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Dan was busy plotting on his map. Linc asked him how far they had to go.
“About three hundred miles, Captain.”
“Damn! Still?” said Linc.
“Giving or taking, of course.”
Linc said, “Well . . . it’s about eight o’clock now . . . if we take it easy like we have been, we’ll get there about three o’clock.” Maybe three hundred miles wasn’t so far, he thought. One thing was certain: barring unforeseen car trouble, they would certainly be making it to Jacksonville today. There would be no waking up tomorrow with the sick feeling of having to drive, to have to put more miles between himself and home. He made up his mind to think positive thoughts about Jacksonville--the kinds of thoughts, thoughts verging on hopes, like the ones he had the night he settled on it as his destination.
When they had been on the road for a couple of hours, Linc stopped for gas and so everyone who needed to could use the restroom. Jamie said she was going to use the telephone.
“You got change?” asked Linc.
“Yeah, I have some,” she hollered back over her shoulder, striding briskly toward the call box beside the service road.
When she had been on the phone for several minutes, long enough for the boys to be finished with what they had to do, she hung up in short order. The boys were waiting for her on the hood of the car.
Back in the car nothing was said for a dozen miles. Finally, Dan asked her whom she had called.
“I called my mom . . . Pete, too.”
“How is old Pete?” said Linc.
They didn’t press her for any further information. Another dozen quiet miles fell behind them. The quiet was felt by all three of them; it filled the car, daring them to break it.
Jamie could sense Dan was uncomfortable with her having called Pete. She tried to draw him out of his armor of silence by mentioning that Pete once more assured her they were to let him know if they needed anything at all.
“Old Pete is our goose who laid the golden egg--don’t you think so, Danny?” said Linc, with the same intention as Jamie, but knowing from long experience with Dan that their efforts would probably be futile.
“I told Pete we still have most of what he gave us,” said Jamie. “We do still have plenty left for a long while, don’t we?”
Linc could tell she was straining to make conversation, and her question had come out that way--strained. He said, “Are you kidding? We’ve got a ton of it left. Christ, we could have gone to Europe. Wouldn’t that be something, Danny?”
“Don’t you think that would be something, Danny?”
“What?” snapped Dan, clipping the word. He knew Linc would keep prodding him until he gave some kind of response, and he was glad he had kept that response down to one syllable.
“Going to Europe on old Pete’s money. Wouldn’t that be--”
“Oh, hell yes!” flared Dan. “Pete and Europe, Europe and Pete. Who cares?”
This wasn’t going well at all. Jamie wondered what she had started. As a stab in the dark, she asked Linc what he would like to see in Europe. She leaned up close between the boys.
He said, “I’d like to see where the Brontë sisters lived. I think you’re supposed to have to take a bunch of different trains to get there, because it’s so far off. Still, I think it would be something to see. Maybe some place that has old castles . . . places like that.”
Jamie said she would especially like to see Paris. Then she made the mistake of asking Dan where he would like to go.
He turned in order to respond to her face to face. “Where would I like to go? Where would I really like to go? I would really like to go to Jacksonville so I could get out of this damn car! Man, I’m sick of this.” Dan was really sulking now. “The Brontë sisters’ house,” he sneered, under his breath, as a broadside at Linc.
Not rising to Dan’s bait, Linc said, “Didn’t Pete ever take you anywhere, Jamie? It seems like you could have gone anywhere you wanted.”
“Pete always preferred me to stay in his own castle,” she said. Now Jamie was growing resentful. If Dan was going to keep his answers short, then so was she. Two could play that game.
Still nothing from Dan. Jamie and Linc’s effort at drawing him out had only made him more sullen. He had fairly growled that he would like soon to be in Jacksonville and out of that car. So, but for the most excruciating small talk between Jamie and Linc, the rest of the drive until they stopped for a lunch break was passed in silence. They felt they had to be cautious of everything they said, tread carefully around the eggshells which were Dan’s temper.
