“Easy now, Keith. You’re almost there.”
Rollins, unable to make out the corner he was driving around, cranked the licorice black steering wheel very slowly. He might as well have a bandage over his eyes, he thought, barely touching the accelerator pedal. Fumes from the grumbling engine filled his nostrils along with the smell of fresh paint.
“A little to the right. A little more.”
Sweating profusely, he did as he was directed, wishing he could see more of the street.
“Straighten it out now.”
He began to turn the wheel in the opposite direction.
“Fine, Keith. You’re doing just fine.”
“If you say so,” he muttered into his headphone.
“You’re straight as an arrow.”
Relieved, he continued down the desolate industrial street in the 45-foot-long float that he had been assigned to drive a week from today in the Pear Blossoms Parade. This morning was a trial run for the twenty-one floats entered in the event. On his float was a gigantic Viking holding a hatchet and in front of it was an even longer float with a half completed orange dragon. Few of the floats were decorated yet, the flowers and ribbons and lights would be applied later in the week, so they were little more than wire frames on truck chassis.
He had driven only a couple of blocks but it felt more like a couple of miles he went so slowly. Seated in the belly of his float, with only the top of his head poking through, his vision was severely restricted and would be even more restricted when all the decorations were applied. So, like most of the drivers, he depended on a navigator to guide him through the route. This was his third year as a volunteer driver but his first with Archie, who moved into his apartment building only a few months ago with his wife and daughter. The two tenants quickly got to know one another, linked by their passion for minor league ice hockey, and when Rollins learned that the navigator he had the past two years would not be able to be with him this year, he asked Archie to take his place. The young man was reluctant but he assured him it would not be difficult.
“What if I mess up and we crash?”
“All you have to do is tell me what you see and the rest is up to me.”
“I guess I can manage that.”
So far he had, he thought, listening to the directions of his friend who surveyed the street from a seat under the Viking’s bulging arm. He knew on parade day it would be much harder to hear because of all the commotion but was confident everything would proceed as planned. It had the past two years so he assumed it would this year, though he was well aware of problems encountered by other drivers. Smiling, he recalled the time a float of papier-mache tepees suddenly burst into flames and the mostly Lebanese Indians leaped off it while many in the crowd, thinking the fire was part of the show, cheered excitedly.
“We’ve got another turn coming up,” Archie informed him a few minutes later. “In about twenty-five yards.”
Up ahead, the orange dragon lumbered around the jagged corner, its tailpipe puffing smoke, and Archie then began to direct him around it, sounding as certain as he had all morning. And for an instant Rollins closed his eyes, confident all he had to do was listen and the float would make it around without a hitch.
There were three messages on his answering machine when Rollins returned to his apartment after the trial run. Two were automated pitches from banks offering him free checking accounts while the third was from an actual person.
“Hello. I am trying to reach a Mr. Keith Rollins,” the caller began somewhat hesitantly. “I believe I have something that belongs to you. Something that looks as if it’s seen quite a lot of wear. Please call me so I can return it to you.”
The caller then gave his telephone number, and Rollins started to write it down then stopped and scratched out the three digits he had written. Whoever was calling was calling someone else, he suspected, aware that Rollins was not an uncommon name. He had not lost anything recently, certainly couldn’t recall losing anything of significance since he left his cell phone in a locker at the YMCA a couple of years ago and he recovered it the next day. The caller must be trying to reach some other Rollins he reckoned.
“You driving a float again this Saturday?” Wayne, an occasional patron of the coffee house that Rollins managed, asked after ordering a double espresso.
“I’m walking,” he sighed, cocking his arm and pretending to throw the beads and trinkets that he would be throwing into the crowds on parade day. “I seriously thought about volunteering to drive this year but I didn’t. I guess I didn’t want all the responsibility that went with being a driver.”
Rollins, half listening, stared at the front door. “It’s not that hard. Just go where your navigator tells you. That’s it.”
The barista handed him his espresso. “Knowing my luck, I’d probably plow into a fire hydrant or something.”
“If you did, it’d be your navigator’s fault. Not yours.”
“Maybe I’ll get up the nerve and volunteer next year.”
“Do,” he said emphatically. “Drivers are always needed.”
A moment later, a short, stooped man entered the coffee house, and Rollins watched him approach the barista at the end of the counter, not recognizing him at first because of the almost opaque glasses he was wearing. Across his chest was strapped a canvas satchel that was stuffed with newspapers.
“I called earlier about a bitter tasting mocha I bought here yesterday,” the man informed the barista, “and was told I could come back and get a free replacement.”
The customer nodded.
“All right, then, I’ll get it for you.”
By now Rollins had ambled down to the end of the counter and stood in front of the stooped man. “You pulled this scam four or five months ago, didn’t you, fella?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t think I’d remember you but I do. Only then you weren’t wearing glasses.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got me confused with someone else.”
The barista set the complimentary mocha on the counter. The stooped man started to pick it up but Rollins suddenly snatched it away, spilling some of the contents across his wrist.
“You burned me, you son of a bitch!”
“Isn’t that what you were trying to do to me, fella?”
“You owe me a free cup. You promised.”
“I don’t owe you a damn thing,” he snarled, still gripping the cup. “Now get the hell out of here before I report you to the police.”
“What was that all about?” Wayne asked after the man left the coffee house.
