Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Emma parked her car out of sight, behind the crumpled tin and zinc silo. Warm, bright light colored the ruins of the abandoned farmstead. The old house was mostly intact and it cast a shadow across the disheveled shrubs surrounding the structure. Some well-worn footpaths zigzagged through the tall grass to the grim, storm-battered stockade of the shelter belt. Some long-necked implements, possibly an auger and a cultivating machine, stood rusting in the high grass still bleached blonde with winter-kill. The farm stood on an exposed ridge seventy yards from the State Highway, a cold and windy place in the winter.
Emma’s husband was scheduled to preach two days from now. She wondered if he would adhere to that schedule and presume to address the congregation when it became known, as would surely be the case, that she had fled from him and their daughter and marriage. This was an imponderable and, as Emma stood next to the battered farmhouse, she realized that she could not answer that question no matter how much she thought about it. This made her sad because she realized how little she actually knew about the man to whom she was married. Her knowledge was inadequate when it came to his mind and, of course, to him she was also unknown, a fabulous, formless darkness that he could not pierce no matter how desperately he tried.
Probably, Emma thought, her departure would merely inconvenience him and, notwithstanding her boyfriend’s protestations to the contrary, she thought it unlikely that he would make any real effort to pursue her. "You must take off the license plate on the car," Cody Ran told her. His email message directing her to await him at this abandoned farm advised that another license plate was in a blakc garbage sack, pinned down by a brick, on the back stoop of the house. "Put that license on the car," Cody Ran’s email message said. "That way, he won’t be able to track you down." But Emma didn’t think her husband was the sort of man who would hunt for her. Instead, he would shed some mild tears, console their daughter, try to pray although without success, and, then, reconcile himself to a situation over which he had no control. That was Emma’s assessment of the situation, but, then, she had just admitted in her own mind that she didn’t understand her husband, that he was older than her by a full ten years, and that he was, after all, a man and, therefore, more accessible to the understanding of another man, even someone flamboyant and godless like Cody Ran and, so, perhaps, her lover’s assessment was accurate.
Emma removed her lap top computer from her car and carried it, power cord dangling treacherously down to her ankles. The cord snaked between legs as if to trip her. Cody Ran’s last email, setting the time and date and place for their elopement, instructed her to take the computer and carry it toward the shelter belt where she would find the wreckage of a windmill beside the palisade of smashed and twisted trees. He ordered her to lift the plywood covering the well-shaft so that she could throw the lap top into the darkness. "Your husband is a powerful man," Cody Ran had written to her. "He will use his influence to search your computer for clues to our romance. He will try to discovery my identity and force you to return to him and your loveless marriage."
Blizzards had crushed the windmill and it was a criss-cross of metal staves pointing into the sky. She slid the plywood decking away from the pit and inhaled the cold, watery breath of the earth. If nothing else, her relationship with Cody Ran would be an adventure. The computer fell away from her hands as if they had suddenly become numb and nerveless. All of this cloak and dagger stuff, this espionage aspect to their liaison was intriguing to her, even exciting, but, completely unnecessary she thought. Nonetheless, she was preparing to deliver herself into the hands of her lover, a man she had met only for one afternoon, and whom she knew entirely from his emails and pictures and short jocular videos posted on that very same computer that had now dropped soundlessly into the darkness beneath the splintery, warm plywood. She supposed that it would be thrilling to do his bidding for a time, to serve him and make him happy, and that, certainly, the relationship would not last because, after all, it was built on deceit and treachery. Surely, she would tire of Cody Ran or he would lose interest in her but, then, she would be occupying a different life. The nature of this different life looming before her was unimaginable, but necessary and so, trembling a little at the brush of the wind rising up from the vast flat flood plain below, she slid the plywood back over the well and, then, went to the rear of the house to retrieve the substitute license plate and the screwdriver that she would have to use to put that plate on her car.
Emma took her cell-phone from her pocket and looked at it. Cody Ran would arrive at the farmstead in ninety minutes. Cody Ran had told her to throw the cell-phone away as well. "If you come with me," he said, "I will tolerate no signs of your past unhappiness. We are embarking on a new way of life." But too much of her life was stored in the cell-phone and she wasn’t willing to hurl it into some ditch or slough. There was always a possibility that something might happen to her daughter. Mothers who fled their husbands were inevitably punished in the children that they had left behind and, if her daughter was hurt somehow or hit by a car or diagnosed with leukemia, then, she would want to take the call or, at least, read her husband’s text-message to that effect. That would be her penance for the adventure on which she had embarked. She would have to conceal the phone in her purse, keep it on mute, and consult it only surreptitiously so that Cody Ran would not know that she was already defying his orders.
She had been apprehensive about replacing the license plate. But the task was easier than she expected. Cody Ran had not thought about the discarded license plate. His carefully engineered getaway documented by email had not included that detail. Emma wondered about that omission. Perhaps, he had not considered everything. Perhaps, Cody Ran’s plan was flawed. Maybe, he was like her, fleeing from something known into the unknown, and his imagination had not fully fleshed-out the future between them. Emma felt proud that her cunning was a step ahead of her lover’s plan. She carried the discarded license plate to the well into which she had dropped the laptop and tossed it into the darkness as well.
