Eric Burbridge has written dozens of short stories and has been published in several literary journals.
HAZY AND COOL
Lucas Byrd’s love of the Independent Party was short lived when they passed Medicare reform. The budget demanded cuts, those cuts required seniors his age that passed certain criteria to work fifteen hours weekly, in whatever shifts they chose, for a government agency. Lucas was in good shape and his doctor’s report landed him at an EPA’s recycle facility, but not as a retired civil engineer, but on the line separating recyclables, as they called it. The harder, dirtier jobs to fulfill the Medicare requirement got a person to re-retirement faster. The faster the better, if it didn’t kill you.
He was a garbage picker!
The disaster in the Appalachian Mountains didn’t help; the government never gave anybody anywhere a straight answer. Speculation was rampant; an asteroid or nuclear explosion wiped out one of the mountains and the ash lingered. Today was the day he re-retired and at seventy he still looked good; tall, decent muscle tone, mobility and limited medication. “Black don’t crack” he’d tell his younger co-workers. He got high fives on his way to the decontamination showers and gave security the thumbs up passing through the scanners.
A cloud burst left a chill in the air and half the residents of the Evergreen Terrace Assisted Living Complex sat on their balconies waiting to get a glimpse of the sunlight. The lighter the sky the better the chances of a break through. Sunshine lifted the spirits. Lucas parked, went in his apartment and tossed his clothes in the washer. A quick shower and off to the community room to celebrate and needle a couple of the guys who still had to work. Of course, he wouldn’t be a dick about it. It was a blessing to still have mobility when several friends on his floor were bed ridden. He’d look in on them later, but first his circle of friends was waiting. A few drinks and poker were the order of the day. Lucas stepped into the room and there they sat around the poker table. “Hey, Lucas,” they greeted him with smiles and hand gestures. Mario, a short Latino a decade older then he with a full head of white hair pulled out his chair.
“Thank you, sir. Where are the rest of the old folks?”
“On their balconies, disappointed by now, no sunshine.” Hank said. He was the only Pakistani physician in the building who brightened the day with his personality and perfect posture for an eighty-year-old.
Lucas sat and pulled up his chair. “How long you got to go, Tubby?” He laughed. They called Tubman, Tubby for short. He was a tall solid built Nigerian-American who played his double leg amputee from diabetes role to the bust, but his prosthetic legs enabled him to push a broom at an office building at night.
“Not long, Lucas, not long at all. When I grow up I want to be just like you. Congrats by the way.”
“Thank you…Where’s Peter?”
“Peter’s got company. I saw what looked like family go in his apartment with lawyer types.” Mario said and dealt Lucas a hand.
He frowned as he sorted his hand. “Were the lawyer types all White?”
“Yeah,” Mario replied.
“Why does he socialize with us, peoples of color, if you think he’s such a racist, Lucas?” Hank asked. Lucas shrugged.
“Because there’s a bunch of cool people in our circle.” Mario said and gave everybody a high five.
“Say what you will gentlemen, but certain things he says and comments suggest he has, at the very least, biases and judgments about peoples of color. He’s cool, but still…” Lucas looked past Tubby and saw Peter’s nurse push him through the door. “Speak of the devil.”
Peter Usher’s gut gave him a break today usually the day after chemo he was sick as a dog and it had taken twenty-five pounds off his two hundred fifty-pound frame, not to mention the huge loss of his sandy blonde hair. The group noticed his glowing demeanor. “You having a good day, Peter?” They asked. Obviously, but he answered with a nod and manually positioned his wheelchair closer to the table next to Lucas Byrd. Lucas of all people to see today. They tolerated each other, but some day’s it was trying. He was in such good shape. Was it envy or what? No, envy was a bad word. There was a certain degree of admiration in that emotion. Like it or not. Indoctrination into the White way of doing things discouraged relating to other races. That was crazy and impossible.
Detoxify your mind, Peter.
Those crazy thoughts crept into his mind on occasion. Why today? Lucas was why.
“Hello, family. You all look well as can be expected for a bunch of old dogs.” They laughed. “I got it from here; you can take the chair, Amy.” His nurse smiled and left. He sat and scooted up to the table. “Don’t deal me in.” Mario put down the deck. “I got something important to talk about gentlemen.” Peter gave his friend a quick glance. Good, now he had their attention. “Remember when we sat at this very table and, damn near took an oath, we’d look out for each other no matter what?” They acknowledged it. “Well, I need one of you.”
“You do. Well I’ll be damned; you need one of “you people.’” Lucas said.
Peter smiled and shook his head. “You are so sensitive. I’m messing with you guys when I say that and you know that.” Lucas wasn’t going to get on his nerves today. He pushed back from the table. “Can I finish?”
