Star of the East

By Edward Sheehy

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Cheryl’s kid fusses nonstop the whole way down to Roanoke. I yell at Justin to shut-up, but then Cheryl starts in on me for screaming at her kid. You’re not his father, she scolds.  Lucky for Justin. I’m so angry that I got right on the bumper of a slow-moving car in the left-hand lane and let him have my brights until he moved over. People like that have no business on the highway.

Anyway, I blame my short temper on the fact that I’m tired. We’d got a late start on the drive from Middleburg. I live rent-free in a converted loft in a horse barn in exchange for doing odd jobs around the farm. I’d met Cheryl at the Supercuts hair salon and we hit it off immediately. Since then, she’d been handing Justin to a babysitter two or three times a week while we roll in the hay at my place. She’d asked me to drive her to Roanoke to visit her mother and sibs over Christmas as her hand slid over my belt buckle. I couldn’t say no.

It was after midnight when we finally arrive at her mom’s house. Unfortunately, Cheryl’s brothers and sisters had already staked claim to the spare bedrooms and sofas. Luckily, I find us a room at a Motel 8. I grumble about laying out sixty bucks for a room when I thought we were staying gratis at the house. Cheryl calls me cheap and gives me the silent treatment on the drive to her mom’s. When we arrive, I say that I needed to go out for cigarettes and will be right back.

That’s when I detour to Mill Mountain to see the Roanoke Star during the daytime. I saw it last night from twenty miles distant as we rolled into town. On Christmas Eve night, the white star burned bright as a beacon for all wise men, pilgrims, and truckers. The radio blared good tidings to all:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King;

Surprisingly, the parking lot at the summit is full. I’d hoped for a little peace and quiet on Christmas day, so I can figure a few things out. Like my next move. Middleburg is horse and hunt country for the super-rich, but job prospects for a handyman with a high school degree are scarce, unless working at The Gap for ten dollars an hour sounds good to you. It didn’t to me. I need a ton of cash money, now. My father keeps pushing me to enroll in that HVAC  school that guarantees a job when you graduate. But I’m thinking of moving to Las Vegas. Someone at a bar said blackjack dealers make a 100 thou with tips. Then again, I’ve got a million other options. Actually, too many options. What if I choose wrong? I’m sick of being broke and starting over again, one shit job after another. As Cheryl constantly reminds me: I’m going nowhere fast.

On the plus side, it’s a spectacular Christmas day. The temperature hovers at 70 degrees. Cumulus clouds float and fold into fantastic shapes. A light breeze morphs a man with a beard into a walrus with wings.

Turkey buzzards ride the thermals, hovering in place, then wheel in great looping arcs. There must be something dead in the valley. Road kill, no doubt. The horizon is broken by the knobs and humps of the Blue Ridge mountains that rise and fall like swells in a gray winter ocean.

The Roanoke Star is a huge metal beast. The neon-tubed contraption rises 88 feet high and perched atop Mill Mountain at over 1,000 feet is visible from 60 miles away. A plaque at the base proclaims it as the largest, free-standing, man-made, illuminated star in the world. Really? Are other cities competing to see who can build the largest piece of neon crap? As I stand there craning my neck, I think about building the largest middle finger to a world that has fucked me over since high school.

I drive back to Cheryl’s mom’s house—a split-level rambler in a development of identical ramblers as if the house was reflected in an infinity mirror. Cheryl’s brothers and sisters and spouses huddle on the deck, knocking back Wild Turkey shooters, getting a jump on the festivities to come.

I duck into one of the bedrooms and change into my running shorts and shoes. I ran cross country in high school and find it to be great stress reliever. And boy do I have major stress right now. Cheryl meets me in the doorway, gripping a red plastic cup. Right away, I smell the whiskey on her breath. From her sour expression, I can tell that she is still pissed that I yelled at Justin or something else that I did or did not do or forgot to do or should have done. I tell her I’m going running to blow off some steam. She turns without a word and heads back to the deck.

It’s a ten-minute drive to Victory stadium in downtown Roanoke. A sign says that the stadium’s name was intended as a rallying cry for Allied victory in World War II.  In its heyday, Victory Stadium hosted the annual Thanksgiving Day game between Virginia Tech and Virginia Military Institute as well as hundreds of high school football championships. But today, the stadium is a sad hulk of its former self. Ghostly shouts of glories past echo and fade in the trash strewn concourse.

The cinder track at Victory stadium circles a neglected football field. After my sixth lap, I notice a pack of kids on the inside lanes of the track up ahead. A man stands to the side with a stopwatch. On a signal from the man, the pack takes off at a leisurely jog. 

The pack consists of six teenagers in various shapes and sizes. A tall kid with a buzz cut leads the runners. Buzz is my height, maybe sixteen years old, but skinny as a rail, all arms and legs. I run alongside him and taunt him to pick up the pace. Come on, can’t you beat an old man! Come on, wimp! Can’t you run any faster. Wimp!

