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A Three-Hour Drive Just To Say Goodbye

by Sheldon Lee Compton



Clinton pulled into his uncle Gerald's driveway at just after 6:00 p.m.when the sunlight was still summer bright, three hours or more before dark.

Driveway was a generous description of the swath of flattened milkweeds and tanglevine leading to the front door of the trailer. Broken down cars like flattened streetlights lined both sides of the path, squatted and crushed in the higher weeds and stalks that ran in each direction across the wide bottom. The cars, Ford Escorts, Chevy Rabbits, late-model trucks, were mausoleums from which the habitants had long ago escaped. Gerald stood in the doorway of the trailer, the last remaining occupant of the discarded land, waving to Clinton with a fisted can of Budweiser.

"Hidey there, Uncle," Clinton said. He made his way from the random spot he parked the SUV and watched his step. Sporadic mudholes from two days previous rain hid beneath the veined snarl of weeds. He wiped at the sides of his loafers when he made it to the doorway, hitching his foot, first one then the other, onto the concrete block steps leading up to Gerald.

"You'd make a damn fine shoe shine," Gerald said.

"Yeah," Clinton laughed under his breath without looking up then straightened his back, arching it slowly and feeling out the tight muscles. The drive had been a long one from Mount Shepherd. He could still feel the seatbelt strap across his chest.

Gerald's hair was slicked back away from his forehead and he rolled the can of beer across the wrinkles there, smoothing them out for a moment, and stepped out of the doorway into the trailer. A gust wind hit Clinton in the face from the doorway and he stopped on the concrete block, confused at first, then saw a window fan through the diluted light of the small living room, wedged into the far window. The strong breeze from the fan ruffled what must have been twenty or thirty creased pieces of yellow legal paper scattered across a chipped coffee table.

"Where's Kathleen?" asked Gerald.

"She's around," Clinton said.

"You all doin good, though, huh? You're workin every day, right? That's the only way to keep one around longer than a year or two. After that it's a mystery what keeps em and what might send em packin."

He sat down directly in the front of the window fan, the couch cushions coughing out sprays of dust as he did. Not a single comb-toothed trench of his slicked gray hair moved an inch.

"Kathleen's just Kathleen," Clinton said. He took a seat himself and eyed Gerald's Budweiser. "You got another one of those?"

Gerald hitched his shoulders, embarrassed, as if he had just remembered someone's name and was now struggling to work it into the conversation. He walked around the countertop petition into the kitchen area.

"Then you're here about the cancer and not looking for a place to regroup, huh?" The fridge came open with a sucking hiss and Gerald produced a frost-coated can. He tapped the top three, four times walking it back to Clinton. "Not much of a place for regrouping anyways, I suppose." He laughed and took his place back on the couch, more ribbons of dust sliced instantly into oblivion by the swirling fan blades.

Gerald grinned just as Clinton popped the tab on the beer and the two of them sat silent while Clinton took a long swallow. The window fan was no match for the boiled insides of the trailer but the cold beer cooled him off enough. He relaxed into the chair, cradled the can between his thighs.

"That's right. I'm here about the cancer," Clinton finally said. "I figured you'd take that as a compliment but you don't seem too complimented."

"Well that's a helluva way to talk to a dyin man," Gerald said, and his laughter easily drowned out the whirring of the fan.

***


Gerald suggested a drive out to The Rose Diner, the only place in Blue Flats that served breakfast day and night. It was one of only a few places Gerald went outside the hollow. The other trips were to Mount Shepherd for appointments at the Kentucky Clinic, a mesh of glass and iron buildings he didn't care to ever see again. He knew Clinton hadn't hauled himself out here on that three-hour trip just because of the cancer. The cancer had been around awhile, diagnosed for nearly a year or so, and now the drop-in. It had to be Kathleen or money, or both.

A coal truck loaded full and without a tarp swung into view through a curve. Jagged chunks of coal spilled from the bed and bounced to scatter into their lane. Clinton sucked in wind across his teeth and flinched when two or three of the chunks pinged across the grill of his SUV.

"Son of a bitch! They're required to use a tarp," he said after loosening his grip on the steering wheel.

