A screen door swung open, blown by the breath of a hot breeze. It snapped dryly against the side of the bone white house and shivered. The dog in the yard was startled awake and leapt snarling to its feet. On the street before the house, Russell Kipling stepped from the boards of a westbound bus into the glassy air. Man and dog regarded each other for a moment before parting. The dog loped to the shaded spot from which it sprang to lick water from a dish, and Russell waded into the cloud of dust churned up by the departing bus. A battered rucksack slung over his shoulder, he crossed the empty street to stand in the shade of the awning of the darkened general store. He set his rucksack at his feet and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. Thumbing his worn hat back on his head, he watched the bus pull to the edge of town and dive into the long, gray track of flat land that sprawled before the horizon. Taking up his bag, he walked the seared sidewalk, his thin-soled shoes clapping steadily in the silence.
Lurching in the feeble wind with a sound like a fluttering sail, a red and blue banner spread over the street reading, “Congratulations, Hollston High School Class of 1957.” The sound of voices raised in hymns bled from the tiny white church atop a rise at the end of the street. He looked up the hill, blinking against the blaze of noon light, his quiet voice harsh and too loud.
-“Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel.”
His eyes wandered calmly through the field of his vision, unhurriedly sorting the details of a once familiar world. The sole survivor of some mysterious disaster changed utterly and in secret, moving with the certitude of one forced to confront his limits.
Stopping in front of the hardware store, he cupped his hands to the glass and peered inside. Seeing no one, he knocked, waited and then knocked again. He surveyed the street then rolled his sleeve down to cover his elbow and shattered a pane of glass set in the door. Reaching in to undo the latch, he found the door unlocked.
He turned the brass knob and pushed the door gently inward. His rough and tired voice was vibrant in the stillness.
Hearing no answer, he closed the door again and squatted to gather the broken glass. He approached the counter and dropped the pieces into the wastebasket.
-Hello? Is anyone here?
No one answered. No one appeared.
He walked around the counter to the register and hit the NO SALE key. A bell rang within the ancient workings and the rusted drawer slid open. He stood there staring at the stacks of green bills rubbing his chin. After a moment, he removed the twenties, and closed the drawer again. Behind him, a Winchester M12 and a box of 2 3/4” shells sat coiled on a low shelf.
Squatting, he looked at it for a long time, his fixed stare mournful as though witness to an event he’d hoped to miss. Watching as if it might leap out to strike him, he reached gradually forward and put his hands on the gun. Letting his rucksack slip from his shoulders, he hefted the shotgun to the counter top and leaned on his knuckles to examine the weapon. It smelled of oil from a recent cleaning. He loaded six shells and dropped the rest of the box into the rucksack.
Leaving the gun on the counter, he strolled the aisles. He picked up a length of rope, a utility knife, a travel fishing rod, and a few leads. Returning to the counter, he took the rod apart and shoved everything down into the sack. He swung the load over his shoulder and picked up the gun.
Stepping once again into the street, he squinted against the brilliance of the sun. He closed the door behind him and, his dazzled eyes set on his course, stalked up the hill in the direction of the church from which he’d heard their voices.
The rain was coming stronger by the time Ellis arrived. As he edged the truck down the main thoroughfare, he looked from side to side, taking in the dimensions of the town. Inching past the white church, his eye was drawn to a marble obelisk planted in front. He slowed. Two wet angels hovered above a brass plaque that read, “God Bless the Victims,” and below that, “1957.” Driving on, he crested the hill and came to a stop within sight of a restaurant. He turned the engine off and sat with the window cracked, smoking and watching the street through the misted glass. A thick, gray shield of clouds blunted the sunlight. The rain would turn to snow soon. He pictured the small town covered in a husk of white, a dormant Lily. The light would spill from the shop windows onto the even, vacant snow, suggesting warmth truly appreciable only from without.
He tried to conceive what it looked like then. Even though it was less than 30 years ago, the streets would most likely have been simple dirt, flattened hard by the wagon traffic and hooves of working horses. Sound would’ve been different. No constant electric noise. Thunder, massive and frightening, a great rumble advancing over the plains as the storms came in. The alarming backfire of one of the old cars rattling along the rutted road. The report of a gun somewhere in the distance. Carrying for miles. The brain would register the sound and a man would know what was going on and in what direction. Now, with the cars whisking past on the avenue and the unbroken hum and of lights and drone of wires, it was impossible to pinpoint the origin of anything.
Stepping out of the truck, Ellis flipped his cigarette into a puddle where it hissed angrily and died. He put up the collar of his jacket against the deepening rain and hurried under the eaves that lined the other side of the street. He stood before the window of a bookshop flapping his coat as an elderly woman on the other side of the glass squinted through her reading glasses at the tall shadow he cast. The blunted shovel of his chin, the dark spark of the eyes, the bow-taut mouth, standing like a man heading in the direction of work he found beneath him yet intensely satisfying. Ellis walked on unaware of her gasp of recognition and the dread that lifted her frail, vein-striped hand to her mouth.
