Dalton Hall was dying. It had taken four hours to unload the circus trucks and now they had to pitch the tents and assemble the booths. His arms and shoulders throbbed as they tugged on the big-top. The other temps were rheumy-eyed, out-of-luck men just like Dalton, but younger, with harder edges, fresher muscles. Dalton�s boot-heel hit a rock in the hardpacked turf and he fell to his knees. The men stopped tugging.
�Come on, old man,� said the kid next to him, a skinhead with snake tattoos curled around both arms. �We ain�t got all fucking night.�
Dalton pushed himself to his feet, his breaths ragged, his hands on his knees. The cough returned, wet and mucousy, like he was drowning. His nose dripped. He swiped his face with the sleeve of his army jacket.
The crew chief jumped down from the bed of his pickup where he�d been barking orders. �Shut up you little Nazi.� He walked over to Dalton and pointed at the combat-side insignia on his shoulder. �12th Cav?� he asked.
�2nd Battalion. Back in �68.�
�Thon La Chu. We got killed all to hell there.� Dalton hawked up a glob of phlegm.
�My brother died at Khe Sanh.�
Dalton nodded. The ghosts lived forever.
�Go help my palm reader, Zelda. Her old man got busted and she ain�t never going to get that booth up on her own.�
Dalton squared up, hands on his hips. �A palm reader?� He spit out the words like bad medicine.
�What? That against your religious principles?�
Dalton spit again, shook his head. �I ain�t got no goddamn principles.�
Zelda was a skinny country girl, a wispy blonde with light eyes and a hillbilly twang. Nothing like the other one. �Sure do �preciate all your help, Mr. Hall,� she said as Dalton finished nailing up her sign promising, �Honest Readings � Guaranteed Results.� �You did right fine work.�
�You�re welcome, miss.�
Zelda pulled out a change purse from her apron pocket. She handed Dalton a greasy dollar bill. �Sorry I ain�t got more.�
Dalton took the bill. �It�s okay. Bossman�s paying us.�
�Let me give you a reading. On the house.� Her smile was so pure, Dalton hated to say no.
�No need, ma�am.�
Zelda pouted. �You think I�m a fake.�
�No ma�am. It�s just I�ve already been done. In Saigon. When I had a future to tell.�
�And what did she reckon your future was?�
�Said my lifeline were broke. Said I�d never make it home.�
Zelda took his hand. She studied his face while she ran her smooth warm hands over his palm. Her touch felt magical. �You believed her,� she said. It wasn�t a question.
Dalton tried to pull his hand away, but he couldn�t. �Yeah, every goddamn bullshit word.�
�And what happened?�
�I�m still here, ain�t I?�
�What happened at Thon La Chu?� she asked. Her twang was gone. Her blue eyes seemed to stare through him.
�What? How do you...?�
�Tell me, Dalton.�
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. �NVA had us pinned down on the side of the mountain. We knew come daybreak they�d attack. I figured I�m a dead man, so I picked up my M-16 and headed for the mountaintop. Wanted to be as close to Heaven as I could get.�
�And your comrades?�
�Some of them boys followed me, some didn�t. Most of us made it to the top. Them boys that stayed behind�� Dalton shook his head.
�I reckoned she saved your life,� Zelda said, twangy again.
She turned over his palm. �Look, here. See this bump under your little finger? You have great moral courage, Dalton Hall.�
Dalton stared at his palm. �Me? You are crazy. I ain�t no hero.�
�You have principles, Dalton, but see this hollow under your thumb?�
Zelda rubbed Dalton�s fingertips over the smooth depression.
�That�s where you get your physical courage. Recklessness. You�re not wild, Dalton. You�re a gentle man.�
�She said I was going to die.�
�She knew that in a world gone mad only the reckless survive.�
Dalton bowed his head, cradled his palm. For the first time in forty years he cried. The tears fell into his upturned hand and trickled to the groove etched across his palm. �What�s this line?� he asked, pointing to the river of tears.
Zelda brushed her lips against his cheek and whispered in his ear. �That�s the heart line, Dalton. You have such a very fine heart.�
BIO: Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife and three children. For fifteen years Joy owned and operated an automobile engine remanufacturing company with plants in Phoenix, Arizona, Richmond, Virginia and Willow Springs, Missouri. In the last year his work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, LITnIMAGE, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Righthand Pointing, Dogzplot, NightsAndWeekend, GlassFire Magazine, Slow Trains, 21Stars Review, Boston Literary Magazine and The Daily Palette (Iowa Review). He is currently working on a novel. His blog, "Do Not Go Gentle," (http://lenjoy.blogspot.com/) chronicles his pursuit of USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships.