...... It was almost midnight Christmas, and the runt was spoiling my breakfast. We were the only two customers in the OK truckstop. He said nothing to me, just sat sniffling at the counter. He had the sniffles bad.
...... His hair was tied back in a ponytail. Patched blue jeans, a workshirt without buttons, raggedy hiking boots. The California highways were filled with hundreds just like him every summer. Some were raggier, almost all were taller. Just another rammy runt with a runny nose and a shirttail always hanging out.
...... He watched Kate Walker. I knew a guy down in Berkeley, he told her, who drew his own Christmas cards.
...... Kate was barely listening. She was busy stapling the Christmas cards that had fallen from above the windows. That's a nice friend to have, she conceded.
...... Yeah. Maybe. He wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve. What he had was Santa Claus strung up on a crucifix and Jesus meditating in a full lotus at the Foot of the Cross.
...... She stared. Why would he do something like that?
...... It was a protest against commercialism.
...... She went stern, then sad. I guess Christmas means nothing to you.
...... It means a lot. He turned away from her. It means I gotta spend Christmas here.
...... Kate had taken a couple of business courses at the local junior college. She could cope with him, but she didn't need him. She decided she could finish stapling tomorrow and headed for the coffee pot.
...... The OK truckstop was tiny, even for Mendocino County. There were four stools at the counter and two tables on the floor. Generations of scrambled eggs had tarnished every fork, and the water glasses were plastic and discolored. But the eggs were ranchhouse fresh and the apple cider sparkled like California champagne. There were paper Santas on the windows, and artificial snow was swirled in Jack Frost designs on the plate glass. Opal and Kate Walker had put a lot of love in here.
...... The runt rubbed clean a patch on the steamed windows. I don't know what he hoped to see outside. There was nothing there. Oh, the parking lot had floodlights. Once in a while outbound semis went past us, their port and starboard running lamps like Christmas lights. The nearest town was three miles north, and redwoods went thirty miles in every direction. Even the stars weren't out.
...... It was raining outside, a downpour that had been pouring down for the past week. A typical Northern California winter storm-rain without lightning or thunder, just water falling from the heavens like Chinese water torture. Dull and gray.
...... During the Gold Rush, murderers received lighter sentences if they killed in the rain. Juries could understand how a weeklong rain could fray a man's nerves and turn his temper into a razor. The newspaper I had said this was already the coldest and wettest winter since the Gold Rush.
...... My mood was nearly as gray as all outdoors. A four hundred mile roundtrip with some second-rate presents. My youngest asking why Daddy had to drive back in the rain. Every man winches when he's being nibbled, and today had been a real bite.
...... Kate brought me the pot. How was the omelet?
...... Great. I looked across. I noticed that.
...... Her frown was long. I wish he'd leave.
...... Where did he come from?
...... His van broke down, she told me. A wheel bearing I guess. He coasted this far. With the holiday, the garage can't get parts until Monday. She left to turn some bacon for tomorrow's rush.
...... Opal Walker came from the back room. She had stopped smiling years ago. Now she chain-smoked Pall Mall regulars. She seemed to be shrinking with the years. Her neck was bowed, she didn't move as fast as before, and her skin was tightening with wrinkles. She claimed her hearing was going fast, and her legs seemed to hurt more with every rainy season.
...... She saw me and came over with a fresh pot. You got a full cup, she noticed. She pulled up a chair. Then I'll sit down.
...... Opal Walker was first generation Oakie, one of the Dust Bowl babies. She and her husband had sweated and slaved and scraped to build a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. Thirty years ago, a drunk careened his pickup into a tree. Opal sold the farm, took the insurance settlement and her baby daughter, drove north from the Valley heat to these fog-bound coastal forests, and bought the first truckstop with a For Sale sign.
...... How are the boys? she asked.
...... Real good, I said. I spent most of the day cleaning up after them. They had a real good time.
...... Your oldest, he comes in now and again. I always cut him an extra piece of pie.
...... You shouldn't do that.
...... She sloughed it off. My whole life is things I shouldn't do. She lowered her voice. I think she's starving those boys.
...... She just thinks they should be lean.
...... Looks like starving to me.
...... That's because you're raising granddaughters. And little girls eat more than little boys. Besides, I can't say anything. She won't listen to me.
...... She pursed her lips. Since when?
...... The runt was restless. He left the counter. He closed the front door behind him, and the paper Santa swayed. He cowered from the rain like a street urchin. He went around the building, heading for the restrooms out back.
