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Summary: Georgia – December 1975.
The Invisible Dog
BA drove over the line into Georgia in a battered black Corvair, knowing he'd be crazy by the time they hit Atlanta. Maybe before that.
He'd been driving since two in the morning, and he was tired. Real tired. The sun was high overhead (blinding bright), and the car smelled like wet heat. Sweat and old smoke.
Murdock had been curled up on the seat beside him, singing odd, dark bits of Christmas carols under his breath, for the last three hours. "Deck the trees with blood and bodies." "God rest ye murdered villagers."
Billy sat between them.
Every few minutes, Murdock would pet the air. Offer his hand to be snuffled.
By the invisible dog.
BA stared out the dusty windshield. Jaw set.
He hated the dog. Everything, lately. But the dog was a sign of everything.
Hannibal coughed a little as he woke in the back seat. "Stop at the next one, Sergeant. We'll get some groceries, then I'll drive a while."
Face groaned. Stretched up into view in the rearview mirror. "Where are we?"
"Ten miles into Georgia," BA said.
Face nodded. Yawned.
Murdock cracked his window a little. Glanced back at Hannibal and Face, then over at BA (eyes dark and wide and wild). "I gotta walk Billy when we stop, too. If we got time…"
"Ain' no time for no dog that ain' there, you heah me, sucka?"
Murdock covered the ears of the (invisible) dog beside him and glared at BA. "Dashing through the jungle," he sang, "a full pack on my back…"
BA slammed on the brakes.
Face plunged forward against the seat in front of him, then fell back. Sighed. Loudly. "You guys are just a joy to wake up to, you know that?"
"Christmas carols are for Christmas," BA said. His fingers were clenched around the steering wheel.
"Can the antics, both of you." Hannibal ran his hands over his face. "Any sign, BA?"
BA shook his head. Slid (shifting through the gears) back up to fifty on the old country road. "Nuthin' since Greenville."
"Let me scam us a motel room, Hannibal," Face said.
"Maybe in Atlanta."
Murdock leaned his head against the car window and sang softly, "O little ville of Vietnam, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the DC-10s go by…"
BA watched Face in the rearview mirror, watching Murdock.
"We could use some rest, Hannibal," Face said.
"I know. But it's not going to be too restful if Lynch's goons catch up with us."
"Six miles to Abalard," BA said. The road sign was pocked with bullet holes.
Hannibal nodded. "Find us a little grocery store."
"Could we at least stop and sit down somewhere to eat?" Face asked.
Hannibal glanced up at BA, then back at Face.
Face frowned and looked out the window at the rolling fields of corn and cotton. Nodded.
BA leaned forward in his seat. His back was wet with sweat. Not even eleven, almost Christmas, and it was sweat-hot. Muggy.
Fifteen miles into Georgia and he hated it already.
Chicago was the place for Christmas. Lights and toys in the shop windows. Snow on the ground up to your knees. A tree so tall the angel at the top bent over to look at you. Painted glass ornaments alongside the homemade ones (clay and popsicle sticks and colored paper).
The inside of the car flashed with bright, white light and BA jerked out of memory and back into the present. A white square of photographic paper rolled out of Murdock's little Kodak Instamatic, and he grinned.
BA slammed on the brakes again. "Kill you, foo'!"
Face slammed into the back of his seat again, cursing.
Murdock scrambled over into the back seat, sprawling over Hannibal and Face, as BA grabbed at his feet, growling.
"Everybody out of the car!" Hannibal shouted.
They got out of the car.
Georgia smelled like fresh-tilled dirt. BA watched a tractor pull a disk over dry earth. A bird swoop down. Hannibal's back.
Thought about sneaking out of his bedroom on Christmas Eve to shake the presents and listen to the voices of the family in the next apartment through the wall. They had a piano and the mother would play Christmas carols and the Dad and the kids would sing. Joy to the World. Hark the Herald Angels Sing. For a long time, he'd thought Harold was the name of the Christmas angel, because of that song. But there wasn't any Harold.
Hannibal turned back toward them. "Face and Murdock in back. BA, up with me." He climbed into the driver's seat and started up the car.
They piled in.
Abalard was a two stop light town. Hannibal drove them slow down Magnolia and onto Main, past motley shacks and little white houses. Past a five and dime with "Merry Christmas" painted on the window. Past Garvey Hardware (the name handwritten on a crosscut saw hung over the door). A tavern. Half a dozen little shops, two of them boarded up.
They all slouched down a little (habit now), but eyes followed the black Corvair. Traced its twenty-five mile an hour progress through town.
The grocery store was just down from the gas station. Close enough to walk. Hannibal pulled in by the pumps and he and Face went after provisions.
Murdock whistled as he climbed out of the back seat. Untangled an (invisible) leash and let the (invisible) dog at the end of it tug him a few yards away from the car. Pulled the camera from his jacket pocket with one hand and took a picture of the (invisible) dog in front of the Abalard gas pump. Grinned a little. Dark grin.
BA growled in his throat and clenched his fists.
He tried to think about Mama saying grace over Christmas turkey and mashed potatoes. Red candle burning in the middle of the table. All the neighbors from the building who didn't have anybody gathered 'round. Even Mr. Wasserstein. He brought bread.
No one came out of the gas station, so BA went inside. He had $10 in his pocket, and $10 would fill the tank. A full tank would get them to Atlanta, and they could disappear in Atlanta. Hole up.
