He woke up early the next morning on Alexandrine’s couch. Grabbing some clean clothes from his bag, he went upstairs to shower. Alex heard him fumbling around and went downstairs to make coffee. It was a cold December morning and it had snowed a dusting. Alex looked out the dirty kitchen window and thought how pretty and clean the rundown neighborhood looked, as if it had been whitewashed by the snow, as if the poverty and crime and the sadness had taken the morning off. She knew all too well this was simply another illusion.
She poured two cups, mixed in cream and sugar, and went out to the coffee table to wait for Frankie. Frankie came down, kissed her on the cheek, and drank his coffee as they watched the morning news on the flickering black-and-white TV. Frankie got up and refilled their cups. Standing, he said he’d drive the tractor down to Grandma’s garage. When she was ready, if she’d come down to meet him he’d give her a ride back home. He was going to leave the truck there a few days while he worked on it. He needed the Rambler to get back and forth.
He walked outside into the cold morning air, and was suddenly reminded of how much he hated the cold. He climbed into the tractor, fired up the engine and let it warm up, pumping huge plumes of black diesel exhaust into the cold morning air. He sat, smoked a cigarette, and watched the gauges. When the engine was warm, he backed out of Alex’s driveway and headed on down to the old lady’s property.
He still could not believe the house was gone. His uncle held the deed to the property. He needed to go see him. Maybe he’d buy it from the family. He had always wanted to live there, but with the house gone he couldn’t understand the draw. Now that she was gone, it was just a rocky, hilly, piece of land, with a very dilapidated garage sitting off in the corner of the lot.
But sadly, it was something he needed to connect to. His connections seemed to be dwindling by the day, down to where the old woman’s property, his grandfather’s property, and the collapsing garage were his last connection to home. He needed a home, to find home, to feel home.
Now, clean and relatively sober, relatively sane, the grounding, solid, reassurance of home was one thing sorely needed and missing. Looking around, he realized he’d lost his way home. Every bridge he’d ever crossed was now smoldering ash. Alexandrine was a part of home, along with the old lady, his grandfather, and the bar. He chose not to include Pam. He’d been thinking about Zara and how he thought she would be home, but that was only a comfortable and dangerous stop along the way. He had no compass, no mechanism to get to that wondrous place called home. With its warmth and comforts and clean sheets and food cooked on a stove and not a grill in an aluminum and stainless-steel diner.
As he drove along, down Route 94 toward the property, he told himself this was the life he chose, the life he wanted. He was still an outlaw and he still had a job to do. He had to find Juan Carlos. When he got older, when he was done collecting his stories, after this job was done, he’d find a home and a wife, maybe Betty, and a dog and maybe a kid. He’d get a job someplace, not the factory, and pack a lunch and watch baseball on TV.
He backed the tractor up close to the garage. He questioned the wisdom of deciding to work on the tractor here, practically outside. He climbed down out of the tractor and went around the back of the crumbling building and grabbed an armload of firewood. Entering through the side door, he walked across the dirt floor to an old pot-bellied stove. He opened the door and a few mice scurried out. He laughed, “You’d better run or be cooked.”
He lit a fire with some kindling and old newspapers. Then, he slowly added the split wood. He knelt there a few minutes, absorbing the warmth of the growing fire. He walked over to the corner where an old Craftsman tool box stood, once red and black and shiny, now rusted and dirty and covered with cobwebs. He looked up at the roof and saw that someone, probably his cousin, had thrown a huge blue tarp over the gaping hole in the roof. It helped keep the heat inside.
Standing in the open overhead door frame, he watched the cars occasionally pass by. It was a quiet, late autumn day. The cloudy sky began to spit snowflakes and the air turned colder. The wind, icy out of the north, began to blow.
He lit a cigarette and thought about the old lady and Christmases at the house no longer there. He remembered the house and the smell of the propane stove and the crooked kitchen floor. The tiny Christmas tree stuck in the corner of the tiny living room in the ancient house. That was pretty much the extent of the celebration—just put up that tiny tree in the corner and wail some Christmas songs about Jesus. That old woman, she sure did love her some Jesus.
He stood in the open doorway between the wall and the rear wheels of the tractor, smoking another cigarette, putting off starting to work, watching the cars out on the road. It was a small, country two-lane road, never much traffic. He was pretty sure he’d seen the same car riding up and down three or four times now: a late model Chevy with three guys in it. They passed the house again. He saw the brake lights as the car stopped and backed up. The car sat there in the road for a few seconds. The three men inside the car looked over toward Frankie and the tractor and the garage. The driver turned the wheel and pulled the car into the driveway, about twenty feet from the tractor.
