boundaries of our country, sir? Why sir, on the north we are bounded
by the Aurora Borealis, on the east we are bounded by the rising sun,
on the south we are bounded by the procession of the Equinoxes, and
on the west by the Day of Judgment.
– The American Joe
Miller's Jest Book
had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked
don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.
So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and
thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
thing—in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing—about
being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd
plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't
worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.
He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because
yesterday had brought it.
It did not matter, Shadow decided,
if you had done what you had been convicted of or not. In his
experience everyone he met in prison was aggrieved about something:
there was always something the authorities had got wrong, something
they said you did when you didn't—or you didn't do quite like
they said you did. What was important was that they had gotten you.
He had noticed it in the first few days, when everything,
from the slang to the bad food, was new. Despite the misery and the
utter skin-crawling horror of incarceration, he was breathing relief.
Shadow tried not to talk too much. Somewhere around the
middle of year two he mentioned his theory to Low Key Lyesmith, his
Low Key, who was a grifter from Minnesota, smiled
his scarred smile. "Yeah," he said. "That's true. It's
even better when you've been sentenced to death. That's when you
remember the jokes about the guys who kicked their boots off as the
noose flipped around their necks, because their friends always told
them they'd die with their boots on."
"Is that a
joke?" asked Shadow.
"Damn right. Gallows humor.
Best kind there is."
"When did they last hang a man
in this state?" asked Shadow.
"How the hell should
I know?" Lyesmith kept his orange-blond hair pretty much shaved.
You could see the lines of his skull. "Tell you what, though.
This country started going to hell when they stopped hanging folks.
No gallows dirt. No gallows deals."
Shadow shrugged. He
could see nothing romantic in a death sentence.
If you didn't
have a death sentence, he decided, then prison was, at best, only a
temporary reprieve from life, for two reasons. First, life creeps
back into prison. There are always places to go further down. Life
goes on. And second, if you just hang in there, someday they're going
to have to let you out.
In the beginning it was too far away
for Shadow to focus on. Then it became a distant beam of hope, and he
learned how to tell himself "this too shall pass" when the
prison shit went down, as prison shit always did. One day the magic
door would open and he'd walk through it. So he marked off the days
on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only
calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down
and he didn't see it and the sun came up and he didn't see it. He
practiced coin tricks from a book he found in the wasteland of the
prison library; and he worked out; and he made lists in his head of
what he'd do when he got out of prison.
Shadow's lists got
shorter and shorter. After two years he had it down to three things.
First, he was going to take a bath. A real, long, serious
soak, in a tub with bubbles. Maybe read the paper, maybe not. Some
days he thought one way, some days the other.
Second he was
going to towel himself off, put on a robe. Maybe slippers. He liked
the idea of slippers. If he smoked he would be smoking a pipe about
now, but he didn't smoke. He would pick up his wife in his arms
("Puppy," she would squeal in mock horror and real delight,
"what are you doing?"). He would carry her into the
bedroom, and close the door. They'd call out for pizzas if they got
Third, after he and Laura had come out of the
bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head
down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.
then you'll be happy?" asked Low Key Lyesmith. That day they
were working in the prison shop, assembling bird feeders, which was
barely more interesting than stamping out license plates.
no man happy," said Shadow, "until he is dead."
"Herodotus," said Low Key. "Hey. You're
"Who the fuck's Herodotus?" asked
the Iceman, slotting together the sides of a bird feeder and passing
it to Shadow, who bolted and screwed it tight.
Greek," said Shadow.
"My last girlfriend was
Greek," said the Iceman. "The shit her family ate. You
would not believe. Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that."
The Iceman was the same size and shape as a Coke machine,
with blue eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. He had beaten
the crap out of some guy who had made the mistake of copping a feel
off his girlfriend in the bar where she danced and the Iceman
bounced. The guy's friends had called the police, who arrested the
Iceman and ran a check on him which revealed that the Iceman had
walked from a work-release program eighteen months earlier.
what was I supposed to do?" asked the Iceman, aggrieved, when he
had told Shadow the whole sad tale. "I'd told him she was my
girlfriend. Was I supposed to let him disrespect me like that? Was I?
I mean, he had his hands all over her."
Shadow had said,
"You tell 'em," and left it at that. One thing he had
learned early, you do your own time in prison. You don't do anyone
else's time for them.
Keep your head down. Do your own time.
