His name is Charles Jenkins, but everyone calls him Zeke. No one in Little Bend, Zeke included, knows why.
This is what people know about Zeke: when Zeke was fourteen, back when he was Charlie, he shot his brother Mark in a hunting accident. Everyone agreed they were too young to be out hunting alone, that Mark should have been wearing orange gear, that it never should have happened, but this is how it was: Zeke saw something, aimed his rifle and shot. He’s been offering to die ever since, but death won’t have him. He’s a hundred thirty-five-pound Lazarus, wandering the streets of Little Bend day and night, in every kind of weather. Some people buy him beers or try to set him up with cable, fix his Schwinn when he wrecks it; others rob him when he’s staggering home to his apartment from Smitty’s or the Get Lucky. He can be surprisingly strong, and it is well known among the local police that he can inflict a nasty bite.
Little Bend is a river town, an old ferry station on the Susquehanna where people tend to stay, generation after generation. River rats, the people over in Tremont call them, but people who live along a river take things in stride. They are accustomed to emptying their basements when the waters start to rise. They keep their things in plastic tubs, run sumps. They tolerate the river’s caprice, its seeming determination to be useless—rocky and shallow, unnavigable by boats of any consequence, treacherous to the hapless jet skiers and fishermen that come in their stead, with hidden ridges to run aground on and deep channels with sucking currents that swallow the wreckage. A good river to drown in, to build bridges over.
The day Zeke meets Lanie she looks like she’s gardening, just the angle he can see of her, mostly behind, her arms reaching out to yank grass, a pile of pumpkins next to her. But she can’t be growing pumpkins there, off the shoulder of Route 419. He gets closer and when she sits back, still on her knees, he can see she’s clearing weeds from crosses, four white crosses in a row before her. She reaches into a paper sack next to her and pulls out a bunch of bright orange bows, lays them on the grass.
Zeke stands on the shoulder, not wanting to disturb her, takes a couple of sips from his paper cup of coffee. But he wonders about the crosses, so he steps through the weeds, into the grass. She glances back but keeps on with her work.
“Accident?” he finally says.
She nods, twisting wire around one of the crosses, straightening the bow. The last cross is smaller than the others.
“Who’d you lose?”
When she turns to look at him he can’t tell if he’s made her angry—you never know how people will take anything—but then she takes up the last bow, which has extra flowers and stuff on it, and what looks like a little note on yellow paper, and says, “My granddaughter. Amber. And my son.”
“Sorry,” Zeke says, a polite reflex.
She nods, starts moving pumpkins, settles one at the base of each cross. The last, smallest cross gets the smallest pumpkin. She wipes her upper lip, starts gathering her things.
“Hot, ain’t,” he says. It’s late September and for two weeks it’s been over eighty, humid but no rain. Like the weather got stuck. Even though the rest of the summer has been the opposite, wet and cool, windy. Killer hurricanes and floods, that tsunami. His friend Wilson says it’s a sign of the end times, the weather gone crazy.
He wonders about the other crosses, but it seems like a bad question at the moment. In fact, he thinks he’s probably used up his welcome. So he watches in silence as she finishes, puts her things in her paper sack, very tidy, and picks it up. He would offer to help but it’s all air, he can tell, not heavy, and she’s a sturdy sort. Not fat, not fat at all, just sturdy. A pretty grandma, he thinks. Lots of curly red-brown hair. He might have seen her around town.
“I think I know you,” Zeke says, following her along the shoulder. “You drive a pink car?”
“Mary Kay,” the woman says.
“Zeke,” he says.
“No, I’m Lanie,” she says. “It’s a Mary Kay car.”
“Oh, right,” he says, having no idea what she’s talking about. “I’m Zeke,” he says again.
“I know who you are,” Lanie says, but not mean—she gives him a friendly enough smile—smile down below, actually, but a frown around the eyes, like someone smiling into the sun, worried-looking.
“That any good?” she asks as he sips from his coffee.
“But when it’s hot, is it good? I’ve been meaning to try it.”
“Well,” Zeke says, looking up sideways. “Their regular coffee sort of tastes like tar, but the lattes are great.”
“You drink lattes?” she says, and this time she smiles for real, almost laughs. It’s a pretty sight. She stops, lifts her chin over the bag in her arms to check traffic. She’s headed for the parking lot for Chiques Park. There he sees her pink car, poking out from behind a van.
“You never had a latte?” he says, and something about that makes her laugh again.
