Updated: Apr 13, 2022
He's going to meet his cousin at the diner. His cousin told him it's called Russell's now. Apparently they do good burgers. In his day it was called Johnson’s and was run by old man Johnson. It was a diner then too but also a grocery store, hardware store, unofficial bank and chemist. His pop had used old man Johnson for a loan or two when he was younger. “He was a good man, probably” he thought.
Russell’s is on 3rd Street which used to be main street. The town has grown a bit since he left it seems. The fact that it has more than one street is nuts to him. The bus is slowly pulling into the station on new Main St. The station looks familiar but it is definitely not the one he left from. “They all sort of look the same, I guess”, he thinks.
He stands as the bus stops and pulls his satchel with the important bits from the overhead compartment. He disembarks the bus thanking the driver. He walks around the side of the bus to take in the town. He nods at a passing soldier that was on the same journey. He takes a deep breath. It doesn't smell the same. It used to smell of diesel and tractors and farm work. He doesn’t even see a tractor on the road. But it’s definitely home.
Getting a little excited he starts out from the bus for Russell’s. The driver comes around from the luggage compartment side of the bus looking for the old man. “Sir, you forgot your bag.” He half jogs over and places the bag by the old man. “Oh yes, sorry, thank you.” The driver walks back to the bus chuckling to himself.
The old man takes a deep breath of the clean air and calms himself a little. He pulls out a printed email and an envelope of fading photos. He scans the email, checks his watch and pockets everything. He then shoulders his big bag with an old man grunt that he hates and starts to walk again. He tries to do the maths of how long it has been.
He had tried to figure it out on the bus journey but doing all that thinking on a moving bus had given him a headache. He left in 1958 or so. It’s 2020. “How much is that now.” 62 years. He was 20 when he left. “Jeez I’m 82” he says out loud. He wonders why he always forgets.
It takes him about 15 minutes to make it to Russell’s. He doesn't recognise anyone or any of the shops along the way. He doesn't really remember what used to be there. “Not unsurprising, you wouldn't have remembered Johnson’s if you hadn't been reminded.”
A man who looks vaguely like him is standing inside the door of the diner. They share an awkward introduction and a poorly executed handshake. They move to a booth in the middle of the diner and he stuffs his big bag, satchel and jacket into the corner but they are liable to slip down. He’ll have to readjust them several times over the course of the meal.
They order and share pleasantries and some stories from the farm. The conversation is slow and awkward. He doesn't know this man that bears his likeness. He was only 6 or 7 when he left. Thankfully the food arrives which slows down the need to talk. The burger is good. “Well, should we head on out?” His cousin tables his napkin and looks at him. “Before we leave, I have to ask why are you back? It's been what, 50 odd years? Why now? Why not when your pop passed, or my pop passed?” He lets out a little sigh and looks at his cousin’s stern face.
“Listen, I appreciate you putting me up and I'm happy I guess to see you and happy that the farm is going well and all. But I'm not getting into why I left. I left because I left, ok?” “But why now?”
He figures he always knew he would have to explain a little. He pulls out the envelope and thumbs through the photographs. He hands them over. “Well,” he pauses, “Well, I heard that Sally Thompson passed away. And I wanted to pay my respects. We were sweethearts for a time but I was leaving and she wanted to stay.” He feels like he is going to say too much but it feels good to talk like this. He doesn't remember being this honest before. Before he can stop himself he is saying “If I’m being honest, I always put it down as a massive regret. I never really got over the what if. Even in my own marriage I compared everything to the imaginary Sally Thompson. Probably the reason why our marriage was so bad. I feel bad about that.”
His cousin stays quiet. There is an uneasiness that has come from hard truths. “OK then.” His cousin gets up and pays. He fumbles with his jacket and bags. He almost forgets the photographs. His cousin holds the door and they step outside. “So how would you like to do this?” his cousin asks. “Well, I’d like to get flowers.” “Then the cemetery?” his cousin interrupts. “No, no, I’d like to go to the farm. You see, the tree in the second field, we carved our initials into it. That seems like the best place to pay respects.”
The truck is around the corner. “There’s a gas station on the way out home that sells flowers.” “Ok.” The radio is very loud when he turns on the engine. He turns it down and they take off.
The gas station has a few bouquets. They’ve all been in the sun and a few look a day or two old. There is one set that is better than the rest but still quite ratty. He pays inside for the flowers and the gas for the truck. He sits back in the truck and rests the flowers on his lap. “The roads are much better now, only ten minutes out the road to home,” says his cousin.
When they get out of town he thinks he starts to recognise a few things, the curve in a road, a barn in the distance. Nothing crystal clear but faint traces of memory. He thinks the ditch they passed is the one he fell into when he was a boy. He might be wrong.
He can see the house now in the distance. It’s similar but there are changes. Required modernisation he guessed. “There she is” his cousin says, “do you want to go up first or head out to the field?” “The field” adding “please”. His heart is starting to pump in his ears. “Why are you nervous, you’re going to talk to a tree” he thinks.
They pass the turnoff for the farmhouse. He can see the tip of the oak tree over the crest of the hill. They pull into the side of the road. His cousin gets out and opens the gate. The engine is still on, he asks his cousin to turn it off. He gets out and straightens himself, smoothing his trousers and patting down his hair. He looks at the flowers and gives them a little shake to toss any deadness off them.
He tells his cousin to wait. He walks into the field. He takes out a photograph. It’s a picture of 18 year old Sally Thompson standing beside this beautiful oak. Inscribed on the tree is “ST & AB FOREVER”. She looks beautiful in the picture. “Sally Thompson and Alan Blake forever” he turns it over in his head.
The soil has been turned recently and it’s uneven to walk over. He is wondering if she was ever happy after him, if she thought of him. He thinks of them kissing by this tree in the summer. He thought of how often he would compare his wife’s actions to the fictitious ones he figured Sally Thompson would do. How he wished she thought of him in quiet times.
“Well Sally,” as he approaches the tree, “I guess I’m sorry I left. Jeez, I want you to know that I never really” welling up a little, “I never really…” He stops short of the tree. His eyes widen slightly. “ST & AB FOREVER” has been hacked and slashed at. You can barely make it out. It looks like it was done a long time ago. Underneath it is etched “Alan Blake is a pig.” He drops the flowers.