David Falter turned into the uphill drive to an abandoned farmstead and killed the lights. The moonlight was bright enough for him to keep him on the path. Still, because of all the pot and the beer, he veered from one side to the other, barely avoiding the ditch. He brought the car to a stop beneath a lone cottonwood and shut off the engine.
Wolf and the girl he had picked up were already going at it in the back seat. David grabbed the three beers left in the six-pack and reached for the bag of pot but decided against it. Instead, he pushed the door open, stood up too quickly, careened back against the side of the car, and slammed it shut. There was a muffled “what the?” from the girl, with Wolf mumbling that it was just Falter.
David found his balance and lurched forward to the front step of the ramshackle farmhouse. He whirled dizzily, plopped down, pulled one of the beers from its plastic ring, popped its top, and tossed it into the weedy yard. He took a long drink, pulled a Marlboro Light from its pack, and lit up.
It was an eerie night, maybe two or three o’clock in the morning. Wispy clouds crossed in front of the moon and then marched quickly eastward. In the infinite darkness of the Nebraska sky, a multitude of stars lit the night. David shivered as he sat on the step, though it was a warm summer night. He had always been afraid of the dark.
The car rocked slowly from Wolf’s alcohol-induced endurance. David had never mastered the art of picking up girls, and so had, on occasion, been in this same lonely situation. He lit another cigarette, coughing lightly. He always smoked a lot when he drank.
The sounds in the deserted farmyard penetrated David’s numbness. A light but steady wind rotated the blades of a skeletal windmill delineated against the impenetrable heavens. Its banal whining served no purpose with its linkage to the well, disconnected long ago. Still, its fan spun, pumping nothing. To his right came a rustling through the cornfield that made him shudder again, but he knew it was only the wind and, thus, nothing. And then, although there was no sound, he became intensely aware of the house behind him. He bound to his feet with beer and cigarette in his hands, and about falling, he turned to face the house.
Nothing. David stood for a long moment, trying to decide what to do. Should he go back and lean on the side of the car or sit back down on the step? Then, as afraid as the dark made him, the house called to him. He dropped his cigarette butt, lit another one, grabbed for another beer, and stumbled up the step.
He rested the screen door against his shoulder as he jiggled the doorknob. He wished it was locked, but a turn to the right and a slight push and the door creaked open. The inside was surprisingly well lit. Moonlight shone brightly through the windows. Brighter, David thought, than it was outside. But, in his drunken stoned-ness, he did not give it much more thought.
It was a small house with the kitchen cabinet doors open and hanging loose from the hinges to his left. Broken glass glittered green on the floor. Further in was a tiny living room furnished with an upholstery-bare couch and chair. White cotton stuffing spread across the floor mixed with chunks of plaster from the crumbling walls.
The house seemed strangely familiar to him, yet he had never lived in any place like this. He looked back into the kitchen at the green shards and knew it was depression glass, shattered from devastating grief. He puffed hard on his cigarette as the long ashes fell from its tip. Then, in the living room, there was the worn-out chair. Someone had sat there, with herculean effort, until the pain was unbearable.
A dark doorway, an escape from the sitting room’s encircling walls, beckoned from David’s right. He entered and could make out the silhouette of old bedsprings near the lone window. The space seemed hotter than the rest of the house, and he knew someone would appreciate the cool night breeze. He placed his beer on the window ledge, unlocked the latch, and pushed on the frame. It slid up easily, but no breeze came rushing in to displace the oppressive heat. He grabbed his beer, took a drink, and brought it down quickly from his lips. Someone was walking in the living room. He stood still, and then there it was—the distinctive smell of rubbing alcohol.
“There must be another bedroom,” David said to himself. “He’ll be there.”
David knew if he walked into the living room, the lady with the rubbing alcohol—how did he know it was a lady? —would lead him to the other bedroom. David dropped his empty beer can and ran clumsily out of the bedroom.
“Mom?” he stammered as he tottered into the living room.
“What are you doing?” Wolf stood in the gap between the kitchen and the living room. “You okay?”
David bumped into the chair. “Yeah,” he said embarrassingly.
“Well, let’s get out of here.” Wolf laughed uneasily. “I’d better drive.”
“Yeah,” David mumbled.
David staggered towards the screen door, but the crunching beneath his feet brought him to a teetering halt. He caught himself against the kitchen wall and saw his mother taking plates from the dish rack and smashing them against the counter and onto the floor. He and his brother had rushed into the kitchen, running over the shattered glass, screaming for mom to stop.
“Are you coming?” Wolf shouted from outside.
David pushed through the screen and down the step, never looking back at the little white farmhouse, poorly in need of another coat of paint.
They all got in the front seat, Wolf behind the wheel, the girl in the middle, and David riding shotgun. Wolf turned the key to start the engine and said, “He was in there calling for his mommy!”
David did not say anything, and the girl did not seem to care either way. Wolf did a U-turn in the farmyard and headed down the drive. The headlights stayed off until he pulled onto the gravel road.
Wolf drove the car slowly up one hill and down another. The grader had recently been down the road and pushed the gravel into a neat triangular row near the road’s center. When Wolf steered into the row, he momentarily veered toward the ditch, forcing him to slow even more.
The girl in the middle said little as she puffed on a cigarette and flicked ashes into the ashtray. She seemed like more of an inanimate object to David than a person; although Wolf continued to pay attention to her, they had no closeness. David could not comprehend how two people who had just coupled together seemed so distant to each other. Two had not become one, he thought oddly to himself. David was not still a virgin but felt like one. When he had approached girls in the past, they almost always turned him away. He had always wanted to share something with them, but they never wanted what he had to share.
He began to feel something towards this girl and suddenly sensed her humanness, or possibly his own. Perhaps, her indifference was only callousness, layers of scar tissue shielding both hurt and hope. David wanted to know. He tried hard to think of something to say.
“What’s your name?” he blurted out.
“I ain’t got one.” She answered bluntly. She ground her cigarette into the ashtray and looked straight ahead.
Smarting, David turned away and peered out the side window. Tall power poles marched by him. The constant motion made his head spin, and he became afraid of vomiting. He turned to look out the front window and still saw the power poles, but the new perspective settled his stomach. Up and down, the car bobbed as if it were a boat on a stormy sea, yet he grew calmer with each looming pole as if they were beacons on the shore. His eyes followed each up to the crossbeams forming one ‘T’ after another. In the moonlight, they extended into an endless vanishing point on the horizon. The cross on the top of each pole beckoned-pulled at him-and he thought of the church he had gone to long ago.
He had not been to church since his father had died. At first, his family failed to go the first few Sundays after the funeral because of the reminders of dad’s suffering and the people who had prayed for him. In time, the not-going had become a habit. There was also the anger they felt, especially his brother. His brother had prayed for dad’s healing, but the healing had not come. So instead, Mom administered shot after shot of morphine as dad wasted away as if he were a victim of the holocaust. Who was this God that had allowed his father to die? Why would God do that?
Still, the crosses called to David. The beam of the headlights magnified each new pole as it came into view. The wires that hung from pole to pole became less visible. Only the crosses shone now.
“Do you see the crosses?” David said excitingly, pointing upwards.
“You mean the telephone poles?” Wolf said derisively. “You’ve smoked too much pot. They are just telephone poles. They ain’t nothing but telephone poles!”
The girl laughed at him and shook her head. “You got one crazy screwed up friend,” she said to Wolf.
David turned away and withdrew inside. They were only power poles again, but they still beckoned.
The gravel road seemed endless. David knew that it was only a few short miles, maybe five minutes as slow as Wolf was going, from the farmhouse to the pavement, yet it seemed they had traveled two, three, four times that long. He was going to say something but felt he had said enough.
Then Wolf drove over the last hill and slammed on the brakes. Gravel caught the tires, and he spun, out of control, into the ditch.
The beams of his headlights, extending into the darkness, illuminated a tall ladder reaching to the crossbeam of the last pole. One man steadied the ladder from below while another removed a dead body from the top of the telephone pole.
The man on top slung the body over his shoulder and slowly descended, stopping on each rung to steady his burden. There was no electric company truck nearby, just two men and the body. When the man was nearly down, the other man reached up and took the body from him. Then each placed their shoulders under the dead man’s arms and lifted him up, his feet dangling only inches from the ground. Stepping down into the ditch and then up the other side, they carried the body across the road, passing in front of the three onlookers, neither acknowledging the car nor the people inside it. Once across, they traversed the opposite ditch, entering an overgrown cow pasture.
