THE GIFT
by
T. Thornton Gray

Elliot pulled the crumpled bills from the pocket of his grease-stained jeans and pressed the creases out with his fingers. Twenty-three dollars. Enough to get him through the night, if he was careful.

“Coors light,” he ordered, “and some nuts, please.”

“Sure darling,” Jan, the waitress, smiled thinly at him, her voice raspy from cigarette smoke.

He regarded her as she walked away. He knew that he was nobody’s darling. She spoke to all of her customers that way. She was thin without much shape with straw-like hair. (The kind you found working in low class bars across the country. The kind that took guff from no one. The kind that elegantly resigned to their fate of working their life away for lousy tips and unmet promises.)

He wished that he could leave her a nice tip. But if he did that it would cut his evening short.

It was the usual crowd. Mostly men from the shops around this industrial section of town. Elliot sat at his usual table, alone. He was no one’s favorite person. He was okay with that. The beer was good and went down smooth. Its familiar taste so welcome to his mouth, though it seemed to give him less of its promises every day. Less of a buzz and shorter in duration. It no longer dulled the ache or filled the void that expanded from inside him. He would have to order a shot of something. It would tear up his stomach but it would help him. Help him to… he did not know. He just had to try. Try and feel… different.

He looked at his hands, dry, cracked and knuckles scrapped raw from twisting wrenches in impossible places, increasingly trying to do things he did not fully understand. The grease so imbedded it would never come out.

Then Tony came in, he pushed through the door and sauntered in like a spotlight was on him. He tugged at the cuffs of his Italian suit. A suit that clung to his beefy frame like Saran wrap. Two more slick-haired men followed. They stepped up to the bar and glanced over the place.

“Amaretto,” Tony ordered.

Elliot laughed to himself. He had known Tony since grade school. He was always the goon. Always the tough guy, and happy to play the part. His mean streak and propensity for bulling had paid off. He had taken up with the local mob and he reveled in it. He dressed it, acted it, did it. Now an enforcer for Lucio Corbucci the reigning mob boss.

Tony had always treated him decent. Even offered to get him a job. Elliot was a lot of things but he was no criminal, and he sure did not want to work in an organization where one mistake could get you a bullet to the head.

Tony caught sight of him and turned to Jan behind the bar. “Bring another of whatever he’s drinking. On my tab.”

He pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Elliot.

“You look like shit.” Tony greeted.

Elliot shrugged.

Tony sat back in his chair and shook his head. “Man, what happened to you? You used to be bad ass. You had that Camaro, what was it like, a seventy-two?”

“Seventy.”

“Yeah, nothing could catch that thing. You with Stephani on your arm, cruisin’ through life like you had the world by the balls.” Tony said.

“Things change.”

“Things changed but you didn’t. You could be making bank, having some fun but no.” Tony leaned forward in his chair. “Elliot, I’m telling you this for your own good. You’re pissing your life away trying to pickle your brain and for what?”

Elliot gazed into the depths of the amber liquid in front of him.

“For a piece of ass that left you over three years ago. I gotta’ tell yah, that’s some mental shit.”

Elliot took a swig of his beer, smiled thinly, and nodded.

“Hey, I got some news that should cheer you up. Maybe help you move on.” Tony said.

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“Things are about to go sideways for that bitch.”

“Stephani?” Elliot asked.

“Yeah, you know she’s getting married, right?”

Elliot’s grip tightened on his glass. “No, I didn’t know that.”

“She has fallen in with one Calvin Baxter. You heard of him?’ “No.”

“He’s the District attorney. Apparently, the youngest Denver has ever had. He thinks he’s hot shit and has a hard-on for Mr. Corbucci.”

Elliot sat, letting the words bounce around in his head, striking every emotion he had but
understanding none of it.

“I’m telling you this cause I know I can trust you and I really want you to have some sort of satisfaction. I can trust you, can’t I?”

Elliot nodded.

“Very soon Calvin Baxter will be no more.”

“And Stephani?” Elliot asked.

Tony shrugged and sat back in his chair. He downed the rest of his drink and smiled at him.

