Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a collaboration with Emilio, where I write a story inspired by a photo he provides. It’s completely my fault! See, Emilio gave me this photo to write for September. I have no excuse for my delay, other than 2015 isn’t landing at the top of my “best year ever” list If you haven’t checked out Emilio’s blog before, you really should – click his name to link to his site…. I gave you three chances here! I’ll stop rambling now – the story begins right after the photo.
I had a knack for finding the broken ones. I would take them in. I would love them. I would lose myself in them. Each time, I thought my heart was full enough to make them whole. Each time, the shine tarnished and I escaped with a little less of me.
My present is made up of their pasts, the cracks in my broken heart filled with pieces of their pain. Desperado, Cat’s in The Cradle, Father of Mine, Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough… their burdens set to music. As I sped down the remote highway, I played each and every one of these songs, over and over. It’s funny how the years of heartaches wrapped in catchy melodies slid along the hardened spaces of my soul with such ease. At least the tears reminded me that I was still alive.
This time, I didn’t care if I lived to give again. Phillip had been my latest broken bird, on the verge of falling into the dark abyss. I scooped him up and nurtured him. For three years, he greedily fed on my love and affection until he was strong enough to fly. And he flew all right… straight to my ex best friend, Sarah. I took his bad and gave him my good. It all cancelled out in the end and left me… empty.
Off to the right, a row of rusted old cars and a seen-better-days ranch caught my eye. On impulse, I pulled onto the shoulder, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel behind me. When the dust settled, I stepped out of my car and eyed the street sign perched atop a leaning metal pole. I didn’t know which was more ironic; the fact there was a street sign marking a span of dirt that could barely be considered a road, or that the sign read “Opportunity Way.” I doubted opportunity traveled back-roads.
I walked for a little ways until I came to a waist-high wooden fence that encircled the yard. For a time, I perched on the fence, staring at the row of cars. I couldn’t help but relate to them; we had all been shiny and something to look at back in the day. But now… well, I cried.
I didn’t want to think about it, but I suspected I would always see the lost ones, broken, looking for validation and something that felt like love to make them okay for a while. I could see my future so clearly… like beggars pleading for loose change, their eyes would search mine for a bit of my soul they could have. On my strong days, I would turn my head and quicken my pace. “I don’t have any,” I would mutter. It would be true. If God was merciful, they won’t pursue me. They would see I was as broke… broken… as they were. They would sense I had nothing to offer, no hand to grasp in desperation.
I startled, losing my balance and fell back into someone’s arms. I twisted my neck and glimpsed a not-completely-unattractive man, possibly in his early fifties. Exactly what I don’t need. I jerked my weight forward and steadied myself on the fence.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“I didn’t thank you.”
The wood bounced as he hoisted himself to sit next to me. He shrugged. “I was overlooking your lack of manners.”
I clenched my jaw, but kept my gaze focused on the cactus that took root next to the blue car. “Speaking of manners, it’s not polite to interrupt someone’s thoughts.”
He smiled. “Maybe not, but when the thoughts are thunk on my property, those rules don’t really apply.”
“You’re right. I’ll go.” Before I could slide off the fence, he touched my arm.
“You’re welcome to stay.” He shifted his gaze toward the cars. “Lots of people come here to think. It keeps me in business.”
“Business? What kind of work?” I thought maybe mechanic, but his khaki pants and pastel blue polo shirt didn’t fit.
“I’m a companion broker, you could say.”
“Companion broker?” The words tumbled around in my head as I tried to figure out what that meant.
He laughed. “Lemme explain. I help fix people. This highway is traveled by lots of lonely people; people with heavy stuff on their mind. Sometimes all they need is human connection.”
My eyes widened. “So you’re a pimp? That’s horrible!”
He lifted a rhinestone and gold-plated Zippo from his pocket and lit the cigarette hanging from his pressed lips. “No, not a pimp. I mean, sometimes people are looking for that, but usually, they just want to talk so they don’t feel alone.”
“Not a pimp, huh? That blinged-out lighter says otherwise.”
