September 17, 2018

Ages Past
by Ralph Bland (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

"Change is good," they say, and "Time marches on." And there we are, listening to them...

~~~

Dismal lingering drops of rain gather on the windshield and then disappear with the intermittent swipe of the wipers. What traffic on the road this Saturday morning travels with headlights illuminating the street, making the dull faded asphalt glisten and shine under their beams as if there is some form of new life and renewal generating there. Joe Evans figures most of these vehicles out here are rolling toward some important destination, else why would their drivers be venturing out on such a gray wet September morning, when wherever they called home could offer warmth and coziness instead of this damp cold drizzle.

Driving south on Jackson Boulevard toward the downtown Toyota dealership, Joe is moving along in his ancient Pontiac faster than he actually wants to. There is no rush hour this morning, and no big attractions are going on for people to actually want to brave the elements for, so he is cruising along at whatever speed he desires. He thinks how he would in a way almost welcome some sort of traffic tie-up right this moment, nothing major, of course, just perhaps a minor accident where no one gets hurt and all that happens is he has to sit and wait a few minutes until it is cleared away. Then he would have a little more time to think about all this discordant stuff rummaging around in his head.

One more time it ambles through his mind, pawing at him as it has all morning, ever since he made the decision to finally go ahead and get rid of his 1966 Lemans he's had since college and trade it in for something else, something dependable in the automobile family that doesn't cost him an arm and a leg to have. There comes a time when a fellow has to let things go. He knows it is a fact of life, and he's been repeating this mantra to himself all morning now.

This is probably the last time I drive this car, he thinks. He keeps trying to make this unfriendly thought go away, but it keeps coming back.

Still, it is high time for the Lemans to go. He's been realizing this a while now, through all the times of the car refusing to start because it needed a new starter or a radiator fan or a fuel line or a battery or a choke assembly or you name it, whatever, and then the search for parts and supplies for a car that isn't made anymore, and then the quest to find somebody who could and would actually fix it, and then it was money, and after the money was paid out, added on with a shrug to the old Discover card, then, inevitably, something inside the Lemans would break again like it was its turn now to go bad, break or wear out or disintegrate, just become useless and obsolete, and then something would have to be fixed again.

It was an endless cycle.

But despite the costs and inconveniences and never-ending frustrations of owning a car that only sometimes ran, Joe has always been faithful and true to the Lemans, the same way he has always been true to all his automobiles and favored possessions, all of which tended to cheer him up and help him postpone jumping off one of the downtown bridges at selected moments of ignominy down through the years. But, he has learned, there comes a day when one cannot ignore signals and omens from on high that come down from the almighty Thor, because the Great Spirit knew in His wisdom when enough was enough and knew when it was time to call it a day and pull a plug, and it was then that He sent messages to let the poor suffering guy down below grasp on to the notion that enough is indeed enough at some point, and what has been and what is now is never going to merge into a staunch permanent case of forever.

Rising earlier this September Saturday, Joe Evans had stood at his den door observing his fenced back yard with his 1966 Pontiac Lemans parked beneath its plastic shelter, its new convertible top he had paid a pretty penny for up and secured, dry and safe from the slight drizzle that was falling. He stood admiring how pretty and clean the Lemans looked even without the new paint job he knew it needed, the one he'd been putting off for a while because of the cost, thinking in that serene moment how the car had run like a top the past couple of weeks, and how it was to him that a car was like a woman, and when you're in love with a car or even a woman there's nothing, goddamn it, that's ever going to make anything change it. He was thinking how, even when his wife and friends shook their heads and made faces and remarks about the money he kept spending on his 1966 Lemans, how it was clear to him they would never know the truth of how he was right in what he was doing and they were wrong, mainly because they were just too damn sane to ever see the truth like he did.

