He was tough. And poor. I suppose the two go hand in hand sometimes. He grew up fast, without any choice in the matter. Not having money can do that to a child.
We worked together. I didn’t know him well—he was too hardened to have any friends. Each morning, he’d show up to my house on a bicycle, I’d give him a ride to the job-site.
When his little brother needed eyeglasses, he took a second job stocking UPS trucks at night. Because of this, he’d show up most days with baggy eyes, sipping a two-liter bottle of Mountain-Dew. During lunch, he’d sleep in someone’s car until they woke him.
Sometimes, we’d just let him sleep.
He rarely smiled. I don’t think anyone ever heard him laugh. And I can’t say I blamed him. His mother was a custodian, his sister was a middle-schooler, his father was an inmate, his brothers called him, Daddy.
On his twenty-first birthday, several of us forced him into a Mexican restaurant. It was a miracle he even agreed to come.
But it was a good night. At first, he was uncomfortable. After a few drinks, he loosened up. We laughed, got loud. The waiters put a sombrero on him, they sang happy birthday in broken English. He blushed.
We howled until we went into oxygen debt.
After supper, all the boys stood out front, filling the night air with blue smoke. Nobody said a word to each other, we just exchanged sappy grins—like we were up to no good.
He didn’t like our looks. “What’s going on, guys?” he finally said.
Nobody moved a muscle.
Then, a dinged up truck came rolling from behind the building, honking its horn. It was junk, but it had a fresh Kelly Green paint-job—the kind done with roller brushes. The front bumper was a bolted-on four-by-four. No tailgate. Broken taillights. The tires were brand new.
He didn’t know how to react when we all screamed, “Happy Birthday!” His face stiffened, and he wore the hard glare of a fighter. Not even a blink.
One boy handed over the keys, saying, “It was my dad’s truck, hasn’t run in years. We got’er going again, fixed’er up, runs good.”
“It’s yours,” the boy added.
He didn’t look like he cared. He only lit another cigarette and pretended as though he were on planet Mars. He was tough to the bitter end.
After all, that’s what this world had taught him. Never trust anyone, never get hurt. And never, under any circumstances, let your guard down. He was doing a pretty good job at that.
Until he noticed our hands were covered in green paint. Then his face split wide open.
We embraced him.
And then he drove straight home and gave the truck to his mother.