Ernie Plummer sat in the busy bus terminal awaiting the announcement of his coach boarding. The hard plastic seat was uncomfortable on his bony ass but Ernie chalked that up to his aging body rather than poor chair construction. He imagined that seat would have felt a lot more comfortable if his butt cheeks were fifty years younger, hell even twenty. Pulling the old pocket watch from his coat pocket Ernie checked the time; 2:32 PM, he had a few more minutes before they’d be boarding.
Closing the cover he turned the timepiece over in his hand. He had once enjoyed the weight of it, but just recently he had begun to feel the burden of its heft. The inner workings he’d bragged over the years had kept perfect time providing he had wound it and it had never let him down. Staring at the watch somberly, Ernie replayed that last thought in his head. It had never let him down. Or had it? He rubbed his thumb across the inscription expertly engraved in the gold. “Never look back.”
It had been on a return trip from his final tour in Viet Nam that he’d found the watch, seemingly forgotten by some traveler all those years ago. He’d been waiting for a connecting train and had a few hours to kill. Looking for a place to rest his tired body he had found the watch inside an abandoned disposable cup sitting alongside other bits of trash that someone had neglected to throw away. The watch was beautiful and looked valuable, surely to be missed by its owner but Ernie had pocketed it quickly once he saw nobody else around. Spoils of war he’d decided and had never felt a bit of guilt about it.
“Never look back,” the watch proclaimed each time he took it out to check the time or simply admire it. Never look back, he decided was a good credo to live by. Never look back at that war. Never look back at the things he’d done, the things he’d been ordered to do. What great comfort those three words allowed.
Ernie heard the crackling announcement through the P.A. system and was startled back to the present, his bus was boarding. The watch, clutched tightly in his fist was very warm to the touch and he found his palm sweaty as he dropped the timepiece back into his side pocket. Grabbing his bags, Ernie made his way toward the short line that was forming to board the idling Greyhound. Awaiting his turn among the other travelers, Ernie found his mind wandering to a painful past.
Never look back was the very thing he told himself in the autumn of 1978 when he slipped out of the house in the hours before dawn, leaving his first wife Marjorie and their infant son to fend for themselves. It was the same thing he’d silently repeat with each woman and every job and every broken friendship thereafter over the next few decades and there had been a multitude of each. For more than forty years he’d continued swallowing that credo, washing it down with whiskey at night and finding it to be the first thing on his lips each morning besides a cigarette. It had only been recently that he had begun tallying up what those three words had resulted in. Nothing. Nada. Never look back was supposed to be the battle cry of a man living by his own rules, of someone who apologized for nothing. He now realized that it was befitting a person who left nothing more in their wake but pain, sorrow and devastation. The villages he’d helped burn. Never look back. The screams from the thatched huts. Never look back. The young girl who climbed out of a back window on fire, screaming in agony until the Captain had put her mercifully down. Never look back.
He chose a seat at the back and was pleased when nobody sat beside him as he could stretch out his legs along with his thoughts. Pulling the gold watch once again from his pocket he checked its hands; 2:47 PM. Right on time, he could expect to be arriving in Florida in two days. From there, one more bus to his destination in Tampa. He closed the face of the watch for the last time and let the timepiece slip between the seat cushions. Not looking back had been the most destructive decision of his life and his determination to mend as many wrongs as he could in the few years he had left was all he’d been able to think about since he’d clawed his way out of the bottle. With the watch now gone from his life for good, Ernie reached into his other pocket and withdrew the one year chip his sponsor had presented him four nights earlier. One year sober, one day at a time.
As the bus pulled out of the terminal and onto the tarmac of the highway Ernie turned and looked out the rear window and said goodbye to his past, goodbye to regret and goodbye to self-loathing. He was unsure how long he’d been staring at that horizon falling behind him but Ernie didn’t mind, he had a lot of looking back to make up for. After getting a good long look, Ernie once again set his sights on what was ahead of him. He had a son to meet in Florida, and he had a lot to tell him.