Short-Short Fiction by Trina Burton Howard (c) 2013
He walked past the junkyard every day on the way school, peering through the fence cracks. He had chosen his favorite cars; which one would transport him out of their current circumstances? Over the years, some of the cars had melted into the rusty landscape, others were shinier and looked like, with some attention, they could possibly roll again.
He lived with his single mother. With mother having been only age fifteen when he was born, they grew up together, stuck in the little podunk Kentucky town, east of Lexington. Their hometown consisted of a few side streets, two main drags, and one stoplight. The place offered even less employment opportunities. They lived in an apartment above the Sudz & Dudz: A Beer+ Pool Hall/Coin Laundry, where his mother worked. At night, he would lie in bed and listen to the cracking of pool balls and smell the mixed aroma of soap and second-hand smoke. He would hear an occasional truck gearing down, complying with the reduced speed limit of their little wide spot in the road… and he would think about one or another of the junkyard cars he had claimed for himself, in his imagination-and he would drive toward the horizon, on his way to sleep.
He loved looking at those cars, since they were the most interesting things in his limited world. He shared that with his mother. And, at some point in his early life, his mom presented him with a revelation that changed his entire view of his world, and the junkyard cars. His mother told him that his absent father’s car was in there, in the junkyard, all covered up. So, from then on, he looked through fence in earnest, for the covered car… to uncover the now-mystery... of the car, and of the father he had never met.
Eventually, they got a telephone. But, the only time it seemed to ring, the calls were collect from the state penitentiary, from the boy’s father. He had been sent up for a twenty-five year stretch for robbery, before the boy was born. To his knowledge, prior to the phone, dad hadn’t even been a part of their lives. But after the calls started coming, with his frantic questioning and demanding tone, he started to see his mother wear her sorrow on the outside. She wept, “...all he cared to ask about was sending money-and worrying about the Judge”. The boy knew they didn’t have any money, and he sure didn’t know any Judge. But, he grew to hate that Judge all the same, because it was a source of his mother’s grief. As he got older, he grew to learn that the “Judge” was actually that covered up car that resided in junkyard. Dad would inquire, “Is it still there?”, and, “Is it still covered up good?”, and, mostly he concluded calls with the reminder: “Don’t tell a soul about the Judge.” Oh, yes, for that he hated the Judge even more; along with the feelings of emotional neglect, and even cruelty he and his struggling mother suffered from him, long distance, during his entire youth.
Over time he became aware of the monetary value the car held, and the circumstance in which Dad had obtained it. The beautiful black convertible was a very limited edition of the 1969 Pontiac GTO. Nicknamed “Goats”, these particular GTOs were configured as a four-speed, with a Hurst shifter and the patented “Ram Air III”. It was said to be one of only five built in that configuration, making it extremely rare-and even rarer because it was one of only two finished in black. The 366-horsepower Ram Air III V-8 had a huge stand-alone rear spoiler and 14×6-inch Rally II wheels. Multicolored side stripes and whimsical “The Judge” decals rounded out the package. These “special” cars originally sold for just over $5,000, but eleven years later, his Judge’s black twin sold for a record $1 million at auction. That is what made his father so frantic.
His father had initially learned of the special car during a poker game, from an occasional horse-walker who worked on a farm near Lexington. The car was purchased by the farm’s owner, for his son, who was away at college. Delivered by tractor/trailer, the trailer was parked behind a barn, and sat, sight-unseen for weeks. So, Dad devised a caper, arranged for a truck, and stole the parked trailer. The crime wasn’t even reported until months later, because no one missed the yet-to-be revealed vehicle, with its absentee owner.
His father visited the little junkyard shortly thereafter. The junkyard owner was an elderly uncle that had sold him his first car a few years previous. He walked in, found uncle in the dark, greasy office, sitting by a wood-burner, soaking his foot in kerosene. He didn’t even bother to get up. Dad asked if he could store a car back in the lot for some pocket change- he would cover it up and come back for it later. The old man agreed. So, amazingly, he got away with that crime. It was forgotten by the authorities and the junkyard owner. It was only a few short weeks that the father was implicated and later convicted on a series of other unrelated theft crimes that landed him in prison.
In time, the junkyard owner died, and the town managers became sick of the eyesore property; wanting to rezone it. But our young protagonist had grown up, and he remembered his father’s tale of the old fella being kin-an uncle. He offered to make something of the business once more, after proving evidence he was a blood-relative of the previous owner- and was the only person who even took the slightest interest in improving the status of the property- so it was deeded to him by Quitclaim. Now, the place that held the dreams of his youth belonged to him. He went on to grow the lot into a successful salvage business. And, his life’s hobby became the project of restoring the Judge. Despite being covered up, the years had taken their toll. The motor was sound, but all belts, hoses and fluids obviously needed replacement. The tires, paint, chrome and interior had all succumbed to the elements. He painstakingly restored every stitch of upholstery, re-painted and re-chromed the Judge, to a shiny perfection. The hated “Judge” was transformed.
