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Oct/Nov 2016 Fiction

One Week in Barstow, California

by Matt Basiliere

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


Startled awake, his body still hunched behind the low building, his head hard against the building's bricks and his ass on the cold cement step, the hitchhiker looks up though the clear morning air at a man he recognizes from the night before. The man is dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, and brown Stetson hat. An unkempt ponytail snakes out beneath the back of the hat and down the man's back. "Too early for a drink," the man says. "So you must be taking me up on my offer from last night. You come back to work?"

Nodding and rising, his eyes on the thin line of Interstate stretching north through the desert below and beyond him, the hitchhiker hefts his backpack off the ground and asks what work the man has.

"Dishwashing, cleaning. Stick around long enough, we'll make you a line cook. Believe me, around here, there's plenty for you to do." Unlocking a deadbolt, the man swings open the back door. "We'll pay you at the end of the week," he says, leading the hitchhiker through an unlit tiled corridor to a small storage closet. Kicking aside a mop bucket and pulling a string to illuminate the cramped space, the man tells the hitchhiker that this is where he'll sleep.

The hitchhiker drops his pack, leans it against a pallet upended against the cinder block wall, and puts on an apron the man hands him. He follows the man, who leaves the room and walks farther down the corridor, through a small kitchen and into the barroom, so different in the sober morning light, the dust visible on the beer signs and taps, the stains on the thin carpet covering the uneven, plywood-laid floor.

"Billy leaves this place a mess when he closes," the man says. "Go back to that storeroom. Get one of those blue spray bottles and a couple dishrags. Bring out the mop and bucket, too. And the vacuum. You get this place ship shape while I restock the bar."

Standing in the storeroom, the hitchhiker leans against the cinder block wall, his cheek against its coolness. He notices lines of mold growing along the thin strip of laminate between the wall and drop ceiling, pulls his cheek from the wall, and sinks to his knees. Reaching out an arm, he slowly closes the door to the storeroom. He curls into a ball, his head against his backpack, and lays motionless on the ground. Time passes. His breath comes slow and big, with pauses after each breath out. As his shoulders rise and fall, then rise and fall again, he closes his eyes. Shuts them tightly as his mouth opens wide and his body curls more tightly in on itself. Clenching his fists over his ears, silent sobs come over the hitchhiker in waves, wracking his thin body in its place on the floor.

In time, the sobs pass. The hitchhiker rolls onto his back, lets his long legs extend along the length of the floor. He dries his eyes with his shirt collar, rubs his cheeks with his palms, and takes deep breaths, one after another, a pause before each breath in. Taking one last long breath and exhaling slowly, deliberately, the hitchhiker stands. Pushing his hair from his face and shaking it back from his shoulders, he dries his cheeks one final time, picks up the mop, and wheels the mop bucket out of the storeroom and toward the front room.

In the middle of the room, the hitchhiker puts the mop in the bucket, leans the handle against a table. He looks at the man behind the bar, his back to the hitchhiker as he pours ice into a sink and talks quietly into a telephone, its long, looping chord hitched over his shoulder. The hitchhiker sees the man eye him in the mirror behind the bar, duck down, say a few more things the hitchhiker can't hear, then put the phone back on its receiver. Turning his back on the man, the hitchhiker walks toward the entrance and plugs in the jukebox. He watches as dust-covered red, blue, and yellow bands of color light up the sides and top of the machine, a weak advertisement for darkness, sex, and promise flashing wanly in the banal hours before noon. Behind him, the hitchhiker hears the creak of the floor, the slow heavy footfalls of the man's boots. He feels the man brush past his shoulder and watches him move behind the jukebox and pull the plug.

