Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite retailer. Thank you for your support.
Table of Contents
Wheeler stared out the open cargo door of the Chinook heavy transport helicopter letting the hot air blast try to cool him on this insufferable night over the flatlands of the Kunar Province. The helicopter was buffeting as the air density changed low to the ground but it could not be helped. They were going in low and fast to minimize exposure to Taliban fire on their way to pick up a SEAL team that had been shot up outside of Asadabad. The hulking Chinook was making the pickup because the Hummer the team used to get in to position had to be retrieved. It had the most sophisticated, prototype automatic cannon mounted to it that headquarters did not want to lose.
Wheeler was the defacto door gunner on this mission because they wanted to travel as light as possible. His normal duty station was that of the loadmaster, responsible for loading and unloading cargo, and they did not want the added weight of a full crew. So here was Wheeler, Jules Wheeler by birth with the surname he never used, alone in the back of the Chinook tow truck on a mission with the strongest sense of dread he could remember. He was sensitive to things that were about to happen, or could happen and this cat-like sixth sense had served him well out in the field. He had used it frequently to avoid lethal dangers especially here, in a war zone, but this time he was helpless to alter the course of the mission and he was just stubborn enough force the helicopter in and out by a sheer act of will if he had to. And push back any Taliban resistance that got in the way.
He steeled his resolve, gripped his machine gun and dared the desert or anybody out there to try to stand in his way. He knew he was not invincible but he was not about to hesitate if the time came.
“Wheeler, you still back there?” It was Kevin on the intercom, the usual co-pilot up in the front.
“Hey Capt, I’m still here.” Wheeler called both Kevin and Scott captain even though they were both Lieutenants.
“Look sharp back there, we’re about five minutes out, and there are lights up ahead. We’re going to pull up short and put this thing down.”
“Copy” was all Wheeler said as he scanned the dark desert carefully.
The engine whine and blade whump changed pitch slightly as the nose of the helicopter rose to bleed off some speed. Wheeler could see the sparse dim lights inside a scattering of buildings that looked to be residences. They were widely spaced in a random order and Scott was turning the helicopter to slide in sideways a safe distance away and between two of them.
“Wheeler?” It was Kevin again.
“Here” here Wheeler over the noise.
“Lower the ramp to flat” Kevin ordered. Flat meant the normally raised rear loading ramp needed to be lowered to be a horizontal extension of the cargo bay, partway deployed. It would be up out of the way for landing but only a short drop to the ground for speedy loading. Wheeler left the gunner position and went to the ramp controls in the back.
He saw the streak of light out of his peripheral vision of the shoulder fired rocket scream up at a shallow angle and fly through the open cargo door he had just left. Its rocket motor flashed inside the cargo space and exploded into the opposite side wall of the helicopter, blowing it’s warhead outside the craft. It was the luckiest shot of the entire war in that the pilots still had control of the aircraft, as it lurched sideways. The big helicopter rocked back to normal vertical and Scott lowered it the dozen feet to the ground, landing with a thump.
Wheeler did lose his balance but was up and moving quickly, grabbing the fire extinguisher and spraying the smoldering hole in the craft. No fuel lines were hit and there were no sparks but he did have a palpable urge to get back to the door gun. Luckily the machine gun at the side door was not hit, so he dropped the extinguisher and reached for the machine gun to aim at the insurgents that he knew were coming. He assumed the pose, purposely aiming at one of the houses and waited for his night vision to return. He heard the charge before he saw anything, so he aimed and had to wait only a moment.
The muzzle flash signaled he could wait no longer and he fired at the source to be rewarded with a muffled grunt. The muzzle flash squashed his night vision again but he didn’t need it, he knew where to fire and released a few more rounds. More steps, fire, grunt. Steps, fire, grunt. Then it was silent and his night vision finally did return. The insurgents had come out from behind the building toward the front of the helicopter, but the Hummer and presumably the SEALS were at the rearmost building. It was quiet but Wheeler still felt danger. It wasn’t over.
He was distracted by the heavy footfalls from the inside the helicopter made by Kevin and Scott making their way down the ladder in their flight boots.
“Are you guys all right?” Wheeler asked.
“Oh yeah, but we took one hell of a bump” Kevin replied. “What happened?”
Wheeler just pointed at the smoke still coming off the ragged edge of the hole in the skin of the ship and wondered aloud “We took a rocket blast. Will this thing still fly?”
“It felt fine, really. Except for the hard slew, it landed okay. We’re taking off so let’s collect us some SEALS and get out of here.”
“Aye aye Capt.” Wheeler said. “Stay here” as he bounded off the deck to the ground. He saw the SEALS moving around the Hummer to his right but he was attracted to the front house on the left. He moved carefully toward it confident he could sneak up on whatever was there, all the while his inner sense was screaming Danger, Danger. He blocked out the movements of the SEALS, ignored the bodies scattered in his path and allowed a laser focus to take over his entire being and turn him into a feral predator. The few moments it took to get to the building had allowed him time enough to get into full zombie mode, attentive to only the danger.
Wheeler knew where they were and where they were going so he needed to go around the building on the opposite side to come up behind them. He had his holstered pistol but he drew his assault knife, preferring the stealth capability. He quietly approached the wall of the building that faced the SEALS and slid along quietly toward the back. He stuck his head out to see along the back wall of the building just in time to see a dark shape disappear at the far end and move to the front. He quickly made his way to the far corner following the shape, and looked around that corner to see a smaller person hugging the wall, midway to the front.
