Billy didn't say another word until he set his fork down on his cleaned plate. His jaw moved up and down slowly with a hitch. As far as Strongland could tell it looked like it had been busted and healed badly. The chrome fork moved methodically, Strongland got the sense Billy was working really hard to pace the meal out, as if it was his last.
Strongland hadn't said a word either. It was hard not to watch him eat— just as much as it was damn hard not to look away. Strongland thought about a time he drove down from his old place on the mountain into town in a rain so heavy he half expected to get caught in a flash flood boiling off the granite and cement above him. Down in the city, the streets swelled with water a chalky blue from the clay and the trash and the grime. Strongland found that damn cat just where he expected to, hunched and shivering and scared most all the way to death, rain thundering down almost like hail, hammering that beat up Impala parked across from his work.
He knew the cat wouldn't come out. Sure as hell didn’t, just clutched the cement, yowling low at him from its throat, then just bore its eyes at Strongland’s jaw, refusing to meet his eyes, just enough to show that even if he might learn to trust him somewhere down the line, if he even so much as stuck a finger under that car that cat would rather ditch out and take his chances in the flooding street than let him get closer. So Strongland lay on the street, soaked to the bone, until the rain eased back enough that he could set a can of cat food out for him without worrying it would wash away.
Strongland backed away, rocked back onto his boot heels and waited and watched as that cat leaned into the can and ate in gulps and snarls and licked that can spotless. Strongland waited beside the cat until nightfall. By that time the streets had drained clean and the sky shone black like a thickly-glazed porcelain bowl was turned over atop the city. A city utility truck, outfitted with eye numbing yellow and orange strobes flaring against the darkness wildly, broke the night wide open; his eyes followed it across the far intersection until it disappeared behind a row of apartments, hunkered down into the inky atmosphere, blending into nothing. Strongland hadn’t realized until then that the power was out in this section of town. Strongland whispered to the cat, “Did you see all that action?” He peered underneath the Impala and there wasn’t anything under there but darkness.
Strongland realized he had been staring at Billy; a look came over him, and Strongland took it for guilt, or worse than that. Shame. A starving man ought not to feel ashamed for surviving long enough to eat. Strongland remembered a story his dad told him when he was a boy when they worked the soup kitchens; a man is ashamed not because he's hungry, he’s ashamed that anyone knew about it. It is only a survivor that can walk into a soup kitchen with enough dignity to keep himself from dying.
Laura saved them, for a moment at least, fluttering to their table like a landing mourning dove, "You boys need another coffee?"
Strongland shook the offer off.
Billy half-looked her way. “No ma’am.”
She put her hands on her hips. "Suit yourself.” She cocked her head at Strongland and then winked before turning to look over at Billy. “Well, this is your boss's lucky day Mr. Parham, breakfast is on me."
Billy folded his paper napkin as if it was finely woven linen, set it on his plate, dead center, placed his hands on his knees and eased the chair back from the linoleum table and then stood. “You ought not do that to an old and broke man.”
Laura’s tanned skin flushed, first time Strongland ever saw that happen. “Do what Mr. Parham.”
Billy took in the room. He looked at the cleared plates and empty coffee cups and unopened paper creamers in their bowl and the ketchup squeeze bottle and stacks of jelly and his perfectly folded napkin. “Be so kind to a man that can’t repay.”
Strongland stood, leaned a little towards Laura, gave her a half smile and nodded as he pulled out his wallet. “I’m still tipping,” and attempted to flip a ten dollar bill towards the table, it had a mind of its own and spun across the edge of the table and slid under the next table. Strongland reached down to pick it up. When he stood, Billy was walking out the front door.
Laura put her hand on Strongland’s shoulder. “I feel awful... I didn’t.”
Strongland covered her hand with his. “Forget it. That was really sweet.”
She nodded towards the door.
“Yep.” He handed the ten over and then followed after Billy, pushed out the door and found him kneeling in front of a Ledger newspaper vending machine. Without taking his eyes off the machine, Billy spoke in a near whisper, “Give me a minute?”