Gerald left it alone. Too much time spent away from Blue Flats and a man could forget that a few dents on a shiny grill was the even trade-off for stop-and-go traffic and warp speed interstates. His mind was elsewhere, and Clinton wasn't saying much anyway. The Rose Diner and breakfast any time anybody wanted, which used to be all different hours from working all different shifts week to week at the car factory before he bought the land and trailer and started working for himself doing vehicle repairs. The factory was an hour drive from Blue Flats and a slave pit he missed about as much as those glass and iron buildings in Mount Shepherd. Pushing the car factory out of mind and glass and iron buildings with people talking to him like a child, Gerald thought instead of chewy bacon and fresh eggs scrambled in butter, biscuits with sausage gravy.

"I could eat the south end of a north bound mule," he said when they were gliding through the last few curves before the diner. When Clinton didn't answer, he turned in the seat and was surprised to see his nephew crying. He waited for Clinton to say something, to explain himself, and then lost patience.

"It ain't this cancer shit is it? I thought we got past that in pretty decent fashion back at the house."

"We're here," Clinton said, and Gerald tilted off-balance in his seat as his nephew pulled roughly into the diner's gravel parking lot.

"Well, hell, Clinton. What you expect me to do, just walk on in here and eat breakfast and you cryin or whatever over there?"

"Just give me a second," he said. He dabbed at his eyes with the ball of his wrist.

Gerald sat still and gave him his second, looked out at the The Rose Diner, the faded and paint-flecked sign above the takeout window, studied the hobbled front door, swung a thousand times and still sturdy. When he turned again to Clinton, he was already opening his door, powdered gravel popping under the soft soles of his loafers.

He stayed behind, trying with more effort now to pin down exactly what Clinton might be doing here, and what him and his cancer might have to do with it all. Then Shirley Anderson noticed him from the takeout window and waved him inside.

As always, he didn't hesitate to do exactly what Shirley Anderson or any other woman ever asked of him and got out of the SUV, took his time passing the front grill on his way in to run his finger across two diamond-shaped dents left there from the dropped coal.

"Sonofabitch," he said, and crossed the lot, forgetting to wave back to Shirley Anderson as he went.

***


In the tight quarters of the diner's restroom, Clinton turned a rusty knob for cold water and splashed two handfuls across his face, studied himself in the cracked mirror and pictured Kathleen, hands on her hips at the side of the bed, the glow of his reading lamp casting her sleek shadow across the wall.

He had suggested earlier that day the two of them take in his uncle, who was dying of cancer. She remembered Gerald but said nothing more at his suggestion, made while standing at the checkout counter at the grocery. Later that evening, Clinton made the suggestion again after dinner. By the time they were settling for bed, the idea that she had disregarded his suggestion and, worse, offered no discussion at all, had welled up inside, a rich bile at the back of his throat. He might as well have been hardly more than a pleading child asking for candy at the checkout, a pesky hound scrambling for scraps at the dinner table. Just as she had curled into bed, he sat his paperwork aside and told her flatly that he would leave for Blue Flats his first day off from work, that his uncle would be living with them, not dying alone in a junkyard.

Shuffling in a half circle at the sink, Clinton searched for paper towels or a hand dryer and, finding none, rolled off a loose ball of toilet paper. He dabbed his hands and face, straightened his shoulders and left the restroom.

Two men stood outside the restroom door, one behind the other, both offering raised eyebrows. Clinton lowered his shoulder and moved past them and into the raucous dining area.

The Rose Diner might once have been a family restaurant, but the largest customer base was now and always miners and lumberyard workers, welders and mechanics, all moving in and out at various hours due to odd shifts, staggered schedules that saw some ordering ham and eggs and others club sandwiches. Drinks were served at all hours, except any hour falling on a Sunday. And there was always a lunch crowd or a breakfast crowd or, barring that, prides of retired men drinking coffee and loudly trading memories.

Amid this crowd, Gerald sat at the end of the front counter, a thick slab of wood perched on a rickety bar stool. He picked absently from a bowl of trail mix, a tall draft of beer on a napkin in front of him. He noticed Clinton making his way to the counter but focused his attention on the dying evening light melting its way through a window above a group of miners, the neon reflecting tape on their shirts and pants gaining phosphorescence in the approaching night.

