The waitress and I laughed as we took turns lamenting over how pathetically inept the High School football coach was again this year. I did my best to feign surprise when she revealed the melee that broke out at the latest city board meeting had less to do with a re-zoning request than it did with accusations that the requestor, Suzette Simpson, had worked her way through the city councilmen exchanging sexual favors for votes. Each year was a carbon copy of the last. I supposed that was the hallmark of any small town, and precisely the reason why the younger generation couldn’t shake the dust of this place off their shoes quickly enough and those who set down roots couldn’t be dragged away with a fleet of jacked-up 4X4 pickups and log chains.
When Marley forged forward to the next topic, memories of past began swirling in my head. As the intensity of my stare increased the words flowing from her sounded as if they were passing through a blender until I disconnected completely.
“Do you know what I mean?” She asked a second time.
Marley’s smile ended awkwardly when she realized I had been staring at the calendar hanging over her shoulder. The truth of the matter was I hadn’t heard a word she’d uttered in the last several minutes and by avoiding admission of my inattention and moving forward, I fed the uncomfortable state of limbo. Although I said nothing, my mind was busy frantically shuffling through a stack of responses. Finally I settled on one, that had time allowed would have certainly been discarded. “Have you changed your hair style? The way the sun is dancing in it----“
“Stop with the cheap make-up lines, Mark. Just admit you were daydreaming. You always were a dreamer.”
Marley tilted her head in the direction of the calendar, “Today is the day isn’t it?”
She remembered the significance of this day to me and I appreciated the fact she did. “Yep, but I’ll be fine. Marley, you do realize the Red Rooster wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Marley paused a moment before the remnants of her smile returned. I hoped the return of it indicated she discovered a trace of sincerity in my compliment, but I wasn’t convinced.
“I’m serious. Don’t you dare say a word to Chip because he’s a great guy, but the food he puts out of that kitchen is barely average. Both of us know it’s that smile, those sculpted calves, and the way you twirl your skirt when you turn that keeps the boys buzzing around here.”
Marley blushed before offering her signature move. She winked in an exaggerated manner and spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear. “I’ll get your check, you big flirt!”
Forty long years had passed since my first glimpse of the underside of that skirt. The ‘goods’ were still good—better than most women half her age. I was twelve the first time my grandfather brought me here; a freckled-faced and gangly tag-along. And Marlene Wilkins was a statuesque, stunningly, beautiful blonde who waitressed on weekends.
There were certain rules of engagement that governed a junior-high boy from paying undue attention to any high school girl. But in Marley’s case there were half a dozen football goons and a couple of buff twenty-somethings that hadn’t quite transitioned into adulthood, standing ready to squash your guts into jelly if you ogled in her general direction too long. Even the densest clod knew the kind of damage a stampede of size 16 football cleats would inflict on the torso, but the way I saw it, day to day middle-school existence was always about risk and reward. I’d just have to be wise enough to fly under the radar.
Marley drove a black, older model Cadillac…too old and beat up to be cool if she weren’t behind the wheel. Thursday evenings she spent an hour at the library studying, except when volleyball games and practice trumped schoolwork. Generally she attended second mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, sat in the third row from the back between her parents, and usually wore a pale blue dress with white lace around the neck and sleeves. Marley was an only child. Some said her mother suffered from female problems and wasn’t able to have any more children, but I supposed it just as likely that after the first child turned out that unbelievably perfect there wasn’t much use in disappointing yourself. A girl of Marley’s caliber could offer a guy a handful of rabbit droppings and make him believe it was caviar.
Looking back, I don’t think it was anyone’s fault—more just a case of never seeing that first slice of life served stone cold coming down the pike. Marley didn’t pay any more or any less attention to me than any of the other starry-eyed suitors, but within the confines of my own mind it was another story altogether—and that’s where the trouble began. I read far too much into a touch, a glance, or a kind word. In doing so, six months into my eighth-grade year I decided the very day I graduated from high school I’d ask for her hand in marriage.
It was the beginning of my freshman year when reality took on the form of a diesel-powered steam roller; the driver of which was hell-bent on exposing the fragile nature of my imaginary world. I heard the news second-hand, while sitting in the barber’s chair. I would have dismissed it as hear-say if only one of them said it, but when all three members perched on the ‘liars bench’ agreed on something, it was as certain as death itself. It seemed Jimmy Crawford had not only stepped in and wooed, but married my girl out from underneath me.
I barely recall paying for my haircut before swinging open the door to a world too bright. The light of truth was like a poisonous cocktail injected straight into my brain. I continued stumbling down the sidewalk and with each plodding step another brittle part of me broke and fell away. My insides continued to unravel until anyone with a set of eyes to see, witnessed a gelatinous pile of goo dragging itself up the front steps of my parents home.
I assure you that identifying a disease is far removed from discovering a cure, and an acute case of an over-exposed heart wasn’t the kind of affliction you discussed with anyone. The only thing I knew to do was withdraw into a state of hibernation and wait for one of two outcomes; either the skin would eventually grow back and provide protection or my heart would harden to the point it would no longer function. So I waited for fate to swoop in and rescue me or finish the work by pushing me over the cliff. For the better part of month I sat on the edge of my bed watching the world spinning around me. And spin it did—at warp speed. By the time a scarred and wary young man stepped on stage to receive his diploma, Marley had been married and divorced a third time and had four children to care for.
As I waited on my check I fiddle with straightening and re-straightening the condiment holder; the same thing I had done on my first trip here. Most specifically after my grandfather asked me what kind of fool spends more time looking at the waitress than eating his breakfast? With an empty plate in front of him, Granddad grabbed a toothpick and placed it in the corner of his mouth; his eyes fixed hard on me. I thought he would chew that toothpick in two and every other one in the box before he spoke another word.