Gripping his knife firmly, Wheeler moved slowly and carefully along the wall to intercept the person. In one smooth movement, he gripped the face of the person from behind, violently jerked the head back and something within him yelled ‘stop!’ freezing his knife in mid stroke. The person he was holding squirmed a bit but was no match for Wheeler’s size and strength and Wheeler held the person immobile easily. Inside, he was a swirling mass of electrified confusion and thorough inaction. His quick reflexes and warrior instincts had vacated, leaving him holding his quarry with a raised knife and no idea what he should be doing.
Wheeler calmed himself for a moment to let the adrenaline subside, now aware of the SEALS moving around across the compound in the quiet of the night. He pulled his mini light out of his flight suit to take a look at the fighter he had immobilized against the wall.
His light shone into the face of a young girl that was no more than 13 years old, still holding an ancient rifle that was too corroded to actually fire. Wheeler was thunderstruck, he had just tried to kill a kid that was not really a threat. His inner danger warnings had betrayed him, there was a firestorm going off in his head, his blood pressure was pounding in his ears, his vision narrowed to points and all he could do was lean back against the wall and pant uncontrollably. He grabbed the rifle automatically and pushed her away.
“Hey buddy, are you ok?” The voice came at him as if from a great distance. “Hey fella” his arm shook “have you been hit?” Out of his fog, Wheeler saw the helmeted face of a combat soldier slowly come into focus. “Snap out of it, we gotta get out of here.” The soldier helped him off the wall and they walked back to the helicopter to get on with the business of loading for departure. Wheeler went through the motions of being a loadmaster: strapping down the Hummer, deploying the troop seats and making ready to depart, but the warrior within him was dead. He would have to solve his crisis outside of the Navy. He was done.
Wheeler drove through the pristine vacation villas on Park Boulevard, adjacent to the up-scale shopping district heading to Naval Air Station Coronado Island. The proud warriors of the Seahawk Support Wing would be short one mechanic after today. Today will be the last time the brakes of his old VW bus would squeal pulling up to a stop at the guard gate, the last time his identification badge would be used and the last time he would go to work in fatigues. No more would he be reminded of that night in Asadabad that continues to keep him up at night. He may never be fully free of the nightmares but at least, after today, the reminders would be gone.
He made short work of the checkout process, filling in most of the blanks on the retirement and separation forms that wanted to know about his future plans, with ‘Unknown,’ but he did list his next address as Emil’s Small Engine Repair in the town of Temecula, a few hours north of San Diego. Wheeler’s very short term plan was to bunk in the loft of his friend Emil’s shop while he figured out what to do with the rest of his life. He had already emptied the apartment into the back of the VW, so when the base cleared him, he could just drive.
Nagging thoughts of his navy career, his future life and everything in between fought for attention in his head while he drove. Wheeler had spent years being a soldier that provided him with a generous helping of useless skills except for the mechanical ones. He liked to repair machines, from the helicopters he patched to the VW that he had rebuilt to the small stuff that Emil made his living repairing, Wheeler liked all of it.
As he thought of all the machines he had repaired and adjusted, the turmoil in his head subsided. Wheeler needed the solitude of mechanical things right now, to clear his head and hopefully release some of his internal pressures. Suddenly he felt optimistic, rumbling along in the slow lane on his way to the simplicity of repairs. The slight break in his mental turmoil allowed him to notice he was running low on coffee and needed a cup, even though he was barely out of San Diego. The next off ramp advertised ‘Meg’s Diner’ so he took it to go meet Meg.
Wheeler took a seat at the nearly full counter next to a woman that was about his age, 38, and not retired. Smudges of gray decorated her plaid work shirt and worn jeans, her early onset wrinkles were tanned and her calloused hands were not decorated with painted nails. Wheeler noticed that the distinctive muscle tone on her tanned forearms matched the rest of the ensemble as he sat down and ignored the menu.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
“Sure, help yourself” she said, over the bustle of the pre-lunch crowd.
“Looks like you’ve brought a bit of your pottery to lunch with you” he said, nodding at a smear on her arm.
She chewed through a bite of sandwich and said “I bring it with me everywhere so I don’t forget where to go after lunch.”
Wheeler ordered coffee and replied after the waitress had gone “I use post it notes. Then I don’t have to wash.” They both chuckled. “Call me Wheeler.”
She chewed the end of her sandwich and said “Call me Peg, and no, my twin sister does not own this place.” She smiled at the joke.
“I was not going to resort to such juvenile humor” Wheeler said with mock indigence. He could only hold back the laugh for a heartbeat, and then they both laughed together. Wheeler felt the normalcy of civilian life returning after its long hiatus and it felt good. He could become normal again.
Peg interrupted his musing “I don’t see any post it notes on you so some of us must get back to work.” She smiled pleasantly while dealing with the check.
Wheeler’s alarm bells went off when Peg got up to leave. He had to get up too, something was terribly wrong, it was her vehicle. He covered his spinning emotions and said “Yea, me too. I can’t keep up with the big boys in my clunker van” he waved at his VW, “so I have to put in more time to get anywhere.” He had to get her over to the VW, he just knew it. He dropped his money on the counter and got up to leave with her.
They walked out of the diner together and she eyed his VW dubiously, but she was interested. “I’ve been thinking about getting something enclosed. Could I look inside?” Great waves of relief washed over him. She did it but he had to hurry.
“Sure, come on over here and I’ll show you” he said enthusiastically as he hurried her to the van. He was fiddling nervously with the keys to the side doors when a big rig truck whisked through the parking lot barely missing the rear of the VW and smashed into a Japanese pickup truck, pushing it out into the street and firmly squashing it into a power pole on the far side.
They were stunned into immobility for a few fast heartbeats, processing the scenario that had just unfolded, trying to make sense out of it. Wheeler shook himself out of it first and ran over to the cab of the now steaming truck, jerking the driver’s door open in one smooth movement.
The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, hanging by the seat belts but he was moving and mumbling incoherently. Wheeler gently propped him back upright and asked “Are you okay, buddy? Anything broken?” The driver blinked himself back into the present moment as he pushed on the steering wheel to hold himself up.
“I think I’m okay” he said weakly. “Help me out of here.” Wheeler released the seat belt latch and helped him over to the curb as Peg joined them away from the hissing, smoking truck.
“Are you okay” Peg asked him, and then turned to Wheeler “Is he okay? What happened?”
“I’m just banged up a bit” the driver said. “It was the darnedest thing, both the over and under brakes went away. I was coasting on the off ramp and they just, well, nothing. I pulled on the engine brake, but the truck only slowed. I guess I panicked.” He held his head in his shaking hands.
Peg looked over to her smashed truck in front of the big rig and sighed. “I guess it’s time for that van now” she said.
Wheeler stood beside her speechless, staring at the smashed truck as the reality of what just happened hit him. He had just gone into zombie mode using all of his senses automatically and the result had been to save somebody, not hurt them. All of those years honing his skills for a military purpose that was not wasted. He did have a future that was not isolation and withdrawal but contribution to a society that would benefit. His mind was spinning off wild directions that were optimistic and not foreboding.
He had a flash of his life being that of a police dog, trained to apprehend criminals with force and inflict vicious harm if necessary. Now it was time for him to go home to the family, play Frisbee with the kids and pull skateboards. It was time to walk with the grandparents and sniff to make friends. He laughed out loud at his new life.
“What?” Peg said sharply. “It was a good truck. I beat it up some, but we were friends.”
“Sorry, it was something else” he said, hiding the truth from her. The police and paramedics had arrived with sirens blaring by then and Wheeler led Peg back to the parking lot of the diner. They stood for a moment in silence, wondering at the possibilities but coming up empty. “Can I take you somewhere?” Wheeler finally asked.
“No thanks. I have to get my stuff after they pry my truck out of the mess. I’ll just call my daughter later.”
“I’ll just be going then” Wheeler said lightly and started to walk away.
Peg grabbed him into a hug and pulled him close, looked him straight in the eye and said seriously “I know what you did back there. I don’t know how you did it but you saved my life.” She stared into his eyes waiting for a response that he couldn’t get out. She continued, not really expecting one and said “Thank you,” kissing him on the cheek and redoubling her hug energy.
She released him and with a cheeky grin added “If you come back through town, look me up, I’m the only pottery chick in town.”
“I’ll see you later” was all the breathless Wheeler could get out as he watched her head back to the trucks.
He drove north to Emil’s repair shop a new man. Just hours before he was leaving a dark past still in the darkness and now he was out of it, heading into the sun. Peg had given him a new life that had possibilities she could not know. Heck, Wheeler couldn’t imagine what they might be, but the fact there were now possibilities had him giddy. If his radio worked he would have turned it up and sung along.
He pulled into Emil’s parking lot just before quitting time and he found Emil inside poking a lawnmower engine with a screwdriver.
“Wheeler!’ he noticed as soon as Wheeler cleared the entrance. “You come to stay more than weekend?” He pulled Wheeler into a bear hug like he was family, which was almost true. Wheeler had spent many a weekend in Emil’s loft, accepting his hospitality.
“A place to stay and free beer? Why would I leave?” Wheeler said and they both laughed.
“Not free, I work you hard, get my money that way” he smiled broadly. “Come, sit, I get beer.” He wiped his hands with a shop rag and grabbed two bottles out of the fridge.
“So, tell me everything, it’s been two months” Emil demanded. His English wasn’t any better but his enthusiasm had not diminished a bit.
They sipped a bit and Wheeler mostly skipped over the retirement plans Emil knew all about, so there was not much there to tell. He did replay the story of Peg’s truck and surprisingly, Emil beamed.
“What’s that all about?” Wheeler asked.
“I know you find flower in cow pie. It there all along” laughed Emil, ever the cheerleader. Wheeler should not have looked confused but he did, so Emil continued “Wheeler,” he said more seriously, “you have ability to know things before they happen. It save you in Middle East, it save somebody else now. What is big deal?”
Wheeler should have not been surprised, Emil evidently knew him better than he knew himself. “You have known that for a long time, haven’t you?” Wheeler accused.
“Of course, I not just fix broken lawnmowers” he thumbed his nose at Wheeler with a smirk.
“Of course” Wheeler feigned exasperation at his friend and they drank into the night enjoying each other’s company.
