The journeys that life cons us into taking are often the ones that take us the furthest.
Image: cannedmoods.com Under cc
A bus pulls up next to a gas pump at a dusty little town. Quaint but dusty. A rather large, well-built man alights it, dressed in army fatigues. A canopy on his back, bearing a mattress, and a bag in his right hand.
He looks either way along the long roads stretching endlessly across where his bright eyes could see. Heaving a sigh, he moves towards the gas pump station.
A lanky attendant in filthy overalls stood at one of the pumps. The soldier watched as the boy cleaned the grime off his hands. With a lethargic look, he looked upon the man who stood towering in front of him.
“whaddya want, sir?” he asked, nonchalantly.
“I wanna make a phone call and get something to eat. Something edible that won’t kill me anytime soon. Know a place close by?”
“Well, you can make a call inside here, it’ll cost ya 5 bucks. As for grub, you need to head north up this road to Lindy’s. Foods pretty decent and Lindy is about as hospitable as the folks get round here.”
“Thanks.. Could you also tell me where John and sons hardware shop is at? ”
“That would be down the road in the opposite direction” the attendant said, pointing towards the south.
As he walked along the winding road towards Lindys, he thought about everything that has transpired to get him there. Like shrugging off a heavy load off his shoulders, he mimicked the movement. It gave him some relief, both the shrug as much as the awareness that the contemplation brought.
Lindys. A charming little roadside cafe. A bunch of rugged looking bikers standing outside gave judging looks at the soldier as he walked in. Unfazed by the judging eyes, he walks in.
“What can I get ya, soulja?” asked the waitress.
“Lindy, is it?” he asked.
“Nope, Lindy’s the one at the counter. I’m Melanie. What can I get ya?”
“Bacon and eggs, some toast and a coffee, please”
“Our special today is a Cilantro soup. You might wanna give it a try”
“No Melanie, thanks though. Maybe some other time.”
The waitress leaves him at table 12, while he boards his train of thoughts again. It seemed nearly a year back since got the letter, though it had only been a few months. He had carried the letter everywhere he went since that day. It seemed to bring him luck in battle. He was not able to give much thought to it at that time though. It was an unusual request, that letter. On an active tour of duty, emotion was not a commodity he could afford. Not during the war, not later, in the breaks that even incorrigible wars decide to take. But a good deal of news can stir men into territories they wouldn’t venture otherwise.
“Here’s your food…and here’s your coffee” Melanie said, interrupting his contemplation.
“Looks good, thanks”
After a slow, deliberate breakfast session, he stepped to the side of the cafe to make a call home. He then picked his belongings and headed down the road, passing the gas pump again. The attendant waved a smile his way, which he responded with a wave back.
His thoughts drifted again as he walked on. They were comrades in the war, John and him. While he returned to active duty for another term, John had decided to settle down after, running a small supplies shop in Haysborough. He was the best man at John’s wedding, maybe she still remembered him, he thought, as he walked towards the heart of the town.
John and sons Hardware supplies. It wasn’t too hard to find, considering John said it was only the second supply store this side of town.
He walked in with the clanging of the bells above the doorstep. Looking around the store to see anyone, he noticed the meticulous arrangement of supplies. Washers, screws, nuts and bolts all in labeled boxes that stood smartly in lower shelves. Files, hacksaws and heavier equipment in the bottommost shelves. Top shelves were full of cardboard boxes, each handwritten with some marking. It was Johns writing, he would recognize it anywhere.
“Can I help you, sir?” asked a warm, young voice.
He turned around to face a young boy, perhaps 5 or 6 years old. He could see much of John in him.
“Is your mom around?”
“She’s out at the back. Are you looking for something in particular, sir?”
“No, I’m an old friend of your dad’s. Just thought I’d stop by and say hello to Jane. Could you go call Mum out front please?”
“Sure, she’ll be here soon though. You were in the army with Dada?”
“Yes, I was. He was my wingman” he smiled.
“What’s a wingman?”
He looked into the kids eyes. He had the same bemused look that John had when he asked about something.
“Well, a wingman is..”
“Oh hey there, can I help you with something?”
He turned around to face her. She was as pretty as the last time he remembered. Big doe brown eyes with corners that lit up in warmth. There was a puzzling kindness on her visage that was so rare these days.
“Jane, its Andrew” he said, stretching out an arm.
“Oh..hello.. Andy!! How have you been?” embracing him in a friendly hug.
