Spokane and Cletis by Robert L. Beasley

Once upon a time, back when W was trying to run things, two mechanic-types who everybody knew, two guys long on looks but short on the ability to keep a woman happy for more than six months, two guys named Spokane and Cletis, fell in love with the same woman.

Diane Sawyer served drinks in that bar Chiggers down on Tazewell Pike.  When they couldn’t quite hear her name, what with all the boogie blaring out, she told the boys it was like that news lady on TV.  They nodded their heads but neither one of ‘em had any idea about any news lady on TV.  They only watched racing and football.

Names tell you something about a person.  If our boys had been better listeners, they might possibly could have seen their fate.  But, then again, they had trouble with their own names.  As Spokane told it, Dudley Holt knocked up his mama.  Or so she thought.  When she was about seven months gone and having trouble seeing her feet on account of she ate like a mountain boy finding free extra-crispy at Colonel Sanders, she went into old man Miller’s Tavern and the old fart Dudley Holt says, “You think you can raise that baby by yourself?”

She wasn’t taking much in that condition so she says, “If you ain’t gonna be the father and wipe his butt, I spose I can.”  She liked flipping that shit back at him so she began thinking about naming the varmint SposeICan.  She kept twirling it around in her mind and saying it out loud.  Then one day, she was cleaning a room where some guest had left a brochure on Spokane, clear skies and all.  She didn’t have no idea where the place Spokane was and didn’t really care.  She wasn’t planning to leave East Tennessee.  She just thought the word Spokane came outta her mouth easier than SposeICan, but it still kept the thought in mind of flipping somebody off.

From elementary school on, Cletis and Spokane stuck together like glue.  When Cletis was about nine he wanted to be called Clete.  He thought that sounded tougher and not so much like a hillbilly name.  Trouble was nobody else was going to call him anything but Cletis.  All they could see in him was his no-good-for-nothing daddy taking it humped over some washing machine in Brushy Mountain Penitentiary and his mama sewing pants at the Levi’s plant during the day and chasing some dick at night.

Cletis was never gonna get the respect a Clete deserved.  The saving grace was that he thought of himself as Clete, so when he got out of Tazewell High, tall enough to have lettered at forward, he joined the Army, saying he was gonna do something and not piss it all away.  He got to be the best damned mechanic at Fort Bragg and kept them trucks running in old man Bush’s war.  When he come home, he opened up his own shop right there in Tazewell.

Spokane, too short to get anybody to throw him the basketball, had stayed out of the service and learned to do body work at the North Knoxville Auto Body Repair.  Cletis opened his shop, and that made Spokane hungry.  He got hungry just watching Cletis bossing and taking off early to get the bass boat out on Douglas Lake.  In about a year, Spokane started to rent Peterson’s Body Shop for $300 a month.  Two years later he was buying it and gave it the name ‘The Fender Bender Mender’.

The two shops was a block and half apart and the big businessmen had lunch together most every day and quite often a few beers at Chiggers after work.  They kept those fine habits for years and, lo and behold, they both ended up falling for a woman named Diane Sawyer.

This could be a Cain and Abel type story.  Bible studiers would know somebody gets killed in that one.  But it ain’t that kind of story.  If God ever made two buddies who could fall for the same woman and live, Spokane, the body man, and Cletis, the engine man, answered the call.

Three weeks after Linus, who ran Chiggers, let Diane come to work, the same three weeks give or take a day, after misunderstanding Diane and her name, both Spokane and Cletis closed up their shops by three.  It was Fair night and all the kids got free admission and ten free rides, so the two bosses let the mechanics and body men off early.  Since our duo didn’t care nothing about the Fair, and had no women to drag them there, they headed for Chiggers about four.  They like to never got a beer.

Then Diane comes flying in the door and Linus comes out from the kitchen and starts chewing on her for being late.  She’s standing at the end of the bar and all the boys can hear is one big burst from her, “I tried.  I’m sorry.  The thing wouldn’t start.  I had to get that creepy guy upstairs to give me a ride.”  Diane grabs a tray with two beers and comes over toward Spokane and Cletis.  When they look at her, all the stuff with Linus is gone and she’s as bright-faced as when she first waited on them.

“Hey, guys.  Sorry things is slow.  What else can I get you?”

They ordered some nachos and watched her work double fast.  Cletis leaned toward Spokane.  “I wonder who fixes her car.”

Spokane caught a little gleam in Cletis’s eye.  “Who knows? Could be a little business there.”

“Yep,”    said Cletis.  “Some mighty fine business.”

Diane moved with ease bringing nachos, taking orders, wiping off tables.  Ever once in a while, Spokane would be watching her bending over a table.  She had a firm little bottom and long legs.  He thought about that fine business.  Legs were straight too, not like she’d spent too much time on a horse.

When things at Chiggers settled down, Diane got caught up.  She stopped at their table.  “What can I get you guys now?”

Cletis said, “Maybe I can do something for you.”

She turned her head a little sideways, gave up a smile, pointed her pen at them and with smiley but pouty lips said, “That usually means me doing something special for you and I don’t mix business with pleasure.”

Cletis wasn’t good at reading flirting so he said, “No, I don’t mean nothing wrong.”    He shook his head as he sat up straighter in the booth.  “I mean I heard your car had trouble.  You took it anywhere?”

“You’re sweet to ask.  No, it’s just sitting in front of my apartment.”

“You may not know what I do.  I got a shop round the corner.  How about letting me take a look at it?”

Diane took a long look at him and spent some time thinking.  “Nice of you, you know.  But I might need to wait awhile.”

Spokane caught Cletis’ eye cause he knew what was coming next.

Cletis made the move.  “I’m sure I could give you some work time.  The problem could be nothing much anyway.  Not starting can be something simple.”

“I appreciate it but it’s a old beat up Civic my uncle gave me.  Somebody backed into it here.  I probably just need to park it.”

Cletis thought just enough sugar might overcome her objections.  “Please.  Let me try.  I’ll tell you if you need to park it.”

Diane eyed him steady and began to nod her head.  “Okay,”    she said.  “It’s a deal.”

Spokane came in then with the body angle.  “When Cletis is finished with it, I should check it out.”    He said that as sweet as he could muster, even though he wanted to kick the shit out of Cletis under the table.

Cletis rolled his head toward Spokane.  They looked straight and firm at each other for a full three seconds.  From then on it was full contact.

Cletis managed to get her address, phone number, and key to the Civic.   “I gotta work tonight,”    he told Spokane and lit out to find the Civic.

