“Like another refill?” the pretty waitress offered, leaning over to pour before waiting for an answer. She was young, but had been waiting tables for two years and knew a customer like this guy would sit here drinking refills till the next meal time rolled around, if management would allow it.
Albert nodded his shaggy head and smiled up into her blue eyes and midwestern friendliness.
“What’s your name, honey?” he bantered. His first waitress had gone home about an hour after serving him his coffee and gravy and biscuit special. Her name had been Lorraine and he had regaled her with a long, funny story about an old flame of his with the same name. He hoped to do the same with this little flower before the manager, who was starting to pace by on a regular basis, threw him out.
“Betty,” she answered, grinning. Lorraine had told him of his story and she had a feeling he was about to launch a similar tale for her – so she scooted over to the next table before he could start.
Albert sighed, looking around at the Route 66 diner here in Baxter Springs, Kansas – population just under 4,000. He would normally not have been in southeastern Kansas in August, due to the nasty heat and humidity they enjoyed here. But COVID19 had changed this, too, in Albert’s life. In August of 2019, he had been in northern California enjoying the beauty and bounty of that region before the pandemic fell.
The diner was typical of the sort that was found in the Midwest of the United States since cars started replacing horses. Formica table tops, chrome chairs with vinyl seats in various states of repair and color. These were lima bean green with little tears in most of the booths, but the chairs in a bit better shape. The patrons were well padded, slurping down coffee, pancakes, eggs, bacon, gravy and biscuits, grits and all manner of potatoes. If they were not overweight – they were like string beans, with the leathery, tanned skin and wrinkled faces of farmers and farmer’s wives - who worked from sunup to sundown – and enjoyed the diner Special every Saturday morning.
Outside the doors, people scooted along Military Avenue (their version of Main Street) on bikes, motorcycles, cars and lots of trucks. Both big rigs - still pulling along on a weekend morning, trying to get back home for some laundry and rest – and every size pickup you could imagine. There were cowboy hats of every style, worn low on the brow – keeping the sizzling August sun off their faces. There were women clutching purses and kids, running into the new Family Dollar or the Marvin’s Grocery or one of the three pharmacies this tiny town boasted. They were hurrying to get chores done in time to maybe run up to nearby Pittsburg and enjoy something he had seen advertised on a phone pole flyer called “Little Balkans Day”. Whatever that meant.
And though there was some new variation of COVID 19 now knocking people down and sending even little kids to the hospital, the use of masks in public was slim since he had entered Missouri four days ago, coming west and south from New York City. That crazy raggedy place where he had been born, and visited every Fourth of July to see what was left of his kin. A middle-aged niece, Mary, and her three kids…her dad, his uncle Jim….and his own son, Mark. Albert winced as Marks name passed from his thoughts and out through his lips, in a whispered word, almost like a prayer. The hurt and loss rose up in his heart and lungs – pushing the biscuits and gravy around in a displeasing way.
He slurped his coffee and shook the thoughts away, gazing around the diner, people watching as he had done these forty years of wandering from coast to coast. People watching was much more interesting without the masks. Sometimes – the people watched back. He would see questions in their eyes. Questions like, do you have a home somewhere? Where are you going? Why are you going? How do you get money to keep going? Are you dangerous – you look kind of dangerous?
When Albert saw that kind of a question sitting in some young mom’s eyes as she walked past him – he would duck into the first public bathroom he could find and try to neaten up. The truth was, traveling by foot or hitching a ride, was not conducive to a neat appearance. And funding his travels after the first three hard years on the road, had become unbelievably easy. He just took out his guitar and left the case open while he played songs that were popular in that area and planted himself in the busiest open place he could find until he had enough for a meal, or a drink, sometimes a room and luxurious bathing. Mostly, though, camping with a bedroll under his small pup tent – a recent gift from Mark, now forty-four years old himself. Mark had been working as a plant supervisor for Dupont in New Jersey now for about a decade. He had a 2-year-old son, Donny – but his wife had taken Donny and left for another man a few months ago, so Albert did not get to see the toddler this time through.
He stood up – leaving a 20% tip as he always did – for waiters and waitresses were his only real friends on the road. He ambled back to the men’s room, relieving himself and taking a sniff as he changed into clean underwear and shirt – the jeans could do another day. He would need to find a laundry tomorrow. He decided a quick sink bath would suffice until the laundry – he would have to find a place with a shower wherever he stopped, too.
Mark had plead with him to stay – stop moving – really be his dad, let him help Albert find a place and file for social security and rest. Finally rest. Mark understood that this journey had not started off with the idea it would last a lifetime. He had been two, when his mother had been tragically beaten, raped and murdered not three blocks from their little brownstone in Brooklyn. Albert had lost his mind, then his job. He had been a guitarist for a popular, local band and doing very well considering the economy situation in the late 70’s, early 80’s. After the murder, he spent his days looking for her slayers. No one was ever formally arrested for lack of evidence. Whoever they were could not be traced through the semen, at that time.
One morning, he had taken Mark over to the uncle’s house and dropped him off so he could look for work. He went back to their apartment, packed a knapsack, took a sleeping bag and a knife and his guitar – drained his account of what money was left – and began driving west. The little Ford Pinto had lasted 2 years of constant, unrelenting driving before he became a walker. He called or wrote Jim (and later took up calling for Mark himself) every week. At first. Jim tried to understand, but after years of begging Albert to come home – he gave up and raised Mark like he was his own. And managed to end up with a great nephew/son, who was kind and funny and smart and rare…a family man in a chaotic world.
Too bad Mark had married a party girl. It was she who left with their son at 2 years of age – again a 2-year-old Fenton male fatherless. Fenton being Albert’s last name.
