Joe told me folk music was the song of the land. I questioned him, partly because I hated folk music, and partly because I did not like his reasoning. It was too ambiguous. He told me I didn’t understand. I agreed and ordered another beer from the bar we were arguing from.
I don’t know where Joe is now. My guess is that the four by four sent him flying head-long right into Heaven. At least that’s how Irv Johnson said it happened. He had seen the whole thing while cleaning the attic in a nearby house.
I wish Joe was still around. Sometimes I see him in my rear-view mirror, following me in that great red truck of his. He would honk his horn, and I would cut him off as he tried to pass me. Our little game of chicken would end when a car coming the opposite way would barely miss crashing into old Joe as he tried to get around me.
Now, things are different.
That’s an understatement.
Rolling into a gas station late one night, I broke down at the wheel and cried like a baby. My eyes grew wide, as a radio in the station hummed an old folk song. When it crackled to a soft end, the buzzing of neon lights resumed. I eventually stopped crying and looked up to the sky. Goddamn you Joe. Goddamn.
Chewy Charlie’s was a welcoming establishment and a great place for breakfast. Every morning I would take of my hat to Betsy’s warm greeting. She was nimble for a large woman, and always made sure I found my way to the corner booth I had grown so accustomed to. I knew from the start that this was a place of great character.
On a particular Sunday morning, I remember a man having car trouble outside. I pulled up my blue-jeans in anticipation of some heavy lifting. The car was a beauty. It was a classic Jeep, built strong and American. I felt obliged to help.
“You need some help, buddy?” I asked. The man looked up from the steaming hood of his car.
“Hey, yeah I could. Thanks, partner,” the man responded. “Name’s Will, by the way.”
“My pleasure Will,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m Bill."
"That’s the name I go by with friends.”
“I guess we’ll be Bill and Bill then. Now, let’s say we take a look at this steamer.”
“I think the engine’s too hot. Something on my dash started going crazy.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know how to cool it. You know what?” I knelt down to get a view of the belly of this Jeep. “Lemme get a cable. I can tow this into town. Got a good mechanic just down the road.”
“Down in Sungrove?”
“Yeah, you from around here?”
“Naw. I was through here once though.”
“It’s a nice place. Let’s get going.”
We were driving fast down the highway. It was empty. The sky faded into a pale blue as the sun rose. “Where are you from?” I asked Will.
“Well, I was originally from Tuscon. That was a long time ago. I meandered across the south in my youth. I was filled with that wanderlust any papa-less boy feels. I was my own daddy. Mama was never really in the picture. She put me up ‘till I was eighteen. For that, I was grateful. By mutual consensus, I decided to leave. I won’t go into much detail about family after that; I’ve said a lot anyway.” Will looked into the great prairie. It seemed to be a long and tired look, fraught with its own special concerns.
Will continued, “I never really settled in those days. I liked Texas, the people were good there. I also liked Atlanta. I eventually landed in Oklahoma City. It was a rough place to land. Not two weeks adjusted and some idiot blows up a building. I was packing my bags the next night. But come morning, I decided I didn’t want to be on the run anymore. So I stayed."
“Sounds like you trust your instinct,” I said.
“Well what brings you to Colorado?”
“The mountains. Fishing, hunting. Gets a man thinking.”
“Amen,” I said. “I fish occasionally. Not much time anymore.”
“You gotta make the time.” Will smiled in my direction.
“I suppose.” I paused. “So you came through Sunnygrove on your way to the Rockies?”
“When was that?”
“Bout four years ago.”
“Good God, man! You say I gotta make the time, but you haven’t been up here since, what, ’96?!”
“Well, I don’t always fish up here.”
“Come on. Where are you going to find better fishing? Mexico? Water there is sh#t.”
I laughed. A fleeting sign indicated that the mechanic was about a half mile away. We were pulling off the highway onto a cracked road. Recognizing that we were close to where Joe was hit, my attitude sobered.
Irv’s house stood alone a little bit away.
Fortunately, we took a fork in the road that diverted from the scene. The shop was dead ahead now. Our cars traversed a small strip of gravel to enter the garage. Jack Babson, the mechanic, came out of his office. Jack was a skinny man who perpetually smelled of cheap cigarettes. His grease stained overalls covered a body of sinewy muscle. He had a habit of squinting, even without the sun’s permission.
Will went to his car to detach it from mine. In the meantime, I greeted Jack . We had a brief conversation about the shop’s business and Colorado’s weather. Will soon joined us, and proceeded to describe his car problems to Jack. Jack nodded while walking over to Will’s car.
