“The Send Off” by Ian Penrose

02Mar09

Trevor awoke to field mice running across his sleeping bag.  By the time he realized what was happening they had already scampered off.  His only comfort was the fact that they didn’t get into the bag.  In the early morning the sun was nothing more than a thin line of purple off in the east. 

Across the service road he could see his Mazda Protégé. It was silhouetted on the side of the Interstate right where he and Ben left it the night before with Danny sleeping in the backseat.  They had fallen asleep in a flat clearing with corn on their right and soybeans to their left.  He shimmied out of his sleeping bag and stood.  He raised his hands towards the star flecked sky and stretched.  The wet grass soaked through his socks.

“Shit,” he whispered, trying to find his shoes in the darkness; he hated wearing wet socks.

Trevor bent down to roll up his bag.  Ben lay in his bag still asleep.  He’d fashioned into a makeshift cocoon.  Curling up in a ball and folding the head flap over so that, with the exception of a small opening to let in some fresh air, he was sealed.  No matter the weather, no matter what type of bedding he was given, Trevor had never seen Ben sleep any other way.  Trevor tied the string around his bag.  He stood up and nudged Ben with his foot.

“Hey,” Trevor whispered. 

Within the green Coleman cocoon he heard a grunt.  Trevor nudged him again, a little harder, smiling in the twilight.  He looked up again as a pickup flew southbound.  The road was illuminated for an instant and then dark again.  It took Trevor a moment for his eyes to readjust.  He looked back down again at the mound and this time nudged Ben as hard as he allowed himself before having to call it a kick.

“Jesus Christ, man,” Ben called out, muffled.

“Get up,” Trevor said.

A hand emerged from the cocoon and then an arm until the flap was thrown back and his head poked out, wearing a black stocking cap.  Ben looked up at Trevor and grimaced.

“Why’d you kick me,” Ben said crawling out of his bag.

“I didn’t kick you,” Trevor replied.

“The hell you didn’t, you kicked me in the back,” Ben said, pulling up the back of his shirt, trying to examine the point of impact in the dark.

“I didn’t kick you,” Trevor repeated, “I’d have to wind up to kick you.  I nudged you.”

“Some nudge,” Ben replied, picking up his sleeping bag.  Ben didn’t fold anything.  At least Trevor had never seen Ben fold anything.

“Come on,” Trevor said walking towards the car, “We should probably make sure Danny didn’t suffocate in there last night.”

“We cracked a window for him,” Ben replied, “What time is it?”

“Early,” said Trevor, “We probably slept about four hours.”

They’d left right after paying their respects to Kyle’s mom.  They had all said goodbye at the same time and to Trevor’s knowledge, none of them had told anyone they were going.  Just like before, they packed some things and drove.  They still managed to take a few trips together, even after they each moved out of Traverse City.  They had planned this trip for when Kyle got back for good.  But since that wasn’t going to happen they’d agreed to go right after the funeral.  A sort of final testament.  But something seemed wrong telling Kyle’s mom.  Like they were rubbing it in that the three of them were alive and taking the trip her dead son had planned. 

“You want me to take first on,” Ben asked.

“No I got it,” Trevor replied, knowing it would be hours before Ben would be coherent enough to drive.  Ben was useless before noon.

They crossed the service road and Trevor trotted up the embankment. He unlocked the trunk and opened it up.  He grabbed a box of strawberry Pop Tarts and a bottle of Coke out of the paper shopping bag of essentials they picked up before leaving Traverse City.  Ben came up the embankment with his bag slung over his shoulder.

“You want something out of the back,” Trevor asked Ben.

“Yeah grab me an orange Gatorade,” Ben said, “And grab Danny his Mountain Dew.”

Trevor grabbed the drinks.  He threw his sleeping bag on top of the snacks and closed the trunk.  Trevor looked up and down the highway.  He could see the little dots of headlights approaching from the south.  By the middle of the next day, with any luck he hoped to be sitting in a humid bar somewhere in New Orleans, drinking an Abita and listening to manufactured jazz with his two best friends; trying to forget or at the very least ignore the fact that there were only three of them and not four.

“Goddamn it,” Trevor said and walked around to the driver’s side door.

He unlocked it and the three other locks popped up.  Ben opened the back door and threw his sleeping bag over Danny, who immediately sat up.  The sleeping bag fell on the floor of the Protégé.

“Fuckers, left me in the car,” Danny said, getting out and stretching.

“You were pretty content back there,” Ben responded.  The early morning sun made his face barely visible.

“Hey, can somebody grab me that Mountain Dew out of the trunk,” Danny said, walking to the embankment.  He unzipped his dress pants he still hadn’t changed out of and started to piss.

