Friday, March 14, 2014

As the Crow Flies

If you are what you eat, than you write what you read.  I've been reading pulp detective fiction and Glimmertrain Stories.  I have to say that I am very impressed with Glimmer Train.  I will have to bring up my game if I want to play in that league.  There's a reason they are at the top of the heap.

I struggle with Friday fiction now because I’m pushing out a first draft.  It’s not what my finished products look like anymore.  Sort of like how my piano lessons went the weeks I actually practiced instead of just showing up.  I’ve reconciled this problem somewhat by using the feedback on the story as a litmus for determining if I should keep it in the “make better” folder or the “this is where I was then” folder.

As the Crow Flies
by Jon Stark
March, 2014; 1500 words

                April 27, 1978.  Dallas, TX.  Randy Turner was killed in a single vehicle accident during the early morning hours.  Police say that they are unsure why his car left the highway.  He leaves behind a wife and an eight year-old daughter.  Mr. Turner was the third fatality in five years along this stretch of highway and some of the local citizens...

                The rest doesn't matter.  My father died out there and he got three lines.  Or he would have, if anyone had cared to write about it.  Mom says he made big money working for big oil.  After he died we found out that he also spent big money and accrued big debt.  Enough that we lost the house with the pool, the other car, and the country club membership.

                We landed in Lubbock.  If you've never been to West Texas I'll explain it to you.  It's like standing on giant piece of sandpaper that's so big you can't see any of the edges.  When the sun comes up the wind starts and it blows all day without stopping.  Hard and hot, a blow-dryer that never switches off until the sun goes down.  And the world gets cold.

                Lubbock was the opposite of Dallas.  There were no tall buildings, no new buildings, no energy and bustle.  We lived in one of the squat, run-down apartment buildings.  It was two boxes set on top of each other with a central courtyard.  It might have been a hotel once.  There was no pool, no a/c, and no other kids.  Dream summer vacation.

                My second morning there I met Joe.  He had on coveralls that said, "Joe" and carried a toolbox.  I followed him.  He stopped at the vending machines but instead of reaching for money, he set down his tool box and went to work.  I crept closer.

                He unlocked the machine, released a couple of magical catches and...  I heard angels singing.  Truly.  The door of the vending machine swung open and a blinding light shown forth and before me stretched the promised land of Milkyway and Almond Joy.

                Joe turned and smiled at me.  "Hello, young lady."  I waved, suddenly shy.  "Ever see the inside of one of these?"  I shook my head.  "Do you want something while I've got it open?"  His smile made me smile and candy, before lunch.  I couldn't say no.  I didn't want to.

                "You look like a Reeces girl." he said.  I nodded and accepted the offered candy.  He took a Hershey bar and then set to work.  He removed the side panel, banged on some things, took out a part that looked part mechanical grapefruit and part grenade.  Joe frowned.  "I have to go back to my van to get a new one of these."

                He looked into my eyes.  Very serious.  "Can you watch the machine while I'm gone to make sure that nobody takes anything?"  It was a big responsibility.  I hadn't had much of that in my life.  I thought I could do it and told him so.  "Okay.  I'll be right back."

                He wasn't right back.  It took him about three years while I stood there looking at all of the candy, no quarter required.  "Did anybody come while I was gone?" he asked.

                After the candy machine I helped him with the soda machine.  I had a Crush and he drank Hire’s rootbeer.  "I've got to run over to the place on Durango.  You wanna come?"  I know what you're thinking.  I wouldn't have let my daughter go and I'd never go myself now, but the world was different then and we didn't know how dangerous it was.  Not really.

                Joe's van was like a clubhouse.  The seats were hot vinyl and cracked, dust and empty fast-food bags were everywhere, and the back was full of tools and junk.  I loved it immediately.  He even had an 8-track.

                That night Mom told me she'd gotten a job at Rick's and so I didn't have to worry anymore.  She asked what I'd been up to while she was out.  I told her about meeting Joe.

                The next day I found Joe loading up his van.  "Off to San Angelo today." he said.

                "What's it like down there?"

                "It's like here but not as big." he said.  "And there's a river runs through it.  Concho."

                "Sounds cool."

