I still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I'm much too fast to take that test - Changes by David Bowie
"What's that awful noise?" asked Buck. His voice was hoarse, his hair was silver, his eyes, as they squinted out through the window, were dim and rheumy, but his hearing was as keen as ever.
"What?" Lou answered, her voice raised a few notches. She, herself, had heard nothing but a faint rumble. Thunder, she'd figured, though it wasn't the season for it.
"What is that?" Buck repeated, still peering out the window at what appeared to be some sort of loping red and chrome beast. The thing sputtered to a stop in front of the house with a hiss followed by a boisterous "Aaaooohga". A familiar voice called out a cheerful hello.
"James is here?" Lou set down her knitting, her interest piqued at last.
"Seems like it," said Buck as he watched their grandson pop out of the steaming, gleaming thing outside and bound up the front porch stairs. He turned away from the window to head for the door, but Lou had already gotten up and was walking briskly for it. She had just about got there when the door swung open to reveal a dashing and handsome young man of nineteen, clean shaven, with short but lustrous dark hair, a strong jaw, straight nose, and two mischievous hazel eyes.
"James!" squealed Lou happily, clapping her gnarled hands in front of her like a delighted child. She opened her arms to hug him and he bent down to return her embrace with a crooked smile.
"Gran," he said simply.
"Buck, it's James," shouted Lou as though Buck weren't in the room and couldn't see for himself who it was.
"Looks like it," Buck retorted wryly, taking his own opportunity to hug the beaming young man. "What did you bring out here, James? Sure was making an awful racket."
James led them out to the porch and gestured with a sweeping arm at the little French coupe glittering in the sun. "That," he said grandly, "is my automobile."
"Your what?" Buck asked in astonishment.
Lou grabbed James arm for assistance as she made her way down the stairs, to get a closer look. "It's an automobile, Buck. We've been reading about them in the papers." She puttered happily around the car, making excited little noises at this and that, absolutely shouting for joy when James had her squeeze the horn.
Buck stayed on the porch, looking uncertain. "Must've cost you a pretty penny."
"Every cent I had," said James with a grin. "It just came in on the train today. I thought you and Gran might like to take a ride."
"No, thank you," Buck said sternly. "If I want to get somewhere I've got plenty of good horses in the stable."
"Well, I want to go," Lou said before James' face fell. "I like some excitement now and again."
Buck shook his head in disagreement. "Lou, I saw that thing coming in, it's a rough ride, I'm not sure it's a good idea."
"Oh, stop it," Lou snapped at Buck and then turned to their grandson with a shake of her head, "It has been my misfortune to fall in love with cautious men, but I've never let them stop me from having some fun now and again."
"I don't think anyone could stop you, Gran." James pulled out a long duster from the back seat and helped her into it. "Nothing will happen, I'll take care of her, Grandpa," he said with assurance to Buck.
"See that you do," Buck answered back, watching them with blatant disapproval.
"Finishing touches," James said as he carefully strapped a pair of driving goggles onto Lou's face, and then plopped a smart driving cap on her head.
"How do I look?" she asked up at Buck.
Buck groaned as his knees creaked down the stairs and he achingly walked to her. He carefully tucked her graying bun into the oversized cap and then held her shoulders as he looked down at her. The duster was too big by half and puddled at her feet, the sleeves were cuffed over her wrists and the shoulders hung halfway to her elbows. The goggles made her big eyes seem even bigger in her wrinkled face. "Beautiful," he whispered before placing a kiss on the tip of her nose. "Liar," she whispered back, cuffing him good naturedly on the shoulder.
She turned to where James waited for her, holding the passenger door open. She took his hand in her own and relied more on him than she'd like to admit just to make the small step up into the automobile. She sat down on the soft leather seat and winked at her husband. James shut the door and ran to the front of the vehicle and grabbed the hand crank. He paused. "Might want to plug your ears, it's awful loud." He jerked the crank a few times around until at last the motor caught and with a wheeze and a bang the whole car started jumping with the chugging of the engine. In a flash he was hopping in beside her. They waved at Buck as they set off across the open prairie.
"Stop here," said Lou as they neared a tired group of buildings a few miles away from the house. She clambered out of the car without James' assistance and hesitantly walked towards the weather beaten house. The white wash had flaked off the siding leaving the wood bare and gray from rain and snow. The roof had caved in and dipped below the dormer windows, where blue jays were now perched on the empty sills. Lou steadied herself on the rail as she climbed the few steps up onto the creaking porch.
"Gran, be careful. I don't know how safe it is to be going in there," James protested as she pushed open the door. Lou looked over her shoulder and tutted at him scornfully before stepping into the dim and dusty room. With a sigh, James followed her. The front parlor did not betray the decay evident on the outside. The stairs still stood overlooking the room where tea had been drunk and confidence's shared. The brick fireplace looked square and sturdy. The wallpaper was faded to nothing, except in darker squares and ovals scattered throughout the room where pictures had once hung.
