“I am not a prophet but I know what I know."
Not paying attention, Harry Quayle suddenly swerved to his right and just missed stepping on a deep crack in the pavement. He frowned.
“Step on a crack,” he scolded himself, “and break your mother's back.”
Two days ago, patrolling the alley behind the bank, he almost caught his toe in a similar fissure. And he was just as upset with himself then as he was now because, if he fell down and broke his wrist, then, in all likelihood, he would lose his job as a guard at Sterling Savings.
Last spring, after graduating from a community college downstate, he went to work as a security guard for Assured Protective Services. His first assignment was to protect a large hardware store that recently went into foreclosure. Scarcely anyone was there anymore so the days were long as kept an eye on the gigantic building. Five months later, he was reassigned to provide security for the east side branch of Sterling Savings which was always bustling with activity. He had been there almost three months and, according to his supervisor, would likely be rotated to guard another branch of the bank in another three months. That was fine with him because he had found the current assignment pretty onerous.
The bank manager, Mr. Schumer, expected him to stand at the main entrance as if he were a doorman at a hotel. He was not permitted to set foot inside the bank, even when it was pouring out, and was discouraged from speaking with customers. It seemed as if he were not much more than a department store window mannequin armed with a stun gun and dressed all in black. In time, out of boredom, he began to venture away from his post at the main entrance and pace back and forth in front of the limestone building. A panther in a cage, so he thought of himself at times. When he didn't receive any objections from Mr. Schumer, he extended his movement in small increments until he was pacing up and down the entire north side of the block. He didn't dare walk around the block, though, because then the bank would be out of his line of vision.
“Oh, hello,” he said, touching the brim of his cadet-style cap.
It was Mr. Maynard, a regular customer at the bank. He owned a small pet supply store down the street and every business day he deposited his earnings from the previous day.
“When I woke up this morning, I smelled smoke and thought something was burning in my backyard and I looked out the window and saw the sky was pretty hazy,” he said, speaking so fast he was almost out of breath. “Then I turned on the radio and heard about all the wildfires that have broken out in Camden County.”
Quayle cracked his knuckles. “I guess the folks trying to contain the fires aren't sure how they got started.”
“I wouldn't be surprised if some idiot left his campfire smoldering. Carelessness has been the cause of a lot of fires in this region.”
“I heard someone was arrested early this morning for setting one of the fires,” another customer said as he came out of the bank.
Mr. Maynard just raised his eyebrows as he stepped past Quayle to enter the revolving glass door.
When he was little Quayle often went camping with his family in different parts of Camden County. Once a wildfire broke out in the vicinity of where they were camped, and he remembered seeing a tower of black smoke in the distance. It looked like an iron pillar had dropped out of the sky. Not his father, but nearly everyone else at the campground, took off in a stampede, leaving their tents and belongings behind them. One driver almost sideswiped his mother he was in such a rush, and he could still hear his father hollering at the reckless man.
“People lose their heads when they hear the word 'fire',” he said later on the drive home, “and that can cause others to lose theirs.”
“So what do you think?”
Quayle looked at the older woman who was an occasional customer. “About what, ma'am?”
She glanced up at the sky which had started to turn pink in the past hour. “Will we have to make a run for it?”
He smiled. “I don't think the fires will spread into our neck of the woods.”
“I don't know,” she said, sounding concerned. “I understand hundreds of people in Camden County have already evacuated their homes.”
“It'll be contained,” he said, trying to reassure her.
She crossed her fingers. “I hope you're right, Harry.”
“So do I.”
“One thing's for sure.”
“You're half the age of most bank guards in town so you'll be able to outrun the flames if they come. People my age won't be so fortunate.”
When he first started working at Sterling Savings, he ate his lunch at one of the diners in the immediate area. That turned out to be a little too costly for his pocketbook, though, so for the past month he packed a sandwich and an apple in a paper bag and ate his lunch in his car which he parked in a distant corner of the bank's vast parking lot.
All day, on duty, he watched people pass by him so one thing he didn't do during lunch was look out the window. Instead, he read a newspaper or a magazine, sometimes a crime novel he bought at a drugstore. And for the past few days he had been reading passages from an English translation of the Commentaries of Julius Caesar on the Gallic Wars. The book belonged to his great Aunt Esther who, ages ago, taught Latin in a parochial high school. She tried to teach him various aspects of the language whenever he visited her, often using the Commentaries as her text to translate from, but he just didn't have the patience or discipline that were required for the task. Besides, he had enough trouble with the demands of English to try to learn another language, especially one that was no longer in use.
