I wrote this last year, and submitted it to a short story competition. I never heard back from the folks who sponsored the competition, so I figure their opinion of my work isn’t quite as high as mine. At any rate, I offer it up up here, for the amusement of anyone who might enjoy it.
Rode Hard and Put Up Wet
Written by Richard S. Drake
Pulling into the hot parking lot of the funeral home, David couldn’t help but notice the almost total absence of vehicles. Save for a couple of hearses, a Mercedes and an older model pick-up, the lot was empty.
Still, viewing hours had begun several hours ago; maybe he had missed most of the crowd. Next to him on the seat lay on an old, faded manual for building and flying gyrocopters. Slipping it into his jacket pocket, he exited the car and reluctantly walked across the parking lot to the doors of the funeral home, which advertised the times of the various services and viewings to be held that day.
Viewing: Noon to Three O’clock.
It was just after two now.
A small arrow pointed the way, off to the left, and Dave followed it, wondering who he might run into. He hadn’t actually seen Bobby Hawk since their days working together in the chicken plant, when he had driven a forklift on the loading dock, and Bobby had been a supervisor, but he liked to keep track of folks since he had left the plant almost 20 years before.
Usually, the only reunions he had with folks was on occasions like this, exchanging greetings after a friend or co-worker - so often the two were not the same thing - had died.
And even in a time when so many kept track of each other’s lives on social media like Facebook, sometimes the only way to keep track of some of the people in the past was through the obituary section, or the police reports, which for the sake of convenience, were often printed right next to the obituaries in many newspapers.
Two people were sitting next to the open casket in the small room when Dave cautiously stuck his head in.
“Hello!” A large man in his mid-thirties stood up, seeming almost overjoyed for his visit. He extended a thick hand, and Dave shook it.
“I’m Allen, Bobby’s cousin. This,” and he gestured to a small, quiet woman on his right, “is Bobby’s sister, Susan.”
“It’s nice to meet you,’ Dave said. “I’m sorry I’m so late.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Allen said, “we’re just glad that somebody came.”
There didn’t seem to be much Dave could say to that.
There was an awkward moment then, broken only when he turned, a little too quickly, to walked the handful of steps to the open coffin, to look down upon the face of his old friend.
The face of a man he didn’t know.
Dave was a good ten years older than Bobby Hawk, but the face which lay on the soft pillow before him was that of a much older man, his cheeks gaunt, savage age lines pulling over the cheeks, the mouth, the face thin over his lips, where he had obviously lost most of his teeth.
There was a phrase which came to mind, words an old girlfriend who was a barrel racer in the rodeo used to say, “He was rode hard and put up wet.” She may have been just referring to horses, but he didn’t think she’d object to his using the words here.
He stopped himself from saying them out loud.
He thought about the gyrocopter instructions in his jacket pocket.
Bobby’s cousin said, “It happened real fast. He was working on his truck, and just fell right over, had a heart attack right then and there. We called 911, but he died on the way to the hospital.”
The sister added, “It was his second one since he got out.”
“Got out” of course meant leaving prison, where Bobby had spent several years for meth possession, after his wife threw him out for his indiscretion with a member of the plant’s third-shift clean up crew, a gang whose break time activities usually meant going out to the parking lot to get stoned.
Dave changed the subject. “I remember when he had the idea to run for mayor of Lincoln, back in the 90s. He was going to clean out the crooks in City Hall.”
Allen laughed. “No, really he was just pissed because he got too many speeding tickets. He thought they were picking on him. It would have been great to see him run, though. He was always a funny guy.”
“Well, not always,” Susan said. “He got real mean for a few years.”
Dave looked back at Bobby’s face, laying still but far from serene in the coffin. He had never tried meth himself - he had enough problem with alcohol - but he had known enough users over the years to know that even the nicest and the smartest turn mean and stupid in a hurry, as the habit takes hold.
He put his hand in his pocket, started to take out the slight manual he had found in the used bookstore the day before. His plan, upon buying it, was to slip it into the coffin with Bobby, in some sort of romantic gesture of friendship.
“I’m gonna build me a gyrocopter, Dave,” Bobby had told him one night in the break room, as they drank coffee and ate lousy vending machine sandwiches.
