Funny how memory has a way of attaching to first and last things. Roger Ringham Jr. was aware from a college psych class of certain experiments, the results of which show that given a list of items to remember, people are more likely to remember items near the beginning or ending of the list. Recency and primacy effects – the terms came to him now as he watched a leafless Midwestern forest blur by the Greyhound window – and he felt very intelligent for a moment, very educated, like a real thinker. It was a pleasant sensation, and in the faint reflection granted by the bus window, he saw his expression alter from its usual furrowed frown to a smooth bemusement. The reflection also showed the profile of the woman in the seat next to his. She was a pretty young thing. He caught himself staring at her well-formed little ear. Her straight, dark hair was back in a high pony-tail, exposing the wispy hairs at the pale nape of her neck…
Roger Jr. closed his eyes and gave his head a quick shake. She would catch him looking and think him a lecher. He cast his eyes downward and his frown returned. What had he just been thinking of? Recency and primacy… Ah yes, the last thing his uncle had said.
Uncle Dale – the eldest of Roger Jr.’s mother’s three brothers – had been a constant presence in Roger Jr.’s life for nearly twenty years. Dale’s wife had died around the same time as Roger Jr.’s father, a few months after, and he had worn the same black suit for months after moving from the city back into his smalltown childhood home. At that time, the Uttley matriarch had still been alive. Roger Jr.’s mother’s mother. Roger remembered the old woman standing beside the staircase as Dale carried in the few boxes of possessions he’d brought with him in his compact grey foreign sedan. Had she been tall, or had Roger Jr. just been short? He remembered her posture as she sat at head of the dinner table, how her shoulders seemed never to touch the wooden chairback.
“Thanks for having me Mama,” Uncle Dale had said that first night at dinner. “It’s just for a while.”
“We’ll keep you as long as you’ll let us,” Roger Jr. remembered his grandmother saying. He’d wondered at the time who was doing a favor for whom.
His grandmother had a gracious way of making it seem as though people were always putting themselves out for her benefit, even when the truth of the matter was quite the reverse.
“Thank you,” she’d tell Roger Jr., “for being my little taste-tester,” as she fed him cookies still hot from the oven.
But there had been talk of losing the house, to do with his father’s passing. So maybe it was Uncle Dale doing the favor. He’d left his job in the city for a position at one of Roger Jr’s town’s three banks, the newest one with the bright blue sign. The vice president of the bank had been a high school friend of Uncle Dale’s. Uncle Dale called him Davey.
At work, Uncle Dale wore a blue suit. When he got home in the evening, he changed into his black suit. It was almost half a year before Roger Jr. saw him in any clothes other than those.
Roger Jr.’s mother worked too, at the IGA grocery. She’d been a cashier there as long as he could remember. Roger Jr. liked seeing her at work, so perky and brisk. He was always looking for an excuse to go down there while she was on shift. Just to buy a pack of Big Red gum, often as not. Or some RC Cola for his grandmother. My liquid candy, she called it.
In the months that followed Uncle Dale’s arrival, there was no more hand-wringing about the house, and Roger Jr.’s mother put on a more cheerful face for her brother’s sake. More like her work-self.
“Davey’s really riding me, Linda” Uncle Dale would say, and Roger Jr.’s mother would laugh and shush him.
It was good to hear her laugh again.
The young woman in the seat next to Roger Jr.’s began to snore softly. Relieved, he lifted his eyes from his new Sears hiking boots and cast his gaze back at and out the window. Trees, still. Hoosier National Forest, must be. Back home he’d seen in the atlas at the library that the interstate ran right through it. Had to have been a job of work, cutting that swath through the old growth forest.
Recency and primacy: the first and last things Uncle Dale had said to him. The first he could remember his uncle speaking directly to him had been after dinner the night he’d moved in. There must have been other times before then, on Christmas when he’d brought his wife down from the city. But the first Roger Jr. could remember was Uncle Dale pausing to speak to him before mounting the stairs to go up to bed in the attic suite. Roger Jr. had been sitting cross-legged in front of the television.
“Roger,” Uncle Dale had said in a formal way, and twelve-year-old Roger Jr. had dragged his eyes off of the tv to look up at him. “Your father was a good man. A hardworking man and a real thinker…” Uncle Dale had paused as though he might say more, had cleared his throat softly, but then had just sighed and climbed up to bed. His footfalls were quieter than Roger Jr.’s father’s had been. And slower.
And then last night, much the same scene – Roger Jr. on the floor watching the tv with a bowl of chips in his lap, Uncle Dale, now grey and somewhat stooped, passing through the room and pausing at the foot of the stairs, one hand on the bannister.
“That’s a dim mirror you’re shaving at, boy,” Uncle Dale had said.
What in the world had the old man meant?
He was getting old and maybe a little bit crazy, but not so old or crazy that he’d actually mistake the bowl of chips for a shaving kit or the tv for a mirror. No, he’d meant something by it. Something deep. Uncle Dale was not much for giving advice, but every once in a while, he would make an observation intended to make you stop and think. These sayings or allusions usually seemed to come out of nowhere – unprompted, unprovoked. And like jokes or riddles, they were hard to remember afterward. Roger Jr. knew that there had been many over the years, but aside from this last one, he could recall only one or two.
One hardly counted, because it had been a response to a question Roger Jr. had asked. A couple of years before, on a day when Roger Jr. had been thinking of his father a good deal for some reason, he’d asked Uncle Dale what Roger Senior had been like as a boy.
“Oh,” Uncle Dale had said, “he was always hard-working. Always had some kind of job going. Yard work, paper route… even sold greeting cards and stationery door-to-door. And candy.”
“He did?” Nobody had ever mentioned that detail to Roger Jr.; he’d already heard about the odd jobs and newspapers, already imagined his father as a boy, pushing a lawnmower or riding a bike with baskets full of newspapers. He’d tried a paper route himself once, but had found it mortifying to do collections – asking people for money and then waiting in awkward silence while they wrote him checks or, worse, dug in their wallets or purses for cash. And yet his father had gone door-to-door, wringing his neighbors for all they were worth.
“He sure did. Must’ve knocked on every door in Burdoo. Everybody knew him by name. All over town. Me and Mikey and Stew, they just called us Uttley’s boys, if they knew us at all, but Roger they knew. Even the black folks. Even then. Here comes Roger Ringham, they’d say. What’s he selling today?”
Roger Jr. was flabbergasted. How could he and his father be so different? He remembered vividly how he had blushed and stammered, asking people for newspaper money.
“What did he do with all the money he earned?”
Uncle Dale smiled.
“Well,” he said, “as the poet put it, ‘thereby hangs a tale.’”
“Let me put it this way. From an early age, your father had a well-developed sense of cause and effect. He could see how one thing led to another, and could line things up in his mind and see what had to be done in order for another thing to become possible. You follow me?”
“Ok, well, another thing about Roger was that he was far-sighted. He wasn’t just looking for the next good time like the rest of us when we were ten years old, trying to scrounge up the cash to go to the movies or to get some baseball cards or comic books. He had his eyes on bigger prizes.”
“Like your mother. And you.”
“At ten years old?”
“He was a calculating man, your father. The point is that he could see, even as a ten-year-old he could see, that right in the middle of all the chains of cause and effect leading to the things he wanted – college, a good job, a wife, kids – on the way to all of those things was… an automobile.”
“Oh, okay, so…”
“So he worked his ass off and scrimped and saved every nickel and when the time came, he had just enough to put together his first truck.”
“Right. Well, it was kind of a mutt, really, that truck. He built it out of used parts from all over town, you know. But that’s what he called it. The Ford.”
There was a silence as both men lapsed into thought. Roger Jr. considered the determination it had taken his father to save up enough money over the course of six or seven years to build himself an automobile. The only thing in Roger Jr.’s life that compared was the perseverance it had taken for him to finish college. He held a bachelor’s degree in general studies, having changed his major several times and never quite decided on any one field. Which was the same reason he hadn’t managed to embark on a career after graduation: he just hadn’t been able to pick one. He’d moved back in with his family and taken up part-time work at the Burdoo Inn out by the highway. With no rent to pay, his savings had grown large enough to buy a used car, but when he looked at the lot at the dealership, he thought, how do I know which one to choose? So he continued to share his mother’s old coupe. He’d never had a real girlfriend. Compared to his father, he was an abject failure.