About an hour later, Cletis pushed the Civic into a bay.  The car looked bad.  Once upon a time it had that standard brown-tan-gray-whatever Honda color.  Now it looked more like camouflage.  The engine wouldn’t turn over.  Zilch.  Cletis lifted the old battery and put in a new one.  The car started but ran like it had been wounded real bad.  He changed the plugs, put in new wires, cleaned the injectors, changed the oil and filter.  He washed and vacuumed it and quit about 11:00.  He drove the car over to Chiggers.

Diane was still waiting tables and Spokane was sitting at the bar.  “You been here drinking all night?”    Cletis said.

“Naw.  I came back to see if the little lady had a way to get home.”

“Well, she does now.  I got her running.”

“Well, good, maybe I can have it now.”

Diane come over to talk to them and Cletis handed her the keys.  “How much do I owe you?”

“You don’t owe me nothing.  It just needed a battery.  I put one in out of a car some guy left at the shop six months ago.  You’re good to go.”

Spokane chimed in.  “I see it needs some body work.  How about letting me have it tomorrow?”

“Now, I know that’s gonna cost something.”

“I got a kid who’s training.  He’d do it just to learn.  Might not be the best job but good enough.”

“I’d need to pay for paint or something.”

“Maybe.  I might have some left over of that color.  I’ll look.”

Diane looked out at the car and down at the keys.

Spokane said, “If you’ll let me give you a lift home, I can take the car tonight and get it back to you by the time you go to work tomorrow.”

“That fast?”

“You bet.”

She put the keys in Spokane’s hand.  “Give me about half an hour.”

Cletis looked down at Spokane who had a bust-my-ass-if-you-dare smile.  Spokane rattled those keys in his hand like shaking a tambourine.  Cletis said, “Little Big Man, after you drop her off, could you give me a ride back to the shop?”

Spokane reached and grabbed Cletis’s elbow.  “Of course, you sly bastard.”

Cletis gave him a wry smile.  “Pretty slick yourself,”

Spokane started sanding about midnight.  He pulled the dent out of the fender and filled it with bondo.  He patched some rust on both rear fender panels.  The passenger window wouldn’t roll down so he took that apart and replaced the motor.  He taped the Civic, primed it, baked it, painted it, baked it, painted it again, and baked it.  A quick job, not by the book, but the Civic glistened a pretty champagne by about two in the afternoon.

He took the car over to Diane.

“Wow!”    she said.  “It looks like new.”

“Yeah, that boy really got into it.  It ain’t perfect but he learned a lot.”

Diane rubbed her hands over the smooth hood.  She turned to Spokane and looked a little sheepish.

He put his hands in a back off motion.  “Don’t worry.  We had some old paint.  I hope it sticks.  You’ll just have to see.  But it didn’t cost us nothing.”

“I can’t believe this.  Thanks.”    She reached over and gave him a quick little hug.  Since he walked among the height-challenged, Spokane found her left tit so close to his chin he knew he’d be dreaming about it.

Cletis heard about the little hug the next day when Spokane barreled into the shop with two Starbucks coffees for them.

“You make some real money somewhere?”

Spokane was all bubbly like he’d been saved.  “I’m having a good day.  I knew you’d wanna enjoy it with me.”    He told Cletis all he’d done and gave him the victory lap at the end.  “She just reached over and wrapped me up.  Damnation, I couldn’t think of what to say.  But I’m thinking things are looking up.”

“Don’t go putting on clean drawers yet,”    Cletis said.

Spokane had found a groove.  “Anybody, specially a woman like that, likes a good looking ride.”

“Sure she does.  That way she can take me home with her in style.”

“You wish, Cletis.”

That afternoon Cletis worked on old lady Barnes ‘95 LeSabre.  She hadn’t driven it enough miles for a tune up but he did one anyway.

Cletis knew he could just ask Diane out.  “Diane, would you like to see a movie?” “Diane, how about going with me up to Limpton’s for dinner?”    If he got a no now, the whole deal would be off.  She’d be knocked right into Spokane’s clutches.  Flowers were out of the question.  Might scare her clean out of town or make her puke cause he bought poison ivy or something.  So stick with what he knew best.  He had a plan for the night.

Chiggers was jumping that night.  Diane gave ‘em big smiles, then rushed to help somebody else.  Cletis kept looking for a way to catch her.  Spokane had to mention the little hug about every quarter hour.  He’d lean over and look out the window, “That’s one fine looking Civic.  What a shine!”

Finally, things slowed down and Diane came by.  “You boys want some dessert tonight.  It’s on the house.”

“That’s real sweet of you,”  said Spokane all smiley and happy.

“Sounds good,  said Cletis.  “I’ll have that fudge brownie sundae thing.  But can I ask you about your car?”

“Sure, honey, what about it?”

“I’m wondering if you’d let me take your car again.  There was one little thing from the other night that bothered me and I’d like to take a look at it.”

“Sure.  I’ll get your dessert.  What for you, Spokane?”

Spokane got the same thing and eyeballed Cletis as he slipped out to the car.  Cletis opened the hood and looked around.  Got in and started it.  Listened.  He came back inside Chiggers.  Spokane said, “What you got up your sleeve now?”

“Just being helpful, old buddy, just being helpful.”

Diane brought two wide bowls with a brownie, ice cream and tons of fudge sauce.  “You fellows enjoy these.”

“Thank you,” said Cletis.  “Can I tell ya about the car?”

“Sure.”

“I thought it was running a little hot the other day.  I believe you oughta let me put in a new thermostat.  If it’s not cooling right, it could fail at any time.” She looked skeptical, so Cletis added, “It won’t cost five dollars.  Nothing to it.”

“If you think so.”

The boys started eating the desserts as Diane walked away.  “Thermostat, my ass,” said Spokane.  “What are you really doing?”

“Don’t you remember? Just being helpful.”

“Hell, you can’t make it look any better than it does now.  She don’t know a thermostat from a leaf blower.  You’re gonna do something else.”  Cletis wasn’t about to tell, and Spokane was already planning his next move.  The boys paid their bills and Cletis left a ten spot on the table.

Cletis drove Diane home in her car like he was supposed to.  She smelled like sweat and cooking oil, which he found tempting.  He shook that off.

She was chatty on the way talking about how bone-tired she was and how these waitress jobs just kept her running and always working late at night.  Cletis looked down at her resting her elbow on the door and leaning her head into her hand.  He’d never thought how he and Spokane was always seeing her while she was working her butt off.  They appreciated how good she was at serving ‘em.  He just never thought how tiring it was to serve ‘em and all the others at Chiggers.  It was sorta like his work.  He hardly had time for a woman.  Obviously, she didn’t have much time for a man.  He’d just give his eye teeth to tuck her in.

