The voice was unmistakable. It was Jan’s mother. She was telling him there was danger, to stay away from town. She was watching a live newscast of emergency vehicles racing toward the sugar factory. A line of beet trucks had caught fire. She didn’t know how, the on-scene reporter didn’t explain, but there they were ablaze while the camera man zoomed in on the spectacle. Then, he drew back and panned toward a group of people gathering there with the sun still on the rise. They were mouths agape and yammering, some yawning. The newscaster, a chatty blonde woman from one of the TV stations out of Scottsbluff, kept talking, frantically trying to put her words together during the live update.
“So far, the fire’s out of control, and… and we’re waiting for emergency vehicles to arrive… to get here. I can hear sirens in the distance. And I can see the flashing lights coming down the highway.” The blonde newscaster’s brows raised, eyes wide as saucers; she looked more scared than the onlookers.
The cameraman pointed his camera in that direction for the folks who were glued to their living room seats back home.
“Then it was the weirdest thing,” his mom said, “the screen went all fuzzy. It was static, but I could still hear the woman’s voice trying to report the news. That’s why I’m calling. You told me you were going through Bluffs to get a few things at the Wal-Mart. Well, you know, that highway goes right by the sugar factory?” Silence. “You still there?”
“Yeah, mom, I’m still here,” Jan said, annoyed on having to drive from Bridgeport.
“Well, say something. Don’t scare me like that. How do I know what’s going on with you?”
“It’s OK mom, I’m nowhere near that sugar factory. I’m already at the Wal-Mart. And, I’m sure the fire crews will do their jobs, and put out the fire… Look mom, I’m headed your way to Mitchell after this stop, should take me about 10 minutes. So, I think we can say good-bye for now.”
There was a pause, and Jan could tell his mom got her feelings hurt. He cut her off and didn’t acknowledge her concern. He knew her next line might be something like, “I get worried sometimes. You’re my only son. I don’t have no one else since your dad died,” which is exactly what she said in her next breath.
“Yeah, mom, I’ll be careful. I’ll see you when I see you.”
“Alright… love you son.”
“Love you mom… bye.”
Jan switched on the radio in his classic black Trans Am Firebird, the crackling sounds gave way to a few wisecracking DJs running a trivia contest, taking callers during the morning show. Carry and Jammer at daybreak.
They were asking, “What’s the only food that can last forever?”
It was a virtual mind stumper. The answers ranged from licorice to nuts to pizza, that last answer admittedly just for “shits and giggles,” which was bleeped out over live radio. Thank God for the seven-second delay, figuring how some people in a small-town might flip out at the slightest hint of impropriety. The mere thought of someone cussing in the valley, preposterous.
The two local legends, “voices of the valley” as they were dubbed, were peddling free concert tickets for Foreigner and Styx at Five Rocks Amphitheatre in Gering, which would draw a bunch of grey heads almost four decades after the bands were hot. He picked up his cell phone and in timely fashion he was going to dial the radio station. Jan knew the answer, but before he could get through, his ‘Mom Alert’ ringtone sounded. Seeing this, he declined the call, knowing all she wanted to do was check his progress.
After being blocked, she sent a text message in her broken lettering, “No Teevee no mor. Screen blank. Wrried.”
Jan rolled his eyes and looked out the rearview of his car seeing the smoke gather in the sky, about five miles away in the direction of the sugar factory. He gave up dialing the radio station and stomped on the accelerator of the Firebird like Burt Reynolds in ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’ Except, he wished he had someone like Sally Fields next to him, the cute sexy young version. He’d been playing the field for about three months and was lonely. His last encounter was with a bubbly nurse who worked up at the hospital. She was a bit on the pudgy side but could play a mean game of pool. Her biggest complaint: no job, and no ambition. She was polite about it though and let him down easy.
“I can’t be with a guy who ain’t going nowhere,” she said. His mom wouldn’t have approved of her anyway. She knew her mother and called her a slut.
Of course, the nurse, like anyone these days, sent the message via text.
The true answer to the radio contest was honey, and no one had won the tickets, but that was par for the course, a reflection of Jan’s fortunes.
Jan didn’t worry much about money, with house and car paid off. He made a few bucks here and there as fix-it man. Plus, he had his disability from being a Veteran. He lost an arm and right eye in Iraq in 2006, caught in an IED explosion near Baghdad.
He drew closer to his mom’s place, seeing the apartment at the retirement complex. An old man sat out front on a lawn chair, dressed in stained overalls, and untied work boots, sipping out of a large coffee mug. Next to him was a red pennant with the word Huskers on it, waving in the breeze. He nodded to Jan as he drove by, while Jan casually flipped him the bird. The old farmer was relentless in making fun of him, asking him why he had a girl’s name every time he dropped by to visit his mom. It was the only reason he hated coming to Mitchell.
The black Trans Am came to a stop in front of the headstone at the town’s cemetery—it was just part of the routine. Jan came here during the middle of the week on Wednesdays, and everyone except for him, it seemed, had a job to go to. God forbid someone see what was going on and call him crazy. He got out of the car with a simple bouquet from Wal-Mart—a handful of Black-eyed Susans, her favorite flower, bright yellow petals, it reminded her of being a young girl walking along country roads. He kneeled in front of the granite stone, engraved neatly with his mom’s name and an epitaph that read, “Great love lives on,” then said a prayer, and set the flowers in a permanent container dug into the ground.
“I don’t mind you calling me, but let’s scale it back to once a month. Deal?” He closed his eyes, saying he missed her like his dad, nodding to father’s grave stone. He looked up to the sky and could see the smoke rising up from the factory.
The cell phone alert played again, “Buzz. Buzz. It’s your mom calling.”