The woman pushed a pamphlet across her battered wooden desk to the man sitting with one denim-clad leg crossed loosely over the other. A fraying Carhartt cap dangled from his knee.
“So, Mr. Collins,” she began. A nametag pinned to her blouse read “Ms. Rita Malone.” “As we discussed on the phone, this is our Value Everlasting package. It includes transportation of the loved one to our facility, all cremation services, and a memorial urn in your choice of bronze or copper-simulated tone.”
Dexter Collins retrieved a thick roll of bills from the pocket of his faded denim shirt and flipped it onto the desk. A flurry of dust motes swirled toward the fluorescent light humming overhead. “This oughta cover it. Don’t need nothing fancy.”
Ms. Malone’s eyes widened at the cash. “Perhaps you might like to honor the loved one with a simple service? We would be delighted to make the arrangements, for just a small additional fee.”
Dexter stood and pulled on his cap. “The funeral is for me, lady. And I ain’t nobody’s loved one.”
She let out a tiny gasp, and the deep creases rimming Dexter’s mouth pulled into a lopsided grin.
“You’ll get word when it’s time, probably before the end of the week.” He tipped his cap and retreated from the room, leaving Ms. Rita Malone to gawp after him.
Back in his pickup, Dexter stuffed Ms. Malone’s pamphlet into the glovebox next to his Beretta 9mm. He ran his index finger along the gun’s shiny black barrel for a moment before slamming the box shut and rummaging under the seat for his cell phone. The damn thing weighed nearly as much as his gun. He was surprised to find a waiting voicemail. No one ever called him except telemarketers and TV preachers.
“Mr. Collins, this is Dr. John Hunt from UAB Hospital. You’ve missed your last two consultation appointments and it’s urgent that I speak with you. I know, I mean … I imagine a Stage 4 diagnosis is a terrifying shock, but Mr. Collins we can help you if you’ll let us. Even if you decline treatment, at some point the pain will become considerable and you’re going to need —”
Dexter slapped the phone shut. He’d heard all he intended to from doctors.
“Hey, Dexter, is my truck fixed yet? I gotta run a load of pallets down to Montgomery this evening.”
“Everett, I told you I’d have it ready, and I’ll have it ready.” Dexter turned back to the semi. He had grown generally fond of Everett during the nearly 40 years they both worked for Winston Trucking, but the man ran his mouth like an old-maid schoolteacher. Even so, Dexter felt obligated to finish the job since it would be his last.
“Well, I might as well cool my heels while you finish up,” Everett said, lifting his considerable girth onto an ancient metal stool. “Say, that reminds me. Last time I took a run over to Georgia, I saw your boy in Wheatley.”
Dexter froze beneath the hood, the ratcheting of his socket wrench momentarily silenced. “You saw Daniel?”
“Yep, sure did. You never told me he was living in Wheatley.”
“Oh, yeah, he moved over that way some years ago,” Dexter lied and fumbled blindly with the wrench for a moment before climbing down from the engine.
Everett pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket and lit it. Twisting precariously on his perch, feet dangling, his gaze fell on the auto parts calendar pinned above the tool bench. A scantily-clad young woman smiled down from the hood of a mint condition ’68 Mustang.
“That’s a pretty girl you got up there, but you better be careful,” Everett snorted. “Now that there’s a couple of women working here, that could be what they call that ‘sex-yul hay-rass-ment.’”
Dexter fanned smoke away from his face and recalled that Everett always laughed too loudly at his own jokes. He returned the socket wrench to its place on the tool bench and began casually wiping grease from his hands.
“So, where was it in Wheatley you said you ran into Daniel?” Dexter asked and removed a small knife from his pants pocket. He scraped carefully at the dark grease permanently embedded beneath his fingernails.
“What?” Everett asked, reluctantly turning away from Miss Southeastern Ball Bearing. “Oh, right. I seen him coming out of this little meat-and-three on Broad Street. Yeah, with his wife and their little girl.”
Dexter returned the knife to his pocket and raked his hands through his thinning brown hair. “Is that right,” he said evenly, hoping Everett couldn’t see his heart pounding beneath his shirt.
“Sure is,” Everett said. “I was real surprised he remembered me. I don’t believe I’ve seen Daniel since you and his mama busted up, and he was just a kid then.” He puffed hard on his cigar. “You know, I always thought that was a crying shame. Annie sure was a fine woman. Pretty one, too.”
“Yeah, wasn’t no wonder I managed to run her off, was it?” Dexter joked and retreated beneath the truck hood.