When the inevitable final call came from dear old dad, all he cared about was getting picked up, since his release date was soon approaching. He pleaded with the mother to come for him- to pick him up after his release from prison; to pick up the pieces of their life together. Over the years she had borne all things alone, had her dreams dashed- working hard to just survive, with a young boy to bring up alone. So now, when he tried to manipulate her, she relished the chance to refuse him soundly. But she told him she might try to arrange it with their son.
On the day of the father’s release, the son drove up to the gates of the prison in the Judge. There they sat, the son and the Judge, in absolute readiness, to return the favor, of anguish. After years of misplaced affections, reciprocity was immediately recognized when the father walked through the gates and beheld the car. The perfectly restored 1969 Pontiac GTO convertible was now pink. Pink! Even the undercarriage was pink! The incredible leather interior, with piping and vented leather insets… all pink! The car was shameful to behold and the value completely compromised. Meeting his only son for the first time wasn’t even in his thoughts. Years of anticipation upon the reunion of dad and the car were served up as cold comfort, to the selfish man that had but a brief encounter with his mother, to conceive him. Screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth was all that could be heard as the son got into a cab and drove away. And, that was how the son judged his father. That was how the son got the father’s “Goat”.
By Trina Burton Howard (c) 2013
I stumbled into the kitchen, out of breath, trying to brush the dirt off that was ground into my knees, elbows and butt. I was five years old. I wanted to cry, but I also knew it wouldn't do any good, and would be tantamount to admitting that the boy next door got the best of me.
My father asked me, "What in the world have you been up to? You Okay?" I jumped up into the stool, folded my arms on the counter, and buried my head. Again, "What's up, Punkie?" I was Punkie to Daddy. Having been a Boxer, he gave everybody names, like: Champ or Possum or Big'un. So,with my given nickname, and only being a five year old girl, I wasn't exactly imbued with confidence.
We hadn't lived in our newly built house very long, and still had an open ditch running from the house to the curb, where the water line ran. I was still an only child and used to making up my own fun. I had made a game of jumping across the ditch, like it was a bottomless chasm in the jungles of South America, or a crevasse on some ice-covered mountain climb. I was a conqueror of my elements, master of the quest! Then, along came… Tony.
Tony, the boy next door, showed up, asking what I was doing, and why… then, criticized me for being stupid and foolish. I pretty much tuned him out, until he PUSHED ME IN! I was furious and hurt, and embarrassed all at once.
I told my father what happened, and managed not to cry. He smiled, excited to share his immediate solution to the problem.
He raised his arm, with bent elbow, made a fist. Then, he swung it back and forth, like a pendulum…back and forth, and said, “Can you do this?” Of course, I could. So, as we sat there, swinging our arms, he pointed to the middle of his chest, just above his belly, and under his rib cage, and said, “Good! Now, land your fist right here, hard!“ So, I swung, back, forth, back, forth again… then POW! Daddy coughed, and laughed, and said, “Good girl! Now, the next time Tony or any other bully tries to push you around, use this move! ” Okay. Now, I was armed...
The next day, Tony was out once again, playing self-appointed "Guardian of the ditch". He never saw it comin’…
I sent him home crying. Poor Tony. He never did like me.
Did Daddy create a bully? I know he didn't mean to... And, I would hate to think I was. I was an introvert. But, my then 'soon-to-arrive' baby brother now argues that point. So sorry, dear Tony... and very sorry, little bro...
Trina Burton Howard (c) 2013
Sally liked the character of the place-with its rustic, unpolished and less predictable charm; and it was the only place around that still had a hitching post. Plus, she derived some kind of sick pleasure from watching the occasional bar fight erupt. Sometimes real action played out here, at the aptly named Wild Mountain Saloon.
Fights were fun to watch sometimes, but tonight's skirmish was different. Not fueled by the standard culprit: excessive alcohol consumption. No, those strangers were seriously armed and dangerous. The events of tonight could have easily escalated into a deadly situation... Plus, it was far from being resolved.
Wrapping up the night, the two proprietors were dragging two hog-tied/duck-taped GI Joes towards the coat room, where Sally was rummaging, trying to locate her shearling coat... taking her queue that it was time to scoot. As Sally bundled up, one foot out the door, Meribeth gave a yell, as the two women pulled their captives into the coat closet, "Whew! There you go, creeps! ... Hey, Sal! Is your trailer all locked up?” “Yup, you already know… l'll be by tomorrow or Monday for it... and thanks again... good luck with... that mess you've got there ... good night.” "No prob, take 'er easy..."
