'Goodbye, Buster Bucheit'

  Photo credit:  Tim Hetrick

Photo credit: Tim Hetrick

By Gary M. Almeter

Buster Bucheit died on May 20, 1980, the 199th day of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Arnold’s Little League team had been slated to have a game that evening and had to forfeit when neither Buster, nor his son Chuck, showed up. Arnold went home that evening, turned on the news and saw a poster board, rudimentary by today’s standards, which said “Day 199” behind John Chancellor’s right shoulder. Arnold thought the numbering odd, more like the price of a Broyhill recliner on “The Price is Right” than a standard by which people measured days. 

Iranian militants had nothing to do with Buster’s demise, nor did any of the other international skullduggeries or domestic crises that peppered that era. Buster was not a character in Watergate or ABSCAM and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had never met Jim Jones. Buster’s death was an accident, insofar as no one was ever criminally charged or civilly sued. Arnold always suspected that Buster, a man he genuinely liked, was more likely than not the victim of something more nefarious than mere negligence but something falling below any criminal standard. Something in between what happens when country folk operate sophisticated equipment and a sort of vicious hazing.

Buster wasn’t his real name. It was Charles. Arnold thought that Charles just didn’t suit him, so Arnold started calling him Buster. To himself and then to his family. Buster was his Little League coach—the first coach of any type Arnold had ever had and his first introduction to the concept of teamwork.  

Arnold was ten years old in 1980, the minimum age for little league in his small town, and had only just met Buster at the first practice that March. It was odd to see someone new in a town as small as Auslandersville so at the outset Arnold was intrigued by Buster. There were no tryouts because only eleven kids signed up. Arnold had done so reluctantly. His mother read about the league in the church bulletin, wanted Arnold to be part of a team, told Arnold he was playing, and dropped him off at the diamond behind the church. There was Buster, talking baseball. 

Years later, Kevin Costner would make playing baseball in cornfields look poignant and nostalgic. Noble even. It was none of those things to Arnold at that age. Cornfields bordered two sides of the Auslandersville diamond. At that time of year, they were newly plowed and freshly manured. An over-the-rickety-wood-plank-fence home run meant retrieving a ball that had more likely than not landed in a pile of fresh cow shit. Smells also included piss and fecal residue of deer, skunks, woodchucks, and every other animal that country folk deemed acceptable to dwell.

The baseball diamond also abutted the church cemetery.  It was still cold in March, but not cold enough to keep the playing surface from being muddy. There was no backstop, just the old shed where in the old days they used to park the congregation’s horse and buggies. Neighboring farmers mowed the grass whenever they had a hankerin’.

Before the days of Under Armour and the proliferation of moisture wicking fabrics, kids like Arnold’s teammates wore jeans and hooded sweatshirts with unyielding iron-on patches declaring their allegiance to International Harvester tractors or Dekalb corn seed. They hung those sweatshirts, jackets, and the batting helmets on the crosses that sanctified and adorned the concrete headstones. Arnold invariably wore his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sweatshirt and his “Mork and Mindy” suspenders to the first practice and kept to himself. 

There was a lot going on back then in Auslandersville despite being just as removed from the international skullduggeries of the day as Buster. There were lots of countries that were pissing righteous Americans off, and folks like those in towns like Auslandersville relished and reveled in their ability to feel part of the zeitgeist by hating along. As much as they prided themselves on being separate and apart from the world, the townspeople also yearned to be included, to be both immune and relevant. 

Auslandersville was located about 40 miles west of Buffalo, an odd little city which was becoming even smaller and sadder with each factory closing and steel mill downsizing, and the subsequent loss of each tavern and family that supported those factories because “the goddamned Japs” had figured out a way to make the steel cheaper than God-fearing red-blooded Americans. Arnold listened while grown-ups got drunk and played cards. He heard snippets of portions of remnants of this talk evincing something that teetered between bewilderment and disdain.

This was also mere weeks after the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. Those “commie bastard Russians” were defeated just a few hours north in Lake Placid. The Cold War was in full swing and a man named Ronald Reagan was in the midst of a near sweep of GOP primaries, promising a return to greatness which, underneath the polish, was a cowboy’s country swagger. 

It was also around this time that people kept track of how many days a country named Iran was holding American hostages. Fifty-two in all. Nick Pfenning’s son joined the Marines and was stationed in the Middle East somewhere. Nick could spare a son or two on the farm as he had eight sons in all. After church Nick would educate people about what was happening. It was also around this time that folks began seeing a nefarious looking truck driving through the town. It was hand-painted brown with the sort of leftover paint that one would find in a barn. Old beaten-up pick-up trucks, like Chevys or Dodges with rusted doors and hand-made wooden flat beds on the back, were not uncommon in Auslandersville. What was unusual about this one was that it had a crude representation of the finger, or “bird” (five humps, spray painted white, with the middle hump longer than the two on either side of it) painted on one side and the words, “Hey Iran,” spray painted on the other. Kids called it “the finger,” but Arnold had no idea what that meant. Arnold asked his mother and she told him it was a “very bad insult” and that Arnold should never to use it.       

It’s astonishing how kids are expected to navigate the world with what little information they have. Arnold knew so little about everything. We all know so little. Especially about what other people go through. What other people are going through. What other people have been through. The shit through which other people routinely go. The shit through that one must traverse.

The “Hey Iran” truck, incidentally, belonged to one of the Muhlfeld boys.

Buster was new in town and, even at ten years old, Arnold could tell that Buster was a man perpetually out of place. Buster was a larger man, overweight but not quite obese. His girth was anomalous in Auslandersville, a town of men who were perpetually fit from a perpetual regimen of plowing fields, harvesting alfalfa, chasing cows, and lifting tractor tires and sacks of grain. He drove an itty bitty little Datsun in a town where everyone drove balls-out Chevys and Fords. And, what’s more, he didn’t even fit into the tiny car. He would open the door, hold onto the hood, set his feet, and then do this pivot and lunge move to get his ass in the car. He used a piece of twine to fasten the muffler of his Datsun onto its undercarriage in a town where people instinctually took to their welders to fix such a thing. His too-blue Wrangler jeans, work boots, and burgundy Members Only jacket looked nothing like what they saw Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, and Tony LaRussa wear on television. His last name, pronounced “Boo” (like what a ghost says) and “kite” (like what Ben Franklin used to discover electricity) neither looked nor sounded like the names in a town filled with German farmers. You know, names with too-prominent consonants like Armbruster, Geissler, Vogel, and Keiffer that make everyone sound constipated. He made jokes and played baseball in a town where people chewed tobacco and took weather, corn, and tractors and the analysis thereof very seriously.

Buster was well suited for his role as coach though. He could hit a baseball over the fence consistently. He showed the boys how to stop ground balls by putting a knee on the ground. When Arnold misread a fly ball and caught it with his eye, Buster stopped practice, led him to the bench, and got some ice. The next practice, Buster brought in a pirate’s eye patch for him. Buster was goofy in a town that neither appreciated goofiness nor engaged in it. He had a round jolly face, tight curly hair, floppy jowls, a hearty laugh, and a friendly wavy moustache. But he also had a bumper sticker that read, “They Will Get My Gun When They Pry My Cold Dead Finger Off the Trigger.” He was like a friendly pachyderm that had just joined the Charlie Daniels Band. 

Buster’s son Chuck was also on the team.  Arnold had never seen him before because Chuck went to a school in the city near where his mother lived. He looked like the kid in a story about a kid and his wooden shoes and windmill that Arnold’s aunt had brought him from a semester abroad in Norway. He had blond hair, blue eyes, and perfectly square, symmetrical features. Chuck had an enthusiasm and boisterousness that Arnold both envied and resented. Though the resentment eroded somewhat when Arnold saw him take an envelope of Big League Chew out of the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, take out a large handful, and stuff it in his mouth.

“Do you have to chew like a pig?” Buster had asked when he saw the bulge in Chuck’s cheek.

