Henry and Frank sat on an upturned newspaper vendor and split a bag of sunflower seeds. They faced a sign that had been bright once, and welcoming. Now the blue had faded into yellow, the yellow was white, and the name of the town it advertized was practically invisible.
“That town.” Frank motioned with his chin. The wrinkled skin of his muzzled dipped in around his remaining teeth. “That town got mean hearts. You couldn’t pay me to go there.”
Henry took a swig of water. He’d filled it at the library hours ago, before they’d kicked him out. “No choice. Alameda’s gotten meaner. The hell else am I gonna go? Times are hard all over.”
Frank was lost in a reverie of another time. Despite the winter coat over his bare torso, he still looked chilled. “Jill went in there a while ago. Haven’t heard back from her. I’m gonna hit the highway, see if someone won’t take pity on me.”
“That’s a lot of walking at your age,” Henry said, not without concern.
Frank just looked at the sign, shaking his head.
“Couldn’t pay me to go there,” he repeated, “not money or honey to go in that town.”
Frank unlocked the brakes of his cart and wheeled it off along the road. There were no shade trees on either side, so the old man dwindled in a shimmer of heat. Just the sight of it made sweat break out on Henry’s neck. He looked up at the sign.
Beneath the town name, there were three diagonal slash-marks. Old hobo signs. Henry wished he knew what they meant.
He hitched up his bag and started walking.
The grass to either side of the road was a broad yellow that seemed to absorb the sun and give it back in equal measure. His water was gone before he’d traveled a mile.
Here and there you could see remnants of citrus orchards that had been cleared out for construction of housing. He could tell by the shape of the land that much more had been planned out than the little snakebite that unfolded beneath him. Roads that were more crack than concrete. Houses that lay in sunfaded fifties colors. A rusted pump station where he filled his aluminum bottle at an old tap that tasted like chlorine.
The place set off his hackles well before he came to the little main street. There was no one out, not even to lounge in the doorway of a shop and goggle at passerby. There were no franchises. He saw signs for places like “Bob’s BBQ” or “Village Antiques.” No Mc-anything, not even a hotdog cart.
When the police cruiser glided down the street behind him, Henry had already broken into a cold sweat. Two carrier bags automatically marked him as homeless, no matter how clean he kept himself.
The car cruised to a slow roll beside him.
“Where you going, young man?”
Henry kept his eyes on the road before him. “Just passing through,” he said automatically. He’d pass right through if they let him.
“No need to rush on our account. We like visitors, don’t we Ben?” An answering laugh from the passenger side.
Henry kept mum. In his experience with police, if they had a mind to harass you there was nothing you could say or do to put it off.
“Stop, son.” This came from the passenger side, and it meant business.
Henry stopped, eyes neutrally on the distance beyond the cruiser. The car doors opened.
The driver was a weaselly thin white guy with very little chin and a smile that didn’t help things. The passenger was a black guy with the body of an athlete and the face of an enthusiastic little boy. He took his sunglasses off and nodded at Henry’s bags.
“What you got in there?” he asked casually.
Henry shrugged. “Little things. A towel.”
The white cop reacted like he’d just told the funniest gut-buster of all time, pounding the roof of the cruiser.
“Towel?” he gasped. “You going swimming?”
Henry kept his eyes on the other cop. This one was dissecting Henry with his eyes, weighing him with an air Henry didn’t particularly care for. Finally, the cop nodded.
“Get in the back.”
Henry felt his skin prickle. “Have I done something?”
“You ain’t in trouble. We’re just giving you a ride.” The white cop leered.
“I’ll be out of here,” Henry promised, “I can be out of town by nightfall.”
“Well, we’ll help you along with that.”
Beaten, Henry slid into the backseat of the cruiser.
The white cop kept up the chatter in the car. “We don’t get many visitors here, nope. It’s a shame, because we’re downright hospitable. Aren’t we, Officer Baggs?”
“That is affirmative, Officer Corlin. We love all people, especially people just passing through.” Officer Baggs laughed, and it was an infectious laugh.
“Yesiree. The outside world may’ve written you off, but we in town believe you can still make a contribution.”
