Evening fell with a syrupy ease, bleeding off the heat of the day and singeing the edges of the world purple. The creatures of the night stirred in their hollows and set the cooling air aflame with sound and movement. Silhouetted against the twilight, Nathan spotted a lone bat setting forth to fill its belly with sweet nectar. As it passed overhead, he could sense its echoing call, tucked surreptitiously just below the range of human hearing. He yawned as the last drops of urine fell into the dirt at his feet.
Climbing the slight embankment back to his car, he ran the numbers for the umpteenth time – twenty-three days on the road, twenty-five dollars a day, plus five hundred bucks for food and gasoline and another thirty for every report he sent back in full. Lodging paid. A smarter man may walk away on the other side of the continent with more than a grand in his pocket and a fresh start. Nathan was going to limp into Los Angeles on fumes.
The engine was still popping and hissing under the hood when he reached the Ford. His father’s son, he lapped the vehicle, taking special care to lay a boot into each tire to check the pressure. The old beater had held up well, all things considered. At this thought, he rubbed the blistered skin on his right hand. She’d overheated somewhere outside Odessa and he hadn’t waited for the radiator to cool before opening the cap. He’d been lucky the resulting geyser didn’t catch him in the face. He leaned on the hood and enjoyed the warmth of it for a moment. Then, scanning the distance for the telltale glow of civilization, he piled back into his rig, kicked a soda can from underneath the brakes, and continued west.
Nathan drove through the night, the desert sliding by either side of him like the backgrounds of old-fashioned movies. He stopped twice for fuel and once to relieve himself by the roadside again. By the time he reached Lordsburg, the horizon was a threatening orange and his eyes burned with the strain of hours. He pulled off the highway and onto Main, praying that, despite the name, it was the kind of godless settlement that offered twenty-four-hour services and motels that didn’t ask for any kind of identification that wasn’t green. Instead, he passed a string of closed signs and dark windows, punctuated only by the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing. By the time he reached the far side of town, dawn had broken fully, along with his hopes at finding a bed to crawl into for the day.
He pulled into a driveway just before town petered out, drawing close behind the Buick parked there before shifting into reverse, intending to pull back onto the street and give the main drag another pass. But just as he began to crank the wheel, a light inside the house switched on and stole his attention for the briefest of moments. Behind him, a mailbox gave way under the chrome of his bumper.
“Shit!” he mumbled, surprising himself by speaking aloud for the first time in days.
He straightened out the wheel and pulled forward again, centering himself in the driveway for another attempt. But it was too late. On the porch, a man wrapped in flannel stood watching him his arms folded across his chest. Nathan hadn’t seen the door swing open and now risked causing a scene in a neighborhood that probably hadn’t seen one since FDR was in office. He weighed his options and then dropped the Ford into park.
Gravel crunched under his feet as he unfolded himself from behind the wheel and stepped into the morning. He eyed the man on the porch as he approached. He looked ancient, with a shock of white hair sticking up in every direction and no more than a hundred and ten pounds under his robe. He wore a scowl consistent with the hour and had stepped into worn cowboy boots that stood loosely around his calves. Noting the boots, Nathan slipped into a disarming twang.
“Say, sorry about that, old timer,” he drawled, “I seem to have clipped your mailbox.”
The man said nothing.
“I don’t suppose you could find it in your heart to forgive a weary traveler?”
Still nothing. The man’s eyes drilled into Nathan, peering past his grimy clothes and pockmarked skin, past the layers of fibrous tissue and sinew and straight through to his heart which beat ever-so-slightly quicker with every second that passed. Twice, he opened his mouth to speak again, but both times, the man’s silence stopped him cold. He took a running start at a third attempt, dropping the accent in the process.
“Look here, man…”
Nathan was struck dumb by the suddenness of the word.
“Coffee,” said the man, rocks in his voice, “Pour you a cup?”
Before he could answer, the man turned and entered the house, letting the screen door slam behind him on its loose hinges. Nathan understood the offer as both courtesy and invitation, knowing in his bones he was meant to follow. Cautiously, he stepped onto the paint-peeled stairs of the porch, each one groaning with his weight. Through the screen door, the house was dark, but a trail of yellow light milked from a kitchen off the hallway beyond. Cautiously, Nathan pulled at the rusted handle of the door and stepped inside.
He noticed the smell first – a competing mixture of stale dust and lemon furniture polish. His eyes, slow to adjust from the morning light, swam in darkness for a moment before landing on the hardwood flooring. It had been buffed to a dull sheen by the shuffling of tired feet. Along each wall, frames of all sizes hung in bunches, with only the odd few offering more than the grays and sepia tones of a forgotten time. Each cluster of photographs was distinct from the last; groups of children standing uncomfortably in starched collars and sleeves; thoroughbreds stretched to their full length as they crossed one ancient finish line or another; groups of men in uniform, tightly packed together in front of a ruined Europe. There was no pattern to be had, no reason for their collection. Nathan got the sense that even if he looked for him, the old man would not be found on those walls.
