Chapter 9, Flying Lessons

Chp 9 Apollo rocketSaturday, April 1st

By now I’d become a connoisseur of roadside ambiance; interstates leave a burnt rubber aftertaste and roar like a gritty ocean; rural roads smell of grasses and dust blown across forgotten landmarks; city streets offer an urban bouquet of exhaust mixed with cigarette smoke. My asphalt palate reached the height of its refinement while waiting five sweltering hours at the intersection of I-55 and I-20 in Jackson, Mississippi.

40, From Ashes

Sunday, May 21th

The car looked like fire.

“My dad gave it to me for my birthday,” he said, standing in front of the Inferno Red 1973 Pontiac Trans Am. A black phoenix lay painted on the hood spreading its wings in a tall flaming arc, each feather outlined with yellow pin stripes—each flicker giving off heat.

39, Yes

Saturday afternoon/evening, May 20th

Waiting slows time. Reaching the WSU campus I walked to Mary Sue’s dorm, entered the lobby… and… waited… not… knowing… when… she’d… show… up…. Sitting in a yellow plastic chair I fidgeted while watching students stare, looking at my sleeping bag and worn clothes, hair not washed for who knows how long. So I sat, feeling like a chair-mounted museum oddity.

13 – Other Worlds

Chp 13 Fun house barkerIn a painter’s work van I found myself with seven teenagers spiriting toward a rare celebration. They were headed for the Atlantic, and I anticipated that by nightfall I’d be applauding myself for crossing the continent.

Two of them sat up front, and in back where cans of paint and tarps typically were stored three boys and two girls occupied the floor. “We juz grajiated from high school,” one of the guys said, smiling and slapping up a high-five.

“Y’all did?” I asked with exaggerated surprise, pointing my finger around the group.

“We been waitin’ and waitin’,” one of the girls said. “Waitin’ awl yeer,.” She lifted her arms skyward as if praising the Lord in church revival. “‘Dis is ou graduashun present!”

Simply verbalizing their longing injected an electric pulse through the group. Their voices reached out full of laughter and reactions, blossoming in all directions.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” the driver shouted back.

“Jus travelin’, and I don’ even know where.”

The guy next to me said, “I let you know thiz som special day.”

My cadence slowed to a drawl. “’cause you goin’ ta’the coast?”

“Nah, ‘cause we partyin’ wid a white boy!”

High-fives ricocheted throughout the van and I looked around as if trying to find the white boy.

With the coast about a hundred miles away, our group galloped toward the beach. Nothing could stop us. One of the guys pulled out a joint and it didn’t take long until we chummed around as old friends; when the van took corners we’d roll across the floor, piling on each other, laughing. While accelerating from a green light, one of the guys in back let his momentum rock him toward the rear of the van, placing him close enough to plant a kiss on the girl next to him. This wasn’t a peck, but a nice smooch on the lips. As the driver took his foot off the gas to shift gears, the lapse of acceleration pulled the boy forward again. Their lips separated. She gasped and raised an open palm as if getting ready to give him a slap, but with the hint of a smile, let her hand drop, although not before a half-hearted strike on his thigh.

He rolled back laughing. “Gotcha!”

She shared a wondering glance with the other girls.

“You got some style!” I shouted with a cheerleader’s voice.

After a while we left the main road and pulled onto a narrow path hollowed through thick palm fronds. About half a mile later the path opened to a grassy field. Traversing the field we drove on little more than a clay trail. A white cabin with a rusted tin roof sat planted at the center of the clearing. I noticed there were no power lines, no fences, no cars, just a thick green field and a home that looked as though it had housed generations of the same family. The driver honked and a teenage girl sprinted out. We now made four couples, not from a romantic standpoint, just nicely balanced.

They spoke excitedly of buying new shoes, eating hamburgers, swimming in the waves. As they spoke I had to listen with all my effort to understand their deep accents. But the ebony of their voices jumped with anticipation and excitement. When the topic turned to life after school they mentioned jobs of cooking, cleaning.

