March 2008 Volume Two Issue Three
The Last Man in Town - Clinton A. Harris
Jeremiah August was on his way to the Calamite graveyard when he spotted his dead grandfather in the street. He was a little surprised to see Ora Reynolds lying in the dirt street with his arms crooked, his fingers splayed out, and his lips peeled back in a ferocious snarl, much like the stuffed cougar mounted in Hopkins Store. Like that cougar, the ochre dust of the plains had already gathered on the dead man's yellowy eyes and skin. Jeremiah and Ora were the town undertakers, so when Jeremiah returned with a pair of shovels in his wheelbarrow, it was out of force of habit.
Though Grandpa Ora had only been dead a short while, his small body was stiff with rigor mortis and he weighed little more than a half-sack of feed. Jeremiah lifted him into the wheelbarrow and laid the shovels in next to him. He hauled the partially mummified remains of the old man from Main Street to the cemetery just outside of town.
The wheelbarrow bumped across the weed-choked iron rails that used to bring the train four times a day. But that was a story that was old long before Jeremiah was born. An old sign on the outskirts of town read, "Calamite: Pop. 15." It was in serious need of updating, so Jeremiah used a permanent marker to draw an oblique line through the number five on the sign. The iron gates of the cemetery stood just beyond the signpost; where the population greatly outnumbered that of Calamite.
He dug into the dust and sand and anthills of the graveyard until the hole was deep enough, which took the better part of the afternoon. He lowered Ora down into the hole, his dried out husk still poised to strike. The dirt went back into the hole one shovelful at a time. The grave marker had already been cut and placed many years ago, before the last inhabitants of town began to fade away one by one. The stone had Ora's name and date of birth carved into it, but no date of death. Many of the stones here were just like that. If Jeremiah hadn't done the digging himself, he might have thought the town was full of people who hadn't died yet. Without a date of death, there was always that hope.
The graveyard stretched across the windblown prairie grasses and the yawning mouths of badger holes. Everyone and everything he had ever known in the world was in this place. He used to read to those whose eyes had gone opaque with cataracts. Sometimes he still read to them out here. They had told him of the trains that brought passengers four times a day, every day, and how the town once sprawled out like a lazy cat under the yellow sun
Every spring, when the ground was soft enough to begin digging again, the population of the graveyard exceeded Calamite's a little more. Noble Brewer, Bea Hackley, Pete Kidd, Virginia and Frank Murphy, even Grandma Cutie and now Ora were eventually brought out across those tracks to be buried, along with their stories. The only young people he ever knew, were buried here too, eternally rolling hoops and rattling sticks along the picket fences that had long-since lost their whitewash.
Rather than ruin the stones with trying to carve them himself, he wrote the dates of their deaths down in the hotel register under the "Checked-out" column, and remembered the details himself; what kind of day it was, if the sun was shining or if a wind had brought in a sudden rainstorm
He looked up at a blue sky that was as faded as his jeans, and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his sleeve. The land around him hissed with the secrets of grasshoppers and the crisp gasp of tinder-dry prairie grass against the hot wind. The sky shed no tears of pity. Jeremiah stopped shoveling and stabbed the spade into the soft earth of the fresh grave.
A tall white obelisk marked the grave of Elizabeth Sullivan
He used to visit her stone and trace her name with his finger for whole afternoons at a time. He would talk to her and listen to the soft wind through the prairie grass and think of what she was saying back to him. Such was Jeremiah's love for Elizabeth that he despised Lester Anderson, her childhood bully, who was also buried nearby.
Elizabeth had at one time been an older sister figure, then at seventeen, she was just his age. Now that he was turning twenty-four, she was a becoming the young girl with a moon-eyed crush. One day, she would be much younger, and he might look at her stone with fondness and smile, having remembered a young love with a girl he knew only in seventy year-old stories.
When he finished filling in the hole, Jeremiah August returned to town. Alone on the boardwalk of the Calamite Hotel, he looked out across the empty street and weed-choked railroad tracks to the vast plains. A two hour drive in any direction would get him to the nearest gas station where no one knew his name, much less the name of his town. There was no reason for anyone to come to Calamite.
He considered renaming the town. "Jeremiah. Population: Me." He often wondered what was the point of naming a town no one knew about? He wondered the same thing about himself too. His name only mattered in the graveyard, when he made his usual visits. Everyone there had a name. Other than that, it was only "two hours in a truck, seven days on foot" that gave him any significance.
Maybe that should have been his name.
The month of August came a few weeks later and the summer days were showing no signs of cooling. Twenty-four years before, on this day, a hitchhiker passing through town stopped long enough to give birth to him in the Calamite Hotel. She left the next morning without so much as giving him a name. Had it not been for Jeremiah, the girl's passing would have been dismissed as nothing more remarkable than a half-remembered dream. Grandma Cutie decided to call him after the month in which he was born.
On the way to the hotel library that morning, he stepped over some earwigs scurrying in the hallway, trying to stay out of the light. He resisted the urge to stomp them under his boot, as they were helping the carpenter ants and centipedes chew holes in the place, slowly reclaiming it, shitting it out one bite at a time back into the prairie until there was nothing left. Cobwebs covered the tomes of knowledge in the hotel library. Spiders wrapped flies in silvery threads before the works of Cicero and tatted lace curtains before Henry James. They diligently repeated their tasks whenever the books were pulled through their veils of thread and mummified insects.
To celebrate his birthday, Jeremiah went back to the graveyard and placed fresh, stuffed toys on the graves of children, stacks of dimes and nickels on the stones of teenagers for candy money, and fresh sunflowers picked out of the garden for the ladies of the town. Jeremiah placed a bouquet of prairie flowers on Elizabeth Sullivan's grave along with a beaded necklace he had found in a nightstand drawer in one of the houses.
Lester Anderson's grave was left undecorated
Jeremiah didn't mind that he received no gifts in return. Having company was enough. All those unfinished dates of living left him to wonder if they were really dead at all. They could have been in town, going about their business, planting irises and cleaning out gutters.