Will was silent as Jack inspected the car. The final verdict was not good. The engine was close to failing and would need a couple of critical repairs that would at least take a couple of days.
Jack expressed a sincere apology over the fact that if he were not short on supplies, the job could be done much quicker. To compensate for the extra time, Jack offered to fix the car at a much lower rate than he would have charged otherwise. Recognizing that he had no other option, Will consented to the offer.
“Now I gotta find somewhere to stay.” Will looked at me. We were walking toward my car, which I had moved to the side of the road. “You know any cheap places?”
“This is Sunnygrove. Everything here is cheap. Actually, my buddy owns a small place near the edge of town. There’s always an empty room there. I’ll take you down there.”
“Can’t thank you enough for your kindness.”
“I’m obliged at this point, Will.”
We got in my car and drove back the way we came. We passed through downtown quickly.
It was noon now. People moved up and down the main drag. Considering the hour, probably heading toward a place to eat.
The buildings of downtown Sunnygrove could have been taken right out of a scene from a spaghetti-western. But instead of desert, Sunnygrove was surrounded by a mountainous plain. A quiet sort of person often found sanctuary here.
About ten minutes in, I pulled into the motel’s driveway. It wasn’t a flashy place by any means. The building’s only statement of purpose was a dull red sign that read ‘Motel.'
Will got out, thanked me for the ride, and went into the motel to get a room. I waited silently in the car for him to return.
When he did, it was with a smile. He thanked me once again, saying he booked his room. I turned my car back on, in anticipation of going home. Before I could pull out, his hand was on my car door. I waited for him to say something, and he just stared at the ground with a strange expression. He held this position for about five seconds before patting the iron door, signaling my departure. He waved in my rear-view as I pulled back onto the main drag.
I fell into a deep slumber that night. Dreams crept into my sleep, arousing a carnival of the mind. I was young again, blissfully ignorant. Irene Lake stood before me as a glass mirror. A canoe was moored to a nearby log. I drifted toward it as a specter may drift away from his casket once buried. The water remained undisturbed as I boarded the boat. With little resistance from the water, I pushed the oars, propelling the canoe forward…
I was a weightless presence on the water. There was a great silence. Its power was enough to take the nerve out of any man. It instilled a great fear in my heart. Not a living creature stirred, not a ripple caressed the canoe. I felt a presence that my existence paled in comparison to…
A gentle wind came from the surrounding mountains. It whispered blank noises to me. But from the breeze came a voice. Its faint inflections made me think Zephyrus was trying to let me in on a grand secret. But it was not Zephyrus. It was not a God in any traditional respect. No; it was Joe…
He first let me know that he had always loved Irene. He told me that it was his place of solitude, a place that he would not even take me to. Irene was his paradise, a sanctuary for his peace of mind. But now, he wanted me to share some of it with him in the hopes that I may have some peace of mind myself.
I tried to speak, but had no voice. The wind had taken it away from me. I reached for Joe’s hand only to realize he had none. No legs to walk on either. In fact, his whole body seemed to be an illusion. Its lines were blurred by the winds that moved so gently around his voice. Go now, Joe said, go and fall into your world. Follow grace where she may fall. Take the sturdy hands that now rest on these oars and do great, until we may meet again…
My eyes opened. I looked out to a cold Colorado morning. Morning dew rested on my window sill.
“Love is a test of conviction,” Humphrey Blithe said. “It is a sign of your resolve against the temptations of nature. By God, if we do not love, we will never know our own strength.”
Listening to Humphrey speak was somewhat of a religious experience. His speeches were weekly occurrences. A quiet man by nature, he would have to drink several bottles of beer to stand on the bar-top every Friday to give his profound sermons. People didn’t take him seriously at first, but his drunken philosophy kept spilling forth, and the people grew to respect his words.
“What is a man without love?” he prodded the bar patrons. He looked into dozens of eyes, not one of them answering his question. “A man without love is a coward! A man who cannot love has died a painful death, a death that he may be painfully unaware of.”
I sat listening to his oration. His words fluttered around my own whiskey-massaged mind. To no avail, I tried to reason with his rhetoric.
“But what is there to love? Is it a woman? A man? Perhaps it is a love of life and its sanctity,” Humphrey continued. “I dare say it could be the mountains around us. The thin air here makes us like no other human being on Earth.”
There was a stir in the crowd at these words. Men turned to each other to affirm Humphrey’s truth for their own lives. Thankful for the pause, Humphrey took a large drink from his frothing beer.
“I know I love you…my brothers,” Humphrey said. “I sure as hell am a man of my own.”
“He’s gettin’ wasted!” Cried someone from the newly energized bar.
