Simplicity Ch. 04bylessthanperfect©
Christmas day started slowly. I was on Skype with my grandparents, watching as their nephews and nieces' children opened presents. I was never really close with my cousins, but we saw each other for the major holidays. They were all nice and we got on fine.
That lasted for about an hour before I had enough of watching the action through a laptop camera and made my goodbyes. I didn't have a Christmas tree or any presents of my own, just the lights that I had hung around the windows while Duke drew a wreath on the dry erase board on our fridge. Looking at that now gave me a sense of loneliness. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't liking being alone.
So I distracted myself. The cleaning did get a bit out of hand, I'm willing to admit that. The floor was spotless and shining after an hour's scrubbing. I changed all the light bulbs for reasons that elude me. My bed had always squeaked badly so I sprayed a can worth of WD-40 over all of the springs. It was around noon that I'd started to move on to work on cleaning out the fridge when there was a knock on the door. Who the hell stays over the break willingly?
I opened the door to find Duke, holding a box with wrapping paper, smiling a small smile, toothpick hanging from his lips. I don't know whether to hit him or hug him. I settled for the latter.
"What the hell are you doing here you jackass!" I said, a bit muffled, through his scarf. He patted me on the back and said, "Figured I'd give you some company rather than leave you here alone." Something told me that that wasn't all there was to it.
"How'd things go back home Duke? You only stayed for a day."
He separated us, looked in my eyes for a moment, and patted me on the head as he walked by me and into the room. "Actually, it was more like half of an evening. I pulled in the driveway at four and left at nine. Pretty good compared to what I was expecting."
"What exactly happened Duke?"
He turned and gently nudged me towards my closet, "Put some clothes on Luke, we're going out."
Now that I stared at him a bit more I could see that his eyes were red and his sluggish movements lacked their normal grace. "Jesus Duke, why don't you at least sleep for awhile? Then we can go and do whatever you want."
"Not tired." He said without looking at me and handed me his keys as he walked out the door. I hurriedly threw on the first set of clothes that I could find and started after him. I didn't catch up with him until I had made it to the bottom of the stairs; he was already half-way across the common.
As I pulled alongside of him I started to wonder why he gave me his keys.
"Duke, just where are we going?"
"To the truck." He added succinctly.
"Ok, let's try why are we going?"
"Hungry and I'd like the company."
"Alright I guess." I didn't know what else to say.
Duke drove an 87 Dodge Power Ram W100, painted black with chrome trim, four in the floor, and don't ask me what the engine was because I never was a car guy and despite the few times he's told me I never manage to remember. When we got to the parking lot he got in the passenger seat, which caused me to be even further confused as to why he wouldn't want to drive. "Aren't you going to drive?"
Again not looking at me, rather out the windshield, "Bambi, I just drove twenty-five hours on more coffee than you drink in a day, which is saying something. I've had enough of the road for awhile."
Very true. "Ok, then where am I driving to?" I asked as I fumbled with the drive column and the mirrors to get them suitable to my height. I hope I don't fuck this up; it's been awhile since I drove a clutch.
"Joe and Dan's Steakhouse."
That was on the other side of town, yet it was about the only place left open on Christmas. "You sure you don't want to rest first? That's about an hour's drive from here." Beaverbrook was on the outskirts of the city.
"I'm sure, now let's go before Christmas comes round again."
I didn't argue it further and drove out of the parking lot with the feeling that the big truck was going to try and drive itself. It didn't take long into our journey before I noticed Duke asleep against the window. We were sitting at a stop light when I was going to try and ask him how his trip went once more when I saw him drooling on the seatbelt.
I told him to stay and rest, but no instead the stubborn ass has me driving this huge thing to the other side of town because he wants apparently wants a steak. My attempts at being angry quickly subsided the more I took glances at him. Truth be told, I'd drive him to California if he asked me to. Still, I was concerned as to why he was back.
When we got to the steakhouse I had to shake Duke to get him to wake up to which he merely wiped his eyes and got out, heading towards the entrance to Joe and Dan's. We got a booth in the back corner, to the left of the bar, Duke on one side and myself on the other. I ordered eight ounce filet, medium, while Duke got a twelve ounce rib eye, rare.
