Earlier this summer I threw out a challenge to fans of Daniel Amos to write a short story based on one or many of their songs. So far I haven't received any back but the summer isn't over yet. I hope you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it.
Sins of the Fathers
There’s that counter kid with the insufficient moustache and wiry frame, wiping down a table by the restrooms. He’s one of those bright and funny young know-it-alls, just like his grandpa William who was an old acquaintance of mine, though this kid doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t care if he did. I stand in the doorway of Johnny’s Café and look around for Dotty but don’t see her, meaning she probably had to take time off from work again with a sick kid, one of the many struggles of being a single mom.
I usually sit at the counter and talk to Bob, the owner and cook of this roadside greasy spoon, but I’m feeling kind of anti-social so I take a booth on the east side where the mid-morning sun can come in. A moment later the kid comes over and I’m thankful for his name tag, my mind momentarily not able to remember that his name is Blake.
“Howya doin today, Mr. Akendorf?”
Life is God's gift but the years have weight and I'm logy, a little sluggish. My back's bothering me again and my bones are rigid and I’m wondering how difficult it’s going to be getting out of this booth, but these are things young Blake won’t understand and doesn’t want to hear. “Better than I deserve,” I reply. Like most of us old codgers, I feel like I’ve lived too many years but then again, not long enough.
“Seen any flying saucers lately?” He humors me and like always, I just let it slide.
“Not today, Blake.” I leave it at that. It’s an old story back from when I was about Blake’s age, a story that kind of got me labelled as an eccentric in this small town. I don’t mind, I suppose. One is what one is. “How’s your music career going?”
“Our drummer quit last week but we’ve got two guys trying out this weekend. Hopefully we’ll have someone by the time we have enough money saved to get into the studio. After that it’s just a matter of time. So what can I get ya? The usual?” He has his pad and pen poised and ready in front of him.
“No, I’m feeling a bit hungrier than usual. I’ll take a Mighty Grunion with extra gravy, to grow my derrière. And java jive. Black.”
“Okay, Bud. One Mighty Grunion coming right up.” The kid turns and leaves, putting my ticket in the order slider by the kitchen. He comes back in a moment and wordlessly places a white mug and saucer in front of me, filling it with steaming bean squeezins. Even this simple action reveals his limitless reserve of optimistic, youthful energy, his bright porcelain blue eyes brimming over with the fire of the immortal soul, making me feel even older, as if he’s siphoning off what little vigor I stored up overnight.
I cup the hot mug in my hands and enjoy the warmth that seeps into my bones, half-squinting with the bright sun on my face as I look out into the parking lot. In the kitchen Bob has the radio on to an oldies station and when “Last Kiss” comes on it’s too much to resist. So I let myself go, fading back to the summer of 1964.
• • • • • •
That song, “Last Kiss,” was all over the radio that summer. It seems you couldn’t step out of your door without hearing a thin rendition squawking out of some kid’s transistor radio. This was back before F.M. so everything was thin, including myself. My best friend Theo and I spent a lot of time that year hanging out with Bill, Blake’s grandpa, though he was a long way from being a grandpa. Bill was okay but I would be lying if I said the fact that Bill had a car and access to his dad’s beer didn’t play into our decision to hang out with an underclassman. Plus Theo had the hot’s for Bills girlfriend, Connie, who was constantly by his side in the front passenger seat of his 1959 Ford Galaxie. Maybe Theo just liked being close to her, even if all he usually saw was the back of her head. I don’t blame him. I mean, she was beautiful enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to one day hear John Charles Daly pronounce her Miss Universe, but I’ve never been one to fight dirty in the game of love and try to take another guy’s girl. Besides I had my eye on a pretty young sophomore with the magical name of Irma.
One of those endless summer nights Theo and I walked over to Bill’s house to see if he was home. Bill’s dad was bowling and he and Connie had already helped themselves to a couple cans each of Lucky Lager. Bill’s dad was a big shot local businessman who could afford to buy his son a car as well as alimony for an ex-wife. More importantly he was a heavy drinker who didn’t keep very good tabs on his stash so it was easy for Bill to be generous. We sat around for an hour or so before Bill had the idea to drive out to the Los Padres National Forest. It was still early, just barely dark, so we all jumped at the chance to howl. I wasn’t much of a drinker, still aren’t, but I’d had enough so that I didn’t realize that Bill had had too many. Now I’m not saying that Bill’s drinking affected his driving, or that our collective consumption played into the events of that evening, but its human nature to dig through the past and play “What if?”
