It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, thought John, hating himself for permitting the cliché’. It was a Tuesday afternoon when John’s doctor told him he had lung cancer. It was aggressive and it was terminal. His mother and his father were dead and no other family or friends came to his relief. He had spent his life in the Appalachian hills, going from mine to mine, picking up whatever spare work was thrown his way; no roots to speak of. He was not frightened by the cancer. John was a survivor of a mineshaft collapse. He was never afraid in the midst of all that dark and quiet and he was not afraid now.
With little consideration, John packed his belongings into his Taurus during the night. He wanted to see the beach and Miami sounded nice. If the doctor was correct, he still had four or five Tuesdays to enjoy. Dawn began to break and John drove south.
* * * * *
On the south side of Asheville John picked up a shabby man in a threadbare jacket hitching home to St. Augustine. The man was middling tall and smelled like a wino. He thanked John for his courtesy, took a drink from a pewter hip flask and went to sleep. The wheels kept rolling.
* * * * *
The diner was thick with the smell of bacon grease and the allure of the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks decrepitude. The lamplight within washed the dingy restaurant in a filthy sort of muted yellow glow, barely enough light to turn away the chilled darkness pressing in from beyond the grimy windows. John drank his coffee down to the dregs and gestured to the waitress for more. Across from him sat the bum, a slim dark man with a beard full of grey. He told John his name was Leon. The bum called Leon was a garrulous drunk, but John didn’t mind. It gave him something to think about besides the cancer. Thirty days, give or take, and dwindling, thought John, and the image of a grand hourglass spilling sand grain after precious sand grain emerged in his mind’s eye.
“And more to the point, m’boy,” said Leon, “the vast majority of life is nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecy; people believing possibilities are finite and unattainable, effectively putting them out of reach. These misguided souls file in and out of existence each day, worried more about a company’s ROE or market shares than discovering new worlds, or taking a voyage beyond the boundaries of the map, or even…” He was interrupted when the waitress brought John his refill. She was a woman in her late forties with hair the color of fire opals and a face dispossessed of its youthful beauty. Leon considered her for a moment before taking a swig from his flask. He wiped the dribble from his chapped lips with the back of his hand and continued.
“Or even becoming the first female astronaut,” said Leon, his eyes catching the waitress’s. “But then comes that first algebra test sophomore year. A whole lotta red marks on the pages, and it’s easiest to believe the lies. ‘Not strong enough; not smart enough; never to amount to anything more than ordinary or plain.’ It’s a slippery slope from that initial concession. Isn’t that right, Kate?”
The waitress’s face lost all color and her lower lip quivered. “H-How did you do that?” she asked.
“Well, dear, you are wearing a name tag,” said Leon.
“No. I mean, how did you know I wanted to be the first woman in space?”
“Intuition, maybe?” said Leon, and he chuckled. The woman scuttled back behind the counter, back to what made sense, placing a buffer between her and the ambiguity.
“Nice trick,” said John. “Did you overhear her in conversation or something?”
“Holmesian deduction, son,” said Leon. “I’m a regular Sherlock, taking applications for my Watson.” John inclined an eyebrow in disbelief. “Take, for instance, the efficacious manner in which she dispersed the coffee, avoiding all splatter. Clearly, she maintains a firm grasp of physics and possesses a sound mathematical mind.”
The short order cook, not the waitress, brought out their order. A bowl of vegetable soup with a grilled cheese went to Leon. John opted only for coffee. After a moment, Leon went on, his mouth full and his beard festooned with tomato bisque. “Also, she hummed the chorus lines to that piss poor Police tune from the late seventies about walking on the moon while she wiped down the bar counter.
“The significance of this is two-fold. To begin with, the song came out circa 1979. I'll wager she was in high school, junior or senior year, judging by her age. That’s about the time most people give up all hope of realizing their dreams," Leon mopped up the mess in his beard with a napkin. "People enjoy the theory of achieving a dream, but the effort required is what frightens them. One finds rest and comfort in surrendered aspirations. The hope for a sunnier future will linger always, but the ambition flutters away. At the point of abandonment, most all deserters create little mementos, small keepsakes of their once vibrant dream. Something they can cling to when life becomes arduous; something that can make them think, ‘remember when?’ People find peace in potential, even if it’s past its expiration. Kate’s Police song is her keepsake. I digress. The last point of interest is that Kate here has a…” Leon leaned over the table, invading John’s air, his breath full and infectious with the scent of something sweet.
