“Excuse me sir. I saw you park your rig.”
He looked me straight in the eye. It wasn’t a friendly look. He paused in his chewing and lowered the mug of coffee in his huge right hand onto the battered table-top before he replied. “Can’t give rides. Company rules.”
“Please don’t say that sir. I’ve been here since noon and made two coffees last three hours and I still haven’t been able to get a ride.”
He chewed on his bite of hamburger for a moment before answering.
“Folks don’t give rides much no more. Too many oddballs about. Get yourself knifed or shot or hijacked easy as falling off a log.” He gave his attention to the task of cutting his French-fries into bite size pieces with the side of his fork.
“Sir, you can see plain as day I’m not packing a knife or a gun. Most dangerous thing I’ve got is a guitar but it’ll only hurt your ears if you let me play it.”
His lips curled up in an unwilling smile. “Where you tryin’ to get to anyhow kid?”
“Silverbridge. Silverbridge Vermont. You know it?”
“Sure I know it. You planning on getting there tonight?”
“Yes. Definitely… if I can.”
“Forget it. It’s three hundred miles away. What ya want to go to Silverbridge for anyhow?”
He shifted his massive bulk in the wooden chair and it creaked arthritically.
“I’ve got family there. You know. Somewhere to stay.”
He put down his fork and looked me over, starting with my scruffy baseball cap and over-stuffed rucksack with the guitar case strapped to the back, and travelling right down to my frayed Levis and dusty hiking boots.
“You don’t look like no down-and-out, son. And you don’t sound like somebody that’s got family in Silverbridge Vermont neither. That some kind of English accent you’ve got?”
“Yes sir. My branch of the family lives in England. The people in Silverbridge are my uncle’s family. Father’s brother’s wife’s people. It’s a bit complicated.”
“You want my advice son? Take a walk into town, find some place to stay and take the bus in the morning.”
“Can’t do that. I haven’t got the cash. If I had the price of a meal I wouldn’t be here drinking coffee. I’m stony broke, that’s the truth. Well, I have two dollars and sixty-eight cents. I don’t think that’s going to get me to Silverbridge, do you?”
He hesitated and continued to look at me. I noticed that his chewing had slowed down. “Molly,” he said to the bored blonde in the grease-spotted apron behind the counter, “hamburger and fries for my young friend here. And another coffee for the both of us.” He waved down my thanks. “I’ve got a son about your age. Known some hard times myself as well. Don’t like to see a young kid go hungry. How did you get yourself into this position, boy?”
I put down my rucksack and guitar and sat opposite him. “You want the long version or the short version?” He didn’t reply. “I came over as a volunteer at a children’s summer camp in New York State. It didn’t work out. I’ve got a return air ticket but I can’t use it for another three weeks. I got a little bit of money while I was at the camp but I’ve spent it, and there won’t be any more because I left before I was supposed to.”
“Is that the long version or the short version?” I shrugged. “Let me shorten it down a bit for you, son. You fucked-up.”
“Yeah. That’s about it.”
He looked me straight in the eye. “What ya call yourself, son?”
“Name’s Harry.” He gripped my hand with a force that made my knuckle bones click ominously and shook it in slow motion.
The waitress arrived with the burger and fries, and after checking the hand for damage I began to eat. “Okay, Simon,” he said ponderously, “here’s the deal. I can get you within twenty miles of where you’re going. If I’m in a good mood I might even make a detour and take you all the way. But it’s gonna’ cost you a favour in return.” Since my mouth was full I nodded to indicate that I was listening. “Ain’t nothing illegal. Just want you to call in on my daughter where she works, find out if everything’s okay and come back and tell me. If I ask her myself I’m not sure I get the truth. Think you can handle that?”
The sun was touching the cornfields over to our left when Harry parked his big silver and orange rig alongside a line of three others, switched off the engine and pointed down the road, past the gas station and the Walmart parking lot, to a long, low timber-framed bar and eating house that was set back from the road and had a few scruffy family saloons parked outside it. “That’s where she works,” he told me. “I’ve parked back here so she won’t see the truck. Now don’t keep me waiting too long.” He leaned across me and opened my door, revealing the perilous eight foot drop to the concrete below. I turned around and carefully found the first step. “I’ll try not to.” I assured him.
