And I, stepping from this skin
                                                       Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces
                                                       Step up to you from the black car of Lethe,
                                                       Pure as a baby.

                                                               —Sylvia Plath, from “Getting There”

He came over the rise and he could see the town up ahead. The air was parched and gritty and in the waves of heat rising off the asphalt the image of the town wavered as if it might not be real. His legs were heavy from his journey, and even as close as he was he had to sit down and rest. He shuffled into the weedy culvert beside the road and lowered himself onto the bank of red dirt among the rocks and the desiccated weeds and sat and looked at the town. He had the faded photograph with him, about the only thing he had, and once again he took his wallet out of his coat pocket and opened the cracked leather carefully, as though it might crumble in his hands and the contents with it. He held the picture of the boy by the corner and looked at it for a long time. After a while, when he was rested, he put away the photograph and got up and went back into the road and walked on toward the town.
The road was red with clay that had fallen in clumps from the tracks of the earthmovers. The clay casts of the iron tracks had dried to pressed powder and most had been smashed by cars and the fine silt kicked up as the dry wind gusted and blew the red dust up into his nose and his eyes and he squinted into the dust and the glare and went on. He walked past a field that had been scraped bare by the yellow cats, where piles of raw lumber waited to be bolted onto the concrete foundations laid out in neat squares on the hard red dirt. There were a few men in the construction area and he watched them talking and gesturing to one another as he passed by on the road. He did not think any of them would know the boy.

        The road descended gradually out of the low hills over which he had walked and the town lay in the little valley, dark trees and red dirt and black roofs under the white sky. The wooden buildings sprawled out on either side of the highway shone in the midday glare, bleached white in the flat glare and the heat. Between the town and the raw-scraped plots where the new houses were being built there were fields planted in corn with dry and withered leaves drooping hopelessly around stunted ears. He wondered why the new houses were not being built closer to town in those poor fields. He walked along more slowly now and he thought he would get to the town soon but he did not and he stopped by the roadside again and rested under a weeping willow. The fine leaves of the long fernlike branches were dried and brown on the edges. When stirred by the draft of a passing truck, the leaves brushed his cheek but he did not move or push them away, only sat patiently and listened to their whispering and looked out through the shriveled veil and considered why none of this looked familiar to him when he thought it should, when all the way coming here he had thought it would.

        He sat under the willow for a long time, looking at the town and thinking about what he would do when he got there. He took the wallet out of his coat pocket again and looked at the black and white photograph of the boy with his dark hair cut short and neatly parted and combed and a serious look on his face, as though he had just hopped down from a 1950s barber chair and was looking into a mirror the barber was holding for him while he assessed whether the new haircut did justice to the image of himself that even as young as he was he already had firmly set in his mind. Many times since his journey began the man had looked at the picture and looked at the same time at his own face in the mirror. His hair was cut short like the boy’s, parted on the right side in a sharp line like the boy’s, and even though it was graying, there was still enough life in it that it could be the hair in the picture. His ears were bigger, but ears grew as you got older, so that didn’t mean anything. It was the eyes that made him feel that it was not him in the photograph: even taking into account his present circumstances, he did not think that the frightened and confused eyes that he saw in his own reflection in the glass ever could have held the quiet assurance of the eyes of the boy in the picture, the steady confidence without suggestion of either bashfulness or bravado, the look of a serious boy who knew he would amount to something someday.

        He turned the picture over. On the back of the heavy stock there was a sticky spot, like scotch tape might leave after it was pulled away, and some of the paper backing had been stripped off in a long sliver that cut through the printed name of the professional photographer who had taken the picture: John Robins, or Robinson, that was where the paper was missing, so it was hard to tell. Under the photographer’s name was the name of the town: Mosine, Georgia. That was Mosine down the road in the valley up ahead, shining in the afternoon heat.

        Through the shimmering willow branches he studied the town. It was an old town, no bigger than a village, and in the relentless heat it looked like it might have been abandoned, or should have been. He couldn’t see anyone walking in the street. Once in a while a car would come down the road and seem to float in the heat boiling up off the harddried land and dip into the swale and then rise up again as it neared the town and slipped into the shadows as though going into a cave, as though the town were an elaborate set and the shadows between the buildings were painted there and the car was going through a dark net and disappearing from his view as it emerged on the other side where the cameramen and director and other actors waited and someone said that would be all for the day.

