RIDING OUT by T.R. Healy

Steering his lampblack Lincoln Navigator with the heel of his left hand, Wicker picked up his cell phone and called his lieutenant for this evening.

“What’s up, Brad?’ Pigott asked, answering after one ring.

“Where are you now, Stan?”

“Just crossed Hazeltine Street.”

“That’s about what I figured,” he said, maneuvering past a vagrant pushing a packed grocery cart.  “I’ll be entering the Old City in a couple more blocks so you should be reaching it in about seven or eight minutes.”

“About that, yeah.”

“I just wanted to remind you that things can get a little dicey when we drive through there.”

“You don’t have to tell me, Brad.  The last time I was down there someone threw a garbage can lid at my back window.”

“Yeah, I remember,” he replied.  “I just want you to pass the word along to the others.  And remind them what we agreed to, Stan:  no matter what happens no one is stopping.  I don’t care if someone throws a garbage can at you, we’re going straight through.  Things’ll only get worse if we stop and, besides, we don’t want to be late for the vigil.”

“I know, Brad.”

“Just make sure the others know too.”

Wicker and Pigott belonged to an S.U.V. club known as “The Long Riders,” which comprised nearly forty members.  Every couple of months the club organized convoys to the beach to play blackjack at the Indian casinos.  Other weekends they rode to carnivals and fairs to show off their decked out rigs.  They also did what they could to help out in their community.  Just last spring they adopted a shelter for battered women that they helped to support through various fund raising events.  Tonight, at the suggestion of a club member, they were attending a vigil for a nine-year-old boy who was reported missing by his parents almost a week ago.  They hoped their drive through town would make many more people aware of the youngster’s disappearance.

Members took turns serving as road captain on the ride-outs, and tonight it was Wicker’s turn.  He had done it a few times before and always he asked Pigott to be his lieutenant because he knew he would do what he said.  So far, they had made a pretty good team, managing to herd the convoy to its destination without any major interruption.

“Son of a bitch!” Wicker cursed, suddenly, when something banged against the side of his Navigator.

A bottle he assumed, maybe a rock.  He started to look in the side mirror when something else struck the hood.

“Son of a bitch!”

He was tempted to pull over and see what damage, if any, was done but remembered what he told Pigott earlier and continued on through the grimy streets of the Old City.  Besides, it was so dark out, he doubted if he could make out any dings.  And whoever threw the objects at his rig might start throwing at him.  All you want to do when you enter the Old City, he reminded himself, is get the hell out.

Up ahead, a white neon cross glowed on top of a charity house and in front of the house a fire burned in a trash can.  Around it huddled three figures, their hands poised above the flames.  Slowly he drove past the fire and the cross, past other figures huddled in doorways.  Then, just as he was about to approach a burnt-out convenience store, something else clanged against the back of his rig.

At once, he reached for his cell phone.  “The natives are restless tonight,” he reported to Pigott.

“You get hit?”

“Yeah, three times, so far.”

“That’s par for the course.”

“Remember, now, don’t stop if you get hit.”

“I won’t, captain.”

“You stop, you’ll never get out of here in time to make the vigil.”

*

Thirty-five minutes later, the last rig in the convoy arrived at the small eastside park where the vigil was being held.  Wicker was pleased.  The convoy was there almost five minutes ahead of schedule.

“You did a top notch job,” Iverson, one of the older club members, said after Wicker handed him a candle.  “Maybe you should be road captain on every ride-out.”

He chuckled.  “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“You really have to concentrate when you’re captain,” Pigott chimed in as he lit his candle, “and you were as focused as I’ve ever seen you tonight.”

“Yeah, sometimes you can do that when you don’t want to think about other things.”

“Something bothering you, Brad?”

He shrugged.  “Oh, you know, things happen almost every day that can knock you off stride if you let them.  But I don’t intend to let them.”

“That’s why you were such an effective captain tonight,” Iverson declared.

He nodded and lit his candle, half wishing another convoy was scheduled tomorrow that he could captain.