“We gotz a chicken factory, ‘bout ten mile out.”

“Hell, boy, you only work thair if yo daddy’s their,” said one of the girls. She then starred at the guy who mentioned the factory. “An he ain’t!”

I couldn’t help but compare this conversation with those I held with my friends, white kids in the Pacific Northwest. Our opportunities seemed too disparate for us all to come from the same nation. We all sat in the van, but our worlds existed far apart.

We drove past rows of shacks. One, with window frames hanging into the openings where the glass should be, formed the backdrop for a 400-pound women sitting on a sawed-off tree stump in the front yard, resting her feet on a freshly cracked case of Budweiser. Later, I learned the Peace Corps sends recruits to clinics in this area to prepare for assignments in the third world.

Once we reached St. Augustine beach, and after hearty goodbyes, my friends headed north to their destination and I continued south—still my direction for no particular reason. Walking along the glistening white sidewalks struck me as a cultural whipsaw from the rusty van. I attempted to blend in. Most of the people wore bright beach clothes; walking with friends, playing volleyball, or just sunbathing. Maybe I could be a person carrying picnic supplies to the beach…. Wearing overalls and road boots, with a pack and sleeping bag strapped to my back, I realized how much I blended in. Solitude smacked.

Assessing myself, I viewed a young man trying to expand his awareness of people, and hoped my freefall approach would ultimately build a long-term structure. Suddenly I didn’t feel obscure and pointless, but that I was on a mission with strong purpose. But finding a world where I acted as a spectator, disconnected from all others, I just as quickly felt lost, and that my life amounted to little more than a lousy joke.

Was I a coward running away, or a bold explorer seeking knowledge? Not even knowing the answer to that, I deflated.

I needed a shower, more than a little, and found one in a public bathroom. Standing under the cool flow, I closed my eyes and imagined myself rising up through waterfalls of the Cascade Mountains back home. Once my eyes opened, the vista consisted of an iron pipe jutting from a concrete wall.

Like a crab molting, I emerged from the shower flexible and new. Sitting on a wooden bench I pawed through my thin wardrobe: denim overalls; cutoff jeans; a green flannel shirt; two T-shirts, one imprinted with the album cover from the Eagle’s “Hotel California” and the other with Led Zepplin’s “Zoso,”; indestructible glacier goggle sunglasses; one pair each of wool socks, cotton socks and boxers; some toiletries; a wool watchman’s cap; my worn brown suede jacket/pillow; flip flops and boots. I lacked for fashion, but not for style.

After drying, I slipped on my cutoffs and the Eagle’s T-shirt—dirty clothes, but better than going naked. I headed over to a bank of sinks to shave and bent over one of the aluminum basins. Without any shaving cream I kept myself bent over spending extra time to splash up water and soften my stubble. I straightened up and looked into the polished stainless steel that acted as a mirror, stared for several seconds—and dropped my razor.

Where’s my reflection?

His looks hadn’t changed: bushy blond hair, about nineteen years-old, stubble, teeth were straight enough, and the lingering hint of a sunburn covered his face. Looking into his eyes became awkward. I didn’t know him.

I turned away, focusing on the row of toilet stalls, then and looked back to the mirror. What’s happening…? As I froze into blank bewilderment, he watched me.

Mirrors don’t lie. But I felt no comfort of familiarity, no connection with that person staring back. Fear rose with confusion. Who is he? I don’t even know his name.

Who am I, and where did I go?

Avoiding the mirror, I decided to pass on shaving. As I walked back to the wooden bench where my pack lay, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was drifting into some psychotic rabbit hole. I didn’t want to look at anything, what if more of the world had changed. What if my hands started becoming red crabs? What snapped? I looked around to make sure I was still in a public bathroom, that my surroundings hadn’t morphed into something different; maybe a carnival house of mirrors—a pipe organ pumping as a black-eyed barker shouts me in.

