A Short Story, or the Beginning of a Novel?
The old man sat. He leaned back in his chair spit into the fire and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He lighted the cigarette breathed in then exhaled long and slow. When he spoke his words were faint and slow as if he were thinking of the right words or if he should even speak at all. The story he told was of a military chaplain. This military chaplain had grown up in a small town of some suburban mid-Atlantic state. Some little town with a name not unlike a thousand other small towns. He had gone to church every Sunday worked on the family farm graduated high school and enlisted in the army. He had said it was his duty to serve God and his country, and he could think of no better way to do both. Years later when the war had started he was sent to Europe. One evening while walking the streets of a small village he had solicited the services of a prostitute. Under the false name of John Smith they were on the second floor of the inn and he was on top of her when an airstrike had flew over the town dropping bombs and unleashing gunfire on the civilians running the streets. A bomb had hit the taller building across the alley from the inn, and sent a spray of shrapnel and debris in all directions. A large chunk from the parapet of the roof came in through the window of the inn crushing the scull of the young chaplain. The prostitute lived.
He sat forward and took a final draw from his cigarette, and flung it into the fire. He looked at the boy who had sat listening to the story. None spoke. The silence continued. Then.
And what should I think about that the boy said.
More silence then taking another cigarette from the pack in his pocket, the old man began. You shouldn’t think anything of it. To think whether in this lifetime God rewards or punishes those who serve him or sin against Him is foolish. A whore who all her life had sold her body to the lust of men’s hearts is now saved by God’s servant who in his moment of weakness had succumbed to temptation. What then, was God punishing the chaplain for his sin? Was He saving the prostitute from hers?
I guess what the prostitute did after that is what matters said the boy.
The story ends there said the old man. We don’t know what happened after. He lit the cigarette. We can only know that God weaves lives and stories in a plan that goes beyond a priest and prostitute. Beyond the people they interact with in their lives. It makes them part of something that was begun before their birth and continues even after their death.
The boy said he must be going now and the old man flung the half smoked cigarette into the fire as he stood up. The boy stood also but seemed to be waiting for the old man to say something more. Perhaps some final words of encouragement or some last bit of wisdom but he offered none. He only moved toward the door and the boy followed. He stood in the doorway the boy stepped past on to the porch. He reached out his arm extended to shake hands with the old man but he only stared indifferently toward the sun setting on the ridge to the west. He reached in his pocked taking out another cigarette then changed his mind and put it back. The boy dropped his hand back to his side and turned to leave. He placed his left foot in the stirrup and grabbed the big horn of the old wade saddle. He thought at his gesture of leaving a final word of farewell would be spoken by the old man. He swung his right leg over the cantle and into the deep seat turning toward the open doorway but the door swung shut and the old man was gone.
He rode out and down the slope from the old man’s cabin. He followed an eroded logging trail overgrown with greenbrier. Crossing a small creek and opening into a clearing he stopped and sat the horse watching the last of the sunset over the peak. The crimson of the setting sun in the late August evening burned like boiling blood spewing from the wound of the waning crescent moon kicked over on it side by the foot of Atlas himself. He rode through the meadow and in the last of the light pulled the Remington SPR94 from its leather scabbard and shot a rabbit that had come out from under a nearby brush pile. The old mare he called Penny started for a moment at the ring of the shot but then remained with her feet planted steady. The rabbit was struggling and its back leg was injured. He dismounted and the horse stood waiting. The boy walked over to the rabbit and picked it up by the back legs with his left hand and swung down with his right breaking its neck. He walked back to the Penny horse and tied the rabbit to the saddle strings behind the cantle. They followed the logging road up the ridge and made camp for the night in a hollow off the side of a switchback. He dressed and skinned the rabbit picking out the shot lead pellets. The horse was cropping grass and eating the new growth from the briars and saplings. The boy cooked the rabbit over a small fire and ate in silence. He untied a fleece blanket he had been using as a bedroll from the back of the saddle. He hobbled the horse and loosed the latigo allowing the cinch to hang easy. The boy lay back on the bedroll to stare at the night sky and some time pasted and he was asleep.