Lyesmith had loaned Shadow a battered paperback copy of
Herodotus's Histories several months earlier. "It's not
boring. It's cool," he said, when Shadow protested that he
didn't read books. "Read it first, then tell me it's cool."
Shadow had made a face, but he had started to read, and had
found himself hooked against his will.
said the Iceman, with disgust. "And it ain't true what they say
about them, neither. I tried giving it to my girlfriend in the ass,
she almost clawed my eyes out."
Lyesmith was transferred
one day, without warning. He left Shadow his copy of Herodotus. There
was a nickel hidden in the pages. Coins were contraband: you can
sharpen the edges against a stone, slice open someone's face in a
fight. Shadow didn't want a weapon; Shadow just wanted something to
do with his hands.
Shadow was not superstitious. He did not
believe in anything he could not see. Still, he could feel disaster
hovering above the prison in those final weeks, just as he had felt
it in the days before the robbery. There was a hollowness in the pit
of his stomach that he told himself was simply a fear of going back
to the world on the outside. But he could not be sure. He was more
paranoid than usual, and in prison usual is very, and is a survival
skill. Shadow became more quiet, more shadowy, than ever. He found
himself watching the body language of the guards, of the other
inmates, searching for a clue to the bad thing that was going to
happen, as he was certain that it would.
A month before he
was due to be released Shadow sat in a chilly office, facing a short
man with a port-wine birthmark on his forehead. They sat across a
desk from each other; the man had Shadow's file open in front of him,
and was holding a ballpoint pen. The end of the pen was badly chewed.
"You cold, Shadow?"
Shadow. "A little."
The man shrugged. "That's
the system," he said. "Furnaces don't go on until December
the first. Then they go off March the first. I don't make the rules."
He ran his forefinger down the sheet of paper stapled to the inside
left of the folder. "You're thirty-two years old?"
"You look younger."
"Says here you've been a model inmate."
I learned my lesson, sir."
really?" He looked at Shadow intently, the birthmark on his
forehead lowering. Shadow thought about telling the man some of his
theories about prison, but he said nothing. He nodded instead, and
concentrated on appearing properly remorseful.
here you've got a wife, Shadow."
"How's everything there?"
good. She's come down to see me as much as she could—it's a
long way to travel. We write and I call her when I can."
does your wife do?"
"She's a travel agent. Sends
people all over the world."
"How'd you meet her?"
Shadow could not decide why the man was asking. He considered
telling him it was none of his business, then said, "She was my
best buddy's wife's best friend. They set us up on a blind date. We
hit it off."
"And you've got a job waiting for
"Yessir. My buddy, Robbie, the one I just
told you about, he owns the Muscle Farm, the place I used to train.
He says my old job is waiting for me."
"Says he figures I'll be a
big draw. Bring back some old-timers, and pull in the tough crowd who
want to be tougher."
The man seemed satisfied. He chewed
the end of his ballpoint pen, then turned over the sheet of paper.
"How do you feel about your offense?"
shrugged. "I was stupid," he said, and meant it.
man with the birthmark sighed. He ticked off a number of items on a
checklist. Then he riffled through the papers in Shadow's file.
"How're you getting home from here?" he asked. "Greyhound?"
"Flying home. It's good to have a wife who's a travel
The man frowned, and the birthmark creased. "She
sent you a ticket?"
"Didn't need to. Just sent me a
confirmation number. Electronic ticket. All I have to do is turn up
at the airport in a month and show 'em my ID, and I'm outta here."
The man nodded, scribbled one final note, then he closed the
file and put down the ballpoint pen. Two pale hands rested on the
gray desk like pink animals. He brought his hands close together,
made a steeple of his forefingers, and stared at Shadow with watery
"You're lucky," he said. "You have
someone to go back to, you got a job waiting. You can put all this
behind you. You got a second chance. Make the most of it."
man did not offer to shake Shadow's hand as he rose to leave, nor did
Shadow expect him to.
The last week was the worst. In some
ways it was worse than the whole three years put together. Shadow
wondered if it was the weather: oppressive, still, and cold. It felt
as if a storm was on the way, but the storm never came. He had the
jitters and the heebie-jeebies, a feeling deep in his stomach that
something was entirely wrong. In the exercise yard the wind gusted.
Shadow imagined that he could smell snow on the air.
called his wife collect. Shadow knew that the phone companies whacked
a three-dollar surcharge on every call made from a prison phone. That
was why operators are always real polite to people calling from
prisons, Shadow had decided: they knew that he paid their wages.
"Something feels weird," he told Laura. That wasn't
the first thing he said to her. The first thing was "I love
you," because it's a good thing to say if you can mean it, and
"Hello," said Laura. "I love you
too. What feels weird?"
"I don't know," he
said. "Maybe the weather. It feels like if we could only get a
storm, everything would be okay."
"It's nice here,"
she said. "The last of the leaves haven't quite fallen. If we
don't get a storm, you'll be able to see them when you get home."
"Five days," said Shadow.
and twenty hours, and then you come home," she said.
"Everything okay there? Nothing wrong?"
"Everything's fine. I'm seeing Robbie tonight. We're
planning your surprise welcome-home party."
"Of course. You don't know anything about
it, do you?"
"Not a thing."
my husband," she said. Shadow realized that he was smiling. He
had been inside for three years, but she could still make him smile.
"Love you, babes," said Shadow.
you, puppy," said Laura.
Shadow put down the phone.
When they got married Laura told Shadow that she wanted a
puppy, but their landlord had pointed out they weren't allowed pets
under the terms of their lease. "Hey," Shadow had said,
"I'll be your puppy. What do you want me to do? Chew your
slippers? Piss on the kitchen floor? Lick your nose? Sniff your
crotch? I bet there's nothing a puppy can do I can't do!" And he
picked her up as if she weighed nothing at all and began to lick her
nose while she giggled and shrieked, and then he carried her to the
In the food hall Sam Fetisher sidled over to Shadow and
smiled, showing his old teeth. He sat down beside Shadow and began to
eat his macaroni and cheese.
"We got to talk," said
Sam Fetisher was one of the blackest men that
Shadow had ever seen. He might have been sixty. He might have been
eighty. Then again, Shadow had met thirty-year-old crackheads who
looked older than Sam Fetisher.
"Mm?" said Shadow.
"Storm's on the way," said Sam.
like it," said Shadow. "Maybe it'll snow soon."
that kind of storm. Bigger storm than that coming. I tell you, boy,
you're better off in here than out on the street when the big storm
"Done my time," said Shadow. "Friday,
Sam Fetisher stared at Shadow. "Where
you from?" he asked.
"Eagle Point. Indiana."
"You're a lying fuck," said Sam Fetisher. "I
mean originally. Where are your folks from?"
said Shadow. His mother had lived in Chicago as a girl, and she had
died there, half a lifetime ago.
"Like I said. Big storm
coming. Keep your head down, Shadow-boy. It's like ... what do they
call those things continents ride around on? Some kind of plates?"
"Tectonic plates?" Shadow hazarded.
it. Tectonic plates. It's like when they go riding, when North
America goes skidding into South America, you don't want to be in the
middle. You dig me?"
"Not even a little."
One brown eye closed in a slow wink. "Hell, don't say I
didn't warn you," said Sam Fetisher, and he spooned a trembling
lump of orange Jell-O into his mouth.
Shadow spent the night half-awake, drifting in and out of
sleep, listening to his new cellmate grunt and snore in the bunk
below him. Several cells away a man whined and howled and sobbed like
an animal, and from time to time someone would scream at him to shut
the fuck up. Shadow tried not to hear. He let the empty minutes wash
over him, lonely and slow.
Two days to go. Forty-eight hours,
starting with oatmeal and prison coffee, and a guard named Wilson who
tapped Shadow harder than he had to on the shoulder and said,
"Shadow? This way."
Shadow checked his conscience.
It was quiet, which did not, he had observed, in a prison, mean that
he was not in deep shit. The two men walked more or less side by
side, feet echoing on metal and concrete.
Shadow tasted fear
in the back of his throat, bitter as old coffee. The bad thing was
There was a voice in the back of his head
whispering that they were going to slap another year onto his
sentence, drop him into solitary, cut off his hands, cut off his
head. He told himself he was being stupid, but his heart was pounding
fit to burst out of his chest.
"I don't get you,
Shadow," said Wilson, as they walked.
to get, sir?"
"You. You're too fucking quiet. Too
polite. You wait like the old guys, but you're what? Twenty-five?
what are you? A spic? A gypsy?"
"Not that I know
of, sir. Maybe."
"Maybe you got nigger blood in
you. You got nigger blood in you, Shadow?"
be, sir." Shadow stood tall and looked straight ahead, and
concentrated on not allowing himself to be riled by this man.
