by Dr. Huckleberry
Leslie put her hand on her hip, cocked her head to the side and with a high-pitched, back of the throat breath gasped, “When we get back, I have an appointment to get my hair done by my boyfriend, Thor. He’s gay, but he sends me cute thank-you cards.” Leslie says this with a conspiratorial wink at her daughter. By this time Bob, her husband, was already ignoring her, glancing at the faces in the crowd, scanning for signs of anyone he had just seen on the Jumbo-tron. And terrorists, of course.
Bob was in his standard uniform, the one he wore year round regardless of the weather, dress code or situation. His stretched lambs wool lined boat shoes, white tube socks pulled up mid-calf, baggy cargo jean shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe Las Vegas shirt made him the “Where’s Waldo” hiding in the sea of Blazer’s red as they waited for the downtown Max to arrive.
After scanning the crowd, and finding himself unable to be entertained by the person freaking out on drugs, an overly pierced face or the assorted bad haircuts, he decided to make an announcement to his wife and daughter, and anyone else standing nearby. He always did this, and it usually mortified his wife Leslie. “For an NBA game, this is a pretty white crowd”. Leslie looked down while his daughter rolled her eyes.
“We’re in Portland, Dad. What do you expect?” Jess glanced around to make sure no one within earshot was visibly offended. Her father’s comments were often accurate, yet formulated to be slightly offensive to at least one bystander. The last time he was in Portland to visit her he loudly stated at an organic grocery store that he would never ask for directions at a 7-11, because he lacks a good ear for understanding accents.
The paired tone of the arrival bell chimes and the swarm of would-be riders begins to inch and push their way onto the platform. Bob, a competitor by nature, is in city survival mode. He shoulders his way through the crowd, pretending he is on a New York subway.
“Bob, wait for us!” Leslie yells after him, but knowing how he acts in unstructured social situations, she is unwilling to expend too much energy in pursuit. Jess, already embarrassed turns to her mother, “Jesus, not everything has to be a contest.” But for Bob, it really does.
Through the windows, like screen grabs from a movie, they watch Bob flop his arms around to move people out of the way as he grabs a single seat by the window. He assumes his family is in pursuit as they watch him, stuck in the crowd, waiting to board. The train is packed and the doors begin to close. Bob looks around and then out the window to see his wife waving her arms. She points down the tracks towards downtown and mouths “Meet us at the hotel.” He tries to get up and get off the train but it’s already pushing forward. As the train pulls away, his wife and daughter exhale in unison. This is not the first time.
“I hope Dad keeps his god damn mouth shut.”
Her mother tilts her head to tone side in mock disapproval. “You talk like a sailor. I used to do the same when I was your age.”
On the MAX Bob decides that having no cell phone, this best choice is to meet his family at the hotel near the Volvo dealership and the stadium. Even though his daughter was their navigator, he’ll be able to figure out the right stop. “I have a perfect sense of direction”, he thinks. “No problem”.
Just as he anticipated on the platform, the man with a facial tattoo and ripped pants begins to have some kind of strange PTSD fugue. Gripping the handrails, he begins to mutter something about being the Incredible Hulk. Riders around him inch away, turn their heads and smirk. Bob hears someone sarcastically whispering “Keep Portland weird, asshole.” He watches the man, alert but sympathetic. Without warning, the Hulk presses the call box to the conductor, cursing about an impending court date. The train stops and the humming buzz of an alarm sounds. Passengers are directed to exit. Bob, sitting toward the back, is still able to be the first person off the train.
As the worn leather of his shoes hits the concrete he surveys his surroundings. He is Bear Grylls in the Himalayas–no, a downed helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. “If I see any mother-fuckers trying to give me trouble, I’m on it,” he thinks to himself. But Bob has no idea where he is. He decides to wait around for the next train to see if his wife and daughter are on it. The nearest platform shows the time of the next arrival: 15 minutes. Until then, he decides to take a quick venture to piss out all the beer from the game.
Bob walks down the block to a quickie mart. A large sign on the door reads RESTROOMS ARE FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY. A man leaning against the door, holding a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos makes eye contact. “Hey man, you wanna hear a joke for a quarter?”
