One Door Away from Heaven

Page 35

According to the movies, most Americans strive always to better their lives and to improve themselves, and because movies provide reliable information, Curtis interrupts Gabby's blustering with the intention of offering a vocabulary lesson for which the caretaker will no doubt be grateful. "Sir, the reason I was confused is you weren't pronouncing it properly. You meant testicles!"

Every look of surprise that heretofore made such dramatic use of the caretaker's highly expressive face is as nothing to the brow-corrugating, eyebrow-steepling, eye-popping, wrinkle-stretching, beard-frizzling astonishment that now possesses his features.

Gabby's expression is such an obvious precursor to another rant that Curtis hurries on, frantic to explain himself: "Sir, you said 'co-jones,' when what you meant to say was 'kah-ho-nays.' Cojones. That's the English pronunciation, which is slightly different from the way you would say it in Spanish. If you-"

"Blast all the devils from Hell to Abilene!" Gabby bellows, and he looks away from Curtis with obvious disgust, which is good in one way and bad in another. Good because he's at last staring at the salt flats ahead of them. Bad because sooner or later, trembling from the offense that he's taken, he's going to look at Curtis again, and that look will peel the wet off water.

Like wet on water.

Another small enlightenment blossoms in Curtis, but he resists sharing it with the fuming caretaker. He has lost all confidence in his ability to socialize. Shaken, he is convinced that anything he says, even a wordless grunt delivered in the most inoffensive tone, will be misinterpreted and will trigger another furious oath from Gabby that will be loud enough to shatter all the windows in the Mountaineer.

The boy's failure even to attempt to hold up his end of the conversation results in only a brief silence. The caretaker splutters in exasperation after saying "Abilene," inhales with a rattling snort worthy of a horse, and blows out another gust of words: "You sassy-assed, spit-in-the-eye, ungrateful, snot-nosed little punk! Maybe I ain't been to no Harvard College, an' maybe I ain't had the better advantages of some what was born with silver spoons in their mouths, but from the time I worn diapers, I knowed it was pure bad manners criticizin' your elders. You don't got no call tellin' me how to say co-jones when the pathetic pair of co-jones you have ain't no bigger than two chickpeas!"

As Gabby continues to rave, he finally eases up on the gas pedal and lets the Mountaineer's speed fall. Maybe he's considering pulling to a stop and ordering Curtis to get out and fend for himself.

Right now, if they were in a boat in the middle of a stormy sea, the boy would go overboard without a protest; therefore, he won't argue about being left afoot on these salt flats. In fact, he'll welcome it. The stress of being a desperate fugitive, maintaining a credible false identity, resisting the urge to go a little dog wild, and socializing in a challenging dialect is more than he's able to handle. He feels as though his head is going to explode or that something even worse and more embarrassing will occur.

Apparently having vented enough anger to look at his snot-nosed passenger without risking cardiac infarction, Gabby at last turns his attention away from the flats. Maybe the old man is surprised that Curtis hasn't already thrown himself out of the Mountaineer or maybe he's surprised by the boy's tears, or maybe he's just surprised that this sassy-assed punk dares to look him in the eye. Whatever the reason, instead of the withering display of scorn and contempt that Curtis expects, the caretaker inflates his face into an expression of astonishment that so exceeds his previous look of astonishment that it seems more suitable to a cartoon character than to a human being. And he stomps on the brake pedal. Fortunately, their speed has fallen from in excess of a hundred miles an hour to under fifty. Shrieking brakes and screaming tires sound pretty much the same on hard-packed salt as on blacktop, though the combined odors of hot rubber and churning salt produce a smell that is unique to these conditions and strangely like ham sizzling in a skillet.

If Curtis hadn't been jammed down firmly in his seat, pinching the upholstery with his tailbone, and pressing his feet into the floorboard nearly hard enough to buckle it, he and Old Yeller might indeed have splattered like bugs on the wrong side of the windshield. Instead, the poor dog's life flashes through her mind, from whelping to puppy-hood to the frankfurters in the motor home, and Curtis's life flashes through his mind, too, which leaves both him and the mutt a little confused. But when the Mountaineer slides to a full stop, rocking on its springs, neither boy nor dog is hurt.

