Flint held court at the Metro: “Boat of a Cadillac pulls up, docks alongside the curb by where I’m sitting with my cigarette. Once saw a Caddy lashed with big floats launched into a pond. Didn’t take but ten minutes to sink. The car coughs exhaust and I’m taking a drag and I get a bit of both and sound like the car. Here I am watching these cars speed by, one after another, one after another, little bumble bee pods and fast four-wheel tanks, one after another, one after another, people yapping away on those phones, kids staring out the windows mistaking it all for a TV screen, and I’m thinking look at them go, look at them go. Who knows where any of them are off to but they’re sure as hell going somewhere.”
A phlegmy hack from deep in Flint’s chest disrupted the story for a moment as he dislodged the mucus. He coughed a mouthful into his handkerchief, looked at the product of his effort none too subtly and continued: “So the Cadillac’s there. I try to drown my cough with coffee but I can’t taste the coffee or the cigarette all I got in my mouth is exhaust, on my tongue, in my throat, up my nose and I want to see who gets out of this maroon beast. It has handicapped plates, handicapped stickers, and one of them blue handicapped danglers from the rear-view and I think Christ some old fool, too old and weak and alone to be able to keep the car up to snuff so the owner’s decided to kill all the rest of us as he waits to die. I stamp out my cigarette in the ashtray and the front passenger side door swings open. I was right. This old man, nothing more than his tired old veins and a rack of bones for his old-man-brown jumpsuit to be draped over, pulls himself out of the car. On the sidewalk he dodders in place, like he’s been on a ship for months. Happened to me once after about twenty days out at sea. Walked along the quay in Dakar and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t not sway. You feel helpless.
“I think why does he even get out of bed in the morning? So he looks around a little, no idea where he is. He steps back to close the door. He pushes it with both hands and that nudge is so slight that the door doesn’t so much get shut as set back into place. Everything about it is delicate. I shit you not, I hear the clasp of the lock engage, like it was pulled from the inside. So the door closes and this plank of a man still has both his arms outstretched and wavers on his own counterforce. Wavers, sways, a half-step back, knocks his heel out of his slip-on canvas loafer and finally a rattling fall. Even before he hits the ground I know there is no way this guy’s getting up without being picked up so I go over and give him a hand and by this time a lady just as old but clearly in better shape is there from out of the driver’s seat and we’re both crouching over him. He says he’s alright and I lift him up and prop him against the car.” Flint stopped the story to drain the last of his beer. “He looks at me and says, Thanks old man.”
Behind the bar Anita shrieked, the few men on either side of Flint cozied up against the bar laughed. Flint nodded, his lips tight, his cheeks flaccid. He stood up, eased the empty glass across the bar to Anita, plucked a few bucks off the pile he had let grow over the course of the night and gave the crew a wave goodnight. He pulled his worn, red plaid loggers jacket on amid protest from all. Flint explained that he has an early morning appointment.
“Let me buy you one more for your day’s good deed,” Anita said and as Flint paused in consideration she added, “Old man,” and the laughter started anew.
Flint said, “Old man? I’ll tell you all something. Old men fall down.” And with that Flint walked away.
Filmed by the early morning’s frost the windshields on the street made Flint think of the chilled glasses Anita paired with the cans of Lone Star beer he always ordered when drinking at the Metro. I’ll celebrate tonight. The little bruised percolator he brought back from Italy clamored on the hot plate. Seven years in the army and all he really got from it was a good cup of espresso. He had done his time with the Army Corps of Engineers not because he was an engineer but because he had worked on the old International Foot Bridge in Laredo. It reached across the Rio Grande right into Mexico. Since Flint had dealt with what at the time was revolutionary technology in the world of bridges, the powers that be deemed him fit to deal with bridges all over the world, especially bridges that had been blown up or were sure to be blown up. Back then, maybe 1929, maybe 1930, Flint couldn’t pin down exact dates anymore, he had been in charge of the aluminum siding designed especially for the purpose of quick removal during heavy rain storms when the Rio Grande flooded. Back before the aluminum, floods would pick up all sorts of debris that got caught in the old welded metal framework turning the bridge into a dam making it impassable and causing all sorts of havoc along upstream banks. During one of these storms he rescued a piglet and named it Chloe, a name he always liked, a name he gave to his daughter years later.
