The red sign atop the pole read IONA. Then I saw the indigo glow of the pump lights, the open bay, the rack of new tires. It’s silly, but I gave a victory whoop. Everything was going to be O.K. again, you know, as if it had always been O.K. and would never not be O.K.
I cut the music, pulled up for a fill. I’m not religious, but then and there, exhausted behind that wheel after all those hours and everything, I shut my eyes and said perhaps my first sincere prayer since I was a boy.
As I finished, a heavy cloud of dust came rolling across the road. There was no sound to it. It tumbled like a log. Then it hit and got me gagging. Onions. I covered my eyes, but the tears poured down.
Meantime, something, a pig or something, began squealing in the direction the cloud had come from, beyond the station lights. Somebody’d just got their throat slashed; it was that kind of squeal.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was long enough for me to get pissed off at myself for not taking care of my own business: I needed gasoline.
I dried my eyes, got out, slammed the door. Tramped around on the oil-soaked gravel stretching my legs.
I don’t know how to say it exactly but there was kind of a shining in the air where the dust hadn’t finished settling, like a firework that’s exploded but is still glowing as it drifts down. I batted my clothes; it was like talc.
The old boy who ran the place hadn’t paid the least mind. There he was in the little office, so far back on his chair that he was parallel to the floor, as though laid out dead.
I thought, well, if he ain’t worried, then why am I? So like an idiot, I just stood there next to the car, waiting on him. Not once thinking maybe they don’t wait on you out here.
Sure enough, after a short while, my impatience clicked on.
Then my anger swelled, watching him raise that cigarette slowly all the way up to his mouth, take a long hit and after a long while let out a tiny puff, only to retrieve the puff with a movement like a fish coming to the surface to feed, let it out again, hardly anything left of it, only to stare at the hardly-anything-left-of-it, appearing to muse or be blank or whatever.
Mildly interesting, I surmised, but then I had places to go, things to do, people to see. I reached in, tooted the horn. The sound had gone weak, froglike. I hit it again, longer this time to make sure he heard.
He heard. I know he heard. But we finished our cigarette. We took our damn sweet time finishing our cigarette, too. Then we sort of began to begin to think about maybe making some kind of preliminary move, like turning the head, not too fast now, just a touch, and only just a touch, to see what just might or might not be going on outside at the pumps, probably nothing, there being no cause for a rush in any case. We went through all that and somehow even shaded our eyes with our hand as if the sun were bothering us.
“You open?” I hollered.
The magic words. He popped vertical and stood up and adjusted his big red-white-and-blue billcap. Took the money-changer off the desk and strapped it around the waist of his iridescent blue jumpsuit. Made no attempt to slap off the layer of dust, leaving the stuff to slide down, sparkling.
He came out slowly, though, then moved even more slowly over to the car. He reached and touched the roof and then the hood, making a line in the dust, letting out a low whistle.
“Kiss that paint job good-bye,” he said.
I peered at the line he’d drawn. It was true, the peach paint had turned gummy.
“Damn it,” I said. “What is that crap?”
He leaned on the hood, the changer clanging against the ornament, coins popping free. “Whatever it is you ain’t going to have a flake of paint left on her tomorrow. Eats it right off.”
For good measure, he drew another line across the one he’d made, shoveling the paint along with a hard yellow fingernail, making a ball. He rolled it between his fingers, sniffed it.
“Smells like jalapenos sometimes. Burns bad, too, if you forget to wash up.”
He flicked the gunk to the ground and looked set to do it again.
“You dropped some money there,” I said.
He didn’t seem to understand, so I bent to get them. A steel-toed boot came down, cut me off.
“Just leave ‘em. Ain’t worth nothing no way. You American?”
“Hell, yes,” I answered, mildly offended.
“Can’t serve you then.”
“What do you mean you can’t serve me.”
“I mean what I said. We don’t serve Americans.”
“What kind of talk is that?”
“The rules is what kind of talk that is.”
He was chewing something that showed white when he talked, likely antacids. He kept wincing and touching a doubled-up fist to his heart.
“I’m an American and I am going to Rock Island,” I said. “I have my rights, you know.”
He puffed his cheeks and spit a bit of something past my ear. “Not any more, you don’t. They got eyes. And nobody going to be getting gas to go nowheres long as they got the eyes on you. Where’ve you been, anyway? To the moon?’‘
* * *
I am a tad slow sometimes, always have been. There they were, six of them, each bobbing or turning, the scene being captured with a kind of thrilling efficiency.
