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Santa Cruz, September 12
The singing was back.
Rudi Lauchman paused on the sidewalk, trying to isolate the precise source of the sound. The voice was soft, melodic. He couldn't make out any words. It was more like humming, vaguely choral. And not, he felt reasonably sure, coming from inside his head.
He had been hearing the voice around town, off and on, for a week. Close to the Cafe Pergolesi one day, the library the next. Elusive. More imagined than real.
This time it seemed to be coming from a recessed doorway partly concealed by a juniper bush dotted with small blue-purple berries. A FOR LEASE sign hung in one window of the small office building.
Rudi found himself standing next to it, his hands thrust into his pockets, unable to remember how he got there. He couldn't recall turning onto the walkway, or making his way up the path. Another lapse.
He shut his eyes. He'd heard the song before, he was sure of it. Church, possibly. But maybe not. He got confused. Sometimes, voices didn't match faces. He heard one person talking and saw another.
The music could be the accident talking . . . his old lifebefore the crashbleeding into this one. But this song wasn't the one he was running from. This full-bodied contralto was different from the sinuous soprano that slithered into his head and spoke to him in a flicking, unintelligible whisper, raspy as scales against dry grass.
The singing stopped. Rudi opened his eyes.
"What are you doing here? Peeping on me?" A large woman with a metal cane and a blue knitted cap stood in the doorway. She glared at Rudi with bloodshot eyes before cutting a glance at his hands. Rudi jerked his hands from his pockets. "I wasn't"
The woman sniffed. "Why don't you play with yourself someplace else? Before I call the cops." Rudi adjusted his baseball cap, careful not to disturb the lining. In the doorway behind her, he could make out a shopping cart, blanket, and scuffed black boom box. "I heard you singing. That's all." The woman leaned forward, her forehead creased by a frown. "What have you got under there? Reynolds Wrap?"
"You've been drinking," Rudi said. His scalp prickled.
The woman chuckled. Her shoulders rocked like two sofa cushions jiggling in an earthquake. "Not enough."
"I've been hearing you a lot. Do you always sing when you're drunk?"
"Singing's cheap. It don't cost nothin'. Which is exactly what I got right now. In case you were wondering."
"Except for a broken heart," he said. "Or an empty soul."
The crease in the woman's brow deepened briefly, then relaxed, as if overcome by sudden weariness. "You're crazy," she said.
"Rudi." He held out his hand, then snatched it back when it looked like she might whack it with the cane.
"Get a move on. Before you get any wrong ideas." She wavered, eerily insubstantial despite her size. "You hear?"
Rudi tilted his head. Barely audible music from the boom box scratched at the air. The woman followed his lopsided gaze. "Aretha," she said. " 'This Bitter Earth.' Now, leave me be." She shifted her weight. "My knees are givin' me hell."
"I have a radio show," Rudi said. "I play music sometimes and talk about stuff. I always do one Sunday mornings." He told her the A.M. frequency. "It's for people who can't make it to church."
"I'll be sure to listen. Now get outta here." She waved him on with the cane then hobbled into the shadows of her makeshift cave.
The next morning, at six-thirty, Rudi was transmitting from behind the Safeway on Mission Street.
Radio Baptiste. That was how he thought of himself: baptizing anyone who would listen with radio waves instead of water.
Sitting at the console in the back of the sound van, Rudi's skull felt like a pressure cooker ready to explode. He'd kicked off the hour-long program, The Rod of God, with a classic Greg Brown tune, "Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart." It had been a favorite of his before the motorcycle accident, and like everything else associated with his old life he kept it around as a reminder of history not to repeat. From whiskey and bare-naked women, he launched into a rambling sermon that equated faith to the sound of one hand clapping.
"Belief can't be explained," Rudi said, winding down. "You don't have to see the tree to hear the sound it makes when it falls."
That was what he clung to since being released from the Lakeshore Foundation facility in Birmingham. Back in the apartment he'd been renting before the accident, he had found several joss sticks that had once belonged to his sister, a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and a book called The Blue Cliff Record, with the Zen koans circled like points on a map he couldn't remember. Linnea. He hadn't thought about her for years. That part of his life was like an old well sitting in the back of his head. One misstep, and he'd fall in. Never see light again.
