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The Black Madonna Shrines and Grotto

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

Old Bill had learned about this wedding, and he said if there was one thing he wanted to have again before he died, it was wedding cake. He pulled off his cap and produced ten one dollar bills that he must have been saving for something like this, and he took me down to Goodwill with him, and sure enough for four dollars apiece we came up with suits that fit us both. They didn’t look half bad, I thought, his suit black with a vest that fit snug against his belly, mine dark blue with pinstripes. We washed up in the Goodwill bathroom and changed into the suits, and Old Bill put our clothes into his bag and hid them in the back alley. It wouldn’t do to carry the bag into a wedding reception, he said.

We hurried down to the bus stop, where Old Bill paid our fare with one of his dollars. The driver looked at us and said, “You can’t just ride around all day, you know. You got to have a destination.”

Old Bill returned the man’s stare. “We’re going out past the country club,” he said, “so you can drop us at Ravens Ridge, and we’ll catch the 4:40.Why don’t you just give us our transfer slips now, so you won’t forget?” The driver blinked and handed us our slips without saying another word.

The ride out to Ravens Ridge took about half an hour. I hadn’t been on a bus in years, and I was enjoying it: the oil-slick smell from the rubber floor in the aisle, the smooth, cool seat under my hands, the street noises so small I could almost forget them. I laid my head against the window and felt my teeth buzz. Outside the sidewalks slid by like a dream.

Next to me Old Bill was talking about wedding cake, how sweet the icing was, how the tiers of the cake are so pretty you might expect water to come rushing down over them like a fountain. He said he regretted the day of his own wedding, when he was foolish enough not to eat any of the cake because he was arguing with the photographer about whether a candelabra ought to be in the picture (“candle opera,” Old Bill called it). Finally the photographer got mad and left. Old Bill didn’t feel like eating anything, then, because his bride was so upset.

When I realized what he was telling me, I turned away from the window, surprised. “You were married?” I said. This was something we had never talked about. I had met Old Bill at the Little Rock shelter, and in spite of his occasional stories, it was always hard for me to picture him anywhere except on the street by himself. The fortunate moments of his past, like my own, seemed more like dreams than possibilities. But then here we were in suits, and on a bus, too. I didn’t need much imagination to see that change can run in both directions.

A sad look had passed over Old Bill’s face, and he leaned his gray head forward to the back of the seat in front of him. He chewed on his beard for a second, his eyes closed. “Yeah,” he said. “Been a while.”

“Well, hell, Bill,” I said. “I never even seen a wedding, much less been in one myself.”

He smiled at me, his eyes still closed. “Well, you’re about to do the best part of the whole shebang,” he said. “A wedding’s nothing but work, hard on your back and your feet. But a reception you just drink cold punch and eat cake and look at the women in those low-cut dresses.”

I felt a stirring in my stomach just as one of my shivers came on. My head jerked back and I shook all over. Old Bill didn’t say anything; he’d seen me have them before, and they always passed quickly. I knew it happened this time because I was scared and excited. The moment Old Bill roused me from my sleep that morning and said, “Get up, Ralph, we’re going to church,” I could have told you right then it would come.

We made the transfer at Ravens Ridge, where the last signs of the city faded into countryside, and that bus took us far out along Golf Links Road to the country club. It was about five o’clock when we got there and started walking. Old Bill said the church was about two miles up the road, and the wedding started at five, so we figured if we moved fast we’d get there in time for the reception.

It was a warm day, even for spring, and soon we were both sweating. Old Bill said the work wasn’t anything compared to actually standing at the altar, though, especially since we had a breeze to cool us off. He was in good spirits. He brought out a cigarette and we shared it as we walked. On either side of the road lay rolling green fields, fringed and dotted with trees, and rabbits jumped around in the bushes beyond the ditch. It was loud, in a way—so much movement and birds singing and trees waving and creaking in the wind. But it felt quiet to me; I was used to the city. When cars passed us, I noticed you could pick out the sound of each one as it came up and blew by. In the city the sounds of cars all run together.

It was a nice walk, and as we came close to the church I was already thinking about the trip back, how I might be able to carry a little bit of cake with me. We would take our time, I hoped, and not worry about how late a bus we’d need to catch at the country club. We could enjoy the cooler air, walking into the evening.

