The Ghost of Mile 43

Chapter 1

His lawyer isn’t coming. He pretends to make a call and he pretends his call goes unanswered but he knows his lawyer won’t pick up. He makes them wait; the banker, the banker’s counsel. He shrugs, he says there must be some delay. The banker checks a watch and asks him to call again but he says just wait, just wait. 

Papers sit on the coffee table. A pen is laid across their top. He stares at the pages, unblinking for long minutes. 

“Any objection to me smoking?” 

The banker scoffs.

“I do. In here? Yeah I do.”

“It’s my house.”

“It isn’t.”

He does not respond. He sits staring at the stack of paperwork and then he is standing, he is loosening and removing a tie which he lays across the table and he is taking things from his pockets of pants and jacket; a business card, the phone, a ring of keys. 

“I’m gonna smoke outside.”

He takes up a green plastic lighter and he moves to the door and out and it is only after the exile is gone that the banker and the banker’s counsel take notice of the pack of cigarettes left behind with the rest. 

The driveway is a concrete slope leaning hard toward the street. The exile is standing at the top with hands in pants pockets when the banker’s counsel comes out to find him. The exile isn’t smoking. He isn’t doing anything. The counsel stands by in the quiet and seconds fall away and then the exile is pulling hand from pocket and he is shaking a wrist, he is looking at his watch. The counsel speaks up.

“You need to get back to work?” 

“I guess I don’t.”

The counsel looks down and the exile looks out at the street and there is a moment when nothing is said, when something is waiting to be said, and then it is there, the counsel is saying fighting it isn’t worth the trouble, not now when it’s already done, and he waits for some reply that doesn’t come, he waits thirty seconds or he waits a full minute before again going into the house. 

The street is lined with house after house, not all alike but each poured whole from four or five variations. A voice speaks somewhere nearby behind window or wall and some blocks away the hushed passage of traffic unseen goes on its way. Here life exists in its static hum as players in a thousand dramas put on their own private shows. The exile looks around at this street and this world and he takes a step, and another, and another, and when he reaches the street he keeps going. 

A bell sounds as he enters, electronic and unreal. He nods at a clerk behind the counter. The shelves between which the exile meanders are filled with jars and bottles and baubles in wrappers; candy, soda, motor oil. He takes up a snack bar all caramel and salt and he continues his browsing. At the coolers he halts. He opens a glass door and goes on looking. Door glosses over. In time he takes out a water. 

He lays items on the counter. The clerk types numbers into a register and leans in to see what has just been typed and then the clerk types again. The exile watches the clerk do these things and he eyes racks of blue and red and tan boxes stacked in rows at the clerk’s back. 

“Your total.”

The clerk turns a readout around to face the exile, and a wallet is coming out, and money is taken in folds from wallet pocket, small bills, large bills, hundreds. He sets a five on the counter and beside it he lays the wallet. The fold of bills he keeps, he shoves in a wad into a jacket pocket. The clerk is counting out change and when he tells the clerk to keep it the clerk goes on counting. 

Outside a man lurks squatting on stoop. When a gray sedan stops at a pump to get gas the man stands and he approaches the motorist, and he’s pointing, he’s gesturing. A car out of gas, a few dollars needed. The motorist knows this grift and she turns the grifter away. The exile looks on. 

The clerk has finished the count. Coins and bills are passed across and the exile is taking them and shoving them into one pocket even as he’s taking another five from inside his jacket. Again he lays money on the counter. 

“All right, thanks.”

The clerk puts the five in a hip pocket of jeans. The exile again turns to watch the motorist. A stranger in a smart suit jacket, business skirt. The exile asks the clerk what her bill comes to and when he is told he pays that too. He goes outside with a paper sack containing the items he’s bought. 

The motorist is looking into a leather bag and sorting through items it holds. She looks up at the exile’s approach. He smiles, he waves. He asks if she can give him a ride to the bus depot. He says he can pay. She looks at him and then past him. She moves on by and pulls open the convenience store door to the ringing of that unreal bell.

The grifter is smoking at his place on the stoop. 

“She wasn’t buying, huh. I already tried.”

The exile points at the hand holding the cigarette.

“Can I get one of those?”

The grifter looks at his own hand. He looks at the exile and he squints. He does not respond but only takes a pack from a pocket and shakes one out for the exile to take. He pulls it from the pack and he lights it with his plastic lighter. He lowers himself to the pavement. Smoke drifts from lips. In the street beyond the pumps the afternoon traffic begins to congeal as schools let out, jobs let out, institutions empty of their subjects all at once. A car honks and brakes squeal. The exile smokes. He turns. In the convenience store the motorist looks back at him as the clerk is talking. He turns back to the pumps and the street and the world. He smokes. The grifter is talking but the exile is not listening. A bell chimes. The motorist lays a hand on the exile’s shoulder. 

