It was torture of the magnetic kind. It was as if something was straining to rip his heart right out of his body. He could feel the bloody vibrations when he put his weathered hand to his chest. He rose out of the bed like a vampire from a coffin and sat on the edge. He moaned a sleepy moan. The man had tried to nap but he was much too restless. An old box fan whirred, stirring the warm air. He finally stood and he was a large and disheveled man. He was pale-skinned and white and wooly, somewhat resembling a Tibetan yeti.
He yawned and stretched his arms out high over his head and he could nearly touch the ceiling. He shuffled through the house and toward the front door. He yanked it open and stepped outside wearing only a white t-shirt and his underwear. It didn’t matter. He was miles away. It was too hot, though — hotter than normal — and he shielded his sensitive golden eyes from the light with a big, veiny, and speckled hand.
Ed Blackrose longed for the sun to drop out of the sky so the swarm of stars could return like they did most nights. That’s when he would sit out on the old wooden porch beneath the dim light and just rock back and forth. He found it harder and harder to think straight now. The old man had lost any peace of mind he ever had — years ago — because of all that went wrong; a past defiled, a future derailed. Then he retreated to the desert, despite the desolate heat, and he’s been there ever since.
The house he called home was small, but the land around him was big — a flat, dry land with a chain of dirty brown mountains wrapping its arms around. There was one lone road that ran straight and long. He could barely see it, but he knew it was there. There was never very much traffic. Sometimes people would get lost, or their cars would break down and they would hike up along his long, dirt drive and knock on the old door. What guts they had, he thought. What nerve. There was once a couple of hoodlums from the city who had arrived and asked him for something to eat. He made them thin ham sandwiches with cheese and iced tea to drink but kept his old eyes on them the whole time in case they tried to steal anything.
“How can you live like this?” one of them asked as he ate.
“What do you mean?” the old man wondered.
“I mean… So far away from everything. Why do you do it? How do you do it? Don’t you like life?”
“I don’t care for people much. I like my privacy,” the old man said. “And I like life just fine, mostly. I just don’t want to be disturbed as I live out my last days.”
“You should put out a no trespassing sign then,” the other suggested.
“I did,” Ed grunted. “Someone trespassed and stole it.”
One of them laughed and the old man glared at him.
“You find that funny?”
He nervously fidgeted with his glass. “I thought you meant it to be funny.”
“I didn’t,” Ed answered.
The old man didn’t drive anymore. He didn’t like to drive anymore. His sole reliance for getting things from the outside world was his one and only friend — Lewis Waters. It was usually on Tuesdays that Lewis would come rumbling up the dusty drive in his beat-up red pickup truck to deliver to Ed his food, prescriptions, a newspaper or two, his mail from the PO box, and whatever else he had requested.
It was the second Tuesday in a deep hot July and Lewis was sitting at the table in Ed’s house wiping his brow and chugging down a big glass of iced tea. Lewis was a small man compared to the other, opposite in disposition as well. He was deeply tanned, almost to the point of looking burnt. His mostly bald head was nearly always covered with a cap, and below that was a face that looked like an old, yet happy apple.
Lewis watched Ed as he methodically went through the grocery sacks and put everything away in the exact same spots he always did.
Lewis cleared his throat.
He didn’t turn around. “Yeah.”
“What are you going to do if one day I’m not able to do for you what I do now?”
Ed turned sharply. “What do you mean? Are you bailing on me?”
Lewis took a long, hard drink. Then he wiped at his mouth with his arm.
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Well, what the hell do you mean then?”
“I mean… What if something happens to me?”
“What if I died?”
Ed laughed and sat down at the table with him.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be long gone before you will be. That I am sure of.”
“But how can you be so sure? We’re nearly the same age.”
“I just know. I had a dream about it. A premonition, I suppose,” Ed answered.
Lewis looked concerned. “I could die in a wreck on the way back home today.”
Ed slapped at the air with his big hand. “No, you won’t. It isn’t supposed to work out like that. Come with me.”
They got up and Lewis followed the old man to the bedroom in the back corner of the house.
“It’s your messy bed.”
“Right it is. And that’s where you’ll find me one day — dead as a yanked daisy.”
“Come on, Ed. I don’t want to hear this.”
“It’s true. I felt it. I have a special sense for things like that.”
Lewis sighed. “I still think it wouldn’t hurt for you to have someone else to help you with things around here. Maybe you should look at dating someone. I think it would be good for you if you had a wife.”
Ed frowned. “I’ve already had a wife,” he said, and pushed past Lewis and went to sit in front of the television.
Lewis followed him. “Ed?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Things are fine just the way they are. If circumstances change, they change. So be it. I’m too old to be making any sort of plans for a future that might not even ever exist. That would just be another god damn letdown.”
Lewis went to sit down on the other end of the couch.
“What is it now?”
“I was wondering if you might want to come to church this Sunday. I can pick you up and we’ll just go sit and listen. And I was thinking maybe after we could go get something to eat. It will be on me.”
Ed chuckled and turned his attention from the television to Lewis.
“Sounds like you’re asking me out on a date. You haven’t turned queer on me, have you?”
“Oh, come on, Ed. I just thought it would do you some good to get out of the house and be around other people.”
Ed looked straight ahead and grew serious. “You know how I feel about that. I don’t like people, and as far as church is concerned, well, I’ve prayed in vain one too many times. God’s no friend of mine.”
Lewis rubbed his hands together, nodded his head in defeat, and stood up.
“All right. I can tell it will do no good to convince you otherwise. It never has. I’ll just see myself out then. But Ed, if you change your mind send word, will you?”
“I won’t change my mind. Goodbye, Lewis.”