“I’ve been alright, just returned from duty yesterday. Thought I’d just check on how you and the gerbil were doing. How are you?”
“Could you go out back and play, Sammy? Mummy wants to talk to Andrew about something.”
“Okay”, he sighed, turning around to face Andrew now “it was nice to meet you, sir.”
They walked towards the counter inside the store, where a table with a coffee pot and a few mugs waited for them.
“The coffee’s probably cold by now. Lemme heat it up for ya.”
“That’s alright, Jane. I just had some at Lindy’s before coming here.”
“Oh, alright then” she said, sitting back in the chair opposite him. “Were you back in the force all these years? Its been, what, 7 years since I last met you.”
“Yes I was. I met John a couple of times over the years. He used to come by the camps once in a while. This is my first time at Haysborough though.”
“Yes, the camps. John wouldn’t shut up about it when he got back. I had forgotten about them.” lowering her head.
“When did things start to get bad? Neither of you thought it made sense to gimme a call about it sometime? I could’ve tried to help out, Janey. At least, I would’ve tried to.”
“You know how John can get with these things. Besides, it wasn’t as bad at the time. Its amazing how fast things go from bad to worse.”
“How are things now?”
“We’re managing alright. Getting by a little with the money we get from the army, and my dad helps out once in a while.”
Andrew sighed, making furrows of lines on his otherwise calm forehead. If only he knew things were this bad before. If only John had told me what he was going through. He had made up his mind before getting here though.
“Jane, I wanna tell you something. I want you to consider it well before you decide anything” he said, measuring each uttered word with the gravity of the moment.
“Uh-huh, go right ahead, Andy”
“I want to buy the store from you. You can still work here if you like, but it doesn’t have to be a means of getting by. I have always wanted to settle some place like here. And from what John tells me about it, Haysborough seems like a pretty swell town…”
“What are you saying, Andy? John hated handouts. He never took one all his life, and for us to do that after his death is just..plain wrong”
She didn’t seem angry, but she looked like she meant every word of it.
“For chrissake, Jane, this isn’t a damn handout! John was like my brother and I loved him as much as anyone else. This life couldn’t be what he wanted for you both after he left.”
“If he thought about the life he wanted for us, he’d probably still be with us, Andy.” she paused. “It’s a generous offer, sure. But I don’t wanna think about this. We are getting by fine here, and sales are bound to pick up by the holiday season. I was speaking to one of the guys who runs an appliances store in town. He could help me set up a few equipments here. Those sell up quickly around the holiday season, what with the gifting and all.”
“You won’t be able to match the prices of the biggies, Jane. All you’ll end up with is a stockpile that you’ll have to sell back at less post the season.”
Jane looked up at him. Partially angry with him for breaking her bubble, and partly at herself for not giving it good thought.
“Look Janey, I know it’s not my place but this isn’t just something I decided out of the blue. I’ve given it a good bit of thought. It could work out well for you as well. All I’m asking, is for you to give it a thought.”
“I’m not so sure of selling the place, Andy. Maybe I need a few more days to mull over it. Where are you staying?”
“Hadn’t planned to fail here, really. I thought I could buy it off you and settle here by the end of the day.” he grinned.
“That’s optimistic, Andy, even for you!” she said.
Sam ran in, with the two of them laughing.
“Are you guys done? Mommy, I’m hungry!”
“Yes yes, lets fix us something to eat. Why don’t you freshen up, Andy? It ain’t much, but I make a pretty good meat loaf.”
“I’d love some. Been so long since I had a home-cooked meal.”
“Sammy, could you show Andy up to the spare room? And give him a fresh towel from the linen closet.”
“Yes, mommy. Come on up, sir” Sammy enthused.
Jane headed to the store front and turned out the ‘Closed’ sign. As she headed into the kitchen to prepare the lunch, she began to think about the last time she met Andy.
“This is my brother, my friend and my guide” John had said, while introducing them. “He will kill or die for me, Janey. On the battlefield or outside it.”
“John gets away with the corniest things to say, doesn’t he?” beamed a young Andy shaking her hand,”I’m so glad to finally meet the dame who stole his heart. The last few weeks have been ‘Janey this, Janey that’ to all of us. Our unit literally knows you as well as John does” he quipped.
Why was he back here? Settling in Haysborough, why would anyone want to settle here of all places? Granted, it was a great place to raise kids, like John used to say. But Andy turning up like this, all of a sudden after 7 years..it just felt odd. Her train of thoughts was broken up by Sam tugging at her apron.