I heard the door slam as my feet touched the ground. Relieved of the weight of the rucksack for the first time that day, I set out briskly towards the business, which a flickering neon sign proclaimed to be the “One-Eyed Jack”. In my right hand I clutched the twenty dollar bill that Harry had provided as expenses for the operation. I knew that I was on my own and that my ride depended on my ability to carry this off to his satisfaction.
I saw Harry’s daughter as soon as I entered the building. She was a year or two younger than me, dyed blonde hair tied back in a bunch, hangdog expression as though life wasn’t treating her all that well, and she wore a white blouse and knee-length blue skirt that were intended for somebody twice her age. Nevertheless, they couldn’t hide her trim little figure. If she cheered up and put on a nice top, I said to myself, she could be really attractive. She was carrying a tray of drinks to a group of three male customers at a table near the back where they smoked and talked in low voices about something they seemed to find distasteful. Apart from the men at the rear the only other occupied table had a middle aged couple with a fat teenage son who morosely sucked a pink milkshake through a straw. I took a small table by the long front window and waited for her to come over.
She stood above me, note pad at the ready and said “Yes?” without looking down.
“Do you have a menu, Miss?” I asked in my best Sloane Square accent. It did the trick. She looked down.
“Sure. I’ll get it. You ain’t from around here, are you?”
“No, Miss. I’m on holiday from London, England.”
“You seem surprised.”
“No. Just don’t get many people from Europe in here. You on your way somewhere?”
I smiled. “Isn’t this somewhere?”
She returned the smile. “No sir. This is nowhere.”
“You shouldn’t say that. It’s where you live, isn’t it? That makes it somewhere.”
She seemed a little embarrassed. “I’ll get that menu.”
I shook my head, “No, forget it. All I want is a burger and fries. Don’t need a menu for that do I? Unless there’s something better you can recommend?” I was careful to maintain eye contact as I spoke.
She paused. “Ribs are good. If you like ribs.”
“Ribs will be fine. And a beer. Am I allowed to buy you one?”
She lowered her voice. “I ain’t supposed to drink on the job. I finish in about twenty minutes though. Maybe… maybe you could wait on a bit.”
Marlene in her civilian clothes looked a lot better. Tight black jeans, hair around her shoulders now and a dark red V-neck jumper that showed a bit of cleavage. In fact she didn’t look like the same girl. Everything was perfect now, I thought to myself, except maybe the eyes. You could still see the sadness there. I found myself wondering what it would take to get the sadness out of those eyes.
I could tell straight off that Marlene liked me. She hadn’t travelled a great deal and hadn’t met many foreigners either. That made me a bit of a celebrity. She wanted to know all about me and where I came from so I told her my story, at least as much of it as I wanted her to know, and asked her for hers.
“Ain’t nothing to tell, Simon. Not a thing.”
“I’ll bet there’s a lot to tell. Do you live with your folks?”
“Not any more. I flunked High School and had a row with the old man. Moved out and got a job here and found a rooming house. It ain’t much but it’s independence. That was about six months ago.”
“Did you move out on your own?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No. How did you know that?”
“Didn’t think a girl’s dad would ask her to leave just because she’d flunked school. Thought there might be more to it.”
She nodded. “You’re right. There was a guy. Played the guitar, didn’t have a job. He’s left now.”
“Is your dad still sore about it?”
“If my dad finds him I think he might kill him.” She paused. “He walked out on me when I was expecting a kid, you see.”
“So you’ve got a kid?”
“Nope. My dad and my brother sorted that out. Took me to a clinic in Albany.”
I felt a bit embarrassed but she seemed to want to talk about herself so I didn’t stop her. “My dad’s a good man,” she added after a thoughtful pause, “he cares about me, but he likes to play this tough guy part and throw his weight about. I mean, everything he does he does for the right reasons, but sometimes it ain’t the best thing to do. You know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean. What about your mum?”
