There was a tree. I remember it. I swear I’d be able to recognize it. Because it looked so unusual.
It stood on my left, in the distance, by Interstate 80. At first, it was just a blur in the shimmering heat haze, but as I drove closer, its skeletal outline became distinct. Skeletal: that’s what struck me at first as being strange. After all, in August, even in the sun-parched Nebraska panhandle, trees (the few you see) are thick with leaves, but this one was bare.
So it’s dead, I thought. So what? Nothing to frown about. But then I noticed the second thing about it, and I guess I’d subconsciously been reacting before I even realized what its silhouette resembled.
Stronger than resembled.
I felt uneasy. The tree looked like a menorah, a giant counterpart of the candelabrum used in Jewish religious services. Eight candles in a row. Except in this case the candles were barren branches standing straight. I shrugged off an eerie tingle. It’s just a freak, an accident of nature, I concluded, although I briefly wondered if someone had pruned the tree to give it that distinctive appearance and in the process had unavoidably killed it.
But coincidence or not, the shape struck me as being uncanny—a religious symbol formed by a sterile tree ironically blessing a drought-racked western plain. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
For the past two weeks, I’d been camping with friends in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. Fishing, exploring, rock climbing, mostly sitting around our cook fire, drinking, reminiscing. After our long-postponed reunion, our time together had gone too quickly. Again we’d separated, heading our different ways across the country, back to wives and children, jobs and obligations. For me, that meant Iowa City, home, and the university. As much as I wanted to see my family again, I dreaded the prospect of still another fall semester, preparing classes, grading freshman papers.
Weary from driving (eight hours east since a wrenching emotional farewell breakfast), I glanced from the weird menorah tree and realized I was doing seventy. Slow down, I told myself. You’ll end up getting a ticket.
And that’s when the engine started shuddering. I drive a secondhand Porsche 912, the kind with four cylinders, from the sixties. I bought it cheap because it needed a lot of body work, but despite its age, it usually worked like a charm. The trouble is, I didn’t know the carburetors had to be adjusted for the thinner air of higher altitude, so when I’d reached the mountains in Wyoming, the engine had sputtered, the carburetors had overflowed, and I’d rushed to put out a devastating fire on the engine. In Lander, Wyoming, a garage had repaired the damage while I went camping with my friends, but when I’d come back to get it, the accelerator hadn’t seemed as responsive as it used to be. All day, the motor had sounded a little noisier than usual and now as it shuddered, it wasn’t just noisy, it was thunderous. Oh Christ, I thought. The fire must have cracked the engine block. Whatever was wrong, I didn’t dare go much farther. The steering wheel was jerking in my hands. Scared, I slowed to thirty. The roar and shudder persisted. I needed to find a mechanic fast.
I said this happened in Nebraska’s panhandle. Imagine the state as a wide rectangle. Cut away the bottom left corner. The remaining top left corner—that’s the panhandle, just to the east of Wyoming. It’s nothing but broad, flat, open range. Scrub grass, sagebrush, tumbleweed. The land’s as desolate as when the pioneers struggled across it a hundred years ago. A couple more hours into Nebraska, I wouldn’t have worried too much. Towns start showing up every twenty miles or so. But heading through the panhandle, I hadn’t seen a sign for a town in quite a while. Despite the false security of the four-lane interstate, I might as well have been on the moon.
As a consequence, when I saw the off-ramp, I didn’t think twice. Thanking whatever god had smiled on me, I struggled with the spastic tremors of the steering wheel and exited, wincing as the engine not only roared but crackled as if bits of metal were breaking off inside and scraping, gouging. There wasn’t a sign for a town at this exit, but I knew there had to be a reason for the off-ramp. Reaching a stop sign, I glanced right and left along a two-lane blacktop but saw no buildings either way. So which direction? I asked myself. On impulse, I chose the left and crossed the bridge above the interstate, only then realizing I was headed toward the menorah tree.
