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I ground the gears of the bus, trying to get some extra speed to get around the exceedingly slow eighteen-wheeler. It wasn’t a nice bus, a fancy, padded, luxurious, Vs-in-the-ceiling kind of bus. It was, in fact, a slightly upgraded school bus, the best that the diocese could afford for this.
The lack of luxury and comfort didn’t faze the various parishioners in back, traveling on the road to the National Festival of Saint Anthony of Padua, held this year, appropriately enough, in San Antonio, Texas. Texas in June wasn’t any great shakes for climate, and it was still, even with the sun sinking, brutally hot out on the highway and sagebrush beyond, but it didn’t quell the good spirits and general murmur of the passengers. As long as I bought some cooler of ice, they could at least keep their drinks cool.
With luck, we’d be there sometime tomorrow, especially if we drove through the night. I was the only one licensed to drive the bus, and I was growing more tired as the miles rolled into the many hundreds without a stop. But the budget was slim, both in time and (as always) dollars, so we’d managed only one hotel stay, plus various pit stops along the way. Most of the parishioners were older, and the school bus didn’t really have facilities, so stopping once every hour or two was about as good as we could manage.
You sure you’re on the right road, Thomas? the angel asked.
I chuckled, just a short bark. “Saint Anthony is patron of travelers. I assume he won’t let us steer wrong.” I glanced at the small statuette of the Paduan stuck up in front of my steering wheel. Mrs. Calhoun had brought that on when we left.
He is also the patron of lost items, the angel replied.
“Don’t ask me – I don’t make those sorts of assignments. I have no idea how that works. You’d have a better idea.”
Wings rustled as the angels shoulders rose then fell.
The angel had come onto the bus late last night, and had stood by my side since then. It had seemed odd at first, but nobody had objected. It had occurred to me I might be hallucinating him – but, then I’ve had visions before, and I’d heard and learned too much to dismiss them as simple delusion. I was, I liked to think, a rational man (as much as a priest could be, perhaps), but I agreed with Hamlet’s comment about there being more on heaven and earth than most folks were willing to fit into their physical and metaphysical framework.
God might be my co-pilot, but I was willing to let His Messenger serve as a more visible reminder.
I blinked. A sign off to the side.
I blinked again, and the last word became “ICE,” but I thought it a good, well, sign. As was the “20 MILES.”
I considered my flock, behind. They were trusting me to get them to the Festival. They trusted me to help shepherd them, body and soul.
I had finally gotten well past the truck. For a brief, irrational moment, I envied whoever was behind that wheel back there. All he needed worry about was getting his cargo someplace, getting paid, and getting sleep when he needed it. But then I put that aside. I’d been called, a true vocation, and this was the path I’d chosen. That the people behind me, and the one beside me, had chosen to be with me on that road was a blessing, not an imposition.
Tom Gemelatto glanced down at the needle on the tanks. The left was dry, the right was down pretty far. He’d need to fill up at the Midway. He’d heard about the place; it was on his map, and it was the next best stop before he’d have to make the last part of the run.
But filling up would be money. Money he wouldn’t be making on this trip. An impossible schedule in the first place, and finally, two nights ago, he’d had to pull the rig over and crash for a few hours, before he crashed permanently.
Except his alarm hadn’t gotten set, and he’d slept something like fourteen hours instead of two, and his schedule was even further shot to hell. He’d take a loss on the delivery, even if all those freaking sides of beef were still fast frozen. Of course, the reefer was on the fritz, and he had to keep spending even more money buying ice to stack up in the back to help
But he’d be later if he ended up running out of gas.
K-BEEP Where the hell are you, Tom?
The cell phone/walkie-talkie thing, mounted on the dash and plugged into the lighter, spoke to him in Angela’s voice, since Angela was on the other end. He’d bought them a matched set in a desperate attempt to keep her with him, and she’d filed anyway, but she still monitored his progress, especially when she was expecting to meet with him and get handed a check she didn’t trust him (with some reason) to mail.
“Middle of fucking nowhere, Angela.”
Rather than where you said you’d be. As usual. Her voice warbled slightly over the cell signal, like it was being massaged by a hundred flapping birds on the wing.
