The miles seemed to barely crawl by giving me too much time to think. I felt guilty for not being more traumatized by what I had seen and not dreaming about it.
“Stop worrying it to death,” Evans said as he dismounted at our lunch and water break. He nodded his head towards some shade where we could the leftovers from breakfast we’d each packed.
“Huh?” I asked trying to pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Don’t give me that dumb-innocent look Kid. You’ve been thinking so hard you got steam coming out o’ your ears.” Then he gave a small rather embarrassed smile. “Look, I ain’t a religious man. Done things in this life … that there ain’t no way I could make up fer. But when the drinking got so bad I nearly lost what little I had left I … See, there was these people … in Turkey … I watched ‘em. They risked everything for the sake of seeking a different life for themselves and their families; they didn’t want to live with the hate no more, the fear, and all the crap that goes with it. They have to meet in secret. A lot of the time their own families disown them if they find out. They lose everything that a normal body might consider valuable or important. But they don’t stop.” He shook his head. “I thought they was crazy. Made me angry too. It made me look at my own life to see if I had anything in my life that important. After a while I was just sick of how much I’d folded and given in to the life that had happened to me. It had gotten so bad I was startin’ to mess up on the job and that can get you and your buddies dead in our line of work. But the booze weren’t nothing but an excuse that got me where I was.”
I wondered where he was going with this. It made me uncomfortable. Here I was trying to avoid more ties to get hurt with and Evans’ confession and friendship was making that harder and harder.
“When I was about your age and had been on the road by myself a bit I … I fell in idiot love. It weren’t real but I thought it was and maybe she did too. We were young and dumb and I was tired of being lonely and she were tired of being beat up by her ol’ man and brothers. One thing I ain’t never been interested in is hitting women and I guess she figured that out quick enough. Well, you can guess where that led to and we got married ‘cause that is what you did when you got a girl knocked up in those days in that area. It were hard but I’d been raised hard and then a guy down at the pawn shop took a liking to me and things started looking up … or I thought they were. After the baby come I … well I was in what I thought of as heaven. That little girl, she just …” He stopped and I started having the feeling that I wasn’t going to like the ending of this story.
“But Winnie … that’s the girl I’d married … she started missing being young and not having any responsibilities. Annie, our baby, well she was cranky like any baby and Winnie just didn’t know what to do for her. And then got tired of doing what she did know how to do. But I was working all the time and didn’t see it. Winnie put on a good face when I was around which I have to admit wasn’t as much as I could have been. Then Winnie started … well, finding some of the fun she thought she was missing. I found out and took it hard but stayed because I was afraid if I didn’t I’d lose Annie. I loved Annie, she was the breath in my body and my reason for getting’ up every day, but I learned to love wallowing in my own misery and hurt feelings more. At some point I got to be as bad as Winnie. The county people threatened to take Annie away and that scared me bad enough that I started cleaning up, but by then it was too late for my poor little girl. I was working late, trying to catch back up on the rent when my boss came in with his brother who was a deputy. There’d been an accident. Winnie hadn’t wanted me to work that night, had wanted to go to a party she’d been invited to and wanted me to watch Annie so she could. But the landlord said that if we didn’t get the rent caught up by the end of the week he was going to evict us and the county people said if we got evicted they were going to take Annie. Winnie couldn’t see it and told me she didn’t care anyway because she was tired of playing Mam, she wanted to be young and free again and said it were all my fault.”
I wanted to put my hand on Evans but too many people were around though none close enough to actually hear what he was telling me. If they had bothered looking at Evans’ eyes they’d seen a a nearly broken man and rushed over to see what was wrong … but nobody saw … no one but me.
“Winnie … she’d gotten mad and gone out … but not before she’d gotten drunk. She’d put Annie in her car seat but hadn’t buckled the car seat in. Winnie walked away with nary a scratch from that ditch … but Annie … my little girl … she were gone just that fast. I let it destroy me. There were people whot wanted to help but I was too busy being angry and hurt. I wanted Winnie to feel as bad as I did but she wouldn’t. She … I think she were relieved and that was the hardest thing of all to live with. My boss, he were a good man and told me that staying around was poisoning me and that I needed to get out, leave, find something to do with my life to give it purpose and meaning … his words. His brother hooked me up with a man he knew and I been with this crew ever since.”