As usual, he wrapped up with a confessional, beamed out to the world via the dish atop the van.
"My mother knew I was a worthless sinner the day I was born." Rudi cleared his throat. "She said she could tell from the way I whined. I wasn't like my big sister. When I heard that, all I wanted to do was crawl back into the hole that spat me out. Not that she'd ever take me back. According to her, after all the problems I caused her those first nine months, she was glad to get rid of me. Her only regret was she didn't do it sooner."
The words, close to fifteen years old now, still hurt to repeat. But pain, as he'd reminded his listeners many times, could be a blessing. Lance a boil and it would heal. Exhausted, his face sweaty and his hands shaking, Rudi slumped into the wrinkled bosom of the sleeping bag in the back corner of the van.
He woke two hours later, roused by a heavy-fisted thrombosis of sound. Someone hammering on the back of the van. His brain felt pureed, Gerber baby food in a cracked jar. Drained, empty of the euphoria that gripped him during a broadcast, he sat up and pressed his fingers to his temples.
Food. That was what he needed.
He checked the time. Just after nine. Maybe the woman he'd met would be at the soup kitchen. Maybe she'd listened to his broadcast. Maybe the radio waves had washed over her like the waves of the River Jordan, leaching the hurt from her heart and the alcohol from her veins.
Rudi opened the back doors to the van and staggered out. The coastal fog was burning off, retreating under an unfocused sun. Mottled patches of melanoma blue shone through the haze. Rudi squinted at himself in the passenger's side mirror. He needed a shave and haircut. He ran his fingers through the lank strands plastered to his forehead, smoothing them into place. His eyes were red-rimmed around glossy black pupils. This morning they seemed to radiate as much light as they let in.
Turning from his reflection, his gaze skittered across the rust-scabbed side of the van. Despite several glossy applications of white enamel spray paint, a school of Jesus Saves fish with crosses for eyes, and a three-foot gash left by Hurricane Anika, the van's corporate logo was still barely visible:
The outline of the letters, tintype gray under the patchy paint, resurrected the dusty memory of a Greek bas-relief he'd seen during a fifth-grade field trip to a museum.
Rudi didn't think of the van as stolen. More like borrowed . . . or on temporary loan. He'd refused to hole up with his traveling companions when the hurricane hit and they'd opted to wait for the storm to abate before continuing on to Mobile. After they'd hunkered down in a cable-ready Pascagoula motel, playing it safe, he'd decided to go on without them.
"I'll be back in a day or two," he said before leaving.
"You're crazy." Bethel eyed the low-slung clouds and the apoplectic thrashing of sycamore trees. "You're gonna die."
"If that's God's will."
"Suicide is a sin," Travis had reminded him.
"Not if it's in the service of the Lord," Rudi quipped with blithe, practiced fatalism. Besides, he suspected they had an ulterior motive for wanting to spend the night in a motel. He didn't want any part of it.
In the days leading up to landfall, the Scion of Adam congregation had decided to dispatch the sound van from Prattville, Alabama, to Mobile and vicinity. The little strip mall church rented the van on weekends to spread the Gospel to people who couldn't make it into town for services. With the storm coming, they wanted to be there on the front lines when it hit.
"Eye of the devil," Bethel had said when the hurricane was still a couple of hundred miles offshore.
"That's right." Jim Odette's head bobbed as if attached to a spring. "People are gonna need hope. They're gonna need to hear the Lord is with them."
"Amen," Marilee Odette echoed. "If things get as bad as they say, we've got a duty to help lift them up."
On the drive down, along I-65, Rudi had been consumed with thoughts of Ezekiel; of dead bones rising up out of the earth, coming together, and putting on flesh. He kept his Bible on the seat next to him, within easy reach, and vowed to do whatever it took to make that happen. People would hear the Scripture, and if their spirit was broken it would be mended. If their bodies were injured, they would be healed. If their hope was spent, it would be replenished.
In retrospect, zeal had gotten the best of him. Proverbs warned that "pride goeth before destruction." There was too much fury, during the storm and after, to make it to ground zero. But at that point he was on a mission, stopped only when a wind-borne branch slammed into the thin shell of his van. For a second it was deja vu all over again. He had fishtailed off the asphalt, nearly plunging into a drainage ditch choked with water, clapboard siding, and a chicken coop deposited there by the category four winds.