Jeremiah glanced up from his birthday celebrations, and saw someone walking around in town. He shivered and waited for a moment to see if it wasn't a trick of the eyes. A mirage caused by the heat waves which rolled off the bluff where Calamite was built. He saw it again. A stranger. An outsider. Impossible, he thought. If a car had come through town, a cloud of dust would have still been kicked up on the road. His breath stopped in his throat and for a moment, he thought about hiding behind Elizabeth's gravestone. Instead, he returned to town, clutching the shovel he carried with him like a spear.
In town the streets were empty. No shiny cars, no wayward tourists were parked on the dirt streets. No trophy hunters were out pulling the knobs off doors or prying the tin signs from the front of the Hopkins Store. He went back to the hotel and fell asleep in a chair in the library, gazing up at the picture of Elizabeth Sullivan that hung on the wall. It was too late to return to the graveyard now. The party could go on without him.
The Andrews Sisters harmonized on the Victrola. He never listened to the radio. Two hours by truck and one week on foot meant nothing on the airwaves but the crimson -faced ravings of preachers bleating about fire and damnation. On those stations, music must have been a sin. He was more than happy to have the records, though nothing newer than the old 78's in his collection would play on the phonograph without sounding distorted and demonic.
"Hello?" someone called from within the hotel, followed by the sharp ping of the front desk bell inside. Jeremiah stared at the doorway, rooted to the stuffed wing chair where he sat. It had been a long time since he had spoken to anyone in this town unless their name was chiseled into a stone in the graveyard. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, his breath came in short gasps as panic set in. He looked around nervously for a moment and then took a few deep breaths to calm down. He planted his palms on the arms of the chair and pushed himself forward.
At the front desk a young woman was waiting, her hand poised over the bell that had not rung in years. She wore a floppy fisherman's hat with a pair of long dark braids falling down the back. Her eyes were the color of polished agate. Her pale skin was unlike everything else he had seen out here, freckled, but not the boot leather consistency of his own skin. She carried a backpack with a skateboard strapped to the outside."Hi," she said. "Do you work here?" Jeremiah nodded.
"How much for a room?" she asked.
"Um, I'm not sure," he said, unable to remember the last time the hotel had a guest check in.
"So you don't work here?" she challenged.
"No, I do, but we're closed. This is my home," he said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "The door was open; I saw the word 'hotel' above it."
"I'm the only one left," he managed. It felt more like a call for help than a statement. He hoped it didn't sound that way.
"Where am I?" she asked.
"You don't know where you are? Are you broken down?" Jeremiah stammered.
"You sure ask a lot of questions," she replied. "No, I don't know where I am. I saw a sign at the highway that said 'Calamity'."
"Calamite," he corrected. "It's a kind of coal. It has fossils of plants in it. They used to mine it around here until the Big Fire. Outsiders get that wrong all the time." Jeremiah was a little embarrassed for running at the mouth like this. It had been so long since he had spoken with another living person. He kept going for a while, telling her all sorts of things she probably had no interest in. Eventually, he stopped. He laughed a little at his own expense. It felt good. Only crazy people sat around laughing by themselves, and he was a little out of practice. It felt awkward and judging from the girl's expression, he was right.
"How did you get here?" Jeremiah asked. "You mentioned the highway, but I didn't see a car."
"I hitchhiked," she said. "Then walked in from the highway."
"The highway is a half-hour from here by truck," he said.
"Yeah, hitching isn't the best way to travel. Sometimes it's more like walking with interruptions of sitting in uncomfortable silence with strangers.
"How old are you?" Jeremiah asked.
"Why, you gonna call a cop?" she said. "Listen, just tell me where the next town is and I'll leave you alone."
"What? No. I'm sorry," Jeremiah walked behind the front desk to take out the dusty registry. "I'm not used to people. There's no phone service, so don't worry about anyone calling the sheriff." He wondered if she was a runaway. Like some had said of his mother.
She tossed up her hands in mock-surrender. "There goes my phone sex career." Jeremiah blushed with embarrassment. Had Grandma Cutie heard talk like this, the girl would have been told to hit the road, he was certain of that. He liked that about the girl. He pushed the registry in front of her.
"I've got a half-dozen empty rooms. I'll let you stay in one if you need to. It's only right. I won't charge you or anything. Meals are included."
"Sounds like a plan, Stan," she replied, taking up the pen.
Jeremiah read the registry when she was done signing. "Sandy Waters," he read. The letters were crafted together in a sculpture of pure feminine penmanship, swirling, looping letters, with a roundness to them. A wholesome simplicity of graceful arcs.
"Now you know my name, handsome. What's yours?"
He told her it was Jeremiah August, but she said she didn't believe him. He didn't know what to make of that.
"Nice to meet you," she said, extending her hand for him to shake. He took it. Her fingers and palm were tiny in comparison to his. His fingers closed around her hand, up to her wrist. He gently shook her hand, holding it and moving it up and down as though it was a small bird he was afraid of crushing. He couldn't stop staring into those eyes. The moistness of her full lips. The way a piece of hair kept falling across them as she spoke. A real live person. His age. Here at last.
"What are you getting at, Jeremiah?" she demanded.
"Nothing, Miss. You're a guest in my house, and you're about a week from the city on foot.
"A week away on foot?" she asked. "How often do you have people come through here?"
"You're the first to ring that bell in years. Most people drive straight through. There's no reason to stop anymore, so they keep going. The last car that came through was a month ago."
"That will do just fine," she admitted. "You've got an honest face, Jeremiah. I'm happy to be your guest."
In Calamite, time didn't move in minutes or seconds the way it did in other places. Like the memory of the universe, it was marked by moments that disturbed the peace. Months, weeks, years. The big bang, a supernova, the creeping darkness of a billion dying stars. The sun rose, crept across the sky, scorching the town into dust little by little and descended once again. In the summer, one day could have been the one before it, or after, and no one here would have noticed. He wasn't even sure if today was his birthday. It sure felt like August though.
Jeremiah cocked his head to read the guest list again. In a spidery scrawl of black ink, just above the name of his newest guess was written the name "Lester Anderson."