“Mommy, he’s taking a shower. Do we have something to eat for now? I’m really hungry”
“Take two cookies from the jar. Two only, Sammy! Lunch is almost done. I don’t want you wasting food on the plate, okay?”
“Okay, okay!” he said, running up to the kitchen counter to pick up the cookies.
Andy walked downstairs, in a red chequered shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Jane looked up at him walking down the stairs, folding up his sleeves, just like John used to.
“You’ve got a great home here, Janey. Love what you’ve done with the decor.”
“Thanks, Andy. I had done a course on interior design some years back. I guess some of it wasn’t totally a waste.” she said, smiling.
“Here, let me help” he said as he helped Sam set the table for lunch.
The three of them had a quiet lunch, except for the few times that Sam would ask about the war, about what guns they used, how the Iraqis were as a people. Andy answered all his curious questions patiently, recalling how much Sammy reminded him of John. There was that same earnestness in the way he said things. John often landed into trouble while trying to help others out. He would put himself in the line of fire for friends so often. “What’s the point in living any other way, man?” he used to say.
Post lunch, Sam and Andy went out to the parlor nearby for an ice cream. Jane went about her chores, tidying up Sams room and picking his dirty clothes for wash. Heading into the guest room, she picked up the fatigues that Andy had spread across the bed.
With a basketful of clothes, she headed towards the laundromat. Carefully checking each pocket before putting the clothes in, she picked up Andy’s fatigues. Remembering how John used to look in them, she sighed as she checked the pockets for any loose change. She felt a piece of paper in one of the pockets. Picking it out, she laid it in the basket without opening it. Starting the machines, she finally sat down at the chairs with the basket and started reading the magazine she had brought along.
A note, or a letter perhaps, she thought, would help explain why he was here, she thought. Fighting her instinct to leave the note in the basket, she decided to read it. Putting her magazine aside, she looked around to see if anyone else could see her there. Unfolding the paper gently, her hands trembled as she saw Johns writing.
It seems like so long since I last met you at camp. I kept hoping you would take me up on my invites for the holidays and come see us. Sammy is growing up so quickly. You should meet him, you’ll love him too.
I’ll get right to the bad news. The cancer is getting worse, buddy. We tried everything we could, and I’m not going down without a fight. But this is the end for me, i know it already. You know me well enough to know I won’t give up easily. But this is the end for me, man, I just know it.
Janey knows it too, she pretends to be tough around me. I hear her sobbing at night sometimes. I don’t even have the heart to turn around and comfort her. It really kills me knowing I won’t be here to do that in sometime. Its best if she prepares for this.
I’ve something to ask you, as my friend and as the strongest link of my family. It will seem odd at first, but I want you to give it a good deal of thought. Andy, my family is everything to me, and it will not work without me here. Janet’s strong, but there’s only so much that she can take. There’s no easy way to say this, man, but trust me, I’ve given this so much thought.
I want you to take care of them. I know it isn’t your thing. You don’t like to get attached to anyone. And I know how you feel about love and emotions. It used to amaze me how you could find it in your heart to have me as your friend. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
But right now, I want you to learn to love. This is my family and you’re part of this. I know I’m being selfish, but promise me you’ll do this. I don’t know if I will be around to visit you once more.
Our last meet was so great. It couldn’t have been a better goodbye,man. For you to remember me as I was back then. Somewhat healthy and eager to fight this.
You’re all I have, Andy. My hopes, my dreams, my spirit lives on through my son. I want you to take care of him like you did for me when we fought beside each other. He can be such a good kid with you around. And Janey, well what do I say. I’m leaving the only woman I’ve ever loved with the only man I’ve ever trusted with her. It will seem odd, this request of mine. I know how odd it sounds, Andy. She will learn to love again. She must. You must learn to love too, and help her remember how it feels. You lie when you say you cannot love anyone. You lying bugger! You have hidden love in every little thing you did for us. I know that if you decide to, you’ll be able to do this and be truly great at it.
Take care of them, brother. I love you and will watch over you all. I promise.
She held the paper close to her heart. He was taking care of them even while he was gone.
“Mommy!” she heard, along with a tapping sound on the glass behind her.
Andy and Sam walked in though the landromat, as she folded the letter. Andy froze as he saw the letter in her hands.
“Andy, would you like to stay with us for a few days?” she said.
A tear rolled down her cheek and met a smile.