It was Sunday, late morning, when I drove into the gravel lot of the old country store. The sun was merciless, the heat having all but burned the edges of the sky, and when I pulled the pickup into the shade of the cottonwood—the only living tree within five miles—I couldn’t help but thank God I lived in an apartment on Center Street, back in Casper, where the world was still cool and green and full of life.
Waltman was a one-horse town that lay between the two-horse towns of Powder River and Shoshoni. A place that had once, a long time ago, boasted a population of three souls, but now, over many long and difficult years, had seen that lonely number whittled to two. Or, as I was about to discover, one.
The old woman was sitting out front of the aging store in a print dress, legs spread, gray head bent as if she were searching the ground for a lost hairpin. She was propped in a metal folding chair next to a table fashioned from a wooden spool that had once held coils of industrial-grade cable. The spool had been turned on end and painted, its top upholstered with a plaid oilcloth.
“Good morning,” I said, closing the truck door and tipping the brim of my hat. “How’re you today?”
“Hot,” she said without bothering to look up. A mesh flyswatter appeared abruptly from under the table and stood at the ready, poised against the uncomplicated vault of the sky. Then, splat. It came down, sharply, against the tabletop. I watched as the old woman raised the swatter and turned it on edge, scraping a fly into the dust, where it was immediately set upon by a swarm of agitated brown ants. There was something final in the way she went about her work. Something cold and almost inhuman. Yet at the same time it seemed oddly natural.
I glanced about. The woman’s husband, Ike, a lean, quiet old fellow with greasy fingernails and a cancerous voice, was nowhere to be seen. But that wasn’t unusual. Ike was a small-time scrap-metal baron. A man who looked after a graveyard of rusted automobiles and broken-down industrial equipment—obsolete ranch implements and the skeletal remains of cast-off gear from the oil fields and gas operations around Freemont County—and his work often kept him away from the store. If he wasn’t here, it generally meant he was down in the machine shed tearing something apart. Or off at a county auction, bidding on some sad new contraption he could lug away on the deck of his flatbed and dream of refurbishing while counting the lonely mileposts home.
Ike loved mechanical things and was never too much removed from them. He was not only the lord of a poor man’s junkyard but a sure-handed mechanic who spent many of his days tinkering under the hoods of the cars he collected. Last summer he managed a triage-style repair for me when I broke a clutch cable on my truck coming down the mountain, and today I was hoping he could work another small miracle by ridding my engine of the dispiriting wheeze it contracted while I was passing through Grave Spring.
I turned my eyes to the sky, then back to the old woman whose name I couldn’t remember. She was staring into the dirt.
“So,” I said, “is Ike anywhere around?”
She looked up, seeming to think for a moment. “No,” she said. “He ain’t.”
I thumbed up my hat and winced at the sun-baked prairie. “No? Well, can you tell me when he’ll be back?”
“He ain’t likely to come back at all,” she said.
She stated this as a simple fact, without even a hint of hysterics or drama. In fact, she spoke of it as blandly as if she were talking about the midmorning heat.
“Nothing happened to him, I hope.”
Our eyes met for an instant, then she glanced aside and raised the flyswatter and smacked it on the tabletop. I saw her smile, but realized a moment later that it was actually a grimace. She scraped the dead fly into the dirt, and another band of desperate ants came to ferry away its broken hull.
I pointed to the empty chair across from her. “Mind if I sit?”
I pulled the chair away from the table. It had been a long trip down the mountain—a long way from the clear brown rocky-bottomed river I’d been camped beside that weekend—and the good feelings I’d gathered while off loafing in the woods were beginning to desert me. I was due back at the school tomorrow and still had papers to grade. But without Ike’s help, I wasn’t sure how I was going to attend to them.
“My engine’s fouled,” I said, crossing and uncrossing my boots. “I’m not sure I can make it into town.”
The old woman didn’t look at me.
“I lost a tire too,” I said. “Shredded it like pulled pork when I was coming down from Tensleep. I was kind of hoping Ike might be able to set me up with a decent-looking spare. I’m afraid the one that’s on there now isn’t long for this world.”
