Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Caroline Misner

The Milestone Man

Nick had considered himself a lucky guy, until now.  His last ride had ditched him at the truck stop; deserted on Highway I95, a hard rain began to fall.  His name had been Al, a hulking red-bearded trucker in a blue semi.  Al had picked him up earlier that morning and they drove south.  It wasn’t long before he had his hand on Nick’s knee and was kneading it gently, suggesting they find a quiet place somewhere to park.  Nick balked and brushed the hand away; after three days hitching rides, he’d learned how to handle the perverts.  Chuckling, Al had promised to meet him back in the parking lot when they stopped for gas, but by the time Nick emerged from the men’s room, Al and his truck were gone.  At least Nick had the good sense to keep his backpack and guitar with him.

He hitchhiked to the next truck stop, passing patchwork farms nestled in valleys wedged between the green overlapping hills of West Virginia.  Nick pulled his hood over his head and hunched his back against the weather.  He trudged along the gritty shoulder of the highway, jutting his thumb out at the few vehicles that passed. No one stopped but several doused him with generous waves of rainwater.  By dusk, a few extended him the courtesy of flashing their headlights, warning him of an approaching cop car and giving Nick enough time to dash into the bushes until it passed.

He was more concerned about his guitar.  It had been a gift from his mother for his tenth birthday, a consolation prize for becoming the man of the house now that his father was dead.  She couldn’t afford music lessons so Nick had taught himself to play a few chords by ear.  It had been a fleeting hobby at the time, something he never took too seriously until several years later when he discovered Bill Byron.

Nick had found the album in a pile of old records at the garage sale of some aging burnt out hippy.  The cover boasted the smiling face of a young man not much older than Nick sitting barefoot and cross-legged on a wooden stool with his guitar nestled between his knees.  The title “Milestones” was scrawled over his head in garish orange letters that had been so popular in the sixties and below it the simple name of Bill Byron in white.  Nick had never been an aficionado of folk music, but something about the man’s serene expression intrigued him.  He haggled the price down to a dollar, tucked the record under his arm and dashed home to give it a listen to.

There was just one problem: Nick had no idea how to play a vinyl record.  His mother had stored all her own record albums in the basement and her old turntable was long gone.  Nick had to return to the garage sale and bargain with the hippy until he agreed to sell him his old stereo system for another five dollars.  It took all night for Nick to figure out how it all worked, where to connect all the wires, and why in God’s name would you use something called a needle to release the sound from grooves, but it had been worth the effort.  Once Nick heard the music, tinny and distant sounding and accompanied by intermittent crackles, he was captivated.  From the first strum of Bill’s guitar to the deep throaty notes that issued from his lips, Nick was raised to a new level of music he never knew existed.  Bill sang love songs, folk ballads, simple rhymes, protest songs that had been so popular back in the sixties before Nick’s own mother had even been born; songs that in that era had been so conscientious but in today’s world sound silly and naïve. The title song in particular struck Nick so that he spent all night singing the lyrics and practising on his guitar:

I watch the world from a great distance…through eyes as old as time…I’ve seen the fall of Atlantis…I’ve seen the pyramids shine…I’m out here watching all of you…through every tiny grain of sand…through every single drop of dew…I am the one immortal…I am the milestone man…”

He didn’t quit until Nick’s mother pounded on the bedroom door and demanded he stop that racket so she could get some sleep.  By then he had perfected every note of every song on the album.

“Isn’t he great?” Nick gushed to his best friend Jeff after school the next day.  They sat on the floor in Nick’s room, watching the record wobble round on the turntable.  Nick had nailed the speakers with their threadbare covers in opposite corners of the room so they could experience the full range of sound. Quadraphonic, his mother had called it.

“It’s okay.” Jeff shrugged.  “Nothing special.”

“It’s from the sixties.”  Nick scrutinized the back cover.  There was little on it but a faded picture of Bill gazing out a window, his long hair lifted by a breeze and a small note in the lower left corner that said the record was written, performed and produced by him.

Jeff said, “My grandfather used to listen to shit like this.”

Undeterred, Nick introduced Bill to everyone he met.  No one had ever heard of him before, not even his grandparents who boasted that they had met at Woodstock—whatever that was—and marched on Washington to protest Vietnam.  One old codger, the custodian at Nick’s school, peered at the album cover through thick rimmed glasses.

“I might have heard him on the radio once, way back,” he said and picked at a scab on his balding pate.

There was little information on Bill in the libraries and on the internet.  There were many people named Bill Byron out there—actors, lawyers, directors, even another musician shared his name.  Nick sifted through it all but only found scant information about his music and his life.  Nick was astounded that Bill hadn’t become more famous.  To his ears the man was a musical genius.

