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
“Tell me what it is like when you get there. Take care, Loyal, take care of yourself and come and visit if you can.” She hands me the pan of sweet rolls and turns to leave. Over her shoulder, she says, “I will not come back. I will not. Don’t even try to get me to.”
She is a short, stout woman with gray glasses and gray hair. She wore an old blue dress, walking shoes, white socks, and despite the heat, a button-up sweater, top button clasped. She walked briskly back across the street to her home.
“Good-bye, Harriet. Good-bye and thanks. All will be well. I will tell you about Utah.”
She turned and said, “I won’t come back. I won’t say good-bye to you, Loyal Wing.” She resumed her pace and again spoke, straight ahead, words in a stiff line, “I hope the people who bought your home won’t mind looking in on an old woman.”
And those are the last words I heard from my neighbor.
But now, as I sit on my front porch, she looks at me from her window. I hold a hand up in acknowledgment. She waves a gallant hand back and then turns away.
I look toward the west from my front porch. Tall thunderheads tower, their anvil tops the shade and texture of cauliflower, and tens of thousands of feet below, their tails steel gray. A rain line drips from their fuzzy base.
Then I hear it, then I see it. Jagged lightning and the crack of thunder and the roar of an engine. My great-nephew Levi, it must be, announced by a magnificent thunderstorm.
A car, a very red car, driving too fast for our quiet street, turns the corner two blocks away. It is a car too new and too red for anyone in our town to drive. We are conservative in things of that nature. The driver is in a hurry, as most young people now seem to be.
I can see the driver, a young man, light brown hair, no longer a towhead. He is peering at addresses, looking to the right, then the left, then back to the right. He looks down at what I presume is a slip of paper with my address on it.
He sees me. He nods his head, gives me a half smile. He raises a hand in the air and gives me a wan wave, nothing like Harriet’s stout farewell. Yes, this is my Levi, come to take me away, come to lead me home.
The car stops and he stretches before opening the door.
I wonder how much Barbara is paying him.
It looks as though I will be carried to my future in a red car that can be driven very fast.
I lift my suitcases and walk toward the car as Levi comes around the front and says, half-questioning, half-greeting, “Uncle Loyal?”
I do not look back at my brown house.
Across the street, Harriet Van Acker again waves forlornly and weeps like a child.
The Drone of a Car on the Road May Be My Salvation
I don’t know what I was looking for in Uncle Loyal. Just some old guy in a lime-green jumpsuit and shoes with Velcro. Maybe that was it. I hoped, and I don’t want to sound unkind here, but I hoped he was mostly
Mentally, and I think you understand. Barbara hadn’t said anything about him, you know,
I hoped his gears still meshed.
“He’s a sweet man. You’ll love him” is about all she said. “Everyone loves him. He was a pharmacist. Forever. He knows everyone and everything in that town, right down to who has bunions. Everyone in that county and probably the next two over.” I didn’t have any more of a scouting report than that. Not much to go on.
Maybe he’d sleep all the way or most of the way like so many of the other older guys at church. He hears the drone of the highway and, boom, he’s in dreamland. Drone of the highway, drone of a church speaker, about the same thing with the same results. The monotony of the scenery, the monotony of wheels on asphalt.
Monotony could be my salvation.
Suddenly, monotony is my friend. I’m pulling for monotony, which should come easily in this flat and plain land. My original plan still seems as though it will work. I’ll blast across North Dakota, bomb through Montana, turn left toward Yellowstone, cut across the boot heel of Idaho, and then catch good old Interstate 80 and follow the Wasatch Front all the way to Bountiful.
Home in a flash.
I could be in Aunt Barbara’s front yard by this time tomorrow night, maybe the following morning. It would mean driving almost straight through. But I could get a few winks here and there at a rest stop if I need it, slosh down fizzy energy drinks, then peel back the eyelids and hit the road again.
This is too easy.
Six hundred dollars!
Me and the road. We are one. And the hot red car. We are one. Uncle Loyal and me, we are not one. Please, as long as he isn’t in a jumpsuit, as long as he has most of his marbles, as long as he can take care of himself. As long as he doesn’t have the old-guy smell. Please. Anything else I can handle for twenty-four hours.
