by Virginia McCullough  

ne of the most precious presents a parent can give their child is a passion for reading.  In order to instill that love of literature, it is essential that children be exposed to fine writings of fact and fiction.   The wonderful world of books showcases exceptional authors telling intriguing tales.  Centuries of fine literature fill libraries the world over to nurture young minds.

Many of the finest writers began their careers  as newspaper reporters.  Unfortunately today's newspapers are a barren wasteland of repetitive articles written as though produced by a duplicating machine.  Editors dictate the content newspaper readers will be allowed to read.  Publishers publish by bending to the will of their largest advertisers.  Advertisers, in turn, bend to the will of the government and news comes to the reader slanted accordingly.  It is the pabulum fed to the public so that only "politically correct viewpoints" are published.

Today I read the exception to the rule,  a truly exceptional article written by Modesto Bee staff writer Ty Phillips.  It is unique for two reasons: (1) it is a lengthy article that reads as though little, if any, editing took place and (2) the subject matter is very unusual.  Ty Phillips is a writer who writes with compassion and understanding.  He should wear his writing style like a badge of courage.  The wonderful interlacing of his words forces one to compare him to Mark Twain or Truman Compote, each of whom established new genres.

The Modesto Bee editors are to be commended for recognizing Phillips' talent and for allowing him the newspaper space to weave his magic.  He draws  his readers into a web of personal emotions that raises his tale to heights rarely seen in today's war driven rags.

So my gift to my readers is what follows - a Wonderful Christmas Tale.   Welcome to Ty Phillips' story The Anonymous Man's Tale Comes to Light. 

Virginia McCullough © 12/31/01    


by Ty Phillips
© 2001
Modesto Bee Staff Writer, December 23, 2001, posted 04:45:06 a.m. pst

Joseph twisted the key and the padlock dropped open. He pushed the chain-link gate aside and walked in.

He marched past the mounds of mangled metal, through the damp dirt and into a tiny office with cinder-block walls. He sat at his desk.

For a moment, it felt normal.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the empty metal chair shiny with grease.

He took a deep breath and exhaled. The air was too clean. He hated smoke, but, oddly, he missed the smell.

And he missed running the old man outside every morning for stinking up the office.

The junkyard can be a cold, lonely place at 6 in the morning. Especially now.

About 10 years ago, Joseph Vierra bought the Tin Yard. It wasn't much more than a crane and a mudhole on an unnamed street in northwest Modesto.

The deal came with one catch: Frank Scheeler. He was a quiet man who years before had made an inexplicable choice: Frank stopped venturing outside the Tin Yard's broken-down fence. He shrank his whole world down to two acres.

When Joseph took over the junkyard, Frank lived in a cardboard hut inside a sprawling pile of tires. Joseph eventually convinced the old man to move into a small, junky travel trailer beneath a shade tree on the south side of the yard.

Frank was in his mid-50s then, old age in junkyard years. Cold winters had cut deep crevices in his face and the hot summers had baked his hands. He wore the same clothes for months at a time. He smelled like a mechanic -- oil and grease overpowered the stench of sweat. Occasionally, he cut his flowing beard with shears or bleached it to kill the lice. But, mostly, he was as nature left him.

Frank didn't need much to survive. He cooked his meals over gas stoves he'd salvaged from the pile. His vices were coffee, tobacco and sugar. Frank's work around the yard paid for his groceries, but someone else always did the shopping. An AM-FM radio tuned to KCBS was his only link to the outside world.

Everyone had a theory about why he had chosen to call a junkyard home. Some thought he must be hiding a terrible secret. Others figured he was running from a guilty past. Or the law. Joseph didn't know what to think, but he became intrigued. Frank was nothing like the other indigents who roamed the area: He wasn't a drunk, a thief or a liar.

During Joseph's first few months there, he and Frank invariably crossed paths while the two went about their business. They would simply nod, still feeling each other out. They developed unspoken agreements: Frank sifted through tons of scrap metal for poor man's treasures that Joseph could sell, and Joseph brought leftovers from the previous night's dinner. They built a trust slowly.

Within a year, Frank had taken over the fuel shed; Joseph wasn't allowed in. The equipment would be full of gas, oil and water by the time Joseph came to work each morning. They agreed upon a salary of $50 a week.

Sparse details of Frank's life trickled out. Stories about serving in the Air Force. Working on oil rigs and in coal mines. His time on a chain gang. The years searching for his five kids. And losing his life's meaning, then riding a freight train 3,000 miles to nowhere to live out his days in self-torment.