The low point came at lunch time when they stopped at a McDonald’s. Dan mumbled some reason why he would be eating by himself outdoors instead of inside with Jamie and Linc where it was cool.
Dan knew he was behaving badly, and that made him angry with himself. Seeing the current temperature--91 degrees--being blinked from a sign on top of the bank across the road wasn’t punishment enough for Dan; no, in order to do his full penance for his bad behavior, he would augment that heat by having his lunch while seated in the broiling sun, atop the cable barrier between the parking lot and the building. He wondered why he always behaved the wrong way. His closing down and not speaking to the others was his confused way of punishing himself for his unacceptable behavior.
But for his friendship with Linc, Dan had always been a loner. He and Linc had somehow always fit together and always would. They complemented each other very well and shared a similar sense of humor, a sense of humor often amounting to not much more than the two of them tormenting one another--good-naturedly, of course.
The bedrock of their relationship consisted of two things. First, Dan was the only person who consistently made Linc feel good about himself: Where Linc’s parents might be disappointed in Linc’s not wanting to, say, attend his own graduation ceremony, Dan wouldn’t give it a second thought, because in Dan’s eyes, Linc could do no wrong, nor would he ever even consider it. The second component of the basis of their friendship was that Linc was the only person who ever made Dan feel loved. Dan’s third and most misunderstood safety valve was silence. He shrouded himself in silence whenever he felt himself to be particularly worthless or rejected.
By no means was Daniel Blair despised by the other youngsters with whom he came in contact. In fact, he had a lot of friends besides Linc. But Dan considered these others as merely school friends, neighborhood friends--nothing approaching the full time variety of friend Linc was to him (“acquaintances,” Dan called them).
Dan was always welcomed and enjoyed by the children at, for instance, Molly’s; but that was the extent of it; there was no “Let’s go do this, Dan,” or “Let’s go do that, Dan.” Indeed, to Dan, it seemed that those kinds of friendships were reserved for others. And, as far as having friends went, Linc was plenty for Dan. Dan wouldn’t trade his friendship with Linc for any dozen lesser ones; that’s why he didn’t try to cultivate any others.
Dan’s problem was that he was socially inept. He didn’t know how to conduct himself in certain situations with people other than Linc. He couldn’t possibly have acquired those social skills, because he had rarely been in a position to observe them without Linc nearby to insulate him from them. And whatever Dan did do or didn’t do was all right with Linc.
When he found himself in the company of his peers, Dan tried to compensate for his lack of social polish by exuding much bravado (mostly verbal) and by being a bit louder than everybody else. These were his safety valves; they made him feel he at least existed when he found himself being rejected--or at least not as warmly accepted by his peers as he would like to be.
On Dan’s first day of junior high school he discovered that he and Linc had different lunch hours. Now since eating lunch didn’t require a full hour, a good thirty minutes were left each day after lunch, and the children were allowed to amuse themselves on the playground or in the gym for that remaining thirty minutes. But what was someone like Dan to do with his thirty minutes?
He walked (that first day) past a noisy group of boys playing basketball. They were one player short. Instead of offering, as most other red-blooded boys his age might, to fill the vacant spot on the team, Dan just kept on walking. He squatted against a wall and watched them play. He had made sure to situate himself far enough away from the action that it would never occur to the other boys to call him over to join them.
The games were hard fought. Some of the boys, naturally, had more talent than some of the others, but none of them exceeded the others where heart and drive and a passion for the game were concerned. Dan noticed the way a shorter player could make up for his lack of stature by sticking a well-placed hand in the face of a taller boy setting to make a shot. And a lack of brawn in one player could be enhanced by him sending a bony, probing elbow into the ribs of a mightier opponent. Dan liked the way the game could sometimes turn brutal--like when two boys would scramble after, and then wrestle for, a loose ball, both of them oblivious to the harsh asphalt. He saw how the boy who came up with the ball would smile--not because he had bested the other boy, but because he could now dribble that ball, or pass it, or take a shot at the netless goal, any number of things. Whoever had that ball was king of the hill until he got rid of it or had it taken away from him. Dan didn’t fail to notice any of these finer points of the game; still, he had no desire to take part. He listened to the thump of the ball against the asphalt; he learned to hate that sound. Where was Linc? He needed Linc. He could feel himself shrinking. He buried his face in his hands. It was going to be a long trimester.