At this time of year, before spring planting, the flood plain was striped with alternating ribbons of fallow and cultivated land. The edges of the fields were green with brush and freshly sprouted weeds and the land that had been broken for tilling was the color of dark chocolate. Far away and invisible from the mild height were she stood, an incongruously slender and mild-looking river flowed toward the north. In this latitude, a river that flows north invariably encounters ice blocking its outlet and, accordingly, every spring exceeds its banks upstream, a vast, sluggish and knee-deep overflow more like a geological event than a flood fanning out across the many miles of flat land to create an ephemeral cold lake that the winds stirred to little wavelets breaking against the levee-like embankments of the roadways crossing the plain. The farmhouse stood on the range of low knolls hemming in the ancient flood plain and its transient spring-time lakes, the first ground in forty or fifty miles raised high enough above the waters on a pedestal of glacial moraine to be secure from the spring-time flooding.
Like green islands, little villages dotted the plain. Emma seemed to be able to see forever, but she was gazing toward the east, the rising sun, and, therefore, back toward the past and town on the banks of the river where she lived with her husband, the pastor and candidate for the Synod bishopric, and her little daughter. The perspective seemed ruthless to her, as pitiless as her current mood. If she turned in the other direction, toward the cut in the hills made by the state highway, small featureless heights cupping sloughs and glacial lakes rose above her in the direction of the setting sun, an acclivity so slight as to be imperceptible, but, nonetheless, rendering it impossible to see any distance in that direction.
Jesus, Emma thought, was 33 when he began his ministry. That was her age as well.
The representatives from the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe came late to the meeting. Someone joked that the railroad officials had found themselves detained by one of their own oil trains, a pipeline on rails more than a mile long, at a right-of-way crossing somewhere out in the county. But, in fact, the BNSF people were lost in town as a consequence of a GPS system that didn’t have the proper coordinates for the Humboldt Public Library in its memory. Ten minutes later, they bustled into the library, making brisk and insincere apologies, and blinking, as if in overly bright sunlight, at the big crowd of people crammed into the meeting room. Some TV people were present from Fargo and they had shoved themselves to the front of the assembly with their cameras and sound recording equipment and many of the townsfolk, who were less aggressive, loitered in the hallway outside the room or gathered in grumbling groups among the stacks in the library, in the little lounge between the periodicals and encyclopedias, or, even, stood outside in the cold parking lot.
The railroad people consisted of a woman who had flown into Fargo that afternoon from a big city on one of the coasts, the supervisor of the North Dakota BNSF operations, a squat man too heavy for his suit who shifted uncomfortably in a chair that seemed too small for him, and a featureless lawyer of indeterminate age who proclaimed that he was "just an attorney" and had nothing of significance to say but who, in fact, did almost all of the talking. Humboldt’s mayor introduced himself, tapping at the microphone to get the attention of the crowd and, then, he called for the city council members to also rise and be recognized, something that they did one by one to cautious applause and friendly jeering. Then, the mayor told the BNSF folks to identify themselves.
The meeting had been called to discuss the nuisance caused by the huge oil trains that periodically rumbled through Humboldt. The trains transported crude oil from the Bakken shale formation on the other end of the state to refineries in the Midwest or, even, Galveston and the Louisiana delta. The trains were immense, so long that a man standing on the red locomotive emblazoned with the BNSF shield would have difficulty seeing the end of the train – an immense caravan of hundreds of identical black torpedo-shaped cars. The cylindrical cars looked like bombs and, in fact, the so-called "light ends" of the oil stored within them, the most volatile fraction of the crude, was flammable and had exploded in the course of several recent derailments. In Quebec, more than forty people had been burned to death when a BNSF oil train slipped off the tracks and blew up in a residential suburb.
"What guarantee can you make" the Mayor asked, "that something similar won’t happen to us in Humboldt?" The BNSF right-of-way bisected the town, running for a thousand yards within the village-limits with no fewer that six gated right-of-way crossings. A woman stood up and taking a microphone proffered to her said that she ran a day-care and that the tracks were a stone’s throw from the fenced backyard where her children played. Another woman, a teacher at an elementary school, expressed her concern as well. "We feel we have a slow-moving bomb moving through our city five times a day," the Mayor said.
In the back of the meeting room, a young man with a mullet haircut was sweating in a pilled brown sweater that was too warm for the crush of people in the room. The young man asked a middle-aged man wearing a feed cap if the trains passed through the town on a regular schedule. The farmer in the feed cap said that until two weeks before the schedule of oil trains rolling through Humboldt had been classified, a proprietary trade secret – "they said they were afraid of terrorism, someone blowing up the trains en route," the farmer told the young man with the mullet. "But do you know now?" the young man asked. He had a pen poised over a moleskin notebook. "They finally agreed to tell us in advance," the farmer said. "The oil train schedule is posted on the bulletin board at the City Hall." "Is it accurate?" the young man asked, making a note. "Like clockwork," the farmer said.