Steel yourself, Levi. You can do this. You passed business calc. This is a business proposition. Even Aunt Barbara used that word:
. She knows. A contract. She has a business need; I have the means to fulfill it. That’s what America is all about. That’s what free enterprise is all about. Make a buck by helping each other out.
the American way.
what I’m all about. An agreement to take care of a transaction that meets mutual needs. I remember something like that from an entry-level business class textbook. A man of business, that’s what I am, and I’m about ready to pocket a tidy profit for fairly easy duty.
Six hundred bucks! Did I mention I’ll earn six hundred dollars for about one long day’s worth of work? What does Barbara think I am? A doctor? A lawyer? A plumber?
She said if we decided to stay over somewhere to just put it on the shiny yellow credit card that she handed to me at the airport. I don’t know. I’d rather just head straight from here to there and not have to worry about being roommates with an old guy. That might be a little too weird for me, the old-man talk, the old-man wheezing, the old-man habits. On the other hand, I suppose we could get separate rooms. I could order room service, a dream of mine. Big, greasy, meaty, cheesy pizza. I could get a room with a balcony and a view and watch sports all night long and take a dip in the pool. Why not?
Someone else is paying the freight, Levi.
Now, to find his place. Brown house, even numbered, must be on the right side of the street. All the houses look pretty much the same. Welcome to Small Town, North Dakota, where the checker game at the fillin’ station every Saturday night is the biggest show around. Every other house, I bet, has a Sven, a Lars, or an Ole in it.
I think I see the house.
And that must be Uncle Loyal. He looks vaguely familiar. He fits the description: old, white male, monster eyebrows, sitting in front of a house with a sold sign in front, two suitcases and two big boxes. All that is missing is a little sign that says, “Utah or bust.”
And no jumpsuit.
Life is good. I love being an American and earning a buck the old-fashioned way.
Easy. Quick. Not much to it.
No doubt. This is the place. I’ve spotted my quarry.
I get out of my car and I call him by name. He nods and moves toward me, carrying one of the old suitcases and a small brown paper bag under one arm. He leaves a suitcase and the two large boxes on the porch.
He looks like a little old owl. “Levi. My pleasure to meet you once more,” he says. He speaks in a formal way, draws out the vowels. Must be sort of a plains accent. And he tosses in an occasional “eh” at the end of a sentence. Local color, local speech pattern, I suppose.
Levi, your ship has come in. And he’s not wearing a jumpsuit. Did I mention that?
If I hustle, we can make four hundred miles before midnight.
This is so darned easy.
It’s time to get down to business.
In the Red Car, We Meet the Anvil Clouds of Zeus
My nephew looks at me curiously. He doesn’t know who I am, what to make of me. I hope he is a nice young man who doesn’t mind spending a few days with a nice old man.
“Loyal? Loyal Wing?” he calls. “Uncle Loyal?” His gaze shifts from side to side, quickly, nervously. He seems in a hurry, which is something I am unaccustomed to. Here on the plains, men my age, we move slowly. We move deliberately, a purpose to our motion. I wonder if most young men of the next generation are like Levi, and I conclude they probably are. They have yet to recognize the beauty of slowness.
“I am Loyal. You must be Levi, my great-nephew, eh? We met once before, a few years back in a lovely canyon with a stream running through it. I thank you for coming. Your grace is appreciated. There must be many other things you’d rather be doing than taking a distant relative to Utah.”
He shuffles his feet a bit and says, no, this is what he wants to be doing, it was all fine, it was all good.
“Do you have any other suitcases? Anything I can give you a hand with? There’s still some daylight left, quite a lot, I’d say, although I’m not sure when the sun sets here in Minnesota.”
“North Dakota,” I remind him.
“Whatever. One of those states in the middle and toward the top. Anyway, I thought we could get on the road and head out, maybe make a few hundred miles yet tonight. Or we could just drive until I get tired. But I don’t get tired much when I’m behind the wheel,” he says.
