The Sun Never Rises: Chapter Eleven
The Journey Continues
Thank you for following Max and Katie this far. It’s been one hell of a journey for all of us, and I’m thankful you’ve chosen to stick with these two unassuming lead characters as they trudge west in search of . . . well, that’s hard to define, isn’t it? A new life? A second chance? A destiny they didn’t now existed?
There are no action-packed scenes in this continuing story. There are just two wounded human beings trying desperately to find themselves.
They are in Wyoming now. You are invited to join them.
January in Wyoming!
Those three words are enough to make the strongest man, or woman, curl up in a ball and cry for their mommies.
We’ve lost weight during our sojourn. My two-twenty is down by at least twenty. I can feel it in my bones, the wind rattling around inside me, threatening to blow me away from the inside-out. Katie is looking gaunt, too, and I worry about her, not that far-removed from pneumonia, but she’s made of solid stock and she matches me step for step, not a word of complaint out of her, and I like her more because of it.
About ten years ago the medics took a piece of metal out of my leg, a gift from the Taliban. Most times that chipped bone is just a memory, but in the cold, shit, that memory comes alive and leaves me slower than usual. Katie noticed as we approached Cheyenne, the north wind threatening to blow us back to Denver.
“You’re hurtin’ today, Max,” no question, just a statement of concerned fact. “Maybe we should lay over in Cheyenne, rest up a couple days.”
I couldn’t find fault in her words and I said so. Three antelopes ran by us, not thirty feet away, over the drifting sheets of powder snow, their brown bodies stark against the gray background. For some reason I found hope in them and picked up my pace a bit.
“Are you looking forward to seeing your parents, Max?” she asked me, her red curls blown straight back, her face white, eyes watering, snot crusted to her nose, a modern-day pilgrim battling the worst thrown at her. It was the exact question I’d been kicking around inside my brain for weeks now. I loved my parents, great people, honest people, loving people, and they loved me, their only son. But did they love the memory of who their son once was? Could they love the man he had become, the man asked to do unthinkable things in the desert, the man who answered that calling and still hears the reverberation of those shots every morning, noon, and night? Could they love the man who was afraid of what he might do the next time a metal door slams shut or a car backfires? Could they love a man who wakes up with the sweats and immediately reaches for a gun long ago discarded?
It had been over ten years. I wasn’t looking forward to discovering the answers to those questions, but still . . .
“The truth, Katie? I’m scared shitless!”
An Outpost on the Prairies
Cheyenne does not rise up from the distance. It’s not that kind of modern-day city. It sort of sneaks up on you, one building at a time, then a slightly bigger building, then bigger, and they multiply until you realize you’re standing in a city surrounded by flat on three sides and a jagged wall of rock to the west. Pickups of every size and shape dominated the streets, and hardy flatlanders leaned into the wind wearing barn coats, jeans, and the ever-present cowboy hat.
We needed a meal and the Lazy K Diner was calling our names as we approached it, early afternoon, along West Lincolnway. The parking lot had five pickups, an eighteen-wheeler, and two rusted sedans. The steps up needed mending and the door creaked when we opened it, but the warmth of the interior embraced us.
Mindi, bleached blond and big-breasted, caramel-skin, mid-fifties, grabbed two menus and took her sweet time coming over to us, most likely dragging from the lunch rush but managing a smile nonetheless.
“Jesus Sweet Jesus, look at you two, will ya?” she said. “Don’t you two have enough sense to stay out of this weather? Come on now, follow Mindi, I’m going to sit you two down and then bring you some hot coffee,” and she followed through on her promise and planted us at a window seat in the back corner. She returned and poured us both a cup.
“Where you from, Sugar?” she asked Katie while placing one hand on my shoulder and the other on her hip. Her smile was as warm as the interior and I liked her immediately.
Katie told her Pittsburgh, took it a step further and told her we were making our way to Seattle.
“Oh Lord Almighty, what in the world? And you’ve just been walking and hitching all this time? Mister, you need to take better care of this filly,” and I knew she didn’t mean no harm with that statement, but it stung just the same. “All right, it is what it is. You two are going to enjoy the house special, meatloaf and gravy. I get off at four, and I’m going to drive you two over to my church. The pastor there, Pastor Charles, he’s older than Moses himself, and he needs some help fixing things up, and after I talk to him he’s going to let you two sleep in the backroom there. No arguments now. Just let old Mindi do this for you, okay?”
“Why you doing this, Mindi?” Katie asked her, same question battering around inside my head, trust coming hard on the streets.
“Shee-it, girl, cuz old Mindi can, that’s why,” and she left us to fetch our meal, whistling “Jesus Loves Me” as she went.