“Go ahead,” Tubby said.
Peter leaned back and took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I don’t know how to say this the right way, if there is one, but the chemo didn’t work according to plan.” The concern on their faces bothered him. He didn’t want to be a party pooper, but it was necessary.
“Sorry to hear that, Peter.” Lucas said and the others nodded.
“I appreciate it guys, but I have a last request, a simple one, I think, since they say I have up to six months left if I’m lucky. So, I need someone to drive me home. I’m going deep in the hills further west. I heard every now and then the sun peaks through for hours. I want to go look and lay on a lounger in the sunlight when I go, if I’m lucky.”
“Sounds good to me, but I cannot drive for long periods of time.” Mario said.
“Ok, you’re out, but when I think about it…I thought drawing straws would do it.” They shook their heads. “Am I asking too much or what?” Silence. Cut the crap Peter you know the only one well enough to travel that distance was Lucas. Ask him. “Lucas, help me out here, since you’ve re-retired it’ll be a mini-vacation.”
“Yeah, but the drive back, I’m by myself.” Lucas said.
Peter didn’t know what to say, he was right and the interstate wasn’t what it used to be, delays everywhere. Half of it was closed, the other in serious disrepair. A definite challenge for a couple of old guys. “Well?”
“Yeah, okay I’ll help you out, but you sit in the front. This isn’t going to be that chauffeur type stuff you see in the movies.”
“Thanks, Lucas, you shouldn’t regret this.” They shook. Chances are Lucas knew it wasn’t going to be easy dealing with a dying man especially if he got sick. “We’ll get to the financials later, but for the time being I got things to do.”
“Wait a minute.” Peter spun around. “Don’t think I’m prying, but what does your family think about this…especially when you tell them it’s a Black guy bringing you home?”
“Did you bring bad karma with you, Peter? This is the first flat I’ve had since I bought this car. I almost lost control.”
“I did not bring bad, whatever karma is, with me.”
Lucas loosened his grip on the wheel. “Well, help me change the tire.” They exited the vehicle. Lucas moaned about his lower back pain and Peter offered hima pain killer. “No thanks that’s too strong for me.”
“Suit yourself.” Peter slipped a pill under his tongue and they started to unloaded the trunk.
Lucas noticed his passenger kept looking down the road. The only thing down there was a van sitting at a small roadside pull over and a picnic table. Something wasn’t right. “You okay?”Peter nodded and grabbed the remaining luggage. Lucas hadn’t noticed the rifle case. “When did you put that in there?”
“When we first started.”
“What is it and does it have a chip in it?”
“.44 magnum carbine, no chip, that long thing on the end is a flash repressor/silencer. I’m a firm believer in what’s left of American’s right to own arms. Since you’re driving how long has that white van down the hill been following us?” Peter asked.
What had he gotten in to? He uncovered the spare and unscrewed the lug wrench. Whatever Peter was up to, do not act overly concerned. If that made sense. “Why? Don’t involve me in your bullshit, Peter. I don’t deserve it and I’m too old for it.”
“It’s not what you think. Do me a favor and fix this damn tire.” Peter pushed the spare to the front. “Good this happened by all these hedges and weeds. I’m going in these bushes and I’ll be right back. Then I’ll explain a few things, okay?”
Lucas nodded and continued to tighten the lugs nuts, while Peter took the weapon in the bush. What was he up to? He’d worked up a sweat reloading the trunk and glanced down the hilly two-lane highway. The van hadn’t moved. Two muffled pops came from the bushes, then two more. What in the hell had Peter done? Was he hunting or what? Wishful thinking, Lucas. He must’ve killed the people in that van. Great. Several cars and trucks approached. One of the cars slowed and backed up; several bikers, honked, shouted obscenities and zoomed past.
Oh no, keep going please!
A tall thin White guy jumped out his SUV. “Hey old timer you need a hand?”
“No thanks, my buddy went to water the roses; he’ll be right back, thanks anyway.” Peter popped out the bushes smiling playing with his zipper. The guy waved and got back in his vehicle and left. “Jesus Peter, what have you done?” Good thing he didn’t have the gun.
“Not what you think.” He ducked back in the bushes and got the weapon and finished loading the trunk. Lucas floored the Toyota.
“You got explaining to do, right?”
“Right, but I can’t dead, slow down.”
He was pushing it. Their trip was fun until he pulled out the gun. Peter’s small talk and corny jokes weren’t working. A good stiff drink would calm the nerves. Traffic started to tighten as they passed a sign, “City of Holden, city limits. Typical small town out skirts; homes with farming equipment in the front and on the sides of the houses, old abandoned gas stations and stores. “Don’t think I forgot, Peter the sniper.”
“Ha, ha, very funny. There’s a saloon midway down the block, see it?” Peter asked.