The farmer looked at the young man with curiosity. At the front of the room, the woman from the Coast was saying that BNSF was doing its patriotic duty and that the oil trains supported the war effort and America’s energy independence. A bearded man in the audience, someone known to be an organic farmer and a radical environmentalist, denounced the oil companies and, then, the wars in the Middle East. The lawyer said suavely: "Those are issues on which we can agree to disagree. We’re hear to answer questions about our operations as they affect your city."
"I don’t know you," the farmer whispered to the young man. "Did you just get hired by the newspaper here in town?" The young man shook his head. "No," he said, "I’m with the newspaper in Bismarck. We’re going to run a story on the effects of oil trains in small communities this weekend." "You don’t say," the farmer said in a soft voice.
A local policeman took the microphone and said that he had been delayed responding to emergency calls by up to fifteen minutes. "Those trains are endless," he said, "and they cut right through the middle of town. I can’t get west to east or vice-versa if there’s a train passing for almost a quarter of an hour. That time is vital if I’m responding to a medical emergency or a domestic."
The lawyer said that the local ordinance requiring the train to travel no faster than 15 miles per hour in town was the cause of that delay. "We would like to transit the town at our regular rail speed of forty-five," the lawyer told the crowd. "That’s why we’d like to see the speed ordinances relaxed." "The trains are too big," a housewife told the people. "I don’t want them going any faster than 15. I live a block away from the tracks. If they go any faster, the ground shakes like an earthquake." "You see," the lawyer said, "it’s a balancing act. There are a lots of competing interests." The policeman said that he knew ambulance drivers and EMT’s who had lost patients while waiting at the railroad crossings. "We have to get the train through town faster," the cop said. The housewife sneered at him and said that the police were just looking for an excuse for high-speed chases and that wasn’t necessary as far as she was concerned. "With all due respect, madam," the cop said, "you don’t know anything about law enforcement." Some of the people applauded; others hooted.
"Could we go 30 miles per hour, perhaps?" the lawyer asked. The little fat man who was the regional director of the BNSF nodded vigorously. The woman from the Coast was impassive, seeming to count the number of people in the crowd for some report that she was planning on filing. The hippie farmer stood up again and asked rhetorically: "Isn’t there a better way?" The farmer turned to the man with the mullet standing beside him to make a sardonic comment. But the young reporter had vanished.
A half-hour later, an imposing fellow wearing a thick, khaki Carhart coat asked several pointed questions to the BNSF panel. The man had a Minnesota Vikings stocking cap stuffed in his coat pocket. The local news media angled their cameras to film the man with the penetrating questions. He announced that he was a journalist from Bismarck who had come to the meeting to report on it for his newspaper. After the meeting, the farmer wearing the seed cap shook hands with the Bismarck journalist. "It’s nice to see that you’re so interested in this problem," the farmer said. "I met your colleague in the back of the hall."
"My colleague?" the journalist asked. He had taken the stocking cap from his pocket was preparing to insert his head into it. Some flakes of snow fell from the sky.
"I hope this is the last snow for the year," the journalist said.
"It should be fifty degrees next week,’ the farmer responded.
"Spring has sprung," the journalist replied. "I don’t know who you mean," he added. "I’m the only reporter here from Bismarck."
"It must be another paper," the farmer said. "The kid said he was a writer for a Bismarck paper."
"There’s only one paper in Bismarck," the journalist told him.
The farmer was puzzled. He squinted: "I guess I misunderstood him or something."
The meeting had lasted for three hours. The BNSF representatives looked weary and glum. They had to return to Fargo, a distance of fifty miles on a completely flat arrow-straight road that ran between muddy fields and snow-clogged ditches on the flood-plain. Driving from the townhall meeting, the regional coordinator glanced at his watch. Something hooted in the distance. "The train," he said. "You’re fucking kidding me," the woman from the Coast replied.
They stopped at the railroad crossing in the flare of the warning lights and listened to the iron wheels clacking as the hundreds of oil cars rolled by, each of them briefly bathed in blood, it seemed, by the bright red signal. A long queue of cars and pickup trucks gathered behind them. The train seemed barely moving and the rhythm of the wheels snapping against the right-of-way was like some kind of prolonged, hopeless morse code, a message tapped out to the cold skies overhead.
"This is a fucking nightmare," the woman from the Coast said.
"Five times a day for this town,’ the BNSF regional director said.
"I could run as fast," the woman said. "When I go for a jog, I run as fast. These fucking yokels."
The lawyer said that the right-of-way in the town was questionable anyway, eroded by years of grain-trucks rumbling over the tracks. "The infrastructure wouldn’t support thirty, let alone 45," he said.
A pickup truck behind them flooded the interior of the car driven by the BNSF regional director with a pitiless white light. The lady lawyer used the illumination to re-apply her lipstick.
"You gotta be kidding me," she said again, gesturing at behemoth train.
After he had left the meeting, the young man with the mullet drove downtown and found the City Hall. The door was open and he went inside. The offices and meeting rooms were all locked but the hallway was lit and the tile floor smelled of waxy polish. Somewhere, a vacuum cleaner was running. The young man stood in front of the bulletin board and looked at the schedule listing the times that the oil trains would be passing through Humboldt. He made some notes in his moleskin.