The handwriting was drastically different from hers. Probably just some kids messing around. He offered to take her bag, but she refused and continued clutching her backpack with white knuckles. He handed her a room key and pointed in the direction of the stairs.
"Last room at the end of the upstairs hallway, Miss Waters. Bathroom is at the opposite end of the hall, across from my room."
"At least it's running water." She winked and flashed him a smile as she walked to the stairs. His eyes lighted again on her backpack, and as though she could sense his gaze there, she pulled the pack out of his line of sight, blocking it with her body.
Jeremiah fixed them dinner and together they ate at the kitchen table. Boiled hot dogs and a can of baked beans followed up with fresh baked bread and homemade plum jam from last fall. The plums had come from one of the few trees in town. The jam was delicious, if a bit tart.
Sandy wolfed down her food, licked her fingers, mopped the plate with the last of her bread, and asked for more. After dinner, she went straight to her room, where he could hear her push the dresser up against the door. Tomorrow, he would show her how to lock the door with the key, if she was interested.
The following morning, he awoke to the sound of the pipes rattling within the walls. It took him a moment to realize someone else was in his hotel and drawing a bath. Jeremiah listened to the stranger singing in the bathroom. Her voice filled the empty rooms and echoed out through the windows. Every so often, the water would run again and more steam crept out through the gaps around the door. The rumble of water draining through ancient pipes signified the end of her epic bath.
At dinner she had asked to go around town with him.
She went with him to the coal tipple, following the railroad tracks on a lineman's cart until they reached the massive black mound of coal that had been eroded by weather and wind. Just enough for a power plant for one day, or only one person for 100 years. There was none left underground. A fire that still burned a thousand feet below sent up a thin curl of smoke in the plains when the wind was calm, just to remind the surface world that an inferno still burned down below.
"When does the train come?" Sandy asked.
"It doesn't," Jeremiah said.
"Then where do the tracks go?" Sandy asked.
"Another two hundred yards and then they stop. They were ripped out for scrap in 1986. The train used to come four times a day when the town was in its heyday. They told me that the Railroad let the town keep a mile of the tracks to remind them of that."
"So it won't do me any good to lie across the tracks, will it?" she asked with a laugh. Despite her joking, he could see that her eyes were moist, red as though she could start crying.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Sandy nodded and scrubbed at her nose with the sleeve of her shirt.
They pumped the rail cart back to town, pulling the load of coal for the hotel's generators and stove behind them. Jeremiah loaded the hotel coal bin and led Sandy through what was left of the town on what she called his "grand tour." He began with the Hopkins Store, which always fascinated him. He turned the key and rolled his shoulder into the door to help break the seal of at least three years since he had visited the place. The door gave way, the cloudy front windows shaking in their panes and the mouth of the building exhaled the stench of mildew and dust.
"Wow!" Sandy said, turning on her heel, taking in all the dusty furniture and dated curios in the room. "Look at all this old crap! God, I love antiques. My dad would be having a heart attack right now if he saw this. He hated all this old shit."
"Where is your family?" Jeremiah asked. She looked at him for a long moment, choosing her words carefully.
"My dad's been dead awhile. Hit and run. He was on the road crew and some drunken yuppie plowed him under with his SUV and dragged him about a mile. When she pulled into her garage, about a hundred cops were behind them. Dad never had very good luck. No matter what he did.
"My mom got remarried a couple months later, and let's just say, the guy she's with is a real piece of shit. Sorry."
"No," Jeremiah said, "it's fine."
"I just never heard you cuss before. I thought you might be really religious or something."
"No. I just don't talk much. Crazy people talk to themselves. Shit. See? I can use swear words."
"It still doesn't sound right coming out of you," she said with a laugh. "Besides, how do you know you aren't crazy and just talking to yourself now?"
"I can tell by your footprints," he said, indicating the disturbed spots on the ground she was leaving behind as she walked through the Hopkins Store.
"What if you made them yourself, or are just imagining it?"
"I can tell by your smell," Jeremiah said. "I've never smelled anything like it." He took in a deep breath, drinking in the scent of perfume, suede and a sweetness he might have remembered from a spring rain of what felt like so long ago.
"Yeah, I stink good," she said.
Jeremiah followed her to the back of the shop to the office where they found a huge iron safe standing in the middle of the floor. She hung on the handle of the safe, spinning the dial playfully, knocking on it with her knuckles.
"It's no good. Judge Hopkins took the combination with him to the grave," Jeremiah said.
"No one knows for sure. We did know he kept his notary seal in there."
"Is that like one of the Seals of the Apocalypse?"
"Maybe," Jeremiah said. Sandy's imagination started up, and it made him smile. She stood up and brought her body close up to his. She looked into each of his eyes for a moment.
"Let's open it, and end the world." She tugged on the handle.
"Not today," he said, taking her hand and gently removing it from the safe.
As they walked side by side down the dirt street, she asked, "So what do you do for fun around here, Jeremiah?"
"I keep busy, mostly," he said.
"That isn't fun, though. You got a girlfriend stashed around here? I can't imagine a good-looking guy like you not having one."
"No," he said, thinking for a moment about Elizabeth. "Well, I had one, I guess. But I don't see her very much anymore."
"Was she a good kisser?" Sandy Waters asked, wiping his mouth with the back of her hand.
"I guess. I mean, sure," Jeremiah stammered.
"Uh huh," Sandy said. "You can't bullshit a bullshitter. It's okay if you don't have a girlfriend. I won't tell. You liked a girl though, right? Tell me about her."
"Her name was Elizabeth. Elizabeth Sullivan. She's been gone for a long time now. I only have a picture of her at the hotel."
"That's sweet," Sandy said. "Can you write her? You said you don't see her much anymore. I knew that much was true."
"She's been dead awhile," he said. "I can take you there if you'd like."
"As long as you didn't bury her out there," Sandy laughed. Her laugh dwindled when she saw the serious look in Jeremiah's eye.
"Grandpa Ora buried her," he said. Sandy watched Jeremiah with her eyebrows cocked for some time as they strolled down to the cemetery.