His hand reached over, then fell. He’d tried cutting off her voice before, hang up on her, leave the phone off. That had been a mistake. When she’d caught up with him, he’d not wished she was a divorcee, he’d wished she was a widow.
“I gotta stop for gas.” And ice. “After that, I’ll drive straight through. Promise. The place I’m stopping is just ten miles ahead.”
You better, Tom. You better. K-BLOOP
Tom let out a deep breath, feeling a shroud of despondency descending upon him like great, shadowy wings. Why the hell was he even there? He’d taken the job, the career, for the money, for a steady income. It had been after seeing and hearing a late night TV commercial, and what the hell was he thinking? There was no future here. There was no fulfilling purpose. Not even the money was very good. Sometime he felt like he was just driving without end, no destination in sight. If only he had a goal, some sense that he was being called to do something.
That, or if he’d just go properly crazy, he wouldn’t have to worry about it at all.
You’re driving too fast, Tommy. Don’t raise suspicions. Don’t make people look.
“I know what I’m doing,” you mutter to yourself. You let your eyes flicker my direction, as if daring to look upon me. “You’re just a dog,” you say. “What do you know?”
I know you’d rather not have the staties check out what’s in the back of the motor home. You twitch as my tail thumps on the seat, a little flurry black and brown hairs wafting up into the air conditioning stream.
“Won’t see nothing,” sullen words leak out.
Unless they open the john. Or look under bench seats, or up in the bed, or in any of the closets, or in those cooler you got stacked up there. You tremble a bit.. “Reminds me. Even with this a/c turned on full, probably getting time to buy some more ice. A bit – stuffy back there, don’t you think?''
You sniff. “Don’t smell nothing.”
Until it’s dinner time.
You shake your head, as though trying to shake off a fly. “Kay. Getting’ to be night time. Gotta stop at this truck stop up here anyway, top off, get some more ice.” You glance my way, then reach over and lay a hand on my pelt, stroking the wiry hair with loving gentleness. “Maybe pick up something to eat.”
You laugh with me. I think maybe we can find some room for leftovers in back, now that you mention it.
“If we squeeze real hard.” You suddenly get morose. “That’s a bad thing, isn’t it?” you ask, suddenly questioning.
“You think so?
“Most folks would say so. They’d – judge. Me. Tell me I was some sort of evil monster. They just don’t understand, do they?”
You feel my head move under your hand, and you scratch my ears. By partaking of this food, you are fulfilling a message of love that no other way can. By keeping this feast, you give immortality, flesh within flesh.
“Yeah!” you say, spirits perking up. “That’s it! It’s like they said in church, only I know even more than they do.”
Plus, you hear me tell you, it tastes pretty damned good.
You laugh uncomfortably, as the signs for the Midway, already lit in the twilight, come into view ahead.
I pulled the bus off the highway, right behind a large orange moving van, and just ahead of one of those fancy-schmancy long haul busses, the ones with the TVs and proper facilities. I didn’t mind. After that brief flicker of moroseness (even Jesus, after all, had occasional doubts), my spirits had picked up as he’d approached the truck stop exit.
After all, it would be good to stretch legs, to feel the (overly hot) sun and air. Maybe get a soda to drink that hadn’t been fished out of a cooler.
The bright lights made it look like a heavenly city, Paradise on the prairie.
Why, then, do they call it the Midway, Thomas? the angel asked.
“Midway twixt here and there, I suppose.” There wasn’t much else around. The highway interchange a mile up the ways. A few scattered houses in the distance, some of them barely visible, unlit, peering blank-eyed and gap-doored out into the Texas heat.
Midway between Heaven and Hell.
“You’d know more about that, I suppose. Though it feels a bit infernal out there in the sun. And though there’s a goodly presence of the Mother Church here, there are also a lot of Baptists, and I can’t officially comment on their final destination.” I cocked an eyebrow at the angel.
Wings rustled. Midway.
“Or maybe,” I continued, “it’s a circus reference.” When the angel didn’t respond. “The midway at a circus or fair is where there’s games and food and people trying to show off and freak shows and fools being soon departed of their money.”
Midway, the angel noted. I abruptly wondered if there was, after all, that much difference between the two meanings.