No slowpoke once I’m plugged in, I turned on my best redneck voice. “Hell, I sure wouldn’t work for no outfit filmed me. What the hell is wrong with them National boys? Got a coon up their ass?”
This got their attention. I had every camera in the place on me.
I began to walk toward the road to draw them off. Meantime, he gave me a big wink, eased a nozzle into my tank and got her going.
“I mean,” I continued, loudly, “if you can’t trust your own damn employees, who in the world can you trust? Nope, don’t think I’d stay with an outfit acted no damn better than that. I mean, there just ain’t no call for that kind of thing. You want to know what it makes me feel like? I’ll tell you what it makes me feel like. It makes me feel like I live in some kind of police state. That’s right, a police state chock-full of demagogues. Monitoring people. Who do you take us for? I mean, here we are, no more got the door to peace wide open and guys like you bust in with all that old paranoia again. Yes, paranoia. Come to think of it, no, let’s call a spade a spade: You wanted it all to turn out like Nineteen Eighty-Four. You never fooled me for a minute. You didn’t want no peace. And you know why you didn’t want no peace? I’ll tell you why you didn’t want no peace. You didn’t want no peace because peace just don’t pay, baby. It just don’t pay.”
He drew some quick circles in the air, the signal to keep going, keep talking.
So I said, “It’s like this ole gal told me once back at a liberal college newspaper where I used to work. She said, ‘They might get together and sign themselves a few treaties and all and that’s good, but don’t you believe it for a minute that it will all end there. You take the heart out of the machine and what happens to the machine?’ She asked me that. I said, ‘It stops working.’ She said, ‘It not only stops working, it dies. Now what would that equal?’ She asked me that. I said, ‘Death. It would equal death.’ She said, ‘It not only would equal death, it would equal surrender. You know anybody who is really and truly willing to go that far besides Socrates?’ I had to admit her argument had a lot of weight. To boot, it was perhaps the first time I’d ever really listened to a woman about anything. Anyway, the more I thought about it the more I knew she was right as rain. Which, I guess, brings us to the problem of nostalgia, in this case the phenomenon of one’s desire to return and live forever with one’s beautiful parents and beautiful siblings in the beautiful four-bedroom home on Sleepy Hollow Drive, to go again every Saturday to Dirty’s for huge onion-smothered hamburgers and giant milkshakes, eating so much you were sure you would explode, versus the reality here on the ground level. But, perhaps, I digress. A tad.”
As you might have guessed, one of the cameras, bored to tears, peeled off to check the pump area, just in case. There sat the Olds, pretty as ever — and ready to roll.
My man had gone back into his office, where he lay back flat on his chair, smoking up a storm. Bless him.
“I believe that the central question here,” I continued for some reason, “is whether it is logically possible to regret X before one has done X, and if so what else is possible in this world? Is time travel a possibility?”
I lowered my head in thought. The cameras stared. Likely I’d been orating to a bunch of drunk cadets at a monitoring post. Certainly I hadn’t been getting through with any kind of message, that much was clear from the way the cameras just sat there. But what had I been expecting? Applause? I have an ego problem, always will. A little angry, I squashed a june bug with my city shoes.
I needed a cold beer, something. The sorry picture of my Japanese epistemology professor throwing the chalk at me when I’d failed to satisfactorily answer the question, ‘How do we know we know?’ on the first day of class flashed like a meteor across my mind. I still hate that bastard, may he rot in his Oriental way, like they season their dead ducks. In fact I needed a couple of cold beers, and groaned quite loudly when I remembered that the whole damn chockablock crazy-quilt country’d gone dry again. Just in time for my first urgent thirst in years.
Let me say my friend was a lot smarter than I’d had him figured for. The meter on the pump still showed goose eggs. And not a drop of the precious fluid had been spilled in the process. That’s the work of a true National man for you; they know their stuff. Daddy would never go to any of them except National. Back when America’d been America. Back when things were true, blue and right.
It must’ve been 3 A.M. or so.
* * *
“Nice evening we got,” I said as I stepped into the office.
“Can’t you read the sign?” he said. “No Americans. Now get out of here.”
He said it flatly, without conviction, then gasped once, heavily, as though he’d come a great way.
