Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
I hadn’t been back to Cloverdale in seven years. It wasn’t that I had anything against the small town in western Montana; I get along with almost everyone. I left because I was falling in love with someone who deserved more than I could give. I’d been all over the world. I hitchhiked across Europe, got mugged in a London tube station and spent two weeks in jail in Bangkok for sleeping in a public park. Thailand police let me go because I had no money and refused to haul bags of rice on my back. I ended up working on a sheep ranch in New Zealand for four years because I liked the family I was living with and saved every dollar I made. There was nothing there that I wanted to buy and it seemed like I’d reached the edge of the world.
I spent my nights cleaning a rusted Purdey shotgun, listening for a pack of hungry dogs and studying the stars. One night when I was dragging a lamb to a birthing shed with a bawling mother tailing behind, Oliver Anderson showed me a newspaper map of America with the route of a solar eclipse drawn on it. Cloverdale was right smack in the middle of the path. The accompanying article said the eclipse only returns to a certain spot on Earth every three-hundred and seventy-five years. After thinking about it for several nights while I stared at the constellation Pyxis – (the Compass) I finally decided it had to be an omen of sorts … and it was time to go back.
There is no public airport in Comanche County so when I landed in Missoula, at 6 AM, I rented a car. I took the Vineyard Road exit off from highway thirteen and then turned left on Townsend Avenue. The town looked pretty much as I remembered; some things never change. Three boys, being chased by a rabid looking dog, raced each other down the sidewalk on rusty bicycles. Two young men dressed in Goth attire followed four lost-looking teenage girls wearing black lipstick as they walked out of the alley behind the Royal Theatre. The boys followed exactly nine steps behind; Corpse Bride was displayed on the show-house marquee. A girl who looked like Joanie Otter, only older than I remember, pulled what looked like a severed hand attached to a string out of a black bag and gave it a spin. When a bony extended finger stopped pointing north toward Black Rose Cemetery the group set off in that direction.
An orange VACANCY flashed in the dirty window of the Jagger Hotel and I thought I’d probably have to book a room there later. The old four story building still gave me the creeps but as far as I knew it was still the only place to rent a room in town.
Even with a total eclipse of the sun due to happen in three days there wasn’t a lot of traffic. A graphic banner stretched across the street from the Comanche County Library to the Rifleman Barber Shop at Wallace Street read DAY OF THE MOON August 21st. Someone had drawn the moon so that it looked like it was on fire … and I knew I was home.
The Spare-A-Time Café sits on the North West corner of Townsend Avenue and Main Street and if you want to know anything about the city or who is in town it’s the place to go. The place was packed, noisy and boisterous. Lucky for me four lumber mill workers just vacated a booth next to the window and I grabbed it. I slid the pile of quarters they left for a tip toward the edge of the table and had just turned my cup over waiting for coffee when I caught a glimpse of strawberry blonde trusses bouncing out of the kitchen. The face under the hair was hidden behind four steaming plates of hamburger and fries but I knew it had to be Susan Demotte. No other girl on Earth moves the way she does. I felt a sharp pain in the left side of my chest like I’d been kicked by a balking mule … or perhaps shot by a baby’s bow and arrow. Just before I left town she was engaged to marry Frank Olsen and was set live the rich life. What the hell was she doing working in a place like this, and why did I have to run into her my first day back in town? Lucky for me she was working another section of tables and I turned my head to look out at the street when she hurried past.
Mary Lee rushed over with a pot of coffee and almost dropped it when she went to pour my cup. “Jack Taylor!” she gasped. “I thought you were dead!”
“There were a few times when I thought so too,” I grinned. “But here I am.”
She sat the pot on the table and gave me a hug. “So many people will want to see you,” she said. “Perhaps I should move you to a larger table. Those two families in the center are just about to leave.” I looked around to see familiar faces smiling … some were gesturing for me to join them.
“That’s okay,” I told her. “I just got back in town and I need some time to catch my breath.” She noticed me staring past her as Susan set the burgers in front of four truck drivers.
“She’s not married now,” Mary whispered. “She was, but that Olsen boy liked to knock her around. You’d think someone with that much money would have better manners!”