He blacked out, then. Darkness claimed him, as it had after the motorcycle accident. He didn't remember hitting his head, but he must have. This time around he lost the rest of the day and a night. When he came to and could drive again, the road to Mobile was full of obstacles. In addition to a bone-crushing headache, he was hindered by debris, infrared-sniffing FEMA drones looking for stranded flood victims, and roadblocks. The police and National Guard refused to let anyone but relief and rescue workers into the city. The streets were swamped. Squeezed by the headache, pursued by the mosquito whine of the drones crisscrossing the sky, his vision blurred and finally his resolve.
So he'd gone on, out of the devastation, and kept going. The van was fully insured, covered against all damages including loss. That meant if it disappeared in the storm, if he disappeared, both of them could be written off.
He should have stopped, turned around, and gone back, but he didn't. The storm had done something to him, broken some fragile infrastructure. Layers of silt, which had settled under the calm currents of the church, stirred to life. His thoughts became muddy, his purpose less clear.
On the way out of town, he covered the license plates with mud and his head with aluminum foil so the rescue drones wouldn't spot him. Later, he switched the plates with plates from other dead vehicles. By the time he reached the West Coast, he had as many plates as there were major cities, and then some.
The soup kitchen was run out of the auditorium in a VFW building downtown. It opened at six each morning with the aroma of black coffee and oatmeal.
Rudi parked in the bank lot next door, tucked a wrinkled but clean white shirt into his tan corduroys, slipped on his blue polyester suit coat, and went to talk to Sister Daminca, who was ladling out bowls of warm oatmeal for distribution in the makeshift cafeteria.
"I met a woman last night," Rudi said.
"I'm not sure this is a conversation we should be having." Sister Daminca smiled. In jeans and a beige pullover sweater, she didn't fit his image of a nun. She wasn't old enough or plain enough, and she wore makeupa smidgen of eye shadow and pink lip gloss. Rudi tried not to hold her vanity, or her affiliation, against her. Underneath, she was a decent person.
Rudi picked up a ladle and described the woman. "I was wondering if you knew her."
"Sounds like Irene. But she hasn't been around in a while. Not for a few months. I kind of figured she'd moved on. You know, decided she needed a change of scenery or whatever. How did she look?"
"She threatened me with a cane."
Daminca puckered her lips. "Definitely Irene. Except for the cane. That's not a good sign."
"She'd been drinking."
Daminca's brow wrinkled. "Next time you see her, tell her I said hi."
Rudi nodded, his ladle poised over an empty bowl. "If there is a next time. I don't think we hit it off."
"The fact that she talked to you at all is a miracle. You must have done something right."
Rudi squirmed. He'd always felt more comfortable giving praise than accepting it. "All I did was listen."
"That's all any of us can do. Sometimes that's all it takes. After that it's in God's hands."
"Did you listen to me earlier?" he said.
Daminca looked at him, puzzled. "I'm listening to you now, Rudi."
"I was hoping she'd hear me. You know?"
"Sometimes it doesn't look like a person is listening, when they really are."
She spoke the words gingerly, careful to explain herself. It made him wonder who she was defendingherself, or Irene?
"We have to trust we're being heard," she went on. "The same way that we trust God to hear us."
"Or that God trusts us to hear Him," Rudi said.
Daminca smiled, her expression a jumble of agreement and relief. "Yes. It's important we don't give up or lose faithin God or in ourselves."
"I know." Rudi nodded. "But sometimes it's hard not to get discouraged."
"Don't worry." Daminca touched him lightly on the arm. "It will be okay."
"Irene. Or whatever else is upsetting you." Her hand retreated as she busied herself with the next bowl.
"I'm not upset. Just worried."
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Sister Daminca hesitated. "I mean . . . do you need anything?"
"You seem anxious."
Rudi could see it in her eyes. She wondered if he was strung out. "I didn't sleep very well last night," he said.
"If you do need anything, let me know. All right?"
Sister Daminca seemed expectant. She was like that, one of those people who needed to be needed.
"Promise?" Her voice prodded.
Rudi forced a nod. The back of his neck prickled under her ardent sincerity.