The bus arrived in Rockbridge at six a.m. During the night the temperature had dropped below freezing, and barely moved since. Cold pierced the leaky bus and passengers’ clothing. Parker tried ignoring it. He was near the end of a long journey, thousands of miles across the continent, with no trouble to speak of along the way. But as he stepped off the bus by the Rockbridge P.O. and walked through his hometown (pop. 1324) in a sleepless daze, he became aware of a slow-moving patrol car on the gravel road behind him. It was Sunday morning, mid-November, in a year of failed attempts to murder a president and a pope. Gripping his satchel, Parker walked a little faster, in spite of the fact that he was guilty – so far as he knew – of no crime.Brisk winds swept down Main Street, a bleak processional of small-town businesses, bank and barbershop, Army-Navy store with military surplus gas masks in the display window. Above the town’s only major intersection, a stoplight swayed, rusty and defunct. A Sunoco station with a sign CLOSED TIL FERTHER NOTICE pasted on the pump. To the west, the Berkshires rose like blue-gray curls of smoke.
Tires crunched on hard gravel. Not hard seeing himself through the eyes of the law: male, white, six feet tall, mid- to late-twenties. He heard the tires stop, but the eyewitness description went on in his head. Dark hair, scraggly beard, windbreaker and jeans. Stooped over now against the chilling wind. No visible means of support.
A car door opened. Footsteps thudded in snow behind him. “Hey, hold on there a minute …”
He turned to face a short man in a khaki uniform, with skeptical features and mud-colored hair under his cap. A weathered face, someone good at what he does, loyal to the town. Not to be messed with.
"Pardon my asking – you live around here or just passing through?”
He spoke in the broad flattened pitch common to the region. Parker hadn’t heard these inflections in a long time. Staring at the badge on his shirt embossed with FRANKLIN COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE, he pictured hand-cuffs, strip search, photos and prints; but it was a good question and deserved an answer.
“Little of both,” he said.
The sheriff frowned, pointing at the satchel. “What’s in there?”
“Just clothes,” Parker said.
They stood on the curb without speaking. Then the sheriff tilted his head in the direction of the cruiser. “Get in.”
“What?” Parker couldn’t believe it. “What the hell for?”
“Do yourself a favor,” the sheriff said, opening the rear door. “Get in.”
The dashboard was cluttered with law enforcement gear – night-stick, walkie-talkie, rifle encased in a leather grip. He wanted to tell the sheriff that he’d crossed a great distance to be here this morning, only after considerable reflection and always with the aching sense that it was a really bad idea. A week ago, drunk and possibly poisoned in a wine cellar in Southern California, coming home seemed like exactly the right thing to do; even the girl in the green-spangled evening dress straddling him at the time agreed. Now he stood ankle-deep in snow with a hostile officer of the law and began having second thoughts.
The sheriff turned from behind the wheel with a strange, lumpy grin. “I’ll be damned … Parker Sloane, is that you?”
It took a moment to puzzle this out. A name slowly came to mind. “Alf? Alf Cooper?” The sheriff grinned and nodded. He was an old family acquaintance, a truck farmer who’d once roamed the Massachusetts Turnpike with week-old produce for sale. “Here I am about to run you in for loitering and et cetera.” He laughed in a high, thin voice, all suspicion gone. “Back in town, are you? What’s the occasion?”
“Seemed like a good idea,” he said, much relieved. “So how long have you been sheriff?”
“Ha! Not me. I’m just a deputy. Mostly scribble parking tickets, clean up after the bums heave their guts out in the drunk tank. Tell you one thing, though. Sure beats hell outa hauling cherry tomatoes up and down the goddamn state.”
Well,” Parker said, tugging his jacket closer. “That’s great.”
“Home’d be where you’re going, right? Bet you wouldn’t mind a ride courtesy of the taxpayers of Franklin County.”
Fortunately, rather than a barrage of personal questions on the way home, Alf Cooper relaxed into silence. They drove through stretches of woods and open farmland. Sunlight glinted on snow, poplars nearest the road bent over with ice. In summer, he remembered, rows of green tobacco leaves rippled in the breeze.
OK, he thought, a little trouble.
The trip east had taken five days across snowy interstates, past truck stops and fierce desert sunsets, the ghostly lights of distant mountain cities. In a diner outside Reno he fell into conversation with a bristle-haired cattle feed salesman over the relative depth and quality of the Broncos’ secondary versus that of his own New England Patriots. He had no strong feelings on the matter one way or another, but the feed salesman’s belligerently-expressed convictions fueled a sudden rage in him, coming on like an episode of petit mal. The next thing he knew his slice of pecan pie a la mode was dripping down the other guy’s face, arms and legs and bodies getting between them, breaking it up. In the end, no more than pride was hurt – apologies made, all the passengers returned to the bus – the only lingering question being, would he be allowed back on, too? A convincing show of contrition on his part, plus his last fifty dollars, persuaded the bus driver to overlook the whole squalid event. The feed salesman got off in Omaha. For the rest of the long journey, Parker kept quiet.
In the hills of Vermont, the bus stopped at a railroad crossing alongside a farmer in a compact tractor and waited for the Central Maine freight train to rumble by. From his warm seat on the bus, Parker watched snow fall on the front-end loader and the driver’s John Deere cap. He shivered in sympathy. Any number of things could explain the pecan pie outburst. Looking down on the snow-covered farmer, he thought, I just need some time out, is all.
Alf Cooper was humming to himself as they came to the bottom of a steep hill, the last before the family house. Parker asked to be dropped off.
"But we just got this one last hill – “
"Thanks. I don't mind walking."
Alf pulled over and parked by side of the road, but at first Parker didn’t move. Time was running out, precious seconds left in which to change his mind and keep on going, disappearing into Newfoundland perhaps, or adrift in the Arctic Sea. Not pleasant to contemplate, but at the moment not altogether out of the question. And it was now that Alf decided to get personal.
"So where you been? What you been up to?"
"California," he said, as an answer to both.
"Nothing like this, I bet." He gestured at the snowbound landscape. “Snow’s been coming down hard since middle of last week. Gets worse every year, I think.”
Still Parker didn’t move, wondering if for some reason Alf wanted to greet the family, too. It didn’t seem right to be handing out invitations, but he felt obliged to say something.
"Do you uh want to come to the house?”
The deputy sheriff's eyes widened, as if he'd stepped on a nail. "No," he said.
"Well then … "
Getting out of the car he heard Alf grumble to himself over the crackling radio. "Come in? I sure as hell do not.” He swung the cruiser around sharply, sending Parker scrambling for safety, and headed back to Rockbridge.