He entered the restaurant, the bell ringing dementedly over the door. A few tanned, flushed faces turned to see who had come in, but, when they did not recognize him, soon refocused on the food, newspaper, or coffee before them. He hung his wet jacket over the back of an empty stool, took off his hat, and sat down.
The boy behind the counter wore a blue baseball cap, his round face pitted with acne scars. He smiled a gleaming set of well-kept teeth as he approached.
Ellis drew a hand over his face, clearing away the rainwater and wiping it on his jeans.
-Coffee please. Black if I could.
The boy stepped to the urn and poured out a thick liquid. Ellis could smell it. The boy spoke as he placed the coffee on the light blue counter-top.
The boy slapped one down in front of him.
-Back in a minute.
The fare was standard; eggs, burgers, biscuits and gravy. A little smiling sausage in work boots and a trucker’s cap exhorted him to try one of the specials.
When he finished his meal, Ellis wiped his stubbled chin clean of grease and took another sip of his cooling coffee before rolling and lighting a cigarette. The boy, whose nametag read Donny, returned with an ashtray and cleared the decimated plates. He moved quickly and efficiently.
-How long have you worked here?
-Oh, jeez…since I think I was nine years old. Somewhere around five years. My granddaddy opened this place in the ‘30s or something. My mom worked here since she was a girl.
-You make a hell of a cheeseburger.
-It’s sorta one of the specialties of the house. It’s on account of the meat coming from right up the road. Just over the river. Mob Lewis’ farm. Mr. Lewis bring in whatever we need every week.
-Yup. Does the trick huh?
-You passing through?
-Hard to say.
-I don’t mean to be nosy, just…I know most of the people who live around here and I don’t think I ever saw you before.
-It’s my first hour in town. I’m Ellis.
The boy pointed at his nametag.
Ellis stood a little. He extended his hand and they shook.
-It’s nice to meet you.
The boy moved away to clear a few plates from where they lay emptied on the counter. Ellis watched him working and smiled. It was nice being a kid. When the boy made his way back around, Ellis caught his eye.
-Donny, can you give me directions?
-Where are you going?
-I’m renting a room on Burns Street.
With a clipped nod, the boy answered.
-Walk out, turn left, go about six blocks. Then, follow the numbers I guess.
Ellis stood, looking around.
The boy jabbed a thumb to the right.
-Thank you. If you could have the bill for me when I get back, I’d appreciate it.
Returning from the bathroom, Ellis took out his wallet, gave the check a cursory glance and thumbed through his bills. When he looked up, he noticed an older man in a grease-covered apron admonishing the boy. They both glanced at him and then quickly away. He watched them for another moment and then stepped to the register with his bill in hand. A tight-faced woman with conquered blond hair stepped up and took his bill from him without looking up. Clacking her manicured nails over the keys, she grumbled.
Ellis handed her two five-dollar bills.
-I don’t need the change.
-Well, aren’t you something?
He looked back to where the boy was.
-The kid, Donny, who helped me, he was really friendly. Donny.
Her eyes locked on a stack of checks beside the register, the woman lifted her eyebrows in mock appreciation but said nothing.
-Well, thanks again.
-We aim to please.
Gathering his coat and hat, Ellis turned and walked to the door, casting a look back at the boy who was cleaning the counter furiously and trying very hard not to look at him.
The apartment was frugally furnished. A single room encompassed the kitchen and living rooms, the bathroom just past the kitchen, the bedroom just to the right. Sat atop the garage at the end of a driveway, it stood separate from the house proper. With the rain driving, he could just barely make out the street through the front windows. The apartment smelled of dust and disuse. He opened the windows and went to the bedroom. Tossing his small suitcase on the double bed, he popped the brass latches and removed a bottle of whiskey, a can of loose tobacco and a letter with the word Child scrawled across it. After filling the small dresser with what few clothes he’d brought, he carried the whiskey, tobacco, and letter into the main room. Taking a dusty glass from the cupboard, he rinsed it and poured two-fingers of whiskey. There was a radio but no TV. He fiddled with the knob until he found a news program. He put the can of tobacco in the freezer and carried the whiskey and the letter to the couch. He sat and stared at the stained and discolored envelope for a while before removing the letter. His hazel eyes scanned the familiar words with curiosity as if expecting to find something new in their intimate shapes. He sipped his whiskey and looked out the window with the rain coming down.
The clear light of the afternoon lanced through the sycamore that lined the rough logging trail running through the woods. The man behind the wheel of the truck, piled high with hay, nearly drove off the uneven path when he rounded a bend and saw someone appear in the road. He stopped the truck and got halfway out the door staring at the figure that had emerged from the tree line, a rucksack on his back, a string of dressed quail over his shoulder and a shotgun in his hands. The driver waved and laughed as he called out.
-Scared me silly.
The other man looked up and nodded to the driver as he continued on his way.
-Not my intention.
The driver examined the thin hunter. He was used to picking up strangers on the road to and from market. Cars were rare in the country whereas those of meager means were not. Often a family’s single horse would have to be left behind to work. He hollered as the other man crossed the road in front of him.
-You need a ride some place?
The man turned, considering the driver solemnly before speaking.
-I’d be obliged to you.
-Climb in. Just throw them birds in the back.
