Route 4 Men (Billy Parham’s Last Friend Series # 3)

Strongland drove through the city. Streetlights set on timers, opaque green-yellow pods like butterfly pupa, hanging from bowed street posts, softly buzzed to life. Connected by their electric umbilical cords they radiated queasy, popping light into an ink-swelling evening sky.

The last six hours Billy hadn’t said much of anything. He lifted when Strongland asked him to lift and he stacked where Strongland asked him to stack. He didn’t sweat or swear. The man just worked.

When they neared the overpass where Strongland had picked Billy up Strongland decided he’d ask a second time, and if Billy said no, well, then he’d leave it alone. “You sure you don’t want to take the apartment above the garage? It’s just sitting there entertaining ghosts.”

A flash of flush, instantly followed by a drain of pale leached from Billy’s brow before emptying below his dirty shirt collar. Billy hooked his thumb towards the murk of the underpass. He got out; reached his hand back through the open window. “Thank you for the work and the meal SL… I’m all set here, for now.”

Strongland took Billy’s hand, both still crusted in grit with the labor of the day. Strongland knew something he said was a wrong thing; months would pass before he learned the reasons.

Strongland wanted to move passed his fuck-up. “I got more work, all you can handle. Can’t pay you all that much but I can feed you. Actually, if you are interested I could see if the city has anything they could use your help with. It’d prolly be all under the table, but after today I’d vouch for you Billy.”

Billy nodded. “Let me think about it. Either way, I guess you know where to find me.”

“I guess I do.” Strongland nodded back, worked the transmission into gear and then slowly pulled away. Strongland checked the rearview mirror. Billy stepped backwards behind a trestle and then vanished. One thought came clear and instantly to Strongland, A goddamned Route 4 man

His father pointed out the Route 4 men when Strongland was just a kid, maybe twelve, riding shotgun in his dad’s Chevy through a small town just south of theirs. His dad nodded towards men walking the decaying and chaotic sidewalks along Route 4. The locals called it Main Street; Strongland and his dad weren’t locals, so they called it Route 4.

As Strongland grew older he realized that you could only ever truly be a local to one place, but nearly everywhere had a Route 4, and Route 4 men. These were the lost and the losing men. Swaggering or shuffling, darting eyes or blunt stares like just waking calves standing with unblinking eyes numbly observing cars that don’t make any sense to them rolling by their pasture. Men looming with untrue bravado or outright despair and most damn things in-between.

His dad had noted the headphones many of the men had on. “I bet you none of ‘em even has batteries to run those things. I bet you those men are just hiding within words they wish they heard, hiding from the insults that come from open car windows from graceless cowards—damn—they just want someone to think they have something of value.” Strongland remembered how his dad looked at him, like he was so full of love that it came across as hurt, and then after a long pause he spoke, “Don’t ever be a coward and insult another man as you drive by. Just don’t ever do it.”

Strongland nodded and it was as good as a promise and then he looked out the window and began establishing an inventory of what identifies Route 4 men; white off-brand prison-release sneakers, soiled pants, ill-fitting t-shirts, open coats even when it was cold, hats of any kind to cover unwashed hair. Belongings were reduced to plastic grocery bags and frayed backpacks and duffel bags held together with safety pins and unlit cigarette butts saved like prized possessions of dying men. Men of desperate thirst, gripping Styrofoam cups and plastic Mountain Dew bottles and paper sacks wrapped tightly around glass bottles. Some men laughed to themselves, others mumbled, some wept. Some men moved on in silence. There were old men, and young men, and some men walking step in step, or just behind one another in some kind of street survivor hierarchy. Some men walked alongside their woman, and maybe a child, a doomed child who would evolve knowing despair and trauma and broken hearts in a broken world.

All of them were desperate to make some kind of headway into this world, navigating along the broken sidewalks and entrances to fast-food joints, moving like moths from one street light to the next, or shifting along from one shadow or vacant doorway to the next, seeking safety from the harshness of their lives. Somehow to Strongland, even then, the ruined sidewalks seemed to be the perfect reflection of these men; once laid straight and clean and true, pathways with purpose and investment, now broken, run-over, spit on, used and disregarded and left to break down as an afterthought of usefulness. “God help them,” his father had said.

It had always stuck with him, what his dad had said about the Route 4 men not having batteries. One time when he stopped to get gas there was a Route 4 man loitering outside the gas station. The man asked Strongland to buy him something to eat. Strongland looked him in the eye and then stepped inside the harshly lit gas station by fluorescent lights littered with the trapped then doomed bodies of dried out dead flies. He walked between the aisles piling food into the crook of his arm, and set it all on the counter along with a hundred dollar bill. He asked for a four-pack of AA batteries and paid. Before he walked out Strongland stuck the change in the paper sack and then stepped outside. The man was there waiting.

Strongland let the bag hang at his side. “Can I ask you a question?”

The man reeked of coming rain and sour, he eyed the bag. “I ain’t no drunk.”

Strongland shifted on his feet, second guessing his right to ask the question like he always did and then found himself asking anyways like he always seemed to. He pointed at the man’s headphones. “You have any batteries for those?”

The man standing before him looked down at his grimy shoes, shoes that carried this man along the filthy streets from one place he didn’t belong, to the next place he didn’t belong. Then the man’s eyes swiveled out towards the rush of the street beyond them. He shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets; his eyes weren’t ever going to meet Strongland’s again.

Strongland knew it too, and set the bag down at his feet, turned, walked back to his truck, filled the tank and drove away. He checked his rearview as he swung out onto the street. The Route 4 man and the bag had vanished—just like Billy.