She shrugged. “Mom went into an alcoholics’ home when I was about twelve and we lost track of her. Paired up with a guy she met there, used car salesman from Minnesota. Dad wanted to kill him too for a while. My dad’s an emotional man.”
“In touch with his feelings. That’s a good thing. Get it all out in the open. This guy who played the guitar, do you want to tell me about him?”
“He was a bastard, only I didn’t know it at the time. Good guitarist though. He used to write tunes to go with my songs.”
“Your songs? You’re a song writer?”
“Just a hobby. Got to do something to keep from going crazy around here. I used to write country and western songs. Even used to try to sing them if there was nobody around.”
“But that’s brilliant! I write songs too. Even play the guitar, but I’m not very good. Can I hear one of your songs?”
“No sir, that you most definitely can not.”
“Hey! This might be your big chance! Maybe I’m a scout for the Grand Ol’ Opry, or a big record company. This could be your big break, Marlene. Who knows?”
She laughed. “Tell you what then, big scout, I’ll show you the words of one written down…” She fished around in her shoulder bag. “This was one I wrote after Clem left. Ain’t got no tune.” She handed me a folded page torn from a school exercise book. I opened it out and read:
You swore you’d never leave me and you said you would be true
But a pile of broken promises is all that’s left of you
All the promises you gave me underneath the silver moon
Who’d have thought forever came so soon.
Who’d have thought forever came so soon.
Your promises came easy and you handed them around
‘Cause you knew what they were made of and you never would be bound
I know I’m not the only one who’s given you her trust
Given love when all you had to trade was lust
Given love when all you had to trade was lust.
Weasel-words and broken promises are lying on the floor
That was all you left me when you walked right out the door
I know you’re with another now, don’t wish her any ill
Tasting sugar on a very bitter pill
Tasting sugar on a very bitter pill
I’m older and I’m stronger now, I’ve learned to take things slow
Not setting out on journeys ‘til I’ve got a place to go
I’m not in any hurry now to give my love away
And I’m gonna’ live to love another day
Yes I’m gonna’ live to love another day.
“Brilliant! Really. Great words. I can write a tune to these. Let me have a go…” I started to hum a few tunes, but nothing that came was very inspired. I could tell by Marlene’s smile that she wasn’t too impressed.
“Takes time, Marlene, “ I pleaded, “things like this take time. You’ve got to let me think on it a bit. But those are terrific words. Great feeling.” I meant it and she could sense my admiration. “You know in London where I live we have clubs where song writers come and try out their songs and get feedback and make friends with other song writers. There are dozens of them. They’d love this stuff. You mightn’t get rich but you’d get appreciated and you’d make friends. You’d be someone there Marlene. You’d love it. And they’d love you. And… well, maybe I could write the tunes for you…”
I paused. For a few seconds I thought the sadness had gone out of her eyes but then it came right back. “Sorry, I’ve no right to make assumptions like that. Maybe you’re all sorted out now. Maybe you’ve got a new boyfriend?”
She paused. “Well, there are a couple guys I hang out with a bit…”
“I know what you mean. What is there to do around here?”
“Oh, there’s a couple clubs if you’ve got a car. Or there’s bowling. Mostly we just go to a bar, hang out, play a bit of pool…”
“Do I detect that you aren’t exactly thrilled to bits with your life here?”
She didn’t need to answer. “Truth is, I left a place just the same forty miles down the road. Thought it would be different here. Look at it. Would you want to live here?”
“Let me ask you a theoretical question.” She smiled and I returned the smile as brightly as I could. “If you could have anything you wanted in the whole world, what would it be?”
“In the fairytale you get three wishes.”
“Okay. I’m a generous person. Three it is.”
“Right. Here we go. First I want to live in a big city with shops and clubs like the ones you said, and fancy restaurants and… I don’t know. Bright lights.”
“Okay. That’s number one. What’s the next one?”
“I want a job that doesn’t bore me silly, that earns me enough money so I can have a nice place and a nice car… and holidays every once in a while.”
“And the last one?” Marlene hesitated and I gave her an encouraging smile. “Come on Marlene. What’s the last one?”
“Not sure I want to say.”