Rollins grimaced, wiping up the spilled coffee with a dish rag. “Someone trying to get something for nothing.”
“Responsibility is something you use to take for granted,” he said. “Now you’re almost surprised when it happens.”
“I always am,” Rollins said grimly.
That evening Rollins had another message on his answering machine from the person who thought he might have something that belonged to him.
“I called the other night to speak with Keith Rollins,” he said almost in a whisper. “I have come into the possession of a ring with your name on it, and if it is yours and you can identify it, I’d like to see that you get it back. Please call me,” and again he left his telephone number.
Rollins, startled, replayed the message so that he could write down the number. Then he sat back in his chair, stroking his bare middle finger, and stared at a crack in the ceiling. He could not believe someone had the ring he once wore on that finger, was sure it must belong to some other Keith Rollins.
On his eighteenth birthday his Uncle Karl gave him the gold signet ring he always wore on the middle finger of his right hand. He said his father had given it to him and he wanted to pass it on and had his nephew’s name inscribed inside the ring. “This will remind you who you are and where you came from,” he told him. The young man was surprised and very grateful and proudly wore it as his uncle wished. Indeed, he seldom took it off, though he was not someone who ever wore much jewelry. Not even a wristwatch.
He wore the ring for nearly four years until a few days after his uncle died from heart failure and his mother confessed to him that his uncle was in fact his father. He could not believe it, thought for a moment she was playing some kind of wicked joke on him, but she insisted it was true and asked for his forgiveness. He couldn’t give it, not then, not ever, and stormed out of the house. He was appalled by the deceit and angrily ripped the ring from his finger and jammed it into his pocket. Never would he wear it again he swore to himself.
A few days later, thinking about all the cars he had broken into the past year and taken for joy rides with friends from the warehouse where he worked, he decided the ring was a curse and put it inside a matchbox and left the box in the back of a bus. He was confident he would never see the ring again and hoped whoever found it had better luck than he did.
For a good ten minutes Rollins held the telephone in his hand, trying to decide if he wanted to call the person who had inquired about the ring. He doubted very much if it was the one Uncle Karl gave him but he could not deny that he was curious to find out so a quarter to nine he dialed the number left on his answering machine.
The person who answered said his name was Dwight, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, indicated that the ring had only recently come into his possession. He said he would like to return it to its rightful owner and would only expect to be paid what he paid for it.
“How much is that?”
“Twelve hundred dollars, give or take a cent or two.”
“That’s quite a chunk of change.”
“It is, but it’s a very nice ring.”
Dwight then asked him some specific questions about the appearance of the ring, and apparently satisfied with his answers then asked if he would like to examine it.
“Well, if you like, though it is rather late.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m staying at a hotel out by the airport. I’m in town with my wife to watch the parade tomorrow. But I think it’d be best if we met at some place other than my hotel room.”
“Maybe we could meet after the parade because I’ll be going home on Sunday.”
“Yes, that’ll work for me.”
“Where do you suggest?”
Rollins thought a moment. “You know where the carousel is toward the end of the parade route?”
“No, but I can ask someone who does.”
“Fine. Let’s get together there at two o’clock then.”
“I look forward to it.”
“So do I,” he said uncertainly.
Some static crackled again in Rollins’ headphone then he heard Archie say, “Slow down.”
“What?” he asked, mopping his forehead with the back of his hand.
“The band right in front of you is not marching as fast so you have to reduce your speed a notch.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know but the float in front of the band is also slowing down.”
“Damn,” he groaned, easing his foot a little from the accelerator pedal. Already things were going wrong, and the parade had scarcely got started.
Half a minute passed then Archie told him to stop. “Right now!” he barked.
Rollins slammed on the brakes. “What the hell is going on out there?”
Archie chuckled. “You’re not going to believe this, Keith, but we’ve got a rodeo queen down.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Some babe got bucked off the horse she was riding in front of the Round-Up float and now the medics are tending to her.”
“Hell’s bells. Haul her rhinestoned butt off the street and let’s get this show on the road.”
“It looks as if the fall may have knocked her out so we could be here for a while.”
“Swell,” he muttered as the band resumed playing the theme from “Hawaii Five-O.”
He looked at his watch. The parade was already twelve minutes behind schedule and no doubt would be much farther behind before it got back under way. Still, he was sure Dwight would be waiting for him at the carousel when it was over. Even if the ring was the one Uncle Karl gave to him, he had no intention of buying it back, certainly not for twelve hundred dollars. But when he got up this morning he had every intention of keeping his appointment with Dwight. Now he wasn’t so sure. Clearly he would be driving his float longer than he expected and when he was through looked forward to getting home and soaking in a hot bath for an hour.
“They’ve lifted the girl on a stretcher so we should be getting started in a couple of minutes.”
“It’s about time.”
“You can say that again,” Archie sighed.
Even if the parade wasn’t behind schedule, though, Rollins doubted if he would bother to meet Dwight. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see him; it was the ring he didn’t want to see, as if afraid it would contaminate him again. His life had been full of wrong turns since he got rid of it, some more costly than others, but he had not taken anymore cars or broken any laws. And he just didn’t want to take the chance of reverting to that person he loathed almost as much as he loathed his deceitful uncle.
Thomas Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such journals as The Boston Literary Review, Knock, The Istanbul Literature Review, and Superstition Review.