“Come on.” 

The exile hands the cigarette off to the grifter and he stands and dusts off the seat of his pants. He takes his purchases and follows the motorist to her car. She gets in and there is a click of a door unlocking and he gets in too. The engine turns over. There comes a dulcet murmur of life returning to this space and then the radio is on and a song is playing. Guitar strumming and brush drum patter. The sound comes on loud and the motorist turns a knob and the sound comes down. She looks at the exile but he is looking out his window. She puts the car in gear. 

Traffic starts and stops like waves lapping. The car joins that motion, becomes a part of it. They flow along for blocks and they cut right and they’re taking an onramp, they’re getting onto the interstate where again that trickling progress takes hold. The song ends and then another and then there is a voice that speaks in a lulling cadence about songs already played and other songs to come. The motorist turns the knob and sound recedes to faint chirping. She asks the exile what he does and he says to her he’s transitioning, that he’s only just left a position, that he’s starting over in a way. She’s nodding, she’s saying she knows how that goes. She says she thinks about doing the same thing. He goes on looking out his window at the slow passage of the world. 

“What about you?”

“What?”

“What do you do?”

She tells him. She talks of an office job, a mid-level executive post at a company he’s never heard of. She talks of an assistant she doesn’t like and of an interning researcher she does. She says the researcher will replace the assistant any day. A moment later she says it again. Any day. 

The stops overcome the starts. Traffic slows and it stops and it does not move again. The motorist curses and she looks in the mirror at the miles of cars unmoving behind. She turns the radio back up and runs the dial until it lands on talk. She looks at the radio as she listens. Nothing moves. 

The exile is not listening to the motorist lament the things that voice has to say. He looks out at the now-stilled world and he digs a hand into his own thigh. He waits. A foot taps in place. The motorist is saying it’s never this bad. She’s saying they could walk it faster. Then the exile is unbuckling his seatbelt, he’s opening his door.

“Hey.”

She gets out only that word and then he is out and he is walking and the world is moving again. He breathes air thick with exhaust and heat but he takes it in with deep lungfuls that he holds onto for moments before letting each go. At times he walks with eyes closed, following only the crunch of gravel underfoot, songs or talk from open car windows, each a distinct universe with its own sounds and smells and lives. Drivers and passengers shout things; words, noises. Some whistle or talk. The exile goes on. Under a bridge he climbs a steep incline to a concrete abutment where he sits with back against the hard surface. He unrolls his paper bag and removes the candy and he peels back the wrapper. Traffic moves and stops. He eats in small bites and drinks from his water and watches the minute changes in what lies before him, the cars, the faces, new ones replacing old in a timescale beholden to none. 

Off to his left, a cough and a huff. He turns and there is a man coming down from the road above. The man walks with head turned down and a blanket pulled around him, obscuring his form. He looks up and sees the exile and nods. He approaches, he sits. Another huff, almost a sigh. The exile puts his empty candy wrapper in the paper sack and folds the sack and he puts it in a jacket pocket. 

“You’re gonna get cold.”

The exile turns to look at the transient. A hand protrudes from the transient’s wrap. He waves a finger in the exile’s direction. 

“That jacket. No, man. Nights, it gets cold. You got to get yourself a blanket.”

“Well. I’ll add it to the list.”

“The list. What list? Need a poncho? Need a pillow? A blanket answers all your questions. Need a thing you can lay all your shit on, roll it up, carry it around like a bag? On and on. There’s a reason safety blankets are a thing. First concept of home outside the womb is a blanket.”

“Did you think that up?”

“Yeah I did. Yeah. A man’s got to have a philosophy of life, or else what’s he even doing?”

The exile nods. He drinks his water. Cars move in spurts, the motorist in her gray sedan among them, passing by just as any other. The transient is talking, he is asking the exile his name. The exile offers a hand and he says his name is Shaw, and maybe it is. 

He wakes in the night on a concrete slab. He opens his eyes but there is only black. He closes them, he opens them. Somewhere there is the sound of violence, fist smacking meat, fumbled words begging. A car passes on the interstate below but headlights reveal nothing in their ephemeral passing. Shaw turns. There is an ember in the dark and the whiff of cigarette. The ember moves. Shaw closes his eyes and sleep takes him once more.


Craig Rodgers is the author of stories that have appeared in JukedHeart of FarknessClash MediaNot One of Us, and others. He spends most of his time writing in North Texas.

Originally published in 2019 by Soft Cartel, The Ghost of Mile 43 was re-released in 2021 by Death of Print after Soft Cartel closed up shop. It’s available in paperback and ebook form from the Death of Print Gumroad shop. Also available from Bookshop, Indiebound, and most other book retailers.

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