“How about I tell you a joke,” Bob replies. The man with orange tipped fingers is not discouraged and approaches Bob.
“ So why did the wife leave her husband when she caught him in lingerie?” The man yells after Bob, and takes a few staggered steps towards him.
Bob, disinterested and a bit uncomfortable, decides to keep moving. He’s heard this joke before. A block away he spots a pay-per use public restroom. “Fuck that,” he thinks. “I’d rather piss in an alley.” For Bob, some things are sacred: The Toronto Maple Leaves, chips and salsa, his 89’ Toyota truck, Native American history and being able to piss without cost when he needs to. The thought of paying to stand in a filthy metal box, syringes on the ground and strangers waiting outside the door is ridiculous.
Waiting for the next train to arrive, Bob continues to scan his surroundings. In the distance he hears live music, a car horn and people laughing. It wasn’t that long ago he was a young man running around Chicago, dressed like Barry Gibb, chasing after Leslie and pitching his intramural softball team to league glory. If things were different he could have been a professional drummer, an athlete, maybe an artist. He knew he was destined for greatness.
Giving hope for the fanfare, he moved to Roseburg with his new wife and began working for a company that would ungratefully let him go after 16 years. Monday he will be back at work, a part time job in a soup kitchen for seniors. He enjoyed his work but couldn’t help thinking about his own mortality. Everyday seemed like someone died or was on their way to dying. “I’m not going to live past sixty five”, he would tell people “Death can’t even surprise me, I’m that good.” It was annoying to his wife and horrifying to his daughter. For Bob, he believed it all.
The hum of the next train was getting louder. He adjusted his waistband while peering through the moving windows. Assuming his family would be waiting for him, concerned and irritated, he prepared to board. Walking towards the platform the saw no signs of familiar faces, only the poor suckers that couldn’t get on the first train. “Those girls probably took a cab, probably don’t like being in the city without me. This will give them a chance to get caught up. I don’t understand most of what they talk about anyway.” Bob, without further thought, decided to continue back to the hotel on foot. The further away from the train he got, the fewer people he had to step around. Bob set out towards downtown as a light rain begins to fall.
As he came around a corner, Bob was forced off the sidewalk and into the gutter to avoid a young couple who had stopped to light their cigarettes. As he stepped back up on the sidewalk he felt a fresh surge of cold water soak into his socks. “Wool insulates even when wet,” he thought as he turned around to glare at the couple. His gesture went unnoticed. The young man stood staring at her shoes as she laughed a cloud of smoke and breath that drifted up towards the streetlight. Just ahead a man in a dark suit stopped, glanced towards the display window of an art gallery, checked his phone and resumed his brisk pace. As Bob caught up to where the man had stood, he slowed down to examine the contents of the window. Hanging above the southwestern style pots and hand blown glass balls, colorful but clumsy in execution, was a portrait of a Native American man in traditional dress. The weathered face and stoic expression struck Bob as strangely familiar. He looked at his watch, glanced up towards the lightly falling rain and walked in.
Bob took no notice of anything else hanging on the sterile white gallery walls, every frame perfectly lit from the track lighting to entice the disposable income of browsers, like prostitutes in an Amsterdam window. The man behind the counter, graying and tired, rubbed the bridge of his nose behind his glasses and looked up at Bob.
“Good evening. Let me know if you have any questions or anything catches your eye.” The salesman smiles at Bob and attempts to go back to his book, having written him off as a silent shopper, one content to look without any real interest in buying. He predicted that after a few minutes Bob would step back out side, restoring the silence of the space.
“I lost my wife and daughter on the train so I have some time. What’s the deal with the Indian in the window? How much is that one and what do you know about him?”
Surprised and almost glad to talk after a slow day, the salesman was only momentarily paused by incongruity of the situation. “Oh, I’m glad you asked about that one. That’s an Edward Curtis. He took a number of portraits of Native Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This one is a member of the Arikara and this was taken in the first decade of this century. It’s $3000.” He smiles at Bob and runs his thumb over the book, which has been closed over his middle finger to mark the page.