Two hours later, the young man sat in his car, facing the railroad track where a train assembled from hundreds of identical black cars, each with a hatch like a submarine, was lumbering by. The woman with him kept bending toward his face to kiss his lips.
"Where does he think you are?" the young man asked.
"I told him that I was going to the town meeting, the big hoo-ha about the trains," she said.
"He must know it’s over by this time," the young man said.
"My husband doesn’t pay attention to things like that," the woman said. And she leaned over, straining against her seat belt to kiss him again. The red lights flashed across their face, warnings that both of them ignored.
"I’ll give you instructions where we will meet next time," the young man with the mullet said.
"I’m so happy," the pastor’s wife told him.
On the frontage road at the Coon Rapids’ off-ramp, there were two restaurants, Dennys and Perkins. Zig and Terry wanted to eat at the Dennys. Cody Ran Emmett overruled them. He said that he needed to buy a Peanut Butter Silk Cream pie as a gift for a woman. "You can get a patty melt in Perkins just as well as Dennys," Emmett said to Zig. "It’s always a mistake getting involved with a woman," Zig replied. Emmett shrugged and parked the car. There is a navigable river and a transcontinental freeway and coast-to-coast railroad tracks in Coon Rapids and horns hooted in the cool evening air perfumed with diesel.
After they had eaten, Emmett took his moleskin from his pocket and explained the plan. Terry looked skeptical: "It’s over-complicated," he said. "Why do you have to put in all this complicated stuff?"
Emmett replied that his scheme was ingenious. "We use the train as a wall. It blocks the whole town, cuts the place in half. The police station and most of the businesses, the residential housing – the people and commerce: it’s all east of center. West you have the railroad tracks, grain terminals and warehouses for sugar beets, the part of the town that floods and is mostly vacant lots, and, then, the river which is the border, of course. There’s no reason for cops to be cruising anywhere west of the tracks. Once, the train comes into town, law enforcement can’t get across. I heard them complaining about it – the oil trains are a mile long and they go very slow and there’s no way to get around it or under it. All we have to do is get to the west, across the tracks, and, then, the train will cut off all pursuit for – I don’t know – they were saying as long as fifteen minutes."
"But it takes too much timing," Zig said. "You got too much choreography."
"Not at all," Emmett replied. He had stolen a phone book from the motel where he had stayed in Humboldt during his last visit. He took the phone book from his briefcase and opened it to the page in the front where there was a Humboldt city map.
"The bank is only a block, a block and a half from the railroad crossing," Emmett said. "We know the exact times that the big oil trains come into town. It’s scheduled at the city hall and the trains are reliable – they show up like clockwork."
"So we leave the bank," Terry said, "drive across the railroad tracks and, then, what?"
"The train cuts off the cops," Emmett said. "They can’t follow us. We cross into North Dakota –"
"— and, then, the North Dakota state patrol blocks the road and we’re fucked," Zig said.
"Not at all," Emmett told him. "The closest town in North Dakota is about 26 miles to the west. It’s not exactly heavily populated up there. If the cops in that town get the alert, which will take a while, they have to deploy east, that is, drive to the border to intercept us. That’s where the woman comes in."
"This is the part I don’t like," Terry said.
"I don’t like any part of this, " Zig said.
"Don’t be pussies," Emmett said. "We zoom across the valley, about ten miles to an abandoned farm house, just off the road. She’s waiting there with her car. We switch vehicles and, now, they’ve got no ID on us at all."
"You can’t trust a woman," Zig said.
"This lady’s a pastor’s wife," Emmett said. "She loves me. She’s totally reliable."
"A pastor’s wife?" Terry shook his head. "The bitch must be crazy."
"Must be crazy to want any part of you," Zig said.
"There’s only one part of me she really wants," Emmett said.
"So, then, what?" Terry asked.
"We let her drive for awhile, make nice," Emmett said. "Once, we get west of Bismarck, we knock her out or something, put her in the trunk of the car, and let her ride there."
"I don’t want to be part of a kidnaping or a homicide," Zig said.
"She’s very...attractive...lush, you’ll see what I mean..." Emmett said. "We can take turns with her and, then, let her off somewhere in the oil patch. No one needs to get hurt."
"In the oil patch?" Terry asked.
"Get out to Williston and leave her in oil patch. There’s plenty of women working the camps out there. She’ll be fine. We can even pay her something for her trouble," Emmett said. "Acquire the car from her. She’ll be ashamed of the whole thing and, I’m guessing, won’t say a word to anyone."
"That’ll never work," Terry said.
"We must have another vehicle, another car stashed somewhere," Emmett said. "Someone’ll make our car in Humboldt. That’s why we need another vehicle."
"Can’t we just hide one in that farmstead?" Zig asked.
"It’s too late," Emmett said. "We’re past the point of no-return. She’ll be waiting for us there, tomorrow afternoon."
"It’s much too complicated," Zig said. "You’ve got too many moving parts."
"Trust me," Emmett said. "You can trust me. I’ve got this analyzed. We rob the bank, use the train to block any pursuit, switch cars out in the country. Then, we’ve got the woman for entertainment. That sweetens the whole deal. I’ve told her to be completely secretive, to conceal everything to keep her husband for getting on our trail. So I can guarantee that she’ll be discreet."
