He was drunk. Holding on to the edge of the bar for balance, David wondered when the concrete floor had turned to ocean—stone waves that everyone else seemed to walk upon like an everyday miracle. He spoke to a woman whose face he could not make out beyond the diffuse reflection of gaseous yellows, effervescent greens, electric blues and foggy reds. A clear bottle with a shark fin on the label sweated off its last beads as it dangled between his thumb and index finger by its neck. As a swell of warm beer crested across his tongue and straight down his throat, he admired her long, layered blond hair. She sat with her shoulders closing him off, subtly warning him that he was sinking. To his right he noticed a billow of muscle, hair gel and cologne growing out of the rest of the effluvia, more aggressive and agitated than the sea it now towered over.
“Hey buddy,” the casual greeting carried a choppy huff of urgency, “what do you think you’re doing?”
“Sss-swimmingly,” he had misunderstood the question.
“What? No, I asked you what you’re doing.”
“Oh, oh right. I’m just talking to this charming young woman.” He let go of the bar rail and gestured with an open hand toward the blond apparition, despite his gradual list away from the surge that continued to steepen.
“She tell you she has a man?”
“I don’t know what she’s told me.” That was true. He tilted his bottle up to his mouth and let the last ripple of beer flow down his gullet.
“Devin, he’s harmless,” the girl said. “Just let it go.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll let it go if this guy stops talking to you.”
“What? Are you worried about it?” It seemed the only way to avoid capsizing was to square-up bow first.
“What did you just say?” A disorienting hot wind blew a gentle mist of spit from the face of the wave.
“I asked what you’re worried about.” He set the empty bottle on the bar and made sure to bend his sea legs.
“I’m gonna kick your fucking a—“
“—Not in the bar guys,” interrupted the bartender, whose voice sounded like the splash of a lifesaver.
“You wait, buddy. Come on Claire.”
The wave and the iridescent apparition receded into the rest of the sea, and David turned to look at his lifeline.
“Can I get one more of these?”
“Why don’t you wait a while?” suggested the wise mariner.
“Can I have some rum?” David smiled. “It’s been a tough day.”
“I’ll get you another Landshark.”
* * *
He played on the old, faded, light-grey carpet with the waxy, moss green building blocks his grandparents kept around for him. On his hands and knees, he built a small, rectangular fort, clumsily interlocking the pieces, without realizing he was quickly running out of materials. His grandfather sat in the recliner in front of the television, glowing green with the rolling hills of Augusta, Georgia, but he watched David intently as he built his fort. The worn corduroy chair looked like an old Russian Blue cat when the footrest was down. On the dark brown side-table sat a small, thin white plate with a subdued, dignified set of vines ornamenting its edge. Three small molasses cookies were casually stacked together in the center of the plate, next to two slender margherite vanilla cookies that looked like the top halves of golden zeppelins. Next to the plate on a glazed maple and cork coaster was a tall glass of milk, so far undisturbed.
David ran out of blocks, and looked to his grandfather, who exposed a slight smile. His grandfather’s eyes looked like withering leaves behind his glasses, but whenever he smiled it was as if an imperceptible breeze of serenity gave them back their youth.
“Want a cookie?” his grandfather asked, patting his lap. David scurried to the feline recliner and used his grandfather’s slippered left foot as a step. Two large hands nudged him up by his armpits, and soon the footrest swept up, allowing David to crawl the rest of the way. His grandfather gave him one of the crumbly vanilla cookies and took one of the syrupy brown circles for himself. They sat and listened to the hushed voices from the TV, as men with shiny metal sticks bumped small white spheres across the grass. David sat upright with his feet dangling over the front edge of the chair, happily taking small bites of his confectionary aircraft. His grandfather began firmly but fondly scratching David’s back between his shoulder blades, fingers just barely separated, in a rhythmic circular motion. The soothing and assuring gesture enveloped David in a serenity of his own, and he didn’t hear the television’s whispers anymore.
