A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
I walk and I watch or I stand still and I watch, or, at the airport, I sit and I watch. My own flight was delayed by storms back East, and I'd had plenty of time to watch Timmy's daddy pacing back and forth, his hands roaming everywhere, checking his beat-up old watch, checking the status board, sitting down, standing up, chewing stick after stick of gum. He looked like a man awaiting the delivery of a child. When Timmy approached him from the jetway, I realized he was.
"It's Tim," said the boy, almost a man. He was about fifteen, tall and skinny, all bones and sinew, not an ounce of meat on him. He wore a jeans jacket with the sleeves torn off at the shoulders and, beneath it, an immense dark green tee-shirt. His faded blue jeans were also enormous and they were tied off with a piece of ratty clothesline. He had a red farmer's kerchief tied up as a doo rag on his head. He held himself as a white boy's unintentional parody of the gang-banging rap stars. You wouldn't cross the street to avoid him, but, clearly, he was striving for that level of menace. "Some people call me G Rock."
"Do they?," said Timmy's daddy. He was in his late thirties, maybe forty. He was a big man to begin with, and by now he was a feast or two shy of two hundred pounds. An urban cowboy, Wranglers and a white Wrangler jacket, not cowboy boots but dusty work boots, no hat. His black hair was shot through with streaks of gray. His skin was tanned and weathered and his hands were peppered with the tiny scabs of a dozen recent wounds. He looked the boy up and down and it was clear he didn't like what he saw, but it was also clear that he couldn't say so. Instead he said, "I... uh... it's been a long time..."
Tim nodded, not really sure what to do with his hands or his feet. "Nine years."
"Almost ten years. I don't know how you recognized me."
"I have a picture of you," Tim said. He fished a small, beat up photo out of his shirt pocket. "You gave it to me a long time ago, at the airport--was it this airport? You cried a lot that day. I guess I did, too..."
"I guess so."
Tim looked at the photo in his hand. "You haven't changed too much... When I was little, I used to look at this picture every night before I went to sleep. Only I couldn't see you too good, because I had to wait for mom to turn out the lights, so she wouldn't know I had it."
Tim's father let that sink in. He said, "You didn't have to hide it from your mother."
The boy gave his father a look that was wise and cynical and contemptuous and pitying. He said nothing.
"I wanted to see you... all those years. But... your mother moves around a lot..."
Tim smiled a knowing smile. "She wanted to keep you from finding us."
The big man grinned, but there was no humor in it. "Well, if she did, the joke's on her, because I didn't have the money to come looking for you anyway."
"Yeah...," said Tim. "It's funny, isn't it? First it had to be all her and none of you. But now I'm too hard to handle, so now it's all you and none of her. Funny." His expression made it plain that he found nothing funny about it.
"You're not too hard to handle." A statement of faith.
Tim just smiled again, as if to say, "So much you know."
They stood looking at each other, the boy and the man, and neither knew quite what to do. They didn't hug, they didn't even shake hands, and neither of them could decide where to fix their eyes. Finally Tim's father broke the silence. He said, "Flying dries you out. You want to get a soda or something?"
There was a little drinks cart with a festive umbrella right out in the middle of the corridor; as we all know, every modern airport strives to be a shopping mall. They got their drinks and walked a few steps away. Tim's father was stuffing his change into his wallet. He said, "We have to go back."
He held up a ten dollar bill. "I gave her a ten, but she gave me change for a twenty."
"So what?" Tim said. "Good for you!"
"We have to go back."
"Because it's not my money."
Tim guffawed. "It's in your hand, isn't it?"
"Look, just wait here. I'll be right back." He strode back over to the cart and gave the kid behind the register her money back.
When he came back over, Tim said, "You didn't have to do that."
"Yes, I did."
"Mom wouldn't have done it."
"Sure she would."
Tim gave his father another cynical look, but he didn't argue. Instead he said, "But you didn't have to do it. Nobody made you."
"No," said Tim's father. "Nobody did."
The boy looked at his father as though he didn't understand at all.
"C'mon," his dad said. "Let's go find your luggage."
"Oh, man! There's a lot of it! I hope you got a truck or something."
Tim's dad smiled a smile of confidence. He said, "We'll manage."
As they were walking down the hall Tim looked up at his father. He said, "Uh, dad...?"
He scowled and looked at the floor in front of him. "Oh, nothing."
His father gave a wry little smile. He said, "Same here."
Tim glanced at him sideways, his face awash with shock and laughter. "I... uh... I guess... I guess I'm glad I'm here."
Timmy's daddy pulled his boy under his arm and they walked that way. Not quite a hug, not yet, but no distance at all between them. He said, "Me, too."