He drew closer to the lone source of light and heard the telltale clanking and scraping of a percolator being removed from the stove. As he moved into the doorframe to the kitchen, a rich aroma overtook the musty stagnancy at his back. He’d been living on truck stop coffee and air-sealed pastries for more than two weeks, and despite the aching fatigue of a night on the road, his body felt renewed at the smell alone. Two mugs were set up on the countertop. With maddening caution, the old man swung the enamel pot off its burner and slowly filled each cup to its brim. Nathan knew without asking that there would be no cream and no sugar, even if he had left room for either.
The old man gestured to a small table pushed against the wall. Two of its chairs were pulled out and the third was stacked with yellowing newspapers. He shuffled to the table and placed a cup in front of each open seat, and then turned toward Nathan, still in the threshold.
“You have to choose. Sit down.”
Nathan began to argue, but the warm, earthy smell left little room for debate. He moved around the old man and took a seat on the far side of the doorway. At this, the man shuffled to his left and took his own seat. He offered no permission other than a slight glance at the coffee in front of them. Taking his cue, Nathan reached for it and took a large swig, scalding himself in the process.
“Jesus Christ, that’s hot!” he spit.
Perhaps in reaction, the old man’s robe split lower across his grayed chest and Nathan spotted the crucifix around his neck. He offered his second apology of the morning.
“Sorry, I must be a little punch drunk from the ride in. I’ve been drinking scorched tar for a while. Not used to the good stuff, you know?”
The man nodded.
“Now about that mailbox…” started Nathan, “I intend to pay for the damage. I’ve got money.”
“No need,” said the old man, “You and I will put things right.”
His voice had lost some of its edge, but he remained stingy with his words.
“Well see here, I’m not the handiest guy in the world,” said Nathan, with a shrug of apology.
“We will put things right,” said the man again, and Nathan wondered if they were a part of the same conversation or if they were merely reading from different scripts on the same stage.
The man reached for his own coffee, using both hands to cradle it to his lips where he blew long, even streams of air across the top of it. Steam roiled in front of his face as Nathan studied him. The wrinkles in his face were long and deep and baked a rich brown from the New Mexico sun. His nose, long and thin, came to a bent point. A small triangle of skin was missing from his right nostril and a pale whisper of a scar trailed from its point. Set deep into his head, the man’s dark blue eyes never broke their connection with Nathan’s own. The steam ebbed and he took a sip.
“I’m not looking for any trouble here. Just tell me what I owe you,” said Nathan.
The man considered this as if it were a matter of great importance.
“Would twenty bucks…”
“I know why you’re here,” interrupted the man.
“Why I’m here? I was just turning around, trying to find someplace to sleep.”
“Nathaniel, I know why you’re here.”
Nathan’s blood ran cold and his mind raced. Law enforcement? Private investigator? The Baltimore crowd? He pushed back from the table and began to stand.
“Sit. You’re in no danger here.”
Nathan forced anger into his voice, but his legs sank back onto the chair.
“I don’t know what kind of angle you’re playing, guy, but you don’t know the first damn thing about me.”
The man’s persistent scowl slid into the slightest hint of a smirk.
“Never claimed to, son,” he said, “I’m only telling you what I know. And I know why you’re here.”
“Yeah?” Nathan snapped, “And why’s that? And while you’re at it, how the hell did you know my name?”
His demands pushed the corners of the man’s mouth wider. He took another sip and then nodded toward Nathan’s belt. Near the tail, the leather had been branded with a hot iron. Even after a few years of wear, his name stood out in sharp relief. He released the breath he was holding and his pulse slowed. The old man laughed for the first time.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s real funny, man. Giving a guy the creeps like that.”
The man shrugged and his smile faded somewhat.
“And I suppose you were having me on with that other business too,” Nathan said.
The severity returned to his face.
“No, sir. And it doesn’t have nothing to do with what’s in the trunk of that car either.”
Another chill wrapped itself around Nathan’s spine. Since signing off on the merchandise in Maryland, it had been smooth sailing the whole way. At times, he’d been so lost in thought behind the wheel that it was easy to pretend he was nothing more than a nocturnal tourist, seeing the country one mile at a time. He’d made it more than two thousand miles without even a second glance – past weigh stations and speed traps, through checkpoints and detours, and right under the nose of the goddamned Texas Rangers themselves – all for some codger with a twisted sense of humor to get wise.
“Drink your coffee.”
Another order, but with less edge this time. Nathan fought the instinct to bolt. Instead, he did as he was told. His scorched tongue flinched as he took a gulp.
“You know about Daniel, son?”
“The Daniel. The original.”
“Like from the Bible?”
Again, Nathan spied the cross around the man’s neck. Religion was a rare commodity where he was from, wasted only on the elderly and the foolish. A man didn’t get rich sitting in a pew. Still, Nathan had inherited the faith – or at least the guilt – of his people, and he knew enough to fake it when need be.
“That’s the guy who fought the lions, yeah?”
Another laugh broke the wrinkles of the man’s face.
“He didn’t fight those lions, but you’re on the right track.”
Nathan waited for him to continue, but the man only stared patiently. The urge to flee began to grow once again.