He woke the next morning to the first ray of an orange sun rising over the eastern knob in the distance. The beams of light beat in scattered intervals between the trees and cast an enigmatic glow passing through the fine mist that hung in the air. The fire was well out and only a faint spiral of smoke hinted up out of the black. He kicked at ashes to see if any hot coals were left. None were. Penny was standing twenty five yards away waiting for him with ears forward and hind quarters cocked resting her back leg, the heels of her large hoof elevated and resting with only toe and steel touching. He tightened the cinch and they rode the logging road until began to arc back toward the valley below to the east. The peak of the small mountain was close and he reined the horse to the right and began busting through the brush and thistles leaving the trail behind. They crossed over and down the range and across two more that day. When he stopped they were on western slope looking down on a small boulder field that lay choking out trees and briars and grasses and anything that would grow. He dismounted and led the horse across picking his path and hoping she did not pull a shoe or worse. Below the boulder field a small patch of forest began and he continued to lead the horse. The boy stopped for the night and camped under a large overhang of a rock standing out from the hillside. He woke the next morning and ate the remainder of the rabbit. They rode all morning and early afternoon until in the distance he could see a small town ahead.
He rode on towards the town. On a road outside of where the roofs of homes marked the edge of town a stream of cars was lined up filling a field that was already laden and bursting with the steel and rubber of automobiles. The afternoon sun glistened off the glass windshields. They rode on and down the side of the ridge and through a small patch of hemlock and then down the embankment that bordered the road leading to town. They neared the field and in the center of the field was a large white circus tent. Outside the tent gas grills blazed with fire and smoke rose high into the air with the smell of charcoal and chicken and steak. Men in black suit pants and white crew shirts stood at the grills with tall white chef hats, knife in one hand and spatula in the other. Women stood passing out foam cups of lemonade and iced tea. Children were running and scampering about stuffing papers under windshield wipers and passing them out to people walking by. Guitars and drums clamored and boomed from inside the tent and the crowd roared and swayed and clapped with the beat and the pulse of hypnotic rhythm. He neared the edge of the field and began heading toward the large white tent. Passing among the rows where the cars filing in, a large fat man with yellow stained armpits was waving his arms flagging traffic, large blaze orange batons swinging wildly. His gut hung over the front of the black sweatpants he was wearing and his belly button stuck out like the teat of a Jersey cow ready for milking. Another large sweat stain was below where his crack stuck out above waistband. He dug in his pants with his left hand while his right waved the baton prodding and placing the cars in rows through the field.
C’mon folks there we go. Right there a little more now stop. OK, now you pull ahead pull ahead keep coming. The man said, reaching his left hand up and sniffing it. He smiled with pleasure. Keep coming OK now stop right there. Perfect now you sir, pull ahead and stop right there. Alrighty, now I’m going to need you to loop around and start the next row. OK. Good. He stared at the boy who had come up behind him and now sat the horse staring at the white tent. Now you son, git that horse the hell outta here before it drops a steaming mess everywhere. We don’t need people slippin’ and falling in that, now thats for darn certain. Go on, git. Tie it out by them there trees and go on and get in there and getchoo sumthin’ deet. The real show is startin’ soon. Git goin’. He went back to directing traffic. Pull right up folks OK stop right there. That’s it.
The boy did what the fat man said and tied Penny at the edge of the field. He loosed the cinch, but left the saddle on. Cars continued to pile in. Groups of people waited in line for the free hot dogs hamburgers and lemonade. He got in the back. The crowd had moved into the circus tent by the time he stepped out from the john into the afternoon sun. The music continued to boom from the tent. Some hard rock version of You’ve got a friend was being hammered out by an electric guitar ran through a pawnshop distortion pedal. Bass drums and cymbals crashed as the singer howled in a raspy smokers snarl, Winter Spring Summer of Fall, all you have to do is call. The crowd thundered and the band went into a growling version of Stayin’ Alive. The bass guitar man slapped the notes of the old disco tune and the band bobbed their heads in perfect time as if this was one of their favorite songs to play. The people were filing in to the opening of the tent. When the last of the ones outside entered, they boy followed. He slipped inside through the large opening of rolled up white canvas tied back like a large set of curtains.
