“So, it was a drug deal gone bad?”
“Seems so. I never knew Gary was into any of that. I mean, I had no clue. All we ever did was shoot hoops after school, hang out with girls, work…there was never any of that other stuff, you know?”
“I understand, Abel. Believe me I do. I saw things like that all the time when I counseled youth in some ramshackle after school youth program in Carolina that the government set up thinking it would help. Bull. All it did was give the kids a chance to swap stories and compare notes. Did we do some good? Being honest, I suppose so. I know after I graduated from Bowling Green it paid the bills for a few months while I figured out what I was going to do next. More coffee?”
“Yeah, Charles. I guess.” Charles “Chuckie” Dantley reached beneath the counter for a fresh cup and saucer, poured another decaf and slid it in front of Abel, artfully dodging the platter of still steaming biscuits and gravy that had barely been touched.
“After I left that counseling gig, I made my way to Louisville and started work at this diner. Bussed tables, cleaned vomit out of bathrooms, worked my way up to line cook and eventually bought Mr. Smith out when he decided he’d had enough. It’s been a long haul, you know?”
Abel sighed. “I bet it has. Remember that day that I first walked in here? I literally had seventy-five cents to my name. A Mustang on its last legs. Bald tires. Gas tank empty. This was as far as that road out of Lakewood would take me. After Gary died, I snapped. Oh, I held it together for a bit, for appearances sake mostly. But I had enough. I began to hear songs in my head of the road, and of other things I’d yet to see but called to me just the same. I had to go look for something normal, I guess. Growing up, Dad was constantly losing jobs and we were always moving it seemed. And then finding Gary…” Abel’s voice trailed off. “I started working double shifts at the grocery store – Dad didn’t like it – and my studies suffered but I was going to save that money for the Mustang as fast as possible. Mowed lawns, shoveled snow. I did it all. Once I got the money, I was gone.”
“And you barely said goodbye to your parents if I recall the story right?” Chuckie had probably heard this tale twenty times but still couldn’t remember it all.
“I left a note on the kitchen table. I’m sure I broke Mom and Dad’s heart, but mine was broken too. I just had to go. Get away and find something else.”
“And you ended up here.”
“Well, eventually. I just drove, basically. When I ran out of money I stopped and worked odd jobs until I could get going again. Slept in the car. Got rousted more than a few times. Never had a map. Just headed where it looked like I could go. Every time I came near this way I’d stop. And here I am again.” Abel suddenly looked a lot older than twenty-five. He had been on the road for the better part of nine years, and it had taken a deep toll.
Chuckie had stepped away for a bit to help one of his waitresses with a customer who was bitching about cold coffee or some such, and Abel found himself talking to empty space. When he realized that no one was around, he closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Life on the road was finally beginning to lose its appeal. He had found out a couple years ago second hand that his parents had both passed away two months apart from each other; he had never bothered to go visit their graves. That part of his life was closed and he was tired of running. So here he sat with his aching head, empty coffee cup, half-eaten food and no one to talk to.
“Sorry. There’s always something wrong when you have your own biz. Know what I’m saying?” Chuckie grabbed Abel’s plate and cup and deftly balanced them as he took them to the back; he equally balanced a fresh pot of coffee and a huge piece of peach pie on return and placed them in front of Abel.
“Here. You look like you could use this. Freshly made, and…”
Abel cut him short. “Thanks. I need a friend right now. Say, you think I could get on here with you for a while? I’ll bus tables. Clean. Anything.”
“Of course. I’ve been looking to get rid of this punk kid I’ve got working for me in the evenings. He barely shows up, back talks me. I’m old school, you know? When can you start?” Chuckie threw this in as a friendly needle to his desperate friend.
“Yesterday. That’s when I can start, you lousy SOB. And Chuckie?”
“Anytime. Start tomorrow?” The cafe was about to close and it looked to Chuckie like Abel could use some sleep.
“I’ll be here.” Got nowhere else to go Chuckie, he thought. Abel glanced outside at the forlorn Mustang; the thought of sleeping one more night inside of it turned his stomach. Fortunately, Chuckie sensed this and offered before Abel could ask.
“I’ve got a cot in back if you’d like. It’s not much, and I’d ask you over to the house but my wife..well, she’s kind of funny, you know?”
“I understand,” said Abel. “Just someplace flat and warm and soft. I’m good with whatever.”
“Great. Go get your stuff.” Chuckie said gently.
Abel walked out to the car and from the trunk grabbed a worn duffel bag which contained all his worldly possessions. Standing for a bit in the gathering night, he stopped and looked around. It was the middle of nowhere, but places like this were where Abel always felt most comfortable. It was all he had really ever known. Walking inside and locking the cafe door behind him, he was alone with his thoughts and, as usual, had the darkness to keep him company.