Buzz ignores me, so I break off, and leave him in my dust. The next lap around, the pack and the man with the stopwatch have vanished. As I walk toward the parking lot, I notice a door underneath the bleachers spray painted with the name Victory Gym. Seems odd that a gym would be open on Christmas, but what the heck, I wouldn’t mind pumping some iron now that I got my heart rate up.

Inside the door is a blackboard on which someone has chalked: Fear is not an option. It’s a dim, low-ceiling room with folding chairs facing a boxing ring.  The cramped gym smells of sweat and leather. Two small kids, wearing protective headgear and groin protectors, spar in the ring. The man I saw on the track with the stopwatch referees the match.

I grab a seat and watch the bout. The kids punch wildly, but mostly hit air. After a minute or so, the ref stops the bout. The kids touch gloves in the center of the ring and climb down through the ropes.

Next up in the ring is a tall skinny kid wearing the protective gear. It’s the kid I teased on the track— Buzz!

The ref leans over the ropes and says to me, hey pal, wanna help out? I don’t have a sparring partner for this tall fella. Just one round. Whaddaya say? Just for fun.

I look closer at Buzz. My first impression of all skin and bone now looks more like lean muscle. He rolls his shoulders and bounces on the balls of his feet. Why should I waste time getting in a ring with this punk? I start to beg off, when Buzz says, come on old man! What are you…a wimp?

I turn my head and the blackboard sign comes into view again: Fear is not an option.

Ok punk, you asked for it. 

I climb in the ring. The coach helps me don the protective gear. The 16-ounce training gloves are well padded, like I’m wearing air bags strapped to my hands. So nobody gets hurt, the ref says. Just spar a little, you know, nothing serious. Have fun.

There’s that word fun again.

I’ve never boxed before in my life. I think of the boxing movies I’ve seen, and how the boxers danced and held their gloves. How hard can it be? The coach brings us together in the center of the ring to touch gloves, then says Go!

In a heartbeat, Buzz is all over me. Punching my headgear, and landing blows against my arms and chest. I outweigh him, so I push him back, but he springs forward with a flurry of one-two combinations. As Buzz advances with jabs and hooks, I raise my gloves in front of my face. I backpedal, but my legs are like dead weights from running laps. I gasp for breath, barely able to hold up my arms.

I counterpunch, but Buzz flicks it off. The blood rush to my ears deadens the sound of leather smacks against my headgear. Sweat stings my eyes. I can barely see the barrage of blows. I clinch to staunch the onslaught but Buzz rocks me with an uppercut. He taunts me: come on, wimp! I roar with frustration, my arms flailing like a pinwheel, but Buzz dances out of reach, then connects with a hard cross that snaps my head back.

How long is a damn round? Two, three minutes? It seems like an eternity. Finally, the ref calls time, and I let down my guard, and that’s when Buzz lands a solid right to the side of my headgear, staggering me against the ropes. My rubbery legs buckle. The kids in the front row squeal with glee: KO! KO! KO!

Bastard! A cheap shot to embarrass me in front of his friends. In a blind rage, I charge forward but the ref pushes me back. It’s over, go back to your corner. The ref admonishes Buzz for the late hit and tells him to apologize. Buzz mumbles ‘sorry’ but the smirk on his face tells me otherwise. My eyes follow Buzz until he disappears into a locker room.

Seething with anger, I strip off the gear, wobble out to the car, and head back to the house.  The party is going full blast. Cars and motorcycles are parked on the lawn. Raucous laughter and ZZ Top reverberate off the walls. A haze of home-grown Kush hangs in the air. I elbow my way through the crowded living room and into the kitchen when I find a half gallon jug of Wild Turkey. I pour a generous slug in a plastic cup and throw it back to numb the pounding I took from Buzz. White lights snake across the deck. A keg is balanced on a picnic table and I fill my cup with the foamy brew.

Long hairs in denim jackets and motorcycle boots jam the deck. Bodies sway to the Texas boogie while the deck timbers creak and groan. Tomorrow’s headline flashes before my eyes: Deck Collapse Kills 20. Christmas Party Turns Deadly.

The sun drops behind the foothills and the air turns cool. I feel a chill and decidedly out of place in my thin nylon shorts and tank top. Through a momentary break in the wall of people, I glimpse Cheryl on a guy’s lap in a serious lip lock.

My sparring match with Buzz infused me with a confidence in boxing skills I never knew I had. Or maybe it’s the Wild Turkey. Either way, I fantasize about punching the guy in the mouth. Except this dude is bigger than that scrawny kid in the gym. Convinced I could take this guy if I really wanted to, but figure why cause a scene and ruin a party. Disgusted, I push my way through the throng and peel out in the Mustang.

I haven’t eaten in a while, so I pull into a Git ‘n Go and grab a six-pack and a slice of heat lamp pizza. The thought of Cheryl making out with that dude gnaws at me. I should go back and punch his lights out. Boy, would Cheryl be surprised, even impressed that her jealous boyfriend stood up for himself for once in his pathetic life. I’m going back! I swear to god! I’m gonna do it!