“Hell, I chanced it, Johnny. I took a shot in the dark and I read her right. There is no science to it. I’m old. I’ve been around the block a time or two. After a while, you begin to understand people, especially their weaknesses, the chinks in their armor.” said Leon, retreating back to his side of the table. “But really, what kid that grew up back when Armstrong and Aldrin prowled the heavens didn’t want to blast off for NASA when they grew up? To be up there,” he said, flicking his spoon and head in synchrony towards the ceiling, “navigating through a sea of stars? They were the last great pioneers; Gods almost, in their heyday, but soon discarded.” He hefted the flask to his lips once more and drank deeply.
“Maybe you should cut back on that stuff. You know, take it easy,” said John.
“Maybe I should, but I probably won’t.” replied Leon, and he smiled.
John squared the bill with Kate at the register and Leon decided to hang back. Together, they stepped out into the heat and humidity of the night. Jacksonville was an hour south on I-95 and St. Augustine three hours past that.
* * * * *
Leon fell asleep somewhere between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, his head lolling as he tried to explain what was the greatest of human luxury.
“It’s not booze, or money, or women – or guys if you swing that way – No, it’s accessibility. People want reach out and take hold of what their hearts desire without concern or labor, like one plucks an apple from a tree. Accessibility is life’s greatest indulgence. No fruit can be sweeter,” said Leon, the final syllable melding into a wheezing snore.
Rain fell fast and steady, its noisy feet pattering upon the roof of the car. John felt empty. Until Leon came around, John had never questioned his lack of concern for his future or his cancer or his death. Now it was all too clear. He could not recollect a moment in his past where he clung tightly to a notion of a future more prosperous and plentiful than his current lot in life. He merely lived. Days would pass and John just watched as they slid by. His newfound depression wasn’t entrenched in lack of accomplishment or a litany of unfulfilled life goals, but rather in the lack of goals altogether. He was vacant.
The wipers cleaned the rain-flecked windshield and the central white lines detached by stints of asphalt fell behind the car. It was when the surface of a road sign glinted green in the Taurus’s high beams that John began to cry. MIAMI: 300.
He did not want to go to Miami any more than he wanted to brush his teeth or scale K2 or get Jesus. This hurt the most. John sobbed now.
“It’s alright, Johnny,” said Leon through a yawn, “it’s ok. Everyone finds their way.” He arched his back and limbered his arms in a giant stretch. “This is my exit.”
Leon asked to be dropped off at a gas station, locally owned, on the corner of Mill and Bimini. A deep fatigue began to insinuate into John’s mind and muscles. He felt it as he lurched his stiff frame out of the driver’s seat and walked toward the entrance. It was the cancer. There was nothing natural or normal about it. Masses of mutated cells ready to snuff out his existence. It ticked inside him like an egg timer, soon to bong.
“Johnny, over here.” Leon motioned with his hand. He was standing at the Coke fountain at the back of the room. In each hand he held a hip flask. He handed one to John. A fine filigree engraving that read A Lane Jounced Open was inset upon its side. “Fill it up. Coke, please.” John did so. Once full, he offered it to Leon. He did not take it back.
“Listen, Johnny, I appreciate the lift and the meal.” Leon raised his flask in toast, “To John! ¡Salud, pesetas y amor y tiempo para gozarlos!” and he drank deeply. So did John, though with great hesitance.
Energy surged through John’s limbs as the cool fizz of the soda washed his throat; a strength and vigor so vivacious and hot and teeming his whole body broke into goose bumps and the hair on his head bristled with life. His vision came into keener focus, like after one rubs the sleep and gunk from waking eyes.
“You’ve done me a good turn, Johnny, and in return I’d like you to keep that flask. Y’know, just as a keepsake.” With that, Leon turned and made for the exit.
“Hey, Leon,” John shouted across the store. “Back at the diner you said you were old. How old, man?”
“Dunno. I stopped counting a long time ago,” he said with a wry grin . He waved and walked into the muggy gloom of night.
John checked his watch. If I hurry, I can make it to Miami before the sunrise, he thought.