Chapter 1

Trailing a thin wisp of blue smoke from the exhaust pipe, the white Saturn pulled into the driveway of the two bedroom wood frame house. With tires creating a crackling sound as they passed over small chunks of concrete that had splintered off the paved drive, the car slowly approached a detached garage. The driver parked the car in front of the garage, not bothering to shelter the old car out of the weather. The fifteen year old car had sat outside the garage for most of its life.

Burl climbed out of the car; pausing a moment to lean heavily on the door. He looked as tired as his car. Or was it vice versa? Even the shield announcing his profession as a mall security guard looked dull. It had been a long day walking around the mall protecting stores from the occasional shoplifter and customers from the frequent skateboarders.

Everything around him look tired. The houses, dating back to the 1940s, were in varying degrees of dilapidation. They had been built to house families working in factories that produced equipment for the war. They had been built quickly and cheaply. As a result they hadn't weathered the years all that well. The factories were gone, but the houses remained. All were occupied although there were a few that would require a bit of work to get them into salable shape.

He walked up the driveway taking note of the three foot wide strip of grass that separated his drive from the one next door. The grass was starting to turn brown. Fall was coming to an end and the weather would be getting a lot colder. There were enough green tufts sticking up that he'd have to mow it one more time before putting the mower up for the winter.

He was about to climb the three steps up to the side door of the house when his neighbor stepped out of her door. She called over, "Uh, Burl?"

"What's up, Kat?" Burl asked while turning to look at the attractive young woman.

She was wearing a little black dress that looked out of place in this neighborhood. It was low cut enough to show the gentle swell of her breasts. The hem was high enough to show off enough thigh to make a man dream for just a little more. Her long hair had been released from her usual pony tail. She wore just the right amount of makeup to look natural.

"My mom is sick. She can't watch Herbie tonight and I've got a date. I can't aff ... I mean, I'd hate to miss it," Kat answered looking panicked at what she had nearly said.

"I'll be glad to watch him for you, Kat," Burl answered wondering what she had mean to say.

"Thanks. You're a lifesaver," Kat said.

"Do you need me to feed him?"

"Nah, we ate earlier," Kat answered. Flustered, she added, "I mean, I all ready fed him."

"Okay," Burl replied.

"I better get Herbie ready," Kat said.

"Just bring him over when you're ready to go," Burl said.

Kat said, "I'll be over in ten minutes. I don't want to be late."

He watched her go into the house thinking it was sad that a woman her age was a widow. He felt the country should provide better benefits when a woman lost her husband in defense of the country, but it didn't. It was a shame, but he was just one man and no one wanted to hear his opinion on the matter. Sighing, he went into the house to prepare a dinner.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock on his door. He opened it to find Kat standing there holding Herbie's hand. He nodded at her before looking down at Herbie. The six year old was carrying a coloring book and box of crayons.

Smiling, Burl asked, "How's it going, Herbie?"

"Same old, same old," Herbie answered.

Burl laughed at the greeting. He asked, "Have you been hanging around your granddad?"

"Yep," Herbie answered with a broad grin.

"I got cartoons on the television. You know where it is," Burl said while gesturing into the house.

Herbie rushed into the house excited at the prospect of spending an evening watching cartoons. It was a rare treat.

"I really want to thank you for watching him," Kat said.

"No problem. It'll give me some company for a change," Burl said.

Burl lived a rather isolated life outside of work. His evenings were spent watching history programs and reading books. His Sundays were spent doing house work, laundry, and yard work. There were times when he found something he could do to help someone, but those opportunities were less common than one might believe.

His lonely lifestyle wasn't by choice. His Saturdays were spent at work and that limited his ability to socialize Friday nights and Saturdays. Even if he was able to break free, it wouldn't do him much good. He hadn't met a woman who was interested in dating him. He wasn't the kind of man women found attractive.

Kat frowned at hearing that. She said, "I really appreciate you doing this for me. I won't be out too late."

"Don't worry about it, just have fun on your date," Burl said.

"Ya, right," Kat said with a frown.

He watched walk over to her seven year old Hugo. It seemed to him that she wasn't all that excited about having a date that evening. He'd be jumping up and down. Of course, he didn't go out on dates. Dates were something that younger, better looking people did. He closed the door thinking, 'She's attractive and I'm not.'