After nearly a month of tuning lawnmowers and fixing leaf blowers together, Emil finally initiated the first serious talk about Wheeler’s future.
“So Wheeler, you going to fix this junk with me forever?” his words were pointed but his tone was soft.
Wheeler stopped moving his tools but did not look up. He had been slowly turning into a civilian working with Emil, letting his buzz cut turn to long fuzz and getting used to jeans.
“I’m not sure I’m ready” he answered, unsure of himself.
“What you mean ‘ready’? You wait for post card?” Wheeler laughed, he couldn’t help it. Emil was a subtle as a brick. He continued “Get coffee, sit at table, we talk.”
Emil finished bolting on an air cleaner and joined Wheeler at the table, taking the cup he poured for him. “Look, Wheeler” he began seriously, “you good mechanic, you fix more than you break. You could stay and be partner, maybe open shop and compete with me.” Emil couldn’t stay completely serious. “But your talent be wasted on machines, you need to help people or you not be happy.” Emil sipped, waiting for Wheeler to get it.
“That’s just the thing, Emil, I know that too, but I don’t know exactly how to start” Wheeler said, retreating into himself a bit.
“You know just before moment of danger, to do something or go somewhere, right?” Emil said to his friend.
“Of course, I’ve been able to do that since I was a kid” he replied.
“And you have learned to trust this knowing when you get it, true?”
“Sure” Wheeler said, not certain what Emil was leading up to yet.
“Just use that trust to lead you to where you need to go, where you need to be. Is it not the same thing?” Emil explained.
“Emil! That’s it!” Wheeler blurted out. “I don’t have to know. I’ve been wrestling with figuring out where to go and how to start. I don’t need to know now, I need to know later, when the time is right.” Wheeler felt the last predictable, orderly strings of his old life just get cut. The order and rigor of the military no longer held him, the structure of it all was no longer necessary.
He was no longer Wheeler, Jules (none), he was just Wheeler, civilian, free man.
The old VW bus was laboring up the last rise on the highway before a town called Eaton. It labored up and down most any highway because its engine was sized more for a clown car than a real size vehicle. The rain had mostly stopped and the hard rubber wipers were just able to push the drips off the windshield as the town came in to view. Wheeler felt an acute anticipation when arriving at a new place, knowing it might be the destination and not knowing if he is being drawn to it. It may be a rescue, it may be a helping hand, he did not know.
He still wore the short cropped hair he’d grown to like from his Navy days, now two lifetimes past but he had only kept a hint of the muscle tone of his youth. He was still a big guy at six feet two and kept in shape by the odd jobs he found that were usually manual labor of some sort. The back-breaking, dangerous opportunities he vigorously avoided but the casual, quick jobs he looked for required that he be physically fit, which he was. Working mostly out of doors gave him a nice tan and would have lightened his hair if it wasn’t so short.
Eaton California was Smalltown, USA with its main drag, a few stoplights blinking red after 9:00pm and a late night diner still open. Wheeler pulled the VW into the parking lot next to a well used pickup and a shiny, old Chevelle. He liked old Chevys. They had a charm and character that reflected the owner like no late model Honda ever could. He sat at the end of the counter, down a few seats from the truck guy and the three young fellows from the Chevelle were talking girls and cars over cheeseburgers in a booth. It was after 10:00pm but he ordered a cheeseburger, fries and coffee anyway. Coffee never kept him awake and it was warm on the chilly night. The heater in the bus could not keep up with the air leaks and the cavernous interior.
“I haven’t seen you around here before” the fellow at the counter said, leaning over toward Wheeler, “you just passing through?”
“I’m looking to pick up some odd jobs here, replenish my supplies a bit.” Wheeler was not used to giving out too much information but he did want to know about the town. “Do you know where I might start?”
“I don’t know what kind a work you’re looking for but you might be able to help me out a bit. My sister owns the antique place across the street there.” He pointed out the window of the diner to a dim sign across the street on a building that said ‘Old Glorys’. Wheeler followed his pointed finger and saw the two front windows with furniture and lamps on each side of the door.
“She has been getting me to help her move displays around inside and do some deliveries with my truck. I don’t have time for her because I have my own welding shop to run. I have to make a living too.” He seemed to get more at ease as he spoke and Wheeler felt like they were fast friends. He liked small towns.
“My name’s Bob Keefer, I run Keefer Fab down the way” Bob said as he waved vaguely down the street. He held out his hand half lifting himself off the stool.
Wheeler did likewise and said “Just call me Wheeler.” Bob reached back to his coffee pulling it over next to Wheeler to seat himself more sociably noticing that Wheeler was only half way through the burger. At that moment, Wheeler got one of his incoming messages that were like thoughts remembered that had no previous record. He sometimes compared them to a psychic e-mail, one moment a clear mind and attention to the present, the next moment an urge to move someplace specific and be alert.
Bob was settling on the stool and Wheeler said “I have to go out to my bus for a second, I’ll be right back”.
He deliberately rose allowing his senses to take over and concentrated on appearing casual while he released his mind to become a clear channel to the next input. He overheard the boys in an animated conversation about carburetors as he walked past the booth to the door. He leveled his breathing and braced himself for the unknown as he opened the door and walked out to the VW. It was parked nose-in about ten feet to the left and Bob’s truck was just past it parked the same way. Wheeler walked to the front of the bus tuning his hearing up to its highest sensitivity. The feeling he had was that ‘it’s right here’. He walked lightly between the bus and the truck and stopped just at the back of the bus and leaned against the side putting equal weight on both feet.
