The Man With Bright Eyes

She sat like a statue in the cracked leather chair that had been at her desk for as long as anyone could remember. Her upswept hair that had been fashionable decades ago remained firmly in place in spite of the rotating fan blowing stale air across the room. Her fingers were interlaced and only the sharpest eye could catch the tips as they moved ever so slightly on the maple desk. The gaze was fixed straight ahead and she waited patiently for any indication that she would be needed to contribute to the matters of the day. After all these years she could only hope that would be the case. It was all she had left.

She thought of him as she did every day. She had met the man with bright eyes in a bar that was long since gone. “Ted’s Place” she remembered it was called. She had stopped in to meet a friend, even though she had never felt comfortable in that type of setting. As she waited for her girlfriend to arrive, she sat on a stool and sipped delicately at a cherry coke. She felt distanced from the other patrons and the nervousness that shadowed her slight frame almost caused her to leave long before her friend’s arrival. That was until he smiled at her from the far edge of the darkened bar.

The smile was full and open. Not characteristic of the men she had met before. She had found that the agendas of most men were troublesome, and she had never been willing to accommodate their needs to total satisfaction. And in spite of her youth, she had come to feel completely alone in the world. But the bright-eyed man at the edge of the bar changed all of that with a single wave. And the moment he approached created a memory that would live in her heart forever.

“Hi, I’m Mike,” he said as he extended a single hand. “I’d like to sit next to you if that’s okay.” She didn’t respond, but just nodded. He sidled up next to her and began to explain that he had just gotten off work from the foundry, but his future plans entailed much more than that. “So much more,” he explained. “It’s a big world out there and I aim to see it,” he said. “And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

The world she had known took on a new shape after their initial meeting. Her timidness in frequenting bars abated as long as she knew Mike would be there. Day after day she stoically completed her obligations as a secretary at a small law firm and looked forward to the hours after work. He regaled her with stories of past sporting achievements and she never tired of listening to his embellishments. He was after all, her Mike, as he had said. And he promised he would be hers forever and ever.

Even the two years he spent in the service in Korea didn’t break the spell he had cast upon her. She continued to aid the lawyers in the firm, and couldn’t wait until the day she would see him again. The time dragged, but the weekly letters sustained what was now hopelessly engrained in her heart: her love of the man with bright eyes.

She said yes when he asked her to marry him. There wasn’t even a shadow of a doubt that this was the man for her. “But he has no job,” her mother had said. “How will he support you?” How could she explain that he had a roomful of dreams and that she was going to stay with him no matter where they went? And yet, she didn’t care if she had her mother’s blessing. He was her Mike. No matter where he led.

Dreams come in a rainbow of colors and when Mike first laid out his plans, even she hesitated. “A salvage yard?” she asked him. “To salvage what?”

“Cars of course,” he explained. “I’ll collect cars no one else wants and sell the parts for a profit. It’ll be something everyone will need at some point. And it will be ours.”

Her mother’s doubts echoed in her thoughts when Mike explained his vision. “Cars?” she thought. “Junk cars?” But when she looked into his eyes, the passion he displayed was more than enough to sell her on his dream. After all, he was the man that she had waited for all of her life and she would follow him to the ends of the earth. Even if that meant to an acre full of rusted automobiles that could no longer even putter down an open highway.

She quit her job a year later and joined him at the salvage yard. “Auto Paradise” he had named the business and to him that’s exactly what it was. A football field sized plot of land that stored a variety of decrepit vehicles that harbored parts only a smattering of men had even the remotest of interest in. And yet customers came day after day. The characters that walked through the front door became her family and she never tired of their presence. There was “Billy the Cadillac Man”, who wanted a phone call on the very same day that any broken down Caddy was hauled into the yard. His love affair with the venerable car was never questioned as long as he slapped his hard earned cash on the front counter. “Cheby” was a sawed-off Italian that for as long as he lived could never pronounce the long-standing carmakers true name.  What he could do however, was illuminate his hatred for the rival Ford factory by promising more than once to piss on the fallen Ford warriors that graced the back lots. “Sammy the Squeezer” always wanted a better deal no matter how intricate or commonplace the part. A dark-skinned man known as “Freddie Fender” seemed to crash his car into inanimate objects at least once a month, but somehow avoid damage to his own aging exoskeleton. But her all-time favorite was “Tommy T-Bird” and his never ending quest for the perfect 1955 Thunderbird hood ornament that never seemed to exist.

She never tired of going to work and sitting at the desk that sat smack-dab in the middle of the front office.  The phones rang and she answered the questions she could and the others she directed toward Mike.  Somehow he seemed to know the answers to even the most obscure inquiry. From carburetors to hubcaps, Auto Paradise was the place that had everything for the do-it-yourselfer’s needs. And she sat at her desk day after day feeling as if she was queen of the ball. And day after day the man with bright eyes treated her just that way.

Years passed and turned into decades. Mike had taken on more staff and they too turned into her family.  They were unable to have their own children, but she never felt saddened in the least. They had talked about adoption, but as Mike explained, “our babies are all in the yard filled with rust.” The Auto Paradise was their family and it never lacked for camaraderie that was as rare as it was heartwarming.

They spent Sundays in Green Bay watching the Packers play football. Mike loved the team and never tired of the tailgate parties and the pre-game festivities. She thought he had nearly died and gone to heaven when in 1997 the Packers won the Super Bowl for the first time in decades.  She surprised him with a five by five foot collage of autographed Packer photos that she had spent years collecting. Mike had been so happy with the present that he insisted it be bracketed on the wall that met customers when they entered the business.  And she couldn’t have been more proud that he loved her present so much that he would show it off to the world.

It was only a year later that Mike began to complain of stomach pains. He had lost some weight and it was only after her urging that he finally went to the doctor. She could still recall the instant they were told he had liver cancer. And how even in spite of the news, the man with bright eyes told her that everything would be okay.

Less than two months later he was dead. She sat in shock at the funeral home as a steady stream of visitors paid their respects. The men that had that had graced their shop for years on-end shuffled through the line and said a prayer for their lost friend. And she stood silently in the front, grasping their hands, but never hearing a word that was spoken.

The weeks that followed she became a shell of herself – breathing, but feeling as if life had been drained from her being. She still came to the Auto Paradise each day and sat at the same desk she had for so many years. The staff ran the business and the income continued to flow. But sitting stiffly at the desk with crossed fingers, she gradually answered the phone less and less. No one said much to her anymore and the faces that came through the doors were strangers to her now. Still, day after day she came and sat in her accustomed position. She would never say it or even think it, but she had become one more relic of the Auto Paradise.

Seated at her desk, she stared straight ahead and hoped against all reality that somehow things would change. That somehow the man with bright eyes would walk into the office and smile at her just like the first time they had met.  And tell her that they would always be together. Forever and ever.

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