The Grand Adventure, short story by Jim Bartlett at

The Grand Adventure

The Grand Adventure

written by: Jim Bartlett


Walter gently slides the still steaming pancakes onto the serving plate, then sets it dead center on the “big ol’ wooden table,” a name gifted to it by Natty, his great-granddaughter. It’s exactly at that moment the sound of the front screen door slapping closed rings through the kitchen.

A smile breaks across his face – that’s his cue – and he steps over to the refrigerator, grabbing the stainless-steel pitcher of home-squeezed orange juice. He clunks ice into a Mason jar mug until it’s half full, and then tops it off with the juice.

Just the way she likes it.

“Hey, Paw-Paw,” Natty says, slipping through the archway and into the kitchen.

“Hey, Pumpkin. Almost ready.”

“Sweet.” She pecks his well-wrinkled cheek with a kiss, drops her backpack on the floor, and slides into her chair, making sure to put her phone just to the side of the silverware. Proper respect for Paw-Paw, but close enough to keep a sharp eye on it. She tips back the mug, taking a long and noisy draw. So long (and noisy) that if Walter didn’t know better, he would swear she’d taken a detour from her regular four-block walk through the Ventura suburbs, instead choosing a long crawl across the hot, parched sand of the Mojave Desert.

Thin as a broomstick, and not much taller than one, today she’s got that “shadow” mascara thing going with her eyes, and her long jet-black hair is pulled back in a ponytail, the ends looking as though they’ve been dipped in red and yellow ink. His smile widens. Last month it had been purple (or had she called it plum?) and she had that little clip-on nose ring that reminded him of a booger.

Or was that the month before?

He shrugs. Boogers be damned… oh, to be seventeen again…

“Yummmmmm,” she says. She starts to wipe her mouth with the back of her hand, but Walter gives her his patented stink-eye, and she quickly snatches up the cloth napkin, making a dramatic show as she dabs it against her lips.

“How much longer will you have oranges on the tree?”

“Maybe another month. Hasn’t gotten as cold this year as last, so they’re not quite as sweet. But the hothouse strawberries”— he pulls the colander, filled to the brim, from the sink, holding it high enough for her to see —“are loving it.”

“Yumm,” she repeats.

He drops two pancakes in a perfect stack on her plate, lays out a circle of cut strawberries on top, and then blankets them with freshly whipped cream. He stands quietly admiring his creation for a long moment before moving around the table and repeating his artistry on his own plate.

Taking his seat, he leans his elbows on the table, then rests his chin on interlaced fingers and stares across at his great-granddaughter. “You know, Pumpkin, you’ve always asked for pancakes and strawberries with whipped cream when you stop by every Wednesday, but I’ve never asked why.”

She looks up from her plate, a tiny dollop of whipped cream on the corner of her mouth exaggerating her smile. “Is there something wrong with pancakes and strawberries with whipped cream?”

“Only if you’re a vegan…” He gives her his “you’re up to something look,” then leans back in his chair. “Which you are the other six days of the week.”

She sets her fork down, dabs her cheek with the napkin, then looks back, meeting him eye to eye. “It’s for you. Remember how you used to tell me that every Wednesday you and Great-Grams would go all out with breakfast. I think you even said it was really the only day of the week that you guys sat down for it? And it was always pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream. Paw-Paw, you should have seen that smile when you talked about it.” She leans back in her chair as well and heaves a long sigh. “I just wanted so much to help keep that smile.”

And indeed the smile does grow across his face. Along with a bit of mist in his eyes. Must be some dust or pollen in the kitchen – have to do something about that later. He gives his head a shake, stands up, and slides around the table, giving Natty a long hug. “You know, you are just like her. Cute as a bug, sharp as a tack, and the biggest heart ever.”

“I wish I could have gotten to know her better, but I was too young. I just remember bits and pieces.”

He pats her on the shoulder, then moves back to his chair. “You were only nine at the time.” He picks up his fork and cuts into his pancakes, as if that’s the last there is to say.

Or that he wants to say.

But Natty’s not ready to let it go. “Mom says you still blame yourself for the accident.”

Walter sets his fork down, not having taken the bite, and looks toward the kitchen window. “Well, the three of them had come to see me at the hospital.”

“You broke your ankle or something, right?”

“Stupidest thing. I was over helping Clyde and stepped off the ladder wrong. Turned sideways and down I went. While it felt like it at the time, nothing was broke. I’d just stretched a tendon or something, and had some deep bruising, so they kept me there overnight. Being old and all,” he says with a wink. “Jada was having trouble driving at night, so your grandpa and grandma gave her a ride over.” He tips back his Mason jar, taking a long drink of his orange juice, a needed break to keep back the tears and the tightening of his throat. “It was bad enough to lose the love of my life, but to lose my son and his wife at the same time was almost more than I was able to take. So, your mom is right. I blamed myself for years. Took a while, a long while, to finally accept it was a drunk wrong-way driver who was to blame. Though, if I had been a little more careful…”

As he says the last part, Walter watches Natty’s eyes drift from his, slowly settling on the wall behind him. It wasn’t long after he and Jada retired that she decided they needed to mount a four by eight piece of cork-covered plywood there, which she quickly christened “the smile board.” On it, little by little as the adventures added up and the years passed by, she kept posting pictures and keepsakes from each of their many escapades and journeys, until one day, the cork was completely lost behind all the memories.

