Waiting at the Bluebird
Cal Tucker wasn’t accustomed to being out on the streets at one in the morning, even on a weekend. It was a good thing that it was mid-June, when the weather is warm, even at night. If it had been a few months ago—and it would have been just like Edwin to pull a stunt like this one in the middle of a snowstorm—then maybe he would have...
Cal banished the thought. He knew that it was an empty threat...
Nightlife wasn’t Cal’s style and, anyway, there was no nightlife in the sleepy town of Appleton New York that was worth anyone’s while. It had once been a thriving little city south of Syracuse. It had factories, agriculture and the local college. It had devolved to farming and the college—and most of the professors lived somewhere else.
It was a working-man’s kind of town, nestled at the edge of New York State’s Southern Tier. There was a downtown zone that was populated by professional and government offices. It was composed of brick and limestone buildings with a skyline that topped out at three stories.
There had once been stores there, too—and a few remained, but only a few. The residential areas of wood-frame houses lay in rings around the core and a few trailer parks hidden in discreet corners, out on the edge.
In the center of it all was a lone eating establishment, the Blue Bird Diner. It wasn’t the only restaurant in town, of course. But it was the one that everyone thought about when they were thinking about a restaurant. At first glance, a stranger would say that the diner didn’t really fit into the Central Business District (as the Chamber of Commerce liked to call the downtown area). But Appleton people knew better than strangers and the diner had been in its place for more years than the widened state route that was also called ‘Main St’.
What fit in anyone’s eye were the two bars, The Red Rooster at the east end of town near the interstate and the Dew Drop Inn at the west end that was adjacent to the farmland. There were plenty of bars near the college, but locals never went to them.
No one would have blamed Cal for being in the unpleasant mood he was in, but no one would know it unless he wanted them to. Cal kept those kinds of things under lock and key. He glanced once more at the sweaty face of his younger brother through the rear windshield of the police car. There was a cut and matted blood on the left eyebrow. He unlocked his personal box just enough for a disgusted huff and headshake that no one would see.
“He’s damn lucky I was home tonight, or he’d wake up in the County Jail!”
What was he saying? Cal was always home. At any rate, he didn’t have time to think on it further because the police officer who had called him to the scene was walking in his direction from the bar across the street. He was approaching at a crisp pace, so Cal knew the answer already.
“Well, anyway, my kid brother’s lucky that I know most of the police in this town.”
“Herb says that if Junior pays the damages he won’t press charges,” the husky cop with the GI haircut announced with a smile.
“It’s not ‘Junior’, it’s ‘Edwin’,” Cal corrected, but the officer didn’t seem to pay any attention. “Anyway, what does Herb figure the damages might amount to?”
“Don’t know,” the officer shrugged. “You’ll have to talk to him. I told him you’d come by and see him tomorrow after he totes it up. But, he did say that he’s expectin’ you to stand behind it. He says Junior’s word is no good on its own.”
“Already figured that, Brad. Tell Herb ‘Okay’.”
He paused for a second and motioned to the police car where his brother waited.
“He didn’t give you a lot of trouble did he?”
“At first I thought he would,” the officer answered. “I was worried, too, because Junior’s pretty wiry—and he goes about six-two. He can be a handful when he’s had a few too many. When it came down to it, though, he started laughing and threw up his hands. He knew how it would end up one way or another.”
“I guess he smartened up at the end,” Cal agreed. “His real name’s Edwin, by the way.”
“Oh, yeah,” the officer smirked. “I almost forgot.”
It was true. Edwin did cut a finer figure than most, particularly when Cal compared his younger brother to himself. It wasn’t just the physique part of it. Junior had a look that reminded the world that he didn’t give a damn. The muscles just backed it up. Cal was different. Even though they were brothers, a stranger wouldn’t know it.
Cal was shorter by several inches. His years on the farm made him wiry, too; however, he didn’t look very physical. His thirty-three years were starting to show. He wore glasses and was clean cut, with a complexion that was a lot lighter than Edwin’s. His hair, which was much lighter-colored and straighter than his brother’s, was beginning to recede. Edwin let his just grow how it might. Cal parted his neatly on the side.