"Save that till we're open," the man says, walking back toward the hitchhiker, resting a large hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Believe me, by closing tonight, you're going to be sick of every Goddamn tune this thing plays. Don't want to start it before you have to." Smiling at the hitchhiker, the man gives his shoulder a squeeze, runs his hand down the hitchhiker's arm, and walks back behind the bar. He turns to look over the room. Nodding toward a frayed patch of carpet at one end of the pool table, the man tells the hitchhiker to be careful, not to catch the long strands of carpet in the works of the vacuum. "You'll tear it off its backing that way," the man says, pointing at the small pebbles of black foam and glue dotting the frayed carpet ends. The hitchhiker plugs in the vacuum and says he'll do a good job as the man walks through the small galley doors behind the bar and into the kitchen. He calls over his shoulder to the hitchhiker, "I'm sure you'll do a good job. Yeah," the man's forced chuckle sounds hollow, bouncing off the kitchen tiles into the empty barroom, no windows or light. "I bet you'll do a really good job."

The hitchhiker works through the day, vacuuming the floor, mopping the small tiled entryway and the area behind the bar. He throws down waffle mats and empties the trash into the dumpster outside, eyeing the man's Maverick parked beside the dumpster, a coil of rope hanging from the driver's side mirror like a threat, small mystery and odd invitation. In the afternoon, the hitchhiker unloads a beer delivery and changes out taps—Budweiser, Miller High Life, and Michelob. He watches as an old man he recognizes from the night before walks in, draws his own beer from the newly changed taps and takes a seat at the bar. He is skinny, dressed in blue sneakers, green work pants, and a green work shirt. The hitchhiker smiles at the old man, who nods and returns to his beer.

The rest of the afternoon the hitchhiker spends helping Billy in the kitchen. He mops the floor, polishes the metal sink, and empties the grease traps on the grill and fryolator. He fills the dishwasher with a rack of glass ashtrays he'd gathered off the tables, pool table, and bar. Standing beside the upright machine as it runs, leaning on its long, stainless steel handle, he listens to Billy, who talks as if he and the hitchhiker have long known each other and have developed some kind of bond. "Never had to wash ashtrays before," Billy says, the tip of his cigarette moving up and down with the movement of his thin lips, hiding and revealing small, yellowing teeth and the spaces where more teeth should be. "Guess he just wants to keep us busy. Making us earn our keep." Billy looks at the hitchhiker and smiles. He brushes back his thin greasy hair with a gesture of undeserved vanity. "He putting you up?" he asks, raising his eyebrows, his Adam's apple bobbing in his gaunt neck. "I saw your bag back there. Where you staying? You need a place to stay?" The hitchhiker smiles and turns, mumbling something about taking care of himself, working to get paid. Then he falls silent, stares at his reflection in the side of the dishwasher, his hand still balanced on the machine's handle.

As the day wears on, middle-aged men with wide guts stretching teeshirts over belt buckles join the thin retiree at the bar. The hitchhiker now spends more time in the bar area, turning off the jukebox to retrieve quarters that produced no songs, bringing bottles out from the storeroom, wiping spills off tables and wicking beer up off the carpeted floor. As two frail-looking women come in—the first an older woman with white bouffant hair and a tight denim jacket, the second middle-aged and wearing bright pink lipstick—the hitchhiker notices the light wedging in through the open door as bodies enter no longer has the flat, white intensity of mid-afternoon. If is softer now, from no direct source, suffused with the promise of deepening colors.

As the women sit at a table, the hitchhiker sees the man who is his boss lean down behind the bar and raise the volume of the jukebox—awl, mah exes live in Texas—as a laugh ripples around the room. The man gestures the hitchhiker to the bar, hands him two drinks, and tells him to deliver them to the two women. When he comes to the table, they smile at the hitchhiker, then nod as other patrons tell them who the hitchhiker is, as if they are sharing a joke: "The new cleaning boy." "Must be good with a mop." "Will Billy be mad?" Through it all, the hitchhiker smiles, nods, walks stiffly through the room with baskets of onion rings and pitchers of beer, pretending he understands their comments and looks, that he knows why he is here among them and understands what they expect him to feel and do. Pretends he isn't self-conscious about how long it's been since he's had a shower. Pretends he doesn't want to go down on each one of their awful, sagging bodies so the distance between them falls away. Pretends he is comfortable and confident carrying their food, drinks, and refuse in his arms. That he wouldn't rather stand before them, naked, arms out, and slash his wrists, or lay down on the floor and cry up to heaven the beautiful sadness and love overtopping his heart.