Again she said nothing. But in her silence I knew the old woman understood me. This was a place where people abandoned things, or were themselves abandoned. It was a part of the country where salvation often lay in little more than a piece of duct tape, and it was men like her husband to whom the desperate looked for deliverance.
“So, he just up and walked away?”
“No,” she said. “He up and flew away.”
I cocked my head, uncertain of her meaning. Her wrinkled hands trembled gently in her lap, and her gray eyes fixed on me, softly, from behind the lenses of her ornate steel-rimmed glasses.
“He said he’d be damned if he was going to spend another winter out here,” she said, gripping the flyswatter. “He told me he’d sooner rot in hell.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I just sat there, nodding. Admitting I was surprised to hear it.
“I thought Ike loved living out here,” I said.
“And then he didn’t.”
On the other side of the highway, the open range boiled in the wavering heat like a mirage. A vaporous image from some weakly imagined dream. I wasn’t sure you could blame a man for leaving this heartless country.
“Oh, he asked me to come with him,” she said. “But I told him no. Not till we sold off all this junk. I said, Ike, if we sell off the machines, I’ll go wherever you want. But without no money to travel on, I’m not budgin from this porch.”
She raised the flyswatter again.
“We had a fella up from Riverton, used to buy scrap off us. But then the prices went down and he quit comin around.”
“Economy’s been hard,” I muttered.
“That’s what I told Ike.”
I gave a wayward glance in the direction of my truck. The fenders were covered with red dust, and the windshield was filthy. Someday, years from now, I supposed, it would end up in a place just like this.
“We argued plenty,” the old woman said. “I told him to quit talkin nonsense, there was nowhere to go. But he just looked at me and said, Oh, yeah? Watch me.”
The store was in disrepair. The white clapboard siding was buckled and rotting, the green paint around the doors and windows flaking. The roof sagged. The whole operation appeared to be easing its way to the ground.
A Bell Telephone sign hung on the north wall of the building under the eaves. The phone booth itself had disappeared, but the sign survived like a notice that Ike hadn’t accepted the invention of cell service.
The old woman said, “I think it was the ice machine that did it. When it broke and he couldn’t fix it, that’s when the loose ends started unravelin.”
The planking where the squat chrome machine once sat looked almost new compared to the weathered timber on the rest of the porch.
“Somethin on it gave out, and the man came and took it away,” she said. “They offered us a new model. A fancy one with a computer gadget to regulate it. But we didn’t have the right kind of electricity to make it work.
“Ike said he could rig somethin up on his own. But the man didn’t like that idea. He said you can upgrade, or you can forget it. Those’re your choices. That’s when Ike lost his temper and run the fella off. I’d never seen him in such a lather. Not in all the years we were married.”
I thought about the ungraded papers at home, sitting on my desk. My flat tire and wheezing engine.
“He was sore about everythin,” the woman said. “He even brought up the baby after all these years.”
She took a long, slow, exasperated breath.
“We were sittin at the kitchen table,” she said, “and he turned to me and said, How is it we got stuck with all this bullshit?”
She laughed miserably. “He got up and went down to his machine shed and started buildin.”
She looked off, across the dusty red hardpan to the windmill and stock tank in the distant haze of heat.
“I know it sounds crazy,” she said. “But he climbed to the top of that windmill, hauling those wings up behind him on a braided rope, strapped them to his back, and flew off. Just like some crazy old bird.”
She paused, sucking in another long breath.
She raised the flyswatter, held it a few inches above the table, and brought it down again.
“He made two pair. He begged me to come with him. But I said, You’re crazy.”
I glanced at my truck. The shredded, mud-crusted tire was in the back bed. Where Ike had gone—where he’d run off to, if he had in fact run off at all—I had no idea. But I couldn’t help thinking that, in leaving, he’d taken part of the old woman’s mind along with him.
A noisy, eighteen-wheeler filled with livestock came rumbling up the old highway. I watched it come and go, and when it passed, the old woman sat up and gave her head a quick shake as if to clear her mind.