This was not the sort of talk between father and son to which Arnold was accustomed. Chuck turned red and spit the wad of gum into the cemetery. It was the first and only time Arnold saw Chuck look embarrassed.

At that first practice, this kid asked Buster,

“Where do you work?”

 “I used to work at the steel mill,” Buster said. “But have been out of work for the past few months.” 

Buster was also, therefore, not a farmer, like everyone else. Arnold couldn’t help but picture Buster with a bandana on his head next to his best co-worker friend, putting his baseball glove on a bottle of Schotz Beer, and waving goodbye to it as a lively song about making Buster’s dreams come true played over the factory PA system. Arnold wondered to myself if Buster was more Laverne than Shirley or more Shirley than Laverne. He concluded that Buster was definitely more of a Laverne—neither polished nor apologetic, fiercely loyal, and prone to mischief.

“The Japs put an end to that,” Chuck replied in an effort to curry favor with his father.

Arnold’s resentment was reignited when Chuck started to play catcher, a position for which he was uniquely and inarguably suited. Like Buster, he was large. He could throw to second while squatting and could hit the ball over the fence with frequency. Chuck was a favorite of the guys on the team, the new kid, a natural leader, a good teammate.

“I don’t need a cup to protect my balls,” Chuck has said when Buster told them about how they had to get a cup to protect their ten-year-old balls. “I need a Tupperware bowl.”

Everyone laughed.

As the season dragged on, Arnold grew to vigorously dislike Chuck. Arnold rolled his eyes at Chuck’s “Dukes of Hazzard” discourse and was disgusted by his "Dukes of Hazzard" t-shirt with the General Lee on the front, his aluminum bat, and his cool, mesh Yankees cap. On the bench, Chuck would try to engage him in conversation about the game, favorite television shows, and the weather. Arnold would ignore him or move down the bench. Chuck spat when he talked and was about twice as big as Arnold was, so that his meaty arm and leg engulfed Arnold’s. 

Arnold preferred reading to playing baseball. Or doing anything outside. He was ambivalent about the Miracle on Ice and was neither a leader nor big enough to exert any influence and inevitably resented those who did. Arnold couldn’t understand the notion that he didn’t live with his mother. Arnold imagined him and Buster waking up every morning face-down on the sofa, each in last night’s clothes, one leg drooping above a carpet strewn with ice cream containers and empty bags of Fritos, a crust of spit caking the throw pillows under their snoring, tobacco stained mouths while the late night test pattern on their television filled the room with a multi-hued glow.

Arnold was jealous of his name, the monosyllabity of it, its simplicity, the way it connoted toughness, the way it was a synonym for the word throw, the way it rhymed with words like “buck” and “truck”—mighty things to which mighty boys should aspire. Arnold was named after a great-grandfather who passed away a week before he was born. And in 1980, his name suffered the rare double-defect of being the name of the then-omnipresent precocious fish-out-of-water black kid on “Diff’rent Strokes” and of being one of those fucked up words like orange or purple that literally rhymed with no other words forcing kids to new depths of mean spiritedness. Note this was also before Arnold Schwarzenegger became a household word synonymous with toughness, which would have offered some redemption. 

So kids said “Arnold” with a tone, almost like they sang it, but one you sing with disdain. Arnold had an aversion to Chuck because he fit in so effortlessly even though he went to a different school. He wrestled with teammates and talked about the nuances between a GMC and a Ford F-150. He was boisterous, confident, and made friends easily. Chuck squatted over home plate to assume his position as catcher and his butt crack showed. Some kids laughed, but he didn’t give a shit.

Arnold discovery of hate led him to believe that it was common, perhaps even expected, for people to hate easily and hate often for reasons that clearly required no reasoning. As such, Arnold started developing his own aversions; kids who wore digital watches, kids who didn’t catch on in math class as quickly as he thought they should, kids who could make their fingers do the Mork thing like when he said, “Nano, Nano,” and kids whose parents eschewed tenets of nutrition and gave them Reese’s cups in their lunch. 

