09/17/2021

Steve Lambert ~ Steve McQueen

It’s almost always windy at the beach and most morn­ings on my walk, I see a man, about my age, fly­ing a kite (a red and gold Chinese drag­on, flap­ping, dip­ping and dive­bomb­ing in the wind). Ada, when she was lit­tle, would have gone nuts over a kite like this one.  She’d have been hap­py just watch­ing it. I think kids might not be like that any­more. If they aren’t, I can’t blame them. They’ve got all these video games and smart phones and every­thing like that. Always look­ing down at screens. Seems like I’m always look­ing up, which is why I’m not very good at find­ing sharks’ teeth like Susie.  She’ll go for a short walk, maybe a mile each way, and find five or six teeth. I’ll glance down peri­od­i­cal­ly, but it’s just a mess of bro­ken shells down there to me. But she don’t see things like I do, ospreys and air­planes and kites, because she’s always look­ing down. We’re oppo­sites in a lot of things.

She’s an after­noon walk­er and I’m a morn­ing walk­er so we don’t usu­al­ly walk togeth­er. We’re too old to give a damn about doing every­thing togeth­er, and we do a lot togeth­er, any­way, like cook­ing and clean­ing up around the house and watch­ing TV and lis­ten­ing to music and going out to din­ner and talk­ing about things that could have hap­pened and about things, sad things, that did. Still, seems like we’re always say­ing, “How was your walk?” The answer is almost always, “Fine.” But some­times one of us will have a sto­ry.  One time, on my walk, about a year ago, I watched a man jump out of an air­plane. Susie didn’t believe me when I told her about it. She loves me, but she thinks I’m a liar. I’ll take a man jump­ing out of a plane over find­ing a shark’s tooth any damn day. Why in the world a man would jump out of a per­fect­ly good plane, I’ll nev­er know.

Today the man and the kite ain’t there. I fig­ure it’s not a big deal, though, because that’s the way it is: some­times he’s there and some­times he ain’t there. I’d say eighty per­cent of the time he is there, always alone, boy­ish, watch­ing his kite.

This kite-fly­ing man is skin­ny, with a head full of short sil­ver hair, and he has a seri­ous tan. He’s always wear­ing kha­ki shorts and no shirt. He looks good for his age. You’d think he’d have a grand­kid, or some­one, out there with him, but it’s only ever him, by him­self, fly­ing this expen­sive look­ing kite. In a way, it’s kind of strange. What kind of an old guy wants to fly a kite all by him­self? You wouldn’t catch me doing some­thing like that with­out a child or grand­child to do it for. It’s a lot of work and it gets bor­ing pret­ty quick­ly. This kite-guy reminds me a lit­tle of a man from my child­hood who was my grandfather’s friend.

This was back in the late fifties. I for­get this guy’s name, but in my mem­o­ry, he looked just like the kite flier—slim, tan, sil­ver shag­gy hair, and always shirt­less. He was my grandfather’s next-door neigh­bor. Just about every­one who lived in this neigh­bor­hood was retired mil­i­tary, and this guy had served in the Air Force with my grand­fa­ther, who retired a lieu­tenant colonel. This guy had been a major, and he still called my grand­fa­ther Colonel. Colonel Everthin. Even though I can’t remem­ber this guy’s name, we can call him Major McQueen. He sort of looked like an old­er Steve McQueen, just like this kite fly­ing fellow.

My grand­fa­ther, my mom’s father, was a bastard—at least, to a lit­tle kid like I was then. He didn’t treat me so good. He wasn’t abu­sive or noth­ing like that, but he wasn’t very friend­ly or affec­tion­ate. My mom loved him, but she’d have been the first one to tell you he was a bas­tard. He slapped her once, so she ran away. But I’ll give him this: he went look­ing for her, and when he final­ly found her, a few hours lat­er, he apol­o­gized to her and told her he’d nev­er lay anoth­er hand on her—and he nev­er did. It was a mis­take, he’d told her. People make mis­takes some­times. So I wouldn’t say he was hor­ri­ble or noth­ing like that, but he was a bit of a bas­tard. I’d nev­er have hit Ada. I’m a lot of things, but I nev­er did go in for hit­ting any­one, least of all your own child.

Anyway when my grandad was around this Major McQueen guy he was like a whole dif­fer­ent per­son. He and the major were always crack­ing jokes in some kind of half-assed pid­gin lan­guage they must have made up in the ser­vice, and they was smil­ing the whole time. I liked that ver­sion of my grand­fa­ther best. He’d be laugh­ing and car­ry­ing on and then he’d look down at me and wink, like I was in on the joke, even though I didn’t under­stand a word of what they were going on about.