He starts to turn, follow her gaze, but stops, a breath caught in his throat. He knows the board by heart, and even now can feel the warm glow on her face as they walked the beach, hand in hand, on that trip back to her native Jamaica. (She really never got over Bob Marley’s passing.) The splash of the cold Pacific as they kayaked off Scorpion Anchorage out at Santa Cruz Island. The shake in their knees when they made it to that weird boulder in Norway – Kjeragbolten – stuck in that crevice high on Kjerag Mountain. Of course, neither of them would walk out on it. Not. A. Chance.

But more than anything, he feels the gooey icing when she smashed a piece of their sixtieth anniversary cake into his face, the screak of her laughter lighting up the room.

There should have been a seventieth.

But there wasn’t, and, no, he can’t look. Because for the moment the tears are being held behind a fragile dam.

Eyes glazed over, he heaves a long melancholy sigh.

“Why’d you stop going on those big adventures, Paw-Paw?”

Her voice brings him back to the kitchen, and he meets her narrow-eyed gaze.

“Not as much fun by yourself.”

“Yeah, but what about Uncle Clyde? I bet he’d like to go.”

“Well, I’m not really sure…” Walter sets his fork back down – when did he pick that up again? – and leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. “What’s all this really about? You got something up your sleeve?”

Natty looks away, her face a touch of pink. “Mom and Dad have been going on and on about you needing to be in one of those senior homes. You know, for your ‘safety’ and all that. Ugh!” Throwing her hands into the air, she huffs in disgust. “They say you never get out of the house except to go with Uncle Clyde, and they sure don’t think much of him. Every time his name comes up, all I hear Dad say is, ‘Something’s wrong with that guy. He’s like a dozen cards short of a full deck.’” Scooting forward in her chair, she looks back Walter’s way. “Anyway, they keep bugging me to talk you into going, you know, to some ‘care facility.’ It’s only because they know you’ll listen to me. Mom keeps saying, ‘He’s ninety-nine or some years old. He might fall,’” she says with a roll of her eyes. “As if they care. You’re in better shape than they are.” She continues to fidget, twirling her fork in the whipped cream, pushing a strawberry from one side of the top pancake to the other. “I don’t want you to go away, and I sure don’t think you should be in some ‘home.’ But, you know what really worries me, Paw-Paw, is Dad. All he seems to want to talk about is how much you’re worth. How much this house is worth. How much that cabin you have up in the Sierras is worth. Money this, money that.” She takes in a shaky breath. “You know they’ve already blown all the money from the inheritance that Grandma and Grandpa left them… right?”

Even though Natty’s revelation doesn’t come as a surprise, the words still turn Walter’s stomach, leaving him with the bitter taste of bile creeping up the back of his throat. Stella, his granddaughter, whose sole goodness to the world was to bless it with Natty, always has been a bit of a flake. Though Walter had put her through college – USC no less – partying had been her major and she’s done nothing with her degree since. Making matters worse, it was at one of those parties she’d met Kenneth. Or Kenny. Or Ken. Or whatever that no-good husband of hers calls himself now. His college specialty was “the next great scheme,” and he was/is forever looking for a quick buck. Marshall and Della – Walter’s son and daughter-in-law – had been footing the bill for these two ne’er-do-wells until they were lost in that horrific accident with his dear Jada, the burden then falling upon him. He can only imagine the inheritance found its way to the horse track. Or Vegas. The lottery. Or some grand illusion of overnight opulence.

“I’m only ninety-three. Well, coming up on ninety-four here shortly,” he finally says.

“I know that. But they don’t. And I don’t think they care. They only care about…”

Something on her phone catches her eye, and her voice trails off, leaving her words hanging, as if they, too, were standing on Kjeragbolten, staring off into the abyss.

“I gotta go, Paw-Paw. There’s a senior assembly this morning and I can’t be late.” A troubled look in her eye, she pecks his cheek again and shoots toward the door. But just as she tucks into the opening, she turns back. “You need to take another adventure, Paw-Paw. Get away for a while. Maybe a long while.” She points a finger his way. “But, more than anything, you really need to watch your back.”

She steals another wistful look at the collage of pictures and mementos tacked to the board, gives him a little nod, and then she’s gone, leaving only a hint of her honeysuckle shampoo – Jada’s favorite – lingering in the kitchen’s unsettled air.


“So why am I picking you up for dinner, rather than just meeting like we usually do?”

While Walter waits for an answer, he watches Clyde gingerly slide into the car, moaning a bit more than normal, and seemingly favoring his right side. When he finally settles in, he lets go a long exhale, then pulls the seatbelt over a tired, sagging shoulder.

“Lookin’ a little sore this afternoon, Clyde.”

“It’s a long sad story. A little mix up of the gas and brake petals, some shopping carts that got in the way. Next thing you know…”

“Wait, what are you saying?”

“Well, along with screwing up my car – never mind the shopping carts – and tweaking my back, which agitated my sciatic nerve, they took my license away.”

“What? How can they do that? One little mishap and they snatch up your driver’s license? How’s that? Is it because you’re ninety-one?”

“Well… I’m sure that didn’t help. But, really, there may’ve been a couple of earlier incidents…”

Walter can only shake his head. “Why haven’t you ever told me… oh, never mind. I guess I’m going to be your chauffeur for a while, eh? Maybe I need one of those fancy hats and a snazzy jacket…”

Clyde smiles. “Yeah, that’ll do the trick.” He leans over and pats Walt’s arm. “Thanks, my friend.”

