SCENIC TURN OUT
by C. Maynard Jackson © 1997
She was about fourteen years old, but at that age all the girls seemed older than me. It was the last summer before I entered junior high school. The sun was strong and it was so hot that even the prettiest girls left their carefully placed beach towels for the cool waters of the city pool.
When I saw her she was in the middle of the shallow end near the safety rope. She was smiling and talking to her friends who included two handsome and well muscled boys from the football team. I was on the far side. The sun was getting lower on that August afternoon causing the rippling waters to sparkle behind her.
She was so beautiful. She had dark brown eyes and straight white teeth giving her such a sweet smile. Her hair was long and shiny and hung heavy with the water she stroked off with the palms of her delicate hands. Her skin was a smooth dark tan and on the lobe of her ear was a colorful dot.
I wanted to get a closer look. I held my breath and crouched down low, moving with only my eyes above the water like the hippopotamus I had seen in books on Africa at the public library. At first I thought the bluish dot on her ear was from the swimming pool water. Behind her was the deep end. The dot was the same color.
I had gotten too close. She turned to look at me and that beautiful face turned cruel and hateful. I jumped up exhaling my used-up air, tasting the dill pickel I had eaten earlier, and moved quickly to shallower waters.
It was the dill pickles on this sandwich my wife made for me that got me to thinking about that day so long ago. Swimming all day at the city pool would get a kid hungry. While the other kids would order a nut covered "Payday" or enjoy a caramel loaded "Mars" bar or even want that bazaar "Zero" candy bar with its white outside, I needed to make the loose change I had go as far as possible.
That dill pickle from the big glass jar was bigger than a candy bar and would last twice as long at half the price. That’s what I wanted. It was a bargin. I decided to spend the rest of what I had on a big dill pickle.
As I sit here I know the dots on that long ago girl's ears at the swimming pool were earrings for pierced ears. Most women these days have pierced ears, but every time I see a woman with pierced ears I think of my wife. My wife never had her ears pierced.
I am holding a ham and cheese on pumpernickel with mayo and dill pickles in my hand and thinking of my wife’s pure smooth ears and I’m needing to shift in my seat. Fortunately this old truck has a big cab so I can get comfortable. It’s raining hard tonight. And it's cold so the streets are slick. Tonight could be the right night.
After forty some years you get a feeling for someone. They can tell you things without talking. When I was leaving tonight my wife handed me a brown paper bag with a sandwich, an apple, cookies and the cell phone she bought for me four weeks ago.
“Are you sure you need to do this?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
It’s my idea that being a man requires certain responsibilities. Not like today. Things are different.
For instance, in my time when my country needed me, I volunteered. I never made it overseas as a glamorous fighting soldier though. I was shipped from one Army base to another throughout the South doing kitchen duty.
But I knew that fattening up these soldiers before they were shipped out was my job and damn, I was good at it. When I was discharged I was a sergeant and at the top of the unofficial “must-have” list. The Army needed men like me to do a job and do it well.
So when my wife, before she was my wife, told me she was pregnant I immediately proposed to her. I remember there was a pause before she answered and for a moment I thought she was going to say no. I remember thinking that I would just die if she turned me down. I had been courting her for over a year so you might say I meant business.
Instead she said, “Is this something you really need to do?”
“Oh, yes!” I hurriedly replied “I love you so much, I couldn’t live without you.”
“Then, yes, I will,” she said.
I was so happy. And while I was hugging and kissing her on the porch of her parents’ house I noticed for the first time, her pure soft unpierced ear lobe in the glow from the corner street lamp. It’s strange what things a person remembers about an important event.
We were married six weeks later. When our first child, Louise, was born to the Williams family she had a Mommy and a Daddy.
We always had insurance for our medical bills and our car and life insurance, too. I was able to sign up at a low cost because of my hitch in the Army. I got a great deal from an old Army buddy who was one of the first to sell insurance in our area of the South. He lost a leg overseas. That loss turned out to be a gold mine when it came to selling insurance.
I recall one of those football boys from the swimming pool was not smart enough to get into the Army and last I heard was a janitor at the old city high school. The other one was plenty smart, but never made it back from the South Pacific. I can't say I know what happened to the girl.
I sold cars. It was a time when a car salesman, who was a veteran and had a reputation for being honest, could make a nice living. It took about ten years of saving before I could move my family out of the South. We were young and didn’t know any better so we settled in a medium size town outside of Salt Lake City.
