Like The Spirit

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The dash radio crackled as chain-lightning danced low on the horizon. In the next moment the truck cab jangled again with the biscuits and gravy of country-western music. A solitary gust of wind buffeted Jake’s progress down the road and a dozen large drops of water splattered across the windshield. Then it stopped. This was the big country under the influence of rolling weather.

A bump on the wipers and Jake cleared his view. Though the tremendous line of thunderheads was ten miles distant their effect on his sense was to reduce the two-lane county road to a thin cleft shot through a leafy sea of green — deep with maize — unbroken to the drooping fringe of blue.

“Jake ol’ boy,” he said to himself, “looks like you’re in for a cloudburst sure enough.”

A few miles back he passed a large plain billboard. It read:

State Penitentiary
Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers

Jake didn’t have to read the billboard, but he did. He didn’t have to seek the hard-edged prison complex set back from the road but he did that too. Bored wonder often invites a man to look again as if for the first time. And with its guard towers and double fences, the red institutional brick, the place always attracted Jake’s attention. On this route there was little else to see but the crops standing in endless rows and an hollowed out clapboard house leaning at an absurd angle.

The thing was, in seeing the prison, Jake always felt a sense of care for the men locked up in there — and guilt somehow for his own freedom. They were after all still men. The easy and obvious answers are like guards, he thought. There is lots of pacing going on both sides of the bars.

Something fluttered to the side of the road up ahead. Jake lightly touched the brake pedal and downshifted. He sat up and focused ahead. Nearer now, the something lifted for a moment. Slowing down and close enough to make out the shape Jake stopped. A gust of wind lifted the thing clear of the road to wedge it in the gully of the opposite shoulder. There were no other vehicles. Jake parked and clambered out for the plane.

He turned it over. It was a balsa replica of the Spirit of St. Louis in all its glory. The wingspan was twenty-four inches, and the ribbing was skinned tight with milky translucent paper. There was a small tear in the fuselage but the propeller was rubberband powered. Lovingly handcrafted likely it was months in the making.

The wind was picking up now. Jake carried the plane up to the truck. He searched the road up and down. For miles around the only model plane builder would be in that cluster of buildings behind the guard towers, behind the fence. Jake thought about that as he stowed the plane in the cab.

He liked the idea there might be a secret message hidden inside written by a desperate inmate — someone looking at a life sentence for murder or something equally incredible.

Half-right, he would find out later the entire plane itself was the message.