Cal pondered the differences in the way the world saw him and his brother.
“Maybe it’s because I give a damn,” he thought.
“I should let you take him to jail for the night but my parents couldn’t stand it—especially Ma. I’d end up bailing him out in the morning, anyway.”
The deputy raised his eyebrows in commiseration and drew a deep breath.
“I can’t release him on his own in the condition he’s in. He’s too drunk to drive that pick-up—and I doubt that Roxie’s any too sober, either.”
Cal knew where the conversation was headed, but let the officer spell out the rest of it.
“I could release him to you if you can get him into his cabin. You could drive the pickup—but you’ve gotta promise that he won’t be back on the roads tonight.”
Cal glanced back at the figure in the back seat of the patrol car and sighed.
“I suppose so. You wouldn’t be able to follow me out there and give me lift back into town, would you?”
The officer shook his head.
“Sorry, Cal; can’t leave the patrol area—gotta stay inside city limits.”
“I knew that, but I had to ask,” Cal conceded. “I’ll leave my car in Herb’s lot overnight, if that’s alright.” The officer nodded. “Anything else to be done here tonight?”
The Deputy shook his head.
“I’ll get Junior outta the cruiser and take the cuffs off. Just be sure he stays in for the rest o’ the night.”
“Don’t worry,” Cal answered, and then turned to retrieve his car about thirty yards away.
Cal moved his car from the street to the parking lot. By the time he returned to the police cruiser the Deputy was unlocking Edwin’s cuffs.
“I’m taking you to your place, Edwin,” he said. “Get in the pickup. I’m driving.”
“Big brother to the rescue,” Junior sneered. “What’d I do without you?”
“This routine is getting real old, Edwin,” Cal answered.
“It wasn’t Junior’s fault,” the strawberry blonde pleaded.
Cal noticed her standing next to the patrol car during the whole time, but had declined to speak to her.
“The biker-guys started it. They took off before the police even showed up. Herb only blamed Junior because he wants someone to pay the damages.”
Cal turned a deaf ear to the young woman’s plea.
“What about you, Roxie?” he spoke to her at last. “You want me to drop you off at your place?”
“No!” she insisted, folding her arms over her chest. “I’m staying with Junior.”
She was a strawberry blonde with some pretty nice curves compacted in her short frame. Her hair looked curly, but would have probably been wavy if she’d taken a brush to it. She had a cute face, except there may have been a few more years etched in it than the calendar should have allowed.
“It’s Edwin,” Cal muttered under his breath, and realized that it didn’t matter whether or not the young woman heard it.
He stole a glance and saw her looking at his brother’s forehead where dried blood matted the eyebrow.
“You’re gonna need a couple stitches in that eyebrow,” he said to his brother, but no one paid attention.
Cal looked at the ground. He was always being ignored when he was the most correct. He spoke to himself, ensuring that someone would listen.
“You’ll never learn, Roxie. I tried to tell you a long time ago, but you didn’t listen. You never listened to me and you should have.”
The admonition went unuttered and unheard, just like all the other times.
“C’mon, let’s get going. It’s nearly one-thirty,” Cal called to them, climbing into the driver’s seat. “You get in the middle, Roxie. I don’t want Edwin next to me if he throws up. You want to be his nurse—that comes with the job.”
“Very funny, Cal,” Edwin shot back in a slurred voice. “I’ll drink you under the table any day.”
“Just roll down the window,” Cal ordered. “Let’s get out to your place and get this over with.”
Cal started the engine and they pulled onto the street. Cal waved a ‘thank you’ to the officer who’d saved them from yet, another scandal. He made the turn toward the State Road.
“Brad can’t see us anymore,” Edwin said as they turned a corner. “Swing by your place and we’ll drop you off. No need for you to make the trip out to the cabin.”
“No dice, little brother,” Cal snapped. “I gave my word; you’re my responsibility.”