"That’s not the nature of women," Terry said.
"What do you know?" Zig asked.
"I know," Terry said. "I’m not a lover-boy like Emmett. But I know."
Emmett closed the phone book and put it in his brief case. "The train comes into town tomorrow at 2:45 pm. We hit the bank at 2:38 let’s say. We’re across the tracks by 2:45. Safe. You gotta see these oil trains – they’re monsters."
The waitress brought their checks. Emmett signalled that he would take the tickets. He looked at them and waved to the waitress. "Miss – Miss –" he said.
She returned and smiled at him tentatively, shifting from one foot to another as if her heels and toes were sore.
"We had one pot of coffee between us," Emmett said. "It’s supposed to be bottomless."
"It is bottomless," the waitress said, biting her lower lip.
"There’s three charges here," Emmett said. "But we had only one pot of coffee."
"That’s how we’re supposed to charge," the waitress said.
Emmett threw the tickets down on the table. "That’s fucking bullshit," he said.
"You don’t need to talk to me that way," the waitress said. She turned and walked back to the cashier’s station.
A minute later, an older woman wearing slightly tinted glasses approached the table.
"Is there a problem?" she asked.
"We got overcharged on the coffee," Emmett said.
"Let it go," Terry advised.
"Just let it go," Zig said.
"It’s supposed to be bottomless," Emmett said.
"It is bottomless, but we charge per person. It says so right on the menu," the woman said.
"She didn’t tell me," Emmett said.
"It’s right on the menu," the older woman said. "And you shouldn’t be using the F-word with a young girl like that."
Emmett shrugged. "Whatever you say," he replied.
"Just let it go," Zig said again.
Emmett tried to hand the woman some money. "Pay the cashier," she said.
Terry left a tip on the table and Emmett paid for their meals and the coffee. He went to the bakery counter and picked out a Peanut Butter Silk Cream pie. Tapping on the glass protecting the pie, Emmett said: "I need that cream pie for my sweetheart."
"They’re so good," the cashier said.
"Cream pie for my sweetheart, darling," Emmett said.
"I’m not your darling," the woman told him.
"You don’t look like you’re anyone’s darling," Emmett said.
The woman blushed, looked away from him, and, then, took his cash. She put the cream pie in a paper bag.
"We’ll eat it up before we get to St. Cloud," Terry said.
"You do that," Emmett told him. "and I’ll have to shoot you dead."
"You bet," Zig said.
Emma sat on concrete steps beneath the farmhouse’s back door. The steps were pre-formed, a single pour of terraced concrete mass-produced by some company that also made burial vaults and culverts. In the shadow of the house, the concrete was cold under her body and she shivered slightly. When she closed her eyes, the sound of birds trilling over hidden seeps of water in the nearby shelter-belt became louder and more vivid. An image of her husband, preaching from the pulpit about the sanctity of all God’s creation occurred to her but her inner eye assigned colors to the bird songs and the whisper of the trees in the breeze was a water-color wash and so the pastor’s face was all overwritten with swirls and vortices of sound.
She went inside the house. Places like this went vacant when the last family member living on the farm fell and broke her hip and had to be moved to a nursing home in one of the nearby towns and, then, for a few years, a grandson living in a city a thousand miles away might try to rent the house for eighty or ninety dollars a month, but, in the end, the tenants always turned out to be dead-beats who used the place for cooking methamphetamine and, after the home had been thoroughly trashed with uncollected garbage and the droppings of the pit-bulls trained to patrol the property perimeter and the soiled disposable diapers disposed of in adjacent ravines, stinking white avalanches of them among the discarded implements and appliances. Then, the tenants would strip the copper wire from the conduits and unscrew the light bulbs and leave the place so that it was deserted once more and, now, suitable only for the bulldozer. This is what inevitably happened to such places, the homes of the pioneers erected with blood, sweat, and tears on the lonely Dakota prairie and this house on the hill was, now, bereft, having completed the stations of the cross as were relevant to an abandoned farmstead and, within a season or so, maybe after someone had used the house to commit suicide, the walls and the old shingle roof and basement gouged into the loess hill would be knocked down and buried under the hillside, all the debris pushed down deep enough so as not to interfere with the plows and cultivators managing the crops of soybeans and feed corn that would be planted on the site. The bulldozer hired to demolish the house and the outbuildings would also be used to uproot the shelter belt and shove the trees into a big pyre that could be lit on fire and burnt for a day and a night until reduced to ashes, thereby also increasing the tillable acreage on the site.
Emma thought of these things happening, idly and without interest, and she wondered where she would be when the earthmoving equipment sliced through the walls rising above her, walls that seemed so permanent and firmly affixed in the earth but whose firmness, she knew, was a sham and an illusion – it was all just lathe and two-by-fours swathed in some insulation, a balloon that a single prick might pop. The end was coming; this much she knew.