“Already got it,” Trevor said.

“Ohhh, that’s the stuff,” Danny responded, shaking twice and zipping back up, “Thanks, bro.”

“Danny if you want a cigarette you better do it before you get back in,” Trevor said.

“You’re serious about me not smoking in there,” Danny asked.

“As a fucking heart attack,” Trevor replied, “Remember how many burn holes you put in my old car?”

“Come on, man, the way you drive,” Danny pleaded, “You don’t stop for shit.”

“Not a chance in hell, Danny,” Trevor said.

Danny lit a smoke and took a few quick puffs before stomping it out.  The three of them got in the car.  Danny climbed back into the back seat, Ben in the passenger, and Trevor at the helm.  He threw the Pop Tarts in between the front seats.  Kyle used to sit shotgun when he wasn’t driving, with Ben in the back seat.  Kyle got carsick, so he claimed.  The other three shifted around positions.  Trevor forgot about that until Ben asked if it was cool if he could sit up front.  Trevor didn’t want to feel like a cabbie, driving the other two in the back.  But it was weird not to have Kyle sitting next to him, cracking jokes at everybody they drove past. 

Trevor started the car and put it into gear.  He glanced in his side mirror knowing nothing would be there but accepting the habit all the same.  They pulled onto the Interstate, bound for New Orleans.

“Danny I hate to tell you this,” Ben said, “But it looks like you went twelve rounds with the armrest and lost.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Danny replied.  Trevor heard the hiss from Danny opening his pop.

“You got a line across your face, is all,” Ben said.

Danny popped his head between the two front seats, knocking Trevor’s shoulder.  He peered at his face in the rearview mirror.

“Jesus, Danny, watch it,” Trevor yelled.

“Goddamn, guys,” Danny said, “Why didn’t you wake me up? My arm’s numb and I look like I took a haymaker from the backdoor.”

“Like I said, you didn’t seem to want to move,” Ben said.

“Yeah, you passed out as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot of Meijer,” Trevor said.

“Yeah, well I didn’t sleep all that great last night,” Danny said, sitting back and taking the Pop Tarts with him, “I slept on the floor at the motel.”

“We flipped for it, you lost,” Trevor said, “Besides, you didn’t even help pay for the room.”

“You know I’m hard up for cash right now,” Danny said.

“What’s new about that,” Trevor said.  Ben chuckled and rested his head against the headrest.

“Shut up, Trevor,” Danny said, “I can’t help it. I dropped last week’s paycheck on your mom.”

“Danny, you’re 26,” Trevor responded, “Your mom jokes are getting old.”

“Old like your mom,” Danny replied, opening the box of Pop Tarts.

“You walked into that one,” Ben said, still looking straight ahead.

Danny threw a cellophane package into each one of their laps.  The three of them ate in silence.

“Remember how these came three packs to a box but then they put an extra one in there so we could have them without arguing over who had to eat the crappy granola bars?” Danny said.

“Yeah,” Trevor said, “What’s that got to do with anything.”

“I was just thinking now we got this extra one,” Danny replied.

“Jesus Christ, Danny,” Trevor said, “The fuck is your problem.”

“No, I’m not asking if I can have it,” Danny said, “It’s just kind of weird, how like, the little things remind you of stuff you know?”

“The same little things you might keep to yourself, yeah?” Trevor squeezed the steering wheel tight.

“Sorry, man, it just sort of popped in there,” Danny said, pointing to the side of his head.

“I get you, Danny,” Ben replied.

The three sat in silence for a moment.  Ben looked over at Trevor.  Trevor knew the look.  It was the one that meant he should cool it.  Sometimes Danny was tough to take.  He knew they were all trying to deal with this but what do you say to that?

“Hey, Ben, remember that time you got canned from the T-shirt printing place and we all hopped it for Vegas?” Danny said.

“God, that was awesome,” Ben said, laughing, “You got lost on the strip and we found you handing out fliers for some strip club.”

“Yeah, that weird old guy handed me one and I just told him to give me a bunch,” Danny said, “I was walking around handing them out to old men.  This one lady told me she’d pray for me.”

“At least somebody was trying to look out for you,” Trevor said.

“I took my back pay and almost doubled at the blackjack table,” Ben said.

“Yeah, and Kyle told everybody he was Elton John’s sound-guy,” Danny said, patting Ben on the shoulder, “And that one girl told him she’d blow him if he got her into a show.”

“Yeah, but that backfired on him,” Ben said, “Because then all those gay dudes found out and kept hassling him for tickets and she got spooked and took off.”

