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The Sun Never Rises: Chapter Eight
A Long Way to Go
That’s the way it is for Max and Katie, a long way covered, a long way to go. Don’t bother asking them where they’re headed. They wouldn’t be able to tell you with any certitude. All locations look the same when you’re on the street, just different street names from week to week. The one thing that doesn’t change is the weight pressing down on you, and a horizon where the sun never rises.
Shall we join them?
Bullet Bob died at the Mission last night.
Three cots over from us.
No one knew his real name, not unusual with street people. They come, they go, and their stories are buried with them in a pauper’s lot.
Over a dinner of beef stew the night before, he told me the “Bullet Bob” name came from a bullet still lodged near his spine, a souvenir from his days roaming the scenic byways of Vietnam. Thought he was going to die in that festering cesspool, he told me, but his platoon carried him to safety, he flew home with a Purple Heart, only to die in a mission on a cold-assed winter’s night.
Shit happens, right?
I saluted the old soldier as the emergency personnel carried him out on a stretcher, the white sheet covering a lifetime of struggle. I figured he deserved a salute.
Katie squeezed my arm.
“I don’t want to die like that, Max. Promise me it won’t happen to us.”
What was I supposed to say?
It was a Saturday morning when Bullet Bob left us, one week to the day since we arrived in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, five days since I caught on, part-time, with Continental Tire, ten bucks an hour to clean up the warehouse, an extra hand, where needed, during the holiday rush, good honest labor for the much-needed paycheck, and that paycheck, now cashed, was sitting in my pocket, three-hundred and thirty-eight dollars, money enough to finance the next leg of our journey.
There was no more work. The decision to move on had been made for us. We packed up our rolls, said goodbye to the Mission personnel, thanked them for their kindness, and stepped out the front doors to a battleship-gray morning, colder than a scorned-woman’s heart.
“Where to, Katie?”
“I like your description of the west coast, Max. Maybe there’s sunshine and warmth there.”
She had changed since I first met her. Her skin had cleared, and laugh-lines were replacing worry-lines. Her riotous-red hair had shine to it, and her eyes seemed to reflect new-found hope. I was looking at the young girl before the abuse sent her out on the streets, and I liked what I saw.
I don’t know why I chose that moment, in that place, but I bent over and kissed Katie on the lips. She tasted like strawberries. She smelled of lilacs.
“I hope you don’t mind I did that, Katie.”
“I’ve been waiting for it, soldier. It took you damned long enough.”
The Wheels on the Train Go Round and Round
We decided we were tired of walking and hitching. The Amtrak would take us to Kansas City for thirty-three bucks each, money we had, and money we were willing to spend, to stay out of the winter weather for one more leg of our trip. We boarded the train at nine-thirty-two that morning for the three hour trip.
There weren’t many travelers that time of day, that day of the month. A couple businessmen, keeping commerce moving, a mother with two young ones, she looking worn out, the kids looking like hell unleashed, a couple elderly folks bundled up under an afghan, all strangers in a tin box hurtling down the tracks, racing an unseen sun.
Katie rested her red head against my shoulder and squeezed my hand.
“Tell me about your life before the army, Max.”
Farms, silos, water towers, barns, empty fields, granges, used car lots, abandoned cars, rusted down farm machinery, we sped past the Midwest landscape, flatter than flapjacks, brittle with cold.
“Nothing special, Kate. Went to high school at Seattle Prep, a Catholic high school. Dad worked his ass off to pay the tuition, Mom picking up odd jobs to help out. I played three sports, basketball, football, and baseball, loved baseball the most but couldn’t hit a damned curve to save me, so no college scholarships and my grades were mediocre. Bottom line, we couldn’t afford college unless Uncle Sam paid for it.
“My parents are good people, my sister a good sister. Last I saw her she was fifteen, driving boys crazy with that developed body and tease attitude. Hell, maybe she’s married by now, has kids, I don’t know. Anyway, Seattle’s as good a place as any to grow up, mountains and water nearby, skiing in the winter, boating and fishing in the summer. All through high school I worked for old man Thompson, he owned a bowling alley in the Ballard neighborhood, paid me decent and gave me free bowling, as good a job as any for a wise-assed high school kid.
“And then there was the Army and, well, now there’s here.”
The green train car cut through the gray of Illinois, Katie watching it all go by, not interrupting while I talked, gaining more of my respect for it.
“A Catholic boy, huh?” she said. “Do you believe in God, Max?”
“I don’t think much about it, Katie. He either is or He isn’t. My dad, he served back in the Eighties, he said there are no atheists in a foxhole, and I’m pretty sure that’s the truth, all manner of conversions happening when lead buzzes by your ear and life comes to an end next to you with a muffled thump. It’s a full-time job for me to keep the crazies at bay, you know, so thoughts of God I’ll leave to other people. I think, for today, I choose you as my Higher Power. Hope you don’t mind!”
“Kiss me again, soldier,” was all she said in response, so I did, and once again the bosom of a good woman calmed my world.
The miles continued to fade behind us and stretch before us.
“If you could make it all go away, Katie, the rape, the abuse, the hooking, the street life, what would you wish for? What kind of future would you like to have?”
She held onto me tightly as the car swayed and rumbled along. She cried for a spell and I let her. Words are useless when facing the past.
“I’d like a future, Max, where I wasn’t afraid. I don’t need much, no fancy house, no country club membership, no swanky new car. Three solid meals a day, a soft bed, those things are nice, but mostly, I would like to open my eyes in the morning and not fear what lies ahead. Doesn’t seem like much to wish for but man alive, it sure has been a struggle to find, you know? Bullet Bob never found it. I don’t want to end up like him, Max, and it scares the shit out of me that I might.”
Arriving at Kansas City
The great engine breathed a sigh of relief as we departed the train, stepping down onto Kansas City, Missouri. I looked around and saw more flat, more gray, more cold, same shit, different day. I felt Katie shudder next to me, the cold hitting us both like a sledgehammer. I thought about Katie, wishing for a day without fear, and I felt the responsibility of having feelings for another.
“You know, I could probably call my folks, ask them to send me enough money for train tickets home. I’m pretty sure they would do that for their long, lost boy.”
She didn’t answer, just pointed to a coffee shop inside the terminal. We both ordered steaming black and found a table, sharing a blackberry muffin. The cold retreated, but not my question.
“I think we need this trip, Max. We need to scrub off the past so that, by the time we get out west, we’ll be clean of it all and ready for the new. We’ve both got some shadows following us, and we need to get rid of them so we can stand in a new sunshine and make new memories. That’s what this trip means to me, soldier, a new beginning, and I don’t want to shorten it before its time. Does that make any sense?”
I kissed her again and the lilacs swayed in the gentle breeze, the warm sunshine fell upon my shoulders, and the shadows receded ever so slightly.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor