Until the Dodge finished rolling, it was like an out-of-control Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair. It slid sideways on its roof across a wide sandy wash, hit a low ridge of sandstone, flipped a final half revolution and came to rest right-side up in a patch of black and silvered scrub grass.
The door was jammed but Jimmy was able to get his seat belt off and open the roll-up window. He thought he remembered sliding through it, hands and head first, and crumpling to the ground where he thought he lay for—he had no idea how long.
He is not absolutely sure whether he’s unconscious or dead. If he’s unconscious, he dreams he gets to his feet. If he’s dead, there doesn’t seem to be much difference, except, as he would expect, he feels as if he’s in another world, not recognizing any of his afterlife surroundings.
He goes on the assumption that he’s dead, but he knows he couldn’t swear to it. He doesn’t feel happy or sad, just accepting of his fate, whatever it turns out to be.
He makes his way slowly up the wash, casting in the moonlight a ghostly shadow that limps alongside him up toward the macadam road.
He doesn’t think he has any broken bones but is surprised—and yet not—that his body doesn’t ache.
He stands at the side of the road, waiting for cars.
The first one doesn’t stop. It gives him a wide berth, slowing slightly, then speeding up as it passes.
He focuses his attention on the only light he can see, below him, half a mile away.
After five more cars pass him by, he starts toward the light.
He stands at the front door, afraid to knock. It’s an A-frame cabin, little more than a shack, half hidden among Joshua trees. Lamplight shines from the single window. He doesn’t try to work his way over to it; he fears, even if he’s right and this is some expression of death he’s experiencing, that he’d be taken for a peeping Tom. A streak of indigo cloud passes over the moon, and it seems the only light in the world comes from inside this shack.
He thinks of going back to the road, but he’s almost more afraid of being seen running away by whoever is in the cabin than by having to confront them.
He knocks and hears the scraping of a chair being pushed back on a wooden floor, then nothing, no footsteps.
Dean shrugs and shows his sweet, girlish smile.
He knocks again and hears the scraping again, but more emphatic, as if someone came stocking-footed to the door the first time, saw him standing there through a hidden peephole perhaps, decided he or she didn’t want to commune with this bleak, unpromising soul standing out in the midnight chill, returned to where he’d been, and sat back down. Now, hearing the second rapping, the person is getting up again, only this time he or she is angry.
With a rattle and wrenching squeak, the door opens.
Jimmy starts to turn away; then, afraid not to look, turns back.
A man of medium height is retreating into the room. He says in a soft firm voice, “I had to make sure you were serious. Come in.”
Jimmy steps inside.
“Close the door.”
He does so and turns toward this man, or this specter, now sitting in a bleached, cowhide armchair. On a yellow, linoleumtopped table next to him is a wormwood lamp, a pack of Camels, an old-fashioned cut-glass ashtray, and a Zippo lighter.
Lamplight throws his face into shadow, outlining his head and shoulders in amber-gold. It looks like a shot from a sumptuous Warner Bros. melodrama.
Jimmy can’t see his features, but he knows who it is—or who it’s trying to make him believe it is.
“Sit down,” says James Dean.
He points to an old metal folding chair that was once painted red, then leans back in his own chair. “What can I do for you?”
Jimmy sits. “I’m dead, right?”
“Would you like a Camel? You’re never dead as long as you can ‘walk a mile for a Camel.’” He extends the pack to Jimmy.
“Suit yourself.” He takes a cigarette out of the pack and lights it with the Zippo. It’s the coolest move Jimmy has ever seen. “Do you know why you’re here?”
Jimmy rubs his eyes, and now sees Dean clearly. “I was driving around the desert and I rolled my car.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Bullshit.” Dean, breaking into a broad, derisive grin, doesn’t wait for a response. “Yours was even more blatant than mine. At least there was another vehicle involved in mine—some circumstances beyond my control. Let me guess why you’re here. You want me to tell you where that picture on Tom’s wall really came from and what it means. You think that’s a clue to solving your bigger picture.”
“Okay. Where did it come from?” Jimmy figures that if it turns out he has passed on—or even if the other possibility is true, that he’s simply dreaming (these seem to be the only two choices)—that he might as well try to get some answers, if only to satisfy his curiosity.
“Sorry,” says Dean. “I always wanted to be a guy with answers, but it didn’t work out that way. How about some random information? I’ve got a little of that.”
Jimmy frowns. Dean has changed. He still has the charm, the vulnerability, and the wicked grin, but time seems to have turned him reflective. Or maybe it was death that did it.
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