(This piece follows the events and characters of the short story, “Cut-Loose,” but stands alone as its own work)
Something was off about it. You ever get one of those? A call from someone you’re surprised to hear from that just feels off? It’s not that Hollywood thing where someone gets shook from a peaceful sleep, while the rain is banging against her window and the sad music is building up all around her. In real life there is no heavy handed imagery to remind you no good comes from late night calls like that. In real life the call could come at any time – early morning, afternoon, late at night. It could even when you get called to your high school’s main office in the middle of your lunch period. It just happens. The phone rings, you answer it, and things just change after that. The first time it happened to me was on an unseasonably warm early afternoon in December. Joe Murdock called from his diner begging me to grab Timmy and get down their quick before Mrs. Wrenwood killed the family’s newly returned patriarch. Yep, that’s right, he told me: Bobby Wrenwood came home.
I honestly don’t think Bobby was a bad guy at heart. As my grandma would say about certain lackluster types, he was just more “no count and lazy” than anything. He was somewhat of an all-you-could-eat buffet of Southern clichés: fast muscle cars, Bourbon and Gingers, chasing loose women in their mini-skirts and cheap pleather heels. That was how he met Mrs. Wrenwood, after all, not that she was cheap in the least. He swept her off her feet at some hole in the wall off of Old Two Notch Road that been closed in the years since due to constant bar fights and underage drinking. As the story went, he was driving a tricked out, beat-up olive drab F-Bomb Camaro he’d gotten a “kick-ass” deal on at some North Carolina police auction. On his first night out on the town in it he’d caught a glimpse of a blonde bombshell that nearly knocked him out of the driver’s seat. He and his buddy pulled over at the bar and followed the young enchantress inside.
“She was rockin’ Daisy Duke cut-offs and hair teased bigger than shit. Be damned if she wasn’t a lit stick of dynamite!” Those were Bobby’s words as he practically howled recounting the tale of how he’d met the future mother of his children. Knew he was in love with her, he often continued, “from the moment Lynard Synkard came rarin’ through that jukebox and she got to movin’ and shakin’ her cute lil’ butt all over the dance floor.” Cringing, Timmy and Shelia always made him end the story there. I still believe, to some degree, that’s where Bobby’s general progression ended, too.
He didn’t really grow much out of that Camaro and the old bar scene phase. He tried, God bless him, but he just didn’t get very far. They had the kids and the house and the picket fence and a bloodhound named Timber, but it wasn’t enough for Bobby to keep still. Or maybe it was too much? The dog ran off when Timmy and I were seven, the F-Bomb died on Bobby at a Dixie league baseball game when we were ten, and Bobby was out of the door three years after that. I still have vivid memories of that day. It all seemed so surreal and strange when Mrs. Wrenwood came out from the bedroom crying and told us her husband needed a break from the family. I remember Timmy laughing when he heard the news. It was a sarcastic chuckle beneath his breath as though he should have seen the whole thing coming.
After Bobby had been gone a good six months Timmy’s laughter disappeared along with him. He began mocking his father less and talking about the situation more. I guess it was his attempt to rationalize his father’s actions, because after a while Timmy came to the conclusion that it all kind of made sense. The Wrenwood residence, he explained, was a double edged sword for a man like Bobby. Timmy, the eerily wise preteen, believed their home was a reminder of the things Bobby had almost gotten right, but still managed to somehow miss the mark on. Bobby needed a place where his old tales of glory would be respected if not worshipped. That way, Timmy continued, his father could take his mind far away from his failures. Taking care of a family took a lot of effort with little time to listen to a man with early onset mid-life crisis reminiscing over his wild days. And putting forth minimal effort was what some might call one of Bobby’s specialties.
