Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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He came in on a royal blue 1928 Studebaker, the engine rattling, leaving a dusty cloud billowing into the desert air. He passed the visitors lot, swerved around the barricade that was supposed to keep out unauthorized vehicles, and parked his car in front of my home, which used to be the barbershop but was now the ranger station in Bodie, California.
He stepped out of his car and into the early morning light. Spry for an old man, he hopped off the running board, and the Studebaker rocked behind him. He wore jeans and a black flight jacket. His gray hair was down to his shoulders. His nose was big but straight, like the nose on a bust of Caesar. His eyes were dark, the flesh beneath them scarred. One scar formed a Y on the tip of his cheekbone, the other swirled in a curlicue from the corner of his eye. The scars were old, nestled into the skin of his face.
He pointed to the brown-and-yellow ranger-station sign and said, “Is that you?”
And I said, “Yes.”
“You live here alone?”
“Me and my wife.”
He nodded. He smelled of high-octane cologne, but not high enough to cover the stink of a long desert drive.
He gestured toward the town. It sat there, brown and empty, as it had for the last eighty years.
“Is this place really dead?”
“Yes,” I said. “Real, honest dead.”
“You got vultures and buzzards here?”
“We have those.” I held up my hand to stop him. “Look, sir, I’ll answer all your questions. That’s my job. But you’ll have to move your car to the visitors lot. And you’ll have to wait till I open. I give a tour at ten.”
He eyed my name tag. “No, James. I think the car stays. It looks good there. It looks like it belongs there.”
“Listen, sir, Bodie was dead long before that car was built. It doesn’t look like it belongs there. In fact, you look like you belong there more than it does.”
He turned to face me. He pointed to my holster.
“That loaded?” He spoke through stiffened lips.
“It was last time I looked.”
“When was that?”
“Two years ago.”
“Why’d you look at it?”
“Because they handed it to me.”
“I was a ranger once. In Yellowstone, before World War II. I shot a bear with my gun.”
“Rangers don’t shoot bears.”
“They do when the bear’s a grizzly and it’s coming at you and a group of hikers.”
“A gun like this can’t drop a grizzly.”
“It can when you empty the round into its throat point-blank.”
He pulled up his pant leg and exposed the white flesh of his calf. Four parallel scars, mottled like mother-of-pearl, swirled around the curve of his calf.
I told myself lots of things could make a wound like that. I thought of kitchen utensils, power tools, and badly aimed pitchforks. But I kept coming back to that bear claw.
I pointed to another scar that cut diagonally across his throat. “The bear do that one, too?”
“That’s something else.”
“A lion, right?”
“A bayonet. And I can already tell this isn’t the place I thought it might be. This isn’t the place I was looking for. Take care, James.” He turned and started back toward his Studebaker.
There is a two-year waiting list to become a ranger. The training is rigorous. I could never see myself as anything else. And I know when I am doing my job, and I know when I am failing.
“Sir,” I called to him, “what are you looking for?”
“My name is Andrew Cane,” he said. “And I’m looking for sanctuary.”
I am the caretaker of a place that was once as big and lively and notorious as any city in the West. It rivaled San Francisco. It was abandoned so fast children’s bicycles were left leaning against buildings. The air still quivers with a strange life. Maria and I talk about the odd coolness that ripples between the buildings even when the sun shines hot, that urgent sound of wind through the barbed wire. Bodie is asking for life. It asks for all those who ran away to return. I don’t count; I am just the priest who stands in front of the tabernacle, the one who keeps the rail polished.
I turn away vagrants, bikers, and off-roaders who think this might be a neat place to spend a few nights. I circle them with my state-issue jeep, showing them the badge painted on the door. I whirl my red light at them and they leave. The tourists I love. They drive thirteen miles of dirt road to get here. They come to get a taste, to learn. I give them what they ask, if I can. I tell them all historical monuments and parks are sanctuaries. This is always the last thing I say to them after my tour.
I couldn’t turn away Andrew Cane. We drank coffee as we sat on my porch beneath the barber’s pole and looked at the town.
“It has a wonderful sprawl to it, doesn’t it?” he asked me. “It has clumps of buildings and then open spaces.”