Needless to say, every one of the cameras had us framed.
“Why don’t we listen to a little radio,” I said.
I sat on a dented green filing cabinet where I could see past him to the car. His desk was trashed up with yellowed gazettes and outdoorsmen’s mags, coffee cups and candy-bar wrappers, a busted fan belt and charred spark plugs. In the middle sat the small white transistor radio, its antenna half-out, bent east.
“Why not listen to a little radio,” I repeated.
He had his feet up on all that trash, and one of them sort of went into spasms, as if very good and fast music had suddenly been cranked up. Red canvas hightops. I ignored the pity welling in me, reminded myself that feeling sorry for your fellow man, while appropriate and even desirable in some circumstances, is most often a complete waste of time and emotional energy. I was heading for Rock Island; I was not out to saving the living dead along the way.
“The radio,” I hissed.
This time his brain seized it. The tennis shoe froze. The heavy sunburned face ballooned up toward me. “Nothin’ on no more noway. Just a lot of kids screamin’ and carryin’ on about doin’ it to each other. Don’t know how anybody can stand it. Sound like people killing each other, somethin’. Sure what it sounds like. It ain’t no music. Tell me, friend, just what the hell ever happened to Perry Como?”
Well, major progress: I’d got him talking. This done, I dared take the next stop. I reached over, touched the radio. “Mind?”
His huge hand came down on my city boy’s hand. “Sure as hell do.”
I just love life, its funny ways, surprises. As I withdrew what was left of my appendage, as one would from a fire, not only did the radio come on full-blast on an old major league baseball game, but my backwards thrust sent me and the filing cabinet crashing into, what else?
The fuse box. Rather, it was my head, the back of my head, that took out most of the fuses, and with a quick effort I succeeded in finishing off the others, plunging us into darkness. Outside, the dust shined like TV snow.
It was the Mets and the A’s, top of the sixth and the New York pitcher was working on a perfect game. I could almost smell the cheese-covered tortilla chips, taste the mustard-drenched hotdogs, feel the cold draft going down. I could see the fans way out behind sunny right-field starting The Wave, failing a few times but then getting it going. There it came, now behind center-field, now through left, now past the foul pole toward third, now here, here it was, yes, I, too, wildly threw up my arms and cried out…
My wrist was seized. An unshaved mouth was planted against my ear. “Not a word, kid. Out the back. Move it.”
Before I knew it we were deep in tall weeds. Already, far far away, the crowd was roaring. Booing or cheering? Damn it, I couldn’t tell.
When I slowed, he gave me a shove.
* * *
We got on a bridge and sat out where it broke off halfway over the highway.
“Now, what the hell you going to Rock Island for?” he asked. “Ain’t nobody there no more. Empty as Eden.”
I peered toward my destination, at the black line of the horizon giving way to the softer black of the sky.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Haven’t you ever done that? Just picked up and gone someplace? For no reason?”
He nodded. “Oh, that. Well. Maybe. Been a long while, though.”
Then and again a blue thread of light would spurt up far away. Anti-anti-something fire. No sound.
“Lot of activity.” I said.
He didn’t even look. Reached into the bib of his jumpsuit and got out a sack of candy. “Have some.”
His chrome sunglasses kept catching the flashes and shooting them back across my face. We passed the bag, giving pleased grunts each time. They were chewy little red balls of licorice that left you helpless, wanting more and more.
Then the lights came back on down at the station. The sudden glow spooked a carpet of grasshoppers into flight.
“We’re back up,” he said. “Doesn’t take them long, does it. The slightest outage and the whole system pounces on it until it’s fixed. Hell, you even try to go to the can with the light off and they’ll flick the damn thing on while you’re in there. Nail you wipin’ every time.”
I ceded to the inquisitive surge brought on by the sweets. “Exactly why are they watching everything?”
He leaned out dangerously far, spat. “Are you stupid, or what?”
“Who are they exactly, anyway?”
He laughed. It sounded like the weak horn on my Olds. “In charge is who they are. In charge.” Again he popped his little horn. “It doesn’t matter if they have a name or not.”
It made me slightly nervous. After all, I had no idea, really, who I was dealing with here. He could be anybody. Even one of them, for all I knew.
A breeze rose, and I straightened up and lifted my face to a cool bath of it. Eyes shut, I could still see him, bent over the edge of the overpass, feet propped on the twisted rods reaching out of the concrete, watching like a country dog will do.
