Bradley, don't climb, the boy's mother says as she pries him off the bronze left shoulder of Sam Walton. She dusts the boy's coat. *Wait here a second. She begins digging in her purse. Her grey, sweatpants'd husband holds a point-n-shoot digital camera. The wind is inconveniencing him. The fog is inconveniencing him. Sorry, sweetie. I'm looking for a tissue. Every word his wife says shatters like glass. He's been on the road too long. Of all the places, why make a pilgrim's stop at Kingfisher, Oklahoma?
It's the 7th of December. A day FDR said would live in infamy. It's also my birthday (thanks for setting the stage, Roosevelt). And here I am. Making my own pilgrim's stop at a subpar statue marking the birthplace of Mr. Sam Walton with no one for company but a green thermos and these tourists.
While his mother is distracted, the boy tears at yellowed grass. He pretends to feed the blades to Sam Walton's open-mouthed and unexplained canine. The husband sighs.
Ah! I found them, the mother reassures. Grimacing, as though shards of her words have lodged in the far corners of his brain, the husband asks,
Are we ready?
Not bad. The tiny bubbles from the champagne firecracker on my tongue as I lower the green thermos. Reminders of spilt coffee dot its sides like the little, overlooked coastal islands of New England. Reaching? I know. But I'm learning to take notice of things, Sam. Patience.
I got into town before the liquor store opened. I vultured behind steering column. After a glance, a longhaired shopkeep with an oak cask belly shook his head in disdain for my entire generation. Turned the key. Flipped the sign from closed to open. Not to appear eager, I waited for a commercial break on the radio. I walked through. A bell chimed. Thirsty, son? the shopkeep asked.
I always am at the sound of a bell, I responded.
Let me get this off real quick, the mother says to Sam Walton as she wipes dry, white bird **** off a deep-cut wrinkle in his bronze forehead. Can't take a picture with you looking like that. The mother turns around. Offers an unsteady, white flag smile to her husband. Looks down at her boy. Bradley, stop playing with the grass. I mean it. Drop it. Stand by Mommy. We're going to take a picture.
Whiskey modge podged with ***** with wine with gin. Champagne. Champagne. Confused? lines joyously sparked from the edges of the shopkeep's eyes and lightning'd down his cheeks. Making him seem pleasant for the first time. Proud, even. I've organized the drinks by country of origin. Notice the flags?
What does France's flag look like?
France is over here. Looking for a wine? Perhaps a rich cognac? He led me down a densely packed aisle. Little ratings cards jutted out underneath each bottle.
I see. I see. Is something ending or something beginning?
The boy places his hand on the dog's head. Pretends to ruffle its frozen fur.
Click. A flash goes off. Automatic.
Now can we leave? the boys pleads.
Why are you being so antsy?
It's just another stupid statue. I'm tired of this stupid trip. I just want to go home.
Today's my birthday. I lowered the champagne as I poured it into the green thermos. I kept watch for shoppers and cart crewmen in the parking lot. No one seemed to notice the transfer. The shopkeep ended up selling me an American bubbly. Silent Girl. I liked the artwork. A large-breasted woman with puckered lips stared down the sights of a .44 pointed directly at the drinker. Black and white. Refreshing to see someone so up-front.
The mother opened one of the rear doors on the family's Tahoe. No, you don't get a toy. Brats don't get toys. Brats get quiet time. She slammed the door.
Just you and me, Sam. A drink. Sorry, I didn't bring another cup. I lean in close. Trace the wrinkles of his forehead, where the sculptor stuck his knife deep. As I do, my own wrinkles become more apparent.
You know I heard a minister talking about you a week ago. I remove my hand from Sam's face. Take another drink. Apparently, your last words are his claim to fame. He said your nurse divulged them to him. You should see him. Each church he visits, he opens with, 'Anyone know what Sam Walton's last words were?' He doesn't ease into it or anything.
'Sam Walton's last words were actually, I blew it.' Can you believe that? 'I blew it.' Don't worry, Sam. I didn't buy it. That answer is for the customer. Not for truth. People love to think at the end of your successful trajectory, you'd just Solomon out. Fizzle. 'Vanity! Vanity!' I'd like to think there you lied in your hospital bed. In your private room. 7th Floor. Curtains open. Blue sky free of blackbirds. Your family around you. And your mouth tasting like metal. Like blood. The gears of your existence grinding to an end. And I bet you hated everyone in that room. Your wife wiping spittle off your mouth with a red handkerchief. You pushing her arthritic claws away. I bet one of your grandkids was at the end of the bed. His hair unwashed for two days. Uncombed for six months. A tall cow suckling your success. And I bet that clumsy hair was blocking the television. You told him to move.
When he moved, something horrendous was on. A soap opera. Something frustratingly ironic. General Hospital. Hit the red button. Called in the nurse. And your last words, 'Change the channel.' She put it on a Cowboys game. You watched Aikman throw an interception. Closed your eyelids. Changed the channel.
It's the 7th of December, Sam. It's my birthday. A milestone, Sam. So, there's cause for change. I told you the same ambition in you coursed through me. That I too, had sat in the back booth of diners alone -- conspiring. And while you're eternal bronze, while you're family photos, I'm mortal to a fault. But allowed to change my mind. I don't want to be ambitious, Sam. That's what I came to say. I'm not coming back to wail at this wall. Legacy, you taught me, is not in my hands. Even if I make a helluva go at it on this sphere, I run the risk of getting turned into half a statue with an idiot dog sidekick. You can dam a river, but ultimately rivers don't give a ****. They flow where they please.
That's the end. The beginning is that I can go anywhere from here. That's worth celebrating. I tilt the green thermos and let champagne run down Sam Walton's still face. This river runs onward. Without fear of legacy, of memory. I'm going to love, Sam. I'm going to love fully. Onward. While you stay put. A stupid statue.
Sam Walton is silent. Quiet time.