We were waiting for our food when Duke broke the silence.
"Did I ever tell you about my family Luke?"
My eyebrows shot up at this and I looked into his eyes to see him once more looking at me, but it seemed as if he were looking elsewhere in his mind.
"No Duke, I don't think you ever did."
"There's a reason for that. I'll tell you if you'd like to hear it."
There was no need to ask that question. "Duke, I'll listen to whatever you want to tell me."
The waitress came and sat our plates down before taking her leave. I was still staring at Duke as he chopped up his steak into small cubes before eating any of it. He then glanced at me and then back at his plate before eating one of the cubes. He finished chewing before he spoke, waving his fork in the air all the while.
"I pretty much grew up with my father's parents. Walter and Meredith Anderson were their names, took me in after my mother died while giving birth to me and my father shot himself two years later. They told me that he just couldn't handle the grief after she left. Said that he dropped me off one night, saying that he had to go see about a friend of his and would come round for me in the morning. He drove down to the river and put a .45 in his skull, a bottle of bourbon in one hand and her picture on the dash of his truck. I don't really remember him though, just pictures."
He ate a few more bites of his steak, drinking a bit of the scotch that he must've ordered when I wasn't looking. He kept the class in his hand as he started once more.
"They ran a tobacco farming empire in Virginia and some of North Carolina. I worked the farms with Papa on up through my teens since I was tall enough to reach the leaves. Hell I was driving tractors when I was twelve. They watched over me as if I was their own. Now, we never played ball or anything like that, hell the man was sixty-eight when I was born. No, I learned that there was more than one way to bond with someone." He took a long sip from his glass and downed a few more cubes of bleeding steak.
"He'd read to me every night after he got back in from the fields, even after I was long past sitting on his knee, everything from Kipling to Tennyson, Auden to Yeats, and several more in between. He told me of his grandfather's Civil War service and some of the tales that were passed down to him. Said that my father used to find them a bit boring, but that he was glad that I liked to hear it."
"On rare occasions he'd tell me about his own service in the Second World War and of how he missed those that he'd been there with. He told me of my grandmother's parents, how they didn't want her to marry a tobacco farmer because it would wind her up in the poor house. Sometime he'd even tell me about my mother and her family. I eventually told him not to though, brought up things that I didn't want to think on." Duke had lost all of his normal flowing hand motions that normally accompanied his speech and was rather talking at different things in the room as opposed to me. Only occasionally would he meet my eyes, seeming altogether nervous.
"When I was fifteen I had my first realization that I was gay." My eyebrows are probably lodged in the ceiling somewhere, meanwhile my heart is beating faster than it's ever beat before. He didn't seem to notice, just played with his hands some more. "I tend to accept things as fact and go on, so I never really questioned my feelings, just went with them."
"I was helping my grandmother dry the dishes one evening when the neighbor's daughter and son hopped out of the truck with their father and they started talking to Pa by our fence posts near the front gate. She said 'what do you think of young Susan over there?' I told her that she seemed nice enough. She just nodded and went back to the pans. A few minutes passed before she slid in, 'I get the feeling that you'd prefer Henry to her though.' Needless to say I dropped the skillet that I was drying." He started laughing heavily at this.
"I eventually got my courage up and said 'Yes ma'am.' To which she simply replied, 'Walter thought so, but I figured I'd see for myself.' Then she hugged me and we went back to cleaning. I'll never forget that day. She didn't make a big to do about, just hugged me and went on. That was it and yet, it mattered more to me than I could ever say." He was becoming more wistful as he went on, eyes gleaming in the glow of the table lamp.
"When the cigarette industry tanked, most people lost everything. Not us. Walter had seen it coming and sold the majority of the land we owned, putting the money in secure stocks up in New York City. He made more money doing that than we ever did farming. We lived the same as we always did though, just minus the farm work. Instead he'd take me to soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity sights for work instead. It was a good life." He was looking a bit pale and I thought I saw a tear roll down his cheek, but he turned his face away from me for a minute. He wiped his eyes and pressed on.