Bobby’s bread and butter were the stereotypical get-rich-quick schemes and info-mericals of a dullard. Any way to make it through life without breaking a sweat was action he wanted in on. Some people, however, would still say they were surprised to hear he’d abandoned his family. Bobby was a standup guy, they announced. Seemed crazy a good man like that would leave a family stranded. The rest of us who really knew the Wrenwoods were surprised he’d managed to stay as long as he had. Being there for his disappearance had me seeing Bobby in the light in which his family viewed him. He was a man that always had one foot out of the door and was waiting on the world to push him the rest of the way through. Once, when we were fourteen and he was having a rough day at school Timmy told me he was almost relieved in a way when Bobby was finally took off. Timmy always questioned whether or not he’d be forced to step up and be the real man of the house – a man his mother could count on, a man whose support she deserved. When Bobby disappeared that question had been answered. To this day the thought boggles my mind that my best friend realized his duties as a new family leader when other kids where still going to summer camp and sneaking into movies. The young son was somehow strong enough to note his father’s weaknesses and be prepared to make up for them in his absence. The funny thing is that wasn’t the craziest part of the Wrenwood saga. Wilder still was the fact that after three and a half years of being a ghost in the Carolina wind without so much as a post card or a phone call, Robert Lee Wrenwood, III managed to find his way back to Lexington. And, lucky us, it was just in time for the holidays.
It was mid-December just before school was to let out for Christmas break. Up to this point my parents had never left me home alone, not once. At the age of seventeen I’d led what I believe to be a moderately boring teenage lifestyle. I had few if any issues beyond speeding tickets and the occasional smart-aleck remark that Elaine and Wes Murray. My parents felt I’d earned the right to some trust and freedom. Before I could fully explain their new found respect in my maturity my friends were already trying to think up ways to take advantage of it. We were all sitting in the large cafeteria that doubled as the larger of two auditoriums for the school. It was a wide, spread out space with blue and gold concrete walls and a large stage towards the front bookended by heavy cloth curtains. It was during the second lunch period with the boys taking turns conjuring up ways to have a good time at my expense.
“We’re throwing a party, don’t fight this,” Timmy ordered as he stole another French fry from my tray. “Think of all the possibilities. Everybody and their momma literally loves and trusts you. They won’t have a second thought about letting their kids come over to your house for a movie or something. We can actually tell the truth about where we’re going. This shit is genius, man.”
“Nope. Absolutely not,” I protested. “I get one shot at this and you knuckleheads want to throw a party on the quietest cul-de-sac in town? Lunatics. We’ll be busted within an hour.”
“Dumbass, you just said it yourself – it’s a quiet cul-de-sac. Nobody goes down into Harris Point. We’ll be fine,” Timmy snatched another fry. I smacked his hand away this time. He pulled back quickly, food still in hand, and chomped down on the greasy fried potato while staring me in the eyes.
“We got no business even talking about this at the lunch table. Everybody in the school district knows Momma. You know how these principals and teachers walk around here; damned vultures overhead waiting for us to slip up. One word gets to them and Elaine and Wes will know within minutes. Y’all gonna get me killed, man.”
“We gotta do something, Luke. Timmy is right.” Donnie Charles was a short, stocky kid with dusty brown hair all over his body. He looked like a teddy bear factory had exploded all around him while he was covered in glue. Puberty was making an interesting art project of him. We started calling him Fozzy Bear around thirteen. When we hit the ninth grade we’d shortened the moniker at his request. It was just Foz now. He lifted his cheeseburger and took an enormous bite.
“Foz, since when did you start taking his side?”
A full mouthed Foz answered, “When you became a chicken shit ten minutes ago. This could be epic, Luke.”
“No, Foz, it will be epic,” Timmy agreed.
“I don’t know, guys. I’m kinda with Luke on this one.” Beau Wiley was a lanky yet gifted baseball player from Red Bank not far from Timmy and me. He’d been basically hanging off of Timmy’s hip since the fourth grade. I’d met him shortly after that and he started shadowing me, too. He was the kid you’d forget was in the room if he didn’t occasionally breath heavy or break wind. So, of course, we all named him Jazzy for his somewhat subdued spirit. Honestly, if any of us needed to a party with booze and girls to build on some adolescent self-confidence it was him.
Timmy started yelling out. “What a surprise! Beau is afraid of something! It’s not like it’s a giant moth or something, Jazzy! It’s a party with fe–males! You’d be afraid of your own shadow if you stared at it long enough, I swear!”