After the third day at the bar, the hitchhiker is tired. Long days in the barroom with no natural sunlight and nights on the cold storage room floor are taking their toll. As he lies awake, staring into the darkness, he hears the man's footsteps enter the room. "I'm locking and leaving now. You sure you don't want to come back to my place? Got a bed for you, and a shower there, too. Don't have to keep washing yourself in the bathroom."

The hitchhiker demurs, tells the man he's fine.

"Well, you're going to need to get cleaned up proper at some point," the man says, pulling on the light. "Tell you the truth, you're getting pretty ripe."

Sitting up, his eyes squinting against the light, the hitchhiker again tells the man he's fine. "I'll get sorted out after I get paid. Find a place."

The man shrugs, reaches to his back pocket and draws out a paperback book, which falls lightly to the floor. "Whoops," the man says, "clumsy me." As he bends down for the book, the man's pant leg rises, revealing the boot knife strapped underneath. Rising, the man places the book on a shelf by a plastic tub of mayonnaise. "Well, you want to keep working here, we're going to have to get you clean," he says as he pulls the string, killing the light, and walks through the darkness to lock up the bar.

Rising in the morning to the sound of footsteps in the bar, the hitchhiker stands, pulls on the light, and looks on the shelf by the tub of mayonnaise. Punished Punks, a paperback, its front cover showing a colorful painting of a large man in a leather vest and leather-brimmed cap, the outline of his hard cock visible beneath his blue jeans, one fist jammed into his open palm. Before him, a shirtless young man waits on his hands and knees, looking at the other man, crying. The hitchhiker turns the book over so the image can't be seen and walks to the bathroom. Removing his shirt and tucking paper towels into his jeans, he washes his face, soaps and rinses his shoulders and armpits, rubs water and soap into his hair, then dunks his head beneath the tap. Standing upright again, the hitchhiker pats himself dry from belt to hair with the paper towels he'd tucked into his pants. He drops the wad of towels to the floor to sop up the water that dripped off his body and escaped his cupped hands. He pulls on his shirt, takes a deep breath, looks at his image in the mirror, and walks into the front room.

The man is there, the phone to his ear, a pad and pencil in his hand. He looks at the hitchhiker, nods, and goes back to placing his order. The hitchhiker gets the vacuum and mop, the spray bottle and rags, and works his way through another 17-hour day.

That night, the man again comes into the storeroom. "Come on back to my place tonight," he says. "We'll get you cleaned up."

"I'm fine," the hitchhiker says, arms crossed over his chest at the far end of the storage room, just feet away from the man. The man turns to the book, still in its place on the shelf beside the tub of mayonnaise. "What you reading?" he asks, no expression on his face. The hitchhiker looks at him "That isn... " he fumbles, looking to the side, embarrassed. "That ain't mine," he says, folding his arms over his chest, clearing his throat, exhaling dismissively.

The man looks at him, tilts his head and smiles, catching the switch in the hitchhiker's language, the toughening of his speech. "You think there's something funny about that? About two men together?"

The hitchhiker mumbles, and the man takes a step closer. "Because I always thought you shouldn't judge people, you know. There's enough of that in this world. And some people might judge you, not taking a bath, sleeping on a storeroom floor with the rats, standing out on the highway like a piece of white trash." The man picks up the book and puts it in his pocket. "I would think you should think someone's special if they can love anyone they want. Anyone they think is beautiful. But maybe that's just me."

The man shakes his head, as if he's looked inside the hitchhiker's mind and is ashamed of what he's seen. As if he's been victimized by what the hitchhiker hasn't said but surely believes. He pulls the light and once again leaves the small room.

Rising the next day, the hitchhiker again washes himself in the bathroom and busies himself with cleaning. In the late afternoon, he is pulled off dishwasher duty and told to go with Billy behind the line. As the evening crowd comes in, the hitchhiker is shown how to make grilled cheese sandwiches—two slices of white bread, one slice of cheese, butter on the grill for each side—and tuna sandwiches—one scoop of tuna in the middle of the first slice of bread, then flatten it out with the top slice. He cuts the sandwiches diagonally, places them into red plastic baskets filled with wax paper, adds two pickle spears, a scoop of coleslaw and fries, and then places the basket on a plate. Billy tells him where to take them—"Wanda and Donna," "Davey and Bill"—describing the customers if the hitchhiker hasn't yet learned their names. "Ugly with big tits and the old lady." "Fat guy and the dude in the Harley shirt." "At the bar. No teeth."