As I’m standing in line, imagining my knock-out punch, a little unsteady from Wild Turkey and beer on an empty stomach, I notice a tall skinny teen-ager buying chips and a liter of cola. It’s the punk who sucker punched me in the Victory gym. Buzz!

Thoughts of avenging my honor with Cheryl evaporate as I focus now on Buzz. Fear is not an option, eh? Well, I’ll put the fear of god in him. In the parking lot, Buzz straddles a red scooter. The engine kicks over with an electric purr. As soon as he is on the highway, I ditch the slice and trail the scooter at a discrete distance. I pop a can and guzzle it with one hand on the wheel, then another. I inch the Mustang close to the scooter’s rear wheel, blast the horn, and let Buzz feel my turbo breathing down his neck. Now who’s the wimp?

Buzz speeds up. What a joke. Does he really think a scooter can outrun the 350 horses under my hood? A straightaway on a two-lane stretch gives me an opening to pull into the passing lane and draw even with the scooter. I power down the passenger window and when Buzz looks over, I hold his gaze. I know he recognizes me as I flip him the bird. A glint of metal catches my eye. An oncoming car—closing fast. Buzz on my right, a wall of trees on my left. No escape. My bowels loosen. I’m about to have a head on collision. Just then, Buzz slows the scooter enough to allow me to slide over, narrowly avoiding two tons of steel blurring past my line of vision. 

I glance in the rearview. The scooter fishtails. Buzz somersaults over the handlebars and faceplants onto the pavement. Horrified, I pull onto the shoulder and suck deep breaths to calm myself. It was an accident. I never touched him. Not my fault Buzz lost control. The Mustang pushes ninety as I slam the pedal to the metal.

* * *

Another late start and we’re headed back to Middleburg, at last. The trip has been a disaster, to say the least. Justin fidgets in the back seat with an electronic toy while Cheryl stares absently out the window, hardly saying a word. I’ve avoided confronting Cheryl about making-out with the dude on the deck. A sense of foreboding nags me but I can’t put my finger on it, like the warning aura some people get before a migraine attack. 

Then out of the blue, Justin starts up, mommy, mommy, look at the star, why is the star red mommy? In the rearview, I see that the star on Mill Mountain is lit up in red neon. Cheryl turns in her seat and patiently explains they light up the star in red anytime someone dies in a traffic accident and as soon as the words leave her mouth I reimagine Buzz splattered on the asphalt.

Cheryl continues to comfort Justin. We’ll say a prayer for whoever it was when we get home tonight, sweetie.

An hour passes, and Justin finally conks out. Cheryl slumps in the passenger seat, her head nestled in a pillow. In the rearview, I can still see the red star on Mill Mountain—which is impossible since we’re over a hundred miles from Roanoke! Must be one of those afterimages that burn into the eyeballs even though the object is no longer in view.

The Mustang cruises steady at 70 in light traffic, but the red star hasn’t moved from my mirror. Then a single headlight comes up on my tail, and flicks on a high beam, bathing the interior in a ghastly white brilliance. I disengage cruise and press the accelerator. The speedometer creeps up to 80, 90, 95. The headlight stays right on my bumper. And then I get another afterimage. This time, it’s all battered limbs and a buzz cut in mad pursuit.

My attention is glued to the headlight riding my tail, so when I glance up, it is just in time to see a giant red star emblazoned on the back end of a tractor trailer. I jam the brakes. Tires squeal and the car skids to a halt inches from the rear end of the trailer. Although strapped in, we are thrust forward by the braking force, then jerked backward as the car lurches to a stop. Jolted awake, Cheryl screams at me: what the hell are you doing?

My hands tremble. I don’t know, I think someone, uh, was chasing me. Then the truck in front of me suddenly braked. Cheryl’s face contorts into a mask of hysteria. Are you trying to kill us? What truck? There’s not another goddamn car on the road. Did you fall asleep?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I stammer between sobs, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Get out Cheryl huffs, I’m driving. We switch seats and Cheryl adjusts the bucket seat and we’re off again. Desperate for a cigarette I pat myself for the pack. Cheryl sideyes me and snarls don’t smoke in the car. After a few minutes, she fiddles with the FM.  A church choir comes on and Cheryl lets it play out:

Star of the East, thou hope of the soul

Oh star that leads to God above

Who’s rays are peace and joy and love

Watch o’er us still till life hath ceased

Beam on, bright star, sweet Bethlehem star

I glance at the passenger side mirror. And there it is again, the Roanoke star, glowing like a red hot branding iron, my soul forever seared with remorse and shame.

About Edward Sheehy

Edward Sheehy is a writer living in Minneapolis. His short stories have appeared in The Write Launch, an online literary magazine (2019) and in an anthology, Lake Street Stories, published by Flexible Press (2018). Dog Ear Publishing released his novel, Cade’s Rebellion, also in 2018. Forthcoming in 2020, a short story in Frontier Tales (online) and two poems in Jerry Jazz Magazine (online). Read more at: www.edwardsheehy.com.

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