* * *
David awoke in an island of light between two old brick and cement buildings, his head resting on a pillow improvised out of a tattered tweed coat. He was laying on a bleached scrap of cardboard, which had turned a light, sandy brown. A few feet away a slightly hunched man in layers of sun-bleached jackets and worn khaki pants sat, calmly looking up and down the street as the rumble of car engines gently washed over the shore of the sidewalk. He turned and noticed David’s open eyes.
“Well, good morning, sleepyhead.” He smiled, and a peaceful breeze swept by, “You had a tough night, didn’t you?”
David rubbed his eyebrows with his thumb and middle finger, pinching the bridge of his nose, then covered half his face with his right hand. From there, he began to sweep back his messy brown hair, but a sudden pain made him grimace and pull back his hand. He inspected the source of the pain with his fingertips, and wondered why his hair was caked with coagulated blood.
“I did my best to clean it up, but I only had one bottle of water.” The man’s weather-beaten face carried a weight of familiarity, and David knew he was telling the truth. “I saw those hoods attack you, but there was nothing I could do. I waited until they left, and I tried to get the glass out.”
“Thank you,” David said. His throat felt like a dried out sand castle.
“I don’t know why those cowards would hit you with a bottle—you were already stumbling down the street, probably would’ve managed to fall and hurt yourself anyway.”
“Well, I sure feel like shit.” David normally didn’t swear in front of strangers, but his discomfort overshadowed his upbringing.
The man frowned and David felt embarrassed. Then he said, “Well, I bet. There were three of them.”
“Yeah…I should’ve asked for a cab,” said David.
“Mm.” The man reached in his pocket. “Want a cookie? You’re probably hungry.”
“Um,” David thought for a moment, “yes, thank you.”
The man pulled out a small package of yellow dirigibles, and handed David a few of them. David sat up and clenched his jaw as his ribs called out in throes.
“Not too quick, your head isn’t the only thing banged up.” He watched as David tenderly bit into the first cookie. “My name is Harry. What’s yours?”
David put his left hand in front of his mouth as he chewed and said, “My name’s David. Pleased to meet you.” He extended his other hand, and Harry extended his as well. The sun was warm, and David was glad he’d washed up on this sidewalk.
* * *
David opened the door to the hallway of his grandparents’ house, and saw his grandfather shuffling his way to the living room. His grandfather noticed him, smiled, and waited for David to walk up to him.
“Hey, I have something for you,” he said, as he reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He looked inside then removed a twenty-dollar bill. “Here, take this. It’s for you.”
David looked at the bill and hesitantly accepted it. “Thank you, Grandpa.”
“You go out and you enjoy that, OK?” said his grandfather as he leaned down a few inches to look David in the eye.
“OK, I will.”
David put the bill in his pocket, and went to find his mother.
“Hey Mom,” he said when he found her, “Grandpa just gave me this, but I’m not sure he knew what he was doing.”
“What’s that? Oh, no, honey, he still remembers you. You seem to be the only one, but he still remembers you.”
“Are you sure? I don’t know.”
“Yes, he gave it to you because he wants you to have it.”
* * *
“So there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it?” David asked, partially out of curiosity, but also to keep Harry talking—he had never seen him say so much before.
“Of course there is. That’s how it is with everything,” Harry said. “It’s not as simple as just asking for money. It’s not right to just look pathetic and ask for money or food. You have to be decent about it too. Give them a service, if you can. But don’t force it on them, you need to offer it, and make sure they know they don’t need to take it.”
“Like when they wash your windshield?”
“Exactly, but it’s not as simple as that.” Harry took a breath as he arranged his thoughts. “If you’re going to wash someone’s window, and you want money for it, they’d better want you to wash it. You don’t see car washers going in people’s driveways, cleaning their cars, then going to the door and demanding their money, do you? Well, you need to keep the same standards. You can offer to clean their windshield for them, but if they say ‘no’ you smile politely and move along. And that’s important—don’t fake the smile. If you fake it they’ll know, and they’ll either feel guilty or they’ll think you’re a jerk.”
“Ok, what about the rose guy on Sixth?”
Harry thought for a second, and said, “Well, that’s the same sort of case, but it’s more delicate there. See, that requires a certain eye. You can’t just give a rose to any guy walking down the street with a girl—you have to consider how awkward you might make the situation. If you give a rose to two people who aren’t courting—”
Harry paused as David chuckled and tried to cover his mouth. “Sorry,” said David.