Walter pulls away from Clyde’s house, but slows as they approach the intersection. “Yolanda’s?”

“Sure. Always up for Mexican. Though my belly might make me pay a little later. Just can’t seem to do the spicy stuff like I used to.”

“Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of things we can’t do like we used to,” Walter says with a wink.

“Boy, oh, boy. Not touching that one with a ten-foot pole.”

Though they laugh their way through the traffic, light, much like their banter, Walter senses something lies underneath his friend’s jester mask, but he can’t quite nail it down. When they pull up in front of Yolanda’s, they’re lucky to find a close parking spot – Clyde always hates it when they have to park in the parking structure next to the hospital. Which works for Walter, as he would just as soon stay as far away as he can from that hospital and its sad memories.

Ana is their server this afternoon, one of their favorites – sassy, always smiling, and makes sure their drinks and plates are full. She seems to have a never-ending supply of colorful and festive full-length dresses – or maybe Walter just doesn’t remember them as well as he used to – and her thick black hair, sprinkled ever so slightly with gray, cascades down to the middle of her back. She takes them to their usual spot in the far corner, sets down an extra-large basket of chips and a bowl of salsa, then pulls up her pad, though she holds the pencil loosely.

“Same thing, Señor Clyde and Señor Walter?”

Si, lovely Señorita,” replies Clyde with a smile.

She beams a smile back, then turns for the kitchen. As she does, Clyde picks up his water glass, but puts it right back down. “There’s more to this license thing.”

Walter nods. “I thought there might be.”

“You’ve always known me well, my friend.” He gives in, taking a drink, as if needed to loosen up his throat or tongue before continuing on. “The county’s got one of them elderly care watchdog folks doing an ‘assessment’ on me. Making sure I can care for myself and the like.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I only wish. I think Hank put ‘um up to it.”

“Your grandson?” Walter tilts his head and scrunches his face as he thinks back. “From what, your second marriage?”


“You spent so much time in those Vegas wedding chapels, I lost track.”

“Well, I only made four trips there, as a reminder for the seniors at the table.” He smiles, then leans to the side, his eyes on Ana, who’s serving a table at the end of their aisle. “But, if I were only thirty years younger, I’d gladly take another little trip over there.”

“Okay, okay, Casanova.” Walter waves a dismissing hand. “So tell me, what’s this all about?”

“I think Hank’s hoping to stick me in one of those retirement villages. Or worse. But, I know him. The bum just wants my money.”

The words strike Walter like a hot knife, and he actually winces.

“What was that?” Clyde asks, his face awash with surprise.

“Natty stopped by this morning…”

“So, it’s Wednesday. She stops by every Wednesday.”

“Well, she told me this morning that her mom and that no-good husband or hers were trying to figure out a way to stick ME in a senior center.”

“Holy moly, Walt.”

Clyde gives his head a shake, but before he can say more, Ana is back with their dinners and drinks.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” she says, spinning toward the kitchen.

Walter watches as Clyde lathers his tostada with a thick coat of salsa.

“I thought that was killing your belly?”

“With what we’re both going up against, I need some extra heat tonight. I’m even thinking about ordering a beer.”

“You haven’t had a beer in, what, twenty years?”

“Twenty-five. But who’s counting? Besides, that’s not even half as long as you.” Clyde points at Walter’s veggie fajita plate. “And I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since you ate any meat, right?”

“I think I was somewhere in my thirties,” he says with a shrug.

Clyde leans back in his chair. “So, what’dya think we should do?”

“I really don’t know. Natty said I should head out on a long adventure somewhere, get out of town. But all that’s going to do is postpone the inevitable.”

“That Natty’s a sharp one.” He scoots back to the table and scoops a hefty helping of beans and meat with a tortilla chip, dipping it back once again to make sure there’s plenty of salsa. “But, you’re right, headin’ off to the Grand Canyon or Hawaii for a coupla weeks doesn’t buy us much.” He gives his head a little twitch this way and that, then narrows one eye and points his chip at Walter. “But she is on to something. We just might want to consider something a little longer. Actually, a lot longer. A grand forever adventure.”

“A what?”

“You know, disappear. Poof! Presto magico. Ride off into the sunset.” He leans back in his chair, his eyes glazed over as if the wheels are turning deep inside as he thinks things through.

Walter sits stunned. “We’re in our nineties, Clyde. Where are we going to go? Become Dead Heads and follow the Grateful Dead on their next tour? You sure you haven’t gotten a little more than the brake and accelerator mixed up?”

“Sorry, Walt, Jerry passed away back in ninety-five. Nobody does that anymore.”

“Okay, okay, you know what I mean. And besides, even if we did just hop a plane for Fiji or Mexico, everything’s electronic now. First time we used our ATM or credit card they’d be on us like flies on… well, you know. And then for sure we’d be off to Wacky World Resort. They have us all pumped up on who knows what sort of happy pills so we wouldn’t complain about the swill they’d be spooning us for dinner.” He waves a hand over his plate. “You can bet there’ll be no tostadas, because they sure wouldn’t want to change our diapers after that.”

A sly smile breaks across Clyde’s face. “Ah, my friend, that’s where the fun begins. We’ll just need some fake IDs and a little presto-chango with our money, and we’re off on an adventure. A grand adventure!”