“Say, what’s your grandbaby’s name?” Everett asked. “I swear, she’s the spitting image of her grandma.”
Dexter slammed the hood of the truck closed.
“Well, Everett, looks like you’re back in business. ’Bout time for you to hit the road, ain’t it?”
Dexter pressed the keys into the older man’s hand and ushered him towards the truck by one arm. Too surprised to mount a protest, Everett climbed into the cab and leaned out the window.
“I’ll tell you again,” Everett shouted over the engine’s roar as he backed out of the garage. “You better get Miss Ball Bearing down off that wall. That’s a can of worms you do not want to open, my friend.”
Dexter stood in the open garage door watching the taillights grow dimmer in the distance.
He swallowed hard against the bitter acid rising in his throat.
It was surprisingly easy to find his son, so much so that Dexter’s stomach roiled with the shame of it. One trip to the public library, and within an hour he found the number among the half dozen volumes on a shelf marked “2005 Phone Directories, Western Georgia.”
That night, Dexter sat at the kitchen table with his rotary phone and a fresh pint of Early Times. The bottle was nearly empty by the time he began to dial. He picked nervously at a crack in the Formica with his thumbnail as the call went to Daniel’s voicemail.
“Yeah, hello?” He cleared his throat. “This is Dexter, Dexter Collins. I, uh, heard you’re living over in Wheatley. I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet me at that diner on Broad Street next Thursday afternoon?” The receiver began to shake in his hand. “I know it’s been, been a long time, but I need to talk to you, Daniel.” He left his phone number and dropped the receiver on the table. As he drained the rest of the bottle, Dexter figured if Daniel bothered to call him back, he’d let the answering machine pick it up—he wouldn’t have to live with his own cowardice for long.
But Daniel did call, two days later, and left a message: “I’ll give you fifteen minutes, and only because my wife talked me into it.” The tape when silent for a moment. “This is Daniel, by the way. I don’t expect you’d recognize my voice.”
Dexter rounded the corner onto Broad Street for the third time, his eyes scanning the street for the diner. He didn’t remember downtown Wheatley being this crowded.
The courthouse clock tower sounded four o’clock and his left hand began to twitch.
Dexter finally located Leena’s Home Cooking and eased his truck into a parking space in front of the diner’s large front windows before removing a pack of Marlboro Reds from the pocket of his thin cotton jacket. Squinting against the afternoon sun, Dexter peered through the glass for anyone he recognized, but he couldn’t see past the glare. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray and got out of the truck.
A bell over the door clanged loudly as Dexter entered. The restaurant’s interior was so dim after the harsh daylight he had to blink several times before he could make his way past the booths and tables to a tattered red stool at the counter.
A waitress appeared from the kitchen and began to wipe down the surface in front of him. Her earrings, fashioned from a pair of dangling green dice, swayed in perfect rhythm with every swipe. The woman was either a well-preserved fifty or a hard-lived thirty, but for the life of him Dexter couldn’t tell which. A name tag over her generous right breast read “Raeanne,” with a small heart over the second “e.”
“What can I get you, honey?” she asked.
“You want something to eat with this?” Raeanne asked as she filled his cup. Her teased hair looked like honeyed cotton candy.
Dexter shook his head. The smell of frying bacon and yesterday’s grease wafted from the kitchen and set his stomach to rolling—he couldn’t keep much down lately. He craned his neck over one shoulder and then the other as if stretching, trying not to draw attention to himself as he surveyed the room. The lunch rush was long since over and only a few customers remained. A middle-aged couple sat huddled at a nearby table holding hands. They spoke to each other in hushed voices. The man leaned in even closer and whispered something in the woman’s ear, something that elicited a peal of laughter so sharp it made Dexter jump.
He tried to steady his hands as he stirred his coffee, but it sloshed over onto the counter. A white-haired man in a rumpled seersucker suit two stools down handed Dexter a wad of paper napkins.
“Got you a case of the shakes, my friend?” the old man asked. “What you need is a little hair of the dog that bit ya. Hey, Raeanne, bring my new friend here a drop of something soothing to go with his coffee. Bring me a drop, too, while you’re at it. I’m feeling a little parched.”
“No thanks, I’ll manage,” Dexter said. Raeanne emerged from the kitchen.
“Porter, you know perfectly well we don’t serve liquor in here,” the waitress scolded. “Now, you leave this man alone and mind your business.”
“Well, if I can’t get a little snort, I guess I’ll just take my business elsewhere,” Porter said and headed toward the cash register. He turned towards Dexter as he fished two wrinkled dollar bills from his wallet.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you in here before, friend. What brings you to Wheatley this fine afternoon?”
