Frank descended the stairs to the tarmac. Stopping at the bottom, he took a deep breath and gave thanks his feet were planted on the ground. The storm they’d flown through to land in Rapid City had thrown the pencil plane about something fierce. After a particularly violent shake, the little boy sitting across the aisle tossed his cookies. The vile substance, reminiscent of the golden arches a couple hours back, had soaked into the fabric of the kid’s clothes, the seat and the carpet. The stench made Frank gag. Sitting next to the kid at the window was his father, drooling on the fuselage, oblivious. With such strong turbulence, the cabin attendant could do nothing, and remained in her jump-seat making sympathetic faces at the boy. Desperate to hold onto his lunch, Frank reached up and unscrewed the air vent blasting his few combover tendrils onto the headrest.
Refreshed with the cold, crisp South Dakota air, Frank followed the patchy yellow line leading to the terminal. The weather was gray, a stiff breeze forming mini-tornadoes of dust and grit. He pulled down the Yankees ball cap he’d purchased at LaGuardia this morning and trudged into the terminal. The other passengers were milling about in baggage claim, a few heartfelt family reunions amidst a smattering of business suits. A fair few of the them had native roots whereas Frank’s ancestors had sailed to the New World under Miles Standish way back when.
The belt wasn’t moving yet and his knees were already complaining about the stress they’d been under, cramped into that sardine can they call a plane. His eyes were red and watery peering out through puffy eyelids as he took in his surroundings. The man whose son blew chunks on the plane caught Frank’s eye as he swatted at the boy full force. The boy avoided the strike, a skill he’d honed, and stood just out of range. The man returned to his closed posture, arms and ankles crossed, chin on chest, face hidden by a dirty green DeKalb cap. There was an open seat next to the man but it was the old airport style, narrow with metal armrests. Frank knew he could never cram his ass into that space. He continued to stand.
An insistent buzz began, indicating the bags would be loaded onto the belt when the man he’d been expecting approached him.
Frank nodded, but said nothing.
“Joe Ironcloud,” said the man and held out his hand.
“Frank,” he said and shook his hand. Joe’s face looked to be chiseled from stone with deep brown, almost black eyes. His quilted flannel shirt was undone, revealing a black Harley-Davidson tee underneath. Covering his head was a weathered, brown leather cowboy hat that had endured many seasons. Faded jeans were held up around his narrow hips with a broad leather belt, clasped by a steel buckle cast in the shape of an eagle. The man appeared very fit in that small but strong and wiry way, even though Frank knew him to be at least twenty years his senior. He exuded the quiet strength of a man secure in himself.
“There’s my bag,” nodded Frank as the black Samsonite pushed through the hanging flaps. They both stood silent, waiting as the bag snaked its way around on the belt. When it came near, Frank picked it up, lifted the handle and hung his soft leather satchel in a well practiced maneuver.
“That it?” asked Joe.
“Yup,” said Frank.
“Let’s go then.”
They made their way to the Pine Ridge reservation in Joe’s beat up Ford F150 pickup truck. It had the misfortune to be painted white, highlighting its thick coat of dust and dirt. Frank estimated it had been quite some time since it had a thorough wash.
“My son tells me you are having spiritual trouble,” said Joe, swerving just enough to avoid a massive pothole without touching the brakes.
“Just can’t sleep,” said Frank, “that’s all.”
Joe nodded and ran his hand over his iron gray hair fashioned in a military style crewcut.
“Sorry?” asked Frank.
“How long has it been?”
Frank took a deep breath and thought about it. “I get an hour here or there, but it’s gotta be six months or so since I slept more than that.”
Joe nodded in appreciation. “Long time.”
Frank scanned the landscape as Joe drove. It was perhaps the bleakest place he’d ever seen. Overcast with nonstop ranch land, seemingly uninhabited by man or beast. The only indication of anything living around here was the two lane highway and barbed wire fences. While stark, it was some time before Frank understood the true meaning of ‘The Badlands.’ Following Highway 41 south they began the slow ascent up Red Shirt Table Mountain. Being on top of the table didn’t seem to Frank like being on a mountain though. On top of a mountain, you knew you were elevated above everything else around you. Here it was more like you stood on the untouched land between the tire tracks of a monster truck the size of Manhattan. The landscape appeared excavated, falling away from the edge of the table in both directions, full of an intricate pattern of ridges and spires of solid rock all the way to the horizon. Frank was impressed with the landscape but didn’t comment.
They turned off onto another highway when Frank asked, “Where are we going?”
“We’re headed to my place for tonight.”
Frank shook his head. “I don’t want to be any trouble. Is there a nearby motel?”
“Really Joe. I’m happy to pay for a room. It’d be great if we could find one with free wireless. ”
Joe sighed, “No motel.”
Joe ignored Frank’s grunt and turned on the headlights, it was getting dark early now. Daylight savings had ended the previous weekend.
With the heat of the sun gone, Frank shivered in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest.
“You cold?” asked Joe.
“I’ll be ok.”
Joe glanced at Frank, narrowed his eyes, then shook his head. He turned on the heat in the cab full blast.
Twenty minutes later, Joe slowed the truck and pulled off onto a rutted dirt track. Looking out the side window, Frank could see nothing whatsoever. No cars, no trees, not even the clouds. With no streetlights, no moon and overcast skies it was as if someone had draped the cab in a black velvet curtain. The truck rocked side to side as Joe crawled down the track. After a few hundred meters, Frank made out a single story ranch style house ahead lit by the headlights. A long wooden porch lined the entire front of the house where two wooden rocking chairs sat side by side. Joe pulled up in front, parked the truck and turned off the ignition. The world went silent.
“Welcome to my home.”