INTO THE VOID
By John Thomas Tuft
Harley rises well before the chickens and makes himself a thermos of coffee, screws the lid on tight, trudges out the door to his 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 sitting under the pecan tree. She’s a sentimental beauty to him. He used to drive it through the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas, from Fayetteville, past Fort Smith, east then south to Russellville, to see about a girl. Not just any girl, no, but to see about Jenny. He would leave after work on a Friday night, some of Mama’s meatloaf wrapped up in tinfoil on the seat beside him, and push that old engine to eat up the miles with four bald tires, a hole in the muffler and a nod to Jesus to watch out for state troopers. He grew up in cotton country, but played high school football in Bentonville, birthplace of Sam Walton, founder of WalMart, when nearby Rogers was a mere blip on the map and a gleam in the eye of the old guy in his rickety pickup who changed retail marketing forever.
Harley was a walk on at the University of Arkansas’ fabled Razorbacks practice field down Fayetteville way. He worked nights washing dishes and busing tables at a Joe DiMaggio’s Italian Restaurant out near the new mall. That’s where he first saw Jenny. Her aunt was the high and mighty hostess who looked down her nose at the hired help like him, sweating away over plates stained with old spaghetti and cigarette ashes with endless variations on how can we make the ultimate mess for the bus boy. One night, he looked up and there she was, laughing at him from the swinging door, a little gap showing between her front teeth, shirt tail tied up around her waist, cut off jeans and white sneakers. The picture of beauty that made his chest tighten, disguised with a practiced smirk of “What do you want?” Her ignoring his feigned indifference sealed the deal.
She invited him to visit her in Russellville where she had a summer job at the Dardanelle Dam and could take him on a private tour. So, one Friday night, he got in his Fairlane 500, warm meatloaf beside him in his $150 chariot, and tackled the mountains. He slept in his car in a church parking lot after feasting on the meatloaf. He wasted time all day until she met him at the dam Saturday evening. And there, deep in the concrete bowels holding back the lake, between the spinning turbines, they kissed. Her lips tasted of cinnamon and summer, and the scent of jasmine and ozone haunts him to this day. This was forever and a day, and though Coach Broyles had cut him from the team, the hum of the tires on the way home was still sweet music. He was going back to visit her during homecoming at Arkansas Tech. Life was good.
Homecoming weekend Harley gassed up the Fairlane with $5, ignored the tires, prayed the starter would work, settled the meatloaf in its spot and set out for destiny. One headlight was burning kind of dim, but he paid it no nevermind. A big truck slowed the crawl up the two lane road over the mountain and, impatient for his rendezvous, Harley pulled out into the oncoming lane and punched the gas. Cars descending the mountain flashed their lights and honked with a vengeance, but Jenny was waiting and time waits for no man and love can only endure so much. He made it back to his lane by the few thin hairs of his chin, with only the kiss of the guardrail keeping him from plunging over the side. Shaken, he pushed on.
After catching a few hours of sleep, he presented himself at Jenny’s dorm, hoping he didn’t have meatloaf breath. The girl who answered the door looked him up and down. “What do you want?” “Is Jenny here? I’m her date,” he said, the floor tilting beneath him. “Yeah, right. She joined a sorority. And I doubt you’re her type, Romeo.” The door closed in his face. “Which one?” he yelled through the door. “The Greek one, genius! Go away.” Harley spent the afternoon going from sorority house to sorority house, looking for his love. Finally, he spotted her walking down the sidewalk and ran to greet her. Jenny walked on by, engrossed in conversation with some other guy. And Harley’s heart broke. Never to heal.
Thirty years later, Harley still has the car, lovingly restored and preserved. He left college and worked at the Tyson processing plant, plucking and gutting. Chickens. They don’t walk themselves into your kitchen, as he likes to say. Now he is the manager of the sporting goods department at the local WalMart. Learned to make Mama’s meatloaf for himself. And every Friday night he wraps some in tinfoil and drives up into the Ozarks. Finds his spot, looking out over the lights of the valley below and the wisps of the Milky Way spinning overhead. She lives down there…somewhere. He wonders if she ever thinks about him. Lightning splits the sky and the smell of ozone hangs in the air. Otherwise, he is just staring into the void…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.