Authors: James P. Blaylock
He considered a humorous reply, and then rejected it. “Pump number two,” he said, handing her the two twenties and then rooting a third out of his wallet. “Take the book and coasters out of it first. And that case of grape soda.” As an afterthought he grabbed a single bottle out of the cooler. “A cold one, too.” He hadn’t had a grape soda in
years, and he was full of a sudden nostalgia for the taste of purple.
“You’ve got enough left out of the sixty for about an eighth of a tank,” she said.
“I’m only going a few more miles,” he told her, waiting while she punched buttons on an old cash register. There was a ringing noise when the cash drawer flew open. “I’m looking for the turnoff over to New Cyprus, down along the river I haven’t been out there for years, and I remember that last time I passed right by the turnoff and drove another ten miles before I knew I’d missed it.”
“It ain’t marked,” she said. “Used to be a red cross painted on the highway right there, but it’s been blacktopped over half a dozen times. That’s their mark, you know, those New Cyprus folks.” She looked at him intently, as if it somehow made a difference whether he knew or didn’t know.
He nodded, wondering abruptly whether Uncle Lymon was one of the Knights who had received the head. There wasn’t a lot to do in New Cyprus, which was isolated even in a land of isolation, and it was a rare evening that Uncle Lymon wasn’t off at the Knight’s clubhouse, the Temple—or else the Temple Bar, depending on its function on any given day—wearing a tunic with a red cross embroidered on it and half covered with badges of rank and retired fishing lures.
“You’d think they’d repaint it,” she went on, “but New Cyprus is homestead territory, so nobody’s in charge of anything. Either that or everybody’s in charge of everything, which amounts to the same thing. It’s not a bad way to be, either. My old man used to drive out there for lodge meetings, but he’s been dead these past three years.”
“The Knights of the Cornerstone? My uncle’s some kind of officer in it.”
She nodded her head as if she had known it all along. “You’re Al Lymon’s nephew. That’s what I thought.”
“Calvin Bryson,” he said, putting out his hand.
She shook it and nodded. “Shirley Fowler. I see the Lymons now and then when I drive over the hill to visit my granddaughter, but not as often as I’d like. How’s Nettie? She doesn’t get out much these days.”
Calvin shrugged. “Her cancer was in remission, but it’s bothering her again, although I don’t know how bad. She’s had about all the treatments, and there’s not a lot that can be done about the pain. She spends some time in the past, too, I guess you’d say.”
“Well, the past isn’t a half bad place to visit once in a while. Tell her Shirley Fowler sends her regards.”
“I’ll be go-to-hell!” a voice said behind him, and Calvin turned around to discover a heavyset bearded man, maybe seventy, just then stepping out from behind a rack of Little Debbie snack cakes. Had he been there all along … ?
“I’m Fred Woolsworth,” the man said. “So you’re Cal Bryson? I’m a friend of your uncle’s. He told me his nephew was coming out for a spell.” He was loaded up with Navajo silver—a big squash blossom on his bolo tie and a watchband that must have weighed half a pound.
“Glad to make your acquaintance,” Calvin said. “
-worth, like the dime store?”
worth, with an
. Like ‘money’s worth,’ but wool. My daddy used to say, ‘When you go out to shear sheep, make sure you get your woolsworth!’” He laughed out loud.
Calvin smiled and nodded, trying to think of a gag line of his own involving sheep, but coming up with nothing but “ewe,” which pretty much only worked on paper. If he had his sketchbook he could draw the cartoon. “When did
my uncle tell you I was coming? I didn’t know it myself till today.”
“News travels fast out here in the desert,” Woolsworth said. “Believe it or not, I knew your daddy back in Iowa, before he came out West with your mother. Nearly fifty years now. Your daddy moved out on the coast, and I wound up in Bullhead City. Wasn’t nothing there in Bullhead but the river back then, and one bridge downriver across to the Needles side. Lots of water under
bridge over the years. Now we’ve got casinos across in Laughlin, and God knows what next. There’s talk about moving that big English clock out here—Big Ben, they call it. Set it up in that park next to where they put in the new Wal-Mart. You’d be surprised at the stuff that finds its way into the desert, including people. Anyway, I was sorry to hear your daddy passed away.”