“Yeah, the haze made it hard to see at first. Damn fog coming out the hills.” He pulled in a handicapped space. They got out slow as expected for a couple of seventy-year olds. They stretched and yawned simultaneously. “That felt good,” Lucas said.
“Old West wooden sidewalks, I love it. Let’s go have a few.”
“You can drink with pancreatic?” Lucas felt stupid after his buddy gave him that look. “Sorry, but if I get lynched I’m going to haunt you.” Lucas said.
“That won’t happen, first round on me and then, I’ll tell you some of what you want to know.”
“There’s a hotel on the corner. Just think we might go in there and get a couple of bar flies to give us some.” They laughed and headed down the street.
The two old guys pushed open the swinging double doors of “The Saloon” to the faint smell of weed. The bartender barely looked their way and continued adjusting the volume of the TV tuned to the race track. Other patrons paid them no attention. Lucas felt the depression most people felt, little to no sunshine with hazy skies had taken its toll on the population. A common practice, it was silly but people begged to differ, wearing yellow tinted sunglasses worked wonders. He did himself every now and then. “Where are your sunglasses, Peter?”
He patted his pockets. “I forgot them. Where’s yours?”
Lucas slipped his on. “Got them, but I don’t need them, here.” Peter accepted and signaled for service. “Nice, but if you don’t need them, neither do I.”The bearded youngster stood patiently. “Two beers from the tap.”
“Yes sir.” He said and switched slightly to get the brews.
Lucas smiled. “The old west has changed quite a bit, right?” Peter nodded. “Here comes our order.”
The bartender placed the foam tipped mugs on a couple of coasters. “Does the jukebox work?”
“Yeah, need change?”
Peter gave him a fifty. “That’s the smallest I got. What’s your name?”
“Cindy…I’m in touch with my feminine side today,” and reached in the register and got change.
“Ok, I’m Peter and my buddy’s, Lucas. If I were a younger man we’d probably be good friends, nice to meet you.”
Cindy smiled. “Don’t mind the rednecks we’re a civilized town, enjoy yourself.” He left to serve others. Peter took a gulp of the ice-cold brew and his tongue cleaned the foam off his upper lip, followed by a tremendous brain freeze. He grabbed his forehead. “You okay, buddy?” Lucas asked.
“Yeah…brain freeze.” Lucas sat and sipped his with caution. “This place needs music. Country western beats the hell out of the horses, play something lively.” Peter suggested.
Lucas hurried through the maze of empty wooden tables and chairs. Surprise. Hesaw a few old hits from back in the day. He dropped the coins and watched the machine come to life, an arm snatched a disc, swung it over and the dead were re-animated. Lucas turned and gave Peter a thumb up and returned to his seat. “Now start talking, what have you gotten me into? Don’t bullshit me either.”
That’ll be the day Peter didn’t owe him a thing. If not because he was Black wasn’t good enough. He was laser focused on his face in the hope he could detect a lie.
Peter finished his drink. “First thing, I’m not a hit man or any other cloak and dagger crap that’s running through your head. Second thing, I did not shoot anybody. I put slugs in their radiator, obviously so they couldn’t follow us, not that they don’t know where I’m headed.” What was this all about? He might be telling the truth.
Lucas shrugged, “Ok, if you say so.”
“We know how things are in the country, split politically, geographically and even in the faith community suffered from the mountain disaster. My family is no different.”
“Sorry, to interrupt, but they’re worried about others especially Black folks, right?” That changed his expressions now what?
“Yeah, well what can I say? They didn’t agree with my choice to live here before I was terminal, but I don’t care, Evergreen Terrace was a good place, five stars with five-star people, except you, of course.” Peter laughed. “Whoever those guys are they’re doing what their told. Those shots will send a message to my family. Don’t bother me! They’ll back off a little bit, but not that much.” He signaled for a refill.
“Slow down, Peter.” That’s all he needed, he drinks himself to death.
“Don’t worry I’m good. Let’s eat, drink and be merry. And, if that’s not down to earth enough…fuck’em.”
“Agreed.” He had a point and there was nothing he could do anyway.
“Stop being so damn suspicious. I’m not the two-faced racist you think. To hell with those biases I was raised around. And, I’ll share more with you when we get where we’re going.”
“Ok, cool with me.” Lucas said and drank up.
The alcohol and the music had Peter tapping his feet on the brass foot rail. He spun around to get a full view of the shapely leg women stepping to the country music rhythms. Even the beer bellied guys were in sync. Look at what you started. It was good; it took his mind off his health. Who cares if you sit around feeling sorry for yourself or mad at the world? Hell, he had a good run, better than most. Whatever they were frying in the kitchen smelled good. No sooner than he turned his head to place an order, Cindy came out the kitchen door with two orders of wings.
