Translation-Chapter 4

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 8:20 PM By crosswaysnet , In

Chapter 4 (Saturday, mid-day, Canyon West, TX):

The big truck lumbered its way up the caliche drive, through old iron gates, painted many times over the years and set on rough-cut limestone pediments. A narrow road wound around the cemetery leaving barely enough room for the double back axle to maneuver without displacing edge stones. Two hundred year old oaks stood separate from each other, shading the tough Texas turf in places. The oldest monuments stood in the center behind short wrought iron fences, large hand-chiseled engravings giving testament to the hard life and early deaths of settlers. Many of the dates went back to before the Civil War.
The place could not have felt more different to Mitch from his last visit. The crisp blue sky met the dark green of oak and cedar and the grass was let to grow a little long since the wildflowers were coming up strong this year. Everywhere were the blazing pinks of Indian Paintbrush, offset by the deep, almost violet royal blue of the bonnets. Even Indian Blankets and horsemint were beginning to show color. It looked like a Lady Bird Johnson-approved production. Known to Americans for being the First Lady, she was probably more revered in Texas for her devotion to nature and determination to beautify the State's major highways.
"Wow, Mitch. It really is a lovely place... to remember her." The last words seemed to catch in Jim's throat.
Last night it sure wasn't , sighed Mitch. What happened here had been a living nightmare... If it had happened at all. No, 'nightmare' wasn't quite right - Sonja had looked glorious, not ghoulish. What was it then? That's the million dollar question, Mitch. He looked at his friend and tried to give him something reassuring. A nod was the best he could do.
They followed the one-way drive till it bent around to the back left corner of the property. Here the style of the stones changed and the ground shown more uneven over newer graves. Mitch spied two grounds keepers pushing his little car down the slope and out of the main drive, tucking it into a service path. Another was collecting the box and some of the letters which had blown loose during the night. Mitch asked Jim to stop at the grave first.
Walking over to the old man in standard blue coveralls, he picked up one of Sonja's letters, now a little warped from the morning dew. Thankfully, the writing hadn't been smeared.
"I'll take care of those, friend," Mitch said as they drew close. The old man handed over the box. The face of Sonja Blackman in porcelain was at his elbow.
"Your car?” the grizzled man said, looking over his shoulder. “What happened? Tried the ignition - couldn't get the car started this morning. You have to walk out of here last night?”
Long story,” Mitch replied.
Well, someone was very lucky with this one," he said, looking down at the last letter he'd retrieved. Mitch felt a bit of his privacy had been invaded, but he could hear the admiration in the man's voice.
"Thank you. I was indeed." Strange, thought Mitch. That's the first chance I've had to brag on my wife in months. He was suddenly determined to prove that Sonja was not at fault for what happened.
It was welling up within him again, so he waved Jim and the truck down to where his car was now parked. He took a few moments to collect himself before heading down the path. He was afraid to open his mouth, unconvinced that something new and unnerving wouldn't be conjured up if he did. Then again, he might see Sonja one more time. But the thought of reliving the experience was not particularly comforting or desirable. If she was truly at peace, Mitch was ready to let her be at peace. He exhaled a long sigh and turned to go, the box of letters tucked next to his left hip. There was nothing left to say to, or about, his wife this morning.
A late morning breeze kicked up from the direction he was headed. First it smelled of dry grass and the faint sweet nectar of blue bonnets. Then it just smelled like gas.
"Man, Jim, what are you hauling? That truck is potent. The gas smell is strong."
"What do you mean? It's a water truck. Maybe you smelled the diesel."
Mitch knew the difference. He'd spent summers on his grandparents ranch and run all the equipment, which meant getting fuel on his hands many times. He looked around to see if maybe his little car had sprung a leak overnight. There was no trail of fuel on the gravel. Mitch wondered if his mind was playing tricks again.
Jim pulled out the jumper cables while Mitch popped the hood of the Mini. The keys were still in the ignition, so he gave them a twist. Not even a click. This is gonna take a while.
Soon the cables were attached and the compact battery began greedily drinking up the fresh electrons to its parched cells. Mitch just hoped he hadn't so depleted them that they couldn't charge at all. After five minutes, Mitch tried again. There was a faint click and nothing more. It was definitely going to take a while.
"Do you have to be anywhere soon, Jim? I'm sorry I didn't ask earlier."
"No, I'm fine for at least another forty five minutes or so. I just need to get this truck back to the Fredericksburg firehouse later this afternoon. I'm supposed to catch a ride back with one of their guys before dinner time."
"What do you have this truck for?" asked Mitch.
"Ours was down for an overhaul and the burn ban was still on. They loaned it. Got ours back today so we had the shop at the relief center check theirs out and freshen it up."
"Oak River?"
Mitch mulled that over for awhile. Sonja had helped set up the biggest private relief and distribution center in South-Central Texas through the Oak River Foundation. Just another one of that mega-church's vast services to the region. She'd made sure that volunteer agencies of all kinds could use the services, including a fully-equipped service yard for large equipment. "And not a dime out of the offering plate," she was proud to say - "all through large grants and endowments."
Jim was respectful of silences - especially here. Mitch knew that and eventually started up some light conversation to kill time. They discussed what each of their kids were doing for Spring break. Both had their backs to Sonja's grave for the same reason. They might both start talking about painful things. The Hughes had been especially close to Sonja, and the wives had been at the center of Neighborhood Watch, Cub Scouts den mothers, and about every other extra curricular mom activity happening in Canyon West. The men had long joked about their "Geritol Girls."