“Aw, come off it...” the younger man started to protest.
“It’s no use,” the woman mocked. “It never is. Cal always has to do everything by the book; always follows the rules—never a spot or a blemish. That’s Cal.”
Cal ignored the chorus. It was a familiar litany that he’d heard so many times in one form or another that he memorized it like the Sunday morning prayers at Church. As he drove, he wondered why they thought he would listen to them. In this world there were people who should be listened to and others who should do the listening. Cal considered himself in the former group; his younger brother and his sometimes girlfriend were among those who belonged in the latter group.
The problem, as Cal saw it, was that Edwin and Roxie didn’t understand these groups and where they fit in them. They were like a lot of people. It required all of his patience to deal with it. Cal learned the lesson a long time ago, so he tried to force himself to stop trying for the time being. All he knew was that as soon as these two learned what they needed to know they would be a lot better off.
They were alone on the road; it was a new moon. The only light came from the headlamps of the truck. Cal followed the beam, knowing that sooner or later it would guide them to where his brother lived. It was a log cabin that Junior—Edwin, that is—built from a kit a few years before when he moved from their parents’ farmhouse.
He bought the do-it-yourself cabin just when they stopped being popular. That was typical of the way Edwin did things. The cabin was off the main road. A red mailbox signaled the cut for the dirt lane that led to the cabin about a hundred yards into the trees.
It was a sort of bachelor pad, Daniel Boone style. It rested on a small plot cut out of the family dairy farm. The main house and the barn, where their parents still lived, were at the opposite end of the farm about a half-mile away. Junior could come and go unseen as he pleased with no questions from the old folks.
As Cal slowed to make the turn into Edwin’s lane he could see the old farm house in the distance. Their parents still left the light on outside the barn door. It was for the milk truck that picked up every morning at four. The light looked like a beacon—for a wayward car, or a wayward soul. Cal knew that it wasn’t for him.
“We’re here,” Cal announced and then shut off the engine.
“Well that’s good, ‘cause I gotta pee,” the young woman blurted out.
She ran onto the porch and waited for them at the door.
“Real class, Edwin,” Cal muttered as she bolted away from them, out of earshot
His brother didn’t bother to answer. Junior fumbled with the key for a few seconds and then turned the lock that opened the door and the three of them piled in.
“How’re you gettin’ back to town?” Junior asked.
“I’m takin’ your truck with me,” Cal answered. “I promised Brad...”
“I could say ‘no’,” Junior said over his shoulder as he peered into the refrigerator. He tossed a beer to Cal. “I could make it stick, too.”
“No thanks,” Cal replied and then set the unopened beer on the table. “Maybe you could make it stick, maybe not. There was a time when I’d have whipped you good.”
“Then you got civilized in your big downtown office,” Junior scoffed. “You got soft, or do I need to remind you of that?”
“I like ‘civilized’ better than ‘soft’.”
“Well, anyway—you gonna give me them keys?”
“Not a chance,” Cal said. He put the keys in his pocket and turned to face his brother full-on. “Who knows? Maybe I’m not so soft.”
Junior burst out laughing and flopped onto the sofa.
“Calm down, big brother—have it your way. I wouldn’t whup the guy who kept me outta the slammer.”
His brother laughed some more and then swallowed down part of his beer.
“That your way of sayin’ ‘thanks’?”
Junior laughed again.
“Careful, Cal. You’re forgettin’ that saints never get gratitude—especially from us sinners. Which do you want? You can have gratitude or sainthood, but you can’t have both. You are runnin’ for sainthood—ain’t that right?”
“Mayor,” Cal answered, and immediately regretted that he’d let that slip out. “I mean, forget it, Edwin. Forget I said anything.”
Junior finished his beer and then opened the can that Cal set on the table. He took a long swallow and then paused to laugh at his brother again. They heard the toilet flush behind the bathroom door.
“Look,” Cal sighed, “do you want me to drop Roxie off at her place on my way back to town?”
Junior chuckled and shook his head.
“For a farm boy, you sure don’t know much.”