The truck’s gears ground as the slowly turned the corner onto the short, wideish boulevard that stretched as far as the truck stop, then petered out into something much less impressive (if less worn by endless heavy traffic). The place was, in fact, a circus, trucks and busses and RVs and even the occasional minivan or station wagon braving the pumps and facilities, all jockeying for position.
Tom was suddenly reminded of an old Warner Brothers cartoon, Bugs Bunny (or maybe it was the Coyote, or Sylvester) trying to navigate an impossibly huge thoroughfare, weaving and dodging and terrified out of their wits by the vehicles whizzing by in both directions. Could anything survive out in that lot? No plant could ever push through a crack without getting worn down. For a brief moment, it seemed no person could navigate their way through that ballet of vehicular destruction, without being finally battered and destroyed.
Yet, even as he pulled into a large pumping area (Tom noticed a store, a couple of restaurants, a sign pointing to showers and other amenities, a few outlying buildings, the normal mishmash of structures at such a place), he could see people doing it. Drivers making it to and from their cars. Others as well. And, of course, that would be the case. He’d been to a hundred truck stops, a thousand, an endless stream of them, all of them different, all of them the same. He’d never seen anyone run over.
He was tired. It was getting dark. Maybe he should park it, crawl into the back of the cab. Catch a few hours of sleep. He’d set the alarm.
K-BEEP Tom? Tom? Tom, you son of a bitch, answer, I know you can hear me.
He sighed. Being run over sounded like a fine idea.
The motor home creaks and sways as you climb it up the curb cut into the truck stop. You spot the pumps you need, and guide it carefully in, the space well lit by the towering lights overhead.
How long have you been driving this thing, Tommy? you hear me ask, though you know I know the answer.
“Lost the house in ’01. Been bumming around in this as my home since then. “ You leave out a brief stint in a county jail in Wisconsin in ’03 – nothing too serious, even if it took most the rest of your funds to get the motor home out of the rental lot. Fortunately, it had been a cold winter, and you hadn’t had to worry about spoilage …
You hear me lick my chops, and glance my way. “You gonna wanna get out?”
No, think I’ll just stay here. You go and have fun, though.
You nod, as you kill the motor.
Then you see her, peering up through the passenger window at me.
“Can she see you?” I murmured.
What do you think, Thomas?
“An innocent soul – as innocent as anyone can be, I suppose. If anyone can.” He thought. “Anyone other than me, that is.” Another thought. “Assuming I’m not simply imagining you.”
The angel’s countenance was unearthly (of course) but beneficent as one could ever hope for. It was answer enough.
Why in hell do you need ice, Tom?
“Because, Angela, I don’t got enough money to do proper maint work on the refrigeration units. ‘Cause half of what I make goes straight to you.”
Don’t you take that goddammed tone with my, Tom. That was the deal you signed. ‘Sides, it not like I get all my money every month, is it? Which is why I’m expecting you to get here – on time, this time – and hand me the check personally. Hear me?
“For Christ’s sake, Angela,” Tom said, wearily. He was looking out the window at the little girl standing at the island – well, little as in just into her teens, maybe, blond hair frizzed in all directions, wearing a “WELCOME TO THE MIDWAY!” t-shirt and an apron over her jeans. She, in turn, was looking back up at him. “I can hear you, and people outside the damned truck can hear you, and it’s embarrassing the hell outta me.”
You’re embarrassed? How the hell do you think I feel when I have to beg off the rent because my no-good truck-driving ex hasn’t sent his pittance yet?
Tom counted to three. “Just keep talking. I’m gonna actually do something.” He opened the door and climbed down out of the truck.
You’re greeted with a tired, “Welcome to the Midway, my name is Leilani, is there anything I can get for you, soda, cigarettes, snacks, or can I take your credit card to the register for you.” You wonder about the voice – not weary, not bored, not uncaring, but bits and pieces of each. A rote memorization overlaying something possibly genuine but tempered by the rashness of youth.
You smile at her, as winningly as you can manage. “Why, thanks, Leilani. Yes, maybe you can help me. I’m thinkin' of something to eat, something I can take with me for the road.”
You see her glance up my way. “I got a real nice motor home,” you suggest. “Maybe after I’m all full up, you can take a look around inside. It’s really quite extraordinary.”