Joseph listened and asked questions, sometimes testing the old man. But Frank's stories never changed. The people, the details and the lessons always were the same. Still, Joseph always found himself wondering how much, if any, of what Frank said was true.

The early morning sunlight hit the junkyard just after 7. The crane's lanky shadow stretched onto the dirt like the neck of a giant dinosaur. The old machine had dirt caught in its teeth; oil leaked down its arm like cold blood. The crane was the heart of the junkyard.

Joseph climbed into the cab and killed the cool morning silence with the engine's throaty roar. The crane dove its head into a pile of metal garbage and came up clinching an old oven and thick, tangled strands of rusty rebar. Joseph played the four levers like a musical instrument, and in one swift motion, the crane's head rose, whirled around and dropped the load into a baler.

When the baler was full, Joseph walked over and pulled himself into the cab. He cranked the engine to life; it sputtered, then began belching diesel exhaust. The baler's walls pressed together, crushing the metal into workable squares to be loaded onto a big rig bound for a recycler in Oakland.

Across the yard, Frank rummaged through a heap of old refrigerators. He plucked off pieces of copper and aluminum, and dropped them into his old wheelbarrow. Once it was full, he pushed the load to his growing pile near the office.

He knelt on one knee and took a package of tobacco from his shirt. He rolled a cigarette. He held it in his tobacco-stained fingers and fished his pocket for a pack of matches. He lit the cigarette and dropped the match to the dirt.

He stared across a vacant field of dried yellow grass that separated the junkyard from Highway 99. He lost himself in the distant hum of rush-hour traffic, his thoughts drifting 30 years back. His mind's eye replayed the memory of him and his daughter, Belinda, taking a long walk through a Georgia peach field. He called her his little stinker; that always made her laugh.

She was 7 the last time he saw her.

Belinda Scheeler walked out of the Social Security office and sighed. The 41-year-old woman lighted a cigarette and wandered down the street thinking about all the things the woman at the counter had just told her.

Her father probably was still alive, but that couldn't be proven. Odds were, the woman said, he was either homeless or in jail. But there was no record of his existence since he registered for a Social Security card in 1972.

Belinda had heard all this before. From the people at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Air Force. From The Salvation Army and a national locater service. And from everyone else who had tried to find her father. On paper, Frank Scheeler had simply disappeared.

Belinda's mother told her children their father didn't love them anymore and just left one day. But time had begun to reveal the truth behind her lie.

Frank's five children all had spent time searching for their father. Belinda devoted countless hours each year looking for any kind of sign. She didn't know where to look, but she was determined to meet him someday; she wanted him to tell her why.

The year was 1985. Timothy Simmons carried his food to the counter of Ray's Market on Kansas Avenue. As he reached into his back pocket for his wallet, he smiled and greeted the cashier, Jim Lubeck. But Jim looked bothered by something.

"Man, some guys just kicked the hell out of a guy out back."

"Really? What happened?"

"These four guys were out back drinking beer. They caught this guy by the Dumpster and just started beating the crap out of him. They all had clubs. Almost killed him."

"Who was it?"

"Just one of the guys who hangs out around here. I don't know which one."

Timothy paid for his meal and walked outside. The bricklayer had an hour for lunch, and he wanted to make sure the guy wasn't someone he knew.

There was a group of seven or eight hobos who often hung out near the store, begging for money or plucking expired food from the garbage cans of nearby markets and fast-food restaurants. Most had spent lost years traveling the country by freight train, settling in California, where the winters weren't as harsh as back East. They were guys with names like Squeaky and Lefty and Big Al. And Frank.

Timothy walked out back past the market to an old appliance warehouse where some of the hobos slept. He walked inside and found Frank lying on his back.

Frank could barely move. A few ribs were broken. His face was badly bruised. He had some holes in his mouth where teeth had been. Every time he coughed, blood bubbled over his lower lip and slid down his chin. Timothy tried to convince Frank to go to a hospital, but Frank said he didn't want to cause any trouble.

Frank spent the next few weeks lying on his back, unable to walk more than a few steps at a time. His hobo friends took care of him, bringing him food and water and wine.

The healing took several months, but the beating changed the man who was now pushing 50 years old. Once he had healed, Frank returned to the safety of the junkyard, where he already had lived for about 10 years. He vowed never to leave the place again.

There came one exception.

Joseph shut the door to his pickup and walked up to Frank's trailer. He banged on the door.

"Frank, I need your help."