Again I felt that eerie tingle. But the shuddering roar of the engine distracted me. The accelerator heaved beneath my foot, sending spasms up my leg. The car could barely do twenty miles an hour now. I tried to control my nervous breathing, vaguely sensing the tree as I passed it.
On my left. I’m sure of it. I wasn’t so preoccupied I wouldn’t remember. The tree was on the left of the unmarked two-lane road.
I’m positive. I know I’m not wrong.
I drove. And drove. The Porsche seemed ready to fall apart at any moment, jolting, rattling. The road stretched ahead, leading nowhere, seemingly forever. With the menorah tree behind me, nothing relieved the dismal prairie landscape. Any time now, I thought. I’ll see some buildings. Just another mile or so—if the car can manage that far.
It did, and another mile after that, but down to fifteen now. My stomach cramped. I had the terrible sense I should have gone the other way along this road. For all I knew, I’d have reached a town in a minute. But now I’d gone so far in this direction I had to keep going. I wasn’t sure the car could fight its way back to the interstate.
When I’d first seen the menorah tree, the clock on my dashboard had shown near five. As I glanced at the clock again, I winced when I saw near six. Christ, just a few more hours of light, and even if I found a garage, the chances were it wouldn’t stay open after six. Premonitions squeezed my chest. I should have stayed on the interstate, I thought. There at least, if the car broke down, I could have flagged down someone going by and asked them to send a tow truck. Here, I hadn’t seen any traffic. Visions of a night spent at the side of the road in my disabled car were dismally matched by the wearying prospect of the long hike back to the interstate. I’d been planning to drive all night in hopes of reaching home in Iowa City by noon tomorrow, but if my luck kept turning sour, I might not get there for at best another day and likely more, supposing the engine was as bad as the roar made it seem. I had to find a phone and tell my wife not to worry when I didn’t reach home at the time I’d said I would. My thoughts became more urgent. I had to—
That’s when I saw the building. In the distance. Hard to make out, a vague rectangular object, but unmistakably a building, its metal roof reflecting the glint of the lowering sun. Then I saw another building, and another. Trees. Thank God, a town. My heart pounded almost as hard as the engine rattled. I clutched the steering wheel, frantically trying to control it, lurching past a water tower and an empty cattle pen. The buildings became distinct: houses, a car lot, a diner.
And a service station where I lurched to a raw-nerved stop, my hands still shaking from the vibrations of the steering wheel. I shut off the engine, grateful for the sudden quiet, and noticed two men at the pump, their backs to me. Self-conscious about my beard stubble and my sweat-drenched clothes, I got out wearily to ask directions.
They had their backs to me. That should have told me right away that something was wrong. I’d made such a racket pulling up it wasn’t normal for them not to turn, curious, wondering what the hell was coming.
But they didn’t, and I was too exhausted for my instincts to jangle, warning me. Stiff-legged, I approached them. “Excuse me,” I said. “I guess you can tell I’ve got some trouble. Is the mechanic still on duty?”
Neither turned or answered.
They must have heard me, I thought. All the same, I repeated louder. “The mechanic. Is he still on duty?”
For Christ’s sake, are they deaf or what? So I walked around to face them.
Even as they pivoted to show me their backs again, I gaped. Because I’d seen a brief glimpse of their faces. Oh my God. I felt as if an ice-cold needle had pierced my spine. I’ve never seen a leper. All the same, from what I’ve read, I imagine a leper might have been less ugly than what I was looking at. Ugly isn’t strong enough to describe what I saw. Not just the swollen goiter bulging from each throat like an obscene Adam’s apple. Not just the twisted jaws and cheekbones or the massive lumps on their foreheads. Or the distended lips and misshapen nostrils. Worse, their skin itself seemed rotten, gray and mushy. Like open festering sores.
I nearly gagged. My throat contracted so I couldn’t breathe. Get control, I told myself. Whatever’s wrong with them, it’s not their fault. Don’t gape like a six-year-old who’s never seen someone malformed before. Obviously that’s why they didn’t want to look at me. Because they hated the disgusted reaction, the awful sickened stare.
