jump.” I pulled on the soft half-inch cotton rope running through Pico’s mouth. Pico paid me no notice; he had his focus on the fence remembering his glory days of competing for the blue ribbon. I thought if I couldn’t stop him maybe I could turn him and bracing my knees against his upper legs I pulled to the right with everything I had, trusting the rope with my future. Six feet from the fence Pico turned and headed for the untrimmed dead wood filled trees of the apricot orchard. I leaned back and pulled. Dry apricot limbs scraped my arms and slapped my face. Sitting almost on Pico’s neck now I could feel our speed reduce as he changed gears and at last he achieved his familiar trot and then breathing heavy he walked. Pico walked slowly as the cotton rope in my hands guided him back to where Ann stood. Ann was amazed at Pico; she had never seen him run. I slid off his brown back and handed her the two ends of cotton rope. Ann was asking questions but I couldn’t understand. I walked across the field and headed for home.
Later that day I went shopping at our local tack shop. I wanted to know what a hackamore is and if it would be more effective when compared to a four-foot length of half-inch cotton rope.
Susie’s shift was about to end and she needed to get paid so she came and stood at the end of my table until I piled money onto the indecipherable check laying on the edge of the table.
“Keep the change?” I ask, I’ve never been good at tipping it offers too much control. I would prefer people be paid a proper, living wage and that price be included but that’s not the system we have.
“Thanks, Todd, you have a good afternoon,” and she disappeared into the back, behind the counter.
The coffee shop is empty of customers, only I remained and I no longer have proof of my contributions. I want to be one of those people who can sit on a bench and watch the tide come in but I have no patience and the tide is a hundred forty miles away. I missed the comfort of my booth before the glass door completely closed behind me but I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there is something I should be doing.