“Are you the one that’s going to…” Elliot asked as he searched behind the man’s grin.

“No. Mr. Corbucci has special, shall we say, subcontractors for such work.” Tony said then snapped his fingers at the waitress. “Can we get those drinks over here?”

“So, when’s this going to happen?” Elliot said as he tried to draw Tony’s attention back to the table.

“Why, you wanna watch?” Tony grinned.

“Maybe,” Elliot said.

“Sorry, I’m not high enough on the pay scale to know that. You’ll have to hear about it on the evening news.”

Elliot nodded and finished his own drink.

***

Elliot was a jumble of thoughts and emotions. The alcohol had done little to sooth the firecrackers going off in his mind. He walked more briskly than he intended, almost running into the homeless man who wavered back and forth on the sidewalk. The news of her engagement was like a punch in the gut. Why did this always come back? The slow burning hole in the center of him. Why did hearing her name cause a meltdown? Why does she still have such a hold on me?

***

Elliot trudged into the shop, his body sluggish, like cold molasses from the lack of sleep. To his surprise, he saw his boss, Sid, sitting on a stool at the workbench. He sat staring at the floor. Not the usual manic-everything-must-get-done fervor that he normally displayed.

Elliot moved to his tool box noting that Sid did not even look up.

“You know,” Sid’s voice broke the silence, as he held his thumb and finger about an inch apart. “I was this close.”

“What’s that?” Elliot responded.

“All of these years, I hustled to get what I have. To get to the point that I can enjoy life,” he said as he stared at nothing.

“Yeah,” Elliot said as he peered at the man. “You done really well.”

Sid met his gaze. “Cancer,” he said.

The word hit Elliot like a rock hurled into a pond.

“I just found out; I have cancer.”

“Oh,” Elliot stood awkwardly before of him. “I’m sorry.”

Sid looked at him for a long moment then nodded and stood. “There’s a Chrysler in your stall. Needs a diagnostic,” he said, then turned and walked to his office.

Elliot watched him open the door and step inside. Watched him pull his chair up to his
computer and study its screen, like he had done a thousand times before. (Elliot was never close with the man; in fact, he figured his boss never really liked him. But he did feel bad for him. A man so driven. A man so sure of his path.)

***

Instead of the Bar, Elliot found himself at his storage unit after work. Elliot’s mind had twisted into knots. Knots that twisted straight through to his stomach. His entire essence was once again focused on her. Stephani’s memory was an acid burning through his existence. He pulled open the bay door and peered in at the dust covered Camaro. Its paint now faded with patches of primer on the fender and quarter panel. A far cry from its former glory. He shimmied between it and the wall of the confined space until he got to the car’s trunk. He inserted the key and opened the lid. The space was completely stuffed with cardboard boxes, the remnants of his past life. He came to a metal surplus ammunition box. He pulled it out and popped the latch. Then withdrew a functional replica of a Navy Colt cap and ball revolver. He gripped it in his hand and admired its lengthy barrel. He had the thing since childhood, at one time it was his most prized possession. He twirled it in his hand like the heroes of his youth. A skill practiced for hours while watching Clint Eastwood movies in his parents living room, another lifetime ago. He sat it aside and rummaged through the canisters of black powder and lead balls to find an envelope. He opened and withdrew a photo. A picture that he had set out to destroy many times, but it had always gotten tucked back into this box. It was the only thing he kept. The only evidence of that chapter of his life. It was of him and Stephani, in front of a Ferris Wheel. The happiest time of his life. The last time he had hope for the future. He studied the picture. Remembered her face. Her fine nose with the slightest hint of freckles, her deep hazel eyes and pouty lips. The flow of her auburn hair around her slender neck. The smile that melted his heart.

That night at the carnival, he realized that for once in his life that he was happy, in a place of satisfaction. A state that he had never realized before or since. He recalled Stephani’s laugh and the sparkle of life in her eyes, and the comfort of her presence. The satisfaction was because of her. The loss of it was like being blindsided by a Kenworth. The hurt was too great. It would have been easier to handle if she’d died. Taken from him by some accident or illness. But that was not the case. Stephani left him. Not for another man. She just wanted to be rid of him, growing dissatisfied with him, even disgusted at his sight. She just wanted to be away from him.