“Here you guys go, fresh and hot, on the house, enjoy. We love our seniors even if they ain’t from around here.”
“Well, thank you, we appreciate it.” Lucas said and popped a fry in his mouth. “Wow, that’s hot and the seasoning is perfect.” They buried their faces in the plates.
Peter wiped his mouth and leaned back. “That was delicious.” The place was full and they cornered off a section for the poker players. Two attractive females in their 30’s came over and introduced themselves. Mary and Sally wore styled jeans and skimpy blouses, the two blondes could’ve passed for family. “How you two city slickers’ like our town?” They smiled and hugged them.
“We love it.” Lucas said.
“Y’all east of the mountains or west?” Mary asked.
“Headed southeast and we’re not city slickers in the bad sense. We’re a of couple of ex-assisted living retirees looking for a good time while we’re in town.” Peter looked around. “We were right.”
A popular song came on an everybody jumped up and headed for the dance floor.
“That’s my song, see y’all later.” Sally said, and they went and grabbed a couple of guys.
“You don’t look so good, Lucas.”
“I’m drunk, I think.”
“You think?” Peter signaled for another round.
Cindy poured another shot. “Don’t look now, but a couple of guys who look like the law came in a minute ago. Their over in the corner.”
Peter cut his eyes their way. Both had crew cuts he’d seen them through his rifle’s scope. Damn, he’d forgotten them. “It’s not what you might think, Cindy, my families probably got them making sure I’m alright. That’s why Lucas came so they wouldn’t have to worry. It’s cool we’re not fugitives, just two old timers enjoying their bucket list shit, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, got it.” Cindy winked. “We got your back.”
Peter hated the distrustful look on his friends face soon he’d have to come clean. Lucas was drunk, head-on bar, drunk if they didn’t leave. “Ok, my friend, let’s stagger down to the hotel and call it a night.” Somehow, they managed to walk into the lobby of the Western Hotel, shoulder to shoulder, too drunk to worry about or remember their luggage.
Lucas rinsed his mouth with the last of the hotel sized bottle of mouth wash. His breath still stunk, but that’s what you get for going to sleep with a belly full of whisky and not enough to eat. Last night’s whisky breath, the cure, another drink. That was out of the question. If he heaved his guts up like Peter did earlier he might feel better, but he was grateful he wasn’t too hung-over. Hopefully, Peter would bring an extra coffee if the machine worked. The hotel was a true relic of the old west; metal headboard, shaded lamps, laced curtains and other quaint amenities. The only thing modern was the electronic keypad. Surprise. Peter got two coffees’.
“It’s early, let’s leave now, if those guys stayed late they might still be sleep, you think?”
“Makes sense to me.”They turned in their cards. The dozing young pink haired night clerk waved good-bye. A blue four door sedan that resembled a cop car sat on four flats. “Looks like Cindy looked out for us.” Lucas said.
“Yeah, I wonder where they got the car.” Peter asked.
“Wherever, let’s hope they don’t see us leave.”
Lucas rested his hands on the wheel. “We need to check for a tracker.”
“I wish they would. I’ll act a fool and they know it. They are watching for the time being.” Peter sighed. “They don’t know my diagnosis, as far as I know, they think I got dementia. I’ll get lost or taken advantage. They think you or others have been a bad influence on me.”
“Bad influence, that’s bull.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m done talking about it.” Peter said and pointed forward. “Well, Tennessee, her comes two old guys with last night’s whisky on their breath. Hit it, Lucas!”
He dropped the vehicle in drive and headed for the road.
For the past hour Lucas strained to see through the fog. The only lights were those from farms set back off the road and the occasional emergency phone. At half the speed limit, he just missed a couple of deer and unfortunately, he splattered what looked like a beaver or possum. The winding road through the trees would be more scenic with the sun burning off the fog, but the haze ruined that. They’d left around four thirty and hopefully; they had a good jump on Peter’s friends. Why wouldn’t he tell him the truth and what did he have to lose at this stage of the game? An hour had passed since they pulled over for him to heave up his guts. Was it the cancer or the coffee? Now he snored, not a care in the world. That didn’t last long.
“What’s that’s smell?” Peter un-reclined his seat.
“A cattle truck, been behind them for a while. Too many turns to pass them, enjoy a whiff of the morning breeze.”
“Any sign of our escort?”
“Sarcasm, this early in the morning. I love it and no…none.” Lucas said. “Tell me about these people.”
“You were listening when I told Cindy, right?”
“Yeah, but you were telling him/her not me, which is disrespectful since I’m doing the driving. What you think about that?”
“You’re right, but I’m glad I did it got us some breathing room. Pass this truck.”
