Smoker had been on the road for what seemed like an eternity, when he saw the lights up ahead.
The bar was a cinder block building, like the kind you often find in the wide spot of the road.
After being on the road for so long, Smoker didn’t plan to stop at Billy’s, but the sign “cold beer” was exactly what the doctored ordered, so Smoker decided to take a break from the monotony of the road.
So he stopped, and after a good stretch, he made his way inside and was impressed at how clean the place was. A real change from the places Smoker usually stopped.
The place was very familiar, and he wondered if he had ever been there before. Deciding to get something in his stomach to go along with the “cold beer”, Smoker was surprised when the bartender already had the beer drawn and sitting in front of a stool at the bar.
“A cold Bud, draft, right?” said the bartender.
Smoker just nodded. Then the bartender didn’t ask if Smoker wanted to eat, he just described the sandwich and told Smoker it would be ready in a minute.
Deciding to go with the flow, Smoker again just nodded and started on the beer. The sandwich that was delivered was big and thick and the beer cold. At this stage of the trip, that was all he wanted anyway.
That and just some plain quiet.
Since Smoker was the only one there besides the bartender, everything was working out just fine.
Over the next 20 minutes, he ate his meal methodically. Appearing as if in a trance, it was clear that the road was taking a toll on him.
As he sat there, Smoker considered ordering another beer, but instead took out three photos that had been occupying his wallet, a long time.
The first was a picture of a much younger man. The guy in the picture didn’t look much like the bearded, gaunt man staring back from the barroom mirror.
Proudly wearing a U.S. military uniform, smiling with a bright light to his eyes, standing with a lovely, young and very pregnant woman and, what was then a brand new Harley, the young man in the picture was far away from the man peering at his past.
The words on the back, Smoker knew by heart,
“Mary, baby, and me, 1989”. It seemed like a hundred years ago.
The second picture was of the same young man, only this time there didn’t seem to be any light in his eyes. He was skinny and drawn, and showed signs of too much time squinting at a too bright sun reflecting off of too much white sand.
Mary was there too. She still looked lovely, albeit a little older. Smoker wondered what she might have looked like today.
This picture had been taken just after Smoker had returned from the desert the first time. The aftermath of that tour was plainly etched on his face, but those stress lines couldn’t compare to the internal scars he carried.
He didn’t even bother to turn the tattered photo. Like the first one, he knew the words by heart.
Finally, Smoker pulled out the last tattered photo. It was of the girl. A woman now, she shared the shot with a young boy.
Smoker didn’t look at the picture too long, and instead turned it over and looked at the back. The front image was just too painful. It felt as if it were taken just a moment ago.
The cancer pain was clearly displayed on the woman’s face…the picture taken just months before the end…another important time he wasn’t there.
The words on the back were a little out of focus. Maybe there was something in the air that irritated Smoker’s eyes, maybe it was a tear.
“Your son James 5th B-Day Sept 14, 1994” it read.
The bartender came out from the back of the bar and started polishing bottles. Smoker didn’t see any dust, but the guy kept polishing anyway. Suddenly Smoker spoke up,
“Hey!”, he exclaimed, his voice little more than a croak. “What day is it?”
“Thursday”. Replied the bartender.
“No man,” Smoker answered. “I mean what day of the month? Hell. What month, and you might throw in the year just to be safe”. Smoker had been on the road for quite a while.
The bartender put down the clean bottle he was polishing and looked at the man sitting at his bar.
“You never been in here before, have ya?” asked the bartender.
“No”, replied Smoker. While turning the thought over in his head.
I’m pretty sure I ain’t. By the way, how did you know what I wanted when I came in?”
“My name is Billy, this is my place, and I know whatever I need to know about anybody that comes in my front door,” he said with authority.
It didn’t seem to be an answer as much as it was a statement of fact.
“And to answer you first question, today is Thursday, August 31st, 2006”.
Smoker did some quick math in his head and then asked,
“How far is it to Seattle?”
Billy scratched his head, and answered with a question.
“Is that ’89 of yours running pretty good?”
Smoker just nodded. He didn’t remember telling the guy what year his bike was. Hell, he never even mentioned he was on a bike.
“Well, if you can take the ride, it shouldn’t take you more than 4 hard days ride to get there”, added Billy.
Smoker again did the math in his head. If it took four day’s to get there, that would leave him ten days to find Mary’s parents and celebrate his son’s birthday. That was something he hadn’t done since…well, in a long time.
“You want that other beer now”, asked the bartender. Funny, Smoker noticed he didn’t seem to be reaching for anything to put a beer in.
“Nope”, answered Smoker. “I got a birthday party to go to. Thanks for the hospitality, maybe I’ll see you again.”
Smoker put on his leather jacket and walked out the door. Moments later Billy heard the sound of a big twin start up and head down the road. Billy leaned against the bar and looked at the cash register and the faded picture taped to the mirror.
There was a big shiny red Indian motorcycle parked under a shady tree. Standing next to it was a smiling young woman, a small child, and the man that would become Billy. A picture taken what seemed a thousand years ago. Softly touching the picture, and staring out the window, Billy’s shoulders seemed to shrink just a little as he listened to the fading sound of the motorcycle in the distance.
“Vya Con Dios, Amigo”, he whispered softly under his breath. “Go with God my friend.” turning slowly he went back to polishing the clean bottles and glasses….