Major McQueen. I wish that was his name. Course he’s been dead for decades, I’m sure. But this kite-fly­ing clown looks just like him. I won­der where he goes, what he does, when he’s not out here fly­ing his kite. Does he have any grand chil­dren? Or does he have a grown daugh­ter or son? Is he lone­ly or sad? I won­der how he feels about being old. I won­der what hor­ri­ble thing has hap­pened to him in his life. I won­der what his name is. I won­der, too, if he notices me like I do him. Does he look at me, and think, “There goes that old, fat schlep.” Do I remind him of some­body? Does he won­der if I have any grown chil­dren? Does he won­der if I am bereft of child? Can he see it on me some how, that very spe­cif­ic kind of grief?

Susie don’t mess around. She thinks I’m daft. Can you believe she says that—like she’s a Brit or some­thing? She’ll catch you off guard with that sort of thing. It’s her one con­ces­sion to whim­sy. She’ll call things “bril­liant” and says “ta” and “cheers” and “no wor­ries,” and all kinds of oth­er things along those lines. But it don’t dri­ve me nuts. I actu­al­ly like it. I’m almost jeal­ous of it, to be hon­est. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s bet­ter than all the oth­er things peo­ple around here say. At least she tries to be inter­est­ing. I just say all the reg­u­lar things you’d expect a sev­en­ty-year-old American to say—and I don’t say much of it, either. I don’t real­ly care for talk­ing. At least, the kind of talk­ing most peo­ple do don’t inter­est me. I’d like to tell peo­ple to go straight to hell most of the time. It’s not out of hate or anger or what­ev­er. I just don’t know why peo­ple feel like they got to fill the qui­et with their non­sense all the time. What’s wrong with qui­et? Quiet is where the truth grows, and you can hear it if you can just shut your mouth. People are god­damn daft.

When I get home from my walk, Susie is gone, but she’s left a note on the fridge:

Went to the grocery—be back shortly.
                           ‑Love

She has to keep her­self busy, I get it. We both have our ways of cop­ing. I grab a Heineken out of the fridge and go sit out on the back porch. The great thing about being an old retired guy is you can do some­thing like that. You can drink a beer at ten in the morn­ing and no one real­ly gives a shit. I mean—don’t get drunk. I wouldn’t rec­om­mend that. But you can have a beer or two in the morn­ing if you want. You can take a nap at noon. You can eat din­ner at three in the after­noon if you feel like it, and you can go to bed at sev­en. People make fun of old peo­ple for eat­ing and going to bed so ear­ly, but I think they’re actu­al­ly kind of jealous—not of being old, but being able to do what­ev­er you want. No one wants to be old. People don’t mind the age, per se. Being old isn’t the prob­lem. It’s an old person’s prox­im­i­ty to death that’s the issue. He’s right there next to you, too close, like some­one at the movie the­ater, slurp­ing his Coke too loud, with his feet up on the seat in front of him. Hell, though, it’s not like we old bas­tards sit around think­ing about death all the time. Not all the time. And young peo­ple die too. You can die at any age.

Something fun­ny about that Steve McQueen—not the old guy with the kite, but Major McQueen—is that he came to Ada’s funer­al, and I didn’t even rec­og­nize him at first. I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid. I was thir­ty-five at the time. He must have been well over eighty years old. Still had a full head of hair too. He took up my sad, limp hand, squeezed it, smiled at me, and let it go.  Didn’t say a word, this guy. Gave Susie a hug, I remem­ber, then he walked away and I don’t think I ever saw him again. Susie must have won­dered who the old guy hug­ging her was. She’d nev­er met him. I bet she thought he was just some old angel, try­ing to com­fort her, and I sup­pose he was, in a way.

I fin­ish the beer and doze off on the couch on the porch, and maybe I dream of kites and movie stars, or maybe I see snip­pets of mem­o­ries that can only be recalled in dreams, but not for long. Soon enough the front door’s dead­bolt snaps back, wakes me, and I hear Susie set a gro­cery bag on the kitchen counter. She calls my name and I slow­ly, hinges creak­ing, get up off the couch and go see what she wants.

~

Steve Lambert’s writ­ing has appeared, or is forth­com­ing, in Saw Palm, Chiron Review, New World Writing, New Contrast (South Africa), The Pinch, Broad River Review, Longleaf Review, Emrys Journal, BULL Fiction, Into the Void, Cowboy Jamboree, Cortland Review, and many oth­er places. In 2015 he won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction con­test and in 2018 he won Emrys Journal’s Nancy Dew Taylor Poetry Prize. He is the recip­i­ent of four Pushcart Prize nom­i­na­tions and was a Rash Award in Fiction final­ist. He is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Heat Seekers (CW Books, 2017), the chap­book In Eynsham (CW Books, 2020) and the fic­tion col­lec­tion The Patron Saint of Birds (Cowboy Jamboree, 2020). His nov­el, Philisteens, will be out May 2021, and his sec­ond full-length poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Shamble, will be out in October. He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daugh­ter, where he teach­es part-time at the University of North Florida.