The Makings of Our Story
People remember the day we met as the day frogs and other small amphibians, also squirrels, rats, and at least one mutt — a mongrel pup called Spitz — fell from the sky. When I saw the racoon hit you in the head I pulled over and rolled down the window. I don’t normally stop for hitch-hikers, you can never be sure.
“You okay?” I called, and held up a questioning thumb. In hindsight, okay, this was dumb. You were clutching a tree in a storm and a racoon had just hit you in the head. The forecast had promised rain, increasing in the afternoon, maybe a little snow on high ground, but nothing like this. The twister had sucked up the smaller life-forms of the region, spat them out all over, and moved on. And how. It moved across the horizon like a coked-up Cohiba on a mission. But here, the worst was over. A toad splayed across the windscreen, dead. The worst was mostly over. The racoon slipped into a corn field.
“Do I look the fuck okay?” you said — I thought you said — it could have been anything, the acoustics were lousy out there. I opened the passenger door and you arrived on the next gust, the tips of your toes barely touching the ground. Angry wind slammed the door behind you.
“Made it,” I said, and offered a high-five, which you didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve just been hit in the head by a racoon,” you said, between gulped breaths.
“Yeah,” I said, and if I laughed I really didn’t mean to, and apologise, again.
“You think that’s funny?” you said.
“No, hell no,” I said. But it was funny, actually. It was funny then and I can’t imagine it becoming unfunny anytime soon.
“I’m sure we’ll look back and laugh about this in — ”
“Don’t!” you said. “Don’t presume to think we will stay in contact after this orfuckingdeal. Because we won’t. I appreciate the ride, really I do, but all I’m interested in is getting to the next town.”
Though visibly, the racoon had left you unscathed, I wondered if you might be in shock. You looked ahead, poker-faced, and we sat there as the weather stormed. I told you my name and tried to take your mind of things with some small talk.
“Weather, huh?” I said.
“We should get out of here,” you said.
“We should,” I said, and moved into first.
“Now would be a good time to fasten your seatbelt,” I said. You rolled your eyes and poked at the radio. Static. I was about to offer you my Tom Waits cassette when the clock lodged in the windscreen. 11:55. Neither of us said anything but I couldn’t help thinking that 11:55 was an ominous kind of time. I checked my watch, I was officially late.
Driving, driving my ’76 Capri at least, was like doing the doggy paddle in a vat of baked beans. With the wind behind us and my foot on the brake, we were pushed along at a steady 15mph. You didn’t say a word the whole time; just sat there, low in the seat with folded arms and a saispasquoi pout. A refrigerator zipped by and spilled its contents in our path.
“Hungry?” I said. Nothing.
“Who keeps bananas in the fridge?” I said. More nothing. Maybe you weren’t used to other people, or were unfamiliar with the finer points of hitch-hiking, like telling the driver your name and saying, “Thanks for stopping.” Maybe you — “Would you take your feet off the dash, if you don’t mind?” I said. Yeah, maybe not too used to other humans.
We arrived in The Hamlet of Greendale.
The Hamlet of Greendale was only a hamlet in name, it had grown some. But, still, it had a Walnutty Grove feel to it — had had — last time I’d been there, not anymore. I’d had celebratory breakfast in a diner — the worst omelette ever — after the trial had been adjourned. It looked like an omelette but in reality it was an aberration, an insult to omelettes everywhere, despite the cheese, the bacon, the onions, the mushrooms. I looked at you about then, I wanted to check if you were still breathing; you yawned.
Every structure in THOG — that’s how the waitress who served the omelette had referred to it, “First time in THOG?” she’d said — every house, church, shop and school had been levelled. In the street, the mangled remains of the burger joint’s arches brought the first stage of our journey to an end.
“Time to abandon vehicle,” I said. “There, under the courthouse, the bunker.”
“Courthouse? What courthouse?”
“Well, there used to be a courthouse above that sign down the steps to “The Bunker?” Think you can make it?”
You stepped into the street and moved to the front of the truck, where the gust got you. I’d exited downwind, luckily, and caught you in my arms. You’d still be travelling, probably, if I hadn’t. The wind knocked us ass over tit, across the street and into the entrance of the bunker. Eight ball, corner pocket. That’s how it felt, like the elements were playing pool with us. Your hair smelt of bergamot.
The citizens of THOG were less than impressed at our arrival. Three of them battled to shut the heavy iron door behind us. One of them wore a Gatekeepers tee-shirt, a local trash metal band. Inside, around the entrance, people looked up, then away. I learned later that they’d lost Leroy Fulda in the last attempt to close the door. He’d be found later, dead and bloated, four miles offshore.
“Move along now, folks,” someone said. “No loitering.”