"Yeah? Well, all I know is, you fucking spook me."
Wilson had sandy blond hair and a sandy blond face and a sandy blond
smile. "You leaving us soon."
"Hope so, sir."
They walked through a couple of checkpoints. Wilson showed
his ID each time. Up a set of stairs, and they were standing outside
the prison warden's office. It had the prison warden's name—G.
Patterson—on the door in black letters, and beside the door, a
miniature traffic light.
The top light burned red.
pressed a button below the traffic light.
They stood there in
silence for a couple of minutes. Shadow tried to tell himself that
everything was all right, that on Friday morning he'd be on the plane
up to Eagle Point, but he did not believe it himself.
light went out and the green light went on, and Wilson opened the
door. They went inside.
Shadow had seen the warden a handful
of times in the last three years. Once he had been showing a
politician around. Once, during a lockdown, the warden had spoken to
them in groups of a hundred, telling them that the prison was
overcrowded, and that, since it would remain overcrowded, they had
better get used to it.
Up close, Patterson looked worse. His
face was oblong, with gray hair cut into a military bristle cut. He
smelled of Old Spice. Behind him was a shelf of books, each with the
word Prison in the title; his desk was perfectly clean, empty
but for a telephone and a tear-off-the-pages Far Side
calendar. He had a hearing aid in his right ear.
Shadow sat down. Wilson stood behind him.
The warden opened a desk drawer and took out a file, placed
it on his desk.
"Says here you were sentenced to six
years for aggravated assault and battery. You've served three years.
You were due to be released on Friday. "
Shadow felt his stomach lurch inside him. He wondered how much longer
he was going to have to serve—another year? Two years? All
three? All he said was "Yes, sir."
licked his lips. "What did you say?"
'Yes, sir.' "
"Shadow, we're going to be releasing
you later this afternoon. You'll be getting out a couple of days
early." Shadow nodded, and he waited for the other shoe to drop.
The warden looked down at the paper on his desk. "This came from
the Johnson Memorial Hospital in Eagle Point ... Your wife. She died
in the early hours of this morning. It was an automobile accident.
Shadow nodded once more.
walked him back to his cell, not saying anything. He unlocked the
cell door and let Shadow in. Then he said, "It's like one of
them good news, bad news jokes, isn't it? Good news, we're letting
you out early, bad news, your wife is dead." He laughed, as if
it were genuinely funny.
Shadow said nothing at all.
Numbly, he packed up his possessions, gave most of them away.
He left behind Low Key's Herodotus and the book of coin tricks, and,
with a momentary pang, he abandoned the blank metal disks he had
smuggled out of the workshop, which had served him for coins. There
would be coins, real coins, on the outside. He shaved. He dressed in
civilian clothes. He walked through door after door, knowing that he
would never walk back through them again, feeling empty inside.
rain had started to gust from the gray sky, a freezing rain. Pellets
of ice stung Shadow's face, while the rain soaked the thin overcoat
and they walked toward the yellow ex-school bus that would take them
to the nearest city.
By the time they got to the bus they
were soaked. Eight of them were leaving. Fifteen hundred still
inside. Shadow sat on the bus and shivered until the heaters started
working, wondering what he was doing, where he would go now.
images filled his head, unbidden. In his imagination he was leaving
another prison, long ago.
He had been imprisoned in a
lightless room for far too long: his beard was wild and his hair was
a tangle. The guards had walked him down a gray stone stairway and
out into a plaza filled with brightly colored things, with people and
with objects. It was a market day and he was dazzled by the noise and
the color, squinting at the sunlight that filled the square, smelling
the salt-wet air and all the good things of the market, and on his
left the sun glittered from the water...
The bus shuddered to
a halt at a red light.
The wind howled about the bus, and the
wipers slooshed heavily back and forth across the windshield,
smearing the city into a red and yellow neon wetness. It was early
afternoon, but it looked like night through the glass.
said the man in the seat behind Shadow, rubbing the condensation from
the window with his hand, staring at a wet figure hurrying down the
sidewalk. "There's pussy out there."
swallowed. It occurred to him that he had not cried yet—had in
fact felt nothing at all. No tears. No sorrow. Nothing.
found himself thinking about a guy named Johnnie Larch he'd shared a
cell with when he'd first been put inside, who told Shadow how he'd
once got out after five years behind bars with one hundred dollars
and a ticket to Seattle, where his sister lived.