...... Opal had a face that could stop a vulgar trucker. It fell when she saw the runt. She was old-fashioned and had little sympathy for snifflers. Hope he didn't spoil your breakfast.
...... On Christmas? How could he?
...... I knew I shouldn't've opened today.
...... Throw him out into the rain.
...... She was tempted, but she couldn't. It's Christmas.
...... Lock the doors and turn off the lights, I suggested. If he keeps it up, call the CHP.
...... Michael. Her voice was as soft as it gets. You're heading back when you finish. Could you . . . could you take him back with you?
...... Two hundred miles with him?
...... Her eyes were pleading. Kate don't need him tonight.
...... I thought it over. I'll think about it.
...... She was grateful for that. That was more than she had expected. I drank some coffee and thought about that long dotted line to the city.
...... The runt came back and went over to his stool. He looked like he had washed with cold water. This place isn't bad, he reconsidered. This wouldn't be a bad place to build a cabin, if you got shelter from the rain and all.
...... Opal had her doubts he was smart enough to come out of the rain. We like it here, she told him.
...... The runt turned her way. Any jobs out here?
...... She knew of none. It's been too wet for lumber, and the few crops we get, well, the harvest's been over two, three months already. Most young men your age, they're either living off unemployment, or they've moved down to the city for the winter.
...... What about that town up the road?
...... That gave her pause. There might be, she said slowly, thinking about the opportunities in a logging town of two thousand. Maybe a checker down at the supermarket. But you gotta join the union, or know somebody. The donut shop might need somebody in the mornings.
...... Do they make you cut your hair?
...... She stared at him, then at his ponytail. Around here you do what you want, and nobody makes you do anything different.
...... But you don't get hired unless you got short hair.
...... I didn't say that. She went off to wash my dishes.
...... I can see it in your face. The runt snorted, looked back at the rain. He ordered another beer.
...... Kate went to the cooler.
...... He stared at the back of her head. Are you married?
...... She flinched, said nothing.
...... He was persistent. The reason is, you're wearing a ring, but there's no cars outside, and I was wondering where your husband is, this being Christmas and all.
...... She turned away, hid her face from him.
...... I could see her reflection in the glass cabinets. She'd probably say there.wasn't much to see. Just a big-boned woman with plain features and an Oakie accent. Add a couple of baby girls asleep in the house trailer out back, and a husband who skipped rather than pay child support, and Kate was no marriage prospect. But her life was nobody's business but her own.
...... I pushed back my plate and went over the runt. When he saw me coming, he became uneasy, afraid I might be the one to throw him out into the rain. He didn't want that. I was bigger than him.
...... I hear you need a ride south.
...... He disbelieved his luck. Are you going to San Francisco? He slid off the stool. Is that where you're heading? Up close, his eyes weren't dilated. You could hide his pupils under a pencil point.
...... When I finish breakfast.
...... He started rummaging for his bedroll and backpack.
...... I live in Sausalito, and it's on the way. He was high enough to fly south.
...... I started having second thoughts. What's the hurry?
...... I just gotta get back, okay?
...... What about your van?
...... I can pick it up in a couple days.
...... I was squirming, looking for a way out. I didn't see one. Okay. Let's get going. Kate had a nice smile for me. Opal was grateful, too. She took away my check and wouldn't let me pay it.
...... He was already outside, watching his breath in the light.
...... The runt and I went back across the gravel apron to my car. The truckstop was set back like a gingerbread house a hundred yards from California 101. There was plenty of room for truckers and their rigs, but tonight the lot was an acre of puddles from the holidays and the rain. The gravel had seen too much oil from too many truckers, and the puddles were prisms in the floodlights. It was a miserable night.
...... He still yapped. They don't make much money up here, do they?'
...... They make a little, I told him. There's lots of traffic during the summer. People from the city coming up to the lakes. I looked over my shoulder. The Walkers had just turned off their neon sign. The state's going to widen the road next year. I thought about their second mortgage on the truckstop. That'll help.
...... He had only contempt. That'll help the pollution, all right. He snorted like a horse. Bad enough they ruin the air, but they gotta clog up the roads, too.
...... My car was damp cold metal beneath the redwoods. It was stone cold inside. The runt settled himself against his window, on the edge of his seat, as if he didn't want to dirty his jeans. He didn't trust it, but it was shelter.
...... The car took its time starting. Soon enough we were heading south like the logging trucks. My wipers were worn and the rain plopped down like Nevada dollars.