As if sensing his thought, Uncle Dale chose that moment to impart his bit of wisdom:
“Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life.”
It wasn’t long after that that Roger Jr. had begun planning the trip he had just this morning undertaken. He looked down at his boots, and his forehead smoothed out again. The boots had been his first real purchase for the trip. He remembered deciding he would need them, and shopping different brands and styles before he chose these. Cause and effect. Links in the chain.
The other heavy observation he could recall Uncle Dale making was one he’d been at first completely baffled by but which he had made the effort to track down and attempt to understand. This had involved several searches on the computer at work and the checking out of one book from the library: more scholarly footwork than he’d done since college.
Apropos of nothing, out of thin air one Saturday about a year ago, when the two of them were walking home from dropping in on Roger Jr’s mother at the IGA, Uncle Dale had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Roger,” he’d said, “now that your grandmother’s gone, the elephant in the room is wearing the emperor’s new clothes.”
He didn’t seem to expect a response from Roger Jr., which was good, because the younger man was utterly baffled. He vaguely recalled the expression ‘elephant in the room’ but couldn’t place it and suspected it had to do with politics. As for the ’emperor’s new clothes’ he could hear in his mind some female musician from the 80’s or 90’s singing it over and over, but he hadn’t known what it meant then and didn’t now. She’d been bald, that musician, like Veeger in the first Star Trek movie. Roger Jr. loved that movie.
Grandmother Uttley had been gone almost five years. Why Uncle Dale had chosen to remember her that day, and in such a cryptic way, was beyond him.
The old man had started walking again, Roger Jr. falling into step alongside him.
As they’d walked, his uncle had patted him firmly on the shoulder.
“The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, my boy,” he’d said as if by way of apology; “to thine ownself be true.”
Roger Jr. had let some of Uncle Dale’s advice and adages go un-understood over the years, pearls before swine, so to speak, with himself as the heedless pig… but this one had seemed important somehow, and he’d resolved to do his best to understand it.
The internet search engine had told him that the elephant in the room referred to an unacknowledged issue – something obvious but pointedly ignored. He suspected this meant his father’s absence/presence and Uncle Dale’s wife’s too.
He remembered the apologetic pat on the back, something about the wind in his sails, and ‘to thine ownself be true.’ With further searching he found that these lines were from Hamlet, from a part where a father gives his son advice before a trip. Confusingly, the son is the one who kills Hamlet in the end, even as he dies himself from the same poison. Who was Roger Jr. in all this? Hamlet, or the one who kills Hamlet? And did Uncle Dale know about the trip Roger Jr. was planning? He hadn’t told anyone, even his mother. The boots were in the back of his closet, and he hadn’t yet ordered the backpack.
As for the emperor’s new clothes, his searches led him to a very old book of fairy tales, a copy of which he was surprised to find in Burdoo’s little library. He checked it out and read the one called The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the story, some tricky tailors tell a king they’re giving him a suit of clothes that can’t be seen by people who are incompetent or idiotic. The king can’t see the clothing, but he pretends he can. He goes out in public in his new suit and everybody pretends it’s a fine outfit except one simple, honest boy who blurts out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Roger Jr. thought he understood the story. When combined with ‘the elephant in the room’ it seemed to mean that the ignored issue was exposed, but everybody pretended it wasn’t. And maybe he was the boy pointing out the truth. Not that he ever made mention of Uncle Dale’s wife, or brought up his father much. But just his presence, his being there, in the house. And he was sort of like his father, his mother told him. The way he talked, his laugh, his considerable size: broad shoulders and big hands. He had to remind Uncle Dale and his mother of Roger Senior from time to time, being so similar, in those ways at least.
He was fatter than his father had been. Not obese but definitely overweight. He didn’t get any exercise at all really, just sitting on a stool behind the front desk of the Burdoo Inn and watching a lot of tv at home. Before college, he’d liked to read novels – especially science fiction and fantasy – so he’d spent much of his youth with a book in his hand, but after taking several courses where a lot of reading was mandatory, he’d pretty much lost his taste for it. It seemed like work these days.
The woman in the seat next to Roger Jr. gave out a ferocious snort and jerked awake.