We piled into the big, warm, sweet interior of Bill’s Galaxie and headed out into that strange and desperate night that would alter all our destinies. We assumed our regular positions of Bill at the wheel with Connie right up next to him on that massive bench seat. I was behind Bill and Theo was beside me, nowhere near as close as Connie was to Bill.
It only too about ten minutes before we made it out of Bakersfield, the stores and warehouses in our dust.
“One day I’m gonna leave Bakersfield and won’t go back,” said Theo. “I’m gonna hop on a train and explore Europe, maybe even Asia.”
“You can’t take a train to Europe, Theo,” replied Bill as he cracked another beer.
“You know what I mean, wise-acre.”
Bill took a gulp of his warm beer. “Ya know what, I’m bored with Los Padres. Let’s go to Tehachapi Mountain Park instead. The views are incredible!”
“Views of what? Its night time?” quipped Theo.
Without waiting for a vote Bill turned left onto the next country road.
Because of his late decision we weren’t on the main road to Tehachapi and had to nose around a few dead ends before we found a narrow gravel side road that led up into the mountains. Once found Bill seemed eager to make up for his lost time and pressed down on the gas to speed up the treacherous curves, smiling as Connie clung to his arm in fear.
“Slow down, baby. I’m in no hurry.” Bill let off the gas a little which seemed to satisfy Connie.
As we traveled upward we hit a section without trees on the driver’s side and we were able to catch of view of the moon-bathed mountainside. “What’s that?” asked Theo, pointing past my head out the open car window. We all looked and saw a green disc of light with a red pulsing center zipping over the trees and knew that we were seeing a U.F.O., just like in the movies but this one was right there before us in real life.
Theo said, “That is not theologically correct.”
Bill said, “SHIT!” and yanked the wheel hard to the right to avoid driving right off the narrow mountain road. The car slid sideways and the driver side slammed into a short wooden fence that ran along the edge of the road, a gift from the parks department for buffoons like us. Silence accompanied our sudden stop as we all tried to absorb what we just saw coupled with the hair-raising accident. The silence was broken by the radio, playing a few bars of some Beach Boys song before the car engine died. Theo started to laugh in relief. The rest of us sat there, our minds fumbling for words, when suddenly the car was bathed in red light. I leaned out my window and, looking up, my brain turned to sand. The saucer was hovering right above us, maybe fifty feet or so, as if investigating our accident. The horrendous disc was spinning like a record while the red light pulsed twice before the thing shot straight up like a bottle rocket, disappearing into the night.
Theo pulled me back into the car by my shirt. “Where’d it go?”
“Straight up. I can’t see it anywhere.”
Bill cranked the engine and it roared to life. “Well, we’re getting out of here, fast!” He popped the Galaxie into gear and gunned the engine. The rear wheels spun out on the gravel road and the rear of the car slid towards the center of the road, causing the front of the car to push against the fence. A thick, wooden crack could be heard over the engine and the car lurched forward, along with our stomachs, and we dropped off the edge.
My mother must have prayed for me that day because the drop was only twelve feet or so. The car landed nose down, at an angle, with its back wheels leaning against the mountainside, the cabin of the car a confusing Mystery Spot where forward was now down and no direction seemed up. I was banged up with my upper body hanging over the driver’s seat. Seat belts were an option that this particular Galaxie did not have, not that we would have used them. “Let’s get out of here,” I yelled, looking around the car. Theo had a gash on his forehead but was also otherwise okay. “Bill? Are you okay?”
Bill’s head had cracked the windshield. There was a smear of blood but he was coming to. “What? Crap. My dad’s gonna kill me. Connie?” We all looked over at where Connie should have been. My blood turned cold at the sight of the open passenger door leading into a black night. “CONNIE!?” We all scrambled from the car as fast as we could. Fortunately the nose of the car was pretty well buried into the dirt so it didn’t shift or fall over as we made our exits.
“What I wouldn’t give right now for my old man’s flashlight!” We all scrambled around in the dim moonlight, yelling out Connie’s name. I found her, a few yards away, lying way too still. She had been thrown from the car when it hit. “Over here!”
Bill and Theo raced over, Bill kneeling beside her, his face next to hers. “Connie? Are you okay?” Even in the dim light I could see that Connie’s face was turning purple on one side but she opened her eyes, tried to smile through the stiffness and lifted a hand that I noticed was covered in blood, from where I couldn’t tell. “Connie! You’re okay!” Bill kissed her and turned to us, “Guys, she’s okay!” He turned back to Connie who had closed her eyes again. “Connie! Try to stay awake! Connie? Connie!” But there was nothing we could do. She was gone.
