In the middle of the night his phone rang—the kind of the middle of the night that when a ringing phone rips you from your dreams you answer—so Strongland did.
A women's voice, "I'm sorry to call so late, I’m trying to reach S.L.?" A low-tone beep in the background.
"Yes… This is him."
"I have a man here, he's been asking for you...”
Strongland pushed the sheets off his legs, set his feet onto the pine hardwood, brushed the hair away from his forehead and clicked his bedside lamp on. He cleared his throat, hoping his head would follow suit. "I'm sorry, who are we talking about?"
"Parham, a Mr. Billy Parham. Is he your relative?"
Strongland caught his reflection on a framed photograph of his mother and father, the three of them layered into one. He felt a rush of relief that this call wasn’t about either one of them. "No ma’am. Where is he?"
The beeps in the background slowed; the sound of a cart rolling and hushed middle of the night voices. "Alamagordo Hospital, sir. He had a number written on a piece of paper in his pocket. I decided to take a chance that it might belong to you.”
Strongland wiped the sleep out of the corners of his eyes. Guess my head ain't cleared. “Sorry, where is he again?”
"Alamagordo, in New Mexico. Just north of the border."
Strongland exhaled, it came out a soft whistle. "Let me get this straight, if you don't mind; Billy is in a hospital in Alamosomething, New Mexico, and he asked for me?"
"That nearly sums it up?"
It wasn't like he forgot about Billy, but he stopped checking under the bridge two months since the last time he saw him; hell and that was the first day they ever spoke. Here it was three months later when he answered this middle of the damn night call and it sure as hell caught him off guard. Her use of the word “nearly” came back at him. "You said nearly? What haven't I accounted for?"
“S.L., it is S.L. right?"
“I hate to tell you this, and even more, I hate to question the situation and honestly it ain’t a single iota of my business, and now, don't get me wrong, but many more times than I ever cared to see it happen, a man like Mr. Parham ends up here out from nowhere, and nobody knows them, and nobody cares, and they are way too near to being dead then they ever saw coming, and from deep in a medical stupor they cry out for a person, say that person's name and maybe we get lucky and get a phone number and then we have a conversation like this and sometimes it's hard to tell if the call comes as relief to the person on the other end of the line in knowing that their person is alive, or maybe they are relieved they never have to wonder when that call was coming, they can finally just let go or..."
Strongland couldn't follow; "Sorry, or, what?"
"No need to apologize, in fact I'm relieved that you don't follow already. So, never mind okay?"
Strongland went downstairs, pulled a bag of coffee grounds out of the freezer. "Okay…are you asking me to do anything here?”
There was a long pause. Strongland filled the coffee pot enough for three cups, which was enough to get him to his drive to work.
She spoke again, easy and matter of fact and with a narrower drawl than he was accustomed; Strongland pictured a heavyset white woman with a pronounced dye job that made it appear that a dusty tarantula was easing its way down her forehead.
"I don't have any other way to say it but Mr. Billy Parham is nearly dead, and I do mean nearly but don't count that as a medical diagnosis, just take it as fact…I don't think he has much time left."
Strongland, not paying attention, heaped a quarter cup of grounds straight into the coffee maker without a filter and closed the lid and then started the coffee maker. "Jesus...okay. I mean, Jesus. If I was to come out there to see him, how long would you say I have to do that?"
"If he makes it through the next twenty-four hours you might be lucky enough to catch him still among the living."
"Don't you mean he'll be lucky?"
"Actually I don't know; lucky might not be the right word. He's an awful mess. Either got run over by a bus, which is my first bet, or got beat so bad he might never walk again. But like I said, that's if he makes it twenty-four hours."
The coffee pot filled. The sun encouraged her first rays to break the stronghold of the night. A mourning dove complained. Strongland poured a cup of the coffee, pulled a mouthful of scalding grounds into his mouth, spit them into the sink. "Jesus..."
She came across as a smart-ass, and it surprised him. "No, it’s still just me, but if you care to see him before Jesus does you better get moving."
Strongland dumped the coffee out, rinsed the sludge of grounds out, watching them swirl and disappear down the drain. "Which hospital do I go to, where are you again?"
She laughed, "Alamogordo, and its the only one we got, heck, except for illegals and bars we only have one of anything."
The line went dead.
Strongland threw clothes in a duffel, pulled a pair of boots from the line and then went online. Five minutes in of the twenty four hours to see Billy Parham alive he sank eight hundred dollars on a one-way ticket to Albuquerque, NM.
Strongland locked the door behind him and stepped off the narrow wood step down onto the gravel walkway leading to the garage set back a ways from his house. He pulled himself into his truck, checked his phone again to double check his plane ticket was in his email. Strongland hated flying, damn well hated it, hurtling through the freaking sky in a metal tube. Of course he would have rather just driven, but what the nurse said had hit him hard “If he makes it twenty-four hours…"
He called his boss. “I might be back Monday; then again I might not be back till the Monday after that.”
“What in the hell S.L.,” was what his boss said.
“That’s a reasonable question. Want a complete answer when I get back, or a half-ass one now?”
“Get back next Monday if you want me to even hear what you have to say,” is what his boss came up with.
