Chapter 7 – Body Language and a Talking Knife


Another 390 miles cruised by with half a dozen rides when I landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and decided to tilt south toward El Paso. The allure of Mexico pulled, but I understood my attraction stemmed from romantic songs—songs that varnished poverty with smooth melodies—so I decided to stay in my home country.

By the time I’d reached the outskirts of El Paso day had run deep into night. Standing at a truck stop, I watched a haze of bugs swarming the light above a lone phone booth. Windows with a yellowed grease film provided a view into a small diner. After entering, I noticed a sign, SHOWERS, above a hallway toward the back. That made me feel comfortable, knowing plenty truckers and vagabonds passed through. While I leaned on the brown Formica counter pock marked with cigarette burns, a pallid waitress walked my way. We made eye contact. The food wasn’t pricy, but with only a little over a hundred bucks and no idea when I’d have more money, I shook my head and closed a menu. She turned away. My comfort, that thin sense of fabricated belonging, shifted to disappointment that I didn’t fit in even here.

Behind the diner a railway switching yard stretched into the featureless night. No trains waited. I walked into the darkness, reaching a low stack of railroad ties and sat with a thud. The scent of their creosote crept around me. Taking stock, I saw myself sitting hunched next to empty train tracks, in the middle of the night, alone, casting a muted shadow from the diner’s distant light.

My harmonica called. The tracks only wanted to hear blues, and I delivered. Slow quiet notes emerged as a prelude to wake the dark. Gathering steam, I blew howls, not like a coyote’s but of a stabbed man, and the screams filled my empty arena. A slow bass line emerged, my toes tapped time, and a muddy river of sound flowed. Finally, low guttural rolls roamed across the switching yard. I felt validated, purified; the song belonged. This wasn’t a performance: no applause rose as I blew the last growling notes, no one stood impressed, no admiring looks—only silent tumbleweeds lying crippled on their journeys to nowhere. But as I slipped the harp back into its pouch, I managed a broad smile. I’d told the tracks how I felt, and created a moment that let my emotions roam with the wind.

Relaxed, I looked around and walked through the parking lot of trucks and trailers. When at truck stops, I tended to walk in front of the rumbling line of cabs. That kept me in the open where I could look through the windshields and see if there were any truckers, maybe ask for a ride. After crossing the expansive lot, I decided to take a shortcut back to the rail yard and walked between the trailers. Their thin dark allies reverberated with thumping engines and I disappeared into them as if swallowed by a sheet metal dragon. Walking through one corridor I noticed the silhouette of a man at the other end. He stood still for a moment facing me. His hunched shoulders, arms at his sides and feet spread, created only a black figure. To him I must have also looked like an empty silhouette. The trailers hugged so close together my shoulders nearly touched both sides, and I figured he’d wait until I emerged before he entered. Rather than waiting, the form started walking toward me.

This doesn’t seem right.

Why doesn’t he just wait?

I was on the Mexican border.

Where’s he going?

There’s nothing back here.

I knew there were some people, desperate people, without any money, crossing into the US.

I’m sure he can see me.

No one could see us.

Why is he still walking?

I stopped, but he kept coming.

I need to do something.

Turning around entered my mind, but by now I didn’t want to turn my back on him.

The engines thumped relentlessly and amplified the thoughts pounding in my head. Advancing quickly, but still silent, he closed to within about ten feet. I slid my right hand over the snap on my knife sheaf and unbuckled it, knowing it’d only take a second to unleash the blade. Fixing my eyes straight ahead, I lowered my center of gravity.

Realizing this would be the first time I’d draw my knife in self-defense gave me a shock, but I didn’t linger on the thought. He could see as I unclipped the leather flap and placed my palm over the knife’s brass butt. When my fingers entered the well rehearsed motions to jerk the handle out, he turned without a word and left with a quick gait. I took my hand off the knife, but left the sheath unbuckled. When I emerged from the dark passage, he’d already vanished.

