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  • EVANS WALKED north along the shore road, hoping to find a telephone, hoping a policeman would pick him up, hoping for inspiration, hoping for a miracle.

    The sun had set and the wind now whipped at him with a serrated edge of sand. Could this really be the same South Jersey shore road that teemed with cars, bicycles and pedestrians in the summertime?

    The streetlights came on, but they cast their blue-white light over nothing human save Evans. He walked through the pools of light and the shadows between them. The wires stretching from pole to pole swayed and whistled in the wind, making snakelike shadows on the asphalt where granular sand drifted like snow. He swung his legs almost violently, to get some circulation into his aching feet, and pulled the knit cap farther down over his ears.

    After about half an hour of walking, Evans smelled wood smoke on the wind. It seemed to come from a point in the dunes, but he saw nothing. Worth a look, though, he thought; where there's smoke, there's likely fire. Where there's fire, there's likely warmth. He saw a path of open sand leading through the sawgrass and beach plum, and followed it.

    Over the first dune, the streetlights no longer tempered the darkness, the hollowed-out places were wells of black shadow. Stars pebbled the sky. Evans saw the Milky Way for the first time since he couldn't remember when, and he recognized Orion's belt from his Boy Scout merit badge days. The wood smoke smell was stronger and the wind not as harsh in the sandy pocket between the high dunes. The snaredrum roll of surf rose and fell in the oceanward distance.

    Evans's eyes adjusted to the darkness. A dim light appeared about fifty yards away, in the lee of a high barrier dune. Evans approached the light, which seemed to flicker -- but diffusely, not from a single source like a lamp or even an open flame. As he approached the light, the smell grew more pungent, summoning memories of driftwood fires and marshmallow roasts in summers when such things were still permitted at the New Jersey seashore.
  • THE LIGHT came from a window of isinglass or some translucent plastic material in the side of a driftwood shack tucked into a shaded space where, but for the mellow glow, it would have been invisible practically until you had stumbled upon it. Smoke poured from a galvanized stovepipe in the rear of the structure. There didn't seem to be a door. Evans cleared his throat and knocked on the wall near the window.

    He heard a rustle of activity inside the shack, over the muted wind and surf. After hooks and bolts released it, the window swung open about eight inches and Evans saw within the silhouette of a smallish man wearing an Irish fisherman's pullover sweater and a knit cap. The face he could not see clearly.

    "Who are you?" The man's voice sounded like the wheeze of a leaky bellows.

    "My car broke down. It's down the road a mile or so. Do you have a phone I can use?"

    "You didn't answer my question. I'll repeat it slowly. Who. . . are. . . you?"

    "My name is Edward Evans, sir. I came from New York and my car broke down. I want to call for help."

    "You'd better come in, then, if you came all that way." The man gestured for Evans to step over the window sill.

    Inside the shack, Evans looked around and saw a cot made up with a Navy surplus wool blanket, a dark red carpet covering the wooden floor, a small table with a kerosene lamp, one chair and an open book in front of the lamp. Radiating warmth at the end of the little room, a woodstove sat on a layer of bricks, a teapot on top. A box of driftwood sat alongside, and cans of food were set on a wall shelf nearby.
  • WELL NOW, Mr. Edward Evans, welcome to my castle. Will you have some tea? There's only the one cup, but you're welcome to it."

    "I don't get it," said Evans. "Do you live here?"

    "You're not much for answering questions, are you? I'll repeat: Will . . . you. . . have . . . some . . . tea?"

    "I'm sorry. It's been a long day. Sure. I'd love some tea. I'm freezing. Thanks."

    The man filled the teapot from a bottle of water and set it on the stove to boil.

    "Do you live here?" Evans asked.

    "So it seems, doesn't it?"

    "Do you live here all the time, I mean."

    "Well, no, since you ask. I come down to this stretch of beach every year around Halloween -- after the cities gobble the summer people back up. It takes me a day or two to throw up a house, and then I settle in for the winter. The seashore in winter is a beautiful place."

    New Age mystical horseshit, thought Evans.

    The man handed him a cup of hot tea with sugar and condensed milk, which warmed Evans's hands first and then the rest of him. The woodstove and the lamp filled the little room with light and warmth and the starry pelagic windsurfsounding night roared without. Well, all right. This is getting weirder and weirder, but there's not much I can do about it, so I'm going to enjoy it.

