Crossing Trails, Kansas
Ted Day turned the key in the ignition of the old silver and black Winnebago 32RQ Chieftain. The battery was strong. The worn and rusted engine sputtered and hesitated but, after several cranks, started. This ruined the first excuse that had crossed Ted’s mind. After the engine smoothed out, he climbed down out of the cab and faced the crustiest old man he would ever love. His grandpa, Wild Bill Raines, was proudly smiling from the perch of his mechanized scooter. “Like I said, she always starts.” Grandpa Raines pointed to the highway that flanked the north edge of Crossing Trails, Kansas. “Take her to Colorado, California, the Rockies.” As if the advice came from personal experience, he added, “It’ll do you good to get the hell out of Crossing Trails.” His voice softened. “Ted, you need to enjoy life. I can cover your office for a few weeks.” Ted cocked his head to the right, so Grandpa Raines got out ahead of his skepticism. “I ran that law office for sixty years. I’m betting I can cover it for another week or two.”
Ted couldn’t help sounding annoyed. “Grandpa, you can’t drive. Remember?”
“To hell with them! I’ll be dead and buried before any man in this county can take me to court.”
“Grandpa, this isn’t New York City. Crossing Trails only has two cops and you’re the only guy in town driving a 1982 Cadillac on a suspended license.” Ted moved his hands through the air like a fish swimming in the sea and added, “With a personalized license plate, shark. What do you think? You’re going to take that case to the Supreme Court?”
“Logistics. That’s all it is. We’ll work it out.” Grandpa Raines rapped his knuckles on his scooter’s chrome wheel guard to distract Ted from his train of thought. “One day you’ll be old too. It happens faster than you think. When it does, you’ll look back and wonder if you lived your life right. Don’t wait until you’re an old fart to slow down and set your course straight.” He pointed his cane at the side of his cherished RV. “Being on the road allows you to clear your head and set your priorities.”
Ted had no interest in spending his little vacation time sequestered in a tin house on four wheels. “Road trips sound good in theory, Grandpa, but in practice they’re not that fun. I don’t like to drive and I get carsick. The interstates are a breeding ground for strange people and awful food.”
“Ted, you’re sounding wimpy. Just take the back roads and cook your own chow.”
Deciding that the argument would go nowhere, Ted capitulated. “Okay, Grandpa, I’ll think about it.”
“Do you realize that since you came to work for me five years ago, you’ve barely left the office? A good-looking kid like you should be enjoying life.”
“Grandpa, I enjoy working. I don’t need any time off. Not now, when I’m trying to get established.”
Grandpa Raines inched the scooter half a foot closer, leaving Ted no escape route. He looked hard at his grandson. “I gave you my law practice. I didn’t sell it to you. Do you know why?”
Ted shrugged. “Because you’re generous?”
“Nope. I’m not that generous. I gave it to you because that’s what it’s worth. Nothing.”
Ted tried to straighten him out. “Grandpa, there are a lot of people in Crossing Trails that would line up to make the living we’ve made from that practice.”
“Sure, Ted, it’s a good practice. But the problem, as I see it, is that you’re not building much of a life to go with it. That’s why that little blonde girl left you last year.”
Ted tried to track his point. “You mean Lisa, my wife?”
Grandpa Raines nodded.
This one still hurt.
Ted told his grandfather the same story he had been telling himself. “Lisa left me for Thor, Grandpa. He was tall, blond, handsome, and rich. If he’d asked me, I’d have left too.”
Wild Bill Raines pointed in the direction of his modest house and the old blue Cadillac sedan that squatted on the far left side of the driveway like an overgrown juniper bush. “You need to find a woman, a better one this time, get married, start a family, and be more involved in the community. If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up like me—a grumpy old man, left all alone. Is that what you want?”
“I could do worse.”
“I’m proud of you, Grandpa.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be.” He looked in the direction of the cemetery where so many of his family members were laid to rest, and his voice became distant. “The wind will sweep over my grave just like it sweeps over the rest. I’m not sure my life has made much of a difference, one way or another.”
Ted rested his hand on his grandfather’s bony shoulder. “Your life meant a lot to Grandma, Mom, and . . .” He had never said it before, but not because he didn’t mean it. “And to me too.”
The distance that had separated Ted and his grandfather over the last few years collapsed for a few silent seconds. The wind rattled the drought-damaged leaves and pushed dust across the county highway. Wild Bill Raines waited for whatever it was that was transpiring between them to pass. When it had, he picked through his thoughts and focused on what was most important. “Ted, happiness is not found in law books or knocking yourself out writing briefs. You have to find what is important to you beyond your work.”
