By John Timm
I’d played this medley a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep and probably have.
Anyway, I was looking around the room one Friday night a few weeks back. The house was
about half full after the fish fry ended. There was this one kid—not really a kid, more like in his
mid-twenties—sitting off to my right in the second row of tables by himself. He had facial hair
and glasses. That was all I could tell, except I noticed he seemed to stare at me during much of
the evening. I flash an automatic smile around the room every so often to make it look like
we’re all having a good time, and whenever I did, he’d smile back. He didn’t come up during the
break, and I was just as happy he didn’t; it was getting a little creepy. After the break, he was
gone and I forgot about it. Until Saturday night.
There he was, alone and staring at me again, this time sitting up front at the edge of the
dance floor. He would stare, look away, or get up like he was going to leave, then come back, sit
down again and order another drink. At the break, he’d apparently mustered up enough courage
to approach the bandstand, with me still not knowing who he was and more than a little leery
about finding out.
I was the first to speak. “Do we know each other?”
“I think maybe we do.”
“Are you Donald W. Lawrence?”
“From Harrisburg, P.A.?”
“My name is Donald Lawrence. Donald W. Lawrence . . . Junior.”
I’ve spent much of my adult life watching other people having a good time—and
just as often, a not-so-good time. I’m that anonymous musician you see at weddings, grand
openings, bar mitzvahs, and in my case, playing gigs in hotel cocktail lounges. You’ve seen
me, but you’ve paid little attention. As long as I and my fellow musicians play in tune, we
may as well all be invisible. You could outsource us to a satellite music service and few
would know the difference. Maybe someday that’ll happen. For now, at least, we’re there
without being there, if you know what I mean.
There was a time in my life when I sought out fame. I kept searching, mostly in all the
wrong places. Certain events in my life managed to get in the way of the dream: women, babies,
marriage, divorce, booze, drugs, in no particular order. Some say it goes with the territory. I’m
not sure I buy that. Plenty get into the music game without winding up in blind alleys. I look
back and wonder what I could have done differently to end up in a different place. Any place
other than the dining room and lounge at the Farmbelt Inn. It’s not that I’m bitter. After
all, the Farmbelt Inn represents the height of nightlife around here. Decatur, Illinois. It’s 120
miles to St. Louis, 180 miles to Chicago, with not much else in between—unless you want to
count Springfield or Peoria, which I don’t think you do.
The Farmbelt Inn is one of a vanishing breed. Motels are now hotels, and the newer ones
have shorn themselves of their restaurants and cocktail lounges in favor of a breakfast bar with
do-it-yourself waffles, a toaster and rubbery scrambled eggs. Over the years, there’ve been
several owners and multiple changes in name. Every once in a while someone spreads the rumor
it’s being sold again, or torn down to make way for another—you name it—Home Depot,
another Lowe’s, another Walmart. When things start to get out of hand, the latest owner, Joe
Patel, gathers his troops together for a quick denial and a pep talk. We all breathe a collective
sigh of relief until the next time.
We play three nights a week, Monday, Friday and Saturday. We’re just a trio on Mondays, a sextet the other
two days. You want to know why we play on Mondays? That’s when most of the vendors who deal with what’s
left of the local factories are in town. Decent guys, making a living for their families back in places like
Chicago, Minneapolis, or Omaha. They’re usually not rowdy. And while they may eye the occasional stray
female, they tend to start yawning around nine-thirty and disappear by ten.
Friday night is fish fry night, a Midwestern tradition the Catholics brought over from
Germany and Poland and won’t let die. Not that it isn’t a good tradition if you like hand-breaded
Atlantic cod, crispy fries, coleslaw and an adult beverage for around nineteen bucks. And it’s
not bad. Even decent, I’d say. It may well be the best thing they put out of the kitchen all week.
Saturday night is like every Saturday night anywhere else. People get a little drunker, a little
more sentimental. They want more standards, more torch songs. More Sinatra.
When all is said and done, I’m thankful such a thing as the Farmbelt Inn still exists. My
leg has never been the same after a car accident ten years ago. At least I got a lifetime payout
from the other driver’s insurance company. Not like winning the lottery, but along with this gig,
it all helps keep a roof over my head.
Life can smack you in the face when you least expect it. Think of it: Donald W.
Lawrence, Jr. An unlikely father and son reunion in a most unlikely place. I kept asking myself,
is this for real? You can only go with what you can see and hear. The rest you take on faith. But I was positive
there’s a physical resemblance. He has his mother’s blue eyes and my jutting jaw.