Dexter eyed the man for a few seconds longer than good manners allowed.
“Nothing special,” he answered, finally. “Just over from Birmingham to look up an old friend of the family.”
“That’s quite a long drive. Must be a good friend,” Porter said. Dexter leveled his gaze at him but didn’t answer.
“Well, good luck to you, then. Take my advice and avoid the sweet potato pie. Raeanne claims it’s homemade, but it tastes like it fell off the back of a dump truck.”
Porter hurried out the door, ducking as he went to avoid the wet dish towel Raeanne hurled at him from behind the register. A man of about thirty-five entered as Porter passed. He caught the towel in midair.
“Raeanne, don’t go letting that old man get your goat again,” the young man chided softly. She blew a raspberry through her lips and placed a fresh cup of coffee on the counter.
Dexter took a sideways glance at the younger man as he tossed the dish towel back to Raeanne then took a seat on Porter’s vacated stool. He must have only been an inch or two taller than himself, which wasn’t saying much.
“You waiting on somebody?” the young man asked.
“Yeah, what business is it of ….” Dexter’s voice trailed off as he looked the young man full in the face. There was something about the way his light eyes turned up at the corners when he spoke.
Raeanne appeared and extracted a gnawed yellow pencil from deep within the recesses of her hair.
“So, what you want to eat today, Daniel?”
“Daniel?” Dexter spun on his stool so fast he nearly slid off it.
“Yeah, Dex. In the flesh. Didn’t recognize me, did you?” he asked through tightly-drawn lips.
Dexter’s face reddened. He righted himself on his seat and hunched down over what was left of his coffee.
“Well, it’s been a long time. But I knew it was you, after a minute.” Dexter eyed him quickly. Daniel’s jaw tensed, much like his own so often did. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“That’s my wife Jamie’s doing—something about closure and setting a good example.” Daniel stared at him for a long minute. “What do you want with me, old man?”
Dexter’s face burned even hotter.
“No, I don’t want nothing from you, Daniel. I just got to wondering how you were making out in the world and wanted to … wanted to talk to you,” Dexter stammered.
“After twenty-five goddamned years? You came all this way just to chat?”
Daniel’s dark blond eyebrows were drawn down over his eyes, a deep vertical furrow formed between them. Dexter recognized the small rise in his son’s nose as a memento of a long-healed break. His own nose bore a similar reminder of a youthful brawl fueled by cheap liquor and indiscriminate rage.
“Why now, for God’s sake?” Daniel asked.
Dexter laced his fingers over the top of his head and blew a long, ragged breath through his lips. His thoughts raced in step with his pulse, and sharp pain stabbed at his left temple.
“I don’t rightly know. Lord knows I tried to forget about all that, about back then.” He lowered his hands from his head and crossed them against his chest. “I just figured you were better off without me.”
“You just moved on like it never happened?” Daniel shook his head. “Like I never happened.”
Raeanne hovered close by, wiping one end of the counter, the jangling of her earrings the only sound in the room. Trapped in the heat of his son’s glare, Dexter felt his chance slipping away.
Daniel lifted his right hand to hide the unbidden half-smile breaking across his face. “That’s the only reason I eat here.” He exhaled slowly. “What the hell. I said I’d give you fifteen minutes—at least one of us is a man of his word.”
No sooner had Dexter raised a hand to summon her, Raeanne slid silverware and two plates of pie in front of them.
“Now, you boys let me know if you need anything else.” She winked before disappearing into the kitchen.
The two men ate in silence for a long while. The light streaming through the windows had taken on the purple-orange hue of evening.
Dexter looked at his son, unsure of what to say.
“What happened to your nose?” he asked. “Football injury?”
“No,” Daniel answered and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “A fight outside a Tastee Freez back in high school. I always went after the biggest guy in the crowd.”
Although he knew he probably shouldn’t, Dexter felt a rush of pride.
“No kidding?” He gestured to his own slightly crooked nose. “I had my share of dust-ups back in my time.”
“Mama always said I got it from you,” Daniel said and pushed his plate away. “I guess it’s the only thing you ever gave me, not that it brought me anything but trouble.” The furrow had settled between his eyes again.
Dexter twisted his fork in his hands for several moments before he spoke again.
“Look here, boy, I don’t blame you for hating me. I did wrong by you and your mama, real wrong. But I was a mean-hearted sonofabitch back then, and I was no good for y’all.” Dexter turned back to face the counter again, his breath ragged. “I may have been a no-good coward for staying away like I did, but the way I see it, it was the only good thing I ever did for either one of you.”