“Thanks,” Calvin said. Somehow the Big Ben idea just didn’t sound feasible to him. Next to a
“You’re out here on account of your aunt’s sick, I suppose.”
“I’m bringing out a family heirloom, too, but that’s not an excuse for coming out here. I just want to spend a little time on the river. See the folks again. It’s been a couple of years now.”
“Of course,” he said, nodding heavily. “Of course. God bless. I didn’t mean to suggest you needed an excuse to do the right thing. Just making small talk. You can’t be bringing much of an heirloom, though, in that little bitty vehicle of yours.”
“Family artifact,” Calvin told him.
“ Woolsworth said. “That’s a good word. It’s got real weight to it. It elevates a thing above the doodad level, if you know what I mean. Now, that plastic toilet
you’re buying there, that’s a
dad.” He laughed out loud again.
Calvin smiled politely at the lame joke. Woolsworth was a real card.
“Tell Al Lymon that Fred Woolsworth says hello. Tell him I’ll see him at the Temple one of these evenings real soon. Tell him
sooner rather than later
. Will you do that? Just them words.”
“I will,” Calvin said. Woolsworth went out through the door, the bell jingling behind him, and he angled across the lot as if he were going to walk back down the highway. Calvin took a step forward to get a better look and saw that there was an old green pickup truck parked at the corner of the lot near the propane tank. Woolsworth climbed into it and a moment later the engine roared to life. The truck pulled out onto the highway heading east toward Needles, its broken muffler making the engine sound like an outboard motor.
“I’ll be damned,” Calvin muttered, remembering the truck that had passed him earlier, not a quarter of an hour ago, traveling west. It
be the same truck. If it was, then Woolsworth must have turned around after passing him and come straight back east. But there was nothing fifteen miles back down the highway except empty desert. Where had the man been going?
Shirley opened the grape soda and handed it to him, and then put the toilet seat coasters into a bag. “He’s a real character,” she said, referring to Woolsworth. “I didn’t see him come in. Did you?”
“No,” Calvin said.
“Watch out you don’t talk too much to people you don’t know out here in the desert.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“Anyway, what you do about that New Cyprus road is to watch for it on your left just about exactly two miles past the Henderson cutoff. If you’re not looking for it, you won’t see it, because it runs down across the wash, and it’s usually under a couple of inches of sand. Don’t slow down till you get across the wash and back up onto the pavement, or you’re liable to find yourself stuck. And give this to your uncle,” she said. She reached under the counter and fished out a cardboard box taped shut—a box exactly the same size as the box that contained Aunt Iris’s veil. The address was made out to Al Lymon, c/o the Gas’n’Go. It was from Warren Hosmer.
“Thanks,” Calvin said, taking it from her. He hefted the box in his hands—another ghost-infused veil? He started to say something, but gave up. He wasn’t going to get any answers out here on the highway. He set the box on the case of grape soda and laid the book and the sack on top, then picked the whole lot up, snagged the open soda bottle with his right hand, and turned toward the door, half expecting to see Fred Woolsworth across the road, lurking behind a yucca.
Outside again, he crammed himself sideways against the car, pulled the door latch with his pinkie finger, and set his armload of boxes on the seat. The oppressive heat was a living presence, like the plague or an axe murderer or Woolsworth’s muffler—something that couldn’t be ignored. He started filling the tank and then leaned against the fender of the Dodge while the pump worked. He sipped his soda, looking out over the desert.
The same storms that had filled the dry lake had generated a second blooming of wildflowers, and on the rise above the gas station there were patches of blue and yellow blooms. There was no denying that the desert was a
beautiful place, especially near sunset like this, when it was cooling down and when the shadows were long and lent an air of mystery to things, but to live out here would be a different matter—impossible in high summer. Still, people
live here, for some reason, like Shirley Fowler and Fred Woolsworth, or his uncle and aunt, for that matter. It was the solitude, maybe, that attracted them.
The gas pump shut off, and Calvin hung the nozzle back on the pump. “
,” he muttered. What a character. The man’s talk had had a vaguely ironic tone, like a veiled insult, although probably it was a mere nutticism, as his father would have put it. He felt as if Woolsworth had been sizing him up, though, and had found him wanting. He finished the soda and pitched the bottle into the trash. Purple tasted pretty much the same now as it had twenty years ago, which was comforting in these times of world turmoil and grim change.