The girl brought me back my credit card, and had a large bag of ice to go into the cooler. I’d have to expense it all back to the parish and the diocese, I had to be careful with my receipts. It was nice of her to bring it out.
“No problem, sir. Ice is one of our biggest sellers. Well, that and the house special, but people can’t get that to-go. Ice is kinda nice though -- I like carrying it when it’s hot out like this evening.”
Standing under the pump area, amidst the bright-lit roar and tumult of trucks and others, I wondered about a girl like that, working here. Where were her parents? Did they work here, too? Was she safe here, amidst who-knew-who-came-through? Was she subject to temptation? I was well aware that prostitution and the like weren’t uncommon in some places like this. Had she been solicited? Did she offer up herself, wandering amongst the darkened trucks in the night, a pathetic victim, or maybe a victimizer?
It was, perhaps, an occupational hazard, but as a priest I also had to worry about the nature of her soul and salvation. The Church was a bit less evangelical than the Baptists, but I still worried about such things.
I wondered if I should approach her about her faith. What could I say, though? It’s not like I could grab a water hose and baptize her on the spot – the Church didn’t work that way, and my priestly training frankly didn’t extend well to trying to convert folks on the street. People usually came to me (which, perhaps, was one of the problems of the Church – or maybe one of her strengths).
And, of course, there was the whole scandal thing – once upon a time, folks treated the collar with respect. Now people wondered if any priest approaching a child wasn’t simply …
Still, I had to do or say something. That was part of the calling I had. The message – the Good News I’d been commissioned to spread. I glanced up at the angel, still standing in the bus, and received a nod.
Tom nodded in thanks as she wheeled the dolly full of ice bags. He’d been doing a visual inspection of the rig, as well as checking with dismay the temp readings inside. How many thousand pounds of sides of beef packed away back there? He hoped the ice would help. Bad enough to lose money because of the schedule. Losing it because of spoilage could ruin getting work in the future. If that happened, Angela would --
He could still, even with all the idling and revving engines, hear Angela nattering on from inside.
“Here, bring it around to the side,” he said the girl. “Kinda embarrassing needing ice in a reefer truck, but – well, things don’t always work as they should.”
The girl smiled. “No problem, sir. Mr. Woczak tells us to take care of the customers. I like helping people out, talking to ‘em, things like that.” Tom raised an eyebrow, but the words seemed innocuous.
“Well, your Mr. Woczak sounds like a very helpful man,” you say. You look in at me, and I yawn, tongue curling. “And you are a very helpful little girl. It’s good to help each other, don’tcha think? Just around the other side, here, you can help me put those in the motor home. I’ve got some special spots I stash ‘em.”
You see her glance at me as you lead her to the side door. If you expect her to ask about the doggie, you’re disappointed. You smile, though, in anticipation of not being disappointed for long.
Then you see the state trooper pull in behind, and it’s all you can do to hold onto your pleasant grin.
I wasn’t exactly worried by the patrol car. I respected the police, even while trying to keep them at arm’s distance. After all, the state and the church were only ever incidentally on the same side, and too much reliance by one on the other rarely ended well. And it always ended.
“Father,” said the patrolman stepping out of the passenger side. He was overweight, though not grossly so, and he carried the weight like he knew how to use it. He had on his trooper’s hat, the ever-present shades, and a big brown moustache. His partner, younger and blonder, was getting out on the pump side.
“Trooper.” I continued with the girl, Leilani, to the far side of the bus, where the door was. No chance to chat with her now. I really didn’t want to give the trooper any false impressions, any reason to invite scrutiny and scandal.
Tom wondered what the statie was looking at. How many moving violations would the trooper spot? He was sure that if he wanted to, the man could shut him down.
The truck. If he saw the ice, he’d figure out the reefer unit was on the fritz. He could confiscate the whole load, for health reasons, though it was likely still all good. Tom knew he had to move fast – he couldn’t let things get out of control.
You’re disappointed – it splashes across your face, taints your sweat and odor. No way to play any tricks on the girl with the police so close. Even if it would be for her own good, to grant her a form of immortality, they wouldn’t understand. You know they’d never understand.