It took him another year to learn that Bill never recorded another album, preferring instead to performing at the occasional folk festival and lending his name to various charities.  After that his name and music languished into obscurity.  No one remembered him and no one cared.

But that didn’t matter to Nick.  By then he’d archived enough information about Bill to write a biography of his life.  Someday, Nick vowed, he would meet this great man and shake his hand and jam with him.  So Nick knew what he had to do. 

He slipped out of the house at dawn, his backpack and guitar strapped to his back.  He’d taken what little money he had and left a note on the kitchen table, imploring his mother not to worry, that he would phone her as soon as he arrived in Florida and he would be back soon.  There was little time left.

By the third day, his journey disintegrated into misery.  The cold rain was relentless; he was famished and exhausted.  No one stopped to offer him a ride for miles as he trudged through mud and darkness.  His money was running low and be began to doubt his own sanity for embarking on such a foolish quest.  Perhaps the others were right.  Bill was just some insignificant folk singer, one of a myriad of disillusioned young men from the sixties who thought they could change the world with a song or two.  Nick wiped his wet face with the back of his sleeve, unable to distinguish between the rain and his own tears, and gazed at the other side of the highway.  One leap over the meridian and he would be hitching his way back home. 

A pair of headlights shot through the darkness, illuminating the gushing rain.  A truck’s horn blared.  Nick blinked to clear his vision.  The truck slowed and eventually stopped, bits of gravel snapping under its tires.  The trucker leaned over and opened the door.

“Where you going?” he had to shout to be heard over the rain.

“Florida,” Nick replied.  “But I can ride as far as you can take me.”

“What part?”


“This is your lucky day, kid.” The driver swung back into his seat.  “Hop in.”
Nick couldn’t believe his luck.  He leapt into the cab, shaking the water from his hair.  The trucker looked him over and chuckled.

“You’re a mess,” he said and shifted gears.

“You’re the first person who’s stopped for me all night,” Nick replied.

“The name’s Roland.”  He eased the truck back onto the highway.


“And what’s waiting for you down in Orlando?” Roland asked.  “A girl?”

“Hardly.” Nick shifted his guitar case into his lap.  “A man named Bill Byron.”

Roland stared at him through the dim light of the cab.

“You know Bill?”

“Not yet.” Nick replied.  “But I’m his number one fan.”

“Didn’t think he had any left.” Roland shook his head.  He smiled and glanced down at Nick’s guitar. “You know any of his songs?”

“All of them.”

“Then let’s hear you play.”

Nick was astounded.  Roland was the first person he’d ever met who’d heard of Bill Byron.  He eagerly pulled his guitar from its case and tuned the strings.  On the count of three they lapsed into “My Sweet Honey Rose”.  They sang every song on the album, Nick strumming his guitar as Roland warbled the lyrics off key.  The windshield wipers whooshed softly back and forth in time to the music as the trucked trolled through the rolling hills and valleys of Virginia, through the flat plains of Georgia and on toward Florida.

The rain abated sometime during the night as they passed through Georgia.  Exhaustion overtook Nick.  Roland said something to him, but he didn’t hear.  He fell asleep with his guitar still in lap as dawn painted a rusty glow against the eastern hills.

“Wake up, kid.” Roland shook Nick until his eyes fluttered open.  The sharp Florida sun burned through the windshield.  Nick groaned and unrolled himself, working the kinks from his joints.  He blinked at the building beyond the truck.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“Told you I knew where he was,” Roland said. “Just before you fell asleep.”

“But this is a hospice.”

Roland rested his chin on the steering wheel and stared at the squat white brick building.  His eyes were glazed, his expression distant.  Nick tucked his guitar into its case and gathered his belongings.

“Want to come?” He eased out of the cab.


“Thanks for the ride,” Nick said, glancing warily at the hospice.  “I’ll let him know he has another fan out there.”

“Yeah,” Roland sighed and slammed the door shut in Nick’s face.

The volunteer at reception was about Nick’s age with white pasty makeup and black lipstick.  A jewel glistened in her pierced nose and bobbed in time to her gum chewing. 

“Help you?”  She glanced up from her magazine as though his presence was the worst intrusion in the world.

“I’m here to see Bill Byron.”  Nick shifted his guitar over his shoulder.  The halls smelled of urine and blood masked by the acrid stench of Lysol.  Hushed moans echoed down the corridors.


Nick forgot that Bill had changed his name at eighteen after reading “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. 

“William Horowitz,” he corrected.

“Are you the family?” she asked.

“No, just a fan.”

The girl smirked.  “Mr. Horowitz has fans but no family?  That’s weird.  We’ve been trying to contact the family for months.”