Inside the tent was standing room only. There were no chairs save for a large wooden medieval chair on the front stage that looked as though it had been brought through a time warp centuries back for just this occasion. The right side of the stage stood a podium of equal age and antiquity. The band was to the left and was now playing a rendition of Breakfast at Tiffanies through acoustic guitars. The crowd swayed from side to side with arms up stretched and moving with the smooth rhythmic wave of their bodies. The band finished the last chord and held the note letting the amplifiers ring the tone until it faded softer and softer until it could not be heard at all. The curtains at the back of the stage shifted and then were pulled aside and a man appeared. He stood almost six foot tall and was built like a wrestler or some over grown pit bull. His trousers were white with a large pleat down the middle and rolled up cuffs at the bottom that rolled half away up his shins. Shiny black shoes covered his feet and he wore white socks. A white suit coat covered a black button down shirt adorned with a white bolo tie and silver medallion hanging from the middle. A black top hat covered his head and the boy could see the man was bald except of large mutton side burns that stood 3 inches from his face. His lips were cherry red and plump and his mouth was filled with dentures for his teeth were too straight for any man.
The man stepped forward to the podium. The band receded through the curtains leaving only man standing on stage. He scanned over the crowd with his eyes. His head and body were motionless as he looked from one side of the tent to the other. The eyes stopped on the boy for a moment and he removed the old John B Stetson that had been his fathers and held it at his side. Silence filled the tent. The only sound was the distant hum of the generator at the edge of the field powering the audio system. The man continued to look across the crowd. Then he stepped right up against the podium like he meant to bowl it over and adjusted the microphone until it was touching his thick red lips. After another long pause he spoke.
He went on at some length about the government and religion and blacks and gays. The boy’s mind glazed over and his thoughts drifted.
The people were transfixed on the man with the red lips and black top hat. No one noticed when the boy put his hat on and slipped outside. He walked through the cars parked in the field. The windows were down on an old Ford in the third row back and he reached in and took a Rand McNally road map from under the drivers seat. In the glove box was a sealed plastic bag with Black Cavendish pipe tobacco in it. He put the tobacco in his pocket and pushed the button inside the glove box releasing the trunk. The latch of the trunk opened and the spring hinges of the trunk lifted it 2 inches. He went around to the back of the trunk. The trunk was empty except for an old newspaper. He took the newspaper and walked back to the Penny horse. She stood cropping grass. The boy tore off a square of the heavy paper that was the cover of the road map. He rolled the Black Cavendish tobacco in the square of paper and lighted it with the Zippo that had been his fathers. He choked on the smoke at his first inhale and bursts of the white tobacco smoke bellowed from his mouth and nostrils in uneven spurts like some elderly dragon. Then he inhaled the tobacco again and exhaled smoothly. The boy stuffed the newspaper and atlas into his saddlebags and sat leaning against the tree smoking. The voice of the red-lipped man lingered on unintelligibly drowned out by the slow drone of the generator. He put the rolled cigarette out against the heel of his boot and flung the remainder behind him with his thumb and forefinger. He fell asleep for some time beneath the shade of the old tree. When the boy woke the man was done speaking. The band was back on stage banging out covers of old show tunes.
The boy wandered toward the back of the tent. An old stainless steel Airstream trailer glistened reflecting the sun’s light in a prism of colors. The man with the red lips and mutton sideburns was standing in the window of the trailer with his back to the boy. A young tan skinned girl of about sixteen or seventeen years stood facing the man. Neither noticed the boy outside. She was tall, and long straight black hair came down to the small of her back and she looked to be a mestizo or of Indian descent, or some exotic race not yet named. A dark dress with full sleeves covered her slender body, and a black bonnet covered her head. Her dark eyes looked down at the floor of the trailer. The man in white reached out and slapped her across the face knocking her to the floor. She let out a scream and he kicked her while she lay on the ground holding the side of her face.
Little savage. It’s the likes of you and your kind that make me sick. The large man said.
He turned toward the window and the boy rolled under the trailer before he was seen. The man slammed the blinds down and jumped on top of the girl lying on the floor. The boy lay in the grass under the trailer. He could hear the man breathing heavy as he tore the girls dress and began unbuckling the button on his trousers. The girl lay face down on the floor of the trailer as the bald man mounted on top of her pulling her hair up then slamming her face down forward against the floor.
At least there’s something you’re good for. He moaned and breathed expelling foul gasps of hot breath.
Through a small crack in the floor the girl’s dark eyes met the steel gray eyes of the boy. For a moment nothing. Then the boy drew his Colt Bisley from inside his boot and put it to the crack in the floor thumbing the hammer back. The girl forced her head to the side with all her effort, as the boy squeezed the trigger of the heavy caliber revolver. The shot went through the floor and into the man’s neck just below his jaw line. It exited the back of his scull, blowing bits of bone and spinal cord throughout the trailer. He fell on top of the girl with a thud of finality. Blood ran from the wound at both ends spilling on to the floor and down through the hole the Colt had made.