"Already ordered for us," he said as Clinton sat on the stool beside him. "Big Dan breakfast platters. That okay with you?"

It wasn't common, of course, to have alcohol with breakfast he figured, but the business with Clinton breaking down earlier gave him a green light for just such behavior. When Clinton ordered a draft of his own, Gerald finally turned on his stool and saw his nephew's puffy, mashed up face. A small bit of toilet paper clung to the stubble on the side of his face. Shirley Anderson sat the drink on the counter, told Clinton hello as chirpy as ever but shot Gerald a strange look at the same time as if to say, What's this all about?

"Hidey, Shirley," Clinton said without looking up.

Gerald fidgeted on his stool and called Shirley back before she made it into the kitchen. "Give us those Dan's to go, Shirley, honey." He fidgeted some more and then spoke up. "What the hell's goin on here, Clinton?"

Clinton took a long gulp of beer, paused, tilted the glass and rolled down another gulp. "You're coming to live with me in Mount Shepherd," he said. "I'll not have you dying alone in a junkyard."

Gerald studied this for a moment. It didn't do much to explain how Clinton was acting, but there was one thing he knew for sure. He knew to answer immediately here in The Rose Diner would come to no good, not when his response would be to turn Clinton down as flat as a skipping stone. He wouldn't understand, and when Clinton didn't understand, trouble followed.

When Clinton was six, a year after his daddy died, Gerald took his brother's only boy in without being asked. Jim would have done the same, and Gerald knew it. The mother skipped out on her old life after the car accident, just sort of phased into another person and finally took up residence with a string of bad men, one after another. Gerald came and took Clinton one afternoon on his way out to pick up an order of spark plugs then just drove home, and that's the way it stayed.

No one came looking for him, and Gerald heard a month or so later the mother moved out of state to Tennessee or Ohio or some other part of the world. Clinton never once asked about her, and never once, until today, had he seen his nephew cry, not even at his own daddy's funeral. Gerald had always been proud of him for that, proud of how all the horribleness made him tough as a pine knot. And now, this, today.

"Skip the hash browns and gravy," Gerald called back to Shirley. "Just give us the meat, eggs and bread. And rush it best you can."

Now Clinton squirmed in his chair. He felt that old bile rising up inside him again. "You ain't dying in no goddamn junkyard. I'll not allow it."

"That's kind of you and all, Clinton," Gerald said, hoping to leave it at that until they could get out of the diner. But looking at Clinton, at the contempt spread out across his puffy face, he lost sight of all the good intentions behind the words, the way he'd said junkyard. Junkyard.

He turned back on his stool, an old ripple of anger coming over him, and finished off his beer, then swiveled back to Clinton and hoped to see the good intentions, but it was contempt still warming the seat, a glare in the boy's eyes he didn't care for one solitary bit. "That junkyard helped you off to college," he said evenly."Helped get you that engineering degree. Now I didn't want to have to say that, but then you didn't leave me much of a choice now did you?"

Clinton was off his stool silent and fast, the movement of youth. Gerald made his way up more slowly, but faced his nephew evenly. Neither moved to the other immediately. The factions of customers went quiet, and just as Shirley rounded the corner from the kitchen with the breakfast platters, Clinton took the first swing.

Gerald blocked it with his forearm, but the blow stung and rattled through to the bone. He threw his weight into Clinton and the two went to the floor. A couple of men from a corner booth started out of their seats, but Gerald righted himself from the floor first and waved them back. He had elbowed Clinton on the way down and saw blood coming from the corner of his mouth, making a curling trail down toward his ear. The elbow was not intended, just a byproduct of the falling, and he bent to Clinton. Clinton gave an upward kick and connected with Gerald's groin. The older man went to his knees as Clinton pushed himself upright. He waited for his uncle to stand again.

It had been a long time since he had taken a kick to the particulars and Gerald thought for a moment he might not be able to recover to his feet in time to avoid another lick that would surely end the fight with him on the floor and defeated. It was a slow ways up and when he at last wobbled into an upright position, Clinton stood with his arms at his side. He wiped the blood from his lip. It made a dark smear across his face.

