Frank Byrns lives and writes in Maryland. His short fiction has been published in a variety of markets, including Everyday Fiction, All Due Respect, Plan B Magazine, Shotgun Honey, the Washington Post, and the WW Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. His most recent collection, Adonis Morgan: Nobody Special, is now available wherever fine books are sold. Visit him online at frankbyrns.com and @frankbyrns
A Short Story
By Frank Byrns
Charlie Leake pulled up in my driveway late in the afternoon, a half hour or so before sunset – I was out in the yard, cleaning snow out of the dryer vent in the side wall of the house. He didn’t even get out of the car, just reached across the front seat and threw the passenger door open. “Good, you’re dressed,” he said. “Ride with me.”
I knocked the snow off my gloves, walked over and leaned into the open car. The heater was going full blast, fogged up my glasses for a moment. “Where?” I said.
“Don’t be a puss,” he said. “Just get in.”
I drummed my fingers on the roof of the car, mulling it over. As if I really had a choice. I looked back towards the house, where Jessica stood in the doorway, arms folded behind the storm door glass. I raised an eyebrow, shrugged my shoulders, a “What do you think?” gesture. She frowned, shrugged, an “I could give a shit what you do” gesture. She turned and went back into the kitchen; I climbed into Charlie’s car.
Charlie backed down the drive and out into the street, heading out of my neighborhood towards the highway. “So how’s the wife?” he asked.
“How do you think?” I said.
He didn’t answer, reaching for the stereo instead; he fiddled with the controls until an old Buck Owens tune filled the car. Charlie slapped time on the steering wheel as he drove, lost in the song.
“Thinking about adding that one to the set,” he said when the song was over. “Got a gig down in Concord next Tuesday – you guys should come out.”
I mumbled something about working late, then shut up as we hit the on-ramp for northbound I-77. “Where’d you say we were going again?”
“I didn’t,” he said.
We drove that way – no talking, only Buck – for a while. I knew from a lifetime of experience there was no point in asking again; Charlie would tell me when he was ready. Or when we got there.
I passed the miles watching state crews in the other lane salt the highway; forecasters were calling for more snow in the morning.
As we neared the Virginia line, Charlie replaced the Buck Owens disc with some Hank Williams. Me, personally, I’d had about enough of that nasally hillbilly shit. “Charlie, seriously,” I said. “If I’m leaving the state with you, at least tell me where we’re headed so I can let Jessica know.”
“No need,” he said, his first words in miles. “I told Anne to give Jessica a call a half hour after we left and let her know where we were headed.”
Charlie turned to me, grinning, and cranked up the volume on Hank. “West Virginia,” he said.
Thirty miles into Virginia: “You haven’t said nothing in a while – you mad?”
Halfway through: “Hey, Ben, you still mad?”
Two miles from the West Virginia border: “C’mon, man, say something.”
“Fine,” I said. “I guess you weren’t lying.” I watched a ‘Welcome to West Virginia!’ sign fly by outside my window, then closed my eyes and went to sleep.
The next time I spoke, we were pulling off the interstate onto Route 19. “It’s New Year’s Eve, you know,” I said quietly.
The outburst must have startled Charlie; he jerked the wheel so hard we nearly ended up in the ditch. “Jesus Christ, Ben,” he said, hands shaking as he corrected course. “Don’t yell like that. You trying to kill us?”
“Us, no. You, maybe.”
“You’re pretty funny when you’re mad,” Charlie said. “And, yes, I do know it’s New Year’s Eve – that’s why we had to come tonight.”
“Go where tonight?”
Charlie finally killed the engine 185 miles from my driveway, in an empty lot on the main drag in Oak Hill, West Virginia. It was only a few minutes before eight, but everything in town looked to have shut down early for the holiday festivities.
“You’re stopping now?”
“Yeah. We’re here.”
“So, speaking of wives –”
“Yeah, I asked you ‘how’s the wife’ and you said ‘how do you think’ and –”
“Christ, Charlie, that was three states ago.”
“OK, well, anyway – Anne wants me to give up my music.”
“I heard that.”
“Jessica – she bumped into Anne at Rite Aid last week.”
“And Anne told Jess she had asked you to give up the music.”
“Those were her exact words? ‘Give up the music’?”
“I don’t know – I wasn’t there. But something to that effect – why?”
“Look, I’m trying to tell you why we came up here – want to hear it or not?”
“Yeah, sure – You’re gonna give me a good reason why we’re sitting in a vacant lot in Bumfuck, West Virginia at eleven forty-five at night on New Year’s Eve? I’m all ears.”
“OK. Here goes. This wasn’t always an empty lot.”
“Up until a few years ago, this is the spot where Burdette’s Pure Oil stood.”
“Burdette’s. This is where Hank Williams died. In 1953. New Year’s Day.”
“So, what. We’re here for his ghost or something?”
“Hey, look at the clock. Happy New Year, asshole.”
I dozed off again about two o’clock. No ghosts and a pouting Charlie made for a drowsy combination.
A quick rap on the window jerked me awake a few minutes later. But it wasn’t Hank – just a flashlight-wielding West Virginia State Trooper. He motioned for me to roll the window down so I did, letting in a blast of cold air. “Evening, gentlemen,” he said.
“Officer,” Charlie said.
“Couldn’t help but notice those North Carolina tags you got – everything OK here?”
“Just fine, sir.”
“Well, see, if you’re looking for a place to spend the night, there’s a nice Comfort Inn a few miles back –”
“We’re just waiting for Hank,” Charlie said. “If it’s all the same. Sir.”