“You got any idea what I’m risking helping you?” he asked.
“Have you helped others?”
“What do you think?”
I put my hand out, assured. “Joe. Joe Farley.”
He looked at my hand as if it were a piece of garbage. “Sooner or later, I’ll have to answer to them about the lights. But you didn’t think of that, did you? Thinking about yourself. I know your kind. Get them coming through here every week, spouting their dreams, heading onward, hoping I’ll give them the kick the ass they need. What’s in it for me? You ever stop and think of that? What am I getting out of helping all you sorry boys and girls find your roads? Huh?”
But he put his hand out and we shook. “Gaskin.”
“Gaskin, look.” I said. “Tell them it was an accident about the lights. Tell them that.”
“What makes you think you can tell them something? Jesus. What’d they do, just let you out of a hospital or something? You on lithium?”
“Sure you can,” I insisted. “You say you were coming in and the floor was wet and then you slipped and fell and — ”
“They know exactly what happened. Don’t you doubt it for a second. We’re just taking a break here’s all. O.K.?”
“But — ”
“God damn it, shush,” he commanded.
It was faint, but there was no doubt. A child, crying, across the road in the dark. We listened for a while, gradually realizing that it wasn’t just one child but many. I became aware of the slight throbbing motion of the broken overpass and at the same time began to have that queasy feeling that we were again being watched. Perhaps by a very patient sniper. Perhaps by one of the torturers of the children.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Who are what?”
“The children. The crying.”
“Don’t pay any attention.”
“What do you mean don’t pay any attention?”
He gave me that look. “It means just what it means. Now shutup like I told you to. How do we even know it’s real? It may be piped in. I think it is, if you want my opinion. They’re just trying to spook us. Keep us on edge. The heck with ‘em.”
Maybe I was afraid. I think my body was. Some parts of me trembled, others went numb.
Or was it the candy. But he looked fit, even ebullient, eyes glimmering as he studied our surroundings as though he could see straight through the dark and into the heart of whatever it was that seemed to be stalking the whole world. I felt a surge of honor to know him.
Just then, to the west, there was a brief burst of blue and yellow light in the form of a rainbow. I had seen these things from our balcony in Chicago, but never so bright, so clear. Some said it was really just gas flares; others that it was the army’s doing, a little triple-A propaganda show. All I knew for certain was that I always felt a acute rush of emotional equilibrium afterward that would last a minute or two and leave me smiling like a loon.
Soon crashing, however, I croaked, “It’s all out of control, isn’t it, Gaskin.”
“What’s out of control?” he said. “Do you just say these things off the top of your head? What a waste of energy. Think before you speak.”
I dropped it.
Suddenly the crying out there ceased. Immediately it was replaced by the slow clanging of metal. Tools and anvils.
“Gets real bad some nights,” he said.
I was sure I didn’t want to know, not any more. Just as I was thinking this, the odor of onions filled the air again.
He gave a little laugh. “Harvest night. Nobody going to get any shut-eye tonight. Everybody be cryin’ in their soup, if they got any. Ha!”
He popped home the last of the licorice, wadded and tossed the bag, dug out his cigarettes. “Want one?”
I almost gave in, but grandad’s emphysema stopped me. Gaskin’s lighter produced a long blue spear of flame, which he allowed to burn in the air between us as he examined my face.
I peered squarely back at him, annoyed. What had I done now?
“They’ll see us,” I reminded.
He snorted. “They know exactly where we are, don’t you worry about that.” He clapped shut the lighter, drew hard on the fag. “Look, do you mind if I talk?”
He sounded sincere, in need. “Shoot.”
You’d think it’d have been as simple as turning on a faucet, what with him having spent all those weeks and months and years stuck out there in the middle of nowhere with surveillance cameras, an occasional patrol and the crying night children for company. Then again, as my mother often told me, a man, a real man, a man of character and sensitivity, will prefer to take his time, take his patient sweet time. In fact, he finished his cigarette and half of another before he began to begin.
I threw my head back, enjoying the bands of stars and the spinning gizmos. I wished the night would never end.
“Ever had a girl?” He whispered it.
“No,” I said, a lot louder.
“You got time. Plenty of time. I’ve had lots of them. It’s sort of like riding a roller-coaster.”