They faced the door to the service station now, and I certainly wasn’t about to walk in front of them again, so I repeated, “The mechanic. Where is he?”
As one, they each raised their right arm and pointed horribly twisted fingers toward the right, toward a gravel road that led out of town, parallel to the interstate miles away.
Well, damn it, I thought. I’m sorry about what’s happened to you. I wish there was some way to help you, but right now I need help myself, and you two guys are rude.
I stalked away, my head beginning to ache, my throat feeling raw. A quick glance at my watch showed seven o’clock. The sun, of course, was lower. If I didn’t find a mechanic soon . . .
Across the street, on the corner, I saw a restaurant. Perhaps too kind a word. Greasy spoon would have been more accurate. The windows looked grimy. The posters for Pepsi and Schlitz looked ten years old. BAR-B-CUE, a dingy neon sign said. Why not shorten it, I thought, to BBC, which if you change the C to G stands for botulism and bad gas?
And why not stop with the jokes? You might be eating there tonight.
That’s almost funny now. Eating, I mean. Dear God, I don’t know how long I can stand this.
. . . So I walked across the dusty street and opened the fly-covered creaky screen door, peering in at five customers. “Hey, anybody know where—”
The words caught in my throat. My mind reeled. Because the customers had already shifted, turning, with their backs to me—and these had humps and twisted spines and shoulders wrenched in directions nature had never intended. In shock, I hurriedly glanced at the waitress behind the corner, and she’d turned her back as well. The mirror, though. The goddamn mirror. Her face reflecting off it seemed the result of a hideous genetic experiment. She had no jaw. And only one eye. I stumbled back, letting the door swing shut with a creak and a bang, my mind still retaining the terrible impression of—it couldn’t be—two slits where there should have been a nose.
I’ll make this quick. Everywhere I went, growing ever more apprehensive, I found monsters. The town was like a hundred horror movies squeezed together. Lon Chaney’s worst makeup inventions almost seemed normal by comparison. The island of Dr. Moreau would have been a resort for beauty-contest winners.
Eight o’clock. The eastern sky was turning gray. The western horizon was the red of blood. I wondered if I’d gone insane. A town of monsters, no one speaking to me, everyone turning away, most pointing toward the gravel road that headed east out of town.
Appalled, I scrambled into the Porsche, turned the key, and the rest hadn’t done the car any good. If anything, the engine roared and shuddered more extremely. Stomach scalding, I prayed. Although the Porsche shook and protested, it blessedly managed to move.
A town, I thought. Maybe there’s another town a few miles along that gravel road. Maybe that’s why they pointed down there.
I rattled and heaved and jolted out of town, switching on my emergency flashers, although I didn’t know why since I’d seen no traffic. All the same, with dusk coming on, it didn’t hurt to be careful.
A quarter mile. Then half a mile. That’s as far as I got before the engine failed completely. It’s probable that only one cylinder was working by then. I’d hear a bang, then three silent beats, then another bang and three more silent beats. With every bang, the car crept forward a little. Then it finally wheezed and coasted to a stop. The motor pinged from the heat. A Porsche doesn’t have a radiator, but I swear I heard a hiss.
And that was that, stuck in the middle of nowhere, a town of horrors behind me, an empty landscape ahead of me, and an interstate God knew how far away.
With night approaching.
On the prairie.
I’ve said I was frightened. But then I got mad. At my luck and the guy in Lander who’d “fixed” my car, at me and my stupidity for having left the highway, not to mention my failure to think ahead when I was back in town. I should have bought some soft drinks anyhow, some candy bars and potato chips or something—anything to keep from starving all night out here in the dark. A beer. Hell, considering the way I felt, a six-pack. Might as well get shit-faced.
Angry, I stepped from the car. I leaned against a fender and lit a cigarette and cursed. Eight thirty now. Dusk thickened. What was I going to do?
I try to convince myself I was being logical. By nine, I’d made my choice. The town was only half a mile away. Ten minutes’ walk at most. If that stupid BAR-B-CUE had stayed open, I could still get some beer and chips. At the moment, I didn’t care how revolting those people looked. I’d be damned if I was going to spend the night out here with my stomach rumbling. That’d be one discomfort too many.
