My mother-in-law, Amanda, kicked the bucket and my father-in-law, Bill, started going to estate sales. He drives a boxy, red Ford truck with a handmade, wood-and-welded-iron bed extending from the cab. He spent two months of his retirement building this truck bed, and it's a sturdy, monstrous-looking thing. On the highway, he cruises steadily at forty-five miles per hour, and I often pass him in the morning when he is on his way to a sale somewhere in Illinois and I am on my way to the university where I teach. On clear, fogless mornings, I know it's his truck from about a mile back.
Bill used to be a mechanical engineer, but since his retirement, he's doing his best to look like a hillbilly—growing his hair and his beard long and brown and scraggly. When I notice his truck's handmade bed up ahead of me on the road, I sometimes get a glimpse of his brown beard blowing out the open window of his driver's side door. He looks like something from another era, but he's a whiz with email, and he carries a cell phone.
Sometimes, when I'm behind him on the road, I'll call him on his cell phone, to find out where he's headed. He tells me the name of the town, what the sale is featuring: a hay baler, thirteen years of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, tools. He usually sounds pretty excited, pretty with it for a widower. He'll ask me about Claire, my wife and his daughter, and about what I plan on teaching that day. For a wannabe hillbilly, he's respectful of the liberal arts. At some point, I'll pass him, beeping the cruddy horn of my Prius as I pull up alongside him. I'll show him the palm of my right hand, in a little wave, and he'll give me a two-finger deal, a kind of sideways peace sign. I'll tell him good luck at the sale, and we'll hang up.
This morning, I see the enormous bed of Bill's truck ahead of me on the road and a ribbon of his beard streaming out his open window. I whip out my cell and call him, and the phone rings four or five times before he picks up. "Gabriel," he says. He never calls me by my full name. It's usually "Gabe," sometimes just "G."
"William," I say back.
Bill sighs into the phone, and something inside me makes my foot tap the break a couple times to slow down the car.
I wait for him to say something, to ask me about Claire, or what story I am going to teach that day, and when he doesn't speak, I get nervous and break the silence. "On your way to a sale?" I ask.
"No," he says. "I'm out in the woodshop. Stripping an old school desk."
I can hear the wind blowing through his window, the same NPR station I'm listening to playing behind his voice. I wonder if he can't see me yet in his rearview mirror, and I slow my Prius down even more.
I could call him on the lie, try to make a joke out of it. "Really, William," I could say. "So that isn't your Ford I see half a mile ahead of me? That's somebody else's beard I see fluttering out the driver's side window?"
Bill's hairy cheeks would flush pink up there in his cab, he would chuckle a little. "Well, actually," he would say. And then we would reconcile the thing, just like that.
Instead, I sit here listening to the wind coming through his window, to the radio. I think about how since Amanda passed, Bill's spent hours wandering through dead people's houses, looking at their paintings hanging on the walls, and their televisions, and salad spinners, all of it for sale. I think about all the times he's loaded the monstrous back end of that truck with other people's stuff and how, once he gets home, he piles it all up in his garage, and woodshop, and living room. Lately, when Claire and I go to visit him, it's like walking through a junk shop, just trying to get to the bathroom or the refrigerator. It's something I could probably make fun of him for, or at least offer to help him get organized, but I keep quiet. Maybe someday I'll wake to find Claire not breathing in bed beside me, and things'll change.
For now, I reach up and turn the volume of my radio down all the way, and I hear Bill's voice. "Gabe?" he says. "Gabe. You there?"
I wonder how long he's been saying my name, how long I've been imagining myself inside his house.
Up ahead, I see his brake lights flash two times, and I worry I'm caught. I tap my own brakes again. I'm doing about twenty-eight. I've never seen the highway at this speed, and it's no more majestic: row after row of corn and soybeans; a few pine windbreaks between the homesteads.
"Yeah, Bill," I say. "I'm here."
"So you on your way to school?" he asks.
"I'm just getting ready to leave the house," I say, and for a second I am back in my own house, kissing Claire on the cheek, gathering my briefcase and cup of coffee, my keys. I get a feeling inside me I've never actually had when leaving the house in the morning. Even the soybean fields look a little different, greener. "Good luck with that desk," I tell him.
"Oh, it's being a bear," he says. "Some clucks painted the thing white."
"Some clucks," I repeat, and we tell one another goodbye and hang up.
Without the radio going, I can hear the zipping sound of the tires on the road. I see Bill's brake lights flash again, and I tap mine just the same. I set the cruise control at twenty-five, let him widen the gap between us.
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