366. The End (Wednesday, August 23)
Tomorrow night, the moon will be full. Tonight, it’s casting enough light to help me see my way up the path from the bottom of the ravine to the hedge at the boundary of Dr. Goodleigh’s property.
The house is dark, of course. All the houses are dark. As far as I’ve been able to tell, most of the city is without power and will likely stay that way at least for a few days. The storm brought lots of trees down, and the power lines with them.
I pause at the edge of the yard to listen for any sound of conversation or music from a portable radio, but the hippie camp is totally still. I pass quietly through a little maze of kids in sleeping bags outside the big tent. My plan is to find Garrett without disturbing anyone else.
“Who’s there?” a girl’s voice asks as I approach the open flap of the tent. “Daniel? What are you doing?” It’s Claire. I can make out her features in the moonlight, and the face of Harley beside her in the sleeping bag.
“Shhhh. I just need to talk to Garrett. Don’t wake anyone.”
I step into the tent, careful not to bump into any of the army surplus cots that a few of the kids have set up. Garrett’s is closest to the flap. I touch his shoulder to wake him.
“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape,” he mutters in his sleep. “What?” He sits up. “What? Daniel? What?”
“Shhhh. Come with me. We need to talk.”
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Around 2:00, I’d guess. Get up.”
I lead back down the path, to the clearing in the ravine where we shared the joint with Melissa and Joan a few days ago. Claire follows us.
“Tamburlaine is gone,” I announce. “Maybe dead.”
I give them a moment to let the news sink in before narrating the events of yesterday afternoon and evening, how I heard the tornado pass over University Avenue, how I borrowed a handsaw from one of the neighbors to free my car, and then how I started back to the trailer, having failed to find the Ranger for Eccles.
That in itself was quite a journey, through fallen trees, fallen power lines, debris and wreckage on every stretch of road.
“The whole town’s a mess,” Garrett confirms. “We did some recon after the all-clear.”
Campground Road, when I finally reached it, was impassable, pines strewn everywhere. So I stopped in the parking lot of the snow cone shop – which is gone now, nothing left but the foundations – and went the rest of the way on foot, only to discover that most of the trailer park had been wiped out. Only the Widow’s trailer and the Duck’s old place remained standing.
“At the spot where mine had stood, there was . . . well, there was nothing. Cleared space. From the looks of the place, that trailer might never even have existed. Everything I owned – which, I admit, wasn’t much – is gone.”
Except for one thing. As I was poking around the nearby debris, I detected a particular odor, one I’ve grown accustomed to. I lifted up a chunk of drywall that was leaning against a toppled refrigerator and found Flop lying underneath it. She hissed at me. I carried her to the Widow’s trailer and closed her in for safety.
A short while passed with me exploring the wreckage, and then I heard voices in the woods. Orders being shouted, and responses repeatedly using the word “sir!” Troops. I ducked under cover, somehow managed to evade them, and headed back through the thickets to my car, leaving their shouts behind as they converged on the empty spot of Tamburlaine’s last suspected hideout.
“But there being no sign of him doesn’t mean he’s dead,” Garrett says. “Maybe he wasn’t inside when the storm hit. Maybe he’d already left. Maybe the Ranger had come for him while you were away.”
“Wait. There’s more. I was headed back into town when I saw him. The Ranger. Standing by the side of the road just shy of the overpass to highway 7, like he was waiting for me, like he somehow knew I’d be passing by.”
“Did you talk to him?” Claire asks.
“Indeed. I reported what I’d found – which was nothing – at the trailer. The Ranger seemed not the least bit perturbed by the news, as if he already knew where things stood . . . though I got the distinct impression that he hadn’t already seen it with his own eyes, that he hadn’t been there ahead of me.”
He’d then informed me that he was on his way out of town, but that he guessed he’d be back in spring. I wished him a safe journey and said I’d see him then. That’s when he gave me a look and said, “No, you won’t. It’s time for you to leave, too.”
“That’s all he said,” I tell Garrett and Claire now. “He turned and started walking away, but at that instant I knew he was right. I have to leave. There’s something waiting for me out on the road . . . some experience I’m supposed to have. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s big. And for that moment when I was looking into those eyes, I kept thinking the word ‘ancient, ancient, ancient.’ And I remembered something that he said to me once in the Grove.”
“We were talking about Citizen.”
“Your imaginary dog.”
“The Ranger could see him, even said that he’d been seeing Citizen for as long as he’d been paying visits to Oxford, upwards of 25 years. I said it couldn’t be the same dog, but he told me that some things in nature aren’t subject to the laws of time, and that Citizen was one of them.”
“And you think the Ranger is one, too,” Claire says. “You know, I’ve always had that feeling about him, too, that he’s impossibly old. And that I’ve seen him somewhere before, in a book I read when I was a kid.”