‘Now is the time’ the new memory in his head assured him. Just then, a young man appeared sneaking around the bus from the back and his unfortunate furtive head turning directed his attention to the street, not to Wheeler standing in the shadow. He bumped firmly into Wheeler, yelped, and instinctively pulled forward. Wheeler was not surprised and had the presence of mind to grab his shirt at both sleeves right in the middle of the upper forearms. Wheeler pulled both of young man’s arms together and lifted him slightly off his feet, rendering him immobile and his arms useless. It was just the right move because the young fellow had small size pry bar in one hand and a slide hammer in the other, either one of which could be used as a weapon.
“Well, what do we have here?” Wheeler said in a tone befitting a true red-handed, obvious catch. The slide hammer the fellow carried is a tool with a strong screw at one end and a movable heavy weight that slides on a shaft along its length. It is screwed into a lock and the sliding weight pulls the tumbler out, rendering an ignition switch or door lock on a car a keyless mechanism. Wheeler had just interrupted a break-and-enter or possibly a car theft. Wheeler’s six feet, two inch height didn’t exactly tower over the young man but it was enough to look down and intimidate him in the shadows of the parking lot.
The young man was still in shock as Wheeler leaned down to speak with him quietly, nose to nose to get his attention. He was in his late teens and his chest heaved with heavy breathing coupled with eyes very wide showing fear on the edge of panic.
“Here’s how this is going to play out” Wheeler said “you are going to drop both of the tools right now”. Wheeler paused to let him do it. The boy squirmed a bit testing Wheeler’s grip, weighing his chances.
Wheeler said “Right now” again, this time a bit more intense and tightened the shirt clamp pulling the boy’s arms and shoulders a bit closer together. The tools hit the ground.
“Very smart. Now we are going out to the street, I am going to let you go, and you are going to find another way to occupy your time”. Wheeler did not raise his voice but used his eyes affirm the seriousness of their one sided conversation. “Go to school, get a job or head off to the big city, I don’t care. The inside of my bus could be the last thing you see if you ever get in it, understand?” The boy nodded a bit too vigorously and Wheeler let him go. He took off into the dim lit street and was gone. Wheeler picked up the tools, put them in the side door of the bus and walked back into the diner.
Bob was comfortably seated on the stool next to a half eaten burger by the time Wheeler walked back inside. Wheeler had only been outside about a minute and Bob seemed only interested in finishing the last of the meal.
“Is everything okay?” Bob inquired. It was a tone of just passing the time, not very interested.
“Oh sure, no problem, I just wanted to check something” Wheeler said. Incomplete information was better than making up a story, there is never a point to building complication. “So tell me Bob, what keeps you busy down at Keefer Fab?”
Bob finished a sip of his coffee and said to Wheeler “It’s mostly a repair shop. I fix worn out trailers, farm equipment. Just welding and metal fabrication.”
“This seems like the right part of the world to run that kind of shop” Wheeler replied. “You probably do have a steady stream of jobs.” Wheeler sipped his coffee, prodding for more information.
“Yeah, pretty much. It’s feast or famine and right now I’m feasting. Lee Gregor, he’s a contractor in town, dropped off a generator last week and I’ve not been able to get to it. He needs to frame a new house out on highway 53 and there’s no electrical out there yet, and his broke the cross member on his generator. I have to lift the engine out to get to the cracked frame. It’s powered by an old Chrysler Hemi and it weighs a ton. I have a crane but it all has to be disconnected first, and then lifted out of the way so I can weld a new support under it.”
He got a serious look on his face and eyed Wheeler for a long moment before speaking again “Say, you wouldn’t be handy with tools and know anything about this stuff would you? I have a kid that works part time, as much as I can stand to have him there, but he is just not sure which end of the hammer to grab.”
Wheeler was finishing up the last of the French fries and thought ‘this is a good way to stay in town for a while; maybe the reason to be here is Bob’.
“I rebuilt the engine and transmission in my VW out there so getting a Hemi out of a frame sounds easy. I can start tomorrow if you like? If I can’t do it you won’t have to pay me”.
“Fair enough, we have a deal” Bob said as he stuck his hand out for Wheeler to shake, and a slim foothold was established in Eaton.
“Is there a YMCA in town here?” Wheeler said obtusely managing Bob’s attention away from any more details. It was time to go.
Bob Keefer turned to Wheeler with a blank expression missing a half step of the conversation but picked up in just a moment “Yeah, it’s a few blocks down the street, left at the last stoplight”. He said it slowly and developed an inquiring expression.
Wheeler left money on the counter with a generous tip and got up saying “Great, I’ll see you in the morning then”. With Bob Keefer gaping, speechless, Wheeler headed back to the VW. He drove down the street to find the parking lot behind the YMCA, they usually are not particular who parks overnight in their lot.
He found it with no trouble and pulled into the lot, away from the building and shut off the VW. He folded the frame down along the inside of the bus, rolled out the foam and bedroll and was asleep in minutes.