“Or remember when Brenda dumped Trevor so we drove west and made it to like some place in Montana, Trevor where was that?” Danny asked.

“Billings,” Trevor said, failing to tune him out.

“Yeah, Billings, you were all depressed and mopey and shit,” Danny went on, “So Kyle tried to cheer you up by telling all the girls in that one bar and they all felt really bad and came over to talk to you.”

“But that one backfired too, because then a couple of the boyfriends got pissed and we had to run out the place before we got our asses kicked.” Ben finished, “The bartender let us out the backdoor because he said he wasn’t up to cleaning up that much blood.”

“God, he pulled some funny shit,” Danny said.

“Yeah he did,” Ben agreed.

Trevor didn’t say anything.  He didn’t want to talk about Kyle. Not yet.  It was bad enough that by the end of tomorrow they’d all be sitting around some sticky bar table talking about all of it.  Danny would try to eulogize him all night because that’s what Danny did.  They’d all take turns cheering each other up about the fact that their best friend got blown up in a sandbox of a country because he felt like he had to live out some family legacy. 

There was another long silence.  Trevor raced the Protégé down the Interstate.  The sun was up now and traffic was slightly heavier.  Occasionally a farmhouse far off the road broke the flat landscape.

“So how about Mrs. Radcliff?” Ben asked, breaking the silence.

“Jesus,” Trevor said.

“She seemed good,” Danny replied picking up the sleeping bag off the floor, “She was like, really happy though.  It’s kind of messed up.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Ben replied.

“Guys, something else, please,” Trevor said.

“Trevor, chill,” Ben said, “It’s cool we’re just talking.”

“Sorry,” Trevor said, “I’d just like to have a little fun on the trip. That’s why we’re going right? I mean if we wanted to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves we could’ve stayed in town.”

“Nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves,” Ben replied, “We’re just talking.”

Trevor didn’t remember the service even though it was less than a day ago.  He couldn’t even bring himself to look at the coffin as it came down the aisle draped with a flag.  He spent the entire ceremony looking straight ahead not really following the mass.  He stood when everyone else stood, sat when they all sat.  He even took communion even though he hadn’t been to mass in years.  He didn’t realize he was doing it until he was in line.  Trevor wanted to sit in the back but Mrs. Radcliff insisted that the three of them sit with the family.

“You boys were his brothers, you sit with the family,” she told them.  Her blond curly hair had been up in a bun.  A tiny American flag was pinned to her shoulder.  She’d never allowed them to call her anything but Mom.

“I thought James’ eulogy was awesome,” Ben said.

“Yeah, it was perfect,” Danny replied.

Could you really think anything else, Trevor thought.  What are you going to say, Sorry, man, but your eulogy for your dead brother was a bit sentimental?

“You know it’s fucked up,” Danny said.  Trevor looked in the rearview mirror.  Danny was playing with the zipper on the sleeping bag, “I forget he’s not around, you know?  Like I still have all his e-mails.”

“Yeah, I got them too,” Ben replied.

Trevor hadn’t started to think about Kyle in past tense either.  He’d pretty much been away for over two years.  Trevor felt like Kyle might still step off the plane and call them any time.  It had to be a closed casket because from what Kyle’s brother told them, there really wasn’t much left of him.  Trevor thought it was worse that way.  Last time he saw Kyle, the guy was joking about how he’d be back to keep them in line.  In some way Trevor couldn’t help but feel guilty.  Like he cared a little less.  He told himself if Kyle had made it through the first tour there was no reason he wouldn’t make this one. 

“Hey Trevor,” Danny said, “I saw a sign for Denny’s coming up.  You want to stop?”

“Yeah,” Trevor said, switching into the right lane, “I need to get gas anyway.”

“Good,” Danny replied, “I got to pee so bad.”

They pulled into the parking lot and Danny was out of the back seat before Trevor had the car in park. Trevor and Ben got out of the car in silence.  Ben looked across the top of the car at Trevor.

“You O.K., man?” Ben asked.

“Yeah,” Trevor responded, turning to walk away, “I’m cool.”

“You sure,” Ben pursued.

“Yeah I’m fine,” Trevor said, walking towards the entrance, “I just don’t see why after the whole goddamn car ride we keep coming back to this.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben said, “We’re all dealing with this, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” Trevor said, “But I don’t need to hash it all out on the car ride to where we’re going, where we’ll hash through all of it anyway.”

Ben was about to say something but the door flew open and a gaggle of a family came waddling out of the restaurant.  The door hit Trevor in the shoulder and he stepped back feeling his face flush.

“Oh I’m sorry,” said a large red headed woman, her small ginger kids running around him screaming and carrying balloons.