Jim began to look at his watch when Mitch jumped up. The smell of gas was strong again. Gasoline, regular octane stuff, thought Mitch. Where was it leaking?
Mitch jumped up on the small landing between the water tank and the cab. The smell was stronger here. He looked to see if he was standing in any fuel. The soles of his shoes were dry. Jim had followed him over and was standing right below him.
"What's up, bud?" Jim asked.
"Something's leaking around here and it's not diesel. Can you smell it?"
Jim put his nose to the air and sniffed.
"Now that you mention it, yeah." He scratched his head.
"Is there a gas can or something you carry with you for back fires, or something like that?"
"No nothing like that I can think of. Hop down, though, and I'll give it a look. This isn't our brand of truck but I think I know my way around it pretty well."
Mitch yielded the stamped metal platform. While Jim poked around and under valves and tank walls, Mitch walked around to the back of the rig. There was a service ladder going up the left side of the tank. He climbed it. On top he found the large screw-down filling hole. It wasn't pressure fit like a gas tank, and some of the water had obviously squirted out of the seal during the trip. Only this water smelled very different. Mitch had only to touch his pinky to the cold and oily evaporating fluid to figure it out. Something was very wrong here.
Mitch slid down the ladder quickly. He noticed something stuck underneath the tank, hidden by shadow. He reached for it. It gave after a moment, Mitch catching it in his palm. He pulled it out carefully and stared at it. It looked like a simple digital kitchen timer, counting down. Twenty five, twenty four, twenty three.
Two stout wires were coming out of the back of the timer, set in a big glob of epoxy along with a magnet. The wires led to a rectangle of some sort further under the tank. Mitch couldn't reach it. He looked down at his left hand. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen... Mitch yanked at the wires but they would not come out, set hard in that epoxy.
"JIM!!" said Mitch as he was running full speed back to the cab. He saw his friend poke his head out from the cramped platform. Mitch grabbed his arm and yanked him to the ground. Jim fell hard on this side.
"RUN! NOW!!!!" Mitch screamed as he pulled Jim up from the ground.
"What?" Jim said, perplexed and stunned. Mitch was dragging him.
"NOW!!!" Mitch shouted again, pulling harder. "IT'S A BOMB!!!" Jim got the message and started running on his own, straight for the cover of a small pump house halfway to the edge of the cemetery.
Mitch was passing the Mini and spied the box of letters sitting in the back seat. The letters! He slid to a stop and grabbed the handle. It was locked. Mitch threw himself over the hood to the driver's door which was open. Halfway into the car he grabbed the keys and turned hard, his left foot reaching the clutch. It barely cranked. God, let this thing start! Mitch was screaming in his head.
The motor flew around and fired up. Mitch slammed it in reverse, ripping the jumper cables off his battery with a pop. Four seconds and a hundred yards later the water truck went up in a massive fire ball. Mitch was looking over his shoulder the other direction which was a good thing. The indirect flash reflecting off the limestone and granite around him was still bright enough to sear green spots onto his retinas.
Then the pressure wave hit. His little car was instantly accelerated and lifted off the ground for a moment. It crashed back down and spun to a halt.
Mitch jumped out of the car, blinking hard. It was still hard to see through the spots. The service shed off to his right and fifty yards back was gone. Rock and lumber was scattered his direction.
"JIM!!" Mitch shouted as he ran back. He could feel the heat of the fireball burning his left cheek. Flaming debris and hot metal were beginning to rain down all around him. He had to get to Jim.
"JIM!!" he continued to scream as he threw boards aside. Two minutes of stumbling from pile to pile yielded no sign of his friend. He was reaching for the last pile next to the foundation of the shed when two strong arms grabbed Mitch from behind. It was one of the grounds keepers.
"Hold on! Are you OK?" said the man.
Mitch shook off the arms and marched forward. "I've got to find Jim!" He continued to cry out.
Pipes and equipment were spilling off the foundation. Mitch grabbed at pieces madly and hurled them away. Together the two searchers lifted a crumpled pressure tank. Mitch saw the upturned palm of a hand. He renewed his digging and throwing with a vengeance. The other grounds keepers arrived to lift the last big pieces of debris. Mitch dropped down to his knees. Jim's face was ashen. Bits of gravel and mortar were visible in his open mouth. He wasn't breathing. Blood was visible along his hairline.
Mitch sat back on his heels and pulled his head down with his fists. He groaned. The other men were now on their knees trying to resuscitate the man.
"Did you call 911?" a voice asked.
"Yes, they're on their way."
"Do you know CPR?"
"I do," came the third voice, an older one. "You breathe when I tell you. I'll pump."
"What happened?" asked the first voice. The others were too busy keeping Jim's heart moving to answer.
Why, God? Why is this happening? Mitch was rocking on his knees. His ears were rushing. Jim hasn't done anything wrong. He's got a family. God, please let him live!
"Whoah!" said the first voice. "I think we've got something."
A moment later, a hand grabbed Mitch by the knee. He stopped his rocking. It was Jim. Color was coming back to his skin. His body heaved with a wracking, gritty cough.
He didn't let go his grip on Mitch. Mitch suddenly felt very much alive with Jim clinging to him for his. He clasped that hand with his own.
More sirens. Voices, officers, paramedics. The whooshing sound of fire trucks putting out hot spots. Mitch stayed right where he was, his hand gripped tightly by the beefy paw of Jim Hughes. Before the oxygen mask was slipped over his face, Jim leaned toward Mitch and whispered.
"You saved my life, old buddy. I owe you one."
Jim released his grip and was wheeled to the ambulance.


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