The waitress returns with a plate of eggs and sausage links, and a Styrofoam cup of coffee she places at my elbow. On the wall behind her, the flat screen TV blares out breaking news. A red banner runs across the bottom of the screen. The image of the newscaster switches to helicopters sweeping a dark mountainside with floodlights.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
The waitress gives the TV a cursory glance. “Something happened in Bolivia a couple hours ago. I think they said it’s in South America. Lots of people dead in La . . ?”
She brightens. “That’s the city.”
“La Paz is the third largest city in Bolivia. It’s located in the Andes Mountains.”
The helpful Wiki-fact draws a shrug from the waitress. “Half of it’s gone from the mudslide. Maybe a million dead.”
“A million people? No way.”
“That’s what they’re saying.”
“The TV reports give those numbers?” Surely she’s wrong, but an odd sensation races between my shoulder blades. If a million people are buried in mud, La Paz has lost half its population in one tragic event. The possibility sickens me.
“They’ll know for sure in the morning. Search crews can’t hunt for survivors in the dark. Or maybe they’re afraid. I sure wouldn’t go looking around in the dark.”
“Heavy rains triggered a mudslide?”
“It wasn’t raining. The side of the mountain came down.”
“Mountains don’t just fall down.”
“This one did.”
Nothing happens without a reasonable explanation, and I press, “Did the news reports say anything about seismic activity?”
The waitress looks at me like I’ve sprouted antennae in my long black hair. I’m about to dumb down the question when I hear a woman from behind.
“There wasn’t an earthquake,” she says. “No seismic activity, no tremors. The mountain peeled off twenty percent of its mass for no logical reason.”
At the end of the counter, a trucker with a ZZ Top beard wags his coffee cup. The waitress leaves.
In a cloud of heavenly fragrance, the woman seats herself on the next barstool. She’s wearing a floral concoction, but I can’t put my finger on it. Roses with a hint of gardenia, and citrus notes. Only better. Whatever the scent, it’s mesmerizing.
I take a quick peek at my companion. My breath stutters to a halt.
She appears carved from rich ebony, a beauty in her late thirties or early forties. She’s not young but she’s unquestionably vital, a woman in her prime. Unlike the men with their untended beards and glassy eyes, an aura surrounds her, a crackling intensity that draws stray glances and more than a few appreciative stares. Her coloring, an exact duplicate of my grandmother’s, awakens the ache slumbering in me.
Assessing my bewilderment, she softens her tone. “I remind you of someone.”
A statement, not a question, and I swallow down my shock. “You do. It’s uncanny.” The urge to stare takes hold. Instead I look at my plate.
“Someone you loved?”
The use of the past tense seems peculiar. There’s no escaping the odd notion she’s somehow aware I’ve recently stood graveside while the women from Gram’s church blessed the casket with tears and keening sobs, their chorus of misery flowing across the cemetery’s neatly tended acres as, one by one, they hugged me close. I’ve never met another clairvoyant. A hunch suggests the accuracy of the woman’s guess has nothing to do with knowing, an affliction I share with no other. This is something different. I’m sure of it.
At length I reveal, “My grandmother. She’s gone.”
“You were close?”
“Best friends. I never met my dad and don’t get along well with my mother. No big loss. Black Gram was always there to pick up the slack.”
“Black Gram?” The woman’s full lips carry amusement. “As opposed to White Gram? Or Brown?”
“White Pop,” I say, correcting her with a smile of my own. “When I was small, I needed a way to keep track of the colors. Gram’s second husband was white. Died a long time ago. I also had a Brown Gram—didn’t see her much. Moved to Los Angeles. Then there were the Italian relatives, which I never gave nicknames. They didn’t seem to exist. Disowned my mother eons ago.”
“Your family sounds interesting.”
“More like dysfunctional.”
“Except for Black Gram.”
“She definitely brought up the team batting average,” I joke. Growing serious, I add, “She never did a stint in prison, or soaked up unemployment benefits while getting drunk for months on end. A pillar of the community. Too bad street gangs and drug cartels run the community.”
“She died recently?”
“Last week. Breast cancer. Fought like a cougar. Never lost her good spirits, even in the worst months of chemo.”
“She was courageous.”
The kind words send the familiar sadness weaving back through me. “The remission lasted three years. Wish it had lasted forever.” With effort, I blink the grief from my eyes. “We made good use of the time. A weekly bucket list, and a million trips around town whenever she had the energy. At least she died in April. We got in a trip to the art museum to see the first tulips bloom.”
“It was.” After a long hesitation, I manage to add, “She was.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
The woman’s brown eyes reflect an ocean of compassion—yet another similarity. It is uncanny. Stack thirty years on her face and she’d pass for Gram’s sister.
The silence grows full. Breaking it, the woman says, “A million people died tonight. The world will hardly notice. Tomorrow the New York Stock Exchange will post its biggest gains in eight months. A celebratory fervor on Wall Street. The story will dominate the news cycle.”
“How do you know what the stock exchange will do?”
“U.S. advances in hydraulic fracturing continue to drive down energy prices across the globe, spurring consumer spending across the developed world. Good for economies, not so good for Mother Earth. Add in higher earnings in the tech sector, and workers lucky enough to own a retirement account won’t give a second thought to events in South America. Nor will the international banking community.”
“You sure about that?”
Oh, they’ll take note once the Bolivian government lobbies for low-interest loans to rebuild the devastated city. Not until then.”
Her cynical take on economics adds curiosity to my confusion. Is she an insomniac college prof out for a snack in the middle of the night? A stockbroker lost in Ohio’s rural wasteland? The worldly air suggests a familiarity with diverse cultures, and sophistication out of place in a truck stop. Nothing unusual about her olive green slacks and tan blouse. They’re common enough, but I can’t shake the feeling it’s a masquerade, a deception well crafted for my attentive eye.
Unsure of what I’m dealing with, I say, “Even if you’re right, people will care about what’s happening in Bolivia. I mean, how can they not care?”
Mildly approving, she asks, “You think they should care about a million lives lost?”
“A lot of people died. Not a million souls but whatever the death toll, it’ll make the list of major disasters. I’ll bet someone’s already building the Wikipedia page.”
Disappointment vanquishes the approval on her face. “Ah, you are young,” she replies. “You’re unfamiliar with the short attention span of most humans. Add in their naturally acquisitive natures, and a million lives lost won’t cause the least concern. Not on a fast news day with wallets fattened up, compliments of the New York Stock Exchange.”
Not people, humans. As if she’s an alien life form passing judgment on the mercenary inhabitants of earth. The word choice gives me the willies.
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