“What are you laughing about?”
“Just, ‘courting.’ No one says that anymore.”
“Well, I don’t say it much either,” responded Harry. “But that’s not the point. If you give a rose to two people, and one of them doesn’t have any interest in the other, you’re making it incredibly awkward. It’s ok if neither person is interested in the other, because they can just laugh about it and say ‘no.’ But you won’t get anything if you don’t give them to the right people. But that’s what it should be. If you offer a flower to a couple, or two people who would like to be, you’re offering them a service. And you don’t need to ask for money—it’s not about that. If they give you something they should get to feel good for doing something good. And if you don’t get anything, you should feel good for doing something good yourself. And eventually, you’ll find that being happy with being kind leads you to more kindness from others anyway. And that’s what it is. You can’t expect anyone to be kind if you aren’t as well, but you shouldn’t expect it at all, otherwise you’re just playing along. But you should always take the flower if you like the girl, even if it’s awkward.”
* * *
David’s house was empty when he got home from school. He knew it would be. His parents had both flown out as soon as they got the news, and while they were gone his sisters were staying with a friend. His grandfather’s death didn’t surprise him—he had expected it for a while—but it was the first time he had lost a family member, and he wasn’t sure how to feel. Everyone seemed to expect him to mourn, to be sad, to cry, to break down, to be an emotional wreck. But he didn’t. He told himself he should be happy for his grandfather, who hadn’t been himself for years.
The closest he came to crying was at his friend Paul’s house. Paul’s mother was much older than any of his other friend’s parents, only ten or so years younger than his grandparents, and she carried the same sense of tranquility. She knew David’s parents were gone, and why, and invited him to have dinner with them.
“How are you, sweetie?” she asked when he came into the kitchen.
“I’m OK. I don’t know, maybe it hasn’t hit me, but I’m sort of glad for him.”
“That’s a good way to look at it,” she said.
“Yeah, he hadn’t been himself, and he really wasn’t happy at the nursing home.” David looked at the old, discolored, finely tiled floor. “But I don’t know how to feel.”
“Aw, come here,” she said, and she moved toward him with her arms outstretched.
David felt uncomfortable during the embrace. His eyes had the cool sensation that came just before tears, and he sniffled. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want to be selfish, worried about his own loss before his grandfather. He wanted to feel relieved for his grandfather. David hoped that was what he would have wanted.
* * *
He sat in the middle of a large auditorium, nervously bouncing his leg in the cramped space in front of him. He half listened to the professor, and half screamed inside his head. There was a large periodic table on the wall on the right side of the room, and a large map of the Earth on the opposite side. The wall in the front of the class served as a screen for the projector, and now reflected a list of the mammalian Orders and the most notable members of each, but to David they looked like a churning foam of random letters. Behind him, a group of film students discussed in gurgling whispers various film-cutting techniques. Several seats to his left a girl noisily chewed gum and played with her phone. Looking down from the foam, he saw dozens of computer screens, daunting snags of low water. The tapping of fingers on keyboards was deafening, and together with everything else sounded like turbulent rapids, which crashed over him and swept him away. The professor’s voice commingled with the cacophony, and David’s thoughts rushed along with it.
David looked at his watch. He couldn’t see the hands. He jammed his notebooks into his backpack and swam river-left to the walkway. He didn’t hear his professor call to him, instead only the violent, slapping splash of the currents on exposed rocks. He needed to find a way to escape this river, or at least find some shelter in an eddy. Perhaps he would go get drunk.
* * *
David hurried into his apartment as fast as his bruised ribs would allow. He walked straight through the living room, ignoring the white walls and everything they surrounded, from the unclean carpet to the unfinished coffee table, the flat screen television and cable box, the video game consoles and DVD player, the cheap reprinted art and head high shelf full of movies. He opened his door, and strode across puddles of papers directly to his closet, where he found the large olive drab duffel bag from the Army surplus store that had been his only piece of luggage when he came to school. It hadn’t moved since he tossed it in there after unpacking, and it was covered with dust and wrinkles. He jammed a few of each type of clothing he thought he would need into the bag, some socks, some underwear, some t-shirts, some sweatshirts, some pants, some shorts, a raincoat, and a hat. He didn’t fold any of it, or make sure it was clean. On his way out he left a note for his roommate that said, “I’m leaving. Here’s a check for the rest of the rent. You can have my stuff. Don’t call my parents.”