Lucas hit the accelerator, passed three trucks and got back just in time. “Satisfied?” He cracked the windows. “I like fresh air even if it stinks.
“That’s better. My family is biased and they didn’t want me to be at Evergreen Terrace…”
“Biased, their prejudice, right?” Lucas interrupted.
“But, fuck‘em, I’ve learned a lot about other peoples in the past few years.”
“It’s mid-century, man. You mean you’ve led that sheltered a life?” Lucas didn’t know why he expected a straight answer. Forget it, drop him where he’s going and be done with it.
“I’m human. You hear that crap long enough you’ll start believing it, but I love you guys. And, I figured you are alright because Evergreen isn’t a poor folks home.” Peter’s stomach growled. “Sorry, I’m hungry, obviously.”
“Me too and we could use a shower.” Lucas checked the GPS. “There’s a big truck stop ten minutes ahead.”
Several state troopers zoomed past with lights flashing and traffic slowed the closer they got to their destination. “I hope it’s not an accident especially with trucks it takes all day to move them.” Peter said.
The gaper’s block loosened and they saw the problem pulling into the truck stop. Protestors surrounded several trucks with Meyer Industries on them sat unable to get to the staging area for fuel. The signs said, “No products from Upper Korea” and “Take your Sundomes and shove ‘em.” The drivers of that convoy looked terrified. Troopers were positioned between them and the protestors. Only the wealthy could afford Sundomes, those huge enclosures where people sat and enjoyed 3D artificial sunrises and sunsets. It eased the depression along with the proper medication. Sun psyche, they called it, but when people had a chance to get a handle on human induced climate change the powers that be told the world to go fuck itself via fake news and actions. Money was king in the world and not even The Appalachia Mountain disaster changed the politics of climate change. The so-called experts said ‘if’ it was an asteroid that hit it an angle, had it hit square there wouldn’t be a world. So, they say. The big lie continued. The protest spilled across the highway and that enabled them to get deluxe showers due to delayed truckers. The old timers felt and smelled better and with their guts full pulled onto the highway.
Lucas counted twenty abandoned barns and no houses on this stretch of road Peter insisted they take. The scenery was beautiful in spite of the hazy. The trees thrived even with the limited ribbons of sunlight that broke through every now and then. “Get off at the next exit and go right.” Peter instructed.
“Ok.” Two miles later they entered a heavy forest area that wound upward through the hillside close enough to touch. “It’s tight in here.”
“Yeah, that’s the way we like it. It cost a fortune to cut through this rock, so I’m told. My family has been in these parts forever.”
“Have these rocks ever shifted?”
“No, believe it or not, this area is stable. There have been terrible thunderstorms, but that’s it. There’s a bend a mile or so and I’ll be home.”
Lucas never suspected Peter was a hillbilly and he couldn’t wait to meet his family. What a surprise it’s going to be. “Peter, did I mention if I get hung I’m going to haunt you?”
“Yes, you did and don’t insult me, please.”
The highway widened as they reached the higher elevations of the hills. Lucas imagined the beauty of the landscape if there was normal sunlight. The signs indicated more twists and turns ahead with no guard rails. The hillside disappeared into a deepening valley. Finally, the road descended into the flatlands below and the sky lightened. The usual tease, strips of sun lit the clouds. “Is the sun trying to shine or what?”
“A little, believe the deer signs, their big in these parts.”
“Oh, shit!” A huge buck darted in front of them. Lucas hit the brakes and swerved into the opposite lane.
“I told you…don’t give me a heart attack. I didn’t come home for that and speaking of home.”
Lucas needed to pull over and slow his heart beat, but what he saw ahead changed that. A small guardhouse stood in the middle of a set of double wrought iron gates attached to eight-foot brick walls that were covered in thick clinging vines. Lucas couldn’t tell how far the wall went as it descended into the forest. “A gated community, I didn’t expect this,” He said.
“Surprise, what’d expect a trailer park?”
“You wrong for that, Peter.”
“I guess, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“You got a pass or keycard or something?”
“No, voice and face recognition.” Peter leaned forward toward the scanner. “Open says-a -me or whatever.” They laughed as they drove down the shrubbery lined street. “You’ll see a service drive around this bend to unload in the back of the house.”
“Ok, cool.” Lucas saw through the trees and scrubs a huge flat roofed contemporary styled house with massive smoked glass windows, solar panel arrays and small wind mills. Expensive. The place was straight out of a magazine.
“Take the side drive we’ll unload at the garage. On second thought. Leave that stuff housekeeping is around here somewhere. Let’s get something to eat and unwind.”