“Oh my god!” she cried.
“What?” asked Roger Jr., startled. He turned his big body toward her and saw that she was blinking vigorously. She squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment, took a deep breath, opened them and craned her neck to look at him.
“What’s that?” she said, as if Roger Jr. had just said something she’d missed.
“Are you… okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” She laughed a shaky little three-syllable laugh.
“Okay,” said Roger Jr., turning his shoulders back square with the seat in front of him and looking at his boots.
“It’s just, I dreamed I was somewhere else.” She reached down between the legs of her jeans, hauled up a large, colorful handbag, and started rummaging around in it.
“Ah,” said Roger Jr.
“It was so. Real. And then I woke up here and it was like this was the dream, you know?”
She fished a compact out of the bag and flipped it open with a motion that reminded Roger Jr. of Captain Kirk activating his communicator. Peering into the little round mirror in the lid of the compact, she proceeded to apply makeup to one cheek, then the other.
“It’s like, oh my god, where am I? I’m nowhere. I’m on a bus. Where am I going? I don’t know.”
“Where are you going?” asked Roger Jr.
“Huh?” She closed the compact and dropped it back into her bag. Then she put both of her hands behind her head to pull out the pony-tail.
“Where are you going?” repeated Roger Jr., looking at the window.
“Oh, uh. Where am I going. West. I’m going out west. Where’s the next stop?”
“Oh. Indiana. Evansville, Indiana.”
After fussing with her hair a bit, she was in her bag again, looking for something.
“Indiaaana,” she said, as if tasting the name. “Nope. Not far west enough. What’s after that?”
“Well,” said Roger Jr., “different buses go different places. I’m going on to St. Louis. Missouri. And then…”
In the window reflection, Roger Jr. could see that she had pulled something out of her bag, but he couldn’t tell what it was. He turned to look. It was a cell phone. She held it up in front of herself and snapped a picture.
“And then?” she asked.
“Uh,” he said, “Albuquerque eventually.”
“Albuquerque,” she said, savoring it. She pressed a few buttons on the phone, then settled back into her seat.
“Albuquerque,” Roger Jr. heard the young woman say to the man at the ticketing counter in Evansville.
How bizarre, he thought, that her choice of a destination was based on a brief conversation with a total stranger.
It occurred to him that he was having an impact on the world in a way that he never would have back in Burdoo. Having set himself in motion, he was now influencing the course of others. He imagined a pool table, his shot all lined up, target: Albuquerque. Smoothly, he eased the stick back and then forward, striking the white cue ball. And as the white ball collided with his ball and knocked it toward Albuquerque, another ball, the young woman’s ball, got caught up in the action, headed now in the same direction.
Roger Jr. was sitting in a red plastic seat along the wall of the little depot, with his big blue backpack on the seat next to him. There weren’t many open seats left, though, he noticed, so he hoisted the backpack up off the seat and placed it on the floor between his legs.
Ticket in hand, the young woman turned and came to sit beside him. She didn’t seem to have any luggage except her handbag, from which she now extracted her cell phone. She crossed her legs at the knee and held the phone on top of her leg, bending over it to squint at the small screen.
“Over half a million people in Albuquerque,” she said presently, without looking up.
“Yep,” said Roger Jr., “and lots more if you count the whole metropolitan area. Rio Rancho and all.”
The young woman looked up from her phone and focused her attention on Roger Jr. for the first time. His new, outdoorsy clothing, his pack, his smallish glasses and perpetual frown.
“You on vacation?” She asked him.
Roger Jr. shook his head.
“I’m kind of… making a fresh start.” he said.
“Yeah? Me too. A fresh start in Albuquerque.” She looked back at her phone, then over at him again. “I’m Monica,” she added.
“Roger,” he replied. “Roger Ringham Jr.”
“Well, Mr. Roger Ringham, Jr… I don’t suppose you have a cigarette do you?”
“I do, actually. It’s menthol, though.”
From the zipper pocket in the top of his backpack, Roger Jr. produced a fresh hardpack of Newports. He handed the pack to Monica, who gave it several firm slaps against her palm before tearing off the cellophane, popping open the top and ripping out the bit of foil that covered the cigarettes.
