The shattered road of Midah suffocates from the afternoon traffic and the foot passengers sought respite at Jay's Roadside Diner. The food is substandard and the service, unsatisfactory but the diner is packed today. Simone is on her fourth cup of coffee and the last page of the 'Morning Herald'. Even from behind the newspaper, she is aware of the eyes of booth pal. She had nodded him welcome to their shared booth owing to the others being occupied. That might have been a mistake.
"You are Alexander's kid. I knew him from long ago," the man says at last.
"I knew there was a reason for you staring at me for a good three minutes." Simone extends her hand, "Simone Bethley. It is always lovely to meet Dad's friends."
"Xavi Tibbs. I knew Alex from Long Haven. You and I have met too"
"Ah, I remember very little of Long Haven. We had to get out of there like the many other families. Mom was heartbroken but it had to be done. We built a home in Midah and Dad made some good investment. The relief funds helped. Hard times were behind once we left that place."
"I never left. Hoping a miracle that never came." He looks directly into her eyes for the first time.
"Oh, you poor man," she pats his hand sympathetically, "I understand the bond between man and his land, the land of his ancestors—"
"I remember the day we lost everything; I couldn't move –sat on my front door. I remember every breath I took, every syllable of the screeching wind, but I don't recall my heart beating. Why wouldn't it beat?"
Simone pats his hand again; when she looks up, she realizes that he expects an answer.
"It was a painful event, your life was in a turmoil and your heart—I don't know, sir. We didn’t have any control over the events. We were helpless."
"I could have moved away. Katherine wanted that. It was I who hung on…"
"I am sorry. How can I help you?"
"Listen to me. I stopped talking about Long Haven long ago. Never knew it would still hurt after all this time."
"I wish Dad was alive. He would have known what exactly to say. But I am nothing like him. He tried to help the people of Long Haven even after we left. I guess it didn't make a difference."
"You admire him deeply. Every father evokes profound affection in his children. It is nature's law."
"In my case, I must be an eyeless brat to not to prize him. The whole world does. People come to me on streets and diners," she chuckles knowingly, "to tell me how great a man my Dad was. It is comforting and a burden at the same time. I try to be half the person he was…. Oh, I am crying. This is embarrassing." She sniffs into the oiled-stained diner napkins, "He is a difficult man to live up to."
"You can cry over not being like your dad but, fortunately, you look nothing like him."
"Ah, you are pulling the leg of my dead father. A real gentleman you are."
"I don't see him knocking my teeth off or do you do his dirty work?"
"I might have to. Insulting my father's face like that," Simone calls for the waitress," I am having a milkshake. Would you like one?"
"I will accept your treat graciously."
"I will tell you this, during the first year of college, I was tired of being known as Alexander's kid. I wanted to make a name for myself. So, I joined some of the student outfits: environment, youth welfare, and whatnot. I thought I was doing some serious good and guess who was my biggest naysayer, my Dad. He was dead against me rallying my support for those organizations. There were words exchanged in high voices. Very high voices. Names were called. I called him a hypocrite and fraud."
"No way. You did not. Alex, a hypocrite. Pfft… Let me guess, those kids you were running with, turned out to be no good."
"You are right. Drugs, racketeering... I still can't believe it. They were damn convincing and so passionate about the causes."
"Alex-100; Simone-0. People are not what they look like. That was a valuable lesson."
"Look, the only new information that went through my thick skull was that my father had a really wide vocabulary with some choice words. Some of them were really creative. Can you imagine my perfect father using such words?"
"I can. Don't look at me like that. Adults tend to use decent language in front of kids but that is not the norm."
"Kid. Really. So, I did not know my father as well as you. Big deal."
"No, you did not."
"You are a funny man—" the waitress brings in the milkshakes, "May I ask why you said you remember the day everything changed? It was not one day. The earth was hurting us for a long time. I can see the lush green land that nourished us all and I see the unforgiving dirt that long Haven came to be. It was not the fault of a day."
"To most of us, it was one day when we saw the last hope wither…"
"We don't have to talk about it. I am sorry I brought it up. You have seen tough times. I should be grateful that Dad was able to secure us a good future."
"Of the two-hundred families of Long Haven, only one family managed a good future. What are the odds of that?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't mind the words of a bitter old man. He doesn't have anything to lose and nothing prevents him from blabbering."
"I have an answer for you. Luck? Hard work? —"
"And we did not break a sweat. We strolled on that dirt, day and night. Mindless of whether our children ate," he said sharply.
"I did not mean like that. It was rotten luck," her stranger-friend said nothing. Simone does not feel warm and nice in her insides anymore. There is a strange chill coming in. She says, "I have to meet up with some friends. Can we meet some other day?"
"We lost hope the day we were robbed off of the money sanctioned from the government relief funds. Didn't see a shadow of that money," he said regardless of her visible discomfort.
"Where did that money go, Xavi?"
"I have no clue."
"How did you say you knew my father?"
"We were friends back in Long Haven. Never heard a word from him since you guys left. This is a lovely reunion. So much to talk about but nothing is more interesting a topic than the great Alexander,"
"He brought me candy from Long Haven, a thank you gift for his help."
"Tell me, what did you like best in your Dad? Why did you want to be like him?"
"Um… his kind—his—, um… admire his tenacity..."
"That is a good one. He sure was tenacious. I salute his smart mouth and sweet talk. Those were his real assets. A truly wonderful man your father was."
"Was he? You don't sound to me like you liked the man much,"
"Do I sound like that? I sure did not mean to be. Are you having doubts? Good heavens… Shouldn't you know your Dad better than anyone else? Better than some friend long ago from Long Haven. Or were you an eyeless brat?"
"You have complaints about my dead father. Why don't you say so to my face?"
"I will be a dead man soon. Half the folks I knew are dead, the rest have drifted away. I have no quarrels with no man."
"You have been talking between lines from the start," Simone raises her voice. "I am giving you the courtesy of listening to you, like you asked, but I will not let you insult my father anymore."
"Hmm, you will never be your father, no matter how hard you try. You won't even resemble him. He was no man but a blood-sucking flea…"
Simone lashes and the milkshakes drop to the floor.
"Look closely, Simone, for the first time, for all of us: dead or not, see your father," the man said. His voice is dry and determined. He gulps his water, “People in Midah loves him. We want to tell them how much we love him. I need to keep hydrated for all the talking I have to do.”
Xavi stands up, eyes on her and goes out into the street; the diner empties after him. Simone sees dull eyes, accusing eyes, angry eyes, walking past her and joining the sea of people of Midah. Why is her heart not beating?