It was on nights when the moon was full, and the stars were heavily dilated that Ed Blackrose would walk the property with a pistol by his side. He didn’t fully understand why it was that on nights of a full moon his mind and body grew so much more restless than usual. He walked and walked and walked — all the way to the high point of the property far behind the house. It was a scraggly ridge of loose rock and dirt and when he struggled up to the top he would just stand and look out and he felt like he was the only man on Earth — and he really wished he was. He would howl sometimes too, and the coyotes would answer back in communal yelps from a distance. He would look up at the other planets, the other hells perhaps, and he tried to reach out for them but of course the distance was far too great.
At times he felt something just shy of peace up there on the ridge. Other times there was a great, dark weight on him, and it was in these times that he would press the barrel of the pistol to his head and make a gun blast noise with his mouth. Then Ed would feel sick, and he would bring the pistol down and then carefully maneuver his big old frame into a sitting position in the dirt. And then he would just stay like that, and he would cry, and he would curse, and he would talk to himself, for hours, sometimes until the sun began to birth itself from a canal in space, and that’s when he would struggle to get to his feet and crawl back down the ridge, and disappear into the house to make coffee. Then he would lie down on the couch, watch television, and then drift off to sleep for two or three hours.
The phone rarely rang and so when it did, it startled him nearly into a heart attack.
“Damn it! Hello!”
“Ed, it’s Lewis.”
“I know it’s you. You scared the hell out of me. I nearly pissed myself. What do you want, Lewis?”
“You sound sour.”
“I am sour.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask, but I was wondering if you maybe changed your mind about Sunday?”
“Look, Ed. There’s a woman at my church, a very nice lady. Her name is Sontag.”
“Sontag?” Ed wondered aloud. That sounds made up. I think you should investigate that, Lewis.”
“It’s not made up, Ed. She’s a real sweet gal.”
“Lewis. I’m not going on a date. You know how I feel about that. Don’t even think about fixing something up.”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that. It’s more like, well, I’m courting her, Ed.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Lewis.”
“Look, she’s offered to cook a nice Sunday dinner for after church and I just happened to mention that you and I might have plans and she insisted that I invite you along.”
Ed paused for a long time.
“Ed? Hello? Are you there?”
“You know how I feel about Sunday dinners with strangers, Lewis. Count me out.”
“Oh, come on. Just this once and I’ll never ask again.”
“You can be quite irritating at times, you know that Lewis? And that reminds me, don’t forget to pick up my nervous pills before you come over Tuesday.”
Ed slammed the phone down and rolled over on the couch.
Sunday morning came and Ed got up early. He pulled his best clothes from the closet and laid them out on the bed. He had grudgingly decided to accept Lewis’ invitation to church and dinner with his lady friend after all, but his guts rumbled with a nervous ache.
He showered for a long time. The cool water felt good to him as it ran down his tired body. He scrubbed at his thick beard with soap; lathered up the white hair on his chest, arms, and legs, and then rinsed it all off. He turned off the water, grabbed for a towel and dried himself off. He looked at himself in the mirror — deeply. That was something he rarely did for he was afraid of his own reflection. He was shocked at how haggard he had become over the years.
Ed combed his hair neatly in place and creamed it back a bit. He brushed his teeth, rinsed, and spit. He looked at himself again.
“That’s the best you’re going to get,” he said to himself.
He shook out his dark dress pants and slipped them on. He took the white dress shirt and worked himself into it, buttoned it, and tucked it into his pants. He worked a black belt through the loops of the pants and synched it tight. He forced his big feet into a pair of shiny, black cowboy boots and brushed the dust off with his fingers. He stood tall and tried to reposition himself. Everything felt snug on him, and he was uncomfortable. He was already beginning to sweat again and so he went to the kitchen and poured himself a tall glass of iced tea. He drank it down, grabbed his suit coat, and sat out on the front porch to wait for Lewis.
The old truck rumbled along the highway. Johnny Cash was playing on the radio. It was a 19-mile drive from Ed’s house to the town of Wallston — a dusty, strange desert burg of about 9,000 people. Ed stared out the window as the world rushed by. He hadn’t said much most of the way. Lewis sensed his uneasiness.
“I’m glad you decided to come. It will be great, you’ll see,” Lewis said, smiling and gripping the wheel.
“I’m sure it will be the highlight of my life,” Ed said, and then he reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a tall can of beer and cracked it open.
Lewis shot him a quick glance. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Ed snapped back. “I’m having a beer.”
“Ed, you can’t drink in a moving vehicle. Would you just please throw it out the window?”
“Not until I finish it.”
Ed tipped the can back and drained it completely with deep gulps. He rolled down the window and threw the can out. “There. I’m done.”
Lewis scolded him. “I can’t believe you’re drinking a beer right before church.”
“I’m sure He won’t mind,” Ed answered with a slight chuckle. “I do believe He or whoever or whatever enjoyed his wine.”
“Please, Ed. This day is very important to me. I want to make a good impression with my Sontag. Could you just at least try to act decently.”
Ed grew defensive. “Decently? There’s nothing decent about the world anymore, Lewis. I think all this churchy preachy talk and your gal pal are screwing with your head. Don’t talk to me about decency. I mind my own business, I never bother anyone, I don’t rob banks. I don’t hurt anyone. Maybe you should just take me back home.”
“No. We’re not going back now. I just don’t think you should be drinking beer before church and meeting my friend for the first time. I think I have a valid point, Ed.”
Ed mocked him. “A valid point. Geez, you sure have changed.”
“But unfortunately, Ed, you have not,” Lewis snapped back.
TO BE CONTINUED