He sighed and then said, “And for a while things did get better but it never went away. I never let it. When I was working I was one man. If we took leave too long I was the other me. I started digging that little grave in my heart all over again. After a while it got deeper and deeper and harder and harder to climb back out of. Last time I took a drunk I … I didn’t want to climb out and nearly wind up dying from alcohol poisoning. That’s when I ran into them folks I was telling you about. When we got back to the states for some R&R everybody expected me to go on a bender again … and I had meant to. Stopped at this truck stop to get some gas before heading to a bar I’d heard about. But there was this trailer on the side. Called itself a trucker’s chapel. Something drew me in.”
He laughed but it wasn’t funny. “I’d never been religious and still ain’t but something happened in that place, something I cain’t rightly explain in words that made sense. Didn’t a drop pass my lips for a long time after that day. I’d get tempted bad but I held up, remembering that feeling, remembering Annie … until that night with the gamblers. It was only one shot and I reckon everyone thought I got into the mess I did ‘cause I were drunk but I swear to you I weren’t. It’d been a long time but I could still tell the booze were watered down a bit. And if I’d been drunk I couldn’t have kept my head and stayed alive as long as I did.”
He sighed, “Not sure why I’m telling you this except that I wanted you to know. Bad things happen to folks that don’t deserve it, even little childrun. Bad things that you won’t ever fergit. And it’s a good thing to remember ‘em so if you ever get a chance to stop it from happening to someone else you can. It won’t make up for whot’s already been but it might stop something else bad from bein’. But you gots ta keep yer head. You cain’t let the bad things take over. If you do, you might as well as be as dead as my poor little Annie is ‘cause that’s all the good you’ll be. And when you cain’t keep going and bein’ what you need to be, there’s Someone bigger you can count on ter help you along. You cain’t fergit that for nothing ‘cause there might come a time when it’ll save yore life.”
He sniffed and said, “Now eat yer lunch. I ain’t the brightest of the bunch but even I can tell you done had to take a notch up in yore belt and yer shirts are startin’ to flap showing things maybe you’d be best not showin’.”
Whew. I’d known that Evans had led a hard life but hadn’t known it had that kind of heartache in it too. If anyone could tell me the truth about that part of life I knew that he could, more importantly I knew that he would because he’d always been a straight player with me. And he said things that gave me something to chew on besides the horrible pictures in my head. I grew up going to church – wouldn’t Mawmaw and Granny have pitched a fit if I hadn’t even if some of the kids could be mean as snakes without trying – but it had been a while since I had done anything but take that for granted. Remembering some of the things that I’d heard growing up helped ‘cause I trusted who they’d come from.
By that night I was in a better place in my head. Still didn’t feel like going to a party but I didn’t feel like digging a grave either. After our buggy night in Clinton State Park there was some debate before camping the next night at Douglas State Lake. I had a nightmare but it was the old one where Evans was sick and had his feet soaking in blood. I woke up watching him more carefully and it did seem that he was more tired. But then again we all were and so long as he was on the horse I never saw him stumble.
That day we picked up the pace and made thirty solid miles to stay in a little place called Aubry, Kansas that was near the Kansas/Missouri border. The only reason we could do it was because the road was fairly clear and because I found a bicycle that kept me from having to walk the whole way.
Things were better in the crew, Thor and I were square and the memory of the pyres was easing for everyone. Evans took his role as “elder” seriously and did his part to get the men chuckling over some memory or other. But at the same time we were all tense and getting more so. We were skirting closer to Kansas City and no one was too happy about that.
We needn’t have worried … or worried about what we were worried about anyway. The smell coming off KC was like a charnel house. I didn’t even want to know how many dead there had to be to make a smell that big even miles outside of the city proper. It hung like a pall on everything and even the animals sensed it. Trish and Mickey were both subdued and seemed to shrink for a bit. I saw Chuckri and Delia doing what they could but some things it’s hard to protect kids from. And even if I might have tried something different I knew it wasn’t my place. They were building a family and putting my hand in it wouldn’t have been right. So I just watched and did a bit of praying that things would turn out all right.
No one slept good that night. We didn’t have any choice, we were going to have to cut up the east side of Kansas City to make our way to Independence, Missouri. I also noticed in particular that Chuckri was starting to get a desperate look on his face. All the men kept looking at him. If I’d been him that would have driven me nuts.
Finally I went to Thor – Evans was occupied with some story or other trying to cheer Richards up – and tried to find out what was going on.
“What do you think Kid? Independence is practically in east Kansas City and Buckner not too far away from that.”
