The Patriot Joe Morton
Joe Morton was never considered a stable man. He had never lashed out, was not taken to fighting in bars. In fact, no one could remember his ever going into a bar. But he wasn't what the good people of Cranston considered normal. If you were to put any of the twelve hundred or so citizens of the small east Texas town on the spot, you would arrive at some variation of "Joe simply doesn't do things the way people expect."
He didn't own a tractor, opting instead to pay the Carmichael boy a few dollars to run the bush hog over the eighty acres he had inherited from his great aunt. Every Sunday, he occupied the same pew at Cranston First Baptist and, like the rest of the men, refrained from speaking his amens, though he would nod at the appropriate moments. And every morning, Joe arrived for breakfast at the Truck Stop Café around nine, where from table seven, the booth against the window, he read The Cranston Sun and drank three cups of coffee before shuffling off to start his day–though what he did each day, no one could say for sure.
There were a lot of things no one could say for sure about Joe Morton. That was a problem for the people who lived in the town he had called home for the last forty years. So the good people of Cranston had always approached him with a measure of caution, a caution of which for the most part, they were never quite sure of the cause. They kept their concerns about Joe's tenuous mental state in check with a healthy dose of "just don't think about it" until, one Tuesday in September, the leather strip of bells went clattering against the glass door of the Truck Stop Café.
In those days, strangers so rarely came into the Truck Stop Café that Doris Greely, the morning waitress, didn't immediately know how she should react. She exchanged a quick glance with Harlan, her lone customer, before finally rising to greet the young man. For his part, the stranger stood in the doorway, patiently knocking a spot of dust from his blue suit and arranging a matching blue tie neatly beneath his lapels. It wasn't until the staccato beats of his shoes resonated against the tile that Doris looked down and recognized the patent leather shoes of an Air Force man.
"Well howdy, son," she said. "You must be up from the base?"
"Yes, ma'am. You wouldn't happen to know how to get to Macomb Road, would you?" He removed a small notebook from his inside breast pocket and double-checked the address, adding a self-affirming nod. "Yes. Macomb Road."
Later, Harlan and Doris would remember this event in excruciating detail. They would recall the manner in which the officer tilted his head just so to one side. Harlan would recite how, sitting with his back against the wall–as he always did–the small cross on the man's chaplain insignia reflected into Harlan's eyes. Doris would recount the softness of his hands and the peculiar accent she couldn't quite place, perhaps upstate Ohio, as it was one of the many places she had never visited. They would repeat these and a hundred other trivial details to the news crews, to reporters, and to tourists so eager to devour any detail of the story. At that moment though, Harlan and Doris had only one concern. It was Harlan who gave it voice.
"What you want with Joe Morton?"
"I'm sorry, sir. It's a personal matter," the officer replied.
Harlan waved a dismissive hand at him. "Well, son, we ain't got much time for personal matters around here."
Doris shot Harlan a biting look before turning back to the officer. "It's about his boy, ain't it?"
When the officer hesitated, Doris rested a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, son. You don't have to tell us."
Harlan's head dropped, and his shoulders slumped. After a moment or two in silence, he lifted his head. "Head out the highway and take a left at the old feed mill–"
Doris interrupted. "Let me just draw you a map, son."
A few minutes later, she watched him cross the parking lot of the Truck Stop Café to the waiting Ford Taurus, take his seat behind the wheel, and momentarily confer with two other uniformed men in the car before driving out Highway 7. By the time she returned to the corner booth, Harlan was staring silently into his lap. For the next ten minutes or so, while the Air Force chaplain made his way out to Macomb Road, they alone would carry the burden of knowing the war had claimed one of Cranston's own.
While Harlan plucked imaginary lint from the black felt of his cowboy hat, Doris compulsively checked her makeup and tried to smooth her red hair tighter into the bun at the back of her head. She was about to start polishing the flatware when she heard Harlan's cup rattle against his saucer and she looked up.
"How about a refill, Doll?"
She shook her head. "Pot's gone cold. Besides, I think it's about time you headed home. Something tells me this is going to be a long week."
For twenty years, whenever Doris arrived to open the Truck Stop Café, she had been greeted by the same empty parking lot. The rows of big rigs that used to idle in the parking lot belonged to a time before Doris had gone to work for Jimmy, before Harlan's daddy had succeeded in getting the Interstate to forego a route through Cranston, which had forced the closure of the Cranston Truck Stop and left as the only reminders an empty slab that used to be the station and a spotless, gleaming diner.
Yet on the morning after they learned of Casey Morton's death, Doris pulled into the parking lot shortly before dawn and was dismayed to find Harlan's black Chevy Silverado idling near the front door. It was the kind of development that made Doris question her decision to forego a domestic life in exchange for independence. For a moment, she considered returning home and calling in sick, but Harlan had already seen her headlights and was making his way towards the door.
Despite her misgivings about Harlan, his tenacity impressed her. That distinctive limp, the one lingering disability of a twenty-foot fall from an oil platform, rarely slowed him down.
She checked her makeup in the rearview mirror and took an extra few seconds to brush a stubborn tangle out of her hair. In the glow of the car, her hair still looked soft and red. None of the gray at her temples was visible, and in that place lit only by the dome light, it was easy to pretend she had not aged much in the last few years.
Harlan was sitting on the bench near the door when she finally made it to the front of the café. He was staring out across the pastures towards the horizon, to where a band of low clouds glinted with the first golden hints of dawn. Doris held the door open and gestured for him to enter.
"Coffee won't make itself, Harlan."
