River of Heaven

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Sean Dietrich

By SEAN DIETRICH

This isn’t my story, it’s his. He talked, I listened. And I tried to quiet the skeptic who lives inside my brain.

The tale takes place at night. There are hardly any cars on an old two-lane highway near the Louisiana-Texas line.

He is a middle-aged ironworker, walking the shoulder with a sack over his back. An army duffle bag, olive drab. The same pack he’s been carrying since Korea.

The steelwalker’s personal life is a mess. He’s left his home and his kids. He cries a lot. He has pushed away his family. He’s isolated himself. And he’s tired. Tired all over. Tired of being alive. Tired of … Everything.

But he likes to walk highways. And he particularly loves the Milky Way, which is his travel companion this evening.

In most cities you can’t see the “River of Heaven,” as it was known in ancient Japan. There’s too much skyglow in urban places.

Last year when he was working the iron in Detroit, he never saw the Milky Way. The bright city lights obscured it. He did a stint walking skyscrapers in Tulsa, too. Couldn’t see stars there, either.

But in quiet parts of Texas, the ribbon of the Milky Way eases through a pristine purple sky and puts on a perfect show. Yes, tonight is a perfect night.

And if all goes according to his plan, this will be his last night alive.

A truck stops beside him. The brake rotors grind, blue exhaust coughs from a tailpipe. A white-haired guy in a crushed cattleman’s hat kicks open the door and says, “Need a lift, pal?”

“Nah thanks, I’m alright.”

“You sure? Be glad to carry you somewhere.”

The ironworker thinks about the stranger’s offer. His feet are sore. His knees aren’t what they used to be. He glances at the sky one last time. “Hell … Why not.”

He throws his bag into the bed and crawls into the front seat. The old cowboy asks the quintessential hitchhiker question: “Where you headed?”

“Anywhere.”

“I can take you far as McKinney. ‘At’s where I’m going.”

“Fine.”

And they’re off.

The old truck whistles through the night like the Wabash Cannonball. The ironworker soon notices the guy’s cab is plastered in religious paraphernalia. There are bible-verse throw pillows, Greek fish galore and the portrait of a famous woodworker dangling from the rearview mirror.

Great. Another holy roller. Texas is full of them.

“You some kinda preacher?”

The old cowboy shrugs. “Not really.”

For the first few minutes the ironworker awaits the altar call. He’s braced. A sermon is coming, he just knows it. The ironworker comes from a whole family of holy rollers, they always find a way to work a sermon in there.

But it never happens. Instead, the two speak about normal stuff. About life. About work. Finally, the old man points through his windshield. “Look at that pretty sky.”

“Yep.” The ironworker glares out the window at the Milky Way again, and indeed it’s one for the books.

The “Winter Street” is what the ancient Scandanavians and Swedes called it. The “Great Fence of Stars” as the old Irishmen used to say. The nicknames for our island universe date back as early as the human tongue.

The cowboy breaks the silence. He looks at the ironworker and says in a barely audible voice: “Don’t do it, Tom.”

The passenger is shell shocked. He nervously laughs. “What? How do you know my name?”

Silence.

The old man says, “Don’t do this.”

He laughs again. This is unspeakably eerie. Who is this guy? Then the ironworker’s heart begins to race. He wants to leap from the speeding vehicle and put some distance between himself and Oral Roberts. “What’re you talking about?”

The cowboy locks eyes with him. “Don’t. Do. It.”

And the cab is suddenly filled with quiet. The same quiet that predates man and all his demons. The same calm that comes before tornados. Silence has a sound, you see. And it’s a holy sound that existed long before the stars.

“You’re crazy,” the iron man says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let me outta this truck.”

The cowboy merely smiles. He holds out his old hand. The ironworker looks at the weathered paw, but isn’t sure how to respond.

“Go on,” says Cowboy. “Shake my hand. Ain’t gonna bite.”

So, he takes the old man’s hand and pumps it. The palm is rough and warm.

The old man squeezes. “Your daughter. Do you know she prays for you every single day? Fact, she’s probably praying right now.”

“How do you know that?”

“How do you not?”

The ironworker’s throat tightens. Something in him is moved. Moments pass between them. An eternity.

“Don’t do it, Tom.”

The steelsmith nods solemnly. He breathes an earnest response. “Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“Okay, I won’t do it.”

The cowboy squeezes again. “You mean that?”

“Yes. I promise. I won’t do it.”

Cowboy releases the ironworker’s hand and claps the man’s shoulder. Without explanation, the old poke pulls to the side of the highway and his following words are not a suggestion. “Go home.”

With that, the middle-aged man steps out of the truck. He takes his duffle bag. The vehicle disappears in a cloud of exhaust. Truthfully, I’m not sure how much of this story I believe, but that’s the way old Tom told it to me.

And for any hopeless soul reading this, that’s how I’m telling it to you.

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