THE NEW TOWN
Wheeler awoke with the dawn just barely showing through the bland striped curtains in the bus. He put them up when he first started his traveling so he could convert the old bus into a sleeper car and have at least a bit of privacy. It was not his modesty so much as it was the need to make the old VW look like it was just a parked vehicle. He was pleased with the old bus as he lay on the wood flat, comfortable on the foam and crowded by his array of blankets and comforter. He mused over some of his colder encampments spent most comfortably until he realized it was time to get up now, to do the needful. A quick roll, stuff and lift and he was back at the diner, relieved and sipping his morning coffee.
It was near light when he finished his crisp bacon and loose eggs, and headed back over to the Y to join the early morning exercise crowd. His visit was not for the rowing machine or treadmill today, it was just for the shower and fresh change of clothes before heading over to Keefer Fab to his new career as a, what, helper? Assistant Fabricator? He was there to do what was usually a re-balancing of someone’s life or shrinking a bigger-than-life problem to a manageable size, and then move on. He liked moving on. He liked fixing things, like a mechanic.
Wheeler found Keefer Fabrication proudly lettered, fading noticeably, on the front of a chipped brick storefront that shared a wall with an electrical supply outlet long since closed. They were past the good part of the main street, surprisingly named Main Street, several blocks beyond the ‘good’ stores that had updated facades and new display windows with goods inside that people actually purchased. The front door on Keefer Fabrication looked like it was installed in the 1950’s, painted several times and rarely used. Wheeler drove around the back, along a short alley and turned in toward an oversize rollup door that was open with noises coming out already. Bob was in. He parked off to the side and walked up to the door and waited just inside, until the noise stopped. Wheeler didn’t know if Bob was jumpy and did not want him to run wild with a power tool.
The wait was only a moment and Wheeler said “Good morning Bob” and entered the shop noticing the clock on the front wall. It was just 7:30 and Bob appeared to have been there a while.
“Good morning Wheeler, I wasn’t sure you’d show up.” The words were abrupt but the appreciative look on Bob’s face betrayed his pleasure, or maybe relief. The shop was 20’ wide and 40’ deep with steel topped work benches up against the walls and a larger square table toward the front in the center of the room. Bob had something clamped to the larger table that he seemed to be grinding. The generator was centered just inside the back rollup door and looked like it had been backed in and disconnected. The generator was a small size trailer with a sheet metal enclosure five feet tall three feet wide and eight feet long, battered with years of service that faded the paint and dented the sides.
Bob joined Wheeler at the generator, unlatching one of the side doors and pointed inside. “Look here, the cross bar under the Hemi is cracked and the engine is angled down pulling on the drive shaft to the generator. It’s right on top of the axle so I can’t get to it with the welder without setting the whole thing on fire. All you have to do” Bob said with a chuckle “is lift the Hemi out so I can get in there.”
“It’s just a bunch of bolts; do you have tools I can use?” Wheeler said with all the animation of saying ‘pass the salt.’ Bob pointed over to one of the side benches with a tool box next to it and the two of them pushed the generator close to it. Bob left him to the task and went back to grinding.
Wheeler opened all the access doors to let some light in and get a better look. What he saw were hoses, wires, brackets and all the necessities required to convert a car engine to the mundane labors of turning a generator, an unglamorous job compared to powering Dodge Chargers and Plymouth Road Runners from the 1960’s. He was just barely a toddler then but read about the glory days when he was older, dreaming of what it must have been like back then. As he was daydreaming, he was gathering the soul impressions of the machinery before him, tuning into its mechanical consciousness for lack of a better description. He didn’t have a real description of what he did, but he had a distinct feel and a ‘mode’ of listening that was like asking the mind to remember something that was in someone else’s distant memory.
He was moved to lie down on his back and pull himself under it to get a look and was drawn to a point where the heavy metal formed an intersection. A trail to follow was forming in his mind and he went back up to the top to continue peering into the mystery of the 50 year old machine to see where the trail led. Wheeler deliberately looked here and there and it all came together. He started removing the back cover, the top cover, the rear doors and the driveshaft, ending up with two innocuous looking bolts holding the frame together. It took him under an hour.
He walked over to the big table opposite to where Bob was finishing up his grinding and asked “How would you like to show me how your crane works, Bob?”
“What? You’re done?” Bob exclaimed as he put down his face shield and gloves and walked over to the generator. “Is it disconnected already? I can’t believe it!”
“I think so” Wheeler replied. “Go drop the hook here and I will attach it.”
Bob grabbed the controls, lowering the hook and chain. Wheeler met the hook, guiding it into newly exposed lift hole right above the Hemi.
“Ok, that’s good. Now lift a little.” The weight came off the frame but the Hemi didn’t release. “Stop there. Now come around here and help me” Wheeler said.
Bob joined Wheeler and they pushed and wiggled together, coaxing the big Hemi out of the frame on its own frame! “Lift it a bit more with the crane, Bob.”
It slid right out the back with its radiator, starter and mechanical paraphernalia intact, swinging in mid-air, three feet above the trailer frame on the lift hook.
“Well I’ll be damned” said the astonished Bob. “I was sure you would be wrenching that old thing for two or three days to get it out and then three or four days more to get it back together. Now look right there” he pointed at the front mount “the broken crossbar is right there. I can fix it hanging on the crane and we can just slide it back in. We’ll be done today.”