The trooper grinned, ran a hand through his crewcut. “Right. Sarge warned me – said we get a couple every now and then.” He rapped his knuckles on the roof, then turned back for the warmth of his cruiser. “Good luck, fellas.”
I watched in the rearview mirror as he got back in his car and pulled away. “Roll that window back up,” Charlie said. “I’m freezing.”
“So Anne wants you to give it up completely, or just back off a bit?”
“Completely, I think. Wants me to take that job with her dad.”
“So? Aren’t you already doing piecework over there?”
“Yeah, but as long as I’m only part-time, whenever people ask, I can say I’m a musician, working a little at a garage to help us get by. The minute I’m full-time over there, that’s it. It’s all over – I’m just a guy who used to play a little bit.”
“So? You gave it a shot – did better than most. Maybe it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time to – I don’t know, settle down.”
“Boy, that’s you to a tee, isn’t it? Of course you’d say that – steady job, wearing a tie to work every day. Perfect wife, beautiful daughter. The American Dream, sitting right here beside me.”
“That’s not –”
“Settling. That’s all you’ve ever done your whole life.”
“Hey, fuck you, pal.”
What I wanted to say was this:
I came home every afternoon from a job I could barely stomach, working for a man I couldn’t look at without wanting to punch him in the throat. I didn’t drink, didn’t gamble, didn’t sleep around – I came home, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I came home and mumbled through a dinner with a six-year-old daughter I barely knew, then laid on the couch every night watching TV until Jessica went upstairs to bed. And then I stayed a little longer until I fell asleep. I did it deliberately, so then I could honestly say that I feel asleep watching TV, and by then it was too late and I didn’t want to wake you so I just stayed there on the couch.
But these aren’t the kinds of things you could talk to Charlie about.
So, instead, I told my best friend since the third grade to fuck off.
“But you’re good with cars.”
“Not the point.”
“So what’re we going to do with ol’ Hank when he shows up?”
“No, seriously – you drag me all the way up here, I’m freezing my balls off at four o’clock in the morning – at least tell me the plan so I’ll know what to do when we see him.”
“You going to invite him in, give him your body as a host, something like that? The two of you can go on and make some hit records together?”
“This time, Ben – fuck you.”
“That cop said they get a few every now and then – anybody ever seen ol’ Hank?”
“No, I want to know.”
“I – I don’t know. I do know there’s something up here – after Hank died, Burdette – the guy that owned the station – he stole Hank’s hat right out of the backseat, wore it around town. Next thing you know, his hair started falling out. Then? A few years later, he goes out back of the station here and eats his pistol.”
“Hope his ghost doesn’t happen by.”
“You really want to know what I’m going to do if Hank comes by?”
“I’m just going to ask him what I should do.”
Sunrise. No Hank.
“Fuck it,” Charlie says. “Let’s go home.”
I talked Charlie into stopping for gas station coffee on the south side of Beckley – I could barely see straight, and I had slept a couple of hours in the car. As far as I knew, he’d been up all night watching for Hank – not a comforting thought for his lone passenger. I offered to drive, even though I knew how well that would be received.
We paid for our coffee, then Charlie hit the head while I got back in the car. I stirred in my cream and two sugars, watching an old man tinker around under the hood of the car parked in the space beside us. The car was nearly as ancient as the man himself – a ’50s-vintage blue convertible.
Charlie slid in behind the driver’s seat, dropping his coffee into the dashboard cup holder. “I haven’t seen a car like that in years,” he said, pointing at the old convertible. “You don’t think he’s been driving around with that top down, do you?”
“Not in this weather – maybe it’s so old he put the top down this summer, and now he can’t get it back up.”
Charlie took his time, mixing in each of his five sugar packets individually. We watched the old man grow more and more frustrated under the hood, finally giving up and banging on the engine block with his wrench.
I rolled my window down slowly. “Need a hand there, old-timer?” I said.
The man looked up – he was even older than I thought. Pushing ninety if he were a day. He was tall, sickly thin, with a bird’s nest of hair, uncovered even in the sub-freezing morning chill. “The tires on this thing are probably older than you,” he said. “They don’t make ’em like this anymore – probably wouldn’t even know what you were looking at.”
Charlie opened his door and walked around to peer under the convertible’s hood. “Hmm,” he said, reaching in with one hand, scratching his chin with the other. “You been driving this thing with the top down?”
“Taken to doing that lately,” the man said. “Helps me feel alive – believe me, been on the road as long as I have, you take all the help you can get in that department.”
“I hear ya,” Charlie said, barely listening, studying the car. “Let me borrow that a second.” He took the wrench from the man, tightened something up, then handed the wrench back.
“You should at least wear a hat or something,” Charlie said, leaning down to place his ear an inch or two above the engine. “You’ll catch your death out here.”
“Lost my hat,” the man said. “Never got around to replacing it.”
Charlie straightened up, then walked around to the driver’s side. “Let’s give it a shot,” he said, reaching in and turning the key. The engine shook once, then turned over nicely.
“Lucky you stopped by, young man – a true professional is a rare thing in the world these days. What do I owe you for your trouble?”
Charlie shook his head, wiped his hands on the back of his jeans. “Not a thing, sir – but you should probably go ahead and get a more thorough checkup on this beauty once you get where you’re going.”
The old man nodded, then opened the door and climbed behind the wheel. “You boys have a happy New Year,” he called as he pulled out onto the highway.
Charlie shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and watched until the convertible disappeared around a bend. Then he climbed back into the car and drank his whole coffee in one long swallow. He replaced the cup in the holder and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “That was odd,” he said.
“Yeah,” was all I could say.
He cooked the engine, then slid out onto the highway.
“Are we there yet?”
He nodded. “Almost.”