Cletis got the car back to the shop about midnight.  He parked the Civic in bay two, beside the pallet of parts sitting in bay three.  He put on his coveralls and rolled his toolbox up close.  First he wrapped the electrical parts in the engine and steam cleaned the baby.  Then he drained and flushed the cooling system real good.  Then drained the oil and took off the pan.  Using the crane, he pulled the engine and took off the fan assembly, water pump, head cover, and head.  Working like the pro he was, he pulled the pistons and put new rings on ‘em.  He made sure the cylinders were smooth and then started putting stuff back together.  He put on a new timing belt and water pump and replaced the head cover with a fancy chrome one.  Just in case, he did replace the thermostat.

For good measure, Cletis put the Civic on the lift and took off the ratty tires she was running on.  He’d picked out some fancy low profiles and popped them on some chrome beauties.  The wheels shone like mirrors.  When he set her back down and stepped back, he thought it the finest Civic he’d ever seen.  The engine had a new car hum now.

He was finishing up about the time the guys were coming to work.  They all walked around the car and whistled.  He felt a little flush but proud of his work.

Later that morning he drove the car over to Diane’s.  She walked around the car with her hands on her hips.  “I love the tires and wheels,” she said.  “What’s that got to do with the thermostat?”

“Well, nothing but they come off a wreck.  Some kid totaled his fancy little Civic.  It had some other parts that was scrap so I put them on while I was doing the thermostat.  She runs cool and hums now.”

Cletis opened the hood to show her.  “Shiny,” she said, “And clean-looking.” She turned round and stood on her tippy toes to give him the little hug and a peck on the cheek.  “Thanks a bunch,” she said.   Her hands rested on his shoulders, and she was looking right into his eyes.  “Let me take you back to your shop.”

Cletis hated to let go, but she pulled away and jumped in the driver’s seat.  As they drove up to the shop Diane said, “It does hum.  It sounds like a new car.” Cletis was beaming and thinking about the peck and the eye contact.  It was about time.

When Cletis got to Chiggers that night, Spokane was walking slowly around Diane’s car.  “Wheels, eh? I was thinking I might do that.”

“Too late.  You better give up.” He told Spokane about the peck and the hum.  Spokane listened, ready to put his plan into action.

After dinner that night, Diane actually sat down in the booth next to Cletis.  Not all snuggly-like, but enough to worry Spokane.  So he took that moment for a proposal.  “Diane, you know we’ve been able to get that car in good shape.”

“Yes, you have and I am so thankful to you guys.  No one’s ever been this nice to me.”

“Well, it’s just blind luck, you know, that we’ve had stuff that fits your car.  In fact, right now, I’ve got a car like that with some good-looking seats in it.  I noticed your driver’s seat has a rip in it from getting in and out so much.  How about letting me pull those seats and give you some better ones?”

Diane leaned on the table and patted Spokane with her right hand.  “Spokane, I’m not gonna argue with you.  You just do what you want to that car.  You want it in the morning?”

“If it’s all right, I take you home like Cletis did last night and get it back to you tomorrow afternoon.”

Back at the shop that night, Spokane prepared his finest.  He took out all the seats, the carpet, door panels, arm rests, and the headliner material.  He pulled the cracked dashboard out.  He covered the seats, door panels, and part of the dash with full grain leather.  He took out the radio and tape player and installed a new system with six CD capacity.  New wiring ran to new speakers under the rear window.  He added a gorgeous new headliner.  When you looked up you saw little stars.  He popped the new dash in with a switch for running lights he installed under the car.  While he was down there, he installed some new shocks that raised and lowered the car.

When Diane sat in the car, she rubbed her hands over the leather and cooed.  Spokane loved that sound.  She put one hand on each of his cheeks.  Spokane didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so soft.  She looked him in the eyes, and said, “You are such a wonderful man.  I’m going to work in style now.  Except, of course, I’m not going to work tonight.  I got the night off so I could go visit my cousin in Dandridge.  I’ll drop you off.”

When Spokane got back to the shop, he called Cletis to tell him bout Diane not working and about being a wonderful man.  They both knew it was time to take the next step and they had plenty of time to think about that step.  Some tossin’ and turnin’ through the night and a slow hot day at work.  After work, both took in hot showers and then primping as much as two guys like them could do.  Cletis put on a white dress shirt, which showed off his tan real good.  Spokane pulled out a long sleeve silk shirt in a stunning aqua color.  It made his eyes twinkle.  They arrived at Chiggers about the same time and saw the Civic parked near the side.  Cletis looked inside and said that leather was first class.

In their booth they waited for Diane in silence.  They looked like two gunslingers in a Western.  Which one was going to draw first and ask Diane to do something, anything, other than talk car with him?

The what-can-I-do-for-you came from Stella, the woman who sometimes filled in for Diane.  Our boys looked up at her and craned their necks round to the bar.  No Diane.

“Two taps,” said Spokane, his eyes on the bar.

They kept looking that way but all they saw was Linus, the boss man, and Stella.  She brought back the beers.

“Say,” said Cletis, “Where’s Diane?”

“She ain’t here.”

“Yeah, but her car’s here.  Is she all right?”

“She ain’t here.  Ole Linus called me this afternoon to rush over to work.”

“Well,” Spokane said, pointing out the window.  “She left her car here.  That’s sorta strange.”

Stella leaned over the table to look out at the car.  “That’s Linus’ new car.  I was waiting outside when he drove up in it.”

The boys was outta their seats in a flash, leaving Stella standing at the table.  They came up to the bar in front of Linus.  He never looked up.

“Linus,” said Cletis, “How come you got Diane’s car?”

Linus rubbed a towel around an old-fashion glass.  “Ain’t her car.  It’s mine now.”

Cletis had some sinister suspicions and said, “How come it’s yours? She owe you some money?”

“Nope.  I bought it.  She done sold it to me for $15,000.  I already been offered $17,000 for it.”

Spokane jumped in.  “She sold it! What’d she do that for?”

Linus slowly put the glass on a shelf behind him, turned back around, and picked up another.  “She sold it so she could, you know, live her dream.  Dancing.  Left this afternoon for Las Vegas.  I told her it was hot as Hades out there, but she said she’s been planning on that high life for a long time.”

Spokane and Cletis looked at each other like two stray dogs with lobotomies.  Cletis turned back to Linus.  “We thought we was friends, good friends.  How could she sell that car and go?”

Linus put the glass away and then rested his hands on the counter.  He had a swagger like he enjoyed their disappointment.  “Now, boys, she’s just the type to change networks.  Couldn’t choose, could she?”

“But she coulda told us something.” Cletis had lost his fire.  Plaintive.

“Yep.” Linus let out a gentle belly laugh.  “No shit, boys, you coulda been smarter too.  That girl’s wanted more for too long.  More than slinging beers and nachos.  Sticking power ain’t Diane’s thing.”