Bob stares at him, concentrating, and takes a step closer, slowly nodding in recognition. “He looks familiar. They were scouts for Custer at Little Bighorn.”
“Oh, so you know some of the history of these peoples?” The return to his book feels like it is slipping further away.
“I was there. A Miniconjou Lakota warrior. The wound that killed me came at that battle. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. I have dreams about all of it. The dreams are so real I feel and smell everything, like it happened yesterday. Just. Like. Yesterday.” Bob paused and made eye contact with the salesperson and explained himself. “A past life. I had a wife and a young son. That makes sense, right? How else can you explain how real it is?”
“Um, I don’t know. That’s very interesting. Do you have any Native American heritage in your family?” He looked up, trying to decide if Bob was serious, or just testing him, attempting to provoke a reaction, to corner him in taking some position on his reincarnation story.
Bob smiled at him and shrugged his shoulders. “You never know about these things, right?” Without waiting for a response, he turned around and walked out, satisfied that his question had been answered. Pausing outside the shop, he considered his options. The girls were probably at the hotel by now having a glass of wine and gossiping. It was still early in the evening and his absence would not be a concern.
Bob kept walking, alternating south and west. He was not entirely sure of where he was going, but he was confident in his sense of direction. When he got close, the landmarks would guide him in without having to ask for directions or get back on the train. For now, he picked his blocks on intuition, an eye open for a place to stop and maybe have a beer, to get caught up on the scores. The streets were becoming slightly more crowded, couples and families heading to dinner, occasionally someone taking the dog out for a walk. The younger ones, in scattered groups were as focused on their phones as their friends or the traffic. His daughter would probably be out in a group like this if he and Leslie were not visiting. Slowing down, he noticed a TV in the window of a bar across the street. There was a football game on, probably the late west coast game. As the rain began to fall again, the decision was made for him. This was a good enough reason as any to stop.
The tavern was sparsely populated, a few couples at some of the tables, and one young man sitting alone at the end of the bar, half halfheartedly reading a paperback. Bob’s entrance was hardly noted. He sat down at the opposite end of the bar where he could see the TV. Southern California was playing and Bob had only marginal interest in the game. West coast football was all fluff and show. He wouldn’t even be here visiting his daughter so close to the Thanksgiving break if Ohio State were playing today. That part of his Saturday routine could not be altered. The bartender, a young man with thick, black-framed glasses ambled over. The tight black t-shirt he wore had no sleeves, showing off arms covered by tattoos of tropical birds.
“What can I get you?”
“How about a Miller Light?” Bob, distracted , ordered his normal beverage of choice while squinting at the scores streaming across the bottom of the television. “Did Michigan lose today?” he wondered.
“Sorry man”, the bartender motioned towards a chalkboard at the other end of the bar. “That’s what we have on tap.”
Bob read the list. It was more like a wine list to him, names and descriptions with no meaning. “I’ve never heard of any of those. Do you have anything in a can?” He looked at the bartender and closed his eyes for a second. “What do you recommend?”
Reaching into the refrigerator under the bar, he handed Bob a sixteen-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “That’s all we have in a can. The Rose City loves Microbrews. What can I say, man?” He opened the can and sat it down in front of Bob. “Three bucks when you have a chance.”
Bob took a sip and looked over at the man on the other end of the bar. “No Miller Light in the Rose City, I guess.”
The man turned towards Bob and set his book down. He touched his beard, about to say something, then stopped. Bob could see his t-shirt had a picture of a unicorn rearing up under a faded rainbow. He smiled, picked up his own can of beer and held it towards Bob before nodding and taking a sip. Bob returned the gesture, took one long swallow and turned back towards the television, ready for the distraction of the game. As Bob tried to follow the game, to lose himself in the formations, the bartender picked up the remote and pointed it at the television. The cardinal helmets of the USC offense were suddenly replaced by Ed Harris. Harris, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, was intensely walking around a canvas, dripping and spattering paint. Bob remembers seeing this movie in the theater with his wife, an art history major. He looks out the window at the rain and then down at his watch. Taking another sip of beer he motions for the bartender.
“Can you call me taxi? I’m ready to go back home.”
© Thomas Leonhardt and Christen Knowles