A bell jangled as he pushed the door open, but the four men sitting inside, playing cards, didn't turn around.
BA's jaw tightened.
He stepped in front of the register.
There were two calendars tacked up on the wall. One had a John Deere tractor on it and the other had a picture of a naked blonde woman sitting on a motorcycle. She was wearing a Santa hat. Half a lawn mower engine was spread out on the counter, all in pieces. Everything was covered with a light coat of dust.
The men didn't move. The only sound was the slow whir of a ceiling fan and the pht, pht as cards got laid down on the table.
BA turned away from the counter, toward the door. Reached for the knob.
"Don't serve niggers in Abalard. Got to go down t' Foster's Creek, 'fore they serve niggers, ain't that right, Rob?"
The bell on the door jangled as BA went out.
Everything was tight in him. Held in tight.
He wanted to put his fist through a wall or run twenty miles all up hill. Something. But Lynch was close and they didn't have time for trouble.
Everything was tight in him.
Murdock wasn't by the car. Wasn't in sight.
He started down the street.
One of the houses he passed had no lawn. Just bare dirt. Two rusted out Chevy pick-ups sat in the driveway of another.
Eyes followed him from behind curtains.
Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
Last thing, just before the sign that said "Leaving Abalard," was a church.
The church itself was small and kind of ragged looking. But its entire front yard was filled with a life-sized nativity. Smooth, carefully molded paper mache cows. Shepherds with crooks, painted so they could almost be real, if you saw them at dusk or from a ways away. An angel, suspended from a tree limb, hanging overhead.
Murdock was petting one of the sheep.
BA moved that way.
Tight. Teeth still clenched, two blocks later.
Murdock patted the sheep's head, then the air next to it. "Hey, mudsucka, come look see! Billy found a friend."
BA grabbed hold of the front of Murdock's jacket with both hands and pulled him in close. "There… ain'… no… dog," he hissed.
They were eye to eye. Murdock brought his hands up and rested them on BA's shoulders. "He's just invisible, big guy. Shouldn't hold that against 'im. I'd still be nice to you, if you were invisible." Murdock cocked his head to one side. Grinned a little.
The tightness inside BA eased. Like a balloon as all the helium whooshes out. He lowered Murdock down onto his feet.
"You okay, big guy?"
BA put his hands down. Shook his head, then nodded. "You always have been."
Murdock squinched up his eyes. "Have been what?"
BA smiled, suddenly. "Nice to me, crazyman. When you ain' bein' crazy."
Murdock looked down at his tennis shoes, then over at the paper mache sheep, grazing in the tall grass. "Ain't easy bein' anything else, lately."
A voice behind them sang, "Away in a manger, no motel or beds… BA and Murdock lay down their sweet heads…"
BA and Murdock turned as Face and Hannibal walked up to them. Face was grinning.
Hannibal groaned. "Don't you start, Lieutenant."
They all looked over at the church at the sound of the door opening. A man, gray bearded and heavy set, stepped out carrying a twelve gauge shotgun.
They all stiffened.
Hands hovered near waistbands.
"You didn't have any ill intentions toward my nativity scene, now, did y'all?" the man asked.
Hannibal took a step forward. "No, sir. Just admiring it as we passed through."
The man stared at them for a long moment, then nodded and dropped the weapon to his side. "That's all right, then. Had some trouble last year. An' trouble tends to make a man jumpy. We're down one wise man and a camel, you may have noticed. We don't get strangers much here in Abalard, either. Y'all want some coffee? Got some fresh made…"
"I think we'd best be moving on," Hannibal said. "But thanks anyhow."
Face patted BA's shoulder as he moved up beside Hannibal.
"Wait," BA said.
The others turned toward him.
BA pulled the camera out of the pocket of Murdock's jacket and handed it to the man. "Would you take a picture?"
The man smiled wide. "Prettiest thing in Abalard right now, this nativity. Peach trees in blossom beat it, but they don't come 'til spring." He looked the camera over carefully. Set his shot gun against a gray donkey. "All right, then. Everybody over by
Hannibal and Face exchanged glances, but moved over next to the paper mache family. BA and Murdock joined them.
"Closer in now, fellas. It's Christmas."
Murdock threw willing arms over BA and Face's shoulders and pulled them close. Hannibal put one foot (very carefully) up on the hay mow and rested his hand on Face's shoulder.
The camera flashed as the man clicked the picture, then whirred as the paper rolled out.
BA took the camera from him. Pulled out the picture. Handed the camera back to Murdock.
He looked at the white square for a moment, where their ghosts were just beginning to appear, then took a pen out of his pocket and wrote on the back. Stared at their pale shadows again, then handed the picture to the man.
"Would you…" he asked.
The man looked at the back of the picture, holding it out a little. "Eight – nine – seven – two East Lincoln, Chicago," he said. "Mrs. RM Baracas." He rubbed his hand over his mouth. "Wife or mother?"
"Mama," BA said. Glanced over at Hannibal. But Hannibal didn't say no.
"Isn't easy, being away from home this time of year," the man said. He gazed fondly at his little church (which badly needed paint) and the Nativity in front of it. "Sometimes home finds you, though." He picked up his shotgun and waved the picture in the air. "Don't you worry, young man. I'll make sure she gets it in time for Christmas."
The four men walked back to the car together, picked up some gas in Foster's Creek, and drove on toward Atlanta.
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