The truck jostled angrily over the rocky path. The driver bellowed above the clatter of the engine.
-Where you headed?
The driver smiled sideways.
-No place particular. Been living in the woods this past few months. Thought I could sell these birds and get a bus to the city.
-You been away a while?
-Ah. I was in the last big one myself. In the Navy. You?
With a satisfied expression, the driver nodded to himself.
-Always can tell a military man. It’s in the walk. Family in the city?
-Naw. Friends though. Fellas with what I served. I’m Russell.
-Kenneth Spear. Glad to meet you Russell. I can take you far as Emporia.
-That’ll do. Reckon I could catch a bus from there.
-Yep. If you got more birds to sell, you might could fly…
Kenneth Spear laughed.
-…Not outta Emporia though…Wichita has an airport.
-Don’t like flying too much.
-I’m the same. Ever since I seen them Kamikaze pilots I haven’t got the stomach for it. Don’t know if I need to go anywhere anyway. Navy showed me around a fair bit.
The two men were silent for a time. Nothing but the thunderous rattle of the truck. Russell looked over at the man driving, his eyes going dark.
-Your people from around here Mr. Spear?
-No sir. I come from out west. I come here with my wife some years back but we keep pretty much to ourselves living in the backcountry as we do. Most people I know are from down Junction City, where the market is. Spend most of my what you’d call social time down there selling hay.
Russell’s face relaxed and he crossed his arms.
-You don’t mind Mr. Spear I’m gonna try to catch a little nap. I sure am wore out.
-Not at all Russ. If you can sleep in this rickety damn thing, you’re a better man than I. I figure we’ve got about two hours before we hit Emporia. I’ll wake you when we get there.
As a waystation, Emporia was perfectly outfitted: A mechanic’s, a diner, a general store that also functioned as post office and a bar. The only locals were those with businesses. The rest were passing through.
Kenneth Spear hauled his ample weight from the truck and stretched his thick arms above his head, yawning. He kicked the side of the truck.
-Up and at ‘em Russ.
Russell snapped awake, peering frantically about. When he saw where he was the panic drained from his eyes. He stepped out onto the dirt of the lot in front of the general store and looked around. The land spread easterly for miles until it rose to meet a pink sky. There were farms in the distance where groups of chokecherry trees huddled around small outbuildings and cattle grazed over the fenced in land. He held his hand over his eyes to shield them from the failing sun and spoke into the sunset.
-Yep. Now, if you’ll come in with me I betcha I can get you a decent price on them birds of yours. Man who runs the store is a friend.
Russell collected his rucksack and shotgun from the front seat and the string of quail from the truck bed and together the two men entered the store.
A stringy child wailed from where he straddled his grave mother’s hip as she, drained and feral in a once lovely dress scrutinized the canned goods. Behind the counter, a man in his early 50s stood perched on a short wooden ladder as he carefully placed boxes of nails on a high shelf. The poorly lit store was otherwise empty. There was a radio on in the unseen back room floating crackling notes through the dusted air.
Kenneth Spear stepped up to the counter.
The man on the ladder rotated his spectacled head and smiled under a wispy, white mustache. With an almost audible creaking, he descended the ladder and the two men shook hands.
-Ken. How’s the hay business?
-Well, the money is a lot easier to haul.
They laughed. Russell stood off to the side watching the woman and child with fearful delicacy.
-Bill I got this fella here, Russell…
Kenneth turned to look at Russell.
-…didn’t catch your last name Russ.
Russell turned to him.
Then he fell to looking out the window.
-Well Bill, Mr. Lockwood here was hoping you’d be interested in buying these birds off him.
Cawley, sleeveless arms crossed, rocking on his heels, examined Russell’s back as he called to him.
-Let’s see ‘em Mr. Lockwood.
Russell walked to the counter and laid the string of quails down for the other man to inspect.
-They’re fresh, Mr. Cawley. Killed them this mornin’. They’d be a hell of a nice dinner for someone.
Bill Cawley looked up into Russell’s thin and unshaven face, his broad mustache wiggling.
-Mind your language Mr. Lockwood. There’s a lady about.
Russell appeared apathetic. Spear smiled apologetically.
-When was the last time you ate quail Bill?
His face pinched in thought, his censorious look hovering on Russell, he weighed the question heavily.
-S’been a piece. Don’t do much hunting anymore. Maureen likes ‘em though.
Cawely looked to be computing in his head.
-Dollar per, five for the bunch.
Russell glanced at the birds and then at Cawely’s face.
He laid the shotgun on the counter and looked back up at the shopkeeper.
-How much you give me for that?
With a wave and a toot on the horn, Kenneth Spear left Russell sitting on a bench in front of Emporia’s post office. Russell lost sight of the truck long before the sound of it faded. A tiny tin sign rattled and squeaked on a pole next to the bench. The sun was nearly full gone and the shadows lay like spilled ink on the buildings and road. He looked east and saw that the cattle had gone, probably to gather near the house and warm themselves against the coming dark. He buttoned up his jacket and leaned with his back to the building keeping his eyes open and thin, watching the road for anything approaching.
To Pass the Thorn and Briar by Andrew States is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.