That was the moment when, for no reason or rhyme or practical purpose, a tree limb the size of Godzilla's son cracked and snapped and fell thirty feet from the oak tree above his fenced back yard and slammed through the plastic shelter and came to an abrupt rest on the Leman's convertible roof after punching a hole above the passenger's side and running a jagged crack across the windshield. Standing in the doorway with his coffee cup semi-glued to his lips, Joe Evans realized the time had at last come to offer up unconditional surrender. He could charge money on his card and order parts and pay through the nose for repairs and labor until the angels came to bear him home, but he could not summon enough forces within him to combat the powers of nature. He could not win at this contest, even if he cheated. Trees and the dark heavens and whoever was up there in the clouds in charge were joint forces beyond his control, and now that a tree limb had been summoned to smite his car and strike reason into his head he knew the battle was over and it was time to stop the fight.

God have mercy, he'd thought.

Yes, it was time to let the Lemans go. He knew it just as certainly as if the immense tree limb had come down and swatted him on the head instead of the Lemans. He did not have to be convinced any further. He traipsed down the hall and into the shower, dressed and had another cup of coffee while looking out the window at his Pontiac Lemans with the tree growing out of it, waiting for the Toyota dealership to open so he could drive in and trade the car in for something else, not wanting to think about this process too much, just wanting to get on the road and get the dreadful business over and done with, because he knew when he was beaten and he didn't want to prolong the suffering.

To keep himself from thinking too much, he turns on the radio and listens for some sound or song that will distract him from the awful task awaiting him. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are singing "California Girls," Brian wishing through his drug-ravaged libido that somehow all the women in the world could abide in his home state of California forever and ever so that he would never have to worry about what was going on all over the rest of the nation, because all old Brian cared about in the whole wide world would always be right there in front of him. Girls, girls, girls.

(That summer was the first one I remember when freedom first became available to me. I hadn't turned sixteen yet, so I couldn't work anywhere and make any money, and I couldn't drive because I wasn't old enough to get a license, but I had a lot of friends, guys who had their own cars who would come by and pick me up and chauffeur me around just because I seemed to have cool ideas about where to go to have fun. A pack of Winstons between us on the seat, the windows down, and the AM dial on the radio punched back and forth between the two Top Forty stations and we were all set. We didn't need anything else. Wheels would take us anywhere we wanted to go.

So Mike Jenkins and Larry Robinson and I took off in Mike's Fairlane that July Wednesday morning, one of those bright, dry, orange summer days where the wind rushed in the open windows between every traffic light and cooled you off, and somehow I knew that between the sun and the wind and my sixteenth birthday perched out there on the horizon the summer was never going to end.

We were headed that day to a place called Saundersville, a municipality outside town that was surrounded by a big expanse of water called Volunteer Lake. We were going to spend the day cruising in Doug Johnson's daddy's boat. Doug had gone to school with us since grammar school, but his family had moved away the previous year and we were all trying our best to maintain our old friendships from twenty miles away. We rode up and down the lake for hours, the wind blowing our bleached hair that we'd soon have to get rid of before the start of football practice in a few weeks, sailing by private piers and makeshift public beaches, looking at girls tanning in their chairs or on spread-out blankets, studying cleavage and investigating bare skin from afar with our eyes. One of us would ski while the others watched, and when the skier inevitably lost his balance and fell in the water, Doug would drive the boat up alongside him while we all screamed, "Safety Patrol to the rescue!" or something stupid and ignorant like that, and then as a group jump on the boy from our deck above him and commence to beat the shit out of him as a team out there in the middle of the lake in that fun, friendly manner that only teenage boys know and understand.

For most of the day we couldn't get enough of this ritual, but by late afternoon we were all beginning to bake. We went inside a department store to buy lotion for our sunburns on the way home, and while we were there we stopped to look at the 45 records. There it was, "California Girls" by the Beach Boys. I had to have it, but I had to cough up money for gas for Mike's car for what we'd used going to Saundersville, and I didn't have enough money for both.

There seemed to be nobody looking, so I stuck the record beneath my shirt.

