Honey Bucket – Tom Gaffney
“Which version of yourself are you going to listen to, take care of?”
He heard the question, but not really. He was busy fiddling with his phone, keeping an eye on his trusty steed, trying to forget the chore of getting changed in the men’s room stall – someone else taking a dump next door, and the asshole VP standing outside the door bitching that he needed to take a shit. Looking for the Coltrane, all he could see was Clara’s playlist.
“I need to get better at playlist management,” he said to himself, silently, he would have declaimed.
“Playlist management, huh. You think that’s going to help. Some songs to keep your mind off other things?”
He looked up at the body from which the voice came. A pretty big guy, his voice said street, his clothes said something else, well used but not adorned with the sheen and aroma of a man living on the street. He had long black hair in a single braid. Straight wiry hair, disciplined without maintenance, no mind of its own – some gray starting to infiltrate(at a quick glance the strands seem countable).
“Can I help you?”
“Nah friend, once you might have, maybe, but not really.”
“Do I know you?”
“Seems like you don’t. Now, how is that? How might someone like you come to forget someone like me?”
“Why’re you bothering me? I remember seeing you yesterday.”
“Man, if you are gonna think out loud, you never know what a man might have to say. You don’t remember me, it’s your problem, not mine.”
Reaching into his bag, looking for his bike key, our momentary hero looked up at his interlocutor seeking a clue, something that might trigger a memory, an identity. He had seen him yesterday, standing in the same spot. They had not spoken then, but he watched him prep for his ride home then too.
Something about the voice was familiar, irritating, comfortable and worrisome all at once. He stared for a moment at the manicured tiny lawn of the Metro towers. He listened to the incessant roar of I-5 and watched the non-merged noise sources rumble up Olive trying to escape the routine clot that is the intersection of Boren and Olive.
Key located, he reached to unlock his bike. The “Honey Bucket” sticker on his bike caught his eye. How many years there? Even Ethel has been trying to convince me to get a new bike. An object of familiarity, the details of adornment only rarely bubble to the surface. He had been proud of that sticker once. Now it seemed silly.
“Aren’t you getting a little too old, a little too paunchy, a little too privileged to be pretending with your old honey bucket sticker?”
“You heard me – just like I heard you.”
As they talked a brown van pulled up. The radio was loud, you could hear the bass. It pulled to a stop, the motor and the stereo rumbling. The hazards came on and the driver hopped out.
“Roger, dude, let’s roll – time to go.”
“Sure Manny, I was just trying to build a bridge with Honey Bucket here, but seems like there is no place to land.”
“No place to land. What? What’s your bullshit Roger? C’mon, let’s go.”
Roger turned, and started walking to the van.
“See you Honey Bucket.” Then to Manny. “That’s the dude who found my brother. The dude who told me about my brother. And Manny, he don’t even recognize me.”
“Whatever dude, let’s go. We gotta see Lucille.”
The music blared. The traffic roared, a ceaseless unwelcome wind.
Honey bucket looked up. Too late remembering. How could he have forgotten.
“Hey – wait.”
“Too late ass-wipe. Too late for all of us. Not your fault you don’t remember. Just how it goes.”
Roger and Manny jumped in the van. The doors clanked like a tin can as they closed. The music was clear for a moment, a hardcore beat and crunchy guitar. That too sounded eerily familiar to Honey Bucket, a fellow known in circles more available to his memory as Fred.
Awareness was creeping up on Fred. And urgency. The van revved and pulled away, nearly hitting the car that had pulled around them. Horns blared.
Roger leaned out the window and flipped Fred off.
“My brother man. Better if none of us had never met. Better to never care than to forget – you know, can’t sever things that easy.”
A wet and miserable November morning was dawning in Fred’s mind. This very spot. A person lying in the grass. Stillness. The water dripping from his helmet, his jacket, his nose. It was not a morning for sleeping in the grass. His ride downtown had been miserable, he was soaked, cold, sweaty. How could this guy be lying in the grass like he just lay down to take a nap? This was wrong. It was beginning to come into focus: shaking his shoulder, the phone call, the lights (of course, the lights), consoling the man who had come down the sidewalk, calling for his brother.
The sun caught Fred’s eye and he was simultaneously aware of the sheen of sweat starting on his forehead and the need to go pick Clara up. What a strange afternoon. Today’s tragi-comic staff meeting was receding from the foreground, as well as a long list of other cares. Clara was barely there, but she gained substance in his mind as her music climbed into his head.
Hopping on the bike he started heading up Olive.
“Why is it called Olive?” he wondered.