The church was made of dark gray stone and was bordered by asphalt on the front and side. It had huge stained glass windows and a steeple as tall as some buildings in downtown Little Rock. Cars covered the parking lot, the sun glinting off them so that it hurt my eyes to walk through.

“If it was up to me I’d not make this parking lot out of asphalt,” I said. “I’d let it all be grass, like we seen coming up here.”

Old Bill was breathing heavy. “Well, it’d be mud in no time,” he said.

“I guess that’s true.”

We walked up to the front of the church, past a small black car parked at the bottom of the steps. The car had cans tied to its rear bumper with string, and printed neatly across the back window were the words, “Just Married.” I’d seen cars done up like this before, but never empty; always they were driving down the street, honking and clattering. It seemed strange and lonely to see this one sitting quiet on the warm lot.

There was nobody but us out in front, though from the back of the church I could hear children playing. I stood and listened until the wind kicked up and I couldn’t hear them anymore. Old Bill stood next to me, catching his breath and wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. When he felt the wind he smiled and stretched out his arms toward the church.

“Here we go,” he said.

The front doors led into a bright lobby with swinging doors. We walked through those and then had to stand there and wait until we could see in the dark. It was heavy and quiet in the church; rustling and low voices drifted toward us from down the aisle. When my eyes adjusted I saw people taking pictures up by the altar. Suddenly I wanted to turn back, but Old Bill was already moving.

“This way,” he said, so I followed him over to a side aisle by the wall, and we walked softly all the way down past the altar. Both of us were acting as if we belonged there, but still I avoided looking over at the people as we passed them. We went through more swinging doors, then down a couple of hallways, following distant sounds of laughter. Eventually we broke out into another big room, bright with artificial lights. The room was crowded with people, and at both ends of it stood a table with a punch bowl and cookies on it. Old Bill headed for the far side of the room.

“Why not go to this one back here, Bill?” I whispered. I was really nervous now. I tried not to notice if people were looking at us.

“Cake’s on this one,” he said.

So we walked all the way across that giant room until we reached the end of the line. I tried to appear nonchalant, but I was keeping my eyes on Old Bill’s back. Once we were in line, Old Bill turned to me. “It’s just the way I remember it,” he said. “Even smells the same. My God, it’s like going all the way back.”

I believed him. I could sense the excitement in his voice, and he looked as good as I’d ever seen him, standing there smiling and looking all around. It made me feel better just to watch him, knowing he was remembering something completely bright and familiar. Another shiver hit me, and I put my hands in the pockets of my suit coat, trying to keep still. There was a moth ball in the right pocket; I resisted the urge to pull it out and look at it.

After a minute a woman ahead of us in line turned to peer back at us, like she was searching for something. She stared at Old Bill and me for a second, then shifted her glance and acted as if she was just gazing around. She stepped out of line and walked off, pretending to check her watch. I wanted to see where she was going, but I was scared to let my eyes roam. I watched the backs of the people in front of me.

Old Bill didn’t seem to notice the woman, but I knew he was just playing his cards. He glanced casually around, shifting from foot to foot as we moved forward in line. Soon another woman looked back, and a man too. When they saw us their eyes went to each other. They turned toward the table again.

I tried to preoccupy myself with the refreshment table. I was disappointed to see that the cookies had disappeared, along with whatever treasure had filled the small glass bowl beside them. But there was plenty of cake left, and it looked just as I’d expected it to, only bigger. The cake had five white layers, with yellow and red flowers strewn over each one, except on the top, where the tiny bride and groom stood holding hands. Spiraling downward from the upper layers were neat triangular indentions, marking the absence of perfectly cut wedges of cake. I marveled at this effect. What kind of person, I wondered, could work with such precision?

Beyond the cake a woman stood dipping punch from a crystal bowl. The punch was green and foamy, and didn’t look like it could taste very good, but I imagined it must or else they wouldn’t serve it at a wedding. Either way I was thirsty and determined to try it.

We were a few people back in line from the table when a tall old gentleman about Bill’s age came up to us from behind. He had silver hair slicked down close to his head and gold-rimmed glasses on his nose. He stood there for a second, pulling on the bottom of his suit coat and looking us over. I couldn’t think of what to do, so I acted like I didn’t notice. But Old Bill turned toward him and waited for him to speak.

“Excuse me,” the man said. “Are you fellows with the bride or the groom?”

“The groom,” Old Bill said. “How about you?”

