Where Seldom Is Heard

Texas. And when the truck reaches New Mexico, maybe then all of this will sink in, be okay, not bother me so much. Or maybe after Albuquerque. Or maybe Arizona. But in Texas, things in the truck don’t seem to change much, and outside the window to the north, Oklahoma is a distant slab of more red dirt, more wide plains, and many more miles to ride beside both of them and think. Or worse, watch.

Because they let me watch. Kerri takes off her shirt and rubs her chest against his shoulder, leans over and rubs her cheek against his jeans. I should be fair: they think that I’m asleep, that I’m dreaming about who knows what, an end to red dirt, an end to scrub brush and grassy plains, an end to the world in an apocalyptic rain of falling steer? My friend Greg said that it was a mistake not to say anything to her. He said it was a mistake to take them up on their offer for a ride. He had no idea how large of a mistake he was talking about.

I’m awake when Snake yells, “Here comes the fucking New Mexico border.” He chugs his beer and tells me to roll down the U Haul’s passenger window and duck. His shot is poorly timed and surely wouldn’t have even come close to the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign, if it had cleared the rear view mirror. Instead, I get splattered with dregs.

“New Fucking Mexico,” Snake says. “I’ve never been to New Fucking Mexico.”

“You’ve never been out of Michigan,” Kerri tells him.

“I went to Windsor and the strip bars. That counts.”

“Nowhere else.”

“How do you know? I’ve been lots of places you never been and lots of places you don’t even know about.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

They reach that agreement and decide it’s enough of a reason to snuggle and kiss one of those long can’t come up for air kisses that take most of the oxygen out of the truck’s cabin. He’s holding her breast as he turns toward me and asks me to get another beer. He offers me one. I turn it down. He lets go of her breast to grab the bottle. Eastern New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. This is one long stretch of the same. I try to fall asleep again.

She was my roommate in college. Best friends, we said. Everyone else asked if we slept together. We didn’t, but we were close, always going out to eat, to movies, art openings, poetry readings, and we did sleep together a lot on the couch, and one morning, she woke up first on those lumpy cushions, and I awoke to her looking down at me, amber brown eyes surrounded by long, dark hair, and I thought she was going to kiss me or I was going to kiss her, but it was too much, and so I poked at her and she called me an ass and rolled away as I tickled her, and we both laughed. Or I laughed, or I think that I laughed, but maybe it was her. I don’t know. After graduation, I moved out to Seattle for grad school. She moved back home to northern Michigan, a place where the winters are long and cold, where people drink beer — lots of beer — and take care of cows and ice fish and drive hell-bent on snowmobiles and occasionally load into someone’s car to drive to Muskegon to dance. Snake was 31 when she met him. He worked as a bouncer at the dance club in Muskegon. If he has a real name, I don’t know it.

To be fair, Snake didn’t disrupt some sort of romance. Kerri and I weren’t betrothed or anything like that. We were, though, planning to live together again. She was going to move out to Seattle to paint and to teach at the Art School for Children. My imagination did the rest, but nothing seemed a long shot. Her mother had once asked me if I loved Kerri. It was late, and she and I had drunk too many beers waiting for Kerri to get home from waiting tables. I laughed and said no and laughed some more. Her mother didn’t say anything. She just looked at me for a while, a long while, and then shook her head and went to get some more beer. Kerri’s mother hated Snake. Snake told Kerri again and again how much he loved her. He would drape his massive arm tattooed with a hooded, green cobra over and around her and pull her close and tell her that he loved her more than fishing, more than his Snap-on Tools — “Even more than your Snap on Girls calendar?” More than the calendar. Snake told her that he loved her so much that he was going to move her out to Arizona to live with him in the desert where she could do her art.

Hot vinyl sticks to my thighs, and I can’t decide whether to pretend I am asleep or not.

“Time for a piss,” Snake announces. “Hey, Abbott, time for a piss. Wake up.”

“I’m awake.”

“Oooh, he’s been spying on us,” Snake says and drops his hand onto her thigh. I can tell she’s a little embarrassed.

“I just woke up.”

He pulls the 25-foot U Haul off the interstate and maneuvers into a truck stop gift store parking lot.

“Can you believe all of this Indian shit?” Snake announces. “It must be a reservation or something. I’d like to get an Apache blanket or some turquoise shit. Maybe a fucking buffalo rug. You like turquoise, baby?”