As the two walked in, Danny waved at them from a booth by the kitchen.  Trevor saw he’d already ordered the three of them coffee.  Danny sat with a lit cigarette and his pack next to his mug. 

Ben slid in next to Danny and took one of his smokes from the pack.  Trevor sat across from them in the middle of the bench and opened the menu.  He knew what he was getting.  They always all ordered the same thing.  The waiter walked over.  He was a skinny kid with big ears. 

“What can I get you?” he said, not looking up from pad of paper.

“Lumberjack Slam with wheat,” Ben said.

“Ham and cheddar omelet with white,” Trevor said, closing the menu.

The waiter wrote down the orders.  When Danny didn’t answer he looked up at the three of them.

“And you?” he said, looking back down at the pad.

“Can I just get three biscuits and a bowl of gravy?” Danny asked.

“They normally come two to a plate,” the waiter said, looking back at Danny.

“Yeah, I know, but I just want like three biscuits on a plate and a side of gravy in a bowl,” Danny said.

“I got to charge you for two biscuit plates then,” the waiter said, looking confused.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Danny said, “But just give me three.  And gravy on the side, like in a bowl or something.”

“So, three biscuits and a bowl of gravy,” the waiter said back.

“Well the gravy could be in a coffee cup if you don’t have a bowl,” Danny said.

“No we got bowls,” the waiter said, shaking his head.

“Could I get more coffee,” Danny asked.

“I’ll bring it right over,” the waiter said, walking away and shaking his head.

“Thanks,” Danny said to the back of the waiter’s head.

Ben started laughing, seemingly unable to control himself any longer.  He ashed his cigarette, shaking his head.

“What?” Danny said, smiling.

“Nothing, man,” Ben said, grabbing a sugar pack, “nothing.”

Trevor sat back in the booth.  He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  The place was relatively empty.  Indiscriminate music played over the small speakers on the ceiling.  Dishes and utensils clinked and crashed into bins in the kitchen and occasionally he heard the spray of water from the dishwasher hose hit the basin.

“So, I remember Kyle saying something about this bar on Bourbon Street that doesn’t have electricity,” Danny said. “They serve all their beer out of coolers, and it’s like drinking in an old cellar.  I think that’s where we should go to, you know, give Kyle his big send off.”

Trevor couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m not going on Bourbon Street,” he said looking up.

“We got to go to Bourbon if we’re in New Orleans,” Ben said.

“Why? Everybody’ll be on Bourbon,” replied Trevor, “I say we find some place tucked away and hang out for the night, that way we don’t have to deal with any assholes.”

“Well it’s at the end of Bourbon, I think,” Danny said. “Sort of like, down where people don’t normally go.  It’s kind of detached, you know?”

“You’re not getting me ten feet near Bourbon Street,” Trevor said.

“But it’s like the oldest bar in New Orleans,” Danny pleaded.

“Danny, I can drink out of a goddamn cooler at home,” Trevor said, “I’m not driving all this way to sit in some dark bar and drink beer out of a cooler.”

“You want to sit in a dark bar and drink lukewarm beer from the tap,” Ben said, “You can do that at home too.”

“That’s not the point,” Trevor said.

“Then what is the fucking point?” Ben said, chuckling.

“Yeah, Trevor, what is the point?” Danny repeated.

“Shut up, Danny,” Trevor said.

“Leave him alone, Trevor,” Ben said, losing his smile, “We’re not doing this the whole trip.”

“Doing what?” Trevor said, “Doing what?”

“You’re acting like a fucking bitch, man,” Ben said, “Kyle told Danny about this place.  I say that’s the place to be.  What’s the name of the place, Danny?”

“It called like, Lafeet’s I think, or John Lafeet’s. I don’t know it’s like the oldest bar,” Danny said.

“That’s where we’ll be,” Ben said, smacking the table, “We’ll be at the oldest bar in New Orleans.”

“Fuck you,” Trevor said, in a low voice. “This is bullshit.”

“What’s bullshit?” Ben said.

“I’m not doing this,” Trevor said.

“Doing what?” Ben asked.

“Whoa guys,” Danny said, his voice quivering, “Let’s chill, we’re going to have fun wherever. I was just saying Kyle told me about this place.”

“Danny, shut up,” Trevor said.

“Leave him the fuck out of it,” Ben said.

“Guys, seriously, everybody relax,” Danny said, lighting a cigarette. “Kyle would’ve wanted everybody to have a good time.”

“You know what,” Trevor said, “Fuck what Kyle would’ve wanted. I’m not spending this whole goddamn trip thinking about how Kyle would want us to be. Kyle is fucking dead.”