The old man peeked out the window. When he spotted the antique dentist's chair in the back of the truck, he ducked his head. He'd seen the crane drop the chair onto the truck, and he knew Joseph would need help unloading it at home.

"C'mon, Frank, it's only a little ways."

Frank came outside because he didn't want to be rude, but he had no intention of leaving. He declined again and again. Finally, Joseph grabbed his friend's arm and forced him into the truck.

Frank fidgeted and became more restless the farther Joseph drove from the junkyard. He felt uncomfortable the entire time, and wanted to hurry and get the job over with.

Finally, when the unloading was done, Joseph grabbed a six-pack of beer. He opened two cans and handed one to Frank.

"We better be getting back to the yard, Joseph."

"C'mon, Frank, just drink your beer."

Joseph sat down to take a rest. The cold steam was still rising from his beer when he felt a firm hand gripping the back of his arm.

"Joseph, please take me back to the yard."

Joseph looked at Frank's face, recognizing the fear for the first time.

"OK, Frank."

The crane opened its mouth and dropped another dishwasher into the baler. Then the metal beast lowered its head, and began beating the appliance down, down, down until it was out of sight. Each pound thundered like a car crash.

Joseph rose from the cab, held onto the side and lowered himself to the ground. As he walked to the baler, he looked up and spotted Frank standing in front of the fuel shed, 100 yards away. Their eyes met, and their faces went cold.

The old man already held his hands to his sides, preparing for the gunfight. Joseph squared up. Frank spit to the side, careful not to take his eyes off Joseph's. The standoff lasted a few seconds. Then Joseph ripped the imaginary gun from its holster and fired a shot.

Frank tried to draw, too, but it was too late. He clutched his chest, then looked down at his hand in disbelief. He reeled backward, then fell face down into the dirt as his body trembled. Then he lay still.

Joseph walked away pleased. Moments later, Frank stood and brushed himself off. He picked his hat off the ground and went back to work.

The sun sank slowly, and a sad silence crept upon the junkyard. The night's first dew droplets formed on some rusty barbed wire that sprung from the ground. The dirt was littered with everything that once was: glass fragments, splintered metal and tiny wood chips. Scattered about were brake drums, septic tanks, transmissions, handlebars, mufflers and thousands of twisted nails and screws. This was where man's precious inventions came to die. At times, it could be the loneliest place on Earth.

Joseph sat in his office and filled out paperwork. The day's work was nearly done. Frank walked into the office. He didn't like needing favors, so he never asked for one directly.

"Joseph, when were you going to do your grocery shopping?"

"I don't know, Frank. Maybe tonight."

"Would it be all right if you picked me up a few things?"

It was the usual list: Five pounds of sugar. Folgers instant coffee. A chicken. A bag of potatoes. A case of Top Ramen. And a large pouch of tobacco and rolling papers.

Joseph returned later that night with the groceries, and found Frank and his dog, Patches, sitting by an open fire near his trailer. The two men sat quietly for a while. Then Frank mentioned something about his children. Joseph straightened his back and looked at Frank. He used these moments to try to learn what terrible thing had happened long ago in Georgia.

"What happened that made you leave your family, Frank?"

"Oh, now I couldn't tell you about that."

"How could you leave your kids?"

"I didn't just leave them, boy. Police came and took me away. Put me in a chain gang. When I got out, I couldn't find them. I looked, but I couldn't find them."

Joseph backed off for a moment. Frank called him "boy" only when he was serious about something or if he was declaring the conversation over.

"How long did you look?"

"Long, long time."

"A long time? God, Frank, those are your kids. I would have never stopped looking for my kids."

"I looked as long as I could, boy."

The talking stopped. And both men turned their attention back to the crackling fire.

Frank used a muffler to draw a large square in the dirt; these were the walls. He pushed and rocked an old refrigerator into just the right spot. Then he muscled over an oven. And a washer and dryer. He dug some pots and pans from the scrap pile, and stepped back to admire his work. Tori's kitchen was complete.

Joseph's daughter was 5 years old then, young enough to still enjoy coming to the junkyard on Saturdays to play. She sat down in the dirt and began making mud pies. The process was quite intricate.

After several hours, Joseph peeked out the office window to make sure everything was all right. He saw Frank walking back from the other side of the yard with a pail full of special dirt.

A little while later, Frank ran up to Joseph and motioned him to shut off the crane. At first, Joseph thought Tori had been hurt. But his concern turned to disgust as soon as Frank spoke.

