Despite the late night and less than peaceful sleep, Mike was up by 0600. Six in the morning, A.M., he reminded himself. Damn, adjusting to this civilian shit was more challenging than he had thought, when even the way you told time was different. He had tried lying in bed for a bit, but that only invited his demons to play in his still tired brain.
So, instead, he got up and went out to prime the old well. It took him longer than he had thought it would, but then again, he had always been a ‘city boy.’ By the time he was done, he had needed a real bath. For that, he had to ignite the pilot light in the water heater and then wait half an hour for it to warm up. He used that time to drain the air and rusty water through the pipes.
When he stepped fresh and clean from the tub, it was almost eight o’clock. He dressed and made a quick call to Maude Landon at Prairie View nursing home. The woman was busy and suggested that Mike wait until after ten to visit, once the staff had the chance to serve breakfast and get the patients settled. He was less than pleased with the delay but reluctantly agreed.
That left him with an empty stomach and almost two hours to fill. Of course, there was absolutely nothing, not even instant coffee, in the kitchen. He added a trip to a grocery store to his list of errands for the day, but until then, a few cups of hot coffee and a friendly ‘greasy spoon’ diner breakfast sounded like a decent way to kill a couple of hours.
He stepped out onto the front porch, and the morning sun almost blinded him. In the light of day, he could see the gentle decay of a lifetime as dying dreams blew slowly away. He could see half-finished homes where once there had been rolling fields of grass, cattle, and horses.
They had sold all but a few acres of the homestead that had been in the family for over a hundred and fifty years to pay for the nursing home during Mister Clyde’s final days. But it was sobering seeing the dry, red-beige dirt of the construction site that would soon be nothing more than another rambling sub-division to feed the urban sprawl of Tulsa, almost an hour away.
He shook his head at another symbol of the greed and hubris of the nation that he had sacrificed a lifetime serving. Greed and hubris purchased with the blood of good men and women like Billy, Manny, and Tommy. He knew it was going to be a bad day when all he could think… ‘Was it worth it?’
He started towards the steps and heard the creaking of one of the floorboards. He tested it to see if it would hold his weight. Just barely. He shook his head. Should he bother replacing the damned thing? In all probability, this place would soon be swallowed up in that urban sprawl too. The moment that Mister Clyde was gone, he was sure that Billy’s little sister would swoop down from Chicago to sell it off. It seemed such a waste.
That only brought him back to where he started. Was it worth it? If it had been him that had taken that bullet all those years ago instead of Billy? His friend would have come home from Desert Storm, married that girl, and raised babies that would have ensured the continuation of the family dynasty for at least another two generations. But he had not, so it was up to Mike to stand in during the final days and hours of his father’s life – and witness the demise of the American dream. Or one family’s dreams.
“Damn it, I’ll stop by the lumber yard too. Not much else to do around here than a few senseless repairs.” He looked at the old porch swing where Missus Lula had taught the city boy how to string beans properly, and Billy had impressed him with his knife skills by peeling a whole apple in one long strand. “Some paint too.”
He put the house keys in his pocket and pulled out the ones to his bike. In less than a minute, he sat at the end of the long circular driveway. He knew turning right, it was a good ten miles or more to the next small town, and he could not even remember seeing a diner when he had passed through last night. Of course, it was late, so maybe without a lit sign, he had missed it. But better to turn left towards Tulsa, he was almost sure to find something that way. Besides, that was in the direction of the nursing home anyway.
Sure enough, it was only a couple of miles until he ran upon what in these parts passed for a town. A post office, a small service station with a convenience store, a feed and seed, and a half dozen houses tightly packed around major crossroads.
Most important, though, was the light blue cinderblock building nestled between the gasoline pumps and the post office. Its fading white sign boasted Real Country Vittles alongside the name Mom and Pop’s Hole in the Wall. It sounded just about perfect as Mike pulled his motorcycle into the already packed small parking lot between a brand new SUV and a rusty old pickup truck.
He stored his helmet in its compartment and walked towards the glass door that mirrored the words on the sign. Stepping through that door was like stepping back in time to the 1950s – down to the red plastic-covered seats of the booths and the gingham checks of the tablecloths. The black and white photographs of the area and various local events just provided the finishing touch.
