He pushed the button on his Dell and heard the computer whir obediently albeit, grogily, inside the dust-encrusted tower. Flecks of dust caught in the beam of his halogen desk lamp. Cracker, his deaf white Persian, yawned from her perch on top two weeks of The Roanoke Times. She flicked her tail and blinked adoringly at Anthony. January’s rattling wind whooshed under the cinderblocks that held their trailer while the faint laughter from the Wendy Williams Show trickled from the back bedroom. The coffee maker sputtered and emitted the scent of scorched beans.Anthony quickly signed in, tick tick tick tick tick… and opened his email. There were two messages from “Exciting Weight Loss Alternative,” his usual from Dictionary.com. and five forwarded, “YOU MUST SEE THIS VIDEO TO BELIEVE IT!!!” And then there was the email from Naomi. Anthony belched and scratched the flaky skin on his elbow. He was forty-eight and rough, and his years of living alone were irreparably evident in the food in his refrigerator and the age of the bedsheets.
“Dear Antoin, My husband Glen and I love your column each week. I have been having terrible dreams about our son, Edward, for the last three weeks. All I see is his sweet face and then a ‘boom’. He has been involved with drugs for many years and we have been praying for him. What do you see for him? Can you tell me what this means? God Bless you!- .
Anthony clicked “delete” on the next email, and instead, another email from Naomi came up. “Just had another dream about my son. The same. I heard the boom and shot straight out of bed. Please answer!!” Anthony sighed, got up, and poured another cup of burned coffee into his stained Duncan Donuts cup. He scratched his head and mumbled, “Yeah yeah yeah…ok, lady, life sucks. Sorry. Eddie’s a looooserrrrrr… the world’s full of fucked up druggies and whack jobs.”
Anothony, aka, “Antoin,” was the psychic consultant for the local newspaper and had been for eight years. It didn’t pay the rent- his disability checks did that- but it provided him a certain esteem within community that he used to remain socially acceptable and of sound mind while the local Christian groups routinely flooded his mailbox and windshield with invites to revivals and warnings of hellfire. Anthony reached over to pet the cat, who was purring and smiling, and who briefly stretched out a scarred leg and nails in appreciation.
“Dear Naomi,” he typed. “My Spirit Guide tells me that your son is fine- he’s facing new challenges that will hit him like an explosion. Keep praying for him and keep fresh cilantro in his pillow case to help with cleansing his aura. I see wonderful things in the next three months….” Anthony lit a cigarette and smoked three puffs before daubing it out in a houseplant. He allowed himself only five cigarettes a day. There were several upright, half-smoked cigarettes in the plant. A knock came at the trailer door. “Shit.”
He’d paid the propane bill…. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had been there earlier in the week. “Just a sec,” he yelled, as Cracker made a speedy retreat into the bedroom with Wendy on the television.
She was a little over middle-age, loose, shoulder-length grey hair, and peculiarly vibrant blue-grey eyes. She was faintly smiling, but looked uncomfortable and held her hands down firmly in the pockets of her ankle-length wool coat. She wore ankle rubber boots. “Mr. Neighbor? Mr. Crown? Isn’t that right?.” Her narrow legs shook beneath her skirt. Before she could ask again, Anthony outreached his hand to the stranger, surprised by his own motion. It was due perhaps to some latent rule of respect toward his elders as a child. The woman started up the three muddy stairs into the trailer, unwrapped her old plaid scarf, and sat on the warm chair once occupied by the Cracker. “Phew, what a chill!!” she said, smiling and looking around the trailer.
“You certainly seem to have brought it in with you….” Anthony looked apologetically but disdainfully toward the unwelcome visitor. “Just what I need,” he thought- “Some nosy neighbor to come complain about the garbage backed up in his driveway.” The truth was, his trailer was a gigantic mess both inside and out. He prided himself as a burrower, and used it as a defense against unwanted company.
“May I help you with something?,” Anthony asked meekly, trying to hide his annoyance with the woman whose boots were melting all over the carpet. Anthony noticed her eyes travel to a bowl full of half-dried, week old chili.
“I hate to ask, really….”