Take Me to the Church
Pastor Charles may not have been older than Moses, as MIndi suggested, but he had seen some tough road over the years and showed every pothole. He was a leprechaun of a man, no taller than five feet, or five-two, blacker than the night, and didn’t weigh much more than those antelopes out on the Plains. Mindi and him made a strange pair, her clucking like a worried hen, explaining her case, suggesting that the Lord Jesus wouldn’t turn us aside and by God, Pastor Charles, neither are you and besides, these two are willing to earn their keep and this is just what we all need now isn’t it, Pastor, and him smiling back at her, patting her arm, nodding at everything she said as if she were the spokesperson for God himself.
His smile was real as he shook our hands.
“Well, now, welcome to the Church of the Open Heart. As you well-know, I’m Pastor Charles. Welcome, welcome, please sit and let’s talk.” Katie and I did as invited. The pastor pulled up another chair and joined us while Mindi towered behind the pastor, resting both hands on his shoulders.
“Mindi has suggested that you stay here in exchange for some work and I have learned, through considerable trial and error, to always listen to Mindi. Since she’s promised to be my bride in the near future I damned well better listen to her, don’t you think?” And he laughed, and the warmth of his laugh invited us to join him, which we did.
“You’re homeless?” he asked, no blame or recrimination in his question.
“I prefer to think of us as between permanent residences,” I told him. “We’re heading to my hometown, Seattle, so until we get there, we’re just in transit.”
He smiled at that. “Aren’t we all, son? You’re ex-military, am I correct?” I nodded. “And you, Kate, your ex-what?”
“I was a hooker, Pastor Charles,” she told him, just like that, up-front about it, head held high, and at that moment I realized I was closing in on love for that woman.
Pastor Charles looked at Mindi and they both started to laugh.
“In Genesis, Tamar plays the part of a prostitute to win over Judah,” the pastor told us. “We all do things for a reason, Kate,” he continued. “I suspect you had yours and Mindi here had hers fifteen years ago when she was hooking for me on the streets of New Orleans. It makes no never mind to either of us what you once did. All I need to know is can you help out at the clothing center and Max, can you do some carpentry work around here? If your answers are yes then we just struck a deal, three meals a day, a bedroom to share, and some traveling money when you leave,” and with that he reached out his hand to shake.
Four Days to Recuperate
It was exactly what we needed, those four days in Cheyenne. Mindi and Pastor Charles were good people, down-and-dirty folks who knew the tough times, spit in the eye of the devil, and did everything in life with a smile and kindness.
“I was an evil sonofabitch,” Pastor Charles told us over dinner the second night of our stay. “Until a rival pimp shoved a shank in me, tickled my ribs and nicked a lung, and as I’m laying in that alleyway, figuring my time was up, learning to pray on the fly as my blood mixed with a fall rain, Mindi found me, got me to the hospital, nursed me back to health, and taught me a lesson in humility. I’ve been trying to see things differently ever since, and Mindi is still with me, making damned sure I do.”
“Shee-it,” Mindi added. “He wasn’t so evil. He was just a little bitty man with a mountain of attitude, in dire need of a good woman. Lucky he was that I came along when I did and took care of his sorry ass. I gotta say, though, that it’s all turned out fine for us, and it’s going to turn out fine for you two as well. You just listen to old MIndi, now, and know I speak the truth.”
On the third day the wind slackened and shifted from the north to the south, bringing with it some much-needed thawing and a glimpse of a warmer future. I was fixing a broken railing on the basement stairs when the pastor stopped by to chat.
“Don’t let the warmer weather fool you, Max. Those mountains looming to the west are killers this time of year. You can’t be walking and hitching your way through them.”
“I don’t see we have much choice, Pastor. That’s how we’ve made it this far from Pittsburgh. Our options are severely limited.”
He reached into his pocket and tossed me a ring of keys.
“Now your options have increased by one,” he told me. “Those keys fit that old Ford Ranger out back. It’s a ’97 and not too damned good on gas, but it will get you through those mountains and maybe, with a little loving care and a kiss from God, it will take you all the way to Seattle.”
I couldn’t figure it out.
“Why you doing this, Pastor?”
The little man looked out the window for a spell, seemed fascinated with the church parking lot. Finally he turned back to me.
“I see Mindi and me in you and Kate and, selfishly, I want to make it to heaven. I’ve got a whole lot of bad to make up for, and I figure helping you two can’t hurt me when my judgment day arrives. So you’d really be helping my eternal soul by saying yes to my offer. When you get to Seattle, pay it forward!”
“I’ll have to talk it over with Katie, but I suspect her answer will be yes, so thank you,” and I shook his hand to seal it.
Lao Tzu once said that kindness in words creates confidence, kindness in thinking creates profoundness, and kindness in giving creates love. I thought about that as Charles and Mindi waved goodbye to us, the old Ford balking briefly at the starting signal but then settling into a comfortable rumble. Katie slipped her hand in mine as we pulled out of the church’s parking lot.
“It’s warmer out, Max. I’m beginning to believe we’ll see the sun before long.”
I’ve learned never to argue with a good woman.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor