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Timothy Wakelin, age thirty-two, pale features handsome or weak, it was hard to tell, fine dark hair thinning, widower food stains down the front of his blue cotton turtleneck, sat, dismayed and receiving looks, along a rear wall in the single chair at a table for two in the Grant Gemboree, a bus-stop cafe in the mining town of Grant. It was lunchtime on a hot weekday in late June. Outside, through layers of smoke, blue and enfolded, pickup trucks slowly passed. Inside, the place was jammed. Everybody knew everybody else, and everybody except the stranger had a cigarette going. A din of talk, shouts, horseplay. Clattering cutlery and banging dishes. The name tag of the waitressnot Wakelin's own waitress but the one who had taken away the other chair from his tablesaid Ardis, and he was watching her closely because he knew that this was the name of the healer's mother, and it did not strike him as a common name, unless it was common around here, Ardis was a tall woman, five-eight (Wakelin guessed) in flat heels. In adolescence she must have enjoyed the attractiveness of a cherub or an animal cub. Wakelin saw cheeks once rosy with new powers, but those powers, with the booze and the cigarettes, in middle age were swollen with disappointment, the cheeks pouchy, the bleached hair pinned up like straw, eyes dark-ringed and guarded.
She did not look like the mother of a saint.
Two other things Wakelin noticed. One, makeup intended to cover an area of bruising down the left side of Ardis's face. Two, the red-rimmed eyes of a dogan old black Lab lying by the door, dewlaps outspread on the grimethatfollowed her everywhere as she wove and squeezed through the press of diners.Wakelins lunch was just awful. Eggs of crumbling yolk and rubber-white albumen on a carbon laminate, dank toast, coffee a rusted knife-edge of heartburn, thin and without taste. A breakfast something like a story about a healer, something like a saint's life. Of dubious provenance. The dog's breakfast of narratives. Hearsay, exaggeration, wishful thinking, local legend. Followed now through a confusion of smoke and opinion, in a place for locals, a meetinghouse of initiates, with the blanket of the familiar draped soft all round. Cozy as heaven, old as hell.
The healer's name was Caroline Troyer. All her twenty years lived in this uranium town of thirty-three hundred people, a five-hour drive northeast of the city. From the articles already done on her, most of them published over the past year, confections too credulous not to be cynical, Wakelin had learned enough to expect some kind of saint, fanatic and pathetic in equal proportions. Of course, he was up here as a journalist, for the story. A journalist impersonating someone looking for a piece of country property. Impersonating himself, actually, from last summer, a year after Jane died, when he was roaming the Canadian Shield doing just that, looking for property, until he asked himself why he wanted to live in the countrywhat he thought he'd find up here, what he thought he'd do, how he'd make it from breakfast to bedtimeand couldn't think of an answer. Not a good one. Anyway, it was his own former intentions he was here in the name of Former intentions now false pretences. These were his drawn line. All he proposed to bring to this and to take away was enough truth to make the thing fly. He would not purposely distort, he would do an honest, writerly job in the time allotted. Three to four thousand words for a major-circulation womans magazine, whatever he wanted. Whatever he could come up with that would pass for new information, a fresh angle, a little insight, and failing all else a worldly, yet sensitive, last word.
Wakelin was watching a small old man ease in the front door. It was a difficult arrival, the movements halting and inexact. This was more than age There was or had been illness. The palsy, the ravaged breathing, the trousers on heavy suspenders swaying clown-style, a gabardine barrel.
Across the room Wakelin's own waitress, whose name was Gail, glanced toward the old man as he approached from the door and shouted, "Hey there, Frank!"
Gail was a beautiful young woman with the luminous skin of an angel, a bad permanent, and something of a stoop. Also a poor clothes sense. A blue polyester gypsy blouse with ruffles, grey flannel slacks, and on her feet running shoes of convolved rubber extrusion in purple and lime.
A minute later, skull shining through his yellowing hair, old Frank was being helped by Gail into the chair at the small table adjacent to Wakelin's.
"Everybody's hungry today," Old Frank said. His dentures, fingers, and nails were yellow too, and they seemed to be his biggest and strongest components.
"The usual, Frank?" Gail shouted, though she was right beside him.
The old fingers were groping the shirt pocket.
"The usual, Frank?"
Old Frank's teeth cracked. "Everybody's hungry today."
"I know," Gail said, turning her head as if to look around but not using her eyes. "It's unreal. The usual?"
"That'll be right."
Gail went away.
Old Frank was fumbling open a pack of Export "A." Three cigarettes spilled to the table, It was some time before he got one of them picked up, but when he did, Wakelin was right there with a match.
"Hi." The match flared. "Tim Wakelin."
Confusion in the old eyes until the flame had narrowed them to the task, at hand, which when completed it was Wakelin who narrowed them next.
"Not me," Wakelin replied and went on shaking out the match. "Up to look for a piece of country property."
Old Frank seemed to consider this.
What People are Saying About This
Brilliant and funny. Every line sparkles with originality and intelligence.