(17 July 2007)
The bus pulled up with a screech of old brakes and crunching of gravel just in front of the old grocery store. It seemed to be the only building around. Empty lots with naked, cracked foundations neighbored it on both sides. Across the once-paved road a burnt out husk of a shack leaned precariously, its false front the most substantial-looking thing about it, if you ignored the broken windows.
The grocery store itself could only be called a building by the most generous stretch of the imagination. It had more bare wood showing than paint, and half the windows were boarded up. But it had electricity, as the Coke machine buzzing on the front porch attested. A hazy-eyed Australian Sheppard lolled on the porch next to it, more or less blocking the entrance.
The bus door squeaked open and a tall woman with long brown hair and freckles climbed out. The bus driver must have been asking her something, because she nodded and said “Yes, yes, this is the place. I’m sure, thanks.” The bus driver shook his head and shrugged. The door squeaked shut again and the bus crunched away, back on the road and gradually, out of sight.
The lanky woman, whose name was Gloria, hefted her bag over one shoulder and squinted at the grocery store. The sun was setting behind it now – or rather, behind the mountains in the distance – and the sky all around was ablaze with oranges and purples that looked like they belonged more in a preschooler’s crayola version of a sunset. She smiled very slightly, taking in a deep breath of the juniper- and sage-scented air, then walked up the steps to the porch.
The dog lifted his head slightly as she approached, made a sort of soft grunt, and then flopped his tail on the porch clumsily. She reached a hand down slowly, let the dog sniff her, and then scratched behind his ears. She then stepped over him carefully and pushed open the glass door into the shop.
A tiny bell clanged as she entered and she winced slightly. “Hello?” she called out. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. The store looked a little like 1950’s meets 1980’s meets 21st century. It also looked more like someone’s cellar than a store. Rows of tall, narrow shelves marched down the length of the room, filled, in spots, with cans of beans, bags of M&Ms and a brand of cat food she had never heard of.
There were posters on the wall advertising Coors Lite with scantily-clad women lounging in small swimming pools, dressed improbably as Santa’s helpers, right next to posters advertising Bubbalicious chewing gum and the movie The Matrix. A large, life-size plush version of Bart Simpson leered from a place on the wall just behind the register.
She walked towards the counter, behind which could be seen a door that led, most likely, to living quarters.
“Hello?” she said again, rather more loudly. “Anybody home? The sign says you’re open.”
There was a thumping from behind the door, and then it opened, revealing a roundish, balding man with very big upper arms. He had a stubbly beard and mustache and a reddish-brown tan down his arms and neck, though the rest of him was pretty much pink. His age was indeterminate, but if Gloria had had to guess, she would have said he was in his late fifties. He looked tough and healthy, though – worn around the edges, maybe, but he definitely had the look of a guy who had worked hard all his life and still knew how to.
“Evenin’,” he said. “Sorry if I kept you waiting. I was just catching the end of BSG.”
Gloria frowned. “BSG?”
The man laughed. “Battle Star Gallactica. Damn fine show. Addictive, though. Can I help you with something? You haven’t run out of gas or popped a tire, have you? ‘Cause I’m not much help if you have, and the gas station’s closed this time of night.”
Gloria put her bag down and walked up to the counter.
“Um, I’m here about your post – about, you know, the –uh – truck.” There was no reason to be quiet, seeing as how Gloria and the older man were probably the only two people in a square mile, at least. Still, she spoke softly, and when he answered, so did he.
“Are you Gloria?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Ah.” He thrust out his hand to shake hers. “Ah, good. Great! I’m Eldon. So great you could come. Wow.” He shook her hand vigorously across the counter. “I didn’t realize you would be here so soon. You must really be a professional, eh? Come on in, come on in.” And he waved her around the counter and through the door, into what seemed to be his combination living room/kitchen/dining area. There was a rather nice leather couch on the left, facing a 50-inch plasma TV. An empty TV dinner tray lay on the glass coffee table, but otherwise the room was immaculate. Towards the far side of the room were a door leading out and a staircase leading up, probably to the bedrooms. On the right were an ancient fridge – the kind with a big, metal handle and rounded door in lime green – and also a sink, washer, dryer and stove. A little card table rounded out that side of the room, covered with stacks of newspaper clippings.
“Little hobby of mine,” he explained, seeing her looking at the clippings. “Sorry about the mess.”
“Not at all,” said Gloria. “It’s a lot nicer than my place.”
Through the door at the other side of the room she could see a courtyard. Behind that was a huge garage, full of cars in various states of repair and disrepair. The light coming through the window was mostly purple now.