It didn't really surprise me when I got caught on the way out the door. What surprised me was how the folks at the store wouldn't take the money I offered to pay for the 45. They called the cops instead, and I got to go to Juvenile Hall and wait for my parents to come down and get me, so we could as a family unit see a counselor and I could get booked and fingerprinted and shamed and ruined for what I figured would be the rest of my sad wretched life.

And it was all for the sake of Brian Wilson and a bunch of damned California girls I was never going to touch in my lifetime anyway.)

Joe peers out the side window at the sky, hoping it does not soon open up and come down in torrents. He has the Leman's top duck-taped over the gash the limb made to keep the drizzle out, but a real downpour will probably make short work of this quick fix. He hopes it will hold off for a while longer. Of course, he could drive to a custom auto place and see about getting the roof professionally patched; he wonders how much that would cost. But no, he tells himself, no. If he fixes the roof it will just be something else after that. Then it will be the windshield. The crack will get worse. It's always something. He doesn't need Yahweh to paint him a damn picture. He can see the way it is.

"Midnight at the Oasis" drifts out from the speakers, Maria Muldaur -- surely an old bag by now -- shaking her bottom in tight jeans with a white gardenia in her frizzed coal-black hair. Joe sees her on a raised stage on a long gone afternoon, he and Robert staring up at her from the lawn, drunken, drugged, dazed as they were in their revels and by the heat of the day and the crowd of strangers and the lush body gyrating above them.

"Talent," Robert said. "This woman has real talent."

(In the rearview I can see his eyes watching me in the backseat, and I knew that something I said had made him laugh. We were on the road to Panama City in Doug's Cutlass. College was over and Robert and Doug and I were going to the beach for a week. To drink. To celebrate. To screw whatever in the female category walked across our paths, or at least we hoped it would be so. This was one of those stepping stones we felt required to perform, like if we didn't pork some chick from Shreveport our lives would never be worth writing home about.

I'd been talking a lot the whole time. We'd been traveling for five hours and I still wasn't on the verge of shutting up. There was something in me that knew the best thing to do this trip, for as long as it lasted, was run my mouth for as long as any of the three of us could stand it, keep it up all the time. See, there was this girl who was the reason for this tirade of mine, someone who I'd rather not give ample time for her name to come up during any breaks in the conversation. The girl wasn't just any girl, though. She was Robert's girl, not his betrothed or intended or anything like that, but she was Robert's girl nonetheless. And the night before graduation, this girl, this Lisa her name was, had bumped into me at a party, and before anyone knew it we were bumping a different way inside somebody's apartment. It wasn't like it was any great shock to either of us. We'd been looking at each other in that way for a long while before then. The surprise was it had taken this long for anything to happen. But I didn't want to be known as a buddyfucker. I wanted to end my college career on some kind of friendly and upbeat note. So I kept on talking about anything and everything. I couldn't shut up and I didn't want anyone else to have the chance to say anything, especially about Lisa and about me and maybe figuring out how there was a good chance she and I had done what we'd done together.)

The rain began to come down harder. Cardboard wrappers from a McDonald's at the side of the street blew out into the traffic, a lone napkin gusting up on the Leman's hood before fluttering away like a frightened bird in a storm.

(There was wind on my face from the open window on the driver's side. I sat in the back behind Marsha Davis and watched the breeze play up and down her neck, lift her hair up and let it fall while she held a Salem and watched the road through dark sunglasses. On the radio Johnny Rivers sang "Mountain of Love," and Marsha Davis tapped her index finger in time to it on the Buick's leather steering wheel.

Swimming. She was driving us somewhere to go swimming. It was Larry and me. We were what? Twelve? Maybe thirteen? The thing of it was no one else I knew back then had a mother like Marsha Davis. Larry didn't even notice it and there was no sense in talking to him about it. You just couldn't tell a guy that you liked looking at his mother. But nobody else's mother listened to Top Forty on the radio -- other mothers just told you to turn the music down. And other mothers didn't look like Marsha Davis did. They didn't wear sunglasses and have full red lips and possess honey-blonde hair that blew in the wind.