The hair is brownish—a lot like mine before the gray took over. He’s taller than me, but that’s
true for his generation. It was Donny. After all these years, my Donny.
Even though it was late, when I got back to the apartment I called my half-sister, Karen.
She’s my only relation within a thousand miles, and I had to tell her the good news. She lives
only an hour away and said she’d come over on the Monday night. We thought it might be fun to
surprise Donny with a relative he hadn’t seen in years, maybe bring back some good memories
for all of us.
Karen showed up around six. I didn’t have to play for another hour, so the three of us had
dinner together. After the usual small talk, Karen said, “Donny . . . is it okay if I call you that?”
“That’ll work. Sure.”
“Donny, I only saw you once. You were three or four. Your Uncle Chuck and I came
out to Pennsylvania for a visit. Here’s a picture I took of you and your sister.” It’s a wrinkled
Polaroid of a boy and a girl dressed in matching cowboy outfits. The boy’s hair is slicked down.
The little girl has a bow in hers. They both wear obedient smiles. Donny held the photo for a
moment, then handed it back to Karen. She said, “No, keep it. I want you to have it.”
Donny set it off to one side of the table without saying anything and had little to say
the rest of the meal. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to spring all this on him. We were leaving
the dining room when our server came running up. “Someone forgot this photograph on the
table. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose it.”
Donny said he liked the town, and maybe he’d stay if he could find work. He’d gotten
laid off from a bank somewhere back East. I’m still not clear exactly where. Made it all the way
to manager. Then one day, just like that, says he was out the door. No explanation. Not even a
severance. Some people have no loyalty, I guess. Says he wants nothing to do with working at a
bank ever again. Can’t blame him for that. I offered to let him stay at my apartment. He said he
didn’t want to put me to any trouble. Maybe he would once he got his feet on the ground.
Joe Patel was nice enough to give Donny a room and let him eat in the restaurant for the
next few weeks in return for favors on my part, to be determined at a later date. I’d just gotten
my monthly annuity check from the insurance settlement, and had some spare cash I don’t really
need, so I spotted the kid enough to make his car payment and some gas money. He refused the
offer at first, but I insisted. Glad I did. Kids can be stubborn at times. Mine is no exception.
A regular who works over at Caterpillar said he’d heard they were hiring. I told Donny
about it. “You need to get over there quick. We’ve got a lot of people out of work around here
ever since the tire plant shut down. Decent jobs are scarce.”
Donny said he needed some clothes for the interview. He’d left most everything he
owned in a storage locker Back East. The next morning, I took him out to the mall to get a suit,
shirt and necktie. The kid looked real good all dressed up. On the way back, he said he was
hungry, so we stopped for lunch. I figured it would be a chance to get to know each other better,
too. Donny went right to the top of the menu, ordered the 16-ounce New York strip. He chowed
down like I did at his age. That’s also when I first noticed he was eating with his right hand. I
seem to remember he was left-handed when he was little. “You used to eat with the other hand,
didn’t you? It didn’t come from my family, but I think your mother said there were several
southpaws on her side.”
Donny paused to finish chewing the food in his mouth and took a long drink of his
Coke before replying. “Her boyfriend made me use my right hand for everything. He had
a thing about being left-handed. He hit me once. Said he’d hit me harder if he ever saw me use
my left hand for anything. Anything. He was crazy.”
Most of the time, Donny and I connected at the hotel for lunch and dinner. Whenever I
asked about Diane, his mother, I could tell it made him uneasy. Maybe he was just trying to
“I was just wondering if you knew where she is and if you keep in touch.”
“She kicked me out of the house before I finished high school. Best thing that ever
happened to me.”
“So, you don’t have any contact at all?”
“Not since I was seventeen.”
“Any contact with your sister?”
“She left home right after me. Never heard from her after that. Just as well . . ..”
Afterwards, I felt bad bringing up so many bad memories for him. I hope he understood.
Donny likes to get around like I did when I was at his age. After a few days, he’d
already made some friends in town, even found a girlfriend. She was with him one night at the
bar. Jill worked at a tattoo parlor out on Eldorado Street. Pink hair, nose ring, multiple piercings
and body art. A free spirit like his mother and every woman I’ve ever known. The attraction must be in the
Lawrence family genes.
My own current love life? It’s on a par with everything else around here. The only thing that vaguely
resembles a female interest is Carla, one of the dining room cooks. A lot of random flirtation that never leads
anywhere. We both do it and both know we’re playing a game. Carla’s been married twice and divorced with
three kids. She’s no great shakes to look at, but neither am I, so we’re even on that score. Carla admits she
barely finished high school, but she’s got plenty of street smarts to make up for it. She likes to say, “Fool me
once, shame on you”—and all the rest that goes with it. She spends most of her nights after work watching
TV reality shows and surfing the Internet. It’s her survival tool. We all have them. Hers are just not as harmful
as some others you might think of.
