On lazy summer afternoons when he was home on leave, they piled into the black pick-up and headed down the country roads, through the sun-soaked farm fields, and into the canopied roads that led through the woods to Larry’s favorite bar.
It sat on a grassy slope above a wide, lazy river. An old farm road was draped over the contours, splitting fields on one side of the river before ducking through a covered bridge and disappearing into the maples on the other. It was there long before either of them was born and it would be there long after they were gone. Inside, the requisite darkness of a bar was illuminated just enough for a midday stop by the light that filtered in from the screened porch in the back corner and through the old glass blocks behind the bar. The ritual intones of a baseball announcer floated comfortingly from a TV above the bottles. The bartender was opening Larry’s beer as soon as she saw him come through the door. She placed it on the cigarette-burnt lacquer as they took their places at the bar, and asked James what he’d have. There were just enough other patrons there to push away the awkwardness – if one was prone to that. One or two workmen between jobs, a few permanent fixtures, and the retired men who came in for a few beers and a few innings before puttering on home to sit in the drive and listen to the game on radio as they’d done since childhood.
The bar had been there, nestled between the woods and the water for over a century. It outlasted them all, but they took a piece with them wherever they went. They knew the bend of the river outside, what it looked like crusted in ice and the way, over weeks, that spring buds would sprout around it. During the summer, just the glimpse of the old building through the trees would make them feel cooler. And in the fall, the leaves in their kaleidoscope colors would float down silently, softly until they sat on the river’s cool surface to be swept away forever.
James met Larry in the fall, when he was looking forward to retirement and being a grandfather. Before James, Larry’s pick-up had been all he needed for his trips on the back roads of Montana and the Dakotas in his pick-up. He had plans for the grandkids, though. He bought a pop-up camper to pull behind that pick-up truck and he and James talked over beers about the trips they’d take once the kids were old enough.
Then, before the kids were old enough, James and Penny sat quietly in the front room of Larry’s house. Penny stood silently at the picture window as Larry shuffled outside in sweats and slippers to sell the trailer. James stood a few steps back in the shadows as the trailer was hitched up to another truck and rolled down the road and around the bend. When it was out of sight, Larry’s shoulders sagged. Penny’s shoulders shook soundlessly. James stood quietly as another set of synapses went numb.
In such situations, some people talked about hope and miracles. Larry was not vain enough to expect a miracle. And he’d seen too much to hope. As he shuffled back in and collapsed, wasted, on the couch, his wife and his daughters dabbed one more time at their eyes and turned to him with forced smiles. Larry looked at James, who gave him what he was looking for – no smiles, no tears, just a nod of grim acknowledgement. Larry nodded back. If they hadn’t been there, if it had been another place, another time, James knew what he would have said. “There it is.”