During the stretches between orders, they drink beer, and Billy again tries to teach the hitchhiker to play five card stud. But the hitchhiker can't understand the rules well enough to play. There's no strategy in his choices. He can't read Billy's silence or convincingly bluff, so instead plays only not to lose. Billy puts his cards away and smokes.

That night, when everyone has left and the man is cashing out, the hitchhiker walks out the front door and into the parking lot. He looks at the man's blue Maverick. Through the windshield in the bright moonlight, he sees on the back seat and filling both foot wells coffee cups and beer cases filled with papers. Paperbacks and magazines mixed in. The ashtray in the front seat overflowing, cartons of cigarettes on the passenger's seat and what looks like a mousetrap and the unstrung neck of a guitar. He looks up at the stars, then turns and walks back into the building, past the unlit jukebox to the front of the bar. He sits on a stool, one foot on a footrest, the other on the floor.

The man is counting money out of the till. "Trying to scare me coming in like that at this hour?" the man asks.

When the hitchhiker mumbles that he wasn't—"I was just, you know... "—the man reaches below the bar. Without taking his eyes off the money he's counting, the man places a .45 caliber pistol before him. The solidness of the weapon, its weight and purpose and its awkward position—tilted up off the bar on its cylinder, its short-stock handle as weighty as its long barrel and stubby sight—makes it the only object in the room. "Now you know why I wasn't scared," the man says, still looking down. "I can take care of myself."

The hitchhiker nods, "Yeah."

Returning some of the money to the till and folding the rest into a worn envelope, the man walks to the front of the bar. He stands, facing the hitchhiker. "So you taking me up on my offer tonight?" he asks. "Coming back to my place to get cleaned up? Maybe have a few drinks. Hang out with me tonight?"

When the hitchhiker tells the man he'll stay in the storeroom, the man smiles, looks down, and turns away. After a pause, he looks at the hitchhiker again. "So you'll drink my beer with Billy in the kitchen, but you won't be straight up and have a drink at my place with me? It's all my beer, you know," the man says.

"I know it's your beer," the hitchhiker says. "But it's... I'm tired, you know. I need to get sleep. And..."

"And what?" The man interrupts. "You afraid I'm going to rape you? Is that what you think of me?"

Sitting upright on his stool, the hitchhiker mumbles deferrals while panning between the man and the handgun.

Ignoring the hitchhiker's eyes, the man presses on, looking down toward his boots, his hat obscuring his face. He lets out a small, sad laugh, steps closer. "I guess that's the way it is. You'll drink my beer with Billy, stay in my storeroom and learn to be a cook on my dime, but the whole time you think, what? You think I'm some faggot. And that scares you, I guess. And you think I'm going to hurt you? Is that what you think? That some faggot's going to hurt tough guy you? That is what you think, ain't it? You can't imagine that I'm talking about something more. Can't imagine that I'm talking about love?"

As the hitchhiker protests, ignores the dig at his language and tells the man he didn't think that, that he was just tired, the man puts his hand on the hitchhiker's shoulder. "Because I always thought I was special for who I was. And I thought you would be able to see that. But I guess I was wrong. And so what if we sleep in the same bed at my place? What do you think that makes you? Do you think that makes you queer?"

The hitchhiker rises, takes a step back and speaks, trying to bury the quiver in his voice. "Hey, listen," the hitchhiker says, laughing in a way he hopes is both carefree and dismissive. "It isn't like that. You told me you needed help, and so I'm working. That's all. And I'm working hard. Everything else... I don't know. I'm not—" The hitchhiker's hands rise out from his sides, palms out, as he backs away from the man. Lowering his arms before they can stretch up into the full gesture they were rising to speak—I give up. I surrender.—the hitchhiker stops moving, stands his ground. "I don't know. Fucking... I'm not saying there's anything wrong. I'm just. I'm comfortable, with... You know, I'm fine where I am. In the storeroom with my bag. On the floor."

