Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3
Rides & Conversations
Edward Black teaches English at Grambling State University in Louisiana. Summers he lives in Mihara, Japan. Stories of his have appeared in Apalachee Review, Tulane Review, and Jabberwock Review.
For eighteen years, you live in Stubbs, Texas, population 1,007. Then at graduation the caps are thrown into the air. And before they hit the gym floor, the two of us venture out into the perilous world.
and the daring adventure begins
"Damn it, Smitty!" I throw my cowboy hat down into the roadside dirt. "I said to bring money, I didn’t say steal it." We’d thumbed only one short ride, barely out of Stubbs. And now I find out that tonight at graduation, while the speaker explained the meaning of success, the whole town seated in the bleachers around us, Smitty had ducked into the cloakroom and swiped money from the girls’ purses. Smitty pushes the thick wad of bills back inside his boot. He sits cross legged. He closes his eyes for meditation. I pick up my cowboy hat. I slap off the dirt. "You beat everything, Smitty, you know that? The next vehicle that comes round the bend’s likely to be the sheriff after us."
in which our moms worry why we haven’t shown up for the
class of ‘06 graduation party at the chili basket,
and we get handcuffed and jailed
A flatbed truck pulls over. The driver gets out. He tilts back his cowboy hat. "What’s wrong with him? Drunk?" He sets his hands on his hips and peers down at Smitty, seated stone faced and rigid, eyes shut.
"He ain’t dead is he?" He flips through our beat-up copy of Be Here Now. He drops the book back in Smitty’s lap. "Where y’all headed?"
We lift Smitty by the armpits and carry him, his back straight, his legs crossed and his hands on his knees. We slide him into the bed of the truck like a bale of hay.
"You running from the law?"
"What’s your name?"
"Ike, he looks dead to me."
I climb into the back. We take off.
Three miles up the road, he turns in at a ranch gate. I drag Smitty out, and with both arms I set him down.
wherein our moms realize we’ve left, sob in their waitress aprons over
each other’s shoulders, and we get brutally molested
and dumped in a ditch
We catch a ride in a rusty pickup. The old man reaches between my knees and shifts gears. "Ah, young fellows heading west."
"To seek our fame and fortune."
"Are you now."
"But not necessarily in that order. We’re flexible. Might be fortune that comes first, might be fame."
He shifts. We speed up. He studies Smitty put at the door, his legs crossed and eyes shut. "He sure don’t talk much."
"We believe to be here now. To live fully in the present moment."
"May be a great way to live. But sure don’t leave much for conversation." Smitty lifts a hand off a knee. I was hoping he wouldn’t do that yet. "What’s he raising his hand for? He wanna ask something?"
"We don’t believe in questions."
"Nope. All questions lead to answers that just give rise to more questions."
"He’s just letting us know he has one?"
"Mighty thoughtful of him."
The pickup pulls in at a house with a tar-paper roof and a sagging porch. The sun’s sinking. The old man looks at Smitty. "What’s the last he said?"
"Seven weeks ago."
"Sneezed any since?" He gets out and I follow.
"Not that I know of."
"You tried tickling him?"
"Yeah." We set Smitty on the ground.
"He raised his hand."
"Had a question?"
is a short chapter detailing how the cops work a tip, and we
get captured, tied to a tree and whipped
A cop rides up on a motorcycle. He drives tight circles round Smitty and examines him from all sides. He turns about, and under the bright stars I watch him go round and look him over the other way.
He straddles the motorcycle, the engine rumbling, the headlight shining on Smitty. He says nothing; he asks no questions. When Smitty starts snoring, he loses interest and roars off.
describes our meeting a soldier, joining the army, getting maimed by a roadside bomb, and our return home in wheelchairs
A jeep rolls up. Smitty blinks and stands up and stretches. He twists left and right at the waist, then touches his toes. He gets in.
We ride along. The soldier gazes at the bright lights of Amarillo off in the distance. "I wonder what Amarillo means."