...... The heater wasn't working right, and the windows kept steaming up. I kept my eyes peeled for mule deer jaywalking. I turned on the car radio to drown the grating of my worn wipers. There was nothing but Christmas music. I settled down for some serious driving.
...... A hundred miles later his sniffles were back.
...... He looked more normal. He looked miserable, a dim shape against the window, motionless, clinging to the edge of the seat. As far as I was concerned, he could perch there forever.
...... Ten miles later he was driving me crazy. He was still sniffling, still sitting like a gargoyle on a ledge. I listened to him. I wished he'd blow his nose.
...... I glanced over again. There's no way we'll get there tonight. We'll be lucky if we make it by sunrise.
...... I know that. He was miserable.
...... If you want to sack out . . .
...... He cut me short. I can't sleep.
...... I had enough. All right. What were you on?
...... Wha? I'm not on nothing. But he knew.
...... I'm talking about before, I said. When we left the truckstop. What were you on? Wanna walk?
...... Reds. He waited. Seconal.
...... Right. And you can't sleep. I asked the little liar what his hurry was.
...... He looked out his window. He didn't want his face seen. I'm expecting a phone call. His voice was muffled by the rain and my wipers.
...... Maybe she'll keep trying.
...... A startled sniffle. How'd you know it was a chick?
...... It's Christmas.
...... He sniffled again, lost in his past. He had little future. They never hit this hard when he was younger.
...... I told him there was kleenex on the dashboard. He fumbled around like a man with a lit cigarette on his lap. When he found them, I went back to watching the road. I just missed a raccoon.
...... I looked over. How'd you know my name?
...... He held up a business card. It says you work for Pacific-Continental Investigations.
...... The bite went on. I don't do that any longer. I knew I had to clean the car soon. It was getting to be a scrapbook.
...... You're on your own?
...... I've always been on my own. I thought back over the years. I just didn't always know it.
...... How much do you charge, you know, to find somebody?
...... I'm not for hire. Saying it felt good.
...... I can pay you for your time.
...... I said nothing. No sense rubbing salt in his wound.
...... It's Dani. My old lady. She left me.
...... Get a divorce. It'll cost you fifty bucks.
...... This is different, he insisted.
...... We're not married. Just living together.
...... I made a noise in my throat. He was another sickie who had forgotten what was normal. She walked out the door, right? Why not say goodbye and start looking for someone who wants to stick around a while?
...... We got four years together already.
...... Be grateful. Cut her loose.
...... She's beautiful.
...... They're always beautiful. If they stay.
...... He was a believer. You know, she's got big blue eyes.
...... And you're a sucker for blue eyes.
...... He shook his head. She can't keep her eyes closed when she's sleeping. They're really freaky. They're so big, her eyelids roll back. Yeah, they roll back and she's staring at the ceiling. They're too small, I guess, or maybe her eyes are just too big, or something. He stared out the window.
...... Really freaky.
...... He was desperate. I hoped he wasn't dangerous. She left willingly, right?
...... Yeah. His voice was small and distant.
...... If she's so wonderful, why did she leave?
...... That's why I gotta talk with her.
...... Mmmmm. Did she say why she left?
...... She said she loved me too much to stay.
...... I marveled at that. Some guys'll believe anything. You don't suppose there's somebody else, too, and she went to him.
...... She would've told me if there was.
...... I made a face in the dark.
...... It's not that way, he told me. I was good for her. Real good. She was always alone until she met me. She didn't have to stay four years. That says something.
...... I told him to forget it.
...... I can't. She means everything to me. I just gotta get her back. I don't know anybody else to turn to.
...... If you want a private eye, there's plenty in the phone book. They're all better than me, anyway.
...... Maybe you need some time to think it over.
...... Sorry, pal. I quit playing detective, and there's no way I'm getting back into it.
...... Hey, man, you gotta listen to me. He whined like a man kept from suicide. The last thing I want to feel is that broken-up over anybody. It's a bummer being like this. I just gotta get her back. If I can just talk with her--
...... Forget it, I snapped. I'm booked solid. I turned the car radio loud. Christmas music all over the car. Jingle Bell Rock and White Christmas were better than nothing.
...... We said nothing more to each other.
...... I dropped him off in Sausalito at sunrise. Well, it would've been sunrise, if it hadn't been for the rain. Sunrise was just a lighter shade of gray.
...... He scurried between the raindrops with his hands in his jeans and his collar turned up. More than rain fell on him. Forgetting him was the easiest thing in the world.