He called out, "Hey, Herbie! I'm making Macaroni and Cheese. You want some?"

"Nah. I had that for dinner," Herbie shouted back.

"There's plenty for both of us," Burl called out.

He went over to the stove and looked at the noodles that were boiling. He had been a little quick in his attempt to cook something Herbie would enjoy eating. Packaged macaroni was cheap, filling, and quick to prepare. It made sense that she had served him something like that before heading out on her date. He should have thought about that.

He opened the grocery store package with sliced ham and dropped the meat into a frying pan. He sighed and turned up the heat under the ham. It was going to be another gourmet meal – macaroni and cheese, fried ham, and a chilled single serving container of canned pears.

"Uncle Burl?"

Herbie came into the kitchen while a commercial was airing on the television.

"What Herbie?"

"Are you making the kid's kind of macaroni and cheese?" Herbie asked looking around for the box.

"You bet. I got the box with the cartoon dog on it," Burl answered.

He held up the box for Herbie to see. He always kept a box of macaroni and cheese that was printed with a kid theme on it for those times when he babysat Herbie. He didn't really care what was on the box, it all tasted the same to him. It didn't matter if the pasta was weirdly shaped.

Herbie grinned at seeing the box. It always surprised him that Uncle Burl kept stuff around specifically for him. It made him feel special.

"I'll take some. Momma made the adult kind. It was the white box with black writing on it. She said that it was on sale," Herbie said.

"Well, you can have some of the kid's stuff," Burl said.

Feeling a little guilty for serving Herbie macaroni and cheese, he wondered how many boxes of the stuff the poor kid ate that week. It seemed to him that Herbie ate cold cereal every morning, bologna sandwiches every lunch, and either hotdogs, spaghetti, tuna fish casserole, or eggs with corned beef hash for dinner. That reminded him that he might want to invite them over for hamburgers, corn on the cob, and potato salad either Saturday or Sunday night.

"Great," Herbie said.

Burl heard the commercial end and the cartoon start. The boy ran back into the living room to watch some more cartoons. Herbie wasn't going to miss a single minute of cartoons. One of the local broadcast station showed cartoons in the late afternoon and all of the local stations had them on Saturday mornings. Herbie wasn't going to miss one minute of cable cartoon shows.

Burl knew that Kat was overwhelmed with bills. Her late husband had a reasonably good job until he joined the service. That had hurt his income, but there had been other benefits that offset the loss. They had managed to get by while he was in active service.

His death had devastated the family's budget. It had taken her far longer to collect benefits than she had thought it would. When the insurance money finally arrived, she spent it to cover the costs for the funeral and to payoff a significant fraction of the mortgage on the house. She had refinanced the house to make the payments easier to afford. A few repairs to the house, such as a new roof and a paint job, had eaten what little money had been leftover from the insurance money.

Her financial strategy had worked initially, but prices had gone up, tips had gone down, and her car required frequent repairs. Now she was left with a small widow pension and a waitressing job at the local diner that just didn't cover the bills.

She was doing okay until recently. The kindergarten program had increased the price of their after school program. The heating oil company came out to service her heater and had declared it was a hopeless cause. The burner was over thirty years old and had to be replaced. Not satisfied with VA healthcare, she tried to carry a health insurance policy to cover her and her son.

When Burl had found Kat crying about her financial woes, he had told her that she could get free tv by getting a special antenna and converter for her television. When he brought over a 'used' antenna and converter, she had immediately canceled cable television. Since then, Herbie couldn't wait to watch cartoons on Burl's television.

Dinner didn't take too long to cook. He prepared two plates. For Herbie, he put a little ham, cut up into small pieces, on a small plate along with a small serving of macaroni and cheese. He added two slices of canned pears on the plate thinking a growing boy could always use extra fruits in his diet. He loaded his plate with everything leftover. He carried the plates out to the living room.

Herbie was seated on the floor next to the coffee table. His coloring book was open to a picture of a sail boat. He was coloring the sail while watching the cartoon. His ability to stay within the lines was inversely proportional to the attention he was giving the cartoon. So far the cartoon was winning.

Burl put Herbie's plate down on the table along with a spoon. He knew Herbie had a problem using a fork when it came to small items like peas, macaroni, and corn. There would come a time when Herbie would be insulted by the presence of the spoon, but that was a while in the future. Until then, it was just easier to cut up the food into bite sized chunks and give him a spoon.