* * *
David sat Indian-style, looking at Harry as he laid on a piece of cardboard, with a rolled up dark blue sweatshirt as a pillow. David thought about how this was a mirror of the way they first met. Since then it felt like his head was finally above water. The color faded from Harry’s face, slowly matching the quiet grey overcast in the sky.
“I think it’s almost time for me to leave,” said Harry.
David said nothing. He looked toward the street as a few cars passed by in the late afternoon.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m just going on a new trip. I don’t know what it is, or where it’s going, but it’s still just a new travel.”
“But I don’t know what I’m going to do,” David finally mustered. “It’s hard out here.”
“You think it’s hard, kid? It’s only hard if you think it is. Go on your own journey, and enjoy it.” Harry’s wilting eyes perked up in the outer corners as he smiled. “There’s a lot to see and a lot to learn, and it’s a lot more enjoyable when you relax and don’t let it overwhelm you. Just do your best and you’ll get what you need.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“I don’t know, but you probably shouldn’t stay out here, it’s going to rain soon.”
“Thanks, Harry, this is real funny.” David couldn’t help but smile at the dark joke.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. You’ll figure it out. But I’m going to doze off here, so it’s time to say bon voyage.”
“I told you I’m just going on a trip. I won’t be back, maybe, but there’s no point in saying goodbye. If we say bon voyage we’ll always have that, and it’s good luck.”
“OK,” David said quietly, as his eyes shifted from cool to hot.
“Bon voyage, David.”
“B-bon voyage, Harry.”
David watched as Harry slept, while trails of evaporating water left salty traces which traveled from the top of his cheeks to the tip of his nose. Harry’s face grew more and more relaxed, until finally his lips separated, and his chest stopped rising and falling. David felt the first few drops of rain on his hands and arms, and looked toward the street. The rain built into a gentle, soothing shower that pulled the heat from the air and his eyes.
* * *
David sat on a rolling hollow hill that was covered in freshly cut grass. Next to him sat a new package of vanilla margherite cookies and a package of small, molasses cookies. He set a few of each on a thin white plate with understated vines around the rim, and opened a container of milk. He sat back against the granite slab with his grandfather’s name etched into it and felt the letters between his shoulder blades. He imagined his grandfather somewhere in a caramel colored zeppelin above a waxy, moss green fort, and enjoyed the rejuvenating breeze as the trees spoke in muted, barely audible rustles.
“Bon voyage,” he said, “bon voyage.”
Copyright 2010 Andrew Whiting
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That has nothing to do with this story.
most awesome story I’ve ever read by you. definitely my favorite. i feel like showing it to my friends and family, and im going to bookmark this blog so i can do just that whenever i want :)
a great gift to society. You’re amazing.
This is extremely well-written and honestly quite touching. It touched me pretty deeply for obvious reasons, but it’d be a fulfilling read to anyone I’d say. Well done, cuz.
I seriously hope LaSalle lets you read this in class. The parallels you set up between the Grandfather in David’s past and Henry from David’s present really get at that child-adult dynamic in life. For me, it really highlighted the idea that the huge developmental stages of our lives are often shaped by the lessons other people teach us.
Really beautiful story and I’m gonna save this blog to read some more of your stuff in the future.
You certainly have a talent with words, my friend.
just one word, kid- goosebumps…
I would leave a good comment, but honestly I have nothing to say except I love this. It’s quite touching in my opinion and it would be amazing to read more of your work. Good job.
Andrew, thank you for posting this. This story did not go the direction I anticipated with the first paragraph; I was pleasantly surprised. This is a short yet fulfilling story. Fantastic work.
Makes me proud! Great writing, more than entertaining, better than most published authors….