He was lake bound and first had to climb Capitol Hill. Olive Way to Bellevue, then the climb up Olive Street. He never learned Roger’s brother’s name. And Roger, if he remembered correctly, which he was not very confident of yet, but the idea of confidence was gaining, had not seemed so imprint on him so intently that morning. They had sat together for hours, making statements to the police, watching as the ambulance pulled away. The grief and stunned silence of Roger. No gray in his hair that morning. He had never stopped to think much of how that day must have panned out moment by moment for the man he now knew as Roger.
Climbing up Olive, suddenly noticing the Taylor Swift.
“Shake it off, heartbreakers gonna break, break, break.”
He labored, fighting gravity up the hill, finding some humor in the incongruity of listening to Taylor Swift. Clara laughed but unswervingly exerted the privilege of the eight year old every time music had to be chosen. She enjoyed it more if she thought he hated it. And while he could not say he would be waiting for her next record, he had to admit he did not mind, even had his own favorites on this one.
Top of Olive and on to Harvard. Why was this guy Roger seeking me out? How could I forget meeting him? It’s not like I find dead people every day. That’s the only time. Did I talk about it at home? Or work? Was I upset that day?
On to East Pine, past the Egyptian. If I push I’ll still be on time. Do not want to abuse Connie’s generosity. Things would be much more complicated if she could not pick them up from school. My trusty steed would not even be getting this much of a workout if that shifted.
And up, past the East Precinct, past the Cuff and on up the hill until he hit the light by 16th at Madison. The light turned green and he focused on trying to keep his speed as he turned on to Madison. The coast down the hill awaited him. He looked down the valley, “Call Me Maybe” now in his headphones. Bellevue rose on the opposite shore of the lake and for a moment he looked further east and caught the shape of Glacier Peak’s white snowy bulk in the distance.
Now coasting down into the valley he enjoyed the breeze. He made the light at 25th and picked up speed. Katy Perry roars. He kept his eye on the cars descending the hill in the same stream as him. Up ahead some kind of ancient beamer attempted a sudden turn, barely missing a car turning into the same lane from the other direction. They did not hit, but came to abrupt stops, horns at work. The car immediately behind the beamer – in Fred’s lane – had not reacted as quickly and it hit the sedan.
Fred was watching it all unfold in front of him, and it did not look good. He was not going to be able to stop in time. He was pulling hard and he could smell the rubber of his brake pads. No chance to be scared, but as he tried to choose between going into a slide or onto the hood of the car stopped in the oncoming lane, his choice was made for him. He hit the nearest of the now collided cars and went into the air for the shortest of moments.
He was able to link the sound of breaking windshield with the impact he felt in his shoulder and the groan escaping from him that sounded like it came from somewhere else. He was thrown across the car, his helmeted head hitting the pavement hard. His body came to rest chest down on the pavement. The music in his ears stopped.
Looking across the street, he could see a brown van turn right immediately next to him. It took care to go around him. It did not stop. He could hear that same old song coming out the window, a Melvin’s tune. Manny was still at the wheel. He flashed him a peace sign and a smile as the vehicle pulled away, leaving him on the pavement.
Honey Bucket, he thought, that’s what it is. From Houdini.
With a splash, Lucille was in the water. It was cold water. And the water was rough. She couldn’t even ask herself how she had arrived before the next wave crashed over her head. There was no view under the water and desperation was beginning to creep in. Shock and a struggle for breath. Panic. She fought to get her face out of the foam. She saw something like a barge: man made, large, floating, and not far but not an effortless distance away. She fought out of her jacket and set it free, watched for the next wave, and struggled to stroke towards the barge.
Holding her breath at times and ducking waves she covered the distance. But the chill and exhaustion were taking their toll. She had better get there soon. Get out of the water. She called to the group on what she had thought was a barge but was actually a bobbing pier of some sort. Weird. No time to ask why it was here. The group sat in a circle, but they did not seem to notice her.
Immediately in front of her at water level was a wooden beam at the waterline that ran along the length of the thing. She pulled on it, but as she pulled her body pivoted under the pier and she was not able to pull herself from the water. Above her, there was a line tied to several cleats, the distance was only three feet but she was scared now that she did not have the energy left to reach it, let alone pull herself out.
She was surprised by the next wave and it nearly pulled her from her untenable purchase. Timing her next lunge she got one hand on the line. This left her hanging one handed, her head, shoulders and part of her torso out of the water.
As her grip loosened she knew her tank was empty. She did not have the strength to pull herself from the water.
She felt two hands clasp her wrist.
“Well, hello Lucille.”
Looking up, she was relieved, for the moment, to see Roger’s smiling face. He pulled.