        After a while he began to feel a little chilled sitting in the shade. He got up and parted the willow branches and went back out onto the road. The sun was lower in the sky and it shone hot on the right side of his face. The heat felt good. Even with the coat he was wearing, an old madras plaid sport coat, his body had so little fat that it did not seem to be able to retain heat. Like a lizard, he got cold as soon as he was out of direct sunlight. He came into town as the sun settled over the fields, still white-hot in the low sky. The sidewalk began just beyond the first dusty buildings and he went up on it and walked along past the storefronts. They weren’t much, tired little shops behind glass windows that needed cleaning, with signs taped on the inside saying help was wanted or what was on sale. There was a diner that was empty except for one old man who, as if sensing that he was being watched, turned on his stool and looked at the man for a moment and then turned away. He could not remember when he had last eaten; he was past hunger now. There was a chipped porcelain water fountain on one wall of a boarded-up movie theatre and he leaned over it and rested his weight on the bowl and sucked on the thin stream of tepid water.

        After he had walked the length of the town, at least so much of it as was laid out on the main road, he thought he must have missed the photographer’s shop, so he crossed to the other side of the street and started back through town again. There was a bench on the sidewalk outside a barbershop and he stopped and sat under the old-fashioned striped barber pole and looked at the picture again and at the name on the back. He had remembered it correctly: Robins or Robinson. He hadn’t seen a name like that on any of the storefronts. He did not put the photo back in the wallet. He held them both in his hands and put his hands in his lap on his gray cotton trousers. Between the lapels of his jacket his white shirt was bloused out over his sunken stomach. He could feel the fabric of the shirt sticking to his back from the mix of heat and sweat and he put his head back against the rough brick wall behind the bench and on the back of his head he felt the groove of a mortar joint and he let his head rest there and closed his eyes.

He woke with a start. He sat up straight and wiped the drool that he could feel had run down the side of his mouth as he had lain slumped to one side on the bench. The man who had shaken him awake was squatting before him on his haunches. He had on a white smock-like jacket, like a pharmacist might wear. The name “Noogie” was embroidered over the breast pocket in shiny black thread, the same black as the man’s eyes, which were studying him with a look of concern.
You okay, sir?

He just looked at him. The man had smooth olive skin and delicate features, like a woman, like an Oriental woman.