While sitting on the bench I conducted a quick examination. By this point I’d been gone a little under three weeks and taken around a hundred rides, probably more. With each person who picked me up I became a chameleon, adapting to reflect their personalities. If someone acted formal, I acted formal; if funny, then I became funny; if desperate, then I showed my desperation; morose, confident, hyper, spaced out, intellectual… I didn’t even sound like myself since I took on a southern accent. Across all these people, and spending only an hour or two with each, I adopted one hundred rapid-fire personalities. Mimicking the drivers put them at ease, and made each ride more comfortable for everyone. But by myself, I didn’t recognize which person, if any, were me. The chameleon ate my identity.

Heavy disorientation and panic lasted a few eternal minutes. Getting away from the mirror helped. I remained at the beach for several hours, sitting in the sand. While I sat, thinking, the only explanation that made sense was that seeing no reflection of myself in all the others I’d come across left no validation that I impacted the world. I didn’t exist.

After later research, I found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that psychiatrists call this an episode of Dissociative Fugue, and explain it as: “The loss of one’s identity, or the formation of a new identity, can occur with sudden, unexpected, purposeful travel away from home. Symptoms can last from hours to months.”

As an attempt to regain my bearings I thought writing in my journal would help connect with whoever I was. Bull crap; I exchanged three dollars with an ice cream vendor for quarters and walked to a phone booth, where I gave Mark, my bass-playing-best-friend-since-sixth-grade, a call. As each of the dozen quarters clanked into the machine I started to feel like paying was going to last longer than the call.

“Hello?”

“Guess who?’

“Oh man, Wee Bee (his vaguely unflattering nickname for me). I thought you were lost on the moon.” Mark’s voice let loose with jovial relief. “You been raped yet?”

“Not yet…. How ‘bout you?”

“Right—so where are ya?”

“Sunny Florida. Funny, sunny, losing-my-fucking-mind Florida.” I stopped, and realized Mark immediately understood I needed support. Seattle remained only two weeks behind me, but each ride, each chameleon, felt like taking a head shot in the boxing ring. I’d become punch drunk.

“Go on,” he offered.

“I’m cracking up man.” My words scared me. “It’s like a bad acid trip without the acid.”

“You freakin’ out? Sure you’re not on acid now?”

“Yeah, I’m sure, but a weird thing just happened… I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself.”

“Don’t bullshit me man. You’re on acid.”

“I’m not. Alright!” He wasn’t helping as quickly as I had hoped. “I just wanted to check and make sure this isn’t some Twilight Zone where my whole life is gone, or I’m just a figment of someone’s imagination.”

“No Capitan Crazy, you’re not made up. I’m here. You’re there. And we’re talkin’.” He laughed a bit. “You may end up in the loony bin, but I’ll get you out.”

My relief didn’t come from him convincing me this world is real, but from the fact he cared. “I know you’ll get me out. That’s why I called.” I noticed my death grip on the phone handle loosening. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“You mean besides shootin’ thunder and lightning from my penis?”

“Penis? Who says penis anymore?”

“I do. And just for knowin’, the next time you’re standing in a storm and the rain tastes salty, you’ll know it’s me.”

PLEASE DEPOSIT ANOTHER ONE DOLLAR AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS FOR THE NEXT THREE MINUTES. This mechanical voice butted-in after the first minute on every long-distance call from a pay phone, warning of the impending automatic disconnect.

“Oh yeah?” He wasn’t going to win the biggest-dick bragging rights. “Well, during that last solar eclipse, that wasn’t the moon blocking the sun. That was my” CLICK.

The call worked better than a prescription, or a shrink; a pure blast of medicine for my psyche. When I once again became myself there was still some daylight left, so I returned to whatever normal meant. Which meant climbing into another anonymous car heading south, and skirtting the coast along Highway A1A.

