The Sun Never Rises: Chapter Seven
Heading West in the Winter
When last we heard from our main characters, Kate was recovering from pneumonia in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and Max was learning that kindness can appear when you least expect it. Let’s hit the road with Max and Kate and see how they’re doing as they steer west in search of warmth….and so much more.
A RIDE OF KINDNESS
Three days in the hospital and Kate was good enough to go again. We said our thanks, having a hard time finding the proper words for the situation, kindness not something either of us is accustomed to receiving, and hitched a ride with a trucker who said he wouldn’t mind the company for fifty miles or so.
Riding in the warm cab, Kate’s hand in mine, we watch as the Midwest unfolds around us, maples, oaks, and elms, all leafless, all standing strong against the winter onslaught, the land leveling out, stretching out towards the Mississippi and beyond. “Big storm coming” the trucker tells us, “direct hit on the Ohio Valley, and I’ll sure be glad to be home in Mount Vernon when that bad boy comes roaring in.”
Kate looks better, has her color back, her grip strong, skin dry, eyes alert, those three days of fluids, comfort, and food doing wonders for her, making me feel hopeful. She looks out through the windshield at it all, an innocence about her, her eyes actually sparkling, and she turns to me from time to time and smiles.
“We better not be on the road when that storm hits, Max,” she says to me, and I have to agree, the thought of taking on a blizzard holds no appeal. “Looks like Mount Vernon for a day or two,” I respond, and her hand once again squeezes mine, and I realize how much I’ve grown fond of this woman called Princess Kate, this woman who refuses to allow broken trusts and sexual assaults to break her.
Mount Vernon, Illinois
I-64 takes us right to Mount Vernon, and the trucker, named Gus, turns off the interstate and drops us on Harrison Avenue, wishes us well, informs us that the mission is two blocks south, “can’t miss it, now, big old brick building with a cross out front,” and he’s correct in his description, but describing a big old brick building in a Midwest town is not much of a distinguishing feature, brick all around us, weather-beaten, feeling its age, sturdy until the next twister roars in from the south and then a whole bunch of rubble.
The Mission is the Gospel Mission, a cross out front for sure, hardware store next door, insurance agency, barbershop, café, clothing, main street America hunkering down, getting ready to ride out the incoming snow, people all around gathering up supplies, loaded pickup trucks heading for home, the temperature on the bank building saying twenty degrees, and the entry hall of the Mission felt like heaven.
“We’ve got two beds left and they’re yours for the asking,” the woman behind the Mission counter tells us. She’s got the finest blond hair money can buy, black roots barely showing, and stands maybe five-three. Forty, forty-five, smooth skin, rosy, high cheeks, slightly crooked nose, and kind eyes. Not a beauty but still, not hard to look at. “If I could just have your names, please, I’ll show you which bunks are yours. I’m Sister Rachel and it’s very nice to meet you. Dinner is at six, about three hours from now, sermon by the Reverend John at eight, lights-out at nine and breakfast at seven. We lock the doors at nine so if there’s anything you need in town before then, best get it done. Now, your names, please.”
“I’m Max and this is Katie,” I tell her.
“All right then, Max and Katie, you are welcome here. Normally beds are reassigned after each night but, with the storm approaching, you can plan on a place to stay until the snow stops falling. You’ll find the city of Mount Vernon to be tolerant if not overly-welcoming. These are good people in these parts, but they’re confused and worried about the economy, and they don’t know what to make of all the homeless. The police don’t want panhandling but they also don’t hassle you without good reason. And listen to me, prattling on, welcome, welcome, follow me and I’ll show you those bunks.”
There’s no such thing as privacy in a mission. Our bunks are in a large, central room, about the size of a basketball court, and in that room are probably fifty cots, maybe more, and all but two with backpacks and other belongings on them. Ours are side-by-side against the far wall, about as far from the door as you can get and still be within the walls.
“Here you are, Max and Katie, home sweet home during the worst of the storm. If there’s anything I can do for you, remember I’m Sister Rachel and I’m here to help if I can.” And with that our hostess turned sharply and threaded her way out of the room, stopping occasionally to speak to some of our other roommates.