She walks to her car and he walks straight out of town, like he often does, though there’s nothing on 419 out of town. Walks by the big church where Wilson goes. Down past the John Deere dealer. Steps over smashed rabbits and flattened cups and broken glass, all the stuff people fling out of their windows or run down. He walks a good mile out of town, mostly uphill, winding slowly up and north before crossing the road, looking left, right like Lanie did, and returning on the opposite shoulder, back down to Chiques Park. He sits at an overlook, a big square deck hanging on the edge of a cliff where you can sit at a picnic table or a bench and see Three Mile Island off to the north, the sparkle of the Susquehanna. Between, the woods.
Sometimes big hawks, hovering.
Coming back down the hill Zeke looks at Lanie’s cross garden. You have to look hard; it’s back almost in the trees, blocked by the guardrail. It looks good, he thinks. Real pretty like her car. Too bad there’s no one out here to see.
Zeke sees her in line that week at Human Beans. She buys him a latte. After that, whenever he sees her around town, he says hello, waves at least.
The coffee shop is just down the block on the other side of the street from his apartment. For years Zeke lived in an old barn by the cemetery, wrapping himself in newspaper and baling plastic in cold weather, but three years ago some of the guys in town helped him fill out the forms and get set up with this place, right on the square. He doesn’t like it because of the steps out front. Twice since he moved in he’s fallen down them. The last time, he slipped on the ice, shattered a cheekbone and collapsed a lung, broke half his ribs on one side and was in intensive care for three days. The bill he received, which nobody will pay, exceeded the lifetime earnings figure, $38,000, on the little notices Social Security sends every year.
He’s had two jobs in his life, mowing two different cemeteries.
One night in November, Zeke wakes at three a.m., the worst hour to wake, when everything’s closed and no amount of beer or bourbon will put him out. He’s tried sleeping pills but they only make matters worse—take one one night, it takes two the next, and if you try to cut back you’re up for days—he wound up in the hospital once over that. Till he finally falls back to sleep he thinks it must be morning, and when he wakes again there’s a gray light in his room that could mean any time, could mean night, even. His clock says seven and he’s not sure which seven. He goes to the kitchen window and realizes it’s morning; the sky’s just dark and drizzling. He makes his way down to the coffee shop, shaky and confused, orders a double caramel latte “for here” and takes the giant mug they hand him over to a window seat. Some of the guys down at Smitty’s give him a hard time about coming here, paying all that money to drink fancy coffees in this snooty place, but they never had a caramel latte. It’s almost a meal. It’s like food and dessert and coffee all in one drink. He can go half the day on one.
He’s watching traffic, the rain clinging to the window when he’s startled by Lanie sliding a plate in front of him. It has a biscuit on it almost as big as the plate, with eggs and ham and cheese in it, and big hunks of fruit around it.
“Eat,” she says, and maybe it’s her voice, or the hard look she’s giving him, or maybe the smell of eggs and cantaloupe, which is making his stomach clench up, but Zeke just manages to murmur, “Thanks,” before she’s heading off toward the door, a paper cup of coffee in her hand, all morning fresh and bright in her yellow slicker, her hair up in a fancy tie.
Zeke watches her step into the rain, pull up the hood of her slicker, waits until she’s out of sight before pushing the plate back. He regrets coming out, leaving the house without washing up and shaving. He is usually particular about such things, tries to keep up a neat appearance. He tests his latte and it’s ready to drink and he takes a big swallow, eyeing the sandwich. After the smell of the food has faded and he’s gotten down enough of the latte, he breaks off some of the biscuit, and out of sheer determination not to waste Lanie’s present he manages to eat half.
That weekend she passes him on the hill up 419. When he reaches the top he sees her over by the guardrail, tending her crosses. She’s taking off little bunches of Indian corn she must have fixed to them for Thanksgiving, piling up colorful gourds in the grass next to her. It’s almost December and still unseasonably warm, not even coat weather yet, all but seventy degrees.
He gives her a chance to see him, stands close enough so she can’t miss him. Finally she glances back, looks him over, says, “You’re looking better,” like she’s sort of glad about it.
He walks closer, stands next to her while she takes a bunch of fancy wreaths out of a paper sack, wreaths with a good piney smell, with big red bows. Lanie loops them over the crosses, adjusts the branches. Pulls from the bag a small but heavy looking box with shiny gold wrapping and a red bow.
“Who’re the other two for?” Zeke asks.
She puts the present at the base of the littlest cross, only twelve or so inches high, fluffs up the ribbon.
“A young couple, a nurse and her husband. He was bringing her home from work, out at the VA hospital.”
She packs up the gourds and Zeke takes the bag—no reason he shouldn’t help—and Lanie doesn’t object, lets him walk with her back to the road.
They check traffic, cross.
“Justin. He was high on meth, drunk, too. He crossed into their lane. The police said he was going about ninety-five.”
