|Apr/May 2009 Fiction|
Walker heard a rustle and then a crushing sound as he slid behind the wheel and slammed the door—the same sound he'd heard the night before when he left the bar. Another damaged appendage for the self-loathing creature he'd become. The east wing this time: east, as he'd be traveling south.
He eased out of the motel parking lot and onto Interstate 5. Tawny hills cast long shadows across barren pastures as the freeway swept down through the San Joaquin Valley along the San Andreas fault. He had made quarterly trips between Sacramento clients and his San Diego employer for what?—twelve years now. The fault a sort of joke in the early days: Not my fault, San Andreas's fault. Its jagged scar visible from somewhere around the Coalinga turnoff if one knew where to look.
Not a big deal since he'd seen from the air how it puckered and nibbled the eastern edge of rumpled hills in evidence of the force moving the Pacific plate 350 miles north over the past 15 to 20 million years, he'd read, a desire for travel so strong the distance between San Francisco and Bakersfield increased by a minute amount each year. He'd no fondness for Bakersfield.
And now, as a grasshopper, he'd miss it again. He glanced down at an extremity on the gas pedal, another hanging out the driver-side window. Kafka may have opted for cockroach, but grasshopper a shade more reproachful. Ugly as hell, too. He reached for a cigarette—a rustle like dry, shifting leaves.
He was still far to the north of Bakersfield when he saw the hitchhiker. A kid, barefoot, bib-overalls over long underwear. Gazing vacantly into on-coming traffic. What a dumb-looking, pathetic idiot! Walker caught himself in a snort of derision. But that wasn't who he wanted to be, wasn't an excusable response. He'd slipped and needed to be severe with himself today. He pulled over as punishment.
The kid caught up to him and peered in the passenger-side window before opening the door.
"Oh, it's you," he said, and got in. "Not the sheriff."
Long yellow hair fell across the kid's face. Not a big kid, probably sixteen, skinny. Walker pulled out onto the highway. "Where're you headed?"
OK, jerk, you want to play it that way, we'll play it that way. Walker's hands tightened on the steering wheel. At least the kid hadn't mentioned his appearance, the strange, flat, fish-shaped head with a mean eye on either side. The caved-in chest, the twitchy little front limbs. He was having to lean forward to reach the wheel.
Did he still have a job? They expected him day before yesterday. Nancy expected him Sunday night. He hadn't called. He had a killer headache and little memory of the last four days.
After a few miles, the silence dug at his nerves and he turned to look at the kid. Gauging the amount of contempt he could put in his tone, and yet flatter, he asked, "What's your trade?"
"Construction. Had my dad's job back home till I messed up."
"Construction's tight out here."
"I know it. They got all these building codes I don't know."
He recognized a particular odor.
"Throw it out or get out!"
The kid pulled a rolled paper bag from his pocket and let it slip from his hand out the window. "Good-by shit," he said, twisting around to see if it fell on the highway or the shoulder.
"That stuff' will make you an idiot, dummy."
The kid grinned and let his eyes cross. "I know it."
Punk, he thought. Cheap low bastard. He wished he'd stopped for a bottle on the way out of town. He'd pick one up on the way south, he thought. Not in Bakersfield. He never stopped in Bakersfield—except to put the child-support check in the mail if it was running late. He'd stop in Gorman, they'd be up the Grapevine by then, if all went well, if the transmission held up. He'd pick up a baseball cap, too, in Gorman, and a long black raincoat. Maybe gloves. He didn't want to look too strange. And sunglasses. He had sunglasses. He put them on.
"How come you don't know the building codes if you're in construction?"
"There ain't no building code back home. You build round or up-side-down if you want. I know a man done that, built his house up-side-down, no lie. I was to it with my dad. My dad was drunk."
He heard the whole thing, but only made sense of the last phrase. It's written all over you, kid, what your old man was.
"This old guy owned the house took us out there. The door was just a door, but when you stepped in you had to step down. My dad fell down on the ceiling and looked at the tables and chairs hanging from the floor. The table had a bottle glued to it and cigarette butts in an ashtray. He passed out. The light in that house grew up out of the ceiling like a mushroom."
"Mushroom?" Nice image, he never heard or saw the word without thinking cloud. Had the check he wrote in Sacramento hit the bank before he got a deposit in to back it up? He knew the answer.
"What the hell for?"
"For something to do. He was an artist, this old guy—it took him one year to finish a painting. Then he'd celebrate. That's how my dad met him, he come into the tavern."
The kid was talkative enough to take Walker's mind off money matters. And away from the flimsy, insubstantial feel of his body against the seat cushions. He felt like taking a short, whirring flight down the highway's center divider. "You ought to stick to booze."
"I ain't old enough out here. Back home they figure it'll keep you off chemicals. Don't though."
"Shut up about that. If you got to talk, tell me about your old man."
"He weren't nothing like you," the kid said. He tucked his hair behind his ears and frowned in concentration.
"I'll buy that." He had a serious headache now and no desire to live.
"My dad only had three jobs in his whole life." The kid counted them off on the fingers of his left hand. "He worked for a boat factory, one, he was in the army twelve years, and three, he worked for Keller's Construction Company. Keller's wouldn't let my mom pay for his marker. It was real little and had a curved top. My mom put up another great big marker, anyways."
A damn fool for a mother, can't take care of her kid but makes a show for a man probably wasn't worth shit.
"What'd you think of your old man? Did you like him?"
"Sure did!" The kid's eyes narrowed in appraisal as though wondering if he rode with some kind of dangerous freak. "All kids like their dad."
"I got a couple kids—sons. They hate my guts."
"Fact." He shamed himself and raised a wing to shield his face.
"You better ask them."
"Can't. Haven't seen them for twelve years. They live with their mother."
"Damn!" the kid said. "Ain't life hard? Don't let it get to you, mister."
He pretended he didn't hear. "Hey, look at that—Maryland plates—don't see many from that part of the country. Those characters look like they've been sleeping in the barn all their life—where'd you sleep last night, kid?"
"I found this place under the trees where you can see the highway, but nobody sees you. I walked around in the branches for a while."
That would be an oak grove—he'd walked around in oak trees himself. "What'd your dad die of?" Don't ask, it was the last thing he wanted to hear.
"He killed himself. On my mom's birthday. She thought it were to get back at her, but it weren't. The next time her birthday come round she wanted me to put on his army clothes."
He was scarcely listening, trying hard not to. He thought about what Nancy would say if he showed up in this condition. First, she'd call exterminators. He'd better get a motel room for the night.
"You must've looked damn fine, with that hair."
"I put it under the cap. She took my picture and said I looked a lot like he done when he was in the service. She don't do that no more on her birthday. She goes off some place."
He lit a cigarette. After a moment he offered the pack to the kid, who took two, stashing one in the pencil pocket of his overalls.
Walker turned on the radio, the static heavy, switched it off. "It gets damn cold in this part of the country in the winter. You ought to get a job somewhere and a room. You can't sleep outside."
"Sure can. It feels better if it's cold. What you do is zip up your jacket—you're out of it, see—and pull it on over your head with your elbows in the sleeves. You can sleep good if your head's warm. I always done it. My mom done it too, lots of times. Her and me and JoeDean, when my dad come home fired up."
He thought probably they'd stop in Gorman for dinner. He guessed he could stand the kid to a hamburger. He could make it on to San Diego after that. He reached over and struck the kid's bare feet down from the dashboard.
"I know better than to do like that." He dusted the dashboard with his sleeve.
The kid was beginning to get on Walker's nerves. His toes tried to curl around the gas petal. His eyes twitched.
"Is that a fact?"
"My dad wanted me and JoeDean to come live with him. We didn't do it because my mom was planning to let him come back home real soon. He didn't know that, though. He was crazy because we wasn't with him."
"You sure about that?"
"It was me and JoeDean's fault he killed himself like he done."
"Come on! No way a thing like that could be your fault—punk kid like you!" He couldn't remember when anyone had outraged him so. What the hell kind of father would kill himself just because his kids weren't with him!"
And what kind of self-important kid would think he was that important to a father probably drunk if he was ever around. "Who the hell do you think you are!"
"Was too my fault!" the kid said. "I was eleven then, when it happened."
Walker saw the mountains far ahead. The Interstate would glide up through passes cut by the San Andreas eons ago, through the Tejon Pass. Interstate 5 continuing on in a sweep down into the San Fernando Valley while the San Andreas cut east to cross the lifeless Salton Sea.