Larch had got to the airport, and he handed his ticket to the woman
on the counter, and she asked to see his driver's license.
showed it to her. It had expired a couple of years earlier. She told
him it was not valid as ID. He told her it might not be valid as a
driver's license, but it sure as hell was fine identification, and
damn it, who else did she think he was, if he wasn't him?
said she'd thank him to keep his voice down.
He told her to
give him a fucking boarding pass, or she was going to regret it, and
that he wasn't going to be disrespected. You don't let people
disrespect you in prison.
Then she pressed a button, and few
moments later the airport security showed up, and they tried to
persuade Johnnie Larch to leave the airport quietly, and he did not
wish to leave, and there was something of an altercation.
upshot of it all was that Johnnie Larch never actually made it to
Seattle, and he spent the next couple of days in town in bars, and
when his one hundred dollars was gone he held up a gas station with a
toy gun for money to keep drinking, and the police finally picked him
up for pissing in the street. Pretty soon he was back inside serving
the rest of his sentence and a little extra for the gas station job.
And the moral of this story, according to Johnnie Larch, was
this: don't piss off people who work in airports.
you sure it's not something like 'The kind of behavior that works in
a specialized environment, such as prison, can fail to work and in
fact become harmful when used outside such an environment'?"
said Shadow, when Johnnie Larch told him the story.
listen to me, I'm telling you, man," said Johnnie Larch,
"don't piss off those bitches in airports."
half smiled at the memory. His own driver's license had several
months still to go before it expired.
The building stank of piss and sour
beer. Shadow climbed into a taxi and told the driver to take him to
the airport. He told him that there was an extra five dollars if he
could do it in silence. They made it in twenty minutes and the driver
never said a word.
Then Shadow was stumbling through the
brightly lit airport terminal. Shadow worried about the whole
e-ticket business. He knew he had a ticket for a flight on Friday,
but he didn't know if it would work today. Anything electronic seemed
fundamentally magical to Shadow, and liable to evaporate at any
Still, he had his wallet, back in his possession for
the first time in three years, containing several expired credit
cards and one Visa card, which, he was pleasantly surprised to
discover, didn't expire until the end of January. He had a
reservation number. And, he realized, he had the certainty that once
he got home everything would, somehow, be okay. Laura would be fine
again. Maybe it was some kind of scam to spring him a few days early.
Or perhaps it was a simple mix-up: some other Laura Moon's body had
been dragged from the highway wreckage.
outside the airport, through the windows-walls. Shadow realized he
was holding his breath, waiting for something. A distant boom of
thunder. He exhaled.
A tired white woman stared at him from
behind the counter.
"Hello," said Shadow. You're
the first strange woman I've spoken to, in the flesh, in three years.
"I've got an e-ticket number. I was supposed to be traveling
on Friday but I have to go today. There was a death in my family."
"Mm. I'm sorry to hear that." She tapped at the
keyboard, stared at the screen, tapped again. "No problem. I've
put you on the three-thirty. It may be delayed because of the storm,
so keep an eye on the screens. Checking any baggage?"
held up a shoulder bag. "I don't need to check this, do l?"
"No," she said. "It's fine. Do you have any
Shadow showed her his driver's license.
It was not a big airport, but the number of people wandering,
just wandering, amazed him. He watched people put down bags casually,
observed wallets stuffed into back pockets, saw purses put down,
unwatched, under chairs. That was when he realized he was no longer
Thirty minutes to wait until boarding. Shadow
bought a slice of pizza and burned his lip on the hot cheese. He took
his change and went to the phones. Called Robbie at the Muscle Farm,
but the machine picked up.
"Hey Robbie," said
Shadow. "They tell me that Laura's dead. They let me out early.
I'm coming home."
Then, because people do make mistakes,
he'd seen it happen, he called home, and listened to Laura's voice.
"Hi," she said. "I'm not here or I can't come
to the phone. Leave a message and I'll get back to you. And have a
Shadow couldn't bring himself to leave
He sat in a plastic chair by the gate, and held
his bag so tight he hurt his hand.
He was thinking about the
first time he had ever seen Laura. He hadn't even known her name
then. She was Audrey Burton's friend. He had been sitting with Robbie
in a booth at Chi-Chi's when Laura had walked in a pace or so behind
Audrey, and Shadow had found himself staring. She had long, chestnut
hair and eyes so blue Shadow mistakenly thought she was wearing
tinted contact lenses. She had ordered a strawberry daiquiri, and
insisted that Shadow taste it, and laughed delightedly when he did.
