It was a lonely sort of town, the sort where old men sit on their porches at night and say they have been forgotten by Time. Down the main street, a single drugstore, large and dilapidated and groaning under the weight of great mounds of dust, stood as sole champion of our livelihood. On its left was a barbershop, closed all the way back in the days of the Depression, with a little spinning cylinder of blues and reds that creaked on windy days. On the right, Smith's Produce and Meats, faded now to read "Mith odu n M t," a slumbering leviathan of a building acting as a base of operations for feral dogs and a bustling population of roaches and buzzing crickets.
But the drugstore. Everyone called it Gerald's, for that was the name written in curled finery all across the top third of the peeling facade. It was a rare artifact, and we a rare people, as far removed from the marching frontier of progress as the Amazonian tribes who have never seen a white man. Youth was a stranger here, and indeed I was the only child I ever saw in that place. My parents were people who looked sixty but were at least twenty years less, though they never told me their real ages and their graves bore nothing but their names.
This was before that, though, and today they had slapped a coin in my palm and shooed me out of the house, so that I found myself sitting at the handsome faux-granite counter of Gerald's, sipping at a root beer, and old Gerald himself was looking at me with a fond, wistful eye (his other, he had once told me, having been taken by a Jap in the War). So I was sitting, and he standing, just exactly as we had been sitting and standing for week after week, year after year, since I had turned the prestigious age of nine. Every week, we went through the same routine. I had just opened my little mouth to ask him how the business was going, and he just about ready to answer that it was, in fact, going, when the door swung open with a hesitant jangling, as if the bell itself were quite unsure of that the figure below it was real.
Gerald could've given himself whiplash, so quickly did his old neck snap towards the sound, and his hand went to the shotgun below the counter that he had never shown me but which I had marveled at once, when he had gone to the back to grab me a candy bar on my eleventh birthday.
It was a good gun. Two barrels, long and gleaming, oiled with a tenderness usually reserved for close pets or family. Enough to turn a proud buck's head to gory confetti, and certainly enough to reduce the smiling, flashy man who had just walked in to a line of ground hamburger on the drugstore wall.
But of course, that did not happen. It would have been very improper. So, come to think of it, was staring, but since staring is one of those things that gets progressively worse based on the number of participants, two people could pass as merely a faux pas, as opposed to an actual breach of etiquette. And Etiquette, as Momma always said, was very important.
The man took no notice, anyway. He slid onto a stool two away from mine, and flashed Gerald with a small smile, revealing twin rows of perfect teeth. His tie was a pleasant shade of red, and I looked at it with wonder. I had never seen one before, except on television, and since our set was strictly black and white, I was free to marvel for the first time at just how dapper a suit could be. His casually professional manner of sitting didn't do anything to discourage the idea. "I'll take what the boy's having," he told Gerald, and gave me a small wink. I couldn't hold back a smile, and Gerald, seeing this, scowled a little.
"Hope you like root beer, then," he muttered, and disappeared into the little nook where he kept the taps and soft-serve machine.
His absence left a hole of silence. We looked at each other, the man and I, for a long while. His eyes were sparkling blue, his hair crisply waxed.
"Your parents drive a car?" he asked at last, and I blinked in momentary confusion. Then I blinked again, and was about to go for a third time when he repeated the question, with a touch more urgency, and this motivated me at last to speak.
"Pickup," I stammered. "It's red, sir, like your tie. Papa says it's pretty beat up, but it can carry a good load and it don't eat much gas, sir." The "sir's" were like lead marbles, weighing down my words even more than the nervous strain behind them. The man chuckled a little, but not meanly, and pointed outside at a sleek black affair that reminded me of a metallic stallion. It had the same smooth curves, and a dangerous air of rebellious prosperity.
"That's my car, out there," he said, and though of course he meant to amuse me I could see also the pride in his eyes. "It's a Jaguar."
I had no idea what that meant, but nodded anyway. It certainly sounded impressive.
"What's your name, kid?"
"Thomas." He thought for a while, and as it was uncomfortable to look at him I focused on the fierce humming and clanking of Gerald working in the side room: by far a more familiar sound. I heard a stifled curse, and knew the ice cream was jamming up the machine again. Despite myself, a smile twitched across my lips. "That's a good name, Thomas," the man was saying. "Good country name. Do you know, I'm a country boy myself?"