There were no majestic mountains with earth-encompassing vistas, but A1A lolled within its own beauty and calmness. Breezes from the sea carried spring’s warmth to Southern Florida, and dazzling white sand drew a sharp line along the rich blue that flowed east to the horizon. The beaches ran without end. A quite peace surrounded me.

Evening came and I walked off the road and found a grassy hollow. This little slice of paradise sat surround by palm trees that formed a natural wall. Short grasses, most of them dead and turned to straw, lined the ground in a soft warm mat. Flowers lightly scented the air, reminding me of sophisticated women who know how to wear perfume. The sky still held some light, but I knew I’d reached home for the night. Laying out my sleeping bag I envisioned myself a character on Gilligan’s Island. A number of the trees stood perfectly spaced for supporting a hammock, and I could see myself reclined under a canopy of palms. Maybe I’d scale one of the trees and bring down a coconut for dinner. Ocean wind continued to ambled in, which kept bugs away, and the foliage surrounding me took on richer shades of green as the sun arced further west. My hideaway offered secluded, gorgeous, perfection.

No one knew my location, I could have been anywhere on the continent. Nothing pressed in with due dates, expectations or babble. Freedom from daily clatter cleared my mind and I became even with the world—I let the air breath me. Laying on my back I stared up through the palms, and could only see blue mystery.

I wondered about purpose, my purpose, everyone’s purpose, the lack of purpose. Haphazard events seemed the rule, and they only became magnified beneath the lens of hitchhiking. Days offered no pattern, rising in a different spot every morning, no plan for nightly shelter, and only random actions filling the gaps between. Where’s the plan? Maybe the plan is to have no plan. Maybe we’re not here for a purpose. Why does life matter? Does life matter after we die? Is there a plan then? Do actions make sense then? Does purpose matter? Why do we thirst for mattering?

I didn’t need to know the answers; but understood my life would be defined based upon what I cared about. So what mattered to me?

My stomach churned. That mattered.

Propping myself up to sit against a palm, I pulled out a meal of bread and cheese. (Fresh coconuts made for a nice fantasy, but they lived high in the trees while my plebian food rested in my lap.) Slicing into the block of cheese, I felt something on my forearm, then something else. A few rain drops found me—not a problem. I snuggled up to the tree trunk figuring the fronds could act as my umbrella. More drops, more snuggling. Within about five minutes fat wet paratroopers battered me. Fresh gusts kicked up to a squall and the thickening rain grew into my first experience with a tropical storm.

I assumed the deluge would pass quickly, they same way a full pitcher empties when tipped over. After all, the sky could only hold so much water. With that assumption, I decided to wait out the torrent. From the ground I rolled up my sponge of a sleeping bag, which, after I lashed it to my pack, hung heavy and wet red. Each bloated drop assaulted the bag’s fabric, covertly disappearing into the weave. My comfy hollow became a pond a couple inches deep, getting deeper. Looking around I noticed high ground in short supply. In fact it seemed the ground decided to sink, succumbing to the weight of the water. I slogged around the thick undergrowth hoping to find anything dry. Don Quixote would have been proud.

Finally, I walked back to the black, soaked, gusting, highway. Peering north offered only dark expanse. I alternated between looking down to protect my eyes from the rain, and casting glances up in hopes of seeing a car. Half an hour passed as I waited for headlights. None came. No big surprise, I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to leave shelter to enter this menace.

To the south, I saw a minute red haze diffused by the billion drops separating me from the glow. Shelter nearby appeared nonexistent, and I realized standing in the gale, wet, waiting for morning, would drain away my body heat. I thought of the prayer the man had said for me on my first day out, asking God’s protection, and felt an inkling the distant lone light signaled a motel.

As I started walking, each of my shriveled fingertips trickled water like leaking faucets. I watched my hands rain onto my boots. The sky became a pounding ocean, as if the world had flipped upside-down.