Susan turned just as Mary walked away and for an instant her eyes were locked on mine. The shimmering green color reminded me of leisurely moonlight walks and illegal night fishing along the banks of the Cottonmouth River and the reflected ripples in the water as we made wishes on falling stars. A forgotten melody from an old rock song echoed back from the dusty corners of my mind. I don't hardly know her. But I think I could love her. The dark areas under her eyes reminded me of the places where the best memories hide and the secrets that made her so interesting. I thought I saw a tear roll down her cheek just before she turned away.
Someone slapped me on the back and then sat down across from me grinning. “I usually know when any ne’er-do-wells roll into town, but it looks like you’ve taken me by surprise!” My old pal Gary Manning looked almost the same, except that he was now wearing the uniform of a Comanche County Sheriff’s Deputy.
“I didn’t know they allowed criminals to work off their fines posing as police officers!” I shot back.
“I’ve cleaned up my act some since you ran out on us,” Gary said. “Sheriff Walker is getting too old to chase down cow thieves and drug smugglers and John Walker the fifth is still at the law enforcement academy.” Mary was suddenly at our booth and filled Gary’s cup.
“I know police work often runs in families,” I mused. “But why does each one have to be named John?”
“Tradition,” Gary said. “Besides this is Cloverdale … we make our own rules.” He noticed me watching Susan as she hurried into the kitchen. “She had a bad time after you left,” he said. “I don’t think she really wanted to marry Frank but I think she felt trapped.”
Gary shook his head. “She was two month’s pregnant and just starting to show. That Baptist preacher father of hers would have disowned her for sure.”
“Pregnant?” I gasped. “How could that be?”
“All this time I thought you knew.” Gary rose from the table as excited shouts in Spanish erupted from the back of the café. A group of pipe moving, Mexicans had formed a circle and set two angry roosters on the floor and were exchanging money as they watched the bloody fight. “Dios maldito... no en aquí!” Gary thundered as he pushed his way through the crowd.
I happened to glance toward the door just as Susan pushed her way out the door. A large group was waiting for tables. I watched as she ran across the street and tossed her apron into the back seat of a rusted 1974 Chevy Malibu and then rushed into a day care center. She came out a minute later dragging what looked like a seven year old boy. “Susan said she was sick and left on our busiest morning all year,” Mary said as she tried to refill my cup. I covered it with my hand. “I hope you didn’t bring some strange disease with you from your travels!” She winked.
“So do I,” I told her as I got up from the booth.
The Chevy was just a distant puff of smoke when I got out on the sidewalk. Susan turned south on Wallace Street. Across the river bridge was the poor section of town, A hundred crummy trailer houses jammed together on five acres. I hoped that was not where she lived.
“You here to watch the eclipse?” I turned. Digging Bear was leaning against the café like a grinning cigar-store Indian. I went to shake his hand but he hugged me instead and then we wrestled on the sidewalk in a mock fight. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “It’s been pretty dull around here!”
“Cloverdale?” I laughed. “I find that hard to believe! Are you still breaking into the liquor store every Saturday night?”
“No,” Digging Bear said. “That’s what I mean about dull … now I own the store!”
I guess he noticed my mouth hanging open. “The feds finally paid the tribe for what they did to us at Wounded Knee.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ve also got a brand new Aztec gold Ford pickup painted with big white spots on the back fenders to look like an Appaloosa!”
“You damn Injuns just ain’t no fun anymore!” I laughed and he joined me.
“If you don’t have your glasses yet for viewing the eclipse you’d better get them now,” Digging Bear said. “They’re selling out all over town!”
Digging Bear was right, every store I went into was sold out of the special dark glasses. Suddenly I remembered the second hand store and I wondered if Ted Burlap still ran the place.
I shook my head at the yellowed porcelain marionette hanging in the dirty window of the junk store; it looked at least five hundred years old and something about the glass eyes embedded in the skull filled with hair-line cracks gave me the creeps. A tiny bell rang when I opened the door. Ted Burlap, not his real unpronounceable last name and the oldest Jewish citizen of Cloverdale, appeared from a back room an eager smile twisting his rat-like face. “Hello,” he said looking at my clothing. I knew he was trying to determine how much money I had. “What can I do you for?” I smiled inwardly at his words … he was trying to put himself on my level.
“I just got into town,” I told him. “I need a pair of eclipse glasses, but they seem to be sold out everywhere.”