Cal dropped his head and sighed. He regretted having made the offer—knew that he shouldn’t have—but made it just the same because he couldn’t help himself. He was stupid to feel disappointed, and he knew it.
“I used to be a farm boy, but not anymore, thanks to you,” he answered back.
“Owww, that was a low one,” Junior answered in a mocking voice.
Roxie came out of the bathroom and took a seat on the sofa beside Junior. She took the beer can from him and swallowed down a swig of her own. She put the can back in his hand and started kissing his neck. She stole a glance at Cal out of the corner of her eye.
“Hey, Roxie-darlin’,” Junior said in a lower voice, “why don’t you start unbuttonin’ them clothes?”
She stood and kicked off her shoes and then began to unbutton her blouse.
“You can stay and watch if you want, Big Brother, but it’s not gen’rally your style.”
Cal bit his lip. He looked at the floor and turned to leave.
“Just one more thing,” Junior called after him. “I know for a fact that I’ll never be sober in time for milking. How about fillin’ in for me, Big Brother?”
Cal turned and stood in the doorway. Junior had taken his boots off and Roxie stood in her bra and jeans. Even though she was putting miles on herself as fast as she could, she still didn’t look half-bad—if Cal had been interested.
“I already figured on that, Edwin,” he said, showing as much disgust as he could. “After milking I’ll swing by and you can give me a lift back into town.”
“That’s good-old-Cal! Look, there’s twenty in it for you. I’ll pay you when the milk check comes in.”
“Keep your money!” Cal spat back. “I’m not doin’ it for you, Edwin. You know what would happen. Dad would try to get it done by himself, and then Ma would go out and try to help him. We both know she can’t do it anymore.”
Junior laughed again.
“Well, good for you! You’re right on the road to sainthood. Stay right on it and you’ll get there soon enough. I won’t spoil it for you with gratitude.”
Junior paused for a few seconds and put an impish grin on his face. Cal shook his head in disgust.
“And make sure you don’t look for me on that road,” Junior continued. “I got no interest in it. Don’t expect to find no one else, neither. Don’t expect to find Roxie. Ain’t that right, Roxie?”
Roxie looked at the ceiling and sighed.
“I’m getting cold. Can’t we go in the bedroom?”
Cal shut the door behind him as he left the cabin. He paused on the porch before moving to the car. He heard their muffled voices.
“My brother’s a jerk,” Junior growled.
“He’s not so bad,” Roxie said. “He just don’t know how to howl at the moon, that’s all.”
Cal stepped off the porch, uninterested in hearing more.
“Twenty bucks!” He spat on the ground next to the truck. “Edwin thinks he can buy me off for twenty bucks.”
It was nearly two-thirty—too late to drive back into town and then turn around all over again and go back out to the farm at five for milking. He drove over to the County Road where his parents lived. He parked the pickup a few hundred yards from the farmhouse so he wouldn’t wake them and turned off the engine. It was quiet and pleasant in the early-summer darkness.
He slouched down in the seat and closed his eyes. He wondered if he was still strong enough to give his little a brother a good fight. No, not any more, but there had been days when...
He felt himself drifting to sleep. The milk truck would wake him when it passed by, and then it would be time to go to the barn.
It was eleven that Sunday morning when Cal poked his head inside the door of the Dew Drop Inn. Edwin dropped him off so that he could retrieve his car that he’d left in the lot the night before.
After milking his mother insisted that he stay for breakfast and that was a sidetrack that he really didn’t mind. He didn’t say much when his parents asked why he was filling in for Edwin, but he thought that his father guessed the truth.
He didn’t see Herb Beale, the bar’s owner, right away. The front door was unlocked, so he was sure that Herb was somewhere about. There was a back room used for the pool table. Cal decided to take a look in there.
“Anyone here?” Cal shouted out. “Hey, Chief! It’s me, Cal Tucker.”
“In here,” a man’s gravelly voice roared back.
Cal was right. Herb was in the pool room. He found him there with a broom and dustpan sweeping up shards of glass.
