A native Hoosier now living in Iowa, John M Donovan explores Midwestern life in the episodic novels The Fraternity and Trombone Answers, and the psychological drama The Rocheville Devil.
Everyone Gets a Wave
Calvin Gebz and his 40-year-old son Bobby both had their hands up in full wave when they noticed that for the second time in two and a half weeks a car was coming up the gravel driveway instead of passing on by. “To what do we owe this honor, I wonder?” said Bobby. Calvin said it might be someone asking for directions to Spalding, and Bobby said “Daddy I don’t think they’d need directions to Spalding if they just come out of Spalding.” Calvin said “No, I guess not” and Bobby just shook his head.
The driveway went past the house back to the shed but the visitor stopped right even with the front porch. The Gebzes watched as the driver gathered something up from the passenger seat. “Nice looking car,” said Calvin.
“That’s a 2015 Camry,” said Bobby.
“The hell it is. Might be a ’14.”
“You don’t know.”
“I know more than you.”
“Not about cars.”
“I know that ain’t a ’15.”
The driver got out with a stack of Sunday newspapers under one arm. He waved to the men and that’s when Bobby realized it was Dr Hagen, who treated, or tried to treat, Calvin for his diabetes and had recommended the surgeon who amputated the older Gebz’s left leg. “You’re famous,” smiled the doctor, approaching the porch.
“That’s old Doc Hagen,” said Calvin.
“What gave it away, Daddy? Besides that he looks and sounds just like Doc Hagen?”
Calvin had stopped listening after what. “How are we famous, Doc?”
“Oh, let me show you.” The doctor set the stack of newspapers on the card table between the rocking chairs and went through the one on top until he found the Lifestyle section. He let it hang down so both men could see the headline: Always a Wave from this Friendly Family. There was a picture of father and son on the porch, arms up, fingers fanned, eyes on some imaginary vehicle heading south.
“How’d they get that picture?” asked Calvin.
Bobby rolled his eyes. “Gee, I don’t know, Daddy, maybe they got it a couple weeks ago when that skinny guy with the camera was out here.”
“I don’t recall that.”
“I bet you don’t. There was that good-looking blond gal with him asking us questions.”
“Jenna Cable,” said the doctor, checking the byline.
“You’re saying there was a blond gal out here asking questions?”
“No, Daddy, I’m saying she read our minds.”
Dr Hagen had witnessed plenty of these arguments in his office and since they tended to go on and on he jumped in. “Calvin, you must have answered her questions. You’re quoted in the story.”
“You’re quoted in the story, Daddy. You said something and she wrote it down.”
“What’d I say?”
Dr Hagen scanned the story while Bobby took another paper off the stack. “Right here, Calvin. ‘I figure everyone deserves a friendly wave,’ said the elder Gebz. ‘Sometimes they wave back and sometimes they don’t but either way is fine. Waving has more health benefits than watching TV.’ What do you think of that, Calvin?”
“I’ll be dang.”
“She made you sound smart, Daddy.”
The old man was going to contend that that was the only way the reporter could have made him sound (though he had forgotten exactly what he’d said that day and certainly hadn’t said anything about health benefits), but a blast from an air horn interrupted him and he and Bobby threw their hands up to wave at a semi-trailer coming around the curve from the south. “That’s Red Barnett,” said Calvin. “He’s been driving 41 years.”
“Long time,” said Dr Hagen.
“Yeah,” said Bobby, “apparently Red Barnett likes driving so much he dresses up like Red Wilson and drives Red Wilson’s rig which has Red Wilson’s name painted right on the door.”
“That’s who I meant, Red Wilson.”
“Lot of truck drivers named Red,” said the doctor. “But hey, I wanted to make sure you got some copies of your story. There’s four or five there. Give the extras to your friends or whoever.”
“Daddy’ll have to make some friends first,” laughed Bobby.
“Hush up, boy.”
Two cars came by heading south in close succession. The doctor paused and smiled as he watched the Gebzes jerk their hands in the air, up and down, synchronized, as involuntary as breathing.
* * *
They’d been sitting on their front porch waving at cars every day for the last ten years, ever since Calvin lost the circulation in his left leg and couldn’t work at Western Illinois Pallet anymore. Bobby had never held a job for more than a week anyway—partly because he weighed 300 pounds and lost his breath walking across the room but mostly because he thought he was smarter than his co-workers and managers and everyone else in the world—so he figured why not just sit and rock on the porch and live a simple life. They waved from sunrise to sunset every day—including holidays, even Christmas—and wore as much more or less clothing to accompany their bibs as needed. Summertime travelers coming out of Spalding for the first time often had to look twice to convince themselves that yes, two big shirtless pasty-skinned men had waved at them. Such amiability to strangers wasn’t common these days, thought the travelers—though the big waving men weren’t as surprising as the fact that only a mile or so separated the shiny urban enclave of Spalding from what might as well have been the back woods.
