By Scott Levy
The rumble of the pickup was nearly enough to drown out the buzzing in Larry’s head.
“Since you don’t know where you’re goin’,” bellowed Cal, the driver who had accepted Larry’s extended thumb about 50 miles back, “You could do a lot worse than here.”
It took effort to grasp the words amidst the internal and external racket, but Larry was used to such straining. Travel of this sort had, for him, grown ever more common. His head had been buzzing for as long as he could remember.
The ‘here’ that Cal had referred to had apparently arrived, in the form of the parking lot of a pancake house.
“I live nearby. Sorry I can’t invite you over. My wife doesn’t cotton to strangers. But you’ll find what you need in our bustling downtown area,” Cal said with a hoarse chuckle. Larry recognized a fellow smoker. He considered bumming a cigarette, but decided that the ride took him to his comfortable acceptance of generosity quota. At least he had some money in the one pocket of his jeans free of holes. And though his funds were minimal, by the looks of burg he’d landed into, costs were likely to fall on the low side.
Cal shook his hand with a grip Larry envied, and released him into the bone-invading 40 degree weather.
Priorities mingled with cravings: His scarecrow-thin rag of a jacket needed replacing. The smell of coffee and food insisted on follow-through, which would demand a meal ending cigarette. A warm bed was the ultimate goal of the day.
Larry surveyed the immediate area. The generically titled Pancake House directly in front of him. A row of small businesses surrounded it, the closest of which, Gelton’s Goods, revealed, through it’s large front window, a variety of essential amenities.
First up, the store. He summoned enough optimism to assume that a humble purchase would leave enough left over for the pancake house and its cigarette machine. He put the bed out of his mind for the moment.
He opened the glass door, its attached bell adding a tingling counterpoint to the buzz.
Warmth blanketed him the moment he stepped in the door. The plain white interior of the walls practically glowed.
Larry was at a loss to understand how the shelves filled with household cleaning items and canned goods, the racks of inexpensive shirts, pants and jackets, the assortments of shower curtains, paper towels, pairs of socks and coffee mugs felt like the contents of the happiest of greeting cards, but that was the closest comparison he could muster.
The buzzing vanished. For a moment, he lacked even the memory of it.
A middle-aged man and woman stood behind the counter that held a vintage cash register. They smiled broadly.
Wholesome was the word that filled his un-buzzed brain.
“You can do a whole lot better than that jacket, friend,” said the man.
“I uh...I came in for that, yeah.”
“It won’t cost you much at all to improve your wardrobe,” the woman added. “We’ll never get rich on what we charge, but we take customer gratitude as payment.”
“Let me show you our selection,” said a honeyed voice behind him. He turned to see an old magazine portrait type vision of a teenage girl. Her smile radiated comfort into his marrow.
Before he had the chance to agree, a tidal wave broke within him and he burst into tears.
Larry was soon hired and given a rent-free room. The minimal pay was enough to keep him in cigarettes and whatever food required his cash. The pancake house was visited infrequently. Most of his meals were provided by The Gelton’s themselves.
The Gelton’s lived in cozy quarters in the back of the store. Larry’s room was by far the smallest, which suited his sparse need.
He mainly helped Glenn Gelton, owner and patriarch, with the stocking of shelves. Glenn’s wife Maureen usually ran the register, but was sometimes spelled by their seventeen year old daughter Cindy, or Glenn himself.
“We’re a church going family,” Glenn had explained, shortly after Larry recovered from his sobbing fit. “We don’t turn our backs on those in hurt. It’s pretty clear that you’re a young man in hurt. Our duty is to open our arms to you.”
Larry didn’t know what to say to that. But when the job, room and board were offered, he managed a yes.
“You can be something of an older brother to Cindy,” Maureen said to him in a soft voice when she showed him his tiny but clean quarters. She looked directly at him for a moment before her eyes moved downward. This was a habit of hers. Larry didn’t mind. Glenn possessed enough gape for the entire family. His clear blue eyes held all who met them for as lengthy a duration as one could care to spend.
Cindy was clearly the product of her parents. Her own eyes had inherited her father’s hue. When she spoke to Larry, she would rivet him with her gaze, time seeming to suspend itself, before eventually mimicking her mother’s down-turned view.
“Please stay a while,” she said to him in barely above a whisper. Due to her volume Larry was uncertain, but he believed she leaned into the word, “Please.”
“Gelton’s Goods has a little bit of everything,” Glenn liked to boast to his customers. And while Larry sometimes felt he had seen too many things in his time on Earth, he believed he had yet to discover everything. But even if the actual stock of the store fell short of such comprehensive abundance, it did indeed present a wide array.
And while it couldn’t come close to an actual music store, it did manage to cover a portion of that corner of everything.