“He’s got family,” Nick protested.  “His first wife was named Margaret.  He only married her to make his parents happy.  They divorced in 1963 after he cut his album.  His second wife was named Patty.  She died of cancer in 1969.  He married his third wife that same year, but only because he was so heartbroken over Patty’s death.  She gave birth to his son that same year, but they divorced and he’s be estranged from them ever since.  His son’s name is…Roland.”

The name lodged in Nick’s throat.  He swivelled round to look out the window, but the truck was already gone.

“All right, all right,” the girl groaned and rolled her eyes.  “I don’t care about his life story.  You want to see him, sign the guest register here and follow me.”

The girl led him down hushed hallways where nurses padded by carrying clipboards and sacs of clear IV fluid.

“I’m just here to finish my community service,” the girl explained.  “Only another twelve hours to log, then I’m outta here.”  She pushed open a door at the end of the corridor.  “Here he is.  Have a good visit.  And if you ever find his family, tell them he’s here.  He ain’t got much time.”

An old man lay on his side at the edge of the bed, his knees curled up to his chest.  His long grey hair splayed across a pillow the same dull green as the nurses’ scrubs.  Juice stains speckled the front of the hospital gown he wore.  He was so emaciated he resembled a peeled mummy; his skin was the color of dust.  Bill made no move to indicate he’d heard Nick enter.

Small comforts had been placed around the room to make it seem homier.  Pots of flowers with rusty petals dominated the bureau.  Lace curtains hung in the window where an air conditioner whirred but offered little relief.  Everywhere Nick looked he saw mementoes of Bill’s life: the guitar from the album cover, now scuffed and with a new strap, was propped against the wall under a picture of Bill as a young man shaking hands with Bob Dylan—the Bob Dylan!  Another picture showed him dancing with Joan Baez. A poster for the musical “Hair” hung over the bed, its edges curling in the humidity.  Nick’s footfalls sounded impossibly loud as he pulled a chair up beside the bed and sat down.  Bill’s eyes opened.

“Yes?”  His voice was low and crackled like an old record.  It sounded nothing like his songs.  “Can I help you?”

“Mr. Byron?” Nick swallowed and cleared his throat.  “My name’s Nick.  It’s an honor to meet you.  I’m your number one fan.”

Bill lifted his head from the pillow and squinted at Nick.  His eyes were as pale robin’s eggs.

“A fan? I haven’t heard anybody say that to me in about a thousand years.” He glanced at a paper cup on the nightstand.  “Can you pass me a drink of water?  My throat’s parched.”

Nick held the cup under his chin and Bill sucked the water up through a bent straw before collapsing back into the pillow.

“I’m sorry you’re sick,” Nick said.  “I was hoping we could jam together.”

Bill closed his eyes and chuckled.

“Son, I don’t have the strength to lift my guitar,” he said.  “But it sure would be sweet to hear you play.”

“Yes, sir!”

Nick pulled his guitar from the case and draped the strap across his shoulders.  He sang every song from Bill’s album, adjusting his voice as best he could to make himself sound exactly like Bill as a young man. 

A faint smile smudged Bill’s lips as he watched Nick play.  He hadn’t the strength to lift himself but he managed to tap his fingers against the mattress in time to the music.  By the time Nick reached the third song, the tapping faded and he lay there, gazing out at Nick with eyes that slowly dimmed like stars winking out at dawn.

Nick was about to play “The Milestone Man”, the final song on the album, when Roland appeared at the door.  He twisted his cap like a washrag and stared down at the figure on the bed.  Nick stopped abruptly and watched him inch toward the bed.  He knelt down and gingerly stroked strands of greasy hair from his father’s brow.  Bill didn’t move.

“It’s me, dad,” he whispered and nodded at Nick.  “Keep going.  He needs to hear it again.”

Tears seared the corners of Nick’s eyes.  He could barely swallow round the lump in his throat, let alone sing. Somehow he managed to warble “The Milestone Man” one last time.  He would never play it again.

When he finished he realized the song had been all wrong.  Bill wasn’t immortal after all.


BIO:  I am a graduate of Sheridan College of Applied Arts & Technology with a diploma in Media Arts Writing. My fiction has been published on line at www.bewilderingstories.com and in A Room of One’s Own, issues 30.2 and 30.3. I’ve had short stories published in Storyteller, Prairie Journal, Challenging Destiny and The Windsor Review. An excerpt from my novel has been published in ProseAx Literary Journal under the title "Skin of a Peach." That same novel was a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award. In 2004 I received Honourable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 72nd. Annual Writing Competition. In December 2004 my novella received Honourable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest; a short story was also a finalist in the same contest. This year, my short story "Strange Fruit" was nominated for the Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize. My poems have appeared in Ideals magazine as well as Penwomanship, Quills, Leaf Press, Poetry Canada, The Litchfield Review, Perigee, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Aim Magazine, Prairie Journal and The Aroostook Review.