"That must have been hard for you," she said as they reached the wrought iron gates of the graveyard. Aside from the tall obelisks and white marble veterans' stones of World War I, it didn't look much different than the rest of the prairie today.
They passed by the graves of those who had raised him and Jeremiah introduced them one by one: Ora and Cutie, Granny Rose, and even Judge Hopkins, the long-dead owner of the Hopkins Store.
"This is Elizabeth," he told Sandy, gesturing to her obelisk.
"Wow," Sandy said. "She has been gone a long time. I don't think my grandma was even born yet. Does she talk to you?"
"Why?" Jeremiah asked.
"Well, you said she was your girlfriend," Sandy said. His face turned a shade of red seen only on radishes. Jeremiah wished at that moment he could sink into the pebbles and dust and let this strange girl walk over him, out of the town and away for good.
"I've got to say, Jeremiah," Sandy continued. "A girl would feel lucky to have a boyfriend like you."
"I'm sorry," he said. "You must think I'm ghoulish. But these are the only people I've ever known."
"People are strange. Just like the song says. See, my mom had a boyfriend when she was in high school. He died and the family gave my mom the ashes. Then my father died when I was little. She kept them both. Dad and that boy from high school, in urns under her bed.
"She'd take them out for thanksgiving dinner before she met that bastard she married. Blake. I think she fell in love more with that black Cadillac that son of a bitch drove more than anything else.
"No, Jeremiah, you don't scare me. Not yet, anyway. You talk with dead people, just like my mom, because that's all either of you have got. Now, Blake; he's an evil man."
"Does your mom still have the ashes?" Jeremiah asked.
"No," she said. "Not anymore."
They stood in silence, listening to the wind course through the prairie grasses together. Sandy took his hand and held it for a while. He felt the smoothness of it, fragile like a robin's egg in his work toughened palm. It was cool to the touch like stone, yet he felt electricity through it, and warmth that ignited in the pit of his stomach like a match in a pool of kerosene. A time later, she released his hand and started for the gates of the cemetery.
"Jeremiah, do you think someone can make a deal with the devil?" Sandy asked.
"I don't know. I've read Faust. And The Devil and Daniel Webster. If there was a devil, he might want to make a deal now and then."
"Do you believe he always gets his due?" she said, staring off into the garden of the dead.
Why do you ask?" Jeremiah said.
"No reason. This sure would be a nice place to end up," she said with a sigh.
Jeremiah took her back to the Calamite Hotel and showed her how to crank up the old phonograph in the library. Sandy Waters sat on the floor with a stack of old records and began playing them, one after the next, as he worked outside, tending the tomato patch. She listened to Scheherazade and then Cab Calloway. Then Sandy played the Magic Flute and a series of ragtime albums. Her tastes were eclectic, but only because she listened to these records like she had never heard any of them.
"This is one of my favorites," Jeremiah said, loading an old 78 onto the turntable. "Robert Johnson. The song is called 'Hellhound on My Trail.' Your question about making a deal with the devil reminded me of it. Grandpa Ora said Robert Johnson couldn't play a lick of guitar until one night, he went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil to learn to play guitar."
"That's not a bad trade. Did it work?" Sandy asked.
"He's one of the best. He was eventually murdered. Poisoned by a girlfriend. So some say the Devil collected on his bargain." The music began playing and Sandy sat back in the parlor chair, listening with her eyes closed.
As he worked on the fence across the street surrounding an open pit of what had once been a basement, Sandy stepped out of the house and waved to him. "This is great!" A moment later, the record changed and Jeremiah could hear Sandy wailing falsetto with an opera. Jeremiah decided he could get used to seeing something like that. A beautiful girl, troubled in many ways, yet naive to his world. He decided she could stay as long as she liked. Maybe forever.
Then the August winds came.
Throughout the night, the floorboards of the upstairs creaked as Sandy nervously paced the floor. The beams and joists of the hotel shifted, like a massive breathing beast with each blast of hot wind. The weathercock screamed on its rusty pivot as the winds tore it from west to east and the hotel sighed with each gust, relieved that it wasn't its last. Jeremiah heard weeping coming from the hallway, and Sandy muttering in the darkness. By the time he looked into the hallway, she was gone. The furniture groaning as she pushed it against the inside of her door.
A few days later, she sat at the breakfast table, bleary-eyed, staring out over dark circles under her eyes at the ruined town. Tumbleweeds bounced down the empty streets. The windmill in the yard that pumped water to the hotel spun and danced, looking ready to fly off the spindle and decapitate any who stood near.
"Is it a tornado?" Sandy asked. "Are we going to die?"
"No. Just a windstorm. The rains will come soon."
"When?" she asked.
"A week, maybe two."
"Two fucking weeks of this!" she yelled. Her eyes were desperate. "I can't handle this wind Jeremiah. It makes me want to do something crazy. It's crushing me!"
"You're safe inside," he reminded.
"In this old cracker box? You've got to be fucking kidding me."
"Over a hundred summers of wind like this," he said. Her voice boomed with anger, was sharpened with desperation. Grandma Cutie might have scolded her for such language, but they sounded fine coming out of Sandy. They were words at least. He had forgotten how much he missed them, good and bad. He and Ora didn't talk much. Some days it felt like one was just waiting for the other to die.
"I don't see how you live out here. No pets, no friends. I've got friends everywhere I go," she said. "You don't even have a hamster."
"What's a hamster?" he replied.
"It's--, you don't know what a fucking hamster is?" she snapped. "You know what a mouse is, right?" Jeremiah nodded, pouring her another cup of coffee. "It's a fuzzier kind of mouse. I had one when I was little."
"What was that, last month?" he asked.
"I'm not in the mood," she snarled.
"You're in some kind of mood," he said with a laugh.
She eyed him with a look of complete contempt, and then said, "I guess I am. It's this wind. I don't like it."
"Well, just wait for that windmill to stop spinning," he said. "Then you'll know the wind season is over."