Burl said, "Eat up."

"Wow," Herbie said wide-eyed.

He picked up a small chunk of ham using his fingers. He didn't get meat like this very often. The piece of ham was quickly followed by a slice of pear. He felt that eating utensils were only required when the food was too messy. It was a view not shared by his mother.

"I thought you'd like that," Burl said.

"I love it," Herbie said.

Although there was a lot more food on his plate, Burl finished his meal before Herbie. It appeared that not only was Herbie's ability to color inversely proportional to the attention he gave the television so was his ability to eat. The food disappeared off the plate almost by magic when a commercial came on the television.

Once he had finished eating, Herbie asked, "Uncle Burl?"

"What?"

Herbie asked, "Why does momma cry after her dates?"

"Maybe she misses your daddy," Burl answered.

"I miss him too, but I don't cry," Herbie said.

"Why not?" Burl asked.

"Big boys don't cry," Herbie answered trying to sound tough.

"Sure they do. Cowboys cry in their beer," Burl said.

He figured that Herbie missed his father and didn't know how to deal with his emotions. Getting in touch with his feelings of loss would probably do him some good. Cowboys crying in their beer would give expressing his sadness about losing his father legitimacy. Burl wasn't of the mindset that men ignored their feelings. Of course, he wasn't of the mindset that men went around wearing their emotions on their shirtsleeve.

Herbie asked, "Really?"

"That's what the songs say," Burl answered. "I bet young cowboys cry in their root beer."

"Maybe I should be a cowboy," Herbie said. It was both a question and a statement.

"Maybe I should buy you some root beer," Burl said.

"I'd like that," Herbie said.

"Remember, you've got to drink it real slow so that you finish crying before you finish your root beer. You don't really cry into the glass. You just take little sips while crying. I think that's part of the rules," Burl said. "If you follow the rules, no one can call you names."

"I'll 'member that, Uncle Burl," Herbie said.

The next cartoon started and Herbie turned to watch it. Burl sat back and picked up the book he was reading. He figured he'd get through a page or two before the next commercial. Herbie tended to watch the cartoons and then chat with him during the commercials.

The only problem with his plan was that his mind wasn't really on the book. He kept wondering about the things Kat had said about her date. She had been a widow for more than four years now. Burl felt she should be getting on with her life. She was pretty enough to be able to attract about any man she might want. A nice stable boyfriend would be good for her. Herbie needed a good role model.

The evening progressed with Herbie watching cartoons and Burl reading a book on the Civil War. This was his fourth book on the subject over the last month. It wasn't that he was particularly passionate about the Civil War, but he found it somewhat interesting. The idea of brother fighting brother sickened him and he wondered how emotions could have run so high.

He wasn't a political type of person, but he felt at times that the country was on the verge of another civil war. This one wouldn't be along state lines although state rights was one of the issues that today's conflict had in common with the civil war. There were two very polarized political philosophies at play and he didn't like the direction the conflict was headed.

Television coverage of current events was extremely polarized. It had stopped being a presentation of the facts and became incessant espousing of opinion. It was so bad he couldn't watch the news any more. Instead, he watched history programs and read books. He read a lot of books.

"Uncle Burl?"

"What, Herbie?"

"If you had to be a superhero, which one would you like to be?" Herbie asked.

"The Pillsbury Dough Boy," Burl answered.

"He's not a superhero," Herbie protested.

Burl replied, "I know, but I already look like him."

Herbie laughed and then said, "You do."

"So which superhero would you like to be?" Burl asked.

"Captain America," Herbie answered.

Burl said, "That's a real good choice."

"My daddy was a lieutenant in the Army," Herbie said.

Burl said, "I know. He was a good man and would have become a captain before long."

"Why did the eye-rackies kill him?" Herbie asked.

His grandfather was always talking about the damned eye-rackies. He blamed the clowns in Washington for sending his son over to be killed by the damned eye-rackies. Herbie wasn't sure what eye-rackies were, but he didn't like them. He wasn't sure why his father went where a clown told him to go. The fact was that he was confused by the whole thing.

Burl answered, "I don't know. There are just some bad people in this world."