“We could see it a lot better if you moved your car to the visitors lot. Tourists will be coming, and I don’t want to spend my morning telling people where to park their Winnebagos.”
He shook his head. “They’ll believe that car belongs there. You know it doesn’t. You know how old this place really is. But to them, old is old, past is past. Trust me, James.”
His long nose, his lines and scars and weathered skin made him hard to defy. His voice was rough but whispery, as though it were almost used up and he couldn’t waste it on lies and deception. He couldn’t waste it on fools.
“Where’s your wife?” he asked.
“She works in Bishop. She makes hats there and sells them. Where’s yours?” I didn’t want him to get the best of me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And I was. I could imagine what it would be like to lose Maria. I imagined it a lot on days when no tourists showed and I was left alone until dusk.
“Don’t be sorry. We lived a long life. Charlotte died happy. We died together. We raised children and grandchildren. She laughed and cried more than I did. Than I ever will.”
I looked at his face and hands. They were old, but there was nothing dead about them. I looked at his chest. It swelled with breath.
“Have you given up?”
He glared at me. He lifted his chin and I saw another scar, a white chip just beneath his jaw. “Only one person ever had the right to ask me that question, and that was Charlotte.”
“Quit apologizing. It’ll make me sick.” He shifted his gaze back to the town. “A town without people. God, how beautiful. When can I see the buzzards?”
“Whenever something dies.”
“Don’t they nest somewhere?”
“They fly for miles. But I could probably track some down for you. If you’re willing to hike. You’ll have to wait till I’m finished with the tourists.”
“Fine.” He stood and slapped his hands against his thighs. “Can I go into the buildings now?”
“A couple of them are open. The livery and the assayer’s office. The rest are cordoned off. You can only stand in the doorways.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ll see you at ten. For the tour.”
Together, walking among the abandoned buildings, Maria and I often imagine that there must be certain necessary phases to the search for sanctuary. First there is the discovery — the place itself. And there must be other discoveries that follow. Maria relishes the idea that one day she will need sanctuary. I fear it.
Andrew Cane did not show for the beginning of my tour. Two families — one from Los Angeles, one from Chicago — did show up, as well as a middle-aged woman with an expensive camera and notebook. She smiled at all my anecdotes. She asked most of the questions. When we all stood in the doorway of one of the hotels and peered in together at the parlor, she raised her hand.
“This was really a whorehouse, wasn’t it?”
I looked at the kids — there were four of them and I couldn’t remember which ones belonged to what family — and I looked at their fathers.
“A bordello, they called it.” I looked her in the eye. “There were a lot more men here than women. Bordellos did well with the miners.”
She raised her hand again and I said, “Yes,” but I started to lead them across the road toward the livery.
“Was it legal?” she asked.
“Everything was legal in Bodie,” I said. The fathers and the mothers and the children laughed, and I was saved. They followed me.
I let them look around in the blacksmith’s shop. The children put their little white hands against the enormous iron expanse of the anvil.
“It’s more than a hundred years old and it weighs five hundred pounds,” I told them. I gave them a moment of silence, a space for their private recollections and awe.
“And I can lift it.” We all heard the grainy whisper of Andrew Cane’s voice. He was sitting on top of the corral fence that stood next to the livery. Everyone turned to him.
“Does he live here?” one of the children asked.
Andrew answered before I could.
“No. But I could have. I used to bust broncos in a corral just like this one.”
“Was that before or after you killed the bear?” I asked.
I heard the father from Chicago chuckle.
Andrew remained atop the corral fence. He pulled up his shirt and jacket to reveal one side of his belly. There was a scar shaped like a daisy imprinted on the flesh right above the hipbone.
“Got that from a Brahma’s horn.”
He hopped down from the fence and smiled at me. “I never lie, James,” he said as he walked toward the anvil.
They cleared a path for him.
Sometimes you want two things at the same time, two things that are completely different. I wanted to say, “I know,” and thump Andrew on the shoulder as though we went way back, and then lead everybody over to the next point of interest. And I wanted to stand aside and watch him make a fool of himself, watch him break his back trying to lift something that hadn’t been moved in a hundred years and was probably embedded a good two or three inches into the ground.
“Come on,” I said and waved my arm for them to follow. No one saw me. Andrew seemed to take my words as some kind of cheer.