Herb was a big man, about sixty. He bought the bar after he retired from the Navy about a decade ago.
“Had breakfast yet?” he asked Cal.
“Yeah,” he answered, “out at the farm with my folks.”
“So, on top of playin’ nursemaid to your brother last night, you had to take care of his barn chores this mornin’, too.”
“Guilty, as charged,” Cal said and then shrugged. “I guess Edwin’s just a kid in a man’s body.”
“I seen plenty like that in the Navy,” Herb grunted. “There’s only one cure, a size ten right up the...”
“Looks like this is the scene of the crime,” Cal interrupted.
Cal grabbed the dustpan and held it in place while Herb loaded it with the business end of the broom.
“I knew you’d be by today,” Herb said as he set the broom aside. “I’ve got to get the pool table re-covered. It looks like someone’s beer got spilled all over it.”
He pointed to a stain covering most of the felt. There was a broken cue stick lying in the corner.
“What else?” Cal asked.
“Coupla’ old chairs; some glassware, that pool cue over there—not to mention losing the last hour-’n’-a-half’s business last night. That’s the big thing, along with the felt on the table.”
Cal sighed. “How’d it all happen, Herb?”
“Can’t really say, Cal. I was behind the bar when it started. I heard some yellin’—can’t say about what—when it all broke loose. Then, them biker-boys went runnin’ out. Couldn’t have lasted more than a half-minute. I went in to the pool room and there’s Junior sittin’ on the floor with Roxie tendin’ a cut over his eye.”
“So no one knows if Junior started...”
“Can’t say,” Herb interrupted. “I thought Junior might ‘ave filled you in. To tell the truth, I really didn’t move in that direction as fast as I could have. I’m not in the shape I was in when I was in the Navy. No point in getting my own skull cracked open jus’ because your brother wanted his face changed around. Not much I could’ve done about it, anyway.”
He looked at the ground and shook his head.
“So, how much you think, Herb?” Cal asked.
“Well, Cal, you know it’s not that I don’t like Junior. He’s got to understand that this is a respectable business. If he wants to go brawlin’, let him hang out over at the Red Rooster. That’s the place for guys like him. I can’t have this; it’ll drive off my trade. My customers don’t want to get involved in barroom fights. They’re just lookin’ for a few quiet beers on a Saturday night.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Cal said. “Of course, those bikers had somethin’ to do with it.”
“I suppose,” the older man conceded. “I’ll make you a bargain. I’ll make it five hundred if you tell Junior to stay away for at least a month while I build my trade back up.”
“Fair enough,” Cal answered. “I’ll advance the money for Edwin and he can pay me back when the milk check comes in at the end of the month. I’ll bring you over a check after dinner tomorrow night.”
“I knew you’d do right, Cal,” Herb declared. “That’s why I didn’t press charges against Junior last night.”
“You want me to stay awhile and help you clean up,” Cal asked.
“Naw, that’s alright—not that much more to do,” Herb said.
He squinted at Cal for a second.
“Hey, c’mon out front. I’ll buy you a beer.”
The two men left the back room. Cal took a seat on the barstool and Herb went behind the bar and poured two draughts. He set one in front of Cal and kept one for himself.
“Lock the door, will ya, Cal? I’m not s’pposed to serve before noon on Sundays. Blue Laws and all that.”
Cal hopped off the stool and went to the door and turned the latch. When he retook his seat Herb lifted his glass.
“Here’s to ya, Cal. Why don’t you come out Saturday nights an’ let Junior stay at home?”
“I’m not the Saturday night type. I’ve found it’s better to keep my nose clean.”
“A beer or two now and again can’t hurt,” Herb argued. “Anyway, I know the people would be glad to see ya. Why don’t you think on that?”
Cal lifted his own glass and then took a big swallow and then set the glass down on the bar.
“This is usually too early for me, but this morning I can’t figure out if it’s real early or real late.
“You’re still young,” Herb reminded him. “By tomorrow mornin’ you’ll be right back on track.”