Zeke drops back, just a half step, gives her the lead. He stands by while she deposits her things in the trunk, takes out her purse. He props the bag of gourds against the side of the trunk so it won’t fall over, folds the top over several times and scrunches it tight, like he’s trying to contain a live animal instead of a bunch of gourds. She mumbles thanks and closes the trunk and stands there, hand on the lid, keys splayed out against the metal, looking at some people flying kites at the overlook. She looks tired, Zeke thinks, not like the other morning, and she’s not making any move toward the car door, so he says, “You ever look at the view from up here?” and she says it’s been a long time.
He leads her across the field, past a boy who is running, head down, a kite jumping in the grass behind him, somebody directing him, slow down, put your arm up, hold it up high. They sit on a bench built into the side of the deck, to the left of a large sign showing all the birds you can see up here. From their seat they can see the view and the kite flyers. The little kid is still running back and forth, dragging his kite behind him. Lanie smiles, just with her mouth.
She tells him about the accident, what her son did. Ran four lights in town before coming up here and wrecking into that couple. Had the cops after him at the end. “What I don’t understand,” she says, not looking at him, never taking her eyes off the kites, or maybe the people, “is why Amber stayed in the car. He stopped at his girlfriend’s house on the way out, and he was there at least fifteen, twenty minutes. So she was in the car that whole time, long enough for him—well, anyway. She had time to get out of the car. And she must have known he was not okay to drive with by then—she knew what to do; her mother and I both talked to her about it. If her Dad got like that she was supposed to leave him, no matter what, no matter where they were, she was supposed to leave him and have somebody call her mom or call me. So why would she stay in the car?”
Zeke says nothing. He heard something about that wreck. Cars on fire, all the fire trucks came out, all the cops, everybody. One of those nights where every siren in town was going.
“Unless she was asleep. It was eleven. She could have been asleep.”
A man is running behind the boy now, holding the kite high, calling out instructions. He launches it; the kite floats for a moment, rises as the boy yanks the string as he’s told, then takes a quick turn and falls straight down. Lanie is looking through them.
“But she couldn’t have slept through the sirens. She couldn’t have slept through the whole thing.”
She tells him about her daughter-in-law, who moved back to Texas afterward, taking Lanie’s only other grandchild, Devon, with her. Not that she could blame her, she says. About her older son who lives in Chicago and has no children yet, and who gave up on Justin and River Bend and maybe Lanie and her husband, too, about ten years ago.
“It’s true what they say,” Lanie tells him. “A son is your son till he says ‘I do,’ but a daughter’s your daughter her whole life through.”
Zeke, who knows very little about mothers and sons and daughters and mothers, nods.
“What are the white trees?” he asks her. They come out at Halloween when the leaves die, their white branches just like antlers or bone.
“Sycamores, I think,” Lanie says, finally turning her head, looking down at them.
When the cold comes, it comes in a day, and like something out of Siberia. No snow, no real weather, no ice, just everything like iron and so cold it makes your eyes ache. Zeke spends a lot of time indoors, logs a lot of careless hours at Smitty’s. He’s come almost to prefer Lanie time. He gets lattes “for here” and sometimes adds a muffin. He waits by the window, and a couple of times when she comes in she sits there with him, looking at the paper, the magazines. Lanie says she’s retired. She doesn’t do shows, she says, doesn’t sell makeup anymore except to a handful of ladies who still call for it. Her husband is retired, too, in more ways than one, Zeke thinks, since he doesn’t seem to talk to Lanie much, otherwise why would she be telling this stuff to him? But he would never say that to Lanie. He suspects it’s different for her when he listens, just like talking to Lanie is nothing like talking to the guys down at Smitty’s.
At Christmas she buys him a little tree with built-in lights. She says he should put it in his window, and he does, setting it on top of an end table next to his television set. Lanie thinks everyone should have a Christmas tree. After New Year’s Lanie tells him take it down, it’s time, and he packs it away as neatly as it came, the balls in their special slots, the tree folding down just like an umbrella and breaking in two, nesting into a surprisingly small box. He puts the boxes in his hall closet, all together in the corner for next year.
She takes him here and there in her pink car, over to the K-Mart in Tremont when he needs things. One night in February, after a week of sunshine and sixty degrees, they get caught in a freak thunderstorm of snow. They’re in the K-Mart buying toilet paper and shampoo and toothpaste, valentines for her grandson in Texas, a pair of shoes for Zeke, and they come out of the store to find two inches of snow fell while they were shopping. They have a hard time pushing the cart to her car, the snow is falling so thick and fast, and Lanie starts down the road toward Little Bend but has to pull over. When the lightning strikes it’s like a camera flash right in their eyes, and then after, for whole seconds, they can’t see, and they sit there turning their heads side to side and blinking, and the sky is unreal, lit upside down or something, and Zeke begins to think maybe Wilson is right, this could be it, time to throw himself flat on the ground and start confessing, and God will come stand over him and say take your time, Zeke, I got all the time in the world.