"It means yellow." Smitty puts his hand up.
"Yellow what?" the soldier says.
"Maybe yellow like when you tell a coward don’t be yellow."
"Amarillo is Spanish; I’m not so sure it means coward in Spanish."
"A definite brain twister," he says.
"Hafta think on it later when more time."
"Hard to think and live at the same time."
tells of a good samaritan, who convinces us to take the next bus home to our grieving mothers and hands us both a hundred-dollar bill
The moon comes out. A station wagon with Illinois tags picks us up. "You guys got any weed?" the guy asks.
"Didn’t think so," he says. He steers and rolls a joint.
He passes the joint around.
"Now we’re riding," he says. "Riding high." He laughs.
"Now we’re rolling." He chuckles as he rolls another joint.
He passes me it. "Where you from?"
"Texas? I’m from Illinois. Born, corn, and that’s about it till you die.
"That, plus a little weed," he adds. "Roll us another, will yuh?"
I think of how my diploma earlier was a rolled-up piece of paper and how now I’m rolling a joint with a small piece of paper. "Continuity!" I exclaim.
"Nothing. What you doing in Texas?"
"I’m moving to Alaska. Thought I’d drop down to Texas, get used to living in a big state to ease the transition. What’s he doing?"
"Just letting us know he has a question."
"See, I plan on making it big up there."
"You’re seeking fame?"
"In Alaska? Name somebody famous in Alaska."
"No. Nobody. In Illinois we’ve got Abraham Lincoln, and in Texas you’ve got your Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. Lincoln was shot down at a theater; your two were done in at the Alamo. See, there’s the problem right there. To get real famous, you got to get yourself killed. What’s he doing now?"
Smitty lowers his hand back to his knee. "Just letting you know he’s successfully let the question pass."
"He didn’t pay no mind to it?"
"Now take Jesus, for example. If he wasn’t killed, nobody’d ever heard of him. Nope, I plan to invest all I got into the oil trade up North. Go make me a fortune. Simpler. You don’t need to seek others’ approval, and you don’t have to go get yourself killed."
"You think you could get us a job up there on the pipeline?"
"The pipeline? And do what? Set him down to plug a leak? No. You boy’s gonna have to take a break from being one with the universe; he needs to get off his ass and learn to move."
The guy soured even more. He got lost once. There was no more weed to smoke. And we’d eaten all the munchies long ago.
We were low on gas. "Do you have any money?" he snaps at me.
"Do I have any money?"
"No I do not. "
We slow and pull off onto the shoulder. We stop and he shuts off the motor. Insects chirp in the brush. Pollen scents the night air.
"You take me for a fool?" he says. "That hat of yours ain’t off no rack. And those boots of his are Tony Lamas."
He takes a revolver out of the glove box. He motions for us to get out. Outside he points the gun at Smitty.
Smitty in rightful response holds his hands up. That, or he had two questions.
"Take off the boots," he tells Smitty. "Idiots at home hide their money under the bed mattress. Idiots on the road hide it in their boot." He taps the gun barrel against Smitty’s cheek, then pokes it in a nostril. "How’d you like to get high on a little smoke from this?" He fingers the trigger. Smitty’s nose twitches. His eyes widen and his hands clench. He tilts back, and his eyes slam shut as his head snaps forward and he sneezes, "Ah-choo!" His fists fly down clobbering the guy over the head.
I pick up the gun. I hold it on the guy. Smitty goes to the station wagon and reaches under the driver seat. He pulls out a bundle of money wrapped in newspaper.
"Idiots always hide their valuables under the car seat," I tell the guy.
I wave the gun for him to get back in behind the wheel. I hold the gun on him. I squeeze the trigger and blast two shots skyward, and he peels out and tears down the road. We’re rid of him. I lower the smoking gun.