“Actually, I was talking about being with them. They day to day. That’s the real part.”
After a pause, he added, “Guess I just wasn’t cut out for that. I left some of them so fast I can’t even remember their names. I’ve been thinking it might run in the family.”
“This missing … what it is, stick — sticka — ”
“Yes. Daddy was like that. His daddy, too. Well.”
“Just well. Well.” He belched.
“Well,” I said softly.
I know he’d wanted to talk, to let something out, and that it had to be more than just chitchat about gals and whether you’d pumped one yet. I know he’d wanted to go on, give his centers a chance to empty themselves into that splendid night.
But I cut him off. I do that sometimes, don’t know why. Went ahead and bullied the conversation with my own story. Maybe I had a need to get it out, maybe it’d been buried too damn long. It didn’t matter, though. Here it came.
“We used to get shipped off to summer camp way down in the South,” I said, “and one year we boys had this older counselor who’d come around our bunks at night and squat there and talk to you about how you were doing and all. And every time, after about five minutes, he’d reach up and put his hand on your belly and then move it down your belly and if you had hair he’d say you’ll have even more hair and it’ll be even longer. And you couldn’t help it and the thing would pop up and the other boys would roll over the other way pretending not to be listening and he’d pull the sheet all the way back down to your ankles and give you a tremendous rubdown and … ”
To my embarrassment, Gaskin wasn’t paying the least attention. Something was going on down at the station.
I stopped myself. “What?”
“There wasn’t a car. Didn’t see a car.”
“Don’t be stupid. He’s in the garage.”
“Ripping off something.” Quietly, he asked, “Your counselor fellow do that to all the boys? You know you could’ve had him fired for doing that. You could’ve taken him to court and taken him to the goddamn cleaner’s. That was free money, son, just waiting to be picked up. Jesus be mine.”
“I don’t think we really minded it, though.”
“Didn’t mind it?”
“We saw it like he was showing us what we could do, what we had in us. Didn’t you and your brother ever — ”
“Don’t have a brother. Don’t have any kin.”
“Well, if you had one … “
“Didn’t. Don’t. Wouldn’t’ve.”
“Who can say, really.”
“I can. Damn it to hell, just what I thought. Going after the tools!”
Whoever it was had unabashedly thrown on all the lights in the bay and was making no attempt whatsoever to muffle his work. There were tremendous bangs and booms, punctuated by shouts of anger, then even louder bangs and booms.
“A drunk,” I surmised.
Gaskin said, “Down we go. Can’t just let them walk off with the place. I’ve shot a couple of them and I can damn well do it again.”
I grabbed his elbow as he started away. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t let you talk it out like you wanted to.”
“No you’re not. That’s your nature. Self first.”
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“It doesn’t have to be. It’s true.”
* * *
My new friend packed a sizable firearm, which he quickly assembled from the dozen or so pieces he produced from as many pockets in his jumpsuit. The snapping, screwing and clicking all done, he plunged into a squat and trained the weapon on the open bay. Clearly he’d seen action somewhere, and given his age I guessed it’d been in the Fourth American. This steeled me, gave me courage. I was with a survivor.
The cameras picked us up the first time we raised our heads from the ditch we’d dropped into on the other side of the road. The mistake made, again he dug out his cigarettes, this time annoying me. I focused on his smoldering pacifier, batted the smoke. I coughed dramatically and repeatedly.
But he just puffed away, believing as they do in their crazed vanity that in fact they are relaxing and thus preparing themselves for whatever’s next.
Suddenly he lifted up his T-shirt sleeve and showed me a mole next to his polio vaccine scar. It was black and flabby, about the size of a corn kernel.
“Now, quit your fussin’.”
“You ought to get that cut off,” I said.
“Melanoma, boy. Another of the doors. Open up any time, suck you right in. You ready?”
“Just what are we going to do?”
“Work is what we are going to do,” he answered, and charged up out of the ditch like a dog going for a mailman, waving his gun and unleashing a terrific scream.
All life immediately should have dropped stone cold dead to the ground at that sound. Bounding toward the enemy, the yell skyrocketed until Gaskin reached the bay and plunged inside.
A second later all was quiet. Just me and the gently murmuring night, the station lights, the cameras. Had he fired his gun? I couldn’t be sure. If so, what? I chose to stay put, await a signal. His half-spent cigarette smoldered in the weeds at my side. I looked around, lifted it and took a hit. Why not? If there was ever a time to break a vow this was it.