I looked at the back of her neck and watched her fingers on the wheel. My foot tapped along with her in rhythm with her finger. We never had much to say to each other, Marsha Davis and I, but I never got tired of looking at her, thinking about her.

In three years she would be dead, killed in a highway accident our junior year. She was out late. She was alone. The rumors were she'd been drinking, meeting someone somewhere. Nobody around me ever talked about it much, not my family or any of my friends, and it just eventually went away like it never happened.

I'm older now than Marsha Davis was on the night she died.)

On cue the Beatles start in on "When I'm Sixty-Four." Sgt. Pepper's, wasn't it? Was that the album? It wasn't quite clear in his head. Everything's on a CD now, or downloaded. Everything's so small and inconsequential. You don't need two hands to hold it. It's not going to break if you drop it. So it doesn't mean as much. But when he had LPs it was always personal. He knew where all the scratches were. He wiped the vinyl off with a cloth before it went back in its jacket. And he didn't have to squint to read the album notes. It was like he not only had music but a book too. A record album was something substantial. You held it in your hand and you put it on your turntable and you weren't alone anymore. It was a part of you, something you and it shared together.

He was getting closer to the dealership now. In a few minutes he would be there.

("Don't you think it would be cute if I could work up something with my class to go along with this song?" 'When I'm Sixty-Four' was playing, and Karen looked out the small window above her sink. She was thinking out loud. "I could have them all dancing with each other and wearing little makeshift tuxedos and evening dresses."

"Sounds like a lot of trouble just for a PTA meeting."

"It would be. But it would be cute, you have to admit. But it might be a waste of time. Hardly anybody ever comes unless there's something really controversial going on at school."

She was like that a lot, starting conversations and bringing things up and then ending them just like that, like they were never worth talking about in the first place. She stood there looking out the window, fingering a bang of her hair. It was hard for me to believe that I was lucky enough to be sitting there in her kitchen. She was absolutely beautiful standing there, even on a Tuesday afternoon after school, beautiful in her denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of jeans and tennis shoes with paint spots on them. She was out of my league and I knew it. She would ditch me before it was all said and done, but I would stay around until that happened, because it was worth it. I was twenty-five and I knew when something special was passing my way and I knew how stupid it was not to stick it out and see what happens in the end, even if you know you're not going to like it much and you're going to think about it the rest of your life.

I met her in a bar on a Saturday night just after Labor Day. She stood looking at the selections on the jukebox, her fingers tracing the titles through the glass. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How could a woman this beautiful be standing alone in some bar? And she was by herself -- I made damned sure of that fact for a few minutes before I ever said anything to her. I was working at a car lot then, and I'd got off work late waiting for a deal that didn't happen, so I was sitting chomping on a burger with my tie still on, looking up at the television above the bar at an Atlanta Braves game, watching baseball, that is, until I spotted her over at the Seeburg. Then I wasn't worried about old Phil Niekro and America's Team anymore.

I've been in town a week, she told me, and I didn't know anywhere else to go. I get lost around here really easy. The town I'm from in Illinois isn't near as big as this one.

My name is Karen.

So I made sure I didn't come on like a redneck sex-fiend, and Karen Abernathy I guess considered me safe enough to become her guide and introduce her to the wonders and sacraments of the city. Sometimes, after I got to know her better, if she got blue enough over her long-lost ex-boyfriend back in Carbondale and had a little too much Strawberry Hill to drink, she'd even let me kiss her.

Which was absolutely great. Which was wonderful. Which was why I knew it was going to end sometime soon, because stuff that fantastic never lasted with me. I was only twenty-five, but I still knew better than to try and live in a dream world.