He looped his arms around the belly and butt of the anvil and bent his knees. He dug his boot heels into the dirt like a rodeo rider, but he had a soft look on his face, as though he were lifting his sleeping daughter and did not want to wake her.
As he strained upward, his legs quivered and his face reddened quickly. Only the scars stayed white. They seemed to glow. His long, gray hair covered his shoulders. There was a tiny sucking sound as the anvil rose. There was a puff of dust and that’s what everybody watched. He moved the anvil about a quarter of an inch. But he did move it. He did lift it.
Andrew straightened up. He clenched his eyes shut and gasped loudly. He took deep breaths and looked as though he had forgotten anybody else was around. I thought he might weep.
Then he rubbed his hands together and smiled.
“What are you going to show us next, James?” he asked.
I took them to church. We stood in the entryway and looked through the bars of the barricade. The church still had its altar and its pews. It still had the same candles that were left during the abandonment.
“This is the church,” I said. Andrew stood in back of the group like a tourist. I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t tell them about the fire that destroyed the first altar. I didn’t tell them about the gunfight that had ended up here. I didn’t point out the bullet holes in the pews.
The notebook woman saved me. “What religion were they?”
“Whatever kind of priest or reverend happened to be stationed here at the time. Sometimes they were Baptists and sometimes they were Methodists. One time even Catholics. The ministers passed through like outlaws.”
“Good,” said Andrew. “That’s good.”
He used some kind of little pin to open the lock to the barricade and let himself into the church. He closed the gate behind him.
“I’ll wait here for you, James. Don’t worry.” He walked up to the altar and sat in the front pew. He ignored us.
I finished my tour and turned the families loose. I invited them to explore the town. I told them they could buy cold drinks from the machine outside my station. I handed them brochures that told the story of the two men named Bodie and Owens who discovered the gold that set this valley on fire. But this time I didn’t say anything about sanctuaries.
“Where might I go first?” the notebook woman asked me.
“Try Boothill. The cemetery,” I suggested.
Andrew was asleep in the church when I went back to find him. He was stretched out on the front pew with his boots sticking out into the aisle and his arms folded over his chest. I threw a sleeping bag over him and wedged a rolled-up blanket beneath his head. With the sun setting, it was getting cold inside the building. In another month, Maria and I would have to close Bodie down for the winter and move into the station in Bishop. The snow piles up high here in the winter. I still come in once a week for the upkeep, sometimes on snowmobile. But I love Bodie in the snow. The sand and sage are covered, and only the buildings remain above the white. There is no noise. The only footprints in the snow are the ones you make yourself. Sometimes I bring Maria up here and we sit together in one of the buildings and stay warm and listen to the quiet.
Andrew moaned in his sleep. I wondered if he would still be here when the snows came. I left him there and went to greet Maria at the gate thirteen miles away.
“What is he?” she asked as we stood together in the church and looked down at the sleeping Andrew Cane.
“He told me he was a ranger, a rodeo rider, and a soldier.”
“Which one is it?”
“All three, I guess.”
“He doesn’t look like any of those.” She pumped the stem of the Coleman lantern she had propped on the altar rail and the light brightened. She paced slowly along the length of Andrew Cane’s body, considering him.
Her dark hair was pulled back tight and her face was scrubbed clean. Faint points of pink the size of thumbprints marked her cheekbones. Her lips were chapped, making them seem fuller. In daylight her looks are plain and simple. You don’t look twice. In this kind of light her colors come out, red and black and white — and you look.
She stopped pacing and tapped his boot with her finger.
“You believed him?”
“Not completely,” I said. “But he has a way. You’ll see.”
She creased her brow. “Why didn’t you do what you were supposed to do and run him out when you closed up?”
“Consider him our guest, Maria.”
“Your guest, not ours.” She wiggled one of his boots and Andrew Cane did not even stir. “Maybe he’s out for the night. Maybe he’s dead.”
“He lifted the anvil,” I said.
“He tell you that one, too?” She walked past me down the aisle, heading for the dark beyond the doorway.
“I saw it myself,” I called, but she was gone.
“It takes them a lot longer to believe things,” Andrew Cane said. He had opened his eyes but remained still. “But when they do believe, they believe a lot stronger than we can.”
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop.”
