Foolhardy, that's what it was. We were stopped at the light on Old Lake Road behind a whiny piped pickup full of side-hatted teenagers when a wadded Lota-Burger bag flew from the truck window. Floyd muttered from my passenger seat. He threw his door open, strode to the opposite lane, gathered the grease stained paper, and tossed it back into the truck bed. A skinhead with a cholo t-shirt and a wispy mustache growled out the rear window as Floyd ambled back toward our car.
"What the HELL do you think you're doing, OLD MAN?"
Floyd wheeled. "I'm returning trash to the garbage who threw it in my street." He glared.
Before the teen could respond, the light changed and the truck took off, spraying gravel. The kid in the window lost his balance and lurched back into the truck, causing his buddies to guffaw as they sped off, middle fingers flying.
The drivers behind honked while Floyd was painfully slow making his way back into the car. When I'd picked him up that afternoon, I'd noticed he had a hitch in his walk, and a look in his eye that was unlike any I'd ever seen there. He'd looked fearful, terrified even, and I'd never known Floyd be scared of much. But now he had Floyd's version of a Clint Eastwood swagger, and I was wishing he'd liven it up a bit. Ours was the only other car to make it through the intersection, and I wondered if I should be more wary of what waited in front of us or what followed behind.
"Valid question", I said.
"Exactly what the hell do you think you're doing? That was suicide! Kids today carry guns! It's not like when we were their age. Next time you want to call out a gang for littering, make sure it's YOUR car they find to destroy later, and maybe consult me about having your back." I paused dramatically. "I... have a LIFE!"
I had to ponder that one. How could he ask? Of course I had a life. I had a set career path, an IRA, a girlfriend of a couple of years, a nice car and newer house. Compared with Floyd, I had plenty to lose! It was Floyd who'd made a mess of his life. He'd had several great jobs, but left them just about the time he verged on successful because he'd found something more exciting. He'd married his high school sweetheart and was booted only to grieve over his kids every day after. He once told me "I gave her everything she wanted, including getting out of her life when she asked me to." Child support had kept him pretty well broke, and his ex made visiting the kids so painful he just quit going. Lately, I noticed he was thinner and looked his age for the first time in the decades I'd known him. I was the closest of the few friends he had, and, for the moment, I was rethinking that.
When I didn't answer, he asked "Would you..? Have had my back?"
"Well yeah, I guess. It's not like you gave me a choice!"
"You guess. Wow. How underwhelming."
What did he expect? At eighteen we were sure we were bulletproof, and I'd have been silly enough to fight in the street over nothing, but I'd learned a few things he obviously hadn't. Was this the "huge favor" he'd called to ask for? To battle some midlife crisis? I was scared it might become a crisis of the end-of-life variety, and I wasn't ready to stand by him there. He'd griped about an insurance policy clause, and I'd convinced myself he probably just needed some cash, but decided to draw the line at a grand. At the very least, perhaps I could talk him out of whatever hare-brained scheme he was cooking.
I continued, "So, you were thinking I'd jump at the opportunity?" I mocked him. " Like, hell yeah! Let's kick some punk ass? Hooyah!"
"Something like that." He looked away, dejected.
I couldn't stop. "There were four young guys in that truck. They'd have killed us."
He didn't speak. I took a hard look. He seemed really down, overreacting a bit, I thought. His face was long and gaunt. His skin was milky and his eyes glazed. It hit me that he had not taken very good care of himself. In fact, in the conversation we'd been having before the road was trashed, he'd made a reference to a recent hospital visit, and now I wondered who or what insane act had put him there. I thought of my own fitness fetish and how I'd managed to stave off any serious illness. I remember inviting Floyd to the club once, but he said life is too short to run circles. If he had run a few circuits, maybe he wouldn't look so very tired now.
"So," I changed the subject, deciding to quit worrying about Floyd's question and get it over with. "What was it you needed? Whatever it is, you've got it. I owe you big time for that birthday shopping thing, oh, but I'm not available Sunday. I promised Kim..."
"Ah hell, never mind," he interrupted, but just then the little truck came into sight in the Dairy Queen parking lot. I managed to swerve into the treed drive behind the cemetery just in time, before we were sighted, but I could hear the thumping of their stereo as we drove away. I smiled over at Floyd as we escaped unscathed, and he was slowly shaking his head, resigned. He pointed to his sister's place as we drove by, so I swung around and dropped him off.
I never saw Floyd again. When I learned he'd been shot, I thought immediately of the kids in the truck. I called a guy I know on the police force and told him what I knew. He thanked me and said he'd look into it, but sounded less than enthusiastic. The newspaper said Floyd had been found on Old Lake road by his brother-in-law, Jake, who always seemed to me a smart and decent guy. He (Jake) had driven past the camp that morning on his way fishing, recognizing Floyd's old jeep. (I didn't know he fished.) He stopped that afternoon and found what was left of Floyd, thankfully before some innocent or family member showed up. The cops didn't find a weapon, and estimated the body had been there since the night before. They asked Jake a few questions, but I haven't heard any more about it, so I suppose it's a cold case now. At the funeral, Floyd's sister told me that the doctors had taken a good portion of what money Floyd had, but what was left, plus the insurance, had really helped his kids. And that was his entire legacy, except for some memories that haunt me.
Occasionally, an opportunity to make an honorable difference comes into our lives, sometimes involving risk. We may have to set our fear aside to even see the chance. I miss Floyd. I'm sure I could have helped, but deep in my brain I was too tied up to let myself know he was asking.
Resurrected fiction for the writing contest at Scribbit.com.