“Like a beer?” asked Eldon, pulling open the fridge.
Gloria walked to the back door and gazed out, said "No, thanks,” and then, “Is it out there?”
Eldon closed the fridge, pulled a bottle opener from his pocket, popped the lid off a microbrew and came to stand beside her. He looked uncomfortable, putting his free hand first in his pocket, then folding his arms, then leaning on the wall.
Gloria smiled reassuringly at him. “It’s okay,” she said. “I know this is kinda freaky. And you’d probably rather that I wasn’t here at all. Or at least, that I didn’t need to be.”
“Heh,” said Eldon, looking at his beer.
Gloria looked out again. “Which one is it?”
Eldon crossed his arms again, then rubbed his nose.
“Well, it’s the old blue Ford. Mostly blue, anyway. Can’t miss it. It doesn’t seem to matter where I park it at night. Every morning it’s right under that apricot tree again.” He let out a shaky sigh. “I even sold it a couple of times to folks who live miles away. I thought for the longest time it was just somebody messing with me – some fool kids or maybe a neighbor, but, there’s not many folks around here, so who could it be?” He laughed unconvincingly.
“’Sides, it’s been going on so long – years actually – that I had to finally admit there couldn’t be somebody doing it. Who could keep up a gag like that for so long?”
Gloria put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. That’s what I’m here for, y’know? No big deal. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s something. Either way, I’ll figure it out for you, okay?”
Eldon gave a big, relieved sigh and nodded. For a guy who looked like he could hold his own in the international strongman competitions, he sure looked scared. More like a frightened little boy, to tell the truth.
“Where’s the apricot tree?” asked Gloria. “Out this way?”
“Yeah,” said Eldon, regaining his composure a bit.
“Just walk ‘round the back of the garage there, then up to the top of the hill. There’s a little stream just over on the other side – and the apricots grow down by it. You can’t miss it.”
“Okay,” said Gloria, all business-like. She opened the door and stepped out into the dusk.
“Don’t you want to wait ‘til morning?” asked Eldon. “I mean – aren’t… aren’t you afraid?”
Gloria shook her head just slightly. “No,” she said. “It’s the living who scare me.” She stumped off around the garage and up the hill, as the big man closed his door again.
The light was fading fast, but Gloria didn’t need it.
The climb to the top of the hill was easy and as soon as she got there, she could hear it.
It was like a soft, pitiful wailing – something like the sound wind makes when whistling past houses or through trees, or perhaps like the distant, mournful howl of a timber wolf, separated from its pack. Gloria knew as she heard it that it was not a normal sound – not something that normal people could hear, anyway. It was so sorrowful, so lonely, that her throat began to ache as she tried, and failed, not to cry.
Down a little ways from the rise stood three leafy apricot trees, looking out-of-place amidst the sage and clumps of low grasses. A little stream twisted its way along near them, and there, on the gravely spot between trees and stream, was the blue Ford pick-up.
It was a mid-60’s model, half-ton, more or less blue colored - parts of it were rust colored actually – and it was missing its tailgate. Otherwise it seemed to be pretty much intact. It was quite still, the motor and lights were off, but it was quite plainly crying.
Gloria approached the truck slowly, making a fair amount of noise as she did so – purposely crunching a twig here and there. As she passed the apricot trees, she picked one and popped it in her mouth, casually spitting out the seed a moment later. She chewed purposefully. The wailing sound had stopped.
After a few minutes of staring into the distance, she approached the truck again. When she was within five feet of it she stopped, standing off to one side – the driver’s side – and waited.
The night was still very quiet. When another two or three minutes had passed, she moved again, walking very slowly up to the driver’s side door. Slowly, gently, she reached up and touched the side mirror.
A rush of feelings and images flooded her, pushing out the twilight sky, the apricot trees, the stream. It was daytime now – warm and sunny. A middle-aged man with sandy hair and a plaid shirt was walking up to her, smiling broadly. He climbed in, turned the key and ground the gears into first. She moved forward, purring warmly, gliding smoothly over the rough ground. Her suspension squeaked a little, but she did her best to give him a smooth ride.
They drove down to the ravine. She watched the man get out, and go to the back of the truck. He pulled out a shovel and a small sack, then sauntered cheerfully to a flat area just off the water. She basked in the warm sun and watched lovingly as he dug the earth, planted the apricot seeds, and then leaned on his shovel, sweat glistening charmingly off his heroic brow.
There was a blinding flash and suddenly time had shifted. The stream looked familiar, but now part of it was shaded. Little children ran in and out of her view, climbing the trees, picking apricots, eating them, and lounging in the trees’ shade. Gloria hummed with joy.
