Its beak reaching for something.
Eddie had painted the words American Rider on the driver’s door under the American flag. He had stenciled an eagle leaning forward, its beak reaching for something.
Eddie Spaghetti pulled up at the same corner at the same time every morning. Seven-sixteen. The transmission lurched and settled into park. A light breeze stirred the American flag on the door. A good sign. The clouds looked like they might clear off later. Some blue sky showed through in the south.
Eddie popped the top off his paper cup of coffee, shook in two packets of sugar. He opened the newspaper at the living section and there was Nelly. The same picture for 20 years, the wise smile, the bobbed hair, the eyes that had seen everything and would always be kind.
I love him but he won’t change. What will I do? Today’s question was a classic. A girl had found a boy who was quiet, attentive, and caring. He seemed perfect, except on Friday nights all he wanted to do was play board games. Eddie knew Nelly’s answer before he read it. You can’t change him to suit you. You have to love the person you find.
Nelly always had the answers. Though not for Eddie. He took a boot in the head during a soldier’s fight. He still had the violent spells, the rages that rolled through him like storms over a prairie. His doctor listened and nodded and made notes and tried drug after drug.
Eddie wrote to Nelly. How could he go on living? She never answered his letter. But a month later he saw a letter from another veteran, one of the boys damaged in the new wars, who had similar worries. Try helping others, sometimes it is best to accept what has happened and think of other people. Eddie cut that one out and tucked it in his wallet.
Something smelled like burnt rubber. Eddie got out and walked around the car. It was a real car, a 1979 Thunderbird. He spent Sundays tuning it up, so that the engine thundered when the need arose. No leaks. Just that smell.
Eddie had painted the words American Rider on the driver’s door under the American flag. He had stenciled an eagle leaning forward, its beak reaching for something. That was some years ago. Now the paint was chipping off the wings. He was going to get around to touching it up. On the trunk, where you could only see it from above, he had painted Put Me on TV! in letters two feet tall. It had been an impulse.
Eddie’s ladies would arrive sooner or later, dragging their shopping carts, and he would drive them around on their errands. They paid him 10 dollars, five dollars, whatever they could spare. He made his gas money and then some. With his Veteran’s Administration Pension and Disability check he did all right. He had a little apartment, a bed and a refrigerator. He tried not to talk back to his TV at night, but sometimes it was just so full of stupidity he had to say something. Most nights he got out his notebook and worked on his great work. He should have brought his notebook. He could have written something while he waited.
Eddie Spaghetti had long devoted his life to understanding and explaining what had happened when the idea of America hit the rocks and sand of the west coast and went flooding backwards across the country in a wide invisible wave that everyone felt in their heart as a sense of loss, a dark fringe around the edge of each shiny dream. He waited for the truth to be revealed but feared that he was about to step from the light into a great darkness. He felt like he knew something and he wanted so much to share it. “This country has lost something, and we all know it and are afraid to name it.”
He tried to explain all this to his ladies and they nodded, most of them were somewhat deaf. “Frost today,” Nadine might say when he finished one of his tirades. “I try jelly with that, makes it sweeter,” was Esther Goodson’s pat reply. “Just some aspirin, always works for me,” Coletta would venture. He could say anything he wanted and the ladies were just glad for a cheap ride.
He looked up and down the street. Still no-one. He bent his attention back to Nelly. How do I get my new boyfriend’s kids to respect me? Stop being a drama queen, show yourself some respect. You can’t control other people. Really you don’t want to. But you can control how you react, which feelings you savor, and which you let drift into an empty sky.
Eddie was studying that last line when the back door opened and he heard laughing. He looked up into the rear-view mirror expecting to see Esther or Coletta making themselves at home, lining up their drug store and grocery lists.
But the eyes in the rear-view mirror were blue and young and more than a little bit crazy. Half a century in and out of ward 5C had taught Eddie to know crazy eyes. He turned and saw a boy with a mostly shaved head, just grown back to fuzz. No, not a boy, the kind of punk that would look the same until his teeth fell out and his skin leathered. A boy until 30 and an old man at 31. Eddie had been a cop, an army cop but a cop all the same. He knew the signs of a life lost and beyond all hope. The kid wore a white T-shirt under a black jacket, not leather but some kind of shiny stuff. His jeans had absorbed grease and grime until they were a new blue gray black color. He probably worked in a body shop when he remembered to show up.
“How much old-timer?” the boy asked. A girl got in next to him. She had red hair pulled back under the grey hood of an oversized sweatshirt. Her hands were buried in the sweatshirt’s pouch. She ventured an almost unnoticeable glance at Eddie revealing brown eyes that looked damn scared.
“Nothing for you. I only take my regulars.”
“Well, that’s the thing. We are regulars. Or sort of. This is Contadina’s niece.”
“Coletta,” the girl said. Her voice was sweet and soft, almost a mumble. She did not look up.
“Where’s she today?” Eddie asked. It was one of Coletta’s regular days. Tuesday and Thursday, always the same.
“She’s not feeling well.”
The girl said, “No. She just wanted to lay around for a while. Sort of a head thing.” The girl was still keeping her eyes down. The boy was shifting in the seat, like he just couldn’t get comfortable.
“Are you Marcie?”
“Yes.” Marcie the niece was a feature of Coletta’s stories. The baby Marcie gave up for adoption, the no-good boyfriends. Eddie had commiserated with Coletta over the lost potential of a sweet girl who once got a hundred per cent on an essay about her favorite person in the world. Her dear aunt Coletta.
“I know,” Marcie said.
“What’s the guy’s name?”
“I’m Adam. And you’re talking to me.”
“Well, Adam. I don’t give rides to people I don’t know.”
“Not your choice, old man.” The kid looked pure punk. He had probably slipped some money out of Coletta’s hiding place while she was playing pinochle with Marcie. Now they were going to run the errands and he would scam off the change for his whack or his whunk or whatever they were smoking these days. Maybe if he got Marcie alone she would tell him what was what and they could come up with a plan. Nice young girls and these street vermin. What was that all about? Too many people are looking for what they know they should never find. Ask Nelly always said it best.
“So what’s up with the flag?” the kid asked.
“I’m an American.”
“So am I, but I don’t need no flag to prove it.”
“About being an American?”
“What kind of question is that?’
Eddie heard it starting in the kid’s voice. The let’s have it out right here right and now impulse that these punks think makes them special. As if being angry because he never amounted to much was something to be proud about.
“Get out of my car. I’ll take Marcie. We’ll get Coletta’s errands taken care of and you will sip some coffee and wait to beg her for some change. Maybe she’ll get you a candy bar.”
“You old bastard.”
Eddie felt the kid start forward a full second before he moved. It was an awareness he had, a way of knowing, maybe it had come after his head got bashed in, like the experience had opened a pathway to some special energy. Who could say? Who cared?
Eddie was down and up with his thick black policeman’s club while mister smoke-pot with his breakfast toast was clawing at the air where Eddie’s head used to be. A rap on the knuckles let the kid know what was really going on. Eddie might have busted one of the kid’s fingers, hard to be sure.