But it went on longer than I ever thought it would. I saw Karen all the way from mid-September until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when she left to drive home to Carbondale to be with her family for the holiday. She didn't invite me to go with her, even though I would have jumped at the chance. I would have abandoned the world of automobile sales in a heartbeat to go, but she took off in her blue Fiat without me, and I was left to pine through Turkey Day alone. As consolation I told myself she'd be back by Sunday night.

That was close to forty years ago. I haven't seen or heard from her since.

After about a month of driving by her side of the duplex she rented and seeing only darkness, I finally got brave and contacted the school where she taught, basically just wanting to know if she was alive or dead or if she'd been swallowed up by the New Madrid Fault on her way back to the Land of Lincoln.

She has resigned her position was all they would tell me. She will not be returning.

I didn't have to be damned Lt. Columbo to figure out what happened to Karen Abernathy. I could see it in my head like it was a movie or something, could see her sitting at her parents' table with a turkey steaming on a platter in front of her, Granny and Grandpa and Aunt Nell and Uncle Fred all gathered there together, and then the sound of the telephone in the parlor. There's Mom shuffling away to answer the ring, the soft conversation, the laugh, the sound of her voice saying, "Karen, it's for you. It's Rick."

Or Bob. Or Dan. Or whoever in the hell the old boyfriend liked to call himself. And she would answer. And the sparks would still be there. And as for the town we'd met in, that would be it.

I don't know if Karen ever came back to get her things. After a while I gave up driving by her place to see if there was a light on.)

Joe pulls into the dealership lot, half-expecting a squadron of salesmen to advance on him and begin the process of removing the Lemans from his life. He pulls into a far corner and parks and observes the scene, sees the lines of soulless vanilla vehicles parked in rows all around him, red, white, blue, silver. Different colors, different makes and models and body styles, new with no previous driver history. They all look the same to him.

"Uno, dos, tres, quatro," the radio says, and Joe cannot help but look at his dashboard and smile at the musical choice now being delivered to him. "Wooly Bully," he thinks. Sam the Sham and the frigging Pharaohs. You could have never convinced him these dudes were going to show up this rainy Saturday morning.

(It was the kind of May afternoon that made you restless for the summer you knew was out there waiting in the wings. There was warmth from the afternoon sun that refused to set, the sun that sat in the western sky above the hill in front of the house and cast a refracted glow on the street and the cars that drove by and the boys and girls from Eastside Elementary pedaling around the block talking about what they were going to do when school was finally out. Sam and his Pharaohs had made it to number one on the charts, and when "Wooly Bully" ended I sat beside the transistor radio on my front porch and waited for the commercials to begin and end so I could hear a few more tunes before I had to go inside for dinner.

Across the street Mr. Tillman walked from his house to the mailbox. His little terrier, Pepper, ran down the walk in front of him, happy to be outside in the yard after Mr. Tillman had been next door so long. Mr. Tillman being next door was nothing abnormal in the everyday scheme of things, since it was sort of a well-known fact around the neighborhood that most days after the kids were in school and everyone was gone off to work, Mr. Tillman, being retired from the post office and possessing lots of free time, would walk next door and go around to the back and walk inside and once there socialize with Helen Storey. James Storey, Helen's husband, worked downtown somewhere, and on a normal weekday Bill Tillman would be locking his house and migrating over to Helen Storey's after James left, to visit with her for more than just a while.

Pepper barked and ran down the sidewalk, ventured over into the grass to do his business, then resumed racing in stops and starts, making his way toward the mailbox and the street. It was a pleasant afternoon and he was so consumed with his joy of being outdoors it caused him to not pay attention to when he came to the end of the lawn where the street ran in front of the house. He did not see the car turn the corner and head toward him. The driver never slowed down and hit Pepper with a cracking noise. The dog's small body flipped into the air and landed ten feet away. Brake lights came on and the car stopped for a moment, then pulled up and turned left into the neighboring driveway. I realized then it was Mr. Storey's Plymouth, that Mr. Storey had been on his way home from work and turned on his street and hit Pepper with his car.