“Shut up now, I got more t’ say. I got…more to say?” Humphrey said. Four empty pints of beer lay on the counter next to him. It was over. Humphrey babbled as two men helped him down from the bar.
Music started to play from the old stereo system again. Cracked voices of unnameable country artists filled the room. Despite the sounds, it did not feel like an authentic country bar. Rather, it was a watering-hole, built for the needs of Sunnygrove. The bar was owned by Carl Hewitt, a man who had found his way from Chicago’s tall buildings to Sunnygrove’s open air. He was hardly ever seen around the bar. He often holed himself inside a back room and left Gus Dale, the bartender, deal with any trouble. In a town where men strongly believed that quarrels were to be settled by the parties in conflict, Gus was an exception. People often turned to him as an arbiter against any problem brought up.
“Gus, fix me another. Cold please,” I mumbled, dismissing the thought of the hangover I knew would plague me the next morning.
“Sure. You’ve been awful quiet this night Bill; Humphrey got you in a bind?” Gus said, pouring my drink.
“Naw,” I said, stopping to sip my drink. It was cool and strong going down my throat. “I don’t really know what’s got me in a bother. Just feels good to, you know.” I gestured at my drink.
“I don’t buy it, Bill. You’ve been drinkin’ here many years now. Gus knows when a lie’s been told.”
“You’re lookin’ into it too far!” I said, a boozy smirk on my face.
“All right. But I know.”
“Say Gus, how many years you been here anyway?”
“’Bout eight, maybe nine years.”
“Well I’ll be a damned. I wish I could hold onto a job that long!”
“Don’t give me that. You’ve been workin’ steady ‘bout five years now. You got a good thing as a Ranger. You’re the biggest man of a boy-scout I know.”
“I only let you wisecrack like that cause you got the power to top me off,” I said, winking at my empty glass.
“I’d suggest no more after this, can’t imagine you’re good to drive.”
“Don’t plan on it. I walked here…needed some air.”
Gus nodded and finished pouring the drink.
“Bill!” I heard someone yell.
“Yeah Gus,” I replied.
“I didn’t say anything. That man did,” Gus said, pointing across the bar counter. I spun around the stool at what felt like a hundred miles per hour. It was Will. He had been sitting alone at a corner table. He got up and headed toward me.
“Well, how are you?” I asked him as we shook hands.
“Doin’ just fine. It’s good to see you again, can’t believe it took me this long to spot you.”
“That’s alright. How long you been here anyway?”
“Long enough to hear that man’s point of view,” Will said, pointing to Humphrey, who had now drifted to sleep on a bench next to the jukebox.
“Humphrey’s a weekly event. You gotta come more often then…what was it…four years! Gotta come without letting four years pass by.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Will looked into space.
“Four years is a long while,” I responded. “You ought to fish with me tomorrow. Sunday fishing is fantastic up here, and I’ll show you the best spots.”
“That’s very kind, I’d love to.”
“It’s set then. I’ll pick you up ‘round seven at your motel. But if that’s the case, I’d best be heading out.”
“Get some sleep,” Will said. “We’re gonna have a long day.”
I nodded toward Will, and we shared a short farewell. After he had left, I considered another glass of whiskey, but Gus was adamant I go home and rest. I obliged; I was in no state to argue.
I stumbled out of the bar into the cold air. A short column of crystalline fog appeared in front of me, rhythmically coordinating itself to my warm breathing.
I crossed a street to get to Lambert Road, which I would follow several miles to reach home. The sounds of wet dirt and gravel under my boots were the only sounds in the thick of this black night.
A soft drizzle from the dark sky swept across my face. The street lights lit each particle of rain, giving effervescence to an otherwise still night. But the energy of the rain was fragile -- its power extinguished upon landing on the ground.
I walked with a gait only slightly accented by my inebriation. I occasionally stuck out my tongue, in the hope I'd be tickled by the falling rain. A lone pick-up truck rumbled down the street. Its headlights were yellow eyes in an infinity of gray. I turned around to watch its red taillights pass me and shrink into oblivion. I twisted back toward the way home. The truck was gone, and the road was empty once more.
Thirty miles north of Sunnygrove lies a dirt road off the main highway. If one cares to drive down this road, he will encounter a highly wooded forest. Here, in a perpetual shade, moss grows. The dirt soon turns to grass, matted down by fishing trucks that frequent the path.
Then the woods lift to reveal the Quartz River, a water way that runs long and wide through the Colorado backcountry. By no means is this part of the river unknown. While tourists do not often happen upon this spot, it is well known among the residents of Sunnygrove and other nearby towns. The North Bend has the best trout fishing in the state.