The car swung a right, traveling deeper into town. Henry’s grip on his bags tightened.
“Know what we do with you?” Corlin made eye contact in the rearview mirror. “We keep you on ice. You can stay here as long as you last.”
“Shut up, Cor,” Baggs said affectionately.
They passed several shuttered restaurants. Henry blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “I have to go to the bathroom!”
Corlin squinted. “Like hell you do.”
“I been holding it in for hours,” Henry promised, “I can give this seat a real good shower if you want.”
Baggs laid an arm across the seat and looked back. “Just let him,” he said breezily, “it’s not like he can do anything.”
They stopped at an old drug store. From the decor, Henry figured it had closed in the fifties. Soda fountains lay untouched by time under layers of dust. Officer Corlin encouraged him out of the back seat with a truncheon. He didn’t see Henry as enough of a threat for a gun. Good.
Baggs leaned against the side of the cruiser with his arms folded, looking innocently up at the cloudless sky.
Corlin led Henry to a bathroom with a broken door. In the heat it smelled like a busted port-o-john. He nudged Henry with the stick. “Go on. Don’t make a day of it.”
Henry took two steps like he was going in. Baggs had his holster unclipped, but his hands were tucked into his elbows. Corlin was twirling the truncheon like a baton. Henry stopped at the door.
He mumbled something. Corlin drew closer.
Henry let swing with his leg. The cop may have been expecting the blow, but he hadn’t anticipated the aluminum of Henry’s prosthetic leg. It made a nice ringing sound. Henry dropped his bag and ran for it while the cop writhed in pain. Baggs shouted and peeled away from the car. Too late, too late.
Henry ran in-between stores and under fences. He was probably screwed. The cops lived here, they could probably hear him fumble through the labyrinth of sheet metal and wood.
Someone opened a door and Henry got a flash—dark cloth, white collar, bald head. Gesturing.
“In here, my son!”
Henry ran gladly into the waiting darkness. The priest closed the door, which only had a handle on the inside, and shut out the sun.
“Sorry for the cliche,” he said, laughing a little, “it’s the best attention-getter I can think of.”
He had a little brownish red hair in a horseshoe all around his head, and a smile that awkwardly tried to look nonthreatening. Good. Henry had had enough of people who smiled too easily.
“I can repay you with labor,” he said carefully, “I had some cash but it was in my bag…”
The priest waved it away. “I couldn’t possibly expect to ask for payment. Not for such a thing. Do you have any idea what they wanted with you?”
Henry shook his head. He had an inkling of an idea, something horrible that he pushed down because he didn’t want it to be true.
The other man shook his head. “Good. That talk isn’t for daylight hours. Please follow me.”
The shelter had a shower cubicle and donated clothes several sizes too large for Henry. The priest waved away his repeated thanks and brought a bowl of hominy soup thin as water. Henry had eaten a sandwich only hours ago and the run had done his appetite no favors, but he choked down the bowl anyway. The priest watched approvingly.
“Times are hard all over,” he said, “but that is no reason to let savagery triumph. The men you saw today have been made desperate by hardship, but they are by no means bad men.”
Henry swallowed his disagreement with a gulp of iced tea.
“We all have needs,” the priest said. He was looking at the wood of the table now, wood that was marked by many generations of initials. “But what they don’t realize is that you can reap a far greater harvest with gentleness than with force. Don’t you agree?”
Henry nodded. The bowl was empty. The priest came back to the present.
“Wonderful,” he said, “I knew you’d be hungry. Everyone here is. Now you probably want to rest, right?”
Agreement had gotten him this far, so Henry nodded. The priest led him down a long hall with many identical municipal doors.
“This used to be a school. So many things in this town used to be something else.”
The priest opened a door identical to the ones around it. “I’m sure you’ll be comfortable.”
Henry stepped into the room. There was a cot with a jailhouse mattress, an end table with a plastic jug of water. It was twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the building. As Henry was studying the lay of the land, the door closed behind him with a bang. He turned and found that there was no handle on this side of the door. He drew close and pounded on it, as cold air hissed through the vents.