Strongland backed off the gas, “Ahh shit.” He saw the man again, no more than a slumping heap of litter.
Solid cuts of shadow peeled away backwards in blocks across the open truck bed crammed with pieces of rusted metal and fire-scorched wood scrap, before in the blink of an eye his truck broke out into a clear and piercing sunlight. The man who had been there in the shadows disappeared back into them like the fluke of a whale cuts back underneath the skin of the ocean into a tear of swarming surface that heals itself in a moment than is gone as gone as a thing that never was; sorta like some folk’s lives, Strongland considered.
He checked the rearview, brushed a steel-toe across the brake pedal, and then wheeled his rig in a two-turn lock back towards the staggered patterns of shadow and light tumbling down from the railway bridge that crossed the road at an angle that wasn't quite parallel to the pavement below but was near enough to it that the span of bridge seemed to stretch on endlessly even though the junction of light and space and the moving and the still objects that shared this place come bound together like the tail end of a dream or a handshake between two men that never spoke before, were somehow similar to the other, then went on their way and never spoke again. These things weren't as clear to Strongland when he tried to cobble them together in his mind as that, but they were plain true as a shadow, even though a shadow is a thing one can never touch; a shadow just is.
Strongland eased the truck back into the shadows. The man reappeared. He sat with his back pressed flat against the juncture of creosote covered trestle, and pumice stone, that covered the dirt underneath the bridge to keep the red dirt from turning into slicks of Georgia mud that will sweep across the southeast with the spring rains that would come soon and come hard from the moisture building up in the Gulf of Mexico five hundred miles south west. Give it two more weeks and this place might as well be in the damn jungle.
Two truck lengths passed the man Strongland eased to a stop. Glancing in the rearview, "You're a dumb-ass ya know?" Strongland nodded at himself in the sliver of chrome, Yep. He got out and walked slowly towards the man, hand hooked into his back pockets by his thumbs, palms out and visible looking to make it clear he wasn’t approaching with any malice. He stopped a shovel’s length from the man and was about to speak; his mind caught itself in a glitch of surprise when the man, still set there on the ground, partially lit by a jagged break of sunlight streaming down between the tracks above; the man looked him over, casually, but Strongland had the feeling the man had taken in every detail of him.
The man asked the very question Strongland had intended, "Can I help you, bud?"
Strongland shifted a half step further back, took off his ball-cap, ran his fingers, coated with flecks of rust grit that come off the metal scrap he had bullied into the bed of his truck just a half hour earlier; shit, even though the spring rains hadn't pushed in yet the daily swell of heat sure had... it had been an early start to what was gonna be a long-ass day. Breakfast was next on the list, fried green tomatoes, a biscuit, bacon, hell, prolly pancakes too if he was honest with himself. Even though he felt the softness of winter had layered on around his belt buckle he still had a hard time when it comes time to order from Laura; she'd usually be a step away from his table, pen tucked above her right ear already when he found himself saying "and a short stack". She'd trail away without missing a beat with an "umhumm" that was as thick and sweet as the syrup that come out of the white bottles with the silver thumb-slide pourer that took their place besides the ketchup and bowl of plastic creamers.
Strongland grinned when he realized the man had repeated the same dang question as he stood there contemplating his lack or pancake resistance. "Well sir, I had stopped to ask you that very question."
The man sitting there patted his chest, reached around his drawn-up legs, folded near to his chest, patted his knees, and looked around like a man that was certain he had set something in one exact spot not a few seconds ago but now couldn't find it for the life of him.
"Sir? Did you lose something?"
The man raised his hands, palms up, clapped them together with a sharp bark that sent a group of mourning doves scuttling in a burst of gray and complaints.
"Guess I lost my sign."
"What sign is that?"
"Well shit kid, the sign that said I need something from people that happen to come this way."
Strongland and the light and the light shifted again, Strongland uncomfortably, intentions derailed like an unhitched train car, the light shifted without intention or perception or the same sense of foolishness that Strongland felt. Dad’ll get a kick out of this when I tell him; a laugh broke from his throat. “Oh, heck sir, I come this way every Saturday, on my way to breakfast at a place up that way” and hooked his thumb in the direction of his U-turn, “and this is the third Saturday I saw you here. I figured I’d offer to buy you breakfast is all.”