Tucking the cash envelope under his arm and the revolver into the back of his pants, the man grunts and brushes passed the hitchhiker. "You keep telling yourself that," he says, as he walks out the door.

Standing in the dark, the hitchhiker puts his hand on the top of the bar where the handgun had been, leans down and sniffs at the metal scent still there. He listens to the door lock, the Maverick turn over, drop into gear, and roll away. He stands in the silence, waiting for the silence to continue a little longer—no car engine arriving, shutting down and going quiet, no door unlocking, no footsteps walking toward him across the floorboards in the dark. Thinking of the highway just outside, the cars and semis rolling north, thinking, too, of the place he'd slept in the desert just five nights before—a short walk away to complete safety and complete exposure—the hitchhiker retreats in silence to the storeroom, lies down on the floor, unzips his fly, and masturbates for all he is worth—no image in his head—knowing that in the morning he will get paid.

 

Waking later than usual in the storeroom the next day, the hitchhiker rolls up his sleeping bag, attaches it to his backpack, and pulls out the cash he has been hiding. Cramming all four of his remaining dollar bills into his pocket, he heads to the bathroom to clean up. He locks the door behind him, strips off not only his top but all of his clothes, and places them in a pile on the toilet tank. As his odor releases itself up to his nose, he sponges himself down. Wipes out his armpits and crotch first. Rubs a soapy length of paper towel between his ass cheeks, then throws the paper towels in the trash. Balancing first on one leg then on the other, he carefully cleans his feet, soaping and rinsing between each toe, letting the water from the tap roll over the damp and peeling skin wrinkling along his soles. Finally, he gives a cursory wipe of his shoulders and chest, lower back, stomach, and thighs. After wiping down one last time with water, patting himself dry carefully to avoid tear-offs from the paper towel, he wipes up the puddles on the floor and puts on the dirty underwear, socks, jeans, and shirt he'd balanced on the toilet. Walking into the barroom, the hitchhiker hears the jukebox. He sees the man behind the bar.

"Sleeping Beauty!" the man yells, his voice different this morning, hoarse but also hopeful. "Didn't know if you were coming out of that storage closet today. Thought I might have to get you," the man says, raising his eyebrows. When the hitchhiker doesn't react, the man continues. "Starting to feel it? Working all week?"

"I'm fine," the hitchhiker says. But before he can turn to get the vacuum and mop, the man calls the hitchhiker to the bar. On top of the bar is a newspaper, and on top of the paper is the gun. Sitting down on a stool as the man indicates he should, the hitchhiker looks at the man. His yellowed teeth and the dry, frayed line of hair falling down his back. The man's muscular, middle-aged frame is covered in a layer of fat, like something that has slowly built up over time. But he is still too thick to be considered soft or chubby. There is no jiggle when he walks, just an added, intimidating bulk.

"I just thought you might be tired, that's all," the man says with a small smile on his lips, a strange combination of threat and passivity, as if the man was a victim and was watching himself. And the man seemed to the hitchhiker to be more distracted than usual, as if the hitchhiker were only partially there. "You been working long days. You going to make it?" the man asks. "You need a little bump?" Pulling a small, clear vial of white powder from his front pocket, the man nods at it and then at the hitchhiker. "End of the week," he says, "thought you might need a little help. Help yourself. I know I'll be helping myself all day."

When the hitchhiker asks if the powder is cocaine, the man laughs. "Is that what you think? Who the hell you think I am? I can't afford no freaking cocaine. This is just meth, boy. End of the week come, I sure as hell need it. Have a little bump."

"Like I had your beer?" the hitchhiker asks, smiling to take the edge off his comment, afraid he will set the man off.

"On me," the man says. "Come on." He smiles, opening the vial and tapping a small pile out onto the bar. "'Last night was last night,' like they say. But this? Well, this is this morning." The man gestures with his hand down at the pile. When the hitchhiker hesitates, the man leans down and snuffs up the pile himself. "Meth is just like working man's cocaine," the man says as he lifts his head up from the bar, wiping his nose with his forefinger and thumb. "Not much more expensive than coffee, and gives you twice the boost. And on the west coast, everything's so expensive, you got to be working all the time if you want to pay your bills. You need a little something to do that. Shit's getting more expensive each day. Inflation. Fucking oil. All that shit."

"Yeah," the hitchhiker says, putting his arm out and resting a hand on the bar, trying to appear relaxed. "Shit really is expensive."

Smiling at the hitchhiker, the man dumps out two new piles, which the hitchhiker leans down and snorts up. "What do you know about expensive?" the man asks. "What do you have to buy? Late model hippie like you, like you're living in the past. What's your big expense you're complaining about? Snickers bars and bottles of Coke? You clearly ain't spending money on soap."

"Well, shit's expensive everywhere," the hitchhiker smiles, rubbing a finger on his upper lip and commenting to the man that the meth run-down doesn't numb his throat like coke, that it feels more metallic, tastes like a chemical. "Even in Maine. Rent, you know. And no jobs. Everything. Fucking..." the hitchhiker again pitches his speech for the man, tries to sound older, and worldlier, too. "And what are you going to do? I mean, go to college? My brother's doing that. Some little school in Vermont. And there's no way anyone can afford that. It's like, 30 thousand dollars a year. How's someone going to make that?"

"How'd your brother make it?" the man asks.

The hitchhiker mumbles something about loans and work-study. Summer at McDonald's, then returns to the easy territory of complaints and anecdotes, avoiding the more dangerous landscape of explanations and facts. "And you know what all those rich kids he's in school with do when they're not in class?" he asks. "They travel. Bum around. Just the same as me."

Leaning back in his stool, the hitchhiker rubs a hand over his head and looks at the fake wood paneling on the wall behind the pool table. "I'm doing the same thing they are. Only difference is, in four years I'm not going to be ass-deep in debt and trapped in some boring-ass job for the rest of my life," he says, imagining a window cut into the wall before him and the sunshine outside, the endless possibilities gathered in the light of the new day that streams down all over the earth from a star, exploding but silent and so far away. He feels the power of his body, his ability to gather the day's possibilities to him. "The way I figure it, I'm doing the same thing as all those rich kids in college. I'm just not going to get fucked in the end," he says, nodding at the man, feeling proud of his words and how gracefully he has spoken them.

Smiling, the man pats the hitchhiker's shoulder and tells him it sounds like he's got it all figured out. "Well, I guess it's that time," the man says. "We'd better get to work." Stepping back a pace, the man lifts the gun off the bar, puts a finger through the trigger guard and gives it a twirl, stopping the weapon's motion with a squeeze of his palm. With the barrel and stubby sight pointed at the hitchhiker's head, "Bang, bang," the man says, a smile on his face.

High and loving it, a smile on his face, too, the hitchhiker reaches for the gun, but the man draws it down, laughing as he tucks it away. The hitchhiker crouches as if he will take it, then turns, yelling into the empty room that he's going to get the vacuum. As he walks to the storeroom, his legs moving quickly, both men settle into another day.

And the work goes fast. The hitchhiker polishes bottles behind the bar, wipes down the beer signs and clock with a spray bottle and rag. He unloads a delivery of bread and rolls and organizes the small walk-in, hauling old tubs of mayonnaise and expired cold cuts out to the parking lot dumpster. While re-leveling the pool table, he tells the man how they could improve the look of the place by cutting a window in the wall to let in the sunlight. Create a view to the desert and highway outside. As the hitchhiker talks, the daytime regulars who have drifted in on their own calendars nod their heads and smile. The man laughs and shakes his head. "Sure, we could do that."

After closing that night, the man comes once again into the storeroom. Standing in the doorway, he looks down at the hitchhiker on the floor. No sleeping bag, tonight, just his body on a wooden palette on the floor. "What do you think, cowboy? You ready for a real shower and a bed yet?"

The hitchhiker looks up at the man. He doesn't see the gun. "It's been a week," the hitchhiker says. "I wanted to see about getting paid."

"Well I told you you'll get paid. Sixty bucks, just like I promised. Bump?"