“You knew I was here. And you didn’t say anything you wouldn’t have said if I were awake, right?”
“And she didn’t say anything she wouldn’t have said either, right?” He remained rigid and laid out on the pew.
“You going to stay there all night like that?”
He winced. “My back feels like twisted iron.”
He rolled his shoulders a little, but didn’t sit up. “But I’ll be ready to see the vultures tomorrow.”
“OK. Tomorrow’s clean-up day anyway. No tourists. But they’re not really vultures. They’re just turkey buzzards.”
“They eat large animals?”
“Anything from a dead lizard to a dead cow.”
“They got those big, ugly, red heads?”
“They got those.”
“Good,” he said. “Then we’re set.” He sat up quickly. “When’s supper?”
When we went into the house to greet Maria, I didn’t want to give her the impression that I was somehow on his side. But we must have looked like two fishing buddies coming in after a good day.
Maria sat at the table with her plate in front of her and began eating. She paused to look up at us.
“He’s your guest. You serve him.”
I gave him two slabs of meatloaf and a clump of steamed spinach. With one taste, he identified the meat.
“Good deer, Maria,” he said.
“James cooked it,” she said, and she stopped eating, waiting for more of what Andrew had to say, waiting to keep him in his place.
“Where’d you hunt him?” he asked me.
“I didn’t. It was hit by a driver out on 395 and we had to put it out of its misery.”
“Then you lied to me about the gun.”
“I shot it,” Maria said. “I shot it with a punkin ball, twelve-gauge.”
“You don’t mess around.”
“It was bleeding inside. I could tell by the way it was trying to breathe through its mouth. I could tell by the way it looked at us.”
Andrew put down his knife and fork. “How’s that?”
“Sort of like the way you look at us,” Maria said.
“And what way is that?”
“Like we’ve got something for you. Like everybody’s got something for you.”
“A punkin ball through the heart? I’ve had worse than that put through me,” Andrew said.
“Do tell.” Maria crossed her arms and leaned forward on her elbows.
He remained still, his posture straight, a hand at each side of his dish. “When I walked in space —”
“When you what?” I asked. I glanced at Maria.
“When I walked in space. I was on the Apollo mission. I thought maybe you had recognized my name.”
“You’re too old to have been an astronaut,” Maria said.
He shrugged. “I don’t lie.”
“You have no scar for this one,” I said.
“Not one you could see.”
Maria looked at me. “I may never forgive you for this.”
Whenever she says this, I know that I’m in a position which I cannot explain to her. It doesn’t happen often, and she lets it drop — though I know she must notch such episodes up somewhere inside her, because she’ll look at me once in a while, when we’re having a good time, as though she were fingering one of those notches and it’s up to me to figure which one it could be and to start explaining. But I would never explain this one. The biggest part of a ranger’s job is to keep people out of places they’re not supposed to be. If you can’t do it, you’re out, no matter how good you are at the other things. I know I’m good. I’ve had no trouble before, even in the most threatening situations. But Andrew Cane had the best of me.
“He asked me for sanctuary, Maria,” I said. “And I gave it to him.”
She shook her head. “Not that. Please not that.”
“You have to trust me,” Andrew said. “Charlotte and I always had one goal. We always tried to make the people we were with happy. When I quit the Apollo mission and we moved to California —”
“I’d be happy if you left, Mr. Cane,” said Maria.
She took her plate to the sink. She told us she had to finish resoling her boots, and went into the bedroom, which used to be the storage room when this place was still a barbershop. I decided to ease matters with Andrew, so I asked him about California.
“We fished,” he said.
“In the Sierras?” I was ready to tell him about the nameless little lakes high up in the range where you could fish untouched waters.
He shook his head and pushed his empty plate away to make room for his arms.
“I mean real fishing. Charlotte and I bought a tuna boat. It was just after Ecuador had extended its territorial claim to two hundred miles off its coast. Just about killed the tuna industry.”
I heard Maria drop something in the other room.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“I told the crew and the fishermen to go wherever the albacore ran. I told them the sea was the sea. Charlotte and I would go out with them. We had to buy our own cannery in Monterey, because no one would take our catch.”
“And Ecuador?” I asked.