“Man, I don’t know what you think you know about me, but there’s nothing in that car but Hostess wrappers and cigarette butts. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to pay for your trouble and find a place to sleep.”
“Are you sure you’re awake, Nathaniel?” asked the man.
Nathan blinked, feeling the conversation slipping from underneath his feet. The man continued, ignoring Nathan’s confusion.
“See, Daniel had a gift. Well, I guess you could say he had many gifts, and lion taming wasn’t one of them. He was a traveler, like you. And like you, he was far away from home against his will. Exile – that’s what they call it. The Jews of Israel had been taken to Babylon, prisoners of the Great King himself. It is written that there was no kingdom as fearful and grand in all the world. You heard of the Hanging Gardens?”
“But the King, boy, did he have his troubles. Every night, he would gorge himself on the fruit of the land and the flesh of his herds. He would take any girl to his liking and bed her until his lust was satisfied. Emissaries would travel to him from every corner of the Earth and fold themselves prostrate in front of him. His empire crept ever wider and the riches in his vaults were matched only by the loyalty of his people.”
Nathan’s eyes slipped from the man’s, down into the murky depths of his coffee. He felt – not hypnotized – but lost in the man’s story. The sleep that had been so close as he drove was pushed from his mind and his limbs hummed with a strange energy.
“Still, the King’s heart was leaden with sorrow, and every night when his head hit his pillow, strange and terrible dreams filled his mind. One night, he resolved to bury these images under a veil of wine. He drank until his sweat ran purple with grape. He became legless and angry, so angry that he hurled curses upon all those who lined his halls. He struck his servants and overturned his altars, demanding that the Old Gods rid him of these nightmares.”
Somewhere near the bottom of Nathan’s cup, the scene played out as the man spoke, and the Great King raged among the swirling coffee grounds.
“Finally, exhausted and drunk, the King fell into bed and found himself in the sands of his kingdom. A hot wind blew dust around his ankles, and in front of him, a grand statue stood. It towered above the desert, a goliath of metal and stone. It’s head and face shone in the sunlight, glimmering in polished gold. The statue’s arms and chest were wrought of silver and perched on legs of brass. The King drew closer, and only then did he see the titan’s feet. For all its splendor, it stood on feet of clay and iron, laced with cracks and flaking in the wind. Then, there was a tremendous noise, and a stone from the heavens fell to earth and destroyed the statue. At this, the King awoke.”
So too, did Nathan, lifting his head for the first time since the story began. Across the table, the man tilted back what remained of his coffee and stood to refill his cup.
“That’s it?” asked Nathan, “That’s the nightmare?”
The man nodded, wiping a drop from the spout and placing the pot back in its place on the counter. He shuffled to the refrigerator then returned to the table with a bowl of cold melon.
“What’s that supposed to mean, then?” asked Nathan.
“What do you think it means, Nathaniel?”
Nathan thought about this for a moment. A memory became unstuck in his mind, his mother reading parables from the Bible and shouting their importance to all who would listen.
“Feet of clay,” he whispered.
The old man nodded.
“In the morning, the King sent word throughout the kingdom, summoning every wise man, magician, and sage to his court to interpret the dream. He called the captive Hebrews, too, since they were the cleverest of their people. Together, they gathered around him, knowing the penalty for their failure was death. But the great man refused to speak, waiting instead for the man among them who knew the source of his sorrow. They begged for their lives, screaming that it was an impossible task. But the King was unmoved.”
“They died?” asked Nathan.
“They might have,” said the man, “But Daniel had seen into the King’s heart and the dream came to him as well. He struck a bargain. He and the God of the Jews would unlock the mystery of the dream, but the price was mercy.”
By this point, light had filled the kitchen entirely from outside. A car passed on the street and a newspaper landed with a thud on the man’s porch. Nathan could feel the story coming to an end, but the thread was becoming messy and unwound. He gripped the table, willing it to anchor him to the moment.
“What did it mean? Why are you telling me this?” he demanded.
The old man took a piece of melon from the bowl and popped it into his mouth. A drop of juice escaped the corner of his lips. He said nothing.
“Why did you ask if I was awake?” asked Nathan, a terrible understanding slipping into his voice, “Am I dreaming?”
“We are all dreaming, Nathaniel.”
With this, his mind reeled backward – a silent movie unspooling in his lap. He had crossed a continent in the night, unseen and leaving a trail of wickedness behind him. He had made a deal to clear his debt and make a little extra in the process. He had gotten in too deep with the wrong people, funding his carelessness with lies and deceit. He had left his family in the lurch, walking away from a dying mother and a kid brother holding the bag. He had stepped into this life of his with feet of clay.
The old man took a final bite of melon and rose once again, returning it to the refrigerator and placing his mug in the sink. Turning, he passed Nathan and walked slowly into the hall. His heavy boots dragged along the wood, making a dull scraping sound with each step. He paused at some point, perhaps regarding one of the photographs framed under glass. Then, the scraping resumed, and the screen door slammed on its hinges. Outside, the Ford started up without much protest. At the table, Nathan’s coffee had run cold.
“Whose dream is this?” he shouted.
But the old man was already gone.