As he was climbing into the car it came into his mind that Woolsworth hadn’t bought anything at the store, not even the Little Debbie cakes he had apparently been fingering. That struck Calvin as odd—the man joyriding in the desert and then stopping at the Gas’n’Go for no reason at all. He had most likely come in while Calvin was looking through the books and had hung around, lurking out of sight behind the snack food, waiting for an opportunity to start up a useless conversation. There was no reason for any of it, which didn’t seem reasonable.
Abruptly he recalled the jingly little bell over the door. If Woolsworth had come in while he was looking at the books, the bell would have rung. But it hadn’t rung. What did that mean? The man could easily have grabbed the bell and silenced it if he knew in advance where it hung. Or he could have cut the truck engine fifty yards up the road,
coasted into the lot where he wouldn’t be easily seen from inside, and sneaked in through the back. …
Calvin realized that his imagination had gone into high gear. Perhaps his brain was overheated. He turned the ignition key, immediately seeing that the “trunk open” light was illuminated. He climbed back out, and sure enough the trunk
open—not quite latched.
Woolsworth had opened it
. He must have. Who the hell else?
Calvin looked inside the trunk. Aunt Iris was gone. His duffel was there but the box wasn’t. “That thieving son of a bitch,” he said out loud, and it came into his mind to call the cops. He had his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped open before he imagined the conversation and the cop’s almost certain reaction: “
did he steal …?”
Then he thought of Shirley Fowler handing him the second, nearly identical box, knowing who he was as soon as he asked for that case of grape soda, and Hosmer’s telling him to avoid talking on the portable blower out here in the desert. Something was happening, and he had no idea on earth what it was, but probably it didn’t want the police. In an hour the sun would have sunk, the desert would be falling into darkness, and it would be cocktail hour at Chez Lymon, where he could look out safely on the puzzling world from the battlements—or in his case the bafflements. Laughing uneasily at his own joke, he shut the trunk, climbed back into the car, and headed east.
wo miles past the Henderson cutoff, Calvin slowed down to twenty miles an hour and looked hard for the New Cyprus road, which he almost certainly would have missed if it weren’t for Shirley’s instructions. He swung a hard left turn down the embankment, the Dodge banging into a deep rut with a muffler-denting clank and up onto the semipaved track that led into the Dead Mountains and to the river on the other side. He passed a marker farther down, half hidden by greasewood. It was a rock the size and shape of a big headstone with the legend “New Cyprus” and a cross cut into it and then painted red, the paint mostly sandblasted off by the desert wind. It stood like an Easter Island sentinel with no apparent purpose, since it was a couple of hundred yards in—way too far to be made out from the highway.
The narrow road wound upward through craggy hills, and soon he lost sight of the desert floor and was alone
in a silent, empty landscape of barrel cactus and yucca and mesquite. After a climb of fifteen hundred feet or so, the road finally began to level out, and he reached a high pass through the rocks that opened onto a broad vista of endless, sun-beaten flatlands, broken here and there by dry ranges.
The river flowed green and swift below, and beyond the river stretched the irrigated fields of the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation. Beyond that, off on the horizon, big thunderheads rose over distant mountains. The city of Needles lay hidden in the southwest, but upriver in the distance, maybe twelve miles, the outskirts of Bullhead City were just visible, and opposite that, on the Nevada shore, the high-rise casinos of Laughlin.
He followed the road downward now, winding through narrow defiles and along the edges of cliffs until he came out onto a sort of plateau several hundred feet above New Cyprus. On either side of the road lay an old rock quarry littered with broken cut stones, many of them immense and set upright like dominoes and reminding him of old Celtic standing stones. A line of narrow-gauge railroad tracks that decades ago must have snaked their way to the desert floor descended into a steep gorge, and an ancient flatcar some twelve feet long stood rusting on the tracks. Grease-wood and mesquite grew up around the standing stones and through the tracks and the wheels of the flatcar, giving the place the air of a long-abandoned cemetery.