“Here,” you say. “I’ll get that.” You unload the ice from the dolly onto the pavement under the brilliant halogens, slip her an extra quarter, and shoo her on her way before you open the door. You can hear my snickering growls from the front seat as you do.
You know we’ll be leaving here quickly. Just go slowly, surely, confidently. Pretend to be righteous, I always tell you, and all will be well.
I hefted the bag of ice in. Such a helpful girl. Doubtless the old ladies (and old men) would have doted on her, but, after all, I was myself young and strong (you don’t take care of the parish building yourself if you’re an invalid), and could carry up the ice.
Besides, it had already gotten pretty dark out there beyond the circle of bright towers, even while we’d been here, and I wanted to be getting on the road quickly. Being a driver right now was more important to the rest of the parishioners than being a priest, right?
He loaded all the ice into the back, tossing the sacks in willy-nilly through the side door of the trailer (so that the troopers couldn’t see in, though one was pumping gas and the other was inside hitting the head. Tom needed to go, too, but now wasn’t the time. Maybe at the next stop …). He’d have to pull over sooner or later and distribute it properly, but now wasn’t the time.
Angela was beeping him as he started up the car. Swear to God, it was enough to drive man insane.
Well, that must have been frustrating. You glance at me, making out the words coming between my pants. Enough air from outside had come in to raise the temperature at the front of the motor home to uncomfortably warm.
“It wouldn’t have hurt, long. And I had a good place for her, where the water heater used to be. It would have been good all around,” you tell me, scratching behind the ears.
I growl at him. You’ll just have to abstain for the moment. Time, soon enough, for your reward.
It was only five minutes after we’d left. The bus engine had labored to get back up to freeway speed. The road was dark. There had been lights, there at the interchange and the exit, but here it was just dark, lit only by the lights of passing trucks and the bus’s own dim golden ones.
I was tired again. Even more so than before, now that we were on the road. Fatigue seemed to grip the whole bus. Behind me, the riders were silent, swaying softly in their seats as we shifted lanes, their faces and, now, even their voice hidden from me behind my back. It had been a long ride for them, too.
Something darted across the road just ahead of us. A wolf? No, more likely a coyote, my mind said analytically, even as I swerved, struggled, and felt the bus start to fishtail. A fisher of men, and a fishtail, at the end of the tale. My mind said that quite unanalytically, but somewhat proudly.
I looked at the angel standing beside me. The countenance was sad now, in the dim lights from the dashboard, the words I love you, Thomas, rolling like silver to my ears. Wings unfurled and draped around me, as the screaming began and the bus started to roll.
Tom! Tom, what’s happening! Oh, my God, Tom! I love you, Tom!
He was almost happy it was happening. Too many balls in the air, and now he needn’t care how they landed. No destination had been in sight, but one had been reached nonetheless.
Flames were rushing forward to welcome him, brighter than the lights of the cell phone or of the dashboard.
He didn’t know, though, whether to laugh or cry at Angela’s last words. He decided he didn’t have time to do either. Or, perhaps, all the time he wanted.
The lights of the dashboard played crazily on your face as we tumbled. “No! No! No!” you screamed, but my chuckle still managed to reach your ears.
I nipped lovingly at your fingers as you reached toward me. As fitting an epitaph as any.
“Any ideas what it was, Lei-Lei?” Woczak growled at her.
“Big crash,” Leilani told him, pulling the door out of the pay room into the store beyond closed tight behind her. “Some of the drivers out there passed it on the other way. Some sort of roll-over, and lots of fire and stuff. Hard to tell what it was, most of ‘em said. No other vehicles, though. Just the one.”
“Lot of fucking troopies roaring up the highway for just an accident. Slow day?”
“Or something special about it, maybe.”
“You okay? Long day?”
Leilani shrugged. “Usual, Mr. Woczak. Lots of work. A lot of nice people, a few creepy ones.”
“Welcome to the Midway.” He was quiet a moment, snapping the gum he relied on these days instead of cigarettes. Then, “Just hope it wasn’t one of our customers. That’s bad juju.”
“I just hope – we don’t get any more – y’know, ghosts.”
Mr. Woczak nodded vigorously. At a distant wail, they looked out the window and saw another police car’s lights flash along the highway, past the truck stop, and into the night.
-- by DaveHill