Robbie Freece was born and raised in Oregon, he currently teaches Spanish at a large, low-income public school outside Portland. In the past, he’s delivered auto parts, helped people in jail connect with their public defenders, taught adult ESL, and played in a variety of loud, mildly talented music groups. He’s written two unpublished novellas,”Sketch Pad” and “Sleeping In.”
I was pissed-off, alone, and resentful towards a piece of paper handed over by a Montana state patrolman. I was almost home too, just shy of a clean escape through the heartland. Tonight was the Brooks Street Motor Inn, next to an AM/PM where I could buy cheap cans of malt liquor.
I started off skating down a darkened side street with my can of Steel Reserve. There were two bars on the block but no noise—this town was quiet, and colder than the rest of the country. Fall was here already and that made me a little more upbeat.
A man’s voice yelled from behind me in a parking lot, “HEY KID…” I picked up my skateboard and turned around. If he was trying to start shit, at least I had something to hit him with. I looked up, “Yeah.”
“Do you know if there’s another bar down this street? That one’s crowded as shit.”
I explained that I wasn’t a local and couldn’t be of any help, but he took allegiance to this. “Ohhh, me too, I’m from Yakima—you know where that is? I’m up here to help my brother build log cabins, at least till the snow comes, and then I’m headin’ the fuck outta this place, try an’ find me some work close to home.”
We swapped histories for a bit as we walked, I told him my name was Eric, but relied on fact for the rest of the background info (I often tend to lie when meeting strangers, just to see the different reactions you get to different stories) I told him about my run-in with the cops earlier that day and how I was worried about the way things might resolve themselves. He scratched his head and looked at me, “Well, you’re standing here with me right now aren’t ya?” I nodded, looking up to Bill as if he were some kind of wise authority, “Well, then you’re FINE, just head back to Oregon, and you’ll never hear anything from it. You’re clear brother.”
He smiled to clarify his point, and I believed him well full. Bill was still scratching his head in thought, “Ya know, the law is a strange enemy I know way too well…you see these tats?” he motioned across his neck and down his arms, “I got those on the ‘inside’.”
He was covered in crude renderings of clocks and names and bleeding hearts, some less visible than others. I didn’t know how to respond to Bill’s admission of being an ex-con—should I ask what he was in for? I just let him speak though, figured he’d clue me in on however much of the story he wanted me to know.
“Yep, 20 years combined with all the small time bits…too much of my life. Now I can’t even get hired nowhere decent, nobody wants a felon who also looks like this. I’m truly lucky to have my brother keeping me employed and busy all this time.”
I nodded at Bill in agreement. I didn’t relate to his experience, but he seemed genuine in his desire to lead a normal life. His face was worn and he looked a beaten 40—so much under his belt, but just starting anew.
Bill sparked up when he saw the ‘other bar’ he had mentioned earlier, “Well, hell Eric, how’d you like to get a drink.” I answered gratefully, and set down my can of Steel Reserve at the entryway.
Bill drank with efficiency, we sat down and he ordered a pitcher and a shot of whisky. Soon followed his second ‘pick-me-up’ shot in midst of several plastic cups of watery yellow beer.
He told me all about the cabins he built, “These rich hunters, they know what they want, but they don’t got the time to do it themselves, so we go up there, take the shit lumber and put up one of these things in a week. Guys pay 100 times what we spend. It should be illegal—hell we’re ripping people off more than half the guys in the joint.” He laughed at this, but I could tell he genuinely felt bad for doing what he saw as dishonest work.
I had just noticed Bill was wearing an army jacket; the material was tattered and looked to have seen a battle. Bill explained to a stout man on the opposite barstool that the jacket wasn’t his, but his brother’s.
“Yeah, he fought in ‘Nam. Had a hell of a tour from the stories I hear. Right in the shit.”
The chubby man nodded as he sipped his drink. He looked like a chipmunk with a crew cut, with these beady eyes that rarely stayed focused on anything, he told me his name was Wayne, and that he’d served in Desert Storm.
“No real action there. Just a lot of time to learn my trade…that’s how I got my job at the Kodak manufacturing plant here in town.”
Wayne had a family and he wouldn’t drink liquor straight. He also had a lot of problems from what I gathered in my short time talking with him. Kodak was in the midst of huge layoffs and his once stable job was now jeopardized.
Bill answered with anger, “Those corporate bastards! Always quick to screw over the ones who made them just for bigger bucks…jobs are goin’ to some third world country most likely.” I nodded in agreement with the two men like I somehow shared their experiences.
The whole situation was so absurd: these men had seen the lows of war and incarceration, the pain of poverty and the plight of the American worker and here I was, a suburban kid slumming his way across the country like it would yield some greater meaning—but no, this was just getting by in America: nothing to be introspective about, nothing to romanticize, only harsh realities and years of regret.
I decided to order us all shots forgetting that Wayne couldn’t drink liquor straight. He appreciated the gesture though and took part in the cheers. It was getting late and I needed to get out of the smoky bar before it stole me away from morning. I said goodbye to Wayne, and good luck with Kodak. Bill said it was time to leave for him too and we left the bar together walking down the same dark street where we’d first crossed paths. He started talking about prison again, San Quentin to be exact. “Yeah, that’s where I did most my time, right there by the Bay, watching the ferries pass from Larkspur to Frisco.” He almost sounded like he missed the place in some bastardized version of nostalgia.
I told him how I’d taken those same ferries with my aunt and uncle when they lived in Richmond. He looked at me again with a serious eye, different from his other glances, like he wanted me to really listen. “It was in Richmond where I got in my trouble…I was young, about your age Eric, fiery and full of anger. Yeah, it was in Richmond, right off San Pablo Road, that’s where I ran a man down. Killed him instantly. They only charged me with manslaughter, but I’ll tell you this…I knew what I was doing. I knew who he was, and I know I’ll have to live with that ‘til the day death finds me.”
His eyes were more sad than serious now, and he took a deep breath. “That’s behind me though, and I’m trying to make a better life, ya know what I mean? I’m tryin’ to look out for myself…and everyone else. Hell, I coulda used me a guardian angel in those times, not even me was lookin’ out for myself.”
I nodded to Bill again, like a novelty toy that sits on your dash. I couldn’t find anything to say to him, even in my state of drunken hyper-verbosity. I just nodded, taking it all in. What do you say to some one when they’ve just admitted to a murder?
His smile reappeared though, and he held out his hand to me. “Now Eric, you stay safe out there on the road, and make it home to Oregon for me.”
I smiled back and shook his hand, returning the hopes for good fortune. “Goodbye Bill.” We turned and walked our separate ways into the late night of Missoula.
24 hours later I was asleep at home in Wilsonville, Oregon.