It was difficult to tell how far back the bunker’s passageway went. It was thick with people. They shuffled forward, holding candles and torches, gas lights. They were neighbours, family, colleagues, friends, and now, as one, victims.
“Plenty of room out back,” someone called from behind.
A small round man with a shining pâté and wire-rimmed glasses held out a meaty hand. I guessed he was the mayor.
“Howdy-doody,” he said. The weather wasn’t going to spoil his good cheer. “Welcome to THOG. This here bunker is the former wine cellar of Reinmund Becker, a German winemaker and one of our town’s founders. He arrived here in 1878 with stalks and stems and the shirt on his back. The stalks and stems loved the dry acidic earth, a love affair that continues to the present day. For the first half of the twentieth century our wine cellar was also the town jail. The walls are three feet thick. But because there’s no natural light, use as a jail was discontinued in 1952. Of late, The Bunker’s been a bar.” It sounded like an interesting story but the timing was all wrong. You were still beside me, but moving. I thanked the mayor and excused us. He turned to the door and welcomed more newcomers — an elderly couple and a shivering pup, the cutest thing I’d ever seen. You were ahead of me now. Afraid I would lose you, I reached out for your hand. You took it without thinking — or not — then shook it away. I curled my arm around your shoulder, but you lifted it over your head and were gone, into the labyrinth of caves and tunnels and God only knows. I watched as you weaved your way through the throng, then let go a “hey,” wishing I’d pushed you on your name, and followed.
For you, the crowd parted smoothly, conducted you further, then closed seamlessly, as if it were a life-form. No sooner had I breached the crowd, was I ejected. Breach, eject, breach. Expelled, expunged like a foreign body: unwelcome. “Could I just… if you don’t mind, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me…” The wall of citizens of THOG was insurmountable, un-penetrate-able. I dallied at the edges, then noticed my lawyer in deep conversation with the judge. I backed away but I’d already caught their attention.
“There won’t be no trial today, son,” he called to me. “I’ll ring as soon as the phone lines are fixed.”
“Trial?” said a smug citizen, and pushed his infant daughter behind his legs.
“A stalking thing,” I said. “Nothing serious, a misunderstanding.”
“You want a seat?” said a woman from behind me. She picked up the pup from the bench and placed it on her lap. I hesitated for a second, the seat she’d made free was between herself and the old dude she’d come in with. The heck, you were gone; I thanked her and sat. The old man held a cigarette to his lips.
“Don’t even think about it,” said the woman. “We don’t want to inhale your poison.”
He lit up anyway, blew smoke to the ceiling and eyed her with contempt. “That’s a twister out there, Eleanor Daley, and you’re worried about second hand smoke?”
“Excuse my husband,” said Eleanor. “He was born sans decorum.”
Eleanor and Nathaniel were lifelong citizens of THOG. Nat was a local artist who’d exhibited in places as far away as places I still knew. Eleanor was a psychiatric nurse and breadwinner. They’d fished the puppy out of a barrel of rainwater in their yard.
“We thought about calling him Spitz,” said Eleanor, stroking the dog in her lap.
“After the swimmer,” said Nat.
“That’s a lot of name for a little fella,” I said. Spitz looked at me and stretched.
“You should introduce him to your girlfriend,” said Eleanor. “Where’d she go?”
“Chicks cream themselves within five paces of a puppy dog,” said Nat.
“Nathaniel Arnold,” said his wife. “I will not tolerate that kind of language.”
Nat spat. Eleanor looked at the gob of sputum on the dark ground; Spitz, too, seemed interested.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said. “She’s a hitch-hiker.”
“Is she now?” said Eleanor. “Isn’t that something?”
“Huh?” said Nat.
“What?” said I.
“I mean it’s romantic, is all,” said Eleanor. “Come on now, I can see the shine in your eyes.”
“You got the hots for her, boy?” said Nat. “Which one is she?”
“She went off to scout the joint,” I said. “She’ll be back in a while.”
Eleanor and Nat looked at me.
“Show her the dog, son,” said Nat. “Can’t hurt to try.”
“Nah, don’t think so.”
“It would be a pretty kitsch thing to do.”
“So you’re not that interested, huh?”
“I guess not,” I said, and smiled, and shook my head in a kind of affirmation. Old Nat had nailed it. I just wasn’t that interested. We had the makings of a good story, perhaps, at least a beginning. And we had arrival, then of course separation, all elements of good yarns. And I had Nat and Eleanor, benevolent strangers with their gift of Spitz. But that was all. I wasn’t that interested. And anyway, I’d learned my lesson.
“Here,” said Nat, and held out Spitz.
Spitz yapped — he hadn’t got his bark down yet — and wagged his tail like a pro.
“What the fuck,” I said, and tucked him under my arm, “it can’t hurt to try.”
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