Flint set the coffee to cool. He went to his room to double-check everything. He had a 9:30 appointment. His bag was in order but he needed his black woolen cap. He hadn’t stayed up late enough the night before to see the weather. When he woke up this morning he had no idea it would be so unseasonably cold. It would warm up claimed the radio but Flint wondered about all the people in Dallas on this December morning without ice-scrapers. He looked out at the lick of fog over the city shimmering in the big-sky morning sunlight. Flint sighed a single laugh, the condensation a quick poof on the windowpane
Out of the garment bag hung on the crooked bar in his closet Flint dug his cap out of his winter jacket’s pocket. He pulled it on. At least my head hasn’t shrunk. Over the past couple of years Flint’s wardrobe required regular additions to keep him from looking homeless in clothes too big. The cap still felt right on his head. Damn, got this in Italy too. One of the few times it ever snowed on the Mediterranean, he had requisitioned it from a depot on the eastern front. The war still chilled Flint.
From the mug, cupped in both hands, Flint sipped the dark brown warmth and felt soothed. The coffee purged the chill. He put the mug down and played with the hat, unfolded the flap and pulled the ski mask down over his face. He thought of Detroit, years after Italy, years before now, a time when it snowed all night and then rained, the whole city coated in a sheet of ice. Branches fell under the glassy weight; the wind off the lake violently polished everything. Blinded by the light he hammered at the ice and snow with his shovel just to get out the door as his breath icicled the mask. Especially in younger days, it took a severe freeze to make him really cold.
Flint rolled the mask back up into a brim, took off the cap, folded it in half and laid it on top of his bag. One last glance into his shirt pocket to make sure he had his insurance card, Flint glanced at the clock on the nightstand next to his bed and decided it was about time to get going. Out the door by 8:40, get to the bank right at 9:00, in and out, plenty of time to hoof it over to his doctor’s office. Not that Flint had ever met this doctor. It took him seven weeks just to secure an appointment, only after his insurance sanctioned her as a suitable dermatologist. Whole world’s hemmed in by time, Flint had brooded after forty minutes on hold but now, to his daughter’s pleasure, the appointment was set and Flint was on his way to have the lesions on his face diagnosed.
Rachel wiggled into her teller’s chair, oblivious to Stan the security guard’s shout that it was 9:00 am and the bank was open. She did not notice the old man in the black jacket come in through the doors. Protocol this time of day, Rachel was the only teller on for the first hour since business at this branch never really picked-up until closer to lunchtime. Startled by the palsied gloved hand that slid across the small width of counter between her and the customer, Rachel exclaimed, “I didn’t see you come in,” to the man.
Flint leaned into the teller, his right hand supporting his shaking body, the brim of his cap lifted, his ear cupped by his left hand. “What?” he said.
“I said I didn’t see you come in,” Rachel said as she shuffled some papers and finally looked up at him.
With the hand that had been around his ear Flint yanked the ski mask down over his face.
“Be smart and do what I say,” Flint said.
Rachel stared at the man’s right hand that now palmed a gun that was laid down on the counter, the gloved middle finger couched on the trigger. It no longer shook.
“Not a peep and don’t move your hands except when I say.”
Rachel nodded. She hadn’t told Jimmy Jr. that she loved him this morning. He was still asleep, schools closed for Christmas break. She blinked excessively. Pooled in the space beneath her deep-set eyes and above her high round cheeks tears stalled and then fell. She blinked more and the whole scene in front of her became a shiny, watery blur.
“You will not die if you do what I say. There will be no trouble for either of us if you do what I say.” Flint had never said this before. Two previously successful robberies and he had never invoked death, but death was on Flint’s mind more than usual lately.
Rachel barely heard the click of the hammer over the flutter of the cash counter and the ringing phones.
“Left hand opens the cash drawer,” Flint said, “right hand stays flat on the counter.” Rachel reached across herself and opened the drawer. “Put all the bills up here.” Flint patted the counter with the gun.
She followed his directions.
Flint stuffed the stacks of bills into a canvas bag strapped over his shoulder, underneath his jacket. Flint thanked Rachel.
He turned and brandished the gun wildly. Screams. The security guard dropped his newspaper when he shot his hands up like the two other patrons now in the bank. Flint walked cautiously at first. The scene secure, he ran through the doors with an awkward saddle-legged stride and down the street. His cap was already off his head when he slipped into the little pedestrian alleyway that led to a parking lot. Flint unzipped his jacket and reversed it; the buildings on either side of him reflected the bright orange off the moisture now warming in the morning sun. Deep breathing, hands on knees, cold in his lungs. Flint didn’t see anything on the air Breath of a corpse, he thought. He stood up, affected the same dodder that delivered him to the bank and headed for the doctor’s office.