"You need to come try out some of her cake."

"Oh, Frank, I've got work to do."

Joseph gave in and followed Frank back to Tori's kitchen. Frank sat down on the floor and grabbed a plate and a spoon. Tori served him a mud pie and giggled as he pretended to eat it. Joseph shook his head in equal parts ridicule and admiration.

"Mmmm. That's really good. C'mon, Joseph, try some."

"It's OK, I'm not that hungry."

"C'mon, Joseph. She worked all day baking these for you."

"OK, Frank."

It was a foggy February morning earlier this year. As Dave Giller pulled up with the day's first load, he spotted the smoke rising from Frank's campfire. He walked over to share a cup of coffee with the old man. The water in Frank's pot was a few minutes from boiling.

"How's it going, Frank?"

"Good. Good. Just trying to get some coffee going."

Frank lapsed into a coughing fit, wheezing until tears formed in the corners of his eyes. When it subsided, he took another deep drag off a cigarette. The junkyard winters were tough. Tougher every year.

"You're looking kind of ragged, Frank. You know, one of these days you're going to die on us. What the hell are we supposed to do with your body?"

"David, just put me into a white Cadillac and drop me into the baler. Then crush me and put me on top of one of those loads going toward the sunset. That way, I can get a good ride when I leave."

Frank was completely serious; he painted the scenario often. Dave laughed and kept the joke going.

"Should we put a six-pack in there with you?"

"Nah, couldn't get to it anyway. Why waste the beer?"

"We could just stick it in the trunk there with you."

"Right now, I'd settle for a cup of coffee."

The fuel shed stood alone on the east side of the junkyard, not far from the yard's only other structures, an outhouse and the office. The shed held three 55-gallon drums for diesel, motor oil and hydraulic fluid. Frank took pride in being the fuel man, and this was his headquarters.

In early March, Joseph used a bulldozer to push a stack of appliances closer to the crane. He noticed Frank had walked up to him, and Joseph turned the motor off. The old man motioned Joseph to follow, and the two walked over to the shed. Joseph followed Frank inside, entering the shed for the first time in 10 years.

"Now, boy, the one with the red stripe is motor oil."

Joseph nodded, unsure where this was going.

"And the white stripe means diesel fuel."

Joseph kept nodding; he knew when to let Frank talk. But his mind was racing. As Frank pointed out the details of his coding system, Joseph suddenly realized why he had been called into the shed.

He stopped hearing the old man's words, only seeing his lips move and his fingers point. For the first time, he noticed Frank's tired, bony frame. Everyone had been commenting on how thin the old man looked, but Joseph hadn't noticed. Until now.

"You hearing me, boy?"

"OK, Frank. OK."

As March of 2001 dragged on, Frank slept more and more. He popped handfuls of aspirin, chewing them up like a bitter candy. Sometimes he took refuge on a cot in the office. He'd wake up, roll a cigarette, smoke it and fall back asleep. The office turned gray with a thick smoke that hung in the air like cobwebs.

Every morning had always been the same: Joseph walking into the office to find Frank sitting in his chair and smoking. He'd spent 10 years running Frank outside. But now, Joseph just let it go.

"Frank, do you want me to take you to the hospital?"

"No, I'll be OK. I'm just a little tired."

"Are you in pain?"

"No, no, no, no. I'm just tired, Joseph."

The hospital subject came up often, and it always irritated Frank. Ultimately, Joseph decided to honor the old man's wishes, provided he wasn't screaming in pain. Joseph paid another employee to sleep in the office at night to keep close watch on Frank.

On Thursday, March 22, Joseph finished up his paperwork. Before heading home, he walked over to the trailer to check on the old man. He found Frank lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He fought for breath through the rattle of watered lungs.

"Frank, I brought you some cigarettes."

"Oh, I won't be smoking anymore, Joseph."

Frank knew what that meant. He got some wet towels, and placed them around Frank's head. The trailer was cold, and his shirt was soaked with sweat.

"A day or two, and I'll be OK."

Joseph walked back to the office and grabbed his Bible. He returned to the trailer and gently placed the book in Frank's hand.

"Put in a good word when you get there, all right?"

Frank looked up into Joseph's eyes and smiled a gentle grin. Then he stuck the book under his coat and returned his focus to the ceiling.

It was about 5 p.m. Saturday and Joseph went to the trailer to see Frank before heading home. As he got to the door, he noticed the awful sound of struggled breath was gone. He went inside and saw Frank silent beneath his blanket. Joseph felt the old man's face, and it was cold.