Monday night, the crowd cleared out early. Donny was somewhere else. I wasn’t sure
where. I hadn’t seen him all day. As for me, I was at loose ends. I wasn’t hungry or in the mood
for a drink, but I wasn’t tired either, so I just sat at a table in the dark and collected my thoughts.
I needed to put some of the pieces back together, apologize for the time together Donny and I
never had. Except I didn’t know how to go about it. His recollection of when he was a little boy
was pretty hazy. I didn’t think he remembered much of me. Maybe that was a good thing. I had been gone
much of the time and was not always sober when I was around. After a while, I pretty much decided I
shouldn’t press him about it anymore.
A little after nine, Carla closed the kitchen and came into the dining room. She sat down
across from me. Not one for much ceremony, she opened with, “I’ve asked myself all day if I
should tell you this . . . You’re sure you want to hear it?”
“How can I be sure if I don’t know what it is?”
Even though we were alone, she lowered her voice. “I don’t think Don Junior is who you
think he is . . . There’s something about him . . . I’m not sure. Call it a woman’s intuition. I hope
I’m wrong.” We both got up and called it a night without saying anything more.
On my way out the door, the night clerk called me aside. “Your son and his buddies were
making a lot of noise in his room last night. I kept getting complaints from the other guests and
had to go down there two or three times. And somebody broke the light fixture over the sink in
“Does Joe know about it?”
“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to tell him. I called maintenance, and they’ve fixed it already.”
“My apologies for the trouble. I’ll talk to my kid about it. And I owe you one—big time.”
On Tuesday, Donny showed up at the end of the lunch hour. I wasn’t sure what to say to
him about the ruckus in his room. I didn’t want to get him kicked out, and I didn’t want any
issues with Joe Patel, either, especially after how he’d gone out of his way for me.
“They sure don’t have much left on the buffet, do they?”
“Look, Donny. We need to talk about last night.”
“Oh, that. Yeah. Some of Jill’s friends heard we were getting together at my place. They
weren’t invited, but you know how it is. What can you do?”
“I wouldn’t have let them in. But that’s not the point.”
“I know. I know. It won’t happen again. Swear to God.”
“Thanks. I just don’t need any problems with the management.”
“You won’t. Wow. This meat is like shoe leather. And cold.”
We ate mostly in silence. He was about to get up to leave when I remembered to ask him
about the job interview at Caterpillar. It had already been over a week. He said, “Hey, I’m
sorry, I thought I told you about it. Anyhow, it wasn’t a good fit for me. A paper pusher in the
maintenance department office. I need something that leads to a career. You know?” Then he
rolled up his sleeve and showed me a small tattoo with Chinese symbols on the inside of his
wrist. “Jilly did this. Pretty cool, don’t you think?”
After work, Carla and I had another discussion about Donny. She’d been searching on
line at those people finder and public records sites. She says the only Donald W. Lawrence, Jr.
she could locate was married and living in Tampa, Florida. She’d also read about scammers who
travel the county, claiming they’re somebody’s long lost kid. “They take their victim for
whatever they can and then disappear again.” She reached across the table and placed her hand in
mine. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you. And it’s not any of my business, anyway. I hope
you’re not mad at me.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’m not mad.”
We changed the subject after that. No, I wasn’t not mad at all. Carla meant well, but I just
was not buying it. He was my Donny. I was sure of it.
Next day at lunch time I stopped by the hotel. I knocked on Donny’s door several times
and then called his room on the house phone because he liked to sleep late. No answer. At the
desk, I asked if they’d seen him. “I would of mentioned it to you earlier, Don, but I figured you
already knew. They checked out early this morning. Him and that girlfriend of his. Right after I
began my shift.”
“Do you know where they were headed?”
“No. Didn’t say. But they both had luggage. Like I said, I figured you knew . . ..”
It’s been over a month now. Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays. I keep scanning the tables
for my Donny. Then again, maybe Carla’s right. Maybe he’s not my Donny. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have
to be him. It really doesn’t.
About the Author: John Timm writes short fiction in several genres. His work appears, or is scheduled to appear in 300 Days of Sun, Bartleby Snopes, Fiction Attic, and Flint Hills Review among others, as well as several anthologies. John holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and when not writing teaches courses in Spanish literature and communications.