I purposely do not look behind me at my old house. “Yes. We could. There is no purpose in me staying here longer. This part is over for me. It might prove more difficult for me to linger. As you said, we could put some mileage behind us. I suppose there isn’t much of a reason to stay here, no reason to prolong what must be done. We may as well go.”
But my will fails me. This time, I cannot resist the call to turn around and look at the old brown house once more. In my heart, I say good-bye to the house, to the memories, to my girls when they were little, to Daisy, to the blizzards of the plains, to the draining July heat. I say good-bye to sprinkling my lawn, hose in hand, on those summer evenings, the gentle hissing of the water pouring forth, the random thoughts floating pleasantly through my mind after a long day. Yes, I could have solved any problem in the world at those times, with the heat of the day over, the hose gently vibrating, and time to think the thoughts that came naturally. I say good-bye to the big front porch, to each tree I had planted, to the big-headed sunflowers in my yard, to each shrub I had tenderly placed in the good plains soil. I say good-bye to the azure spring sky of North Dakota, the violent black sky just before a late-summer thunderstorm sweeps in. I say all of those good-byes in mere seconds, look at my feet, heft one of my suitcases, then watch as Levi walks back to the porch for the remaining boxes and suitcase. And then I follow Levi around to the trunk of the car.
He pushes a button on his key chain, and the trunk opens. He reaches for my suitcases, lifts them inside, and slaps the trunk closed. He puts my boxes in the backseat, rubs his hands, and says, “I guess that’s it. Time to go. Seems like a nice place, very North Dakota, if you know what I mean. Quaint. And flat, and if I say so, hot. Really hot today. You’ve lived here awhile. Aunt Barbara said so.”
“Yes, awhile. A long time, really. Maybe too long.”
“Bet it’s tough to leave. Aunt Barbara said you know everyone.”
“Almost. Except for a handful of the newer families. They’re the only ones I’m not acquainted with. Just the new families. They go to the new pharmacy in the big store in Grand Forks. The others I know. I helped nurse many of them through difficult circumstances. Talking with a young and rattled mother about her child’s wheezing on a subzero January night. Or soothing the itch of a child who found the poison oak patch. You learn the most about people when they face difficult circumstances.”
“Oh yeah. Bet you do. And I know what you mean about people all heading toward the new big stores. Little markets, big markets. Those big-box stores, it’s tough to compete with them. You see, I know something about all this. I’m a business major. I’m going to get my degree next spring. But those big stores. Drove a lot of little businesses under.” He jangles his keys and tosses his head in the general direction of the car. He wants to be on the way; patience does not appear to be a characteristic of my young great-nephew. “Well, I guess we can go now.”
“Yes. Let’s go. There’s no need to stay longer. No need to idle.”
He looks around, up and down the street, then walks to the driver’s side of the car, opens the door, and half beckons me to join him. I get in the car and adjust my seat belt. The car smells all at once new, fresh, leathery, and oily. Levi starts the engine, which first roars and then purrs. He pushes the gas pedal again and grins when he hears the satisfying rev from under the hood. He jerks the car into gear, and with a lurch, we move forward.
I wonder what Daisy would think of all this, my grand exit from our home, our town, among the last tangible links to our intertwined life. Leaving in a sporty red car, leaving late in the afternoon, leaving with a nephew I don’t really know for a place I don’t know at all. I hope that from somewhere in the expanse of the kingdom of God, she looks upon me kindly, lovingly, and says, “Dear, sweet Loyal, it will all be right, you will be fine, and someday, in a time so short that it will seem to you a blink of the eye, we will be reunited.”
I like to think these kind of thoughts, what she would say, the kind instruction she would give, at the times when I am lonely. She knows more than I do at this point. I hope a kind God allows her to peer through portals to earth when I need an unseen uplifting hand. I think He does. He must care for the lonely. They must have special dispensation with Him.
And now, even in the company of my great-nephew Levi, with a new part of life just ahead of me, I am, indeed, lonely, and if a man my age can be frightened, I am that, too. But I must not show it. If you feel it and then show it, you will act it, and it will come to be. I can do little about my feelings. But I must stop them before showing them. The plains have imbued me with stoicism and independence and a way to deal with unwanted change and a heart that trembles.