“OK, it looks bad. But he don’t know for sure it’s bad yet. Why is everyone acting like it absolutely has to be instead of thinking that it might not be?”
“Good Lord you’re young,” he said shaking his head. “Kid, the odds are …”
I interrupted saying, “The odds would say that none of us should have survived or maybe survived this far. The odds are probably that some of us are going to kick off during this winter. But I don’t see anyone letting those odds beat ‘em down.”
Suddenly a rider behind me popped me in the head and I turned to see Chuckri. But instead of angry he was smiling. “You tell ‘em Kid. No need to bury the bodies before we find out if they need it or not. Now come on and help me clear this mess out of the road so we can get the wagon by.”
That day was definitely not to become one of the highlights of my memories but we all survived it. The smell got so bad at one point that it was sticky on the back of your throat. We all put bandanas or scarves or whatever we had over our noses and mouths. It helped with the worst of it but never did cut it completely.
We crossed into Missouri almost without knowing about it. Kansas City straddled the state line so tightly that there almost wasn’t room for a road sign to tell you that you’d left one and entered the other. We made it into Independence as it was getting late but it was a haunted place. There had been rioting there the same as in KC and Chuckri finally had the kids lay down in the wagon and not look around at all. Corpses and … bits and pieces of unmentionable things … lay all over. It also looked like most of the goods from the inside of buildings had been tossed outside. Fire took out a good portion of east KC and kept going. Chuckri said it must have engulfed the Truman Sports Complex because it and a good portion of I435 simply didn’t exist anymore.
Now, in addition to the corpse smell, we had to deal with the smell of old smoke. But it got too dark to go any further and the animals were starting to balk. Best we were able to do was to get to the Truman historic site and we spent the night all together in one of the old buildings.
“Kid, I’d meant to get give you more time off guard rotation but …”
I told Thor, “I didn’t ask to be taken off.”
“No, but you know why I did.”
“Yeah and … I appreciate the thought. But if you need me on it’s not going to undo all that you did before.”
So that night I took a rotation with Evans. We went on at 0300 but by 0400 everyone was awake but the kids and wanting to leave. I had to walk the bike until the sun come up well enough to see and occasionally I’d step on things that had me trying to hold back a gag.
We were in Buckner by lunchtime. The closer we got to Chuckri’s house the more upset he became. When we got there and saw how badly the neighborhood was we all knew that there was no chance his family would still be there. We all tried to stop Chuckri from going in the house but he rushed in too fast. It looked like a bomb had gone off in there and he came out and just sat in the yard and cried.
None of the men knew what to do for him but they still sat with him. He was the first to really be faced with the reality of what the world had done to his family. I felt like an outsider. I thought maybe if I could find some pictures or something for him in all of the mess that it would help down the road.
It was horrible walking through that house. It had definitely been vandalized before it had been ransacked. It wasn’t quite as bad back in the two rooms that must have belonged to his kids but still a lot of stuff was obviously missing. Closets and drawers had been cleaned out, belongings were missing, same in the bathrooms. Then I looked at it again. Sure the rooms had been vandalized but it looked like they’d been cleaned out first. That’s when I saw that not all of the graffiti was done by the vandals.
I looked out the door to see everyone still. I hated to disturb them, hated that I might be wrong. But what if I was right and didn’t say anything.
“Kid …” Thor growled.
I ignored him. “Chuckri … what does hayr mean? Is it Armenian?”
In a gruff voice he said, “Father.”
Ignoring the other men who were ready to pummel me I asked, “What about Ludvig?”
Chuckri lifted his head and said, “That’s my brother’s name. Why?”
“Something was … I think something was … written on the wall in the boy’s room. It … I don’t know … it kind of looks like a note but it’s in crayon and I can’t …”
Chuckri pushed me down running into the house. Evans looked at me, “Hope you know what you’re doing Kid.”
It wasn’t but a second before Chuckri was running back out of the house. “Saddle up! We’ve got to go.”
Thor grabbed him and stopped him, “Chuckri …”
But Chuckri wrenched free. “My son. It was him. He left me a note. My brother came to get them. Made my ex leave the city. They were heading to my Uncle’s place in Waterloo. I’m not going to give up, not until I know for sure.”
We all loaded up and headed out. Thor had to keep calling Chuckri back. “Listen Man, I know you want to get to this place as quick as you can but if you don’t slow down someone is bound to get hurt, and if not one of us the animals or the wagon. We’ll do our best to get there but we’ll do it together and in one piece.”