Bob ducked down to get a better look. “Won’t old Lee Gregor be pleased? I won’t have to give him a repair bill for a week’s work and he can get to the framing now.” Bob positively beamed. Wheeler was pleased as well but the mornings’ effort was not what called him to Eaton, there was more out there somewhere.
It was before 10:00am and Wheeler was getting the pulling sensation that was gently telling him he needed to be somewhere else, close but not here.
“Is your sister at the store this early?” Wheeler inquired casually, “I could go see about her moving while you are welding up the generator.” His tone was easy and pleasant as he was trying to manage Bob without him realizing. It was certainly possible the reason to be in Eaton had nothing to do with Bob or his sister, so Wheeler was only providing an opening to see if it was to be filled here this way.
“She is sure to be in, you go on over and I’ll call her to let her know I sent you.”
Bob went to the front of the shop and Wheeler headed out the back to the bus. Old Glorys was across the street from the diner so in minutes he had arrived and was walking across the sidewalk, turning the new door handle that was antiqued to look old on a similar new, sturdy door made in the style of some bygone era.
Wheeler entered the store and was surrounded by antique furniture of every description: dining table sets, hutches, desks, rockers, lamps and bedposts all posed with the odd vase or doily artfully placed to suggest a proper setting. There was a queer smell that struck him as the door moved the air at the front of the shop, rather like a combination of dead cat, fermented grass and lemon. It was not overwhelming but it was plain to Wheeler. He wondered if it was just a byproduct of musty and ripe quilts that have been around longer than him.
“You must be Wheeler, Bob just called.” Wheeler turned toward the sound of the voice and located a head peeking out over a rather tall dresser at the back of the store. It was a pretty head with its green eyes peeking out under medium brown bangs that showed a hint of red. The head walked out from behind the dresser and a petite body joined the head presenting a lovely young woman about 30 years old in a peasant blouse, slim jeans and tennis shoes. It was a working shopkeeper look. Bob was the older bother the same age as Wheeler so she was the baby sister. No wonder Bob still looked after her.
“Wheeler it is” he said she clasped his hand in a firm and respectful shake. Not too much up and down, that was a good sign. Up and down movement belied something phony.
“My name is Alice, Alice Keefer. Bob said you would be willing to help me out a bit here” she said sweeping an open palm across the expanse of the store.
“Sure, I’m doing the same for Bob, looking to replenish my supplies while I’m here and keep me going for a while.” Wheeler had followed the sweep of her hand surveying the showroom and noticed it was not all that crowded. The pieces were placed such that the displays of furniture looked like little islands throughout the space.
“Why don’t you come to the back and I’ll get us some coffee, do you like coffee, I could make tea if that’s better for you, just sit at the table here, what would you like?” Alice was a nervous whirlwind that took his breath away. He could see how she stayed so slim.
“Coffee would be fine, just black please.” The antique smell from the front of the shop was now in competition with the smell of the coffee at the back. Alice put down two mugs that were thankfully normal size, not the dainty antique ones that look cute but only hold one gulp. Wheeler’s 6’2” frame had rather large hands attached that could completely wrap around one of those cups.
Alice sat down with more calm than the ramble would suggest. Wheeler wasn’t sure if it was new person nervousness, normal bird-like personality or if he caused the flutter himself. He laughed to himself; there is a part of all guys that think they can flutter a woman’s heart just by saying ‘hi’. Get over yourself, he chastised himself and put that thought out to pasture.
“I have a pair of end tables that I promised to deliver to Mrs. Morton just out of town. She is a widower living off the insurance and buys a piece from me now then. Usually she will collect the stuff when she’s here, but last trip she would barely enter the store. She just pointed across the floor to the two pieces, asked me to deliver them and she would pay me then, and nearly ran back to her car. That was last Friday and they won’t fit in my Honda. I really should get a truck.” Her delivery was a slower rapid fire staccato than with the coffee, but there was something nagging at the back of Wheeler’s mind about it, the memory bank thing. While she was speaking, her eyes kept darting toward the front like she was expecting a delivery and Wheeler realized it was the first hint of his purpose for being there.
“I have an old VW bus the stuff might fit in. We could measure when we’re finished here” Wheeler said, encouraging them to get into action. She didn’t need any encouragement; she was up like a shot headed over to the dresser he first saw her behind and she disappeared. Wheeler left half his coffee and followed her over to two matched tables that had two foot square tops and were only a bit taller.
“These will fit in the bus I’m sure, shall I bring it around back?”
“Are you parked right in front? These will go through easily, that’s how I brought them in.” The rapid fire delivery was back.
“All right then, I’ll just grab one and put it out in the bus. Be back for the other one in a flash.” He lifted it easily and noticed the musty, meaty smell strengthen as he approached the front door. It was more than the smell of old comforters and antiques that put his internal sensors on alert that made him think there was something lurking at the front of the store.
Wheeler did not let himself be open to stray energies or communications. He directed his openings and usually allowed only relevant inputs, discovering long ago he could pick up on other people’s ramblings and didn’t like in. He called in head static.