“Yes, but…?” He could sense she felt the rudeness in his voice. “I’m sorry. It’s just that – I’m ashamed to ask in fact- but I live just next to you down the road and, oh, I probably shouldn’t have stopped by….” Anthony lit another cigarette and walked into the kitchen, which was ten feet away from the entrance of the trailer.
“Is there a problem, Miss….?”
“Hill. We’re the Hills from Hill House- just in the hollow.” He poured a cup of cold coffee from the Mister Coffee into a cup and stashed it into the microwave. When he looked back at the old woman. She was smiling at Cracker who was glaring back suspiciously from the bedroom.
“Ya like cats?”
“Oh, yes, we’ve had many”
“Don’t worry, he ain’t for sale. Right down the road from me?” Anthony chuckled. “I apologize for being such a recluse. I’m afraid we’ve never met!”
“Oh, I know you’re a new-comer. Isn’t this your fourth winter here?” She was pretty- maybe sixty-five, when grey-blue eyes and a soft face. He suddenly felt more warmly toward her.
“My tenth, actually, but who’s counting.”
“And you write for the paper?” she asked energetically.
“Yes, and what about you? Your place is….?”
“Just next door. Hasn’t it been cold lately? I can’t seem to warm up. I’m sorry for not introducing myself sooner, but with the weather, I don’t get out much.”
“I see…. So you came over to…?” The woman stood up, as if to leave, and for a moment, her veneer gave off a youthful glow that caught him off guard. “You want me to throw some more coffee on?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you. It’s just a rather large favor really….”
“Look, if it’s about the garbage, I’m going to the dump today.”
“Oh, no. It’s….”
“Look, I don’t have any money, lady. You want booze? Is that it? That, I got. Don’t tell me you came all the way over here in this weather for a stick of margarine.” The old woman began to look tired and nervous. She gazed out the cigarette-filmed window as if looking for something. There was something so extraordinarily sad in her face that he felt guilty for having been such an ass.
“Since my son died,” she began softly, “ I haven’t had anyone to carry in wood for the stove, and it’s expected to be very cold tonight. Would you mind helping me? I’ll only need a few logs. My husband has it all cut and stacked. I can pay you in a fresh batch of cookies, if that’s all right…?” Anthony swallowed his cold coffee and felt naucious.
“No problem. Just let me get my coat.”
“Thank you so much.”
“Forget it.” Anthony grabbed his coat off the floor of his closet and noticed the Cracker in the corner of the room glaring at him icily. He heard the old woman going down the steps and before he could get to the door, she was already trudging through the snow across the yard. She called out but did not turn around,
“It’s just this way!”
“Okay,” he replied, beginning to wonder just exactly where she lived.
The snow became heavier in his eyes. Anthony looked back at the single light from his trailer and was glad it would be warm when he returned. The sound of a vehicle coming from being them on the road overtook the gentle sounds of the frozen tree limbs creaking under the new falling snow. It sounded like an a tractor trailer skidding off the road. There was a tremendous boom, hissing, and then silence.
Anthony and the woman looked back and saw the truck rammed into a tree, smoke billowing out from under the crushed hood. The snow sound became louder. The phizz of the truck’s radiator and its chemical smell pervaded the air. Anthony began running toward the vehicle but the snow hobbled him. His eyes were suddenly warmed with tears and snowflakes that obliterated his vision in wavy corneal pools. He continued toward the vehicle, there came a breeze, and the smell dissipated. A robin, that had stayed behind and not migrated, sang its music, completely unbothered by the ruckus. The truck was gone.
Anthony turned back to the woman, who knelt in the snow, sobbing, and then gradually appeared to melt into the snow, fading away in front of her home. He ran toward her, feeling as as though he was having a heart attack.
The ancient log cabin behind which she had knelt, sat beside Natural Bridge, its chinking and empty interior exposing decayed logs and planks. The faint smell of oatmeal cookies wafted through the air before the sleet him.
Standing alone, he felt the warmth of tears flood his face. His feet, strangely numb and heavy, would not work, and Anthony found himself half-walking, half-crawling back to his trailer. The sadness that overcame him was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was as if the very core of his being was bleeding out. His hand was shaking as he unlatched the door. At the computer, Anthony sat at his computer and looked for Naomi’s email. It slowly faded before his eyes.