“Stop with the moths, Timmy! They can be scary as hell! You were just as afraid after watching ‘Godzilla versus Mothra’ when we were ten. Don’t act all tough now! Shit like that happens when you’re a kid. People can develop illogical phobias. Look it up, it’s perfectly natural!”
The conversation was getting on my nerves. “Beavis and Butthead would you please shut up!”
“Vultures are circling the nest!” Foz whispered. We didn’t have a clue what the hell he was talking about until Principal Allen taped me on the shoulder a second later.
“Boys,” his voice was already in a low growl rumbling out from behind his toothy grin. His mouth was anchored by a bristle caterpillar of a mustache. “What’s all the commotion over here?”
“Ain’t nothin’, Mr. A.”
“If it ‘ain’t nothin’’ it is, by definition, something, Mr. Wrenwood. Let’s try and work on your grammar and the noise, please?”
“Sorry, Mr. Allen.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
Jazzy, wide-eyed, just nodded.
Mr. Allen shook his head and moved along across the cafeteria. When he was more than an earshot away, Timmy, staring off into the distance, had an apparent epiphany. “Birdwatch.”
“That’s what we’ll call it, Luke. A birdwatch. We’re studying evolution through birds in Ms. Douglas’s biology class for the next week. We’ll call the party a birdwatch, and that way we’ll be able to talk about it out in the open free and clear. Teachers will just think we’re making jokes or something. We can hide in plain sight.”
“Man, that’s ridic –”
“Oh my God, that’s brilliant!” Foz put down the cheeseburger. “The nest is your house. Different beers and booze are different types of eggs. PBR can be blue jays, Bud Heavy’ll be Carolina Wrens.”
“This is stupid, guys.”
In a voice shaken as though someone had threatened him with physical harm if he spoke, Jazzy added, “We can make Purple Jesus…”
“Purple Jesus. You know, punch with all the fruit and Everclear? You’ll see the face of God if we make it right –”
“We all know what PJ is, Jazzy. We can scheme with one of the football players for help finding a keg, but Everclear–”
“My cousin from USC is stayin’ with us for a few days before Christmas. His parents moved to Ohio and he wanted to see his friends in Columbia. His buddy Spangler buys everybody booze in their building.”
We all stared at him silently. I was somewhat shocked that he, of any of us, was even considering this. Timmy, on the other hand, was somehow dually excited and angered. “When in the world were you going to step up with that info, Jazz?”
“Vultures!” Foz whispered again. Mr. Allen’s glare was a laser beam in our direction. We all just smiled and waved to him. After a few seconds of the no-nonsense look he went back into discussion with one of the assistant football coaches.
Timmy was rubbing his hands together like some Bond villain. “Tellin’ you, man. This is gonna work. Destiny. Do you believe in it?”
“I believe that you’re an idiot, and I can’t believe you just dropped ‘destiny’ about an underage keg party just now.”
“That don’t make’em wrong, Luke.” Providing us with the info on his access to alcohol must have awakened something deep in Jazzy, because now he appeared to be all piss-and-vinegar. He was leaning in and smirking with his shoulders back and chest out. He seemed only a step less excited about this ill-conceived birdwatch than Timmy.
“Three votes for a party, Luke. With your clean rep and my showmanship– ”
“Really Bob Barker? Your showmanship?”
“I’ve got a certain Jimmy Dean swagger about me, yes.”
Foz’s face was contorted like he’d eaten something sour. “Wait, Jimmy Dean like the breakfast sausages?”
Jazzy smiled and licked his lips. “I love me some Jimmy Dean sausage!”
“Man, y’all some morons! James Dean the smooth ass actor!” Timmy shouted up towards the heavens, his hands raised to God in communion. I guessed that the guys knew who he meant; they just liked messing with him. “Again, with your record and my charisma this will go down without so much as sick cheerleader throwing up on the carpet.”
“There will be cheerleaders there? Varsity or JV?” Jazzy ears perked up. He was the dog who just heard food rattling around in his metal dish.
“Does it even matter which, young Beau?”
Foz tapped me on the shoulder and whispered. “He doesn’t know what happened to James Dean, does he?”
“Let it go,” I told him. “Just let it go.”