With each sloshing step I swore I could feel the skin on my toes wrinkling, as if they’d soaked in a bath too long. I kept walking and simply accepted the drenching. Nothing would prevent everything I carried from becoming saturated, expect maybe my journal, sealed in a plastic bag.

After about forty-five minutes of plodding, with my head bent down against the storm, I neared the red glow. I could tell it was an arrow pointing to a motel, but couldn’t make out “vacancy” or “no vacancy”. The ground looked hazy as I neared the light. Each pounding drop shattering into thousands of splashing flecks that became a low smoke, blurring the line between sky and road.

VACANCY! And it looked cheap!!!

Of the two hundred dollars I’d started with I still held about seventy. Opening the office door triggered a dull buzz from a back room where a TV droned. This would be my first night paying for shelter.

“Be there in a second.” The dry voice of an old woman sounded. She crept out to the counter with her head bent toward the floor. Reaching down for a registration card her movements seemed to carry a practiced disinterest. She looked up. Her eyes jolted open.

I stood still, trying not to startle her while I poured over her lobby floor. After a couple moments I could see her attempting to suppress a laugh.

“It’s a rough one out there tonight.”

“Yes. You are correct.” I attempted to not sound annoyed at her firm grasp of the obvious.

“You got a license plate number?”

“Nope. I’m walking.”

She eyeballed me, and I don’t think she wanted to rent me a room. But the thought of turning me out to the storm may have swayed her, or maybe it was the cash I started counting. After paying, I walked across the parking pond to my room. Opening the door I saw a sharply defined cube of air devoid of drops—an atmosphere carved from a different planet, where a dry bed billowed comfort.

 

Chapter 5 – Into the Desert

The sun hovered around noon and drove the temperature to about eighty. Each truck shooting by at seventy brought its own dust storm. I was now heading south out of Las Vegas standing next to Hwy 93 and felt relief when a brown sedan pulled over.

“Get in.” The driver handed me his business card, it said, Harvey Pinkerton, Sales Manager, Fletcher’s Portable Buildings, Las Vegas. Harvey appeared middle-aged, overweight, wearing a brown dress shirt, brown slacks and loafers. He’d blend into any average crowd.

As we ended our small talk about the heat, I shut-up. Listening had become my primary method of defense and gave me a chance to gauge each driver’s mental state.

“I was born in Sicily,” Harvey said. “You know… the old country.”

I nodded.

“My mother died havin’ me. How’s that for a shithouse way to start?”

“Sorry to hear that,” I tried to sound empathetic, but felt it was odd that, of all the things to say, he started by revealing that.

“What the hell,” he said. “We’re all gonna die.” He took his watery eyes off the road and looked at me. “There’s worse ways to go then bringin’ a life into the world.”

I nodded again, but continued my silence.

“As a kid my old man and me moved to the Bronx. That was okay, but a few years later he was driving truck and got shot and died.” He sat up taller, raising his voice. “But I’m still here.”

Harvey’s wife had divorced him, and he missed his young daughter. Her picture sat in a small gold frame on the dash where she smiled out between apple cheeks. Glued next to her stood a figurine of the Virgin Mary.

Harvey glanced left and blurted, “We gotta pick those up!”.

I looked across the freeway, toward the north-bound lanes, and saw two hitchhikers, teenage girls.

Since we weren’t driving north, the thought of this middle-aged man reversing our direction just to pick up teenage hitchhikers made me feel uneasy.

Harvey pulled an immediate uie by driving down the wide dirt median and up the other side. The back tires sprayed gravel, and by the time we emerged from our dust cloud the girls were gone. We pulled another median duster and again headed south.

After a few minutes he pulled a half-empty bottle of vodka from under the seat, took a pull, and offered the booze to me. Aside from the abrupt u-turn, his driving was controlled and smooth, so I didn’t worry that he’d suddenly become a dangerous drunk, and figured a swig or two might make the time pass more easily.

Watching him suck from the bottle brought visions of my mother. She’d chug on gin when she thought no one was looking. Each time left me feeling a mix of disgust and disappointment, betrayal. After a while that became my normal.

