We finally reached the plane. Bill stopped; I staggered a few feet away from him, bent over, and ingloriously paid noisy homage to the completion of the journey. I wiped my mouth, caught my breath and regained my composure. I straightened to find Bill’s blue eyes gazing unconcernedly at me.
“Whassa matter – too much smoking?”
I didn’t even smoke.
We shoehorned the old man into the back seat of the plane. I climbed into the front beside Bill, he took off, and we headed toward Nome.
I looked back at our passenger as we neared the airstrip. His arms had been bent forward, as if waving a frozen farewell out the rear window, but the warmth of the plane was beginning to relax this gesture. As Bill lined up in final approach, the old man slowly shifted position again and gently placed a hand on my shoulder. Bill glanced at me and smiled.
“I always heard he was kinda friendly.”
We landed and taxied to the red hangar where Bill’s mechanic was waiting. I had visions of pulling the now-thawing hermit from the plane, putting him in the back of Bill’s Jeep, and taking him into town – with me riding in the back.
“C’mon,” said Bill. “We’ll leave him here. Someone from the funeral home is supposed to be out.”
Bill drove me back to town and dropped me off at the café. I never was curious enough to find out who the old man was. Bill reverted to his usual aloof politeness with me, and he never again asked me to help him.
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