Looking for Lydia
By George Coffer
The woods were filled with red oak and yellow big-leaf maple leaves. Red-winged blackbirds were singing their territorial mating calls. Silver-trunked Oregon oak trees appeared by the side of the road. This was wonderful country, God’s country some would say. Kevin walked on Interstate 14 west toward Beacon Rock. It was fall 2008, and Kevin was about as happy as he had been in the last eight years. He had taken the Gorge bus, only a dollar, from Camas along the Columbia River to White Salmon and hiked west. He was thinking about what happened that drunken, disastrous night in Portland eight years ago.
It had started out as a good day. Harry, an Army buddy from the Gulf War, had suggested they go bar hopping in Portland. So they left his 13-year-old daughter, Lydia, and her mom, Mary Beth, in Vancouver and drove across the old green steel I-5 bridge to Portland. They stopped in North Portland at the topless bar, The Dancing Bare, by the Paul Bunyan statue. Then they decided they were a little drunk and should go eat downtown at Jake’s Grill on Stark Street.
The atmosphere was old world, with bar brass and dark wood tables. The food and the prices were good. He must have still been feeling the effect of the six or eight drinks they had earlier because everything at Jake’s seemed to glisten and the colors ran into each other. The waitress was attractive and it went further than the low-cut blouse and the come-hither look in her green eyes. He loved his wife and yet the waitress looked as good as any girl he could remember.
After the dessert, a kind of double chocolate torte, he told Harry that he thought they should leave before he made a total fool of himself with the waitress. Harry said sure, he understood. He wouldn’t mind asking her out either and his wife was back in Springfield, Missouri.
They were standing out front and Kevin said, “Why don’t we go to the bar across the street?” If there was anything now, eight years later, that Kevin could change in his life it would be his decision to go to that bar. He should have guessed by the pink wall outside the bar that this was not a good place for drunk Army buddies.
They walked in and went to the bar. Harry took one look at the bartender and shouted to Kevin, “He’s a fucking queer.” At this point four of the patrons rose and one particularly big one said, “Hey, asshole, we are all fucking queer. So what are you going to do about it?” Harry picked up a beer bottle and broke it over the guy’s head.
Kevin did not want to get involved but three guys started beating on Harry with fists and bottles. Even today Kevin cannot remember much of what happened — except blood running down his face from a cut over his left eye and four guys lying on the floor around him. Harry was getting to his feet but two of the guys on the floor looked green and one guy seemed to have trouble breathing.
The police came and charged Harry and Kevin with disorderly conduct and first degree assault. Harry spent three months in jail and had two years’ probation. Kevin was not so lucky. One of the guys on the floor died. Another went to the hospital with a detached trachea. Kevin had hit him in the neck. Kevin got eight years in jail for manslaughter and first degree assault. He got out in seven years three months for good behavior. His wife divorced him while he was in jail. He wrote his daughter, Lydia, but she never wrote back, and he lost track of her. There was no Lydia Babcock in any of the telephone directories.
So now, eight years later, as he walked through the trees, those beautiful yellow, red, and orange leaves of autumn, he thought about what might have been if not for that one night in Portland, and his crazy friend Harry’s starting a fight in a gay bar on Stark Street. He passed Beacon Rock Park and walked around the corner a mile or so to the Skamania Grocery. He bought a ham and cheese sandwich and a soft drink from the girl there, who looked about seventeen. She would be younger than Lydia now by four years. He stared at her and she looked at him and smiled. He saw how young she was: first bloom of youth, nice figure, no makeup, and country-air complexion. He felt a tear roll down his face and then another.
“You okay, sir?” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just thinking of my own daughter and how much I miss her. I’m sorry I stared at you.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I see now. You weren’t staring at me; you were missing your daughter.”
“Yeah,” he said. Suddenly he felt old and foolish. He was forty-five years old and he was sniveling.
“I’ll just have another Coke and sit out there on your porch.”
He had just started to feel like his old self again when a black panel truck pulled up and a young guy with spikey hair ran into the store.
“This is a stick-up. Give me all your money, now!” Kevin heard the guy say.
“I said, give it to me now, bitch.” Then Kevin heard a firearm discharge twice.
Something clicked inside Kevin. He felt rage well up inside him. The next thing he knew he was inside the store and had grabbed the guy’s gun arm, broken two of his fingers, and disarmed him. He was holding the guy in a choke hold two feet off the floor when he heard a voice say,
“It’s okay, Mister. Don’t kill him. I’ve got his gun and I know how to use it. Let him go.”
Kevin dropped the young man, who must have weighed 140 pounds to his 220. He put his knee on the boy’s back. The boy was screaming, “You broke my fingers, man. You tried to kill me. You can’t do that. I was only robbing the store.”
Just then Kevin heard a man say, “This man try to rob you?”
“Yes, Hank,”said the girl.
Kevin turned his head, still pinning the boy to the floor, and saw a young patrolman behind him. He felt foolish. The girl was okay. The young man was either a really bad shot or just trying to scare her. Kevin should not have grabbed him and broken his fingers. Kevin could see the bars slowly circle around him, feel the loneliness of being in a cell.
Here we go again, he thought.
The young officer cuffed the young man Kevin was holding. He looked at Kevin and said, “Thank you, sir. You’re a real hero. You disarmed this shitbird. We’ve been trying to catch him for weeks. I’d like to tell you how happy I am to meet you.” He reached out his hand.
“What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Kevin Babcock,” he said, relieved, and shook the officer’s hand.
“Really, now, isn’t that a coincidence. Babcock is my wife’s maiden name.”
“What is her first name?” Kevin asked.
“Well, sir, her first name is Lydia. Now, isn’t that a pretty name?”
“Yes, it is, son, yes, it is,” Kevin smiled. He felt truly happy again.