The man smiled. “The bride, of course. She’s my daughter. You’re old friends of Henry, I take it?” He glanced at me and I looked away, so he turned back to Old Bill, who was squinting and acting thoughtful.

“Well,” Old Bill said. “We never did call him Henry, but we are old friends.”

The man nodded slowly. “I see,” he said. “Well, may I ask you what your plans are after you get your refreshments?”

Old Bill didn’t blink, but I could tell from his answer that we’d moved past his bluff and were into bargaining. “Well,” he said, “We thought we’d sit out on the steps and enjoy them, and then head on home. It’s getting late.”

The old man nodded again. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “And if I were you I’d finish my punch before I left the room. Those glasses are expensive.”

“I’m not thirsty anyway,” Old Bill said.

“Very good, then,” the man said. “You gentlemen have a nice day.” He lingered there for a long moment, as if he expected us to leave. But we just held our ground, and finally he walked away.

I felt a little sick, but Old Bill was happy as ever. He leaned toward me. “Nothing stopping us now,” he whispered. “We’re home free.”

The cake was set out on little paper plates. Old Bill scooped up two of the plates, bypassing the punch altogether. I took one of the plates and a plastic fork. As embarrassed as I was, I couldn’t resist the punch, so I picked up a glass and took a quick swig, then set it down again empty. I was right; it didn’t taste good at all. But it helped my thirst.

When I turned around to follow Old Bill out, I noticed the sounds in the room had changed from big laughter to a sort of deep murmuring. I forced myself to look around, just for the experience, and everywhere I turned there were people looking back at me. Everyone pretended not to be staring—including me—but it was obvious. I hurried out behind Old Bill, my head hunched down against my neck to fight back a shiver.

Old Bill was moving fast, and I hustled along behind him. Down the halls, through the dark sanctuary, out the front doors. The sunlight hit us hard, and we stopped short, screwing up our faces. Old Bill had a sneezing fit. I stood next to him, waiting for him to recover. We were alone on the steps. At the far end of the parking lot a man and a woman were climbing into their car. As I watched them drive away, I felt the breeze rise again, and slowly all my nervousness from inside the church seeped out of me into the wind. I took a deep breath and settled down onto the top step to eat my cake.

By the time I’d loaded a bite onto my fork, Old Bill was finished sneezing and had already stuffed down his first piece. He was licking his fingers and breathing thick through his nose. “My God,” he said. “This is it. This is just how it is.” He sat down beside me and balanced the second piece of cake on his knees, still sucking on his fingers.

I took a bite of my own cake and was surprised at how little I enjoyed it. I could barely taste its sweetness. I enjoyed the soft feel of it between my fingers more than I did the flavor. Then I got some icing in my mouth, which was much sweeter, and that made me smile.

Old Bill laughed. He was smearing the icing from his cake onto the plate, saving it for last. “How do you like it?” he said.

“Mmm,” I said, nodding. I wiped some more icing off and stuck it in my mouth. With the other hand I pressed down on the cake and watched it rise back up to shape.

Old Bill finished off his second piece and cleaned all the icing from his plate. He reached back to the first plate and made sure he’d got all the icing off of it, too.

“Here,” I said, handing him my piece. “I ate off all the icing, but you can have the rest.”

“Shit, boy, you ate the best part already.”

I shrugged. He took the cake and popped it into his mouth. “Mm-mm,” he said, his mouth full. He shook his head and squinted up into the blue sky. It made me want to look up, too. Above us a large white cloud was stretching out, thinning into two. The smaller tuft broke away and pulled ahead. Next to me Old Bill was still working on his cake. “Goddamn manna from heaven,” he said.

I was thirsty again, but I didn’t care. I licked my fork clean and put it in my pants pocket. I was already looking forward to our walk back. The sun was just over the tops of the trees across the road, leaning straight into our eyes.

I stood up. “Well, let’s hit it.”

Old Bill swallowed and said, “Yep.” He brushed his hands off and stood up just as the wind rose again. Behind him the paper plates went skittering away, toward the church. The wind caught his hair and blew it all around his face. I thought he looked fierce. Suddenly he grimaced and slapped a hand against his temple.

“Ah!” he said, dropping onto the concrete. I stepped back, surprised at how hard he’d sat down. He fell over and curled up into a ball, his hands covering his ears. I bent over him. He was trembling and shaking his head. Spit leaked from the corner of his mouth. He looked up at me, his eyes wide and crazy. “I knew it,” he said in a choked voice. “I knew it.”

