Me and Junior went riding.
On the first Monday of each month, I drive a Mobil Meals route and my third delivery is to a neat-as-a-pin, brick ranch, with a nicely paved driveway and a deep culvert on either side. And it was into that culvert that I backed the right, rear wheel of my truck, resulting in the hitch digging into the asphalt street and the wheel hanging suspended, with no chance of moving backwards or forwards.
“Mother, father, Cocker Spaniel!” my favorite go-to phrase of disgust and frustration was exclaimed thrice as I realized I was going nowhere, with another 12 hot meals inside the cooler still needing to be delivered.
“Honey, are you stuck?” came the sweetest query from the gentleman to whom I’d just handed his meal, not five minutes before.
“Oh, Junior, I’m afraid I am,” I sighed, walking around the side of the truck to survey the situation. “I can’t believe I did this, I’ve never put it into that ditch, before.”
“You know what? Lots of people have done that,” Junior did his best to apply a verbal balm, “I ought to fill in that culvert.”
“No, no,” I said, “I shouldn’t have turned my wheel so soon. But I’m going to have to call a wrecker; I’ve got to get these meals delivered before they get cold.”
Junior fished in his pocket and pulled out the keys to his Crown Victoria.
“Honey, do you want to take my car?”
“And back it into the ditch, too?” I replied in all seriousness, “heck, no, but would you consider driving me on the rest of my route, Junior? It won’t take more than an hour.”
I have always believed that hopeless delays are a deliberate plan for us to remain where we are, whether the reason is for our own safe keeping or, in this case, to illustrate what can transpire during a late morning for two people who had only, up until this point, exchanged pleasantries and a hot meal through a screened in, back door.
Junior’s face brightened considerably and with a deft movement which belied his 80-odd years, he swung open the passenger side of his Ford and said, “I’d be happy to, honey.”
Not surprisingly, the interior of his late model car was as immaculate as its surroundings, but before I could sit down, I had to remove quite a large, framed, photograph, nearly as tall as the seat itself, of a demure and attractive brunette, hair artfully sculpted and piled high as was the fashion of the 1970’s. It struck me right in the heart and I had to ask, “Junior, is this your wife?”
Junior nodded and pulling out of the driveway, he took one hand from the wheel, removed a faded snapshot from his shirt pocket and handed it to me, saying, “Yes, that’s my Margaret.”
“She's beautiful…has she passed?”
His eyes grew moist and his jaw trembled slightly as he replied, “Yes. 28 months and 12 days ago.”
I slid the framed photograph between us and said, “Do you think Margaret will mind me riding shotgun with you, today? I’m making sure she’s closest to you, Junior.”
He shook his head slowly and smiled. “No, no, honey, she won’t mind. We always go riding together.”
“You know she’s still with you, right?”
He nodded this time and said softly, “You might think this is crazy, but every morning, my pillow is moved over from where I put it, and I believe she moves it.”
“I believe that, too.”
Dutifully pulling into each home on the route, Junior would wait while I popped out, knocked on a door, delivered a meal, and hopped back in. As we approached a new and the last address on the route, I read, with some trepidation, the directions on the printed sheet that accompanied the meals in each cooler.
“Junior? The next house, it says, we’re supposed to go in through the sunroom, around back, holler up the stairs for the lady, and if she doesn’t answer, we’re supposed to put the meal on her kitchen counter. But it says she has five dogs that should be locked up.”
Junior braked at the top of the driveway and looked at me. “Honey, he said, “I don’t think you oughta be going in there by yourself?”
“Well, I don’t want you to get bitten, either, Junior,” I replied, juggling what I felt was an opportunity to give an elderly gentleman a lovely sense of masculinity but also, the very real risk of seeing him knocked down by a pack of who knows what. “Tell you what, why don’t you walk me to the door and we’ll both suss out the situation.”
This met his approval and I allowed him to guide my elbow up the steps to the sunroom and as we walked carefully towards the wide staircase that led upstairs, I called out, “Mobil Meals!” which led to an explosion of barks behind the kitchen. Juniors eyes grew large and he grabbed my arm and looked at me with alarm.
“Junior,” I said, “Let’s get out of here!”
It was apparent the dogs (whom I supposed were ankle biters judging from several high pitched yaps) were indeed locked behind a closed door as we never saw them, but we didn’t spend any time looking, either. In a flash we were back inside the Crown Victoria, with Margaret between us and we both laughed with relief and I said, “I believe Margaret thoroughly enjoyed that, Junior!”
“I believe she did, honey!”
On our way back to Junior’s house, he shared how he thought of his ‘little darling’ every day and how, when she was very ill, he had bought a candy apple red, 2005 Thunderbird, which was an encore reproduction of the original, 1957 model.
“I told her that we might not have been able to afford it when we were young, but I had bought it for her now, and as soon as she got well, we were going to put the top down and go riding,” but his eyes welled with the ache of the memory as he added, “but she didn’t ever get well.”
We pulled into his drive and I called the wrecker (which he absolutely refused to let me pay for, despite my ten minutes of protestations, only stopping when a neighbor walked up and said, “It’s because you’re a woman. He won’t let a woman pay for anything. You may as well give up.”)
While we waited for its arrival, Junior beckoned to me and said, “Honey, I want to show you something.”
We walked past his garage to another short stretch of driveway to a second, enclosed garage. Lifting the door and rolling it up, he gestured to the Thunderbird. “There it is. That’s the car I bought for my little darling.”
I trailed a finger over the hood. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, Junior. Do you drive it?”
He shook his head. “I just can’t. I drive it once a week to visit my little darling at the cemetery, but that’s all.”
I turned to him and said, “But you must, Junior. Don’t you think Margaret would want you to? To put the top down and go for a spin?”
He shook his head once more. “People tell me I should, that she’d want that, but I just can’t.”
“Tell you what, Junior,” I offered, “You think about this: how about I come over in a couple of weeks and we'll take this baby out and put the top down and I’ll hold Margaret on my lap and we’ll go for a spin. What do you think?”
My new buddy gave me the sweetest smile and said, “I believe that’d be alright.”
Me and Junior are going riding.
Reach PAM STONE at firstname.lastname@example.org.