Lucas stood at the industrial sized windows of Peter’s study. The vast expanse of the Usher’s family’s property that included its own upper scale sub division of homes. The majority of which had courtyards and swimming pools with all the usual backyard and deck accessories. “This is a beautiful set up you got here, Peter. Why did you come to Evergreen Terrace?” He figured he was lonely, but he wanted to hear it from Peter. Whatever it was, it had to be good.
“You like that…well you’re going to love this.” Peter’s hand hovered over his laptop and stabbed a button. “That’s that.”
Lucas walked to the serving cart and selected a BLT without cheese. “Now tell me the whole story.”
Peter closed the computer. “First, I’m not going to burden you with the whole story of my family, you don’t care anyway, rightfully so and you’re my friend.”
“Friend? You’ve never said that before…sorry to interrupt. And, speaking of family, where are they?” All he’d seen where the grounds keepers and a cook. Peter needed support since getting his diagnosis, who wouldn’t? His heart had softened over the past few days about Peter. The ride was, despite the rifle incident, fun for a couple of old guys.
“They’re here and there. Wherever they are its fine with me. Anyway, my family is full of snobs and racist. They have been that way since being a bunch of moonshiners. I been hearing that crap for too long and decades ago at age forty plus wanted to get out of the family’s ultra conservative grip. I argued with them all the time and it really got bad. They called me a bleeding-heart Liberal, but this bleeding heart outlived most of them. And, now I’m the family patriarch, all assets are under my control and they hate it.
“Oh, do they know your dying?” Damn, why did he say that?
“Yeah…or they suspect and can’t wait, of course they’d deny it, but they know I know, and that’s okay.”
“Well, they got your back their following you, us.”
“No, Lucas, they got your back, my friend, your back.”
“My back?” Lucas smiled and almost laughed in his face. What the hell was he talking about? “Now you’re scaring me. I’m not going to let my imagination run away with me. You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” Peter leaned back and propped his feet on his desk. I know people talk and they’ve seen all the lawyer types in and out of my place. Well, that’s my family’s legal team. Everybody’s got a trust fund set up, but I distribute it when I get ready. I’m consistent and issue checks or direct deposit the same time annually and upon my death that will be your responsibility.”
“Bullshit! I don’t believe you.” Lucas walked over to the window. “All this and whatever else you leaving me. Ha…ha, very funny.”
“No joke, Lucas. Remember a minute ago you saw me on the laptop?”
“Well, I said that’s that and it was. I’ll print it out for you.”
“What makes you think I’ll understand all that legal crap?” Lucas asked and sat back down. “Boy, you know how to fuck up a good day. And, you grin about it. Ok, I believe you. Why me?” What had he gotten in to? He needed a drink, a big one.
“Oh, before I forget the family fortune is tied up in real estate, relatively simple to manage after decades.” Peter said.
“You ok?” Lucas saw discomfort on his face. “Take a breath we can talk later.”
“No…now. For the past year being at Evergreen has enlightened me about people that don’t look like me. Up close and personal is better in relationships. Lucas, I had a ball with you guys at the Terrace even though I knew my days were numbered. Gloomy weather didn’t damper the spirit of the group, but I couldn’t stay there for the grand finale. I had to return to this conservative enclave and be with family, but they need to be humbled. It’s ridiculous, the government declares an emergency law to put the few elderly in good shape back to work for hours a week to make up for the corporations and politicians that destroyed the economy. The old folk draft…they ain’t dying fast enough. A few in my family help formulate that bullshit, so in way they’ll taste their own medicine. And, no, I’m not leaving you all the money. You’ll do what I do, the easy part.”
“The easy part. What’s easy about, I assume, millions of dollars?” Lucas asked. This had to be a practical joke.
“All I do is sign the checks so the family gets their money. I have nothing to do with how much. That’s the market stuff, but if I don’t sign, no money, and if they don’t get theirs, I don’t get mine.”
“It’s like dividends?”
“Yeah, and other stuff. But, they’ll be on you when the time comes. A few of them are fools with their money. You’ll meet them as soon as I take my last breath. They’ll be friendly and some won’t, but no harm will come to you.” Peter said.
“What if I say keep your money?”
“My money says you won’t. You’re a good guy and human. And, who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the rich have to kiss their ass, even if it’s just for a minute?” Peter giggled and opened the desk drawer and handed him an envelope. “I want you to hand deliver this to Cindy at “The Saloon.” I like him and if I were a younger man, well you know. I know this is a load to think about, but you got time. I’m not dead yet.”