The Sunday following that inaugural practice was Easter Sunday. Arnold’s church was hosting the cantata, and churches from all over the region were coming to sing songs about the resurrection. It was odd seeing Buster, who just days prior had taught Arnold and his teammates how to protect their scrotums, standing at the altar in a white turtleneck singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” It cemented Arnold’s devotion to him. It was as though Butch Cassidy was singing with the Osmonds.            

The baseball season proceeded smoothly. Chuck played catcher and hit home runs. Arnold was, to his own amazement, rather adept at baseball and played second base, a coveted infield position that he played in a surprisingly authoritative manner. Whenever someone tried to steal second, Chuck would throw the ball to Arnold, and, more often than not, they would get the runner out. While trotting off the field Chuck would make it a point to say, “Hey nice tag Arnold.” Arnold usually said, “Thanks,” or nothing at all. He certainly never said, “Great throw,” or anything to acknowledge Chuck’s efforts.   

The thing is, Buster and Chuck both really liked Arnold.  When it was time to travel to games, Buster usually offered to drive him. Once when Buster drove Arnold to a game in a similarly small town, the trio got into the tiny Datsun that smelled of sweat, baseball leather, and dirt, and Buster, with a flourish that belied his embarrassment, quickly threw away a Burger King cup filled with spit and chewing tobacco. 

On the way home from that game they stopped at Judy’s Dairy Shack for ice cream cones. 

“Coach Bucheit, I don’t have any money,” Arnold had said. 

“Don’t worry about it,” the coach had replied.

When they got to the dairy shack window Judy herself was in there smoking a cigarette by the soft serve dispenser.

“Arnold order whatever you want,” Buster said.

“I’d like a small dish of maple walnut in a dish,” Arnold said timidly. 

Chuck, who had ordered a large twisty cone and was standing behind Arnold licking it vigorously and looking appalled at his selection.

“Maple walnut? Who gets maple walnut?”

Arnold ignored him. 

“Maple walnut? What are you an eighty-year-old man?”  

Funny how a person questioning your choice of ice cream can make you hate them. Don’t these ice cream questioners know this? When has such a question ever garnered a positive reaction? When has the person fielding the question ever thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the questioner’s analysis and switched ice creams?    

 “I just like it,” Arnold said, capitulating.    

The boys got back in the car while Buster paid Judy. The driver’s side door opened and in lurched Buster with a large twisty cone with sprinkles and off they went.

“Dad, have you ever heard of a kid getting Maple walnut ice cream?” Chuck asked, eager for his father’s approval.

“Jesus Christ, Chuck,” Buster replied. “Not everyone has to like everything you like.” 

Arnold was taken with the notion that Buster got sprinkles. Such an indulgence for an unemployed Little League coach. So very colorful for a man perpetually in Wrangler blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Like a large mustachioed Johnny Cash replacing Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Arnold thought about Chuck many years later when the senior Senator from Utah’s chief of staff looked at Arnold’s veggie burger as they ate lunch together in the Russell Senate Office Building and suggested Arnold was trying “too damn hard to mollify PETA.” 

At the night of the night, as a parting “fuck you” to Chuck, Arnold left his dish and plastic spoon in the back seat of Buster’s Datsun in the hopes that Chuck would have to clean it. The following week, Arnold’s mother gave him $1.75 to give Buster at practice. When Arnold approached him with the money in his outstretched hand, Buster politely refused. That forced Arnold to sheepishly tell him that his mother told him to “not take no for an answer.” Arnold was relieved when Buster accepted. The fat rolls rode up his wrist as he wedged the three quarters into his Wranglers. Arnold wondered then if Buster was poor, something he hadn’t considered because the vision Arnold had of Buster always had him surrounded by candy wrappers.    

At some point in the early part of May, Buster started working for the town highway department. Though he arrived at practice far more exhausted, and maybe a tinge defeated, than when he didn’t have a job. His job was to fill in potholes. Arnold would sometimes see him on the town’s half dozen or so paved roads as Arnold road home on the bus and happened to look up from whatever book he was reading. Buster would walk behind a large dump truck and shoveling hot asphalt into the numerous and sizable potholes that had materialized during the upstate New York. It looked torturous. The other men on his crew were usually smoking or sleeping in the cab part of the truck while Buster sweated like a motherfucker. 

Arnold woke up on the morning of May 21, walked downstairs to get breakfast, and found his parents sitting at the table. They told him that Coach Bucheit was dead. His father said that he had been pinned by a dump truck on Centerville Road. Arnold neither asked for nor sought any additional information, but it was all the kids on the bus that morning would talk about. An authority on such matters said that he was shoveling the asphalt into potholes on Flanders Hill Road when the brakes of the truck from which he was shoveling gave out and ran him over. Someone else equally knowledgeable about such things said that his father told him that the truck had tipped over and a truckload of hot asphalt had spilled over and onto Coach Bucheit. It didn’t matter really. All Arnold could think of was the men in the front of the truck snoozing while Buster worked and died.

A few days later, Arnold was once again part of a reptilian parade of yellow buses that winded its way down the town’s Main Street at 3:15 p.m. on any given weekday. Arnold saw Chuck standing outside the Hillcrest Funeral Home.

He leaned against one of the pillars there and wore an ill-fitting blue blazer. It was hot outside, so the bus’s windows were open. A few kids yelled, “Hey Chuck,” or give him a Fonzie thumbs up. Chuck smiled, nodded, and returned the thumbs up. Arnold saw this play out a few times as the buses passed by.

Chuck saw Arnold. Arnold saw Chuck. And then Arnold gave him the finger. A big-old, motherfucking, ten-year-old middle finger. Chuck, on the steps of the funeral home, just looked at him with sad and bewildered eyes. Arnold looked down at the metal “Happy Days” lunch box on his lap, coated with purple glaze from the purple drink that had exploded, feeling simultaneously slightly ashamed and slightly triumphant.  

If Chuck told anyone that Arnold gave him the finger while he was standing on the front steps of the funeral home, Arnold never heard about it.    

Chuck went to live with his mother in Buffalo and didn’t play any more baseball for Auslandersville. For the remainder of the season, no one talked about Buster or his accident. Buster was technically an outsider, so it wasn’t as though they had lost one of their own. Nick’s father Jim, a farmer who could spare evenings since he had plenty of sons who could assume evening cow milking duties, took over as head coach. Jim was unlike Buster in most ways. He was a thin man, which prompted Arnold to think about calling him Slim Jim. Arnold decided against it and never gave him a nickname.

Arnold didn’t see Chuck for more than twenty years.

***

When he did see Chuck again, Arnold was thirty-one and working in Washington, DC for a Senator (who we should ostensibly keep anonymous but whose identity will be apparent to anyone who read or heard anything resembling news in the last decade; especially in light of the fact this narrative relies on the fact he is from New York).  The Senator promised his constituents and his wife (who, a formidable politician in her own right, was really fucking pissed) and the party leaders that he would, in exchange for their support and in an effort to regain their trust, seek treatment for undisclosed addiction and personal issues after being found in a hotel room with a Brazilian hooker, her dead pimp, and a bunch of cocaine.

Arnold’s capacity and general propensity for loathing had diminished about zero percent in the decades since, so the Senator, as a boss and a person, was the target of a great deal of his hatred. This was the summer before 9/11 when people had an insatiable appetite for this type of shit. A summer littered with such scandals that precipitated a wave of pessimism, ill will, and the presumption that people, thanks in no small measure to the heralded Senator, were generally rather shitty.

But Arnold liked the ancillary parts of the job. It paid well and afforded him access to people and a modicum of prestige. And a means, he thought, to fully an irreversibly extricate himself from whence he came.    

Some years prior, Arnold left Auslandersville for Princeton. The admissions committee actually cited his origins as a contributing factor for his acceptance (cementing Arnold’s idea that Auslandersville was more like a third-world country than a place suitable for human habitat). Arnold flourished at Princeton and, as they say, rarely, if ever, looked back. It was there Arnold met and befriended the Senator’s son and when Arnold needed a job the Senator hired him as a speechwriter jack-of-all-trades sort of thing. 