“Hmph. One of those.” He shook his head and exhaled a trail of smoke.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shrugged. “Bitter, disillusioned and bearing scars of past loves. I’m guessing you’ve convinced yourself you’re on a journey to find you, but really, you’re running from who you are.” He paused to exhale another puff of smoke. “You judge me because it makes you feel better about yourself.”
“Listen, Mr…. Mr. whatever-your-name-is, you may think you know my story, but you don’t!” I clenched my eyes shut, hoping it was enough to keep the tears back.
“They call me Big Guns.”
I stifled a laugh. “Big Guns?”
He pushed up his shirt sleeve and flexed, I think. “See what I mean?”
I saw a barely perceptible bulge in his bicep. I shook my head, “I’m sorry, but those aren’t even purse pistols.” I laughed, almost forgetting that moments ago, I wanted to cry.
“Come on,” he said as he hopped off the fence.
I didn’t move. Following him seemed like insanity.
“Trust me. You need to see this.” He held his hand out, waiting for me to grasp it.
Impulsively, I took the invitation and his fingers curled around my hand. “Is it more impressive than what I’ve seen so far, Mr. Guns?” I shocked myself with the flirtatious tone in my voice.
This time he laughed. “I think you’ll be amazed. You can call me Thomas.”
I followed Thomas to the row of rusted cars. With his back to me, I slipped my tinted gloss from my pocket and swiped a quick coat on my lips.
“These cars were my dad’s hobby, but he passed away three years ago. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, yet I don’t have the expertise needed to restore them either.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“I found another way to use them to honor his memory, though.” He opened the door to the first car and gestured for me to look inside.
Paper filled the inside of the car clear up to the windows. “What is all this?”
Thomas smiled. “These are letters from the lonely. We’re all broken in some way and these letters allow those passing through to let go of some of their burdens.”
“What do you do with the letters? Do you read them?”
“I don’t read them. I leave them here so the intended recipient will find them. There’s no such thing as coincidence; our paths cross for a reason. Some people write letters, but others read them and take one with them when they go. All I ask is that writers include their name and phone number, and when you take a letter, you contact that person.”
Companion broker… it made more sense. “Do these people ever meet?”
He shrugged. “Some do. I’ve gotten a few letters thanking me, but really, I’m just doing God’s service.”
Thomas smiled. “I used to be a pastor but disagreed with the human way of organized religion. So, I decided to minister to people on my own, according to God’s word and Jesus’ principles.”
My cheeks flushed. “I-I’m so sorry, I called you a pimp.”
“And you laughed at my biceps.” He closed the car door and led me to the blue car. “I think this one might have what you’re looking for.” He pointed to a notepad and pen on the dashboard. “Write a letter, or take a letter, it’s up to you. Take your time.”
I watched as Thomas shuffled away, dust trailing behind him. A pastor. Unbelievable. I turned my attention to the mounds of paper filling the car. I shoved them aside so I could sit. I wondered why he thought I’d find what I was looking for here. I didn’t even know what I sought.
I grabbed the paper and pen and wrote my first tentative words. The rest of the words followed swiftly and before I knew it, both sides of the page were filled. I hesitated. Then with a deep breath and long exhale, I scrawled my name and phone number. After I dropped the paper onto the pile, it felt like a weight had been lifted from inside me.
The dense pile swallowed my hand, and my arm up to my elbow, before I grasped a page. I held it up so I could focus on the scrawled words. I can’t believe I’m writing a letter to leave in an old car for some stranger to read. I smiled. My letter started similarly. By the time I got to the end, my eyes blurred. I swiped the wetness from my cheeks with the back of my hand.
My breath caught as I stared at the familiar name. A buried past, exhumed and resurrected by one hand-written letter. I folded the page into fourths and shoved it into my back pocket. Twenty years felt like a span of a few breaths. That letter transported me from middle age to mid-twenties. I stepped out of the car and slammed the creaky-hinged door behind me. The thought crossed my mind that the old car was a time machine of sorts.
Maybe Seth had been right back then… that love wasn’t enough. Maybe I was right in my proclamation that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Maybe right or wrong no longer mattered.
All I knew in that moment was that I needed to find out.
Thanks so much for reading! If life cooperates, the plan is to have another Emilio photo/story collaboration posted in December. Stay tuned