"I can't go outside in this. You can't even see across the goddamned street in all this dust and dirt." Jeremiah didn't agree, but held his tongue. He had grown to love the wind, because he felt it was the voice of God speaking to him in some terrible divine language that emotes sheer power and strength. The sound of the wind was one thing, but listening to Sandy was intoxicating.
"I need to get drunk," she said, oddly echoing his thoughts.
"I don't know if we have anything left," he said. Sandy stared out the lace curtains of the hotel kitchen taking long drags off her cheap cigarettes as she lit one off the next. Her hands shook. In front of her lay a cigar box he had never seen. He turned his head to read the lettering.
"You know, Jeremiah," she said, snatching the box away from sight. "You're like some kind of fuckin' cartoon character. Not everything around here that is fuckin' old is yours. Got me?"
Jeremiah spent the morning re-fastening old shutters on abandoned houses. Most were empty, picked clean by tourists and distant relatives for some time, but it was important work. When he returned, the wind had died down, but he found that the windmill was ripped to pieces. He approached it with a strange feeling in his bones, a sense of fear that made him believe something wasn't right. The pieces of the mill were intact, none of them bent or broken. Next to the heap of metal was his crescent wrench and a screwdriver and crowbar.
The screen door to the hotel kitchen snapped shut with a loud slap, causing him to jump. Sandy was walking toward him in her tank top and green army pants, wiping her hands off on a grease-stained rag. A few smudges of grease marked her face and arms, but her smile was never-ending.
"I was thinking about what you said about the windmill," she said. "So I took it apart to stop the wind. It worked."
"You did this?" he bellowed.
"Yeah," she said. "I stopped the wind."
"You stopped our water!" He wanted to throw rocks at her, shoot at her like some meddlesome coyote. Instead, he started gathering up parts he recognized and began fitting them together again. Sandy went into the house and soon, he could hear Ella Fitzgerald playing on the phonograph, accompanied by Sandy in her usual good cheer. He couldn't remember if he had ever been so mad at someone.
That night, he ate his supper in his room with the door closed. He could hear her bustling around the kitchen, clanging dishes and pans, tinkling glasses as though she was setting a table for a dinner party. He wanted to go out in the hallway and yell at her as loud as he could. He wanted to shake windows in their panes the way God did when he spoke. He thought about going to the cemetery to tell someone he knew about this stupid outsider who was destroying everything. Outside, the windmill spun, wobbling slightly on its axis. He wanted to go to the cemetery, but a part of him was afraid of what she could do next, and another part of him was afraid she wouldn't be there when he got back.
The next morning the wind continued, and Jeremiah searched the town for Sandy. He found her standing on the maintenance catwalk that ringed the town's water tower. She stared out to the west at a dust devil that was brewing out there on the plains. Her hands were balled into fists; her face was pale and tight with fear.
"Sandy!" he shouted. "Come down!"
"It's him!" she shouted back. "He's found me. I don't know how, but he's found me. I'll jump if he gets any closer." She wore an old linen nightgown she had borrowed from a trunk in the hotel. It flagged out from her in the hot west wind like stark white wings against the iron-black tower. He found himself wishing she would jump just to see her fly.
Jeremiah looked out at the swirling dust her eyes were locked onto, miles away from the direction of the road to Calamite. "Come down and we'll talk. I need you with me."
"I've got nowhere to go, Jeremiah. I'm done running. The man in the black car is coming and he's gonna find me this time."
"I won't let him, Sandy," he insisted.
"You're goddamned right, you won't," she said.
"It's a dust devil!" he screamed. His heart ached to see her up there. The thought of her body falling to the ground, curling up in the dirt after impact was too much for him. He had climbed that tower once, when the silence had gotten too much for him. "Just come down, we'll talk about it. You aren't thinking straight!"
"Are you sure it's just a dust devil?"
"Honey, come down, we'll talk."
"Have you got a gun?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said. "For shootin' coyotes. Why?"
"If that dust devil turns out to be an old Cadillac, promise me you'll shoot the bastard dead."
"I will," he promised. Sandy looked down at him from her perch on the tallest point in town. She looked out at the plains one last time and began to feel her way around the tower back to the service ladder. When she climbed down, he could see that she had been crying. She was barefoot and her hair was knotted up in thick snarls. She walked close to him, eyes to the ground, her body close to his, one of her arms threaded through his as though they were strolling down a boulevard. She rested her head on his shoulder as they walked back to the hotel. As they passed the foundation of the schoolhouse, Sandy pulled him with her to the edge of a puddle that had been left over from last night's rains and kissed him tenderly. The pool was still and they could see the dirt of the road beneath the surface.
She stepped into the water, breaking the surface tension with hardly a ripple from her bare feet. As her toes touched the bottom of the puddle, a plume of mud billowed up into the water like an explosion. Her other foot followed, stirring up more silt. She walked forward, admiring the clouds of mud she was kicking up with each step. The hem of her nightgown dipped into the water, and then clung to her legs as she shuffled in a circle throughout the puddle.
"Look, Jeremiah," she said, pointing at the puddle. "That's me. Sandy Waters."
At the hotel, he started a pot of coffee and began to get breakfast ready as she changed upstairs. His rifle was propped against the doorjamb just as he promised he would do. The dust cloud disappeared not long after she had gotten down from the tower, but she was insistent on him keeping the gun out just in case.
She appeared in fresh clothes, carrying her skateboard. "I like you, Jeremiah," she said. "I'm glad it's you who's going to kill me."
"Kill you?" he replied.
"This is for you," Sandy said. "Well, it's not really for you, but for you to use when the time comes." She handed Jeremiah her cigar box. He opened the lid and saw inside the cigar box, nestled in a mattress of toilet paper was a black rock. It had an organic shape to it, like the fossils miners had taken out of the Calamite coal mine. From its shape, Jeremiah thought it was some kind of fossilized clam.
He stared at the rock, and eventually shrugged his shoulders.
"You remember when I asked you if you could really make a deal with the Devil?" Sandy asked. "Well, my daddy did it. And we lived pretty good because of it for awhile. When he died, the Devil never got a chance to collect. That's my daddy's heart. I found it in his ashes. The bastard got my mother, he took everything away from my dad he could, but he never got the only thing he wanted: this. And he won't get it as long as I'm alive.