Of the many degrading things that Arnold was tasked during that tumultuous summer of 2001 was arranging the Senator’s smooth transition to the treatment facility, which had to be done in days to minimize the fallout. The Senator chose Creekside Behavioral Health and Addictions Center because it was in New York State, about 40 miles south of Buffalo in an old mansion on Lake Erie that had once been a summer home for one of the captains of industry who had prospered in Buffalo in the 1920s. It was far enough away from his native New York City to minimize paparazzi. Arnold was tasked with making sure that the Senator would have as much privacy as possible. Since a big part of Creekside’s program was trips off campus to serenity inducing hiking trails and nature preserves, Arnold needed to make sure that the van windows were appropriately tinted and paparazzi proof. That was his job. To tint the Senator’s fucking windows. 

The Senator had two sons. Tap (Yale) and Tanner (Princeton). Both douchebags. The Senator was the sort of person who would (and did) buy a Yale Lacrosse windbreaker and a Princeton Lacrosse windbreaker, pay a seamstress to cut each in quarters, then switch and resew the quarters so that he was left with two windbreakers each composed of two Yale quadrants and two Princeton quadrants so that he could wear it to the one fucking annual meeting of the two schools and walk around New Haven like he owned the fucking place and cheer on his son Tap for one half of the game and then cheer for Tanner for the other. This was the pinnacle of douche. Arnold secretly took the fucking half-Yale-half-Princeton-all-douche windbreaker from his office and sneaked it into the bag the Senator would be bring for his thirty-day stint at Creekside to further amplify the Senator’s imminent demise.  Also sort of douchey. 

Anyway, Arnold found a place, the ridiculously named “Falcon’s Auto Painting and Custom Upholstery” to tint the windows. It was near Creekside, and the owner, the ridiculously named Herman Falcon, assured him that he had enough High-Performance Charcoal Window Tint in stock and that he could coerce “one of his bozos” to work overnight so the Creekside vans would be ready for the Senator’s arrival the next morning. 

Arnold flew to Buffalo, took a shuttle to Creekside, met their director, and made sure their facilities were adequate and adequately prepared for whatever media attention they might get. He then had to stop by Falcon’s to make sure at least one of the vans would be ready for him to pick the Senator up from the airport early the next morning. 

Falcon’s seemed far from everywhere but was only about a fifteen-minute drive from Creekside. One of the Creekside workers drove him east, away from Lake Erie, through some sort of town center, past a bunch of abandoned houses and storefronts and an old brick library, then out of the town center and over to Falcon’s. The road out of town was lined with apple trees and overhead waterfalls of flowering towering shrubs of some kind, fragrant sweet pepperbushes probably. In a few minutes, the paved remnants of the old lake side town gave way to a wide sleepy road lined with corn stalks and not long thereafter they pulled into the dirt driveway of an old shop with an old painted sign that said “Falcon’s.” There were three of those vintage Mobil gas pumps out front, like in an Edward Hopper painting. They were rusty, had broken gauge windows, and were clearly not functional, though one could discern they were once red and noble and as such, still commanded a modicum of reverence. Like heralded robot ghost sentries, retired but still standing at attention, to protect the auto repair and upholstery place from invaders.

Getting out of the car driven by the Creekside liaison was like stepping out of the present and into that Edward Hopper painting. It was around 9:00 p.m. when Arnold walked in and found a fleet of four white Creekside passenger vans spread out like patients etherized on an operating room table. It was hot as fuck, especially for that late at night, way too hot to be without air conditioning, as Falcon’s clearly was. 

As Arnold took off his jacket and loosened his tie he heard someone apologize for the heat saying that the AC shut down automatically at 8:00 p.m. Arnold turned around and saw a large man with a “Chuck” patch on a blue and white striped collared shirt that had grease stains up and down the front. They introduced themselves though Arnold knew right away who it was.  If Chuck recognized Arnold or if his name rang any bells, he didn’t show it. Chuck had the same perfectly square, symmetrical face, as though he had worn his catcher’s mask throughout adolescence and his head and grown into and around it.