The walk from the alleyway to the medical center was just as the mapped plan in Flint’s mind. Trouble started when he reached 62 Avedon Avenue and realized that he had no idea where Dr. Adama’s office was located in the building. When Flint walked through the sliding doors into the atrium that smelled like a greenhouse he was relieved to find a front desk amid all the ferns and huge potted palm trees scraping up against the glass roof that gridded the sky with its metal framework. The woman ensconced behind the desk appeared to be at the helm of a spaceship: a semicircle of flashing lights and handsets and keyboards, the headset harnessed around her permed nest of blonde locks. “Yes sir?” she said as Flint cautiously approached the desk. Flint had witnessed the use of less technology to stanch rebel incursions in Africa. Flint told the woman whose office he was looking for. “East Wing, fourth floor, Suite 17, Office 8. Would you like me to write that down for you, sir?” In light of his reluctance she did not wait for his answer; she placed a map of the complex on the counter, drew a line from their present location to Dr. Adama’s office and circled it, adding as she handed the sheet to Flint “If you have any problems finding it just pick up one of the courtesey phones along the hallways and dial 00, that will connect you back to me.”
Flint realized he had no idea what the woman whom he had just taken money from looked like. Was it her? Someone like her? Did she get a look at me? Why am I at Greenleaf Medical Complex to listen to a doctor tell me how long I have to live?
The past two times Flint robbed, a bank back in Laredo about 30 years ago, and the corner store not too far from his daughter’s house, he had done the deed and laid low for a while. Flint schemed up this robbery on the Fish Trap Lake Credit Union exactly because of this appointment, the perfect alibi he thought. But now he wondered if it had been such a good idea. He certainly didn’t want to go to jail and he didn’t want to live like someone just waiting to die but as he walked down what the map identified as the final corridor to his destination he had convinced himself that the police would be waiting for him right in the waiting room: shotguns leaning on end tables, flap jackets hung over the chairs, officers sitting there reading old issue of McCall’s and Sports Illustrated not worried about apprehending the old man. What appeared behind the door as he opened it surprised him more than a whole SWAT team, his daughter.
Shit, Flint thought as Chloe jumped up snapping shut her phone.
“Dad where the hell have you been?”
Flint glanced at the clock hung above the receptionist’s desk. “I’m only ten minutes late. I would have been on time. I didn’t know I had to run through this maze of a place like a rat.”
“I’ve been calling your house since before 9 so I could come pick you up.”
“I told you I didn’t need you here today.”
“You wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for me.”
Flint couldn’t argue that point.
“Go check yourself in.”
Once Flint announced himself, the nurse gave him a packet of forms and a clipboard. “Enough paper here to clog a storm drain,” Flint said.
“Where were you this morning Dad?” Chloe asked.
“I wanted to walk. Now you got me coming to all these doctors who knows how much longer any of you will let me go out and have a walk.”
Chloe balked for a moment but then recovered. “Are you sure you didn’t go out hunting,” she said as she fingered the jacket.
Flint smiled and asked about his grandson. Chloe’s husband had taken the morning off to watch Devin so she could be here.
“Fill out the forms, Dad.”
Flint scanned the top page and dreaded answering all the questions he had already answered twenty times. Before he even had the chance to put pen to page a white- jacketed woman came out and introduced herself as Dr. Adama. Flint heard her high heels and had an uneasy feeling already. A feeling he knew Chloe tuned into. Of all the things he allowed Chloe to do growing up, one act he absolutely forbade was the wearing of high heels.
You can’t trust a woman who wears shoes with daggers on them, Flint would always say. Anthony Hurley had told Flint the same thing one night in a barrack in Guam as they sat around and played cards. Flint said nothing but some of the others, now nothing more than a group of hands flinging cards chips and cigarettes around a beat-up olive green foot locker, chided Hurley telling him that only fools don’t trust what they don’t understand.
“The thing about broads in heels, Hurley, is that they know exactly what they’re doing. It’s all about lines, lines off the ground they walk on, lines up the stockings on the legs they know we’re all staring at, lines into the wallets in our pockets and lines into our hearts.” Laughter.