“Bill!” I said. “Don’t, Bill! Don’t!” I could hear my heartbeat. A shiver hit me and I straightened up, my head rolling around and my eyes blinking uncontrollably. I was frantic to stop it, I tried to fight, but it was several seconds before the shiver finally subsided. I looked around, getting my bearings. Old Bill lay quietly at my feet. There was still nobody out front. I looked down at the black car waiting at the bottom of the steps. The keys were inside.

I dragged Old Bill quickly down the steps and propped him up against the car. When I opened the passenger door, red balloons spilled out and bounced lightly all over him. I heaved him up into the seat, shoved his legs in, and slammed the door. I ran around to the driver’s seat. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to get the car going; I’d driven a truck a few times when I was younger. I tore out of the parking lot as fast as I could handle it, the cans banging and rattling along behind me.

I knew where the hospital in Little Rock was. I figured I could be there in half an hour if I drove as fast as the city bus did. Old Bill sat still and quiet in the seat next to me. I didn’t dare look over at him, for fear I’d drive us off the road. And I was scared of what I’d see.

The sun went down while I looked for the turnoff from Golf Links Road. A few minutes after we’d left the church, the car’s lights turned on automatically. Before long we were passing in darkness beneath rows of trees. I found the country club and turned onto Ravens Ridge. The muscles in my back were knotting up. I passed a dozen turnoffs which resembled the one leading back into Little Rock, but they all seemed to come too soon. Finally I took one out of desperation. It got hard to see, and I realized tears were blurring my eyes. I wiped them away and hurriedly grabbed the wheel again. Every time I passed a car I expected it to turn around, blue lights flashing suddenly out of the darkness. The night got blacker.

I bit my lip, furious with myself for not going inside the church and calling an ambulance. I tried to console myself by reasoning that an ambulance would have taken too long. But I knew the real reason I hadn’t gone in was that I’d been afraid to face those people again. I didn’t want to walk back into that reception. I didn’t want to have to ask for the phone. And now the asphalt slipped endlessly beneath me as I tried to find my way back into town. I squeezed the wheel.

Shortly I came upon an intersection. I stopped and studied the signs. I didn’t recognize the street names. An outside light came on at a house across the street to my left, and a large black dog raced out into the yard, barking furiously. I pushed the accelerator and turned right, away from the dog.

And then the panic left me. I gave in all at once to the knowledge that I was lost, that Old Bill was dead. There was nothing I could do but drive. I’d meant to return the car after I got Old Bill to the hospital, but now I knew I could never find my way back. I skirted the edge of Little Rock with no idea of how to move into town, or how to leave it. I drove along dark fields and woods, incapable of anything else. In a way I felt guilty for accepting it—for having no desire to go back to the city alone, or back to the church for help, for actually being glad my options had fallen away. But in a way, I couldn’t deny it, I felt free.

After a while I glanced over at Old Bill. He looked good, relaxed, his head hanging forward on his neck as if he’d fallen asleep. His hair almost reached his lap. In the black suit his body seemed shapeless, a shadow with hints of substance. We passed under a streetlight and his face flashed white. I saw icing on his cheek.

When the houses started thinning out on either side of the road, I caught sight of a highway sign. Soon an access road appeared on my right, and I followed it up onto the highway. It was divided, with two lanes going my direction and two more lanes across a wide grassy median. Trees lined the road. There was no traffic. Overhead the stars were brightening up; I saw sprinkles of them through the top of my windshield.

I was looking for a sign when I noticed a young man walking alongside the road, a garbage bag slung over his shoulder. He looked familiar. I pulled off the highway about fifty yards ahead of him, found reverse, and backed up. One of my wheels crunched loudly over a can, at first making me think I’d broken something. The cans dragged noisily along beneath the car.

When I came alongside the young man, I recognized him. Old Bill and I used to see him at the Little Rock shelter every few weeks or so. He’d been friendly enough when approached, but was generally a quiet sort. He carried himself as if he knew something about the world, but he spoke simply, never talking about himself. Old Bill and I had called him The Colt. I wasn’t sure he’d ever told us his name.

I was trying to figure out how to lower the window when he opened the passenger door. The light came on as he looked into the car. “Well, hello there,” he said, recognizing me. Then his gaze returned to Old Bill. He stood quietly in the door for a long time, staring. When he raised his head to address me again, his lips were puckered thoughtfully. “You okay?”