Emma looked at her watch. Time had slowed. It was like watching a pot and waiting for the water to boil. She found that the back door was open and so she went inside the house and found that it was bright inside, the big windows designed to admit as much sunlight as possible into a structure that had been built before electricity brought artificial light to the plains. On a table, in one of the rooms, there was a child’s backpack made of shiny vinyl, straps and fasteners splayed out around the plastic pouch like ineffectual and broken limbs. A coffee mug sat disregarded on a counter. A mummified mouse adorned a trap in the corner of the kitchen. The steps creaked as she climbed them and she wondered if they would hold her weight. Upstairs some clothing knotted together as if to make a tourniquet lay in the center of a bedroom. Some hangers glinted in an open closet and there was an ankle-high stack of girlie magazines in other of the rooms under the window sill overlooking the shelter belt. The ceiling had collapsed in the bathroom and filled the tub with charred-looking shingles and rotting boards prickly with nails.
Emma stood over the stack of magazines and inhaled the smell of rot coming from them. She looked across the bright air to the shelter belt. A squirrel was making a tour of the tallest tree in the grove. The squirrel scampered higher and higher, lunging upward over branches that became increasingly delicate until they were merely fronds, a bundle of twigs swaying under the ascending squirrel’s tail and hind quarters. Just at the point where the branches yielded, suddenly dropping out from beneath the squirrel, a kind of aerial trapdoor opening in the heights of the tree, the animal leaped laterally, catching another web of spidery branches that cushioned the squirrel and, held its weight, until the little creature could find a better grip on a more solid bough. Blithely, and with complete confidence, squirrel began a tour of the heights of this new new tree, climbing upward again until Emma felt dizzy watching the animal and, assessing its routes, all of them leading to yet another plunging lunge across the void.
She went downstairs. Her guts clenched with anxiety. Was there a place to go to the bathroom?
Probably, Cody Ran would not appear. She would remain here until the day darkened and, then, return chastened to her home, her husband, her child. It would be almost acceptable. But, yet...
Emma walked around the house and took courage from the sunny side of the structure, the high white wall reflecting the radiance of the day down on her. With every thought that Cody Ran was not coming, she felt a countervailing motion. Something was approaching: it was moving across the plain, relentless, implacable – she felt a sense of great and irresistable momentum, a force laboring to arrive and make itself known. Emma didn’t know whether the force was within her or in the world outside – but when she stepped on the ground, the earth trembled with the onslaught of a new existence dawning all around her.
They drove into Humboldt mid-afternoon. The sun was bright and reflected from the glass and aluminum window frames like fire from a welder’s torch. Emmett parked the car three blocks from the bank next to a church. The church was built on a mound a half dozen feet above the surrounding businesses and overlooked a swampy city park. Emmett opened his brief case and removed some battered opera-glasses that he had purchased for eight dollars in a pawnshop in St. Cloud. He looked across the city park, past the white blister of the bandshell, a forlorn-structure that seemed to have been deposited in the bog like an ark by some great and muddy flood. The park stretched along the river where there were some pens imprisoning mangy captive wolves and a bison, threadbare as an old davenport, creatures lurking behind the cyclone fence, a sort of refugee camp that had to be evacuated to higher ground every spring. Beyond a fog of brush and trees, perhaps, four miles away, a railway trestle embalmed in black tar, spanned the river.
"When the engine pulling the train crosses the bridge" Emmett said, "we will have about nine minutes to rob the bank and cross the tracks. I’ve timed it."
"I can’t see no bridge," Terry said.
"It’s in those trees," Emmett replied.
"Don’t see it," Terry said again.
Emmett asked if Zig and Terry had their weapons. The two men squinted at Emmett nervously and reached into their coats to assure themselves that they were armed. Emmett asked them if they had their loot bags. Zig said that he had tied his burlap bag around his waist, hidden under his coat. Terry shrugged: "Probably won’t be any loot," he said.
Zig opened a sack of potato chips. Down by the river, among fallen trees and flotsam tangled in sumac bushes, a man was walking a cream-colored labrador. The river was invisible, a faint scent like a wet basement in the breeze. Emmett looked from his wristwatch to the trestle, picking the wooden beam out at the bend in the river, the sun catching the surface of an intervening lagoon and striking off sparks of light that momentarily dazzled the eye.
Emmett reminded Zig and Terry to be careful with their firearms and to be polite to the cashier since it would not be beneficial to terrorize the bank employees to the point that they were unable to respond to the robber’s commands. He appraised Zig’s profile, sitting beside him on the front seat, munching on a potato chip. Then, he looked in the rear-view mirror and caught a glimpse of Terry. Terry was licking his lips so that they looked wet and glossy and he kept casting an eye over his shoulder. When Emmett turned the opera glasses toward the railroad trestle, he was puzzled: a black, moving wall was shuddering there, a mirage in the tattered woods that seemed shapeless, a tremulous shadow riveted to the span of iron and creosote-coated timber. The locomotive had already crossed the bridge and was hidden in the river-side trees.
"We’ve got to go," Emmett said. He turned on the car and put it in gear and, then, drove to the edge of downtown, a couple of taverns and a furniture store with a delivery truck parked at its door and the bank beside a mortuary that occupied a florid Victorian mansion with a tower and filigree scroll-work over its porch. The train track was a half block away, rails riding a gravel mound where lights were posted next to a white gate on a metal pivot. The lights were still green and the gate was upright. Beyond the crossing, a grain elevator bulging with fat, round bins rose up along the concrete trough of the channel into which the river had been funneled. A bridge made from angles and trusses of steel tilted up to make an inclined ramp over the canal.