An ambitious, if not flat-out brazen, marketing campaign began that Tuesday afternoon. Everywhere we went we preached to people about the party. We were the Wise Men walking the streets of Jerusalem. Birthwatch for biology on Friday: In Timmy’s biology class he passed Tiffy “Can’t-Keep-a-Secret” Darrelson a note; Foz wrote it up on the corner of his dry erase answer board in AP Chemistry; Jazzy had it up in the corner of the blackboard in Driver’s Ed. The instructor was a baseball coach and probably would have let Jazzy burn down the school as long as he kept second base covered the way he did. I even got caught up in the excitement and explained it to Becky Sumter and Lindsay Pickney – two J.V. cheerleaders – in Honors Algebra with me. There was no going back now: the smart kids, the geeks, the jocks, the popular kids, even the microscopic Goth population I didn’t know existed before this endeavor and the immense and controlling assembly of hicks all knew. It’s was your typical ‘90s Southern teenage gathering. We were having a party in a quiet all-African-American cul-de-sac in the middle of Lexington County. It was either going to be the biggest soiree since Bryan Houser’s field party two summers before, or the hottest mess since…well… Bryan Houser’s field party the summer after that. We’d be famous or infamous by the end of that night. Then again, at that age in that town I’m not sure there was really much of a distinction between the two.
It didn’t seem like the most well-reasoned idea, but our hands were more or less tied: Jazzy was going to run point on getting the booze. Mentally, he could handle it without issue, but emotionally we weren’t all that confident. His cousin decided to stay in Columbia for a night, and that gave us the perfect alibi and opportunity to get the liquor we needed. Jazzy could crash with him and his friends, and get Spangler to contribute to our delinquency. Jazzy had a role to play, Timmy told me in a rather biblically styled monologue I wasn’t all that comfortable with. At best, it felt rehearsed. “We all have a role to play, Luke. You own the circus, I run it, Foz protects it, and Jazzy provides the logistical support.”
“Why is it a circus?” I asked honestly dumbfounded.
“It’s a metaphor, it doesn’t matter.”
“It feels like the worst metaphor possible. Thought you would have used like a military analogy or something,” I argued.
With an emotionless face Timmy studied me for a moment, then taking a breath and looking me directly in the eye he said, “Sometimes being your friend is the most exhausting thing I have to do all day.”
I let the comment slide. When I thought about it, at the time, it seemed fair.
That evening my mom arrived home from work full of second thoughts about the decision to leave me on my own. She’d read some article in the State about a boy who’d fallen with the wrong crowd in Richland and was now looking at three years in juvenile detention because of it.
“Elaine, leave the boy alone. He’s never done a thing seriously wrong in seventeen years,” Dad sat in his recliner watching Kentucky beat up on Tennessee at Rupp Arena.
“He hasn’t slipped so we give him every chance to do so now? It’s his future we’re talking about, Wesley!” Momma was in the kitchen flipping pork chops over in the frying pan.
My sister’s high-pitched squeal shot out of the direction of her room. It was the siren of a mettlesome sibling. “Let him loose and he’ll mess up!”
“Shut up, Pattie! This is a grown folk conversation!” My reply was pure reflex. The tone and word choice came as natural as breathing.
Momma pointed the spatula in Dad’s direction. “See! The boy already thinks he’s grown. He has for the last year. I tell you what–”
Calmly, I replied, “Momma, I wasn’t talking about me being a part of an adult conversation. I was talking about you and Daddy speaking.”
“Oh, it’s ‘Daddy’ when you want to be treated your age, but half the time you run around here calling your father ‘Wes’.”
“Elaine,” Dad’s laugh had a deep belly cackle to it. “Seriously, baby, stop. I was out on my own plenty of times when I was even younger than Luke is now.”
“And do you remember what you were out doing, Wes? Up there in Greenville running amuck with the likes of people calling themselves ‘Bootsy’ and ‘Lil’ Jakey Boy’ and ‘Stoop’ because all he did was hang out on his grandmomma’s front porch.”