In the years that followed Flint met all sorts of women different from any he had known growing up in Laredo and indeed, whether it was the ladies in the card rooms in Birmingham or Memphis or Atlanta, or the ones who hung around the officer’s clubs overseas, the ones who wronged him worst, the ones who made him hurt the most, almost always slinked through Flint’s life on a pair of heels.
Chloe gripped her father’s arm and squeezed it, squeezed it hard to keep him from leaving. The doctor led the two of them back to an examination room. Flint cringed at the sterile squeakiness of all the rubber-soled shoes across the linoleoum. The doctor asked him if he could handle getting up on the examination table.
“He’s actually quite fit,” Chloe said, quick to prevent any sort of quip from her father.
“May I see your forms, Mr. Ford?”
“I didn’t have a chance to fill them out but I’m sure someone around here already has all the information.”
“The paperwork is tedious, Mr. Ford.”
“Call me Flint.”
“I understand the frustration of filling out all these forms, Flint but we do need them for our records. It’s a liability issue more then anything. Why don’t we just fill out this set together and that way I can get to know you a bit and we can get down to business.”
“They say prostitution is the world’s oldest business but I think the business of death has been around much longer. Since life, right?”
The two women glanced at one another. Chloe tossed her gaze to the floor and rubbed her temples. Dr. Adama clicked her pen a few times and with clinical precision cut right to the questionnaire.
“Name: Flint La Luz Ford. Are you a relative of Henry’s?” the doctor jokingly asked.
“My name was my name before anyone knew what a Model-T was,” Flint grunted. “My old man was one of the first onion farmers down Laredo ways and one day churning up the fields he found patches of old flints and arrowheads and other relics. That’s what I’m named for. We didn’t have electricity for years let alone combustion engines. Years later we joked that we could sell my name to Ford Motors, something about the idea of a spark. Catchier name than Model-T don’t you think? The Flint Ford, fast as a spark.”
The doctor smiled. “Your birthdate, Flint?”
“May 7, 1905.”
This was not the first time Chloe had corrected him on this. What was the difference at this point? He was old. He knew it. She knew it. Everyone knew it.
“So you’re 98?”
“I defer the question to my daughter,” Flint said.
Again both women looked at one another.
The rest of the questions didn’t take too long. Flint was incredibly healthy. Aside from a nasty bout with some sort of tropical microbe he picked up in the Congo years and years ago he had never been hospitalized. But now the growths on Flint’s face had begun to worry everyone but him. One night after dinner over at Chloe and George’s house out on the porch, Devin had been climbing around the wicker furniture as the adults drank beer. They had lapsed into a silence matched in the stillness bronzed by the setting sun. The sky, the oleanders, the bougenvalia scaling the porch’s lattice all seemed to be trapped in this singular moment, betrayed only by Devin’s scurrying across their laps, over the chairs and finally into the space next to Flint on the daybed. Devin pawed at Flint’s face, dinner’s contentious subject that had left George and Devin silent as Chloe and Flint needled one another.
“Pa-Pa your face looks moldy, like the cheese in the fridge when mom forgets about it.”
Flint chuckled. The kid had an uncanny knack for metaphor. Chloe burst into tears, her body a violent tremor.
Flint agreed to see a doctor. Flint decided to rob another bank.
Solar radiation, carcinoma, the brown and black patches with irregular outlines on his preexisting moles, metastasized, malignant melanoma, cancer cells’ migration through surrounding tissues, erosion of normal blood vessels, approximately 6,000 deaths per year, chemotherapy not an option at his age.
Flint was pretty sure Dr. Adama had used conjunctions and verbs to get the point across but he only detected certain words, accentuated by the rhythmic clicking of her pen. At this point this was for Chloe, not him. This was the price one paid for aging, time always got the last laugh. Hard to believe all those years ago, all those years under the sun on the onion farm today caught up with him. Blessed with his mother’s Mexican tongue, her dark skin was not passed on to her son; he was blighted by his father’s pale British lineage. As a child, Flint spent countless hours in the fields, walking the rows with his father, learning how to supervise the workers that came over the bridge that Flint would later work on.
Flint Ford will conclude July 5th.
Buzz Poole's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square, Kitchen Sink, Paragraph, ISM
Quarterly and [sic]. He is the author of the Mark Batty Publisher title, Playing Cards, a look at the graphic design of playing cards from the 1930s and 40s.