So I walked, and when I reached the outskirts, night at last had fallen. The lights were on in the BAR-B-CUE; at least my luck hadn’t failed entirely. Or so I thought, because the lights quickly went off as I came closer. Swell, I thought in disgust.
The place stayed dark.
But then the door creaked open. The waitress—a vague white shape—stepped out. She locked the door behind her. I almost asked if she’d mind waiting so I could buy some food. Naturally I assumed she hadn’t seen me. That’s why she surprised me when she turned.
I blinked, astonished. In contrast with the way the town had treated me, she actually spoke. Her voice was frail and wispy, the words slurred, suggestive of a cleft palate or a harelip. “I saw you,” she said. “Through the window. Coming back.” Maybe I imagined it, but her whispered cadence sounded musical.
And this is important, too. Although we faced each other, the street had no lights, and the darkness had thickened enough that I couldn’t see her features. For the first time since I’d arrived in town, I felt as if I was having a normal conversation. It wasn’t hard to pretend, as long as I forced myself not to remember the horror of what she looked like.
I managed a shrug, a laugh of despair. “My car broke down. I’m stuck out there.” Although I knew she couldn’t see my gesture, I pointed down the pitch-dark road. “I hoped you’d still be open so I could get something to eat.”
She didn’t answer for a moment. Then abruptly she said, “I’m sorry. The owner closed a half hour ago. I stayed to clean up and get things ready for tomorrow. The grill’s cold.”
“But just some beer? Potato chips or something?”
“Can’t. The cash register’s empty.”
“But I don’t care about change. I’ll pay you more than the stuff is worth.”
Again she didn’t answer for a moment. “Beer and potato chips?”
“Please.” My hopes rose. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
“While you spend the night in your car?”
“Unless there’s a hotel.”
“There isn’t. You need a decent meal, a proper place to sleep. Considering the trouble you’re in.”
She paused. I remember the night was silent. Not even crickets sang.
“I live alone,” she said, her cadence even more musical. “You can sleep on the sofa in the living room. I’ll broil a steak for you.”
“I couldn’t,” I said. The thought of seeing her face again filled me with panic.
“I won’t turn the lights on. I won’t disgust you.”
I lied. “It’s just that I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“No trouble.” She sounded emphatic. “I want to help. I’ve always believed in charity.”
She began to walk away. Paralyzed, I thought about it. For sure, the steak sounded good. And the sofa. A hell of a lot better than sleeping hunched in the car.
But Jesus, the way she looked.
And maybe my attitude was painfully familiar to her. How would I feel, I wondered, if I was deformed and people shunned me? Charity. Hadn’t she said she believed in charity? Well, maybe it was time I believed in it myself. I followed her, less motivated by the steak and the sofa than by my determination to be kind.
She lived three blocks away, on a street as dark as the one we’d left. The houses were still, no sounds, no sign of anyone. It was the strangest walk of my life.
From what I could tell in the dark, she lived in an old two-story Victorian house. The porch floor squeaked as we crossed it to go inside. And true to her word, she didn’t turn on the lights.
“The living room’s through an arch to your left,” she said. “The sofa’s against the wall straight ahead. I’ll fix the steak.”
I thanked her and did what she said. The sofa was deep and soft. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I leaned back. In the dark, I heard the sizzle of the steak from somewhere at the back of the house. I assume she turned the kitchen lights on to cook it, but I didn’t see even the edge of a glow. Then the fragrance of the beef drifted toward me. Echoing footsteps came near.
“I should have asked how well done you like it. Most customers ask for medium rare.” Her wispy voice sounded like wind chimes.
“Great.” I no longer cared if she was ugly. By then I was ravenous.
In the dark, she cautiously set up a tray, brought the steak, bread and butter, A.1. sauce, and a beer. Although awkward because I couldn’t see, I ate amazingly fast. I couldn’t get enough of it. Delicious couldn’t describe it. Mouthwatering. Taste bud-expanding. Incredible.