I coughed. I thought I would vomit.
“Come out of there,” he commanded.
I looked up at his towering figure. “Just a little queasy.”
“Natural. Happens first time. Come on out.”
He held out a big hand, pulled me up like a rag doll.
“Did you kill him?” I asked, peering at the station, seeing no one.
“You kidding? You don’t kill them. You incapacitate them. You question them, give them a little trouble. Then if you know what’s good for you you let them go.”
He led the way in whistling Dixie.
Our captive, a tall, slim overtanned redhead in a tight tan suit and white halfboots, was quietly washing his hands with a bar of green soap at a filthy sink in the corner. Expecting to see him tied up or otherwise bound, I turned my confused look on Gaskin.
“He ain’t going nowheres,” Gaskin assured. “He knows who’s boss now. Ain’t that right?”
“Sure is,” said the young man. “Just let me finish up my hands and then we can get on with it. I’m sorry, you guys.”
You guys? What was this? Again I quizzed Gaskin with my eyes.
“And being real polite is part of the deal, ain’t that right?” the boss said.
“Sure is. Do you happen to have a towel I can dry off with?”
“Dry ‘em on your own pants. This isn’t a hotel.”
“Right,” the man said, nodding agreeably and dabbing his hands dry that way. “Just like in the old days. Right on your pants. When we were young … ages ago — ”
“Shutup,” said Gaskin. “Now come over here.”
I looked for a bullet wound, a huge blood stain, a tiny blood stain, any evidence of how he’d been subdued. None.
I smelled onions.
Gaskin leaned up against a workbench, giving me a look that meant, Don’t just stand there, sit yourself somewhere. I dropped onto a slick radial.
The prisoner stood between us, slightly atilt, as if pushed by some unseen wind.
“Now I’m going to ask you a couple of questions,” Gaskin began. “And you’ll just answer them and that’ll be that. O.K.?”
“That’ll be just fine,” said the man. “You can count on me.”
Gaskin’s voice dropped but grew infinitely loud. “What the hell do you think you were doing in here?”
The captive jumped back. “Car’s broke down back by Berryville, sir,” he sputtered. “I looked around and didn’t see nobody. Needed a 5/8 socket. I’m real sorry. Real real sorry.”
“Sorry?” bellowed Gaskin. “Sorry? Who’s sorry anymore! What kind of talk is that, you idiot! Sorry?”
The guy stuck out a hand, a fat white loaf. “Dickey Miller. North Little Rock. How y’all tonight?”
“North Little Rock? Hell, that’s on the other side of the Time Fence, you fool! You couldn’t have passed. Ain’t no way! Now let’s have the truth!”
The man seemed to take charge at that point, ignoring Gaskin’s outburst and plunging ahead, newly confident, chest puffed. He even bent his head sideways to give me a wink. About what, I didn’t know, however. I acknowledged this with the polite but firm nod you will give to one of those haywire machines you sometimes pass on the street. The only safe thing to do.
Because if this guy was from beyond the Fence, then we were dealing with something much much larger than we imagined. In fact, it was safe to say history was being made, so to speak. Or something. I couldn’t think clearly.
The boss blurted, “You was looking for some hot lead in your ass, now weren’t you now?”
“No sir,” Dickey replied, singsonging it, stepping forward with his hands up and wiggling his spread fingers. “Like I said, I just come in here and didn’t see nobody and thought, well, hell, they sure won’t mind if I borrey a 5/8 so long as I bring it back. I was going to bring it back. Broke down by Berryville back there.”
He pointed south.
“Berryville’s north!” Gaskin shouted.
The prisoner smacked his own head. “That’s what I meant. It’s been so long … “
Again he stepped forward. Gaskin straightened up. I stood.
“Get back there where you were,” my man ordered. “Suppose you tell us how you got past the Fence? Nobody gets past the Fence.”
Dickey stayed put. His eyes seemed to whirl a moment, then settled down. He let out an impatient huff, and we had to back away from the smell. How long, too, had it been since he’d bathed? Did they even have clean water still on the other side, way back then? Ages ago, Sinatra tunes and all?
His voice sank low, slowed to molasses.