Bill stayed with her while Theo and I climbed up onto the road, walking back to the highway where we eventually flagged down help. Days later we learned that Connie had suffered a massive brain injury and there wasn’t anything medicine in those days could have done to save her. Bill spent two weeks in the hospital for his head injury and wasn’t able to attend her funeral. Theo and I both had some bruises but not much else, unless you count the severe sunburn I received from leaning out the window to get a better look at the saucer. I made the mistake of telling a few people about what we saw that caused us to have the accident, mostly because my sunburn made me a walking target for questions. Even though I shut up about it quickly enough the damage was done and I had earned myself a reputation as “that saucer guy.” Fortunately I graduated the next year and was able to move away to school. By the time I moved back four years later most people were over ribbing me about it, though I’m sure the notion was still in their minds. Bill and Theo were smart enough to keep their mouths shut. Not that I blamed them but it sure would have been nice to have someone back me up.
Theo and I went to the same college, kinda lost touch in the eighties when his marriage was in rough spot but got back in touch during the Clinton years. Irma and I used to get together with them each month for bridge but Theo’s wife has had some health issues lately so that’s on hold for now.
Things weren’t so easy for Bill. Even though there were no charges brought against him I think he blamed himself for the death of Connie, which caused him to start drinking more. A lot more. Once he showed up at my college and asked if I knew where he could get some acid. I didn’t and wouldn’t have told him if I did. Believe it or not, not everyone in the sixties did drugs. In the early seventies he ended up moving to Vegas and marrying some dancer named Terri Roy Al, and you can guess how long that lasted. He eventually went back home to work for his dad but a few years later the Vegas dancer showed up just long enough to drop off a young boy, counter-kid’s dad, surprising Bill, his pregnant second wife and their two year old daughter. In the early 80s Bill quit drinking after getting saved at some tent revival service a lady preacher held on the edge of town and basically got his act together, becoming the stereotypical pillar of the community just like his dad. It was obvious from the start that Scott, his Vegas-born son, had a wild side, or maybe he just didn’t feel like he fit in. A couple of car wrecks, a string of bad jobs, even six months in prison for dealing weed failed to turn him around. Bill did his best to help him along, finding him work when Scott was in the mood for it, but Bill couldn’t shelter him from three bad marriages. Blake here was the result, I think, of the second marriage. Some local girl named Anna, a good kid who got mixed up with Scott and ended up raising Blake alone. Well, not exactly alone. She was close to her family and they helped her out, as did Bill and his wife. Bill and I were never all that close so we didn’t reconnect after he got cleaned up but I’ve had my eye on Blake, him being Bill’s grandson and all. I guess I have a tender spot for him, and from the looks of things he turned out alright.
• • • • • •
My trip down memory lane is broken when Blake slides the white porcelain plate across my table. “One SAUCER of food, Mr. Akendorf.” I look up at his grin and am tempted to offer the boy some kind of words of wisdom, clichés about life being tough, tell him about unrealized expectations, maybe pass on a couple of tips. But I’ve learned after all this time that you can’t teach these young dogs new tricks.
My breakfast is hot, delicious and plentiful, meaning Bob is in his element. As I sit and enjoy the morning sun Blake stops by to pour me another cup of thick, bitter coffee. “Are ya finally gonna have some pie, Mr. Akendorf?” Despite my full belly I eye the glass carousel display of pie slices by the register, think about my sugar level and like always, I decline. “Just the check today.”
While he’s away getting my ticket I use the time to struggle out of the bench seat so I don’t give the boy something else to laugh about. Once up I head over to the restrooms, labeled Pointers and Setters, and by the time I return my check is waiting for me on the table. I look around but don’t see Blake so I leave the tip on the table and offer another prayer for the boy, for God’s mercy and His grace, for salvation and love and that maybe, just maybe, he can avoid the sins of his fathers and have the courage to make the world a better place. Good luck walking on water, kid. But when those mistakes come, learn from them. That’s what I would say if I felt it was my place.
Blake appears out of nowhere and beats me to the register, his usual cocky grin on his face, and I talk myself out of saying anything more than, “Have a good day.”
“You too, Mr. Akendorf. Hang in there!”
I shuffle out and leave him to his hopes and dreams as I hang onto my memories. Well… you hang on too, son.