“Yeah, I’ve read the Bible – a couple of times,” Elbert said. “And most of what’s on that shelf.” He motioned with his head toward his bookshelves. “Keep reading.”
Rich took another swig of his Pepsi and looked around the room again until a football helmet arrested his attention. It was on the floor next to his desk. It was distinctive. It was black. Rich moved his head to see a decal of a lightning bolt on one side and a tornado on the other. “That helmet, where did you get it?”
“It’s mine,” Elbert said.
“I’ve seen that helmet before,” Rich said and suddenly it came to him. “Are you Bert Callahan?”
“I used to be Bert Callahan,” Elbert said smiling.
“You were the best football player in the city,” Rich said. “You played for the Knights. You won the city championship twice. Everybody was afraid of you. I watched you play when you were in junior high. I remember the game you touched the ball only four times. Each run was for over 50 yards. The only thing that stopped you was the end zone.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Elbert said grinning. “What happened?”
“Well, yeah,” Rich said, “what happened.”
“When I started into high school, I noticed that everybody else started to get as big, and as fast, as me. Simply stated, I stopped growing and everybody else started growing and went right around me. When my mom and I moved out here, my sophomore year, I left my legacy behind.” He paused to take a drink of his Pepsi and so did Rich. “That was probably the best thing for me.”
“What do you mean?” Rich asked.
“Just what you’re thinking now. Everybody would have expected too much from me and wondered whatever happened to Bert Callahan? Now you know. I remade myself.”
“And renamed yourself,” Rich said smiling.
“And I’m happy with both,” Elbert said with a satisfied smile and downed the last of his Pepsi.
It took two more gulps for Rich to finish.
“Ya got a football?” Rich asked.
“Down in the garage,” Elbert said.
“Let’s toss it around for a while,” Rich said motioning his head to the backyard.
“Sure, why not,” Elbert said.
They tossed the ball around for about a half hour and played some two-hand tag. Elbert was fast and quick. On several occasions, Elbert was able to elude Rich like it was his first year of midget football. They even tackled each other a few times.
“Look at you,” Rich said joking. “You ain’t so much.”
Elbert replied, “I’ve been hit harder by girls. You got a good set of wheels, man. You got some speed.”
“They must have been big and ugly girls,” Rich said.
Elbert began to laugh and so did Rich. They gave up playing football and walked back to the garage. “I got to get gone,” Elbert said.
“Yeah, me too,” Rich said.
“That’s crap,” Elbert said smirking. “You got nothing to do all day long.”
“Yeah, you got that right,” Rich said smirking.
He got in his car and Rich got on his bike.
“If you’re not doing anything Saturday afternoon, drop by okay,” Elbert said and started the car.
“Sure,” Rich said, “see you Saturday.”
Elbert backed down the drive and stopped. He waited for Rich to ride up on his bike. “Be yourself. Even if you can’t be yourself on the outside, be yourself on the inside. Always know who you are.”
“I got a nickname for you. It’s what I call you in my mind. I’ve never said it to anyone else,” Rich said.
“What is it?” Elbert said.
“Johnny Slick,” Rich said. “Mr. Hatton told me that you told him you were too slick to get enough traction to run away.”
Elbert pressed his lips into a tight smile, looked for traffic, backed into the road, and purred away in his blue ‘59 MG.
Saturday, Rich rode his bike to Elbert’s.
He was expecting to take a ride in his MG. It was exciting just to think about it. Elbert was interesting to talk to. He was intelligent without condescension or pretense. Rich had much to learn from him. He wanted to talk about what he had read and hear about what his plans were so that he could take them home and live them in his own mind. Rich knew that no matter where Elbert went or what he did, it was bound to be an adventure.
“Perhaps he might write or send postcards to me,” Rich thought.
Elbert’s car wasn’t in the driveway, but the family car was in the garage.
Rich peddled up the driveway and pushed down the kickstand. He walked up to the door and knocked. A slim woman came to the door in black slacks with a wide red belt, lipstick that matched, and a leopard spotted blouse. She had black hair – really black. She held a drink in a glass that looked like whiskey. Rich did not detect the odor of whiskey, it was likely covered by the overuse of perfume.
“Is Elbert around?” Rich asked.
“Are you Rich?” She said with a smile that tried to be friendly, but unintended seductiveness leached through.
“Yes,” Rich said politely, “Elbert asked me to come over today.”
“Come in,” she said. “I’m Elbert’s mother.”
Rich stepped inside the house. It was neat and clean but saturated with the smell of cigarette smoke and perfume.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” Rich said.
“I’m afraid that Elbert won’t be here,” she said. “He decided to leave home. I don’t think he’ll be back for a while. He’s always wanted to go to California and down in some god-awful place called Baja. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes,” Rich said. “It’s just south of California into Mexico.”
“That boy sure has a wandering mind,” she said as though perplexed. “Oh, he wanted me to give you something.”
She left the room for a moment and returned with a Bible. She handed it to Rich. “There’s an envelope inside with your name on it. That’s funny,” she said scratching her head. “I never knew him to be a religious person, but ya know he never cusses, that I know of.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Percival,” Rich said and walked to the door.
“If he calls, I’ll tell him you dropped by,” Mrs. Percival said as she walked Rich to the door.
“If he calls tell him I said thanks,” Rich said. “And thank you, Mrs. Percival.”
Rich opened the envelope on the way to his bike and read a typed note:
I’m sorry I did not show up this afternoon. Perhaps we shall meet again, but if not, I wish you the best. Whether you read this Bible or not is up to you, but if you do, when you get to the part about the Prodigal Son, learn from it. It’s okay to leave. Take only what you need and make sure you never put yourself in the position that you must return.
Rich slid the letter back into the Bible and tucked it under his arm. He rode home thinking deeply about what Elbert wrote. The possibilities frightened Rich.