“Fake IDs? Where in God’s name are we going to round up something like that?”

Clyde’s smile breaks wider. “You don’t own a series of bars and pool halls for forty years without getting to know a few ‘folks’ along the way…” He sets his fork down and leans closer, his voice becoming a whisper. “I think I have an idea…”


Lost in thought, Walter steps through the thick kitchen doorway that leads to the garage. In one hand he holds his favorite mug – the one Jada gave him with the Studebaker emblem – filled with his favorite tea – plain old Lipton – while in the other he holds a sturdy box that at one point in its life was filled with typewriter paper. Today, however, it’s stuffed with an assortment of official documents, printouts, and statements he’s meticulously put together over the course of the last couple of months.

When they’d bought the house back in the 60s, the garage door was cracked, had a sticky hinge, and the space it opened up to, when it would actually open up, could barely fit a single car. At the time, it was all they could afford, so they had to live with it, and did. At some point – why does it seem so long ago? – Walter’s business began to grow. He went from having a single hardware store to three, then ten. It took a number of years and a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but eventually his ventures caught the eyes of the big boys, and one day they drove up with a big dump truck full of money and bought him out.

Well, not exactly, but close enough.

By then the creaky old door was long gone, and the single space expanded out to become a three-car garage with a long, deep extension along the back for a workbench.

He waves a hand through the cobweb of memories, nearly spilling his tea as he does so, and tries to start out again, not even sure when he stopped. But he finds his feet still frozen, his eyes clouded over with tears, as he stands before the first car – a 1967 pearl white VW Bug. They’d bought it on a whim while on a trip down to LA. Lost in the thick traffic, and the even thicker yellow/brown smog that was the air back then, they happened upon a VW dealership, the little car sitting up in the showroom window, as if waiting for them to drive by. Jada’s hand slapped against his chest, and she gave off a screech that sounded as if it came from a teenage girl gifted with front row tickets to the Beatles.

The “other” Beatles.

While for her, it was love at first sight, for him, it took a while. But somewhere along the line, he’s never really been sure when or where, it hit him that the Bug was a pretty cool car.

Like Jada, it only took one look for Natty. The first time she saw it, “It’s soooo awesome,” was all she could say as she stood there practically melting on the spot. And that feeling blossomed into an even deeper love for the little V-Dub when Walter started giving her driving lessons in it.

Jada would have eaten that up.

He gives his eyes a good rub and continues on, next passing by his 1954 T-Bird – a hard top, painted “a gawd-awful turquoise,” as Jada would call it – and over to the driver’s side of their Subaru Outback. (A 2002, forest green on the top, a sliver/gray along the bottom.) One last look at his stuffed box and he starts the car, opens the garage, and is on his way.

He heads south, toward Oxnard, turning off the freeway just before the Santa Clara River. Clyde lives inland a bit, down near the riverbed. Which, for most of the year is a misnomer, as the only thing flowing there is sand.

And the homeless.

The house is the last on a cul-de-sac, a holdout oldie but goodie that he wouldn’t sell, leaving gleaming new(er) McMansions all around him, built in a flurry of housing developments right after the turn of the century. It’s a white, single-story home, unlike the neighbors’ “stacked cracker boxes,” as Clyde calls them, and looks like a Craftsman that got stretched out in some sort of architectural tug-of-war. Walter pulls into the circular driveway, parking in his regular spot next to the hedges.

Clyde, waiting at the door, waves him in. “Hey, Walt. Got us some beer to help get through all of this.”


“Yeah, the fresh kind. You know, so fresh it still has the roots,” Clyde says with a snicker.

“Root beer, now you’re talkin’.”

Leaning a bit to one side, as though one leg was shorter than the other, Clyde leads them into the den, each grabbing a favorite chair to either side of the large coffee table stretched out in the middle. A bowl of tortilla chips and some fresh salsa sitting on a colorful Mexican towel takes up the center of the table, while the frosty mugs of root beer rest on coasters next to where each of them is seated. Clyde sets his box, like Walter’s, stuffed to the top with papers and folders, to the side of his mug, then pulls out a yellow legal pad, its top page filled with a chicken scratching of notes in various pen colors.

“Ready?” he asks, taking a big swig of his root beer.

“I guess I’m as r…ready as I can be,” Walter says, a little surprised at the stammer in his voice. It’s filled with an uncertainty he’s not used to. But then again, how does one get “ready” to walk away from their life?

“Okay. Me, too.” Clyde scoops some salsa with a chip, noisily crunching it down. Like Walter’s voice, Clyde’s hand shakes – more so than usual – leaving him to believe Clyde’s no surer of this than himself.

After another drink, Clyde pulls out a folder, flipping it open on the table between them. It’s filled with plastic slotted sheets, something like they used to use for pictures or business cards. But instead, there are driver’s licenses and passports and credit cards and ATM cards neatly tucked into the slots. And while they are emblazoned with the standard governmental mundane pictures of Clyde and Walter, there is nothing familiar about the names inscribed just below.

“Okay, so to make it easy – not that there’s anything easy about this – I tried to keep the names something we could better remember. You, starting today, will be Jonathan Walters.” He points at the top set of IDs and cards as he explains, then, with what seems to Walter to be a strained effort, shifts his finger to the lower portion of the sheet. “And I will be Samuel Benson.”

