Endless Blue Horizons
by Jack Phillips Lowe
part 1 of 2
He couldn’t understand it. His leg was hurting him, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was the same dull, throbbing pain he usually came down with just as a storm started brewing. Shading his eyes, he looked up to see nothing but fluffy white puffs and endless blue horizons.
“Why does he keep rubbing his leg like that?” Juan asked, as he flipped the little silver-handled knife to the ground.”You know, the one he always limps on?”
“That’s his war wound,” answered Luis, polishing the car’s hood with a towel. “You got that on Pork Roast Hill, right, Mr. Isburg?”
“No. For the hundredth time, it was on Pork Chop Hill, in Korea,” said Isburg. He glanced at his watch.
“Oh yeah, right,” said Luis. “Here Juan, take this and wipe those headlights.” He handed the towel to the smaller boy.
Juan stuffed the towel into his pocket and continued to flip the silver knife. “War wound? From Korea? But my Social Studies teacher said Korea wasn’t a war. He called it a police action.”
Isburg leaned against the car the boys were washing. “Your Social Studies teacher is a pinko. He probably never defended his country. He probably hid in school, because he wasn’t man enough for the job. When two armies are shooting at each other, boy, that’s called a war. I should know — I’m still carrying a piece of shrapnel here in my calf. I’m reminded of it every time it rains.” Isburg grimaced and massaged his leg again. “Like right now.”
Luis looked up. “It ain’t going to rain. It’s sunny and clear.”
“Look kid, am I paying you to wash the car or crack wise? Don’t tell me anything. Mother Nature’s a fooler, see. Something’s up.” Isburg checked his watch again and sighed impatiently.
“Why are we doing this anyway, Mr. Isburg?” said Juan. “You’re wearing your church clothes, but it’s only Wednesday. You and the wife going out?”
“We’re going to a wake. A former neighbor of ours died. In fact, the lady used to live in your house. We used to be good friends.”
“You used to talk to your neighbors?” asked Luis. “You sure changed. The only time you talk to us is if you’re yelling at us or you want us to do something for you.”
“That was before this neighborhood changed. Me, I’d call it water under the bridge and just send flowers. But Helen got weepy yesterday when she saw the obituary, so away we go.” Isburg pressed his watch to his ear. “That is, if she ever gets out here.”
Luis buffed away a last bit of wax with a cloth. “All done, Mr. Isburg. Washed and waxed, a la perfección.”
Isburg limped around the car, checking the boys’ work. He stopped and scratched the driver’s side window with his thumbnail. “You say that window’s clean? I don’t call that clean. Look.” He ran his forefinger across the glass. “I could write my name in that filth.”
“We meant to clean it. I didn’t lie,” said Luis.
“Well, you didn’t clean it, so you did lie. This is a serious occasion and you two promised to do good work. Instead, I got wisecracks from you, your brother flipping his goddamned knife and a generally shoddy job. Forget it, our deal is off!”
As Isburg argued with Luis, Juan moved to the opposite side of the car and crawled under it.
“We really meant to clean it,” said Luis, shrugging his shoulders,”but we didn’t get a chance.”
“You had all morning! Why the hell not?”
The boy glared at the old man. “Because you were leaning on it.”
“For crying out loud, Richard, give them their money. The car looks fine.”
Isburg turned toward the voice. “Oh, so you’re finally here! I thought you fell in.”
“Hi, Mrs. Isburg,” grinned Luis, rushing to open the passenger’s door for her. “You look nice today.”
“Thank you, Luis,” she said, stepping into the car. “I wasn’t that long. I had to find a Mass card for Emily.”
“Never mind, Helen,” griped Isburg, sliding behind the wheel. “Let’s get going. I don’t want to get caught in the traffic this rain will bring.”
“Mr. Isburg? Aren’t you forgetting something?” said Luis, holding out his hand.
Isburg dug into his pocket and produced a wad of bills he pushed into the boy’s palm. “Muchas gracias,” he sneered.
Juan and Luis watched the car back out of the driveway.
“The cheap bastardo!” said Luis, unfolding the bills. “He promised us six bucks for the wash. This is just three dollars all rolled up!”
“Don’t worry,” said Juan, flipping the knife. “I got him. Let’s hope he wore his walking shoes, because he’s going to need them.”
The brothers laughed and high-fived each other.
* * *
Isburg guided the car through the streets. Suburban two-lanes gave way to four-lanes, and finally, the six-lane highway that led into the city. All the way, Isburg kept laughing, quietly, under his breath.
“Richard,” said Helen, gripping the door handle,”are you sure about this? You’re not much of a highway driver.”
“It’s the fastest route,” said Isburg. “Besides, it’ll burn the carbon out of the engine.”
“What do you keep chuckling about?”
“The trick I pulled on those two little brats. It’s called a ‘Missouri bankroll.’ I would’ve loved to have seen the looks on their faces when they figured out they’d been gypped.”