“It was one ratty winter morning with the whole family preparing to leave the house for work or for school. Mother was doing her hair, Father was cursing his broken shoelaces, and my little sister was dutifully practicing her solfège on the studio. Me? I was, as ever, distracted by the view out the window: the low-flying scud, the swirling Fall leaves and the stream of cars heading over the bridge into the city like lava. All at once, the civil defense sirens that went off the first Wednesday of every month right at noon for a test began to howl and howl. It was not Wednesday. Father rushed us to the car. We drove west, against the traffic. ‘Why are they all still going to work, Father?’ ‘Because they are fools! Greedy fools! Even the End won’t turn them around! Not us! We’re going to save ourselves!’ ‘O.K., Father,’ I said, and my sister and I gave a little round of applause. Mother cheered like she liked to do at soccer matches.
“Soon, we were out of town. Flying along the beach road. Finally, apparently, hurtling toward the Fence itself. ‘There it is, Father!’ my sister shouted. ‘Where?’ he cried out, ‘Where?’ ‘There! There! Can’t you see?’ We all looked, but there was nothing but the wide blue sea. I wanted to smack her one, but then there was a sound like a huge turd dropping into water and wham! Here we were. On this road in the dark. In an old truck, broken down. Threw a rod. Oil everywhere. I needed a 5/8. Really. It’s like we went forward and backwards at the same time. Could that make sense? I’m very confused.”
He stopped, patting his chest with his hand, paler.
“Where did you say you crossed the fence?” Gaskin demanded. “Where is this opening, exactly?”
The son-of-a-bitch grinned at us. As if someone had pulled his plug.
I said, “If he’s telling the truth, it could be the first time anybody has — ”
“I know, I know.”
“Think of it,” I said. “Kerplop, and you can cross. Just like that!”
“Quick, get that sponge over there. Let’s rub his face, cool him down a little.”
Louder, he said to Dickey, “Would you like that? A little cool water on your face to help you remember? What do you say?”
Dickey smiled, goofy as hell. I went looking for a sponge, at last finding one in bucketful of scummy gray water.
“Swab his forehead,” Gaskin said.
I got near, reached up as high as I could, did as told. But he stank so bad I recoiled.
Again I tried.
This time, he spoke.
“The fence now lies open. Come and go? Va et vien. Entradas, salidas.”
“Open?” Gaskin said? “The Fence is open?”
“Un petit peu. You know.”
“What? No, we don’t know. Where exactly? Where?”
“Easy,” I said to Gaskin. “Don’t push him too much here. We could lose him.”
“You’re right. You’re right. Hey, Dickey buddy, listen.”
He appeared to recover from his little spell and shook his head vigorously as though he’d been belted one. Then, alarmed, he raised his palm to his mouth, puffed, sniffed and, with a quiet “Oh my, excuse me,” clapped his mouth shut.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Listen, do you think you could help us out with something here?”
“Where is it?” Gaskin yelled. “Where the hell is the opening?”
“Opening?” said Dickey. “What opening?”
“You don’t remember at all?” I asked.
“How you go through the Fence? Where? Any of that?”
“I’m afraid not. It all happened so fast.”
Gaskin kicked empty oil can across the bay. “Damn it!”
I noticed that both cameras there in the bay were focused on Gaskin. Someone, somewhere was taking note of his frustration. I hoped there would be no repercussions. A job, after all, is a job, especially these days, these nights, period.
Dickey was kaput. Past was past. Now was now. Tomorrow was yet to come. It didn’t seem so bad that way, really.
Gaskin, though, gave it a last college try. “Look, Dickey, I could use some help around here. You know, cleaning up, looking after things, doing the windows, that kind of thing. Then, maybe, you’ll relax and feel comfortable after a while and — ”
“Yeah, remember. Maybe.”
“It won’t happen.”
“What do you mean it won’t happen? How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“It’s the Fence that does it.”
“Wipes out your memory?”
“Not all, as you can tell. There’s still baseball and chili hotdogs, my red trike, mama’s hairspray, dad’s smellum, my sister’s brown breasts, my first girl, my — ”
“What about the Fence?”
“A blank. Suddenly there we were. Broken down by the road. Needing a 5/8 socket.”
“It’ll come back, surely. It has to.”
“I’m afraid not. Jamais. By definition. No one knows. I’m very sorry. But I will take the job, if you’ll have me. Do you think you could help my family, too? They are very hard-working — ”
“Bullshit!” Gaskin raged. “You have to remember!”