He put the small table down to prop the door open and wondered about the smell. Was it really a smell or something else? He opened himself a bit and the smell became a host of emotions: dread, anger, fear, worry and more all jumbled into a messy blob. It was not a smell. He pushed the door with his foot and carefully maneuvered the table out without bumping the door or the jamb. Just across the threshold the blob disappeared, it stayed inside the store, curious. Alice brought the other table out right behind Wheeler and the loading only took a moment. Alice locked the door and they were off.
Wheeler pulled away from the curb in front of the shop very gently. His VW did everything gently due to the lack of power and low gears. It sounded rather sewing machine-like as he headed down Main Street with the furniture comfortable stowed in the back.
“So tell me, Wheeler, how is it you are in town here looking for work? Hard to imagine anybody would want to move here” Alice said in a friendly, pleasant tone. The nervous rapid-fire speech had been replaced with a calm, friendly tone a bit lower in pitch. Sitting next to Wheeler in the bus she was not the same woman as the one in the store. Wheeler had just been whiplashed.
“Some time ago I left the Navy with no real world skills. I was part of a combat unit that I left to find out what the real world was like. I needed both time and distance, so I just hit the road and kept going.” He made no mention of the other Alice that had apparently been left in the store. “How did you end up in the antique business? Pardon my observation, but you don’t seem matronly enough to go in for old furniture and curios.”
“You’re right, antiques are not really my style, but I worked the store with my mother since I was 10 years old. I learned the ins and outs but did finally get off to college to learn something else, Art History. When I came back mom was not able to run the store by herself so I stayed on for ‘just a while’.” She said the ‘just a while’ like she was using the finger quotes in the air but didn’t do it. “It wasn’t long before she passed away and I became a shopkeeper.” Alice was becoming a pleasant companion and some wheels in the back of Wheeler’s mind were quietly spinning away putting pieces together, to inform him when something lined up.
“I’m sorry about your mother” Wheeler didn’t say more to allow her to work through the hurt and just continue at her own pace. She continued after a moment.
“Oh it’s all right. She had Bob and me when she was older, so her passing was not unexpected, it was time for her. Our father passed away some time ago and mom missed him. Now I am the proprietor of Eaton’s only antique emporium.” She seemed stable now, not overly emotional and level headed; Wheeler liked her.
“Wow, look at you; young, attractive, the owner of one of Eaton’s premiere businesses, you must have all the men in town after you.” He did notice a bit of a blush as he spoke.
“I did until a month ago. I had one of those ‘young men’ of which you speak.” There was the air quote thing again. She was cute. “He wanted me to be the barefoot and pregnant wife and sell Old Glorys to finance a new truck or boat or something. Pea-brain, I call him that now, he thinks we’re living in the backwoods still marrying cousins.” Wheeler couldn’t hold back and laughed out loud. My gosh, she had some spunk. “Now he can’t get it through his undeveloped brain that I’ve had enough of him and he better leave me alone.” She looked over at Wheeler sizing him up. With him around maybe pea-brain will think there’s something going on and leave me alone, she thought. She could do worse but kept the musing to herself.
“Just out of town, take the right and the billboard, I’ll show you” she said, trying to get the conversation away from her drama that deflated her every time she thought about it.
Wheeler slowed the bus to make the turn and headed up the slight incline at a mature speed. “The house is right up there” she pointed. “Just pull in the drive at the front.”
He pulled up with the rear doors of the bus facing the porch as smartly dressed woman opened the door. She had professionally done hair with a bit too much red Wheeler thought, matching slacks and jacket, and what looked like a silk blouse.
When she saw Alice get out of the VW, she exclaimed “Alice, how wonderful of you to bring the tables, I’m so looking forward to the new look to my sitting room.” She and Alice embraced almost like mother-daughter and walked over to the VW.
“Evelyn, this is my friend Wheeler” Alice said. “Wheeler, this is Evelyn.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am” Wheeler opened side doors to the VW so they could get a look inside.
“Oh they will be just lovely, bring them this way.” Evelyn was outgoing and friendly, nothing like the timid, reluctant woman Alice described that had picked out the tables at the store. This was getting interesting, Wheeler thought, was Eaton a town of Jekyll and Hides? Probably not, Bob was an even sort of guy after all.
It was not hard to tell Evelyn Morton lived alone. Alice and Wheeler were nearly forced into coffee and a nice chat around the kitchen table. The two of them catching up on gossip and events that gives character to small town life. Wheeler was half paying attention interjecting ‘Of course’ and ‘Thank you’ when necessary. His other attention was sensing a normalcy about the whole experience. There was nothing unusual or curious about the visit, just the companionable chit chat of two women that knew each other pretty well.
It was mid-day when they drove back into town and Alice said “Let’s stop by Bob’s and see if he’s ready for lunch.” Wheeler drove around the back of the shop to see a shower of sparks crossing shooting ten feet across the shop. Bob saw them drive up, took off his face shield and waved. Wheeler walked by the hanging Hemi and noticed the front cross member was missing from the support and the bar on Bob’s bench looked like it would fit the space.
“Are you ready for a break or did you have lunch yet?” Alice said with a warm familiarity.
“Ahh, you’re just in time. I’m just ready to weld so this is good time to stop.” Bob put his face shield and gloves down. “I’ll just wash up.” He joined them at the bus after closing the back door to the shop. “I’ll join you at the diner so you don’t need to bring me back here.”
Visit: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/606924 to purchase this book to continue reading. Show the author you appreciate their work!