His question made my eyes sting again, so I looked away. “Sure,” I said. “Just a little lost.”

I heard him sigh. “I’ll get in the back seat,” he said. He shut the front door and came in through the back. It was dark again. “Balloons,” he said.

I turned around to look. Red balloons were shifting around in the floorboard at his feet. Next to him on the seat was a basket full of fruit, a ribbon wrapped around its handle. He picked an apple out of it. “May I?”

I shrugged, and he slipped it inside his bag. “How long ago did you take this car?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “An hour? It was just before sunset.”

“That’s about right. Heading anywhere in particular?” He studied me, his eyes reflecting the green light from the dash. He was more handsome than I’d remembered, with a thick shock of black hair and wide shoulders.

“No. I think I was trying to find my way back into town.”

“And then ditch the car?” he said. He had found an envelope in the bottom of the fruit basket. He reached up to the light over my head and switched it on. “Judy and Andrew,” he read. Opening the envelope, he pulled out a letter, glanced at it, then let it fall. Next he pulled out a sheaf of green bills and fanned through them. “Twenties,” he said. He cut them down the middle like a deck of cards and handed me half. It was about two hundred dollars. I took it without thinking.

“Drive another mile or so down the highway,” the Colt said. I put the car in gear and started moving along the shoulder. “Come on, Skipper,” he said. “Get out on the highway and take us there.”

I turned and checked for cars, then pulled out onto the road. I accelerated slowly, and just when we were about to reach the speed limit, he told me to pull over again, down into the trees. I maneuvered the car down the slight incline and between two pine trees, then, according to the Colt’s directions, plowed it deep into a thick patch of bushes. The brush squealed along the windows and over the hood. I stopped the car, and the bushes all around started rising back to their original shapes.

“For future reference,” the Colt said, “you only need to use one foot when you drive an automatic.” He reached over the seat and found the buttons for shutting off the lights and opening the windows. “Come on.”

I killed the engine and we climbed out the windows and onto the hood, leaving Old Bill in the passenger seat. The bushes pressed in all around the car. The Colt climbed back to the trunk, then leaped over the bushes to land on clear ground. I doubted I could jump that far, and I was right. I crashed into the brush a few feet from where the Colt stood. It scratched up my hands and face, but I didn’t say anything. I was glad to be in motion again.

I followed the Colt back up toward the highway. He’d left his bag behind in the car, I noticed, so I knew he must plan on returning. “I’m thinking about a trade,” he said, without looking at me. We walked along the edge of the shoulder. “I’m thinking you’re the right person to make this trade with, and not just because you’ve got something I’d like. I think the trade would be fair.” After this he didn’t say anything, and we moved on in silence. I was considering how much I liked to walk along the woods like this, just as I had during the day, with the wind moving through the branches and the frogs and crickets chirping. Lightning bugs floated off among the trees, thousands of them, filling the woods like blinking stars. I’d forgotten such things existed.

A car rushed by, blowing my hair up along my neck. I thought of Old Bill back in the darkness of the car, the bushes clawing at the windshield. It made me anxious. I took some deep breaths and unclipped my tie, rolling it up and putting it into my pants pocket. I unbuttoned the top button of my shirt and took another deep breath. I wanted to go back and pull Old Bill out of the car, let him lie on the ground underneath the sky, the lightning bugs flickering on and off in the woods all around him. But the Colt was moving with purpose.

We were approaching an unlit billboard set off a small distance from the highway. It was made from the rectangular trailer of a diesel truck, an eighteen-wheeler, raised up on a platform about twenty feet above the ground. I imagine it was once used to advertise a moving company or the like, but now it read: “The Black Madonna Shrines and Grotto—5 Miles.”

The Colt veered away from the shoulder toward the billboard. He led me right up under the base of the platform, which was held up by supports as thick as telephone poles. He looked at me. “Here we go,” he said. He waved his hand in the air in front of him and a rope ladder dropped down from the platform, startling me. He laughed and winked, and I saw then that he had grabbed onto a long strand of fishing twine, which was tied to the ladder. He looked both ways along the highway, then grabbed the bottom of the ladder. “You first,” he said. “And be quick. When you get up top go around behind the sign.”

I was nervous, but the ladder was made of strong, thick rope, and after a moment I began to enjoy the climb. When I was halfway up the Colt yelled for me to stop and be still. A car was passing along the highway. I hung there, frozen and fearful, while the lights swept over me. “Okay,” he said. “Go on up.”