“If it’s from you, I love turquoise,” Kerri replies, but I’m already half out the door. The truck stop has a buffalo pen — a bison pen — about 50 yards away and an oversized tepee, which is painted on the outside with red, blue, and black squiggles, lightning bolts, stick animals and stick men with bows and hatchets and spears. Magic marker signs in the window of the store advertise rings, beads, rugs, ponchos, headdresses, and drums. Cheap. Next to the entrance, a one armed Native American leans against the wall. Next to him a sign says, “Vietnam Vet, help me out of here.” I go in through the swinging glass door and veer past the cash register and Greyhound ticket counter toward the restaurant and the sign, RESTROOMS. On the wall over the urinal are machines with an array of exotic condoms. French ticklers and glow in the dark, unspecified toys guaranteed to give her pleasure. There’s also a poster for a girl, Sheila Jackson, nine, last seen with a neighborhood man in Memphis, MISSING. She’s cute, a four-foot-three black girl without her front teeth. But probably not anymore. The poster says she’s been gone for three years and may look different. I try to imagine the desperate hope of the someone, probably a parent, who hung that poster. The door opens and in comes Snake. I nod at him as I zip up and leave.

“Meet us out at the tee pee, Abbott. Kerri wants to get us some pictures. I’ll get some burgers.”

I walk out into the restaurant and then head over into the gift shop. There are hundreds of bins filled with jewelry and trinkets. Carved wooden bison, cheap spears with fake blue and red feathers, wall clocks made out of some glossy wood with painted tee pees and eagles as the clock face. Navajo blankets hang on the walls. Toward the back of the shop there is a room filled with drums made from deer hide and buffalo bone. Kerri is picking through the rings. Just behind her, on a high shelf against the wall so that it looks like it’s over her head, a stuffed eagle swoops down, talons tangled in her dark hair. She senses me looking at her and blows me a kiss. My insides shimmy a little, Pavlovian. She beckons me over.

“Can you believe these rings? They’re only three bucks. Real hand crafted silver.”

“You sure there’s no ‘Made in China’ stamp?” I say. She frowns.

“Look at this one.” She holds up a simple, silver ring. It sparkles, and so do her eyes. She pinches at my waist. “Isn’t Snake a riot?”

“An absolute martial-law-in-the-streets riot.”

“You like him, don’t you? I mean, I’ve told him everything about you, and he really is impressed. Please like him. He’s so worried that you won’t. He’s going to work construction in Phoenix. There’re construction jobs all over the place. What?”

“What do you mean, ‘What’?”

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I guess I just have a hard time thinking of him as your type.” Up close, the eagle is a bit less impressive than I thought. Somewhere along the trail, old baldy has lost an eye. There’s also a bare spot on whatever you call an eagle’s belly.

“Why? What, do you think I can only fall for artist types like Claude?”

“I was thinking more like David?”

“David? He was my professor. And besides, he was a little kid. Really.”

“I don’t know.”

“All he wanted to talk about was how I looked like a Botticelli painting. Do you know how boring that gets? Ooh, look at this one. I’ve got to get this one.” She holds up a ring that coils around the finger like a snake, each of its eyes marked by a tiny topaz or something. “Isn’t it cool?”

“I’m going outside.” I head for the door, where I duck under a stuffed bear’s swiping claw. A sign around its neck says “Shoplifters will be Prosecuted.” I glance back. Kerri looks after me as if I have just stolen something. I shove at the door, which hits resistance.

“Hey,” I blurt out, and I’m ready to storm out toward the tepee when I see that it’s the one armed veteran and I’ve knocked him down. He’s kicked over his bucket of change stumbling backward. A car of vacationers, the tag reads IOWA, is unloading, and I can see the father heading over to help the man up. The father wears an “Oklahoma is OK” T shirt, and the mother spills her Big Gulp hurrying out of the passenger seat.

“You have to slow down, young man,” the father says as he helps the vet up by the arm. I don’t know what to say, but reach to take the fallen man’s other arm, realize my mistake, and sort of push him up by the torso. He has dried puke on his chest like a faded tie dye design.

“Where’s the fire?” the mother asks. I can see a horde of kids monkeying around in the back seat of the car. Soon they’ll also be upon me. I’ve got to get out of here.

“Pick up his change,” the father orders, and I can’t think of any smart reply, so I’m down on my knees, sliding the coins into bunches I can gather and place in the bucket. The Native American hasn’t said a word. I stand up and reach into my pocket, grab a bill. I know that all I have in there is a ten, but to get out of there, it’s not too much. Four boys are now flanking the mother and father. They all have on Power Ranger shirts and one of them seems almost autistic in how he fans the air in mock karate chops.

“Sorry, I gotta go,” I say and stick the bill into the veteran’s hand.

