Day of Atonement
The rain fell gently, whispering on the roof, welcome after the heat of the previous day. I was standing at the window, enjoying the cool air and the fresh smell, not seeing even though my eyes were open. The moment strecthed, dilating until time itself was merely an abstraction. My mind was far from the rain, far from my motel room. It was in another place, hot and dry and shimmery, long ago when I was a different person, not the stranger I had become but a youthful and vigorous man. I had had a future back then.
A lonesome car hissed past on the wet pavement outside. My eyes followed the progress of the nondescript Dodge, probably blue once, until it vanished around the bend. Lush foliage crowded the 2-lane blacktop, threatening to swallow it back up into the forest. Eventually the forest would win, but by then no one would even notice. Only the locals had any use for the old highway, and they, too, were a dying breed.
Besides my car there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, an old Chevy pickup that was more rust than metal. It was parked by the office, where the manager had a room. I had been there two days and had not seen any other guests.
Now that the back of the heat wave had been broken, it would be a good day to travel. I looked at my truck and wondered where to go. Anywhere but there. Anywhere but the windswept grave tucked between rock outcrops, far from the curious eyes of humanity, with the headstone, crudely carved, that said only “Helen 1952 – 1987”. I had known her birthday, but not her last name.
I was stalling, of course. I knew exactly where I was going to go. No need to check the wallet to know that I was going to head down to the gulf to find George and accept his offer. I had been resisting for a long time now, but he was patient. All those years ago we had both known the day would come I had no choice.
I looked around the room in a habit deeply ingrained, even though there was little I had left that I could leave behind. I hefted my pack up off the sagging bed and fished out my keys. The door to my room had swollen with the moisture and was wedged tightly shut. I gave it a yank and hoped the doorknob didn’t break off. With one last grunt of protest the door swung open and I was free.
The red lettering on the side of my run-down Scout had faded in the sun, but with some effort I could make out “Schmidt Geological”. Beneath that the black lettering was doing much better: “Exploration and Assay”, followed by a phone number that hadn’t meant anything in years. Not for the first time I wondered idly what would happen if I dialed it.
I tossed my pack in and climbed in beside it. I flipped the switch on the dash I had wired in when the ignition switch had worn out. When I pushed the doorbell button next to it the engine came to life. I coaxed the truck into gear and began my journey south.
“I’m Helen,” she said, standing on tiptoe to offer her hand through the open window of my truck.
I shook it. “Robert,” I said. “Robert Schmidt. Most people call me Bob.”
She smiled, a little lopsided. “You look more like a Robert. Thanks for coming out.” Her face was brown beneath the white brim of her floppy sun hat. She wore a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and cut-off denim shorts. Her boots were sturdy and broken in. Where her sun-bleached hair had got loose from the scarf holding her hat down it blew randomly in the wind. Unthinking she would push it away from her face, but it would just blow right back a few seconds later. She had a line of sunscreen along her jaw; I resisted the impulse to reach over and rub it in for her.
I levered open the door and stepped out into the desert. Even that early in the morning the sun began immediately to bake the top of my head. I reached back into the truck and pulled out a straw cowboy hat, once white but now stained with sweat and grime. “What can I do for you?” I asked.
“I think I found something,” she said. She looked around as if it would be possible for someone to be eavesdropping out there. “I didn’t want to talk about it on the phone.”
I nodded. Much of my business was telling people they had not found gold. “What did you find?” I asked.
“I think maybe you should see for yourself.”
I had been drifting in the general direction of the Gulf for several weeks now, knowing in the back of my heart that the day was nearly upon me when I would have to make the decision to track down George. It had been at least five years since I had heard from him, but I knew he would be down there somewhere, waiting for me, and he would make sure that I could find him when the time came. I pointed the Scout south down the narrow highway.
The truck ran well, enjoying the rain, but the old beast was always thirsty. After about fifty miles I pulled off the road for gas and breakfast. Fifteen gallons of regular would see me through till lunch time.
The parking lot of the little cafe was full, and I could see through the plate-glass windows that it was crowded inside. Must be the whole town in there. I parked on the road and didn’t bother locking the truck’s door.
It was loud in the cafe, and full, but there was still room to sit at the counter. I made my way between tables filled with well-dressed locals. Must be Sunday, I thought. “Be right with you, hon,” said a frazzled woman, her hair piled high atop her head, reading glasses dangling from a chain around her neck. She was the classic.
“No problem,” I said, but she had already moved on.