“C’mon,” she said, standing.
Roger Jr. got to his feet and pulled on his backpack. He followed Monica out the front door of the depot. The straps of the backpack felt good on his shoulders, and his flannel was warm against the morning chill. The next bus – to St. Louis – didn’t leave for another half hour.
Monica took a cigarette and handed him the pack. She let it dangle from her lips unlit while she rooted around in her bag.
Roger Jr. waited until she had found what she was looking for – a miniature Bic lighter, black – then took a cigarette for himself and put the pack into the front pocket of his flannel.
Monica lit her cigarette and handed him the little black lighter. He lit his and passed the lighter back to her. She dropped it into her bag.
“Roger,” she said, “You seem like a man with a plan.”
Roger Jr. didn’t know what to say to that, so he just dragged on his cigarette and blew the smoke out through his nose. He’d smoked quite a bit in college, but not much since, so the cigarette seemed strong to him.
“You got a place to stay lined up already? Out in Albuquerque?” asked Monica.
“Pretty much,” he nodded. “I found a few apartments online. I just need to look at them in person.”
“That’s cool,” she said. “You going to rent a car once we get there?”
“I think you need a credit card for that,” said Roger Jr.
“Don’t you have a credit card?”
He shook his head.
“My god,” she said, “that’s all I’ve got.”
They smoked for a minute.
“How about a job?” she asked. “What do you do?”
“Well, I’ve been working at a motel, front desk, so I figure I’ll try to find a job doing that to start with. Just to pay the rent. Then see what else there is – maybe some entry-level corporate job. Or I might go back to school. Grad school. If I can get in. The University of New Mexico is a good school.”
“I figured you for a reader,” she said. “I like books too. I didn’t finish college yet, though. I was doing a degree… English and Psych… but I kind of dropped out. Long story. Maybe I’ll check out the University of New Mexico too – see if I can transfer my credits…”
Roger Jr. thought again of the game of pool – his ball knocking hers in the direction of college…
“Bum a smoke?” A grimy-looking young man with a couple of days worth of beard had come down the sidewalk and stopped next to them. He wore an open jean-jacket over a hooded sweatshirt.
Roger Jr. produced the pack from his flannel, took one out and handed it to the man.
“Much obliged.” The young man tucked the cigarette behind his ear.
“Y’all want a dime-bag?” he asked. “Good bud.”
“No thanks,” said Roger Jr.
Monica flipped her cigarette into the street and went back into the depot.
Roger Jr. took a final drag, walked to the edge of the sidewalk, and dropped his cigarette.
“You sure? It’s good. Here, check it out.” The young man pulled a wrinkled baggie from the front pocket of his hoodie.
“No thanks,” Roger Jr. said again, and went into the depot.
Monica was nowhere to be seen. Must be in the bathroom, thought Roger Jr.
He parked his pack and sat, thinking again of Uncle Dale’s last words to him.
“That’s a dim mirror you’re shaving at, boy.”
He’d searched for ‘dim mirror’ in Shakespeare and found a passage from a poem called The Rape of Lucrece:
Poor broken glass, I often did behold
In thy sweet semblance my old age new born;
But now that fresh fair mirror, dim and old,
Shows me a bare-boned death by time out-worn
The commentary accompanying the passage told him that it referred to the speaker’s daughter, who had killed herself. Suicide again. But he was unconvinced that this was the passage Uncle Dale was quoting. In the poem, the girl represented the mirror. But Uncle Dale had meant the tv.
A broader search led him to a verse in the bible – 1 Corinthians 13:12 – which reads, according to the latest King James, “For now we see in a mirror dimly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” This seemed to him a more likely source, especially when he looked at the line before it, which goes, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Watching tv was no way to see the world. Time to grow up and get out and see it face to face.
Well, here he was, out in the world. What was he seeing? The pride and trepidation in his mother’s farewell. Strangers on the bus. The interstate plowing through the old trees of the national forrest. Monica… The way in which his chosen course of action was impacting hers.
As if on cue, she appeared and slid into the seat next to his, her big handbag on her lap.
“Y’all wanna buy a dahm-bag?” she growled.
Roger Jr. laughed – a big, robust chortle – his father’s laugh.