The cold rushed over Joseph as he walked back to the office. He picked up the phone and called the coroner's office, telling the dispatcher he'd just found his friend dead. The woman told him an ambulance was on the way. Joseph tried to explain his friend didn't need an ambulance, but was told this was how it worked.

Several minutes later, the ambulance raced into the junkyard. Joseph directed the driver to the trailer. Two men rushed inside. They ripped Frank's shirt off. They began shocking him with electric paddles. One injected Frank with Adrenalin. Fifteen minutes passed. The jolts kept coming. Joseph paced outside.

Then the two men walked out with Frank on a stretcher. Joseph looked at the heart monitor and felt sick. Frank had a pulse. As the ambulance pulled away, Joseph began sobbing. For the first time, he was alone in his junkyard.

Joseph drove home, figuring Frank would die soon at the hospital. That night, Joseph's wife, Mindy, called Doctors Medical Center to begin making funeral arrangements. A nurse told her Frank was on life support.

Two days later, someone at the hospital called and asked Joseph to come sign the papers to pull the plug on Frank. Joseph's emotions boiled over.

"You brought him back to life. You pull the plug."

Ultimately, however, Joseph calmed down and realized it was the best way, the only way. Mindy drove him to the hospital after work that night, and Joseph asked to see his friend.

Frank had a tube down his throat and was hooked to all sorts of machines. Joseph put his hand on Frank's chest. The air went in, and the chest popped up. The air went out, and the chest caved in. It was like touching a machine.

Joseph signed the papers and went home. The next morning, he called to get Frank's body. A nurse told him Frank was still breathing. His breathing had been erratic all night, but technically he was still alive. Frank hung up in disbelief. He fought back the urge to scream. Later that afternoon, the nurse called Joseph back and told him that Frank Scheeler had died.

Deputy coroner Kristi Herr sat in her office and looked over the case file. For the person responsible for finding next of kin, it wasn't encouraging.

Frank L. Sheeler. Sixty-five years old. Died of pneumonia. Homeless. No medical history. No family history. No social history. He had died with nothing but two pennies in the pocket of his worn, greasy jeans.

All Kristi had to go on were two birth dates Frank had used, a Social Security number she later learned was wrong and a name -- Sheeler -- that turned out to be misspelled. Her only lead was a man named Joseph who owned the junkyard where Frank spent a large part of his life.

She met with Joseph at the junkyard. He showed her to Frank's trailer and she looked around the place in disbelief.

"He lived here for 25 years?"

"He was content here. Some people spend their whole lives looking for that, and he found it here. He didn't need much."

Joseph told her all he knew about Frank's life, giving her a little to go on: that Frank was a veteran who claimed to have five children in Georgia.

Joseph asked to pay for the cremation. His affection for his friend came through, and Kristi left the junkyard knowing that Frank wasn't the typical homeless man. And that finding his family wasn't going to be easy.

Kristi's first wave of calls turned up nothing. His name wasn't in any county records. Frank had no driver's license or ID card. He wasn't wanted by the law and wasn't listed as a missing person. Fingerprints turned up nothing. He hadn't visited a local hospital. An Internet search found two people with the same name, but neither had ever heard of him.

The search went from days to weeks. One weekend, Kristi drove her two children by the junkyard and showed them Frank's trailer. She told them all about the man whose life now fascinated her. It was her job to help find an ending to his story.

Running out of options, Kristi decided to call Social Security again. She repeated all she knew about Frank. The man helping her returned to the phone and said he found no Frank Sheeler. But he did find a Frank L. Scheeler born Nov. 14, 1935, in Dickinson, N.D. His parents, Tillie Booke and Frank Scheeler, were buried in a cemetery in Dickinson.

Kristi then called Ladbury Funeral Home, and Jim Ladbury told her he happened to have a friend named Gilbert Scheeler. Ladbury later called Kristi back and told her Gilbert was a distant cousin of Frank's. He also gave her what she'd spent a month trying to find: a phone number for one of Frank's relatives.

It was a mid-April afternoon when Joseph picked up the phone at the junkyard. The line remained silent for a few moments, then Belinda spoke. The conversation lasted two hours, emotions flowing freely between laughter and tears.

The crane sat silent the next couple of days; the stack of old appliances piled toward the sky as Joseph spent most his time each day talking to Frank's brothers, sons and daughter. He told them about Frank's last days, and asked questions about his earlier ones.