The blonde woman behind the register, who was serving customers, looked up and smiled. Then oddly, her brows furrowed. She looked vaguely familiar to Mike, but he could not place her. He had met a couple of dozen people in town over the years when he visited the Halls, so that was more than possible.
Her face looked a bit tighter as she forced another smile, “Take a seat anywhere. I’ll bring over some coffee as soon as I’m done ringing up these folks, sugar.”
Mike nodded and found one of the smaller vacant booths not too far from the register. He studied the woman for a long moment, trying to place her. He had dutifully gone to the local Baptist church with the Halls on a couple of occasions, especially the Memorial Day services when they read the names of all the local men killed in action going back to the founding of the town just after the Civil War.
Had he seen the woman in church, maybe? He doubted that he would remember any of the hundred or more random faces. The woman was not ugly, but neither was she especially pretty. So why would he remember her face, but not a name or how he knew her?
He watched her as she smiled tightly as the last customer at the counter walked out the door. She turned and looked directly at him with an almost pained expression on her face. So, it was not his imagination. The woman knew him too. But from where?
She picked up the clear glass coffee pot behind the counter and walked towards the table where he sat. She half-smiled as she turned over the cup that sat on the saucer in front of him. That was when it all fell into place as she poured the aromatic liquid into it.
Her once dirty blonde hair was streaked liberally with grey now, and there were lines about her mouth, crow’s feet around her blue eyes that he thought was misting over with unshed tears at the moment. There were even a couple of deeper furrows on her brows as if she had spent too much time frowning over the past twenty-plus years. But still, he could not remember her name.
“Brenda,” she answered his unspoken question as she took the seat across the booth from him. “My name was Brenda Jo Sanders back then, but I’m not surprised you don’t remember that after all these years.” Her laugh sounded almost bitter, “I’m more surprised that you remember me at all, Mike.”
He nodded as he brought the cup to his lips. It was precisely what he needed this morning, especially in light of this latest turn of events. Although in a small town like Honour, Oklahoma, he supposed he should not be surprised. Perhaps he should be more shocked that he had not run into her on any of the half dozen or so visits he had made back here over the past quarter of century almost.
The woman stared at her hands that were clasped tightly in front of her on the gingham table cloth. She looked up and nodded as an elderly couple called out greetings as they headed towards the front counter to pay. The place was clearing out quickly, it seemed. Mike noticed someone else he recognized as a tall, heavyset man about his age came through a swinging door that probably led to the kitchen.
“I see you remember Josh too.” She smiled, and this time a gentle warmth reached her blue eyes. “It was not the way Missus Lula thought it was,” she stammered painfully.
Mike shrugged, “You don’t owe me any explanations. It’s none of my business.”
She nodded as she looked up at the man behind the register. The man that had become her husband just months after his best friend was killed in Iraq. Mike was not sure whether he was angry that they had found the happiness that had been denied Billy or if he was pleased that at least someone had managed to.
“You know we had to leave town after we got married.” Mike noticed a tear finally slip from the corner of her eyes as it trailed a dark black streak down her right cheek.
He shook his head, “No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.” Though he supposed, that explained why he had not run into them before.
“We only came back a year ago when Josh’s dad retired. He knew that with all the kids grown and moving away, we were looking to make some changes. So, he thought that coming back here and taking over the restaurant might be good for us,” the woman was rambling, talking about things that genuinely were none of his business, but that was all right. He supposed he could listen if she needed to talk. Another duty he owed his long-dead friend perhaps?
But since he was not certain exactly what to say in this situation, he only nodded as he took another long swig from the cup, almost draining it. She noticed when he sat it back down on the saucer and refilled it. Though this time, her hands shook a bit, and a little of the hot liquid splashing onto the saucer and table. She reached for a napkin and cleaned it up in silence.
“I loved him, you know. I truly did. Well, as much as any seventeen-year-old kid can. Who knows what would have happened,” her voice was strained as she began to wring her hands slowly.