I placed my hand over hers and squeezed gently. “How can the genie grant your three wishes if you won’t say what they are?”
“You know the last one. Same as everybody wants.”
“A man who loves you and looks after you properly. Maybe a family one day.”
She nodded. “Can the genie handle all that?”
I considered the question. “Not an ordinary run-of-the mill genie maybe. But this one is special.”
She laughed. “My wishes are granted then, are they?”
“So long as you believe in magic.”
Her face fell. “I guess that’s the problem. Never been able to believe in magic.”
“The thing about magic is, it doesn’t work straight away. You have to give it time.” I reached down to the floor and picked up a used sheet from her note pad and hunted in my pocket for a pen. “I’m going to give you a number. It’s an English number. You’ve got to leave it for a month, because that’s how long it takes the magic to work, and then call this number. Ask to speak to the genie. Will you do that for me?”
She looked at it and put it carefully in her back pocket. “Thought all you had to do was rub a lamp.”
“This genie works by phone. Have you got a passport?”
She looked at me in wide-eyed amazement. “Hey, you’re serious, ain’t you?”
“Get one. You might need it for the magic carpet.” I stood up.
“Hey! You’re not going already are you?”
“Important business, genie stuff. Don’t forget, wait four weeks. Then call.”
She stood and watched me walk to the door. When I got to it I turned and waved goodbye. “You’re one crazy guy!” she shouted after me.
Outside it was almost dark. I hurried back to the truck and Harry opened the door to greet me. “You were in there a long time son. What did you find out?”
I pulled myself up the steps and got in before I answered. “She’s fine. Got lots of friends, settled in well in the job, likes where she’s living.”
“She got a boyfriend?”
“Not… what you’d call a boyfriend, I think. But there’s lots of local boys she likes. I don’t think you need to worry about her. She’s a nice girl, Harry. A really nice girl. You must be very proud of her”
His face twisted into an incredulous grin. “Ain’t nobody ever said that before.”
He started the engine as I put on my seat belt. “A bit late to get to Silverbridge tonight, son. There’s a place we can get a bed for the night about ten miles down the road. You can pay with what’s left of that twenty dollars.”
“Oh. Yeah. Fine. Thanks.”
As we slowly pulled out into the traffic I froze. Marlene was standing outside the One-Eyed Jack and looking straight at the truck and at me. As we passed, only twenty feet from where she was standing, I saw her reach into the back pocket of her jeans, pull out a folded sheet of her note pad and throw it on the ground. I opened my mouth to speak and croaked incoherently.
“Yeah, I saw her too son. Looks like she didn’t fall for it after all. Too smart for the likes of us. Well, I guess you tried.”
I turned and watched her small figure fade from view. “Harry,” I pleaded in a voice that didn’t seem to be my own, “would you stop the truck please? I want to go back there.”
“You gone crazy, boy? What would you want to go back there for?”
“I… I don’t feel good about the way I tricked her. I want to apologise…”
“Crazy people the English. Always wanting to apologise. I’ll apologise for you next time I see her. She knows I check up on her every once in a while. Ain’t no big thing.”
“No… no, please. It’s got to come from me. I’m going to feel really bad if you don’t let me go back. Please.”
I felt the truck slow down. “Do you think I can hang around all night waiting for you? If you get out now, you’re on your own kid. Think you can get to Silverbridge on what’s left of my twenty dollars?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stay here for a while. Get a job…”
“You’re plumb crazy boy. No wonder they kicked your butt out of that summer camp.” He pulled in to the side and stopped and I grabbed my rucksack and guitar and almost jumped down on to the road.
I looked up at him and tried to think of something to say. “You’re right. I am a bit crazy. Thanks for the ride… and the twenty dollars.”
“Crazy kids,” he said by way of dismissal and slammed the door shut.
I checked that the guitar was properly attached, pulled the rucksack over my shoulders and started to run back towards Marlene and the One-Eyed-Jack. Maybe I’d spoiled it with her already, she had every right to refuse to talk to me ever again. But I knew I couldn’t leave it like this. She was right of course, there was no such thing as magic. But maybe there were other ways to make wishes come true.