"Here, take this," she said, handing him her skateboard.
In indelible black ink was stenciled a name: Sandra Desiree Waterston. Below her name was a date of birth, just a few years after Jeremiah's own. It was strange to think she was younger than him. After the date of birth she had drawn a hyphen and written "died." Next to that was today's date.
"What's this supposed to mean?" Jeremiah asked. "A joke?"
"No sweetie," she cooed. "It's my tombstone."
"I'm not burying people anymore. We're getting out of here together. I've decided". His eyes flooded with tears.
"You're going to have to bury me, Jeremiah," she warned. "Look, I made it easy for you. I've got the date right and everything." She reached over to point out her handiwork on the skateboard deck.
"No you don't," he said, throwing the board to the ground. "I couldn't bury you anyway. There's no coffin."
"We could use some old crates."
"I won't let you kill yourself," he said, trying his best not to look at the rifle he had against the door. He wondered if she had seen it yet. If she had, could he get to it before her?
"I know that," she said. "That's why you're gonna have to kill me."
"Stop this!" Jeremiah commanded.
"I won't!" she flared. "Unless you kill me. You can screw me then too if you want. After I'm dead. Just like your little girlfriend out in the cemetery and all those old people you buried, you sick fuck."
Jeremiah's ears rang to hear such a horrible thing said about him. He wanted to cover them with his hands. In a place where there was no need to speak, where your own voice echoed down the empty halls and prairies of a land so far away from anyone else, words were heavy. And he had just been smacked with the meanest and hardest he had ever heard. He wanted to knock her teeth out of her head.
She walked away, laughing like a demon.
"You apologize for saying that, you tramp!" Jeremiah thundered.
Without flinching, she replied, "Say you'll let me jump off the water tower, and I will apologize."
"I know you, Sandy. You're better than this. You don't mean any of what you said."
"You know me? I never liked you anyway, you creepy bastard, Did you know that?" she spat. "I'm leaving."
"Where are you going? To kill yourself?"
"No, you piece of shit. I'm going to the highway. I'm gonna tell the police what you've been doing out here. About how you raped me. They'll send you to the gas chamber for sure. Or let you rot in a looney bin somewhere."
"Raped you?" the words stuck in his throat. "That's a rotten lie. We both know the truth."
"The truth is you were so awful that no woman would ever volunteer for something like that. It was rape." She ran upstairs, screaming like she was on fire. The door to her room slammed.
Jeremiah thought about choking her. Anything to shut her mouth. The only thing stronger than his reflexes to protect himself from her acerbic words and threats was his fear of being alone.
She was a seed that had been planted in Jeremiah's world. A poisonous seed that had germinated and was now bringing about the ruin of everything. She acted without conscience or reason much of the time. She exuded a sexuality that terrified him as it drew him in. All of it made him need to be near her, smile at the cynical things she said, made his eyes flicker to her hips, the crinkle of her nose when she laughed, the curve of her breasts beneath her t-shirts. Looking at her made him want her, listening to her made him wish she wanted him. He promised to protect her, show her love the way he had been taught by all those buried in Calamite. If she didn't want any of that, maybe he would kill her. Killing her meant she was his forever.
From the kitchen, through the walls and floorboards of the old hotel, Jeremiah could hear her crying in her room upstairs. Hard, heavy sobs that made the springs in her mattress squeak. He listened to it for a long time. Eventually, he forced himself to go upstairs.
"Sandy," he said through the door. "I love you."
"Why can't anything go right?" she demanded. "You don't know what I've lived through. I can't keep running, Jeremiah. God damn you! I can't! What can't you grow some balls and just do this for me? No one would ever find out."
"I'm not killing you. Even if that means I have to kill myself first. Then you won't have anyone to do it for you or bury you when you're done. It would be very lonely, I think."
"You've really thought this through, haven't you?" she sniffled on the other side of the door. "I just don't know what to do. I can feel him coming for me."
"Then we'll just have to keep moving. Together. I want to leave this place. Since I've met you, you're all that's been keeping me here."
"That's ridiculous," Sandy said. "You don't even know me."
"You're the only friend I've got. I won't lose you if I can help it. We'll leave tomorrow. Just let me pack some things. Get some money together. They do still use that in the outside world, right?" He heard her laugh a little on the other side of the door.
"I'll think about it," she said. "You would really do that?"
"You had better believe it," he said. "I'll start packing the truck." He hoped there was enough gas in the tank to make it to the nearest town. Outside, Jeremiah gathered things he needed for the exodus from Calamite. Tools to fix the truck. Water jugs, a canvas tent, sleeping bags for the two of them, and other supplies for the journey. As he walked the streets of town, the buildings watched him as he passed, accusing him of abandoning them. He felt their eyes on him.
"I have to say goodbye to them," he said. "Or they'll never let me leave." Jeremiah walked across the tracks and down the hill to the cemetery. He sat in the midst of all those stones, crying for he knew not how long. He kissed his fingers and touched the stones of those he had called friends and family for his entire life. He promised to visit them soon, and hoped they didn't believe his lie. Forever was a long time to wait, even for the dead. He returned to town, his eyes bleary and gummy with tears and the fine dust the wind carried with it through town.
In the distance, he heard the low growl of thunder just beyond the horizon. The last light of the day was diffused and golden against the parched streets of town. The rains had come early. As Jeremiah stared outside at the darkness that cradled Calamite, he heard the taps of raindrops striking the glass. A few moments later, the rain was striking the roof, and thunder rolled again through the early night. The gutters rattled against the hotel as rivers of water ran through. He heard Sandy laughing, calling out to him.
The front door of the hotel swung in the breeze, rattling against the jamb as completed its arc. He went inside and heard music playing in the parlor. Sandy had come out of her room. The music was cheerful, tinny songs from the 20's that she liked to dance in a mock Charleston she said she picked up from old movies, but never could get the steps right. He told her she looked like a flapper when she danced like that. It made her happy.