Katie squeezed my hand again and smiled at me. I realized, right then and there, surrounded by all manner of homeless, that I was starting to think of Katie and me as a couple of sorts, and I was hoping she felt the same.
Braving the Cold
Katie wanted to find a good book to read before the storm hit. “I love to read, Max. A good book can transport me to different places and help me through the lonely nights, you know?” And I did know, and so we walked out of the Mission in search of a bookstore, the wind picking up strength, the first bullets of sleet finding their horizontal way into our faces, and we found one three blocks east, Browser’s Used Books, a woodstove in the corner, churning out heat, an old guy, must have been eighty at least, behind the counter, wishin’ us a good afternoon and genuinely curious if he could help us find anything. His kindness was welcome and Katie’s grip on my hand relaxed a bit. You never know whether hostility or kindness is behind a door when you open it. That’s just the way of the homeless.
“Do you have anything by James Lee Burke,” Katie asks the octogenarian, wispy white hair atop a round head, and he smiles and says, “of course I do, of course I do, what kind of bookstore would this be without the master, James Lee Burke?” And he leads us down a central aisle, turns right at the intersection, and stops in the mystery section.
“Here you go, young lady. I currently have seven titles by Burke. If you’re looking for a recommendation, my personal favorite is ‘Dixie City Jam,’ but you can’t go wrong with any of them,” and Katie agreed with him, thanked him for the help, and paid the three-fifty for the dog-eared, well-read copy, and it warmed my heart to see her smile as she looked at the cover and gently touched it with her fingertips. The shopkeeper invited us to read in his store for awhile, “nice, comfy chairs by the window there,” he said, and we took him up on his invitation.
“I used to read all the time as a kid,” Katie said to me. “I couldn’t get my fill of books. I found them fascinating, all the different places of the world they mentioned, the fascinating people, the riches, the fame, the glory, oh, it was marvelous, Max. And then later, as a teen, books were my escape. I could crawl inside the book cover and make my world go away.”
“Why’d you stop, Katie?” but as soon as the question came out I knew the foolishness of it.
“I guess I came to realize that it’s all an illusion, you know?” she said to me, then looked out the window at a time long ago, a place far away, back when innocence was still allowed in her life, and I watched as a single tear slid down her cheek, and I’m not sure what happened or why, but I leaned over and kissed her softly.
“It’s not all an illusion, Katie,” and I hoped I was man enough to prove that to her.
It begins with a wall of white-gray clouds marching towards you, relentless, ominous, and fascinating, stretching as far north and south as you can see, pushing what blue there is out of the way. As the clouds get closer they seem to descend from the sky, not satisfied with being above the action, they press downwards until it’s impossible to tell where sky and land are separated.
And then the first flakes appear, at first swirling in easily-counted numbers, but soon joined by a host of billions, banding together, their fierceness unforgiving, and man and animals hunker down to ride it out, frightened and yet in awe at the majesty of it all.
By eight the next morning the worst of it was thirty miles beyond us. Fourteen inches of whiteness brought Mount Vernon to a standstill, and what remained was a muffled silence rarely heard in our modern industrial world.
Katie and I looked out the Mission’s front window at the purity of it all. Sister Rachel joined us.
“I don’t know what your plans are, Max, Katie, but Continental Tire is hiring part-time workers. I just thought I’d mention it, Max, in case you’re looking for work. With this storm and all, we can probably give you your cots for two or three nights while Max makes you some traveling money. Just thought I’d mention it, like I said. Continental is a half-mile south of here on Highway One-Forty-Two if you’re interested.”
I looked at Katie. She nodded her head. Why not, I thought? Mount Vernon was as good a place as any to start proving to Katie that hope is never an illusion.
WILL YOU JOIN US NEXT WEEK?
I hope so, and I hope you’re enjoying my friends, Max and Katie, on their journey. Where they’re headed I can’t say for sure. I also can’t say how many hardships they’re going to face in the days ahead. Life ain’t always a bowl of cherries, you know.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor