On an empty highway on a Tuesday morning in 1936 a silver dollar fell out of the sky and landed at the feet of Brian Van Bueren. Looking up, he waited for more. But no more fell. So, he bent down and picked it up. It was a miracle. He’d been walking the highway for two days with only dust to eat. A buck meant a seat in a diner, eggs and bacon, all the coffee he could drink and a pack of smokes, besides. There’d even be a few pennies left over, by his reckoning. And by his reckoning, in all of Heaven and Hell, there was no Saint finer than the Saint of Silver Dollars.
In the distance was a sign that claimed a town named Vemiera lay just ahead, and now that he was flush he dropped the silver dollar into his pocket, shouldered his pack and carried on.
At the outskirts of Vemiera he beheld a tarred dirt road, Main Street, running through the town. It was a small commercial centre for loggers and homesteaders, people who might not sneer at an untidy traveller like him.
The Vemiera Diner was next to the Texaco on the corner at the town’s only intersection where a car might turn left and disappear into dense woods dark as a cave or turn right, past a hardware store and end up in the lake. Parked at the curb out front of the diner was a ’29 Ford pickup and a ’31 Chevy coupe. Stepping up onto the porch and through the diner’s door, Van Bueren was struck by the perfume of Orange Crush and Salisbury steak. His stomach howled.
At the counter sat a woman in a pink dime store dress and straw hat drinking a vanilla milkshake and smoking a cigarette. She watched him as he entered. Three other scattered patrons did the same. It was a long moment before anyone spoke, and when someone did it was a portly man behind the counter wearing a stained white shirt and a grubby car hop hat. Cook, counterman and proprietor, Van Bueren’s guessed. “Hello there, stranger,” the man said. A friendly greeting, if slightly cool. “My name’s Puck. Take a seat and I’ll get you a menu.” Van Bueren took the stool nearest the door and looked straight ahead, aware of the milkshake lady’s stare.
“Hey, mister,” she said. “I’m Helena—Helena Jollis. Waddaya know, waddaya say?” She held out her hand for him to shake.
“Hey,” Van Bueren replied quietly, hoping that the single syllable wouldn’t commit him to too much. He left her hand unshook.
“Where you from?” She nodded at his pack next to him on the floor.
“East,” he said. It was as good an answer as any. He really didn’t know anymore. For the longest time it’d only been the highway stinking of distance.
Puck came and poured a cup of coffee, then leaned over the counter and whispered in Van Bueren’s ear, “You got money to pay, right?”
“A dollar, Heaven sent,” Van Bueren said pulling it out of his pocket and laying it on the counter.
“Well that’s just fine,” said Puck. “Have what you want then, within reason.”
“We don’t get many hobos round here,” Helena said. She had the loose curls and apple shaped face of Clara Bow. “Have you seen my cat anywheres? She’s run away.”
“Cats don’t run away,” said Puck. “They wander off to die. That tom of yours was pretty old.”
“Rico ain’t dead,” Helena said. “He’s gone off to run with the coyotes, but I want him back.”
Puck looked at Van Bueren, rolled his eyes and walked away.
“Well, mister? You’ve been walking the highway. Have you seen a fat cranky old Siamese in the company of coyotes?”
“Sure,” Van Bueren said.
She slid a package down the counter. He took one and slid it back. There was a book of matches in an ashtray next to the napkin dispenser. He lit up and inhaled. Nicotine was a firm friend when all others failed.
“I guess you pretty much live on the road, huh? I live at the end of a cut-away off the highway you just walked in on, a half mile down.”
It was more than Van Bueren wanted to know, but reasonable grounds for conversation. In fact Helena Jollis lived in a small cabin left to her sympathetically by an old logger named Simon Ilchman who had died believing, like most residents of Vemiera, that Helena was touched. Before the cabin came into her possession, she’d lived rough out of a lean-to out back of Main Street where she near-froze in the winter, and fed corn to the deer and bannock to the ravens in spring. Some said the cabin saved her.
Now she still fed wild things in the spring, and every night in the warmth and safety of that cabin, she’d lie down in her own bed chanting the words, “No bad dreams, no bad dreams,” then sleepily visit her private warehouse of planets.
“That highway’s a mighty pretty walk though,” Helena said. “Day or night. Just like a line of poetry out of a book, ain’t it mister? Waddaya think?”
“Some hungover Pushkin, maybe,” Van Bueren said looking at the menu.
“Uh-uh! What about the way the wind turns a leaf green to green, every turn’s got rhythm. What about the lake through them trees? It’s just goddam lyrical. You know it’s a tidal lake, don’t you? Comes in and out twice a day ‘cause we’re so close to the ocean. If that ain’t poetry, I don’t know what is. Every day you see what the out-tide reveals, the boats that got sunk over the years, an old rusty car, snags that got sunk too. It’s awful mysterious. Once there was even the body of a woman in the mud.”