“Instead of Clyde Samuels.”

“Exacto-mundo.” Taking another sip of his root beer, Clyde, now Samuel, leans back in the chair. “Most importantly, I had my, uh, ‘friend,’ work some magic with our IRAs, moving them first offshore, then to a new account with our new names. For a fee, of course.”

“Of course.” But Walter’s eyes are still on the plastic sheet. “What’s the other card there with that extra name?”

“Part of the trickery. You’ll see later.” He starts to flip the sheet over, but stops and points at Walter’s box. “Did you get what you wanted done?”

Walter nods. “Yeah. Had to wait until she turned eighteen last month, but I finally signed the house over to Natty.”

“Does she know?”

“Not yet. I did all the paperwork and now Hank, my lawyer, is going to meet with her and have her sign everything, as well as deliver my little letter. I also gave her the Bug. She loves it almost as much as Jada did.” The memory grabs Walter’s breath, and, blinking away the tears, he snatches a chip and scoops up a bit of salsa, never quite getting it to his mouth before he continues after a heavy sigh. “And I sold the garage and all the cars over in Santa Paula.”

“Really? All of them?”

“Every single one. And, like you suggested, for cash. I guess this guy’s a big collector out of Vegas.” He snaps his fingers. “Oh, he took the T-Bird, too. Natty didn’t like it any more than Jada.” He finally takes a bite of the chip, chewing on it for a bit while off in thought. “I went ahead and gave the cabin to Natty’s mom and dad.”

Clyde gives his head a shake. “Just like my worthless grandson, all they’re after is the money.” He looks over at Walter. “Sorry, that was sort of callous.”

“Unfortunately, it’s the truth.”

“Well, I guess while we’re talking about the money, what’dya do with the cash? That has to be a good-sized bundle.”

“Yeah, it is. It’s hard to believe what old cars are worth these days.” Walter goes quiet for a bit, his thoughts a mix of why he sold the cars… and why in the world he had been saving them.

“So?” Clyde’s voice shakes him from his reverie.

“So, what?”

“So, what’dya do with the money?”

“Oh, yeah. I kept some, but spread most of it out in those moving boxes, under some clothes and pictures I’m taking. Just like you said.”

“Good. Good. I did the same.” Clyde starts to take another drink, but instead sets the glass back down and rubs his temple, closing his eyes tight as he does so. “Okay, so you need to bring the boxes over here by Wednesday. I made reservations for the both of us to fly out Thursday morning to Honolulu. In our real names. Hotel, rental car, the whole kit and caboodle. Round trip ticket so it looks on the up and up. We fly out of Santa Barbara, taking a little jet down to LA where there’s a connecting flight over to Oahu.” Though his voice sounds tired, he smiles. “But when we get off in LA we’re not boarding the second flight. We’ve got other plans.”

“Wait? What?”

“Don’t worry, just be packed and ready. Remember, just a carry on – no suitcases. And bring those boxes. I’ll have them taken care of.”


Walter wakes with a start, his last breath still caught in his throat. His narrow bed, high up in a small dim room, gently rocks to and fro, as if slow dancing to the dull but steady rumble that plays somewhere below.

Disoriented, he gives his head a shake, then looks down at his watch.

2:00 A.M.

Okay. Okay. It all starts to come back. They’re on a train. Amtrak. The Sunset Limited. Heading east to some town he’s never heard of in Arizona.

Giving his gritty eyes a good rub – maybe helping, maybe making it worse – he sits up in the bunk, slips on his glasses, and peers over the edge. Clyde, stretched out on his side, softly snores on the lower bunk.

He remembers just how exhausted they both were when they’d finally boarded. Somehow Clyde – or should he be calling him Sam, now? – had gotten it wrong, as the train didn’t depart until ten at night, not one in the afternoon like he’d written down. In LA, they’d gotten off the flight from Santa Barbara, as planned, and rather than catch the connecting flight out to Hawaii, they’d ducked into a bathroom, slipping on some corny disguises Clyde had brought along.

Really wasn’t much – a fake beard, a touristy sweatshirt, and a Dodgers cap – but seemed enough to keep them from being too quickly noticed in any of the cameras. Next, using the credit card with the extra name that Walter had asked about, they took the FlyAway bus over to Union Station, the intent to board the train and start the next part of their adventure.

All Clyde had told him at that point was that they were heading for Benson, a “one-horse town,” as Clyde described it, in southern Arizona. “Things’ll start to make sense from there,” he’d added.

But that’s when things went sour. First, the train wasn’t leaving until ten at night. And it was barely noon. Union Station didn’t have any vending machines, much less a café or restaurant, so, starving at that point, they ended up walking over to Chinatown, which was a couple of blocks to the north and west, to get something to eat. It was there, Clyde’s beard fell off while he was eating his wonton soup, and then, as they were returning to the station, Walter’s Dodgers hat blew off onto the tracks.

But the worse part was that, even with the side trip for lunch, it was still only four when they got back, leaving them to wait out another six hours at the station.

He takes off his glasses and lays his head back onto the pillow. The train gets to Benson around eight, and though there’s plenty of time to catch some more shuteye, he wonders if his racing mind will actually let him.

He closes his eyes, only to be shaken in what seems a heartbeat later.

“Walt. We’re forty-five minutes out from Benson. We’d better get some grub before we get off.”