“They sent gunboats. They weren’t just blowing steam like I thought they were. Both Charlotte and I took machine-gun fire. But after we recovered, we got a boat that could outrun any of theirs, even when loaded with albacore. We lost money all the time, but we fished the sea. And we put cans on the shelf.”
“You’re a ranger, a broncobuster, a soldier, an astronaut, and a pirate.”
“Among other things,” he said. He smiled a smile that curled high into his cheeks. Wrinkles splayed across his face.
“How could you sit there and listen to that crap?” Maria asked as she lay next to me, her warm hand on my bare stomach.
“You have to admit, those scars are real.”
“Everyone has scars. I still have a nick on my knee from when I fell off my tricycle.” She sighed. “But there is one thing I believe.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “The soldier part?”
“No.” She pressed her hand firmly against my belly. “I believe in Charlotte. Through all that shit-load, I believe in Charlotte.”
We made love. Coyotes howled in the hills nearby, and we felt closer in our embrace, in our own darkness, knowing that other things were taking place out there in the night — wild, nocturnal events, slashes in the sage. And when we were done, Maria covered me with her body and fell asleep. But I could not sleep. In the darkness, with her, I thought Andrew Cane might have only been a dream. I wished for that. I wished for that because I believed everything about him and I knew I could never admit it to Maria. It wasn’t the scars or the fizzy sincerity of his voice or the fact that he had lifted the anvil that compelled me to believe. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something about me, not him.
I got up from the bed and looked into the other room where I expected to find him asleep on the couch. He was standing in the moonlight that shone in through the big barbershop window. He was naked. He held his arms out as though he were absorbing some power from the soft gray light. Even in the dark I could see the scars that clung to every part of his body. He had to feel them. He had to feel their tightness, their gnarled bulk. Three round scars went across his back in a straight line, heart-high, like stars in a constellation.
When he turned around to face me, I saw three identical scars that crossed his chest in the same pattern.
“I heard you in there,” he said. His voice was raspier, weaker, closer to its end. “It was a beautiful sound.”
“You shouldn’t listen in like that.”
“You knew I was here.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “And I meant no disrespect.”
“Were you thinking of Charlotte?”
“I am always thinking of Charlotte.”
He sat on the couch and removed a bottle from his duffel bag.
“Will you share a drink with me, James?”
We sat there, two men naked in the moonlight. He raised the bottle.
“To sanctuary,” he said. He drank and passed the bottle to me.
In the morning my mind is always at its best. I never fail to get up before the sun. I watch it rise over the hills and shine through the silhouettes of the mining structures and light up the rooftops of the town. Every time, I notice something different — maybe a circle of buzzards, a lone coyote ambling between the buildings, a rock formation I hadn’t noticed before, or the icy thin line of a jet racing parallel to the horizon.
I was dressed and sitting out on the porch while Maria and Andrew still slept. I could see Andrew’s car. I was thinking about how he let himself into the church yesterday, how he picked the lock as though he had the key, how he did it in front of everyone without hesitation — the same way he swerved around the barricade to get into Bodie. The Studebaker was polished. It had no blemish. Its chrome was silvery. Dust had settled on its finish. People who own cars like that never let dust settle for long on the paint job. It was not Andrew Cane’s car. I knew. If it were his, every dent and scrape would still be there, like old wounds on a tree.
Maria was the next one out. I could tell by the way she moved that she wasn’t going to work today. She had her hiking boots on and her hands were tucked into the pockets of her jeans. When she’s going into work her hands are restive, flighty even; they snatch up keys and notes and purses and sunglasses.
“What about your hats?” I asked.
“I’m not leaving you alone with him.”
“I’m just taking him out to the quarry to catch sight of a few turkey vultures.”
“I’m going, too.”
“Fine. I’ll enjoy your company.” I hugged her.
“Why would he want to see buzzards?”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s thinking of becoming an ornithologist.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s already been one,” she said.
“He’s listening to us, you know.”
She looked at me, a puzzled squint to her eyes.
“Isn’t that right, Andrew?” I spoke to the wall behind me.
There was no response. Maria peeked through the big window, shading her eyes with both hands.
“He’s stiff as a corpse,” she said.
“He’s heard every word.”
Maria was still looking through the window like a kid outside a pet store. “He’s not moving,” she said.