I patted my knife, and thought once again of Mary Sue. She’d given me the knife mid-way through our senior year, just before I left for Alaska; I’d earned enough credits to graduate early, and three days after the first semester ended I sailed north on the MV Malaspina, abandoning the rest of my senior year. The knife became my best friend while working as a commercial fisherman, and now assumed that role once again, in part because it acted as a touchstone to Mary Sue. She ordered it with my initials, SWT, etched on the brass handle, and the word LIVE engraved into the blade. She knew it remained strapped to my side virtually all the time and that made her worry less. “It’s kind of a selfish gift that way,” she once said. I decided that whenever I returned, I’d pass through Pullman and see her at school. With that decision my muscles relaxed.

No one should be without a knife: mine spread peanut butter, cut cord, opened cans of peaches, cleaned fingernails, slipped corn kernels from the cob, sliced sausage, carved wood, and the threat of its blade kept me intact.

Walking back to the railroad tracks my sharpened senses registered only a few more slow-rolling tumbleweeds. I walked along the rails, away from lights, and sat on the dusty ground. Fatigue led me to a shallow gully where I decided to spend the night. Danger roamed close and I wanted camouflage, so I gathered some tumbleweeds and piled them over my sleeping bag. Pressing the spindly branches together I wove a loose cocoon. As I lay in the bag I thought what might happen if my tumbleweeds blew away in the night, leaving me unaware and exposed. I grabbed my knife and slipped it under my jacket, which doubled as a pillow. This act became a new ritual I performed every night.

Again, I questioned why I decided to leave on this journey. Is this gully dust better than the life I’d left behind? For that matter, was I leaving something behind or searching for something greater? What something? Had I become a running coward or a brave seeker? The questions seemed both monumental and meaningless. No matter what answer I gave, it wouldn’t last; life changed too fast. The only thing I knew for sure was the brief sense of peace I’d felt after playing my harp. Some jostling of the weeds assured me they were secure enough, and I plunged into sleep.

Dawn revealed rusty tracks and piles of rotted railroad ties; no flowers like the morning before. After rolling my bag I hit the road. A lopsided green pickup pulled over.

“Hi,” I said climbing in.

The driver smiled.

“Where you headed?” I asked.

No response.

The color of the truck’s interior matched the ground I’d slept on, with the floor covered in small clods of dirt. Scraps of paper lay on the sun cracked seat. Behind the wheel, my driver sat thick and brown. Black hair sprang from under his sun-bleached baseball cap, and short sleeves revealed muscular forearms. Cracked calluses extended beyond his palms and rounded up the sides of his hands.

Soon I realized the driver didn’t speak English, apparently not a word. Before stopping for me he probably understood there was only a slim chance I spoke Spanish. It seemed he knew we wouldn’t be able to talk, and knowing we’d just sit, he overcame the pending awkward silence to help a stranger. Riding in that dusty cab, I knew that I’d be hard pressed to stop and give someone a ride if I thought they didn’t speak my language.

From the rearview mirror swung a cross on a silver chain where Christ hung ragged, his head bent down. I’d never liked those. To me the little man signaled the driver boasting, “LOOK HOW HOLY I AM! JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T NOTICE MY CHRISTIAN GLOW, I’VE GOT JESUS SWINGIN’ IN MY WINDSHIELD.”

Sitting in the stillness, I wondered if that dangling figure made him think of bible stories. It dawned on me maybe he didn’t hang it there to impress others, but to remind himself.

The man pointed out a small business where he worked, or maybe made deliveries. I nodded. He eventually left the highway, pulling into a field. He stopped and smiled. I smiled. Once out of the truck I gave the fender a couple solid pats. His iron horse may be war torn, but it remained strong. This man dropped me alongside horizons of knee-high green bushes. Rich leaves spread in all directions. Everything appeared alive. A clean dry air eased into chest.

This is why I came; to sit mute, and realize good people come in all languages.

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