He pulls his fist and the bill away from mine. I’m half running by then, out into the parking lot, where I have to dodge a Dream Flight Winnebago pulling in, Jeep and jet ski and motor bikes in tow. I tap twice on the hood of the thing, glare up at the retirees, and full sprint out of the parking lot, past the teepee and down the slope toward the bison. I’m winded when I get there, and so I drop onto one of the benches made out of split logs. Even before I catch my breath, the smell takes hold. Shit and piss and mud caked on thick fur in 100-degree heat. One of the animals is right in front of me. Its fur is shaggy and matted. Its humped back rises like a camel’s. Two small horns nudge out of the furry forehead. They look fake — like Halloween devil horns. But its eye looks at me, seems to follow each hitch of my breath, and then it turns its head and the other eye looks at me long and hard, swiveling oh-so-subtly in its socket. The bison shudders to shake off flies and puffs its nostrils and lumbers off toward the other end of the pen where a couple takes pictures of the other bison. I wipe my cheek hard on my shirt sleeve.

I walk around the metal fence toward a woman sitting on the top rail of piping, her head crouched down a bit in order to get right next to the animal. Her boyfriend or husband snaps a shot. When I get there, they ask me if I could take a picture. “Just point and push!” the man says with glee. I point and push and they smile like they just won the lottery and thank me and clear off toward the teepee. The bison graze on a spilled order of french fries, nudging each other out of the way to eat. I go on my knees in front of them, down right near the smell and their eyes. They suck the french fries into their mouths like huge furry vacuums. They blink. Green cockleburs dot their fur. One has a small oozing sore near its mouth. They blink. The one with horns sucks up the last of the fries. It looks at me again, shudders, puffs its nostrils, and raises its head just a few inches closer to the fence, as if to whisper something. Then it shudders again, just like before, and they both turn and trot to the other side of the pen, their muddy hoofs printing hieroglyphs into the shit and slop.

“Hey man, what did you say to piss off the buffalo?” It’s Snake. He has three bags, presumably full of food. Kerri is a few feet behind him with a fresh 12-pack of beer. Bottles. “I got you a double cheeseburger and fries and a bunch of onion rings for all of us to split. Man, it sure smells like some awful shit down here.”

I rise and brush off my knees. We walk to the teepee. I take pictures with Kerri’s Polaroid of the two of them in the entrance. In one, Kerri rolls her shorts up and hangs a long, bare thigh out the teepee’s slit. In another, he throws her over his shoulder and carries her into the teepee. She demands that Snake take a picture of us. We stand next to each other stiff as tree trunks and smile. Despite the awkwardness, it’s a good picture, and I still have it somewhere. We eat the food on the benches in silence and head for the truck. As we’re getting in, Snake says, “Check these out, everybody,” and hurls a handful of the exotic condoms up on the dash. Through the wrapper, I can see that one of them is bright, lime green. On the wrapper of another, I can see pictures of cherries. Flavored.

“Help yourself, Abbott,” Snake says, and just when I’m putting on my seat belt, he adds, “Look, check out that fucking drunk Indian,” and points at the one armed guy near the door. He’s slumped back into a sleeping position, a half eaten sandwich and a bag of Doritos the Iowa people apparently bought him in his lap.

“Why don’t you run two of these beers over to him, Abbott,” Snake says. “Give him something cold to drink when he wakes up.” I just sort of stare at Snake, and Kerri says, “I will,” and she starts to slide out past me with a clink of glass.

“No,” I say and put my legs against the dash to keep her from getting by. She pauses and looks at me, and although I keep eye contact with her, I can feel Snake looking at me, too. She smiles as if to laugh, pauses, then tilts her head in a questioning smile. She really doesn’t know — she’s only living her life. I half smile back and say, “Just leave him alone.”

“All right,” Kerri says and slides back into her spot.

“Shit man, you’re hardcore, keeping a drunk from getting a beer,” Snake says. He turns the key, waits for the diesel light to give him the go ahead, and then cranks the ignition. We back up and soon the truck is cruising down the interstate at 70, shedding beer bottles, and occasionally jigging over the painted lines that mark the lanes. I lean against the window and act like I’m asleep until Albuquerque. I know where the next ticket counter is. I remember the departure and destination times I’d seen magic markered on the Greyhound schedule board. When we approach the right exit, I tell Snake I have to piss now.

“No problem, man. We’re running out of beer.”

“Good. I’m ready to take a shower. Let’s stay over here,” Kerri says and gestures toward a Motel Six near the service station. Snake nods. He arches his eyebrows and tilts his head toward the condoms on the dash. She laughs and smacks him in the arm as he wheels the truck up the exit ramp. We park, check in, and they go to take a shower. I tell them I’m going to walk over to the truck stop, and Snake tells me to pick up some beer. The water sprays in the bathroom. I shut the door. In 20 minutes the bus departs, and I should leave a note. Hopefully, they won’t worry and think that I’m lost, because I won’t be. I’ll only be missing.

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