Would these memories never stop? Albert wondered as he finished up his ablutions and paid his bill and arranged the back pack, tent and guitar in straps across his back. Stretching as he pushed open the diner door, he turned right on the sidewalk. He had checked his google map (Mark had also given him a cell phone that he kept paid up so dad was easier to contact) and decided to work a ride down to Miami – and then across Oklahoma and up into Colorado. Truckers were not as apt to offer rides since COVID – so he did not think of finding a truck stop, but decided to just hitchhike as he walked himself down Military and out of Baxter Springs.
The years had been long and interesting for Albert. Though he loved his son, something had broken forever in him when Gwen had been so foully murdered. He had eventually found peace with it out on the road – peace with his idea of God intact. Peace with the police who had stopped looking for the guilty parties decades ago. Peace with his boy and his kin, peace with himself.
But the one time he had stayed on in Brooklyn on his yearly visit with Mark, the one time he had tried to apply for some jobs and think about taking the boy back into his world, the peace had shattered like fine china against stone floor. He could almost hear the crackling pop of it in his soul. He had apologized to eight-year-old Mark, to Jim – then fled back down the highway from which he had appeared. He never tried it again. The road owned him. And these United States pounded in his heart, just like the pump pump pumping of his blood. Each and every state had stories for him. He wrote songs about them, would sing them in the little squares, at fairs, in shopping malls – then disappear before anyone could ask him to do that at their supper club or bar, for he had a rare and marvelous gift for song and playing that guitar.
He had worn out many guitars on the road. All classical – Washburn’s, Cordoba’s, a Fender, Hohner’s – you name it. And how many thousands of strings had he bartered for at music stores across the nation? Sometimes paying with a story, a song, tuning guitars for them – sweeping up – whatever he could so that he could pack up another set of strings, as well as the one that had broke and sent him in their direction in the first place. Music store employees were a people group all on their own. They were wonderful. Many of those stops had resulted in meals, staying at homes for a few days – odd friendships of the road, along with wait staff, truckers and pastoral staff of every denomination.
Churches were wonderful to feed him, clothe him, bathe him, nurture him. Once, when he had a kidney infection in Cincinnati, a Baptist preacher and his wife had sheltered him in their own home for almost three weeks, until the antibiotic had finally kicked in. And they paid his medical bills. He stayed another week, doing handyman stuff to repay their kindness. But one night he snuck out and hit the road again. He had been daydreaming that he could stay there indefinitely…become one of them, get a job…send for Mark. And, WHAM – the jolt to his gut sent him packing.
There were no rides as this hot August morning became afternoon, then evening. The breeze that began rising up had a coolish tinge to it – and he could smell the rain coming. O brother. It would be a gully-washer, no doubt. He would have to find both shelter and higher ground – as this area was noted for flash floods. He finally found an overpass that had solid concrete beams at the top of the slope underneath – where he smoothed the gravel, covered it with some torn up tall grass and had just popped up his little pup tent, when the sky unzipped and a million gallons of water arced towards him. It rained and the wind howled all around him for an hour or more before it began to drizzle off and the cooler night air caused him to doze off on his bedroll, after only a snack of graham crackers with peanut butter. He had let rainwater refill his thermos…and then he was out like a light.
Albert did not hear the warning, as he had not charged his phone at breakfast and the battery was dead. He did not hear the roaring coming down out of an eerie silence about two hours after the rainstorm. He did not smell the electric smell, or see the weird greenish glow around the moon, hiding behind new cloud banks. He was dreaming of his wife, her butter blond hair flaring out around her face as he bent to kiss her – out in the park where they like to picnic when they dated. The wind that whipped his hoodie in the dream, was actually whipping up the flaps on his tent. But he did not sense that, or hear the train barreling down on him – there under the overpass.
The EF-5 stepped on the bridge’s spine – snapping the steel and concrete like so much dried up, old man’s bones. The right side of the bridge collapsed onto the gravel highway and gravel slope – from street to the top of the bridge in a heartbeat. And ton upon ton of manmade infrastructure took Albert out of time.
It was years before Mark found out what happened to him. But down through the byways of America – his voice was missed by soul after soul, people he had passed through the years. Year after year – always veering a bit here and there – but traveling from east to west and back again – zigzagging south then north over and over, decade after decade…he had met some of the same people again and again. And though they did not know who he really was, or that he was now a part of history – sometimes they remembered the beautiful smile, that golden voice telling them something dreamy or funny about their town - the hazel eyes that gazed into yours with caring and, what? Hope? - they would wonder when he would drift through their town again.
The firemen who found Albert – or what was left of him that could be accessed and buried – had not found any ID. His guitar was found about a mile down the road – but not associated with the crushed man. It was in perfect condition in its case, with about $52 and a capo. They donated it to the Good Will and that was all of Albert’s possessions bequeathed to anyone in this world. They also took up an offering at the firehouse and at their churches on Sunday – and buried him in the local cemetery after surrounding papers made notice of his death - asking if anyone knew who he could be.
That is how Mark found him in the end. A friend did an internet search for unclaimed bodies when she saw how profoundly Mark grieved the now total loss of his father. Only seeing him once a year had made their relationship special and, if truth be told, Mark had a secret dream that when Albert was really old – in his upper 80’s – he would allow Mark to at last bring him into his home and take care of him until he passed on. She found one of the notices in a little Oklahoma newspaper from six years prior – and after calls, and leads and finally talking to a sheriff, Mark was certain it had been his dad. He flew to the little town, had him dug up and shipped to Brooklyn Heights cemetery.
On the tombstone, paid for by Marks “old age” fund, he wrote this:
Here Lies Albert Fenton
4/4/1956 – 8/17/2021
While Passing Through, He Passed: Under the Overpass
His Song Will Go On – But He Will Be Missed