He picked up the gun again. The pain had placed it in his hand many times before. Offering its quick, final relief, but like the photograph it had always gotten tucked back into the box. The weight in his hand so much more than the mass of his significance. So much less than his enormous cowardice.

***

The Camaro sounded strong; its high-strung big block throbbed into the night with a chirp from the tires. It felt good. Like old times. When he knew where he was going. When he was something.

***

The Walgreens was vacant. Its floor gleamed in the florescent light. Elliot’s boots, the only sound other than the canned music from unseen speakers. He scanned the area. She wasn’t here. He stopped in the middle of the greeting card aisle. His gaze fell on the wedding cards. He shook his head, then pulled one from its slot. He opened it then saw the movement out of the corner of his eye.

The sandy-haired woman scurried to her post behind the cash register. He turned on his heel and made his way to the counter.

“Elliot,” the woman said as her eyes grew wide.

“How have you been, Nancy?”

“Okay,” she said, dropping her gaze.

“I’m guessing you’re going to be a bridesmaid here pretty soon,” he smiled.

“Please don’t make a scene at the wedding,” she said glaring at him, “I know you aren’t
invited.”

“No, it’s not like that,” he said. “I just need to talk to her.”

Nancy reached out and put her hand on his. “Listen, I am sorry she treated you the way she did. But you just wouldn’t quit. You couldn’t learn that it was over.” She looked into his eyes. “It’s over; it will never again be like it was.”

Elliot swallowed hard. “I know that. This is something different. I need to talk to her. Do you know how I can get ahold of her?”

“No. I won’t tell you anything, Elliot,” she said as she pulled away. “Just let it go.”

“This is important.”

“No,” She said, “You need to leave.”

“Nancy please, her boyfriend is in danger.”

“Please leave,” Nancy’s eyes narrowed. “Now!”

“Nancy,”

“I’ll call the police.”

“Okay, okay,” he said. He reached over the counter and snatched a pen from next to the register “Can you just give her this?”

Nancy eyed the card as he began writing in it. He paused then shook his head, then continued to write.

“Just give her this, please.” He said as he stuffed it into the envelope, laid some crumpled bills onto the counter, then held the card out for her. “Please.”

Nancy nodded and took the card from him.

***

Elliot’s head was lost in a replay of the past. Ghosts of his pathetic self were again so alive and so vivid in his mind. Remembering his own pleading and crying, like a fool. Begging Stephani not to leave him. Hanging on so desperately.

It was the slam of Nancy’s screen door that brought Elliot back to the moment. She scurried down the walkway to the battered, old Grand Prix in her driveway as she fished the keys from her purse.

As her car came to life so did his Camaro from where it was parked just a couple of driveways down the street. The Grand Prix moved to the end of the block before he pulled out.

So many thoughts raced through his mind. But they continually came to one recurring scenario. He could be there for her. A comfort in her grief. She could again love him. Again, be his.

Nancy’s car pulled into the large parking lot of Spring Creek Park. She parked at the base of a large concrete stairway that ascended steeply and split in two at a large planter of flowers and continued up to where most of the park sat. Elliott watched her scurry up the steps as he climbed out of his car into the late afternoon sun. Though it was a warm June day, he pulled the tails of his leather jacket down around his belt. As he followed, he paused at a sign that was a map of the expansive park. He took note of a grease pencil name in a space marked “reserved.” The name was Baxter under Pavilion B, with today’s date and tomorrows next to it.

As he reached the top of the stairs, he was surprised at the size of the park. Lush trees dotted the carpet of grass that held playgrounds, a soccer field, volleyball pits, benches and picnic tables. He paused at the bike path as the ticking gears of a ten-speed bicycle came up from behind.

The brilliant yellow of the bicycle policeman’s uniform flashed by as the officer nodded at him. He nodded back as he again tugged at the hem of his jacket. He caught sight of Nancy as she hurried across the park.