“Shut up,” Ben said. “Shut the fuck up right now, you need to cool it.”

“Yeah, Trevor, that’s not cool,” Danny said, staring at Trevor wide-eyed.

He didn’t care anymore.  It was as good as out there. 

Trevor leaned across the table. “Fuck Kyle.”

Trevor didn’t see him do it but knew Ben hit him.  At first he just saw a dazzling display of white and then the proverbial stars came into vision.  He didn’t fall back in the booth.  He felt his head sort of slump down and then he slowly leaned back and rested his head on the back of the bench.  Trevor couldn’t believe it.  Ben punched him square in the forehead.  Ben had never hit anybody in his life.  He had talked them all into and out of fights before but never been involved in one. 

He opened his eyes and looked across the table.  Ben sat with his hands at his sides.  His bottom lip quivered and his eyes were welled up.  Danny sat back in the booth with his hands up, cigarette between his first and second finger.  Trevor tried to say something and nothing came.  He tried again but he couldn’t get anything out.  His eyes started to well up too and he shook his head emphatically, as if telling them, himself, Kyle, that he wasn’t going to do it, not here, not in fucking Denny’s.  But it didn’t matter, the waterworks opened.

He looked back over at Danny.  He’d put his arms down and he too was crying.  Trevor quickly looked down.  The three of them sat in the booth and cried silently, unaware that their server had brought their food over.

“Uh,” the server said, “Which one had the Lumberjack Slam?”

“That’s me,” Ben said, sniffing.

“And the ham and cheddar?”

“I got it,” Trevor said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

“And that leaves you,” the waiter said, handing Danny a plate with three biscuits and a cereal bowl full of sausage gravy.

“Sweet,” Danny said, stubbing out his smoke and taking the plate and bowl.

“Go ahead and just bring the check over whenever,” Ben said.

“Got it,” the waiter replied, “I’ll bring more coffee.”

“Thanks,” Danny replied absently.

The three ate in silence except for saying thanks to the waiter when he filled their coffee.  Danny broke up the biscuits and mixed them into the bowl of gravy, eating it with a spoon.  When they were finished they sat in silence, Danny immediately lit a cigarette.  When he finished it, he swilled down his coffee.

“I got to pee,” he said to Ben.

Ben slid out of the booth and Trevor did the same.  The three stood there staring at each other.  Danny pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and handed Trevor a five.

“I’ll meet you at the car,” Danny said.

The other two paid and waited outside for Danny.  Danny came out a couple minutes later and lit a cigarette.

The three of them stood together in silence.

“So Lafeet’s, huh,” Trevor said.

“It sounds like a pretty cool place,” Danny said, stepping on the butt.

“As good a place as any, yeah,” Trevor responded.

The three of them took their places in the car.

 

Ian Penrose is a Saint Louis native who lives in Chicago with his girlfriend and cat. Like all Saint Louis expats living in Chicago, he has made certain concessions. In the summer he roots for the White Sox when the Cardinals are not playing. In the fall his home team is the Bears. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago Masters Program for Writers. His short story “Love in the Dying Season” was published in the regional literary magazine MiddleWestern Voice in 2005. He is a member of the Literary Writers Network as well as the Chicago Grifter Writers Alliance. He is at work on a collection of short fiction that examines Midwestern aesthetics through road trips primarily on Interstate 55. This story is from the collection.


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Notes from Denis J. Underwood, Online Managing Editor
There’s a lot going on in this story: a road trip tersely described and expressed in rich emotion. Some of what we experience is front and center, in our faces, but there’s a lot lingering below the surface as well. Denial permeates throughout until it is confronted and finally pushed aside. Sometimes, it takes a shock from the unlikeliest of sources to snap someone out of their stupor. In the end, we feel these characters have struggled and persevered to share a stronger bond. The trip will serve a higher purpose than they could ever have imagined.

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Comments on this story by Stephen Markley, author of “Hot Crying Girl”
What struck me about “The Send Off” was how the unresolved feelings of the three characters toward their dead friend dominate their own attempt to say goodbye to him through this road trip. This also becomes the mechanism (or non-mechanism, if you prefer) for understanding their relationships toward each other. What is left unsaid ends up telling us about these characters. At no point do we learn specifically why Danny must babble and rehash old memories as frequently as he can manage, and nor do we understand Trevor’s rage toward his friends—which mostly centers on Kyle. But we do get enough hints that the structure of their friendship is built as the story progresses. That quiet, peace-making Ben is the only person in the story to express his feelings through violence shows just how far from normality these characters find themselves.




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