Then time shifted again. She was much older now. The beautiful man was walking up to her – she could see him reflected in her side mirror. He was wearing his red plaid, his graying hair ruffled in the breeze slightly, and he had the smile he always wore. He looked a little sad though. Then another man was coming up behind him – a bigger man, and he had something in his hand.
Gloria screamed. The sandy-haired man fell, his blood soaked into the ground by the shade of the apricot trees, and his smile was no more.
“Ahh!” shouted Gloria, and she pulled her hand away from the mirror. She was trembling and weak, and stumbled only a few feet away before sitting heavily on the rocky ground. The wailing had started again.
Gloria wiped tears from her eyes. Then she took a deep breath and slowly inched her way back to the truck. She held her hand near the tire – it was as high as she could reach. She didn’t touch it though, not quite.
“I want to help you,” she said, shaking. “I can help you. If you want me to. I can set you free.”
The wailing stopped. Gloria was suddenly very aware of the splashing and tinkling sound of the stream.
She held her hand a finger’s width from the truck’s front tire and said: “I can help you, but you have to make the first move. If you don’t, I will leave you and promise never to return.”
There was a murmur then, not from the stream. It didn’t contain words, but Gloria felt she understood that it was a question.
“I don’t know where you will go,” she said. “I have never known. But I know that you will be free of this place.” She closed her eyes and took slow, deep breaths, then waited. The truck was silent for some time. Then, Gloria heard a small creaking sound and the unmistakable crunch of a tire pressing on gravel.
She felt the knobbly tread connect with her hand… and her mind exploded. The visions were gone, but this time it was raw emotion. Gloria let it wash through her. She held on to it, pulled at it, brought the strands of joy and sadness and anger together, and drew them to herself. Then she sobbed. Tears streamed down her face, and she cried and cried, holding on to the truck tire. The tears slid down her cheeks and splashed onto the ground beneath the apricot trees, soaking into the sandy soil.
After some time, Gloria stood and dried her face on her shirt sleeves. She walked slowly, back up the hill and down again, around the garage and towards the back door of Eldon’s home, from which spilled a perfect rectangular beam of yellow light. She knocked a little and then let herself in. Eldon was sitting at the card table, pressing newspaper clippings into a nicely bound scrap book. He looked up as Gloria came in and rushed to her side, helping her make the last few steps to the leather couch. Then he brought her some water, and when she emptied it, he raced back to the sink for a second glass.
Gloria finished that, too, and then let out a deep, slow sigh. Eldon sat next to her, perched anxiously on the edge of the couch.
“Is it done?” he asked. “I mean – whatever it is you came to do?”
“Yes,” said Gloria simply. She looked Eldon in the eyes for some time. He found it hard, for some reason, to look away from her warm, freckly brown face. She regarded him somewhat impassively.
“You killed him, yes?” she said. “The man in the flannel shirt with the sandy hair…”
Eldon looked down then, and sighed. He didn’t get angry; he didn’t get scared. He just sighed in a tired sort of way and said “Yeah.”
“Ah,” said Gloria.
She didn’t ask why. She merely finished the last drop of her glass of water. But Eldon seemed compelled to explain.
“It was a misunderstanding, really,” he said. “I thought my wife was shacking up with him – long time ago – but I was wrong. Got the wrong guy. No one was around when it happened. I told everyone he’d gone to retire in Arizona and left the place to me. Then I waited for the right guy to come along. He never has, though. Nobody ever comes back to this god-forsaken place, once they’ve got free of it.” Eldon balled his fists, but it was a feeble gesture. A moment later, he was dropping his head into his hands, crying silently.
Gloria stood and walked to the kitchen, putting her glass in the sink. As she did, she noticed the clippings on the table again. They were short fluff pieces from a local newspaper, about folks who had moved away and what they were up to these days.
Gloria put her hand on the door, ready to leave.
“You sent it away, right?” said Eldon then. Gloria nodded.
“I freed it, yes,” she said.
Eldon looked at his hands. “Can you free me?” he said, in almost a whisper.
Gloria said nothing for a moment and then, when Eldon looked up at her, she shook her head and said: “No, I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” And she left him there, slumped on his leather couch. She walked back through the store at the front of the building, picking up her bag. She opened the squeaky front door, stepped over the old dog and out onto the gravel.
She gave the place behind her one last look, and then she turned, hitching her shoulder bag up, and began walking down the long road back. Four miles to the highway and then maybe hitch a ride from there. Or maybe just keep on walking. Gloria was used to walking.