54 • Happy Hour
Will’s jaw clenched.
The mistake, of course, was his. He didn’t put the beer in Joe’s hand, but he did bring an old man who’d just had a heart attack and had been released too early from the hospital out to a crash scene. A crash scene with beer. Joe had merely done what any other guy in his shoes would do left alone in a pickup for two hours on a highway littered with full, unopened bottles of beer.
Joe had listened to All Things Considered on the radio for as long as he could. He explored Will’s glove box, organizing his maintenance records, registration and insurance cards by date. He found the Barbie head and spoke to the girl briefly about her plight. He braided her hair and tucked her back inside, then looked over the back seat to see if Will had left a newspaper or magazine behind. Finally, he opened the door to let in a little fresh air. From there, it was all but decided that he would, little by little, make his way out of the truck (just to stretch his legs), around the curve (only to see how things were coming) and plop himself down for a little refreshment (it would go to waste otherwise, after all).
Will relaxed his jaw and rolled a keg up beside Joe to sit down. He held out his hand.
“The beer, Joe. Let’s have it.”
“Oh, I think not, ” Joe said, and raised the bottle for another drink.
“Look. You are hours out of the hospital — a hospital you have no business being out of, I might add — and I’m pretty sure beer is not on your orders.”
“Well, it should be. Does a world of good for a man’s soul.”
“But not for his heart.” Will’s hand was still extended. “The beer.”
“Get your own. There’s plenty.” Joe motioned across the highway with his bottle.
“I don’t want a beer, Joe.” Will leaned his head back and looked at the sky. “I want you to give up yours.”
Joe tipped the bottle and chugged the last few swallows. “Sorry, Will.”
“You know what’s going to happen when Pearl picks up the smell of beer?”
“We don’t have to check in with our house mother, do we?”
“You have no idea, Joe. She has a way of knowing things. She probably already knows.”
“Look at me, Will.” Joe slid his pinky finger into the bottle and pulled it out with a thwonk. “I’m in reasonably good health. Well, except for some back pain and this little heart thingy. Otherwise, good.” He put the tip of his finger to his lips. “But I’m 80 years old. I don’t get out a lot. And my clarity of mind is not what it once was.”
Will looked up and met Joe’s eyes.
“What?” Joe said. “You suppose I didn’t know this? We know. Our minds have ways of telling us even as we slip every little bit away from ourselves, giving us time to come to terms. But there are few, if any, more difficult things to relinquish than our minds. So we go on as though we didn’t look it in the eye, as though it cannot see us.” Joe shook his head. “Listen. If the thrill of sitting on a beer keg in the middle of the highway drinking a bottle of Coors that rolled right up to my foot and invited me to open it somehow speeds my ultimate demise by a few days, then so be it. I’ve lived a rich, fully, happy life.”
He handed Will the empty bottle. “Here you go. It was fun. You really should have joined me.”
“Probably right. But it’s too late now. I really don’t want you to have another.”
“You know what they say about snoozing.”
“Yep.” Will stood to his feet. “Always losing.”
Joe put his hand on his knees. “Time to go?”
“It’s time.” Will held out a hand.
“I’m fine.” Joe stood on his own and smoothed his khakis. “Where do we get to go tomorrow?”
“Probably to the doctor.” Will smiled. “I think you have an appointment with the cardiologist.”
“You won’t mention —”
“Of course not.” He checked the time on his phone. “But first we need to go home and not tell Pearl.”
“You don’t happen to have an onion, do you?”
“Sure. Onion and garlic are great masks for liquor breath. If nothing else they keep people at a good distance.”
“Right. No. I don’t usually keep them with me.”
“Well, I thought I’d ask. You keep other unusual things in your truck.”
“I noticed a cute blonde with a clean neck cut.”
Will rolled his eyes. “Sometime I need to get rid of that thing.”
“But why would you do that? I’m sure it makes a great conversation piece.”
“Exactly.” Will opened the passenger door and waved Joe inside. “Up you go.”
“Maybe you have a stick of gum?”
“What are you, a teenager? Gum doesn’t work.”
Will slammed the door and walked around the front of the truck. He threw his bag and clipboard behind the seat and climbed in. “We’ll swing by the grocery store and I’ll get you an onion.”
“And I’ll eat it like an apple?”
“You want it dipped in caramel?”
“I think I’d rather you grounded me. Just get me some scallions. I can nibble on the greens.”
“All part of the thrill of the day, eh?”
“Best day ever.”
* * *
“Now listen.” Will turned onto the gravel parking pad behind Pearl’s house. “Go up the back way. Wash up in the John. Put on clean clothes.”
“I’ve only worn these today. And I haven’t spilled a thing, ” Joe protested.
“Change clothes. I’ll have a hard enough time explaining to Pearl why you smell like sun and wind and sweat. Sun and wind and beer sweat is not a conversation I’m going to have with her.”
“Right. Not sure how a change of clothes will change that. But you’re in charge.” Joe unbuckled his seat belt. The strap let go from his hand, the buckle slapping against the side glass. “Have I complicated your life very greatly?”
Will sat with his hands on the wheel at ten and two. “As a matter of fact, ” he said, looking straight ahead, “you have.”
Joe’s head drooped just slightly.
“You have also added something that I’ll one day understand as good even if today I can’t for the life of me figure out.”
Joe beamed and opened his door. “That’s the spirit. You’re learning to wait out the arrival of good things.”
“I think they are on backorder.”
“Not everything ships from the same warehouse, Will. You might get several packages.”
“Just what I need. More packages like this one.”
Joe climbed out of the cab and reached back inside to open the glove box. “I’m going to take her inside with me.”
“Need to practice your nylon hair braiding?” Will pointed to the doll head, noting the braids Joe set had come loose.
“Well, that. I just didn’t tie it off. I need some of those little bitty rubber bands. You happen to have a neighbor kid with braces?” Joe made a stretching motion between his fingers and thumbs, the doll head pressed against his palm. “While we wait for your packages to arrive, we might try to get to the bottom of the Barbie head.”
“There’s no bottom, Joe. Just a pretty face.”
“Unfortunate for us, ” Joe said with a grin.
“Go upstairs and clean up.” Will’s voice grew sharp. “I’ll check in with Pearl about supper.
(to be continued)