Spokane pondered things beyond him.  Sometimes it’s damned hard to believe that God has a plan for your life.  There are times when you can believe with ease that God has it in for you.

Stella moved their two beers to the bar.

Cletis knew how to pull a car out of a ditch.  “Let’s shift gears.  How about fishing tomorrow?”

“Excellent idea.” Spokane said.  He lifted his glass to toast Cletis.  A twinkle rose in his eyes.  “Man, we sure made that Civic into a fine automobile!”

“That we did,” said Cletis.  He clinked Spokane’s glass.  “That we did.”


The Second of July by Barbara Coles

Without Traynor Ritchie saying in his mind yes or no, go or stay, it was done. Hard tack and apples in his bag, he walked through the dusk toward the rim of the camp. He greeted those he knew as if from under water, a man with a thin sack slung over his shoulder, maybe looking for a bottle with which to make merry on the eve of battle, but not a man headed home, not a deserter. His taut face and step were just the expected thing, the thing they all needed a jigger for, just one sup to clear their minds for the night.

Every time he opened his hand, he found the letter there and stuffed it back in his pocket, but it wouldn’t stay. The handwriting was none too good to start with, and now the ink had run and the paper shredded from the sweat of his palm.

Traynor knew what it said anyhow, word by word, and it didn’t matter. He’d had the letter a week, and the gist — Sukie was dead – was written on his muscles and sinews. His wife buried two months before the letter came, dead of hunger and fever and sadness, his children parceled out to neighbors who couldn’t keep them, as they had nothing themselves. It didn’t matter because he was here, near 150 miles from home.

His division was taking the lead on the morrow, they being just arrived after two days of fighting and the only ones fresh. And it looked

like a pretty poor prospect to him, the plan The Old Man had come up with. It hadn’t worked for the Yankees at Fredricksburg, and Traynor didn’t figure it would work now even if the Old Man thought it would. An entrenched position was an entrenched position, whether it was blue or gray behind the wall. This time the Yankees would be hunkered down with stones between them and the bullets.

Rumor had it that even General Longstreet thought it was a mighty big field that lay between the confederate position and that wall.

Well, maybe Traynor just wouldn’t be there to see what came of it.

He had marched north into Pennsylvania with each step pounding Sukie, funny Sukie, through his body. Sukie, who he’d known all his life, who always pushed on his shoulder with one finger before teasing him, who made his father say, “Girl, I wouldn’t want another daughter-in-law even if she was polite” –- Sukie was gone, a victim of this war.

What made that letter weasel its way out of his pocket and into his hand was its call to go home, to go right now, grown strong and stronger since he had unfolded the limp and dirtied paper for the first time.

The voices of his children called him. His chubby children –- were they still chubby, or were they as thin and sorry as the children they saw as they marched? Liza, turned one, two and three with him away, all brown curls and, from what Sukie wrote, the sense of humor of a snake. George, dark eyes, little lover of his mother, what he had seen in his five years Traynor didn’t want to think about. He felt their pull with the flesh of his body, his bones wanting to tumble southward to circle them and build a fortress around Liza and George.

With each step away from camp, what-ifs began to pile up against him like a sea of bodies.

The first thought Traynor had, the first thought any of them had for the last two years, was the state of his boots. He reckoned he’d not make it home with his shoe leather still on his feet, but he thought of his boyhood feet, bare from March to November, the soles as tough as any shoe leather. Climbing over any kind of rough ground or the slippery stones on the bed of the branch behind the cabin, his toes would cling like a ring-tailed cat’s grabby little feet. If his boots fell off his feet tomorrow, maybe his skin would thicken and protect him before they bloodied.

As Traynor remembered the entertainment he’d seen as a child, brought to the crossroads by a group of traveling actors, he saw further fates play in front of his eyes, against the backdrop of the gathering night. The sentries seize him and drag him to be shot before his comrades. Desperate days spent in the woods only to be captured by the Home Guard and hung. Arriving at home to find his children lost or dead. Or alive, reunited, only to see them starve before him, helpless.

All these scenes put stealth and strength in his step. He might as well go on, because he had nothing to lose.

The shadows gave him hope he could slip between the sentries disguised as a deer or a bird in flight. There was the chance they would mistake him for a deer and take a shot in the hopes of fresh meat. But no, after two days of fighting, the sentries would know the only deer around would be one bent of self-murder. They would know a man heading off into the woods was more likely in every way.

No one stopped him in camp, not even to pass the time. Many men he saw writing letters outside their tents, using the last of the light to unburden themselves of their love and make farewells. Those who couldn’t write stood in line, waiting to pay them that could. The eve of battle was a powerful encouragement to say your last say.

Traynor just now reckoned that his children would have no last words from him, besides his few letters to Sukie, if he didn’t make it home to them. He wished he could put a few lines down, but he was set now on his course. He stepped away from the

tents and across the open ground to the woods while the nearest sentry had his back turned.

When he reached the trees, he bent over to catch his breath and still his heart. Not one challenge had come over the open ground, except from his own body. A word raised in question would have felt like a musket ball between the shoulders. But he was whole among the shelter of the trees. He commenced to play Indian, childhood’s soundless stalking, the purpose then to catch out his little brother and give him a fright, his purpose now to evade the ears of sentries who had humming, battle-woke nerves.

Fifty yards, a hundred, a hundred-fifty. Then he must have made a sound, a crack of a stick his raddled, noisy heart disguised or the rush of a bough springing back into place.

“Who goes there?” cried the sentry to his left.

“Who’s that?” to the right.

Traynor froze, thinking of the five men shot by Jackson last year. Trouble was, you never knew. You never knew.

Close by him, the left sentry spoke.

“I can see you there. You might just as lief come out. You a reb or a Goddamn Yankee?”

Traynor straightened and looked in the eyes of the sentry.

“That you, Tray? God damn it, what’re you doing?”

His heart stopped hammering. Nothing to be done now.

“Well, Micah, you know how I fancy walking.”

Micah wove through the underbrush, took Traynor’s bag and looked inside. Traynor could see enough of the look on Micah’s face in the falling night. Micah shook his head as he handed back the bag and took Traynor’s rifle.

“God damn it, Tray, God damn it. It’s your wife, ain’t it? Oh, sweet Jesus, Tray. Why’d you want to be caught out here.”

The second sentry came up from under a branch and looked at Traynor, then at Micah, his fellow sentry. Young, rough, and itchy was how Traynor read him.

“You know this feller, Micah? He a coward or sumpin’ like?”

“No, you Goddamn idjit! He ain’t no coward and you better not say so.”

“He looks to me like runnin’ away, so settle your petticoats and let’s get on.”

