The summer has been busy with work, writing and travel. When free time permits, I have found myself sorting back through some older writings. Always a good time;) I came across this short story I wrote in the late 90’s while still in college. In lieu of burdening you all with more tree stuff, I thought I would share it.
Thanks so much for sharing your time and energy. I appreciate it more than you can know.
A quick down shift from third to second and the old Chevy truck lurches and slows to 15 miles per hour. The last few traces of gas in the 30 or so gallon tank splash forward away from the gas line at the rear of the tank, causing a momentary sputter.
“Damn, I better make it. I don’t wanna walk.”
Chris would have crossed his fingers, but its hard to drive like that. Besides, he would prefer to cross his legs. He’s had to piss like a son-of-a-bitch ever since the turnpike exit at Groffton 45 minutes ago. Chris’s truck is not a beauty, but it gets him from “a” to “b,” as he is fond of saying whenever someone comments on its dilapidated condition. From “a” to “b,” except, of course, when it runs out of gas, like it is about to do any moment.
The truck, formerly fire engine red, is now primer red, a faded version of the original, pock marked with large patches of undercoat. Small hints of the original color still show around the door jambs and on the tail gate. At one time, say in 1979 when it had just rolled off the assembly line, the Chevy full size custom deluxe was top of the line in half ton pickups. With its smooth two tone brown vinyl seating, four on the floor, AM / FM radio with four preset buttons, chrome trim and bumpers, and two side-view mirrors, it looked slick in its day.
The truck’s glory days, however, were long gone before Chris slapped down $600 bucks for it to the greasy mechanic in Loudersville.
“Yea, some guy brought it in and left town without paying the bill or taking the truck.” the mechanic confided to Chris as he wiped his perpetually dirty hands together in a filthy rag.
“It’s all yours for $700 though. Hell, I did $300 worth of work to it.” the mechanic turned wheeler – dealer accentuated his offer by spitting a brown stream of Beechnut on the packed dirt behind his garage.
“I’ll give you $600 in cash, right now.” Chris couldn’t take his eyes off the dirt encrusted hands. He couldn’t remember ever seeing hands so freaking dirty.
“It’s all yours, boy.” Instant decision, the mechanic’s left hand reached for the money while his right went for a handshake. In that order, Chris remembers it vividly, money first.
He bought the truck for two reasons last May. The piece-of-shit Subaru station wagon he was driving finally gave up the ghost and he ditched it, much like the former owner of this truck did. He never liked that damn car. It hardly ever got him from “a” to “b,” but for $300 you couldn’t go wrong. Especially since his net worth at the time was $350. Secondly, Chris felt a connection with this truck at first sight. He would never tell anybody, but every time he looks at the front grill with its two square headlights, faded yellow Chevy bow tie, and slightly rusted, bent-then-reshaped-in-four-places bumper, the truck seems to smile at him. A smile is something Chris has always appreciated. He even enjoys passing a few on from time to time.
“Life is too short to be sad,” he would say, beaming brightly, but right now he would trade a smile for a gallon of the old petrol in a heart beat.
“I think this is the road.” He turned the steering wheel sharply to the right. “Been a while,” is the unspoken follow up thought.
He turns off the pitted, broken pavement of Swamp Fire road and onto a red, dusty, wash board of a dirt trail. The sudden bouncing and jolting of his full bladder causes a slight grimace to cross Chris’s face. Habitually, he pushes his blond bangs to the left side of his face with his left hand. The right hand white knuckles the brown, plastic wheel to maintain control. He depresses the gas pedal a bit further to hasten this last leg of the journey, but the last few drops of gas splash around in the empty tank, causing the truck to sputter once again. Easing off the accelerator, Chris settles back in the bench seat, pushing himself even deeper into the cracked, faded vinyl. If he remembers correctly, it’s two miles after the gate and the gate should be just around the next bend.
Just as planned, the gate appears as well as the gunshot riddled property sign. Appalachian Lumber Company. Hopewell track. 7538 acres. Private property. Land use with written permission only. Serving the East Coast’s lumber needs… blah, blah, blah. The black letters literally and figuratively fade off the white sign into a maze of rodent tooth marks, splattered bird shit, bullet holes, and termite damage.
“Ain’t fixed the sign yet.” He slowly shakes his head to complement his just-as-expected tone. Chris momentarily considers stopping to get out and pump a few more bullets through the dying carcass of information, but the truck sputters again as if at the thought of stopping. Two more miles he thinks to himself. Simultaneously, his bladder tightens up and a wince of pain shoots through his abdomen.
