sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 73

The Gremmy bumped softly across the railroad tracks as I made the turn off Lincoln onto Maple and toward the Deaf School, over to the west side of town. It was a hot and humid evening and I had the windows down and heard the six-thirty Soo-Line freight sound its lonely horn just a mile north at Jensen’s junction. Two long blasts. One short. Then another long one that slowly melted into the shimmering golden-yellow prairie horizon. I knew I had to hurry. It was Fajita Friday out at the Elks Lodge. Wally’s favorite. He’d be closing up right on time.

It was the last week of August of 1979 and I was leaving for college in the morning. The University of North Dakota. Grand Forks. Only ninety miles away from sludgoville but without a ride of my own it might as well have been a million. I knew I wouldn’t be back for a bit so I’d been cruising around most of the day tracking people down and saying my goodbyes and Wally’s was my last stop. Had to give him back his t-shirt.

sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 73

I pulled to a stop in front of the tired yellow and brown bungalow and grinned. The ‘Open’ sign was still in the front window. I looked at the sagging and peeling and rusted screen door and thought about how many times I’d walked through it over the years. How many times I’d heard that tinkle-bell jingle. How many times I’d heard Wally yell “Hello!” from somewhere back in the house. Usually the kitchen. Just having a coffee and a smoke and doing his crosswords and watching his game shows. I suddenly got a lump in my throat. Swallowed it down hard. Word was Wally wasn’t well. No one was supposed to know but everyone did. Nothing like a small-town secret. 

I reached over into the passenger seat and picked up the faded and threadbare ‘Aquabat’ t-shirt. It had been a year since he’d given it to me after I’d finally gotten up on waterskis at the big reunion. A year that it had sat neatly folded in the top drawer of my dresser. A year that I’d known I had to give it back to him.

I first met him when I was twelve, when the Oldsmobile Man bought me an aquarium for my birthday. Took me down to “Wally’s Fish Emporium” after cake and ice cream to pick it out. The only tropical fish store in town. Wally had run the place since anyone could remember. Open noon ’til seven except Sundays and Mondays, it was a neat and tidy shop, stacked tightly with spotless chrome tanks, each filled with nervous schools of exotic whatevers and plastered with handwritten warnings not to tap on the glass. There were a couple of rotating stands of technicolored plastic plants lurking about, a rack of pumps and filters and heaters and food along one wall, a table cluttered with miniature plastic treasure chests and castles and shipwrecks right in the middle of the sales floor, and bits and pieces of Wally’s life tucked and stashed everywhere else.

There was an out-of-focus framed black-and-white of him and his folks standing in front the Grand Canyon back when he was a kid. A high school football letter from St. Marten’s. Faded Kodacolor snaps of his ‘Aquabat’ days. Dented and tarnished bowling trophies. His Golden Gloves boxing jacket. Some old Army stuff, patches and medals and pins. His treasured fleet of Matchbox and Corgi and Lesney and Dinky die casts. And, right next to the till, a creased and water-stained Polaroid of his son Bob.

sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 73

I’ll never forget that it was the first day of Tenth Grade when the news hit. Echoed through the school that morning like a thunderclap. Bob Carmichael. Wally and Shirley’s kid. Driving Wally’s AMX. Speed was involved. So was a tight corner. Funeral arrangements were pending. The boys all sat in silence. The girls all softly cried. The teachers all huddled in the hallways. And for a moment, time stood still in sludgoville.

Wally and Shirley didn’t make it. Soldiered on for a couple of months but one cold February Sunday when Wally was out picking up some smokes Shirley packed up a single suitcase and left. Didn’t leave a note. Just her ring on the dresser.

Wally kept the AMX. Towed it home from the salvage yard and shoved it deep into the garage, as far back into the corner as it would go. Locked it up. Threw a tarp over it. Never touched it again.

sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 73

I creaked open the screen door and saw Wally, crouched over one of the tanks, hard at work scraping algae. I thought he looked like he always did, years older than the calendar said he was. He still had a skiff of white hair up top and wrinkles and creases and lines and scars criss-crossing a scrunched up leathery face centered by two tired blue eyes. A thicker build that filled out his bib overalls and starched-white button-up. The same stoop and limp and bend in his back that made you want to pity him but God help you if you did because he’d throw you a nasty stink eye along with some words you didn’t want to repeat around your mother.

He gave me a snaggly-toothed grin at first but then looked down at my hand and saw the t-shirt. Furrowed his bushy white eyebrows and squinted and asked me what was up. I told him I was heading out for school tomorrow and needed to give it back to him before I left. That I totally appreciated him giving it to me but that I just couldn’t keep it. Said I’d never wear it. That I couldn’t wear it. Respected it too much. Respected him too much. Said it was his. That he was its rightful owner. A rare breed. One of the original ‘Aquabats.’

I walked over and handed him the shirt and he teared up. Thanked me and shook my hand and gave me a hug that I’ll always remember. We chatted a minute longer then said our goodbyes and I trotted out to the Gremmy, mission accomplished, but before I hopped in I heard Wally rasp out my name from back at the house. Turned and saw him furiously scuttling down the broken-concrete walk toward me, barking out to everyone in the neighborhood that he needed to give College Boy something to remember him by, and as he got closer I saw he had something in his hand. Something shiny. Something special. Something precious.

A little white MGB roadster.

sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 73

Peaceful travels…


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