As the Crow Flies
Conflicted, he grabbed the near-empty bottle off the nightstand and walked outside. Colton straddled the seat of his Harley, uncapped the bottle, and took a big swig. The liquor burned going down.
He stared across the street watching the morning breeze stir the ragweed that was beginning to takeover the fallow rice field. After minutes spent weighing his options, he removed the letter from its envelope, shredded it into tiny pieces, released them to the wind, and watched them skip and dance down the gravel road.
The caw of a bird summoned his attention to the stretch of telephone poles running adjacent to the field. A blackbird, perched on one of the long strands of wire, cawed again before taking wing and sailing down to land on the driveway. It hopped toward him and up onto the front tire. Cocking its head side to side, it stared at him through shiny, black beads. The old song, Bye Bye Blackbird, popped into his head. His mother had sung it to him when he was a kid. He shook off the superstitious notion that blackbirds were messengers from the other side.
Suddenly, the bird fluttered away. He watched the creature fly out of sight. Omen or fluke, he fired up his Harley. After placing what remained of the Jack Daniels in his saddlebag, he eased down the driveway, and out onto the gravel road. Facing the morning sun hanging in a cornflower-blue sky, he revved the engine, and let off the clutch. The spinning rear tire spewed rocks into the air, and Colton left the small Arthur of Cut and Shoot in a cloud of dust.
Five hours of hard riding brought him to a sign welcoming him to Paradise Texas Pop 5,043. Colton eased off the throttle, and his long, black hair roosted on his shoulders as he came to a stop. “You’re home, boy,” he told himself. He suddenly felt unsettled. For years, he’d been beating the demons from his past back into the recesses of his mind as they arose. Now that he was here, the urge to turn around and head back was strong. The familiar beasts stirred. He reached down into the saddlebag, found what was left of the fifth, and drained it. Even though the amber liquid calmed the creatures enough for him to move on, Colton knew that they would be back, and he was going to need more whiskey.
A mile down the road the scenery changed from desolate road that cut through a forest of hardwood and pine trees to a street of historical buildings, hotels, businesses, and a Bed and Breakfast. On the right side of Main Street, where the string of buildings ended, was a vacant lot overgrown with grass and weeds. The theater once stood there before it had burned to the ground. Now, like a fossil embedded in stone, the wall plaster on the adjoining building that still stood held an imprint of the staircase that once led up to the theater’s balcony.
Colton had fond memories of the place. Saturday mornings he’d ride his Sting-Ray bike here to catch the matinee. Sometimes, he would stay after the feature ended and watch it again. Once, he’d stayed for a third showing of the Frank Spencer movie, Midnight to Nowhere, because of a classmate, Stormie Morgan. On a dare from his friend, Lucia, he’d thrown popcorn at her from two rows back. On the third toss, she’d twisted around and caught him in the act. That had led to his first kiss up in the theater’s balcony where they finished the movie huddled together with fingers intertwined. Colton left the memories behind as he idled away.
He was hungry and decided to visit another place from his past. Colton merged onto Grigsby Drive. From there it was a straight shot to The Cottage Cafe; a white, rectangular, wood building sitting on blocks in the middle of a crushed gravel parking lot.
When Colton entered the diner, the bell, mounted on the door, announced his arrival. A few curious faces took their eyes off their newspapers to give the newcomer a glance
Instantly, he was swept back in time to ghost past. The place looked exactly like it had when he was a kid. The square room housed about twenty tables covered by checkered table cloths, standard red and black. Neon signs promoting various brands of name-brand beer populated the brown paneling wall in the back of the room A cigarette vending machine stood next to the juke box at the wall to his right, The long lunch counter, cluttered with plates of food and cups of coffee, ran from the entrance, where he stood, all the way down to the steam table. Eight bar stools with round, green-vinyl muffin-tops lined the counter. A customer saddled each one. The only windows in the place where behind the bar and they ran the length of the wall. The sun pouring through the glass was at the right to highlight the dust particles swimming in the air and illuminate a hanging cloud of smoke. Things hadn’t changed in Port Arthur. The hometown folks pretty much chose not to disturb the status quo of southern traditions despite the NO SMOKING sign on the wall. Along with the usual cafe natter, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee, grilled onions, and a hint of bacon filled the air. The kinetic energy wagging the bell’s tongue spent itself and silenced.
A gruff male voice at one of the tables called out. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” Laughter erupted from the group.
Colton snapped out of his reminiscing and made a beeline for the empty table in the corner, but the icy stare of the man sitting on one of the barstools at the counter stopped him dead in his tracks. He recognized the face even though the jowls were heavier, the lines around the eyes were deeper, and his blond hair thinner. In high school Toomey Starks had been a glorified football god that played the first string the D-line. Colton didn’t see Toomey as a god, but as a big, hulking dinosaur with a big body and little brains easily manipulated by a coaches’ whistle and a cheerleader’s skirt. He also remembered Toomey from teenage parties flowing with beer and pot, and that memory was imbedded with an incident that had caused bad blood between the two of them.
“You look like you seen a ghost or somethin’,” said Toomey.