Walter eases down the ladder – he’d taken the upper bunk, Clyde just wasn’t up to it – splashes some water in his face at the little sink, and then slips into the bathroom. The way this has been going so far, who knows when he might get another chance. When he steps back out, he joins Clyde and they head for the dining car, Walter grabbing some juice and a banana, Clyde a mug of coffee and a donut.

Once they’re back in their room, they each give the mirror a disgusted look – this getting old thing really sucks – then tuck what little they’ve pulled out into their wheelies. Just as Walter zips his shut, the attendant knocks. Time to go.

The Benson “station” is nothing more than a short, covered bench, and the train stops just long enough for Walter and Clyde to get off before it’s on its way once again. Though it’s only eight something in the morning, the Arizona sun has already kicked in the burners, and they’ve barely walked a few feet from the bench before Walter feels a sheen of sweat building on his forehead.

“Okay, Smarty. What now?”

“This way,” Clyde says, gesturing toward a parking lot just behind a little ice cream shop on the other side of the street.

He leads them to an older white Chevy van, a couple of dings on the side, a good patch of gray primer covering the back corner. There he pulls out a set of keys and unlocks the driver’s side door, before moving around to the other side and unlocking the big slider door. He rolls it back, revealing the moving boxes that he and Walter had filled with their “important stuff,” and, of course, somewhere deep inside, their cash. He heaves a long sign, then hands the keys over to Walter.

“Unfortunately, the honor is yours. My driving days are over.”

Walter stands dazed, the keys in his open palm. “Okay, so where are we headed to next?”

“Just take the 80 South. We’re off to Bisbee, near the Mexican border.”

“Okay, another town in Arizona that I’ve never heard of.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, we’ll be passing through Tombstone.”

“Not gonna be a shootout while we’re there, now is there?”

Clyde smiles and slips into the passenger seat. “Who knows? After all, we’re on a grand adventure, right?”

Walter shakes his head and moves around to the other side, hopping up into the driver’s seat. “How’d you get this here?”

“Let’s just say some of the guys owed me a favor. Or two.”

Walter nods, starts the van, and pulls up to the main road, which just happens to be State Route 80.

“Left,” says Clyde, and he leans back into the chair, pulling his Dodgers hat down over his eyes.

The road to Tombstone is straight and flat, the desert on either side stretching out to distant foothills that take on a purple tint in the morning sun. Though Walter had been expecting cactus – it’s Arizona, after all – not a one is to be seen along the way. In Tombstone they stop for something to drink and swing by the O.K. Corral for a quick peek. Had it been the weekend they could have been treated to a reenactment of the famous shootout, but today only a few tourists wander around, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp nothing more than memories floating in the dusty winds.

It’s not long after they leave Tombstone, the road begins a slow curvy climb into the waiting hills. Walter smiles, imagining the road as an ancient asphalt river that carved its way through the rock a million years back.

“As we get into town, take a right and follow Tombstone Canyon Road for just a bit, then turn left on Wood Canyon.”

“You need one of those sharp, steady voices that the GPS thingies use.”

“Not a chance. Paper maps for me.”

The turnoff comes up quick, as does the turn to Wood Canyon, and they are soon slowing in front of a house set back from the road, a large metal garage off to the side and up against the hill.


Walter parks behind an older pickup and shuts down the van. As they get out, a couple of dogs begin to bark off in the distance, and a taller man, maybe in his sixties, gray beard, and a thicket of gray hair sticking out from under a John Deere hat, steps out from the structure.

“You made it!” he says with a smile.

“Hey, Dale. How’s things?”

“Just peachy. I was surprised to hear from you. I was thinking we had a few more years.” He crosses the gravel driveway and gives Clyde a bear hug, then turns to Walter, sticking out a thick, calloused hand. “Dale Jenkins.”

“Walter Johnson,” Walter says, meeting Dale’s hand.

“As so often happens, things change, adjustments have to be made,” Clyde says with a shake of his head.

“Ain’t it the truth.” Dale turns, waving his arm for them to follow. “Well, she’s in here.”

They step through the doorway into a large, open garage, an oversized green John Deere tractor taking up most of the first stall. But as they work their way around the plow assembly along its back, a car that comes into view that stops Walter in his tracks.

“A Studebaker?”

“A 1950 Commander Starlight Coupe,” replies Clyde. “An L-Head 6 cylinder, with 102 horsepower.”

“Where in the world did you get that?”

“I was stationed at Fort Huachuca back in ’49, and happened upon this beauty, so I snatched it right up. But then things heated up over in Korea, and next thing you know, I was headed overseas. Since I couldn’t take it with me, I asked my pool hall buddy, who had a giant garage and lived in nearby Bisbee, if he could keep an eye on it for me.” He points at Dale. “That was his dad, Frank. Great guy, knew his cars. But we lost him in, what, 2010?”

Dale nods. “Heart gave out. Too big for his own good. But he made sure I was up on the Studebaker.”

“And you’ve been keeping it for me ever since.”

“Still only has 87 actual miles,” says Dale with a wink. “But, when you called, I made sure the belts and hoses were new, brakes are sharp, new fluid, oil and tranny fluid changed, lubed up, fresh gas, new tires, and a new battery like you asked.” He narrows his gaze at Clyde. “You sent me a bit too much cash, you rascal.”

“Worth every penny, my friend.”

“Shall we start her up?”