“Listen here, Daddy,” said Bobby, but Calvin put up his hand and told him to hang on. The old man could still hear pretty well, and sure enough a car came around the curve heading north. They waved and Calvin said it was Willis Hidenger in his 2002 Nissan Maxima. Bobby conceded that yes, he actually got that one right. “Anyway, listen up. ‘“We love to see people smile and wave back,” said Bobby Gebz, a 1994 graduate of Spalding High. “It wouldn’t be right to stop doing it or even take a day off. People who know us are already waving before we can see them. It’s as much a tradition for them as it is for us.” Aside from bathroom breaks, the only time the waving chores aren’t shared is when Bobby makes his Tuesday-afternoon run into Spalding for groceries and supplies—but his father is always ready to pick up the slack.’”
“That’s true,” said Calvin, “I do do a lot of the work when you’re gone.”
“Yeah, but why’d they say that?”
“Why’d they tell everyone I’m gone on Tuesday afternoons?”
“When did you want them to say you were gone?”
“Well, how about never? Nobody needs to know there’s a big fat one-legged man out here by himself on Tuesday afternoons. They might say well, hell, I’m going to go rob and kill that big fat one-legged man out there.”
“Rob me of what? We ain’t got nothing.”
“Yeah, you and I know that but some robber don’t know it. I’m going to call that Jenna Cable—”
“Who’s Jenna Cable?”
“The reporter, Daddy. I’ll call her up and have her print what they call a retraction. I’ll have her say she misheard and that you’re never out here by yourself.”
“You do what you have to do,” scoffed Calvin, then turned his attention to the highway. “Here comes Jack Swingle on his Harley.” Seconds later the biker Swingle appeared and got his wave in first. The Gebzes waved big and put their waving hands back in their laps. Calvin went back to scanning his copy of the story. “I haven’t even got to that part yet anyway. I’m still up here where it says you were going to be a scientist. When were you ever going to be a scientist?”
“Junior high, when I had Mrs Flores. She said I should be one and I still might.”
“Well, you let me know when you go off to your scientist job. I hope nobody robs and kills me while you’re gone.”
* * *
Two days later Bobby decided he would cross up any robbers who’d seen the story in the Sunday paper. He decided to run errands and buy groceries on Tuesday morning instead of Tuesday afternoon, so he could be back in time to thwart a robbery attempt. He tried to ignore the nagging thought that no robbers are going to be afraid of a couple of big fat guys with three good legs between them.
He put a clean shirt on, snapped his bibs shut, and asked his father if there was anything special he wanted from town. Calvin said to bring back a bottle of bourbon and a prosty, one of the pretty ones. Bobby said he’d get what he got. He said he’d be back by noon and headed north in their ’92 Bronco, raising four fingers off the steering wheel at every oncoming car, completely unaware he was doing it.
He stopped for cash at the bank drive-up and the teller inside said “I read that story, Bobby. I didn’t realize you’d been waving for that long.”
“Ten years. Everybody gets a wave.”
“That’s real sweet.”
“We’re just friendly.”
He refilled a couple of prescriptions at Walgreens but didn’t go to BuyRite for groceries right away. He’d always been curious about that coffee shop on the corner across from the DeKuyper Building, and since coffee was a morning drink, today might be a good day to check it out. It wouldn’t take five minutes and Daddy would be fine if he didn’t get back right away. No robbers were out home-invading on a Tuesday morning.
Lou’s Cuppa Joe had a big neon coffeepot in the window and Bobby wondered if Lou was a he or a she. The logo showed a smiling waitress with a beehive hairdo but he didn’t know if that was Lou or not. He held the door open for a young bearded man whose hair was done up in a bun. That wasn’t something you saw every day. Or maybe it was, at Lou’s Cuppa Joe.
The girl at the counter—the barrister, Bobby thought he remembered reading somewhere—had big glasses and a smallish face and a nose ring. Her name tag said Cambridge, which Bobby didn’t know was a girl’s name. “I never been in here,” he said. “I just want sugar and cream.”
“Dark roast, Brazilian, Caribbean mash-up, or house blend?”
“House blend sounds good.” Bobby thought it sounded as good as anything else and wasn’t sure how many choices he’d been given. “Just regular size.”
He paid and then surveyed the scene as he moved down the counter. Couple more guys with their hair up in sort of a bun and sort of a topknot. Half a dozen students peering into laptops. Nice-dressed white-haired woman reading the New York Times. And way back in the corner there was a fellow in a three-piece suit talking to Jenna Cable from the Spalding Journal. She’d been all smiley when she came out to the house, but she looked serious and kind of angry now.
“House blend,” said Cambridge. “Have a good one.”