"I believe it, sir." I didn't, though. Not really. Country men didn't talk like that...
He nodded. "Texas, actually. A small town near Dallas. The old man raised horses, my mother stayed at home. When I grew up, I was supposed to take over the ranch. Do my father proud."
I had questions, of course, but he was an adult and I a child. My words shrank back in my throat and died of shy reproach before I could shove them onto my tongue. But I looked at him in growing wonder, which was enough encouragement, it seemed, to keep him talking. But his conversation began to turn so oddly personal, as to soon confuse me.
"I ran away from home at seventeen. Oh, it wasn't like that," for he had seen the expression on my face, and misconstrued it. "My father was a kind man at heart, and never took the belt to me unless it was absolutely necessary. No... I just couldn't see it. Living in that place, year after year. Having a son of my own, teaching him to raise horses, fix fences, see the whole cycle over again... I just couldn't." He was giving me the funniest look, and the mist in his eyes was the same as the one that came to Gerald, when he told me stories of the War. It was the look of a man who does not like remembering, but does so anyway, because otherwise he may forget, and lose who he is in the process.
"I ran away," he repeated. "And went to a small college, far away. I learned business there, and banking, and all the clever things which are necessary for a man to make money, and lots of it. I drove to New York in '97, and in three years had an office on Wall Street. Never looked back." Abruptly, he turned his eyes full on me, instead of a little to the right and away, and said, "you're a good kid. I bet you're a smart one, aren't you?"
I beamed with pride. "Poppa says so, he says I'll make a good farmer, one day, and I'll drive the truck, too. I think I'd like to drive the truck, sir."
He laughed. "Yes, I'm sure you will." He sighed. "You will," he repeated, and looked suddenly very sad. I asked him, tentatively, what was the matter, and even as I said it wished I could have said it in a deep, manly voice like his, instead of my boyish high pitch. For how could I be of any comfort at all, without a voice like that to inspire confidence and charm?
But he didn't seem to mind. He looked out the window, at his Jaguar, and addressing that party, said: "I always meant to go back, you know. One day. I didn't hate them, not really, I just... I couldn't. They wouldn't have understood. It's been a fun life - a good life - and I just wish that... well. I just wish they could've been with me. And now it's a little too late." He rose from his chair, and checked his watch. A grimace darkened the handsome features. "I have to go," he said, and the face now held a false cheer that I did not understand, but saddened me all the same. "I'll miss the service if I hang around any longer. I've let them down all this time, I can't miss this, too. It wouldn't be right."
When he was halfway to the door, Gerald finally emerged, balancing in his trembling old hands a massive root beer float in an hourglass flute. His eyes held a question.
The man nodded towards a wad of bills on the table, far more than the value of the drink, and gave one last, charming smile. "Give it to the boy," he said. "I'm already much refreshed, and really should be going." And with that, the bell jangled once more in fond farewell, and he hopped in the Jaguar, and was gone. The dust plumed up, then down, then was still.
We looked after him, the both of us, and Gerald just pocketed the bills and pushed me the drink, though we both knew I'd never be able to go even halfway into it. "Queer man, that," he said, already wiping down my finished glass with a clean rag, and stacking it on a rack of dishes to be washed later. "What's he about, then?"
I shook my head. "Dunno, Gerald." We sat for a while longer, and something occurred to me. "What's a service, Gerald?"
He raised his single eyebrow. "Service, eh? Well," he rubbed the stubble on his lower lip with a thoughtful look. "Lots of things, I should say. When I got back from the War, they told me, they did, 'thank you for your service.' Suppose that's what you meant?"
"No, Gerald. I don't think so." I fingered the straw in my pudgy fingers, and set it down with a regretful gesture. He took away the flute, understanding, and when he came back he placed his hands on his hips and looked out again at the window, as if his old gray eye could still see the man speeding away, miles and miles down the bumpy gray interstate line.
"Queer man," he said again. "Odd as the day."
And I nodded, not understanding, thinking of New York and Service and bright red ties, and mumbled in agreement: "Odder than the day."