These were the gasping remains of those who came and went. There were solar powered lights lining the pathway of a Southwest style home. They glowed in the desert for no one. There was a limp and sun faded flag of a place that now only existed in memory. There was no way of knowing who took what they could and left and who came later. Who was it that scurried through houses that did not belong to them? Luke’s job was not to confront those who entered but only to stem the flow, to shut the door and bolt it.
He was in a section of town with street names like Fellowship Drive, Freeland Lane, and Ford’s Way. Luke kicked in the door and stepped inside. “Anybody home?” he asked. His voice, bounded by the high ceiling of the entryway, was like a preacher calling up to God. “Guess not.”
A bare kitchen table stood askew in the foyer, a chandelier empty of bulbs above it. Luke pulled on his work gloves and pressed against the table, careful not to scratch the wood floors. He muscled it back into the kitchen where it fit snugly into an alcove. There were two chairs that fit under the table. It could accommodate mother and father, brother and sister.
Luke opened the fridge. He would never get used to the stink of rot. He pulled his threadbare tank top over his nose and slammed the door shut.
In the master bedroom, he sprawled out in a place where a bed would fit. He ran his fingers through the carpet’s loose fibers. Wires hung from the ceiling where someone had ripped out the light fixture. The room was well insulated, warm even, so that Luke began to sweat into the carpet.
Through the bedroom window, a crumbling wood fence stood sentry. It would make his job easier. Fissures of cracks ran through the window but the double-paned glass was intact. Back when these things mattered, double-paned was a feature to boast of like finished basements and flat screen TVs. Luke crawled to the window and ran his fingers over the cracks. In the window sill, a cross lay attached to a pile of thin, gold chain. Buried beneath it, a single molar.
Luke draped the necklace around his neck. It nestled into his shirt as gravity pulled it towards the ground. He removed his glove and placed the molar on his pointer finger. The root side of the tooth was black and decayed and the rest was a dull yellow. It was likely plucked from a wet, open mouth. He flicked the tooth and it pinged against the window before disappearing into the carpet.
He pictured the family who once lived there appearing at the window: a father and a daughter. They stared into their home where a man they did not know kneeled in the carpet. The tooth might have belonged to one of them – the little girl, who wiggled it for a week before it was uprooted.
Luke stood and held up his hands to show that they were empty. “I’m just doing my job,” he said into the vacant window. “I don’t want no trouble. It’s the God’s honest truth.” In his mind, they were unsmiling. He did not belong there. In other times, they would call the police. They would bring him to justice for the things he had done and the things he would do. He let a single sob escape and brought a gloved hand to his face. He made furtive glances around the room, breathing heavy breaths. The cross pressed cold against his chest. There was the open door and the cracked window. These were the ways back out.
The sun burned like a firebrand as Luke boarded up the house. He unfurled chain link and razor wire and set them in place. A zip-tied No Trespassing sign was the final adornment on the barrier.
The fenced in homes stood single file on the block like aluminum cans with labels scratched off, expiration dates faded from existence. It was a miracle the street names remained but Luke needed them to back his truck out down the road. They were not familiar enough to travel on memory alone. There was not a neighbor’s door to knock at, to scratch one’s head and say, “I’m completely turned around out here.”
The Depot Man wore the name Rodrigo embroidered over his left breast. The last time, it was Johnny. Before then, Wes. His cheeks hung in jowls and he walked with his shoulders slumped towards the ground in a constant state of melting into the Depot’s floor. If it wasn’t time that took him, it would be the heat.
A battery-powered fan cycled hot air through the Depot’s arid interior. A framed portrait of a family once sat in the same spot. Luke used to glance at the portrait as he entered and exited the Depot until he looked closely and saw that the Depot Man was nowhere to be seen. There wasn’t even a resemblance.
The only kin the Depot Man could speak of were the rabbits that made their way up and down the dark, empty aisles, depositing compact feces in their wake. The Depot Man insisted on Luke waiting near the front, where plywood covered over the knocked-out plate glass. Luke didn’t mind–the building reeked of the animals. The Depot Man’s shuffle prevented him from stepping on the rabbits but on occasion, Luke would hear him say, “There goes another one.”
The Depot Man stood behind the counter and mopped sweat from his forehead. “Let’s settle up then,” he said. The money they passed back and forth was largely ceremonial. “For civilized purposes,” the Depot Man said. He stared straight ahead as he ran his hands over the cash. He held the bills up and rubbed his fingers along their edges before stuffing them in his pocket. He paused and brought a bill down to the counter. He scratched a sheet of dead skin from his nose and flicked it to the ground. “You any interest in buying yourself a woman?” he asked.
Luke put a hand to his chest. The cross was engulfed in his palm. “Say again?”
“There’s a man out there looking to sell him a woman.”
The state of the building with its empty shelves and padlocked gas pump didn’t keep folks from stopping in. They would cup their hands against what was left of the glass to see if it was worth the trouble. Luke had not noticed the man when he pulled up but sure enough, there he was, leaning through the open window of Luke’s truck. The muscles of the man’s back twitched as his arms worked inside the cab.
Luke made for the door. Chimes above banged out his exit. Luke took three long strides towards the truck. He was nearly out of the shade before he knew what to say. “Can I help you with something?” Luke asked.
The man turned slowly as a thin-lipped smile curled on his face. His greasy hair was tied into braids which he tucked behind his ears, exposing two points of receding hairline at his temples. The man stood tall but kept one hand on the truck which gleamed in the white-hot sun. He consulted a spiral notebook in his other hand which he then tucked into his back pocket.
“This is quite a truck you have here,” the man said. He slapped the rusted door panel with an open palm. “Don’t think they make them like this anymore. Don’t think they make them at all.”
The man was alone and on foot. He was stringy with a lean face and sunken cheeks. Lean these days meant no fear of getting hands dirty, if there was a meal at the end of it. Those who didn’t eat didn’t survive.
“You live around here?” Luke asked. He was sorry for asking. There was no living in those parts. Those who did were asked to explain themselves.
The man coughed and spit out a ball of phlegm. “Was a time I had family out this way,” he said. The chimes clanged. The man looked over Luke’s shoulder. “Guess that time has passed.”
“Where are your people now?” Luke asked.
“Who can say?” The man took his hand off the truck and crossed his arms, seemingly cold despite the blistering sun. He held his hands out towards Luke. “Butcher,” he said, “just like it sounds.” The man’s hands shook with tremors but he cupped Luke’s fingers like a politician giving his full attention to a constituent. He looked Luke square in the chest where the gold crucifix was centered. He dropped his eyes and again looked over Luke’s shoulder.
Luke turned back to the Depot Man standing there with a rabbit in his arms. With eyes on him, the Depot Man shuffled into action. Metal creaked as he took the padlocks away and he unrolled the heavy door. He stood there waiting for Luke to take that for which he paid.
“Could I give you a hand?” Butcher asked. “You’d be doing me a favor. Likely saving my life, if we’re telling the truth.”
Butcher’s eyes returned to the ground where they darted left to right, reading secret messages rising hot off the asphalt. He wore filthy, white sneakers with a thick sole. They were the type that used to be worn for yard work, bought out of necessity rather than style. They were cheap but they got the job done. Luke relaxed his jaw. They could work something out.
“Where you headed?” Luke asked.
“This was as far as I’ve gotten,” Butcher said. The toes of his shoes were separated from the sole. They flapped like deranged puppets as he stepped into the shade. He coughed up a laugh. “The end of the rainbow, so to speak.”
Butcher’s head whipped back and forth in the passenger seat. He pointed out landmarks that no longer existed along the decaying road. All that stood of most of the buildings were foundations pock marked in the sand amidst the browning scrub brush. “Wow,” Butcher said. “Just, wow.” He shook his head towards the skeletal remains of a burned-out church. He said the names of families that Luke didn’t know. “Didn’t expect them to be run out. They’ve lived here since the start.”
“Well,” Luke said, “nobody lives out here anymore.” Luke held the cross against his chest. “Old man said you were selling something,” he said. “That true?”
Butcher rubbed his hands down the length of his face. The skin stretched gaunt against his skull. “Is that what he said?” He didn’t seem like a man who would sell a woman but rather phony tickets outside the gates of a stadium or speakers in a strip mall parking lot after dark.
“I used to be in money,” Butcher said. “I was a mover and a shaker. Not in this town but one like it. Used to be people owed the banks because the banks owned everything. Some people would say I was the bank. That wasn’t the truth. I owed them, same as everyone else. But what happens once everyone clears out? What do the banks do with all of this when there’s nobody around?”
Luke knew: leave and never come back. Two actions in one movement. Out the door. Leave and never come back.
There was a pang in Luke’s chest and a rising of sweat. The heat rarely bothered him anymore. It was only after he found himself annoyed that he ran through a list of possibilities. He was hungry. He was thirsty. He was hot. That was all. He rolled the window down, letting hot air blast through the cab. The cross bounced against his chest and he slipped it into his shirt.