Outside, the night air was cold and crisp, the slight breeze carried a flurry of flakes and a scent of pine. In the half-moon and lone corner streetlamp, she saw that what had been a dusting of snow was now building up, and there was a pristine white blanket on everything. Looking up, Sally swooned with a sense of vertigo, from the star-filled blackness and swirling snow. Dizzy from the encompassing sensation, she reached for the reigns, pulled, and slipped them from the rail.. The horse cooperated, and stood still while she took her mount and situated herself in the saddle. Slew knew the way home, so she let him do the driving… Many winter weekends, Sally would just leave her Jeep and trailer parked in the back of the saloon - and ride her horse back up the mountain. That gave them some quality horse/rider time, and insured her getting home no matter how deep the snow. Tonight she noticed there was one other remaining vehicle, besides Meribeth and Polly's Mazda truck, an SUV was parked near her rig. Hmm. Must be those soldiers' ride. With a nudge, Slew moved up First Street till they ran out of pavement, then continued up the steep, snow-covered dirt road toward home. The three mile trek meant nearly an hour-long ride. Slew was a 9 year old bay gelding she had rescued a couple of years earlier - named after her favorite horse of all time, Slew the Triple Crown winner. He was surefooted and sharp as a tack. The snow was coming down harder now, and the path was all but invisible; but road conditions were of no concern to them.
Sally breathed in the sobering night, and got lost in her thoughts. The news she had been pursuing had hit a brick wall at COB Friday, when the weekend started and no one was left to take her calls. The story was regarding a Denver-based exec for some government-contracted firm having a meltdown, taking down several other colleagues with him - or some such scenario. But, nobody was talking... so, she was going to have to get strategic, to get the bottom of it. That was a specialty of hers though; sniffing out and following leads that other reporters didn't bother with.
Then her thoughts shifted to the deepening snow, and figured she would spend her Sunday at home, and enjoy a snow day on the mountain. She'd just ride the snowmobile down, early on Monday morning... and jump back into the story, and meet deadline for Tuesday's edition...
Then, her thoughts returned to the events from earlier at the saloon as Slew slowed, then stopped. They were near the crest of the hill, close to a group of rental cabins that were set back, off the road. There was a light in one, casting a warm glow on the otherwise blue-moonlit snowscape. Occupancy to these cabins in dead of winter was very unusual... due to harsh conditions. They were not heated, plus, weather was unpredictable on the mountain, and the road could become impassable for most standard vehicles after just an afternoon of snow. The cabin on the far end was where the light was coming from. That unit did have a chimney, but she could neither see nor smell smoke. The only public service that came this far up the canyon was electricity, and water had to be hauled. Any tank-water would be rock-solid ice tonight. Breaking the silence, the faint sound of the saxophone refrain from Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” could be heard... it had to be a recording, because no radio station that played Seger even 'came in' up here. And, it had to be really cranked up, to be audible from this distance. There was a car, backed in, around the far side of that last cabin. Sally clicked and gently rocked forward, Slew obeyed, and slowly advanced so she could get a better view. Through the snow pile, she could make out what looked like an older, American car. There was a funny back window, looked like it might have a landau roof. There was some visible chrome and round headlights… it looked like it might be an old Chrysler Cordoba-which was an odd vehicle to see around here, for sure. With the customary Volvos, Subarus, Jeeps, and other four-wheel drive vehicles, this ride looked seriously out of place here.
She clicked again and they resumed their trek.
Maybe the cabin is where the two pool-shooting soldiers were staying... Strangers to the bar usually cleared out early because there aren't many over-night options, in Nederland. And, those guys didn't seem to be in a hurry to go far, playing pool till past 2am. Rewinding her thoughts, she recalled one had a broad build, was cocky, had reddish hair-looked like he could be of Irish descent. The other guy looked East-European. Slimmer, darker- his movements, more svelte. Both gave off a serious “Don’t mess” vibe. She didn't recognize their faces but had seen the type before. Unapproachable, bad-ass attitudes, combined with the wardrobe of camo, boots, and side arms... plus, they wore the look of very serious business. She speculated they could only be Mercs: Mercenaries. In years past, the mountains west of Boulder were replete with guns for hire, trained or untrained. Paramilitary or wannabes, they all seemed to gravitate here, like a Mecca, finding this wilderness place more conducive to the lifestyle of a soldier of fortune. But, times had changed, and they were now as out of place as that Cordoba... so, what were they doing here? Was that their cabin? And, knowing they were now restrained, lying in the coat room of the saloon, what was next?