The idea of finding a hobby or a cause settled poorly. “Grandpa, I’m doing what I want to do.”
“You may need to try harder. For starters, you need people in your life to make you happy.”
“I’m not ready for another wife. Lisa wore me out. My dog, Argo, is a great companion. I deal with people all day long. I like my time alone in the evenings and on weekends.”
“Ted, you’re wrong. Clients aren’t enough. You know that. I want you to realize the best life possible. You had better pull your head out of the sand and take a good hard look, before it’s too late.”
“I’m only thirty. I’ve got a few more years.”
His grandfather’s steely blue eyes seemed to pierce him. Grandpa Raines cranked the hand control on his geriatric go-cart and spun to the right. “If that’s what suits you, fine, stay here in Crossing Trails with your nose buried in books. Work night and day. It’s your life to squander.”
“I don’t think I’m squandering my life, Grandpa. I just don’t want to take a vacation in your RV. That’s all.”
His grandfather spun the scooter and, without looking back, spoke over his shoulder. “Have it your way.”
Ted took a few steps after his grandfather. “Okay, Grandpa. You win. I’ll close the office, sell my house, and leave in the morning to find what’s missing from my life. You take the criminal docket and I’ll ask Argo, the Wonder Dog, to handle the divorce cases.”
Grandpa Raines looked up to the cloudless blue sky that spread over the prairie like an endless sea. He realized he had pushed his grandson a bit too far. “You don’t actually understand what this is about, do you, Ted?”
Ted just shook his head, stared at the aged RV, and opened up to the possibility. “Grandpa, even if I could go, do you really think the Chieftain would hold up for one more road trip?”
“Of course she will. Besides, where’s your sense of adventure?”
Ted let out a long, slow breath and wondered if his grandfather was right. He allowed his attitude to shift even further. “Maybe in September, when the heat has passed, Argo and I will take a trip to New Mexico. I’ve always wanted to go.”
“She’s all tuned up and ready. Put that two weeks on your calendar now; otherwise, it’ll never happen.” The electric scooter brought him a few feet closer to his house before he stopped and added over his shoulder, “Now you’re on the right track—aiming for a good life and not just hoping you’ll bump into it while strolling down Main Street. Good boy.”
Ted walked to his car. “Thanks for the talk, Grandpa. I’ll come by and see you tomorrow. Right after lunch.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Grandpa Raines went inside, put on his red corduroy slippers, and settled into his recliner. Even though most things on it either confused or disgusted him, he never missed the evening news.
Around seven o’clock he fell asleep. He dreamed about a murder trial, one early in his long career, back in the 1960s. It was one of his first big homicide cases. The defendant, a woman, looked different from how he remembered. He argued passionately for self-defense. While the jury was deliberating, he woke up. It was late, already ten fifteen. Feeling tired, he went straight to bed.
The next afternoon, when Ted came by for his lunch-hour visit, he found his grandfather still in bed, resting peacefully in his pajamas and reading the Wall Street Journal. He told Ted he didn’t feel well.
Late in the afternoon, when the fatigue still had not lifted, Ted took his grandfather to see the doctor.
Two days later, Wild Bill Raines passed away in his sleep, proving that even a big heart can fail. He left his small ranch-style house, the blue 1982 Cadillac, the Winnebago Chieftain, and his Merrill Lynch brokerage account—with over four million dollars’ worth of investments astutely made over the last sixty years—to his only grandchild, Ted Day.
On Friday afternoon, July 20, Ted stood with nearly half the town of Crossing Trails at the graveside funeral. They came over one by one with tears in their eyes, shook Ted’s hand, and recounted their personal struggles. Each story ended the same: somehow, his grandfather helped them to find a way out. While he was appreciated by all, there were also a few behind-the-back whispers: “You know, there’s a reason why they called him ‘the Shark.’ ”
After they had told their stories and gone home, Ted leaned against an old tree and looked out over the freshly turned topsoil. He felt tears on his face. Now it was just him and Argo.
Soon Ted’s back hurt from standing so long. He knew, too, that he needed to go to work. Calls were piling up. He walked to the old Cadillac, which he had been driving the last few days, and gripped the handle. As he pulled open the door, he paused and whispered, “Good-bye, Wild Bill. Your life mattered, and thank you for sharing it with me.”
When he returned to the cemetery five months later, his gratitude had extended further. Much further.