By surviving the sudden stop unscathed, Gabby, too, has proved that the miserable scaly-assed, wart-necked, fly-eatin', toad-brained politicians don't know everything. You might think that this small triumph of rugged individualism over the government and the laws of physics would inspire a mood change for the better. On the contrary, with an astounding rush of words referring to biological waste and sexual relations, the caretaker rams the gearshift into park, throws open his door, and exits the SUV in a state of such high agitation that he tangles in his own legs and falls out of sight.

"Criminy!" Curtis exclaims.

He slides out from under Old Yeller and across the console, leaving the dog in the passenger's seat, slipping behind the wheel.

Beyond the open door, in the fall of pale light from the SUV's ceiling lamp, Gabby lies on his back, on the ground. His rumpled and sweat-stained cowboy hat rests upside down next to him, as though he will produce that banjo at last and play for quarters. His white hair bristles as it might if he'd been the conduit for a lightning bolt, and grains of salt glitter in this postelectrocution coiffure. He looks dazed, perhaps having tested the firmness of the salt bed with a rap or two of his head.

"Holy howlin' saints alive!" Curtis declares. "Sir, are you all right?"

This question so alarms the caretaker that you would think he had just been threatened with decapitation, lie scoots backward, away from the Mountaineer, thoroughly salting the seat of his pants, and he takes the time to scramble to his feel only after he has put some distance between himself and the vehicle.

To this point, Curtis has assumed that much of what seems odd about this man's behavior is not in fact peculiar, but is simply a matter of poor communication, resulting in a series of unfortunate misunderstandings. Now he isn't so sure about that. Maybe Gabby is not cranky-but-lovable, not cranky-but-tender-hearted, not cranky-but-well-meaning, but just plain cranky. Maybe he's even somewhat unbalanced. Maybe he's been chewing on locoweed. He's probably not a serial killer, like the tooth fetishists in the motor home, unless serial killers are even a greater percentage of the population than the movies imply, which is a scary thought.

On the ground between Gabby and the Mountaineer are two objects: the hat and the 9-mm pistol. Frantically scuttling backward a moment ago, he now reverses course and tentatively approaches. Although Curtis would like to believe Gabby is a genuine amigo, cantankerous but compassionate, the caretaker's attention is not focused on the hat.

The handgun is close to Curtis. He hops out of the SUV to get the weapon.

The unpredictable caretaker doesn't try to beat him to the gun. He doesn't just halt or back off, either, but turns away and runs across the salt flats in his singular hitching gait, as fast as he can go.

Bewildered, Curtis watches the receding figure until it's clear the man won't attempt to sneak back . Gabby doesn't once look over his shoulder, but lights out for the eastern side of the valley as though he believes that all the devils between Hell and Abilene, which he had previously cursed, are now in vengeful pursuit of him. He fades into the darkness and the eerie fluorescence until he appears to be the mere mirage of a man.

How strange. The entire encounter with Gabby will require a lot of thoughtful analysis later, when Curtis has outlasted his enemies and can afford the leisure for contemplation.

When he has outlasted them, not if. Now that the obligation to socialize has been lilted from him for a while, Curtis feels his confidence returning.

A few miles to the north, where hard-bitten gunfighters once faced off in the .dusty street, a fierier and noisier confrontation is still underway, and while it doesn't look like Armageddon or the War of the Worlds, the level of combat remains impressive. Curtis expected the conflict to be over long ago; and he doesn't anticipate that these mismatched forces will be dueling much longer.

Besides, sooner rather than later, they may begin to suspect that the boy over whom they're battling has slipped out of town during the uproar and is riding the range once more. Then the two armies will disengage, rather than fight to the finish, and both the scalawags and the worse scalawags will return to the urgent boy-dog search that brought them into the same town at the same time in the first place.

Better move.

Leaving the pistol on the ground now that there's no need to worry about Gabby getting possession of it, Curtis climbs into the Mountaineer once more. He has never driven a vehicle like this. But the principles of its operation are obvious, and he's sure that he can handle it reasonably well, though most likely not with the skill of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or with the aplomb of Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.

He is about to move from petty crimes to the commission of a major felony. Car theft. That's how the authorities will view it.