"I'd like to kill them all," Herbie said.

"No you don't. Superheroes don't kill people. They catch them and take them to jail," Burl said.

"I know," Herbie said depressed, "but they killed my daddy."

"I was proud to know your father. He was a good man. He loved you and your mother a whole lot," Burl said.

"So why did he join the Army and get killed?" Herbie asked.

"He loved you so much that he wanted to make a better world for you. He thought if he was able to get rid of some of the bad men that the world would be a better place," Burl said.

"Grampa says that we should just nuke the eye-rack," Herbie said.

"I'm sure he does," Burl said.

"I don't get it. Why put eye-rack in a microwave?" Herbie asked.

"He means to bomb it with an atomic bomb," Burl said.

"That makes sense," Herbie said.

He noticed that the commercial was over and turned to watch the television. It was a new set of cartoons. This particular show was about kids rather than superheroes.

Burl hoped that the new cartoon would end the questions about Herbie's father. It always made him uneasy to talk to Herbie about his father. He liked and respected Jimmy. The man had been a good neighbor and it was shame that a man like him had died so young.

Taking him by surprise, there was a knock on the side door. He glanced at the clock and realized Kat had only been gone for two hours. Since a date usually lasted longer than that, he was pretty sure that his visitor wasn't Kat. He wondered who would be knocking on his side door, since everyone else he knew used the front door.

Opening the door, he was surprised to find Kat standing there. Her eyes were red and she had lost the makeup around them. It looked like she had been crying.

"Oh, you're back. I guess the date didn't go well," Burl said.

"It went well enough," Kat replied.

"You're back early," Burl said puzzled by her reply.

Kat said, "I'll get Herbie out of your hair."

"He's been great. He's busy watching cartoons. Would you like some coffee?" Burl asked.

"No. It's been a long night," Kat answered.

Gesturing inside the house, Burl said, "Okay. Come on in and we'll collect Herbie."

"Thanks," Kat said.

While walking through the kitchen, Burl said, "I was thinking of cooking some burgers outside tomorrow night. Would you and Herbie like to join me?"

"That would nice," Kat said.

"I'll make some corn on the cob and potato salad," Burl said.

"I can bring over some pudding," Kat said. They had reached the living room. She looked over at Herbie and said, "Time to head home."

"Can I watch some more tv?" Herbie whined.

"No. It's getting late," Kat said.

Taking his time, Herbie gathered together his crayons. He had dumped them all out earlier, but now he put them back one at a time while keeping an eye on the television. If he worked slow enough he could possibly get in one more cartoon.

"Herbert!"

"Yes, mom," Herbie replied.

She didn't need to say a word about why she was yelling at him. She always used the same tone of voice when he was dithering. He started putting the crayons away two at a time.

"Are you okay?" Burl asked concerned by her appearance and demeanor.

"I'm just tired," Kat said.

Burl said, "Are you sure that you wouldn't like a cup of coffee or tea?"

"No," Kat answered sharply.

"I don't mean to pressure you. It's just that you look a little upset," Burl said.

"Thanks for the offer. You're a nice guy, Burl," Kat said putting a hand on his arm.

It seemed to her that he was always there reaching out with a helping hand. If she hadn't had such a bad night, she would have enjoyed a cup of tea with him. All she wanted at the moment was to be alone.

Herbie finally packed away the last crayon. He walked over to his mother and said, "I'm ready."

Kat said, "Thanks a lot for watching him tonight."

"My pleasure," Burl said.

He walked the pair over to the side door and let them out. He said, "Good night, Kat. Good night, Herbie."

"Nite, Uncle Burl," Herbie said.

"Good night, Burl," Kat said.

Burl watched the pair make the short trek across the two driveways to the side door of Kat's house. He was worried about Kat. Her behavior suggested that something pretty bad had happened on the date. She came home less than two hours after leaving on her date, her eyes were red from crying, and she was claiming that eight at night was late. Something was definitely wrong and he had an idea what it was.

He went into his office and started up the computer. After ten minutes of surfing the net, he stared at a webpage feeling sad. There on the page was a picture of woman in a bikini who looked a lot like Kat although her face was blurred out. The ad stated she was available for one night only at the rate of a hundred and eighty dollars an hour.

Anguished, he said, "Oh, Kat. You didn't!"

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Slow /