The man reached over and touched his hands, which were still holding the wallet. The man’s hands were small and as smooth as his face. The photo was gone. He thought the man must have taken it and he wondered why he would do that, what he would want with it, why he would want to take the last piece of himself he had.
Can I get you some water?
Where is it?
Just inside the shop. You wait—
The picture. Where is the picture?
He leaned forward and looked down at the sidewalk. He tried to get to his feet, but he did not think he could stand up, so he slid forward on the bench and let himself down onto the sidewalk on his knees. He looked up at the man in the white coat, who had stood up and stepped back.
You didn’t take it?
He could hear in his voice the beginnings of panic, and he did not want to panic, did not want the man in the white coat to know how desperate he felt. He put both hands down on the sidewalk and looked under the bench. The photograph was there, face-down on the cement, looking like any piece of litter. He retrieved it gingerly and looked at the face of the boy and blew on it and held it before him and looked at it while still on his knees before the bench with the man in the white coat standing over him.
The man was watching him. He tried to smile up at him but he could not. He put his hands on the bench to raise himself up, but he could not do that either. After a moment of trying to get up, he simply sat down on the sidewalk and leaned back against the seat of the bench and held the photograph in his hands in his lap. The man squatted before him. The way he did it, sitting back on his heels, made it seem like he was sitting down, like he would be comfortable like that for a long time.
Let me help you inside.
He raised his hand, the one that held the photograph, and then let it fall back into his lap again. He couldn’t keep sitting up. The edge of the bench seat was digging into his back and he was leaning on his free hand but it wasn’t strong enough to hold his weight. He lay down in front of the bench. He saw the man stand up and his legs and shoes move away but he could not see where he went. He closed his eyes. He could smell the dust on the ground and in the air and he could feel the coolness of the concrete on the side of his face and he thought that he would be okay if he could lie there for a little while, maybe sleep a little more.
He felt the hands on him, strong hands, turning him over, cradling his head. He opened his eyes and saw the woman’s huge, glistening black face and behind that the man in the white coat. She was studying him with a pinched expression that looked worried and kind at the same time. He felt something cold on his cheek and he turned his head toward it as she raised the glass and let the water dribble down his cheek and into the corner of his mouth. He swallowed some and a bit went down his windpipe and he coughed and sputtered and turned his face aside and waved weakly at the glass with his hand. She held his head in one hand and wiped the water from his cheek with the other.
We should call 911, the man in the white coat said.
The man raised his head, thinking he would sit up, but he could not. Seeing what he wanted, the woman wrapped her arms around him and sat him up. She was sitting on the sidewalk herself now, with him leaning back against her, and she reached around him and picked up the glass of water and raised it to his lips. He drank and stopped drinking and drank again. The woman’s body was soft and warm. He sat up on his own and turned his head enough to be able to see her face.
She nodded, watching him. He leaned back against the bench and she pulled her heavy legs up under her and leaned over and put one hand on the sidewalk and one on the edge of the bench and pushed herself up. The man in the white coat offered her his hand but she did not notice. She sat heavily on the bench. It scooted back under her weight. He pulled himself up onto the bench and sat beside her.
The man in the white coat stood watching them. Will you come inside?
I’m okay.
You don’t look so good, honey, the woman said.
I’m okay. I need to get something to eat, then I’ll be okay.
The woman laid her big black hand on his arm and squeezed gently and stood up.
You sit right here.
She looked at the man in the white coat and he nodded and she went down the sidewalk saying she had just what the doctor ordered and she would be right back and he should just wait right there. He watched her going down the sidewalk, stepping lightly for such a big woman, her ample rump dancing from side to side as if to a rumba beat.
Thank you for your kindness, he said to the man.
You don’t want me to call someone?
I’m fine.
He was still holding the photograph. He held it up to the man.
Do you know this boy?
The man sat beside him on the bench and touched the picture and with his look asked if he could hold it and took it and held it up in the light and studied it.
No. I’m sorry.
Jim Robbins, you know him?
He’s the one who took the picture. He showed the man the back of the photo. See? He’s got a studio here. You don’t know him?
He heard the woman coming down the sidewalk. Her stockings or panty hose were rubbing together, making a whispery sound; her footfall was so soft he would not have heard her if her big thighs had not been rubbing together. She was wiping her brow with one hand and carrying a tinfoil package in the other, holding it in her flat palm the way a waiter might serve a plate. When she came up to the bench and bent toward him he could see the sweat streaming down her face. She was smiling like she had won the lottery. She had big, beautiful white teeth and red lips and her eyes were black as a starling’s neck and had that same brightness, as though she might turn her face and look at you out of the corner of her eye and in the right light you might see in those black eyes the startling iridescence of that common little blackbird’s feathers.
She unwrapped her bundle and held it out to him. It was a big piece of fried chicken and a biscuit. He took the biscuit and took a bite. It was cold and dry and his mouth was dry. He chewed but the he could not work up enough saliva to swallow.
Do you have some more water? he asked the man.
The man went into the barbershop. The woman took his place on the bench. She was watching him chew the way a mother might watch a child eat. She glanced at the photograph in his lap. The man in the white coat returned with a small paper cup of water. He drank some. The woman had set the foil package on the bench between them and he could smell the rich fried smell of the chicken. He thought it might make him sick, but he was hungry and he could feel the tightening in his stomach and he picked up the piece of chicken and nibbled on the crunchy red crust and the dry white meat. He put the chicken back down and took another drink from the cup of water that the man was holding for him and took a bite of biscuit and then another bite of chicken.
They stayed with him while he ate, as though they had nothing else to do, as though getting some food in him was the most important thing in the world to them just then. In her black skirt and white blouse the woman was obviously dressed up for something, but she did not seem in a hurry to go back to whatever it was. No one came to the barbershop. When he had eaten and felt better and was sitting up straighter they seemed to feel better too. He wiped his mouth with his hand and folded the foil over the chicken bone. He picked up the photograph and showed it to the woman.
Do you know him?
He had noticed her glancing repeatedly at the picture while he was eating, and she seemed to have already made up her mind about the answer to his question.
I’m sorry, I don’t. Has he run off?
It’s an old photo. It was taken here. I thought he might be here in town. Or that the man who took the picture might know where he was.
Jim Robins, the man in the white coat said to the woman. You know any photographer named Jim Robins?
There’s not much work for a photographer around here, she said. Maybe years ago, but not now. There’s hardly even any children around to take pictures of. Is he your son?
He was studying the picture and he did not answer her. He stood up and asked where there was a trash can where he could throw away the chicken bone.
What’s his name, honey?
He heard the question but he could not summon the answer. He just stood there holding the foil-wrapped bone, digging a dirty fingernail into the package, looking down the sidewalk at the tired storefronts and beyond them to the fields where the dying sun was torching the withered cornstalks.

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