Dad went quiet after she said that, then he looked over his shoulder from the recliner towards me. “You know Harold hasn’t gone by ‘Stoop’ in about 20 years. The man sells insurance now.” Dad glanced back in the direction of the kitchen to see Momma staring him down. He drew in a breath and gave it an audible release. “Okay, I see your point, but our boy is smarter than that. Aren’t you, Lucas?”
“Yes’um. Much smarter. I feel as though I’ve learned well from the mistakes of your youth, Father.”
Momma looked at me and rolled her eyes. Then she released the exhausted sigh she often gave when she was on the phone listening to Aunt Raylene go on about something. I’d always overhear her recounting to Dad the stories of the latest love of her younger sister’s life. Momma always sounded like she’d just run a marathon. “We told you you could stay here on your own, and I won’t go back on that. But you’d better behave in this place. You can have a couple of friends over, but nothing crazy. Don’t you have quizzes or something coming up, anyway?”
“Done for the weekend and the quiz was Thursday. I made a 90.” I tried to fight back my grin, but it was a losing battle.
Dad was proud. “Smart. Good job, boy.”
“Wesley, please,” then back to me: “What are y’all doing while we’re gone?”
“Nowhere. Watching movies, hanging out with Timmy, Donnie, and Beau.” In my defense, it wasn’t a full-on lie.
“And that’s all you guys want to do? Is just hang out here?”
“We may go play basketball or hang out with Jazzy’s cousin Josh that’s here for Christmas break. They’re practically brothers.”
“This Josh sounds like a nice kid,” Dad told us.
“I think so, too, Father.”
“Oh, stop, you two! Enough!” Another heavy breath, but this time more exasperated than the last. This would be the point in a Raylene conversation where Momma would hear the “I wonder what my wedding colors will be with this man I’ve known for all of 3 months, but am madly in love with” statement and just give up all hope. My heart always went out to her when it came to her family, but right now I loved that defeated look in her eyes. It was my advantage, my victory. I would realize later in life that teenagers can sometimes be sociopaths. “We’re going to call here all three nights while we’re gone.”
“You’re gonna let him stay?” Pattie whined running into the den with us. “That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair, half pint, the sooner you learn that the stronger you’ll be.” I popped her on top of her head and ran towards the bedrooms.
“Do not push your luck, Lucas Murray! Apologize to your sister!”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, Pattie.” I shouted in a half-assed attempt to appease Momma and continued down the hallway.
“You don’t really mean that!” Pattie screamed.
“Nope! Sure don’t!”
“Kidding, Momma, kidding!”
That Friday flew by and we found ourselves patting each other on the back for a party that would echo throughout the annuals of history. Hubris was an SAT word we apparently had not yet learned. Timmy was stealing my fries again while I was going over cost estimates the cheerleaders had help me draw up in algebra when Foz alerted us to a vulture’s approach. It was Mr. Allen on his walkie-talkie.
“Yeah, I see him now,” he stated into the black plastic squawking box. Then, pointing to me: “Lucas, you’ve got an important call. You’re cleared to go up to the office and take it.”
“They’re taking calls for you here now?” Timmy laughed. “How do I get service like that, son?”
Mr. Allen pointed his walkie-talkie towards Timmy. “Knock it off, Mr. Wrenwood.” Then again, back to me, “Get moving, please, Mr. Murray.”
Lunch was nearly over, anyway. I nodded and asked the guys to meet me at the door to the front office. Not knowing what was happening and expecting the worse I ran as fast as I could finding myself winded as I stepped through the blue and gold threshold. An older secretary whose name I could never remember stood and pointed towards the counter to a phone with a blinking light. She said it was Mr. Murdock. I had no idea what was going on.
Joe Murdock owned the diner where Mrs. Wrenwood worked. He was a nice guy, older Vietnam vet – gruff, but fair. I never had any issues with him. I called him sir, and he told me he appreciated that. All of this is to say we were on good terms, but not so good that I ever expected a call let alone at school.
I thanked the office secretary as she handed me the phone’s receiver. “This is Lucas,” I announced somewhat timidly.
“Luke, buddy. It’s Joe Murdock,” his voice scratched the ear a little the way I imagined an older grizzly bear might tear up a tree. No serious damage, but a slightly unpleasant.