I sopped up sauce and steak juice with my final remnant of bread, stuffed it in my mouth, washed it down with my final sip of beer, and sagged back, knowing I’d eaten the best meal of my life.
Throughout, she’d sat in a chair across the room and hadn’t spoken once.
“That was wonderful,” I said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You already have.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. My belly felt reassuringly packed to the bursting point.
“You haven’t asked,” she said.
I frowned. “Asked what? I don’t understand.”
“You do. You’re dying to ask. I know you are. They always are.”
“Why the people here are horribly deformed.”
I felt a chill. In truth, I had been tempted to ask. The town was so unusual, the people so strange, I could barely stifle my curiosity. She’d been so generous, though, I didn’t want to draw attention to her infirmity and be rude. At once, her reflection in the mirror at the BAR-B-CUE popped up terribly in my mind. No chin. One eye. Flat slits where there should have been a nose. Oozing sores.
I almost vomited. And not just from the memory. Something was happening in my stomach. It churned and complained, growling, swelling larger, as if it were crammed with a million tiny darting hornets.
“Sins,” she said.
I squirmed, afraid.
“Long ago,” she said, “in the Middle Ages, certain priests used to travel from village to village. Instead of hearing confessions, they performed a ceremony to cleanse the souls of the villagers. Each member of the group brought something to eat and set it on a table in front of the priest. At last, an enormous meal awaited him. He said the necessary words. All the sins of the village were transferred into the food.”
I swallowed bile, unaccountably terrified.
“And then he ate the meal. Their sins,” she said. “He stuffed himself with sins.”
Her tone was so hateful I wanted to scream and run.
“The villagers knew he’d damned himself to save their souls. For this, they gave him money. Of course, there were disbelievers who maintained the priest was nothing more than a cheat, a con man tricking the villagers into feeding him and giving him money. They were wrong.”
I heard her stand.
“Because the evidence was clear. The sins had their effect. The evil spread through the sin-eater’s body, festering, twisting, bulging to escape.”
I heard her doing something in the corner. I tensed from the sound of scratching.
“And not just priests ate sins,” she said. “Sometimes special women did it too. But the problem was, suppose the sin-eater wanted to be redeemed as well? How could a sin-eater get rid of the sins? Get rid of the ugliness. By passing the sins along, of course. By having them eaten by someone else.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “I’m getting out of here.”
“No, not just yet.”
I realized the scratching sound was a match being struck. A tiny flame appeared. My stomach soured in pulsing agony.
“A town filled with sin-eaters,” she said. “Monsters shunned by the world. Bearable only to each other. Suffering out of charity for the millions of souls who’ve been redeemed.”
She lit a candle. The light grew larger in the room. I saw her face and gaped again, but this time for a different reason. She was beautiful. Stunning. Gorgeous. Her skin seemed to glow with sensuality.
It also seemed to shimmer, to ripple, to—
“No. My God,” I said. “You put something in my food.”
“I told you.”
“Not that foolishness.” I tried to stand, but my legs felt like plastic. My body seemed to expand, contract and twist. My vision became distorted, as if I peered at funhouse mirrors. “LSD? Was that it? Mescaline? I’m hallucinating.” Each word echoed more loudly, yet seemed to murmur from far away.
I cringed as she approached, growing more beautiful with every step.
“And it’s been so long,” she said. “I’ve been so ugly. So long since anyone wanted me.”
Reality cracked. The universe spun. She stripped off her uniform, showing her breasts, her . . . Her body was . . .
Despite the torture in my stomach, the insanity of my distorted senses, I wanted her. I suddenly needed her as desperately as anything I’d ever coveted.
Passion was endless, powerful, frantic. Rolling, we bumped the tray, sending glass and plate, knife and fork and steak sauce crashing down. A lamp fell, shattering. My naked back slammed against the sharp edge of a table, making me groan. Not from pain. I screamed in ecstasy.