                He opened the passenger door and stepped aside.  "You're welcome to ride with me, if you like."  He actually seemed shy.  "I'm not sure how good of a company I'd be but it might beat hanging around here."  He hadn't finished before I was in the seat.  Perched in our club house, ready for the highway.

                Joe had a nice smile.

                It was a long drive through the flat desert to get down to San Angelo.  We listened to music and watched for armadillos.  We saw so many that it stopped being fun.  Joe suggested that we look for armadillos that hadn't been hit by cars yet.  That kept us busy.

                San Angelo looked just like Lubbock to me.  We fixed the machines at three Texaco stations, the Red Roof Inn, and on the third floor of the Ramada.  He bought me tacos for lunch and we parked by the river.

                "I could watch the river all day." he said.

                "It's like watching the road." I said.  "It just sort of twists along."

                We got back to the apartment building just as my mom was walking in from work.  I hopped out of the van and waved to Joe.  "Where are we going tomorrow?"  He just smiled and waved back.  Then he waved to my mother and she waved back.

                "We went to San Angelo today." I told her.  "Joe bought me tacos."

                My mother frowned.  "He didn't have to do that."

                "What else would I have eaten?"

                Later that night I came out of my room and found her crying.  She was balled up on the couch like a dirty shirt and shook uncontrollably.  I put my arms around her and eventually she uncurled, wiped her eyes, and smiled at me.  "Sometimes I miss him so much." she said.

                "I don't." I said.  "Why should we?"

                "Don't talk about your Father like that." she said.

                "We had to leave Dallas because of him."  I was angrier than I thought and it came out hard and cold.

                "Gina Mae Turner!"  I thought she was going to slap me.  "Your father was a good man.  He never hurt us and don't you ever forget it."

                I looked around at our apartment.  It was nothing like our life before.  How could she say that he hadn't hurt us?  I was too young to know what she meant.

                Later, when I was riding with Joe, I told him about how Mom missed my father.

                "I think she loved him very much." said Joe.

                "I don't.  I hate him."

                Joe shook his head.  "No little girl should hate her father."  I started to argue but he shook his head.  "You should listen to your momma."

                Mom brought home a television one night.  It wasn't very big but she was exhausted from carrying it.  I didn't appreciate it.  Our TV in Dallas had been twice as big and color.  But my attitude didn't spoil her excitement and I still watched it with her.

                The next time I rode with Joe he noticed that I had changed my hair.  I noticed that he was strong enough to move the entire vending machine, even full of candy and cokes, all by himself.

                On our next trip to San Angelo I asked him if he'd ever been in love before.  He never took his eyes of the road.  "I've never been there." he said.  "Been all around there, up and down the road so to speak, but, well..."

                "Do you think you'd ever want to go there?" I asked.

                He grinned at me.  "The brochure sure looks nice."  Then he became serious again.  But I'm not sure I'll get the chance."

                "I think you will.  It's me I'm worried about." I said.  "Nobody's ever kissed me.  I don't think anybody ever will."

                He laughed out loud then.  "A pretty thing like you worried about getting kissed?  Your momma's gonna be fighting them off in a couple years."  He swerved around a dead armadillo.  "You're sweet as the candy in those vending machines.  You'll never be alone."

                “Sure would be nice to be kissed though.” I said.  Hinting with a sledge hammer.  I thought he was slow on the uptake back then.  But he was a good man, was all.

                We drove all summer in his van -- our clubhouse -- and I saw a lot of West Texas.  Every day was a winding road to somewhere.  Every day Joe brought me a little bit further out of my grief.  I didn't know it at the time, but that was one of the best summers of my life.  I learned to love my mother.  I learned that it's not about getting what you want but wanting what you've got.


  1. I like this, Jon. It veered close to dangerous ground, and I'm relieved it didn't go there.

    1. Thank you. I ran out of time -- even with the longer train ride -- so I didn't get the ending quite the way I wanted. My idea in writing was that Joe was her mother's brother (her uncle) and that's why they ended up in Lubbock at his building and why he took her around during the day while his sister was working.

    2. OK I guess that would solve the problem of why her mother would let her ride around with a strange man. That wasn't acceptable even in the 1970's...but then I think the uncle idea makes her hinting about the kiss pretty weird. So I don't know. But I do like the tension of being afraid something awful is going to happen and then the relief when it turns out OK.

  2. inside a vending machine -- neat photo -