Micah wove through the underbrush and took Traynor’s arm.

“Traynor, you know we got to do this.”

“There’s no call to hang on me, Micah. I ain’t runnin’.”

Micah looked into his eyes and dropped his arm. “Don’t reckon you are.”

“I am right sorry to put you through this all.”

“Ain’t this a tea party. Let’s get this coward back to camp.”

Micah’s gun changed direction a hair. “Shut your face, you idjit, or I’ll drop you.”

Traynor said, “Leave it, Micah. Gettin’ shot won’t make him any less an idjit.”

“Stay here,” Micah told the idjit sentry. “No call for both of us to leave our post. Try not to shoot nobody if you can help it. Shooting your own self would not be of much concern to me, however.”

The young sentry glared at them and took himself back under the branch.

“Goddamn backwoods idjit,” muttered Micah. A laugh escaped Traynor.

“Ain’t we backwoods idjits, Micah?” He said at last what he’d

been thinking a while now. “Fighting to keep slaves we don’t have?”

“I ain’t getting political with you, Tray. The Old Man says this war ain’t about slavery.”

Traynor kept his thought to himself. If The Old Man thought this war wasn’t about slavery and that tomorrow’s assault would work, they weren’t the only idjits here.

Micah trudged on and after a minute said, “We ain’t backwoods anymore, Tray. We just plain idjits.”

Traynor laughed again, then began to shake.

As they passed from the open land into the rows of tents, men turned to look. Their soldier ears quirked up when they heard the men pass, Micah toting the two rifles and Traynor none. The soldiers kept their eyes on the two to see where they headed. Traynor, with the water wobbling through his knees, fancied being thought a coward as little as he fancied being shot or hung.

Night coming on, firelight danced against musket barrels and tin cups. Men’s eyes gleamed as they watched Traynor pass. Then he stopped noticing such things and walked in a fug of campfire smoke, heat, and damp.

“Hold up there.”

Micah pulled on Traynor’s arm to stop his forward step.

“Yessuh.” Micah struggled to shift both rifles into one hand so he could salute.

“Never mind that, suh. Tell me, who do you have there? Who are you, by the way? You my division, I presume?”

“Corporal Micah Johnson, suh, with your Virginians. This here is Corporal Traynor Ritchie, also with the Virginians.”

“How about you speak for yourself now, Ritchie? Why is this man here toting your gun?”

Authority ran beneath that voice like a dark river snaking through limestone caves, but all was fair plowed fields on top, friendly and hail-fellow. Traynor looked and saw that the man was General Pickett, the one he’d always called Dandy George in his mind.

The general leaned against his tent pole, smoking a cigar, while one of his aides scratched pen to paper inside the tent. The firelight gleamed from his oiled ringlets, and though his small mouth was hedged around with his dark, trim beard, his lips sat easy, as if they had just then given over smiling.

The general gestured with his cigar for them to come nearer. He took a seat in a camp chair next to the fire, though the night was still close and warm.

Micah edged Traynor forward, like a dog Trayor’d once had. With nothing else to herd, the dog would daily bunch the chickens together, tender and anxious, sure harm would come to them if he stopped guiding them from one side of the dusty yard to the other.

“So Ritchie, what do you say? Why is the corp’al here carrying your load and dogging your heels?”

Traynor thought it a strange thing that the general saw Micah the same as him.

“Suh,” began Micah. “I known this man for two years now, one way or ‘nother, and he’s as brave a soldier as ever you did see, but we all got those times…”

Pickett held up his hand, the cigar smoke swirling into a thin, gray wall. The sweet odor reached Traynor, and though he took no tobacco, he recognized it was a good smoke.

“I’m grateful for your opinion, Corp’al…Johnson, but I’d like to hear from Corp’al Ritchie.”

For a moment, no one spoke, not Traynor, not Micah, not General Pickett.

“It’s my children, General,” Traynor began. He felt a choking in his throat. “My wife, suh, she’s…she’s passed over.”

Pickett said nothing. He sat, one leg hitched over the other, elbows resting on the wooden arms of the chair. The cigar smoke, oppressed by the heat, flattened into a circle above the general’s head. Pickett’s eyes, bright in the firelight, settled in on Traynor’s face.

Pickett stirred and sat forward.

“Well, suh. I reckon I understand your predicament.”

One of Pickett’s aides-de-camp approached out of the dark. The general turned his easy attention to the aide.

“Well, Willy, what says General Longstreet?”

“I couldn’t find him, General. His aides don’t have our orders for tomorrow either.”

Pickett flung his cigar in the fire. It flared and died. Where it had fallen at the edge of the fire, the cigar turned into a gray worm of ash.

“General Longstreet’s probably off haranguing the Old Man, much good it’ll do him. Well, I’m traveling over to have a drink and a smoke with Armistead and whosoever’s there in a bit. Maybe one of them has word. He wouldn’t leave us swingin’ till morning. Go in and help Bob organize me, then you’re free. I won’t need you tonight.”

The aide ducked into the tent, and Pickett turned back to Traynor. For a carefree spirit, the general had a gift for quiet, and Traynor had no idea which way the wind was blowing with him.

“You may be wondering, Ritchie, why I’m concerning myself with you.”

Pickett seemed to expect an answer.

“Yes, suh, I have wondered that.”

Pulling another cigar from his jacket pocket, Pickett clipped it and lit it. He settled back and crossed his legs again.

“Been a long war.” He took a long pull on the cigar. The air drew with a whistle through the tobacco. “Longer for you fellows than for me, in most cases. You men are fresher than the fellows who have been in it the last two days, but I understand y’all are still bone-weary and might have other concerns that trouble you. Your children…well, that’s a hard thing, Ritchie. A hard thing.”

The general pulled his gaze back from the sparks that flew up from the fire, to rest on Traynor’s face.

“But we have need of you tomorrow, Corporal. We have need of you. To make this venture a success, we have need of you.

“So I will tell you what I’m going to do.” Pickett leaned forward and pointed with the hand holding the cigar, its smoke like the words of a contract.

“Since you have found yourself a lawyer,” gesturing toward Micah, “I will put you in his charge, no doubt to be tended ‘as a shepherd doth tend his flock.’

“If you acquit yourself with honor on the morrow, as I do not doubt you will, we will not remember your ramble of this evening. It will be forgotten, and I will do all I can to get you some time so you can see to your children.”

General Pickett stood up. “We must see to our children when we can, eh, Ritchie? Now I’m off for a strengthener with a passel of generals and such. You get what rest you can and give over your worry to God, as we all must on the eve of a fight.”

The general gestured Micah over. “See your friend and comrade appears in the ranks tomorrow and his fate will rest with God, not a tribunal. Your loyalty does you credit, sir.”