Laura loved people to taste what she tasted.
kissed her good night that night, and she had tasted like strawberry
daiquiris, and he had never wanted to kiss anyone else again.
woman announced that his plane was boarding, and Shadow's row was the
first to be called. He was in the very back, an empty seat beside
him. The rain pattered continually against the side of the plane: he
imagined small children tossing down dried peas by the handful from
As the plane took off he fell asleep.
was in a dark place, and the thing staring at him wore a buffalo's
head, rank and furry with huge wet eyes. Its body was a man's body,
oiled and slick.
"Changes are coming," said the
buffalo without moving its lips. "There are certain decisions
that will have to be made."
Firelight flickered from wet
"Where am I?" Shadow asked.
the earth and under the earth," said the buffalo man. "You
are where the forgotten wait." His eyes were liquid black
marbles, and his voice was a rumble from beneath the world. He
smelled like wet cow. "Believe," said the rumbling voice.
"If you are to survive, you must believe."
what?" asked Shadow. "What should I believe?"
stared at Shadow, the buffalo man, and he drew himself up huge, and
his eyes filled with fire. He opened his spit-flecked buffalo mouth
and it was red inside with the flames that burned inside him, under
"Everything," roared the buffalo
The world tipped and spun, and Shadow was on the plane
once more; but the tipping continued. In the front of the plane a
woman screamed halfheartedly.
Lightning burst in blinding
flashes around the plane. The captain came on the intercom to tell
them that he was going to try and gain some altitude, to get away
from the storm.
The plane shook and shuddered, and Shadow
wondered, coldly and idly, if he was going to die. It seemed
possible, he decided, but unlikely. He stared out of the window and
watched the lightning illuminate the horizon.
Then he dozed
once more, and dreamed he was back in prison and that Low Key had
whispered to him in the food line that someone had put out a contract
on his life, but that Shadow could not find out who or why; and when
he woke up they were coming in for a landing.
He stumbled off
the plane, blinking into wakefulness.
All airports, he
thought, look very much the same. It doesn't actually matter where
you are, you are in an airport: tiles and walkways and restrooms,
gates and newsstands and fluorescent lights. This airport looked like
an airport. The trouble is, this wasn't the airport he was going to.
This was a big airport, with way too many people, and way too many
"Excuse me, ma'am?"
The woman looked
at him over the clipboard. "Yes?"
airport is this?"
She looked at him, puzzled, trying to
decide whether or not he was joking, then she said, "St. Louis."
"I thought this was the plane to Eagle Point."
"It was. They redirected it here because of the storms.
Didn't they make an announcement?"
"You'll need to talk to that man over
there, in the red coat."
The man was almost as tall as
Shadow: he looked like the father from a seventies sitcom, and he
tapped something into a computer and told Shadow to run—run!
—to a gate on the far side of the terminal.
through the airport, but the doors were already closed when he got to
the gate. He watched the plane pull away from the gate, through the
The woman at the passenger assistance desk
(short and brown, with a mole on the side of her nose) consulted with
another woman and made a phone call ("Nope, that one's out.
They've just cancelled it."), then she printed out another
boarding card. "This will get you there," she told him.
"We'll call ahead to the gate and tell them you're coming."
Shadow felt like a pea being flicked between three cups, or a
card being shuffled through a deck. Again he ran through the airport,
ending up near where he had gotten off originally.
man at the gate took his boarding pass. "We've been waiting for
you," he confided, tearing off the stub of the boarding pass,
with Shadow's seat assignment—17D—on it. Shadow hurried
onto the plane, and they closed the door behind him.
walked through first class—there were only four first-class
seats, three of which were occupied. The bearded man in a pale suit
seated next to the unoccupied seat at the very front grinned at
Shadow as he got onto the plane, then raised his wrist and tapped his
watch as Shadow walked past.
Yeah, yeah, I'm making you
late, thought Shadow. Let that be the worst of your worries.
The plane seemed pretty full, as he made his way down
toward the back. Actually, Shadow found, it was completely full, and
there was a middle-aged woman sitting in seat 17D. Shadow showed her
his boarding card stub, and she showed him hers: they matched.
you take your seat, please?" asked the flight attendant.
he said, "I'm afraid I can't."