“Well, that was a horrible experience,” Jamie said to Linc over their lunch. “What’s wrong with Dan?”
“Dan is upset that you called Pete,” Linc replied simply, looking away from her.
“I thought that was it.”
“Listen, don’t worry about it; Dan’s just like this sometimes.”
“Dan’s just different, that’s all. But don’t get him wrong, Jamie--he likes you.”
“You could’ve fooled me,” she said. She tried to appear completely indifferent to whether or not Dan had feelings for her. But she couldn’t fool Linc so easily; he said:
“Oh, come on, Jamie.”
She looked at him quizzically. She didn’t understand.
“You don’t know this, but he saved a potato for you from his dinner last night. He wanted you to have it because he thought it might taste good to you on your upset stomach.”
“Did he really?”
“He did. And Dan doesn’t go around doing little things like that for anybody--well, except for me, sometimes, he doesn’t. You’ve seen him with his food, Jamie: he’s a glutton.” (Jamie laughed when Linc said that, for she knew it was true.) “And for him to give up part of his dinner for you is like someone else cutting their arm off for you.”
“But what makes him get this way? This isn’t the first time. He pulled the same thing when we went for our walk the other night.” She took a small bite of her hamburger.
“What happened?” asked Linc, knowing that if he had all the pieces of the puzzle, and that if it was a puzzle of Dan, he could most likely fit them together.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He just got quiet all at once.”
“No . . . I mean, what had just been said? You must have hurt his feelings, or else he must have thought he had hurt yours.”
“You’re right, Linc. I had just told him I wasn’t hungry because my stomach was feeling funny.”
“That boy-girl funny?”
She thought Linc was doing it again, reading her mind. She said, “Well, yes. But he twisted it all around into me saying he made me sick.”
“That’s it then.”
“That’s just how Dan is--quiet, sometimes. And you’ll never know why, either, because he won’t tell you straight out like any normal person would. . . . Tell me, Jamie, do you like him?”
Without a flicker of hesitation she told him she did.
“I’m glad you do. And I think that makes him about the luckiest guy in the world. Just please don’t give up on him over one of his little fits.”
“I’m not giving up on him, Linc. I’ve seen that other side of Dan, that generous side, like him saving me his potato. I feel like he takes special care of me; I feel like you do, too, Linc. You two make me feel so . . . I don’t know . . . important, I guess.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” said Linc. “Again though, don’t give up on Dan. I’ll let you in on a little secret. People don’t know it, but Dan’s a diamond in the rough. Make no mistake, though, he needs lots of polishing.” Linc said that last line as a joke, but when he heard himself say it, he added softly: “Lots and lots of polishing,” for he knew it was true.
Jamie reassured him she wouldn’t give up on Dan, and asked how could she, knowing he had already cut off his arm for her, so to speak.
Linc said, “Dan is such a great guy, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who realizes it. Sometimes it makes me feel like I could die. The problem is that he’s never had enough love coming in his direction. He’s never had love coming from all four corners.”
She asked Linc what he meant by that.
Linc said, “I’m talking about love from his family, from his friends, from a special girl, and from himself, mostly. All four corners.” He looked away from her when he mentioned the part about a ‘special girl.’
“You sound like you’ve given it a lot of thought, Linc.”
He didn’t reply. He took a bite out of his hamburger and looked out the window to see if he could see Dan. Jamie followed his gaze. They saw nothing but the reflections off car windshields, that and the stark sign blinking the temperature--92 degrees and rising.
Jamie said, “What about his family?”