“Yeah, Mr. Murdock. Kind of strange you calling me like this. What can I do for you?”
I could tell from his breathing something heavy was on his mind. “Yeah, your dad told me it was okay to give you a call. He’s already cleared you to leave school. So do you think you could scoop up your buddy Timmy and bring him down to the diner right quick? I thought about calling Timmy, but I know how emotional he can get when it comes to his family.”
“Is Mrs. Wrenwood okay?” Seconds after I asked the question I heard what I thought was her yelling in the background and a glass breaking.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “She’s just jimdandy. But, son, I’ve gotta tell you that– ” he paused as another glass shattered followed by more screaming. “Gotta tell you that Bobby decided to come through the door down here, and she just ain’t right with that.”
“Bobby who?” I wondered out loud, and realized just after it escaped my lips what was happening at the diner. “Holy shit, Bobby Bobby?”
“Lucas Murray!” the secretary shouted. “Language, young man!”
“Yes, ma’am I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Joe was having another laugh. For a man whose property was likely being torn up all around him he seemed to be in pretty high spirits all of a sudden. “Now maybe you can understand both the urgency and delicate nature of the situation we find ourselves in, Lucas. I seriously don’t want to get a youngster involved, but I know you can be trusted and you’re practically this woman’s third son. So just go ahead and get Timmy and get down here while I still have an establishment standing. It’s either you two or the authorities, and it’s not that serious to get a hardworking mother in trouble with the law– ”
“You won’t have to. I’m on it, I’m on it. We’ll see you soon, sir.”
“Bless your heart,” he told me as he ordered me to drive safely.
“Everything okay, shug?” the secretary questioned.
“I haven’t foggiest idea,” I answered honestly. Still stunned, I walked back out into the main hall to find the trio waiting on me as I’d asked.
“What’s going on, Luke? You look like you’re about to throw up,” Timmy said.
“Timothy,” I began.
“Why are you calling me ‘Timothy’?” he asked.
I took him by the shoulders and repeated it. “Timothy. I’m going to tell you something and I need for you to remain calm. Can you do that?”
“What in the hell is happening here?” Jazzy asked.
Foz shook his head. “Nothing good.”
Timmy, in turn grabbed me by my shoulders. “Lucas Murray, I think you’ve lost your mind.”
“Timothy,” I took a breath. There was no good way to say it so I just tried to use the calmest tone I could. “Bobby’s back in town. He’s at the diner. Your mom is apparently…not taking it all that well.”
To this day I can still feel how the temperature of the air around us seemed to change. I could feel it get cooler against my skin, and it somehow inexplicably became saturated. I thought it was about to rain right there in the main lobby. The laws of physics and chemistry seemed to bend in that moment. Time slowed down around us, and miraculously from a cloudy gray sky a beam of sunlight burst through the ceiling’s skylight and felt upon Timmy’s head bathing him in a warm glow. And for a second – barely a blink of the eye – I swore everything was going to be fine.
“That little son of a bitch,” Timmy rattled out shaking as he spoke. And I quickly realized how far off base I had been as I chased after him out of the main doors and into the parking lot.
“Not to sound inconsiderate, but I gotta get the stuff!” Jazzy yelled to me.
The booze. I ran back to him. We’d collected a wad of cash from ourselves and some friends for the event’s funding. “You’ve got the list. Make us proud, Beau.” I stuffed the crumpled bills into his hands. It was like I was sending him off on some secret mission. I guess in a way I really was. I was out of the front doors just in time to make it to the Timmy’s trusty Cutlass Oldsmobile, the Cut-Loose, as Timmy sped off towards the diner.
Fifteen minutes and somehow zero speeding tickets later we were in the parking lot of Corley’s. Joe Murdock purchased the diner from the Corley family over a decade ago but decided to keep the name. It was a greasy-spoon throwback to the 1970s that everyone in town loved. He didn’t care much for teenagers hanging out, so we typically stayed closer to downtown at Rush’s or one of the other fast food places. Any time we could, though, most of us would come with sport teams or parents to get a chance with the all-day full menu. His blueberry pancakes at 3pm on a Saturday were a favorite for me and my dad. Today, many of his typical patrons were milling around outside, some still enjoying their coffee, as they watched Joe with his arms spread out separating a disheveled, mascara-run waitress and this strange, smiling slicked-hair man that kept calling her ‘honey.’ A table was on its side, glass was all over the floor, and poor Joe just looked exhausted. As we stepped towards the door we saw Billy Humphrey, one of Sheriff Metts’s deputies, standing near his patrol car. He’d coached us in little league years ago.