The band continued their musical tirade of cover songs. No one missed a beat. The sound of the revolver ending the bald mans life was drowned out by the thump of bass drums, the crash of cymbals, and the cheers and roar of the crowd. The boy rolled from under the trailer and stuck the forty-five back in his boot. He opened the door of the old trailer. The girl lay pinned against the floor, the man on top a gaping hole in the back of his scull. The bonnet was gone and the girl’s straight black hair soaked the blood from the floor like some rancid form of mop. He rolled the man to the side and stood the girl. She followed the boys every move but said nothing. The boy checked the man’s coat and jean pockets and pulled out a black leather wallet. He went through the wallet and found nothing of use. An old drivers license long expired with a crack running through the center from years of being sat on. The name read Ellsworth Nottingham. Behind the drivers license was an Amway employee identification card. A few one hundred dollar bills and a fifty were doubled over in the billfold. He tossed the wallet aside. Paper currency had no value. The boy turned to the girl and their eyes met. She did not speak. He could see fear in those eyes, an untrusting hardened glance that said everything words did not and could not. The boy was just another man with a baldhead. A reincarnation of the evil that that had defiled her for so long. He was no savior to her. He merely stole her like war pillage and plunder looted during some ill begotten military campaign. As if the girl were part of some native village spoiled and burned, its mothers raped and children beheaded. He ordered the girl outside and pulled the small stove away from the wall and kicked the propane line free. The boy ripped a gold chain from the neck of the man and stuck it in his pocket. She followed him through the field to the Penny horse as though she were in fact a prisoner of war. Then there was a burning. When they had saddled up and started through the woods the show had ended and the music had quit. The crowd filed out from the white circus tent. The airstream was a world of smoke and fire so violent tornados of heat ablaze swirled above it like a product of its own climate. Giant billows of black smoke poured from the windows and an orange and red fire glowed like some combustible and alien blood. The smoke set the evening sky black, the flames dancing like sinister and demon marionettes. The inside of the tent glowed orange as if its occupants were in Hell itself. Panic set over the crowd and they scattered under the sides and into the field.
The last breath of twilight cast a faint light on the gazetteer. The girl said nothing, she only watched the boy as she sat the horse. He was afoot in the woods trying to get enough light on the map to make out words and roads and mountains and water. He walked in an odd stagger searching for light cast down between the trees like some sage or prophet with a divination rod trying to find water. The boy’s back was turned and the girl squeezed her heels into the side of Penny. The horse stood. She picked up the reins and squeezed again this time harder. The horse only stood, ears pinned back as if at some minor annoyance. This time she kicked with her heels, snapped the reins, and clucked with her tongue and cheek making a weird kissing sound. Penny only stood. The boy turned and looked up at the girl as if he had been expecting this.
He thought about saying something to her and almost did but in then he changed his mind. She looked at him in silence. Their eyes met again and he could see nothing in them. The boy wasn’t certain she could understand English. Her dark round eyes gave no clue of comprehension or bewilderment. They carried the gaze of utter stupidity like some circus sideshow retard, or of knowing all too well and understanding far too much.
He shrugged and stuffed the atlas under the saddlebag and climbed into the old rig. A light touch of his heels and the horse walked off. The boy looked straight on and they rode. The sun had set and the night sky was full. Clouds passed across the moon giving and taking light like some child of God turning the switch off and on to his bedroom which was this world. The forest was thick with greenbrier and vines. Before long the sky was complete and full overcast. He dismounted from the horse and the girl moved into his place in the deep saddle. The boy led Penny through the wooded darkness trying to find the safest passage, pulling vines out of the way and uttering minor obscenities under his breath. The maps in the McNally atlas were not detailed, but to the south was a small meandering line with red dots, indicated they would cross a hiking trail heading east to west. He said nothing of this to the girl. There was little way to tell how far the trail was anyway. In the darkness, he continued to stumble over boulders and trip on the vines. Once, he fell completely down, a large thorn slicing his forehead open as his hands reached for something to grasp. They moved on. He continued all night, and in the first light of the dawn sky they found the trail. Exhausted, he climbed on the horse and they followed the trail west. He sat behind the girl as the horse walked on and the morning sun rising in the east was hot on his back. He slept.