Emmett guided the car along the curb in front of the bank. He brought the vehicle to a stop and Zig and Terry hopped out, swaddled in the long coats that covered their weapons, ski-masks rolled up like stocking caps in their hair. The bank was sculpted from heavy chalk-colored stone, a miniature Greek temple a half-dozen steps above the sidewalk, its facade disfigured by an elaborate three-landing handicap-ramp zigzagging to a dark door inset within columns and a pediment. The two men glanced back at the car where Emmett was waiting, clawed down their ski masks over their faces, and, then, pushed through the door into bank.
Emmett pulled forward with the car idling. A couple of pick-up trucks rolled past the bank and, at the end of the street, where there were more commercial buildings, a panel truck was double-parked, someone making a delivery at the insurance agency or the law office or the accounting firm on the corner. Looking right and left at the first intersection, Emmett turned and navigated around the block, passing alleys forlorn with garbage bins and puddles. After making circling the block, Emmett had the car facing toward the tracks and the grain elevators and the river running in its concrete slit beyond. A yellow light was glaring at the railroad crossing but the gate was still pointing skyward on its pivot. Emmett rolled down the window and thought he could hear the distant industrial clang of the slowly approaching train, although, perhaps, it was his imagination.
A car door slammed. Emmett looked across the street and saw an old man ascending the steps into the bank. The man had bad knees and he swiveled his hips climbing the marble stairs and Emmett wondered why he had not taken the longer, but less steep route offered by the handicapped ramp. The old man had left his car idling, illegally parked next to the bank. Emmett saw that there was a baby in the car, strapped into a daisy-yellow car-seat and a big, agitated dog that smeared the side windows of the front seat with its hot breath and red tongue. The old man leaned forward, pushing through the heavy door atop the steps. For a moment, the classical visage of the bank seemed to snarl, devouring the man who went inside. Emmett shook his head back and forth, peering up at the bank and the door in its shrine of marble columns and carved pediment seemed to make a face at him, a sinister, staring mask with oval volutes like inexpressive wide eyes.
Emmett glanced at this watch. He looked toward the tracks and saw the amber light turn to red. The gate rotated down, an aluminum lance across the road. –Why hadn’t Zig and Terry come from the building? The crossing guard barred the intersection three minutes before the actual arrival of the train. – This is getting too close, Emmett thought. He thought he could feel the oil train’s slow and steady approach as a tremor in the roadway. The train’s siren howled, a loud brassy note like the whistle on a factory.
Emmett turned off the car and, leaving his door open, ran across the sidewalk, mounting the steps to the grotto-like opening into the bank. He heard loud voices inside, people screaming at one another in shrill, trembling shouts. The temperature of the air was different inside the bank, electrified, it seemed: the old man was standing a half-dozen feet inside the door waving a tiny hand-gun at Zig and Terry. Their sawed-off shotguns looked huge and crude in comparison to the old man’s dainty, bluish pistol. Everyone was shrieking but Emmett couldn’t pick out any words in the cries other than a few curses. Terry stood behind the bank counter, nearest to Emmett and the old man waved his gun at him, shifting the pistol in his hand as if making the sign of the cross in the air. Some people were crumpled on the floor, lying on the tiles and carpet like discarded pieces of clothing. Across the room, Zig noticed that Emmett had forgotten to draw down his ski-mask to cover his face. He gestured, saluting in Emmett’s direction, pantomiming that he should pull the mask over his eyes. The old man caught Zig’s gesture from the corner of his eye, pivoted on his heel, and began firing his pistol in that direction. The shots sounded like firecracks exploding in quick succession. Terry’s shotgun made a deep booming sound, a splash of fire coming from the muzzle as the old man pitched back against the wall, the pistol clattering as it skidded across the tile floor of the bank’s entry. Terry vaulted over the bank counter, caught the tip of his boot on the counter’s edge, and plunged face-first to the ground. The sack of money that he was carrying disgorged a flock of greenbacks that scattered across the floor. Emmett saw that Zig was slumped against the wall, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
Emmett turned and ran out the door to his car. Terry was a couple steps behind him. He lost his footing on the bottom step and skidded forward, dragging the muzzle of his shotgun against the old man’s car where the baby and the dog were imprisoned. The big dog snarled and lunged at the car window, then, diving into the backseat with the baby to pursue Terry along the length of the vehicle. Emmett put his car in gear but it didn’t move. Then, he realized that he had instinctively shut off the vehicle when he left it to dart into the bank. He fumbled with his keys and found that they had assumed an unfamiliar aspect, keys entangled in metal rings holding other keys, a sort of puzzle in his trembling hand. The big dog squirming through the center of the old man’s car had somehow dislodged the gear shift and the vehicle began to move, just a shudder at first, but, then, accelerating in reverse toward where Emmett was shaking the keys back and forth, trying to knock them into some configuration that he recognized. Terry piled into the back seat of the car, shouting: "Go, go, go!" The train wailed again at them and, then, the old man’s car speared into the side of their vehicle, rocking them to the side.