The rains had come early that summer. As Jeremiah stared outside at the darkness that cradled Calamite, he heard the taps of raindrops striking the glass. A few moments later, the rain was striking the roof, and thunder rolled through the night. The gutters rattled against the hotel as rivers of water ran through. He heard Sandy laughing, calling out to him.
Jeremiah went to the parlor where she was dancing to the sound of the late summer rain in her mismatched underwear. In one hand, she held a glass of whiskey. He knew it at once by the smell, coarse and strong. She took a drink from the tall glass and spun on the balls of her feet, nearly falling over before she stopped. Sandy blurted out a drunken laugh.
"It's raining! Jeremiah, it's raining!" she sang. He could smell the sharp sting of alcohol in the air, mixed with her perfume of desert flowers. She stumbled and fell against him. Her arms lingered around his neck as she laughed, bellowing that whiskey breath into his face. He leaned in to kiss her and his lips met her teeth as she giggled. She kissed back for a moment and continued to laugh. Jeremiah took a step back.
"I don't know what I did that for," he said. It was impulse, instinctive. The shape of her body beneath that sheer tank top and red cotton panties made his own body seem crude and lumpy in comparison. Everything about her was deliberate. The way her curves met, how there was no right angle to her. Her form was deceptive, strong, soft. Everything he knew he wasn't.
"You did it because I wanted you to," she said. She leaned against him again, working her hands under his shirt. Her mouth met his in a wet, open-mouthed kiss. Her tongue forced its way into his mouth, down his throat. He stood frozen, afraid to move as she worked against him. He held her tight and began to learn the steps she was teaching him as they went. Soon, his lust matched hers and they found the floor of the parlor. Jeremiah followed her lead, eagerly doing what she told him to do, apologizing for his clumsiness as he went.
The floorboards creaked around them as he sweated above her on the floor, and once, a clear thought formed in Jeremiah's brain, a singular thought as sharp and bright as the point of a dagger. He opened his eyes and saw her face, eyes closed, her mouth opened in a feverish groan then biting her lip as she clutched the flesh on his back and dug her fingernails in deep, her hair spread out against the reds and blues and yellows and black of the Persian rug. She shut her eyes tight and in some weird way, he felt as though he could have been in another room and it wouldn't have made any difference. He watched the way her body moved beneath him, and in another moment, the clarity was gone. He felt as though his very soul was leaving him as lonely and vacant as Calamite. More vulnerable than he had ever felt in his life. She moaned louder and kicked at his sides with her legs, spurring him with her heels like a horse. She pushed him away a moment later and groped for the glass of whiskey she had placed on the floor next to them. She finished the rest of the glass in one gulp.
"I'm naked," she giggled as they lie on the floor, covered in a blanket from the parlor couch. She looked under the blanket a few times just to emphasize the point.
"We both are," Jeremiah said.
"But I'm naked!" she tittered again. "And drunk. Tell me something, Jeremiah."
"Anything," he answered.
"Why don't you have any pets?"
"Because I kept killing them when I was little to keep my friends in the cemetery company," Jeremiah admitted.
Sandy laughed without sound in little silent convulsions against him. "I love you," he whispered in her ear. By then, she had fallen asleep, and Jeremiah returned to the silence he had known. He carried her up to her room and placed her on the bed. He covered her nude body with the blankets and closed the door behind him when he left. Jeremiah stayed up a long time after that, watching the rain strike the windows. The scent of their love was heavy throughout the hotel. Sweat mixed with cigarettes and whiskey and desert flowers and rain. He wondered what her father had sold his soul for. Jeremiah would have sold his for a moment like this years ago had he known.
He went to the parlor to straighten things out. Pieces of clothing littered the floor, as did another empty glass. In that glass was the stubbed out butt of a cigarette. On the wall he saw the picture of Elizabeth he had hung there long ago. Her face always set in that tragic frailty, yet today, she seemed angry. Those dark eyes followed him out the room. Jeremiah took one last look at the picture before blowing out the last lamp. The flame resisted his breath at first and then snuffed out, leaving a smoldering wick behind.
Upstairs in his darkened room, the sound of creaking floorboards caught his attention, and made his hackles rise. He could smell cigarette smoke lingering there, and saw the hot point of glowing embers in the darkness.
"Blake?" he called out.
"No, kid." a voice rasped back. Jeremiah twisted the light switch, but the dial only clicked futilely. "Please leave the light off. I haven't been myself lately, and the light hurts my eyes."
Jeremiah heard a low, droning sound in the distance, like a peal of thunder that reached into forever. It pulsated and gasped like some kind of beast. The furniture shook and the glass rattled in the window panes. Outside, a strange light caught his attention. Scores of people were out there walking the streets, milling around, and talking to each other. Boys in flat caps and wool knee-breeches chased girls in summer dresses and hair ribbons. A long line of miners covered in smoldering coal dust, toting picks and shovels arrived from the north end of town in a haze of acrid coal smoke. More people were filing out of the houses, joining the others as they walked down toward the traintracks at the edge of town. All of them were somehow familiar.
"Who are all these people?" Jeremiah demanded. "Who the hell are you?"
"Don't you recognize your old pal Lester Anderson?" the man said. He stepped closer to the light of the hallway, shading his eyes from the glare. His clothes were of the style of eighty years before. Flat cabby cap. Wool jacket. His body dimmed slightly in the hallway light, like a projection on a wall.
"Sandy!" he called out as he backed away from the man, but the door slammed shut before he could escape the room.
"Elizabeth isn't very happy with that one being here, I've got to say," Lester Anderson said. "It don't matter anyhow. We're moving on, Jeremiah. You turned your back on all of us. Not that there's any love lost between you and me. But we don't feel at home in this world anymore." Outside, a train whistle howled into the night to punctuate this. "Too bad we had to part company like this."
"I'm sorry," Jeremiah said. "Tell everyone I'm sorry. But I've got to leave! You can't keep me here anymore."
"Good luck, Jeremiah," Lester said, reaching out a hand as cold and immaterial as moonbeams. Jeremiah reached out to shake it. Lester grinned. The train whistle blew again. As soon as their hands met, the room reeled and the floor rushed up to meet his face.