The man’s head cocked towards the truck, “What’s the story with that?”
“Scrap. A place burned down mid-week up in Harris County, I sell the scrap, well, some of it anyways… some I keep, just depends on how it looks. That stuff, I am keeping the metal, gonna burn the wood.”
The man nodded. “You haul it up there yourself?”
“Like an idiot, yes I did.”
“Looks a two-man job at least.”
“I thought that myself about half away through.”
That earned a smile from the man. The man’s hands ran across his stomach, and he swallowed hard. “Is it worth breakfast to you if I were to help with the unloading?”
“It’s worth a day’s worth of meals, at the very least, if we don’t break our backs first. Thing is, we eat first.”
The man shut his eyes. A beat. Another beat. The morning doves returned, bickered as they sorted themselves into order. The man’s eyes opened. “Deal.” The man stood. A warm stench of mildew, the same kind that comes from a decaying cardboard box, peeled away from wet concrete, alive with slick grubs and scurrying crickets.
There was only one thing to do; Strongland held out his hand, “Deal.”
The man didn’t carry a thing with him when they walked back to the truck. He brushed his backside off and scrubbed his leather logging boots on the concrete before swiveling into the truck. He wiped his hands on the underside of his waxed canvas barn jacket, gray and faded, with copper metal buttons worn to near gleaming with eons of buttoning and unbuttoning, before he pulled the door shut.
Another U-turn. They drove in silence. Across a set of railroad tracks, passed an old depot, an ice warehouse, a used mattress store, a bail-bond outfit with a parking lot full of a mix of high dollar and big-rimmed SUVs and junkers; hard to tell who a customer was and who was the proprietor just by eyeing the cars. The passed a CHEVRON, a MITCH’S PRIZED WHEELZ, a cluster of package stores, then a block nothing more than ankle high grass intersected by busted and cracked cement sidewalks and the remnants of a playground where no kids dared play.
Self-conscious of it all Strongland muttered, “Sad, ‘it’s seen better days.”
“It’s the same all over.”
“You’ve been all over?”
“All over… and then some, yes.”
Strongland rolled a stop sign, his right hand came off the wheel, pointing to a squat concrete block of a place, painted sage green with a neon ruby red sign above the front door “PALS”. It’s not all that much to look at but the girls are kind, and most of them are pretty enough to make you excuse the food if it was bad, but believe me, a starving man would think he was in heaven eating with the Lord when the start digging into a breakfast special.” He felt like an asshole for saying it as soon as it come out. It earned another smile from the man, and he let it go at that.
A weary looking cop carrying a Styrofoam container on his way out held the door open for them, 7:30, twelve-hour shift in the bed, stuffed with breakfast, on his way home. Strongland figured that’s how he would do it to in their shoes. The man nodded to the cop, it was returned.
“Precinct is just up the way,” Strongland told him.
The man nodded. “Let me wash up.”
Strongland waited by the door, picked a curl of rust out from under his nail. A baby bawled about something. A group of cops came in, got a table. Laura appeared out from the swinging kitchen doors, winked at him, then disappeared around the corner balancing a years- worth of cholesterol and white sugar off to a table.
The man returned and in a way it sorta surprised him; Strongland half-figured the man was going to pry open the bathroom window , leap out, and disappear forever. The hostess led them to a square Formica covered table, they sat down on wood chairs that burped hollowly on the linoleum floor as they pushed back from the table just enough not to crowd each other. Strongland thought of the last time he sat with his father, just the two of them, to share a meal. It had been a long-ways back, but not long enough so much as to make it not hurt.
Coffees appeared. It wasn’t Laura’s table, Strongland knew it, but she’s the one that brought em’. “Creams are in the bowl darlin’s,” and then was gone, leaving only one menu on the table in front of the man.
Strongland shrugged at the man’s cock-eyed look. “Ehh, I always get the same thing.”
The man nodded.
Strongland pushed his thumb under the waxy foil lid of the creamer, poured the thumb-nail sized amount of room temperature half-and-half swirl across the surface of the coffee dark as Seminole Swamp Water. The man eyed his mug for a long time, a long time. Strongland watched Laura. He loved her, but she was taken. The closest he would ever get to sharing a meal with her was breakfast at PALs. She turned back to him, caught him looking and he blushed. Hell, fifty men a morning fall in love with her anyways… And she knew it and yet she was above nobody and didn’t put anybody down or act like she was anything but a girl giving a man everything he ever wanted, as long as it was just breakfast.
“Well, this morning is full of surprises isn’t it?” She smiled at the man. “S.L., you gonna keep me guessing or you are ordering the usual?”
Strongland’s skinned flushed like a school -boy just busted staring at a girl in class and he took a swig of coffee to try and hide it. Nobody really called him Strongland, just S.L. “Put it down just like all the times before I guess.”
Laura nodded and then with an ease and kindness that comes from having a sweet heart and knowing how to work a table without making it ever feel like you just got worked, looked at the man, “And for you?”
The man smiled at her, showed a gentlemanliness that showed clear through the crud that he hadn’t quite managed to scrub off his face in the bathroom. “Double it up, ma’am.”
“Well that was easy enough, done and doubled.” Laura reached out, took the menu. “You know, S.L. don’t ever come in here on Saturdays but by himself, and I always take his order, and he has never, not once, shared the table with someone else. Are you his father?”
Strongland realized his lower jaw had gone slack and clomped his mouth shut,
(Time-out! At this point the real Strongland had woken up from his nap. His mama brought him over and he sat on my knee; I guess he had something to add, the following is what it was; dxxxxxxxxxxzxx ngggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggbgerggggrgrgrrrrrrrrer; I appreciate you not minding I left his input intact)
feeling he prolly looked as much the fool as he felt. He looked at the man.
The man returned the same easy smile, if he was off-put it never showed itself. “No ma’am. I guess S.L. here is sorta like my boss for the day.”
Laura topped off his coffee. “His boss huh? Well, like I said, this day is full of surprises, and they keep coming in,” nodded at the direction of the door, a group of ARMY kids, starched and clean cut and most likely ravenous, and more than likely, about to fall in love with Laura, filed in, unconsciously, in a precise line, just like they were trained to, “like this line of customers that doesn’t seem like it will end either.”
“I wouldn’t know about that at all, ma’am, I mean, anything else that might surprise you, but you are right about the line of customers. It’s a good sign I’d say.”
Laura grinned and then pulled a handful of tin-foil jelly packets out of her apron and stacked them in the jelly holder like a roulette-wheel dealer stacking poker chips on the felt. “Can’t argue with that… as long as everyone’s tipping.”
The man grinned. Strongland felt his flush subside. How could you not love her?
“Okay, anything else boys?”
The man shook his head no.
Laura tucked a pencil above her right ear. She turned to go, paused. “It just doesn’t sit right, me not knowing who all works for S.L. here, especially as I will be bringing the man his breakfast. I’d feel better about the whole thing if I knew who I was bringing it to.”
It struck Strongland that he hadn’t asked the man’s name. Somehow, before it hadn’t mattered. But now it did, and he was ashamed for not asking.
If the man was put-off, it never showed itself. Strongland began to understand that it was just the man’s way.
“It’s Billy, ma’am, Billy Parham.”
Laura nodded. “Alright then Mr. Parham.” She offered an easy smile, like butter melting on a hotcake, at Strongland, “before I get too far away, are you sure you aren’t forgetting something?”
Strongland grinned. “Yeah, go ahead and put down a short-stack.”
Laura studied Billy Parham. “Same for you Mr. Parham?”
“Seeing as how the boss is buying, I’ll take a tall-stack… And ma’am, when you come back, just call me Billy.”
She turned and was gone. Billy Parham picked up his porcelain mug, the rim was chipped, and had been washed smooth by a million journeys through a commercial dishwasher.
Strongland took a swill of coffee and studied the man; he hadn’t ever seen a man appear lonelier. He recognized the look, he thought of his mother and the last time they had a chance to really talk to each other, and the last meal he shared with his father. As he sat there, he considered that offering his hand, and now, his friendship, was the exact thing he ought to offer. You ain’t a dumbass… Not always.