With his grease-covered hands plunged into the darkness of his pickup’s frozen engine compartment, his eyes straining to see the wrench’s target, and the back of his mind a million miles away among the churning history of painful memories of the same day’s events from three years earlier, Samuel was caught entirely off guard by the intrusion of an unfamiliar female voice. He was so startled by his unexpected return to the present that his whole body jolted with the shock, and as he turned, as if he were about to instinctively fend off an assailant, he struck his head hard against the upraised hood of the pickup. The sudden addition of the sharp pain to the moment’s whirling ingredients sent his pulse soaring, and he spun away from the pickup with a jump and a kick, threw the wrench into the gravel of the driveway, and without thinking, spat his frustration in the general direction from which he had heard the voice.
“Aoww! For gods sakes! Holy son-of-a . . . “, he spewed, and strained to a stop with his teeth clenched tight before gaining enough control to exhale slowly, blowing a stream of visible condensation into the frigid air. “What the hell!” he blurted before he was able to clench his teeth again, straining to prevent himself from making a further assault on his intruder before he could identify her.
Samuel bent forward in a half-squat with his blackened hands alternating positions from his knees for support to the back of his head to grope his wound. He was simultaneously trying to figure out if he was bleeding to death and to gain his composure, embarrassed at the possibility of a making such an introduction to someone who seemed to be a stranger.
When he finally mustered enough control over the pain to turn, squinting in the direction of the voice, but with his whole face puckered against the pain screaming through his skull, all he could see was the shadowed figure of a human enshrouded in a halo of bright light from the sun rising directly behind it, and a cloud of illuminated, white fog from the figure’s breath adding to the otherworldly effect. Then he heard what seemed like a disembodied voice, since he couldn’t make out the face clearly enough to identify the movement of lips, pleading, “Oh! I’m so sorry! Are you okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you!”
As she spoke, the glorified shadow moved two steps back with her arms raised to her chest and her hands forming awkward fists in front of her face like a cornered fighter in cover-up mode. Then, lowering her hands cautiously and reaching out toward him, as if to offer some consolation, she moved a step forward again and another half step to her left before returning her hands back to her mouth for protection, flinching as if she were very likely to be struck at any moment. From that pose, she feebly offered once again, “Are you okay?”
Samuel was still holding back a foaming stream of epithets when he glanced back toward the haloed ghost to find that some of her glory had faded as she stepped to the side and he moved equally but oppositely around the perimeter of an imaginary circle of insecure safety between them, again like fighters circling each other, measuring each other, looking for an advantage.
She remained more shadow than real, with half of her golden, blonde hair on fire from the streaming sunlight, and her face veiled in the shade of her hair. The contrast of the darkness and light was striking, as if she were a half-moon: all glory and contour-revealing light on the sun-facing side, and all darkness and mystery on the other. Behind her clenched hands, Samuel could see half of her teeth set in a grimace that seemed to spread over her entire expression and posture, searching him for some sign of assurance that everything would be alright.
Keeping his distance but softening at the curious and gradual unveiling before him, Samuel forced himself to stand upright, instinctively pulled a cloth rag from his back pocket and began wiping his hands nervously, as he stepped again to his left, away from the pickup, around the imaginary circle between them, subconsciously hoping this phantom in his driveway would step further in the opposite direction, closer to the pickup so he could get a view of her suitable for a more thorough assessment. As he did so, he muttered through teeth still set against the now throbbing pain, but with wide-open eyes, willing himself to calm his voice, “No, no. I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s okay.”
She repeated her apology, as she stepped, as Samuel had hoped, around the circle where her face suddenly became entirely, beautifully human. “I’m so, so sorry. I really didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, still pleading but this time with a lighter tone.
Samuel spoke again, “No, no, no. It’s fine. No worries. I just wasn’t expecting anyone, and . . . and,” he went on with a flurry and a chuckle busting out through an awkward grin, “and, you just about gave me a heart attack!” Then, reminded by a piercing sting, moved his right hand to his wound again and added, “and a concussion, to boot!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry! Is it okay, really?” she asked again, but with slightly more confidence betrayed by a cautious giggle. “Yes,” he said, “I assure you, I’ll be fine! Really. My head’s too hard to get damaged so easily. I just wasn’t expecting anybody, really, and you surprised me.”