“Boys,” he nodded.
“Coach Billy,” we replied in unison.
“Hey, so, I’m gonna need you guys to do what you can to bring this thing to a close, or I’m gonna need to take’em both in, you understand? Don’t want to do it– ”
“We know, Coach,” I told him as we made our way up the steps. “Can’t have people disturbing the peace out here. Even the good ones.”
He nodded. “Even the good ones, Luke. Sharp as a tack as always. You boys got this. If you need me, holler now.”
“Will do,” Timmy told him as he pulled back the door.
My foot crunched against the apparent remnants of a coffee pot. The sound momentarily tore the three adults away from their standoff. Mrs. Wrenwood stood near a far booth holding a tray over her shoulder. Joe was in the middle, his hands still up towards the arguing couple, keeping Mrs. Wrenwood from attempting to use the tray as a weapon. And then, standing there in all his glory, was a wide-eyed, wild smiling Bobby. There were a few new gray hairs that hadn’t been there those years ago when he took off, but that was about the only visible change that’d taken place. He still had the strong jaw, the five o’clock shadow, the grin that seems to exude both exuberance and arrogance simultaneously. Though, I suppose it’s not surprising from a man who thought he could just pop back up at his wife’s work after abandoning his family for over three years.
“Bobby,” something about Timmy’s tone was artificial, stale, empty. Timmy was there and he wasn’t all at the same time.
Bobby laughed, “Son, would it kill ya to call me Dad?”
“Matter fact it would, Bobby. You lucky you get that instead of me just callin’ you a son of a–”
“Timothy Paul!” Mrs. Wrenwood screamed.
“Yelling at me!” Timmy pointed towards Bobby. “You’re in here throwing coffee pots and startin’ up a scene somethin’ fierce.”
“Now, don’t you go talkin’ to your momma like that son!”
“Shut up, Bobby!” Mrs. Wrenwood and Timmy’s voices were harmonious delivering the order.
“Momma, there’s a whole grip of people out there watching us carry on like white trash, and Coach Billy is gonna have to call this in in another minute or two if we don’t come to a resolution right now. So I’m gonna need you to put the tray down and start using your big girl words again.”
She looked out of the window past Timmy and me and into the small gathered crowd gawking through the window at all of us. She lowered the tray to her waist then placed it on the table at a nearby booth.
“I know me coming back like this wasn’t ideal–”
“Wasn’t ideal?” Timmy echoed.
“No, it wasn’t. But I just– ” Bobby paused looking at Timmy and me and then back to Mrs. Wrenwood. “I just broke down. I didn’t know what I was doin’ or how. I was trying to take care of you and the kids with these birdbrain schemes, all the while wishing I could be free. Free as a bird. I was embarrassed, scared, a whole lot of things. So I left.” He knelt down next to her now as she was seated at the booth. She tried to pull away from him, but didn’t have much room to maneuver. “And as soon as the first day had passed I realized I’d done wrong, but I had no idea how I could come back after that. I need a reason, a way, to make all of this worthwhile. So I called up Buddy Clark down in Savannah and started working at his restaurant on the river. After six months I was a manager, and after a year he made me a partner in his company. For the first time I had a real legit job, baby.”
“Good for you, Bobby. You’re out living a new life while your family was losing its mind!” Timmy snapped. “But, hey, we’re all happy about this magical Come-to-Jesus you had with yourself.”
Bobby nodded and let out a laugh. “I know I deserve that. Even while going legit a part of me still wanted to come back big. Wanted to give all of you the world so you’d never want again.” He reached into his pocket and handed Mrs. Wrenwood a piece of paper. It looked like a check. A check with a lot of zeros. “I took a lot of the money I had and put it into this stock Buddy had mentioned called Yahoo. I just cashed out some of it after it went public. I finally did it. There’s the world right there in your hand, darlin’. We can buy this town ten times over.”