The pavilion was an amphitheater-type structure. It offered limited shade with a solid backdrop of mosaic tile. Racks of folding chairs sat ready to be dispersed across the lawn in front of the structure.

He watched Nancy greet a man who looked way overdressed in his dark priests’ cassock. A handful of people milled about the clergyman.

Then Elliot’s chest grew tight and a lump grew in his throat as he saw her. He moved behind the concealment of a lilac bush; his hand trembled as he reached to move a branch for a better view.

Stephani was devastatingly beautiful. The feelings for her came back like a flood of warm fragrant perfume. So aromatic, so pleasing and familiar. Yet so distant, so foreign.
He watched the girls hug each other and laugh. Remembered Stephani’s slightly nasal laugh and how it made him laugh along with her.

He decided to move closer but didn’t see the man approaching from behind and almost collided with him.

“Sorry,” Elliot said.

The dark-haired man met his gaze with piercing blue eyes. He was impeccable in a polo shirt, freshly pressed pants and loafers. Such a different man than himself.

“No problem,” the man smiled genuinely, and patted his shoulder before moving on.

Stephani lit up, like a Christmas tree angel when the man approached. She excitedly spoke to him, then buried herself in his arms. This was Calvin Baxter.

Elliot moved on to a picnic table and sat where he could watch, still transfixed by his
former love. He watched them follow the directions from the priest, where to stand, which way to walk, the words that would be said.

He saw a beauty in her that he had never perceived before. It was the way she looked at him, this Calvin Baxter. She had a look he understood immediately. A look of satisfaction and adoration. A look of happiness, of love. The look that he had once held for her.

The voyeurism continued as the sun began to set. He watched the woman he loved beam with happiness and realized that she was right. It was right to leave him. A man without purpose or merit. He knew that he could never bring her the happiness she now had. The happiness she deserved. He had no future to offer. No hope. Only a lifetime of drudgery ending in bitterness and disappointment.

The rehearsal broke up and the couple strolled away together.

His legs felt like rubber as he stood and stole one last glance at her. She leaned her head into Calvin’s shoulder, as they turned his direction.

Better stay ahead of them and beat it to the parking lot.

As Elliot reached the top of the steps his attention was drawn to the throbbing motorcycles in the parking lot below. Four Harley Davidsons pulled up to the base of the steps, their riders kicking out the kickstands.

He slowly descended one step at a time as he studied the riders.

These were no weekend bikers. These were serious dudes. Three of the massive men dismounted as the fourth scanned the parking lot from behind dark sunglasses. The oldest of the men stared up the steps as the other two fell in on each side of him. He had a gray beard, braided into a knot under his chin. His bare arms were covered in tattoos of swastikas and Nazi SS symbols that morphed into more intricate designs across his chest, partially hidden by the patch-covered black leather vest. The two younger men, were adorned with similar ink. One, whose entire neck was wrapped in a tattoo of an eagle, its wings extending to the back of his neck under his chin.

Elliot had made it around the planter and was now directly in their path. He glanced back at the top of the stairs. Stephani and Calvin would soon be there.

As he turned back, he glimpsed the pearl grip of the nickel plated 45 in the belt of the lead man.

This is it.

Elliot let out a long slow breath and pulled the front of his jacket away from his own belt. He slid the length of his Navy Colt from it and looked at the men climbing the steps.

“Hey Dickheads,” Elliot called.

The gaze of all three men met him at once. All three went for their weapons.

The colt belched a geyser of fire and smoke from its barrel, its lead ball deposited square in the leadman’s chest. The cloud of black powder smoke filled the air, partially obscuring the man to his left.

Elliot stepped left as he thumbed back the hammer and brought the barrel right, finding
the wings of the eagle and the rising muzzle of a Mac-10 sub machine gun. The Colt fired again and blew a hole through the tattooed wings. I guess you hit what you look at.