"Walter died of a heart attack this past 12th of February and Meredith followed him on March 23rd from what I'd imagine was a broken heart. She had always told me that if he went, she wouldn't be far behind." He stared at the table for what felt like an eternity. "I was eighteen and thus all the property was signed over to me. I finished out high school and decided to head north, and so here I am."
He looked up and locked eyes with me as he toyed with his glass. "You wanted to know why I'm back so soon. Well, the house sold back in October, I paid someone to move all the things into a storage complex, so I went back just to see the place one last time and have what I didn't need auctioned off and the rest shipped up here to be nearer to me. That only took two hours. I spent the rest of the time at the cemetery, staring at headstones. I paid my respects and headed back here."
Abruptly, he laid a hundred down on a sixty dollar bill before getting up and heading for the door. I followed him, ignoring my mostly untouched food, to see where we were going now. I found him already sitting in the truck when I opened the restaurant doors. I got in and started to drive off, back to the dorms.
"You know, this truck was Walter's. I never drove it when he was alive, said I'd wrap it around a tree." More laughter. "The first time I took it out after the funeral I drove like a little old man with feet to short to find the gas." He was beside himself at this point, tears rolling as he laughed vigorously.
He eventually stopped, falling asleep against the window. The ride back to the dorms was left quiet only interrupted occasionally by little mumbles from Duke. He woke up when I sit the speed bumps leading into the campus's parking lot. He mumbled something I didn't catch when we got out, I handed his keys back to him and we walked back to the dorm, actually talking for a change.
"Aint the snow up here nice Bambi? We had snow back home, just never this much. It used to look strange to peer over the endless horizon of fields to see nothing but white, only to be broken by a few deer looking for food."
We stopped on the landing to the last flight of stairs to look over the parking campus from our added height. "This is nice too, not the same, but nice." Turning, we headed towards our door, Duke flicked a penny at the door before ours, as I noticed he did every time we passed that door. "Why do you always throw pennies at their door?"
He smiled and said, "I keep thinking that eventually they'll be able to buy a new door."
We got inside our own room, he went over to his desk, and I went to sit on my bed. He picked up the box he had from earlier and brought it over and laid it in my lap as he sat down, putting an arm around me and resting his head on my shoulder as he did so.
I slowly undid the lime green ribbon, my favorite, and took the lid off of the blue box. Inside was hand knit, lime green sweater, which was folded around something else.
"I'd called ahead last month and asked an old family friend to stitch this together for me, to which she happily obliged. Although, this did cost me an hour of tea time with several little old ladies from Ms. Trudy's sewing circle." I looked to my left to see a smile on Duke's face shining with a glint that I'd never seen before.
"Luke, I want to thank you. You're the first real friend I've had in a long while. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your listening to me and putting up with the water works. I know that you're always free with how your feeling, always wearing your heart on your sleeve. I'm just not built that way. Walter always said that a man has only one person that he can share anything with who he knows won't use it to screw him over and that's himself. I guess sometimes I listen a little too much."
"Duke, I don't mind one bit and I am always willing to listen, anytime. And thank you for this, you didn't have-"
He cut me off by placing his hand on my mouth.
"Unfold the sweater Bambi."
There was a picture of my mother inside a hand carved frame; I was already beginning to cry.
"I did a little hunting and pecking through November and found a lovely older couple named Lyn and Clive Jenkins, mother and father to a Lucille Jenkins Chambers, mother to a Luke Gladstone Chambers. A long phone call and a few postage stamps later and I had a picture. Another call to a fellow back home who does some carving and I had the frame. Long story short, Merry Christmas Luke."
I'd never been more touched in my life. I hugged him tight and managed to get out several thank yous through the tears. I don't remember falling asleep, I do remember some strange dreams involving my mother hugging Duke at a Christmas party, my dad was even smiling. It was weird, that was how I knew it wasn't true. I woke up to find that I was in my bed, under the covers and Duke was likewise in his. I just sat and stared at him till the night was through.
I have no comments for this one other than thanks for reading, per usual, and i hope you enjoy.