“You bet. Time’s a wasting. Still some daylight to burn, and we’ve got places to go and people to see.”

Dale reaches into a box on the wall and selects a set of keys, then wraps around the car to the other side. He opens the door, but stops, offering up the keys to Walter. “I guess the honor is yours.”


“Yup. She’s all yours, Walt,” says Clyde. “I kept meaning to come back and get her, but life got in the way. Then, after we met, and knowing how you’ve always loved V-Dubs and Studebakers, it was a no-brainer that I was going to hold on to this for you.” He slaps Walter’s arm. “So, come on, start her up.”

Walter doesn’t need to be asked twice and he tucks into the car, turning the key until the engine roars to life. “Nice!” he says with the smile of a ninety-four-year-old teenager. Though he’s never actually driven one, the Studebaker feels like an old friend.

“Okay, she sounds good. Let’s get our stuff,” says Clyde.

Dale rolls open the large door and the three of them head out to the van, transferring the moving boxes to the Studebaker. The trunk, small by the day’s standards, fills quickly and they end up stacking the last few boxes in the car’s narrow back seat.

“Come on in. My wife’s whipped us up some lunch, then you guys can hit the road.”

Vera, Dale’s wife, a tall, thin women with a big smile and rosy cheeks, meets them at the kitchen door, two waggy-tailed chocolate labs – obviously the source of the barking they’d heard when they first drove up – standing behind her as part of the welcoming committee. After introductions (including the dogs, Homer and Jethro, who would not be left out from the formalities), she leads them to the dining room where she’s has several plates of food and a couple of pitchers – one with water, the other homemade lemonade – spread out on what looks to be a hand-crafted wooden table.

“Now, Walter, you don’t eat meat, is that right?”

“That’s right.” He looks over at Clyde.

“Don’t worry,” says Dale, “Homer and Jethro will be glad to take your share.”

Vera, a smile splashing across her face, waves off Dale. “Well, Walter, I’ve got plenty of veggies for a salad, or I’d be glad to make you a tomato sandwich.”

“Can’t get enough tomatoes. That sandwich sounds wonderful, Vera.”

After a lunch that’s every bit as filling for the belly as the heart, there’s another round of hugs and handshakes, a lot of thank yous, and some hefty sighs, before they all once again, this time, including the dogs, head out to the Studebaker.

As Walter slides into the driver’s seat, Dale and Vera step up to Clyde one more time, each wrapping him in another long hug, the dogs doing their best to snuggle in between.

“Let me know somehow when you make it, okay, Clyde?” says Dale, taking a deep breath.

“You got it, Dale. I’ll figure something out.”

“Here, take this for the road,” says Vera, handing him a couple of large bags she’s packed.

“Thanks ever so much, Vera.” He drops into the seat, but before he can close the door, Dale grabs his arm.

“We’re still on for that one last thing, right?”

“You bet.”

Walter, giving Clyde a curious look, fires up the motor and slowly backs the car out of the garage.

“Where to?”

“We’re on a grand adventure, right? To the Grand Canyon!”


A finger under his collar, tugging on it for the umpteenth time as if it might miraculously ease the heat – whatever was he thinking taking an old car with no A/C across the Arizona desert in late May? – he sneaks another peek at Clyde, who’s still sound asleep, his mouth hanging open, his head leaning up against the doorpost.

Clyde had nodded off long before they’d even made it back to Benson, and now, well passed Tucson and with seventy some miles still left until they get to Phoenix, Walter realizes, amongst other things, that the big city is as far as they are going to make it today.

Tired and hot, he’s starting to stiffen up sitting here. And he really has to pee. He takes a deep breath – should have stopped back in Tucson.

“We in Phoenix yet?” Clyde asks with a stretch and a yawn.

“’Another hour and a half or so.”

“Sorry, guess I was wiped out. When did you lose me?”

“Right after we left Dale and Vera’s.”

“Good people, Dale and Vera.”

“Salt of the Earth. One thing’s for sure, I’m jealous of their tomatoes. Never seem to get them right, back home.” Walter looks over at his friend. “For being on such a grand adventure, you seem a little gloomy.”

Clyde sits up and takes in a deep breath. “Man, it’s hot.”

“Welcome to Arizona. But, come on now, you’re not fooling me. What’s bugging you?”

His head drops a bit, then Clyde turns toward his friend. “I’m afraid I have a confession to make. The confusion, the tiredness, the forgetfulness… it’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s. I’ve got a brain tumor, Walt. Inoperable. They’ve only given me six months or so.” He looks away for a moment, fiddles with the window crank, then takes in another breath. “I haven’t told anyone except you. I was doing pretty well at keeping everyone fooled until the whole shopping cart thing, which, I suppose, with the headaches and forgetfulness, was good enough for Hank and the gang to claim I’d gone coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs. And he called the county.”

Still looking forward, Clyde wipes the corner of his eyes with a thumb. When he starts up again, there’s a slight tremor in his voice, as if any moment it will crack. “So on that fateful day back at Yolanda’s when you said your family wanted to lock YOU up in a senior home, well, I couldn’t resist. I thought, ‘Why not go out with a bang. Have a great time with a great friend, and at the same time, rescue him!’ I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I didn’t think you’d come.”

Walter’s sweaty head goes into a spin. “Brain tumor? Six months?” A sign off the side of the freeway catches his eye, and he changes to the right lane. “There’s a gas station up ahead, I gotta pee. Can’t think if I’ve gotta pee.”