I looked around the room. The men were wearing their polyester suits, all navy blue, all from the same rack in the same department store. These weren’t the sort of folks who had to wonder which suit they were going to wear. For all uniformity of the men, their wives were another story. It was spring, and I was in a garden of floral prints. The women were dazzling and proud in their finery, and joyful in thier communion. There was no one in that place less than fifty years old, with the possible exception of the waitress. She may just have been tired.
On the wall was a poster with a kitten hanging from a pole by its front paws, eyes wide. “Hang in there, baby!” the caption read.
“Hang in there, baby,” I said as Helen clung to my hand. I pushed the hair back where it stuck to her sweating face. “Hang in there.”
“Coffee?” The patch on the waitress’s shirt identified her as Evelyn.
Evelyn poured me a cup in a practiced gesture, just a quick splash that filled the cup without spilling a drop. “Not usually so crowded,” she said, “But, you know, Easter.”
I nodded and sipped my coffee.
“You know what you want?” she asked, although she had not given me a menu. There’s no need in a place like that.
“Bacon, eggs over easy, hash browns,” I said.
“You want some biscuits and gravy? Good on a rainy day.”
May as well live it up, now. “Sure.”
Evelyn was gone again. There were only so many places I could look while I waited for breakfast, so I pulled out the battered piece of paper and unfolded it for the throusandth, and possibly last, time. In faded pencil George’s awkward scrawl spelled out the name of a roadhouse somewhere near Pensacola. Lucky’s, YYY Fla.
“You’d like this place,” George said, writing with furious concentration. The pencil looked tiny in his giant hand, and he was having difficulty controlling it. The black man was sweating profusely in the summer heat, turning his t-shirt dark.
Finished at last, he handed me the slip of paper. “They call me Big George down there. You just ask and they’ll know who you’re talking about.”
I folded it twice, neatly, and slipped it into my wallet, intending to throw it away later.
“It’s going to be fun working with you,” he said.
“I’m not going to do it, George.”
“Oh, yes you will. Sooner or later you’ll come knockin’. Your ghosts won’t give you no choice.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that,” I said. “You’re the one who can see them.”
He laughed. “Oh, I don’t see them; I just know they’re there.”
Helen reached over and rubbed my earlobe. “Sunscreen,” she said.
“Thanks. You have some here.” I gestured to my own face, along the jaw.
“Which side?” She rubbed both. “This stuff works great, but it’s hard to rub in. How ’bout now?”
“That’s got it.”
“Thanks.” She flashed me another of her lopsided smiles.
After a pause I said, “So where is this thing?” She had told me we would have to hike in, and we would probably camp at least one night.
“About twelve miles. Is that OK?”
I opened the rear door of the truck and pulled my pack out. “Nothing left worth seeing that doesn’t require some walking.”
“Do you know this area?”
“I’ve been here and there.” There wasn’t much out here of interest to my clients, but I got out this way occasionally.
She nodded and turned to her battered, dusty Subaru. She had hiker’s legs, lean and strong. She fit the landscape perfectly.
Both our packs were heavy for their size; we were carryning lots of water. I added another canteen at my waist and watched while she did the same. The army surplus belt was adjusted as small as it would go, but it still rode low on her hips, making the canteen bob as she walked. Finally she pulled a bottle out of her car and took a long drink. She offered it to me when she was done. “Carry your water inside you, the Bedouin would say.” I had my own supply, but it seemed impolite to refuse her offer. Somehow she had managed to keep the bottle cool, and the water felt refreshing going down.
“Good water,” I said, inspecting the bottle.
“Finish it off,” she said. “I have more.” I did as I was told.
When I could drink no more I shouldered my pack. “Better get going,” I said.
She was looking distractedly behind me, back the way I had come. “You’re sure no one followed you?”
“I would have seen their dust cloud for miles.”
She nodded, not completely satisfied, and hoisted her own pack, settling it onto her back and cinching down the waist strap. I stepped to follow her up the canyon when she paused and looked at me over her shoulder, her face pensive. She opened her mouth, hesitated, closed it, and continued on her way.
“You want anything else, hon? Some pie for the road?”
By the time I was mopping up the last of my gravy the cafe had quieted, only a few of the Easter celebrants remained, lingering over coffee and cigarettes. Evelyn and the others fell into an easy rhythm as the pace of the morning slowed.
“No thanks. I’ve got to get going.”
She started adding up my tab. “Where y’all headin’?”
“South. Florida panhandle.”
“They got some nice beaches down there. Howard and I go down there every summer.”
“Way better than Miami.”
“I’ll have to check them out while I’m there.” As I counted out my money she returned with a small container.
“For the road,” she said. “It’s on the house. Happy Easter.”
“Thanks,” I said, mildly nonplussed. “Happy Easter.” It sounded odd when I said it.