Three years ago
My hand is shaking as I return the old landline telephone to the cradle on the desk. I can’t believe that just happened. The phone call of a lifetime, of my lifetime.
“Well?” Jim asks from across the desk.
Jim Stanley owns the small dirt track I race at every Saturday night. He took me under his wing barely eight years ago, when I was a cocky sixteen-year-old kid with a chip on my shoulder and the desire to race coursing through my veins. I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a drunken father passed out in the trailer we shared when I showed up one Saturday night, watching from the outer fence, as the stock cars bumped and raced around the oval for the checkered flag.
That was the night I fell in love with racing.
And Lena, Jim’s daughter.
She was this tall, skinny girl with long, dark hair and knobby knees. Lena was practically hanging out of the concession stand, watching the action on the track. I could see the way her face radiated joy, her smile outshining the excitement happening just a hundred yards away. That was the moment I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She was a year older than me in school and recently moved to Brenton, Kansas. No one really knew much about her, but after that night, I knew I had to make her mine.
“Mack?” Jim asks, pulling me back to the now. To the phone call that has altered the course of my future.
“He’s offering me a ride.”
I still can’t believe it.
Jim stands up, a wide smile brimming across his aged face as he approaches my seat. “Mack,” he says, the emotion of this moment caught up in him as well. I stand up and am immediately engulfed in his arms. “I’m so proud of you.”
Five words I’ve never heard before in my life.
Words I’d longed to hear from my old man, but never did. Words that seem to mean even more coming from Jim Stanley, the man who stepped up when everyone else was ready to turn their backs. When my own father drank himself into a grave just a few short years ago.
“When do you go?” he asks.
His smile slips for a split second, but I catch it. I’ve practically lived here at the track, first as a boy covered in dirt and cleaning the pits, and then as a man, racing every Saturday night. Through it all, Jim has been there, offering me more than just a job. His guidance, expertise, and even his love. Jim is the closest person I have to a real father, and the thought of leaving him, leaving this place, hurts.
Jim places his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “You better go get packed up.”
I nod, a ball of emotion suddenly lodged in my throat. “Thank you for what you’ve done.” The thought of leaving Jim and this track, the one place that has always felt like home, terrifies me, but not leaving, passing up this opportunity, might terrify me more.
He scoffs. “I didn’t do anything.”
I blow out a huge breath and laugh. “Didn’t do anything? You don’t think I know you made a call?”
The look on his face confirms my suspicions. Jim is unable to mask his guilt as he grins up at me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But I do know. Jim Stanley is a former crew chief for open-wheel racing. He worked with racing legends like Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. His wall is covered with photographs and his cabinet full of trophies. Jim Stanley is a legend in his own right, and even though he retired right before he bought this old, closed-down track eight years ago, I have no doubt he still has the connections needed to have me seen.
Instead of arguing with him, I throw my arms around his shoulders and hold him close. He smells of soap and motor oil, and I can’t help but grin at the familiarity. When I pull back, my eyes lock with his. “Thank you, Jim. For everything.”
His eyes soften as he says, “You did this, Mack. Now, go.” He gives me a gentle shove toward the door. “I believe my daughter is down in her workshop.”
My heart starts to hammer with excitement as I make my way out of the office. The mid-afternoon sun is high in the July sky, the thickness of the Kansas humidity steals my breath. I pull my ball cap down low on my head to shield my eyes and make my way toward the one building standing all by itself. I think the original track owner used it as a maintenance shed, but not the Stanleys. Jim transformed it into a workshop for his only daughter, Lena.
As I round the office and her building in the distance comes into view, I spy the screen door open, which tells me she’s not in the darkroom. Lena is a brilliant photographer, even at the young age of twenty-five. She sells her photographs to blogs, magazines, and companies all over the Midwest. She specializes in landscapes, but she’s amazing with people too. Ever since she was seventeen, she’s been the track photographer, taking pictures of the races, drivers and crew, and even the fans in the stands. Afterward, she posts them to the track’s website.
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