Bobby had intended to take his coffee to go but now thought he’d stick around and watch people, maybe use the opportunity to ask the reporter for a retraction. There weren’t any empty tables, though, so he milled around by the bulletin board and read about some upcoming concerts and the grand opening of a new yoga studio. There was going to be a guest lecturer at MIU, some guy from Guatemala talking about economic instability. 5K Fun Run from Riverside Park to the baseball stadium, which didn’t sound fun at all.
“So, you’re making Dad do all the work today, hey?”
Bobby turned around and blushed to see Jenna Cable looking up at him. “Oh. He can handle it.” She smiled and looked even prettier than before. “I saw you over there but you looked busy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I was busy listening to the Spalding comptroller deny he’s been fudging his expense reports. Come on over and sit down till I finish my latte.”
Bobby hadn’t had a girl ask him to sit with her since high school biology, and then it was only because he hadn’t heard who his project partner was supposed to be and was wandering around the room until the impatient and disappointed cheerleader said “Over here, doofus.” He followed Jenna to her table and stood there shifting from side to side.
“Sit down, sit down,” she said. “Have you heard any feedback on the story?”
He pulled out the other chair and tried not to bump the table as he squeezed into it. “Doc Hagen brought us some copies and the bank teller said she seen it. Four or five people Sunday honked a couple extra times when they went by.”
“That’s great,” she laughed. He thought her green eyes looked like diamond sparkles. “I’m glad we got that tip about you and your dad. I never get down that way.”
Bobby thought there was something he was supposed to ask her, but whatever it was was gone. Instead he said “I just do it to humor the old man.”
“Nah,” she said, chucking him on the forearm. “You get a kick out of it—you said so.”
“It’s kinda dumb,” he said. “But Daddy’d get bored if I wasn’t out there with him.”
“Well, in that case, it’s good that you’re doing it for him.”
“I probably wouldn’t, otherwise.”
He didn’t know where any of those lies had come from but thought maybe it was from the way she smiled. She was pretty and smart, probably smarter than him, and brave to confront city officials about expense reports.
And she’d invited him to sit down.
He wasn’t sure how to proceed or what to talk about next, but it didn’t matter because she took one last sip of her latte and started gathering her things. “It was good running into you,” she said. “Say hi to your dad.”
“How was your coffee?”
It hit him that he hadn’t actually taken a sip yet. “Oh. Good, I guess.” Then she said she’d see him around and by the time he thought of saying something funny like “Yeah, maybe right here,” she was out the door.
* * *
The trip to the coffee shop only put Bobby fifteen minutes behind schedule and he got five of those back by zipping through the BuyRite without hitting every sample stand. Back on the road, he thought about Jenna Cable’s green eyes and wished he’d have had more to say to her. He wished he would have said he was probably going to get a job and move into town before long. Right outside of Spalding he noticed an ’88 Chrysler Conquest heading north with a Missouri license plate and a greasy-looking punk at the wheel. He wondered where a punk would go if he’d just robbed and killed an old one-legged fat man—north into Spalding or back down to Missouri? He went ten over the limit the rest of the way home and expected to see a horrible bloody scene on the front porch, but as he headed up the driveway there was the old man, waving.
Bobby remembered he was going to ask about that retraction.
He parked and carried the groceries in through the back door, and when everything was put away he poured two glasses of iced tea and took them out to the porch. The old man thanked him and said it had been a slow morning.
“Tuesdays are slow sometimes,” said Bobby. “Did you get robbed or killed?”
Bobby chuckled, not too loud. The old man could be funny as hell sometimes. “I went to this coffee shop in Spalding and forgot to drink the coffee.”
“Shoulda just thrown your money in the street.”
“I will next time.” Two cars passed from the north. One driver responded to the wave but the other didn’t see them. “Did you see a Missouri car on its way into Spalding?”
“Missouri? Hell, I can’t see license plates from here.”
“Oh.” Bobby paused and listened for another car but the highway was quiet. “I was thinking I don’t know if I’m going to keep waving at folks.”
“Yeah. Seems silly. I could be doing other things.”
“Being a scientist?”
“Or just other things. Sell coffee, whatever.”
Calvin just shrugged. A semi came by heading north. The Gebzes waved and the air horn bomped three times. “Three blasts means they saw the story in the paper.”
“You just made that up.”
“You didn’t notice that yesterday? Lot more people honking and a lot of them three times.”
“That could be right, I guess. No way of knowing.”
“No, not unless we asked everyone why they honked three times.”
Damn, thought Bobby, that’s something a scientist would say. A blue Toyota Prius glided by from the south. Bobby and Calvin lifted their right arms at the same time, tilted their hands from left to right, and dropped their arms back in their laps.
“One short beep,” said Bobby. “What do you reckon that means?”
“Maybe they only read half the story.”
The afternoon passed pleasant and warm, a little slow like Tuesdays often were, but everyone who drove by got a nice wave and probably always would.