A blind passenger in a speeding car would figure out in about ten seconds why they called this stretch of road “Suicide Alley,” yet the old guy strolling along with the aid of a walker, a bottle of oxygen dangling from a hanger on its side, navigated pot holes and iron plates unfazed. It’d been thirty years since my last LSD flashback, so I was pretty certain the madman was real. Six a.m., a persistent drizzle, the road would turn into a sheet of ice if the temperature dropped another degree. I pulled up next to him, rolled down my window. Before I even opened my mouth, he shouted, “What are you fucking crazy? Pull over before someone rear-ends you!” Then he pulled the plastic tube from his nose, placed an index finger on a nostril and blasted a foot-long snot rocket in my direction.
I veered toward the curb about thirty feet up the road, got out and watched in disbelief. The crusty old buzzard steered his walker through the trenches like he had a GPS implanted in his noggin. He looked at me for the first time. “What can I do for you, Sonny?”
“Need a ride?”
“Do I look like I need a ride?”
I tilted my head back, opened my mouth and caught a few drops of sleet. “Doesn’t look like this shit’s gonna stop any time soon.”
“All you goddamn young people are wimps.”
Initially I thought I’d help the guy out; now I wanted to see if he was the real deal. “I’m going that way.”
He made a face like he had a mouthful of watermelon seeds he was about to spit out. “Well, if you’re going that way.” He motioned his head toward the walker. “Whatta we do with this thing?”
I opened the tailgate. “Throw it in.”
He smiled revealing three yellow teeth. “Cool.”
It was the first time I felt a smile. I opened the passenger door for him, and he said, “We going on a fucking date?”
“Guys don’t open car doors for guys. You ain’t queer, are you?”
I shut the door, walked around and hopped behind the wheel. I turned and faced him. The right lens in his glasses had a corner-to-corner crack, like a stock market chart. “Where you headed?”
“Down the road. Past that U-haul place.”
I squinted, didn’t see a U-haul sign. “How far?”
“I never measured it.”
I checked my rear-view mirror.
“You’re clear,” he said.
I pulled out onto the road.
“What kind of car is this?”
“How is it in the snow?”
“Excellent. It’s got four-wheel drive.”
“How’s that work?” he asked.
“All four wheels rotate in unison. No matter how deep the snow is, you rise on top of it and go.”
“Unison, huh? You an engineer or something?”
I didn’t follow his logic. “No.”
“I’m a welder.”
“You’re pretty smart.”
“You’re the first one to ever tell me that.” Figures it’d come from a crazy old man, I thought.
He looked straight ahead, forehead furrowed. “Listen to me, Sonny. You are what you believe, not what people label you. Titles and positions don’t mean shit.”
It was hard to believe the words came from the same guy I’d picked up on the side of the road — Tom Waits reincarnated to the Dalai Lama. Then he really blew my mind. “You ever get asked about four-wheel drive again you should explain about wheel differentials and torque.” So much for the crazy old man assumption.
“So, where’s this U-haul joint?”
“Going to a cigar shop in the strip mall with the U-haul joint.”
“Cigar shop? You got an oxygen tank!”
“I take it off when I smoke, idiot.” Tom Waits again. “A cigar a day — my number one secret to living a long life. It’s gotten me this far.”
“How far is that?”
“Eighty-two, and going strong.”
I couldn’t wait to tell my buddies about the old dude with a walker, oxygen tube in his nostrils, strolling to a cigar shop in the sleet, telling me the secret to live a long life. “I still don’t see the U-haul sign.”
“I’m thinking we talked our way right past it,” he said, slapping his knee and laughing. He was so ridiculous it was contagious.
I threw a U-be and headed back in the direction we just came from.
“There’s the U-haul sign, Einstein,” he said, pointing out the front window.
“Guess you were right. We talked our way past it.”
“Ain’t that a pisser.”
I turned into the parking lot and pulled up to Cigar World. The old man reached into his pocket and he pulled out a wad of cash. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“For your trouble.”
“I ought to give you a few bucks for the entertainment.”
I looked at the shop door. “Says it doesn’t open till ten. What are you gonna do until then?”
I thought he was playing me until he leaned back, closed his eyes, and drifted into another dimension. “Ohmmmmmm.” His expression softened the seat cushioning, the dashboard veneer sparkled. Sleet turned to snow. I reclined my backrest, and drifted thinking about labels, torque and differentials.
The next thing I knew a car door shut, voices chattered, people walked across the parking lot. I looked over just as the old man stepped out of the Jeep. He turned and leaned back in. “I hang out at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Cheltenham Avenue. Stop by sometime. We’ll go for a walk, smoke a cigar.” He paused, then added, “And maybe, just maybe …” He climbed out without finishing his thought.
“Maybe what?” I asked.
He shut the door, lowered his head in the window. “Maybe I’ll tell you secret number two,” he said, and winked.
After he disappeared into Cigar World I pulled a pencil out of the glove compartment and scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, Guru — Dunkin’ Donuts — Cheltenham Avenue.
Jim Brennan writes fiction he calls Blue-Collar Lit from Philadelphia, PA. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Fringe, Still Crazy Lit, Salon.com, Runner’s World and many others. His memoir Twenty-Four Years to Boston was published by St. Johann Press and is available on Amazon, Kindle Store and Nook Books. Jim is a member of the Liars Club. His website is www.jimbrennansr.com and he blogs at www.rite2run.wordpress.com.