When James Storey got out of his car Bill Tillman came toward him with Pepper in his arms. Within a minute he dropped the lifeless dog and the two men began throwing punches on the lawn there in the lingering sunshine, in front of everyone and God, who had to be up in the sky taking notice of this. The fight lasted for just a minute or so, but nobody got knocked out like Sonny Liston did later on that year. There was a lot of yelling and accusations of how Mr. Storey killed Pepper on purpose and how Mr. Tillman deserved something shitty to happen to him for fooling around with Helen Storey the way he'd been doing for so long, and finally somebody called the cops, and a cruiser with its lights blinking showed up. I sat there on the porch steps taking all this in and thinking how I had never seen grown people act like this before. I thought about some of the fights I'd seen at school and how they always made me feel nervous watching them, how I would feel embarrassed for the way people acted and then tell myself how I didn't ever want to be in a situation like that if I could help it, didn't ever want to be put in any kind of a position where I lost control of myself over something I thought was important but wasn't really that way to anybody but me. I thought how I was sitting on my porch watching this and it was almost like I was watching TV it was so strange and unreal and it didn't really have anything much to do with any kind of actual life I thought I would ever be a part of, and then I got up and went inside and never said a word about it to my family or anybody. I just plopped down on my bed with my transistor and listened to more songs on the radio.)

He thinks about it and it's right there in front of his eyes and he wonders why he hasn't seen it before. In the few minutes it has taken to drive to this dealership to do this terrible thing he has had more notions and ideas go through his head than he can keep track of -- his life and some weird sort of understanding of how it has all come down in some form or another -- and this reverie this morning is just the way it has always been when he's been behind the wheel of this Lemans or holding something of his world that meant something to him, a transistor radio, a baseball card, a book, because when he's connected with those parts of himself he can think straight at last, he's not all screwed up by the world, he is in the presence of his familiars, and when you are with your friends and familiars you get away from all that dread and disgust and foreboding that you sense and feel when you're alone out there with the unloving, uncaring, unfeeling universe. He looks at the radio dial and the knobs and switches on the dashboard and the oversized steering wheel of this his Lemans of all these years, the gear shift between the bucket seats, the huge back seat where he could recline and go to sleep back there right this minute if he wanted. This is his comfort. This is his safety. This Lemans is not like what he knows is out there in the new car lot, out there in the world most of the time waiting for him and trying to find some way to make him unhappy, to make him be not him anymore, to make him be one of them whom he never has wanted to be and never will be either and will die before he ever allows such a horrible thing to happen.

He spots a friendly fellow in a red windbreaker walking his way. The smiling figure lifts a hand in greeting, ready to introduce himself, to forge a bond between the two of them, to see if there's anything on the lot he can show Joe this morning, to maybe do a little business if they can. Joe turns the ignition key and hears the pleasing sound of the Leman's dual exhaust. He slides the gear shift from Park to Drive and rolls slowly toward the salesman, raising his own hand in a farewell wave. He passes by and stops at the edge of the lot to turn left back on Jackson Boulevard.

The rain starts in hard again and Joe turns the wipers on full blast. He studies the tiny crack on the windshield for an instant, then looks and sees how the duct tape is holding the tear in the top just fine, how there hasn't really been anything to worry about. There isn't that much of a leak after all.

Before he goes back home, he decides a good breakfast is not a bad idea. He can take a little drive and find someplace cool to eat, have an extra cup of coffee or two. Maybe by then the rain will stop and he can go home and park the Lemans out in the yard and wash and wax it before suppertime.

It doesn't take a whole lot of work to make the old car look pretty damn good.







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By Ralph Bland:

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Ages Past -- Ralph Bland
~ "Change is good," they say, and "Time marches on." And there we are, listening to them...

Season of Flame -- Ken Allan Dronsfield
~ "...Great fires decimate these lands and..."