It was one of those dumb luck fairy tales. I continued to successfully sell cars and started selling trucks too because of the near mountains. My family had a nice life with only average troubles. All three of our children graduated from college and are now raising families of their own in different locations throughout the good ‘ole U.S. of A.
And I was able to do something I always dreamed of doing, too. I had my own horse. I rode that horse to hunt and fish but mostly for the joy of riding through the crisp air of those beautiful Utah mountains.
When I was a boy I checked out library books about horses and cowboys and read about the West. At my last Army base the Colonel brought in a horse from his home in New Mexico. I fixed it so I was the one to feed it. Being a cook sure came in handy that time. It was grayish white with dark speckles on its rear end, an Appaloosa. The horse and I quickly became friends.
That horse, I can’t remember it’s name now, could always depend upon me to bring its’ meals on time. Sometimes I would bring a little sugar-snack. The Colonel forbid the horse to have sugar, but I would sneak in an occasional candy bar. That horse sure loved sweets. After six months the Colonel was transferred overseas so the horse was sent back to New Mexico. I decided then that someday I would have a horse just like the Colonel’s.
A few years after my youngest graduated from college I convinced my wife that I should get a horse. I rode my horse, Joe Louis, every weekend when I didn't have to work. I even rode that horse with the other veterans in the parade on the Fourth of July. It must have been quite a sight seeing a big white Appaloosa with me sitting on top.
Parades were the only time that the city would allow horses on the street so that’s why I have this big pickup truck. I would haul Joe Louis, me and our equipment up to the foothills and park with all the other trucks and trailers. That was a long time ago. Now all I have left is this old truck. I sure miss Joe Louis sometimes.
When we moved West I transferred the insurance I carried to a local branch. We never had much use for it till now.
My truck is old. Years of hard driving through the salt and gravel of snow covered streets have rusted the truck’s frame in front of the rear axle. I have continued to read books that I check out from the library so I can comfortably say that it is both ironic and symbolic that my old truck is rusted in front of it’s rear-end.
You see, I have prostate cancer. You could say that I too, am rusted in front of my rear-end. I laugh a bit when I say it like that, but my wife dosen’t happen to think that’s very funny at all.
When I bit into this sandwich and tasted the dill pickles, a flood of memories filled my thoughts: the girl at the city swimming pool and her pierced ears making me think of my wife’s beautiful untouched ears and the night I proposed to her.
I thought of the horse I had had that started with the dream of having one and then led to raising a family in a far better place than I had been raised. And how my wife is now at home waiting for me.
I could use the medical insurance and go through cancer therapy or I could use the life insurance and make sure my wife never has to do without for the rest of her days.
If I go through the medical treatment the doctor said there are side effects. The doctor said there is a good chance I couldn’t love my wife the way I’m accustom to; no starch in sleeve they use to call it.
I don’t think I could live with that.
I'm from the South and being from there a man is honor bound to take care of his wife. There is a chance I probably couldn’t do that after treatment because of the side effects.
My wife said there’s other things that I do really well that could take care of her, but I don’t know. It’s not the same. As far as I’m concerned nothing has happened to change my mind. I’m going to do it.
The rain has started to come down a little harder and the night chill is creeping into my old bones. Accidents happen all the time on the rain slick streets of early winter.
I wrap up what is left of my sandwich in the brown paper bag. I turn the ignition key and the engine of my truck comes to life. I switch on the heater and sit, showing only my running lights.
This past Fourth of July my wife and I attended our city’s parade. There seems to be fewer of my old veteran friends attending the festivities these past years. Maybe they moved to retirement villages in Arizona. They probably told me but sometimes, lately, I forget some things. The important things I still remember.
My wife and I stood in the warm sun reminiscing about how I used to sit atop that big Appaloosa, Joe Louis, in my rhinestone cowboy jacket and pants. I had had a special stirrup made so that the standard of the American flag I carried rested comfortably in my saddle.
In September I was at the doctor’s for a routine checkup. This time they decided I needed some tests. The forty years of seldom used medical insurance kicked in and away we went. The tests lasted several weeks. The diagnosis finally came in - cancer.
The doctor said, “This type of cancer was caught in time.”
“My luck I guess, “ I said smiling.
She said, “It is both slow moving and treatable.” Then she told me about the therapy’s potential side effects.