They sat in silence for a couple of moments. Each lost in their thoughts of those ‘might have beens’ that never were. At last, she broke the silence as she looked back up at Mike. There were more of those dark streaks racing down both her cheeks then. Her voice cracked a bit as she spoke, “I suppose I should get back to work. So, what you having, jarhead?”
Mike forced a smile to answer hers, “The biggest plate of greasy sausage, bacon, and eggs that you have sounds good to me.”
Brenda Jo nodded as she wiped those dark stains with the back of her hand, smearing them further across her face. “Just to warn you, doc says that shit will kill you, especially the way that Josh fries it.”
She smiled as she looked across the room at the teddy bear, whom Mike noticed had been hovering near the register as they spoke and casting the occasional protective glance his way. “The man can cook even better than his daddy. Always could. Damn him, he always got the highest grade in Home Ec, put all us girls to shame.”
Her face darkened once more as she stood up. “Course our oldest is not far behind. He’s joining us in the business.” She frowned, “Once he finishes his final tour, that is.”
She wiped those tears once more, “Yeah, do I even need to say? Marines, of course. Though as a Mama, I’m damned glad the boy wields a spatula in service of his country and not a gun.”
Mike smiled as he drained the cup once more. “Trust me, ma’am, that is a more highly valued skill than a good shot. Anybody can fire a gun, but making that shit taste decent takes real talent.”
She laughed as she filled his cup one more time. “I’ll take your word for it. Well, let me get Josh started on a Hungry Man special for you.”
She turned to head back into the kitchen but stopped just a step from the booth and turned again to face him. “It really has been good to see you, Mike. I’ve wondered over the years whatever became of you.”
He turned the cup on the saucer, “Yeah, nice seeing you too, ma’am.”
Mike watched her disappear through those swinging doors, followed by the man, who had become her husband. Instead of the man, who had been friends to both of them.
He spent the next few minutes nervously studying the menu and not seeing a single word on the laminated plastic sheet. All of those what-ifs were back, ghosts that he lived with every moment of every day. Familiar but never totally comfortable.
It was not Brenda that brought him the massive plate of delicious smelling food, but some fresh-faced young beauty that reminded him of the girl she had once been. He wondered if the girl was one of the children that the woman had spoken of. But her darker hair and olive complexion belied that assumption. “Thank you,” he replied as she refilled his coffee cup.
As he brought that first bite of scrambled eggs and bacon to his mouth, he had to agree with the woman’s assessment – the food was excellent. Damned good. And for the next few minutes, he put all those demons aside and simply lived in the moment with hot coffee and great food.
Sometimes it was the simple things that made life bearable. When he could tear himself from the other, that was. Then again, he knew it would be back. It was never that far from his shattered mind.
The place had practically cleared out by the time he finished his breakfast and another two cups of Joe. He looked around the almost empty restaurant, but neither Brenda nor the young waitress was about now. He rose slowly and tucked a five-dollar bill under the corner of his plate as a tip before walking over to the register to settle his bill. He noticed the shiny silver bell next to the till and rang it a couple of times.
It was only a few seconds until the man stepped through the door, wiping his large hands on his white apron. “What can I get you, man?” He smiled as nervously as his wife had earlier.
Mike shook his head as he reached inside his wallet again and pulled out a twenty. “Just wanted to settle my tab.”
The man shook his balding head, “Put that away. Your money ain’t no good around here, buddy.”
He held out his hand, “Least we can do for Billy is feed you while you’re here. What you doing back round these parts anyways? We heard that Missus Lula was dead, and Mister Clyde was in a nursing home somewhere.”
“Yeah, he is. But he’s not doing well, so I came back to…” He was not sure how to finish that statement. ‘Watch the man die’ did not seem right somehow.
But thankfully, the man seemed to understand what he meant without the words. “I’m honestly sorry to hear that. I know Missus Lula never forgave us. For marrying like we did. But we had our reasons.”
The man looked about nervously as if trying to figure out what to say next. “How long you gonna be in town for?”
“I don’t know. As long as needed, I suppose.”
“Where you staying then?”
“At the farm, well, what’s left of it anyway.”