“See you at the truck.” Strongland left him there, his hands on top of the box like he was stooped down with his hands on a child’s shoulders and was about to explain something of paramount importance. He fired the Chevy up, cleaned his sunglasses, and looked the trucks in the parking lot over, comparing lifts and wheels, picking out the ones he would want if he had the cash to lay out.
Billy opened the passenger door, slid into the seat.
“You good to go?” Strongland asked him.
Billy grunted, nodded slightly.
They drove back the same way they had come into town. Several blocks slipped by in silence. Billy faced his window. It wasn’t until Strongland checked the passenger side mirror that he realized the old man was crying. Strongland looked away, embarrassed for both of them. Several more blocks faded behind them.
Again, in a near as much a whisper as it could come out, “It’s hard to believe the truths about anything anymore.”
Strongland kept his eyes on the road ahead, unsure if he should offer a response, but seeing as he sure as hell didn’t have one he kept his mouth shut. A railway gate lowered at the end of the block. Strongland rolled the Chevy to a stop. A train clattered and swayed and shoved the air hard and pushed the truck and reverberated through his lungs like he was front row at a rock concert.
Billy went on, softly still, so much so that it was hard to make out what he said as the train hammered by. “How’s it even possible to see a nothing thing like that. Black holes…just, how in the world can you see a thing like that?”
He didn’t look at Strongland as he spoke, and Strongland didn’t dare look to see if he was still crying. Strongland got the sense Billy was mostly talking to himself.
“How are they so damn sure? One more black thing out in the nowhere of an entire solar system and then one day, sure as hell, they claim they found a black hole. God help us. A man ain’t supposed to see a thing like that. Hell, I’d be half afraid just looking at it in the paper could yank out my soul and squeeze it into nothing.”
The Chevy rocked. The blur of yellow and gray and chrome and stainless and smears of graffiti crashed along, tormenting the metal rails. The last box car roared passed and Billy’s words trailed away with it. Strongland struggled to catch the words, but was less sure of them, even as the echo of the thundering train faded.
“I ain’t anything. Just ain’t anything, nothing left of me. All my life and now look. God damned black holes. Jesus Christ.”
Strongland reached out the window and adjusted his mirror just a fraction. Yesterday at work he’d heard about the first picture shared of a known black hole, and he hadn’t wanted to see it for himself. It hadn’t set well with him either. We were making advancements in all kinds of technical things, seemed like if you paid attention there was something new discovered every day; most good things, some curious, and others, just damn terrifying. This black hole business had left a cold hollow in his guts. Hearing Billy carry on to himself in that manner made him wonder who might possibly feel different about discovering such a thing, and if there was any to come with it, feel some sort of comfort. At the time, and more so now, he just couldn’t see how it would. Being able to prove that there is a thing out there just waiting to swallow every last thing until nothing was there but nothingness. Hell, how could that sit right with anybody?
Aside from the muffled burble of the Chevy’s V-8 there wasn’t a sound. Billy wiped his right forearm across his face as the track gates rose back up, clearing the way for them. The air around them settled and that last train car was out of sight.
Strongland pulled his foot off the brake and they eased forward. As they rolled over the tracks a shudder rolled up Strongland’s spine and across his shoulders. “The world sure seems simple until you decide you have questions for it.”
Billy wiped his face again with his sleeve. “Some things maybe should be left alone…forever.”
Strongland’s spine and shoulders shuddered again. Yeah, God damned black holes, someday those damn things are gonna swallow the last of the light that ever existed. He nodded and drove on. It was the only thing to do.
Somewhere out there that black hole, and untold others, are working away. And just sat there next to him, was an old man who had just seen a universal reckoning, and Strongland got the sense that like a shadow the sun itself couldn’t pry away from the man, all the dark things that were held inside the old man just stared back at him from the places that should be left alone forever.