I walked out to the pumps. Something was terribly wrong. So many boxes inside boxes you could never find your way out. Was I being tested? Tempted to give up and turn tail for home? Indeed, why Rock Island? Why anywhere? I tried to think back, to the root. But it was like swimming in syrup.
A gun went off. I hit the oily gravel and there went my linen suit for good. Not even caring what had transpired, to whose mercy I had now been tossed, I cursed my ruined attire.
“Get up, damn it, and be a man,” Gaskin ordered, glasses off, pistol dangling in his left hand. “Won’t have no bawlin’ ‘round here. Raised eight kids and don’t want to hear no more of that crap, you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” I said, just like I said it to Daddy all those years. “Yes sir.”
“You done peed your pants.”
I didn’t even look down.
“You shot him,” I said.
“Sure I shot him. You got anything to say about it? We shoot vagrants around here. National boys don’t mess around. Objection?”
My face said no for me.
“That’s what I thought.”
Then he pointed off at the black night.
“They’re all over the place out there. Coming around here pretending to be things they ain’t, wasting your time, ripping you off. I’ve had it!”
The cameras turned and looked out there, too. All was silent, but it was as if untold hordes stood waiting beyond the weak light. Just beyond an invisible wall. You thought you saw the glow of a cigarette or two, listened for the childrens’ crying again, heard nothing. Nothing at all.
“Just exactly what is it you’re up to, anyway, Joe Farley?” he said. “Rock Island? Isn’t there a guerrilla camp there? Well, speak up!”
I wished he hadn’t used my name like that, and frowned.
But he gave me a big wink when the cameras weren’t looking and made a face like he wanted me to get in my car.
I stood there like a jerk, unsure whether to believe him or not.
“Take the Thorne Road exit,” he said.
“Where is that?”
“Oh, you’ll come to it. Thorne Road.”
“But I’m going to Rock Island.”
“The heck with Rock Island. Try Thorne Road. Might be something pretty there to see. I mean, you can’t just not go see Thorne Road, can you? The very idea!”
With that, he walked away toward his office, as if leaving the dying to die.
“But, Gaskin. What’s on Thorne Road? Do you mean — ”
The old boy made a vulgar sign with one hand.
“Go to hell, kid. No gas. No way. We don’t serve Americans here. Got it? Now get out of here before I call in a night unit.”
“That’s right, go to hell,” said a womanly voice emerging from the bay.
Dickey. His arm done up in a neat white sling, that awful smile filling his face.
“I just want to say before I go that I sure do thank you for setting me straight and letting me go like this,” he said to Gaskin. “I won’t ever do it again.”
The cameras flicked back and forth among us.
“You get on out of here,” Gaskin said, extra-friendly now. “Just don’t come around here botherin’ me no more. You got that?”
“Sure do,” said the idiot. “Sure do. Well, good night, then.”
“Night,” said Gaskin.
The man walked out onto the road. Every camera in the place was on him.
He called back, “I sure want to thank you again.”
With that Gaskin fired his gun into the air, sending the guy scurrying. The cameras zoomed and zoomed, trying to follow him.
Unseen, I leaped into the Olds.
Gaskin ran toward the car, tripped over the gas hose, went tumbling into a little rock garden with plastic flowers.
Playing my part, I flung open a rear door and he climbed in.
“Go, go, go!” he hollered. “That way!”
We buried the station in a cloud of dust and gravel, plunged down the dark road, nearly knocking Dickey into the hereafter. Gaskin flipped him the bird.
“Where to?” I shouted.
“Miami? What about Thorne Road?”
“You heard me. Didn’t you see Dickey’s tan? Now step on it!”
The air seemed to sparkle in the coming dawn and the stink of chopped onions filled the air.
“Turn the radio on,” he commanded. “Might as well get the end of that ballgame.”
I flipped it on, spun the dial. No game. No nothing.
We stayed dead quiet. Each thinking his own thoughts as the purple light filled the East. Wondering if the game had been real or not. Alive or dead. From over the Fence or not. Our hearts pounding like fists into old mitts. After all, a perfect game was, well …
Toward midday, we picked up a crooner singing on a very scratched record.
“Hey, that’s Perry Como!” Gaskin said. “We must be getting close already.”
Another hill, though, and we lost it.