“Ordinarily, the window tinting process was a simple one,” Chuck said. “You measure the window, cut the film with an X-Acto Knife, stick it on the window, and then squeegee it smooth. Under ordinary circumstances I’d be done in a few hours, but in light of this goddamn humidity, the tint is bubbling like a motherfucker so I gotta squeegee the fuck out of it and it’s gonna take a lot longer than usual.” 

“Of course it is,” Arnold said.

“The override for the AC timer was in the boss’s office,” Chuck said, as perspiration dripped off his forehead and onto a piece of the tinting film that he was cutting which he wiped vigorously with some sort of chamois cloth. “I was lucky he let me keep the radio on.” 

Chuck went on to explain that when doing big jobs like this one he liked to do all the back windows at one time, then all the driver side rear windows at one time, then all the passenger side rear windows until he had worked his way up to the front windshield. This, he said, was so he didn’t have to take the same measurements multiple times. It made sense but it also meant Arnold was going to have to stay there until the job was done. So clearly both men he had no choice but to sweat and squeegee like the compliant motherfuckers they were. 

Arnold took some papers out of his briefcase probably worth more money than Chuck made in a week. Chuck kept working, cutting, squeegeeing, and pasting. And the country radio station played something by Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, or whoever the fuck it was.  

Something happens to a place at night. The shop, which flourished by day, seemed strangely forlorn. The daytime jingle-jangle of metal tools and the omnipresent whirring of air compressors were replaced by nothing but intermittent grunts and late-night country radio. The shop walls, covered with motor oil signs, girlie calendars and license plates belonging to a different era, certainly fostered Arnold’s sense that he was far from home. Shadows made from the one streetlamp on the wisteria ivy growing frolicked on the windows, opaque with decades of dust and repair shop residue during, as though taunting the two men stuck inside.   

They did not speak much to each other for the first several hours. Arnold made some phone calls. Chuck took a break around 1:00 a.m. and there was some country song on the radio apparently sung by Faith Hill.

“What I wouldn’t do to be Tim McGraw,” Chuck said. 

Arnold looked at him, annoyed, perplexed, and only slightly amused. 

“Tim McGraw is married to Faith Hill you know,” Chuck explained. “I wonder whether Tim eats Faith’s pussy. Of course he does because how could you not eat such great pussy. I bet Tim just goes to town on Faith’s motherfucking pussy and goddamn what I wouldn’t do to Faith Hill’s pussy if given the chance to eat that shit myself I would tear that shit up.” 

Given the forethought Chuck had clearly expended on this issue, it would seem that such conversations were neither anomalous nor cause for embarrassment at the shop. 

“I don’t have any comment on that Chuck,” Arnold said.  And having exhausted the discourse on Faith Hill’s lady-parts, they resumed their work or more accurately, Arnold did his work while Chuck did his.  On the cusp of disgust, at his companion and at the state of things in general, Arnold realized he had heard similar conversations about the ferocity with which one might eat another’s pussy, though such conversations were conducted in far more refined, even heralded, settings.

Chuck, who had been diligently applying window tint all night in an effort to preserve the Senator’s ego, broke another silence some time later. 

“My dad used to tell me that people don’t change,” he said.  

Arnold looked at him with nervous puzzlement and said, “I wouldn’t disagree with that.” 

Chuck went back to his sweaty window tinting. 

“You were such a dick to me when we were kids,” Chuck said a few stupid country songs later. He said this in something between an inexplicable southern drawl, further slowed and muffled by a mouthful of chew and exhaustion, and a kid’s aggrieved pronouncement, like in that commercial when the kid says, “you sunk my battleship.” But it was a grown up’s voice so it contained a sufficient amount of grown up intolerance so was delivered in a tone akin to, “You sunk my fucking battleship you fucking prick.”  

While the boisterousness and confidence Arnold loathed so readily in the spring of 1980 had diminished, Chuck still didn’t give a fuck about what anyone thought. And hadn’t changed.  He spat when he talked. You could see his butt crack when he squatted over the rolls of window tint and cut out his shapes. And he didn’t give a fuck. 