And just before I came with an explosive burst, as if from the core of my soul, as if after foisting her sins upon me she needed something from me in return, I felt her drawing me close to her, down, ever down.
She moaned and pleaded, “Eat me. Eat me!”
I lost consciousness. The Nebraska state police claim they found me wandering naked down the middle of Interstate 80 at one o’clock in the afternoon two days later. They say I was horribly sunburned. I don’t know. I don’t remember. All I recall is waking up in the hospital in Iowa City.
In the psych ward.
The doctors lie. They claim I’m not ugly. Then why have they locked me up and taken the mirrors away? Why do the nurses flinch when they come in with guards to feed me? They think they’re so smart. Despite the thick wire screen across the window, at night I see my reflection. I don’t have a chin. There’s only one eye. In place of a nose, I’ve got two flat, repulsive slits. I’m being punished. I understand that now. For all the evil in the world.
I used to be a Catholic, but I don’t go to church anymore. When I was young, though, learning to go to confession, the nuns made me memorize a speech to say to the priest in the booth. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was . . . And then I’d tell him how long ago, and then I’d confess, and then I’d finish by saying, I’m sorry for these and all my sins. I am, you know. I’m sorry. Except I didn’t commit them. The sins aren’t mine.
My wife and children come to visit. I refuse to let them see me. I can’t bear to look at the sickened reaction in their eyes.
How can a sin-eater get rid of the sins? That’s what she said to me. By passing the sins along, of course. By having them eaten by someone else.
I’ve known for several weeks now what I had to do. It was simply a matter of pretending to be calm, of waiting for my chance. I hope the guard wasn’t badly hurt. I tried not to hit him too hard. But his head made a terrible sound when I cracked it against the wall.
I’ve been very clever. I’ve stolen three cars, and I’ve never kept one long enough for the state police to catch me. It’s taken me two days to return.
That’s why the tree’s so important. It’s my landmark, you see. Remember the off-ramp had no sign. The tree’s all I had to give me direction.
But I’m puzzled. Oh, I found the tree all right, its branches in the shape of the menorah candelabrum. And it’s so distinctive I can’t believe there’d be another like it. But I swear it had eight upright branches then, and it was bare.
But now it’s got nine.
And leaves have sprouted.
Dear God, help me. Save me.
I pressed the accelerator to the floor, racing along the two-lane blacktop. As before, the road stretched forever. Doubt made me frantic. I tried not to glance at the rearview mirror. All the same, I weakened, and my ugliness made me wail.
I saw the building in the distance, the glint of sunlight off the metal roof. I whimpered, rushing closer. And I found the town again. Exactly the same. The water tower. The cattle pen (but it’s full now). The service station, the BAR-B-CUE.
I don’t understand, though. Everyone’s normal. I see no goiters, no hunchbacks, no twisted limbs and festering sores. They stare as I drive past. I can’t stand to see their shock and disgust.
. . . I’ve found her house. I’m in here waiting.
In the hospital, the doctors said I was having delusions. They agreed my initial suspicion might have been correct—that some chemical in my food could have made me hallucinate, and now the effects of the drug persist, making me think I’m ugly, distorting my memory of the trip. I wish I could believe that. I even wish I could believe I’ve gone crazy. Anything would be better than the truth.
But I know what it is. She did it. She made me eat her sins. But damn it, I’ll get even with her. I’ll make her take them back.
I’ve been writing this in her living room while I glance hurriedly out the window. In case something happens to me, so people will understand. It wasn’t my fault.
But she’ll come home soon. Yes, she will. And then . . .
I hear a car door. On the street, someone’s stepping from a station wagon.
Oh, sweet Christ, at last.
But no, it’s not one person.
Two. A man and a woman.
And the woman isn’t the one I want.
What happened? Did she leave?
They’ll come in. They’ll find me.
I don’t care. I can’t bear this anymore. I have to pass the sins along. I have to . . .
I found a knife in the kitchen. See, I don’t know the words. I don’t know how to put my sins in the food.
But I remember the last thing she said to me. I know how to do it. I have to use the knife and a fork and make them—