    "Thanks for your hospitality." Evans took a swallow of tea. "I thought I was in some serious trouble. I don't remember seeing anything in town that looked very open. I'm sure you don't have a phone here, and I'm not sure I'd have found one in the village, either. I have a cell phone, but I left it home on purpose."

    The man regarded his guest with a smile. He wore a well-trimmed white beard and steel-rimmed half-glasses which gave him a professorial look -- with the heavy sweater and knit cap, he looked like a marine biologist or an oceanographer working in the field. At his host's gestured invitation, Evans sat on the edge of the cot.

    "What are you running away from?" the man said. "What brings Edward Evans of New York to the seaside in January?"

    "Not running away, really. More like going off on a little frolic for the sake of my sanity. Go to the seaside and think about things. That was the idea. Nice mess I've made of that. Thanks for the tea and the warm-up. Now, if you'll just give me a clue what's open in the village, I'll leave you in peace."

    "You'll find nothing open at this hour." The man took the teacup and rinsed it with water from the kettle. He tossed the water into a slop bucket in the corner. "I'll not let you go wandering from here till morning. It's my pleasure to put you up for the rest of the night. My name, by the way -- since you didn't ask -- is Samuel Rush. Call me Sam or call me Mr. Rush; don't dare call me Samuel. It's Sam Rush who's your host for the night and my home is your home, my bed yours. I'll sit up with my book and tend the fire."
  • EVANS looked at his watch. A little after nine o'clock. Sally's going to get home in fifteen minutes or so, to a dark house and no dinner. She'll spend the rest of the evening working up a good charge of indignation and no amount of explaining on my part will do the least bit of good. God, what a mess.

    "You're too kind, Sam," Evans said. "Let me take the chair. You take the bed."

    "I'll strike a compromise with you," Sam said. "We'll do as the seafaring men do and take watches. I'll stand -- sit -- watch from now till two in the morning by my pocket watch. Then I'll wake you and it'll be your watch till morning. That's fair and it'll get us through the night in no time."

    "Done. I'm in the soup at home, there's nothing I can do about it now, so I'm going to enjoy your hospitality and your company."

    Evans unlaced his boots and pulled them off with a sigh of relief. He massaged his still-cold feet for a moment or two, then stretched out on Sam Rush's cot, which creaked and swayed as he shifted his weight.

    Sam pulled his chair close to the woodstove and studied his visitor with the look of a terrier at play. Evans closed his eyes and sighed. He hadn't gotten any inspiration out of this day; he hadn't found whatever he thought he was looking for. The problems would be waiting for him whenever he got home, right where he'd left them. They'd just have festered a couple of days longer and therefore would be more foul-smelling and decayed than before.

    "Now, Mr. Evans, again you've avoided my question. You say you're not exactly running away, you're frolicking for the sake of your sanity, I believe you said."

    It's none of your business, you old bird, Evans wanted to say but didn't. "I came down here to think about my life, to see if some fresh air would clear my thinking. I don't want to bother you with my troubles."

    "I don't believe you. I think you want to talk about it. I'm an old man in a shack by the winter sea -- don't hear much human conversation in this season. Go ahead. Talk. You have all night."

    "It's my work. My office. I came in there yesterday morning with a sense of dread. There was no joy in the place. None whatsoever. The mail contained the usual mix of threats, demands, warnings -- no words of hope, no expressions of faith or belief, nothing that smacked of anything good about humanity. What kind of a livelihood is that?"

    "I hear a person who sounds sick and unfulfilled," Sam said.

    "Yes, but so what?" Evans said. "No one cares. I can lie here and yowl at the uncaring universe till I'm sick of the effort, and it isn't going to help me -- or anyone else for that matter -- one little tiny bit."

    "You're free to leave any time, it appears to me," Sam said. "The problem isn't that you want to go. The problem is, you want to go but something's holding you back. Fear of the unknown, is it? That's a different matter. An old saying -- Spanish, I think -- goes like this: 'Take what you want,' said God, 'and pay for it.' You want freedom from a place you say you hate. You can have that freedom for the taking, but you must pay for it. Think about that. You may find the price is quite reasonable for the benefit you get."

    "Sure. I know that. It's obvious. The problem is obvious. The solution isn't. That's why I'm here. It's been a long day, Sam. Thanks again for your hospitality and for listening to my troubles."

    "Good night to you, Mr. Evans of New York," said Sam. "I'll wake you at two."

    Evans wrapped himself in the Navy blanket and slept. The wind whistled, the sea roared, the stars revolved in the winter sky. He slept as he hadn't slept in years.
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