His anger drained away as he counted the years, Will eighteen now, Jack sixteen. They'd be shooting baskets after school on an afternoon like this—straight and strong, their eyes clear. Good, clean, healthy, well-educated American kids. Pro-sports material, both of them. He wondered for the thousandth time if JoAnne remarried.
"How old are your boys?"
"I don't want to talk about them."
He knew they were all alive, anyway, and better off for his absence—no doubt about that. Like this kid here, better off on his own than living with a suicidal drunk like his old man.
"You ought to see if you can get a job on a ranch or farm," he said. "You'd do okay on a farm."
"I was living on a farm last spring—got in trouble out there with Sandra Dee Riley's folks. Old Riley said if he saw me again he'd shoot me. He don't know no better than to do it. He let her marry Richie Green just because he's the one what knocked her up."
"I don't want to hear that crap," he said, with a sudden vision of a freckled-face child bride weeping in her father's arms. "You punks ought to keep it zipped up. All of you, you don't know what the hell you're doing!"
"Hell I don't! Don't cause nothing but grief! I know I ain't going to drink nor nothing after I get married."
"Yeah, that's what they all say." He knew that for a fact, he'd said it himself.
"No glue sniffing, neither."
"How long you been doing that?"
"About four years off and on."
He pressed hard on the gas pedal, trying to outrun an alternate picture of his sons—doped up, sick, strung-out, in jail.
"I suppose you've got a record, like the rest of the big shots that roam the country with nothing but the shirt on their back?"
"Keep it up there, mister, and you won't never have but the one accident."
He braked it down to seventy-five.
"Answer the question."
"Sure have. That's another reason no school. I went up to camp for selling off my dad's tools. Max Tate said they was his. Everbody knowed he and Snodgrass was thick. Snodgrass was the officer went to my dad's place that night. He's the one saw what happened and read the letter my dad left for me and JoeDean and our mom with four-hundred dollars in it."
"So whose tools were they?"
"Only when we got the letter weren't nothing in it but a twenty—not his whole paycheck like he said. That cop's been down on me and JoeDean ever since."
There's more to that story. His headache had abated. He felt the grasshopper gather itself and drift away. He put his hand to his head and touched his ears, nose, teeth. He took a deep breath and expelled slowly. He stretched his arms one at a time and then his legs. He was human again.
"It ain't the money," the kid said. "Shit, I don't care nothing about the money. But it was from my dad. He never done nothing in his life but work. When he wasn't working he was drunk. I reckon I'm a whole lot like him."
"What? You? You're nothing like him." He felt mean as hell. "You don't come up to his shoulder. Think you could cut the army? Think you could raise a family? Think they'd miss you if you left? You're nothing, kid. You never will be."
The kid turned away to stare out the window, his hands clenched on his knees.
Walker felt better then. He passed the Coalinga turnoff without a thought for the fault line. He crossed the California aqueduct. Bakersfield off to the east somewhere, fading fast. The shadow of the hills lengthened, oak trees black in the draws. The dusty crags of the Tehachapis loomed ahead.
As they neared the Grapevine, he began to think of seeing Nancy that night after all. "We'll stop in Gorman for a hamburger. Then I'll let you off in the orchards this side of San Diego. They're always looking for help."
"No," the kid said. "I see the trees I want to sleep under tonight. Down there, in the draw. You can let me out right here."
He didn't want to, but he stopped the car.
"You haven't got a jacket." he said as the kid opened the door.
"Ain't got nothing." The kid took a tube out of his pocket. "Got to be alone. Got to think things out."
The glue set him off. "You want to end up like your old man! You're going to get just like him!"
The kid looked up. "You mean that, Mister?"
"You're damned right I mean it!"
"Everything's okay then. Thanks for the ride."
"Go to hell!" He reached over and slammed the door in the kid's face. "Get rid of that stuff, boy!"
"I ain't a boy."
Walker got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side. No one there. The wind rustled in the weeds on the shoulder of the highway. He walked down a dry stream bed to the oak trees and walked around each one. He went back to his car and watched the shadows of the hills cross the freeway before he drove on.
The steering wheel twisted in his hands and the roadway sped away in waves as a freight-train rumbled beneath. Plumes of dust rose from the shoulders of the road and from the rolling hills. He pulled off the road.
When the shaking stopped, he made an illegal U-turn and headed back across the empty plains toward Bakersfield.