Smitty raises a hand. He wipes his arm across his forehead. "Whew!" he says.
and last chapter, in which our tired moms retire for the night, and a gang of longhair thugs slaughter us as our story ends
Smitty removes the twine and the newspaper wrapping. "We’re rich," I say. "We can scratch fortune off our list and just focus now on seeking fame."
A headlight nears. Smitty folds the last packet of five-hundred dollar bills and stuffs it in his boot. I toss the gun into the ditch. "It’s that motorcycle cop again, Smitty. Someone must’ve reported hearing gunfire."
Smitty holds up his hand. A VW van—with only one working headlight—skids to a halt. The door slides open. We part the stringed beads and crawl in. A band of longhaired musicians in paisley shirts and spandex jeans sit in a circle on the floor, beating on bongos, sucking harmonicas and blowing horns, pumping accordions, strumming guitars and plucking sitars. The racket stops and they put down their instruments, and I unplug my ears. They get talking. Seems the band’s come from playing clubs at the SXSW music conference in Austin and’s been driving all night.
"Man, what a sellout," the guitar player says of the conference. "Nothing but a front for the music industry."
"It’s all gone commercial," the accordion player says.
"It’s all about chasing after a contract with a major label," the harmonica player complains.
"Whatever happened to bands not in it for the money," the sitar player says, "but for the music?"
"Good music," the guitar player says, "like Joe King Carrasco. Or the Butthole Surfers. Or early ZZ Topp, before they had beards."
"Our trouble is we don’t have a name," the horn player says. "I don’t know if you fucking noticed. But it didn’t exactly rouse up the crowd when we got introduced onto stage, ‘Well… uh, here are some musicians.’"
"How about We Ain’t Any Good?" I suggest.
"They all glare till the horn player says, "The boy’s right. What’re you called?"
"Ike’s right. We could stand improvement. Tighten our repertoire. Cut back on the number of songs with twenty-minute bongo solos in em."
"Hey, I’m trying my best," the bongo player says.
"That’s the trouble," I say. "Don’t try. Just be."
"You know, you should learn something from your partner here—and not talk so much." He turns to Smitty, "What’s your name?" Smitty has his legs crossed, his eyes closed. "I said, what’s your name?" He turns back to me. "He sure don’t talk much."
"He’s taken the vow of silence."
"Dunno. He won’t say. He’s taken—"
"—the vow of silence. When’s the last he spoke?"
"A hour or so ago."
"What’d he say?"
"What is it?" the horn player says, "a mantra or something?"
"What’s it mean?" they ask.
"A sigh of relief after a close call or shave, glad it has past."
"Yeah," the guitar player says. "That conference was nothing but a close shave."
"We stayed our ground," the bongo player says, "and whew! just let it on past."
"Just missed us. Whew!" the sitar player shouts.
"There’s no greater thrill. Whew!" the accordion player shouts.
The band all begins chanting: "Whew! Whew! Whew!" Brass and string instruments get picked up, with the bongo player laying down the beat and leading the way. "Whew! Hey, that’s a great name for our band!" he hollers into the strumming, plucking, clapping, the howling and the blowing. I plug my ears. I look at the back of the driver’s bald head and thick neck. I look out over his shoulder at the road, taking us I know not where. Through the windshield, I watch the future out ahead near, become the present moment, and fly by into the past and disappear in the rearview mirror.
I see cattle, tumbleweed, and a Drive Friendly traffic sign, with bullet holes shot through it, fly by and disappear. And it strikes me that someday there’ll be no Smitty, too. I close my eyes. I think of the graduation party. I can see the cake crumbs and the burnt candles floating in a pool of melted ice-cream. Our moms just went on and had the party without us. And now they’ve gone to sleep. One morning, they’ll get up and have got over that we’re gone. It’ll just be something to talk about between frames at the bowling alley.
I open my eyes. The band is all sleeping, and Smitty, too. I raise my hand. I wonder. "What does it all mean, Smitty?" I wait for him to go "Wheel" or "Ah-choo!" But he only begins snoring. And I put down my hand, shut my eyes, and let it all pass.