My good friend and colleague J.D. can be very persuasive. When she hinted that she’d like to see one of my recent stories posted on my website, I could think of no reason not to do so. J.D. has also hinted broadly about a hat. While she’s reading this, I’ll go dig around the yarn stash and see what I can come up with.
Clifford slams the door, and checks that it’s locked before swinging first one leg and then the other down to the pavement. With his inflamed hip this is achieved with some awkwardness and a grunt; it doesn’t help that his beer gut gets in the way and slows him down. He blows some warmth into his cupped hands before filling the rig’s tank. This morning’s hard frost will do in the last of Marion’s tomatoes, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Next week he will return from the Florida route to the blackened fruit and an empty home. Christ knows, snow, maybe.
A quick cup of coffee to take off the chill, and he will be on his way, with Dolly Parton for company. That woman can break a man’s heart – Here You Come Again, Heartbreak Express, I Will Always Love You. Easy on the eyes, too; a double-F feast for a man like Clifford, who’s gone without far too long. He feels a boner creeping into place and with a twinge of guilt, hitches his trousers as he saunters into the truckstop and takes the booth nearest the door.
“Cuppa coffee, hon?”
Delores, the badge pinned to her mint-green blouse reads. Delores has a voice that could grate cheese and a mouth like a postage slot. Her hair is cut short and is the colour of faded straw. She may not be any Dolly Parton, but at least she’s friendly.
“Yes, please. Got a long drive ahead.”
“Whereabouts you off to?”
“Anywheres warmer than here is okay by me,” Delores rasps. “Here’s a menu. Be right back.” She twitches off to another table and takes the guy’s order.
The door opens, letting in a cold whoosh of air. Couple of hippie kids, all braids and scarves. Jesus sandals with woolen socks, holes in the toes. What are they trying to prove, anyways, Clifford wonders. At least when he was a hippie, a real hippie, back in the late ’60s, they were trying to do good in the world. These kids are just trying to draw attention to themselves, with their tattoos and piercings Christ-knows-where. He squints at the menu, thinks about the route to Gainesville. Always in his mind he is planning a route, driving ahead of himself to avoid surprises. Once he’s driven someplace, he’s got it lodged in his memory. It’s a gift, like a musician’s memory for a tune.
The hippies are talking quietly, looking around the room. Clifford prepares himself; any minute they’ll be sidling up to try and mooch a ride. But he has a firm policy: no free rides to strangers, not after what happened to old Frank and his wife when they picked up some nutcase hiding a stash of coke and a four-foot length of piano wire in his backpack.
“What’ll it be, hon?”
Delores is back, her voice grinding like rusty gears, swishing her cloth on the formica and whisking a paper placemat and cutlery before him with the breathtaking speed of a career waitress.
“Trucker’s special, please. Over-easy on whole wheat.”
“Be right up.”
The hippie girl is shaking her head. Looks embarrassed. The hippie boy kisses her on the cheek, and then – Christ, what’s he doing, standing on a chair and clapping his hands?
“Excuse me, hello? Everyone, could I please have your attention – hello? Excuse me? ”
At which point the girl puts two fingers between her lips and shrieks a whistle that’d stop a bull. The diner is suddenly silent. Truckers in dirty ball caps turn with dubious expressions, some of them shaking their heads at the nerve of these kids.
“Uh, yeah. Um, thanks… Listen, my girlfriend and I were just wondering? You know, if any of you truck drivers who are heading south would consider taking this along with you?” The hippie holds up a shoebox for all to see. “You’d be doing us all a huge favour, you know? And…”
A voice emerges from the crowd. “You want one of us to take a box of Christ-knows-what south? Are you kiddin’ me, bud?”
The air rumbles with the laughter of thirty experienced drivers as they all turn back to their breakfasts.
“Wait, no, it’s nothing like that! It’s a butterfly. Really.”
But no-one is listening. The drivers are far more interested in their hash browns and sausage links than what the young people have in their shoebox. The girl pulls on the hippie’s sleeve, which he yanks away from her grip as he climbs down off his chair. The two of them sit miserably on stools, with the box on the counter between them. Delores raises her eyebrows and waves her coffee pot at them, but they shake their heads. Then she chats with them, and the girl lifts the shoebox lid an inch for her to peer in. Delores nods her head in wonder, and pours them coffee anyway.
Clifford thinks ahead to the Florida drive. He will not drive down to East Florida, as he and Marion had planned last spring, will not be making the side trip to pay the deposit on an RV home. Their dream home. Twenty-nine-thousand saved, mostly put away from Marion’s pension and disability, enough to get them and their furniture down there in time for Christmas. Marion had driven with him the last time and chosen the place, Magnolia Village. Nice folk, people like them who live quietly and don’t expect too much of life, just a little sunshine in winter and evening card games. A few beers and a bowl of pretzels, maybe the Tonight Show if they’re up to it.
Clifford smiles, thinking of Marion’s eyes, her rattling, wheezing cackle every time she wins a game of euchre.
Every time she won, that is. His smile vanishes.
“Here ya go, hon. Over-easy on whole wheat. Just what the doctor ordered.” Delores rips his bill off the pad and flicks it on the table, then in a lowered voice, asks him, “You said you’re driving south?”
“What?” Clifford wonders if Delores is propositioning him, until she nods her head in the direction of the sulking hippies.
“It’s a monarch they got in that box. You know, a butterfly.”
“A butterfly?” Clifford blinks in disbelief.
“One of them orange and black ones you don’t see so much any more. They say they rescued it, but it’s getting too cold out for it to survive. Go figure, eh? Here, lemme give you a refill.”