“Maybe later. Just keep on going, baby” This time he speaks aloud as he pats the dash board high and in the center just beneath the mud streaked windshield.
The dirt road never improves. The old Chevy, coughs and wheezes its way toward the cabin. They always called it a cabin, but it’s more like a house. Running water, electric heat, a wood stove, full kitchen, two bathrooms with showers, granted everything has that pieced together feel like an old scrapbook, but the cabin is all the more homey for it. Chris coaxes his truck up next to the covered front porch with its two opposing sets of four steps, kills the ignition and lets the silence float in through the open windows. Somewhere a blue jay squawks. The puffy white clouds drift by in a blue sky the color of his faded jeans. The cabin is situated in more or less in the center of the 7500 acre logging tract.
“Now, this is rural” Chris reaches for the door handle. The clock in the dash reads 12:03 pm.. The driver’s door squeaks open. Released from the support of the latch, it leans slightly toward the ground like a tired wing. Chris swings both legs out at the same time and runs for the nearest tree. His hands fumble with his zipper on the way. The silence is not complete, but it is total. Gone are the traffic noises, the honking horns, the slamming doors, the talk and laughter of children in a playground, and all the other urban noises. In their place, the occasional bird chirps. A light afternoon breeze drifts in from the south. Leaves twitter and occasionally fall. Noise exists, but it bends and flows with the surroundings. Autumn, only a few weeks away, is beginning to peep its colorful head around the corner. Already the silver maples and white birches hold traces of yellow in their outermost leaves. Change is in the afternoon air.
Soon, if all goes according to plan, things will change. Eventually, another truck will rumble down the dirt road and park next to Chris’s, then another and another. Doors will open, close, open, close. Hellos will be exchanged, old times related, new ones created. Beer cans will open with that distinct pssssst-crrrraaack. The laughter will increase and so on, until sometime two days from now, on Sunday, everybody will pack up and move on back to their jobs, their lives. This weekend will be only a momentary interruption, a glitch that fills a void for recreation, socialization, and friendship, just like always. That is, of course, if anybody shows up.
“Details, details, details, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Chris remembers smiling as he spoke to a philosophy professor after class about a fucked up essay. Dr. White, the professor, with his perpetual cagey smile made no reply, as was his habit. That was seven years ago. School always came to mind when he thought of the past. Some of his best personal quotations were from his college years
“A useless adventure” Chris would tell his parents or anybody else that asked if he liked college.
“Plenty of esoteric knowledge for a general world.” always followed. What he meant by that, he never quite knew, but it sounded good, it sounded college, so he figured it must have some element of truth in it, somewhere.
It has been six years since Chris has seen this cabin, felt its pull. Six long years of this and that. Chris can imagine what he will say if anybody shows up, if his old friends still come here this third weekend in August and ask him about his life. Oddly enough, he always imagines himself talking to his friends in the voice of the dirty auto mechanic that sold him the truck. He only met the man once and it usually takes a few months for a voice to get in his head like that.
“You know boys, been a wandering” his imaginary self lies as imaginary Beechnut rolls down his chin, looking at the ground, only occasionally making eye contact.
“Yea, that’s what we figured.” Bill or Gary or somebody will reply automatically.
Stereotypical, romantic, but effective and plausible. If only he could tell them the truth. If only he could say, as the voice of the mechanic turns in to the voice of Dr. White, philosophy professor extraordinaire
“Well, to be totally honest, I cannot say I have wandered. Sure I have lived in four or five different places in these last six years. Sure, I have had a dozen or more jobs. But to wander is to move without purpose, to drift without a set plan. I have a set plan. Run from adversity and hide from life. It would be easy for me to say I have been running from commitment, from relationships,and all that soap opera stuff. But that is not the case. Never the less, when things, a job, a girl,or anything gets uncomfortable, I move on. Not because I want to, but because I feel I have to.”
The mental orator is always better than the actual one. Chris pictures himself as Dr. White at an AA meeting or some such place. He stands up amid the tight circle of chairs in the back room of some church.
“Hello, my name is Chris and I just want to say, I am not sure what I am hiding from. It must be something, I keep telling myself as I spend long nights watching bad TV movies or listening to the radio, drinking a few beers. I have not seen or talked to any of my old friends for six years. In fact ,when it comes right down to it, I have not made any new friends either, nor do I really want to.” At this comment, his imaginary peers glance up, uncomfortably overwhelmed by his eloquence and tact.