As I raised the vodka and tipped my head back to suck down the harsh comfort, I realized my hypocrisy. Was I any better than my mother? But this was different. At least I wasn’t hiding the bottle, and besides, this is social drinking—my rationalizations worked. After several exchanges I drained the last drops. “That’s it.”

“There’ll be more, kid.”

As the miles passed and the vodka soaked in, he mentioned how he’d been in prison at the Cummins Unit Prison Farm in Arkansas. “They laid me on the ground and whipped me so hard when they yanked back it rolled me over.” Harvey shook his head. “The fuckin’ guard made me call him uncle.”

I remembered the “Cummins Unit” from many media reports starting in the late sixties. The reports were about federal investigators digging up multiple sets of mens’ remains on the prison grounds. Harvey would have been there then. Over the years guards had been saying men were somehow escaping. The evidence ruled that the prisoners had been tortured to death.

“So, what were you in for?”

“Nothin’. But I got a ninety-nine year sentence for killing a guy while I was in the joint.” His tone came across as if the killing were an aside. “But I got a good lawyer.”

It became impossible to tell how much rang true, how much rang vodka. He let out a slow sigh. “My wife, she’s a saint.” He spoke wistfully, as if they were still married. “But she couldn’t take the family business.” I was ready to make a pretty sure bet the family business wasn’t Fletcher’s Portable Buildings.

The time came to buy another bottle, and we stopped at a bar in the tiny town of Kingman, Arizona. He bought me dinner. We had a couple more drinks and shot some pool. As we played, he gave me a piece of advice. “As you setup in a new town and find yourself a hooker to get regular with, start eating pickled eggs.” Leaning over the table, ready to take his next shot, he craned his head up, “like those,” and pointed with his eyes, “the ones in that jar behind the bar.” He pushed his shot. “They make you harder and spending the money seems more worthwhile.”

I thought of parting ways with Harvey after the pool game. He came across saw-blade rough, but seemed okay company and his stories were unique, plus, I’d become half crocked. Riding with a self-confessed murderer had me questioning my morals, and common sense, but he seemed tame enough that day. My rationalization also included that he was driving to Phoenix, a good long ride. Even without a destination, speed and distance became addictions as I raced away from myself. Harvey drove that day’s racecar.

The sun now hung at early dusk, and we got back on the road with a new bottle hidden. The next town, Wikieup, lay over 50 miles away; nothing but empty road played out ahead of us. This part of Highway 93 is called the Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona, but I didn’t see any trees: didn’t see any homes, barns, fields or even a derelict shack, just raw desert.

The geology included deep canyons, rusty hills and flats—extreme, expansive, and nothing, all at the same time. We passed the sneeze of a village that was Wikieup. To reach the next town, Wickenburg, meant passing over another 75 miles of land inhabited only by night. As time stretched by I started doubting we were still on Earth. I’m not afraid of open spaces, but fear began creeping in, driven by empty distance and stark exposure to the universe.

As the world darkened, I became anonymous. The dash lights cast mottled shadows across Harvey’s face and his eyes blackened to desolate holes. I probably appeared to him as nothing more than a silhouette.

“Ya know that card I gave ya? It’s a phony.” He smiled faintly, appearing satisfied he’d fooled another person.

“Then what do you do?” I didn’t much care to know his real name.

His voice lowered. “I take care of problems.”

Tires hummed away the silence, and their drone made me woozier. “What do you mean… problems?”

He took a breath with resolve. “Hits.Then he made and exaggerated swing of his head my way, and with an edged voice, said, “when The Family needs a hit they call me.”

I swallowed hard, because I believed him. Not knowing how to respond, I drunkenly blurted, “It’s a living.”

“If you don’t care how you live!” He glared with black eyes.

As a voyeur to murder, I felt compelled to ask, “So how do you do it?… I mean?… With a gun?”