“Oh, his parents are good people and love him well enough, but they’ve never had time to give him all the attention that he needs--he’s a doctor, she’s a nurse--you know how it goes.
“When he was a little kid and would come home from school, the only person ever there to meet him was their old housekeeper.”
Then Linc went on to tell her about another incident that occurred when the boys were nine years old. It was summer and the boys were at Dan’s house, watching a sequence of cartoons they both enjoyed, when, much to their surprise, because it had never happened before, Dan’s father came home in the middle of the day. He said he had come to have a coffee break with Dan, and then he ordered their housekeeper to brew up a short pot of coffee for the Blair men and Linc, who declined the offer. When the coffee was ready, Mr. Blair poured himself and Dan a cup of it. He poured Dan’s into a mug he had just been given for filling his gas tank at a service station running a promotion near the hospital where he worked. On the outside of the cup were pictures of the helmets of all twenty-six pro football teams, a colorful array Dan was unable to take his eyes off. Though it was only a cheap, plastic cup, Dan thought it was something special because his father had given it to him. They drank their coffee--Mr. Blair’s black, Dan’s with plenty of milk and sugar. They didn’t say much, sitting there across from each other, but then they never did find much to say to one another; still, Dan enjoyed their coffee break immensely. When Mr. Blair was finished, he went back to the hospital, leaving Dan to the care of the housekeeper and Linc.
The next day, when the cartoon that Mr. Blair had interrupted the previous day came on, Dan marched into the kitchen, instructed the housekeeper to see “how quick” she could make a short pot of coffee, and then clamored on top of a stool and took his new cup down from the cabinet. Then he sat down and waited for his father to arrive for their coffee break. Then he waited some more. His father never showed up. The housekeeper was wise and had told Dan, “Maybe we should wait until your daddy gets here,” because she knew their coffee break had probably been a one-time thing. Dan then returned to the living room and sat down with Linc, who knew what happened, because he would have heard if Mr. Blair had come home, and because Dan was breathing heavily the way he always did when he was mad and hurt at the same time.
When Linc had finished relating his story to Jamie, he said, “It’s been something like that all his life.”
“That’s so sad,” said Jamie.
“That’s why, ever since back then when we were little, I’ve made it my business to make sure he’s not alone so much.”
“You’re a good friend to have, Linc.”
“I sure am. So is Dan.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but he told me about when you two were little and you fell off his neighbor’s roof.”
“Yeah. That broke my leg.”
“He told me he’s always felt bad about that day.”
“Because he ran inside to hide instead of holding the ladder for you.”
“Did he run inside the house?” Linc asked. He laughed.
“He said he did.”
“Well, it’s news to me. I never knew that.” He laughed again, shaking his head. “That’s pretty funny. That’s pure Dan Blair. I would’ve thought he would’ve thought that was funny, too.”
“Well, he sure thinks you know about it.”
“Nope, I never did. Anyway, if I didn’t need him holding the ladder when I went up, then I sure didn’t need it when I came down.”
“He said he’s always been bothered by his not holding it for you.”
“That’s stupid; I didn’t ask him to hold it. Dan would never think of doing something like that” [holding a ladder for someone] “on his own.
“What did I care anyway?” Linc continued. “My leg was broken; I wasn’t concerned about where he was or where he wasn’t. It wasn’t a big deal; his old neighbor lady called an ambulance. I didn’t even get to miss any school. The only thing I remember that bugged me about the whole deal was that the guy driving the ambulance didn’t run his siren for me.”
“Dan thought that lady was a witch,” said Jamie, thinking she might be telling Linc something he didn’t know.
“Tell me about it. Dan thinks most older people are a little spooky. He’s never trusted them very much.”
“That all happened right after the two of you met, didn’t it?”
“That’s right. We met the Monday before that weekend. Kindergarten. On that first day, the teacher asked us all to draw a picture of our best friend. I thought it was stupid--we were only in kindergarten, for Christ’s sake--nobody knew anybody. I remember all of us children on the floor, flat on our bellies, drawing our best friend.