Both men breathed heavily into each other's face, the sound of it audible in the stillness of the diner. Clinton wiped again at his face, spreading most of the blood away this time. He pressed lightly at the corner of his mouth with his fingertip while Gerald took the time to step back and circle the pit of his stomach with the palm of his hand several times.

"Kathleen left me over all this," Clinton said. The words came out watery from built up blood behind his teeth.

Gerald stopped rubbing at his stomach and dropped sideways onto the stool. The pain in his tightened gut different now, deeper, more painful. Shirley was at the counter with the phone in her hand, no doubt readying herself to dial the police. When Clinton joined Gerald at the counter, both with an elbow hitched up beside their empty glasses, she dropped the phone back on its hook.

"I can't have this in here, Gerald," she said after awhile and pushed the two Styrofoam to go containers across the counter.

Nodding in agreement, Gerald floated a twenty onto the counter. "Keep the change," he said, and then turned to the others in the diner. "Sorry about all this, folks."

***


"You should have just said something right off," Gerald said after a long silence. They were making their way up the grassed over driveway to the trailer. "I asked about Kathleen. Why didn't you say something then?"

"Because it don't change a thing about right now. About what I'm doing here," Clinton answered.

It was fully dark at last and without a porch light, Clinton navigated with some trouble around random car parts and assorted items along the driveway. He followed behind Gerald and stood in the doorway, waiting for some kind of light to flicker to life. From inside the trailer came the sound of a pulled chain and the living room, lit again with the yellow light from earlier, seemed even more broken down than before. A band of fat moths swooped around the room and congregated near the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Gerald stepped gingerly around the coffee table and turned off the window fan. He went to the fridge and came back with three cans of Budweiser, handing one to Clinton and taking the others with him to the couch. Clinton raised an eyebrow.

"I could use a couple of these myself," he said and tried a grin, but his busted lip wouldn't allow much.

"The other's for my particulars there Bruce Lee," Gerald said. He tucked one carefully between his legs, popping the tab on the other. "But we can share it later if you want."

"No thanks. I'll pass."

Clinton drank from the good corner of his mouth and monitored the overhead moths with half-interest. Kathleen would be curling up in the bed beside him about right now if the world was the same as a week ago. Who knew what she was doing at this moment with him watching moths and drinking and nursing a busted lip? He thought of her sleek shadow cast across the wall, quivering like the burning up flame of a curvaceous candle.

"I am sorry," Gerald said, "but this don't change a thing."

"So that's a no, I take it."

"That's a no, Clinton. This really is where I want to be. Not in Mount Sterling and not in some hospital or anywhere else. Probably you should've asked me about this before you jumped the gun."

Gerald saw a tenseness start in his nephew's shoulders and for a moment he worried there might be another scuffle. He would surely find himself on the losing end this time around. Then Clinton calmed and raised out of the chair, resting his elbows on his knees.

"You know, you were wrong, Uncle," he said. "Sometimes you know exactly what sends a woman packing."

Gerald wanted to say if something like this caused a woman to leave then she wasn't much of a woman in the first place, but he held his tongue. Even though it would have been a compliment in its own way, he doubted Clinton would feel especially complimented either. So he said nothing as Clinton stood up and balanced the Budweiser on the paper-covered coffee table then stepped to the door.

"I better get going," he said."I've got a long drive."

Grunting his way off the couch, Gerald followed him out and shielded his eyes from the headlights until Clinton had the SUV backed out of the driveway. He watched the tail lights blink in and out of sight behind overgrown bushes until they were eaten away for good by the first sharp curve of the hollow.

"Thanks anyway," he said in the darkness.


Sheldon Lee Compton's work has appeared in numerous journals including New Southerner, Keyhole Magazine, Emprise Review, BLIP (formerly Mississippi Review), Staccato Fiction>, and elsewhere. Most recently, his work was included in Bottom Dog Press's anthology Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia. He publishes the online journal A-Minor and lives in Eastern Kentucky.