Micah ducked his head in acknowledgment. General Pickett looked from one to the other of them.

“Tomorrow, men. We’ll see what we can do after the morrow. God protect the both of you.”

He turned and walked through the damp night. Traynor watched him go, jaunty and straight, through the light of other campfires.

After tomorrow. Traynor opened his hand. The letter, no more than wadding for a musket, fell to the ground and was lost in the dark at his feet.


The Coyote’s Tale by Chris Guadagnini

Thomas watched as his partner, Nacho, ushered a family out of the old Plymouth Belvedere. The mother came from the trunk. Sweaty, black strands of hair were pasted to the side of her face. She dragged the strays into her long thick ponytail. Thomas looked out to the empty desert then back at the car as he opened the back door, “Niñas, come on.”

The two small girls, no more than three and five years old, pushed hard to open the heavy door. The mother rushed to help her children jump down from the sweating leather seats. They were miniature replicas of their mother. Both of the girls rubbed their faces, trying to adjust their vision to the desert’s brightness. The mother consoled and soothed her children. Thomas gazed out at the tall, blood-stained plateau, and remembered the other reason he did this type of work.

Thomas knew the mother’s hopes and dreams for her children started in Mexico, but would come to life in the United States. He could see it in her eyes as she squeezed both girls. For Thomas, trafficking wasn’t a full time job, but at twenty-seven years old, he relied more and more on the trafficking money than on what he made waiting tables.

Thomas let Nacho take charge of all of the negotiations and price setting. For all Nacho knew, his partner was just a loyal yet ignorant white boy from San Paderno, California, wet behind the ears. Wet behind the ears. that was how Thomas liked to play it, a lesson he learned growing up. He rubbed the stub where his pinky finger used to be, and knew his supposed ignorance worked in his favor.

Nacho was older, forty-something, round-faced, pig-bellied and short, but still striking. Nacho’s shoulder-length black hair added to his weathered, rugged look. Nacho rattled off in Spanish to the family of four as they emerged from the car. “Walk that way and in a little over a mile you will be at Nogales… of the USA! You will see it.”

Thomas kept his eyes on the plateau, but listened as the family thanked Nacho. The man was a farmer, with rough calluses on his palms and he clasped hands with the rotund coyote as if Nacho were the Pope himself. “Thank you so much, sir. Thank you. We will never forget you…”

Before the man could go any further, Nacho snapped at him with an irritated growl. “No, asshole! You better forget me! You don’t know us! I don’t exist! Understand?”

Nacho held tight to the man’s hand, drawing him forward until both men were eye to eye. Nacho’s breath stunk of acrid bourbon. He squeezed the father’s fingers with a firm grip and felt the farmer’s calluses; a lifetime of toiling in the earth had given the man a strong build, but Nacho knew the farmer wouldn’t fight unless pushed further. Thomas saw fear in the man’s eyes as Nacho released his grip. The farmer kept nodding and gulped three times in a row, “I understand, sir. There is no one. Just us.”

The father reached his hand toward his nervous wife and two little ones. The girls must have recognized fear in their father’s voice. His tone scared the oldest daughter to tears. Watching the family, Thomas rose off the rock and walked toward the girl.

Thomas was lean and wiry, almost skinny, making him seem taller than his above-average height. His penetrating green eyes made the mother huddle her little ones closer as she tried to avert their eyes from his hard stare. The last fragments of sunlight glinted off Thomas’ shaved blonde hair. He walked toward the woman, studying her rigid body. When he smiled, she relaxed and loosened her grip. He was aware of the power of his smile, it was one of his greatest gifts, but it wasn’t the smile that contained the strength; it was the feeling from within.

Thomas saw innocence in the oldest daughter’s face that he hadn’t seen in years. It was rare that he and Nacho worked with families. Usually they ferried men across the border. With the men, Thomas recognized fear in their faces, but that fear was about self-preservation. The young girl’s eyes switched from her father to her mother and sister then back to Thomas, but she wouldn’t look at Nacho. Her worried face reminded Thomas of the way his little sister looked whenever her siblings found some kind of trouble. He swore that no bad would come to this child or her family as a screaming memory flooded his mind. In the beginning Thomas and Nacho were partners, connected by their joint venture. The first time they trafficked people, Thomas got a rush of adrenalin. They made a good team, Thomas was the driver and Nacho handled the negotiations in Spanish.

Then there was the time when the two brothers and their cousin wanted to be taken to America. All three were barely past the age of eighteen, not children anymore, already men. But Thomas knew better. He spotted their innocence as they played with their fingers to pass time. They admired Nacho’s gun as if it symbolized power, but they didn’t understand the truth. The gun was a tool that left scars, disfiguring a person’s mind, marring his thoughts and actions. After a time, the parts of the mind that could still be recognized would be tainted. A gun could scar in many ways. On that day, the gun would tarnish the men who sought to gain from its use. But the boys didn’t understand, they stared up at the coyotes as if the men were idols.

At midday, the coyotes dropped the boys off. Nacho was drunk. Again. When Nacho couldn’t find the 9mm he kept tucked in his waistband, he was sure he must have left it where they had let the boys out of the car.

As they drove back to the spot, Thomas noticed the gun on the passenger’s floorboard, just under Nacho’s rattlesnake-skin boots. The older coyote continued to drink from a pint he had been sipping on all day.

Thomas kept driving and glanced in his rearview mirror. From a quarter of a mile away, he spotted three figures in the dust. He could see the boys shrieking at each other, panicked, lost in the desert, desperate to escape the heat and unfamiliarity of the Arizona border. Thomas grimaced as they tore at one another, at their own flesh and blood. The young coyote couldn’t watch it any longer and drove away. That was the last time he had seen those boys until their pictures appeared in an Associated Press article. The photographer was only allowed to display their feet, dusty sandals and sneakers sticking out from under black, plastic sheets. Thomas tore himself away from the memory, back to the family, and wiped tears from the little girl’s mahogany cheeks. He threw a worn grin toward the mother, nodded goodbye and pointed them on their way. The father took this opportunity to gather his daughters and marched them onto the scalding pavement toward Nogales.

Thomas watched them a little longer before he turned toward his partner. He knew what awaited him. Nacho took another swig from his flask, all the while staring at his friend. “Thomas. Come here.”

Nacho was kneeling down, keeping shade under the Belvedere’s shadow, and Thomas walked toward him replaying the same thought in his mind. “Keep it cool. Keep it cool, bro.”