“Same here,” I agree. “I have exactly the same feeling. There are mysteries out there, big mysteries that a body isn’t going to encounter by staying in one place. That’s why I have to leave. Hell, I’m dead. I have no identity. What’s keeping me here? Nothing. And besides, I think my leaving now might help somebody.”
“Thought you said Tamburlaine was dead.”
“He might be. Or he might have escaped during the chaos of the storm. Maybe that had been the Ranger’s plan all along. Maybe he even created the storm. Sounds far-fetched, I know.”
“Sounds crazy,” Garrett says. “Are you sure something didn’t knock you upside the head when the tornado came?”
“But he’s gone. No body. The feds aren’t going to assume he died. They’ll keep looking for him. Everybody will. And if he’s alive, don’t you think he’s suffered enough from being a legend? Don’t you think he could use some help?”
“What kind of help are you suggesting?”
“A decoy. Me. Someone who should have been in that trailer when the tornado took it away. Somebody who left town in the dark hours of the following morning. Somebody who’s out there moving from place to place. Me.”
“A decoy,” Garrett repeats. “Intriguing.”
“That’s the end of your story for the first issue of the Free Press. Your final interview with Tamburlaine after he eluded them under cover of a storm, spoke to you, and was last seen headed east. I’ll be Tamburlaine for a while. I have nothing better to do. And maybe some day in the future, when I get tired of it, I’ll find someone else willing to take the identity on.”
“But where will you go, Tommy?” Garrett asks. Why is he calling me ‘Tommy’?
“I’m thinking Tatyana’s farm. She’d let me stay as long as I need. I’d have a chance to rest up, and plot my next move.”
Garrett’s voice has taken on the wavering tone of a querulous old woman. “But how am I gonna’ know about you, Tommy? Why, they could kill you and I’d never know. They could hurt you. How am I gonna’ know?”
I recognize it. That’s a line delivered by Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
Garrett and I watched it with bunch of guys one night in Garland Hall, a late movie on one of the Memphis channels. John Ford directed. 1940. 20th Century Fox. Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine.
I answer in the closest impersonation of Henry Fonda I can muster: “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when the people are eating the stuff they raise and living in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”
“I have no idea what you boys are talking about.” Claire steps forward and gives me a rough hug. “Come back and see us sometimes. Come back safe. Do you want us to tell anyone where you’ve gone?”
“Keep it among friends. Dr. Goodleigh. Joan and Blake. Cindy, Andrew, Nick, Suzie. Melissa, if anyone happens to write. Becky when she gets back. The people who need to know. But no bastards. You can tell your new boyfriend, though.”
She pushes me away with a grunt and a laugh. Garrett and I shake hands. There’s nothing more needs to be said. I walk away, on a path that leads back to where I left my car parked on Old Taylor Road. But a sudden impulse makes me turn around. They’re still in the clearing, watching me leave.
“Just once more,” I say to Garrett. “For old time’s sake.”
Garrett obliges. He falls to his knees, pounds the ground and shouts, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
I remember the frequency from my last trip through this part of the country. I set the radio dial upon crossing the Georgia border, relieved to put Alabama behind me. I’ll be snipping through a little northwest corner of the state. Chattanooga lies ahead.
The signal is weak at first, a few lyrics from “Heart of Gold” and “It’s Your Thing” sandwiched between layers of static. Then a voice I recognize even through the disruption: the Mad Deejay coming through stronger now, talking about dinosaur tracks being found in the Amazon rainforests, the kidnapping of Aimee Semple McPherson, toxic tomatoes being shipped to American markets from Canada, the Freemasons’ involvement in the deliberate sinking of the Titanic, green M&Ms, the Rapture, using Coke during sex as a spermicide, and a Nazi-era moon base discovered by the Apollo 14 astronauts.
“Enough talk! More music!” he declares.
“Whole Lotta Love,” begins, followed by “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Can’t Get Next to You,” “Spirit in the Sky,” “So Far Away,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Lola,” “War,” “Hey, Jude,” “Bang a Gong,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Dock of the Bay,” “Horse with No Name,” “Levon,” “Space Oddity,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Fire and Rain,” “Touch Me,” “Time of the Season,” “Everyday People,” “Piece of My Heart,” “The Weight,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Ohio,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“This is day 367 of my takeover of these airwaves, loyal listeners,” the Mad DeeJay says. “Listen up, all you freaks and revolutionaries! All you hippies, heads, pot heads, acid heads, and coke heads. All you peaceniks, beatniks, flower children, artful dodgers, radicals, dropouts, kooks, loners, and weirdoes. All you heretics, infidels, dissenters, agitators, instigators, provocateurs, rabble rousers, hotheads, fanatics, firebrands, propagandists, pushers, anarchists, troublemakers, malcontents, zealots, demonstrators, guerillas, queers, and rebels. The day is not lost. The struggle continues. And as always, that last block of songs goes out to Tamburlaine. Where are you, man? We need you!”
“Right here,” I answer. “Just keep the faith, man, and keep on rocking.”