Mid­night Clear

Pasatiempo - - Stories - by Jon McDon­ald

There was a seam on the road­way cross­ing the bridge, such that when a car passed over, it sent a “thump thump” echo­ing un­der­neath. When it was busy dur­ing the day, the thump thumps came fre­quently, over­lap­ping and cre­at­ing a thun­der that echoed along the river­bank. Dur­ing the night the sound came in­fre­quently and ac­cented the still­ness.

It was go­ing to be a very cold Christ­mas Eve— with the scent of snow al­ready in the air— and there had been a few flur­ries as the af­ter­noon gath­ered into dusk be­fore the clutch of night took its frigid hold.

Rain­bow and Gal were hud­dled around their mea­ger fire, kept alive by scav­eng­ing the river­bank for any­thing that would burn — hope­fully through the en­tire night. Their few be­long­ings were stacked up like sand­bags around a fox­hole to help keep out the nee­dles of icy wind. The tips of their fin­gers poked out of worn gloves as they fum­bled with a dented pot to heat wa­ter so they could use the dam­aged ra­men noo­dle soup packet scrounged from a dump­ster be­hind the 7-Eleven. Maybe Gal would wait till mid­night to give Rain­bow his gift— a short flask of brandy that Gal had saved for from a week of pan­han­dling when Rain­bow wasn’t around.

In-coun­try, the copters flew over­head like crazy wheel­ing drunks — thump thump, thump thump. Rain­bow was Cpl. Ed­ward De­clan Con­nelly— Bos­ton Ir­ish. So raw he still thought they were fight­ing the en­emy for the good of the coun­try. He was called Rain­bow be­cause he was that way. His best and only buddy was Gal­lagher— Gal— short for Gal­lagher, of course, but also be­cause he was per­ceived to be Rain­bow’s gal. They had found each other de­spite the mon­soons, the mud, the lousy food, the blood, the moans, the end­less bore­dom, the con­stant rain of shells— thump thump, thump thump. They man­aged, how­ever, to get away to­gether now and then for half an hour— hid­den amongst the sacks of flour in the store­room be­hind the mess— time so pre­cious, and ever so brief, their hearts— thump thump, thump thump.

Af­ter the slaugh­ter was over and they were shipped home and dumped on the streets of L.A., they stayed to­gether. Some­what bro­ken, keenly cun­ning, re­source­ful as two feral cats, to­gether they opened a shop re­pair­ing type­writ­ers and small busi­ness ma­chines. Then came the com­puter. They strug­gled, tried to adapt, cre­ated more debt to stay afloat, and fi­nally had to flee in the dead of night in their bro­ken-down Pon­tiac to the Rocky Moun­tainWest. Their car barely made it across the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide— thump thump.

They never com­pletely re­cov­ered. Too many demons. Too much al­co­hol. In­ner wounds too ten­der. But they stayed to­gether through it all. There was never one without the other through many decades, many jour­neys, many dis­ap­point­ments.

“Deck, oh Deck. I can’t be­lieve you’re still abed. And this be­ing Christ­mas morn­ing and all.” His mother called him Deck, not Ed­die. But he didn’t want to stir. The room was cold. The cov­ers warm, scooched up tight around his head, cradling his ear — only his sus­cep­ti­ble eyes and nose were ex­posed to the bite from the slightly ajar win­dow. He promised he’d get up at the count of 10. “Eight, nine, nine and a half, nine and three-quar­ters …” “Soup’s ready.” Gal of­fered Rain­bow the wa­tery soft noo­dles. “Thanks.” It was dark now. The fire glowed and sput­tered. Gal put on a few more pieces of wood from a bro­ken ta­ble some­one had tossed onto the river­bank rather than take it to the dump. They ate in si­lence.

Thump thump. Rain­bow’s mind wan­dered to the sleeper car his fam­ily was tak­ing to Chicago to visit his grand­mother; snug­gled in his berth, eyes al­most closed. Thump thump. The sound of the train lulled him to­ward sleep. Thump thump. He al­ways watched for that mo­ment when wak­ing turns into sleep like a snake glid­ing silently into wa­ter. But he could never quite grasp it— it al­ways just slipped away. Thump thump, thump thump.

Gal al­ways cooked. Rain­bow al­ways cleaned, tonight tak­ing their few bowls and cook­ing pot down to the stream to wash up. With tonight’s cold it was hard to find any run­ning wa­ter, and Rain­bow had to hack at some ice to find the lit­tle trickle to serve his need. Though poor and without much pro­vi­sion, they were both metic­u­lous about keep­ing clean— their per­sons and their pos­ses­sions. Rain­bow care­fully rinsed the pot and bowls and climbed back up the bank to their shel­ter un­der the bridge. He stored the uten­sils and scooted up close to Gal, sit­ting by the fire.

“Here, let me warm you.” Gal whis­pered as he strad­dled Rain­bow from be­hind, wrap­ping his blan­ket around the both of them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his gift. “I know it’s not quite Christ­mas but thought you could use this now.” He opened the brandy and handed it to Rain­bow. Rain­bow bowed his head in grat­i­tude and of­fered the first sip to Gal.

They sat like that for some time, drink­ing qui­etly, the cars over­head pass­ing less of­ten now. Thump… thump.

Rain­bow was the first to no­tice the child— 6, maybe 7. The way the boy stood at the edge of the bridge, it looked as though he was lit from within, but of course, Rain­bow thought, it had to be the play of the street­light against the ice re­flect­ing up from the river be­low.

“Gal,” Rain­bow breathed so softly it could hardly be heard. Gal looked up and saw the child now hold­ing out both his hands, filled with Christ­mas cook­ies. “For you,” the child said softly. Ed­die con­tin­ued his count­down. “Nine, nine and a half, nine and three-quar­ters. Nine and seven-eighths …”

“Ed­ward De­clan Con­nelly, I am not go­ing to call you again!” His mother boomed from the kitchen.

“Oh, boy. She means busi­ness now.” Ed­die knew that for sure. And for just a minute longer he sa­vored the warmth of the cov­ers try­ing to drag him back into sleep. But then he could smell the waft­ing scents of Christ­mas— oat­meal, ap­ples, cin­na­mon, brown su­gar. And there were tan­ger­ines, cof­fee, and ba­con siz­zling on the stove. He bounded up and out of bed, shut tight the win­dow, and still in his pa­ja­mas with the fuzzy feet, faced the light pour­ing through the door and qui­etly walked to­ward his mother.

The po­lice cruiser was parked on the bridge, the lights blink­ing and swirling. Thump thump. Two of­fi­cers were re­spond­ing to a call from a pedes­trian who be­lieved he had spot­ted some­thing sus­pi­cious un­der the bridge. The of­fi­cers scram­bled down the river­bank and peered. It was dim and hard to see. There were the re­mains of a fire still smol­der­ing, send­ing up curls of smoke like lazy spir­its go­ing home. And there, hud­dled to­gether, and cov­ered with a thin blan­ket, were the bodies of two men locked in a tight em­brace, drifted snow cradling their faces.

“Oh, jeez,” one of the of­fi­cers com­mented. “Looks like we got our­selves a cou­ple of stiffs. Bet­ter call it in.”

The sec­ond of­fi­cer stared un­com­fort­ably at the bodies. “Will you look at that.” He said. “Two guys in each other’s arms. So des­per­ate to keep warm they had to re­sort to that.”

Thump thump.

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