*

Wicker was twenty-five and had never lived with a woman until three months ago when he moved in with a receptionist at the real estate agency where he worked for an uncle.  Gwen was a couple of years older but looked quite a bit younger with her spiky blond hair and oodles of bracelets and rings.  Because his apartment was so small he had to move into hers, which was fine with him except that he didn’t always know where to find some of the most ordinary things.  Just the other day, after searching everywhere for a pair of tweezers, he finally found one in the bottom drawer of the storage bench in her bedroom closet.  Beneath it, he noticed, was a plain postcard with an upstate return address and out of curiosity he turned it over and read the brief note.

“Thinking of you always,” it said, “and always appreciate what you do.”  It was signed, “With all my love, Ray.”

He assumed the card was from some relative or friend of hers he hadn’t met and started to put it away when he noticed a bundle of postcards tucked in the back of the drawer.  He thumbed through a couple of them and was surprised by their intimacy then put them back in the back of the drawer.  This Ray person talked about Gwen’s eyes as if he had looked deeply into them, about the softness of her lips as someone who had kissed them.  Who was this guy? he wondered.  An old boyfriend perhaps, or maybe even a not so old one?  He figured he’d ask her when she got home from work but then decided against it because he didn’t want her to think he was snooping through her drawers.

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, he wondered why she had never mentioned this person to him.  They were not suppose to keep secrets from one another, that’s what she asked him to promise when he moved in with her.  One of the cards he looked at was sent more than a year ago but another was postmarked only a few days ago.  So whoever Ray was he was still in contact with her.

*

“You remember when we promised not to keep secrets from one another?” Wicker asked Gwen that evening at dinner.

“I do.”

“Why was that so important to you?”

“Oh, I just figured two people who are living together should know all they can about one another.”

“You think you know all about me?”

She took a sip of wine.  “Yeah, pretty much.”

“You’re sure?”

“Don’t tell me you’re a cat burglar or something?” she laughed.

He shook his head, spooning some more Brussels sprouts onto his plate.

“So why are you asking me about this now?”

This was his chance to bring up Ray, but he couldn’t and lamely said, “I want to tell you something so it doesn’t become a secret.”

She leaned over her plate.  “What’s that, dear?”

“There’s a ride-out scheduled into the high country on the weekend after next.”

“I know.  You told me already.”

“Yeah, well, I wanted to let you know I might stay over an extra day.”

“Why’s that?”

“Iverson invited me to go fly fishing with a friend of his who lives up there,” he lied.

“Maybe you can catch dinner for us.”

“I wouldn’t count on it, babe.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not that lucky.”

“Better to be good than lucky.”

“I’m not that, either.”

*

Wicker was asked to serve again as road captain on the ride-out to a car show at Crimson Falls but declined.  The logging town where Ray lived was only a half hour drive from the upstate Indian casino and he intended to pay him a visit so he would be unable to return with the convoy.  He really hadn’t planned to go on this ride-out until he came across the postcards and realized how close the logging town was to the casino.  He was curious to see this person who had sent Gwen all the cards so he figured he might as well take advantage of the opportunity.

“Now or never,” he told himself after he made his decision.

Late Sunday morning he drove from the casino to the logging town, which was so small he suspected everyone knew everyone there.  The house where Ray lived was not hard to find since it was only a block north of the one business street in town.  A modest clapboard place badly in need of painting, it looked pretty much like the other houses on the block except for the huge elm tree in the middle of the front yard.  From one of the limbs hung a white-walled tire that he assumed was a child’s swing.

Not sure what he wanted to do now that he was there, he drove around the block and parked across the street on the corner.  He had brought along the most recent card sent to Gwen, thinking he might use it as a ruse to meet Ray.  His plan was to knock on the door and say that he found the card lying in the street and wanted to return it.  But the card was already postmarked so he doubted if his story would sound credible.  So he sat in his Navigator, wondering if he even had the nerve to knock on the door.  Maybe if he waited long enough, he thought, Ray would come out and then he wouldn’t have to talk to him because all he really wanted was to get a look at him.