Waving off the man's offer, the hitchhiker again asks about the money, and the man tells him it hasn't yet been a week. "It'll be a week tomorrow," the man says. "We can talk about your money in the morning. But what I want to know," the man says, "is what you want from me. What you're doing here."

"I'm working," the hitchhiker says. "Like you asked me to. I need a little money."

Crossing his arms, the man shakes his head and smiles. "You know that isn't what I'm asking. You could have worked anywhere. Hell, you could live for free. Lift change from payphones, get enough for a cup of coffee at a diner, order hot water and make soup with the ketchup." The man took a step forward, dropped to the floor, his back against the tall metal shelving, his jeans sliding up over his ankle, the top of the knife strapped to his boot exposed. "But you decided to come back here."

"I'm not going to sleep with you," the hitchhiker says, sitting up. "I'm sorry. I'm not gay."

"You think I'm a faggot?" the man says, his face turning red and contorting. "Is that what you think?" As tears come to his eyes, the man says he thinks the hitchhiker is special, so young and energetic. He tells him they could frame out two windows. He has all the tools. As hours pass, he rages at the hitchhiker, screaming at him that he is using the man, just like they all do. He threatens him with the knife, holding it up near his face. In tears again, the man tells the hitchhiker he knows the sheriff and can have his ass dragged away. But he wouldn't do that, he tells the hitchhiker. He isn't that kind of man, and people shouldn't be that way. In the timeless space of the storeroom, lit by the single bulb on the ceiling, the man shakes his head, hugs the hitchhiker, who stands stiff, quivering, and afraid. Releasing the hitchhiker, the man looks at him. With tears once again in his eyes, his skin ashen and stubble coming in, the man asks the hitchhiker why he is so afraid to touch him.

"It's not—" the hitchhiker says, unsure what the right words are. "It's because I have a girlfriend. It's because I'm in love."

The man looks puzzled for a moment, then recovers himself. "Well, she's a very lucky lady," the man says, hugging the hitchhiker again, pushing his crotch forward, rubbing himself against the hitchhiker's blue jeans, squeezing tight with his arms so it's hard for the hitchhiker to breathe. When he releases the hitchhiker from his embrace, he sees the hitchhiker is no longer smiling. "Don't do that to me again," the hitchhiker says. Nodding, the man turns and leaves.

After washing himself the next morning, the hitchhiker walks into the main barroom. He sees the man at a table, snorting up lines, the pistol on the chair beside him. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to need a little help to get through today," the man says, tilting his head, a dogged smile on his face as he rubs his nose. He pulls the vial from his shirt pocket, holds it beside his face. "Luckily, I still got me a little help right here!"

The hitchhiker turns, walks to the door, opens it, and looks outside. The sky is pale, the sun not yet risen. The air is cool, still, and dry against the hitchhiker's clammy skin.

"Can I get that 60 dollars now?" the hitchhiker asks over his shoulder. When he hears no response, he turns to face the man, who looks at him, no expression on his face. "You said I'd get paid at the end of the week," the hitchhiker says, trying to keep his voice from rising at the end, turning him into a supplicant.

The man leans back in his chair and looks at the hitchhiker for a very long time, then speaks, a smile in his voice. "And you will," he says. "But not this week. Got to withhold a week before I pay you. That's the law," the man says. "Didn't you know that? Smart young man like you? For taxes, maybe that's why they make you hold it. Or maybe just to keep people from skipping out on their jobs. Not giving what they owe. I don't really know. But I know I ain't going to pay you today."

Walking back to the storeroom, the hitchhiker picks up his backpack and leaves the building through the rear door he'd first entered a week before. Moving stiff-legged through the parking lot and down a short jog of road—no look to his side at the blue Maverick with the rope coil hanging down—the hitchhiker stands at the entrance to the onramp, his thumb out, a vomit-taste in the back of his throat, four dollars to his name, and the whole empty world stretched out before him, all its possibilities and everything it contains visible in the clear morning light.

As tears form, swell, and move down his cheeks—sucking in breath, forcing breath out, the whole empty world stretched out before him, nothing hidden, nothing unknown—he stands there, still, waiting.

 

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