The landscaping around the homes of the Usher enclave rivaled a professional golf course. They zipped here and there in the cart stopping at a few historical points of interest on the property from the post-Civil War era. Peter waved at a few people haze bathing, but the place was empty for the most part. He said the majority of the old southern mansions were replaced with contemporary structures. It was brighter on the usher family side of the hills than others. Amazing, but the sun still didn’t penetrate the haze. Lucas still wore his glasses. They turned off the beaten path on to a trail that led to stream that ran through a narrow opening in the rocks. It sounded like a waterfall was nearby. Lucas wanted to walk, but his knees wouldn’t appreciate the uneven terrain. A few deer stopped, stared for a minute and took off. Peter looked tired, “Let’s go back you need rest.” He didn’t disagree. That’s all he needed, Peter drops dead giving him a tour of their property. Soon enough he’d meet the people who hate him. The rest of the day was boring, nothing good on TV, but Peter had a huge library and a good book came to the rescue.
Peter was right, he wasn’t dead yet, but he didn’t look well either. Lucas left a note, he’d call him later. It was early and the two-hour drive to Holden would clear his head from the Usher enclave. He was starving, but rushing to leave he forgot the breakfast sandwich Maria prepared special for him.
The grill at the truck stop was packed this early in the morning. He topped off his battery and waited to be seated at the counter. Ten minutes later he ordered a grilled ham and cheese. “I see the protester are setting up early, what are they complaining about?”
“Jobs.” The tall thin young girl said. “Everybody hates the sun dome builders until they get a job. It ain’t nothin’ but a warehouse. I don’t know why the environmentalist people are bitchin’ about, but they’re here too. Coffee?”
“Yes, thank you.’
“They had them ten-foot-tall rat balloons out there yesterday, unfair labor practice stuff. Hell, they ain’t built the place yet, but when they start working there you ain’t gonna hear a peep out of ‘em. I might apply myself. Enjoy your meal.” She went to serve other customers. Rumor had it, The Upper Korean Company that mastered and built the VR Sundome technology won’t share the secret, but wanted all the market. That was one group who didn’t want the haze to go away anyway soon. Get all they could while they can. Eventually the weather would be normal again. Lucas slipped on his glasses, paid the bill and headed for Holden.
Lucas took his time; he figured the saloon wouldn’t open until noon or later. He pulled into the handicapped space in front and there was Cindy standing patiently waiting for the security gates to finish retracting. Thank God, now he didn’t have to wait long. “Hey, Cindy.” He turned and smiled.
“Hey, good to see you, where’s your friend?”
“Wait here for a second.” He entered and the alarm beeper kicked in, a minute later he pushed back the doors and only the swinging doors remained. “Come on in, what can I get you?”
“Nothing thanks, but Peter wanted you to have this.”
Cindy ripped it open immediately. “What the hell is this? Whoa! Is this real?”
“I guess…whatever it is.”Lucas put up his hands. “I don’t want to know, I’m just the messenger.” Whatever the amount that was a kid’s Christmas smile on his face?
“Tell Peter thanks.”
“Will do.” He was getting tired and wanted to get down the road. “Can you do me a big favor?”
“Hell yeah, what you need?”
“Some real moonshine straight out the still.”
“Be right back.” Cindy went behind the bar and handed Lucas two mason jars. “This stuff is fresh and smooth, enjoy.”
“OK, gentlemen, I have a treat for you.” Lucas reached under the table and sat the mason jar on the table.
“What the hell is that?” Mario asked.
“A surprise.” Lucas filled each shot glass. “This moonshine, straight out the hills and when you lose your money don’t blame it on this.”
“I thought that’s what this is.” Hank said.
“To Peter, we hope he got to see the sunshine.” They clicked their glasses and drank. “Now deal the cards.” Hank shuffled the deck and they got started.
Today wasn’t a good poker day for Lucas the more they toasted the more he lost. Break time. A few of the guys in Complex B put meat on the grill, time to feed that moonshine. Lucas threw in his cards, “Time to eat.”
“Hurry back, so you can fill us in on the trip.” Hank said.
Lucas was surprised it took them this long to ask. He wasn’t going to reveal the truth about Peter’s background or family. And, he’d be a fool to tell them about the inheritance. They’d never treat him the same. If Peter wanted them to know he would’ve told them, but he’d have to make-up something. The closer to the truth the better, but one good thing about their group they minded their own business. “Take a break people, I’m not bringing any plates back.”
“I’m on a roll I’ll eat later.” Hank said. They agreed and kept playing.
Lucas sat close to table and opened the lid on his rib tips, macaroni and cheese, greens and spaghetti. “That smells good.” They said.
“No, you cannot sample anything. Go get your own.” And that’s what they did.
“Tell us what happened on your trip, Lucas.” Tubby asked.
“Nothing exciting for two old timers.” That was a lie. “Peter slept most of the way. We took the scenic route and stopped in a town called Holden, a typical small town. We got drunk at the local saloon, it was just like in the movies, but without the bar fights. They took pride in being, sophisticated rednecks, their words not mine.” He popped another tip in his mouth, sucked it bone dry and wiped his mouth. “We passed by a huge protest outside a newly proposed sight to construct a warehouse for Sundome parts.”
