18+ Elliot parked at the side of the road close to the beach. He grabbed a brown-bagged mini-bottle of tequila and the salt shaker and lemon he'd pinched from the restaurant where he worked as a kitchen-hand. Tie a Yellow Ribbon was on the radio. Elliot turned it up loud to hear it over the breaking waves.
"Whoa, tie a yellow ribbon 'round the ole oak tree. It's been three long years, do you still want me?"
He set the salt shaker and lemon on his work apron on the sand and sat beside it, cradling the tequila. Elliot recalled his mum singing along to Yellow Ribbon in the family car, back when his dad was still around. As a kid, he thought it was about Americans in Iran.
"If I don't see a ribbon round the ole oak tree, I'll stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me."
Then his dad left, Elliot grew up and, as his mum put it, he "went off the rails". Drink, drugs, more drugs, and then stealing to support his habit. Jail taught Elliot the true meaning of the song.
"If I don't see a yellow ribbon 'round the ole oak tree."
He met Gail in rehab. She was thin and hungry-looking, her arms pockmarked by needle scars. With her dark-ringed eyes, she looked like she hadn't slept in months, or maybe years. But it was Gail's smoky voice that captured Elliot's attention and heart. He loved hearing her talk in the rehab circle. And for some reason, Gail liked listening to him, too. Perhaps because they shared similar stories: broken homes, drink and drugs, jail.
"Bus driver, please look for me. Cause I couldn't bear to see what I might see."
They became lovers and vowed to go straight for each other. But Elliot kept going off the rails.
"I'm really still in prison and my love, she holds the key."
He dropped his head, shook salt onto the back of his hand, chewed off a chunk of lemon rind and cracked open the tequila. Lick, sip (long swig), suck. Lowering his hand, Elliot stared at the age spots above the salt lick, marking his skin pigment and time. His last stretch had been six years. Life stands still on the inside, but not on the outside.
"A simple yellow ribbon's what I need to set me free. And I wrote and told her, please."
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Elliot searched for Gail as soon as he got out. He left voice messages and texted her. First thing every morning, Elliot pressed his phone's message app icon, hoping to see an overnight response.
"Now the whole damned bus is cheerin'. And I can't believe I see."
He stood and skolled the tequila without the salt and lemon, savouring the burn, before throwing the empty bottle into the sea. Elliot waited for the splash.
"A hundred yellow ribbons round the ole oak tree."
He knew life wasn't like a song on the radio.
© 2020 Robert Fairhead
Copyright notice: Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn, released February 1973.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.
His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.
Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.
His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.
Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
I wrote this short story for #FuriousFiction April 2020 run by the Australian Writers' Centre. Each 500-word max story had to begin on the side of a road, and include the words APRON, PIGMENT, RIBBON, ICON, and LEMON, and a splash. I didn't win the first prize, make the shortlist or even the long list. But I still enjoyed writing my short story, a welcome creative diversion on the first full weekend of COVID-19 lockdown.