Her eyes red from crying, she seemed unmoved by the large sum of money. She handed the check back to him. “Bobby, we never needed five hundred thousand dollars or the world– ”
Timmy interrupted her. “Wait, how much?!”
She handed the check back to him. “We just needed you. Your children needed their father.” Slowly, she rose and pushed past Bobby moving to the rear of the diner. She seemed to float as she glided past the counter and into the kitchen. There, when finally out of sight of everyone, we could hear her sobbing.
Bobby looked to Timmy and headed in his direction, arms open wide, for what I assumed was a hug. Timmy, rolled his eyes, pushed him away and hustled towards the kitchen. Then, for what seemed to be a show of affection he returned. Timmy’s eyes narrowed, he inspected Bobby. It looked as though he was going to accept the hug, after all, but instead he pulled the check from his father’s fingertips. We could hear him shouting to Mrs. Wrenwood over the amount of money until his voice faded. Then, together, Bobby and I stood in the silent awkwardness as Joe Murdock walked over to the diner’s front door.
“Lucas,” Bobby greeted me for the first time since we’d arrived on the scene.
“Mr. Bobby,” I nodded in reply. “You’re looking well.”
“Nice of you to say, Lucas. I appreciate that.” Then, he pointed towards the kitchen. “Do you think I should…?”
“Absolutely not, Mr. Bobby.”
“Yup. You’re, uh, you’re probably right. I didn’t think so either.”
As the patrons began filling back into the establishment we took it as our cue to exit.
As we walked down the steps I saw her standing near what I now recognized as Bobby’s old Dodge Charger, the same car he’d had when he left those years ago. Her jeans were a little too tight, and her big gray hoodie with the Gamecock emblem across the front was a bit too oversized. Her eyes were red and swollen likely from tears. It was Shelia Wrenwood, Bobby’s eldest progeny. I’d only seen her off and on since our awkward summer conversation in her in bedroom. The sight of her still took the breath out of me. Joe Murdock must have called us both when he began reaching out for help with the Jerry Springer scene going down in his restaurant.
“Shellie Bean.” Bobby’s voice was timid, a shadow of the exuberance to which I had grown accustom.
Shelia darted straight for him, collapsing into his arms, landing with an audible thud and wailing. I’d never seen her cry like that before. It only lasted a few fleeting moments as she jerked away from him, smacking him hard across the face in the process. We locked eyes briefly as I watched her disappear up the steps of the diner following Joe Murdock’s directions pointing her into the kitchen. The brief interaction was surreal.
“Bobby, watch yourself.” I hadn’t realized Coach Billy was still out there taking in all the sites. He had a finger pointed in Bobby’s direction.
“Good to see you, too, Billy. Tell your folks I said hi, would ya? Hope Clet got that cholesterol down.”
Coach Billy nodded with his tone still flat. “Dad did, he did. Blood pressure’s great now. I’ll let him know you asked and you’re back in town.” Then to me, “Good job, son. You helped save all of us some headache believe it or not.” He, too, disappeared up the stairs and back into the diner.
Given the surprises of the day, I realized our ambitious plans for the weekend might have hit a snag. Bobby Wrenwood just had that type of seismic effect on life, I guess. While I lamented on what could have been or even might still be ahead of me in my freeman’s weekend I hadn’t noticed Bobby walking over to the trunk of his car. It was popped open and he had about a liter of Johnnie Walker Blue in his hand taking a sips. At least it was the Blue label, I thought.
Bobby took another hard swig of the whiskey. “So what are you boys up to this weekend?” he asked me.
Wide-eyed I replied, “Not a thing, Mr. Bobby. Was just getting ready for a birdwatch. A thing for biology class. Nothing serious or anything,” I told him.
Taking yet another pull of the whiskey followed closely by a puckered up sad face he studied me and replied, “You’re a terrible liar, Lucas Murray. Don’t you ever go changin’ on me.”
Yep, Bobby Wrenwood was definitely home.