“Sure,” Chris’s internal voice continues, “there is the occasional drinking buddy, or guy at work who I would occasionally go home to dinner with, but not one single person I would trust with more than enough money and responsibility for the next round.” Damn, it sounds good when he doesn’t have to say it aloud. In his mind’s eye, the listeners nod and approve.
“Now that’s a sappy bunch of bull shit.”A poor John Wayne accent accompanies a waving index finger as Chris addresses the maple tree turned men’s room. The other hand pulls up his zipper
“Where the hell did I put those dog garn matches?” A fading John Wayne continues.
Returning from the tree, Chris opens the passenger side door and dumps the contents of his glove box on the passenger side seat. A battered baseball rolls to the floor and nearly escapes through a rust hole. An outdated insurance card, clipped to a blue and white Pennsylvania registration card drops out. Chris tosses a dead flashlight, black plastic Bic ball point pen, crusty pocket notebook, and greasy cap to the seat. Under all this junk, a 5 inch Smith and Wesson .357 revolver lays, loaded of course.
“What the hell you carry that around for?” a fellow house painter asked him last summer, a look of shock passing his face as he opened the glove box looking for a napkin to wipe up his spilled coffee.
“Security, wouldn’t want anybody to car jack this beautiful truck.” A twinkie muddled Chris’s speech as he licked the overflow cream from his fingers.
“Damn why don’t you just get a car alarm, or lock the doors for Christ sakes. Guns are dangerous.” Henry, the house painter, quickly closed the door and straightened up in the seat, as if he wished he had not seen the revolver.
“Too much trouble, besides the door locks don’t work. The gun is quick, easy, effective. You know.” Chris smiled as he saw the unease build on Henry’s face. Obviously Henry did not like guns and Chris always found it amusing to make the man nervous, never an easy task.
Chris lays the gun on top of the dash and keeps searching for the small green box of wooden matches he picked up last week at the Bowmansville Tavern. He never did like Henry or painting houses, but the money was green, and that was what Henry paid him for. The problem with the whole job was that Henry never understood how to do things the easy way. Henry always wanted to take his time. Henry never rushed through anything. Henry, the man who sipped every beer like a cup of coffee. Henry, the guy who could drink two pots of coffee and not fidget a bit. The gun was the only thing Chris ever saw Henry respond quickly to.
“Slow and easy never lost the race” Henry would always say, quoting some damn song, his eyes looking beyond what ever he was in front of him.
“Well, slow and easy never won the race either,” Chris wanted to scream at Henry. Unfortunately for Chris’s debtors, Henry could respond quickly and had no problem firing him when Chris finally broke down and did scream in his face.
The matches turn up under the discarded, faded purple bandana turned oil rag. Chris grabs the expired insurance card and registration card along with the matches and heads for the fire pit. The truck doesn’t go fast enough to get pulled over and cops are never impressed with outdated registrations anyway.
“Just ain’t a party without the campfire, Just ain’t life without a little smoke” he sings to himself, scooping up a handful of kindling the last cabin occupant had thoughtfully laid near by like the good sucker he was.
Chris dredges out of his pants pocket a few crumpled receipts and assorted lint. These, together with the papers from the glove box, Chris lays on the ground and covers carefully with the sticks. He breaks the sticks one-by-one to the proper size and with forced patience, puts them in place. The wood on the pile becomes increasingly larger in diameter as the the pile grows. Chris scrapes the match against the side of the box. Its blue and white head erupts into flame as the wisps of sulfur smoke drift toward the sky. The receipts instantly catch fire. The whole pile of sticks glows from the inside out. Within thirty seconds, the paper flames die and the pile of tinder lays unchanged save for a slight blackening on the bottom.
“Son of a bitch.” The unburnt wood scatters out of the fire ring and into the surrounding yard, Chris’s right boot propelling it.
“Must remain calm. Take a deep breath. Must remain calm. Take a deep breath.” The mantra comes from his lips in a low frustrated grumble.
“Fucking ten, fucking nine, fucking eight,” the numbers click off inside Chris’s mind. Slowly he calms and sits on a nearby log bench.