The shipment of guitars was small, much like the instruments themselves. He was unfamiliar with their diminutive nature.
“They’re Backpackers,” Cindy said from behind, as if reading his puzzled thought. “People take them camping. They’re not as big as the usual ones, but they’re easy to tote.”
She picked one up and strummed a few chords.
“You play?” Larry asked.
“A bit. Sometimes I like to make up songs.”
The strumming settled into a chord pattern. She sang along, in a voice even sweeter than the one she used for speaking:
I long one day to fly away, high into the sky. I will not cry on that fine day, my eyes they will be dry. But as I sing, I have no wings, no way to even try. But if I can, I’ll make a plan, so one day I can fly.
She stopped quickly.
“You wrote that?” Larry asked.
“Not wrote. I just made it up.” She said this barely above a whisper, her eyes directed downward, a clear reflection of her mother.
From behind, Glenn’s cheerful voice startled him.
“Sounding very pretty, honey. But we have work in the office. C’mon and help.”
Her eyes flashed in Larry’s direction before returning to the ground.
“All right, Daddy.”
Larry had no tasks to do in that area, but he chose to walk by anyway. He told himself that the sounds he heard from behind the closed office door could have been a lot of things.
But he knew. All attempts to deny fell flat.
The buzzing returned, as loud as it had ever been.
Later, he was in the stock room with Glenn, unloading a shipment of bar soap.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” the Gelton patriarch said with a grin. “And we charge less than most for Godliness. It’s the least we can do.”
Larry was skinny and short, so he hoped he was maximizing what weight he did carry when he leaned into the swing. He intended to punch through that smiling face in order to smash it to pieces.
He missed by a wide margin. Even before he completed his failed attack, Glenn’s fist, aided by the ropey muscle of the deceptively thin man, an anatomical attribute Larry’s own thinness lacked, landed solidly in the younger man’s gut. Even before the air was fully knocked out of him, Larry felt his back land hard against the wall, as Glenn completed his counter assault with an effectively impactful push.
Gasping in pain, Larry was still able to grasp Glenn’s words.
“I’m a church-going man. As such, I will forgive you. I know that you’re a young man in hurt. I can let bygones be bygones and forget you tried that.”
Larry had not the wind to respond.
“But if you feel the need to make me remember this, by trying it again, I will summon more wrath. I have a great deal at my disposal.”
Glenn turned and walked in the direction of his family and store. Just before he went through the door, he said, “Unpack all that soap and stock it fully. Let’s bring a nice shipment of Godliness to our town.”
Behind the store, the wind blew hard enough to make lighting his cigarette difficult. After several attempts, he managed it. The new jacket prevented the chill from invading his bones, but failed to remove the buzzing from his head.
The back door opened. Cindy walked through and stood next to him. Moments passed before either one spoke.
“How old are you?” Larry asked.
He was unsure of how to respond. Some days, she seemed younger-others, far older.
“I was about that age when I was first on my own,” he finally said. He paused for a length of time. When no response came, he added, “It’s not easy to do that. But it’s not impossible.”
“Have you ever...do you ever...think about it? Leaving?”
Cindy nodded again.
“Yes. But...this is my home. I need to have one. I’m not as strong as you. I can’t just...leave the home I have.”
“I’m not strong,” Larry said. With the cigarette in his mouth, he flexed his arms. “I’m just skin and bones.”
“There are other ways to be strong.”
“You can learn those as you go.”
“Maybe you can,” she said. “I’m not so sure it’d be the same for me.”
“No one knows ‘till they try.”
“I guess,” she said.
They stood in silence for the remainder of his smoke.
The store was closed on Sunday mornings. The Gelton’s were a church going family, and they never missed a service.
Larry was not expected to go along, and he always stayed behind.
Thinking of Cindy’s song, he attempted to ease the buzz that accompanied it.
Later that Sunday morning, he finally got a ride. The man behind the wheel, a stoutly built guy named Fred, seemed to barely fit in the front seat of his old sedan.
“I usually don’t pick up hitchhikers, but you seem harmless enough,” he said. “No offense. My wife is always on me to lose weight-I envy skinny guys like you.”
Larry smiled in response. If Fred picked up the scent of gasoline that Larry could still smell on his fingers, he made no mention.
He decided to refrain from asking if it would be okay if he could have a cigarette.
At the thought of smoke, he peered into the passenger side-view mirror. The billowing, smoldering grayness of what little remained of Gelton’s Goods could be detected in the ever increasing distance. Larry was confident that he was the only one in the vehicle who could see it.
Fred turned up the heat, for which Larry was grateful. He had left his new jacket behind, and traded it back for the old, threadbare version.
As they drove on, putting more distance between him and his last place of employment and housing, Larry hummed a tune he had recently learned.