A Second Chance
Hugh Carnes gripped the padded leather of his steering wheel. Ripe fields of wheat, burnished red in the twilight, rushed by as his tires edged over the double yellow line.
He stared through the windshield, mind churning and thought of the things that declared his success: a large corner office with a private bathroom, leather seats in his Mercedes, an expensive house in an exclusive subdivision. But, it wasn’t enough. What had become of the life he’d dreamed of? Every time he made another ruthless business deal he lost a piece of himself and now there wasn’t anything left. The man he could have been, so many years ago, was gone.
Hugh turned up the car radio to block out his thoughts. A tree whipped by and then another. His foot pressed against the gas pedal and the tires searched for a grip on the pavement. He leaned forward and held the steering wheel steady. Its ridges were embedded in both palms when he slid into the next curve.
Hugh stood under the first of the evening stars watching the steam rise from the crumpled hood of his car. The front fender hugged the trunk of an oak tree that had been growing for a hundred years.
The silence was broken by a faint hum. A single headlight shimmered then disappeared behind a rise in the road. The sound of a motorcycle grew louder until tires skidded to a stop on loose gravel at the side of the road. The rider snapped down the kick stand with the heel of his boot and swung his long leg over the seat. He took off his gloves and laid them on the handlebars. The back of his black, leather jacket bore the name Spirit Riders emblazoned in white. A rawhide shoe lace held his gray hair tied at the base of his neck.
“Hey Buddy,” the man said as he slipped down the grassy embankment. “That’s quite a dent you’ve got there. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Hugh snorted and turned back to his car.
The rider held out his hand and said, “I’m here to help you. My name is Timothy, St. Timothy, actually.”
“St. Timothy, huh?” Hugh said, neglecting the man’s hand.
Timothy shrugged and turned to show Hugh the back of his jacket. “Club name,” he said.
“So you haven’t come to save my soul?”
“I think you need a tow truck first. There’s a Waffle House down the road. I’ll give you a lift. They have a pay phone. Your cell won‘t work out here.”
“I’ve been down this road a hundred times. There’s no Waffle House.”
Timothy turned and walked back up to the road. “Sure there is. You can call for help there. Are you coming with me?”
Hugh scrambled up the ditch and slipped on the damp grass. “I haven’t seen a motorcycle like this in years,” he said.
“It’s a Kawasaki, A7 Avenger, 350 cc’s.” Timothy lifted his leg over the seat. “Takes me anywhere I need to go.” He kicked the starter and the low rumble of the engine broke the silence of the night. Hugh swung his leg over the back of the bike and settled behind the old biker. He rested his hands on his thighs.
“Hang on to the handles on the saddlebags,” Timothy said over the noise of the motor. He twisted the accelerator and Hugh felt the engine’s vibration in his legs as they pulled out onto the road. The wind whipped past his ears and his heart raced as they leaned into the curves.
The yellow letters of the Waffle House sign glowed, suspended above the road. Bright fluorescent light spilled out of the diner’s windows, creating a shimmering island in the dark.
“I’ll order us some coffee while you call for a tow truck. The pay phone’s in the corner. There should be a phone book there too,” Timothy said as he sat in a booth. The orange vinyl seat was split. A piece of duct tape held the material together.
“A pay phone? It’s got to be the last one on the planet,” Hugh muttered. He pulled some change out of his pocket and went to make the call.
A waitress set two beige ceramic cups and a silver pitcher of cream on the table as Hugh walked back to the booth. He saw her wink at Timothy and pat his shoulder.
Hugh slid into the other side of the booth and tested the coffee. “This is good.”
“Best coffee around,” Timothy said.
Hugh flipped through the selection of songs for the jukebox. They were all oldies, real old oldies. He tried to slip a quarter in the slot but the coin was too large.
“You need a dime,” Timothy said.
“I didn’t know there was a juke box left that took dimes.” Hugh slipped the coin in the slot and punched F5. Paul Revere and the Raiders started to sing Just Like Me. “I remember dancing to this song on Saturday night at the armory. I met my wife at one of those dances. She was only seventeen.” He sighed and looked out the dark window.
“So what went wrong?” Timothy asked.
“I make my living forcing other people out of business and I do it well. I never made it to any of my son’s football games. Hell, I even missed his graduation. And it’s been so long since I held my wife and told her I loved her, she would push me away if I tried it now.”
Hugh set his coffee down and nodded his head toward the back of the diner. “Does that pinball machine work?”
“It sure does.”
“How about a game before the tow truck gets here?”
Timothy scored 100,000 points plus two free balls. When he was finished with his game, Hugh put in a quarter. “Now you get to watch a master. I used to spend hours playing.” He guided the shiny, silver balls with gentle nudges to the machine. He grew engrossed with the game as the score increased and the silver balls became fewer.
“Tilt? Come on.” Hugh slapped the side of the machine.
“Try it again,” Timothy said.
Hugh slipped another quarter in the slot. The balls ran down, lining up in a row. “I wish I could try my life again. I’d just like a chance to do it better,” he said. “Do you have a family?”
Timothy shook his head. “They wouldn’t fit into my life.”
“Don’t you get lonely? You can’t be a biker forever.”
“That’s just it. I can be a biker forever. Once in a while someone like you comes along and makes it possible. What if I could give you a second chance?”
“Ya right. I’m to believe you can give me that?” Hugh pulled the spring-loaded knob and sent a steel ball clanging through the game.
“Say you could do it over. What would you be willing to pay?”
“Name a price.”
“Not money. Would you give up your wife?”
“No, of course not.”
“How about part of your life?”
Hugh hesitated and leaned on the machine. “What do you mean?”
“Would you be willing to, say, give up ten years?”
“If I could do it over, sure it’d be worth it.” Hugh turned back to his game. “So what do you get out of this if I agree?”
“I receive half of the years you give up.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Hugh said.
“You’d die at fifty-three instead of sixty-three.
“I’m sixty-three now. What makes you think I’m going to die?”
“You succeeded tonight. You died back there in the ditch,” Timothy said.
Hugh gripped the sides of the pinball machine. He hung his head and listened.
“You went through the wind shield and broke your back against the tree.”
Hugh lifted his head and looked at Timothy.
“I can give you another chance, if you agree to the price.”
“That’s the going rate.”
“Tell me what to do.”
“Walk out the door, you’ll figure out the rest.” Timothy said.
Hugh hurried across the diner and swung open the door. He stepped into the night. When he turned back the building was gone. He was standing on the side of the road, his legs encased in blue jeans with a pair of Converse sneakers on his feet. His hands were those of a young man and when he touched his face it felt lean and smooth, not the loose jowls he was used to.
A pair of headlights topped the crest of a hill and Hugh waved his arms over his head. A battered and rusted pickup pulled onto the gravel berm.
“Can you give me a lift into town?” Hugh asked.
“Sure, hop in.” A weather-beaten man in coveralls leaned across the seat and pushed open the passenger door. Hugh climbed into the cab.
“What’s a young feller like you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Heading home,” Hugh said.