At the top of the ladder there were short metal posts sticking out of the base of the platform. I grabbed these and hauled myself up. The painted letters of the sign towered over me now. I shuffled along the wide ledge until I was behind the trailer, out of sight of the highway. Beneath me the ground dropped away into the woods. The trees were thick for miles, and from this height I could see over them to the blackness of the horizon, where a red beacon light flashed from the top of an invisible tower. The wind whistled in my ears.

In a minute the Colt was beside me. He spoke into my ear. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I nodded. He stepped around me and reached down near his feet, pulling up a flap of carpet that was nailed onto the wall of the trailer. “After you,” he said.

I stared at the opening in the wall. It hadn’t occurred to me that we would be able to enter the trailer. I looked back at the Colt, and he winked at me again. “Need to hurry, Cap’n.”

I dropped to my knees and crawled into the blackness. The Colt followed me in, snapping on a flashlight. I straightened up and looked around. Next to the door stood a short table and chair. The table was built of scrap wood, obviously assembled on site. The chair was an overturned milk crate, its seat cushion a carefully folded towel. Scattered across the table were several thick candles, a tall plastic cup, a notebook and pen, and a battery-powered lantern. The Colt was fiddling with the lantern; when it came on, he switched off his flashlight and set it down, then gestured at the room. “You’re the first besides me to see it,” he said. The giant shadow of his arm swept across the walls.

I hadn’t stopped looking. Next to the wall on my left was a bed made up of about a dozen blankets piled on top of each other; it had a real pillow in a blue pillowcase. The opposite wall was lined with dozens of books, mostly paperbacks, many without covers. The room was otherwise bare except for a few crates near the entrance. In one of them I could see a box of crackers and two loaves of Wonder bread. The other boxes were covered with a towel. I turned back to the Colt. He was looking around the place, too, as if seeing it for the first time.

“Almost hate to leave,” he said.

“I can’t believe it,” I said, laughing. “Look at this place.”

“I know,” he said. “I know it.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “But listen, Cap’n, we’re out of time, so let me just tell you a few things. First, don’t light a fire, no matter how cold it gets. It’ll smoke you out. Believe me, I figured that out the hard way. Stick to the blankets. There’s a creek runs through the woods on this side of the highway, just a few hundred yards in. You can’t miss it. That’s your running water. Further on in about a mile there’s a man who keeps a little garden, tomatoes and lettuce and such. Be smart about it, though, he’s home a lot. Now let’s see—blackberry bushes on the other side of the highway; may take you a while to find them, but they’re there. And . . .well, I guess that’s about all. There’s more, I’m sure, but I don’t have time to think about it now. Any questions?”

I couldn’t think clearly. I was afraid he would crawl back out the door and disappear. “How do I get home?” I blurted.

The Colt studied me for a second. Then he smiled and thrust his hands into his pockets, apparently relinquishing his haste for the moment. “Just where exactly is your home?”

I returned his gaze. I understood what he meant. I knew he didn’t expect an answer. “Well,” I said finally. “I want to be able to get into Little Rock.”

The Colt winked at me and reached into one of the covered crates. He pulled out some papers and sorted through them until he found a map, which he unfolded and spread across the table. He picked up his pen and bent over the map. After he’d scribbled something at the top, he shot me a look of concern. “You can read, can’t you?”

I nodded.

He smiled. “Good thing. I’d hate to have to teach you tonight— there’s just not enough time.” He studied the map again. “Here we are,” he said, marking an X with his pen. “And here’s the shelter; I’ll mark it, too. You can figure out the rest. It’s a good day’s walk to get downtown, but there are convenience stores a lot closer than that.” He winked again, apparently to himself. “Why they’re called convenient. I’ll mark a couple of them.”

I watched him make notes on the map. “How long have you lived here?” I said.

“Going on seven years,” he said. He tapped his pen thoughtfully on the table, jotted down another note. “Ran away when I was 17, nearly starved to death. I was going to hitchhike to Texas. Started pouring rain so I shinnied up one of these poles on the off-chance I could get inside. Doors were welded shut but I kicked through a rusty place. You like the sound of rain on the roof? God, it’s like thunder in this place.”

“You shinnied up a pole?”