From his perspective, however, it's actually the unauthorized borrowing of a vehicle, because he has no intention of keeping the Mountaineer. If eventually he abandons it in as good a condition as he found it, his moral obligation will largely consist of making an apology to Gabby and compensating him for gasoline, time, and inconvenience. Because he doesn't relish coming face-to-face with the caretaker again, he hopes that his soul won't be tarnished too much if he makes both the apology and the payment by mail.

Height proves to be a problem. Curtis Hammond, a bit on the shorter side for a ten-year-old boy, can command a clear view of the terrain ahead or exercise full and easy control of the brakes and the accelerator, but not both at the same time. By slouching a little and stretching his right loot as might a leaping ballet dancer reaching for an on-point landing, he's able to proceed with a half-obstructed view and with compromised pedal control.

This slows him, however, and establishes a pace that seems more suitable to a funeral procession than to a run for freedom.

While he wants to put as much territory as possible between himself and his pursuers, he must remember that time, not distance, is his primary ally. Only by faithfully being Curtis Hammond hour after hour, day after day, is he likely to escape detection forever. Certain adjustments would allow him to handle the Mountaineer more easily, but if he were to indulge in them, he'd be more visible to his enemies the next time they came scanning in his vicinity. Which will be soon.

Mom's wisdom. The longer that you wear a disguise, the more completely you become the disguise. To maintain a credible deception, a fugitive must never slip out of character, not even for a moment. Establishing a new identity isn't merely a matter of acquiring a convincing set of ID documents; you aren't safe from discovery just because you look, talk, walk, and act in character. Establishing a new identity with total success requires you to become this new person with your every fiber, every cell-and for every minute of the day, when observed and unobserved.

Even in death, Mom remains the ultimate authority on this stuff, as well as a universal symbol of courage and freedom. She will be honored long after her passing. Even if she hadn't been his mom, he would conduct himself according to her advice; but as her son, he has a special obligation not just to survive but also to live by her teachings and eventually to pass them along to others.

Grief comes to him once more, and for a while he travels in its company.

He dares not continue southwest, for eventually the valley must bring him to the interstate, which will be patrolled. He came out of the east. The ghost town lies north. Therefore, he has little choice but to cross the width of the valley, heading due west.

Although he's in no danger of setting a land-speed record, and although he sometimes progresses in fits and starts as he cranes his neck to see over the steering wheel or ducks his head to peek between it and the top of the dashboard, he discovers that the salt flats arc negotiable terrain. When he reaches the slope of the western valley wall, however, he realizes that he can't go farther in this fashion.

Here, the saltless land doesn't have an accommodating natural glow. Visibility already limited by the boy's height immediately declines to a condition not much better than blindness. Switching on the SUV headlights will provide no solution-unless he wants to call attention to himself and thereby commit suicide.

Furthermore, the rising land will be rocky and uneven. Curtis will need to react to conditions more quickly with both the brake pedal and the accelerator than he's been able to do thus far.

He shifts into park and sits high, gazing at the route ahead, stymied by the challenge.

His sister-becoming provides the solution. During the slow ride across the last of the salt flats, Old Yeller sat in the passenger's seat, decorating the side window with a pattern of nose prints. Now she stands in her seat and gives Curtis a meaningful look.

Maybe because grief is weighing on his mind, maybe because he's still rattled by his strange encounter with the caretaker, Curtis is embarrassingly slow on the uptake. At first he thinks that she simply wants to be scratched gently behind the ears.

Because she will never object to being scratched gently behind the ears or virtually anywhere else, Old Yeller accepts a minute of this pleasantness before she turns away from Curtis and, still with hind legs on the seat, places her forepaws on the dashboard. This puts her in a perfect position to see the route ahead.

This boy-dog relationship would be worthless if Curtis still failed to get her drift, but he understands what she has in mind. He will operate the controls of the SUV, and she will be his eyes.

Good pup!

He slides far enough down in his seat to plant his right foot firmly on the accelerator and to be able to shift it quickly and easily to the brake pedal. He is also in a satisfactory position to steer. He just can't see out of the windshield.

Their bonding is not complete. She is still his sister-becoming rather than his sister-become; however, their special relationship grew considerably in that scarey moment when each of them saw both of their lives Hashing before their eyes.

Curtis shifts the SUV out of park, presses the accelerator, and steers up the relatively easy slope of the valley wall with the eyes of his dog to guide him. Together they gain confidence during the ascent, and they function in perfect harmony by the time they reach the top.

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