“It’s not okay to call me, a paying client, a dick,” Arnold said.

“It’s also not okay for you, whether a paying client or a kid, to be a dick,” he replied. 

Such truth from the mouth of Chuck. 

Arnold looked at him and shifted in his seat a little bit but couldn’t muster anything to say to question or combat Chuck’s assessment. It was jarring, being recognized, and acknowledged after luxuriating in presumed anonymity for so many hours. Arnold dealt with fucking senators for fuck’s sake but nevertheless somehow felt smaller than Chuck, this ghost from the past. Arnold gathered up the papers upon which he had been working, timidly closed his briefcase and sat up in an effort to appear larger.   

“I’m sorry,” Arnold exhaled. “I was.”

“You was what?” Chuck asked.

“An asshole. A dick. Mean,” Arnold replied. 

“We were kids. That was a messed up time for me anyways,” Chuck replied, with kindness, in a voice that belied the scope of how messed up that time was. Bo and Luke Duke’s perpetual skirmishes with Boss Hogg were messed up; losing a parent is incomprehensible.    

“I think I just hated that town, Chuck,” Arnold said. “And I took it all out on you.  Because you let me. “ 

“You were dad’s favorite,” Chuck said. 

“I don’t know about that,” Arnold said. “I know that some people love small towns. I don’t. I get that everybody knows everybody and there’s a real community that you can’t and don’t get in other places and people take care of each other and all that John Cougar Mellencamp bullshit. If you’re like me, though, and don’t fit in, a small town can be a prison.” 

 “That’s why dad liked you so much,” Chuck interrupted. “You didn’t fit in.”    

“Why did he even live there?” Arnold asked. “Why’d he let people treat him like that?”

“It was cheap,” Chuck said. “And he was tired of the city. He loved Auslandersville.” 

“I get that,” Arnold said. “Though it’s tough for me never understood why people loved small towns. And why I was constantly told I was supposed to. I hated the idea of knowing everyone.”    

 “People were always real nice to me,” Chuck said. “I loved it there.”   

“It showed. And that bugged me,” Arnold said. “I could never understand how you were from somewhere else, and went to school somewhere else and yet fit in so effortlessly.

“What can I say?” Chuck asked through an impossible wide smile that revealed teeth slathered with chew. “I’m just a natural born leader.”            

Arnold could not physically go back to the cruddy baseball diamond in his cruddy hometown in 1980 and start a conversation with Chuck. Or to the tiny, silver Datsun outside the ice cream place and ask him what his favorite truck was. Who is favorite singer was. His favorite episode of “Dukes of Hazzard.” He also could not go back to the bus ride home and stop himself from giving a bereaved Chuck the finger. But Arnold asked Chuck to sit down and as he did so, Chuck became the young person with a baseball uniform t-shirt, muddy pants, and a catcher’s mask who was squatting behind home plate brusquely and loudly uttering baseball batting heckles and coating the bars of his catcher’s mask with spit. Through the cacophonous memories, Arnold apologized to him. And it occurred to him that every single moment of someone’s life is a crucial one. 

“Do you remember that night we got ice cream cones at that rat infested shack?” Arnold asked when he was done with the first van.

“Sure,” Chuck replied. 

“So do I,” Arnold said. 

Had it not been 2:00 a.m., Arnold probably would have asked Chuck if he wanted to get some ice cream. So Arnold just signed a carbon invoice on a greasy clipboard, got the keys for a van, shook Chuck’s hand, and drove away.

***

So that was the day when Arnold was sitting in a repair shop, feeling annoyed but omniscient, when, in a break between two worlds, a memory came to him and rebuilt some months. Months during that Iranian Hostage Crisis that, unlike the current skullduggeries of today, Arnold thought had receded. Arnold realized that the fact Buster died during the Iranian hostage crisis was more significant than one might suspect. It seems to have been the beginning of an era, probably every generation has one, wherein he learned how to hate and hate well. 

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short story "The Love Song of JFK Jr." and his writing playlist

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