“After a few minutes the teacher told us to stop drawing. She walked over to Dan. He stood up and handed her his drawing. I remember he stood there dusting off his clothes while she looked at his little picture. She asked him, Who is this you’ve drawn? That’s when Dan walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said, It’s this nice boy.
“Dan didn’t know me from Adam. What he said had a huge effect on me. Jamie, it still kills me whenever I think of that day. If I ever get mad at Dan, I just remember that day, and then I can’t stay mad any longer. It’s probably saved his life about a million times.
“Anyway, it was his smile that really got to me. It was the damnedest smile I’ve ever seen. I’ll bet you’ve seen it, too, Jamie. . . . Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Jamie looked down at her tray of food and was silent for a moment. She said, “I think I do, Linc. His mouth smiles at you, but his eyes look like his heart might break.”
Smart girl, thought Linc. He said, “That’s the one. I used to see that smile all the time, but now I haven’t seen it for years. I know it sounds stupid for someone our age to talk about years, but I’ll bet I haven’t seen it since junior high. But I finally saw it again yesterday, Jamie. Do you know when?”
She was looking at Linc, but didn’t reply.
Linc said, “I saw it when he was watching you sleep--him hushing me every two seconds just so he could hear the sound of your breathing.” Linc was talking a lot. He took a sip of his soda and swirled it around in his mouth before swallowing. Then he resumed: “Do you know what that smile of his is saying, Jamie?”
She shook her head.
Linc said, “It’s saying I’ll be your friend forever if you’ll be one of mine for just a little while.”
Jamie bowed her head, was silent for a moment, and said, “That doesn’t sound like anything Dan would ever say, Linc.” She sniffed.
“Dan? Dan doesn’t have to say anything to me, Jamie: I know Dan Blair better than I know myself. I thought Dan had quit, given up. He got it in his head a long time ago that I’m the only person who likes him in the whole world. He has no idea that all the other kids in school are crazy about him, because he shut down so long ago and won’t allow anyone else to get close to him. He calls the other kids his ‘acquaintances’; sometimes I think I’ll strangle him if I ever hear that word again. He always--” He wanted to say more, but he couldn’t find the words.
Jamie waited until she was sure he had finished speaking, and then she whispered, “Who did you draw?”
“Me? I didn’t draw anybody. I just drew a boy as best as I could; I didn’t have anybody in mind, though. But when the teacher asked me who it was, naturally, I said it was Dan; I didn’t know his name; I just pointed to him; he was standing right there.
“Anyway, Dan looked at my picture. He told the teacher he had seen me working very hard on it, but that it didn’t much look like him, because he was a taller boy and prettier than I had drawn. You see, Jamie, he was already being Dan even way back then. I’ve even kept that stupid picture I drew for all these years.”
“That’s the nicest story, Linc.”
“I don’t know about nice anymore, Jamie. Lately I don’t know much of anything. The only things I know lately are the things I’ll never forget.”
Jamie reflected on what Linc had said. She asked him what Dan had done with the picture he had drawn of him. She could envision unsentimental Dan depositing it in the nearest wastebasket, and then Linc salvaging it from the trash, probably holding on to it forever.
“I don’t know,” Linc said distractedly. “Listen, don’t you go telling Dan about any of this. He’d make me feel like an idiot about it if he ever heard.”
“I promise I won’t say a word.” She laughed to herself about how the two boys always made a point of telling her she mustn’t reveal to the other one what one said about the other. She supposed it was some code boys live by. She was glad they trusted her enough to confide in her. “But tell me,” she resumed, “seeing how you know Mr. Dan Blair so well, what do I have to do to smooth things over with him?”
Linc laughed. “Don’t do anything,” he said. “This crap always blows over in its own time. And when it does, as usual, there’ll be no shutting him up. See, if I know Dan, I figure he thinks he values his friendship for you more than you value your friendship for him. That’s why you don’t have to do anything; he’ll probably make the first move by coming to you. You just give it a little time and see if I’m not right.”