“Anyway, it sure tastes good,” Cal admitted.
Herb smiled and nodded and took another gulp of the cold beer. Then he looked pensive, as though he wanted to change the subject.
“Let me ask you somethin’, Cal. Is anything goin’ on with that old factory site?”
Cal needed a second to compose his answer, so he took another swallow of beer.
“It’s hard to say, Herb. You know the troubles we’ve had.”
“I’m not askin’ just for me. The other business owners want to know, too. This town’s dryin’ up. That factory’s been vacant for eight years. The farm economy isn’t enough to keep the rest o’ the businesses goin’. We need that plant site occupied to bring some money into this town.”
Cal held a seat in the County Legislature, in addition to his law practice. It was part-time—didn’t pay very much. He was Chairman of the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee, and one of the Committee’s projects was to find an occupant for the abandoned factory. It was just one of a host of other projects.
“Can’t disagree,” Cal replied. “That old CTC plant is the worst problem we’ve got in the County.”
“It was a great employer once,” Herb lamented as he set a fresh beer in front of Cal. “It would be just our luck that it was a great typewriter factory.”
Herb was right. The CTC (Consolidated Typewriter Corp.) plant once produced the major chunk of the portable typewriters sold around the world. The advent of word processors and personal computers put the company out of business.
In its heyday the plant employed over five hundred, from metal workers to assemblers and a score of skills in between. There were the office people, too. The wages and salaries fed the local economy. The plant site was at the edge of the small city of just about twenty thousand.
“There are so many issues with it,” Cal acknowledged. “We’ve been close a few times.”
Cal handed his empty glass to Herb.
“It’s a damn shame,” the older man muttered.
The plant site was truly fraught with problems. A few years after CTC sold it to the City the State Environmental Agency found traces of solvents in the ground water. They were traced to the underground storage tank that held the ink that was used to coat the ribbons. A buyer had been almost ready to make an offer, but the legal beagles killed that deal fast when the news about the pollution came out. That buyer set up a plant in Oklahoma, instead.
Several prospects found that the building structure wasn’t strong enough for craneways. Manufacturing typewriters didn’t demand that kind of load capacity. No one would sink millions into an under-strength building in Central New York State. It cut down the number of prospects.
“The biggest problem right now is the Annex,” Cal told him. “It really gets in the way. It was done for the right reasons, but it was the wrong thing to do.”
The City annexed the land on which the factory sat order to protect its zoning. The City feared that the contiguous township would have put the land into agricultural district status. That would have meant giving up all hope of ever reestablishing the property on the tax roll.
“It’s a four-way squabble every time there’s an inquiry on the plant,” Cal continued. “There’s the County—we control the Development Agency. The City owns the land and the plant. Then, the Township puts its two cents in because of the impact on agriculture, since it’s so close to them. Of course, the State gets involved because of the ground water problem of the past.”
“I think the Township still has its nose outta joint ‘cause the City annexed it,” Herb spouted.
“Maybe so, but it’s not all that,” Cal countered. “They have some legitimate concerns.”
“Then, it must be Barlow,” Herb declared.
Homer Barlow was the Mayor of the City of Appleton.
“Homer wasn’t Mayor when the City annexed the site,” Cal reminded him. “Homer’s gotten in the way a few times, but he’s generally okay.”
“I think we need a new Mayor,” Herb asserted. “A lot of people think the right one for the job would be you, Cal.”
“Me?” Cal exclaimed. “Maybe someday—not now. I don’t think Homer’s so bad. I wouldn’t push him out.”
“The County Board is the place for me right now, Herb,” Cal interrupted. “There’s plenty to do there.”
Herb sighed and threw up his hands.
“Think it over, Cal,” he pleaded.
Cal swallowed the rest of his beer.
“I’ll do that,” he said as he set the glass down. “I think I better get back to my place and take a shower.”
Cal rose from the barstool and headed for the door.
“Leave the door unlocked,” Herb called after him. “It’s noon; time to open up for business—if there is any business, that is.”