The Sundowner Cometh
by Scott Mitchel May, 3.49am May 10th 2022

The Man stood guard outside The Lone Pine Drug most days, protecting what he came to regard as his own though he had no claim to it, but that never stopped anyone in America before. The Old Man kept his own council in his back office and never left and The Man was aware that he was not really there, but that seemed like it was less important to The Man than the talks he would have with The Old Man. He both knew and didn’t know, you know? He knew what was important to him and he knew that The Old Man helped him figure out what was important to him, so it became unimportant that The Old Man was probably not really real in the in the really real world. Ash and Fog blew by sometimes, when the wind picked up. The Old Man said that that was because people needed to be reminded of what they’ve done, and The Man saw the wisdom in that. He stood as bulwark against all of it in front of The Lone Pine Drug: The Ash and Fog, wanderers and scavengers looking to take what was his and The Old Man’s. And Them. They came wafting down through the great desert and over from the dead gold towns and they picked at the edges of Lone Pine. Making a meal of scraps.

The sun was noon-high and The Man smoked and kicked at pebbles with the toe of his boot. Sweat formed at his temples and the sounds of farting plagued his ears. He knew phantoms when he heard them but the effect was just the same. The noise panged at his insides. He could also hear The Old Man rearranging papers in his office, making room for something The Man couldn’t get him to talk about. The low rumble started then, among the din of those other noises in his head. It was a burping rumble. Exhaust breaking the melting air. An engine revved idiosyncratic and without any pattern, wholly unique to The Rider, a person The Man had yet to see. He had heard the low rumble before, had heard it every day since his first day with The Old Man, skirting the edge of town, getting to know the place, reporting back to Them, The Man assumed. Buford T. Justice padded up and spoke then, telling The Man that nothing about this seemed realistic at all and that he’d better move on if he wanted to make it to Siobhan before They got her fully mind-fucked with torture or she went stupid with the Ash and Fog, as he (Buford T. Justice) had some time ago. The Man kicked his pebbles and said “Siobhan’s there, waiting, I feel that, plus They are here now and I can’t leave him to Them.” At that the dog left and did not return and the phantom farting ceased for the day, but the burping rumble off somewhere continued and great sonic waves came and went with varying closeness and loudness in an ovoid pattern that suggested to The Man that The Rider he had yet to lay eyes on had already laid eyes on him, and was getting a sense of The Man, and that was just A-Okay with The Man.

At night he walked the store, keeping an eye and listening for aberrant noises, of which, there were many. The place was old and made the noises of old places — creaking, settling, the odd unexplainable sounds that just scare the bejesus out of people — most of which The Man could simply ignore and move on and forget about, but lately there were other noises too, noises he could hear inside and noises that lingered and stayed around longer than they ought to. Those noises he knew weren’t dangerous noises but they were the noises The Man most worried about because they were the noises that would do him all the way in, he knew. By the greeting cards he heard The Old Man moan in his sleep and The Man felt at his face. The skin there had hardened into a shield of scar and felt both leathery and shell-like. He never looked in the mirror, but The Old Man had said he looked fine, considering. The moaning continued as The Man knew it would. The Old Man moaned all night. The shelf of greeting cards was divided by occasion and sorted with the more expensive cards at or about eyelevel. This had the effect of getting customers to notice the cards that were sturdier and nicer and made them feel good, to get them committed to spending $5.99 instead of $2.99 on something with a similar sentiment, but ultimately flimsier and cheaper and then feel bad, like they didn’t really value the person they were getting the card for or the occasion for which they were giving the card. The Man picked up a card that was designed for the occasion of the birthday of a father. On the front of the card was a tall tree with a nest which had four baby birds being fed by what The Man assumed was a mama bird. There was another bird on the very top of the tree and looking out at a horizon that was not depicted on the card itself but was nevertheless there. He opened the card and the inscription read “Sometimes the Quiet Contributions Go Unnoticed but Have the Biggest Impact. Happy Birthday Dad!” A creak and a moan took The Man’s attention from the card and without realizing it he slipped the card into his back pocket as he continued walking the Lone Pine Drug and making his rounds.