“Up and at ’em, Andrew,” I called. “The buzzards wait for no one, unless of course you’re just about ripe and ready to die.”
I heard a thump from inside.
“My God,” Maria said.
“The scars.” Maria pressed her nose to the window. “They’re all over him.”
“Maria, give the man his privacy.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. I felt a tick of jealousy, just one blip in the smooth-running line that early morning gives me.
“They’re so ugly they must hurt. They’re so ugly they’re beautiful. You know, like chips on a statue.”
“Oh, he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s waving at me.”
“Well then, wave back and let him get dressed.”
She pulled away from the window and looked at me. The blip went away. She pointed at my face, pumping her hand for emphasis.
“I’ll only wave to him once, and that’s to wave goodbye.”
It started to feel like afternoon, though the sun had just risen and the air was cold. I didn’t like buzzards, even though I loved everything else about the high desert. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to see them and get close to them. I couldn’t understand what they had to do with sanctuary.
The hike to the quarry takes a half-hour. It’s not far from Bodie, but it’s out toward the wilderness, so it feels like you’re a long way off. It’s not a real quarry; it’s where the miners stacked the big rocks that got in their way as they followed the veins. They stacked them in pointed piles, cathedral-like, and no one knows why. Legend says they wanted the piles to point toward heaven in order to give thanks for the riches of the earth. But I could never imagine the men of Bodie doing that. These were men who shot each other over something as large as a claim dispute or as small as spilled whiskey. Maria thinks they stacked those rocks that way because they were sexually repressed.
The turkey vultures have made the rocks their home. They rest on the peaks and the slopes of the rocks where no life grows. Their guano, black and tarry from all the blood they eat, covers the pale stone like spatters of icing. The tallest spire reaches about twenty feet high, the shortest goes a little higher than my head.
I stood in the dusty flat within the semicircle of stones, Maria at my side, Andrew Cane a step behind, as though we were supposed to protect him from what lay ahead.
“Where are all the vultures?” he asked.
“They’re out scavenging,” I told him. “We could put out some carrion and come back in a few hours. They’d be all over these rocks then.”
“Lend me your gun,” said Andrew. “I’ll go shoot a rabbit.”
“Better let me do it, James,” said Maria.
I was going to go do it myself when I heard a familiar flap of wings. Two turkey buzzards were perched in a dark niche on one of the rocky spires. They hopped over to the pile closest to Andrew and showed themselves. Andrew stepped away from them. They hunched their dark shoulders. They had a way of breathing through their mouths that made their black beaks seem even larger and sharper. Their bald, flat heads were red and wrinkled. They had white rings around their necks where the feathers began. One thing that always puzzled me about turkey buzzards was their eyes. You would think they’d have the hard, angry eyes of an eagle or a hawk. But their eyes are pensive and blinking, like the eyes of a hen.
Andrew moved to the other end of the semicircle, putting Maria and me between him and the buzzards. The two birds flapped their wings and half-flew, half-hopped over to the rock nearest Andrew. Buzzards are usually very skittish when they realize you’re not dead. They’ll fly away if there’s no carrion for them to guard.
“What are they doing?” Andrew asked. He had his arms folded tightly across his chest.
“I’ve never seen them like this,” Maria said.
Andrew moved away and the birds moved with him, following the curve of rocks.
“Now what, Mr. Cane?” Maria asked.
He still held his arms tight across his chest. He watched the birds as he backed out of the quarry. “I don’t know.”
Andrew tumbled over a stone. He fell, still hugging his chest as he hit the sand, as though he were cradling a child he wished to protect, as though his own body did not matter. Maria hurried to his side and I went after the buzzards.
Once I had to chase buzzards away from a coyote carcass some poachers had poisoned. The birds would not leave. They would recede from my advances, then come back as soon as I gave ground. It was like pushing water. These two turkey vultures in the quarry acted the same, as though they had a claim to protect. I yelled at them. I waved my arms. Then I did something that was against my ranger’s code — I inflicted bodily harm on a protected species. I threw sand at them. I aimed it at their eyes, flinging it in a silvery arc. They squawked and hopped and finally flew away from the quarry.
Maria knelt by his side.
“Never come across a couple of buzzards in your adventures, Mr. Cane? Only dragons?” she asked. Her shadow shaded the sun from his eyes.