Butcher slumped in the seat. He looked out the passenger’s window. They passed a rusted-out bus stop where a slanted post advertised a line no longer in service. In better times, the bus went all the way to either coast. It was a regular country tour if a passenger had the money and the time. The fare could be paid in cash. No one asked what exactly you thought you were doing, carrying that kind of money.
Butcher turned around to look back. He opened his mouth then clamped his lips shut and ran his hands over his hair. The wind whipped his braids into a frenzy. Butcher held his arms over his chest and let his head rest against the window.
Luke looked out to the flat of the desert running together with the road. All that sand made it easy to forget what it meant otherwise. There was the heat. There was the desert. These were things he could adopt. He could pick up the heat. The truck. The job. These were his now but a man could only carry so much. The things he left were no longer his property. Some of them were missed.
The flutter in Luke’s chest passed up into his throat. The wind brought tears to his eyes and he wiped them away. He rolled the window up and the cab filled with silence.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Luke said.
Butcher stirred in the passenger’s seat. He produced the notebook from his pocket and thumbed through the pages. “Used to be a last name meant something,” he said. He tried to meet Luke’s eye but they were on the road. “Like Butcher. ‘Hey, you’re a Butcher? What’s your relation to Stanley? Are you Tracy’s kid?’. The joke was you didn’t have to be a butcher to know a Butcher.”
The man glanced at the haze of the road ahead. The pages of the notebook were opened flat in Butcher’s hands. Luke looked over long enough to see the words For Jesus Freaks written along the top of the page.
“Of course, we weren’t actually butchers. We weren’t that far back. We built houses, mainly.”
“I thought you said you were a banker,” Luke said.
“Builder, butcher, banker,” He counted them off on his fingers. “They’re things people do. You do one, then you do the other. Back when you could choose what food was on the table. It kept things interesting.”
Interesting was what cleared towns of their people, as such places became unfit for living. It was largely a matter of what one was willing to endure. How long the heat was bearable before a bit of shade was deemed good enough.
“Old man wouldn’t know what to do with a woman,” Luke said. “So you know.”
“Look here.” Butcher placed his hands on the dashboard. Pages shuffled as the notebook fell into his lap. His fingers were crooked in ways that were not natural. “I told the old man what he wanted to hear,” he said. “That’s all.” He peeled back his top lip and bit his bottom, showing a row of rotted out teeth. If Luke were to reach across the seat and sock him in the face, he would be doing him a favor.
Luke didn’t take the notebook from the man. He didn’t need to in order to read some of the words scrawled on the pages. There were bullet-pointed quotes for lonesome old geezers alongside those for solitary men. The words were saved up like sweet treats for the right occasion. The only way to know that time was when it came.
The truth was that Luke had never even been called sweetheart. He’d been a darling plenty: darling, fetch me this, darling, fetch me that. He was buddy for a spell. There were all the names he gave when asked. He was Isaac when someone told him to build a life with a woman and find himself a home. He couldn’t remember the last time he set eyes on a lady. Even the Depot Man’s photo was gone. There might be a place where those rules still applied. It wasn’t there.
Luke skidded off into a neighborhood with no street signs. He counted his turns. Butcher blinked slowly with heavy eyelids. The outburst took something out of him.
They pulled into the driveway of a ranch style house with shingles missing and peeling brown paint. ‘No vacancy’ was spray painted on the garage door. Two busted out windows flanked the front door which splayed open like a bucket knocked on its side.
“Get out then,” Luke said.
Butcher tried to make himself look tough but no part of him was a tough man. His shoes slapped together as he stepped out of the truck. He peeked into the open maw of the house. Luke watched as the man’s head disappeared, sniffing inside the house like a starving dog. The man did not give thanks but there could come a time that he was thankful. He might even call it an opportunity, a favor of deliverance to a place of his own.
Luke backed out of the driveway. The sun would set sometime in the near future. There was a place for him. It kept him warm in the night as the town came alive. The heat turned them all nocturnal. The temperature would split in half. If Butcher was to know the town, he would need to know this. Those who remained were not the same as those who came before them. Those people were gone—moved en masse to some hallelujah somewhere.
Luke would come upon that place one day. He would find them in such great numbers that counting them would take an eternity. He pictured himself as some vast being three hundred stories tall above a squat building with a flat tin roof. When he peeled back the cover, there they would be, wriggling and tossing inside. They would thank him for his burden as he picked them up in handfuls and sprinkled them like seeds.