Daniel stared down at his lap, listening to his father. When he looked up, his expression had softened a bit.
“Mama told me one time about all those nightmares you used to have, after you came home from ’Nam. About how you’d thrash around the room, breaking things and screaming. She said sometimes you didn’t even recognize her.”
Dexter’s mind flooded with dark memories. The terror in his wife’s eyes; the bruises she tried to hide and he couldn’t remember leaving.
“Your mama did everything she could to try to help me, even sent me to the VA hospital over in Birmingham one time, but it didn’t do any good,” Dexter said, his voice hoarse. “I was in a bad way back then, son; real bad, and I couldn’t get loose from it.”
Dexter grasped his son’s arm lightly. “Your mama always stood by me, even when everybody told her to kick my sorry ass out before things got any worse. Annie’s a good woman. Too good for me; so were you. That’s why I had to leave. You both deserved better.”
He dropped Daniel’s arm and turned back to his coffee. “I sure hope Annie found a better life after I was gone. God knows she’s earned it.”
“She’s dead, Dex,” Daniel said flatly. “Heart attack took her seven years ago.”
Dexter felt the floor rise up and his stomach lurched. In his mind’s eye Annie was still that young woman with unruly blonde hair flowing down her back like unraveled rope. He could still see her laughing in the sun with baby Daniel in her arms.
“I’m real sorry to hear that,” Dexter said, his composure slightly regained.
“She did. She was happy, I think.” Daniel swallowed hard and continued. “But she always missed you, and I’ll be goddamned if I know why.”
Dexter scratched at a mosquito bite above his right eyebrow while he tried to figure out how to tell his son he’d soon be an orphan.
“Daniel, I don’t know if it’ll make any difference to you, but I’ve had a run of bad luck myself, lately. See, a couple of months ago I got sent over to UAB—”
“I knew it.” Daniel shook his head and set his coffee cup in the saucer, hard. “You want something, don’t you?”
Startled, Dexter straightened up and turned toward his son. “No, Daniel, wait, let me—”
“What is it, Dex? If it’s money, I don’t have any, not for you. You need a kidney? Some bone marrow?” He paused, the color rising in his cheeks. “I don’t have anything for you.”
“Daniel, please, just listen to me.” Dexter’s voice was so small and pleading he almost didn’t recognize it as his own.
Daniel stood up and pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket. “If that’s all you’ve got to say, I guess I’ll be going. The coffee and pie are on me … Dad.” Daniel tossed the money on the counter and headed toward the door.
“I just want to know her name!”
Daniel stopped a few feet short of the exit. “Whose name?” he asked, still facing the doorway. “What are you talking about?”
Dexter rose from his seat and turned to face his son’s retreating back.
“The little girl,” Dexter said, his voice strangled. “My granddaughter. Just tell me her name. That’s all I want.”
“I don’t owe you a goddamned thing,” Daniel answered, without turning, and walked out into the waning afternoon light.
Dexter’s head jerked back as if he’d been punched.
Raeanne picked up the twenty and extended it toward him. “It’s on the house, honey.”
“No, ma’am.” He pulled on his cap. “I can’t take that money.”
Dexter crawled into the cab of his truck on rubbery legs and popped open the glovebox. He pulled it out and cradled it in his lap, wondering if anyone had taken all of the tomatoes and cucumbers he’d picked that morning. He’d left them in a cardboard box at the end of the driveway next to an old lawnmower, his toolbox, and a sign reading “Free.”
This was as good a place as any, he reckoned. He retrieved a ballpoint pen and Ms. Rita Malone’s pamphlet from among the fast food receipts and empty Marlboro Red boxes littering the dashboard.
On the cover of the Value Everlasting Guide to Bereavement he scrawled in spidery cursive: “Call this lady after you find me. I’m all paid up.”
Before Dexter could decide where to leave his note, he was startled by two sharp raps on the driver’s side window. It was his son.
“Annabel,” he said, loud enough to be heard through the glass. “Her name is Annabel.”
Daniel placed a small photograph against the glass. Dexter gently traced one trembling finger over the image. A tiny girl with ropes of blonde hair spilling over her shoulders smiled back at him, her mouth and chin stained red by the Popsicle melting in her hands.
“This is your granddaughter. We call her Annie.”
Fiction judge Ron Rash writes: This story of a dying man’s last chance to know his son eschews sentimentality, which makes the final line all the more powerful and moving.