“Latin is a dead language,” she acknowledged more than a few times. “Still, much can be learned from it just as a coroner can learn much from a corpse.”
He wasn't sure about that but he did enjoy reading about Caesar's military campaigns even if it was in translation.
Just about every day, around half past two, a vagrant wandered past the bank with an Army surplus blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Often he walked with his head bent so far down that his chin nearly touched his chest. Quayle thought he resembled a question mark and came to refer to him as “Mark.” The man never objected so he figured maybe that was his actual name.
This afternoon, when he got within a couple feet of the main entrance, he paused and lifted his chin and glared at the guard for a moment.
“The world will end in fire,” he declared, slowly spreading out his filthy hands. “Have I not told you that before, deputy?”
“You have, Mark. Numerous times.”
“I am not a prophet but I know what I know.”
That you do, he thought, watching the ragged man shuffle past the bank.
In another minute, Mr. Schumer stepped through the revolving door and motioned for Quayle to come over to him.
“Haven't I warned you about talking to that tramp?” he snarled, squeezing his hands into fists.
“I didn't say more than a couple of words.”
“One is too many because it's just enough to encourage him to continue to come around here. And, believe me, the sight of him scares away business. More than one person has told me when they see him out here talking with you they turn right around and head in the opposite direction.”
“He doesn't mean any harm, sir.”
Mr. Schumer disagreed. “A lot of the trouble we're having these days is because of vagrants like him. They turn everything sour, including the weather.”
“You can't blame the wildfires on him.”
“I don't know why not,” he barked, stepping back through the door.
“I'm afraid they're coming our way,” Mr. Maynard speculated as he walked toward the bank guard. “The sky looks like someone set it on fire.”
It was as red as Quayle had ever seen it so he was worried that Mr. Maynard might be right after all.
“It won't be long before all of us will be running for cover.”
Mr. Maynard wasn't the only bank customer concerned that the wildfires might spread beyond Camden County. Some were so troubled that they withdrew their savings and cashed in their treasury bonds. One customer who closed her account asked Quayle to accompany her to her car because she noticed Mark loitering outside the bank and was worried he might try to snatch her purse. He told her the vagrant wasn't a threat but he could tell she didn't believe him. And, as soon as they entered the lot, she spotted the ragged man crossing the street against the traffic light, whirling his blanket as if it were a matador's cape.
“Hear that?” she asked angrily. “Hear all those horns honking at him? All he is is trouble.”
Quayle didn't say anything as he hoped Mark safely reached the other side of the street.
“Mark my words, more and more people are going to become as reckless as that man is because of all the stress they are under on account of these wildfires.”
Later, at lunch, Quayle looked again at an early section of the Commentaries in which Caesar expressed his concern about the panic that had spread among his troops after local villagers told them of the enormous courage and skill of their German adversaries. Caesar, however, refused to be intimidated by the claims and made it clear to his troops that he would engage the enemy with only one legion if necessary.
The bank guard decided he had to be just as steadfast and resolved not to panic as so many others in town were doing.
“The Lord thy God is a consuming fire saith the Old Testament!” Mark shouted as he headed toward Quayle. “And now is the time for the world to be consumed.”
“You mustn't say such things,” he pleaded with him.
“It's the truth.”
“It's not what people want to hear. It only upsets them.”
“They should be upset because all they have, all they are, soon will be gone.”
Quayle, realizing he could not reason with him, just shook his head. Most people in the community, before the outbreak of the wildfires, viewed him as nothing more than a nuisance but from the way they looked at him now he suspected they regarded him as a menace. His words had become as incendiary as a box of matches.
Back and forth Quayle walked, trying to be as vigilant as he could, his eyes trained on everyone who entered the bank. “You never know who might be a robber,” he recalled a senior guard telling him soon after he was hired.
A couple of customers this morning wore surgical masks because the smoke from the wildfires was so strong, and he had to remind them to remove the masks once they stepped inside the bank. His supervisor said, if he wished, he could wear a mask on duty in order to prevent tiny smoke particles from embedding themselves into his lungs and possibly even his bloodstream. He decided not to, however, sure that Mr. Schumer would not approve because he didn't think it looked professional to hide behind a mask.
As usual, around two-thirty, Quayle spotted Mark about to cross the street. Mark was waving his arms and weaving through traffic, as if something was chasing him--as if he knew his future. Mark ran and ran, horns blaring, until he disappeared in the smoke.
T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and is the author of the recently published novel Cruel Earth.