“By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire,” thought Kurt Lawson as he strummed his harp in an uncomfortable chair beside his grandmother Iris who lay on the cheaply built hospital bed. Not a modicum of sentience coursed through her rapidly dying body. Her own name roused irony as her irises were tinted a milky and discolored gray from their usual beam of intoxicatingly icy blue. Iris had taught Kurt to play the instrument, and he, like any perfectionist, sharpened his skills so that it would be virtually impossible to discern the difference between his self-proclaimed “amateur” tunes to those of a “professional.” Iris patiently waited like a broken item, no longer human in the eyes of the living, to be discarded into the vast terrain of the other side of life, should there even be one. Her raw chapped lips quivered in anticipation for the end of ninety-four-years of life. She eloquently exhaled a final, almost contemplative breath, then the music ceased. The cascading resonant sounds of the finely tuned strings were replaced by the discordant rhythm of a steady beep from the old monitor beside her. Kurt neither shed a tear nor felt sadness. Sympathy and guilt-free relief enveloped him because his beloved grandmother no longer mustered the painful and energy-absorbing walk with her atrophied legs to the stairway of the other side. No longer would she engage in painful tapping on the engrossing door of death with her frail, tired knuckles. Kurt sat solemn for a moment as he waited for staff to arrive so that they could confirm her death and provide him with an empty and passive platitude that even card companies would find subtly distasteful.
This memory remained evocative in the periphery of his mind even though it occurred over a decade ago on an evening just as this—before he knew it, his world had been burnt, just as the leaves outside, without much warning. That day was the first day of his surreal life and his insomniac search for eternity. It was nothing more than a children’s game because he knew there was no reward for reaching those final steps, and the comforting sound of fire-colored leaves doused in autumn’s cooling breath, crunching beneath his worn work boots would be more than he could bargain nature for. It is an idle walk to forget as long as he drew the will to continue forward. He was renewed, reborn, and transformed into a multilayered yet believable shell, emblematic of the human he once was, at least to the naked eye. Feeling trapped at the ripe age of twenty-seven, Kurt found life to be repetitive as the seasons breezed past him, leaving their hellish whiplash that is aging.
When he was able to step into the world, away from his domain where he dwelled in pools of anticipation and ambition, he felt he honored his grandmother in every possible way. He was going to change the world, only he hadn’t an idea of how he would, only that he would. Victories rose and fell with the same vigor and enchantment, and he’d rollercoaster on the curved tracks of motivation and discouragement. But he moved from dusty small towns to other dusty small towns in order to avoid completely falling off the rollercoaster. Now he settled in Rocksford, Texas—a quaint country town where one major street comprises all the traffic and the high school football stadium lit the crisp evenings of every Friday night and the church bells rang abundantly every Sunday—but it was still a town that Kurt felt he didn’t belong. And he felt that perhaps no town could elicit the feeling of the open arms his grandmother used to cradle him with as a child.
“What seems to be the trouble?” the burly mechanic with a pencil-thin mustache asked.
“The brakes don’t always work. I’ve tried putting brake fluid and even replaced the pads, but I’m no expert by any means,” Kurt replied.
“Well, in my twenty-years o’ experience in brakes, well, hell, I’d say ya need a new truck, son,” he chuckled with glimmering self-amusement.
Kurt sighed softly. “Thanks, Jasper.”
“Anytime, Kurt. You’re my favorite customer!” Jasper replied with a hearty smile that revealed a row of tobacco-stained teeth and beet red gums that a dentist would have a field day with.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” Kurt asked as he drew a cigarette from the breast pocket of the coat his grandmother had bought for him the autumn prior to her illness and, ultimately, her death. Now that it was autumn once again, he refused to part with it, even in the bouts of Texas heat that trickled through the grasp of the cool season.
“Aside from the passing stragglers, you’re the only one that comes to visit the shop more than his barber, trying to make this ol’ heap work,” Jasper replied, his eyes wide in innocence and candor.
“Where else would I find the world’s greatest mechanic AND the world’s greatest burnt coffee at an hour like this?” Kurt said, returning faux laughter to the conversation, though humor had long escaped him most of the time.
“Get outta here, ya crazy cook! Need me to call you a cab. It’s on me. Your truck ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’ll take another look at it, but only because it’s you…and I just love mechanics!” The reverberation of giddiness in voice through the silent pinkish flirtation of nightfall exonerated any doubt about loving his job.
“I’ll walk. I could use the exercise,” Kurt replied, exhaling smoke, watching it drift aimlessly through the sky.
“And I could use a nightcap. We all have our crosses, huh?”
“Speaking of, I did happen to bring you a little something,” Kurt smirked as he reached into the open passenger window and pulled out a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch. “For you, my friend. May you never change.”
“W-wow! Kurt…I-I don’t know what to say. Thank you! But why?” Jasper’s face contorted into a wrinkled patch of confusion and gratitude.
Kurt narrowed his steely blue eyes to meet Jasper’s brown luminous ones, then took a long drag of his cigarette before stomping it on the gravel before him. “It’s a going-away present, Jasper.”
“Going? You’ve been here four years or somewhere ‘round there! Once Rocksford has you, it holds your heart forever. Don’t you know that?”
“I’m going to miss you, friend. May you also remember me and the insipidity of my efforts to fix that heap o’ junk,” Kurt laughed, this one more genuine than the last.
“Goddamn ya, Kurt. You were like a goddamn son to me. At least tell me where you’re going to hang your hat next.”
“TBD, buddy. TBD.”
“Wouldn’t be you if you said any other answer. Always the mysterious kinda fella.”
“I’m sure our paths will cross again. I have no doubt. Take care of yourself, and give my best to the missus,” Kurt replied as he extended his hand for a final shake.
Jasper firmly grasped it with his oil-stained, calloused hands, and if Kurt’s eyesight were waning, he would’ve missed the shy beginning of a tear forming in Jasper’s left eye. “This ain’t goodbye. This is a ‘see ya soon’, alright?”
“Of course, Jasper. Of course,” Kurt said with the warmest smile he could conjure. It contrasted with the night that crept in and the vivid colors of leaves sprawled along where the trees hugged the side of the roads.
Kurt patted him on the shoulder and began walking toward the small, rented home he dwelled in, not two miles away. Crickets chirped, wind swooshed at his five o’clock shadow, and the crude howl of the occasional coyote provided a harmonic melody that rang through the sullen night. Images and memories of distorted disparities cascaded through his fragmented mind, now spate with the realities of the darkness he unknowingly yet anxiously swore himself to a decade ago. Had he truly known what floundered in this corner of the world that was full of alienation and faux relationships, he may have never taken stride in the nomadic ritual unbeknownst to most of humanity. The corners of his mouth turned upward in the traces of a smile he didn't have to force. He began to run as though he could outrun the insatiable downpour of his lost happiness—it's been so long, he wondered if he ever once was happy. He clutched onto the whim of a hope that he could continue to function as a wanderlust to new horizons, steep and low, but one that could extinguish the fire that burned rampant in his mind. He would envelop the joy of knowing what it truly means to be free, with a cost so great.