“I’m sorry, I was just going to ask for directions,” she said. “I’m not from around here, and, well, I just got here and . . . and . . .” she hesitated, there, realizing that even in such a small town she ought to be leery of offering too much information to a stranger, and becoming suddenly aware that she wasn’t even sure enough of her own mission, what had brought her to this tiny town in the middle of the Kansas plains, to confidently offer an explanation. She felt as if she were some kind of ghost, a non-entity – mostly unseen, unheard, unknown and intangible – searching for ghosts of her own, and she certainly couldn’t just blurt out such nonsense in the middle of asking for directions. “Well, I was just looking for a place to stay. I was hoping to find a hotel here, or nearby, and I just saw you there, and thought I’d ask if you knew of a place.”
“Oh, yes! Yes, of course. Miss Sherry’s got a place, a little hotel, with some nice rooms, just up the block on main street, right there,” Samuel said, pointing now back out the driveway to his left, then shaking his extended forefinger a few times to the north for emphasis. “Miss Sherry’s place, The Marston Inn, that’s what you’re looking for,” he continued nodding as he spoke, invigorated by the change in subject and the chance to be helpful. “Real nice place, and she’ll fix you up. I mean, I’ve never stayed in one of her rooms, but I’ve seen ‘em, and they’re real nice. Good food, too. Miss Sherry’s one of the best cooks in town; maybe the best!”
“Miss Sherry’s? Okay. The Marston Inn,” she repeated, confirming the name with a nod and forced frown, and her lower-lip slightly protruding to show she was seriously weighing this new information. “Right up there on main street?” She waved her right arm in the same direction Samuel had just pointed.
“Yep,” Samuel assured, gallantly, “right up there.” He pointed again out the driveway and motioned to something in the general direction of north.
“Okay,” she said, now moving back down the driveway in the direction Samuel had pointed. “Thanks, and I’m sorry, again, about that . . . you know.” She pointed to the back of her head and then at him, grimacing slightly as she said it while taking a few backward steps in the direction from which she had come so quietly only moments before.
“Oh, you’re welcome, and no worries. I’m fine.” Samuel said, waving her off, as if to assure her that this kind of thing happened to him all the time, and he was never bothered by any of it.
There was an awkward pause there, as each of the fighters seemed to wait for the bell to release them to their corners. Slowly, as they each worked through the wondering if there were any obligation to more conversational formalities, to more action in this round of their surprise bout. Two complete strangers who had never intended to meet, much less be more friendly than a polite directional inquiry should require, thrust into each other’s personal spaces by the imposition of unexpected pain and apologies, forced by the circumstances to at least feign concern for the other beyond what their topic demanded, were now working to extract themselves from the interchange. As if by unspoken, unrecognized, mutual consent, they averted their eyes away from each other and moved hesitantly toward their starting places.
“Thanks, again!” the ghostly, glorious, golden-blonde shadow pronounced as she stepped into her escorting sunlight again, then vanished around the corner of the hedgerow which bordered Samuel’s driveway.
Samuel said nothing more, as he moved back toward the pickup, absent-mindedly stooping to pick up his wrench along the way. Thoughtlessly, he put his right hand to his head and gently explored the swelling knot there beneath his hair, and the small, moist opening at its peak which stung as his finger swept across it. He winced and jerked his hand away. That would smart for a few days, he thought.
He leaned his elbows onto the pickup’s right fender, staring into the engine compartment as if trying to remember what he had been doing before being interrupted. He wasn’t thinking about that, though. As far as he was aware, there was no engine before him. His mind was swept away with curiosity about the blonde-headed stranger who had just left his driveway, and then he felt his face flush red as he realized what a foolish first impression he must have just made. He hadn’t introduced himself. He didn’t even know her name. Then he realized, caught unaware by a kind of surging emotional intrigue which had long ago become unfamiliar to him, that none of that little interaction mattered anyway. He bristled at his folly, like he had been caught up in some reckless teenage prank, and with a kick his thoughts sank abruptly away from that unwelcomed interruption to his day, and came crashing back to the reality of the tasks, and memories, at hand. Real memories of real people, and the losses he had yet to finish rehearsing.