Drive Safely, Eleazar
Eleazar hadn’t been home for some 13 years. He was up in Iowa trucking for some company out of Cedar Rapids or Sioux City or who knows where. Folks, like myself, down in Panama City, Fla., thought of Iowa as nothing more than a lot of rolling hills of corn with a few no-nonsense towns scattered between pig-infested farms.
Like a dazed guest, Eleazar walked down the County Pier at 10 at night. I could hear his footsteps coming toward me. He still wore cowboy boots. No doubt he had parked his tractor-trailer at the Pier Park. How often the two of us had gone out into the Gulf, fishing for sea bass, only to catch a slimy squid or a useless remora or at most a measly stingray. Often Jimmy, who lived up around 9th Avenue on St. Andrews Bay, would join us. I knew Jimmy and Eleazar like I knew what was in my tackle box. Both of them were good guys.
Eleazar was kind of a worrywart. He always had a question plaguing him but was never good at finding answers. You’d never find him in a library pouring over books, looking for answers to the deep questions of life. If he wanted an answer, he would ask someone he knew. The problem with that was that most of the guys he knew didn’t know much about anything, except what was biting out on the pier. Including me.
Now Jimmy Laundre was different. Jimmy just didn’t ask questions. Either he did a lot of thinking long ago or maybe his parents taught him everything he knew. He knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was pretty much what his folks had wanted. You could say he wasn’t very original. Nothing too complicated, nothing too serious. Things had to be well oiled. He walked around with the image of the perfect wife in his head, and Audrey, his wife, had to fit that mold. Whatever happened to Jimmy, no one around here really knew. Some say he went east to the Carolinas and worked for a paper mill. Eleazar supposedly had kept in contact with him for years, but even he eventually lost contact with him.
I always had a vague sense of what Eleazar was doing. He used to write a postcard or drop a line, just to remind me that he was alive and kicking. His postcards never came from a place that he visited, but rather from a truckstop where he was having his coffee. One time he sent me a postcard from New Hampshire. It was a picture of the Currier Museum of Art. The next time he called, I asked him how he liked the Currier, but he had no idea what I was talking about. I pictured Eleazar pulling his Kenworth into a Pilot or Petro Shopping Center late at night, fingering through a few postcards on some lonely, wobbly stand, getting a cup of black coffee and sitting off in some corner to write a few meaningless words to me.
Basically, it was to kill time or to make those interstate connections with the few friends he had left in this world. You see, most of the people Eleazar knew were either dead or had moved away a long time ago. As far as I knew, I was the only friend Eleazar still had in Panama City, where we both grew up.
For some reason, he wanted to see me. I told him, “On Friday nights you can still catch me out on the pier fishing. Drop by. I’ll be on the far end.” And just so he understood I’m not what I used to be, I added, “I don’t drink like I used to, and I ain’t going up Front Beach Road looking for anything.” He said he wasn’t looking for trouble or liquor, but he would be there around 10 or a little after if he could “squeeze his schedule some.” Something was cooking in his head. He was awfully determined to see me.
The sky was naked, like the stars had gone up to Alabama for the night. But I remember casting my line and looking out in the ocean like it was one deep, creepy wall of darkness. The longer I looked at it, the more I got the feeling I was looking into a haunting abyss. It had the color of death. I wasn’t having a whole lot of success that night either – just a few wrinkled, slim remoras. A few of the kids came around. I was just telling this curly-haired Hispanic kid in lipstick-red flip-flops that remoras like to stick to the backs of sharks when I heard the footsteps coming to an end. I knew Eleazar had arrived.
“Hey, Lune,” he said and then cleared his throat.
I looked up. Eleazar had gotten older. He had lost a lot of his hair. Although we had been communicating for years by phone, I hadn’t seen him in 13 of those years. There he was – flannel shirt wide open, the tail flapping carelessly in the wind, and a pair of useless sunglasses bobbing in front of his Adam’s apple.
“Well, well, well