“Yeah, my bladder’s about to burst as well. Or at least my prostate’s making it think it will.”

Next to the station is a Dairy Queen, and after filling up the car’s tank and emptying their bladders, they wander in for something cold.

“I can’t think of any words,” Walter finally says, sipping on his soft drink.

“Now, there’s a first,” Clyde says with a sly smile. “Nothing much to say, my friend. It’s been a good life, you’ve been my brother as well as my friend, and now we get to go on this grand adventure.”

“You never did tell me where we’re headed.”

“Key West.”


“Yeah. I knew you had to be near the salt water. And the sun. So I used a bunch of my money to get us this great house right across from the marina.” He takes a long lick of his cone. “It’s all in your name… well, your ‘new’ name. As is the rest of the money. I’m only going be around for a while, so I made sure to save you as much of the hassle as I could.”

Walter’s breath seems to catch in his throat, but it’s okay, as he has no words that the wind could have launched. Six months. He takes another drink of his soda. They’d better get going. Grand Canyon is still waiting, and then there’s who knows what after that.

But he’s ready to find out.


Walter eases back into the bench, watching as the fishing boats do their morning dance in the harbor. Thirty years ago he would have enjoyed sitting here, Jada at his side, listening to the seagulls, soaking in the sun and salty breeze as he read the newspaper. But with the papers, much like the in-depth news they used to report, long gone, he carries with him a book, though this morning, he’s not cracked the cover.

Instead, he thinks about how Clyde would have enjoyed this moment. Though, in all fairness, he did get to enjoy a lot of these moments. Despite the ominous prognosis of having only six months to live, he fooled them all, living for more than two and a half years after they finally made it here to Key West. And they were good years; it wasn’t until that last month or so did he feel any pain.

Or, at least admit to it.

They did make it to the Grand Canyon, taking some well-deserved time to bask in the splendor of the Colorado River’s carvings. Then, they were off to Santa Fe, where they became lost in the local art. (Clyde, who’d really never shown much interest in the arts before, took a fancy to a painting – it hangs in their front room to this day.) Next, they’d stopped in Dallas, drawn, as if by some magic spell, to the School Book Depository Building. But it only took a few moments up on that sixth floor before they found themselves back down on Elm Street, where they stood in somber silence staring at the marker in the street.

That stillness followed them back onto the freeway, inner thoughts of what might have been, until, somewhere near the Arkansas border, Clyde had finally broken the quiet.

“Let’s go find a smile,” is all he had said.

And with that, arms hanging out the Studebaker’s open windows, they crossed the magnificent Mississippi and headed for Nashville, where they sat in the Grand Ole Opry and tapped their feet to some mighty fine music. By then they were ready and, winding it all down, they worked their way to the Atlantic, taking a long look at Cape Canaveral, though nothing was launching anytime soon, before finally finding their way home. Their new home.

Key West.

Walter sold the Studebaker not long after Clyde passed. His reactions just weren’t what they used to be and the last thing he wanted to do was plow into a line of shopping carts. He takes the bus now and again, but for the most part, he walks.

In fact, each morning he takes a walk – usually about two miles – stopping by The Crow’s Nest for an orange juice and some toast. Harriet knows his order and always has it ready when he slips through the door – before coming here to his favorite bench and soaking up the sun, the sights, and the sounds.

Not to mention that sea breeze. Nothing like it.

Hard to believe he’s been here almost six years.

A noise from behind pulls him from his reverie and he turns to see a familiar tall fellow wearing his UPS brown shirt and shorts.

“Chet. What brings you down this way?”

“Hey, Jonathan. Got a special delivery for you. Went by the house, but since you weren’t home, I slipped over to the Crow’s Nest. Harriet, who knows all and sees all, said I’d find you here.” Chet hands Walter – aka Jonathan – a small shipping envelope marked, “PRIORITY,” in bold red ink.

It’s light, almost as if empty, and Walter’s eyes are drawn to the sender.

Dale and Vera Jenkins
206 Wood Canyon
Bisbee, AZ, 85603

He looks up at Chet, who seems to be waiting for him to open it.

“I guess a special happy birthday is in order, eh? I hear you’re turning one hundred!”

“Yup, tomorrow. Can you believe it?” He takes in a long breath, his eyes going misty. “I only wish Jada could be here to celebrate with me.”

“Well, you made it, you really did! And she’d be so very happy for you. So, come on, open it up! The suspense is killing me!”

Walter tears off the seal and pulls out a single sheet of paper. Along the top, in a large sparkling font, are the words, “Happy 100th Birthday from Clyde.”

Then, just below, it reads:

That one more thing.
Dale, Vera, Homer, and Jethro

“I don’t understand.” He looks up to Chet, whose smile is as wide as the Atlantic.

“Oh, you will.” Chet turns and jogs back to his big brown truck, lightly tapping on the side.

And then, her smile every bit as big as Chet’s, a thick red ribbon wrapped around her waist and tied in a bow, Natty steps down from the van and races over to grab Walter in a six-years-in-the-waiting hug.

“Happy Birthday, Paw-Paw!” she screams.

Or cries. It’s hard for Walter to tell with his own eyes filled with tears.

“Now that’s a grand adventure, Clyde,” he says softly to himself. “A grand adventure, indeed.”

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