The U.S. of After Chapter 2
Not long after my grocery stop I decided that I would have to find a horse or somethin’. Walkin’ was a real chore. I had some pretty good shoes I found in an overturned truck, some Academy Sports and Outdoors specials, but I just got tired of walkin’ all the time. I had eaten all the food up at the last house I stayed in, gathered up a bunch of supplies (most of those gone now to thieves) and headed out to New Orleans. I had heard from some people ‘round a campfire a while back that there was a lot of food and water down there. I figured I could follow highway nine to a river and then follow that south. Didn’t have a map and didn’t know the lay of the land, so I was just a wingin’ it. Everythin’ was just so dangerous. All these people out here livin’ like animals. You couldn’t trust nobody.
Of course I prayed every day and hoped that Jesus would just protect me from all the dangerous stuff. I knew there weren’t no gettin’ out of it. Life on this earth was pretty bad. Life has always been pretty bad, but I manage to keep the faith. Dad used to have a lot a faith, even when he passed away in my arms from puffin’ on them cancer sticks. I wished Mom hadn’t gone off to Iowa to help Krissie with the kids when her husband went to the war. My sister and her kids were prolly fine without her. She just had to make sure. We hadn’t had any communication from that part of the country for some time after the big one. I just assumed my family was gone after that explosion over Des Moines. Had to get outta my apartment. I wouldn’t dare go back to Norman. Streets there were over-run with gangs. I decided to start fresh.
I’d hear lots of rumors about the state of things. Some sickness called Volos, the war, the quake. You kinda listen in when somebody ‘round a campfire somewhere “heard somethin’”. Most people were in the dark. I suppose they just went on like most people, tryin’ to find some way to get by. My neighbor, Bill, before he lit out for better places said that ever transformer in the country blew. I wasn’t sure how. I guess it meant we wouldn’t have the power back up forever. It had been nearly a year and no power, so why hope in somethin’ that may not happen? I had been livin’ like a nomad for a while. I’d decided to light out for better places in the hopes I could find my way down to New Orleans. Maybe Mom had survived and maybe I could find her. I didn’t hope in it. I was gettin’ pretty desperate.
It was hot. Some old timer whose name I forgot said one time that if you don’t like Oklahoma’s weather then wait a minute. I had been waitin’ for months but it was August and the summer sun beat down on me somethin’ fierce. It had been a scorcher of a summer already. Funny thing was that even the winters weren’t really cold anymore. I guess that was fine but it made for the strangest weather. I couldn’t remember the last time it really snowed.
I had shed my shirt even though there was that little bit of embarrassment left in my mind from the old world about my farmer tan. Who cares, right? It was just so hot and all.
That was the day I met Gabe.
I don’t think anyone will believe me about Gabe if I told the story right and true. I don’t think he has a last name. Never heard it and prolly couldn’t say it right if I did. I had crested the top of a hill on highway nine. There was a deep valley and then yet another hill. Central Oklahoma is like that; just one hill after another. I just remember lookin’ at the top of the other hill across the valley and one minute seein’ wavy lines of heat coming up off the blacktop and then in those wavy lines appeared a man. He was sorta bobbin’ toward me, his arms swingin’ loose, an old ball cap on his head, a full beard coverin’ his face. I could barely make out his clothin’ really, but it was all brown with dirt and grime. At first I thought I should get off the road and hide, but somethin’ told me not to. I quickly put on my shirt again.
The fella started to get closer, and as he did I noticed that he was lookin’ dead at me, his face a determined mask. I started to feel uncomfortable, started worryin’, and somethin’ in the back of my mind started clawin’ at the idea that I had made a mistake and I’d get myself robbed again. Well shoot. He could have whatever I had left. A half eaten can of beans wasn’t the best meal, and I would pray he got all kinds of stomach cramps from eating it all. I know that isn’t the Christian thing to think, but I was plum out of patience with thieves. I said a little prayer for patience just then, and it seemed that just a little talk with Jesus made it right.
He got closer, then he opened his mouth and smiled real big. His teeth was shiny white and he still had all of them. His eyes was kind of shaded by the dirty green ball cap that read “Go Bison”. That was powerful strange. He was close enough now to be heard, and said somethin’ really weird.
“Hello, Clayton,” he said, walkin’ forward, puttin’ out his hand like he knew me. I kind of got that feelin’ you get when a car salesman approaches you on a car lot right before December when they’re tryin’ to get rid of their inventory. I actually jumped a little and my arms swung backward.
“I’m Gabe,” he said. “You don’t have to be afraid. I don’t mean you any harm, really.”