He didn't budge. "That's okay. Think I'll sit out here for a few and watch the sunrise. Looks to be pretty, don't it?"
"Suit yourself," she said, but she lingered. Instead of going inside, she let the glass door close and sat down beside him. "I don't think I've ever seen you here this early."
"We've got a lot of plans to make, now, don't we?"
She eyed him, at once curious and confused. "What plans?"
"The Morton boy. We got a hero coming home. That requires planning."
Doris momentarily considered arguing with him. She didn't know Joe Morton any better than anyone else in Cranston, but she knew he was a private man who might not take to the attention a Harlan Cotton production would bring to his quiet existence. But Doris knew stubborn, and she had long ago given up confronting futility. Harlan decreed the boy's memorial service would be a town event. That was the way it was going to be. No amount of persuasion would change that. So Doris did the only thing she could to combat her dread of the day that was about to unfold. She sat in silence and watched the sun rise.
They were still sitting there when Ted and Margie Bartley pulled in.
"Morning Doris," they said in unison.
"Y'all aren't usually here on a weekday."
"Thought we'd change it up a bit," Margie said. "I've been telling Ted for ages we're getting predictable."
Doris just nodded, aware of the real reason they were there on a Wednesday. She smoothed her apron flat as she stood and opened the door. While Ted and Margie settled into their booth, she slipped into the back room, past Jimmy in the kitchen and into the cubby behind the walk-in freezer. She fished through her apron until she found the hard edges of her cell phone, removed it, and dialed Carly Machen.
Doris counted the rings, judging by each additional ring just how deeply unconscious her night waitress was. Finally, after seven rings, a groggy Carly picked up the phone.
"Hello?" came the feeble voice from the other end.
"Carly, I need you," Doris said. She didn't bother masking the pleading in her voice and knew what it would take to get a twenty-two year old out of bed before eight a.m. "I'll take your shift tonight and tomorrow night. And we'll split tips sixty-forty."
"What? What's going on?"
"Your Uncle Harlan's called the whole damned town to the café to plan the Morton boy's memorial service," Doris said without thinking. It took her a moment to place Carly's silence into the proper perspective of four years of a schoolgirl romance followed by a ring and a promise of marriage after what had promised to be a short deployment in a short war. Though they both worked at the Truck Stop Café, the two were on different shifts. So Doris knew Carly only peripherally and, in any other situation, neglecting to remember the ins and outs of a coworker's love life would be at best a regrettable oversight. Now, though, Doris felt an emptiness that opened into the pit of her stomach. In all her haste, Doris had forgotten that Carly was Casey Morton's fiancé.
"Oh baby doll! I am so sorry," Doris said.
She could hear the unmistakable, muffled sounds of the girl crying into her pillow. Doris pictured Carly's jet black locks spilling over her face, her mouth open and dried tears streaking her cheeks. Doris wished she had remembered Carly and Casey before picking up the phone. She wished she could be there, in Carly's bedroom, cradling the girl through her grief. But more than anything, Doris wished she could bring Casey Morton back for Carly.
When at last she heard her coworker uncup her hand from the receiver, Doris tried again to comfort her. "Carly baby, I am so sorry. I just didn't think–"
"It's okay," Carly said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
"No, you stay home. You don't have to come in. As a matter of fact, take the week off. I'll cover your–"
"No, I said I'll be there in a few minutes," Carly replied. Doris knew from the girl's insistent, almost defiant tone that arguing with her would be as fruitless as arguing with Harlan.
"Besides," Carly added, a tone of finality in her voice, "maybe I don't need to be alone right now. So I'll see you in twenty minutes."
The phone went dead before Doris could reply. She dropped it back into her apron pocket, leaned absently against the side of the walk-in, and succeeded in fighting back her own wave of tears. When she returned to the dining room, the number of customers had grown exponentially. In Doris's absence, Margie had donned an apron and was filling coffee cups.
"Hope you don't mind the help," she said with a smile.
Doris didn't protest, opting instead to listen in on the state of affairs. There would be a small memorial service at the town square. Harlan had already arranged to bring the band from Cranston High to provide the appropriate musical atmosphere. Johnston Metalworks would cut and install an additional half dozen flagpoles to line the sidewalk opposite the half dozen they placed at the nine-eleven commemoration a few years back.
"It'll make for nice effect leading up to the band stand, you know–from the south approach," Greg Johnston said, glancing around the room to gauge everyone's approval.
Doris saw Carly's Nissan pull into the parking lot and decided now was the time to speak up. "Guys, we need to table this discussion for a few minutes. Carly's here."
Doris immediately regretted saying anything, as every person in the Truck Stop Café fell silent and turned to watch the door. About halfway through the parking lot, Carly stopped, hesitated for a moment as she saw two dozen sets of eyes staring at her. She walked through the diner, to the register, and picked up a ticket book before turning to face them.
"Relax, everyone. I'm fine, really. I'm fine."
Doris slid an arm around Carly, gently squeezing her waist. She felt the light brush of fingertips before Carly pulled away and started directly for Harlan's table. Doris couldn't help but smile to herself at the girl's strength and, in that space of a few seconds, Doris knew futility found no home in Carly Machen.
Somewhere over the course of serving breakfast, Doris caught Carly's infectious resilience and found the fortitude to carry through the morning. Moving about the restaurant with a coffee pot, Doris picked up quiet snippets of recollections of this poem or that song. When Margie suggested her church choir could sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," she smiled. She dropped off another plate of bacon on Harlan's table and listened for a moment about a twenty-one gun salute–which Harlan assured the men the Air Force would provide.