They finished their lunch and then went to look for Dan. They found him watching children sliding into a sandbox in the play area outside the restaurant. He was all smiles, encouraging the children in their fun, placing a steadying hand on the shoulders of the younger children, the clumsier-looking ones, as they negotiated the short ladder. But when he noticed Linc and Jamie approaching, he lowered his brow and resumed his standoffish air, his self-flagellation. Before he left the children, he told them they slid “like a bunch of old ladies.”
“You get enough to eat, Danny?” asked Linc.
“Yessss,” hissed Dan.
They went over to the car and got inside it. Linc didn’t take his own advice about not doing anything to get Dan out of his funk. He said, “It won’t be long now, Danny.”
“What won’t be long?” grumbled Dan, as if the least effort at conversation were a chore to him.
“Why, Jacksonville, Danny; the ocean, son. Now there are only two things you need to know, Daniel.”
“Just two things, Daniel; two things only.”
“Christ, Linc--what!” snapped Dan.
“One of these things, we’ll have; and the other, we won’t have.”
Linc said, “What will we have? you ask. Time, Daniel. And what will we not have? you ask. We will not have a care in the world.
“Just think, Daniel,” Linc continued, “we can sit on that beach all day if we want to.”
Dan still wouldn’t respond to his friend. Linc let several miles roll past. He then asked Jamie what she wanted to do first once they got to Jacksonville. She said that since she had never been swimming in the ocean, that that was what she would like to do first. Even considering the difficulty with Dan, Jamie was unable to contain the excitement and sheer anticipation in her voice. The ocean held that much wonder for her. It gave her a strange comfort, as they drove along, to know the sea was never far beyond the southern horizon, and she often caught herself gazing in that direction, her eyes never resting on anything, just being watchful. The essence of the ocean had been fixed in her nostrils since Pensacola. She had witnessed its might rocking big, clumsy boats like so much driftwood, and now she was ready for it to assault the rest of her senses, for she was yet to taste it, to feel its waves wet her--only slowly at first, only around her ankles, but then, as she waded in farther and farther, to have those waves sop her completely. Oh, and to hear it, those plopping sounds she was certain must be heard hard by the edge of the water.
“Ah, yes, swimming in the ocean,” said Linc. “Did you have the foresight to bring along your bikini, Jamie?”
“Well, it’s not a bikini,” she said innocently, “but it’s pretty and new.”
“I’ll bet it’s real pretty,” Linc said archly, leering back at her, teasing her.
“You keep your mind on the road, Linc,” said Dan.
Jamie thought: Thank goodness! He speaks!
A little farther down the road Dan said, “I think it wouldn’t be too bad just walking down the beach and looking for shells and stuff.”
“Danny, there’ll be shells all over the place!” said Linc. “Hey--is anybody just dying to camp on the beach?”
Jamie said she definitely wasn’t.
Linc said, “Then why don’t we look for a room? What do you say, Danny?”
“Fine with me,” said Dan. “I don’t want to stay in that crummy tent.”
Linc said that settled things: they would find another motel.
Jamie said she hoped they could find a place near the water, and that everything wasn’t already booked up. She knew a lot of people would have already reserved accommodations.
“Well,” said Linc, “if everything is booked up, we’ve still got that trusty ol’ tent.”
“Damn, though, Linc,” said Dan, “let’s only use that for emergencies, like if all of damn Florida blows away.”
Linc was only kidding them. He had grown used to sleeping in motel beds, and he wasn’t about to give up that luxury and sleep in a tent. He assured them they needn’t worry. He promised to find them something near the water.
Dan didn’t have much more to say after that exchange. There was always a short period until
he felt completely welcomed back by people to whom he had been giving the silent treatment. But
the rest of the final leg to Jacksonville wasn’t nearly as awkward for everyone as the first part of it
Continue . . .
All text copyright John T. 1995-Present. All rights reserved.