When we got to the clearing, Will whistled in pleasant astonishment. It was a particularly beautiful day, enough to cause my hangover to fade away. The rain had stopped early in the morning. Clouds of cotton candy were poised to be the main spectacle against a sky of deep blue. On the other side of the Quartz was a large field, where squirrels scampered about.
I turned off the car, and we unloaded our gear. I lent Will a pair of old rubber waders. He had brought his own rod from Oklahoma. We went about ten feet off the rocky shore until our waders were submerged about knee deep.
He was a natural on the fly. His patience had a rhythm to it, and was not to be disturbed by small talk. We had already talked the way over anyways. Will’s life in Oklahoma seemed to be steady enough. He had a good job, and had just started seeing a girl.
The morning grew warmer, and I feared the fish were done feeding for the day. Several anglers nearby already had full buckets. I stared expectantly at my own line. The running water was mesmerizing, and it started to distort how far I aimed my fly down the river. In my confusion, I heard a grunt come out of Will. I looked over to see him reeling in a trout, about seven to eight inches in length. After the fish was securely in his hands he looked over to me and let out a smile of triumph. It was a good moment for both of us.
The morning wore on, and it became clear our luck was gone. Never before had I come from the Quartz without a fish of my own to show for it. Will had only managed to hook one other fish, but even that one violently shook its way off the fly.
“I feel like I owe you an apology,” I said.
“Just a bad day,” Will said. “We all have ‘em.”
“I know. Just strange that we’d be the only ones.”
“The river was probably fished up by the time we got here. You gotta come at dawn. That’s when the fish are hungry.”
“You got a point. I think I was still drunk when I woke up this morning, though. I’d have been in no shape to be up that early.”
“You’ve got a good bar down there don’t you?”
“Yeah, Gus practically owns the place. Carries a great responsibility in doing so. Nearly half the damn town shows up there on Friday and Saturday.”
“What do you say I meet you there tonight?” Will asked. “We can knock a few down; try to get today’s slim pickings out of our heads.”
“That’s much needed.”
We got back in the car, and I drove him down to his motel. When we arrived, I offered to take him to lunch, but he declined. He told me he needed to nap for a couple of hours. I waved him off, and backed up the car before pulling out of the motel’s lot. I decided sleep wasn’t a bad option for me either.
I tried to remember what had happened the night before. I knew for a fact there was nothing significant. The only salient event was inviting Will to fish. I remembered Humphrey had spoken, but I could not recall what about.
It puzzled me as I unlocked the door to my house. I dragged myself directly to the bedroom, where I immediately collapsed. I looked toward the white ceiling. The air was warm and stuffy inside the room. I wanted to open a window, but a sudden lethargy had overtaken me. Instead, I drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The bar filled up quickly at around nine o’ clock. There were many people. Talking to a few people I knew from around town, I found out that work had been particularly hard the past week. I slapped a couple backs I knew, ordered a beer and waited for Will to show up.
The crowd was giving off a good vibe tonight. The music on the jukebox was fresh, and there were plenty of women shining in the dim light. I figured I could probably set Will up with someone tonight. Perhaps Claire. She was a tall blonde with a go-getter attitude. Recently broken up with her boyfriend I thought. She’d probably love a good looking out-of-towner like Will. Or Chastity. She was a loose gal, never quite satisfied with her love life. What she needed tonight was someone who could look in her eye and tell her that they would treat her nice.
I could see it clearly now. Will walks through the door, cowboy hat hung low, over his brows. His plaid button up is red and a little worn, from the road of course. It’s tucked into his blue jeans, which cling to him tightly until they’re cut short by a pair of brown-suede boots.
He looks up, and starts to move forward toward the bar counter. He is purposeful in his approach, paying careful attention to the way his shoulders are moving. He takes a seat on a stool, orders a beer, and lowers his head once more. By this time he has the curiosity of every man and woman in the establishment.
The woman he sat next to summons the courage to ask this bold stranger his name. Will, he says. She tells him that she has always loved that name. She says she is a bit surprised by his presence. She explains how the bar isn’t used to strangers coming in the way he has. He replies by saying that when there is a will, there is a way. She smiles and laughs. Will buys her a beer.
Well, when Will did actually enter, the only part similar to my fantasy was the blue jeans. He spotted me instantly at the bar. He walked over, bumping into a couple of people on the way.
“Good to see you. Sit down. I ordered you a beer,” I handed him a glass.
“Thanks bud, hopping tonight, huh?”
“Yeah. Listen up, I got a few chicks I want you to meet. You’d be great with them,” I said. I realized I was getting in real close to Will’s face. I backed off a little. “We’ll loosen up a little first. Drink up.”