“Guess that damn book was worth the twenty bucks” he thinks of the self help guide for managing stress he bought last month. “Take control of your life,” the cover proclaimed, “think clearer,” “know yourself.” Chris, skeptical about most of it , found that the counting backwards from ten helped. Adding the expletives was his own idea and it improved the method dramatically. Maybe Alfred Weis, Dr. of psychology, was not totally full of shit. The blue cover with its yellow lettering makes the book look like a comic collection. The stupid black and while illustrations of men and women massaging their temples and other such stuff add to the book’s comic effect. The last thing he did at the rest stop on the turnpike two hours ago was to stash that book way back under the seat of the truck.
“I don’t need no pussy little book”
The book was just sort of a reinforcement for what he already knew. But that would be hard to explain to his friends.
Books are good for some things. Like the time he read that stupid little book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe by Adams or Adam somebody. Now that was a silly book, but it served a purpose, mindless entertainment. Except Chris always thought the book was more.
“You finish that book yet?” Mr. Murphy a high school English teacher asked.
“Yeah” was a younger Chris’s reply.
“So what?” Chris’s shoulders shrugged. He stared blankly at the yellow classroom wall.
“What did you think ”Mr. Murphy locked his eyes on Chris’s face
“I liked it. Made me think.”
“Think? Think about what?” Always prying, ever the mystery solver, the closet detective and child psychologist all rolled up into one, that was Mr. Murphy.
“I don’t know. About how stupid we look from the outside in. You know, I figure there are two types of people in the world: old people who look at us kids and wish they were young again, and us young people who always feel looked at. Stupid stuff like that. You know.”
You are either looked at or doing the looking, Chris always regarded that as one of his better theories of life. Not like some of his others that had gotten scattered to the four winds after one single attempt, much like the disassembled fire that lay scattered out before him now. Hell, the theory stuck with him all these years. Mr. Murphy just smiled with that teacher’s smile that says; well I have no idea what you just said and it makes no sense, but I am glad you thought about the reading assignment. But to Chris it did make sense. He spent the last two years of high school, one year of college at Ohio State, a few years trying to earn enough money to get back into college, and the odd years since desperately trying not to be a “looker” and remain one of the “looked at.”
“Goddamn theory and that stupid little book got me into trouble.” His head shook from side to side as Chris remembered six years ago to the day.
“Man, you gotta grow up. You can’t go on like this” Bill scolded him on the very spot Chris now sat. Bill’s voice sounded like Mr. Murphy every time Chris remembered this particular stellar day in his life.
Drunk, depressed, and pissed off, Chris had driven his little Honda motorcycle three hours from the Ohio State campus and his loser job in the cafeteria, to the cabin. He then promptly drove into the fire, dropped his bike, stepped out of the fire ring, withdrew a .44 magnum from his coat and fired three shots in the air.
“Hi honeys, I home” was his sardonic greeting.
The bike quickly burst into flames, sending the few people who did not run at the unexpected gun shots scattering for cover. Luckily then, like now, Chris had drifted in with little to no gas in the tank.
“Chris, did you hear me?” Bill had said later that evening, continuing the remembered conversation.
“You sound like my mother. Go away and leave me alone or get me another drink. Either way be useful. Better yet, go to that cute girl friend of yours and plant a big wet smacker on her for me.” Chris stumbled, looking for a cooler. A few other people returned to gather around the campfire. Some laughed, others just stared like the lookers they were.
“Chris, you are going to kill yourself. Just take it easy.” Bill’s ghost voice sans Mr. Murphy still comes in loud and clear. Bill always got upset when ever Chris mentioned his new girl friend, whenever anybody mentioned her.
“No, no, and no. Now get out of my way. I’m freaking thirsty.”
The next morning they picked the charred bike out of the fire, but left Chris lay where he had fallen near the edge of the woods.
That was the beginning of the end. Or perhaps, in thinking back on it, that was the end of the beginning that started with Mr. Murphy and his silly little book. Either way, Bill, and all the others with whom he had grown up, gone to school , confided about the first time he got laid, stole their parent’s beer , and got arrested for vandalism became different from him. Or at least that is how the voice of Dr. White explained things in Chris’s head.
“You Goddamn lookers” was the last thing Chris said as he walked out the dirt lane 2189 days ago heading for Swamp Fire road and hoping for a ride.
“Who cares what they think.” Back in the present Chris stands up, then sits back down quickly. He forcibly stops fingering the small twigs between his fingers. Deep breaths enter through his nostrils and exit through his mouth.
“Fucking ten, Fucking nine. . .”