“No kidding. Splinters like a sonofabitch. Going down was worse. I didn’t come back till I knew I had the stuff to make it easier.” He shook his head. “Can you believe that?”

“And now you’re leaving?”

“In that car of yours, you bet I am.”

“What about the police?”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll cut off the cans, wipe down the windows as good as I can. And check this out.” He dropped his pen and returned to the storage crates by the door. He dug around in them for a minute, then produced a blue Iowa license plate. “You walk the highway long enough you find useful things. Guess I picked this up in a moment of prophecy.”

“What about Old Bill?”

He frowned. “That your friend in the car?”


“He sure looked peaceful.”

“I guess so.”

“Tell you what. I’ll figure something out.”

“I was thinking maybe you could pull him out and lay him under the stars.”

The Colt shook his head. “It’s a nice idea, Cap’n, but I think that’s a little too much heat this close to home. It’s just right down the road from you. Listen, I promise I’ll take care of it. I’ll treat him right. Okay?”

I knew it didn’t make sense to argue. “Okay,” I said. “Good enough, if you promise.”

“I promise,” he said. “And now I really have to go. Oh, but tell you what, let’s change clothes. You don’t want to be stuck in that suit, and it might do me a little good.”

He was right about that, so we stripped to our shorts and changed. My suit fit him well enough. The denim pants and flannel shirt he passed to me were snug but not uncomfortable. He had small feet, so we kept our own shoes, and I was glad about that. It felt strange to be in different clothes for the second time in one day; the familiar shoes were a bit of comfort.

I was dressed before the Colt was, so I wandered around the room looking at things while he finished. On the far end of the room I found a black spot on the floor. I looked up and, sure enough, the ceiling was blackened above me. Here was where the Colt’s youth got the best of him, I thought. I would never have tried a fire in this place.

“I’m leaving, Cap’n.”

I hurried back to the entrance, where the Colt was already kneeling down, waiting for me to see him off. He extended a hand. “Good luck.”

“Good luck,” I said. We shook hands.

“My name’s Joshua Canin,” he said abruptly, as if the handshake prompted the introduction. “I’m headed for Florida.”

“Ralph Barnes. I suppose I’m staying here.”

The Colt winked and pushed through the carpet. I looked at the flap for a minute, then turned around and surveyed the room. Feeling around in my pockets for the money and the plastic fork, which I’d been careful to remember, I stepped over to the table. I pulled out the fork and set it down next to the map.

I shut off the lantern and found my way back to the carpet flap. Outside, I walked around to the edge of the sign. I could see the Colt in the distance, jogging back the way we’d come. In a couple minutes he was out of sight. I waited there for a long time, my heart thumping. A few cars passed. Eventually I saw a light emerging from the woods. It angled across the highway, and I could just see the black car pulling up out of the trees. It crossed the highway, then the median, then turned and disappeared in the other direction.

An unexpected loneliness settled on me. I walked around to the place we’d climbed up. The rope ladder lay stretched across the platform. I inspected it to see how the Colt had managed this trick. There were two long pieces of twine, I discovered, working together like the rope on a flag pole. You could raise the ladder while standing on the ground.

I studied this mechanism for a while, distracting myself. But then I had it figured out, and still I stood there alone, not sure what to do. The wind was picking up, howling around the corners of the trailer. Below me the treetops shook and waved like water in a dark lake. I sat down near the carpet entrance and looked out over the trees toward the horizon. I watched the red beacon there flashing its quiet light. I wondered how far away it was. Five miles? Ten? I knew I could walk there in a day. It occurred to me that I was already deciding to do it sometime. It seemed like a good thing to do.

The night was turning cool, and I hugged my arms around myself for warmth. I sat there and thought about Old Bill, resting faithfully in the seat of that dark car speeding south, icing on his cheek and maybe a mothball or two in his pockets. A one dollar bill saved for our bus fare home. Bill had had a good day. Maybe he would bring the Colt some luck.

I sat on that ledge most of the night, until the stars grew faint and the wind had numbed my ears. Birds started twittering down in the woods. Eventually I got so tired I worried I’d fall asleep and drop off the ledge, so I stood up and stretched, then bent down again and pushed through the flap. I didn’t bother with the flashlight. I found my way over to the bed and crawled in, kicking off my shoes. It felt soft and warm after sitting out on that hard ledge in the cold morning air. I lay in the darkness, listening to the wind surging against my walls and thinking, wind is as good as rain.


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