“I hope you get a chance to find out what this is like. I hope he dies first. I hope you predict all along that you will go first, and then find out that you were wrong.” He spoke calmly, without anger. He took her hand and pressed it against his chest.
“Feel that?” he said. “It’s thrashing and banging around in there, still pumping blood. But it has nowhere else to go, no one else to pump for.”
“You’re full of it, Mr. Cane.”
“I’m full of nothing. I’m empty. I got a rib cage full of dead organs. Those buzzards knew it. Now I’m sure of it.”
“Here,” I said. I held out my hand. “Get up. We don’t know any such thing. Buzzards know nothing, they go by smell. That cologne you wear probably got their nerves all haywire. Take my hand, Andrew.”
I pulled him up. For a moment, I thought I might go toppling to the ground as I took his weight. I thought I might join him in his fall.
In the afternoon, Maria and I pulled sage from around the assayer’s office. We planned to leave a few bushes on each side of the building so the wind would have something to sound through. It makes a nice effect for the tourists. Andrew was taking a nap back at the house. I was beginning to understand how the old man got his energy. He lay down a lot, in that same pose, on his back, neck straight, arms over his chest.
When I looked down the road to see if Andrew might be coming out of the house, I saw a Cadillac and a tow truck pull into the visitors lot. I rested the pitchfork on my shoulder.
“Didn’t you put the Closed sign back up?” Maria asked.
“They’re not here for a tour.”
She stabbed her pitchfork into the sand, locking it there. “I knew he’d be trouble.”
“The car’s not his,” I said. Two men got out of the Caddy, while one emerged from the tow truck.
“You knew that?”
“Let’s see what they want.”
When the men saw us coming, they turned to wait for us. They stood in front of the blue Studebaker. They all wore suits. Even the tow-truck driver wore a suit. It didn’t fit. Only one of the men greeted us.
“My name is Mr. Stepp.”
I shook his hand, but Maria didn’t. She shaded her eyes with her gloved hand and looked at me. “These guys are tough, James. You don’t want to mess with these guys.”
She turned and headed back toward the assayer’s office.
“Sorry to intrude,” Mr. Stepp said as he watched her go. “But I’m here to return this Studebaker to its rightful owner.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Harrah’s in Reno. A man named Andrew Cane stole it from the showcase. It’s worth seventy-five thousand dollars.”
It wasn’t hard to see Andrew stepping over the cordon, in full view of onlookers, and helping himself to the Studebaker. I could see him driving it through the lobby of Harrah’s. And I could see him spinning it down the gray stretch of 395.
“I know he was here yesterday,” said Mr. Stepp. “We spoke to some people in Bishop who attended your tour.”
When you know a place well, when you know its stillness the way I know Bodie, you develop a sense that picks up any ripple of movement. You don’t have to see it or hear it or smell it. It’s not an extra sense, it’s your sense of touch expanded. It’s gone whenever you go someplace else, someplace unfamiliar. For me, it works only in Bodie. I could feel Maria working the sage behind me, a hundred yards down the road. And I could feel Andrew Cane darting from building to building, making his escape toward the far side of town. I pretended to scratch my neck so I could turn away from Mr. Stepp and watch Andrew moving between the livery and the saloon. I knew where he was heading.
“He’s gone, Mr. Stepp,” I said. “He stayed here overnight, but now he’s gone.”
“You won’t mind if we take a look for ourselves?”
“Sure thing,” I said. I held out my hand. “Just give me the search warrant and we’re in business.”
“I don’t need a warrant to search this place.”
“This is a state park, Mr. Stepp. I am an officer of this park, and you need a warrant.”
He looked at me and then he looked at his men. As soon as he did, they both started walking down the road toward the buildings.
“Don’t go into any buildings,” I warned them. “And I wouldn’t go near the assayer’s office.”
I waved to Maria. She raised her pitchfork.
“Guys,” said Mr. Stepp. “Forget it. Hook up the car and pull out of here. We got the main thing we came for. We’ll just tell them the old man croaked somewhere out in the desert.”
It was sad the way they towed the car, the way they wedged the bar beneath its proud grill and hoisted it, exposing the underbelly. I was embarrassed for it.
“I hope you never come to Harrah’s,” Mr. Stepp said to me.