He had laughed, but Bobby had it all worked out, where he going to fly it, how he was going to transport it, the whole nine yards. He had a line on the materials, and was ready to go.
But that was before he met the woman who would occupy his thoughts relentlessly, a woman he would destroy his marriage over - stories always differed on if Bobby left or was thrown out - and gave up occasional nights out with friends, the cook outs, the family visits, in exchange for a woman who wasn’t as smart as his wife, as attractive as his wife, or had the good job his wife had.
She was a stoner.
Not the “I need a joint to relax” sort of user, or the kind of person who wants sick people to have access to pot, but the kind who has to get stoned before they can face going to Walmart, or out to buy gas, or go to work.
He shook the memory from his head, and asked Allen, “Have you heard from anyone else he worked with?”
Allen was thoughtful for a moment. “No. I found Bobby’s address book and emailed some of them, but never heard nothing back. Bobby had a whole new circle of friends the past ten years, before and after the went to prison.”
Susan said, “We never even heard from that . . .” she stopped. “I know this isn’t a church, but I still shouldn’t swear in here.”
Dave said, “I heard she went to prison too, for a couple of years.”
Allen gave nasty laugh. “Yeah, she turned on Bobby so she could have a shorter sentence.”
Then he looked over at his cousin’s casket. “I think he was trying, the last year or so. He went to church a couple of times, started wearing cleaner clothes when he knew folks might visit.”
Susan added, in a small voice, “He fixed my stove.”
They were all trying too hard to come up with something good, something positive to bury Bobby Hawk with, so maybe he wouldn’t be seen as a total-loss when it came time for him to be judged.
Dave, feeling the gyrocopter manual once more with is fingers, said, “Let me tell you a story about Bobby. We never really got much forklift training, outside of a short class and a test they gave us the answers to beforehand. The first night I ever drove a forklift I managed to crash into a wall, coming around a corner with a trash dumpster.”
Allen laughed, and even Bobby’s sister smiled as he continued.
“I was sure my job was pretty much over that night. I had managed to knock out three cinder blocks out of the wall. I almost clocked out, right then and there. But Bobby got together with some of the guys in maintenance, and they got on their hands on knees, spreading machine oil on the path where my forklift wold have no choice but to drive through.
“When they were done, Bobby got on the forklift himself and drove it through the oil, making a huge mess on the floor, and all over the wheels. I don’t think my boss was one hundred percent convinced, but he couldn’t prove it didn’t happen that way, either.”
They both laughed.
And then Dave remembered how, just before he had left the plant himself for greener pastures, Bobby had beaten a man in the parking lot for making a move on his new girlfriend. It was soon after he and his wife had split, and Bobby was working overtime to convince the world that he was involved in some sort of fairy tale, a once-in-a-lifetime romance.
There was an uncomfortable silence, as each of them remembered even more about Bobby, more of the dark times that had engulfed him, and the dark things that he had done.
Dave walked over one last time to look down at his friend, as Allen sat back down next to Susan. With some anger this time, he noted that Bobby looked like a man in his sixties, and his hair, once so full, was stringy against his scalp. Not even the undertaker could work miracles with a meth addict.
This time, the words did come out as he turned back around. “Rode hard and put up wet.”
His sister nodded. “Well, he did it to himself. He wouldn’t listen to anybody.”
Allen just looked down, his hands clenched tougher.
“Well, I’m sorry for your loss,” Dave said, instantly hating himself for repeating the lame words he had heard repeated on a thousand different cop shows. But he just didn’t have anything better to come up with. But inside, he wasn’t sorry at all. He didn’t know the man in the coffin. He was just a distant relative of the man Dave had shared beers with, laughed with, played pranks on co-workers with.
He didn’t know this gaunt old man, this man who had launched himself on a journey of discovery into a land filled with with demons, and had died because he had destroyed his own heart through his excesses.
He needed a drink. No, he wanted to get drunk.
He dredged up a smile, nodded and left the funeral home. Taking off his jacket before getting back into his car, he discovered that the gyrocopter manual was still in the side pocket.
He stared at it for a long time, before driving away, hoping to forget Bobby Hawk.