A hail of lead sprayed across the steps in front of him from the Mac, as he now shifted to his right and brought the newly cocked gun back to the third man. He felt the bullet whiz pass his ear as his sights found the third target and fired. The third man dropped as Elliot brought his attention back to the parking lot and the lone biker who franticly mashed his thumb on the starter button on his motorcycle. He then felt the impact. Like a sledge-hammer blow to his back. He twisted to find the Bicycle cop on the stairs behind him a smoking Glock in his hands. He turned the Colt on him as the officer struggled with the gun in his hands. Elliot could see the spent shell stuck in the Glock’s ejection port effectively jamming the policeman’s weapon. He pointed the Colt at the horrified face of the officer and gazed into his terror filled eyes. Then twirled the gun in his hand and stuffed it in his belt. He turned and descended the steps as the lone Harley sped out of the parking lot below.

“Stop!” the officer yelled as he cleared the jam.

Elliot did not stop but descended the steps two at a time on his way to his car.

The policeman raised the Glock and trained it on him then lowered it and grabbed the radio mike strapped to his shoulder.

A lucky decision put the Camaro behind the Harley as darkness crept in on the streets. Its rider became aware of him a moment too late. He twisted the bike’s throttle in desperation at the red stoplight as the Camaro rumbled up behind him

Elliot mashed the peddle until the car’s bumper caught the rear tire of the bike and sent it into an ever-increasing wobble until it finally pitched sideways and sent its rider to the savagely hard street.

Elliot climbed from his car, the colt in hand, as the biker groaned on the asphalt. Elliot
approached peering into the road rash covered face. The man reached for his belt, but Elliot kicked his arm away and pinned it with his boot.

“I’m going to let you live so that you can do one thing for me,” Elliot said as he made sure the man was looking at him.

“You hear me?”

The man nodded.

“Tell your boss if he tries to hurt Mr. Baxter, or anyone associated with him,” He said and then leaned his weight onto the man’s arm. “Especially anyone associated with him, that I will personally put an end to him. You got that?”

The man nodded again as police sirens wailed in the distance.

Elliot returned to the car, pulled open the door, noticed the blood on the seat, and for the first time really felt the pain in his lower back. He eased into the car and put it into motion.

The darkness was almost complete as the sirens grew louder. They would soon find him.

He pulled into a secluded gas station. His headlights swiped the two teens in gang colors loitering at the side of the building. He stopped the car in front of a sign that read restrooms and looked at the boys who eyed him like a piece of cheesecake under glass.

Leaving the car running, he climbed out, pulled a rag from under the driver seat, and did his best to wipe the blood from the seat.

He then looked at the teens again. “Could you guys keep an eye on my car? I really have to piss.”

The two looked at each other and smiled.

“Yeah, sure,” the larger of the two answered.

Elliot pushed through the restroom door. His steps wavered as he approached the dingy sink.

He was losing blood fast. He pulled away his jacket to reveal the blood-soaked t-shirt. The bullet had gone completely through.

He looked at himself in the polished metal mirror as he heard his Camaro screech from the parking lot outside. He studied his face, shook his head then chuckled until the pain stopped him. He used all the paper towels and the strap from the baby changing table to try a make a bandage. He tossed the wadded t-shirt in the trash and put his jacket back on. He paused at the door as two police cruisers sped by, their urgent cry commanding the evening.

Confident that they were gone, he pushed through. He made his way across the street to a skywalk that took pedestrians over a series of railroad tracks. He stood at the bottom step like a frail old man almost too feeble to climb them.

More brilliant strobes of red and blue came down the street and encouraged his movement.

Apparently, I’m a big deal.

Sweat poured from his brow at the top of the skywalk. His hands gripped the chain-link that prevented people from throwing things onto the tracks below. In the distance on the other side, he saw the ever-growing cluster of emergency lights congregated around a car. His car.

The Camaro was parked sideways on the next street.
It looked good, he thought, it was a cool car.
Two terrified teens exited the car, their hands stretched to the heavens before being ordered to drop to their knees. He would have laughed if it did not hurt so much.

They would soon know these guys were not who they were looking for.

The crackle and drone of a police radio could be heard from the area somewhere near the bottom of the stairs from which he came. It was midway across the walkway that it became apparent by the growing number of the police cars that this was not the direction to go.

He looked through the chain-link at the long line of railcars that extended into the darkness below.

It’s not that far a drop, he thought.

