The dust cloud on the horizon veers toward town. It’s getting closer. I tell myself, It’s the Calvary come to rescue me locked up for a crime I didn’t commit. “Fat chance,” the little voice in my head replies.
Every day, Mei Lia brought me something to help take the chill out of this county cooler. One day she carried a tray covered in a red and gold silk handkerchief. My lawyer also came that day.
“The judge won’t grant an appeal.” Josh Feathers gave me the bad news. Tatay had even offered to get his attorney from Philadelphia to help, but neither he nor I could afford it. Mei Lia’s smile made up for all of it.
In the tray was pancit, the same dish we’d had at our wedding.
But wait a minute! As I served up a forkful I saw the unimaginable. The round end of a metal object stuck out from under the soft mound of noodles. She had covered a skeleton key inside the dish. I grabbed it and shoved it under the mattress. I looked in her soft, almond-shaped eyes, afraid to ask. She made no acknowledgment. She just smiled.
After I finished my meal we kissed. It was long and tender. We said our goodbyes. She and I knew it was the last affection we would ever share. There was no turning back from this.
The Chinese apothecary shop on the corner of D Street and Second has a sign that gives a proverb for every day of the week. That night it read: Make the most of an unexpected opportunity.
I made my way out of town the same way I’d come in. I hopped a boxcar on the first westbound freight train. Inside an oversize wooden crate of farm equipment, I peered through the slats as two cargo handlers checked the load. The train had just crossed the state line into Arizona.
“Why do ya think they didn’t shut this door?” one worker asked the other.
The loader pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his jeans and shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe they just forgot t’lock it? It opened by itself? I dunno.”
As they moved boxes and crates, making sure everything was secure, they seemed to find a sense of satisfaction in their work. Thinking back, it may have been the contentment I felt as I clung to the canvas of the duffel bag Mei Lia had packed for me. After I unlocked the door to the cell, I had ducked out of the jail house while the dispatcher went for coffee. I found the bag stashed in the bushes in back of the county offices. That girl knew exactly where I’d run. She had an uncanny sense that way. I cried inside with a terrible pain in my heart. What was I going to do without her?
In my dreams, a young man manipulates levers and belt drives that operate an escalator made of molybdenum-steel, raising and lowering people cut in half at the torso, only to become whole again at the end of the ride.
A middle-aged woman at a bus station reminds me that there are still details to work out, pieces to put together. Don’t despair, she winks while pouring used oil around fence posts. To preserve them, she says.
I woke up to the rhythmic rattle of the Southern Pacific against my back. I stood up, forcing open the door of the boxcar, and saw the landscape as it flew past.
At sunrise, the Arizona desert comes to life in a soft purple contrast of shadow and light. The camel colored mountains display a palette of gold and red, stretching the long shadows of tumbleweed across the land like fingers flirting with the new day. I followed as thousands of sun beaten sagebrush swayed in the morning breeze, waving that yellow ball toward the western sky.
As I put a part of my life behind me, the thought crossed my mind—Nick Dade will make California, after all.