Emmett got the car started and shoved it into gear. The old man’s car was heavy and bent the side door inward and, for a moment, it seemed as if the two vehicles were interlocked in some fatal, improbable embrace. But, then, Emmett’s car slid sideways and he aimed it for the railroad crossing, stabbing his foot down on the accelerator.
"You can’t make that," Terry screamed.
But Emmett was committed to crossing the tracks, his right foot pressed down on the gas, and the car seeming to rear up under them, hurtling toward the railroad crossing. The oil train’s locomotive looked like an immense, implacable badge of metal bearing down on the place where the road rose to cross the tracks.
"I’ve got it," Emmett cried.
He veered a little to try to go around the arm of the gate, but caught the metal with the left edge of his windshield. The crossing guard crumpled inward and the great locomotive seemed to topple forward, rolling over them like an immense metal avalanche. Emmett felt the car caught against the iron grill on the locomotive so that the vehicle was folded inward, bending as if an accordion joint had been miraculously installed in the car’s midsection. The locomotive’s wheel spun next to the car’s side-windew, black churning iron lit by canopies of sparks. Then, something gave way and the locomotive shrugged off the car so that it rolled end over end away from the track, showers of glass spraying inward and fists of the airbags pummeling them.
Emmett heard a high-pitched whistle, a beeping sound like an alarm clock. It was the seat belt warning sounding in the car. He was lying face-down in the gravel, a couple yards from the squashed car. When he put his hands down to push himself up off the gravel, pain surged through him and he heard himself scream. Someone else was screaming. Terry was nearby, the lower half of his body pinned under the car. He clawed at the gravel as if to excavate a trench into which he could crawl. In measured, dignified intervals, the oil cars on the train were exploding – the big torpedo-like cylinders boomed like howitzers when they blew open. Emmett could see the cars heaped up along the track, derailed to the right and left of the iron rails, making an abstract black diagram of linear force like the meander of a stream. When the oil cars burst, they leaped eight or nine feet into the air and, then, crashed down so that the ground was shaking with the detonations. Pillars of black smoke gushed upward and the flame, at first, seemed merely incidental, a bright orange fringe to the billowing plumes rising into the sky.
Emmett looked down and saw that the fingers on his right-hand were dislocated in all directions. Not one of them was in sort of proper alignment and so his wounded hand had a curious appearance, something like a cracked and bloody starfish. The front of his body was wet and it seemed that he was wearing a sort of butcher’s apron, sheets of blood running down from his mid-torso to glisten on his thighs and knees. He walked a few steps uncertainly. An oil car behind him exploded and the blast knocked him down, a wave of fire bathing his shoulders and buttocks.
– Someone will find me and I’ll be okay, Emmett thought.
But, then, he remembered that the train that bisected the town was blocking any emergency vehicles that might be sent to look for accident victims. – What had they said, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, even, he thought.
The crushed overturned car was ablaze and Terry was flopping up and down in the fire.
Emmett worked his way to his feet and staggered forward. He wanted to reach a place where he didn’t have to hear Terry’s shrieks and wouldn’t be tempted to look in that direction. But it wasn’t clear to him how far he would have to walk to achieve that objective. Furthermore, each step seemed increasingly difficult. So after a few seconds, he sat down, cross-legged on the asphalt to wait for someone to rescue him.
More of oil tankers exploded. Emmett’s hair caught on fire and he saw the asphalt around him blistering and melting in the heat.
"Help," he said tentatively.
Then, he cried out more loudly: "Help! Help!"
But no one came.
Emma thought it would be craven to sit on the ruined front porch of the farmhouse, among the shards of broken glass and the beer cans left by local kids, to watch for her lover on the plain and the road crossing it. So she sat on the backside of the house, looking up the slope to the shelter belt crowning the ridge. She looked at her watch: Cody Ran was late.
At first, she felt relieved. In matters of the heart, "late" meant "never" – at least, that’s what she thought about a suitor tardy to his first or second or third date. Since Emma was relieved, she thought it strange that her cheek was damp with tears. She found herself idly brushing at her hair and, then, chewing a wisp in the corner of her mouth. She hadn’t chewed on her hair since before her marriage. It was a habit of which her husband, the Pastor disapproved.
Emma felt a disturbance in the air. She decided she would walk around the house as if it were Jericho’s walls, making the transit five times and, if Cody Ran had not arrived by that time, she would get in her car and drive back to her husband and her home. When she came to the front side of the house, she saw a smudge of smoke rising in the green-gray distance, a black smear at the edge of what could be seen. Nausea flared in her belly. Something had gone terribly wrong. Her child was endangered, perhaps, injured or dying. This was the curse that God visited upon mothers who abandoned their children for their lovers. God was just but wrathful and his punishment was swift and sure. She felt certain that deadly peril threatened her daughter.
Emma went to her car and drove back on to the main highway. On the two-lane blacktop, she accelerated until her car was moving at a speed higher than seemed plausible. The fields around her blurred to a smear of green and muddy black. Emma aimed her car like a projectile for the pillar of smoke rising on the horizon.