“Why do you insist on hassling those boys? After all, they’re God’s children, too.”
Isburg bristled at the remark. “Because I don’t happen to care for that pair of ‘God’s children.’ And how can you say I’m hassling them? If anyone’s being hassled, it’s me. They’re always bugging me. Every time I step out the door, there they are.”
“That’s because they look up to you. They haven’t got a father. They’re looking for a role model and you’re it.”
“They’re looking for a patsy and I’m it. Look at what they did to this car. I give them an opportunity and they repay me with a crappy job. They think that if you’re old and white, you’re a soft touch. God help me, but I hate those people. They have no standards and no gratitude. Look at what they’ve done to the neighborhood.”
“The neighborhood wasn’t much before they arrived.”
“Bull! It was a nice place. Now we may as well be back downtown again. Everyone’s hiding behind locked doors by sunset, because they’re afraid of getting shot. We never had to be afraid before. Remember all those cookouts we had out back with John and Emily?”
Helen leaned back in her seat and smiled. “I sure do. On warm nights, we’d sit out on the patio. Johnny would play his harmonica and we’d all sing. Emily had such a pretty voice.”
“Yeah, that was fun. But John was never around much. Usually, it was just us three. John was always running off on one sales call after another. He was hardly ever home.”
“True. He left Emily alone too often. She practically raised Frank by herself.”
“John should’ve focused on his kid, not on business. I always thought that was why Frank turned out to be a fruit.”
“Richard, that was just an ugly rumor which nobody ever proved.”
“Frank was a pantywaist. He didn’t play sports and you never saw him with a girl. He gave Emily so many headaches.”
“She never knew how to handle Frank. I’d tell her to bring him to church, where Father Grosso would straighten him out. But she said they weren’t ‘church people.’ Can you imagine that? I guess some people shouldn’t have children.”
“The boy was never taught right from wrong. I wasn’t surprised when Frank didn’t show up for John’s funeral. He was all Emily had left in the world, but he couldn’t be bothered. He was out in Hollywood, trying to be a movie star.”
“Nothing ever came of it. The last time Emily and I spoke, she said Frank was working in a video store.”
“Probably one of those x-rated places. I heard California’s infested with them.”
“I wonder if Frank will turn up today?”
“Not likely. Emily wasn’t a wealthy woman and I don’t suppose she left him much. With Frank, it was always ‘me-me-me.’ He should’ve been an opera singer.”
“Emily was a hard case. Losing John, all her problems with Frank. Then being alone all the time. At least the Lord blessed her with good health and a long life.”
“She had one hell of a constitution.”
“Some people are just lucky that way. God smiles down on them. Take Aunt Catherine. She’s eighty-nine years old and still kicking. She is truly blessed.”
Isburg winced. “Blessed my foot! God doesn’t want her and the Devil won’t take her.”
“Richard! And you call yourself a Christian!”
“No, you called me a Christian. I never liked that old biddy and she never liked me.”
“Honestly, how can you carry on like that about Catherine and those two little boys, especially on a day like today? You should be counting your blessings.”
“Yeah, and the first is that Catherine lives in Florida.”
“No, really. Emily always could. I’ve got to hand it to her. She could always see the sunshine through the clouds.”
Isburg adjusted the rear-view mirror. “I guess. You knew her better than I did.”
“She could. Do you know what she claimed was the one thing that kept her going through all those hard times?”
“The love she and John had for each other.”
“Oh, Lord. Break out the hip-boots.”
“Seriously. She said she knew her husband was devoted to her, right up to the day he died. You have to admit, John was crazy about her.”
“John never forgot her birthday — unlike some guys I could mention — or their anniversary, no matter where he was. Whenever he came home from a business trip, he always brought Emily a dozen red roses.”
“A regular Casanova, that John.”
Helen giggled. “There was one thing she told me once — it was really sweet. But I shouldn’t repeat it. It was quite personal.”
Isburg squinted and lowered his sun-visor. “Helen, they’re both dead. What does it matter?”
“Well, okay. Years ago, Emily told me about the time when she and John first fell in love. They did something they never told anyone about. Something that would’ve been considered really racy in that time.”
“What, pray tell, was that?"
“You know the Army sent John to Italy, right?”
“Sure. Some guys got off easy. So?”
“When John got back home, he took Emily downtown to a tattoo parlor. As a sign of their love for one another, each had a special word tattooed on their chest in tiny red letters.”
“Amore,” muttered Isburg.
Helen looked at him. “What did you say?”
Isburg kept his eyes on the road. “Nothing. Go on.”
“No, I heard you say something. What was it?”
“I just cleared my throat.”
“I don’t think so. You said ‘amore’.”
“So that was the word. Amore. It’s Italian for ‘love’.”
“That’s right. How did you know it?”
Copyright © 2008 by Jack Phillips Lowe