The doctor gave me a final inspection and I said, “This sure isn’t like the Army.“
She said dryly, “We need to start treatment as soon as possible, Mr. Williams.”
I nodded my head.
She said, “You are in excellent physical and mental condition, for a man your age.”
“Thanks, I think.” I joked, but she didn’t smile.
“Mr. Williams,” the doctor said, “the very longest we have to begin treatment is two months. After that...” she looked at the floor and then out the window and then back at me.
That was six weeks ago. I’ve known about this tight curve in the road since my horse riding days. It is about an hour’s drive outside of town, up the County Route Highway. At the scenic turn out the road disappears around a curve, hugging the mountain. The road can then be seen in the distance again further up ahead.
A smart driver, like me, could wait at the scenic turn out on the shoulder of the road for about five minutes. If no cars were in view up ahead and none came around the curve then you could be reasonably sure that it was safe to round the narrow corner with your truck and trailer.
On one side of the curve is the mountain, flecked with quartz. On the other is two lanes of tarmac, a guard rail, a scenic vista of a valley and a sheer thousand foot drop. I have been up here several times since the diagnosis.
After the second time I visited this scenic turn out I told my wife what I was up to. That’s when she got me a cell phone.
She said, “I just want to know if I should heat up some cocoa for you.” She knows I like cocoa at bedtime, the sweet kind not the dry, powdered kind.
“You could give me a call on your way home,” she said and then stood and waited for me to say something. I didn’t say anything. She left the room with tears in her eyes and wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the day.
Except for the rust, my truck is a fine machine. I have done maintenance on it when needed and sometimes when it did not. I hated to mess up the paint job.
The strong engine rumbles steadily underneath my feet. I look at my watch and begin counting off five minutes. After five minutes I start a new five minute count to be sure, and then a third count. No cars are in the distance either way. I am alone.
My mind starts to wander again. I think about the South where I came from. I think about my kids. I think about my old Army buddy who sold insurance. He lost his leg. He never got married.
“Oh, the hell with it,” I say and stomp my foot down on the accelerator. The engine’s roar is deafening. I slam the shift into first gear and jerk my foot off the clutch. The truck leaps into the air. The tires are spinning madly and screaming an insanely high note. I begin to launch forward. The next thing I hear is a snapping crunch.
I sit with my back pressed against the seat and starring up through the windshield at the churning rain clouds. I lift my foot off the accelerator and the truck’s engine slows to a steady murmur. Outside the driver’s side window I look down and see the road. I am still in the scenic turn out where I had been a few moments before.
My neck is a little stiff as I look back and see the tail end of my truck pointing up to sky. The rear running lights are still on. The truck is broken at its weakest area, in the front of its rear-end.
I laugh a little and cry a lot not knowing what to think.
I open the brown paper bag and finish my sandwich. Then I eat the cookies my wife had included, a little sugar-snack.
I turn off the ignition. Sitting at this angle a gasoline leak could cause a fire. I wouldn’t want that now.
Inside the brown paper bag beside me I hear a musical beeping sound. I lift the cell phone out of the bag. It is a little sticky with mayonnaise from the tossing around it has received. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. It seems like a long time.
There is only one person that has my number so there is no use for formalities.
“Hi Betty, how are you,” I say. My wife says hello then lets out a deep sigh. She covers the telephone mouthpiece with her hand. There is a long pause. I am getting very concerned. After a few moments I say, “Hello. Hello? Betty, are you there?”
“Yes,” she says, “I thought I’d call and see what time you’d be home.”
I say, “Honey, I think I really need to sign up for the cancer therapy.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” she says and then she pauses. “What made you change your mind?”
“My truck,” I say.
“I don’t think I understand,” she says, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I’ll tell you if you give me a ride,” I say. “My truck broke down up here at the scenic turn out. You know the place?”
“Sure, I’ll give you a ride,” she says and giggles like she does sometimes. “See you in about an hour. Bye,” and she quickly hangs up before I can say anything else.
The truck’s engine has started to make a soft tick sound as it cools. I look up and see that the rain has lightened up. The tick of the engine and splash of rain on the roof make a syncopated rhythm like the jazz I listened to in the Army. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel playing along.
I grab an oversized, lined poncho from behind the seat and wrap it around me. I get comfortable and pull the poncho up to my chin. I look again at my watch and decide to catch a little shut-eye. I think I’ll be here for a while.
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