Wolf’s hands grasped the steering wheel with both hands. The girl sat there—her mouth gaping.
“Let’s get out of here.” Wolf’s right hand left the steering wheel and reached for the gearshift.
“No!” David screamed and shot out of the door. Then, faltering in the unevenness of the ditch, he righted himself and began running towards the two men.
“David, no, get back here!” Wolf was out of his door now.
The girl scooted to Wolf’s side of the car and ran towards him. “Don’t leave me!” she begged, fearing to be alone.
The two men lugging the body had now topped a rise in the pasture and descended to the other side. David raced wildly towards them but made up no ground on the slow-moving men.
“David, wait! Get back here! You don’t know what you’re getting into!” Wolf shouted, almost catching up with David with the girl close behind.
The two men ascended another hill, and David, his head pounding and his legs growing heavy, struggled to keep pace. Then, slowing, Wolf caught David and tackled him to the ground.
“Stop! Let’s get back in the car and get out of her. Something’s not right here.” He tried to talk sense to David.
He was David’s friend, although David never quite understood why. David’s life had never been right since his father’s death. After high school, on his own, life had spun even more out of control with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, and Wolf had been there to encourage that life. He had drank and smoked with him night after night with occasional encounters with cocaine, speed, and acid. But Wolf had never encouraged him to do anything David really knew he should be doing. It was Wolf’s world, and David could only be Wolf’s friend in that world.
“No!” He pushed Wolf away. One leg loosened from Wolf’s grip, and he smashed it against his chest. Almost on his feet, David’s palm went to Wolf’s face and pushed him backward. David quickly rose and, again, ran with abandonment towards the two men.
“Let him go.” The girl pleaded with Wolf. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No!” Wolf shouted at her. “He’s my bro. I’ve got to stop him.”
Wolf sprang to his feet and ran towards David, the girl chasing after him. She had no idea where the car or road was and had no choice but to follow.
When David reached the top of the rise, he stopped. The two men approached a farm pond where a long cable hung from the sky. Upwards the cable ascended into a small cloud existing only above the water. At its bottom was a massive metal hook.
Wolf, too, halted at the top of the hill, the girl slamming into him. The three stood there, watching, not believing their eyes. The pond was shallow, with the water coming up only to the two men’s knees. But as they neared the hook, small waves appeared as if generated by some whirling motion of a helicopter flying above the pond. But there was no helicopter, only a motionless cloud, a straight, firm cable, and a man-sized hook that hung a few feet from the surface.
The two men neared the hook and gently laid the body in its crook. Then, for the first time, it moved. David could see the blood that dripped from the man’s face and hands. His arm reached towards the two men and stroked their faces. At that moment, the hook slowly began to rise. David could no longer control himself. He broke into a sprint towards the pond.
“Wait for me! Take me with you!”
David’s feet broke the surface of the water, and he splashed towards the hook. The two men finally noticed David and turned towards him as the pond grew suddenly deeper. David was flailing in the water and in over his head. The pool surrounded him, engulfed him. Through the crystal-clear water, he could no longer see the two men but watched the body they had taken from the cross ascend into the heavens.
Wolf and the girl witnessed the whole scene from the crest of the hill, then came down to the pond, waded in, and pulled David’s body to the shore. Thinking him dead, Wolf was overjoyed when he started to cough up water from his lungs. The girl knelt beside him and touched his cheek.
“My name is Maggie,” she said, finally answering his question, “are you okay?”
“Yeah,” David replied, “I don’t hurt anymore.”
“Me neither,” she said, letting the tears run down her cheeks.
Avery S. Campbell is a pseudonym. It is a tribute to a chopper driver who insisted the author go back to college, a retired Marine Sergeant who exemplified honor and loyalty, and a geography professor who, once, gave an encouraging word. Campbell has been a middle school teacher, a park ranger at Fort Larned National Historic Site and Fort Union National Monument and an educator at the Kansas State Museum, the South Carolina Archives, and the National Archives at Atlanta. He has served as State Coordinator of National History Day for both Kansas and South Carolina. A true-blue Nebraska Loper, the author is a graduate and former employee of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a member of the Western Writers of America.