Through these conversations, the rich, elusive details of Frank's life came together somewhat for Joseph. But like an unfinished puzzle, only the vague shape could be made out because too many key pieces were missing.

Frank enlisted in the Air Force in 1954, rose to the rank of sergeant and served in the Korean War. He was stationed for some time in Georgia, which is where he met Evelyn. They had five kids together, but the marriage was rocky at best. Frank drank a lot in those days; Evelyn had her own demons.

At some point, Evelyn got pregnant with her sixth child. Frank knew it wasn't his. So he loaded all his kids, ages 6 months to

9 years, into a Studebaker and drove them from Georgia to North Dakota, stealing gasoline the entire way. Evelyn came home to an empty house.

Frank and his children lived with family at first, and later he left them in the care of another family while he worked to support them. Evelyn was six months pregnant when she showed up in North Dakota. She lived there for a few months before bringing her kids back home. Frank followed them back.

One day at Frank's grandmother's house in Georgia, police broke down the doors and arrested Frank. The last time Frank's children saw their father, he was kicking and fighting as police dragged him into a patrol car. Presumably, he was arrested for kidnapping, but no one knows for sure.

Evelyn told her children their dad went to jail because he didn't pay child support, but none of them believes that. To this day, she won't talk to them about those early years, and none of them know what really happened.

Evelyn also told her children that her sixth child, Candy, had died of pneumonia during the two years the children lived in a group home. But that story fell apart when Candy showed up at the Scheeler front door on her 18th birthday, looking to meet her half siblings.

When Frank got out of jail, he lived with one of his brothers while he searched for his kids. But Evelyn moved them around frequently, from Georgia to Tennessee to Alabama. Relatives wouldn't tell Frank where they were, possibly afraid of what might happen if he found Evelyn again.

No one was sure how long he looked, but it appeared to be more than a few years. In the mid-1970s, Frank just gave up the hunt. He sat in a car with his brother, Irvin, as they waited at a railroad crossing. Frank got out of the car, told Irvin it was time for him to go, and climbed aboard a freight train. No one in the family ever saw or heard from him again.

Twenty-five years later, Joseph and Mindy Vierra stood outside a house in Ringgold, Ga. Mindy rang the doorbell. Joseph had a backpack over one shoulder; Frank's ashes were inside. He needed some help, but the wanderer had finally come home.

Frank Jr. answered the door and invited the guests inside. Everyone made fast friends over dinner, and the talk stretched into the early hours of the morning. Eventually, the conversations gave way to yawns. Frank's funeral was scheduled for later that morning.

It was about 10:30 when the limousine pulled in front of the house. The funeral party piled in: Joseph, Mindy, Evelyn, Frank's children and family friends who had spent years helping the Scheelers look for Frank. The limousine drove 20 minutes to Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee. Frank's honorable discharge in 1957 qualified him for a military funeral.

As people gathered around Frank's grave, a trumpet player hidden behind a tree played taps. A preacher spoke. Then, because Joseph knew Frank better than anyone, he was asked to say a few words.

"Frank was a hard-working man of honor, dignity and respect. He was a very good friend. I might have lost Frank, but I can see a little bit of your dad in each and every one of you. You've searched for your dad for years, and your dad searched for you for years. It's an honor to bring him home to you."

Joseph broke into tears and disappeared into the comforting arms of Frank's children. When the service was over, the Vierras and Scheelers feasted on a meal of fried chicken, one of Frank's favorites.

Then Joseph returned to the cemetery for one last moment alone with his friend. He sat at the foot of the grave, running his fingers through the fresh dirt. He studied the scene because he knew he would never return.

Frank's plot rested between a pair of shade trees. Acres of tombstones, planted neatly in rows, dipped and rose over the rolling green hills. Lookout Mountain stood mightily in the east. Farther in the distance, the tail of a long freight train disappeared into a tunnel.

Joseph stood and wiped his eyes. He looked at Mindy for a moment. They both smiled sadly. Then she gently took his hand. And they walked away.

Joseph twists the key and the padlock drops open. He pushes the chain-link gate aside and walks in.

He marches past the mounds of mangled metal, through the damp dirt and into a tiny office with cinder-block walls. He sits at his desk.

For a moment, it feels normal.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of the empty metal chair shiny with grease.

He takes a deep breath and exhales. The air is too clean. He hates smoke, but, oddly, he misses the smell.

And he misses running the old man outside every morning for stinking up the office.

The junkyard is a cold, lonely place at 6 in the morning. Especially now.

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or