Will smiled and took a long sip. He wiped the white foam off his upper lip.
“I’m glad you brought me here, Bill. You’re a good guy, you know that?”
“Come on now, its common hospitality.”
“I disagree. Not many people would be so kind to someone from other parts,” Will said, taking another drink. “I really love it here.”
“Then why so long?” I asked Will. “Why four years?”
“You know, not everybody’s got the time.”
“That’s bullsh#t. You told me you gotta make the time. And you also seemed so damn eager to get away from Oklahoma for a while.”
“Uh, you know…”
“No Will, I don’t know.”
“I’ve got a good life in Oklahoma. My life aint that bad that I always have to hopping north. Now come on, who are those women?”
“Fair enough,” I said, relaxing a little. “That’s Claire over there.”
He looked over to a woman watching a game of billiards and laughing. There was no denying it: she was pretty gorgeous.
“Damn. That is a pretty woman.”
“I’ll talk to her soon, I want to drink a little more first.”
Will turned to me. I shrugged and told him that it was his call, but that it would be in his interest to act sooner rather than later. We ordered another round. I was beginning to feel a little tipsy, but that was okay, because everything around me was just right.
“Bill,” Will offered, “I should be honest with you.”
“Of course." I was very interested in his new tone of voice.
“It has been four years since I been here. I meant to come back, I really did.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“On my way back from fishing I got into a little accident on the highway.”
“No shame in that, everyone has their accidents. Was it bad? I’m not sure I understand you.”
“Yeah,” Will said looking into his glass blankly. “It was pretty bad.”
“You get hurt?”
“Not really. Car was bad. I saw a sign for a mechanic, but I really had to get going. So I drove off.”
Something in me stirred. I started to feel uncomfortable and my drunken mind was having difficulty processing the enigma that was creeping into my mind.
“I was so shaken, I didn’t return. Until now.”
“Near a mechanic, huh?”
“Anybody around to see what happened?”
“Not that I recall. I remember a house in the distance, its lights were on, but I didn’t see anybody.”
“Only one mechanic in town. Must have been the one we went to.”
“That’s a possibility.”
“What the hell kind of accident you get into, Will?” I asked him anxiously. “Nothin’s out by Babson’s shop. No trees, no street lights.”
“My car just lost control.”
My mind put it together in that instant.
“You… you hit a goddamn man, didn’t you?” I became immediately angry.
“What I didn’t say…”
“Shut the hell up!” I yelled. I started pacing back and forth. People started to look. I pointed my finger at Will. “Only one accident I remember four years ago. Some scumbag hit my buddy Joe and scrammed.”
"I don’t know what to say.”
“Was it you?” I asked, starting to panic. “No man waits four years to come back for a little accident they can walk away from.”
“Fine. Yes. I suppose it’s time I tell someone the truth. I’ve been lying to God for four years now. Living my life as Lucifer.”
“You filth, I’ll kill you!” I grabbed my glass of beer and smashed it on the table. I was lunging toward Will with a deadly shard, when I felt a body thrown against me. I looked up, dazed from the blow.
Gus looked into my eyes with a sincerity that I had never seen the likes of. I began to weep.
“Why Will?!” I sobbed. “I cant…couldn’t live without Joe.”
“I made a bad f#cking mistake. But you lived this far, have you not?”
“You don’t know, how could you?”
“Why did you have to tell me?”
“Cause I need justice. I need to be properly punished. Having such a great time with you, I realized that it was unfair to those I’ve caused pain to. But goddamn, I can’t believe it had to be you.”
The bar had grown silent. I remembered Joe. He had no family at his final hour. He had no kin to connect to. He was a lost wanderer.
“I forgive you. I forgive you." I stepped away. People stared at me incredulously.
“How can you say that?”
“I need a peace of mind. I got to do the Christian thing, here. You would have loved Joe. Joe always wanted me to do great in life. Well I don’t know if forgiving you is great, but it’s a good start, if we’re going to get on with our lives.”
“You’re saving my life.”
I smiled weakly behind a fountain of tears. I looked around at the bar and felt exhausted. Four years is a long time to have questions go unanswered.
I made Will do one thing in the coming days. I picked him up from his motel Wednesday morning. I was unannounced and disheveled when I opened the door for him. No words were spoken as I shifted my car into gear. The silence remained for the rest of the ride to Lake Irene.
Looking at Irene was an intense sensation of déjà vu. Will hesitantly stood behind me.
So we rowed onto the mirror, seeking that which could not be sought, and finding form where there was none to be found.