Smoky Mountain Interlude
*PorchDrinking.com welcomes Hank U Henry as a featured writer. He is a story teller by nature and brings a unique perspective to the site. Welcome Hank and we hope you enjoy his musings!
I met a man in a bar one time. This was some years ago. I’ve met a lot of men and as many women in a lot of bars since then, and many of them have made lasting impressions, but lately, for whatever odd reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one particular man that I met in a mountain town some place on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
I’d been visiting some friends of mine a little ways east of Asheville and, having said my goodbyes, was driving back west through the Smokies. I hate driving, or I hate doing it for long, and I especially hate doing it for long on the highway where my mind is tugged in two directions between the soporific sliding by of the lines on the pavement and the alarming knowledge that my life is largely in the hands of strangers operating two-tons of machinery at eighty miles per hour. It’s mind-numbing and nerve-wracking and ultimately exhausting.
But that’s where I was, probably three hours into a six-hour haul, and it was getting late. I was fried. I needed a break. So I pulled off into some town I’ve forgotten the name of, took a turn at random and happened upon a bar not too far from the exit. I shambled on in.
The bar itself is pretty hazy in my mind. It was dark and a little too warm, and they had a couple TVs hanging up in opposite corners and beer. I just wanted to rest a while and it was good enough for me. I took a stool. A few minutes later I met him.
I never saw him take the perch next to mine. I guess I was held rapt in the glow of the TV overhead. But after a while, long enough for him to get a quarter of the way into his beer and me to all but finish mine, he tapped me on the shoulder, so I turned to look at him. He looked good. Not like he was particularly attractive or anything—that’s not what I mean. He was maybe a shade past sixty with a little more gut than is good for a person. He was dressed nice though, with his gray hair neatly combed, and though, like the bar we sat in, I can’t quite put a face on him after all this time, I remember it was freshly shaved, or seemed that way. He stuck out his hand.
“Bradley,” he said.
I wiped my hand, damp with condensation from the glass it had held, on my pants leg and briefly clasped his palm. I told him my name and said I was pleased to meet him, though at the time I was bone-weary so that wasn’t strictly true. A man needs manners. And if I started to turn back to the TV, well,sometimes manners only go so far.
He wanted to talk, though.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you in here before,” he said. Or something like that. I’m giving you the gist here.
“Nope,” I said. “Just passing through.”
He nodded, took a sip of his beer. “Traveling, huh? That’s fine. Young man like you ought to travel a bit, see what he can of the world. Do you good.”
“I guess so.”
“I’ve seen my share. Not all of it, of course—not as much as I’d like, even—but I’ve done my best.”
“All you can do.”
He nodded again, absently. “Never got out to Japan,” he said. “That’s one place. Africa, too. Never been to Africa.”
“Well,” I finished up my beer. “You’ve got time.”
“Let me get you another one of those.”
“Probably shouldn’t. I’ve got some driving left to do tonight.”
“One more. Least I can do. None of these other folks in here’ll listen to me ramble any more.”
I’m not sure why I agreed exactly—it was late and there was a lot of road left ahead of me. Could be Bradley reminded me just then a little of my grandfather. Both men had a certain kind of soft-spoken warmth about them, and both carried a shine in their eyes that might have been the beginning of tears, though whether happy or sad was harder to say. Or maybe I was simply too worn out to fight the man. I don’t know. A second beer appeared, and I thanked him for it.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing the Northern Lights some time,” I said.
“They’re something else, I’ll tell you that. I got up to Alaska one time.” He took another sip of the beer he’d been gentling along while we talked. “Makes you feel kind of small, standing under a sky like that. Course any old sky can do the same. Don’t need all that green flash. Just need you some stars is all.”
He stared down into those last few inches of beer and swirled them around in his glass, kicking up a thin cloud of foam.
“It’s an odd thing,” he said. “Sometimes it seems so big you just know you’ll never see half what it has to offer. But you lie on your back under the right kind of sky and you feel like you could float away and leave it all behind like nothing. And a few minutes later you might turn around and you wouldn’t even be able to pick it out from all the other little dots.”
Now I didn’t know what the hell to say to that so I just took a drink in silence and felt like a horse’s ass.
“Anyway,” he grinned. “You see why nobody in this place will talk to me.” He looked fondly around the room. “It’s okay though. Can’t blame them, really. And tonight the aliens are coming to take me away. I expect I’ll never see this place again.”
“Well,” I said. “That’s something.”
I’ll tell you the truth: I was quite proud of myself then—hell, I’m still a bit proud now—for keeping a tight grip on my composure there, not choking or making a face or anything. But if I’m honest, I expect it had more to do with Bradley than it did with me. He slipped those aliens into conversation like it was nothing, neither joke nor revelation, so I took it like it was nothing. Just two dudes shooting the breeze, that’s all.
“It was quite a shock at first, that’s true” he said. “But it’s been—what—five, six years now since they first came through on my radio. I’m mostly used to the idea by now.”
“Five or six years, huh. What’ve they been doing all that time?” I asked him.
“Oh, traveling mostly. They’re from over in Alpha Centauri, so it’s not a short trip. Takes time. But six years ago, give or take, they came in comms range. Few years after that they landed. Been seeing the sites ever since then. Collecting data and all. In secret, of course. And now they’re leaving. Seems they’ve seen enough.” He leaned back in his stool and exhaled deeply. “Can’t say the same myself, but…” He shrugged. “They asked me to tag along. What could I say?”
“Quite an opportunity, I guess. Hard to turn that down,” I said.
“Still …” I hesitated, searching for a delicate way to phrase what I was thinking, simultaneously mystified that I was having a conversation with this man, terrified of crushing his dream, and compelled to talk him out of it. “It’s like you said: it’s a long trip. I don’t know where exactly Alpha Centauri is, but I know enough to figure we’re talking about light-years. If you get on that ship…”
“Then who’s to say I’ll even live to see this planet of theirs? It’s a reasonable question. I asked the same thing myself. For them it’s no big whoop, you know. They live for centuries and centuries—that’s earth-time, of course. But they know I don’t. And they’re considerate. They’ve got one of these cryo-stasis whatsits with my name on it.” He winked. “Just like the movies.”
I took another drink and suffered another long moment of not having the feeblest idea of what to say. In the end I settled on, “Guess you’ve got it figured out, then.”
“Well,” he said. “I hope so.” He looked at his watch. Licked his lips. Swallowed a lump in his throat. Then he threw back the rest of his beer and stood up. “Time to go.”
I stood too. He extended his hand and I shook it for the second time that night.
“Good luck,” I said. And I meant it.
“Thank you very much.” He released my hand and shook his head, no longer looking at me or anything else in that room. “I would have liked to see Africa.”
A quick smile in my direction and he was out the door.
I sat back down. Stared at the TV again, but I couldn’t focus. I finished up my drink and left. It was a long drive home, but maybe, with my eyes drawn up to the sky again and again, it went a little faster than it would have otherwise.
So lately I’ve been thinking about Bradley again. For whatever odd reason. I’ll be out at night, and if the conditions are right, if the sky’s clear, it there are no street lights or porch lights or car lights around to eat away at the edges of the darkness, then I’ll find myself looking up at the stars and I’ll think, Jesus Christ, that man was a goddamn lunatic. I hope I’m wrong, though.