Lou peered through the warped doorframe into the kitchen and shook her head. "Shouldn't have let it get like this. Emma would be horrified. Kid too." She wiped away a lone tear that snaked its way past the creases around her eye. "I spent a lot of my life here, growing up, getting married…being widowed. Storm blew in the roof when I was expecting your dad. Had to live with James and Lucy until we got the new house built. Buck wanted to move to high ground anyway. The stables here were prone to flooding in a wet winter." She turned to look out an empty window at the moldering shell of the bunkhouse. "Always meant to come out here and clean all this away, but one thing or another…and now it's all come to this." Her shoulders rose and fell with a dramatic sigh and she took one last look before heading toward the door. "Place looks about the way I feel," she muttered.
James followed her outside, his brow rippled with concern. "Shall I take you home now, Gran?" James asked softly.
Lou shook her head and with a creak lowered herself to sit on the top step of the porch. She patted the space beside her with her hand, the knots of her knuckles stark in her pale, skin. "Sit with me for a minute. I ought to cheer myself up a bit before we go home or your Grandpa will worry." James sat beside her and unbuttoned his duster and in the breeze it flapped heavily around his starched collar. Lou looked at him tenderly and cupped his smooth cheek in her shaking hand. "What's on your mind, hon? We ain't hardly seen you since you've been back and this automobile," she gestured dismissively at the coupe, "It's not like you to fritter your money away like that." James only shrugged in response. "You spent the money Cody gave you on this?" James nodded and Lou huffed in frustration. "Cody was awful generous to you kids but I don't think he meant for you to go wasting all that money on toys."
James grinned at her half-heartedly. "Don't you? I think it's just the sort of thing Uncle Cody would appreciate."
Lou chuckled. "He might at that. Still, you're not likely to see money like that again, James. I wish you'd of thought to spend it wiser. Mark's using his for college."
James rubbed roughly at his face and muttered through his hand, "Yeah, well he would."
Lou apologized. She knew James had never liked being compared to his younger brother, a studious, solemn young man who seemed to have been born with the sober sensibilities of a forty-five year old. The wind picked up a little, and James' duster sounded loudly as the lapels waved back and forth. "Me and Georgeanne called it quits," James said after a moment.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sugar bear. She was a lovely girl," Lou lied. There wasn't a girl on the face of the earth lovely enough for her grandsons.
"Oh, you don't have to feel too bad about it," James sighed, "I don't." He stood and leaned against the porch rail, his eyes staying on the horizon. "We haven't been getting along since I got back. I've changed, Gran. I don't even know who I am anymore."
"Of course you've changed, James. You've been through something, something awful, that'll change a body."
"I have nightmares," he murmured, and Lou looked up to see his face. It was impossible to tell, her eyes were fading after all, whether it was just the wind making his eyes water or if there were actual tears perched in his eyes. "You killed people during the Express days, didn't you Gran? You and Grandpa Buck and Grandpa Jimmy?"
Lou nodded slowly. "Well, I don't suppose any of us like to think of it like that, but yes. It was different times then; we did what we had to."
"I couldn't ever get used to it. We weren't even aiming at anyone in particular, just staring out across no man's land and shooting towards the other side, but I couldn't stop thinking about who might be in the other trench. A husband, a father, someone like me who had a sweetheart waiting at home, a life to get back to. I'd sit in the mud in France and wonder what in hell I was doing over there, why it mattered to me what happened to the Kaiser, what I was trying to prove by being there. And all I wanted was to be back. But I'm not ever coming back, am I?"
Lou patted the stair beside her again and waited for James to sit back down. She patted his knee softly. "Have I ever told you how much you remind me of my first husband?"
"Oh, you don't look like Kid exactly, but there's something about you. In the eyes maybe or the smile. He went off to a war too, but he really didn't come back." Lou raised a hand to keep him from commenting just yet. "I've often wondered, if Kid showed up tomorrow, if he'd never been killed, would I still be in love with him? I never looked at Buck twice when Kid was alive, would I leave him now if Kid appeared?"
"Of course not!" James interjected, horrified at the thought. "You couldn't leave him."
Lou smiled and patted his knee again. "No," she agreed, "I couldn't. You know why? Because I'm not the girl who married Kid anymore. Your grandfather has always been a man with a great knowledge of grief. He's lived so much of it that the sadness of it can't ever be fully erased. Until you've lost, you can't understand that. I couldn't understand that until I lost Kid. And then I found your grandfather. Time changes us, my boy. This house was once lovely and full of life, but a storm came and destroyed that. But a new house was built. You've been through the storm, James, the roof's caved in, you won't ever be the same, but…"
Lou smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye. "I don't know what. Something. You'll find another girl, another house, something that suits the you that is now. Maybe it's here; maybe it's someplace else." She stood up. "I think we're done here." James nodded and hurried ahead to open the car door for her. Lou took one last look at the old place. Time was working its own irrevocable magic. In another year the walls of the bunkhouse would collapse, a few more would see a cottonwood sapling forcing its way through the porch floor boards. In the end only the chimney would remain standing. Brick, less malleable than flesh or wood or feelings, staying true and unchanging, while weaker stuff morphed into things unknown.