“Yeah, I was real sorry to learn that another family farm had been swallowed up by them city folks looking to escape the rat race. Of course, it wasn’t so bad for business when they was building it all, but once the economy tanked, well, the construction company went bust, and now it is all just sitting there turning to mud when it does rain and another dust bowl when it don’t.”
Mike nodded at the reminder of his part in that decision, but Billy’s sister had been adamant that the only way they could afford the retirement home was to accept the offer on the land that adjoined the house. Only Mike and Mister Clyde banding together had stopped the woman from selling off the whole damned thing.
But he too regretted that the Hall farm, which had been in the family for so many generations, would never again be inhabited by its members. Mike had no idea what would even become of the house which had once been so full of love and laughter.
The man broke his train of thought as he held out his hand. “Josh, Joshua Hall. I figure after all these years, you’re probably no better with names than I am.”
Mike had forgotten that this man was Billy’s cousin as well as his other best friend. “Mike, Mike O’Malley,” he shook the man’s hand.
“I remembered the Mike part at least,” the giant chuckled as the bell above the front door tinkled a new arrival.
Mike turned towards the door and stepped back in time. “Hey, Dad, is Isabel still around?”
Mike gripped the counter to remain on his feet. The young man looked exactly like Billy, right down to the high and tight haircut that marked him as a Marine despite the dusty jeans and faded t-shirt that he wore. Mike looked from the new arrival to the older man.
“Billy, I’d like you to meet Mike. He’s an old friend of your namesake. They were best friends and served in Iraq together.”
Josh looked nervous as he turned to Mike, “This is our oldest son, William Clyde Hall.”
Mike held out his hand to the younger man, who even shared that same country boy smile that seemed to spread ear-to-ear.
None of it made sense. Or maybe it all did? Mike looked to Josh Hall as he took Billy’s hand. He could almost feel the same tug, that instant bond that he had all those years ago when he had first met the boy’s father. And there was little doubt in his mind that this young man was his best friend’s child, not the man behind the counter.
The red around Josh’s ears, the way he could not meet Mike’s eyes, and the nervous crack in his voice when he spoke seemed only to confirm his suspicions.
“Like I said, don’t worry about cooking while you are here. Take all your meals with us. On the house. It’s the least we can do…for old friends.”
“Thanks,” was all he could manage to croak as he continued to pump the young man’s hand. “I will,” he finally released the young man’s hand, looking around as nervously as Josh had.
“Guess I’ll be seeing you around then,” replied the spitting image of his dead friend. “I’m helping the folks out while I’m on leave before my next deployment. At least when Isabel and I aren’t looking at houses, that is.”
Josh smiled, “Yeah, he and Bel are getting married before he heads back. About damned time, he made an honest woman of that girl before my grandson starts kindergarten, and people round here start talking. I keep telling the kid that some things never change in Honour…and being a bastard is one of them.”
The look that the older men shared told the rest of the story as Mike said his good-byes and left the men to talk about business, houses, and all the other things that fathers and sons did.
The truth was that the man had stepped up and honored his friendship with Billy the only way he knew how…claiming a child that was not his own and from the looks of things being the kind of father to him that Billy would have been – had that damned bullet not torn apart their whole world.
As for Mike, he would have time to think about it all later. Right now, he had his own duty to their dead friend to fulfill as he looked back at the plain cinderblock building. Yeah, he would definitely take them up on their kind offer.
Not just because the man’s cooking was a damned far sight better than anything he could manage, which was very little. But because Mike needed to learn more about this young man, whose existence was a huge surprise. One thing he had learned from his time in LA was that sometimes life’s twists and turns really did work out.
For some people anyway. Not that they ever could for orphans who had seen too much death and never known real love. The little kid always on the outside looking in. But that was okay. As long as it did for good people like the Hernandezes and Luke Davidson.
As long as there was some good and light in this world to balance the dark, then it had been worth it all. Something worth fighting for…worth sacrificing for…maybe even worth dying for. Then again, he would not know that. He was still stuck among the living while men like Manny, Billy, and Tommy had paid that price.
He had others to pay, though, as he started Esther’s engine and turned the motorcycle towards the town and Prairie View nursing home.