The Iron Ranger (3rd Place, Lake Superior Writers 2011 Open Genre Writing Competition)

He reached for Nancy with his right hand. He tried to rest it on her thigh. Instead, he just felt the depression in the mattress. He imagined it was warm.

He swung his sixty year old legs over the side of the bed. They were skinny and white with varicose veins. He rubbed his beard with both hands, grabbed the pack of Marlboro Lights and sparked one up.

“Time to make the donuts,” he said, as he grunted to stand up. He’d been laid off from the mine for a while, but was back to work now. Each day it was a little harder to wake up.

Thank goodness the Chinese are building, he thought as he limped to the bathroom.

Nancy used to make the coffee, but now he made it, slowly and deliberately. He put some butter and blueberry jam on his toast. She would set his cup down in front of him with a smile. It used to be the best part of his day.

***

He spent weeks by her bed next to the dripping IV bottle, five years before.

Lay off the sauce, she said. Penny’s counting on you. It’s just going to be you two.

I like beer, he said.

George, she said.

You want me to promise?

Yes.

All right then. I promise.

Thank you. Dying lady’s last request and all.

Shut up, you old hag.

She chuckled and coughed a little. They held hands.

A few days later, she died while he was down in the hospital gift shop buying her a pack of gum.

***

He got back from the mine and set his big plastic lunchbox on the table. He scooted a chair back and lit up. He looked out into the road, through the blue haze on the window. He thought he should clean it. He thought that every afternoon.

The refrigerator clicked and started humming. The smoke rose. This was when he used to crack open a can of beer.

He wandered down the hall to take a piss. A beam of the fading afternoon sun shone on the glass of one of the photos in the hall. It was a picture of his platoon when he was a Ranger in Vietnam. Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. He figured he was lucky. He was alive and, somehow, he didn’t dream. At least not about Vietnam.

He flicked on the fluorescent light and struggled to get his bladder to cooperate.

“I’m one badass Minnesotan. Goddamn right.”

Back in the kitchen, he tried to finish the Sunday paper crossword that was still sitting there. That’s when he heard the pipes. The Chevy. He flicked open his Zippo and lit another cigarette as he stepped to the window. The ridiculous 2500 HD with brush guards and blacked out wheels. The pipes. The floodlights. The thrumming bass from the absurdly loud music. It was like a giant metal phallus. Jim had a lot of nerve, still driving that thing around.

Penny had just turned thirteen when Nancy passed. Pretty good girl. George used to kid her, “You ain’t nothing special, but you’re special to me.” She liked basketball. Her grades were okay. She had friends. Afterward, she put blue streaks in her hair. Wore all black clothes. He tried talking to her. She’d look at him, but there was nothing behind her eyes.

She started hanging out with a boy in high school. They were two mopey peas in a pod. Six months before, she was walking back home with the boy after dark when the Chevy clipped her. The rear view mirror hit Penny right in the head.  The boy was untouched.

When George got there, the paramedics had her on a backboard and were lifting her into the ambulance. At the hospital, the doctor said they tried.

The night she died, he had a dream. It was Penny looking right through him and whispering she was nothing special. He woke up, sweating, and mumbled “Nancy,” as he reached for his wife and felt nobody.

They said it’s only a hit-and-run if the driver knows he hit something. Jim claimed that he never felt anything. Never heard anything. It was dark. The kids were wearing black clothes in the dark.

The cops said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him. Plus Jim was a contractor there on the Range. He probably employed thirty guys. Jobs from a big shot with a big truck. Jobs are popular on the Range.

George got a good profile view of Jim as the truck hammered down the road. Jim was glancing up and back to his lap.

Son of a bitch is texting, George thought.

Drunk. Texting. Deafened by crappy tunes. All of the above. None of the above. It didn’t matter. George blew out a long, laminar line of smoke. Hit-and-run or not, the guy had killed his daughter. And he’d never get to tell a judge Penny was a good kid.

“You gotta be shitting me.”

He felt odd. Like he was flying apart. He went to the closet. He grabbed the leather jacket with frills Nancy bought him the time they went to Sturgis. Before Penny. When he still had the old Harley. He could still hear the doppler effect from the Chevy as the noise faded toward town and Jim’s regular tavern.

***

He rested his right hand on the hood of the Chevy. It was warm.

For the first time in five years, he yanked open the door to the bar.

“Son. Of. A. Gun. How the hell are you, George?” The blonde bartender with a husky voice walked around the bar to give him a hug.

“Fine, Gracie.”

“Sorry about Penny.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s been a while. You want something to drink?”

“Not today.” Promises, promises.

George looked around. “You seen Jimmy?”

“He’s in the back. Thursdays is poker, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.” He looked right at her and smiled. “It’s good to see you, Gracie.”

“You too, Georgie.”

He walked past the pool table. Past the neon beer signs. He checked his jacket pocket as he reached for the door to the back room.

Back in the Rangers, he had a buddy who was always trying to get a laugh. At the beginning of every patrol, he’d rack in his first pistol round, make a funny face, and say the same thing.

George muttered it as he turned the knob.

“Let’s go for a walk, George.”

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About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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