“Why would I go to Reno?”
“Why would I go to Bodie?” He smiled and got into his Cadillac.
I found him in the church. He was bent over with his hands on his knees, next to the tabernacle, as though he had finished praying and didn’t know what to do next. He was taking in huge, audible breaths, one right after the other. His hair looped about his jaw and hooded his face in its gray cloak.
I sought to calm him.
“They’ve been gone for an hour. They took the car and left for good.”
He kept taking in air as if it were liquid. He wouldn’t look at me.
“There’s so much air here, Andrew. So much to take in. Keep taking it in, it’ll never run out.” I placed my hand on his back and felt his bones swell and retract with the power of his lungs.
“Yes,” he said. “I knew there had to be a place like this somewhere.” He took in another long breath and released it slowly, savoring its taste. He stood up.
“So much to take in.” He put a hand to my shoulder. His breathing was still rapid. “And that’s what you’ve got to do, James. With Maria. Pull it all down into you until you die. God, I wish my scars would open and I could breathe through them too.”
I helped him into the front pew.
“I used to be able to run for miles. Like the Hopi. The trick is never run against anything.”
“There’s no race to win,” I said.
He chuckled then coughed, trying to take in air as he laughed. “Run with it and you go forever.”
He stretched out on the pew in his usual pose and closed his eyes. His chest rose and fell gently now, silently. I turned away and started down the aisle.
“I knew you wouldn’t betray me, James,” I heard him say.
He didn’t come back to the house that evening. During the night, Maria went out to the church and covered him with a sleeping bag.
“He said, ‘Thanks.’ I thought he was asleep,” she told me. “I told him he could sleep on the couch again, but he said he felt fine. He never opened his eyes.”
When I awoke, the buzzards were spiraling in the eastern sky. They seemed to be circling the rising sun, their dark vortex pointing like a funnel cloud. I had never seen that many buzzards in the sky at one time.
Panic is a funny thing with me. It divides me. My heart beats faster, but my thoughts slow to a methodical rate. Put me in a state of panic and I can figure out any puzzle, unwind riddles. It’s like performing calculus in a runaway train.
I ran toward the quarry, steadying my pace as I reached the east end of Bodie and moved between the hills and mines. I watched the buzzards. I was keyed to them like a coyote high on moonlight.
When I reached the quarry, Andrew Cane was there and the buzzards were there. Andrew lay stretched out on the sand, his head resting on a small stone, his chest exposed. His hands still clutched his shirt and jacket. But the buzzards had not touched him. They covered the piles of rock like a silent choir. There was no room for the others to land, so they kept circling above. Not one bird had come near him. Not one bird had come down from its perch. I thought for a moment that he might still be alive. But his chest did not move. From twenty feet away, I knew he was dead. And I could not understand why the buzzards were not on him. From a hundred feet up in the sky, they know when something is dead.
They watched me approach him. Only one bird flapped its wings slightly as I knelt and placed my hand on Andrew’s neck. His heart had stopped. His body had stiffened. His eyes were closed. His scars were the same color as his skin. I could barely see them.
I stood up, placing my boots carefully to each side of his waist. I drew the pistol from my holster and prepared to fire in order to send the buzzards away. Before I even raised my arm, they all rose in unison and flew away in a great dark rustling of wings, the sound of leather straps clapping together. The sky emptied.
We told no one. It was Maria’s idea to bury him in Bodie’s graveyard. We found a place between two family plots and took turns digging. We drank bourbon from the bottle Andrew had left on our coffee table. We covered the mound with stones gathered from the other graves. I found an unmarked wooden tombstone, its epitaph and name bleached away by the sun. I wiggled it free of the earth like a loose tooth and planted it at the head of Andrew’s grave. With a magnifying glass I burned his name into the wood. You can do that here, where the sun shines pure. I wrote, “Here lie Charlotte and Andrew Cane.” I didn’t write any dates. I didn’t know them anyway.
“People will see how new it looks,” Maria warned me. “They can tell it doesn’t belong.”
“No they won’t,” I said. “To them, old is old, past is past. Only you and I will know.”
When we had finished, we sat by the grave and watched the sun get low in the sky. We finished the bourbon and rested our backs against each other, leaning our weight together.