“Not now, Helena,” said Puck. “Leave the man in peace.”
“Her name was Agnes Quickley,” Helena said. “Or at least that’s what we figured ‘cause it was the name embroidered on a tag in her dress. Ain’t that a funny way to know a dead woman’s name? It was a very nice polka dot dress, too. I’d’ve taken it, since she didn’t need it no more, but no one offered. I didn’t get her hat neither, still pinned in her hair with all the gauzy flowers. Just one shoe though.” Helena looked down at her own tattered plimsolls. “But no one knows how she drowned. She looked like she might have been waiting for the bus somewheres. Ain’t no bus stops round here though. The lake’s that way. It grabs hold of you, pulls you under and you drop like a rock. Most people drown out there never get found, but occasionally they’ll come back and that’s a wicked thing.” Helena stopped talking a minute, drank a little more milkshake through the straw then said, “It’s kinda tragic. No one claimed Agnes Quickley while she was laid out in the icehouse. RCMP tried to find someone, but their weren’t no relations come forth. So, they just loaded her onto a refrigerated truck with a bunch of half-butchered pigs and drove her into the city.”
“I’ll have bacon and eggs over easy, bacon not too crisp,” Van Bueren said. “Fried potatoes and toast.” Fifteen cents and comes with coffee. “And a deck of smokes.”
Helena said, “Waddaya think happened to her, mister?”
“Why should I care?”
“’Cause someone had to love her. It’s a shame the way people just vanish. It makes sense in a way that sometimes you disappear and don’t come back, but it’s just calamitous that that’s how it goes.”
He hated those words. He was a disappeared spirit himself, and unproud. He remembered leaving a city long ago and the woman he loved, in full knowledge she’d already removed him from her drawer of trivial things. He knew he’d been an abuser of the word sorry. And sorry had been his last word to her, on a clean city street in the fall, the air smelling like smoky tea, where she had stopped him from saying more by placing a finger on his lips. Then walked away.
The gravity of love breaks you.
Now he knew from the lines round his eyes that all of those departed autumns ago, when joy seemed so plentiful and he’d always a scrap of it in his pocket, he’d miscalculated in a young man’s way, and vanished having made promises.
Puck placed a plate down in front of him, and Van Bueren wondered if it was right to eat after such a recollection. His belly was an empty collection of hungry seconds that might never amount to a minute; perhaps that was justice.
“That’s an awful thoughtful look, mister,” Helena said.
“Look,” he said, nearly shouting, “what is it you find so interesting about a man with nowhere to go?”
The diner patrons became silent, as the neon sign in the window quietly buzzed.
“Golly, I just figured you’d have something to say. You looked a little lonely comin’ in here. I thought maybe a word or two might…. Every word plots a conversation, same as every raindrop does a river.”
Van Bueren shook his head and ate his eggs.
“It’s the small things we can’t forgive ourselves for, ain’t it,” said Helena. “The ones without glamour. A hand reaches up out of a lake and drowns a woman, and no one cares. But a fella walks away from somethin’ unfinished, and he just can’t cut himself no slack.”
“That’s enough, Helena,” Puck said, wiping glasses.
Van Bueren cut his bacon and gulped his coffee. Then he lit a cigarette, and she watched him.
“It’s a nice little cabin I got up the road,” she said.
“Helena,” Puck said in a scolding tone.
“It’s got marigolds roundabouts.”
“Helena.” This time Puck spoke louder.
“Well it does, and I’ve been awful alone for the last ten years. And now my cat’s gone. Ain’t neither one of us special, mister, but I think you get damn lonely too.”
“You’re nuts, lady,” said Van Bueren.
“Well that’s right I am, mister—awful crazy. And I wouldn’t be no goddam good to no one round here if I wasn’t. It makes ‘em feel all uppish and a little less unlucky. They figure it gives ‘em the right to look at me with disappointment. Some even like to pretend they’re scared. I think you know what that’s like. Ain’t that what half a life on the road does to a man?”
He looked at his fried potatoes.
“I ain’t so crazy I’d expect you to stay, though,” Helena said. “But if you did, maybe some of that misery would get up and walk away.”
“Misery,” he said, no rebuttal.
“You got some, don’tcha? Misery and monsters eating misery. You ain’t got nowhere to go. You said so yourself.”
Half a life on the road, he thought. Not quite. Not nearly, but somehow close enough. Gas stations and raggedy towns, bumming pennies and nickels. Railroad cops, and coal smoke he’d be coughing up until the day he died. And maybe the Saint of Silver Dollars couldn’t be relied on for another miracle.
“How far up the highway?” said Van Bueren.
“A half mile,” Helena said. “It ain’t pretty, but there’s an apple tree the old logger planted a long time ago, and a grand old path to the lake out back. It ends at a stony beach where you can sit and watch the moon makin’ the tide high. And in that cabin, if I teach you the right words to say before you go to sleep, there ain’t never no bad dreams.”