Thomas didn’t want to get Nacho upset and was mindful of the bulge sticking out of the back of his friend’s waistband, the 9mm Beretta. The pistol came with the territory, so it never bothered him. They weren’t the only coyotes ferrying desperate men across the border. And their fellow coyotes weren’t as dangerous as the other criminals and drug runners who worked the territory. Still, he felt wary when Nacho was in possession of both gun and alcohol.

Thomas left his own firearms at home but carried a six-inch switchblade that he purchased in Los Angeles Chinatown a few years back. The knife was strapped in a sheath on his left ankle, just underneath his pant leg. He had heard that poorly-made blades were perfect for killing since the blade often broke inside the victim, making it extremely difficult to dislodge.

Thomas knelt next to Nacho in the dirt, trying not to make his fellow coyote feel threatened. Nacho stood up and glared, his face getting red with irritation, but Thomas just smiled. “Hey, Thomas, what was that?” “Nacho, it was over. We took them across. We got our money. That’s it. I don’t want to carry anything over…”

“When I’m talking you don’t interrupt me, pendejo! Who do you think runs things, man? You? Fuck, cabron, you don’t even speak Spanish!” Nacho laughed as he spat an inch from Thomas’s foot. Thomas stood up and studied his friend’s face,

“What’s up, Nacho?”

The middle-aged man tilted his head to the side, as if he couldn’t believe his young friend had just asked him that question. The desert was silent as the men glared at one another. Thomas was beginning to think it might escalate to physical violence when Nacho whispered in Spanish. “You don’t know what I know. You don’t know what I know, white boy.”

Thomas wanted to respond in triumphant Spanish, but thought better of the idea. “I don’t understand you, Nacho. You know man, unless you tell me what’s up, I’m done. I’ll just take you home.”

Nacho strutted to the passenger side of the car and collapsed onto the seat, all the while shaking his head and whispering the same words. Before Thomas got in the driver’s side, he looked for the family, nearly out of sight by now, and thought about what his partner had told them about the distance. He knew it wasn’t a mile. That was a lie. Nogales had to be about four miles away, a good hour-and-a-half or two hours distant by foot. People with no water became victims of the empty desert. The family of four would not be the first ones to perish in the lonely crimson landscape.

Thomas’ deeds of yesteryear came alive in a desert apparition. In his mind, he couldn’t quite see the bodies, but Thomas recalled them through Arizona’s hot sun, the erect cacti and the wind, which blew ever so soft against a red thistle. Thomas turned the ignition. As he sat in the driver’s seat in the evening Arizona sun, he looked out on the flat and empty landscape. If God did exist, then every morning, when he woke up, he would sweep the lands of the world clean with one giant pass of the hand. Thomas wondered who would be swept away in that movement. Well, if I am, at least I’ll know I tried to save them. Never again.

Pressing hard on the gas, Thomas gunned the car off the dirt and onto the highway. Nacho kept silent, his eyes straight ahead, holding his leather-wrapped flask in his lap. As Thomas drove closer to the family, he grinned. He slowed the car down, pulling up right beside the father. The farmer pushed his wife and daughters behind him to protect them and faced the Plymouth alone. The creases drawn on the man’s face showed he was prepared for the worst. When Thomas saw the apprehension in the farmer’s eyes, he rolled the window down to speak to the family. “Viejo! Nogales, es quatro millas de aca, no es uno. Quatro millas, e esto es tu agua tambien. Que te vaya bien!” Thomas handed the father a gallon of water. The farmer appeared confused, but as the Plymouth roared off, the young coyote was confident they would be fine. The car crawled onto the highway. He didn’t even look at Nacho.

Thomas had had enough. He felt the shadow of the increasing darkness weigh upon them. He was keeping his eyes on the road, when Nacho exploded, punching the dashboard as hard as he could.

“Who the fuck do you think you are, Thomas? You speak Spanish, now? That was no guero talking back there! You made me look like an idiot! You’ve contradicted my words! For how long, too? And that was my fucking water, not theirs!” Thomas gave Nacho an impatient glance, checking to see if he was done screaming. Both indignant and amused by Nacho’s ranting, Thomas reminded himself that this argument involved a family’s life. “Nacho, you purposely told those people the wrong directions. You wanna fuck with people? Do it on your own time! I’m no fucking saint, but I ain’t gonna purposely assist in that family’s death! Man, what the fuck happened to you?”

Nacho swung his head from side to side like a lonely town sign blowing in the wind. Thomas noticed that his friend continued to swing his head faster and faster in rhythm. Then, with a sudden snap of his neck, Nacho brought his forehead straight down onto the dashboard. Up came a loud smacking noise, the sound of skull reaching dense plastic full-on. Before Thomas could say a word, a splatter of blood had nicked his mouth and cheek. He reared in his seat and licked his lip, tasting liquid iron, forbidden but familiar.

“Nacho, what the hell are you…” Thomas froze mid-sentence as Nacho slammed his head for a second, then third, fourth and finally a fifth time. Trying to maintain control of the car, Thomas reached across to hold his old friend back from hurting himself further. Nacho pushed Thomas’ arm away and turned to face him. “You can’t touch me, Tom! I call the shots, not you!”

Thomas was afraid to look at Nacho. Any slight interaction could be perceived as hostile. He kept driving faster, nearing seventy miles per hour. When Nacho sat back in his seat, Thomas eased off on the gas pedal. The older coyote’s forehead was bleeding like a spring because the skin was so thin in that area. A steady stream ran down the bridge of his nose in a single file line, the obedient beads of blood collecting in flowing order.

“Nacho, you got a handkerchief or something? Here, I got one in my pocket. You can have…”

The handkerchief hung in the air for a millisecond before Nacho snatched it up. He folded the cloth over many times and made a headband.

“So, how long have you been doing deals behind my back, Thomas?” Nacho’s sudden question left Thomas buzzing, struggling to make sense of the words. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You have all the connections, not me. I couldn’t take people across even if I wanted to, Nacho. Just because I speak Spanish doesn’t mean I’m running shit!”

Thomas glanced at his old friend, nearly swerving them off the road. He re-gripped the steering wheel and spoke in his most calming voice, “Why is your gun out, Nacho?”

Nacho held his 9mm Beretta, and switched off the safety.
“Wait a minute, buddy! Why are you taking off the safety switch? Can you place that back on, bro?”

“I know you’re lying, Thomas. I can always tell because you start acting like a little bitch.”

Thomas kept his eyes on the road and his speed neared eighty miles per hour. The engine roared as the car approached the outskirts of Nogales. Outside, the sky drew close to pitch black.

When he turned to Nacho, he found the older man’s eyes locked on him. “You know the real problem, Tom, is that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. You wanna be a chief, huh, Tom? You wanna wear a big hat or maybe a fucking headdress? I’ll stick a few feathers on it.”

