John headed south out of town. Not far, but towards a dark line of trees that marked the wide Vermillion River. He could make out the tangerine glow of a dozen or more fires, widely scattered among the trees and along the far bank. Most likely, John guessed, it was folks coming up out of Oklahoma and Kansas ahead of the hard times. He figured he could just as easily content himself among souls as lost as he felt.
The day had faded entirely when John pulled the truck up to the nearest fire. It was farthest from the others and much smaller by comparison. It illuminated a tiny shack with bits of wood, pieces of fabric constructed in the crudest fashion. The roof was an old olive drab army tent strung between the shack and an even older Model T. A simple three-drawer bureau, small cot, wash basin and metal post bed were almost lost to the shadow of the makeshift shelter at the open end of the shack. Dining chairs and a table were arranged beneath the stunning canopy of stars on a round handmade bed. Banks of gray-white wood smoke held to the branches and leaves above the makeshift camp. Close by, the fire crackled in an odd rhythm to crickets and the flickering dance of countless fireflies.
Behind this ramshackle transient home a line of laundry was strung between two trees. Stockings, under garments, a woman’s blue blouse and some old gray rags hung haphazard from the line. The line hung precisely where the bank dipped in a small trail towards the river. The laundry was still wet in places, and was wrinkled where it had been twisted and wrung dry by hand. Shadows forged from the glowing fire deepened those wrinkles into severe canyons of light and dark
There was an elderly couple on a pair of wood stools in front of the shack. The woman’s stool was a good deal shorter than his, as if there was some sort of pauper’s hierarchy; a queen to a beggar’s kingdom. She was in a long brown dress with white and gold little flowers. A hand-knitted men’s sweater covered her disillusioned shoulders. The collar of the dress was turned up over the rounded neckline of the sweater. She was small and frail, facing away from him, at the edge of her stool, as though she might suddenly bolt into the black night and simply disappear forever.
He was seated almost unnaturally straight, as if he was posing for a photograph. His neat white button shirt was stretched across a slight belly, but loose across his angular but narrow shoulders. The light of the fire played upon the contours and intersecting lines and valleys of their faces. Those shadows hid the murdered pride of a man who’d done good honest work his whole life and now had nothing to show for it. He sat like a statue to a dejected king, with one arm laid across his lap,the other holding an empty pipe at one knee. Behind them the river whispered steadily. Neither of them reacted as John leaned part way out the truck window.
“If it’s just the same,” he said, “I could use a spell beside your fire. Just to rest a bit and then I’ll move along.”
The old man nodded slowly without looking directly at John. When he spoke his voice was rich and deep but low. It carried a faded German accent heavily layered with an Oklahoma drawl. The words slurred a bit, enough that John thought it odd.
“Fire’s free.” The old man looked to the night sky.
John climbed from the truck. The grass was thin and dry beneath his boots. It crunched softly with each step. He went over to where the couple sat, looking back towards town and rocking on his heels.
“Obliged,” he said, respectfully.
“Afraid we don’t have much else to offer, stranger,” said the man.
“Times being what they are,” John agreed.
“The fire just looked inviting. Got a bed roll in the truck. I’ll be moving on soon enough.”
The man’s wife looked up at that moment. It was the first John had seen her move. It was like she’d just come to life, out of a trance or a deep thought. “Suppose there’s a bit of coffee left.”
Her husband didn’t react, though John was certain the fellow’s brow furled just a little. John smiled, recalling how when money got tight at home he was the one who pulled back, who held tightly to every crumb, while Anna would trade her soul over any insinuation of an inhospitable nature.
“Don’t want to bother.”
“No bother,” she replied, without moving from the stool. Her eyes moved just a bit, noting the slightest frown from her husband with a bit of disappointment.
At that moment a young woman appeared through the laundry, coming up from the river. She came up like a breeze, a long green printed dress flowing after her. The dress had slipped off one shoulder, baring the top of one breast. The color of her long hair was lost to the night, but the fire caught her eyes and burned deeply there. Her sudden appearance, the rhythm of her smooth movements was so harmonious John was left wondering if she wasn’t some sort of sign. He wondered if the sudden lingering meeting of their eyes did not foretell or promise something more.