Angel Two Sparrow
Near the Lakota Sioux Reservation, South Dakota
In early June, Angel Two Sparrow sat outside in the shade of the porch and played the old Gibson her mother had given her just before she died. Larsen sat down beside his young, tall daughter and did his best to sing along in his crackling, cigarette-roughened baritone. As usual, Angel was wearing her hippie clothes. Her long black hair was pulled behind her head and clumsily tied with a piece of hemp rope left over from some half-finished art project.
When they finished playing Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,” she leaned her guitar against the trailer and said, “Let’s talk, Age?” Angel used the Lakota word for “father” at special moments like this when she was hoping to cajole Larsen.
To white ears, Larsen’s speech seemed unadorned. Almost flat. “Yes, let’s talk.”
“I would like to take a trip.”
“Where?” he asked.
“I’d like to take Bertha on the road to start my business. I’d be gone for a while. Maybe a year.”
“I’m a spiritual consultant.”
Larsen gave her a very troubled look. A stare, really. He appreciated that souls often need healing, but he doubted that his aunt’s retrofitted bookmobile, nicknamed Bertha, was the proper vehicle for Angel’s quest. “Why is this a good idea?”
“I had a vision.”
Larsen knew that Angel and her mother both believed that visions, more than DNA, were what made them real Lakota. He also suspected that they played the vision card when they wanted to manipulate him into doing something that he was not inclined to do. “Did this vision also tell you how you would pay for this journey?”
“No vision on that one, but I do have a business plan.”
“Explain, please.” Suspecting that Angel would need plenty of space to provide a rational explanation for this harebrained request, Larsen leaned far away from his daughter and waited for her response.
Angel was prepared. “Here is my plan, Age. I’ll take Bertha down to the shop and paint my logo on one side. On the other side I’ll paint my business card. I can make Bertha look catchy. You’ll see.” Angel held her hands up, middle fingers and thumbs touching. “Angel Two Sparrow, Native American spiritual consultant.” She returned her hands to her lap and continued, “Under that, I’ll put my phone number and say, ‘first ten minutes free.’ When she was finished, she looked at her father and asked, “What do you think?”
“I am not sure you want to know what I think.” Larsen operated under the theory that the females of the Two Sparrow family had something far more serious than visions to deal with. He believed their genomes were burdened by some loco gene. In his Aunt Lilly the gene expressed itself in reclusive, antisocial, and more recently even violent behaviors. For his wife, Angel’s mother, it was the alcoholism that had finally taken her life while Angel was still a teen. For Angel he was not yet sure, but he was suspicious of her restless need for adventure, obsessive soul-searching, and inability to remain employed. Angel seemed poorly equipped to walk in a concrete world where men and women show up at work on time.
“What is this logo thing you want to paint?” Larsen patiently inquired.
Angel rolled up her sleeve and proudly displayed the tattoo on her arm, which she had designed. It was a monkey swinging from a coconut tree. At the foot of the tree, a female swami meditated. “This one, Age.” She rolled her sleeve back down and explained, “I’ll put the Black Hills in the background.” Her still-youthful brown eyes shone excitedly from her fresh, un-made-up face.
Out of principle, Larsen tried to avoid looking at Angel’s tattoo. Lakota women should not have tattoos of monkeys in coconut trees. It was not a proper Indian tattoo. Angel’s mother had had a tattoo of a thunder buffalo on her right breast. That was a proper tattoo. Before the crazy gene had changed their lives, he had enjoyed resting his head on his wife’s chest while Angel suckled her. He could imagine the buffalo’s energy passing in this way to his daughter’s spirit. He was suspicious of the energy of monkeys in coconut trees.
"The author of A Dog Named Christmas and Christmas with Tucker takes a turn toward spiritual teaching in this new novel. Ted Day, a lonely and unfulfilled lawyer from a small town in Kansas decides to take a vacation in his grandfather's RV and is pulling into his first campsite when he hits the bookmobile driven by Angel Two Sparrow, an out-of-work Lakota Sioux who hit the road as a travelling spiritual consultant. After their collision, the two implausibly decide to get involved as teacher and student. Newly minted instructor Angel has a very specific course of study laid out and the reader follows along through her insights, many of which are contained in real-world texts that Kincaid frequently footnotes. Angel has a series of conveniently placed friends along the path of their quest; a Catholic priest, a Sufi Muslim, and a bicycle repairman well versed in Hinduism who all agree to act as advanced spiritual teachers for Ted. Although the bicycle repairman has his own footnote comparing him to a real spiritual author, the character also reads like a nod to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Readers in search of insights shared on a road trip would be well advised to pick up Pirsig's book instead. Agent: Jonathan Clements, Wheelhouse Literary. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.