At midnight he slept and at 0500 he woke and ate a breakfast of a piece of Sara Lee white bread with a single slice of American cheese and he went outside to go and stand where he liked to kick pebbles and listen for the low rumbling burps of The Rider. That day the noise didn’t come until late and then only off in the distance and barely perceptible. The Man knew what was coming then. He knew what was going to happen there at the Lone Pine Drug. It was as inevitable as The War That Nobody Knew They Were Fighting. It was as inevitable as losing that war was too. The Rider and The Man were of the same stock and stuff. They traveled the same road. The Rider rode the same looping circles around The Man for the same reasons The Man stood and The Old Man waited. Patience and responsibility. There are some things that a man has to do and The Rider had to take the Lone Pine Drug from The Old Man and The Man had to stop that from happening. This was the mission now. His forehead itched at the sound in the wanning evening’s sun and The Man rubbed the gnarled flesh there and thought of the man in the Midwest with the dead child and the desire to go east to safety where there was none. He thought about his home on the top of the hill in Brattleboro, VT and wondered if it was occupied by a new man, another man who could do what needed to be done for that town with nothing but grief coming back in return. He smiled. Kicked a pebble. Shook his head. The sun set fully over the horizon in a pink and red apocalypse. Stars began their night shift. Another pebble was kicked. A Lucky lit. The noise faded and was gone and it wouldn’t return that night, The Man knew. The Old Man’s chair scraped across the wooden office floor inside and The Man heard him swearing under his breath and decided tonight was the night they sorted this shit out once and for keeps and The Man didn’t really care which way that paper folded just so long as he got some answers and came to a greater understanding of himself and the world in which he was now a part. A world of his head. A world of blood and screaming skies. A world where riders rode and men tooled up for Them and whoever else would do them harm. He would ask the question. He would get his answer. He would accept whatever was said or wasn’t. The whole thing would come a part or it wouldn’t and the worst part about that was The Man knew, logically, that his mind was capable of protecting him from the truth if that’s what his mind decided was best and could feed him whatever it wanted and that he couldn’t trust the answers of The Old Man either way. But that’s not the point. A sane man still asks the questions. That’s the rub here. And that’s what The Man set himself to do, back inside, in the back office, where The Old Man held fistfuls of meaningless paper and paced back and forth, organizing but never finishing.

“They say a man is born to a place and can leave but never really be quit of it…”

“Yeah, they say that, they say a lot of things. I don’t truck with bullshit.” The Old Man pulled one stack of papers from a filing cabinet below the card table at which he was now sat and rifled through them, throwing some to the ground while placing others on the table itself in a neat stack for later.

“I’m quit of the place I was born. It has nothing to do with me anymore. I have nothing to do with it.”

“There will always be people back wherever a person comes from who remembers them how they were, and no matter how much time has passed that will just be that. To someone, somewhere, you are always going to be that teenage asshole who stole their girl, or that grammar school kid who set that trashcan on fire that once, can’t be helped.” He stood, then, and stared at the stacks of papers on the table. There were twelve stacks in total and each stack was six-hundred individual sheets of paper high and each piece of paper had three-hundred individual words and those words didn’t say a whole helluvalot. The Old Man began reading the top page of a stack and his lips moved with the words and The Man couldn’t make out what he was reading because The Man couldn’t read lips. He never learned. He should have learned.

“I’m quit of them, and they can’t remember me.”

“Once, I left a place. I had people there who remembered me for a while and I thought they had forgotten but they hadn’t. I never did go back, but I was here one day, not long before, and a woman of the right age came in and she perused my shelves and picked up odds and ends, here and theres, not intending to buy but more like look around and kill what time she had to kill while her family was occupied elsewhere. I was behind my counter and waiting. I had a crossword open and was struggling with a word I had misplaced and forgotten. The woman wandered, making a circle of the place, and when she passed my counter, she paused for a second and our eyes met as I looked up from my crossword and she smiled a little and I knew it was Claire Montgomery of Bakersfield. She was older than me by a year and had no reason to know who I was, but she did recognize a familiarity. She couldn’t place it, in her mind, and she walked on, perusing, but I knew, I remembered. In her mind it was just a fleeting feeling of something she couldn’t place. She could probably feel that it felt like youth. Felt like her teenage years. But for me, even having not thought about Claire Montgomery of Bakersfield for years and years, I was brought back to the exact time and place when I made her acquaintance. I was standing again in the living room of a friend who had an older brother, an Irish twin in Claire’s grade, and that older brother was having a house party on the occasion of their parents being gone for a long weekend somewhere else. Kids were everywhere in the house. Myself and my friend were told to stay in my friend’s room, but of course we didn’t. We were given beer and smokes and the occasional toke from a doob and we were having the time of our lives. My friend left me for a while and went off to wander his house and I stood like a statue in the living room, and that’s when I saw her. She was sitting on the couch and was making time with a boy. She was wearing a skirt and had her legs apart. The boy’s hand was up there and I was stoned and drunk and staring. It was the first pussy I ever saw. When she came into my store she was old and sexless, but to me she will always be that seventeen-year-old who gave me my first look at a woman. She will always be Claire of the red pubic hair. It’s unavoidable.”

“Are you real?”

“I’m not sure that matters.”

“But are you?”

“Why?”

“I want to know how far gone I am. I want to know what time I have left with myself.”

“You won’t make it, either way.”

“How do you know?”

“You weren’t made to make it. You aren’t the sort who rights wrongs and makes it. That’s not you.”

“I think I should stay, then.”

“No, you shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you are the sort that was made to try and to fail.” The Old Man pulled another stack of papers from the cabinet and rifled through them, throwing some on the floor and setting exactly six-hundred sheets on the table next to the other stacks, none of which amounted to a whole helluvalot.