"I met Mae years later," Royal says softly to Lonny-Donny and Stan. "At the Merrill farm, when she and Deuce came back from Alberta for a visit," he adds. Lonny-Donny and Stan wait for their great uncle to continue. Royal just regards the restaurant's back wall. Lonny-Donny smiles and nods.
"More coffee, Royal?”, Rose asks, holding up the coffee pot.
Royal blinks. "No, thank you. Perhaps the boys would like some pie?" he asks.
"No thanks, Uncle," says Stan. "We're hoping to make it to L.A. by morning." Royal signals Rose for the check. Sadness engulfs Lonny-Donny.
Lonny-Donny says to his great uncle, "There's more to tell."
"I know," his uncle replies.
"I'm sorry," says Lonny-Donny.
"Why?", Royal asks.
"Mae," Lonny-Donny says.
After a moment, Royal says, "I know." He smiles at his nephew. "Its a pleasure to meet you, Lonny-Donny," he says.
Stan fidgets, looks at the door. Royal tells Lonny-Donny, "Your grandfather told you his stories for a reason.
"I know," says Lonny-Donny.
Royal lifts the check from the table and stands slowly. Stan reaches to help him, but Royal motions him away. He rises to his full height. Lonny-Donny sees his Uncle Royal's 55 years in the U.S. Navy: a CPO who rarely left port, never married, retired rich at 70, proud, alone.
Royal never went to high school, but he puts his small fortune in a trust for the college education of his brother Deuce's grandchildren.
Every one of Deuce's grandchildren who applies for a grant from the trust gets it -- except Lonny-Donny. He's never told why he was denied. Lonny-Donny never thinks to ask his uncle for an explanation. He's glad it didn't come up, since he's only another D away from flunking out.
"Thank you for visiting," Royal tells Stan and Lonny-Donny as he takes out his wallet to pay their lunch tab. "I enjoyed seeing you both."
The nephews walk their great uncle from the cafe across the street to his apartment building. They stand on the sidewalk beside Stan's van. Lonny-Donny spots the temperature displayed on the Tucson National Bank sign: 88 degrees. In January. Feels weird, he thinks. Feels normal.
"Enjoy your stay in Los Angeles," Royal tells Lonny-Donny. "But keep clear of your brother's business." He turns to Stan. "HVAC," he says.
"Or maybe drafting," Stan adds apologetically. He gives his uncle a half wave and quarter nod, then he gets in the driver's seat of the van.
Royal looks at his nephew Lonny-Donny and notices he's on the verge of tears. "No one will listen," Lonny-Donny says before his uncle asks. "To Grandpa's stories," Lonny-Donny adds. "Nobody will read them." "A story still has value if it's told only to the teller," Royal says. "My brother told you about Uncle Joe and Mary and Mae so you could keep them alive. You're all they have left."
Royal wants to tell his nephew that it will be okay, but he knows better. He's gonna suffer, just like I suffered, he thinks. And for what? Fifty-five years a Navy man, the last 30 at the same rank. Passed over time and time again. Royal sees a familiar fear in his nephew's eyes.
They called me aloof, thinks Royal. Smug. Unfriendly. I couldn't tell them I was petrified. Paralyzed with fear. Of them. All those people.
Every social interaction fraught with peril. Royal rehearsed small talk over and over, but never got it right. The alcohol was the worst. Whenever someone showed any signs of inebriation, Royal's diaphragm stopped working. His heart raced. "Run! Run!" was all he could think.
Like he ran from his father. Polite and courteous to everyone, until he drank. Then he was mean, violent. Only to Royal. Always to Royal. The old man was years dead before Royal figured out why. His father saw himself in Royal. Likely hated himself for passing on the bad blood.
Just as Chuck passed it on to Lonny-Donny. Royal couldn't imagine the guilt of a man who hates his own son because the boy's just like him. Royal decided a long time ago, he wouldn't wish this brain on anyone, least of all a relative. The bad blood he carried would die with him.
Now here's his nephew Lonny-Donny, looking at him like he knows what's coming. Royal searches for some words to console him, but finds none. Right on cue, Stan beeps the van's horn. "Find a way," Royal tells Lonny-Donny. "To tell their story. It doesn't matter if no one hears it."
"Tell your story, too," Royal continues, "once you've lived it. Don't let the pain stop you. You'll get used to it."
"OK," says Lonny-Donny. Royal is surprised and pleased when Lonny-Donny holds out his hand for him to shake. The second horn blast drowns out Lonny-Donny's words.
"What was that?", Royal asks his nephew.
"I said I wish I could tell your story, too," Lonny-Donny replies.
Royal shakes his head slowly."Nothing to tell," Royal says. He points at the van. "Don't keep your cousin waiting."
Lonny-Donny whispers, "It still hurts, doesn't it?"
Royal tries to camouflage his surprise as confusion. "You don't really get used to it," Lonny-Donny says.
"No," Royal replies. "You don't."