I could see the disappointment wash over him like a cold shower. Eclipse viewing glasses were notoriously cheap made of flimsy cardboard and only sold for a buck or two. There wasn’t going to be much profit in my request … unless. I could almost hear the gears rolling in his head like an old fashioned Vegas slot machine ready to dump a pound of nickels. Suddenly he snapped his fingers and a light went on in both his eyes. “I might have something for you,” he said. He turned and I followed him, “in the back.”
He rummaged through a wooden box filled with old magazines and rabbit-ear TV antennas. Near the bottom under a pile of old radio tubes he pulled out a pair of what looked like the darkest sunglasses I’d ever seen. The frames were made of what appeared to be bent welding rod and the lenses appeared to be coated glass. “I got these from Joseph Callahan’s estate sale,” Ted explained. “I think the man had them made special for counting sun spots. If these will work I can let you have them for say … twenty bucks!”
“I don’t know,” I said as he handed me the glasses. “They look kind of old, like something Heinrich Himmler would wear to an execution on the beach.”
Ted squirmed like a rabbit with his foot caught in a trap. “Eighteen bucks,” he said, “and I’ll even clean the lenses.”
I knew the man expected me to bargain with him … it was part of the ritual.”
“Anything more than five dollars,” I said, “and I’ll walk out to that Conoco station by Highway 13. Someone said they had a whole rack full!”
“Eight dollars and I’ll throw in a hat,” Ted said. He dug through a different box and pulled out something that looked like the kind of bucket-hat Henry Winkler wore in one of his movies. I almost laughed but then I figured with the hat and dark glasses I might be able to get close enough to Susan without having her running off.
“I’ll take them if they work,” I told him. Ted followed me outside.
It was almost 10 AM and the sun was about a forty-five degree angle in the sky. When I put the glasses on I couldn’t see anything but when I turned east, the sun appeared like a fifteen-watt light-bulb glowing inside a frosted glass ball. Joseph Callahan obviously knew what he was doing. I could see distinct features on the sun with dark and light areas. I turned around and started to take them off when something caught my eye. It looked like a negative being projected from a high contrast black and white film. A sinister and very white human figure appeared to be moving away from me with both hands stretched in front … perhaps reaching for something. I pulled the glasses off to see what it was. Two women were walking down the sidewalk. One of them held a wrapped baby that was crying. “I hope Doctor Descombey can find out what’s wrong with Bobbie,” the first woman gasped. “It’s like he keeps getting weaker and weaker!”
“Amazing aren’t they?” Ted gestured toward the glasses, took my money and walked back inside his shop.
I put the glasses back on. The negative man appeared to be choking something! I pulled the glasses off again and this time both gals were bent over the infant. They gasped and began to run down the sidewalk. I chased after the women to see what would happen but I lost them when they went inside the doctor’s office. I wandered around town seeing lots of things I wish I hadn’t.
I stopped on the corner of Townsend and Main Street and put the eclipse glasses back on. The street was filled with negative men, women and even animals from all time periods. I watched a team of negative horses go galloping past pulling a wagon being driven by a terrified negative man. A negative Indian warrior wearing a war bonnet thundered behind on a horse and appeared to shoot something with a bow. When I took the glasses off, I saw an elderly man crumple on the sidewalk clutching his chest … no one was around him. A crowd gathered. Someone said he was having a heart attack.
It was as if when I put the glasses on I was looking at another world which is around us all the time but that you can’t see. A world filled with the dead where they can make things happen to the living. I was amazed … and also more than a little terrified.
I was thinking about going back to Ted’s junk store to tell him that I’ve changed my mind and get my money back, and probably get the hell out of town, when I saw Susan Demotte coming out a Spare-A-Dime with her child in tow. She must have forgotten something. I instinctively put the eclipse lasses back on and pulled down the Henry Winkler hat so she wouldn’t recognize me. I quickly pulled the glasses off trying to catch my breath.
Two negative Chinese with pointed coolie-hats were following Susan and her son. Both her pursuers looked skeletal and walked with jerky lurching movements. A long butcher knife gleamed from a boney man’s hand. A woman held an ice pick. I watched as Susan took forever to strap my son into the passenger seat and then move around to the driver’s side.
I had to find out what the negative people were doing. When I put the glasses back on at first I couldn’t see them, then I caught a glimpse of them moving quickly away. I took the eclipse glasses off and stared. They were both flashing oriental grins from the back-seat of Susan’s battered car!
TO BE CONTINUED …