“Were they calling for this?” Lanie asks. Zeke doesn’t think so.
When spring comes—and it comes in fits and spurts, a hot spell followed by an ice storm, hail once, sudden downpours—he sometimes walks to her house, a nice brick place on the old main street of town, near the watch factory. She has bunchy lace curtains and those little lights in the windows, a porch with twinkly white lights and wooden chairs and a swing. It’s a perfect house, Zeke thinks, what a house should be, like a house in a book or a picture. Sometimes if he’s in the neighborhood late he comes and sits on her swing. It squeaks, so he doesn’t swing hard. Once, he wakes up there just before dawn and doesn’t remember coming at all. He finds his bike by the steps and rides home, accompanied for a short while by an old gray cat he calls Howler.
Zeke used to ride his bike everywhere. He was headed for a job interview over in Tremont thirty years ago, but he stopped in at Smitty’s beforehand. So the joke goes, “How long’s it take to get to Tremont, Zeke?” and Zeke says, “I’m gettin’ there, babe, I’m gettin’ there.”
But how Zeke loves to be sober. He tries to stretch it out later and later that spring as the days grow long again, when he’s feeling up to it. When he’s feeling really good he holds out half the day, will start off early with a caramel latte to go, carry it with him up and down the streets and alleys of Little Bend, feel the last traces of alcohol sweating out through his pores. If he can make it till four, five in the afternoon, that first beer tastes like The First, like the only beer you’ve ever had. It tastes like the one you keep trying to drink long after the first one, when your mouth turns to tin and people become assholes and it’s not really fun anymore.
One day he comes to find Lanie out in her front yard, standing on a stepladder, working a sledgehammer, driving a big wooden cross into the ground. She can’t exactly swing the hammer, but she’s not just dropping it, either. She’s giving it her all, and the look on her face as she pounds makes Zeke hang back. She takes out some purple fabric, finally sees him there by the neighbor’s fence.
“Is it going to rain or not?” she asks him, almost accusingly. She drapes the fabric around the cross like a scarf, then gets a bouquet out of a see-through tub and ties it around the middle.
She brings beautiful flowers for her roadside crosses, mint-colored puffy bows, a basket full of brightly colored plastic eggs to put by the smallest one. Her gold present was gone when they got there, and Zeke asks her what was in it, and she says just a note, and a rock to keep it from blowing away, so whoever took it is in for a letdown.
“My mom always said, you love your kids, Lanie, that’s all you can do, that’s all they need,” she tells him. “You’ll worry yourself to death over all these little things and someday you’ll realize you loved them, that’s all you had to do.”
Zeke takes a sip of his latte, still burning hot, winces.
“But all her kids turned out fine. So of course she could afford to think that.”
He nods, blows through the little hole in the lid, riffling the foam.
“But I treated them both the same; that’s what I don’t understand. They were both so different, but I loved them both exactly the same. I might have spoiled Justin a little— he was younger, and never as good at school, or sports. So, yeah, I might have babied him. Maybe I babied him too much,” she says, and her voice grows tight, tough Lanie starting to blink.
“It’s just like anything else, Lanie. It ain’t no magic power.”
“Love,” Zeke says. “It’s just another thing that ain’t enough.”
One snowfall on the crocuses, one hard freeze to the daffodils. The magnolias bud, as always, too soon, and litter the ground with soggy petals. The river that could never carry much goes on with its make-work, wearing away at the rock that forms its bed.
“Is spring ever coming?” Lanie asks.
This is what Zeke hates: when he doesn’t drink enough and he wakes up in the middle of the night and he can’t shake his dream.
It’s always the same. He goes into Smitty’s and he’s been there drinking and he looks up and there’s Mark, sitting next to him at the bar. And Zeke says, “Mark?” And Mark says, “I’m fine, Charlie, I’m fine.” And Zeke feels his arm, and it’s real, and he’s so happy he orders Coors seven-ouncers and tells the bartender to keep them coming, and they sit there and drink and talk old times. Then Mark turns to him, and Zeke can see that his right eye is a hole, a tiny hole like a cigarette burn in a shirt, and Zeke starts to cry, but Mark says, “No, Charlie, I’m fine. Look, it doesn’t even hurt. Here, feel.” And he takes Zeke’s finger and puts it in the little hole and it goes right through, because the back of his head is missing, but he’s saying, “See, Charlie? You missed. You didn’t even come close.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by The Universal Physics of Escape by Elizabeth Gonzalez