I stood there lookin’ at him, nervously foldin’ my arms, tryin’ my best to stare him down and wonderin’ how on earth this dude knew my name. He just stood there smilin’, his dirty hand out ready for me to pump it as if this was some kinda normal situation. I didn’t know who he thought he was, unless the beard hid his identity from me. Coulda been my old English teacher Mr. Travis for all I knew. There was a time when I hated people, and Mr. Travis was one I hated the most.
“Really, Clayton,” he spoke softly now. “I don’t have much time. I’m here to give you a message and then be on my way.”
He pulled back his hand, looked at the palm briefly, backed up and stood about twelve paces or so away from me. The harsh sun shone down on us but just to spite it I could feel a slight breeze blow across my skin. It felt good. Gabe wasn’t sweatin’. It was hot as a coal stoked furnace and he wasn’t sweatin’.
“Look, dude,” I said, my words sputterin’ out of my mouth like an old engine missin’ a valve. “I-I don’t know how you know my name and all, but if this is some crazy trick to con me out of my food and supplies, then you got a fight on yer hands. I’m right near tired of havin’ all my stuff taken by vagrants.”
Gabe put up two remarkably dirty hands, palms toward me. I kind of flinched at how strangely quick he moved.
“Honestly, Mr. Delroy,” he said with a calm yet firm voice, a voice with a rich quality like James Earl Jones, but not in a bad Darth Vadery way. “I have simply come to give you a message from the Most High and then I will be off to other assignments.”
I think I laughed at him at that point. “Most High” to be sure. This dude was buzzin’ on some good stuff. If I were one of those spazoids that smoked that garbage I’d be puttin’ out my hand, but this was beyond weird, so I just stood there with my arms folded. The guy was sure serious, though.
“The Most High has seen your deeds and knows your faith is strong,” said Gabe, using his greasy hands for emphasis. “He has sent me to tell you that the battle will soon be over, but will intensify before it’s end. You are to go to Jerusalem and there you will find your purpose.”
I laughed again. “You mean to tell me you’re some kind of angel?”
“Yes,” said Gabe, his warm smile beamin’ at me. The guy’s face never changed, never flinched. He just stood there with that grin plastered on his face, but somethin’ in the eyes told me it was genuine. I could feel some strange electricity in the air like right before a lightnin’ strike.
I had one question:
“Where’s your wings, dude?”
He laughed out loud with that deep boomin’ voice and his face lit up like my Dad’s did that time I noodled that fifteen pound catfish.
“That is a common misconception,” he said with a smile, then he got all serious. “But I do not have time to talk about that. I have a specific mission. I am to tell you that you are to go to Jerusalem and all will be answered in due time.”
“Look, man. I’m not like a super-Christian or anythin’. I barely graduated high school and the best job I ever had was a bag boy at Country Boy grocery. Besides, how am I to know that you aren’t just some nut who’s got the munchies, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
Gabe stood still for a moment, shoved his hands in his pockets, grinned through his grizzled beard, and started to walk past me.
“I have not been authorized to do anything else but give you a message,” he said as he passed, and his voice was strangely calm. “It is your faith that will do the rest. The Most High is giving you a choice. He has seen your good works and knows that you are a man of righteousness, seen through the filtering curtain of the blood of Jesus. You will do well. Trust in Him. The road will be fraught with peril, and there will be hard things to face, but you will be rewarded in the end.”
I stood quietly in the middle of the highway right on the faded, cracked yellow line and watched as this Gabe character walked off over the hill. I waited until I saw his shaggy head disappear over the crest of it and get obscured again by the wavy lines of heat that rose up from the asphalt. I didn’t move. I just stared at those wavy lines and then decided I wanted more info, had to know if he was crazy or high or just plain mean. I figured this guy was a nut, but I hadn’t talked to anyone who wasn’t tryin’ to rob me in a while and the conversation was pretty entertainin’. At least he didn’t try to eat me. Been through that and that’s another story entirely.
I ran about ten feet over the hill after him, but stopped to see the road curvin’ ‘round toward the Lake Thunderbird dam and not a sign of Gabe at all, only the hot waves of heat ripplin’ off of the highway. Did he duck out and hide in the woods? Man, I was too tired to go runnin’ after him and I had to make it to a safer place.
That was just nuts… Jerusalem.
Last I heard there wasn’t nothin’ left of that place or anythin’ else in the Middle East after the war. Who knows. Maybe they would rebuild it. I laughed about it a little and kicked a rock down the highway in my original direction and followed it on my somewhat planned route to New Orleans.
Jerusalem. That’s a laugh.