Thomas listened as his partner’s voice became tenser. Speeding closer to Nogales, Thomas hoped Nacho wouldn’t do anything stupid in the city. As they passed a sign, Nacho chimed in anger, “Pull in at the rest stop half a mile ahead.”

“Why? I thought you wanted a motel in Nogales.”

“I gotta take a leak.”

“We can take all the leaks we want once we get to the city.”

“Pull… over!”

Thomas flinched as Nacho yelled in his ear. The older coyote leveled the gun, bringing it toward the young man’s chest. Driving with one hand on the wheel, Thomas decided now was the time. The speedometer read eighty-four miles per hour. One quick, strong slam of his foot on the brake pedal, and Thomas reached out with his right hand to grab the gun, controlling the wheel with his left. Nacho’s body flew forward, smashing against the dashboard. Blood splattered on the windshield. He still held onto the gun, but his hand flew skyward. Thomas grasped for it with one hand, clasping onto Nacho’s wrist. Just as the young man tried to bring the gun down, the handkerchief flew off Nacho’s head, and more blood flowed out of the wound like a smashed toilet.

The Plymouth swerved from one side of the highway and screeched into the middle lane. Braking tires sent the odor of burnt rubber into the air and Thomas thought he might lose control of the car. Stunned when Nacho cracked him straight on the bridge of the nose with an elbow, Thomas’ eyes watered and blood dripped from his face, but he refused to let go of Nacho’s wrist. Both men grunted and heaved, striving to take control of the weapon.

Since Thomas kept his foot on the brake, the car finally slowed and spun to a halt with the frame almost slipping off the chassis. He let go of the wheel and used two hands to seize the gun. Blood flew off both men’s faces, spattering each other and the upholstery. When Thomas brought his elbow down on Nacho’s wrist with ferocity, the older coyote’s grip on the gun loosened. But Nacho brought his other hand onto the handle of the Beretta. Before Thomas could defend himself, Nacho leveled the gun and fired. The bullet lodged into Thomas’s upper right chest muscle, and the force of the shot flung his body back onto the driver side window. With no hesitation, Thomas became a twitching muscle that only reacts. He ripped the switchblade from his ankle with his left hand and slammed the blade into Nacho’s larynx. Blood sprayed like a soda-can fizzing out under extreme pressure. Nacho sat paralyzed, gurgling bubbles of blood, his tongue sticking out like a dead animal.

Thomas looked up at the man he had once called friend. He immediately vomited onto Nacho’s lap. The taste of acidic vomit coupled with remorse forced his body to move. The older man was slumped in his seat, unmoving and seconds from death. Thomas closed his eyes and made a frantic grasp for the door handle. He pulled the door open and flung himself out of the Plymouth. “Hey, you alright? Someone get shot?” An overweight trucker came panting from his rig. Blood soaked into Thomas’ shirt and ran across his belly. He didn’t answer the man. He was still focused on the Plymouth. Inside the open door lay a crumpled man who Thomas now realized had died years before.


Jimmy’s House by Brian McNally

The weathered house spoke to me. A culvert separated the house from the road, dried weeds covered the yard. I never remembered a lawn or flowers being planted out front. It was a San Joaquin Valley farmhouse, a poor person’s house with an oak tree spreading its shadow over the roof.

The door stood open and I could see clear through the house, windows were missing glass; the red trim sash was faded to a dull brown. The house looked tired from years of neglect. The relentless summer heat had left nothing untouched.

There were barely any traces of the people left, just pieces of the house, wood shingles, broken rain gutter scattered on the ground. Back when I was in high school, my family drove by this place once a week. I knew only one son from the family who lived here.

Jimmy Labarber was older than me, a Senior. He had those high cheekbones, blue eyes, a DA haircut and drove a black ’57 Chevy. We never spoke at school; I just admired who Jimmy was and how he looked. He had no idea who I was, a scrawny freshman. In the yearbook, Jimmy doesn’t show up under Clubs or Sports. He’s listed under general student activities, the appropriate heading for all of us who tried hard not to be seen or made a spectacle of.
Every Sunday afternoon on the drive north of town I would gaze at his house as we made our way to dinner at Grandma’s. In my imagination, I played out all sorts of adventures; I wondered what Jimmy’s life was really like.

Time kept moving and I made many trips back and forth on the old county road. I graduated from high school and started Junior college. I wasn’t seeking out any particular challenges, just doing my time, waiting for fate to throw me a line. I started taking art classes, trying different media, still waiting. I worked summers to earn money for the year, stacking pallets of canned peaches at the local fruit cannery. Every day, I drove past Jimmy’s my way to my job, ten miles from where I lived. When I passed, I never saw anyone out front, but I knew Jimmy was home when his ’57 Chevy was parked alongside the house.

I got the news on one of those blistering San Joaquin Valley summer afternoons. It was 1968. I had finished my second year of college and my third season working at the cannery. After my ten-hour shift ended, I came home like I always did and showered off the grimy smell of metal and dirt that stuck to me after handling cans and pallets all day. I slipped on a clean white t-shirt and Levi’s, picked up the local paper and sat down on the living room floor to read.

There was Jimmy on the front page of the local section, his military picture, listing him as killed in action in Vietnam. Even though I had not seen him in five or six years, had barely even thought about him, a steel blade went through me when I read about his death.

How clean I had just felt slipping on that white t-shirt, I was alive, twenty years old, going to college. Here was Jimmy, the person I had thought so much of, his life wasted. I was too ashamed of my emotions to contact his family; I just let it pass. Maybe it was all downhill from there for Jimmy’s family. I never knew what became of them.
Ten years later, when I had finished graduate school, I came back for a visit. I didn’t live in my hometown anymore; I always said it was a good place to be from. Just driving to Lodi, going to the relatives, in familiar territory, I came upon the abandoned house.

The stretch of road on the edge of town had been widened and new houses were being built. On the other side sat Jimmy’s empty house. I slowed down to take a look, and my heart was heavy for what might have been. If only once I could have said Hello to him, he might have smiled and said Hi. But that never happened. Here I was at Jimmy’s old place, wanting, wishing for it to be different; wanting him to see me, but all that stared back at me was the skeleton of a forgotten house.

Jimmy has been gone for over forty years. I threw away my high school yearbooks long ago and I’ve accomplished much in my life. Jimmy still shows up every so often in the reels of my mind, when I see a ’57 Chevy rolling through my thoughts, I start wondering what might have been.

When I went looking for Jimmy Labarber’s name on the Vietnam War monument, I found it somewhere in the middle of the Wall, which meant he died during the time all of those kids were getting killed, when we finally started to protest what was going on over there. Visiting Jimmy on the Wall gave me no closure, but it made me learn that you have to say I love you, while it still matters.