“Yeah, don’t blame them. That’s one per-center shit, leave it in Korea.” Mario said. “Nobody in this part of the country can afford them.”
“Anyway, as I was saying. We got to his family’s place and it as I expected an upper middle-class standard of living. Nice homes…the works, even the trailer park area was beautiful. Guess what they cooked up. Fried chittlins.” Lie number two.
“What?” Tubby said.
“Sure did, they were very hospitable I hated to leave so early, but this is home and I missed you clowns.”
Peter Usher was right when he told Lucas he’d find his family interesting. The day after the memorial service he sat at a huge conference table in a corporate office atop the tallest building in Atlanta. Peter’s ashes hadn’t cooled and they drooled over the money, as foretold by his late friend. The prestigious law firm Smith, Smith and Smith, the three Smitty’s as they like to be called were triplet boys who came in the world three minutes apart. Three was a big thing with them, all were six three, three hundred pounds mostly muscle; they owned three homes apiece, three cars and three kids also. Lucas thought he’d share the moonshine from Holden with this snobbish group, he put it in a decanter, of course. And, that got their tongues to wag. They weren’t that bad a group…they’re just doing their jobs. The seemingly wisest of the group Jimmy asked the question, “How’d you meet Peter, Lucas?”
As if they didn’t know.
Lucas looked at his watch. “You guys better get those shot glasses off the table they’ll probably be walking through that door any minute.” They scrambled and did so. Thirty seconds later in walked the Usher’s. Good tactic, Lucas.
The members of the Usher family he recognized nodded at him as they sat. The attorneys never told him how many were being issued checks. All of them had braided beards, one blond, brunette and red. Assuming these people were it, that means he wouldn’t be here long. He felt their contempt in hurricane like gusts. They were pissed. Smile Lucas, that’ll really piss them off. “Good morning guys, how are you?”
Silence. Then the guy with the blond beard spoke. “I’m Thomas Usher, this Marilyn and Roderick Usher.”
Their expression remained frozen. “We don’t agree with this, but cannot do anything about it so let’s get on with it.” Marilyn said. “Peter must have done this because I’m transgender.”
“Transgender, really?” Lucas tried not to grin, but it didn’t work.
“You people make me sick!” Marilyn shouted.
“That’s your business. But, before we start.” Lucas reached under the table and sat a leather case next to him and opened it. “This urn, you might recognize it, contains Peter remains and he requested he be present.” The sounds of disapproval filled the room. “I believe that’s in the documents, right attorneys?” They shuffled papers and re-read, smiled and nodded in agreement. “Can I get a drum roll or what?” Lucas laughed. “Ok, I’ll be quiet now.”
An hour later Peter’s relative listened to the terms he established prior to his death, again.
They hated it.
It included the stipulation, Lucas had thirty days to issue their checks, only checks, but he could draw his funds immediately. Lucas put his hands-on top of the urn. “Sounds good to me, Peter. Thanks gentlemen.” He put the urn back in its case. “I’ll be in touch.” Thomas Usher slammed his hands on the table and shot to his feet. That startled everybody.
“You morbid son-of-a-bitch!!”
“Who controls the money, don’t forget it.” Lucas shouted back and walked out.
Atlanta was new to him, but he had more important financial matters to tend to then sightseeing. He made several calls before he left the bank and headed home. A year from now he’d back and have to go through the same foolishness with the Usher’s and that would end it. Peter set up the humbling of the snobby conservatives for two years. That was more than enough for him. His eyes popped when he saw the amount of his share and he knew what to do it.
“Did the family get the flowers, Lucas?” Mario asked.
“Yeah, they were beautiful.”
“I picked them, but you guys are familiar with my impeccable taste.”
“Modesty has never been your strong point, Mario. “Tubby said. “Wish we could’ve been there.”
“Well considering where everybody is, that’s understandable.” Like they’d care anyway. The supporters of the New Medicare Reform laws regarded them as a burden. The more he thought about it the angrier he got. The Usher’s would get what was coming to them as close to the deadline as possible. It felt good to have them by the balls, the way Peter wanted. Squeeze, but don’t remove!
“Attention…Attention everybody, this is Chief Administrator Tyler. I have good news; an anonymous donor has given the Evergreen Terrace Assisted Living Complex a Sundome!” The petite lady with the deep voice virtually screamed the good news over the PA.
“What?” Hank asked.
“You heard her, and believe it. When was the last time she made an announcement?” Lucas said. “That’s great VR sunlight, we deserve it.” It would take a month to build, but that’s okay. Lucas covered his tracks well they’ll never find out who donated it. “Deal the cards today feels lucky for me.