ON THE BOARDER
JUNE 5 – SEPTEMBER 6, 1990
There was a dead man lying in the middle of Main Street in May, Oklahoma.
Nick wasn’t surprised. He had seen a lot of corpses since leaving Shoyo, and he suspected he hadn’t seen a thousandth of all the dead people he must have passed. In places, the rich smell of death on the air was enough to make you feel like swooning. One more dead man, more or less, wasn’t going to make any difference.
But when the dead man sat up, such an explosion of terror rose in him that he again lost control of his bike. It wavered, then wobbled, then crashed, spilling Nick violently onto the pavement of Oklahoma Route 3. He cut his hands and scraped his forehead.
“Holy gee, mister, but you took a tumble,” the corpse said, coming toward Nick at a pace best described as an amiable stagger. “Didn’t you just? My laws!”
Nick got none of this. He was looking at a spot on the pavement between his hands where drops of blood from his cut forehead were falling, and wondering how badly he had been cut. When the hand touched him on the shoulder he remembered the corpse and scrambled away on the palms of his hands and the soles of his shoes, the eye not covered with the patch bright with terror.
“Don’t you take on so,” the corpse said, and Nick saw he wasn’t a corpse at all but a young man who was looking happily at him. He had most of a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and now Nick understood. Not a corpse but a man who had gotten drunk and had passed out in the middle of the road.
Nick nodded at him and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. Just then a drop of blood oozed warmly into the eye that Ray Booth had worked over, making it smart. He raised the eyepatch and swiped his forearm across it. He had a little more vision on that side today, but when he closed his good eye, the world still retreated to something which was little more than a colorful blur. He replaced the patch and then walked slowly to the curb and sat beside a Plymouth with Kansas plates which was slowly settling on its tires. He could see the gash on his forehead reflected in the Plymouth’s bumper. It looked ugly but not deep. He would find the local drugstore, disinfect it, and slap a Band-Aid over it. He thought he still must have enough penicillin in his system to fight off almost anything, but his close call from the bullet-scrape on his leg had given him a horror of infection. He picked scraps of gravel out of his palms, wincing.
The man with the bottle of whiskey had been watching all of this with no expression at all. If Nick had looked up, it would have struck him as queer immediately. When he had turned away to examine his wound in the bumper’s reflection, the animation had leaked out of the man’s face. It became empty and clean and unlined. He was wearing bib-alls that were clean but faded and heavy workshoes. He stood about five-nine, and his hair was so blond it was nearly white. His eyes were a bright, empty blue, and with the cornsilk hair, his Swedish or Norwegian descent was unmistakable. He looked no more than twenty-three, but Nick found out later he had to be forty-five or close to it because he could remember the end of the Korean War, and how his daddy had come home in uniform a month later. There was no question that he might have made that up. Invention was not Tom Cullen’s long suit.
He stood there, empty of face, like a robot whose plug has been pulled. Then, little by little, animation seeped back into his face.