Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
This is as far away from the plains of North Dakota as you could get.
I would have given anything for a blast of icy wind at that moment. Or even a jaw-dropping rattler of a thunderstorm. I would cheer the sight of a funnel cloud.
“Yes. I’ll be staying,” Uncle Loyal says, then, drawing in his breath, and with what I believe to this moment was a forced smile, he adds, “This is my new home.”
“Let me make a call and have someone show you to your new room.” She efficiently pushes a button on the desk console and says quietly, “William, we have a new resident at the front desk. Can you come and help him find his way?”
I guess I don’t remember much about the next hour or so. Maybe I chose not to remember. I do know that my heart broke a little more each minute I was there. William came, tan, dressed in a blue uniform, grinned a glittering grin, and welcomed us. We went to the car and grabbed Uncle Loyal’s belongings. A lifetime, I thought, and this is what it comes down to. Boxes and a pair of suitcases. Everything he needed, really. Loyal is a simple man.
William showed us Uncle Loyal’s room, and about all I recall of it was that it was painted in neutral tones and seemed bland. Uncle Loyal exchanged pleasant chatter with William, who was just a little too slick for my tastes. Soon we are back on the elevator on our way down, and Loyal, true to form, is more worried about me than himself.
“I’ll be fine here,” Uncle Loyal says placidly. “Just fine. The people seem nice. I’ll get along well, I believe. Perhaps I will make new friends.”
“Yeah. Sure. You will. You’re Loyal. How could
He looks directly at my face. He seems to be studying me as though trying to figure out what I’m thinking. And for the first time on the trip, he starts to say something, stops, starts again, and gets tangled in his words.
Sometimes you don’t need to talk to have a conversation.
The music gushes from the sound system. Violins. Syrupy and sweet.
“I cannot . . .” his voice sounds as dry as a plains wind blowing through a field of cornstalks. “Thank you, Levi, for the last week. You are that shooting star in my life. What an adventure. Our very own road trip. I will cherish the experience forever.”
“So will I. It’s been . . .”
What am I trying to say? Think, Levi. Keep it simple. Okay.
It comes down to this. Nothing more than this, and all of this, at the same time. “I’ve made a friend, Uncle Loyal. A good friend. That doesn’t happen too often in this life. I know that already.”
We stand in front of the fireplace, the soft heat rising. This is it. This is the good-bye. This is what I have been dreading, what I have been fighting for almost two thousand miles.
The very horrible moment of separation.
“You need to push ahead, I suspect. Your parents have missed you and may be worried. Barbara will check in with me later. I will be well, Levi. And you need to find out if your world lights up when you see a certain young lady. Eh?”
“I know. Maybe Rachel is the one.”
“No,” I lie. Honestly, I am worried about everything.
And I mean
School, career, people, Rachel, family, and certainly, not least of all, Uncle Loyal. I needed something to tie it all down. Something to help me make sense of all of this.
I hold out my hand, and Uncle Loyal clasps it warmly. I am surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, at the firmness of his grip. He is a man of the plains, after all, strong because of the wind and broiling sun and cutting blizzards. Strong because of his experience, what he knew, what he understood. Strong because of his wisdom, and strong because he was not only a man of the plains but a plain man.
His was a life of simple, plain, pure beauty. The way I now understood I wanted mine to turn out. I also want to be a beautifully plain man. Can you be a plain man and a shooting star at the same time? I think so. It doesn’t sound possible, but I think it can be done. Maybe one comes because of the other. Maybe they are linked.
He lowers his head and says, “Good-bye, Levi. My best wishes to you, always. My brotherly love to you, always. All will be well, eh?”
“Good-bye, Loyal.” I step away from him and walk a couple of steps.
“Levi,” he calls. “Do you know what your name means in Hebrew? It means
I look back at him and nod.
. I thought of all the miles we drove together. How fitting. How right, because through this incredible trip, we had become joined, as any two people must be who travel over long, hard roads together. It was the last piece of wisdom that Loyal imparted to me. Then I turn slowly and walk toward the glass doors.
I did not turn around to look back again. I could not.
I thought of all I had seen and experienced on this journey. I thought of the thunder, the lightning, of Evelyn, of Libby and her broken-down old boyfriend. I thought of Glenn and what a fine man he must have been. I thought of Daisy and how Loyal loved her. I thought of Jason and Marty and the three firefighters who pulled us out of the mud. I thought of the thuggy people in the bar and how they also had something to give. I thought of all the faces of all the people we stopped to help. And it hits me again: all of them crossed my path for a reason. I understood that it’s not a short trip here and there, but a long and sometimes dangerous journey and we need to help each other,
to each other, to arrive at our destinies. None of us can stand alone.
I thought of all those things and more, and then I arrive at the desk.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the envelope. Heather looks up at me, a question in her eyes. I had one of my own.
“Do you have a shredder?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Would you mind running this through for me?”
“Not at all. I’ll take care of it right now.”
of the machine eating the envelope, check inside, sounds to me like freedom.
I thought of what was ahead of me. Studies and books and exams, places to go, acquaintances to make. Appointments to keep. Meetings and responsibilities. Men and women with fancy and impressive degrees and credentials, all climbing up, ever up, in a restless search for a false peace, using one another as objects, mere objects. Appearances and more appearances and then thinking even more about appearances. The shoulder-sagging worries about impressions and saying the right thing and being seen in the right places. The specter of ambition and pride and greed and having so much yet still wanting more was so real that I could feel it, see it, touch it if I wanted, as it beckoned me with a long, thin, bony hand.
“No thank you,” I mumble, a little surprised at the sound of my own hoarse voice.
No thank you at all.
What have I learned? What have I learned? I have not made this long journey for no reason. May God never allow me to stop learning from the things I experience.
This world may be flat, but I don’t have to be. I can stand tall, stand out, be someone and do something. I believe I am young enough to learn how to take and make photographs, but not necessarily the kind you shoot with a camera. I want my life to be filled with pretty pictures that are both plain and true. I want to be wise.
And a white-hot fierce feeling swells within me. It is clear and strong, heaven sent. I know what I am supposed to learn during this long journey. I have figured it out.
It is my truth.
I will beg no man again. I will chart my course and never vary. I will take the back roads whenever I can, wherever they lead me. I will travel to the tops of peaks and along the valley floors. I will stop to help those who have broken down along the side of the road, and I will seek nothing in return. I will be true to myself in every way.
I will be Loyal.
Donald Smurthwaite is a native of Portland, Oregon. He and his wife, Shannon, are the parents of four children, whom he always will consider his best works. He has written eight novels, a couple dozen short stories, and lots of magazine stories, some of which were actually pretty good. He writes splendidly about golf, although he has grown ambivalent about the game in his middle-aged years. He runs ten miles a week and makes killer chocolate chip cookies, and yes, there is a connection between the two. He answers every fan letter or e-mail he receives. Lately, that hasn’t been much of a workload.