Moments later, startled when someone rapped a knuckle against his window, he spun around as if slapped across the face.  A scrawny man with a blue bandana tied around his sun-creased neck motioned for him to roll down the window.

“You having car trouble, mister?”

“No.”

“I thought maybe you were when I noticed you parked outside my house.”

Casually he shook his head, trying to think of a satisfactory explanation.  “I was wondering which house belonged to some guy named Ray,” he said hurriedly.  “I found a postcard sent by him in the street and thought I’d return it but all I can make out on the return address is the street.”

“Ray, you say?”

He nodded, fidgeting with the ring of keys hanging from the ignition.

“Well, mister, the only Ray I know on this street is a four-year-old boy,” he said, with a slight grin.  “He lives in that house with the tire swing in front of it.”

“Oh.”

“Gracious, I doubt if the youngster can even write his name yet so he’s probably not the Ray you’re looking for.”

“Probably not.”

Nodding, the man turned and headed back to his garage while Wicker rolled up his window, smiling so hard his cheeks ached.  He was stunned by the revelation, so relieved he felt like pressing his hand down on the car horn.  Just a minute ago, he was almost positive Ray was someone Gwen was seeing, someone he was going to confront this morning.  Now he assumed the boy was probably a nephew or a friend, the postcards sent by his grateful mother.  He was so happy and excited that all he wanted to do was leave the logging town as quickly as possible and immediately started the engine.  He figured if he drove fast enough he might be able to catch up with the convoy and blazed down the shaded macadam street without even glancing at the house with the tire swing.

*

Wicker considered mentioning to Gwen his visit to the logging town but again he didn’t want her to think he was spying on her so he kept quiet.  Now, as far as he was concerned, Ray was all but forgotten.  Or so he thought until a few weeks later when he found another postcard wedged in the back of the mailbox.  This, he realized, was his opportunity to bring up the subject to her, and, after going back and forth on whether or not he should, he handed her the card at dinner.

“I found this stuck in the mailbox.”

Scarcely looking at the card, she set it beside her salad plate.

“Who’s Ray?”

“You read it?” she asked, sounding annoyed.

“It was hard not to, babe.  There’s only a couple of lines.”

“I don’t read your mail.”

“Maybe because no one sends me postcards.”

Her shoulders tightening, she picked up a cucumber slice from the relish tray and set it on the edge of her dinner plate.

“So who is he?”

“Not anyone you know,” she answered dismissively.

“I know, babe.  That’s why I asked.”

She didn’t reply and sprinkled some chives on her baked potato.

Suddenly he became annoyed by her silence, realizing she didn’t intend to answer him, and said, “You’ve received other cards from him.  I saw them in the drawer in the storage bench.”

“You going through my drawers, Brad?”

“I was looking for some tweezers and came across them.”

Angrily she stabbed her fork into the center of the potato.

“I didn’t think we were going to keep secrets from one another.”

She glared at him.  “He’s my son.  There, are you happy now that you know?”

He was stunned, never for an instant had he considered the possibility.

Sobbing uncontrollably, she told him she had the child shortly after she got out of high school.  The father, a Marine she met through a girlfriend, promised to marry her but after he shipped out to Okinawa she never saw him again.  Unable to take care of the child herself, she agreed to let her half sister raise him and sent some money to her at the first of the month when she could.

Wicker, pleased she had confided in him finally, wished now he never saw the postcards in the drawer.  And deep in a corner of his heart he wondered if she really had told him the complete truth.  Maybe there wasn’t any Marine, maybe the father was still in town.  The right thing, he knew, was to believe her and, Lord knows, he tried but the presence of Ray continued to trouble him, as well as his concern that she might be keeping other secrets from him.

Another ride-out was scheduled at the end of the month, back up in the high country, and after packing all his belongings, he went on it and did not return to the apartment.  He thought maybe he would stay away for a couple of days but then the days stretched into a couple of weeks then months.

T.R. HEALY was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.  His stories have appeared in such publications as Full of Crow, Lily, Limestone, Stymie, and Superstition Review.

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