“I expect there’s a tire here that’ll fit your truck,” she said. “Why don’t you go out back and see if you can scare one up.”
“We can sit a little longer, if you like.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m all wore out. You go on and find what you need.”
I wanted to leave as badly as the old woman wanted me to, but I hid my desperation behind a thin, unconvincing smile. “I’m not in any hurry, you know.”
She raised her eyes. Frowned and dusted the air with the back of her hand. “Go on, mister,” she said. “I’m all right. I didn’t make it this far on account of I’m delicate. Go on and fix your flat. There’s tools in the shed, if you need em.”
I found a tire beside an old school bus that was up on blocks. It was leaning against a pile of rusted car doors, stacked on end like slices of bread. The tire was still on its rim, and seemed to be in good shape, so I stood it up and rolled it back and forth, testing it with a kick or two to the sidewall. It needed some air—that much I could tell straightaway—but it appeared to have enough tread to see me home.
There was a compressor down in the machine shed—or had been, back in the day when Ike fixed my clutch cable—so I rolled the tire across the yard, past a row of broken scarifier blades and a decommissioned road grader, to see if I could find it. On my way there, I stopped at the stock tank and leaned the tire against the tank and splashed water over the tire, wiping away the dirt and grime with my hand.
When I finished, I took off my hat and skimmed it across the water, raising a cool draught in the brim. The windmill towered against the sky like a giant sunflower. Or a daisy with rusted, galvanized petals. It was an early-model Kenwood, the kind you saw on ranches all around the state, and it still carried a few flecks of red paint on the vane-tips and tail, which lent it a battered, weather-worn dignity.
I studied the maintenance platform high in the pyramid of metal webbing—the launchpad from which Ike would have engineered his great leap to freedom. I thought about the guts it would have taken to make that climb. The strength a man would need to spread out his arms and jump.
I never doubted that Ike possessed the courage to do what his wife claimed he’d done. But I was also certain that old men were not likely to sprout wings and fly away.
The truth, I suspected, was closer to home. Ike had probably died in his bed at the rear of the store—or perhaps in a hospital, back in town—and the old woman simply refused to accept his passing.
I reached out and dipped my hat in the water a second time, crown and all now, and brought it forth and doused my head. Brushing the drops from my hair, I looked out at the horizon to the ghostly ridge of the Rattlesnake Hills and wondered what would become of the old woman after winter blew in with its bitter winds. Could she survive another January out here, alone, when rags of snow and ice shrouded the prairie? Or would some merciful pilgrim come along and save her?
I stood the tire in the dust. I’d have liked to offer her a word of comfort—but anything I said would have sounded false or presumptuous. And what good would it have done? She and Ike had already lived their lives, and whatever bad had befallen them was not about to be undone.
I started to roll the tire toward the machine shed, but as I stepped back from the stock tank a wobbling reflection startled me. I pulled to a clumsy stop and looked up, but there was nothing there. The sky was as empty and blue as it had been all morning.
I turned back to the tank and peered into the water, and there at the bottom I saw a pair of wings, fashioned from the tail fins of a 1950s Cadillac, and crushed beneath them, Ike himself, wide-eyed as if the colossal failure of his mission had taken him by surprise.
I returned to the ramshackle store and stood there imagining his terrifying fall to earth, and then I found my wits and reached into my pocket to retrieve my cell phone.
The call was brief and when the dispatcher hung up, I wandered around to the front of the store, where the old woman was just as I’d left her—bent forward over the table, the mesh flyswatter clutched in her little white fist. She stared impassively as I sat down with her again.
She refused to speak. When the first responders arrived in their flashing red truck from Casper, I pointed out the stock tank to them and watched from the porch as they worked in their tawny-colored jackets and yellow headgear. The tire still leaned against the side of the tank. The men struggled to retrieve the body from the green water, and as they did I remembered I still had somewhere to get to.
# # #
"Fallen Angel" first appeared in Narrative Magazine.