In a gravely but gentle voice he continued, “There ain’t no harm in taking a gander once in awhile—kinda let’s a man know he’s alive. But let me give you a piece of advice. At yer age if you set your sights on a filly like that—well, yer just settin’ yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment, Son.”
While I wouldn’t exactly describe my existence between that day and now as a disappointment, in general terms my grandfather was right. My mother’s father continued to offer bits of advice to me throughout my teenage years, but it was his saint-like patience that impressed me most. Over and over he stood in the distance and watched me stubbornly forge my own way until poor decisions stacked upon poor decision resulted in a hail-storm of boulders raining down on me. It was always his weathered hand reaching to pull me from the rubble, dusting me off instead of asking why I hadn’t listened. Back then I believed he protected me because of obligation, adherence to some type of unwritten code that all grandfathers abide by. Granddad had the gift of reading all people and interjecting himself into their lives at just the right moment; an unofficial and unlicensed doctor of hope, injecting the sick with the proper dose of wisdom and truth. Over time I came to understand his loving and healing ways extended well beyond the bounds of family and plunged deep into the heart of a community.
October 17th 1978 marked the day of his passing, and although I’d moved a hundred miles away from this town, I returned each year to place a fresh spray of flowers at his grave. I’d linger by his stone until the sun had dipped beneath the horizon, wishing quietly at first, eventually praying out loud that the keeper of time might allow me to hear granddad’s voice one more time.
I scooped the check from the table and on the way to the counter I felt a tug at my sleeve.
“Is that you, snapper?”
It was more of a croak than a full-fledged voice that spoke to me. Only granddad’s cronies ever called me Snapper, and to the best of my knowledge they had all passed years ago. I studied the man closely. Ernie had to be in his late nineties; there was a walker sitting next to his chair. One of his eyes was black and swollen shut, and the bruised meat hanging from his fore-arms appeared to be losing the fight. The skin on his face gathered in folds and sagged to the extent his left eye was a mere slit. His field of vision was reduced so severely that he swiveled his head like a periscope on a submarine.
I couldn’t decide if it was more of a shock seeing someone I thought to be dead, or witnessing the muted shades of someone who had skirted death too long. For a man reduced to viewing the world one horizontal slice at a time Ernie saw more than most. He read my thoughts like spoken words and before I could acknowledge him and confirm my identity the old man became visibly agitated, upsetting his coffee when he reached for it.
I turned to his son sitting next to him, “I’m awfully sorry for upsetting him, but it’s been so long and I didn’t recogni….. Here, let me pay for your breakfast.”
When I reached to set the cash on the table Ernie grabbed my wrist. His aggressiveness nature and display of strength caught me off guard. One quick jerk brought my face and his within a foot of each other.
“Snapper, you always was kind of a bastard. You coulda just said hello and went about your business like everyone else, instead of starin’ at me like I’m a freak!” I noticed a tear forming at the corner of his good eye, and in the time it took to traverse the rugged terrain, Ernie delivered another viperous strike. “Pop’s would be so disappointed in you!”
The mention of my grandfather and disappointed in the same sentence was a nauseous combination. A loaded omelet and side of bacon became cement churning in my belly, and my throat the delivery tube. I swallowed hard against the urge and jerked free of his grasp. As I made my way to the cash register Ernie’s son called after me, “He’s all mixed up…don’t know what he’s sayin’ half the time.”
In the tiny space of time between the jingle of a bell on the restaurant door and the slap of it closing behind me I heard the croak again, “Meant every last word of it, snapper. You ain’t half the man he was!”
I traveled the quarter mile outside of town where the pavement ended and the gravel began. Continuing along the crooked roads, I nudged the heater a notch higher. It wasn’t until the third adjustment that I realized the chill that had settled deep in the marrow of my bones wasn’t a physical cold but Ernie’s words gnawing at me.
Perhaps Ernie was as confused and disconnected as everyone believed him to be, but in a moment of clarity he spoke the hard truth. The truth of the light stung every bit as much as it had the day I stumbled from out the barber shop door. Somehow that hobbled man had intercepted my thoughts and he was absolutely right. Only a bastard would allow an errant thought like that to cross their mind’s threshold. And on the second count, guilty as charged; even if I made it my life’s pursuit, I’d draw my last ragged breath with the disappointment that I would cross the finish line less than half the man my grandfather had been. On some level I supposed that operating in the shadows would always haunt me to a certain degree, but I also believed that having a mentor like my grandfather motivated me to be a better person than I would otherwise hope to be.
After locating the row of stones belonging to my family I applied the brakes and popped the lever to release the trunk. I remember thinking that if the ominous slab of green clouds in the distance kept moving this direction that my visit might be cut short. When I moved the shifter from drive to park it was like a bolt of lightning pierced the right side of my chest and exploded on the opposing side, taking my breathe with it. What oxygen remained for intake was the heavy air of an approaching storm and each draw seemed to solidify into chunks too large to swallow. With the door already open there was little I could do to prevent myself from spilling out on the ground and striking my head.
In a panic I quickly searched my memory bank and recalled seeing no other vehicles in the cemetery. The feeling of complete helplessness sparked a surge of adrenaline. After a couple of shallow breathes the panic subsided as quickly as it arrived. Suddenly I was inexplicably thankful for the coolness of the earth against my cheek. From the onset, dark bands on either side had gobbled up my peripheral vision and I supposed they would continue marching toward the center of my eye until they had taken all they had come for. I lifted my head enough to get a glimpse of my grandfather’s stone. I stared at the marker intently until my neck could no longer support the weight of my head. There was a vague awareness that my left side was numb. My thoughts were coming in spurts now, colliding against one another, confused as to their destination. But there was absolutely no fear in any of it, just an eerie peacefulness that I was in good company.