Frankie stood there and stared at them. He finished smoking his cigarette. The doors of the Chevy opened and the driver and the passenger got out. Then the passenger opened the back door on his side and a man emerged.
He got out and stood up, looking at Frankie. He smiled and said, “The word is you were going to kill me. I thought I’d bring the fight to you. You have a big mouth, my friend, and your close friends are worse. It took me about an hour to find you. It’s a nice day to die, don’t you think, Frankie?”
Frankie had a pistol hidden in the side door of the tractor, wrapped in a towel and buried inside a tool box. He hated guns, but today he might make an exception. It had been loaded a long time ago. He was now wondering if it would fire and if it even mattered. Juan Carlos had considerable firepower, as he recalled. It would be good to at least put up a fight. He opened the side door and staring at Juan Carlos he reached inside, fumbling with one hand for the pistol.
He yelled back, “Can you at least tell me why you needed to kill all of us?”
Juan Carlos smiled and said, “You boys were messing up my game. You were a hell of a runner, you and your friends. I needed to shut down your buddy, Vinny, so killing you all just made sense. Now it’s your turn.”
For a brief second, Frankie felt fear, not of what was about to happen, but fear that he was moments away from finding out if his atheism was well-founded. Suddenly his arrogance escaped him. What if everyone else was right? What if the old lady and her Jesus were right? It seemed kind of late to be questioning his convictions now. Frankie, always able to outrun any situation, to escape by the skin of his teeth, was now at a place that looked like it could be the end.
In one fast move, he opened the door to the cab and scrambled up the two-step ladder, knowing full well the fiberglass body would offer little protection. He jumped into the driver’s seat and fired up the engine as the car’s driver and the passenger ran to the trunk and pulled out some artillery.
He pulled the tractor into gear as the first bullets began to fly through the cab, hitting him in the left leg. The shot forced his leg off the clutch and the tractor groaned and shook and stalled. Now both men from the car were firing, rapidly and relentlessly. The fiberglass body of the F and G Produce tractor was being blown apart. Frankie felt more shots. At first, they felt like punches, hard, small, focused punches. Then, he felt the torn skin and the sting that told him the bullets were now inside his body. The shots kept coming in an increasing barrage, literally shredding the cab.
Frankie felt the blood escaping from his body. It felt cold as it flowed from him and ran down his legs and torso. He felt shots to his chest. He now lay sprawled across the doghouse over the engine and he looked at the ceiling of the cab as bits of leather and fiberglass and spongy material and glass exploded in the air. He couldn’t move. A few shots had hit his back and his spine. His legs were paralyzed.
He still had the unfired pistol in his hand. He considered putting it in his mouth, but even at this late moment, in this increasing and incredible pain, Frankie wanted to hang on. He realized his terror. He knew he was moments from death, but he could not bring himself to rush the process. Death, his death, would arrive on its own, very quickly, and while still unwelcome, the pain of his body was not as bad as the pain of his fear.
The gunshots stopped. Outside, Juan Carlos went to the trunk and took out the RPG. Frankie heard him yelling, “Frankie if you’re still with us. I’m going to blow your ass up now.” Frankie, hanging on, close to the end, could only lay there and bleed.
He heard a voice, the old woman’s voice. It said, “Pray boy, simply pray. But hurry, boy.” Frankie, still, at this moment, could not bring himself to do it, even if he’d wanted to.
He pointed the pistol in the direction of Juan Carlos and the car and pulled off about four shots from the pistol before he dropped it.
From down the road, the Rambler approached, with Alexandrine at the wheel. She slammed on the brakes and watched in horror as Juan Carlos fired the anti-tank RPGs into the shredded truck body. Three of them exploded into the cab. Alex had a sense that she was watching her friend die at that exact moment. She swore she could hear a mournful wail as the grenades exploded in the cab and the fire ignited the materials in the truck.
Inside, as Frankie felt the flames licking at his body, he began to shake and writhe. The flames, he remembered from the LSD dream, from that night alone in the forest that seemed like years ago now. The tractor would be his pyre. He laid there for what seemed like hours, but must have only been seconds. And, like every man he had ever killed, he watched, almost as a detached observer, as his own life passed away. His last thought and sensation was a shaking and a muffled scream and a moaning that sounded like an empty ship rubbing against a dock . . . then silence.
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