The lookers and the looked at, the movers and the shakers, the doers and the stagnate, this is how life is. Take it or leave it. You either are or you are not. To be is to live, to live is to do. Life is a series of events not freaking dreams. The platitudes ran through Chris’s mind with speed and fury. The voice this time was new, unknown.
“Nothing like good ol’ memories to fire you right up.” Chris halts his deep breathing and stands up, smoothing out his tee shirt and brushes his hair to the left side of his face.
He looks at the scattered sticks. Slowly, methodically, in his best imitation of Henry the house painter in West Virginia, he picks them up. One by one, he gathers them and returns them to the fire ring. Like a man on a chain gang collecting litter on a side road in southern Georgia, he bends, seizes, and moves on. The self help book with its comic like cheery blue and yellow cover comes to mind. He recalls the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher who’s name he can’t remember, but whose words stick clearly in his mind at times like this.
“Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly. Or am I now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” His lips mouth the words in a Bruce Lee movie impression.
His hands and arms gather sticks. His eyes scan the ground. His mind wanders onto other dreams. Like Tolstoy’s at the conclusion of his silly little book Confessions. Suspended over a bottomless chasm, Leo Tolstoy hung supported by ropes he could not see, but he knew they were the things he held dear in life, friends and family. To sever these was to fall and keep falling. Chris looks up at the blue sky, then down at the fire ring. Quickly, he arranges the sticks on top of each other, a newly reformed pile ready for the match.
“How far can one fall? How many ropes must be severed? Is it not possible to grab onto the last reaming rope as you mistakenly half it?” Mr. Murphy asks in his head. Chris sits down on the log. He loosens his clenched fists.
“You can only fall as far as the bottom, and the bottom is relative to your life and how you perceive it. ” Dr. White answers.
“Who cares what they think. Take me or leave me,” statements not questions. Chris echoes the sentiments of the past.
Deep breaths flow in his mouth and out his nostrils. He looks at the fire and it looks at him. He brushes his hair back. Unclenches his fists again.
“It’s a game we play man, but it’s not one we win or lose.” Bill’s voice drifted back to Chris from that night six years ago.
“We all play, we have no choice” Bill continued choosing his words carefully as he stared at the half empty Schlitz can between his knees. He sat at a picnic table, Chris sprawled at his feet, two hours after the Chris’s flaming arrival.
“Hell, Chris, I ain’t no fucking philosopher, but . . . We change, but . . . Fuck it man, you ain’t even listening.” Bill walked away toward the cabin and his new girlfriend, who was to become his wife in less than two years.
“I was listening, damn it. But you were the one who needed the advice. I never changed.” Chris’s present voice replied to the Bill of the past. He fumbled through his blue jeans pockets searching for another match.
“Oh yea, I heard you all right, but I was the one who could read the writing on the wall better than any of you.” Chris knelt near the fire, his head shaking back and forth slowly. “Only I could see what was coming, man, only me.”
Gary, another friend present that long weekend six years ago, also brought his current date to that weekend’s outing. Now Gary and Sharon are married and have a daughter. Chris got their Christmas card, via his parents, last year. He never responded.
“The times they are a changing.” Chris sings softly, off key, staring at the newly laid fire. “and fuck you very much Bob Dylan.” Still out of tune
Chris strikes the match against a rock. For the second time, he wonders if the fire will light, if his old friends will show, if old theories ever die. The paper beneath the dry twigs sputters to life. A bright orange flame begins to engulf the tinder. A thin thread of smoke drifts up into the now still air. In the distance, Chris hears a vehicle rumbling and bouncing down the dirt road to the cabin. The flame from the paper dies quickly and with it the hopes of a fire. The flaming twigs reduce themselves to glowing embers. The smoke spreads from a thread to a tatter of transparent cloth and slows its ascent due the lack of flame propelling it skyward.
“Old theories do indeed die hard.” The words follow the melody of the Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. His eyes follow the path of the wispy white smoke. Chris stands up.
“Smoke, you got it made.”
Smoke is conceived, born, lives, grows, prospers, and dies by drifting off to dispersion, an often handy skill to have, to pass through life and leave without ever really being noticed, without being looked at or looking. The sound of the approaching vehicle is close now. The engine races as the driver misses a gear.
“Probably Roy, he never could drive a standard.” Chris turns from the fire ring and walks back to the side of his truck. He looks up the road and waits for whoever might show.