Strongland laughed at his reflection in the rearview, just wasn’t a way to know what was coming. Hell neither did Laura. There was something about this trip made him desperate to see her before he got onto that damn plane. Checking his watch, she’d just be setting the coffee on about now. Intent on staying a dumb-ass aren’t you? He was going there anyways.
He drove through his just waking town. A thin veil of dawn was still draped across the border between the solid things attached to and set upon the earth and the ethereal makings of everything above those things that belong to the lower seam of the horizon. Clusters of grackles invaded the upper fold of the seam, and then dive-bombed in stuttered breaks and changes of direction to collect and organize on power lines and branches. One cop rolled by but that was it.
Strongland parked in the lot, Laura’s car was there in her usual spot. He searched the panes of broad glass and found her standing over a table wrapping silverware in paper napkins and setting them in neat stacks. His eyes followed her hands. Never had such a menial task looked like a god-damned ballet, not that he’d ever seen one in person. He checked his watch again. There was plenty of time to wait till they opened, plenty of time to order and eat slow and watch her and plenty of time to never say a word about what was on his mind and plen…
Tap, tap. Laura rapped on his window.
Shit… He rolled it down.
Laura grinned at him. “We don’t have a drive-thru, you know that don’t you?”
Strongland felt his face turn as red as a late July tomato. “Yep.”
“I’d ask how long you have been sitting here, but I know exactly how long you have been sitting here because I saw you pull in.”
“Oh, how long ago was that?”
“Ten minutes, smart ass. You aren’t drunk are you?”
“Nope.” He could have told her he never drank, but like with most things he didn’t tell her, he stayed consistent.
“Headed to work?”
Hell. Sweat beaded at his hairline. “No.”
Laura looked out into the street, her eyes followed a semi as it lumbered by. It seemed like she was taking here time. Thinking. Without looking at him, “You sure you aren’t drunk?”
“One hundred percent certain.”
Laura studied him and then leaned in. For a heartbeat he thought she was about to kiss him, but she inhaled deeply though her nose, and then drew back. “Okay, well, you don’t smell drunk.”
Strongland turned red again, this time about an early July tomato. “I’d be surprised as hell if I did.”
“Come on in S.L.”
He followed Laura inside and half-smiled at the other waitresses. Laura pointed at a two-top, and he sat. She returned with a coffee, set it down and then disappeared. Strongland rolled a bundle of silverware in his fingers. She returned again with two plates of pancakes, set one in front of him, and then such to his surprise as if someone set a case full of cash in front of him and told him it was all his, she pulled the chair across from him out, and then took a seat. Strongland gawked at her.
Laura unrolled a package of silverware and then arranged the tinny chrome fork and spoon next to her plate. Her eyes never came off his. “S.L.?”
“What is it?”
Strongland told her, he told her about the call and his boss and his plane ticket. He never sank a fork into his pancakes. She never did either. She never interrupted or asked a question but just leaned into his words and soaked them up like the dry ground pulling in first deluge of rain after a long drought. Their coffees went cold. A waitress tapped her shoulder. Laura nodded and got up from the table. Strongland sat stunned and quiet.
The same waitress that tapped Laura’s shoulder went to the front door, flipped the CLOSED sign around and walked by him and gave him an odd smile. Time went by in starved mouthfuls. Strongland felt embarrassed as hell. Yep, definitely still a dumb-ass.
Laura reappeared. Her crisp white server’s apron was gone, replaced by a faded blue button down. In her right hand she held a to-go cup and this she handed to Strongland; in her left hand she held a second to-go cup, and this one she kept for herself. She smiled at him, “Next Monday right?”
Strongland held the coffee cup, the contents of which could have been scalding hot and he wouldn’t have noticed. “What’s that?”
“You’ll be back at work by next Monday?”
“I better be if I want a job when I get back.”
“Okay then S.L., and if you aren’t then you are going to have to find two jobs.”
Strongland started to say “Wha…”
“Don’t you say it again; I’m going with you so let’s go.”
Strongland considered her words, just as much as one can consider these matters when stuck in the eye of a hurricane and the hurricane was his heart the the revolving destruction was an old man, battered and broke and breaking apart and hanging on to what was left of his life, alone, surrounded by the sounds of machinery that were the only things that were accounting for that man’s life. Strongland nodded, just to himself really. He thought of his dad, and when his dad’s time got close to being drawn closed and the thin veils of darkness were laid over him he needed to know his mother would be there next to him and if those events befell her before his father’s Strongland knew his father would be with her just the same even though it would tear their hearts into pieces with such destruction that a hurricane would not compare. Billy Parham didn’t have anyone. Hell, I must be Billy Parham’s last friend.
Laura hadn’t sat down. She waited. Strongland looked up at her, did his best to keep his tears deep down in his gut. “Well hell, if I don’t get you back in time I ain’t gonna have a place to get pancakes so we better get going I guess.”
She nodded, slid the pancakes from their plates into a Styrofoam container, closed it and headed for the door; just as she reached the table with the bundles of silverware she took two off the stack and slipped them into her back pocket. One of the waitresses hugged her. Another waitress reached into a big glass jar that said “TIPS” and handed Laura all of the paper money.
Strongland checked his watch as he wheeled out of the parking lot.
Laura put her hand on his as he drove them north out of the city. “We okay on time?”
“I just can’t say.”