Clifford stares at the couple, then looks away, but it’s too late; the girl has seen him looking, and is climbing off her stool and hurrying over to his booth, clutching the box to her thin chest. Clifford makes busy with his breakfast, and pretends not to see the hippies as they stand beside him.
“Sir? Sir, may I ask you something?” Her voice is oddly child-like. He wasn’t expecting a ‘sir’ from her, and he is surprised by her overbite, which he hadn’t noticed earlier.
“Hmm? What’s that?” Couldn’t her parents have sprung for braces, he wonders.
“Mind if we sit a minute, sir? We won’t stay long, I promise, and then you can eat in peace. You know, peace?” She points at the peace symbol at her boyfriend’s neck, carved wood held in place with a leather thong, above which his adam’s apple bobs with nervous swallows.
“Sir, my name is Maya, and this here’s my boyfriend, Robert. We have a huge favour to ask, if you don’t mind.”
Maya slides into the seat opposite him, and pulls her boyfriend with her. She has made two syllables of ‘huge.’ While she draws breath, Robert jumps in. His face looks too young for the growth of beard he’s attempting on his chin.
“Yeah, it’s really cool. Couple weeks ago Maya brings home this butterfly? You know, a monarch? Anyways, she found it on a fence, and it was, um, injured. He had a little tear in his wing, and Maya was so cool, she just emptied out her water bottle and put him inside with a few leaves, you know?”
“Yeah, and then I rushed home and showed it to Robert,” Maya interrupts breathlessly. “I thought, surely to God there’s gotta be a way to rescue this butterfly, and so I checked out the Internet.”
“And she totally found it, Friends of the Monarch? A website about the migration of the monarch butterfly. Can you believe it?”
Robert looks at Clifford eagerly, then at Maya, who is gazing at him expectantly with enormous blue eyes untarnished by makeup. Clifford nods his head as though to say yes, he can believe it. Looks away from the girl’s unblinking gaze.
“There’s a whole page about wing repair, so we followed the instructions and made a splint,” Maya says, resting a small hand against the side of the box.
“You made a splint for a butterfly?” Clifford wonders if he’s hearing right.
“Yeah, and then we fed him, you know, rotting pears and honey? Fattened him right up. It’s been an amazing journey, you know?”
“And now we need you to finish the butterfly’s journey,” says Maya in a pleading voice.
The mention of rotting pears brings to mind Marion’s frostbitten tomatoes, which will be black on the vine this time next week. Clifford brings the coffee cup to his mouth and takes a long swallow. Winces at the bitterness.
“He’s been flapping around the house, and we’re afraid the cat’s going to eat him. There’s no way he can migrate on his own without freezing, now.” Robert swallows, causing his adam’s apple to dance.
“Sir, we really need your help. This butterfly won’t stand a chance without you. Please, sir, do you think you could take him with you?”
She clasps her pale hands and brings them to her chin.
Maya is really very pretty, with her braided hair and her enormous blue eyes. The overbite lends her an appealingly vulnerable look. Christ, he thinks, looking away. She’s young enough to be his grand-daughter. And there’s Marion, only four months in the grave. Christ, he thinks again.
Robert slides the shoebox across the table. There are holes poked in the lid in the shape of a heart.
“Wanna see Ludwig? That’s what we named him. For Beethoven, right?”
“Yeah, our cat’s name is Leopold, as in Mozart. We just love classical,” Maya pipes up.
Robert eases the lid open a few inches to reveal some yellowed leaves and a twig, upon which clings the monarch, its wings opening and closing slowly to its own rhythm. The fragrance of rotting fruit makes its way from the box to Clifford, who gazes at the butterfly wondering what in hell he’s getting himself in for.
“Sure, I’ll take it,” he says. Across from him, Robert beams, and Maya bounces in her seat, laughing and clapping her hands.
“Aw, man, this is awesome! Thank you so much!” Robert manages. Maya leans across the table and kisses Clifford on the cheek, then turns to Robert and plants one on his mouth.
“See, I told you we’d find someone. Sir, you’re the best. Just the best.”
Clifford’s cheek tingles where Maya kissed him. He tries not to think of it while they are exchanging cell phone numbers.
“There oughta be enough pear in there to feed him for a few days. Please, please don’t let him get cold, and remember to call us the minute you release him.”
Clifford and Robert shake hands, and Maya flings her arms around him. At the next booth a few sets of bristly eyebrows rise beneath baseball-cap bills, but Clifford does not care.
“Thank you so much, sir. You are a kind and generous man. Take care of Ludwig for us – you’re saving his life.”
Ludwig, sheesh! he thinks as he zips his coat and tucks the shoebox under his arm. The girl’s eyes are bright with tears as the pair leave the truck stop and climb into a rusted Gremlin, which wheezes onto the highway.
“Here, hon, take this along.”
Clifford is surprised when Delores hands him a paper bag.
“You’ll want a little lunch sometime,” she says softly. “That’s a good thing you’re doing, there. Drive safe.”
“Thanks,” he says, holding the bag in one hand and the shoebox in the other. He must hurry to the rig before the cold air gets to the butterfly. With surprising ease he swings up into the cab, gently placing the shoebox on the floor between the seats.
As the rig gathers speed, Dolly sings Nine to Five. Clifford will make good time, get the job done. And then he will drive on to East Florida, where he will release Ludwig to the temperate skies of Magnolia Village.
23 November, 2008
Revised 25 February, 2009
All Rights Reserved