She clicked her
tongue and checked their boarding cards, then she led him back up to
the front of the plane and pointed him to the empty seat in first
class. "Looks like it's your lucky day," she told him. "Can
I bring you something to drink? We'll just have time before we take
off. And I'm sure you need one after that."
like a beer, please," said Shadow. "Whatever you've got."
The flight attendant went away.
The man in the pale
suit in the seat beside Shadow tapped his watch with his fingernail.
It was a black Rolex. "You're late," said the man, and he
grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all.
"I said, you're late."
The flight attendant
handed Shadow a glass of beer.
For one moment, he wondered if
the man was crazy, and then he decided he must have been referring to
the plane, waiting for one last passenger. "Sorry if I held you
up," he said, politely. "You in a hurry?"
plane backed away from the gate. The flight attendant came back and
took away Shadow's beer. The man in the pale suit grinned at her and
said, "Don't worry, I'll hold onto this tightly," and she
let him keep his glass of Jack Daniel's, while protesting, weakly,
that it violated airline regulations. ("Let me be the judge of
"Time is certainly of the essence,"
said the man. "But no. I was merely concerned that you would not
make the plane."
"That was kind of you."
plane sat restlessly on the ground, engines throbbing, aching to be
"Kind my ass," said the man in the pale suit.
"I've got a job for you, Shadow."
A roar of
engines. The little plane jerked forward, pushing Shadow back into
his seat. Then they were airborne, and the airport lights were
falling away below them. Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to
His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than
stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes.
The suit looked expensive, and was the color of melted vanilla ice
cream. His tie was dark gray silk, and the tie pin was a tree, worked
in silver: trunk, branches, and deep roots.
He held his glass
of Jack Daniel's as they took off, and did not spill a drop.
"Aren't you going to ask me what kind of job?" he
"How do you know who I am?"
chuckled. "Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world to know what
people call themselves. A little thought, a little luck, a little
memory. Ask me what kind of job."
Shadow. The attendant brought him another glass of beer, and he
sipped at it.
home. I've got a job waiting for me there. I don't want any other
The man's craggy smile did not change, outwardly,
but now he seemed, actually, amused. "You don't have a job
waiting for you at home," he said. "You have nothing
waiting for you there. Meanwhile, I am offering you a perfectly legal
job—good money, limited security, remarkable fringe benefits.
Hell, if you live that long, I could throw in a pension plan. You
think maybe you'd like one of them?"
Shadow said, "You
must have seen my name on the side of my bag."
"Whoever you are," said Shadow, "you
couldn't have known I was going to be on this plane. I didn't know I
was going to be on this plane, and if my plane hadn't been diverted
to St. Louis, I wouldn't have been. My guess is you're a practical
joker. Maybe you're hustling something. But I think maybe we'll have
a better time if we end this conversation here."
Shadow picked up the in-flight magazine. The little
plane jerked and bumped through the sky, making it harder to
concentrate. The words floated through his mind like soap bubbles,
there as he read them, gone completely a moment later.
man sat quietly in the seat beside him, sipping his Jack Daniel's.
His eyes were closed.
Shadow read the list of in-flight music
channels available on transatlantic flights, and then he was looking
at the map of the world with red lines on it that showed where the
airline flew. Then he had finished reading the magazine, and,
reluctantly, he closed the cover and slipped it into the pocket.
The man opened his eyes. There was something strange about
his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the
other. He looked at Shadow. "By the way," he said, "I
was sorry to hear about your wife, Shadow. A great loss."
Shadow nearly hit the man, then. Instead he took a deep
breath. ("Like I said, don't piss off those bitches in
airports," said Johnnie Larch, in the back of his mind, "or
they'll haul your sorry ass back here before yon call spit.") He
counted to five.
"So was I," he said.
man shook his head. "If it could but have been any other way,"
he said, and sighed.
"She died in a car crash,"
said Shadow. "There are worse ways to die."
shook his head, slowly. For a moment it seemed to Shadow as if the
man was insubstantial; as if the plane had suddenly become more real,
while his neighbor had become less so.
said. "It's not a joke. It's not a trick. I can pay you better
than any other job you find will pay you. You're an ex-con. There
won't be a long line of people elbowing each other out of the way to
"Mister whoever-the-fuck you are,"
said Shadow, just loud enough to be heard over the din of the
engines, "there isn't enough money in the world."
grin got bigger. Shadow found himself remembering a PBS show about
chimpanzees. The show claimed that when apes and chimps smile it's
only to bare their teeth in a grimace of hate or aggression or
terror. When a chimp grins, it's a threat.