Jeremiah found himself struggling to get up from the floor. The light of morning was pouring in through his opened windows. Lester Anderson was gone, as were the droves of phantoms that had filled the dark streets. The light songs of birds replaced the mournful howl of the train's whistle.
The door to Sandy's room was open and her backpack and skateboard was on the bed. Next to the pack was a letter written in blue ballpoint ink.
"Sandy!" he called out. "We're leaving right now! Plans have changed. Sandy!" He looked at the letter. It was addressed to him.
The letter read:
"Dearest Jeremiah, I'm sorry for all the rotten things I've said. Elizabeth came to me tonight. She says she is going to help me. She seems so nice. Do you think she'd be my friend? I hope so.
"Let my step-father keep guessing. Make him keep looking. Let me haunt him for once. Don't tell anyone or they might think you have done this and I can't let that happen.
I never was, Jeremiah. I never should have been. You gave me hope when I didn't want it and love when I didn't deserve it. I can't hit bottom again, feeling this happy.
I told you today was the day!
Below was a raised mark on the corner of the page. He could make out the words "Notary Public. Town of Calamite" embossed on the paper.
He ran down the street to the Hopkins store where the door was left swinging open in the hot wind. The barn swallows chattered and flew out of their mud nests when he approached. He followed the old footprints they had left days ago to the back room, where the vault waited, black and silent, perched on iron legs like a fat crow.
She must have lied. Jeremiah had spent entire summers looking through Hopkins Store for the combination to reveal the secrets of that vault. There was no way she could have stumbled across the numbers in the few minutes she had been out of his sight, short of Judge Hopkins telling her himself. He stopped short when he saw the pile of blank pages and the notary seal resting on the blotter of the roll top desk.
Jeremiah walked back to the safe again. The handle was swept up in a sardonic wink, next to the round, cyclopean dial of numbers one through ninety-nine. The safe seemed fatter, pregnant with something inside. The room was filled with her scent of leather and perfume. He stood in front of the vault, weighing it in his mind as though he had the power to rip it the door from its hinges. He knew there was no truth to this. Not even a shred of hope. He believed he could almost hear her inside, breathing, with her knees tucked up under her chin, against her chest, her eyes closed, and her soft hair falling against her face. It was then he heard the tap. Soft, barely audible. Then a frantic scratching as though a cat was trapped inside.
His shaking fingers worked the dial, as he listened for the click and snap of tumblers falling into place. Seven, fourteen left, eighty-six, pull. Eight, twenty-six left, eighty-five, pull. The combinations filled his mind until he found himself hanging onto the handle, wailing, beating his fist on the door. He wept against the iron box, and cried his soul out into the floorboards. When he was out of tears, he snarled profanities worse than any he ever heard Sandy say. She would have been proud of him.
He heard no breathing; he felt no movement inside. There was no way of knowing if Sandy was really inside, other than what his gut told him. It could have been a lie, he thought. She might have run off into the prairie, or maybe, there had never been a Sandy Waters. Maybe the seal had always been collecting dust on the desk.
He left the store, closing the door behind him, helpless at the thought of Sandy still being alive in that vault. He looked at the truck and knew there was no way to find help before her air ran out. Even then the strangers would have questions for him if she were found inside. She had made for herself the perfect death.
"Goddamn it, Sandy," he said, knowing he could never move that safe, much less bury it in the graveyard. It didn't matter to him that she had taken her own life. Everyone else had taken most if it already. Still, she got what she wanted. Like the unfinished dates on the grave markers, it was as though she were still alive somewhere in town. Haunting him.
Jeremiah shoveled the last scoop of dirt onto the small mound that covered Sandy Waters' backpack and her earthly possessions--minus her father's heart. He stuffed the skateboard into the soft earth. Hers was the only grave within twenty years with a date of death on the marker. There would be no more markers. It was a shame that stones weren't made for happy occasions, like the birth of a child, he thought. That would be something he could leave in this place. It would have read: "Jeremiah August was born here in Calamity. And left."
He drove out from Calamite for the last time, leaving the skeleton of the abandoned town with its mile of railroad track that went nowhere, its empty houses, and the iron crypt that kept the last secret of the town safe inside. Ten miles from the highway, the truck suddenly stopped running. The speedometer needle swung to zero as he tried to start it up again. In the distance, a cloud of dust was growing, and the rumble of four thousand pounds of Detroit steel led the torrent. Black enamel paint and polished chrome glittered in the sunlight. The dust-storm gathered around the black Cadillac as it slowed and stopped next to Jeremiah. The driver rolled down his window and smiled at him.
"Hi," he said. The engine purred like an animal. "I'm looking for my stepdaughter." He showed a picture.
Jeremiah didn't look at it. "Nope. Don't know her. Good luck finding her, though," he said.
"Say, friend. You wouldn't happen to know somewhere I can buy some gasoline around here, would you?"
"There's a town up the road a ways called Calamite. About thirty miles." Jeremiah said. "They can help you there." He was grateful the last of the fuel in town was on the back of his truck, hidden beneath thick canvas tarps.
"Thanks! I think I've got just enough to get me there," the man said. "Do you need a lift?"
"I'll be alright. Drive safely." He watched the Cadillac pull away, throwing rocks up with its eagerness to get moving again. Jeremiah tried the key again, only this time the engine started with a sluggish groan and a loud backfire.
Jeremiah took a large black rock from his pocket, tossed it into the air and caught it a few times before forcing the truck back into gear. In the side view mirror, he watched the cloud stretch off into the horizon, and when it was gone, he said, "Good luck getting out of there. That train has already left the station."The End Clinton A. Harris is a writer, husband, and parent living in Colorado. When he's not writing, you can find him eating, sleeping, or playing with the kids. He is also a lifelong student of folklore and occasional haunter of places that serve really good coffee. His favorite color is blue. He likes old 78 records, hats, and manual typewriters. He also has a profound, irrational fear of writing bio's for himself. Even these few lines will merit years of therapy.
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