Royal watches his nephew get in the van without looking back. He'll handle it better than I did, he thinks. Hiding in an office for 50 years. The world's not all mean, Royal reminds himself. But the meanness sure had a way of finding him. Highly unlikeable. Yes sir, that was Royal.
Royal stands on the sidewalk a full minute after the van turns the corner, then he heads back to his apartment, the only place he has to go.
They're a half hour out of Tucson heading west when Stan breaks the silence. "Don't want to end up like him."
"You won't," says Lonny-Donny.
"You say that like you know," Stan says.
Lonny-Donny replies, "I don't." He gazes at evening desert. So familiar. "Just a guess," he adds.
"What did Uncle Royal say about your medical exception?", Lonny-Donny asks Stan.
"Exemption," Stan corrects him. "All I know is, it worked."
"They promise you anything to get you to sign up," Stan continues. "Then they take it all back. Anyone who ain't trying to get out is nuts."
"How'd you get out?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"I just stopped showing up -- to class, to work details," Stan says. "Stayed in my bunk, whatever."
"And they gave you a medical exception?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"Exemption, remember?", Stan says. "Not right away, but I was in no big hurry."
"I thought the Army was, you know, strict about doing what they tell you to do," Lonny-Donny says.
"Air Force," says Stan. "Yeah, usually."
Lonny-Donny asks, "How'd you get away with not doing it?"
Stan shrugs. "I told 'em I sent my robot."
"Huh," says Lonny-Donny. "Good idea."
The van rolls along in the growing dark. Finally, Lonny-Donny asks, "Where'd you get the robot?"
"You're kidding me, right?" Stan laughs.
"There was no robot," Stan explains. "I just told them I made a robot."
Lonny-Donny nods. "Saved yourself a lot of work that way," he says.
Stan laughs. "Yeah, none of the off-the-shelf robots looked anything like me," he says. Lonny-Donny laughs along, though he's not sure why.
"How long did you have to wait before they exempted you?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"Well, first I talked to a bunch of brass in Texas," Stan says. "Then they sent me to a military hospital outside DC. Man, there were some real loonies in that joint, let me tell you. There was one other guy there who wasn't crazy. We spotted each other right away. He told 'em God was talking to him."
Stan shakes his head at the memory. "He told the Army shrinks God sounds just like Maurice Chevalier. Claimed God wanted him to open an orphanage in Las Vegas."
Lonny-Donny interrupts: "I thought you were in the Air Force?"
"I was," Stan says. "Air Force doesn't have its own loony bin. Budget cuts. Anyway, they knew I wasn't nuts, but I just stuck with my robot story. After awhile, they needed my bed for a real whacko."
"They just let you walk?", Lonny-Donny asks his cousin.
"More or less," says Stan. "Something about 'unable to adjust to military life'."
"Wow," says Lonny-Donny. "They let you out just cuz you can't adjust. Did the other soldiers know about that?"
"Airmen," Stan corrects him. "They don't publicize it, that's for sure. Besides, you lose out. No honorable discharge, no benefits. But I don't mind."
"The Air Force lied to me," Stan explains. "I lied to them. So wipe the slate clean."
"What did they lie to you about?", asks Lonny-Donny.
Stan rubs his eyes. "Before I enlisted they promised me I wouldn't have to use any guns," he says. "You about ready to take over driving?"
"Sure," Lonny-Donny replies. "How far to L.A.?"
"Four, five hours," Stan says. He starts to pull the van onto the dark highway's shoulder.
As the van rolls to a stop, Lonny-Donny says, "Wait a second. It's the military. Guns are, like, their thing. You believed the recruiters?"
"They said I was gonna be a jet engine mechanic," Stan explains. "Who needs a gun for that?" He puts the van in park and heads for the back.
Lonny-Donny takes a pull from a warm can of coke, cracks the window, puts the van in first gear, and slips smoothly onto the empty highway. He can't see much beyond the van's headlights. So far, he thinks, California looks a lot like Arizona without cactus. Or people.
Lonny-Donny can't help but feel disappointed. So much for first impressions. Maybe it'll look better in the daylight. Or any kind of light.
Two hours and a stale sausage roll later, Lonny-Donny notices raindrops on the windshield as the "Palm Springs City Limits" sign flashes by. Ten miles west of Palm Springs Lonny-Donny realizes they're on schedule to reach L.A. right around dawn. His brother Chuck would love that.
Up ahead Lonny-Donny spots a wide shoulder where several semis have pulled far off I-10 for the night. He decides a short nap would be nice. The van nearly steers itself into an empty spot in the long line of parked trucks. Lonny-Donny is dreaming a second after the engine stops.
"Welcome home," a voice tells Lonny-Donny in his dream. The voice sounds both familiar and strange.
"I just got here," Lonny-Donny replies.
"You're not you yet, but you will be."
I know that voice, thinks Lonny-Donny inside his lucid dream. "If I'm not me, who am I?", he asks.
"Who am I?", the voice echoes. The sound becomes a young man shivering in an empty boxcar, stomach aching from hunger, too tired to sleep.
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