"Work for me.
There may be a little risk, of course, but if you survive you can
have whatever your heart desires. You could be the next king of
America. Now," said the man, "who else is going to pay you
that well? Hmm?"
"Who are you?" asked Shadow.
"Ah, yes. The age of information—young lady, could
you pour me another glass of Jack Daniel's? Easy on the ice—not,
of course, that there has ever been any other kind of age.
Information and knowledge: two currencies that have never gone out of
"I said, who are you?"
see. Well, seeing that today certainly is my day—why don't you
call me Wednesday? Mister Wednesday. Although given the weather, it
might as well be Thursday, eh?"
"What's your real
"Work for me long enough and well enough,"
said the man in the pale suit, "and I may even tell you that.
There. Job offer. Think about it. No one expects you to say yes
immediately, not knowing whether you're leaping into a piranha tank
or a pit of bears. Take your time. He closed his eyes and leaned back
in his seat.
"I don't think so," said Shadow. "I
don't like you. I don't want to work with you."
I say," said the man, without opening his eyes, "don't rush
into it. Take your time."
The plane landed with a bump,
and a few passengers got off. Shadow looked out of the window: it was
a little airport in the middle of nowhere, and there were still two
little airports to go before Eagle Point. Shadow transferred his
glance to the man in the pale suit—Mr. Wednesday? He seemed to
Impulsively, Shadow stood up, grabbed his bag, and
stepped off the plane, down the steps onto the slick, wet tarmac,
walking at an even pace toward the lights of the terminal. A light
rain spattered his face.
Before he went inside the airport
building, he stopped, and turned, and watched. No one else got off
the plane. The ground crew rolled the steps away, the door was
closed, and it took off. Shadow walked inside and he rented what
turned out, when he got to the parking lot, to be a small red Toyota.
Shadow unfolded the map they'd given him. He spread it out on
the passenger's seat. Eagle Point was about 250 miles away.
storms had passed, if they had come this far. It was cold and clear.
Clouds scudded in front of the moon, and for a moment Shadow could
not be certain whether it was the clouds or the moon that were
He drove north for an hour and a half.
getting late. He was hungry, and when he realized how hungry he
really was, he pulled off at the next exit and drove into the town of
Nottamun (pop. 1301). He filled the gas tank at the Amoco and asked
the bored woman at the cash register where he could get something to
"Jack's Crocodile Bar," she told him. "It's
west on County Road N."
"Yeah. Jack says they add character." She drew him
a map on the back of a mauve flyer, which advertised a chicken roast
for the benefit of a young girl who needed a new kidney. "He's
got a couple of crocodiles, a snake, one a them big lizard things."
Through the town, over a bridge, on for a couple of miles,
and he stopped at a low, rectangular building with an illuminated
The parking lot was half empty.
the air was thick with smoke and "Walking After Midnight"
was playing on the jukebox. Shadow looked around for the crocodiles,
but could not see them. He wondered if the woman in the gas station
had been pulling his leg.
"What'll it be?" asked
"House beer, and a hamburger with all the
"Bowl of chili to start? Best
chili in the state."
"Sounds good," said
Shadow. "Where's the rest room?"
The man pointed to
a door in the corner of the bar. There was a stuffed alligator head
mounted on the door. Shadow went through the door.
It was a
clean, well-lit rest room. Shadow looked around the room first; force
of habit. ("Remember, Shadow, you can't fight back when you’re
pissing," Low Key said, low key as always, in the back of his
head.) He took the urinal stall on the left. Then he unzipped his fly
and pissed for an age, feeling relief. He read the yellowing press
clipping framed at eye level, with a photo of Jack and two
There was a polite grunt from the urinal
immediately to his right, although he had heard nobody come in.
man in the pale suit was bigger standing than he had seemed sitting
on the plane beside Shadow. He was almost Shadow's height, and Shadow
was a big man. He was staring ahead of him. He finished pissing,
shook off the last few drops, and zipped himself up.
grinned, like a fox eating shit from a barbed wire fence. "So,"
said Mr. Wednesday, "you've had time to think, Shadow. Do you
want a job?"
From American Gods by Neil Gaiman. ©
2001. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.