"Thank you, Max"

Mike Ingles

Buck Riden had two idiosyncrasies that separated him from all the rest.  First he wore a black glove on his right hand and refused to use that hand for such mundane tasks as opening a door. The hand was scarred when some hot bacon grease landed on it as he was cooking in his kitchen on a lucid spring day. It was, as far as he could remember, the only bad thing that had ever happened to him in his life. He blamed Max for not protecting him and wore the glove as a reminder that Max was not infallible. The hand was quite useable, no real damage had been done, but since that day two years ago he chose to use his left hand for practically everything.

Secondly, whenever something good happened to him, no matter how small, he would whisper to himself, “Thank you, Max”. Max was a make-believe friend from his childhood who Buck met when he was about three. Max grew up with him. Most children lose their imaginary friends when they are seven or eight but Max had hung around now for thirty-two years. Buck believed in Max and was sure that all good things that happened to him were a direct result of this encouraging spirit. If he were to dine at a restaurant and the meal was excellent he would say, “Thank you, Max”. If he had to cross the street and there were no cars coming either way he would again say “Thank you, Max.” No matter how small or large a good fortune the reply was always the same. Buck was very lucky indeed in that all of his life Max had been there with him making sure that only good fortune would come his way. Except for the burned hand Buck had never had an accident or been sick a day in his life. Buck’s hand was the only reminder that his friend had but once let him down and so the glove was a permanent fixture in his daily wardrobe.

As strange as these idiosyncrasies may seem, Buck was for all the world to see a very normal guy. He lived alone in a small house that he had bought several years ago. He had a checking account, paid his bills on time and was a very good neighbor.  For a single guy Buck led a full life. He worked long hours on a small newspaper called The Daily Reporter. He and Max enjoyed the opera (they had just seen Barber of Seville; Max thought the direction a bit too tight) Yankees Baseball and Buck was preparing to run in his first Marathon.  

But there was something terribly missing in his life for all the fullness that this existence offered. Buck missed not having someone to love. Since college he had had but two dates. The first with a bat- faced women by the name of Ellia. She was a co-worker at the Daily Reporter.  The date had gone well enough at first. They enjoyed a good meal at Harridan’s Pub, but Max was on the spot and after Buck thanked him several times for soft bread and linen napkins, Ellia asked who he was talking to and why did he keep thanking Max. Buck tried to explain that Max was his alter ego and talking to him was just a game he played with himself. But after a few more times of thanking Max for trivial things like clean silverware, Ellia excused herself and left Buck and Max to enjoy the rest of their evening.

The second date was just a week ago. He had met a lovely lady by the name of Joyce McClaskey at the revival of “Streetcar”. They had both ordered white wine at the intermission when Max was outside enjoying a smoke. The conversation was light and romantic and they agreed to meet at Harridan’s Pub for a drink after the show. There was a definite spark between them and after a few drinks Joyce asked if Buck would like to take her home. He kissed her almost as soon as they got into the cab and she responded with a loving touch. Their hands searched each other’s bodies as they continued to search each other with their lips. When they arrived at her apartment they went straight to the bedroom and began making love but when Buck was ready to climax he shouted in a loud roar, “Thank you, Max! Thank you, Max! oh God! Thank You, Max”. Now Joyce McClaskey was a one-man woman and no matter how hard Buck tried to explain his and Max’s association it was to no avail. She was not about to get gang- banged by a nut and his invisible friend. She promptly kicked him out of her apartment and into the hallway wearing nothing but his shorts, shoes and glove, holding his other clothes in his ungloved hand.

It began to rain lightly as he walked aimlessly through the empty streets. He pondered where he was at this time in his vacuous life. Yes, it was true that Max had been a benevolent spirit, a steady hand to guide him through a troubled world. Max kept Buck out of harms way, but more than that he was a true friend. The very fact that this indiscernible being was centered only in Buck’s troubled mind was a source of irritation for all those who could not understand the importance of a guide such as Max. But Max demanded that he be appeased, just a simple vocal thank you in a world cluttered with salutations was all he asked. And in return he would grant Buck a life free from hardships, fear, hate, pain and of course love. It was a steep price to pay but perhaps worth it. The only doubt Buck had was his gloved hand. How could Max have let that happen to him? Max offered no explanation; whenever Buck broached the subject the center of his mind grew ominously silent until another thought, usually a cheerful one, grew in his mind.

The rain grew harder and his shirt and pants were wet and he began to shiver. Max stated the obvious- get out of the rain now or you will get sick. But Buck was not afraid of the rain.  He welcomed the downpour. He demanded, “How could you let me burn my hand?”  But only the sound of the rain and a passing car answered. Another thought tried entering his mind - a simple thought about a nice warm bed. But no, his question begged an answer, once and for all.  But Max was silent. The rain dripped from Buck’s soaking hair and into his eyes and mixed with a tear. Finally Max suggested that Buck find a restroom. Buck knew that just around the next corner there would be a McDonalds or a gas station. Max would make it so. Max always took care of Buck.

But as he rounded the corner he was shocked that there was no gas station or restaurant- only a row of brownstones on one side of the street and an empty field on the other. Half way down the block he could see a young woman holding a toddler in her arms trying to cover the child with a blue blanket. They were standing ten feet in front of their car in the pouring rain. As Buck approached he realized why they were standing in the rain: the back seat of their car was on fire! He ran up to the woman and asked if they were all right. She was frantic but calm enough to cry that she was ok but the baby’s stroller was in the back of the car and she needed it. Buck hurriedly opened the car’s back door. The fire was in the middle of the seat, small but growing. He reached in with his left hand but the metal stroller burned his skin and he had to let go. “Please,” she shouted. This time he retrieved the sizzling stroller with his gloved hand. The cold rain drew steam as it cooled the metal handle. Buck peeled off his smoldering glove and entered the back seat of the car and, crouching on his knees in the middle of the back seat, he unzipped his soaked pants and pissed on the smoking fire.

In another instant Buck could hear the siren of a fire truck nearby. He climbed out of the car, having taken a chance to live in a dangerous light.  The fire was out. The young lady approached him and threw one arm around his neck still clutching the toddler with her other arm. “Thank you, thank you,” she repeated over and over. “Thank you from the both of us.” And she lifted the blue blanket to reveal a young boy of about three.

The child looked up at him with careful blue eyes and whispered, “Thank you, Max.”

© 2003 Mike Ingles

Mike Ingles is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He has a degree in American Literature from Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio. His first short story "Dog Days" is in the Feb. 2003 issue of Mocha Memoirs.