“I’ll get a call and get the mark’s name and his town, maybe an address.” Harvey paused, and seemed to be considering if he should go on. In silence he reached for a pack of cigarettes in his sports jacket, and I vulcanized in time until he lit up and took a drag. “Once I find him, I’ll spend a few days to scope out his routines, you know, to figure a good time and place. Then I’ll walk up, look him in the eyes, say ‘hi,’ and shoot at least three times.

“Then I drop the gun. You know, right there.” He flipped an open hand toward the floor. “It ain’t like fuckin’ stupid TV.” He jerked his head, probably clearing double vision. “You gotta be up close, otherwise you might miss.” In the late night his words trudged. “I keep it the same every time, because it always works.”

Harvey then reached under the seat, I thought to pull out the bottle, but came up holding a black pistol. Swinging his straightened arm toward me he held the barrel six inches from my temple. “I’ll kill you with a smile on my face or without. It don’t matter to me.”

I felt a jolt to recoil, but there was nowhere to go. I froze, tensed/ready to strike.

Without warning, and in no hurry, a calm swept over me, as though I’d been filled with a windless sky. The sensation brought a deep understanding that I shouldn’t strike out. I became positive that I wouldn’t die that day if I didn’t flinch. The sensation felt vaguely familiar; a powerful atmosphere of proven assurance, but still, one I could choose to ignore. At first, remaining motionless didn’t seem rational. Harvey was blazing drunk and shooting me would have been easy: we were in the middle of nowhere; no witnesses; no one knew we were even together. Thoughts of trying to slap the gun away evaporated. Accepting the quiet presence, I slowly turned to face him directly. The hollow barrel mimicked the tomb of his eyes. The hollow barrel mimicked the same waiting tomb of his eyes.

His voice rang in my head, “Gotta be up close.…” But I kept facing him, and let my expression hang slack. I wanted to show Harvey I wasn’t afraid. He might respect that. I thought of nothing, filled only with the understanding he wouldn’t shoot if I didn’t move.

After several seconds, Harvey slipped the gun back next to the bottle. There was no, “I’m just kidding,” or “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Our headlights ate up the road as we sat in silence. I thought about asking him to stop, but felt we were too far from anything, and it seemed the worst had passed. I tried to imagine the life he lived, drinking to poison feelings of remorse and disgust.

Ahead of us the back of a state trooper’s cruiser came into view, and we drove behind him for awhile. I couldn’t believe it, but Harvey started tailgating him, and then decided to pass. Once we passed, the inside of the car strobed with red light. I thought Harvey might jam on the gas, raging down a blind highway drunk, but he slowed to pull over. I exhaled and my shoulders loosened.

The trooper gave Harvey a field sobriety test. He failed. Cuffed, and directed into the back seat, Harvey kept shouting, “I’ve got a good lawyer!”

The trooper ignored me while he filled out paperwork. I stood within the glow of his taillights, but looked to the unending dark. When I turned and peered at Harvey, the single rotating beacon pulsed red explosions into my sight.

The trooper walked back. “What’s the deal here?” He sounded genuinely baffled. With my frizzled hair, overalls and backpack it didn’t take much to convince him I was just hitchhiking.

“He’s a boozer,” I said. Then my mind replayed the image of the barrel in my face, and Harvey’s flat tone as he spoke. I didn’t mention anything about the gun under the seat. To this day I wish I had, but with only one road, and no control of when I’d leave it, I didn’t need Harvey looking for me.

The trooper asked if I wanted a ride back to town. But after standing outside, the desert didn’t seem as formidable, or abstract, just infinite silence. I felt like decompressing, alone. “No thanks, I’ll stay here.”

His voice popped up an octave. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” but I wasn’t.

I asked for water, and half laughing, the trooper watched while I filled my plastic bottle from a jug in his trunk. As his taillights drifted into the darkness, carrying Harvey to Phoenix, I took a deep, deep breath, and walked into the desert.

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