Then he found the seam. A slight bulge in the overlap of the chain-link fencing that lined the walkway.

With a shove, it pushed away. He could get through. The dull throb of pain became agony as he twisted and pulled his body through the opening and onto the mere inches of concrete that protruded from the fencing on the outside of the skyway. Blood- stained fingers clung to the chain-link like a cat to its scratching post as he turned to look below.

The drop was at least eight feet to the railcar below. A long drop for sure. And the rail-car underneath was a tanker. Its curved metal surface would be tricky to land on. He thought of climbing back through, but the release of the trains air brakes pierced the night as the cars clambered in a thunderous response.

“Screw it.” he said and let go of the fence.

The impact was savage as a bone jarring shock shot through his legs and into his frame. His legs pitched away on the curve as his hands thrust out for support. His left-hands fingers managed to hook the bars of the railing of the manway that surrounded the loading hatch. He dangled like a side of beef on a meat hook, but his fall stopped. Somehow, he swung his other arm around and pulled himself up.

The train was moving when he finally maneuvered himself to where he could lean back on the short chimney of a loading hatch that protruded from the top of the car.

He watched the officers grow smaller as they crossed the walkway behind. The train gained speed and moved away from them. As the train paralleled the street, he had an even better view of his car and the uniformed men that poured over it. Then they too grew small and disappeared into the tapestry of the city.

A coldness came over him, though he knew it was not from the breeze. He leaned his head back on the hatch, tired. Tired of the fight, tired of it all. He closed his eyes as the train moved under an overpass.

Elliot couldn’t have known that at that moment on the street above, passed a BMW carrying the woman he loved. Or known that she leaned into her fiancé secure in his presence. So thankful. Thankful things did not turn out worse. Thankful things were still alright.

It was a while before Elliot opened his eyes. When he did, the train was on the grassy plains, heading north he figured. To the east, far-off thunderheads were visible only by the occasional illumination of the lighting from within. Far too distant to hear the sound of the thunder.

The pain in his side was growing. He reached down found that his gun was wedged tight against his belly. He pulled it out and looked at it. It was covered in blood. So much blood. The gun was heavy, very heavy. He let his arm fall to his side and watched the storm. Soon his eyes closed again. He never felt the gun slip from his grip and tumble to the tracks below.

***

Elliot woke with the rising sun. It was a moment before he realized he was on the tanker car bleeding like a stuck pig. The train had stopped, it seemed in the middle of nowhere.
He climbed down the iron ladder at the back of the car and dropped down onto the gravel.

Before him was the twinkling surface of a pond, shimmering in the rising sunlight. Unsure feet took him to the water’s edge and the ducks that squawked as they paddled out to safety.

Elliot smiled and sat down, falling the last little bit. The water was tranquil in the green of the surrounding foliage, like the place his old man once took him to fish.

He was cold but the sun felt good.

A fish jumped, disturbing the surface of the water.

This was a good place. He leaned back, comfortable enough to let his heavy eyelids shut.

***

A beautiful bride beamed as she walked down the aisle to the expectant groom, who was so eager to receive her. She was so pleased that her dreams had come true. That life could be just the way that she dreamed it. Her grin widened, and she basked in the moment surrounded by the love of friends and family. She knew that this was a gift. A gift from God.

***

At a small pond along the train tracks, two kids used their fishing poles to poke at the body of a man.

“I think he’s dead,” One of them said as he jabbed with more force.

“Yep, he’s dead,” The other verified through wide eyes.

***

The reception was finally winding down. Many of the gifts had been opened with laughter and happy tears. Stephani pulled a card from the basket and opened the envelope. She read the inscription as her new husband peered over her shoulder.

“It is a true blessing to find love. Congratulations. I am happy for you. With love, Elliot.

“Hmm,” she said, with surprise in the softness of her eyes.

“Who’s Elliot?” Calvin asked.

Stephani stared at the card for a long moment.

“No one really,” she said, as she closed it, “Just a ghost from the past.”

“Well, it’s a nice card.”

Stephani nodded and replaced it into the envelope. “What’s next?” she asked looking at the gifts.